Friday, January 29, 2016

The Wild Bunch

“We gotta start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast.” – Pike Bishop

No one made films like Sam Peckinpah. Tough, uncompromising, violent, nihilistic. He was a filmmaker unafraid to explore the darker aspects of human nature and often with a romantic streak. The Wild Bunch (1969) is all this and more – a no holds-barred western about a group of men being pushed to the margins of society because of the changes of the modern world circa 1913. Their way of life was no longer tolerated by the powers that be – if it ever was. The film follows a tight-knit group of outlaws with nowhere to go, pursued by one of their own to the inevitable bloody conclusion.

When The Wild Bunch debuted in 1969, Peckinpah’s innovative use of multi-angle, quick-cut editing that mixed normal and slow motion imagery was recognized as revolutionary. Along with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Peckinpah’s film also helped usher in a new era of explicitly-depicted on-screen violence – something that we take for granted now but shocked audiences at the time. More importantly, The Wild Bunch is a romantic lament for an era that was no more – the life and times of the Outlaw Gunfighter.

Right from the get-go, Peckinpah establishes a cruel and uncaring world as symbolized by a group of children that delight in torturing a scorpion by immersing it among hundreds of ants. This imagery is meant to foreshadow the film’s protagonists who will soon find themselves surrounded on all sides by forces determined to destroy them. The film cuts back and forth from the children to a group of outlaws disguised as soldiers robbing a bank, the posse of bounty hunters waiting to ambush them, and a temperance union parade.


Peckinpah cleverly uses editing to increase the tensions until the inevitable confrontation when everyone is caught up in the ensuing chaos of the shoot-out. He doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the violence even if the slow motion carnage gives it a stylish, cool vibe. We get innocent civilians gunned down (one is shot multiple times) in the middle of the street. Both outlaws and bounty hunters meet untimely ends. Amidst all the pandemonium, Peckinpah lingers on one outlaw – Clarence “Crazy” Lee played with memorable zest by Bo Hopkins – who forgets about the carnage raging outside the bank and decides to lead his hostages in a song. By the time he realizes what’s going on he’s killed but not before taking a few bounty hunters with him.

Unlike many of his imitators, Peckinpah lingers on the aftermath of the shoot-out. There are bloody dead bodies littering the street while women cry and wail over loved ones. He even injects some grim gallows humor as two of the bounty hunters (Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones) argue over who shot whom and therefore entitled to the spoils only to quickly make-up (“C’mon, T.C. Help me get his boots.”). They take great delight in pillaging the dead bodies.

Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) leads the bounty hunters and gets into a heated argument with Pat Harrigan (Albert Dekker), the railroad representative who sprung the hired gun from prison to catch the outlaws he used to ride with, and gives him an ultimatum: “You’ve got 30 days to get Pike or 30 days back to Yuma. You’re my Judas goat, Mr. Thornton.” I love the fiery exchange between these two men because it not only illustrates Harrigan’s naked greed but also that Deke isn’t an amoral mercenary like the other men in his crew. He follows his own code or at least tries to as it conflicts with Harrigan’s mandate. At least Deke has the balls to tell Harrigan what he thinks of the man: “How does it feel? Gettin’ paid for it? Gettin’ paid to sit back and hire your killings with the law’s arms around you. How does it feel to be so goddamn right?” Harrigan gives a smug smile and simply replies, “Good.”


Emerging from the deadly shoot-out is Pike Bishop (William Holden), the leader of this tight-knit group of outlaws, Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), his right-hand man, the Gorch brothers – Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector (Ben Johnson), and Angel (Jaime Sanchez), the newcomer. They attempt to put as much distance between them and the bank robbery as possible with Deke and his bounty hunters in hot pursuit. They cross the border into Mexico and take refuge in Angel’s village. Peckinpah not only uses these sequences to convey his love for the Mexican people and their way of life but also make a political commentary on how the corrupt government, as represented by General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), exploits and oppresses the people.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments of levity as we see the Gorch brothers enchanted by a beautiful Mexican girl, which even makes Pike laugh. The town elder wisely tells him, “We all dream of being a child again. Even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.” These scenes are important because they humanize Pike and his gang and show that they are much more than just hardened killers. They are capable of enjoying the simple pleasures in life.

One of the most fascinating aspects of The Wild Bunch is the dynamic between the outlaws. With the exception of Angel, these men have been together for a long time, through thick and thin and this is evident in the way they interact with each other. For example, Lyle and his brother feel that they should get more of the loot than Angel because he’s new to the group. It goes against the way they’ve always done things and Pike confronts them by saying, “I don’t know a damn thing except that I either lead this bunch or end it right now.” As dangerous as Lyle is, not even he dares cross Pike and the look he gives him leaves little doubt that Pike can back up his threat.


Pike is barely keeping his gang together and life isn’t getting any easier as they discover that their “loot” is a bunch of steel washers instead of silver coins. Pike realizes that they have to re-think the way they do things as he tells his gang, “We gotta start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast.” The situation eventually defuses itself and everyone ends up laughing about it all. These guys bicker and fight amongst themselves but at the end of the day they are loyal to each other because in this world that’s all they have. These men have spent their lives killing and robbing – it’s all they know but they have no regrets about it either.

The Wild Bunch becomes a battle of wills between two former friends now antagonists, both with their own personal code and something to prove. With Pike, it is the desire to pull off one more lucrative score like he did back in the day. For Deke, it’s to prove that he can outsmart his former cohort in crime and a chance to be a gunfighter for a little longer.

William Holden does some excellent work in this film as a tough man struggling not only with his own mortality but keeping a group of Alpha Males together. In private moments, the actor portrays a man who has doubts and fears. Pike is a dying breed. He’s getting old and knows that he doesn’t have many heists left in him. He has to make these last ones count. He is a man who’s led a tough life but on his own terms. He also has his own personal code, which he says during another dispute with the Gorch brothers: “We’re gonna stick together just like it used to be. When you side with a man you stay with him and if you can’t do that you’re like some kind of animal. You’re finished! We’re finished! All of us!” It is this personal code and a strict adherence to it that ultimately leads to the demise of him and his gang for he’s bound by a sense of honor.


