"...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, April 29, 2016

The Shadow

With the massive commercial success of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) every studio in Hollywood wanted to replicate it and this kickstarted a feeding frenzy for a pulp story/comic book property that would connect with the mainstream movie-going public. The result was a string of lavish adaptations of Dick Tracy (1990), The Rocketeer (1991), and The Phantom (1996). The Shadow (1994) also came out of this same period and like the aforementioned movies failed to perform at the box office at the same level as Batman. In fact, The Shadow barely made back its budget but has since gone on to develop a cult following.

The Shadow was based on the pulp fiction character of the same name created in 1931 by Walter B. Gibson. The character got his start on the radio as an enigmatic narrator and when he became popular enough was given an identity by Gibson who developed the character and his world in a series of pulp novels that was soon adapted into an even more popular radio series (voiced by none other than Orson Welles for a short time). Over the years, the durable character was adapted in comic books, movie serials and B-movies but it wasn’t until 1994 that The Shadow would get big budget treatment from Hollywood.

We meet Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin, sporting horrible looking long hair) in Tibet. It is after the First World War and he is indulging in his darker impulses, becoming a warlord and opium kingpin known as Ying-Ko. One day, he is kidnapped by the servants of Tulku (Brady Tsurutani), a holy man with mystical powers. He is forced to face his dark side and use this knowledge to defeat evil in all of its various guises. Tulku also teaches Cranston all of his abilities and sends him back to his home in New York City where becomes a crime fighter known as the Shadow.

We meet his colorful alter ego in an impressively staged sequence where he prevents three gangsters from throwing a man off the Brooklyn Bridge. The Shadow uses fear as a weapon, scaring the men with echo-y laughter and his voice that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere, tormenting the lead goon by revealing his past crimes. Initially, we only get vague glimpses of the Shadow as he appears and disappears with alarming speed. It is only until he dispatches the gangsters that we get a full reveal of the character and this is accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing score.

Cranston switches back to himself and heads off to the Cobalt Club where he meets with police commissioner Wainwright Barth (Jonathan Winters) for dinner and proceeds to ignore him when he spots Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller), the beautiful daughter of a scientist (Ian McKellen) working for the War Department. We get a nice moment where Cranston uses his mental powers to cloud the commissioner’s mind to forget about creating a taskforce to stop the Shadow in a way that director Russell Mulcahy portrays as part film noir and part Jedi mind trick.

A silver sarcophagus arrives at the Museum of Natural History from Tibet housing Shiwan Khan (John Lone), a rogue protégé of Tulku and the last descendant of Genghis Khan. He possesses the same powers as Cranston but is obsessed with world domination. He plans on achieving this by kidnapping Margo’s father and use his work to build an atomic bomb. Cranston has to use all of the powers at his disposal in order to stop Khan.

Alec Baldwin impresses early on as the suave Cranston who not only uses his powers on his uncle but also to pick up Margo. They go on an impromptu date at a Chinese restaurant and he amazes her by ordering in Chinese. “You speak Chinese?” she asks him and without a missing a beat he replies, “Only Mandarin.” Baldwin exhibits good comic timing and his movie star looks are a great fit for the dashing millionaire. Watching him in The Shadow makes me realize what a good Bruce Wayne he would have been. The actor had the charisma, presence and a commanding voice that would have been so well-suited for the role.

With Awakenings (1990), Carlito’s Way (1993), and The Shadow, the early to mid-1990s saw Penelope Ann Miller at the height of her mainstream popularity. With her retro good looks she makes for a good Margo Lane and has nice chemistry with Baldwin. I was never a big fan of hers and so she doesn’t do much for me in the role but she certainly looks the part.

The always-reliable Ian McKellen has fun as the absent-minded professor too occupied with his work to notice that his daughter is being romanced by Cranston. Peter Boyle shows up as the Shadow’s most trusted ally and Jonathan Winters pops up in a mostly straight-faced role as the city’s clueless police commissioner and gets to criticize Cranston for his habitual tardiness. John Lone plays the movie’s ruthless, scenery-chewing villain and is suitably evil in the role, holding his own with Baldwin in their scenes together as they banter back and forth between getting down to serious issues.

Much like Batman and Dick Tracy, the world of The Shadow is created with a combination of soundstages and matte paintings, which gives it an intentionally stylized look – a 1930s inhabited by Art Deco nightclubs and sinister alleyways. The attention to period detail, down to the cars, clothing and advertisements that decorate buildings is fantastic. It is also great to see big city scenes populated by numerous living and breathing extras. Unlike the CGI worlds of today, the one in The Shadow feels tangible and real. It has depth and detail that we buy into and this is even more glaringly evident in the CGI-created Phurba, a mystical flying dagger, which is controlled by Khan. It looks awkward and out of place with the rest of the practical effects.

Journeyman director Russell Mulcahy provides the requisite stylistic flourishes without being too showy. He is savvy enough to know when to inject some style and orchestrates this big movie with skill but lacks the personal idiosyncrasies that Tim Burton brought to his Batman movies. As a result, there is a bit of generic complacency to The Shadow that was also evident in The Phantom.

After Batman everyone seemed content to ape Danny Elfman’s score (including himself) for their own comic book superhero movies and so it is refreshing to hear that Jerry Goldsmith avoids this with a score that has a classical feel while also a contemporary heroic vibe to it. His cues help propel the action and add atmosphere to the downtime between these sequences.

The Shadow has a nice streak of light-hearted humor that runs throughout and David Koepp’s screenplay picks the right moments to use it, like when Cranston and Khan meet for the first time and these two powerful men sniff each other out, even engaging in banter like the latter admiring the former’s tie before Khan reveals his true intentions:

Khan: In three days, the entire world will hear my roar, and willingly fall subject to the lost empire of Shiwan Khan. That is a lovely tie, by the way. May I ask where you acquired it?
Cranston: Brooks Brothers.
Khan: Is that mid-town?
Cranston: 45th and Madison. You are a barbarian. Khan: Thank you. We both are.

Remember when super hero movies didn’t take themselves too seriously? Obviously, they went too far by the end of the decade with Batman & Robin (1997), which is just out-and-out silly, but then with X-Men (2000) they got serious again and going darker with the genre has reached its apex with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Watching The Shadow again, with all of this in mind, I was struck at how well it gets the mix of humor and dramatic heroics that is sorely missing from most comic book superhero movies today.

For years, movie producer Martin Bregman had been trying to get The Shadow made. He had gone through numerous screenwriters but none of them could figure out the material to his satisfaction until he approached David Koepp, who started working on it in 1989. According to Bregman, “Thematically the earlier drafts didn’t work…No one really could get this guy and it never had the size it should have.” The writer was a fan of the old radio show and for research read The Shadow Scrapbook, The Duende History of the Shadow Magazine and many of the pulp novels featuring the character. He incorporated elements from all of these various sources into his script. For example, he took characters and villains from the pulp novels and took the tone of the radio show and made up his own story.

When it came to casting, Roy Scheider had been considered as the Shadow at some point as did Jeremy Irons. Bregman approached Alec Baldwin to play the Shadow and the actor loved Koepp’s script and agreed to take on the role. One of the challenges he faced was looking and acting like the Shadow: “You have to learn how to move with all that stuff on. You want to be graceful. It’s something you have to learn how to integrate into the performance you’re going to give, because the minute you get all the makeup on, everything changes.”

At the wrap party for Carlito’s Way (1993), which he was also producing, Bregman asked Penelope Ann Miller to read the script for The Shadow. She saw the character of Margo Lane as “reminiscent to me of the great characters that Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy and Joan Crawford played.”

Director Russell Mulcahy knew about the project ten years prior but when he heard people like Robert Zemeckis were being considered he assumed there was no chance despite being interested. While working on the Bregman-produced The Real McCoy (1993) its star Kim Basinger was so impressed with Mulcahy that she recommended to her then-husband Baldwin that the director should helm The Shadow.

For the look of the movie, production designer Joe Nemec III created a world that was set in the 1936-38 range. Since most of the movie takes place in New York City, he consulted a period era map in order to get an idea of where everything was located, like Cranston’s mansion, which was around East 52nd Street. Creating the city was the responsibility of visual FX supervisor Alison Savitch who was hired just before principal photography started when the producers realized they needed someone in charge of the increasing number of visual effects. She ended up using a combination of models, matte paintings and CGI to recreate late ‘30s New York.

Principal photography began in the summer of 1993 on the Universal Studios lot in Hollywood on five of their soundstages over 14 weeks on a $40 million budget. Filming went relatively smoothly with only one week lost when an earthquake struck, destroying the Hall of Mirrors set.

For the most part, the movie was ripped to shreds by mainstream critics. In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James wrote, “Such dark-hearted, cartoonish crime fighters are awfully familiar on screen right now, and this movie is too meek to set itself apart.” Entertainment Weekly gave the movie a “D” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Baldwin, a good actor who needs to start playing characters with an edge, looks puffy and smug in this cockeyed-hero role. Like Batman, the Shadow is meant to be a good guy with a touch of evil, but Baldwin just acts like James Bond’s smart-ass brother.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Baldwin, Lone and Penelope Ann Miller as the glamorous Margo Lane continually struggle for the right tone, while Tim Curry as a mad scientist gives up the fight and goes totally over the top. And what could have been a classic ends up yet another story of what might have been.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “But without a compelling story at the center, this is just a mediocre MTV-Wagnerian fantasy.”

However, Roger Ebert gave the movie three out of four stars and wrote, “The story itself may not be so mesmerizing, but who really cares? Style and tone are everything with a movie like this, which wants to bring to life a dark secret place in the lurid pulp imagination.” Finally, Jonathan Rosenbaum felt that the movie had “enough of the innocent exoticism and splendor of silent thrillers to suggest a continuity with the past missing from most other movies; all that’s required is a capacity to sit back and dream.”

Coming after Batman, The Shadow was accused of copying it when in fact Bob Kane’s creation is indebted to Gibson’s stories, which came first, but most moviegoers were unaware of this at the time and the movie did not perform well. No one has made another adaptation since with only Sam Raimi currently owning the movie rights but has so far done little with the property. The time is right for another take on this iconic character but whoever tackles it might want to contemporize it much like Howard Chaykin did with his controversial comic book adaptation in 1986 as audiences don’t seem to respond to retro pulp adventures (with a few notable exceptions, like The Mummy and Captain America: First Avenger).

While The Shadow may not be as visually dazzling as Dick Tracy, the characters are more fully realized than in Warren Beatty’s opus, which feels overstuffed. It is more successful translating its source material than The Phantom, but isn’t quite as satisfying or as distinctive as The Rocketeer, the best of the post-Batman crop of retro comic book adaptations. That being said, The Shadow is an entertaining and engaging effort that has a lot going for it, most notably an appealing performance by Baldwin, a terrific score by Goldsmith, and top notch production values.


Jones, Alan. “Me and My Shadow.” Starburst. November 1994.

Murray, Will. The Shadow: The Official Movie Magazine. 1994.

Peterson, Don E. “The Shadow Takes Shape.” Sci-Fi Entertainment. August 1994.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Man on Fire

When I first watched Tony Scott’s Man on Fire (2004) shortly after it was released on home video, I dismissed it as an empty exercise in trying to recreate the 1980s action movie that the director himself helped popularize with the likes of Top Gun (1986) and Beverly Hills Cop II (1987). I was put off by the film’s wildly fractured editing, jump cuts and slow motion mayhem but now I realize – only with the benefit of hindsight – that I didn’t understand what he was trying to do. With Man on Fire, Scott was leaving behind traditionally presented storytelling in favor of what Nick Clement has described as “cubist-cinema,” utilizing experimental editing rhythms and camerawork to immerse the viewer in the worldview of the protagonist so that we are experiencing things almost as fast the way the mind works. This film would be his first foray with this approach but not the last, culminating in his masterpiece Domino (2005).

Scott boldly introduces this new aesthetic in the opening credits, which depict a man being kidnapped in a public place in broad daylight with its entire tragic arc playing out via rapid, jarring edits and a grungy visual look that is aggressively in-your-face. With this sequence, Scott is making a statement by establishing not just the style of the film but also his subsequent works. It’s a ballsy move on his part but then I wouldn’t expect anything less.

Former CIA operative John Creasy (Denzel Washington) is more than down on his luck; like previous Scott protagonist, Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) in The Last Boy Scout (1991), he has hit rock bottom with a head full of regrets. He has spent his life doing his country’s dirty work and has become an alcoholic in desperate need of some redemption. As he tells an old friend early on, “Do you think God’ll forgive us for what we’ve done?” For the rest of the film, Creasy is looking for this forgiveness.

He visits Paul Rayburn (Christopher Walken), an old friend from his CIA days who now runs a security firm in Mexico. He tells Creasy about a job: bodyguard for an affluent Mexican family. The father, Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) is a car plant owner and he asks Creasy to drive his daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning), to and from her exclusive private school every day.

Creasy takes a shine to Pita who gradually chips away at his shell of burnt-out cynicism. He actually begins to care about something. As if on cue, Creasy is ambushed one day and shot up in a chaotic gun battle that results in Pita being kidnapped. To make matters worse, Creasy is framed for killing two corrupt cops. The husband messes up the ransom pick-up, effectively signing his daughter’s death warrant. Understandably upset, Creasy, with the help of Rayburn, decides to exact some good ol’ fashion revenge and find and kill everyone responsible for the kidnapping as he works his way up the country’s ladder of corruption.

Scott spends the first fifty minutes establishing the relationship between Creasy and Pita. As we watch them bond there is a nervous anticipation as we wait for the other shoe to drop. When will she get kidnapped? Once Creasy amasses a sizable arsenal for his revenge mission, the film veers dangerously close to taking all leave of its senses as it almost becomes one of those one-man-army action movies that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone made popular in the 1980s complete with the dubious moral underpinnings.

Scott immerses us in the Mexican underworld where kidnappings are rampant as Creasy tracks down the people who have taken Pita utilizing his unique skill sets. It’s a grim Death Wish (1974) meets Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) kind of journey as the director rubs our faces in ugly, brutal violence as Creasy tortures and kills his way up the kidnapping food chain. At this point we’ve become invested in Creasy’s journey and on a basic level welcome his scorched earth policy because we want to see the bad guys punished.

Outside of his very successful collaborations with Spike Lee, Scott was able to get the very best from Denzel Washington. They obviously had a real kinship and enjoyed working together as evident from their numerous collaborations. The actor understood his director’s worldview to the extent that he was able to convey it successfully on-screen.

Washington certainly makes an impressively ferocious and determined assassin dedicated to making those responsible pay with their lives. He fearlessly plumbs the depths of his character and goes to even darker places than he did in Training Day (2001). The actor is very effective at playing a drunk with nothing left to lose. He looks the part, sporting a ragged, uneven beard early on. Even after he’s cleaned himself up for the job there is a look in Creasy’s eyes and the way he carries himself that conveys the vibe of a self-destructive burn-out while still maintaining the air of a highly trained professional. It is a tricky balancing act that Washington pulls off effortlessly. His gig with the Ramos family is probably his last chance at a halfway decent gig. The actor also conveys a tragic vibe, hinting at a time when he was on top of his game but has since lost his way.

The scenes between Creasy and Pita are refreshingly devoid of the cutesy shtick that most relationships of this kind are portrayed and this is because he doesn’t talk down to her. He’s honest with her and she isn’t one of those annoying kids. The interplay between them feels natural and builds gradually, showing how they bond over her swimming competitions, with the little girl holding her own against the veteran actor. Like Creasy, we become emotionally invested in Pita and care about what happens to her. He also realizes that she may be the key to the redemption he so desperately needs.

Scott’s frenetic editing is effective throughout, especially in the scene were Creasy and Pita are idling at a traffic light and are beset by panhandlers. While he tries to continue an uncomfortable conversation with her, he deals with all of these distractions and the editing conveys the disorientating effects all these sights and sounds have on him. It is ominous, visual foreshadowing of what’s to come.

This hyper-kinetic editing is also used during moments when Creasy is alone, wallowing in self-doubt and a powerful moment where he hits rock bottom. It is heavy-handed but that’s the point as Scott wants us to experience this man’s troubled worldview. He wants to immerse us in it so that it’s almost tangible for the director is a sensualist.

The film’s first action sequence – Pita’s kidnapping – is a fantastic showcase for Scott’s new direction in depicting action. We are thrown into a chaotic situation from Creasy’s perspective, including him picking up the signs of the impending kidnapping and then his increasingly disintegrating point-of-view as his gunshot wounds disable him. The editing creates a disorienting effect, which is intentional. The last hour of Man on Fire sees Scott cut loose with this new style as he gets down and dirty with his own version of The Limey (1999) as Creasy exacts revenge on those responsible for kidnapping Pita albeit filtered through his fractured mind.

Regency Enterprises owner Arnon Milchan purchased the film rights to A.J. Quinnell’s 1980 novel Man on Fire because he believed it had cinematic potential. He approached Tony Scott, who had just come off of directing The Hunger (1982), and the director was enthusiastic about the material but he ended up not doing it. Scott moved on Top Gun (1986) while Milchan went on to produce the 1987 version starring Scott Glenn, but over the years the filmmaker never forgot about it: “I never really lost sight of it.”

Years later, producer Lucas Foster teamed up with Regency to adapt Man on Fire yet again with screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) writing the script. In 2003, Scott agreed to direct. Helgeland’s initial drafts were set in Italy but Foster and Scott found out that tough new laws had virtually eliminated kidnappings there and scouted locations in Brazil, Guatemala and Mexico. They picked Mexico because kidnapping had become commonplace there: “Kidnapping is a huge business there – very controlled and organized. It’s an actual industry,” he said. To this end, he researched case histories of kidnappings in Mexico and had Helgeland adjust the script accordingly.

Scott had previously worked with Denzel Washington on Crimson Tide (1995) and knew he wanted him to play Creasy because of his “obsessive quality and his internal darkness. There’s a hardness to Denzel that’s really interesting. He knows how to draw it out and use it effectively.” After seeing Dakota Fanning act opposite Sean Penn in I Am Sam (2001), Foster and Scott cast her as Pita. She spent months on swimming training, Spanish lessons and piano lessons.” Originally, Scott thought of casting Christopher Walken as the Ramos’ corrupt lawyer but the actor told him that he was tired of playing bad guys and wanted to play someone good. Scott decided to cast him as Rayburn instead.

The traffic-congested Mexico City proved to be a challenge for the production as they moved more than 50 vehicles of cast, crew and equipment through the narrow and crowded streets. In addition, general strikes were a daily occurrence forcing them to navigate Mexico City’s complex bureaucracy of 17 mini-states, each with its own municipality and governor.

To create the stunning look of Man on Fire, Scott worked closely with director of photography Paul Cameron (Swordfish) in an attempt to reflect Creasy’s emotional state by doing things like hand-cranking the camera to slow down or speed up movement, using reversal film stock to make colors more vivid, creating multiple exposures by imprinting three sets of images on the same plate of film, and for some sequences employing multiple cameras, which caused Washington to refer to his director as “Nine-Camera Tony.”

Man on Fire received mostly negative reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Man on Fire has a production too ambitious for the foundation supplied by the screenplay. It plays as if Scott knows the plot is threadbare, and wants to patch it with an excess of style.” USA Today also gave it two-and-a-half out of four stars with Mike Clark writing, “Seventeen years from now, we may well remember this version of the story – just as one remembers getting hammered on the head repeatedly with a 2-by-4.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Mr. Scott, meanwhile, with his characteristic blend of cynicism and heavy-handedness, infuses even the quietest moments with nerve-jangling dread.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “But the movie’s mortal failing is echoed in the religious medal Pita gives Creasy in a gift of innocent, uplifting love: Finding heft or coherence within all the lugubrious agitation is a lost cause worthy of St. Jude.” Finally, in his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Despite its high craft level and Washington’s participation in it, this movie’s showy violence is finally as deadening as the over-emphatic violence in these kinds of films generally is.”

Man on Fire trades in the same kind of redemptive nihilism as Scott’s underrated thriller Revenge (1990), which is also a very sensual film. Both are prime examples of his romantic tendencies albeit in very Peckinpahian terms – i.e. tough love bathed in violence. On a superficial level, this film is a throwback to the ‘80s Hollywood action film, which featured the lone, empowered American who shows the uncultured natives the true meaning of power through military might with God as his co-pilot. In this respect, the politics in Scott’s film are troubling to say the least. By setting it in Mexico and showcasing the levels of corruption that exist there, Man on Fire will certainly not be featured in that country’s tourism brochures any time soon.


Man on Fire Production Notes. 20th Century Fox. 2004.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Forty Guns

Hell and High Water (1954) was one of 20th Century Fox’s earliest experiments with CinemaScope, widescreen movies that was Hollywood’s attempt in the 1950s to lure people away from their television sets and back into the theaters by giving them something they couldn’t get staying home. Samuel Fuller did such a good job with this format that he used it again on Forty Guns (1957), a hard-hitting western as only he could make.

Right from the opening scene, Fuller presents an impressive, expansive vista: a wide-open plain with a lone horse and carriage. He uses the widescreen aspect ratio to convey the epic grandeur of this landscape. He even has a cloud’s shadow move across the land. There is a sudden, jarring cut to a close-up of many horse hooves thundering across the plain. It is 40 men on horseback being led by landowner Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), clad all in black. They head straight for the men and their carriage only to go flying past them, surrounding them on all sides with no intention of slowing down, accompanied by Harry Sukman’s rousing score. And then they’re gone. Welcome to a Sam Fuller western. In his trademark fashion, the director grabs our attention right away with a visually arresting sequence.

Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) and his brothers Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix) arrive in a small, Arizona town. He is a United States Marshal looking to arrest Howard Swain (Chuck Roberson), coincidentally one of Jessica’s 40 guns. With a few judicious edits, Fuller gives us a tour of the town, which is being terrorized and trashed by Brockie Drummond (John Ericson) and his boys. He’s an arrogant drunk and bully but when he shoots an old buddy of Griff’s (a man going blind no less), he and his brothers intervene in a bravura scene.

Griff strides purposefully towards the action, unconcerned at the mayhem going on. Brockie’s buddies recognize the lawman and flee but the drunken bully doesn’t know or care. Fuller cuts back and forth between a close-up of Griff’s eyes and Rocky’s gun repeatedly until the climax when Griff finally reaches Brockie and punches his lights out. This scene demonstrates how Fuller understood that the power of an action scene lies in how it is edited. The rhythm and pacing is as crucial as the camerawork. This approach was later used to even more dramatic effect in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns.

Jessica comes in with her posse and quickly gets Brockie released from jail in what can only be called “frontier justice,” but once she gets him alone, punishes him by taking away his guns. She’s a tough lady and she has to be if she’s going to lead 40 cowboys. Wes wastes no time romancing the town’s female gunsmith (Eve Brent) in a flirtaceous scene as only Fuller could write and stage: Wes: “I never kissed a gunsmith before.” Louvenie: “Any recoil?” Cue romantic music and fade to black. This is a world where men are men and women are women.

Griff and Jessica inevitably cross paths and their first meeting is charged with sexual tension as they exchange pulpy prose as the two hard-nosed individuals test each other only to diffuse the situation when they have a drink together. Jessica’s tough but also a shrewd businesswoman and knows better than to mess with a federal warrant and a revered hired gun like Griff. Their relationship starts off as antagonistic but eventually blossoms into a romance.

As always, Barbara Stanwyck is outstanding and conveys Jessica with a forceful nature that makes her a believable leader of men. Fuller even gives her a wonderful scene where Jessica tells Griff her backstory and provides insight into what motivates her. It also allows Stanwyck to reveal a more vulnerable side of Jessica so that she’s more than just a hard-as-nails leader.

Even though Forty Guns features all the traditional iconography of a western it contains Fuller’s distinctive, audacious style. For example, early on a cowboy sings a surreal song called, “High Ridin’ Woman” about Jessica. It features such memorable lyrics as “If someone could break her and take her whip away / Someone big, someone strong, someone tall / You may find that the woman with a whip / Is only a woman after all.” A man in the middle of an all-male bathhouse is singing this odd song. This gives you an idea of the kind of wild, go-for-broke cinema that is the trademark of Fuller’s oeuvre.

Forty Guns is peppered with Fuller’s trademark bizarre pulpy dialogue, like when Griff tells Jessica at one point, “In my heart I’ve always asked for forgiveness before I kill just like an Indian asking for forgiveness from an animal before the slaughter. You can’t ask after you kill, it’s too late then.” This comes out of nowhere and is unusual for the genre where men don’t speak so philosophically. Fuller is being honest and speaking from the heart but looked at from today’s perspective it is funny.

He also includes oddly humorous moments like showing Jessica eating her meals with all 40 of her men and when Griff shows up with a warrant it is passed down a long table for what feels like an eternity until it is finally put in her hands. There is also plenty of exciting action, like the scene where Griff and Jessica are caught in a tornado, which is depicted in harrowing fashion as Fuller conveys a real sense of danger. At one point, her horse drags Jessica and eventually her and Griff have to crawl to a nearby shack to take refuge.

There’s an interesting dynamic between the Bonnell brothers that Fuller explores in a nice scene where Chico goes on a bender and after being sobered up complains that he doesn’t want to be a farmer but a gunslinger like Griff and Wes. Griff tells him, “The last few towns we rode through they looked at my gun and I know they figured I was one of those freaks out of the past. There’s a new era coming up, Chico. My kind of making a living is on the way out…I’m a freak, Chico. I just don’t want you to be one.” It’s an honest talk among brothers that provides all kinds of insight into these men and their relationship with each other.

Sam Fuller’s original screenplay, as written, had Griff killing both Brockie and Jessica and was entitled, Woman with Whip. He was under contract with 20th Century Fox at the time and its studio head Darryl F. Zanuck loved it. The marketing department told him that they couldn’t sell a western where the film’s love interest and her antagonist brother are killed by the hero and that movie theater owners would never play a film like that. Zanuck told Fuller to come up with a different ending, which he did and is in the film. Several years passed and Fox was looking for films that could be made fast and cheap – something that Fuller excelled at doing.

Before the start of filming, Fuller was approached by Marilyn Monroe who wondered why he hadn’t asked her to read for the part of Jessica. He told the actress that her innocence and wholesomeness would’ve been out of place for the experienced character and that her presence – she was known for starring in comedies – would’ve changed the tone of his film.

Fuller had a short shooting schedule (principal photography lasted less than two weeks!) and so he couldn’t do many takes. He shot most of the film on Fox’s backlot in the studio’s western town and much of the outdoor shots where done in “one of those arid California valleys with unbroken vistas,” he said in his memoir. Barbara Stanwyck insisted on doing all of her own horseback scenes as well as the stunt shots. She even did the bit where Jessica is thrown from her horse and dragged. “Not only did Stanwyck do the stunt, she did it over and over…Barbara was a little bruised at the end of the day, but she never murmured a word of complaint,” he said.

Fuller made two-fisted B-movies full of heightened emotions and without a hint of irony. He honestly believed in the stories he told and it comes through in every frame of Forty Guns. He was also an expert craftsman as evident from the masterful framing of every widescreen shot that places the characters for maximum effect. He may have traded in pulpy stories but he was no hack director. This film is a revisionist western as it comments on a way of life that was disappearing as evident in Griff’s self-awareness that his days as a gunslinger will soon be over and Jessica realizing that her business is failing and she’ll have to sell her land but it doesn’t mean things can’t go out with a bang as the film’s exciting climax demonstrates.

Fuller uses every opportunity to show off the widescreen format while employing extensive use of close-ups and one of the longest tracking shots ever done at Fox’s studio at that time. Forty Guns is one of the most dynamic westerns ever made and this is due to Fuller’s infectious energy as reflected in his pulpy prose and kinetic camerawork. It’s not enough to say that they don’t make westerns like this anymore – they just don’t make films like this anymore.


Forty Guns. Turner Classic Movies.

Fuller, Samuel. A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking. Applause 2002.

Friday, April 8, 2016

For Your Eyes Only

Roger Moore is my least favorite James Bond and I had the misfortune of growing up during his run in the 1980s. I saw both Octopussy (1983) and A View to a Kill (1985) in theaters and caught up with Moonraker (1979) on home video. I found Moore’s Bond too silly with too many jokes peppered throughout his movies. He lacked the cool menace of Sean Connery who was my favorite Bond. For some reason, my memories of For Your Eyes Only (1981) were foggy and it was the Moore movie I remembered the least. It was time to revisit it and see if time and perspective might change my opinion of Moore as Bond – at least as far as this movie was concerned.

After the sci-fi silliness of Moonraker (which I actually remember enjoying as a kid but alas it has not aged well), the franchise’s producers decided to dial things back and return to the style of the early Bond movies. The movie starts off on a somber note as Bond (Moore) visits the grave of his wife and is subsequently very nearly killed by a Ernst Blofeld-looking bad guy (John Hollis) via remote controlled helicopter (anticipating a similar sequence in Spectre). By the end of the prologue, the lighter tone has been restored as 007 dispatches the baddie in amusing fashion.

After a British spy boat is sunk in a harrowing sequence, Bond is tasked with recovering the onboard transmitter that can be used to order the country’s fleet of submarines to launch their nuclear missiles. In the wrong hands, it could be deadly. The British government hired a marine biologist (Jack Hedley) to locate the wreck but before he could divulge the coordinates he and his wife (Toby Robins) were brutally murdered right in front of their daughter Melina (Carole Bouquet).

It is a shocking scene as this nice couple is killed in cold blood. The camera zooms in on Melina’s eyes and it is immediately clear how this incident has instantly traumatized this poor woman. Bond is tasked with finding the Cuban hitman who did the deed and find the person who hired him. The sinking of the British boat and the murder of Melina’s parents establishes early on a decidedly darker tone than the previous Bond movie.

Bond tracks down the assassin but before he can question the man he’s killed by Melina who then saves 007 from the killer’s handler’s henchmen. I like that she not only saves Bond’s ass but also drives their getaway car with cool confidence even when being shot at because she’s got nothing left to lose.

Bond visits with Q (Desmond Llewelyn) to use the Identagraph, a “state-of-the-art” computer program that helps him identify the man he saw pay off the assassin. This sequence is laughably dated as is the absolutely horrible guitar/synthesizer-based score for the action sequences, which has to be one of the worst in the entire canon. It is even more jarring when juxtaposed with Bill Conti’s cues for the rest of the movie, which are more classically orchestrated.

Bond soon crosses paths with Aristotle Kristatos (Julian Glover), who initially seems to be an ally but turns out to be the movie’s villain – a smuggler with plans to sell the transmitter to the KGB. And so, the struggle is on for what amounts to basically a glorified keyboard, which I didn’t think about while watching the movie but in retrospect seems a bit silly.

As one would expect, For Your Eyes Only is chock-a-block with exciting action sequences, like a chase through the snowy mountains of Italy as two assassins on motorcycles pursue Bond on skis, which goes on to incorporate a ski jump and bobsledding to very dynamic effect. The choreography, especially on the bobsled portion, is top notch. In another nice nod to popular winter sports, Bond is subsequently attacked by three assassins masquerading as hockey players, giving new meaning to the term “high-sticking,” and in a sly, funny bit he dispatches them with the aid of a Zamboni, sending them into a net – a hat trick of sorts.

In addition, there’s a thrilling underwater sequence that culminates in Bond and Melina tied together and subsequently dragged behind a boat that is quite intense. It sees the duo in tangible danger. Even though we know Bond will ultimately prevail the movie doesn’t make it easy for him. The climactic assault on Kristatos’ hideout atop an abandoned mountaintop monastery not only anticipates but also puts to shame Tom Cruise’s rock-climbing stunt at the beginning of Mission: Impossible II (2000), both in terms of scale and white knuckle intensity. It’s a refreshingly unique locale, which used to be the hallmark of Bond movies.

Carole Bouquet is excellent as the revenge-obsessed Melina who will stop at nothing to avenge her parents’ deaths. It was an interesting bit of casting as the producers opted not to have someone be used merely as eye candy. The actress had some serious cinematic pedigree prior to For Your Eyes Only, appearing Luis Bunuel’s final film, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Bouquet has a nice scene with Moore where Bond tries to convince Melina to back off and her all-business façade breaks for a moment as the emotional impact of her parents’ demise surfaces. The range of emotions that play over Bouquet’s face is impressive. Melina is smart and more than capable of holding her own with Bond. She’s an expert deep-sea diver, aiding Bond in retrieving the transmitter from the wreck of the British spy boat.

The lovely Bouquet has nice chemistry with Moore who is his usual suave, charming self. His Bond is as cool as they come and out of his entire run it’s the one I like the most because it gets the mix just right. Moore cracks well-timed jokes but Bond is also ruthless, like when he dispatches Kristatos’ lethal henchman by pushing his disabled car off a cliff in retribution for killing a loyal contact.

For Your Eyes Only’s requisite eye candy comes in the form of cute as a button Lynn-Holly Johnson as the not-so naïve but annoying as hell ice-skating prodigy. She was actually a very proficient ice skater in real-life and parlayed that into the much-beloved drama Ice Castles (1978). She awkwardly tries to seduce Bond, which he has the decency to fend off politely as there is more than a bit of an age difference. Julian Glover is a bit of a bland Bond villain and there isn’t really a feeling of urgency in stopping his plans as in other movies. His baddie also lacks a distinctive personality and is quite frankly forgettable.

Melina’s revenge mission gives For Your Eyes Only a little more emotional weight than a Bond movie would normally have and a significant supporting character has a very personal stake in the outcome. The filmmakers wisely dial back the humor so that there is a better mix of exciting action sequences with the requisite Bond one-liners (“He had no head for heights.”) and Melina’s serious revenge trip mixed with beautiful women, thrilling chase sequences, exotic locales, tough-as-nails henchmen, and Bond trying to save the world from a rich villain. This movie doesn’t change my opinion of Moore in the pantheon of actors that have played Bond – he’s still my least favorite – but I thought he did an excellent job in For Your Eyes Only and it is by far his strongest outing in the role.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

For years, DC Comics has struggled to successfully adapt its characters into movies. With the exception of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, they have had a spotty track record with ambitious, yet flawed efforts like V for Vendetta (2006) and Watchmen (2009), and outright commercial and critical failures like Jonah Hex (2010) and Green Lantern (2011). Meanwhile, DC’s rivals, Marvel Comics have been enjoying unprecedented success beginning with Iron Man (2008) and haven’t looked back since. In terms of franchises, they designed it so that all their movies exist in the same cinematic universe, which allowed characters from one movie to appear in a supporting role in another. This culminated with The Avengers (2012), which was a massive success.

Naturally, DC wanted to replicate this success and decided that Man of Steel (2013) would be the first installment in what has become known as the DC Extended Universe. Unlike previous Superman movies, it took on a decidedly darker tone to reflect the post-9/11 times in which we live in. While it made some fascinating tweaks to the Superman mythos, it courted controversy with its climactic showdown between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) that some felt was a betrayal of everything the superhero represents.

Man of Steel’s follow-up, the awkward-as-ass title, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), not only addresses the fallout of Superman’s actions but also ambitiously opens up the world by introducing Batman as well as several other superheroes (and villains) in what is seen as a lead-up to a Justice League movie, which will be DC’s version of The Avengers. This all rests on the financial success of Dawn of Justice and so a lot is resting on this movie, which may explain the all or nothing, go-for-broke scope and scale of the world it depicts.

I like that director Zack Snyder uses the movie’s opening credits to masterfully and succinctly sum up Batman’s origins. By now, most people know it and so it was a nice way of depicting it without holding up the narrative of the movie, much like how he did a great job of establishing the world of Watchmen in its opening credits. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) witnesses first-hand the wide-scale destruction of Metropolis as Superman and Zod duke it out. All he can do is watch as a good chunk of his office building is destroyed killing or maiming many of his employees.

More than a year after the climax of Man of Steel and the world is still reeling from the aftershocks of what happened. A United States Senator named June Finch (Holly Hunter) feels that superheroes like Superman need to be regulated lest they unleash more carnage. She temporarily allies herself with Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), a genius billionaire that has found enough Kryptonite to weaponize it so that he can stop Superman.

Meanwhile, Wayne is pursuing a Russian arms dealer in the hopes of finding out the man behind him, which maybe the same person that Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is investigating when she travels to Africa and is nearly killed for her troubles. Meanwhile, Clark Kent is concerned with Batman’s vigilante tactics and keeps tabs on his activities. This all builds to an epic confrontation between Batman and Superman that draws inspiration from the classic showdown between the two in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns complete with the former donning an armored suit to give him half a chance against the latter. Their fantastically choreographed battle royale in Dawn of Justice is all that I hoped it would be – epic and visceral. This is merely an appetizer for an even bigger climax as Lex unleashes a destructive force so powerful that it takes Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to stop it in a glorious CGI-intensive slugfest that is on par with anything seen in both DC and Marvel movies.

Ben Affleck is well-cast as an older, more world-weary Bruce Wayne, obsessed with stopping Superman to the point of being tormented by nightmares of being unmasked and killed by him. For Wayne, it is deeply personal as the battle of Metropolis opens his eyes to a much bigger threat than the two-bit crooks he’s been combating for 20 years. He is afraid of Superman’s power and what will happen if it continues to go unchecked. Anybody can be in the Batman suit but it takes something else to play Wayne that few actors have done it well. Affleck does an excellent job of conveying Wayne’s obsessive drive that is crucial to the character – better than anybody since Michael Keaton in Tim Burton’s two Batman movies. He brings the right amount of gravitas required for the role, playing him as a tortured individual without overdoing it. The actor understands the anger that fuels Batman’s need to punish criminals and shows how this blinds him towards the bigger picture.

Henry Cavill continues his solid work as Superman, which tends to get lost in the larger than life portrayals of Batman and Lex Luthor. As the movie progresses, Clark beings to question why he should continue to help humanity when some don’t want it or want to regulate him. The actor continues to have nice chemistry with Amy Adams who returns as Lois Lane but this feels less like a second Superman movie than an exercise in cinematic world building as Snyder inserts visual references to future Justice Leaguers and, as a result, Superman feels marginalized to a certain degree. Maybe the numerous dream sequences (that visually echo Snyder’s Sucker Punch) could have been removed or limited in favor of more screen-time for Clark? Wonder Woman is peppered throughout a decent portion of the movie. Her enigmatic presence and Gal Gadot’s tantalizingly brief performance has me looking forward to her upcoming standalone movie.

I was pleasantly surprised by Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Lex Luthor. The trailers suggested a comedic manic performance that would be grating but instead he delivers a jittery, off-kilter performance, presenting a psychotic genius. Superficially, the actor channels his take on Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network (2010) and does provide much welcome levity in this ultra-serious movie. He also brings a wonderfully unpredictable energy to every scene he’s in. For example, there’s a scene where Lex delivers a speech in front of many people and as it goes on he begins to trip over his own words as if his mind is racing faster than his mouth can utter the words and he eventually gives up. For all of his nervy, jovial nature, there is an ominous contempt Lex has for most people because he thinks he’s smarter and better than everyone else.

If you liked Man of Steel than welcome to more of the same but that being said, Snyder has toned down his energetic style by largely foregoing his speed-up/slow down action sequences in favor of a more kinetic approach that works much better, especially late in the movie when Batman cuts loose on a room full of henchmen that includes a snazzy visual homage to The Dark Knight Returns, which should please fans. Even though it repeats the CGI-intensive large-scale destruction of Man of Steel’s climax, whereas that felt excessive, in an odd way it feels earned in Dawn of Justice. It is also nice to see that the filmmakers make a point of having all this carnage take place in areas devoid of innocent life. At times, the movie feels a bit overstuffed and could have used some judicious trimming here and there, but it’s a minor quibble because there is plenty I liked about it.

Ultimately, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a refreshingly provocative movie that has had a polarizing effect on viewers with some upset at how much liberties Snyder and co. have taken with the Batman and Superman mythologies and others having no problem with the radical changes that have been made. I’m of two minds about this movie. On one hand, I am of the generation that feels protective of what came before and how the past mythology should be honored, and on the other hand, I admire how the filmmakers pushed the envelope with the representation of these two iconic characters to the point that their origins are faithful to the source material on only a basic level, used as a springboard to go off in different directions than what came before. Some would argue that as a result, the filmmakers don’t understand these characters, but on the contrary, I think that Dawn of Justice dares to stray that far from the comic books, utilizing their basic elements as a foundation to then go and reinvent Batman and Superman for a new generation in a way that pushes buttons, stirs things up. This is something that Marvel has yet to do (if they are even interested in doing so) and makes these new DC movies distinctive from their rivals. Love or hate Dawn of Justice, people are talking about it and arguing passionately about its merits or lack thereof. When can you say a big budget comic book movie provoked that kind of reaction?