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Bigelow #7 – K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER Proves Not All Subs Are Seaworthy

Titles

Kathryn Bigelow’s Soviet submarine drama K-19: The Widowmaker had a no-doubt premise, a top-tier movie star, and an established, bankable action director. It’s the kind of total package that studio executives snuggle up to as they drift off to sleep.

Naturally, the film was a total disaster.

To understand how K-19 went so wrong, let’s turn to a story Bigelow herself shared in Time Magazine.

“I remember sitting in some executive’s office, and they said, ‘O.K., but who are the good guys?’ ‘What do you mean? The Russians are the good guys.’ ‘No, I mean who are the Americans?’

That quote has mysterious depths. Stare at it too long and you might see sounds or swallow your tongue. Here was Bigelow—still at that time known primarily for the megahit Point Break—peddling a tale about a heroic crew racing against time to avert nuclear disaster. The stakes: no less than the survival of every living being in the world. The story contains tension, danger, sacrifice, and a couple of meaty roles to attract big names for the poster. And the story happened to be 100%, absolutely true. Roll your money wheelbarrow to the back of the line, please.

The Boat

The only way we could make more money is if the submarines make out.

But even for an America that’s left the Cold War behind, that’s shifted its attention to the burgeoning superpower of China or the specter of global terrorism, the fact that the story’s main characters wear Russian uniforms was enough to transform K-19 from no-brainer to a tough sale. The true story of the K-19—not actually called “The Widowmaker” by anybody, but given the far-sketchier nickname of “The Hiroshima” after the incident—remained classified until the 1990s, 30 years after it nearly wrecked the world.

In July of 1961, the ship was performing maneuvers out in the Arctic, pretending to be an American sub attacking Moscow. The Cold War was good like that. On the way home, the K-19 sprung a reactor leak that turned the ship into a nuclear oven. Considering the state of international relations, everyone reasonably presumed a seaborne meltdown could be perceived as an act of war and so, rather than allow their deaths to put fingers on the big red buttons, the ship’s crew underwent drastic, deadly measures to save the reactor. If you didn’t start your day wrestling with a giant cancerous rat for the last known can of chicken soup, then you probably know how the story ends.

Yellow Shirt Meeting

With yellow shirts and, somehow, Fredo Corleone.

Bigelow’s first attempt to finance a film adaptation was halted by the release and mediocre box office of the 2000 sub drama U-571, and so, frustrated, Bigelow turned her attention to The Weight of Water, a movie that developed a toxic reputation at festivals before languishing away on a distributor’s shelf. That movie eventually made it out into the wild, but not without some problems of its own.

In the space of a few years, Bigelow’s bright career had suddenly flickered. Originally, she had wanted to tell the story of the K-19 crew. Now, she needed to. Bigelow eventually found her funding, but all outside of the traditional studio system, making K-19 the most expensive independent film ever made at that time. So not only did Kathryn Bigelow seemingly need K-19 to be a hit, but so did a bunch of investors whose pockets weren’t as deep as one might expect.

(One of the film’s major contributors was the National Geographic Society, who may have had their plans to enter the big budget movie scene dashed by K-19’s failure. This melancholy little site is still out there, promising that the film is opening this July 19th, every July 19th, the internet equivalent of the Mary Celeste. Somewhere, a marketing guy’s wife stands on the shore, hoping he’ll someday find his way home.)

To be fair, I’ve included a healthy amount of my own speculation into this history, and it’s hard to really know for sure what Bigelow was thinking or what she wasn’t. Maybe Bigelow approached K-19 like just another movie, and maybe the version that finally made it to the screen is exactly the movie she always intended to make. It’s irresponsible for me to just assume that the film was compromised except, well, K-19: The Widowmaker just feels so damned compromised.

poster

“This time, nerds, I can breathe because I’m inside the sub.”

There was a magical time in the movies when all you needed to open your blockbuster was Harrison Ford on the poster, and baby, Harrison Ford is all up on this poster, despite the fact that he’s all kinds of wrong for the part. The term “miscast” doesn’t even cover the notion that fans would line up to see Ford, the most Midwestern-American action star to ever grace the screen, play Captain Vostrikov, the crusty leader in charge of this particularly crusty ship. Worse, somebody allowed Ford to do the part in a blisteringly awful Russian accent, which Ford delivers like he’s trying fit his mouth around the fat part of a soda bottle. In 2013, it seems crazy to think that Ford would have been handed this role while a perfectly good Liam Neeson is standing right there, but in 2002 it was Ford’s name and face that held the burden of bringing the customers.

“Four-Quadrant” is a marketing term meaning that a movie appeals to every demographic, and K-19 does its utmost to be a four-quadrant performer. The threat is appropriately apocalyptic, but surprisingly clean, barely leaving a mark on the crewmen dying of radiation sickness. The K-19 herself is one of the most brightly-lit submarines in the sea, revealing a dull, repetitive set design. The sitcom-style lighting dispels the ship’s shadows and opens the place up. Gone is the claustrophobia needed to bring the setting to life. For a story that could have ended with the annihilation of the world, it’s strangely antiseptic, with all the sharp edges dulled so that it’s safe to handle. Even the film’s cumbersome title suggests a compromise between two different names in an effort to make everyone happy.

Old Ford

“We can all agree that we’ve eliminated ‘Was’sub!?’ as an option, right?”

One hurdle K-19 had to overcome is that the submarine movie is well-traveled. People know what a sub movie is supposed to look like and sound like, and any deviation or experimentation in the form comes off as false. Unless your sub is helmed by Roy Scheider and has a talking dolphin in the crew, your ship better look like a damn submarine. The K-19 doesn’t really cut it in a world where Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot and all of its gloomy tension exists.  For a sub movie to make its own mark, it has to find another way to distinguish itself, such as the way Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide filled the cramped setting with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman’s war, and while there’s a little equivalent tension in K-19 between Neeson and Ford’s characters—and even a minor mutiny subplot—it never really gains traction. Instead, the audience has to decide how invested they are in the struggles of the crew to stop the leak, and the film provides few reasons to get invested, especially since we already know the ending. Films like Crimson Tide and others get around that problem by making the obvious global stakes seem deeply personal, but we get very few hints about the lives of the soldiers away from the sub, or about the people they personally hope to save. Their noble sacrifice is both suitably epic and really, really generic, as if Bigelow expects the fact that the crew is Russian to make us surprised when they start acting like human beings.

Wait, there's a girl!

This person is in the movie for 10 seconds and is the most significant female in the film. This is not a joke.

K-19: The Widowmaker strikes me as hollow and false. Again, maybe this is exactly Bigelow’s movie, and I’m totally wrong, but she’s never made anything that felt so lifeless and inert before or since. K-19 is little more than a series of facts capably strung together in the proper order, like IKEA furniture that somebody forgot to screw together—it looks like the real thing, but a gentle tap is enough to tear it apart. That just isn’t how Bigelow works. Whether her films are up or down, and she certainly has enough of both directions in her career, they are always personal. Even The Weight of Water, for all of its problems, feels like an artist is guiding the movie in the directions she wants it to go. The film still feels like a statement.

K-19 doesn’t feel like anything other than perhaps a missed opportunity. Bigelow has made a career out of exploring makeshift families, especially within groups of men—the SEALs in Zero Dark Thirty; the bomb squad in The Hurt Locker; the desperate bonds between the main characters in Strange Days; the surfers in Point Break; the bikers in The Loveless; the vampires in Near Dark are like a family of cowboys, and even the girls are covered in dirt and absorbed into the whole. Here, Bigelow has at her disposal a group of men who rely on one another, live and die and each other’s mistakes, and who agree to make sacrifices to save lives. Do they care about the rest of the world, or is the sacrifice only to save the man who sleeps in the next bunk? We’ll never know, because the theme goes almost entirely unexplored. This movie feels like it was shipped in from someone else entirely.

