SPIES LIKE US 30th Anniversary

Chevy Chase famously left SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE after just one season to pursue a movie career. He maintained attachments to many of his fellow “Not Ready For Prime Time Players,” though, sometimes appearing with them in films. The co-star he went on to collaborate with most often was Dan Aykroyd. Both had small roles in the ill-fated CADDYSHACK II, and Chase starred in his pal’s directorial debut, the equally ill-fated (and, some would say, criminally misunderstood) NOTHING BUT TROUBLE. There was even a brief Chevy cameo in Aykroyd’s 1988 comedy THE COUCH TRIP. Their best cinematic team-up, however, remains their first. Released on Dec. 6, 1985, SPIES LIKE US was a hit ($60 million), but not a blockbuster. Reviews were mixed-to-negative. And yet, unlike more than a few pictures the two stars made in that decade, it has stood the test of time. Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, SPIES LIKE US remains a comedy that fans gush about whenever its title is spoken. The rather unlikely manner in which the movie was assembled is no doubt a huge part of the appeal.

Chase and Aykroyd play, respectively, Emmett Fitz-Hume and Austin Milbarge, two hapless individuals duped by the fictional Defense Intelligence Agency (or DIA) into acting as decoys so that no one will realize they’re trying to hijack a Soviet missile launcher. The guys think they’re real-deal spies on a mission of global importance. In reality, they’re being counted on to act incompetently so that the real mission will remain covert. Eventually they get wise to the scheme. The movie ends with them becoming actual heroes by recalling a missile that’s headed right toward the United States.

SPIES LIKE US had all the right pieces in place: a talented comedy director, writers who fundamentally understood how to craft a joke, and two stars who knew one another’s comic rhythms almost as well as they knew their own. Aykroyd penned the original story with former SCTV star Dave Thomas, while the noted writing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (SPLASH, NIGHT SHIFT) helped him shape the screenplay into the joke-filled romp it became. Signing on to direct was John Landis, who’d established himself as a maestro of anti-establishment comedy via ANIMAL HOUSE and THE BLUES BROTHERS.

It was a diverse and talented group of people coming together. That, perhaps more than anything, is what makes SPIES LIKE US both notable and enduring, not to mention a little out of the ordinary. The film melds a lot of different comic styles and voices. Chevy Chase specializes in physical humor, such as the famous sequence in which Fitz-Hume fakes a panic attack to disguise the fact that he’s cheating on the Foreign Service exam. A later scene, wherein the pseudo-spies are put inside a G-force simulator and emerge with their faces contorted, is also classic Chase. Aykroyd, meanwhile, is known for a more cerebral, dry style of humor. Jokes about Milbarge’s wonkiness are certainly of his devising, as is the whole concept of decoy spies becoming embroiled in a very real nuclear threat. Because the two stars were experienced working together, they knew how their styles could – and should – mesh. The chemistry between them permeates every frame they share.

Ganz and Mandel, meanwhile, were pure, well-seasoned gag writers who came up through TV sitcoms such as HAPPY DAYS and LAVERNE & SHIRLEY. Sitcoms, of course, typically require several jokes per minute that earn laughs while still advancing the week’s particular story arc. Ganz and Mandel specialized in crafting punchlines with a real zing that felt authentic to the moment. Many of the movie’s note-perfect one-liners undoubtedly sprang from their minds.

And then there was John Landis, who not only wrangled everyone’s individual sensibilities, but also added his own. Landis gives SPIES LIKE US his usual clean, unfussy style, often using the camera as an impartial observer. He doesn’t like to trick up his shots too much. Given the frequent absurdity of the onscreen antics, he doesn’t need to; the straightforward style helps keep everything in balance. Landis also adds a sub-layer of humor. As a treat for film buffs, he casts other directors in supporting roles. Among them: Frank Oz, Terry Gilliam, Ray Harryhausen, Martin Brest, Sam Raimi, and Joel Coen. The movie’s premise involves covert operations, and Landis stages a covert operation of his own.

The magic of SPIES LIKE US lies in the fact that it really shouldn’t work, and yet it does. Most comedies, when they succeed, do so because there’s one primary voice shaping the humor or guiding the comic viewpoint. In this case, that “voice” was actually a blending of multiple voices, each with a distinct tone.

Taking that idea to an even further extreme is the movie’s offbeat story structure. SPIES LIKE US plays very heavily on Reagan-era nuclear fears and Cold War tensions. Its climax involves a potentially real disaster that could start World War III, something that audiences were legitimately afraid of in 1985. (In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Aykroyd said, “One day we got a call from a representative of the United States Department of Defense because their satellite had spotted our rocket and called the Norwegian government. They thought a Soviet rocket had been secretly moved into Norway, so the producers had to clarify that this was a fake. Thus a major international diplomatic incident was averted.”) While the theme is dark and heavy, the movie wraps it inside something completely opposite: an updating of the old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road to…” pictures. SPIES intentionally adopts the form of that series, with the characters ambling along on a trek filled with wacky adventures, beautiful women, and an eventual happy ending. Nowhere is the formula nodded to more obviously than in a scene where Bob Hope himself wanders through the frame chasing an errant golf ball.

