Friday, September 27, 2013

Cannery Row

Expectations for the cinematic adaptation of John Steinbeck’s famous novel Cannery Row were high. It marked the directorial debut of David S. Ward, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of The Sting (1973) and starred Nick Nolte and Debra Winger. He was coming off the disappointing Heart Beat (1980) while she was fresh from the modestly successful Urban Cowboy (1980). However, Steinbeck purists were upset that the film was a fusion of Cannery Row and its sequel Sweet Thursday with an emphasis on the latter, jettisoning the darker tone of the former for a more upbeat vibe. The film’s image was tarnished by a highly publicized lawsuit launched by Raquel Welch who had been fired after only five days of filming and replaced by Winger.

Critics and movie-going audiences were put off by the film’s stylized look (it was shot mainly on two massive soundstages) and optimistic tone resulting in poor box office results. However, time has been kind to this intriguing film, which has aged surprisingly well, anchored by sweet, funny performances from Nolte and Winger, and featuring incredibly detailed set design and absolutely gorgeous cinematography. This hermetically-sealed world recalls other stylized throwbacks to the classic Hollywood era fused with the Movie Brat sensibility that came out around the same time, chief among them Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) and Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart (1982) that, like Cannery Row (1982), were costly flops, but have enjoyed critical re-evaluation over the years with the exception of the latter, which remains criminally overlooked.


After the local fishing industry dried up and most of its denizens left, the remnants hang on living their lives in their own eccentric ways. Take Doc (Nick Nolte) for example. He’s a marine biologist that collects aquatic animals and sells them off to colleges and museums to make ends meet. He’s friends with Mack (M. Emmet Walsh) and his fellow derelicts who have “no family, no money and no ambition,” chief among them, Hazel (Frank McRae), the youngest and a man left with the “slightly diminished capacity,” and “the mind of a small boy grafted to the body of a bull,” as the wizened omniscient narrator (John Huston with a voice made for voiceover narration) informs us. They’re a bunch of lovable, grubby drunks, the kind that only exist in films of this sort.

Doc’s latest project is collecting octopi and studying them with the hopes of writing and then delivering a paper at the Congress of Marine Biologists in San Francisco. He sees it as making a mark on society even if it’s “only a scribble.” I like that the film takes the time to show him at work, wading in among the rocks along the shore uncovering marine life to study and then back at his place observing it all. Then, one day, Suzy (Debra Winger) comes into town looking for work. She’s a beautiful young woman that catches Doc’s eye. Not finding much luck at the local diner, she falls in with the prostitutes at the nearby brothel and is mentored by Fauna (Audra Lindley), the woman who runs the place and schools Suzy in their ways.

Pretty soon, a turbulent romance develops between Doc and Suzy. Their initial meet-cute is rather amusing as he suddenly gets tongue-tied around her, dazzled by her beauty. The awkward way Nick Nolte plays it is quite funny. Debra Winger matches him in adorable awkwardness as Suzy tells Doc a story about a guy she once knew who constantly talked about ordering a beer milkshake at a drive-in, but never did. The quirky little facial expression she gives at the end of unsuccessfully telling the story is a nice bit of comedy that acts as visual punctuation.


As he demonstrated with North Dallas Forty (1979), Nolte has a knack for comedy if given the right material. The scene where he orders and then tries a beer milkshake is a nice bit of understated comedy. The snappy exchanges of dialogue he has with Winger evoke old school Hollywood comedies much better than the awful, forced attempt at such with the later wannabe screwball comedy I Love Trouble (1994). In that film, he had zero chemistry with leading lady Julia Roberts. This is not the case with Winger in Cannery Row. Her and Nolte make for an unlikely romantic couple, but they make it work and you can sense their chemistry right from Doc and Suzy’s initial meeting by the way they look at each other. These characters are classic opposites attract couple who get off on the wrong foot when they argue over their respective lifestyles.

At this point in her career, Winger was on the cusp of mainstream success when she suffered a minor setback with the commercial and critical failure of this film. No matter, she is very good in Cannery Row, playing a fiercely independent woman who works long enough at the brothel so that she has the money to get her own place. With her good looks and distinctive scratchy voice, it is easy to see why Nolte’s Doc falls for Suzy’s scruffy charms. The scene that cements it is when Doc sneaks into the brothel to apologize to Suzy and they end up getting into another argument. During a lull, a catchy Bob Crosby tune comes on and Doc challenges her to dance with him. She puts on “In the Mood.” Their argument continues, but physically as they try to impress each other with their dancing abilities. Winger, in particular, impresses with her knack for physical comedy as Suzy repeatedly tries to pull off the “Over the Rainbow” dance move. The repeated failed attempts look as painful as they must’ve been for the actress, but she commits to it completely every time. Now, that’s dedication.

Cannery Row is a stunning film to look at with some frames composed like a something out of a painting. For example, there is a sequence where Mack and the boys go on an expedition to capture a bunch of frogs at night that is visually-arresting as it occurs during a full moon in a fog-enshrouded marshland, which creates a distinctive atmosphere quickly offset by several grown men leaping and splashing around like crazy. In addition, there is a shot early on in the film of Suzy walking through Cannery Row and in the background is a detailed matte painting showing the abandoned canneries against a cloud-filled sky at dusk. The use of rear projection is glaringly obvious in a few scenes, but this only adds to the stylized look of the film.


