Saturday, August 13, 2016

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES: It's the end of the world. Bring the kids!

Pop quiz: What's the most violent, disturbing and pessimistic G-rated movie you can think of?

Some of you are probably thinking, "What's a G-rated movie?" Since very few of them are released these days, your lack of awareness wouldn't come as much of a surprise.

Others might ask, "Why would a G-rated movie be any of those things?" Given the fact that nearly all of the movies from the last several decades to have received a G rating from the Motion Picture Association of America are either innocuous animated films or relatively benign documentaries, your question would seem like a reasonable one.

A few of you might venture forth with suggestions such as the John Wayne Vietnam War adventure THE GREEN BERETS or Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (both 1968). Nice try, but no. The correct answer is BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970). Read on and you'll see why this is not merely my opinion, but a fact.

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES is, of course, the first sequel to the science fiction classic PLANET OF THE APES (1968), which was also rated G, and which was also surprisingly adult in nature. Had there been no sequels, the original would surely top the short list of G-rated movies chock full of brutal imagery, salty (for the time) language and heady subject matter almost guaranteed to stun young audiences into submission. (In the unlikely event you haven't seen either of these films, or been exposed to any sort of popular culture at all over the last 48 years, be warned that there are spoilers ahead.) In the first film, after astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) crash-lands on a planet inhabited by an advanced society of talking apes who dominate and enslave the planet's mute and primitive humans, he's bloodily shot in the neck during a hunt in which one of his fellow astronauts is killed; he shacks up with Nova (Linda Harrison), a nubile hottie in an animal skin bikini with whom he's expected to mate; on the flipside of that, he's threatened with castration; he curses out the damn, dirty apes; he finds another fellow astronaut who's been lobotomized; and finally, he discovers - via the iconic image of a destroyed Statue of Liberty - that he's actually time-traveled to a post-apocalyptic version of Earth, at which point he curses some more. Not necessarily the kind of stuff you'd expect to find in a movie aimed at kids, but then again, kids weren't the sole target audience for this film.

It's important to remember that, just as an X rating wasn't always synonymous with porn (the X-rated MIDNIGHT COWBOY won several Oscars, including Best Picture), a G rating didn't always translate to mean kiddie fare. It simply meant that a film was suitable for General Audiences, which could mean anyone from young children to senior citizens, and that said audiences shouldn't expect to find anything too objectionable in the film. Following the inception of the MPAA rating system in 1968, the G rating was applied to numerous films that were primarily intended for adult audiences. (It's hard to imagine kids lining up for the likes of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF or ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER.) PLANET OF THE APES was just such a film, although one can certainly see how it would have appealed to young science fiction fans as well. Nevertheless, the fact that it sailed past the MPAA with a G is frankly astounding, given the aforementioned content. One might think it was simply an oversight, were it not for the even more upsetting sequel that arrived two years later sporting its own G rating.

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES picks up right where the original left off, with Taylor's shocking realization of his true whereabouts (and whenabouts). Afterward, while riding through the desert with Nova, they both experience a series of frightening visions, which Taylor determines are not real. In the process of investigating the source of these hallucinations, Taylor vanishes. Nova then stumbles upon Brent (James Franciscus), an astronaut who is the sole survivor of another spaceship crash (why these ships are unable to safely land is beyond me). Brent's crew was on a mission to rescue Taylor, and he and Nova set out to find him. They have their own run-ins with the apes, in which there's a WTF moment of chimpanzee scientists Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (David Watson) doing something with a scalpel between the legs of a strapped-down human male - a somewhat more explicit illustration of the castration anxiety from the original. Eventually, they escape and make their way to the subterranean remains of a devastated New York City, allowing Brent his own moment of awful realization. In the underground city, they discover a hive of mutated humans who worship a leftover atomic bomb, and it's at this point that the film takes a seriously dark turn.

These mutants have developed extra-sensory abilities that allow them to communicate telepathically as well as control the minds of lesser humans such as Brent and Nova. They can cause their victims to experience pain, make them see terrifying images and even control their actions. They grill Brent about the intentions of the apes, who are on their way to invade the underground city and conquer the mutants. When he resists giving them information, they force him to simultaneously kiss and strangle Nova into semi-consciousness in a scene that veers uncomfortably close to sexual assault. Horrified at what he's been made to do, Brent gives up the information, and the mutants prepare to launch their atomic missile at Ape City. Brent and Nova are allowed to witness the mutants' religious ceremony in which they sing creepy, jarring hymns to the bomb in a wrecked cathedral. (Composer Leonard Rosenman, taking over for PLANET OF THE APES' Jerry Goldsmith, delivers an excellent score that really hits its disturbing peak with this scene. You'll never hear "All Things Bright and Beautiful" in the same way again). At the climax of the ceremony, they all intone, "I reveal my inmost self unto my God," and proceed to remove the rubber masks they're wearing, giving us a good, long look at their scarred faces. I was probably around 9 or 10 when I first saw the film, and the unmasking really knocked me for a loop. It was easily one of the most alarming things I'd seen in a film up to that point.

Brent is thrown into a nasty-looking spiky cage with Taylor, who's apparently been stewing there since the beginning of the film. The mutants use their telepathic powers to force Brent and Taylor to fight to the death, throwing in a spiky club for good measure. The fight scene itself is quite brutal, but when the mutant controlling them (Don Pedro Colley) is distracted by Nova's unexpected arrival, they manage to improvise an iron maiden with the cage door and impale him. This gruesome scene pushes the film above and beyond the original in terms of its violent content. It's pretty harsh stuff. As they work on getting out of the cage, Brent describes the bomb to Taylor, who recognizes it as an Alpha-Omega bomb - a superweapon capable of causing an atmospheric chain reaction that will incinerate the entire planet. Needless to say, they have a vested interest in preventing this.

While the three of them are en route to stop the bomb from being launched, Nova - the one innocent in this mess - is depressingly shot and killed by an ape soldier. The apes storm the cathedral, slaughtering the mutants who are left (some have taken their own lives, another morbid touch), and pull down the missile from its altar/launch pad, not realizing how much danger they're in. As they try in vain to halt the impending catastrophe, Taylor and Brent are gunned down by the apes. Taylor is still barely alive, but Brent is clearly dead, having gone down in a hail of bullets in a scene that evokes Peckinpah. As he expires, Taylor utters one final imprecation at the apes and detonates the doomsday bomb, and the screen fades to white. Just in case the audience might not believe what just happened, we're treated to this voiceover, which seems pretty definitive: "In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead."

It's difficult to overstate how bleak this ending is, and how much of an impact it had on me as a kid. Of course, the ending of the original PLANET OF THE APES was shocking, but it pales in comparison to the cold finality of BENEATH. Hollywood was changing at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. Films began to reflect the turbulent times, and downbeat endings, in films such as EASY RIDER and THE WILD BUNCH, were becoming more common. It was no longer a given that the good guys would win, or even survive. BENEATH takes this conceit to the next level. It's almost as though the filmmakers (director Ted Post and screenwriter Paul Dehn) were saying to the audience, "You want a downer of an ending? Try this on for size!" I can only think of a handful of other films made prior to this one in which the world actually, unambiguously comes to an end (WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE springs immediately to mind), and most of them allow for at least some survivors. Not this one (at least, not right away). To add to the overall feeling of hopelessness, the closing voiceover refers to our planet as "insignificant," which is probably how many viewers felt after seeing this film.

Nevertheless, the film was successful enough (especially considering its meager budget) to tempt the studio heads into wanting another sequel, but how to manage that after blowing up the planet and everyone on it? Don't forget, we're dealing with a story of time travel here. That lead to the third film in the series, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971), which is almost as depressing in its own way, but that's another story. As for the G rating, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES and its follow-up were among the last films with truly upsetting content to receive it. Despite the fact that PG-13 superhero movies chock full of gun violence are now considered family fare, it's difficult to imagine a film as overwhelmingly nihilistic as BENEATH being marketed to kids these days.

Monday, October 5, 2015


(Note: This might just be the flimsiest premise for a blog post I've ever come up with, but damn it, it's been far too long since I've written anything, and I needed to get my feet wet again. In other news, let it be known that I'm officially switching from italicizing film titles to capitalizing them. I know; it's a stupendous, earth-shattering decision, and I agonized over it for weeks, or maybe just fifteen minutes.)

The weekend before last, I had the rare and welcome opportunity to attend a theatrical screening of Sergio Leone's 1968 masterpiece ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST at The Hollywood Theatre in Portland. I'd actually been lucky enough to see it in a cinema once before, while on a trip to Munich, Germany, but it was over twenty years ago, and in the intervening two decades it's become one of my favorite films of all time. Having watched it repeatedly in its various home video incarnations, I've become quite familiar with it, and therefore my mind wandered a bit here and there during the screening (the guy sitting behind me who kept tapping his damn foot through the movie didn't help). When it came to the first scene with Italian actor Gabriele Ferzetti, who plays the scheming railroad tycoon Morton, my thoughts drifted to one of his other big English-language films which was released a year later: ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, the sixth James Bond film. Over the course of the evening, it gradually occurred to me that, other than Ferzetti's mere presence, the two films share a few more things in common, and just for the hell of it, I thought I'd jot them down.

(One of the most obvious things they have in common is that both of them have lengthy titles that begin with the letter O, so from here on out, I'll refer to them as OUATITW and OHMSS respectively for the sake of brevity.)

Let's start with Gabriele Ferzetti's characters in the two films. Both are imperfect men who maintain a veneer of respectability while profiting handsomely from illegal activities. In OUATITW, Morton is a wealthy railroad baron who suffers from "tuberculosis of the bones," which renders him unable to walk without assistance. He travels his railroad in a luxurious rail car specially outfitted with overhead bars that he uses to pull himself upright. In his zeal to complete the construction of his westward-reaching rail line, Morton unwisely employs Frank (Henry Fonda), a ruthless hired gun whose job it is to "remove small obstacles from the tracks." The largest such obstacle is Brett McBain (Frank Wolff), whose property lies along the proposed line. Morton wants the property, and sends Frank to try and scare McBain into selling out, but Frank, psychopath that he is, murders McBain and his children in cold blood instead. ("People scare better when they're dead," Frank sanguinely observes.)

As venal as he is, Morton is not entirely unsympathetic. He seems genuinely upset by Frank's murderous actions, which he never sanctioned, and he's concerned that Frank also intends to kill McBain's widow and sole heir to the property, Jill (Claudia Cardinale). Morton tries to convince Frank that money, not murder, is the way to solve their problem. When that fails, he unsuccessfully attempts to have Frank killed. Events have been set in motion, though, and in the end, he pays dearly for choosing to do business with a cold-blooded killer. The character of Morton also evokes our sympathy due to his affliction, and from the humiliation he endures from Frank, who kicks Morton's crutches away and sends him crashing to the ground at one point. His death scene is rather ignominious as well, finding him as it does mortally wounded and crawling away from his train toward a dirty puddle.

Ferzetti's character in OHMSS starts out firmly on the wrong side of the law, but by the end of the film, he's done the right thing, even if it's for selfish reasons. He plays Draco, a notorious underworld figure who poses as a legitimate businessman. He also happens to be the father of Tracy (Diana Rigg), a troubled woman whom James Bond (George Lazenby) encounters on a seemingly deserted beach when he foils her attempt at suicide. After meeting a few more times, Bond and Tracy fall in love, and Draco, concerned for his daughter's happiness, urges Bond to marry her, even offering to throw in a huge chunk of change as a dowry. Bond, however, is more concerned with locating his nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas), and he convinces Draco to use his considerable criminal resources to locate Blofeld. In the ensuing events, Tracy is kidnapped by Blofeld, and when Bond's bosses forbid him from undertaking a rescue mission, he enlists the help of Draco and his henchmen for an all-out assault on Blofeld's alpine lair. Of course, Draco's primary motivation for helping Bond is to save the life of his daughter, whom he clearly adores, but by doing so, he also plays a part in stopping Blofeld's latest plot for world domination. Inadvertently or not, he ends up as something of a hero.

Another similarity between the two films has to do with the casting of two very important roles. The Bond film and Leone's epic each had several predecessors, and each series of films featured an increasingly popular and recognizable actor in a lead role: Sean Connery in the Bond series and Clint Eastwood in Leone's "Dollars" trilogy of westerns. (While OUATITW can't rightfully be considered part of a series, it was still the latest in a string of Italian westerns directed by Leone and therefore bears some relation to the earlier films.) Audiences undoubtedly expected to see each actor back at the forefront of these latest films, but they were nowhere to be found. Leone wanted Eastwood for the role of Harmonica in OUATITW, but Eastwood turned it down, and it ultimately went to Charles Bronson, who turned in one of his finest performances. Connery had already declared that 1967's YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE would be his last outing as James Bond (although he did return to the role twice more in the future), forcing the producers to recast the role, which they did by hiring the then-unknown Lazenby. In both cases, the absence of the previous films' stars undoubtedly hurt their performance at the box office.

Both films also featured highly lauded music scores by veterans of each series. Every prior Leone western had featured a score by the legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone, and nearly every Bond film to date had been scored by Englishman John Barry. Both men returned to score OUATITW and OHMSS respectively, and they ended up turning in soundtracks that are widely considered to be the finest of each series, if not of their entire careers. While Morricone's idiosyncratic music added immeasurable value to Leone's "Dollars" trilogy, the maestro outdid himself with the magnificent, operatic score for OUATITW. Leone had him compose and record the music before filming had started to it could be played on set; in that sense, it's inextricably entwined with the action on screen. Each character has their own unique theme, and the music personifies each of them beautifully. Barry's score for OHMSS is equally brilliant. The film features one of the very few solely instrumental main title themes in the Bond series, and it's a wonderfully dark, propulsive tune with chugging electric bass, contemporary (for the time) synthesizer flourishes and swirling strings. The rest of the score features some great suspense music, as well as some genuinely romantic compositions to accompany Bond and Tracy's courtship, topped off by the gorgeous ballad, "We Have All the Time in the World," warmly sung by Louis Armstrong. Of course, the song's title reflects the cruel irony of the film's final scene.

Speaking of which, one last thing the two films have in common are whirlwind marriages that are shockingly cut short by an assassin's bullet. OUATITW begins with one such tragedy, which reaches its emotional zenith when Jill McBain arrives at her new husband's ranch to find him and his entire family laid out on the very tables that were intended for their wedding party. OHMSS ends with one, as James Bond's new bride is cut down while they're en route to their honeymoon. While the scene in OUATITW is operatic in scale, full of big emotions, the scene in OHMSS is quietly heartbreaking and barely gives you time to register what has happened before the credits roll. It's also a bleakly ironic counterpoint to the opening scene in which Tracy attempts suicide. Having found a reason to live, she's subsequently murdered. Both scenes are devastating.

I'm sure there are other similarities between ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, but I'll leave them to you to discover. Both films are worth seeing over and over again.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Failure to Launch: JODOROWSKY'S DUNE

"The Greatest Science Fiction Film Never Made." That's the tagline for Frank Pavich's documentary, Jodorowsky's Dune, and after watching this enthralling, inspiring and just-a-little-bit-heartbreaking film, I'm inclined to agree. Pavich's film comprehensively chronicles the pre-production of director Alejandro Jodorowsky's planned 1970s adaptation of Frank Herbert's seminal sci-fi novel, which sadly fizzled out after two years of painstaking work due to lack of financing. Engaging commentary by several of the intended participants, film journalists, fellow filmmakers and, most enjoyably, the astoundingly spry, 84-year-old Jodorowsky himself, guide us through a remarkably fertile creative process that undoubtedly would have resulted in a genre milestone had it come to fruition.

A novice filmmaker with a background in theater, the Chilean-born Jodorowsky had only one previous feature under his belt when he found notoriety with his films El Topo (1970) and its followup, The Holy Mountain (1973). Their bizarre, surreal and shocking imagery appealed to counterculture audiences and they became among the first examples of what we now know as cult cinema, often being screened at midnight shows for audiences who were, shall we say, in an altered state of mind. After the success of The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky teamed up with French producer Michel Seydoux, who granted him carte blanche for his next production. Jodorowsky's choice was an adaptation of Dune. Originally published a decade prior, Herbert's novel was widely considered to be a landmark of literary science fiction, and although Jodorowsky had not actually read it at the time, he was acutely aware of its cultural impact.

Jodorowsky's intent with Dune was to create a film that would simulate the effects of an LSD trip without actually having to take any drugs. He hoped it would prove a spiritual, transformative experience for young audiences, leading to a change in their way of viewing the world. To that aim, he assembled a cast and crew the likes of which had never been seen. Conceptual art was provided by renowned comic artist Jean "Mœbius" Giraud, science fiction book cover artist Chris Foss and a relatively unknown Swiss artist by the name of H.R. Giger. Jodorowsky secured progressive rock bands Pink Floyd and Magma to provide a soundtrack to the film. Most astoundingly, he rounded up what would have been one of the most wildly eclectic acting ensembles ever to appear on film, including David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, Udo Kier and in a mind-boggling casting coup, Salvador Dali, who was to be paid $100,000 per minute for his three to five minutes onscreen.

A consummate artist, Jodorowsky disdained commercial filmmaking, and his commitment to Dune's transcendental themes was reinforced by his refusal to work with preeminent special effects maestro Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey), whom he found to be too self-important and more of a coldly clinical technician, undeserving of the "spiritual warrior" status ascribed to the rest of his collaborators. Jodorowsky eventually settled on Dan O'Bannon, whose work on the low-budget science fiction film Dark Star, originally made with John Carpenter as a film school project, had impressed him.

With the script completed and Jodorowsky's dream team assembled in Paris, a voluminous amount of pre-production art was produced, resulting in a massively encyclopedic pitch book to be distributed to studio heads. Tragically, but perhaps not surprisingly, all of the studios passed. Although impressed by the volume of material that had been meticulously assembled, they were reluctant to entrust Jodorowsky with the millions of dollars necessary for his vision to be fulfilled. All too aware of the highly unconventional nature of his previous films, the studio bean counters could not foresee Jodorowsky's metaphysical version of Dune meeting with great commercial success. The plug was pulled, and what could have been one of the greatest science fiction films of all time faded into cinematic oblivion.

Jodorowsky's Dune somewhat magically brings this lost film to life, utilizing beautifully animated versions of the storyboards and production art to visualize what it might have ended up looking like. The effect is mesmerizing. Aside from the visual splendor, Pavich wisely allows Jodorowsky himself to tell much of the story. On camera for a large part of the film, alternating between his native Spanish and charmingly accented English (for which subtitles are provided, unnecessarily in my view), Jodorowsky never ceases to engage. Displaying the wit, vitality and joie de vivre of a man half his age or younger, he deftly leads the audience through this bittersweet tale of unfulfilled potential. He regales us with fascinating and amusing tales of his attempts to secure the participation of his favored collaborators, often crossing their paths seemingly by chance. His initial meeting with Pink Floyd got off to an unimpressive start, with the band seemingly more interested in their hamburgers than Jodorowsky's pitch, although he finally got their attention by insulting them. He persuaded a reluctant Orson Welles, whose girth was perfect for the role of the Baron Harkonnen, to sign on with the promise of gourmet meals from his favorite Parisian chef every day.

More background information is provided by such figures as producer Seydoux; the late O'Bannon (via his widow, Diane and audio recordings made prior to his 2009 death); filmmakers Nicolas Winding Refn and Richard Stanley; artists Foss and Giger (who died shortly after this film's release); film journalist Devin Faraci and Jodorowsky's son Brontis, who was 12 years old at the time and underwent a grueling martial arts training regimen in preparation for one of the film's principal roles. Ultimately, though, the film was Jodorowsky's baby, and although he emphatically states that it was worth the effort simply to have tried, it's clear that, even forty years later, the failure to actually make the film is one of his biggest regrets. The disappointment is palpable; you can see it in his eyes. 

Jodorowsky's version of Dune may have never been realized, but its distinct visual style reverberated throughout the film world over the next few decades and continues to do so to this day. Pavich's documentary traces its undeniable influence on many of the major science fiction films that followed in its wake. Nearly all of Jodorowsky's design team went on (either independently or together) to work on a number of subsequent sci-fi films, the most obvious example being Ridley Scott's Alien, which was based on a story by O'Bannon and utilized the artistic talents of Giger and Foss (although Foss was eventually dismissed from the production).

A movie version of Dune was eventually made by David Lynch, under the auspices of producers Rafaella and Dino de Laurentiis, who had picked up the rights after Jodorowsky and Seydoux's failed attempt, but the film received terrible reviews and bombed at the box office. Lynch blamed the film's failure on interference from its producers, but he later stated that he shouldn't have taken it on in the first place. Jodorowsky admired Lynch, but he still found it painful to conceive of the fact that someone else had succeeded in bringing Dune to the screen, and he initially avoided the film. After being dragged to it by his sons, though, he experienced a bit of schadenfreude when he realized that Lynch's film was, to put it mildly, not good.

It's hard to say what sort of reception Jodorowsky's version would have received. It's entirely possible that audiences in the mid-70s would have been more receptive to his uniquely spiritual vision, but at the same time, the era of the modern blockbuster was dawning with Steven Spielberg's Jaws, a decidedly more simplistic and audience-friendly type of film. Jodorowsky himself seems convinced that his Dune, had it been made, would have blown minds and changed lives. When he made this hyperbolic-sounding claim, near the beginning of Jodorowsky's Dune, I was a bit skeptical, but by the time the documentary drew to a close, he had me convinced.


Perhaps the sweetest coda to Pavich's wonderful film is that fact that its creation brought Jodorowsky and Seydoux together again after having been out of touch for decades. (The DVD and Blu-ray releases of Jodorowsky's Dune contain a marvelous deleted scene of the two men walking around Paris, chatting away and catching up.) Their friendship renewed, they decided to make another movie together, the result being last year's La Danza de la Realidad (The Dance of Reality), Jodorowsky's first directorial effort since 1990. It's one of his most sincere and heartfelt works, although it still delivers the strange and surreal elements his fans expect.

In the wake of the documentary's success, it's tempting to fantasize about Jodorowsky and Seydoux's version of Dune still being made. After all, both of them are still going strong, they both still have copies of the pitch book that contains all of the production art and storyboards, and pretty much no one considers Lynch's film (or the TV adaptation that followed) to be the definitive statement when it comes to Dune on film. The fact is, though, times and tastes have changed, and it would have even less of a chance of being properly financed in today's world. Thankfully, Jodorowsky's Dune briefly resurrects this incredible project from its own ashes and gives us enough of a taste that we can imagine the rest for ourselves.

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.