"...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

Friday, December 31, 2010

The Hudsucker Proxy

It had to happen. After an impressive run of critically acclaimed independent films, culminating with Barton Fink (1991), which won the top three awards at the Cannes Film Festival, the Coen brothers – Joel and Ethan – made their first Hollywood studio film, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), with none other than uber producer Joel Silver. Most film critics were unimpressed with the final result and if hitching their wagon to Silver was the Coens’ attempt at appealing to a broader audience that too failed as the film flopped at the box office. So, what the hell happened? It certainly wasn’t from a lack of trying as The Hudsucker Proxy starred a trifecta of stellar acting talent with Tim Robbins, Paul Newman and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Hell, the Coens even enlisted their long-time friend and fellow filmmaker Sam Raimi to co-write the screenplay.

As if eerily foreshadowing the film’s fate, the opening voiceover narration observes the protagonist’s destiny: “How’d he get so high and why’s he feeling so low?” I’ve always felt that The Hudsucker Proxy is the Coen brothers’ most (unfairly) maligned film, which is a shame because it has a lot going for it, including witty dialogue, incredibly detailed production design, some jaw-dropping set pieces, and their usual rogue’s gallery of doofuses, blowhards and snappy wiseasses. This film should be seen as the Coens’ affectionate homage to the classic screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.

The camera moves over a snowy New York City at night on New Year’s Eve, 1958. As we move past several buildings, we finally come upon the imposing Hudsucker Industries building with a massive clock adorning its façade along with their slogan, “The Future is Now,” thereby introducing the film’s prevailing theme: time. The opening voiceover narration is all about the passing of time as it talks about the beginning of a new year and how people at Times Square are waiting for it to arrive, “all trying to catch hold of one moment of time.” We are introduced to one of the film’s “lost souls” – Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) – as he climbs out of his office window, ready to commit suicide. The voiceover narration describes him as someone, “out of hope, out of rope, out of time.” The narrator ponders Norville’s fate and offers this sage observation: “Well, the future, that’s something you can never tell about. But the past, that’s another story.” As this last line is being spoken, the camera pans from Norville to the large clock on the building and we travel back in time, one month, to find out what brought him to this sorry state of affairs.

Recent Muncie School of Business Administration graduate Norville Barnes arrives in New York City to make it big. Through a rather Coens-esque twist of fate, he lands a mediocre job in the mailroom at Hudsucker Industries just as the company's founder and CEO Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning) takes a swan dive off the 44th floor to his death. The Coens continue their obsession with time by having Waring start his watch before he jumps out the window. As he runs across the large boardroom table, the ticking of his watch gets louder as his time is running out. Fearing that the leaderless company will have to go public and “any slob in a smelly t-shirt” will be able to buy stock, the board of directors, led by the ruthless Sidney J. Mussberger (Paul Newman), have one month and decide to find a proxy, a puppet, a pawn, “some jerk we can really push around,” as Sidney puts it, to fill the vacant position left by the recently departed Waring. This will drive the company into the ground so that they can buy back the stock at a cheaper rate. We first meet Sidney looking out the window that his boss just jumped out of with the massive building clock looming ominously overhead.

Norville’s brief stint in the Hudsucker mailroom is depicted as a hellish Orwellian nightmare right out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), complete with all kinds of office drones scurrying back and forth. A trip up the elevator offers glimpses of floors filled with seemingly endless aisles of desks like something out of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960). Norville becomes the patsy and is soon blundering his way to success thanks to a little invention called the hula-hoop. And with the catchy slogan, "You know, for kids," Norville's invention becomes all the rage but spells potential disaster for the Sidney and his cronies. As if Norville's problems aren't enough, Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a determined newspaper reporter for the Manhattan Argus is thrown into the mix as she tries to uncover the real story at Hudsucker Industries. Their meet-cute is inventively realized by the Coens as seen and told from the point-of-view of two taxi cab drivers which is a novel way of depicting one of the oldest clichés in the screwball comedy genre.

If The Hudsucker Proxy is remembered at all, it’s for the show-stopping sequence where the hula-hoop is created, marketed and brought out into the world where it eventually becomes a monster hit among kids all over the country. Directed by none other than Sam Raimi, with his usual stylistic virtuosity, this sequence is visual storytelling at its finest. Nice touches include three anonymous Hudsucker executives (seen only in silhouette) in the “Creative Bullpen” (one of whom is Raimi) thinking up names for the hula-hoop – “The Dancing Dingus! The Belly-go-Round,” while in the foreground a secretary reads War and Peace to cheekily convey the passage of time (in a subsequent shot, she’s apparently finished that book and working her way through Anna Karenina). There’s also the bit where a lone hula-hoop rolls down a street only to be discovered by a child and this kickstarts the whole craze. The energy conveyed in this sequence is electric and is a pure cinematic moment.

In The Hudsucker Proxy, Norville has the air of a holy goof about him. He’s a doofus who happens to luck his way into good fortune without being aware of how it happened. Tim Robbins uses his tall, lanky frame for maximum comedic effect as evident in the scene where he first meets Sidney and proceeds to start a fire, runs around with a water cooler jug trying to put it out and then gets his foot stuck in a now flaming wastepaper basket only to almost send the aging businessman out the window. Robbins often sports a goofy grin and instills Norville with unflappable optimism and enthusiasm, especially for his big idea – the hula-hoop.

Amy Archer is your typical career gal, a no-nonsense mash-up of Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn that never stops talking as Jennifer Jason Leigh brilliantly recreates the rat-a-tat-tat delivery of dialogue that was synonymous in films from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Amy, and her distinctive (grating for some) accent, was part of an informal trilogy of period dialogue accents that Leigh perfected in the 1990s along with Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) and Kansas City (1996). The only problem is that Amy eventually falling in love with Norville doesn’t seem believable. There’s no real chemistry between Leigh and Robbins. The Coens try to make it work but it is the glaring flaw in an otherwise excellent film.

Paul Newman fits seamlessly into the Coen brothers universe as the malevolent puppetmaster Sidney J. Mussberger, a name that evokes that of J.J. Hunsecker from the Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Like Burt Lancaster’s bullying columnist from that film, Newman’s businessman is out for himself and crushes anyone who gets in his way. Sidney is a master manipulator who thinks he has all the angles figured out. It looks like Newman is having a lot of fun with this role as he gets to ham it up a little as a tyrannical tycoon. Watching him spout the Coen brothers’ colorful dialogue is a delight.

The attention to period detail is impressive. It’s not just the cars and what people wear but how they speak that so vividly evokes the 1950s. Blink and you’ll miss a cameo by the late Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith as Norville’s fashionable girlfriend once the hula-hoop takes off and makes him a media sensation. Coens regular Steve Buscemi even shows up for an obligatory cameo as a beatnik bartender. Other Coens alumni, like John Mahoney, as her grumpy editor who always smokes a stogie and yells all the time, and Bruce Campbell, as one of her co-workers and foil, are along for the ride and contribute memorable moments as Amy’s co-workers at the Argus.

Barton Fink's rather impressive collection of awards and accolades drew the attention of big time Hollywood producer Joel Silver who had admired the Coens' films since Blood Simple (1984). He envisioned their next project as the big breakthrough into the mainstream. To aid in their endeavors he used his considerable clout to give the brothers two things that they never had before: a large budget of $30 million and big name stars like Tim Robbins and Paul Newman. As a result, the Coens decided to resurrect an old project that they had shelved years ago called The Hudsucker Proxy. Written in 1986 with Sam Raimi, the Coens had never considered filming Proxy because of the rather large scope that they had envisioned for the film. As Joel explained in an interview, "The reason why we didn't make it when we wrote it is we realized how expensive it was going to be; it had special effects and it was all done on stage sets." Silver's involvement provided them with the means to make the film a reality. And so, with Raimi along for the ride, the Coens set out to subvert the mainstream with their own unique vision.

The Coens were very conscious of The Hudsucker Proxy as a throwback to classic Hollywood cinema. Ethan said, "The script, which contains a lot of traditional genre elements, was marked by a kind of heartwarming fantasy element out of Frank Capra. It also had a lot of verbal comedy, the kind you see in films by Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks, with dialogue delivered in a rapid-fire, machine-gun style. But it was bigger and broader, with physical comedy sequences and a lot of oddball action." While trying to sell Blood Simple after making it, the Coens shared a house with Raimi and this was where The Hudsucker Proxy was written. It took them two to three months to write the script and as early as 1985, the Coens were quoted as saying that an upcoming project "takes place in the late Fifties in a skyscraper and is about big business. The characters talk fast and wear sharp clothes."

This first image that they conceived of was that of Norville about to jump from the window of a skyscraper and then they had to figure out how he got there and how to save him. They decided to incorporate the hula-hoop because, according to Joel, “we had to come up with something that this guy was going to invent that on the face of it was ridiculous. Something that would seem, by any sort of rational measure, to be doomed to failure, but something that on the other hand the audience already knew was going to be a phenomenal success." Ethan said, "The whole circle motif was built into the design of the movie, and that just made it seem more appropriate."

Art house darlings, the Coens wanted to make a film that would be seen by a lot of people and so they approached Silver. Despite his reputation, the producer was hands-off with the Coens and his only input was to convince the filmmakers not to shoot their film in black and white. Silver pitched the project to Warner Brothers by saying that they would get a film that the critics would like and that everybody would want to see. The studio agreed but only if the Coens cast movie stars in the main roles. To his credit, Silver promised to protect the Coens from the studio and convinced executives to give them final cut.

The Hudsucker Proxy would see the Coens utilizing their largest budget up to that point in their career. They needed it in order to build large sets and use elaborate special effects. They had screened Blade Runner (1982) before making The Hudsucker Proxy, which also used elaborate sets and a large, detailed cityscape. Twenty-seven craftsmen spent three months building a '50s New York skyline, constructing fourteen skyscrapers. The film's skyline was based on photographs from a book that art director Dennis Gassner found called, New York in the Forties and the scale after Citizen Kane (1941). Principal photography began on December 1993 on soundstages at Carolco Studios in Wilmington, North Carolina with a budget of $25 million, although, some trade papers reported that it increased to $40 million.

The first signs of trouble surfaced when it was reported that the studio held test screenings for The Hudsucker Proxy. Audience comments were varied and the studio suggested re-shoots. The Coens obliged because they were very nervous working with their biggest budget to date and were eager for mainstream success. They added some footage that had been cut, shot some additional footage and added to the ending. Variety magazine claimed that the re-shoots were done to try and save the film because it was going to be a flop. However, Joel addressed the issue: "First of all, they weren't reshoots. They were a little bit of additional footage. We wanted to shoot a fight scene at the end of the movie. It was the product of something we discovered editing the movie, not previewing it."

The Hudsucker Proxy received mostly mixed to negative reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, “And wasn't there something dead at the heart of all of this? A kind of chill in the air? A feeling that the movie was more thought than art, more calculated than inspired? Doesn't the viewer spend more time admiring the sights on the screen than caring about them? Isn't there something wrong when you walk out of a movie humming the sets?” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe felt that the film was, “pointlessly flashy and compulsively overloaded with references to films of the '30s.” The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum called the film, “a jeering, dreamlike comedy with little on its mind except how neat the Coens are and how stupid or contemptible everybody else is, including the audience.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “For all its technical bravado, The Hudsucker Proxy is an unsettling contradiction, a ''whimsical'' fable made by acerbic control freaks. It's a balloon that won't fly.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, “Try as they will to create a vision of corporate (and urban) hellishness through sheer stylishness, theirs is a truly abstract expressionism, at once heavy, lifeless and dry.”

However, in her review for The New York Times, Caryn James wrote, “Carter Burwell's music is excessive in just the right way, echoing the overwrought, clue-giving scores of 50 years ago. And Dennis Gassner's design is a flawless addition to the film's muted, fairy-tale mood.” Empire magazine’s Kim Newman wrote, “While the story and the characters are perfect pastiche, making them hard to be involved with, human warmth is imported by the sheer joy of the directorial flourishes.”

The Hudsucker Proxy is about the passing of time and even stages the climactic set piece on the cusp of the New Year as two omniscient figures fight within the cogs and gears of the Hudsucker clock while Norville’s fate hangs literally in the balance. The Coens craftily suspend time for a few moments as they seem to be saying that an individual doesn’t have to be defined by their past and that the future always brings the promise of something new, a chance to redefine oneself. The future is now indeed.

The Hudsucker Proxy contained all of the Coens’ trademarks, however, something seemed to be missing from the mix. Perhaps it was the fact that Proxy was the Coens' second homage to the screwball comedy (the first being Raising Arizona) and this time out their reach far exceeded their grasp. As a critic in Sight and Sound observed, Norville Barnes is a Preston Sturges hero trapped in a Frank Capra story, existing in a world created by Fritz Lang. It is this rather odd mixture that may account for Proxy's demise. Or it may simply be that the Coen brothers do not make mainstream films. They have always had a detached view towards their characters – we never fully identify with them or get to know what makes them tick. As a result, there is no meeting the Coens half way. You either like their films or you don't. It didn't hurt that despite the media blitz for the film, it was virtually absent from most movie theaters outside of large, metropolitan cities. That being said, there is a lot going on and a lot to admire in The Hudsucker Proxy. The film has aged surprisingly well over the years and deserves a long overdue re-appraisal.

Monday, December 27, 2010

DVD of the Week: America Lost & Found: The BBS Story

In the 1960s, film producer Bert Schneider and film director Bob Rafelson expressed an interest in movie production but both men lacked experience so they use their connections in Hollywood to produce a pilot episode for a potential television series. The end result would The Monkees, an irreverent show done in the style of The Beatles film, A Hard Day’s Night (1964). The show was green-lit and became a pop culture sensation. While developing The Monkees, Schneider and Rafelson met Stephen Blauner who worked for the studio developing the show. They decided to take the money they made from The Monkees and finance a film that Dennis Hopper wanted to direct and star in with his friend Peter Fonda. That film would be Easy Rider (1969) and this counter-culture film became a huge hit both commercially and critically, sending shockwaves through Hollywood.

The Criterion Collection have released an incredible box set sampling some of the most intriguing, experimental, and just plain fascinating examples of BBS Production’s output. Two films that are included have never been released on home video before. This set is quite simply a must-have for any lover of American cinema during the 1970s.

To say Head (1968) is a cinematic oddity is an understatement. Intent at topping The Beatles at their own game, The Monkees appeared in a film that Bob Rafelson directed and co-wrote with none other than Jack Nicholson and that was even more experimental and avant garde than anything the Fab Four had done. The result was a strange, yet playful concert film fused with a trippy pop culture satire. It was a resounding commercial flop when fans realized that the film was not a rehash of The Monkees’ silly, conventional television show.

The opening track, “Porpoise Song,” with its psychedelic imagery, anticipates the British acid house movement by many years and quickly establishes that this isn’t going to be a traditional film by any stretch of the imagination. Gone is the bubblegum pop and in is the Sgt. Pepper’s-esque experimentation. At one point, the band members appear as dandruff in Victor Mature’s hair only to be swept up by a giant vacuum cleaner. Hell, Frank Zappa even shows up with a talking cow to give some sage advice. The Monkees, with Rafelson’s help, gleefully bit the hand that fed them and proceeded to deconstruct their image in a way that no pop group at their level of success had done before or since. Imagine if Justin Bieber decided to star in a film directed Darren Aronofsky.

The critical and commercial success of Easy Rider (1969) scared the hell out of the Hollywood studios at the time of its release. Executives thought that they knew what the public wanted to see: safe comedies like Pillow Talk (1959) or the Frankie and Annette beach party movies. Along came this counter-culture film that featured contemporary rock ‘n’ roll music, two hippie protagonists and a nihilistic ending. And audiences loved it. Easy Rider ushered in the last great decade of American movies in the ‘70s.

After selling their stash of cocaine, Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt (Fonda) decide to ride their motorcycles from California to Florida (by way of the South) where they plan to live off the money. They travel the back roads of American and encounter all sorts of people: suspicious small-townsfolk, an oppressive sheriff and a rancher and his large family who invite them to a meal. The deeper they go into the South, the more resistance they meet because of how they look.

Easy Rider is a fantastic snapshot of the times. It signaled the end of the not-so idyllic ‘60s, where having long hair could deny you a room in a motel because the manager didn’t like the way you look. Time running out is a constant theme throughout Easy Rider. When Billy and Wyatt start their journey, Wyatt throws away his watch. Later on, he finds a discarded pocket watch just before they leave the commune. Also, as they are leaving, the hitchhiker they picked up warns Wyatt that time is running out. It eerily foreshadows the film’s disturbing finale and gives a feeling of impending doom that hangs over the entire film.

Five Easy Pieces (1970) is one of those complex character studies that typified some of the best American films from the 1970s. Bobby Dupea (Nicholson) is a former piano prodigy who spends his days working on an oilrig with his best friend Elton (Bush). As Bill Murray would later say in Stripes (1981), he’s “part of a lost and restless generation.” He’s someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly which makes one wonder why he lives with Rayette (Black), a nice enough person but clearly not Bobby’s intellectual equal and he barely tolerates her needy behavior. One gets the feeling that Bobby is punishing himself.

He is a restless soul as evident in a fascinating scene where, frustrated at being stuck in a traffic jam on the interstate, he gets out of his car and starts playing the piano on a back of a nearby truck. Bobby wants to fit in – hence the blue-collar employment – but he keeps sabotaging his jobs and relationships with an acute self-awareness and his rejection of familial responsibilities. This is a slice of life film whose story doesn’t begin properly until 30 minutes in when Bobby finds out that his estranged father is ill and decides to take road trip to see him. Nicholson delivers a brilliant, gritty performance that would typify a lot of his work in the ‘70s. He’s not afraid to play an unlikable guy who treats those around him poorly. Bobby is full of anger – at the world, at others and at himself.

