Friday, May 30, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

With X-Men (2000), Bryan Singer helped revitalize the comic book superhero movie after Batman and Robin (1997) turned off mainstream audiences and Hollywood studios alike from the genre. It proved that people would go see this kind of movie if it were well-made. While X-Men, based on the Marvel comic book of the same name about a team of mutated human beings born with their own unique super powers, had its flaws, it showed promise, which Singer capitalized on with its vastly superior sequel X2 (2003). After its impressive commercial and critical success, 20th Century Fox naturally wanted him to direct another one, but he decided to jump ship to the DC Universe and make the ill-fated Superman Returns (2006). The X-Men franchise continued on without him until the prequel First Class (2011) (which he helped produce) convinced him to direct another one (that, and I’m sure the financial flop of Jack the Giant Slayer). Loosely based on the 1981 Uncanny X-Men storyline of the same name by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, Days of Future Past (2014) ambitiously features cast members from all four previous X-Men movies.

In an alternate future, the world has been ravaged by a destructive war between humans and mutants. Giant robots known as Sentinels have driven the mutants underground and to the brink of extinction, forcing them to band together, even Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), who have a wildly disparate worldviews. Singer effectively sets up this bleak futureworld with an exciting action sequence that sees a group of Sentinels kill off several mutants with brutal efficiency.

Professor X and Magneto devise a desperate plan to prevent their future by stopping the Sentinels from being created. To do this, they decide to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), designer of the Sentinels, which kickstarts the creation of said robots. It won’t be easy as Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) are at bitter odds with each other. Mystique, once an ally of the former, now sides with the latter. Wolverine must bring Professor X and Magneto together and convince them to stop Mystique from killing Trask.


Singer manages to successfully wrangle a large and diverse cast of characters without confusing the audience or overwhelming them. Hugh Jackman returns yet again as Wolverine and plays him as a slightly calmer guy who must maintain focus and keep his berserker rage in check in order to stay long enough in the past to complete his mission. James McAvoy is good as a self-pitying burn-out who has lost his direction life. Professor X takes drugs to keep his powers submerged and has to find something to care about again. Michael Fassbender does a nice job of incorporating elements of Ian McKellen’s Magneto yet still make the character his own. The scenes he has with McAvoy are infused with tension as the two men’s opposing worldviews clash. They must find some kind of common ground, some kind of reconciliation if only temporarily.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Mystique as a ruthlessly driven mutant fighting a war that was started by Magneto, but one that she continues in his absence because she is tired of seeing her kind tortured and killed out of fear and intolerance. Peter Dinklage is quite good as Trask, a man who believes that mutants will make humanity extinct and has the conviction of someone who thinks he’s right. Like any formidable villain, he doesn’t see himself as such, believing he is completely justified in what he does. Singer’s presence clearly inspired everyone to bring their A-game and there is nary a bum note among the cast. He wisely knows exactly when to bring certain characters center stage for their chance to shine in a way that feels satisfying. A minor quibble is that with the exception of Jackman, most of the original cast are given glorified cameos with an emphasis on the First Class characters.

This is easily the most ambitious X-Men movie to date as it goes back and forth in time and spans several countries while juggling a sizable cast of characters. It is great to see Singer back at the helm as he brings a stylish pizazz that was missing from The Last Stand (2006) as evident with a slick, amusing sequence where Wolverine, Professor X, the Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) break Magneto out of the Pentagon all scored to Jim Croce’s 1973 hit “Time in a Bottle.” It’s a virtuoso sequence that showcases Evan Peters’ scene-stealing turn as a lightning fast mutant and gives the movie a much-needed dose of levity amidst the prevailing serious tone.



In many respects, Days of Future Past thankfully pretends that The Last Stand never happened (touching upon it only briefly) and feels like not only the logical conclusion of First Class, but also X2. Simon Kinberg’s screenplay does a nice job of showing how the mutants’ exploits affect history and in turn how it affects them. It also manages to successfully raise the stakes on an epic scale from any previous X-Men movie while keeping us invested by showing the personal dilemmas that several key characters face, from Professor X learning to control his powers to Mystique learning to be more tolerant of the human race. Singer expertly orchestrates the various story elements, guiding the movie to an impressively staged climax in both future and past timelines that provides the requisite show-stopping CGI workout, but one that feels deserved and never excessive (unlike, say Man of Steel). He has made what is easily the best X-Men movie since X2 and maybe even better than that one.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Walker

“People don’t go to the movies to be enlightened. They go to the movies to have a good time. If some social enlightenment occurs as a result of seeing Walker, seeing the faces of Nicaraguans, seeing the country, getting a feeling for the country, that’s good. Then we’ve achieved something.” – Alex Cox

Walker (1987) is an unconventional biopic that effectively burned any remaining bridges Alex Cox had with Hollywood. He took a modest amount of studio money and made a film about William Walker, an opportunistic American who invaded Nicaragua and became its president from 1855 to 1857, instituting slavery, which didn’t go over too well with the locals, and he was eventually executed in 1860. Cox wasn’t interested in making a traditional biopic and, with screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer (Two-Lane Blacktop), decided to include the occasional modern anachronism (Walker appears on the covers of Newsweek and Time; a Mercedes drives past a horse-drawn carriage) to give the film a satirical howl of protest against the Reagan administration’s support of the Contra war against the democratically elected Sandinista government. This did not endear Cox to his studio backers.