This is in turn complimented by sets filled with incredible attention to period detail that help flesh out this rich, colorful world. For example, later on in the film, Suzy moves into a large, abandoned boiler, transforming it into a cozy living space with her own hands and ingenuity. The finished product is an inspired bit of set design. Much like, New York, New York and One from the Heart, Cannery Row was praised for its look and criticized for being a failed experiment in style over substance. The problem these films faced was that people were still riding the residual high of the 1970s, which tended to champion gritty realism, breaking away from the old studio system of filming on backlots. Mainstream audiences weren’t ready for a throwback to that era and rejected what these filmmakers were trying to do.

First published in 1945, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was considered a difficult novel to adapt, but screenwriter David S. Ward found a way by combining it with the sequel Sweet Thursday. His screenplay for Cannery Row had made the rounds in Hollywood for three years and had been turned down by every studio twice. Even though it was highly regarded, the script didn’t follow the tried and true formula of a box office hit and nobody wanted to risk $10 million on a first-time director.

Successful movie producer Michael Phillips had worked on hits like The Sting and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and wanted to give his best friend Ward the opportunity to direct his script for Cannery Row. Ward had aspirations for the job, but his reputation had been tarnished when several plagiarism suits were brought against him after he won the Academy Award for The Sting. The studio settled them out of court, but the whole experience left a bad taste in his mouth. It took a year to acquire the film rights to both of Steinbeck’s novels, costing $50,000.


While developing Cannery Row, Ward pictured Paul Newman as Doc. The actor was interested and made several rewrite suggestions for the script, which Ward indulged for a year until Newman finally said no. Several other movie stars, including Jack Nicholson, turned down the role until one studio brought Nick Nolte on board. Nolte had wanted to play Doc for years, but thought he was too young until he turned 40. By the fall of 1979, Phillips and Ward were ready to make the film with anyone, but continued to hold out hope. This came in the form of then-new head of MGM David Begelman who came across Ward’s script in January 1980. He was enticed by the well-written script and the promise of Nolte as the lead. Known for being decisive, Begelman gave it the greenlight with a budget of $10.6 million. It didn’t hurt that the studio had a light schedule and he was looking for films to fill it.

Production designer Richard MacDonald spent two months in Monterey to see if it was feasible to shoot on location. It would have cost $2.5 million to restore the area to the state of decay depicted in the novel. Also, local merchants demanded sizable fees to shoot on their property. MacDonald concluded that the film should be made on the MGM backlot. It took him months to convince Phillips and Ward because backlot shooting had fallen out of fashion since the 1960s. MacDonald knew that Stage 30 was ideal as it had been built over a giant water tank and this would allow them to recreate the seaside town. He worked on a stage plan and created stunning color sketches of sets that eventually convinced Phillips and Ward to go that route. MacDonald hired a crew and sets began to be constructed. For him, the benefits of shooting on a soundstage were significant: “You can have whatever weather you want for however long you want. It’s a tremendous advantage. You don’t have to wait for four minutes of sunset. You can have sunset every day for a week.”

Phillips and Ward gave Raquel Welch a copy of the script and she read for the role of Suzy. The veteran actress was eager to prove that she could act and had been holding out for the right part for three years. They were impressed with her passion and Ward realized that he would have to rewrite the part because Welch was considerably older than the character. He knew that to get the film made it needed two recognizable lead actors. They had already considered Bo Derek, Liza Minnelli and Olivia Newton-John. With time running out, they finally decided to go with Welch. However, Begelman wanted her to do a nude scene, which not only surprised her (she had never done one before), but also Phillips and Ward who couldn’t recall such a scene in the script. Welch wanted to play the role so much that she swallowed her pride and agreed to do it.


Principal photography was scheduled to begin just after Labor Day, but the actors’ strike occurred from July to October. MacDonald used this time to get the finest craftsmen to build the sets, which included six working aquariums populated with exotic fish, backdrops for ten bridges, a Victorian brothel, and a fully stocked 1945-era grocery store. The high quality attention to detail attracted top talent like Sven Nykvist, Ingmar Bergman’s regular cinematographer, and editor David Bretherton, who won an Oscar for Cabaret (1972).

After the first three weeks of principal photography, Welch was fired for breach of contract. Some criticism labeled her a diva, which she denied, claiming that during her time she never shot a major dialogue scene and was never used when called. Ward admitted that Welch was a “casting mistake,” and “wasn’t delivering a performance I could live with.” Welch argued if that was the case then why didn’t the filmmakers realize it over the four weeks of pre-production? The actress ended up suing MGM for more than $24 million for breach of contract and eventually won.

If that wasn’t bad enough, early on during filming, Ward was under pressure from the studio when he fell behind schedule after the first week. Begelman felt that Ward was directing too slowly and Nolte was out of shape and looked disheveled. Doc was an ex-baseball player turned marine biologist and to prepare for the role, Nolte took spring training with the California Angels. He also read all of Steinbeck’s work, spent time with a marine biologist in order to gain insight into his character, and even slept on the set one night a week. After he was told to shape up, the actor went to the wardrobe department and put on a man’s girdle and a pair of pants two sizes too big. When he showed up on set, Phillips thought Nolte had lost weight.


Debra Winger had originally read for the role of Suzy and been turned down much to her disappointment. A few months later, after moving to New York City, she was offered the part. She joined the production immediately and during the first week she threw up so much that the actress lost eight pounds and suffered from anxiety attacks. Winger took a cue from Nolte and also slept on the set several times. A competitive spirit developed between the two that included pulling pranks on each other.

Cannery Row received mixed to negative reviews from critics that notably cited the exemplary work from production designer Richard MacDonald and cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Roger Ebert gave it two-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “And Nolte and Winger are almost able to make their relationship work, if only it didn’t seem scripted out of old country songs and lonely heart columns. It’s tough to pull of a movie like this, in the semi-cynical 1980s.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Even Steinbeck’s errantly sentimental fictions, however, deserve better than the awful fancies of this film.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold felt that it was “expendable and creaky, a lavishly mounted antique.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “Ward has failed to find for the production a pictorial style, and has allowed photographer Sven Nykvist’s camera to run away with its pretty self – film as an act of visual masturbation.”

Cannery Row seems even more of an anomaly now, but in a refreshing way. It is one of those rare films that features a cinematic world I’d want to visit if I could. Ward and his collaborators have created such a richly textured world, with its inviting diners and sun-kissed rocky shore, and populated it with all kinds of vivid, colorful people. It’s a rare comedy where you really feel like you’ve been on a journey with these characters, seen them experience ups and downs, and come out on the other side so that they are different then when we first met them. They say ignorance is bliss so maybe Cannery Row works best if you haven’t read Steinbeck’s novel and just let the film wash over you. Filled with eccentric characters who live carefree lives, the film version has little pretense towards reality and perhaps this is what turned off critics and audiences back in the day, having just come out of the ‘70s, a decade populated by realistic fare. Ward’s film is anything but that. There is also a kind of good-natured innocence that permeates throughout that might not have appealed to a more cynical age.



SOURCES

Harmetz, Aljean. “His Hometown Now Likes John Steinbeck Better.” The New York Times. February 9, 1982.

Orth, Maureen. “The Gamblers of Cannery Row.” Rolling Stone. April 2, 1981.


Stabiner, Karen. “A Film Set Restores Steinbeck’s World.” The New York Times. March 15, 1981.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Conan the Barbarian

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of The Sword and Sandal Blogathon over at the Moon in Gemini blog.

Created by Robert E. Howard, the character of Conan the Barbarian first appeared in a series of sword and sorcery stories published in pulp magazines, like Weird Tales in 1932. The success of these early stories inspired Howard to complete 21 stories before he committed suicide in 1936. These tales were set during the fictional “Hyborian Age,” which occurred after the fall of Atlantis. Conan was often described as a muscular yet agile man known for his tactical abilities as much as his brawn. Throughout the stories, he wandered the world, getting into adventures under a variety of guises: thief, outlaw, mercenary, and pirate.

It wasn’t until 1970s that plans for a cinematic adaptation began with a young Oliver Stone hired to write the screenplay. The film’s development hit a rocky period until the late ‘70s when John Milius was hired as director and Arnold Schwarzenegger was cast as the titular character. The result was Conan the Barbarian (1982), a violent action/adventure film that was embodied the spirit of Howard’s stories as much at its director’s own thematic preoccupations. It was a box office success and helped launch Schwarzenegger’s international career.

“Let me tell you of the days of high adventure,” intones the grizzled voiceover of the film’s narrator (Mako) before Basil Poledouris’ rousing, muscular score kicks in, playing over the opening credits, which sees Conan’s father (William Smith) crafting a mighty impressive sword. Conan and his family are Cimmerians who believe in the god Crom. In a nice scene, Conan’s father tells his son of Crom and instills in the boy the belief that you can trust no one in this life, only the steel of your sword.

A band of warriors known as the Vanir attack Conan’s village and slaughter its inhabitants. Conan’s father fights bravely, but is felled by overwhelming numbers. Conan’s mother (Nadiuska) is killed defending her son by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), leader of the Vanir and head of the snake-worshipping cult Set. Conan is taken and chained to something called the Wheel of Pain (which basically involves pushing a large object around in a circle) for fifteen long years with other children until only he remains having grown into a very strong man. Conan is then taken from there and forced to become a pit fighter where he becomes adept at hand-to-hand combat and proficient in all kinds of weapons.


Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is educated in philosophy so that when asked, “What is best in life?” he responds with the immortal line, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you and to hear the lamentations of their women.” For Conan these are words to live by and when he is eventually and inexplicably set free, the Cimmerian does just that. With the first half hour of the film, Milius does an excellent job of introducing Conan and his world – a harsh and unforgiving place where only the strong survive. It is a world wrought with danger and populated with colorful characters most of whom are not to be trusted, like the witch that seduces Conan only to transform into a wild creature during sex. I like that Milius takes the time to show how Conan becomes a skilled fighter and builds himself up from nothing. In doing so, we get to know the character and empathize with him.

Conan sets out to find Thulsa Doom and kill him, thereby avenging his parents’ deaths. Along the way, he meets and befriends Subotai, the Mongol (Gerry Lopez) and an archer, and Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), a beautiful master thief. Like any good quest story, the journey is not an easy one and Conan is plagued by both external and internal dangers. He is pushed to the very limits of his physical endurance. Only when he can conquer his own fears can he complete his goal.

Unlike a lot of contemporary fantasy films that are augmented significantly by CGI, the world in Conan the Barbarian is tangible and real. As a result, it is more believable and Milius makes sure to immerse us in it with all kinds of sights and sounds, like the noisy marketplace that Conan, Subotai and Valeria wander through, that creates a world that you feel actually existed. This extends to the supernatural elements as well, which are done with practical effects and this gives them a texture that still holds up. This is evident in the sequence where Conan and his allies infiltrate a Set temple to steal a valuable gem, which awakens a giant snake that the barbarian must fight. Milius intercuts this with a Set ritual, which gives us some insight into their practices. More importantly, this sequence demonstrates what adept thieves Subotai and Valeria are and the unique skills they bring to the table. The snake is an impressive sight and one really gets a sense that Conan is in peril and I like how he doesn’t mess around with the creature, killing it outright when he gets the chance.

