Friday, May 29, 2015

Die Hard 2: Die Harder

The 1980s action blockbuster movie was dominated by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme (among others) – muscle-bound one-man armies that killed scores of bad guys with guns, brawn and cheesy one-liners. Along came Bruce Willis in 1988 with Die Hard, tweaking the formula by playing a guy perpetually in way over his head, tired, hurt, and using his brains as much if not more than his brawn to defeat the bad guys. Audiences were drawn to his tough yet vulnerable wisecracking character John McClane. The movie was a massive success and the inevitable sequel followed. Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) didn’t stray too far from the first one (why bother messing with a good thing?) except to amp up the stunts, the body count and the explosions all the way to the bank, easily outgrossing the original.

“Merry Christmas, pal!” are the words uttered early on in the movie as John McClane’s day starts off on a sour note and will only get worse as his car is ticketed and towed despite his good-humored protests to a cop that clearly doesn’t care about his problems. It’s Christmas Eve and McClane is at Washington Dulles International Airport to pick up his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). This lack of cooperation from local law enforcement is nothing new for McClane who faced plenty of it in Die Hard and it is also foreshadows the interference he’ll experience later on in this movie.

Meanwhile, General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), a drug lord and dictator of Val Verde by way of Manuel Noriega, is scheduled to be extradited to the United States to stand trial for drug trafficking. However, rogue U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Stuart (William Sadler) and a team of mercenaries take control of the airport effectively shutting them down, which leaves several planes, including the one with Holly on it, circling and running low on fuel. Stuart plans to let Esperanza’s plane land and then demands a 747 be prepped for take-off at which point they will use it to rescue the drug lord.


Naturally, McClane receives a ton of grief from head of airport police Captain Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz) who doesn’t like some hot dog gloryhound cop treading all over his turf. Dennis Franz is at his profane best, dropping F-bombs with gusto. Watching him and Willis trade insults inserts some much welcome levity amidst the bombastic action sequences. Here’s a memorable exchange early on:

Lorenzo: “Yeah, I know all about you and that Nakatomi thing in L.A. But just ‘cos the T.V. thinks you’re hot shit don’t make it so. Look, you’re in my little pond, now and I am the big fish that runs it. So you cap some low-life. Fine. I’ll send your fucking captain in L.A. a fucking commendation. Now, in the meantime you get the hell out of my office before I get you thrown out of my goddamn airport.”

McClane: “Hey Carmine, let me ask you something. What sets off the metal detectors first: the lead in your ass or the shit in your brains?”

Franz is that rare breed of actor that can casually insert profanity in his dialogue and make it flow like poetry. I almost imagine him flying in his buddy David Mamet on the studio’s dime to write his dialogue. It has that vibe to it. Of course, McClane spends the rest of the movie making him looking stupid.

This being a sequel, the novelty of the original has worn off and McClane seems a little more invincible in this one, but Bruce Willis does what he can to make his character relatable and have flaws, like when he is unable to redirect a plane that the bad guys intentionally crash. We empathize with his frustration at being unable to save the plane and his dejected, defeated face says it all. The movie does its job (maybe a little too well) of making Stuart and his men so evil that you want to see McClane take them all out.

William Sadler plays yet another in a long line of villains with his rogue colonel being a peculiar badass so comfortable with his own body that he practices his martial arts in the nude, which also happens to show off his impressively sculpted physique. It certainly is a memorable introduction to his character. Sadler plays Stuart as ruthless man not above disciplining failure by pointing a loaded gun at a subordinate’s face or, in a particularly nasty move, cause a plane full of innocent people to crash and burn on a runway.


William Atherton and Bonnie Bedelia return as a smug journalist and McClane’s wife respectively, spending the entire movie trapped on an airplane together trading barbs. Among the mercenaries keep your eyes peeled for a young Robert Patrick (T2), a clean-shaven Mark Boone Jr. (Tree’s Lounge), John Leguizamo (Carlito’s Way) and Vondie Curtis-Hall (Chicago Hope).

Much like in the first Die Hard, McClane demonstrates an uncanny knack for improvisation as evident in the first action sequence when he takes on two mercenary thugs in the baggage handling section. After he loses his gun, McClane uses a golf club and then a bicycle to take out one baddie and chase off the other. What I also like is that we see the air traffic controllers problem solve their way around Stuart and his men through good ol’ fashioned ingenuity.

Doug Richardson and Steven E.de Souza’s screenplay has just enough nods to the first movie to let us know that the filmmakers are aware that Die Hard 2 is basically a variation on the original only bigger and louder, symbolized by the iconic money shot (that is equal parts ridiculous and cool) of McClane ejecting out of a plane as it is exploding and him saying at one point, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” The movie ups the ante in many respects as he faces even greater odds and is put in even greater danger.


