Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Guaranteed Return

None of us are going to the movies right now. That sentence has to be one of the saddest things I’ve ever written. Maybe all we can do as far as that goes is take care of ourselves and the ones we love, looking forward to the day we get to go back. Maybe talking about how much I miss it is a little overly dramatic but that’s the sort of time this is and it really is truthful so even watching a movie a night, or two or three, on DVD or Amazon Prime or wherever, doesn’t fill the hole. Sure, I’m discovering lots of films I’ve never seen before, some good and some bad as well as a few I never thought I’d give a second look. But it’s no substitute for seeing a film the first time in a theater, for that feeling of walking in with your popcorn and hopefully discovering something with the crowd all around you, the joy of that giant image flickering and no matter what else there is to say, it’s missing. Considering everything else that’s going on this is secondary, of course. But it still matters and everything feels incomplete.

Now, whether people care about any of this is a debate for another point in the future. And we don’t know what’s going to happen or how long this is going to go on for. But the desire to return is there. And to bring up an example, one of the several times I went to the New Beverly Cinema over the final weeks before the world changed was to see THE HOT ROCK, my first theatrical viewing of this film directed by Peter Yates with a screenplay by William Goldman from the Donald Westlake novel. Released in early 1972, it’s one of a number of well-regarded Robert Redford films from the period, never one of his most popular but definitely with its devoted fans. I've even met a few of them. As an honest admission, I’ve always been somewhat lukewarm on it over my handful of viewings through the years, at least until now. Because it was at this screening that I suddenly found myself getting caught up in the casual rhythm and charm felt in every scene so as a result the film totally clicked for me. Oddly, this was exactly the same response when I saw BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID at the theater in late 2018 so maybe it’s a Redford-Goldman thing, but for whatever reason this was a film that really came alive in a theater with a crowd around me. Funny thing, the print of BUTCH was absolutely gorgeous and the one for THE HOT ROCK wasn’t in that sort of shape at all, a little scratchy and faded and, since it came all the way from the UK, even featured the alternate title HOW TO STEAL A DIAMOND IN FOUR UNEASY LESSONS (as a comparison the print of the second feature, Aram Avakian’s COPS AND ROBBERS, was flawless). But none of this mattered. The film just put a huge smile on my face in every scene. As 70s heist movies go it’s pretty mild, no sense of fatalism you’d expect from the genre and no heavy body count. In the end, it’s basically a comedy so the way it takes a cockeyed view of the crime and how the scattered precision becomes such a crapshoot makes it totally endearing. And now it’s a movie that helps puts me in a better mood. Sometimes that’s ok. Right now that’s even better than ok.

It takes no time for career thief John Dortmunder (Robert Redford) to be released from his latest stint in prison than for his friend Andy Kelp (George Segal) to instantly show up with a new scheme, having been hired by one Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn), United Nations representative for the African nation of Central Vatawi, to rob the Sahara Stone from the Brooklyn Museum in order to return it to the rightful place of his homeland. With getaway driver Stan Murch (Ron Leibman) and explosives expert Allan Greenberg (Paul Sand) brought onto the job, the heist goes off but not without a hitch, leading to multiple attempts to steal the diamond again only with something else unexpected going just a little wrong each time. And when Greenberg’s lawyer Abe (Zero Mostel), who also happens to be his father, gets involved with his own agenda Dortmunder and his crew have to resort to more extreme scenarios to finally retrieve the rock from where it is.

The depths of cynicism found in 70s films not only becomes more apparent for me as time goes on, what those films are saying means more as well, a feeling that goes perfectly with the decade and certainly means something now which makes a movie like THE HOT ROCK, which contains none of that, play as even more of a surprise each time out. Characters in heist films never seem to spend much time going over the possible ways things could go wrong, not because of double crosses, although there always seems to be some of that, but because of the plain fact that, well, shit happens, no matter how well the plan might be executed, no matter how ultra-cool the crooks are. This is a film where those unexpected developments happen and instead of staring into the pits of what crime has led these people to it’s a breezy, enjoyable caper film that deals with the expected twists of the genre but always in a surprising way as the layers of the plotting are peeled off to of course reveal that what’s done isn’t really done. None of this makes these guys want to stop, of course. Dortmunder couldn’t do anything else if he tried and is always confident on the surface even with some nasty stomach issues, but he at least takes solace in how his inevitable ulcer is still years away. Kelp, with a nasty habit of freezing up in the middle of a job, doesn’t mind failure and seems to be as much about putting on the act of doing the job no matter what happens even as things go wrong, never knowing for sure who they can trust.

The first shot of the film after the Twentieth Century Fox logo is wiped away says it all, showing the serenity of an empty green lawn at the prison separated from the concrete yard where everyone congregates, the peace of nature always close but just as unreachable. Dortmunder and the crew scrambling after this diamond are in the same position so no matter how close they seem to get it’s still a long way off and considering how these guys are all sort of dopes, each plan turns out better than anyone could have imagined but it never seems to be enough. THE HOT ROCK is the rare crime movie where the guy gets out of jail at the start and never thinks for a minute about going straight because even he knows there’s no way it could happen. He just needs to be talked into this particular heist but it’s really never a question for Dortmunder anyway since, as he puts it, it’s what he does, even if he’d rather not do the job with Kelp. The real conflict doesn’t come from those double crosses and fellow crooks just waiting to fuck you over but from how unexpectedly difficult it all turns out to be, how even when things go almost perfectly there’s still something you didn’t see coming. Within the very casual quality of Yates’ direction is just watching these guys figure out what the next step is going to be so in fairness there’s not that much suspense and as a director he never seems as assured with the broader comedy aspects as he is with the hang out nature of letting certain moments play, naturally letting the humor emerge out of that laid back feel. When Moses Gunn pauses in amazement to exclaim, “I’m a criminal,” as he realizes the plan really is taking shape it’s one of the best moments in the film as if he never quite believed this would happen just as later on he can’t believe the eternal annoyance it’s led to.

Even the big museum robbery which you’d think would be the centerpiece of the whole movie happens sooner than you’d expect and is done with a surprisingly tossed-off feel, as much about the silence of that huge, empty space cutting back to the carefully planned diversion outside as the specifics of the actual robbery even when the focus is the ticking clock of the moment when Kelp unexpectedly gets trapped in the very place the diamond is. The various steps to each scheme are all about the characters in one way or another, whether the way Leibman plays an accident victim for that diversion, Redford silently freaking out in the helicopter or the teamwork involving a certain elevator shaft when even we’re not sure what surprise it’s building to.

Along with the camaraderie of the four guys are the incidental sights of the location shooting, all a reminder of the panic business in New York that Kelp is so fond of and it probably only feels like half the film is set around those expressways circling the outer boroughs with one briefly used location up in the Bronx that maybe I recognize which gives a sudden rush of nostalgia. The plot also basically stops for the quick helicopter trip around lower Manhattan as Leibman’s Stan Murch tries to figure out exactly where he’s supposed to fly to with footage looking directly down on the city and at one point lingering on the incomplete World Trade Center which 10-15 years ago was unnerving, now it’s just heartbreakingly beautiful. The main cop at the precinct being raided is played by William Redfield of A NEW LEAF and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, seeming more annoyed than anything by what’s happening, just another cog in this New York who views it all as just one more pain in the ass, wondering why every problem can’t be solved by just monkeying with it.

Maybe THE HOT ROCK is one of those products of the 70s that now feels like the visual equivalent of easy listening music and the 100 minute film goes by in a flash but if I’m being honest, I can still see what maybe wasn’t clicking for me on past viewings in the way the movie cruises along instead of ever exploding. The tightly plotted story beats are so carefully laid out all through Goldman’s screenplay that I wish it could breathe a little more, maybe with a few better transitions at times to orient us better or just a little bit more bickering between the two main guys to really make those characters pop since it worked so well for Butch and Sundance, after all. Kelp, who picks Dortmunder up from prison in a stolen car, is married to his sister played by the briefly seen Topo Swope in one of those elements it feels like the film could have done more with, but none of the women in the film are around for very long, even the one who becomes integral to the final step of the plan. Looking up the extensive writings and interviews from William Goldman on his work there is surprisingly little about this film beyond a vague quote that it was “not cast well” but who knows what he’s referring to—did he think Segal was a more suitable Dortmunder than the bigger star Redford?

Even if it is maybe too laid back at times, there’s a confidence to the shots and Yates never lingers on them even when it’s a good one and the way moments are staged to place characters in relation to each other in the frame makes their dynamic even stronger. Sometimes it feels like the film is even more interested in that vibe than the plot and it’s sometimes more than willing to just let the Quincy Jones score play for a few extra beats as it goes to the next scene. That sense of seventies cool is a reminder it was likely more of an inspiration for Steven Soderbergh’s OCEANS’S ELEVEN than the film that was actually a remake of. So much of THE HOT ROCK is just going along for the ride with the star power of Redford, and Segal too, and directed by Yates a year before he made the truly great crime film THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, this one has no bigger goals in mind with very little even to say about the racial politics of the colonial aspect but presumably all’s fair when thievery is involved, after all. For Dortmunder, being a thief is not about being tough but about being just smart enough to get the job done before the other guy does and win out over this diamond that’s jinxed him. It’s the suspense of the climax that works beautifully moving from shot to shot, each beat that leads him to the all-important safe deposit box comes off as effortless, with one particular reaction shot of Redford after he utters the infamous key phrase “Afghanistan banana stand”, not knowing for sure if what he says will work, that is basically what the movie is building to. And it earns the refreshingly offhand moment as Redford calmly walks down Park Avenue, finally getting a sense of the serenity he couldn’t have earlier. I think the movie knows this is only temporary for the guy but these days it’s a reminder that even a brief feeling is better than none.

The Robert Redford portrayal of Dortmunder is very much about the movie star quality of it all, the laid back charisma crossed with his casual nervousness and the sense that he can’t let go of something once he’s going for it. The film is light and Redford is maybe even too light for that insignificance but the way he lays out how the plan has to work and why he’s doing it along with just the sight of him thinking things over gives it much of its heft, knowing that even his smarts may not be enough to figure out everything. As Kelp, George Segal is secondary but that desperate glad-handing style keeps the energy going and it’s always just right to bounce off Dortmunder along with the sense that he knows just how to get under his partner’s skin. It’s those little character moments that make up the most idiosyncratic moments with the manic glee in the great Ron Leibman laying out the precise directions of how he got somewhere along with Paul Sand as Greenberg who always seems to be wondering what the hell he’s doing there. Moses Gunn lends the perfect amount of dry humor to his growing exasperation as Amusa while Zero Mostel always plays it as having one over on everyone which he almost always does. Charlotte Rae is Stan’s ma, Lee Wallace of THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is Dortmunder’s doctor and Robert Weil, also from PELHAM ONE TWO THREE as well as MOONSTRUCK is the bank employee who unknowingly assists Dortmunder at the film’s most crucial moment.

But even after all this, my honest admission is that watching the film again on DVD at home, it’s still not the same. Seeing THE HOT ROCK in the theater makes it, like all films, bigger than life and allows us to focus on the sheer personality of these guys, on the charm of Robert Redford, the stalling tactics of George Segal, the toothy grins of Ron Leibman, the jittery nervousness of Paul Sand. And those New York surroundings, which right now provide a level of comfort. It’s still fun, just not the same. Moving past this film for a moment, there have been other Dortmunder vehicles taken from the Donald Westlake book series although you’d be forgiven for not knowing. Martin Lawrence played the character under a different name in WHAT’S THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN? a major summer release in 2001 but now forgotten and so did George C. Scott in 1974’s BANK SHOT which I recall being strictly so-so but it’s been a few years. Paul Le Mat was actually named Dortmunder in the Gary Coleman vehicle JIMMY THE KID which I recall from early 80s cable and have never seen again since. The point here is THE HOT ROCK, which I’d always thought was a nice, pleasant movie, which it is, and how much a theatrical viewing caused it to rise in my estimation. It’s one of those things I think about right now, since we can’t go to the movies. And we don’t know when we’re going to be able to go back and what’s going to change when we do, but I dream of that return when it’s safe. There’s nothing like the rush of that feeling when you’re at the movies, especially when you’re making just the right discovery but sometimes just the experience of being there to see, well, anything is enough. Maybe it’s an addiction. But even now, when staying away is for the best and absolutely necessary, it’s something I never want to give up.

Friday, April 10, 2020

The Capacity To Recover

Maybe we can never fully escape the world we come from. Our parents are our parents, our siblings are the ones we can never impress, the dreams we have sometimes turn into memories of places we never want to return to. And deep down we have a better idea of who we are than we want to admit. Directed by Mike Nichols, REGARDNG HENRY was released during the summer of 1991, less than a month after the 25th birthday of its screenwriter Jeffrey Abrams, now better known to everyone as J.J. Abrams so this is an easy reminder of just how young that guy has always been. And this isn’t even his first screen credit which was the previous year’s TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS co-written with Jill Mazursky and directed by Arthur Hiller for anybody with memories of watching that one a hundred times on cable. By this point plenty of us have our opinions on the work of J.J. Abrams whether strong feelings about his STAR WARS films or even the second season of FELICITY. The slightly forgotten REGARDING HENRY (which, as a fun fact, opened the same day as POINT BREAK) hasn’t been examined quite as much but it makes sense to look at it now as a reminder of where his career path began and maybe what his point of view of the world has always been. In some ways it’s a starter screenplay, one that comes off as basic as possible while still being complete and ready to shoot to make itself an actual film. But even those are never easy. Not even as easy as getting away from the places that made us.

Manhattan lawyer Henry Turner (Harrison Ford) is successful and respected at the powerful firm where he works but cold and unfriendly to everyone in his life, even to wife Sarah (Annette Bening) and daughter Rachel (Mikki Allen). He’s seemingly willing to do anything to get ahead in his career and the society life, more interested in the big case he’s just won than anything else. But late one night Henry goes out to grab a pack of cigarettes when he stumbles on a holdup and is shot in the head by the gunman. He surprisingly recovers but along with a secondary wound that resulted in a lack of oxygen to the brain he has essentially no memory of the person he once was. After a long recovery process aided by physical therapist Bradley (Bill Nunn), Henry gets well enough to return home, getting to know his wife and daughter anew. He also goes back to work at his firm but is soon confronted with the sort of lawyer he was as well as the sort of person he was and is forced to come to grips with figuring out what sort of person he’s going to be now.

The austerity of Mike Nichols’ early films became a considerably more casual style through the 80s and one of the surprises of looking at REGARDING HENRY for the first time in years is that to a certain extent this represents a sort of return to that approach, even if the ultimate effect leads to a different place. That intent is apparent right from the start with the credits rolling on a long look at the courthouse on Centre Street in lower Manhattan over a cold grey afternoon with snow falling, perfect for the harsh world the main character is so successful in. The following extended shot introduces Ford’s Henry Turner in what is close to a full 360 as he gives the closing argument in the big case he’s about to win and knows how to win. His slicked back hair and expensive suit blend seamlessly into the background of that courtroom, inherently part of the world he occupies just like his briefly mentioned father was. The first dozen or so shots of the film spread out over the first six minutes set up this very particular visual approach aided by the great Giuseppe Rotunno as cinematographer (who also shot CARNAL KNOWLEDGE for Nichols, among many other films) which gives REGARDING HENRY what complexity it has since this is at heart a simple film in all sorts of ways, simple in plot and structure as well as how it plays out to the point it almost feels like there’s next to no drama at all. Henry is a cold, selfish prick who only cares about himself, then he’s not and everyone is either ok with that or they’re not. As a screenplay it’s a fairly straightforward telling of the story with few diversions of any kind but as a film Nichols turns it into an exploration of how we can relate to the world we occupy, how much we ever actually belong there and how much of that decision is really up to you.

It’s the burnished wood signifying wealth that seems to make up the recurring color palette of each of these courtrooms and restaurants, a signpost of the tradition all around them with the lack of color infusing how these people really feel about anything that isn’t money. The mammoth apartment where Henry lives with his family is located in a building recognizable from being prominently featured in THE FRENCH CONNECTION (“Remember Don Ameche, the actor? He lives here.”) but it also has no real color, an overly decorative dining room table that Henry hates, all contrasted with the endless green lawn of the rehab facility that gives him life again. The short, clipped scenes that detail much of this gives a no muss, no fuss feel to the storytelling so edited by Sam O’Steen there’s not an ounce of fat on the film as if nearly every moment is seemingly about getting the correct amount of plot and thematic information into a scene but maybe not much more than that, to simply follow Henry through his recovery as he tries to figure out just who he is. He definitely becomes friendlier with a newly floppy haired look to underline his innocence—some scenes aren’t too far removed from Harrison Ford playing a kid in a body switching movie—but it’s not all that interesting and when Henry gets an empty frame as a gift it’s a reminder, maybe a little too obvious, of the blank slate he is. One brief moment of some society types scarfing down spoonfuls of caviar at a party feels a little too broad to make the point (just like much of the extravagant wardrobe of Robin Bartlett as Sarah’s best friend) and such undisciplined moments feel like a broadly satirical indulgence out of step with the tone but it also feels like there’s an energy to it which at least gives some life to the scene that too much of the rest of the film is doing without.