Milius wisely limits then-relative newcomer Arnold Schwarzenegger to the amount of dialogue he has to say and utilizes his considerable physical abilities to tremendous effect. The actor uses his body language to convey Conan’s feelings, which, admittedly, are pretty limited. That being said, Schwarzenegger certainly looks the part, which is obviously a crucial component of the role, but it is also how the actor carries himself throughout the film, in the way he walks or fights. He is committed fully to the part and takes it seriously. As a result, we believe that he is the character. This is why no one has inhabited the role as well since this film (including Schwarzenegger in the watered-down sequel). He also provides the occasional moment of levity (some of intentional, some not) in an otherwise serious film. For example, there’s a bit where Conan tries to infiltrate the Set cult as one of its priests and this is pretty amusing because he looks so out of place with his hulking frame. This seems a bit out of character from how Conan is portrayed in Howard’s stories, but Milius does try to justify this by showing that the barbarian has gotten foolishly over-confident with success and blinded by his desire to kill Doom. These moments of comedy would be a brief taste of what Schwarzenegger would be capable of in later films, from cheesy one-liners in action films, like Commando (1985) and Predator (1987), to flat out comedies like Twins (1988).


Sandahl Bergman is Schwarzenegger’s ideal foil, playing a fierce warrior woman that ends up falling in love with Conan. He does so because of her impressive fighting skills and cunning thieving abilities. And yet, the actress doesn’t play Valeria as an uncaring killing machine. Her relationship with Conan humanizes the character and Bergman conveys just the right mix of toughness and vulnerability – something that was sorely missing from the sequel and the remake. It doesn’t hurt that Bergman is a stunning beauty as well, which only adds to the appeal of Valeria.

Despite being outfitted with ridiculous-looking long hair, James Earl Jones is a suitably imposing Thulsa Doom. His famous deep, booming voice also enhances the actor’s performance, which is very theatrical in nature. This is evident in the monologue Doom gives when lecturing Conan on the nature of strength and power.

In the mid-1970s, film producer Ed Pressman was shown some of Frank Frazetta's paintings of Conan the Barbarian – the illustrator that helped revitalize interest in the character during the 1960s. Pressman thought that Conan might be right for a film adaptation. After meeting and being impressed by bodybuilder turned actor Arnold Schwarzenegger at a rough screening of Pumping Iron (1977), he envisioned the Austrian as Conan. However, it took from 1975 to 1977 for the legal issues to be untangled so that the film rights could be secured.

In 1977, Marvel Comics editor Roy Thomas was hired to write the screenplay and artist John Buscema worked on pre-production drawings. Both men had worked on hundreds of Conan comic books during the ‘70s. Pressman finally convinced Schwarzenegger to star in the film and a tentative budget was set at $2.5 million. At this point, Paramount Pictures offered to provide the money, but wanted a new script written by Oliver Stone, fresh from winning an Academy Award for writing Midnight Express (1978). He based his script on Conan stories, “Black Colossus,” and “A Witch Shall Be Born,” but deviated significantly from Howard’s mythos by setting the story in a post-apocalyptic future world. However, this approach escalated the estimated budget to $40 million. In addition, the search for a director was taking longer than expected with John Frankenheimer, Alan Parker and Ralph Bakshi considered. At one point, Ridley Scott was set to direct and then was dropped when John Milius agreed to direct.


At some point, Paramount was no longer involved and Milius was hired. He rewrote Stone’s script, secured financing from Dino De Laurentiis, and began pre-production work. Milius read Stone’s script and did not like it, but loved the character and the concept. According to Milius, he felt kinship with Howard’s worldview: “Howard and I have the same view of civilization. A skeptical one.” He felt that what Stone wrote had a lot of spirit and liked the freedom of its images. While working on the script, Milius drew inspiration from several Conan stories, including “The Thing in the Crypt”, “Tower of the Elephant”, and “Queen of the Black Coast.” He incorporated a few elements from them into the script and “tried constantly to work little pieces of the stories in whenever possible.” For example, he based the character of Valeria on Belit from “Queen of the Black Coast,” but the name came from the “Red Nails” story. He was also determined to deliver an R-rated sword and sorcery epic with plenty of bloody violence, including beheadings, dismemberments, and stabbings. Milius began writing the script in 1978 and spent nine months working on it.

To prepare for the film, Milius commissioned research papers on medieval snake and assassination cults, studied Mongol history and checked out ancient warfare and weaponry. He recruited collaborators that brought unique talents to the table. Chief among them was cartoonist and commercial illustrator Ron Cobb who had cut his teeth doing design work on genre films like John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974), George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).

For Conan the Barbarian, he was made production designer and ended up creating over 57 interior and exterior sets, and converted two warehouses and an aircraft hangar into soundstages. During filming, he also supervised special effects and second unit direction. His main task was to create the fictional Hyborian Age on film, which included designing all of the architecture, most notably the Tower of Set. He designed the giant serpent and its tunnel lair in proportion to Schwarzenegger. The snake itself was an impressive 34 feet in length and approximately a foot-and-a-half across. Special effects supervisor Nick Allder constructed a cantilevered skeleton with a control platform that operated through the snake body to avoid visible outside wires. The result was a big and strong enough contraption that could actually push Schwarzenegger around while also paying tribute to Frank Frazetta’s iconic Conan paintings, which were used as inspiration for this sequence.

When it came to casting, early on Raquel Welch and Sean Connery were considered for the roles of Valeria and Thulsa Doom, respectively. In addition to Schwarzenegger, Milius cast Sandahl Bergman (recommended by none other than Bob Fosse!) and Gerry Lopez because they were physically adept with backgrounds in dance, and surfing, respectively. According to the director, “ordinarily actors wouldn’t have done those things because of their preconceived ideas going in.” Furthermore, the three lead actors “seemed better in the roles than anyone else, but there was always that doubt. I cast people who seemed to be the characters in the script.” Milius wanted the swordplay to look authentic and for the actors to do most of their own stunt work. To his end, he had the cast train for six months in broadsword fighting, kendo, horseback riding, and stunt work.


Principal photography was originally scheduled to begin in Yugoslavia in 1980, but the production had to pull out due to political and practical reasons. Eventually, Spain was chosen because of its excellent production facilities, diverse landscapes, and very experienced film crews. In addition, Milius had previously shot The Wind and the Lion (1975) there and was familiar with the country. Filming began in Spain on January 7, 1981 and lasted 19 weeks. To cut costs, the filmmakers staged all of the sorcery live and on location, which meant utilizing very few blue screens and no animation with many elaborate sets actually built, sometimes in conjunction with models and miniatures.

According to Cobb, Milius often directed from a motorcycle and worked fast, averaging two or three takes per shot and pushing for 15-20 camera set-ups a day. By many accounts, the shoot was an eventful one with several dicey moments, For example, in the scene where Conan emerges from a cave brandishing a newly found sword, he was to be confronted by a pack of hungry wolves. They were actually dogs and one of the larger ones jumped his cue and broke from the pack, hitting Schwarzenegger in the chest, which sent them both tumbling over a ten-foot cliff! The actor escaped seriously injury, but this incident, early on in filming, set the tone for the rest of principal photography. Never one to hold back, the director had a sometimes contentious relationship with De Laurentiis, comparing working for the mogul to “the foreign legion … His methods are … unsound. Dino’s just like bad weather, he’ll pass, but meanwhile you contend with it.” This may explain why Milius did not direct the sequel, Conan the Destroyer (1984).

Predictably, Conan the Barbarian was trashed by most mainstream critics with the notable exception of Roger Ebert who gave the film three out of four stars and felt that it was “a very nearly perfect visualization of the Conan legend,” and “a triumph of production design, set decoration, special effects and makeup.” However, in his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “As Conan, Mr. Schwarzenegger looks overdressed even when he is undressed, but then there is no way he can unzip that overdeveloped physique and slip into something more comfortable.” Newsweek magazine’s Jack Kroll wrote, “The sad thing is that there’s so little fun to Conan, its violence is so cheerless and styleless. Its action sequences seem edited defensively, to make sure there’s not too much blood, not too many decapitations, rather than for physical exhilaration and electric energy.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “Anything that can be said against it can be said for it: the picture is an excessively brutal adventure comic book. An excessively brutal adventure comic book is exactly what is has set out to be – a medieval Heavy Metal.” Finally, the Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “The image of awesome, hyperbolic muscularity imposed by Frazetta is also meant to dominate the movie version, where it’s transformed into unintentional nonsense, thanks to the unfailing cloddishness of director John Milius.”

Milius’ direction is refreshingly straight-forward and doesn’t distract with unnecessary stylistic flourishes. Everything he does is in service of the story and the characters. That being said, the action sequences are well-staged – exciting and visceral with attention paid to what is going on and where everyone is so that we are never confused unlike a lot of action films today, which are edited within an inch of their lives. The action depicted on-screen is further enhanced by Basil Poledouris’ score, which is epic when it needs to be and intimate during the more reflective moments. It is a crucial component as to why Conan the Barbarian works as a rousing action/adventure film.


With Conan the Barbarian, Milius has created a film that doesn’t water down the violence or any of the other unabashedly pulpy elements that make it one of the best fantasy films ever made. Despite its success, Milius did not return for the sequel, Conan the Destroyer, which diluted the violence for a younger audience, but it was also missing that special something that Milius brought to his film. He managed to capture the spirit of Conan in a way that no one has done since, including the rather bland remake. A crucial ingredient that makes Conan the Barbarian superior to other films is that we care about what happens to Conan as well as Valeria, which makes his quest that much more personal. He is going after the bad guys to avenge loved ones and it is this personal element that resonates. Credit must go to Milius for getting us involved in these characters’ lives. He takes the time to have them reflect on what they’ve done and what they’ve lost. It’s not all wall-to-wall action, but also features moments that give us important insight into the characters, like Conan who is depicted as more than just a brutal killing machine.


Further reading: Check out Roderick Heath's fantastic take over at the Ferdy on Films blog.


SOURCES

Bruzenak, Ken. “The Making of an Adventure Epic – Conan the Barbarian.” Prevue #46.

Honeycutt, Kirk. “Milius the Barbarian.” American Film. May 1982.

Sammon, Paul M. “Conan the Barbarian – Filming Robert E. Howard’s Sword and Sorcery Epic.” Cinefantastique. April 1982.

Sammon, Paul M. “Milius the Director.” Cinefantastique. April 1982.


Steranko, Jim. “Milius.” Prevue #48.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Ides of March

The Ides of March (2011) is the kind of mid-sized budgeted film that Hollywood studios don’t make anymore. It used to be a mainstream staple during the 1980s and into the 1990s, but with the collapse of the American economy in the 2000s, the studios tightened their belts and invested in sure-fire cash-cows like remakes, reboots and sequels. It’s a shame because, in some respects, George Clooney’s film is a spiritual cousin to one like Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts (1992), only playing it straight whereas the latter film was a satire. It’s no secret that Clooney is a politics junkie – his filmography is littered with topical efforts like the short-lived television show K Street (2003) and films like Syriana (2005) and The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009). The Ides of March, a drama about an idealistic staffer whose morals and integrity gets tested when he finds out that his boss, a Democratic presidential candidate isn’t what he appears to be, fits comfortably within Clooney’s body of work.

Filmed and released before Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, I wonder if The Ides of March was an expression of Clooney’s disillusionment with the President’s first term in office. So many people had high hopes when Obama got elected in 2008. There was the same kind of hope in the air when Bill Clinton first became President. However, in no time the honeymoon was over as Obama repeated butted heads with the Republicans who chipped away at any and all policies that he tried to push through the system. The Ides of March, with its backroom dealings and power-plays, affirms what most of us already know – the American political system is a corrupt machine fueled by money and is one that chews up and spits out idealistic people who want to make a difference.

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is a junior campaign manager that believes his boss, Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), a Democratic presidential candidate, can make a positive difference in Washington, D.C. It’s one week away from the Ohio primary with Morris and Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell) in fierce competition with each other. Pullman is trailing Morris in delegates, but if the senator wins big then he can turn things around. Stephen works closely with Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Morris’ right-hand man who has seen his share of campaigns and is mentoring the young man. Paul is the world-weary campaign manager who’s seen it all before. He knows how to bullshit Morris and deflect persistent journalists like The New York Times’ Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) who work the campaign trail looking for newsworthy scoops.


Stephen becomes attracted to and gets romantically involved with a beautiful intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood). Everything seems to be going swimmingly for him until he gets a phone call from Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), Pullman’s campaign manager who tells Stephen that he’s working for the wrong man and he should come work for him. Tom lays out a pretty convincing argument – good enough that it rattles Stephen. This is the first of several complications that make the young manager question his beliefs as they pertain to Morris’ campaign.

2011 was a very good year for Ryan Gosling as he starred in two very different and well-received films, Drive and The Ides of March. With the latter, he graduated to the big leagues acting opposite heavyweights like George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti and held his own. In fact, Gosling shows decent range as Stephen goes from idealistic staffer to someone whose belief system is shaken to its core. Make no mistake, he isn’t naïve, but rather idealistic and really believes that Morris can make a difference. Gosling plays a credible campaign manager, getting the lingo down cold and conveying the kind of confidence that allows Stephen to help manage Morris’ campaign. Initially, he’s on top of the world and things look great, but when the campaign hits a roadblock and he faces a personal moral dilemma, Gosling does a good job showing Stephen gradually unraveling. It’s a juicy role that allows the actor to shift gears from moments of levity to romance, with his initial meet-cute with Molly, to drama when things go bad for his character.

Gosling is ably supported by veteran actors like Hoffman and Giamatti, who turn in typically solid work as the two warring sides that fight for Stephen’s political soul. Each guy has their own agenda, their own angle that they play and Stephen has to figure out whose side he’s on. Hoffman and Giamatti are given powerhouse speeches to sink their teeth into and devour, which is what you want to see these skilled actors do. The cast is really an embarrassment of riches and unfortunately talented actors like Jeffrey Wright, as a senator that can put either candidate over the top, and Marisa Tomei, playing a tough-talking reporter, are given way-too little screen-time, but like the pros they are, make the most of what they’re given.


Evan Rachel Wood is quite good as the young, gorgeous intern with a deep, dark secret. Initially, Molly seems like a wise-beyond-her-years woman, but there is a fragility that lurks underneath the surface and comes out when Stephen discovers her secret. The fall-out is devastating for her and Wood does a nice job of showing how it affects her character. George Clooney has the slick patter all successful politicians peddle in down cold. With his good looks and perfect smile, the veteran actor is well-cast as a presidential hopeful.

Clooney has directed several films now and this one may be his most assured with striking images like Paul and Stephen having a conversation in silhouette, dwarfed by an enormous American flag hanging behind them. The symbolism is apt as the two men are small cogs in the massive political machine. Clooney thankfully resists the urge to include traditional thriller elements, like car chases and assassinations in favor or a more realistic approach.

The origins for The Ides of March lie in the unsuccessful run for Congress that George Clooney’s father, Nick, made in 2004. Clooney remembered his father talking about how “uncomfortable, embarrassing and at times humiliating,” he felt asking for campaign money. Clooney also saw his father struggle and “lose pretty terribly. No matter how pure you try to keep it, you’re always going to have to take meetings with people you don’t like. I got a real sense of how ugly it is – and that was just for a congressional seat.” Furthermore, Governor Morris’ proposal to outlaw the internal combustion engine in ten years so that the United States would not have to rely on foreign oil came from columns that Nick wrote for the Cincinnati Post. Clooney and Grant Heslov began working on a screenplay about a “bait and switch” conservative Republican who opposes the death penalty after getting the presidential nomination.


In the summer of 2004, young writer Beau Willimon wrote the first draft of his play Farragut North, which was based on his experiences working on the staff of presidential hopeful Howard Dean in Iowa. It was a fictionalized look behind the scenes of a presidential campaign. The play premiered in New York City in 2008 and then moved to Los Angeles where it eventually came to the attention of Clooney and Heslov, partners in their own production company. After reading it, the two men felt that they could merge their ideas with Willimon’s play.

In translating the play into a film, Clooney and Heslov made several changes, most significantly that Governor Morris, the candidate, became an actual character as opposed to the play where he did not exist. They also changed the name because Clooney found Farragut North, “a little too specific.” It became The Ides of March because the primary in the film took place on March 15. The new title also referenced some of the Shakespearean themes in the film. Even though the play is set in Iowa, Clooney and Heslov moved it to Ohio. Clooney said, “Ohio has always been the key state. I put it in Cincinnati because I know it really well.” It also didn’t hurt that the state gave the production tax credits.

Principal photography was originally planned for 2008 and then Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. Clooney and Heslov felt that it wasn’t the right time for such a cynical film. After a year, the optimism over Obama’s election began to wane enough that they decided to make the film. With the pedigree of Clooney as director, he and Heslov had no problem getting the cast they wanted. Ryan Gosling was drawn to the film not only because he was intrigued by the character of Stephen and the story, but also the chance to work with Clooney. Philip Seymour Hoffman was attracted to the script and its insights into human behavior. Paul Giamatti also thought the script was “incredible well written. The rhythms are really specific, and the language.” Clooney jokingly said that he took on the role of Morris because no one else wanted to, “It’s not the most fun part.” He knew what “I wanted the candidate to do and be. I also seemed right for the age of the character.”


To prepare for the film, Clooney told production designer Sharon Seymour to watch several campaign documentaries and they talked about how the design should look realistic. She also talked to political consultants from Ohio and Washington about the look of political campaigns and how everyone wants their candidate to look the best. They also took a page out of Obama’s successful advertising campaign by creating posters for Governor Morris in the same style as the President’s when he was making a run for the White House.

Clooney got his cast and crew in the mindset of the film by encouraging them to watch several campaign documentaries, including The War Room (1993), which examined Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign; Journeys with George (2003), George W. Bush’s 2000 run for president; and By the People: The Election of Barack Obama (2009). Stuart Stevens, a Republican campaign strategist, political advisor and media consultant, was also brought in to help the production. Clooney said, “We would send him things and say, tell us where we’re going wrong. Tell us what you would do in this situation.”

Principal photography began during the late winter in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. Clooney shot on location where much of the story was actually set. Three weeks into filming, the production moved to Detroit where all the interiors for the Pullman and Morris headquarters were shot. In addition, several downtown and suburban locations were used.

The Ides of March received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and praised Clooney’s directing: “He draws back from action and plunges into intrigue. Here he conceals certain of Stephen’s inner workings … to great effect, as the young man reveals an amorality that surprises even the hardened pros he works under. The last shot of the film, a closeup of Ryan Gosling, held for a long time, is chilling.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The Ides of March has true storytelling verve, but it also plays like a rite of exorcism. It pulses along like an update of The Candidate fused with a political Sweet Smell of Success – it’s got that kind of nourish fizz.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan found the film to be “an intelligent, involving picture that feels all too real – until it doesn’t.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “With Clooney’s connivance, and in a film stuffed with savvy work by veteran players, Gosling lures the movie’s emotional center away from Morris and into Stephen’s mind, where angels swim and demon’s lurk.”


USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and Claudia Puig wrote, “Gosling’s Meyers is a complex blend of idealist and opportunist. While he truly believes in the populist candidate he works for, he is not above seduction – sexual or professional.” However, in his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “More likely, though, you will find it more comforting than inspiring. It deals mainly in platitudes and abstractions, with just enough detail to hold your interest and keep you hoping for something more.” The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday wrote, “Clooney does a good job opening up the ideas Willimon first explored onstage, but the result is still a pessimistic truth so universally acknowledged that it doesn’t bear repeating however stylishly.”

The Ides of March is a film about the hard choices and compromises as it shows the kind of deals politicians have to make if they want to advance to positions of power. The higher the position, the bigger the deal that has to be made because the stakes are higher. And when you’re running for president the stakes are the highest. American politics is not for the faint of heart. It is chock full of negative advertisements, backroom deals and compromises. Knowledge is power, especially insider information, which can be used to muscle people out of influential positions and manipulate powerful politicians.

To be fair, The Ides of March doesn’t tell us anything new about American politics, but it isn’t trying to do that. The film tells an engrossing story with intriguing characters and that is enough. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Clooney’s film ends on a deliciously ambiguous note as Stephen is armed with a potentially damaging piece of information and whether he uses it or not is left up to our imagination. It seems beside the point because what really matters is how he has changed over the course of the film. He’s gone from an idealist full of warmth and humor to someone colder and more ruthless, having witnessed just how ugly politics can get (and he hasn’t even gotten to the White House!). The question that film leaves with us at the end is, has Stephen become absorbed by the system or is he going to wreck it from the inside?


SOURCES

Cornet, Roth. “Interview: Grant Heslov on The Ides of March, George Clooney and Politics.” Screen Rant.

The Ides of March Production Notes. October 7, 2011.


Kiesewetter, John. “George Clooney Tapped Cincinnati Roots to Make Ides of March.” Cincinnati Inquirer. October 2, 2011.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Licence to Kill

Has enough time passed so that Timothy Dalton’s brief stint as James Bond can be re-evaluated? I have to admit that I was not taken with his debut outing, The Living Daylights (1987), with its ties to the Roger Moore era (it was written while he was still Bond), it felt a little too milquetoast, but the leaner, meaner follow-up Licence to Kill (1989) was a big improvement. Essentially a revenge movie, it saw Bond go rogue to avenge a friend that made things more personal for 007 – something that we hadn’t seen since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). At the time, Licence to Kill was criticized for being too brutal in its depiction of violence and not as humorous as previous efforts. Interestingly, it is this grittier approach that anticipated Daniel Craig’s current run as Bond.

The film opens up with Bond (Timothy Dalton) en route to the wedding of his DEA buddy Felix Leiter (David Hedison) in Key West, Florida. However, Felix is informed (via a passing Coast Guard helicopter no less) that notorious drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) has been spotted in the Bahamas. Obviously, the DEA agent has been after this guy for some time and can’t pass up an opportunity to get him, so he takes off with Bond along for the ride as only an “observer” (yeah, right). Sanchez is as nasty as they come, traveling to the Bahamas to retrieve his estranged girlfriend Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto) from a man she ran off with. While he “disciplines” the beautiful young woman by whipping her lower back, his psychotic enforcer Dario (Benicio del Toro) kills her lover.

With Bond’s help, Felix captures Sanchez and they both manage to parachute and land out in front of the church just in time for the wedding. So far this seems like business as usual for a Bond film with the trademark exciting prologue, but after the typically stylish opening credits with the theme song belted out with gusto by Gladys Knight, Licence to Kill takes a decidedly darker turn as Sanchez not only escapes protective custody, with the help of a double-crossing DEA official (Everett McGill), but exacts some nasty revenge on Felix. First, Sanchez has Dario rape and kill Felix’s wife (Priscilla Barnes) and then feeds the DEA agent to a hungry shark.


On his way home, Bond hears about Sanchez’s escape and heads back to Felix’s house to find what’s left of the bride and groom (incredibly, Felix is still alive, just barely). Bond makes it his personal mission in life to track down Sanchez and destroy him and his operation even if it means disobeying a director order from M (Robert Brown), his superior, and having his license to kill revoked.

Timothy Dalton does an excellent job in Licence to Kill, building on the foundation he established with his first outing and one wonders how much better he could have been if he had returned to the role. Sadly, it was the last time he got to play the iconic character. The actor is quite convincing as the normally objective secret agent who is driven to extremes when a close friend is almost killed. Much like Sanchez, loyalty is important to Bond and both men are willing to kill when it is put to the test. Early on, Dalton shows a fun-loving Bond enjoying a rare lull between globetrotting adventures, and when things get deadly he is all business. This time, though, when he’s efficiently dispatching bad guys, it’s personal, each one killed for Felix and his wife.

For all of his ruthlessness, Sanchez does live by his own code, valuing loyalty over everything else, which, of course, is the Achilles’ heel that Bond uses as leverage to infiltrate the drug lord’s organization. Robert Davi is excellent as Sanchez, giving the brutal baddie his own unique spin, like the sly smile he gives when the DEA loads him into an armored truck bound for prison. In several scenes there is a mischievous glint in Davi’s eyes as if to suggest that Sanchez gets off on the brutality he inflicts on others. He even has a whimsical affectation in the form of a pet iguana that sports a diamond-encrusted collar.


The lovely Carey Lowell plays CIA informant Pam Bouvier, one of Felix’s contacts, and whom Bond first meets at a scuzzy bar where she brandishes a shotgun when Dario and his buddies show up, so you know she can handle herself. It’s a pretty amusing introduction as Pam and Bond meet and start a bar room brawl. She’s smart, beautiful, tough, and a crackerjack pilot, but even she can’t resist Bond’s charms. Lowell’s appearance takes on a decidedly sexier turn when Pam transforms herself into Bond’s “executive secretary,” complete with a no-nonsense short hairdo and shimmering evening dress when they crash Sanchez’s swanky casino.

Las Vegas entertainer Wayne Newton has a comical turn as a cheesy television evangelist and Sanchez middleman, aptly named Professor Joe Butcher complete with faux sincere catch phrase, “Bless your heart.” Newton displays an oily charm that is pretty funny, especially when Professor Joe tries to get Pam alone for a personal “meditation” session and manages to keep his cool even when she turns the tables on him. Talisa Soto is the requisite eye candy and set up as the obvious stunning beauty of the film, but I always found Lowell much more attractive. Benicio del Toro brings a certain psychotic reptilian charm to his role, but gets little to do other than glower menacingly and failure to kill Bond on several occasions.

There’s certainly no shortage of exciting action sequences in Licence to Kill, like when Bond waterskies behind a drug-running plane with his feet and attached via a harpoon gun! Even the final showdown between Bond and Sanchez is much more savage and visceral than one usually finds in these films, but it had to be that way because of what Sanchez did earlier on. This is definitely a harder edged Bond film that gets bloody frequently, between shark attacks, human combustion and crushing, which may have also turned off fans used to the relatively bloodless Roger Moore era. Ironically, the more intense violence was an attempt to appeal the U.S. market. Even the cheesy one-liners Dalton spouts are few and far between, coming across as grimmer than usual.

That being said, Licence to Kill has all the requisite elements of a Bond film: beautiful women, a rich and powerful villain and plenty of thrilling action set pieces – it’s just that the tone is considerably darker and there is much more at stake for Bond this time out, which I found refreshing at the time. This was a rare Bond film that saw 007 get his hands dirty, both literally and figuratively. Unfortunately, the producers didn’t explore the ramifications of this until Skyfall (2012), which took a fascinating look at a Bond burnt out from the two previous films.



Like many Bond films, its villain reflects contemporary ills that plague the world and in this case drug smuggling with Sanchez representing the thriving South American drug cartels. Alas, it seems that fans weren’t crazy about a Bond revenge movie and Licence to Kill was regarded as another Dalton misfire with disappointing box office returns in North America (it was the lowest grossing of the series in the U.S.) and mixed critical reaction. By the time the next installment was made, the actor had moved on and was replaced by Pierce Brosnan. Rather interestingly, the next time the Bond franchise tried to make a revenge tale with Quantum of Solace (2008) it too was met with a critical backlash and derided by fans. As a result, Licence to Kill remains an intriguing change of pace in the Bond canon, an oddity where the filmmakers pushed the tone of the film to one extreme, almost is if compensating for the one in The Living Daylights. Perhaps if Dalton had appeared in another Bond film the powers that be would have made some adjustments to create a film with a better balance. Sadly, we will never know.


Further reading: check out John Kenneth Muir's excellent look at the film.