Short but Sweet: Acting Careers Cut Short

This past week was marked with tragedy in the entertainment world. Heath Ledger’s untimely departure may be one of the most saddening and strange Hollywood deaths in recent years not only because of its unexpected nature but also the fact that Ledger had an extremely promising future ahead of him. To be fair the start of 2008 seems to have been tainted with tragic events. The overlooked passing of former child actor Brad Renfro, an equally talented actor who unfortunately made some poor choices in life, is as disturbing because one can’t help but wonder what might have happened had both these actors lived on.

Both deaths were startling, Ledger’s holding the most shock value since there were few, if any, warning signs, and seemed so unfair since the two actors were still in the process of establishing their legacies. While I was watching the news coverage of Ledger’s passing I started to think of other great actors whose promising careers were cut short and who will forever leave admirers wondering about what might have been. Ledger’s career could probably be compared best to River Phoenix, the young child star who ditched the pretty boy pop film roles in lieu of more daring performances in films like Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho or The Mosquito Coast.

Then there is the classic tale of James Dean, a rebel who died at 24, or tragic comic departures such as John Belushi and Chris Farley. Still the one tragic loss that I was reminded of and continues to be overlooked time and time again is that of one John Cazale, undoubtedly one of the finest characters actors to come out of the finest cinematic decades, the 1970s.
Cazale only made five feature films in his short career, all of which were either Oscar best picture winners or contenders, and still hold the ranks as some of the greatest American films ever made. He is probably best known for his tragic performance as the weak Corleone brother Fredo in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, the latter featuring one of the most chilling and memorable kisses ever seen on celluloid.

Getting his start in theater, Cazale jumped onto film scene after landing the Godfather role after his longtime friend Al Pacino snagged the film’s coveted lead role. He would later work with the Godfather auteur, Francis Ford Coppola, in 1974s The Conversation, as Gene Hackman’s witty surveillance assistance. After his scene stealing performance in the second Godfather outing, Cazale shared the screen yet again with Pacino in Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece, Dog Day Afternoon, as the dimwitted but empathetic bank robber, Sal Naturile. It was Afternoon’s riveting performance that potentially could have launched him into leading man role but sadly his next film, Michael Cimino’s equally lauded epic, The Deer Hunter, would be his last.

While his performance in Hunter as small town Pennsylvania laborer Stan “Stosh” is minor compared to the film’s trio of stars–Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and the rising Meryl Streep, who, it should be noted, was engaged to Cazale during the film’s production–his character was key to establishing the converse worlds portrayed in the film. The scenes building up to certain characters’ departure to Vietnam and their return home convey more than any other war film the thin line between war and home, heaven and hell as seen through the eyes of those who have witnessed battle.

He also managed to provide a bit of comic relief in the film, most notably seen in the film’s introductory wedding ceremony crescendo in which his inebriated and jealous character hits his date for dancing with another man instead of actually socking said male. Later during an intense scene involving a revolver he shares a moving scene with De Niro’s scarred Vietnam vet, Mike.

Sadly Cazale was diagnosed with bone cancer right before filming commenced on Hunter and despite his ailing health he completed production, encouraged by Cimino, his friends and Streep. He would pass before the film’s release and sweep at the 1979 Academy Awards.

It’s hard to say where Cazale’s career would have gone had he not succumbed to cancer. While for the most part his roles were bit or character in nature, Dog Day Afternoon, being the exception, his scene stealing moments proved that he had potential to being a leading man. His role as Fredo was pinnacle for the Corleone family story and his tragic portrayal of Pacino’s partner in crime in Afternoon was ripe with empathy and a level of camaraderie that no doubt reflected the two actor’s true relationship. Pacino who got his start in theater alongside Cazale, often referred to the actor as “my acting partner.”

While Cazale may not have been as young as Ledger (he was 42 when he died) or many other actors who passed too premature, his departure felt all the more tragic because of the brevity of his acting career. Still his legacy is forever eternalized in five masterpieces. It’s been just shy of 30 years since Cazale passed away and while his films are still adored by many I believe he deserves a spotlight for his stellar performances, especially for those who may not know about this wonderfully gifted actor.

Brad Renfro will be remembered best for his breakthrough performance in the Grisham to screen film, The Client, opposite Susan Sarandon, but check out his daring roles in Larry Clark’s Bully or Apt Pupil, not to mention a small but comical part in Ghost World.

Ledger was just starting to explore his acting range but luckily he left behind one role that will no doubt define his short career. The shy but deeply complicated character, Ennis Del Mar, in Brokeback Mountain is the kind of role that takes courage but is also a true actor’s dream. And Ledger nailed it. With The Dark Knight just around the corner, a supposed spooky take on joker that apparently sent shivers down the spine of his co-stars, including Sir Michael Caine, there is one more possible masterpiece left to add to Ledger’s short canon.

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The Greatest Action Film Ever Made



The other day I caught a trailer for yet another upcoming post-apocalyptic thriller called, Doomsday. For starters let me just say that this current wave of end of the world scenarios in films, books and even music, is a bit worrisome if you ask me. Is this some grim foreshadowing for what’s in store in the future or is this just the mainstream media playing into our government’s fear tactics and our doubts about the state of things? But that’s fodder for another column.

 

What really struck me about the Doomsday preview was how familiar it looked. The film, which is British director Neil Marshall’s follow up to the terrifying spelunking thriller The Descent (2005), appears to have taken, almost literally, the storylines from three genre classics. The plot involves a part of the U.K. (Scotland to be exact. Brits always have it in for the Scots) being quarantined off by the government after an outbreak of some undisclosed nasty virus or plague of sorts (28 Days Later), ultimately leaving thousands of people to die.

 

Flash forward twenty something years later and a group of soldiers, led by what appears to be a highly attractive female scientist who also knows how to kick ass (where have we seen this premise before?) are sent back to the abandoned cities in search of a cure (I Am Legend treaded these waters). Upon doing so they find a population of survivors who have built up a lawless and wild civilization for themselves that may or may not involve cannibalism (Escape From New York and/or The Hills Have Eyes). Finally towards the end of the trailer we are treated to a barrage of high-speed car chases, motorcycles, creepy punk like villains peppered with elaborate tattoos and crazy hair, and a mohawk sporting underground leader of sorts who says, “We’re gonna catch ‘em, cook ‘em, and eat ‘em!”

 

Now while I mentioned a number of obvious films that the makers of Doomsday are either paying homage to or have blatantly ripped off I’ve left the most obvious and best predecessor for last. George Miller’s, The Road Warrior, a follow up to his post-apocalyptic classic, Mad Max, may be one of the best action films ever made. I take that back. It’s hands down the greatest action movie ever made because quite frankly nothing had been made like it before its release and since then nothing has even come close to besting it. Let me explain.

 

The Road Warrior works as a solid action film because of its purity. For those not familiar with the film or the Mad Max trilogy that it is a part of, these were the films that launched the career of Mel Gibson, then still a young, yet to be ‘Passioned’ Australian actor. The film was made on a small budget of four million Aussie dollars that was stretched and stretched but still looks as unique and innovative now as it did then.

 

The stunts were all performed without the aid of special effects or safety laws and restrictions (many stunt men were injured during the film’s now legendary production) and hold up even today in the age of computers as some of the greatest ever filmed. People leap from moving cars, motorcycles fly in the air, and a massive tanker truck wrecks everything in its warpath, to give you a taste of the film’s action glory.

 

The film featured no name actors. In fact casting for the project may or may not have included gathering up a group of Australian bikers, body builders and Judas Priest fans that were chosen not for their acting abilities but rather the prospects of saving money on makeup and costumes. Finally the premise deals with an undisclosed crash of industry and the economy and leaves Australia as a large highway of savages searching for the only currency of any worth, fuel.

 

Gibson’s Max is a cold “shell of a man,” as one character describes him, who drives the empty roads and wastelands in search of nothing in particular, save the occasional high-speed chase and shootout with bad dudes on motorcycles who carry wrist crossbows. There is also a lethal feral child who carries a sharpened steel boom-a-rang, a jittery fellow with a one-man helicopter and a pet snake, a psychotic seven foot tall rival gang leader wonderfully named Lord Humungous who wears a leather thong and a hockey mask (film was made a year before Jason from the Friday the 13th series donned his) and of course a slew of suped up muscle cars, bikes and dune buggies, all of which either get crashed or blown up. Director and screenwriter George Miller should also get credit for one hell of an imagination.

 

The film’s 15 minutes plus, no-holds-barred climax is one of the finest showcases of finger biting action and stunt work ever seen on film, also joining the ranks of The French ConnectionRonin, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and the always classic Bullitt as one of the best car chase scenes in cinema history. Above all, despite a minimalist script and plot, the film’s apocalyptic storyline involving a ruthless dependence on fuel to survive is as believable now as it was in 1981 when the film was released. The messages in this film–vengeance, survival of the fittest, remorse, and justice–are subtle but also present.

 

The upcoming Doomsday is hardly the first time a film has lifted cues from The Road Warrior. Kevin Costner’s legendary bomb of a film, Waterworld, was almost a direct adaptation of the film only set on the ocean with jet skis in lieu of motorcycles and a quest for dirt rather than fuel (seriously, remember how ridiculous Waterworld was?). Even Tupac Shakur seemed to have been a fan as seen in the futuristic, primitive gang music video for his song, “California Love.” And in many ways The Road Warrior itself borrows themes from other chapters in cinema history, particularly Western film iconography and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, also an extremely influential film.

 

The Road Warrior is a film that embodies a style of filmmaking that has since become out of fashion amidst modern technological advances in special effects. Now while the film doesn’t have the same smooth, glossy feel of say a modern, action heavy film likeThe Bourne Ultimatum, there is something comforting about Warrior’s low-budget, yet realistic look.

 

It’s safe to say that a film like this could never be made again in the same way since labor laws and safety regulations would end its production from the get go, which is also what makes it a bit of a time capsule film circa a time when guys could go out in the desert with a crew of funky characters, cool cars, lots of explosives and make a compelling action flick. While I’ll most likely seeDoomsday when it’s released and any other film in the same vein as The Road Warrior that is destined to come out in the future I’m confident that nothing will ever come close to besting what still remains one hell of a wild cinematic ride.


Scoring the Silver Screen


This past year was no doubt a good one for Radiohead. The internet exclusive, pay what you want download release of its seventh album garnered enough media attention that even mentioning it again seems pointless. Still one of the most interesting, partially overlooked news to come out of U.K.s best export is guitarist Johnny Greenwood’s venture into film scoring.

There Will be Blood technically opened towards the end of 2007 in select theaters, but is just now getting a wide release. The long anticipated fifth film from filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) is not only one of the finer films you’ll see but features a bizarre yet stirring score from Mr. Greenwood.

Greenwood has in many ways always been the core of Radiohead. Sure lead singer Thom Yorke’s lyrics and musical visions are monumental to the band’s success but it’s multi talented Greenwood’s ambitions and constant desire to change what sound means to music that makes him the driving force of the group. The classically trained musician seems right at home conducting a full symphony orchestra for the scoring of There Will Be Blood possibly because part of his brilliance is taking any instrument or musical medium at his disposal and completely stretching the limits of its range and sound.

While There Will be Blood’s score may not win any awards this season the likes of which generally fall towards household pioneers such as John Williams, Howard Shore or Thomas Newman, Greenwood’s step into film scoring is exciting because this venture may be the start of a long career into cinema.

If done right film scoring can be an amazing part of the cinematic experience. A good score is as important to the story and overall feel of a film as the actors themselves, adding to the allure of the escapism of film. The greats are still adored, hummed and applauded even today. John Williams’ minimalist nightmare crescendo from Jaws, Max Steiner’s beautiful medley for Gone with the Wind, or Bernard Herrmann’s universally known frenzied string score for Psycho or his slow burning moody jazz cuts for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, among others, are some of the most memorable scores in history.

Greenwood’s take on PT Anderson’s film of greed, corruption, and the birth of ruthless modern capitalism compliments the films frenzied, chaotic themes while also adding flavors of early 20th Western movie lore musicology. Perhaps its wishful thinking on my part but I hope this is just his beginning. Since I’m a sucker for moving film scores I decided to compile a list of recent film composers that continue to stand out in my mind and are destined to go down in history as some of the greats. Please feel free to add.

Hans Zimmer–I begin with Hans Zimmer because, like Greenwood, Zimmer began his career in popular music and transferred his unique talent over to silver screen scoring. As a keyboardist for The Buggles (80s one hit wonders responsible for the iconic/ironic MTV premiere music video, “Video Killed the Radio Star”) he got a taste for the popular music industry but clearly was destined for bigger things. From his sublime score for Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (seriously download this if you’ve never heard it), to Rain Man, True Romance, The Lion King, Gladiator (a beautiful score to an overly hyped film), Black Hawk Down and most recently taking on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Zimmer remains one of the most innovative scorers working today. His continued collaborations with siren vocalist Lisa Gerrard should also be noted. Key Tracks: “Journey to the Line” (Thin Red Line), “Gortoz A Ran J’Attends(Black Hawk Down), “Elysium” (Gladiator)

Gustavo Santaolalla–This Argentine classical guitarist first made a splash after his haunting instrumental piece “Iguazú” was featured in the soundtrack for the shamefully overlooked 1997 film, The Insider, and later on countless other film’s, television shows, and commercials. Since then he has partnered up with Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzaléz Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), provided moving scores for The Motorcycle Diaries, North Country, and is set to score Walter Salles’ upcoming adaptation of On the Road. Still his finest work yet is also the one that was ruined by public satire. Despite being an overall beautiful film, Brokeback Mountain has one of the finest scores in recent years but somehow countless Youtube parodies of the film’s themes have ruined what is an extremely moving score. Other Key Tracks: “El Otro Lado Del Rio” (The Motorcycle Diaries), “Can Things be Better” (21 Grams), “Tema + Atacama” (Amores Perros)

Trevor Jones–While this South African composer’s heyday was during the early nineties, he produced possibly one of the finest scores to ever pair up with a motion picture. His epic compositions (co-credited to Randy Edelman) for Michael Mann’s film adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans were the perfect musical backdrop for the film’s vast natural settings and intense chase storyline. He also collaborated with Mr. David Bowie on the soundtrack to the dark muppet tale, Labyrinth. I know there are some “Magic Dance” fans out there. Key Tracks: “Promontory” (Last of the Mohicans)

Match Made in Heaven: Some of the most notable composers working today are the ones that continue to team-up with equally unique filmmakers. Film after film these gifted duos always seem to find that special artistic bond. Clint Mansell’s work on all three of Darren Aronofsky’s films (Pi, Requiem For a Dream, The Fountain), rock hipster Jon Brion’s collaborations with indie film hipster P.T. Anderson (Hard Eight, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love), Cliff Martinez’s longstanding work with Steven Soderbergh (King of the Hill, The Limey, Traffic, Solaris), veteran maestro Angelo Badalamenti’s dark yet hauntingly beautiful work with surrealist David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive) and finally jazz trumpet extraordinaire Terrence Blanchard’s ongoing partnership with Spike Lee, most notably his moving requiems for the must-see HBO post-Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke and his score for the films Clockers and 25th Hour. Also lets not forget Howard Shore’s long standing partnership with David Cronenberg, which has now spawned a Broadway musical adaptation of Cronenberg’s gross out 80s horror classic, The Fly. Key Tracks: Besides seeing all the great films mentioned, check out this innovative and unique group of composers wherever you acquire music.

Ennio Morricone–This is cheating since Morricone is a veteran scorer, still for those who are not familiar with his work he is hands down the greatest living film composer. This Italian legend has contributed to over 400 projects and has created some of the finest pieces of music out there (whole symphonies are devoted to his scores). While he’s most well known for his work with Spaghetti Western filmmaker Sergio Leone–his scores for A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West–Morricone’s best work can be found in the forgotten masterpiece, 1986s The Mission. Also worth noting are his scoring for The Untouchables, Days of Heaven, Cinema Paradiso, and State of Grace. Key Tracks: “Ecstasy of Gold” and “The Trio” (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), “Falls” (The Mission), “The Harvest” (Days of Heaven)

Some More Photos from Europe
Ljubljana, Slovenia: Underrated modern capital of tiny Slovenia.

Lokrum, Croatia: Small Island off the coast of Dubrovnik in Southern Croatia on the border of Montenegro

Istanbul, Turkey: The Egyptian spice market is a sight for all senses.

Doner kebab is Turkey’s contribution to European easy cuisine. It is also the cheapest and tastiest fuel for backpackers on a budget and on the go.

Istanbul, Turkey’s Grand Bazaar

Santiago De Compostelo, Spain: Butcher inside a market

The Downfall of the Moviegoing Experience


Okay, for anyone who’s recently gone to the movies you may have noticed a fairly over the top, in your face, message from the United States National Guard plastered on the screen prior to the coming attractions. This is not the ordinary recruitment advertisement we’re all used to by now, the likes of which usually involve overly patriotic men and women working together on a ship and/or battle station or young muscled bucks patriotically climbing mountains. No, in desperate times the U.S. military powers turned to a saving grace, robust rockers 3 Doors Down.
Before I use the rest of this column to point on how ridiculous and possibly dangerous stunts like this are to this country let’s first discuss what’s happened to the movie going experience over the years. 

It may be difficult to remember but there was a time when going to the movies was fairly simple. Tickets we’re reasonably priced, trailers were minimal and for the most part welcome and the only signs of pre-trailer advertising were the highly catchy theatre jingles–nostalgia sets in when I think of “Thank you for coming to Loews, sit back and relax, enjoy the show!” 

Then theaters started growing in size and grandeur and with it a slow but steady addition of advertisements started screening before the coming attractions, not only adding more time to the overall theater experience but also force feeding paying attendees with mind numbing spots for Coke, cars and of course, Fandango–its long standing brown bag puppet marketing campaign I hear is currently being is used by Blackwater mercenaries as an alternative to controversial and now passé waterboarding torture tactics. 

For a short period movie goers were able to weed out which theaters around town hadn’t succumbed to pre-show advertising but those days are gone as well and with the exception of dollar or art house theaters, going to the movies has become as painful as watching primetime television, only without the luxury of the a mute button. Seriously, there was a time when people were outraged by paying $10 to see a movie and ten minutes of advertising. Now pre-show advertising is as common and expected as sticky theater flooring and snacks that cost more than a gallon of gasoline.

Like most of you I know what to expect when I sit down for a movie these days, however, after the ridiculous National Guard funded spectacle recently circulating cinemas I think it’s safe to say the theater industry has gone too far.

For those of you not familiar with the video I’m referring to let me explain. “Citizen Soldier” is actually more of a music video than a PR spot for the U.S. National Guard. The song in question, “Citizen Soldier,” an overly patriotic wannabe rock anthem from one 3 Doors Down, quite frankly one of the most baffling success stories of the last ten years of popular music, joining the ranks of fellow mood rockers such as Evanescence, Nickelback and oh, I don’t know, Creed. 

Now I’m not here to bash the latter bands mentioned. While I don’t enjoy their music or hard hitting, soul clenching lyrics (Last chance for one last dance/Cause with you, I’d 
withstand/All of hell to hold your hand “Far Away”-Nickelback) there are people are out there who continue to support them. Hey, whatever floats your boat. This said, I can’t help but think that being forced to stomach this music paired with a National Guard propaganda video piece while I sit waiting to see “Juno” or “Charlie Wilson’s War” is a bit cruel. Who’s with me on this one?

Let’s get back to the video at hand. For those who haven’t had the chance to see it I’m guessing it’s plastered all over the National Guard’s website or MySpace page (I haven’t actually checked this out but am assuming the Army is utilizing all Internet mediums to help lure future Citizen Soldiers). For those not willing to seek it out I’ve decided to provide a basic summary overview.

The “Citizen Soldier” music video opens with the stout gentlemen that make up 3 Doors Down perched on a dark grassy null with guitars in hands, while menacing storm clouds stir behind them. Cue sinister musical intro and a crash of cymbals. We then are introduced to the video’s main character; the average citizen soldier, a tall Abercrombie looking mofo who, while walking on what looks to be a college campus drops his bag to run and catch a football in mid air (folks I couldn’t make this up if I tried). The video refers to him simply as citizen although we’ll call him Joe, Real American Hero. Jump cut to a deflated football picked up from a muddy puddle by Joe in Soldier form. Smoke and rubble now litter the background (powerful metaphors saturate this video). 

Next we are taken back in time to the American Revolution where another soldier (quite possibly our Joe although it’s hard to tell the identity with all the smoke and 18th century army fatigues) running with a musket while cannon balls whiz by and blow up the ground after every step. Stay with me people. This is followed by the song’s chorus, which I couldn’t help but include below. 

Citizen soldiers. 
Holding the light for the ones that we guide from the dark of despair.
Standing on guard for the ones that we’ve sheltered.
We’ll always be ready because we will always be there.

We then flash forward to modern day warfare. Lots of Blackhawk helicopters, smoke, tanks, more smoke, a rising sun and a platoon of disciplined soldiers with matching Oakley shades. Cue the video’s only attempt to be PC with a female minority corporal receiving an honorable medal of sorts. Return to the chorus followed by another trip back in time to the beaches of Normandy, circa WWII. 

Then back to 3 Doors Down’s grassy stage. Cue lightening eruptions in background followed by the line, 
When they simply need a place to make their beds.
Right here underneath my wing, you can rest your head.

Which I’m pretty sure implies Citizen Soldiers are, in fact, angels. Separation of church and state never really had a chance did it? After this we return to Joe who is now on American soil pulling a shocked child out of a building in rubble. Cue soldier patriotically repelling from a helicopter followed by a return to the Revolutionary patriot incarnation of Joe. Return to cannon ball explosions. Then we get a glimpse of 9/11s aftermath footage, followed by the National Guard logo/seal and a message informing an anxious nation of 3 Doors Down’s new album coming in 2008.

So yeah. This kind of recruitment manipulation from the U.S. army is hardly new. Nor is this the first time the government has tapped into pre-show theater advertising to help woo young bucks into signing up and shipping out. In a country where a draft is a pipe dream this kind of promotional marketing is expected, however, since the average film trailer is a little over two minutes, a music video clocking in at nearly four minutes is a bit overkill if you ask me. Plus comparing our current war to the American Revolution is a bit of a stretch if you ask me. But I’ll leave my political opinions out of this. 

Normally I wouldn’t dwell on something as meaningless as this but I can’t help but think that the theater industry has gone too far. It’s bad enough keeping up with rising theater ticket prices or having the concession stand lady tell me she’s not soaking my popcorn with chemical butter. Paying to see a movie and then being forced to wait even longer for the film to start because 3 Doors Down is looking to hype their new album is a new low. I mean does the government really think they’re going to successfully motivate someone to join up while they’re waiting to watch “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” I mean what’s next, advertising on Nickelodeon? 

People in the industry complain about a decrease in the number of people going to the movies over the years. Ticket sales are down, Netflix and affordable 5.1 home theater systems are up and why wouldn’t it be this way. In typical American consumer fashion marketing powers are tapping into any medium they can, pushing the envelope on what’s tolerable by the American public. We don’t pay for broadcast television so in turn we endure the advertising the funds the shows we watch. When it comes to movie though the powers that be need to make a choice. Advertising dollars or ticket prices. 

With technology shifting the way we soak in popular culture towards our living rooms what will movie theaters be like 20 years from now? As for the savvy individuals at the U.S. Army and National guard, it’ll take more than a grandiose, ultra patriotic music video by a has been rock band to help aid their cause, at least after the debacle we’re in now.