"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Monday, October 30, 2023

The Lords of Salem

With the exception of Eli Roth, no other filmmaker in the 2000s has divided horror movie fans more than hard rocker turned director Rob Zombie. People either love or hate his brand of grungy, white trash nihilistic cinema where he identifies with the antagonists rather than the protagonists, be it the Firefly clan in House of 1000 Corpses (2003), The Devil’s Rejects (2005), and 3 From Hell (2019), or Michael Myers in Halloween (2007) and its sequel (2009). With The Lords of Salem (2012), he created his first traditional protagonist only to place her in an unconventional film. Enjoying the most creative freedom he had since Rejects, he eschewed the gore and extreme violence of his previous films in favor of a heavy atmosphere of dread. Freedom from the constraints of a studio franchise (Halloween) emboldened Zombie to push himself as a filmmaker, creating a fascinating phantasmagorical experience.
Heidi LaRoc (Sheri Moon Zombie) is a disc jockey at a local, popular Salem hard rock radio station where she co-hosts a show along with two others – Herman “Whitey” Salvador (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman “Munster” Jackson (Ken Foree). She lives with her dog in an old apartment building and one day spots a new tenant in the apartment down the hall. When she asks her landlady (Judy Geeson) the identity of the new inhabitant, she is told that no one lives there.
One day at work, a mysterious record shows up in an old wooden box, addressed to Heidi, by a band called The Lords. She listens to it with Whitey and the music causes her to have a vision of a 17th century-era coven of Satan-worshipping witches. She finds herself inexplicably drawn to the apartment down the hall and once there, finds herself confronted by disturbing visions, including a nightmarish beast in an otherworldly landscape. Heidi’s mind unravels over the course of the film as The Lords record really puts the zap on her, blurring the lines between reality and nightmare.

Right from the get-go, Zombie does a wonderful job capturing the cool, crisp autumn days in the Northeast via the cinematography, drawing us into this world. He utilizes a warm, amber filter for night scenes and muted colors, creating a grey, cold look for day scenes. For the first third, he adopts a slow burn approach, not revealing too much, gradually building the dread, letting us get to know Heidi so that we care about happens to her in the latter two acts of the film. He populates the film with Kubrickian low-angle shots of hallways and breaks up the story into days of the week, a la The Shining (1980). He also shows a knack for striking visuals as evident in the fiery, apocalyptic inferno that is the 17th century witch trials, illustrating the Puritans meting out their religious brand of ‘justice.’
Sheri Moon Zombie has gotten a lot of flak for her acting prowess and the fact that she almost exclusively appears in her husband’s films, usually in a supporting role, whether it be significant (Rejects) or smaller (Halloween). In The Lords of Salem she is cast in the lead role, the responsibility of carrying the film placed squarely upon her shoulders. Because Moon’s acting ability is inherently tied to her expressive looks and may not have the broadest range, she benefits from Zombie’s ‘less is more’ approach. Heidi doesn’t have a lot of dialogue and, once the effects of The Lords record take hold on her character. She spends most of her time reacting to the strange things going on around her. Sheri does a commendable job of showing a woman plagued by horrible visions of faceless surgeons pulling her intestines out, struggling to make sense of what is happening, and displaying increasingly erratic behavior.
Veteran actor Bruce Davidson is excellent as a Salem witch scholar that figures out the connection between The Lords record and the Salem witches. Zombie regular Jeff Daniel Phillips is also memorable as a disc jockey that works and is close friends with Heidi. There is a nicely understated romantic tension between the two characters, suggesting a longstanding friendship, evidenced by the familiar shorthand between them.

As with his other films, Zombie acknowledges horror films from the past by casting its royalty with the likes of Dee Wallace, Judy Geeson, and Ken Foree in crucial roles, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos by Barbara Crampton, Michael Berryman, and Sig Haig. This isn’t simple stunt casting or a knowing wink to fellow horror genre fans, rather actors playing bonafide, lived-in characters.

The Lords of Salem is a captivating film with Brandon Trost’s atmospheric cinematography giving it a much richer look than its meager $1.5 million budget would suggest. Zombie gets the most out of his locations, choosing those that give a real sense of place including, most crucially, the apartment building that Heidi inhabits. Everything has a lived-in look, from the clutter in the D.J. booth where Heidi does her show to Davidson’s bookcase-dominated home.
If there is one erroneous aspect of this film, it’s the reliance on the tired cliché of Satan-worshipping witches. Witchcraft is pagan in nature. While a large number of witches don’t worship any god or goddess, there are those that do…but not Satan. It could be that he is used in film because it is an easily identifiable embodiment of evil, even outside of the Christian faith. Zombie did such a great job in all other areas and seemed to be interested in bucking tradition, then fell back on a stereotypical portrayal that is disappointing, but hardly surprising as this has been done in countless horror films.
Zombie tones down the gore in favor of disturbing imagery reminiscent of Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), creating an overwhelming feeling of dread and unease. In that sense, The Lords of Salem is a refreshing outlier in Zombie’s filmography as it dials back the aggressive, extreme horror films of such films as 31 (2016) by shifting gears to more supernatural-based horror, as demonstrated in the showstopping finale. Zombie pulls out the strangest imagery that he’s ever produced and marries it with his trademark downbeat ending, scored to chilling effect with “All Tomorrow’s Parties” by The Velvet Underground and Nico. The Lords of Salem is not a scary movie per se… instead Zombie creates a more chilling, unsettling experience. It appeared that he was maturing and evolving as a filmmaker but when it barely made back its budget, he went back to what he knew best – extreme horror with hillbillies and white trash with 31. That being said, he is still capable of throwing audiences the occasional curve ball as he did in 2002 with the odd career move of making a studio-backed film adaptation of the much-beloved 1960s family sitcom, The Munsters. True to form, by design or not, Zombie’s work continues to fascinate fans and detractors alike.

Friday, September 15, 2023

L.A. Takedown

It says something about the kind of juice Michael Mann had within the industry in 1989 that he was able to create – and get on television – a rough draft for a film he would make six years later. He wrote an early draft of what would become Heat in 1979 that was 180 pages and based on real people he knew both personally and by reputation in Chicago. Ten years later, he cut the screenplay down to 110 pages and raised the financing himself so that he owned the rights to the material. The result was a made-for-television movie entitled L.A. Takedown, a cat-and-mouse story between a career criminal and a dedicated police detective that aired on NBC on August 27, 1989 at 9 p.m.
The origins for the project were based in large part from the experiences of a police officer and an old friend of Mann's, Chuck Adamson, who had been chasing down a high-line thief named Neil McCauley in Chicago in 1963. Mann wrote another draft after making Thief (1981) with no intention of directing it himself. In the late 1980s, he tried to produce the film several times and offered it to his friend and fellow filmmaker Walter Hill but he turned it down. Mann was still not satisfied with the script, which had developed the character of McCauley but who still needed work. It also lacked an ending.
Early on, L.A. Takedown follows the plot to Heat beat-for-beat with Scott Plank playing Los Angeles Robbery-Homicide division cop Vincent Hanna and Alex McArthur as Patrick McLaren (Neil McCauley in Heat), the veteran thief. It is fascinating to see the different choices that Mann makes, such as the tweaks in dialogue or in the casting of certain characters. For example, Xander Berkley, a fantastic actor in his own right, is cast as Waingro, the loose cannon McLaren hires to help his crew knock over an armored truck. The actor plays him initially as a jittery psychopath, only to later settle on a drugged-out look, whereas in Heat, Kevin Gage brings a scary, simmering intensity to the role – a stone-cold serial killer and agent of chaos.

The most interesting casting in the movie is Hanna’s team, which includes Richard Chaves (Predator), Michael Rooker (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), and Daniel Baldwin (John Carpenter’s Vampires). Unfortunately, they hardly get any screen time and therefore make little impact. Plank is okay as Hanna but lacks the confident swagger that Al Pacino brought to the role. That being said, he does have a nice moment with his estranged wife, Lillian (Ely Pouget), near the end, after McLaren is killed, where he admits that he loves her but isn’t going to change.
L.A. Takedown suffers most in the casting of McLaren and his crew. McArthur, eerily chilling in William Friedkin’s Rampage (1987) as a sadistic serial killer, lacks the gravitas of Robert De Niro. The same can be said for the barely seen Peter Dobson (The Frighteners) as Chris Sheherlis who comes off as a glorified extra in this incarnation, whereas the role was expanded significantly in Heat with Val Kilmer taking over the character. Vincent Guastaferro (NYPD Blue) plays Michael Cerrito and lacks the intensity that Tom Sizemore brought to the part. They are simply not convincing as a team of elite thieves but then, they aren’t given the screen-time.
The scene where Hanna and McLaren meet face-to-face is fine but it makes one realize just how much De Niro and Pacino brought to the table – nuance and subtlety –that is lacking from McArthur and Plank. There is stiffness to the line readings from both actors as they fail to bring Mann’s words to life, summing up what’s going on in this movie. The inflexible actors are cast in the lead roles and the actors you’d like to see cut loose, like Rooker, are wasted in nothing roles. The famous bank robbery shoot-out is still exciting to watch and one of the few times L.A. Takedown comes thrillingly to life. It lacks the visceral immediacy of Heat but does have some cool shots, such a McLaren and Sheherlis running back into the bank after Hanna and his team show-up, with them chasing the camera in a slick tracking shot.

There are some enjoyable bits of business, such as a montage of Hanna working the streets of L.A., asking around about McLaren and his crew. Mann gives us a brief slice of the city’s night life via quick, broad strokes. Perhaps what is most striking about L.A. Takedown is how it doesn’t feel or look like a Mann production. While Ron Garcia’s (Twin Peaks) cinematography is just fine, it lacks the widescreen mastery of Dante Spinotti’s work in Heat. The T.V. movie’s 1.33:1 aspect ratio certainly doesn’t do it any favors, giving it a boxed-in feel as opposed to Heat’s 2.39:1 aspect ratio, which opens everything up and gives the film more of an epic feel. The lack of Mann’s distinctive touch may also be due to the incredibly fast shoot – uncharacteristic for the methodical filmmaker – with only ten days of pre-production and 19 days of shooting. In comparison, Heat had a six-month pre-production period and a 107-day shooting schedule.
At the end of the day, L.A. Takedown is a fascinating curio, nothing more – a stripped down, rough draft. Gone is Shiherlis’ subplot, so is the bungled precious metals sting, the subplot involving Hanna's stepdaughter, and McLaren dies differently and less satisfyingly. Due to the short running time, everything feels condensed while Heat’s expanded running time allows the story to breathe and provide nuanced characterization, thereby shedding more light on the motivations for the characters’ actions. Heat shows how more time, millions of dollars and a talented, star-studded cast can make a difference. Afterwards, Mann had a much clearer idea of how he wanted Heat to be structured. More importantly, he also figured out the ending. In 1994, Mann showed producer Art Linson another draft of Heat over lunch and told him that he was thinking of updating it. The producer read it, loved it, and agreed to make the film, giving ‘90s cinema what would prove to be a timeless heist classic.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Miami Blues

"The Sunshine State is a paradise of scandals teeming with drifters, deadbeats, and misfits drawn here by some dark primordial calling like demented trout.” – Carl Hiaasen

Author Charles Willeford has been called “the progenitor of modern South Florida crime novel” with his last four novels chronicling Miami’s shift from vacation paradise destination for retirees to “the nation’s capital of glamor, drugs, and weird crime,” inspiring writers such as Carl Hiaasen and James W. Hall, and filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino. It was his 1984 novel Miami Blues that started it all, featuring the first appearance of grizzled police detective Hoke Moseley who would go on to appear in three subsequent novels. Their commercial success eventually roused interest in Hollywood and Miami Blues was adapted in 1990, part of a fantastic crop of neo-noirs that also included The Grifters, The Hot Spot, and After Dark, My Sweet. A passion project for both its writer/director George Armitage and producer/star Fred Ward, it sadly did not do well at the box office, was coolly received by critics, and has become largely forgotten, despite its profane dialogue and sudden, often violence that anticipated the films of Tarantino two years later.
Frederick J. Frenger Jr. a.k.a. Junior (Baldwin) is an ex-convict flying into Miami from California, armed with someone else’s driver’s license, and ready to wage a one-man crime spree on the city. He gets off to a roaring start right out of the gate – literally, when he tries to steal another passenger’s luggage but misses the opportunity. Undaunted, seconds later, he bribes a small child and makes off with another piece of unattended luggage and for an encore, breaks the finger of a Hari-Krishna follower who subsequently dies from shock.

We meet homicide detective Hoke Moseley (Ward) negotiating money with a blind informant, which is the kind of colorful introduction that tells us a lot about his character. He and his partner (Charles Napier) investigate the Krishna murder and the scene illustrates the short-hand between these two men who have obviously been partners for a long time, while showcasing the film’s black humor: “Your turn to notify next of kin,” Hoke says to his partner who replies, “No way! I did the fat lady that sat on a kid. That’s good for two.” It’s great fun to see these two veteran actors share a scene together, lobbing dialogue back and forth. One almost wishes a prequel had been done about these two characters.
Junior checks into a hotel and quickly arranges for a hooker and meets Susie (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He doesn’t want to have sex, but instead sells her clothes out of his stolen luggage. He takes an immediate shine to her. He hasn’t been with a woman in a long time – and initially it looks like he’s going to be rough with her – but instead is very tender.
Miami Blues is a battle of wills, fused with a cat-and-mouse game, as Hoke pursues Junior. He questions him early on at Susie’s over a dinner in a fantastic scene that’s crackling with subtle tension simmering under the surface, as the cop knows the crook is lying about the dead Hari Krishna, but puts on airs for Susie’s benefit. It is a wonderfully acted and staged scene as she is oblivious to what is going on while Hoke and Junior sniff each other out.

Junior is a career criminal who sees the world as a playground. If he wants something he takes it. Someone gets in his way he removes them. He is all about taking short cuts. The first third of the film mostly focuses on Junior’s exploits as we see him spotting a two-man pickpocket team and follows the guy with the loot into a public bathroom, beats him up, and takes the money. He’s a ballsy crook, buying a realistic looking water gun and then robbing a bunch of guys on the street. Baldwin looks like he’s having a blast playing Junior as a legend in his own mind as he sits in his hotel room at one point with a bunch of money, pretending he’s Al Pacino in Scarface (1983). He is excellent as a clever crook whose fault is that he never plans his crimes ahead of time. He’s spontaneous and this works for awhile but eventually catches up to him.
Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Susie as a naïve innocent who falls in love with Junior but is blind to his true nature. The actor conveys an earnest vulnerability. Susie sees Junior as a way to a better life – the house, the white picket fence, kids, and so on. Juniors taps into this when he tells her, “Let’s go straight to the ‘happily ever after’ part, okay?” She is the one ray of hope and optimism in his otherwise cynical world.
Ward’s Hoke is a broken-down detective on the outskirts of retirement but he’s smart and a student of human behavior, sussing Junior right away, correctly figuring out he’s an ex-con by the way he protects his food while eating dinner. He’s also pissed that Junior is running around with his badge impersonating him and makes it his mission to take the guy down. It’s a fantastic role that showcases Ward’s considerable talents and rare opportunity to headline a film. It’s a shame that Miami Blues wasn’t a bigger hit as it would’ve been great to see him reprise the role again in another adaptation.

Associate producer William Horberg gave Miami Blues to Fred Ward soon after it was published. After reading it, he thought it would make for a great film. “It has a certain irony about it, a certain dark comedy that I like. It’s a little absurd. There’s a random violence in it that I thought was very real,” Ward said in an interview. He optioned the book rights for a two-year deal with $4,000 that the actor paid out of his own picket. He brought it to friend and filmmaker Jonathan Demme, with whom he had worked with on Swing Shift (1984), in the hopes that he’d direct. Demme, just having shot Married to the Mob in Miami (1988), demurred but suggest another friend of Ward’s – George Armitage – to direct instead. Demme knew Armitage from when they were starting out, making films for Roger Corman. He read the book and loved it, going on to write a spec screenplay and agreed to helm it with Demme producing along with Gary Goetzman. Ward had pitched the project to Orion Pictures on two occasions and was turned down both times until he showed them Armitage’s script. They agreed but only if a young actor was cast in one of the lead roles.
Originally, Ward wanted to play Junior with Gene Hackman playing Hoke. The two men met and Hackman was interested but when Alec Baldwin came in to read for the part of Junior, he was so good they cast him in the role, and Ward decided to play Hoke. Early on, Leigh Taylor-Young (Jagged Edge) was originally cast as Susie but dropped out for unknown reasons. Jennifer Jason Leigh was later cast in the role and to prepare, she cut her hair short and isolated herself from the rest of the crew to replicate the loneliness of her character. She also went to Okeechobee, Florida, attended her first football game, and hung out with local high school girls to learn the dialect, their attitudes and aspirations.
Miami Blues received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it two out of four stars and wrote, “The movie wants to be an off-center comedy, a lopsided cops-and-robbers movie where everybody has a few screws loose. But so much love is devoted to creating the wacko loonies in the cast that we're left with a set of personality profiles, not characters.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Miami Blues is best appreciated for the performances of its stars and for the kinds of funny, scene-stealing peripheral touches that keep it lively even when it's less than fully convincing.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “Armitage, a Demme pal, has been struggling to escape B-moviedom for the past decade. But Miami Blues, panicky and sleek as a fire engine, is more than a snappy comeback. It's a centered lament, a screwball thriller about making ends meet, about how even an armed robber can't afford the American Dream.”

In his review for Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman wrote, “By the time Miami Blues winds into its crushingly bloody, absurdist finale, the only question of any urgency is, Which actor has become harder to watch: Baldwin with his histrionics or Fred Ward flashing those naked gums?” The Los Angeles Times’ Peter Rainer wrote, “This is the problem with the action-filmmaker’s anything-for-a-jolt ethos: Whatever doesn’t jump-start the story is skimped. In fact, in Miami Blues, the story is all jump-starts. I realize that this may be all that most people require from a glorified programmer like Miami Blues, but the film has so much finesse, and its best moments are so freakishly dippy, that you regret the devaluation.”
Miami Blues presents a heightened reality of a city where danger lurks behind every corner, where a veteran police detective is assaulted in his own home, and where an opportunistic crook can wage a one-man crime wave posing as a cop. As Hiassen has said, the film presents “a paradise of scandals teeming with drifters, deadbeats, and misfits drawn here by some dark primordial calling like demented trout.”
Fisher, Marshal Jon. “The Unlikely Father of Miami Crime Fiction.” The Atlantic. May 2000.
Leung, Rebecca. “Florida: ‘A Paradise of Scandals’.” 60 Minutes. April 17, 2005.
Mitchell, Sean. “Exploring the Dark Side.” Los Angeles Times. April 15, 1990.

Pinkerton, Nick. “Interview: George Armitage.” Film Comment. April 28, 2015.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. “Miami Splice.” The New York Times. September 30, 1988.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. “Fred Ward’s Blues.” The New York Times. April 20, 1990.
Weinstein. Steve. “The Transformation of Jennifer Jason Leigh.” Los Angeles Times. April 29, 1990.

Monday, January 16, 2023

A Flash of Green

What is the price for one’s soul? Is it ever worth the price, to betray loved ones, those who matter most to you? This is the dilemma that newspaper reporter Jimmy Wing (Ed Harris) wrestles with in A Flash of Green (1984), Victor Nunez’s adaptation of John D. MacDonald’s 1962 novel of the same name. As with all of the filmmaker’s films, this one is, first and foremost, a fascinating character study with a conflicted protagonist at its center.
Jimmy is a reporter for a local Florida newspaper in 1961. Developers are trying to buy Grassy Bay, a body of water in the heart of Palm City. Their goal: fill it in so that they can build homes on it, making a lot of money in the process. Some of its residents, however, have formed a committee called Save Our Bay (S.O.B.) to stop it, citing egregious environmental damage if it goes through.
Jimmy meets with Elmo Bliss (Richard Jordan), a county commissioner, to get the skinny on the development. He is told that the plan is to create an island, populating it with homes; as he puts it, “We’re going to manufacture a paradise.” Elmo is tired of being a commissioner and is going to run for the governor’s mansion. He plans to use the money he makes from Grassy Bay to fund his campaign. He wants Jimmy to spy on the S.O.B.s and dig up dirt on them … for a price, of course. He lays it all out for the reporter when he tells him, “World needs folks like me. Folks with a raw need for power. Without us, wouldn’t anything ever get done.”

Initially, Jimmy stays neutral, giving Katherine Hobble (Blair Brown), one of leaders of the eco-group, a heads up and she begins to rally the locals to stop it. He checks in on her and her two children from time to time as her husband - his best friend -- died a year ago. The steady income from Elmo, however, sways Jimmy, who is adrift in life. Adding to the weight of this decision is his wife, Gloria (Tiel Rey), who suffers from a degenerative brain disorder that her doctors understand little about and from which, it appears, she will never recover. The rest of the film plays out his moral dilemma – help Elmo for the money and in doing so betray Kat, the woman he loves but is afraid to admit it, even to himself.
Ed Harris delivers a memorable turn as a man faced with a conflict, a crisis of conscience. The deeper Jimmy digs for dirt for Elmo, the more morally compromised he becomes. He passively watches as his friends are railroaded by local politicians. Why is Jimmy willing to do this? Has his wife’s medical condition left him so cynical that he doesn’t care about anything? Kat and her kids humanize him, give him something to care about – a life he’d like to have. Jimmy’s actions are ruining people’s lives … good, decent people he’s known for years. Even those closest to him, like Kat, are being harassed on the phone by religious zealots, surreptitiously employed by Elmo to scare of members of the S.O.B. Harris does an excellent job conveying the guilt that plays across Jimmy’ face when the S.O.B. fall apart, knowing that it is because of his actions.
Richard Jordan does an excellent job of expressing Elmo’s passion for the development deal. He’s honest with Jimmy about his ambitions but not about how far he will go to realize them. Jordan is a fascinating actor to watch as he so effortlessly disappears into his character, something he did often in such diverse films as The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), The Mean Season (1985), and The Hunt for Red October (1990). In A Flash of Green, Elmo is the obvious villain of the film, but Jordan resists the urge to play him that way, even when he obliquely admits to sending guys to beat-up Jimmy repeatedly in the hopes of ‘persuading’ him to leave town after he turns the tables on Elmo. It is hinted that these two men have known each other for many years, the only reason why Elmo doesn’t have Jimmy killed.

Blair Brown is also very good as a woman still struggling with the loss of her husband, raising two children, trying to protect the bay from greedy developers, and sorting out her feelings for Jimmy. She has a lot on her plate and Brown’s intelligent, layered performance results in a fascinating character. At times, it is painful to watch her and the other committee members struggle against more powerful forces that they have no hope of beating. Brown resists any urge to inflate Kat’s fight to heroic heights, as one would see in a Hollywood movie, and instead opts to have that be only one of many aspects of her rich character.
There are also memorable minor roles, such as George Coe as a fellow journalist who doesn’t have the stomach for the darker stories that he and Jimmy sometimes cover. His response is to get so drunk that Jimmy must take him to his wife who cares for him. Even his character has his own arc and finds a way to redeem himself as he does his own part in the unfolding drama.
Sam Gowan, who had worked on Victor Nunez’s first film, Gal Young ‘Un (1979), went on to work at the University of Florida Libraries as the assistant director for special resources. Part of his division was the John D. MacDonald repository. MacDonald was a successful crime author, both critically and commercially, with his series of Travis McGee novels, and 1957 novel The Executioners adapted into film twice, in 1962 and 1991. Gowan and his wife enjoyed the man’s novels and she suggested asking Nunez to adapt one of them. Warner Bros., however, owned long-term options on all the Travis McGee novels, save for a couple of the early ones, which were available. He contacted MacDonald’s agent in Los Angeles and worked out a deal that required a small payment up front and a loaded backend, whereby if the film did well financially, the author would be paid more.

The budget for A Flash of Green was $750,000, ten times larger than Gal Young ‘Un. Half of the budget came from a small group of local investors with PBS American Playhouse covering the rest, who had been impressed with Nunez’s first film. To keep costs down, the entire cast worked for Screen Actors Guild minimum.
At the time the film was cast, Ed Harris turned down a chance to extend his run on Sam Shepard’s off-Broadway success, A Fool for Love (for which he won an Obie Award), and an offer from Paul Newman to appear in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, to go to Florida and act in Nunez’s project. Harris said, “I loved Victor’s sensibility and his cinematic tastes, his knowledge and how he films.” The actor was also drawn to the character of Jimmy Wing:
“I really appreciated the subtle character study that this guy is. He goes through so many changes. He’s someone who gets caught up in events that sort of catch him and sweep him away and he really has to climb his way back. He was a character I could really explore.”
To this end, the actor worked with the filmmaker on the screenplay, and during rehearsals, he frequented local stores for his character’s outfits. Harris’ hands-on approach extended to other cast members. Richard Jordan helped get period-specific props for the film and remarked on the challenge: “That era is too recent for anyone to collect and a lot of what you’d want to use has wound up in garbage cans.”

Critics of the day gave A Flash of Green generally favorable reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "A Flash of Green is attentive to the compromises of daily life, and it understands how people can be complicated enough to hold two opposed ideas at the same time." In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "A Flash of Green is not perfect, but it is provocative and nearly always intelligent." The Washington Post's Lloyd Grove wrote, "Nunez, who also worked the camera with an eye for faded beauty, has made Palm City a self-contained world where there can be no appeal to a higher authority. While sometimes he's a bit heavy on the symbolism -- having Wing, at one point, fiddle with a two-faced doll -- he usually handles the material with admirable subtlety, letting the story all but tell itself."
The worlds in Nunez’s films feel fully fleshed out and realized, populated by readily identifiable people with compelling dilemmas. In the case of A Flash of Green he also creates a real sense of place; the attention to period detail on a budget is fantastic, with vintage cars and clothes used sparingly and matter-of-factly. He achieves it with small details, such as the cluttered office that Jimmy works in or the Spartan wood interior of Elmo’s office. Nunez also has a great ear for dialogue, accurately capturing the way people talk, evident in the scene where Kat debates with her friends about the development of Grassy Bay, with one arguing that developing the land will help the depressed local economy. The film presents several different points-of-view and then shows them in conflict with one another.
Nunez does a deft juggling act of showing how parts of Florida are being ruined by greedy developers and the toll it is taking on the residents, without being preachy about it, and by focusing on the relationships between them. A Flash of Green might be the most low-key crusading journalist film ever made. There are no heroic, epic speeches, moustache-twirling villains, car chases or gun battles – just people trying to protect their own little piece of the world. Much like John Sayles, Nunez is interested in telling stories about everyday people trying to get by, finding that their personal dilemmas are just as worthy of telling as any epic tale. For the people in his films, what goes on in their small world means everything to them. Life is about the choices we make and having to live with them. Jimmy has to live with the choices he has made. They were tough decisions that took their toll on him physically and emotionally. Jimmy finds that it isn’t easy buying back even a part of his soul. It is a long, hard journey but by the film’s end, there is hope that he is on his way to redemption.

Crandell, Ben. “FLIFF Reunites Old Friends Ed Harris, Victor Nunez.” South Florida Sun Sentinel. November 17, 2015.

Fein, Esther B. “Shaking A Hero Image.” The New York Times. July 22, 1985.
Gowan, Sam. “My Life in Movies.” The Gainsville Sun. April 1, 2004.
Maslin, Janet. “At the Movies – Jordan Assembled Props.” The New York Times. June 28, 1985.

Friday, October 28, 2022

High Plains Drifter


From The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966) to Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) to Unforgiven (1992), Clint Eastwood has made all kinds of westerns. High Plains Drifter (1973) is one of his more intriguing efforts in the genre – it takes the enigmatic Man with No Name gunslinger from Sergio Leone films such as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), fusing it with the gothic sensibilities of the Don Siegel film, The Beguiled (1971). It starts off as a typical lone gunfighter-for-hire story. In this film, Eastwood’s mysterious character is part avenging angel and part vengeance demon, determined to punish the people of a town for a crime that is gradually revealed.
The Stranger (as he is referred to in the credits) literally materializes out of the hazy, shimmering horizon like an apparition while Dee Barton’s eerie music plays on the soundtrack. After Eastwood’s credit and the film’s title appears, the score transitions into a more traditional western motif, reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western soundtracks.
High Plains Drifter starts in typical western fashion with a hired gun wandering into the town of Lago looking for work. After quickly and efficiently dispatching three mercenaries who challenge him, he’s offered a job by the town elders. Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis) and the Carlin brothers, Dan (Dan Vadis) and Cole (Anthony James), have just been released from prison. They tried to steal gold from the town and whipped Marshal Jim Duncan (Buddy Van Horn) to death. Now, they aim to return, take the gold, and exact revenge on the townsfolk.

The Stranger agrees and is given unlimited credit at all of the town’s stores and proceeds to exploit their goodwill, starting off by giving two American Indian children candy they were eyeing and a pile of blankets to their grandfather, right after the store owner berated them with racial slurs. He goes on to accumulate material items for free – new boots, a saddle, and cigars. He then uses his leverage to humiliate the town elders by making Mordecai (Billy Curtis), the town dwarf, the new sheriff and mayor, and has the hotel owner’s barn stripped of its wood to build picnic tables, much to their chagrin. They have to go along with it, lest they lose the only person standing between them and the vengeful outlaws headed their way.
The film’s big question: who is The Stranger and what is his motivation? Within minutes of being in Lago he has killed three men and raped a woman (Marianna Hill). Initially, it appears to be a nasty, misogynistic streak in the character but, as we learn more about the town and in its denizens, the more we understand what this mysterious gunslinger is doing. His motivation begins to shift into focus early on when he dreams of the Marshal being whipped to death while the whole town watched and did nothing. The haunting music from the start of the film comes on as we see Bridges and the Carlin brothers whip Duncan at night. He pleads for help while all the townsfolk stand and stare, the camera framing them in near-dark shots, some almost in silhouette, which creates an ominous mood. As the poor man is whipped to death he mutters, “Damn you all to hell,” which is exactly what The Stranger plans to do to the complicit townsfolk.
Interestingly, the second flashback to what happened to the Marshal that fateful night is predominantly from Mordecai’s perspective. He takes us back and this time, we see the townsfolk’s faces more clearly. Unlike The Stranger, he was there and saw what happened. Eastwood also cuts back and forth from shots of the outlaws’ evil faces, the residents, and the Marshal’s point-of-view. In doing so, he makes the man’s pain and suffering more personal and we see the townsfolk’s reaction to what is happening more clearly – some are indifferent, some afraid, and some malevolently approving. It is Mordecai, however, who seems the most upset and remorseful.

Who is the Marshal to The Stranger? It is never clear. The hotel owner’s wife, Sarah (Verna Bloom) even asks him: he is coy with the answer, refusing to confirm or deny his relationship with the dead man. Everything he does in the town, from making a mockery of its elders to getting carte blanche with all of their resources, is to punish the townsfolk, not just for their complacency but for their sins. As the film progresses, we also learn more about what motivates the town elders – why they are so distrustful of outsiders, why they are so eager to cover things up, and why they hired The Stranger to protect them from Bridges and the Carlin brothers. The scenes with them illustrate the corruption inherent in the authoritarian structure – something Eastwood has been distrustful of his entire career – as The Stranger’s abuse of power eats away at the relationship among the town elders until they begin to turn on each other.
Future members of Eastwood’s informal repertory company of actors, Geoffrey Lewis, Anthony James, and Dan Vadis are well cast as the grungy, amoral outlaws that kill three men in cold blood as soon as they are released from prison, stealing their horses and clothes. These consummate character actors have no problem playing dirty, unrepentant, evil criminals and, over the course of the film, we anticipate their inevitable confrontation with Eastwood’s gunfighter. The key to his films is to have someone who is a formidable threat to his character and Lewis, with his character’s ruthless drive to exact revenge, is completely believable in that role.
Clint Eastwood received a nine-page treatment from Ernest Tidyman, known mostly for writing the screenplays for urban crime films such as Shaft (1971) and The French Connection (1971). The primary inspiration for the screenplay was the real-life murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York in 1964, in which 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack and failed to help her or call the police. The starting point for Eastwood was, “What would have happened if the sheriff in High Noon had been killed? What would have happened afterwards?” Once he agreed to do it, Tidyman took these two ideas and developed the treatment into a script that was subsequently revised by Eastwood’s go-to script doctor, Dean Riesner, who added, his trademark black humor: early in the film, one of Lago’s hired guns says to The Stranger, “Maybe you think you’re fast enough to keep up with us, huh?” to which he replies curtly, “A lot faster than you’ll ever live to be.” The biggest mystery of the film is The Stranger’s identity. Eastwood later admitted that the script identified him as the dead sheriff’s brother and that “I always played it like he was the brother. I thought about playing it a little bit like he was sort of an avenging angel, too.”

High Plains Drifter was put into production in late summer of 1972. The studio wanted Eastwood to shoot the film on its backlot but Eastwood decided to shoot on location. He originally considered Pyramid Lake, Nevada but his car ran out of gas before he got there. The American Indian tribal council were divided about a film crew shooting on their land. Someone in the production suggested Mono Lake in California, which Eastwood had visited in the past. Once he arrived, the filmmaker found a point overlooking the lake and decided that would be the site for the town. He went on to find all the other locations within a four-minute drive save for the opening shot, which was done outside of Reno. Production designer Henry Bumstead and his team built the town of Lago in 28-days. They assembled 14 houses, a church and a two-story hotel. These were complete buildings so that Eastwood could shoot interior scenes on location.
The Stranger has the townsfolk literally transform Lago into Hell by painting of all the buildings red – a striking image to be sure – which not only evokes hellish imagery but also symbolizes the blood on the hands of the townsfolk who were all culpable in the Marshal’s death. The climax of High Plains Drifter is where the film goes full-on horror as The Stranger leaves, letting the ill-prepared townsfolk “handle” Bridges and the Carlin brothers. Naturally, they put up little to no resistance as they are too scared to shoot and run away or as in the case of Drake (Mitchell Ryan), the mining executive, are shot and killed.
Later that night, Bridges and his crew terrorize the survivors, exposing their hypocrisy. It is at this point when The Stranger reappears, that, just like the Marshall, as Cole is mercilessly whipped to death with The Stranger framed with nightmarish flames of the town burning in the background. The two surviving outlaws walk through the town on fire – hell on earth indeed – only for Dan to be whipped around the neck and hung. Bridges still has not seen The Stranger until he hears the words, “Help me,” (sounding very much like the murdered Marshal) and turns to see him standing in front of a burning building for the final showdown. He easily guns down Bridges who asks The Stranger’s identity – and gets no response.

Late in the film, the motel keeper’s wife, Sarah (Verna Bloom) says, “They say the dead don’t rest without a marker of some kind.” High Plains Drifter ends on an emotional note as The Stranger observes Mordecai naming the Marshal’s previously unmarked grave before riding out of town, disappearing into the hazy horizon like a ghost with a reprise of the unnerving music from the opening credits. The dead Marshal can finally rest: those responsible for his demise have been punished. The film is a scathing indictment of how greed can corrupt those in positions of power. It is also a powerful critique of bystander apathy, as embodied by a town of cowards and petty, greedy tyrants that let a good man die. The Stranger embodies the dead man’s spirit and his search for vengeance.
Gentry, Ric. "Director Clint Eastwood: Attention to Detail and Involvement for the Audience.” Clint Eastwood: Interviews. University of Mississippi. 1999.
Hughes, Howard. Aim for the Heart. I.B. Tauris. 2009
McGilligan, Patrick. Clint: The Life and Legend. Harper Collins. 1999.
Schickel, Richard. Clint Eastwood: A Biography. Alfred A. Knopf. 1996.
Wilson, Michael Henry. “’Whether I Succeed or Fail, I Don’t Want to Owe it to Anyone but Myself’: From Play Misty for Me to Honkytonk Man.” Clint Eastwood: Interviews. University of Mississippi. 1999.

Friday, August 19, 2022

White Squall

For a filmmaker as prolific as Ridley Scott he’s bound to have a lot of hits and misses. For every Gladiator (2000), there’s a few Someone to Watch Over Me’s (1987). It is some of the fascinating yet flawed outliers in his filmography that are the most interesting. Case in point: White Squall (1996), a dramatic recreation of the doomed school sailing trip lead by Dr. Christopher B. Sheldon on the brigantine Albatross, which sank on May 2, 1961, allegedly due to a white squall, killing six people. Adapted from Charles Gieg’s book The Last Voyage of the Albatross, the film received mixed reviews and, despite its cast, featuring a bevy of young, up-and-coming actors, performed poorly at the box office.
The film follows Chuck Gieg (Scott Wolf) as it opens with the young man giving up his last year of high school to sail on the Albatross. His brother got into an Ivy League school on a scholarship and it is hinted that he doesn’t have the grades to do the same. The rest of the boys are loosely sketched and it’s up to the talented young cast to breathe life into their respective characters. You’ve got Dean Preston (Eric Michael Cole), the bully who thinks he’s cooler than everyone else; Gil Martin (Ryan Phillippe), the meek one; Frank Beaumont (Jeremy Sisto), the spoiled rich kid who doesn’t want to be there, and so on.
We meet most of these boys as they are prepared to board the Albatross for a year-long voyage at sea where they’ll learn everything they need to know about operating a boat while also keeping up with their academic studies. They are immediately greeted by McCrea (John Savage), the grizzled English teacher who quotes Shakespeare’s The Tempest to them. They go below decks and are greeted by boys already there. True to Social Darwinism, a pecking order is quickly established but as they will find out, everyone answers to Captain Christopher Sheldon (Jeff Bridges) a.k.a. The Skipper who sets the ground rules when he addresses them for the first time: “The ship beneath you is not a toy and sailing’s not a game.” In this scene, Jeff Bridges tempers his innate likability and charisma by playing the Skipper as a no-nonsense disciplinarian who demands his students follow the rules. This is further reinforced in the next scene when he finds out that Gil is afraid of heights and browbeats the young man to climb up the rigging and in the process not only traumatizes him but humiliates him in front of the other boys.

Scott shows us what it takes to get a boat such as the Albatross ready for sea, how everyone works together, and how a rookie mistake almost costs Chuck his life when he hangs himself on the rigging only for the Skipper to rescue him. Early on, the boat hits a rough patch of water, a foreboding taste of what’s to come, and we see everyone act as a team to rescue one of boys who is tossed overboard. To make up for the deficiencies in the lack of character development in Todd Robinson’s screenplay, Scott includes several scenes showing the boys bonding, whether its’s Gil’s tearful recollection of how his brother died or Dean admitting he’s a poor student that doesn’t know to spell. We slowly begin to care about what happens to these boys, which is crucial later when they are put in peril with the storm.
Everything has been building to the film’s climactic set piece – a massive white squall that threatens to sink the Albatross. Scott and his crew create a harrowing scene that rivals the nautical disasters depicted in Titanic (1997) and The Perfect Storm (2000), only he did it with practical effects while those other films leaned on CGI to do most of the heavily lifting. This gives the sequence a visceral impact as it looks and sounds real. This isn’t some CGI creation but an actual thing that Scott captures in vivid detail. It’s a powerful visual reminder of the true power of nature and that we are insignificant compared to it. Every so often we are reminded of this fact.
Chuck provides the film’s voiceover narration, taken from the journal he kept during the journey. He is the wide-eyed idealist that is the calming influence on the rest of the boys and takes to the Skipper’s tough love style of leadership without losing his humanity. Scott Wolf channels a young Tom Cruise as he delivers a strong performance as the audience surrogate. After the survivors are taken back to land he breaks down in a moving scene, and then Chuck attempts to clear the Skipper’s name in the ensuing tribunal, Wolf delivering a passionate speech expertly. Chuck is the film’s social conscience as he struggles to do the right thing. He stands up for the Skipper when it looks like he will be blamed for what happened.

It is easy to see why the name actors in the cast such as Ethan Embry, Ryan Phillippe, Jeremy Sisto, and Wolf went on to notable careers. They are most successful at making their characters memorable but there is also Eric Michael Cole who plays the bully in the group. Channeling a young Matt Dillon his character is full of swagger and we eventually discover what’s behind the bravado as delivers an impressive performance that should have garnered him more high-profile roles.
White Squall, however, falters in its depiction of the Skipper. At one point his wife, Alice (Caroline Goodall), says to him, “You know, Sheldon, sometimes, not often, you act almost half human.” Therein lies the problem with this character – there’s nothing human about him, just some glowering Ahab that not even Bridges’ ample charisma can make a dent in. We get zero insight into what motivates him beyond running a tight ship. The actor tries his best but he’s not give much to work with, such as a scene where Frank inexplicably harpoons a dolphin. To punish him, the Skipper tells him to finish off the poor animal and when he refuses, does it for him. It’s an unnecessarily, ugly scene that provides no insight into either character.
This being a Ridley Scott film everything looks beautiful from the Albatross docked at dusk silhouetted against the sky to the slow-motion glamor shot of Dean diving off the highest point of the ship with the skill and grace of an Olympic athlete. We get a seemingly endless number of exquisite shots of the boat at sea with the sunlight hitting it at just the right angle.

Screenwriter Todd Robinson met Chuck Gieg while on vacation in Hawaii and the latter told him the true story of the Albatross. Inspired by it and the book Gieg had co-written about surviving the incident, Robinson wrote the screenplay with his close involvement, to ensure it stayed true to the actual events, and took it to producers Rocky Lang and Mimi Polk Gitlin. They shopped it around to various directors but they all wanted to change it to fit their vision. The producers finally brought it to Ridley Scott who bought it before Christmas 1994. At the time, he was considering directing Mulholland Falls (1996) but after reading Robinson’s script in 90 minutes he immediately wanted to do it. He was drawn to the lack of sentimentality and the coming-of-age aspect of the script.
As was his custom with films based on real-life incidents, Scott strove for authenticity and brought Gieg and the real Captain Sheldon on as technical advisors. For the ship, the production used Eye of the World, a 110-foot topsail schooner from Germany. He did not want to shoot the sea sequences in a giant water tank, common at the time, as he felt that the waves never looked large enough or realistic. He studied documentary footage and water patterns to see how they moved and reacted. He and director of photography Hugh Johnson shot mostly with hand-held cameras to get the raw look they wanted. To this end, they filmed four months on the seas, starting in the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, where on the first day got 30-foot seas, “because the crew was so well-versed by then in terms of leaping around this boat and getting camera positions, we dealt with it pretty easily actually,” Scott said. From there they spent most of the time in the Caribbean with shooting the land scenes on the islands of St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenada.
Scott eventually had to concede using water tanks for the climactic storm sequence that sinks the Albatross. He waited to film this sequence until the end of principal photography as he was dreading it “like a big monster. I didn’t want it to be a 9-minute, crash-wallop-bang and everybody’s in the water. I wanted to experience the whole process of what it means to be shot out of the blue like that, to be trapped, to see people that you got to know quite closely just taken away from you.” He used two water tanks in Malta – one that held six million gallons of water and was 40 feet deep and the other held three million gallons of water and was eight feet deep. Initially, wave machines were used but they did not produce strong enough wind effects for Scott so he brought in two jet engines to do the job. As he said they “basically blew the shit out of the set – 600 mile-an-hour winds.” The storm sequences took five days to film with the production constantly having to worry about the cameras getting wet.

Filming the sequence wasn’t without its peril as Jeff Bridges recalled, “I’ve had some real-life close calls when I’ve been surfing, and I know that feeling of fighting for your life in the water. During the storm scene there were some long takes where we were being hit with wind and waves and being knocked underwater. You don’t worry so much about acting then--you just want to survive the take.” Scott remembered one day of filming: “We got the water pretty churned up and I saw Jeff sticking his arm rigidly in the air with his fist clenched. I thought he might be screaming, ‘Right on,’ but it turned out he was screaming, ‘Stop, I’m going under.’”
White Squall received mixed to negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "The movie could have been smarter and more particular in the way it establishes its characters. Its underlying values are better the less you think about them. And the last scene not only ties the message together but puts about three ribbons on it." In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Written by Todd Robinson and photographed against beautiful blue skies by Hugh Johnson, White Squall improves when it takes on the daunting job of replicating the title storm. Mr. Scott manages to capture pure, terrifying chaos for a while, and this slow-moving film finally achieves a style of its own." The Washington Post's Richard Leiby wrote, "It's disappointing that a director with the vision of Ridley "Blade Runner" Scott and an actor with the depth of Jeff "Fearless" Bridges conspired to produce such a sodden venture, but Hollywood never seems to tire of flushing multimillions down the bilge pipes." In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Jack Mathews wrote, "The 20 or so minutes we spend with the Albatross in the squall is high adventure, to be sure. Everything else is ballast." Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, "White Squall is lovely to look at, but frustrating to behold. These boys are fine specimens of American manhood. But they’re unreachable, like ships in a bottle."
White Squall takes more than a few pages out of Dead Poets Society (1989) playbook – a coming-of-age story populated with a cast of young, aspiring actors, most of whom would go on to memorable careers. Scott’s film falters when it tries to replicate the heartfelt, emotional ending of Peter Weir’s film but instead feels forced as the soulless Frank suddenly redeems himself and all the surviving boys rally around the Skipper. It feels false as the film has done nothing to achieve this moment unlike in Dead Poets where its satisfying conclusion was the culmination of everything that came before. Also, the Skipper is such an unlikable character throughout the film it is hard to see why the boys admire him enough to rally to his defense at the end unlike Robin Williams' teacher in Dead Poets who gradually gains his students trust and admiration. Sometimes there is a good reason why a particular film is an outlier in a director’s filmography – it’s not very good. Such is the case of White Squall, a beautifully mounted film, pretty to look at but ultimately with an empty core.

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LoBrutto, Vincent. Ridley Scott: A Biography. University Press of Kentucky. 2019.
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Wilmington, Michael. “White Squall Director a Visionary without Visual Strategy.” Chicago Tribune. March 15, 1996.