Thursday, July 30, 2009
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
10) Jaws 2 (1978) – Directed by Jeannot Szwarc, Jaws 2 was clearly inferior to Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece. Nevertheless, there is an endearing, knowledgeable angle to this sequel. Szwarc, it seems to me, realized that his film would not get to the level of the original Jaws, and adjusted his sense of self-importance accordingly. The film never has that heavy dread, as the audience knows what it is in the water this time around, but instead opts to live off of more intense attack sequences. Most notably was the attack on the water skier that managed to become another fond memory of the Jaws franchise. This was also Roy Scheider’s only sequel, and his presence at Chief Brody automatically verifies this film as a valid revisit to the ocean.
9) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) – I know before I even begin that I am in the minority with this pick, but first let me defend it against the third installment to the franchise (I wont even bother dragging the fourth one into this discussion), The Last Crusade. The Last Crusade felt like more of the same from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The brightness, the look, and the feel of The Last Crusade tied it more directly to the first picture, and in that way it felt like a bit of a retread. But Temple of Doom, on the other hand, felt like a completely different direction. TOD is solid in its originality. The arguments that the film is overtly racist seems shortsighted, as Spielberg may have been merely mimicking the serial adventures that were in theaters during the time these films take place, where the enemy was almost always foreign. The darkness of TOD is quite substantial, and also a welcome change to the franchise. TRIVIA: Temple of Doom is actually a story that takes place a few years before the one in Raiders of Lost Ark.
8) Aliens (1986) – This juiced up, high-powered action sequel to Ridley Scott’s meditative, Hitchcockian science-fiction thriller, directed by James Cameron, amps up the action and takes the intensity in a different direction. Cameron, adding several more aliens into the fray, including a massive queen alien, took the special effects to the highest level at the time, a staple of Cameron lore. Aliens was also a further liberation of the female action star with Sigourney Weaver’s tough turn as Ellen Ripley. Some may argue that this sequel is superior to Alien, but I argue that the films are so vastly different and unique to each other that comparison is impossible. Nevertheless, as its own film, Aliens is an excellent sequel.
7) Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) – The only second sequel in this list, Die Hard 3 washed the metal taste of Die Hard 2 out of our mouth with a return to form from the original. Die Hard itself was never surpassed in the franchise, and is one of the best action films ever made, but the third film was a spry, frenetic, well-crafted thriller that managed to grab some of that residual energy form the original and place it in a larger set. The claustrophobia is gone, yet the sense of urgency never falters. The most important thing about Die Hard 3 was the return of John McTiernen, the director of the first film. His presence can be seen on the film, whereas the second film, directed by action hack Renny Harlin, was a flat, empty action film. The addition of Samuel L. Jackson was also an excellent added wrinkle to the films energy. Sure, there were pretty ridiculous segments (cough – dumptruck surfing – cough) here and there, but for the most part the action here had panache, flair that was missing in the second installment.
6) Superman II (1980) – This infamous sequel was originally being directed by Richard Donner, who was filming the first and second movies back to back. But somewhere along the way, things fell apart, Donner was yanked from production, and the majority of the second film was shot by director Richard Lester. The result, after watching the Richard Donner cut a few years ago, is a substantial improvement on the direction Donner was taking with his version. First and foremost, the thrilling opening action sequence that takes place at the Eiffel Tower in Paris was not in Donner’s version. This is also the film where Lois and Superman’s love story becomes deeper and more complicated, and this is also the introduction to the powerful and evil General Zod and his two extraterrestrial partners, Ursa and Nom. Zod, combined with a return of Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, make this sequel to the original Superman the best sequel to come along, and arguably the best entry into the entire franchise.
5) Spider Man 2 (2004) – Much like Superman 2, the second Spider Man film does two things better than the original. First, the relationship between Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker and Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson goes to deeper levels, as Peter struggles to keep Mary Jane safe from harm. Second, the villain is a vast improvement from the cartoonish Green Goblin in the first film, as Doc Ock is now terrorizing Spider Man and New York City. The story lacks the convoluted mess of the third film, and still manages to be more serious, and ultimately more thrilling than the original film, which was a quality genesis story in its own right.
4) Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – Often revered as the best entry into the franchise, this direct sequel to the groundbreaking first film, Episode IV: A New Hope, is the darkest and most brooding entry into the franchise. It is also the film in the series that is really the thrilling transitional film that bridges Episode IV with Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. With the visually enthralling opening sequence on the snow planet Hoth, the second act in the cloud city, Han being frozen in Carbonite, and Luke’s tutelage under Yoda and ultimate revelation, Empire keeps the energy high and the mood dark and brooding, and surpasses the original film in both weight and excitement.
3) Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) – James Cameron had to wait seven years for his second installment in to the Terminator franchise so that the technology could catch up with the vision he had. And it was an excellent idea on his part to wait, because he delivered the best, most complete action sci-fi picture of all time. The humor, the action, the impending doom, and the groundbreaking special effects are all perfectly balanced throughout the film, and the introduction of Robert Patrick as the metal shape shifting T-1000 still holds up by today’s advanced standards in special effects. This is also, arguably (though not very arguably) the only Terminator sequel that should have ever been made, as the franchise has struggled to find its voice in the two more recent additions to the story.
1) The Godfather, Part II (1974) – Other than being the film responsible for beginning the numbered-sequel phenomenon, Francis Ford Coppola’s penultimate masterpiece somehow, some way, managed to surpass the depth, the magnitude, and the undeniable power of the first film. Going back and forth between Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) struggles to keep his family together and the origin story of Vito Corleone (played to perfection here by Robert DeNiro) was a risky idea by Coppola, as too much misdirection often times spells disasters for sequels. However, the juxtaposition of the two stories and the two character arcs in these parallel narratives enriches the thematic elements of the Godfather legend. Again, this sequel is much darker, more brooding than the original, as it becomes clear that Michael will never be like his father, and was never destined to run this family. Tension, history, heartbreak, and the occasional shocking moment balance this second entry into the Godfather franchise, and make it Coppola’s most complete film of his illustrious career.
Monday, July 27, 2009
One such film that would benefit greatly from a reinvention, and at the same time draw attention to the creativity and entertainment value of the original film, would be Michael Crichton’s first foray into amusement parks gone awry: Westworld. Written and directed by Crichton, the film takes place in the future and stars Richard Benjamin and James Brolin as two yuppies who travel to an adult amusement park where you can be transported to another place and time. The park is divided into three different worlds: Roman World, Medieval World and, of course, West World. What makes these parks so unique is the fact that they are populated with lifelike robots, robots that serve as antagonists and lovers to the men who visit, robots that make the visitors (who pay $1000.00 per day) feel like they are truly members of these worlds.
Benjamin and Brolin live in West World, and everything is going according to plan. They are winning shootouts with the robotic adversaries, namely two gunfights against the gunslinger robot played with an icy eeriness by Yul Brynner. They are bedding some of the beautiful, robotic women at the saloon. They are living the life of a cowboy in the Old West, and loving every minute of it. That is, until the robots begin to malfunction, are unable to be controlled or shut off by the central control room, and become murderous stalkers. Brynner’s turn as the gunslinger gone off the grid becomes truly chilling, and the suspense of the picture becomes quite palpable by the end. But that is not to say that there wasn’t quite a bit of humor in the first two acts.
West World allows its guests to participate in bar fights, bank robberies, and one-on-one showdowns, all of which they are never at risk of being injured. They even get the opportunity to break out of prison. All of these elements are explored in the first two acts of the film, and the bar fight in particular has a certain campy energy to it as chairs are flying and people are being slid down the top of the bar, crashing into beer glasses along the way. All the while, scientists in white lab coats are noticing the unusual malfunctions of the robots throughout the entire park.
