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Weekend Reel Reads: Bodybuilders, Bibles, Bengals and Bond

Photo of Steve Greene By Steve Greene | Criticwire September 30, 2012 at 10:29AM

This week provided a wealth of film-related stories, and we've compiled some of the best ones here.
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Weekend Reel Reads is a regular feature that gathers lengthier stories related to the world of film criticism you may have missed during the week. If there's anything you think would be ideal for future installments, please let us know at critic@indiewire.com.

Steve Reeves.
Steve Reeves.

NFL Films and the Magic of Seeing Sports

Although his work fell outside the usual Indiewire fare, Steve Sabol remains one of the most celebrated filmmakers of the last few decades. As he and his father created NFL Films, a juggernaut in the world of televised sports that helped make pro football a central part of many Americans’ lives. After Sabol’s recent passing, S.T. VanAirsdale penned a remembrance of the pioneer for The Awl. Football fans will instantly recognize some vital league moments, but even those averse to anything athletic can appreciate this man’s contribution to the NFL’s ubiquity.

"He was one of the most respected, honored and successful visual storytellers of his generation and yet somehow, simultaneously, one of the most influential and gracious filmmakers of the last 50 years to fly almost completely under the critical cognoscenti's radar. Although many in and around Hollywood took notice: When Sabol wasn't inspiring directors from Sam Peckinpah to Ron Howard with his slow-motion montages of gridiron trench warfare, he was responding to job inquiries from recent college graduates with handwritten postcards signed, 'Thanx, Steve.' He hosted a motivational pre-Super Bowl breakfast and often celebrated his crews' failures, just to remind them to take risks worthy of their subjects. He built and trained a staff of 300 people and never forgot how to do every one of their jobs. And when those staffers left Mt. Laurel to purvey these talents independently and develop legacies of their own, Sabol often remained their biggest fan."

Before Arnold

Indeed, before Arnold Schwarzenegger became one of the world’s most recognizable faces, Steve Reeves paved the way for a bodybuilder to become a film icon. Brian Phillips’ look at Reeves’ ascension for Grantland delves into the cultural landscape of the late 1950s that helped foster his rise. Phillips also looks at how Reeves filmography helped create a cinematic expectation for the stars of action films to pack on muscle, even if the story takes place in ancient Greece.

"The problem, fame-wise, was that there wasn't really a filmic mode in the early- to mid-'50s in which a male non-actor could appear plausibly starlike simply by having a mind-blowingly great body. Comedies and noir dramas depended on plot and dialogue, all those antique levers that took specialized skills to work. Plus you mostly wore clothes in them. The right vehicle didn't find Reeves until 1957, when he flew to Italy to star in Le fatiche di Ercole, The Labors of Hercules, released in the U.S. as just Hercules. Hercules was an international hit, made Reeves a star, and opened the gates for a million pepla, the cheerfully low-budget mythsploitation films that came pouring out of Italy in the late '50s and 1960s, many of them also featuring Reeves. Hercules also set the pattern for any number of future strong-dude-interacts-with-special-effects action films; it's not an exaggeration to say Conan the Barbarian probably never happens without it. Before Reeves made Hercules, filmmakers basically saw bodybuilders as a curiosity. Then he made it, and the Biceps of Doom era arrived."

Two with Rian Johnson

Whether or not “Looper” matches the box office success that its substantial critical support might imply, filmmaker Rian Johnson seems to be one of the main focuses of online attention. Both Adam Sternbergh’s profile for the New York Times Magazine and Tasha Robinson’s interview for the AV Club discuss Johnson’s career in full, from his most recent TV directorial efforts to “Brick,” his acclaimed 2005 debut. These two pieces illustrate Johnson’s inspirations and creative processes in equally entertaining ways, both candid looks at a director whose fanbase seems to be ever-growing.

"Another touchstone: 'Four Quartets,' by T. S. Eliot. Johnson conceived of the film in four acts, each related to an Eliot quote. (He reveals each of these influences somewhat painfully, it should be noted, and accompanied by a string of self-conscious caveats about sounding horribly pretentious.) He also points out that 'Looper' owes more to 'Witness' — the 1985 drama starring Harrison Ford about a Philadelphia cop who hides out on an Amish farm while investigating a murder — than it does to 'Blade Runner.' While he was plotting 'Looper,' Johnson sat down and watched 'Witness,' diagraming its structure on a piece of paper so he could dissect exactly how that screenplay worked. 'It starts in the city, creates this noir-type tension and atmosphere, then transfers to the farm, but loses none of that momentum and keeps you in suspense until the end,' he says. 'Which is like a magic trick to me. So I studied it.' One thing he noticed: 'Witness' features a prologue on the farm before shifting to the city, which 'helps acclimatize you to the visual world of the farm.' He liked that so much he aped it, situating his own opening scene in a sugarcane field — so that when the film shifts later to a rural setting, 'it’s not like we’re going into a room we’ve never been in before.'"

"AVC: Are you ready for the kind of thing that happened with Primer and Inception, where the Internet starts dissecting the story and the science in minute detail?
RJ: Oh man, I’m so ready for that! I can’t wait! I mean, I know I’m screwed, I know people will be coming up with stuff that I never thought of, that invalidates the entire film, but I love it. As a science-fiction geek myself, that’s one of the real pleasures of the genre, is when you can dig into it and get your teeth into it. And if this is the type of movie people are compelled to do that with, nothing would make me happier."

Hollywood's New Bible Stories

Whether or not Hollywood will end up enjoying the fruits of the numerous Bible-related projects currently in development, the volume and scope of their prevalence in the coming years will be an interesting trend to keep an eye on. Writing at the Wall Street Journal, Erica Orden details the production status of a half-dozen such properties (including Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah”) which are popping up at multiple major studios. Her conversations with different figures involved in developing and marketing previous Biblical stories indicate that these tales are likely going to be as geared toward an audience expecting action as they are toward an audience expecting faith.

"There are compelling economic reasons for Hollywood to embrace the Good Book. The studios are increasingly reliant on source material with a built-in audience, something the Bible—the best-selling book in history—certainly has. And like the comic-book superheroes that movie companies have relied on for the past decade, biblical stories are easily recognizable to both domestic and the all-important foreign audiences. What's more, they're free: Studios don't need to pay expensive licensing fees to adapt stories and characters already in the public domain. With floods, plagues, burning bushes and parting seas, Bible movies make great vehicles for big-budget special effects, a key selling point for a wide swath of audience members. Paramount is hoping 'Noah' will connect with religious Americans who 'may not necessarily go to more than one or two movies a year,' said Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore."

The Birth of Bond

David Kamp’s Vanity Fair article on the history and relevance of James Bond offers a half-century retrospective on the iconic character’s film origins. Different sections are devoted to the novels’ original author, Ian Fleming, initial failed adaptation attempts, the casting of Sean Connery and the first signs of the franchise’s success. Rather than give the Bond experience in full, Kamp’s story centers on the first few years in the saga, through its strokes of luck and strokes of genius.

"Fleming’s books are at once grittier and more preposterous than the Bond movies. His Bond registers fear and panic and has hangovers. But he’s also something of a bizarre, half-mad sociopath, at times evoking Patrick Bateman, the vain, self-assured brand-name dropper of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, and Jean des Esseintes, the debauched hyper-aesthete of J. K. Huysmans’s À Rebours. Here is how Fleming, through Bond’s eyes, rather creepily describes Vesper Lynd, the first Bond girl (in print, anyway), in Casino Royale: 'Her medium-length dress was of grey soie sauvage with a square-cut bodice, lasciviously tight across her fine breasts. The skirt was closely pleated and flowered down from a narrow, but not a thin, waist. She wore a three-inch, handstitched black belt.' In Goldfinger the novel, Bond, while tracking the villain through France, stops in Orléans—a place he dislikes, 'a priest and myth ridden town without gaiety'—and takes in 'one of his favourite meals: two oeufs cocotte à la crème, a large sole meunière (Orleans was close enough to the sea. The fish of the Loire are inclined to be muddy) and an adequate Camembert. He drank a well-iced pint of Rosé d’Anjou and had a Hennessy’s Three Star with his coffee.'"

The Cop Whisperer

David Ayer’s path to the directorial ranks is an astonishing one. Growing up amidst gang violence and working at times as an electrician and construction worker and even a stint as a navy man, Ayer’s career in the film business has largely centered around his hometown of Los Angeles. In a profile for Los Angeles Magazine, Ed Leibowitz digs into Ayer’s background and explores the writer-director’s relationship with the LAPD, which recently culminated in the recent “End of Watch.”

"Instead of the couple of nighttime ride-alongs that have become obligatory research for cop movies, the actors spent weeks in L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, LAPD, and Inglewood police squad cars. Over yogurt and granola at a Silver Lake café, Ayer describes how during Gyllenhaal’s first time out, he saw a gunshot victim die on the street. 'Jake called me up that night and he was like, ‘That shit changed me,’ ' says Ayer, who is 42. His head shaved, he wears cargo shorts and a plaid button-down shirt whose loose fit only manages to make his shoulders look more massive. 'I’m like, ‘Good, that’s exactly what I was hoping.’ It was horrible, and I know it isn’t going to sound right, but my hopes were that in this process he would encounter some truth and some reality about what’s really going on in L.A.'"

Putting Words in Halle Berry's Mouth

A few weeks ago, we singled out a New Yorker article charting the development of the film version of “Cloud Atlas,” an undertaking that saw as many unconventional loops in the creative process as its source novel. This week, that novel’s author, David Mitchell, had the opportunity to voice his side of the goings-on. It’s not terribly long, but it does poke through the illusion that fiction writers are somehow impervious to the more awe-inspiring aspects of film production.

"For a playwright or screenwriter, this is a normal day at the office, but the first read-through of the 'Cloud Atlas' script will stay with me forever. With three or four actors unable to attend, the film’s directors — Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski, who also wrote the screenplay — divvied up the spare roles. It seemed rude not to volunteer. I hadn’t been in a group-reading situation since my high-school English class, but instead of my 17-year-old classmates slogging through “A Passage to India,” here were Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant and Jim Broadbent delivering lines that sounded uncannily familiar. The whole experience felt rather like finding Gandhi playing Connect 4 with your plumber in the cupboard under the stairs — it wasn’t so much the individual elements of the scene that were surreal but their juxtaposition."


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