"...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, July 16, 2021

Air America


There are so many ways a film can go wrong. They can be bungled upon their release, either by poor timing or by a misguided marketing campaign. They can be ruined in post-production by the studio taking it away from the filmmaker and hacking it to pieces. They can be undone during principal photography via circumstances beyond the filmmaker’s control or because they have too much control. Some films can be unmade before they’re even made. This is what happened to Air America (1990). What started as a hard-hitting look at the secretly CIA-run airline that brought in weapons and supplies to anti-communist forces in Indochina during the Vietnam War and was to star Sean Connery and Kevin Costner and directed by Richard Rush, eventually became a feel-good buddy comedy starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr. that was more Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) than Platoon (1986), only wackier. Where did it all go wrong?

Like with Good Morning, Vietnam, Air America starts off presenting a misfit group of servicemen, this time pilots, flying secret missions in Laos, often aiding and abetting local General Vang Pao (Burt Kwouk) and his lucrative opium drug trade. Billy Covington (Downey) is the audience surrogate, a maverick civilian pilot who's having trouble holding down a regular gig stateside and is convinced by a recruiter that Air America is his only option left.
The opening sequence of the movie sets the serio-comic tone and demonstrates the wildly mismatched sides at war with each other as we see a large cargo plane get shot down by a peasant with a rifle from extremely long range. It’s an absurd image that is soon offset by a shot of the plane wreckage and the dead pilot lying on the tarmac. The movie then swings back to comedy when CIA agent Rob Diehl (David Marshall Grant) asks veteran pilot Gene Ryack (Gibson) if the man is dead to which he deadpans, “Well, Rob, if he’s not dead, he’s very, very calm.” It is this painfully unfunny dialogue so early on that does not bode well for the rest of the movie.

Fortunately, the movie improves considerably when Billy arrives in country and is introduced to his fellow pilots. He quickly finds out that, as he puts it, "I was always the weirdest guy in the room. Here I'm not in the running." We meet the most interesting part of Air America: the wonderful supporting cast, populated by genre vets like Art LaFleur (The Blob), Ned Eisenberg (The Burning), David Bowe (U.H.F.), and the great Tim Thomerson (Trancers) who all look like they're having a blast playing oddball pilots and all-around degenerates. It is LaFleur that steps up and sells “crazy” dialogue such as, “I’m coming from the dark side of the moon and I’m going back there, too, soon,” because of the way he carries himself in the scene that convincingly puts Billy on edge. It’s a shame that it doesn’t go on longer so that we can meet the rest of these burn-outs.


Instead, the first half of the movie is all set-up, establishing these rag-tag pilots and their eccentric way of doing things, their flying missions (which seems to involve a lot of crashing), and how Major Donald Lemond (Scrubs' Ken Jenkins) and his second-in-command Rob are in cahoots with General Pang while a cavalcade of 1960s hits (except for an atrocious cover of The Doors' "Love Me Two Times" by Aerosmith) plays endlessly on the soundtrack.

Air America is at its best when we see these guys carousing and cutting loose, which sadly, isn't often. We must make due with little bits of business like seeing Babo (Thomerson) as the third wheel on Billy’s orientation flight, or a scene that shows their off-hours antics, drinking and playing mini-golf. Once again, LaFleur takes center stage as Jack gets in Billy’s face and ends up shooting another pilot’s ball in mid-putt. The two almost get into it and we get a glimpse of how cracked these guys are and that they’ve been at this for way too long. Of all the character actors the filmmakers cast as the pilots they must’ve really been impressed with LaFleur and what he was doing daily as he gets most of the screen-time of any of them including a memorable mission Jack flies with Billy where they are shot down during a supply run. There are some decent intense exchanges between the two men as they realize that they’re also transporting a whackload of the General’s opium and must fend for themselves when he arrives to rescue his merchandise and not them. These scenes are so entertaining and fun to watch that it makes you want to see a movie that focuses just on these guys with Billy and Gene as supporting characters instead.

Rob and the Major provide a rare glimpse of the darker movie that could have been when he tells Billy over drinks, “A secret war is the way to go. No reporters, no T.V. You black out the war like a pro football game.” His superior appears and clears things up just in case what he was saying wasn’t obvious enough, that they treat what they do as a business and a war with no difference between them.


It must be said that Downey and Gibson have some nice moments together and it’s not the kooky pilot shtick but a down moment where Gene tells Billy what’s he all about as he tells him, “We’re all a bunch of trouble junkies. We’ve been mainlining danger and adrenaline for so long nothing else gets us off. It’s kind of sick.” He lays all his cards on the table and tells his young friend how things are in a refreshingly honest and direct way that is well-acted by Gibson. This scene also plants the seeds for Gene’s eventual redemption as Billy’s youthful rebel begins to remind him of when he was that age.

For years, Air America was a passion project for filmmaker Richard Rush who was set to make it for Carolco Pictures in 1985 on a $15 million budget based on the book of the same name by Christopher Robbins. His vision had a main character who was a Vietnamese spy that had infiltrated Air America. He had put a lot of work into the screenplay and considered it his finest, even better than the one he wrote for The Stunt Man (1980), which he held in high regard. Rush was interested in casting Sean Connery and the actor came over to the house twice a week for an hour or two reading the script together. They got along quite well and when Rush was fired from the project, Connery immediately quit.

Rush scouted locations in Southeast Asia and began casting for his film. His first choice for Connery’s co-star was Bill Murray but after extended talks he was briefly replaced by Jim Belushi before Kevin Costner showed interest in the project. Rush claims the actor was very interested but he took too long to decide and Good Morning, Vietnam came out and stole their thunder (and the box office). It didn’t help that his asking price had increased and Carolco did not want to pony up the rumored $15 million for both actors. In September 1987, independent film producer Dan Melnick sold his production company to Carolco and took over Air America. It was at this point that the project changed from a gritty expose that Rush has envisioned into a studio blockbuster that Melnick envisioned. He fired Rush and the two leads quickly departed as well. Melnick remembers, “They hadn’t been able to get a good script on it. It couldn’t attract stars. It was just lumbering along.” Rush asked for his script back and Melnick refused, giving the filmmaker back $1 million of his $1.5 million pay-or-play deal. Rush said he felt like the “victim of a hostile takeover.”


Melnick hired screenwriter John Eskow and director Bob Rafelson to take over and they all went to Malaysia and Thailand to scout locations. Malaysia was ruled out, deemed “a repressive society” by Melnick and the team opted for Thailand. When they returned from their trip, a Writer’s Guild strike delayed rewrites on the project. The budget and scope of the movie increased and this necessitated an international movie star. They couldn’t get anyone to commit unless a script was available. Some aspects of Rush’s script survived, such as the dropping of counterfeit money over Laos to destroy the economy and the dropping of oversized condoms as a form of psychological warfare.

To further complicate matters, shooting in Thailand had to take place during the country’s dry season, approximately October through April. Melnick and Rafelson went off to Africa to make Mountains of the Moon (1990) while Eskow returned to work on the script as the strike had ended. Rafelson never came back and he was replaced by Roger Spittiswoode (Under Fire). For the role of Gene, Melnick had originally wanted a veteran actor like Sean Connery or Paul Newman with Mel Gibson eyed to play Billy. Thanks to the success of Lethal Weapon (1987), Gibson was hot at the box office and used his clout to play Gene. A few adjustments to the script were made and Robert Downey, Jr. was cast as Billy.

By several accounts, the production was a challenging one with 15 cameras, three units and 49 separate locations used during the 14 weeks of principal photography in rough conditions on location in Northern Thailand where 200 toilets were installed. At one point, 20 members of the crew were stricken with an unknown flu. The production rented 26 airplanes and helicopters from the Thai military and in one month encountered four serious in-flight emergencies that, in one case, almost resulted in casualties.

The original version was going to be made by Rush and starring Connery and Murray. Can you imagine what that would've been like? Alas, their version was probably too dark and too critical of United States foreign policy to be unleashed on an unsuspecting mainstream moviegoing audience. Once Gibson and Downey, Jr. came on board as the leads, it softened all the edges and you get what was finally released: an easygoing, feature-length sitcom that washes over you.


Almost. The last third of the movie tries to stick to the Good Morning, Vietnam playbook by having Gibson's cynical pilot develop a conscience with the help of Downey and show what the General's drug trade is doing to the local population. Gibson and Downey even get stranded in the dense jungle and must make it back to base just like Robin Williams does in Good Morning, Vietnam! Also, Rob and the Major are antagonists to our heroes much as Bruno Kirby and J.T. Walsh’s characters were in Barry Levinson’s film. You know in a movie like this nothing really bad is going to happen to Gene or Billy and they get to literally fly off into the sunset while a tacked-on epilogue tries to temper things by explaining that the two corrupt U.S. government officials managed to emerge from Laos unscathed, protected from on high to go on being evil S.O.B.s. Air America isn’t an example of a good movie inside of a bad one, trying to get out, but rather a good idea that was tinkered with and a mediocre movie was the end result.


SOURCES

Clarkson, Wensley. Mel Gibson: Man on a Mission. 2015.

Anson, Robert Sam. “Fly the Friendly Skies.” Premiere. September 1990.

Rowlands, Paul. “An Interview with Richard Rush.” Money into Light. November 2017.

Wilson, John M. “The Fine Art of Making the Deal.” Los Angeles Times. May 27, 1990.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Satan's Triangle


People have been fascinated with the enigma that is the Bermuda Triangle for decades. It is a region marked by the Florida coast and the islands of Bermuda and the Bahamas, a “danger zone that seems to swallow ships and planes,” as a vintage episode of the In Search Of… television show from the 1970s aptly described it. It is an area of 60,000 square miles where many planes and ships have mysteriously vanished over the years. Science has tried to explain the phenomenon but compelling anecdotal information endures and continues interest in it.
 
It has been fertile ground for genre movies and T.V., from Airport ’77 (1977) to The Triangle (2005) mini-series. One of the more interesting and unsettling efforts is Satan’s Triangle, a 1975 made-for-T.V. movie starring Kim Novak and Doug McClure and produced by famed entertainer Danny Thomas’ production company. Originally nothing more than a movie-of-the-week, Satan’s Triangle has developed a small cult following over the years of people who have fond memories of seeing it in the ‘70s.
 
The United States Coast Guard receives a distress call from a schooner caught in a terrible storm at sea right in the center of the Bermuda Triangle. Lt. Haig (McClure) and Lt. Comdr. Pagnolini (Michael Conrad) investigate in a rescue helicopter. The two men briefly discuss the Bermuda Triangle with the former being a skeptic and the latter believing that the Devil plays a role. They come across the ship and find a man hanging upside down from the main mast and another man slumped on the forward hatch. The sails are shredded and it looks abandoned.


They try to radio the base but all they get is static. Haig decides to go down to the vessel and investigate. Once aboard, he confirms both men are dead and the one hanging ominously from the mast is priest (Alejandro Rey)! The suspenseful tone is quite effective here as the spooky atmospheric music by Johnny Pate and the wind whistling around the ship set a creepy vibe.
 
Initially, Haig doesn’t find anyone, which only ratchets up the tension including the incredible choppy sea that rocks the boat. When he ventures aft he finds another man, his body hanging in mid-air! He also finds a woman named Eva (Novak) in shock. Haig brings her on deck and they try to get back on the helicopter but the wire on the rescue basket snaps sending them tumbling into the sea. The chopper begins to inexplicably have technical difficulties forcing it to leave. Haig and Eva return to the boat. While waiting for help to return, she recounts the strange happenings on the boat that led to its current state. At this point Satan’s Triangle has sucked us in with this intriguing premise and engaging mystery. How did these men die and only Eva survive?
 
Even in the twilight of her career, Kim Novak casts an alluring presence and her sexy, husky voice warning Haig, “We’re going to die on this boat, you know,” doesn’t sound like the worst thing in the world. After all, who wouldn’t want to be stuck out at sea alone with her? Novak does her best to convey the dread of the situation as Eva stares off into space with a haunted look whenever she recounts what happened to all on board before Haig and his partner showed up. In the flashback sequences she gets to have fun playing the bored, spoiled trophy wife who receives massages from one of the crew members while her older, rich husband Hal (Jim Davis) gets to live out his Ernest Hemingway fantasy by trying to land a huge marlin.


His macho fantasy is interrupted by the ominous sight of a priest floating alone at sea on the wing of plane wreckage. The shot of him adrift at sea is a haunting one as he doesn’t look quite right. There is an air of malevolence about him as opposed to say trauma from surviving a plane crash. As soon as he is brought on board all hell breaks loose starting with a violent storm that engulfs the schooner and frightens the crew so badly that they abandon ship, leaving Hal, Eva and the ship’s captain (Ed Lauter) and the first mate (Titos Vandis) with the priest.
 
Alejandro Rey is eerily effective as the priest whose stoicism and dead eyes are an unsettling combination. Ed Lauter plays another no-nonsense authority figure that he excelled at throughout his career, playing the ship’s captain who is at odds with the rich man obsessed with catching an elusive marlin. Doug McClure is just fine as the male lead who provides a skeptical counterpoint to Eva’s traumatized believer. Initially, he comes off as something of a ladies man and has no problem “comforting” her while they wait for help to arrive but the movie’s dramatic plot twist late on turns his world upside down.
 
Naturally, Eva’s account of what happened leans heavily into the supernatural with a crew member suddenly disappearing without a trace and Hal’s inexplicable corpse hanging suspended in air as she wrestles with her faith in God in the presence of the Devil at the heart of the Bermuda Triangle. Haig, the man of reason, goes through her story and explains the unnatural occurrences in such a way that he has us convinced, lulling us into a sense of complacency and setting us up for the movie’s crazy climax that delivers a deliciously chilling twist with only a look.


Satan’s Triangle is a vintage made-for-T.V. movie with cheap yet well-delivered jolts as it mixes a fascination with the supernatural and the jaded cynicism of the decade that lost its idealism in the 1960s. Ultimately, it delivers the requisite scares in surprisingly effective fashion and is anchored by an engaging performance from Novak who showed that she still had it after all those years, delivering a hell of a gut-punch of an ending.
 
You can watch Satan’s Triangle for free on Youtube.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Above the Law


In the Search of the Last Action Heroes (2019) is a documentary that is both a loving tribute to 1980s action cinema and a lament of the decline of R-rated action movies starring the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Remember when Steven Seagal was a lean, mean fighting machine, kicking ass in mainstream Hollywood studio movies? He emerged from seemingly nowhere fully formed, complete with model-starlet wife Kelly Le Brock and a headline-grabbing backstory that involved teaching martial arts in Japan and being recruited by the CIA to participate in top secret missions, all thanks to a boost from legendary power broker cum agent Michael Ovitz who helped engineer his semi-autobiographical Hollywood debut with Above the Law (1988).

Back then Seagal was a breath of fresh air in action cinema. He wasn’t a muscle-bound one-man army like Schwarzenegger and Stallone, but a normal-looking guy that was a master of the martial art Aikido. There was a no-nonsense vibe to his persona that cut against the grain of the wisecracking tough guys that were dominating the box office at the time. All he needed was the right vehicle to showcase his talents and Above the Law was that movie, more than doubling its budget at the box office and launching Seagal’s movie career.
 
Nico Toscani (Seagal) is an ex-CIA agent now Chicago police detective whose past comes back to haunt him when a nasty fellow agent by the name of Kurt Zagon (Henry Silva), who he encountered during his stint in the Vietnam War, helps a Salvadorian drug lord peddle his trade on the streets. Of course, Nico is a bit of a loose cannon, refusing to back down when two FBI agents tell him to leave the drug lord alone. He’s a straight arrow who loves his family, his neighborhood, and city, doing everything in his power to rid it of crime. This involves, at one point, scaring a young cousin straight and helping a local parish priest bring immigrants into the country. It becomes personal, however, when the neighborhood church Nico attends is bombed, wounding countless people including his grandmother and killing the presiding priest.
 

Roughly 13 minutes in we get to see Seagal do his thing as Nico enters a seedy bar looking for his young cousin who has gotten mixed up in drugs. Naturally, all the barflies give him grief and try to start some shit (look for a young Michael Rooker in a cameo), which he quickly finishes in impressive fashion. What catches your eye is not just Seagal’s skills but Andrew Davis’ no-nonsense direction and how he shoots the action, capturing his star in full-body shots so that we see him actually doing these moves with very little editing unlike his more recent fare.
 
Davis handles the action like a pro, mixing it up so we don’t get an endless series of scenes of Seagal beating up guys. We see him using his gun and even hanging onto the roof of a car trying to bust some scumbags. It’s not The French Connection (1971) but it is exciting. There’s also a fantastic foot chase where we see Seagal running and not the usual Hollywood bullshit but him flat-out sprinting in smoothly choreographed tracking shots.

Seagal acquits himself just fine in Above the Law and what he lacks in acting chops he more than makes up for in intensity and confidence in his abilities. It helps that Davis surrounds him with the likes of Pam Grier and a bevy of Chicago character actors such as Ron Dean (The Fugitive), Jack Wallace (Homicide), and Ralph Foody (Home Alone) – most of whom appeared in the director’s previous Chicago-based actioner Code of Silence (1985). They provide local color and help give a real sense of place.

I like the unconventional casting of Grier as Seagal’s long-suffering partner. Instead of going for the stereotypical white guy partner, the filmmakers cast a woman of color and never address it or made a big deal about it. She’s just his partner and a damn good one at that. In a nice touch, the filmmakers make a point of showing Nico and his partner doing the day-to-day grunt work, like pounding the pavement asking locals questions. Unfortunately, a young Sharon Stone doesn’t fare as well, playing the thankless role of Nico’s wife who has very little to do except look adoringly at him when he does something good and frightened when their family is threatened.
 
Above the Law sets up CIA drug traffickers as the bad guys led by the always reliable Henry Silva who bookends the movie as a nasty piece of work that specializes in torture. With his smooth voice and icy intensity, he makes for a chilling villain that enjoys his work a little too much thanks to the actor’s deliciously evil performance. His imposing presence makes Zagon a formidable antagonist for Seagal.
 
When he was a teenager, Steven Seagal moved to Japan in 1968, studied and became an expert in the martial arts known as Aikido, so much so that he was the only Westerner to operate his own dojo there. He claimed that several CIA agents operating in the country became students at his dojo. It has been said that Seagal was subsequently recruited by the agency but in interviews he refused to cite specific missions only saying, “You can say that I lived in Asia for a long time and in Japan I became close to several CIA agents. And you could say that I became an adviser to several CIA agents in the field and, through my friends in the CIA, met many powerful people and did special works and special favors.”

It is telling, however, that at the time of filming director Andrew Davis said, “What we’re really doing here with Steven is making a documentary.” Furthermore, Seagal said, “The whole motivation behind me doing this film was my trying to make up for all the things I’ve seen--and done. I’m tired of seeing us try to destabilize governments, prop up dictators and get involved with drug smugglers and crooks.” We will probably never know if Seagal worked for the CIA but it made for good hype that helped garner interest in the movie.
 
Michael Ovitz, then head of CAA, one of the most powerful talent agencies in Hollywood, was a martial arts aficionado that reportedly studied with Seagal at his West Hollywood based Aikido Ten Shin Dojo. They became friendly and Ovitz felt that Seagal had the raw materials to become a movie star. Then Warner Brothers president Terry Semel remembers Ovitz being Seagal’s biggest fan: “He went far beyond the role of just being Steven’s agent. In fact, with the type of superstar client list Michael has, you wouldn’t normally see him work so closely with a first-time actor.”
 
Ovitz kept insisting to Semel that Seagal had potential to be a movie star. When it came to the studio courting Seagal, he claimed that they felt Clint Eastwood was aging out of the action genre and told the martial artist, “We’d like to see you take his place. We think you can be the next Eastwood.” They gave him a several scripts, told him to pick one and they’d make it. Not surprisingly, Semel’s account differs: “I don’t think it was a matter of anyone replacing Clint. He’s gone far beyond being just an action star.”

Before Warner Brothers greenlit the movie, they wanted to see a demonstration of Seagal’s martial arts prowess. Needless to say, he didn’t disappoint, putting on quite a show with his assistants: “The demonstration was quite miraculous. With just a toss of his hand, Steven would send the other guy flying. I’m no martial-arts expert, but he had the ability to knock these guys up in the air so effortlessly--well, it was pretty astounding,” said Semel. It was enough for the studio to bankroll a $50,000 screen test with Davis shooting several scenes from the screenplay.
 
The nine-week shoot was not without incident. Seagal broke his nose in a scene where Henry Silva accidentally punched him. Seagal went to the hospital, was treated and came back to work. Afterwards, he didn’t blame Silva: “My biggest nightmare is having someone like Henry--whose eyes are bad and isn’t trained in stunts--to be swinging at me. I should have my own people in here, doing the stunts.” In addition, Seagal was not used to the slow pace of the filmmaking process with technical delays and having to compromise in action sequences: “Sometimes I’ll tell Andy (Davis) that a scene isn’t going to work. And sure enough, when we see the dailies, it doesn’t look right. I just feel that I’m being shortchanged, that I’m not getting to show enough great martial-arts action.” The filmmakers were also under the gun to finish before a threatened Director’s Guild strike, which only added to the pressure.
 
Not surprisingly, Above the Law received mostly negative reviews with the exception of Roger Ebert who gave it three out of four stars and said of Seagal, "He does have a strong and particular screen presence. It is obvious he is doing a lot of his own stunts, and some of the fight sequences are impressive and apparently unfaked. He isn’t just a hunk, either." In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote that the movie, "may well rank among the top three or four goofiest bad movies of 1988. The film...is the year's first left-wing right-wing-movie. It's an action melodrama that expresses the sentiments of the lunatic fringe at the political center." The Washington Post's Hal Hinson wrote, "Above the Law, which offers Steven Seagal to the world as a new urban action hero, is woefully short on originality, intelligibility and anything resembling taste. But none of this comes as a surprise. What is surprising is how little invention or energy there is in the movie's action sequences."

In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Wilmington wrote, "Starting in the semi-realistic framework of the ‘70s cop movies, it veers off into ‘80s action movie cloud-cuckoo land: the paranoid one-against-a-hundred clichés of the average Schwarzenegger-Stallone heavy-pectoral snow job." Finally, the Chicago Tribune's Dave Kehr wrote, "The action sequences are sleek and strong enough, but the story that chains them together is too ambitious for its own good. Upstanding liberals both, Davis and Seagal seem distinctly uncomfortable working in a genre as inherently right-wing as the cop thriller, and they`ve tried to salve their consciences by introducing some heavily 'progressive' elements."
 
The commercial success of Above the Law launched Seagal into the action movie star pantheon, kicking off a fantastic run of movies in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. He was paired with solid directors like Davis and John Flynn (Out for Justice), worked with wonderful character actors like Chelcie Ross (Major League) and William Forsythe (Raising Arizona), and worked with decent budgets. Seagal, however, began to believe his own hype and his ego took over. He began making odd choices in movies, exerting too much control, like starring, producing and directing On Deadly Ground (1994), and the quality suffered. Hollywood stopped bankrolling his movies and he became a cautionary tale, a pop culture punchline and downright toxic when allegations of his sordid personal life eclipsed his professional one.
 
Above the Law has a coherent, well-written story wedged between action sequences that deals with political assassinations, international drug cartels and drug money-funded wars – ambitious stuff for an action movie. It’s good to see that the filmmakers cared about such things instead of it being an afterthought to be stitched on. Davis doesn’t try to re-invent the cop movie genre and he doesn’t need to – instead, he expertly fulfills many of its conventions and in entertaining fashion. The movie acts as a showcase for a talented action star and is a fantastic snapshot of an emerging movie star with a promising career ahead of him.
 


SOURCES

Goldstein, Patrick. “Steven Seagal Gets a Shot at Stardom.” Los Angeles Times. February 14, 1988 

Friday, April 16, 2021

THE PUBLIC EYE


In 1992 alone,
My Cousin Vinny, Lethal Weapon 3, and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, featuring Joe Pesci in some capacity, were all released. Needless to say, it was a very good year for the actor. One film that was sadly overlooked during this blitzkrieg of Pesci cinema was The Public Eye, a modesty-budgeted homage to classic film noir that also acted as a tribute to famed New York Daily News photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig who worked in Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the 1930s and 1940s capturing the honest and sometimes tragic elements of life on the streets.
 
This is established over the opening credits with a montage of photographs, some of them Fellig’s, capturing people from all walks of life – in agony, bored, under arrest, and so on. We meet Leon “Bernzy” Bernstein (Pesci) taking photos at the scene of a crime before the police even show up and, more importantly, before his competition arrives. He will go to any lengths to get a shot – even if it means impersonating a priest to get a shot of a dead man with a meat cleaver stuck in his head. Bernzy even has a mobile dark room in the trunk of his car where he can develop his photos quickly.
 
He’s dedicated, always out there, wandering the streets in his car, listening to the police band radio, looking for the next photo opportunity. We see a few shots from his point-of-view and they are in black-and-white, suggesting that everyone is a potential photo for the man. He’s not married and doesn’t have time for anybody else as he is devoted to his work. That’s what makes him the best. It is an empty existence in a way as he is too busy capturing other people’s lives to have one of his own.

Bernzy hopes one day to have a book of his photos published and even has a meeting with an esteemed publisher (played with snooty relish by Del Close) who tells him, “This is, instead, a most admirable picture book about New York,” dismissing them as “too sensational” and “too vulgar,” which is kind of the point – they capture the beauty and the ugliness of life.
 
Like many film noirs, Bernzy is summoned to the lofty heights of high society by a beautiful woman – Kay Levitz (Barbara Hershey) who asks him for a favor. She wants him to check out a man claiming to be her recently deceased husband’s partner and now co-partner of his nightclub that she inherited. He agrees, of course, partly because it allows him a foot in rarefied atmosphere and he is attracted to Kay, a rich, beautiful woman who wouldn’t normally give him the time of day. He tracks down the mysterious man only to find him dead.
 
Naturally, doing a favor for Kay forces Bernzy to break his code of neutrality, complicating his life as he takes sides for the first time, not just with cops, but the FBI who lean on him hard, painting him as a Communist sympathizer, and crooks, entangling him in beef between rival mobsters Frank Farinelli (Richard Foronjy) and Spoleto (Dominic Chianese).

Around the time he made The Public Eye, Joe Pesci was delivering broad performances in movies like Lethal Weapon 3 and Home Alone 2. The Public Eye saw him dial it back and deliver a more nuanced performance as evident in a scene where Bernzy comforts Kay about not being forthcoming about the dead man’s ties to the mob. He’s understandably upset but when she’s apologetic and explains that she picked him because her husband believed in his book of photos, Bernzy softens and Pesci shows a vulnerable side to his character.
 
Pesci also does an excellent job of showing how Bernzy channels his inner pain, his loneliness into his art, like when Kay snubs him in her club for some high society type and when she realizes what she’s done chases after him only to find the shutterbug outside in the rain taking a photo of some rich slob passed out in an alley.
 
Barbara Hershey is an atypical femme fatale. Initially, it seems like she is simply using Bernzy to further her own goals – wrest control of her late husband’s nightclub from mobsters – but then we see her defend Bernzy when she’s alone with her cynical doorman (played to jaded perfection by Jared Harris) and it appears that she really does have affection for him. She is in cahoots, however, with Spoleto, a mob boss who controls the west side of Manhattan. Hershey has an expressive face and she gives Bernzy a look that we see but he doesn’t that suggests Kay is falling in love with him. She actually looks at his book of photos in a wonderful moment and not just a quick flip through but studies them, lingers over each one and is visibly moved.

The film is populated with a bevy of wonderful character actors that make an immediate impact with the limited screen time they are given. Richard Foronjy (Midnight Run) and Dominic Chianese (The Sopranos) play the rival mob bosses that force Bernzy to take sides. Jerry Adler (Manhattan Murder Mystery) plays a columnist turned playwright who is also Bernzy’s closest confidante. Stanley Tucci, however, makes the greatest impact as Sal, a pivotal figure in the mob war. Initially, his relationship with Bernzy is an antagonistic one but then he tells the shutterbug about the beef between the two warring mob families in a powerful scene that Tucci delivers so well.
 
Howard Franklin, who has unfortunately directed far too few films, does a great job immersing us in 1940s New York City, getting the period details just right, from the yellow cabs to the vintage watch Bernzy wears to the Art Deco nightclub Kay owns, but without overwhelming us with it. With the help of David Cronenberg’s long-time cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, he pays tribute to classic film noirs but doesn’t lay it on too thick, doing just enough to capture the vibe of that era. The two men shot the film in very high contrast: “we wanted a crisp look with an edge” that tried to capture Fellig’s photos and avoid a “nostalgic feeling,” Franklin said in an interview.
 
Franklin first became interested in photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig when he saw an exhibit of tabloid photographs in 1982 at the International Center for Photography in New York City. Fellig was born in Poland in 1899, the son of Jewish refugees that emigrated to the United States in 1909, settling in New York’s Lower East Side. Growing up, he held every lousy job imaginable before discovering photography in his twenties when he started working as a freelance news photographer. He got a jump on the competition by obtaining his own police radio, which allowed him to be the first on a crime scene. According to Franklin, “When I saw Weegee’s photographs at the ICP, I was really fascinated and immediately began thinking about his images in terms of a movie.”

He wrote a screenplay in 1982 about an artist that was autobiographical in nature and as he got older and worked on it more, “it evolved into a story about the sacrifices you have to make if you’re serious about your work.” He tried to sell the script but there was no interest. Several directors and actors tried to option it with no success and he finally decided to make it himself. Franklin knew he wanted Joe Pesci to play Bernzy as the character’s “style of photography is similar to Joe’s style of acting in that both are very naked – there’s nothing between the viewer and the image.”
 
Pesci knew nothing about Fellig before agreeing to do the film. He read all the books he could find about the man and learned how to use the vintage Speed Graphic camera that was the hallmark of 1940s news photographers. The actor also studied Fellig’s books of photos and “figured what he would be thinking when he took the pictures; how he felt. I tried to make myself feel like him and look like him and take pictures and learn how to do everything.”
Franklin wanted to shoot on location in New York but the film’s $15 million budget and the union situation there made it impossible. The 13-week shoot begin in Cincinnati’s “Over-the-Rhine” district which resembled ‘40s New York. The production then moved to Chicago for a few weeks before landing in Los Angeles to complete filming where they shot on a soundstage at Santa Clarita Studios.
 
The Public Eye received decidedly mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, "Writer-director Howard Franklin is subtle and touching in the way he modulates the key passages between Pesci and Hershey. There is a lot that goes unsaid between them." In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "The Public Eye never quite takes off, either as romantic melodrama or as a consideration of one very eccentric man's means of self-expression. The facts are there, but they never add up to much. The psychology is rudimentary." The Washington Post's Desson Howe wrote, "Despite the usual quippy, perky performance from Pesci, as well as cinematographer Peter Suschitzky's moodily delineated images, the movie is superficial and unengaging. It's as if Life magazine decided to make an oldtime gangster movie."

In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Peter Rainer wrote, "And since the film’s production design is so arranged and studio-ish, with carefully placed shadows and spotlights, we seem to be wrenched into an anti-world every time we shift from Weegee’s caught-in-the-moment dramas to this movie’s studied blandness." Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman gave the film a "C-" rating and wrote, "Attempting to breathe life into this hopelessly naive vision of a sad-sack artist-saint, Pesci is forced to rein in just about everything that makes him likable: his manic energy, the leering delight he takes in his own shamelessness." Finally, in his review for Newsweek, David Ansen wrote, "Using all this artifice to illuminate the gritty world of a lonely shutterbug is an odd choice. Yet the tale's mournful B-movie romanticism-and Pesci's introspective, crablike performance-gets under your skin. In its moody, daffy way, The Public Eye gives off an authentic reek of artistic compulsion."

The Public Eye develops a fascinating character arc for Bernzy. For most of his career he chose not to take sides as it was good for business but finally he is faced with a dilemma that affects not only himself but people he cares about and this motivates him to take a side. He is tired of simply being an observer and is ready to get his hands dirty.
 
Having Robert Zemeckis as an executive producer I’m sure helped greatly in getting this film made but I wonder if Pesci used some of the juice from his Academy Award-winning turn in Goodfellas (1990) and his box office clout from Lethal Weapon 2 (1989) and Home Alone (1990) to help push this through the system. If so, I’m glad he did as this is the kind of off-kilter, personal passion project that is so excellently done.
 

SOURCES
 
Ebert, Roger. “Joe Pesci Moves Up from the Ranks of Supporting Players in Public Eye.” Rogerebert.com. October 11, 1992.
 
McKenna, Kristine. “Weegee’s Tabloid World: The very busy Joe Pesci finds a role he can’t refuse.” Los Angeles Times. December 8, 1991.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Zack Snyder's Justice League


When Zack Snyder was hired to launch the DC Extended Universe with Man of Steel (2013), his mandate was clear: to create a fully-realized world that would eventually be populated by a roster of superheroes starting with their most famous, Superman (Henry Cavill). The filmmaker would provide the stylistic template for other directors to follow and with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), he introduced Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) (along with brief cameos by the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg) into the DCEU and one could sense he was building to something even bigger, not just a larger threat for our heroes to face but a bigger response.

Justice League (2017) would see Batman recruit the Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Wonder Woman to stop an alien threat of unimaginable danger. Anticipation was high for the movie and then towards the end of production Snyder was confronted with terrible tragedy that forced him off the project. Without missing a beat, the studio brought in Joss Whedon to do significant work and complete it in time for its intended release date. This version pleased few and was savaged by critics, underperforming at the box office.

That should have been it. Rumors, however, persisted among Snyder’s dedicated fanbase that a cut of his version existed and support for it began to gradually gather traction over time until the studio finally took notice. They were launching a new streaming app and not only needed content but a big and splashy title that would garner a lot attention and, more importantly, subscribers. Negotiations began with Snyder and he was given enough time and money to complete his version of Justice League (2021), a massive, four-hour epic that concludes his DCEU trilogy.

 


The movie begins with an ending: Superman’s death that we saw at the climax of Batman v Superman only now seeing how the literal aftershocks of his demise are felt all over the world by other mighty beings such as himself. Fearing that Doomsday, the villain of that movie, was only the beginning, Bruce Wayne seeks out other powerful titans with little success, initially. People like Aquaman are content to protect their own pockets of the world until, that is, a portal appears in Themyscira, and hordes of aliens led by Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) appear seeking the Mother Box, an “indestructible living machine,” as Wonder Woman later puts it, that when united with two others, can manipulate great power.

This is only the tip of the iceberg for if Steppenwolf can unite the Mother Boxes and summon his master, Darkseid (Ray Porter), this will unleash a destructive power that universe has never seen. Only when it becomes personal do the heroes feel compelled to band together and stop this overwhelming threat.

After the Frankenstein-like pastiche that was Justice League, this new version feels and looks much more consistent with Snyder’s other DCEU movies, in particular, Batman v Superman. Given the creative freedom he was reportedly given, he really cuts loose as evident in the sequence were Wonder Woman recounts a story about how Darkseid and his minions arrived on Earth thousands of years ago to conquer it only to be repelled by an alliance of Gods, Amazons, Atlanteans, humans, and a Green Lantern. This allows Snyder to do what he does best – show powerful beings smiting each other in slow motion only on a much grander scale than he has ever done before. Imagine the epic battle scenes from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films with Snyder’s own 300 (2007). This battle is Zack Snyder at his most Zack Snyder-ist with almighty gods having it out with ancient aliens on a massive scale all to the strains of a vaguely operatic score.

 


Snyder certainly has a knack for staging action set pieces and where his trademark slow motion/speed up technique is used most effectively is the introduction of Barry Allen a.k.a. the Flash when he applies for a job only to save a woman from a deadly car accident that he locked eyes with moments before all to the strains “Songs of the Siren” (hauntingly covered by Rose Betts) that is hypnotically and as visually arresting a sequence as anything in the filmmaker’s canon.

Of course, having this kind of creative freedom allows Snyder to indulge in his some of his more indulgent tendencies that feel a tad out of place in a movie like this, such as moments of ultraviolence when Wonder Woman takes out a group of terrorists in a museum in London, England. She doesn’t just dispatch the baddies, Snyder makes sure we hear them slam hard against walls with a sickening thud and accompanying blood splatters. Wonder Woman straight up murders these guys, literally exploding the ringleader at the end and then, without missing a beat, turning around to a little girl and giving her some aspirational pearl of wisdom. It’s not like she hasn’t killed people before in other movies but it is the way they are depicted in Justice League, which is so disturbing.

Like a lot of contemporary CGI villains, both Steppenwolf and Darkseid lack personality and whose motives are the same old tired clichés we’ve seen a million times before. Marvel broke the mold with Thanos in the Avengers movies, coming the closest to almost making us forget he was a completely digital creation. The baddies in Justice League look exactly like they are and, as a result, we don’t really feel that tangible threat or sense of danger as we know these are purely digital beings. That being said, they aren’t really that important to the story beyond being a catalyst to get the heroes together.

 


The most significant change from the theatrical version is how Snyder’s version acts as a backdoor origin story for Cyborg, placing him and his relationship with his father (Joe Morton) at the movie’s emotional core. In Whedon’s version, his character was relegated to almost an afterthought. In fact, he plays a pivotal role in the movie’s climactic moment.

Snyder is an impressive visual stylist and before Justice League his movies often felt hampered by miscasting in pivotal roles and uneven screenplays with clunky dialogue that sometimes failed to understand their source material. This obscured his distinctive directorial vision. The script for Justice League, written by Chris Terrio, is the first one since James Gunn’s work on the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, that matches Snyder’s visual prowess. With Justice League, he wanted to make something grandiose and mythic – after all he’s dealing with both ancient gods and contemporary beings with god-like powers – and with the help of Terrio’s script he successfully achieved that goal.

DC didn’t want to copy the look of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and hiring Snyder made sense as he brought an epic, operatic feel to his entries in the DCEU. His movies are decidedly darker in tone and look, which divided comic book fans, especially those of Superman who felt that Snyder went too far in reinventing the character. Where the superheroes of the MCU are relatable to one degree or another, Snyder’s superheroes are god-like Übermensches wrestling with living among mortals and having to assume alter egos so that they aren’t persecuted by a public at large that either doesn’t understand or fears them.

 


The central thesis of Snyder’s DC movies has focused on the power that superheroes like Superman wield: how they choose to use it as opposed to how they use it to help the greatest number of people. In Justice League, Batman makes the decision to activate the remaining Mother Box, attempting to resurrect Superman thereby putting the entire planet at risk as it will bring Steppenwolf and his army to them. Fortunately, the gamble pays off but this strategy contains more than a whiff of Objectivism, Ayn Rand’s philosophical system where the most significant moral purpose of human life is to pursue happiness over everything else, even if it means disregarding the needs of others. Batman takes it upon himself to assume that he knows what is best for everyone and executes that plan consequences be damned.

If Batman v Superman posed the question, should these super-powered being be held accountable for their actions then Justice League was a resounding no. They are going to do whatever they think is right whether that aligns with the greater good or not. It certainly provides a fascinating spin on the superhero mythos and is one of the many things that makes Snyder’s DC movies stand out from others in the genre. If Justice League is to be his swan song for the studio and for the genre he certainly has done so in spectacular fashion.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Welcome Home, Soldier Boys


In the wake of the Vietnam War, many films were made that examined what happened to American soldiers returning home, from classy prestigious studio films such as
The Deer Hunter (1978) to B-movie action fare such as Rolling Thunder (1977). Some explored how soldiers tried to re-acclimate to “normal” life back home while others depicted how their friends and family reacted to their return. A common theme among these films is how the veteran’s war experiences affected them, be it emotionally, psychologically or physically. These films were an attempt for America to come to grips with a highly publicized war that they lost.

Welcome Home, Soldier Boys (1972), directed by Richard Compton and written by Guerdon Trueblood, is a small B-movie that one can imagine playing in some small, rural town on the bottom half of a double bill. It hardly did any business and was barely reviewed, quietly drifting into cinematic obscurity but remains a fascinating oddity nonetheless.

Four soldiers freshly discharged from the United States Army try to re-assimilate into civilian life after a tour in Vietnam with designs to go to California where one of them claims to have inherited a chunk of family-owned land that they can make their own. They’re a tight-knit group as evident in the short-hand between them and the way they banter back and forth.


The four men try to buy a car and are taken advantage of by a salesman. They proceed to “check out” the vehicle and strip it down, knocking down the price from $6200 to $5500. This scene is crucial in that it not only establishes that these guys aren’t pushovers but are also savvy enough to deal with someone in a creative fashion when they feel that they’re being exploited.

The film is a road movie that takes a decidedly dark turn early on when the men pick-up a stranded woman (Jennifer Billingsley) whose car broke down on the side of the road. The proceed to take turns having sex with her but when she demands $500 to get a car and drive home instead of $100 bus fare, things turn ugly and she is thrown out of the car while it was going 65 mph. They don’t stop to see if she’s okay or dead and this scene is an early indicator of what these men are capable of and where the film is going.

Apart from Danny (Joe Don Baker), we are given very little backstory to these men. What we know about them is strictly from their actions in the present. Danny returns home to see his folks and realizes that his experiences in the war has changed him, his parents have stayed the same, assuming he’ll pick up where he left off before he went overseas. They don’t understand he and his friends want to make a go of it in California. A somber mood hangs over this entire sequence and the whole experience leaves Danny and his friends crestfallen, proving the old saying, you can’t go home again.


When their car breaks down somewhere in Texas, they are towed into town and are met with all kinds of flak from the locals. They are overcharged by a mechanic, mocked by Korean War vets for not finishing the job in ‘Nam, and thrown in jail for the night by the Sheriff (Billy “Green” Bush). These incidents only deepen their feelings of alienation and resentment towards civilians.

Low on gas and money, they finally roll into New Mexico and try to get gas in a small town but it is too early. They end up stealing what they need and for them this is the last straw. When they are meant with resistance from the locals, the four men unleash an orgy of violence that would make Sam Peckinpah proud. The ensuing bloodbath is shocking in its ruthless efficiency.

Welcome Home, Soldier Boys ends on a nihilistic note that pays homage to the ending of The Wild Bunch (1969) but while Peckinpah mythologized and had great affection for his characters, this film doesn’t sentimentalize its protagonists. It doesn’t make any excuses for the behavior of these men, presenting the things they do in matter-of-fact fashion. The filmmakers show these men for who they are and lets us judge them. Unlike Rolling Thunder or First Blood (1982), this film isn’t a rousing revenge tale as the protagonists strike back at those that misunderstand and try to keep them down. This is a massacre, plain and simple.


This deviates from the common coming home from war narrative that asks us to sympathize with the vets that return damaged in one way or another. Not so much with these characters who are unrepentant in who they are, escalating slights against them that doesn’t make them victims but aggressors in a way that is unsettling. Is the ending meant to evoke the infamous bloody 1968 Mỹ Lai massacre? Is it suggesting that these guys killed women and children in ‘Nam and are carrying on where they left off? Who is this film made for? It doesn’t quite get down ‘n’ dirty enough for the exploitation crowd and isn’t palatable for mainstream audiences, which may explain why it slipped through the cracks over the years.

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