Snapshot

It’s easy to suppose that after Strange Days flopped and Bigelow ran into trouble financing her next projects, that she threw up her hands. She went from being one of the most electric and in-demand young filmmakers to an outsider nearly overnight. It’s hard to imagine men like James Cameron or John McTiernan being given so little rope at that same time. (McTiernan, especially—he directed the legendary bomb Last Action Hero, but still had a new, great Die Hard sequel out two years later.) I’m sure that K-19’s disappointing reception made that film executive, the one who wondered about the Americans, feel pretty good about himself. But K-19’s failure doesn’t seem to come from its premise, but from a filmmaker who’s pushing the material in an uncomfortable direction, a filmmaker exasperated by needing to prove herself again so soon. K-19 feels cynical, which could explain why it failed to connect with pretty much anybody. After its release, Bigelow retreated to television for years, waiting until the right project came calling. Which, of course, eventually, it did.

I’ve wasted an unusual amount of fake ink in this post discussing the business end of K-19, its budget, its failure, and all of that boring stuff.  But in trying to appreciate and explore the career of Kathryn Bigelow, it helps to understand how something as impersonal and blank as K-19 can even happen. A career is a weird journey, and it helps to know why sometimes we end up on the calmest, least interesting of seas.

The Kathryn Bigelow Project

6. ???

7. K-19: The Widowmaker

8. The Weight of Water

Bonus: The Loveless

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Wrap-Up: The Hughes Brothers Project

When I chose The Hughes Brothers for the site I knew it wouldn’t be an easy project, but nobody ever said that writing about movies in my underwear from the warm embrace of deeply comfy chair would be easy. Now that the hardship is at an end, however, I’m left with the belief that this project has been absolutely vital to accomplishing the mission of this site. What good does yet another movie website do anybody by clinging to the accepted classics? Anybody can do Stanley Kubrick (and I did!) but film is about so much more than the winners and the gods.

I’ve often said that if I were to teach film history I would open the class with a showing of James Isaac’s Jason X, because I think that movie tells you everything you need to know about why you should love film. Jason X is a terrible film, natch, but even the least film is like a time capsule telling us about when it was made, why it was made, and about the people who made it (Jason X also has moments of sincere, intentional hilarity). Jason X may fail as a horror film, but it fails upward. The film is a prime example of an entire decade of horror—the 90s and its post-Scream, post-Buffy self-reference—and it lampoons a horror icon that had lost his edge in much the same way Universal once combined its fading, classic monsters into a duet with Abbot and Costello. You can tie a thread through decades of movie history down into that one movie, which, you know, fascinates the holy hell out of me. Jason X, in a way, represents why I love cinema.

Likewise, The Hughes Brothers represent why I love studying filmmakers, and for similar reasons. They’ve never made a film as shoddy as Jason X, and their links to the past are less clear (although Scorsese is a huge influence on their work, and Scorsese’s influence was everything else), but there they are, living on the margins, no longer the celebrated newcomers they once were but cresting with talent and producing deeply personal films for broad audiences. They don’t make masterpieces, but every one of their movies is worthy of discussion and analysis, and with every film, they contribute to the present culture and lay a little pavestone pointing the way to the future. There are only a handful of accomplished film masters in the world, and every one of them is standing on the backs of a dozen gifted, anonymous artists producing the bulk of the medium’s best work, the films that keep tickets ripping while the pantheon wander into the wilderness to find inspiration.

In a time where genre film has been consumed by the marketers and all goods are pre-packaged and cross-promoted, The Hughes Brothers (at least for now) resist. They deliver original material that has something new to say, and there’s just not enough of that going around these days. As I’ve said, I don’t really love any of their films, but I’m definitely excited to see what both Albert and Allen come up with next.

The Hughes Brothers Project

1. American Pimp (1999)

2. Menace II Society (1993)

3. The Book of Eli (2010)

4. From Hell (2001)

5. Dead Presidents (1995)

Special: Women in the Film of the Hughes Brothers

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Hughes Brothers #3 – The Book of Eli (2010)

Today, we’re finally entering the home stretch with a look at the Hughes’ deeply flawed, intriguing post-apoc epic…

The Story

The Earth lies charred from some kind of war-related disaster, and what’s left of humanity clumps together in shanty towns held together by barter and violence. Walking west across this wasteland is Eli (Denzel Washington), with a mission to do two things: kick ass and carry mysterious books, and he’s all out of mysterious boo—oh, wait. Eli happens to own the exact book that the warlord Carnegie (Gary Oldman) wants, and so a classic “town of evil vs. wandering battle-monk” scenario kicks into gear.

Spoiler alert, the book is the Bible.

“Thou shalt not get the fuck back up.”

The Production

Eli and his biblical quest began as a gutsy spec script from talented video game writer Gary Whitta (Prey). The boldness of the script helped it gain attention, and it soon fell into the hands of producer Joel Silver, who brought it to the attention of the Hughes Brothers, fresh off an 8-year sabbatical of solo work meant to distinguish their different creative voices. “I didn’t get it right away, my brother did,” says Albert Hughes. “And I said, ‘I don’t know about the religious stuff or the spiritual stuff.’ And then I went to sleep and woke up after a few hours of dreaming about it and thought, ‘Okay, I get it.’”

The Book of Eli premiered on January 15, 2010, and immediately tasted blue, furry death at the hands of James Cameron’s Avatar monster. Getting noticed at all around all that background noise was tough enough, but Eli still managed to turn a small profit, picking up a reported $160m worldwide on an $80m budget, which made it a very sturdy, if not quite mind-blowing, success.

There has rarely been anything cooler in the world than watching Eli hunt for cat meat. 

What Works Like Crazy

We’re all agreed that the apocalypse is not going to be cool, right? I mean, when the shit hits, it’s going to be all mushroom clouds and goat-babies and flies pouring out of people’s elbows. But the Hughes Brothers make the apocalypse look cool. It’s not a happening place to be, exactly, but the Hughes’s exaggerated sets and computer-enhanced skylines lend the proceedings an air of epic awesomeness that works for a film carrying such biblical ambitions. The Book of Eli is like the post-apoc movie the Shaw Brothers Studio never had a chance to make, and Denzel Washington is their Jimmy Wang.

Washington kicks the apocalypse’s ass in Eli and manages to totally sell the near-unsellable: an incorruptible man in a world without laws. So many apocalypse heroes are pragmatists who make choices based on need without much thought for scruples, but Eli is a man of morals who answers to a higher power. In any other hands, that character is a doofus, but Washington ditches that and goes for world-weary and kind. He’s a warrior monk who wants nothing and needs nothing except the direction West. It’s a performance that grounds the film and plays well against Oldman’s big bad.

Looking like Bricktop, after the bomb.

Speaking of Gary Oldman—which we should all be doing, all the time—he does solid work in his role, presenting Carnegie in a way that make him believably frightening, and just a little scary without crossing into a Romeo is Bleeding/The Professional cartoon. Carnegie is a believer in his own way. He could care less about the specifics of what the book has to say, but he respects the power in it, and it’s that tension between belief and practicality that drives the film. Eli and Carnegie are waging a private little war, and it’s not really about the book as much as it’s about the way the world is going to be built. Ironically, it’s Carnegie who wants to build civilizations and Eli who wants to empower the individual, despite the Bible’s insistence and building a church between believers. Unfortunately, that’s only the first of many confusion points in the film’s message.

What Disappoints

Or, to put it more bluntly, what the hell is The Book of Eli getting at? Let’s assume that somebody, at some point, had more in mind than just a boot-tapping action movie and actually wanted the movie to say something. Call me crazy, but that’s what I’m going to assume. I mean, that’s why it’s the Bible and not the goddamned Webster’s Dictionary, right?

Spoilers coming.

Yup. Another apocalypse.

Carnegie describes a mass purging of Bibles after the apocalypse, because people believed that belief in the Bible had resulted in the destruction of the Earth. OK, sounds like a religious war to me, which probably means all the other books are—OH WAIT. When Eli arrives at his destination, all other major religious texts are found and accounted for. Since it’s not likely that a couple of dozen blind warrior-wanderers found their way across the wasteland, I’m going to assume that the Bible was the biggest get, the hardest find. It stands to reason that the Bible took the brunt of the blame and the damage while the other texts skated by, so why exactly are we thrilled that the book survives? The movie never makes a truly convincing argument for why the Bible should be passed on. Fair, there’s the whole “it’s not the book, but it’s what the people do with the book” thing that Carnegie represents, but then again we don’t exactly know enough about the people on Alcatraz to know their intentions. And what happens when someone with bigger guns shows up and takes the book? Retaining the Bible and all the competing texts feels an awful lot like hanging on to the past and failing to move forward, which is a philosophy that pretty much everyone embraces at the end of the film, while poor progressive Carnegie is left to be eaten alive. It sounds to me that, like the stragglers in The Stand, these survivors are doomed to make the same damn mistakes as the people before them.

The whole plot boils down to faith, I guess? Except, if I’m allowed to steal and butcher Monty Python, faith is no way to form a system of government, and that appears to be exactly the plan at the end of the film. Eli’s quest seems to be for nothing, and Mila Kunis (as poor pawn-turned-padawan Solara) ends the movie as the new Eli, literally wandering back the way she came and carrying on a mission that seems questionable at best and outright irresponsible at worst.

Zzzzzzzzz…

To be clear, I’m not advocating censorship or rooting for the destruction of the Bible. I’m only saying that the way the story goes about its business leaves a lot of intriguing and disturbing questions that the movie can’t be bothered to explain or clear up. The Hughes Brothers’ themselves kind of waffled around the issues of their film’s message when asked point blank.

In the movie they state that all the Bibles, and a lot of other religious texts, were burned after the “last great war,” because many people believed that religion was a catalyst for this war. If religion didn’t help the people of Eli’s fictional past, why do you guys as filmmakers think it will help their future?

Albert: You have some very deep, profound psychological questions there! You’re applying logic to something that there is no logic in. That’s part of my struggle. If you apply logic to a faith based religion — any of them — it will slowly start to fall apart. If you apply logic to Star Wars or Lord of The Rings, it will slowly start to fall apart. But if you go into it as a movie experience, as entertainment, [as] a mythology, and you don’t look for the holes, and you go and believe then that’s a different experience. But you’re like me, I can tell by your questions. [Laughs] I can’t even answer that. I can’t answer some things in all of the movies that we’ve made.

Some questions are tough. Ford tough.

Beyond troubling spiritual questions that even the director can’t answer, The Book of Eli wastes a pretty amazing supporting cast in thankless roles. Michael Gambon, Tom Waits, and Malcom McDowell show up to the party with almost nothing to do, and so help me, I forgot Ray Stevenson was even in the film until looking back over the cast list.

Perhaps that’s because the world around the actors is so damn lousy with product placement that there’s hardly room for much else. Even in the apocalypse, at least I know my NAME BRAND truck and my NAME BRAND food will survive! The product placement is so consistent and brazenly fronted through the film—not to mention wildly out of place, considering the premise–that I was constantly reminded of the secretly awesome film Josie and the Pussycats, and when your bad-ass, bleached-out, warworld reminds me of a Tara Reid film, the apocalypse is truly fucking here.

Tara Reid’s Mind Palace

Overall

The Book of Eli is one of the most visually accomplished movies in the Hughes Brothers canon, but it leans too heavily on some shaky spiritual questions and a few outright baffling choices. Crippling product placement distracts from one of Denzel Washington’s best performances, but there’s just enough blood, brawn, and showy violence to keep the viewer from checking out. There’s plenty to like about Washington’s character—although the third act “twist” stretches a little thin to my eyes—but  he’s stuck in a story that feels a little too heavy on faith, not of the Biblical kind, but of the kind that says “as long as it’s really, really cool, the audience will forgive us for pretty much anything.”

The Hughes Brothers Project

2. ???

3. The Book of Eli

4. From Hell

5. Dead Presidents

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