Next to the world-famous Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC is a less well-known but no less intriguing showcase. It’s called… The International Spy Museum. It chronicles the cloak-and-dagger spy-craft history of not just the United States, but also its allies and enemies. However, what would such a place be without tipping a hat to the Most Famous Spy Ever and those baddies intent on eliminating him? Yes, we’re talking about James Bond and the endless list of iconic villains who have tried and failed again and again over 5 decades and 24 films to vaporize him.
by John S.
Movie Postmortem is a series that reviews certain films which showed promise but misfired, critically and/or commercially, upon release. Join us in our attempt to find out exactly what the hell happened.
THE CASUALTY: Alien: Covenant
THE CASE HISTORY: June 2012. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, the much-anticipated prequel-turned-sidequel to his 1979 classic Alien, opens to big box-office in North America. Nabbing around $51 million in its first weekend of release, the flick is praised for its stunning visuals and Scott’s usual sleek craftsmanship. Less praised is the film’s plot, which doesn’t quite deliver on all the promise the memorably visceral trailers hinted at. Indeed, after that massive opening (a franchise best) Prometheus’ box-office slopes down sharply and stops at around $126 million, domestically. Fortunately, the movie pulls in around $275 million overseas, bringing its global total to just north of $400 million. Good enough for a sequel.
by Norm Nielsen
Early in Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 Body Heat, Matty Walker (played by Kathleen Turner) fires off two lines at Ned Racine (William Hurt) that neatly preview the plot and set the tone of the film: “Some men, once they get a whiff of it, they trail you like a hound.” And, “You’re not too smart are you? I like that in a man.” In the film’s nearly two hours running time, Matty, in the film noir tradition, expertly shows how a beautiful, sexy woman can easily manipulate a man when lust transports his brain to his crotch.
Ned Racine is a cocky, bottom-dwelling attorney in fictional Miranda Beach, Florida. Ned meets Matty at a nighttime outdoor concert during an oppressive heat wave. Like the quote above, he gets a whiff and pursues her incessantly. Matty is smart, beautiful, and sexy; however, she is married to wealthy, but shady, real estate developer Edmund Walker (Richard Crenna). Ned and Matty start a torrid affair, their lust enflamed by the heat wave. Their bodies, both clothed and unclothed, sweat profusely as the passion heats up. It is soon apparent that Matty’s being married is an inconvenience, but because of a pre-nuptial agreement her divorce would be financially ruinous. Thus; a well-planned murder is carried out. Following the murder, Ned slowly realizes that Matty had an alternative plan all along, initiated before they met, and not to Ned’s benefit. Way too late, Ned discovers that Matty is a femme fatale.
Body Heat is great neo-noir on par with The Last Seduction, Chinatown, and L.A. Confidential. Like most film noir, it is about what drives people to crime. It takes almost all the classic film noir elements (a femme fatale, numerous night scenes, car headlights in the fog, high contrast lighting, shadows on the wall, moral ambiguity, pervasive cigarette smoking, etc.), and puts them in a modern world without making the film feel contrived, staged or unnatural. The film uses extreme heat to create a noir atmosphere, a device commonly used in hard-boiled crime fiction as in Raymond Chandler’s novels. The hot, humid air in Body Heat breathes sex, deadly sex.
Body Heat showcases exemplary screenwriting and directing. It was Lawrence Kasdan’s directorial debut; he had previously written the scripts for the smash hits The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kasdan, who wrote the Body Heat script in addition to directing the film, did such a brilliant job at both tasks that the film almost demands two viewings. The first viewing will likely focus on the Ned Racine character. But the second viewing will undoubtedly focus on the Matty Walker character. Nearly every scene in the film plays two ways.
Body Heat is also notable for its breakout performances. It was Kathleen Turner’s first film; she had previously done television soap operas. Almost channeling Barbara Stanwyck and Lauren Bacall, Ms. Turner plays a woman so sexually confident that we can believe her lover could be dazed into doing almost anything for her. William Hurt had only two previous film credits but here effects a lazy arrogance to his speech, as if amused by his own intelligence but dumbed down by his lust. Ted Danson, who previously had only done television, has a meaty role as an attorney friend of Ned Racine and even does a nifty dance step. Mickey Rourke plays a professional arsonist who is one of Ned Racine’s seedy clients.
Were it not for the Motion Pictures Production Code, classic films noir like Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) could have played like Body Heat by featuring sweaty naked bodies, simulated sex, profanity, and an unabashedly amoral plot. The Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) was the set of industry moral guidelines in effect from 1930 to 1968 that specified what was acceptable and what was unacceptable content for motion pictures produced for a public audience in the United States. The Production Code called for depictions of the “correct standards of life,” and forbade a picture from showing any sort of ridicule towards a law or “creating sympathy for its violation.” Nudity, sex scenes, and profanity were definitely not permissible. Body Heat exemplifies how far major American films have evolved from the Production Code almost to the point of gleefully celebrating the code’s demise. Thank goodness for that.
Norm Nielsen is a Scarecrow Video volunteer and Scarecrow Project Member.
by Norm Nielsen
Being a middle-class white male, watching countless films has greatly expanded my world view. Films give me insights to different cultures, nationalities, genders, mindsets, and personalities I would never experience outside of my limited social sphere. Sean Baker’s 2015 Tangerine gave me a look into a subculture I know exists but certainly have never experienced: the daily life of Los Angeles’ transsexual sex workers.
Tangerine stars two transgender women of color played by – get this – trans women of color: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. The film opens on Christmas Eve in a Donut Time shop in sunny Hollywood with Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Taylor) discussing estrogen treatments and the way “all men cheat.” Sin-Dee has just been released from 28 days in jail for prostitution; Sin-Dee is about to tell close friend Alexandra that her pimp/boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has proposed marriage to her when Alexandra inadvertently says that Chester has a new girlfriend – another sex worker, one who has “a vagina and everything,” and worse, is white. That cheating is an occupational prerogative for a pimp doesn’t much concern Sin-Dee, who soon is hot in search of Chester and his mystery woman (Mickey O’Hagan as Dinah). Alexandra, the more pacific of the friends, agrees to accompany her, but only after Sin-Dee promises there will be “no drama” – an empty promise because Sin-Dee is a cyclone of rage and emotional venting. “The world can be a cruel place,” Alexandra consoles Sin-Dee. “Yes, it is cruel,” Sin-Dee replies. “God gave me a penis. That’s pretty cruel, don’t you think?”
Eventually Sin-Dee’s drama is too much for Alexandra who goes back to working the streets. Sin-Dee cannot afford a car. Tangerine follows her search for Chester and Dinah through Los Angeles’ streets on foot, on buses, and subway. The contemporary Los Angeles Sin-Dee and Alexandra inhabit is one rarely seen on film – a low-rent city of doughnut shops, coin-op laundromats, dive motels, bus rides, and jumped subway turnstiles.
While Sin-Dee is on her search for Chester and Dinah, Alexandra encounters a john who doesn’t pay and both have a subsequent run in with cops. She also has an oral sex scene with an Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) in a drive-through car wash over the hypnotic sounds of brushes slapping and dryers humming, as soap suds stream down the windshield – utterly remarkable and hilarious.
The various storylines converge in time-honored screwball comedy form at the Donut Time shop that night when Sin-Dee confronts Chester with all other principal characters present. The dialog is fast paced, razor sharp, and funny as hell.
In an interview, director Sean Baker said, “A lot of trans women of color are forced to resort to sex work. I want the audience to empathize enough to want to learn more.” Baker has created a film that never settles for obvious polarities or entrenches its characters in two-dimensional assumptions about their moral or strategic priorities. Baker shows the precarious poverty that informs their everyday choices, and the vulnerability that makes trans sex workers a magnet for abuse and heartbreak. Tangerine celebrates the hot mess of its characters’ lives with empathy and respect, never condescending to judge their actions. You don’t pity these girls, though you may wish something better for them.
Tangerine takes its title from the movie’s sunny, saturated cinematography, in which an orange candy glow coats the gritty streets. The effect is especially remarkable given that Baker and his director of photography, Radium Cheng, shot Tangerine using iPhone 5s with Moondog Labs anamorphic adapters (for a wide-angle image). Each iPhone 5 had the Filmic Pro app which captured 24 frames per second while allowing for control over white balance, focus, and exposure. The resulting images are remarkable; they found beauty in the dingiest locations. But the real advantage of using iPhones was the freedom gained by Baker and his production team to work in all kinds of locations without attracting attention. Tangerine is a scripted, fictional tale, and its editing and sound design are as sophisticated as any major motion picture, but the shooting style is pure cinéma vérité. And the budget for Tangerine was only about $100,000.
In post-production Baker used Da Vinci Resolve professional software to correct contrast and color saturation. The colors are wonderfully warm and saturated, creating a kind of hyper-realism that is a perfect complement to the main character’s penchant for drama. While not the first movie shot in this democratic medium, the accessibility of Tangerine may open up new worlds of low-budget cinematic possibilities. Anyone who loves movies should see this film on these grounds alone, regardless of whether the subject matter interests you. The future is here and now.
Norm Nielsen is a Scarecrow Video volunteer and Scarecrow Project Member.