Stylistically, Cox was influenced by the films of Sam Peckinpah as the opening slow-motion carnage so lovingly demonstrates (he even has the director’s name on a grave in a later scene). The film begins with Walker’s (Ed Harris) unsuccessful attempts to colonize the Mexican territories of Sonora and Baja. He is put on trial back in the United States and argues that he was only exercising his God-given right of Manifest Destiny. He believes that expansion of the U.S. is its future and he is merely a patriot doing his duty. His girlfriend, Ellen Martin (Marlee Matlin), sees through his posturing and argues that Manifest Destiny is just another way of condoning slavery.

However, powerful capitalist Cornelius Vanderbilt (Peter Boyle) asks Walker to invade Nicaragua and restore order to a country torn apart by civil war so that he can continue to exploit its transportation routes. At first, Walker turns him down, but after enduring a personal tragedy, he needs something to fill the void and accepts Vanderbilt’s proposal. Walker recruits 58 men that the press dubs, “Walker’s Immortals,” and heads for Central America. The film documents Walker’s gradual descent into madness as he becomes drunk on power, delusional, believing he is control, that what he is doing in right, even when, in reality, this is not the case.


Cox clearly equates the self-righteous Walker, who sometimes refers to himself in the third person, with politicians like Ronald Reagan who believe that it is their moral right to “liberate” other countries in order to “save them” when in actuality they are exploiting their resources and doing irreparable damage to its people. How little things have changed. Walker is as arrogant and blithely dimwitted as George W. Bush and his pointless mission to liberate Iraq, a country, like Nicaragua, at war with itself. In came the Americans to try and fix things, only to make it worse.

With its Latin American beats, Joe Strummer’s score plays over the film’s opening carnage as people fly through the air in slow-motion and Walker’s men are systematically picked off by overwhelming forces. Shooting on location in Nicaragua and the rather exotic score do a great job of transporting us back in time. The nightmarish minimalism of the music in the scene where Walker’s men are slaughtered while he advances unscathed is incredible and adds to the surreal nature of the scene as the American acts as if he’s merely out for a afternoon stroll while his men die bloody deaths all around him. The film’s show-stopping sequence is the burning of the town that is Walker’s headquarters with Strummer employing a poignant piano sound and a soulful guitar that contrasts the madness of Walker’s actions and the end of his regime. Simply put, what Strummer does on this soundtrack is miles away from anything he did with The Clash and makes one wish he had tried his hand at more film scores.

Cox sets an absurdist tone and never looks back. This is evident in Walker’s first battle in Nicaragua. As his men are gunned down in the street, he brazenly walks through seemingly oblivious to the carnage going on around him. He takes refuge in a building and plays the piano as bullets whiz around him. It’s a crazy scene, but it works because of Ed Harris’ conviction. He portrays Walker as a self-important, power-hungry madman with characteristic charismatic intensity. Cox does some really unusual things in this film, like having an entire scene between Walker and his deaf girlfriend conducted completely in sign language!


Liverpool-born Alex Cox first became interested in the country of Nicaragua when he became fascinated by how the media portrayed the revolution that took place there in the late 1970s. At first, the Sandinista rebels were portrayed favorably and then this changed dramatically. Cox visited Nicaragua in 1984 during the National Election campaign for which Daniel Ortega became president to see if conditions were as bad as the American media had reported. He discovered that this wasn’t the case. He was persuaded to return to the country by two wounded soldiers from the Sandinista Army.

While he was there, Cox saw a sign on the wall of a church in Granada that said it was burned down in the 1850s by the retreating army of William Walker. This intrigued Cox and when he returned home, read an article on United States foreign policy in Central America in Mother Jones magazine, and decided to bring the Walker’s story to the big screen. A history professor from the University of California leant Cox a library card so he could do more research and “the more I read about him the more bizarre this seemed.” Furthermore, Cox realized that “you couldn’t invent a character like Walker. He was much too incredible. He was a complete lunatic: a strong believer in chivalry, a murderer, a pathological liar, a criminal, totally fearless, full of heroic and noble qualities, and mad.”

Cox hired Rudy Wurlitzer to write the screenplay because, according to the director, “he understands American guys and the mad impulse that drives certain Americans to be great men.” He wasn’t interested in making a long, respectful historical drama a la Masterpiece Theatre because Walker “leads a disastrous misadventure. He’s a pretty bad guy. I didn’t think it was possible to approach it in this normal, historical, respectful style.”


Cox was given a budget of $6 million and decided to shoot most of the film in Granada. Amazingly, he got the cooperation of the Sandinista government and the Roman Catholic Church. One of the benefits of shooting in Nicaragua was that the dying economy received a significant boost by the presence of the production. 300 local carpenters were hired to build sets, 6,000 people were hired as extras and the army supplied security guards and a Soviet-built MI018 transport helicopter that was used in the film. One of the conditions of being allowed to film in Nicaragua was that the screenplay was edited by the country’s vice president Sergio Ramirez and the Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal, who were also a novelist and a poet respectively. Both men, along with the Minister of Education, the country’s Interior Minister, and a military commander would occasionally visit the set.

Electricity poles in the plaza were torn down, leaving homes without light. Some families were left temporarily without a telephone because the production needed their lines and the government couldn’t afford to install new ones. The central square was covered with several inches of dirt in order to recreate 1850s conditions. Unfortunately, two people were accidentally killed during production, both in separate vehicular-related incidents. For one of the deaths, the production paid for the funeral and compensated the family. The shooting conditions were difficult because of the many fires that were set by the locals, which made the air thick and hard to breath.

Cox cast Ed Harris as Walker. He was drawn to the challenge of playing someone “who has incredible moral convictions but turns into such an evil person in the name of spreading democracy.” He was also drawn to the script’s politics, claiming to be anti-Contra and anti-intervention in Nicaragua. He saw making a film there as a way to possibly stop the bloodshed. To get into character, Harris led the entire cast on a ten-mile forced march through the Nicaraguan countryside.


Even after filming had ended, Cox stayed in Granada, editing Walker. He said, “I think we have kind of a duty not to just be the rich gringos and come down here and spend eight weeks and then disappear.” To provide the film’s eclectic soundtrack, Cox brought on board his friend and frequent collaborator Joe Strummer. They had worked together previously on Sid and Nancy (1986) and Straight to Hell (1987), contributing songs to their respective soundtracks. The Clash frontman had wanted to compose an entire score to a film and Walker afforded him such an opportunity. After filming his small part in the film, Strummer would go back to his room and record bits of music onto a four-track cassette using an acoustic guitar and a little plastic synthesizer with guitarist Zander Schloss. Both men became influenced by local music played in bars, which was a mix of reggae, calypso and Brazilian music.

The original deal Cox made with Universal Pictures was to give Walker a traditional theatrical release and to that end felt that if he could make a satirical western a la Blazing Saddles (1974), it would appeal to a mainstream audience. At some point, the studio realized that they had a strange film on their hands and began treating it as an art house oddity, giving it a very limited release with little advertising. Walker received mostly negative to mixed reviews with Roger Ebert leading the charge. He gave the film a resounding thumbs down and felt that Cox didn’t “seem to have a clue about what he wants to do or even what he has done. Although the ads for Walker don’t even hint it, this movie is apparently intended as a comedy or a satire. I write ‘apparently’ because, if it is a comedy, it has no laughs, and if a satire, no target.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Walker is a witty, rather than laugh-out-loud funny. Without being solemn, it’s deadly serious … Walker is something very rare in American movies these days. It has some nerve.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen criticized Cox’s direction: “His scenes have no shape, his characters are stick figures, the wit is undergraduate, and his soggy set pieces of slow-motion carnage are third-rate Peckinpah imitations.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “Cox exposes the limitations of historical drama in Walker with a calculated disregard of its conventions.” Finally, the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley found it to be as “gross as it is muddled as it is absurd.”

In some respects, Walker fuses the pastoral epic scope of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) with Cox’s own irreverent aesthetic. He actually had the chutzpah to make the film in Nicaragua with the approval of the Sandinista government, which demonstrates just how far he was willing to put his money (or rather the studio’s) where his mouth was. The filmmaker adopts a very playful attitude as he gleefully deconstructs the biopic (much as he shredded the spaghetti western and gangster film genres in Straight to Hell) in such an off-kilter way that had never been done before and rarely attempted since (perhaps Kevin Spacey’s take on Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea or Tony Scott’s gonzo take on Domino Harvey in Domino). However, Walker remains a cinematic oddity as he applies the punk aesthetic to the biopic, making a political statement about the abuse of power that is eerily relevant today as it was in 1987.



SOURCES

Dafoe, Chris. “Hollywood Knocks on Strummer’s Door.” Globe and Mail. December 11, 1987.

Ford, Peter. “Desperado with a Mission.” Financial Times. August 22, 1987.

Grove, Lloyd. “Hollywood Invades Nicaragua.” Washington Post. August 20, 1987.

Lim, Dennis. “Alex Cox, Revolutionary.” Los Angeles Times. February 17, 2008.

Murray, Noel. “Alex Cox.” A.V. Club. March 13, 2008.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. “Cox to Show Walker Film in Nicaragua.” The New York Times. December 4, 1987.


Yakir, Dan. “For Harris, The Appeal was Political.” Globe and Mail. December 11, 1987.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Dream for an Insomniac

During the run of the very popular television sitcom Friends, the main cast members attempted to capitalize on their newfound clout in the industry by trying to jumpstart film careers with varying degrees of success. For every Scream (featuring Courteney Cox), there was a Fools Rush In (Matthew Perry) or Ed (Matt LeBlanc) or The Pallbearer (David Schwimmer). Like her castmates, Jennifer Aniston’s cinematic track record was rather uneven, but in 1996 she appeared in two independent films, including the little-seen yet charming romantic comedy Dream for an Insomniac along with Ione Skye. The film was written and directed by newcomer Tiffanie DeBartolo and, despite Aniston’s star power, was barely released, flopping spectacularly at the box office, which is a shame because it is a smart, engaging rom-com that flew in the face of a lot of Generation-X movies being made at the time.

Like its star, Dream for an Insomniac is breathtakingly gorgeous, from its sumptuous black and white cinematography to its inevitable transformation into color, which also sets it apart from films of its ilk. The opening scene plays homage to classic Hollywood cinema with its black and white look and Ione Skye dressed up like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). “Novocaine for the Soul” by the Eels plays over the opening credits as we see Frankie (Ione Skye) – the insomniac of the film’s title – struggle to sleep (I’m not sleep deprived, I’m sleep deficient.”). If that weren’t enough, she’s unlucky in love, but it may be that her standards are too high with the personal credos like, “Anything less than extraordinary is a waste of my time.”

She lives above a café that she works at when not going on acting auditions with her best friend Allison (Jennifer Aniston) and in a week they plan to move to Los Angeles to pursue their career in earnest. Uncle Leo (Seymour Cassel) is an old school Italian man who owns the coffeehouse and worships Frank Sinatra, as does Frankie. He keeps hoping that his son Rob (Michael Landes) will find a nice girl and settle down, seemingly unaware that he’s in fact gay.


Dream for an Insomniac ambitiously maintains its dreamy black and white look for the first 20 minutes until Frankie meets David (Mackenzie Astin), the guy who just started working at the café, and notices his blue eyes. It is at this point that the film comes vividly to life as their meet-cute scene involves testing each other’s literary prowess as they have to figure out who the other is quoting, from Aristotle and Tennyson to Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and Raising Arizona (1987).

Frankie is a hopeless romantic that believes in passionate love, a dreamer unable to sleep and who is not only drawn to David’s intelligence (and good looks), but the fact that he is also a struggling writer. Her admiration for him only deepens when she reads some of his stuff. Unfortunately, he suffers from writer’s block, much like she’s plagued by bouts of insomnia. He promises to help her sleep and she aims to conquer his inability to write.

I always wondered why Ione Skye’s career didn’t take off after Say Anything… (1989), but maybe she wasn’t interested in doing big studio films as evident in subsequent efforts like The Rachel Papers (1989) and Gas Food Lodging (1992), which were small films that tended to fly under the radar. She often plays characters that possess a keen mind and Dream from for an Insomniac is no different as Frankie is a lover of the written word. I’ve always felt that Skye is a classic beauty and she adopts a stylish retro look in this film that compliments her features, including that warm, inviting smile. I like how DeBartolo includes little bits of business, like Frankie’s daily ritual of getting up in the morning and tossing pennies at Rob’s window across the way until he surfaces and she greets him with a literary quote. It provides us with some insight into these characters and the relationship between them.


Jennifer Aniston has a small, but significant role as Frankie’s best friend. She playfully adopts a variety of accents throughout (including French, Irish and Canadian) much to the mild annoyance of her friend, but this isn’t overplayed and serves as a reminder that she’s a struggling actress much like Frankie. Aniston is a gracious performer in this film as she doesn’t try to steal a given scene even though she is the biggest star in the film. She supports Skye and the two play well off each other as they portray convincing best friends. Allison is there for Frankie, consoling her when she finds out that David has a girlfriend and they spend an afternoon commiserating over pizza. It also makes one wish that Skye would get more lead roles this one and that Aniston would do fewer studio movies and take on roles in smaller films that don’t require her to do all the heavy lifting.

In the ‘90s, Mackenzie Astin effortlessly bounced between studio films (The Evening Star) and indie movies (The Last Days of Disco). He’s good enough as Frankie’s potential love interest and intellectual equal. He seems to have decent chemistry with Skye, but lacks the charisma required for the role. Again, this typifies the film’s desire to go against the trend of other Gen-X films with their proliferation of trendy hipster poseurs, like ones Ethan Hawke plays in Reality Bites (1994) and Matt Dillon in Singles (1992).

Michael Landes (Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) plays a gay man refreshingly devoid of all the cliché affectations that you see in most Hollywood movies. Rob is a guy that just happens to be gay and his dilemma is working up the courage to come out to his father, which is dramatic enough. Rounding out the cast is Seymour Cassel, who, by that point, had become an elder statesman of indie cinema and his presence in this film gives it some credibility, almost making us overlook the quaint Italian stereotype that is his character.


The few critics that saw Dream for an Insomniac were not crazy about it at all. In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden called it a “self-conscious modern sitcom that with its San Francisco setting suggests a pale shadow of Armistead Maupin’s Tales from the City.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas wrote, “It’s likely to be no more than a blip on the screen for its appealing actors, who’ve done fine work before and since this wan effort was finished three years ago.” However, in her review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Barbara Schulgasser wrote, “All of the playful dialogue – and this movie is joyfully full of talk – is handled well in DeBartolo’s savvy script and given life by actors who seem to truly embody the idealism of the characters.”

The machinations of Hollywood soured director Tiffanie DeBartolo from making another movie: “It was a life I really didn’t want to lead. I value my privacy, and the solitude of writing. Making films necessitates a lot of schmoozing and game playing and socializing that I just didn’t have in me. That said, I really did love the experience of being on the set and watching my words and my vision come to life.” She went on to become an author, writing two novels – God-Shaped Hole and How to Kill a Rock Star – and co-founded indie record label Bright Antenna.

Dream for an Insomniac is the forgotten Gen-X film and it wouldn’t be a ‘90s rom-com without all the characters frequenting a coffeehouse, the inclusion of a trendy hipster poseur, a few choice alternative rock songs, and a discussion about popular culture in an amusing scene where Frankie and her friends argue over a game of Scrabble about the relevance of Bono and wondering if his status as reigning rock god has become eclipsed by the likes of Eddie Vedder and Michael Stipe. That being said, this film succeeds where a lot of its contemporaries failed by staying relevant after all this time. It now comes across as some kind of postmodern Gen-X fairy tale rather than a postmodern Gen-X reference guide, which films like Reality Bites and Empire Records (1995) resemble.


That’s not to say Dream for an Insomniac doesn’t reference pop culture that was en vogue at the time, but it largely quotes from literary references that include writers like Jim Morrison and Charles Bukowski from various time periods. Literature makes up more of the film’s DNA than the references to film and television. This makes the film something of an anomaly in the Gen-X subgenre. Dream for an Insomniac flies in the face of other Gen-X movies with its cultural touchstones, the look of its characters – they aren’t all wearing flannel – the use of Frank Sinatra music as opposed to whatever Seattle music was trendy at the time, and even the coffeehouse setting lacks the fashionable clutter of pop culture décor that you see in films like Reality Bites and Singles.

If Slacker (1991) and Reality Bites represent the polar opposites of Gen-X cinema with the former epitomizing lo-fi indies and the latter an example of mainstream studios, then Dream for an Insomniac hews closer to Slacker. It is a Gen-X rom-com thankfully devoid of the irony that plagued most of its contemporaries, which has helped it age well over time. It is an underrated gem anchored by an engaging performance by Ione Skye that deserves to be rediscovered.


SOURCES


Ders, Kim. “Tiffanie DeBartolo: Amazing Grace and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” MusePaper. July 18, 2008.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Hot Spot

The Hot Spot (1990) is a neo-noir at odds with itself. Dennis Hopper directs as if he’s making an art house film complete with an all-star band that featured the likes of John Lee Hooker, Miles Davis and Taj Mahal performing the score. He even secured a world premiere at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival. However, this is at odds with the pulpy source material – an adaptation of Hell Hath No Fury by Charles Williams – and the casting of television actor Don Johnson in the lead role. That being said, the film does live up to its title with the casting to its two female leads – Jennifer Connelly and Virginia Madsen – arguably at the apex of their sexual allure. Hopper even admitted at the time that his aim was to make something akin to The Last Tango in Paris (1972) only with the action set in Texas. The Hot Spot is most definitely not on the level of Bernardo Bertolucci’s film, but it is quite faithful to its source material (it helps that the author adapted his own work) and takes a slow burn approach to its pacing with plenty of plots twists as is custom with noirs.

Hopper sets a hot and humid tone right from the get-go as Harry Madox (Don Johnson) arrives from the scorching desert to a small Texas town where he proceeds to impress the owner (Jerry Hardin) of a local car dealership by wandering onto the lot and within minutes sells a car. We’re never quite sure what motivated Harry to do this – maybe he needed some money, maybe he always wanted to sell cars or maybe it was the gorgeous young woman (Jennifer Connelly) he spotted walking into the dealership. Her name is Gloria Harper and Harry accompanies her to collect from a deadbeat by the name of Sutton (played with smug, sleazy hillbilly charm by William Sadler).

Harry senses that there’s something going on between Gloria and Sutton by how uncomfortable she is in his presence. She lies to Harry, but he covers for her back at the dealership. When a nearby fire clears out the local bank (all but one employee are volunteer firefighters), Harry devises a plan to knock it over by staging a fire as a decoy. If this wasn’t enough potential trouble, he starts a hot and heavy affair with Dolly Harshaw (Virginia Madsen), the boss’ wife and a sultry vamp that radiates sexuality with every gesture and look she gives Harry.


Many noir protagonists tend to be a little on the dull side as their sole purpose is to get involved in a complicated plot that ultimately dooms them. Don Johnson plays Harry as something of an intriguing enigma. We’re never quite sure what his motivations are – money? sex? boredom? With his Robert Mitchum-esque physique, Johnson has the look of a classic noir protagonist and plays Harry as a cynical opportunist ambitiously trying to play all the angles. He’s canny enough to plan the bank heist and isn’t afraid to resort to violence as evident in the way he handles Sutton. His weakness, like most noir protagonists, is women and in The Hot Spot he gets involved with two: Dolly and Gloria.

