Intermission: In Memoriam Tony Scott

I am sure a lot will be written in the coming days about Tony Scott. This great American director, who always sported his signature red cap, jumped to his death last weekend after hearing he had inoperable brain cancer. He was only 68 years old. Scott, brother of Ridley Scott, was a director who had just about as many detractors as fans. His incredibly kinetic way of shooting movies made him into some kind of a punchline with people calling his style the fuel for the MTV generation.

People die more often, and people commit suicide more often, then why does the cinematic society at large react so intense to the news of Scott’s death? His movies haven’t always been the most deep and thoughtful and to make an inevitable comparison, his movies never really caught up to his brother’s movies. They both, however, worked the system perfectly. He was the perfect Hollywood director with enough style and brains to make his movies stand out from the crowd. My theory for the outcry about Scott’s death is the fact that a great percentage of people today grew up on his movies.

Scott started his movie career with a little movie called The Hunger that not a lot of people have seen, But it was Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer who recognized something special in him and they asked him to take a look at Top Gun. Although Scott was reluctant he did it eventually and it cemented his name and style in the heads of many young boys. Top Gun remains one of the greatest action movies from the ’80s. I wrote about it earlier this year and I stand by my comments then.

The death of Tony Scott made me put Top Gun in my player again and with the very first sequence, the shots in slow motion of the fighters rolling on the deck of the carrier, I was reminded of the incredible power it still possesses. It made me well up at the thought that the man who thought these shots up chose to take his own life in a moment of despair. Scott influences my love for movies so much that it actually hurts to see this beautiful sequence. And this was only his second feature film. After Top Gun he went on to create his own style that would spawn numerous imitations.

Movies like Days of Thunder, True Romance, Crimson Tide, Spy Game, Man On Fire and even more recent outings like The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Unstoppable will be studied in the future for their relentless use of movement and tension. In addition to his directing chops he also was a very prolific producer through his and his brother’s Scott Free Productions. The list of properties he produced is enormous and also for that I would like to thank him. Tony Scott was a great director and he will be sorely missed. My thoughts go out to everyone around him. Now I will go back to watching Top Gun, one of my favorite movies, ever, period.

> Tony Scott @ IMDb


Intermission: Ridley Scott’s Movies

With my review of Prometheus I have concluded my retrospective of all of Ridley Scott’s movies. Some of them I had not seen before, some of them multiple times, some I had not seen in a while. It was good to watch them all in a short time span to get a feeling for Mr. Scott’s work and why people seem to think he is such a good filmmaker.

With twenty movies behind me I have come to the conclusion that Mr. Scott is a flawed filmmaker. A man who desperately wants to tell stories and certainly has an eye for the way to tell those stories visually. His movies are always gorgeous. Even Thelma & Louise and Matchstick Men, which are considered to be his most toned down movies, are a sight to behold and the product of a true cinematic eye.

Unfortunately, Mr. Scott doesn’t really know how to tell a story that connects with his audience. Sometimes he lucks out, like with Alien or Gladiator, and then the audience just eats his movies up and they come back for seconds. Most of the time, however, Mr. Scott does what he wants. He often takes a known property and decides to go the other way with it. Great examples of these are 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Robin Hood. Instead of showing what everybody wants to see, he decides to tell a story that just doesn’t interest anybody. He also often doesn’t know when to quit. The majority of his movies are more than two hours long and a lot of them would be better if cut down a little.

Next to being a very stubborn director who gets what he wants he is also a very sly businessman. He tends to strike deals with studio executives, although he would never admit that, to produce a theatrical version of a movie that is serviceable to be able to get the chance to create his ultimate version on DVD. Naming Blade Runner in this category isn’t right, because that was just inexperience in his dealing with the studio. But a movie like Kingdom of Heaven and the recent Prometheus seem to fit perfectly in that category. These movies are missing chunks of logic and plot, which makes watching them a chore.

Overall, I have enjoyed watching the movies of Ridley Scott. As I said, not all of them are equally good. My favorites are Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk DownMatchstick Men, Kingdom of Heaven Director’s Cut and American Gangster. I found a pleasant surprise in The Duellists, White SquallG.I. Jane and Body of Lies. The rest I didn’t really care for. Prometheus is still under review until the DVD comes out in the fall with the extra material.

