"...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, August 31, 2009

Wild at Heart

By 1990, David Lynch was at the peak of his popularity and enjoying the most productive period of his career. His television show Twin Peaks had captivated American audiences and he was directing a number of commercials and performance art pieces (Industrial Symphony No. 1). This all culminated with Wild at Heart (1990), an adaptation of Barry Gifford’s novel, which went on to win the coveted Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. It also helped establish Lynch as America’s premiere cinematic surrealist. At its core, the film is a touching love story between two people whose love for each other remains constant despite all of the obstacles that life throws at them, including an overly-protective mother, a dentally-challenged psychopath, and a grizzled rocket scientist. This film is, oddly enough, Lynch at his most romantic, a rock ‘n’ roll opera with vibrant, fiery imagery.

Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) are young lovers on the run from her crazed and over-protective mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd). Sailor has jumped parole after serving time for manslaughter and takes off with Lula for sunny California. This doesn’t sit too well with Lula’s mom who sends her boyfriend, private investigator Johnny Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), and, unbeknownst to him, her lover, ruthless gangster Marcellos Santos (J.E. Freeman) on the trail of the young lovers.

As he would do with the opening scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Lynch kicks things off with a shockingly brutal act of violence that establishes a confrontational tone – this is a violent world where Sailor is prepared to kill a man with his bare hands in order to protect the woman he loves. The first image is the striking of a match followed by images of flames announcing the color scheme that would be prevalent throughout the film. This is continued in the love scenes between Sailor and Lula that are bathed in red, yellow and orange – all representing their burning love for each other. During the course of the film there are countless shots of cigarettes being lit, matches being struck, an exploding car, and a house on fire. This film is vibrantly alive and energized more than anything Lynch had done before or has done since.
In the summer of 1989, Lynch had finished up the pilot for Twin Peaks and tried to rescue two of his projects – Ronnie Rocket and One Saliva Bubble – that were owned by Dino de Laurentiis when his company went bankrupt. Independent production company Propaganda Films commissioned Lynch to develop an updated noir screenplay based on a 1940s crime novel while a filmmaking friend of his by the name of Monty Montgomery optioned Barry Gifford’s book, Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula in pre-published galley form. Montgomery gave him Gifford’s book and asked Lynch if he would executive produce a film adaptation that he would direct. Lynch remembers telling him, “That’s great Monty, but what if I read it and fall in love with it and want to do it myself?” And this is exactly what happened as Lynch recalls, “It was just exactly the right thing at the right time. The book and the violence in America merged in my mind and many different things happened.” Lynch was drawn to what he saw as “a really modern romance in a violent world – a picture about finding love in hell.” He was also attracted to “a certain amount of fear in the picture, as well as things to dream about. So it seems truthful in some way.”

Once Lynch got the okay from Propaganda to switch projects, he wrote a draft in a week. Within four months, he began filming with a budget of $10 million. Lynch did not like the ending in Gifford’s book where Sailor and Lula split up for good. For Lynch, “it honestly didn’t seem real, considering the way they felt about each other. It didn’t seem one bit real! It had a certain coolness, but I couldn’t see it.” Samuel Goldwyn, who ended up distributing the film, read an early draft of the screenplay and didn’t like Gifford’s ending either so Lynch changed it. 

However, the director was worried that this change made the film too commercial, “much more commercial to make a happy ending yet, if I had not changed it, so that people wouldn’t say I was trying to be commercial, I would have been untrue to what the material was saying.”

When Lynch read Gifford's novel, he immediately wanted Nicolas Cage to play Sailor and Laura Dern to play Lula. The actor said that he was "always attracted to those passionate, almost unbridled romantic characters, and Sailor had that more than any other role I'd played.” In Dern’s case, this was the first opportunity she had "to play not only a very sexual person, but also someone who also was, in her own way, incredibly comfortable with herself.” During rehearsals, Lynch talked about Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe with Cage and Dern. Around this time, Lynch bought a copy of Elvis' Golden Hits and, after listening to it, called Cage and told him that he had to sing two songs, "Love Me" and "Love Me Tender." The actor, a big Elvis fan, agreed and recorded each song so that he could lip-sync to them on the set.

Before filming started, Lynch suggested that Dern and Cage go on a weekend road trip to Las Vegas in order to bond. Dern remembers, “We agreed that Sailor and Lula needed to be one person, one character, and we would each share it. I got the sexual, wild, Marilyn, gum-chewing fantasy, female side; Nick’s got the snakeskin, Elvis, raw, combustible, masculine side.” 

Lynch’s two leads are also on the same page in this respect, especially Cage who affects an Elvis Presley-like drawl and sings two songs made famous by the King. Sailor, like many of the characters in this film, is larger than life with his snakeskin jacket credo, his unorthodox style of dancing (involving martial arts kicks and punches) and his habit of singing Elvis songs to Lula in public. There is a show-stopping moment where he instructs Powermad, a speed metal band, to back him on a note perfect rendition of “Love Me” while the women in the audience scream in adoration in surreal slow motion like something out of a dream. Cage plays Sailor as an instantly iconic figure, where pointing an accusing finger at Marietta is akin to a declaration of war.
Dern plays Lula to gum-chewing perfection, delivering a completely uninhibited performance as Lula. She exudes a captivating sensuality in the way she carries herself and makes a line like, “You got me hotter’n Georgia asphalt,” sound like an enticing come-on. Lula is a young woman full of energy and vitality as is evident in the scene where she and Sailor dance to the music of Powermad. There is genuine chemistry and heat between her and Cage — rather appropriate for a film dominated by images of fire. However, as the film progresses and the tone becomes darker, Lula’s optimism is chipped away and this culminates in a terrifying scene where Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) verbally rapes her in a way that echoes a similar scene in Blue Velvet (1986).

Amidst all of this madness and brutality is a touching tenderness between Sailor and Lula, like the way he softly kisses her after a passionate bout of sex, or a moment where he places her hand over his heart without a word. Nothing needs to be said between them because they understand each other intimately. As she tells him at one point, “You mark me the deepest.” And Lynch takes the time to show a series of conversations between Sailor and Lula where they talk about their respective childhoods (“I didn’t have much parental guidance.” Sailor tells her, not surprisingly.), their dreams, random thoughts, and past relationships. This allows us to get to know and care about them while also taking the occasional breather from all of the weirdness that Lynch throws our way.

Diane Ladd is fantastic as the wicked witch cum mother-from-hell, gleefully chewing up the scenery as evident even in the way she vigorously drinks from her martini glass and the way she delivers threats to Sailor with venomous gusto. Also prevalent is Lynch’s trademark fascination with the dark underbelly of America as personified by the character of Bobby Peru, one of Lynch’s most disturbing psychopaths (right behind Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth). With his horrible teeth and all-black attire (to match his pitch black heart), Peru sets his sights on Sailor and Lula with the intention of killing the former and seducing the latter.
Lynch juxtaposes this darkness with his trademark absurdist humor in the guise of the various oddballs Sailor and Lula meet along the way, like the man at a bar (Freddie Jones) who talks about “pigeon-spread diseases” in a goofy, high-pitched, sped-up voice. Or, Lula’s wildly eccentric cousin, Jingle Dell (Crispin Glover in a memorably bizarre cameo), who believes aliens are after him, enjoys placing cockroaches in his underwear and exhibits odd, nocturnal behavior (“I’m making my lunch!”). There is also a memorable scene that introduces Bobby Peru and his friends, including Lynch regular, Jack Nance in a scene-stealing role as Boozy Spool, a dazed and confused rocket scientist who may have been sampling his own rocket fuel. He delivers a brilliantly surreal monologue that is amongst some of the best moments in any Lynch film and reminiscent of the joyride interlude at Ben’s in Blue Velvet.

Wild at Heart also features stunning cinematography by Frederick Elmes (who also worked with Lynch on Eraserhead and Blue Velvet). In particular, there is a scene where Lula and Sailor pull over to the side of the road as she is upset and disgusted with all of the terrible news that she’s heard on the radio. He finds Powermad on a station and they get out of the car and dance before embracing passionately. Lynch cuts to a long shot and pans away to a gorgeous shot of a sunset that captures the poetic beauty of this moment perfectly.
Wild at Heart is a film rich in emotion and feeling as everything is heightened to an operatic level. Surreal is an adjective always used to describe Lynch but he is also a very romantic filmmaker. There is the Douglas Sirkian melodrama of Blue Velvet, the emotional journey Alvin Straight takes in order to reconnect with his brother in The Straight Story (1999), and the town of Twin Peaks dealing with the grief over the death of Laura Palmer. Perhaps the most emotional scene in Wild at Heart is when Sailor and Lula drive along a deserted stretch of highway late and night and while an instrumental version of “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak plays on the soundtrack, he tells her about how he knew her dead father. The reaction she gives is so heartbreaking, like a daughter who realizes that her father isn’t perfect.

Sailor, in some ways, is a father figure to her. He makes her feel protected and she even comments on how some of his physical features resemble her father’s. This scene represents the first seed of doubt in their relationship. It is the first step off the yellow brick road and this is reinforced by Lula’s nightmarish vision of her mother as the Wicked Witch. And then they come across a horrible car accident and find one person still alive – a woman (Sherilyn Fenn) walking around in shock from a head wound. She eventually dies in Sailor and Lula’s arms. It is a tragic moment accentuated beautifully by Angelo Badalamenti’s moving score. This scene is a crucial turning point in the film as it descends into much darker territory as Sailor and Lula make a series of bad decisions, most notably getting involved with Bobby Peru.

Lynch loved The Wizard of Oz and put a lot of references to it in his own film. Boozy Spool talks about his dog, comparing it to Dorothy’s pooch Toto; Marietta’s picture disappears at the end of the film just like the Wicked Witch; there’s Lula’s vision of her mother as the Wicked Witch of the East; Sailor has a vision of the Good Witch (Sheryl Lee) at the end of the film, who convinces him not give up on love; and Lula clicking the heels of her shoes together after the terrifying encounter with Bobby Peru.

Early test screenings for the film did not go well with the intense violence in some scenes being too much. Lynch estimated that between 100-120 people walked out. The scene in question was the torture and killing of Johnny Farragut. “I didn’t think I’d pushed it to the point where people would turn on the picture. But, looking back, I think it was pretty close. But that was part of what Wild at Heart was about: really insane and sick and twisted stuff going on.” Lynch decided not to edit anything from the film and at the second screening another one hundred people walked out during the same scene. Lynch remembers, "By then, I knew the scene was killing the film. So I cut it to the degree that it was powerful but didn´t send people running from the theatre."

The film was completed one day before its premiere at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival. Its first screening was in the 2,400-seat Grand Auditorium and afterwards it received "wild cheering" from the audience. Barry Gifford remembers that there was a prevailing mood among the media that hoped Lynch would fail. “All kinds of journalists were trying to cause controversy and have me say something like ‘This is nothing like the book’ or ‘He ruined my book.’ I think everybody from Time magazine to What’s On In London was disappointed when I said ‘This is fantastic. This is wonderful. It’s like a big, dark, musical comedy.’” When Jury President Bernardo Bertolucci announced Wild at Heart as the Palme d’Or winner at the awards ceremony, the boos almost drowned out the cheers with film critic Roger Ebert leading the vocal detractors
To say that Wild at Heart did not receive kind notices from critics is an understatement to say the least. Not surprisingly, leading the charge was Roger Ebert who wrote, "He is a good director, yes. If he ever goes ahead and makes a film about what's really on his mind, instead of hiding behind sophomoric humor and the cop-out of 'parody,' he may realize the early promise of his Eraserhead. But he likes the box office prizes that go along with his pop satires, so he makes dishonest movies like this one.” USA Today gave the film one-and-a-half stars out of four and said, "This attempt at a one-up also trumpets its weirdness, but this time the agenda seems forced." Time magazine’s Richard Combs wrote, “The result is a pile-up, of innocence, of evil, even of actual road accidents, without a context to give significance to the casualties or survivors.” Sight and Sound magazine’s Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, "Perhaps the major problem is that despite Cage and Dern's best efforts, Lynch is ultimately interested only in iconography, not characters at all. When it comes to images of evil, corruption, derangement, raw passion and mutilation (roughly in that order), Wild at Heart is a veritable cornucopia."

However, Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers wrote, "Starting with the outrageous and building from there, he ignites a slight love-on-the-run novel, creating a bonfire of a movie that confirms his reputation as the most exciting and innovative filmmaker of his generation." In her review for the Village Voice, Georgia Brown wrote that the film was “wispy and amorphous ... but it’s also formally beguiling and, in places, brilliant.”

Wild at Heart perfectly illustrates Lynch’s love-hate relationship with America. The film is filled with beautifully shot iconography of Americana, like big convertible automobiles from the ‘50s and rock ‘n’ roll music from the period. Sailor and Lula are loving (albeit tweaked) homages to Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. It is also something of an underrated film that is often ignored in favor of Lynch’s more well-known work, like Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive (2001). One can see the film’s influence in a film like True Romance (1993), with its Elvis-obsessed protagonist and his gum-chewing white trash girlfriend as they are pursued by psychotic gangsters, or Natural Born Killers (1994) with its white trash lovers on the run, or U-Turn (1997) with its town full of eccentric weirdos. But no one can pull this stuff off quite like Lynch and his film is a true original that deserves to be re-discovered and re-evaluated.


Hoffman, Jan. “Wild Child.” Village Voice. August 21, 1990.

Ridley, Chris. Lynch on Lynch. Faber & Faber. 1997.

Woods, Paul A. Weirdsville USA: The Obsessive Universe of David Lynch. Plexus. 1997.

Woodward, Richard B. “Wild at Heart … Weird on Top.” Empire. July 1990.

Friday, August 28, 2009

DVD of the Week: Adventureland

Summer jobs are usually the bane of a young person’s existence. They are what you slog through so that you can afford to go to school. They are the drudgery you endure while daydreaming of going to the beach, hanging out with your friends or going to see your favorite band – in other words, pretty much anything else but work. Summer jobs are a necessary evil and no one understands that better than filmmaker Greg Mottola who has masterfully encapsulated these feelings in Adventureland (2009), his follow-up to the popular hit Superbad (2007).

The film opens to the strains of “Bastards of Young” by The Replacements and right away you know you’re in good hands. The year is 1987 and James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated from college. He is planning to go to Europe for the summer with his buddies; however, his folks can no longer afford to help him pay for it or for grad school at Columbia University in the fall where he hopes to study journalism. James makes some calls, does some legwork and realizes that, with his academic background and a resume with a severe lack of work experience, he’s not qualified for manual labor.

Faced with no other options, James decides to apply at Adventureland, a local amusement park. Much to his surprise, he’s hired right on the spot and put in charge of various games booths. He’s shown how everything works by Joel (Martin Starr), a terminally bored co-worker who’s clearly done this song and dance routine way too many times, telling James at one point, “So, your life must be utter shit or you wouldn’t be here.” While working at the theme park James meets Em (Kristen Stewart), an attractive co-worker with excellent taste in music, and whom he develops a crush on. He also befriends Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park’s maintenance man, and who is in a local band in his spare time and claims to have once jammed with Lou Reed. James spends the summer hanging out with Em and his fellow co-workers and learns that if he wants to be a good writer he needs to have some life experiences under his belt.

Adventureland accurately portrays the thankless slog of a minimum wage job (“We are doing the work of pathetic lazy morons,” Joel deadpans) with repetitive tasks, annoying customers, and crap pay. The only thing that makes it remotely bearable is the people James works with – after all, misery loves company. Mottola includes all sorts of nice touches, like the cheesy Foreigner cover band that plays at the local bar, or the mixed tape of music that James makes for Em, which give the film a more personal feel. This is helped considerably by a great soundtrack that features the likes of Big Star, Crowded House, Husker Du, and The Jesus and Mary Chain – bands responsible for some of the best alternative music of the 1980s. Like the way music was used in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), the music in Adventureland transports you back to another time and immerses you in it.

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart have excellent chemistry together and do a good job of playing two young people that want different things out of a relationship. She has her own issues and they keep James always slightly at arm’s length. One hopes that despite the success of the Twilight films, Stewart will continue to make small, more personal films like Adventureland. Eisenberg nails the awkwardness of someone who’s had very few life experiences, especially in the romance and relationship department.

Mottola does a good job of portraying the brief flings that happen over the course of a summer. They are intense while they last even though they rarely do. He also accurately depicts how messy they can be, especially when you’re at that awkward age – your twenties – and are still trying to figure things out. Adventureland has an authenticity in how it feels to be in your twenties and to fall in love for the first time, stumbling through things, learning as you go. Whereas Mottola was basically a hired gun on Superbad, Adventureland comes from a very personal place and has much more heart while still being very funny and entertaining.

Special Features:

“Just My Life: The Making of Adventureland” takes a look at how this film came together. It was based on Mottola’s actual experiences working at an amusement park on Long Island during the summer of 1985. He talks about the casting of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart who, in turn, talk about their characters. The producers briefly mention how they were able to find a vintage amusement park. Also included is behind-the-scenes footage and clips from the film.

There are three deleted scenes with optional commentary from writer/director Greg Mottola and actor Jesse Eisenberg. We get more of the theme park’s managers played with killer comic timing by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. There is also an additional scene between James and Connell. Mottola puts this footage in context with the rest of the film and briefly explains why it was cut.

Finally, there is an audio commentary with Mottola and Eisenberg. They banter back and forth with a lot of self-deprecating humor. Mottola says that he didn’t want to make an “’80s kitsch-fest” and recounts some of his own experiences working at a theme park in his youth and how it informed the film. Eisenberg chimes in with the occasional comment and asks Mottola questions about the film. This is a very chatty track as they dish all sorts of trivia and filming anecdotes.

Jeremy, over at Moon in the Gutter, has been paying tribute to this fantastic film. Check out his posts, here and here.

Monday, August 24, 2009


In the 1980s, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the undisputed king of the Hollywood action film, cranking out hits like Conan the Barbarian (1982), The Terminator (1984), and Commando (1985), but the best of this crop, and arguably of his entire career, is Predator (1987), a testosterone-fuelled hybrid of action, science fiction and horror genres. At the time, he was an international movie star known for playing indestructible good guys (with the notable exception of The Terminator) but along came Predator where, for maybe the first time, it looked like Schwarzenegger was finally going to meet his match. With its Alpha male macho swagger and excessive display of firepower, the film epitomizes the materialistic brand of actions films that dominated the ‘80s thanks to powerful movie producers like Jerry Bruckheimer, Don Simpson and Joel Silver.

In Predator, Schwarzenegger plays Dutch Schaeffer, the leader of an elite special forces team that go into dangerous hot spots all over the world and retrieve people in trouble (as he says early on, “We’re a rescue team, not assassins.”). This time around, his mission is to go into some godforsaken jungle in Central America to find a cabinet minister and his aide whose helicopter was shot down by a band of guerrillas. They have to find the chopper and then follow the guerrillas’ trail. Along for the ride is Dillon (Carl Weathers), an old buddy of Dutch’s, who is now a CIA agent.

The helicopter ride into the jungle quickly establishes a pissing contest between all of these tough guys as Blain (Jesse Ventura) spits a nasty wad of chewing tobacco onto Dillon’s boot. The message is quite clear: Dillon is the new guy, the unwanted interloper in this tight-knit group. This scene also introduces us to Dutch’s team. You’ve got Hawkins (Shane Black), the wisecracking guy who tells dirty jokes – badly; Poncho (Richard Chaves), the one with the least memorable character traits; Billy (Sonny Landham), the tracker with an uncanny sixth sense; Blain, the good ol’ boy redneck; and his friend Mac (Bill Duke), the intimidating man of few words. One of the things that makes Predator so enjoyable is the interplay between the members of Dutch’s squad, like how Hawkins tells bad jokes to Billy, or the camaraderie between Blain and Mac. Right from the get-go you can tell that this is a tight-knit group from the verbal short-hand and familiarity between them. These actors manage to convey all of this in very little time and also make it believable.
Dutch and his team find the cabinet minister’s helicopter with two dead pilots and it appears to have been taken out by a heat-seeking missile – pretty advanced stuff for what Dillon said were a rag-tag group of guerrillas. Not long after, they find another crashed chopper but this time there are a group of dead Green Berets who were skinned alive and disemboweled. It is pretty obvious to all concerned that this is not the work of typical guerrillas. So who did it and why? We start to get glimpses of something shadowing Dutch and his team from its eerie-looking thermal image point-of-view.

Dutch and his team find the guerrillas’ camp and, in a masterfully orchestrated sequence, take it apart, killing anyone who gets in their way, save for a woman named Anna (Elpidia Carrillo), whom Dillon takes hostage. During this sequence we get to see “old painless” in action, a minigun that is normally used on helicopters, in the hands of Blain who uses it to shred the enemy in an impressive display of United States military power. Schwarzenegger even gets to let loose a couple of his trademark one-liners, like when he impales a hapless bad guy with a knife and says, “stick around.” But it is Jesse Ventura who gets the best line in this sequence when Poncho notices that he’s been shot and tells him so to which Blain replies, “I ain’t got time to bleed.”

What’s important about this sequence is that we find out Dillon lied to Dutch. The rescue mission was a cover story in order to get his team to wipe out a group of guerrillas that were about to stage an invasion across the border. This creates a nicely portrayed tension between the two men as Dutch realizes he can no longer trust his old friend. This sequence also gives the Predator a chance to study its prey for when it begins hunting them. We also see how tough and well-trained Dutch and his men are so that it makes them getting so easily dispatched by the Predator that much more impressive.
Predator starts off as a fairly standard action film as Dutch and his team track down and take out the guerrillas. However, director John McTiernan gradually introduces aspects of a horror film as the Predator begins hunting and picking off Dutch’s team. What makes this so creepy is the way the alien hunter is presented. It is able to blend into the jungle with a futuristic cloaking device that bends the light, making it nearly impossible to see. We also see things through its distinctive P.O.V., including how people’s voices sound distorted to it, only to be played back repeatedly as the Predator attempts to mimic them. This includes a few key phrases by Mac (“Anytime” and “Over here”) and Billy’s creepy laugh. The sudden nature of its attacks is also scary as we don’t know where or when it is going strike, putting us in the same boat as the characters. Because of its cloaking device, it appears as if the jungle comes alive and takes a victim, as Anna says at one point. There is one rather chilling moment when Mac confronts the Predator for only a moment and he sees its eyes flash for a second and then it’s gone.

Easily the best display of firepower in Predator comes when Blain is killed and the surviving team members unload all of their weapons at the direction of the fleeing Predator, firing round after round in what has to be one of the most awesomely vulgar displays of firepower ever put on film (at least until John Woo’s Hard-Boiled). There is also plenty of man candy on display, like when Dutch and his team set a series of traps for the Predator and we get a montage of muscled, sweaty men grunting and flexing their way through it.
The screenplay even manages to squeeze in a few nice little moments between characters, like when Vietnam War veterans Blain and Mac comment on the harsh environment. Blain says it “makes Cambodia look like Kansas” and that if “you lose it here, you’re in a world of hurt.” Mac, in turn, gets a nice scene when he takes first watch one night and eulogizes his dead comrade, recounting a story about how he and Blain were the only ones to survive their platoon getting massacred in ‘Nam. The script also does a nice job of giving us a few tantalizing tidbits of the Predator mythology like when Anna tells her captors about how it hunted the people in her village during the hottest years ever since she can remember in a brief yet haunting speech. Among the cast members, Bill Duke does a great job of conveying his character’s gradual mental breakdown as he becomes obsessed with avenging his friend. This culminates in a fantastic sequence where he chases the Predator through the jungle raving to himself nonsensically.

McTiernan does an excellent job ratcheting up the tension and immersing us in the dense, atmospheric jungle, complete with various animal sounds that immerse you in the sights and sounds of this place. He really conveys a sense of place and the blistering heat as the characters never stop sweating profusely. Predator would be the beginning of a fantastic run for the director that continued with Die Hard (1988) and The Hunt for Red October (1990) before stumbling with Medicine Man (1992), only to helm the commercial and critical failure Last Action Hero (1993).

Screenwriters Jim and John Thomas were influenced by ancient myths and the Brothers Grimm stories. They were also interested in films and stories about big game hunters in Africa and wanted to create a story where the hunters are the ones that become hunted. They wanted to write a screenplay about an alien big game hunter that comes to Earth to hunt Special Forces soldiers. They began work on the story during the summer of 1983 and called it Alien Hunter. The Thomas brothers started with the climax – a one-on-one fight – and worked backwards to create the story of the team of soldiers and their mission. They completed a draft of the script in September 1983 which involved a team of soldiers led by a Native American major. Over the course of the film, he would reconnect with his heritage and remember tribal legends. This would help him defeat the alien hunter.
The Thomas brothers had no agent and could not get anyone to read their script. While visiting 20th Century Fox, they shoved a copy of their script under the door of executive Michael Levy. Thinking that an assistant had put it there, he read and liked the script. Levy took it to recently promoted head of development Lawrence Gordon who bought it in early 1984. It was given to producer John Davis who had the Thomases polish their script for two years while he was busy with other projects.

In 1986, Gordon had backed Commando, an action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and was looking for a new project for the movie star. Gordon gave the Thomases’ script to his protégé, producer Joel Silver, who had overseen the production of Commando, while Davis hired John McTiernan to direct, based on his work on Nomads (1986). Schwarzenegger liked how the script started off as a war movie before becoming more like science fiction. He was also interested in playing a character who was more of a team player.

The original design of the alien hunter was that of a thin-legged creature with a one-eyed cow skull head and pincers for hands. McTiernan was not crazy about this look and Schwarzenegger recommended that they approach Stan Winston, who had worked with the actor on The Terminator. Winston started with an image Silver had come up with of a dreadlocked warrior and was sketching ideas on a plane to Japan with James Cameron. during pre-publicity for Aliens (1986). Cameron suggested putting mandibles on the creature’s face and Winston incorporated this into the design. Winston and McTiernan decided to make the Predator a bulkier, more physically imposing creature so that it would be a more credible threat to Schwarzenegger.
In assembling their cast, McTiernan and Silver wanted some of the actors to have military experience so that Dutch’s commando team would look and act more authentic. Richard Chaves was found appearing in an off-Broadway play about Vietnam. Jess Ventura had been a Navy SEAL in Vietnam and completed two tours there. McTiernan knew Bill Duke from AFI’s film school and had been impressed by his project work. Carl Weathers was an ex-professional football player and McTiernan brought him on board to act against Schwarzenegger to aid in the star’s performance. Sonny Landham had dabbled in pornos in the 1970s, worked also a stuntman and had a dangerous reputation so the studio’s insurance company stipulated that he would only be hired if Silver had a bodyguard to keep the actor out of trouble. Silver hired Shane Black in the hopes that the screenwriter would do rewrites on the script. Black refused to mess with another writer’s work without their consent and became a member of the cast instead.

The three-month shoot was done on location in Mexico in and around the small town of Puerto Vallarta. McTiernan and the film’s cinematographer Donald McAlpine wanted to shoot in a deeper jungle located in Palenque but studio executives did not agree. McTiernan figured that he didn’t have the clout to change their minds but ended up re-shooting as much as he could at Palenque anyway. The director had the cast show up to Puerto Vallarta a week before the start of principal photography so that they could get used to the environment and to have military adviser Gary Goldman teach them how to move in the jungle and act like Special Forces soldiers. On non-shooting days, Goldman put the cast through routine marches so that they would bond as a team and appear on film like guys who had been together for years.

The cast and crew faced all sorts of challenges during the shoot. The filmmakers did not realize that the forest in Puerto Vallarta sheds its leaves in the autumn. The leaves started to fall two weeks into principal photography and the crew had to glue them back onto branches. For many shots that were done from treetops, McTiernan would join the camera crew in the trees. One time, he fell out and hurt his wrist. The director was too embarrassed to say he was hurt and only discovered after he returned home that his wrist was broken. Several cast members experience stomach flu during the shoot. After picking the wrong restaurant to eat in, Schwarzenegger was put on a saline drip to rehydrate himself. A few weeks later, the hotel water supply was contaminated and almost everyone, except for Carl Weathers, wasn’t told until the next day.

Early in the shoot, the final Predator costume had not arrived and McTiernan shot the footage of the invisible Predator with Jean-Claude Van Damme in a red suit, which was removed in post-production. McTiernan wanted the cloaked Predator to leap through the threes in a way that a human could not replicate and tried a monkey in the red suit but all it wanted to do was hide or try to take the suit off. The director was not happy with Van Damme’s performance and the martial artist was less than thrilled about playing a special effect without credit in an uncomfortable suit. Van Damme claims he quit (but changed his story later on and said that Silver fired him) because he refused to do a stunt. In Jesse Ventura's autobiography, he alleges that Van Damme intentionally injured a stunt man. At any rate, Van Damme was removed from the film and replaced by the seven foot, two inch tall Kevin Peter Hall.
Predator was generally not well-received when it was first released. In his review for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell described the film as "grisly and dull, with few surprises.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Stack wrote that “the film is a rather pointless thing when you get down to it, has little of the provocative intelligence that was found in Terminator, but at least it's self-propelling in terms of suspense and cheap thrills.” Cinefantastique magazine’s Dean Lamanna wrote, “the militarized monster movie tires under its own derivative weight.” However, Roger Ebert was one of the few critics to champion the film. He wrote that “it has good location photography and terrific special effects, and it supplies what it claims to supply: an effective action movie," but still noted that "the action moves so quickly that we overlook questions such as why would an alien species go to all the effort to send a creature to earth, just so that it could swing from the trees and skin American soldiers? Or, why would a creature so technologically advanced need to bother with hand-to-hand combat, when it could just zap Arnold with a ray gun.”

Despite the negative reaction, Predator was a hit with the general public both in its theatrical release and on home video. It went on to spawn an inferior sequel, starring Danny Glover, a fantastic comic book mini-series by Dark Horse Comics, and two Alien vs. Predator films. All of them pale in comparison to the original, which still holds up today because of the fantastic premise, the solid cast of actors, the ingeniously designed creature, and the surprisingly memorable dialogue. Ah yes, the insanely quotable dialogue. In high school, my best friend and I used to love to quote from this film all the time, especially Schwarzenegger’s dialogue (always with his trademark accent). There’s not many films of this kind where you remember dialogue from it years afterwards and what is missing from a lot of films of this type today. Will anybody quoting from Alien vs. Predator ten years from now? Doubtful. People will still be quoting and enjoying Predator and that is a pretty good legacy for any film.


Gire, Dan. "Schwarzenegger on Predator." CinefantastiqueDecember 1987.

Gire, Dan. "Predator: The Man in the Suit." CinefantastiqueDecember 1987

McIntree, David. Beautiful Monsters: The Unofficial and Unauthorized Guide to the Alien and Predator MoviesTelos Publishing. 2005.

Robley, Les Paul. "Predator: Special Visual Effects". CinefantastiqueDecember 1987.

Friday, August 21, 2009

DVD of the Week: The Last Days of Disco: Criterion Collection

With The Last Days of Disco (1998), Whit Stillman completed his loose-knit trilogy of films about doomed Preppies in love. Much like vintage Woody Allen, the characters in Stillman’s films exist in a hermetically-sealed world on the Upper East Side of New York City. His characters are affluent and well-educated but with messy relationships. Last Days of Disco sets all of this against the backdrop of the decline of the disco era and the end of blatant hedonism and decadence for the “Greed is Good” capitalism of the 1980s. It is a testament to Stillman’s skill as a filmmaker that he does this all with a fantastic sense of humor and a real affection for his characters, even the ones that aren’t all that likable.

Alice (Chloe Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) are junior editors looking for their big break at a publishing house during the day and making the scene and being seen at a high-profile Studio 54-esque nightclub at night. Alice remains loyal to her publishing job, patiently biding her time until she can advance up the ladder while Charlotte is more interested in working in television. The film follows their various romantic entanglements and how they are intertwined with the fate of the nightclub they love to frequent.

Charlotte is superficial and condescending towards Alice, criticizing her dating habits under the auspices of giving her advice. She’s self-centered and Kate Beckinsale does a good job (almost too good) of portraying her shallow character. In contrast, Alice is much more reserved and nice, even if she is socially awkward, like the way she clumsily tries to seduce Tom (“Scrooge McDuck is sexy.”). Fresh from her breakout role in Kids (1995), Chloe Sevigny creates a layered character that we are meant to empathize with because she has more substance than Charlotte. Stillman regular Chris Eigeman turns up in a memorable supporting role as Des, the superficial manager of the nightclub, who is not above telling a woman that he’s gay in order to break-up with her. In other words, he’s a perfect match for Charlotte.

Part of the charm of The Last Days of Disco is the rarefied social strata that Stillman presents and populates with fascinating characters that have easily recognizable and relatable traits and experiences. The film is also a lament for the demise of disco, most notably in the form of Josh (Keeslar), and one gets the feeling that he is Stillman’s mouthpiece in regards to his feelings about disco. He confides in his friend Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) that he’s a “loyal adherent to the disco movement” despite frequenting very few nightclubs, but nonetheless feels very passionate about the music – shades of Tom from Stillman’s first film, Metropolitan (1990), who doesn’t read fiction but instead prefers good, literary criticism.

Josh also verbalizes his feelings about the fate of disco rather eloquently at the film’s conclusion. The speech is a bit long-winded but delivered convincingly by Matt Keeslar which ends the film on a somewhat melancholic note, tempered by the jubilant end credits sequence which features a subway car full of people dancing to “Love Train” by the O’Jays. In retrospect, we know that the end of disco ushered in New Wave and hair metal music which dominated popular music until the late ‘80s with the rise of alternative music. I was never a fan of disco music but the way Stillman uses it in The Last Days of Disco, and his obvious love for it, makes me appreciate it a bit more. I don’t know if I’d listen to this music outside of the film but within its confines, the music works incredibly well. Thanks to Stillman’s film, I have come to respect this much-maligned genre.

Special Features:

For quite some time there had been rumors that the folks at the Criterion Collection were planning a special edition of this film. Stillman had even talked it up in interviews. The previous DVD came and went rather quickly before going out-of-print, fetching steep prices on eBay, so for fans of this film it nice to have Last Days of Disco finally readily available.

There is an audio commentary by director Whit Stillman and actors Chloe Sevigny and Chris Eigeman. Stillman wastes no time diving into the origins of his film and how Winona Ryder was almost cast as Alice but her agent was slow in responding and Sevigny got the role. The actress has a charming, self-deprecating wit and points out her awkward dancing style. Eigeman says that he almost didn’t do the film because the studio felt that he wasn’t famous enough. He was also worried that he’d be typecast; playing a character similar to the ones he did in Stillman’s two previous films. The director speaks eloquently about his interest in disco on this chatty, engaging track.

Also included are four deleted scenes with optional commentary by Stillman, Sevigny and Eigeman. There is a subplot with Jimmy (Astin) that fleshes out his feelings for Alice and Charlotte. There is also more footage of Des outside of the club. It develops his character more and is nice to see, particularly if you’re a fan of Eigeman. Stillman puts the footage in context and explains why it was cut.

Stillman reads from his 2000 book, The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards, which is a novelization of the film from the point-of-view of Jimmy Steinway and also picks up after the events in the film.

A nice inclusion is a vintage featurette from the time of the film’s release. This promotional material features behind-the-scenes footage and soundbites from Stillman and his cast.

“Stills Gallery” features a collection of photographs from the film with captions written by Stillman that consist of personal recollections of making the film.

Finally, there is an original theatrical trailer.

Monday, August 17, 2009

So I Married An Axe Murderer

Remember when Mike Myers was funny? I know it’s hard because over the years he’s done a pretty good job of trashing any good will he incurred early on in his career, with his scene-stealing bits on Saturday Night Live, by cranking out one unfunny film after another (The Guru anyone?). As the years pass, the more I am convinced that So I Married An Axe Murderer (1993) is the comedian’s magnum opus and its commercial and critical failure led to the sorry state of his career. The comedian was at the apex of his powers and popularity, fresh from the success of the first Wayne’s World (1992) film. Axe Murderer was a personal pet project for Myers even though it did not originate with him. After all, he ended up playing a character that was a tribute to his father, one of the biggest influences on his comedy.

When the film was released, articles surfaced that described the comedian as an ego maniac and hinted at personality clashes between him and the film’s director Thomas Schlamme. Smelling blood in the water, critics gave Axe Murderer mostly negative reviews. I believe, although he’s never admitted as much in interviews, that he took the film’s failure personally and has retreated behind make-up and elaborate costumed characters ever since. Sure, the Austin Powers films were very successful but the first one is the funniest with subsequent sequels recycling a lot of the same jokes. Nothing Myers has done since Axe Murderer has been as good or as funny. I would argue that it is his best film to date.

Charlie MacKenzie (Mike Myers) is a coffeehouse poet who lives in San Francisco and is also afraid of commitment. He has broken up with past girlfriends for absurd reasons. He says of one, “she smelled like soup.” Charlie vents his frustrations through his Jack Kerouac-esque Beat poetry that is as funny as it is a tribute to the famous writer, right down to Myers adopting a similar cadence when reciting his prose. He’s even accompanied by a hep jazz trio reminiscent of some of Kerouac’s poetry recordings. Charlie hangs out with Tony (Anthony LaPaglia), his best friend and undercover cop. When we first meet Tony he looks a like a caricature of a 1970s-era pimp. “I look hip,” he tells Charlie who replies, “No, you look like an undercover cop trying to look hip.” Tony longs to be like Al Pacino in Serpico (1973) but instead feels like Fish from Barney Miller. Let me just say that I wish Anthony LaPaglia would do more comedies. From his character’s introduction, dressed in a parody of pimp, he displays a knack for being funny and plays well off of Myers in their first scene together.
The film’s first major comedic set piece arrives when Charlie visits his parents for dinner. They are fiercely proud Scots and his father (also played by Myers) even has a wall of portraits of famous folks from Scotland (that include the likes of Sheena Easton, Jackie Stewart and, of course, Sean Connery). We are introduced to them listening (and dancing) to the Bay City Rollers until an international soccer match comes on the television. Not surprisingly, Myers steals the show here as he rattles off one classic line after another. Watch the bit where Charlie’s father tells Tony about his theory of a secret society made up of the five wealthiest people in the world (known as the Pentavert) and you can see LaPaglia trying not to crack up. Finally, he just loses it as Myers goes off on Colonel Sanders and “his wee beady eyes.” I always wonder while watching this scene how many takes it took and if they just gave up after awhile and used the one where LaPaglia is laughing the least.

When the actors did the first cast read-through of the script, Charlie’s father had not yet been cast and so Myers read the character’s lines. The filmmakers realized that he could play that role as well. To fit both characters in the same scene together required the split-screen process. To look the role of Charlie’s father, Myers spent over three-and-a-half hours having specific prosthetic make-up applied.

Brenda Fricker plays Charlie’s mother and is the quintessential strong-willed Scottish woman. Although, she does seem to have a rather unhealthy attraction to Tony and refers to tabloid rag The Weekly World News as “the Paper.” She even justifies its authenticity by its impressive subscription numbers. In addition to following their Garth Brooks diet, she tells Charlie about the “Honeymoon Murderer,” a woman who marries men under fake identities and then kills them.

Harriet (Nancy Travis), a butcher who works at Meats of the World, catches Charlie’s eye when he buys some haggis for his father. To get closer to her, he volunteers to help out around the store. They bond over a montage of them working and goofing around. While filming these scenes, Nancy Travis was chopping vegetables with a kitchen knife. She looked up quickly to react to some antics by Myers and looked back down to see the tip of her middle finger on her left hand, “literally hanging by a thread.” A local doctor sewed her finger back together. Travis described Myers as “very particular but also clever” and said that they did a lot of improvising together. The more time Charlie spends with Harriet and the closer they get, the more he suspects that she may be the Honeymoon Murderer. Is he just falling back on his phobia of commitment, or is there something to his paranoid theories?
Nancy Travis is adorable and she and Myers have good chemistry together. The actress remembered that she was drawn to Harriet’s “qualities of danger and compassion mixed with humor make her an intriguing character.” Travis is not afraid to be a goofball and yet also have an air of mystery which keeps Charlie (and us) guessing as to her true intentions.

Amanda Plummer is quite good as Harriet’s eccentric sister Rose and delivers an off-kilter performance as only she can. In addition, there all kinds of celebrity comedian cameos from the likes of Charles Grodin, Phil Hartman, Michael Richards, Alan Arkin, and Steven Wright, who were attracted to the opportunity of working with Myers and the rest of the cast. Phil Hartman, in particular, is a real stand-out as Alcatraz Prison tour guide John Johnson, “but everyone here calls me Vicky,” and who proceeds to tell a funny yet also creepy story about one of the inmates.
One of the strengths of Axe Murderer is how it conveys a real sense of place. The city of San Francisco is featured rather prominently, so much so that it is like another character. The opening credits appear as the camera flies over the San Francisco Bay and through the city (we briefly see the Ferry Building) before finally descending onto Jack Kerouac Alley and the Roads coffeehouse (actually the Vesuvio Cafe located very close to the famous City Lights bookstore). The camera enters the busy place and settles on a serving tray with a big mug of cappuccino, which recalls the early to mid-1990s when coffeehouses were all the rage. In addition, there are shots of Charlie driving through Diamond Heights with accompanying music (conducted by Bruce Broughton) reminiscent of the classic cop show The Streets of San Francisco. In addition, other notable city landmarks that are on display in the film include the Fog City Diner, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts, and a great shot of Charlie sitting on the roof of his place overlooking North Beach.

The filmmakers picked San Francisco as the film’s setting because it seemed like an ideal place for a poet like Charlie. Myers was attracted to its “coffeehouse culture, with its clothes and music and its whole sensibility ... people aren’t going to bars as much. They tend to go out and have coffee.” Several sets were built in warehouses near Candlestick Park and the filmmakers used these soundstages for many weeks. The Dunsmuir House and Gardens in the East Oakland foothills were chosen as the destination site of Charlie and Harriet while on honeymoon. Additional special effects and Matte paintings created the illusion that this location was secluded among mountains. The production replicated the mansion’s rooftop at ground level so that the actors could do their own stuntwork for some of the film’s climactic chase sequence.
So I Married An Axe Murderer originated in 1987 when producer Robert N. Fried met with writer Robbie Fox to discuss story ideas. They ended up talking about the problems they had with women and agreed that “most women appeared to be out to destroy us!” Fried recalled. Producers Cary Woods and Fried formed their own production company in 1992 and Axe Murderer was their first film. They heard about Myers’ work in Wayne’s World before it was released and asked him to play the role of Charlie. On the night of the 1992 Academy Awards, Myers agreed to do it because he liked the screenplay and “the concept of fear of marriage.”

Myers wanted to rework Robbie Fox’s screenplay in order to allow himself the chance to do some serious acting while still doing some Saturday Night Live-style comedy. Myers rewrote the script with friend and fellow comedian Neil Mullarkey which became the shooting script. Myers petitioned to give himself and his friend credit for their work but in arbitration the Writers Guild of America decided that only Fox would receive credit.

Behind-the-scenes troubles included in-fighting among the principal cast members, rewrites, reshoots and lengthy release delays. The media described Myers as a control freak. Director Schlamme disagreed with Myers on a few occasions over the shape of the film. Schlamme said, “Michael was taking a stretch beyond his usual stuff and was playing outside himself. Personality clashes were bound to happen. We struggled.” However, Schlamme disagreed that Myers was the “control freak that the media has painted him to be,” but acknowledged that it was a difficult shoot. Producer Fried admitted that it was not “a smooth movie” and there were on-location “difficulties” with Myers but that “it was good for the film.” Despite early press reports claiming the film was unfunny and over budget, it scored high at test screenings.
So I Married An Axe Murderer was featured at a screening to benefit the San Francisco film office on July 27, 1993 at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater. Its world premiere was the next day with Myers, Travis and LaPaglia attending. The film ended up making only $11.5 million in North America, well below its $20 million budget.

Critical reaction was mixed. Roger Ebert criticized it for being "a mediocre movie with a good one trapped inside, wildly signaling to be set free.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers felt that "Juggling mirth, romance and murder requires a deft touch – think of Hitchcock’s Trouble with Harry. Axe is a blunt instrument.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C-“ rating and said, "In some perverse way, So I Married an Axe Murderer seems to be asking us to laugh at how not-funny it is.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson had a mixed reaction to Myers' performance: "Everything he does is charmingly lightweight and disposable and reasonably impossible to resist. And in the end, because the character is so easily within reach for him, you may come away feeling a little cheated, as if you hadn't quite seen a movie at all.” However, The New York Times’ Janet Maslin felt that it came as "a welcome surprise that So I Married an Axe Murderer, which might have been nothing more than a by-the-numbers star vehicle, surrounds Mr. Myers with amusing cameos and gives him a chance to do more than just coast.” In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Edward Guthmann wrote, “The movie’s a trifle, at best – but it’s so full of good spirits, and so rich with talented actors having a marvelous time, that its flaws tend to wash away.”

Mike Myers delivers his most relaxed, naturalistic performance approximating an actual human being in So I Married An Axe Murderer. He manages to keep his shameless mugging to a tolerable level – something that would get exponentially worse with subsequent films. This may be due to the fact that he’s allowed to cut loose as Charlie’s dad, playing a much broader character, and this allows him to play Charlie more down-to-earth. Sadly, Myers hasn’t played a character as restrained since, instead opting for more annoying caricatures.


Frook, John Evan. “Axe Murderer Fete to Benefit Frisco Film Commish.” Variety. July 15, 1993.

So I Married An Axe Murderer Production Notes. Tristar Pictures. 1993.

Stanley, John. “Choppy Waters for Axe Murderer Crew.” San Francisco Chronicle. August 1, 1993.