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B Movie Glory: Second Nature

Second Nature is a low grade Bourne clone that benefits from two great actors in the lead roles. Slight, airy and inconsequential, it inhabits the clandestine corner reserved for middle-of-the-road espionage ventures neatly. Alec Baldwin plays a mysterious man who recovers from a plane crash that killed his family, left with heavy amnesia and confusion surrounding his past. When a shadowy agency bigwig (Powers Boothe) contacts him claiming he used to be an assassin for his outfit, he’s thrown back in the world of high profile contract killing, the world he came from, allegedly anyway. Nothing is as it seems though, and of course his boss turns out to be a bad dude, which gives Boothe a chance to ratchet up the intensity. The film is pretty much average throughout, until we find out Baldwin’s origins and arrive at a fairly thoughtful ending with some work put into storytelling, the first signs of a creative pulse in the film beyond garden variety plot twists. Baldwin is always great, whether on the protagonist’s or antagonist’s bench, and he sells the material well enough.

-Nate Hill

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Tombstone: A Review by Nate Hill 

There are two main film versions based on the life of infamous outlaw Wyatt Earp: a serious, sombre one with Kevin Costner (and a whole lot of others), and a rolkicking circus sideshow starring Kurt Russell, bedazzled with a jaw dropping supporting cast that doesn’t quit. Both films are great, but if you held a six shooter to my head and demanded a preference, I’d have to give Tombstone the edge. It’s just too much fun, one wild screamer from start to finish, filled with swashbuckling deeds, evil outlaws and bawdy gunfights galore. It should have been called It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World In The Wild West. Kurt Russell is in mustache mode again here, but looks younger and leaner than last year’s western double feature his mutton chops starred in. Along with his brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Norman (Bill Paxton) he arrives in Tombstone with a life of law enforcement in his dust and designs on retirement and relaxation. He gets pretty much the opposite though, when every lowlife bandit and villain in the area comes crawling out of the woodwork to give him trouble. Michael Biehn is the worst of them as crazy eyed Johnny Ringo, a deadly smart and ruthless killer, and Powers Boothe hams it up terrifically as drunken scoundrel Curly Bill Brocius. They are the two main causes of grief for the Earps, backed up by all sorts of goons including Michael Rooker, Billy Bob Thornton and a petulant Stephen Lang as Ike Clanton. Russell is joined by an off the wall Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, the wheezy southern prince with a silver tongue that’s constantly fuelled by booze. He gives the best work of the film, and it’s fascinating to compare it to its counterpart, Dennis Quaid’s turn in the other version. Theres also great work from Billy Zane, Dana Delaney, Thomas Haden Church, Paula Malcomson, Tomas Arana, Johanna Pacula, Paul Ben Victor, Robert John Burke, John Corbett, Terry O Quinn, Robert Mitcham and even Charlton Heston good lawd what a cast. The standoffs, both verbal and physical, are a thing of beauty and the reason we go to the movies. Of all the westerns out there, this has just got to be the most fun. It’s constantly alive, there’s always something going on, a cheeky glint in its eye and a vitality in every corner of every frame, like a kid that won’t sit still. Russell is a champ as Earp, a no nonsense killer, plain and simple, but a man of both style and charisma, two weapons that are equally as important as his side arms. Kilmer gets all the best lines and goes to town with his portrayal, creating electric tension whenever he faces off with Biehn, who is equally mesmerizing in a more intense way. The three of them kill it, and along with the howling mess hall of a supporting cast, make this simply the liveliest western I’ve ever seen in the genre. 