Because it’s a mish-mash of approaches, some critics and audience members were understandably put off by SPIES LIKE US. However, that exact same quality is what makes others so irresistibly drawn to it. The movie’s comic rhythms are unpredictable, often blindsiding the viewer with a left-field joke, a kooky plot twist, or a weird character moment. This quality sets it apart from many of the other comedies of its day. Toss in a terrific theme song from Paul McCartney and you’ve got one of the most distinct, weirdly funny movies of that decade – one that is still eminently watchable thirty years later.

Now, won’t you gentlemen (and ladies) have a Pepsi?

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan

You Can’t Please Everyone: Fandom in the Modern Age

We live in an unusual time, movie-wise. On any given weekend, there’s probably at least one new movie coming out that’s based on an established property, be it a comic book or novel, an old TV show, a videogame, or some previously-existing film. Studios want to make projects with a built-in fan base, and they will go to great lengths to appease those fans. Marvel, for instance, has turned fan-pandering into an art form with the creation of its Cinematic Universe, which ties all their films together. There is no logical reason to have Falcon cameo in ANT-MAN except to explain why Ant-Man will be in the next Captain America film, a branch of the MCU that Falcon is already part of. Marvel simply knows fans love that sort of thing.

Studios are usually so desperate to earn fan approval that they bend over backward. It’s no real secret that potential casting choices for big movies are “leaked” online to see how the public will respond. This is why you often see stars saying they have “never been approached” about these roles they’re supposedly up for. The rumors are simply to gauge whether the fans will give a thumbs-up to a possible selection. If they do, the actor might actually receive an offer. If not, someone else mysteriously becomes the new consideration. Comic-Con has also proved a vital testing ground. Studios trot out the casts of their as-yet-unfilmed projects or debut early footage, hoping they will be met with enthusiasm. More than once, course corrections have occurred after the crowds at Hall H expressed displeasure.

Fan revolt is nothing new. In 1988, fans flooded Warner Brothers Pictures with angry letters after it was announced that Michael Keaton – an actor known primarily for comedies like BEETLEJUICE and MR. MOM – had been cast in Tim Burton’s adaptation of BATMAN. (Keaton ultimately proved them all wrong.) When a then-unknown Robert Pattinson was cast as Edward in the eagerly-awaited TWILIGHT, the so-called Twi-hards went into a tizzy. Once they saw the final film, they embraced Pattinson, although, as a whole, they never seemed interested in seeing him in anything other than a TWILIGHT picture. Similarly, producers of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY were smacked with an online petition demanding Dakota Johnson and Charlie Hunnam be replaced as the leads in favor of fan-preferred picks Alexis Bledel and Matt Bomer. Hunnam eventually dropped out and was replaced by Jamie Dornan. Johnson stayed. The film was a hit, if not exactly a blockbuster.

Those cases worked out from a box office perspective, but generally speaking, it can be extremely risky to piss off the fans, who feel a sense of ownership toward their beloved properties. We’ve seen two recent examples where failure to appease the base led to catastrophe. Josh Trank’s FANTASTIC FOUR, to the dismay of comic book loyalists, changed the manner in which the titular heroes obtain their superpowers. Less enlightened fans were additionally outraged that one of the characters, Johnny Storm, was now being played by a black actor, Michael B. Jordan. The movie’s $56 million take is widely considered a disaster. Scathing reviews didn’t help, but critics don’t usually make much impact on fan-driven films such as this. Large swaths of the base likely opted to stay away because they didn’t approve of the changes.

An even more telling example can be found in Universal’s JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, which is based on a popular ‘80s cartoon show and toy line. Dedicated fans were ecstatic upon learning there would be a movie adaptation. Then the first photos and trailer hit the internet, and it became painfully clear that the filmmakers were going to be something less than completely faithful to the source material. This led to a full-on boycott, which played out on multiple Facebook pages, among other online hangouts. The end result: the $5 million-budgeted film won’t even earn half that in its theatrical run.

All of this begs the question: How much power should fans have over the course of these movies? As terrible as it was (and believe me, it was abysmal), JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS at least felt like it had an idea behind it. The filmmakers clearly wanted to explore the power of the internet to make a person famous. They may not have given audiences the Jem story they were used to, but doggoneit, they gave them something. AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, on the other hand, was a massive hit that offered no surprises. Moreover, it often felt, as most Marvel movies do, like a commercial for future Marvel movies. Sure, it was largely fun, but it never once had the courage to color outside the lines.

And this is where the problem lies. Fans typically want something that fits into their preconceived notion of what a property is. They seek cinematic comfort food. We’re all guilty of it. This impulse, however, may have the effect of shutting the door on movies that are more challenging and ambitious. When filmmakers feel they have to work within a very defined, fenced-in area, true art is stifled. Sometimes really spectacular entertainment is produced within these confines, but at what cost? Not every creative decision, safe or risky, pays off. Aren’t they worth making, though? Don’t the most special films come about because someone inherently defied the norm or made a deliberately unexpected choice? These are the very qualities we revere in directors like Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, yet when they’re applied to our favorite properties, we tend to reject them – or at least display obstinance toward them until we’re proven wrong.

Cinema is fundamentally about making the viewer experience something. Allowing the target audience to dictate that experience not only creates the risk of bland movies, it creates the risk of breeding apathy. Yes, films based on existing properties have some responsibility to stay true to the source material’s spirit. (Why even adapt something if you don’t intend to be at least a little faithful?) But giving the fans too much power makes them oddly apathetic, because people don’t demand anything more than what they’re already comfortable with. That is in no way a knock on fans; it’s just an acknowledgement that intense love of something inherently makes us resistant to change.

If Shakespeare’s plays can be interpreted a hundred different ways, so can a superhero story, an old cartoon show, a popular young adult novel series, or anything else. A black actor can play a traditionally white character. An unpredictable actor can be cast over an obvious one. An origin story can be updated. By allowing ourselves to be open to adjustment and alteration, we deepen our relationship with the source material. Having our preconceived notions challenged causes us to engage with the property more fully and to explore our fondness for it in greater depth. We need the boat to be rocked from time to time.

Fandom is a wonderful, beautiful, meaningful thing. Allowing that fandom to be less rigid and more fluid will help keep it healthy and thriving, and that benefits audiences and filmmakers alike.

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan

Depression in Alex Ross Perry’s QUEEN OF EARTH

 

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Alex Ross Perry’s QUEEN OF EARTH opens with a dramatic close-up of Catherine Hewitt (played by Elisabeth Moss). She’s been crying so hard that mascara is running down her face. This long, unbroken shot is a perfect visual representation of the pain Catherine is feeling inside. She talks to an off-screen boyfriend in a hurt, angry tone. It’s clear that she is in the process of having her heart broken and is struggling to deal with it. Eventually, the film cuts to a brief shot of the man who is devastating her, but then it goes right back to Catherine. We are encouraged to look into her eyes, to see the raw emotion pouring out. From these opening minutes, QUEEN OF EARTH establishes its willingness to examine the very nature of depression without the eventual feel-good sheen a lot of Hollywood movies awkwardly try to put on the subject. This is one of the most vital films ever made about how it feels to be depressed.

Catherine, it turns out, has suffered two blows. In addition to getting dumped, her beloved artist father died not too long ago. Now devoid of the two most important men in her life, she turns to best friend Ginny Lowell (Katherine Waterston) for support. The two women go to the latter’s family lake house together for a week of intended recovery, but it doesn’t go as planned. Ginny ends up allowing a neighbor, Rich (Patrick Fugit), to hang around. Catherine resents his intrusion into what is supposed to be an exercise in female bonding, which leads to conflict with Ginny. QUEEN OF EARTH intersperses this plot with flashbacks to the summer before, when Catherine thoughtlessly brought the now ex-boyfriend to the lake house while Ginny was the one going through a difficult emotional time. This leads to the question of whether Ginny is intentionally trying to antagonize Catherine in retaliation, or whether the two simply don’t know how to truly be there for one another during times of crisis.

Most movies about depression deal with the things you can externally see: staying in bed, crying, suicide attempts, etc. QUEEN OF EARTH is notable because it looks at the more internal stuff. For example, right out of the gate, the film shows a recognition that people who are depressed often feel alone. Catherine’s boyfriend and father, by different means, have both left her, and Ginny’s seeming use of Rich as a way to retreat leaves her without her best friend. She seeks some sort of connection with others who cross her path – including a guy she finds passed out in the woods – but nothing fills the void. Perry very wisely has Catherine and Ginny drift apart before our eyes. In the movie’s signature scene, the two women have a nine-minute conversation, filmed in one perfectly-executed extended take. Catherine starts off talking about her woes, then Ginny hijacks the conversation, expounding on things that have caused her pain in the past. She is oblivious to the fact that her friend was baring her soul. This sequence conveys the alienation of depression, the feeling that even those ostensibly closest to you are somehow just out of reach, or unable to fully understand the depth of your misery.

Music also plays a big part in the way QUEEN OF EARTH explores its central topic. The score (by Keegan DeWitt) often sounds like something out of a horror movie. One brief scene, in which Catherine, Ginny, and Rich canoe across the lake, is scored so ominously that you half expect Jason Voorhees to emerge from the woods and hack somebody’s head off with a machete. Sonically, the use of eerie music underscores the idea that, when you suffer from clinical depression, even the most mundane of moments can feel terrifying. This effect is accomplished several times throughout the film, almost subliminally making the audience feel the ever-present sense of undefinable menace that overwhelms Catherine and anyone else living with this particular mental anguish.

Finally, and most importantly, QUEEN OF EARTH understands that depression is often misunderstood by those not afflicted with it. We know that Catherine is suffering. Those around her, especially Rich, just don’t get that fact. Over the course of the story, Catherine is told that she’s “a spoiled brat” and that she’s just feeling sorry for herself. These are refrains that depression sufferers know all too well. People mistake a clinical condition for self-pity, or suggest that someone can merely “snap out of it.” The idea that it’s beyond the individual’s control is something too many folks can’t conceive of. This is one of the main reasons why a mental health stigma exists to this day.

Alex Ross Perry has taken a wise approach. Rather than making a standard-issue drama about the subject, he opts for something quite different. QUEEN OF EARTH often feels like the first hour of an old exploitation picture – the part with all the slow-burn buildup and mounting dread. We wait with anticipation to see what will happen between these two women, who seem so competitive in the imaginary race to determine whose problems have been worse. The difference is that Perry offers none of the release you’d associate with exploitation fare. No one dies, and there are no sudden bursts of violence. By the end, Catherine has neither conquered nor succumbed to her depression. She just moves forward with it, prepared to see both bad days and good.

During a recent screening of QUEEN OF EARTH at the historic Campus Theatre in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Perry discussed his choice to tell this story with female characters. He pointed out cinema’s long history of using women to portray breakdowns, adding that “men having a breakdown becomes THE SHINING.” While that remark was clearly tongue-in-cheek, he’s got a point. Gender stereotypes persist, and audiences have become accustomed to seeing men onscreen handle inner turmoil (be it anger, fear, or sadness) via aggressive means. In having two female leads, QUEEN OF EARTH allows us to focus on the things happening under the surface, rather than subconsciously waiting for violence to occur.

Elisabeth Moss co-starred in Perry’s previous film, the delightful LISTEN UP PHILIP. The director told the crowd at the Campus that a movie such as QUEEN OF EARTH “couldn’t have come about without a relationship with the performer.” In other words, he knew what Moss was capable of, and she understood what he was attempting to do with this story. The result is a first-class collaboration that digs deep into the subject of depression’s most insidious qualities.

It’s amazing that a movie about such a dark subject can play so thrillingly and vibrantly.

 

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan

The Two Sides of Bobby Dupea: Remembering FIVE EASY PIECES

When you think of the movie FIVE EASY PIECES, what comes to mind? Odds are overwhelming that you picture the scene in which Bobby Dupea (played by Jack Nicholson) gets into an argument with a waitress in a diner because she will not allow him to make substitutions in his order. It ends with Bobby telling her to hold the chicken between her knees. Even if you’ve never seen FIVE EASY PIECES, you probably thought of that scene. It’s one of the most famous in cinema history for a reason. Bobby’s quip to the waitress is funny, and the moment ends with him dramatically clearing the table. People often site this brief sequence as exemplifying all the anger and disillusionment Bobby feels, and which the film itself addresses.

But here’s the thing: that is not the quintessential scene in FIVE EASY PIECES. If we’re going to talk about the very core of this film, we need to look at a scene that comes much earlier.

When director Bob Rafelson first introduces us to Bobby Dupea, he’s working as an oil rigger. He comes home filthy at the end of the day to be with his girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black). Rayette is what you might charitably call a little tacky. He doesn’t treat her very well. Bobby likes to go over to best friend Elton’s trailer to drink beer after a hard day. Sometimes they go bowling or cheat on their girlfriends together. From everything we can see, Bobby is a blue collar kind of guy, and quite possibly a real asshole.

Then the scene occurs. Bobby and Elton are in the car. They get stuck in a traffic jam. In front of them is a flatbed truck carrying a piano. Bobby hops out of the car, jumps onto the truck, and begins playing a beautiful piece of classical music. He gets so caught up in his performance – or maybe just doesn’t want to stop – that he keeps playing, even after the truck begins moving again. In this precise moment, we realize that we don’t know Bobby Dupea at all. The real theme of FIVE EASY PIECES emerges right here.

Bobby, it turns out, has reinvented himself. As the story progresses, he returns home to Washington state in order to visit his ailing father, at the behest of his sister Partita (Lois Smith). Far from the product of a blue collar upbringing, he comes from a very wealthy, artistically-inclined family. Partita and brother Carl (Ralph Waite) are both accomplished musicians. There is a visible appreciation of culture in the home. Now back in his original element, Bobby reverts to his former self. Gone are the greasy blue jeans and denim jackets, replaced instead by button-down shirts, sweaters, and blazers. His hair is more neatly combed. Family members begin referring to him as “Robert.” His whole demeanor changes, too. Bobby starts carrying himself in a more proper way that somehow simultaneously feels natural and uncomfortable for him. Even more telling, he puts the moves on Carl’s girlfriend Catherine (Susan Anspach), a woman far more sophisticated and worldly than Rayette. This is not the oil rigger anymore. It is the man we saw playing piano on the back of a truck.

FIVE EASY PIECES is about many things, but perhaps nothing more than a man desperately attempting to construct a version of himself that he can live with. Interactions with his father and siblings suggest that Bobby never measured up in this cultured, well-to-do clan, so he invented a new personality – one that was intentionally the exact opposite of what he was bred to be. When Rayette shows up unexpectedly at the Dupea home, Bobby is deeply embarrassed by her (despite briefly defending her honor when she is insulted by a snooty party guest) and by his family’s unspoken recognition that he is living “beneath” himself. There is a climactic scene in which Bobby finally opens up to his father, who doesn’t acknowledge the emotional outpouring. He then leaves to return home with Rayette.

Or at least that’s what we think. (And this is a great big SPOILER ALERT.) The last scene of FIVE EASY PIECES finds them stopping at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. Bobby hands Rayette his wallet to pay for gas and food while he uses the restroom. Upon emerging – and away from where she can see him – he hops into the cab of a tractor-trailer after a short discussion with its driver. In a long, unbroken, utterly devastating final shot, the truck pulls away, leaving Rayette wandering around, looking for the now-absent Bobby. It’s a fascinating ending, in that Bobby’s action can be read as either cruel or merciful. Abandoning Rayette may seem mean, or perhaps he simply realizes that he’s no good for her and wishes to spare her any further hurt. Either way, we know that Bobby Dupea is still searching for himself, and this iteration of his identity has ultimately been no more fulfilling than that of “Robert.” His search continues, somewhere else down the road.

FIVE EASY PIECES is so powerful because it steadfastly refuses to pass judgment on Bobby. The film simply observes what he does. Rafelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman (under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce) allow the viewer to decide how sympathetically to view Bobby, if at all. This quality marks it not only as an American classic, but also as one of the best films ever made about the torturous act of soul-searching. Movies about characters trying to find themselves typically end with a success; FIVE EASY PIECES leaves Bobby Dupea in a place that’s possibly even less certain than where he was at the outset.

And it all begins with that scene at the piano, when Bobby’s past bursts through his present, revealing that it still exists in spite of his efforts to bury it. The heart of this character lies right there. Cinema is filled with magnificent entrances: Harry Lime abruptly revealed by an errant light to be hiding in the shadows in THE THIRD MAN, Darth Vader emerging from a cloud of smoke in STAR WARS, Hannibal Lecter standing motionless before Clarice Starling in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, etc. To this list, we should add Bobby Dupea jumping on a truck to play a piano. We’ve been watching him for twenty minutes at this point, yet it’s the first time we’re truly seeing him.

It’s a classic moment that deserves to be what we remember when we think about FIVE EASY PIECES.

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan

The Unbelievable True Story of MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY

Movies are made for all kinds of reasons. In the best scenarios, a filmmaker has a story he/she is really passionate about telling. More frequently, a studio sees an opportunity to make money by bringing some already-existing property to the screen, be it a book, a beloved superhero, a videogame, or even a popular toy. And then, every once in a while, a movie comes into being for some totally unique and strange reason. One such example is 1987’s mostly-forgotten comedy MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY, which exists because a well-known mogul thought he could score big by staging a contest.

Dino De Laurentiis was an Italian film producer who cast a wide shadow over Hollywood. His resume included everything from BARBARELLA to RAGTIME to the ill-fated 1976 KING KONG remake. He also, for a time, had his own distribution company, known as DEG (De Laurentiis Entertainment Group). After a promising start that saw it distribute David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET and Bruce Beresford’s CRIMES OF THE HEART, among others, DEG lost some of its luster. Pictures like THE BEDROOM WINDOW and FROM THE HIP performed poorly. A box office smash was desperately needed.

According to a 1989 profile in Spy magazine, inspiration struck when De Laurentiis was driving through New York City and saw an extremely large group of people lined up on the street. He thought they were queued up for a movie. His traveling companion informed him that they were actually in line for lottery tickets; the jackpot had grown high, and everyone wanted a chance to win. It occurred to the notoriously shrewd De Laurentiis that people might line up similarly to see a movie if they thought they could win a million bucks by doing so. Better still, he figured, the sweepstakes could entice people who normally didn’t even go to the movies. And just like that, MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY was born. De Laurentiis put the movie into production and partnered with the Glad trash bag company to promote it.

The film – which aspired to be a riff on IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD – stars Glad commercial spokesman Tom Bosley as Sidney Preston, a former White House aide who has stolen $4 million belonging to the U.S. government. Just before succumbing to a heart attack in a roadside diner, he confesses to the other patrons that he stashed the money at four different locations around the country. This sets off a madcap cross-country dash among the other diners. They find, and subsequently lose, three million of the loot. At the movie’s end, there’s still a million left undiscovered.

That’s where the audience came in. As the end credits rolled, a character appeared to inform them that the final million was hidden somewhere in the United States, and that they could follow clues provided in the movie to locate it. Everyone who bought a ticket received a game piece so they could mail in their guess. Folks who purchased specially-marked boxes of Glad bags could receive clues, as well. The company was quick to point out that the money was only metaphorically hidden; they feared lawsuits from people injuring themselves trying to find a garbage bag full of cash in some remote location. According to a New York Times report from May 1987, the Frankel Company – a Chicago operation that specialized in running sweepstakes – contained the only people who knew the correct answer.

Theoretically, the whole crazy idea could have worked, but MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY was nothing short of a catastrophe. For starters, building a story around a contest and a garbage bag promotion wasn’t the greatest way to achieve narrative coherence. De Laurentiis also hired a largely unknown cast, which included Eddie Deezen, Rick Overton, and Rich Hall. They were not exactly the A-list comedians of the day. Richard Fleischer was brought on board to direct. Fleischer had once helmed esteemed pictures like SOYLENT GREEN and FANTASTIC VOYAGE. His career was on a serious downslide by this time, though. His most recent efforts had included RED SONJA, AMITYVILLE 3-D, and the misguided Neil Diamond remake of THE JAZZ SINGER. Production also faced its share of problems, most notably the on-set death of legendary stuntman Dar Robinson, who, during a basic ride-by shot, misjudged a turn and accidentally rode his stunt motorcycle over a cliff.

When it finally hit cinemas, the movie was savaged by critics. In his one-star review, Roger Ebert wrote: “I’ve gone to a lot of movies that I could have used a Glad bag for, but MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY is the first one to admit it.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson was even more savage, labeling the movie “a scam” that offered “a million bucks to whomever can hold his stomach long enough to collect all the clues scattered throughout the film.”

If the reviews were terrible, business was somehow even worse. MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY opened on June 12, 1987 in 1,396 theaters, opposite PREDATOR, THE BELIEVERS, and THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK. It debuted in tenth place, earning a dismal weekend gross of just $513,731. For perspective, in addition to the other new releases, it was beaten out by the fourth weekend of ERNEST GOES TO CAMP and the tenth weekend of the Michael J. Fox comedy THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS. By the time it was pulled from theaters a week later, it had earned a grand total of $989,033. The movie designed to give away a million dollars hadn’t even made that much at the box office. The contest winner would fare better than the film itself.

In spite of such a poor performance, thousands of correct entries were received, so a random drawing was held. The winner ended up being Alesia Lenae Jones, a 14-year-old girl from Bakersfield, California. She correctly guessed that the final million was hidden in the Statue of Liberty’s nose. DEG gave Jones a limousine tour of Hollywood, plus a cashier’s check for the million dollars. The girl told the Associated Press that she planned to buy a horse and get braces with her winnings, as well as help her family purchase a house. She apparently never publicly commented on what she thought of the movie.

Following its disastrous release, MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY continued to bring bad luck. It dominated critics’ lists of the year’s worst films. Four Razzie Award nominations followed: Worst Original Song and three separate Worst Supporting Actor nods for Tom Bosley, Jamie Alcroft, and Mack Dryden. DEG wrote off its entire investment in the production, to the tune of $15.5 million – a stunning loss for a company already in financial trouble. In August 1988, it filed for bankruptcy.

In fairness, had MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY worked, De Laurentiis would have looked like a genius. But that didn’t happen, and the movie is remembered solely for the contest it spawned, to the extent that it’s remembered at all. A previously-released DVD is now out of print. It has never been released on Blu-Ray. Some enterprising soul put the entire movie on YouTube, which remains the most convenient way of viewing it. Ironically, something like this might work better today, where social media (and not a trash bag company) could fuel the promotion, and where virtual clues could be hidden around the internet. Whether anyone will try something of this sort again is questionable.

Catastrophic as it was from a business standpoint, and excruciating as it was from an entertainment standpoint, MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY nevertheless remains a fascinating case study in (literal) go-for-broke ideas.

 

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan

The 70mm Experience of THE HATEFUL EIGHT

A new Quentin Tarantino film is always a cause for celebration. His latest effort, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, arrives in theaters this Christmas. Set in post-Civil War Wyoming, the movie is about a group of bounty hunters stranded in a blizzard. The cast is a powerhouse: Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, and Samuel L. Jackson are just some of the stars. So yes, there is much to be excited about here. But when Tarantino announced that THE HATEFUL EIGHT would be shot in 70mm and also released that way at select theaters, hardcore cinephiles went bonkers. Average moviegoers, on the other hand, were left wondering what the fuss was all about. If you’re not familiar with the format or its advantages, we’ve got a crash course in 70mm for you.

Before the current era of digital projection, movies were usually exhibited in one of two ways. The standard was via 35mm film. This refers to the fact that the celluloid itself was about 35 millimeters wide. Use of this film resulted in a crisp, clear picture. 70mm film, as you may have guessed, has frames that are even larger in size, both in terms of height and width. (The in-camera film stock used is actually 65mm, but is printed on 70mm strips for projection.) The vastly larger image area allows for a higher-resolution picture that is brighter and more atmospheric than a 35mm print. You can see little details in the frame that you might not notice otherwise, while lighting effects take on an especially strong ambiance. Think of 35mm as DVD and 70mm as Blu-Ray, if you will. Both are wonderful to look at, but one is even better than the other.

Film of the 70mm variety additionally provides movies with an opportunity to be projected in super-widescreen aspect ratios. A normal “flat” ratio (i.e. one the shape of an HDTV) is about 1.85:1. A “scope” ratio is wider, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1. This ratio is used frequently in modern action/adventure movies like MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and THE DARK KNIGHT, or movies that, for one reason or another, benefit from packing a lot of imagery into the frame. The N.W.A. biopic STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, for example, is a recent drama that effectively uses the scope ratio to enhance scenes where many characters are onscreen at the same time, as well as to capture the energy of the group’s concert performances. With 70mm, the aspect ratio can be stretched even further, going as wide as 2.76:1. The result is an image that literally overtakes the audience, practically putting you right inside the movie with an enveloping, crystal-clear picture.

The visual qualities and aspect ratio potential of 70mm have historically made it useful for epics (BEN HUR, THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA), large-scale musicals (SOUTH PACIFIC, WEST SIDE STORY, MY FAIR LADY), and movies aiming for a sense of spectacle (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, CLEOPATRA, GRAND PRIX). It has even been employed for comedy; Stanley Kramer’s IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD needed the super-wide aspect ratio in order to accommodate its massive all-star cast. By every measure, 70mm conveys the intention to deliver a powerful impact to moviegoers.

The downside of 70mm is that making prints is very expensive. Because the film itself is physically larger, it costs more to manufacture and ship. Reels of 70mm film are twice as heavy as those of 35mm. Additionally, special equipment is required to show a movie made in this format. Theaters need special 70mm projectors, as well as screens that can accommodate the oversized picture.

From the mid-1950s through 1970, 70mm was used fairly frequently for “event pictures.” Then those pitfalls caught up to it, and use of the format diminished abruptly. Not until the 1990s did it start to make a comeback. Ron Howard shot his 1992 Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman drama FAR & AWAY in 70mm. Four years later, Kenneth Branagh did likewise with his four-hour cinematic adaptation of HAMLET. More recently, Christopher Nolan shot select segments of INTERSTELLAR in IMAX 70mm. The last true 70mm production, however, was Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER in 2012, although that movie utilized the traditional 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

THE HATEFUL EIGHT, then, will be the first true ultra-widescreen 70mm motion picture in decades. (It’s being released at a 2.75:1 ratio.) To make sure audiences get the full benefit, Tarantino is helping fifty theaters worldwide prepare by retrofitting them with 70mm projectors containing the proper anamorphic equipment to create that wide image. If you’re not fortunate enough to be in close proximity to one of those theaters, THE HATEFUL EIGHT will receive a traditional digital release two weeks later, on January 8, 2016. Obviously, though, the 70mm option will be the preferable one.

Now that some of the 70mm basics have been covered, let’s look at the implications of this particular release. Tarantino, a longtime celluloid advocate, is reviving a format that has largely laid dormant for many years, and was presumed by many to be dead, thanks to the widespread conversion to digital projection in cinemas worldwide. He is clearly trying to provide audiences with a type of moviegoing experience most of them have never had. That in itself is pretty special. Furthermore, THE HATEFUL EIGHT gives him a chance to pay homage not only to some of the movies that influenced him, but also to the way those movies were exhibited to the public. Given that he’s well-known for paying tribute to his cinematic inspirations, it will be thrilling to see how Tarantino morphs his own unique style with a format that has long signified visual spectacle.

Tarantino is not the only person getting to experiment here. THE HATEFUL EIGHT was shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson, who has photographed some of the most visually daring movies of our time, including Oliver Stone’s JFK and NATURAL BORN KILLERS, Martin Scorsese’s SHUTTER ISLAND and HUGO, and Tarantino’s own KILL BILL and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. So now you also have one of the cinema’s top DPs getting the chance to play around with a format most of his peers have never touched. Richardson will bring all his knowledge and expertise to the table, and there’s little doubt that this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity will encourage him to pull out all the stops. It’s inconceivable that THE HATEFUL EIGHT won’t be one of the most visually sumptuous movies of the modern era.

If Tarantino’s grand experiment proves to be a success, it may well inspire other top directors to try 70mm, as well. This would help ensure that celluloid continues to survive – and maybe even thrive – alongside digital. It would also increase the odds of us seeing inventive, spectacular masterpieces. So whether you’re a Quentin Tarantino fan or not, THE HATEFUL EIGHT will give 70mm another shot at glory. And that is a reason for every film buff to rejoice.

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan

The Musical Magic of Purple Rain

Movies and music can have a powerful connection. Just think of all the memorable scores and magical theme songs that movies have given us over the decades. Hollywood has long sought to capitalize on this power by putting pop stars up on the silver screen. Sometimes the singers merely act; other times, they act in movies where they are also required to sing. This has been done to varying degrees of success. Elvis Presley made a lot of movies that aren’t very good, but which hold cult appeal for his fans. Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees utterly embarrassed themselves in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Olivia Newton-John hit the bullseye with Grease, but tanked with Xanadu. Whitney Houston scored with The Bodyguard. There are dozens more examples, good and bad.

Other times, movies are specifically built around the musical performer. This is a lot harder to do, as it requires a complete understanding of what makes that performer special. The Beatles did it successfully with A Hard Day’s Night (although it could be argued that the film is a better reflection of Beatlemania than the band itself), as did Eminem with 8 Mile. Others have not been so lucky. Just ask Rick Springfield (Hard to Hold), Kelly Clarkson (From Justin to Kelly) and the Spice Girls (Spice World).

Perhaps the best example of a movie built around a pop singer came in 1984. Albert Magnoli’s Purple Rain was released on July 27 of that year, and it made Prince – who was already a star – a bona-fide phenomenon.

Prince was an unlikely subject for a motion picture. He was a mercurial presence, reluctant to do interviews or reveal much about himself personally. He let his music do the talking for him. In spite of these hurdles, Magnoli and co-writer William Blinn managed to find a way to make it work, in part by embracing the very things that would seem to be obstacles.

Purple Rain is the story of a prodigiously talented, yet deeply troubled Minneapolis musician known as “The Kid.” He electrifies audiences at a local club with his catchy songs and energetic stage presence. Members of his backup band, The Revolution, resent his refusal to share the spotlight. Two of them, Wendy (Wendy Melvoin) and Lisa (Lisa Coleman), have written a song for the band to perform, but The Kid continually rejects it. Some of his thorny personality issues stem from a troubled home life; his father is physically abusive, his mother emotionally so. The Kid finds the impetus to change a little bit after falling for Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), the voluptuous aspiring singer he tricks into stripping naked and jumping in a lake.

Magnoli wisely crafted Purple Rain to let Prince essentially be himself. It was filmed in the singer’s home town of Minneapolis, at the real clubs where he often performed. His real band plays his movie band. Apollonia Kotero was a real-life protégé and love interest. Morris Day and the Time, who appear as a rival band and its leader, were also part of Prince’s inner circle.

Aside from surrounding Prince with familiar, comfortable elements, the film crafts his character to stay true to his own personality. Fittingly, The Kid doesn’t speak much. When he has something important to say, he generally does it through song. Purple Rain never has any scenes in which he stops and talks in depth about how he feels. He simply jumps onstage and performs a song that suits his mood. For instance, in one scene, he’s upset at Apollonia for joining a girl group managed by his rival. His response is to slap her, and then to sing the vulgar tune “Darling Nikki” in a packed club, while staring right at her. Rather than engaging in a therapeutic discussion of the impact his dysfunctional parents are having on him, The Kid sings “When Doves Cry,” which is about that exact subject. And instead of ever formally apologizing to Wendy and Lisa, he leads the Revolution in an impromptu performance of their song, which he has morphed into the movie’s stunning title tune.

Purple Rain‘s use of songs to propel the plot and explain the character’s inner motivation is its greatest strength. The approach wisely doesn’t force Prince to do much acting-with-a-capital-A, and it also allows for regular musical numbers. This is important, because Prince has always been more than just a great live performer. He becomes almost possessed by the music onstage, radiating a magnetism that is nothing short of hypnotic. Purple Rain opens with a seven-minute rendition of “Let’s Go Crazy” that sets the tone for what’s to come, then proceeds to shape the plot so that it fits the songs, rather than the other way around. The last fifteen minutes are nothing but performance scenes: the show-stopping “Purple Rain” number, followed by The Kid’s cathartic double-feature of “I Would Die 4 U” (to let Apollonia know that he’s prepared to be a better boyfriend) and “Baby, I’m a Star” (to everyone know he’s ready for his music to conquer the world).

Albert Magnoli used Purple Rain as a showcase for Prince’s onstage charisma, knowing that it would more than compensate for a thin story. That makes it a true “music movie.” It’s tough to portray the inner creativity of an artist on film. By moving the songs front and center – and allowing them to be the main character’s primary voice – Purple Rain accomplishes this task very effectively. Through the use of you-are-there cinematography and dramatic, often purple stage lighting, Magnoli captures the meaning of every song The Kid belts out, while Prince performs them with full passion. This is a movie full of perfect shots.

Emboldened by the film’s box office success ($68 million in the U.S.), Prince went on to make two more fictional films, Under the Cherry Moon and a Purple Rain sequel called Graffiti Bridge, both of which he directed. But Prince didn’t understand his own appeal as well as Magnoli did – at least not cinematically. Both movies were huge critical and commercial flops.

Even so, Prince will always have Purple Rain. While some elements of it are dated, the movie still retains its impact as an in-depth examination of how a performer expresses himself through his music. It contains the best songs Prince ever wrote, and instead of truncating the concert scenes, the movie wisely indulges in them to the fullest, most satisfying extent possible.

Purple Rain is the Prince-iest Prince movie a fan could ever wish for, as well as a prime example of how to tailor a singer’s unique magic to the requirements of cinema.

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan