Friday, September 25, 2015

The Talented Mr. Ripley

By J.D. Lafrance and Lady Fitzsimmons

Fresh from the commercial and critical success of phenom The English Patient (1996), filmmaker Anthony Minghella dove back into the literary world for his next film – The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), based on the 1955 Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name. Adapted previously as Purple Noon (1960) starring Alain Delon, Minghella cast Matt Damon, still hot property from Good Will Hunting (1997) in the title role, and surrounded him with a new class of actors in ascension: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. The end result was a lavish adaptation full of rich period detail and a fascinatingly complex performance by Damon as a social-climbing sociopath.

“If I could just go back. If I could rub everything out. Starting with myself. Starting with borrowing a jacket.”

Thus begins our story with voiceover narration by protagonist Tom Ripley (Damon). We meet him at a party hosted by the Greenleaf family in 1950s New York City, where Tom makes quite the impression on wealthy shipbuilder Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn).  After the soiree, Tom shed ‘his’ Princeton blazer, revealing his for con of the film – posting as a Tiger for someone else. It pays off; the next day Herbert asks him to go to Italy and persuade his son Dickie (Law) to come back home for $1,000, which, by 1955 standards, is a tidy sum. Herbert is not happy with his son’s behavior overseas – “That’s my son’s talent,” he tells Tom, “spending his allowance.”

Tom, whose current employ is playing a piano at a cocktail bar, jumps at the chance to make some serious money – and rub elbows with the upper crust in Europe. Ever the astute social chameleon, we see Tom studying up on popular jazz songs and artists because it is a passion of Dickie’s and, more importantly, a way to immediately ingratiate himself. With one foot barely off the boat, Tom is already changing identities, telling fellow traveler Meredith Logue (Blanchett) that he is Dickie Greenleaf.


Tom orchestrates a chance encounter between himself, Dickie, and his girlfriend Marge Sherwood (Paltrow) on the beach in an amusing scene: Tom is all kinds of awkward as he sports lime green bathing trunks, which “compliment” his pasty white skin. I love how Dickie points this out (“Have you ever seen someone so white? Grey actually.”) and how quickly Tom makes fun of himself (“It’s just an undercoat.”). Tom is intensely serious in his plan to take on the character of a student on holiday, the way a rich playboy takes on a lover.

The seduction begins.

Tom impresses Dickie with an uncanny impression of his father and a mutual love of jazz. They become fast friends and are soon singing jazz in broken Italian at a hipster nightclub that Minghella captures in all of its dark, sweaty glory, masterfully capturing the energy of the moment. Tom agrees to help Dickie perpetuate a ruse – they will string his father along so that Dickie can continue to spend his money.

Tom is a student of human behavior, observing people for only a short while before being able to do an impression of them. For example, he studies the way Dickie signs his name and files it away for later use. Minghella shows Tom rehearsing in front of a mirror like an actor (where he creepily imitates a conversation between Marge and Dickie with eerie exactness). Like many great thespians, Tom is a blank slate, which allows him to become fully immersed in the “roles” he plays. During lunch he reveals his talents to Dickie and Marge – “Forging signatures, telling lies, impersonating practically anybody” – and his “purpose” for being there. Every single movement – we realize now – has, from the beginning, been surgically planned and impeccably executed, a black widow weaving the web or perhaps, more appropriately, the funnel spider, launching the fatal attack from a place unexpected, at a time unthinkable.


The web is completed a mere 24 minutes and 30 seconds into the film as we watch the spider plot his “attack.” This section, this leg of Tom’s trip, is the film’s transition to a psycho-drama; Tom is becoming Dickie, and Dickie is coming closer to the edge of the cliff. It’s also worth mentioning the subtle homoerotic nuances of Damon’s facial movements, the lingering looks fostered by the sensuality.

Matt Damon does a fantastic job of presenting Tom as a socially awkward nerd, disarming Dickie and Marge who “realize” that he’s not threat to them. This allows them to act both good-naturedly and condescending towards him – they don’t see him as an equal. Dickie and Marge are all about social niceties; these will end up being used against them. Damon is all tentative gestures and aw shucks self-deprecation…but in private, he offers glimmers of Tom’s true self – something that is gradually revealed over the course of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Taking this role was a shrewd move on Damon’s part. He capitalized on the buzz from Good Will Hunting by then taking a chance on a different and difficult role instead of taking the easy route, and doing a romantic comedy or something safely within his wheelhouse.

The mesmirizingly handsome Jude Law is well-cast as spoiled playboy Dickie, a young man that spends most of his time traveling all over Italy, spending his father’s money. Dickie is the kind of person who’s into whatever is fashionable at the moment, like Charlie Parker-era jazz, and befriends people like Tom until he loses interest in/becomes bored with them. He’s a flake that thinks loving such things makes him a deep person and Law conveys this extraordinarily well. Dickie’s short attention span and spoiled-brat attitude of instant gratification anticipates the prevailing attitude of what society has become today. Marge sums him up best when she confides in Tom:


“The thing with Dickie … It is like the sun shines on you and it’s glorious … and then he forgets you and it’s very very cold,” to which he replies, “…so I’m learning…” She says, “When you have his attention you feel like the only person in the world. That’s why everybody loves him.”

Gwyneth Paltrow plays the perfect WASP socialite, tired of the “whole Park Avenue crowd,” and fled to Paris to work on her novel. She has problems of the idle rich and initially appears to be Dickie’s superficial equal. It’s Marge, however, that is the first person to suspect Tom’s real agenda but because she’s a woman – and it’s the ‘50s – she’s dismissed as being distraught. Fresh from the phenomenal success of Shakespeare in Love (1998), Paltrow was at the height of her mainstream popularity; getting her was a real casting coup for Minghella. She definitely looks the part and conveys an air of entitlement. Ultimately, Marge is a sympathetic, even tragic character as evidenced in a nice scene between her and Tom. She explains Dickie’s shifting attention from him to Freddie, hinting that she is aware of her boyfriend’s affairs with other women. Marge seems resigned to her lot in life with an air of sadness that humanizes her.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Dickie’s friend Freddie Miles and makes a dramatic entrance, befitting his larger than life persona, arriving in a sporty convertible that sends scores of pigeons scattering. He hops out and says with a mischievous grin, “I wish I could fuck every woman just once.” Hoffman makes an immediate impression – a high society accent and phony laugh intact – as he grabbily steals Dickie away from Tom. Freddie is a bully that delights in putting Tom in his place by reminding him of his lower-class status. It’s easy to see why Freddie and Dickie are friends – they are nasty people that treat others badly with little or no remorse for their actions. We don’t feel all that bad about their ultimate destinations.


Tom loves Dickie so much that he wants to be him. Throughout the first half of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Minghella offers several moments that show Tom’s fixation on Dickie. He studies Dickie’s mannerisms because Tom wants to be him: eventually, he adopts the young man’s identity. The second half of the film is a fascinating study of how Tom attempts to maintain two identities without anyone catching on to his deception. At times, it’s a tricky juggling act that Tom works hard to maintain as he manages to narrowly avoid being discovered. Minghella gradually increases the tension as Tom’s ruse gets harder to maintain, especially with the Italian police breathing down his neck.

It would be easy to say that Tom suffers from multiple personality disorder but he does not. He is one man, with one mind, given to flights of fancy that lead to human degradation of the basest kind. He daydreams, he kills. The first third of The Talented Mr. Ripley resembles a Technicolor classic Hollywood movie like Roman Holiday (1953), then shifts gears into a psychological thriller a la Roman Polanski, and finally segues into a crime thriller as Tom tries to cover his tracks – and we wonder if he’s going to get away with it. The film gets darker and darker as the humanity is being drained from it every time Tom takes a life. It shows the absolute depravity that someone is capable of as Tom paints himself into a corner with the blood of his victims.

The look of The Talented Mr. Ripley mirrors its protagonist. It starts off with warm, sun-kissed colors, courtesy of John Seale’s cinematography, and gradually darkens as Tom gets deeper and deeper in trouble. The seaside color palette of the Italy in the film is worlds away from the regular day-to-day color palette of the New York City where we first meet Tom. However, when it comes to both clothing and architecture, vacationing by the seaside, houses are generally not your everyday bricks and mortar – they are light blue, coral and pink stucco. The same can be said about vacationing wardrobes. Gone are the grey flannel suits and navy blazers of the Upper East Side and in are shirttails out with white pants and Docksiders. Women’s hair is in ponytails, worn with bathing suits and pleated shorts. Gone are reading glasses, only to be replaced by designer sunglasses. It is the graceful ease of seaside living, for the rich, that is. As we near the third act of the movie, it is like summer vacation is over and we’re back to our mainland wardrobe – darker hues and heavier materials – a prime example of this is Tom wandering the decks of the ship wearing a poor boy’s black coat. Ripley is a visually gorgeous film…but beyond that, it is also rife with rich symbolism. For example, there are several times throughout where islands of rock are either passed in boats or in the background as part of the landscape. They are reminders of the magnificent L’Avventura (1960), Michelangelo Antonioni’s haunting masterpiece involving whimsical young adulthood, idyllic scenery, and dark philosophical mystery.


Patricia Highsmith wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1955 while moving from Massachusetts to Santa Fe before going to Europe, where she lived most of her adult life. A child of divorce, she made a living early on writing for action comic books. Tom Ripley would become her favorite character and after the first novel, she wrote four more featuring him. She said of Tom, “He could be called psychotic but I would not call him insane because his actions are rational … I consider him a rather civilized person who kills when he absolutely has to.”

Producer William Horberg had read Highsmith’s novel in the mid-1980s and was immediately intrigued by the story. He left Paramount Pictures in 1992 to become a producer with Sydney Pollack’s company, Mirage Enterprises. He gave Pollack a first-edition hardcover copy of The Talented Mr. Ripley as a gift in the hopes that he’d be interested in making it into a film.

When Horberg made inquiries about the film rights to Ripley, he found that French producer Robert Hakim, who made the 1960 adaptation Purple Noon, still controlled the property. Horberg said, “Over the years I had heard many stories about filmmakers who pursued the property only to run into problems with him.” Producer Tom Sternberg knew the Hakim family and was also an admirer of Highsmith’s novel. After Robert died, his family asked Sternberg to set up Ripley as a film project in the United States.


