Thriller

‘Alien’ Trilogy — The Stuff of Nightmares and Wet Dreams (Part One)

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image alien faceThere comes a point in every monster movie — and we’ve been privy to a spate of them in recent years — where the monster shows itself to its intended victim. We cringe as the look of utter horror ripples across the victim’s face. In the next instant, the loathsome beast is about to pounce on our unsuspecting innocent. Yikes!

In Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Alien (1979), much of what we’ve come to expect from screen monsters has been turned (quite literally) from the inside out. From the moment this monster appears on the scene — and by now, viewers engrossed in the saga know precisely when that moment arrives — our surprise and revulsion are such that, considering the wild ride the movie ultimately takes us on, we can never be sure where or when that beast will turn up next.

As any horror/science-fiction fan will tell you, it’s those unexpected moments audiences crave for and find the most absorbing. The tension that’s been building never lets up: your heart races, your head spins, and the person sitting to your right knows their forearm is about to get bruised before the flick is over.

That’s how it’s been, ever since the original Alien made its feature “debut.” It’s a movie that’s been defying audience expectations for well over three decades. The other films that make up the so-called Alien Trilogy — James Cameron’s Aliens and David Fincher’s Alien3 (discounting the fourth vehicle in the franchise, Alien Resurrection, as beneath contempt and even further below the level of consideration) — have provided similar fodder, but in their own gut-wrenching style.

We’re talking about three individually tailored visions here, and from three different directors with their own distinctive approach — a concerto for sci-fi lovers, each one comprised of a single movement, with variations on a main theme that in almost every respect translates to survival of the fleetest.

Alien: First Movement (Adagio)

Alien logo and poster art
Alien logo and poster art

Rather loosely based on the hoary B-picture, It! The Terror From Beyond Space, with action sequences borrowed from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, plus such classics of the genre as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars (its immediate predecessor at Twentieth Century-Fox), The Exorcist, and, most logically, The Thing from Another World, this space opera-cum-creep show combines chest-bursting excitement with solid shock-value for the buck, albeit in slow, agonizing doses.

In addition to the obvious horror elements there is plenty of artistry to admire, with a good deal of the credit going to two-time director Scott for his fine sense of the subtle: few filmmakers of his stature (at that point in their careers, at any rate) have used silence to such a nerve-wracking degree. When the thrills do come, they literally jump out at you, thanks to a photogenic feline named Jonesy.

To let readers in on a poorly kept secret, Alien is much more than your average monster-on-the-loose epic. Indeed, with its gleaming slickness, oozing drool, and acid for blood, the Alien takes on undeniably sexual overtones. Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s horrific phallic symbol is so grotesque and so disgusting, it’s actually quite beautiful.

Penetration (yes, in all its myriad forms) is taken to the ultimate extreme — but that’s the whole “point” of the picture! It’s what our not-so-friendly neighborhood Alien represents, the creature’s menacing presence standing in for warrant officer Ripley and the doomed crew’s scariest and most nightmarish wet dream. Quite fittingly, it soon becomes the audience’s wet dream as well.

Fear of the enigmatic other, specifically of the one committing the violation, and its intrusion upon our person (call it “intergalactic rape”) epitomizes the unnatural force behind this thriller set in the outer reaches of space — a contradiction in terms when applied to the confined spaces of the cargo transport Nostromo, or the tighter quarters of the shuttlecraft Narcissus.

Like everything else in this dark, moody work, the violations occur in unique, often bizarre fashion: at times, they’re overt; at others, merely hinted at. But no matter how they occur, they’re committed by the Alien (along with a few others) in constantly shifting forms and in ever-more-ghastly situations.

Likewise, each form the Alien takes on comes with its own set of problems, which the ill-prepared and inadequately-equipped crew members slowly come to appreciate. Their collective battle will bring to fruition the movie’s advertising tag line:

“In space, no one can hear you scream.” AAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRGH!

Adventure Time

The commercial starship Nostromo
The commercial cargo transport Nostromo

The crew’s “adventure,” such as it is, begins shortly after awakening from deep-space hibernation to find Nostromo completely off course. Light years from its destination (i.e., Earth) and hauling a huge and “terribly expensive” payload, the cargo transport intercepts an alien distress signal, resulting in its setting down on a stormy, uncharted planetoid. Their plan is to fulfill what the crew members perceive to be a rescue mission. In truth, they will be the ones in need of rescue!

All told, there are seven crew members, everyday working stiffs very much like ourselves. Indeed, our complete identification with these characters — “truckers in space” as Scott once referred to them, who undergo a traumatic readjustment of their priorities — lends credence to this stark tale of space travelers stranded in a hostile environment competing to overcome it.

What we have, then, is a manifestation of the fight-or-flight phenomenon, pitting an all-too human task force — first Kane (John Hurt) and Dallas (Tom Skerritt), then Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), followed by Ash (Ian Holm), Parker (Yaphet Kotto), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), in that order — against an amorphous and ostensibly invincible adversary embodied by the Alien (six-foot, ten-inch Nigerian design student Bolaji Badejo).

Once on the surface of the planetoid, three of Nostromo’s crew (Dallas, Kane, and Lambert) are dispatched to check out the alien spacecraft from whence the distress signal originated. Dwarfed by the gigantic vessel, they scramble about precariously in an attempt to gain a foothold alongside the outer hull. Finally, they are able to enter through vagina-like apertures. (Note: This is the first of several violations, as previously indicated). Their smallish size, in contrast to the enormity of the craft, gives the crew members the semblance of invading sperm cells, unintentionally “impregnating” the vessel’s interior with their seed.

Alien space jockey
Alien space jockey dwarfs the humans at left

No sooner has their investigation begun when it becomes all-too apparent they have stumbled onto something out of the ordinary: a once living and breathing entity, now hollowed out and wholly abandoned. Groping their way in the darkness (as if gingerly stepping in a dream), they come across the massive, fossilized remains of one of the ship’s former occupants, a gigantic alien life form still strapped to its navigator’s chair. The creature’s ribcage has exploded, but from the inside — an ill-fated omen of things to come.

Not only does the ship contain a skeletal inner structure — scenes of the interior reveal a grotesquely shaped backbone or spinal column of some kind — but there are other clues scattered about that indicate something terrifying must have happened to these beings. (The mystery of the alien vessel and its inhabitants was explored — rather unsuccessfully, in our opinion — in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus from 2012.)

To get at the source of the signal, Kane is lowered into an inner chamber. At the same time, Ripley, the senior officer in charge, informs Nostromo’s secretive science officer Ash that their computer (whose name happens to be Mother) has analyzed the alien transmission: it’s not a distress signal at all, Ripley advises, but a warning. Of what, is still unknown.

The Better to Hug You With, My Dear

The Face-hugger
The Alien face-hugger on Kane’s kisser

Shifting back to the alien craft, Kane has managed to slip through a laser-like force field that blankets the egg chamber — an intriguing, blue-beamed hymen of sorts that alerts the sleeping eggs an intruder is present. Could this be what the distress signal was warning them about? Perhaps, but the damage has already been done. Kane’s involuntary act, i.e., his accidental penetration of the chamber’s “womb,” starts a chain reaction of events that will bring about his downfall and, it should be noted, that of Nostromo’s crew.

In the past four or five years, I’ve seen this picture at least a dozen or more times. That’s an average of two or three viewings per year. Part of the fun of watching Alien on DVD or Blu-ray is the pleasure I get out of discovering new and hitherto unperceived actions I never had the chance to appreciate before now. One can linger over the smallest details, and on every facet of the production — a freeze-frame here, a line of dialogue there — that, in a cursory screening, would be completely lost on the first go-around.

Take, for example, the sequence in which Kane’s curiosity about the egg chamber gets the better of him. The object that shoots out after one of the eggs splits open and attaches itself to his face resembles a sliced fillet of sole blended with horseshoe crab innards. Its tail tightens around Kane’s neck, while it keeps him alive via an organic breathing tube inserted inside his throat (one more example of penetration).