In 1987, Walter Wager’s book 58 Minutes, a thriller that takes place in an airport, was published and within a year he received a phone call from movie producer Lawrence Gordon over at 20th Century Fox who wanted to option the film rights. As Die Hard was becoming a box office success, the studio had yet to announce the sequel but Gordon knew that it was only a matter of time. To avoid getting solicited by every agent and writer in Hollywood, he hired up and coming screenwriter Doug Richardson in 1989 to adapt Wager’s book with the intention of using it as the basis for Die Hard 2 but not telling the studio until they approached him with the project. The studio’s then-new production chief Joe Roth ordered a sequel for the summer of 1990 with principal photography to start right away in order to meet that deadline.

Wager agreed to the sell the film rights to Gordon and months went by with limited updates until one day he was told that his book was being filmed in a month and was now called Die Hard 2! He was understandably surprised and told that Richardson’s script was being rewritten by Steven de Souza who had worked on Die Hard.

Towards the end of principal photography on The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990), the movie’s producer Joel Silver gave director Renny Harlin a script entitled 58 Minutes and told him it was going to be Die Hard 2. Harlin read it, liked it and asked Silver, “’Oh, who’s directing it?’ And he said ‘You.’ And I said, ‘Really? Like, next year?’ He said, ‘Well, next week, basically.’” Within a week Harlin was filming Die Hard 2 and editing Fairlane at night and on weekends.


The shoot was hardly an easy one. The movie was set during Christmas and was intended to be filmed at an airport in Denver but when the production arrived the weather was too warm. They spent the next few months chasing the snow, moving from one location to another, including stints in Washington, Michigan and the Canadian border. The production ultimately went to Los Angeles and used three refrigerated soundstages rebuilding the entire church, which was originally shot in Denver. Finally, a few more wide shots were done at Lake Tahoe, the last place they could find snow.

Die Hard 2 received mostly positive reviews from critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Because Die Hard 2 is so skillfully constructed and well-directed, it develops a momentum that carries it past several credibility gaps that might have capsized a lesser film.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “It will surprise no one who saw the first Die Hard that the heart and soul of the new film is Bruce Willis, who this time is even better. Mr. Willis, with his self-deprecating jokes and his ability to smoke a cigarette while carrying a machine gun, remains a completely wrong-headed choice for the role of a noble, self-sacrificing hero. That’s why he’s so good.”

The Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson wrote, “With flawless technical collaboration, Harlin gets airport control towers and dark New England churches to look rich and brooding for his mostly nighttime action scenes; his fireballs detonate with hell’s own roar, his stunts may be hilarious but they’re show-stoppers, and against all odds, a few of his actors manage a little humanity in all the din.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “Though it has more holes than a cheese grater, the screenplay by Steven E. de Souza of Die Hard and Doug Richardson is persuasive braggadocio, a fast-churning, bloodthirsty canticle of mayhem.” Finally, in her review for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Carrie Rickey wrote, “Like its predecessor, it is an action movie with a sense of humor – and a human component. It also is a gripping, white-knuckle thriller that keeps you at the edge of your seat and nerves.”


Watching Die Hard 2 again is a potent reminder of a time when Willis still cared about acting and didn’t phone it in like he’s done in the last two movies in the franchise that don’t deserve the Die Hard moniker. Most fans agree that they should have stopped with Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), which was a fitting way to end things on a high note but as long as they make money and Willis is up for it there will be another installment in this tired franchise.


SOURCES

Sullivan, Mike. “Die Hard’s Secret Sequel.” Creative Screenwriting. May 27, 2014.

Wager, Walter. “What Hollywood Did to His Novel…And He Loved It.” Los Angeles Times. July 28, 1990.


Willman, Chris. “Renny Harlin Finds Plenty of Action in Hollywood.” Los Angeles Times. July 4, 1990.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

It has been 30 years since Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) concluded a trilogy of post-apocalyptic films by Australian filmmaker George Miller and featured the adventures of Max Rockatansky, a cop who lost his family to a gang of marauding bikers in Mad Max (1979), came to the rescue of a group of survivors in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), and was the savior to a group of children in the aforementioned Thunderdome. Over the course of the three films, Max underwent a complete character arc, going from a man who loses his humanity in the first film, begins to regain it in the second film and comes full circle in the last one.

For Miller, Thunderdome was intended to close the book on this world… or so he thought. Several years ago, ideas for a new Mad Max film came to him and he even came close to making it on more than one occasion, including originally with Mel Gibson returning only for him to eventually be replaced by Tom Hardy, but forces beyond his control delayed production until a couple of years ago. The end result is Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Miller’s return to his distinctive brand of kinetic action and visual storytelling that made the Mad Max films so influential, spawning countless imitators.

Miller starts things off quickly and economically as he establishes Max’s (Tom Hardy) backstory and the world he inhabits only to see him immediately captured by a vicious cult led by their leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who doles out water sparingly to his impoverished population. He sends out his warriors, known as War Boys, chief among them the bionic-armed Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), to scavenge for precious fuel.


The scale and scope of Joe’s post-apocalyptic civilization is incredible, putting the Bartertown from Thunderdome to shame. Miller makes a point of showing how this society functions and sustains itself by growing food and using women’s breast milk for sustenance with the populace living in fear of the tyrannical Joe who rules with an iron fist.

Max is enslaved and used as a living source of blood for sick War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). When Furiosa takes off with Joe’s Five Wives, beautiful women specifically selected for breeding, he saddles up his considerable motorized armada and goes after her. Max is chained to the front of Nux’s vehicle like a hood ornament. Furiosa not only has to worry about Joe and the War Boys, but also other marauders from neighboring turfs known as Gas Town and Bullet Farm respectively. Through a series of mishaps, the resourceful Max escapes from captivity and forms a very uneasy alliance with Furiosa as they try to escape Joe and his army to a land she calls the “Green Place,” from her childhood. The rest of Fury Road plays out in a series of intense chase sequences punctuated by scenes that allow the characters (and us) to catch our breath.

Tom Hardy, a Method-y, physical actor, is perfectly cast as Max, stepping into the iconic role originally portrayed by Mel Gibson. As an actor, Hardy possesses little vanity, wearing a metal mask over his face for a good 30 minutes of the film, barely saying anything and when he does Max turns out to be a man of very few words or a grunt. He barely speaks early on because he’s been out in the wasteland for too long, starved of human contact only to be enslaved where he’s brutalized into submission. It is only once he spends time with Furiosa and the Five Wives does he begin to speak again. Over the course of the film they humanize him. Max remains something of an enigma, which is how he works best as a character. The less we know the better. We only get fragments of his past through nightmarish visions and fevered-dream hallucinations.


Hardy is an excellent foil to Charlize Theron who plays a more verbal character – one that is driven to a cause: take the Five Wives to the Promised Land and finally be free from Joe’s oppressive rule and his world where women are breeders, subservient to men. Furiosa is as tough as Max if not more so but she also has a reason to live unlike Max who functions on a primal instinct of survival. She and Max have a Howard Hawksian relationship born out of mutual respect as they work together towards a common goal. Like Max, she is a survivor, dealing with her own painful past, hoping to outrun it as she hopes to outrun Joe and his army. She is Max’s equal and as much a protagonist of the film as he is.

Miller takes us through a series of spectacular chase sequences, one more insane and ambitious than the next, including one that takes place in a massive sandstorm complete with twisters and cars exploding! Fury Road features some of the most crazed stunts and they are all the more impressive when one realizes that they were all done practically with a minimum of CGI enhancement. In this day and age of CGI-saturated blockbusters there is something refreshing about Miller’s fusing of an old school approach with contemporary technology.

The vehicles are brilliant Frankensteinian creations courtesy of Colin Gibson who seems to be channeling Ed “Big Daddy” Roth on acid. He has assembled a funky hodgepodge of hot rods and muscle cars fused together in extreme ways so that they make the ones in The Road Warrior look like tinker toys. Some of these vehicles are outfitted with metal spikes so that they resemble motorized porcupines. There’s one that takes the body of a 1970s Plymouth Valiant and adds tank treads. Joe drives something called the Gigahorse – two 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Villes welded together and then souped up with a pair of big block Chevrolet V-8 engines. Max’s iconic 1974 XB Ford Falcon Coupe from the first two films even makes an appearance.


In a fantastic coup, Miller managed to get legendary cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient) out of self-imposed retirement to give Fury Road a distinctive look. Instead of resorting to the drab, monochromatic look of so many films of its ilk, he and Miller adopt a sunbaked look for the day scenes and a cool, gun-metal blue look for the night scenes. Just because this is a slam-bang action movie doesn’t mean it can’t look stunningly beautiful at the same time.

Fury Road reinforces just how safe and formulaic blockbuster action movies like the Fast and Furious franchise have been for years by delivering a deliciously subversive film that contains all the requisite thrills you expect from the genre and then some. As Miller said in an interview, “I just love action movies. For me, the most universal language and the purest syntax of cinema is in the action movies.” Every frame of Fury Road is instilled with this love and infectious energy – an impressive feat for a 70-year-old filmmaker who has once again has set the standard for everyone else. I imagine, like with the previous Mad Max films, they’ll be countless imitators. Accept no substitutes for this film is the real deal.


SOURCES

Hill, Logan. “Mad Max: What It Takes to Make the Most Intense Movie Ever.” Wired. May 11, 2015.


Walker, Michael. “How Mad Max’s Megacars Were Melded.” The Hollywood Reporter. May 12, 2015.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Flash Gordon

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of The Film Preservation 2015 Blogathon that is being co-hosted by Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod and Wonders in the Dark.

After the phenomenal success of Star Wars (1977) every studio was eager to capitalize on the movie-going public’s renewed interest in feel-good space operas. This resulted in numerous rip-offs and wannabes with arguably the most hyped of them all being Flash Gordon (1980). It was the brainchild of legendary film producer Dino De Laurentiis who, ironically, was responsible for Star Wars when he bought the film rights for Alex Raymond’s comic strip when George Lucas was unable to thereby paving the way for him to create his own science fiction epic.

Alas, Flash Gordon was a debacle from the word go. Early on, De Laurentiis decided that the movie should be filled with humor and hired Lorenzo Semple, Jr. to write the screenplay. Semple had written several episodes for the 1960s Batman television series and proceeded to apply a similar camp aesthetic to the movie. During filming there was some confusion between the cast as to the tone of the movie. The end result is a lavishly mounted production with absolutely stunning production and set design, which is in contrast to the rather silly tone for a fascinatingly jarring effect.


As a result, Flash Gordon barely surpassed its budget at the North American box office but performed well overseas. However, it failed to reach the dizzying heights of Star Wars that De Laurentiis was hoping for and was derided by many critics that felt it was a horrible, cinematic trainwreck. Then, something happened. Over the years, Flash Gordon quietly became a cult classic among science fiction fans, counting director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), comic book artist Alex Ross and comedian Seth MacFarlane (Ted) among its admirers who have all paid tribute to this much-maligned movie.

The movie sets its peculiar tone from the opening credits that feature Queen’s bombastic theme song playing over panels of Raymond’s comic strip interspersed with Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) wreaking havoc on the Earth’s weather system. “Flash” Gordon (Sam J.Jones), the star quarterback for the New York Jets football team, meets travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) on a small airplane that struggles with turbulence, which mysteriously turns into a meteor storm coupled with an unscheduled solar eclipse.

The “irrational” Dr. Zarkov (Chaim Topol) is convinced that the storm is an attack and plans to launch a counterattack with his own rocket. After a meteorite hits their plane causing the pilots to mysteriously and suddenly disappear (?!), Flash and Dale manage to crash land right into Zarkov’s laboratory. The clearly mad scientist tricks Flash and Dale into his rocket and the ensuing struggle accidentally manages to launch them into outer space where they pass out from excessive g-forces.


The rocket finds its way into the Imperial Vortex where it is guided by Ming’s forces to the planet Mongo. Our heroes are captured by Ming’s troops, sporting a curious mix of samurai and Star Wars stormtrooper armor. It is only but one of many odd touches that populate Flash Gordon – like the enigmatic Lizard Man, a guy dressed in a poorly-made costume, and who is quickly vaporized by Ming before he can make any kind of meaningful impression.

Flash, Dale and Zarkov are led through a red-saturated hallway that answers the question, what if Dario Argento applied his 1970s era Giallo aesthetic to a space opera? They are brought to Ming’s throne room where they meet a truly odd assortment of characters: Prince Vultan (Brain Blessed) and his Hawkmen clad in skimpy armor and giant wings, and Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) and his men that come across looking like a futuristic riff on Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Along with Ming, they participate in a bizarre ceremony that is intended to demonstrate their loyalty to the emperor.

Another odd detail includes the fact that the women populating Ming’s throne room are scantily-clad in some of king futuristic bikini outfit, chief among them Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), Ming’s daughter, who becomes mildly aroused when Flash employs some of his gridiron moves to best a few of Ming’s finest troops in a wonderfully cheesy sequence that involves Dale doing her best cheerleader impression and Zarkov employing slapstick comedy to end the struggle. As a result, Dale becomes Ming’s concubine and Flash is imprisoned, scheduled for execution. He must figure out a way to escape and free Dale while convincing Barin and Vultan to unite against their common foe.


The tonal shifts among the cast are illogical and could almost give the viewer whiplash, but they only add to the wonderfully absurdist vibe of Flash Gordon. God bless ‘em, Sam Jones and Melody Anderson play their characters with aw shucks earnestness right out of a 1950s sci-fi movie while Chaim Topol and Brian Blessed ham it up for the cheap seats with the latter looking like he’s having the most fun of anyone in the cast. Max von Sydow and Peter Wyngarde play it absolutely straight almost as if they’re reciting Shakespeare with the former perfectly cast as Ming and making the most of hi s character’s evil plans monologues. Part of the fun of watching this movie is to see these contrasting performances bounce off each other as the cast try to spout the ridiculous dialogue convincingly. It makes for a heady experience that you either submit to or reject – there is no middle ground with Flash Gordon.

At times, the dated special effects, especially the extensive use of rear projection, look pretty bad and yet there is something authentic about it. The old school effects and astounding sets have a tangible quality that is missing from a lot of contemporary SF epics. In particular, the effects for Mongo’s atmosphere are quite breathtakingly beautiful and one has to admire the filmmakers’ audaciousness. The movie also has several exciting action sequences, including a surprisingly bloody gladiatorial battle between Flash and Barin on a platform that is constantly shifting and with spikes emerging and disappearing with unpredictable frequency creating a real sense of danger. Seeing this fight play out at a young, impressionable age scared and thrilled me in equal measure. Along with David Lynch’s Dune (1984), Flash Gordon is one of the most distinctive-looking SF movies to come out of the ‘80s.

Flash Gordon’s weakest aspects are the obvious attempts to ape Star Wars with nods to stormtroopers, a flying droid and General Klytus (Peter Wyngarde), Ming’s second-in-command, serving as a poor man’s Darth Vader. He gets little to do except bark orders and supervise torturing Princess Aura. The movie is at its best when it subverts aspects of Lucas’ film, like taking the earnestness of Luke Skywalker and placing it in a football player’s body or splitting Princess Leia into two characters – the bland eye candy that is Dale Arden and the duplicitous Princess Aura who has a kinky streak (what’s up with her pet dwarf Fellini?) and the hots for Flash.


After writing the screenplay for a remake of King Kong (1976) for legendary Italian movie producer Dino De Laurentiis, Lorenzo Semple Jr. was given a coffee table book of the Italian translation for the Flash Gordon comic strip and told that it would be the basis for his movie. He was told to make it funny: “At the time, I thought that was a possible way to go, but, in hindsight, I realize it was a terrible mistake. We kept fiddling around with the script, trying to decide whether to be funny or realistic.” Semple admitted that he didn’t think the character of Flash in the script was particularly good, but that “there was no pressure to make it any better.”

Initially, Nicolas Roeg was hired by De Laurentiis to direct Flash Gordon. He had just come off another science fiction film, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) when the producer approached him to direct. He wasn’t sure and took some time to read Raymond’s comic strip. Roeg came to the conclusion that Raymond was a “genius, an absolute genius.” He became really excited at the prospect of making a Flash Gordon movie and went off to write the screenplay. His concept for the movie was Flash as a “metaphysical messiah.” Roeg spent a year writing and showed it to De Laurentiis who didn’t want to make that version. He wanted to make his version and Roeg left the project.

Mike Hodges was approached to direct the sequel and turned down the offer but when Roeg left the project, the former changes his mind because “it was totally different from what I had previously done.” The director admitted that he was not a fan of the science fiction genre and didn’t consider the movie to be part of it but instead wanted to “keep to the comic book version.” According to Hodges, Raymond’s original comic strip became the bible that was referenced while making the movie.


One of De Laurentiis’ family members saw Sam J. Jones on the Dating Game show and from that he received the call to meet the producer. The aspiring actor consulted a few friends that were fans of the old Flash Gordon serials and they brought him up to speed on the character. He was flown into London and interviewed by De Laurentiis. Soon afterwards, he was cast in the movie and almost immediately immersed in rehearsals, costume fittings and daily workouts in order to prepare for the role. In addition, his hair was dyed blonde and he tried on blue contact lenses but they hurt so much that he did not end up using them. Lacking in experience, Jones worked with an acting coach on the set every day. Jones not only did most of his own stuntwork but also helped choreograph all the action sequences.

Melody Anderson was set to appear in a television series when she received a phone call from De Laurentiis who proceeded to convince her to do Flash Gordon instead. She flew all night from New York City to London only to be taken immediately to the studio where she had her blonde hair changed to brown, costume fittings, screen tests and a meeting with Hodges. Twelve days later, she found herself in Scotland with filming starting the next day. “We didn’t have any preparation time at all … It’s such a large special effects picture, the actors really are secondary in it.”

The massive production was spread over six sound stages at Shepperton Studios, the Star Wars facility at Borehamwood, and an aircraft hangar at Brooklands. Principal photography was synchronized with the special effects department because most of the live-action footage would be matched with opticals in post-production. To add to the chaos, the crew was a mix of Italian and English crew members who did not know how to speak to each other.” Anderson said, “The actors were caught in the middle.” Semple blamed the chaos of the production on the “great leeway given to the art director, Danilo Donati,” who had worked with Frederico Fellini, among others, describing him as a “crazed Italian who literally never read the script, but instead went off on his own.” Semple said that an example of the rampant spending on the production was the $1 million Donati spent on the Arboria set, which was only used in one shot!


Jones and the rest of the cast were instructed to play their parts seriously and he said, “When the crew watched the rushes and were laughing hysterically, Dino said, ‘Why are you laughing?’ And they discovered they had a comedy.’” Anderson backs up Jones’ approach to acting in Flash Gordon: “I’m surprised that (people) are laughing, because we weren’t out to make a funny film. In fact, De Laurentiis was very upset when he showed the film and people started to laugh, because he thought they were laughing at it and not with it.” Semple said, “And Dino, especially, had no idea what he wanted. He wanted something Flash Gordon, and I adored Dino, but he didn’t have much idea about the difference between sort of camp and Star Wars.”

For the movie’s score, Hodges persuaded De Laurentiis to take a chance and have the popular rock band Queen compose it. Lead guitarist Brian May said, “As I remember the film’s producer, Dino De Laurentiis, was not convinced that rock music could work as score i.e. as background music for a film that was not about rock music!” The band spent a week creating demos of all the themes for the movie and played them for De Laurentiis. May recalled, “He was pretty stony-faced. At the end, he said something like, ‘I don’t think this music is right for my film,” and left. The band was understandably crest-fallen as a result, but Hodges assured them that it would work out. A couple days later, they heard that their music was approved.

Unfortunately, the experience of making Flash Gordon was a bittersweet one for Jones who was sued by De Laurentiis for breach of contract. He, in turn, counter-sued, claiming that he hadn’t been paid according to the original agreement. This, and the movie’s poor performance at the North American box office, doomed any prospects of a sequel.


Flash Gordon does what a movie of this kind should – transport us to strange new worlds that don’t resemble our own. The movie is pure escapist entertainment. Cinema needs more ambitious oddball movies like it that refuse to play it safe and dare to risk failure. These fascinating trainwrecks are often more memorable than the ones that adhere to the same old tired formulas. In retrospect, the ‘80s was a great time for eccentric genre movies with the likes of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986) managing to navigate their way through the studio system and find their audience thanks to home video where they could be rediscovered and watched repeatedly. Watching this movie again, it really is amazing that something like this exists. Only a European sensibility fused with the desire to ape the success of an American blockbuster could result in something like Flash Gordon and the world is a better place for its existence.


SOURCES

Brender. Alan. “Mike Hodges: Director of the New Flash Gordon.” Starlog. March 1981.

Flash Gordon and the Storyboards of Mongo.” Prevue. September-October 1980.

Kennedy, Harlan. “Bad Timing.” American Cinema. January-February 1980.

Khoury, George. “Hail Flash Gordon!” SFX. February 2008.

Swires, Steve. “Lorenzo Semple, Jr.: The Screenwriter Fans Love to Hate, Part Two.” Starlog. September 1983.

Willson, Karen E. “Melody Anderson.” Starlog. December 1980.


Willson, Karen E. “Sam J. Jones.” Starlog. December 1980.


Friday, May 8, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

While The Avengers (2012) smashed box office records, more importantly, writer/director Joss Whedon did the impossible by successfully integrating comic book superheroes the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America from their own franchise movies into another one that saw them team-up with Black Widow and Hawkeye to stop a common threat. Whedon achieved this in an entertaining and exciting way that no one had done before. Burnt out from the endeavor and brought on essentially as a hired gun, he was understandably cautious of being courted to make the inevitable sequel. He was persuaded by being given more creative freedom, which included the addition of three new superheroes and a longstanding nemesis of the Avengers, the mad sentient robot Ultron. As a long-time comic book fan, Whedon understands that a team of formidable heroes needs to face a threat worthy of their abilities and what better one than a nearly indestructible robot and its army of drones. While it was a given that Age of Ultron (2015) would be a bigger and more action-packed follow-up to the original, would Whedon be able to juggle this large cast of characters without short-changing anyone and be able to instill the same amount of heart and humor amidst the CGI as he did with the first movie?

One of the good things about a movie like Age of Ultron is that Whedon has already established the Avengers as a team in the first movie and so he can jump right in as this one does with them already assembled in the Eastern European country of Sokovia taking down a Hydra base where Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) has been experimenting with Loki’s scepter, which has resulted in two powerful beings – the Maximoff twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) who have superhuman speed and can manipulate minds and project energy respectively.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has created a squad of automated robots utilizing his Iron Man technology to do the work he doesn’t have the time for under the auspices of the Ultron program. His ultimate goal is to create an artificial intelligence for these robots so that they can carry out his global peace keeping mission. To achieve this, he and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) use Loki’s scepter without telling the other Avengers.


Back at the Avengers Tower, the team enjoys a little downtime and we get to see them banter with some of Whedon’s trademark entertaining dialogue. He also does a nice job of showing the dynamic between the group and certain members, like a nice bit where everyone tries in vain to lift Thor’s hammer. A crude form of the now sentient Ultron crashes the party (literally) and escapes, taking the scepter with him. He proceeds to assemble a massive army of robots to bring about the end of the human race. To make matters worse, he recruits the Maximoff twins, appealing to their anger towards the Avengers.

Whedon improves on the action sequences from The Avengers by upping the scale and intensity including a very memorable slugfest where Stark dons Hulkbuster armor to stop the rampaging green monster under Wanda’s influence. I like that during these battle scenes, Whedon shows our heroes saving people from the carnage while still engaging in the occasional witty banter – a staple from the comic books. In fact, we see the various Avengers going out of their way to save people, putting their very lives on the line because that is what superheroes do. As Whedon said in a recent interview, he wanted to “get back to what’s important, which is that the people you’re trying to protect are people … What a hero does is not just beat up the bad guy – a hero saves the people.”

One of the problems with many of the Marvel movies is that the villains tend to lack personality. Let’s face it, they all want basically the same thing – to either rule the world or destroy it. What makes them stand out is a distinctive personality and that comes in part from the screenplay and from casting. In a masterstroke, Whedon brought on board James Spader to portray Ultron. He’s an actor with an idiosyncratic personality, which the filmmaker utilizes so well throughout the movie as Spader gives a deliciously evil performance. This is even more impressive as he instills an entirely CGI character with a personality that resembles Tony Stark gone bad. Whedon makes a point of showing what motivates not only Ultron but also Pietro and Wanda. They all have deeply rooted grudges against Stark and the rest of the Avengers and for the latter two this comes from a deep, personal pain.


He also sets up the ideological battle between Stark and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), which foreshadows the upcoming Captain America: Civil War (2016). Rogers is upset that Stark went ahead and created a sentient robot without consulting the rest of the team or thinking about the ramifications of his actions while Stark, driven by his anxiety over almost dying at the hands of an alien race in The Avengers, wants to make sure that the Earth has an army of its own should another massive threat present itself. To this end, the climactic battle between the Avengers and Ultron and his army of robots could be seen as a slyly scathing critique of drone warfare while also being a pretty cool battle to watch.