Through his lawyer, Sternberg heard that Horberg and Pollack were also interested adapting the book. As it turned out, Hakim’s widow was a big fan of The Firm (1993), which Pollack directed. She and her daughters met with the filmmaker and agreed to sell the rights to his company. Paramount agreed to finance the project and helped in its development.

Horberg and Pollack were big fans of Anthony Minghella and sent him a copy of the book. He had first read the novel in 1980 and felt an affinity for its protagonist but “not in terms of what he did, but why he did it, and what he did that was at the heart of it, which was a sort of self-loathing, a sense of inadequacy, of being an outsider, a sense of yearning, to love and be loved.” He was the son of working class Italian parents and grew up on the Isle of Wight, where he felt that “every English person was a Dickie Greenleaf.” He was drawn to the material because he felt it had “one extraordinary idea in it, which is the idea of a man who commits murder but is never caught. I thought that was an audacious subject for an American movie particularly, which is so used to moral closure.”

He was about to make The English Patient but had to wait until his leading man – Ralph Fiennes – was finished his Broadway run of Hamlet. He finished the first draft of the screenplay as The English Patient started rehearsals in Rome and found the material so compelling that he wanted to direct Ripley as well. He asked the studio to wait until he finished his film and they did.


When it came to casting the role of Tom Ripley, Minghella saw Good Will Hunting and was impressed with Matt Damon’s performance, as well as his turn in Courage Under Fire (1996). The two men met and found that they were on the same page on how to depict Tom. To prepare for the role, Damon lost 25 pounds in order to appear pale and skinny, and spent a month learning how to play the piano, finding that his playing posture informed the way Tom sat and walked.

For the role of Dickie Greenleaf, Minghella met with many American actors but found that they couldn’t evoke the character’s “class snobbery” and he thought of Jude Law for the role. Initially, the actor was not keen on playing Dickie but Minghella won him over. Law was drawn to the part due to being “fascinated by the challenge of trying to make nasty characters likeable.” Minghella wrote the role of Marge Sherwood with Gwyneth Paltrow in mind and she was the first person he cast. Initially, she didn’t understand how interesting the character was but during the rehearsal process, she discovered “how full and complicated the role is.”

To prepare for making Ripley, Minghella rewatched Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and I Vitelloni (1953), as well as reading the memoirs of Paul Goodman and Paul Monette in order to get a handle on the cultural touchstones of the young American characters in Ripley. He also read Calvin Trillin’s “Remembering Denny,” about the writer’s Yale 1957 classmate Denny Hansen, a closeted gay varsity athlete who went to Europe as a Rhodes scholar.


The Talented Mr. Ripley received mostly positive to mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “The movie is an intelligent thriller as you’ll see this year.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised Jude Law’s “star-making role for the preternaturally talented English actor Jude Law. Beyond being devastatingly good-looking, Mr. Law gives Dickie the manic, teasing powers of manipulation that make him ardently courted by every man or woman he knows.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-“ rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “Damon is at once an obvious choice for the part and a hard sell to audiences soothed by his amiable boyishness … But the façade works surprisingly well when Damon holds that gleaming smile just a few seconds too long, his Eagle Scout eyes fixed just a blink more than the calm gaze of any non-murdering young man. And in that opacity we see horror.”

The New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris wrote, “The Talented Mr. Ripley, as a case in point, is an often brilliant but ultimately confused murder melodrama in which there is no mystery to be solved, and no characters sympathetic enough to generate suspense about their fate in the patented Hitchcock manner.” However, in her review for the Village Voice, Amy Taubin criticized Minghella for turning, “The Talented Mr. Ripley into a splashy tourist trap of a movie. The effect is rather like reading The National Inquirer in a café overlooking the Adriatic.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote, “It ends up a dismayingly unthrilling thriller and bafflingly unconvincing character study. Ripley says he’d rather be a fake somebody than a real nobody – but a fake nobody is all we’re offered…”

“I always thought it’s better to be a fake somebody then a real nobody,” Tom says towards the closing of the film. The last shot – his reflection in a closet mirror as he replays the latest murder in his mind. Tom’s mirror image is a repeating motif throughout The Talented Mr. Ripley; one imagines his life as a hall of mirrors. Which one is the real Tom Ripley? Are we seeing the “real” Tom before the closet door closes into darkness and the film ends? Its final shot brilliantly, visually sums up what Tom is: a sociopath unable to truly love because when he gets too close to the object of his affection, his impulse is to destroy, lest he reveal too much of his real self.



SOURCES

“Cinderella Minghella.” The Guardian. February 16, 2000.

Luscombe, Belinda. “Matt Damon Acts Out.” Time. March 6, 2000.

Rich, Frank. “American Pseudo.” The New York Times. December 12, 1999.

Simon, Alex. “The Talented Mr. Minghella.” Venice Magazine. February 2000.

The Talented Mr. Ripley: Part 1. Empire.

The Talented Mr. Ripley: Part 2. Empire.