Virginia Madsen gets to sink her teeth into the juicy role of a heartless femme fatale. It was the first time she played such an overtly sexual character that uses her body to manipulate men to do her bidding. Madsen applies a thick Texan accent like her character applies lipstick. The actress gets the flashiest role in the film and makes the most of it, but she falls short of being one of the all-time great femme fatales. It certainly isn’t from a lack of trying. You have to give her an A for effort, but the material isn’t up to her level of performance with, at times, blandly predictable dialogue that her character has to spout or silly moments like when Dolly leaps onto a giant pile of sawdust and proceeds to climb back up it as a form of birth control.

Jennifer Connelly plays the beautiful girl-next-door type that appears to be innocent, but harbors a deep, dark secret of her own. The actress doesn’t really have much to do, but act wholesome and look beautiful, which she does. One wonders if she did The Hot Spot to show that she could make the transition from child actress to more mature roles. She has classic Hollywood looks from a bygone era that were used much more effectively in The Rocketeer (1991).


Hopper rounds out the cast with seasoned character actors like Barry Corbin playing the savvy local sheriff who’s out to nail Harry for the bank job, Jerry Hardin as the perpetually grumpy car dealership owner, Charles Martin Smith playing a useless car salesman, and Jack Nance as, what else, a quirky bank manager with a hankering for strip clubs.

If Dolly reflects the man that Harry is, then Gloria represents the kind of man he aspires to be – nice and respectful, but ultimately he can never have that kind of happiness because he will always remain true to his baser instincts, which is revealed so well at the end of the film. The Hot Spot really comes to life during the scenes between Harry and Dolly as we’re not sure if they are going to devour each other or kill each other.

Based on his own novel, Hell Hath No Fury, Charles Williams wrote a screenplay version with Nona Tyson in 1962 with Robert Mitchum in mind to play Harry Madox. Nothing came of this idea and many years later, Dennis Hopper found the script and updated it. He would go on to describe his version as “Last Tango in Texas. Real hot, steamy stuff.”

The production was rife with tension. Despite a bedroom scene that originally called for her to be naked, Virginia Madsen decided to wear a negligee instead because “Not only was the nudity weak storywise, but it didn’t let the audience undress her.” Later on, Hopper admitted that she was right. There were also reports that Hopper and his leading man, Don Johnson, did not get along. According to the director, “He has a lot of people with him. He came on to this film with two bodyguards, a cook, a trainer, ah let’s see, a helicopter pilot, he comes to and from the set in a helicopter, very glamorous, let’s see, two drivers, a secretary, and, oh yes, his own hair person, his own make-up person, his own wardrobe person. So when he walks to the set he has five people with him.” Johnson felt that the film was “too long and I felt that it was self-indulgent on some levels, which I told Dennis and which the studio told Dennis. The cast was perfect and the script was challenging. But, as a filmmaker, Dennis should have been more responsible.” Madsen had nothing but good things to say about Hopper: “He was very kind and he was respectful of me at a time when a lot of men in the industry were not.”


By the end of principal photography, Hopper and Johnson were no longer speaking to each other with the actor refusing to promote The Hot Spot. Hopper said, “He says he’s not going to do anything for this picture until he reads the reviews.” Johnson claimed that he was unable to because of his commitment to filming Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991) with Mickey Rourke. Madsen remembers that at the time, “I was very upset when I saw the film because I was such a sexual being in that movie. He had given me the freedom to play that part without repercussions.”

The Hot Spot received mixed to favorable reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and praised Madsen’s performance: “It’s the kind of work that used to be done by Lana Turner or Barbara Stanwyck – the tough woman with the healthy sexual interest, who sizes a guy up and makes sure he knows what she likes in a man.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Hopper’s direction is tough and stylish, in effective contrast with the sunny look of Ueli Steiger’s cinematography.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The film might have been a camp hoot if it weren’t for the fact that Hopper still believes in all this stuff – he likes his women molten, duplicitous, and in kinky high heels.” Los Angeles Times’ Peter Rainer said of Johnson’s performance: “As long as Johnson is playing above the action he’s effective, but his lightweight style doesn’t work in his big scenes with Dolly.” Finally, in his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, “Hot Spot will never go down as timeless, neoclassic noir. But, with its Hopperlike moments, over-the-top performances and infectious music, it carries you along for a spell.”

With its sun-baked Texas setting and pretensions to art house cinema, The Hot Spot, at times, feels like a tamer version of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), but Hopper lacks Lynch’s knack for the absurd and how he can go from oddball humor to nightmarish horror in a heartbeat all wrapped up in Americana iconography. Hopper has the look down cold, but is missing that crucial ingredient that makes Lynch’s films so unique. A few years later, Red Rock West (1993) was more successful at approximating a neo-noir with Lynchian affectations. As a result, The Hot Spot more closely resembles the Jack Nicholson/Jessica Lange remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), which also brought the sex and violence to the foreground as opposed to classic film noirs where so much had to be implied. Out of the class of 1990 neo-noirs, The Hot Spot ranks below After Dark, My Sweet and The Grifters, hampered by a weak script. Hopper tries to give the pulpy material a classy look when he should have embraced it completely. The end result is a flawed film that has its moments.



SOURCES

Hayward, J. “Screen Sirens Sense & Sexuality.” Courier-Mail. June 9, 1990.

Krum, S. “Why Dennis Got Back on His Bike.” Herald. April 18, 1990.

Longsdorf, Amy. “Don Johnson Says He Turned the Right Corner into Paradise.” The Morning Call. October 4, 1991.

Malcolm, Derek. “The Hopper File.” The Guardian. November 29, 1990.

Thomas, Bob. “Director Hopper’s Back in Hot Spot with New Film.” The Advertiser. November 22, 1990.

Topel, Fred. “SXSW 2014 Interview: Virginia Madsen on The Wilderness of James.CraveOnline. March 7, 2014.


Trebbe, Ann. “Hopper, Hopping Mad at Johnson.” USA Today. September 11, 1990.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Night Shift

The Ron Howard comedy Night Shift (1982) is significant for two reasons: it marked the first collaboration between the young director and producer Brian Grazer and it was the feature film debut of Michael Keaton. The first reason is important because it was the beginning of a partnership between Grazer and Howard that continues to this day and has resulted in many films of theirs garnering not only critical acclaim, but some serious box office results and even a few Academy Awards. The second reason saw the debut of a major talent in the form of Keaton who comes to life on-screen with killer comic timing and the ability to play brilliantly off his fellow actors. The end result is a sweet comedy about seedy subject matter that, at first glance, doesn’t seem like the right material for Howard, but armed with a fantastic screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, he makes it work.

It helps that initially Howard plays it straight by showing the mean streets of New York City as a pimp frantically tries to avoid two persistent enforcers (one of whom is played by Richard Belzer). The sequence ends with the two thugs throwing him out a window while tied to a chair. He plummets in agonizingly slow motion only to crash through a basketball hoop down below. Queue the catchy theme song performed by Quarterflash – written by none other than Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager. It plays over the opening credits as the camera follows a city morgue car driving through the streets at night, which sets a funky kind of vibe to offset what just came before.

Mild-mannered Charles Lumley III (Henry Winkler) works at the City Morgue where one night he meets Belinda (Shelley Long), a prostitute who comes in to identify the body of her pimp that took the swan dive in the film’s prologue. Charles feebly tries to protest being switched over to the night shift despite his six years on the job in favor of his superior’s dimwitted nephew (“That Barney Rubble – what an actor!”). To make matters worse, he has to break in a new co-worker – Billy “Blaze” Blazejowski (Michael Keaton) who comes bounding into the City Morgue office full of energy, his Walkman blasting “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” while he rattles off all sorts of questions at Charles, At one point, he picks up a framed picture of Charles’ fiancée and asks, “Hey, Chuck, who’s this? The wife? to which he replies, “Fiancée.” Without missing a beat, Billy says, “Nice frame.”


After Charles discovers Belinda beaten up in the elevator of the apartment building they both live in, the two neighbors get to talking and she laments at the loss of her pimp. It has made life for her and her girlfriends tough because they have no one to protect them from their clients. Charles tells Billy who comes up with the idea that they become pimps or “love brokers” as he puts it. Charles is understandably skeptical – it could be yet another of Billy’s scatterbrained ideas, but is swayed by Belinda’s charm as they become close friends over breakfast every morning. Armed with Charles’ financial acumen and Billy’s boundless enthusiasm and people skills, they become pimps and realize that they are quite good at it, but soon run afoul of the guys that took out Belinda’s previous pimp.

In his personal life, Charles is engaged to a woman that clearly controls their relationship as evident in a scene that sees Henry Winkler channeling a nebbish Woody Allen in what would’ve been a pretty good audition tape for one of his films. Charles comes home every day and narrowly avoids being mauled by a neighbor’s dog that seems to roam the hallways of the apartment building unsupervised. Basically, he’s a doormat who lets every one in his life walk all over him and doesn’t seem to mind all that much. He’s resigned himself to this lot in life.

Known at the time for playing the cool Arthur Fonzarelli on the popular television sitcom Happy Days, Winkler is cast wonderfully against type as a meek guy who is too busy making everyone else happy and not paying attention to his own needs. With his often nervous, mild tone of voice and button-down attire, Charles is miles away from the smooth-talking, black leather jacket-clad Fonz. After playing such an iconic role, I’m sure he wanted to avoid being typecast. Winkler does a nice job of showing Charles’ gradual transformation from pushover to someone that becomes more assertive in his personal and professional life with help from Billy and Belinda who give him a push at just the right moments.


Billy fancies himself an idea man and carries around a tape recorder because he gets so many ideas on a given day. (“I can’t control them. It’s like they come charging in. I can’t even fight ‘em even I wanted to.”) He comes up with some real doozies, like the solution to eliminating garbage on the streets of New York – edible paper. Or, putting mayonnaise in a tuna fish can, which only sparks an even better idea – feed mayo to live tuna (“Call Starkist.”). It’s a fantastic introduction, not only to the character of Billy, but also to Michael Keaton who arrives like a force of nature, bouncing off of Winkler’s reserved Charles and reacting to everything like an over-caffeinated kid.

Keaton is a revelation as Billy Blaze, playing a scene-stealing hustler who seems to coast through life on his wits. The actor nails his character in scenes like the one where Billy unconvincingly conveys Charles’ plan to Belinda and her friends. He starts off by hilariously breaking down the word “prostitution” in what amounts to a lot of nonsense. Fortunately, Charles steps in as the obvious brains of the operation by telling these women that they can make ten times what they make now, which definitely gets their attention. That being said, Billy isn’t all flash and bluster as demonstrated in a nice moment he has with Charles and Belinda where he reflects on his dysfunctional parents, which gives us a little insight into what motivates him.

The admittedly raunchy premise is tempered by the sweet romance that develops between Charles and Belinda. Unlike his fiancée, she doesn’t boss him around, but instead treats him as an equal. Before she became a household name with Cheers, Shelley Long was delightful as Belinda, the hooker with a heart of gold. She brings a nice amount of charm to the role and has good chemistry with Winkler.


Brian Grazer and Ron Howard first met in 1978, but nothing came of the encounter. Three years later, Grazer, ambitiously trying to make a name for himself as a producer, sought out Howard once again with an idea he had for a film. It was inspired by an actual news item about two guys that ran a prostitution ring out of a New York City morgue. Howard wasn’t immediately taken with the idea, but liked the notion that it would defy people’s expectations of him.

Howard had been trying to develop screenplays with two writers that had worked on Happy Days – Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. They took Grazer’s idea and wrote a script that the aspiring producer shopped around Hollywood. Most of the studio heads liked the premise, but weren’t crazy with the idea of letting “the kid from Happy Days” direct. However, Alan Ladd Jr. over at Warner Bros. decided to take a chance on Howard after George Lucas vouched for him.

When it came to casting Night Shift, Grazer and Howard pursued John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, but when they were unable to get them opted for Michael Keaton and Henry Winkler. At the time, Winkler had grown tired of playing a character like the Fonz and wanted to portray someone “more like myself.” He remembers that Mickey Rourke auditioned for the role of Billy Blaze and came in with a transistor radio tied with twine around his neck. Keaton was a stand-up comedian and made the decision to play Billy Blaze like someone who was hyperactive. The energy he conveyed in dailies freaked out studio executives so much that they pressured Howard to recast the role. However, the young director believed that Keaton was an “improvisational genius” and convinced executives that through editing his scenes the comedian would be a crowd-pleaser.


Night Shift enjoyed mostly positive reviews from critics at the time. Pauline Kael felt that it wasn’t “much of a movie but manages to be funny a good part of the time anyway.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Keaton is a former improvisatory comedian whose timing is as good as his gags and who doesn’t miss a beat when he is sparring with Mr. Winkler.” Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “This isn’t as snappily directed or as caustically conceived as the subsequent Risky Business, which has a similar theme, but it’s arguably just as sexy and almost as funny.” Finally, Variety wrote, “Though the plot line hardly sounds like a family film, this is probably the most sanitized treatment of pimps and prostitution audiences will ever see. None of this much matters, because director Ron Howard and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, all TV veterans, are only bent on giving the audience a good time.”

Most of the film’s humor comes from the contrasting personalities of the straight-laced Charles and the wild and crazy Billy Blaze. Eventually, his constant chatter gets on Charles’ nerves and he tears into Billy in a rare moment where he loses his cool. It’s a rare moment of friction between the two and they quickly bond from it as a result. Howard picks the right moments to insert a bit of reality, be it the rough patch that Charles and Belinda hit in the last third of the film or the eventual reappearance of the thugs that killed Belinda’s pimp. These scenes threaten to upset the delicate balance that Howard manages to maintain for most of the film. These moments remind us what’s at stake for these characters and provides some much-needed conflict that Charles and Billy have to overcome.

Leave it to Ron Howard to make a feel-good comedy about prostitution, succeeding where the similarly-themed Doctor Detroit (1983) failed. This is due in large part to the winning appeal of Keaton and Winkler who make an excellent comedic team. Like most of Howard’s films, there’s a strong, humanistic core at the heart of Night Shift as Charles brings some compassion and decency to a profession not exactly known for such things. I suppose that’s what makes this film a bit of wish fulfillment, escapist fare to help us forget about our humdrum lives for a couple of hours. The film proved to be a modest hit for Grazer and Howard, leading to their next, even bigger commercial hit, Splash (1984).



SOURCES

Gray, Beverly. Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon …and Beyond. HarperCollins. 2003.


Heisler, Steve. “Random Roles: Henry Winkler.” A.V. Club. April 29, 2009.