Drive, He Said (1970) marked the directorial debut of Jack Nicholson. By this point in his career, he had already tried his hand at screenwriting and, of course, acting, so directing seemed like the next logical step. The film concerns the relationship between Hector Bloom (Tepper), a talented college basketball player, and his increasingly radical roommate Gabriel (Margotta). The first thing that strikes one about this film is how topical it is as it deals frankly with sex and nudity (both male and female) – something that was being explored explicitly at the time and how politicized college campuses had become because of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and so on.

In A Safe Place (1971), Tuesday Weld plays a beautiful free spirit in this whimsical experimental film. Scenes often cut abruptly to others and the film lacks a concrete story but is anchored by a strong performance by Weld. Along for the ride is Orson Welles as a mysterious magician who performs several tricks. The lack of a linear narrative can make this a frustrating experiment for some. In some respects, it’s a snapshot of its time and could never be made now.

Made in the early ‘70s, The Last Picture Show (1971) firmly established director Peter Bogdanovich as one of the premiere American filmmakers of that decade. It is also his undisputed masterpiece in a wildly uneven career. Based on the novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry, the film is a lament for the absence of simpler times and a simpler way of life. It’s set in a dusty Texas town in the early 1950s with the focus on three aimless teenagers: Sonny (Bottoms), Duane (Bridges) and Jacy (Shepherd). Sonny and Duane play for the local high school football team and endure constant criticism from their elders for their poor play. Social life for the teens revolves around the small town’s lone movie theater. Our three teen protagonists are bored and can’t wait to get out of their town where nothing ever happens.

Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd were all young, up-and-coming actors at the time and are excellent in their respective roles. It is easy to see why an actor like Bridges went on to become such a versatile thespian. Even this early on in his career he displays an uncanny knack for embodying a character. Bogdanovich does a good job with this material and the rich, textured black and white cinematography, coupled with the run-down Texas town, feels like it could exist in the same world as the characters in Hud (1963), another film based on a McMurtry novel.

Bob Rafelson reunited with Jack Nicholson for another tale about disillusioned and disaffected Americans with The King of Marvin Gardens (1972). Like their best collaborations, it’s a character study, exploring the relationship between two estranged brothers. David (Nicholson) is a depressed radio show host in Philadelphia. One day, he receives a phone call from his scam artist brother Jason (Dern) who is stuck in a jail in Atlantic City. Once he gets out, Jason ropes David in on a real estate scam. The gregarious older sibling makes it out to be too good to be true and that’s because it is.

Jack Nicholson is fascinatingly cast against type as a reserved, button-downed intellectual. David is a quiet, responsible person, which is in sharp contrast to Bruce Dern’s motor-mouthed Jason, a guy always on the make. He’s a consummate bullshit artist and the cynical David sees right through his hustle. The King of Marvin Gardens is an intriguing snapshot of an Atlantic City that doesn’t exist anymore. At the time, it was in decline but all of the old architecture was still gloriously intact and Rafelson shows it off to the degree that it is almost another character in the film. It’s interesting to note that the film’s offbeat rhythm anticipates Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66 (1998) complete with a woman dancing by herself in a spotlight. Dern and Nicholson play well off each other and are believable as brothers. They have a familiar short hand and get on each other’s nerves much like real siblings do.

Special Features:

On the Head DVD is an audio commentary by The Monkees – Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork. Rather appropriately, they talk about how they got their own television show and then the film. They are all pretty candid about how badly the film performed at the time and how it was their attempt to trash the image of the band from the show.

“From The Monkees to Head” is an interview with director Bob Rafelson. He talks about the genesis of the T.V. show and how The Beatles influenced it with A Hard Day’s Night. He goes on to talk about how the show led to the film and how everyone around him told him not to make it.

“BBS: A Time for Change” is a 30-minute featurette on BBS, an independent production company that existed from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. This is an excellent look at the genesis of this company and its place in cinematic history.

There are screen tests for all four Monkees that were done before the T.V. show. They were integrated into the pilot episode and helped launch the show. Their personalities really come out in this footage. We also see two of The Monkees paired up with two other guys that never made the final cut.

“The Monkees on The Hy Lit Show, 1968” is a rare T.V. appearance by the band to promote Head. It takes place next to a boxing ring (?!) and it is interesting to see them try and explain their film.

“Promotion” includes several theatrical trailers, T.V spots and radio spots for the film. Also included is a collection of stills and behind-the-scenes photographs.

On the Easy Rider disc, there is an audio commentary by co-writer and director Dennis Hopper that was recorded in 2009. He kicks things off by talking about the genesis of the film. He also talks about his motivation for making the film and what he was trying to say with it. He points out bits of dialogue and visual inserts that were improvised. There are several lulls throughout as Hopper tends to get caught up in watching the film.

Also included is a 1995 commentary by Hopper, Peter Fonda and production manager Paul Lewis. This is a much livelier track as everyone shares filming anecdotes like Phil Spector lending his limousine and bodyguard to the film. They also point out where various scenes were shot and how also just how stoned Jack Nicholson was during the famous campfire sequence.

There are two trailers.

The second disc starts off with a 30-minute BBC2 documentary entitled, “Born to be Wild”. It features Hopper, Fonda, Karen Black and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. Hopper and Fonda talk briefly about how Roger Corman taught them to make a film fast and cheap. Of course, they address the casting of Nicholson and how Hopper didn’t see him in the role. Everyone tells some good filming anecdotes in this highly enjoyable extra.

Carried over from the 35th Anniversary Edition is “Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage,” an hour-long retrospective documentary featuring new interviews with Fonda, Hopper, Seymour Cassel (who worked on the crew) and Black. Hopper says that the film was an attempt to counter the mainstream fluff like the Frankie and Annette beach party movies that ignored sex, drugs and contemporary rock ‘n’ roll. This is a top-notch look at all the wild stories of filming Easy Rider, including the infamous Mardi Gras shoot.

“Hopper and Fonda at Cannes” features a segment from French T.V. of Fonda and Hopper at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival with their film and they briefly talk about it.

Finally, there is an interview with Steve Blauner, one of the founders of BBS. He talks about the genesis of the company and about their start in T.V., creating The Monkees. He points out that the money from the show paid for Easy Rider.

If you own the 35th Anniversary Edition of the film you might want to hold on to as the commentary that Hopper does on it is not included, nor is the excellent BFI Modern Classics book on Easy Rider by Lee Hill or the bonus CD with select songs from the film.

The Five Easy Pieces disc starts off with an audio commentary by director Bob Rafelson and interior designer Toby Rafelson. Toby points out that the entire film was shot on practical locations. Originally, she didn’t want to do the film but Bob convinced her when he told that he was going to use their own furniture (!). By keeping it under budget and on time, he had final cut and could also cast whomever he wanted. Naturally, Bob talks about working with Nicholson on this engaging track.

“Soul Searching in Five Easy Pieces” features an interview with Rafelson where he talks about the film’s development. He was nervous about doing Five Easy Pieces because it was the first time he worked with actual, serious actors. He had written two screenplays but didn’t like them. He showed them to screenwriter Carol Eastman and she threw them out and wrote her own.

“BBStory” is a 2009, 46-minute documentary about BBS Productions and features the likes of Rafelson, Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, and several others. It starts off with the social and political conditions that gave birth to the company. The studio system was collapsing and BBS made films that reflected the times that people were living in.

“Bob Rafelson at AFI” features excerpts from an audio recording of Rafelson speaking at the American Film Institute. He talks about his career and the films he made for BBS.

Finally, there are two teaser trailers and one full-length trailer.

Drive, He Said starts off with “A Cautionary Tale of Campus Revolution and Sexual Freedom,” a featurette where Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern and co-producer Harry Gittes talk about making this film. It was about college campus revolution and at one point during filming a real riot broke out on the campus they were at. They went ahead and filmed it without permission. Nicholson talks about shooting the basketball sequences and how he cast actual players.

Also included is a trailer.

A Safe Place includes an audio commentary by director Henry Jaglom. He points out that the film was originally a play starring Karen Black. By adapting it into a film he wanted to make it more abstract, exploring the internal nature of Tuesday Weld’s character. Jaglom is quite eloquent and engaging on this track.

“Henry Jaglom Finds A Safe Place” sees the filmmaker talking about the influence of improvisational theater and the New Wave of European cinema. He was interested in creating stories about the inner lives of women.

“Notes on the New York Film Festival” sees Jaglom and Peter Bogdanovich talk with film critic Molly Haskell about The Last Picture Show and A Safe Place in 1971. It’s great to see them all in their prime talking so confidently about their work. The two directors banter playfully with each other in this enjoyable extra.

Also included are outtakes of Orson Welles blowing his lines and four screen tests.

There is a trailer as well.

The Last Picture Show includes an audio commentary by director Peter Bogdanovich and actors Cybill Shepherd, Randy Quaid, Cloris Leachman and Frank Marshall. The director explains why he shot the film in black and white and says that the town was divided about them filming there. He goes into the casting choices with some interesting stories. Shepherd says that she never acted before doing that film and gives her impressions of working on it as do the other participants.

Bogdanovich returns for another commentary, this time by himself. There is some overlap from the previous track making it kind of redundant. Not surprisingly, he dwells on the nuts and bolts of filmmaking and discusses its themes.

Also included are two trailers.

The second disc includes “The Last Picture Show: A Look Back,” an hour-long documentary made in 1999 with most of the key cast members and Bogdanovich and author Larry McMurtry recalling their experiences of making the film. It takes us through the genesis and filming to its reception. There is a fair amount of crossover of information from the commentaries but if you’re not into listening to commentaries then this is for you.

“A Discussion with Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich” sees him talking about how he got into show business, what directors influenced him and, of course, The Last Picture Show.

“Picture This” is a documentary about Bogdanovich and key cast members reunited to make the sequel, Texasville (1990) while also talking about their experiences making the original film. It also paints a fascinating portrait of the people that lived in the town.

Also included are 16mm screen tests of several actors in the film.

There is location footage that Bogdanovich shot while scouting places to shoot for the film.

“Truffaut on the New Hollywood” features filmmaker Francois Truffaut talking briefly about the New Hollywood directors in 1972 on French T.V. He also offers high praise for The Last Picture Show.

For The King of Marvin Gardens, there is a selected-scene commentary by Bob Rafelson. He talks about some of the stylistic choices he made. After Five Easy Pieces, he wanted to make a more abstract film. He talks about the film’s style and comments on the characters.

“Reflections of a Philosopher King” sees Rafelson and actress Elle Burstyn talking about the characters in the film and how they came to be and evolved over the course of filming.

“Afterthoughts” features Rafelson, cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs and actor Bruce Dern talking about the style of the film and how it was achieved and why. There is some overlap from the previous extras but Dern and Kovacs’ comments are quite good and funny as hell.

“About Bob Rafelson” is brief text biography of the man’s career.

Finally, there is a trailer.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tron: Legacy

It has been over 25 years since Tron (1982) was released in theaters. Made on the cusp of the home computer revolution, the film was a simple good vs. evil parable that saw a disgraced computer programmer hack into the network of the corporation that fired him only to be zapped into cyberspace where he got to see how the other half lived. Tron was a modest success at the box office and resoundly trashed by critics. It seemed destined to become merely a footnote in cinematic history as one of the earliest examples of computer graphics in a Hollywood film. Over the years, it developed a decent cult following who dreamed of a sequel some day. That day has finally come.

