Friday, August 31, 2007

Another One Like Him

"How long have you been a Princess, Your Highness?"
"All my life."
"Oh, that's a long time to be anything."

Judging the end of a great director’s career is usually not an enjoyable task. I always think of Howard Hawks’ RIO LOBO. In some ways, it seems like one of his films, it has elements familiar from his films, but if you have a desire to defend it as a good film based on some sort of adherence to the auteur theory, you’re going to find yourself doing some bending over backwards. Sometimes this becomes difficult. Because with great directors there’s sometimes a limit in how far you can bend. For Blake Edwards, SON OF THE PINK PANTHER is that limit.

In the decade following CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER, Edwards directed eight features, an impressive clip for any filmmaker. These films vary all over the map in quality but even the worst titles among them contain a certain amount of zip that bear the mark of the director. A good example is 1991’s SWITCH, which has a weak story that falls apart by the one-hour mark but it has a fantastic lead performance by Ellen Barkin and there are moments throughout which feel like vintage Edwards.

For several years before making SON, Edwards had pursued returning to the PANTHER universe, with names such as Gerard Depardieu and Rown Atkinson mentioned to play the offspring of Clouseau. But the honor finally went to Italian comic Roberto Benigni, who was best known in America, if at all, for the arthouse hit JOHNNY STECCHINO and appearances in several Jim Jarmusch films. In addition to the expected supporting players, the script called for the return of the character Maria Gambrelli, unseen since A SHOT IN THE DARK, who would be the mother of Clouseau Jr. Instead of the expected appearance by Elke Sommer in the role, the part went instead to Claudia Cardinale, who actually played Princess Dala back in the original PINK PANTHER in 1964. Following a screening of A SHOT IN THE DARK several years ago at the American Cinematheque, someone asked Elke Sommer during a Q&A about this film. She confirmed that she had been approached to reprise the role of Maria Gambrelli but it wasn’t something that interested her, not with Peter Sellers gone. She then asked the person, “How was it?” He hemmed and hawed and Sommer offered, “It was shit, wasn’t it.” Which got a big laugh. I won’t go as far as Sommer’s speculation but the sad truth is that SON OF THE PINK PANTHER, which opened at the very end of August 1993, feels like a balloon with all the air let out. It’s a rather lifeless piece of work, suggesting the possibility that Edwards wasn’t totally at the helm during production and then had it further taken away during editing. It’s a real shame because there really does seem to be an idea somewhere here, but the movie never feels like it knows what it is.

Princess Yasmin (Debrah Farentino), the daughter of the King of Lugash, is kidnapped in Nice, with one of the ransom demands being that he abdicate his throne. Commissioner Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) is assigned to investigate but, after a coincidental fender-bender with the kidnappers, encounters a local police officer named Jacques Gambrelli (Roberto Benigni) who displays certain strange quirks that cause a familiar twitch to return to Dreyfus’ eye. Curious, he seeks out the officer and after meeting Gambrelli’s mother Maria Gambrelli (Claudia Cardinale) learns the truth: that Jacques Gambrelli is the secret offspring of his late nemesis Inspector Jacques Clouseau. Compounding this is that, after the traffic accident, Gambrelli was the only person to get a good look at the princess and can identify that it was her in the van meaning that he may be the only person who will be able to find her.

By the time Roberto Benigni actually appears, about one-sixth into the film, you almost wonder how many people have given up already. SON is the only film in the series without a pre-credit sequence, something that would have come in useful to bring us up to date and start things off with a jolt of energy. Compounding this is the re-do of the main theme, performed by Bobby McFerrin, a version that I’ve never liked. The opening section of the film is devoted to the kidnappers plotting and pulling off their plan which feels aimless and poorly directed. It’s also strangely dark and violent—in fact, many of the scenes throughout the film involving the kidnappers feel like they belong in a different film. The tone is never well-established and it feels like the wrong emphasis is constantly being placed on elements that never really matter.

Benigni and Herbert Lom’s Dreyfus turn up at the same point, but it feels like these characters are denied a proper introduction. As it stands, the characters are simply there and the bad plotting of Dreyfus involved in a car accident with the kidnappers doesn’t help matters. In a 1992 Army Archerd column, Robert Wagner implies that there was a version of the script that included the character of George Litton and it’s a shame he got written out. It’s easy to imagine that the Pink Panther diamond would have figured in with the plot which would have helped matters since the kidnapping of the princess feels strangely under-plotted and over-convoluted at the same time. Ultimately, various plot tangents, such as the shenanigans involving the throne of Lugash, feel truncated and by a certain point they seem to just fall out of the picture.

One of the few real points of interest in the film is its treatment of the character of Dreyfus. More sympathetic than he has ever been before, at first he seems to show interest in Gambrelli more out of curiosity than anything else. The character in this film comes off as more of an Edwards surrogate than ever before, as if the director is trying to find some sort of peace with the memory of the great comic actor he once worked with. As Maria Gambrelli, the luminous Claudia Cardinale provides the movie with a surprising amount of depth and soul, something I’m not sure would have come from Sommer (the events of SHOT are, no surprise, never referenced). I’m much more aware of Cardinale’s place in film history than I was when I first saw this film—that’s what multiple viewings of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST get you—and her presence here in relation to her appearance in the first film in the series seems somehow meaningful to me. Her role in THE PINK PANTHER even gets referenced when, presented with a picture of Yasmin, she muses, “Not bad for a Princess.” The thing is, soulful depth and sentimental acceptance of the past is not the sort of thing that SON OF THE PINK PANTHER necessarily needs to provide. There should be laughs and the film is sadly lacking in them.

Roberto Benigni provides the film with most of the energy that is there and he works tirelessly at it every moment he’s onscreen. His basic persona means that he wasn’t going to be a clone of Sellers’ Clouseau and he could have worked in a movie that was better. But he does a good job. Debrah Farentino as the Princess is gorgeous and also gives the impression that she could have displayed a real spark if the film were better. As it is, her character is too erratically written for it to add up in the end—is she rebellious, assertive, a spoiled brat? It’s never entirely clear. Lom seems older, but works well, in this slightly different version of his character. There’s a cute round-robin of “What?”s to various pronunciations of the word “bump” early on. There’s a funny moment where Benigni, impersonating a doctor, stands in front of a hospital and yells “Ambulance!” as if hailing a cab. Bit player Natasha Pavlovich gets a laugh as a belly dancer in a Lugash nightclub. There’s also some funny destruction caused by Benigni is the nightclub scene. Maybe there are a few other small chuckles here and there. There’s some nice Scope use. I’m trying to be generous here.

Robert Davi plays the main bad guy, yet another element of the PANTHERs that recalls the Bond films. Jennifer Edwards is one of the kidnappers, as is character actor Mike Starr, who seemed to be in every other film in the early 90s, including GOODFELLAS and ED WOOD. Anton Rodgers, very funny in DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, is wasted here in a similar role as Gambrelli’s Police Chief—the joke that the character is blatantly trying to foist Gambrelli onto Dreyfus is lost in the shuffle. Herb Tanney is there as the Police Chief’s assistant, billed as “Sputare Tanney”. Burt Kwouk gets decent screen time as Cato in the final third (by that point, his presence is very welcome) but it would seem that André Maranne sadly died before this film was made, so another actor plays someone named “Francois”. Graham Stark again plays Auguste Balls—the character of his assistant does not appear, but his wife Martha, again played by actress Liz Smith, does, even thought she had previously only been seen when Balls was played by Harvey Korman. There—I can’t prove any better that I’ve been paying way too much attention to these movies lately.

With a running time of only 93 minutes and scenes that seem to haphazardly start and stop throughout, there has to be a fair amount of footage that was deleted, but who knows what difference it would have made. One early trailer contained a scene where Clouseau enters a building that promptly blows up (a discarded prologue for a pre-credit scene?) and also some footage of a celebration taking place at the Clouseau statue which is seen later. The soundtrack album contains music that may go here and it’s also possible this would have been the introduction for Dreyfus, getting flustered in the middle of a celebration for the late detective. The cast list also includes a listing for “Clouseau’s Ghost” but no such apparition appears in the final film. And the opening credits feature prominent billing for Shabana Azmi, who is apparently a huge star over in India but her small amount of screen time here (I’m presuming she originally had more to do, but in a 2004 interview she mentions only working three days on the film) make it seem hardly worth the trouble.

Henry Mancini provides a delightful score, with a very good theme for Gambrelli and an exciting action climax, which contains a particularly enjoyable burst of trumpets at one point. And thankfully, the classic Pink Panther theme is allowed to return and make one last appearance over the closing credits. This would sadly be his last film score before dying of cancer less than a year later and I suppose it looks like SON will be Edwards’ final film as well. It isn’t exactly a high point in their collaboration but there’s something about their final film works both together and separate being this film that lends the entire series a sense of completion. This, combined with the character arc of Commissioner Dreyfus seemingly standing in for Blake Edwards’ acceptance of who the man known as Peter Sellers was, means that I can’t look at SON OF THE PINK PANTHER with a great deal of animosity. It’s not much of a defense, but maybe it doesn’t have to be. Maybe it just has to be a movie that is strangely fitting to view at the end of August. The series of films comprising the world of the Pink Panther and Inspector Clouseau as originated by Blake Edwards, Peter Sellers and their collaborators will live on and any attempts by others to capitalize on it will always pale by comparison. If anything, that’s a thought to end summer on.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Completely Legitimate

According to the novel THE GODFATHER, Connie Corleone’s wedding takes place on “the last Saturday in August 1945”. I’m not sure if it ever gets any more exact than that, but this bit of chronology makes the end of the month the perfect time to revisit THE GODFATHER yet again. Not that there’s a point in the calendar that isn’t ideal to revisit the film, but I’m going to choose to read something into it: THE GODFATHER begins in late August, so in some ways what you need to do should begin in late August. Time to get your act together. Otherwise, by the time Christmas comes around you just may yourself being garroted at a bar just after being offered some pre-war Scotch. All right, the metaphor doesn’t really make sense. It doesn’t matter. “I can’t have this conversation again,” said Tony Soprano once, when Paulie asked him what his favorite scene was. But moments later Tony is reminiscing about it anyway. THE GODFATHER does that. Sometimes you need to return to THE GODFATHER.

The important news is that THE GODFATHER has been given the full 4K restoration treatment by Robert A. Harris. Despite a theatrical re-release in 1997 and DVD box set of the trilogy in 2001, Harris would comment in interviews about the terrible shape the film was in—there’s a 2000 interview with The Onion, where he refers to the state the film was in as being “a mess…THE GODFATHER was butchered by the laboratories. It was handled horribly, like a piece of garbage”, something I’m sure was a factor in this occurring. It’s a fair statement to make that this restoration marks a hugely important event for cinema.

Though I only know as much about the making of THE GODFATHER as I’ve read in various books and articles published on the subject, repeated viewings of the film (I’ve seen it countless times on cable, tape, DVD along with four or five theatrical viewings) has made it seem more and more as if there were technical issues always involved with the physical production, maybe indicating how much was repeatedly redone in the cutting room. Some shots that didn’t seem to cut exactly right, some scenes that seemed looped after the fact, that sort of thing. This is not an issue of quality, so much a growing awareness of a film that had problems in the making and it occasionally flows over into the final product. Maybe some of this had to do with the generation of prints that I was seeing and with the inferior film stocks that were the norm during this period of the 70s.

Seeing the film in this new version screened at the Paramount Theater on Melrose Tuesday night, those problems feel less present than ever before. The colors pop off the screen, the darkness feels richer. It’s not a case of making the film look more slick—that’s not what THE GODFATHER is about. But it now looks more like the film that it is supposed to be. Even a few minor issues have been dealt with; there’s a close-up of Diane Keaton late in the film, when Al Pacino shows up at the New Hampshire school she teaches at looking for her, that has always looked misframed, as if there was a lab error. For a long time I’ve wondered, is it just me or does that shot look wrong? I suppose I have my answer, because the shot now looks framed correctly. For the record, there have been no alterations or extensions to the film, with the exception of a new Paramount logo and additional restoration credits during the end crawl. With THE GODFATHER, changes are not necessary.

Here’s one minor issue with the film: in the opening scene, just after the first shot of Brando, I found myself noticing the sound of birds chirping on the soundtrack. After trying to sort out this bit of audio, I began wondering, how can we hear birds? Isn’t the wedding taking place outside? Then, when the door to Vito Corleone’s study opening for the first time, letting the sounds of the festivities in, I realized for the first time in numerous viewings how the audio for the opening moments seemed very carefully calculated. Later scenes in the study during the wedding let the music bleed into the room, but not letting us hear the sounds during the opening moments, while not totally logical, is actually rather brilliant. Which makes the sound of chirping birds in the first scene of the film all the more annoying. After that, it was hard not to hear them throughout during sections set at the Corleone compound. I checked my DVD and the I did heard the birds in some scenes…but not when Brando is first introduced. That said, much of the sound work throughout is impeccable—even things I had heard many times before, like Sterling Hayden’s first line of dialogue (“I thought I got all you guinea hoods locked up!”) shoots out with a tone and force that is genuinely startling. And many of the gunshots during the baptism montage have a force like never before, particularly when Moe Greene gets it in the eye. On the DVD it feels like a pop—now it sounds like a ricochet into my skull. That my biggest complaint with this restoration is the sound of birds chirping in one scene has to say something about the level of care and artistry that went into this endeavor.

There’s very little I could say about THE GODFATHER which hasn’t been said before except for personal observations, something I’ll do another time. For now, I’ll simply say that the film remains as great as it is. THE GODFATHER is one of those films which remind you that the idea of film as an art form can be something worth fighting for. And now, it’s time to get my act together.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Looking A Gift Horse In The Mouth

"Is that Sleigh as in kill?"
"No, it's Sleigh as in One Horse Open."

Blake Edwards' CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER opened in August 1983, just a few weeks after the death of top-billed star David Niven. An Inspector Clouseau movie with no Clouseau, the film was following a series entry that did not do well at the box office and still contained the stigma brought on by the understandable hostility that it was a film which was essentially unnecessary. The reviews weren’t good and it didn’t do anything at the box office. That was that.

While TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER offered scenes of Dreyfus pouring his heart out to his psychiatrist about Clouseau that could be read as Edwards’ feelings about Peter Sellers. That angle is mostly ignored here, taking Dreyfus’ fear and hatred of Clouseau as a given. Throughout CURSE, several characters offer up the old saying, “Never look a gift horse in the mouth,” turning it into a bit of a running gag. The phrase is never uttered by Dreyfus, but it stands out as possibly Edwards’ warning to himself, how he should accept his past relationship with the great comedian and simply move on. He didn’t listen to himself.

But here’s the honest admission: I like CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER. And I’m fully aware of how that sounds. But the movie is now 24 years old and to me it’s fully acceptable to judge it on its own terms. The film doesn’t always succeed, but it continually plays like a movie made by somebody who obviously understands comedy construction, which has become more of a rarity in this day and age. There’s no defending why this movie was made but there are reasons to defend the movie.

One year after the events of TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER, Clouseau is still missing. The President of France orders Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) to head up a task force to find him. The plan, is to program a new super-computer to find the world’s greatest detective who will then find Clouseau. Dreyfus, of course, sabotages the computer, programming it to do the exact opposite of what it is told. After Dreyfus reads out instructions to find a cop with such attributes as “Fearless, courageous, a born leader…” the computer, looking for the opposite, gives them Officer Clifton Sleigh of the NYPD. Sleigh arrives and, within minutes, Dreyfus is given cause to wonder if “Clouseau had any releatives in the states.” The trailer for this film, which ran before OCTOPUSSY, stressed the super-computer portion of the plot and I remember thinking, in that summer which also contained WARGAMES and SUPERMAN III, it seemed like every film was using a computer in its plot. Fortunately, once Sleigh is introduced his character takes center stage.

After the humdrum non-events of TRAIL, CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER plays like a more energetic film from the get-go. Even the expository scenes with Dreyfus and Francois at the beginning play sharper this time around, even though they were probably shot concurrently with similar scenes in the previous film;even some dialogue gets repeated. Maybe everyone rightly felt that this was the “real” movie of the two and saved their best stuff for this footage.

Dreyfus dominates the first twenty minutes, but once Sleigh enters the scene the movie becomes all his. Given an “and introducing” credit in spite of the fact that he had already starred on TV’s SOAP, Ted Wass plays Clifton Sleigh. Done up to blatantly resemble Harold Lloyd, Wass was clearly fighting a losing battle in playing this role but comes off as willing and eager in the part. It’s a nice parallel to how the character, as clumsy as he is, genuinely wants to prove himself with this assignment. Now that we can watch the movie without having to compare him to Peter Sellers, I think he actually works very well.

It’s the structure that I like best in this film. Maybe Edwards was all too aware that he would not have an improvisatory genius like Sellers this time around, so he plotted it out to the second. Even with a running time at about 110 minutes, the movie doesn’t feel like it has a wasted second to me. To a great extent, it’s the beats that I notice. One recurring joke that seems like an Edwards signature comes as Robert Loggia ‘s mob boss is trying to plot Sleigh’s assassination. We have the mobsters discussing it underscored by Mancini, then we cut to the (disastrous) attempt, then we cut back to Loggia and his crew in a different location, still casually discussing it underscored by Mancini. It’s a rhythm unique to Edwards in his movies and works very well here. Sexual confusion in the series continues even as we introduce a new lead. A TV reporter quizzing Dreyfus harps on whether or not a woman will be considered by the computer and though the choice is “a man”, as she puts it, the instant we cut to Sleigh for his introduction he’s going undercover dressed as a woman. Later in the film, Sleigh has to be rescued from a possible mob hit by a woman and the film’s very final twist has an action taken by a certain female character, that seems to indicate some sort of thematic completion. What all this is supposed to amount to in the end I’m not sure but it seems…interesting. At the least, it continually appears to be something on Edwards’ mind.

That said, there’s plenty that doesn’t work. Sleigh’s introduction, while thematically interesting, isn’t really all that funny. Harvey Korman’s return as Professor Balls doesn’t do much for me, nor does the funning gag about the “Instant Companion” that Sleigh is supplied with. And Burt Kwouk’s Kato has less to do than ever before. I freely admit this is a strange case—enjoying a comedy more for its precise construction that for the actual laughs that happen. As we follow Sleigh from New York to Paris to Lugash to Nice to Spain, it’s a continually interesting production visually. The car chase in Nice is also very good—is it shot in some of the same locations as the chase in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN?—and once we get to Valencia the film becomes consistently enjoyable to me. The carnivale in that section resembles the similar setting of THUNDERBALL and it’s hard not to think that Edwards amused himself by having the bad guys follow Sleigh by having to jump and dance along with everyone in the crowded street. Sleigh saying “I sound like Stan Laurel,” as an attempted seduction takes place still doesn’t make any sense to me, though. The investigation moves to Majorca and Sleigh follows the trail via parasail to a health spa run by the mysterious Countess Chandra where he discovers…well, I won’t give it away but it does provide justification for the trailer running before OCTOPUSSY.

In addition to Lom, Kwouk, Korman, Loggia, André Maranne, David Niven and Capucine we also get the returning Robert Wagner, playing George Litton for the first time since 1964. Beats me why he didn’t appear in the previous film, since the stuff was obviously shot at the same time. Maybe they agreed to only pay him for one movie. Maybe he absolutely refused to appear in the talk show-type scene in that film. Either way, Wagner gets the prize for most bored-looking celebrity cameo here. For the record, Capucine offers “It looks like suicide,” upon seeing Sleigh take part in the parasailing, somewhat unfortunate considering she killed herself several years later.

Other interesting faces turn up throughout. Joanna Lumley returns, this time as Countess Chandra, playing one brief nude scene covered in mud. Graham Stark plays a bored waiter during the Instant Companion sequence. William Hootkins again plays the cab driver in Nice, his American accent this time acknowledged, but unexplained. Then-first daughter Patti Davis plays the French television reporter, Joe Morton is a New York cop and the great Bill Nighy is seen very briefly as an ENT doctor. Pat Corley, who later played Phil on MURPHY BROWN, is very funny is his one scene as the Dreyfus-equivalent in New York to Sleigh’s character and British actress Leslie Ash makes a definite impression as the mysterious woman Sleigh meets in Valencia who calls herself Juleta Shane (a name I once stole for use in a script). There’s also the actor who is credited simply as Turk Thrust II, but again, I won’t discuss that.

Henry Mancini’s score is also particularly good this time around, lending an early 80’s synth feel to the main theme that also seems to emphasize the CURSE in the title. The Clifton Sleigh theme also blends in well with the surroundings, with a sneaking around-version that closely recalls the James Garner sneaking around music from the previous year’s VICTOR/VICTORIA. Unfortunately, this is the only PINK PANTHER to never have a soundtrack release.

As eager as Wass comes across, the film must still deal with the spectre of Peter Sellers on its shoulder. In fact, the Sleigh character seems slightly discarded at the end so it can deal with such plot necessities. The final scene comes off as an attempt to bring the entire series full circle, back to 1964’s THE PINK PANTHER, which is a bizarre idea considering the lack of continuity through the films. But it does give the impression of a sense of completion. Maybe that’s what Blake Edwards was going for. While I like some of this film, I'm very well aware of what it is I'm defending. Unfortunately, the one-two punch of these post-Sellers PANTHER films may have been a detriment to his career. He certainly continued making films at a surprising rate through the rest of the decade, but critically he never again reached the heights of “10”, S.O.B. and VICTOR/VICTORIA. In trying to continue the series without the presence of Peter Sellers, it’s very possible he forgot that he was very much looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Something That Isn't Happening

With the imminent arrival of Tim Lucas’s long-awaited tome on Mario Bava, I decided the time was right for another look at FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON. The waning days of the particular month always seem like the right time to watch it, anyway.

1970’s FIVE DOLLS would never be the first Bava film that I'd show to somebody unfamiliar with the director—that would be DANGER: DIABOLIK, or maybe even BLACK SABBATH. But FIVE DOLLS always plays to me unlike any other film ever made. Whether that was entirely intentional is another question. And it’s a difficult film to properly summarize since portions of it still don’t seem to make any sense. Why does the houseboy’s body get discovered twice? Why doesn’t Marie tell anyone when she discovers the body? Who is Isabelle anyway? Maybe one reason I find myself continually drawn to it is the hope that eventually I’ll figure out a few of these things. Maybe if I consumed as much J&B as the characters seem to, it would help. Maybe someone can answer these questions. It doesn’t matter. I have too much fun watching it anyway. But really, who the hell is Isabelle?

With a basic plot similar to Agatha Christie’s TEN LITTLE INDIANS, the film presents us with several couples vacationing on an island, staying in a beach house owned by one of them. One of the guests is a scientist who has recently perfected a formula that we hear nothing about, except that it’s for a “new type of industrial resin.” Though checks for a million dollars are being waved in front of him, he expresses no interest in selling the formula, saying it’s for the good of mankind. Soon enough, murders begin occurring, raising the question of who wants the formula and who wants the money. But meanwhile, lots of drinking continues to occur.

As many of the deaths occurr offscreen, the film comes off as a sort of bizarre comedy of manners more than a horror film. The continued feeling of ennui of the main characters presents promise of an interesting scenario—hey, Antonioni’s making a slasher film!—and it would have been interesting if the film had gone even further in that direction. At one point a character states, “Everyone seems to be waiting for something that isn’t happening,” which is a great line, one of the best in the film. Fittingly, it’s uttered only a few moments before the onslaught of death begins. “Houseboys come and go, but there’s always a bottle,” is another key line, appropriate considering how the characters seem more occupied with drinking themselves into a stupor than figuring out who the murderer among them is.

It’s well known that Bava took on this project with very little notice, but it’s tougher to tell exactly what his intentions were. While some, including Lucas, have speculated that the zoom-crazy party that opens the film is emblematic of Bava’s “contempt” for the film and its production, enough of it remains sloppily written to the point that maybe the director should have been focusing his attention on other matters. But every now and then there's a moment, a shot, a sequence, that stands out. The continued use of color is something I continually find myself paying attention to throughout the film. As it is, I’m still a little in the dark on some of the plot turns.

The quasi-futuristic house is one of the things that draw me back to this film for repeat viewings, as are the performances. Yeah, it’s safe to say that the amazing Edwige Fenech walks off with the film at least in part by her own pure physicality. But several of the other actors, particularly Ira Furstenberg as Trudy, are very good and each of them seem to ‘pop’ in various ways that add to the film’s unique feel.

But the thing I suppose I love about this film most of all is the amazing lounge score by Piero Umiliani. Remembered mainly for composing the song “Mahna Mahna” which was later made famous by the Muppets, Umiliani’s work here provides much of the same bouncy, infectious feel, only the music here is designed to underscore an allegedly grim tale of murder. From the dialogue-free first moments of the party that opens the film, to the carnival-like bounce used whenever the various corpses are continually hung up in the meat locker, to the transcendent moment where Edwige Fenech runs along the beach after discovering the first corpse, Piero Umiliani’s music for FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON makes it something more than it would have been otherwise. When I first saw this film, on a bootleg tape, back in 1995, the first thing I said to the room was “If anyone ever finds this soundtrack, let me know.” Several years later in Tower Records on Sunset I found myself staring at the Japanese CD. It was priced at something like 35 dollars, but I took the plunge. I’m glad I did and the score for this film was probably crucial in my burgeoning interest in the lounge scores of this era.

I’ve sometimes daydreamed about remaking FIVE DOLLS and who could play some of the roles. Certainly a similar setting could be used and the music would of course be the same. But any possible rewrite would have to clear up some of the gaping plot holes and I’m not sure that the scenario could withstand such logic brought to it. Maybe it’s just best to let this film be. FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON brings up an interesting question of what is “good” in a film. There’s the issue of quality, of structure, of what is “well done”, ideas that are thrown out the window the instant the first zoom occurs during the party. But in the case of this film, I don’t care. Maybe it’s romanticizing a different era and genre, but FIVE DOLLS is an unusual record of a film made under duress but displaying nothing but the joy of making movies behind it. I don’t love this film because it’s so bad it’s good. I love this film because I’ve never seen and heard anything else quite like it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Moving Finger Writes

Following the 1978 release of REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER there were plans for Inspector Clouseau to live on, but without the involvement of Blake Edwards. THE ROMANCE OF THE PINK PANTHER was a script that Peter Sellers had co-written and the film was in active development with names such as Sidney Poitier and Clive Donner mentioned as possible directors. The plot had Clouseau falling in love with a cat burglar named “The Frog”, to be played by Pamela Stephenson but the plans sadly ended with Sellers’ death on July 24th 1980, just a few weeks before the release of his final starring role, THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MANCHU. But surprisingly this would not mean the end of Clouseau.

Several years later, it was announced that Blake Edwards would direct not a new PINK PANTHER film, but two new PINK PANTHER films simultaneously, one that would use previously unseen footage of Sellers as Clouseau and one that would introduce a new character. Putting aside the issue of how prescient Edwards was in doing this, years before sequels to BACK TO THE FUTURE and THE MATRIX were made in such a fashion, it’s unclear exactly why Blake Edwards chose to extend the series. Even interviews from the time don’t really offer a good reason. It couldn’t have been the money—for simply licensing the use of the Pink Panther character for the aborted Sellers project he was paid $3 million by the studio. And certainly the director had reached a sort of creative peak at this time. Certainly after making “10”, S.O.B. and VICTOR/VICTORIA—a fantastic run to me—he had nothing to gain by going back to the PANTHER series. Maybe it was the challenge. Maybe he was offered creative freedom. Maybe it really was the money. Maybe it was a chance to claim total auteurship of the series once and for all. No matter the reason, the Christmas 1982 release of TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER (and its follow-up, which followed eight months later) was generally seen as an attempt to cash in on the memory of a beloved deceased comedian. And it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that Edwards’ critical reputation never fully recovered from the reception these films received.

TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER is made up of three types of footage: previously unseen Sellers footage, all new footage featuring other actors and flashback scenes from other films in the series. If you’re familiar with the films, it becomes clear that all of the unused footage seen here was originally shot for THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN. None of them are directly connected to any story, unlike the vast amount of plot-oriented scenes that were in REVENGE. What exposition there is during the first section is given by other characters when Clouseau is conveniently not around. This provides a rather aimless feel to the first third, after which it becomes something rather different. It can’t really be considered an elegiac film, since no one on screen seems particularly upset that Clouseau is presumably gone. And even if there is a small feeling of elegy, it doesn’t really seem right for the character of Clouseau to be handled this way. It’s as if there’s a hole at the center of the film, a hole that is the dead actor whose name is above the title and everyone seems to be doing the best they can to avoid mention of it. The basic story is a case of 97 minutes where nothing much happens, so there’s not very much of a story to summarize.

The Pink Panther diamond is stolen once again. Clouseau is requested by the government of Lugash to investigate. Meanwhile, Dreyfus is still going mad from everything that Clouseau does. In the middle of yet another session with his psychiatrist, Dreyfus gets a phone call which possibly answers his greatest wish: Clouseau’s plane, heading for Lugash, is mssing, presumed lost in the sea. While elated, he is terrified that Clouseau may still turn up. Meanwhile, television reporter Marie Jouvet (Joanna Lumley) begins interviewing various people who knew Clouseau so she can learn more about him and his history. By the end of the film, no character has learned of the whereabouts of either Clouseau or the diamond.

And that’s pretty much it. Dreyfus gets paranoid that she will learn something, but nothing ever comes of it. The mob, led by Robert Loggia (playing a different part than in REVENGE) gets worried she will learn something, but nothing ever comes of it. It’s not even clear why an investigative reporter is interested so much in Clouseau’s past instead of investigating the circumstances of the missing plane. For that matter, if anyone is investigating the missing plane we never hear about it. Marie Jouvet is a television reporter who, like the newsreel man in CITIZEN KANE, does most of her interviews without any sort of camera. And there’s no Rosebud to be discovered here anyway. Maybe there’s a thematic idea behind having each respective interview take Jouvet further back in Clouseau’s past, but none of it results in anything very interesting.

The restored Sellers footage is ok, with some scenes naturally funnier than others, but I don’t think STRIKES AGAIN was hurt by losing any of this stuff. Harvey Korman’s appearance as Auguste Balls provides an interesting contrast with REVENGE, where the character was played by Graham Stark. One gets the feeling that by the time they did the latter version of the character they made it a point to move it along faster and the difference in performers reveals that Harvey Korman plays his scene as a special guest appearance, while Graham Stark manages to create a full comic persona out of the role.

Once Jouvet begins her investigation, the only Sellers we see from that point on are clips from previous films. It’s annoying enough when a clip show is done on TV but here we get the unusual sensation of watching a clip movie, which really isn’t that much fun. I like Joanna Lumley and there’s nothing wrong with what she does here, but since none of it can ever go anywhere it’s pretty ineffectual. Maybe her character is developed a little more than William Alland in KANE, but not much more. It’s Herbert Lom who gets some of the juiciest stuff to play here and he makes the most of it. As he sobs to his psychiatrist it’s tempting to look at Dreyfus as an surrogate for Edwards trying to deal with Sellers (more on this idea when discussing a subsequent film) and as far as the all-new footage on display throughout TRAIL, it’s Lom who gets most of the laughs. Richard Mulligan, on the other hand, plays Clouseau’s father in a sequence that seems designed to be the big show-stopper of the latter half of the film. I think that Mulligan is amazing in S.O.B. but here none of this stuff does anything for me. By the time this section rolls around, complete with portrayals of young Clouseau in flashbacks, it really feels like it’s time to close up shop.

Returning to the series for the first time since 1964, David Niven (famously dubbed by Rich Little as his voice was too weak by this point) is Charles Litton and Capucine is Simone Litton, both playing their scenes together as if on a talk show. Burt Kwouk is again Cato, but André Maranne, who as Francois gets to be the sounding board for Dreyfus, has some of his best material in the series this time around. Graham Stark reprises his A SHOT IN THE DARK role as Hercule Lovejoy and William Hootkins (Porkins in STAR WARS) plays the French cab driver whose American accent is never explained. Denise Crosby (at the time about to marry Edwards’ son Geoffrey, who co-wrote the script with his father) plays the moll to Robert Loggia’s character and is presumably doing a Jean Harlow impression. More surprisingly, Julie Andrews makes her only in-the-flesh appearance of the series, playing the silent role of a cleaning woman outside the office of Dreyfus’ psychiatrist, just before he takes a spectacular pratfall.

Various familiar character actors from previous films are glimpsed in small roles, including some from STRIKES AGAIN who also turn up in linking footage meant to help the plot along. The most interesting element of the Mancini score is that the album is, much like the film, a compilation of selections from previous films. It contains what I think is the only real release of the theme to A SHOT IN THE DARK and also my favorite selection from this film, “The Easy Life In Paris”, a lovely piece which would fit in perfectly with any Best-of Mancini compilation.

Ultimately, TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER is a movie that isn’t very much of a movie. The end credits contain a montage of Sellers highlights from the previous five films and it’s no great shock to say that it’s the funniest part of the film. The legacy of Peter Sellers is great enough that it can’t be hurt by this film, even if it was followed by multiple lawsuits involving his widow, Blake Edwards and MGM/UA. Stranger still is that a follow-up is promised at the end and, in spite of the first film’s box-office failure, was going to arrive in theaters. TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER may have marked the true, final end of Inspector Jacques Clouseau as the world knew him, but the universe his films are set in was not yet finished.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Here Already

In the early 90’s director Abel Ferrara made one of his few excursions into working for a big studio with his BODY SNATCHERS remake. Featuring a cast that included Gabrielle Anwar, Forest Whitaker and Meg Tilly, the film premiered at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. For whatever reason BODY SNATCHERS never got a real release as Warner Bros. let it languish on the shelf until it received a token dumping here in the States the following spring. Despite good reviews—Roger Ebert gave it four stars—and one sequence so powerful it caused a spontaneous wave of applause when I saw it opening weekend in Westwood, the film never got the exposure it deserved. It’s not perfect—at only 87 minutes, the structure resembles two acts and an epilogue, but years after seeing it much of the imagery still remains burned into my brain as the rare studio-produced horror film that even attempts to be genuinely unnerving.

So now the latest remake, this time titled THE INVASION, has had its own protracted post-production period and Warners has released it on over 2,700 screens. Which makes as much sense as anything in Hollywood. The directing credit goes to Oliver Hirschbiegel, but he was replaced late in the game by the Wachowskis who were brought in to supervise rewrites and reshoots directed by V FOR VENDETTA helmer James McTeigue. This doesn’t seem to be as extreme a case as the Paul Schrader/Renny Harlin/EXORCIST boondoggle of a few years back, but whatever the specifics are this final version of the movie is toothless and forgettable.

Edited and paced as if it’s going to be shown to an audience who has to get home early, THE INVASION is never exactly boring, but if there was a decent subtext in the material at any point it seems to have been lost. There is a stab in this direction with a “violence and self-interest makes us human”. Well, I watched plenty of Star Trek so I know that there are plenty of other things that make us human too. There are strong implications throughout from news clips seen that peace is beginning to spring forth throughout the world, including U.S. troops leaving Iraq. Exactly what the movie is saying here is something that I’m still trying to wrap my brain around. There’s also a stab at dealing with people’s dependencies on prescription drugs—Nicole Kidman plays a psychiatrist—but elements like this (at least in what has been released) aren’t half baked so much as they feel like they never got put in the oven.

Every version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is really about its subtext and how it relates to the time it was made in. Whatever subtext that can be found here is completely muddled and confused but it doesn’t matter anyway since the film is much, much more interested is spending a great deal of time spouting off pages of expositional dialogue about the nature of this virus and possible immunities to it. Much of this is spoken by Jeffrey Wright and rarely do you get to hear such a good actor speak this much horseshit dialogue in rapid succession. The pod person element is also completely dropped this time around, replaced by the aliens spreading themselves through projectile vomit, which takes effect when humans fall asleep. I suppose that pods were deemed cheesy and the nature of the vomit is an attempt to “up the stakes” and add an additional ticking clock but make no mistake, it plays as extremely, unbelievably stupid. Ultimately, THE INVASION isn’t about the world we occupy in the year 2007 as much as it’s about repeatedly giving us the specifics of the virus that the aliens are spreading. In other words, it’s about nothing.

Nicole Kidman’s face looks like she’s been smoothed digitally during post-production. I don’t know if this is the case or not but it gives her the most alien look of anyone in the film and I found it difficult to concentrate on anything else during the first twenty minutes. Daniel Craig is wasted. He shares screen time with Jeffrey Wright (James Bond and Felix Leiter reunited), but so what. Veronica Cartwright, a veteran of the 1978 INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS has a featured role as one of Kidman’s patients but her big scene is frankly terribly written and sounds like it was ripped off from a speech Jessica Lange has in Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR remake. Maybe because of the urban setting, the film seems to echo the 70s version more than the others, with a re-do of Kevin McCarthy’s cameo from that film (not with McCarthy, but it’s pretty much the same scene) and a few other shots that had a familiar tinge to them.

I think THE INVASION is more bad than terrible—there are a few elements that stick out, like an unexplained shot of a teenage girl running sobbing down a sidewalk. But for the most part it’s a big nothing. At various points the film makes an attempt at additional flashiness, like opening the film with a sequence that occurs deep into the running time and another point where in the middle of a scene we flash-forward to what’s about to happen. These gimmicks serve no real purpose except to try to make it seem like there’s more going on than there actually is. If the film had ever figured out what it was, this sort of nonsense wouldn’t have been necessary.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Dating Public Television

I know why I couldn’t sleep last night, but I don’t want to talk about it. The act of lying there, close to midnight, knowing that I had to get up in less than six hours, just made me obsess all the more about the reasons I couldn’t sleep. That made it a lot of fun when I woke up this morning.

If a movie has a man and a woman confronting each other, trying to figure the other person out, I’m perfectly happy. The BEFORE SUNRISE-SUNSET films are, as I’ve said before, kind of this beautiful idealization of that scenario. Unforgettable as Celine in those films, Julie Delpy’s directorial debut 2 DAYS IN PARIS takes the opposite, darker approach to the basic subject matter and while it doesn’t come off as a total success I have absolutely no major complaints.

Shot with a Sony high-def digital camera, it’s a small, dark comedy about New Yorker Jack (Adam Goldberg) passing through Paris with his French girlfriend Marion (Delpy) so she can visit family and friends for a few days. Unexpectedly, he is confronted with many surprising aspects of who she really is. In addition to directing and starring, Delpy also wrote, co-produced, edited and composed the music. An actor who has worked with directors like Linklater, Kieslowski, Jarmusch, Godard (referenced here) and others she has clearly absorbed a great deal from the people she was worked with. Their influence is at times very much felt but 2 DAYS IN PARIS achieves its own darkly comedic tone. There’s also the obvious inspiration of Woddy Allen, who she sadly hasn’t worked with, felt here and Delpy seems to resemble a cross between Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow throughout the film. A degree of uncomfortable intimacy is refreshingly present in her film, even down to the character’s parents played by her own mother and father, who are both very funny in their roles (BEFORE SUNSET fans will recognize them as the older couple in the courtyard near that film’s end).

The ongoing battle between Americans and the French is addressed but it’s notable that one of the first things Goldberg does in the film is give bad directions to some Da Vinci Code reading, Bush/Cheney t-shirt wearing fellow Americans, as if he is defiantly striving to demonstrate how different he is from them. In some ways he is, but to everyone else he still an outsider with characters speaking in French (subtitled for us) to shut him out of conversations which causes his paranoia and his hypochondria to grow by the minute. Before going to a party, Jack attempts to decide between various types of sunglasses, trying to decide which one makes him look “more Godard”, but it’s futile. He couldn’t be more out of place and any attempts he makes to ingratiate himself with anyone tend to end in disaster. And as he witnesses more and more guys seemingly flirting with Marion the differences they share start to become both more complicated and much more simplistic then he first realized. It’s easy to imagine Goldberg’s character being not very relatable but I found myself identifying with him more and more. Maybe I need to think about why.

In writing this, I find myself focusing more on Goldberg’s character, but there are many aspects of 2 DAYS IN PARIS that are very strong, from it’s running gag about Parisian cab drivers to how unlikable Delpy allows her own character to be to the portrayal of her mother and father, that help the film dig deeper than the average MEET THE PARENTS sitcom. The bitterly funny moments throughout the first two-thirds are at times so sharp that it’s a slight disappointment when the film begins to be bitterly serious in its final section and I found myself losing my way with the film at some points here. Maybe it’s my own problem—even when she’s neurotic and bitchy she still comes off as someone who would be worth crawling over broken glass for. But like I said, I’m a little biased. I could say more on my feelings about watching people I can relate to who are in a relationship when I’m not in one. But I won’t. Don’t ask. Don’t.

Several years ago, I was walking in my neighborhood when a couple was approaching me on the street. As I glanced at them I realized the woman was Julie Delpy. I know that while I may not have done a double take, my face certainly displayed recognition. I would never have bothered her but I did give a slight nod since at that point it would have been rude not to. In response she said a quiet ‘hello’ and kept walking. I could hear her explain to the guy she was with that she didn’t know me, I was just somebody who’d recognized her. There. That’s my Julie Delpy story. I apologize to her for that moment and I applaud her for making 2 DAYS IN PARIS and any films I hope to see from her in the future.