Tuesday, May 30, 2017

DEAR ACADEMY, GIVE RIDLEY SCOTT AN HONORARY OSCAR

Original caricature by Jeff York of filmmaker Ridley Scott (copyright 2017)

Dear Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,

This is my fourth in a series of five open letters intended to place certain worthy candidates on your radar for this year's Governors Award. In the past weeks I have presented the following who are long overdue for some Oscar love: filmmaker David Lynch, actress Catherine Deneuve, and actor Kurt Russell. My fourth candidate is a man who truly stands as one of the greatest multi-hyphenates in all of show business. He’s a director, producer, writer, production designer, and also, one of the biggest game changers that the film world has ever seen. He is Sir Ridley Scott. 

Scott has been nominated three times for the Best Director Oscar, yet hasn't won, even though one of his epics won Best Picture - GLADIATOR. With 40 plus film-directing credits to his name, three writing credits, and 123 producer credits listed on his IMDB page, Scott is clearly one of the giants in the industry. He’s thrived all over television too, producing all sorts of shows, specials, movies and documentaries. (He's won two Emmys there and been nominated an additional seven times.) And as if all of that isn’t enough for this over-achiever, Scott has given us one icon after another onscreen, from the Xenomorph to Ripley to Replicants to Maximus to Thelma and Louise. 

Scott is now 79, yet he is still going strong. He has no fewer than 59 projects in development according to IMDBPro.com. Whew! ALIEN: COVENANT, just out this summer, is the third movie he's directed in that franchise and the series is almost 40 years old now. Scott's name on any project makes it a big deal and ensures attention, even a series in its 38th year. And just watch the renewed attention that BLADE RUNNER will get later this season when the eagerly awaited sequel BLADE RUNNER 2049 opens. Scott directed the former, now considered a classic, and he executive produces the latter. 

Science fiction isn't the only place he's thrived of course. Few directors have had as vast a resume as he does, nor have they directed as many different types of films as Scott. He's directed dozens of impressive films and in just about every genre too, from science fiction (THE MARTIAN) to action/adventure (BLACKHAWK DOWN) to thrillers (BODY OF LIES) to character studies (AMERICAN GANGSTER) to historical epics (GLADIATOR).   

One of the great things about Scott as a director is how he has toiled in genre without ever condescending to it. And with ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER, he created extraordinary works at a time when science fiction films weren't prestige films the way they are today after the impact of STAR WARS and STAR TREK on the big screen. In fact, the sci-fi genre was still considered the realm of B-movies back in the 70's and early 80's, but Scott's artistry helped change all that. He approached the genre with his A-game, and the world of movies were immeasurably better for his devotion and craft.

In fact, what Scott did with ALIEN usurped so much of what one expects from sci-fi-fi or horror. For starters, Scott strove to cast his monster movie with established and respected character actors, not cheap talent, and thus he chose the likes of Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright and Harry Dean Stanton. He also put John Hurt and Ian Holm, theatrically trained UK actors in key parts too. Most significantly, he cast an unknown for the lead of Ripley - newcomer Sigourney Weaver. Because she was a newbie, audiences didn't know what to make of her character. Was she good, bad, what? Scott wanted to keep us guessing and out of sorts. He clearly loved that Dan O'Bannon's script screwed with storytelling conventions left and right, even killing off the stalwart captain so early in the film. Scott enhanced that great conceit even further by casting handsome, well-known leading man Tom Skerritt in the part.

Another brilliant move of Scott's was how he treated the space ship in ALIEN. Gone was the gleaming futuristic sterility of Kubrick or Roddenberry. Scott's spaceship looked used and even grimy. He gave it all a lived in look and it helped to ground things and make it all more relatable. He also shrewdly contracted artist H.R. Giger to create the alien creature and design the interiors of the Nostromo ship as well. Giger's monster was complex, yet streamlined. It had a simple dolphin-esque snout but then when it opened its mouth two sets of vicious, gnashing teeth were revealed. No one had seen anything quite like it.And Giger's ship interiors were just as menacing as the monster. The ship's passageways were dark, ornate and full of claustrophobic, creepy corridors. Even the exposed bric-a-brac looked similar to the alien's skeletal structure. It made for a perfect camouflage that the intrepid and sinister villain could disappear into.   

Scott also amped up the film's sound design, replacing typical orchestral underscoring with something more guttural, animalistic, and unsettling. Gone were orchestral melodies and recognizable strings. Instead, he instructed veteran film composer Jerry Goldsmith to unleash a cacophony of harsh noises, synthesized tones, and repeating rhythms. The score is also just as impressive for its silences. If no one can hear you scream in space, then it was clearly Scott's conceit that silence was just as terrifying while you waited for something awful to happen. 

And what Scott gleaned from others only enhanced his efforts in ALIEN. Wisely following the "less is more" example that Steven Spielberg so brilliantly employed in 1975’s JAWS, Scott chose to show very little of his alien during the story, despite Giger's elaborately detailed vision. We never get a full shot of the alien until the very end, and while it's terrifying, the parts of his whole were just as effective. 

And then of course, there is BLADE RUNNER, Scott's brilliant meditation on man, machines, and the future of humanity. The film was widely panned and misunderstood upon its release in 1982, considered far too bleak and depressing. But now, audiences and critics have caught up to Scott's vision and it's recognized as a masterful accomplishment. 

 Scott again created a complete and complex world in BLADE RUNNER. His landscape was full of rich details and crowded layers of buildings and skyscrapers. He imbued his setting with a bleakness, constantly under the threat of rain. And he buttressed the glamour of neon and giant, alluring outdoor advertisements up against the city's gloomy citizenry moping around underneath. It was an awful world, rendered even worse by a false narrative of beauty hawking pills and getaways. The film is a tragic poem really in its way, mourning the loss of humanity in a too crowded and too technically obsessed society. It was prophetic and moving, and it may very well be Scott's finest achievement.

There were many others that shone too. BLACKHAWK DOWN stands as one of the most lauded war films of the last 30 years. WHITE SQUALL  and G.I. JANE are tense, character studies that are only becoming more and more appreciated with each new year. Even THE COUNSELOR, a film that many hated when it came out in 2013, looks better with repeated viewings. (It's certainly one of the most tense examinations of greed and gullibility ever to appear on screen.) And of course, GLADIATOR not only won tons of prizes, but it reinvented the sword and sandal epic, spawning a host of imitators on the big and small screen. Did you also know that Scott, in the middle of his burgeoning film career in the 80's found time to direct the most popular Super Bowl commercial of all time? That's right, he is the man who brought us the game-changing spot "1984" from Apple. 

Scott has received all sorts of acclaim throughout his career, and two years ago many pundits and Oscar experts expected him to be the frontrunner for Best Picture and Best Director with THE MARTIAN. His ticking clock thriller about a man lost in space not only was one of 2015's most critically lauded films, with a fresh score of 92% at RottenTomatoes.com, but it was also a humongous hit. It racked up $228 million in the USA during its theatrical run, and $552 million overall worldwide. And even though it won big at the Golden Globes and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, Scott was passed over in the Best Director category. He did receive a nod for producing THE MARTIAN, as it was a Best Picture nominee, but when the film failed to garner a directing nod for Scott, the film's shot at the top prize diminished and it finished an Oscar-less also-ran. 

The Academy did show him some big love when GLADIATOR took Best Picture of course, but  but the award for Best Director that year went to Steven Soderbergh (TRAFFIC). Interestingly, in the three times that Scott has been nominated for a Best Director Oscar, all the genres have been different. He was nominated for BLACKHAWK DOWN in 2001, and 10 years before that, for his exemplary character study THELMA & LOUISE.

On the face of it, THELMA & LOUISE probably seems the least likely to be a Ridley Scott film. After all, it was a small character piece, a two-hander really, and its two main characters were women. Scott's films often overflow with testosterone, but not here. This film was about friendship and women fighting for their rights in society. In picking such a project, Scott boldly tread into new waters. Yet, even as different as this project was for him, the results he mined were again spectacular. Both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis were up for Best Actress, and the film was an instant hit, striking a true chord in society. It also started a crucial dialogue in the nation about women, their right to say "no", and their stature in a modern world still filled with far too much prejudice and patriarchy. 

Callie Khouri wrote a bold and daring Oscar-winning script, and Scott's direction matched it the whole way. His direction combined the tension of a chase picture with the heartfelt examination of the tender friendship between the two female characters. And despite the exceptional cinematography and production design on display here once again, as after all, this was a Ridley Scott film, this outing played differently. Scott kept everything very close to the actors, using his camera to concentrate on their faces. That was his story here and Scott reigned in his showmanship for some of his most affecting work.

And at the climax, when Thelma and Louise make their uncompromising choice to end their lives by driving into the canyon rather than surrender, Scott heightened its shock and poignancy. He shoots their suicide as heroic, in slow motion, with the music rising to underline their unwillingness to kowtow.  Khouri's script was a brilliant middle finger to the tropes of typical Hollywood narrative, let alone male-dominated society,  and Scott went right along with her over that cliff. It was a big ending, outrageous really, and boy, did it play. It still is one of the greatest and most audacious finishes ever to a film.



Throughout his forty years, Ridley Scott has been an artist and filmmaker pushing the boundaries of what the medium can do, where stories can go, what genre means, and how characters act in their environments. He is an impeccable craftsman, and few can match his talent to frame, light, edit, or choreograph characters in their surroundings. Scott could still easily win an Oscar outright in competition, yet as he approaches his 80th year it's time to honor him for his lifetime of brilliant work. He's already been knighted by the Queen. Isn't it time the Academy bestowed a career-capper of their own upon this incredible filmmaker?  

Sincerely,
Jeff York

Film critic for The Establishing Shot
Host of the Page 2 Screen podcast for the International Screenwriters Association
Member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle

Friday, May 19, 2017

DEAR ACADEMY, GIVE KURT RUSSELL AN HONORARY OSCAR

Original caricature by Jeff York of Kurt Russell in TOMBSTONE (copyright 2017)

Dear Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,

This is my third in a series of five where I am putting forth the name of someone in the motion picture industry who is way overdue for Academy recognition and should receive your next Governors Award. My first two submissions were revolutionary filmmaker David Lynch and international star Catherine Deneuve. This third nominee is a leading man who’s been acting in films since 1963, starting when he was just 12. His first lead role was in 1969, when he was merely 17. Now 66, he’s been a major box office star for six decades. He has done exemplary work in every kind of film imaginable - comedy, drama, science fiction, horror, action, western, thriller, musical, and family film. The actor I’m talking about is one of Hollywood’s very finest, yet easily it’s most unsung as he has never received any Academy recognition. That actor is Kurt Russell.

Take a long look at Russell’s IMDB page or his Wikipedia bio and you’ll be duly impressed. The first impression that most people had of Russell of course was from his starring roles in Walt Disney comedies when he was still in his teens. THE COMPUTER WHO WORE TENNIS SHOES (1969), THE BAREFOOT EXECUTIVE (1971), and NOW YOU SEE HIM, NOW YOU DON’T (1972) were three big hits that he notched before reaching drinking age. (He was so important to the wonderful world of Disney, reportedly Russell's name were the last words Walt spoke before dying.) Disney recognized Russell’s talent early, and in the 70’s and 80’s, more and more filmmakers would too as they clamored to put Russell at the top of their films.

In 1979, Russell raised his game a significant notch or two with his uncanny portrayal of Elvis Presley in the ABC television movie ELVIS. Directed by John Carpenter, the movie was a huge critical hit and garnered great ratings. Russell ended up being nominated for an Emmy that year as Best Actor in a Movie or Miniseries. He’d work for Carpenter again numerous times in the next decade, but first he was hired by filmmaker Robert Zemekis in 1980. Russell was tapped to play Roy Russo, the sleazy and roguishly charming lead, in the new dark comedy USED CARS that Zemekis was about to direct. Co-written by Zemekis and Bob Gale six years before they’d send Marty McFly back to the future in a souped up DeLorean, USED CARS had Russo send the corpse of his dead boss swerving behind the wheel of an Edsel and crashing into a power transformer. Russell had been funny for Disney, but never dark like this. And Russell aced the part. Suddenly, Hollywood realized what a range this up and comer truly had.  

Carpenter followed ELVIS with back-to-back horror hits with HALLOWEEN and THE FOG and that gave him plenty of clout to do what he wanted with whom he wanted. Again, he turned to Russell, this time to star in his new science fiction adventure entitled ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. In the dystopian tale, Russell played bad-ass Snake Plissken, an ex-con forced to sneak into New York, now one big penal colony, and save the President after his plane crash lands there. Wearing an eye patch and suppressing his natural charms, Russell doesn’t give the audience one glimpse of his gleaming, all-American smile. Instead, he scowls and hisses his way through a misanthropic performance that someone like Clint Eastwood or Lee Marvin would usually get to play. Both the film and Plissken struck a chord with audiences, and over the years both have achieved cult status. (You can still find a number of fans dressed up as Russell's Plissken at any comic convention in the nation.) So, after acing a challenging bio pic, a mean and nasty dark comedy, and a rollicking sci-fi adventure, what was next for the ever impressive Russell?

The answer was horror. Carpenter again employed Russell, this time to head the cast of his remake of the classic 1951 B-movie THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Officially entitled JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING, the film got a lot of attention when it came out, but not the kind that either Carpenter or Russell wanted. Critics lambasted the movie for its stomach-churning special effects and languishing gore. Audiences stayed away and the film all but tanked. Yet today, the film is regarded as one of the greatest horror movies of all time. By modern standards, the R-rated grotesqueries in THE THING seem almost quaint. What comes through the strongest now is not Rob Bottin's stunning, in-camera effects, but rather, the strong characters in the battle of their lives with the space alien. A lot of that has to do with the stellar cast of accomplished character actors that Carpenter assembled for the film including Richard Dysart, Keith David, Donald Moffat, Richard Masur and Wilford Brimley. And at the top was Russell, dominating them all.

His character of R.J. MacReady was another antihero turn for him, but this one was even darker and scarier than Plissken. MacReady starts off as the hero of the piece, but along the way he turns into a vengeful and calculating executioner, taking out anyone he thinks is inhabited by the monster. MacReady even kills an innocent man in one of the film’s most shocking moments. Russell played MacReady as cold as those subzero temperatures in its Antarctica research station setting, refusing to play for easy audience sympathy. Instead, his MacReady is almost as monstrous as the species they’re fighting. This was a man willing to tether his remaining colleagues together to ascertain which one is the alien, even if it got them all killed by proximity. Perhaps it was Russell’s chilly portrayal that scared away viewers at the time as well, but now 36 years later, his uncompromising performance is regarded as one of the actor's best, and it anchors the genre classic.

From there, Russell appeared in an even wider range of films. He shrewdly took strong supporting roles in dramas like SILKWOOD (1983) for Mike Nichols and SWING SHIFT (1984) for Jonathan Demme. He turned popcorn entertainments, like the farcical OVERBOARD (1987) made with his longtime girlfriend Goldie Hawn, or the actioner TANGO & CASH (1987) costarring Sylvester Stallone, into substantial hits as well. And he was the heart and soul of Ron Howard’s BACKDRAFT (1991), which was so successful a movie that Universal Studios created a ride based on it firefighting themes at their Hollywood theme park. 

In 1993, Russell took on one of his best roles when he chose to play Wyatt Earp in the western TOMBSTONE. Coincidentally, that same year saw another big screen effort about the legendary lawman, a film entitled WYATT EARP starring Kevin Costner. Despite Costner being the one with two Oscars to his name, it was Russell's Earp that received the critical accolades as well as the audience dollars. TOMBSTONE succeeded by telling its saga with a sense of energy and adventure, rollicking back and forth between character study and action film, but mostly it succeeded because Russell brought so much heart to his performance as Earp. Costner’s approach was mopey and dour, while Russell’s gunslinger was pure earnestness and passionate. 

In fact, the way Russell played Earp is key to his stellar acting style. He’s always accessible, preferring to play parts in a straight-forward manner. Russell's characters almost always are exceedingly self-aware. Their character arcs come in how they overcome whatever obstacles are placed in front of them. Russell's characters may be flawed at times, or even anti-heroic, but they generally are men who are self-assured and self-aware, knowing what they want. The fun of watching Russell onscreen is seeing how these strong, confident men will handle all the kinds of shit thrown at them. 

To do so, Russell is reactive, which most acting coaches will tell you is the greatest and most difficult kind of screen acting. He reacts mostly to others, even if he's the protagonist. In doing so, Russell's open face and expressive blue eyes draw the audience in to him, making us identify with what he's going through onscreen. His experience becomes ours and he essentially has played the audience in almost every film he does. His character is our conduit, the one who most everyone in the audience can relate to. 

And there's a sincerity in Russell's acting, a genuine enjoyment in what he's doing. It’s why we go along with his Earp even when he turns vengeful, unleashing his wrath on the murderous ‘Cochise County Cowboys’, spitting out the threat “You tell ‘em I’m comin’, and hell’s comin’ with me!” We root for Russell’s Earp because he’s such a straight shooter…in more ways than one. And how many actors have been able to make all-American masculinity like that so appealingly whole-hearted, without appearing hokey or trite? William Holden, James Stewart, and Spencer Tracy could, but very few others have been able to make it work without looking corny. Kurt Russell is easily the best at it today.

In 1996, Russell did a complete 180 from his western he-man Earp when he played the uncertain, everyman scientist Dr. David Grant in the thriller EXECUTIVE DECISION. The movie is a cagey and clever story about special forces sneaking onto a plane midair to combat hijackers who have taken over the jet. The movie's trailer sold it as a buddy actioner with Russell’s bespectacled nerd working alongside Steven Seagal's macho army captain. But in the actual film, Seagal's character is killed 30 minutes in. That leaves Russell’s egghead to take over the film.

And it is in this performance that Russell shows the most range. He plays awkward, afraid, goofy, daring, headstrong, and decisive. Grant manages to win over the special forces men through quick thinking, emboldened heroics, and a willingness to let them tell him what needs to be done. Over the course of two hours, Grant grows into a confident leader. And when he confronts the terrorists face to face in the climax, his peaceful scientist returns and tries to talk them out of killing more people. Of course, they don’t listen, preferring to take out the pilot and co-pilot to doom the plane. That forces Grant to take the controls and land it safely. It’s a way over-the-top ending for sure, but damn if Russell doesn’t make every second of it believable. 

If you look at the rest of Russell’s long body of work, you will find other stand-out film acting. He may have made a few dogs in his day (CAPTAIN RON, anyone?) but Russell always manages to be good no matter what he's in. In the otherwise dreadful POSEIDON,  Russell’s character sacrifices himself to save the other luxury liner passengers and ends up drowning for his heroics. The scene called for Russell to act as if he's helplessly gulping water, losing air, and then expire onscreen. He made it so heartbreakingly believable that I still shudder to think of it.

And the actor shows no signs of slowing down as he stars in one big film after another for huge talents. He's been a favorite of Quentin Tarantino's for a few years now, starring as a bad-asses in two of his most recent efforts - DEATH PROOF (2007) and THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015). The characters, as written by Tarantino, are vicious types, but Russell still manages to make them fun and even joyful to watch. He does so by not over-emphasizing their evil. The actions of the characters are mean enough, so Russell chose to play them as jovial, sociable men. It makes for a very effective counter to the horrific actions that each character does onscreen.

For all of these great performances, Russell has gotten little awards attention. It's almost like he's too good, always on point, and the critics and his peers take him for granted. That's such a shame because he's given award-worthy turns in straight dramatic films that they should've heeded. His corrupt detective in Ron Shelton’s DARK BLUE (2002) was one, as was his turn as Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks in MIRACLE (2004). Yet, Russell's finest screen work may very well have been his performance in the taut little thriller BREAKDOWN from 1997. Rarely are award-type accolades given to a pulpy genre film like it, despite Jonathan Mostow's tight direction and Russell's intense performance. Still, it is easily one of the most effective nail-biters of the last 20 years. 

In BREAKDOWN, Russell plays an average Joe named Jeff Taylor who is traveling through the western United States with his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan). When their car breaks down in the desert, a kindly truck driver named Red (J.T. Walsh) stops and offers to give them a ride into town to hook up a tow. Amy gets in Red's cab, but never comes back. From there Jeff realizes he's been duped and that his wife's fate is sure to end in all kinds of horrors, so he must race to find her. Along the way, through pluck and some shrewd detective work, he discovers that his wife's abductor is actually a roving serial killer.

Russell is onscreen for virtually every second of the film, and he not only holds our attention the entire time but he puts us on the edge of our seats for the entirety of the movie. Russell again is an open book here, clueing the audience in to every nuance of his fear, anxiety, and hopes along the way in his desperate search. And even when he finally turns the tables on the killer at the end, his hero is no pithy Eastwood, Schwarzenegger or Stallone quipping wise. Instead, Russell's Jeff is still shook. He’s a regular guy, forced into extraordinary actions by a terribly dramatic situation, and is simply grateful to have wife back safe and sound. Russell understands that when the story is larger than life, there’s no reason for him to play it as big.  

Such talent and perception makes Kurt Russell one of our greatest movie stars in the history of film. His range, his resume, his ability to be equal parts Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne – all that makes him an actor the audience can always connect with and willingly follow, no matter the genre. It is high time that Russell, currently starring in and getting great reviews for GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, got his due. He plays a god in that mammoth hit, and he should be recognized in kind as one of cinema’s truest divine beings. Academy members, please give your 2017 Governors Award to Mr. Kurt Russell.

Sincerely,
Jeff York

Film critic for The Establishing Shot
Critic and host of the Page 2 Screen podcast for the International Screenwriters Association

Member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle