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.