Friday, April 21, 2017

The Driver

Author Raymond Chandler famously said, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.” I thought of these words as I watched Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978) recently and thought about how it applied to its titular protagonist. The film was only Hill’s second outing as a director and yet it showed an assured touch in the choreographing of vehicular mayhem with a no frills approach to storytelling that is one of the hallmarks of his body of work.

It didn’t hurt that he learned the art and the nuts and bolts of filmmaking from the likes of Norman Jewison (The Thomas Crown Affair), Sam Peckinpah (The Getaway), and Paul Newman (The Drowning Pool). By the time, he directed his first feature film – Hard Times (1975) – he had seen and done a lot. The Driver saw Ryan O’Neal, in a surprising turn as a taciturn getaway driver, heading up a solid cast that featured the likes of Bruce Dern and Isabelle Adjani. The end result is a lean crime film populated by people that are the best at what they do, traveling down those mean streets Chandler talked about – they just happen to be on opposite sides of the law.

The film jumps right in by showing the Driver (O’Neal) plying his trade. He helps two crooks that have knocked over a casino escape the scene of the crime. He’s the epitome of cool under fire – not even breaking a sweat when the cops give chase, skillfully losing multiple pursuers through the streets of Los Angeles. At one point, he plays chicken with two oncoming cop cars! Hill does a superb job depicting this dynamic chase, not only conveying the speed and intensity of it, but also the skill and utter professionalism of the Driver.

The Driver is doggedly pursued by the Detective (Dern) who has been after him for some time and is determined to bust him. He knows what the Driver does – he just can’t catch him in the act. As he says at one point, “I respect a man that’s good at what he does…I’m very good at what I do.” Does this sound familiar? This dialogue would not sound out of place in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). The Detective respects the Driver’s skills, which only makes him that much more determined to arrest him.

In fact, he is so driven that he bullies a crook (Joseph Walsh) to hire the Driver to help him and his buddies escape a bank after they rob it in broad daylight. It’s a risky move but the Detective feels that it’s worth it if he can catch his prey. This sets the wheels in motion for an inevitable showdown between these two opposing forces.

Ryan O’Neal delivers an incredibly controlled performance as a man of few words, preferring to let his actions speak for him. We know nothing about his past or his private life. He is his work and Hill tells us all we need to know through his actions, like how well he can evade multiple pursuers, or his non-descript attire and economy of words, thereby making him difficult to identify and arrest as he leaves very little of a footprint as it were. Hill even manages to show a slyly humorous side to the man in a scene where he “auditions” for three crooks, proceeding to trash their car in a parking garage while they’re all in it. This sequence is simultaneously amusing and impressive. The Driver is a fascinating, enigmatic character that O’Neal expertly brings to life.

Bruce Dern matches O’Neal beat for beat, being the conceited chatterbox to the latter’s quiet intensity. Whereas the Driver shows very little emotion, the Detective is a grinning braggart so sure of himself and his plan to catch his prey. Dern gives his cop a jovial spin but it’s all a fa├žade to lull his opponents into a false sense of security. Underneath lurks the nastiness of someone that doesn’t like to lose.

Hill takes us on a tour of the L.A. underworld – abandoned factories, parking garages, casinos, and sparsely furnished cheap hotel rooms that reflect the Driver’s world. During the night scenes, Hill utilizes the shadows effectively, creating a neo-noir vibe that is almost tangible.

The director also deconstructs and strips the crime film down to its most basic elements and so the end credits feature no proper names, only identifying the characters by what they do. He provides them with no backstories, forcing us to identify with them by what they do and how they behave in the moment. In this respect, Hill anticipated what Michael Mann has been doing in films like Miami Vice (2006) and Blackhat (2015).

Producer Lawrence Gordon came up with the idea of a film about a professional driver and then Walter Hill wrote the screenplay over the summer of 1975 while waiting for his directorial debut, Hard Times, to be released. He wrote the film for Steve McQueen but the actor didn’t “want to do another car thing.” The studio wanted Charles Bronson – he had worked with Hill on Hard Times – but they had a falling out over it and so he went with Ryan O’Neal instead.

For the role of the Detective, the studio wanted Robert Mitchum but he passed on the role and Hill went with Bruce Dern, rewriting some of his character’s dialogue to accommodate the actor’s personality and to contrast O’Neal’s taciturn Driver.

When it came to principal photography, Hill shot all the dramatic scenes first and then all the chases at night, which he felt “would be very much more in the spirit of what the storytelling wanted to be.” The director had learned about car chases working as second assistant director on Bullitt (1968). He realized that what made the famous car chase so memorable was not just the stunts but “the technique of shooting from inside. You really felt it was a rollercoaster ride as well as something you were observing. I made damn sure that when I was doing The Driver I filmed an enormous amount of inside shots.”

When Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) came out a lot was made about how much it resembled The Driver (and Mann’s Thief) and it certainly owes a debt to Hill’s film but conversely it is indebted to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) with its protagonist of few words that is also an elite criminal. Like Refn did with Drive, Hill makes The Driver his own by applying his specific style and worldview. For example, the crook (Rudy Ramos) that double crosses the Driver partway through the film would be the first of many nasty baddies that populate Hill’s films – amoral men without regard for life, like Luther in The Warriors (1979) and Ganz in 48 HRS. (1982). These guys cannot be civilized or contained – they must be killed because of the threat they pose to the natural order of things.

The Driver may be a criminal but he has his own moral code that he follows and he doesn’t break his rules unless forced to by the bad guy. As Chandler said, he is neither “tarnished nor afraid,” and remains an unflappable presence throughout the film, adapting to any complications that come his way, including the trap that the Detective sets for him.

The Driver received mostly negative reviews when it was first released in theaters. Roger Ebert gave it two-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “And then there are those chase scenes. They’re great. They fill the screen with energy, even if it’s mechanical energy that doesn’t substitute for the human kind.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby, “For a movie in which there are so many chases. The Movie is singularly unexciting and uninvolving, though it does have its laughs.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas described the film as “ultraviolent trash that wipes out Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Dern and Isabella Adjani,” and “plays like a bad imitation of a French gangster picture which in turn is a bad imitation of an American gangster picture.” Finally, the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr wrote, “There’s no realism, no psychology, and very little plot…There is, however, a great deal of technically sophisticated and very imaginative filmmaking.”

The Driver was not a financial success but has become an influential film, counting filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, the aforementioned Refn, and Edgar Wright among its admirers. For Hill, it began a terrific run of action-oriented films that included films like The Long Riders (1980) and Southern Comfort (1981) and continued up to and including Streets of Fire (1984). Some of them were box office hits, some were not but all of them were instilled with the filmmaker’s no-nonsense, hardboiled sensibilities and a terrific capacity for kinetic action.


SOURCES


Hewitt, Chris. “Edgar Wright and Walter Hill Discuss The Driver.” Empire. March 13, 2017.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Brewster McCloud

After the critical and commercial success of M*A*S*H (1970), Robert Altman used the buzz garnered from it to push an experimental film called Brewster McCloud (1970) through the studio system. It is ostensibly about a young man constructing a pair of wings so he can fly while also weaving in a storyline about a series of murders involving victims that have been strangled to death. It is, at times, a film about dreamers that also slyly references the films of Federico Fellini, Bullitt (1968) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). The end result is a fiercely idiosyncratic film even by Altman’s standards, which may explain why it is not as widely championed like some of his other work.

Right from the get-go Altman eschews a traditional opening by having a lecturer (Rene Auberjonois) talking over the MGM logo as he addresses the audience about the relationships between birds and man’s desire to fly. Then, the opening credits play over a woman (Margaret Hamilton) singing the “Star Spangled-Banner” off-key in the Houston Astrodome with a marching band. She stops and chastises them for being in the wrong key. She makes them start over and so do the opening credits.

The reclusive Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort) lives under the stadium working on a pair of wings in the hopes that someday he may be able to take flight like a bird. During the day, he drives a cranky, wheelchair-bound old man (Stacy Keach), taking him on errands where he hurls verbal abuse at everyone he encounters. Meanwhile, Houston is plagued by a series of murders with each one of the victims strangled to death. Prominent citizen Haskell Weeks (William Windom) uses his clout to get the local police to bring in “legendary super cop” Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy) from San Francisco to investigate.

Brewster crosses paths and befriends Suzanne (Shelley Duvall), a Superdome tour guide, while trying to steal her car, which she doesn’t seem to concern her all that much. Watching protectively over Brewster is Louise (Sally Kellerman), a beautiful and mysterious guardian angel of sorts that takes care of him.

Having given Bud Cort is feature film debut in M*A*S*H, Altman cast this distinctive actor to play the enigmatic titular character and he makes his way through the film with his own agenda while only briefly interacting with others. Cort’s soft-spoken nature contrasts nicely with Shelley Duvall’s chirpy optimism. They both have unique acting styles and thrived under Altman’s direction. It is a lot of fun to watch their quirky acting styles bounce off each other, like the scene where Suzanne recounts how she acquired her muscle car. Duvall, with her large than life eyelashes, is absolutely adorable, especially when Suzanne good-naturedly tries to seduce Brewster in a sweet scene.

Decked out in a turtleneck sweater, slacks and shoulder holster, Shaft cheekily resembles Steve McQueen’s titular character from Bullitt with a voiceover reporter narrating solemnly, “If keeping your cool and being totally composed makes for a better detective then this Shaft is one whale of a cop.” There’s something amusing about seeing Murphy – normally known for playing square, authoritarian types – playing a cool, no-nonsense cop. It helps that he’s playing a subtle parody of Bullitt but does so with a straight face right down to his all-business attitude as he tells the beat cop (John Schuck) assigned to him, “Now there’s a killer loose in the city, Johnson. Are we gonna get him or are we going to go downtown and play politics?”

In typical Altman fashion, he juggles a large cast of characters and multiple storylines, effortlessly moving them in and out of the foreground without ever losing sight that the film is ultimately about Brewster and his desire to fly like a bird. This is captured beautifully in a sequence that sees him dreaming of flying above the clouds to the soulful song “White Feather Wings” sung by Merry Clayton.

The screenplay, originally entitled, Brewster McCloud’s (Sexy) Flying Machine, had been written by Doran William Cannon (who had written the script for Otto Preminger’s Skidoo) in 1967 and it was, according to its author, “probably the most famous unproduced script in the country.” It had also been optioned several times by Hollywood studios but never filmed because Cannon refused to sell the rights unless he was allowed to also direct.

Music producer Lou Adler wanted to start making movies and optioned Cannon’s script – who must’ve had a change of heart about directing – offering it to Robert Altman after M*A*S*H. The director moved fast, nixing MGM’s desire to shoot in New York, where the script had originally set the story in the TWA Terminal at JFK airport, for Houston, which he found more stimulating. He did, however, hit some roadblocks along the way – firing then-up-and-coming cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth for relative unknown Lamar Boren, and, during filming, being hospitalized with a hernia.

Altman also rewrote the script, revising it heavily without notifying Cannon, making it “very farcical and broad.” According to Adler, the original script was “much more of a sexcapade” with Brewster having sex with each of the three women in the film. Altman changed it so that Brewster only had sex with Shelley Duvall’s character. The role of Frank Shaft was created entirely by Altman for Michael Murphy simply because he was one of the director’s favorite actors. Altman also downplayed the violence so that all of the murders occurred off-screen.

Fresh from making M*A*S*H, Altman cast several actors from that production, including Bud Cort, Rene Auberjonois, and John Schuck. Cort had auditioned for and didn’t get a role in a play in New York and was thinking of doing some episodic television. Altman told him not to because he was a movie star. Cort remembers the filmmaker telling about his role in their next film together: “You’re going to play a mass murderer and it’s going to be a whole reaction to how sick society is right now.” Altman also cast new, raw talent. Assistant director Tommy Thompson and fellow crew member Brian McKay met Shelley Duvall at a party when she tried to sell them her boyfriend’s paintings and told Altman that he had to meet her. He thought she was putting on an act but when he did a screen-test with her, realized that she was an “untrained, truthful person. She was very raw in Brewster but quite magic.” Three days after he cast her, principal photography began.

Filming Brewster McCloud was the typical Altman experience – location shooting away from the studio, watching dailies at the end of the day with cast and crew, and parties with lots of marijuana, hashish, cocaine, and opium. Adler remembers that Altman “would stand up and make a speech, pretty much the same speech every night. ‘No one in this room knows what this movie is about except me.’ Then he would retire to his room and write the next day’s pages.”

In classic Altman fashion, entire scenes were created and improvised on the spot when something struck his fancy or he became fascinated by some of the Astrodome’s architecture. Other scenes were written by Altman at night and then presented to the actors the next day. For example, Shaft’s sudden suicide came up at dinner between the director and Murphy the night before. Cannon even showed up to the set for a visit and was given an icy reception. He was bitter at not having been consulted on the script changes while Altman said it was “a piece of crap.” That being said, Cannon had a clause in his contract that guaranteed sole screenwriting credit despite all the work Altman had done.

Not surprisingly, MGM did not understand Brewster McCloud and the new studio head did not like it or Altman (the feeling was mutual). They gave the film a perfunctory release and yanked it from theaters after it grossed less than $1 million prompting Adler to describe studio executives as “a bunch of bag salesmen who’ve been put in their jobs like a bunch of pawns.” Murphy said of the film: “I think it was kind of a look at the insanity of all that period in time, you know? Guys were really breaking loose and doing their ‘dream films’ and doing nutty stuff.”

To further illustrate how little the studio cared about the film, the premiere at the Astrodome (attended by a whopping 24,000 people) was plagued by technical problems regarding the sound so that, as one critic commented, it was “a bit like viewing a movie in the world’s largest drive-in while locked out of your car.”

Brewster McCloud received mixed to negative reviews although Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “One of the things about MASH was that people wanted to see it a second time. That’s typical of the recent Robert Altman style, Brewster McCloud is just as densely packed with words and action, and you keep thinking you’re missing things. You probably are. It’s that quality that’s so attractive about these two Altman films.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby felt that the film attempted, “to be a kind of all-American, slapstick Orpheus Ascending, a timeless myth about innocence and corruption told in the sort of outrageous and vulgar terms that Brian De Palma and Robert Downey do much better.”

Altman twists genre conventions on their head, bending them to conform to his vision and so the strangulation murders are preceded by bird shit dropping on the victim’s face moments before they are killed. The crime scenes are chaos as a veteran police detective (G. Wood) clashes with Shaft and his superiors who all appear to have no idea who is committing these murders. The irony is that despite his reputation for being a skilled cop Shaft is ultimately ineffectual in catching the killer.

Even the climactic car chase – a staple of the thriller genre – is given an Altman twist as Suzanne leads the cops on a wild chase with some wonderful reaction shots of her clearly enjoying the evasive moves she pulls to foil her pursuers with Louise providing well-timed interventions along the way. At one point, Altman even employs easy-listening music during the chase. The filmmaker constantly subverts our expectations at every turn. Brewster isn’t the innocent dreamer he was first made out to be and it brings into question his desire to fly. Was it genuine or an act of hubris?

Brewster McCloud is not an easy film to love. It defies traditional narrative storytelling by irreverent thumbing its nose at the conventions. The protagonist is an enigma that we never get to know or identify with and this is all the way Altman wants it. It’s a film that I admire but don’t watch all that much, which is a matter of personal taste as opposed to one of quality. I prefer the laid-back, easygoing charms of films like The Long Goodbye (1973) and California Split (1974). That’s the beauty of Altman’s films – you can approach them on your own terms and I’m sure he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.


SOURCES

McGilligan, Patrick. Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff. St. Martin’s Press. 1989.

Reed, Rex. “Houston’s Not-So-Gala Premiere.” Chicago Tribune. December 20, 1970.

Thomson, David. Editor. Altman on Altman. Faber & Faber. 2005.


Zuckoff, Mitchell. Robert Altman: The Oral Biography. Alfred A. Knopf. 2009.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Logan

It’s still unclear if the massive commercial success of Deadpool (2016) will usher in a wave of R-rated comic book superhero movies but it has given us Logan (2017), the third (and supposedly final) movie focused on the titular character (a.k.a. Wolverine), played by Hugh Jackman, the popular mutant from the X-Men franchise. Fans of the violent antihero had been frustrated with how the character had been depicted in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and The Wolverine (2013), as they were watered-down adaptations that, at best, were sporadically faithful to the source material.

As a result, anticipation was high when it was announced that Logan would not only draw inspiration from the Old Man Logan graphic novel by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven, but it would be decidedly darker in tone, graphically violent and delve deeper into the character than previous installments with some comparing it favorably to the Clint Eastwood revisionist western Unforgiven (1992).

Director James Mangold sets the tone right from the start when a bunch of gang-bangers attempt to steal the hubcaps from the limousine Logan drives. He’s not as fast as he used to be but still as deadly with his adamantium claws as the hapless would-be car thieves find out the hard way in a sequence that features blood, cursing and severed limbs as Logan hacks and slashes his way through the assailants.

Logan is much older than we’ve seen him before and the world is largely absent of mutants. He lives under the radar, driving a limo to make ends meet. He lives in Mexico where he takes care of an enfeebled Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) who suffers debilitating seizures and has to be given drugs to keep his mental powers in check. These initial scenes between Charles and Logan carry a dramatic weight as we see what tragic figures both men have become. They are no longer heroes and are living day-to-day on the margins of society, numbing the pain with alcohol and drugs. It is a shock to see Charles so weak and helpless and Logan so bitter and beaten down by life, tormented by his past.

He wants to avoid trouble and be left alone but, of course, trouble finds him in the form of a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) who has mutant powers uncannily like Logan. She is being pursued by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the leader of a militant group of cyborgs known as Reavers. What makes her so significant is that a new mutant hasn’t been born in 25 years. Her guardian hires Logan to take her and Laura to North Dakota for $50,000, which will allow him to fulfill his desire to buy a boat and live on the sea.

The action sequence that reveals Laura’s powers is a bravura one as we see this little girl slice and dice her way through a heavily armed group of mercenaries with a little help from Logan. She has the quick and deadly moves that Logan used to have and this sequence shows them off quite effectively with brutally efficient economy by Mangold.

Hugh Jackman has played Wolverine in various movies for 17 years and this is his best performance as the character with the actor finally given a meaty screenplay (courtesy of Scott Frank) to sink his teeth into. The Logan of this movie is a broken man that doesn’t care much about anything or anyone. The actor also looks the part with his graying hair and full beard. It is the little touches, however, like the way Logan walks with a limp or has to use reading glasses that show the gradual ravages of time that have taken their toll on him.

Patrick Stewart matches him scene for scene as an old man that can no longer control his powers and has to be given a strict regime of drugs to keep them in check. He and Logan bicker like an old married couple as they argue about what to do with Laura. The two actors play well off each other – something that comes from making several movies together – and there is something touching about seeing how Logan cares for Charles. They share poignant moments that ground the movie and give it an emotional weight that was lacking from previous Wolverine movies. We actually care about what happens to these characters because over the course of the movie we’ve become invested in their struggle.

More than any other X-Men movie, Logan tries to go deeper and examine what motivates these characters. It goes beyond the usual mutants are different and discriminated against because of their otherness tropes that we’ve seen many times already. The movie presents a world where mutants are created and experimented on like lab rats only they’re being manufactured as living weapons. It’s this brave new world that clashes with Logan’s old school ways.


Comic book superhero movies are often criticized for being too superficial – sacrificing things like character development in favor of spectacle. Logan maintains a balance of both better than most. It is refreshing to see a superhero movie where the protagonist doesn’t have to save the world. This movie’s scale is much more modest, more intimate. Perhaps the weightiest theme it wrestles with is that of mortality. Wolverine is no longer the nearly invincible fighter we’ve seen in previous movies. He’s a burnt-out shell of a man painfully aware of his limited time left on earth. The dilemma he faces is what does he do with the time he has left? He’s not searching for a purpose in life – it finds him in the form of Laura. He is tired of fighting and the toll it has taken on his body. He just wants it to end and Logan gives him that closure. It’s not the Unforgiven of superhero movies – Logan really doesn’t change all that much – but it’s damn near close.