There is a lot to like about Westworld. The camp, combined with the early seventies musical score and visual texture give the picture a very concrete sense of place. But that is not to say that there isn’t a vast bit of untapped potential in Westworld. This remake floated around Hollywood for a while in the early 2000s, with Arnold Schwarzenegger tied to play the Yul Brynner gunslinger, which suggested an angle focusing on the terror and science fiction that is primarily the third act. But I would suggest that what made the original so clever and entertaining was the kooky Western clichés that the film exploited for the sake of the park visitors. The offbeat comedy in the picture keeps it energetic and slightly off center, a mood that would serve the remake well. Here, now, we can assign the Westworld reinvention a new director and a cast of stars, and have a good time imagining what the result would be.
DIRECTOR: Early on in the film, I started to wonder what director might fit this material, and one name kept popping in my head: Wes Anderson. At first, this seemed off base, as Westworld is not necessarily Wes Anderson material. But perhaps it is enough of a Wes Anderson-styled offbeat story that this could be a new direction for Anderson to go while still keeping in tact his subtly skewed comedy. Anderson could definitely handle the first two acts of a picture that ever so quietly builds suspense in a minor subplot early on, while focusing on the exploits of these two yuppies in a series of appropriately-clichéd Western situations. It would be interesting to see Anderson handle the terror and suspense that dominates the final act of the film, and it seems to me that this would be a chance for Anderson to break out of his slump as a director. Changing directions, if only a little, could be the very thing Anderson needs, and it seems that Westworld has a perfect blend of Anderson quirk while adding in some true suspense and thrills that could show a possible range in Anderson as a director.
CAST: Schwarzenegger as the gunslinger would have been a boring take on the Yul Brynner robot. Brynner’s gunslinger was vacant and icy, and also quite trim and athletic, making his swaggering gait as a robot even more unsettling as he stalks the visitors. Rather than getting a muscle-bound superstar to fill the role, it seems the film would be better served by employing a lesser known, slimmer, unassuming actor. Ben Foster came to mind, perhaps because of his role as the villainous gunslinger in the recent 3:10 to Yuma, but the correlation to that role may be too much to keep this character exclusive from his Yuma role. But then, Gerard Butler came to mind. Although Butler is physically imposing, he is not an overwhelmingly large specimen. His girth can be masked. What Butler can pull off, I believe, is that coldness. His stare can be appropriately icy, and his grizzled, rugged look would serve the gunslinger character type quite well.
Friday, July 24, 2009
Welcome to Final Scene Friday, where we end your week with the end of a movie. The final shot of a film can be shocking, prophetic, serene, and often times can be the most important scene of the entire picture. To open up this weekly staple, I thought there couldn’t be a better final scene of a movie than the last five minutes of The Godfather, Part II. When asked about the final shot of Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful sequel, many often cite the murder of Fredo out on the fishing boat while Michael watches on from the house. They sometimes disregard the true final scene of the movie, and perhaps the most important scene of the entire trilogy.
We immediately realize that this final scene is a flashback, because it opens with Sonny, played by James Caan, introducing his good friend Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Rizzi) to the rest of the family and, more importantly, to Connie (Talia Shire). In the first film, Connie and Carlo marry and, well, as you know things don’t go well for anyone. These two friends, Sonny and Carlo, become enemies and ultimately meet their demise in the first picture.
It is Vito’s birthday, so the gang is all here ready to surprise him. This is also where Michael breaks the news to the family that he is joining the Army, much to the chagrin of short-tempered Sonny. What is most important about this scene is the way in which it ends:
Michael being left alone, isolated from his family, is a clear indication that he was never meant to be the Don. The isolation at the table mirrors his isolation at the end of the second picture, when he has murdered his own brother and has lost connection with his family. He is left in a very dark place. While the scene is a telling one, it also carries a heavy bit of nostalgia seeing everyone back from the original, save for Marlon Brando. Credit Coppola for his decision to get James Caan and Gianni Rizzi back, and to add this very prophetic, symbolic final scene to the end of his ultimate masterwork in the trilogy.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Andy Dufresne, played to perfection by Tim Robbins, is a wrongly accused man; a timid, intelligent man whose wounded pride lands him in the Shawshank Federal Penitentiary with back to back life sentences for a crime he ultimately did not commit. Dufresne, along with a line of damned souls, is introduced very early on to Warden Norton (a deliciously evil Bob Gunton), a man who uses Christianity to mask his otherwise untoward acts. Each prisoner who enters Shawshank is given the bare essentials regarding clothing and toiletries. They are also given a bible. Norton tells the new prisoners “I believe in two things: discipline and the bible.” This sets up Norton as the representation of Christianity for the film.
The fact that Norton is the most evil and corrupt of the characters in the film is the first indication that the film does not take a positive stance towards religious ideologies. But that is not enough to convict the film. The prison walls themselves represent the broad-spanning hold that religion has upon the masses. Everyone in the film, in one way or another, relies on the prison to live. Consider the quote from Red, Andy’s closest friend played by the always reliable Morgan Freeman. Early on in the second act of the film, Red discusses the idea of institutionalization: “These walls are funny. First you hate them, and then you get used to them. Enough time passes, you get so that you depend on them.” This explanation points to the idea, in this argument, that the prisoners of Shawshank, the masses, eventually buy in to the idea of prison as represented by the Warden. So by that rationale they develop a dependency on the religion represented by the very walls of the institution. Thus, the institution becomes religion, meaning religion is represented in the broadest of senses by the prison itself.
Now that the religious groundwork has been laid for the film, consider now Andy’s escape. First, consider the actual physical task of escaping. How does he do it? By using a rock hammer, Andy chisels away at the prison wall, creating a hole in its existence, enough to crawl through to the other side. This very literal action simultaneously represents the figurative idea of creating a hole in the prison wall that represents religious ideology. Now consider Andy’s hiding place for the rock hammer he uses for his escape. Andy hides the hammer in the bible which Norton supplied him in the beginning of the film. He does this by literally taking the words out of the bible and fitting the hammer inside. The very physical action of removing the words of the bible to hide what is ultimately Andy’s true salvation, coupled with the physical hole in the wall of the prison, are both clear indications that the picture is rescinding the idea of religion as the institution by which these characters must abide. The creation of holes in the very fabric of religious representation in the film points to the anti-religious ideology of the narrative.
Once Andy is finally free of the prison walls, he finds himself in the rain, a rain which washes him clean of all of the corruption and evil deeds that were put upon him within the prison walls, and put upon him by Warden Norton. This is Andy’s true baptism, a baptism free of all of the religious symbolism that loomed large over the first two acts. Only when Andy is free of the walls and of Norton, is he truly saved. His salvation, in other words, comes not from religion, but by escaping religion.
This may be one man’s opinion, but it seems that there are a number of physical and figurative actions throughout The Shawshank Redemption that indicate it’s stance on religion is not one of praise and positivity. Instead, the indictment of religion lies within the very fabric of the film’s plot. This, however, does not take away from the very impact and beauty of a film that hinges on the idea of hope. Hope does not have to be exclusive to religion, and perhaps that is the ultimate message of The Shawshank Redemption.
I understand that laughter is your first response, but that is precisely my point. Seventeen years ago, considering Tom Berenger as a viable leading man would not have garnered the consensus chuckle. Seventeen years ago, Major League II (the roman numerals make it more… important) had not hit the screen yet and marked the beginning of the end of Berenger’s mainstream acting career. But consider what came before Major League II.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
10) Beverly Hills Cop III (1993) – After Tony Scott took over the reins for the first sequel, amped up the action, and retained most of the spontaneous and edgy humor from the original, John Landis (yes, THAT John Landis) dumped this abomination into the summer movie season. This time, most of the story takes place on a movie set, er, amusement park. Gone is John Ashton as Sergeant Taggart – an actor who really had nothing better to do but somehow knew better – and to replace his absence we get pummeled with more of Judge Reinhold’s Billy, a dopey, unfunny character who is over the top and quite irritating. And perhaps this marked the beginning of the end of Eddie Murphy as a wisecracking comedian, because in BHC3, his smartass routine seems tired and forced.
9) Matrix Revolutions (2003) – I should have seen this coming at the end of Matrix: Reloaded, a movie with cool action but no substance. The substance turned into indecipherable futuristic battles between humans and robots that numb the senses halfway through. On top of that, we get yet another battle between Neo and a bunch of Mister Smiths, only this one is longer! And look, it’s in the rain! Wow! The battle goes on and on and somewhere in the back of everyone’s mind they realize that nothing is going to be solved by the fight because the logic that so cleverly backed the original film disappeared near the end of Reloaded. And speaking of drawn out nonsense and absurdity to the highest power… [SPOILER] I think Trinity is still dying as you read this. Seriously, I think even Neo was getting tired of listening to her.
8) Jaws: The Revenge (1987) – The most amazing thing to me about this film is the fact that Michael Caine is in it. Avoiding all avenues of logic at all costs, this third sequel turns the Great White into some sort of stalker/serial killer, places the action in the Caribbean (big Great White population down there), and even has the shark deliver a monstrous roar a couple of times near the climax. I understand that Jaws 3 was no award winner, but at least it tried to employ 3-D technology and had a storyline completely unrelated to the first two films. This would be much higher on the list had it not been for the unrelenting comedy. I mean even the poster tagline, “This Time It’s Personal,” is laugh-out-loud funny.
7) Robocop 3 (1993) – Red flag number one: Peter Weller, an actor who wasn’t necessarily turning down scripts left and right at the time (or now for that matter) decided he had better things to do, being replaced by Robert Burke. Red flag number two: The first two Robocop films were absurdly violent, and for good reason, garnering hard R ratings. So, for the third entry into this franchise that has served to exploit and satirize violence in the media, the powers that be decided to trim it down to PG-13. Red flag number three: Nancy Allen reprises her role as Murphy’s partner, only she reports to the set with about fifty extra pounds, indicating that she knows she will be mailing in this performance. And finally… Red flag number four: Robocop flies. If I remember correctly.
6) Superman IV (1989) – I don’t care what anyone says, Superman III was a solid, entertaining sequel. Superman IV, on the other hand, was a disaster from the beginning. Thrown together in a hurry, even borrowing scenes form the previous films, this 89-minute sequel looks rushed, unpolished, and the effects are somehow worse that those from the original film eleven years previous. And the villain, Nuclear Man (yawn), overacts horribly, sports a Don Johnson-esque feathered mullet, and wears some ridiculous black and gold outfit that looks like a last-minute costume someone would by on their way to a Halloween party. And the fact that the storyline revolves around the serious subject of the nuclear arms race makes this addition all the more embarrassing to the franchise.
5) An American Werewolf in Paris (1997) – This is the first, and I believe only, addition to this list that I couldn’t make it all the way through. There was something about the look of this film, the polished, synthetic look that was such a distraction from the absurd plot and horrible acting. And the effects of the werewolves themselves were cartoonish and completely unbelievable. Everything about the original film from John Landis (yes, THAT John Landis), the humor, the grit, the horror, the pathos, all of that is absent here and what is left is a complete disaster.
4) Rocky V (1990) – It’s hard to believe that this is the first Stallone sequel that deserves to be on this list, but the first three sequels to the Rocky franchise were, in their own way, enjoyable and entertaining. This is neither enjoyable, nor is it entertaining. The film was simply a money grab, and an attempt to rekindle those nostalgic feelings form the first two pictures by placing Rocky in his black hat and fingerless gloves and dumping him back in the old Philly neighborhood, where he inexplicably begins to sound as dumb as he did in the first film. Throw in Stallone’s real-life son as his whiny, wimpy, irritating son in the film and real-life boxer Tommy Morrsion – whose acting might even be worse than his boxing, if that’s possible – as Tommy Gunn, another irritating character, and the formula is their for disaster. I cannot believe Stallone was able to coax the original film’s director, John G. Avildsen, back for this mess of a sequel.
3) Caddyshack 2 (1988) – Not that you can expect much from a sequel whose only original cast member was Chevy Chase (whose star had begun to fade by this point), but this film was irritating to the point of anger. The abrasively obnoxious Jackie Mason replaces Rodney Dangerfield’s fiery wit in this go round, and Bill Murray’s brilliantly comedic Carl Spackler is this time a stupid, unfunny Dan Aykroyd. And then, all of the original edge of the first film, the sex and the drugs, have been chopped form this sequel, neutering the story and leaving really nothing but inane slapstick to fill the gaping holes. Albeit, to no success.
2) Spiderman 3 (2007) – This is by far the most maddening sequel on this list. After taking the Spiderman story to new heights in Spiderman 2, creating a compelling story and enhancing the villain from the original, this third installment completely fell apart. The first problem is that there is too much going on in this second sequel. Director Sam Raimi, feeling heat from the fanboys, elected to throw in the Symbiote storyline and have Topher Grace play Venom. He also decided to have Spidey don the black costume, one that corrupts his mind, meanwhile employing Sandman into the mix and shamelessly referencing Uncle Ben’s murder in order to make the Sandman’s story seem relevant. Not to mention the fact that there is a dance sequence from Tobey Maguire smack in the middle of the story that is perhaps the most confusing and stupid scene from any of the three films. Oh, and I didn’t even mention the third villain, the Hobgoblin, played by James Franco who apparently didn’t bother trying to act his way through this train wreck. Instead, Franco insists on cheesing a stupid grin and acting like a ten-year old for some inexplicable reason after getting amnesia. Part of me wants this fourth installment to hopefully wash this bad taste out of my mouth, but part of me is afraid things may only get worse, as they tend to do with a third sequel.
1) Batman & Robin (1998) – Where to even start with this one. It seems now, after director Joel Schumacher took Batman Forever towards the direction of camp and overt art direction, that his second addition to the franchise might have been bad. But I don’t think that anyone could have ever predicted such an awful, cheesy, messy, poorly acted, mysteriously over-budgeted nightmare that Batman & Robin turned out to be. With Arnold Schwarzenegger shamelessly overacting, even to his standards, and George Clooney seeming to know, underneath his bat nipples, that what he was doing was going to kill the franchise for almost a decade, it is hard to imagine the powers that be sitting down for a screening of this thing and feeling good about what they had done. Schumacher managed to turn the franchise from a brooding, artistic comic book adaptation into some sort of flamboyant, over-produced rock opera that is so overloaded with characters and subplots, none of which are terribly interesting, that it makes Spiderman 3 look like a one-act play.
Disonhorable Mentions: A shout out to Alien Resurrection, the fourth installment to the Alien franchise complete with a cloned Ellen Ripley and a half human, half alien thing, The final two entries into the Karate Kid franchise, and the overtly racist Lethal Weapon 4. The overt racism in LW4, I guess, seems no surprise now since Mel Gibson was involved…
Monday, July 20, 2009
Friday, July 17, 2009
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
It is hard to imagine, especially in this decade, that a Martin Scorsese film would come and go in the multiplexes without much fanfare and would be generally forgotten when considering the great directors’ catalogue. But that is the case with Bringing Out the Dead, Scorsese’s 1998 release starring Nicolas Cage as Frank Pierce, an EMT who is struggling to hold on to his sanity as he patrols the depraved, nightmarish streets of New York City in the early nineties. Bringing Out the Dead was not well received at the box office, but I argue that there is quite a lot to like about this film, a film that could be considered a bookend picture, or an accompanying piece to his 1976 film, Taxi Driver.
Frank Pierce is a tired, beaten, frayed human being, an EMT who trolls the city streets answering emergency calls with whomever his partner in the ambulance is at the time. Frank’s partner changes first from Larry, played by John Goodman, then Marcus played by Ving Rhames, and finally Tom, played by Tom Sizemore. Each of Frank’s partners plays an important role in his character development throughout the movie.
Frank is having trouble sleeping, haunted by the death of an eighteen-year old homeless girl who he is seeing more and more in the people he drives past on the street. Frank and Larry answer a call at an apartment where a man is dying on the floor. The man’s daughter, Mary (Patricia Arquette), catches Frank’s attention immediately and after miraculously reviving her father the two spark a bond that practically keeps Frank from slipping over the edge.
The parallels to Taxi Driver are everywhere in Bringing Out the Dead. Like Travis Bickle, Frank is burned out, he cannot sleep, he works nights, and several times throughout we are given a glimpse of the city streets through his eyes, streets filled with depravity, violence, and scum, depicted in the same ways those vile streets and sidewalks were shown to us in Taxi Driver. Frank feels that he needs to help these people, to save them from themselves, much in the same way Travis did. However, where Frank and Travis split as characters is in Frank’s realization that his job, the things he is doing to try and save these people, is not the way he can save them, and he fully realizes this in a poignant scene with Mary’s ailing father. Aside from the strong parallels to Taxi Driver, Bringing out the Dead also carries great thematic similarities to Dante and even Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
For Frank, different settings represent different circles of hell. The hospital, a chaotic, starkly lit world full of screaming, anger, and pain, represents hell. Each patient Frank and his partners deliver is being brought to hell, with the city streets representing purgatory, and only those deserving of redemption are able to free themselves from the hell that is the hospital. In this interpretation of the film, Frank’s narrative arch is representative of a journey through the different circles of hell, with each call answered being a different aspect of death and pain. But perhaps the stronger thematic parallel to be drawn from Bringing Out the Dead is the pictures somewhat indirect interpretation of A Christmas Carol.
It is no coincidence, I believe, that Frank rides with three different EMTs throughout the film. The first is Larry, played with empathy and an ability to separate life from work by John Goodman. Goodman’s Larry represents Frank’s past, the way he was before he lost the eighteen-year old girl. Frank could sleep, he could live his life outside the ambulance in much the same way Larry can in the film’s first act. Frank’s second partner is Marcus. Marcus is played by Ving Rhames, and though he is still somewhat together, there are signs of cracking in his psyche. Marcus also relies on religious ideology when it is convenient. Through Frank’s earlier voiceover, he mentions that he feels he can see spirits, although he knows how unstable that notion may be. Frank’s simultaneous recognition and dismissal of the idea of religion in his line of work is personified in the actions and speak of Marcus, cementing the idea that Marcus represents Frank’s present.
The final traveler in Frank’s journey is Tom, played by Tom Sizemore. Tom is a reckless, unstable, nihilistic maniac who feeds off of the blood being spilled in the streets. Once Frank is paired with him, it is Frank’s façade that has begun to crack even more, and with Tom as the driver, a maniacal look in his eye and a thirst for violence and the macabre, it is clear that Tom is Frank’s future.
All of the supporting performances in Bringing Out the Dead are superb, as Scorsese manages to get the best from the actors he uses in his films. Patricia Arquette, perhaps the most talented and seemingly underused actress in the Arquette family, is a perfect match with Cage’s Frank here. And there is also an energetic performance form none other than Marc Anthony as Noel, a homeless man who is seen as crazy to most, but perhaps is not as crazy as people think. But of course, the draw here is Cage, who loses himself in the role of Frank. Cage can act with his eyes with more skill and pathos than most actors can with their entire bodies. Nicolas Cage has to be one of the most frustrating actors of the last twenty years. You can see, in performances like the ones in Bringing Out the Dead, Adaptation, and the phenomenal turn as a doomed alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas, that Cage has a real edge and real depth to his talents as an actor. It’s just a shame he has tarnished his name with such a staggering array of awful films.
As always, and even more so perhaps in this film, Scorsese incorporates Catholicism both in imagery and thematic elements in Bringing Out the Dead. From top to bottom regarding the production, Scorsese’s every action with the camera and the lighting is done for a reason. Most scenes are shot with a bright white glow shining down from above, an obvious religious reference. And Scorsese’s brilliant ear for rock music is strong on the soundtrack, namely the use of Van Morrison’s eerie and desperate "TB Sheets," which travels in and out of the frame as needed. Bringing Out the Dead can be a difficult film, and is not a picture that everyone will enjoy, but it should definitely be re-evaluated some eleven years later as being an important movie, both as a companion piece to Taxi Driver, as well as a piece so rich in thematic diversity that there is enough room for vast interpretations. True signs of a well-made picture.