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WILD AT HEART – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

12f6e7965cb2fbac31c874eb42335413By 1990, David Lynch was at the peak of his popularity and enjoying the most productive period of his career. His television show Twin Peaks had captivated American audiences and he was directing a number of commercials and performance art pieces (Industrial Symphony No. 1). This all culminated with Wild at Heart (1990), an adaptation of Barry Gifford’s novel, which went on to win the coveted Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. It also helped establish Lynch as America’s premier cinematic surrealist. At its core, the film is a touching love story between two people whose love for each other remains constant despite all of the obstacles that life throws at them, including an overly-protective mother, a dentally-challenged psychopath, and a grizzled rocket scientist. This film is, oddly enough, Lynch at his most romantic, a rock ‘n’ roll opera with vibrant, fiery imagery.

Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) are young lovers on the run from her crazed and over-protective mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd). Sailor has jumped parole after serving time for manslaughter and takes off with Lula for sunny California. This doesn’t sit too well with Lula’s mom who sends her boyfriend and private investigator Johnny Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), and, unbeknownst to him, her lover and ruthless gangster Marcellos Santos (J.E. Freeman) on the trail of the young lovers.

As he would do with the opening scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Lynch kicks things off with a shockingly brutal act of violence that establishes a confrontational tone – this is a violent world where Sailor is prepared to kill a man with his bare hands in order to protect the woman he loves. The first image is the striking of a match followed by images of flames announcing the color scheme that would be prevalent throughout the film. This is continued in the love scenes between Sailor and Lula that are bathed in red, yellow and orange – all representing their burning love for each other. During the course of the film there are countless shots of cigarettes being lit, matches being struck, an exploding car, and a house on fire. This film is vibrantly alive and energized more than anything Lynch had done before or has done since.

In the summer of 1989, Lynch had finished up the pilot for Twin Peaks and tried to rescue two of his projects – Ronnie Rocket and One Saliva Bubble – that were owned by Dino de Laurentiis when his company went bankrupt. Independent production company Propaganda Films commissioned Lynch to develop an updated noir screenplay based on a 1940s crime novel while a filmmaking friend of his by the name of Monty Montgomery optioned Barry Gifford’s book, Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula in pre-published galley form. Montgomery gave him Gifford’s book and asked Lynch if he would executive produce a film adaptation that he would direct. Lynch remembers telling him, “That’s great Monty, but what if I read it and fall in love with it and want to do it myself?” And this is exactly what happened as Lynch recalls, “It was just exactly the right thing at the right time. The book and the violence in America merged in my mind and many different things happened.” Lynch was drawn to what he saw as “a really modern romance in a violent world – a picture about finding love in hell.” He was also attracted to “a certain amount of fear in the picture, as well as things to dream about. So it seems truthful in some way.”

Once Lynch got the okay from Propaganda to switch projects, he wrote a draft in a week. Within four months, he began filming with a budget of $10 million. Lynch did not like the ending in Gifford’s book where Sailor and Lula split up for good. For Lynch, “it honestly didn’t seem real, considering the way they felt about each other. It didn’t seem one bit real! It had a certain coolness, but I couldn’t see it.” Samuel Goldwyn, who ended up distributing the film, read an early draft of the screenplay and didn’t like Gifford’s ending either so Lynch changed it. However, the director was worried that this change made the film too commercial, “much more commercial to make a happy ending yet, if I had not changed it, so that people wouldn’t say I was trying to be commercial, I would have been untrue to what the material was saying.”

When Lynch read Gifford’s novel, he immediately wanted Nicolas Cage to play Sailor and Laura Dern to play Lula. The actor said that he was “always attracted to those passionate, almost unbridled romantic characters, and Sailor had that more than any other role I’d played.” In Dern’s case, this was the first opportunity she had “to play not only a very sexual person, but also someone who also was, in her own way, incredibly comfortable with herself.” During rehearsals, Lynch talked about Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe with Cage and Dern. Around this time, Lynch bought a copy of Elvis’ Golden Hits and, after listening to it, called Cage and told him that he had to sing two songs, “Love Me” and “Love Me Tender.” The actor, a big Elvis fan, agreed and recorded each song so that he could lip-sync to them on the set.

Before filming started, Lynch suggested that Dern and Cage go on a weekend road trip to Las Vegas in order to bond. Dern remembers, “We agreed that Sailor and Lula needed to be one person, one character, and we would each share it. I got the sexual, wild, Marilyn, gum-chewing fantasy, female side; Nick’s got the snakeskin, Elvis, raw, combustible, masculine side.”

Lynch’s two leads are also on the same page in this respect, especially Cage who affects an Elvis Presley-like drawl and sings two songs made famous by the King. Sailor, like many of the characters in this film, is larger than life with his snakeskin jacket credo, his unorthodox style of dancing (involving martial arts kicks and punches) and his habit of singing Elvis songs to Lula in public. There is a show-stopping moment where he instructs Powermad, a speed metal band, to back him on a note perfect rendition of “Love Me” while the women in the audience scream in adoration in surreal slow motion like something out of a dream. Cage plays Sailor as an instantly iconic figure, where pointing an accusing finger at Marietta is akin to a declaration of war.

Dern plays Lula to gum-chewing perfection, delivering a completely uninhibited performance as Lula. She exudes a captivating sensuality in the way she carries herself and makes a line like, “You got me hotter’n Georgia asphalt,” sound like an enticing come-on. Lula is a young woman full of energy and vitality as is evident in the scene where she and Sailor dance to the music of Powermad. There is genuine chemistry and heat between her and Cage — rather appropriate for a film dominated by images of fire. However, as the film progresses and the tone becomes darker, Lula’s optimism is chipped away and this culminates in a terrifying scene where Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) verbally rapes her in a way that echoes a similar scene in Blue Velvet (1986).

Amidst all of this madness and brutality is a touching tenderness between Sailor and Lula, like the way he softly kisses her after a passionate bout of sex, or a moment where he places her hand over his heart without a word. Nothing needs to be said between them because they understand each other intimately. As she tells him at one point, “You mark me the deepest.” And Lynch takes the time to show a series of conversations between Sailor and Lula where they talk about their respective childhoods (“I didn’t have much parental guidance.” Sailor tells her, not surprisingly.), their dreams, random thoughts, and past relationships. This allows us to get to know and care about them while also taking the occasional breather from all of the weirdness that Lynch throws our way.

Diane Ladd is fantastic as the wicked witch cum mother-from-hell, gleefully chewing up the scenery as evident even in the way she vigorously drinks from her martini glass and the way she delivers threats to Sailor with venomous gusto. Also prevalent is Lynch’s trademark fascination with the dark underbelly of America as personified by the character of Bobby Peru, one of Lynch’s most disturbing psychopaths (right behind Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth). With his horrible teeth and all-black attire (to match his pitch black heart), Peru sets his sights on Sailor and Lula with the intention of killing the former and seducing the latter.

Lynch juxtaposes this darkness with his trademark absurdist humor in the guise of the various oddballs Sailor and Lula meet along the way, like the man at a bar (Freddie Jones) who talks about “pigeon-spread diseases” in a goofy, high-pitched, sped-up voice. Or, Lula’s wildly eccentric cousin, Jingle Dell (Crispin Glover in a memorably bizarre cameo), who believes aliens are after him, enjoys placing cockroaches in his underwear and exhibits odd, nocturnal behavior (“I’m making my lunch!”). There is also a memorable scene that introduces Bobby Peru and his friends, including Lynch regular, Jack Nance in a scene-stealing role as Boozy Spool, a dazed and confused rocket scientist who may have been sampling his own rocket fuel. He delivers a brilliantly surreal monologue that is amongst some of the best moments in any Lynch film and reminiscent of the joyride interlude at Ben’s in Blue Velvet.

Wild at Heart
also features stunning cinematography by Frederick Elmes (who also worked with Lynch on Eraserhead and Blue Velvet). In particular, there is a scene where Lula and Sailor pull over to the side of the road as she is upset and disgusted with all of the terrible news that she’s heard on the radio. He finds Powermad on a station and they get out of the car and dance before embracing passionately. Lynch cuts to a long shot and pans away to a gorgeous shot of a sunset that captures the poetic beauty of this moment perfectly.

Wild at Heart
is a film rich in emotion and feeling as everything is heightened to an operatic level. Surreal is an adjective always used to describe Lynch but he is also a very romantic filmmaker. There is the Douglas Sirkian melodrama of Blue Velvet, the emotional journey Alvin Straight takes in order to reconnect with his brother in The Straight Story (1999), and the town of Twin Peaks dealing with the grief over the death of Laura Palmer. Perhaps the most emotional scene in Wild at Heart is when Sailor and Lula drive along a deserted stretch of highway late and night and while an instrumental version of “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak plays on the soundtrack, he tells her about how he knew her dead father. The reaction she gives is so heartbreaking, like a daughter who realizes that her father isn’t perfect.

Sailor, in some ways, is a father figure to her. He makes her feel protected and she even comments on how some of his physical features resemble her dad’s. This scene represents the first seed of doubt in their relationship. It is the first step off the yellow brick road and this is reinforced by Lula’s nightmarish vision of her mother as the Wicked Witch. And then they come across a horrible car accident and find one person still alive – a woman (Sherilyn Fenn) walking around in shock from a head wound. She eventually dies in Sailor and Lula’s arms. It is a tragic moment accentuated beautifully by Angelo Badalamenti’s moving score. This scene is a crucial turning point in the film as it descends into much darker territory as Sailor and Lula make a series of bad decisions, most notably getting involved with Bobby Peru.

Lynch loved The Wizard of Oz and put a lot of references to it in his own film. Boozy Spool talks about his dog, comparing it to Dorothy’s pooch Toto; Marietta’s picture disappears at the end of the film just like the Wicked Witch; there’s Lula’s vision of her mother as the Wicked Witch of the East; Sailor has a vision of the Good Witch (Sheryl Lee) at the end of the film, who convinces him not give up on love; and Lula clicking the heels of her shoes together after the terrifying encounter with Bobby Peru.

Early test screenings for the film did not go well with the intense violence in some scenes being too much. Lynch estimated that between 100-120 people walked out. The scene in question was the torture and killing of Johnny Farragut. “I didn’t think I’d pushed it to the point where people would turn on the picture. But, looking back, I think it was pretty close. But that was part of what Wild at Heart was about: really insane and sick and twisted stuff going on.” Lynch decided not to edit anything from the film and at the second screening another one hundred people walked out during the same scene. Lynch remembers, “By then, I knew the scene was killing the film. So I cut it to the degree that it was powerful but didn´t send people running from the theatre.”

The film was completed one day before its premiere at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival. Its first screening was in the 2,400-seat Grand Auditorium and afterwards it received “wild cheering” from the audience. Barry Gifford remembers that there was a prevailing mood among the media that hoped Lynch would fail. “All kinds of journalists were trying to cause controversy and have me say something like ‘This is nothing like the book’ or ‘He ruined my book.’ I think everybody from Time magazine to What’s On In London was disappointed when I said ‘This is fantastic. This is wonderful. It’s like a big, dark, musical comedy.’” When Jury President Bernardo Bertolucci announced Wild at Heart as the Palme d’Or winner at the awards ceremony, the boos almost drowned out the cheers with film critic Roger Ebert leading the vocal detractors.

Wild at Heart
perfectly illustrates Lynch’s love-hate relationship with America. The film is filled with beautifully shot iconography of Americana, like big convertible automobiles from the ‘50s and rock ‘n’ roll music from the period. Sailor and Lula are loving (albeit tweaked) homages to Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. It is also something of an underrated film that is often ignored in favor of Lynch’s more well-known work, like Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive (2001). One can see the film’s influence in a film like True Romance (1993), with its Elvis-obsessed protagonist and his gum-chewing white trash girlfriend as they are pursued by psychotic gangsters, or Natural Born Killers (1994) with its white trash lovers on the run, or even U-Turn (1997) with its town full of eccentric weirdoes. But no one can pull this stuff off quite like Lynch and his film is a true original that deserves to be re-discovered and re-evaluated.

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STRIPES – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

stripesWatching Stripes (1981) again after all these years makes me nostalgic for the early comedies of the first generation of Saturday Night Live cast members: Animal House (1978), Caddyshack (1980), Fletch (1984), and so on. They were goofy and silly but they also had an engaging, anarchistic attitude that is so much fun to watch. This is definitely the case with Stripes, a film that pits a “lost and restless generation,” as the film’s main protagonist puts it at one point, against rigid authority that is only interested in producing, lean, mean, killing machines, to paraphrase another character. Much of the film’s humor comes from the clash of these two ideologies.

After losing his job, his girlfriend, and his apartment all in one morning (“You still have your health,” deadpans his best friend), John Winger (Bill Murray) decides to enlist in the Army and straighten out his life. He convinces his best friend Russell Zisky (Harold Ramis) to enlist as well (“If I get killed, my blood is on your hands,” he says, to which John replies, “Just don’t get it on my shoes.”). Once they arrive at the base and meet their no-nonsense drill instructor, Sergeant Hulka (the perfectly cast Warren Oates), John and Russell realize that it’s not going to be as easy as they imagined.

Stripes settles into a classic fish-out-of-water formula as John and his misfit platoon (with the likes of John Candy and Judge Reinhold) gradually become efficient soldiers despite their complete ineptitude and perchance for breaking all the rules. The gang of misfits fulfills all the requisite stereotypes: “Cruiser” (John Diehl) is the dumb guy, “Ox” (John Candy) is the lovable oversized oaf, “Psycho” (Conrad Dunn) is the crazy guy, and, of course, John is the group joker and self-proclaimed leader. Other conventions include casual nudity (Ox wrestles three strippers in a mud wrestling contest) and the obligatory love interests as John and Russell get involved with two cute, female MPs (P.J. Soles and Sean Young). This template would prove to be so successful that it was exploited in films like Police Academy (1984), PCU (1994) and countless others.

On his way to the premiere of Meatballs (1979), director Ivan Reitman thought up the idea for a film: “Cheech and Chong join the Army.” At the premiere, he pitched it to Paramount Pictures and, incredibly, they greenlit the project that day. Len Blum and Dan Goldberg wrote the screenplay in Toronto and would read it to Reitman (who was in Los Angeles) over the phone. He would, in turn, give them notes. Reitman gave the script to Cheech and Chong’s manager and he read it and thought it was very funny. He gave it to the comedians but they wanted complete control. Reitman then suggested to Goldberg that they change the two main characters to ones suited for Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, figuring that if they could get Ramis interested in it and let him tailor the script for the two of them that Murray would be interested in doing the film. It worked and Murray signed on to do the film.

Ramis had already co-written Animal House and Meatballs but was unknown as an actor. He screen-tested for Columbia Pictures, who hated his audition but Reitman told the studio that he was hiring him anyway. Judge Reinhold’s character, Elmo, ended up with a collection of all the best jokes from the Cheech and Chong version of the film. Before filming he thought that he had a handle on his character but once filming started, he was “petrified” because this was his first big studio film. The casting agent picked Sean Young based on how she looked and P.J. Soles tested with Ramis and they got along very well together. John Diehl had never auditioned before and this was his first paying acting job. Goldberg knew John Candy from Toronto and told Reitman that he should be in the film. He didn’t even have to audition.

One of the reasons why Stripes is my favorite Bill Murray comedy are the little touches that he adds to a scene that makes it that much funnier. For example, in the first scene where John goes to pay a guy after getting a shoe shine, Murray turns his back to the man so that he won’t see how much of a tip he’s going to give him. It’s an odd, idiosyncratic choice that no one else would’ve thought to make but it enriches the scene ever so slightly. The next scene demonstrates Murray’s gift for physical comedy when he loads a snotty rich lady’s luggage into the trunk of his cab and accidentally bags himself. It’s an obvious gag to be sure but Murray still makes it funny.

John continues to antagonize the lady (Fran Ryan) during the ride to the airport but in a deadpan, sardonic way. At one point she says, “I’ve never gone this way before,” to which he replies, “I’m sure there’s a lot of ways that I’ve gone that you haven’t.,” implying that she’s square and conservative while he’s hip and liberated, thereby establishing a clear generational gap. The rich lady insults John and so instead of getting angry at her he decides to mess with her, including one memorable bit where he starts driving fast. Suddenly alarmed, she says, “Aren’t you going too fast?” He replies, intentionally slurring his words, “Oh, it’s not the speed, really so much, I just wish I hadn’t drunk all that cough syrup.” John proceeds to give the lady a little scare but when she calls him a bum, he’s had enough and quits right in the middle of a bridge, throwing his car keys in a river and leaving her stranded.

It’s not until almost eight minutes into the film that Elmer Bernstein’s first musical cue appears and it is a slightly sad, whimsical tune. The scene where John’s girlfriend Anita (Roberta Leighton) leaves him is interesting because it straddles the line between comedy and drama. She is clearly unhappy with their relationship and he tries to deflect her complaints with humor before half-heartedly saying, “I’m part of a lost and restless generation,” and follows this up asking her a rhetorical question, “What do you want me to do, run for the Senate?” This scene underlines John’s dilemma – he lacks direction and any kind of motivation. Interestingly, no music plays during this scene so that the gravitas of it, if you will, is not undermined by manipulative music. Bernstein’s whimsical score only returns when Russell arrives and the two banter back and forth about John’s sorry state of affairs.

The chemistry between Bill Murray and Harold Ramis is excellent. Ramis is the perfect straight man to Murray’s smart-ass slacker. They had been friends and worked together for some years and play well off each other as evident in the scene where Russell bets John that he can’t do five push-ups. It is in this scene that John realizes that he’s in crap physical shape and that the army is his only hope in turning his life around. Every scene had some element of improvisation and this was due in large part to Murray and Ramis who suggested things for him to say and this spread to the other cast members. Stripes is quite possibly Murray’s best comedy. He was on his way to becoming a big movie star (he had already conquered T.V. with SNL and a scene-stealing turn in Caddyshack) and applied the comedic chops he honed on T.V. to this role. Murray has a way of delivering dialogue and being able to give certain lines a sarcastic delivery or add a look or a facial expression that makes what he says so funny.

Reitman was a fan of westerns that Warren Oates had been in and wanted someone who was strong and that everyone respected to control the misfit platoon. Reinhold said that during filming, Oates would tell everyone stories about working on films like The Wild Bunch (1969) and they would be enthralled. The casting of Oates, the veteran of many Sam Peckinpah films, gives Stripes a dose of gravitas and provides a certain amount of tension in some of the scenes he has with Murray. Sgt. Hulka is the ideal antagonist for the anti-authoritative John and their scene together in the barracks’ washroom, where Hulka finally asserts his authority, is filled with a palpable tension — unusual for a comedy but it works. Reitman wanted “a little bit of weight in the center,” and have a real argument between Hulka and Winger. It wasn’t played for laughs and allowed Murray to do something he hadn’t done before.

However, the improvisational nature of Reitman and some of the cast did not impress an old school actor like Oates. During one of the days of filming the obstacle course scenes, Reitman told the actors to grab Oates and drag him into the mud without telling the veteran actor about it in order to see what would happen in the hopes of getting a genuine reaction. Oates’ chipped his front tooth and was understandably pissed at Reitman, yelling at the director for what he did.

The film’s not-so secret weapon and scene stealer is John Candy as the lovable Ox. For example, the scene where he introduces himself to the rest of the platoon is quite funny. Candy portrays Ox as an earnest guy who wants to lose weight while Russell, in the background, reacts hilariously to what he’s saying. Candy also excelled at physical comedy as evident in the scene where Ox mud wrestles several scantily-clad women. At first, they get the upper hand on him and he’s afraid to hurt them, but after a pep talk from Winger and invoking the spirit of Curly from the Three Stooges, Ox bests six women at once! Initially, Candy wasn’t sure he wanted to do the film. “The original character didn’t look like much but Ivan said we could change it and I could do some writing. Everything fell together and we realized it could be a lot of fun.”

If Stripes has any weaknesses it is in the last third of the film where the platoon, fresh from a successful graduation parade, is trapped in an Eastern Bloc country (remember, the Cold War was still in full swing at this point) looking for John and Russell after they took off with the army’s top secret armored recreational vehicle (the uber Winnebago). This part of the movie feels forced and tacked on. It just isn’t as strong or as funny as everything that came before it. However, the first two thirds of the film are so good that not even this hurts the picture all that much.

Only during a time when the United States wasn’t at war with anyone (unless you count the Cold War), does joining the army to improve your life seem like an option if you’re reasonably educated as John and Russell are in Stripes. One gets the feeling that they could have easily had a productive life in almost any walk of life if they only applied themselves. Joining the army on a whim doesn’t seem that funny in our current climate which does date the film somewhat. Regardless, the script is filled with tons of witty dialogue and funny gags, the cast is uniformly excellent, and Murray and Ramis have never been better. At the risk of falling back on an old cliché, they just don’t make comedies like this anymore.

BEFORE SUNRISE – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

tumblr_mf50m3U5GF1s0xicxo1_1280Few people saw Before Sunrise when it was released in 1995 but those who did really loved it. In its own subtle and unassuming way, Richard Linklater’s film flew in the face of most romantic films at the time. It refused to be dated by obvious, trendy popular culture references and music. It featured an honest dialogue between two twentysomethings who meet by chance on a train and decide to get off together in Vienna. Before Sunrise would also mark an interesting change of pace for Linklater. With Slacker (1990) and Dazed and Confused (1993), he had worked with rather sizable ensemble casts, but with this film it was essentially two characters and the occasional people they encounter.

Before Sunrise
opens with Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American taking a train to Vienna where he plans to fly back home after a disastrous summer trip around Europe. On-board he meets Celine (Julie Delpy), a French student headed for Paris to resume classes at the Sorbonne, thanks to a loudly bickering German couple that causes her to move and sit across from him. In a sly, self-referential nod to the format of Linklater’s to Slacker and Dazed and Confused, which adhered to a 24-hour time frame, Jesse tells Celine about a reality show he would like to see that would consist of 24-hour-long episodes documenting a day in the life of an average person. It sounds like something one of the characters in Slacker would pitch.

Jesse and Celine get to talking in the dinner car and enjoy the experience so much that they agree to get off the train together in Vienna and spend the night walking around the city getting to know each other, taking in the sights. They also encounter several intriguing people along the way, like the two guys who invite them to their play Bring Me the Horns of Wilmington’s Cow, which is an amusing reference to Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). The description of their play sounds quite interesting and every time I watch the film I kind of wished that Jesse and Celine had checked it out. It’s a funny, throwaway scene that appears early on and adheres to the amiable, structure established in Slacker of protagonists going from encounter to the next with no real rhyme or reason.

There’s a great moment early on when Jesse and Celine are in a record store listening booth listening to “Come Here” by Kath Bloom. It’s obviously a romantic song and you can see Jesse thinking about making some kind of romantic gesture but stopping himself because it would be way too corny. As Linklater has pointed out in an interview, there is a wonderful awkwardness about this moment that is true to life and something you don’t see much in romantic films.

Celine seems to be obsessed somewhat with death. She takes Jesse to a graveyard populated by unknown people who washed up on the banks of the Danube River. She points out one grave of a 13-year-old girl, the same age when she first saw it. Celine speaks about how much it impacted her at the time and how it still resonates with her. It’s a nice, poignant moment that reveals a lot about her character. A few minutes later, we learn how Jesse is much more jaded about love and life in general – perhaps as the result of coming from divorced parents and recently being dumped by his girlfriend. At one point, he tells Celine that he views life like “I was crashing a big party.”

Jesse and Celine kiss on the same Ferris wheel made famous in The Third Man (1949) when Orson Welles delivers a famous monologue. It is Before Sunrise’s only obvious, touristy moment. There are so many wonderful little interludes in this film, like when Jesse and Celine are sitting at an outdoor cafe and she gets her palm read by an old gypsy lady who tells them that they are stardust. It’s a funny moment but when the lady first takes a look at Celine’s hand she tells her that Celine has to resign herself to the “awkwardness of life.” It’s the one decent observation among the cliché observations that she tells Celine. After the palm reader leaves they laugh about it but the scene underlines the romantic nature of Celine and the cynical worldview of Jesse.

Celine speaks fondly of her grandmother and how she sometimes feels like an old woman and Jesse replies that he sometimes feels like a 13-year-old boy stuck in a dress rehearsal, taking notes for when he has to become an adult. I remember feeling like that in my twenties; in that transitory state between college and joining the workforce. You don’t quite feel like you belong anywhere and Linklater nails it with this exchange between Jesse and Celine.

One my favorite scenes in the film is when Jesse and Celine happen upon a street poet. Instead of just asking them for money he asks them for a word. He composes a poem for them with the word inserted somewhere. If they like it they can give him some money. He recites a wonderful little poem that is romantic and filled with evocative imagery. Again, this scene reinforces Jesse and Celine’s different views of love. She finds the poem romantic and spontaneous while he says that the street poet probably just inserted the word into a pre-existing poem that he had already written.

By today’s standards, with the proliferation of technology like cell phones and virtual meeting places like MySpace and Facebook, the way Jesse and Celine interact in Before Sunrise is positively old school and dates the film in a good way. For example, in one scene Jesse and Celine talk about past relationships over a game of pinball in a nightclub. Pinball machines are rarely made anymore and not as common as they used to be a couple of decades ago. Linklater grew up in the 1970s when pinball was all the rage and as someone who has fond memories of them, I love how they are used as a piece of business for Jesse and Celine to do while they talk about their ex’s.

What makes Before Sunrise such a great film is that it avoids the sappy clichés that are so rampant in most romantic films. Despite the Generation-X marketing of the film, complete with a Lemonheads song in the trailer, Before Sunrise also avoids that pitfall by not using any contemporary “alternative” music or excessive usage of pop culture references that have mired and dated lesser films. This was a conscious concern for the cast as Delpy said in an interview, “We wanted to avoid any pop culture references and just show individuals attempting to communicate and care for someone else.”

The seeds for the film had been planted long ago. According to Linklater, he had been thinking about Before Sunrise for five years. It would be a film about two people, because, at the time, he had never really dealt with male-female issues or romance. The film was based on an encounter Linklater had in 1989. He met a woman in a toy store in Philadelphia and they spent the night walking around the city together, conversing deep into the night. Originally in the screenplay, who the two characters were and the city they spend time in was vague. He realized that because the film was so much a dialogue between a man and a woman he knew that it was important to have a strong woman co-writer – Kim Krizan who had small roles in Slacker and Dazed and Confused. He wanted to write a script with her because he “loved the way her mind worked – a constant stream of confident and intelligent ideas.”

Linklater wanted to explore the “relationship side of life and discover two people who had complete anonymity and try to find out who they really were.” He put Jesse and Celine together in foreign country because “when you’re traveling, you’re much more open to experiences outside your usual realm.” He and Krizan talked about the concept of the film and the characters for a long time. Then, they worked on an outline followed by the actual script which was written in 11 days.

Before Sunrise
is filled with great conversations about sex, relationships, dreams, death, religion, and life in general. Imagine My Dinner with Andre (1981) if the two characters from that film had actually left the restaurant. There are conversations in Before Sunrise that you swear you’ve had before — they are that good. It doesn’t hurt that the film contains only two protagonists and this enables Linklater to take the time and explore their personalities. “In both Slacker and Dazed and Confused, the audience was literally plopped down amongst the characters and you never really got to know them that well apart from their momentary interactions and behavior with each other. So I wanted to make a movie about a unique relationship while still conforming to a character-driven narrative where their personal thoughts are continually verbalized.” The structure of Before Sunrise lies in the characters themselves. The narrative is propelled by their decisions and their actions. Linklater was careful in who he chose for the two main roles which went to Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. The director didn’t care what they had done before, but instead based his choice on his impressions based upon meeting the two actors.

When Linklater first considered casting Hawke he thought the actor was too young. Linklater saw him at a play in New York City and reconsidered after talking to him. To his credit, Hawke amends for his self-conscious hipster from Reality Bites (1994) – something I can’t fault him for entirely as I’m sure he played the character as it was written. With Jesse, Hawke plays a much more developed, three-dimensional character that he obviously had input on how he was going to portray him. Hawke’s character actually suggests some depth and personality than merely turning into a philosophizing, ‘70s sitcom quoting machine like in Reality Bites. Initially, Jesse comes across as Linklater’s philosopher character at the beginning of Slacker with his crazy idea for a reality show, but over the course of the film he falls under Celine’s spell. She manages to get past his cynical exterior with her earnest romanticism. Hawke does a nice job of hinting at the romantic that lurks beneath his facade only to emerge in the subsequent sequel Before Sunset (2004).

Linklater met Julie Delpy and liked her personality. She is simply wonderful in her portrayal of Celine. Before Sunrise is, without a doubt, my favorite performance of hers. She plays Celine as a smart, funny independent woman but with insecurities and self doubts that only make her even more endearing. It doesn’t hurt that she’s beautiful, truly the Botticelli angel that Jesse describes her as being. As she remembers, “Although my character was very much my romantic side, I also had to be strong while dealing with this American man.” Delpy was concerned that her character would be reduced to some “cliché-ridden feminine mass,” but Linklater never lets this happen. This is due in large part to the fact that he wrote the screenplay with Kim Krizan to give the film more balance. “I certainly thought that since the film is so much a dialogue between a man and a woman,” Linklater explains, “it was important to have a strong woman co-writer and a strong woman in the production.” Delpy has incredible chemistry with Hawke and it feels genuine. The way they look at each other, especially when the other one is talking, you can see, over the course of the film that their characters are falling in love.

At one point Jesse tells Celine, “I feel like this is some dream world we’re in,” to which she replies, “It must be like I’m in your dream and you’re in mine.” This is what Before Sunrise is – a cinematic dream world that we can lose ourselves in every time we watch it. Linklater captures a specific moment in time for these two characters – one magical night where they make a true connection that they will never forget. Interestingly, Before Sunrise ends like Dazed and Confused, in the early morning with Jesse and Celine rejoining the real world after spending all night together. Near the end of the film there is a montage of places that they shared together – it’s a visual summary of the film and also a sad reminder of places that they will never be again. Before Sunrise ends on a melancholic note with feelings of longing for what could have been. It’s a very unusual way to end a romantic film but it is keeping perfectly in tone with the rest of the film.

B Movie Glory with Nate: Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow

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The fact that Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow has almost nothing to do with the first Cyborg is probably a good thing. I’ve seen both, and the first one is an ugly, grimy early starring vehicle for Jean Claude Van Damme that plays like an episode of American Gladiators on PCP. This sequel, however, is a scrappy little sci fi delight. It takes plays in a futuristic B-Movie realm where maniacal corporations wage war on each other for the control of lucrative artificial intelligence, cyborgs who can be programmed to be slaves, soldiers or whatever you want. Angelina Jolie is Casella ‘Cash’ Reese, a gorgeous warrior Cyborg held under the watchful eye of the Pinwheel corporation, ruled by a hammy Allen Garfield. Her trainer, a mercenary named Colton Hicks (Elias Koteas) starts to fall in love with her. In this particular B movie universe, it’s implied that there are fragments of what may resemble a soul that begin to grow inside the cyborgs, and gradually Cash falls for him as well. They plan their escape, and embark into a delightfully cheap looking metropolis of the future, seeking an oasis far away that’s basically a non extradition zone for robots. Pinwheel sends some dangerous bounty hunters after them. There’s fighting. And running. And shooting. And Cyborg sex including a 17 year old Angelina going fully topless, which makes me wonder how the filmmakers ducked the authorities on that one. Not that I’m complaining. Aside from baring her chesticles, she makes a pretty solid action heroine at that age, and even before making a name for herself she carries the film pretty well. Koteas is pretty much capable of anything as far as acting goes, breezing through this one in his sleep whilst still keeping one eye open to give Hicks a vulnerability and desperation that the film hardly deserves. Character actor Billy Drago gives a scene stealing performance of sheer unbridled lunacy as Danny Bench, a terrifyingly unhinged contract killer who pursues the pair and has an absolute smackdown of a fight sequence with Koteas. That old salty dog Jack Palance even shows up for an amusing, warmhearted supporting role as a mysterious hacker who helps the duo out and in turn gets his own retribution. Get one thing straight right now: this a B movie. If you go into one of these with your critic’s brain shoveling coal into the fires of cynicism, you’re gonna have a bad time. These films are overtly cheap, chock full of deliberate plot holes and speckled with acting that could wilt flowers. But I love them anyway. I grew up watching an endless stream of direct to video horror, sci fi and thriller flicks that maybe ten people on planet earth besides me have seen. I love them, they are amazing and they exist in a realm far, far outside film ‘criticism’. It’s best to gear your brain into fun mode before hitting play, then just relax and enjoy. If you’re the type of person that can do that, you’ll love this kind of stuff. If not, steer well clear. Cyborg 2 is the perfect example of a B movie done right, and I’ll be the first to admit that there’s plenty that are made with the kind of lifeless ineptitude that doesn’t even deserve a place in the genre. This one’s cheaply made, doesn’t have much of a budget to its name, yet admirably creates it’s own little world with what it has, spinning a story of action, romance, robots and Angelina Jolie. Honestly, who can say no to those things? You, that’s who.

The Cotton Club: A Review by Nate Hill

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Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club is every bit as dazzling, chaotic and decadent as one might imagine the roaring twenties would have been. it’s set in and revolves around the titular jazz club, conducting a boisterous, kaleidoscope study of the various dames, dapper gents, hoodlums, harlots and musicians who called it home. Among them are would be gangster Dixie Dwyer (a slick Richard Gere), Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines), a young Bumpy Johnson (Laurence Fishburne) and renowned psychopathic mobster Dutch Schultz (a ferocious James Remar). Coppola wisely ducks a routine plot line in favor of a helter skelter, raucous cascade of delirious partying, violence and steamy romance, a stylistic choice almost reminiscent of Robert Altman. Characters come and go, fight and feud, drink and dance and generally keep up the kind of manic  energy and pizazz that only the 20’s could sustain. The cast is positively stacked, so watch for appearances from Nicolas Case, Bob Hoskins, Diane Lane, John P. Ryan, James Russo, Fred Gwynne, Allen Garfield, Ed O Ross, Diane Venora, Woody Strode, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Cobbs, Sofia Coppola and singer Tom Waits as Irving Stark, the club’s owner. It’s a messily woven tapestry of crime and excess held together by brief encounters, hot blooded conflict and that ever present jazz music which fuels the characters along with the perpetual haze of booze and cigarette smoke. Good times.

A PERFECT WORLD – A FILM REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

apw059In 1993, Clint Eastwood was enjoying a resurgence in popularity. His revisionist western Unforgiven (1992) won three Academy Awards and he received critical and commercial acclaim for his performance in the action-thriller, In the Line of Fire (1993). When he was approached with the screenplay for A Perfect World (1993), he was still making Line of Fire and doing promotion for the Academy Award nominations for Unforgiven. As a result, Eastwood anticipated only directing A Perfect World. However, when Kevin Costner came on board, he felt that Eastwood would be perfect for a smaller role in the film. Eastwood agreed because it wouldn’t require him to spend a lot of time in front of the camera.

A Perfect World is essentially a road movie set in Texas, 1963, three weeks before the John F. Kennedy assassination (an event that subtly hangs over the film with ominous foreshadowing) that recalls a simpler, even more innocent time. Thematically there is much more going on as the film wrestles with father/son relationships, child abuse and religion. The film begins with two convicts making a daring escape from prison only to take refuge in the neighboring suburbs. Terry Pugh (Keith Szarabajka) is the more amoral one as he wants to kill the driver of the vehicle they commandeer to leave the prison. He then later tries to rape a woman whose house he breaks into. The other convict, Butch Hayes (Kevin Costner), steps in before things go too far with Pugh and the woman. Butch even convinces her little boy, Phillip (T.J. Lowther), to give him the handgun that was dropped during the ensuing scuffle.

This is a crucial moment because it establishes early on the instant bond between Butch and Phillip. Despite the circumstances, there is something about Butch that Phillip intrinsically trusts. What this is will become more apparent later on in the film. When a neighbor intervenes unexpectedly, Butch and Pugh kidnap Phillip and take off in a stolen car. Texas Ranger Red Garnett (Clint Eastwood) is called in to track down and bring in the fugitives. However, the Governor (Dennis Letts) assigns him a criminologist by the name of Sally Gerber (Laura Dern). He immediately resents her intellectual approach to the situation as opposed to her being a woman, which would have been the norm at the time. He tells her, “This is not a penal escape situation, this happens to be a manhunt. And no talking around in circles is gonna fix all that.” Eastwood immediately establishes an antagonistic relationship between Red and Sally, which parallels the antagonistic relationship between Butch and Pugh. In no time at all, both conflicts will be resolved – one amicably, the other violently.

Like many of Eastwood’s characters, Red works on instinct and common sense. He resents authority figures and bureaucracy. He likes to be left alone and do things his own way. He sees Sally as an annoyance and a possible obstacle in his path. However, she clears the air pretty quickly, letting him know that she’s no pushover when she tells him, “But the one thing I won’t do is be your straight man so you can play hero to a bunch of morons who think you’re some kind of hillbilly Sherlock Holmes.” These lines deflate Eastwood’s traditional stoic lawman façade and Red even offers a compromise of sorts. He encourages Sally to speak up and even though he might not agree with her theories, he’s willing to listen. A Perfect World proceeds to cut back and forth between Butch and Phillip’s developing friendship and the partnership between Red and Sally with the two storylines dovetailing finally at the film’s conclusion.

One of the hallmarks of Eastwood’s directorial efforts is an emphasis on character and the relationships that are created between them. This film is no different with John Lee Hancock’s superbly written screenplay. He would go on to adapt Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil for the film of the same name that Eastwood also directed in 1997. Sadly, they haven’t teamed up since but these two efforts are proof that they were a good match for each other. Hancock’s screenplay is filled with clever dialogue, like when Butch tells Phillip his theory about how a car is a time machine. Everything behind them is the past, everything in front is the future and inside the car is the present. “We’re time traveling through Texas,” Butch proudly proclaims. And in a way that’s what the film is doing – taking us back to a time that doesn’t exist anymore, to a time before President Kennedy was killed and when people were more hopeful and optimistic. His assassination (and that of other key figures of the 1960s) changed all that and we watch these events transpiring with the knowledge of how radically history will change in a few short months.

Hancock’s screenplay should also be noted for how well it develops the relationship between Butch and Phillip. Early on, Butch puts his trust in the boy by leaving him and Pugh in the car with the gun while he goes into a store for supplies. Pugh is able to get the drop on Phillip and take the gun away from him only to find out that there are no bullets in it. Butch assumed that this would happen and did not want to see Phillip get hurt. He may be a convict but he is not as heartless as Pugh. In turn, Phillip trusts Butch and stays with him even when he has the option, on a couple of occasions, to escape. Butch makes Phillip feel important and needed. Once they are on the road, having ditched Pugh, Butch refers to the boy as the navigator of the car. Later on, he asks Phillip to scout a car that he is interested in stealing. Butch doesn’t make Phillip feel like a passive observer but encourages him to become involved in their adventures.

Another significant factor in their friendship is Phillip’s lack of a father figure – something that Butch can also relate to and this provides common ground between them. Butch also speaks honestly to the boy. In one scene, when Phillip says that his mother told him his father would return, Butch replies that she lied and that he is never coming back. He doesn’t come out and say it but we sense that Butch knows this from his own personal experience. He also broadens the boy’s horizons by allowing him to experience things that his Jehovah’s Witness practicing mother would never condone, like drinking soda or wearing a Halloween costume and going trick or treating.

The relationship between these two characters works so well not just because of the excellent script but also because of the strong performances from Costner and T.J. Lowther. On the surface, Butch seems like one of Costner’s cocky, cool characters that he is often known for (i.e. Fandango, Silverado or Bull Durham), yet underneath lurks a dark, dangerous streak that surfaces when he sees a child being abused (the sure sign that Butch was probably abused when he was a child as well). Eastwood never lets us forget that Butch is a criminal. Costner is able to balance this element of danger with his trademark charm, like when he helps Pugh differentiate between a fact and a threat in a scene that is slightly threatening because violence is involved but is also funny as well because of the absurd tone. If Costner had any doubts about his character going into this film, Eastwood assured him that movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney weren’t afraid to play convicts and “have a bad side,” the director said, “and I had Kevin play a much harder edge than he has played.”

Lowther matches Costner’s performance with his superb take on a shy, young boy who develops a strong bond with his captor. He has such an expressive face, which he uses to great effect during emotional scenes, like the internal conflict that becomes apparent when Phillip is given the chance to escape or stay with Butch. He has been cut off from everything and everyone he knows. He has little choice but to stay with the convict. Lowther doesn’t have too much dialogue but he is able to convey so much with a look and with his expressive eyes. He is more than capable of holding his own with Costner and their scenes together are well-played as we see their friendship develop over time. Eastwood was never interested in playing the sympathy angle with this friendship. He said, “You can’t have him treat the kid as if he’s paternal. I didn’t want it to come off like he’s cuddling the kid.” Above all, the director did not want the boy to “become precious. I wanted an un-Disneyesque kid.”

The script also provides motivation for Red’s personal interest in this case. We learn that the lawman put Butch in juvenile hall when he was young in an attempt to save him from his abusive father but it turned him into a career criminal. Red even paid off a judge so that Butch would stay in longer and so he feels guilty and responsible for what happened to him. Even though he never comes out and says it, one feels that Red wants to be the person to find Butch and try set things right. This backstory also explains the convict’s hatred for any kind of child abuse (Pugh hitting Phillip or a mother physically scolding her two children) and this manifests itself in a particularly strong way towards the end of the film when he and Phillip take refuge in a poor family’s house in what is surely the darkest scene in the film. After witnessing the father repeatedly abusing his little boy, Butch hits and threatens the father, his own rage threatening to boil over. A scene that started off warm and inviting turns into one that is uncomfortable and filled with tension as Phillip sees just how dangerous Butch can be. He ties up the entire family and we see how this affects Phillip as he observes the fear in the eyes of the mother and her child as Butch threatens the father repeatedly.

Phillip stops Butch before anything fatal happens to the family but the question lingers, was he going to kill them or just tie them up so that they couldn’t get away? Regardless, Phillip shoots Butch and runs away, setting the stage for the film’s climactic showdown between Red and Butch. Even here, Eastwood defies our expectations by drawing out the stand-off. The relationship between Butch and the boy continue to play out as he apologizes for shooting him. They have one last emotional conversation and because we have gotten to know these characters, we care about what happens to them. Their final moments are very touching, even moving. Costner and Eastwood finally have a scene together and this is what we’ve been waiting for the entire film. Not much is said between them and this is because we already know their motivations, Eastwood has been building to this moment. Visually, A Perfect World begins and ends the same with a slow motion shot of Butch lying in a field with money floating around him in the wind but by the film’s conclusion we know how and why he got there.

These sequences feel like something out of a dream and coupled with the leisurely pace probably didn’t endear it to mainstream audiences who were expecting another crowd-pleasing popcorn movie like In the Line of Fire. A Perfect World is closer to Unforgiven thematically as both films explore how the sins of the past affect the present with Eastwood playing tortured characters that try to fix old mistakes that had life-altering consequences but end up resolving things violently. In the case of Unforgiven, Eastwood’s character takes an active part in this resolution but with A Perfect World events spiral out of his control. This film is one of his most underrated efforts to date with its almost lyrical approach making it ripe for rediscovery by another generation of filmgoers receptive to an Eastwood film with complex relationships and a tragic conclusion reminiscent of more recent efforts like Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004).

Hearts In Atlantis: A Review by Nate Hill

  
The one great benefit that any film based on a Stephen King story has is just that: it’s based on a Stephen King story. The guy is just such a prodigy of fiction that even if the film version of one of his books doesn’t deliver, one can still see the brilliant blueprint lurking beneath the frames. When the filmmakers are successful, however, we get a visually stimulating project founded on the tale he has weaved to support all the other elements. Hearts In Atlantis is based on an anthology volume of his, and in fact the story the film follows isn’t even called that, it’s actually ‘Low Men In Yellow Coats’. I can see why the director went with Hearts In Atlantis though, as it’s much more akin to the ethereal, sentimental tone he was going for, and less of an ominous hook. The story itself follows a mysterious man named Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins), a recent tenant in the home of young Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin) and his wayward mother (a miscast Hope Davis). The setting is Midwestern America, in the dead heat of a 1950’s summer. Bobby spends his days cavorting in the local woodlands with his fastest of friends, Carole (Mika Boorem) and Sully (Will Rothhaar). He takes a shine to Ted though, who pays him a dollar a week to read to him, and warns him of shadowy ‘low men’, threatening figures who doggedly pursue him for nasty reasons. Ted becomes a father figure for young Bobby, whose mother has questionable ideas about not only raising a son, but taking care of her own affairs. Now the film may seem a bit thinly plotted to some, and there’s a reason for that. This story is actually a tiny fragment in a much larger tale, King’s magnum opus The Dark Tower. Ted and Bobby have important parts to play in that saga, in which the events of this film are but a sentence long. Some viewers may feel slighted by a lack of context, but the filmmakers here still find a way to make this its own story, crafting a touching coming of age story melded with whispers of otherworldly intrigue. The fusion of beguiling nostalgia and the vague menace that advances on Bobby and Ted makes for a unique tone, something just south of a thriller which can’t quite be pinned down by genre labels. Hopkins can be both terrifying and tender depending on the role. Here he is kindness incarnate as a man whose worldly intuition goes beyond telekinesis into the kind of qualities reserved for the best and brightest. Yelchin and Boorem, who would star alongside each other again a few years later in the lacklustre Along Came A Spider, are the superb heart of the film. Yelchin has shown a constant progression of strongly realized, believable work and the quality of his craft can be traced back to this stunning genesis role. Boorem is highly underused these days, and one need only watch her light up the screen with emotional sincerity in this to see why she should be working far more. There’s neat supporting work from Tom Bower, Celia Weston, Alan Tudyuk and David Morse as an older version of Bobby who yearns for days gone by. I found myself deeply enjoying this one whilst constantly drawing back to the knowledge and context I have for it via The Dark Tower, but the film on it’s own is enough to provide a rewarding experience for anyone who isn’t familiar with the multiverse. Amid King’s favourite topics and settings are Midwest adolescence, idiosyncratic nooks of Americana and the ever present supernatural aspect, dynamics which Hearts In Atlantis gives us aplenty, along with an open invitation to explore the universe farther, should one want to venture along the path to the Tower. I’d recommend it.