Friday, June 23, 2017

Hardware

Drone technology is commonplace now but back in 1990 it was a novel concept and Hardware (1990) anticipated the use of remote controlled robots for warfare making it eerily relevant now more than ever before. This film marked an auspicious debut for filmmaker Richard Stanley as he successfully tapped into the emerging alternative rock music genre of the late 1980s with Cyberpunk culture to create a distinctive science fiction film with political undertones fused with thriller genre tropes. While it received negative reviews from critics back in the day, it was modestly successful commercially and has since gone on to become a cult film.

We are introduced to a post-apocalyptic futureworld where scavengers roam the wasteland known as the Zone looking for anything they can sell. Civilization exists in an industrial graveyard where radiation levels are still high, keeping people inside. Moses Baxter (Dylan McDermott) is a forager who buys the disembodied head of a robot from a fellow scavenger as a Christmas present for his beautiful girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis), a multimedia artist that welds metal sculptures.

Early on, Jill says about her sculpture, “It’s like I’m fighting the metal and so far the metal is winning.” These words prove to prophetic as she takes the robot head and adds it to her massive sculpture. Unbeknownst to her and Mo the robot head is actually a highly advanced military drone known as the M.A.R.K. 13. It activates and begins to reassemble itself. It soon sees Mo and Jill as threats and thus begins a battle between humans and robot, flesh vs. metal, humanity vs. technology as the film hurtles towards a bloody, horror movie showdown.

I like that Stanley takes the time to develop the relationship between Mo and Jill. They love each other but there is a tension between them as they quarrel over having kids and population control. There is a believable intimacy between them and Dylan McDermott and Stacey Travis have excellent chemistry together. Jill is no damsel in distress and is much more resourceful than her physically stronger boyfriend who tends to go charging into a dangerous situation. With the help of Mo’s best friend, Shades (John Lynch), also physically inferior, confronts the M.A.R.K. 13.

McDermott does a solid job of playing a flawed but ultimately stand-up guy that genuinely cares for Jill even if he’s not a 100% committed to their relationship. Character actor extraordinaire William Hootkins (Star Wars) shows up as Jill’s creepy neighbor who is obsessed with her and has been stalking her for some time. The actor is not afraid to go for it, playing a completely distasteful person whose comeuppance is well-deserved.

Stanley makes some unusual musical choices, like Simon Boswell’s spaghetti western-tinged score that kicks off the film with the scavenger with no name (played by Fields of the Nephilim frontman Carl McCoy) wandering the wasteland, or playing classical music over Mo’s hallucinogenic demise complete with fractal imagery no less – the M.A.R.K. 13 literally orchestrating it all. It really earns its Cyberpunk credentials by including choice cuts like “Stigmata” by Ministry and “The Order of Death” by Public Image Ltd., which enhance the futuristic feel of the world Stanley has created.

Stanley fleshes out his futureworld via radio broadcasts featuring Iggy Pop as an enthusiastic DJ known as Angry Bob, providing tantalizing details of just how bad things have gotten. Outside, everything takes on a hellish red haze. Mo and Shades take a cab driven by none other than legendary rock ‘n’ roller Lemmy who puts on “Ace of Spades” by his band Motorhead on the stereo. Much like Blade Runner (1982), the desired destination for those who can afford it is outer space but who can afford it? Certainly not Mo and Jill.

The original idea for Hardware came out of a dream Richard Stanley had when he was 13:

“I had a series of dreams about the guy in the hat, the character that turns up in Dust Devil and a bunch of other things. In one dream he was searching for something, and he digs up the metal skull with the camera lens eyes and hypodermic teeth.”

Aspects of those dreams surfaced in a Super-8 short film entitled, “Incidents in an Expanding Universe,” that Stanley made piecemeal while going to school in South Africa when he was a teenager. Most of the inspiration for what would become Hardware came from music videos, horror comic books like Creepy and Eerie, as well as spaghetti westerns and Italian horror movies. He wrote the screenplay in a week while listening to Iron Maiden’s “Flash of the Blade” repeatedly.

After finishing the script for Wicked Films and TV, Ltd., Stanley joined a guerrilla Muslim faction in Afghanistan. While there, he was nearly killed by a Russian missile and spent three days wandering with a wounded comrade strapped to his back until he found a Red Cross refugee camp. It was there that he learned, via telex that a deal had been made with Palace Pictures to turn his script for Hardware into a film. Stanley went straight from the battlefield and into pre-production on his film.

Originally, Hardware was set in England but when Miramax got involved, becoming co-financier and its distributor in the United States, they insisted that American actors play Jill and Mo. Stanley wanted to cast Bill Paxton as Mo and Jeffrey Combs as Shades but was only allowed to employ two Americans and had already cast Stacey Travis as Jill, which meant that Combs was out. Stanley met with Paxton, who really wanted to do it, but couldn’t get out of his commitment to making Navy SEALs (1990). The filmmaker originally envisioned Mo to be more like a Hell’s Angel but Dylan McDermott changed him to a career military soldier that believes in family and reads The Bible. As a result, Stanley didn’t like the character as much because he lacked the deeper flaws he had originally envisioned.

The taxi cab driver was originally to be played by Sinead O’Connor but she had to pull out due to a scheduling conflict and Stanley persuaded hard rocker Lemmy to do it at the last minute for a bottle of Jack Daniels. He was given a shoulder holster with a pistol during filming and proceeded to draw it and the weapon accidentally fell out of his hand and into the Thames River, lost forever.

Most of the film was shot in the Roundhouse, an empty building that had been derelict for years (it used to be a concert venue for the likes of Jimi Hendrix), in Camden Town. The production built Jill’s apartment in the middle of the building and lived there for six weeks. Some city exteriors were filmed in Canning Town and Port Talbot in Wales, the latter of which had inspired the futureworlds of Blade Runner and Brazil (1984). The desert scenes were shot in Morocco. The production saved up enough money to take a crew of eight there and found it very challenging, encountering a “freak storm with flash floods and a lot of people drowned in a nearby town,” Stanley recalled.

The shooting schedule was originally set for seven weeks but stretched to nine with cast and crew working grueling 12-hour days, six days a week for little money. Six models of the M.A.R.K. 13 were used for filming with a modified battery remote-control one costing $80,000, a full costume, a foam one for stunt work, a fire resistant one, a pair of walking legs, and a bag of assorted parts.

Predictably, Hardware did not do well with critics at the time of its initial release. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Watching Hardware is like being trapped inside a video game that talks dirty.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “D+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “ It’s as if someone had remade Alien with the monster played by a rusty erector set.” The Washington Post’s Richard Harrington wrote, “Hardware is an MTV movie, a mad rush of hyperkinetic style and futuristic imagery with little concern for plot (much less substance).” In her review for the Chicago Tribune, Johanna Steinmetz wrote, “Though it does know how to hammer home a point, Hardware doesn’t always have matching nuts and bolts.” Stanley said of his own film at the time: “I want to inflict serious damage on the audience…I’m sticking my finger up at everything. I purposely wrote the dialogue to be vitriolic and disgusting…I’m moving punk from vinyl to film.”

Society in Hardware is obsessed with population control and why not? Who would want to bring up children after World War III? Inhabitable space is of a premium after most of the world has been reduced to a derelict wasteland. For such a small budget, Stanley does an excellent job of creating a tangible world with its own distinctive lived-in look and feel.

Hardware warns of being over-reliant on technology as the M.A.R.K. 13 traps Jill in her apartment by taking control of the door locks, the phone and all of the electrical systems putting her at a severe disadvantage. Science fiction can often act as a warning – beware of what the future may bring or how the abuses of technology could be our undoing. We are supposed to heed the warnings of these fictional prophecies but we rarely do.


SOURCES

“Cult Director of Hardware Richard Stanley Interviewed.” The Quietus. June 24, 2009.

Forsythe, Coco. “Richard Stanley Interview: Dust Devil.” Future Movies. June 22, 2009.

Jones, Alan. “Hardware: Filming High Concept on Low Budget.” Cinefantastique. 1991.

McAllister, Matt. “Interview: Richard Stanley.” Sci-Fi Bulletin. 2009.

Nutman, Philip. “On Robots and Ratings.” Fangoria. 1990.

“Richard Stanley: Interview.” Time Out London.


Vijn, Aro. “Richard Stanley, I Presume? An Interview with the Director of Hardware.” Screen Anarchy. November 18, 2009.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Con Air

By all rights, Con Air (1997) should have been an awful waste of time – just another tired Jerry Bruckheimer testosterone action movie whose final fate should have been wedged between beer and pick-up truck ads on television. Instead, the movie cleverly sends up and celebrates nearly every action cliché in the genre. No expense is spared as Powers Boothe is enlisted to solemnly intone the virtues of the U.S. Rangers at the beginning of the movie and then has Trisha Yearwood sing a sappy love song (“How Do I Live”) over the protagonist reuniting with his wife.

U.S. Ranger Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) is due to be paroled after killing a drunk who threatened him and his wife (Julia Roberts wannabe Monica Potter). We are subjected to the typical passage of time montage documenting Poe’s stint in prison as director Simon West and the screenplay by Scott Rosenberg slyly reference a similar sequence with Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona (1987) and the prison riot scenes in Natural Born Killers (1994). No, really. The prologue clocks in at a speedy five minutes and change, economically setting up the premise. Then, the opening credits play over Poe in prison reading and writing letters to his daughter, employing every cliché in the book all with a thick as molasses Southern drawl.

Of course, Poe’s trip home isn’t going to be that easy as his knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time continues when the plane he’s on just happens to be transporting the worst criminal scum on the planet. Chief among them, Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom (John Malkovich), a serial rapist (Danny Trejo), a Black Panther-esque militant (Ving Rhames), a Hannibal Lector rip-off (Steve Buscemi), a young Dave Chappelle riffing his way through the movie as a minor criminal that incites the jailbreak, and a whole slew of mass murderers.

Naturally, the convicts get free of their restraints and take control of the plane. To make matters worse, Poe’s buddy (Mykelti Williamson) goes into insulin shock. On the ground, U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) and DEA Agent Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney) get into a heated debate about how exactly to deal with the runaway plane – Larkin wants to take it down through peaceful means while Malloy wants to shoot it out of the sky. Naturally, it’s up to Poe to do the right thing and save the day.

Clearly riffing on his psychotic assassin from In the Line of Fire (1993), albeit with a much better sense of humor, John Malkovich gets the lion’s share of the movie’s best dialogue and delivers it with his trademark scathing dry wit. He really seems to be having fun with this role. Along comes Steve Buscemi as a criminal with a revered and feared reputation and yet we never actually see him do anything to support these claims. He and Malkovich get locked into a competition to see who can deliver the best one-liner with the driest of deliveries.

Colm Meaney and John Cusack have a lot of fun bickering back and forth, as the former plays an assholish DEA agent, a typical blowhard authority figure, while the latter plays a cerebral U.S. Marshal – one of his trademark characters dropped into a slam-bang Bruckheimer action movie. Part of the fun of watching Cusack in Con Air is seeing him navigate the kind of movie he doesn’t usually do, butting heads with Bruckheimer stereotypes with often interesting results.

You have to hand it to Nicolas Cage; he certainly knows how to pick action movies that allow him to play ever so slightly left-of-center characters like The Rock (1996), where he played an anti-action hero, and Face/Off (1997), a stylish John Woo movie with an insane role reversal plot twist. In this movie, the actor looks ridiculous with his glorious mullet, taking his cue from Jean-Claude Van Damme’s similar ‘do in Hard Target (1993). With Con Air, Cage wisely plays Poe as if it were a straight-forward action movie, which is in sharp contrast to many of the larger than life characters around him. He’s gracious and smart enough to know that when everyone around him is playing larger than life characters, go the low-key route.

Getting his start in commercials, director Simon West wears his influences on his sleeve, doing his best Michael Bay impersonation as he employs oh-so dramatic slow-mo shots of badass characters walking towards the camera (a ‘90s staple – see Armageddon), our hero outrunning an explosion, and everything is gorgeously shot and edited within an inch of its life.

For a big, loud action movie, the dialogue is quite clever and, more importantly, delivered well by the cast – which, incidentally, is an incredible collection of movie stars and character actors. It is so jam-packed with talented thespians that you wonder how in the hell did the powers that be get them all to be in this movie? Con Air looks and sounds like a Bruckheimer action film but it is Rosenberg’s screenplay that is the wild card. It sets up the standard, implausible action movie premise and introduces the genre archetypes (i.e. the lone wolf protagonist with his pretty, loving wife and the criminal mastermind, etc.) and starts messing around with the formula.

Scott Rosenberg garnered a lot of buzz from his screenplay for Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead (1995). Disney came calling and hired him to write a script. They gave him a Los Angeles Times article about a Federal Marshal program that transported inmates across the country. To research the operation, he went to Oklahoma City and spent three days on a plane with convicts. He observed, “hardened convicts at their worst. It was very unsettling, and a bit terrifying.” Rosenberg settled down to write the script, listening to a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers albums and came up with an idea about a guy sent to prison when his wife was pregnant and had never met his daughter. This freed up Rosenberg to populate the script with “the craziest motherfuckers; the most absurd dialogue and set-pieces.”

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer read Rosenberg’s script and bought it for his production company but felt that it needed to be more character-driven. He worked closely with Rosenberg to “add more dimension” to the characters and make it a story about redemption. Bruckheimer hired Simon West to direct because he had been impressed by his T.V. commercial work.

Upon completing The Rock with Nicolas Cage, Bruckheimer asked the actor to star in Con Air. With this movie, he wanted to return to a “more old-fashioned style of action movie,” and used Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952) as a point of reference, playing a character with good values. To prepare for the role, he visited Folsom State Prison where he had to sign a “no hostage” clause in order to walk among hardened inmates in the Level Four lock-up. Everything was fine until he, Bruckheimer, Rosenberg and West talked to one group of inmates in the yard and not another. All hell broke loose as one inmate tried to stab another.

Cage observed that many inmates had chiseled physiques and decided to take his cue from boxer Ken Norton and “look like I could survive anything, anywhere.” To this end, he adopted a specific diet, ran five miles a day and lifted weights frequently. At one point, the studio was worried that the actor was getting too ripped, which he found amusing: “I thought, ‘Now that’s a new one – too built-up for an action movie.’” In the script, Poe wasn’t too smart, “just a skeleton of a character,” according to Cage, and made him a Southern man that idolizes his wife. He also decided to make Poe an Army Ranger to explain how he could survive on a plane without a gun. Winning an Academy Award hadn’t mellowed out the actor as West remembered, “If we were doing an intense scene, he’d howl like a banshee and he’d leap around like a banshee, too. I’d give him a minute or two and then I’d say, ‘Let’s move on, Nick.”

Con Air received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the movie three out of four stars and wrote, “The movie is essentially a series of quick setups, brisk dialogue and elaborate action sequences…assembled by first-time director Simon West…it moves smoothly and with visual style and verbal wit.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Con Air has an important secret weapon: an indie cast. All of the principals normally work in films more interesting and human than this one, which gives Con Air a touch of the subversive and turns it into a big-budget lark.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Con Air may be the closest thing yet to pure action thriller pornography. Ultimately, there’s nothing to it but thrust.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “But with a noise level so high the dialogue has to be screamed and more silly moments than sane ones, Con Air is an animated comic book put together to pound an audience into submission, not entertain it.”

Con Air works because the filmmakers take a simple set-up and expertly execute it. The movie still plugs in the usual, over-the-top set pieces. For example, a sports car is towed behind a cargo plane only to crash through a control tower and explode. Our hero’s best buddy even gets to utter a stirring soliloquy as he lies gravely injured. True to form, the ending is highly implausible and excessive even by Bruckheimer standards but you have to admire the filmmakers for going for it. There is a fascinating push and pull going on with this movie as it trots out all the usual action movie clichés while often commenting on them ironically in true ‘90s fashion – so much so that at one point, Steve Buscemi’s spooky killer even acknowledges said irony. Ultimately, what redeems Con Air – well-placed sense of irony – is, sadly, what goes missing when its sappy ending rears its ugly head, even if it tries to evoke the ending of Wild at Heart (1990). No, really.


SOURCES

Con Air Production Notes. 1997.

Longsdorf, Amy. “Traditional Values Drew Iconoclastic Nicolas Cage To Do Con Air.” The Morning Call. June 1, 1997.


“Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg Interview.” Kid in the Front Row. March 13, 2010.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Mystery Men

Batman and Robin (1997) has often been credited with killing off the comic book superhero movie for a few years. Admittedly, nothing much of any merit had been released until Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film in 2000. Studios, clearly wary of not repeating the financial disaster of Joel Schumacher's bloated opus, had stayed away from mounting any large-scale production – case in point: the scrapping of a Superman movie despite having director Tim Burton and actor Nicolas Cage attached to it. Therefore, the mounting of Mystery Men (1999), yet another super hero film based on a comic book, seemed like a risky venture with a $68 million price tag, and which ended up only making back less than half of it. Looking back, it’s not hard to see why. Mystery Men is such esoteric oddity – the costumed superhero equivalent of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984).

Based loosely on Bob Burden's Dark Horse comic Flaming Carrot Comics, Mystery Men focuses on the misadventures of a bunch of inept super heroes: Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), The Shoveler (William H. Macy), and the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria). They've got the costumes and the shtick down cold, the only problem is that none of them actually has any super powers. Furious merely works himself into an angry rage, the Shoveler... well, has his shovel, and the Blue Raja hurls cutlery with awful accuracy. Hardly, the Justice League of America. The REAL super-powered hero, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) is so good that he not only has vanquished every bad guy in Champion City but he has also snagged every corporate sponsor on the planet (his costume is decorated with logos of everything from Pepsi to Reebok). The problem is that he has no one left to fight and is in danger of losing his precious sponsors. He hatches a plan to free his arch-nemesis, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) but it backfires and Amazing finds himself at the mercy of his old foe. Naturally, it's up to Furious and his friends to become organized and stop Frankenstein before it's too late.

Director Kinka Usher sets a wonderfully eccentric tone right from the get-go as a gang known as the Red Eyes (whose ringleader is comedian Artie Lange no less) busting up a senior citizens soiree to steal their false teeth, artificial limbs, and so forth. Naturally, Furious and his pals are completely ineffectual and Captain Amazing swoops in and saves the day only to then be immediately whisked away by his publicist (played by renowned illusionist Ricky Jay).

After Batman and Robin the only direction the super hero movie could possibly go was into self-parody (Schumacher's film tried and failed to do this). Mystery Men wisely opts for this approach, complete with a corporate whore Superman clone (Captain Amazing) and a whole slew of absurdly named heroes that include the likes of The Waffler (complete with a syrup sidearm), the Spleen (“Pull my finger!”), and the PMS Avenger (who only works a few days every month). Mystery Men even goes so far as to set all the action in a glossy, neon urban landscape a la the Batman movies but where they degraded into art direction and style over substance, this movie maintains a good balance of stunning visuals and interesting characters.

What really makes these characters so fun to watch is the actors that play them. Ben Stiller is quite decent as a guy who thinks he’s tougher than he really is and always trying to prove himself to others, trying too hard, which gives off a whiff of desperation. Conversely, Greg Kinnear nails Amazing’s air of smug superiority and complete lack of empathy for those he’s sworn to protect.

Hank Azaria, a character actor with a flair for accents, sports an outrageous faux-British accented as the Blue Raja, a mama’s boy with pretensions of fighting crime. Casanova’s henchmen are known as the Disco Boys, which means that every time they appear on-screen they’re accompanied by disco music. Comedian Eddie Izzard plays one of them and so we get to see him do his best Saturday Night Fever (1977) dance impersonation and a defiant attitude as he refuses to believe that disco is dead.

Geoffrey Rush has delicious fun playing an evil super genius complete with a vampy Eurotrash accent. He and Kinnear banter back and forth in an amusing scene as their smug egomaniac characters try to outdo one another. Rush, in particular, is a delight as he over-enunciates his dialogue, employing dramatic pauses between phrases. Claire Forlani, who was briefly a cinematic “IT” girl during the 1990s, appearing in notable films like Mallrats (1995) and Basquiat (1996), turns up as Furious’ potential love interest but thankfully isn’t given much to do.

To see the likes of Janeane Garofalo and William H. Macy – two actors you wouldn't normally associate with being in a costumed super hero movie – running around fighting bad guys in outrageous costumes is truly a delight to behold. Her first appearance in the movie sees her character bicker with Furious. Frequent collaborators during the ‘90s, it is a delight to see them playfully take potshots at each other like bratty siblings.

Best of all, Tom Waits appears as a mad scientist who only invents non-lethal weapons (i.e. canned tornado). His first appearance in the movie is almost worth the price of admission alone. In an inspired bit of casting, Wes Studi (The Last of the Mohicans) portrays the enigmatic hero The Sphinx who acts a wise sage mentor to the ragtag group. The veteran actor usually doesn’t appear in goofy comedies like this one, which is too bad as he is an excellent straight man, giving his quasi-Yoda-type wisdom an amusing faux-gravitas, while looking ridiculous in his crime-fighting costume.

You have to admire a movie that features cameos by film director Michael Bay as the head of a gang of frat boys (“Still on probation for lethal hazing!”) and CeeLo Green as part of a rapping gang of criminals. As more of these disparate personalities show up I began to wonder how Usher got all of these people in one movie? He came from the world of television commercials and Mystery Men was his shot at the big time for studio filmmaking. Sadly, he was not prepared for the rigors of working within the confines of Hollywood and had difficulty fusing CGI effects work with making a comedy. Hank Azaria shed some light on the trouble involved in working on the movie: “It was tough. It was really like trying to be funny in the middle of a math equation or something…Very long hours, very stressful and tough on the set.” The actor hints that Usher didn’t have a clear vision for what he wanted the movie to be and clashed with the producer and some of the cast who all had their own ideas about what it should’ve been. It got to the point where Usher told Azaria the middle of principal photography, “I’m going back to commercials when this is done. I’ve had enough. I’d much rather do my cool little one-minute shorts that I make than deal with all this nonsense.”

Mystery Men received mixed to negative reviews from critics with Roger Ebert leading the charge with his two out of four star review: “Comedy depends on timing, and chaos is its enemy. We see noisy comic book battles of little consequence, and finally we weary: This isn’t entertainment, it’s an f/x demo reel.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The jokes are smart in the screenplay by Neil Cuthbert, but they are allowed to wear thin despite the brief running time.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B-“ rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “Call Mystery Men a sketchbook in search of a movie; it’s still a super idea in a summer of flackery.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “For watching Mystery Men is a bit like sitting next to a brilliant person at a dinner party who just won’t shut up. Because this film is so self-conscious and, like Mr. Furious and friends, has a tendency to try too hard, it’s an effort you end up admiring more than completely loving.” Finally, the Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan wrote, “As incisive as a loud, wet raspberry and about as full of topical gravitas as the Dark Horse comic book on which it’s based…Mystery Men is one half of a very funny movie, and as we enter these dog days of August, half a funny movie is better than none.”

If anything, Mystery Men suffers from the same problem as Batman Returns (1992), in that it has too many colorful, intriguing characters and not enough time over its 120 minutes to develop all of them. With something like seven main characters, it often feels like some of their motivation for certain actions was left on the cutting room floor. For example, we have no idea how Mr. Furious, the Shoveler and the Blue Raja find Invisible Boy; they just show up at his door one day. This is just sloppy editing and pacing. However, it is credit to the actors that their performances are what hold this movie together. While the satirical elements of Mystery Men are nothing new if you've seen or read the fantastic comic book/cartoon, The Tick, it is still an entertaining, enjoyable movie.


SOURCES


Harris, Will. “Random Roles: Hank Azaria.” The A.V. Club. September 14, 2011.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Uncle Buck

I miss John Candy. I grew up watching the much-beloved comedian on SCTV and then his supporting turns in classic comedies like The Blues Brothers (1980) and Stripes (1981), but it was the movies he did with John Hughes that best displayed his comedic talents. They worked together on seven different occasions, from a walk-on role in Home Alone (1990) to co-starring with Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), but it was Candy’s starring role as the titular protagonist in Uncle Buck (1989) that brought out the best in him. Over the years, Candy and Hughes had become close friends and this movie could be seen as a cinematic love letter from the filmmaker to the comedian, tailoring a role specifically for him that best utilized his comedic skills.

When Cindy Russell’s (Elaine Bromka) father has a heart attack, she and her husband Bob (Garrett M. Brown) rush to be by his side, but who will watch their three children? Bob suggests his brother Buck (Candy). Cindy is apprehensive because he is single, does not hold down a steady job, gambles, and has zero experience with children, but after exhausting all other possibilities they go with him.

This premise sets up a clash of cultures between the Chicago-based Buck and three kids in suburbia. He certainly has his hands full with them. Miles (Macaulay Culkin) is one of those precocious, wise-beyond-his-years little kids as is his sister Maisy (GabyHoffmann), a cute-as-a-button little girl. Then there is Tia (Jean Louisa Kelly), the holy teen terror, bitter about her parents moving from Indianapolis, where she was happy, to the suburbs of Chicago. She takes out this resentment on everyone in the form of withering sarcasm and outright nastiness. This sets up a battle of wills between the irrepressible Buck and the perpetually bitchy Tia.

While it is true that Buck is a little rough around the edges, he is adept at learning on the job and is fiercely protective of the kids, scaring off a sleazy bowler that hits on Tia at a bowling alley and punching out a kids party clown that turns up drunk at Miles’ birthday bash.

Uncle Buck is a fantastic showcase for John Candy’s considerable talents as he hits the big comedic set pieces out of the park while also doing all sorts of little bits of business, like a lazy Buck vacuuming Corn Flakes off his chest or driving the kids to school in his beat-up old boat of a car that backfires as if on cue, thoroughly embarrassing Tia in front of her classmates. Candy is also adept at visual comedy, like the moment where Buck makes a pancake so big he has to flip it with a snow shovel! For all of the weapons in his comedic arsenal, Hughes also gave Candy moments to tone down the shtick, like in the scene where Buck stands up to the assistant principal that disparages Maizy with a passionately delivered tirade:

“I don’t think I want to know a six-year-old who isn’t a dreamer, or a sillyheart. And I sure don’t want to know one who takes their student career seriously. I don’t have a college degree. I don’t even have a job. But I know a good kid when I see one. Because they’re all good kids, until dried-out, brain-dead skags like you drag them down and convince them they’re no good.”

This scene showcases Candy’s ability to do more than just tell jokes but also show how serious Buck is about taking care of these kids and how attached to them he has become. Candy also excels at the quieter, character moments, like when Buck confronts Tia after she orchestrates the break-up between him and his long-time, frustrated girlfriend (Amy Madigan). You expect him to really let the teenager have it but he doesn’t and you can see him keeping the explosive anger in check, simmering in Candy’s eyes.

Hughes isn’t afraid to inject serious moments here and there, mostly in the form of Tia’s bitter resentment towards the world, more specifically her mother. Jean Louisa Kelly does an excellent job of portraying a teenage girl filled with angst. Initially, Tia seems like a typical teen with an enormous chip on her shoulder but when she challenges Buck’s authority, it forces him to take a good look at the state of his own personal life.

In his feature film debut, Macaulay Culkin makes quite an impact, most notably in an amusing scene where Miles grills Buck with a series of personal questions, which he answers right back at him with crackerjack comic timing. He and fellow adorable ragamuffin, Gaby Hoffman primarily look and act cute, getting occasional well-timed zinger and handle them like old pros.

Much of the humor in Uncle Buck is derived from how Buck navigates the tricky waters of domesticity with his bachelor blue-collar ways clashing with life in the suburbs. While this makes him a cultural fish out of water, he also gives the kids a taste of his life when he takes them bowling and they meet some of the ne’er-do-wells that populate his world.

Uncle Buck could have easily resorted to being a Mr. Mom (1983) clone, which Hughes also wrote, but he deftly avoids this by showing a different clash of cultures. Whereas Mr. Mom featured an executive trying his hand at childrearing, Uncle Buck features an everyman afraid to commit to his girlfriend until he learns what it means to commit yourself to others that depend on him for basic things like food and security.

After Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), Hughes stopped making teen movies and moved into family fare with Home Alone (1990) and Curly Sue (1991), which proved to be a very smart, financial move on his part. Clearly, he realized that his brand of teen movies were played out and he had said everything he wanted to about the genre and wanted to try something new. What better collaborator to help make this transition then Candy, whom he had worked with more often than anyone else. They were close friends off-camera, their families hung out together. Hughes was understandably shaken when Candy died suddenly of a heart attack in 1994. It is no coincidence that he made fewer movies afterwards and eventually quietly retired from the business altogether.


Uncle Buck is Candy at his most charming and endearing but without being sappy as he keeps his performance grounded so that everything he says and does feels genuine. Hughes excelled at making entertaining crowd pleasers and this movie is a prime example. It is also a sobering reminder of how much Candy and his brand of comedy are sorely missed. The world is a poorer place without him and Hughes in it.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Silkwood

On November 13, 1974, the body of chemical technician and labor union activist Karen Silkwood was found dead in her car on the side of the road. The police ruled it an accident but some journalists believed otherwise. That night, she was on her way to meet a New York Times reporter with documentation that would prove her claims that the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site Plant, where she worked, had serious health and safety issues that resulted in her being contaminated with plutonium.

In 1983, her brief life was given biopic treatment with Mike Nichols directing a Nora Ephron screenplay and starred Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell and Cher. Silkwood was a critical and commercial success, receiving five Academy Award nominations. All three leads disappeared into their roles, bringing them vividly to life while giving the reasons for Karen’s fate enough ambiguity to leave it up to the viewer to decide.

We meet Karen (Streep), her boyfriend Drew Stephens (Russell) and their friend Dolly Pelliker (Cher) as they drive into work at the plant. Nichols proceeds to give us an abbreviated tour as we see an average day of work. A group of trainees are brought in, which is an excellent way of explaining what she and her co-workers do at the plant. It also shows the comradery among them (including notable character actors Fred Ward and Craig T. Nelson among others). Nichols creates a naturalistic vibe as we observe these blue collar workers bantering back and forth while they work. Like many, they work long hours for lousy wages and it makes them immediately relatable.

Drew, Karen and Dolly live in the same house together and hangout when they’re not at work. There is a believable familiarity between them that is apparent in the shorthand that they have with each other and is well-acted by Russell, Streep and Cher. They are people that eat at fast food restaurants, drive crappy little cars and live in run-down homes. They are the people that populate Bruce Springsteen songs – America’s heartland. It is crucial that we spend these quiet moments with them as we get to know and care about these people so that when things go south later on we’re invested in what happens to them.

Karen locks horns with the management at the plant when she is blamed for contaminating her section and then openly criticizes how a co-worker is treated when she is contaminated. Soon afterwards, Karen finds herself in a contaminated section and is subjected to the painful decontamination cleaning process. It seems suspiciously coincidental and so she decides to become active in the local union, which is in danger of being dissolved. She believes that the company is putting the employees at risk by cutting corners when it comes to safety reports. Union representatives in Washington, D.C. encourage her to get documentation and this complicates her personal and professional lives.

Meryl Streep turns in another solid performance as a smart person driven to do the right thing when she discovers that the powers that be at her job are putting her co-workers at risk and they don’t even know it. She’s not afraid to play Karen as a flawed person who stands up for what she believes in even though she makes mistakes in her personal life. The actress does an excellent job showing how this affects her job and vice versa. Streep isn’t afraid to show how scared Karen becomes when the company exerts pressure on her in all kinds of ways in the hopes of wearing her down. Despite this she soldiers on because she’s driven and believes what she’s doing is right.

Kurt Russell had a fascinating run of films in the 1980s, bouncing back and forth between genre films like Escape from New York (1981), comedies like Used Cars (1980), thrillers like The Mean Season (1985), and dramatic roles like the one in Silkwood. It’s wonderful to see him playing an everyman role like Drew, a stand-up guy that becomes increasingly frustrated with Karen spending more and more time involved with the union and less with him.

Cher delivers a wonderfully understated performance as Karen’s best friend. She dresses down and dials back her affectations in a way that she’s rarely done since. Even the reveal that Dolly is a lesbian is done matter-of-factly by Nichols. It’s performances in this, Mask (1985) and Moonstruck (1987) that demonstrated her natural acting talent and makes one wish that she did more film work.

Two grad students from the University of California Film School – Buzz Hirsch and Larry Cano – spent seven years assembling news reports, hearings transcripts and taped interviews with Karen’s friends, relatives and colleagues. Jane Fonda bought the rights to their work and fancied playing her with Lily Tomlin auditioning to play Dolly, but released the rights after making The China Syndrome (1979). Meryl Streep’s agent Sam Cohn moved in and bought the rights.

Cohn was responsible for bringing Mike Nichols on board as director. Screenwriters Alice Arlen and Nora Ephron were hired to write the screenplay with the former going to Los Alamos, New Mexico to do research on nuclear energy. The two women wrote a first draft and ended up spending a year working on subsequent drafts and revisions.

For the role of Dolly, Nichols offered the part to Cher while she was doing a play but she had to decide on the spot without reading the script. Needless to say, she agreed to do it. Streep had finished making Sophie’s Choice (1982) and two-and-a-half weeks later was filming Silkwood. Principal photography took place between September and November 1982.

To prepare for the role, Streep met with Drew Stephens, Karen’s boyfriend, and from him learned about her mannerisms and talked about her for two days. The actress was clearly on the same page as her director as she said in an interview, “Mike spoke of the film as being about people being asleep in their lives and waking up: ‘How did I get here?’ And that’s exactly how I felt.”

Cher’s approach to Dolly was that the she didn’t want to play her “stomping around with a pack of Marlboros rolled up in my T-shirt sleeve” and was set to cut her hair short but Nichols told her not to: “Let’s not make a statement about Dolly with a butch cut.” During filming, the director demanded she wear no make-up, which she had difficulty with: “There was nothing to hid behind in Dolly. There’s no flash. That’s exactly what was needed, so the public would see past ‘Cher’ and accept me as an actress.”

Silkwood grossed $35 million at the box office off a budget of $10 million. It also received strong critical notices, chief among them Roger Ebert who gave it a four-star review: “It’s a little amazing that established movie stars like Streep, Russell and Cher could disappear so completely into the everyday lives of these characters.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby praised Streep’s performance: “Her portrait of the initially self-assured and free-living, then radicalized and, finally, terrified Karen Silkwood is unlike anything she’s done to date, except in its intelligence. It’s a brassy, profane, gum-chewing tour de force, as funny as it is moving.”

Nichols deftly avoids the more obvious conventions of the biopic. He doesn’t put Karen on a pedestal and instead presents her as a real person doing the best she can under increasingly stressful conditions. This goes for all the characters. None of them are perfect and this is what humanizes them. He also avoids telegraphing “important” moments in the film with overtly dramatic music to manipulate our emotions. There is very little score and what is used is done sparingly. There are no epic showdowns with a swelling score – just quietly intense moments presented with no frills direction.

Silkwood is a quietly powerful drama about a woman not afraid to go against a company that was hurting people at the cost of her alienating co-workers and friends. She ended up paying the ultimate price and this film is a fitting tribute to her life.


SOURCES

Bego, Mark. Cher: If You Believe. Cooper Square Press. 2001.

Cohen, Richard. She Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora Ephron. Simon and Schuster. 2016.

Egginton, Joyce. “The Karen Silkwood File.” The Observer. April 6, 1984.


“Meryl Streep.” American Film. December 1983.

Friday, May 19, 2017

On the Air

The late 1980s and early 1990s was a very prolific period for David Lynch, from the performance art of Industrial Symphony No. 1 in 1989 to the HBO mini-series Hotel Room in 1993, it seemed like he was everywhere. It was the surprise success of the Twin Peaks television show, however, that put the eccentric artist on the cover of every major magazine and guest on all the major late night talk shows. He and his creative partner Mark Frost parlayed the buzz from it into convincing ABC to broadcast a sitcom they created called On the Air.

The series followed the wacky misadventures of the fictional 1950s T.V. network Zoblotnick Broadcasting Company as they produce The Lester Guy Show, a variety program aired live. The humor of the show is often derived from the peculiar personalities that work in front of and behind the cameras as well as their disastrous attempts to put the show together every week.

Much like with Twin Peaks, Lynch directed and co-wrote the pilot episode thereby establishing the look and tone of the show that subsequent writers and directors would follow. Cool jazz music courtesy of regular Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti plays over the opening credits, punctuated by a farting sound, which establishes the absurdist tone Lynch is going for right from the start.

We meet the people working for ZBC as they prepare for a live broadcast of The Lester Guy Show. There’s Valdja Gochktch (David L. Lander), the director of the show and the nephew of the owner. He’s from the “old country” and sports a thick European accent that nobody can understand except for Ruth Trueworthy (Nancye Ferguson), an optimistic production assistant. We meet producer Dwight McGonigle (Marvin Kaplan) who is suffering from pre-show anxiety as evident from two coffee mugs he holds in his shaking hands, creating quite the puddle around him.

They have their hands full wrangling the “talent,” which includes the adorable yet clueless Betty Hudson (Marla Rubinoff), an ingénue with zero acting experience and not too smart either. Her introduction, as she tries to understand Gochktch’s directions, is an amusing exchange as his thick accent comes up against her sweet, yet dense nature. She’s much easier to handle than Lester Guy (Ian Buchanan), a washed-up movie star that still demands to be treated as such thus annoying the hell out of everyone with his primadonna behavior.

If this wasn’t enough pressure to contend with, network president Bud Budwaller (Miguel Ferrer) shows up to make sure everything goes smoothly. He sets the tone by barking orders and insulting McGonigle (“Dink spine” and “gob of jelly” being two of the more memorable ones). His job is on the line and he commands through fear and intimidation. Not surprisingly, Miguel Ferrer gets some of the show’s best lines, like his assessment of Betty: “She’s no dim bulb, she’s a blown-out fuse.” The actor is playing a variation of his rude FBI agent from Twin Peaks complete with a shouty, overbearing approach and adopting an intimidating stance in the control room, wielding a large nightstick.

Things start off decently enough with Lester’s pretentious interpretative dance routine with moody jazz music until a prop he’s using falls over, taking him with it. It’s all hilariously downhill from there as music and sound effects cues are all wrong, a stagehand appears on camera, and Lester is knocked unconscious. Against all odds it is Betty who saves the show when she talks to the camera and sings “The Bird in the Tree,” a sweet song reminiscent of “In Heaven” from Eraserhead (1977), and that offers a short respite from the insanity as all hell breaks loose. Amazingly, the show is a hit! The rest of the short-lived series sees Budwaller and Lester conspiring to ruin Betty because they resent her success while she remains blissfully unaware.

The cast acquits themselves quite well, hamming it up for this cartoonish world that their characters inhabit – Ferrer plays a stereotypical blowhard studio executive, Ian Buchanan portrays a pompous movie star, Nancye Ferguson plays a His Girl Friday-type P.A. and so on. On the Air is less interesting when it spends time away from the studio, like in the second episode when Betty meets Mr. Zoblotnick (Sidney Lassik) for dinner, and works better when riffing on cultural touchstones of the time period, like the quiz show craze.

While working on the sound for an episode of Twin Peaks during its second season, Lynch came up with the idea for On the Air, which involved “people trying to do something successful and having it all go wrong.” He would go on to direct the pilot, co-write two episodes and supervise post-production.

The pilot episode tested so well with audiences that ABC ordered six more episodes. Even though it was ready to go in spring, the network put off airing it until summer. On the Air debuted on Saturday night at 9:30 with little promotional support, which many of the cast and crew felt was a message from the network about how little they cared about the show. Chief among them was Miguel Ferrer: “Why don’t they just put a bullet in its head? The support we’ve gotten from the network – or lack of support that’s perceived on my part – is enormously disappointing.” Lynch echoed these sentiments: “I’ve heard that summertime is pretty much the worst time you can be on, but we’re going on in summer. I’ve heard that Saturday night is the worst night of the week to be on, and we’re going on Saturday night…”

Not surprisingly, On the Air was not well received by critics when it aired. In his review for The New York Times, John J. O’Connor wrote, ”Different, certainly, even strange, but unfortunately about as funny as, well, an overworked foreign accent.” Variety’s Brian Lowry wrote, “Lynch and Frost still can’t seem to protect their initial vision once they pass the ball on to others, as the numbing flatness of the second episode—which involves a plot inspired by the ‘50s quiz-show scandals—painfully demonstrates.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Chris Willman wrote, “Though On the Air appears destined—between its unfortunate time slot and Lynch’s own odd sense of comedic timing—to be just a footnote in both his career and TV history, it’s one to tape for posterity, before it becomes Off the Air.” Finally, People magazine’s David Hiltbrand wrote, “The show’s comically choreographed mayhem is a difficult premise to sustain, like trying to stage a big bumper-car pileup again and again.”

If you ever wondered what a David Lynch sitcom would be like then On the Air is the short-lived answer. It’s a silly trifle of a show but also very sweet, much like Betty who embodies its heart and soul. While it is hardly a masterpiece, the show does have its moments. I love how it is bathed in ‘50s nostalgia and reflects Lynch’s particular brand of comedy that is usually kept in check but is allowed to run rampant for better or for worse.


SOURCES


Cerone, Daniel. “Television of the Absurd: Twin Peaks’ Co-Creators Try Again with On the Air.” Los Angeles Times. June 18, 1992.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy came as a pleasant surprise amidst the summer blockbusters of 2014 as it continued Marvel Studios’ dominance in the multiplexes. It was a breath of fresh air in the comic book superhero movie genre by eschewing filmmaking by committee in favor of the singular vision of James Gunn. He took a bunch of relatively unknown characters and transformed them into a bickering yet lovable rag-tag team that saved the universe. The movie’s success demonstrated the strength of the Marvel brand and the expansion of their cinematic universe into the cosmic realm, which had been hinted at in The Avengers (2012).

The phenomenal triumph of Guardians of the Galaxy ensured that a sequel was inevitable with Gunn returning to writing and directing duties. This time out, his goal was to deliver more of the same from the first movie while going deeper into the characters and the dynamic between them with the focus on Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) learning more about his mysterious, extraterrestrial father.

Taking place only a few months after the events depicted in the first movie, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) starts off on a high note as the opening credits play over Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) grooving to “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra while his fellow teammates fly around trying to stop an inter-dimensional monster from destroying valuable batteries belonging to the Sovereign race, bantering and bickering in the most entertaining fashion.

Naturally, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) pisses off the Sovereigns by stealing some of their batteries and the Guardians find themselves fugitives yet again as they barely escape a giant space battle, rescued at the last minute by Ego (Kurt Russell), the Living Planet and Peter’s father. Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker) has been exiled from the Ravagers and hired by the Sovereign to find Peter, but along the way his crewmates mutiny, leaving him defeated and in a dark place.

Vol. 2 has a lot more heart than the first movie and this is due in large part to the relationship between Peter and his father and also between Peter and Yondu, fleshing out his backstory. The scenes between Chris Pratt and Kurt Russell have genuine warmth to them as Peter has to figure out if he can trust Ego while the latter wants to bond with his son. Fortunately, there is more to their relationship than that and this complicates things, leading to an epic and emotional showdown. Michael Rooker, a favorite of Gunn’s, also gets more substantial screen-time resulting in a surprising turn of events for his character so that he is more than a perpetually pissed-off mercenary.

We also get additional insight into what motivates Drax (Dave Bautista) and delve into the strained relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). This means more screen time for all of them and this enriches these characters in a surprisingly satisfying way that several of the Marvel sequels (Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2) failed to do but that Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) was able to thanks to having the same screenwriters as the first movie thus having stable continuity much like what Gunn has done with this franchise. It also helps that these characters have already been established and so he doesn’t have to spend time introducing them, which frees up more running time to examine them in more detail.

The cast is uniformly excellent once again, each actor getting multiple moments to build upon what they did in the first movie and so Chris Pratt starts off being the smart-ass Star Lord we all know and love and then gets to convey some genuine emotion as his personal stakes in what happens rise dramatically. Even scene-stealer Dave Bautista gets to have some playful banter with new team member Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an alien with empathic powers.

Vol. 2 features another fantastic soundtrack of classic rock, from Fleetwood Mac to George Harrison, with an even stronger collection of songs that Gunn marries so well with a given scene, like when Peter serenades Gamora to Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me” or George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” playing while Peter and the others arrive on Ego’s planet. As with the first movie’s soundtrack, this one elicits a wide range of emotions, from romantic notions to melancholy to elation. Gunn, more than any other filmmaker working for Marvel Studios, knows how pick the right song for the right scene and the right moment.


If the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie introduced us to these colorful characters and the galaxy they inhabit, then Vol. 2 goes deeper, allowing us to get to know them better. The first movie was about the formation of a family of misfits, of strangers, and the sequel examines the importance of it. If the first movie had a flaw it was a rather generic villain. This one does not make the same mistake as the baddie is fully developed with a valid motivation that is personal and therefore poses a more meaningful threat to our heroes. Gunn has managed to make an exciting, action-packed space epic that has an intimate character study at its core. Vol. 2 feels even more personal of a movie than the first one and without sacrificing the splashy spectacle we’ve come to expect from these kinds of movies.