The Art of the Opening: Adventures in Babysitting (1987)

Director: Chris Columbus
Writer: David Simkin

THE SCREEN is black when you are hit by a wall of sound. Title credits roll as a teenage girl leaps into the frame lip-syncing to "Then He Kissed Me" by The Crystals, dancing with wild unabashed glee that you will only see on film. She kneels before a framed photo then holds it to her chest. From his cross-armed stance and preppy attire, you suspect that he's a dirtbag. This is confirmed as he pulls up to the house–Illinois plate reading "SO COOL" –and honks 3 times. 
 

This brilliantly choreographed opening dance sequence–without a word of dialogue– sets the tone of the movie and provides necessary background information about the main character and the setting in the span of 2 minutes. It's a supreme example of visual narrative in film.

The power of a musical opening brings to mind Scorsese. If you're unfamiliar with the opening scenes of Mean Streets (1973), a quick refresher can be found here https://youtu.be/k0KMxLvsvLI. A man (Harvey Keitel) gets out of bed at night and ponders his reflection, exhibiting signs of stress and guilt, followed by some home footage of the actor set to the song “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes, which was also written and produced by Phil Spector. Despite the differences in tone, the song makes the movie. On a side note, Scorsese used it without permission and narrowly escaped an injunction from an infuriated Spector, a crackpot who to this day claims that he held Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro's careers in his hand.

 
 
  Mean Streets

Mean Streets

  Adventures in Babysitting

Adventures in Babysitting

Another opening which bears resemblance to AIB is from the 60s comedy/musical Bye Bye Birdie (https://youtu.be/1t3cBTb3xPc). Here we have a young Ann Margaret with shoulder length red hair (looking a lot like Shue) singing directly to the camera about the object of her desire–preceded by a close up of a photo. Check out the side by side comparisons. This was referenced in an episode of Mad Men, which opened it up to a whole new generation of viewers. I haven’t seen the whole movie, and I doubt I ever will because her voice is more obnoxious than Rebecca Black on her worst day. 

  Bye Bye Birdie

Bye Bye Birdie

  Adventures in Babysitting

Adventures in Babysitting

   Bye Bye Birdie

Bye Bye Birdie

   Adventures in Babysitting

Adventures in Babysitting

Blues is central to the entire film. The next best scene takes place at a Blues Club on the South Side of Chicago. I think this trend started in the early 80s with John Hughes. More about him later. 

 
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Review: Rituals (1977)

Director: Peter Carter
Writer: Ian Sutherland

LOU. THE BENEVOLENT old trader in Wall Street. Henry. The spineless scientist in Creepshow. Father Malone in The Fog. The shady head of The Firm. Whether or not you know his name, you've probably seen Hal Holbrook in these supporting roles. Let's take a look at one of his leading roles in a unique horror/survival movie called Rituals (aka The Creeper).
 

A group of doctors are flown into a remote location for their annual backpacking trip. Expecting a respite from the stress of the medical profession, they're preyed on by an unknown assassin. A series of tragic accidents befalls them as they fight for survival.

I’m fascinated by the character development in this film. It’s all achieved through realistic banter. Dirty looks. Stoned and drunken ramblings reveal so much about the men. As the situation becomes more grim, the secrets and regrets pour out. Each man's identity is revealed only as it relates to the story.

The opening scene is perfect. Guys bullshitting around the breakfast table. Simple and effective. Almost Altmanesque. Tarantino–the ambassador of 1970s cinema–devised a similar situation for the opening of Reservoir Dogs. I'm not saying it's easy to pull off. It requires a combination of great writing and great acting to keep the audience interested in a 3 minute conversation about tipping. But the method is tried and true. For any movie that's all about the group, the audience has to see the bond, or lack thereof, before it's tested.

Rituals manages to be part Lord of the Flies and part intelligent slasher. The men are driven to their physical and moral extremes. Forced to choose between individualism and teamwork. Mitzi, played by Lawrence Dane, represents the brutal individualist. He's the perfect counterpart to the quiet, virtuous Harry. I'd call it an intelligent slasher because although they are being stalked by a creep with a vendetta against doctors, most of their physical injuries stem from their own ineptitude and disagreements. There isn't a full-on confrontation with the creep until the very end. I like that.

My main complaint with Ritual is the film quality. It's very grainy and key scenes are too dark to see. There were some very rough cuts as well. With regard to the cinematography, there's not much to speak of. Although it was shot in the Canadian wilderness, it’s not a beautiful movie. It’s bleak.

Most reviews describe Rituals as a copy of Deliverance. On the surface, they do have a lot in common. I think Rituals is better. When the shock of the butt rape in Deliverance wears off, what's left? Dueling banjos. No, thank you.

Rituals is for people who liked The Hills Have EyesThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Descent. It's a little hard to find because it's also known as The Creeper, but as of this writing, it's available in its entirety on Youtube:

 
 

 

 

Review: Coma (1978)

Director: Michael Crichton
Writers: Michael Crichton (screenplay) Robin Cook (novel)

IN ANTICIPATION OF HBO's REBOOT OF WESTWORLD I thought I would watch and review some of the films of Michael Crichton.

Sometimes before I watch a pre-1980s movie, I like to read the original newspaper reviews beforehand. They provide a generational context that Rotten Tomatoes cannot. All of Roger Ebert's old reviews are on rogerebert.com and the old NY Times reviews are online as well. Although Coma wasn't exactly panned by critics in 1978, the term Nancy Drew was blurted out–not as a compliment. Honestly, I've never read Nancy Drew. From what I've gathered, she's a semi-rich teenage sleuth who spends her time chasing purse snatchers around her home town. The only thing Coma has in common with that is a female protagonist. Being a fan of mysteries, I wasn't as quick to dismiss this movie.

Coma was directed by Michael Crichton, based on a novel by Robin Cook, both medical doctors. Although he was already a director and best-selling author, this was all before Steven Spielberg’s film version of Jurassic Park made Crichton a household name. The subgenre of medical thrillers weaves science into the typical mystery. It's basically a whodunit set against the backdrop of a Boston hospital. When a surgeon's friend is rendered comatose after a routine operation, her private inquiries into the cause reveals a bizarre procedural pattern, a backlash from hospital staff, and murder. 

  Douglas being Douglas

Douglas being Douglas

Geneviève Bujold's character Susan Wheeler is an ascetic doctor, unhappily involved with a colleague played by Michael Douglas, the quintessential doctor bachelor. She's whip-smart and pretty, but mostly unlikable until the shock of her friend's untimely death reveals a vulnerable side and an unlikely hero emerges. As she digs deeper into underlying causes of the incident, she's thwarted by the classic "threshold guardians" played by a young Rip Torn, and an elderly Richard Widmark.

Pacing is something that I play close attention to with any mystery. When the Cat and Mouse game between doctors gets old, the director takes us to the Jefferson Institute. The idea alone of a coma warehouse, where patients are cared for by computers is great science fiction. But the way it was brought to life on film is a testament to the timelessness of practical effects (see below). 

  Not CGI

Not CGI

I would give a lot of credit to Crichton and Cook for their ability to craft a believable medical world on film, with ample explanation, combined with elements of crime and action. By presumably pulling back the curtain on something the average viewer knows nothing about, they educate and excite. They play off of our fear of corpses and the known risks of surgery.

Coma is a nice example of 1970s style, taking cues from Robert Altman, particularly during the operation scenes, and Michael Mann, with regard to shots and color. It has a sparse musical score by Jerry Goldsmith, reserved for the most dramatic scenes. Aesthetically, I'd put it in a category with M*A*S*HThiefNetwork, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Style by decade is something I plan to explore deeply in later posts. 

 

Snow Westerns: The Films that Influenced The Hateful Eight

Image courtesy of IMP Awards

TARANTINO has always been outspoken about his influences. He pays homage to his favorite filmmakers and explores genres that have fallen out of fashion, updating them for modern audiences.

In an interview with IGN's Chris Tilly (Follow him on Twitter), Tarantino revealed that The Great Silence by Sergio Corbucci had the most influence on The Hateful Eight, followed by Day of the Outlaw. Comparisons have also been made to Murder on the Orient Express and The Thing (1982). Watching the films that influenced the making of a great movie provides insight into a director's creative thought process, and expands my understanding of film in general. This article is all about those films as they relate to The Hateful Eight.  

  "I'm ready for my close-up Sr. Corbucci." 

"I'm ready for my close-up Sr. Corbucci." 

The Great Silence is a spaghetti western falling under the sub sub genre of snow westerns, according to Tarantino. A gun for hire known as Silence faces down a corrupt politician and a blonde bounty hunter. There are obvious similarities between the two movies, but I think most of them are incidental. A tale of revenge at it's core, the protagonist has more in common with Django. There is no mystery element. The pace is slow. The overdubbing is abysmal, as it is in most Italian westerns. The characters are one dimensional. And it all leads up to a pitiful conclusion. There is a lot of room for improvement as I see it.  

Day of the Outlaw on the other hand was delightful. It's an American western about a group of outlaws descending on a small town in the midst of a feud. The townspeople are forced to band together by saving the gang leader from a fatal gunshot wound in order to keep the peace until morning. Deftly played by Burl Ives, Captain Bruhn is the only one that can keep his men from ravaging the town. As Bruhn's health deteriorates, so do their chances of survival. The situation is a pressure cooker. In that respect, it has the most in common with The Hateful Eight. The full film is available without ads on Youtube:

 
 
  Trainwreck

Trainwreck

Murder on the Orient Express is a film from 1974 adapted from the novel by Agatha Christie. It's a specific kind of mystery known as an English parlor room mystery, predating the American hard boiled mysteries of the 1940s and 50s. I haven't read the book, but I had a lot of problems with the film. The filmmakers failed in their effort to romanticize the era of travel by train. Visually it's unimpressive and too soft. Even the ensemble cast of Old Hollywood stars couldn't save this picture. 

In The Hateful Eight, Tarantino was able to keep the spirit of a parlor room mystery, transported to the American west, updated with visual storytelling, Tarantino-esque dialogue, and action. The investigation aspects are handled visually, through POV shots, instead of dialogue. For example, when Major Warren sees the Jelly Bean in the crack between the floorboards, then looks up, and notices a missing jar. Rather than demonstrating the protagonist's intellect at every turn, Tarantino gives the audience a chance to solve the mystery. Another distinct difference is that most of the detective work takes place before the first body hits the floor. Which is the exact opposite of a standard mystery plot line. The inciting incident is always the first murder. Of course Tarantino is the king of broken narrative structures. 

Like Poirot, Major Warren gleefully reconstructs the murder, ferreting out the killers, then promptly serves justice more like Dirty Harry than Poirot. He's not wrong, but it all happens rather quickly. Apparently this was Samuel L. Jackson's favorite scene, in which he referred to his character as "Hercule Negro".

I'm going to hold off on my examination of The Thing from 1982, because I'd like to talk about it as it relates to Reservoir Dogs. I'll sum up by saying that there are other aspects of The Hateful Eight which I enjoyed. Mainly the performances, and the cinematography. It's a visual treat. I'm pleased with Tarantino's foray into the mystery genre, and I'm looking forward to his next film.