The question of how medically accurate what happens to Henry is could be argued but it doesn’t even really matter since this is all mostly about the symbolism of that scar on his forehead so the whole movie plays as not a story of recovery but a signpost for moving from the cruelty of the Reagan 80s to what was going to be the calmer, gentler 90s. Bill Nunn infuses the stock type of his physical therapist of color with an undeniable sincerity but it’s still hard not to think of it as the stock type it is, dispensing the right sort of wisdom at just the right time. Between that and the lessons Henry learns from his helpful daughter it’s as if the wisdom he receives from these people is more important than anything his actual doctors ever did and briefly musing over what he became in life thanks to his father it feels like the message is that getting shot in the head was the best thing to ever happen to him. Through the arc of the film he basically goes from being a child, baking cookies with his daughter--the bit where he suggests making ‘one big cookie’ is cute--to essentially being forced into maturity when confronted about the truth of what his life was and how to decide which path he’s going to take, a reminder of other films from the time about a workaholic husband/dad who learns what really matters (it’s better than HOOK, I’ll give it that much). It makes me wonder how much importance the concept of intellect actually has in the work of J.J. Abrams or if it’s all just about good fortune and luck, to do the right thing with the birthright you received whether James Kirk in STAR TREK’09 (a film I still like, but that’s a discussion for another time) wrestling with the legacy of his father, Sydney Bristow and the mystery of her mother on ALIAS, all of which pointing towards the reasons for what ultimately makes the lead character so special in their world.

On the Mike Nichols side of things, some of the films that he made during the second half of his career including HEARTBURN and WORKING GIRL all have a genuine sense of living in New York and the east coast stratosphere but in the case of REGARDING HENRY it also feels like a film made by people with an undeniable self-loathing for that world, filled with society types forever wandering the streets of Manhattan clutching the Playbills of the Broadway show they just saw heading off to dinner. All this makes it feel like little more than the product of someone who comes from privilege whether that someone is Nichols or Abrams or a little of both, wrestling with that privilege and the thought of turning their back on it. Looking at it now, the film has a surprising similarity to WOLF, Mike Nichols’ next film released a few years later and at least a more interesting one, also featuring a middle-aged man going through a transformation that improves his life after an unexpected encounter late one night. WOLF now plays like a film more about acknowledging the cruelty and where the world was clearly headed, so the creature Jack Nicholson turns into in that film is the only way to fight back against it. REGARDING HENRY, clearly the more benign version of this concept, merely serves up what happens unquestionably and with kindness.

The elemental quality of Nichols’ direction means there’s that smooth sense of professionalism which makes it clear that he knows what each scene has to be about and what to focus on in any given moment. At other times he lets those moments relax and play out in a single shot to let the actors fully relate to each other but the problem is too often the scenes in question aren’t about very much. When Henry disappears to wander around New York, winding up in a porno theater at one point, nothing bad happens and he even buys a cute dog. The real drama which emerges when Henry’s daughter goes away after becoming his big human connection from his old life at first then she’s removed as the maturity comes into play all feels like it’s all easily resolved after Henry skulks around the city for a few minutes looking serious. It would be a little harsh to say that it becomes as empty as Henry’s head with what may be the most low-key Hans Zimmer score of all time to inch the scenes forward but maybe this makes the collaboration an ideal combo: a director who seemingly approaches everything from a standpoint of intellect with a writer who’s all about instinct and what happens in the moment, never thinking too far into the future.

It strikes me that a movie which explored the ambivalence of never being able to fully unlock the mystery of who Henry used to be sounds like a much more interesting one, just not as heartwarming so maybe the answer is as much of a void as that empty frame and isn’t particularly fleshed out for a reason. Even the issue of Henry’s father who apparently believed life was all about the ‘work ethic’, which is mentioned at the start and brought up again later, never becomes a touchstone of all the answers like it seems it will. And aside from a few clever foreshadowing touches in the script that stand out on repeat viewings, like the Rosebud of the word ‘Ritz’ that Henry initially responds to as well as the key piece of evidence he withheld in the big trial, there’s not much to uncover and instead it wants to be a warm blanket of a movie that never says very much of substance. Along with a few cozy expressions to help Henry out such as, “When you have enough, you say ‘When’” the overall feeling of niceness is what makes up both the text and the subtext with nothing else to read into it. The best of Mike Nichols generally offers some degree of ambiguity whether the endings of THE GRADUATE or WORKING GIRL all the way to his final film CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR and without that feeling of wondering what’s being left behind, REGARDNG HENRY doesn’t have much of anything beyond the fuzziness. At the very end the credits just roll when they’re more or less supposed to, no real crescendo given to the final moment so it’s all more of a pleasant feeling than an actual movie.

Even Harrison Ford’s crooked smile makes an appearance as Henry comes to life again and that long stretch with no dialogue gives us a look at what he can do without it, almost making him vulnerable like never before. It’s the most interesting part of his performance which by its nature feels like we’re missing a key ‘Harrison Ford’ element even if it does manage to find a balance between the adult and the little boy, playing as slightly endearing but still a little calculated. This film also comes in the middle of Annette Bening’s 1991 run, falling between GUILTY BY SUSPICION and BUGSY, and she’s terrific here bringing an undeniable strength which helps to make sense of a role where it doesn’t feel like the script has given her all the answers. Mikki Allen, who has no other screen credits, brings a totally believable sadness as their daughter but it never feels overdone, playing as totally believable as she tries to connect with her father. Bill Nunn offers a valuable directness in his scenes which gives them a focus as pat as they are and it is, in fairness, an excellent supporting cast with what feels like familiar New York theater faces or maybe just friends of Nichols meant to fill out that world including Donald Moffat, Rebecca Miller, Bruce Altman, James Rebhorn, Robin Bartlett and Elizabeth Wilson (Benjamin’s mother in THE GRADUATE). John Leguizamo is the liquor store gunman, Abrams himself cameos as a delivery boy and an unbilled Nancy Marchand gets almost the last line of dialogue.

Thinking back to when this film came out, I remember seeing it with my father who at the time was right in the middle of some of his own extensive health issues so because of that memory you’d think the film would have more pull for me now but not really and I can’t even remember what he had to say about it. There’s not really a lot to chew on here. As an honest admission, when I first had the idea several months ago to write about this film (it won out over TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS, primarily because of Mike Nichols) it was in the immediate wake of Abrams’ THE RISE OF SKYWALKER which made me think to connect the overall poorness of that film to the simplistic ideals of this one. And, in a way, Daisy Ridley’s Rey comes to the same conclusion at the end of her film that Henry Turner does in his, to reject where she comes from and find another way to move forward. All this may be valid and it’s a little hard not to look at Abrams’ work in film & TV and think that his view of the world has never been about intellect but the sheer luck of what you’re born into, what you supposedly have coming to you as destiny. Of course, a lot has happened since I had that idea and spending much time thinking about the J.J. Abrams STAR WARS films doesn’t interest me very much at the moment. As for REGARDING HENRY, I’m not in too much of a mood to strongly object to what is ultimately a ‘nice’ movie with a message of, ‘Be who you are deep down and don’t let anyone else tell you what that is’ but there’s still not very much to say about it. The question for us right now is what are we going to be in this world that we have to live in? That’s an answer we don’t have yet. We’re trapped here, after all. And, at the moment, there’s nothing we can do to escape.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Anything Is Possible

Let’s try to calm down for a moment. Pause, take a breath and remember a few good things in life. We all have those people who have meant something to us and whether they’re still part of our lives or not, what they’ve given has helped make our worlds closer to what we want them to be. People like that remind us that something close to decency still exists out there, a feeling which makes us want to strive to become better and make the world we live in just a little more serene. If only all this could be as true as we wish. Forgetting the real world for just a moment, we don’t get that feeling very much in films these days either and for a number of reasons this makes sense. The world is not in the greatest place so films are going to reflect the reality but too often they don’t do anything to fight back against that either. It’s true that kindness can be difficult to make dramatic and drama, which can’t just be nice people doing nice things for other nice people, inherently needs conflict in some form. So roughly 30 years ago in February 1990, the world got what is now the mostly forgotten STANLEY & IRIS, the final film directed by the great Martin Ritt who passed away before the year was done. I actually saw the MGM release at the time since back then I saw almost everything and even remember taking notice of a particular sensitivity to the direction but didn’t really think about it for much more than that. It’s a nice, pleasant movie, about people who struggle to move forward with their conflict coming from within as much as anything and lives in its own sense of quiet, with a craft to the filmmaking that may be subtle but is still undeniable. STANLEY & IRIS is a film about an issue that affects many people but doesn’t get discussed much at all and it could even be argued that the issue itself isn’t inherently dramatic. While it may not be a forgotten classic there’s still nothing wrong with a film that has its own ideas of how to tell a story and in doing so tries to make its world just a little better.

Recently widowed mother of two Iris King (Jane Fonda), who works on the line at a local baking factory, meets Stanley Cox (Robert De Niro), a cook in the factory’s cafeteria. After several chance encounters an attraction clearly develops between the two but after noticing his occasional odd behavior, Iris soon discovers that Stanley’s secret is he can’t read or write. After losing his job and being forced to put his father into a home when he can’t take care of him, Stanley finally asks Iris for help to learn how to read. And she begins to teach him through the various difficulties of the process and the growing awareness of what their relationship is becoming.

Maybe it’s my current state of mind, but films set in Connecticut make me think of the past. To this day, distant memories of sitting in the backseat of the car with my family as we drove through the state still linger somewhere in my head, remembering those trips when we were on the way to visit someone, passing through towns that we rarely ever stopped in. Has much of anything changed there since I lived one state over? That doesn’t really matter. Some of the most famous films that address life in Connecticut seem to focus on the wealthy, that east coast repressed old world of wealth and affluence seen in things like THE ICE STORM or THE SWIMMER, but on the opposite side of the financial chain STANLEY & IRIS is set in the blue collar world of people living paycheck-to-paycheck, if they’re lucky enough to be employed at all. The opening shots of the small city it’s set in bring up those distant memories of passing through which is appropriate for a film that, after all, is about people stuck in a place that the rest of the world just passes through and the setting may not be specified but the establishing shots are clearly Waterbury—interiors along with less recognizable exteriors were largely filmed in Toronto—which I mainly remember for the sight of a giant cross on top of a hill (apparently part of a long closed religious theme park, go figure) that can be briefly spotted here. Looking at the film again now all these years later, STANLEY & IRIS plays as the sort of quiet social drama that might have come out of Hollywood regularly in the early 60s, maybe set somewhere in New England, possibly in black & white CinemaScope with a gentle score in the TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD vein, although the films directed by Martin Ritt during that period usually had more fire than this one does.

Starting his career in theater and live TV before being blacklisted in 1952, Martin Ritt’s films often place an emphasis on social issues alongside a strong humanist vein, lacking the pulp ferocity of someone like John Frankenheimer but instead finding dramatic power in the simplicity of how people relate to each other when they have no other choice. He’s maybe best remembered now as the director of the masterful HUD but there’s also THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, the blacklist drama THE FRONT (about as good a film on the subject as has ever been made) starring Woody Allen, the Sally Field Oscar winner NORMA RAE as well as the gentle MURPHY’S ROMANCE, which gave James Garner his one Oscar nomination, among others. Even Ritt’s first film, 1957’s EDGE OF THE CITY starring Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes, is a dynamite noirish human drama with a hopeful tinge of yearning for the way the world, and the friendships in it, could be if it wasn’t for the hate that always beats it down. Stretching the comparison all the way to his last film, at the core of STANLEY & IRIS is a story about how people help each other to find the best of their humanity and in doing so overcome what are their greatest hurdles deep down, a victory which can matter more than anything when you’re just about ready to give up. The films he made were about how the world around people formed them and what they hopefully can do to move past their troubles to make those lives better.

The portrayal of the working class world seen in STANLEY & IRIS (screenplay by Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, based on the novel Union Street by Pat Barker; this was the final credit for the screenwriting team who had collaborated with Ritt on multiple projects including HUD, HOMBRE and NORMA RAE) feels admirable looking at it these days but still a little idealized, spring days with clothing all neatly pressed as Iris heads to the factory with her co-workers like they’re off to camp for the day. The words the characters speak in the script make it clear they feel very different about their situation—it doesn’t seem like these are union jobs—with the dialogue underlining more than once how these people are all trapped in their own kind of prisons, accepting shoes that don’t fit because it beats having to pay for new ones and holding on to those dreams of actually owning a car. All this seems to exist in its own gentle reality with Iris getting her purse snatched at the start the only outward indication of real world hostility (which we never hear about again anyway) and the Madonna poster on daughter Martha Plimpton’s wall maybe the one sign of the late 80s in evidence anywhere else in the film. The various minor authority figures all seem a little grouchy but with kids playing ball in the streets and people calmly walking through parks there’s always a sense of tranquility in the air especially when Stanley gives Iris a ride on his bike after work one day as they get to know each other, a sequence which catches just the right tone for the start of this relationship with them both a little wary of trying to connect with someone new. The mood goes just right with such a simple, direct film about people who are lost but still trying to help each other even if the overall softness means that the film becomes a gentle stroll more than anything, the bitterness hanging on the edges in those scenes when someone chooses to simply walk away from the expected confrontation, no anger left in them, no more energy to bring out.

There’s also a feeling of regret that runs through things, with Iris unable to move on from mourning her husband so I’m guessing that’s his oversized Hawaiian shirt Fonda wears in one scene, trying not to let go. The guilt Stanley feels over having to leave his father in a modest, slightly shabby old age home stays with him as well and the sweet sadness of these scenes gets me deep down, especially when he apologizes to his father played by Feodor Chaliapin Jr., maybe best remembered now as the grandfather in MOONSTRUCK, delivered with a surprising vulnerability projected by De Niro and these moments are some of the film’s most affecting, bringing up a few regretful memories of my own father from around this period. The past affects how the characters behave in the present whether Stanley finally asking for help or the way Iris tries to pass along the right lessons to her pregnant daughter, trying to accept certain realities even with the bitterness in her voice as she says, “None of us stay cute,” while dealing with the volatile marriage between her sister played by Swoosie Kurtz and husband Jamey Sheridan. It’s a subplot that feels missing a resolution with the characters pretty much disappearing from the film but what’s left of it shows the danger of simply giving up and accepting how bad it’s going to be.

Ritt’s craft as a director always comes through even when the scenes are just a little too pat, expertly using the widescreen Panavision frame to place people in relation to each other during the teaching scenes as Iris tries to understand what happened to Stanley and the process of his learning as the words begin to come into focus. The film also occasionally pauses for those moments of daily life, showing Iris’s days at the factory, transitions held together by a lovely John Williams score to provide the connective tissue. And yes, maybe there’s not a lot of inherent drama to stretches of it since a scene where one person is teaching another to read may not have much conflict but in Stanley asking about himself, “Do I have a name if I can’t write it? Am I really a person if I can’t read it?” the simple clarity of the question comes through. Maybe the closest thing to a visual setpiece is when he’s given a test to walk to a certain intersection using a map he has to read and the trouble it causes, one overhead shot carefully laying out his silent confusion, the feeling of being completely, truly lost and alone.

The way the film cares about these people and their relationship to the world around them carries that sense of gentleness, the story of a romance which feels like it’s about the tentative nature of that romance, people who spend time feeling around each other while becoming aware of that passage of time and how they need to finally take action before it’s too late. There’s a feeling of warmth to Donald McAlpine’s cinematography that matches up with how the seasons change as the story progresses and at one point when Stanley is walking around a park with Iris’s son played by Harley Cross the scene briefly holds a shot on an odd perspective to show how dwarfed the two are by the nature around them which will be there long after they’ve gone. In another later scene Fonda and De Niro are separated by another tree in the middle of the Panavision frame, the world they share keeping them apart and this sort of lingering does give the feel of an old man’s film but looking at it as the last film directed by Martin Ritt causes every scene to play with a focus on the pure ideas of what he cared about, a way to just watch these people as they move through the world. More than a simple commercial for literacy, so much of it is about the tentative nature of holding back out of fear and what can be done to move past that, a reminder that we all only have so much time. STANLEY & IRIS may not be very much more than a nice movie with an ending that is a little too idealized, Stanley’s hobby as an inventor finally paying off almost as if to say that unless you have credit cards and a new car you’re not really a person. I don’t think that’s what the film is ultimately trying to say but it does feel like it’s an attempt to give the studio not just a happy ending but the happiest, least complicated ending possible. In the end, what sticks out is how this is a film about wanting, yearning to do more than just work and eat and sleep as Iris puts it in one scene, about the dream of making a connection and finding a way to escape from your own prison so maybe these days that message doesn’t seem so wrong.

Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro feel slightly at a remove from each other which makes sense—this isn’t supposed to be a movie about sexual tension anyway, just an easygoing tentativeness which will hopefully blossom into something else. The look in their eyes, Fonda’s yearning as she fights against the bitterness which is always about to overtake her and the look on her face as she realizes he has an interest in her. Seven months before GOODFELLAS opened, this film is a reminder of the charming awkwardness which can turn up in De Niro’s performances when he has to play an uncomplicated guy, in this case someone with a polite inquisitiveness with a lot bubbling up inside him to keep his secret and there’s a sweetness to it all so even when he shows up drunk at her house in one scene it’s never threatening, just sort of clumsy. Martha Plimpton matches up well against Fonda as her daughter, not intimidated at all and it gives an extra charge to a subplot which might otherwise just play as hackneyed. Stephen Root is the head of the nursing home while Iris’s co-workers at the bakery include Loretta Devine, Kathy Kinney, Julie Garfield and Zohra Lampert, practically extras but each giving the feeling that they’re embellishing their bit parts on the edges of the frame although if the film never stays with them for very long, but even those brief moments give the film another touch of humanity.

Where you come from and what happened to you matters. What happens now matters too. But right now my thoughts are drifting to people I’ve known and what they’ve meant to me. I’m not even sure I’d know how to tell them if I got the chance. In some cases, maybe it doesn’t matter. As a side note, STANELY & IRIS co-screenwriter Harriet Frank Jr. whose career dates back to the late 40s passed away at the beginning of 2020 at the age of 96 and not only was it the final film directed by Martin Ritt, after its box office failure it was also Jane Fonda’s last film for the next sixteen years—from this to MONSTER-IN-LAW—and is mostly forgotten now unless you happen to be digging through Amazon Prime. As I write this, our lives are on pause at best. Maybe I’m not even sure what my greater point is beyond that there’s something to be said for a film about people finding each other and using that as a path to a better version of this life. And, by the way, reading is good too. These days I have to try to remember something like that for as long as possible.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

What They Grow Beyond

We were never meant to be obsessed with STAR WARS for over 40 years. These things simply happen. We were never meant to remain trapped in our childhoods. Life should take care of that by itself. But the way things played out, two years after sitting in the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard while getting a sinking feeling about forty-five minutes into THE FORCE AWAKENS, I found myself in the exact same seat watching THE LAST JEDI, overcome with a huge sense of relief and, finally, delight. This film knew what it was doing. This was a film with a viewpoint towards providing something unexpected, filled with energy and introspection, locating the soul of whatever STAR WARS is supposed to be and infusing it with a strength towards that mythos which for a long time had felt dormant in my head and giving it something new. Any obsession that I ever had with STAR WARS is largely in the past by now and no complaints but THE LAST JEDI did something no film in that series has done in a long time—it made me thrilled to live in that world again for a few more hours and reminded me of what a joy that was. Of course, two years after that viewing I found myself back at the El Capitan once again for THE RISE OF SKYWALKER although not, I should point out, back in the same seat. Anyway, that film isn’t worth spending much time on no matter what year it is.

What happens in THE FORCE AWAKENS never stays in my mind very long even during the few times I’ve actually seen it but that doesn’t really matter. THE LAST JEDI, of course, begins with the Resistance on the run from the First Order as Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) encounters pushback from General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) over his hotshot tactics while Rey (Daisy Ridley) has located the missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) only to discover he’s not what she expected and isn’t particularly interested in listening to her concerns about what may happen if he doesn’t come back with her to help in the fight. Back at the fleet, Finn (Jon Boyega) meets Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and they team up to hatch a plan in search of a code breaker to allow them to escape from the clutches of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). As for how much this particular plot matters, it’s almost like STAR WARS films rise or fall on how much they really understand how important the basic plot needs to be—not story, that’s something else entirely—and how to maintain the correct balance.

And all discussion of plot aside, it becomes a question of what STAR WARS is. The original trilogy began life as a tribute to old-time serials before turning into its own mythology entirely while the prequels, whatever anyone thinks of them, are at the least somewhat stodgier and less kinetic that have their own odd quirks, largely playing now as lengthy effects demos with an added, more overt political slant which certainly helps them remain interesting these days. For all the qualities those films have or are lacking at the very least they still play as experimental and attempting something new. The post-George Lucas trilogy takes an approach of streamlining that mythos to give the people what they apparently want and in rebooting the franchise THE FORCE AWAKENS discards all attempts at experimentation with pretty much zero interest in any new cinematic ideas at all. Written and directed by Rian Johnson (Academy Award nominee for the screenplay of KNIVES OUT), THE LAST JEDI, meanwhile, forces the hand on this bluff and quickly turns itself into an exploration of that approach to the modern myth, serving as a commentary on what the saga has come to represent in the world we live in filtered through characters who have mattered to us longer than we remember. The mystery of Luke Skywalker in the previous film played like it was stalling to avoid dealing with the character in any way at all, an approach that this film winds up embracing in order to use his status as Generation X icon to throw into question what the fight was really all about in the first place.

To be honest, I never wondered much about what happened to Luke Skywalker. I barely thought about whether there would ever be more sequels anyway. On the one hand, the concept of his living a totally drab, sexless life as essentially a Jedi samurai monk wandering the galaxy couldn’t sound any duller. So if his story was going to somehow continue, what we see here makes as much sense as anything, taking the characterization beyond the stasis he remained in for pretty much all of RETURN OF THE JEDI and still connecting him with what’s come before. At his most interesting, Luke was never the calm centered presence of Obi Wan Kenobi so having him serve as that figure here would have diminished the role which in some ways plays a reminder of all those things Luke still had to learn, that he never learned through the snowballing plot points of his own trilogy and, without total understanding, leading to his ultimate moment of weakness gradually revealed here in opposing flashbacks. He doesn’t have all the answers and never did in the first place which keeps his character relevant in the narrative beyond standard teacher-student dichotomy. It’s why tossing that light saber, or “laser sword”, over his shoulder which at first seemed like something out of an MTV Movie Awards sketch immediately caused me to perk up, realizing this film would be something different in directly confronting expectations and immediately questioned what was expected of Luke after all this time. Rey, meanwhile, represents the future looking to the past for answers without knowing why, searching for who she is with only a vague awareness of what this myth ever was and still needing to learn about it for herself. She’s looking for the ultimate answer to the truth behind the truth, the way she asks Luke what the Force is to try to understand and what it all means, what it can possibly mean, whatever we’ve been told in the past.

And that’s the thing. If there isn’t an attitude towards all this to help make the film live and breathe creatively in the now then it just becomes empty homage, a reminder of how nice it was to be ten years old and I can’t think of anything more depressing. In some ways Rian Johnson’s take on the universe in THE LAST JEDI is comparable to what Nicholas Meyer did with directing STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN as if to ask questions like, “What is this place? How does this all work? Who are these people?” infusing the answers with a sense of wit along with a snap to the dialogue in every scene, starting early on with the hotshot tactics that Poe takes near the beginning to get the First Order’s attention or the approach taken by Vice Admiral Holdo played by Laura Dern (Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actress in MARRIAGE STORY) in dealing with him later on, no interest in pretending she has to have patience for him. The growing connection between Rey and Kylo offers added depth as well as if trying to figure out why they’re good and bad guys in the first place but it also comes down to Rey’s examination of her own self to figure out who she isn’t and never was, providing an open book towards whatever she could become in the future. Facing an infinity of her own reflection in the equivalent scene to what Luke once encountered long ago in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK makes sense since the entire film plays as sort of that film in reverse or maybe turned inside out but with its own conclusions, so even the unexpected plays out in an unexpected way but also at times much more simple than we could have ever realized. Even the presumably all-powerful Snoke, Palpatine redux but much more intriguing than in the previous film, is really just a ranting old man with little else to explain him since none of that matters, nothing more and maybe even less.

The confidence of Johnson’s direction is always in evidence, bringing a true sense of craft along with a sense of exhilaration and energy to that epic old movie feeling as well as an extra kick to the space battles which bring the right sort of punchy quality to scenes onboard the First Order ships and the clean style of the way each of them gets laid out. No matter how much is going on through all the crosscutting there’s always a balance maintained so the film doesn’t rush, all the better to pause for some fresh green milk, and the pacing of what is the longest STAR WARS film ever is always measured thanks to editor Bob Ducsay, never overly hyper and playing as totally confident. Even if a few minutes could be cut, that pacing lets the film breathe and exist inside of scenes, interested in more than just the action beats and whatever needs to move the plot forward. Like all good directors, Johnson is interested in exploring the environment that the film is set in and he loves those moments where we can feel the weight of all that has happened and, enriched by cinematographer Steve Yedlin, shots that quietly explore how the events affect the characters and their understanding, the way Luke gets Rey to understand how the Force works visualizing the very concept for the first time ever in sort of the STAR WARS version of THE TREE OF LIFE and the unavoidable darkness it leads to. The film is always enriched by those moments, the simple character beats of Rey feeling the rain as it drips down outside the Millennium Falcon or Leia standing silently outside the rebel base on Crait, the weight of all these years on her, waiting for whatever’s going to come. For once it’s a STAR WARS film that wants to explore the feel of all those worlds it takes place in beyond whatever the basic ecosystem of a planet is and how all this affects the balance of the Force as well.

That approach brings a sense of richness to every scene and even the clutter of the Canto Bight section has a purpose towards lending clarity to the universe in general, the casino playing as an update of the original cantina scene filtered through all the CASABLANCA nods, of course, but also containing another kind of wretched hive than we’ve seen before as if to answer what’s been going on with all the rich people in this galaxy since the prequels. Rose Tico sees right through that but it also helps bring out who the unformed Finn is becoming, all impulse and still learning, not yet understanding what sacrifice really is. In its commentary on how much the series seems to take for granted that these wars are going to go on endlessly it’s further challenged by Benicio Del Toro’s rogue code breaker (his best line: “Blip bloppity bloop.”), kind of a Han/Lando mashup crossed with his USUAL SUSPECTS character, tossed in with the actor playing it like he’s both unimpressed by all these massive sets yet is more overjoyed at sharing the frame with BB-8 than anyone else in the film but still with an unpredictability of the rare person in one of these movies that never really cares who the good guys are after all.

Those challenges to what’s come before blend perfectly with Rian Johnson’s filmmaking prowess which always finds a way to approach a scene to give it additional power with a clear sense of composition to make every shot matter, even providing continuity to the degree of homage not seen in these films since what Lucas did as director in 1977 from the BLACK NARCISSUS vibe found in the lived-in feel of the island of Ach-To with the fish nun caretakers to the unending red of Snoke’s chamber that seems ready to stage a darker version of Marilyn Monroe’s famous “Diamonds are a Girls’ Best Friend” number from GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES so whether intentionally or not it becomes its own show stopping musical number with spectacularly thrilling choreography in this light saber duel staged just as precisely as the finest Jack Cole number imaginable. The overt homage to Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT in the layout on the main First Order ship sadly wound up in the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray but the floating camera of the establishing Canto Bight casino shot lifted directly from WINGS goes perfectly with the dynamic feel just as right as the line partly cribbed from THE WILD BUNCH at one point later on because of course that should be in there. These elements are in some ways incidental but still integral to the richness of the world and overall sense of tradition of how these films were always meant to be paying tribute to the past, the things that happened a long time ago which mattered more than anything to the person making the film and affected the world of the film they were making down to the bones. And, as I’m not the first person to point out, this is the only STAR WARS film to feature the John Williams theme from THE LONG GOODBYE, however briefly, which naturally means that if this isn’t the best STAR WARS film it comes pretty close.

But more than that it’s the characters searching for who they are within, what is found under Kylo’s mask that he destroys early on, Rey and her identity, Luke and his understanding of himself, just as Johnson even explored later on in KNIVES OUT and how much that film’s main character realizes that in spite of everything she is in fact a ‘good person’. Part of that search within in THE LAST JEDI is found in the recurring imagery of hands reaching for a connection, reaching for the Force, searching for those answers that aren’t coming, yearning for a way to understand, the connection between Rey and Kylo that gets broken by Luke before he’s able to admit the truth of what led to this. And it extends to how the film honors the memory of Carrie Fisher ever before she died so for once the character of Leia really does feel like an extension of what we think of when we think of Carrie Fisher, worn down but her humanity and flippancy never leaving her. The way the film honors Fisher even before she died is found in every moment we get of her here, culminating in what feels like the first ever cinematic moment to actually make genuine use of the character’s famous theme forever alters how we’re going to see this, how much she knows her time is passing but still with a final understanding that what she’s accomplished will somehow continue on.

All this connects to how the film feels about STAR WARS history in general, confronting and embracing that all at once, even down to the way it engages with the prequels and what happened in them as Luke explains what separates the concept of the Force from the Jedi and even now I get a rush out of hearing Mark Hamill say the name ‘Darth Sidious’ to acknowledge a past we remember that he didn’t witness. And whatever Rian Johnson actually feels about THE FORCE AWAKENS, his film wisely not only doesn’t ignore certain elements introduced there (Snoke, Phasma, etc.), it also confronts and subverts them, improves them and in the end renders each of those elements irrelevant as well as showing why they should be irrelevant in its pursuit of loftier thematic goals. The film’s view of Kylo is complex but the evil around him is appropriately hollow so the pastiness seen on the face of the likes of Domhall Gleeson’s General Hux is treated with all the contempt that he deserves no matter who’s dishing it out. But in going further back to the past, it’s the surprise introduction of Yoda, of course once again voiced by Frank Oz, and what it contains that turns into the most emotional moment of the film for me, a reminder that we all have our soft spots during certain moments that come out of nowhere in these films. What that Jedi says about failure feels like the greatest lesson for Luke ever, the sort of lesson that makes it a film perfect for this moment. It’s very much a film about failure and the lessons that come from it, the sort of failure each of these characters encounters throughout to help you understand the reason you’re fighting in the first place and why you need to keep on doing it. Failure is a hell of a thing to live with each day, a reminder which meant something in 2017 just as it means something now. Within that becomes finding that love of what we’re fighting for and we love about it. What we love about what it might be. And what we might have in ourselves to move forward.

In a way, THE LAST JEDI is a middle film in a trilogy that is itself about finding that middle ground, just as important as the balance to the Force that’s always being talked about and the search for hope that the characters find themselves in. It’s the bravura filmmaking during the best moments in this series which always mean more than the plot, when all the elements manage to coalesce into pure cinema maybe especially during the showstopper of Holdo’s final action but also when the glorious John Williams music kicks in for the climax going full throttle and the Porgs that I love so much, who I assume have finally been accepted by Chewbacca, go crazy so during those moments all that is required is to be caught up in the coolness and pure joy of it all. Part of it is also Luke at the end, seen in full spaghetti western close-up, discovering his own truth as the symbol he finally realizes he needs to be and only he knows how to be. So does Rey using the force to lift those rocks at the end as she finally understands the complexity of what she can do in simple terms, taking the lessons of the past and translating them for herself. It’s a movie that wants to find the light in the darkness that the middle chapter is expected to be, the way Rose finds joy in the Fathiers on Canto Bight in a way that no one has ever reacted to anything in this universe before just as the very uncomplicated Poe Dameron spends the film in the middle of an increasingly complicated situation. It’s Holdo who reminds him about what hope means but it’s not until the end when he repeats what her determination to serve as a spark to light the fire of the rebellion that he can understand the film’s own argument against nihilism, that it’s not about the crazy plans and cool sacrifice that Finn almost makes for nothing but what can really be done to make things better to defeat the darkness. Unlike the increasing gloom of most blockbusters (and would be blockbusters) of the past decade, many of which I feel such a growing emotional distance from, this is a film that feels alive and vibrant and, once its own cynicism has been addressed, even optimistic about what its world can be, about what STAR WARS can be, and to make the past itself remember why that mattered. It’s beautiful.

Because if the argument could be made that great films are either puzzles or dreams, that also explains how STAR WARS can work at its best. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is definitely a dream in how little it makes any rational sense and yet still works flawlessly in all its glory and emotion, just as you could argue that a failing of the prequels is that they each get caught in some sort of middle ground between the two. THE FORCE AWAKENS, not at all a great film, never feels like it’s about more than its own puzzle which means there’s nothing particularly to explore on repeat viewings. THE LAST JEDI, a STAR WARS film very much about the interpretation of STAR WARS and what we imagine it to be gloriously brings the dream back with possibilities of how we still can prove what we have. Of what the future can hold. Because you don’t let the past die, at least not completely. You grow from the past and you have to, because if you don’t then there’s just a void as empty as Kylo Ren’s hands are near the end, forever lacking any knowledge or understanding. The myth only means something if you directly confront it, using that power to turn it into something more before moving on. A few years later, after everything that’s happened in our own world to make this struggle seem all the more resonant, it’s a film that feels even richer than it has yet.

In scene after scene it feels like the actors are energized by the material in Johnson’s script and there’s always an extra kick in the air between them in scenes as they face off against each other. Mark Hamill is phenomenal, giving this taking this return to the character a power I didn’t see coming as he plays every moment with an air of regret that weighs upon the gift he’ll always have no matter what, all the stories of what led him here found in his eyes and the cumulative effect is a performance that is fearless. Carrie Fisher, in what is basically her final performance, brings an unexpectedly soulful quality missing from the previous film along with a resigned sadness while keeping the humor which is so much about the character and what we want to remember about the actress. Daisy Ridley is especially effective with the growing conflict within what she faces along with the joy that sometimes shines through while Adam Driver is flawless at capturing Kylo’s arrogance and ultimate confusion, growing increasingly unclear which side he should be on, along with the determination of Oscar Isaac and Jon Boyega with how locked in they are in their storylines along with the sense of true goodness and light that Kelly Marie Tran brings to this world. The quiet determination of Laura Dern also pays off with a bang, along with the ball that Benicio Del Toro is having every moment he’s around and Andy Serkis actually gets me interested in Snoke in this film, at least for those few minutes where it’s needed. Even the small roles pop, whether Ngo Thanh Van who is nearly silent as Rose’s sister Paige Tico or Amanda Lawrence as Commander D’Acy and the cumulative effect of these moments from the actors gives it all a humanistic quality unlike any other STAR WARS film ever seen.

Not long ago I was thinking about how the last thing Luke says to Kylo Ren in this film is “See you around, kid,” making me think that in the next film he might return as a Force ghost unlike any we’d seen before only to have him finally show up basically redoing Obi-Wan Kenobi in RETURN OF THE JEDI spouting exposition while sitting on a log and oh god why am I still going on about all this. But that’s the thing with obsession. It’s very possible that I’ll never find myself back in the El Capitan again seeing another one of these movies, just as I’m aware that this may be the final thing I ever write about STAR WARS in any form but in the best noir tradition we keep getting pulled back, like it or not so I can’t say for sure. And for all the debate over what STAR WARS ‘is’ maybe by now it’s become about the obsessions of our own past as much as anything and how it all means we have to look back, like it or not. Recalling George Lucas’ own penchant for pure cinema, STAR WARS films generally shouldn’t have any sort of last line so in its final shots THE LAST JEDI shows us a seemingly random boy who will one day have his own adventures that we’ll likely never see. No dialogue is needed to tell us this but that future is clearly destined, just as it’s destined for these stories to continue, here presented in a simple, elegant image of hope. What that image means, what it should mean, what it may always mean. Feel free to take that as an ending and maybe the final piece of STAR WARS related media I’ll ever need to pay attention to, since as it’s turned out, what followed this film wasn’t particularly interesting in any way. So let someone else have those adventures, if they even want to. It’s possible to stay in the same place forever, not moving forward and never truly finding your place in the world. That very idea has always been at the heart of STAR WARS, certainly the George Lucas version of it but maybe this film as well, the very human fear of not wanting to let go and of what the future may hold if you do. It was what Anakin Skywalker didn’t want to lose, what Luke Skywalker was afraid he might learn, what Rey can’t seem to admit to herself. But you can’t stay in the same place forever. It’s the very thing Luke was trying to avoid to begin with, a long time ago. Even then he knew that sometimes you simply have to move on.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

To Make Limbo Tolerable

Some anniversaries only matter to you and no one else which is just the way it is. But I recently passed the ten year mark of being laid off from a certain showbiz-related news program where I had worked for several years, which was a pretty good job all things considered, and I can’t help but think about it for a few minutes. The day I was let loose from there back into the world remains as vivid now as it was then and my life has never really been the same since. That’s going to happen. The people I know now are different and my world is different which isn’t to say that’s a bad thing. And, yes, it’s weird that I’m thinking about it after all this time but anniversaries have a way of doing that to you, so I’ll get over it soon enough. Anyway, the day this happened in December 2009 was exactly one week after seeing Jason Reitman’s UP IN THE AIR on opening day, a film about the very thing I would soon be going through, I just didn’t know it at the time. My feelings about UP IN THE AIR have always been somewhat conflicted as a result since, after all, what did Jason Reitman and George Clooney have to tell me about being unemployed? About what that actually felt like? Ten years later, the movie still has an undeniable slickness that makes me keep it on cable in the background but I still feel like I’m watching from a distance as if being reminded how this film is only ever going to care so much. Removed from the feeling that it’s trying to say something about the-time-we’re-living-in is an equal sense that the film never wants to stray too far from first class and spend all that much time worrying about what it’s never going to be able to change.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), expert corporate downsizer for employment consulting firm CRC, spends much of his life flying one from one city to another with the simple job of firing people. Along with a sideline gig as a motivational speaker, he is forever in love with his first class lifestyle of impermanence maintaining almost zero attachments and never having to stay in one place for long, even meeting a businesswoman named Alex (Vera Farmiga) with a similar attraction to life out there on the road between places. But when he’s called back to his home office in Omaha, Ryan is faced with the possibility of it all going away due to the arrival of Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a young and ambitious new employee at the firm with the goal of making all business done remotely over video links, completely removing any need for Ryan to travel. With boss Craig (Jason Bateman) still figuring out how to proceed, Ryan is sent back on the road with Natalie so she can learn about what he does and what their job really entails. They are soon met by Alex but this new relationship along with an impending family wedding causes Ryan to finally question everything he’s become for the very first time.

Revisiting UP IN THE AIR a decade later, far removed from its status as an Oscar contender (six nominations, zero wins), the film plays as a smooth ride with a tight script and solid role for George Clooney, even if it never seems willing to stare into the pit of the moment the way the great MICHAEL CLAYTON featuring the actor did two years earlier. With a screenplay by Reitman and Sheldon Turner based on the novel by Walter Kirn, more than anything UP IN THE AIR feels like what began life as a satire on the coldblooded nature displayed by corporate America as people are tossed out that was eventually smoothed over to better relate directly to the present moment in a more hopefully empathic way. The remnants of the darker approach still hang in the air, the briefly seen Zach Galifanakis getting fired introduced for comic effect which takes a shift as we glimpse his actual pain and the plot point of the business plan to fire people via what we now commonly think of as Skype serves as a reminder of the ruthlessness that’s always going to be involved no matter what the business entails. Playing a little now as a time capsule of the hope of early Obama and Blackberries everywhere, the film’s well-publicized gimmick of using actual victims of such cutbacks to respond to their firings lends the snappy patter a jolt of verisimilitude with the genuine hurt and anger coming through. But looking at it now the conceit feels slightly undercut when at one point the film removes the documentary element to have it actually cut to the lead actors, turning the pain of real people into reverse shots for George Clooney and Anna Kendrick to react to, even if the genuine pain is still felt through their eyes in these moments.

At the very least it’s the characters that are the film’s greatest strength with plotting loose enough that it’s easy to miss exactly why Natalie travels with Ryan in the first place, which is fine, and the way it dispenses with that plot for long stretches allows the film to breathe as it focuses on them, with sequences like the tech conference party during a stay in Miami charmingly playing a little like a memory recalled later on with a wistful fondness. But there’s maybe too much of a wannabe Alexander Payne vibe to the approach both on the surface (Omaha home base, Rolfe Kent score) and down below (character examination during a long trip where someone is confronted with certain truths about their life) with what feels like a sort of meta commentary on what we presume to be the secret life of George Clooney. Along with a dose of 70s-style naturalism that never feels entirely lived in, the smoothly laid out plot schematics always feel a little overly calculated when they have to come into play, as if the characters are shifted around on the chess board because the movie tells them to as opposed to simply being.

It’s the look at Ryan Bingham’s daily rituals while traveling that serves as part of the approach, the calming reverse of Edward Norton’s outlook on the lifestyle in FIGHT CLUB from ten years earlier, so the emphasis is really on the way he lives, one hotel to the next, one airport to the next, the rapid fire montages of his travels appropriately seeming out of a commercial. The idea of what this job is doing to the insides of the people in this industry that’s designed to thrive in misery is left mostly unexamined, the ‘can sir’ one flight attendant asks him about in a brief misunderstanding left hanging. His life never lingers in the moment so the film never does, at least not enough, the ‘What’s in your Backpack?’ motivational speech aimed at getting rid of all the dead weight in your life is used as the partial framing device to all this, an extension of the speech he falls back on during firings to convince people that this is a sort of rebirth. All he does is send them out into limbo which, after all, is where he’s happiest, so why shouldn’t they be, with nothing but the totem like device of those packets they hand out to everyone being let go which I suspect will do them little good at all beyond giving them the strength to actually walk out of that room to face the inevitable.

Maybe it’s fitting that there’s a hollow quality to all this slickness in the world Ryan embraces, gladly residing in that limbo with the closest thing he has to a friend a fuck buddy who’s moved on so bonding with Alex during their meet cute over a mutual love of how synthetic the lifestyle is and the brief nudity courtesy of a body double for Vera Farmiga plays as a superfluous element which feels cheap and artificial but maybe that’s part of the point. Even when we go with Ryan to the more genuine world of his family life back in snowy Wisconsin it still feels a little manufactured as if the handheld modesty on display is what equals reality. As it is, one of the most natural moments in the entire film becomes the awkward silence between Ryan and his sisters, siblings that have nothing to say to each other beyond the awkward smiles, which suddenly feels like it takes take place in a world that is completely recognizable.

As much as the emphasis on showing life out on the road and those establishing gods eye view of all the cities flown into, Reitman’s direction is often best when he cuts out the talk so at times there’s the feeling the film knew how to slice certain scenes down to the essentials and play out moments through the eyes so the film is ok with spending moments with the characters in those silences, whether a shot of Kendrick sitting in a room of empty chairs that were likely once occupied by people no longer working there or the way Clooney’s eyes read at the possibility of anything at all messing with his enjoyment up there. The lengthy conversation between the three leads after Natalie is dumped by her boyfriend via text also feels like it genuinely comes out of the characters and plays as totally relaxed even as it goes for a few obvious laughs, each of them letting their veils drop as much as they’re willing to. “Life can underwhelm you that way,” Farmiga’s Alex tells Natalie at one point and it’s one of the better lines in a film that ultimately is about people who try to keep that from happening but some of them know a little bit more about dealing with that than others, the way Ryan Bingham treats his job with seriousness—the film isn’t that callous about its subject—but he also wants to keep away from the real world for as long as he can.

The bitterness towards it all felt more palpable a few years later in Reitman’s YOUNG ADULT, likely thanks to that script by Diablo Cody and the way UP IN THE AIR discards the shocking fate of one victim feels like a reminder that some people are mere collateral damage who can’t be saved, not in the midst of all this cruelty. The way Natalie reduces one older guy the size of a linebacker to tears as he’s fired via the video linkup makes her pat words of encouragement ring all the more hollow, the workflow of downsizing she focuses on morphing into actual pain she has no idea what to do with. The way Ryan has to finally use his motivational skills for the exact opposite reasons he’s gotten used to, to talk someone into not letting go for once becomes his own harsh lesson of a certain truth that he always refused to grasp for himself. The moral of UP IN THE AIR seems to be not about knowing what you want but realizing what you’re missing out on, the pitfalls of what it is to be a ‘human parentheses’ as Ryan finally realizes he is. You have to be somewhere in this world after all. In the end, if you’re everywhere, you’re nowhere.

The film is still a smooth ride although maybe it needed to be more than that, maybe we needed to feel the uncertainty Ryan finally grasps a little more in the end, the stylized shot of Natalie moving away from him late in the film serving as a reminder of a connection he’ll never be able to hold onto. Granted, most people only change so much by the time they get to a certain age and when he lets go of his suitcase at the end it feels like a tiny, significant step, a realization of someone who never realized how trapped he really was in all that freedom and what it actually meant. But in being about someone who realizes what he never had, this also means it’s never about what he lost. This never becomes someone who chooses to quit his job or refuse to fire someone since that wouldn’t have accomplished anything and even if the character does walk out on his big motivational speaking engagement, another one of those plot points that feels a little too calculated, it’s not like he gives up anything so instead of a Billy Wilder ending the movie gives Ryan Bingham more of a Hal Ashby ending, another version of Warren Beatty’s George Roundy at the end of SHAMPOO as he realizes what he’s missing a little too late. Looking at the film now as a flashback of The Way Things Were in 2009, or in the early months of 2010 when it’s set, it becomes clear how everything has gotten meaner this many years later and by now there’s no end in sight. To this film, firings and layoffs are a natural force, like the weather. I guess the cruelty is too. The distance Ryan and his company keeps is almost troubling and feels more troubling now in a world that has only gotten more willing to discard you when that time comes. If anything, the film is a reminder that it’s nice up there in first class, I say that from experience. Of course, eventually you have to leave. That’s where the world is. That’s where your home needs to be.

It’s now been several years since George Clooney last appeared onscreen in a feature film so it’s hard not to think we’re missing a few films he might have gotten made that could have at least aspired to what this does, the sort of film he was striving to make—at times with more success than others—during the peak of his star power. I miss the guy. Even if you can sense when he knows exactly how to play certain moments to get the audience on his side he’s always totally relaxed and confident here which helps make the vulnerability that finally emerges seem totally real. The way he holds himself onscreen means no one, no one, can come close to saying an exasperated, “Oh, fuck,” the way he does and damn it, he’s really, really good. Vera Farmiga projects just as much confidence in her own way, offering a cool authority that plays well off Clooney during their initial flirtation and especially when it becomes clear how much more assured of her situation she really is while Anna Kendrick is especially strong, the chipper quality of her line readings displaying her eagerness that cut through with moments where it feels like what’s going on is told through her eyes, truly seeing what she’s chosen to be a part of. The strong supporting cast also includes Jason Bateman as Clooney’s boss bringing a callous pragmatism to what he’s in charge of, a particularly effective Melanie Lynskey who is so good in projecting reams of unspoken feelings about the brother she barely knows during her few minutes onscreen, Danny McBride with a vulnerability unlike any of his other roles, Jason Reitman regular J.K. Simmons nailing his one scene getting fired and Amy Morton who brings a grounded determination to her role as the sister who won’t let Ryan get away with any excuses for even a moment.

Even if it seemed like a lot of things were collapsing during the last few years of the aughts, looking back on it now it becomes clear that we didn’t know how good we had it. The day after I got laid off in December 2009, during a very rainy weekend, I got a call from a certain friend of mine who asked me to meet her at the House of Pies where over coffee she gave me her own version of Ryan Bingham’s “Anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world…” speech. Only since it wasn’t her job it was for the right reasons. So what she said helped, it really did, and it isn’t much of a stretch to say that I may not still be writing this if not for what she did that day. The eventual falling out a number of years later turned out to be more painful than losing a job ever could be, especially one where I had to fake an interest in the Kardashians. And maybe I still don’t quite know where the last ten years have led me to. I don’t know where I am now. I only know that there are people who come into your life and leave a mark which never fully goes away, something I still don’t quite know what to do with. Which, no matter how aware I am of my own ambivalence towards it, is of course a reminder of what this film about, the things those real people who have been laid off say near the end about what really matters in the grand scheme of your life. That you have those people close to you which, in its way, can be its own kind of pain. And in between all that is the luxury of being up there, where you really want to be, where you like to think you’re safe, at least for as long as they let you stay.