The Duellists (1977)
Alien (1979)
Blade Runner (1982)
Legend (1985)
Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)
Black Rain (1989)
Thelma & Louise (1991)
1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
White Squall (1996)
G.I. Jane (1997)
Gladiator (2000)
Hannibal (2001)
Black Hawk Down (2001)
Matchstick Men (2003)
Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
A Good Year (2006)
American Gangster (2007)
Body of Lies (2008)
Robin Hood (2010)
Prometheus (2012)

Next director: Jim Jarmusch.

100: Prometheus

About thirty years we have waited for Ridley Scott to return to the realm of science fiction. He left us with Alien and Blade Runner to watch over and over, while he went out into the wide world to make every kind of movie conceivable but science fiction. At the same time the world of Alien started to grow as well. James Cameron returned to LV-426 to kick some Alien butt, David Fincher took Ellen Ripley to a hostile prison planet and Jean-Pierre Jeunet managed to clone Ripley and make her some sort of alien-human hybrid. While all of them are fine examples of science fiction film-making, the nagging feeling of wanting to see what more Alien from Scott would look like kept coming back. With Prometheus we get that… and so much more.

Prometheus opens with breathtaking aerial photography that ultimately focuses on a lone figure at the top of a waterfall. He is decided not human with his alabaster skin, but there is a semblance there. He drinks some mysterious black goo and starts to disintegrate. He falls into the water and his DNA seems to rearrange itself into something that could be our DNA. Then the movie proper starts. The audience is dumbfounded by this opening, because this is not what we have been looking forward to for thirty years. We anticipated spaceships, aliens, planets and God knows what else goes into the making of an Alien movie. We know we are in for a ride we have not seen before.

On to a more recognizable time. Archaeology team Elizabeth and Charlie, also husband and wife, have been finding clues that point to life on some other planet far, far away. They manage to get Peter Weyland, of Weyland-Yutani fame, to finance a mission to that far away place where they hope to find some sort of intelligent life and maybe even answers about the origin of life on Earth. On board the Prometheus we find a rag-tag crew of scientists and personnel who agreed to come on this journey, but what they find on LV-223 is far more scary that what they expected to find. They find some sort of complex where the Engineers, as they call them, have been preparing the annihilation of  the human race.

To say that Prometheus is generous with clues about what precisely is happening here would be a gross overstatement. Scott is by no means interested in telling us what’s behind his creation. He has left an enormous amount of symbolism peppered throughout the movie to keep you busy. I am not going to divulge all of it here (as if I would know it all), because that would take me an exorbitant amount of words. I leave that to people who actually know what they are talking about. What I will say is that Prometheus is endlessly interesting. It has been nearly a week since I saw it and my head is still making sense of it. I am planning on seeing it again very soon just to take all the details in. The problem with Prometheus is not that it isn’t thought through, that it is, it is just that it is not so well written.

The script for Prometheus comes from Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts. Well, not really. It was Jon Spaihts who delivered a draft and Lindelof (undoubtedly together with Scott) went through it to rewrite it. Lindelof is famous for his work on Lost, one of the most enigmatic and divisive television shows ever. Prometheus feels a lot like Lost. There is a lot Lindelof and Scott want to talk about, but it never gets resolved in a satisfying manner. A lot of the story just doesn’t make any sense. Once again, I am not going to expand on that here, the guys over at Red Letter Media did this for all us writers. Watch this after you see the movie, though. There are just too many things in Prometheus that leave the viewer hanging or even worse scratching their heads in disbelief.

Ridley Scott never said he was making a straight-up prequel for Alien and the fact that it does look like that hurts the movie maybe even more than the script that seems to be written by a first year film school student. What we were all expecting was an awesome prequel to what transpired in Alien. While this is true, to a certain extent, Scott is also trying desperately not to make this a straight up prequel. The anticipation is hurting the viewing experience for those who were looking forward to some alien action. Instead we get a story that is rife with questions about the eternal struggle between religion and science. Elizabeth and Charlie most obviously represent this struggle. He is a scientist who believes in Darwin’s theories, she wears a cross around her neck and is more open-minded towards the religious implications of their findings. The fact that she is ultimately the one who gets to carry the fruit of the “immaculate conception” only strengthens this symbolism. Again, the problem isn’t with this way of storytelling, it’s with the way we get there. How did David know Charlie and Elizabeth would consummate their love at exactly that moment? What’s the motivation behind everything that is done? Too many questions.

