Friday, October 10, 2014

INTERSTELLAR can't come too soon

I don't usually write about films I haven't seen yet, but I'm so excited about Christopher Nolan's upcoming film Interstellar that I just couldn't help myself. While I'm not a card-carrying member of the Christopher Nolan Fan Club, that's only because they apparently don't issue cards. I am an enormous admirer of Mr. Nolan's films, and it's safe to say that I've enjoyed everything he's done to a greater or lesser degree (with the exception of his debut, Following, which I have yet to see). He is, of course, best known for his Dark Knight trilogy of Batman movies, which brought a new level of seriousness to the ever-expanding genre of comic book adaptations. In addition to those films, which broke box office records and garnered a good deal of critical acclaim to boot, he's delivered a series of standalone features that seem determined to provoke more thought in their audiences than the average Hollywood blockbuster. Inception made close to a billion dollars worldwide while presenting a highly complex, layered story of dreams within dreams, capped of by a maddeningly ambiguous ending (significantly, it was an original story and not a sequel, remake, spinoff or adaptation); his earlier film, Memento, went so far as to present its storyline in reverse order. His other films, The Prestige and Insomnia (a remake of a Norwegian film), also went above and beyond the usual Hollywood fare with respect to intelligent, nuanced storytelling.

Given Nolan's sterling track record, his followers reacted with predictable glee when it was announced his first post-Batman project would be the serious space travel drama Interstellar. The film, which will be released in early November, concerns the plight of near-future earthlings who have determined that our planet's capacity to support life is quickly and irreversibly running out. If the human race is to continue, a new home world will have to be found. To that end, a team of astronauts embark upon an epic journey through a wormhole that takes them beyond the borders of our galaxy on a quest for a habitable planet, making the painful decision to leave loved ones behind, uncertain if they'll ever make it back.

There are a number of reasons I feel that Interstellar is poised to become not only one of the best films of the year, if not the decade, but another big hit for Nolan as well, starting with the man himself. In addition to being an incredibly gifted filmmaker, Nolan is a film purist; he's one of the few directors left who insists on shooting his pictures on honest-to-God celluloid film, something I feel is to be applauded. Interstellar is actually being released to selected theaters on film, in both 35mm and 70mm formats, a few days ahead of its digital release date. In addition to that, he's one of the only directors who uses the large IMAX format to its full benefit. Increasingly large portions of several of his previous films have been filmed with IMAX cameras (and not just blown up after the fact), and Interstellar is no exception; Nolan truly understands the immersive capability of the format. He also shuns the disappointingly ubiquitous gimmick of 3D, and he's devoted to the use of practical effects over CGI whenever possible, which can't help but make his movies more realistically engaging in a tactile sense.

Then there's the, ahem, stellar cast (sorry), led by Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway (who worked with Nolan previously on The Dark Knight Rises). McConaughey couldn't be more of a hot property right now, coming off his Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Club and with his sterling work on HBO's True Detective still fresh in everyone's mind. Nolan tends to work with certain actors repeatedly, and true to form, he's brought back both Hathaway and veteran Michael Caine, who's been in nearly all of Nolan's films to date (some of his other regulars, such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy are absent this time). Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, Casey Affleck, John Lithgow and Matt Damon are some of the other members of the impressive cast.

There's also the fact that true, or "hard" science fiction films seem few and far between nowadays. Most of what passes for sci-fi lately is really more along the lines of futuristic action, more concerned with big explosions and special effects than big ideas (not that there isn't a place for that type of film). True science fiction is about discovery, about mankind using technology to overcome adversity and charge forward into new eras of human existence. The only recent big-budget film I can think of that fits this mold is Danny Boyle's Sunshine, and even that film, as good as it was, drew criticism for lapsing into horror film tropes near its climax. (I'm tempted to mention Gravity, but it's really more of a personal survival story that happens to take place in space.) The granddaddy of modern, sober science fiction cinema is, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there are rumblings that Interstellar could take its place alongside Kubrick's landmark. It's ironic that Matthew McConaughey's character in True Detective was fond of ruminating on the universe's indifference, if not downright hostility to humanity, while his character in Interstellar will be plunging headlong into that cold, desolate void in a desperate struggle to keep the human race from vanishing into oblivion. In these uncertain times, a film that reminds us of what we're capable of as human beings is more than welcome.

The trailers for Interstellar have been nothing short of stunning. The best examples of science fiction walk a tightrope between intelligence and emotion; it's fine to be cerebral, but to really reach people, you have to engage their hearts as well as their heads. It could be argued that some of Nolan's earlier films might have skimped a bit on the emotional side of things, but that does not appear to be the case with this one. The first teaser consisted of not much more than McConaughey driving away from a farm with tears in his eyes. Later iterations of the trailer revealed the reason for his distress - the fact that he is leaving his young, motherless children behind on Earth and may never see them again; he has to abandon them in order to try and save them. As a parent, these scenes have, quite frankly, overwhelmed me emotionally, even in trailer-sized segments, and I have a feeling that I'm going to be awash in tears by the end of the actual film. Of course, the other thing we expect from sci-fi is a sense of wonder and awe, and the glimpses we've been given in the trailers of the space travel technology and the alien worlds our travelers ultimately reach indicate that Interstellar will deliver this in spades.

I think it's fairly obvious that I'm eagerly anticipating this film, perhaps more than any other film in recent memory. I plan on seeing it as soon as humanly possible (I'm even considering driving 2.5 hours to Seattle to see it in 70mm). I hope it lives up to my expectations, and I have every reason to believe it will.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Heading out to the highway: LOCKE

If you've read my blog entry from a few years back praising British actor Tom Hardy, it's pretty obvious that I'd watch the guy in just about anything - he's that good. (My wife accuses me of having a man crush on him, which I will neither confirm nor deny.) Imagine my excitement, then, when I heard about Locke, a film that's essentially all Tom Hardy, all the time. Locke takes place almost entirely within the confines of an automobile driven by the titular Ivan Locke (Hardy), a successful construction foreman specializing in concrete foundations. On the eve of what is to be the pinnacle of his career - the largest civilian concrete pour in Europe, setting the foundation for a 55-story tower - Locke buckles himself into his BMW and begins a journey that will change his life forever over the course of a couple of hours. Leaving the massively complex project in the hands of an experienced but hesitant underling, he heads for a London hospital to meet the imminent birth of his newest child. En route, it quickly becomes evident to us that the mother of the child is not Locke's wife, and the explosiveness of the situation comes into sharp focus. On top of that, he's leaving his company in the lurch and potentially risking a very expensive mess if everything doesn't go just right the next morning. Using the Bluetooth phone in his car, Locke makes and receives a series of calls to his wife, the baby's mother and his co-workers, all the while trying desperately to mitigate the damage caused by his indiscretion. As he travels from point A to point B, his carefully constructed life comes crashing down around him.


When a film takes place in a single location with a only a single actor on camera, you'd better make sure that actor has the chops to carry the film, and Hardy certainly does. Sporting a lilting accent that was unfamiliar to me but is apparently Welsh, Hardy is the sole focus of Locke from beginning to end. The knowledge that the camera will be on them virtually non-stop might tempt a lesser actor to show off, but Hardy never does. It's a quiet, reserved performance, not at all like his larger-than-life turns in Bronson or The Dark Knight Rises. Locke remains relatively placid throughout, at least while he's on the phone, but Hardy subtly shades his performance while mostly avoiding the big emotions we might expect, save for a handful of key scenes. In fact, while freeze-framing through a couple of scenes to get the perfect screen captures for this post, I was fascinated to see the how Hardy's expressions changed ever-so-slightly from one frame to the next. The effect is nearly subliminal, and it only increased my appreciation of his acting skill.

There are a couple of interludes between phone calls in which Locke venomously reproaches his late father, seething at the dead man whose shortcomings were apparently many. While doing so, Locke glances in the car's rear-view mirror; it's almost as if he thinks his father is a passenger in the back seat, but he's also looking at himself, desperate to convince himself that he has not inherited these character flaws, but also deathly afraid that he has. He's obviously a man who is used to being in control of his life, but as things quickly begin to go south, he starts to lose his grip on that control. Despite his weaknesses, we sympathize with Locke as he tries, without much success, to convince those he's let down that he just wants to do the right thing. His sense of responsibility compels him to be there for the birth of his child, but he's also driven to ensure that the concrete pour is a success despite the fact that he's physically abandoned the construction site. He partially blames the affair on both parties having had too much to drink, but it's really a halfhearted attempt at justification, and he mostly owns up to his failure. His bigger mistake is naïvely hoping that everyone involved will be able to just pick up and move on.

While Locke is clearly Hardy's film for the taking, it would be wrong to call it entirely a one-man show. Although we only ever hear their voices, the actors on the other end of the phone (many of them veterans of some of my favorite British television shows) constitute a rock-solid supporting ensemble. In particular, Andrew Scott (Sherlock's villainous Moriarty) as Donal, the rather high-strung man left in charge of the concrete pour in Locke's absence, brings some much-needed levity to the film. Locke obviously has faith in Donal's ability, but Donal himself is not so sure, and he downs a few ciders to calm his nerves, leading to some drolly funny exchanges. Ruth Wilson (the sexy psychopath Alice from the series Luther) is the voice of Locke's wife, Katrina, and her performance deftly underscores the crushing heartbreak which Locke's infidelity has caused. Their conversations are palpably painful. Olivia Colman (from the hysterically funny series Peep Show) provides the voice of Bethan, the mother of Locke's child, and her character is believably frail and uncertain. I'm familiar with the faces of all of these actors, but I have to admit, I didn't recognize any of them by their names or voices, and I was pleasantly surprised when I looked them all up. The other actors all do fine jobs as well, particularly the two young men (Tom Holland and Bill Milner) who voice Locke's sons; they provide the film with some of its emotional highlights.

Locke was written and directed by Steven Knight. It's only his second directorial effort outside of television, but he's also written a number of other fine films, including David Cronenberg's Russian mob classic Eastern Promises. While a film set almost entirely in a car might sound like it could get stale very quickly, Locke never does. In fact, it's mesmerizing. The film's relatively brief running time helps in that regard, but it's assisted even more so by Knight's dynamic direction. He keeps the camera in constant motion, showing Locke from a multitude of angles and giving us glimpses of what he sees as he drives along the motorway. Since Locke's journey takes place at night, it's a visually dark film, which only adds to the intimacy and claustrophobia. Some of the metaphors in the script might seem a bit heavy-handed; at one point, Locke talks about how the slightest crack in a foundation can bring the whole structure down. The connection to his own predicament is fairly obvious, but it does seem appropriate. I've seen a few blurbs that tout the film as some sort of thriller, but while it's nothing of the kind, it still keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout due to the high emotional stakes. While the ending is appropriately sober, it does provide Locke with a brief glimmer of possible redemption. It's a wonderful sophomore effort from director Knight, and it's yet another wildly impressive performance from Tom Hardy, who just keeps racking them up.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Vintage Interview with The Godfather of Gore

Before the Internet, those of us who wanted to self-publish our musings on film (or whatever) had to do it the old-fashioned way, by creating a zine. My own compulsion to write about horror movies resulted in a publication entitled Raw Meat, which lasted for three whole issues in the early 1990s. I wrote all of the content on a typewriter, pasted it up, photocopied it and mailed it out, all by my lonesome. Content ranged from the usual movie reviews to articles on Hong Kong horror films, the gory antics of Monty Python and the various film adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft. The pinnacle of my efforts came in the third issue, when I presented my first-ever interview, with director Herschell Gordon Lewis, the legendary "Godfather of Gore." I tracked him down via a book he'd published on plate collecting, of all things, and he graciously agreed to a phone interview.

Not everything I wrote back then is worth a second look, but having recently reread the interview, it occurred to me that I'm still pretty proud of it, and I figured I ought to resurrect it and publish it here for your enjoyment (although, for all I know, all of this information has been regurgitated in the intervening time in other interviews, DVD audio commentaries and the like). I considered merely scanning the old zine pages and posting the images, which would have been kind of cool, but there were a few mistakes I wanted to correct, and I also did some additional editing 23 years after the fact to remove a few sections that, in retrospect, perhaps weren't all that interesting (back then, it didn't occur to me that I didn't have to print every single word he said). Additionally, I've added a few editorial comments in brackets to clarify a few things. So, without further ado, here is my 1991 interview with H.G. Lewis.

In 1963, an enterprising filmmaker named Herschell Gordon Lewis made a film called Blood Feast. This tale of an insane caterer attempting to revive the ancient Egyptian goddess Ishtar was made on a microscopic budget, featured shoddy production values and execrable acting and had its world premiere in Peoria, Illinois. But despite everything it had going against it, Blood Feast was an enormous success, and it went on to become a minor classic? Why? One word tells it all: gore. Blood Feast contained lots and lots of gore. Tired of the nudie film genre that he had been toiling in for several years, Lewis looked for something new, something that had never been done before. He found it. Among Blood Feast's many gory scenes were a hacked-off leg, a cut-out heart and a ripped-out tongue, all presented in living color (or, according to the advertising, "blood color"). Graphic gore had been seen in films prior to Blood Feast; Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) shocked audiences with their graphic surgery and staking scenes, and Mario Bava's La Maschera del Demonio (aka Black Sunday, 1960) had some pretty potent violence for its time, but while those films used their violence sparingly, in only a few scenes, Blood Feast wallowed in it. The presentation of graphic gore was Blood Feast's raison d'être.

Lewis had found his niche, and his next gore film, Two Thousand Maniacs, was released in 1964. Miles ahead of Blood Feast in terms of acting and production values, Two Thousand Maniacs still delivered the gory goods with its story of a town of Southerners who take revenge for the Civil War on a carload of Yankees who stumble into their hamlet. The Yanks are cut up, barbecued, crushed by a giant rock, and rolled down a hill in a spiked barrel. In an eerie twist, the sole survivors discover that the town was completely wiped out by Northern soldiers a hundred years earlier.

Lewis went on to make Color Me Blood Red (1965), about an artist who finds an unusual source for that perfect shade of red; A Taste of Blood (1967), about a man who inherits his family's ancient curse of vampirism; Something Weird (1967), about a man who gains psychic powers after an electrical accident; The Gruesome Twosome (1967), about a sweet little old lady who gets the raw materials for her wig shop the easy way, with the help of her demented son; The Wizard of Gore (1970), about a magician whose bloody stage illusions happen for real after his performances; and The Gore-Gore Girls (1972), about a psychopath who murders and mutilates strippers.

The Gore-Gore Girls was Lewis' last film [at the time of this interview - MG], and for several years, he and his films faded into temporary obscurity. Then, in the late 1970's, his films experienced a renaissance, and Lewis was hailed and recognized as "The Godfather of Gore." Since then, he's been seen in countless genre publications, he's been the subject of several film festivals around the country, and he's even been interviewed for The Incredibly Strange Film Show in the U.K., where, ironically, all of his films are banned. Lewis' films are certainly an acquired taste, but like 'em or not, there's no denying the influence they've had on the modern horror film. Seen today, they're amusing, often still quite shocking, and, in the case of Two Thousand Maniacs and A Taste of Blood, they're genuinely well made films.

I was lucky enough to speak with Mr. Lewis in May, 1991, and it was a very pleasant experience. He is a funny, intelligent, and articulate man, and unlike a lot of other people who got their start in exploitation films, he is more than willing to talk about his colorful past. Mr. Lewis has been interviewed many times in the last several years, and being aware of this, I tried to ask him some questions that he hasn't been asked a hundred times. (The set-up that I used to tape our conversation was far from the world's greatest, so I apologize to Mr. Lewis if I've screwed up a word here or there.)

MICHAEL GROVER: When did you first realize that your films were attaining a cult status?
HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS: About seven or eight years ago, I guess [At the time of this interview, that would have been the early 1980s. - MG]. I had completely forgotten - I shouldn't say forgotten - I had begun to think that I would pass unnoticed into the limbo of motion picture would-be's, and I had paid no attention at all to any of the many comments that I had seen on occasion. People might send me something that appeared in Fangoria, or some little reference here and there. But seven or eight years ago, I don't even know what year it was, I had a phone call from New York which really startled me. It was a fellow named Rick Sullivan [Editor of the legendary Gore Gazette zine. - MG], who was an accountant at Exxon at the time, and who was sponsoring "gore film night" at a little theater in Greenwich Village, and he invited me and my wife up there. I figured the whole thing would be like a Harvard lampoon, where people would throw tomatoes but miss, but it wasn't that at all, and I began to wonder "How long has this been going on?"
MG: Had you seen many horror films before you made Blood Feast?
HGL: No. Well, of course I had seen things like the original Dracula, and some of the mystery films, but the horror films were always people like Bela Lugosi posturing around, looking fierce. Blood flowing, no. There wasn't anything of that sort.
MG: Except maybe Hammer films.
HGL: Hammer came after me.
MG: Actually, their first horror film was The Curse of Frankenstein, which came out in 1957.
HGL: Then that's before me, but was that a gore film?
MG: When you look at it nowadays, it wouldn't really be considered one, but back then, I guess it had people fainting in the aisles. But then again, so did the original Dracula.
HGL: Yeah, well put.

MG: Did the shower scene in Psycho at all inspire you to have Blood Feast's first murder take place in a bathtub?
HGL: Interesting point. I think that's neater than having it in the shower, it was more contained. But bear in mind that in Psycho, two things were true that weren't true of Blood Feast. Number one, the picture was in black and white. Number two, it was a series of quick cuts in which suggestion took the place of specificity. I would never call Psycho explicit gore. Certainly, it set a tone, and there's no question that that picture did have a tremendous effect on the future of horror films, just as Blood Feast did.
MG: Was John Waters the first filmmaker to acknowledge you as an influence, or were there any others before him?
HGL: Oh, I think Frank Henenlotter. I don't know, I shouldn't say that. It may have been John. A very decent fellow, he has a mixed reputation, I'm sure as I do, but yes, that may have been. In fact, I was a little surprised. About a dozen years ago, we had just moved to Florida, and John Waters called and asked it he could interview me or talk with me about some book or another he as writing, and I figured "Why did he want to talk to me?" But yes, I think he may have been the catalyst. Good thinking.
MG: Do you recall who painted the paintings that were used in Color Me Blood Red?
HGL: Yes I do, it was a member of the Hall family out of Venice, Florida. There were some brothers named Hall - Scott Hall is the fellow who played the police captain in "Blood Feast" - and they were all old Ringling Brothers carny type people. In fact, Venice, Florida is where the winter home of the circus is, the Ringling Brothers, and there's a huge community of sideshow people there. But we had these things literally painted to order, and I hung on to 'em for years and years until finally, there was just no more room in the attic, and out they went.
MG: Those would be great collectibles today.
HGL: Do you really think so? Maybe I still have 'em! (laughs)

MG: How did you approach Henny Youngman to appear in The Gore-Gore Girls? Was he aware of what kind of a film it was?
HGL: I don't think he was. Henny Youngman was a friend of a man named Bob Dachman, whose son, Alan Dachman, wrote the screenplay for The Gore-Gore Girls. I wasn't ready to make a movie then, and Dachman and I were both members; in fact, we were both on the board of the Variety Club in Chicago, and he said that he'd make me an offer I can't refuse. He said "Look, if I put the money together, would you shoot the movie?" Well, who could say no to that? So he put the deal together, and one of the things he put together - he was quite a contact person; he was actually a professional fundraiser, and I will say he was as professional a fundraiser as I've ever met in my life. One of his cronies from Lord knows when was Henny Youngman, so he approached me one day and said "Can we fit Henny Youngman into this movie? I can get him for one solid Sunday. The only rule is we've got to shoot every one of his scenes that day." I said "sure." It cost next to nothing. Why Henny considered doing this for next to nothing I don't know.
MG: Maybe his career was in a slump at that time.
HGL: At that time? (laughs) Anyway, he was very cooperative, but he read his lines with a lightning-like speed, where I had the feeling that we had poured those lines in at 33 r.p.m., and he was regurgitating them out at 78 r.p.m. In fact, at one point, I said "Henny, what we're going to have to do is put English subtitles under your lines!" But once we slowed him down a little, he was certainly a pleasure to work with. I had no quarrel with him; he did not play big shot, nor did he show any sign of temperament at all.

MG: Have any of the cast or crew of any of your films ever objected to the gore?
HGL: You mean when we were shooting them?
MG: Yeah.
HGL: Not that I can remember. Everybody knew what we were doing. On occasion, somebody would object afterwards, saying "I can't get it out of my hair." We had an actress in The Gore-Gore Girls named Hedda Lubin, and her role called for her to be the murderer, and to justify the plot line, she was supposed to have lost all her hair and be wearing a wig. Of course, she hadn't lost all her hair, and we weren't about to shave her head. So, we put this stuff on her with mortician's wax or whatever, and she was appearing in some stage play in Chicago, and she wasn't pleased with us, 'cause she couldn't get the stuff out of her hair for that night's performance, and she had to wear a wig. But in general, even people like Nancy Lee Noble, who was a very nice little actress, we smeared her up pretty thoroughly in She-Devils on Wheels, and never a peep. And originally, that stage blood was very hard to scrape off. Bear in mind we were shooting features here. Actors will give their left arm for a screen credit, and to be in a movie, in whatever kind of role, overrides anybody's initial revulsion at having a fake eyeball squeezed out.
MG: Of all the effects in your films, which one are you proudest of?
HGL: Well, I've got to give you a double answer here, Mike. The effect that changed the course of motion picture history was the tongue scene in Blood Feast. So, purely from a viewpoint of notoriety, that one has to rank first. But to me, my favorite scene is one that's little known, because that picture hasn't been released on video. That's in The Gore-Gore Girls where the lunatic shoves a girl's face into a bowl of French fries that are heating up on the stove. [The film had actually been released on VHS at the time, and has been re-released several times since. - MG]

MG: Why, after coming off of a string of nudie films, did you refrain from using [extensive] nudity in all but your last horror film?
HGL: Well, I didn't think it was pertinent. I also felt that we might be splitting the difference. In fact, sometimes when you try to be all things to all men, nothing happens at all, and I didn't want to be self-cancelling. As you are aware, Dave Friedman felt another way.
MG: If Blood Feast had been a tremendous bomb, which of course it wasn't, do you think you would have made another gore film?
HGL: Who knows? I thought we had made a specialty picture, not a bomb. But you see, it's impossible to be a tremendous bomb with the kind of budgets we had. But I suspect yes, I probably would have tried it again, because even as we were cutting Blood Feast, I had the notion for Two Thousand Maniacs.
MG: Do you see many horror films today?
HGL: Not many. We have total cable here; in four of the five bedrooms of this house we have about sixty channels, and if somebody doesn't want to watch what's on, every bedroom has it's own VCR. I prefer to be entertained; I like action, science fiction, and comedy more than I do horror. I think one reason is there's a sameness to the Friday the 13ths and the Amityville Horrors and the various kinds of Halloweens. It seems to me I'm watching the same picture over and over again. They've begun to become parodies of themselves. [Nothing has really changed in the intervening time. - MG]
MG: What does your family think of your films?
HGL: My son Bob was the sound man on half a dozen of these things. In fact, he's the only one who would squeeze the eyeballs; most of the actors would cringe at squeezing eyeballs. We had all forgotten this stuff long ago, but certainly nobody is going to disclaim it. I think I speak for the whole family in saying that we think it's funny. It's funny that people still remember us, it's funny that they still exist. Here are pictures which cost 100 to 200 times as much money, and they are in and out and forgotten, and these little old things still kind of chug along like the African Queen.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Bob Hoskins, 1942 - 2014

I've reached the point in my life where many of the familiar faces who've inhabited my personal pop cultural landscape since my childhood, whether they're actors, authors, artists or musicians, are beginning to die in earnest. I suppose it was inevitable, but it's still depressing to hear about these (often quite untimely) passings week after week. I've found that these people tend to occupy one of three categories: someone whose work is very well-known to me, someone whose work I was quite familiar with at one time but haven't paid as much attention to lately, or someone whose work I should be better versed in but haven't really explored to the fullest. Veteran actor Bob Hoskins, who passed away a few weeks ago, was in the latter category.
Don't get me wrong; Hoskins was unquestionably known to me, and over the years I've enjoyed watching him in a number of different films, but there were certain key roles of his that I had yet to experience, and to be honest, I was woefully ignorant of his range as an actor. As is so often the case, his death inspired to seek out some of those films, and I've embarked upon a sort of ongoing Bob Hoskins retrospective at my home, which is easier said than done in this day and age in which video rental stores effectively no longer exist. The selection of Hoskins' films that are streaming on Netflix is fairly sparse, so I've been reliant upon my local library, but evidently, others had the same idea in the wake of his death, and I've had to wait to acquire some of them.

With his diminutive stature, stocky build and thinning hair, Hoskins seemed unlikely material for a movie star, but his formidable acting chops proved otherwise. Perhaps best known in the United States for his role in Robert Zemeckis' 1988 live action/animation hybrid, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Hoskins initially came to prominence as a film actor in his native Britain via his role in John Mackenzie's 1980 gangster opus The Long Good Friday, which is a film I'd known about for years but never seen. Among those I had seen prior to his death, my favorite of Hoskins' films was probably Terry Gilliam's 1985 dystopian satire Brazil. Hoskins plays Spoor, a psychotic maintenance man who harasses Jonathan Pryce's character throughout the film, until he receives what is perhaps the most hilariously disgusting comeuppance in the history of the cinema, courtesy of Robert De Niro and a rerouted sewage hose. Hoskins' role is relatively brief, but it's impossible to imagine anyone else in it. His signature Cockney accent gives Spoor a necessarily rough edge, and his mischevious grin that can morph at any time without warning into a menacing grimace allows the character to be both goofy and scary within the same scene. This prodigious talent at expressing a character's duality would become even more apparent when I was at last able to see Hoskins in The Long Good Friday, which finally became available at the library last week, allowing me to take a long overdue look at the film.

In the film, Hoskins portrays Harold Shand, a London mob boss who operates more like a businessman, at least at the beginning. Shand, along with his elegant and sophisticated significant other, Victoria (Helen Mirren), has plans to redevelop a disused section of the London waterfront as a venue for the forthcoming Summer Olympics. His aspirations toward legitimacy begin to crumble, however, as his criminal empire is left reeling following an escalating series of attacks from an unidentified group. In a brilliant scene early on, Shand gives a stirring speech about his vision for London to a yacht full of potential investors as they chug down the river Thames. With the instantly recognizable Tower Bridge framing him as he waxes eloquently about the future of the British capital (an inspired visual choice), the viewer can be forgiven for forgetting that Shand is actually a gangster who is capable of brutal violence, as we will witness later in the film. Thanks to Hoskins' brilliant delivery of the monologue, I found myself rooting for Shand despite my knowledge of his true background. Hoskins keeps the character on a mostly even keel for the first part of the film, until things begin to heat up and Shand plunges off the deep end.

Two later scenes in particular are showcases for Hoskins' virtuosic talent. In the first, he discovers that a close associate was inadvertently responsible for triggering the offensive against his organization, and in an explosive rage, Shand violently attacks and mortally wounds the man. As he cradles his dying friend, Shand slowly comes to realize what he's done before breaking down in remorse. Hoskins handles this powerful scene with aplomb. I was aghast at his actions, but a moment later, I felt his pain and sadness as his friend died in his arms. The very end of the film, however, displays perhaps his finest work of all. Without giving too much away, Shand realizes too late that he's been snared by his adversaries and is whisked away to an uncertain fate. As the film's jazzy, uptempo yet somehow melancholy theme is reprised, the camera lingers on Hoskins for a good long while, with only a few, brief cutaways, as a gamut of emotions cross his face, from surprise, to disbelief, to rage, to sadness, to resignation and even a little dark humor for good measure. Hoskins is absolutely phenomenal in this scene; it's an impressive end to a great film, and it really opened my eyes to how much we've lost with his passing (Hoskins had actually retired from acting in 2012 after being diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease). Although I'm a bit late to the game, I look forward to seeing as many more of his films as possible in the weeks and months to come.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Ultimate Practical Effect: ALIENS

(My return to blogging after nearly a year comes a few days after the untimely death of legendary Swiss artist H.R. Giger, the mastermind who designed the titular beast in the original Alien, among many other fantastic and terrifying creations. Giger is not mentioned in this piece only because he did not actually work on Aliens, but it goes without saying that his artistic DNA is indelibly imprinted on the film. WARNING: If, for some inexplicable reason, you've never seen Aliens, there are a few mild spoilers below.)

Released in July 1986, James Cameron's Aliens will celebrate its 30th anniversary a mere two years and change from now. (The fact that I was old enough to accompany my underage nephew to see the R-rated film at the long-defunct Southgate theater in Milwaukie, Oregon means that I am gaining in years myself.) At the time of its release, Cameron's action-oriented sequel to Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi/horror classic, Alien, boasted state-of-the-art special effects by some of the top teams working in the field. Having watched the film for the umpteenth time the other night, I can offer my opinion that the vast majority of these effects hold up to this day, but one scene in particular still stands head and shoulders above the rest: the climactic battle between Ellen Ripley and the alien queen in the cargo hold of the Sulaco.

Aliens was made just prior to the dawn of a new era in filmmaking, one that was ushered in in large part by James Cameron himself. A mere three years later, in 1989, Cameron's film The Abyss became the first major live-action feature to incorporate computer generated imagery (CGI), using it to create a watery alien pseudopod in a relatively brief but highly memorable scene. Two years after that, Cameron pushed the CGI envelope again with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a film that made extensive use of the technique. For better or worse, T2 unleashed a deluge of CGI-laden films that continues to this day, and while the quality of what we see on screen has certainly improved over the years, the use (some would say overuse) of CGI remains a touchy subject for many film fans. Personally, I'm not necessarily opposed to CGI; some of my favorite films, including Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim, probably couldn't have been made as effectively without it. Nevertheless, I remain a fan of the use of practical (on-set) effects whenever possible, and Ripley's knock-down, drag-out fight with the 14-foot-tall alien queen represents what, in my mind, may very well be the pinnacle of achievement in this arena.

In order to create what would become, at the time, the largest animatronic puppet ever designed for a film, Cameron turned to the late, great special effects genius Stan Winston, with whom he had previously collaborated on The Terminator. Winston was not initially convinced that Cameron's idea of positioning two stunt performers inside a hydraulically-controlled puppet that could either be suspended from a crane or propped up from underneath was feasible, but after testing was done with a primitive mock-up, it was discovered that Cameron's idea worked brilliantly. From the queen's first reveal in the egg chamber through the subsequent scenes in which she pursues Ripley and her surrogate daughter, Newt, through the quickly disintegrating atmosphere processor, the puppet is amazingly lifelike, but it's the final, desperate battle in the Sulaco's cargo hold that really demonstrates what this astounding creation was capable of.

The finished sequence, in which Ripley dons a robot-like loader suit and goes head-to-head with the queen in an attempt to protect Newt, remains jaw-droppingly effective to this day. The stunt performers and puppeteers (up to eight of them) working in unison to operate the queen achieve perfect harmony, imbuing her with a palpable sense of malevolent life. There is not a single moment in the entire sequence in which the queen is anything less than completely believable. The use of the puppet brings a tactile quality to the scene that would be utterly lacking if it had been rendered via another method. Even stop motion animation, which I have a nostalgic fondness for, wouldn't have had the same immediacy or impact. Sigourney Weaver gives a remarkably fierce performance throughout the film as Ripley, culminating in this scene, and her acting was no doubt enhanced by having this enormous, frighteningly lifelike creature bouncing around with her on set. Even the finest actors undoubtedly have trouble relating to a green screen, but Weaver was face to face with this bad bitch. Thank goodness Aliens was made when it was. If the film had been produced only a few years later, audiences might have been deprived of this unprecedented marvel of practical special effects technology and subjected to a lackluster CGI version instead.