The Talented Mr. Ripley Production Notes. Miramax Pictures. 1999.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Explorers

The world needs dreamers – people with their heads in the clouds thinking big ideas. We need people like this for without them we would never have gone into outer space. Joe Dante’s Explorers (1985) champions dreamers in a refreshingly earnest way that never feels forced and is not afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve. Unfortunately, the film was rushed into production and Dante was never allowed to edit it properly. As a result, the ending feels a little awkward but does nothing to diminish the heartfelt sincerity that exists in every frame. Sadly, mainstream moviegoers weren’t interested and Explorers was a box office failure but has gone on to develop a small but devoted cult following.

It’s no coincidence that the film begins with Ben Crandall (Ethan Hawke) dreaming that he’s flying through the sky and then over some Tron-esque landscape while War of the Worlds (1953) plays on a television in the background of his bedroom. It’s a sly commentary on Dante’s part as his aliens will be nothing like the ruthless ones in that film.

Ben tells his best friend Wolfgang Muller (River Phoenix) about it on the way to school the next day. They share a common nemesis in the form of schoolyard bully Steve Jackson (Bobby Fite) who enjoys tormenting them with his friends on a daily basis. Ben befriends Darren Woods (Jason Presson), a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, who helps him out with Steve.


Dante does a nice job early on of developing the dynamic between Ben, Darren and Wolfgang who, on the surface, are unlikely friends. Darren is a mechanically-inclined cynic from a broken home while Wolfgang is a nerdy bookish type that is ruled by logic and comes from a family of eccentric geniuses. Ben is the bridge between these two polar opposites – a nice kid from a stable home who isn’t particularly cool but not a nerd either – he’s a dreamer. He’s the glue that keeps them together.

Ben draws a circuit board he saw in a dream and gives it to Wolfgang who assembles a piece of technology that creates a transparent bubble. It can be resized, moves at incredible speeds and is seemingly indestructible. Over several nights out in the woods, the boys build a crude craft out of a tilt-a-whirl seat that allows them to all be in the bubble. They decide to use it to explore the galaxy for alien life. Dante takes this fantastical premise and grounds it in a kind of matter-of-fact realism via scientific jargon Wolfgang frequently spouts but without losing a sense of wonderment that is the film’s strongest attribute.

The three young lead actors are perfectly cast. Ethan Hawke is excellent as an idealistic dreamer that yearns to be a space explorer and live out his sci-fi fantasies. He avoids slipping into cheesiness by imparting a sincerity that feels authentic. Jason Presson is also good as the cynical yin to Hawke’s idealistic yang. He provides the practical knowledge to help build their craft. Finally, River Phoenix disappears into his bookish scientist constantly clad in a tie and suit jacket like a pint-sized college professor. While these kids are smart and resourceful, Dante doesn’t let us forget that they are still kids who have to face bullies, have crushes on girls and do their homework. It makes them relatable so that by the time Explorers takes a turn to the fantastical we are invested in their journey.


The three actors play so well off each other and are completely believable as good friends, each bringing their own distinctive personality to the table. Just watch how they interact with each other as they launch their craft for the first time. These are resourceful young boys living out their dreams. Dante includes all kinds of nice touches that fleshes out these rich characters, like Ben’s love of 1950s science fiction movies and novels, or Wolfgang’s chaotic family life complete with noisy siblings and an absent-minded professor (wonderfully realized by James Cromwell) for a father.

Dante pulls out all the stops for the last third of Explorers with visually dazzling special effects that are tangibly old school, like the boys’ craft that is made out of a hodge-podge of junk they found, and include some impressive makeup work by the legendary Rob Bottin. It makes me sad to think that nowadays this would all be done with CGI because the practical effects give the film a timeless quality. All of this visual eye candy does a decent job of distracting one from how jarring the last third of the film is from what came before it.

After writing two screenplays that were tailored to what was popular with little success, Eric Luke decided to work on something he really “wanted to do when I was a kid. And who cares if it’s commercial or not?” He grounded his script in real-life trials and tribulations from his own childhood, including an unrequited crush on the girl next door. While the character of Wolfgang was based on a scientific kid he knew and befriended over his extensive comic book collection, Ben was the one that Luke most related to and he also had friends like Darren and Wolfgang.


Luke was working in a Los Angeles effects house when his Explorers script was discovered by producer David Bombyk. He showed it to his associate Edward Feldman and told him, “Read this. The first 65 pages of this script are terrific.” Feldman read it and agreed but felt that the rest “went into a Flash Gordon-type adventure and got kind of hokey.” He felt that it showed enough promise and gave the first 65 pages to Paramount Pictures. Within 24 hours they bought it and Luke was brought in do all the rewrites.

The studio was interested in hiring Wolfgang Petersen to direct. He had just come off making The NeverEnding Story (1984) and wanted to shoot Explorers in Bavaria. Feldman felt that an American story like Explorers would be “very hard to duplicate those little American nuances in a foreign country.” He also felt that Petersen would have given the film “a more serious, dramatic look,” and hired Joe Dante instead. At the time, the director hadn’t finished work on Gremlins (1984) and was tired from making it and his segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) and wasn’t sure he could do it. Paramount was persistent, however, and Dante finally agreed. The director found himself drawn to “the story [that] exists to serve the characters. This is different for me: it’s more of a stretch. Although, the story has many of the same elements that I like to work with, there is more emphasis on the characters.” Once onboard, the director worked closely with Luke on script revisions.

For the three young leads, a nationwide casting search was conducted with Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix and Jason Presson chosen to play the protagonists. Dante found that working with his three 14-year-old lead actors reminded him of what it was to be like a kid: “We tend to always romanticize childhood a little bit, but working with kids reminds you that it’s a tough period to go through.”


In order to realize that aliens in Explorers, the production hired makeup effects wizard Rob Bottin who started work right after finishing Ridley Scott’s fantasy epic Legend (1985). Originally, Dante wanted the aliens to be puppets but Bottin felt that doing it that way would slow things down: “They’re going to want to pump this stuff out, yet these aliens have pages and pages of dialogue.” He wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before and recommended they have people in suits – blending body makeup and wire-controlled appendages. He wasn’t interested in the typical men-in-suits look because “doing that limits you to all these head shapes which have already been done to death.” Bottin designed stalk eyes that could move independently from the rest of the head.

Dante was thrust into a rushed production schedule mandated by the studio and “if a scene didn’t work out, we would just have to think of another way to do it, rather than take time to get it right.” He also had to contend with script changes, which resulted in changes to the last third of the film due to “the expense of creating this otherworldly environment,” and only had seven pages of material covering the boys’ encounter with the aliens. Dante and his collaborators ended up adding material on the fly.

To make matters worse, the studio changed hands during the post-production phase of Explorers and the new regime told Dante, “This picture is coming out two months too late. We’ve got to have it two months earlier.” This forced Dante and his editor to rush cutting the film and what was released was essentially a rough cut. Dante said, “The basic conceptual problem with the movie is that it’s the opposite of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) … The kids believe that they are going to find the meaning of life and God in space and they find only a reflection of themselves distorted through pop culture. That didn’t turn out to be that popular!”


Explorers received generally positive to mixed reviews with most of the criticism addressing the film’s third act. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Explorers, which is lively but largely familiar until the point when it reaches its batty pinnacle, frequently shows off Mr. Dante’s sense of humor to good advantage.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas wrote, “Explorers itself is bubble-thin, but it glides by gracefully on the charm of its three young heroes and their vividly envisioned adventure in space. It’s also a truly gentle film, one of the precious few that actually is suitable for children.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “The effects are ho-hum and the scenes are repetitious – there’s really only about an hour’s worth of movie here.” Finally, the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Unfortunately, in Explorers – the latest kids space travel movie – the human kids are far more interesting than the aliens they meet. Maybe the movie’s script is making the wry comment that it’s not so interesting ‘out there,’ but I doubt it.”

With Explorers, Dante has created a sci-fi film for kids but one that doesn’t condescend to them but rather shows the world through the eyes of its youthful protagonists. The director is one of the great chroniclers of 1980s American suburbia, from the Norman Rockwell gone horrible wrong of Gremlins (1984) to the paranoid comedy of The ‘Burbs (1989) to exploring its quirky avenues in the Eerie, Indiana T.V. show. Dante is a rare filmmaker that remembers what it is like to be a kid and to see the world through their eyes without dumbing things down or getting mired in nostalgia. Explorers achieves its sense of wonderment honestly with the help of Jerry Goldsmith’s sometimes wistful, sometimes rousing score that compliments the suburban atmosphere of the first two-thirds and the otherworldliness of the last third.

Dante has always had a subversive streak as a filmmaker and it pops up in the last third of Explorers when our heroes finally make contact with aliens. Ben expects to meet some solemn being a la The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and instead is confronted with two beings educated by American T.V., communicating mostly in famous soundbites. It has a bit of a jarring effect after the earnestness of the first two-thirds but one can see that Dante wasn’t interested in repeating what Steven Spielberg did with E.T. and instead present aliens that kids would find funny and entertaining. Dante refuses to resort the manipulative sentimentality of this film and opts instead for the sense of wonder of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) only on a smaller, more intimate scale.



SOURCES

Lofficier, Randy & Jean. “Exploring Director Joe Dante.” Starlog. September 1985.

Lowry, Brian. “Eric Luke: Exploring His Dreams.” Starlog. October 1985.

Lowry, Brian. “Rob Bottin: Crafting Fantastic Faces.” Starlog. February 1986.

Sayers, John and David McDonnell. “Edward Feldman: Guiding Young Explorers into Adventure.” Starlog. June 1985.


Tonguette, Peter. “What You Can Get Away With: The Collegial Cutting Room Collaborators of Joe Dante, Part 2.” Press Play. January 14, 2012.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Homeboy

The Wrestler (2008) is generally regarded as Mickey Rourke’s comeback film and proved that given the chance, with the right material, he could be a great actor again. This film oddly echoes another one he made 30 years prior, entitled Homeboy (1988). Interestingly, both films are underdog sports stories with the actor playing down-on-their-luck loners looking for redemption. What makes Homeboy a more interesting film than The Wrestler is that it was a personal, passion project for Rourke as opposed to Darren Aronofsky’s film, which was tailored to the actor’s talents. Homeboy was a film that originated with Rourke and one that he had nurtured and massaged for years, even writing the screenplay under the nom de plume of Sir Eddie Cook.