Ben Johnson and Warren Oates are very good as the fun-loving Gorch brothers. They love drinking and carousing with women almost as much as they love stealing money with one feeding off the other. Always the memorable performer, Oates, in particular, is quite colorful as the irascible, unpredictable half of the duo and just as adept at spouting period dialogue as he is using body language as evident in the scene where everyone in the gang takes a swig from a bottle of alcohol while he watches in mounting frustration until he’s finally given it – now empty. Ernest Borgnine turns in another solid performance as Pike’s confidante and best friend. He also acts as a sounding board, not afraid to give Pike an honest opinion. Like his friend, Dutch believes in loyalty and the actor’s natural charisma helps make his character likable.

Special mention goes to L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin as the dirtiest and most cowardly mercenaries. They attack their respective roles with gusto and without a hint of vanity. They look horrible and provide a lot of comic relief, always blaming each other when their gang makes a mistake, which is often. Bo Hopkins has a memorable cameo as an enthusiastic psychopath working for Pike. He’s unhinged in a darkly humorous way and it’s fun to watch the actor chew up the scenery for his brief amount of screen-time.

The climactic battle is a master class in editing and an impressive orgy of slow motion carnage that is a spectacle to behold. From the point of Angel’s death, there is little dialogue, no catchy one-liners or cheesy puns – just full-on, unadulterated mayhem as only Peckinpah could orchestrate. The body count is extensive: people are shot and blow-up with men and women killed – some intentionally and some caught in the crossfire. It is also a fitting conclusion for men that led violent lives. There’s something simultaneously fatalistic and heroic about the Wild Bunch’s march towards certain death. It is also very influential, going on to inspire similar epic showdowns in action films like John Woo’s Hard-Boiled (1992) and Christopher McQuarrie’s The Way of the Gun (2000), but they all pale in comparison.


In 1967, Sam Peckinpah needed work. Producer Kenneth Hyman asked him to rewrite a screenplay entitled The Diamond Story. If his work was accepted he could direct it as well. Instead, Peckinpah submitted another script he had re-written to Hyman entitled The Wild Bunch, written by Walon Green from a story by Roy Sickner, a stuntman and a longtime friend of Peckinpah’s. Green and Sickner had spent a couple of years trying to get their script made with no luck until the latter gave it to Peckinpah. Warner Brothers decided to have Peckinpah direct The Wild Bunch rather than The Diamond Story.

According to Green, Peckinpah polished the dialogue, making it “saltier,” and gave it a “more authentic Western ring.” Green wasn’t happy with the changes Peckinpah made to the Mexican village scene, which was originally done entirely in Spanish and featured Angel without the rest of the Wild Bunch. Peckinpah also added two flashbacks: the capture of Deke in a whorehouse and Pike’s love affair with a married woman.

When it came to casting, Hyman wanted Lee Marvin to play Pike and Peckinpah agreed. According to the director, the actor wanted to do it but was offered a “fucking million-dollar contract to do Paint Your Wagon,” and did it instead, much to Peckinpah’s chagrin. The director liked William Holden’s performance in Stalag 17 (1953) and cast him as Pike. For the role of Dutch, Hyman wanted Ernest Borgnine and at first Peckinpah disagreed because he hadn’t worked with him before and wanted to “be sure of everybody,” but the producer convinced him to cast the actor.
  

Peckinpah hired Lucien Ballard for director of photography and together they screened footage of the 1913 Mexican Revolution so that when they scouted locations they picked ones that captured the dry, dusty look he wanted. Another crucial collaborator was editor Lou Lombardo who had worked on an episode of the television show Felony Squad that featured a death sequence rendered in slow motion. Peckinpah liked that and the two men talked about shooting gunfights at various speeds and intercutting normal speed with slow motion.

At the end of February 1968, Peckinpah left for Mexico to finish up casting and a last few production details. This included meeting his good friend Don Emilio Fernandez who suggested Jorge Russek and Alfonso Arau to play Mapache’s lieutenants. Even more significantly, Fernandez read the script and offered a suggestion for the opening scene as Peckinpah recalled: “…suddenly he says to me, ‘You know, the Wild Bunch, when they go into that town like that, are like when I was a child and we would take a scorpion and drop it on an anthill…’ And I said, ‘What!’ And he said, ‘Yes, you see, the ants would attack the scorpion.’” Peckinpah loved this idea and rewrote the opening scene to incorporate it.

Not surprisingly, Peckinpah was a demanding director and there are many anecdotes of his antics during principal photography. Strother Martin remembered before the opening shoot-out Peckinpah wanted him to kiss his rifle. Martin refused because he thought it had been done too many times in films and the director yelled at him to do it. Martin did what he was told and when he finally saw the finished scene realized that “Sam had managed to get a different kind of kiss of a rifle than anybody else has ever gotten. He got it, of course, because I was scared shitless and mad at the same time.”


For the opening shoot-out, Peckinpah used as many as six cameras at the same time with some going 24 frames per second and some going faster to create the slow motion effects. Lombardo began editing a work print of this sequence and when he was finished it ran 21 minutes! Peckinpah took a pass at the sequence and cut it down to five minutes, retaining “the essence of every action we had but fragmented and intercut it all,” Lombardo remembered.

Peckinpah was a director that didn’t suffer fools gladly as William Holden recounted in an interview regarding a scene that featured Pike and his gang, which was particularly challenging. It was a long scene and everyone had dialogue but nobody knew their lines, assuming there’d be plenty of time to get it right on the set. Holden recalled:

“Sam said in this very calm but menacing voice: ‘Gentlemen, you were hired to work on this film as actors, and I expect actors to know their lines when they come to set. Now I’m willing to give you twenty minutes, and anyone can go wherever he wants to learn his lines. But when you come back, if you can’t be an actor, you will be replaced.’”

Holden remembers that this sent the cast scurrying to learn their lines and it was a memorable example of Peckinpah’s demand for professionalism.


The climactic shoot-out took 11 days to film. Peckinpah employed five cameras at the same time. It was very challenging because of the interlacing action that involved filming the foreground and then repeating it again for the background so that everything would match up. It was a very complex sequence to orchestrate due to the amount of action and the large number of extras.

Initially, the MPAA gave The Wild Bunch an X rating but Peckinpah and Lombardo argued that if they took a “particular segment out, it thrown off something else. They somehow understood most of that and allowed much of what we argued for to remain.” The studio previewed the film in Kansas City and Lombardo remembered, “The crowd turned out to be either completely for or completely against the film. And the ones who were against it were more violent than the film itself!” The Wild Bunch underwent final editing before general release.

The film was then shown at a special screening for the press in the Bahamas in June 1969. Not surprisingly, it polarized the audience with some people walking out in protest during the screening. At the press conference the next day, it continued to garner divisive reactions with Roger Ebert calling it “a masterpiece,” while Reader’s Digest’s Virginia Kelly saying, “I have only one question to ask: why was this film ever made?’ The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote, “In The Wild Bunch, which is about men who walk together, but in desperation, he [Peckinpah] turns the genre inside out. It’s a fascinating movie.” In his review for Time magazine, Jay Cocks wrote, “The Wild Bunch contains faults and mistakes, but its accomplishments are more than sufficient to confirm that Peckinpah, along with Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Penn, belong to the best of the newer generation of American filmmakers.” The New Republic’s Stanley Kaufman wrote, “[There is] a kinetic beauty in the very violence that his film lives and revels in…The violence is the film.”


After The Wild Bunch was given a general release, the studio decided to cut 20 minutes out because it wasn’t doing as well as they had hoped. All the flashbacks were cut, removing “the thing which humanized the characters. I couldn’t believe it,” Peckinpah said. In 1995, the flashbacks were restored to the film thereby allowing audiences to see his intended vision.

The Wild Bunch is about a group of men facing their own mortality. Their way of life is rapidly ending and they plan to go out doing it their way or die trying. In contrast, Deke’s gang are a bunch of filthy liars and cowards that are loyal to no one but money. They’re lazy and Peckinpah makes a point of showing close-ups of their leering faces full of grungy, missing teeth and beady eyes.

The Wild Bunch has all the elements of a rousing western: exciting gun fights, chases on horseback, a daring train heist, colorful characters, and the shoot-out to end all shoot-outs. Epic shoot-outs bookend the film. The first one sets the tone for the rest of the film and establishes the protagonists and the antagonists. The last one is their last hurrah – aging gunfighters with nowhere else to go and making a choice to go out on their terms. In the first one, they killed for money and in the last one they killed for one of their own. This is summed up beautifully towards the end when Pike decides to rescue Angel from insurmountable odds and tells the Gorch brothers, “Let’s go.” Lyle sizes him up for a beat and then replies, “Why not?” That’s all that needs to be said because we’ve watched these men through the entire film fight, laugh and get drunk together. They’ve been in life or death situations that bond them forever.

The Wild Bunch is about men willing to die for what they believe in and for Pike it is loyalty. His gang of outlaws are like brothers. That’s why nothing explicitly has to be said at the end. It is understood that when Pike says, “Let’s go,” that means let’s take on General Mapache and his army knowing that they will die in the process but at least they will do so on their own terms.



SOURCES


Simmons, Garner. Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage. Limelight Editions. 1998.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Dredd

The character of Judge Dredd first appeared in the March 1977 issue of British science fiction-themed comic book 2000 AD and was created by writer John Wagner, artist Carlos Ezquerra and editor Pat Mills. Set in the dystopian futureworld of Mega-City One, Dredd is a Dirty Harry-esque law enforcement officer in the sense that he uses extreme, often violent methods to serve justice. Crime in this world is so bad that he and his fellow judges have been bestowed by the powers that be with the ability to arrest, convict, sentence, and execute criminals.

Dredd proved to be so popular that in 1990 he got his own title, Judge Dredd Magazine. It made sense that eventually the character would make the jump to film as his world was rife with cinematic possibilities. Aspects of the comic book would pop up in films like RoboCop (1987) but it wasn’t until Hollywood tried to officially adapt it with Sylvester Stallone as Dredd. While I don’t have a problem with him as the character per se, the screenplay failed to carry over the comic book’s ironic humor and instead replaced it with Rob Schneider’s goofy sidekick. This version also transgressed important “Dredd mythology” by having the titular lawman remove his helmet (something he rarely does in the comic book) and developed a love interest between him and Judge Hershey – something that is forbidden between Judges in the source material.

Judge Dredd (1995) was trashed by critics and fans. Another cinematic adaptation was attempted until 2012 with Dredd. Produced by British studio DNA Films, it was directed by Pete Travis (Omagh) and written and produced by Alex Garland (28 Days Later). While still omitting the comic book’s ironic humor, they created a much more faithful representation of Dredd and his world with a gritty, violent take that resulted in lackluster box office returns. Strong word of mouth saw it perform better on home video where it has acquired a cult following.


After a succinct introduction to this world via a montage of footage and Dredd’s (Karl Urban) voiceover narration giving us the important details, we are dropped right in the middle of the action as the Judge pursues three junkies through the streets in an exciting chase sequence that culminates in a showdown where he efficiently executes the lone remaining criminal.

Once returning to headquarters, he’s assigned a rookie judge by the name of Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) who has powerful psychic abilities but has failed to get a passing grade in the academy. This is her last chance and she has to prove herself out in the field. They answer a call at the Peach Trees project where three men were tortured and dropped to their deaths by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a former prostitute now ruthless drug lord of the building. She pushes a drug known as Slo-Mo that gives you a high and creates the illusion that time is slowing down.

Dredd and Anderson arrive, assess the situation and investigate. They soon arrest a key member of Ma-Ma’s gang, which doesn’t sit too well with her and so she takes control of the building’s systems, locking it down thereby trapping the Judges inside. Cut off from HQ, they decide to work their way up the 200-story building and take down Ma-Ma and her gang. The rest of Dredd plays out like a suspenseful cat and mouse game punctuated by hard-hitting action sequences.


Dredd is a refreshingly stripped-down, no frills action film that tells us only what we need to know and doesn’t provide unnecessary backstories to our protagonists, which forces us to take them as they are, letting their actions provide insight into them. This may have also led to its commercial demise as the narrative refused to hold the audience’s hand and also refused to make Dredd a sympathetic character. In that respect, Judge Anderson serves that purpose.

She’s the rookie and our window into this world. She’s thrown into an impossible situation where its sink or swim, life or death – in other words, a very steep on-the-job learning curve. Olivia Thirlby (Juno) does a nice job of being the audience surrogate, providing an emotional touchstone, which acts in sharp contrast to Karl Urban’s no-nonsense Dredd. While Anderson doesn’t have the battle-hardened physicality of Dredd, she is able to read people’s minds and this is her distinct advantage. This is evident in the fascinating scene where she uses her psychic power to interrogate one of Ma-Ma’s gang. At first, he thinks that he’s got the upper hand but Anderson quickly reveals that she knows what she’s doing and turns the tables on him.

Dependable character actor Karl Urban (Star Trek) is perfectly cast as Dredd, giving a minimalist, Clint Eastwood-esque performance. In the first ten minutes, he manages to top Stallone’s cartoonish portrayal. The actor obviously did his homework, nailing Dredd’s humorless demeanor while still uttering a few choice one-liners that are amusing thanks to his deadpan delivery. Urban is also adept at making the film’s future-speak with words like “Iso-cube” sound natural – something that isn’t always to pull off. He also has the challenge of acting with three quarters of his head encased in a helmet for the entire film and yet is still able to exude toughness with a defiant sneer that looks like something Carlos Ezquerra would have drawn.


Versatile character actress Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) is impressive as the vicious drug lord Ma-Ma. She dives into the role without a hint of vanity as she messes up her natural beauty with a large scar on her face, bad teeth and disheveled appearance. She is able to exude lethal malevolence while being surrounded by bigger, tougher men by the way she carries herself. Ma-Ma doesn’t care whether she lives or dies and rules her gang with an iron fist.

Pete Travis bathes the entire film in a sickly grungy look as Dredd and Anderson work their way through a slum project. It suits the grim outlook of this futureworld. He and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) keep things visually interesting with the Slo-Mo hallucination sequences, which are vibrant and trippy riffs on the slow motion action scenes in The Matrix movies only druggier.


If there is any fault with Dredd it’s that the filmmakers overcompensate for the glib tone of Judge Dredd by going a bit too far in the other direction. In doing so, the film loses some of the satirical tone of the comic book. Fortunately, this is only a minor quibble because the filmmakers get so much right, creating a very faithful adaptation by learning from the mistakes of the previous attempt. Unfortunately, more moviegoers didn’t feel the same way and Dredd was a commercial failure but it lives on in home video, treasured by those that finally saw their favorite lawman be given his proper due. Justice has been served.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Punch-Drunk Love

Burnt out from making the personal, sprawling epic that was Magnolia (1999), Paul Thomas Anderson decided to make an Adam Sandler romantic comedy as his next project. He was a big fan of the popular comedian and wrote a film specifically for him. On the surface, the character Sandler plays in Punch-Drunk Love (2002) appears to be one of his trademark man-children prone to angry outbursts, but Anderson gets him to dig deeper than he had ever gone before in a physical portrayal that evokes legendary silent film comedians like Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati. Unfortunately, Sandler’s fanbase was not interested in seeing him starring in an art house film and neither did mainstream audiences as Punch-Drunk did not even make back its modest $25 million budget. It did, however, garner widespread praise and Anderson won the prestigious Best Director award at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. More importantly, it proved to be an important game changer for the filmmaker who began to eschew the flashier camerawork of his earlier films for a more formal approach and an emphasis on character over plot, which has resulted in more challenging fare.

Barry Egan (Sandler) is a timid salesman that supplies hotels with bathroom plungers. The first shot is of him sitting at a messy desk in the corner of an otherwise featureless room, which visually establishes his isolation. He goes outside and witnesses two seemingly random acts: a spectacular car accident immediately followed by a taxi cab dropping off a harmonium right in front of him and driving away.

Barry is a meek introvert that gets a panic attack after meeting a good-looking woman named Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) for the first time. This isn’t surprising when we see his family dynamic: he is the only brother among seven sisters, all of whom talk loudly over each other and boss him around. At work, they interrupt him with incessant phone calls and insult him. Barry deals with his anger by either spontaneously bursting into tears or exploding into sudden outbursts of violence, like at a party with his siblings where their persistent insults result in him smashing two glass patio doors. The kind of verbal abuse that he endures on a constant basis would drive anyone crazy.


To cope with his loneliness, Barry calls a phone sex line that proceeds to use his personal information to extort money from him. This scene is uncomfortable because Anderson utilizes long takes that linger on Barry’s increasingly awkward conversation with a phone sex worker. When she calls back the next day asking for more money, Anderson dwells on Barry’s nervousness as he rebuffs her.

Barry also discovers a loophole in a contest wherein he spends $3,000 on pudding to get a million frequent flyer miles. These seemingly random, abstract events dovetail into the most significant episode in Barry’s life: meeting Lena. Both the frequent flyer miles and his relationship with her provide a respite from his banal daily existence. His whole world begins to change. Welcome to a Paul Thomas Anderson romantic comedy.

Adam Sandler takes his trademark innocent-naïf-prone-to-sudden-bursts-of-violence character and creates a fascinating, new variation on it. Barry internalizes everything as he tries, desperately, to control his world. He seems to suffer from an acute case of agoraphobia and constantly looks uncomfortable. Anderson simulates this feeling by punctuating moments of silence with sudden, jarring blasts of sound. It is the presence of Lena who provides Barry with the calm and love that he so badly needs. Sandler’s performance is a revelation as he taps into an unseen side of his on-screen persona in a refreshingly abstract way. He displays an incredible amount of vulnerability as evident in the scene where he confesses to his brother-in-law dentist that he doesn’t like himself and has no one to talk to about his feelings. The scene ends with Barry breaking down and crying that is simultaneously hilarious in its suddenness and heartbreaking as well.


Known more for doing intense, emotionally-wrenching dramas like Breaking the Waves (1996) and Angela’s Ashes (1999), Emily Watson also shifts gears as the adorable Lena. Not only is her character’s vibrant red dress a nice visual contrast to Barry’s blue suit, but her large, expressive eyes are a lovely match for his sensitive face. She senses his need for human connection and a sweet disposition under his nervous façade. She is able to reach the romantic side that is buried under all the neuroses. They are an engaging couple and the scenes between them – especially the lush, atmospheric ones in Hawaii – have a romantic intimacy to them. Lena is a bit of an enigma. We don’t really know much about her except that she loves Barry and that is enough.

It is great to see someone of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s caliber go toe-to-toe with Sandler in an amusing shouting match they have over the phone and then the eventual face-to-face confrontation towards the end of the film. They each have their own distinctive acting styles and it is fascinating to see them collide and watch the sparks fly as a result. Hoffman’s arrogant blowhard is a one-note character but that’s kind of the point. His sole purpose is to be Barry’s antagonist, the roadblock to his happiness.

Punch-Drunk Love is akin to a Technicolor Jacques Tati film – albeit starring Adam Sandler. Barry, with his ubiquitous bright blue suit and exaggerated physical mannerisms, echoes silent comedians, like Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. Barry isn’t the most articulate guy and relies on his actions and his facial expressions to convey his feelings. There is a scene where Barry dances up and down a grocery aisle in a wonderful expression of pure happiness. It’s a thrilling cinematic moment that is an absolute joy to watch. Anderson contrasts Barry and Lena’s bland, minimalistic furnished apartments with the vibrant look of Hawaii that brings the film vividly to life.


The stunning visuals are enhanced by long-time Anderson composer Jon Brion’s discordant score that during the first half of the film mirror’s Barry’s chaotic life. The experimental music calms down and takes on a more conventional, romantic tone with Lena’s presence, reinforcing the calming effect she has on him. Punch-Drunk Love is Anderson at his most romantic and this is summed up best when Barry decides to go to Hawaii to be with Lena and over the soundtrack he plays the sweet ballad, “He Needs Me” from Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980). Barry finally stops being such a doormat and asserts himself. This sequence swells with emotion as Barry embraces his romantic side. The rather, child-like innocent vibe of this song as sung by Shelley Duvall perfectly encapsulates the romance between Barry and Lena.

While editing Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson was watching several Adam Sandler comedies and thought, “I want some of that. How do I do that?” He had always been fan of the comedian and wanted to work with him. To prepare for writing a comedy, Anderson did a short stint as a writer for Saturday Night Live. In 2000, Time magazine published an article about a University of California civil engineer named David Phillips who uncovered a loophole of sorts in a frequent flyer promotion by accumulating 1.25 million miles by spending $3,000 on 12,150 cups of Healthy Choice pudding. Anderson read the article and was intrigued. He met Phillips and optioned the rights to his story.

When the filmmaker set out to write the screenplay he put a picture of Emily Watson next to one of Sandler and thought they looked good together. Anderson incorporated elements from his own life. Like Barry, he came from a large family – three siblings and four half-siblings – and was also prone to temper tantrums. He wrote the script in four months.


Anderson met with Sandler on the set of Little Nicky (2000) and asked him if he wanted to work together on a film. Sandler said in an interview, “I play a role he wrote for me that I thought was a great part. I thought it was a challenge for me to do, but I also thought I could actually do it.” Anderson created the role of Lena for Emily Watson. As luck would have it, she wanted a change from the heavy dramas she was appearing in, like Angela’s Ashes. He met with her and asked what she wanted to do next without telling her that he had already written a part for her. Both her and Sandler were nervous about meeting each other but when they did the two actors got along well.

Burnt out from making such a lengthy, complex film like Magnolia, Anderson wanted to make a 90-minute romantic comedy. The film’s producer JoAnne Sellar said that Anderson was looking to change his approach to filmmaking: “The challenge was to create something different by taking a more intuitive, uncharted approach than on our previous films.” To this end, after casting the major speaking parts, he told his casting director Cassandra Kulukundis to fill out the remaining roles with non-actors. This was particularly important for Barry’s sisters: “Paul didn’t want to hire actors because he wanted to capture the raw awkwardness of family where people nag and talk over each other and don’t wait for their cues.” She found an actual family to portray Barry’s and so of the seven sisters six are non-actors and four are related.

To give the cast and crew an indication of the look and tone he was going for, Anderson screened Ernie Kovacs short films, the Richard Lester Beatles film Help! (1965) and the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film Carefree (1938). According to cinematographer Robert Elswit, the look of Punch-Drunk Love was inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s early color films, specifically A Woman is a Woman (1961) and Jean-Claude Brialy’s electric-blue suit and how it contrasted in rooms with white walls.”


The production shot entirely on location in the San Fernando Valley, Utah and Oahu. Initially, Anderson found changing his approach to filmmaking difficult. “There were scary moments when I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. The director ended up using very little of the first two weeks of footage because “I was still making the same movie. I had to educate myself on how to keep it simple.”

Before filming, Anderson already had ideas for what he wanted to do with the film’s score and asked friend and regular collaborator Jon Brion to create a temporary score that could be played on set during principal photography. Anderson said, “It’s often a matter of having a rhythm in my head that I carry around for awhile. There was one that I sort of sang out to Jon Brion on Punch-Drunk Love, a waltzy kind of pattern, in which I was timing something out and giving him a tempo.”

Brion and his engineer recorded a series of ten-minute ensemble percussion pieces that gave the actors an idea of a given scene’s rhythm. His score blended in with the film’s overall sound design to the point that in post-production Brion submitted many three to five second pieces that “were essentially sound bites which they could place at their discretion.” The centerpiece of the film was always going to be “He Needs Me,” the Harry Nilsson-composed song. Anderson was able to get a hold of the original multi-track recordings and played the song over daily rushes. The crew, many of whom had not heard the song before, realized what he wanted to do.


Punch-Drunk Love received positive reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The film is exhilarating to watch because Sandler, liberated from the constraints of formula, reveals unexpected depths as an actor. Watching this film, you can imagine him in Dennis Hopper roles. He has darkness, obsession and power.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “What Mr. Anderson wants to do is recapture, without nostalgia, the giddiness and sweep of old movies, and his mastery of the emotional machinery of the medium is breathtaking. You can feel his impulsive pleasure as he flings the camera through long tracking shots, and layers his nimble visual compositions with music.”

The New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris wrote, “It is already apparent that Punch-Drunk Love will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but nonetheless Mr. Anderson has found a way to fashion a passionate romance out of the materials of postmodern chaos.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “At heart, Punch-Drunk Love is a David Lynch film, a cosmic daydream in which Sandler gets sucked into a vortex where the power of love fights the pull of darkness.” The USA Today’s Mike Clark gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “This near-magical collaboration seems the right movie at the right time for star and filmmaker. It proves that Sandler has talent beyond his in-your-face past vehicles and that Anderson … can triumph on a scale smaller than the 188-minute Magnolia.” However, in his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, “As elegantly crafted as it often is, Anderson’s movie is essentially a one-trick pony that, hampered by an undeveloped script, ultimately pulls up lame.”

With this film, Sandler took his angry man-child persona to places it hadn’t been before as Anderson examines the reasons why Barry acts the way he does. Sandler’s behavior is more extreme and the situations Barry finds himself in are more heightened and stylized than the comedian’s usual fare. As a conventional romantic comedy, Punch-Drunk Love is a complete failure. It doesn’t adhere to the usual conventions or follow the traditional beats we normally associate with the genre and this is a good thing. Anderson takes the genre and filters it through his unique sensibilities to make a film distinctly his own. He has crafted a sweet yet odd love story about a man who learns how to love.



SOURCES

“Behind the Scenes with Robert Elswit.”

Brooks, Xan. “I can be a real arrogant brat.” The Guardian. January 27, 2003.

Caro, Mark. “Paul Thomas Anderson Casts Wider Net with Punch-Drunk Love.” Chicago Tribune. October 16, 2002.

Kehr, Dave. “A Poet of Love and Chaos in the Valley.” The New York Times. October 6, 2002.

Kenny, Glen. “’That’s Just a Good Sound’: Paul Thomas Anderson on the Music in His Movies.” Wondering Sound. December 12, 2014.

Kirkland, Bruce. “Pleased as Punch.” Toronto Sun. October 8, 2002.

Laurent, Joseph. “Paul Thomas Anderson, Punch-Drunk Love.” BBC. January 28, 2003.

Morris, Wesley. “Out There.” Boston Globe. October 14, 2002.

Punch-Drunk Love Production Notes. 2002.

Turan, Kenneth. “Crazy for Love.” Los Angeles Times. May 20, 2002.


Ramos, Steve. “Who’s Laughing Now?” City Beat. September 19, 2002.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Fallen Angels

Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels (1995) isn’t as beloved as some of his other films, most notably Chungking Express (1994), because the characters that populate it aren’t as inherently likeable. They are more standoff-ish or too cool or just plain odd to invite audience identification like the ones in Chungking. As a result, Fallen Angels is a film that is admired rather than loved, which is a shame because there is a lot to love in it. Made a year after the much-celebrated Chungking, it also consists of two separate stories one of which was originally intended to be in the 1994 film but when Wong found it was getting too long removed it and saved it for Fallen Angels.

Wong Chi-Ming (Leon Lai) is a stylish hitman that believes it’s not wise to get emotionally attached to his business partner/handler (Michelle Reis) who secretly pines for him even while setting up assignments and prepping him for them. She goes through his trash and frequents the same bar even sitting in his usual spot just to feel close to him. They are very beautiful, cool-looking people with the former killing his targets to the strains of the trip-hop-like song, “Because I’m Cool” by Nogabe “Robison” Randriaharimalala remixing “Karmacoma” by Massive Attack, while using two handguns in a pretty mean Chow Yun-Fat impersonation.

Wong deflates the overt coolness of this action sequence in the next scene when Wong Chi-Ming takes public transportation home and runs into an old classmate from grade school that proceeds to babble on about his job, which is selling life insurance. This causes Wong Chi-Ming to think to himself, “I often wonder if any insurance company would insure a professional killer.” He leads a simple life because his handler arranges everything for him. As he muses via voiceover narration, “The best thing about my profession is that there’s no need to make any decision. Who’s to die… when… where… it’s all been planned by others. I’m a lazy person.” All he has to do is show up and do the job. They are quite a pair: he has no interest in making human connections, preferring to move through life like some kind of ghost, while she craves it, obsessing over a man she can never have.


In the other story, Ho Chi Moo (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is an ex-con that was rendered mute at the age of five when he ate a can of pineapples that expired – a sly nod to his cop character in Chungking who collected cans of pineapple with a very specific expiration date. Not surprisingly, he finds it hard to make friends or have a job so he sneaks into businesses after hours and works. We even get an amusing montage of him terrorizing customers unaware that he is working off the book, including one guy he forces to eat a ton of ice cream. In his spare time, Ho Chi Moo looks after his father (Man-Lei Chan) who still mourns the death of his wife.

One night, Ho Chi Moo meets an excitable woman named Charlie (Charlie Yeung) whom he lends money to use a public phone to call a girlfriend she’s mad at only to then cry on his shoulder afterwards. They make for an amusing pair as she talks incessantly, ranting and raving, while he exaggerates his reactions for comedic effect.

Wong cuts back and forth between these stories with the characters interacting briefly with each other at key moments in seemingly random fashion, much like in Chungking Express. There is a feeling that these two stories are simply just a couple of the many tales in this world – Wong’s own version of The Naked City (1948) – Hong Kong style.


The cast is uniformly wonderful. Leon Lai epitomizes the cool hitman and this is juxtaposed with his voiceover narration that suggests a self-aware killer. Michelle Reis’ handler is a tragic figure, pining for a man oblivious to her feelings towards him. Like Faye Wong in Chungking, her character gets lost in music as evident in a captivatingly hypnotic scene where she drapes herself over a jukebox while Laurie Anderson’s “Speak My Language” plays over the soundtrack.

Takeshi Kaneshiro delivers an inspired performance as he uses his expressive face and body language to convey what Ho Chi Moo is thinking and feeling towards others, often in humorous ways. The actor plays well off of Charlie Yeung whose character is akin to a verbal explosion, creating chaos wherever she goes. The most heartfelt scenes in the film are the ones depicting his touching relationship with his father. We see them goofing around as son films father cooking with a video camera and then later he watches his father checking out the tape, laughing at the memory of that moment. Their relationship is the heart and soul of Fallen Angels and prevents it from being a merely an exercise in style.

Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle adopt an even more intimate stylistic approach with Fallen Angels than on previous efforts as characters’ faces loom close to the camera and are distorted slightly thanks to the use of a fisheye lens. It gives the impression that they are trapped in a fish bowl, trying to find a way out. Wong and Doyle adopt a very similar restless camerawork approach and jump cut editing style as they did on Chungking, which makes Fallen Angels a spiritual sequel of sorts. It is very easy to imagine the characters in both films existing in the same cinematic world. In fact, Ho Chi Moo ends up working at the same fast food joint that Faye Wong did in the previous film.


Fallen Angels is populated by attractive characters full of existential angst as they wax philosophically about their daily ruminations and life via voiceover narration.  As a result, we get a soulful hitman, his romantic handler and a playful ex-con. Much like with Chungking Express, we get the feeling that these characters live in the moment with very little thought about their future. At one point, Wong Chi-Ming even flirts with the notion of quitting but doesn’t know how. Wong employs even more voiceover narration than Chungking so that there is more of it than actual spoken dialogue, anticipating what Terrence Malick would do later in Tree of Life (2011) and To the Wonder (2012).


Much like with Chungking, Wong uses Fallen Angels to show how fleeting and precious human contact is, whether it is a brief encounter with a chatty woman in a restaurant or cooking with your father. They are all moments to be treasured because life can be fleeting and one never knows when exactly it will all be over. Wong populates his films with dreamers and romantics. Ho Chi Moo may be one of the most distinctive – a holy goof, as Jack Kerouac would say, who sees the world from a distinctive perspective and expresses himself in an equally unique way. Wong spends more screen-time with him than with Wong Chi-Ming because he’s a more interesting character and one that best encapsulates his cinematic worldview so it makes sense that Fallen Angels ends with him riding off to an uncertain future.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Inside Llewyn Davis

“I’m not the one you want, babe
I’m not the one you need
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Never weak but always strong
To protect you an’ defend you
Whether you are right or wrong
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe”
-   “It Ain’t Me, Babe” by Bob Dylan

Every time I watch Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), I’m reminded of the Bob Dylan song, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and how the lyrics pertain to the film’s titular character. Set in 1961, it is the Coen brothers’ bittersweet love letter to folk music. Even though the film takes place before Dylan’s career took off, his shadow looms large because we know, in hindsight, how much he will influence the New York City Greenwich Village scene and beyond. Instead of focusing on that, the Coens decide to chronicle a week’s worth of misadventures from Llewyn’s life and how he manages to self-sabotage every potential shot at success. Partly inspired by folk singer Dave Von Ronk, Llewyn is brilliantly portrayed by Oscar Isaac who depicts his character as equal parts gifted musician and misanthrope.

The film opens with Llewyn’s moving cover of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in a small nightclub in the Village. Isaac is actually playing and singing live, delivering a soulful rendition of this song. It sets a definite tone and mood, complete with the stylized cinematography that resembles a slightly faded photograph. Llewyn’s life is a mess. His musical partner committed suicide and he’s attempting a solo career with little success. His debut record isn’t selling very well and his manager (Jerry Grayson) has no idea how to promote it or him, for that matter. Personally, he lives a transient lifestyle, crashing on the couches of various friends and ex-girlfriends, chief among them is Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan).


It’s not that Llewyn doesn’t know what makes a hit record. He recognizes what songs people like as evident in the one that fellow folk singer Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) performs with Jean and her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake) that the audience spontaneously sings a-long to. Llewyn stubbornly picks songs to play that are powerful but not very catchy. When he does get a shot on cashing in on a potential hit record, he forgoes royalties for money up front because he is in desperate need of it. The scene depicting the recording of said song is hilarious as Isaac and Justin Timberlake work out the arrangement while Adam Driver, in a memorable cameo, warms up in the background with all sorts of odd sounds. Then, they record the song and you can tell that it is going to be a hit. Arriving in Chicago partway through the film, Llewyn seeks out legendary nightclub owner Bud Grossman (F.Murray Abraham) and plays him a song full of feeling and emotion but it’s not much of a toe-tapper or, as Bud tells him afterwards, “I don’t see a lot of money here.”

Along the way Llewyn acquires a traveling companion – a cat that he accidentally let out at a place he was staying. The musician loses the feline a couple of times but they always seem to find each other. Inside Llewyn Davis segues into a proper road movie when Llewyn shares a car ride to Chicago with an obnoxious jazz musician (Coen regular John Goodman) and nearly mute beat poet (Garrett Hedlund). We feel Llewyn’s pain as he spends hours enduring the jazzman’s insults and the driver’s monosyllabic responses (rivaling Peter Storemare’s equally silent type in Fargo). Their journey feels like an eternity until the poet tells a cryptic story and then recites one of his poems.

Oscar Isaac is a revelation in this film, digging deep to find a way to make an unlikeable character like Llewyn watchable. The actor uncovers Llewyn’s feelings in a heartfelt scene when he visits his father who is sick. He plays a song for him that he used to like. Early on, his sister (Jeanine Serralles) hints at a contentious relationship between father and son and through song the latter tries to reconnect with the former. The stern-faced patriarch says nothing but he seems to find some kind of peace from Llewyn’s performance. It is a touching moment until the Coens punctuate it with a bit of a cruel poop joke.


Llewyn’s music comes out of a great pain that is conveyed through the emotion in his singing and playing. Clearly, he has not gotten over his partner’s death and it colors his entire worldview. As a result, he doesn’t let anyone get too close lest he loses them, too. Isaac refuses to shy away from Llewyn’s less sympathetic aspects. When he’s on stage, however, he’s capable of such warmth and emotion as evident in the absolutely moving final musical number, a powerful rendition of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song).”

Cast against type, Carey Mulligan portrays Jean as an acerbic woman that clearly resents Llewyn over the failure of their past relationship. She often spews venom at his direction, still bitter over how things went between them. Jean knows that she can’t depend on him and even though he still has feelings for her knows, deep down, that it will never work out between them because he’s emotionally unavailable. Mulligan does an excellent job playing Llewyn’s angry foil while also hinting at possible unresolved feelings towards him.

Around 2005 or 2006, Joel Coen thought of a possible scenario for a film: what if a folk singer was beaten up outside a Greenwich Village nightclub in 1961? It stayed with him for years and with his brother Ethan they decided to come up with a film that would explain this incident. The Coens liked the early 1960s era of folk music and were drawn to Dave Van Ronk’s posthumous memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street because it was a “document of its time,” and really gave “a sense of what it was like to be a working musician at that time,” said Ethan in an interview. They decided to option the book with the notion of using aspects of the musician’s life in their film. Van Ronk moved to Greenwich Village as a teenager and spent the next five decades there recording several albums that mixed blues, jazz and sea chanteys. He championed Bob Dylan early on as well as aspiring songwriters like Joni Mitchell.


Similarities to Van Ronk included having Llewyn sing three Van Ronk-associated songs, the faux cover of Llewyn’s solo album is a direct nod to Van Ronk’s 1963 LP Inside Dave Van Ronk. Both Llewyn and Van Ronk spent time in the merchant marines, went to Chicago to audition for the famous Gate of Horn club only to be rejected, and decided not to join a Peter, Paul and Mary-type folk group. That being said, those close to Van Ronk were quick to point out that, personality-wise, Llewyn doesn’t resemble him at all – people slept on his couch not the other way around and he was more philanthropic whereas Llewyn is misanthropic.

The Coens researched the time period by watching various documentaries, variety shows from the era, and read Dylan’s memoir where he talks about the New York music scene when he arrived. Early on, while writing the screenplay, the Coens wanted to reveal at the end that most of the film had been a flashback leading up to the beginning again and then they had to figure out what happened in-between. They also involved legendary music producer T. Bone Burnett, bouncing ideas off of him.

He not only assembled a powerhouse group of musicians to record the soundtrack (that included the likes of Marcus Mumford and the Punch Brothers) but also worked with the cast in recreating the music of the period. The Coens auditioned several famous musicians who were able to nail performing a song, “then we’d ask them to do a scene, and then you’d go, ‘Um, yeah, this isn’t going to work.’ You can get almost anybody who’s got a modicum of talent through a scene, or two, or three, but you can’t do that for an entire movie,” said Joel.


Casting director Ellen Chenoweth suggested Oscar Isaac because he was an actor who could play and sing. She showed the Coens an audition tape and they were impressed enough that they passed it on to Burnett who told them to cast the actor as Llewyn. Burnett was impressed with Isaac’s skills: “I haven’t worked with an actor who could play and sing this style of music this well. You can’t do it with bluster, you have to do it with the rawest honesty you can.” All the songs were done live, from start to finish, sometimes 30 takes of one song. Isaac didn’t mind as he loved the music and had been playing the songs 100 times a day in preparation.

In terms of the film’s look, the Coens used the album cover for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as a reference point. They told cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel they wanted “a slushy New York,” he remembered, “We had to feel the winter and that dirty feeling when the snow starts to melt.” He and the Coens decided to shot on film stock because it “seemed appropriate for the period because of the grain structure of the film stock.” Principal photography took place in various locations in and around New York City over six weeks.

Much like the Coens’ A Serious Man (2009), Inside Llewyn Davis is about a protagonist at the mercy of an uncaring world but he’s also in control of certain aspects of his life, always making the wrong decision as if he is out punish himself by taking a harder route. An argument could be made that Llewyn doesn’t want to sell-out and he even accuses Jean of being a careerist at one point, but I think he’s simply punishing himself for being unable to prevent his partner from committing suicide.

“Go lightly from the ledge, babe
Go lightly on the ground
I’m not the one you want, babe
I will only let you down
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who will promise never to part
Someone to close his eyes for you
Someone to close his heart
Someone who will die for you an’ more
But it ain’t me, babe”

Despite all the poor decisions and setbacks, Llewyn soldiers on with a determination that is admirable or foolhardy. At the rate he’s going he will always be a struggling musician and mainstream success will elude him. As if to reinforce the point, the film ends with Llewyn leaving a nightclub he frequents just as a young Bob Dylan takes the stage and begins to play. He has grown tired of the daily grind of a struggling musician and the Coens refuse to romanticize it. Instead, they opt for their usual objective viewpoint that presents a world and the characters that inhabit it without judgment. As a result, they are sometimes mistakenly accused of not caring about their characters, which is not true. A lot of work went into constructing the world of Inside Llewyn Davis and the creation of a complex character as Llewyn. They are helped considerably by Davis’ wonderful performance. For every Bob Dylan that makes it big there are all kinds of Llewyn Davises that do not for various reasons. Their stories are just as interesting and worth telling as Llewyn’s.


SOURCES

B, Benjamin. “Folk Implosion.” American Cinematographer. January 2014.

Browne, David. “Meet the Folks Singer Who Inspired Inside Llewyn Davis.” Rolling Stone. December 2, 2013.

Cieply, Michael. “MacDougal Street Homesick Blues.” The New York Times. January 27, 2013.

Hiatt, Brian. “The Coen Brothers’ Classic Folk Tale: Behind Inside Llewyn Davis.” Rolling Stone. November 21, 2013.

Inside Llewyn Davis Production Notes. 2013.

Nicholson, Amy. “Interview: Oscar Isaac of Inside Llewyn Davis.” Village Voice. December 4, 2013.

Rohter, Larry. “For a Village Troubadour, a Late Encore.” The New York Times. December 5, 2013.


Ryzik, Melena. “30 Takes of One Song? No Sweat for Llewyn’s Star.” The New York Times. December 6, 2013.