"...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, February 22, 2010

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle

The 1990s was a good decade for Jennifer Jason Leigh. She was not only prolific, flirting with mainstream movies like Backdraft (1991), but also at the height of her creative powers, turning out one astonishing performance after another, disappearing into her roles with chameleon-like proficiency. It was also the decade where she tackled her most challenging roles in a way that threatened to alienate the critics and her fans. In Georgia (1995), she played a struggling musician that has the heart but not the talent as evident in an excruciatingly awful cover of a Van Morrison song that goes on for so long that it tests the resolve of even the most die-hard Leigh fan.

She also tackled stylized, almost impenetrable accents in The Hudsucker Proxy (1993), the Coen brothers’ homage to screwball comedies, and her crowning achievement, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), where she portrayed legendary writer Dorothy Parker with incredible accuracy. The film was directed by Robert Altman protégé Alan Rudolph, a talented filmmaker with a frustratingly uneven filmography. With Altman attached as producer, Rudolph was able to assemble an impressive cast – a who’s who of ‘90s character actors, like Campbell Scott, Lili Taylor and James LeGros; and survivors from the 1980s, like Matthew Broderick, Jennifer Beals and Andrew McCarthy. It is to Rudolph’s credit that he is able to handle such a large and diverse cast, so much so that a cheat sheet is almost required in order to keep track of who everyone is. Admittedly, Rudolph plays large portions of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle fast and loose, letting this talented cast run with their characters. For the most part it works, especially the scenes that take place in the Algonquin Hotel.

Dorothy Parker’s heyday was in New York City during the Roaring Twenties where she was part of a thriving literary scene known as “the era of giants.” She got her start writing captions for lingerie ads at Vanity Fair magazine and worked her way up to drama critic, an unheard of position for a woman at that time. She quickly made enemies with her scathing reviews. Parker was fired and became a freelancer along with her close friend and editor Robert Benchley who quit the magazine in protest. She and other New York writers lunched at the Rose Room of the Algonquin Hotel in gatherings they cheekily referred to as “board meetings.” She eventually married screenwriter Alan Campbell and wrote scripts for several Hollywood films but loathed the process and studio machinations in general.

We first meet Parker (Leigh) in Hollywood circa 1937 where she runs into Benchley (Scott). Even though they’re both married they still flirt with each other by trading witty barbs. After they go their separate ways, a stagehand says to Parker, “Must’ve been so colorful in the ‘20s,” to which she replies, “Was it? I barely remember.” This entire sequence is shot in black and white and has a melancholy air to it, accentuated by Mark Isham’s moody jazz score. The film proceeds to flash back to the 1920s and changes to color with a slight sepia tone as if we’re looking at old photographs.

We see the creation of the famous Algonquin Round Table as it starts off with three people ordering food, which then grows into five and quickly expands from there until the best and the brightest literary minds in New York City converge on a regular basis to eat, drink and banter endlessly with one another. These scenes demonstrate Altman’s influence on Rudolph as people talk over each other and the overlapping dialogue forces one to follow whatever conversation they please. As the scenes in the Algonquin continue, the table gets larger to accommodate all of the people and the dialogue flies fast and furious. It’s a veritable feast for lovers of witty repartee. In fact, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle often feels and looks like the best Altman film he never made.

Right from the get-go, Jennifer Jason Leigh disappears into her role complete with Dorothy Parker’s distinctive way of speaking. The actress certainly looks the part with her bob haircut and vintage outfits. However, it is Parker’s trademark scathing wit that Leigh nails perfectly. It is her devotion to the characters she plays and her willingness to give herself completely over to them that is one of her most admirable traits. She’s not afraid to show the darker side of the characters she portrays and Dorothy Parker is no different as we see the famous writer undergo a painful abortion and, in another scene, come across as a boozy mess (and yet Leigh still looks great) that attempts suicide by cutting her wrists with a straight razor. It’s a hard scene to watch not because Rudolph shows it (he doesn’t) but we hear it and our imagination fills in the rest. It is so much fun just to see the way she carries herself in any give scene. The actress makes it all look so effortless as it almost seems like she’s channeling Parker. However, this uncanny representation of Parker divided critics, some of who found her accent impenetrable. Regardless, it’s a brave performance and an absolute crime that Leigh didn’t get nominated or win an Academy Award for her efforts.

The rest of the cast follows her lead, especially Campbell Scott as her best friend and confidante. Leigh and Scott have fantastic chemistry together and do a great job of conveying the unrequited love that existed between Parker and Benchley like the proverbial elephant in the room in the sense that they never address it. However, they do flirt with each other and a typical exchange involves her telling him, “I could kiss you but I’m not sure it would come out right,” to which he replies, “You’re afraid you might melt the gold in my teeth.” Scott is Leigh’s ideal foil as he captures Benchley’s idiosyncratic mannerisms and slightly nervous speech pattern. Scott really shines in a scene where, during a theatrical review featuring the Round Table regulars, Benchley delivers a financial report. Initially, it looks like he’s going to flop in a big way as he dryly rattles off facts. Scott nails his character’s nervous tics and awkward physical gestures. And then an interesting thing happens – Benchley gradually wins over the audience with his awkward shtick. Scott pulls it off with a show-stopping performance.

Alan Rudolph was fascinated with writers from the Round Table as a child and this manifested itself in his love for Gluyas Williams’ illustrations in a collection of Robert Benchley’s amusing essays. After making The Moderns (1988), a film about American expatriates in ‘20s Paris, he wanted to tackle a fact-based drama set in the same era. He began work on a screenplay with Randy Sue Coburn entitled, Mrs. Parker. In 1992, Rudolph attended a Fourth of July party hosted by Robert Altman who introduced him to Jennifer Jason Leigh. Rudolph was surprised by her physical resemblance to Dorothy Parker and impressed with her knowledge about the Jazz Age.

The script originally focused on the platonic relationship between Parker and Benchley but this did not appeal to any financial backers. There still were no takers even when Altman came on board as producer. The emphasis on Parker was the next change to the script but Rudolph still had no luck finding financing for “a period biography of a literate woman.” Altman finally stepped up and bullied Fine Line Features and Miramax Pictures – two studios he was making films for – to team up, with the former releasing Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle domestically and the latter handling foreign distribution. Altman claimed that he forced the film to be made by putting his own money into it and “I put other projects of mine hostage to it. I did a lot of lying.” He and Rudolph were able to raise the money for the $7 million budget but this didn’t come through until four weeks into principal photography.

Leigh was so committed to doing the film that she agreed to be in it for “a 10th of what I normally get for a film.” The rest of the cast followed her lead and agreed to work for much lower than their usual salaries. She did a great amount of research for the role and said, “I wanted to be as close to her as I possibly could.” To this end, Leigh stayed for a week at the Algonquin and read Parker’s entire body of work while there. She also listened repeatedly to the two existing audio recordings of the writer in order to perfect Parker’s distinctive voice. Leigh found that Parker “had a sensibility that I understand very, very well. A sadness. A depression.”

Rudolph shot the film in Montreal because the building facades in its old city section most closely resembled period New York City. The Rose Room in the Algonquin Hotel was recreated at two-thirds scale on a soundstage. Rudolph invited the actors to write their own dialogue, which resulted in a chaotic first couple of days of principal photography. Campbell Scott remembered, “everyone hung on to what they knew about their characters and just sort of threw it out there.” They trusted their director implicitly during the 40-day shoot. The cast stayed in a run-down hotel dubbed Camp Rudolph and engaged in all-night poker games. Leigh chose not to participate in these activities, preferring instead to stay in character on and off camera.

Originally entitled, Mrs. Parker and the Round Table, it was changed to "Vicious Circle" because New Line was worried that people would think of King Arthur and not Dorothy Parker. In anticipation of the film’s release Altman admitted that “ it’s going to be a tough sell. We’re talking about literacy.” A rough cut was screened at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and predictably divided critics. There were rumors that after this screening Leigh re-recorded several scenes that were criticized for being too difficult to understand because of her accent but she denied that this was done.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle was generally well-received by critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and felt that the film was “best appreciated, I think, by those who already know the players around the Round Table, and have read some of their work. Others are likely to wonder what the fuss was about.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson praised Leigh for giving “a disturbing, emotionally raw performance.” In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle also praised Leigh’s performance for giving “as bold a performance as ever, outlining the extreme personality of writer Dorothy Parker with equally extreme choices in manner and speech – and then inhabiting that outline with quirky delicacy and subtleties of feeling.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin found that “there are major gaps, like the absence of any significant mention of Dorothy Parker's left-wing political passions. But this film crams a remarkable amount of fact and nuance into the telling of its wrenchingly sad story.” The film failed to wow Entertainment Weekly, however, which gave it a “C+” rating. Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The question the movie fails to come to grips with is: How do you get audiences to care about a woman who, in the end, didn't give a damn about herself?”

The great tragedy of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is that Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley were so obviously in love with each other and yet never worked up the courage to express their true feelings for one another. Despite being a part of such a vibrant artistic and social scene, Parker is often portrayed as a sad, lonely figure. Rudolph’s film portrays her as a complex person that wrote out of a great pain. She was brilliant and a trailblazer for her time. She never found the true happiness that she sought with Benchley and resigned herself to an unhappy life but out of this produced some great literature that has stood the test of time.


Carpenter, Tessa. "Back to the Round Table With Dorothy Parker and Pals..." The New York Times. August 29, 1993.

Weinraub, Bernard. "Robert Altman, Very Much A Player Again." The New York Times. July 29, 1993.

Appelo, Tim. "Finding Dorothy Parker's Voice." Entertainment Weekly. December 23, 1994.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Bright Lights, Big City

In the late 1980s, Michael J. Fox attempted to break out of the typecasted roles he found himself stuck in – light, breezy comedies like Teen Wolf (1985) and The Secret of My Success (1987). He also didn’t want to be known just for his role as the ultra-conservative Alex P. Keaton on the hit television sitcom Family Ties. To this end, he tried his hand at three dramatic departures: the gritty, blue collar Paul Schrader film Light of Day (1987), playing a musician in a bar band; a naive American foot soldier faced with a tough moral dilemma in Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989); and a cocaine-addicted fact checker whose life is falling apart in Bright Lights, Big City (1988). You can argue the merits of each film but clearly the mainstream moviegoing public was not interested in seeing Fox’s serious side and all three films failed to set the box office on fire. The critics were just as unforgiving and the films received mixed reactions at best, or outright savaging at worst.

Out of these three films, I find Bright Lights, Big City to be the most interesting one, especially in terms of Fox’s acting. The film is an adaptation of Jay McInerney’s best-selling novel of the same name and the production was plagued by all kinds of problems which makes the fact that the finished product is as coherent as it is that much more impressive. For all of its flaws, the constant is Fox’s excellent performance as a struggling New York writer trying to figure out why his wife Amanda (Phoebe Cates) left him and why his life is a mess.

“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning, but here you are...”

And with these words both the book and the film begin with Jamie Conway (Michael J. Fox) drunk and coked to the gills on what he calls “Bolivian Marching Powder.” With McInerney adapting his own book he is able to preserve its distinctive second person narrative which only reinforces Jamie’s self-absorbed state of mind. For example, there are several shots of Jamie looking at himself in various mirrors as he recognizes less and less of the person staring back at him. He works as a fact checker for Gotham magazine, a fictionalized version of The New Yorker. What he really wants is to be working in the fiction department. It’s interesting to see all the grunt work Jamie has to do at his job in the days before the proliferation of computers the omnipresence of the Internet. At home, he works on his novel on a clunky old typewriter. It is these things that date Bright Lights, Big City in a wonderful way, especially for those of us who can remember these things.

The film’s most glaring flaws include an ill-conceived dream sequence involving “the coma baby,” the story of an unborn child trapped in a woman in a coma as documented on a daily basis by The New York Post. In the dream, Jamie sees the baby through the mother’s transparent belly. Not only does the baby look obviously fake, Fox does its voice as well. I guess the selfish child is supposed to be him or something like that. This sequence always takes me out of the film temporarily. Then, there’s the scene where Jamie and his best friend Tad Allagash (Kiefer Sutherland) break into the Gotham offices to plant a live ferret in his ex-boss’ office. Naturally, all hell breaks loose and the film’s tone veers dangerously close to slapstick as the understandably freaked out animal bites Jamie’s hand and almost tears off Allagash’s balls. They are caught in the act by Alex (Jason Robards), the veteran staff member who spends most of his time drunk, rambling on about working with the likes of William Faulkner and Dorothy Parker. Alex is almost taken out by a suit of armor in a kind of goofy moment. This scene isn’t quite as bad as the coma baby dream sequence but both could easily be removed from the film and no one would miss them. Interestingly, both of these scenes are in the novel but some stuff just doesn’t translate as well on the big screen as it does on the page where your imagination can create its own images.

Michael J. Fox does a really good job showing the gradual spiraling of his character, like when Jamie shows up to a fashion show featuring his wife as one of the runway models. He arrives a sweaty, disheveled mess, bribes the bartender (a then-unknown David Hyde Pierce) to pour him a couple of drinks even though the bar is closed, and then tops it all off by trying to get his wife’s attention by attempting to climb up onto the catwalk only to get ejected for his troubles. During this scene, Fox has a glazed look in his eyes of someone clearly not fully in control of their faculties. If that wasn’t bad enough, when spotted on the street by his brother (Charlie Schlatter), Jamie runs away, sprinting through the streets like a madman until he loses his sibling on the subway. The end of this perfect day comes when Jamie has dinner with a kind, former co-worker (Swoosie Kurtz) and proceeds to get drunk and make a clumsy advance towards her that is intentionally awkward and uncomfortable to watch. What a shock these three sequences must’ve been for fans of Fox’s squeaky clean roles on T.V. and in film.

Fox is excellent playing someone in denial that their life is falling apart. He just keeps piling on more alcohol and drugs in an attempt to deaden the pain or to forget about the reality of his situation. As the film progresses, you keep wondering when is Jamie going to hit rock bottom? It’s hard to say if he ever does but there is a scene late in the film where he finally acknowledges the reality of his situation. Whether he will finally be able to straighten out his life is left rather open-ended but there is a suggestion that he has come out on the other side of a pretty dark place and lived to tell the tale, just like the coma baby.

I’ve always admired Kiefer Sutherland’s courage to play unlikable characters that are interesting to watch. With his leading man good looks it would’ve been so easy for him to play one-dimensional romantic leads or flawless heroes but he has stubbornly refused to do so time and time again. Just think of some of his signature roles. In Stand By Me (1986), he played a vicious bully that terrorizes the film’s three teenage protagonists; in The Lost Boys (1987), he played the leader of a pack of vampires that delight in feeding off the riff raff at a California beach community; and in Flatliners (1990), he played a gloryhound medical student willing to kill and then resuscitate his classmates in order to prove life after death. In two of these three films he plays out and out villains and in the other one he plays a deeply flawed protagonist and yet we kinda like all of these characters because of Sutherland’s natural charisma. As an actor, he’s just so damn interesting to watch.

In Bright Lights, Big City, he plays Fox’s best friend Tad Allagash, the kind of Yuppie slimeball character that James Spader perfected during the ‘80s (I guess he was busy doing another film when this one was cast). On the surface, Allagash seems like a good friend to Jamie. After work, Allagash takes Jamie out clubbing and introduces him to several beautiful women in an attempt to help his friend forget about his disintegrating marriage and thankless day job. However, they really have a toxic relationship. He only pretends to listen to Jamie’s problems and always seems to be hitting him up for drugs. With the exception of a clandestine visit to Jamie’s workplace after hours, Allagash only seems interested in taking Jamie to nightclubs and parties. Sutherland uses his natural charisma to show why someone like Jamie would hang out with a guy like Allagash. He’s the kind of guy that is hard to say no to, especially when he’s offering you drugs, alcohol and women.

In 1984, Jay McInerney’s semi-autobiographical novel Bright Lights, Big City became a hot commodity. Brat packer Emilio Estevez wanted to option it and adapt it into a film. He met with the author who was working on his own screenplay version. However, it was Robert Lawrence, vice president at Columbia Pictures, who ponied up the money for the option and championed the novel despite resistance from older executives who saw it as “subversive and unconventional.” Lawrence saw it as a his generation’s The Graduate (1967) with “a little bit of Lost Weekend in there.” Columbia agreed to make it with Jerry Weintraub producing and Joel Schumacher, hot off St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), directing. Soon after McInerney started writing the screenplay, Schumacher started rewriting it. Considered for the role of Allagash were the likes of Judd Nelson, Estevez and Rob Lowe. Tom Cruise was all set to play Jamie Conway and even took a tour of the New York City night life with McInerney and Schumacher.

A year later, when Weintraub became the chief executive at United Artists, he took the project with him. Now Bright Lights, Big City needed a new producer and so Sydney Pollack and his partner Mark Rosenberg agreed to come on board. They hired Julie Hickson to write the script. Schumacher lost interest and Cruise got tired of waiting. They left and Weintraub also exited, leaving the studio. The project was tied up in a complicated settlement until late 1986 when the studio decided to start from scratch with the notion of casting a relative unknown like Charlie Sheen (pre-Platoon) as Jamie. Tom Cole, who adapted a Joyce Carol Oates story into the screenplay for Smooth Talk (1985), was hired to adapt McInerney’s novel. His wife Joyce Chopra had directed that film and her high-powered agent not only got her involved in Bright Lights but also sent the novel to another of his clients, Michael J. Fox.

Initially, Pollack and Rosenberg weren’t too crazy about the idea of Fox starring in Bright Lights but then they got worried that mainstream audiences wouldn’t relate to a selfish Yuppie like Jamie. Pollack reasoned, “there is something in the persona of Michael that makes you care what happens to him, no matter how bad the character is.” However, with the casting of Fox, Bright Lights changed from a modestly budgeted film to a major commercial feature shot on location in New York City with a top box-office movie star. Fox used his clout to request Kiefer Sutherland play the part of Tad Allagash.

The producers surrounded Chopra with a crew that had worked with Pollack and were loyal to him. To make matters even more interesting, she brought James Glennon, her cinematographer on Smooth Talk, on board, thereby drawing sides with her, Glennon and Cole against the rest of the Pollack-loyal crew. To complicate matters, a Directors Guild of America strike was predicted to start early in July 1987 (that ended up never happening). Fox had to resume work in Los Angeles on Family Ties by mid-July giving Chopra ten weeks to finish her film.

Principal photography barely started and already studio executives were not happy with Chopra’s working methods. Some felt that she relied too much on Cole and Glennon and took too much time setting up shots. The director claimed that she “kept insisting that we take time each day to give the actors a chance to find their way,” and worked “collaboratively” with Glennon. Clearly, this slow, methodical approach was not going to work for the time crunch that the production was working under and something had to give. Executives did not like the footage Chopra was getting and a week into principal photography the chairman of United Artists and the president of production flew in from L.A. to New York. They had rushed the film into production without reading Cole’s script which diverged significantly from the novel. McInerney felt that Cole “was writing out all the drugs.” In his defense, Cole claimed that Pollack instructed him to do that because the producer was worried about tarnishing Fox’s squeaky clean public image.

Officially, Chopra was fired over creative differences with the studio. Fox cheekily referred to the month that Chopra was in charge as “a rehearsal period, though it wasn’t meant to be.” On the short list of replacements were Ulu Grosbard, Bruce Beresford and James Bridges. On a Friday, Bridges received a phone call from his agent telling him that Bright Lights, Big City was in trouble. He read the novel that night, flew to New York on Sunday and saw the footage Chopra shot. He agreed to take over only if he could start from scratch. Bridges was known for box office hits like The China Syndrome (1979) and Urban Cowboy (1980) but was coming into Bright Lights with back-to-back flops of Mike’s Murder (1984) and Perfect (1985). On Monday, he contacted legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis who agreed to sign on to the production. In a week, Bridges wrote a new draft of the script that had Jamie’s mother’s death as the emotional core of the film. He brought McInerney back into the fold and fired six actors, replacing them with Jason Robards, John Houseman, Swoosie Kurtz, Frances Sternhagen, Tracy Pollan, and Charlie Schlatter. They all read the novel because the script wasn’t ready. Bridges wisely kept Kiefer Sutherland and Dianne Wiest as Allagash and Jamie’s mother respectively. Before each day of shooting, Bridges worked on rewrites of his script and on weekends worked on it with McInerney. Bridges brought a much needed stability to the production and the film was shot in six weeks.

After widely reported production problems, film critics could smell blood in the water and Bright Lights, Big City received mixed to negative reviews. Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, "Bright Lights isn't an embarrassment, like Less Than Zero; it's a smooth, professional job. But when it's over you may shrug your shoulders and ask, ‘Is that all?’” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel felt that the film, "arrives, however, looking like something that has been kicking around too long in the dead-letter office.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson criticized Fox's performance, claiming that he "was the wrong actor for the job. Fox, who in The Secret of My Success showed a gift for light comedy, is too stylized a performer for the heavier stuff; he has no natural weight. In addition, Fox shows a reluctance to let the audience see him in an unflattering light.” However, Roger Ebert praised the actor's performance: "Fox is very good in the central role (he has a long drunken monologue that is the best thing he has ever done in a movie).” In her review for The New York Times, Jane Maslin wrote, “Mr. Bridges may not have breathed fire into this material, but he has preserved most of its better qualities. He has treated it with intelligence, respect and no undue reverence, assembling a coherent film that resists any hint of exploitation.”

Shooting on location in New York City gives Bright Lights, Big City a real authenticity and serves as a snapshot of a city that looks and feels quite different now. In the ‘80s, it was quite a hedonistic time with materialistic Yuppies snorting cocaine in nightclub bathrooms while holding down jobs in the publishing industry or on Wall Street. I always felt that Bright Lights was the east coast answer to Less Than Zero (1987), also a flawed adaptation of a best-selling novel about affluent twentysomethings mired in drug addiction. Bright Lights is more successful because it doesn’t soften the edges of its protagonist as much as in Less Than Zero, which feels more compromised and less faithful to its source material. It’s really a shame that audiences and critics didn’t respond more favorably to Bright Lights. I would’ve liked to have seen Fox take more chances like he did with this film. Instead, he retreated back to safe comedies like Doc Hollywood (1991). It’s a rather unfortunate case of what could have been.

This post was inspired by Mr. Peel's excellent take on this film over at his blog. Here is a good fan site dedicated to the book.


Blum, David. "Hollywood's Brat Pack." New York Magazine. June 10, 1985.

Godfrey, Stephen. "Some people have a terrible resentment of early success." Globe and Mail. February 26, 1988.

James, Caryn. "Big Trouble." The New York Times. January 10, 1988.

Friday, February 12, 2010

DVD of the Week: Lola Montes: Criterion Collection

If Lola Montes were alive today I’m sure she would be a tabloid sensation or perhaps a reality television star famous for her notoriety. Born Eliza Gilbert, she reinvented herself during the late 1800s and tried her hand at singing, acting and dancing – failing miserably at all three. What she lacked in talent, however, she more than made up for in sex appeal. Rumors swirled around her about various lovers and Bavaria’s Ludwig I bestowed upon her the title of Countess of Landsfeld. She challenged her critics to duels and dared to smoke in public.

In short, Montes led a pretty exciting life ripe for cinematic treatment. Director Max Ophuls took up the challenge in what would be his last film and the only one in color and Cinemascope. When Lola Montes was released in 1955, the critics savaged it causing the film’s producers to panic and re-edit it. The film did have its admirers, chief among them filmmaker Francois Truffaut and critic Andrew Sarris. By 2008, Lola Montes was restored to Ophuls’ original intentions and digitally remastered to its original glory, preserving its vibrant color scheme.

In a very clever and rather fitting (considering the colorful life she led) framing device, the ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) of an extravagant circus introduces Lola Montes’ (Martine Carol) life, informing us that it will be told “in pantomime, acrobats, tableaux vivants, with music and dance and with the entire orchestra.” As he is saying this, Montes is brought in wearing a gorgeous gold dress. Soon, the lights go down and she is bathed in blue light. The ringmaster promises that she will answer the most shocking, intimate and indiscreet questions about her “scandalous career as femme fatale.” It’s an audacious opening sequence filled with midgets, clowns and acrobats in a way that would make Baz Luhrmann (or Fellini) green with envy at its flamboyance.

Ophuls flashes back to Montes’ affair with composer Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg), one of several lovers that flirted in and out of her life. The film keeps returning to the circus so that the ringmaster can introduce us to another period of her life. Montes dealt with an uncaring mother and an unfaithful husband and went on to become a successful ballerina despite her obvious lack of talent. And so began a short but eventful career in the arts. What she lacked in actual talent, she more than made up for in sheer determination.

Martine Carol brings an enticing sensuality to the role. She’s beautiful but also brings an intelligence to a woman that knew exactly what she wanted. Montes wears one amazing outfit after another which only serves to highlight Carol’s natural beauty.

Lola Montes is a marvel of production design as we are presented with one incredibly detailed and decorated set after another, each with their own dazzling colors enhanced by Cinemascope. Ophuls’ film is a fascinating, inventive biopic about a true original, a woman that packed a lot of living into her 39 years, defiantly refusing to be tied down by any man, and traveling the world. Ophuls employs a stunning color scheme fitting for such a colorful character. His use of Cinemascope gives Montes’ life an epic look. Lola Montes is an underappreciated masterpiece finally being given its due with this top notch DVD release from the Criterion Collection.

Special Features:

The first disc includes an audio commentary by film scholar Susan White, author of The Cinema of Max Ophuls. She states that Lola Montes is not a film for everyone because of the unusual attention to style. She discusses the odd casting of Martine Carol and what she brought to the film. White does an excellent job of analyzing the film’s style and what it means in relation to the characters and the story. She also sheds light on the film’s rocky production. This is a very informative track full of insight into the film and the people that made it.

The second disc starts with “Cineastes de Notres Temps,” an episode of the French television series featuring several of Ophuls’ collaborators, many of whom worked on Lola Montes. The film’s cinematographer talks about the director’s love of movement. In fact, everyone talks about his working methods and obsession with movement within film.

“Max by Marcel” is a 2009 short film by Marcel Ophuls (Max’s son) where he talks about his work on the film as an assistant director. Marcel interviews a few people who also worked on the film. The producers did not like the footage Ophuls was shooting forced Martine Carol and the use of color and Cinemascope on him.

“Martine Carol Hair Tests” features silent footage of the actress showing some of the fantastic hairstyles she sports in Lola Montes.

Finally, there is the rerelease trailer.

Monday, February 8, 2010


After the phenomenal success of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), everybody and his brother wanted a piece of that lucrative pie and tried to produce their own franchise of super hero films. For Universal Pictures it was Darkman (1990) – the greatest comic book film not actually based on a comic book. While its director Sam Raimi did an admirable job with the first two Spider-Man films, I have always felt like he was holding back stylistically. I miss the unbridled fun and pulpy charm of the Raimi who made Darkman, a dark, R-rated super hero film that fused together the sensibilities of Beauty and the Beast, The Phantom of the Opera and The Shadow. It demonstrated that Raimi could make the jump from low-budget independent films to Hollywood without compromising the Gonzo style that endeared him to his fans. Darkman also showed that he was maturing as a filmmaker by creating a dramatic and tragic love story while still featuring his show-stopping action sequences.

Raimi sets an appropriately comic book super hero-ish tone right from the get-go as two criminal gangs engage in a violent turf war. The action starts when a gang member reveals that his wooden leg conceals a machine gun. All hell breaks loose as cars come flying out of big wooden crates (?!) and miscellaneous henchmen (one sporting an eye patch so you know he’s a bad guy) are dispatched en masse with nary a drop of blood. Pretty soon, one side is sufficiently decimated and the dominant one, led by Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake), deals with the survivors, in particular, their leader Eddie Black (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson) in a way that establishes the film’s darkly goofy gallows humor. This sequence also sets up rather nicely that Durant is not a guy to be messed with as he has a rather nasty habit of collecting severed fingers from his victims.

Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a brilliant scientist trying to create liquid skin that could help disfigured people or burn victims lead normal lives. However, after 99 minutes in the daylight the skin disintegrates. His girlfriend Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand) works in real estate and comes across something fishy in a deal she’s working on for Strack Industries. Mr. Strack (Colin Friels) has a lot of money riding on the deal and she discovers that he has ties with Durant. When Julie confronts Strack about it he sends Durant and his goons to recover the incriminating memorandum she has in her possession.

Unfortunately, it’s located at Westlake’s lab (which is also where he lives) and Durant and co. arrive right when he is on the verge of a breakthrough with his synthetic skin. Raimi shows off his innate understanding of the way action is depicted in comic books when Durant and his cronies attack Westlake and trash his lab. Raimi employs all sorts of skewed camera angles, unusual point-of-view shots and snap zooms that evoke the vivid, panel bursting action of Jack Kirby’s explosive, panel-bursting artwork. Durant beats Westlake viciously and leaves him to die in an explosion that destroys his lab. Westlake is blown clear but burned beyond recognition.

Somehow, doctors get a hold of him and perform a procedure so that impulses of pain are no longer transmitted to his brain. This also amplifies his emotions, including uncontrolled rage accompanied by surges of adrenaline which produce augmented strength. With everyone (including Julie) thinking he’s dead, Westlake takes refuge in an abandoned, run-down warehouse where he recreates his lab and plots revenge against Durant. Westlake uses his synthetic skin to pose as members of Durant’s gang and to recreate his old visage in an attempt to reconnect with Julie in the hopes of restoring things back to the way they were. But let’s face it, Westlake is only fooling himself and herein lies the tragic element of the story.

Raimi depicts Westlake’s first surge of uncontrolled anger rather imaginatively with a heady montage of starbursts, flames, fireballs, a skull, and other bizarre images that evoke some of the go-for-broke imagery of the first two Evil Dead films, especially the second one when Ash (Bruce Campbell) becomes possessed. Perhaps the two most obvious influences on Darkman are Beauty and the Beast and Phantom of the Opera which are evoked when the bandaged and disfigured Westlake, having just escaped from the hospital, finds temporary salvation in an alley one stormy night. He even dresses a bit like a cross between the Phantom and The Shadow, adopting the latter’s persona as an elusive avenger who strikes fear in the heart of men.
Raimi infuses the film with his trademark darkly comic slapstick like when Darkman dispatches Rick (Raimi’s brother Ted), one of Durant’s goons. The henchman pleads for his life, “I told you everything!” to which Darkman replies, “I know, Rick. I know you did. But let’s pretend that you didn’t!” The vigilante proceeds to stick Rick’s head up through a manhole into oncoming traffic and he meets the wheel of a transport truck with a sickening splat. Raimi also has a lot of fun with Westlake posing as Durant and his goons which gives the actors playing them an excuse to act out of character.

At one point, Raimi considered Gary Oldman to play Westlake but went with Liam Neeson instead and now it is hard to see anybody else in the role. Neeson gives his character the necessary gravitas and makes us feel sympathetic for his plight, even when he becomes horribly disfigured and the actor’s marquee good looks are buried under all kinds of make-up. This is due in large part to Neeson’s natural charisma but Raimi never lets us forget Westlake’s tragic dimensions, like when he takes Julie to a carnival and his emotions boil over after a sideshow barker pisses him off. Westlake breaks two of the man’s fingers, terrifying her. He can never be with Julie like before the explosion so long as his synthetic skin lasts only 99 minutes. Westlake will always be an outsider, an emotional mess living on the fringes of society.

Julia Roberts was initially considered for the role of Julie but Raimi cast Frances McDormand whom he had worked with on Crimewave (1985). Raimi had to fight to cast her in the role as the studio wanted Demi Moore to play the part. According to Raimi, he cast her to “bring that soul to the picture” so that audiences would care about what happens to her character. Although, he found it difficult directing her, despite knowing the actress personally for many years. He said, “our conception of the best movie to make differed, arguing in trying to make the best picture possible. We did come across disagreements, but they were very healthy.” At times, she admitted to having trouble separating her long-standing friendship with Raimi and his role as director. She said, “there are times when I was mad ... and I didn’t try to be diplomatic about it.” McDormand is an unconventional choice for the film’s love interest. She doesn’t have the typical Maxim magazine model looks (thank god!) that seem to be all the rage now, but rather seems like someone you’d actually know and not some unattainable beauty. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t really give her much to do except pine tragically for Westlake and become a hapless damsel in distress at the film’s climax.

Years before Darkman ever became a reality, Raimi had been interested in adapting an established super hero or comic book property to the big screen. He tried and failed to secure the rights to Batman and The Shadow (both went on to become films). Raimi decided to create his own super hero. Darkman started as a short story entitled, “The Darkman,” written by Raimi and then, with the help of his brother Ivan, he expanded it into a 40-page treatment. Ivan was a doctor and grounded the medical aspects in reality. Originally, it was a story about a man who lost his face and had to take on other faces only for it to evolve into a story about a man who uses this power to fight crime.

Raimi pitched this idea to Universal Pictures who liked it and gave him a budget of $11 million. At the time, this was the biggest budget and crew he had worked with. The screenplay went through several drafts and several people. Ex-Navy SEAL Chuck Pfarrer wrote the first draft of the script, followed by another draft by Sam and Ivan. During this stage, Raimi and co-producer Robert Tapert toyed with the notion that Darkman could become a franchise (indeed two sequels have been made). For this to happen, the script needed improvement and writers Daniel and Joshua Goldin were brought on board to write the fifth draft. The Goldins made sense of the various drafts and “lots of little story documents,” into a coherent script. It was also their job to build suspense in the story and work on the emotional aspects, like Westlake trying to reunite with the love of his life. They worked on the project for a month before moving on to another film and Ivan and Sam took over, writing drafts six through twelve.

Raimi told production designer Randy Ser that the look of the film would be a homage to the 1930s Universal horror films. For example, they designed Darkman’s laboratory with Dr. Frankenstein’s in mind. Ser saw Westlake as someone “living in a world filled with light and golden hues” and his lab was painted a golden sun yellow and lit to reflect the sunlight coming in. In contrast, Darkman’s lab “becomes a place of darkness and more chaos.” His lab was a real location, a former refrigerated food warehouse in downtown Los Angeles. It was converted into soundstages for the production. Ser also faced the challenge of creating key props for the film, chief among them Westlake’s skin-making machine. The result was a hybrid of a computer, a photocopier, a hologram and skin mold, which allowed the artificial skin mask to push and bulge visibly. The skin mold portion was modeled on a real-life device known as pin molds, popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Ser consulted with David Copperfield’s people and told them he wanted to build an illusion that would operate all the way through the sequence with no edits.

Raimi pulls out all the stops for the film’s climactic action sequence where Darkman hangs onto a cable dangling from a helicopter flying through the city, slamming into buildings in a way that eerily anticipates a very similar sequence in The Matrix (1999), only without all kinds of CGI. There is something real and exciting about seeing a stuntman actually hanging onto a cable from an honest to goodness helicopter that is missing from the Wachowskis’ film. The second part of this sequence takes place on the top floors of an unfinished skyscraper and allows Raimi to have a blast with several characters nearly plummeting to their death... and a few who do. This sequence took two-and-a-half weekends to complete because they were flying through the city below five hundred feet and had to have special permits to do it. A stunt double was used and was hooked up on two cables in three different spots in case one failed. The filmmaker had to shut down several blocks of downtown L.A. on consecutive weekends. The results speak for themselves and are exciting and dynamic.

Raimi had a problem with the editor that the studio assigned. Eight weeks into assembling the rough cut and he wasn’t following Raimi’s storyboards, had a nervous breakdown and left. Tapert and Raimi had a difficult time dealing with the studio. Tapert remarked, “it isn’t the picture we thought it should be, based on the footage we shot ... The studio got nervous about some kind of wild things in it, and made us take them out ... We fought until the very last minute to get some of it back in.”

Raimi was surprised by the commercial success of Darkman because Universal told him that it had tested badly with some people who rated it the worst film they had ever seen. According to executives, it was one of the worst-scoring pictures in the studio’s history. However, Raimi liked the “brilliant” marketing campaign the studio came up with, releasing posters in advance with a silhouette of the main character and the question, “Who is Darkman?” According to the director, “the marketing made the film a money-maker.”

Darkman garnered mostly positive reviews from mainstream critics. In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Wilmington felt that Darkman was the only movie at the time "that successfully captures the graphic look, rhythm and style of the superhero books.” The New Yorker’s Terrence Rafferty wrote, "Raimi works from inside the cheerfully violent adolescent-male sensibility of superhero comics, as if there were no higher style for a filmmaker to aspire to, and the absence of condescension is refreshing.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "The movie is full of jaunty, Grand Guignol touches (the main gangster enjoys snapping and collecting fingers), but Raimi's images also have a spectral, kinetic beauty.” In his review for the Washington Post, Joe Brown wrote, "Though Raimi seems to be trying to restrain himself, his giddily sick sense of humor still pops out all over the place – Darkman is a frenetic funhouse ride that has you laughing and screaming at the same time.” However, Time magazine’s Richard Corliss felt that Raimi wasn’t "effective with actors" and People magazine’s Ralph Novak called Darkman, a "loud, sadistic, stupidly written, wretchedly acted film."

While Raimi’s Spider-Man films are plagued by a protagonist that is a little too angsty for my tastes (especially the awful third film), he gets it just right with Darkman. I’m a fan of his early films with their wild and loose style as typified by his hyperactive camerawork. Darkman proved that he could bring this kinetic approach to a prestigious Hollywood blockbuster and anticipates his work on the Spider-Man films in many ways. However, this is a project that originated with Raimi and so it has a more personal feel that is missing from his later films where he was basically a director-for-hire (which makes his recent Drag Me to Hell feel like a return to form). Darkman also features Raimi’s trademark slapstick humor which deflates some of the pretentiousness of the more angst-ridden aspects of its tragic protagonist. The film doesn’t take itself so serious all the time and this results in a fun, entertaining ride.
This post was inspired by Mr. Peel's excellent take on Darkman over at his blog.


Arnold, Gary. "Sam Raimi's Flair Makes Darkman A Reel Delight." Washington Times. August 23, 1990.

Counts, Kyle. "Heart of Darkness." Starlog. December 1990.

Counts, Kyle. "Black Heart." Starlog. January 1991.

Italie, Hillel. "Beauties, Beasts and 'Biff!' 'Bam!' 'Pow!'" Associated Press. September 12, 1990.

Johnston, Sheila. "Beauty Within the Beast." The Independent. November 9, 1990.

McDonagh, Maitland. Filmmaking on the Fringe. 1995.

Muir, John Kenneth. The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi. Applause Books. 2004.

Portman, Jamie. "Horror can be a labor of love." Toronto Star. August 16, 1990.

Stanley, John. "Darkman Brings Director's Talent to Light." San Francisco Chronicle. August 26, 1990.

Warren, Bill. "The Man Behind Darkman." Fangoria. September 1990.

Warren, Bill. The Evil Dead Companion. St. Martin's Griffin. 2001.

Friday, February 5, 2010

DVD of the Week: Paris, Texas: Criterion Collection

Films made about the United States by foreign filmmakers are interesting because quite often they provide a unique perspective – someone from the outside looking in. German filmmaker Wim Wenders did just this with his film Paris, Texas (1984). It was a collaboration with acclaimed playwright and actor Sam Shepard and can be seen as a kind of lament for an era of the American west that no longer exists. It’s an American road movie about characters living on the fringes of society and was made during the peak of the materialistic Reagan era. Paris, Texas went on to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival and firmly established Wenders as an art house darling.

The film begins with an absolutely breathtaking shot of vast canyons of the American southwest while Ry Cooder’s mournful slide guitar plays. Walking through this harsh, desolate landscape is a bearded man in a suit and red baseball cap. The man’s name is Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) and he makes it to a Texas bar before passing out from exposure to the severe climate. The doctor that treats him finds contact information for his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) who travels from Los Angeles to meet Travis at this remote town. The brothers haven’t seen each other in four years and when Walt arrives he finds Travis walking along a deserted stretch of road. We eventually learn that four years ago Travis and his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) abandoned their child Hunter (Hunter Carson) and both promptly disappeared. Travis is reunited with his son and they decide to go looking for Jane.

With his scruffy beard, world weary eyes and dressed like a hobo, Travis could be a character right out of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Wedged between such diverse fare as Repo Man (1984) and Pretty in Pink (1986), Paris, Texas serves as a reminder of the impressive range of actor Harry Dean Stanton. For the first 26 minutes of the film he says nothing, relying instead on his expressive eyes and body language to convey how Travis is feeling. Compared to Travis, Walt is a lot chattier and Dean Stockwell plays him as a down-to-earth working stiff. In some respects, he’s our audience surrogate, trying to decipher the enigmatic Travis and figure out his story. This role turned out to be a career resurgence for the veteran character actor who went on to memorable turns in To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and Blue Velvet (1986).

Paris, Texas features some absolutely gorgeous cinematography by Robby Muller (Down by Law). For example, there is a great shot of Walt at a gas station bathed in green light while in the background the sky is red. It is a striking contrast in colors. Another memorable shot is of an orange, brown stormy sky at sunset as seen through the windshield of Walt’s car. Muller and Wenders’ compositions are fantastic as they illustrate how the characters relate to their environment. For example, in the opening scenes, Travis is constantly dwarfed by the vastness of the desert.

Paris, Texas is about how more than just geography can keep people apart. There’s the emotional distance too. This is a film about two people who got lost on purpose. They dropped out of mainstream society and lost touch with each other and their son. How does this happen and why? These are some of the questions that the film examines as Travis and Jane sift through the emotional wreckage left behind from their damaged relationship.

Special Features:

The first disc features an audio commentary by filmmaker Wim Wenders. The director talks about how he and Ry Cooder decided to use the music that is in the Paris, Texas. Wenders also talks about the origins of the film and working with Sam Shepard on the screenplay. The director talks about the genesis of the film’s title and how it relates to Travis. Wenders tells many filming anecdotes on this informative track.

Also included is a theatrical trailer.

The second disc starts off with an interview with Wenders from 2001. He had wanted to make a film about America but hadn’t done it to his satisfaction with his previous films. It wasn’t until Paris, Texas that he felt like he had achieved this goal. It was also the first time he worked in a spontaneous fashion without a pre-planned shot list.

“The Road to Paris, Texas” is a collection of interviews with key collaborators of Wenders over the years. They all speak admiringly of the man. Wenders talks about the influence of rock ‘n’ roll and road movies on his work.

Also included are interviews with both Claire Denis and Allison Anders, who worked on the film as first assistant director and production assistant respectively. They went on to become directors in their own right. They give their impressions of Wenders, how they met him and what it was like to work with the filmmaker. In addition, Anders reads from the diary that she kept while working on the film.

“Cinema Cinemas” is a segment from an April 2, 1984 episode of this French television programming featuring Wenders and composer Cooder working on the score for Paris, Texas. Wenders talks about his love of rock ‘n’ roll music. It was a dream of his to have Cooder work on his film.

There is a collection of deleted scenes with optional commentary by Wenders. We see more of the German doctor taking care of Travis at the beginning of the film. Most of this footage is bits and pieces that just didn’t fit and were ultimately cut. Also included is fantastic Super 8 mm footage, some of which was used in the flashback sequences so as to resemble old home movies.

Finally, there are “Galleries,” one a collection of photographs that Wenders took while location scouting in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California. The other gallery is a nice collection of on behind-the-scenes stills taken on location.