A roundtable chat with screenwriter Lewis John Carlino of “The Mechanic,” (2011 and 1971)

If there’s a picture of Lewis John Carlino anywhere on the Internet, I haven’t been able to find it. Does it matter?

Unlike other notables, writers are still allowed to be a little mysterious. Indeed, other than the fact that he wrote several widely acclaimed movies, an episode of the legendary television series “Route 66,” some plays, and directed a few movies, very little information is available online about Lewis John Carlino.

The Great SantiniCarlino is probably best known as the director and writer of 1979’s “The Great Santini,” a beloved sleeper about a military family based on a novel by Pat Conroy and featuring one of Robert Duvall’s greatest and most bombastic performances. “Santini” is, however, one of the more conventional films in the Carlino cannon.

In 1966, he adapted a novel by David Ely into John Frankenheimer’s famously eccentric paranoid science-fiction thriller starring Rock Hudson, “Seconds.” Less well remembered are his non-“Santini” directorial efforts. “The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea,” a bizarre and intense 1976 drama based on a book by Yukio Mishima, and “Class,” a 1983 comedy in which Jacqueline Bisset has an affair with brat-packer Andrew McCarthy, the best friend of her son (Rob Lowe). In between, Carlino also wrote the acclaimed fantasy drama, “Resurrection” starring Ellen Burstyn. After 1983, Carlino stopped directing movies entirely and his credited writing work declined dramatically.

Now a soft-spoken seventy-something intellectual, Carlino met with a group of writers to discuss a remake of one of his best known films, “The Mechanic.” The 1971 original starred Charles Bronson as a troubled but ultra-stoic hit-man who tries to end his isolation by taking on a protegee (Jan-Michael Vincent), even though his last hit was on the young man’s father (Keenan Wynn). Despite its action film trappings — including a nicely accomplished quarter-hour dialogue-free opening set-piece — it’s an often chilling look at men who have embraced death and cruelty. Bronson’s character does have a “code,” but it’s not a moral one. His aim is to embody an amoral version of existentialism that might be familiar to readers of Albert Camus’s “The Stranger.”

The new version, which stars Jason Statham and Ben Foster as the cool-blooded killer and his more hot-headed mentee, keeps enough of the original story and dialogue that Carlino is a credited screenwriter on the film. This time, around, however, Statham’s character is less vicious and the movie hits a number of more familiar action-flick beats. Viewers looking for traces of Camus will have to go elsewhere.

THE MECHANIC

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A roundtable chat with actor Danny Trejo, aka “Machete”

Danny Trejo is More than a few tough guy actors have been, to one degree or another, actual tough guys — soldiers, cops, even petty, and not so petty, criminals. Still, Danny Trejo earned those intimidating facial lines with perhaps the toughest real-life background of anyone to ever transition from a life of crime to a successful life in the fantasy factory of Hollywood.

Of course, it’s that authenticity that’s attracted casting directors since the start of Trejo’s career in the mid-80s. His early small roles eventually led to Trejo’s association with Robert Rodriquez, who coincidentally turned out to be his second cousin as well as the filmmaker who would finally give him his first starring role. Starting with “From Dusk ‘Till Dawn” through the “Spy Kids” trilogy, it was a long path that first led to the funniest fake trailer in “Grindhouse” and then the ultra-violent yet entirely tongue-in-cheek Mexploitation action-fest, “Machete,” now available on Blu-ray and DVD. In his mid-60s, Danny Trejo is now a movie star.

A Los Angeles native with an astonishing 201 roles to his credit, the actor grew up within a half-hour’s drive of the film studios in Burbank, but his tough neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley might as well have been in Tierra del Fuego. He was a heroin addict by age 12 and, way-too-shortly thereafter, an armed robber on a supersonic path to jail or the grave. Fortunately, as depicted in the biographical documentary “Champion” (available via streaming video on Netflix), jail got Trejo first. He eventually found his way to a 12 step program that allowed him to turn his life around to the poing where he could stop being a hard case and, with the benefit of a fortuitous encounter with the late ex-con author and “Reservoir Dogs” actor, Eddie Bunker, start playing them instead.

A voluble gentlemen, Trejo enjoys talking to the press and is not a difficult interview by any means. The roundtable nevertheless started with a slightly awkward moment of silence when a writer who had been patched in via telephone for some reason didn’t come up with the first question and was never heard from again.

Eventually I chimed in with a query, perhaps a bit serious for an opener. I mentioned “Champion” and how, in the film, Trejo discusses how criminals, both inside and outside of prison, are forced to present their natural fear as anger in order to survive in a brutal environment. I wondered if Trejo considered that world of false but convincing bravado to be his first acting class.

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RIP Dino De Laurentiis

Another link to cinema’s past has left us with the passing of the legendary Italian and eventually American producer at age 91. A truly old school style movie mogul with all the good and bad that went with that, creatively speaking, Dino De Laurentiis was instrumental in launching the worldwide vogue for European cinema, particularly in his partnership with fellow powerhouse producer Carlo Ponti and ultimate Italian auteur Federico Fellini.

