Abel Ferrara’s vivacious and scandalous new film Welcome to New York possesses an intense sexual energy that’s largely been absent from movies in recent years. Yes, sex is constantly on display in the movies, but this film resonates with a fierceness that feels exciting and troubling all at once. It plays like a great companion piece to The Wolf of Wall Street in the sense that the audience is asked to spend time with a morally questionable (and at times reprehensible) lead character who then starts to show his human façade when his carefully constructed universe starts crashing down all around him. In one of the best performances I’ve seen in recent memory, Gerard Depardieu is absolutely animalistic as a composite version of IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who famously was arrested after being accused of sexual assault by a hotel employee while staying in New York. Ferrara and co-writer Christ Zois (the two have co-scripted four films together) clearly based this explosive and highly erotic film around the debauched exploits of Strauss-Kahn even though Depardieu’s character goes by a different name, that of Devereaux. We watch as his marriage to his long suffering wife, played with pent up anger and hostility by a fantastic Jacqueline Bisset, starts to suffer more than it ever has; the scenes between Depardieu and Bisset sting with a Cassavetes-style rawness that speaks to the honesty of the dialogue and the clarity of the direction. Shot by longtime Ferrara collaborator Ken Kelsch, the film has a seductive but never garish visual style, with the moneyed locations befitting the high-rolling lifestyles on display, while Kelsch’s camera seems positively enamored by all of the nubile naked flesh on display. Because make no mistake – this is a film that loves cinematic sexuality, with Depardieu involved in any number of trysts with any number of participants, portraying a man with a boundless sexual appetite that would finally become his downfall. The procedural aspects after he’s arrested are fascinating, there’s a bit with Depardieu having to strip down for a prison-style body search that has some of the most unflattering nudity that I can think of (which also further underscores the personal humiliation of the character), and the final shot of the movie is coldly brilliant, and very similar to Wolf of Wall Street, informing everything that’s come before while making a comment on the future. If you’re interested in seeing this film in the manner that the filmmakers intended, the only way to do that (legally, of course) is to purchase the Region 2 Blu-ray, which has an “Alternative Cut,” which should really be marketed as a “Director’s Cut,” because from what I’ve read, Ferrara was none too pleased with what happened to his film after production had ended. He’s always been a challenging, ballsy, in-your-face filmmaker (my favorites, along with this one, include King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, The Funeral, and Body Snatchers), and Welcome to New York demonstrates that after more than 30 feature films, he’s lost none of his wild, provocative edge.
The Silence of the Lambs is one of those virtually flawless films that feel as if nothing could be improved upon. It continually stands the test of time. There’s zero fat on the bones of the narrative, Jonathan Demme’s observant style was perfectly attuned to the psychologically disturbing material, the performances were beyond reproach, and Tak Fujimoto’s stark cinematography paired perfectly with Craig McKay’s astute sense of judiciously timed editing; every scene in this film has been designed for maximum impact but without ever showing its aesthetic hand in an obvious way. I’ve long been obsessed with the way Demme frames his actors in the middle of the frame, resulting in compositions that feel unnerving and unique in a manner that truly burrows under the skin. Jodie Foster’s performance is easily the best of her career, and Ted Tally’s screenplay has a sense of economy that never betrays character development or small important details; the dialogue is also sinister and witty and brilliant. What else can really be said about the iconic nature of Anthony Hopkins’ work in this film? He’s chillingly engaging, and despite the fact that he’s a lethal killer, because of how Hopkins played the part, you understand how and why Foster’s Clarice Starling would grow emotionally attached to him. The supporting performances are all excellent, with Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Anthony Heald, and Frankie Faison all turning in unforgettable screen moments. I had the pleasure of watching much of this movie frame by frame during a college course, and it’s extraordinary when dissected at close proximity, and you realize more and more just how incredibly in synch Demme was with Fujimoto and McKay. The film boasts an absolutely haunting score by Howard Shore that dials up the tension at almost every moment, never going for gotcha! sound cues, instead stressing a nightmarish soundscape that envelopes the picture at key moments. Years from now, as many films have come and gone, this will be one that people will look back on as a shining example within a well-traveled genre.
I’m pleased to announce that I recently had the chance to chat with Jesse V. Johnson, a veteran stuntman who also has some films of his own that he has directed, which are excellent. He has done an unbelievable amount of stunt work, including Total Recall, Mars Attacks, Starship Troopers, The Thin Red Line, Point Blank, Mercury Rising, Charlie’s Angels, Planet Of The Apes, Terminator 3, War Of The Worlds, Beowulf, Avatar, Thor, The Adventures Of Tintin, The Master, Lincoln, The Amazing Spider Man, and so may more. He has directed his own projects including The Butcher, The Package and Charlie Valentine. I’m very pleased to have been able to speak with him in the interview below.
Nate: What were some of your favourite movies and directors growing up who inspired you to get into the world of stunts, and eventually directing your own films?
Jesse: I loved the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, particularly the Good the Bad and The Ugly, which I would attempt to replicate on video with school friends, shot for shot, word for word. I loved Ray Harrihausen, and the Hammer Horror movies. When I started to get a handle on filmmakers and the Director as an author, I discovered the French New Wave, and Truffaut, Godard and Melville were huge for me, it was like this world that was opening up through film, and utterly intoxicating.
My uncle was a stunt Coordinator, Vic Armstrong, and was always very encouraging, we shot my films on his land, and he loaned me my first video camera, gave me my first assisting job and basically always offered pragmatic and down to Earth advice, this is very important for a beginner. There is a way to get what you want, but this is what it’s going to take – never no, never you cannot do that, I owe him a huge amount.
When my directing career was derailed by the 2008 hedge fund implosion, it was Vic who hired me back as a stuntman on Thor, I would have lost my short otherwise.
Working with Brannagh on Thor, Spielberg on Lincoln and PT Anderson on the Master for that period actually served to reinvigorate my directing drive, an although i was desperately panicked at the time, in retrospect it was a great privilege a directing master class.
Nate: Before getting into the industry, what other lines of work did you find yourself in? How did they lead into the film business, or was it a conscious choice to pursue movies?
I was a rough and tumble kid, I thought I was going to be a commando, I was a cadet and then took the Marine PRC at Limpstone, thankfully, Vic, my uncle, suggested stunts might be a wiser way to spend my energy. I worked on Total Recall with him in Mexico City, I was 16 and doing stunts with Arnold, I was a bit disappointed when they gave me my per diem envelope, it was only a few hundred for the week, I thought that was the pay-check – later I learned it was your living expenses and that there was a far more significant check coming, that was when my whole out look changed, and the Queen lost this potential commando.
Your goals are confused when you’re young, I look back and think, yup, always wanted to direct, but I found an old diary of mine and realized in fact I was far less focused for quite a few years than I would like to admit, travelling the world working with horses in Spain, exploring Europe as a painter or writer, mountain climbing, gold smuggling, were all occupations I tried my hand at or seriously explored.
Nate: How did you initially get into stunt work- did you pursue it or was it something that kind of just fell into your path, by chance or perhaps as a Segway from another part of your life?
Jesse: I was an Assistant Director for some time, under the vague misunderstanding, that that was a path to becoming a director, I worked with a brilliant AD team, for a few films, or at least they put up with me, Shawshank Redemption, Mr. Hollands Opus and Mortal Kombat, doing big crowd scenes and having a wonderful time, but being the non-DGA PA, on the shows, my pay-check was dismally small, and the hours very long, that along with the fact that an AD is more likely to become a producer than a director, caused me to look elsewhere. I headed back to the wonderful, creative and exciting work of stunts. A world which remains my default position between directing gigs, allowing me the financial ability to turn down poor directing offers and enjoy my life as a father of two demanding daughters, lol.
Nate: How was it for you transitioning from doing stunt work into directing and writing- the physical work of throwing oneself into a very technical scene, to, the very cerebral, intuitive process of overseeing your own vision brought to the screen?
Jesse: I think the best stunt men have an innate ability to direct, then two careers require use of the same cerebral territory, you’re making people feel safe, guiding a scene, respecting the characters, plot contrivances and continuity while building exciting moments for your audience.
Defining directing beyond that is entering the world of the vague and mystical.
Nate: The Butcher- I read somewhere that you were underwhelmed with the result of the process (I think it’s a terrific, slow burning noir, very well done). Roberts, Davi, Ironside, David, Woodbine etc, you assembled an absolute dream cast. How did the process differ from the result, was it a good experience in production, do you still revisit it, and does your opinion of your own films change over time, or remain the same?
Jesse: I directed a film for Don The Dragon Wilson, their director had stepped away at the last moment, and they called me in, we did a little action film for the Sci Fi channel that ended up being enormously successful financially speaking, for the producers.
They came to me and said, we love gangster movies. I had been shopping the Butcher script for a while, in fact it had heat on it, and it went into production very smoothly and quickly.
We had a hell of a time casting it, and had to rush to meet a fantasy deadline, that really in the grand scheme of things should never have forced our hand, instead we found ourselves hiring a lead actor who hadn’t and didn’t ever learn or I suspect even read the script all the way through.
This was a film written as a “tour de force” for an actor, a huge flamboyant character arc and enormous emotional moments – it was pretty much ALL lost, and I did my best with what I had. We had one of those red pencil meetings where you cross out huge sections of dialogue, knowing you’ll never get anywhere near what you need.
Basically settling for sentences that could fit on the back of post-it stickers hidden off-camera.
I was sickened, exhausted and disillusioned by the process, and threw myself in the action sequences trying to at least do something there that was a little special, but without the character development or story – action, shoot-outs in this case, might as well be gonzo pornography, it’s service to the story line is so blurred, it becomes the reason, instead of supporting the reason.
Yeah – I may resurrect that script and make it as it was in written originally –
Nate: Charlie Valentine (My personal favourite of your films, a knockout). Once again you assemble an unbelievable cast: Raymond J. Barry, Tom Berenger, James Russo, Keith David, Steven Bauer etc. How was your experience with this one? It almost has a rat pack like flavour to it, an old world gangster aesthetic that’s very nice to see. In watching these two films I’ve often though of you as a Walter Hill type, with your violent set pieces and broad, thrilling characterizations.
Jesse: I enjoyed making Charlie Valentine, the budget was too low, I think we had an incident where the IATSE – the trade union for film crews, showed up on set to attempt to turn the film union, basically upping everyones wage and incurring fringe payments, when they realized how little we were making the film for they left, and didn’t call again.
We found a shooting location, a furniture warehouse, that serviced the entire script except for the one day in the desert, and shot it for almost nothing, the producer and I had to fly to S.Carolina to screen the film for Beringer, as he didn’t believe it would be worth anything, for the money we were spending, he enjoyed the film, and gave his thumbs up to us using his name in advertising.
It was pretty unique watching the film with just the three of us in a hotel room.
The film was my love letter to Jean Pierre Melville, I really enjoyed making it, and spent more time with the actors than ever before, discussing the scenes, rehearsing, breathing life into the dialogue, it was a wonderful epiphany for me.
Thank you for the compliment about Walter Hill, he is a favorite of mine.
Nate: Do you have any upcoming projects you are excited about and would like to mention?
Jesse: I would love to send people to the Face Book page for my film, The Beautiful Ones, and to see that when it comes out, it is a cool film with some wonderful performances in it – basically my take on Romeo and Juliet, except these two don’t kill each other at the end, they kill their two warring families – although that is really not what it is about, at all. It’s a black and white about a criminal who thinks he’s Steve McQueen, but that doesn’t do it justice either.
Nate: I will be sure to check that out! Thank you so much for your time, Jesse, and best of luck with all your work and projects in the future.
James Mangold has yet to top his 1997 film Cop Land – this film is just incredible from start to finish. Taking on the thematic ambitions of a classic Western while tipping its cap in the direction of neo-noir policier, this hugely entertaining and densely woven portrait of city wide law enforcement corruption ranks as one of the most underrated films of its decade, or any decade, for that matter. Sylvester Stallone’s deeply wounded, vulnerable, and ultimately heroic performance easily stands as one of his finest accomplishments as a performer, as he was able to rely on his endlessly fascinating face which holds the potential to bolster a film’s story more than words ever could. Playing a partially deaf New Jersey sheriff in a town populated mostly by big-city, law-bending NYC cops, he’s constantly at odds with numerous members of his community, who feel that the regular laws don’t apply to them when off the clock. How he interacts with the various members of the force is a study in posturing and a reminder of how generous Stallone can be as an actor when working with others.
The plot involves an unintended murder, a shady cover-up, disappearances, more murders, lots of overall mystery, and a sense off righteous bloodshed with an escalating sense of tension that ramps up all the way until the explosive finale. The cast is absurd. To wit: Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Robert Patrick, Peter Berg, Annabella Sciorra, Cathy Moriarty, Paul Calderon, Michael Rappaport, Janeane, Garofalo, Noah Emmerich, John Spencer, Frank Vincent, Arthur J. Nascarella, John Ventimiglia, Edie Falco, Tony Sirico, Bruce Altman, Method Man, Robert John Burke, Victor Williams, and tons of “faces” that all add up to the one of the most impressive ensembles ever corralled for a major motion picture; casting agent Todd Thaler was working overtime! Eric Edwards’ unfussy cinematography was stylish at all times without ever once calling attention to itself, utilizing slow-motion in smart fashion, while Craig McKay‘s perfectly timed editing ratcheted up the anxiety that almost every single character faced during the course of the emotionally and physically violent narrative (Mangold wrote the script as well).
Cop Land feels volatile and dangerous at all times, and it was sensational to see Stallone underplay his sad-sack character to such a degree that when he gets his chance to lash out, the moment feels all the more cathartic because of how reserved he had previously been. Howard Shore’s music seals the deal while Mangold brings it all together at the finish. At the time of its release, the film was met with solid critical notices, and it managed a respectable $45 million gross, but I always questioned the mid-August release date (this was an October or November movie all the way) and I think that expectations within Miramax may have been outside of what should have been anticipated, as this is a dark, serious film with grave consequences for most of the characters. Mangold reinstated close to 15 minutes of footage for his eventual director’s cut. And after countless revisits, it’s been made clear to me that this film is a true diamond in the rough, one of those efforts that while respected, never truly got its due credit.
The 1999 political comedy Dick is a hilarious film. An absolute bomb in theaters (it grossed $6.2 million domestic), this is one of those films that’s found a long shelf life on cable, movie channels, and DVD (no Blu available as of yet). Reimagining Watergate-era Richard Nixon shenanigans through the prism of the “dumb-blonde” comedy, the film was energetically directed by Andrew Fleming (The Craft, Hamlet 2) from an extremely clever screenplay that he co-wrote with Sheryl Longin, and has a ridiculous cast top-lined by the terrifically funny duo of Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst as two clueless high-school girls who get pulled into political conspiracies and life at the White House. Dan Hedaya was priceless as Tricky Dick, getting a chance to flex his sharp comedic muscles, and the obscene supporting cast includes highly amusing work from Will Ferrell, Dave Foley, Jim Breuer, Teri Garr, Bruce McCulloch, Harry Shearer, Saul Rubinek, and Ryan Reynolds. Despite favorable reviews with some critics REALLY going to bat for it, teens weren’t interested, probably unimpressed by the period/political context, and adults were confused as to who the film was “for.” It was likely overshadowed, to a certain degree, by the high-school satire Election, which had been released a few months earlier to overwhelming critical acclaim but to even less box-office; the emergence of Alexander Payne and Reese Witherspoon was still fresh on many people’s cinematic minds. Regardless, Dick is one of those comedies where so many jokes hit and hit hard, with a plot that never stalls out, with genuinely smart comedy ruling the day rather than cheap gags taking central stage.