Ugh! You can’t help clutching your own throat as you witness this highly impressionable scene. That disgusting “face-hugger,” as it’s known to film buffs, reminds us of a large and extremely gaunt, almost skeletal claw grasping at someone’s features. When it does finally detach itself, the crab-like creature expires but its reflexive grasping mechanism is still active. God help the person who comes near that thing!

The same grasping mechanism is alluded to again, but under a different set of circumstances. In the bizarre scene where Ash freaks out and tries to shove a girlie magazine into Ripley’s mouth (still another act of violation), he’s accosted by Parker. Ash reacts to his attack by placing his hand over Parker’s chest (where his heart would be) and squeezing it tightly (is this what they call “copping a feel?”). That reflexive action, whereby Parker is clutched by Ash’s vice-like grip, mirrors the face-hugger’s grasping mechanism to a “T.”

Ash (Ian Holm) attacks Parker (Yaphet Kotto)
The “heart” of the matter: Ash (Ian Holm) attacks Parker (Yaphet Kotto)

I never noticed it before, but Ash, who’s obviously gone haywire, was instinctively mimicking the Alien’s face-hugger stage that, only minutes later (with cyborg head neatly detached from his torso), he would be praising: “Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” And further: “I admire its purity. A survivor … unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality …” No wonder Ash admires it: he’s just described himself!

Remorseless, unconscionable, and patently amoral, the Alien’s only thoughts are for the preservation of its kind. It’s reasonable to assume that of all the crew members Ash is the only one who does not meet his end in the Alien’s double-jaws of death. How ironic, then, that Ash’s own demise by decapitation (he’s a robot, so we may presume that he lacks a functioning male organ) is a form of emasculation of the sole crew member incapable of reproducing himself.

In the above instance, Ash poses no direct threat to the Alien, which is why the faceless corporation (Weyland-Yutani, or just plain the “Company”) has instructed the science officer to “Bring back alien life form. All other priorities rescinded. Crew expendable.” Hmm …

Another observation: moments after Ash forces the magazine down Ripley’s gullet, Parker disrupts the proceedings by whacking him hard on the shoulders. This sends the science officer spinning about the room and spewing forth a liquid that, to the average viewer, resembles a milky-white substance we might equate to ejaculate. Parker then delivers the coup de grâce to Ash’s head which subsequently severs his noggin from the rest of his body. Youch!

This unfortunate episode illustrates just how deranged the cyborg has become, and how like a praying mantis (or the HAL-9000 computer?) Ash’s natural predatory instincts have taken over his sick mind. At the first sign of a breakdown, he bounces Ripley about the spaceship’s corridor as if she were a stray beach ball. His eyes begin to twitch and a bead of white sweat runs down his brow. This is followed by the business with the girlie magazine.

Ash's severed head
Detached from reality: Ash’s severed head

Since Ash is basically a neutral being (neither male nor female, one would gather), this incident is as close as he’ll ever come to experiencing sexual pleasure from a human. It’s also among the last things Ash does before the plug is finally pulled on his circuits.

Gender Bending

The birthing scene (Photo: Allstar/20th Century-Fox)
The birthing scene (Photo: Allstar/20th Century-Fox)

Needless to say, the traditional roles of men and women are, to put it bluntly, indelibly reversed and reassigned in Alien. For instance, that notorious chest-bursting scene is one that not only gives women the willies, but us men, too. And with good reason: it’s a birthing scene, plain and simple, with copious amounts of blood splattering about, and all the yelling and screaming and carrying-on generally associated with live delivery.

Just to be clear, Kane is carrying an Alien fetus to term — that is to say, one that grows at a tremendously accelerated rate. And to make the comparison even more odious, after Brett is seized and killed by the Alien, and Parker blubbers on in a state of shock re: his late partner’s ordeal, he voices serious concerns about finding and destroying the creature: “This son of a bitch is huge! I mean, it’s like a man; it’s … it’s big!”

And what is Ash’s response? “Kane’s son.” Oh, yeah …

The last sequence is the most “revealing,” in more ways than one, of the entire Alien series. Believing she is finally free of the vicious intruder, Ripley, the “last survivor of the commercial starship Nostromo,” prepares herself for deep-space hibernation. She starts to undress and winds up stripped down to her undies and a teasingly petite T-shirt. This is woman at her most vulnerable state.

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in panties
Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in petite panties

Throughout the course of the film, Ripley is seen as the most competent, the most level-headed, and fiercely determined member of the crew — the word “macho” readily comes to mind. She takes over the normally (for 1979) male leadership role on Nostromo, and resumes the methodical search for the Alien, after Captain Dallas disappears within the airshaft. (In a deleted scene, Ripley finds Dallas in one of the corridors. Barely alive, he is being used by the Alien as sustenance.)

Taking off her “dog tag,” Ripley flips on, or off, a series of switches. She then does an about-face, bending down slightly as she continues her task, thus giving the movie audience a sneak peek at her rump. This is director Scott’s little in-joke, telegraphing to viewers that the film is about to “end” (get it?). It’s also a clever way to throw us off the track by diverting attention away from the slate-gray row of tubes and pumps that line the shuttlecraft wall where Ripley is standing.

The reason for that diversion becomes clear: it’s where the Alien is hiding. He announces his presence by flicking out a hideous six-fingered hand, which makes both the startled audience and Ripley jump about twelve feet in the air. Ripley runs for cover, to the safety of Narcissus’ locker at back where she finds a handy pressure suit and helmet.

Ripley then slowly steps into one of the suits, all the while keeping a cautious eye on the fearsome beast, whose huge, metallic-colored head and tube-like appendages gleam in the shadows. We do not need to linger over the particulars, since most fans of the film know how the story ends: Ripley manages to flush the Alien out of the shadows and open the shuttlecraft’s door; this action is followed by her firing a spear-gun into it, which knocks the Alien out of the craft. Undeterred, the wily creature tries to latch onto the shuttlecraft’s engine, but Ripley turns on the juice in time to fry it into oblivion.

Ripley manages to harpoon the Alien
Ripley manages to dispose of the Alien

One need not be a disciple of Freud (or even a Jungian acolyte) to discern the symbolic nature of the individual elements that make up the above sequence of events. In not so many words, it’s payback time! So let’s quickly go over them, one by one: Ripley’s stripping away of her garments indicates a casting off of her soiled past to face a clean and wholesome future; her fear of impregnation by the Alien leads Ripley to flee to the safety of the locker; her seeking of shelter there represents a ritual return to the womb; her wearing of a pressure suit inside the locker suggests she’s surrounding herself with a layer of protection akin to amniotic fluid; her shooting of the Alien with a spear-shaped weapon is her way of completing the act of penetration — you might say it’s her tit-for-tat moment (“You did that to them, so I’m going to do it to you!”); etc., etc., and so forth.

At the time, Ripley’s fight for survival against an unconquerable foe, her mano a mano battle to the finish, proved once and for all that women — even one as tall and elegant and efficient as warrant officer Ripley — could be just as successful at depicting the action hero as any man could. Sigourney Weaver, who played Ripley, was so identified with the role that she continued to portray the character in the next three installments of the franchise. And her director on Alien, Ridley Scott, went on to film the critically acclaimed Thelma and Louise (1991), with an Oscar-winning screenplay by Callie Khouri that’s been described as a veritable treatise on feminism.

Origin of Species

On an unrelated matter, Roger Ebert, the popular movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, used to throw a fit every time he was forced to debate the efficacy of the Alien’s morphology. His pet theory was that whenever the Alien opened its jaws, it would reveal a second set of jaws; and that second set of jaws would, in turn, open up to reveal … yet another set of jaws! And so on, all the way down to a miniscule pair of tiny little tweezers at the end — much like what happens with those Russian nesting dolls, but with plenty of drool and razor-sharp teeth.

Lt. Ripley on board Nostromo
Lt. Ripley on board Nostromo

It seemed trivial at the time to have made this observation. And, surely, if memory serves me, Ebert must have been the only critic around to have brought the matter up. Still, he had a point to make: if you’re going to show a creature with a twofold set of mandibles, there should be a perfectly logical explanation in nature for their existence. Roger’s reasoning was this: why would a creature such as the Alien, who supposedly clawed its way to the top of the evolutionary food chain, even need another set of choppers in the first place? As Ash inquired of Ripley, “What’s the point?”

As for me, I was more concerned with how an extraterrestrial of the Alien’s shape, size, and strength was never once shown chowing down a meal, or even taking a drink to quench that monstrous thirst of his. One gets awfully dehydrated in outer space, you know! It could be that his extra pair of jaws got in the way every time the Alien tried to get near a water cooler. Whatever!

Not to make light of this argument, but if the Alien really had molecular acid for blood, as Captain Dallas theorized early on about the face-hugger, then how could the creature prevent its veins and arteries, not to mention all those internal organs, from dissolving through its own bone and tissue? Now that’s a subject I’d like to hear more about. Hopefully, it will be tackled in the next iteration of director commentaries. For now, we’re left with good ole Roger.

(End of Part One)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

When the Legend Becomes Fact — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Two): Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’ and the Lone Gunman Theory

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Kevin Costner as D.A. Jim Garrison in JFK
Kevin Costner as D.A. Jim Garrison in Oliver Stone’s JFK

“Let There Be Light” – And Let Us Be Illuminated By It

Continuing with my rumination on a course I once developed concerning Hollywood and the Historical Film, exactly how much history and how much fiction does one include in such an undertaking? On the flip side of the issue, is there anything we may wish to exclude?

Questions of this nature pose a perplexing problem for the instructor, in that the focus of the course is placed exclusively on the limitations and uses of available sources. And a lot is riding on those same sources!

For example, one can turn to the Bible, a primary source for many people’s moral and ethical guidance, and ask the obvious question: “Is the Bible history, and can it be used to teach history?” First and foremost, such a query must take into account matters of fact, faith and fiction, in addition to myths, legends and the all-important religious interpretation of events.

This is a delicate subject to broach with students because it goes to the very core of their belief system and upbringing. Inside an academic setting, it’s a perfectly valid form of inquiry and well within the reasonable. But outside academia’s hallowed halls, one must tread lightly so as not to offend those same beliefs. Therefore, let us proceed with caution.

To begin our analysis, what should one make of the frequent parables present throughout the Biblical narrative? For one thing, we can say that parables, as told by various individuals — Christ primarily — in both the Old and New Testament, serve the purpose of putting a potentially difficult topic or principle into simple, everyday terms. This was done so that the average layperson might understand and absorb their lessons.

Are there ways we can tell how much of what is being conveyed via parables is truth, exaggeration, verbal embellishment or other such extravagance? If by that question one is referring to “fact checking,” that would be a physical impossibility, considering that, for one, we still have the aforementioned distance problem to deal with, as well as the time factor involved in retracing the steps of who said what, where and when so many eons ago.

What about the problem of errors, mistakes or liberties taken with the known (or generally acknowledged) facts? Do the facts found in the Bible, such as they are, coincide with or run counter to the veracity of events as described elsewhere in the historical record? This is the crux of the problem. For if the historical record — those so-called “known facts” — are found not to coincide with the Biblical explanation of events, do we then discard the historical record, or do we drop the Biblical sources as unreliable?

Here’s another interesting case in point, drawn from the Gospels: we know from history that the Roman governor of Judea — the province where the historical Jesus both lived and died — ruled with an iron hand. The reason for this attitude was both practical and plain: to put down rebellion at the first sign of trouble.

How, then, do we explain Pontius Pilate’s reluctance to swiftly carry out that part of Roman justice demanded of his office, i.e., to execute a potential “rabble rouser” such as Jesus, swiftly and at the first sign of trouble? Wouldn’t we expect Pilate to act as any Roman governor would and take matters into his hands, or would his behavior depart from the norm simply because of his proximity to Christ?

Depending on who you ask, the Biblical narrative would “seem” to indicate the latter, which somewhat contradicts what scholars, historians and other learned individuals know of the historical Roman governor’s role in Christ’s Crucifixion, or for that matter any crucifixion.

This takes us to the next topic up for discussion: is history truth? Or, to put it another way, is there such thing as historical truth? If there is, how does it compare to, say, Biblical truth? You will notice the paraphrasing of Pilate’s own rhetorical query, “What is truth?”

We have seen that history can be subjective — that is, one’s view of a subject is always taken from the person viewing it (thus referring back to the old issue of history as being written by the victors), what tends to be called the “subjective vantage point.” Can this view encompass other vantage points — in other words, a more objective one, whereby a topic, matter or person is interpreted in a less opinionated fashion, thereby refraining from pontificating on its substance? Of course it can! But it’s not that easy, is it?

Again, we come to what I describe as the “invariable variable,” also known as the distance problem rearing its ugly head. By that I mean to ask: are we so far removed from the Biblical (or prehistorical) context of past events as to be irretrievably separated from them?

The answer to that is: it all depends. Different events in the past can have any number of differing, even multiple, interpretations or meanings, whether or not they are viewed from a subjective or objective angle.

The Kennedy Case

Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) presenting his case in court
Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) presenting his case in court

Let’s take one such event from the recent past and examine it from both the subjective and objective vantage points, certainly one of the most photographed and investigated murder cases of our time, i.e., the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald, as interpreted by filmmaker, producer and screenwriter Oliver Stone in the movie JFK (1991).

Stone’s film charts a familiar course set forth 15 years earlier by director Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, a movie about the Watergate break-in and subsequent investigation of the scandal that brought down President Richard M. Nixon (a subject Mr. Stone tackled separately).

In Pakula’s picture, there are two crusading reporters, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), who write for the Washington Post, headed by Chief Editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards). In Stone’s reworking of Kennedy’s untimely death and the ensuing investigation of same, Kevin Costner plays crusading New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who, as portrayed by Costner, is as far from the real-life fanatical, self-righteous, wrong-headed prosecutor as New York is from Los Angeles.

JFK follows Garrison as he leads his team of investigators on a wild goose chase over unsupported terrain: there are charges and counter-charges, dirty dealings and underhanded activities, clandestine meetings, supposed conspiracy theories, angry Cubans, ex-military types, contrived or fabricated evidence, numerous blind alleys, red herrings, dead or disappearing witnesses, and whatever else the D. A.’s illogical mind conjures up.

Now let us juxtapose Stone’s operatically conceived opus with an actual piece of research material: the 1989 documentary Who Shot President Kennedy? Written, directed and produced by Robert Richter, and narrated by anchorman and reporter Walter Cronkite, the level of investigative journalism demonstrated in this 57-minute feature, which takes into account every known facet of the assassination — from footage of the Dallas physicians who tried to save Kennedy’s life and computerized 3-D images of Dealey Plaza, to a frame by frame analysis of the Abraham Zapruder footage and leading critics of the Warren Commission’s findings — puts to shame many of JFK’s most far-fetched conclusions.

To begin with, what did the city of New Orleans have to do with Kennedy’s murder in Dallas, Texas? Quite a lot, as the film would have us believe. In the first place, Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman, in an uncanny personification), the so-called Lone Gunman (a designation made years after the fact), was born there; and in the second, Garrison’s bogus criminal case was aimed squarely at a New Orleans businessman named Clay Shaw (a fey Tommy Lee Jones) and his sometime partner, cross-dresser David Ferrie (a peculiarly manic and foul-mouthed Joe Pesci), scapegoats both.

Tommy Lee Jones (at left) as Clay Shaw
Tommy Lee Jones (at left) as Clay Shaw

The result is Rashomon run amok. In the end, one has no idea who to believe or how to separate the “good” guys from the “bad” guys (there are no black hats here, only varying shades of gray). In reality, Garrison tried his best to sway an incredulous court to convict Clay Shaw on flimsy if unsubstantiated evidence. If the film had stayed in the Big Easy, it might ultimately have made more sense. As it turned out, though, Stone had his fictional Garrison go in every direction at once, all the while trying his best to keep up appearances as the dedicated D.A. and devoted family man and husband.