Whedon has definitely learned a lot from the first Avengers movie – not just on a technical level, but also improving on its shortcomings, like making up for giving Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) the short shrift when he was brainwashed for most of it by showing us what he’s been up to since that one ended. By doing this, Whedon also gives Hawkeye a more personal stake in saving the world this time out. It is more than just that. Whedon manages to give all the heroes a crucial part to play in stopping Ultron. As he did with the first movie, Whedon achieves just the right rhythm of downtime between actions sequences that not only moves the story along, but also develops the characters and their relationships with each other in a way he wasn’t able to do in The Avengers. He even introduces the possibility of a romance between two of our heroes.

Whedon understands that it isn’t hard creating a movie where the heroes have to take on a villain bent on world destruction. It doesn’t mean a thing if we don’t care about the heroes and aren’t invested in what they have at stake. You have to make it personal for them and the filmmaker excels at this by taking the time to providing a motivating factor for each of the Avengers. It’s a tricky balancing act because we know that none of them can be killed off – they already have upcoming movies in their own franchises or someone else’s to appear in – but you can make the audience forget that temporarily by getting them invested in an compelling story filled with witty banter, snappy one-liners and passionate speeches from our heroes and the bad guy. While Age of Ultron is somewhat darker in tone than The Avengers – lacking that movie’s overall feelgood vibe, it is more ambitious in scope and scale and a richer experience.



SOURCES


Buchanan, Kyle. “How Avengers: Age of Ultron Nearly Killed Joss Whedon.” New York magazine. April 13, 2015.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Big Town

Most actors have what I refer to as “paycheck movies” somewhere in their filmography. They are movies that are done for the money or the desire to work that month. They are movies that are usually not all that memorable and done purely for mercenary reasons but they are still part of an actor’s body of work. One such movie is The Big Town (1987), made after Diane Lane took three years off from the business and saw her reunited with Matt Dillon, her on-screen love interest in The Outsiders (1983) and Rumble Fish (1983). Like Lane, he had hit a speed bump in his career after the box office hit The Flamingo Kid (1984). I’m sure appearing together was a large part of the appeal of doing The Big Town for both actors. While their on-screen chemistry continued, the final product was something of a mixed bag.

J.C. Cullen (Matt Dillon) is a small-time crapshooter who aspires to make it in the big city. He is a very skilled/lucky dice thrower with the gambling instincts of his deceased father, much to the chagrin of his mother. He’s young and too restless for life in small-town America circa 1957. He soon arrives in Chicago and the movie does a nice job of immediately immersing us in the sights and sounds of the period era thanks to a soundtrack of classic songs from the likes of Johnny Cash, Bo Diddley, and Big Joe Turner among others.

He soon goes to work for Mr. and Mrs. Edwards (Bruce Dern and Lee Grant) who set him up with a place, a bankroll and establish the ground rules. They’re all business and don’t have much expectations as young men like him come off the bus every week. They team him up with Sonny Binkley (David Marshall Grant), a veteran gambler who shows him the ropes. Cullen takes to big city life like a fish to water, making consistent money for the Edwards.


One day, Cullen meets a sweet single mom named Aggie Donaldson (Suzy Amis) at a local record store. She loves all kinds of music and dreams of being a disc jockey one day. Always looking for action, Cullen is told about the Gem Club, a strip joint with high stakes and a very exclusive crap game. It is also the only place in town where gamblers can play with their own money and not give any of it to their handlers. Naturally, the odds are stacked heavily in favor of the house, which is run by the no-nonsense owner George Cole (Tommy Lee Jones).

The first night playing Cullen wins big ($14,000!) and in the process pisses off Cole by not only beating the house badly, but doing it in front of his regulars. After subsequently being set-up by Cole, in retribution, Cullen starts a torrid affair with his gorgeous wife Lorry Dane (Diane Lane), the Gem Club’s star stripper. However, he also finds himself increasingly attracted to the more wholesome Aggie and starts a romance with her. Eventually, Cullen has to make a choice while steering clear of the dangerous Cole – if he can.

Matt Dillon’s cocky gambler evokes Paul Newman’s iconic turn in The Hustler (1961) as both of their characters push their respective luck to the limit. For Cullen, he is very smart when it comes to shooting craps (he expertly figures out when Cole swaps dice for a loaded pair) but exhibits poor judgment when it comes to women, seeing two at the same time. Aggie represents his small-town, Midwestern roots while Lorry represents his flashy big city life. Dillon has the retro looks from a bygone era and has no problem portraying a gambler from the 1950s.


Much like Dillon, Diane Lane looks like she came from another time. Her retro stripper look resembles her mother Colleen Leigh Farrington, herself a nightclub singer and Playboy Centerfold (Miss October 1957) and one wonders if her performance in The Big Town was a tribute to her mother. Lane even pulls off a very sexy fan dance at one point, showing off the research and hard work she put into the role. Lorry is more than a stereotypical bad girl. She is a woman trapped in a situation with a dangerous man that is also her husband. And yet, we are never quite sure if she can be trusted even while Cullen falls head over heels for her. Lane does what she can with an underwritten role that often relegates her to very attractive eye candy.

Dillon and Lane had undeniable chemistry in The Outsiders and Rumble Fish and continue it with The Big Town. As sweet as Suzy Amis’ Aggie is, one can’t see Dillon’s slick gambler settling down with the single mother and her daughter. Cullen and Lorry are much more suited for each other with their similar outlooks on life. It doesn’t hurt that the two actors radiate genuine on-screen heat. And while Dillon does have some nice chemistry with Amis, it pales in comparison to Lane.

Tommy Lee Jones turns in a typically effortless performance as the movie’s heavy, opting for a less is more approach as he conveys danger with an ominous look or a slight edge in his voice. The always-watchable Bruce Dern plays a blind fixer by the name of Mr. Edwards who bankrolls up and coming gamblers like Cullen. He has a nice scene with Dillon where his character tells Cullen how he lost his sight in a well-delivered monologue. He used to be a hotshot dice roller like Cullen but losing his sight ended his career and he’s been searching for the man who robbed him of his vision ever since.


The Big Town sprinkles snazzy period dialogue and colorful gambler slang throughout, courtesy of Robert Roy Pool’s screenplay – itself an adaptation of Clark Howard’s novel The Arm. There is a nice shot partway through the movie of Cullen and Lorry walking down a deserted Chicago street late at night, which is soon followed by them kissing passionately under elevated train tracks much like a similar scene also with Lane in Streets of Fire (1984) albeit without the rain. Ralf D. Bode’s cinematography, coupled with Ben Bolt’s direction results in a movie that looks like it could easily exist in a corner of the world of period television series Crime Story, but as a prequel of sorts (since that show took place in the 1960s).

In late summer of 1986, director Harold Becker was set to adapt Clark Howard’s novel The Arm, about a crapshooter, and approached noted gambling expert Edwin Silberstang to be a technical advisor on the movie. He read the screenplay and agreed to do it. Silberstang taught Matt Dillon the rules of the game, the difference between a basic street game and playing at a casino, and some of the street slang. They spent time betting at casinos in Las Vegas. After ten days, they flew to Toronto where the interior gambling scenes were to be filmed and ‘50s era Chicago was recreated for financial reasons.

Silberstang helped design a special craps table that allowed the audience to follow the action easier and could be broken in half for special shots. However, two weeks into principal photography, Becker was replaced when he clashed with producer Martin Ransohoff over creative differences. Columbia Pictures chairman and CEO David Puttnam brought in one of his friends, Ben Bolt, son of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) screenwriter Robert Bolt, to direct. Puttnam was not fond of Ransohoff’s three-picture deal at the studio and wanted to help out a friend, but it rankled some within the industry who wondered why an unproven Brit was hired to direct a period piece set in Chicago.


The Big Town received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and praised Dillon’s performance: “Dillon has some kind of spontaneous rapport with the camera. He never seems aware of it, never seems aware that he’s playing a character. His acting is graceful and fluid, and his scenes always seem to start before their first shot so that we seem him in the middle of a motion.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas felt that it was “so entertaining, so true to its period that it’s easy to peg it as another ‘50s nostalgia piece when it actually possesses the kind of complexity usually associated with less commercial, less starry productions.”

In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James wrote, “More to the point, this huge cliché of a movie isn’t even a distant relation of films like The Color of Money, which can actually make you root for hustlers. The Big Town only proves we’ve gone back to the 1950’s one time too many.” The Chicago Tribune’s Joanna Steinmetz wrote, “But director Ben Bolt, whose previous experience is in British and American television, is not about to let style carry this show. Unfortunately, he’s not about to let substance carry it, either.” Finally, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Ben Yagoda wrote, “Then, somewhere around reel three, the chips, so to speak, are cashed in … So the stageyness becomes stagier, the improbabilities more improbable and the lunacy loonier.”

In retrospect, The Big Town can be seen as a stepping-stone towards bigger and better things for Dillon and Lane (and Jones as well). Shortly after this movie he would attract much critical acclaim for his role as a junkie in Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and she would be nominated for an Emmy for her excellent work on the T.V. miniseries Lonesome Dove (which would also feature Jones). The Big Town didn’t exactly set the box office on fire – barely registering, in fact, but it wasn’t meant to with its small budget and limited distribution. The movie tells a story we’ve seen a million times before: a young man from a small-town that tries to make it in the big city only to learn a painful lesson. While it is hardly an original idea, the movie does have its entertaining moments with engaging performances from Dillon and Lane, which should appeal to fans of both actors.



SOURCES

Comer, Brooke. “Big Trouble in The Big Town.” American Cinematographer. September 1987.

Silberstang, Edwin. Winning Casino Craps. Random House. 2007.


Stadiem, William. Moneywood: Hollywood in Its Last Age of Excess. St. Martin’s Press. 2013.