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WONDER BOYS – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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Wonder Boys (2000) is a redemptive tale of a college professor in the midst of a mid-life crisis. It is a film about faded glory and people past their prime. Curtis Hanson’s film is the kind of small, oddball little tale with a decidedly off-kilter, dark sense of humor and a cast of eccentric characters. It was a bit hit with critics but never quite connected with a mainstream audience due in part to a bungled initial promotional campaign that clearly did not know how to convey the quirky tone of the film into an easily digestible soundbite.

Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is a burnt out English professor that wrote a much celebrated novel entitled, The Arsonist’s Daughter, but has since been having a hard time with his follow-up. He keeps writing and writing with no end in sight (current page count sits at around 2,100+ pages). His young wife has left him and he’s sleeping with his boss’ wife, Sara Gaskill (Frances McDormand), who is also the Chancellor of the university where he works. His long-suffering editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.) is in town to take a look at the book. He maintains a “what me, worry?” façade but is in danger of losing his job unless he can find a potential best seller and applies subtle but definite pressure on Grady. The professor has also taken under his wing a brilliant but troubled student, James Leer (Tobey Maguire), from his creative writing class. He’s a tortured artist wannabe as evident from his habit of sitting in an empty, dark classroom. He is also ostracized by his classmates who resent his ability to write.

Producer Scott Rudin gave Michael Chabon’s book to screenwriter Steve Kloves. At first, he wasn’t interested – he hadn’t written a word in four years and had never adapted a novel before – but while reading the novel he connected with the material, “and a sort of kinship with Michael Chabon’s tone and the way he looked at his characters, with all their flaws, with a real generous spirit,” he said. Initially, Kloves agreed to adapt the book and talk about directing it but two and half years into working on the screenplay, he decided not to direct. After the success of L.A. Confidential (1997), Hanson was working on a script of his own and reading other scripts with a keen interest for his next film to be a comedy. Actress Elizabeth McGovern once advised him to work with Kloves and was given his screenplay. He was told that Michael Douglas was interested in playing Grady and was impressed by the way in which the characters were presented and “the lack of judgment on their actions and eccentricities.” In addition, Hanson “fell in love with these characters – and they made me laugh.”

Hanson told Rudin, “it’s too bad you can’t have Jean Renoir or Hal Ashby direct this.” Once Hanson was attached to direct, Kloves met with him and was relieved that they were both on the same page in terms of their approach to the material. Chabon encouraged Kloves to make the material his own and this included changing Grady’s Jewish in-laws to gentiles. Additional changes were made once Hanson came on board. For example, he felt that James Leer would be a fan of Douglas Sirk’s films as opposed to Frank Capra as he is in the novel. The studio wasn’t interested in making a quirky, character-driven comedy/drama until Michael Douglas agreed to work well below his usual large fee. One of the challenges for Hanson was to take a plot that he called “meandering and, apparently, sort of aimless,” and a character that “does things that even he doesn’t really know why he’s doing them,” and try to create a “feeling of focus” to keep the audience interested. Another challenge was working on actual locations in very cold weather and constantly changing conditions.

Hanson’s other concern was if Douglas would be willing to take on the role without a hint of vanity but also do it in a truthful way and not in a way that would draw attention to the fact that he was playing an unattractive character. To his credit, the actor disappears completely into this role. He’s not the first person you’d think of to play Grady. When he tries too hard to be funny it can come across as pompous, but he tones it down here and looks completely at ease, comfortable as the frumpy Grady. Douglas hits just the right notes of world-weary cynicism but with a romantic streak buried underneath. For the veteran actor it’s an unglamorous role – he gained 25 pounds for the role, eating pizza, subs and drank a lot of beer. He always looks rumpled, unshaven with unkempt hair and often wearing a ratty old housecoat when he writes. Grady has the capacity to do something about his miserable lot in life and during the course of the film his character undergoes a fascinating arc. In some ways, Grady is a pot-smoking burn-out like the Dude from The Big Lebowski (1998) only with slightly more ambition. He lives outside of normal society in the rarified atmosphere of academia — puttering around, writing his novel and teaching his writing class, but when he crosses paths with James Leer, Grady realizes that he’s got to change.