What were those directions? Among the various corners turned, the director had his cast and crew look at the case against Oswald in much the same manner as the above-mentioned documentary, which included the single bullet theory (the timing problem, the angle of trajectory, the type of weapon fired, and other incongruous issues), the possibility of a Grassy Knoll assassin (or lack thereof), the photographic and acoustic evidence from Dealey Plaza, Oswald’s alleged ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union, likewise his FBI and CIA connections, the president’s body, the supposed botched autopsy (or “altered wounds” theory), and so on. Whew, that’s a whole lot of fat to chew on for three hours of movie time!

As we know from past experience, the longer a specific case is investigated, the more it will reveal about itself. In this instance, however, the more the JFK assassination is probed and poked at, the more speculative it gets and the more speculation surrounds it, which only leads to more unanswered questions and crackpot “theories” — some of which belong to the realm of fantasy and the bizarre, not to mention the harebrained.

Still, does the fact that the most investigated and photographed case in modern history make the resultant inquiry any less meaningful, or the findings any easier to accept? We know there were many problems with the Warren Commission’s Report, but after watching JFK one is forced to admit that Oliver Stone’s version of events is not without glitches of its own. Bravura film-making, which the director’s motion picture undeniably encompasses, does not a true picture make!

Additional problems are presented or addressed, along with newer and ever bolder hypotheses about who killed Kennedy, to include blatant, out-and-out inventions. One gets the feeling that Stone is constantly lurching for a definitive answer, which remains stubbornly out of his reach. The question at this point becomes: has Stone taken undue liberties with the facts? Can he beg our indulgence over their use by employing the oft-quoted “poetic license” excuse?

Oliver Stone conferring with Costner
Oliver Stone conferring with Kevin Costner

We may even put forth a few theories of our own, such as: doesn’t a film’s director have a responsibility — moral, ethical or otherwise — to present the facts as they are? The “truth,” if it indeed exists, is out there (at least, according to The X-Files’ Fox Mulder), so why can’t he see it?

Do directors, by their very nature, have their own agendas to pursue, arrived at before filming even begins? By their action, does it soil whatever believability has been attained, only to be buried under layer upon layer of unproven allegations? 

Are they not attempting to fit pieces of gathered evidence, conveniently labeled “the facts,” into a previously developed, predetermined script? And isn’t this another form of manipulation of past events, a parable to end all parables, the cinematic Gospel according to Stone?

All of the above certainly merits our attention, which may warrant further inquiry at a later time.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Two): ‘I Love the 80s!’

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Brotherhood of Man

Denzel Washington (Biko) & Kevin Kline (Woods) in Cry Freedom (skymovies.com)
Denzel Washington (Biko) & Kevin Kline (Woods) in Cry Freedom (skymovies.com)

During breaks from St. Elsewhere, which was on its last legs anyway as a cutting-edge television series, Denzel Washington participated in a wide range of film projects that took him to unusual and unexplored territory — unusual for him and unexplored for his growing litany of fans.

The first of these, Cry Freedom (1987), featured the actor in the supporting role of South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko. A contemporary of the late Nelson Mandela and leading founder of the Black Consciousness Movement in that racially divided state, Biko died in a Pretoria prison on September 12, 1977, after a series of brutal police interrogations.

Most individuals may recognize the name “Biko” as the title and subject of a 1980 protest song by British rocker Peter Gabriel. The worldwide outcry that resulted from his violent death — and which Mr. Gabriel’s song openly alluded to — made Biko a martyr to the cause of black resistance against the regime’s oppressive practices. Sadly, the activist did not live to see the liberation of his country from the restrictions placed on its citizens’ lives that Mandela would later bring about with his release from long-term confinement and eventual elevation to the presidency.

Shot on location in Zimbabwe and directed by former actor Richard Attenborough, whose previous work along so-called “epic” lines included such pictures as Young Winston (1972), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Gandhi (1982) and a biopic based on the life of silent-screen star Charlie Chaplin (Chaplin, 1992), Cry Freedom garnered universal praise for its earnestness of execution and faithful recreation of the period in question.

Unfortunately, it and other Attenborough efforts drew heavy criticism, too, for their low-voltage dramatics and overly respectful treatment of their subjects. One could say that Attenborough took the phrase “stiff upper lip” a tad too literally.

Still, despite these seeming shortcomings the director received a fiercely committed performance from Denzel, who earned the first of several Academy Award nominations in the Best Supporting Actor category, while sharing a wonderful working rapport with his co-star, the Juilliard School of Drama-trained Kevin Kline as Daily Dispatch reporter Donald Woods, whose posthumous books about Biko formed the basis for the screenplay.

Coincidentally or not, Cry Freedom also shared similar story elements with another British production from three years’ prior, that of Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields (1984), a film about the Khmer Rouge massacres in the war-torn region of Cambodia. In that harrowing flick, real-life Killing Fields survivor Haing S. Ngor played journalist and interpreter Dith Pran, whose friendship with New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg (a pre-Law & Order Sam Waterston) echoed the close bond reflected in Washington and Kline’s onscreen relationship: that is, of two men of different races and backgrounds joining hands across the divide for a common and worthwhile purpose.

The final result, though, received a mixed reception from the press, most of who felt Cry Freedom concentrated too much on Woods and not enough on Biko — a fair assessment given the amount of screen time Kline received over Denzel, but one that did not take into account the narrative arc of the story. To silence the would-be “wags,” as it were, Biko does appear in flashback after his death (albeit, intermittently). Interestingly, the most moving episode occurs when Woods and Biko’s widow, Wendy (Penelope Wilton), are left to gaze upon and mourn his mangled corpse.

For Denzel Washington, his quiet, dignified take on a figure of stature from recent history would without a doubt prepare him for the role of a lifetime, that of Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s biographical picture of the same name.

Hail Britannia – Not!

Denzel as Reuben, For Queen and Country (thelasttemptationofjaime.blogspot.com)
Denzel as Reuben, For Queen and Country (thelasttemptationofjaime.blogspot.com)

That dream assignment was still a few years off, though. In compensation for the wait, Denzel would prowl the nighttime streets in two back-to-back police/action dramas — one good and one bad. Starting things off on the wrong foot, let’s take the bad one first: For Queen and Country (1989), a crime thriller filmed in England that takes place during the Margaret Thatcher-era of low expectations and high unemployment.

Washington plays Reuben, an ex-soldier born in the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia, a former British colony. “He’s a guy who fought for Britain in the Falklands,” Denzel told the Los Angeles Times, “and finds it frustrating when he tries to re-adapt to life at home.” Sounds like a winner for Mr. Washington, right? Wrong! About 60 percent of the movie was financed with American capital, or about $3.5 million. However, it made back a much lower amount than that figure would suggest: box-office numbers from that period show For Queen and Country barely reaching $200,000 in receipts, a dismal showing at best.

The reasons for the film’s failure lay strictly with the formulaic script. It starts off well, with a cool-as-a-cucumber Denzel searching for work in a drastically altered West London landscape — altered, one should add, via a government law that stripped him and other nationals of their rights as British citizens. Encountering blatant racism and an enormous lack of opportunity (the film is front-loaded with anti-Thatcher rhetoric), the out-of-work Reuben reluctantly turns to the drug trade for survival as well as to help a friend in distress.

Our “what-the…?” quotient rises exponentially from here on, as the picture flounders under the weight of a standard police-crime procedural topped by a contrived ending. A major wrong turn for our hero Denzel, in its halfhearted attempt to pump him up to action-movie status, For Queen and Country veered from a likeable character study to a pale imitation of either an unfunny Eddie Murphy cop caper (of which there are legion) or a poor man’s Lethal Weapon (without the presence of Mel Gibson for laughs).

Time to Pah-tee, Pah-tee, Pah-tee!

Denzel as Quinn & Robert Townsend as Maubee in The Mighty Quinn (roberebert.com)
Denzel as Quinn & Robert Townsend as Maubee in The Mighty Quinn (roberebert.com)

A livelier and far more pleasurable outing — in ways that will become apparent to audiences later on, it points the way toward many of the actor’s future endeavors — The Mighty Quinn, Denzel’s next “shot on location” extravaganza, ushered in the year 1989 in true party-hearty fashion.

Picking up on a thread first hinted at in For Queen and Country, The Mighty Quinn takes place on a fictional Caribbean Island called St. Caro (unmentioned in the film, but spelled out in the book on which it was based). The real island paradise of Jamaica, however, stood in for the dirty dealings, shady situations and suspicious goings-on that exist in sleepy St. Caro — none of which disguise the lilting tropical accents, gorgeous tropical vistas, and equally beauteous lasses that populate the town and parade by Xavier Quinn, the island’s chief of police, charmingly played by Denzel.

There are more plot twists and memorably implausible moments in this feature than your average Warner Bros. thriller from Hollywood’s Golden Age — think the convoluted elements of The Maltese Falcon crossed with To Have and Have Not, and you have a reasonably good facsimile of what Chief Quinn and you, the viewer, have to put up with.

Music does charm these savage beasts, though, with the constantly recurring sounds of Jamaican rhythms not far in the background, embodied by a guest cameo of Rita Marley, the iconic Bob Marley’s widow, adding a note of authenticity to the nightclub scenes. It’s here that Chief Quinn shows off hitherto untapped pianistic abilities (Denzel claims to have tinkled the ivories while still in high school). He’s also got a pretty decent blues voice, interrupted when a makeshift band strikes up a reggae-rendition of Bob Dylan’s “The Mighty Quinn,” an affectionate yet humorous jab at their bemused police chief.

Denzel’s handsomely impressive early visage at a wedding is striking, to say the least: wearing reflective Ray-Bans to ward off the effects of the late afternoon sun, he’s dapper in his dress-white constable’s uniform with matching pith helmet. Right away, the chief exerts the force of his authority, and demonstrates FBI-trained fighting skills, with his thwarting of a potential stabbing of the bridegroom by an uninvited guest. But the big payoff occurs when he finally confronts his childhood playmate, Maubee, languidly and impishly enacted by a perpetually toothy Robert Townsend.

It seems that his buddy Maubee is the sought-after perpetrator of a horrific murder. The victim? The wealthy owner of a luxury hotel in Quinn’s district. This results in a veritable cat-and-mouse game between Quinn and Maubee, in addition to various unsavory individuals they encounter along the way. Bobbing and weaving — now you see him, now you don’t — Maubee is harder to pin down than a Jamaican bobsled team. Quinn maintains a healthy skepticism throughout, since he just can’t believe his no-account friend would involve himself in such a crime.

Denzel and Townsend bounce off one another’s quirks and star-power personalities beautifully in a deliberate, low-key manner that makes the characters’ onscreen association as witty and endearing as any in recent filmdom. And that’s saying a lot for Townsend! A lesser actor would have been chewing up the scenery long before the finale, but not him. To what do we owe this credible relationship? Mostly to Denzel’s generosity and professionalism in allowing his acting partner, Townsend, enough leeway to create a believable counterpoint to Washington’s unconvinced Chief Quinn.

Surely, both Quinn and Maubee’s Caribbean-flavored accents are more authentic in this picture than Denzel’s was in For Queen and Country. Maybe this film needed to be retitled For Quinn and Country, but that’s a choice the late Swiss-born director Carl Schenkel needed to have considered.

As far as Mr. Washington’s subsequent screen career went, here’s a quote from Roger Ebert’s review at the time of The Mighty Quinn’s release: “The film stars Denzel Washington in one of those roles that creates a movie star overnight. In an effortless way… he is able to be tough and gentle at the same time, able to play a hero and yet not take himself too seriously.”

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I’d like to add my two cents and declare the entire film to be in this vein: one can’t take it too seriously as a crime drama or too lightly as a musical dramedy either. It’s both, it’s neither. It’s here, it’s there, it’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that — much like its title character, Quinn, and its second lead, Maubee. They’re amiable and frisky, sexy and scheming individuals when they want to be, yet clever and loyal to each other when the truth eventually comes to light about the murder. Not to give anything away, but in the end when Maubee goes down, Chief Quinn winds up on top… big time. Tanks, mon!

(End of Part Two – To be continued)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘I See Dead People’ — Whatever Happened to M. Night Shyalaman’s Film Talent?

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From Film School to Film Magic

M. Night Shyamalan (seriable.com)
Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan (seriable.com)

Indian-born director and screenwriter Manoj Shyamalan, known in the film trade as M. Night Shyamalan, first burst upon the scene a little more than twenty years ago. He grew up in an affluent Philadelphia neighborhood. In fact, many of his best films take place in or around his hometown of “Philly.”

A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Shyamalan was taken with the film medium from an early age. Much like his hero Steven Spielberg (and another young talent, director J.J. Abrams), Shyamalan was a huge fan of Super-8 filmmaking, with literally dozens of home movies to his credit. He went on to direct two early full-length features: a student film, Praying with Anger (1992), which his family helped to finance, and Wide Awake (1995), released three years later.

Shyamalan wrote or co-wrote various Hollywood screenplays, some of which were turned into actual movies. However, in 1999 he hit pay dirt with the stunning worldwide success of The Sixth Sense. Two consecutive first-run features later (Unbreakable in 2000, and Signs in 2001), Shyamalan came up dry with the risible The Village from 2004.

His next flick, Lady in the Water (2006), was even more disappointing, and his worst-performing film excursion yet. He recovered, somewhat, with the release of The Happening, one of those apocalyptic “end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it” exercises that were all the rage after the 2008 financial crisis. Although it encapsulated some of the director’s pet themes (i.e., of people coming together in a crisis, even though their personal problems get in the way of overcoming their present difficulties), The Happening happened to sink of its own weight.

A critical bomb but a financial blessing, Shyamalan’s subsequent 2010 production of The Last Airbender (in mind-bending 3D), based on the animated show Avatar: The Last Airbender for the Nickelodeon network, proved he still had the Midas touch — internationally at least, if not domestically: the film made back its initial investment (and then some) with a whopping $320 million take.

He subsequently entered into a deal with actor Will Smith, his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, and their son Jaden, to direct and co-write the screenplay for the sci-fi adventure flick After Earth in 2013, which starred the Smith team (father and son). It received extremely mixed reviews from both audiences and critics and, true to form, bombed big-time at U.S. box offices but earned a whopping $248 million worldwide. Go figure!

Still, the question has to be asked: whatever happened to M. Night Shyamalan’s blazing talent behind the lens? Has the fire gone out of his movie-making once and for all? Where is the film-school guru we once knew and where is he headed, now that his early screen successes have all-but dwindled to a mere handful, if that?

It’s hard to tell, really, where the Dark Night of Shyamalan’s soul will eventually end up. There’s only one way to find out, however, and that’s by revisiting the past (another favorite theme of his) and taking a closer look at the director’s previous output and most lucrative film ventures.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

Haley Joel Osment & Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense
Haley Joel Osment & Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense

A film that seeps into one’s subconscious at odd hours and times, 1999’s The Sixth Sense is a modern ghost story told in purely existential terms. Child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (played by a thoroughly laid-back Bruce Willis) tries desperately to help antisocial patient Cole Sear, a young boy with a most peculiar problem: he sees dead people (no kidding!).

Both Malcolm and Cole learn their proper place in the world through a series of passive-emotional shrink sessions interspersed with ghostly visions. Check out Cole’s last name for a clue to his “unique” abilities.

The film establishes its own ground rules, and wisely keeps to them. One of the few modern productions that’s as much of a joy to watch as to listen to, The Sixth Sense quickly established Mr. Shyamalan as a movie maker on the rise, with many intelligent plot points to ponder. It’s cleverly written (one could say too clever by half). The sound design plays an integral part in the drama, as does the rich color scheme and gorgeous cinematography of Tak Fujimoto (The Silence of the Lambs). James Newton Howard wrote the creepy musical score.

Willis is superb as the child psychologist Malcolm, and the young and talented Haley Joel Osment (A.I. Artificial Intelligence) underplays his part as the boy, Cole. As actors, he and Willis have an amiable working relationship that gives their characters needed believability. If understatement were used in most movies of this type, we would be reveling in a mass movement at this point.

The surprise ending, which this film is rightly celebrated for, will both shock and perplex you, thus forcing one to go over the entire movie again from the beginning. This is Shyamalan’s strongest suit, that is, his ability to lead audiences in exactly the direction he wants them to go, by both subtle and surreptitious means, until he hits them over the head with those left-of-left-field revelations. Hitchcock would be pleased.

Toni Collette plays Cole’s mom. Donnie Wahlberg (ex-New Kid on the Block) lost forty pounds to play Willis’ crazed former mental patient, Vincent Grey, in a remarkably concentrated, intense performance that lasts all of a few minutes on the screen. Vincent is the catalyst that drives what happens next. Glenn Fitzgerald is Cole’s teacher nicknamed Stuttering Stanley, and Shyamalan appears in an unbilled role as a doctor (in honor of his parents, who are both physicians).

An excellent effort by all concerned and a big winner at the box office, The Sixth Sense sealed Shyamalan’s fate for all time. See it, if you can, but not with small children: there are a few intense moments scattered throughout.

Unbreakable (2000)

Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable
Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah Price in Unbreakable

Real-life superheroes and their nemeses don’t really exist, but it sure would be nice if they did — and this film charts the thought-provoking possibilities of such an event actually taking place.

Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s meticulous follow-up to his surprise hit, The Sixth Sense, is an ode to the world of comic-book lore. He is one of the few filmmakers around who can afford to take his time in telling a good story, while giving us plenty of food for thought along the way.

The low-key approach he brings to the subject of comic books and action heroes is much appreciated and clearly in the style of his earlier success above. The film has its longueurs, but is nonetheless extremely well made. We learn there can be no “good” in this world without the coexistence of “evil”; that what we perceive as the status quo is often not what it seems, as the search for one’s rightful place in it can turn into a lifelong, often-times fruitless endeavor. The confrontation between Elijah and David at the end summarizes their relationship: it’s captured in a whirlwind reenactment of scenes reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

The acting throughout Unbreakable is splendid, especially by Bruce Willis as security guard David Dunn, who has never been sick a day in his life; Samuel L. Jackson (whose coiffure was modeled after that of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass) as Elijah Price, the owner of the comic-book store; Charlayne Woodard as his concerned mom; Spencer Treat Clark (Gladiator) as Willis’ hero-worshiping son; and Robin Penn Wright as Willis’ stressed out wife. The score is by James Newton Howard, and the muted cinematography is by Eduardo Serra.

The physical look of the production closely resembles the panels of an actual comic book, and offers a unique perspective on comic-book art and its recent manifestations on the big screen. Unbreakable is a captivating, thought-provoking work that certainly predates the current trend in super-hero action spectacles (i.e., X-Men, Spider-Man, Watchmen, Iron Man, Thor, The Avengers, and their ilk) by several years, while treating the subject with a childlike innocence and reverence for its existential viewpoint.

A fascinating concept, though not totally convincing, we must give director Shyamalan (who also wrote the screenplay) high marks for trying. He even has a bit part as a suspicious-looking sports fan that Willis stops and questions at the gate (his acting isn’t too bad, either). Highly recommended for sports fans everywhere!

Signs (2002)

Mel Gibson & Joaquin Phoenix in Signs
Mel Gibson & Joaquin Phoenix mull around the table in Signs

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds gets a modern makeover in this deliberately paced but more-than-effective suspense thriller from the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. One of its many virtues is the lack of elaborate special effects to distract viewers from the main story line.

The plot, in this instance, involves mysterious crop circles found in Mel Gibson’s cornfield, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The question soon arises: are enemy aliens really about to invade the Earth, or is it all a hoax, an elaborate form of mass hysteria? M. Night Shyamalan certainly knows how to handle numerous tidbits of minutiae, piling on hint after hint in subtle and ingenious ways, until the viewer becomes unaware of the full extent of his manipulation. He also has a cameo in a key role as Ray Reddy, a neighbor with a guilty conscience harboring an uninvited house guest.

Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a grieving, disillusioned ex-minister who needs a healthy dollop of faith to snap him back to reality after his wife (Patricia Kalember) is killed in a horrific traffic accident. He must learn to cope with the loss without his customary assurance and bravado. Gibson is filled with a coiled tension just seething below the surface that manifests itself at key points in the drama, particularly during his son’s asthmatic attacks and in his family’s flight to the cellar. That he’s finally able to pull it together and keep his family intact is one of many satisfactory outcomes at the end.

Joaquin Phoenix is particularly adept as his sad-sack brother Merrill, a former minor-league baseball player who still knows how to swing a bat. Both actors play off one another beautifully. They have a long, protracted, and vastly pleasurable scene in which the discussion centers on the meaning of “luck and coincidence,” “fear and hope.” It charts the film’s course, much as the Vincent Grey sequence from The Sixth Sense did, only fuller and longer.

Cherry Jones is Police Officer Caroline Paski, whose motherly concern for Gibson’s well-being goes above and beyond the call of duty (but not in a bad way). Gibson’s motherless kids are wonderfully played by Rory Culkin (Macaulay’s little brother) and the adorable Abigail Breslin (she’s so cute you want to squeeze her); the eerily subliminal film-score is by James Newton Howard, done as homage to the late master, Bernard Herrmann: there are noticeable traces of Psycho and Vertigo abounding in it. It even begins with that scratchy violin from Camille Saint-Saëns’ concert piece, Danse Macabre. (Talk about creepy!)

There are also numerous references to The Birds and other Hitchcock thrillers throughout its running time. Shyamalan uses a framing device wherein he positions his actors in or near doorways, porches, archways, and such in order to look into the main characters’ souls. Interestingly, there is more humor in this film than in any other the director has worked on.

Of all Shyamalan’s films, this is a must-see for fans of the extraterrestrial invasion genre, despite a few protracted sequences. Stay with this one all the way, though, as you will be amply rewarded for the effort. It should play better on DVD and Blu-ray Disc. And do take the PG-13 rating seriously.

The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs can be viewed and enjoyed as part of a tripartite whole. I encourage readers to download, rent or buy (if you feel up to it) all three of these terrific films. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

As for M. Night Shyamalan’s remaining oeuvre, I’d give them a wide berth for now. Who knows what his future brings? If the past is any indication, something better this way may come … The “signs” all point to some improvement!

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’ (1948) – Doing the Universal Monster Mash

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Dracula (Bela Lugosi) hypnotizes Wilbur (Lou Costello) (rue-morgue.com)
Dracula (Bela Lugosi) hypnotizes Wilbur (Lou Costello) (rue-morgue.com)

Back in 1948, when horror films had just about reached their peak of popularity after so many low-budget vehicles starring the likes of Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Frankenstein Monster, and the Mummy, Universal Pictures decided on a revival strategy of reuniting their patented movie monsters with their most successful comedy duo, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

Thus, the engaging romp known as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein came into being, and how thankful we are, too. Co-starring Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Lenore Aubert, Glenn Strange, Jane Randolph, Charles Bradstreet, Frank Ferguson, and the mellifluous voice of Vincent Price, this hilarious “creature feature” became Bud and Lou’s most financially lucrative venture.

The plot involves two scatter-brained railway porters, Chick Young (Abbott) and Wilbur Gray (Costello), finding Count Dracula (Lugosi) and the Frankenstein Monster (Strange) alive and well and living (?) in the state of Florida. Dracula is intent on reviving the weakened Monster for his own fiendish purposes. Toward that end, he enlists the aid of sexy scientist Dr. Sandra Mornay (Aubert) as an all-too willing accomplice in his scheme. Their plan: to put Wilbur’s pliable brain into the Monster’s body (yikes!).

Before this nightmare can take place, however, Wilbur is rescued by his pal Chick and the always-fidgety Lawrence Talbot (Chaney), who chooses that inopportune moment to transform into (you guessed it) the hirsute Wolf Man. Oh, and there’s a surprise “visit” by the Invisible Man (Price) at the end.

Lou & Lon Chaney as the Wolfman (ebay.com)
Lou & Lon Chaney as the Wolf Man (ebay.com)

Riotous farce with great special effects for the period (thanks to makeup artists Bud Westmore and Jack Kevan) amid the studio-bound sets, the film’s zany script underwent multiple changes to story line and plot, until finally arriving at a fairly pleasing balance between slapstick comedy and out-and-out horror. It may have sounded funny to their fans, but Costello himself remained dubious of its worth — until an added enticement of a $50,000 studio bonus made Louie see the “light,” so to speak.

As a matter of fact, the opening animated sequence, where skeletal versions of Bud and Lou appear alongside cartoon silhouettes of the movie’s monsters and Dr. Mornay, as well as the scenes of Dracula’s amazing transformations into a bat (and vice versa), were all done by Walter Lantz, who was best known as the animator of Woody Woodpecker.

The boys share a fine rapport with their guests — in particular Lugosi, who was nearing the end of his black caped career. It’s hard to tell if his pasty-faced countenance was due to makeup or his debilitating drug habit (well documented in Tim Burton’s equally worthy “biopic,” Ed Wood).

The so-called rapport, unfortunately, was plainly one-sided. According to Charles Barton, who oversaw many of the boys’ Hollywood forays and was, by all accounts, Lou’s preferred director of mayhem, Lugosi was not at all amused by their on-set antics, which included all-night poker games, pie throwing, exploding cigars, practical jokes, improvised line readings, and general misbehavior and mischief.

Bud & Lou in Dracula's cellar
Bud & Lou exploring Dracula’s cellar (“Broom closet?”

The appropriately eerie score by Frank Skinner, a hands-down favorite of movie fans, was reused innumerable times for Universal’s subsequent monster pix. Abbott and Costello regulars Bobby Barber and Joe Kirk (who was Costello’s brother-in-law, by the way) also appear in small bits. Film buffs should keep their ears cocked for Lou’s flubbing of a line (“I’m telling you, Abbott,” instead of “Chick”) as they search for Dracula in the cellar.

Be sure to catch this one on Turner Classic Movies when it’s shown during Halloween. Our favorite scene from among so many comedic delights: a worried Chaney confesses to the boys that, when the full moon rises, he turns into a wolf. To which Costello innocently remarks, “You and twenty million other guys.” Chuckle, chuckle. (Laugh it up, fuzzball!)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Exorcist’ (1973) – Our Fright Flick Pick of the Week

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The Exorcist (www.imamusuem.org)
Iconic image from The Exorcist (www.imamusuem.org)

Confession is Good for the Soul

Two priests — one young, one old — are in the midst of performing the Roman Catholic rite of exorcism in a suburban Georgetown home. The temperature in the room has gone down to 30 below zero Fahrenheit. As the priests repeat ad nauseam the ancient phrase, “The power of Christ compels you!”, they sprinkle holy water over the free-floating form of a twelve-year-old girl. But instead of healing her, the water makes deep gashes in the girl’s skin, as she continues to bellow and roar in anguish.

The shocking events that follow are all part of director William Friedkin’s two-hour fright-fest The Exorcist, one of the most chilling and suggestive examples of horror ever committed to celluloid. Written by novelist William Peter Blatty, who adapted his own 1971 bestseller for the screen and worked as one of the producers, the film begins, innocently enough, at an archeological site somewhere in Northern Iraq.

The elderly Father Lankester Merrin (a wrinkled up Max von Sydow in old-man makeup) suspects an old “enemy” has been let loose on the Earth in the form of an ancient relic — a powerful demon, to be exact. To his horror, Father Merrin realizes that sooner or later he will have to come to grips with this evil force, their final confrontation taking place in the climactic exorcism scene described above.

Back in Georgetown, a troubled younger priest named Father Damien Karras (a somber and dark visaged Jason Miller) is approached by Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), a desperate actress and single mother whose twelve-year-old daughter Regan (the fresh-faced Linda Blair) is experiencing, shall we say, dramatic physical and behavioral changes — an “extreme makeover” no child would want (and no mother could love).

Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist
Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil in The Exorcist

Distressed and at the end of her rope — and far from being religiously inclined — Chris literally begs Father Karras to perform an exorcism on the girl, but Karras is not so easily convinced. To start with, the priest has doubts about his own faith, and worries if exorcism is the right path to take. After seeing Regan “in the flesh,” sort to speak, Karras decides to seek the Church’s advice and aid in combating the vile menace that’s taken over Chris’ little girl. That’s where Father Merrin comes in, the experienced exorcist of the title.

Demonic possession is the winner-take-all game — and the devil, or something claiming to be the devil, plays for keeps. Regan’s transformation from a cute and playful youngster into a projectile vomiting, filthy-tongued monstrosity (“Your mother sucks cocks in hell” is one of the film’s classic lines) serves as the special FX centerpiece to the drama, one of the scariest features we know.

Filmed on location at Georgetown University near Washington, D.C., and at Fordham University in the Bronx (where yours truly went to school!), the lead actors underwent unbelievable pain and suffering to produce this much heralded masterpiece of the shock genre. The book, while richer in detail and background information (it was on the New York Times Best Seller list for over a year), was appalling enough for readers; but the film version transcended the normal boundaries of the printed page to deliver a gut-wrenching punch to the solar plexus at every opportunity.

Yet its main strength remains the ironclad script, Blatty’s first serious success for the screen after early attempts with director Blake Edwards. He went on to direct The Exorcist III (1990) based on his book Legacy, but none of the subsequent sequels approached the original’s visual flair or dark, satanic tone. The story follows an inevitable arc that leads to the ultimate discovery of who the devil’s true victim is in the end. Kudos as well to director Billy Friedkin (The French Connection) for getting his cast to undergo almost as much physical torture and discomfort as their fictional counterparts.

The end result is gripping storytelling at its edge-of-the-seat finest. In addition to the superb technical aspects — by makeup man Dick Smith (Amadeus), and effects wizard Marcel Vercoutere — the sound plays an absolutely integral part in the overall production design, thanks to Robert Knudson and Christopher Newman (both Oscar Winners), and especially Mexican sound technician Gonzalo Gavira of El Topo fame.

Max von Sydow & Jason Miller (andsoitbeginsfilms.com)
Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) & Father Damien (Jason Miller) in The Exorcist  (andsoitbeginsfilms.com)

Jason Miller, who was also a fine playwright (That Championship Season) as well as comedian Jackie Gleason’s son-in-law, proved a wise choice for the role of Damien Karras, a man burdened by guilt over the neglect of his elderly mother; while Max von Sydow, who was then in his early 40s, made an excellent elder exorcist. Their faith in the power of good is put to the supreme test in the all-important exorcism sequence.

Along with Burstyn and Blair, this quartet of key players brings a convincing presence to everyday individuals thrust into a maelstrom of horrific events few of us can cope with or ever imagine experiencing. Because of their utter believability, taking whatever was thrown at them in stride (they were locked up for days in an ice-cold room cooled by industrial-strength air conditioners), that exorcism episode retains its devastating power 40 years after the fact. Lives are lost, sacrifices are made — and good eventually triumphs over evil, but not in the way one would come to expect.

The fine supporting cast includes veteran Lee J. Cobb as kindly Lieutenant Kinderman (the subject of Exorcist III), Jack MacGowran (who died shortly after completing his part) as Burke Dennings, William O’Malley (an actual Jesuit priest, who served as technical adviser on the project) as Father Joe Dyer, and Rev. Tom Bermingham, another real-life priest, with Kitty Wynn, Vasiliki Maliaros, Titos Vandis, Peter Masterson, Barton Heyman, and Wallace Rooney. The electronically enhanced voice of the demon was mouthed by veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge (albeit by ex post facto credit).

And, yes, that really was thick green-pea soup that Linda Blair sprayed all over Jason Miller’s face. The urban legend that audience members had fainted and thrown up in theater aisles at the time of the film’s release is based on documented fact. We dare you to see it with the lights out! Go on … do it …

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Two) – The Best is Yet to Come!

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Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?

Marlon Brando & Johnny Depp, Don Juan DeMarco (www.blu-ray.com)
Marlon Brando & Johnny Depp in Don Juan DeMarco (www.blu-ray.com)

From my previous post, whereby I discussed actor Johnny Depp’s earliest forays into the cinematic realm (see link:https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/whats-eating-johnny-depp-the-actor-at-age-50-a-mid-career-retrospective/), one might have gathered from the evidence at hand that the recently turned half-century-old movie star enjoys playing nothing but lunatics, locos, kooks, oddballs, and all-around nut-jobs – and not necessarily in that order.

Far from it! A mere cursory look at his bulging filmography from the 1990s to the 2000s shows that decade to have been a most fertile period for the maturing Mr. Depp, one filled with challenging acting assignments and first-rate opportunities. But more significantly for his many admirers, it featured a welcome diversity and abundance of offbeat characterizations rarely encountered in the portfolio of lesser acting talents.

Take, for example, his pairing with movie veterans Marlon Brando and Faye Dunaway in the quirky romantic comedy Don Juan DeMarco (1995), about a handsome young man who believes he is the reincarnation of the notorious Latin lover, Don Juan. Depp’s traversal of the delusional but amorously-inspired Señor DeMarco caused a virtual stampede at the box office, compared to his previous efforts.

His spot-on Spanish accent (quite charming, I must say), Zorro-like mask, and broad-brimmed hat – not to mention that elegantly placed earring of his – add flavor and spice and everything very, very nice to Johnny’s performance. No doubt his seductive voice played a huge role in creating a convincing character, one capable of sweeping women viewers off their feet. Depp also got to show off his burgeoning swordsmanship, a skill that would come in handy on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean a few years hence.

Incidentally, the oft-repeated line, “Have you ever really loved a woman,” is echoed in the theme song by the same name, sung by Bryan Adams (and co-written with Michael Kamen and Robert John “Mutt” Lange) over the closing credits and played several times throughout the picture.

On a side note, Depp’s sessions with portly shrink Brando, wherein one of them has Marlon holding a cup of coffee in his hands while simultaneously reciting his lines to a seemingly attentive Don Juan – with the lines deliberately pasted onto the cup – are just one of that film’s highlights. The other is seeing two over-the-hill screen stars, Brando and Dunaway, play off one another so beautifully (and dance so vibrantly, too). They actually seem to be having the time of their lives, as they waltz in time to the movie’s theme.

What Johnny must have thought of all this remains an unspoken secret between him and the late Mr. Brando! It was another example of Depp’s eschewing of mainstream material for more (how shall we put it?) audacious and unconventional film fare.

Time is Not on His Side

Nick of Time movie poster
Nick of Time movie poster

Speaking of the audacious and unconventional… Depp chose as his next project the time-sensitive thriller, Nick of Time. Also from 1995, the film was steered by action-movie director John Badham (Blue Thunder, WarGames, Point of No Return). Here, Johnny gets to play a mild-mannered accountant (we know he’s mild-mannered because of his wire-rimmed glasses – otherwise, how would you know it, right?), recently widowed and toting his young daughter along to a modern-day Amtrak station in modern-day L.A.

Depp meets up with two unsavory plotters, a Mr. “Smith” (vicious and no-nonsense Christopher Walken) and a Ms. “Jones” (humorless cohort Roma Maffia). The duo “enlists” him in an elaborate scheme wherein Depp is forced to comply with their plan to assassinate the state’s Governor (Marsha Mason), or else risk getting his daughter killed in exactly one hour and a half. Why that specific time frame? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out!

Despite the tight deadline (and preposterous twists and turns of the plot), Johnny manages to convince a reluctant shoeshine guy, played by a crotchety and supposedly deaf Charles S. Dutton, to “aid” him in his quest at thwarting the thugs. This one boasts a reasonably high “incredibility” quotient (or, if you prefer, “What the f—–k was that?”), but with Depp in charge, all turns out well in the end. Would it be otherwise?

As farfetched as these types of convoluted story lines tend to be, Johnny played it straight throughout, sweating profusely as he watches the clock tick down to the appointed hour. So what’s the gimmick? It was all shot in “real time,” which neither audiences nor critics bought. The result: a big-time money-loser for all concerned.

Dead Men Tell No Tales

Dead Man (wallmay.net1)
Dead Man (wallmay.net1)

Johnny’s next challenge (and another bomb at the box-office, I’m sorry to say) was to headline a Western — a revisionist Western of all things, by cult director Jim Jarmusch. The film, Dead Man (1995), was not the type of picture most audience members liked or even cared for, but it did draw some positive reviews from critics, including the suitably impressed A.O. Scott of the New York Times, who insisted on calling it “one of the very best movies of the 1990s.” Uh, okay…

Shot in purposefully artsy-fartsy black and white, and with an earsplitting, wholly improvised electric-guitar score by rocker Neil Young, Johnny at least got to work with the independently financed Jarmusch, who in addition to his directing credits could add screenwriting, producing, acting, editing, and composing to his many and diverse accomplishments.

The picture featured a flock of celebrity participants, all of whom were working for Actor’s Equity wages it would seem (the budget was a mere $9 million). Among his fellow thespians were the likes of Robert Mitchum, John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, Crispin Glover (his face blackened by coal), Gary Farmer, Lance Henricksen, Michael Wincott, Billy Bob Thornton, Mili Avital, Alfred Molina, and (yikes!) the scandalous Iggy Pop.

Depp plays another of those passive/aggressive accountant types (with the requisite wire-rimmed glasses, no less) who, thanks to bogus advertising, heeds the ad’s bad advice by going west, young man – all the way from Cleveland, Ohio! Upon his arrival in the dingy western town of Machine, he’s told the accounting job has been filled and to be on his way, or else. Whereupon, Depp immediately gets into trouble by shooting the local gambler (Byrne), who happens to be the son of the owner (Mitchum) of the company that just showed him the door.

As you can tell, complications ensue, one of them being the accountant’s name: William Blake. The other is a tag-along, wiseacre of a Native American named Nobody (a droll Gary Farmer), in an obvious homage to those Italian-made spaghetti Westerns starring Terence Hill. Nobody is enamored with Depp’s moniker (hint: he thinks he’s that William Blake, the poet and painter). You can imagine the put-ons, puns, and wordplay these two engage in! Farmer gets the biggest laugh of all, when he calls Johnny a “stupid fucking white man!” This is in addition to the frequently uttered “Have you got any tobacco?” line, which is an all-too prevalent query, to the point of annoyance.

Depp & Gary Farmer in Dead Man (tvtropes.org)
Depp & Gary Farmer in Dead Man (tvtropes.org)

In mirroring its title, the atmosphere throughout Dead Man is deadpan, while the humor (or what passes for humor) is decidedly dark and low-key. Depp, however, is always worth watching. He has a real connection to this production via his own Native American roots, or so it’s been claimed. There’s a spiritual side to the story, too, as well as a touch of poetry and elegance. But what’s the point? The settings are stark and the skies are gray – for atmosphere, one would guess. However, the ever-present violence and one-too-many stomach-churning episodes (including throat-slashing and a head being crushed underfoot by one of the hired guns) may turn more viewers off than on.

Depp’s passive/aggressive mannerisms, however – that is, of a flailing fish out of water, a character so out of touch with his surroundings, yet who somehow manages to extricate himself from his difficulties, while at the same time getting involved in situations he’d be better off not getting involved in – would be repeated innumerable times in the films to come.

(End of Part Two – To be continued…)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes