Kingsman: The Secret Service *** Matthew Vaughn’s ongoing study of violent youth in proper Society this time in a fun James Bond Homage.
Thinking about the films that I loved in my formative VHS-renting high school movie-going years and what made the makers of those films special to me, lately I’ve been recalling the visual aesthetics of 1980s and 90s films of action director John Badham.
With Saturday Night Fever (1977), Blue Thunder (1983), Wargames (1983), American Flyers (1985) and Short Circuit (1986), he had a sort of naturalistic, somewhat point-and-shoot style. Nothing too flashy, some handheld here and there, a lot of long shots and two-shots. All fine, very entertaining films, well-framed if a little visually-pedestrian.
Later, the great Stakeout (1987) was released, which combined this look with some stylized lighting effects (a lot of looking through window blinds, bushes, binoculars) and shadows, more dutch angles, really lived-in environments. It’s a great action comedy with some broad sequences and is a bit more showy in its cinematography.
And then with Bird on a Wire (1990) and The Hard Way (1991), a more notable style began to emerge. There was suddenly smoke, neon and diffusion, a more adventurous use of the widescreen anamorphic frame, bursts of colors against a sort of grittier, dark background. It’s was suddenly as if Badham began channeling Carol Reed’s work on The Third Man (1949) but in full, bright primaries, flying sparks and gunfire. While the films themselves were varied in quality, they were both very exciting to look at from a film-making standpoint and looked not at all like your run of the mill 1.85 comedy. There’s a great cinematography joke — possibly goofing on Badham’s own style — in The Hard Way‘s movie-within-a-movie Smoking Gunn II, in which a stock Hollywood action movie villain is ordering the hero Gunn’s assassination, sitting in a room with horizontal blind shadows on his face, even though the blinds are behind him.
From that point, through Point of No Return (1993), Another Stakeout (1993), Drop Zone (1994) and Nick of Time (1995), you could look at a frame of a John Badham film and know you were watching a John Badham film. Even though he worked with more than a half-dozen different cinematographers and only worked with two of them more than once (Robert Primes on Bird on a Wire and The Hard Way and Roy Wagner on Another Stakeout, Drop Zone and Nick of Time), all these films have a cohesion of visual style that was not unlike the the classic run of films of John McTiernan (Die Hard, The Hunt For Red October), who’s work with Jan de Bont and Donald McAlpine (who also co-shot Badham’s The Hard Way) was also so similarly distinctive.
In fact, despite some of the unreal, pulpy or cartoonish elements of Another Stakeout (which still makes me laugh) and Drop Zone (which is just crazy but fun), I still enjoy Badham’s latter-period action comedies and b-movie turnout and it’s a shame that his last notable film release was so long ago (1998’s Incognito, which I haven’t seen,) not including his two telefilms for HBO. I’d love to see him take the reigns at the age 74, assuming he’d actually want to, on one more major motion picture, something smart and pop-arty like a Marvel property, where a cartoonish universe would be right at home alongside his visual panache and sense of fun. It would be great to have the man make one more good one for the current age.
Bring back John Badham!
Now that Michael Keaton is back, even though he never really left, I’m thinking back on his career. One movie stands out in my mind as being the most unfairly treated. Multiplicity (1996).
A Sci-Fi Comedy from Harold Ramis that came almost directly after Groundhog Day (1993), I’ve always thought of the two films as spiritual cousins. Instead of Bill Murray playing the same scenes over and over in an exploration of the human condition, Keaton plays the same character over and over. It’s a cloning comedy. I think Keaton pulled off something that very few actors in film history could – playing the same character multiple times but making each one unique. And funny. Peter Sellers is legendary for multiple roles and even he never did this.
Unfairly panned and mostly a bomb, I think Multiplicity is worth a second look.
In 1996 I gave it *** out of 4.
In doing a personal research project regarding the classic (and now over-sequelized) 1988 action film DIE HARD, directed by John McTiernan and starring Bruce Willis, I picked up on something kind of interesting…
The expression “yippee-ki-yay,” attributed to Roy Rogers by John McClane (Bruce Willis), may or may not have actually been coined by Roy Rogers.
In trying to find the actual very first use of the term, I found some intriguing clips on YouTube. First were a couple of versions of the song “The Ballad of Pecos Bill” by Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. In both the following version (date unknown) and the 1948 version below from the Disney feature film, Pecos Bill, the line is “yippee-i-yay, yippee-i-oh”…
A little closer is the next song, written by Johnny Mercer and performed by Bing Crosby, “I’m An Old Cowhand” from 1936. It features the expression “yippee-i-oh-ki-yay.”
And in this Roy Rogers version of “Git Along Little Dogies” from 1940, he uses the expression “whoopy-ti-yi-oh.”
So, did Roy Rogers ever actually say yippee-ki-yay? Maybe as dialogue in a particular film? Or on the radio? Or in a different version of a different song? I’m not sure. If so, I still haven’t found it. My research continues…
Also, I’m throwing this last clip in, ’cause it’s pretty cute.
…And with that, I think I may have done more actual, proper Die Hard-related research than the makers of A Good Day to Die Hard did.
Thor: The Dark World **1/2 Tom Hiddleston, spectacular production design and genuine laughs overcome a weak villian and muddled story. tm
Gravity **1/2 Survival of the human spirit in Alfonso Cuaron’s technically impressive but emotionally stunted outer space adventure.
In fighting, as in storytelling, one of one’s greatest allies is the element of surprise. A well-placed strike, an unexpected kick. When I walked into the local cineplex this afternoon, I felt I knew what was coming as I sat down for Wong Kar-wai’s THE GRANDMASTER. And at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I found it to be the most unexpectedly terrific film I’ve seen in more than a year and possibly the best martial arts picture since Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi.
What makes it so great? Intention and detail. When I first saw the Grandmaster trailers I thought, “Wow, Wong Kar-wai’s doing a genre film again?” He hadn’t really done one since Ashes of Time in 1994 (and the cine-revisionist Ashes of Time Redux in 2008). In the between years, the man perfected the slow-burn romance drama with In the Mood For Love, 2046 and The Hand – his contribution to the omnibus film, Eros – and brought his sensibilities stateside with the noble Norah Jones and Jude Law-led My Blueberry Nights which wasn’t perfect but grew on and blossomed for me very quickly. So when I saw Tony Leung fighting ten or fifteen random people at night in the rain as the renowned Wing Chun master Ip Man — more recently played with general action flick acclaim by Donnie Yen — I thought it was an unusual step for WKW to make something so popularist, so apparently standard-looking. Like Edward Hopper penciling an issue of a Spider-Man comic. Not a bad move, just… Well, unexpected.
I should have known better.
The Grandmaster is about fighting, both one’s physical opponent and one’s own desires. Part biopic and part action flick but all art film and even more so than it appears. A beautiful bait and switch, things start out as you might expect but in the latter half the film’s real strengths are revealed. Lovingly filmed, edited, photographed and performed, it’s not so concerned with badassness, sweeping vistas and operatic theatricality, though there is quite a bit of that in the first half and specific moments in the second and those scenes are still very well done and rank among the best anyone has ever done them. Then the visceral thrill of battle and excitement gives way to a more serene, heartfelt and contemplative second half that fits squarely into WKW’s more recent oeuvre. You realize that you’re watching something different, something that will tug at your emotions as much as it fulfills your need for fight choreography. You feel the fights more when you care about the characters this much, when they’re this well-drawn.
No slap to Donnie Yen’s Ip Man films is intended here. They’re a lot of fun and remain well-made and well-performed action adventures. WKW’s Grandmasters is just a different take with different artistic concerns. Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining are both haunted house films. One’s a fun, sweet thrill ride and one’s a breathtaking, strange and shattering artistic wonder. Two different takes on horror, both great movies.
The Grandmaster also serves as a reminder about the sure-handed skill of it’s director, Wong Kar-wai..
The guy couldn’t make an average movie if he tried.
The Wolverine ***1/2 Retells a classic Marvel tale of the tragic ways of a mutant warrior who battles fear, inner demons and prejudice. tm