"...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

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Gotham


Made during her bombshell period, Virginia Madsen is perfectly cast as an elusive femme fatale in Gotham (1988), a made-for-television movie for the Showtime Channel and that was part of a run of sexy roles in the late 1980s that also included Slam Dance (1987), and into 1990s with The Hot Spot (1990) and forgettable erotic thrillers such as Caroline at Midnight (1994) and Blue Tiger (1994). Fortunately, this one stars Tommy Lee Jones and whose angle is a neo-noir fused with a ghost story.

“You ever find yourself walking down a dark street, you think you hear footsteps coming up slowly, somebody just out of sight?” This question kickstarts the story as Charles Rand (Colin Bruce) asks down-on-his-luck private investigator Eddie Mallard (Jones) to find his wife Rachel (Madsen) and tell her to leave him alone. The only problem: she’s been dead for over ten years. Rand offers Mallard a lot of money to take the case, which he accepts even though, as he confesses to his friend Tim (Kevin Jarre) later on, he fears that he’s feeding into this man’s delusions.

Eddie humors his client and his odd ramblings about his wife (“She lusts for daylight. She wants power in the daylight.”). The man is truly haunted by her death and apparent resurrection and this intrigues Eddie – that and the hefty paycheck. One day, Charles spots Rachel across the street and asks Eddie to go over and talk to her. With her long white gloves, vintage hat tilted at just the right angle and retro black dress, Rachel looks like she stepped right out of a 1940s film noir. Of course, she denies knowing Charles and humors Eddie by going out for a drink with him where she explains that she is a woman of expensive tastes.

Rachel shows up at Eddie’s office and apologizes for coming on so strong the other day and takes him out for a bite to eat as a way of apologizing. She comes across as a slightly sad, lonely wealthy lady. He’s intrigued by her stunning looks and enigmatic past. Their paths cross again as she wanders out of the smoke on a deserted city street one night. The deeper he goes into the case the more he realizes it’s not as simple as it seems and like most noirs he finds himself drawn into an increasingly complex web with Rachel at its center. Is she really the deceased wife or is this merely the delusions of a crazy man?
 
The movie has odd beats that occasionally disrupt its traditional narrative, such as a scene where Eddie and Rachel are serenaded in an alleyway by a dirty bum with an immaculate acoustic guitar and a beautiful voice. It’s a poignant moment as the camera stays on Madsen’s face as Rachel reacts to “Danny Boy,” her eyes gradually welling up and a tear runs down her face. With the help of his very talented crew that includes the likes of David Cronenberg’s longtime production designer Carol Spier, legendary cinematographer Michael Chapman (Raging Bull) and composer George S. Clinton (Austin Powers), writer/director Lloyd Fonvielle creates a suitable neo-noir mood and atmosphere with a touch of the supernatural, such as a spooky shot of Rachel submerged in murky water, a gloved hand reaching out to Eddie.
 
With her old school looks, Virginia Madsen could have been a Classic Hollywood movie star and is perfectly cast as an elusive femme fatale cum woman out of time. She does an excellent job of coming across as this sweet, alluring presence and then transforms into a vulgar, vengeful creature. The actor is more than believable as a woman that could seduce men into doing her bidding and destroying their lives in the process.

Tommy Lee Jones is well cast as a world-weary gumshoe who thinks he knows all the angles until he takes on this case and becomes entangled in Rachel’s web. Like Rachel, Eddie undergoes his own transformation and Jones does an excellent job of conveying a man who has seen it all to one obsessed with a woman that tears his life apart.
 
The critics of the time weren’t too kind to Gotham. The Washington Post's Tom Shales wrote, "Madsen is a sensuously spooky Rachel. She is also quite naked in two or three scenes, popping up, literally, in the bathtub, and falling out of a refrigerator. Madsen holds Jones and the camera captive. Maybe it doesn't matter that the whole thing is senseless." In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Lynne Heffley wrote, "What viewers fall victim to is a flawed vision. Suspense fizzles into steamy homage to Madsen’s beauty, clad and unclad; New York City locales are unbelievably underpopulated; a street bum sings “Danny Boy"-all of it-and Madsen’s exquisite lips are either framing romance novel banalities or a favorite obscenity." The New York Times’ Walter Goodman described it as “a lugubrious telling of a story that at its best is incomprehensible.”
 
“It may be a dream but it’s one of those dreams you can’t wake up from,” Eddie says at one point and it is the narrow line Gotham treads between what is real and what we perceive as real. And isn’t that all down to perception anyway? One person’s reality could be another’s dream. Since this movie is a neo-noir typically things don’t go well for the protagonist but Fonvielle twists this convention so that his main character is spared while another character is doomed. He does an excellent job of grounding the movie in its own reality so we’re never sure what is real and what is a dream except for little details that he uses as signposts along the way. It’s a tricky balancing acting between the ridiculous and the sublime but then again, isn’t all a matter of perception?


Saturday, April 23, 2022

Licorice Pizza


Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson was born, raised and continues to live in the San Fernando Valley in California. It has and continues to provide a source of inspiration for some of his most personal films, including Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and Licorice Pizza (2021). He even shot parts of his adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel Inherent Vice (2014) in the Valley. Why does PTA return to this place repeatedly? Beyond the convenience of shooting close to home, he is fascinated by the towns and the people that inhabit them as evident most significantly with Licorice Pizza, a nostalgic look back at the area, focusing on the burgeoning romance between two young people in 1973.
 
This is a largely plotless film that follows the misadventures of Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a 15-year-old high school student, and Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a 25-year-old woman. He’s an aspiring actor with several projects already on his resume and she works for a photographer. They meet at his school during class photo day and immediately starts hitting on her. Initially, she’s repulsed by him but gradually he wears down her resistance through sheer force of will and she finds herself intrigued by his tenacity.
 
Gary is bursting with youthful confidence, ready to take on the world and launch his next entrepreneurial scheme, whether it’s selling waterbeds or opening a pinball emporium. Alana already seems resigned to her lot in life when she tells him, “I’m going to be here taking photos of kids for their yearbooks when I’m 30. You’re never going to remember me.” This is such a sad admission for someone so young.

At the end of their initial encounter and after repeatedly insulting Gary, rebuffing his advances, Alana walks away, giving a little smile and a shake of her head that is handled beautifully by Alana Haim. It’s a wonderful, little moment in a film full of them as we see how Garry has gotten to her and she’s smitten. The film examines the push-pull of their courtship. He’s a hopeless romantic and she’s a jaded cynic. She knows that this can’t go anywhere because of their age difference, but is intrigued enough by his impressible attitude that she wants to see how it all plays out.
 
Soon, Alana finds herself caught up in Gary’s infectious optimism and the rest of Licorice Pizza follows these two and their wild misadventures as they navigate the will they or won’t they fall in love journey we’ve seen before albeit through PTA’s unique filter. Much has been made about the age gap between the two lead characters and PTA seems acutely aware of this, deftly handling their romance in a way that is sweet while eschewing anything overtly sexual.
 
After the initial meet-cute between Gary and Alana, the film stumbles and loses its way for a moment with a baffling scene where we see Gary’s mother (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) handle public relations for a local Japanese restaurant owned by an American (John Michael Higgins) and his Asian wife (Yumi Mizui). He speaks normally to Gary’s mom but to his wife in a cartoonish Asian accent that comes off as offensive. This scene is jarring in tone and content compared to the rest of the film. What is the point of it other than showing us what Gary’s mom does for a living? What are we supposed to take away from this scene? People were racist back in the ‘70s? It serves no real purpose and temporarily breaks the enchanting spell of the film. The same could be said about a weird, random moment later when Gary is suddenly and literally yanked from a scene by the police who mistakenly arrest him for murder. No reason is given and it is never addressed again.

Like he did with Punch-Drunk Love, PTA casts unconventional actors for his leads. Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim aren’t your typical handsome Hollywood actors – hell, they aren’t even actors at all, but rather normal-looking people that could’ve come out of the 1970s. For two people whose first time it is acting in a film Hoffman and Haim have wonderful chemistry together and are believable in their respective roles as they aren’t saddled with actorly affectations that can happen to professionally-trained actors at that age.
 
Gary talks a good game but doesn’t really know what he wants to do as evident with all the endeavors he starts but doesn’t stick with – acting, waterbed salesman, pinball emporium manager – but that’s okay, that’s what you’re supposed to do. You are supposed to try all kinds of things and have all kinds of experiences. That’s called growing up. Alana is self-aware and acknowledges how weird it is that she’s hanging out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends. She may not have it all figured but she’s trying and this journey she takes is one of the most fascinating aspects of Licorice Pizza.
 
PTA deftly chronicles the ups and downs of their relationship, from getting to know each other only to back off when faced with obstacles such as jealousy and rivals for their respective affections. They are both young and still figuring out how to communicate with each other and sometimes mixed messages are conveyed such as Alana overcompensating for her attraction to the younger Gary by getting briefly involved with a much older man, Jack Holden (Sean Penn channeling William Holden), an actor in the twilight of his career. This segues into a memorable vignette involving a veteran filmmaker (played by Tom Waits no less) who coaxes Jack into performing a wild stunt. He may be much older than Gary but he’s just as immature as Sean Penn illustrates masterfully with a deliciously eccentric performance.

Another memorable sequence comes when Garry and his friends deliver a waterbed to the house of famous hairdresser turned movie producer Jon Peters (a hilariously arrogant Bradley Cooper) who proceeds to go on about his very famous girlfriend Barbra Streisand and threatens them if they mess up assembling his waterbed. Bradley Cooper’s take on Peters is equal parts comical and frightening – a Hollywood mogul high on his own supply and with a raging ego to match it.

Hoffman does an excellent job conveying the awkwardness of being a teenager because he is one. He also exudes the arrogant confidence of youth. Gary hasn’t been beaten down by life yet and has no fear of failure. Haim’s performance epitomizes that weird zone of being in your mid-twenties where she’s out of school but hasn’t settled on a profession. Alana is no longer a child but doesn’t quite feel like an adult either. Her relationship with him only complicates things.
 
Licorice Pizza
perfectly captures what it means to be young with your whole life in front of you and not knowing what you want to do with it as evident in the montage of Gary’s burgeoning waterbed business set to “Peace Frog” by the Doors where we see his growing attraction towards Alana and vice versa. PTA remembers the age when you thought 30-years-old and over was ancient and a lifetime away. He also captures the awkwardness of youth, saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment, succumbing to petty jealousy and feeling insecure about yourself. Licorice Pizza is PTA’s most unabashed romantic film since Punch-Drunk Love and a love letter to the place he’s lived his entire life. Much like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), PTA has crafted an affectionate hang-out movie bathed in the warm, comforting glow of nostalgia for the ‘70s.


Saturday, March 19, 2022

Tequila Sunrise


Robert Towne needed a box office hit. By 1987, the legendary Hollywood screenwriter, who rose to fame in the 1970s with the likes of The Last Detail (1973) and Chinatown (1974), was in director’s jail after his debut, Personal Best (1982), flopped at the box office and he went through a messy legal battle against studio executive David Geffen. He was trying to get his second directorial effort, Tequila Sunrise (1988), off the ground and knew he’d need bankable movie stars in the lead roles. He managed to secure Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kurt Russell who were all coming off successful high-profile hits with Lethal Weapon (1987), The Witches of Eastwick (1987) and Overboard (1987), respectively. They jumped at the opportunity to work with someone such as Towne, drawn to his well-written screenplay. The end result is a gorgeously shot neo-noir with a love triangle that tests the friendship between two long-time friends on opposite sides of the law.
 
Dale “Mac” McKussic (Gibson) is a high-end drug dealer that is supposedly retired even though Nick Frescia (Russell), head of narcotics for Los Angeles County, runs into him at a drug deal. They are friends from way back and so Nick lets him go before the bust goes down, however, Mac knew it was coming and got rid of the drugs. One gets the feeling from the casual way they interact with each other that they’ve crossed paths many times before this incident. Mac escapes and just makes his late reservation at his favorite posh restaurant run by Jo Ann Vallenari (Pfeiffer), who catches the eye of both him and Nick. The rest of the film plays out a twisty cat and mouse game as Nick is torn between busting his friend and trying to save him while Mac is torn between doing one last drug deal and his love for Jo Ann – the person that puts their friendship to the test. As the film progresses, various characters’ true motivations come into focus and we see if Mac is smart enough to stay one step ahead of the Columbian drug cartel he works for, the DEA and hold on to Jo Ann.

All three lead actors exude sex appeal like crazy and part of the thrill of watching Tequila Sunrise is how these three movie stars interact with one another, breathing life into Towne’s wonderful prose. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Jo Ann is no damsel in distress. She’s a strong woman who easily holds up to questioning early on from federal agents who grossly underestimate her fortitude as evident in a beautifully acted and written scene where Jo Ann expertly turns the tables on the Feds to Nick’s bemusement. She’s suave and knows how to deal with her classy clientele but isn’t snobby either. With her beautiful smile, Pfeiffer makes Jo Ann very charismatic and sexy. It is easy to see why Mac and Nick find her so alluring. In turn, she is drawn to Nick’s charisma and Mac’s vulnerability.

With his slick, Pat Riley hairdo and shark grin, Kurt Russell’s Nick is a super confident lawman that is great at his job as he is very perceptive and savvy, which comes from years of experience and knowing what goes on in his own backyard. The actor gives his character just the right amount of cockiness so that he doesn’t come across as arrogant. This plays well off J.T. Walsh’s humorless federal agent intent on busting Mac regardless of Nick’s friendship with him. Russell has a wonderful scene with Pfeiffer where Nick comes clean and explains why he got romantically involved with Jo Ann and the cocky façade comes down to reveal a brutally honest person not afraid to be vulnerable in front of her. He didn’t just get close to her to get close to Mac. He genuinely loves her and is willing to put all his cards on the table. Russell shows an impressive range in this scene but, like Jo Ann, you’re still not quite sure if he is 100% genuine and not playing an angle.
 
Mel Gibson’s laidback drug dealer is an excellent counterpoint to Russell’s gregarious lawman. Mac plays things close to the vest and Gibson gives little away which keeps us guessing as to how his character is going to evade the cops and not get killed by his South American counterparts. His performance may not be as flashy but it has a brooding intensity that is fascinating to watch. He can go back and forth between showing Mac’s day-to-day routine (work at his legit job and hang out with his son) and the aspects of his drug dealing trade and show how they inform his character.
 
The always reliable Arliss Howard is excellent as one of Mac’s drug contacts who is constantly trying to get him to do another drug buy but he’s savvy enough to know that this guy is bad news. Howard’s character comes across as amiable enough but it isn’t too hard to figure out his character is probably an informant trying to set up Mac. He’s a little too eager to do business and this ultimately tips his hand.

The great Raul Julia shows up partway through as the DEA’s Mexican counterpart but with a secret agenda of his own. The actor looks like he’s have all kinds of fun with his role, breaking out into song on two separate occasions for no reason at all, taking over the scene for a few seconds. He really gets to sink his teeth into the role once his character’s true identity is revealed.

Character actor extraordinaire, J.T. Walsh is excellent as a slimy DEA agent that immediately butts heads with Nick who is much smarter and has no problem rubbing the man’s nose in it. Walsh is a master of simmering rage, glowering constantly as his character is constantly outsmarted and proven wrong.
 
Tequila Sunrise is beautifully shot by the great cinematographer Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) as evident from the stunning sunset featured in the background of a scene where Nick and Mac are captured in silhouette talking on the beach. It’s an excellent scene as the two men sniff each other out to figure out what the other knows and to tell each other to back off in so many words. We get a real indication of what’s at stake and it’s not just their friendship but potentially Mac’s life if he doesn’t play his cards exactly right as he’ll either get busted or killed.

Robert Towne based the Tequila Sunrise screenplay on the courtship of his wife. In the mid-1980s, he frequented chef Piero Selvaggio’s Valentino restaurant in Santa Monica. He would arrive late and talk with Selvaggio’s wife Luisa. She would end up leaving her husband for Towne. At one point, he moved to Paris to help Roman Polanski on the script for Frantic (1988) and met producer Thom Mount. He told him about his script for Tequila Sunrise and after reading it took it to Warner Bros. The studio agreed to do it if Mount could attract a movie star. Mount and Towne approached Harrison Ford while he was making Frantic with Polanski and he agreed to do it but as they got closer to principal photography he pulled out as he didn’t think he could play Mac.
 
Towne liked Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon and approached him about playing Mac. He flew to Australia to meet with the actor who asked him, “How do you feel about actors watching dailies?” to which Towne replied, “Fine,” and he agreed to do it. Mac was based after “one fellow in particular who was in that line of work, and who was experiencing the same painful difficulty of extricating himself from it,” Towne recalled. He wrote the role of Nick with Kurt Russell in mind and on then-L.A. Lakers head coach, and close friend, Pat Riley, while also being inspired by a close friend who was an undercover narcotics cop for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. He initially wanted Riley to play the part because of the way he “very carefully holds himself together – his necktie tight, his hair slicked back – so that he looks like he’ll never come unglued, he never seems stressed.” Riley turned it down and Alec Baldwin was considered before Towne decided to go with Kurt Russell who he introduced to Riley and proceeded to adopt his look. Towne saw Michelle Pfeiffer in Alan Alda’s Sweet Liberty (1986) and liked the “disparity between public and private behavior” in the role and cast her as Jo Ann.
 
Tequila Sunrise was financed independently by Mount with a negative pick-up for Warner Bros. It was only Towne’s second directorial effort, the first being Personal Best, which was a notoriously difficult shoot that resulted in the filmmaker liberating the negative of the picture while David Geffen said he stole it. The studio had to step in and make peace between the two men. As a result, Mount wanted to surround Towne with seasoned crew members and hired Richard Sylbert to design Tequila Sunrise. He had worked with Towne previously on Chinatown and Shampoo (1975) and they were good friends. Sylbert had also worked as a studio executive and, according to Mount, “understood the process from top to bottom. So you were hiring, not a production designer, not even a co-producer, you were hiring like this Renaissance maniac who was your partner in the movie, in every way.”

To save money on the $38 million budget, Sylbert found a large, old empty warehouse, instead of a soundstage, in Santa Monica to house the production offices and build sets. For the look of the film, Sylbert chose the colors of the Tequila Sunrise drink and the Los Angeles sunset – gold, orange and red. According to Mount, “Richard understood that the drink was the color key from the very beginning.” Sylbert based Jo Ann’s restaurant on Valentino’s and Matteo’s, an Italian restaurant in West L.A. It was built in the warehouse over eight weeks. He also helped design the menu and chose the cuisine. Towne even brought in Giuseppe Pasqualato, a former chef at Valentino’s to cook on set, which also had a functioning bar.
 
Filming began in February 1988 in the South Bay section of L.A. and lasted 68 days. Ten days in, cinematographer Jost Vacano was fired as his gritty, realistic style was not the tone Towne was after – rather a more romantic vibe. He called Conrad Hall, his first choice that was nixed by the producer, and within 24 hours was on the set.
 
Tequila Sunrise received mixed to negative reviews from critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, "Tequila Sunrise is an intriguing movie with interesting characters, but it might have worked better if it had found a cleaner narrative line from beginning to end. It’s hard to surrender yourself to a film that seems to be toying with you." In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "Here the problem seems to be the fatal collaboration of a good writer with a director who wasn't strong or overbearing enough to pull him up short. The movie has the fuzzy focus of someone who has stared too long at a light bulb." The Los Angeles Times' Sheila Benson wrote, " It’s enough to send you out of the theater thirsty. Unfortunately, it sends you out hungry too, for a whole movie to offset this upscale grazing." In his review for the Washington Post's Hal Hinson wrote, "In Tequila, the divisions between business and pleasure, love and friendship break down, and the breakers...do it beautifully, with sweet talk, tough talk and hot kissing."

Tequila Sunrise was the box office success Towne needed but he didn’t direct another film for ten years – Without Limits (1998). He kept busy, though, thanks to a lucrative partnership with Tom Cruise, contributing several screenplays for the movie star in the 1990s, including Days of Thunder (1990), The Firm (1993), and Mission: Impossible (1996). Tequila Sunrise is a fascinating battle of wills. We have three highly intelligent people trying to figure out each other’s motives. It becomes complicated when mixed with emotions as a love triangle develops and clouds judgement. As one character says late in the film, “Friendship is all we have! We chose each other!” This is a film about friendship and loyalty. This is what motivates the three lead characters. Nick tries to save Mac from getting killed or busted as the drug dealer is his friend. Mac finds a way out of the drug dealing business as he loves Jo Ann. She loves Mac and doesn’t want him to get hurt. For a neo-noir it is lacking that fatalistic streak that runs through many of them. Towne is a little too enamored with the romantic aspects of his script to convey a convincing doomed protagonist that is a hallmark of the genre. Gibson’s Mac is a little too slick, a little too sure himself for anything really bad to happen to him and that is perhaps the film’s only glaring flaw in an otherwise wonderful, sun-drenched cinematic cocktail.
 
 
SOURCES
 
Lazar, Jerry. “Towne’s Country.” Chicago Tribune. December 4, 1988.
Mount, Thom. Audio Commentary. Tequila Sunrise DVD. 1988.
 
Sylbert, Richard & Sylvia Townsend. Designing Movies: Portrait of a Hollywood Artist. Frager. 2006
 
Turan, Kenneth. “Robert Towne’s Hollywood Without Heroes.” The New York Times. November 27, 1988.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Desperado

In 1992, independent filmmaker Robert Rodriguez made his feature film debut with El Mariachi, a $7,000 action movie that showed a stylistic flare beyond its meager budget. It made the rounds at several film festivals with a lot of media attention on the self-assured young man and the incredible story of how he made a movie for so little money. Naturally, Hollywood came calling and initially Rodriguez resisted, making Roadracers (1994) for the Showtime cable television channel after his deal with Sony Columbia Pictures was put on the back burner due to scandal. He eventually made Desperado (1995), a sequel to Mariachi that not only saw him working with a significantly larger budget of $7 million, but with movie star Antonio Banderas.


The film begins almost as if we are in a Quentin Tarantino film with a grungy gringo (Steve Buscemi) walking into a Mexican bar. He proceeds to tell a story about how he witnessed a massacre in a similar bar by a mysterious man. Rodriguez cuts back and forth between the storyteller and what happened at the bar to the strains of “Jack the Ripper” by Link Wray.
 
What is immediately clear from this opening scene is how far Rodriguez has progressed as a filmmaker. The screenplay is well-written as Steve Buscemi delivers his hilarious monologue with gusto. The director’s technique has also gotten better as the opening gunfight is stylishly choreographed with the El Mariachi (Banderas) dispatching bad guys like something out of a 1980s action movie as a shotgun blast sends a goon hurtling through the air.

It is interesting to note that Rodriguez not only plays up the mythic quality of El Mariachi, introducing him walking into a bar in slow motion in the shadows so you never get a good look at his face, but also has fun with the character as well, showing him playing with his band in a nightclub over the opening credits. El Mariachi even has time to stop a bar fight by striking a patron with his guitar without missing a beat. Rodriguez reveals that this sequence is a dream as we see the villain from El Mariachi appear in the nightclub and we flashback to the end of that film.
 
Another façade is stripped away when it is revealed that the story Buscemi’s character told was exaggerated for effect – he’s El Mariachi’s hype man. Armed with a guitar case full of weapons, the musician cum killer is working his way through the Mexican criminal underworld to find and kill Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida), the man responsible for his wife’s death. Not surprisingly, the crime lord is surrounded by an army of flunkies, chief among them Navajas (Danny Trejo), a man armed with a seemingly endless supply of throwing knives. El Mariachi is aided in his quest for revenge by Carolina (Salma Hayek), the beautiful local bookstore owner who patches him up whenever he’s wounded (which is often).
 
In the film’s second action sequence, Rodriguez really cuts loose as he transforms Banderas into a two-gun-toting action hero in the tradition of John Woo’s heroic bloodshed films. Apart from doves flying in slow motion, it features many of Woo’s trademark action flourishes but with a cheeky sense of humor as El Mariachi and the last man left search frantically for a weapon that has bullets before he eventually breaks the man’s neck to the strains of “Strange Face of Love” by Tito & Tarantula. It is a beautifully choreographed action sequence that demonstrates his skill as not just a director but as an editor as he times the cuts to the rhythm of the action. When it comes to action editing is everything and Rodriguez understands this intuitively.

Rodriguez cast Antonio Banderas at just the right time in their respective careers. The former needed to cast a movie star and the latter was looking for a change of pace having just come off the big budget adaptation of Interview with the Vampire (1994). Banderas not only has the charisma to carry the film, he also demonstrates an ability to go from dramatic moments to comedic ones with ease. He also showed his ability to handle action, transforming himself into a credible action star. The actor also has wonderful chemistry with Salma Hayek as their characters develop a romantic relationship over the course of the film.
 
Desperado was Hayek’s first mainstream, Hollywood role, cast by Rodriguez against the wishes of the studio. The impossibly beautiful actor holds her own against the likes of Banderas as she demonstrates a light, comic touch and dramatic chops when Carolina explains why she is complicit with Bucho’s dealings with the town, aiding and abetting his drug operation in order to survive. She forces El Mariachi to realize that his desire for revenge is not the only reason to take out Bucho – it would also free the town of his tyrannical hold on it. He is a tragic hero and she gives him a reason to keep on going after he fulfills his goal.
 
Desperado would mark the beginning of a long-running collaboration with several actors, including Banderas, Hayek, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, and Quintin Tarantino, who he met on the film festival circuit while promoting El Mariachi. He made Tarantino the lead on his next film, From Dusk Till Dawn and has often featured him in cameos where he delivers a monologue and is then killed off in gruesome fashion. Marin and Trejo make quite an impression with the former playing a grinning bartender that meets his fate at the hands of the El Mariachi and the latter in a silent role as a deadly assassin brought in to take out the film’s hero but in an unexpected twist is taken out prematurely through a comic case of mistaken identity.

 
After the success of El Mariachi, Rodriguez was eager to make a sequel and capitalize on his new deal with Sony Columbia but the studio put on the brakes while they dealt with the Heidi Fleiss scandal that broke in early summer of 1993. She was a high-end madam that facilitated call girls to several of Hollywood’s elite and a list of her clients, which included at least two studio executives, appeared in the press. At the time, producers Carlos Gallardo (who starred in El Mariachi), Elizabeth Avellan, and line producer Bill Borden had already begun pre-production and realized that the film was on hold until the scandal blew over. Never one to be idle, Rodriguez shifted gears and accepted another gig making Roadracers that he shot in less than two weeks in January 1994 for $1 million. It was his first Hollywood production and working with a union crew. He was struck by how wasteful and slow studio productions were as he was used to collaborating with a small, hand-picked crew that worked fast. It would give him a taste of what he would be in store for when working for Sony.
 
By the summer of 1994, Rodriguez finally got the greenlight to make his Mariachi sequel, then known as The Return of El Mariachi but soon changed to Pistolero during production and eventually became Desperado. Ironically, this was due in large part to his future employer – Bob and Harvey Weinstein – who approached Sony executive Stephanie Allain at the Cannes Film Festival telling her what a fan they were of El Mariachi and how they would be more than happy to make the sequel with Rodriguez.
 
The studio wanted a name actor cast in the lead role and Allain suggested Antonio Banderas but Rodriguez was hesitant to cast a non-Mexican in the part. Undeterred, Allain showed Banderas El Mariachi and he loved it. He said, “I thought, ‘This guy has incredible energy.’ It reminds me of the first films I did with (Pedro) Almodovar. Not in his style, of course. But it’s like, you know, the same thing, when you don’t have any money and you’re working outside the studio, with no trailer, no nothing, just waiting on the corner to do your shot. And I thought, ‘Wow! That’s the kind of cinema I would like to do again.’” She told Rodriguez this and he agreed to meet with the actor.

Rodriguez and Avellan saw a rerun of Salma Hayek on comedian Paul Rodriguez’s talk show from 1992 where she talked about changing Hollywood’s refusal to cast Latina actresses. The next day, Avellan called her and asked her to audition for the female lead in Desperado. In addition to competing with many other Latina actresses, auditioning many times and performing several screen tests, she was up against the likes of Cameron Diaz who the studio liked as, according to Hayek, “her last name was Diaz, so they said she can be Mexican.” Originally Raul Julia had been cast as Bucho and Rodriguez had scheduled principal photography around his availability but when he suffered a stroke that preceded his death, he was replaced by Argentine actor Joaquim de Almeida.
 
On Desperado, Rodriguez was working with a significantly larger budget of $7 million and returned to Acuna, Mexico to use the same locations he had on his first film. It was a challenging shoot with cast and crew members staying on both sides of the border and filming equipment shipped in from both Mexico and the United States. During the first week of shooting the studio was not happy and threatened to fire people until Rodriguez showed them dailies and cut together a couple of trailers to give them a taste of what he was doing.
 
In addition, the studio insisted on using department heads and imposed a more traditional studio structure, which Rodriguez balked at having been used to working with a small crew and doing a lot of the different jobs himself. Gary Martin, head of physical production at Sony, was being told exaggerated stories that the filmmaker was “throwing a lot of tantrums and kicking cameras” on location with key crew members, such as director of photography Guillermo Navarro, ready to quit. Avellan claims that Borden was the source for a lot of disinformation and discord, creating problems on the set. Borden even played Gallardo, Avellan and Rodriguez against each other. When Allain called Avellan and asked her about these rumors she responded that everything was fine and defended Rodriguez. Avellan told Rodriguez about Borden and they decided to keep a close eye on him.

Hayek remembers that the film’s steamy sex scene her character has with El Mariachi was not in the screenplay and was added after a screen test. To try and make her as comfortable as possible, Rodriguez filmed it on a closed set with just him, Avellan and Banderas but Hayek found it a difficult experience nonetheless.

Martin met with Avellan and told her that Rodriguez would not be editing the film himself as he had done on El Mariachi and told her, “Honey, just like when you go to a beauty parlor and somebody does your nails because they specialize in that and somebody does your color because they specialize in that, it’s the same in the movie business.” Insulted, Avellan said nothing in order to keep the peace between Rodriguez and the studio but inside she was fuming. Post-production began in November 1994 in Los Angeles with the studio finally allowing Rodriguez to edit his own film but only if he did it there where they could keep an eye on him. Rodriguez said:
 
“They just didn’t want me to have that much control, but they let me do it. That was a big mistake because it sets another precedent. If my next movie hadn’t been Desperado, if I had done one of the really big budget movies they were offering me, I would have lost that control.”
 
His studio experience on Desperado soured the filmmaker on ever working in Hollywood and convinced him to put down permanent roots in Austin. With his deal done with Sony, he made his next film, From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), for indie film darlings Miramax who gave the kind of creative freedom he craved.

Desperado garnered mixed to negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it two out of four stars and wrote, "Rodriguez has a lively color sense, a good feel for composition and a willingness to put the camera anywhere it can possibly go. What happens looks terrific. Now if he can harness that technical facility to a screenplay that's more story than setup, he might really have something." In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Overdependence on violence also marginalizes Desperado as a gun-slinging novelty item, instead of the broader effort toward which this talented young director might have aspired. It's still clear that Mr. Rodriguez has a talent for fancy directorial footwork and that his movie has its fiery moments. But not even a Mariachi in Mr. Banderas's league can get by on looks alone."
 
In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, "if you’re not a fan of huge explosions, oversized weapons and people getting sliced and diced in all kinds of ways, Desperado doesn’t have a lot more to offer." The Washington Post's Desson Howe wrote about Rodriguez's jump from indie film to his big budget remake/sequel: "the commercial transition has been remarkably successful. This is primarily thanks to Rodriguez, who not only retains the original movie's kinetic flair, but takes it further. Finally, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman gave it a "B" rating and wrote, "The dawdling pace has us lingering a little too much over Desperado‘s primitive human dimensions. Still, when Rodriguez unleashes a scene with Banderas leaping backwards from one building to the next, or with a couple of mariachis launching rockets from their guitar cases, he’s a true corker. The action, in all its demonically outlandish wit, is its own show."
 
At the time, Desperado was a breath of fresh air in the action genre by starring a Latino actor with a predominantly Latino cast that also had universal appeal. In many respects it is a modern western with El Mariachi as a lone gunslinger that walks into town and rids it of the bad guys. Much like one of his cinematic heroes, director George Miller, Rodriguez draws inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces with El Mariachi as this mythic figure that makes the hero’s journey to redemption. In this respect, Desperado is part Mad Max myth-making and part John Woo action melodrama. Rodriguez gives this template a novel spin by having his film showcase Latino culture and present a hero that can be celebrated, which was largely absent in the mainstream at the time. It can’t be stated enough how significant an achievement that was back then or even now for that matter. Like, Evil Dead 2, Desperado is the rare successful remake/sequel hybrid that manages to not alienate fans of the first film while appealing to people who haven’t seen it. The film demonstrated that Rodriguez could work with bigger budgets and movie stars, paving the way for a fantastic career that he made his way.
 

 
SOURCES
 
Frederick, Candice. “’The Studio Wanted Cameron Diaz’: Salma Hayek on the Role that Changed Her Life.” Elle. October 15, 2020.

Leydon, Joe. “Cranking up the Volume.” Los Angeles Times. November 27, 1994.
 
Macor, Allison. Chainsaws, Slackers and Spy Kids: 30 Years of Filmmaking in Austin, Texas. University of Texas Press. 2010.
 
Martinez, Jose and Christian Divine. “Hispanic Blood: An Interview with Robert Rodriguez.” Creative Screenwriting. December 21, 2015

Friday, January 21, 2022

The Razor's Edge


After starring in several successful comedies in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bill Murray wanted to try something different. He wanted to flex his acting chops and do something more dramatic. He wanted to make a passion project of his, an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge, the spiritual journey of its protagonist Larry Darrell. The book had already been adapted into a well-respected film in 1946, starring Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney. Not surprisingly, no Hollywood studio was interested in making the modestly budgeted film until Murray’s former Saturday Night Live cast member, Dan Aykroyd, cut a deal with Columbia Pictures. They would bankroll The Razor’s Edge (1984) if Murray would star in their summer blockbuster Ghostbusters (1984) alongside Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. Murray agreed and got to make his film, but the big question – would anyone want to see it was quickly answered upon its theatrical release. It received mixed to negative reviews and flopped at the box office, only making half of its $12 million budget while Ghostbusters was a massive success.
 
It is the early days of World War I and the United States has yet to throw their hat in the ring but gear and supplies are being donated to aid their future allies. Best friends Gray Mautrin (James Keach) and Larry Darrell (Murray) have volunteered to accompany an ambulance overseas and help the cause. When we meet Larry he’s the sarcastic wisecracker we’ve come to expect from Murray as he dabbles in bits of physical comedy, flirting with longtime sweetheart Isabel Bradley (Catherine Hicks) and close friend Sophie MacDonald (Theresa Russell) – two women that will feature prominently in his life.
 
There is a feeling of hopeful idealism in these scenes as we see the idyllic home he’s leaving behind for the grim, meat hook reality of the war. The tone of the film changes immediately once Gray and Larry arrive at the battlefront and meet their no-nonsense commanding officer Piedmont (Brian Doyle-Murray). They are told that their squad has been depleted and are given sidearms even though they are neutral participants in the war. Murray doesn’t say anything – no witty, snarky comments a la Stripes (1981) – just a worried expression on his face that seems to say, what the hell did I sign up for?

He says very little for most of the WWI sequences as we see Larry take everything in and get the lay of the land thanks to Piedmont’s tough love approach. He also experiences the horrifying effects, transporting the wounded and the dying from the battlefield to a nearby first aid station. Gone is the wisecracking Murray as Larry does everything he can just to survive. The actor does an excellent job of conveying the utter despair Larry feels after what he’s seen.
 
The war sequences are among the strongest in The Razor’s Edge, especially the last one where Larry and his squad are caught out in the battlefield and find themselves facing insurmountable odds. Larry is wounded and Piedmont is killed saving his life. After the danger has passed, Larry delivers a stirring anti-eulogy for his fallen comrade that is the one Murray gave his SNL castmate John Belushi when he died. It is a powerful and moving moment as it is something real and authentic captured on film.
 
Larry returns home from the war and finds himself adrift in life after being deeply affected by his experiences overseas. He spends the rest of the film finding himself by shedding his trappings of wealth, by working menial jobs and living in modest accommodations in Paris. This comes at a cost as his friends and family reject his new bohemian lifestyle, including Isabel who cannot understand why he is willing giving up his wealthy life of privilege. He tells her, “I got a second chance at life. I am not going to waste it on a big house, a new car every year and a bunch of friends who want a big house and new car every year!” She returns to the States and marries Gray while Larry continues his spiritual journey, gaining life experiences such as working in a coal mine where he meets a man that extols the virtues of India, which becomes Larry’s ultimate destination and the source of the spiritual enlightenment he seeks.

The always reliable Theresa Russell is excellent as one of Larry’s closest friends that goes on her own harrowing journey. There is a scene where a grief-stricken Sophie tearfully tells Isabel about her husband and son dying in an automobile accident that is raw as she chastises the nuns at the hospital in an understandable outpouring of grief. How does she find the will to live after such a horrible event? As a result, she numbs the pain that comes from a catastrophic loss by losing herself in alcohol and prostitution. Russell and Murray have wonderful chemistry together and her impressive dramatic chops forces him to up his game in their scenes together. The sequence where Larry gets Isabel to quit drinking and prostitution are well done as Murray uses his easy-going charm to incredible effect. This is the film at its most romantic as we see these two characters falling in love in Paris. Larry brings her back from the brink in a way that is quite moving.
 
One must give Murray credit, he gives the role everything he has in what was obviously a labor of love but he wasn’t a good enough actor back then to know when to tone down his comedic shtick and this results in an uneven performance. At times, he can’t quite cut loose of the broad physical comedy that made him a star, such as a scene where Larry runs from a gaggle of poor children begging for money on the streets of India. It must’ve been hard to let go of comedic tendencies that came so naturally to him. It would be years before he’d try it again and was more successful as the scary mob boss in Mad Dog and Glory (1993), but it wasn’t until he made Rushmore (1998) with Wes Anderson that he was experienced enough as an actor to modulate his performance to accommodate the tone of a given scene.
 
Filmmaker John Byrum met Bill Murray in New York City in 1974. The two men hit it off and wanted to work together but the opportunity wouldn’t arise until almost 10 years later. Byrum was interested in adapting W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge but assumed that 20th Century Fox, the studio that released the 1946 adaptation, still had the rights. When he approached the studio, they wouldn’t even take a meeting with him and after doing more digging found out that the rights had reverted to the Maugham estate. Unfortunately, recording industry executive Bob Marcucci had already acquired them. Byrum struck a deal – he would write the screenplay for no fee, for a 50-50 partnership and the right to direct. Marcucci agreed and in 1982, Murray joined the project after Byrum gave him a copy of the book. He wanted to make the film after reading 50 pages, drawn to the project as he was getting offered the same kind of scripts repeatedly and wanted to try something new.

Byrum asked Murray to write the script with him and the two men worked on it for a year-and-a-half. Murray suggested writing in bars and restaurants as he believed “that good things come from difficult conditions, and I thought that no matter how badly we did, at least we’d have the experience of trying to concentrate on one thing while being distracted all the time.” To this end, they went to all kinds of places in Manhattan, New Jersey and upstate, southern New York. They wrote in spas near San Francisco and even a monastery in Ladakh, India during a religious war!
 
Byrum and Murray approached several studios but none were interested as they felt that no one wanted to see the comedian in a serious role. Dan Aykroyd was working on a script for an ambitious comedy called Ghostbusters that was generating a lot of interest around Hollywood and Columbia Pictures made a deal to bankroll The Razor’s Edge if Murray also starred in Ghostbusters. Murray agreed and started filming the former soon after.
 
It was a tough shoot lasting five months. The production fell behind schedule while shooting the war sequences. As Byrum said at the time, “To set up an explosion takes time. Then the wind might shift and destroy the shot, and you have to rewire all the explosives and organize the extras.” They shot for a month in Paris and then three hard weeks in India. At one point, a crew member attempted suicide and another developed such a crippling drinking problem they had to be sent home. Many got food poisoning with Byrum himself losing 12 pounds. While all of this was going on, the studio kept asking when they would be finished as they were eager for Murray to start shooting Ghostbusters.

As soon as principal photography was finished, Murray flew to London where he saw a rough cut of the film and then got on the Concord where he flew to New York City. He got off the plane, went straight to Madison Avenue and 62nd Street, and donned his Ghostbusters outfit. “A week before I had worked with yellow-hat lamas in the Himalayas,” he remarked in an interview.
 
Most film critics at the time were not kind to The Razor’s Edge. Roger Ebert gave it two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, “I didn't feel that the hero's attention had been quite focused during his quest for the meaning of life. He didn't seem to be a searcher, but more of a bystander, shoulders thrown back, deadpan expression in place, waiting to see if life could make him care.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin called it, “slow, overlong and ridiculously overproduced.” The Washington Post’s Paul Attanasio wrote, “Murray's style into the '20s is jarringly bizarre. Murray puts his comedy together with riffs drawn from contemporary popular culture, in the way a modernist sculptor welds fragments found in a junkyard. Much of the humor of The Razor's Edge simply isn't intelligible within the context of the period; he's a Connecticut hipster in President Hoover's court.” Finally, in his review for the Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "If Murray's young Ghostbusters fans do go to see The Razor's Edge, they will receive a pleasant, thought-provoking surprise, a film that gently asks us to consider lifestyles other than the one into which we were born."
 
The Razor’s Edge is an impressively staged and beautifully shot period film directed by John Byrum (Heart Beat) and shot by Peter Hannan (Withnail and I) that gives a real sense of place. The film juxtaposes the opulent wealth of Larry’s friends back home with the physical limits he pushes himself for spiritual enlightenment. He makes an arduous journey through punishing environments, constantly pushing himself, testing his limits.

While hardly the cinematic disaster that it has been regard as over the years, it isn't that successful either. Chalk this up as a noble failure. Murray's heart was in the right place but he miscast himself in the lead role of Larry Darrell, a man who finds himself thrust from the upper crust of society to the battlefields of WWI where he is forever changed by the horrors he witnesses, motivating him to find personal enlightenment in India. Timing is everything and at the time of its release mainstream moviegoing audiences did not want to see Murray in a serious role. As a result, The Razor’s Edge tanked at the box office the same year that the crowd-pleasing Ghostbusters was a huge hit. To be fair, Murray hadn’t developed the dramatic acting chops to pull off a role like Larry Darrell. He delivers an uneven performance in an uneven film. Understandably, disappointed with its reception and disenchanted with making movies, Murray took his family to Paris and except for a cameo in Little Shop of Horrors (1986), didn’t act for four years.
 

SOURCES
 
Crouse, Timothy. “Bill Murray: The Rolling Stone Interview.” Rolling Stone. August 16, 1984.
 
Pollock, Dale. “Bill Murray on The Razor’s Edge After Ghostbusters.” The Victoria Advocate. October 29, 1984.
 
Weinstein, Wendy. “John Byrum Traverses The Razor’s Edge.” The Film Journal. September 1984.