It’s hard to believe that by 1988, Rourke’s career was considered washed-up – at least in Hollywood where he started off strong with memorable roles in Diner (1982), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), and then scored his biggest commercial hit with 9 ½ Weeks (1986). This would mark a high point for the actor who’s reputation for being difficult was overlooked so long as his films made money, but three consecutive underperformers saw Rourke increasingly relegated to the margins. It also didn’t help that he fancied himself a boxer – an obsession that would help derail his career even further in the 1990s.

Johnny Walker (Mickey Rourke) arrives at a sea-side resort one rainy night and takes refuge in a nearby bar populated by African Americans who, by and large, look at him with contempt and disdain. It could be that he’s white and it could also be the cowboy attire that he’s wearing. He joins in on a dice game and pretty soon he’s been accepted and is dancing on the bar with a woman while chugging from a bottle of whiskey. Johnny’s handler Lou (Thomas Quinn) arrives to take him to a boxing match he’s supposed to be fighting in.


To say Johnny is an unorthodox boxer is an understatement. When he first climbs into the ring he plays mind games with his opponent by testing the ropes and staring at him silently in a way that could be mistaken for being mentally handicapped. The fight starts and Johnny spends the first round taking all kinds of punches from his opponent and getting in close. He comes out fast in the second round and proceeds to knock his opponent out. This catches promoter Wesley Pendergass’ (Christopher Walken) eye.

Wesley is a shifty promoter cum small-time crook who talks a good game but is clearly trouble. He also moonlights at a local strip club as a stand-up comic/song and dance man who tells jokes badly and sings even worse. Imagine Christopher Walken doing these two things, badly, in his very particular way and you get an idea of just how awesome it is to behold.

Johnny ends up frequenting an amusement park on the boardwalk, drawn to Ruby (Debra Feuer), a good-looking woman that runs a mini-horse ride. She is struggling to get by but dreams of fixing a broken down carousel her father left her before he died. Johnny soon gets roped into a dodgy scheme with Wesley that you know can only end badly. Added into the mix is Grazziano (Kevin Conway), a grizzled low-rent version of Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, complete with the porkpie hat. He is shadowing Wesley and Ray (Antony Alda), his junkie sidekick, just waiting for them to screw-up. The rest of the film plays out Johnny’s dilemma – does he continue participating in a sport where he’s only one or two fights from possibly dying or go in on Wesley’s ill-conceived scheme or give it all up and help Ruby realize her dreams?


Mickey Rourke is fantastic as a punch-drunk boxer living on the margins of society. It is the kind of character he excels at playing – one that has a tragic-romantic vibe to him. Like many of the characters the actor plays, Johnny is a thinker, a brooding type that could easily be mistaken for dumb, but Rourke’s performance suggests a man that observes others and takes in the entire scene before he responds or acts. We also get a brief glimpse of how he sees the world and it’s in slow motion with distorted sound as if everything is underwater.

Our first glimpse of Wesley Pendergass sees him playfully trying to comb fellow promoter Moe Fingers’ (Jon Polito) balding head before primping his own luxurious head of hair with a mischievous glint in his eyes as only Christopher Walken can do. It’s a brief teaser for the full reveal a few beats later when Wesley works the room, poking fun at Lou: “And Lou, why was God so good to me and so awful to you?” in his trademark patter that is a thing of beauty to watch. Walken’s Wesley is all smiles and flamboyant moves but in certain scenes he reveals the menace that lurks underneath the gregarious façade. He talks a big game but is strictly small-time.

Not surprisingly, the main draw of Homeboy is the scenes between Rourke and Walken. It is great to see two talented performers like them play off each other with the former portraying a man of few words and the latter playing a flashy motormouth. Each actor brings their own unique energy to their respective roles and it is a lot of fun to see them bounce their distinctive acting styles off each other.


Debra Feuer brings the tough sensibility of someone that has survived a lot of hard times but it hasn’t stopped her from trying to realize her dreams. There’s a nice scene where Ruby recounts memories of watching her father work that Feuer delivers with an air of wistful nostalgia while Rourke, the generous performer, just listens, giving his co-star the space to have her moment. She and Rourke have excellent chemistry together (they were married at the time) as evident in the scenes they share, bringing out the vulnerability in their respective characters.

Lou, as played by Thomas Quinn, is a burnt-out, disheveled variation of Burt Young’s trainer in Rocky (1976). He perfectly encapsulates the seedy charm of this world, populated by broken down boxers and small-time criminals. Over the course of the film, he reveals that Lou really does care about Johnny’s well-being, to the point that he admits his own shortcomings as a trainer to the fighter. This is a world that Rourke knows well and it is evident in the details, from the bustling gym where you can almost smell the sweat, to the seaside carnival where you can almost feel the cool wind coming off the ocean.

Mickey Rourke came up with the idea for Homeboy while he was a struggling actor. When he was younger, he attempted a career as an amateur boxer but after a few fights, a severe concussion ended that aspiration. Rourke never forgot and wanted to depict his boxing experiences on film. He based the character of Johnny Walker on someone he knew as a child, and a boxer who frequented the same gym in Miami as he did: “He had all the tools. He just had a little trouble upstairs … There was no guidance in his life. There was no love. And if you don’t have a certain amount of love, you’re going to turn out like a piece of shit.” Rourke hero worshipped the boxer but was also intimidated by him: “There was some dark fucking thing when I looked at him. When I looked at him, I was looking at myself.”


