Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Worst Case Scenario

Imagine, if you can, a worldwide crisis that touches the lives of everyone on the planet, a time when “we will all entertain our deepest fears and concerns.” Sound familiar? Before the global pandemic of 2020, we needed to suspend our disbelief and use our imaginations to feel the Deep Impact (1998) of this prescient and intelligently produced disaster film. Now, a much smaller leap of faith is required to resonate with this gripping story.

The disruptive effects of an extinction level event (ELE) upon the collective psyche and societal structure as we know it are explored in director Mimi Leder’s exhilarating and thought-provoking  adventure.

Made the same year as the more action-heavy, cartoonlike Armegeddon starring Bruce Willis, Deep Impact delves beneath the surface details to explore the nuances of the human experience under the duress of a global catastrophe.

Tea Leoni as Jenny Lerner

Many of the storytelling devices here will be recycled in future disaster epics including The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, albeit with less thoughtful social commentary.

The gravitasse of legendary actors like Vanessa Redgrave (Camelot, Julia) Maximilian Schell (Judgment at Nuremberg) Robert Duvall (The Godfather), and Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption, Driving Miss Daisy) adds to the all-star epic feel that subtly evokes those old Irwin Allen classics like The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and The Towering Inferno.

Elijah Wood as Leo Biederman

But the story is largely propelled by a cast led by then-newcomers including Tea Leoni (Spanglish, Fun with Dick and Jane), Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings), Lee Lee Sobieski (Eyes Wide Shut), Ron Eldard (E/R, Blackhawk Down), Blair Underwood (Quantico) and John Favreau (Swingers, Chef),  and ably supported by fine actors including Laura Innes (E/R), James Cromwell (Six Feet Under, Angels in America) and Dougray Scott (in a tiny early role as an MSNBC cameraman).

Ron Eldard as Oren Monash

Before the backdrop of impending calamity, we see our all-star cast go about their busy, fast-paced lives—teenagers come of age, ambitious go-getters try to get ahead in their careers, corporations attempt to conduct business as usual—as an omniscient media shapes the narrative for maximum dramatic effect.

Tea Leoni is Jenny Lerner, an ambitious MSNBC news employee who works under self-absorbed MSNBC anchor Beth Stanley (Innes) who fears Jenny is trying to usurp her position in front of the camera.  As Jenny, Leoni has some unforgettable moments, including the All About Eve-like tension with Innes; her terrified gulping of a martini right after she learns of the ELE; her shocked and numbed reaction at the suicide of her mother (Redgrave); her touching last reel reconciliation with her estranged father (Schell). It is Jenny who discovers the government coverup of the impending disaster and becomes an international news celebrity.

Robert Duvall as Spurgeon "Fish" Tanner

Freeman is iconically cast as President Tom Beck, our first African American commander in chief a decade before Obama, exuding cool, calm and compassionate leadership in the face of intense adversity. (Small wonder that Freeman, with his sonorous voice, soulful yet stalwart demeanor and imposing physicality, was also perfectly cast in the role of God Almighty. )

Laura Innes as Beth Stanley

When young high schooler Leo Biederman (Wood) and his classmate and girlfriend Sarah (Sobieski) discover a new celestial body in the night sky, Leo emails images and coordinates to the scientist who visited their astrononomy club, Dr. Wolf (an uncredited Charles Martin Smith) who confirms the unthinkable: The comet is a collision course with earth.

Morgan Freeman as President Tom Beck

The President, pressured by Jenny Lerner’s insistent probings, finally sounds the alarm and unveils a plan to deploy nuclear weapons on the face of the enormous meteor and introduces the team of astronauts who will undertake the task.

Ron Eldard is perfect as Oren Monash, the brash and arrogant young commander who feels that the veteran elder astronaut Spurgeon “Fish” Tanner (Robert Duvall), who walked on the moon decades ago, is stealing his thunder and undermining his authority.

Maximilian Schell as Jason Lerner

Vanessa Redgrave as Robin Lerner

Even in the midst of unimaginable events, the characters react as a generation raised by television, and the film contains wry observations and commentary about fame and success. “The best thing about being a celebrity is that you have a lot of sex,” Wood’s character is told, while the young and attractive group of astronauts chosen for the rescue effort (including Eldard, Favreau, Underwood, and Mary McCormack) are “not scared of dying; they’re scared of not looking good on TV.”

Leo and Sarah (Lee Lee Sobieski)

The media itself, represented here by real-life network MSNBC, is a pivotal character in the story as well. How the news business uses facts and figures to craft the story and shape the public narrative is vividly illustrated. Despite the threat of extinction itself, the relentless news machine focuses chiefly on ratings and marketing tactics. “I need graphics,” screams a producer, and the newly branded MSNBC  “Earth Rescue” news report soon features a digital rendering of the comet on a collision course with earth that will “scare the shit out of people.”

Favreau, McCormack, Aleksandr Baluev, Eldard, Duvall and Underwood

To preserve “our way of life,” the existence of a vast underground bunker system (obviously having been constructed years before!) is now revealed to the public if, by some chance, the mission does not succeed.

Fame and privilege will enhance the odds of survival for notables are “preselected” for the underground caves, while the rest of the population are subjected to a nationwide lottery for those sought-after spaces in the “new Noah’s Ark.” But it’s survival of the fittest, as no one over the age of 50 will be eligible for the lottery, and millions must face the chilling realization that they will not survive the disaster.

"There will be no looting..."

"Our mission has failed...

Despite their valiant attempt to destroy the comet, the rescue mission fails, splitting the space rock into two projectiles still aimed at Earth. The astronauts decide to sacrifice their lives to save the planet by flying into the larger meteor and detonating the rest of their nukes. “Look at the the bright side,” comments McCormack matter-of-factly. “We’ll all have high schools named after us.”

As the smaller asteroid hits our planet, a tidal wave engulfs the New York skyline including the twin towers, a reminder that this is a pre 9/11 film. The special effects are quite impressive for the late 1990s (thank you, executive producer Steven Spielberg).

But it’s the characters we care about, and there are many touching and affecting moments as annihilation looms large.

Badly injured, blinded, and seeing things differently, Oren has a lovely and quiet scene with Fish where the two men bond in a moment of solidarity and friendship, as Tanner sits beside Monash reading Moby Dick aloud. Later, the astronauts bid tearful goodbyes to their loved ones via satellite before sacrificing themselves for the greater good.

Jenny gives up her chance at survival with an unselfish act, letting her coworker Beth and her young daughter board the helicopter to take her place in the Ark—and reunites with her estranged father (Schell) as the wall of water overcomes them both. Sarah’s parents entrust the care of their newborn baby to the teenagers and embrace as the flood waters overcome them.

The astronauts’ sacrifice turns out to be well worth it, as the larger asteroid is destroyed and humanity is given one more chance. The rebuilding begins…

The special effects were not bad for 1998!

Exploring some deeper undercurrents—from government secrecy, the role of the media, facing our own mortality and getting our personal priorities straight— beneath the obvious and superficial triumph-over-adversity disaster movie tropes, Deep Impact has always provided food for thought for viewers, and its message is as relevant today as when it was made more than two decades ago. Maybe even more so…

Thanks to Dubsism and my friend Quiggy at The Midnite Drive-In for hosting the Disaster Blogathon! I look forward to reading everyone’s posts and sharing ideas regarding one of my favorite film genres.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Coming Out with Maurice

Boy meets boy in a world where their kind of love was an impossibility. This is E.M. Forster’s Maurice (1987).

Having already produced a critically acclaimed film version of Forster’s A Room with a View in 1985, producer Ismael Merchant and director James Ivory took the gamble of mounting Forster’s groundbreaking and explicitly homosexual love story with honesty and heart, in exquisite period detail.

As a gay man who came out in the 1980s, long before it was fashionable or even safe to do so (and as the AIDS crisis pushed an entire generation out of the closet to fight for their civil rights), Maurice was one of the first LGBT films I ever saw, and it remains one of my all-time favorites. I was dazzled by its romantic opulence, emotional honesty and intelligent treatment of previously verboten subject matter.

Hugh Grant as Clive Durham

The three British actors who form the forbidden love triangle in Maurice took the chance of being stereotyped forever and ruining their chances at stardom by playing gay characters. (A few years before in the USA, up and coming leading man Harry Hamlin had almost destroyed his burgeoning career by playing a homosexual in a controversial film called Making Love.)

James Wilby as Maurice Hall

Here you’ll see a young and handsome Hugh Grant, years before he leapt to fame in Four Weddings and a Funeral. The only member of the Maurice ensemble to make it to A-List megastardom, the charming Grant has since carved an indelible niche as a leading man in iconic light romantic comedies like Notting Hill and Love Actually. (But throughout his meteoric rise to fame in the 1990s, Grant never talked much about Maurice!)

Rupert Graves has continued to work steadily since he bared his soul (and much more than that!) in both Room with a View and Maurice, in dozens of films and TV series including V for Vendetta, the ABC series The Family and The White Queen for BBC.

Rupert Graves as Alec Scudder

In the film’s title role is the stalwart James Wilby, always at home in period drawing room settings in films including A Handful of Dust, Gosford Park and Merchant Ivory’s Howard's End. Wilby’s veneer of conservative Britishness makes him the perfect choice to play the role of a deeply conflicted man who makes the bold and daring, unexpected life choice of surrendering to his natural inclinations.

The film opens at Cambridge in 1909, where suburban upper middle class youth Maurice Hall (Wilby) meets and falls in love with Clive Durham (Grant), the scion of an aristocratic family and young master of Pendersleigh Park (think Downton Abbey).

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay touches upon the emotional, intellectual and socioeconomic aspects of E.M. Forster’s story. The richness of their liberal arts education at Cambridge is illustrated by readings from Plato’s Symposium on platonic male love (the professor warns his students to “omit the reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks”) and the society’s caste and class system where social roles are clearly delineated.

Mark Tandy as Viscount Risley

At Cambridge Maurice is drawn to Risley (Mark Tandy), a supercilious and cerebral upperclassman who has a “dangerous” interest in him. Through his attraction to Risley, Maurice meets the sweet and boyish Clive, and the pair immediately become intimate friends and soul mates.

At first it is Clive who is the iconoclast and sophisticate, determined to turn his back on the rigidly repressive stuffiness of Edwardian society—but eventually he succumbs to peer pressure and fulfills the role that society has laid out for him. Maurice is the uneducated, naive dolt who follows all the rules without question until his animal instincts lead him in the direction of freedom.

Clive resists Maurice's advances

The story is rife with reversals. Though it is Clive who first ardently proclaims his love, scandalizing Maurice, it is a newly lusty Maurice who pushes to consummate their relationship. But as the pair spoon and snuggle on a blanket during their romantic picnic, Clive fearfully recoils at Maurice’s physical advances.

Both characters grapple with their ideas of masculinity and respectability. When Maurice works as a London stockbroker, he dons a mustache that Clive finds “revolting,” yet for the second half of the picture (another reversal) it is Clive not Maurice who wears the mustache.

When Viscount Risley is arrested and “sent down” for dallying with a young soldier in a London pub as part of a sting operation — homosexuality is crime and major scandal — he is sentenced to 6 months hard labor but more importantly, by being branded a ‘twank’ (faggot), loses his reputation and his station in the social pecking order.

Distinctly middle class: Maurice's sister (Helena Michell) and mother (Billie Whitelaw)

Risley’s disgrace shakes Clive to the core and makes him determined to change, though Maurice wonders, “Can the leopard change his spots?” They both try. While Clive submits to a sexless marriage to the frigid Anne (Phoebe Nicholls), Maurice visits a hypnotist in the vain hopes that he can cure his condition ("I’m a degenerate of the Oscar Wilde sort”), to no avail.

Then Alec Scudder (Graves), the attractive but rough hewn under gamekeeper at Pendersleigh, makes a bold pass at Maurice, and the film erupts into the stuff of romance novels, culminating in rapturous male-male love scenes that might make Lady Chatterley herself start to blush. (Same sex love scenes may be commonplace today in mainstream entertainment, but the startling and unabashed full frontal male nudity of Maurice was still an uncommon sight in 1980s cinema.)

Caste and class system: The underkeeper and the gentleman

Maurice climaxes in a happy ending for Maurice and Alec (“Now we shant never be parted,” whispers Alec) and a resigned sadness for Clive who looks out the window longingly into his past, with wife Anne at his side.

The man that got away: Clive and Anne (Phoebe Nicholls)

The principals are ably supported by a cast that’s a virtual who’s who of accomplished British character actors, including Denholm Elliott, Ben Kingsley (sporting the oddest American accent you’ve ever heard) and Simon Callow (Bedrooms and Hallways). There’s also a tiny cameo by Helena Bonham Carter (if you blink, you’ll miss her).

The hip hypnotist: Ben Kingsley steals a scene

Billie Whitelaw, beloved to horror fans in films like The Omen and Night Watch, is delightfully dotty as Maurice’s dear mother, who witnesses an intimate moment between Maurice and Clive. The imperious Judy Parfitt (Wilde, Dolores Claiborne) is marvelous in her brief scenes as Clive’s terribly correct, upper-crust mother.

Maurice was something of a coming out statement for filmmakers and longtime life partners Ismael Merchant and James Ivory. (Merchant died in 2005; Ivory recently won a Best Screenplay Academy Award for his adaptation of Call Me By Your Name.) Though they never flaunted their 44-year collaboration and love affair (rarely ever speaking publicly about it at all, in fact), their shared love of the material is evident in their daring film treatment of E.M. Forster’s lost novel of same sex love in Edwardian England.

A labor of love: James Ivory and Ismael Merchant

Thanks to MovieRob for inviting me to participate in his Genre Guesstimation celebration of LGBTQ+ movies!

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

An Amazing Filmic Journey

One of the most iconic rock bands of all time steps off the concert stage and onto the silver screen in one of the wildest film trips in cinema history. In Tommy (1975) The Who (guitarist and composer Pete Townshend, lead singer Roger Daltrey, drummer Keith Moon and bass player John Entwistle) bring their 1969 “rock opera” to life with the help of avant garde film director Ken Russell and producer Robert Stigwood (Saturday Night Fever, Grease).

Chock full of wild, wigged out, psychedelic imagery, Tommy is a movie musical like other, a cinematic feast providing a kaleidoscopic palette that brings the rapturous rock melodies of Pete Townshend’s rock masterwork to vivid life.

Director Ken Russell creates a detailed tapestry, a mosaic of dazzling imagery to to match the bold driving excitement of Townsend’s words and music. The production design is lavish, featuring costumes by Russell’s wife and collaborator Shirley (who would receive Oscar nominations for her designs for Agatha and Reds) and dreamlike, colorfully surreal settings.

Oliver Reed as Frank
Ann-Margret as Nora
Roger Daltrey as Tommy

Laden with religious symbolism and New Age iconography—mirrors, ball bearings, pinballs and disco balls juxtaposed with crosses, crucifixes and red poppy flowers—Tommy explores the themes of false idolatry, the exploitation of faith, the commoditization of talent and the superficial allure of fame and fortune in epic fashion.

Like The Miracle Worker’s Helen Keller, Tommy is a deaf dumb and blind kid stumbling through life on instinct and intuition until a sudden breakthrough sends him on a spiritual odyssey. Only his sense of touch is unimpaired as a result of his childhood trauma. Salvation comes through his affinity to the game of pinball (a worldwide craze in the mid 1970s).

"Cousin Kevin": Paul Nicholas

"Fiddle About": Keith Moon as Uncle Ernie

Russell’s flamboyant, over-the-top style often resulted in epic filmic fails, including the glitzy and garish Valentino, The Boy Friend and Lisztomania (which also starred Roger Daltrey but failed to capitalize on Tommy’s success), but Tommy is arguably the auteur’s masterpiece (though others may prefer Women in Love or The Devils). Here, Russell is clearly highly inspired by the material of 1969 rock album.

The Who and Russell invite a bevy of rock, pop and Hollywood stars to help them tell their irreverent and satiric (but often moving) story of the severely traumatized child who becomes “The New Messiah.”

Eric Clapton: "Eyesight To The Blind"

Hired to babysit the disabled Tommy while his middle class parents try to live a normal life, British actor/pop star Paul Nicholas scores in his cameo as evil bully Cousin Kevin, while perverted Uncle Ernie (perfectly played by The Who’s own Keith Moon) pantomimes the sexual abuse of Tommy in broad comedic strokes.

Tina Turner’s nightmarish turn as the Acid Queen is imposing and impressive, and it’s a shame Miss Turner has not done more film work to date (although she would grace the silver screen again memorably in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome a decade later). And glam rock superstar Elton John seems right at home as the Pinball Wizard dethroned by Tommy, and makes that song his very own.

Tina Turner: "Acid Queen"

Tommy earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Ann-Margret for her showy, dazzling and bombastic performance as Tommy’s mother Nora. Tackling the rock music with gusto, the squeaky clean star of State Fair and Bye Bye Birdie, having already swiveled her hips in sync with Elvis Presley (and almost stealing Viva Las Vegas away from the King) a decade earlier, adds dysfunctional femme fatale to her cinematic persona with this iconic performance.

Elton John: "Pinball Wizard"

Margret’s set piece is stunning and unforgettable: As Pinball King Tommy climbs in popularity all over the airwaves, a guilty and drunken Nora patrols her white-on-white bedroom suite draped in white fur and a silvery white formfitting catsuit, in clutching anxiety, trying to avoid her son’s image on the TV. The all-white bedroom is swathed in immaculate white satin and plush white shag carpet. She throws her bottle of Veuve Cliquot at the TV screen and her false white cleanliness is shattered.

Her downward spiral into desecration and filth is explosively materialized as the room is flooded with the stuff of the TV commercials she’s been viewing, first spewing a river of white soap suds, then unlovely geysers of baked beans and dark chocolate. Margret’s Nora writhes and revels in the dirty mess till finally only a small bunch of white carnations she clutches remains clean and pure.

Ann-Margret: "Champagne"

Another outrageous and stunning tableau is built around the song “Eyesight To The Blind”: Guitar-strumming clergyman Eric Clapton leads the Church of Marilyn Monroe, where multitudes are healed by the doomed sex goddess’s own lethal cocktail of booze and pills, administered by eerie Monroe-masked priestesses.

Critics will note that the movie soundtrack is musically inferior to the raw rich tones and driving rhythms of the original album, sung largely by Daltrey and Townshend. Here, we depend on the charisma of the eclectic cast to put over Townshend’s complex rock compositions, with mixed results.

As Tommy’s stepfather Frank, Oliver Reed (who famously wrestled nude with Alan Bates in Russell’s Women in Love) was obviously hired here for his acting chops rather than his vocal aptitude, and that severely damages the film’s musicality (but adds comic relief). We find out exactly why Oliver Reed’s one song as Bill Sikes was cut from Oliver! as we are subjected to his hoarse, atonal warbling throughout the film, ruining some of Townsend’s most melodic tunes!

Jack Nicholson: "Go To The Mirror"

The faulty, flat and breathy rendition of “Go To The Mirror” by the normally in-control Jack Nicholson (who starred as Ann-Margret’s paramour in Carnal Knowledge) as Tommy’s doctor makes Oliver Reed sound like Frank Sinatra in comparison.

Margret belts with passionate abandon, but her voice is more suited to pop and musical theater rather than hard-driving rock, and her camp stylings and and glam visuals are far more stimulating than the vocals captured on the soundtrack.

"Sally Simpson"

As well, the arrangements themselves lack the grit and depth of the beloved original 1969 record with the addition of ’70s-style synthesizers as well as the obligatory orchestral movie scoring (which nevertheless earned Townshend a Best Score Oscar nod).

There are, of course, notable exceptions: The soundtrack is bolstered by Elton John’s powerhouse performance of “Pinball Wizard” which became the film’s biggest chart-topper, and Tina Turner’s exciting interpretation of “Acid Queen” in her own inimitable style.

Daltrey: "Listening To You"

It’s a striking film debut for The Who’s lead singer Roger Daltrey in the title role. As Tommy, Daltrey is the embodiment of the rock love god of the 1970s, with cascading blond curls tumbling over his bare tanned shoulders as he soulfully implores his audience to “See me/feel me/touch me/heal me.” (The singer’s muscular physique is shown stripped to the waist at every opportunity, sending 1970s teenage hearts aflutter and shooting adolescent hormones into the stratosphere.)

Not just superficially photogenic, Daltrey reveals a strong affinity for the camera and the medium of film as he commands the screen with all his musical talents at his disposal, resulting in a solid performance.

Though his long association with The Who has remained the backbone of his decades-long career, Tommy gave Daltrey a case of the acting bug. In addition to starring in Ken Russell’s next film, another title role in the disastrous Lisztomania, Daltrey has appeared in dozens of non-musical roles in film and television over the years, including The Legacy, Highlander and CSI.

A harbinger of the MTV music video era just ahead on the horizon, Tommy is one of the first films to match up rock music with cinematic imagery and present a complete narrative. A couple of years later, the epic failure-turned-guilty pleasure-cult classic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, also produced by Stigwood, attempted but failed to capitalize on Tommy’s success and capture audiences. Almost two decades after the film, the rock opera also spawned a Tony Award-winning 1993 musical.

This unforgettable film leaves indelible impressions on the mind and continues to influence pop culture to this day.

This is an entry in RealWeegieMidget’s Pop Stars Moonlighting blogathon. It’s been a delight to cover this great film, and I am looking forward to delving into this rich subject matter as seen through the sharp lenses of my fellow movie bloggers!