Off-kilter, extremely quirky, cheerily violent, sexy when and where it counts, and just a ton of unexpected fun, the 1990 genre-skewing Miami Blues slipped in and out of theaters back in the day, grossing less than $10 million domestic, despite some strong reviews and a final package that constantly subverts our expectations for the milieu. Had this curiously strange movie been released now, I think it would have found a much more willing and appreciative audience. Originally a project for filmmaker Jonathan Demme (who would go on to produce), the film was adapted for the screen and directed by odd-ball-filmmaker specialist George Armitage (Grosse Pointe Blank, The Big Bounce, Vigilante Force) and was based on the novel by Charles Willeford, and centers on a deranged criminal named Fred Frenger “Junior” (Alec Baldwin in one of his loosest and most unpredictable performances), who upon being released from prison, jets down to Miami in search of a fresh start. However, immediately upon landing, he’s up to his old tricks again, never able to leave his past behind. He breaks the fingers of (and inadvertently kills) a pestering Hare Krishna, and from there, embarks on an increasingly violent crime spree involving hold-ups, random robberies, and lots and police impersonation so that he’s able to make off with big scores under the pretense that he’s a lawman. He meets a perky and naïve college student/prostitute named Susie (an extra cute and sassy Jennifer Jason Leigh), and a romance blossoms, despite Junior never fully exposing all of his secrets, and Susie becoming quickly attached both emotionally and physically. An aging cop named Moseley (a very funny and weathered Fred Ward) is on Junior’s trail, trying to put all of the pieces together in the wake of all of the madness that Junior is leaving behind. Moseley is in real trouble after Junior breaks into his place, assaults him, and steals his gun, badge, and dentures, which results in a film-long joke about Moseley’s teeth and gums and Junior’s enjoyment of flashing a real police badge that’s not his.
This is the sort of film that mixes comedy and violence in a unique way that produces a tone that’s hard to pin down. There’s an eccentricity to the material (thus luring the mind of Demme to the endeavor) that feels at odds with the demands of the studio thriller, so it’s not surprising to notice in retrospect that audiences were dismissive of it at the time of its initial release. Baldwin, who was hot off the success of The Hunt for the Red October with a tremendously appealing movie star performance, did a total 180 with his work in Miami Blues, balancing menace and sex appeal in a way that few others would have been able to pull off, resulting in a turn that feels alive and as different as anything he’s ever attempted. For her part, Leigh is all cutesy charm and innocent fun, and her frequent nudity felt bracing to witness given the relative prude qualities of today’s young starlets. Ward brought a grizzled manliness to the role of his “seen-too-much” cop, a guy with a set of false teeth but proper convictions. The snappy editing by Craig McKay allows the film to move at a brisk but never frenetic pace, while the cinematography by Tak Fujimoto opts for the gritty rather than the slick, with locale work also being a standout. The energetic musical score by David Chang rounds everything out. Shout! Factory has recently released a new Blu-ray of this forgotten about flick, and it’s one that’s definitely worth catching up with if you missed it 25 years ago.
Podcasting Them Softly is proud to present a chat with the unwitting Godfather of our podcast, producer Bill Johnson from Lotus Entertainment. Bill‘s company was responsible for helping to produce THE GREY, SOUTHLAND TALES, THE KILLER ELITE, MAGGIE, SONG ONE, and most importantly to us, the Andrew Dominik directed crime film KILLING THEM SOFTLY, which is the movie that brought Frank and Nick together as one, movie-loving unit. An entrepreneur, philanthropist, and all around movie-buff, Bill‘s company has some very exciting projects on the horizon, and we were honored that he found some time in his busy schedule to chat with us. We hope you enjoy!