While working on Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), Rourke met and became friends with Christopher Walken. Over dinner one night Walken told Rourke about his theory on how the dinosaurs died out. Rourke was intrigued by Walken’s theory and told him about a film he wanted to make some day about a boxer. Rourke told Walken that he would play the fighter’s manager. Rourke remembered, “I thought, ‘Wow, here I’m having this one chance to have dinner with one of my favorite actors in the world, and he’s talking about dinosaurs in outer space.” Rourke initially wrote what would become Homeboy on coffee-shop napkins as far back as 1984. In an interview from 1985, he described the film as being “about a guy who never was a champion, he’s a guy who was pretty much the reason I stopped boxing.”

When it came time to make Homeboy, Rourke was only interested in casting friends and childhood buddies in supporting roles as opposed to well-known actors. He also cast his then-wife Debra Feuer opposite him and picked Angel Heart’s cinematographer Michael Seresin to direct his first and to date only film.

While Homeboy was released in Europe, it failed to find a theatrical debut in North America when Rourke had it blocked because of a lawsuit he filed against the film’s producer Elliott Kastner for failing to pay him and denying approval over final editing and music. Rourke said, “I felt violated. I learned a great lesson—never trust someone on a handshake. People’s words mean nothing in this business.”


Homeboy is a fascinating study of a self-destructive man. Johnny could be a half-decent fighter if he didn’t drink so much and had enough in the tank to finish off his opponents. Rourke’s actual boxing skills certainly give the fight scenes an authenticity. This is a film about making choices and being smart enough to make the right ones. This sometimes involves learning from many bad ones and this doesn’t always happen. Over the course of the film Johnny has to figure out what’s important to him and make some serious choices that will affect his life forever. Homeboy is no Raging Bull (1980) and it doesn’t aspire to be like that film. It’s an intimate slice-of-life story about people just trying to get by and finding compelling drama in their day-to-day struggles.


SOURCES

Caulfield, Deborah. “Dragon Rourke Breathes Fire.” Los Angeles Times. September 16, 1985.

Dutt, Saurav. Stand Alone: The Films of Mickey Rourke. Lulu.com. 2011.

Goldstein, Patrick. “The Last Anti-Hero?” Los Angeles Times. February 24, 1991.

“Rourke in Dispute Over Homeboy.” Los Angeles Times. May 27, 1989.

Smith, Gavin. “Out There on a Visit.” Film Comment. July/August 1992.


Walken, Christopher. “Mickey Rourke.” Interview. January 16, 2009.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke / Next Movie

Along with The Blues Brothers (1980) and Stripes (1981), Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke (1978) and their follow-up, Next Movie (1980) were my earliest exposures to R-rated comedies. Where I grew up in Canada there was an independent television station that would show these comedies with very little censoring. Seeing them at a young age made quite an impression on me. Cheech and Chong’s first two movies, in particular, were a fascinating window into not only Latino culture, but also the stoner subculture. Their unique brand of crude humor was perfect for me at that young age because it is largely childish in nature. Watching these movies now I notice all kinds of subversive humor and adult references that went over my head as a kid.

As soon as the opening groove of “Low Rider” by War comes on the soundtrack in Up in Smoke, you are instantly transported back to the 1970s as Pedro (Cheech Marin) spruces up his beaten-up pimpmobile, appropriately nicknamed “Love Machine.” He’s driving along the freeway when he spots what appears to be a busty hitchhiker but it turns out to be Anthony (Tommy Chong), a musician who’s bailed from his high society home to kick start his career. They quickly bond over a monster joint of marijuana-laced Labrador dog shit. Pedro and Anthony soon run afoul of the cops and try to get a band together.

They end up looking for some pot while staying one step ahead of the cops. They hook up with a dealer named Strawberry (Tom Skerritt cast wonderful against type), a Vietnam War veteran who is still experiencing the war, and Anthony inadvertently gets a woman to snort Ajax cleaner (she assumes its cocaine). Her reaction is priceless. Stacy Keach plays the square, undercover cop (whose attire anticipates Herb Tarlek’s fashion sense on WKRP in Cincinnati) intent on busting Pedro and Anthony and their van made entirely out of pot.


Like any good counter-culture comedy, Up in Smoke continually thumbs its nose at authority figures and the establishment, be it narcs or nuns. The film also successfully took Cheech and Chong’s shtick from their stand-up and records and put it on the big screen, including a restaging of one of their classic bits, “Earache My Eye.” While tame by today’s gross-out movie standards, it is refreshing amiable and a fascinating snapshot of the times during which it was made.

After the commercial success of Up in Smoke, a sequel was inevitable but the comedy duo decided to use their clout to exert more creative control over their follow-up, Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie by not only writing the screenplay but having Chong direct as well. The end result was an even funnier, trippier experience. The guys are up to their usual hijinks as the movie begins with them stealing gasoline (putting it in a garbage can no less) and sloppily pouring it into the gas tank of their car. En route to Cheech’s work, Chong rolls a joint and lights up thereby igniting the gas fumes and creating a small explosion. Cheech visits a friend who works on a film crew (one of the aspiring actresses is played by a young Rita Wilson) and inadvertently disrupts it by telling a guy that looks like a red version of the T.V. show’s the Hulk (anticipating the comic book version by 28 years!), which wall he’s supposed to crash through.

We then get insight into Chong’s daily routine, which consists mainly of smoking pot (along with a bug), antagonizing his neighbors by revving his motorcycle so that obnoxious smoke kills flowers, and playing his guitar incredibly loud. So loud, in fact, that when Cheech comes home he has to fight through the wall of sound to turn off the amp. Some memorable bits from this first half of the movie include Cheech and Chong tricking out their van; having a hydraulics battle with another vehicle (with Chong getting a little too enthusiastic) and then insulting a Latino family all to “Tequila” by the Champs. Best of all, Chong pulls a prank on Cheech by tricking him into snorting from a bag of cocaine that is actually powdered soap, which causes him to panic and accidentally drink from a vase of urine that Chong was going to use for his drug test.


Next Movie follows the same rambling, lack of narrative approach from Up in Smoke by going from one comic situation to another and the fun comes from how each sequence is set-up for some kind of comedic pay-off. Not every set piece has a punchline per se, sometimes Cheech and Chong merely find themselves in a funny situation. Most set pieces involve Cheech and Chong making fun of uptight “straight” people, but they also show the chaotic horribleness of a local welfare office as low income people try to get money out of the government. This sequence also gives a pre-Police Academy (1984) Michael Winslow a showcase for his considerable sonic talents. Chong just lets it play out as Winslow does his thing while he looks like he’s genuinely laughing his ass off while in the background Cheech is trying to have sex with his girlfriend Donna (Evelyn Guerrero).

The story, such as it is, doesn’t really kick in until halfway through when Chong meets up with Cheech’s brother Red (also played by Cheech Marin) who has a big duffle bag full of weed at a hotel where they’re harassed by an obnoxious hotel clerk (played by to obnoxious perfection by Paul Reubens). In Next Movie, Cheech and Chong are in pursuit of simple pleasures with the former always trying to get laid and the latter just wanting to get (and stay) high. As with Up in Smoke, this movie revolves around the duo creating chaos in the process of achieving their respective goals as they upset the natural order of straight society, which includes uptight neighbors, hotel clerks, cops, and rich socialites. The second half of Next Movie loses a bit of its momentum when Cheech and Chong are split up. For all of his gregarious gusto, Red just isn’t as interesting a character as Cheech who is saddled with a thankless storyline that goes nowhere. That being said, it does end on a fantastic turn when Cheech and Red encounter a UFO, which leads to Chong giving Cheech some space coke with bizarre effects.

Richard “Cheech” Marin grew up in South Central Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. After college he got involved in the draft resistance movement, participating in demonstrations at draft centers and burning draft cards. As a result, and coupled with his student classification, he was reclassified and drafted for taking part in these demonstrations. In 1968, he went to Vancouver, Canada to avoid the Vietnam War and wrote articles for rock and roll magazines.


Thomas “Tommy” Chong grew up in Calgary, Canada. He played guitar as a youth and quit high school to play in a few R&B bands. He eventually quit them and ended up working at an improv club in Vancouver where he met Cheech in 1969. An editor for one of the magazines Cheech worked at knew Chong and introduced them. Cheech started writing for the improv troupe and when that fell apart he and Chong stayed together.

They formed a band and would perform sketches and engage in comic banter between songs. These would get better reactions than the music and they became a comedy act. After nine months, they moved to L.A., playing night clubs and strip clubs. According to Cheech, they were the only ones doing pothead humor at the time. They soon caught the attention of record producer Lou Adler. He had grown up among Chicano culture and understood Cheech and Chong’s brand of humor.

Four eight years they worked the club circuit and recorded four very successful comedy albums. Cheech said of this time, “We did thousands of miles in eight years of touring, just me and him telling our stories.” The next natural step was to make movies. In 1978, they made Up in Smoke for $2 million and it went on to gross $47.3 million, which led to Next Movie. In the first seven weeks it made more than $30 million. At the time, Cheech said, “Our movies show the state of the art of Middle America’s acceptance of dope.”


Before there was Bill and Ted, before Wayne and Garth, before The Dude, there were the original pothead slackers, Cheech and Chong. While they helped pioneer the stoner comedy, in their own way their brand of anarchic comedy carried on in the tradition of the Marx Brothers, which also used absurd humor to poke fun at the establishment. Cheech and Chong merely updated it to reflect the times in which they lived in – the late ‘70s and early 1980s. Their movies comment on class and race issues, suggesting that we’d all get along better if we chilled out and smoked more pot.


SOURCES

Buchalter, Gail. “Cheech and Chong’s Joint Career is a Smoke Screen: At Home They’re Not Potheads but Proud Papas.” People. September 22, 1980.

Patterson, John. “Back with a Bong.” The Guardian. December 2, 2004.


Reno, Jamie. “Cheech and Chong: Still Smokin’.” Newsweek. August 13, 2008.