Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Superior Income From An Inferior Champagne

I’d rather not get caught up in the whole debate about Mitchell Leisen and he caused the likes of Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges to want to direct because of whatever he did to their scripts. In all honesty, part of me wants to say, “You’re really going to dispute any opinion that Wilder or Sturges ever had?” But then somebody might bring up BUDDY BUDDY or THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND or some other lesser movie with lots of b-words in the title that one of them made at some point. And it would alter the fact that 1939’s MIDNIGHT, directed by Mitchell Leisen and with a script that Billy Wilder was one of several writers on, remains a true delight.

It’s not just a good film. It has to be one of the true unsung romantic comedies, from not only the golden age of Hollywood, but from all of 1939, widely considered to be the pinnacle of that era. The credits list a story by Franz Schulz and Edwin Justus Mayer but the screenplay is very obviously to work of credited Wilder and Charles Brackett, who would work together on numerous films up until SUNSET BOULEVARD. The sparkling wit of their dialogue contains way too many lines to spoil here as and they also concocted an expertly plotted scenario that goes way beyond the simple Cinderella-setup of the title. The film reveals a world which may have only ever existed in the movies but that doesn’t make it any less enticing. That MIDNIGHT isn’t better known is unfortunate and should be near the top of the list of films to show people who might want to see something from this era but are only familiar with the ones which have been long since deemed classics.

Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) arrives in Paris by train one rainy night, with nothing but an evening gown that she is wearing. “So this is Paris,” she muses. “Well, from here it looks an awful lot like a rainy night in Kokomo, Indiana.” She comes in from Monte Carlo where she has pawned all her luggage after, she says, “the roulette system I was playing collapsed under me.” Getting a ride from cab driver Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche) she makes a deal with him to drive her around to the city’s nightclubs where she hopes to get a job singing and then she’ll pay him. When the plan fails, he buys her dinner and offers to let her stay at his place that night while he works. Aware of the instant attraction between them, she turns him down anyway because she doesn’t want someone who is “just” a cab driver. Thought he won’t take no for an answer, she is still able to make a getaway and manages to crash a nearby party being attended by Paris society. Once inside, she finds several people becoming interested in her for various reasons including the handsome Jacques (Francis Lederer), the curious Georges Flammarion (an amazing John Barrymore) and his suspicious wife Helene (Mary Astor). When Georges realizes that Eve can help him with a marital problem, her deception is able to continue past the end of the party, but meanwhile Tibor is marshalling all of his resources to track her down again.

A complicated screwball plot and I haven’t begun to get into a number of aspects of it. MIDNIGHT has laughs, enjoyable characters-even the ones who aren’t never becomes all that unlikable—but overall a sense of elegance which works for the piece. I don’t know if this was Paris in 1939—well, obviously it wasn’t, but it’s nice to imagine that it was like this. Leisen brought an earnestness and sensitivity to some of these films–another was the quite moving REMEMBER THE NIGHT, written by Sturges—that not only may have been something that Wilder and Sturges didn’t do, but wasn’t really achieved on this level by most directors (All this does remind me that MIDNIGHT has a few slight similarities to Struges' own THE PALM BEACH STORY, which also features Colbert and Astor). Yes, maybe at times Leisen seems very interested in that opulence—check out how he dotes on the Conga line at the estate party. But there are several camera movements during this section which are very much done for storytelling reasons that manage to add to the plot and the elegance he’s obviously going for at the same time—compare this to the Paramount films from around this time which have truly uninteresting camerawork. If that’s not somebody who knows what he’s doing, what is? In Cameron Crowe’s absolutely essential CONVERSATIONS WITH WILDER, the man himself seems to begrudgingly allow himself to say good things about both MIDNIGHT and Leisen, so maybe this was one of those cases where people didn’t click (Sturges, I suppose, separately didn’t click with him either). Since it’s the film which remains now, that’s probably all that matters.

One of the great things about returning to MIDNIGHT after a number of years away, is realizing just how wonderful Claudette Colbert is. Funny, attractive, vivacious and perceptive enough to be suspicious of everyone who crosses her eyeline, Eve Peabody is a fantastic character and she hits every beat just right. Don Ameche is fantastic—anyone who only knows him from TRADING PLACES and COCOON needs to see this film right now! The nature of his performance is that John Barrymore almost walks away with the film but really, the film is so equally divided in moments from its actors that it doesn’t really happen. Nevertheless, there’s a delight in what he does which is very special. A legendary drinker at this time, his character is roused from boredom at a dull party into curiosity about this odd woman suddenly sitting next to him. It almost plays as if the actor himself is coming to life upon realizing just how good the script he agreed to appear in was. Mary Astor is also very good as the humorless Helene, interested in not much more than hats, yet still consistent and believably even in this farcical context. As a matter of fact, everyone from Hedda Hopper, who also appears, down to the bit players is spot-on in this luxurious Hollywood version of France. Ernst Lubitsch, a friend and huge influence on Wilder, famously said, “I’ve been to Paris, France and I’ve been to Paris, Paramount. I prefer Paris, Paramount.” A shame that we didn’t get to see what Lubitsch might have done with this, but nevertheless MIDNIGHT is one of my favorite examples of what that sentence states. In an ideal world I’d find a girl who has never heard of this movie and she would fall for everything in it as well. I’m still looking.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

In Memory of Michael Dorsey's Agent

It’s been less than a year since I first viewed the MICHAEL CLAYTON trailer and mentioned to someone how cool it was to see Sydney Pollack billed right up there with the likes of Clooney, Swinton and Wilkinson. That can’t be something he ever anticipated way back when Dustin Hoffman browbeat him into taking on the role of George Fields in TOOTSIE, a movie he was already directing and would go on to be one of the true classic comedies of the past quarter-century.