At least there is a lot to look at in Prometheus. The visuals are absolutely gorgeous. From the breathtaking vistas on the planet to the innards of the alien spacecraft, everything looks so perfectly styled it almost hurts. Scott has taken a lot of care to make his movie be his most beautiful one to date. Whether this is done to cover up the sloppy mistakes in the other departments will always be a question, but it sure feels like it. In the end the sheer amount of stunning visuals can not keep the discerning viewer from poking through all the plotholes. The same counts for the fine acting by all cast members. Noomi Rapace carries the movie like a worthy replacement for Sigourney Weaver. Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender play very convincing androids. Idris Elba is funny as the bohemian captain of the Prometheus. It is the scientists that I have a problem with. They are just too stupid to be real scientists. I understand that they are all hired hands who knew nothing about their mission when they left, but fleeing at the sight of the first sign of trouble is a very weak way of portraying them. This hurts the movie tremendously.

Watching Prometheus reminds me of watching Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven for the first time. That movie felt unhinged and aimless on that first viewing, but when the Director’s Cut was released all the little pieces seemed to fall into place. Scott is notorious when it comes to going back to his movies and tinkering with them. This is of course not a problem, but he has become known for this and that is dangerous. It makes going to the theater to watch a Ridley Scott movie feel like a fool’s errand. Why would we go to see his movies in the theater when his real vision will be available on blu-ray in a few months. Prometheus feels like an incomplete movie and Scott has already confessed this. He has divulged that there will be an extra twenty minutes of footage on the blu-ray for us to look at. An expected move, but what I don’t understand is that he keeps telling himself that Prometheus was recently released exactly the way he wanted it to be released. If that is so, he has become a bad director and that makes me very sad.

> IMDb

099: Robin Hood

This is the nineteenth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Robin Hood is a mistake and should be stricken from Scott’s record. This is by no means the movie that people wanted to see when thinking about Robin Hood and his Merry Men. In good Ridley Scott style there are a lot of muted colors, gory fight sequences and a lot of characters to keep track of, but Robin Hood feels like Universal Pictures took the screenplay from Gladiator, threw it in Scott’s lap and shouted, “Make us another one of these!”

Scott wanted to make a movie that explained to us where Robin of the Hood came from, what he did before he arrived in Sherwood Forest, why he wanted wealth to be distributed more equally. That is all well and good, but it is also very uninteresting. We start our journey in France where King Richard is laying siege to one last castle before heading home. Among his men is an archer name Robin Longstride, a honorable man who returns to England after King Richard dies in battle. He confronts corruption in his homeland by challenging the selfish King John. If you think this will all lead to the quintessential scenes where Robin steals money from the rich and gives that to the poor, then you are sorely mistaken.

This is everything but that. Scott, and screenwriter Brian Helgeland, are not really interested in telling the stories that we all know and love. The funny, merry stories that can alleviate the heart, while instilling a notion of equality in the viewer. There is no reason whatsoever why Robin Hood should be featured in the title, none at all. Adding to this sentiment is a certain amount of fatigue when it comes to gritty historical drama. From Scott we have already gotten the excellent large-scale dramas Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, and to be honest we have seen all these battle-scenes, story-beats and compositions before. This is all nothing new. Maybe if another director had made this with another protagonist, this could have been a fairly good movie. Now not so much.

The casting of Russell Crowe as Robin Longstride (his fifth collaboration with Scott) doesn’t really help the case for Robin Hood. While always good in whatever he does, Crowe does go into Maximus-mode much of the movie. Even down to his hairdo. It is time for Mr. Scott and Mr. Crowe to part ways for the time being. As always, the entire cast is fine. Scott knows how to direct his cast in a way that makes them all look good. With actors like Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow, William Hurt, Mark Strong, Oscar Isaac and Danny Huston in the cast it is of course not really that hard to get good performances.

While Robin Hood looks beautiful as always, the distinct feeling that Scott made this movie on autopilot creeps all through the movie. The same ominous forests, the same muddy battlefields, the same castles and cityscapes. It all feels like we have seen in before exactly like that. There is enough here to be gawked at, but it is never surprising at all.

In 1977 Scott wanted to make the period drama Tristan and Isolde, but after seeing Star Wars he said, “Why make a medieval period drama when this is what people want to see?” He should have asked himself this question again before making Robin Hood. Why make another medieval action drama, when the audience wants to see another Ridley Scott science fiction movie. Let’s hope Scott has had enough of this type of movie for a while and that he focuses on bringing us what we want for a change.

> IMDb

098: Kingdom of Heaven (Director’s Cut)

This is the eighteenth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Kingdom of Heaven disappointed me greatly when it was first released. I saw it in a press screening and had very little positive to say about it when I had to write my review. The movie was overlong, boring, devoid of logic and ammunition for the gun that was pointed at Ridley Scott’s head for not making those masterpieces we were used to seeing from him.

I dismissed Kingdom of Heaven completely and vowed never to spend another minute on it. To my huge surprise, a friend of mine, whose judgement I totally trust and who was not a fan of the Theatrical Cut, told me to check out the Director’s Cut. Of course I hesitated, because how could a movie that was already too long get better in an even longer form. Well, Mr. Scott managed to do it.

Scott has been known to go back to his movies and tinker with them. Sometimes with great success—like Blade Runner—and more often with dubious results—like Alien, Gladiator— although those last two were more marketing vehicles than visions of the director. Scott has said so himself. And on top of that there have been so many useless Director’s Cuts, Unrated Cuts and so forth in recent years that my misgivings were justified, I think. But with the endorsement from my friend in the back of my head I reluctantly decided to scrunch up a copy of Kingdom of Heaven, the Director’s Cut.

And I am so glad I did, because the Director’s Cut is so much better than the original. At more than three hours it is approximately forty-five minutes longer than the original release. Entire sequences are returned to the movie and several scenes are expanded on by inserting more dialogue to create a more complete picture of the motivations that drive these characters. It is truly stunning to see how different the two versions are from each other. The entire movie flows much better and is far more intelligent than what we saw before. It goes to show that sometimes the auteur really knows what’s better for his movie than the executive who stares at demographics and scorecards all day.

Scott is a director who doesn’t stick his doubts about religion and the trouble that can come from it under the table. In the Theatrical Cut of Kingdom of Heaven this sentiment was swept under the rug to create a movie that more resembled Gladiator, a movie that was more about a personal journey than the big picture. In the Director’s Cut Scott’s beef with religion and the juxtaposition with science is much more prevalent. Scott’s oecumenical approach to religion is one I can certainly ascribe to. I am myself of no faith, but I do not condemn others for having faith in a higher power. That is what Scott wants to convey with this movie. Love thy neighbor, as the Bible says. Another thing that returns a lot in Scott’s movies is the fanatical approach to religion and the way in which this has ruined so many lives. As the hospitaler says, played by David Thewlis, “I have seen religion in the eyes of too many murderers.” A very timely theme.

Kingdom of Heaven is now one of my favorite movies. I don’t watch it all that much, but when I do I get totally swept up in it, even though Orlando Bloom may not be the best actor out there, this is one of his better performances. The enormous congregation of fine actors, such as Edward Norton, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Eva Green, Ulrich Thomsen, Alexander Siddig and so many others also don’t hurt Kingdom of Heaven one bit.

> IMDb

097: American Gangster

This is the seventeenth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

I think I have it figured out by now. I tend to watch long movies, many of them by Ridley Scott, in stints. I’ll watch thirty minutes or an hour and then I to take a break or watch something else. This is not because the movies aren’t interesting. No, absolutely not. It is because they have the tendency to be so dense and detailed that they more resemble a book than a movie. I don’t read a book in one sitting, so why should I have to do that with a movie? This may be sacrilegious to some, but that doesn’t really concern me.

American Gangster is a movie that fits the above described category perfectly. It is an incredibly dense crime drama about self-made man Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts, the man who desperately wants to put him behind bars. It is the ’70s and Lucas inherits the keys to his mentor’s criminal empire. Instead of just taking over he decides to do things differently. He handles his business for what it is: business. That means providing a better product for a better price. He even travels to the deep jungles of Thailand to secure his drug deliveries in person, an action that earns him a lot of respect. Back home he takes care of business and he takes care of his family. He employs a lot of his family and moves his mother into a huge mansion. There is something charming about Frank that makes him irresistible and that something also covers up a ruthless side to him. A comparison can be made between Lucas and Nicolas Cage’s Roy in Matchstick Men, both are charismatic criminals with a decent heart. Scott likes his bad guys with a few additional layers.

On the other side we find Richie Roberts, a pit bull detective who is resourceful and brutally honest. When he finds an enormous amount of untraceable money he decides to turn it in instead of splitting it among his fellow detectives. This doesn’t sit well with the others. Does Richie care about this? No, not in the least. He wants results, but doesn’t want them at the cost of his soul. He stumbles onto a case around mysteriously pure heroin that is flooding the streets of Harlem. Everybody is dumbfounded by the manner in which Frank Lucas conducts his business and it takes a lot of time for them to even consider Frank as the culprit. Essentially American Gangster is a perfectly executed game of cat and mouse.

Scott isn’t interested in passing judgement on his characters. He leaves that up to the viewers of his movies, to make up their mind whether or not Lucas is a total bad guy or not. He shows Lucas as a ruthless killer who doesn’t hesitate to execute someone in broad daylight at a crowded market, but he also takes care of his family and friends and, ruthless as he is, he is always courteous to his victims. When he sets someone on fire he fires a bullet into the head to put his victim out of his misery. How is that for being merciful. Washington is excellent as the ever charming and quiet Lucas. He internalizes a lot of the emotions to make them explode onto the screen with incredible force. It is one of his finest performances.

As brilliant as Scott portrays Lucas, he has a little more trouble with Crowe’s character. The character itself is fine. He is an upstanding guy who will do everything to get the job done. The way in which Scott and Steven Zaillian approach this is by making him the unwilling half in a divorce from his wife (Carla Gugino). It is the standard plot about the husband who has more pressing things to do at his job than at home, but unlike Lorraine Bracco in Someone to Watch Over Me, Gugino isn’t strong to make us think that this would be a problem for Crowe, leaving him without the drama to offset his tenacity at his job. This hurts the otherwise intense drama a little bit.

One of the most annoying things about Scott (at least to other film makers) directing his movie is that he makes it look so incredibly effortless. American Gangster is a movie that takes place over the course of several years and in several countries. He switches back and forth between the two major storylines as if it is the easiest thing to do as a director. As always, the movie looks impeccable. Scott may truly be one of the best directors we have alive today. His movies may not always be the best storywise, and often a bit overlong, but nothing can be said negatively about the way his movies look. From The Duellists to American Gangster (and now Prometheus), nobody comes close to his mastery of the medium.

American Gangster is an excellent movie that deserves to be devoured again and again. It displays great acting, great cinematography and great storytelling. Certainly one of Scott’s best works.

> IMDb

096: Body of Lies

This is the sixteenth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Halfway through the last decade Ridley Scott started making movies like crazy. He was making a movie every year. 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven was an epic swords-and-sandal drama, 2006’s A Good Year was a well-intentioned failure, 2007’s American Gangster was an urban period thriller and last in this binge is Body of Lies, Scott’s comment on the war in the Middle East, a thriller that is as intricate as it is foolish.

At the center of Body of Lies is Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), a C.I.A. operative who works in the Middle East. He knows the people, speaks the language and gets results, but he seems to have doubts. He has lived with these people for so long he has begun to see them as more than just subjects on his missions. He even strikes up a relationship with a local beauty. This is all to the dismay of his handler back home in Virginia, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), who wants to get results no matter what happens. Ferris is on the trail of a terrorist, who plans to do God knows what to the Western devils, and he gets help from a local businessman called Hani (mark Strong).

We are privy to every little detail that goes into setting up a mission like this, from inserting people in enemy organizations, creating a faux terrorist organization to lure the real terrorists out of their hiding spots and utilizing modern techniques combined with old-fashioned spying. Roger Ebert called it James Bond meets John Le Carre and I heartily agree with him. The things Ferris has to endure are way more than a human should be able to endure. He is tortured, he is bitten by dogs, he escapes explosions and so on and so on. And all the while keeping his cool about a lot of it. It is just a lot to take in and keep your suspension of disbelief under control.

While William Monahan’s screenplay, based on a book from David Ignatius, is very detailed and intricate with more twists and turns than a Formula 1 race track. As with Kingdom of Heaven, Monahan shows great respect for the Islamic faith and the way of life over there. He isn’t too keen on outside people coming in to tell people how to live their lives, which is exactly what the Americans in Body of Lies are doing. Meddling in local affairs is high on the agenda here and the shift in DiCaprio’s character is a sign that even Americans are maybe a little bit sick of all the meddling that is done in these countries. It is one thing to get rid of a dictator, it is another thing to dictate to people how they should live. But that’s another discussion.

Monahan writes all these nuances in his screenplay and Scott ran with it. The various parts are exciting: the intrigue, the action, the redemption, the deception and the love story. These would all be great subjects in their own right, but Scott never really manages to glue it all together. Body of Lies gets to where it is going at its own time and never really gets exciting. The acting is at a level you expect from a cast like this, while never being infused with enough spirit to keep you glued to the screen. That is a shame, because this is a story that needs to be told. There is another side to a war that often isn’t told at home by the ‘invading’ party in the conflict. Body of Lies had the opportunity to show people who the people they are trying to ‘educate’ really don’t want to be taught anything and just want to be left alone. There is a message here, if only it were told in a more compelling way.

> IMDb