Wednesday, August 17, 2016

All We Can Do

“Most people live in the past,” declares one character in Angelina Jolie Pitt’s BY THE SEA. And it’s true. We spend way too much time in our head on nostalgia, on regret, on those moments when everything came so close. I’d be more than happy to erase whole chunks from my memory but that’s not going to happen. BY THE SEA is set in the past, somewhere in the mid-70s to be more specific, and it feels like it’s made by someone who wants to live in that version of the past, of Antonioni films, of Bergman, of Godard, of what we think of as the glamour prevalent in that age. The film even opens with the early 70s scope Universal logo, as if the entire two hours represents a dream of the opportunity to go back and make movies then. BY THE SEA was either ignored or trashed by most when it opened, barely, back in November 2015 and next to no one outside of the excellent writer Sheila O’Malley said anything positive about it at all. Maybe it was the wrong film at the wrong time, maybe people aren’t looking for that sort of tortured glamour these days, even, or maybe especially, if it does involve Brad & Angie. Now that the Blu-ray is out there, I’m already finding myself returning to it over and over, to a film which is clearly nakedly personal but also, let’s face it, a dream of films that just aren’t made anymore. And I’m finding myself more than willing to live inside it. In many ways, we have no choice but to live in the past, to return to those moments we have guilt over, that we know deep down are our own fault. That’s part of what films are anyway.
Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Angelina Jolie Pitt), married 14 years, arrive at a remote seaside hotel in France. Roland, once a successful writer, plans to write a new book there while Vanessa, a former dancer, plans to do nothing at all. As Roland drinks more than he should and accomplishes little aside from his conversations with local café owner Michel (Niels Arestrup), the bored Vanessa discovers a small hole in the wall connecting to the next room over where honeymooning couple Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud) are staying. Fascinated by the younger, more exciting couple while her relationship with Roland gets even worse, Vanessa becomes obsessed with watching them through that hole as much as possible. But when Roland finds the hole himself it draws the two closer together and it leads them to getting friendly with that couple, taking whatever game they’re playing a step further towards finally confronting what has happened in their own past.
Roland and Vanessa barely say a word to each other, rearranging their hotel room to suit their needs without speaking. They don’t need to talk and don’t seem to want to but they remain with each other even when they’re apart, one of them trying to write (but mostly drinking), the other hiding in their room in despair, gazing out at the view, gazing at the fisherman who returns to the sea each day. Never in a rush, BY THE SEA settles into this vacation from the world and the days seem to go by in a blur, one spilling into the next. For a while the two of them remain defiant in their quiet hostility towards each other and what they once were, Roland insisting “I was a fucking writer” almost defensively as if to remind himself but also because he knows that Vanessa is waiting to spit back at him that he’s more of a drunk now. And she has even less than that—she even answers a question of what she does since she stopped dancing by simply saying, “nothing” and there’s nothing to replace it for her so even the smallest tasks, leaving their hotel room for a few minutes to walk down that ‘ridiculous hill’ for groceries, seem monumentally absurd to her.
As director of the script that she wrote, Angelina Jolie Pitt doesn’t film the movie as an extension of what her character sees and she isn’t simply playing an alter ego, not in the way that any number of famous star/directors we can think of might. It’s a woman who has nothing to say to anyone but the barest of pleasantries, staying so inside her own bubble that she’s baffled by the strange new sensations of the sounds and smells of where they are. Unlike her, the film itself seems curious about everyone and has a fondness towards them, like that young girl smiling at Vanessa in the grocery store or the charming old couple who tell Roland they’ve been together over fifty years, wanting to simply observe and hold on them for a few extra seconds, quietly luxuriating in the moments of the day. The direction is always alert to these characters, the camera always seems to know where it should be to observe them and there’s a discipline to it, an economy to what shots are held as if it knows when we should keep our distance. The environment all around the hotel is completely tangible to us, the welcoming vibe of the café on the water where Roland spends much of his time or even the fetishizing of their accessories like Roland’s red portable typewriter, clashing with all the more soothing color schemes around them as if an alert from the outside world of what he’s not doing while having gin for breakfast. UNBROKEN, Jolie Pitt’s previous film as director, felt noble but also a little anonymous and maybe held back on where the true drama in the story’s redemption lay. In comparison BY THE SEA always feels thoughtfully elegant in its choices, with a pacing that almost feels musical at times. There’s a deliberate feel to how long the shots are held with editing by Martin Pensa and Patricia Rommel that plays as languid and tight all at once as shots go from one to the next, sometimes lingering when necessary, and a day is gone before we realize it. For a film that seemed to be received as nothing more than an ego trip or vanity project there’s truth in its pain, even if it’s a glamorous pain ready to drift off in an alcoholic haze of the afternoon sun that doesn’t make the hurt go away.
On one level BY THE SEA might be a goof, a kick, nothing more than a dream of being in the world of L’AVVENTURA or CONTEMPT seen through scope imagery thanks to cinematographer Christian Berger who revels in the lusciousness of this tiny bay hidden away from the world. Along with the celluloid ennui to make us think of Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton in their late 60s yachting-around-the-world prime (embarrassing admission: I’ve never actually seen BOOM! but have somehow made it all the way to the end of THE VIPs) there’s also, somewhat surprisingly, a certain amount of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? in its portrayal of games between two married couples and of the specific secrets that get revealed. It’s almost a version of VIRGINIA WOOLF not written by Edward Albee or set in academia but somewhere off in the Mediterranean in that late 60s Liz & Dick world although in this case we’re the only ones who find out the secret that the two leads already know. The other couple is much more incidental in this film because these secrets are just for Roland and Vanessa, the sort of things you only find out about somebody past midnight and it sets them apart from the rest of the world. There’s some of Woody Allen’s ANOTHER WOMAN in the basic plot as well (the Blu-ray special features include a visit to Gena Rowlands by the lead couple to receive her blessing, no doubt because of the Cassavetes connection but her lead role in that film certainly comes to mind) and even a slight Hitchcock vibe, not just in the peering next door reminiscent of PSYCHO but in the always careful placing of point of view, particularly through that peephole or even how Jolie Pitt places the hotel and cafe always in relation to each other in the frame, continually keeping the two leads together when all they want to do is stay apart.
But while it luxuriates in those similarities it never forgets that the film is not about simple homage but the escalating tensions that Vanessa is instigating and Roland is trying to avoid. The film manages the tightrope of being that goof and also acknowledging the pain, aware of the loss that has happened, the reaching for some form of happiness that may never come. As CONTEMPT turned into a commentary on Bardot’s beauty, this film gets closer to the female lead in a way that one couldn’t since, after all, Godard wasn’t Bardot and it’s as if Jolie is laying bare the mechanics of her beauty in each close-up. She watches these two normal people (I don’t know how ‘normal’ Mélanie Laurent is, but I guess in this context…) next door without stopping, maybe with fascination, maybe with terror, maybe with hatred, as if they’re a strange lifeforce she’s never encountered. The obsessiveness in her unblinking expression while watching them also brings a surprising wit to it at times—more than expected, it’s a genuinely funny film in a deadpan way, even down to very slight gestures by characters and bits such as the dryness in Roland and Vanessa’s “I’m blowing you a kiss” patter. Plus the bolt of energy the film receives as we see the two of them primp to get ready for their dinner with the other couple, waiting to ply them with liquor, finally a reason for Vanessa to make herself look as good as she can look. Out of nowhere, they’re coming to life as much as the film does, for once they have a reason to become the couple we’ve been waiting to see.
Roland calls Vanessa his inspiration, of course he does, adjusting her glasses that she’s carelessly tossed down as if trying to fix some small part of her. He seems to say it half-jokingly but finally realizes that’s what she really is, while being glamorous and miserable, beautiful and despondent, the past always flashing through her head. “You resist happiness, you’re a good woman,” he tells her and, of course, all of this is the last thing she wants to hear. They shut out everything around them, they’re not even certain of the date of their anniversary, speaking of a past that has been forgotten, finally finding commonality in their tiny power over the purely innocent, uncomplicated happiness of the couple next door who they can spy on and mess with. They’re not turned on so much by watching the other couple make love but how it’s finally something they can share. For once, they don’t have to be alone. It brings them closer together but only so much and eventually they have to really face each other, face her sorrow, face why he can’t confront it. What gets revealed to us near the end is maybe too easy of a revelation in the sense that if you’re trying to guess what the horrible secret is you might be right but on the other hand it doesn’t have to be more than that since what finally gets spoken out loud is simply what it is, devastating to the two of them who know the truth. The film doesn’t hold back the emotion when it counts, in small and large moments, and is never embarrassed to go to those places. Life goes on. Things hurt. Some people always have someone next to them. Some don’t. Some people can move on from pain. Some get destroyed. It’s hard to look at the very last image of BY THE SEA and not think that maybe Angelina Jolie Pitt is saying something about her own marriage but in the context of just the film it’s a reminder of how much it can mean to have someone reaching out to you with a small piece of understanding even as they know you through all your pain and cruelty as they try to help you back to shore, no one else in the world mattering. And that counts for something.
The chemistry between the two leads is natural and unforced, no real surprise—there’s an uncluttered feel to most of their scenes together, even if there are times when it’s a little like Pitt is doing this to do the film with his wife more than anything else, not that there’s anything wrong with that. His pain is felt and vulnerability comes through more than almost ever before but it’s at a slight remove as if he knows that he’s doing Michel Piccoli in CONTEMPT doing Dean Martin in SOME CAME RUNNING. As an actor Pitt seems instinctive, here playing someone trying to stay in control while Jolie as actress keeps in control while playing someone totally instinctive. She’s the one who really inhabits her role, shutting out the world from the vulnerability she wants to keep hidden at all costs while at times scoping out the other person as if contemplating draining them of their blood like she’s Delphine Seyrig in DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS. She’s aware of how she looks and how much of that is a construct as she puts herself together. Just as Clint Eastwood has always known how to frame himself in the most iconic way possible she does the same when the focus is on her (maybe something she learned when Eastwood directed her in CHANGELING), even tweaking her screen presence at times away from that movie star-ness in a way similar to how he’s done it over the years. It makes her more interesting as an actress here than she’s been allowed to be in most of her films from the past decade which is maybe why some of them have been so boring—it turns out the best director for Angelina Jolie is Angelina Jolie. Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud come off just as callow as they should be, playing the younger pair living in their own private well-off bubble, not yet aware of all the pain that’s out there in the world. As the café owner who has to deal with the hard-drinking writer who keeps coming by, Niels Arestrup gives the film its kindly soul and conscience, staring at the photo he keeps of his late wife and calmly waiting things out in this gentle oasis until he can finally join her.
We don’t get what we want. Things are kept quiet. Things explode. Entire worlds end and no one else in the room knows it. Maybe I need a vacation, but I’m here. Just here. Dreaming of being somewhere else, maybe off in Europe, maybe a little day drinking, sitting by the water while trying to write and trying to avoid writing about certain people. I feel like I’m stuck between not wanting to live in the past and being haunted by it. The thing about BY THE SEA is part of it is how much I want to live vicariously through it for my own reasons and part of it is being faced with that view out the window, facing that depression, that feeling when there’s nothing else. We have bad people in our lives sometimes. But we love them anyway. Sometimes we wake up and realize that we’re one of those people. And then we have to press on, even if we’re never really sure how to do that.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Details Of This Moment

Nobody likes realizing that they’re only a supporting character at best in someone’s life. It hurts. You don’t matter as much as you thought you did and that’s just the way it goes. Suddenly you’re a lead character in a completely different story and maybe it’s one where you’re not as cool as you were pretending to be. And deep down maybe the greatest fear is that you’re not going to be remembered anyway, even as just a supporting character. THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN is a film that no one remembers these days except maybe as a curiosity, an odd duck that Elizabeth Taylor made without Richard Burton, the only thing Warren Beatty made between BONNIE AND CLYDE and McCABE & MRS. MILLER. It’s the final film directed by George Stevens who in his heyday made classics from SWING TIME to SHANE and had one of the most harrowing experiences of any of the Hollywood directors who served during World War II as can be read about in Mark Harris’ fine book “Five Came Back”. It’s one of those films from around 1970 caught between generations, the old guard fading away and the New Hollywood emerging which Beatty was such a key figure of. It also has that undefinable feel certain films from this period have for me, as if they were made on a film stock or shot with lenses that give them the vibe of an odd hallucination that you hope to wake up from—maybe it’s the bland color schemes, maybe it’s something about the fashions which have gone a step too far from the coolness of the late 60s and now have the musty feel of something I would spot way in the back of my mother’s closet some years later.
Taken by itself, THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN is a love story about two losers. It’s also a film about two movie stars playing those losers who are mismatched playing two people who are mismatched, with acting styles from two different periods as they try to figure each other out in every shot they’re framed in together. And, yes, sometimes we find ourselves next to that sort of person in real life without knowing what to do next. THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN can’t even be said to have a bad rep these days since barely anyone out there has heard of the film, let alone seen it (from what I can tell it received a very early VHS release on Magnetic Video—look for it on Ebay—then never again until a Blu-ray a few years ago plus some airings on the Fox Movie Channel) and maybe it was a disaster back then but since no one remembers it anyway, I can’t help but think that the film has something, a yearning within its own clumsiness and odd unreality which makes it weirdly affecting now, at least for me.
Fran Walker (Elizabeth Taylor) is a showgirl living alone in Las Vegas, waiting and hoping for the return of her married lover who after continually promising to leave his wife hasn’t been heard from for several months. Late one night she wanders into a bar for a pizza where she meets cocktail pianist Joe Grady (Warren Beatty) and takes him home with her. Joe is also a compulsive gambler just trying to make enough so he can get out of town and though things are tense between them they soon fall for each other. Fran gets an early look at how fast Joe can gamble all his money away but he soon moves in with the mutual promise of no strings attached. But when Thomas (Charles Braswell), the man Fran’s been waiting for, finally reappears having gotten the divorce he’s been promising for so long Fran has a decision to make while Joe focuses on finally winning that five grand so he can make it to New York.
For a film that has so many scenes made up of simply two people talking in a small apartment THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN has a surprising amount of peripheral details that linger, whether Beatty’s nitpicky behavior or even the sterile falseness of the sets. After a burst of fanfare from the Maurice Jarre score, the opening credits segue into an oddly dreamlike series of shots as Elizabeth Taylor walks alone through the streets of Vegas after another night of working as a showgirl. There’s an unexplained beat where a passing car seems to shout something at her (we don’t hear what) then she walks past a ringing phone in a nearby booth which she almost goes to answer, as if hoping a certain someone will be on the other end, but then stops because why bother? A few scenes later she returns home to another ringing phone which she doesn’t get to in time, as if that unseen caller has been following her across town. Maybe because it feels so sealed away from the outside world, there’s an unreal air to much of THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN that almost makes it more compelling, a film set in a world of missed phone calls, a life of waiting for that right person to finally get back to you in the middle of the night. And the unreality of the pairing of Taylor and Beatty, with close to two hours of somehow trying to convince us that they’re right for each other, largely set in a single tiny apartment with a backdrop out the window looking surprisingly detailed but never at all convincing.
Although set in Las Vegas, THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN was actually shot mostly in Paris, something Taylor’s star power at the time could still demand since Richard Burton was also there co-starring in Stanley Donen’s STAIRCASE which, like ONLY GAME,was produced by Twentieth Century Fox. The resulting film cost around $11 million which would probably be a lot now for a two character piece mostly filmed on one set (not that studios are making this sort of thing these days) let alone how outlandish it must have been in 1970. Taylor was reuniting with Stevens who had directed her in the inarguable classics A PLACE IN THE SUN and GIANT with Frank Sinatra originally set to co-star, which sounds like a considerably different film, maybe more believable but also a pairing somewhere apart from cold reality. Whatever that end result would have been, Taylor & Beatty seem like an odd match in comparison which adds to the odd feel of much of the film so the awkward pauses as they get to know each other wind up making perfect sense. The idea of these stars making a film during ’68-’69 in Paris (there were around ten days of location work actually in Vegas at the end of the shoot) with Burton nearby actually seems like an interesting idea for a film itself and THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN might not be quite as intriguing as film sounds it’s still strangely compelling; unreal in a number of ways, maybe to its detriment, but somehow never lifeless.
Written by Frank D. Gilroy (Pulitzer Prize winner for the play “The Subject Was Roses” and a Dartmouth alum as my sister would want me to mention, although I’m going to take a wild guess she’s never seen this film) and based on his play which ran a total of 16 performances on Broadway, not counting previews, it doesn’t try that much to disguise those origins so naturally some of the scenes where we leave the apartment feel a little extraneous. It’s a film starring two people who have always been famous for being famous as much as being movie stars playing what almost seems like alternate loser versions of themselves, each of them waiting for something which seems forever elusive and it sets them down in a few small rooms as if the movie is trying to come up with things for them to talk about and figure all this out, Beatty’s Joe needling Fran, Taylor’s Fran rendered speechless by his behavior. It says something that even in its oddly phony way THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN is never a dull film to look at and visually speaking knows how to keep them facing off against each other, no matter how many times she tells him to get out. It gets that awkwardness, that loneliness of late at night, that need to matter to the other person in the room, the dream of being able to smoke in bed knowing there’s someone next to you. This version of Las Vegas, at least the real stuff we get to see, seems mostly made up of casinos and wedding chapels and fortune tellers, everything a reminder that love is cheap in this place, dreams are cheap. We’re kept away from this world for the most part, trapped in Fran’s apartment directed by Stevens as if he’s still composing his shots for 1952 in a black & white world where that fake skyline out the window wouldn’t have been such a big deal.
Vincent Canby’s March 1970 review in the New York Times is pretty brutal comparing the odd scale of the film to “trying to outfit a leaky Central Park rowboat for a celebrity cruise through the Greek islands” and a little cruel to Taylor’s physical appearance as well, saying she resembles “an apple balanced atop a pair of toothpicks.” He does, however, point out that the script is “not necessarily dishonest” which in this context has to be taken as praise. And THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN does have something, maybe in the material and its often sharp dialogue, maybe just in the way it lingers on the details, the speeches that go on way too long. Maybe consistent with how Taylor’s character reacts towards him, Beatty seems a little like he’s wandered onto the set by accident and has decided to stick around out of pure curiosity. Somehow his performance feels like one of his most vulnerable yet also at times plays like an intellectual exercise as if he doesn’t know what he’s doing there any more than the character he’s playing does--whether or not his bursting into “Some Enchanted Evening” at one point was scripted it plays loose, like he just started doing it at the end of a bunch of takes. Throughout Beatty seems intrigued by the material with the occasional flip, scooby-dooby-doo dialogue he has seeming like a remnant of Sinatra’s involvement while at the same time trying to make the part his own as opposed to Taylor who at times seems like she’s just waiting to spit out whatever she has to say with as much anguish as possible. Reportedly turning down BUTCH CASSIDY right around this time, Beatty seems to have taken the project for the chance to work with Stevens more than anything else saying, “I always thought that it was one of the most sensible decisions I had made because I got the chance to work with George…ultimately it was more rewarding to me to have made a sort of unsuccessful picture with him.” Whatever he took away from the experience, and it would be fascinating to hear him elaborate on it, it’s probably the best reason why when the likes of EASY RIDER were all the rage and he was fiddling with Robert Towne over the very earliest versions of what became SHAMPOO (a film which would ultimately take place when ONLY GAME was being shot) he was off in Paris fumbling with a fishing pole in front of a fake-looking rear projection screen, nothing in this material to indicate why so much time was spent on it beyond the people involved.
According an interview with Stevens, Mia Farrow became a possibility to take over as the female lead after Sinatra dropped out and Beatty came on board. That may actually have been a little too similar to Peter Yates’ JOHN AND MARY (also not an uninteresting film) which Farrow co-starred in with Dustin Hoffman around this time but the pairing may have seemed a little more grounded in reality. On the other hand, there’s something about THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN which, intentionally or not, makes realism not entirely necessary, which adds to the melancholy and how much the characters seem almost blissfully unaware of the outside world. We’re told that Fran is only three years older than Joe, less than it was in real life, but something about their behavior adds to that—Taylor is presumably playing younger but Beatty plays the role as if he’s more a part of that older world which becomes something they have in common, trading off song lyrics from standards to each other as well as admitting to liking old movies—in one of an number of odd asides, Taylor mentions that she likes Bogart because “he’s so ugly.” And it really is a two person show since the few other speaking parts are really glorified bits with the exception of Charles Braswell (mostly stage credits including doing MAME and COMPANY on Broadway) as Fran’s boyfriend who displays such little presence he comes off as a generic “Businessman #2” type they randomly decided to give a few lines to.
However different they are, each star’s presence goes well with the deliberateness in Stevens’ direction throughout as if he wants to gradually force them together. The film is never in a rush which at some points works better than others leading to an odd rhythm to the editing at times particularly during a few montages where it plays like the film is going for a mod vibe which doesn’t seem right and it feels out of step, cutaways to money being spent by the two of them, money being earned, won, lost, to airplanes taking off, as if it’s trying too hard not to seem like an ‘old man’s film’. Many of the long dialogue scenes in the apartment flow correctly even when the transitions are almost a touch too languid but at other times there’s way too much shoe leather, seeming like whole minutes of one of them silently walking from one end of the apartment to the other or the amount of time spent watching Beatty at the craps table. The pacing remains deliberate, with no particular urgency ever given to the dialogue and one scene where Taylor phones Beatty as her boyfriend sits nearby almost approaches surrealism in how it gets dragged out. There’s also a brief supermarket scene (presumably filmed in Vegas, but I guess with this film who knows) which doesn’t serve much purpose other than to get us out of the apartment for a few extra minutes but has its own value as pure documentary, as we imagine the last time these two starts ever set foot inside a grocery store with Beatty in particular seeming like an alien visitor to this planet, hoping that no one catches on to him. There are a few other times when he glances at extras as if trying to somehow understand them and I’m not always sure how much it has to do with the character he’s allegedly playing but the body language becomes fascinating all by itself.
During the supermarket section and a few scenes that follow Beatty wears an extremely goofy-looking fishing hat that does a pretty good job of covering his face as if he’s thinking ‘maybe they’ll forget I’m in the movie’ or daring someone on the set to tell him to take it off. I’ve seen ISHTAR enough times by now to recognize that he wears a nearly identical hat and jacket at one point in that film so maybe it’s some sort of in-joke supplied by Elaine May there but it’s also another film in which Warren Beatty, of all people, is basically playing a loser. At one point Fran says that Joe is ‘average’ at the piano, nothing special, which her returning boyfriend seems to interpret as him being a loser. In some ways THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN is about being average, being a loser, whether you’re doing any good at the craps tables or not, and maybe being able to accept that if the right person is there with you. When her boyfriend insists on whisking her away at a moment’s notice she protests when he says she can’t take her stuff with her—this has been her life, after all. Maybe not much of one but it’s meant something, even if it's been spent sitting in this apartment which for her has been the whole world.
The film is maybe at its best when trapped in that space, not trying to be part of the outside world, in a year where other Fox releases included MASH, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and MYRA BRECKINRIDGE. Since it seems out of step for 1970 (I imagine), it winds up playing pretty well in 2016, even if it doesn’t really seem part of now either. And much as the film can’t hide its stage roots it never feels tossed off, playing like a three way struggle between a director trying to make it art, a lead actor who is almost doing the opposite of what’s expected of him and a lead actress who seems on the verge of rage that she’s being asked to do another take. She hits the emotion at the right moments in her performance but never really seems like anything other than the mental image of late 60s Liz Taylor. Near the beginning we famously get a brief series of shots of Fran ‘working’ as a showgirl in an elaborate Vegas revue, giving us a pair of unconvincing close-ups that won’t fool anyone and even the very first seconds of the film feature her waking up in a bedroom that is believably dark and disheveled but looking like she just got out of a makeup trailer stocked with a decent supply of vodka.
At one point Fran insists to Joe on how frugal she lives even though we’ve already seen multiple rings on her fingers making me think of the entries in Richard Burton’s published diaries (highly recommended) from around this time where he writes about her, forever compulsively. He admits to jealousy of Beatty during the filming but also at one point while musing on Taylor’s health issues wonders, “Elizabeth’s endless operations are the natural successors of indifferent eating and drinking habits and no exercise at all, or are they?” No matter how affecting her work here is at certain moments, that’s the woman we’re seeing, sitting around waiting for her boyfriend like he’s Burton returning from location in Prague or, even worse, waiting for MGM to call and tell her that the old studio days are back on again, framed in big close-ups with soft focus. She never looks bad, she just looks like late 60s Elizabeth Taylor so she never looks very much like a Vegas showgirl.
The film is compelling at least partly because of the odd anti-chemistry between the two leads but there still isn't quite enough plot to warrant the roughly 110 minute running time. It always seems fixed on revealing the characters in ways that presumably originated on the stage----a prolonged speech at the end telling us what we didn’t get to see involving how Joe’s gambling addiction is resolved pretty much arrives at the same conclusion Robert Altman’s CALIFORNIA SPLIT did a few years later without all that dialogue only here it feels abstract in its wordiness, a happy ending that comes out of nowhere. On the other hand, another long speech Beatty has near the end involving a crystal ball may be slightly purple in what it expresses but in its own ungainly way the film has earned these moments. Maybe these are just two characters who come off as so stubborn that I want them to reach some sort of understanding. I’ve watched this film several times, getting drawn into it, getting annoyed with it, at times fascinated and thinking about how much I’m reading my own bizarrely personal connections to what it tries to say. It’s affecting in its uncertainty and clumsiness, of how it doesn’t deny the sadness, of people groping for things to say for so long that it turns into a meaningful speech almost by chance.
Then again, maybe I just like films about men and women dealing with each other while crammed into a tiny space, even ones like this which seem slightly divorced from reality. I feel a little divorced from reality these days anyway and because of that THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN may only be good to me in an odd, unexplainable way, but I’m glad it’s there even if it means I stay up later and later at night watching movies like this, wishing I had the right sort of courage to change things and wondering how average it all means I am…or worse. The final moments are about closing your eyes to take the leap for something and the film seems to say to let that idea sink it, then open your eyes for the truth. I’m not sure how much I believe in that sort of happy ending these days, maybe because too often what it represents feels like the kind of ending that never really happens. Which is usually the case when you’re stuck as a supporting character.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Value Is A Relative Thing

30 years since summer 1986. Not exactly the most important year ever but that amount of time still allows for contemplation. It’s also a summer where a surprising number of films, even some of the hits, have fallen away from pop culture prominence. Yes, there was ALIENS and David Cronenberg’s remake of THE FLY so that’s at least two good ones. Of course, we also had POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE and Tobe Hooper’s remake of INVADERS FROM MARS, two rare 80s genre films which don’t seem to have any sizable cult these days. No one seems to remember RAW DEAL, the one Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle of the year. THE KARATE KID PART II actually made more money than the original did two years earlier yet it feels totally forgotten now, at least by me. It’s actually a few of the flops that have stuck around in popularity longer than expected, particularly Jim Henson’s LABYRINTH and John Carpenter’s all-holy BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA which wasn’t just a flop but a flat-out disaster, opening in 12th place at the box office on opening weekend. Some of the big hits of that summer now seem emblematic of the 80s rot that was really setting in by this time, away from what we think of as the comparatively simpler enjoyments of RAIDERS, E.T. and GREMLINS from earlier in the decade. TOP GUN. COBRA. FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF. Even the enjoyable RUTHLESS PEOPLE is deliberately about that ugliness.
And then there was LEGAL EAGLES, a film which has always felt like it was designed in a Hollywood lab for the sole purpose of being a big blockbusting star vehicle hit. A package put together by CAA with the right names attached in front of and behind the camera but not anyone who had any particular passion for making this film. Ivan Reitman was the director, still hot off GHOSTBUSTERS and no doubt looking to extend his reign as the new big comedy guy. For star Robert Redford this was immediately after he made OUT OF AFRICA, also made at Universal, and was possibly the lightest material he had appeared in since maybe the 60s. Debra Winger was in the middle of her hot streak as the big female lead around while Daryl Hannah had just broken through two years earlier with SPLASH. Screenwriters Jim Cash & Jack Epps, Jr. (Reitman himself shares story credit with them) also had their names on TOP GUN that summer and were no doubt the hot writers of the moment. LEGAL EAGLES is slick, it always has been, but it’s really not more than that, kinda sorta an attempt to makes an old-fashioned Tracy-Hepburn comedy-mystery only in the 80s vein going for lots of laughs and action with a plot that never really kicks into gear. It’s not terrible but it’s not really all that good either. Since it wasn’t the smash hit it was meant to be is it serving any purpose for anyone at all anymore? The film’s MacGuffin is a painting, in case anyone out there has forgotten this crucial detail, one that we are deliberately never shown presumably because it’s so brilliant that it must be kept in our imagination. At least, I’m assuming that’s why but never showing it winds up serving as a metaphor for the entire project.
Tom Logan (Robert Redford) is a hotshot New York prosecuting attorney who may soon get a chance to be named the new District Attorney when defense lawyer Laura Kelly (Debra Winger) ropes him into a case involving performance artist Chelsea Deardon (Darryl Hannah) who is accused of stealing a painting by her late father which she now claims now belongs to her. Upon investigating wealthy art dealer Victor Taft (Terence Stamp,) Laura believes that many paintings by Chelsea’s father, believed destroyed in a fire 18 years ago, still exist and are possibly being hidden by Taft. After Chelsea, claiming she’s convinced that someone is following her, shows up at Tom’s apartment late one night he of course sleeps with her. But when the police burst in the next morning to arrest her for murder, catching the two of them in bed together, he is immediately fired from the D.A.’s office and reluctantly joins forces with Laura to defend Chelsea as she goes to trial.
Looking at it now, LEGAL EAGLES feels a little too genetically engineered to ever have a personality of its own. It’s the sort of 80s film that tosses the name ‘Ovitz’ into a random line of dialogue, presumably trying to make a certain agent happy, mildly pleasant but never particularly likable, moderately diverting but never all that involving. It’s clearly interested in star power more than anything else—close to the half-hour mark instead of kicking the plot into gear things seem to stop for a protracted sequence intercutting the two leads who can’t sleep late at night as SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN plays on TV, presumably spelling out how right they are for each other. But it says something that one of the movies big attempts at a charming setpiece to set up the chemistry of the two leads occurs without them even in the same place and it’s still more interested in pulling off the romance than the plot which never becomes that big a deal. One imagines a thriller centering around missing paintings to be a lighthearted caper that could star Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in an earlier decade (odd piece of trivia—Grant himself is thanked in the end crawl for the use of a piece he owned so this is maybe the final film to feature the name ‘Cary Grant’ somewhere in the credits) except it’s made by people who seem to want to focus on the seriousness of the plot over the comedy only there’s never much of a plot to focus on.
For one thing, writing out the summary makes it seem extremely farfetched that Redford’s character joins up to defend Daryl Hannah on a murder charge after being found in bed with her when she’s arrested (would he need to be called to the stand?), so it doesn’t exactly stand up to close scrutiny. It’s all supposed to be charming and breezy which I guess means nitpicking that plot stuff doesn’t matter but it’s almost trying too hard—one of Redford’s big character traits is tap dancing late at night when he can’t sleep and I wonder how his downstairs neighbor feels about that. As much as the film wants to give us a Robert Redford having fun onscreen for the first time in years, playing a guy who burns the toast making breakfast and locks his keys in his car, too often the material seems like it’s beneath him and some of the other actors, a thriller storyline for adults that’s been dumbed down for kids to go see during the summer. When the murder mystery angle comes into play and the trial begins (the trial just begins, poof, with no indication of how much time has gone by) the movie never quite becomes about that either. It’s a little like at the halfway mark the film has suddenly decided to become a courtroom movie but there isn’t enough time left so it just moves on to the climax.
It’s at least professionally done and well shot by Laszlo Kovacs with that nice, crisp 80s Panavision look as well as extensive New York location work which actually makes it feel more set in the New York of GHOSTBUSTERS than GHOSTBUSTERS II does. A matte painting of Sutton Place late in the film in particular feels right out of the earlier film and throughout there are certainly enough evocative views of the city that they found the right places to shoot it. Locations like the late night shot of the Soho street outside of Chelsea’s apartment late at night or the view of the World Trade Center across the river from the Brooklyn art warehouse at least give the movie the an oddly cinematic feel for those brief moments but don’t do much for it as a comedy so those touches never have any lasting effect. Also extremely odd—even odder, looking at it all these years later—is Daryl Hannah’s performance artist presenting her new piece for Redford in a sequence which doesn’t have much to do with anything aside from extending the recurring theme of fire through the film. Then again, I’m not sure if this qualifies as extending a theme or just ‘the film has several scenes revolving around fire’. It’s not really a satirical look at what a mid-80s performance art piece might have been, it’s at least an unusual few minutes of film but still doesn’t have much to do with anything. Another film might have come up with a way to turn it into a clue for Redford’s character to figure out later on but here it plays as if Hannah had ideas for her thinly written character to make her something more than just a sex object and Reitman let her get carried away with it, even if the whole thing might have been more at home in AFTER HOURS. Maybe it’s meant to be a byproduct of PTSD from the character witnessing her father’s death as a child that is, if there was that much thought put into the idea.
It makes sense that Reitman would have wanted to prove himself away from the star power of Bill Murray (an early version of this was to possibly team Murray and Dustin Hoffman) but with all these disparate elements the film needed a solid idea behind it, a script as good as the one Reitman would had for DAVE a few years later, for that to happen. Looking back at Reitman’s career, some of the solid ideas are when his films have come out the best—looking back at his TWINS from 1988 it may never have been much more than what was advertised on the poster but it was definitely a solid commercial concept. LEGAL EAGLES plays like it’s as if when he tried to jigger an idea to his commercial sensibilities to fashion a movie meant to be such a hit it turned into a star vehicle which feels a little like actors assembled together waiting for the movie to happen so it’s all just a little too bland, the blanks haven’t been filled in to the bare bones of the basic idea.
At times there are hints that the film wants to be funnier than it knows it is and inserting a line that describes Winger’s character as having “once put a dog on the witness stand” implies more broad comedy than ever actually happens. In his autobiography “My Life As A Mankiewicz” the late screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz talks about doing uncredited work on the script, including mentioning how neither Redford or Winger wanted to be the ‘funny’ one of the pair in this alleged comedy—at times the task of getting laughs seems to be up to some of the bit actors playing other lawyers, like Christine Baranski as Logan’s associate at the D.A.’s office, as if they’re only passing through heading to appear in a broader movie when they leave the scene. As it is, some of the best bits are the most deadpan, a reminder that these actors deserve a more sophisticated approach to this material, like Winger’s “Happy Birthday, Your Honor” when she interrupts a court proceeding or Daryl Hannah describing the extent of a wealthy art patron’s interest as “She’s bored. She likes to wear earrings.” Even Redford’s big scene offering opening remarks at Chelsea’s trial where he asks who else believes Chelsea is guilty is nice (Liz Sheridan from SEINFELD is one of the jurors) is clearly meant to be a showpiece for him, as if part of the point of the scene is meant to remind us that he’s a movie star and it’s a nice moment but still pulls back before any real courtroom craziness so the speech never kicks into gear all that much. The film stays light when it should be more of a thriller. The jokes are flat when it needs more wit. The story beats are slick and 80s but never really mean very much. The patter never develops into real chemistry. Portions of the plot if described might sound like they could be out of an old screwball comedy but almost nothing about the film itself plays out in that fashion. It never becomes more than genial as a result almost as if the film was designed to be watched on a plane where only half-paying attention to it wouldn’t hurt it too much.
There’s also no real chemistry between the two leads that there’s not much to say about it so when Tom Logan tries to explain the concept of sexual politics to his daughter played by Jennie Dundas (Redford is given an ex-wife and preteen daughter for no particular reason) it plays as a little random but also a meta comment on how there’s nothing really going on in the film otherwise. The climax set in the art gallery ablaze (again with the fire) is a reminder that at least the film is expensive and you’d think there would be the opportunity to use the word Hitchcockian to describe some of this, but not so much with Reitman’s direction which gives off smooth professionalism but not much else here without Bill Murray to provide that extra juice. The bits of presumably deleted footage under the end credits hint at more plot but aren’t all that interesting (they look mostly like a main titles sequence for a LEGAL EAGLES TV show) and I don’t know if more plot, let alone more ineffective star interplay, would really help. The problem with LEGAL EAGLES isn’t that it’s too many things, it’s that it’s not enough of any of them. And, in the end, it’s a little empty. Which is not to say that a flashy star vehicle designed to entertain has to be rife with subtext and meaning but a small touch of resonance in the vein of the Grant/Hepburn/Tracy/Hepburn films of another era occasionally achieved would be nice.
Of course, star power only gets you so far. Robert Redford and Debra Winger at least have that but for a Tracy-Hepburn attempt it feels like it’s more interesting when the two actors are playing a scene with just about anyone else in the film. As if to compensate for the lack of chemistry both actors seem to default to being pleasant with each other just to get through it. I’d imagine that Daryl Hannah would be the Jean Hagan to this Tracy-Hepburn duo but aside from smoldering she never gets to do very much and feels a little like a waste. “Vintage Chelsea”, exclaims Winger near the end commenting on her effect on men which, again, feel like it implies more than we ever actually got to see. Brian Dennehy has a key supporting role looking like he walked off the set of F/X, got a trim around the sides and drove over to the set of this film. Terence Stamp doesn’t get much to do other than acting officious as Victor Taft but his dry reading of “Most of my clients prefer to see the front” to Redford’s request to see the back of a painting is a reminder of how dryly funny he can be, which he doesn’t get much of a chance to do here. Steven Hill, still a few years before LAW & ORDER premiered, is the Manhattan DA and after watching countless episodes of that show he seems overqualified for the way the part is written here. David Clennon of BEING THERE and THE THING is another stereotypical jerk in the D.A.’s office and Roscoe Lee Browne as the presiding judge offers some of the best comic timing in the film, making me wish it really were more of a courtroom movie. When he makes his entrance there’s such confidence in how he takes over the scene that I relax a little, happy to see him until I realize the character isn’t actually going to be around for very long. Elmer Bernstein composes the last of his four scores for Reitman and it plays like the composer knew all too well how much the film was depending on whatever excitement he could manage to bring to it. His music at least gets to make more of an impression here than in GHOSTBUSTERS where his work got buried by the pop songs--as anyone who was watching MTV at the time will remember, even if they don’t want to, Rod Stewart’s “Love Touch” was the one single for this movie and it plays over the end credits.
In the end, before LEGAL EAGLES was sent off to the purgatory of VHS it made just under $50 million, neither a huge hit or huge flop, certainly more impressive than it is now but the film also cost a lot and no one was ever that crazy about it. One odd postscript is how syndicated TV airings apparently featured an alternate ending which slightly altered whether or not Chelsea was guilty. Without being able to look at that one (for once, something doesn’t seem to be on Youtube) it seems like the one they went with for release at least wrapped things up a little quicker. LEGAL EAGLES isn’t all that terrible but it isn’t all that good either. For as much as it was meant to be a big deal, it’s just kind of a shrug either way, an expensive shrug with movie stars. Looking up that summer, other Universal releases included PSYCHO III and HOWARD THE DUCK so I guess it wasn’t one of their better seasons but chalk that up to karma from not wanting to release BRAZIL the previous year, I suppose. But hey, it was the 80s. At least that decade is over with even though for me when I spot extras in front of the art gallery during the big climax or the shot of Debra Winger driving the wrong way into traffic it gives me a hit of nostalgia as I close my eyes and imagine a film being shot in NY back then. As for LEGAL EAGLES itself, it’s really only memorable in the sense that you remember movies you saw during the summer when you were 15. Which is better than not remembering it at all, I suppose.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Pull Of The Unknowable

Depression. Cynicism. Anger. Pain. And then there are the bad days. That’s the world right now and that’s the way it is. Much as I may feel that way I know it’s an ugly, evil thing, resulting in a year like 2016. It’ll end eventually, I hope. Of course, cynicism can be necessary and integral to the world view of a film whether we’re talking about Wilder or the Coen Brothers or whoever. This brings up issues of what a movie should be or what we may want it to be. I saw Cameron Crowe’s ALOHA on opening weekend way, way back in May 2015 after months of bad buzz coming from a delayed release date as well as Amy Pascal emails that were leaked in the wake of the Sony hack. The film encountered further criticism after opening, much of which having to do with female lead Emma Stone playing the one-quarter Hawaiian “Allison Ng” which Crowe himself apologized for mere days later. These complaints had validity for reasons having to do with the film and otherwise, speaking to the greater issue of diversity in casting these days whether speaking of race, age or other factors. Of course, if Emma Stone had been playing, say, “Allison Jones” not to mention if it had actually been an Asian-American actress in the role there still would have been the rest of the film to deal with.
Thinking of Cameron Crowe’s association with Billy Wilder immortalized in the book “Conversations with Wilder” for which he has my eternal gratitude I went on Twitter after seeing ALOHA and drew a comparison between several past Crowe films and several Wilders in terms of their parallel careers—deciding for a variety of reasons that the acclaimed ALMOST FAMOUS can be seen as his equivalent of THE APARTMENT, the disastrous reception of ELIZABETHTOWN serving as his own THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, WE BOUGHT A ZOO an attempt to make something commercial just like the Lemmon-Matthau THE FRONT PAGE and so on. And I concluded that the undeniably personal yet maybe unworkable ALOHA served as his very own FEDORA, a Wilder which is also admirable (and considerably better) yet also containing problems that go down to its very core. The fine writer Miriam Bale replied that this actually made her want to see the film (gulp, people really are reading what I say on there?) but it took me until now, after I revisited and wrote about FEDORA, to actually take a second look at ALOHA. To be totally honest, I didn’t have a strong dislike for the film a year ago—mostly what I remembered were the pleasant Crowe hangout vibes more than anything else. I didn’t think it was good but it seemed modest and amiable enough, nothing to get too upset over. So what I discovered on this revisit felt like a splash of cold water on the face within the first ten minutes, an unfortunate discovery where almost nothing seemed to work as if I was watching an abbreviated intermediate cut of material that was never correctly focused to begin with. There’s talk in ALOHA of what the past and the future can mean so when it comes to Cameron Crowe maybe those two things are what we should focus on as well. Maybe with this film we need more time for the present to become the past. Unfortunately, I’ve already started writing about it so I guess I have to continue.
Military contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) has arrived in his one-time home of Hawaii to negotiate with locals to allow a blessing on a new pedestrian gate for his boss, billionaire Carson Welch (Bill Murray) and to assist on a project involving Welch’s impending satellite launch. He is assigned a military liaison in the form of Air Force pilot Allison Ng (Emma Stone) but soon finds himself encountering old flame Tracy (Rachel McAdams) who now has two kids and is married to the near silent Woody (John Krasinski) with two kids which forces Brian to confront the ghosts of why he left Tracy to begin with. But as he spends more time with Allison the two of them are drawn to each other as Brian finds himself dealing with the truth of what Carson Welch has in mind with his satellite launch.
This is kind of sort of a plot synopsis of ALOHA. I think. After several viewings I'm still not entirely sure. Which of course is part of the problem since right from the beginning way too many elements are thrown at us for anything to really cohere. As the opening credits roll we get old home movie footage of Hawaii intercut with military activity as old school Hawaiian music plays that gets interrupted by the expected track by The Who bringing us up to date under a Bradley Cooper voiceover, clearly added after the fact to clarify backstory and set up the plot but it just adds confusion and it seems impossible to know which of these elements to focus on. It’s one of those films where it can be tough to figure out what the relationship between certain characters ar before the start of the film not to mention what the actual story is supposed to be so even fifteen minutes in it feels hard not to wonder what’s going on and what purpose anything serves—even after several viewings there are times when specific information is given that I find myself zoning out, occasionally going back to replay a line that I missed. Is the dialogue too mealy mouthed? Are the actors mumbling? Was the on-set sound recording bad? Is it me? Is it the film? I can understand the rationale behind moving from one scene to the next because a film is supposed to do that, but I’m not always sure why we, allegedly following this story, are moving along with it. There’s too much here but still not enough, as if it began as a 300 page draft cut down to feature length only what needed to stay and what needed to go all got mixed up in the notes.
ALOHA is a movie which is at least partly about accepting the past but we barely understand what that past means for the characters, let alone the present they’re muddling through--the all-powerful billionaire Carson Welch dismisses the past (nostalgia and a trap, he says) and warns of fear of the future (a brutal force that will steamroll you if you’re not watching) in favor of a present that he wants to control. But for all the portentous statements too much of what’s going on feels hazy as if Crowe just wants to get to certain jokes and cute interplay at the expense of story and the greater meaning of it all. The 104 minute running time gives the impression that cut footage would enhance things in a way similar to how the UNTITLED cut of ALMOST FAMOUS, already a good film, made that experience much richer. Unfortunately what can be found on the ALOHA Blu under ‘Alternate Opening’ entirely consists of footage running about 19 minutes, including Jay Baruchel who doesn’t appear in the release version as Cooper’s brother, all taking place before the film begins, making me wonder about a script going into production where apparently the first 20 or so pages didn’t matter. Too much is left vague, as if during editing they got so used to some of the exposition that they just cut it out, forgetting what we needed to know--sampling a few minutes of the audio commentary, Crowe talks about the independent nation of Hawaii headed by Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele who plays himself in the film and what this has to do with the specific reasons for why Cooper’s Brian Gilcrest needs to negotiate with him in the first place making me wonder why this info wasn’t made more clear in the actual movie. At least they could clarify why “taking care of a blessing on a new pedestrian gate” is so important. Maybe background on Hawaii is the sort of thing that should have been brought up in the opening narration instead of the backstory of Brian Gilcrest but then again Alexander Payne had sort of covered that ground at the start of THE DESCENDANTS a few years ago. Look, writing a film is hard. Coming up with the right idea is hard. But it’s as if instead of coming up with a clear idea for what this script was going to be, that ‘one line’ Paddy Chayefsky would tape to his typewriter so he would always stay on theme, Crowe’s version of that one line became ten pages long so he couldn’t see his own screenplay while he was writing it. The movie becomes about so many disparate elements that it winds up not really being about any of them.
My memory of ELIZABETHTOWN, which I haven’t looked at recently, is that it was a mess but that Crowe was putting himself completely out there maybe more than ever before. Until we saw the result, that’s what we wanted Cameron Crowe to do. The modesty of WE BOUGHT A ZOO felt dialed down in comparison as if he was trying to find a personal connection to the story but for once not deal with every single emotion that he’s ever had in his entire life. ALOHA plays as somewhere in between and is maybe more frustrating because of that as if all of those emotions were once in the material but what remains either feels truncated or simply empty, not enough for the right emotional connection to take hold. Spare pieces of dialogue that seem meant to lead to The Big Statement, like how Gilcrest apparently represents ‘the Arrival Myth’ sent to wreak havoc in the sky, feel forgotten in exchange for making the film a smooth ride, a pleasant interlude in Hawaii with likable characters and nonstop music. And a subplot involving nuclear weapons getting launched into space. There is imagery in the cinematography by Eric Gautier which in its occasional placement of characters within the frame hints at a yearning beauty the film never quite reaches but the use of handheld cameras in more intimate scenes which are maybe meant to keep the relationships feeling uneasy comes off as too scattershot, almost as if we’re watching filmed rehearsals and it’s all going to be completely formed when they shoot the real stuff. Things do come to life in a party scene about 40 minutes in which allows us to track glances between various characters as if they’re silently keeping tabs on where others are at that point in the plot so for a few minutes there’s actually some rhythm to things. The sequence also gives us the sight of Bill Murray and Emma Stone dancing to Hall & Oates which, granted, doesn’t have much of anything to do with the rest of the movie. I’m not even sure if the two actors are bothering to stay in character here but for a few minutes the film needs nothing else other than this tiny, unexpected piece of joy.
Storywise, if we’re going to bring the ghost of Billy Wilder, there’s maybe some DNA of AVANTI! and A FOREIGN AFFAIR in ALOHA – you could even say that this film feels a little made up of pieces of the plots of those films turned inside out only I’m still a little hazy on the specifics of what the plot of ALOHA is without looking at the Wikipedia summary (that’s a lie—I had to read it) to figure out why Brian Gilcrest is so integral to Carson Welch’s plan to begin with or the vagueness of the Afghanistan backstory (more to it in those 19 minutes cut from the start, not that we need them back) or why Allison Ng attaches herself to him so insistent about the glory of his purest self as if she’s been studying up on his childhood or why his old girlfriend has avoided telling him something important for so long. It’s a hangout movie which occasionally seems to remember that we need to be very concerned about certain plot points but the information hasn’t been made clear enough to get us to remember why. The idea of personal triumph coming out of failure is a familiar one in Cameron Crowe’s films whether ELIZABETHTOWN or even a little of JERRY MAGUIRE too but it never means very much this time, playing more like another encapsulation of Cameron Crowe themes than a story for its own sake that has an emotional impact on its own. The film wants to tell us that the answers to everything that we’ve forgotten in our cynicism are there as long as the sky above us remains pure and I’m open to searching for the positivity in that metaphor but it never winds up meaning very much.
There’s the feeling that Crowe supplied his actors, even some of the bit players, with pages and pages of character biographies which makes some of them pop during their brief time onscreen—for whatever reason, Ivana Milicevic’s mostly silent Carson Welch biographer lurking on the edges of scenes reminds me of her henchwoman dropping a mickey in James Bond’s drink in CASINO ROYALE—but he forgot to insert the necessary dialogue into the script so the relationships would make sense. Occasionally moments connect like the look on Emma Stone’s face when she realizes that Bradley Cooper is opening up to her but even though some of those touches feel like pure Cameron Crowe too often they’re isolated from everything else so massive close-ups of Rachel McAdams as a connection gets made, no matter how well shot they are, don’t have any impact.
Clarification is missing and maybe so are the right grace notes, maybe what we’re given just isn’t enough to build the foundation of a plot structure on so it doesn’t stand. You can look at an action thriller and say ‘cut it down to the plot’ but if the story is based on human interaction that requires some sort of emotional logic, even if it’s only movie logic, the plot beats aren’t going to be enough so it contains containing a haphazard pace which made some of it seem to take forever and seeming rushed through at the same time, reactions from characters whether happy or sad that come too abruptly. The release version feels like a compromise so everyone can agree, ‘Well, at least it isn’t too long,’ and finally get the movie finished but that doesn’t help us very much. I’m still a little vague on the plot mechanics of Cooper sending a sonic upload to the satellite which seems like a very Crowe-ian concept, similar to Tom Cruise being surrounded by the overwhelming mass of pop culture in VANILLA SKY or maybe to him it’s a cinematic representation of what it was like to be a kid hearing “A Day in the Life” for the first time, that the only way to stay pure in the world is to let all that wash away from you. It just never feels very clear why it needs to be a part of this movie.
Maybe Cameron Crowe wants to believe in the sweet-sour aspect of Wilder’s worldview more than he really does. He’s too cheery and optimistic about human nature for the sour to play but at the same time he’s trying too hard to remind us of that optimism instead of just letting certain moments happen. He can’t seem to bring himself to make anyone unlikable, at least for longer than a few minutes, and it leaves the movie with characters yelling at each other when there isn’t any real conflict. The messiness of the film isn’t uninteresting, it’s just frustrating in the intensity of its haphazardness. And it’s depressing because, Crowe or not, this is the sort of film I want to defend and Crowe is one of the few people left with any sort of clout to make it at a studio anymore. At least, he was until this film. Does James L. Brooks have any projects in the pipeline these days? Should I revisit HOW DO YOU KNOW next? The final scene closes things out on a moment of grace which would have the potential to be absolutely transcendent, finally giving beauty to the recurring theme of silent communication throughout the film, if anything connected to it beforehand had a shred of emotional plausibility. But it doesn’t. So it doesn't. And writing about that isn’t much fun at all.
In terms of performances, the problem is more the film than the actors whether it’s Bradley Cooper who feels like he’s trying to make it work even though we have to take much of his character’s reawakening on faith or that this is the rare film where Bill Murray doing the Bill Murray thing feels wrong somehow or any of the actors staring at each other, mostly at Cooper, with unaccountable yearning that they can't quite put into words. Some of them, like Danny McBride as “Fingers” don’t get to make much of any impression at all. Alec Baldwin at least gets a few laughs by calling Cooper things like “Mr. Three Day Beard Boy” during his big scene chewing Gilcrest out but when the next time he’s seen his Air Force General is relaxing in a Hawaiian shirt drinking a beer it feels like there’s some sort of joke there about the discrepancy but it’s tough to tell. I don’t even want to blame Emma Stone for that controversy connected to her since as an actress she seems custom made to star in a Cameron Crowe film but everything about her character just seems tone deaf by now, a female device to ‘save’ his male surrogate one time too many by now. Allison Ng is a fighter pilot and apparently some sort of pet project of Hillary Clinton’s according to dialogue but in the context of ALOHA what’s most important is that she’s the lead character’s last chance to achieve the glory that is his destiny, nothing more.
Rachel McAdams is also stranded, clearly bringing as much strength as she has trying to make her part work as if Crowe was so determined to squeeze some sort of love triangle in here whether it fit or not. Through no fault of hers, it’s either a character who didn’t need to be one of the leads or maybe should have been the lead in a different movie. That also extends to John Krasinski role as her husband jealous of Gilcrest but their conflict never means anything and his sometimes silent, sometimes not nature manages to be both overly cute and a head-scratcher as well. It’s the mostly silent relationship between Cooper and Danielle Rose Russell as McAdams’ daughter that almost gets there thanks to a few glances at the right moments but with the rest of the movie surrounding them it’s just not enough.
Early one evening way back in 2005 I was walking through the Paramount lot. As I passed a window where a light was on I glanced inside and could see sitting in an office, obviously engaged in an intense discussion with someone, Cameron Crowe. This was only weeks before ELIZABETHTOWN’S disastrous premiere in Toronto and I’ve always imagined that in the conversation taking place at that moment he knew what was coming. After all, he’s no dummy. And now over ten years later I suppose I don’t believe the Crowe optimism anymore, not while I’m getting older, not in 2016. Which may not be his fault but it also doesn’t feel like what the world is anymore. People are too cruel. I haven’t even looked at ALMOST FAMOUS, probably my favorite of his, for a long time now since I’m afraid the connection would be gone. His past several films have been about the redemption which can come out of returning to wreckage, the triumph which can come out of failure. And I still hope he finds that redemption—for starters, there’s his upcoming Showtime series ROADIES. The thing about ALOHA is, I want to I want to believe in a movie that contains the line, “Tonight’s the first night I’m truly glad I lived.” Right now, in the midst of all this depression and anger and cynicism and pain, I need to believe that. This just isn’t the film to make it happen. Apparently what I said on Twitter a year ago really did get Miriam Bale to see it and she wasn’t kind (looking up her tweets, “fascinatingly awful” is one term used) but if she held this against me she never said anything. I hope she doesn’t. Consider that right there a small piece of optimism. It’s better than nothing.