Hoping for a lucrative franchise that doesn’t involve pirates, Disney ponied up a considerable amount of money so that the filmmakers of Tron: Legacy (2010) were able to utilize the same kind of 3D digital cameras that were used to make Avatar (2009) and the CGI technology used to age Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). And, in keeping with the original filmmakers hiring cutting edge composer Wendy Carlos, Tron: Legacy features an atmospheric score by hip electronica music duo Daft Punk. The end result is a stunning assault on the senses.

In 1989, hotshot programmer and CEO of Encom Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) disappeared, leaving his young son Sam with his grandparents and no indication as to why he left. Since the death of his wife four years before, Flynn’s behavior had become increasingly erratic and he had become obsessed about a brave new world, a digital frontier that he had experienced in Tron. Sam (Garrett Hedlund) grows up to become a rebellious chip off the old block as he breaks into Encom just so he can publicly embarrass the company’s current CEO. Since Flynn’s absence, Encom has returned to its old, soulless ways much to the chagrin of his long-time friend and current board member Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner). He informs Sam that he got a page from his father at the office in his old arcade.

Long shuttered and collecting dust, it is a cemetery for classic arcade games. Sam uncovers his father’s personal computer and before he knows it, he’s zapped into the computer world. Flynn’s prized program Clu (also Bridges) has taken over and rules the computer world with a fascist, iron fist. Flynn has become a fugitive and it’s up to Sam, with the help of a program named Quorra (Olivia Wilde), to make things right again.

Rather fittingly, the real world footage is shot in 2D but once we enter cyberspace, the film comes vividly to life with cutting edge 3D technology. Much of the iconography from the first film is present – the disc battle, light cycles, etc. – but amped up with The Matrix-like action sequences and three-dimensionalized. If there was ever a film would that begged to be given the 3D treatment it is this one. However, these effects aren’t that apparent or as frequent as one would hope which begs the question why even do it in the first place? Short answer: money. The filmmakers have basically taken the imagery of Tron and cranked it up to 11 – pure, unadulterated eye candy with things like dialogue and characterization taking a backseat. The attention paid to production and art design is phenomenal with all kinds of neon-drenched landscapes full of ambient sounds that will keep architecture buffs busy for years. That being said, the CG to recreate a younger version of Jeff Bridges, circa 1982, is distracting with its waxy, stiff look and dead, lifeless eyes, which, I guess, is appropriate for what is basically an evil clone of the real deal within the film.

Say what you will about the original Tron and its flaws but at least it was anchored by a playful and charismatic performance by Jeff Bridges who acted as the audience surrogate into a strange, new world. This time around, Garrett Hedlund takes on that role with limited success. The uninspired screenplay doesn’t do him any favors and so he does the best with what he was to work with, which admittedly isn’t all that much. Bridges plays a grizzled, burnt out version of his original character and with his beard and long hair it almost seems like the Dude from The Big Lebowski (1998) was zapped into the computer world. As if sensing this, Bridges even lets out a few Dudeisms at certain key moments in the film, which at least livens up the forgettable script.

Noted British actor Michael Sheen even shows up channeling David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona as Castor, a preening, flamboyant host of a nightclub where Daft Punk have a cameo as DJs. Using these musicians to do the score for Tron: Legacy was a masterstroke and they seem like the logical evolutionary step from Wendy Carlos. However, those fans expecting them to recreate their trademark dance music might be disappointed as they opt for a more orchestral score that at times is reminiscent of early 1980s John Carpenter, in particular Escape from New York (1981), while also referencing Vangelis, Maurice Jarre and Hans Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight (2008). Their finest moment comes during a battle at Castor’s club where Daft Punk gets to really show off their musical chops as they segue from ambient music to pulsating dance music to bombastic beats that accompany with the action. Along with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for The Social Network (2010), this may be the best soundtrack of the year.

Tron: Legacy replaces the “information just wants to be free” message of its predecessor with a “sins of the father” theme as Flynn attempts to stop Clu, his Frankensteinian creation, and repair the damage done between him and Sam. Tron: Legacy manages to make this world and its characters accessible to those not familiar with the first film by basically rehashing its plot, blow-by-blow, which may disappoint fans. However, it does feel like a continuation of the first film with all kinds of references to things that happened in it. There is also a rather nifty cameo by a notable character actor that hints at a possible villain for the next film, if this one makes enough money. Of course, there is the usual criticism that the dialogue is weak, the story is formulaic and there is a real lack of characterization – all issues critics had with the original film. Tron: Legacy certainly lacks in these areas also, but like the first film, the visuals are so impressive, so captivating in the way they immerse you in the computer world, that you tend to ignore the flaws, relax and enjoy the ride.

Here is a link to my article on the original film.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Spielberg Blogathon: Catch Me If You Can

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of The Spielberg Blogathon organized and run by Adam Zanzie and Ryan Kelly. It runs from December 18 - 28. I urge you to check out and support all of the hard work these guys have done putting it together.

I’ve never been a big fan of Steven Spielberg’s post-1980s film career as he juggled big budget box office blockbusters (Jurassic Park) with obvious bids for Academy Award validation (Amistad). It has been the more offbeat films, like Munich (2008) and Catch Me If You Can (2002) that I’ve preferred over the likes of Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). To me, Catch Me If You Can has a looser, more freewheeling feel to it reminiscent of Spielberg’s earlier films, like The Sugarland Express (1974) or Jaws (1975). The film is based on the life of Frank Abagnale Jr., a clever con man who managed to steal millions of dollars during the 1960s and 1970s by convincingly assuming the identity of a Pan American World Airways pilot, a Georgia doctor and a Louisiana lawyer – all before his 19th birthday. He would become the youngest person ever placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Not only did Catch Me feature a more playful Spielberg, but demonstrated Leonardo DiCaprio’s genuine acting chops – something he hadn’t really done since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993). The film began a terrific run for the young actor who went on to star in films directed by Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan.

The ‘60s style animated opening credits, accompanied by John Williams’ jazzy, atmospheric score, establish a fantastic retro vibe right from the get-go. It has the look and feel of a vintage Saul Bass credits sequence while anticipating the like-minded opening credits for the also ‘60s-set television show Mad Men. Catch Me If You Can cleverly begins during a T.V. game show To Tell the Truth where the announcer gives us a thumbnail sketch of Frank’s exploits and has us (and the game show audience) guess who is the real Frank out of three men claiming to be him. Of course, it is Leonardo DiCaprio but the irony here is that he’s on a game show where contestants have to guess his identity while the FBI had to do it for real. We flashback to Christmas Eve, 1969 and a sick, disheveled Frank (DiCaprio) is rotting away in a French prison. How did he get here? Why does he look so awful? What is this guy’s story? The film takes us back to 1963 and the beginning of Frank’s story.

He comes from a good home and nice parents – Frank, Sr. (Christopher Walken) and Paula (Nathalie Baye) – that clearly love him and each other. We see the inspiration for Frank’s future endeavors in his father who, early on, impresses his son by using his charisma to convince a sales lady to open a suit store early by concocting a story about an impending funeral. He then has his son pose as his chauffeur in order to impress a bank. That, however, does not work and Frank’s father has to sell their car and their home and move into a smaller one because he owes money to the IRS. And then, one fateful day, Frank’s father opens a bank account for his son and gives him a book of checks thus giving him the means to create his own fortune and his own destiny.

On his first day at school, he’s mistaken for a substitute teacher and goes with it just so he can get revenge on a bully but then continues the charade for an entire week! This incident, and the discovery that his mother is having an affair resulting in his parents getting a divorce, leaves Frank lost and disillusioned as the safe, idyllic existence he once knew is now gone. It is this lack of identity and security that inspires him to pose as other people in successful professions like airplane pilots and doctors. It’s an obvious reaction to his father’s failure to restore his family’s former way of life.

What is so amazing is how easy it is for him to pull off these elaborate schemes. It’s a combination of check forging and charisma. By maintaining a confident attitude and the ability to charm people, Frank makes lots of money and seduces several lovely ladies in the process (including then young up-and-coming actresses Elizabeth Banks, Jennifer Garner and Amy Adams). Eventually, Frank’s methods catch the attention of no-nonsense FBI investigator Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), an expert at identifying bank fraud and check forgers. He makes it his mission in life to catch Frank after he humiliates him during their first encounter.

Leonardo DiCaprio has a lot of fun adopting Frank’s various personas, including dressing like Sean Connery era James Bond after watching Goldfinger (1964). There is a delicious irony in DiCaprio, arguably the most recognizable movie star on the planet at that time thanks to Titanic (1997), playing a world class liar who jet sets around the world bedding high-class prostitutes and buying expensive suits. However, underneath the suave bravado, DiCaprio hints at a lonely young man looking for a father figure that he unknowingly finds in Carl. During their years-long cat and mouse game they develop a relationship and a mutual respect for one another. The role is a tricky juggling act as DiCaprio has to assume several different identities while revealing the real Frank once in awhile and also hint at his possible motivations.

Tom Hanks tones down his amiable persona to play the prickly Carl Hanratty. He hasn’t played this abrasive a character since the misanthropic stand-up comic in Punchline (1988). He does a good job playing a dogged investigator with a pronounced Boston accent. Carl even displays the same kind of humorless professionalism as a protagonist straight out of a Michael Mann film, albeit with a slightly whimsical spin that is Spielberg’s trademark.

Taking a break from playing the Christopher Walken persona he’s asked to trot out in almost every film he’s done in the last 20 years, the veteran actor is absolutely heartbreaking as Frank’s blindly optimistic father. He shows a range in this film that he hadn’t displayed in years (or since for that matter) and this is particularly evident in a scene where father and son meet over dinner at a posh restaurant. Frank tries to give his father a brand new car in the hopes of impressing his estranged mother but he has to refuse it (the IRS are still investigating him). He tries to reassure his son that he hopes to get back together with his wife but his voice cracks with emotion and he looks to be on the verge of tears. Walken comes off as incredibly sympathetic at this moment and your heart really goes out to his character as we realize that he and his wife will never reconcile.

Frank Abagnale sold the movie rights to his story in 1980 and for years they languished in development hell in Hollywood. In 1997, screenwriter Jeff Nathanson was given a tape of Abagnale talking about his life by producer Devorah Moos-Hankin. It reminded him of his favorite films that “focus on people who are working on the wrong side of the law; yet you can’t help but root for them because they’re so incredibly charming.” He thought that Abagnale’s life would make a good film. He pitched the project to DreamWorks because they had hired him to do rewrites on several films in the past. With Abagnale’s story, Nathanson saw a character he hadn’t seen in “a long time; Hollywood really stopped making that kind of movie in the ‘70s.” Initially, all he had were some “cool scenes” and “great cons” but it wasn’t until he met the real Abagnale that the script started to take shape. After several interviews with the man, he opened up to Nathanson and talked about his family life and the relationship with his father. He realized that this was the key to the film: “A kid searching for his identity, searching for the love he can’t find in his own house.” This realization helped Nathanson to start structuring the film and also introduce the character of FBI agent Carl Hanratty as a secondary father figure. The screenwriter spent three years rewriting his script. It was during one of these many drafts that Carl was given more of an emphasis and became a central character along with Frank.

Leonardo DiCaprio read Nathanson’s script and was fascinated by this man’s extraordinary life. DreamWorks became involved in 1999 based on Nathanson’s work. In 2000, Gore Verbinski had signed on to direct with DiCaprio starring and with a supporting cast that included Ed Harris, Chloe Sevigny, and James Gandolfini as the FBI agent in pursuit of Frank. However, delays on Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) stalled the production and Verbinski and most of the cast went on to other projects. In 2001, Lasse Hallstrom was going to direct Catch Me If You Can with filming to start in March 2002. However, he also left the project. By August 2001, Spielberg came on board. He had just come off the dark, paranoid futuristic science fiction film Minority Report (2002) and was looking for something lighter to do. He had always been a fan of films about scam artists and con men and was drawn to Abagnale’s amazing exploits. Tom Hanks read the script and asked Spielberg and DiCaprio if he could be in the film and they quickly agreed. He replaced Gandolfini who had to bow out due to a prior commitment with filming another season of The Sopranos.

It was DiCaprio who first suggested to Spielberg that Christopher Walken play Frank, Sr. To play Paula, the director wanted to cast a French actress. His friend and fellow filmmaker Brian De Palma was living in Paris at the time and Spielberg gave him a copy of the script. He asked for help and De Palma conducted screen tests with several actresses, one of whom was Nathalie Baye who had been in Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973).

To research their roles, DiCaprio and Hanks attended one of Abagnale’s lectures to a group of FBI agents. Ironically, Abagnale was now the head of an anti-fraud consulting firm. Initially, DiCaprio was skeptical about meeting Abagnale and talked to Spielberg who discouraged him from doing it. Against his director’s wishes, DiCaprio met privately with his real life counterpart and invited him to live in his Hollywood house for two days, which he did. The actor studied Abagnale’s every move and taped their conversations. His impressions of the man were that he was “an instinctual actor. He’s somebody that for whatever reason puts people at ease.” DiCaprio’s approach to portraying Abagnale was that “at a certain point you draw enough information from the person, and then you have to go off on your own and create that character and let the character have a life of its own.”

Catch Me If You Can was shot in a speedy 56 days utilizing more than 140 sets on locations in and around Los Angeles, New York City, Montreal, Quebec City. Among the many locations used, the production was able to film in the historic TWA Terminal at New York’s JFK airport, which opened in 1962, and was empty when they shot there. At times, cast and crew shot in three locations on a single day. Spielberg did not do very many takes and remarked, “moving so fast kept the momentum going for the entire cast and crew.” DiCaprio concurred: “It was like a theatre group. We were always creating new things and then moving to the next location.”

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski strove to keep the film’s visual approach very simple: “Let’s create a world that’s slightly idealistic, and not too serious.” The film’s color scheme often mirrored Frank’s emotional arc. His initial, ordinary existence is reflected in a bland, slightly monochromatic look. As Frank’s life gets richer and more successful, the color palette gets more vibrant with striking oranges, yellows, reds and pinks. At the end of the film, when he becomes a part of bureaucracy, the colors go back to being monochromatic in nature.

Legendary composer John William adopted a progressive jazz score in keeping with popular tastes of the 1950s and 1960s. He was influenced by the film music of Henry Mancini who dominated the ‘60s with his “stylish, jazzy approach to films that we now associate with that period so nostalgically.”

Catch Me If You Can enjoyed a very positive response from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three stars and wrote, “This is not a major Spielberg film, although it is an effortlessly watchable one.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Catch Me is the most charming of Mr. Spielberg's mature films, because is it so relaxed. Instead of trying to conjure fairy-tale magic, wring tears or insinuate a message, it is happy just to be its delicious, genially sophisticated self.” While the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman was less impressed with the film, he did praise DiCaprio’s performance: “DiCaprio is far more successfully cast here than in Gangs of New York: His performance is all about acting; it's a mild kick to see how he'll manage to talk his way out of nearly every scrape.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman enjoyed Hanks’ performance: “It's a relief, after Hanks' funereal torpor in Road to Perdition, to see him having this much fun playing a law enforcer this dweebishly obsessed (the actor sports one of the few note-perfect New England accents in movie history).” In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe described it as “a movie that steadfastly refuses to be spectacular. At first, that seems to be its drawback. In the end, that's its disarming sweetness.” Finally, Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, “Abagnale's story, combined with Nathanson's sensitivity to his family situation and Spielberg's interest in lost boys who manage to find their best selves, results in about the nicest movie you could ask for at the holidays: a gently funny, sweetly adventurous film that makes you feel genuinely good, that is to say, entirely unconned by false sentiment or sharp, overmanipulative Hollywood practices.”

Ultimately, all Frank wants is for things to be the way they were when he was younger: his parents still married and living in a nice home. He thinks that by accumulating wealth and projecting a successful image, he can save his father from financial ruin and impress his mother enough so that she’ll take back Frank, Sr. But life doesn’t always work out that way and no matter how many glamorous professions he impersonates or fake checks he writes, is going to make things right. It is this sober reality that makes Catch Me If You Can more than just an entertaining caper film. In some respects, this is a coming-of-age film as we see Frank go from an ambitious teenager to a disillusioned adult. This is also a coming-of-age film for DiCaprio that saw him move on from youthful characters in flights of fancy-type films like Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Titanic, to working with prestige directors like Spielberg on more mature fare that dealt with weighty themes. It is a transition he has made successfully as evident with award-winning films like The Departed (2006) and critically-acclaimed blockbusters like Inception (2010).

Here's a neat little article about the film's stunning opening credits sequence.


“Another Catch For Leo’s Next Flick.” IGN. July 6, 2001.

Breznican, Anthony. “Movie Brings Colourful Capers Back to Haunt Frank Abagnale.” Associated Press. December 28, 2002.

Catch Me If You Can Production Notes. DreamWorks. 2002.

Ebert, Roger. “Leo Impressed Spielberg.” Chicago Sun-Times. January 2, 2003.

“Hanks to Catch Leo For Spielberg.” IGN. August 30, 2001.

Head, Steve. “An Interview with Steven Spielberg.” IGN. December 17, 2002.

Head, Steve. “An Interview with Leonardo DiCaprio.” IGN. December 22, 2002.

Kirkland, Bruce. “Leo’s the Real Deal.” London Free Press. December 24, 2002.

Portman, Jamie. “Catching Up with Tom Hanks.” Vancouver Sun. February 3, 2003.

Ryfle, Steve. “Catch Me If You Can: Interview with Jeff Nathanson.” Creative Screenwriting. November/December 2002.

Strauss, Bob. “Catch Walken Resting? Never.” San Diego Union-Tribune. February 28, 2003.