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also marked a break-out role for Tobey Maguire. Before he garnered massive mainstream exposure with Spider-Man (2002), he was known mostly for roles in small, independent films. Like everyone else in the cast, he has his memorable moments, like when his character laughs at Q’s (Rip Torn) pretentious speech at Wordfest with a high-pitched giggle that reverberates through the large auditorium. The blissfully stoned expression he gives afterwards is priceless. Everyone in the film keeps harping on what a genius writer Grady is, but it gradually becomes apparent that James is the true genius. He writes pages and pages of beautiful prose in minutes. And like any true talent, it just comes pouring effortlessly out of him. What makes James such a good writer is that his whole life is essentially a lie – he lies about his parents’ past, how they met and where they came from. He even maintains this air of a tortured artist but as we find out that too is a lie. James has it pretty easy, living in a large house in an affluent neighborhood. Good fiction writers have to be masters at making things up.

As always, Robert Downey Jr. knows how to make an entrance, meeting Grady at the airport with a transvestite as his date. The exchange between Terry and Grady quickly establishes their long-time friendship by the familiarity between them. Downey is able to take the most mundane, ordinary line and give it his own unique spin and make it funny or give a look that is memorable. His rapport with Douglas is excellent and they play well off each other as both sides of the comedic equation. Downey was on probation during the winter of 1999 when Hanson considered him for a role in Wonder Boys. The director was cautious because of the actor’s drug history and was concerned because it would be a tough film shot in sequence in Pittsburgh in the winter. Downey flew to Pittsburgh and had a long dinner conversation with Hanson where they addressed his problems. The actor demonstrated a commitment to the film and the director hired him. According to Hanson, Downey acted in a professional manner for the entire four-and-a-half month shoot but after it ended and he returned to Los Angeles, the actor violated his parole.

Frances McDormand knows how to react to those around her, like when she meets Grady, Terry and his date at a party. Watching her react to the charming transvestite is priceless. She and Douglas also have excellent chemistry together as evident in the short hand, the give-and-take between their characters. This is nicely established in their first scene together where Sara tells Grady that she’s pregnant. The music sets a slightly melancholic even whimsical tone as the two characters reveal that they are trapped in relationships that they don’t want to be in. They want to be together but Grady won’t show her how serious he is about them. Ultimately, Grady has to save himself and to in order to do this he must convince Sara that he does love and he want to be with her.

Steve Kloves’ script is a solid piece of writing as he does a great job of adapting Chabon’s book, trimming it of its excess narrative fat (as he also did so well with the Harry Potter books). It has clever, memorable dialogue that speaks volumes about these characters. There is a pleasant mix of off-kilter humor and poignant drama as we are presented with all sorts of colorful characters, like Grady’s bisexual editor and the famous and pompous writer known as Q (played to haughty perfection by Rip Torn) and then have them played by equally eccentric characters actors. The dialogue is humorous and offbeat in one scene, touching and thoughtful in the next. For example, in one scene, James rattles off a list of celebrity suicides in alphabetical order, the dates and how they did it in a mechanical monotone as if he’s reading off a grocery list that adds to humor of the scene because it is such an unusual moment.

Kloves also wisely avoids the usual clichés. like Katie Holmes’ character, the young, nubile co-ed who, in a lesser film would have had a fling with Grady. This would have broken the magical spell that this movie casts and so the filmmakers wisely avoid it. Instead, she helps Grady realize that his book is going nowhere and that he needs to make some choices about it and his life. One of the film’s major themes is about making choices. Grady’s problem is that he is indecisive. He can’t make up his mind about how he feels about Sara and he can’t figure out how to end his wildly out of control novel that is ultimately a metaphor for his life. Grady’s life is in a holding pattern, like his book and both get more complicated as life goes on. As the days go on so does the page count increase on his book. However, the key to his salvation lies in his mission to reach James and nurture his talents. Grady sees some of himself in James – a wonder boy in the making while he is a wonder boy who has lost his way. Terry is the third wonder boy in the film and his luster has been fading over years, unable to find another breakthrough novel like The Arsonist’s Daughter and is generally regarded as a joke at work.

Hanson strips color from the palette, presenting Pittsburgh in blues and grays, a romantic, post-industrial setting that we see through Grady’s car window. It’s subtly presented as Hanson doesn’t hit us over the head with obvious landmarks. He excels at creating just the right mood and atmosphere. For the director, the city mirrors the characters in the film as he commented in an interview, “it’s a city with this glorious past that went into decline…That’s why I wanted to shoot here. I think the city’s so emblematic of the characters’ problems.” The city was experiencing a mild winter during their shoot and they had to use a lot of artificial snow.

The best films are the ones that you lose yourself in completely. There is a scene where Grady sneaks a smoke outside of the Gaskill house at night and a light snow falls. He spies a greenhouse in the distance and it is illuminated in the night looking like “heaven” as James puts it. This is in contrast to the warm, gold interior of the nearby Gaskill house. This is a wonderful little moment frozen in time and the beginning of the friendship between Grady and James.

The attention to detail — a snowy winter in Pittsburgh — is beautifully realized. Hanson does a great job of conveying a sense of place, utilizing locations well. There is the warm, red and gold of a blues bar that Grady meets Terry and James at. It’s a small place packed with people and they sit in a booth that create an intimate feel. There’s a great moment where Grady and Terry spot an odd looking guy across the bar and create an elaborate and colorful backstory for him, including a name – Vernon Hardapple – and who is, among other things, “president of the James Brown Hair Club for Men.” Grady later encounters the man on a couple of very memorable occasions including a funny scene where Grady, Q and Terry try to evade Vernon outside of the bar that ends with the man jumping on the hood of their car with his butt. We see Q and Terry laughing and having fun as Grady tries to escape and in turn it is fun for us to watch.

Hanson had been a fan of Bob Dylan’s music since childhood and a great admirer of his soundtrack for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). As it turned out, Dylan was a fan of Hanson’s previous film, L.A. Confidential and after a lot of convincing screened 90 minutes of rough footage from Wonder Boys. Hanson wanted Dylan because “who knows more about being a wonder boy and the trap it can be, about the expectations and the fear of repeating yourself?” In addition to Dylan, Hanson built the score around nine singer-songwriters including Leonard Cohen and Neil Young. The entire soundtrack is integrated into the film and Hanson even played some of the songs for the actors on the Pittsburgh set to convey a scene’s “aural texture,” as the director put it in an interview.

The studio decided to release Wonder Boys in February, notoriously the month where films no one cares about are unceremoniously dumped, and while it connected with critics, flopped at the box office. It came out a week after the Academy Award nominations were announced. The studio spent a lot more money promoting the films of theirs that were nominated and not enough on Wonder Boys. The Wall Street Journal‘s Joe Morgenstern praised Douglas’ work in the movie, but criticized the movie poster, which featured a headshot of Douglas: “a raffishly eccentric role, and he’s never been so appealing. (Don’t be put off by the movie’s cryptic poster, which makes him look like Michael J. Pollard.)” The Los Angeles Times‘ Kenneth Turan also slammed the poster: “The film’s ad poster brings Elmer Fudd to mind.”

Hanson was not happy with how the film was marketed, in particular the poster, which he said in an interview, made Douglas look “like he was trying to be Robin Williams.” Furthermore, he said, “The very things that made Michael and I want to do the movie so badly were the reasons it was so tricky to market. Since films go out on so many screens at once, there’s a need for instant appeal. But Wonder Boys isn’t easily reducible to a single image or a catchy ad line.” The director disagreed with the studio over the film’s original release date and advertising campaign. To make matters worse, the marketing was criticized in the press and in an unprecedented move, the studio canceled the lucrative video contract and pulled the film out of theaters. Hanson and Rudin lobbied to have the film re-released. A new campaign was designed that emphasized the ensemble cast and the film was released in theaters where it promptly flopped at the box office again.

Every scene in Wonder Boys feels warm and inviting and filled with interesting characters that inhabit this world and that allows you to be in it for the duration of the film. By hanging out with James, Grady regains that wonder boy spark while also guiding his young protégé to becoming one himself. What better teacher than someone who was once one? At one point, Grady says that most people don’t think and that books aren’t important anymore. He’s jaded and cynical about the world but over the course of the film James reaches him and changes his outlook on life.

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Things We Lost In The Fire: A Review by Nate Hill

  

Things We Lost In The Fire takes an unblinking look at addiction, recovery, redemption, grief and the ways in which various people cope with all of the above. It shirks the dramatic stereotypes and instead shoots for realism, or at the very least, an unpredictable narrative within a genre that often follows rigid blueprints. It also contains two exceptional performances from Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro. Berry plays Audrey Burke, mourning the loss of her husband Brian (David Duchovny could write a textbook on understated acting that cuts deep) to a really unfortunate accident. The last minute arrival of his longtime best friend Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro) adds a new element to the family’s grieving process. Jerry is an ex lawyer who is now addicted to heroin. Brian stood by him for many years, never judging or intervening but simply being there to spend time with, and look out for his friend. Duchovny appears in multiple flashbacks with both Berry, Del Toro and his two remarkable children (Micah Berry and Alexis Llewellyn) that instil a lingering presence that not so much casts a shadow over everything, but brightens and flavours it with memories. Audrey is unspeakably lonely and devastated, and despite the fact that she despised Jerry and what he represented for years, invites him to live in their garage, in flat out pure desperate instinct, and probably in an attempt to be closer to Brian after he’s gone, by bringing what was close to him closer to her. Jerry is great with the kids, supportive and wants to change, even accepting employment assistance from their kindly neighbour (excellent John Carroll Lynch). The demons do their best to pull him back though, as is their purpose, and a rift forms as we begin to see that Audrey has not fully accepted Brian’s death and is in the throes of miserable confusion. Director Susanne Bier uses many intimate close ups of eyes, hair, smiles and frowns to bring us into the mindset of her characters, a tactic which works wonders here and keeps minds and hearts of her audience glued to the proceedings. Berry is dynamite, pure and simple. The finest acting moment I’ve ever seen from her comes deep from the gut and late in the third act, an agonizing moment in which she has a splintering realization that her husband is gone for good, that final, resolute place that sinks in and grabs hold which we’ve all heard about from family members or news stories in which loss of loved ones has played a part. I don’t know if Berry has experienced this for herself in her own personal life, but she sure damn well embodies it here with every ragged sob, and it cast her in an entirely new light for me. Del Toro is Brando-esque, a shambling, unshaven pit of insecurity and inner turmoil, giving Jerry the mutilated soul he deserves without ever dipping in self pity, given the phoenix treatment and rising from the ashes of his longtime affliction simply by being exposed to Audrey and the kids. One would think that the relationship between Audrey and Jerry might end up going into romantic territory, but Bier and company is more interested in the road less travelled, showing us a story which unravels in a way that’s much more akin to believability. Between her directorial skills, Berry and Del Toro’s virtuoso work, this is not one to miss.

Frankie & Alice: A Review by Nate Hill

  

There needs to be more films about mental illness that treat the subject with the vital care and compassion that Frankie & Alice does. It should be re-titled ‘The Halle Berry and Stelllen Skarsgard Show’, because for just over 90 minutes the two of them give some of the bravest, challenging work of their career in telling this story. Granted, it takes a few liberties with what we know about multiple personality disorder and what still to this day lurks in the shadows of the vast human consciousness, but it’s in service to character and story and is never exploitative. This film was made in 2010 and mired in distribute hell for nearly four years before dropping off of a most unceremonious assembly line into weak marketing. No one I’ve asked has even heard about it, which is a shame because it’s Berry at her most shattering, sexy and charismatic, and it’s somewhat based on a true story as well. She plays Frankie here, a wayward exotic dancer prone to destructive episodes in which Alice, an alternative personality, takes over and wreaks havoc in her personal life. Alice is a racist, southern white girl and Frankie is a black stripper in 1970’s New York. You can imagine the predicament. She ends up in a psychiatric halfway house under the care of Dr. Oz (Stellen Skarsgard) a man who is not remotely familiar with the term ‘giving up’. He sees the issues with Frankie clear as day, where his shirt tucking colleagues (Matt Frewer and Brian Markinson) are skeptical and impatient with his process. Oz is trying to unlock the secrets of Franki’s mind through the knowledge of each alter personality, all of whom are related to a tragic incident in her past that we get brief, fractured glimpses of through the broken prism of her mind. Director Geoffrey Sax keeps the melodrama to an agreeable minimum and let’s his two leads feel their way through the work both through each other and the material. Berry and Skarsgard have never been better, setting one another alight with the kind of chemistry many lead pairs can only dream of. Berry writhes with fury, confusion and loneliness, her coherence a flower that begins to bloom when Oz shows her kindness and the desire to really help her, something which. O one has ever done for her before in life. Skarsgard is an interesting guy because he’s equally great at inhabiting cold, sociopathic villains (King Arthur, Ronin) and he’s also compassion manifest when he wants to be (Passion Of Mind, Powder Keg). The performance he gives here radiates with warmth and assurance, a lighthouse in the fog of Frankie’s illness. Newcomer Vanessa Morgan is also excellent as the 16 year old version of Frankie, caught in a hailstorm of racism and sadness that no doubt are the seeds for her future condition. I’d love to know more about the real story of Frankie, and see how it contrasts with the film. Even if the differences are great and the liberties taken are considerable, we are in the end left with a superbly made film that takes mental illness head on and is one step further in erasing the stigma. A film that’s woefully unseen, so,etching I hope this review will change.  

Frankie & Alive: A Review by Nate Hill

  

There needs to be more films about mental illness that treat the subject with the vital care and compassion that Frankie & Alice does. It should be re-titled ‘The Halle Berry and Stelllen Skarsgard Show’, because for just over 90 minutes the two of them give some of the bravest, challenging work of their career in telling this story. Granted, it takes a few liberties with what we know about multiple personality disorder and what still to this day lurks in the shadows of the vast human consciousness, but it’s in service to character and story and is never exploitative. This film was made in 2010 and mired in distribute hell for nearly four years before dropping off of a most unceremonious assembly line into weak marketing. No one I’ve asked has even heard about it, which is a shame because it’s Berry at her most shattering, sexy and charismatic, and it’s somewhat based on a true story as well. She plays Frankie here, a wayward exotic dancer prone to destructive episodes in which Alice, an alternative personality, takes over and wreaks havoc in her personal life. Alice is a racist, southern white girl and Frankie is a black stripper in 1970’s New York. You can imagine the predicament. She ends up in a psychiatric halfway house under the care of Dr. Oz (Stellen Skarsgard) a man who is not remotely familiar with the term ‘giving up’. He sees the issues with Frankie clear as day, where his shirt tucking colleagues (Matt Frewer and Brian Markinson) are skeptical and impatient with his process. Oz is trying to unlock the secrets of Franki’s mind through the knowledge of each alter personality, all of whom are related to a tragic incident in her past that we get brief, fractured glimpses of through the broken prism of her mind. Director Geoffrey Sax keeps the melodrama to an agreeable minimum and let’s his two leads feel their way through the work both through each other and the material. Berry and Skarsgard have never been better, setting one another alight with the kind of chemistry many lead pairs can only dream of. Berry writhes with fury, confusion and loneliness, her coherence a flower that begins to bloom when Oz shows her kindness and the desire to really help her, something which. O one has ever done for her before in life. Skarsgard is an interesting guy because he’s equally great at inhabiting cold, sociopathic villains (King Arthur, Ronin) and he’s also compassion manifest when he wants to be (Passion Of Mind, Powder Keg). The performance he gives here radiates with warmth and assurance, a lighthouse in the fog of Frankie’s illness. Newcomer Vanessa Morgan is also excellent as the 16 year old version of Frankie, caught in a hailstorm of racism and sadness that no doubt are the seeds for her future condition. I’d love to know more about the real story of Frankie, and see how it contrasts with the film. Even if the differences are great and the liberties taken are considerable, we are in the end left with a superbly made film that takes mental illness head on and is one step further in erasing the stigma. A film that’s woefully unseen, so,etching I hope this review will change.  

RUMBLE FISH – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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History remembers Francis Ford Coppola’s, Rumble Fish (1983) as a film that was booed by its audience when it debuted at the New York Film Festival and in turn was viciously crucified by North American critics upon general release. It’s too bad because it is such a dreamy, atmospheric film that works on so many levels. It is also Coppola’s most personal and experimental project — on par with the likes of Apocalypse Now (1979). From the epic grandeur of The Godfather films to the excessive Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Coppola has pushed the boundaries, both on-screen and off. He has almost gone insane, contemplated suicide, and faced bankruptcy on numerous occasions, but he always bounces back with another intriguing feature that is visually stunning to watch. And yet, Rumble Fish curiously remains one of Coppola’s often overlooked films. This may be due to the fact that it refuses to conform to mainstream tastes and stubbornly challenges the Hollywood system with its moody black and white cinematography and non-narrative approach.

Right from the first image Rumble Fish is a film that exudes style and ambiance. It opens on a beautiful shot of wispy clouds rushing overhead, captured via time lapse photography to the experimental, percussive soundtrack that envelopes the whole film. This creates the feeling of not only time running out, but also a sense of timelessness. Adapted from an S.E. Hinton novel of the same name, Rumble Fish explores the disintegrating relationship between two brothers, Rusty James (Matt Dillon) and the Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke). The older brother derives his name from his passion: stealing motorcycles for joyrides. The film begins with the Motorcycle Boy absent, perhaps gone for good, while Rusty James tries to live up to his brother’s reputation: to act like him, to look like him, and, ultimately, to be him. Rusty James’ brother is viewed as a legend in the town as he was the first leader of a gang and also responsible for their demise.

Much like Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949), the Motorcycle Boy is initially physically absent, but his presence is felt everywhere — from the shots of graffiti on walls and signs that read, “The Motorcycle Boy Reigns,” to the numerous times he is referred to by characters. This quickly establishes him as a figure of mythic proportions. When the Motorcycle Boy finally does appear — during a fight between Rusty James and local tough, Biff Wilcox (Glenn Withrow) — it is a dramatic entrance on a motorcycle like Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953). This appearance marks a significant change in the film. We begin to see the world through the eyes of the Motorcycle Boy, almost as if the whole film is taking place in his head.

Consequently, Rumble Fish is shot entirely in black and white to simulate his color blindness. We even begin to hear the world like he does: voices sound echoey, disembodied, with his own heartbeat threatening to drown everything else out. It is this existential worldview that makes the Motorcycle Boy a tragic character. The rest of the film explores his attempts to come to grips with this outlook and his relationship with Rusty James, who views him as a hero — a label that the older sibling has never been able to accept.

Coppola wrote the screenplay for Rumble Fish with Hinton on his days off from shooting The Outsiders (1982). As the filmmaker said in an interview, “the idea was [that] The Outsiders would be made very much in the style of that book, which was written by a 16-year old girl, and would be lyrical and poetical, very simple, sort of classic. The other one, however, Rumble Fish, which she wrote years later, was more adult, kind of Camus for teenagers, this existential story.” Coppola even went so far as to make the films back-to-back, retaining much of the same cast and crew. Warner Brothers was not happy with an early cut of The Outsiders and chose not to distribute Rumble Fish. Despite a lack of financing, Coppola completely recorded the film on video during two weeks of rehearsals in a former school gymnasium, encouraging his young cast to improvise.

Actual filming began on July 12, 1982 on many of the same Tulsa, Oklahoma sets used in The Outsiders. The attraction to Rumble Fish, for Coppola, was the “strong personal identification” he had with the subject matter: a young brother hero-worships his older, intellectually superior sibling. Coppola realized that the relationship between Rusty James and the Motorcycle Boy mirrored his own connection to his brother, August. It was an older, more experienced August who introduced Francis to film and literature. Coppola always felt like he was living in the shadow of his brother and saw the film as a “kind of exorcism, or purgation” of this relationship.

As always, Coppola assembled an impressive ensemble cast for his film. From The Outsiders, he kept Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, Glenn Withrow, William Smith, and Tom Waits, while casting actors like Mickey Rourke and Vincent Spano who were overlooked for roles in the film for one reason or another. They fill out their roles admirably, but Mickey Rourke in particular, is mesmerizing as the Motorcycle Boy.

To get Rourke into the mindset of his character, Coppola gave him some books written by Albert Camus and a biography of Napoleon. “There’s a scene in there when I’m walking down the bridge with Matt; and I’d try and stylise my character as if he was Napoleon,” the actor remembers. The Motorcycle Boy’s look was patterned after Camus complete with trademark cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth — taken from a photograph of the author that Rourke used as a visual handle. He portrays the character as a calm, low key figure that seems to be constantly distracted as if he is in another world or reality. Rourke “Methodically” conceived the Motorcycle Boy as being “an actor who no longer finds his work interesting.” To this end, he uses subtle, little movements and often cryptic phrases that only he seems to understand.

This feeling is further enforced by the two brothers’ alcoholic father, played brilliantly by Dennis Hopper in a surprisingly low key performance. He describes the Motorcycle Boy perfectly when he says that “he is merely miscast in a play. He was born in the wrong era, on the wrong side of the river. With the ability to be able to do anything that he wants to do and finding nothing that he wants to do.” Rourke’s Motorcycle Boy is almost embarrassed by the myth that surrounds him, that threatens to drown him. He openly rejects it when he says, “I’m tired of all that Robin Hood, Pied Piper bullshit. You know, I’d just as sooner stay a neighborhood novelty if it’s all the same to you… If you’re gonna lead people, you have to have somewhere to go.” It is this reluctance to embrace his legendary reputation that gives the Motorcycle Boy an element of humanity that was not in the novel.

Not only did Coppola assemble a talented cast of actors, but he also gathered an impressive crew to create the images and the proper mood to compliment them. The striking black and white photography of the film’s cinematographer, Stephen Burum, lies in two main sources: the films of Orson Welles and German cinema of the 1920s. Welles’ influence is particularly apparent in one scene where the Motorcycle Boy and Steve bring a wounded Rusty James home. While Steve and Rusty James talk in the background, the Motorcycle Boy looms into a close-up, as if the lens were a mirror in which he was admiring himself. He is clearly a character who suffers from what one critic called, “fatal narcissism,” a trait common in many of Welles’ films. This deep focus shot (a favorite of Welles) shows how far removed the Motorcycle Boy is from his brother and from everyone. He is like a mirror, impenetrable and impossible to read as Steve observes, “I never know what he’s thinking.” This scene harkens back to Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane (1941), which used the deep focus technique to give characters that look of “fatal narcissism,” to live a doomed existence.

Before filming started, Coppola ran regular screenings of old films during the evenings to familiarize the cast and in particular, the crew with his visual concept for Rumble Fish. Most notably, Coppola showed Anatole Litvak’s Decision Before Dawn (1951), the inspiration for the film’s smoky look, and Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) which became Rumble Fish‘s stylistic prototype. Coppola’s extensive use of shadows (some were painted on alley walls for proper effect), oblique angles, exaggerated compositions, and an abundance of smoke and fog are all hallmarks of these German Expressionist films. Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1983), shot mainly in time-lapse photography, motivated Coppola to use this technique to animate the sky in his own film. The result is an often surreal world where time seems to follow its own rules.

Coppola envisioned a largely experimental score to compliment his images. He began to devise a mainly percussive soundtrack to symbolize the idea of time running out. As Coppola worked on it, he realized that he needed help from a professional musician. And so he asked Stewart Copeland, drummer of the musical group The Police, to improvise a rhythm track. Coppola soon realized that Copeland was a far superior composer and let him take over. The musician proceeded to record street sounds of Tulsa and mixed them into the soundtrack with the use of a Musync, a new device at the time, that recorded film, frame by frame on videotape with the image on top, the dialogue in the middle, and the musical staves on the bottom so that it matched the images perfectly. One only has to see Copeland’s evocative score matched with the film’s exquisite imagery to realize how well the musician understood Coppola’s intentions.

Rumble Fish is a rare example of a gathering of several talented artists whose collaboration under the guiding vision of a filmmaker results in a unique work of art. Why then, did the film receive such scathing reviews when it was released? The film alienated former head of production for Paramount, Robert Evans, who “remembers being shaken by how far Coppola had strayed from Hollywood. Evans says, ‘I was scared. I couldn’t understand any of it.'” Rumble Fish’s failure may have been due to the climate of American cinema at the time. The film was released in the early 1980s when art films and independent cinema were not as widely celebrated as they are now. Nobody was ready for a stylish black and white film with few big name stars and little sign of mainstream appeal. American critics and studio executives, on the whole, just did not “get it.”

It is a marvel that Rumble Fish was even made at all. Only Francis Ford Coppola’s unwavering determination and his loyal cast and crew could have made such a project possible. He had the clout and the resources to assemble such a collection of talented people to create a challenging film that acts as the cinematic equivalent of the novel by capturing its mood and tone perfectly. Every scene is filled with dreamy imagery that never gets too abstract but, instead, draws the viewer into this strange world. Coppola uses color to emphasize certain images, like the Siamese fighting fish in the pet store — some of the only color in the film — to create additional layers in this complex, detailed world.

With a few odd exceptions, Coppola has been content to merely rest on his laurels and reputation and crank out safe, formulaic films that lack any real substance or passion. Perhaps Coppola is tired from the numerous battles he has had with Hollywood studios over the years and simply does not have the energy to make the daringly ambitious films that he made during the ’70s and early ’80s. It is too bad, because Rumble Fish shows so much promise and creativity. Tossed off as a self-conscious art film, now that some time has passed, I see it as a movie clearly ahead of its time: a stylish masterpiece that is obsessed with the notion of time, loyalty, and family. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Coppola’s film is that it presents a world that refers to the past, present, and future while remaining timeless in nature.

44 Inch Chest: A Review by Nate Hill

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44 Inch Chest is packed full of bloated, preening masculinity, cold hard chauvinism and dense, wordy exchanges that seem pulled right off the stage, an intense bit of British pseudo-gangster quirk with two writers who seem intent on heightening every syllable to near surreal levels of style. The same scribes are responsible for the glorious verbal stew that can be found in Paul McGuigan’s brutal Gangster No. 1 as well as Sexy Beast, and while the level of viciousness here is left almost entirely to the spoken word alone, the elliptical sting of their script still hits home, and even ramps up a bit from those films. A mopey, consistently weepy Ray Winstone stars as boorish Colin Diamond, an gent whose wife (Joanne Whalley Kilmer) has been caught in an affair with a chiseled french pretty boy (Melvil Poupoud). He resorts to a melancholy, comatose state as his perceived manliness visibly circles the drain. His circle of friends arrives, each with their own flamboyant ideas for resolving the situation. Velvety Meredith (Ian McShane, cool as a cucumber) looks on in snooty amusement. Violent guttersnipe Mal (Stephen Dillane, replacing Tim Roth) has the brawn but neither the brains nor ambition to act. Archie (Tom Wilkinson) is the bewildered everyman. Old Man Peanut (a fire and brimstone John Hurt who devours the script like a lion feasting on a gazelle) is a bible thumping, crusty old pot of fury who suggests that wifey should be stoned to death for her indecency and betrayal. They spend the better part of the film pontificating like a babbling senate, whilst Winstone languishes in despair. One wonders what the point of it all is and where it’s going, until we arrive at an oddly satisfying third act that somehow negates almost everything we’ve seen before it. Strangely enough, though, it works, if only to give us something we’ve never quite seen before, pulling the rug of genre convention out from under us and giving us a piece that almost could resemble a spoof of other works, if it weren’t so damned straight faced and persistent in its execution. In any case, I could watch this group of actors assemble ikea furniture and it would still be transfixing. It’s just a room full of talent shooting the shit for most of the running time, and in a genre where one can scarcely here the performers talk over the gunfire and cheekily referential soundtrack a lot of the time, I’ll damn well take something a bit more paced, quiet and stately. Winstone smears over his usual seething anger with a morose depression would almost be endearing if it weren’t so pathetic. Wilkinson brings his usual studious nature. McShane is pure class in anything (even a few B movies I’m sure he’d love to forget) and he swaggers through this one like a regal peacock, getting some of the best lines to chew on. Dillane is detached and indifferently cruel, with seldom a word uttered, his lack of mannerism contrasted by the vibrant animosity of his three peers. Hurt is pure gold as the closest the film comes to caricature, just a vile old coot who belongs in the loony bin raving to the walls about awful things that happened ‘back in his day’. Different is the key word for this one, and one might be easily fooled by the poster and synopses into assuming this is a revenge flick populated by action and violence. Not so much. Although a lot of the time that is my cup of tea, it’s nice to get a welcome deviation once in a while, and this one is a real treat.

B Movie Glory with Nate: 2103 The Deadly Wake

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2103: The Deadly Wake strives to stand out from the B-movie masses by giving turning it’s straightforward sci-fi concept somewhat on its head. It’s set in the very distant future, in which earth’s oceans have become so contaminated that they have all taken a gaseous form, with corporations sending forth spaceship type vessels that deliver goods and wage warfare. They resemble submarines basically sailing through colored fog, and it’s one of the neatest and adorably ambitious futuristic settings I’ve seen. Malcolm McDowell is damn excellent in a rare hero role as Captain Sean Murdock, a salty old sea dog who lost a ship years before and is somewhat disgraced. Forlorn and fed up, he’s in a slump when hired to transport a massive ship across the ocean, with a mysterious cargo that’s guarded by a sinister mercenary and security expert  (Michael Paré). Usually in this type of thing it’s Paré as the hero and Mcdowell as the villain (which has actually happened in Roland Emmerich’s Moon 44), but here they pull a Tarantino and switch up the type casting which is wonderful to see and makes for a fresh vibe. Paré works for the sultry, sleazy (Heidi Von Palleske), the company CEO who wants an eye kept on the cargo hold. Paré and Mcdowell bit heads, there’s murky conflict and the ship’s Artificial Intelligence engine is called B.A.B.Y. and is quite literally a fetus in a big gooey tank with wires attached to its brain. If that isn’t worthy of a medal in the ambition department I don’t know what is. Theres an odd sort of climactic fight scene that plays like a dream and doesnt involve fighting at all really, more like just a laser show with strange dialogue. Despite it being set in the future there’s a nifty retro style, with soldier uniforms and the darkly poetic tone almost calling forth the sensibility of the 40’s. I was reminded of Titanic in scenes, but that could be my weird cinematic free association. This one’s a keeper for fans of off kilter, under the radar oddities.