Sin City: A Review by Nate Hill 

I remember seeing the edgy character posters for Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City hanging on the movie theatre wall when I was younger, having no idea what Sin City was or any knowledge of the books, but thinking they looked incredibly cool and enticing. Then the trailer came out, and it was all I could think, talk or breathe about for months leading up to its release. I was obsessed. When opening weekend arrived I got my dad to take me, and spent two unforgettable hours of cinematic nirvana in a dark auditorium that was packed to the gills with fans old and young alike, each basking in the delectable black, white and colour speckled glow of the piece unfolding in front of us. I had never seen anything like it, and it blew my system into sensory orbit like nothing had before. Around this time I was just discovering a lot of Rodriguez’s and Tarantino’s career, poring over pulp and crime thrillers from all across the decades as my love for cinema expanded, and this was something I just knew would be special as soon as I saw that first provocative teaser poster. The innovation and artistic ambition used by the ever resourceful Rodriguez and his team led to gleaming critical reception, a massive box office hit and one of the most gorgeous pieces of art in the motion picture realm. His decision to simply lift the still frames out of Frank Miller’s graphic novels was something that not every director would be able to go along with, let alone wrap their minds around (director’s are a finicky lot who always have thir own bright ideas, even when the source material is already gold). Rodriguez was so in love with the books that he envisioned them onscreen just the way they were drawn, and that’s pretty much what you get in the film. The pre-credit sequence sets the dark, vibrant, moody and impossibly lurid setting of Basin City, a rotting heap of corruption  where almost everyone is either corrupt, sleazy or just outright evil, and even the ones that aren’t deal out some pretty heinous bouts of violence themselves. The prologue involves girl in in a red dress (Marley Shelton) conversing with a mysterious, well dressed man (Josh Hartnett). The scene takes a turn for the dark and tragic, we zoom out as Rodriguez’s self composed gutter lullaby of a score grinds into motion, and the glowering opening credits trundle by, a moment of a pure joy for anyone watching. The film is separated into three central vignettes, each from a different volume of the comics. The first, and strongest, features a sensational Mickey Rourke as Marv, a hulking bruiser built like six linebackers and basically impervious to anything that could kill a human being. After a heavenly night with hooker Goldie (Jaime King), he wakes up to find her lying dead next to him, not a mark on her. This gives his set of talents a purpouse beyond bar fights and roughing up abusive frat boys, and he wages a war of ultraviolence in her name, to his grave if he must. There are some villains in these stories that seem to be dredged up from the very bottom of the last pit of hell, just the worst of humanity’s many deplorable qualities. Marv eventually runs into evil arch bishop Cardinal Roark (a devious Rutger Hauer) and insane cannibal ninja sicko Kevin (Elijah Wood will haunt your nightmares)., on his bloody quest. Rourke’s genius even shines out through 12 pounds of prosthetic makeup slapped all over his mug, and he captures the wayward warrior soul in Marv, a restless anger and old school, Charles Bronson esque charm by way of Frankenstein’s monster. His work is a great way to kick off the first third of the film, and the gravelly narration hits you right in the film noir nostalgia. The second segment is a lot more lively, with far more people running around, sans the melancholy of Rourke’s bit, and instead emblazoned with a war cry of a story starring Clive Owen as Dwight, a hotshot tough guy who gets on the wrong side of seriously scummy dirty cop Jackie Boy (a growling Benicio Del Toro having a ball) who likes to beat up on waitress Shelley (Brittany Murphy). Dwight pursues him to Old Town, a district run by lethal militant prostitutes lead by no nonsense Gail (Rosario Dawson can use that whip and chain on me anytime). Then everything goes haywire (I won’t say why), and Michael Clarke Duncan gets involved as a weirdly articulate, golden eye sporting otherworldly mercenary named Manute. This middle section is the one that feels most like a comic book, where as the other too have more of a noir flavor, like their old Hollywood roots. The third and most depraved chapter (which is no light statement in this town), sees aging Detective John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) lay his life down in order to protect young Nancy Callahan from a terrifying pedophile child killer (Nick Stahl) who is the spawn of despicable US Senator Roark (Powers Boothe sets up a cameo of the pure evil he would go on to exude with his much larger role in the sequel). Jessica Alba plays the adult version of Nancy, now an exotic dancer and once again in danger from Stahl, who now has some… interesting changes to bis appearance, courtesy of genital mutilation from Hartigan years before. It’s one demented set of stories that would be almost too much to take in the real world, but this is Sin City, a realm that exists in the darkest dreams of Raymond Chandler and his ilk, a seething netherworld of stunningly beautiful women, ghastly corruption and terror,  and good deeds that go unheralded in the night, bloody retribution perpetrated by antiheros and tragic scapegoats who know damn well what a pit of hell their town is, and that nobility is but a drop in the bucket of injustice they wade through on their way to violent exodus. The cast list goes on for miles longer than I’ve mentioned so far, but look out for Alexis Bledel, Carla Gugino, Michael Madsen, Jude Ciccollela, Nicky Katt, Nick Offerman, Tommy Flanagan and Devon Aoki as Miho, a deadly little hooker assassin who can turn you into a pez dispenser with her razor sharp katana. The level of violence on display throughout the film is so far over the top that after a while it seems almost Looney Toons in nature. Throats are slashed, heads are removed, testicles are ripped off, skulls are crushed and all manner of maiming and murder inflicted. What made it acceptable with the ever gay MPAA though is the fact that mic of it exists in the black and white mode of visual storytelling, and only a few instances of actual red blood seen.  That goes for more than just the violence though in terms of color. Amid the sea of stark black and white there are beautiful hidden gems of colour that you have to train your eye to find. A pair of green eyes, a crimson convertible cadillac, the sickly yellow pallor of Stahl’s mutated skin. That’s but a taste of the patchwork quilt of visual artistry you are treated to here, and has constantly been emulated in either work since, but never quite effectively as here. That’s the idea of it though, a heavily stylized piece of hard boiled neo noir that exists simply to plumb the very depths of darkest genre territory, do justice to Miller’s books with a laundry list of wicked actors, a bonus scene directed by Quentin Tarantino and a story that’s pure noir to its bloodstained bones.

Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort: A Review by Nate Hill

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Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort is the bees knees when it comes to backwoods survival thrillers. It’s frightening, elemental, and relentless in pace, inciting primal fear in the viewer who finds themselves terrified of these events ever happening to them. It’s a very overlooked film, with most of the kudos within this genre going to John Boorman’s Deliverance. This one is way better, at least for me. The immediacy of the protagonist’s situation, the hypnotic atmosphere of both score and cinematography working together for something really special. In rural Louisiana, a platoon of American soldiers prepares to embark into the tangled wilderness of the nearby bayou, attempting a routine training mission. Powers Boothe is awesome as Cpl. Charles Hardin, a well educated man who silently resents the roughnecks and dimwitted dead enders in his regiment. He’s joined by Spencer (a cavalier Keith Carradine), and a whole host of others as well. Now, the Bayou is home to the reclusive and eccentric Cajun people, who apparantly will keep to themselves if you do the same. But try telling that to a troupe of childish, immature GI’s packing heavy artillery that’s beyond both their pay grade and IQ. After one lugnut plays a nasty prank on a group of Cajun fisherman, they take it slightly personally. Before you can say crawfish, they promptly murder the commanding officer (Peter Coyote) and set a series of deadly traps and snares for the soldiers, out to send every last one of them to a swampy grave. It’s a beautiful backwoods nightmare, and Hill tells the story exceptionally, aided by a twangy, brilliant score from his go to composer Ry Cooder. Boothe and Carradine are shoe ins to hold off their pursuers, while the rest of them soon fall prey, in elaborate and gruesome ways. Fred Ward is badass as a fellow soldier who turns homicidal, and has a wicked knife fight with Boothe that ramps up the adrenaline and then some. The late Brion James makes quite the impression as a Cajun who they briefly capture, after which he eerily warns them of the hell that’s coming from his compadres. The locations feel authentic, damp and waterlogged as hell, making you feel every squelchy step these poor bastards take into the Bayou and closer to their end. Near the end of the film we are treated to some authentic live Cajun music (some of my favourite kind) from Dewey Balfa, a gorgeous interlude and showcase of Hill’s desire to make the auditory atmosphere of his films as heightened and immersive as possible. An unheralded classic.

John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest: A Review by Nate Hill

  
John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest is the kind of exotic, intoxicating, wildly adventurous, unbelievable and unforgettable film that comes along once in a decade, if that. These days this sort of film would be gilded to the hilt with unnecessary Cgi, a burden which filmmakers just can’t seem to free themselves from in this age. Back in 1985, they had to use what they had, filling every frame with on-location authenticity, genuine realism which prompts a feeling of wonder and sense of mysticism from the viewer, which any computer generated effort just cannot compete with (I will concede that this year’s The Jungle Book came up aces, so there are a few cutting edge exceptions). This film is quite the undertaking for both cast and crew, and one can see from scene to scene the monumental effort and passion that went into bringing this story alive. It’s also partly based on true events, adding to the resonance. Powers Boothe plays technical engineer Bill Markham, who is living with wife (Meg Foster) and two small children in Brazil, while he designs plans for a great river dam which will allow further development. One day, on a picnic at the edge of the rainforest, his son Tommy disappears, after spotting an elusive tribe of Natives. Gone with no trace but an arrow lodged in a nearby tree, Bill launches a search for his son that spans a decade, returning year after year to probe the vast, untamed jungle in hopes of somehow finding Tommy. Tommy, now a young man and played by the director’s son Charley Boorman, has been adopted and raised by the kindly tribe, known as ‘The Invisible People’ for they way they remain unseen as they move about their home in the forests. Tommy is very much one of them, taken up their customs and traditions, with nothing but vague memories of Bill in his dreams, which he doesn’t believe to have actually happened. One day in the hostile territory of ‘The Fierce People’, Tommy and Bill are reunited, Tommy taking his wounded father to his home village. Bill is heartbroken that his son is essentially no longer his, conflicted by the situation. Tommy has just entered his life as a man, taking a gorgeous wife (Dira Paes) from his village and starting a future. Trouble brews as The Fierce People threaten Tommy’s village, and their women, prompting him to seek Bill’s help. It’s interesting to see how a tribe who have had little to no contact with the outside world react to it, calling it ‘the dead world’ and referring to the developers as the Termite People who cut down the grandfather trees. The environmental message is never preachy, always feeling like a vital and important truth that is organic and unforced, emerging through the characters and their interactions. The Natives possess an innate spirituality and connection to the intangible which we have forgotten as progress alters us, still rooted deeply in forces beyond our 21st century comprehension. Boothe is deeply affecting in one of his best roles, a desperate father through and through, while also filling out the broad shoes of the wilderness adventurer he has become over the years. He fills his performance with pathos, longing and is the emotional soul of the piece. Boorman is spry and takes up the aura of Tommy well, mastering the complex linguistics and mannerisms of the tribe admirably. One of my favourite aspects of the film is its exquisite and moving score, the main theme evoking wild romanticism, old world secrets and the unending beauty of nature so well that one feels goosebumps as if we’re really there in that setting. Pure cinematic magic, a timeless story told without flaw or hitch, and a breathtaking piece of film. 

NIXON – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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Oliver Stone’s film, Nixon (1995) portrays the American political process as an unpredictable system that politicians have no hope of ever fully controlling. The best they can do is keep it in check most of the time. This theory can be seen in its embryonic stage in JFK (1991) with President John F. Kennedy being assassinated by shadowy forces within the political system, but it was not until Nixon that Stone was able to fully articulate it. As film critic Gavin Smith observed, “Nixon is a historical drama about the constructing and recording of history, assembled as we watch.” Stone has created a unique version of the historical biopic that combines fact and speculation with a cinematic style that blends various film stocks in a seamlessly layered, complex narrative. This fractured, overtly stylized approach draws attention to the fact that we are watching a film. As Stone has said in an interview, “I don’t pretend that it is reality.” This, in turn, allows him to deliver his message with absolute clarity.

Like Citizen Kane (1941) before it, Nixon traces the dramatic rise and fall of a historical figure who tried so hard to be loved by all but ended up being infamous and misunderstood. While Orson Welles’ film was a thinly-veiled attack on newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, Stone paints an almost sympathetic portrayal of Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins). Stone may not like Nixon personally, but he does try to explore what motivated the man’s actions and really get inside his head. The director even throws in a stylistic nod to Kane as part of the opening credits play over a shot of a dark and stormy night at the White House. The camera moves through the fence in a way that evokes the opening of Welles’ film with Kane’s imposing estate. And like Welles’ film, Nixon employs a flashback device as Nixon listens to the Watergate tapes and reflects on his life, from his tough childhood in Whittier, California, to his beleaguered political career that culminates with his tumultuous stint in the White House.

The first real indication of Stone’s thesis of the political system as a wild, untamable animal comes when Nixon talks to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Bob Hoskins) at a horse race about running for President. There are all kinds of shots of horses snorting wildly – the first hint, visually, of what Stone is trying to get at. Hoover makes it known that he will support Nixon if he, in turn, supports him, and is willing to supply him with dirt on Robert Kennedy to help the cause. Hoover makes an intriguing comment when he tells Nixon, “I look at it from the point of view that the system can only take so much abuse. It adjusts itself eventually … But there are times there are savage outbursts.” He cites Martin Luther King’s promiscuity and continues, “Sometimes the system comes very close to cracking.” The implication in this scene is that Hoover is a significant cog in the United States political machine and one that Nixon must respect and work with.

The second significant example where Stone gives support to his thesis is when Nixon meets with Richard Helms (Sam Waterston), director of the CIA. Like Hoover, Helms is a powerful man within the system because he knows and protects so many of its dirty little secrets. They get to talking about Cuba and Nixon’s involvement to assassinate Fidel Castro, which Helms has evidence of via memos. He refers to it as “not an operation so much as an organic phenomenon. It grew. It changed shape. It developed appetites.” Helms is fiercely protective of his position and of the CIA, resisting Nixon’s request for incriminating documents. Where Hoover is portrayed as gruff and obvious, Helms is elusive and distant, played with icy intensity by Sam Waterston.

The third and most important example occurs when Nixon spontaneously meets with war protesters on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This is where Stone lays it all out and the film features a fascinating exchange between the President and a female protester (Joanna Going):

Protester: You can’t stop it can you? Even if you wanted to. ‘Cause it’s not you, it’s the system. The system won’t let you stop it.
Nixon: There’s more at stake here then what you want or what I want.
Protester: Then what’s the point? What’s the point of being President? You’re powerless!
Nixon: No. No, I’m not powerless. ‘Cause I understand the system. I believe I can control it. Maybe not control it totally but tame it enough to do some good.
Protester: Sounds like you’re talking about a wild animal.
Nixon: Maybe I am.

Of this scene, Stone has said that Nixon realizes that the system is “more powerful than he is. We can’t get into it that much, but we hint at it so many times – the military-industrial complex, the forces of money.” Stone’s film argues that Nixon really did want to institute change and make a difference in the world, but his own shortcomings, coupled with the complex infrastructure that is the United States political system, ultimately led to his downfall. Stone and the screenwriters conceived of the concept of the political system as “the beast,” which one of the film’s screenwriters Christopher Wilkinson described as “a headless monster that lurches through postwar history,” and served as a metaphor for a system of dark forces that resulted in the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, and the Vietnam War, as well as helping Nixon’s rise to power and his fall from it. In an interview, Stone elaborated further. He saw “the beast” as a “system … which grinds the individual down … it’s a system of checks and balances that drives itself off: 1) the power of money and markets; 2) state power, government power; 3) corporate power, which is probably greater than state power; 4) the political process, or election through money, which is therefore in tow to the system; and 5) the media, which mostly protects the status quo and their ownership’s interests.”

Anthony Hopkins’ stunning portrayal of the former President humanizes this historical figure. From the way the film is shot and edited, we are seeing the events of U.S. history through Nixon’s perspective. This approach also helps in creating a sympathetic portrait of the man. Hopkins wisely does not opt for a Rich Little imitation but instead captures the essence and spirit of the man. He shows Nixon’s aggressive side, where he speaks in football metaphors and refers to himself in the third person, and also a vulnerable one in the scenes with his wife, Pat. It’s a wonderfully layered performance that Hopkins hasn’t equaled since because he hasn’t been given material and a director that has challenged him in quite the way that Stone did with Nixon.

Opposite Hopkins is Joan Allen as Pat Nixon. She more than holds her own with the Academy Award-winning thespian, portraying Pat as a long suffering yet incredibly strong-willed wife who has to sit by and watch her husband strive for unattainable goals. There’s a scene where she reacts in private to her husband losing the 1960 Presidential election to John F. Kennedy and she looks visibly upset, wiping away tears while trying to maintain her composure. In the following scene with her husband, Pat tells him about the toll his political career is taking on their family, which comes across as quite touching. Tears well up in Pat’s eyes as she consoles her husband while he looks tired and defeated. It’s a wonderfully intimate moment that humanizes both of them considerably. All of the scenes between Allen and Hopkins crackle with a kind of tangible intensity as we see the toll politics takes on them. This is not one of those token wife roles that is so often seen in these kinds of films. The well-written screenplay and Allen’s performance flesh out Pat Nixon into a three-dimensional character.

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As always, Stone’s knack for casting is impeccable. Much like he did with JFK, Stone surrounds his leads with an impressive roster of big names in the supporting roles: James Woods, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Sorvino, Powers Boothe, J.T. Walsh, and, in a restored scene, Sam Waterston delivers a deliciously chilling performance as Richard Helms. These recognizable faces help one keep track of the historical figures that pop up throughout the film.

Originally, Stone had been developing two projects – the musical Evita (1996) and a film about Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. When they both failed to get made, he turned his attention to a biopic about Nixon with the president’s death in April 1994 being a key factor in the director’s decision. The project actually originated with Eric Hamburg, a former speechwriter and staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, after having dinner with Stone. In 1993, Hamburg mentioned the idea to writer Steve Rivele with the concept being that they would incorporate all of Nixon’s misdeeds, both known and speculative. Hamburg encouraged Rivele to write a screenplay with his partner Christopher Wilkinson. They wrote a treatment in November 1993. In it was the concept of the political system as a beast and this is what convinced Stone to get involved. He immersed himself in research with the help of Hamburg.

Stone commissioned the first draft of the film’s screenplay from Rivele and Wilkinson and it was completed on June 17, 1994, the anniversary of the Watergate break-in. The script was based on research from various sources, including documents, transcripts and hours of footage from the Nixon White House. Early on, Rivele and Wilkinson hated Nixon but the longer they worked on the film, and “the more we knew about him, our contempt was slowly eroded to the point where we more than pitied him, we empathized with him.” Stone structured his film into two acts with the first one about Nixon’s loss of power and the second one about Nixon in power only to lose it again.

Stone pitched the project to Warner Bros. but, according to the director, they saw it “as a bunch of unattractive older white men sitting around in suits, with a lot of dialogue and not enough action.” They also didn’t agree with Stone’s choice to play Nixon – Anthony Hopkins. Instead, they wanted Tom Hanks or Jack Nicholson – two of Stone’s original choices and both of whom had passed on the role. Stone even met with Warren Beatty but the actor wanted to make too many changes to the script. Stone went with Hopkins based on his performances in Remains of the Day (1993) and Shadowlands (1993). The director remembered, “The isolation of Tony is what struck me. The loneliness. I felt that was the quality that always marked Nixon.” Upon meeting Stone for the first time, Hopkins saw the director as “one of the great bad boys of American pop culture, and I might be a fool to walk away.” He was convinced that to take on such a challenging role that would require him to “impersonate the soul of Nixon” by the scenes in the film when he talks about his mother and father. “That affected me,” he said. To prepare for the role, Hopkins watched a lot of documentary footage on Nixon. At night, he would go to sleep with footage playing so that it would seep into his subconscious.

Joan Allen auditioned for the role of Pat Nixon over a period of several months. During one of these auditions, she read opposite Beatty when he was briefly interested. After this audition, Beatty told Stone that he had found his Pat Nixon. She learned, through her research, that Pat was a strong person who had a difficult life. Allen based her performance on interviews with former Nixon aides, books about the First Lady and a Barbara Walters interview in the early 1970s. Stone, Hamburg, Hopkins, and Woods flew to Washington, D.C. and interviewed the surviving members of Nixon’s inner circle: lawyer Leonard Garment, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Robert McNamara, a former Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations. In addition, Stone hired Alexander Butterfield, a former secretary in the cabinet and special assistant to Nixon and who first revealed the existence of Nixon’s secret tapes of his oval office conversations, John Sears, former deputy White House counsel, and John Dean as consultants. To research their roles, Powers Boothe, David Hyde Pierce and Paul Sorvino met with their real-life counterparts, but J.T. Walsh decided not to contact John Ehrlichman because he threatened to sue the production after reading an early version of the script and was not happy with how he was portrayed.

Stone’s producing partner and financier Arnold Milchan had a deal with the director to make any film he wanted up to a budget of $42.5 million but refused to honor their agreement, saying that he would put up no more than $35 million because he felt Nixon was an uncommercial project. Stone refused to make the film with that budget and a week before shooting was to begin he approached Hungarian financier Andrew Vajna who had a co-financing deal with Disney’s Hollywood Pictures. At the time, Vajna was hoping to get some respectability in Hollywood and possibly an Academy Award and agreed to provide the $43 million budget. In order to cut costs, Stone leased the White House sets from The American President (1995).

Reportedly, there was a lot mischievous jokes exchanged between the actors on the set. Early on, Hopkins was intimidated by the amount of dialogue he had to learn, more of which was being added and changed all the time, and then Sorvino told him that “there was room for improvement” and that he would be willing to help him. According to James Woods, Sorvino told Hopkins that he was “doing the whole thing wrong” and that he was an “expert” who could help Hopkins. Sorvino took Hopkins to lunch and then afterwards the British thespian told Stone that he wanted to quit the production. The director managed to convince him to stay on. Hopkins remembered, “There were moments when I wanted to get out, when I wanted to just do a nice Knot’s Landing or something.” Woods also cracked several good natured jokes with Hopkins. He said, “I’d always tell him how great he was in Psycho. I’d call him Lady Perkins all the time instead of Sir Anthony Hopkins.”

What is perhaps most stunning about Nixon is the style of the film. Employing the editing techniques and innovative camerawork he perfected in JFK and Natural Born Killers (1994), Stone created a unique version of the historical biopic that combines actual documentary footage with fictional material and that blends various film stocks in attempt to shed light on a figure most people knew very little about. This fractured, overtly stylized approach suggests that we are seeing historical events through the prism of Nixon’s perspective. The film is not meant to be the definitive word on the man but rather, as Stone said in an interview, the “basis to start reading, to start investigating on your own.”

Stone had his editors in three different rooms with the scenes from the film revolving from one room to another, “depending on how successful they were.” If one editor wasn’t successful with a scene it went to another. Stone said it was “the most intense post- I’ve ever done, even more intense than JFK” because he was screening the film three times a week, making changes in 48 to 72 hours, rescreening the film and then making another 48 hours of changes.

Seven days before Nixon was to be released in theaters, the Nixon family issued a statement calling parts of the film “reprehensible” and that it was designed to “defame and degrade president and Mrs. Nixon’s memories in the mind of the American public.” The statement also criticized Stone’s depiction of Nixon’s private life and that of his childhood and his part in planning the assassination of Castro. This statement was actually issued by the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California on behalf of the Nixon family based on a published copy of the script. Stone responded that his “purpose in making the film Nixon, was neither malicious nor defamatory,” and to attempt “a fuller understanding of the life and career of Richard Nixon – the good and the bad, the triumphs and the tragedies, and the legacy he left his nation and the world.” The attacks didn’t stop there. In a letter to Nixon’s daughters, Walt Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, said that Stone “has committed a grave disservice to your family, to the presidency, and to American history.”

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Nixon is a powerful historical biopic – arguably the last great film Oliver Stone has made to date. It is also, coincidentally (or maybe not), the last film he and regular collaborator Robert Richardson made together. The legendary cinematographer was as much responsible for defining the distinctive style of Stone’s films as the director himself. Stone’s work has never been the same since they parted company. Nixon was also the last time he had enough juice in Hollywood to command such an impressive cast of actors. Admittedly, Hollywood has changed considerably since this film was made and Stone has had to adapt with the times but hopefully he has another great film like Nixon left in him.

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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In 2005, Robert Rodriguez adapted the comic book Sin City into a film with help from its creator Frank Miller who co-directed it. Convincing the veteran comic book writer/artist to come on board was a smart move on the filmmaker’s part as it assured that Miller’s luridly violent noir tales would be faithfully translated. This was achieved through a then-groundbreaking green screen environment that allowed Rodriguez to place his actors in Miller’s stylish world with a striking look comprised of black and white with strategic splashes of color. This innovative approach attracted a star-studded cast that included Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen and Benicio Del Toro among others. The final result dazzled audiences and was a commercial success.

A sequel seemed inevitable, but instead Rodriguez went on to team up with Quentin Tarantino on the box office misfire that was the Grindhouse double bill (2007) while Miller applied the Sin City aesthetic to a disastrous adaptation of Will Eisner’s comic book The Spirit (2008). Over the years, talk of a sequel surfaced occasionally with the likes of Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie being mentioned in potential leading roles. Nine long years later and the stars (and money) aligned for Rodriguez and Miller to reunite with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014). The film promptly tanked at the box office and received mixed to negative reviews. What happened? Did Miller and Rodriguez wait too long? A green screen-heavy film is no longer a novelty. Two cast members with characters in the film had passed away and some roles have been recast. The general consensus seems to be that they waited too long to make a sequel and interest in the film had waned.

Some might complain that A Dame to Kill For is just more of the same. As a big fan of the first film this is not necessarily a bad thing. After seeing Sin City, I wanted to see more of Miller’s stories brought to life. In addition to adapting A Dame to Kill For and the short story “Just Another Saturday Night” from the Booze, Broads, & Bullets collection, Miller created two new stories specifically for the film – “The Long Bad Night” and “Nancy’s Last Dance.” By doing this, he has given the fans a real treat by offering two stories where the outcome is not known and introducing new characters into this universe.

In “Just Another Saturday Night,” Marv (Rourke) wakes up amidst a car accident unable to remember how he got there. He proceeds to recall what happened via flashback on a snowy Saturday night. This segment is a nice way to reacquaint us to the brutal yet darkly humorous world of Sin City. “The Long Bad Night” introduces us to Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a confident gambler who decides to take on Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), the most powerful man in the city, in a high-stakes poker game and gets more than he bargained for. It’s a lot of fun to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt square off against Powers Boothe, the former playing a young upstart and the latter an evil, influential man.

The centerpiece of the film is “A Dame to Kill For,” which features Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) as a private investigator taking photographs of a businessman (Ray Liotta) cheating on his wife with a hooker (Juno Temple). When the man tries to kill her, Dwight intervenes. He has a tortured past, which involves keeping his homicidal impulses in check. Afterwards, Dwight gets a call from an ex-lover by the name of Ava Lord (Eva Green), a beautiful woman married to a very rich man. She’s in some kind of trouble and he finds himself drawn into her tangled web yet again. He soon runs afoul of her imposing bodyguard Manute (Dennis Haysbert) who proceeds to work him over. Realizing that he’s out of his depth and bent on rescuing Ava, Dwight enlists Marv’s help, which only complicates things in typical noir fashion.

In “Nancy’s Last Dance,” Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) is an exotic dancer still haunted by the death of her lover John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) and is obsessed with avenging his death by killing Roark, the man responsible for it. Over time, she’s counseled/haunted by Hartigan’s ghost, which drives her increasingly crazy.

Actors Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Eva Green slip seamlessly into the Sin City world. It helps that they have that old school noir look, especially Brolin with his chiseled tough guy features and gravelly voice – perfect for his character’s voiceover narration. In no time, the actor makes you forget that he plays a character once portrayed by Clive Owen. Gordon-Levitt is excellent as the young newcomer with a secret and manages to elicit sympathy for his ultimately doomed character. Green plays Sin City’s reigning femme fatale. The stunning actress has an alluring, exotic look and can turn a vulnerability on and off at will all the while playing a cold-hearted manipulator of men. Green gives key line deliveries the right venomous spin that makes Ava Lord a fearsome figure in this world.

It’s great to see Mickey Rourke return to the role of Marv, a character he inhabits so well. He brings a world-weary charm and a much-needed dose of dark humor to the film. Powers Boothe, who only had a minor role in the first film, gets a much meatier part in A Dame to Kill For and it’s a lot of fun to see him sink his teeth into such a deliciously evil character. Unfortunately, Jessica Alba is once again miscast as Nancy, the stripper with a heart of gold. While she looks the part, the actress doesn’t have the chops to pull off the tricky evolution of character that goes from sweet girl traumatized by the death of loved one to a revenge-obsessed vigilante. Miller’s stylized dialogue needs to be delivered a certain way. Some actors can pull it off and others can’t. Alba falls into the latter category and it becomes painfully obvious in her segment. Even her dancing is unconvincing.

While it no longer has the technological novelty factor as an incentive (shooting it in 3D really didn’t help either), there is certainly no other film out there that looks like Sin City. There have been a few imitators since, most notably The Spirit and Max Payne (2008), but the look of the film is so specific to its universe that few have dared to emulate it. Rodriguez has said that with the first Sin City he held back somewhat stylistically for fear that it would be too much for audiences. Emboldened by its commercial success, he took the look further and made it even more faithful to Miller’s comic book. So, there are things like Ava being rendered in black and white accentuated with red lips and green eyes, and visual flourishes like Marv recounting past exploits while a tiny car chase revolves around him, or the moody storm clouds that hang heavy in the cemetery where Nancy visits Hartigan’s grave. And why not? It’s not like the characters or the world they inhabit are based on any kind of reality. They exist in a hyper-stylized neo-noir universe drenched in atmosphere.

The dialogue in A Dame to Kill For is riddled with clichés and the characters are drawn from archaic stereotypes, but that’s the point. Miller is paying homage to the Mickey Spillane crimes stories he clearly idolizes. The film immerses itself in noir clichés and wears them proudly like a badge of honor, refusing to make any excuses for trading in them. There’s really nothing more to it than that, which may make the film seem instantly forgettable, but Rodriguez’s film never aspires to be art as it is unrepentedly sexual and violent with very few if any redeeming characters. The first Sin City film came out at the right time and tapped into popular culture zeitgeist. A Dame to Kill For is not so lucky, but you have to give Miller and Rodriguez credit for sticking to their guns and delivering another faithful adaptation of the comic book, which may only appeal to fans and probably won’t convert the uninitiated.