Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, April 30, 2018

Director Report Card: Adrian Lyne (2002)


8. Unfaithful

By 2002, the so-called erotic thriller genre was no longer taken seriously. It had long since become the domain of late night cable smut and direct-to-video schlock. This did not deter Adrian Lyne. Following the controversial “Lolita,” Lyne next decided to tackle a remake of the 1969 Claude Chabrol film, “The Unfaithful Wife.” A script had been circulating for a few years but its themes of jealousy, sex, and infidelity clearly appealed to the director. Against all odds, Lyne would make an erotic thriller that earned critical praise. Diane Lane's performance would be especially signaled out, eventually earning an Academy Award nomination. Pretty good job from the director of “Flashdance.”

The Sumners are happily married, leaving in the New York countryside. Husband Edward runs a successful business. Wife Constance is a stay-at-home mom, with their rowdy eight year old son Charlie. They are content, it would seem. While shopping for a birthday present for Charlie, Constance has a chance encounter with Paul, a young and attractive French book dealer. After meeting him a few more times, Constance begins to have a passionate affair with Paul. She feels guilty about the infidelity but can't stop seeing him. When Edward discovers the affair, drastic measures are taken.

Supposedly, “Unfaithful's” production was hassled by busy-body producers. They wanted the Sumners to have a sexless, passionless marriage. They wanted a more clean, concise ending. Adrian Lyne and the cast resisted all these demands. What interested Lyne about the story was the random nature of desire. The film goes to great lengths to show that the Sumners are happy and have a healthy sex life. The only flaw is that their marriage is a little routine, a little tired. Constance has no reason to begin an affair with another man. And yet she does. The whims of desire and passion are irrational and unpredictable.

The film never explains the exact reason why Constance has an affair. There's simply a spark between her and Paul, a newness to their relationship that her marriage is lacking. However, her inner life does not go unexamined. She is wracked with guilt. After the first time she sleeps with Paul, there's a powerful scene devoted to the wife sitting on a train. As she remembers the details of the lovemaking, her face contorts in both shame and excitement. She becomes so wrapped up in the affair that she forgets to pick up her child from school one day. She brings home physical reminders, like a drawing Paul makes on her body. It's this horrible guilt, this inner sense of conflict, that causes her to call the affair off. “Unfaithful” explores the complicated emotions at the center of infidelity.

It's easy to see why this material would interest Lyne. “Unfaithful” covers many of the same themes of “9 ½ Weeks,” “Fatal Attraction,” and “Indecent Proposal.” However, unlike the glossy love scenes that characterized his last few films, “Unfaithful's” physical moments return to the director's rawer, earlier days. The sex scenes are graphic. Diane Lane and Olivier Martinez make love in a theater, a dinner restroom, and his apartment many times. The film never slips into the ridiculously over-choreographed humping of “9 ½ Weeks.” Instead, the scenes are plausible, if passionate. Most importantly, “Unfaithful” never looses track of its characters' feelings during the sex. Constance shakes and shudders while Paul explores her body, her feelings complex. When he takes her in a stairway, she is overwhelmed by arousal. It's the best kind of movie sex: Passionate, realistic, but rooted in emotion.

The Claude Chaborl film that inspired “Unfaithful” was primarily told from the perspective of the husband. The wife is the primary protagonist of Lyne's film. However, when “Unfaithful” devotes time to the husband, it leads to one of the film's most memorable scenes. When Edward confronts the man his wife is sleeping with, he is quiet. It's only when he sees a snow globe, a gift he gave to Constance, in the other man's apartment, that he looses it. His breakdown is fantastically depicted. His words quicken to a frenzied pace. Before he even knows what he's done, he fatally wounds the other man. Lyne shows the violence as a quick, irrational act. The fallout – the trickle of blood down Paul's face that then turns into a torrent – is startling in how casually its produced.

It's at this point that “Unfaithful” begins to fulfill the “thriller” part of the “erotic thriller” genre. Its thrills are surprisingly subtle. Edward's attempt to dispose of the body are constantly complicated. Cleaning up the crime scene is a difficult, drawn-out process. He's rear-ended while keeping the dead body in the car's trunk. The cops soon come asking. When a police siren passes outside, he stares out the window in dread. Whether or not Edward is ever in danger of going to jail isn't the real question. It's the guilt hanging over the marriage now, of Constance's affair and Edward's violent act. This is best illustrated in two moments: While burning photographs of her with Paul, Constance imagines things playing out differently, her leaving before she begins the relationship with the man. Later, she discovers a love note Edward left her years ago. This affectionate gesture has a different meaning now, a symbol of what she selfishly threw away. The marriage is what's at stake, if things can ever be the same again.

Diane Lane would receive the majority of the praise for “Unfaithful.” And with good reason. Lane adds a great deal of complexity to her character. Her body language, the way she signals how she's both excited and deeply ashamed of her actions, frequently at the same time, is impressive. Lane is also extremely good at showing how the affair reignites her passion, reminding the viewer why she's doing this to herself and her family. It's a multi-faceted performance and a powerful piece of acting. Lane, it must also be said, is gorgeous in the part, frequently wearing slinky dresses and nightgowns.

Casting Richard Gere as the beleaguered husband is an interesting choice, considering his history as a sex symbol. However, Gere is surprisingly believable as a happy husband with a seemingly ideal life. He's charming, funny, and has great chemistry with Lane. Once the script turns darker, Gere shows himself equally capable. A powerful moment occurs when Lane confronts Gere about the murder, causing him to spit forward his anger and resentment. Yet it's not just his verbal announcements that work. While teaching his son to play piano, Edward gives his wife a meaningful look, which could mean many different things. Gere's performance is thoughtful and focused.

If the central cast has a weak point, it's Olivier Martinez as Paul. It's not that Martinez gives a bad performance. He's charming, handsome, and suits the part. It's easy to see why Constance would be enamored of him. However, how exactly he seduces Constance borders on the cheesy. A scene where he asks to read a passage from a book is really silly. While Gere and Lane get a chance to expand on their characters, Martinez' Paul is mostly just an idea. He's the young, swarthy, French lover that lures away the dutiful housewife. There's not much of an inner life there.

Adrian Lyne does not direct “Unfaithful” in as slick a manner as “Lolita” or “Indecent Proposal.” There is, shockingly, not a single billowing curtain in the movie. The film's more dour direction recalls “Fatal Attraction” and “Jacob's Ladder.” There's a smoky appearance to the film, which was apparently accomplished by literally pumping smoke into the set. The New York setting is always overcast and gloomy, contributing to the movie's downbeat feeling. This is most apparent during the scene where Edward disposes of the dead body, in a junkyard that is so foggy, it looks like an alien world. Lyne does employ some of his trademark, flashier moves. There's a POV shot of Constance's car as she looses control of it in traffic. The murder scene features the same frenzied quality that appeared in his other film. Some of the rough zooms that showed up in “9 ½ Weeks” also appeared during some of the love scenes here, which is a little distracting.

Accompanying “Unfaithful” is a strong soundtrack. Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's score is piano driven, a simple theme that suggests a secretive side. This is soon accompanied by sweeping strings, which are simultaneously romantic and melancholic. The music helps build a tone that is sensual but also tragic, perfectly matching the movie's story and its themes.

“Unfaithful” is one of Adrian Lyne's most beguiling film. Its ending is ambiguous, the exact fate of the Sumners left up for the audience to decide. As a story about secrets and relationships, it plays its emotions equally close to the chest and as big drama. Things are kept low key enough so that it never becomes melodramatic or tawdry. That makes it one of Lyne's more restrained films. And it's all the better for it. “Unfaithful” is a mature and thoughtful drama, about serious topics that doesn't pull punches or talk down to the audiences. If it ends up being Lyne's last film, it's a pretty good note to take things out on. And did I mention it co-stars Dewey from “Malcolm in the Middle?” [Grade: B]



If Adrian Lyne hasn't made another movie since "Unfaithful," it hasn't been for a lack of trying. In 2012, he was attached to the John Grisham adaptation, "The Associate," a secrets-and-sex-filled legal thriller. Later that same year, he became attached to "Back Roads," a story about murder and extramarital affairs set in Pennsylvania mining country. (Both were suppose to star Andrew Garfield.) In 2013, he was suppose to make his comeback with "Deep Water," another tale of secrets, sexy sex, and mysterious deaths. More recently, and most intriguingly, was "Silent Wife." Meant to star Nicole Kidman, the film was to be about a wife that begins plotting her husband's murder after discovering he's having an affair. This was unrelated to the similarly entitled "Silence," a Christmas-set romance/thriller that would've reunited the director with Michael Douglas. That one was apparently still in development fairly recently.

Obviously, none of these movies made it in front of the camera, at least not yet anyway. It's very easy to tell what attracted Lyne to each project and any of them probably would've been pretty cool. I don't know if Lyne will ever direct another film again, considering his difficulty getting projects funded. Not all of his movies have been great and this wasn't the most rewarding retrospective. (Yes, I mostly did this so I could talk about "Jacob's Ladder.") But it was interesting looking for style and meaning behind the frequently glossy erotica Lyne was responsible for. 

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Director Report Card: Adrian Lyne (1997)


7. Lolita

Adrian Lyne always followed his commercial success with risky choices. “Flashdance” beget “9 ½ Weeks,” which was too erotic for American audiences at the time. “Fatal Attraction” was followed by “Jacob's Ladder,” a challenging and thematically complex horror movie. After the financial windfall of “Indecent Proposal,” Lyne would make his most contested film yet. He chose to make a new adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's “Lolita,” one of the most controversial books of all time. Stanley tried back in the sixties. While his version was admirable, censors kept the novel's content off-screen. Lyne tackled the sex to such a degree that his “Lolita” barely played in American theaters. It more-or-less went to straight to Showtime. They wouldn't even release it in Australia. Lyne's “Lolita” has found its defenders over the years but how does it play in 2018?

Humbert Humbert, a English scholar and self-proclaimed intellectual, does not have the sexual appetites of most men. He desires young girls, which he calls nymphets. He pins this love on loosing his childhood sweetheart before they could consummate their relationship. As an adult, he takes a teaching job in suburban New Hampshire. He rooms with Charlotte Haze, a middle age woman desperate for love. Haze has a teenage daughter, Dolores, and Humbert immediately falls for her. The man, though luck and careful planning, soon has a chance to do everything he wants with his little Lolita. But this does not last.

Even as someone who likes some of Adrian Lyne's movies, I'll say it takes a bold filmmaker to follow in the footsteps of Stanley Kubrick. Perhaps luckily, Kubrick's 1962 attempt to film “Lolita” is not his best regarded film. Even Kubrick admitted that the decency standards of the time basically prevented him from making a proper adaptation. A lot had changed since 1962. Lyne's “Lolita” is a very faithful adaptation of Nabokov's book, at least as far as plotting goes. It hits all the major story beats and recreates most of the novel's primary scenes. If surface fidelity is all that counted, Lyne's “Lolita” would be considered the ideal adaption.

However, there's more to adapting a book then just replicating the story. 1997's “Lolita” is about what you'd expect from an adaptation of Nabokov's novel by the director of “9 ½ Weeks.” Lyne, at least partially, made a work of erotica. Lolita, as depicted here, is always dressed like a naughty schoolgirl, usually wearing revealing outfits. The camera often lingers on her body as lasciviously as Humbert does. (It also, I can't help but notice, focuses on her feet a lot. Which is gross.) Sexual situations are openly depicted and Lyne usually plays them for sensual thrills. Despite its reputation, Nabokov's book was never meant to be erotic at all. The merits of adapting “Lolita” as a straight-up work of erotica are very, very questionable indeed.

Yet Lyne's “Lolita” does, arguably, treat the facts of the case a little more fairly than Kubrick's version did. Kubrick's film portrayed all the events from Humbert's perspective. Either because of the censorship or the writing, the fact that Dolores Haze is being abused by a grown man was never really brought up. Between glossy sex scenes, Lyne's film pauses to consider this. After one session of making love, there's a shot of Lo lying on the bed, crying her eyes out, while Humbert watches from the doorway, looking guilty. During the only bit of actual female nudity in the film – provided by a body double – Lolita flees Humbert's bed and he has to fight to hold her there. Though often pushed to the sidelines, Lyne's film at least acknowledges that this is the story of an adult using his power to abuse a child.

Forced to cut the sexual elements, Kubrick's “Lolita” focused mostly on Nabokov's black comedy. Many have accused Lyne's version of overcompensating and cutting the humor entirely. This isn't entirely fair. His “Lolita” is actually quite funny at times. Humbert's utter disregard for Dolores' mother, and the ways he tricks her into never touching him, generates some hearty laughs. There's definitely some dark humor to a man lusting so obviously after a woman's daughter and her complete inability to recognize it. Lyne even sneaks in some absurdist and almost slapstick humor during Humbert's climatic fight with Claire Quiltley. Humor is not the film's primary goal but it's definitely part of its DNA.

Adrian Lyne's decision to shoot “Lolita” like, well, an Adrian Lyne movie may be questionable. However, I'd say he arguably captures an important and overlooked element of the book. The film is primarily characterized by an intense sadness and impossible longing. A girl's innocence is destroyed. Humbert, in his own way, is also destroyed by his obsession. This is a tragic story, where everyone makes bad decisions and nobody is spared a cruel fate. Humbert is not just after young girls because he's a pervert. He longs for a simple, childish love that is impossible to recapture. A sympathetic portrayal of an active child rapist, who only becomes repentant at the very end after he's already fucked up the girl's life, is obviously one of the reasons why “Lolita,” in any form, is such a controversial story. But I'd say the movie does an okay job with that.

James Mason was nearly perfect as Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick's “Lolita.” I'd say that Jeremy Irons is the perfect Humbert Humbert for Lyne's “Lolita.” Irons has exactly the kind of erudite, stuffy, and conceited quality that the literary Humbert has. In voiceover narration, he beautifully recites some of Nabokov's intoxicating prose. Irons' poise and self-control also brings humor to the film, as he's forced to interact with a rowdy teen girl and her emotionally unstable mother. Irons gives Humbert such a calculated veneer of control that, when it cracks up, the result is powerful. Irons also gets that this is ultimately a tragic story, his love-lost eyes becoming sadder and sadder as the film goes on.

A then unknown Dominique Swain was chosen to star as Lolita. Putting aside the sleazy way the camera lavishes over her teenage body – Swain was fifteen at the time, which is still older than the character was in the book – Swain captures Nabokov's Lolita accurately. She is curious about sex, yes. She can be manipulative at times. However, Swain's Dolores is mostly a snotty teenage girl. She eats too many sweets, reads too many comic books. She's a bad liar. She doesn't bathe regularly enough. She snipes at her mother and Humbert. She is wounded by the abuse she suffers. Swain's humanistic approach helps ground this sometimes too flowery “Lolita.”

The supporting cast is strong as well. In Kubrick's film, Shelly Winters approached Charlotte Haze as a broad act of exaggerated comedy. Melanie Griffith plays the role more realistically. Dolores' mother is still a buffoonish character, utterly unable to recognize Humbert's true motivations. Yet Griffith brings a broken quality to her as well, which becomes more apparent as the character approaches her inevitable fate. Frank Langella steps into Peter Sellers' shoes to play Clare Quilty, Humbert's rival and Lolita's second defiler. Langella's Quilty is deprived, deviant, and vulgar. He's also very nervous and conniving, Langella bringing some jangly humor to the role.

Nabokov's “Lolita” is a story of very big emotions, though often delivered under black humor. Lyne's direction mostly seeks to replicate the emotions and not so much the other underpinnings. Lyne creates a handsome film, that's as lovely and beautifully shot as Nabokov's book was written. However, his approach frequently veers towards the melodramatic. A nightmare Humbert has, of laughing detectives in Dick Tracy masks, is shot in a swirling, seasick manner. The camera goes completely nuts and jittery when Humbert's car gets a flat tire. Quilty's murder is executed in a similarly overblown fashion. The film usually looks very nice but some of the director's choice to replicate the protagonist's nervous mental state so totally is ultimately distracting.

A serious factor in favor of Lyne's “Lolita” is its score. The legendary Ennio Morricone was called on to score the film. Morricone made the decision to write a straight-up romantic score. Which might point to a big flaw in the film's approach to the material. But it's a really, really pretty score. Sweeping strings have an undercurrent of melancholy to them, pointing to both the sadness and sensual longing the film is built upon. Low percussion and tapping piano suggests the dread of the situation and the childishness of the title character. Clare Quity is even given an ominous theme, full of nervously plucked strings, that wouldn't sound out of place in one of Morricone's spaghetti western scores. It's one of the most gorgeous scores to come out of a legendary career.

Making an adaption of “Lolita” in the modern day would be very difficult. (Though no less difficult than its probably always been.) We live in a world more aware and critical of the sexualization of young girls than ever before. So it's likely that Lyne's film will be the last cinematic take on the material will ever get. It does not stand up to Nabokov's book. So much of the novel's brilliance is wrapped up in its lovingly poetic prose, which could never be replicated by a film. If you mashed the two adaptations together, you'd probably get the best movie that could be made of “Lolita.” Lyne's film is problematic at times but well done, beautifully acted, and usually strikes the right emotional core. In the end, its pros does outranks its cons. [Grade: B+]

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Director Report Card: Adrian Lyne (1993)


6. Indecent Proposal
 
With his fifth motion picture, Adrian Lyne went high. “Jacob's Ladder” was a philosophical horror movie, that weaved in themes of religious damnation and spiritual fulfillment into an especially nightmarish film. Audiences weren't crazy about it. I have no idea if Lyne made a deliberate decision following the film's just-okay box office performance. Maybe he was genuinely passionate about adapting Jack Engelhard's trashy romance novel. But it's easy to imagine Lyne decided he'd give the people more of the same, more of the “erotic thrillers” that had led him to success before. If that was the case, it worked. “Indecent Proposal” would become a massive box office success and a genuine pop culture phenomenon in 1993. Every movie Lyne made from this point on is at least partially about sex.

Diana and David were high school sweethearts. They married shortly after graduating. Their love is a blissful one. However, money is hard to come by. David's dream of becoming an architect is a difficult to fulfill. Desperate for cash, the Murphys head to Las Vegas. They win most of the money they need just to end up loosing it the next day. That's when Diana catches the eye of John Gage, a handsome and dashing millionaire. Gage presents the happy couple with a proposal – you could even say an indecent proposal. If Diana spends one night with him, in his bed, he will write the couple a check for a million dollars. The offer will challenge the Murphys' marriage.

There's a lot to be said about “Indecent Proposal's” premise. It is, however, undeniably a catchy concept. The story asks the age old question of what would you pick, given the chance: Love or money? It's a story that has sex, romance, intrigue, and a dashing billionaire. I know my dad, in one of his more dumb-ass moods, asked my mom what she would do in this situation. I think every couple in the country at the time did the same thing. In one scene, the happy couple's lawyer hears about the deal. He's talking to a pair of successful Hollywood screenwriters at the time. It's easy to imagine the writers immediately rushing off and pitching a movie about that very premise.

As catchy as the film's premise is, it's also undeniably sexist. “Indecent Proposal's” entire concept hinges on a husband being willing to trade his wife for money. As if she's property or something. Though there's much debate in the film about the choice being a mutual decision, or Diana doing it for the good of their marriage, she never seems disgusted by the offer. She's never aghast at the idea of her husband and another man treating her as an object that has a price tag. Instead of treating John Gage as a disgusting pig who only values a woman as another thing to own, Diana is slowly won over by him. The film's tension hangs on which guy she'll choose. Not that her husband, who comes off as jealous and unreasonably preoccupied with sex, is that much better of a choice.

Not only is the premise pretty gross, it's also not really enough to sustain a feature length motion picture. It takes about a half-hour for Diane and David to meet Gage. It doesn't take very long for him to make his titular proposal. Before the first hour is up, the decision is made, the wife has slept with the millionaire, and the husband has been made a cuckold. For all the years I had heard about this movie, I just assumed the debate over what to do occupied most of the movie. The central tension is resolved pretty early on, leaving the film to spin its wheel to fill the rest of the two hour long run time. I have no idea how Engelhard filled an entire novel with it.

Despite what I had heard, “Indecent Proposal” is less about sex than I expected. The film is, in fact, a rather mopey romantic melodrama. John Gage presents himself as a sad boy at heart, a millionaire who can buy everything except... Love. The film's climatic scene, where Gage tells Diane that she's just his latest million dollar conquest, isn't meant to reveal him as the kind of scumbag who would literally buy a woman. Instead, he lets her go because he really does love her. David, meanwhile, spends the entire second half of the movie, moping in his empty apartment. It's all rather overwrought and incredibly histrionic.

By 1993, Adrian Lyne knew how to make a slick looking movie. Which “Indecent Proposal” definitely is. Lyne utilizes some of the same tricks he uses in “Jacob's Ladder.” While in the casino, he assumes the perspective of a spinning roulette wheel. Not long afterwards, we get a close-up of craps dice flying across the table in slow motion. He fills the movie full of images like a widescreen ocean vistas, painted gold by the setting sun overhead. Or the blinding lights of the casino blurring around David as he runs back towards Gage's hotel room. Visually speaking, “Indecent Proposal” is exactly as melodramatic as is its script. I imagine Lyne was all too aware of that.

In fact, the movie even seems to occasionally nod that it knows exactly how ridiculous this material is. There are odd burst of goofy, comic relief in the film. Oliver Platt's character, the Murphy's lawyer, is a frequent source of humor. He says the wrong things at the wrong times and lives in a ridiculous apartment. At one point, he takes David to dinner at a Vegas show which includes giant, talking, robotic trees and Buddai statues. A yawning hippo toy becomes a pivotal symbol of... something. As if to signal that he knows this stuff is very silly, Lyne also includes completely inexplicable cameos from comedic figures like Billy Connelly and Rip Taylor.

As I said, there's way less sex in “Indecent Proposal” than I expected. We never actually see Diana and John Gage consummate their million dollar deal. The sexy sex happens between a kiss and a fade-to-black. However, we do see the Murphys in the throes of passion several times. One especially protracted scenes occurs on the kitchen floor, make-up sex after an argument. Later, the two couple in a hotel bedroom, with all the billowing curtains, blue color-coding, and cross-fades you'd expect from a nineties erotic thriller. Lyne knows how to meet expectations for this stuff. It is, admittedly, sexier than anything in “9 ½ Weeks.” I'll give it that.

“Indecent Proposal” is built around three central characters. How do these performances fare? The script does not do Woody Harrelson any favors. David is a shockingly inactive protagonist. He gives in to the millionaire's ideas very quickly. He spends most of the movie pining for his wife and being jealous over what she's done. There's even a pretty silly subplot where he teaches an architecture class. Harrelson is entirely earnest though, bringing a lot of down-to-earth charm to his performance. It nearly saves a shockingly underwritten part.

Demi Moore's performance in “Indecent Proposal” was pretty harshly criticized upon the film's release. It is not Moore that fails the film but the screenplay. Diana's inner life is never explored. Her decision to sleep with Gage for the money is given the briefest of justification. The shift she undergoes, from hating the millionaire to possibly being in love with him, happens entirely off-screen. No explanation is never given for her change of heart. So Moore isn't given very much to work with. She has a few funny scenes with Harrelson. Mostly, she's left to look gorgeous and deliver limply written dialogue.

Rounding out the main trio is Robert Redford as John Gage. Casting Redford in the part was a very deliberate move: Old enough to be potentially off-putting to the young wife but still sexually attractive enough that you can imagine her being excited by him. Redford turns on the charm whenever he's on-screen. He flashes that famous smile and never acts greasy or sleazy. I guess that works considering what happens but seems totally at odds with the story's events. Even an actor as capable as Redford is unable to sell any emotion in the part. Gage is as undefined as any other character in the film.

Lyne's “Flashdance” and “Fatal Attraction” were both huge hits. Each spawned quite a few parodies and homages. “Indecent Proposal” would similarly be meet with goofs and jokey tributes. In fact, riffs on the concept would become a stock plot for sitcoms around the time. While Lyne's other features rise above their status as pop culture touchstones, even if only a little, “Indecent Proposal” ultimately has very little to offer. It's a silly movie with an overblown execution and a very uninspiring screenplay. All the billowing curtains in the world couldn't make a script this thin into a good movie. [Grade: C]

Friday, April 27, 2018

Director Report Card: Adrian Lyne (1990)


5. Jacob’s Ladder

After the massive commercial success of “Fatal Attraction,” Adrian Lyne could make any movie he wanted. After toying with “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” a notoriously troubled project, he moved on to Bruce Joel Rubin's screenplay “Jacob's Ladder.” Rubin's script had been circulating in Hollywood since the early eighties. Several filmmakers loved it but no studio was willing to finance the project. After Lyne came on-board, the production moved over to Carolco Pictures and the movie finally got made. Upon release in 1990, “Jacob's Ladder” received mixed reviews and middling box office. In the years since, it's been recognized as one of the best horror films of the decades.

Jacob Singer remembers Vietnam. Deployed in 1971, he was part of an infantry that saw and experienced strange behavior while in the Mekong Delta. In the time following the war, he would marry and father several children. The marriage ended when their youngest child was killed by an out-of-control car. But all of that was years ago. Jacob is now living in New York with his girlfriend, Jezebel, and working at the post office. He begins to experience strange visions of demonic figures and wakes up in a different life. Attempts to reconnect with his war friends and figure out what happened in Vietnam only further drives Jacob into hell.

Though “Fatal Attraction” bordered the horror genre, “Jacob's Ladder” shows Adrian Lyne making a full-blown horror picture. The movie features three impressive sequences that can stand among the decade's scariest movie moments. One of the movie's earliest scenes begins this trend. Jacob awakens aboard a subway train. He sees a strange woman with a scarf around her head, who stares at him in an off-putting manner. A sleeping homeless man has his face covered, as if he's hiding something. This sets up a vague sense of unease, of things that look like people but aren't people. This continues during the sequence's climax, where Jacob wanders into a very spooky subway tunnel, is nearly hit by a train, and spots entities in the window that look like misshapen humans. Right away, there's a nightmarish sense of unreality and an underlying disquiet to “Jacob's Ladder.”

That sense of wrongness is further elaborated on when Jacob and his girlfriend are at a party. The jovial atmosphere is already undone by Jacob's clear discomfort at watching his girlfriend dance with another man. The scene next includes things that are creepy but ostensibly in the realm of reality: A decomposing animal head in the fridge, a black bird leaping suddenly from its cage. It's no mistake that the bird escapes its cage when things really start to turn disturbing. These omens of death and foreboding lead us to a horrific moment that suggests sexual violence, bodily discomfort, and demonic possession all at once. We never clearly see the creature that violates Jezebel, only flailing appendages that could be wings, tails, or horns. The subtle way Lyne slowly ups the horrific content makes it seem like the viewer is slipping into a nightmare or a hallucinogenic episode. Which is exactly what the protagonist is experiencing.

A similar tactic, a repetitive upping of the stakes, is employed in the film's most frightening sequence. As Jacob is wheeled into a hospital, defenseless and strapped to a gurney, the hospital around him becomes more and more disturbing. It starts out as merely dark, dirty, and disorganized. Raving inmates, self-harming and catatonic, are followed by the deformed and the demonic. And then the gurney rolls over bloody body parts on the floor. Lyne's camera spins around and around, following Jacob's perspective, as he sees his surroundings slide further into hell. The music is frantic and the imagery is nightmarish, combining to create a truly unnerving spectacle of horror.

“Jacob's Ladder” is not merely a cavalcade of creepy scenes though. The film was written in the early eighties and is partially set in the seventies. This was a time when the United States was still grappling with the traumatic aftereffects of the Vietnam War. Jacob is haunted throughout by memories of the war. Lyne will seamlessly cut from his starring eyes to a helicopter passing over a jungle. His dreams are filled with red-tinted images of soldiers marching through the underbrush. Jacob soon discovers that all his war buddies are having similarly disturbing visions. The spectre of PTSD, and the psychic scars inflicted on young men by a horrific war, forms the background of “Jacob's Ladder's” hellish visions.

However, the movie takes that mission a little too literally during an odd subplot. The veterans threaten the government with a class action lawsuit. Each one is talked out of it. Later, near the movie's end, we discover that the entire unit was drugged up with an ultra-powerful strain of LCD that created intensely violent tendencies. On one hand, this feeds into the film's themes about the scars of the sixties – war, drugs, Nixon who puts in a blink-and-miss-it cameo – still haunting people into the nineties. Yet the addition of a government conspiracy into a largely philosophical plot is a questionable one. It's the film's major flaw and feels like a rushed attempt to justify a dream-like narrative.

Because the horrors of “Jacob's Ladder” are ultimately not those of a war or a shadowy government. It's greatest agony is of a life unlived. An early scene has Jacob coming upon a photograph of his dead son and ex-wife. Reminders of these failures pepper the film, like a talk with his chiropractor or a shot of a wrecked bicycle. During one of the film's saddest sequences, he awakens from a fever into a world where his son still lives and he's still married. This is a home he might have had, if only things had been different. Regrets weigh heavily on the movie, portraying a mind haunted by literal demons but also mistakes, loss, and the always unfulfilled question of what might have been.

The title of “Jacob's Ladder” refers to both the name of the experimental drug in its backstory as well as the Biblical story of a ladder connecting heaven and Earth. It's one of many religious references layered throughout the story. None too subtly, upon awakening in the subway in the second scene, Jacob sees the word “HELL” written on a sign. His girlfriend, who dismisses religion early on, is named Jezebel. His dead son is named Gabriel. Jacob's feverishly staring eyes bring to mind catatonia, a religious awe, and a corpse. Inspired by Buddhist spiritualism and Dante's “Inferno,” the film is most prominently about leaving behind the pain and burdens of life in order to achieve peace. No wonder the story ends with Jacob ascending a literal stairway to heaven. The film's “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”-inspired ending is not just a cheap twist. It ties in completely with the story's themes, building towards this conclusion all along.

Director Lyne also employs willful anachronisms, making the story's specific time and place difficult to pin down. The dream like story bends around our protagonist, whose home and profession changes several time. These are two examples of how Lyne's skills have grown. “Jacob's Ladder” is his best directed movie yet. Lyne regarded New York City as a cultural artifact in “9 ½ Weeks” and “Fatal Attraction.” The visual approach here, which drapes the city in sickly browns and grays, turns the city into hell on Earth. Subterranean tunnels, far-off horizons, dingy bridges, and crowded apartment buildings are what characterizes Jacob Singer's waking world. Lyne's directorial approach, which becomes more frenzied during the nightmarish scenes, solidifies “Jacob's Ladder” status as a great film.

In a film as phantasmagorical as “Jacob's Ladder,” it's important to have a protagonist that can center an audience. Luckily, “Jacob's Ladder” has Tim Robbins. Robbins' everyman qualities are used fantastically here. Robbins' soft facial expressions and unimposing body language immediately paint Jacob singer as a normal guy, in far over his head. The audience latches onto him quickly, especially in the quiet scenes at home. Which is a good idea, since the film doesn't wait long to throw him into nightmarish situations. Robbins weeps, screams, and freaks out in every direction but never looses sight of the story's heart.

A strong overall cast gives Robbins plenty of support. Elizabeth Pena is excellent as Jezebel. She projects a likable, sensual attitude yet also makes it clear that she cares for her boyfriend. At the same time, Pena doesn't back away when the script makes her character a figure of fear or unease.  Danny Aiello is also excellent as Louis, Robbins' chiropractor and source of wisdom. Numerous recognizable faces, a bit before they became names, appear throughout the cast. Ving Rhames appears as one of Jacob's war buddies. An uncredited Macaulay Culkin, right before “Home Alone” made him a star, appears as Gabe, Singer's ill-fated son. Most surprising as small roles from Jason Alexander and Lewis Black, appearing as a sleazy lawyer and a doctor respectively.

Initial reactions to “Jacob's Ladder” were mixed. Test audiences, exposed to a longer and more harrowing cut of the film, were hostile. The film only broke even at the box office. Critics did not embrace the film immediately. In time, “Jacob's Ladder” would prove influential. His method of blurry-faced demons, heads spasmodically shaking at super speed, would be emulated by many lesser horror films and music videos. The film would prove a big influence on the “Silent Hill” video game series. Now, a loose remake is scheduled to come out next year. Despite the imitators, “Jacob's Ladder” has loss none of its startling power and graceful strength. It remains Adrian Lyne's best film. [Grade: A]

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Director Report Card: Adrian Lyne (1987)


4. Fatal Attraction

Adrian Lyne followed up the surprisingly successful “Flashdance” with “9 ½ Weeks,” which failed at the American box office. At some point afterwards, he saw the 1980 short film “Diversion.” After meeting with James Deardon, the short's writer and director, Lyne decided a feature adaptation would be his next movie. The resulting film, “Fatal Attraction,” would make up for the failure of “9 ½ Weeks” in a big way. “Fatal Attraction” would become the second highest grossing film of the year in America and was even bigger internationally. The movie would be nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Moreover, it would become the most hotly discussed and debated movie of the year. Thirty-one years later, “Fatal Attraction” remains an iconic and respected motion picture.

Dan Gallagher has a good life. He's married to Beth, his beautiful wife, and the two have a wonderful young daughter. He's a widely successful lawyer. The two have a dog and a Manhattan apartment, though they're planing to move to the mainland. However, Dan still feels the need to stray. He meets Alex Forrest at a work party. They are immediately attracted to each other. During a weekend when he has the apartment to himself, the two hook up. However, Alex won't leave him alone after that. She is not satisfied with being an affair. She soon makes moves to force herself into Dan's life. When that doesn't work, she decides she's going to ruin his life instead.

“Fatal Attraction” has most commonly been read as a cautionary tale. To often, that message has been – if you'll excuse the pun – boiled down to “don't stick your dick in crazy.” However, I think “Fatal Attraction” is equally arguing for personal responsibility. The movie was released the same year as Michael Douglas' Oscar-winning turn in “Wall Street.” His character similarly has it made, a successful lawyer with a beautiful wife and child. He thinks he can get away with anything, namely sleeping with a strange woman. He soon learns that he can't, that even a macho master of the universe cannot avoid repercussion. That he handles Alex's clear instability so poorly, to the point that his wife and child become endangered, further makes everything bad that happens in “Fatal Attraction” his fault. This led to “Fatal Attraction” also being read as an AIDS-era fable about how sex can have deadly consequences.

“Fatal Attraction” is a natural evolution of “9 ½ Weeks” in some ways. The film begins with a heavy degree of eroticism. Dan and Alex's affair begins with meaningful glances at a party. This quickly escalates to a hot and heavy love making scene, the two banging over a steaming sink before moving into the bedroom. Later, she goes down on him while they ride an elevator. Their lovemaking is sweaty and intense, much the same as the graphic humping in Lyne's previous film. Yet even in these early scenes, Lyne suggests there's something wrong. The roughness of their first time together feels like a violation of Dan's home life. This begins a tense atmosphere that continues to build throughout “Fatal Attraction.” The movie slowly escalates from erotica to a proper thriller.

Adrian Lyne's interest in location continues in “Fatal Attraction.” The movie is mostly set in New York City which is not highlighted as much as the cities in “Flashdance” or “Foxes,” save for a scene in Central Park. Instead, Lyne focuses more on how the settings reflect on the characters. The Gallagher family home is painted in white. In the first scene, the entire family is introduced wearing white. When a rabbit is brought into the household, its white too. These pure colors stand in contrast to Alex's apartment. The elevator leading up to is industrial, made of harsh black and gray metal. This separation is made clearer when Alex tracks down Dan at his new home, seeing the warmth of the family's happy home while she stands in the darkness outside, isolated and alone.

The outrageous direction Lyne frequently displayed in his last two movies manifests in a different way here. As Alex becomes more dangerous, Lyne's direction becomes more intense. The camera takes Dan's perspective when he discovers Alex is in his home, letting the audience feel his terror. A first person POV is also assumed when Beth rushes to rescue her child, which eventually ends with her wrecking her car. The camera suddenly reveals Alex watching Dan at work from a distance, appearing through the cracks of an elevator. Lyne's direction is at its most intense during the infamous “bunny boiling” moment. There is a rough crash-zoom as the pot lid is pulled off, as the dead rabbit is revealed. By the time Alex is attacking Dan with a butcher knife, “Fatal Attraction” feels like a proper horror movie.

Following “Fatal Attraction,” Michael Douglas would star in several other “erotic thrillers.” However, his characters in “Basic Instinct” and “Disclosure” were forgiven for their macho bullshit a little more easily. Dan Gallagher, on the other hand, is a man who develops some regrets. A weekend of fun, consequence-free sex quickly becomes anything but. As Alex becomes more and more dangerous, Dan refuses to admit the truth to his wife. It's only after his stalker has actually enter their home that he fesses up. Somewhere around the same time, he physically attacks Alex. Unlike his later, feckless characters, Douglas shows that Dan feels bad about his actions. Yet Dan Gallagher is still a scumbag, a man who thinks he can get away with anything.

Much of the praise for “Fatal Attraction” would be reserved for Glen Close. As Alex Forrest, she is a force of nature. From her first scene, she exhibits a sensual energy around Dan. This white hot attraction boils over when the two have sex. However, Forrest quickly exhibits unnerving behavior. Close weeps and breaks down when Dan tries to leave. Afterwards, she slashes her own wrists. She glares angrily at a telephone when he won't answer her calls. She stares with an intense hatred at the life she wishes she could have. As intense and frightening as Close can be in the part, she never looses sight of Alex's humanity. She is a person, she has been wrong, and she deserves retribution. Or, at least, that's how Close plays it.

As much as “Fatal Attraction” is a film demanding that cocksure lotharios take responsibilities for their actions, it's also a more conservative horror movie about the nuclear family being threatened. Dan's life with his wife and daughter is idyllic. The kid is adorable. They have parties with rich, colorful friends. Alex, initially, is more preoccupied with hurting Dan's peaceful existence than the man himself. She targets his child. Eventually, even after Dan physically attacks her, she goes after his wife. The audience is meant to emphasize with this man, woman, their 1.5 children, and the nice suburban home they eventually buy. His indiscretions threaten this life. However, the insistence that this life is maintained is ultimately the most important thing, the film says. This need to defend the suburban family at all costs is really hammered home with the movie's final shot, a slow zoom on a family photo of the Gallaghers during happier times.

This attitude is most apparent in the movie's ending. It's well known that “Fatal Attraction,” as initially planned, ended differently. Originally, Alex commits suicide by slashing her throat with a knife Dan touched, making it look like he murdered her. He goes to prison for her death and is only saved at the last minute. Test audiences were not satisfied with this conclusion. So a more outlandish ending was filmed. Its in this new ending that “Fatal Attraction” truly becomes a horror movie. There's a frenzied butcher knife attack, burst of gore, and a seemingly dispatched attacker leaping back to life. It's counter-intuitive to the rest of the movie's message, features a sloppily set-up deus ex machina conclusion, and creates at least one plot hole. (How did Alex get into the house so easily?)

It's also, it must be said, a pretty well done sequence. Lyne's intense direction only grows more manic during this scene. A slowly overflowing bathtub and Alex picking at her own skin with a knife ratchets things up. Alex and Dan's fight is filmed in close quarters. We see limbs lashing out, faces becoming bloodied. This then leads to a sudden stillness before one more jump scare. I'm not quite sure how test audiences missed that Dan is as much the movie's bad guy as Alex is. But that crowd-pleasing ending does conclude the film on a bang.

Glenn Close was not the only actress in the film to receive an Academy Award nomination. Anne Archer was also nominated for her role as Beth Gallagher, the beleaguered wife. Archer plays the character as mostly clueless throughout, happy to live her normal life and totally unaware of her husband's infidelity. It's only after he reveals the truth that she explodes with righteous indignation. That's when Archer comes into her own as a performer, raging at Douglas' bullshit. The supporting cast also features a surprise appearance from Fred Gwynthe. Herman Munster showing up in the movie is kind of random but always appreciated.

“Fatal Attraction's” place in pop culture history is secure. The term “bunny boiler” has entered the vernacular for any clinging, unstable woman. Single lines of dialogue, such as “I'm not going to be ignored, Dan,” became famous and are still easily recognized. Though the movie's mixed politics have not aged well, “Fatal Attraction” is still hugely effective as a thriller. The performances and direction combine to make a tense experience. [Grade: B+]

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Director Report Card: Adrian Lyne (1986)


3. Nine ½ Weeks

Following the surprise success of “Flashdance,” I imagine Adrian Lyne had his pick of projects. I know he was offered “Starman” around this time and many other films, I bet. What he chose for his next movie was “Nine ½ Weeks.” The source material, an autobiographical novel by Ingeborg Day, was a rough and unflinching depiction of a sadomasochistic relationship that quickly became abusive. Lyne would transform this into a movie that would largely change the direction of his career. With one exception, every film Lyne made after this point concerned itself with sex and relationships, frequently veering in the direction of erotica. The question to ask is if this was a positive change or not.

The film follows Elizabeth, a recently divorced woman who works at an art gallery in SoHo, Manhattan. Through a chance encounter at a marketplace, she meets rich Wall Street broker John Gray. She immediately feels attracted to him. Soon, she agrees to go out on a date with him. Their first date concludes with him blindfolding her and teasing her with an ice cube. He plies her with expensive gifts while his sexual fantasies become more extreme and controlling. Elizabeth finds herself increasingly obsessed and disturbed with the demands John asks of her.

After watching “9½ Weeks,” I wasn't surprised to learn that it was based on a fact-based memoir. The movie is almost plotless. There's very little drive to the story. The narrative is largely shapeless. The pacing listlessly marches from one episode to the next. Just like real life, I suppose. What makes up most of '9½ Weeks” are John and Elizabeth's antics in the bedroom. It's a film largely devoted to their sexual adventures. To the point that, whenever the movie goes outside their lovemaking, you can feel the filmmaker's interest waning. It's hard to imagine these characters lives existing outside of their sexual misadventures.

Making a movie all about sex is fine. It is, after all, one of the most common human experiences. However, “9½ Weeks” doesn't seem very interested in exploring the mechanics of desire. What exactly draws Elizabeth to John is never stated. He mysteriously floats into her life and she is drawn to him, for fuzzily described reasons. What the two have in common or why they are attracted to one another is left vague. Occasionally, it seems like “9½ Weeks” may probe darker themes about the limits of desire. John's demands sometimes frighten Elizabeth. Such as when he calls her and accuses her of snooping in his apartment. Or when he almost whips her with a belt, when she refuses to crawl across the floor to him. Other times, however, she goes right along with his games without a problem. This back and forth is never explored, Elizabeth's interior thoughts and own sexual desires largely remaining a mystery.

Mostly, “9½ Weeks” is a prototypical example of the “erotic thriller” genre. Like many of the films that would haunt late night Cinemax in the nineties and 2000s, to the delight of insomniac masturbaters everywhere, the film is preoccupied with elaborate fuckery. John and Elizabeth tease, play, and couple in increasingly unlikely ways. The infamous (and, admittedly, relatively effective) ice cube sequence is a precursor to a later scene, where John hand-feeds Elizabeth various foodstuffs. Dripping milk, spurting Perrier, and goopy honey stand in for more pornographic fluids. Soon, the two are banging on tables and in clock towers, bouncily and enthusiastically. This peaks during a frankly ridiculous love scene in a rain-choked alleyway, where the two cycle through a dozen positions in the cramped area. That seems more awkward and uncomfortable than erotic.

As in “Flashdance,” “9½ Weeks” shows Adrian Lynn struggling to balance his two tendencies as a director. The film continues the director's fascination with American cities. After focusing on Californian suburbs in “Foxes” and Pittsburgh in “Flashdance,” Lynn looks at Manhattan here. Some of the film's best scenes has Lynn's turning his camera on the crowded streets of SoHo. Elizabeth looks at doodads at a street market. She watches a Reggae band with John. Later, the two goof around in the streets, tossing a hat into the wind. These scenes, due to Lyne's naturalistic direction, end up feeling more intimate than most of the movie's love scenes.

However, these more realistic moments are shoved between ridiculously over-directed sequences.  One laughably overwrought moment involves Elizabeth masturbating while clicking through a slideshow of various paintings. A mildly clever idea – the shutter speed increasing as she reaches climax – is pushed into laughable territory by the use of rough zooms and harsh editing. That odd choice crops up a few other times as well, near the end. But no moment in “9 ½ Weeks” is more over-directed than the striptease Elizabeth performs for John, set to “You Can Leave Your Hat.” The scene goes on for far too long, as Kim Basinger or her body double contorts in front of mood lighting, the camera randomly cutting away to a laughing Mickey Rourke.

These overblown moments of attempted eroticism dominate the film. They nearly push out the more interesting moments. A completely unresolved subplot involves a painter client of Elizabeth, an elderly and eccentric artist that appears to be developing dementia. There's a oddly still and moody scene of Basinger visiting the man at his home. Another effective moment is when Gray has Elizabeth dress up as a man. This gender-bending scene escalates into the two getting into a fight with some tough guys. It's probably the most thrilling scene in the film, one of the few times when there actually appears to be some stakes to the plot.

If “9 ½ Weeks” has anything really going for it, it's two solid lead performances. This is Kim Basinger's first lead in a theatrically released movie. Lyne supposedly used manipulative tactics to get a stronger performance out of Basinger, isolating her from her co-stars and deliberately alienating her. Whether or not you agree with that approach, it seemed to have worked. Basinger does well in “9 ½ Weeks.” Even if the script refuses to expounds on Elizabeth's feelings, Basinger shows the struggle and internal conflict on her face. Her body language conveys the mixture of humiliation and excitement she feels. Basinger agreed with this assessment, saying this was the first time she really felt like an actor.

“9 ½ Weeks” was also made during that early eighties golden period where Mickey Rourke was actually considered a sex symbol. John Gray is a good fit for the actor, who combines handsome good looks with an off-putting dark energy. No matter how smoldering or sexy Gray may be, Rourke always adds an intense and unhinged glare under his eyes. It's an approach that works for the character, who is increasingly revealed as a remorseless manipulator. That status comes into sharp focus with Gray's pathetic attempt to humanize himself to Elizabeth at the end.

Soundtrack wise, it still feels like Adrian Lyne is in “Flashdance” land. “9 ½ Weeks” opens with its titles on a black screen, scored to Al Green's haunting “Love and Happiness.” That effective mood is immediately shattered by the cheesy, eighties pop song that plays over the rest of the opening credits. Some songs are used better than others. “This City Never Sleeps” by the Eurythmics has enough simmering energy to it to fit Elizabeth's self-love. Bryan Ferry's “Slave to Love,” on the other hand, seems like a rather literal choice for a montage depicting Elizabeth's increasing dependency on Gray. The film's two theme songs, “I Do What I Do” and “Let It Go,” are both big slices of stinky eighties synth cheese. Jack Nitzsche's electronic score has its moments.

Whatever you think about its quality, “9½ Weeks” would prove to be an influential film in its way. The movie would initially flop in American theaters. A more uncut version would be a hit overseas before becoming very popular on video. B-movie star turned screenwriter Zalman King would spin the film's success into a mini-empire of softcore smut. In addition to a Mickey Rourke-starring sequel and a Rourke-less prequel, King would produce or direct countless other horny motion pictures. Such as “Two Moon Junction,” “Wild Orchid” (also starring Rourke) and its sequel, and long-running softcore TV series “Red Shoe Diaries.” And if you're really wondering how far “9 ½ Weeks'” reach is, look no further than mommy porn phenomenon “50 Shades of Grey.” That hugely popular franchise has a nearly identically named male lead and a very similar premise.

Taken on its own, “9 ½ Weeks” didn't do much for me. Even assessed strictly for its puerile value, I found the movie lacking. Its sex scenes are more laughable than arousing. While the performances are decent, an incredibly thin screenplay and distractedly flashy direction detracts from the movie's positive elements. The movie's place in the history, and the huge influence it would have on future wankable cinema, is ultimately more interesting than its actual content. Now “9 ½ Weeks” is a relic from the days when Mickey Rourke was a sex symbol and a simple blindfold was considered the kinkiest bedroom accessory. [Grade: C]

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Director Report Card: Adrian Lyne (1983)


2. Flashdance

When “Flashdance” came out in 1983, there were few expectations for it. The film had no major stars. The reviews were largely negative. However, the movie connected with audiences. Partially propelled by a hit soundtrack, it quickly becoming one of the most popular films of the year. Even then, who would've guessed that “Flashdance” would've become one of the most iconic and widely parodied movies of the eighties? Rodney Dangerfield riffed on it. The Gremlins riffed on it. Elvira riffed on it. Even Snoopy riffed on it. By the time Jennifer Lopez based a music video on the film, “Flashdance” was entrenched as a cultural touchstone. Even recently, a poster for “Deadpool 2” spoofs the film. Would you believe I've never seen the movie before now?

Alex Owens is an eighteen year old girl, living on her own in Pittsburgh. During the day, she works a menial job as a welder in a steel mill. At night, she pursues her passion: Dance. She dances in a sleazy club but dreams of getting into a prestigious academy. However, she worries that her lack of professional experience makes her odds of succeeding unlikely. She has other struggles in her life. Her boss at the mill, Nick, begins to pursue her romantically. Her best friend has dreams of her own, aspiring to become a figure skater. But dance drives Alex above everything else.

“Flashdance” is, without a question, a somewhat campy artifact of the eighties. This is, after all, a movie primarily about a stripper that doesn't actually take her clothes off. The plot, of a young girl desperate to pursue her dreams above all else, is derivative of a hundred other movies. (And would be ripped off a hundred times afterwards.) There's definitely some melodramatic touches to the story's presentation. The film is primarily a delivery system for its dance numbers. The fashion, from the permed hair to various pastel colored clothes, is insanely dated. It's easy to see why critics would turn their noses up at this in 1983.

However, even people who didn't like the movie admitted that it has a captivating lead performance. Jennifer Beals had only one prior screen credit before this, an uncredited part in “My Bodyguard.” Despite that, she has no problem carrying “Flashdance” more-or-less single-handedly. She projects a naturalistic charm, seeming comfortable in the part of a young woman who is trying to prove herself. She brings a warmth and girl-next-door charm to the part, showing a fun sense of humor and an appealingly upfront attitude. The film would briefly make Beals a big star.

Despite being strictly a product of the Reagan era, when attitudes about sex and women were still somewhat reductive, “Flashdance” comes off as surprisingly modern. Alex is not seduced by Nick. She invites him back to her apartment, slowly undressing for him in a genuinely erotic sequence. It's her decision to have sex. Later, in another famous scene, she makes a rather graphic advancement towards him in a restaurant. She does not let her relationship with Nick define her and outright refuses his help on several occasions. Furthermore, Alex is never judged for her work in the club. This seemingly sex-positive attitude only goes so far though. When Hanna gets a job in a sleazier bar, one where the strippers actually do take their clothes off, Alex gets pretty angry with her about it. Our protagonist also has some Catholic guilt of her own. But considering the time and place, “Flashdance” is still pretty progressive.

“Flashdance” was part of a wave of films in the early eighties that blurred the line between movie and music video. The movie fits in well with other eighties dance flicks like “Fame,” “Footloose,” and “Dirty Dancing.” Alex's dance routines in the club – which strike me as far more elaborate than a club that dingy and rowdy would ever be willing to indulge – are filmed more-or-less like music videos. The famous first dance, where she moves in a red slip, pounds a chair, and drenches herself in water, is actually one of the film's more restrained moments. Compared that to the bizarre moment where Alex dances against a sterile white wall while wearing kakuki-style face paint, lights strobbing on and off. Lyne's flashy direction is not limited to these dance scenes. Hanna's ice skating routine, where the camera glides along the ice with her, or a completely ridiculous workout sequence are equally music video-like in their presentation.

Watching “Flashdance” right after “Foxes,” it's surprising to see they were made by the same director. “Foxes” was gritty and documentary-like. “Flashdance” is slick and melodramatic. However, you can see some of Lyne's personal style coming through at times. “Flashdance” utilizes its Pittsburgh setting the same way “Foxes” took advantage of its San Fernado Valley setting. Some of the most naturalistic scenes in the film simply watch Alex as she goes from place to place in the city streets, frequently riding her bike. She'll stop to watch a break dancer. Or will sit on a cable car for a while. While the film is not remotely realistic, you can see Lyne trying to ground the material in some sort of reality.

Yet the dancing is the star of the show. The dancing was such a monumental part of “Flashdance's” success that, when it was discovered that most of the dancing was performed by a double, Jennifer Beals' career never quite recovered. (Despite it being pretty obvious when the double takes over.) Truthfully, the dance choreography in “Flashdance” is so iconic that it's difficult to judge. The shots of Alex's legs and thighs, clad in a leotard and leg warmers, stepping wildly around the floor are widely parodied. As silly as those club scenes get, there's a definite infectious energy to them. The climatic dance, where Alex impresses the academy board, is indeed triumphant.

And, yeah, the soundtrack is pretty good. Irene Cara's Academy Award winning theme song was a breakthrough pop hit for a reason. It is insanely catchy. The way the music rises from slow and introspective to pumping and jubilant is impressive. Yes, the chorus of voices that join Cara during the last part of the song are ridiculously eighties. But it totally works for the song. The song was co-written by Giorgio Moroder. Returning from “Foxes,” Moroder also provides the movie's score. It's largely electronic and sometimes seems a little out-of-place with the movie.

The other famous song in the movie, Michael Sembello's “Maniac,” has a similarly contagious chorus. Its dance rhythm is intense and driving. It's well known trivia that Sembello was originally inspired by William Lustig's notorious 1980 sleaze-slasher of the same name. When the producers of “Flashdance” heard the song, they asked him to shift the subject from a serial killer to a young dancer. That was probably a wise move, though I've always wanted to hear the original version. Also appearing on the soundtrack is Joe Esposito's overwrought “Lady, Lady, Lady” and Joan Jett's “I Love Rock n' Roll,” whose appearance is a little on the nose.

“Flashdance” has its flaws. The most serious of which is that none of the subplots are especially effective. Such as the love story between Alex and Nick. Michael Nouri is mildly charming in the part and has decent chemistry with Beals. However, the romance is mostly secondary to the actual plot. A turn where Alex becomes concerned that Nick is cheating on her is totally unnecessary. So is the eventual reveal that the woman is his ex-wife and also a huge bitch. The very end of the movie has her forgiving him basically out of the blue.

Yet even the romance is more interesting than the movie's other subplots. Richie, the bar's cook, hopes to become a stand-up comic. His material leans heavily on Polock jokes. He eventually moves out to California, comes back, and then disappears from the movie. Hanna's story, her dream of becoming a skater which she abandons in favor of stripping, seems to parallel Alex's. Yet, if there's any point to this particular sideline, it never comes to anything. I honestly wonder if these story points were included more to pad the movie out than contribute to its story or themes.

“Flashdance's” legacy is not just in the lasting popularity of its music, dances, or imagery. It also launched the careers of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Bruckheimer, of course, would become one of a reigning action producer while Eszterhas' career as Hollywood's highest paid screenwriter burned brightly if briefly. (Financially speaking, anyway. Whether Eszterhas' frequently lazy and trashy work ever had any artistic value is still a matter of debate.) Lyne's dramatic direction obviously played a big role in “Flashdance's” success and he would basically build his career on it. This is a silly movie but pretty fun. [Grade: B]

Monday, April 23, 2018

Director Report Card: Adrian Lyne (1980)


What the heck happened to Adrian Lyne? The British director rose out of commercials and went on to direct some of the most iconic films of the eighties. He continued to find commercial and critical success in the nineties. And then, after making one more film in 2002, he has been very quiet. It would seem that Lyne's career is a casualty of Hollywood's increasing indifference to mid-budget dramas. But let's not focus on the past. Let's return to the beginning of the director's whose films, for many, define the sweaty, sleazy but still glossy 1980s.


1. Foxes

As long as I can remember, my dad has been a huge fan of Jodie Foster. I'm not going to delve into why this is, though the reasons are probably pretty creepy. Whatever the reason, over the years, I've seen probably more Jodie Foster movies than most people. And a favorite of my dad is 1980's “Foxes.” The movie combined his love of Foster and the greasy seventies atmosphere. The movie was also the feature debut of director Adrian Lyne, after making two shorts. Though his first full length movie, the film seems to dabble in some of the same themes that Lyne would touch on later.

The seventies are coming to a close but, for four teenage friends, the party rages on. Jeanie, Deirdre, Madge, and Annie go to school during the day. At night, they hang out in the San Fernado Valley's party scene, drinking too much, sleeping around, and doing too many drugs. However, complications soon arise in their lives. Annie's police officer father is abusive. Jeanie has her own struggles with her divorced parents. Madge has low self esteem and Deirdre is juggling too many guys. Soon enough, the party is going to be over.

“Foxes” is of a tradition of movies, which stretch back to the drive-in flicks of the fifties and would continue with the cinema of Larry Clark and movies like “Havoc.” Call it the teens-ploitation movie. Films like this depict teenagers having wild, irresponsible times, indulging drugs and other vices. While it ostensibly condemns these actions, the movie also happily luxuriates in this sleazy behavior. To be fair, “Foxes” is one of the better examples of this genre, being neither too excessive nor too judgmental. But its placement inside the genre is fairly evident.

“Foxes” pretends its protagonists' indulgences as a fact of life. The girls drink casually and too much. They skip school to party. Some of them trade boyfriends freely. Oddly, drug use is referenced in dialogue but rarely depicted on camera. Yet it seems the girls are less out-of-control than they are merely troubled. “Foxes” spends just as much time on the emotional hangover following their good times. Jeanie actively wonders if this is all there is and worries about her friends a lot. The consequences on their actions are focused on, giving the movie more of a “coming of age” feeling than an exploitation feeling. If you're taking a historical view, maybe “Foxes” is an example of its filmmakers feeling some regrets after a wild decade wrapped up.

“Foxes” is lent a lot by its time and setting. The San Fernado Valley location brings with it a lot of personality. One scene has the girls driving down Hollywood Boulevard, where they interact with pimps and streetwalkers. Another scene has Jeanie and a friend hanging out in the Hollywood hills. There's a distinct California atmosphere even to the scenes set in the suburbs, sweaty and ocean bordering. And it's not the California that exists today. Though released at the dawn of the new decade, “Foxes” is quintessentially set in the dying days of disco. The fashion, the music, and the social attitudes root it in a specific time and place. It's an appealing combination.

The struggles the girls have with their parents and boyfriends are also undeniably seventies. Jeanie's mom is an almost classical example of the “me generation” parent. While her daughter is struggling with her own problems, her mom is off chasing a recently divorced man. At one point, she leaves the home altogether, disappearing for almost a week. In a circumstance that is unlikely to fly today, another one of the teenage girls begins dating a man ten years older than her. This isn't consider creepy or weird. When the two get married, it provides something like a happy ending. My, how the times have changed.

Adrian Lyne has listed the French New Wave and Neo-Realist as influences. You can see this European style at work in “Foxes.” Lyne's camera frequently gets up-close with his characters and their world. The opening scene hovers around the debris lying around the girls' room – junk food wrapping, fast food boxes – establishing their youthful and lackadaisical wastefulness. The scenes of the girls eating breakfast or talking among themselves have an intimate feeling. When a fight breaks out at a party, Lyne is right there with the characters, tumbling through tables and windows. Considering Lyne is a British director making a movie about American teenagers, there's an almost documentary edge to his cinematic style. Like an anthropologist exploring a new culture.

More than anything else, it's the cast that makes “Foxes” work. This was the last film Jodie Foster would make before she took a four year break to go to college. This signaled the end of the “child star” phase of her career. Foster's talent was already obvious by now. She plays Jeanie as more attuned than her friends. She dreams of moving to New York and becoming a painter. She describes her sexual affairs in an almost academic manner, saying she simply curious. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that Jeanie has her head screwed on the tightest. Foster happily inhabits these attributes. Wise beyond her years but still with a youthful energy, its an ideal part for her.

The film would also be the acting debut of Cherie Currie, the infamous lead singer of the Runaways. She plays Annie, by far the most wild and out-of-control of the quartet. This is largely due to an abusive, controlling father. Considering Currie had already survived rock stardom by this point, and had the visible tattoo to prove it, one can't help but assume her take on Annie is slightly autobiographical. (Amusingly, she even gets a line deriding punk fashion in favor of disco.) The character's frequently intoxicated or drugged-out state seems accurate. Currie has a unique vibe as an actress, gifted with an invigorating but unnervingly manic energy. And her youth provides a vulnerability. These attributes suit the part of a troubled teenage girl.

Of the four girls, one really stands out. Madge is heavier than the others and wears nerdy glasses. She begins the film as a virgin and it really stresses her out. While the other girls have absent or abusive parents, Madge's mom and sister are perhaps too involved in her life. Playing this part is Marilyn Kagan, whose brief career would also include eighties slasher cult classic “The Initiation.” Kagan projects a shyness as Madge. While not the most tragic of the girls, she's the one you can't help but feel sorry for the most. Her friends have other, more serious problems. Madge is just struggling with the typical insecurities of being a teenager. Which makes her strife more relatable.

Of the four girls, Kandice Stroh's Deirdre probably gets the least to do. She has the most boyfriends and shines during a scene where she flirts with another guy on the phone. However, her arc has an abbreviated feeling. Among the other cast is a young Scott Biao, as the young boy the girls treat more like a younger brother than a potential romantic partner. Randy Quaid, of all people, appears as Madge's much older boyfriend. Quaid has that same unhinged energy here that he frequently brings to his performances, making Madge's suitor seem even more inappropriate. The film was also an early role for Laura Dern, who appears briefly as a girl talking about diaphragms at a party.

Though I've heard “Foxes” compared to “Saturday Night Fever,” the film is much less about disco culture. Jeanie's dad is the road manager to Angel and the girls watch the band perform. (They also sing a number called “20th Century Foxes,” which was likely meant to be the movie's theme song.) The girls' taste veers towards general pop music, as they listen to Boston and Cher throughout the film. Nevertheless, the soft piano driven overture of Donna Summer's “On the Radio” is the main musical refrain throughout “Foxes.” It provides a sad, introspective feeling to many scenes. Giorgio Moroder provides the score. His electronic music sometimes feels a little out of place, as in a skateboard assisted chase scene, but it seems like a suitably hip choice for the film's composer.

“Foxes” received some critical praise in 1980. Roger Ebert gave it good notices and Jodie Foster was nominated for a Young Artist Award. However, audiences would mostly overlook the movie. Outside of Foster fans like my dad, it doesn't seem to have much of a cult following either. (Though that didn't keep it from being played on eighties HBO a lot.) Still, “Foxes” is worth seeing. The performances are strong. The film's visual approach and feel is appealing. The script is fairly predictable but still heart-felt. The ending is a bit downbeat but “Foxes” is ultimately a minorly rewarding watch. [Grade: B]