During a period I personally consider Fellini’s creative prime, De Laurentiis co-produced two of the director’s most powerful films, the classic tearjerker “La Strada” with Anthony Quinn and the great Giulietta Masina, and “Nights of Cabiria” also with Masina, a great tragicomedy and a huge personal favorite of mine. He also produced two now somewhat obscure adaptations, a version of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” with Audrey Hepburn and “Ulysses.” Fortunately, the latter was not an adaptation of the James Joyce stream-of-consciousness meganovel, but Homer’s “The Odyssey,” and starred Kirk Douglas in the heroic title role.

No snob, De Laurentiis had a gift for commingling arthouse fare, quality middlebrow entertainment, and complete schlock — some of it fun, some it merely schlocky. Geeks cried foul when he eschewed stop-motion for an unworkable animatronic monstrosity and, mostly, Rick Baker in a monkey suit for his silly mega-blockbuster remake attempt, “King Kong,” but that movie was a classic when compared to something like the hugely regrettable killer-whale flick “Orca.”

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Previews of coming TCM Fest attractions

I’m busy today preparing to hit the TCM Classic Film Festival, which opens tonight in Hollywood, California with a gala screening of a digital restoration of the 1983 restoration of the 1954 “A Star is Born.” Also screening tonight is the 1931 Frank Capra obscurity, “Dirigible,” an underrated Howard Hawks science-fiction comedy starring Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, and a newcomer named Marilyn Monroe, “Monkey Business” as well as an outdoor screening of 1949’s silly but fun (if memory serves) “Neptune’s Daughter.” That one features swimmer turned musical comedy star Esther Williams alongside a very, very pre-Khan Ricardo Montalban and comedian Red Skelton. The cool part of this is that Ms. Williams, and a real-live water ballet, are included with the price of admission. (I should add that single entries for the fest are very much on the pricey side, starting at $20.00. Students get in for half-price, so I suggest enrolling quickly.)

That’s just tonight. Below are trailers for a some shows I’m personally looking forward to catching. We’ll start with the closing night screening of probably the most significant film of the festival, the new and finally fully restored version of the original science fiction extravaganza, Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” (I’m slightly bummed to see this, like “A Star is Born” will be screened digitally. Assuming that celluloid prints of the new version exist, which may or may not be the case, that’s really how it should be shown.)

More after the flip.

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Friday night movie news dump…

And, for a change, it’s barely even night here on west coast as I begin.

*¬† We’re seeing some major league “New Moon” girl-power at the box office, already. $26.3 million, to be specific. That’s just for midnight shows.

* Just a few days back I noted the casting of Japanese star Tadanobu Asano as Hogun in Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming “Mighty Thor” flick. As a part of Norse (i.e., Viking) mythology, Asgard is, by definition, a pretty strictly Nordic place, so I thought this casting was interesting.¬† Visually, the Marvel comics Hogun was based on Charles Bronson, whose face had a definite Asiatic/Mongolian-by-way-of-Lithuania cast, so going with the star of “Mongol” was a stretch worth noting, but maybe not a definite sign of completely race blind nontraditional¬† casting.

However, Branagh has now cast the very fine African-English actor Idris Elba of “The Wire” and several great episodes of “The Office” in the part of Heimdall, guardian of Asgard. As a commentor at the Heat Vision blog that spread the news mentioned, Branagh did something very similar when he cast Denzel Washington as an Italian warrior-prince in his version of “Much Ado About Nothing.” I’ll quote myself from the Bullz-Eye piece I did on less well known Denzel Washington performances:

As a major production featuring truly race-blind “nontraditional” casting in a key role, “Much Ado About Nothing” is something of an onscreen first. In fact, audiences and critics had no more problem accepting Washington as an Italian prince than they did accepting the extremely British, pasty-faced Branagh as a Mediterranean nobleman.

Especially in films set far away from a realistic context and where the actor has as much authority as both Washington and Elba have, I think we’re sophisticated enough about the nature of movies that this will not be a problem, even for viewers who know a little about mythology. And here’s the best part: it will piss off some white supremacists. I’ve personally heard about young Neo-Nazis who dig the comic book “Mighty Thor” and apparently are too stupid and ignorant to realize that the series was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, a.k.a., Stanley Leiber and Jacob Kurtzberg, two rather brilliant New York Jews. As always, the joke is on the hate fetishists.

Like I said before, this is not your father’s Asgard, and I’m fine with that.

800px-Asgard

* It’s thirty days before the release of “Avatar,” the movie isn’t quite done yet, and some of us insist on going about our business as if life as we have always known it was not about to be forever altered. Quick, send out Sigourney Weaver and Giovanni Ribisi to say nice things about James Cameron!

* He’s brought us everything from “School of Rock” to “Chuck and Buck”, but very talented quirk/comedy writer/actor Mike White’s next film is about Santa war, but I doubt it’ll be very violent. On the other hand, he appeared in the comically mega-violent “Zombieland,” so perhaps his thinking has evolved some. I pretty violently disagreed with his op-ed, but he gets credit for even thinking about stuff like this.

* And, now for something completely different, from OC Weekly restaurant critic Edwin Goei comes his list of the five greatest food movies. I’d steal some of his YouTube clips, but I’m starving and I’m supposed to go to the gym later, dammit. Just go see for yourselves.

  

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