Friday, March 28, 2014

Jackie Brown

After the commercial success of Pulp Fiction (1994), Quentin Tarantino could make whatever film he wanted. He decided to defy expectations by adapting Elmore Leonard’s crime novel Rum Punch as Jackie Brown (1997), a comeback vehicle tailor-made for one of his favorite feminist Queens of Kicking Ass, Pam Grier. After years of plugging away in countless unremarkable supporting roles, she started resurfacing on the popular culture radar with small but significant parts in Mars Attacks! (1996) and Escape from L.A. (1996). However, Jackie Brown would be a starring role alongside Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson who appeared in supporting roles. Tarantino’s gamble paid off and while it didn’t rack up Pulp Fiction-type grosses at the box office, it was a critical darling primarily due to Ms. Grier hitting it out of the park with a confident, assured performance. More importantly, it demonstrated that Tarantino could step back from the pop culture pastiche that was Pulp Fiction for a more substantial outing that placed emphasis on mature, fully-realized characterization over the more superficial reproductions in his previous films. The end result was a sometimes funny, sometimes poignant look at the notion of aging and the baggage that it brings.

Pam Grier appears on-screen during an opening credits sequence that evokes a similar one in The Graduate (1967) only instead of evoking a somber mood as that film did with “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, Jackie Brown sets an upbeat tone with the triumphant strains of “Across 100th Street” by Bobby Womack and Peace thereby proudly announcing the return of the actress to the mainstream after years of toiling away in television.

We are subsequently introduced to Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a slick guns dealer who loves to talk big (we first meet him explaining the pros and cons of various guns), but he is also someone not to be messed with as an interlude with one of his flunkies – an even chattier guy known as Beaumont (Chris Tucker) – illustrates. In trademark Tarantino fashion, the two men verbally spar as Ordell convinces Beaumont to do a favor for him. As in most of his films, characters often talk as a form of survival and only when they stop is when bad things tend to happen. The Beaumont interlude has nothing to do with the story, but it does provide us with crucial insight into Ordell. He’s clearly a dangerous man who will do anything to protect his business. Tarantino depicts this sequence in a series of his characteristic long takes that establishes the stylistic approach he adopts for the rest of the film. This allows scenes to breathe and the actors to savor each word like a fine meal.


Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a stewardess for Cabo Air, an obscure Mexican airline, and works for Ordell, bringing him large amounts of money across the border into the United States. One day, she’s stopped by L.A.P.D. detective Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) and A.T.F. agent Ray Nicolet (Michael Keaton) who search her. In addition to finding $50,000 in cash, they also discover a small packet of cocaine that was planted and which lands her in L.A. County Jail. Ordell hires Max Cherry (Robert Forster), a veteran bail bondsman, to get her out. When Max meets Jackie coming out of lock-up it is quite possibly love at first sight as the camera oh-so gradually zooms in on Max’s face and he is clearly drawn to this beautiful woman walking towards him as the soulful strains of “Natural High” by Bloodstone plays over the soundtrack, complimenting this moment perfectly.

Being the nice guy that he is, Max drives Jackie home and on the way they go for a drink at a local bar. It gives her a chance to have a drink and a cigarette and decompress after a brief stint in jail. Fed up working for an increasingly suspicious Ordell and feeling pressured by Dargus and Nicolet, Jackie – with Max’s help – devises a scheme to con Ordell out of $550,000 of his retirement money and give the cops what they want – the gun dealer.

After the sprawling epic that was Pulp Fiction, with its unexpected plot twists and shifts in time, Tarantino dials it back for Jackie Brown, taking his time by delving deep into these characters, letting us get to know them in a way he hadn’t done in his previous films. In the past, his characters were pretty superficial – a collection of pop culture references and quirky dialogue, but working from solid source material provided a strong foundation from which he could add his trademark flourishes.


The best scenes in Jackie Brown are between Jackie and Max, like when he visits her the morning after she gets out of jail. In-between discussing what to do about Ordell, they talk about vinyl vs. CD and getting old. Max speaks frankly about losing his hair and doing something about it while she speaks of gaining weight over the years. It is a wonderfully honest conversation between two adults who have been around the block more than a few times with very little to show for it except a few regrets.

Tarantino wrote the role of Jackie Brown specifically for Pam Grier and clearly plays to her strengths while also allowing her to show off acting chops that the veteran actress was rarely given the opportunity to in the past. Grier has definitely aged well, but Tarantino doesn’t avoid the issue of age and in fact makes it the film’s central theme. Like Jackie, Grier has had her share of ups and downs in life, only her character has little to show for it. The scam she plans to pull on Ordell is her chance to get out of a crappy situation and start over in style. This scheme revitalizes Jackie and Grier does a great job of conveying the transformation that her character undergoes over the course of the film.

Much like Grier, Robert Forster’s career started off strong, but fizzled out over the years into a string of forgettable B-movies and T.V. shows. However, Tarantino never forgot about him and was confident that, with the right material, the actor would remind everyone just how good he could be. Forster brings a world-weary charm to Max with every line in his weathered face suggesting years of dealing with criminal low-lifes like Ordell and Louis and he’s tired of it all. Forster has a great scene where Max tells Jackie a story about when he decided to quit being a bail bondsman. It not only provides his motivation for going in with Jackie on her scheme, but also brings them closer. They are both looking for a better life.


Jackie Brown was part of a solid run of films for Robert De Niro in the 1990s that included the likes of Casino (1995), Heat (1995) and Ronin (1998). Where in those film he played ultra-professional criminals, in Jackie Brown he’s a slightly dim-witted goon, but the actor wisely doesn’t go for a stereotypical caricature that we’ve seen in so many films, but rather a guy who thinks he knows what’s going on. Ever the chameleon, De Niro looks the part with his unshaven, unkempt appearance. Louis is incompetent as evident in his actions during the climactic money switch as he lets Melanie’s increasingly annoying behavior get to him. De Niro handles this sequence so well – we share in Louis’ mounting frustration.

As he demonstrated with Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson was born to say Tarantino’s dialogue. No one issues badass threats quite like he does and you can see the actor relishing every word as he flat out enjoys the hell out of his role. Ordell thinks he’s the smartest guy in the film and this over-confidence proves to be his undoing as he underestimates Jackie. Not surprisingly, Jackson gets most of the film’s flashiest dialogue, but he’s also quite gracious with is castmates as evident in the scenes he has with Grier, which crackle with intensity as Ordell maintains a jovial façade, but there’s an undercurrent of menace. It’s a tricky balancing act that the actor manages so well.

Tarantino gives all the significant characters prominent moments to do their thing, like when Louis (Robert De Niro), a friend of Ordell’s, and Melanie (Bridget Fonda), Ordell’s beach bunny girlfriend, bond over getting high. Both them aren’t too bright with Melanie only thinking she is while Louis struggles to keep up with Ordell’s plans, content to go with the flow. Initially, Melanie comes across as a flighty pothead, but as the film progresses her annoyance factor increases, so much so that we actually sympathize with Louis’ growing frustration, which comes to a head during the climactic money swap. Bridget Fonda, a mainstay of ‘90s cinema, really sinks her teeth into the role during this sequence as Melanie relishes needling Louis about his lack of intelligence, right down to over-annunciating his name in a way that would make even the most resilient person lose their cool.


Michael Bowen and Michael Keaton have small, but pivotal roles as a cop and an ATF agent respectively. They nail the condescending arrogance of their characters who think that they’ve got Jackie under their thumb. Keaton especially is good as a guy who thinks he’s some sort of hot shot with his new-looking black leather jacket and tight white t-shirt. It’s a role he would go on to reprise briefly in another Elmore Leonard adaptation, Out of Sight (1998). One of the joys of Jackie Brown is watching all of these actors bouncing off each other and having fun doing it as they get to chew on these meaty roles.

When Quentin Tarantino was 15-years-old, he shoplifted a paperback copy of The Switch, a crime novel by Elmore Leonard. He loved it and read the author’s other books and was amazed at how Leonard created “his own unique universe.” After Pulp Fiction, Tarantino took his time until the right project presented itself and that was Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch, which featured some of the same characters from The Switch. Tarantino remembered, “When I read the book, I saw the entire movie in my head.” In particular, he was drawn to the age of the characters: “I liked their age. I liked the fact that this is an older movie, that we’re dealing with more mature people … I liked the fact that there was a wonderful desperation about these people, due to their age and their place in the scheme of things.”

Early on, Tarantino reached out to Leonard and told him that he was adapting Rum Punch. In adapting the book, Tarantino made a few significant alterations, including changing Jackie’s race from white to black, because he wanted Grier to play the role, and the setting from Florida to L.A. because he knew that area better. Then, Leonard heard from Tarantino again just before filming started and the filmmaker admitted that he had been afraid to talk to him because of all the changes he made. Leonard simply told him: “Why? Because you’ve changed the title and you’re starring a black woman in the lead? Do what you want. You’re the filmmaker, you’re going to do what you want anyway.”


While writing the screenplay, Tarantino began to think about who could play Jackie and thought of Pam Grier. “She had all the right qualities. She had the right age – she’s in her 40s. She had the right looks for that age.” Initially, he envisioned playing the role of Ordell because the filmmaker felt that the character was a composite of all his mentors when he was a young man. Ordell was the “persona of who I could have been at 17 if I didn’t have artistic ambitions … I would have been involved with one scam after another. I would have done something that I would have gone to jail for.” It took some effort on Tarantino’s part to let go of the character and let Samuel L. Jackson play him. To prepare for making Jackie Brown, Tarantino watched Hickey & Boggs (1972), Straight Time (1978) and They All Laughed (1981).

Tarantino first met Grier when she auditioned for a role in Pulp Fiction (which would eventually be played by Rosanna Arquette). A year afterwards, the actress met him on a street in Los Angeles where he told her that he was writing a film with her in mind. A year later, she met Tarantino again and inquired about the film. He gave her the script. At first, Grier figured that his then-girlfriend Mira Sorvino would be playing Jackie and she’d play her best friend. She was pleasantly surprised when he told her that she would be playing Jackie. Grier identified with the character because “there are metaphors in her life that parallel mine. I know I’ve brought a lot more humanity, a lot more pain and emotion and texture to this role than to anything I’ve done because of everything I’ve been through.” When she accepted his offer, she told Tarantino, “You’re asking a lot. I’ll have to strip myself bare. I’ll have to reveal myself and be raw on screen.” To that end, she gave it her all: “I was so tired at the end of the day, I’d just go home, sit in the tub and cry.”

Robert Forster first met Tarantino when he auditioned for Reservoir Dogs. He didn’t get the part (the role went to Lawrence Tierney) and the director told him that he wouldn’t forget the actor. While writing the script for Jackie Brown, Tarantino had four actors in mind to possibly play Max – Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, John Saxon and Forster, but was always leaning towards Forster. When he finally decided to cast Forster in Jackie Brown, he had no agent and according to the actor, “nobody wanted me.”


Jackie Brown enjoyed mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars and wrote, “You savor every moment of Jackie Brown. Those who say it is too long have developed cinematic attention deficit disorder. I wanted these characters to live, talk, deceive and scheme for hours and hours.” The New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris wrote, “Mr. Tarantino has returned after a long directorial hiatus with his wisest, warmest, subtlest and most suspenseful effort without sacrificing his patented outrageousness and his exhilaratingly clever narrative strategies.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Pam Grier looks marvelous, with her diamond eyes and sexy half sneer, and though the middle-aged bulkiness of her body gives you a bit of a start, she is, as always, a commanding actress; she blends street smarts and melancholy the way she used to blend street smarts and Amazonian hauteur.” The Washington Post’s Steven Hunter found the film to be “funny and the plot twists are so sudden and violent it’s great fun.”

However, in her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The film is best (and most patiently) enjoyed as a set of laid-back sketches that don’t always head anywhere, even if a filmmaker of Mr. Tarantino’s talents can make schmoozing such an end in itself.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “For one thing, at 2 hours and 40 minutes, Jackie Brown plainly takes longer than it should to unfold. Along with that too-leisurely pace goes a lack of immediacy, a sense that this is the kind of thing that Tarantino not only might have done in his sleep but in fact has.”

When Jackie Brown was released, filmmaker Spike Lee criticized Tarantino for excessive use of the “n-word” racial epithet in the film. “Quentin is infatuated with that word,” Lee said, “What does he want to be made – an honorary black man?” Years later, Tarantino addressed Lee’s comments: “My biggest problem with Spike was the completely self-serving aspect of his argument. He attacked me to keep his ‘Jesse Jackson of cinema’ status. Basically, for a little bit of time before I came along, you had to get Spike Lee’s benediction and approval if you were white and dealing with black stuff in a movie. Fuck that.” Regardless, Leonard himself approved of Tarantino’s film: “I liked it. I like to see my characters done so well on the screen.”


At the heart of Jackie Brown is an unrequited romance between two people that we want to see get together. They come from different worlds and this conflict is captured perfectly in the last scene as Jackie drives off with the Delfonics’ "Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” playing over the soundtrack. I love that this fine example of classic early Philly soul is their song (it might as well be also known as the “Jackie Brown Love Theme”) and encapsulates their relationship. Jackie’s facial expression goes from slightly sad to a slight smile at having successfully accomplished her goal back to slightly sad because of the unrequited romance with Max.

Tarantino has to be commended for refusing the temptation to simply crank out another Pulp Fiction and instead adapt someone else’s work and make it his own. He made what is easily his most mature and substantial film – a Quentin Tarantino film for people who don’t like his films. Jackie Brown isn’t merely a pastiche of other movies and pop culture references, but actually tells a substantial story with characters that resonate long after the film ends. Unfortunately, it didn’t perform as well as Pulp Fiction did at the box office and ever since Tarantino has fallen back to what he knows best – endlessly sampling other movies, giving genres like the martial arts movie and the western his own unique spin, but they all lack the soulful substance of Jackie Brown.


SOURCES

Feeney, Sheila Anne. “Back Where the Action Is.” New York Daily News. January 2, 1998.

Fleming, Michael. “Playboy Interview: Quentin Tarantino.” Playboy. 2003.

Gerston, Jill. “Pam Grier Finally Escapes the 1970’s.” The New York Times. December 21, 1997.

Gilchrist, Todd. “Robert Forster Talks about Auditioning for Reservoir Dogs and How Jackie Brown Boosted His Career.” The Playlist. October 4, 2011.

Hirschberg, Lynn. “The Man Who Changed Everything.” The New York Times. November 16, 1997.

McGilligan, Patrick. “Elmore Leonard Interviewed.” Film Comment. March/April 1998.

Millner, Denene. “Pam Shifts Grier in Jackie Brown.” New York Daily News. December 25, 1997.

Portman, Jamie. “Tarantino Takes Different Direction.” Montreal Gazette. December 19, 1997.

Snead, Elizabeth. “’70s Survivor Pam Grier.” USA Today. January 2, 1998.

Svetkey, Benjamin. “Jackie, Oh!” Entertainment Weekly. December 19, 1997.

Vigoda, Arlene. “Lee Takes on Tarantino Over Use of Racial Slur.” USA Today. December 18, 1997.


Vognar, Chris. “Elmore Leonard Discusses Jackie Brown and Other Movie Adaptations in a 1998 Interview.” Dallas Morning News. August 20, 2013.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Lair of the White Worm

The 1980s was a fantastic decade for feminist horror with countless movies featuring a combination of resilient female protagonists pitted against same sex antagonists. The former of which became known as the final girl because she was usually the sole survivor or the one that actually prevailed over the monster, killer, etc. In one way or another, many of these movies featured women driving the narrative, which included popular franchises like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, as well as notable genre examples like The Hunger (1983), Hellraiser (1987), and Night of the Demons (1988) to name but only a few.

Arguably, the pinnacle of the feminist horror movie from this decade is The Lair of the White Worm (1988), a loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s last novel, written and directed by British maverick filmmaker Ken Russell. He manages to have his cake and eat it too in the sense that the film is chock full of scantily-clad women, full-on female nudity, but balances this out by featuring two female protagonists, each with boyfriends that, by and large, act as arm candy, reacting to what the women do, as they go up against a powerful villainess. It makes for a wild, cinematic ride that saw the veteran provocateur still capable of skewering sacred taboos and has fun doing it.

Scottish archaeology student Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) finds a fossil that he believes may have come from Roman times over a thousand years ago at an excavation site of an English convent. We are introduced to the young man celebrating his find with an off-kilter yell that is certainly an odd way to introduce his character and sets the tone for the rest of the film. He’s staying on site at a bed and breakfast run by the Trent sisters, Mary (Sammi Davis) and Eve (Catherine Oxenberg), who take him to a party later that night at a lavish mansion belonging to their landlord, James d’Ampton (Hugh Grant).


James theorizes that the fossil Angus unearthed is that of a large snake, the legendary d’Ampton “worm” that was slain in Stonerich Cavern by the former’s ancestor. Russell does a nice job of relating the snake legend through song by a local folk band whose stage show anticipates a similar strobe-lighted affair in a certain Canadian roadhouse in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992).

Meanwhile, one of the local constables (Paul Brooke) checks out a disturbance over at Temple House, the stately abode of Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), who “saves” the man from snakebite. When she’s not casually bragging about changing cars as often as a snake sheds its skin, Lady Sylvia is not above hissing venom on a crucifix she encounters while skulking around the Trent B&B. In no time, she has stolen the fossil and later kidnaps Eve with plans to sacrifice the girl to her snake god Dionin. It’s up to Angus and Mary, with James’ help, to stop the evil snake lady from summoning her ancient god.

Cast as an immortal priestess, Amanda Donohoe steals every scene as the sexy Lady Sylvia, chewing deliciously on the campy dialogue and playing up her vampy seductress role as evident in the scene where she takes in a hapless hitchhiker and proceeds to paralyze him with a bite, but not before toying with the young lad by dancing to his somber harmonica playing all the while decked out in a sheer black negligee and thigh-high black leather boots. Donohoe exudes the cool confidence of an evil mastermind and looks like she’s having a lot of fun with the role.


The Lair of the White Worm was an early role for Hugh Grant that saw him in classic foppish Englishman mode and whose purpose is to convey expositional dialogue, which brings our heroes (and us) up to speed on the d’Ampton worm legend. Peter Capaldi has a little more to do as he finds the fossil that kicks off the story and swoops in at the film’s climax to save the day. Sammi Davis is the proactive female protagonist that is unfortunately reduced to a damsel distress at the aforementioned climax while Catherine Oxenberg doubles as eye candy and also as a catalyst in the sense that her abduction motivates our heroes to go after Lady Sylvia. This young cast gamely delivers all kinds of playful dialogue that include numerous snake references and a cheeky nod to Citizen Kane (1941).

In 1912, Bram Stoker wrote his last novel The Lair of the White Worm, which recalled English literature that depicted legends about giant serpents or “worms,” and fused that with folklore and traditional songs to create a story about a white worm so powerful it could transform itself into a beautiful woman that found victims to sacrifice. At the time, Stoker was suffering from a crippling illness and that affected his mind and, in turn, influenced his writing.

As a result, the novel was considered unfilmable until Ken Russell decided to adapt it. In doing so, he was candid about his views of Stoker’s book: “The Lair of the White Worm was written by someone who had a good idea in his head but didn’t have the capacity to properly put it on paper.” He found the book to be a narrative mess and took what he felt were the best parts and incorporated folk songs like “The D’Ampton Worm.” Tired of doing Victorian gothic films, Russell decided to set it in contemporary times. Filming began in February 1988 on location in Hertfordshire and Derbyshire counties in England and at Cannon Elstree Studios outside of London.


Surprisingly, The Lair of the White Worm received generally positive to mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and felt that it was not up to Russell’s standards: “This is the sort of exercise he could film with one hand tied behind his back, and it looks like that was indeed more or less his approach.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Miss Donohoe plays the role with a marvelously withering verbal understatement, which is not exactly matched by the film’s visual style.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas wrote, “While an abundant sense of humor cannot save the film from terminal silliness, it might make watching it bearable and even sometimes amusing.” In his review for the Washington Post, Richard Harrington wrote, “There’s so much going on (we’ve barely touched the surface here) that Lair may be better served on video, where, like Russell himself, it can be more easily analyzed. His mind boggles.” Finally, the Chicago Tribune’s Dave Kehr wrote, “There is enough gore and cheesecake to appease the marketplace, though this is a film that functions largely through the skill and swiftness of its storytelling.”

Russell has a bit of fun with the notion of feminist horror by snarkily poking fun at it in his trademark fashion. Early on, Eve has a bizarre, blasphemous vision of Jesus on the Cross being attacked by the d’Ampton worm while Roman legionnaires brutally rape several nuns. Lady Sylvia looks on in approval. In addition, there is a dream sequence in which James imagines Mary and Lady Sylvia as stewardesses fighting it out on an airplane while he, dressed as a pilot, is strapped to a seat, literally a captive audience to a sexy girl fight, which he finds quite arousing as symbolized by the erect pen he holds. Subtlety is not one of Russell’s virtues, but his sledgehammer obvious imagery is part of the film’s charm. While The Lair of the White Worm may never be ranked among his masterpieces, it is still my favorite film of Russell’s and the one I watch the most as I find it an endlessly entertaining experience.


SOURCES


The Lair of the White Worm Production Notes, 1988.


Further Reading:

Check out Sean Gill's fantastic take on the film over at his blog, Junta Juleil's Culture Shock. There's also a really excellent look at it over at The Film Connoisseur blog. And last, but not least, Kevin J. Olson took a look at the film over at his blog, Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies blog.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Prelude to a Kiss

Modern day fairy tales that involve elements of magic realism are hard to pull off credibly in contemporary cinema. With a few notable exceptions (see Field of Dreams), this kind of film is not popular with mainstream movie-going audiences as they have become increasingly jaded and cynical since the 1970s. This may explain why Prelude to a Kiss (1992) failed at the box office and was savaged by critics despite featuring two very popular actors in the leading roles. At the time, Alec Baldwin had established his leading man credentials with The Hunt for Red October (1990) while Meg Ryan became America’s sweetheart thanks to When Harry Met Sally… (1989). Putting these two together must’ve seemed like a no-brainer and yet Prelude to a Kiss underperformed. It certainly isn’t your typical romantic comedy, but for those who become captivated by its bewitching atmosphere, it is a special kind of film with a story that resonates long after it ends.

Based on Craig Lucasplay of the same name, Prelude to a Kiss starts off as a sweet romance between two people. Peter (Alec Baldwin) and Rita (Meg Ryan) meet at a party. He is about to leave, but is coerced to stay by a friend (Stanley Tucci) who introduces him to her. While Peter initially comes across as a bespectacled, button-downed type (it’s endearing how the filmmakers try to dress down the hunky Baldwin) while Rita comes across as a fun-loving free spirit, dancing to “I Touch Myself” by the Divinyls. She’s all touchy-feely while he tries to tell a lame joke.

They get to talking and there’s a wonderful looseness to the party scene as Peter and Rita have an awkward meet-cute moment that feels genuine. It also helps that there is terrific chemistry between Baldwin and Ryan. Their conversations early on in the film are charming and witty as they touch upon subjects like him reading The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas, having kids, her history of insomnia, and recounting his unhappy childhood due to his parents’ divorce. The latter of which is told so well by Baldwin who has that great voice that captivates Rita (and us). As a result, we don’t want these getting-to-know-you scenes to ever end as they are so engaging and romantic.


They get serious enough that Peter meets Rita’s parents (played charmingly by Ned Beatty and Patty Duke) in a scene that starts off awkwardly as they good-naturedly mess with him, culminating in a funny bit where her dad flexes a bulldog tattoo on his arm, which Beatty plays with just the right eccentric spin. Things go swimmingly and they decide to get married. In another part of the city, an old man named Julius (Sydney Walker) decides to go for a walk and winds up on a train bound for the suburb where Peter and Rita are getting married. He shows up and mingles with the partygoers. At the reception, the elderly man approaches the happy couple and when he gives her a congratulatory kiss something strange happens. The sky darkens for a moment as Rita and Julius swap souls.

No one has any idea what just happened, but on their honeymoon Peter suspects that there’s something wrong with Rita. Maybe it’s her avoidance of physical intimacy or the odd turn of phrase (“You’re my puppy puppy.”) or her quick agreement to quit her job and let him support them or her failure to remember how to make a Long Island iced tea (and she’s a bartender!). The crucial indicator that something isn’t right is her ability to finally sleep. Peter finally figures out what happened between Rita and Julius and the rest of the film plays out Peter trying to get his wife back in her own body.

Reprising his role from the Broadway production, Alec Baldwin delivers one of the strongest performances of his career as a slightly bookish guy who falls in love with a woman that encourages him to be spontaneous and enjoy being in the moment. The actor is capable of wonderful little moments, like how he humors Rita’s aunt and uncle at their wedding reception, while also nailing the big moments as well. This role requires Baldwin to convey a wide range of emotions over the course of the film as we see him go from the first blush of romance to almost losing his mind when he realizes what has happened to Rita. This culminates in the scene where Peter realizes that the person he married isn’t her anymore. The sadness that plays over his face when this sinks in is absolutely heartbreaking. After all, who can he tell? Who would believe him? You really feel for the poor guy.


Meg Ryan is quite good as Rita as she spends the first half of the film getting Peter (and us) to fall in love with Rita thanks to that great smile of hers and an independent streak that makes her a distinctive character instead of a romantic ideal for the male lead. Ryan is especially good when her body is possessed by Julius’ soul. The actress subtly changes how she moves and acts. Peter and Rita aren’t the immature romantic leads that seem to populate so many contemporary romantic comedies. They are smart, passionate dreamers that care deeply for each other. I could listen to their conversations forever and secretly hold out hope that there is a bunch of deleted scenes somewhere with even more conversations between them. The filmmakers have lured us in so that when the fantastical twist happens we’ve become emotionally invested in Peter and Rita. We care about them and want to see them be happy.

The third part of this equation is Sydney Walker who plays Julius. He does a good job of playing the old man initially as an impish enigma and then when the swap occurs the actor has to incorporate many of Rita’s mannerisms in a way that credibly sells the transformation that takes place. He manages to give the impression that Rita is in there, inhabiting this body. It is only until the last third of the film that we get insight into Julius’ motivations and also how Rita was receptive to the swap.

In 1988, Norman Rene directed the first stage production of Craig Lucas’ play Prelude to a Kiss in Costa Mesa, California. After extensively rewriting it (strengthening the storyline and trimming down the number of characters), the two men took the play to New York City where it debuted on Off-Broadway, with Alec Baldwin and Mary-Louise Parker in the lead roles, and then on Broadway with Timothy Hutton replacing Baldwin. The play got rave reviews and soon Hollywood came calling. Lucas met with 20th Century Fox in 1989 and the studio secured the film rights for just over a million dollars in 1990. Two conditions of the sale were that Rene had to direct the film and Lucas’ screenplay could not be rewritten. Baldwin reprised his role, but Parker was replaced by the more box office friendly Meg Ryan. Alec Guinness was originally cast as Julius, but had to leave the production early on when his wife became ill, and was replaced by theater veteran Sydney Walker.


Prelude to a Kiss received mostly negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “Prelude to a Kiss is the kind of movie that can inspire long conversations about the only subject really worth talking about, the Meaning of It All.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “The performances are colorless … The camera doesn’t reveal characters. The close-ups corner the actors to expose banalities.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Prelude to a Kiss is squishy yet blah. It teaches the characters a lesson they don’t need to learn.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “Fortunately, Baldwin and Ryan form an extremely likable couple, believable both in their initial unsureness and in how they gradually hook onto each other’s loose ends.” Finally, in his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, “Prelude is at its best when it’s not being a fairy tale. The middle sags, and the finale is so conveniently beneficial for everyone it ruins any sense of romantic triumph.”

In these kinds of body swap movies there is the tendency to exaggerate the change for comic effect, but Prelude to a Kiss avoids the typical pratfalls and obvious personality clashes for a kind of melancholic tone. The film consists of two different halves with the first part having a warm and romantic tone while the second part is tragic and dramatic. It is this tonal shift that some may find jarring. The soul swapping scene is the most pivotal point in the film where it risks losing its audience. If you can’t or don’t want to make the leap in logic that the film does then the rest of it doesn’t work. Prelude to a Kiss puts an intriguing spin on the notion of soul mates so prevalent in romantic comedies. What happens when two people that are meant to be together have their love put to the test in such an unusual way? Perhaps the answer lies in what Peter says in voiceover at the beginning of the film when he compares love to riding a rollercoaster: “Ride at your own risk … They want you to believe that anything can happen. And they’re right.”



SOURCES

Drake, Sylvie. “Hitting the Jackpot.” Los Angeles Times. June 5, 1990.


Rea, Steven. “Director’s Tale: Taking Prelude to a Kiss From Stage to Screen.” Philadelphia Inquirer. July 12, 1992.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Witness

Remember when Harrison Ford used to make good movies? It’s scary to think that there is an entire generation that only knows him from forgettable fare like Morning Glory (2010) and Paranoia (2013). The 1980s and into the mid-1990s proved to be his most prolific period where, in between huge blockbuster franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, he successfully tackled challenging fare like Blade Runner (1982), Frantic (1988) and the two films he made with Peter WeirWitness (1985) and The Mosquito Coast (1986). The former was a fascinating look at culture clash and a meditation on the cause and effect of violence.

Ford plays a gruff, Philadelphia homicide detective named John Book. He is investigating the murder of an undercover narcotics agent with a young Amish boy named Samuel (Lukas Haas) as the only witness. Book finds out that the man was killed by corrupt cops and is shot by one of them (Danny Glover) when he gets too close. Book takes the boy and his recently widowed mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), and flees the city, returning to their small Amish community. As Book is nursed back to health, he experiences first hand the simple, decent ways of the Amish people and how it is in stark contrast to his coarse, no-nonsense way of life.

Like many of his films, Weir creates a real sense of place by paying particular attention to the setting, which in this case is the Amish community in Pennsylvania. This is evident right from the opening credits, which feature a group of Amish emerging from a field of tall grass. He uses the opening credits sequence to not only give us a glimpse into their culture, but also to introduce us to Rachel and show her dealing with the loss of her husband. Right away, we are presented with a window into a world very few of us know much about.


Weir portrays the Amish with dignity and respect. They are a community that likes their privacy and live by modest means without the use of the modern technology that we take for granted. He opens the film with beautiful pastoral scenes of lush, green fields of tall grass gently swaying in the wind and then contrasts this serenity with the dirty, noisy and crowded city. The Amish scenes are leisurely paced, mirroring the laid-back vibe of these people while the Philly sequences are tense and jarring in their urgency; danger seemingly lurks around every corner and it is a relief once we leave there and return to the quiet, peaceful countryside.

Weir cleverly films the initial scenes in the city at low angles so that the camera is at eye level with Samuel. We are seeing the city through his eyes and therefore identify with him. Consequently, we also see the horror of the undercover agent’s death through his eyes. It is brutal and swift. We feel the boy’s fear and horror acutely. It’s not until we get to Amish country that Weir opens things up and shows everything from a more omniscient point-of-view.

In lesser hands, this fish out of water story could have exploited the Amish angle, but Weir avoids this by devoting significant screen-time depicting their customs and culture through Book’s eyes. This culminates in a fantastic sequence where the community comes together to help build a barn from scratch in a day. There is a wonderful sense of community and the simple joy of working with one’s hands, which results in a sense of accomplishment as everyone helps out, with the men raising the barn while the women provide food and refreshments for all to consume.


Harrison Ford has a natural, authoritative presence that suits the cop role he plays. The veteran actor brings the right amount of intensity and then has to turn it around once his character becomes immersed in the Amish community. He shows real warmth in his scenes with Kelly McGillis and Lukas Haas. There’s a nice scene early on where Book questions Samuel about what he saw and the interaction between the two characters is well-played as the gruff detective has to quickly gain the confidence of the frightened young boy. Over the course of the film, Rachel and Samuel humanize Book, especially when he goes back with them to their community. This also softens Ford’s sometimes gruff exterior, which he has relied on more and more in his later years. During the ‘80s, he had the choice of all the plum roles and took advantage of that clout by stretching himself as an actor, dabbling in several genres and working with auteurs like Ridley Scott, Weir and Mike Nichols. It’s a shame that into the late ‘90s and beyond the interesting roles either dried up or the commercial failure of some them caused Ford to retreat to safer material.

The mid to late ‘80s was a good time for Kelly McGillis with the one-two punch of Witness and Top Gun (1986), which launched her career into the stratosphere. At the time, she made Weir’s film McGillis was an unknown actress and brought a touching innocence to the role as a reserved, conservative Amish woman. The more time she spends with Book, the deeper the attraction between them grows. McGillis brings a warm earthiness to the role and does a nice job of conveying Rachel’s internal conflict – her growing attraction to Book and her beliefs that clash against his way of life. This causes friction between them early on, but soon they cannot deny the intense feelings they have for each other. Weir handles their growing attraction well; conveying it via the looks they exchange and this is typified most notably in the scene where Book serenades Rachel to “(What A) Wonderful World.” (It was Ford’s idea to use this song.) There’s a wonderfully loose vibe to this scene as we see the normally reserved Book cut loose and have fun with Rachel.

Weir gets a terrific, sensitive performance out of a young Lukas Haas who, with his big wide eyes, conveys not only the innocence of a little boy, but of an Amish person experiencing things like a train ride or a drink from a public water fountain for the first time. This wonderment changes to horror when Samuel witnesses a murder, which is brief, but brutal. The real fear comes when he hides from the killers and is almost caught. Weir cranks up the tension as Samuel comes close to being found. Haas makes his character’s fear almost tangible and you really get the feeling that his life is in grave danger.


Weir fashions the climactic showdown like a western with the bad guys arriving at dawn with an unarmed Book forced to use his wits and his surroundings to even the odds. As he did with the early act of violence, Weir ratchets up the tension to create the notion that Book is in real danger of getting killed and that his opponents are a serious threat even though we know it’s unlikely that a big-time movie star like Ford is going to get killed. He helps sells this vibe by expertly conveying the fear Book feels from three men he knows who have come to kill him.

Much like the romance in The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), the one in Witness is brief and intense due to extreme circumstances. Both Book and Rachel know that it can’t last because they come from very different worlds. Eventually, he has to return to his and she must stay in hers. The final scene between them is well done as Weir opts for no dialogue and instead relies on the meaningful looks they exchange, which says more than any words could. It’s an excellent choice that avoids a potentially cliché-ridden moment in favor of one that feels honest.

Producer Edward S. Feldman sent a screenplay entitled, Called Home (an Amish expression for death), which would later be changed to Witness, to Harrison Ford while he was filming Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Feldman envisioned someone like Gary Cooper playing John Book and felt that Ford had the same qualities. At the time, the actor did not want to be typecast as blockbuster action hero and was drawn to the story, but was only interested in doing it if the script could be reworked and “we could attract a really fine director.” Once he was on board, they began looking for a director and wanted someone outside of Hollywood that could bring a fresh perspective and avoid going for a “Dirty Harry Meets the Amish” approach.


Feldman offered the job to Peter Weir who, at the time, was coming off the commercial disappointment of The Year of Living Dangerously, and was trying to get The Mosquito Coast made. However, he was unable to secure financing and took the job directing Witness. The director was honest about his reasons for accepting the gig: “I took the assignment because I decided it was a good idea not just to make films which obsessed me. I wanted to be like those directors in the ‘40s who took assignments from their studios and got on with them.” Weir had concerns that Ford might not be able to convey the nuances of his character: “I was interested that Harrison wanted to extend his range. Then, it was a matter of whether we personally got on, which we did right off, because we had similar concerns for the film.” Ford and Weir reworked the script as the former initially found it to be “stupid, overly violent” and they placed an emphasis on the love story with the moral dilemma and the thriller aspect as secondary concerns.

When it came to casting the pivotal role of Rachel, Ford and Weir offered the part to Kelly McGillis who had her debut in Reuben, Reuben (1983), but whose film career had stalled and she was doing soap operas, movies-of-the-week and waitressing. To prepare for the role, she lived with an Amish family, but didn’t tell them she was an actress because they weren’t allowed to participate on the film due to their religious beliefs. She recorded conversations, which helped her perfect the dialect.

To prepare for his role, Ford rode along with actual Philadelphia cops on their night shifts and even hung out with them after work. The actor was surprised at how dangerous their job was because all he had known was what he’d seen in films and television. Once they had the script locked down, Weir recalled that Ford was open to improvising during filming. “Then it was like, ‘Let’s be loose about it. Let’s see what happens but not be uptight about it.’ So we’d ad-lib or invent scenes as we went along, knowing we had a solid structure to bounce off.”


To make sure that Amish culture was depicted accurately and respectfully, Weir hired John King, a former member of the Amish religion, as a technical adviser. To this end, no Amish people were used in the film and the production shot on location in Lancaster County using a Mennonite family farm. Trouble arouse when Temple University sociology professor John Hostetler, who came from an Amish family and wrote several books on them, complained to the Associated Press that the production was “a major intrusion into the Amish way of life.” He also claimed that the producers offered $200,000 for use of Amish farms in the film and that McGillis lived with an Amish family for several days and did not tell them she was researching for a role in a film. Not surprisingly, the production denied all of these allegations. Weir said that “on every film with a strong theme, you’re always going to find someone who comes out against the film.”

Witness was well-received by critics and audiences alike. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “It is a movie about adults, whose lives have dignity and whose choices matter to them. And it is also one hell of a thriller.” In her review for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote, “It must be said that Harrison Ford gives a fine, workmanlike performance, tempered with humor … he burrows into the role and gives it as much honesty as it can hold.” Finally, The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote, “The best things about the film are the actors who play in it. Mr. Ford is very attractive as John Book, a sort of toned-down urban Han Solo, and Miss McGillis, who was so special in Reuben, Reuben, is enchanting as the Amish widow.”

Life is regarded highly by the Amish and in Witness. Violence is portrayed as a painful and ugly experience. It’s not even glamorized in the film’s climactic showdown between Book and the dirty cops. This viewpoint must have come as quite a shock to Ford’s fans that were used to the gory violence in Blade Runner and the high body count in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Ultimately, Witness is about a clash of cultures: Book’s violent world colliding with the peaceful world of the Amish. Can they co-exist? For Book, violence is a necessary part of his job but not for the Amish, which makes any kind of romance between him and Rachel doomed from the get-go. Witness still retains the quiet dignity and humanity that made it a powerful film so many years ago.



SOURCES

Beale, Lewis. “Lancaster County Debate: Will Amish Survive Harrison Ford, Witness.” Chicago Tribune. February 10, 1985.

Mann, Roderick. “Peter Weir Plays Witness to the Amish.” Los Angeles Times. January 27, 1985.


Pfeiffer, Lee and Michael Lewis. The Films of Harrison Ford. Citadel. 2002.