Funny thing is, as brilliant and funny as he is in that film (“I begged you to get some therapy.”), he didn’t appear in front of the camera again for another decade when in 1992 he turned up in enjoyable bits in THE PLAYER and DEATH BECOMES HER along with an astonishing supporting performance in Woody Allen’s HUSBANDS AND WIVES. His work in that film seemed to get lost in the controversy surrounding the release along with the deserved acclaim that Judy Davis received but chances are people simply didn’t realize he wasn’t acting. He just came off as so believable in that role that it was hard to believe he wasn’t really that guy, down to the immensely painful sequence where he tries to forcibly remove new girlfriend Lysette Anthony from a party as he simultaneously realizes what everything he’s done has come to. With someone else in the role it could come off as either too comical or too melodramatic, but as Pollack plays it the scene is raw, painful and genuine. There was his role in EYES WIDE SHUT with that amazing scene around the pool table where it just goes on and on but I feel like I can listen him methodically discuss his role in possibly nefarious acts for days. And more recently there’s been his spot-on work in MICHAEL CLAYTON and guest shot on THE SOPRANOS which make me wish we could have more performances from him that would elevate the material in such ways. His presence in films also sometimes made him seem like a truly decent individual right down to his very final moment in TOOTSIE when he drops all discussion about the charade upon hearing about Charles Durning’s proposal and, smiling, asks “What did you say?”

But it’s his work as a director which seems tremendously important right now. It seems like we’ve been losing greats from the film world lately more than usual and I can’t help but wonder if Pollack’s death means some sort of irrevocable shift. His films from personal favorite TOOTSIE to THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR to ABSENCE OF MALICE to OUT OF AFRICA to THE FIRM to THE INTERPRETER are the sort of thing which have fallen by the wayside in the past decade—quality pieces of work produced by Hollywood, intended for adults, out to see a movie on a Saturday night. Without him there to keep on trying to get those films made, I don't know who else is left to do it. In addition to his smooth craftsmanship (and, sometimes, great use of Scope) the projects he worked on had a continuing preoccupation with man-woman relationships in terms of honesty, trust and identity presented in a context which may have sometimes been overly slick, but was always humanistic. The line “You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth” seemed to turn up in a few of them, a line of confrontation which could say what he was interested in exploring with his films as much as anything.

Today I had to go to jury duty downtown which wasn’t much fun at all, but getting there required parking in the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Hall, a reminder in that early hour that I still had yet to see Pollack’s final film, the acclaimed documentary SKETCHES OF FRANK GEHRY. Now his passing comes just after the premiere of RECOUNT, a film he was set to direct before illness forced him to withdraw but still has an Executive Producer credit on. Those pieces of unfinished business remind me of how THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR concludes on an uncertain beat before ending abruptly. That was Sydney Pollack—still driven and determined, but then the finish comes before we’re ready.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Mountain Into Molehill

Maybe the ultimate joke of the mountain-into-molehill thing that we get over the Paramount logo at the beginning of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is that it’s done in anticipation of what the response to the film would be. No matter how good it was, there would still be people who would find things to complain about and those complaints would be making a mountain out of, well, you know. Or maybe the joke is that it’s an indication over the reduction in scale from the earlier films to now. Maybe it’s just a cute idea that somebody had while making it. Maybe I need to stop spending so much time obsessing over studio logos.

I went in with the full understanding that I wasn’t going to get a movie which would be the absolute equal to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. At the very least I wanted it to be an enjoyable romp and that’s what it is in some ways. But even after a second viewing today (All hail the Vista) I found myself already bored with parts of it. During the parts I liked on my first viewing I looked at it as Spielberg’s EL DORADO (i.e. director and star returning to old themes but it’s so much fun you don’t care) and it seemed pertinent that the ancient city of El Dorado is even brought up in relation to the plot. But after thinking about it for a few days, culminating in the more recent viewing, I have to admit that a few times it skirts over a little too far into RIO LOBO territory (i.e. director and star returning to old themes but no one really seems to care anymore). The script by David Koepp, which for all I know already includes elements from past drafts, feels like it’s at the point where you say, “this is getting there, but we need to flesh out some things and clarify the exposition.” I guess that didn’t happen.

Ultimately, I don’t get why the film is about the Skull. The exposition is lengthy and mealy-mouthed to the point that I can barely remember any of it and I don’t get what the Skull means for Indiana Jones either. At the film’s beginning the character doesn’t need to be convinced to go off on another adventure, but he does seem slightly lost in the world, considering how his job is taken away from and his two closest confidantes in the world (Marcus Brody and his father) are no longer alive. There’s a germ of an idea in how he goes from feeling this way to meeting someone from his past who affects what his future will be, but the film does next to nothing with the concept beyond simply having Marion (a very welcome Karen Allen) show up again. They spar, they bicker and they fall for each other again almost instantly but it all feels pretty arbitrary. For that matter, I can Bond not speaking to Willie Scott ever again (or James Bond breaking it off with one of his conquests) but does anyone believe that he hasn’t spoken to Marion for twenty years? Marion frikkin’ Ravenwood?

I’m not even sure what the answer is to clearing up the Marion portion of the plot. If she’s mentioned earlier (which she very well could have been in a plausible and funny way) there might be the danger that the plot would turn into ‘search for Marion’ thing, just as LAST CRUSADE became a search for the father. But if the Grail represented the father, how would the Skull be a metaphor for Marion? If there’s an answer here I haven’t come up with it and while there may be something in there about how the Skull represents knowledge, it doesn’t resonate in any particular way. I also don’t get why Indy feels so attached to Professor Oxley if he hasn’t see him for twenty years. I don’t get why greaser Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) is so attached to the old professor either. These feel like problems that could have been solved or, at the very least, glossed over in an interesting way, but with no real concept where we can understand and empathize with Indy’s search, it feels like the film has no reason to exist except just to give us some more Indiana Jones action. Well, hey, I like the character too, but can’t we get a little more than that? And does the trip to Peru in the middle have to be that excruciatingly dull?

There are things I liked in there. The opening, while feeling slightly odd, is enjoyable if you look at it as a very odd AMERICAN GRAFFITTI reference. I like all the Area 51 stuff, but I do wonder if it slightly diminishes the end of RAIDERS now that we know where the Ark is kept. Besides, what was once a CITIZEN KANE reference is now an Area 51 plot point? The motorcycle chase is mostly terrific and a good example of the lighthearted action sequences that turn up in these films. It’s also given added oomph by being mostly set in a real place—after beginning on the Paramount lot it moves on to actual locations at Yale. It adds a lot to the sequence and it’s one of the drawbacks of the film that too much of it seems to be shot in the studio. This isn’t entirely without precedence in the series, since a few of the others also featured sets that looked a little too much like sets—I always figured it was part of the old-time-movie feel that they were going for. But they also contained extensive location shooting around the world which added immensely to their flavor and authenticity. I can understand why these guys wouldn’t want to fly off to Tunisia or who knows where anymore. But that doesn’t mean I can’t say anything about it.

Hang on, I thought I was going to discuss things I liked about the movie. Harrison Ford seems like he’s in a better mood than in any film he’s appeared in for years and it is fun to see him revisit the character, even if he does seem to get the voice right some times more than others. Cate Blanchett is extremely enjoyable as Irina Spalko—she’s kinda hot too. Karen Allen seems like she won’t stop smiling much of the time and it’s a fault of the film that it doesn’t want to give too much weight to the reunion of Indy and Marion more than anything she does. But it does genuinely feel like Marion Ravenwood and that hasn’t always been the case with an actor returning to a role after a long absence.

The real good news about the movie is that there is a genuine feel in Spielberg’s direction of old-school action. For the most part it’s well-shot, well-paced and you can tell what’s going on. Unfortunately, the real bad news has to do with my honest wish that Spielberg had gone old-school with the effects as well, keeping the CGI to the absolute minimum. Because it was well-done, I enjoyed the chase with the jeeps through the jungle even if I knew a lot of the effects work was digital. But once we got to the ants and everything that transpires in the climax it becomes digital overkill. There’s never any sense of danger to anything that happens and it may be the one thing missing more than any other.

Along with that is wondering what exactly this movie is. If the first three films were homages to films of the 30s set in the 30s, this film is…what? An homage to the 30s set in the 50s? Aside from a few clever topical references there really isn’t anything that makes it seem like a film of the 50s (which reminds me, is the Paramount logo period accurate?). Granted, I shouldn't go too far down this semantic whirlpool, but some bold use of color still would have helped in this regard. Though there is an attempt to replicate the work of cinematographer Douglas Slocombe(lots of dollies into people’s faces) there’s still enough here stylistically that feels like yet another film shot by Janusz Kaminski, which is the wrong sort of look for this film. At least John Williams’ music still sounds like John Williams.

Ultimately, it’s a hard film for me to dislike, but I wish I liked it better. There’s always the hope that as time goes on I’ll find the charm in there and be glad that they actually made the thing. If the first film in the series way back in 1981 felt like the ultimate expression of the joy of filmmaking by those who were brilliant at the craft, CRYSTAL SKULL feels like Spielberg, Lucas, Ford and their other old friends hanging out while making a movie, content to let it be what it will be. There is a difference and it’s one that is felt. But hey, we’ll always have RAIDERS.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Writer In Search Of A Character

Obviously, I’m happy to have Indiana Jones back in theaters but really, does he have to be in all of the theaters? Can't there be something else to go see? Have the studios pretty much abandoned the concept of counter-programming? Shouldn’t we be getting a romantic comedy this weekend starring Hugh Grant or Julia Roberts or maybe even Hugh Grant AND Julia Roberts? There are some romantic comedies playing out there but they all look pretty intolerable, which is what I’ve heard they are. My point is, doesn’t anyone want to take my money and show me a movie? Genuinely wanting to go to the movies I decided to see what was playing at the Laemmle Sunset 5. I noticed there was a French thriller directed by Claude Lelouch. Boom! Done. I didn’t know what it was about, but the few reviews I glanced at appeared favorable and it seemed likely that there would be a minimum of CGI and talking animals. That’s how I wound up in the Laemmle Sunset 5 on Sunday afternoon sitting in a theater with about twenty senior citizens.

I like that I knew very little about ROMAN DE GARE going in and it makes me hesitant to reveal very much about it to anyone who may actually go to see it as well. I will say that the plot, as it seems to be presented to us at first, involves a missing schoolteacher, news of an escaped serial killer, a mysterious man (DELICATESSEN’s Dominique Pinon) traveling by car from Paris to Cannes, a young woman (Audrey Dana) who has been abandoned at a service station by her boyfriend, a famous novelist (Fanny Ardant), along with issues of identity, creativity, truth and how much might really be known about the people we meet.

After an opening which begins to lay things out in the form of a puzzle, the film picks up a plot strand which seems tangential at first, then blossoms into being more important than we first realize. The first hour, simply put, is stunningly good. Then, as the various pieces begin to fall into place I found myself leaning forward in my seat with excitement and anticipation over what was to come. This doesn’t lead to a letdown in any way, but it did feel like the schematics of the film’s plot felt more apparent as it reached its denouement. It’s almost tempting to overrate ROMAN DE GARE (which translates as ‘railway novel’ or, as we would call it, ‘airplane reading’. Variety reviewed it last year as CROSSED TRACKS) because of what I didn’t know about it going in. After all, it is a French film seen in an arthouse with a fair amount of scenes featuring people drinking wine on yachts in Cannes, lending it the automatic feel of quality and esteem. On the off chance this turns anyone off instead I’ll simply say that for the most part ROMAN DE GARE is an extremely suspenseful, entertaining, thought-provoking piece of work which I highly recommend. The three leads are excellent for reasons I can’t even go into here and the film is helmed superbly by Lelouch. I suppose I should confess that I’ve never seen one of his films before now so I’ll have to do something about that.

True, at first I was thrilled with what I was seeing, then I began to wonder if a few of the revelations were too gimmicky. Now, several hours later, I find myself thinking about the film and its characters, wondering about the choices they made and how they were affected. It might be ‘just’ a thriller, presented in the guise of an arthouse film, but considering what I got I have no complaints. Sometimes it pays to think outside the box and take a chance on a film you’ve never heard of. But now you’ve heard of ROMAN DE GARE, so the next step is up to you.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Though I had the opportunity to view the entire INDIANA JONES trilogy in a beautiful theater the other week, I bowed out before the third one. This is not due to any issues I have with the quality of INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE and I would honestly have loved to have been able to see Sean Connery say “I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers,” on a big screen one more time. But the honest truth is that I was feeling worn out from the first two and simply wanted to be outside for a while. Years ago, I would have stayed and not thought twice. Maybe I’m just getting older. So, I watched it on DVD. Hey, it’s not like I didn’t go see it plenty of times back in ’89 anyway. Some might consider LAST CRUSADE the weakest of the three but I’ve always had a true soft spot for it.

A friend recently referred to it as “The ATTACK OF THE CLONES of the Indiana Jones Series” i.e. the one that bends over backwards to give the fans what they didn’t get last time out, in this case the extreme approach that TEMPLE OF DOOM took. This is partly true and of course the film doesn’t even try to disguise how much it wants to emulate RAIDERS. The Ark of the Covenant as McGuffin is of course so perfect that the Holy Grail on its own couldn’t measure up but it manages to get around this issue by making one of its lead characters equal to that McGuffin. “Find the man and you find the Grail…” as a line of dialogue might be a little on the nose but by giving additional significance to the “find” portion of the sentence it certainly helps and gives the movie an emotional resonance it wouldn’t have otherwise. And the fact is that Sean Connery, when he enters the movie surprisingly late, elevates the movie immensely no matter how enjoyable it already is to be watching Harrison Ford play Indiana Jones again. There are things I like about LAST CRUSADE—quite a few things actually, but the fact is that if he weren’t there to bring it up to the next level it wouldn’t have much of a reason for being.

One of the things aside from Connery which I do like about the movie is the comedy—the tone of that humor is as specific to this movie as the tone was to the others but there’s something about it this time around that I find particularly enjoyable. There has always been a lot of complaining about the treatment of Denholm Elliott’s Marcus Brody this time around but it feels perfectly consistent with the tone of this film, which is more of a jaunty romp than the previous two. It doesn’t make me like the character any less, he doesn’t seem less intelligent and I enjoy the brief Laurel and Hardy bit that Elliott plays when he is met by John Rhys-Davies as Sallah. Much of this humor is pretty silly stuff, but it honestly works for me. And really, if you can’t get even a small laugh when the Nazi says to Indiana Jones “And this is how we say goodbye in Germany!” right before punching him then I simply don’t know what to tell you.

That stated, there are a number of problems, but I can’t bring myself to refer to the weaker sections of the film as the bad parts. Just call it the weaker stuff. After a slam-bang prologue featuring River Phoenix as Young Indy with some outstanding action, the bulk of the set pieces feel a little bit too perfunctory. As much as I may have complained about TEMPLE OF DOOM, that’s not a criticism I would make with the action there. The boat chase in Venice (though given a nice flavor in the score by John Williams) and the motorcycle chase upon escaping the castle (shot during post-production when Spielberg decided more was needed) are both fine, but uninspired. The airplane battle and subsequent car chase after fleeing the zeppelin also feels a little stilted at least partly to what I remember as some surprisingly bad bluescreen work by ILM. Naturally, this stuff looks better on DVD where it’s probably been cleaned up but my recollections of this are pretty clear. The plotting of the script also has a surprising number of leaky holes, making it clear how much of RAIDERS was pretty close to being airtight. Indy’s father convinces him to head for Berlin to recover the Grail diary. Do they have any idea where to go once they get there? How does Indy manage to corner Elsa in the middle of this giant book-burning rally? How does he know she’s going to be there? How does he know that she’s going to have the book on her? Is punching out a Nazi who shakes his fist at the departing Zeppelin really enough to make them feel like they can sit back and have a relaxing drink? And how do the two of them go from a beach in the middle of nowhere to being driven by Sallah in North Africa in what seems like the blink of an eye? And it’s not a flaw, but here’s a question that has always bugged me: When Ford and Connery are heading for the zeppelin they pass a pair of extras on either side of the screen, each reading a newspaper. They are so prominently placed in the shot I always expect them to be revealed as someone, but they aren’t. Is this a secret cameo by someone, Lucas and Spielberg maybe?

But the screenplay by the late Jeffrey Boam does manage to hold together in spite of these flaws, in part because of its enjoyable sense of fun and clear thematic goal. The rapport between Ford and Connery alone is so good that you wind up forgetting about all other issues. Likewise, the character of Elsa Schneider is erratically written to the point that it’s actually pretty impressive what Allison Doody is able to do with it. And Julian Glover might not make the sort of impression his General Veers did in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK with much less screen time, but he is a good enough actor that you do remember him, more than I can say for a lot of other similar bad guys in recent years. There were a few unexpected reactions to this viewing as well--for all my complaining about the quality of the action in the film, watching it again I was pleasantly surprised to think the tank chase was much better than I remembered. It’s not the truck chase in RAIDERS—after all, what is?—but it’s enjoyable in its own right with numerous bits for the characters throughout and you can follow everything that happens in it every step of the way. That sort of clarity has become a rare thing.

It’s hard to ignore how much the movie works because of Sean Connery’s performance and how well he plays off of Harrison Ford. This feeling culminates in my favorite scene in the movie, when Henry Jones, Marcus and Sallah look over the cliff thinking Indy has just fallen to his death but is in fact peering over their shoulders right behind them. It’s obviously a bit swiped from Abbott & Costello but even Pauline Kael liked how it worked. And watching it this time when the scene moves from that humor to Connery’s emotional joy at seeing his son again, I have to admit that my eyes started to well up. In some ways, this almost serves as the true emotional climax of the film, even though everyone fondly remembers “He chose poorly”. Much of this response of mine had more to do with me than the movie. What the Indiana Jones series means to a generation like mine has to be connected with memories of seeing it with one’s father so a scene like this has to be a little bittersweet seeing it now. Just as seeing the new film will feel slightly off because of who I’m not seeing it with. The themes of fathers and sons obviously run through some very famous Lucas productions and I’m not sure there’s another scene about that very thing in any of them which means as much to me as this one does. I’m not going to get into a debate over whether LAST CRUSADE is better than TEMPLE OF DOOM, but it’s a moment like that which makes it more endearing to me. And it’s one of the reasons why I still enjoy seeing it every now and then. Maybe it’s unfortunate that I didn’t stick around for that screening but there’s a small bit of irony in how even the actual movie is saying that such a regret is a pretty minor one in life. After all, sometimes you simply need to let these things go.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Raised Eyebrows

“I can’t do it. I just can’t do this one,” I said to my friend. I was talking about the film opening that weekend, SPEED RACER. Ordinarily, we’d be going to see the new big release but this time I was begging off. From the ads and clips I’d seen it just looked like a nightmare. I couldn’t do it, I said. I honestly wanted to look forward to my weekend.

Then my friend saw it on opening day and was favorable. Soon after I read Dennis Cozzalio’s passionate, well-mounted defense of the film. Then my friend Mojo called me one night as he was working on his own thoughts. He liked it too and wanted to hear what I had to say, automatically assuming I’d seen it already. Almost any other time he would have been right. After telling me how he felt and why he liked the movie, I began to think. This obviously wasn’t a conspiracy. We’re talking about intelligent, unrelated people that I trust defending a badly-reviewed film and speaking as somebody who has defended the merits of ISHTAR since opening day, who thinks 1941 has some of the best sequences in all of Spielberg, I could relate. So, I realized, I was going to have to see SPEED RACER and give it an honest shot. It’s still playing at the Chinese, there was a good chance it wouldn’t be very crowded and by the time I went to see it I’d already been to Tiki Ti the other night for a few drinks so the weekend wasn’t going to be a total loss. Plus, I felt inclined to like the movie, since several friends already did. Sometimes you need to keep an open mind about these things.

SPEED RACER has some of the most ambitious visuals seen in the past decade, but it’s made by filmmakers with enough intelligent awareness to bring a degree of modulation to what is put within the frame. Contrary to what I had thought going in, there are scenes which feature characters simply sitting down and having a conversation, with no wacko edits or camera movement to distract from what’s being said. There is definitely a degree of pace and intent throughout the film which truly indicates that the people behind it are paying attention to the craft of what they are doing. And it has to be said that some of what is onscreen is genuinely spectacular to look at.

It’s too bad that there was so little about the movie that I actually liked. The honest truth is that I was never particularly interested or engaged by much of anything in SPEED RACER. I didn’t find anything about it particularly enjoyable. I was never wondering what was going to happen next. I never felt compelled to exclaim, “Wow!” Everything in the movie is so visually extravagant that by a certain point nothing is. These problems became apparent to me very early on during an extended racing sequence where it seemed like it was going on way past the point where I could be surprised by any of the visual trickery that was being displayed and beats of “Did you see this shot? And this? AND THIS??!!” felt like they were being repeated multiple times beyond any point that was necessary. And this feeling continued through the movie with scenes, racing and otherwise, constantly feeling like they were going on twice as long as was necessary resulting in a movie that runs an absurdly long 135 minutes. Considering how the movie is about cars that leap and zoom around, the film feels plodding and heavy when is should be nimble and zip by in what feels like the blink of an eye. My issues with the story—fairly archetypal good guy-bad guy stuff with some sideplots that reminded me of long-dormant memories of seeing THE LOVE BUG when I was a kid—isn’t how simple or complicated it is, or the evil corporations but that it feels like there’s a 100 minute movie somewhere in there that they never bothered to find in the writing stage. The story, the basic essence of what the film is, didn’t warrant such a running time and it didn’t seem particularly well-told anyway.

Maybe part of this is me. I’m past the point of being impressed by insane CGI effects. I have no prior experience with SPEED RACER. And I don’t have a particular fetish for Japanese anime so I’m going to be lost when the film makes nods in that direction. Is this my just desserts for knowingly grinning when Tarantino brings a pertinent Morricone composition into a scene in DEATH PROOF? I get what he’s going for and I can’t be blamed if everyone else doesn't get an Argento reference so with this film is it just my problem? I’m not sure it is, since if there were anything here that I could latch onto or get excited by, I’d like to think that prior knowledge of the source material wouldn’t be necessary. And I don’t think I’m incapable of enjoying what is essentially a movie for kids. What am I supposed to do, list my favorite Pixar titles? SPEED RACER is not a nightmare, which was my biggest fear. But it’s not any fun either.

Compounding that lack of fun is an unfortunate performance by Emile Hirsch. His internal style worked extremely well in INTO THE WILD—hell, I liked him in THE GIRL NEXT DOOR—but here it feels like a hole in the center of the film, a lead with no zip, no oomph, no real pulse to him. I’m not looking for somebody to be Adam West and treat it like a goof, but shouldn’t the lead in SPEED RACER give the impression that he actually enjoys being Speed Racer? This same weekend I had my own John Phillip Law memorial screening of the DANGER:DIABOLIK DVD and was struck by how he, in creating his character, managed to blend in perfectly with the unreal world of that movie, something Hirsch never seems to have any clue how to pull off. There are points where it feels like SPEED RACER is willingly cutting around Hirsch’s presence in scenes, hurting any chance of an emotional connection with who is supposed to be the film’s main character. As Racer X, Matthew Fox has a similar chilliness and he would have been equally inappropriate as the lead in this world, but since his character doesn’t have such requirements his very presence makes him one of the most interesting characters here.

Christina Ricci is also terrific as Trixie, looking more like a human extension of this unreal setting than anyone else here. When she raises her eyebrow enticingly at Speed in a few scenes it manages to be more impressive than a lot of the effects. Too bad no one noticed this while making it. As the main villain, Roger Allam does a pretty good Christopher Hitchens impression but it’s slightly hampered by the fact that it’s tough to come off as (sometimes) evil as the real thing. The monkey is pretty good, but he’s less effective because he has to play all his scenes with Speed Racer’s little brother and by the point that the little kid had comically stowed away only to unexpectedly turn up later under ‘wacky’ circumstances for what seemed like the tenth time I found myself hoping that they’d toss the little brat out of Trixie’s helicopter to teach him a lesson. Have I mentioned that in real life I actually like kids a lot?

I don’t dismiss the technical accomplishments in SPEED RACER any more than I dismiss some of the genuinely astonishing sections of HEAVEN’S GATE, to name another film vilified from the instant it was released. But there was nothing about the movie to lift me out of my seat and appreciate it. My biggest response while watching the film was to wonder when it was going to end and several hours after it did I found that I’d forgotten a lot of it already. I’m not going to do a snarky ‘the critics were right!’ thing but within its nonstop visual madness, I got no charm, no joy. Ultimately, it just didn’t work for me. I’m sure that sooner or later somebody’s going to come forward to make a movie with these effects innovations and blow everyone out of the water. At least, I hope that happens. For now, I’m just glad that I won’t have to ever sit through SPEED RACER again.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Fortune and Glory

As with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK came a welcome chance to see a 35mm print of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM. And I wasn’t going to turn that down but as a result, I feel like I have some mixed feelings about it. Maybe you do too.

Do I even want to write this? I don’t know. How much do I want to criticize an Indiana Jones film anyway, even while acknowledging that I’m still going to always like it no matter what? My problem with TEMPLE OF DOOM isn’t that it’s darker, that it’s scarier, that it tries to do something different from RAIDERS, but the fact is that RAIDERS is still a more enjoyable, satisfying movie in every way for me. Kate Capshaw as Willie Scott is pretty much the opposite of Marion Ravenwood which is fine. But why did I sit there wondering “Who else could they have cast? Who was around at that point? Ellen Barkin? Michelle Pfeiffer?” I know, Spielberg married Capshaw, so it all turned out well and I don’t have anything against her personally, but I’m just asking. I don’t even know what my opinion of Short Round is anymore. Part of me likes him, part of me wonders why you need a kid in a movie if you’ve already got Indiana friggin’ Jones in there. If it helps, there probably wasn’t another kid on the planet who could have played this role half as well as Ke Huy Quan. For his part, Harrison Ford plays some comic moments throughout expertly, but the more sober elements of the character feel like they’re missing just a little too much.

After a film that sends us around the world, continually introducing us to new characters and elements throughout, TEMPLE drops us in India after its opening ( I remember an old roommate referring to where the characters wind up as “Matte Painting Village”) and never takes off again both literally and storywise. As a result, it feels less adventurous, more claustrophobic. It gets the job done, but there’s not as much meat there. As the film was deep into its dark, middle section in the titular Temple of Doom (realization from me on this viewing: I can see why this may have been a little much for some people) I really began to feel like there wasn’t enough going on. The script for TEMPLE OF DOOM was written by Lucas associates Willard Hyuck & Gloria Katz who co-wrote AMERICAN GRAFITTI but were also chiefly responsible for HOWARD THE DUCK. Watching TEMPLE this time, I was struck by how the middle section, which feels underplotted and underpopulated, bares a certain similarity to the middle section of HOWARD which in its own way is underplotted and underpopulated. I’m not saying this film should be considered on the same sort of level, only that a few structural similarities occurred to me (for that matter, a few of TEMPLE’s lamer lines could be imagined in that context as well). The funny thing is, TEMPLE OF DOOM has the reputation of being a non-stop roller coaster ride but this really isn’t the case—certainly not when compared to the giant summer blockbusters of today. But maybe the lack of real dramatic weight and incident somehow accounts for the feeling that while fun, the film doesn’t leave much of a mark that sticks with you.

After the somewhat engaging goings-on at the Club Obi Wan (did it have to be the Club Obi Wan?) when we hit India we’re hit with an unfortunate lack of interesting characters. Roshan Seth makes an interesting impression as Chattar Lal, prime minister at Pankot Palace and he seems to be set up as the main villain. Unfortunately when he appears again later he comes off as not much more than a henchman and if you’re watching closely you’ll notice that he literally disappears from the movie at a certain point, never to be seen again. Philip Stone was certainly memorable as Delbert Grady in THE SHINING, but here makes next to no impression whatsoever as Captain Blumburtt. Amrish Puri does certainly make an impression as Mola Ram but in terms of an adversary he can’t be compared to Belloq in RAIDERS. Ultimately, the character is really just a thug. Or thuggee. Either way, the pun is unintentional. Roy Chiao makes more of an impression in the opening sequence as Lao Che. Hell, David Yip (Chuck Lee in A VIEW TO A KILL makes more of an impression as Wu Han. Maybe they should have just set more of the film in Shanghai.

And yes, they’re not trying to make the same movie. That’s a good thing. The opening nightclub sequence from musical number to haggling over the diamond to all hell breaking loose is very enjoyable, as if Spielberg is trying to fit a lot of the madness of 1941 into ten minutes—one can imagine Zemeckis & Gale being mentioned for possible writers of TEMPLE, but maybe the reception of the earlier film meant that was never going to happen. I don’t know about the bullet hit that a person doesn’t notice until blood appears on their shirt or the fact that the Club Obi Wan (again, why?) is set on the top floor of this building, but hey, I’m fine with it. And the payoff with “Nice try, Lao Che!” works just great. I like how Spielberg manages to indicate a darker mood as the characters move further through India towards the palace. It’s like there’s something in the air that he manages to capture. Yes, the boobytrapped room with the bugs and the mine car chase are lots of fun. And once Indy takes control in the final act culminating in the fantastic payoff on the bridge I don’t really have any complaints. No surprise, the score by John Williams is exciting and memorable. I particularly like how it mixes the Raiders March with Short Round’s over the end credits. And for the very first time, I picked up on the quote of The Market Chase music from the first film as Indy attempts to recreate the shoot-the-swordsman gag. The film also dares to have three Wilhelms (the best right near the end) and how could I have any serious complaints about any movie that does that? Along with those screams, I noticed that this film seemed to contain more distinctive LOUD SCREAMS than any other film Ben Burtt ever did sound work on.

Hey, hang on a second, did I just skip all the way to the end? Aren’t there other things I like? Yeah, I suppose, and the Temple of Doom itself does make enough of an impression that it was ripped off by a number of other movies back in the eighties, with even DRAGNET getting in on that action (maybe that explains Dan Akyroyd’s cameo). But the thing is, I could go and see RAIDERS again in a theater right this second. The film lifts me up like only the best movies can. How are you supposed to follow that up, anyway? In comparison, so help me, it felt like TEMPLE OF DOOM was pummeling me down by a certain point and another viewing isn’t going to be necessary for a long time. But I know it’ll happen eventually and I’m sure I’ll enjoy myself when it does. There’s some great stuff in there, but I don’t walk away from it with any sort of feeling of elation. I still like the movie but as far as Spielberg excess goes, I’ll have to go with 1941.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Jogging Flips, Journalists and Fellini

Jeremy at the excellent Moon in the Gutter blog has tagged me to participate in the latest meme that is going on out there. Here are the rules:

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Locate the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences on your blog and in so doing…
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

Simple enough. I reached down to the nearest pile and on top was Charles Schmann’s American Bar: The Artistry of Mixing Drinks. An enjoyable guide, but unfortunately not suitable for this task. Page 123 features the mixtures for two drinks I have never tried, the Jogging Flip and the Journalist. That one is a vermouth-based drink and sounds interesting, but since I don’t have any lemon juice, triple sec or bitters around I won’t be trying it right now.

Below that volume was Tullio Kezich’s biography Federico Fellini: His Life and Work. Here’s what is asked for, coming from a chapter on his first film, LO SCEICCO BIANCO (THE WHITE SHEIK) and beginning near the end of a paragraph:

“Trieste’s brilliant debut is clouded only by the fact that Fellini decides to have Carlo Romano dub his voice.

Faithful to the example set by Rossellini, Fellini casts his film as if he were recruiting for the Foreign Legion. He doesn’t care about what the actors have done before and he’s unmoved by the idea of their market value.”

Trieste is of course Leopoldo Trieste, familiar from his appearance in TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE, but maybe more recognizable to some people for his roles as Signor Roberto in THE GODFATHER PART II and the priest in CINEMA PARADISO. The photo seen here is of Fellini with Trieste and Fellini associate Moraldo Rossi. The legendary director’s attitude towards hiring actors who may or may not be known was probably looked at the same way then as it is now by most producers and makes me think of how Alexander Payne casts his own films. I have little else to add other than that because, embarrassingly, I’ve never actually seen THE WHITE SHIEK. I’ll have to do something about that soon.

As for tagging five others, instead I will choose to tag everyone! Eveyone on the planet! Or no one. Most people I read seem to have been tagged already. Although I would love to know what sort of reading material M.A. Peel has close by. That is all.

This Miracle We've Found

Ten years ago today the final episode of SEINFELD aired. Has it really been a decade? A short time later that night, maybe early the next morning, the networks interrupted their regular programming with the sad news that Frank Sinatra had died. The cover I’ve chosen to show here isn’t my favorite Sinatra album (Come Fly With Me? Swing Along With Me? Live at the Sands? Probably that one) and I’m not sure it’s even my favorite of his sad albums (In the Wee Small Hours? Frank Sinatra Sings for Only The Lonely?) but it’s definitely my favorite album cover of his, the one I connect with most of all. I guess there have been times when I’ve felt just like how he looks here more than I care to admit. And right now I’m reminded of how his music and what passion he brought to it, what unparalleled excellence, can help during both good times and bad. I may have really discovered what he gave the world after he left it, but that doesn’t affect its power as it follows me through life.

Go listen to one of his albums. Go watch PAL JOEY, SOME CAME RUNNING or THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Go buy those stamps that just came out. Remember Frank.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Simply Passing Through History

All films leave theaters eventually, even the ones that play a long time. It’s something missing in this day and age, the excitement that comes with a film that plays for months and months and months. Now, with dates for DVD releases set by the time the thing opens, that bit of fun is gone. I can remember that RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, to name an obvious choice, seemed to run forever and ever during that time when I was exactly the right age for the film. I think a small part of me thinks that it should still be playing in theaters at any given time. I guess there are plenty of films which would qualify for such an honor, but RAIDERS is special to me. I remember it vividly: Sunday afternoon, Yonkers Movieland, theater number one, the third day of release. It sold out. The other three films playing were HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART ONE, CHEECH AND CHONG’S NICE DREAMS and OUTLAND. For some reason I can remember that they sold out too. It’s funny what you remember.

So with just a matter of days until the release of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to revisit the Indiana Jones films in the best way imaginable--in a fantastic theatrical setting, shown in full, beautiful 35mm. Have I mentioned that that’s the only way I think I care about seeing the new film? You can see it in digital. I’ll take film. With Indiana Jones, it’s the right way to go.

There’s not much I could say about RAIDERS that hasn’t been said already. You’ve seen it, you know what I could say. But still, here’s a few random thoughts which are not meant to be definitive in any way whatsoever:

I love the quiet of the opening sequence, as the credits pass over the screen quietly. They’re not revealing to us just yet what we’re about to see. We’ll find out in a few moments.

There’s a long tradition of movies that have that very long exposition scenes, setting the hero off on his mission or whatever, from the James Bond films to Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough haggling over matters in Spielberg’s own THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK to who knows what else. The version of the scene in RAIDERS may just be the best version of that scene ever, if you ask me. The way it seems to start in progress when in fact we haven’t missed anything, the wide-open expanse of that lecture hall, the way Harrison Ford sells us on his expertise in this world, Denholm Elliott’s authority and the interesting characterizations by William Hootkins (Porkins in STAR WARS) and Don Fellows (“I answer only to the President” in SUPERMAN II). They look like a Mutt n’ Jeff pairing, but the film wisely doesn’t discount whatever authority they may have. They’re not dumb government guys, they’re just not aware of how much they are about to be told. For some reason, I always enjoy the way Hootkins emphasizes the “t” in “nut” when he says “Hitler’s a nut on the subject”.

Karen Allen is cool. Karen Allen is awesome. It’s interesting that the casting of both Allen and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia seem slightly different than how the characters may be written but they both work like gangbusters for different reasons. She can hold her liquor, she’s endearingly goofy when that monkey jumps on her, she can assert herself well throughout. She doesn’t seem at all like a Hawks chick-type, yet she may be one of the best Hawks chicks ever. You can believe that she could probably drink any of the men in the movie under the table.

The famous main theme by John Williams has been so seared into the public conciousness that you can forget how good the rest of the score is. A few months ago I found myself excited, not just from the thought of seeing Karen Allen as Marion again, but by the possibility of hearing Marion’s theme once again. I suppose it functions as a sort of theme for both Marion and Indy as well and in underscoring the mostly unspoken history they have, it adds a level of maturity that is usually missing from the Lucas/Spielberg blockbusters otherwise. I could easily list the highlights throughout the score (The truck chase!) but instead I’ll mention the total lack of music during the bar fight in Nepal. The idea of not scoring a fight scene in an action movie feels like a lost art these days, when music is laid end to end like wallpaper and it’s refreshing to see a movie allowed to breathe in this way—not every moment in a movie is the most important moment in the movie. I wonder if the new film will have such a sequence.

Paul Freeman’s genuinely sharp portrayal of Belloq stands out all the more because I realized that he’s not a villain so much as he is a simple antagonist (It’s the Nazis, true supporting players, who assume the role as the real villains). He’s aligned himself with the Nazis and it’s evident he wasn’t particularly likable before that, but his own reasoning is believable throughout. “You could warn them…if only you spoke Hovitos.” Belloq may rub Indy the wrong way with a few of the things he says throughout but he does nail his competitor on a few points. If Indiana Jones spoke Hovitos, of course he’d use it to his advantage. In comparison, the subsequent films in the series seemed to go for the straight villain approach with their antagonists and they feel less weighty as a result.

Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay is the best work of his career. Period. I just wanted to point that out.

But from the way the film is shot to the disparate array of characters to the expertness of its action scenes, the feeling I get is that joy-of-cinema feel that you can tell how much everything was clicking while they were making this. Spielberg had just come off the behemoth of 1941—a movie I love regardless, but that’s another can of tuna—and this one in comparison just feels free, effortless, as if it’s exactly the movie he’s meant to make. I'm not saying it's absolutely Spielberg's best film, but I don't think anything else he has ever made has that feeling to such an extent. I never get tired of it.

Most of all, I watch it now and think of how it is made not for ten year-olds, but for the ten year-old in all of us. And yet, the interpersonal relationships between the various characters and the settings we are introduced to throughout add an exotic flavor for adults that add to viewings even now. There are some blockbusters I grew up with that retreat in my mind as I get older, but it hasn’t happened with this one yet.

I don’t know how much of this feel is going to be in the new one. Whether he can harness the director, the person, he was all those years ago, is open to question, because it’s hard for anyone to put aside how they’ve changed over the years. I wish he would have gone light on the CGI for the movie, but hey, I also wish that I could go see it with my dad, so obviously there are some things in this world we’re not going to get. Maybe it’ll be a good movie anyway. Hope springs eternal. We never been to be told just how great RAIDERS is. But sometimes it’s nice to be reminded.