Tuesday, September 30, 2008

There's Always A Reason When You Dream

Joe Dante returned to the New Beverly on Monday night and introduced the film we were about to see as “the rough cut of EXPLORERS”. Of course, it was the same version released in theaters back in 1985 but he makes it clear that he displays a certain amount of ambivalence towards the thing. Hearing him talk about it, I understand. While watching the movie, I understand. But he also freely admits that it has developed a certain fan base over the years of people who respond to its earnestness crossed with its unexpected third act. The movie never feels like it gels enough to work like it should, but it’s still hard for me to dislike.

For those who have never seen it, EXPLORERS tells the story of three kids (Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, Jason Presson) who construct their own spacecraft which they name the "Thunder Road" after mysterious dreams enable them to create a sealed bubble with a computer which will enable them to travel within it. After a test flight which results in chaos at a nearby drive-in (showing a cheesy sci-fi film called STARKILLER) and catches the interest of a police helicopter pilot (beloved Dante regular Dick Miller), further dreams lead the three to pursue actually taking a flight into space. But as it turns out, the aliens who greet them aren’t quite the intelligent creatures of wonderment that they expect.

During his introduction, Dante talked about the making of the film which came just after the blockbuster success of GREMLINS. The script by Eric Luke was being rewritten during production although the director indicated that the third act, where things take a somewhat unexpected, anarchic turn, came from him in place of an earlier version where the kids wind up playing baseball with the aliens. And after a rushed script development and shoot, Paramount then moved up the release date to mid-July (the same weekend as Live Aid) so he never really got the chance to finish the film properly, with entire characters and subplots left on the cutting room floor. Dick Miller of course had more screen time, Mary Kay Place gets a “Special Thanks To” credit for appearing as Ethan Hawke’s mom in two brief scenes (there was orignally much more with his family) and while Amanda Peterson (best remembered today for starring in CAN’T BUY ME LOVE with Patrick Dempsey) once had a much bigger part as Hawke’s not-so-secret crush, although watching it this time I thought that in some ways it made sense to have her only looked at from afar. Of course, since we can’t see any of the extra scenes, it’s impossible to ever know what that version of the film would have been.

More interestingly, Dante also stated that he had an idea to incorporate concepts of the “World Mind”, an expansion of consciousness which was also discussed in pertinent dialogue in EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC but the development of the script moved so fast there was never a chance to do much with it. This idea, even though unused, actually helps make sense of a few things which remain in the film particularly when the spaceship seems to mentally make contact with Jason Presson’s character, planting certain images (some of which are not seen in the film otherwise) into his head in rapid succession. It’s an interesting concept and suggests that Dante aimed to insert ideas beyond what you’d normally find in a summer sci-fi film. EXPLORERS just needed more time to bring all these ideas together and its director never had it. Since such ideas were never fully developed in the script stage, let alone being shot, it sounds like even if Dante were able to assemble all the missing footage (he implied this is impossible anyway) it couldn’t be considered a true director’s cut by him anyway.

With these issues fresh in mind, there are problems that turn up while viewing EXLORERS. For the first third we spend so much time with just the three boys that it winds up feeling a little claustrophobic—when we get to the Drive-In sequence it’s a slight relief that we get to see other people (for the first time I noticed that second on the bill is ATOMIC WAR BRIDES, one of the films being made in HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD). And once we get to the spaceship where we finally meet the aliens, a great deal of it is enjoyable (much of Dante regular Robert Picardo’s dialogue, very funny, is ad-libbed) but there’s still the feeling that it could use some tightening up in this section which unfortunately leads into an finale that feels rushed and incomplete. The version seen on video and DVD all these years is a slight recut of the film and wisely extends the ending (this includes a brief scene that I always liked) but again, it seems there was never a way to fix all the issues.

Still, EXPLORERS plays more interesting to me now because I get a feel of the sadness somewhere in there. The three leads are outcasts and not in a movie-type way like in THE GOONIES--this is the first film for Hawke and Phoenix, by the way. The Junior High they go to seems like a genuinely unpleasant place, which automatically makes it more realistic than most schools we get in movies. Even within the majesty of the Jerry Goldsmith score there's a yearning which almost acknowledges that when we were kids none of us ever really got to build a spaceship (or a time machine or gain superpowers, etc) in our backyards. Watching it now it's easier to remove it from the context of the Spielberg-school of fantasy filmmaking. With Dante removed from making a film under the Spielberg banner it becomes clear that the two of them had many common reference points but here Dante's going for something else, some kind of acceptance of what didn't happen in childhood. Yes, there's a slickness missing that may have been in some of the films Spielberg was producing around this time (again, THE GOONIES is the first one that comes to mind here) but there's a more genuine attempt at emotion as well. And while the third act has always generated controversy due to its intentional rug-pulling, it has additional resonance for me now after seeing his legendary opus THE MOVIE ORGY last spring, connecting the dissection of pop culture from another era to this film's aliens who are also obsessed with such things. It’s as if Dante is trying to reconcile the inevitable disappointment of the big unknown by embracing what he loves that he finds in there. Or maybe it’s just about trying to still hope that you’ll wind up kissing that girl and take off into new adventures. Either way, I still enjoy returning to EXPLORERS every now and then. There are plenty of 80s fantasy films with kids which I never say that about.

The various themes sprinkled through the film—the sadness of childhood, the absurdity of TV, the hope of what you find in dreams—never feel like they come together fully but it always is recognizable as a film by Joe Dante which makes me slightly biased towards it. And my thanks to him for the generous things he said to me the other night about this blog. It means more than I can express here.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Insurance Against Failure In Art

I love Dabney Coleman as much as everyone, but it seems a little strange that there was a brief period where he actually had the starring role in a few movies. Strangest of these titles was probably John Boorman’s WHERE THE HEART IS, released in February 1990. What sort of relationship did these two guys have? Did they ever bond over steaks at Dan Tana’s? WHERE THE HEART IS has to be considered a comedy and while the idea of a John Boorman comedy makes about as much sense as a Don Siegel musical, enough of his personality still manages to come through. That, of course, turns out to be part of the problem.

As New York demolition mogul Stewart McBain (Dabney Coleman) is prevented from taking down a rundown Brooklyn building known as the Dutch House, he decides that he’s reached the end of his rope with taking care of his three children (Uma Thurman, Suzy Amis, David Hewlett), each aspiring creative types. After musing about the ‘won’t-leave-home syndrome with a friend, he decides to teach them a lesson. So in spite of the protests by his wife Jean (Joanna Cassidy) he drops the three of them off at the Dutch House in the dead of night essentially telling them that they’re on their own. As the kids try to figure out a way to make the decrepit building hospitable they begin work on their own projects as well as bringing it friends and boarders into the house. Meanwhile, Stewart, still trying to deal with financial problems stemming from the Dutch House situation, finds himself confronted by a money situation he never could have anticipated.

Watching WHERE THE HEART IS for the first time in years, I was struck by how it is clearly very much an attempt by Boorman (along with daughter Telsche, with whom he wrote the script) to create a sort of light Shakespeare piece, a sort of MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT IN NEW YORK kind of thing with a touch of light magical realism. In addition to Coleman’s Lear-like lead are a number of supporting players who seem to drift through the movie as if part of a giant rep company, as well as a full-blown Fool in the form of Christopher Plummer, playing a homeless magician only ever referred to as “The Shit”. Of course, he offers life lessons to a few of the characters, lending his expertise where it is needed. To complain that the film doesn’t present a serious look at the homeless in New York is probably missing the point, since Boorman doesn’t care about that any more than he cared about THE EXORCIST while making EXORCIST II or the basic concepts of reality in most of his other films, for that matter. He doesn’t even seem to be all that interested in New York (more on that in a minute). What he is trying to create is an extended mood piece more than a comedy which thrusts its characters into this new world that they create for themselves in the form of the Dutch House. The cinematography by Peter Suschitzky is at times breathtaking particularly in its use of color and perfectly captures the mood they’re striving for. Most striking is the series of paintings created by Suzy Amis’s character incorporating people into paintings (she’s creating a calendar for an insurance company as part of the “art versus commerce” theme that runs throughout), credited to an artist named Timna Woollard. I would actually be willing to recommend the movie to somebody who might be interested solely on the basis of the cinematography and those paintings.

The intent and subtext is perfectly valid. The execution, as well as the actual text, is another story. Possibly because it’s a release from a Hollywood studio (Touchstone) the idea of a mood piece quickly takes a back seat to making the film a full blown comedy with people acting like they’re in a sitcom and far too much wackiness to the point where some sections feel a little unwatchable. The film was at one stage to be set in London with Sean Connery starring. Whether this would have been better is a moot point—it certainly would have been different--but it does feel like there has been some basic tampering with the idea to make it more palatable, at times feeling like someone has gone through the script adding bits to amp up the comedy. Characters can’t just turn on a film projector; they have to flail about frantically for five seconds first. A potential renter trying to enter the house falls into mud in an embarrassing bit of slapstick. When Dabney Coleman accidentally turns a stereo volume up instead of down he does a wildly exaggerated comic take. Maury Chakin, the Harvey Weinstein figure on ENTOURAGE, does some of the worst mugging imaginable. Annoying little supposed comic bits persist throughout the bulk of the running time. What results is not a funnier film but something which is neither here nor there, a feathered fish that is neither the traditional comedy Touchstone probably would have wanted, nor the light family piece Boorman presumably had in mind. It’s so insistent on this giddiness that even the background extras are annoying (it should be a rule saying that whenever you notice this sort of thing it’s a problem) and there’s a persistence to the tone which feels like the movie is aiming for an audience of pre-teen girls—all due respect to pre-teen girls, of course—but too much of the story wouldn’t interest that demographic at all.

How different this would have been in a London setting is tough to say, but its uninteresting use of New York is compounded by much of it being shot in Toronto, so it doesn’t really feel like Manhattan or Brooklyn even when it’s clearly shot there (Actually, the changes to Brooklyn over the past few years would probably moot the basic setup today). Unfortunately, what results is not a film that achieves its own unreal tone but simply a Touchstone comedy from that era which feels like it was made on a budget. The story makes an attempt to tie in how one reconciles the need for both commerce and art in this world, working in some financial disasters in the stock market. The plotting of this element isn’t particularly credible or at all coherent but it does make the film surprisingly timely these days. I swear, I pretty much just put it on at random. Every now and then there’s a moment or a scene which feels like it was allowed to slip through unencumbered but a moment like Dabney Coleman declaring, “Nobody destroys what I built up,” as he presses the button to demolish a building which we witness in a wide shot deserves a better movie around it.

Trapped among all this chaos is a bunch of very good actors who you could almost believe look troubled by the fact that they signed up for the chance to work with somebody on the level of Boorman and then realized they had to play this material as a sitcom. They’re all capable and certainly deliver during the more serious moments but there’s no way the two tones can exist together without the movie feeling like a huge jumble. Part of the problem is how much of the film seems to be dubbed which gives a feeling of unfortunate disconnect with many of the performances. Dabney Coleman plays things amped way up with lots of exaggerated behavior. Even in a comedy, he doesn’t really have the weight for playing a Shakespearean king in a modern-day context (I guess that's where Connery would have helped). Joanna Cassidy, usually a terrific actress, seems miscast in her role (it makes for a nice BUFFALO BILL reunion with Coleman, though) and seems to compensate by playing things so frantic much of the time that the behavior actually seems beneath her. She even plays one scene with more of an upper-crust accent than the rest of the film, the sort of tiny inconsistency that seems to pop up throughout. Uma Thurman shows that she clearly had huge talent this early on though even she seems unsure at times of the tone she should be going for (but seriously, what a vision she was back then). Suzy Amis looks way too old to be a ‘kid’ being kicked out of the house, but she’s not bad—she also looks weirdly like Judy Davis in some shots. Surprisingly, the actor who works best here is actually Crispin Glover playing the gay clothing designer friend with a secret--you’d expect the actor to be off in his own world but more than anyone his performance feels modulated at the tone the whole film should be going for. Sheila Kelley, who became a regular on L.A. LAW around this time, also hits the right vibe as a student reserarching speaking in tongues for her Master's ("The karma here is...major"), floating through her scenes seemingly commenting on the events without even saying anything (now married to Richard Schiff, she was last seen onscreen saying “Join the club,” to Tony Soprano/Kevin Finnerty, which for some reason makes me think of this role). Christopher Plummer is unrecognizable both in face and voice (another dubbing issue?) as The Shit (“At least I’m THE Shit, you’re just A Shit,” is one of his better lines) and NIP/TUCK’s Dylan Walsh has a really bad late 80s/early 90s haircut as the stockbroker friend who moves in. He plays things at an annoying sitcom level too.

Because of its insistence at being more of a wacky comedy than it really should be, it’s not even as lightly enjoyable as it would like. The worst scenes of supposed comedy are annoying enough that they actually make the whole experience less likable than it would be otherwise. The film is a mess, but at least it’s an interesting mess. Every now and then there’s a moment, a shot, a flash of color, where everything briefly seems to come together. Sadly, these moments are far too brief and soon enough we get a character doing something overly frantic, killing the mood. Boorman’s been all over the map in his long career (I’m one of those people who openly worships POINT BLANK) and his most recent film, shot in 2006, hasn’t even gotten a release in the U.S. But an interesting failure is more preferable than a piece of hackery any day of the week and if that’s going to be how WHERE THE HEART IS gets considered, at least it’s something.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Live Happily For A Hundred Years

They ran the restored versions of both THE GODFATHER and THE GODFATHER PART II at the Cinerama Dome this past week and there was never any question that I was going to go. I was lucky enough to see the new version of the first film a year ago, so even though going to that one wasn’t a necessity, I still figured I’d kick myself in a week if I didn’t. And besides, there’s something to be said for seeing the two films in such close proximity in a venue like that, all the better to heighten the ‘one big film’ feeling. Still, I was looking forward to seeing PART II much more since it had been a while. As expected, it was beautiful.

Seeing the two so close together reminds me how there are some films which always stay with you, where you know that they will continue to gain in resonance as you revisit them through your life. They’ll change as you change. I’ve preferred PART II for a long time, but I understand why somebody prefers the first film. It’s a work of pulp mastery, but it’s also more fun, more quotable. The things that I look forward to in PART II after seeing it who knows how many times—the immigrants standing silent before the Statue of Liberty, the gold telephone being passed around, “That man’s name was Moe Greene!”, Robert Duvall and Michael Gazzo smoking cigars, “Michael Corleone says hello!”—are of course memorable, but they all seem to have deeper meanings to them than the equivalent scenes in the first film. But for me, if you don’t have the first film, you don’t have the second film and then you don’t have that final flashback just before the end. And as James Caan’s Sonny steps into frame, placing back in 1941 on Pearl Harbor Day I always feel this tiny bit of happiness in the back of my head as we’re back in the days that we want to be in, the fun times. I want to follow the family into the other room so we can see Brando and have dinner with everyone. But I know we can’t. I know why we stay in the room with Al Pacino’s Michael. At the Dome the other night it occurred to me for the first time that it was this scene, what everything that’s happened in the preceding three-plus hours has built to, which is the reason more than anything why I prefer PART II, why for me it’s probably one of the best films of all time.

And even with that, on this viewing it was the De Niro flashbacks as young Vito Corleone which stood out to me this time. The way these sections seem to eschew plot for a simple, organic layout of the character’s life and ascent to power allow you to just soak in the moments such as the rickety stage performance of Senza Mamma, the comic exasperation of TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE’s Leopoldo Trieste as the landlord Signor Roberto or simply the grace moment as we follow De Niro through the street celebration after his final confrontation with Don Fanucci. And when Vito Corleone returns to Sicily, as we tour the olive oil plant the Nino Rota score seems to come to an ultimate culmination of triumph and anticipation of tragedy. For me, it’s a moment of pure cinematic rapture. It’s possible that I found myself drawn to the flashbacks so much because they are never locked into the plot machinations of the 1959-60 storyline. I still don’t think I can follow everything in the Hyman Roth/Frank Pentangeli/Rosato Brothers conflict. Of course, in the end I don’t care. How can I care when we’re faced with the power of Michael V.Gazzo in that post-dinner scene when he’s “had too much wine” and makes that observation about Michael sitting up there in the mountains drinking champagne cocktails.

A year ago I wrote about how there had always been minor technical issues which bugged me about THE GODFATHER and that, to me, it felt like the new restoration essentially took care of them. THE GODFATHER PART II was a much more expensive, elaborate production and while it’s on record that it was in no way an easy shoot—the production filmed over nine months in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, Santo Domingo, Italy and Sicily—it always felt to me like the logistics of it held together better, making for a sturdier final result. As a result, the chief achievement from my vantage point with this restoration has been bringing the Gordon Willis cinematography back to its full glory. The darkness adds to the experience in a way I never felt before, especially near the end at Lake Tahoe when Fredo goes out fishing for the last time, the cold light of dusk gives the feel that the sun is setting for the last time ever and any sort of brightness will never be seen again.

The film was essentially the same GODFATHER PART II that I’ve always known, with no changes to the material but it was still revelatory to see on that huge screen--you need it to see the ever-growing quiver on Pacino's mouth as Diane Keaton's Kay tells him about the truth about the baby. The one difference for me was that the restored version contained an intermission which had never been there in the revival screenings I’d seen (of course, I wouldn’t know if it was in there during the original release). It wasn’t difficult to figure out where the intermission would come since it’s a moment (the end of the Don Fanucci flashback) which contains a musical crescendo that lends itself to curtains closing. That’s where the break comes on the DVD release from several years ago (I haven’t seen the new one yet) but it was certainly never there on any other version I’d seen and a letterboxed VHS cassette I rented in the late 90s had tape one end at the conclusion of the Cuba sequence.

Like THE GODFATHER, there’s extremely little I could say about PART II which hasn’t been said before and it’s hard not to lapse into just a list of scenes and shots, which maybe I already have. So what I’m left with are observations of moments that I’ve seen way too many times and my own private feelings of why I still respond to it. As well as why the reasons for that will be different as the years go on. “Times are changing,” Michael Corleone muses to his mother at one point. Of course, they always are.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Devil in The Keep

Saturday afternoon I was at a book signing for my friend Scott Bradley’s The Book of Lists: Horror which he co-authored with the delightful Amy Wallace. It’s a terrific piece of work focusing on the world of horror in film, literature, music and elsewhere. Among those offering contributions are the likes of Stephen King, Edgar Wright, Ray Bradbury, Tim Lucas, Ann Magnuson, Eli Roth, John Skipp and many others including the always lovely Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, whose offering is the memorable “Ten Favorite Tragically Romantic Heroine Deaths in Opera”. Best of all, at least for me, I’m thanked in the acknowledgements. Anyway, as he was signing my copy Scott asked me if I was going to the midnight show of Michael Mann’s THE KEEP at the New Beverly that night. I told him I probably would be there and he excitedly asked, “When’s the last time you had a chance to see a print of THE KEEP?” To which I jokingly responded, “When’s the last time anyone asked about seeing a print of THE KEEP?” Bad timing on my part, since sitting next to Scott right that moment was writer F.X. Feeney, who authored the Taschen book on Michael Mann. True, not quite as bad as saying something negative about John Ford in front of Peter Bogdanovich, but it was enough to make it a comically awkward moment. Still, at least I didn’t say something bad about Michael Cimino. So I made it a point to head out to the New Beverly to see that midnight show of THE KEEP. And after spending a few days thinking about it, I’m still a little flummoxed.

I would attempt to offer a summary of the basic plot, but that would take too much of my depending on Wikipeida to pull that off successfully. Suffice it to say that THE KEEP, released in 1983, is set in Romania during World War II as the Germans attempt to take control of a small territory which contains a fortress referred to by those who watch over it as The Keep which possibly contains some form of demon within. Key players in this drama are German officers played by Gabriel Byrne and Jurgen Prochnow, a Jewish professor (Ian McKellan) and his daughter (SPANKING THE MONKEY’s Alberta Watson) as well as a mysterious stranger who has traveled far to enter The Keep played by Scott Glenn.

THE KEEP was not Michael Mann’s first film, but it very much feels like his own filmmaking style is in development and it interestingly stands apart from his more famous works (for the record, I love HEAT, THE INSIDER and COLLATERAL). To call it an unusual film doesn’t really do it justice and how it defies what you would expect from either a World War II film or a monster movie is only a small element of how it places itself apart from expectations. In some ways it comes off as experimental a strict genre piece as I’ve ever seen from a film released by a major Hollywood studio. Much of the visual style brings such silent masters as Murnau and Dreyer to mind and it’s safe to say that, for me, THE KEEP is the rare example in the modern age of filmmaking where I think I’d rather see it done as a silent film. I could even imagine a full coffee table book made up solely of images from it. That being said, it was in all honesty an extremely tough film for me to get a handle on due to its very oblique storytelling style. When Ian McKellan has to shout a long speech filled with exposition late in the film, it smacks as someone trying to plug a few holes in the story but I was relieved to at least get a moment where I could somehow get a handle on things. Written by Mann from the novel by F. Paul Wilson the striking style the director brings to the film combined with the incredible score by Tangerine Dream feels like his filmmaking eye is still being developed—it actually makes me think of the Ridley Scott-Hans Zimmer style which in some ways was also being developed at this time--and may simply have been miscasting for this type of film, but that doesn’t mean it’s a total failure. It just means it may have been a clash of storytelling sensibilities.

As I walked out of the New Beverly late that night, my first thought was a famous line Emmy winner Alec Baldwin had in David Mamet’s film STATE AND MAIN: “Well, that happened.” Frankly, a single viewing of THE KEEP doesn’t allow it to be any more penetrable than that. But after a night’s sleep I found myself wondering about what I’d seen and struck by the power of some of the imagery of the film. The Scope print screened by the New Beverly was in beautiful shape and the late hour for viewing it, while appropriate for the nature of the film, also had its drawbacks in terms of staying lucid through the running time. The film, which runs 96 minutes, has been discussed at length elsewhere on the Net in regards to cut scenes that may have helped clarify things, including several different extensions to the ending. It has also been speculated that the release version may not have been Michael Mann’s preferred cut. I feel like there’s no way I could offer a valid opinion on THE KEEP after this one viewing but unfortunately it’s not even on DVD to allow another look (an ancient pan and scan videocassette doesn’t seem very desirable). Still, I’m not sure even ten viewings will make me think the film completely works let alone fully understand what is going on, but there is something there both thematically and cinematically. It’s a film of worth, especially for anyone interested in Michael Mann and also in exploring the possibilities of films which rely solely on visuals to tell its story as opposed to the dialogue, surely a rarity in this day and age. For now, I’m just going to have to remain slightly baffled.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Nobody Troubled Their Head About Him Anymore

The 1983 film of THE DEAD ZONE was no doubt my introduction to names like David Cronenberg and Christopher Walken. I’m not sure how aware I was of Stephen King at that point, but I’d begin reading his books soon enough. I was lucky to see the film at the impressionable age I was when it first played in theaters nearly 25 years ago, no doubt part of the reason why it remains such a favorite of mine. But as I’ve gotten older, the ways the film has deepened in meaning for me are difficult to fully express. There’s something so truly sorrowful in what it expresses that you can’t fully understand when you’re a kid. Taking the essence and basic plot of the Stephen King novel, almost giving the impression of being more faithful than it is, all of the elements come together in a way which allow it to still hold up today. The way Cronenberg fuses with this material he didn’t create makes it just as much a work of his as it is King’s. That feeling which I would one day appreciate as being uniquely Cronenbergian spreads throughout every frame, such as to the screenplay by the late Jeffrey Boam which does a masterful job of fitting a huge amount of plot into a relatively brief running time. The series of incidents (it feel too frivolous to refer to the story of Johnny Smith as ‘plot’) move fast through its 103 minutes, yet it never feels like it’s in a rush. There’s barely a wasted moment in this economically told story. Though the score is by Michael Kamen, not Howard Shore who usually works with the director, it still manages to sound exactly like it belongs to a Cronenberg film. This isn’t to imply that it sounds like music by Howard Shore, but it connects with the images right from the opening title sequence so well that it’s hard to believe it could be improved on. It somehow expresses the extreme sadness of fate in a way that you usually only get from Ennio Morricone and is probably the best fully original score the late composer ever created.

There’s a surprising sensitivity in the performances as well, something that would usually be unexpected from a film with “Dino De Laurentiis Presents”. Names like Anthony Zerbe, Tom Skerritt and Martin Sheen in 1983 would seem to imply a cheesefest, maybe one where the actors would be featured in boxes at the bottom of the poster but that never happens. This is particularly the case with the great Herbert Lom. The moment when the actor best known as Chief Inspector Dreyfus makes a certain phone call, covering his face as he realizes the gravity of his discovery is a small piece of heartbreaking beauty but not one that the film dwells on for simple melodrama either. On this viewing I was also reminded of the presence of various lesser-known actors who had appeared in earlier Cronenberg films, each lending something to the film and making it that much more special with their presence. As for Christopher Walken, yes, this is an iconic role for him and yes, he’s parodied it on Saturday Night Live in a sketch which has long been a favorite of mine, but anyone who thinks that his entire performance lies in “THE ICE IS GONNA BREAK!” hamminess should really go take a look at that long close-up of his face near the end just before he rises up to make his presence known. The camera holds on Walken as he waits, as he mentally prepares, as he accepts his destiny. Watching it again a few days ago, I think that shot encapsulated more of the film’s power than any other moment.

For a long time, I’ve also associated the film of THE DEAD ZONE with my father. I think he had a particular fondness for it. He was never one to make such proclamations but I do remember him mentioning his fondness for it once or twice and I’ve always wondered how much he identified with the story of John Smith. A schoolteacher thrust into a destiny he never wanted which irrevocably altered his life, yet still trying to make his time here mean something. If I’d ever asked him about such things I’m sure I would have gotten nowhere. But the more I think about what this film may possibly have meant to him, the more painful it becomes. Maybe that’s why THE DEAD ZONE is, for me, one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of the things that were never said. And never will be. But I think about my father, remembering what he was like and imagine all the things I wish I could talk about with him right now. That’s the way it’s always going to be.


September 10, 1939 – September 19, 1998

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Down Here In Fact

Just thinking about BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY takes me back to the eighties, walking down the street in New York, feeling like the whole world was in front of me. Not that I had any experience in drug use in the New York nightclub circuit back then, but when I see the movie and its presentation of the streets of the city, how they really looked back then, for a few minutes I almost feel like I’m right back there. I have a fairly vivid memory seeing Michael J. Fox chased through the streets of midtown from his trailer to the location they were shooting this film in. I’m not sure if I’m right, but my memory is that bit of madness I witnessed took place the week Fox was on the cover of People while THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS became a huge hit. It’s interesting because BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY, based on the novel by Jay McInerney which I read more than a few times back then, is kind of the anti-SECRET OF MY SUCCESS, one of those things which help it stay interesting today. There was never any way for the film, at least this version of this film, to fully replicate the book’s famous second person narrative style (“You are not the kind of person who would be in a place like this…”) so all we’re left with is the story, which isn’t the most earth-shattering. But if we’re left with the film, then at least we’ve got one that holds up pretty well and its refusal to be the slick 80s movie that other hands might have turned it into means that it’s dated surprisingly well.

Released in April 1988, the film presents a single week in the life of Jamie Conway (Fox) an aspiring novelist living in New York and working as a fact checker at Gotham magazine (a thinly veiled version of The New Yorker) who has gotten sucked down into the late night world of nightclubs, booze and drugs. His best friend Tad Allagash (Keifer Sutherland) only helps him dive into doing more coke and as the situation at his job becomes more and more precarious, he still has to face the reality being left by his fashion model wife Amanda (Phoebe Cates) as well as certain other events in his past which he’s managed to bury.

The big issue is that Michael J. Fox has always been looked at as a problematic casting choice for the lead. It feels like the character has a slicker exterior in the book and McInerney himself on the new DVD audio commentary mentions names like Alec Baldwin, Judd Nelson and even Tom Hanks as being in the mix. Fox was younger than a few of those guys which helps him in seeming more lost in this world and his own obvious likable nature helps as well. For that matter, the first line of the book and film is the famous “You are not the kind of guy who would be in a place like this…” opener so maybe the fact that he doesn’t quite belong there is actually a good thing. Fox definitely has his moments throughout, especially when he seems the most lost in that late night world. When he needs to be more likable in some scenes it’s slightly more problematic, as if Fox isn’t quite sure how to modulate his familiar persona to this context. But it should be remembered that Fox, in the wake of BACK TO THE FUTURE, made attempts to branch out as an actor with this film, DePalma’s CASUALTIES OF WAR and Paul Schrader’s LIGHT OF DAY. While they may not all have been artistically successful hey, at least the guy was trying.

It should be noted that the name Jamie Conway (which sort of sounds like Jay McInerney spoken very fast) originates with this movie, since the second-person narrator was deliberately unnamed beyond being simply “You”. Eleven years after this film FIGHT CLUB was able to pull off giving us a lead character/narrator with no name and it makes me think that there could have been some appropriate visual style brought to BRIGHT LIGHTS as well that could have allowed this—actually, it also makes me think that a David Fincher version of this material would have been pretty interesting. The film we got was directed by James Bridges (THE CHINA SYNDROME) and photographed by the great Gordon Willis in a dry, fairly naturalistic style. This aesthetic has its benefits as well as its drawbacks—the second person narrative is, after all, a kind of stylization but the movie never makes any attempt to give us a cinematic equivalent. Still, even though we have this setting, the clothes and the music (not that I mind being reminded of New Order and Depeche Mode) there’s nothing about it which says “80s movie” that would make it an embarrassment today. As it is, the mere sight of Michael J. Fox doing coke is a little surprising to see. It’s also easy to imagine a version where all the drug use is removed which would render the story meaningless, but crazier things have come from big studios. The Wikipedia page indicates that Joel Schmacher was once attached to direct and I’d rather not even think about what that BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY would have been. The screenplay was written by McInerney and if memory serves, it's an extremely faithful adaptation for the first two-thirds, at least in terms of plot and dialogue, until a number of incidents are dropped in order to get to the main dramatic beats near the end faster. The look and presentation of New York feels suitably lived-in with ideal locations used throughout and the research offices of Gotham magazine fee particularly like what you'd imagine such a place would be. The sequences also give a look at what this sort of research job must have been like in the pre-internet days and speaking as somebody who’s done this sort of thing in the modern age, it looks a little terrifying. The look at the West Village feels right as well. Jamie Conway lives in an apartment building on Charles Street which I actually spent a fair amount of time in when I was a teenager, something that makes me feel even more nostalgic while watching this.

Fox, as stated, has some very good moments but he still has scenes like a very, very long drunken monologue where he tells about his wife leaving him. If memory serves, most of this information was given through exposition in the book and it feels like it was placed here maybe partly because they couldn’t think of an alternative and partly to give Fox a big show-stopper. It’s not that he’s inadequate, because he’s on his game here as much as he was able to be. it’s that the speech goes on so long it feels like we’ve stumbled into some kind of off-Broadway showcase and poor Swoosie Kurtz, trying to bring something to an underwritten role, isn’t allowed to do anything but sit there and look concerned, when you could imagine that anyone in that position would have commented on how bad Conway looks by this point. The film feels well-cast down to the small roles, with Sutherland particularly good as best friend Allagash (he might have been an interesting lead as well) and the extra level of humanity he brings (not as evident in the book) slightly throws things out of whack. I felt a small bit of satisfaction hearing McInerney on the commentary say that he always felt that Conway’s kiss-off line to Allagash was a little harsh. The words are the same as in the book but the context is slightly different and, drugs aside, Allagash has managed to demonstrate some actual friendship towards Conway, so it doesn’t feel like he deserves such treatment. Tracy Pollan, who Fox married shortly after production, appears as a possible savior for Conway but while I can believe the film has great resonance for the pair, her scenes didn’t do much for me here. Like much of the film, the dialogue is what’s in the book, but something still feels missing. A number of familiar faces seem to pass by in the club scenes, such as Kelly Lynch and Jessica Lundy each in their first film, both very funny as the women Conway and Allagash party with early on. These were the days when Lisa Edelstein was fairly well-known as a club girl in this world and I found myself looking around at the corners of the frame for a possible cameo, but no dice. One surprising person who does turn up is David Hyde Pierce as the bartender at the fashion show who gets one line (“Bar’s closed.”) in his quick appearance. Appearing unbilled is Jason Robards as the old Gotham writer Mr. Hardy (Wasn’t he also unnamed in the book?) very good as the sort of drunk who won’t stop talking about how he once knew Faulkner.

The end of BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY offers a view of the downtown skyline which of course features the World Trade Center, which was seen on the cover of the book as well. Only five years after it was released, director James Bridges died of cancer. This was his last film. Producer Sydney Pollack died earlier this year, Director of Photography Gordon Willis has been retired since 1997 and star Michael J. Fox has of course been suffering from Parkinson’s for a number of years now (Tad Allagash’s resurgence as Jack Bauer seems somehow appropriate). All of these things are reminders that it’s been a long time since I saw Michael J. Fox being chased down the streets of Manhattan. BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY isn’t without its problems and never achieves the impact of the book, but it does succeed in presenting an earnest, affecting look at its characters and world. It’s dated in a good way. In some respects, it’s better than I remember it being at the time.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Latin For The Bringer Of Death

It recently occurred to me that the entire summer had gone by and not once had I put the DVD of JAWS into my player to watch it. No big deal of course, considering how many times I’ve seen it but you’d think that at some point it would have occurred to me to do so since it so fits the mood of the season and besides, you can never see JAWS too many times. So since that feel of autumn is beginning to slightly cut into the air at night, I decided I had to do something about it. So I watched, not JAWS, but ORCA. Yes, ORCA:THE KILLER WHALE (as the poster, not the film, calls it), directed by Michael Anderson just after LOGAN’S RUN and written by Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati, two writers with a few of the Leone westerns among their many credits. One of a number of JAWS knockoffs that were being made back in the late seventies, this one has the added bonus of being produced by Dino De Laurentiis so, like his KING KONG remake, this means that there’s a genuine level of oddball earnestness somewhere in this sloppy storytelling so that even though it doesn’t really work it’s still weirdly watchable. Even after looking at whole chunks of it again, I’m still not even certain just how good or bad it really is. But I still watch it.

A small boat helmed by Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) is out looking for a great white shark when it stumbles upon marine biologist Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling) and her assistant (Robert Carradine). When a shark appears and seems poised to attack Robert Carradine suddenly a killer whale appears saving him and killing the shark (“You thought sharks were bad! That’s nothing compared to killer whales!” is the obvious thinking here). Immediately, Nolan becomes fascinated by whales (we never see this but are told it by Rampling in narration—editing room patchwork? Are scenes missing? It’s one of a number of elements that don’t really connect) and is determined to capture one and bring it into captivity, no matter how strongly Rachel tries to talk him out of it. After setting out with his crew that includes Keenan Wynn and a pre-“10” Bo Derek (as in, What the hell is Bo Derek doing in this movie?) Nolan’s first attempt to capture one results in actually harpooning the whale’s female mate. After stringing it up aboard the ship, the female proceeds to abort her own fetus (Yikes. Rated PG, folks) before expiring. The male witnesses all this and then proceeds to enact revenge on Captain Nolan because, well, whales are geniuses, you see. The whale also screams very loud and we get continuous giant close-ups of his eye fixed on Richard Harris. And even though Nolan and his crew take port in a nearby fishing village, they receive a hostile welcome because, well, they all know the whale is after him and will do anything to fulfill his quest of vengeance.

“There’s only one creature in the world who could do that…a killer whale,” offers Charlotte Rampling when she witnesses how it handles the shark. There are probably very few actors who can pull off that ominous pause while making such statements like Charlotte Rampling does. She probably does it a few more times alone in the lecture scene that immediately follows. They way Rampling speaks, she could make what I write in this blog sound interesting. ORCA (the name of Quint’s boat in JAWS—I can imagine De Laurentiis insisting it’s just a coincidence) is an odd duck of a movie which begs the question, who is the lead character here, who is the protagonist? Richard Harris plays someone racked with guilt over what he does at the start of the film as well as a deep, dark secret from his past which allows him to sympathize with the whale’s actions. This beast coming after him in some ways represents the anger that he never acted on. But are we supposed to care about a fisherman who is essentially responsible for the death of the female whale and her unborn child through his callously selfish actions? So then if it’s not him, is the lead character Charlotte Rampling? She gets the narration and has definite screen presence but the scattershot narration causes too much inconsistency and besides, there’s nothing in the film which suggests that it’s ‘about’ her character. The final option then is that the lead character is the whale, the ostensible villain of the piece but he’s really just avenging the wrong done to him and his family when all they were doing beforehand was drifting around while bucolic Ennio Morricone music played. So then should we be cheering him on as people get killed? Or is this just a “Don’t fuck with nature and nature won’t fuck with you” morality tale? It’s this sort of disconnect that makes ORCA ideal to watch late at night, after you’ve already had a few beers and aren’t willing to commit any sort of opinion towards what you’re watching.

For all the Worst Film lists that ORCA has always appeared on, it has to be said it’s a rich-looking film, well shot and beautifully scored. It’s a surprisingly somber tale with Richard Harris walking in on a few of his crew members in bed as light-hearted as it ever gets. It’s so serious, however, that it gives no indication that it knows how ridiculous the story is, since it is after all asking us to buy a whale seeking revenge by tracking somebody who is on land and causing chain reactions that lead to mass destruction throughout the town. The whale does flips out of the water in celebration of the carnage he has caused, but the movie has him repeat this several times making it seem like the whale is gloating by a certain point. Only a year later JAWS 2 broached the revenge idea then dropped it almost instantly (“Sharks don’t take things personally, Mr. Brody.”) and a full decade later JAWS THE REVENGE actually did something with the concept, turning it into the worst kind of hackwork. ORCA feels like its own thing, however, but it ultimately feels like a more rewarding viewing experience would be watching several reels of the whale footage that’s here, both real and unreal, set to that lyrical Morricone score. Too much of the film doesn’t seem to flow together—the narration feels like an afterthought, covering over things we don’t get to see and not even particularly consistent with what we do witness. During one argument between Harris and Rampling she actually says, “Forget what I said earlier,” disregarding something she’s already said and immediately offers another argument, as if constant rewrites and reshoots caused motivations to get confused. It’s only 90 minutes long and feels choppy at points but I can’t bring myself to wish it were any longer. It’s the sort of film that casually kills off one of its most interesting characters near the end, presumably because it can’t seem to think of anything else to do with that person which always feels like a cheap way out.

In spite of all the issues, every few minutes there’s something that pops up in ORCA whether it’s that documentary-like footage of the whales, the nighttime explosions over the fishing village (Models. I miss them.), or the Morricone score taking over as what seems like most of the population of the fishing village watching Harris leave in his boat for the final battle. Not to mention the nasty fate of Bo Derek’s broken leg. The unusual Ennio Morricone score, by the way, straddles the line between mournful for Richard Harris’s character and a full-on love theme for the whales. It bursts into a the song “My Love, We Are One” which only makes it seem more like the film is about the whale and its unfortunate dealings with man. Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling certainly haven’t qualified for such a theme, that’s for sure. The fishing village, shot in Newfoundland, is a striking location and the iceberg climax was actually shot on a giant outdoor set in Malta which explains why, as impressive as it might look, it still seems slightly off.

Richard Harris does come off convincingly as a drunken lunatic at times, but he seems to never overdo things too much and if we ever feel any empathy for his character it feels like its more the result of what he does than anything in the script. Rampling, well, she has that voice, which almost makes up for the inconsistencies in her character—sure, she’s supposed to be a brilliant scientific mind but as far as the movie’s concerned, she’s just The Girl ("Come. I'll warm you," she offers this half-mad fisherman at one point). Will Sampson from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUKOO’S NEST is the local Native American who turns up every now and then to offer sage warnings to Richard Harris.

The striking imagery throughout and commitment to its own downbeat tone keeps me from disliking ORCA, in spite of its unpleasantness and general silliness. It’s not JAWS, that’s for sure. But it is its own movie, so at least it succeeds that much. And, as Charlotte Rampling would say about a whale’s intelligence, “…it exists, and is powerful, and in some respects, may even be superior to man.” When she says that, you remember.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

When It Makes Sense

It was a particularly long week for me and late Friday afternoon I was driving home, looking forward to a weekend of doing very little. I was heading down Franklin thinking about whatever, not too far away from my destination, when suddenly I noticed the decidedly unwelcome sight of smoke coming out of my engine. I glanced down at the temperature gage and saw the needle way up on ‘H’. So I then did the only thing I could do, which was to pull over into a legal parking spot at first opportunity. The weird thing was that this actually happened to me in June of last year, driving down the very same street only a few blocks away from the very same place. The movie which opened that weekend was OCEAN’S THIRTEEN which, like this weekend’s BURN AFTER READING, starred George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Anyway, it was a Friday at the end of a week which at times seemed like it would never end, I was tired and I didn’t want to deal with this right then. So I left the car there, walked home, then a little while later headed down to the Vista to see BURN AFTER READING—the same theater I went to that other weekend as well.

I’m not going to write a full piece on BURN AFTER READING right now, but I will say that it was exactly the right film for me to see that night. Before I get to it, I should mention that as a pleasant surprise the Vista ran a Three Stooges short before the movie. YOU NAZTY SPY!, made in 1940, has Moe installed as dictator of the Republic of Moronika (“Moronika for Morons!”). It’s kind of the Stooges version of DUCK SOUP and there are some Hitler jokes as well. To get to the main feature, BURN AFTER READING is an at times hysterically funny film, but it’s not quite the light-hearted caper the ads make it out to be. In fact, what the Coen Brothers seem to be saying here about the world we’re currently living in and the type of people we’ve allowed ourselves to become makes it surprisingly appropriate as a follow-up to NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and some of the thematic conclusions it arrives at in the end were just what I needed right then. It was a long, frustrating week partly due to work, partly from dealing with a few things of my own that I’ve been preoccupied with for far too long. And going into the film with my car fresh in mind, when it ended, after absorbing everything that had happened and been stated, I honestly felt strangely more okay about it all. So the next morning I got up, got the car towed, had it fixed, then when it was all dealt with I drove the car home then walked down to the Vista and saw BURN AFTER READING again (the Stooges short too). And it was just as funny, maybe funnier, as before. There are many things about this movie that I love, things I’m restraining myself from talking about right now but, without giving anything away, J.K. Simmons at one point says something which includes the phrase “…when it makes sense,” which has to be my favorite line, my favorite line reading, my favorite screen moment, of the entire year.

In my own mind I’m using BURN AFTER READING as a reminder for a lot of things in my life right now and it’s a safe bet that I’m going to be seeing it yet again, like I’ve done with any number of other Coen Brother movies through the years. As time goes on, it might turn out to be one of my favorite of their films. But if George and Brad make another movie together anytime soon, I’m going to do my best to avoid driving my car the week it comes out.

Friday, September 12, 2008


THE WILD LIFE was the first script Cameron Crowe wrote after the success of FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and I may have watched it at least as much as the more famous of the two when I was a kid. But, as it happens sometimes, it’s pretty much been forgotten about over the years. Even the official Cameron Crowe website seems to have next to nothing about it. It’s actually not that bad a movie and even if it isn’t in the class of FAST TIMES it still doesn’t quite deserve to have its very existence wiped away. There’s an aimlessness to some of it that seems to capture those nights when you’re a teenager and there’s nothing to do but wander around the town you live in. Watching it again also reminded me how cute Jenny Wright was and that she slightly resembles a long-forgotten high school crush. There absolutely is some stuff of worth in there, but THE WILD LIFE is unfortunately too uneven to really be called a success. The ad campaign, along with the casting of one of the leads, tried to paint it as a semi-sequel to FAST TIMES, but though all these years later that film remains potent, THE WILD LIFE hasn’t aged nearly as well.

While FAST TIMES was set over the course of a school year, THE WILD LIFE is set during that one lazy, last week of summer before school starts again. The loose plot focuses on Bill Conrad (Eric Stoltz) who is looking to step out on his own by moving into his first apartment (for Crowe fans, there’s an early version of some of his own preoccupations going on here), his co-worker wrestler/party animal Tom Drake (Christopher Penn is what is meant to be the scene stealing role like his brother played in FAST TIMES), ex-girlfriend Anita (Lea Thompson), Tom Drake’s sometime-girlfriend Eileen (Jenny Wright) and Bill’s younger brother, Vietnam-obsessed Jim (Ilan Mitchell- Smith). Anita is having a secret affair with a cop (Hart Bochner), Eileen is trying to get Tom to leave her alone while dealing with her snippy boss (Rick Moranis with funny hair) and Bill is forced by a higher-than-expected rent to ask Tom to be his roommate, which of course leads to trouble.

THE WILD LIFE deals with characters more than plot which would be fine but it never seems to find its footing. FAST TIMES was funnier even while this film seems to go more consciously for ‘wacky’ situations and it also handled the more serious moments in a more credible, sensitive manner as well. There’s a feeling with director Amy Heckerling’s style in FAST TIMES that she’s just letting stuff happen organically but here under the direction of Art Linson (better known as a producer; his only other directorial effort was WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM) everything seems consciously more staged, as if blatantly trying to capitalize on what worked in that movie but not pulling it off. It certainly follows up on the earlier films themes of kids trying to grow up too fast while dealing with jobs and relationships, but it never connects like it should. Complex manager Robert Ridgley (The Colonel James in BOOGIE NIGHTS) shows Eric Stoltz his potential apartment, a depressing singles pad in “Club Horizon”, selling it as “The Wild Life”. It looks great to the Stoltz character as it might to anyone on their own for the first time but is really just a sad, dingy place. A better movie could have done something with this idea, but THE WILD LIFE is too concerned with being a wacky teen romp to linger on such ideas.

In spite of being sold as a comedy, it’s actually kind of a grim, depressing movie if you think about it—Bill Conrad is a pushover, Tom Drake is a bully, Jim spends most of his time obsessing over Vietnam and idolizing a vet (Randy Quaid) that a kid his age shouldn’t be associating with, Anita is carrying on a depressing affair with a cop and Eileen keeps getting harassed by guys who don’t deserve her. Since being a teenager is pretty grim and depressing anyway this doesn’t really bother me, but the movie seems just content to just cut to the next scene and play the next song instead of dealing with any of the consequences of what’s happening (at least the songs are good). There are moments throughout which probably made me watch it multiple times years ago—the five orders of fries Penn and his wrestling buddies order, the aimlessness of some of the Ilan Mitchell-Smith scenes, Jenny Wright’s character dealing with her insecurities—and the nature of its tone may make it slightly more realistic than the John Hughes films that were becoming popular at the time, though that in itself doesn’t necessarily make it better. It’s not really bad. It’s just kind of lacking.

The worst stuff in the movie feels like it’s really straining to pander to its audience, like the climactic party, but the low point is a long strip club scene shot in such a dull style that it’s almost like they wanted to get the coverage as fast as possible and get out since they were so embarrassed. The one thing in the movie that people who haven’t seen it since the 80s remember is Penn’s ever-present rejoinder “It’s casual” which seems to be straining a little too hard to be a catchphrase. On the other hand, everyone in the world seems to remember it. For all I know, I’ve said it before. So maybe it really does work.

Eric Stoltz is presumably the Crowe surrogate here but he’s hampered by being written as way too wishy-washy, making him someone difficult to sympathize with. He’s not even clearly defined—if he’s going to college or has any aspirations beyond getting his own place we never hear about it. And he broke up with Lea Thompson? We’re supposed to relate to that? (They’d work together again in SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL) When he invites Penn to move into his new place to save on rent, it immediately pushes the film into sitcom land and it’s easy to lose patience with the character when his new roommate walks all over him. Penn’s Tom Drake even says “You knew I partied before you asked me to move in here,” which is just about the most reasonable thing the character says the entire movie. The interesting thing is that Chris Penn is really good in the role—he was a terrific actor—but the fact that the character is such a jerk makes it problematic considering he’s supposed to be the fun lead of the film. Part of what made Sean Penn’s Spicoli so memorable was how he just wandered through scenes he showed up in and we never got the chance to get tired of him. Tom Drake has to keep way too much of the movie on his shoulders and it doesn’t work. Ilan Mitchell-Smith, who’d star in WEIRD SCIENCE the next year, pretty much nails his character. I almost wish that he were given more of a real storyline, but it makes sense that he’s allowed to just wander around the movie in a more grounded, serious tone than FAST TIMES ever did.

The best performance of the film is easily Jenny Wright, best remembered as the lead in NEAR DARK but also in THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP and ST. ELMO’S FIRE, sadly missing from the industry for years now. Her scenes with best friend Lea Thompson are obviously this film’s version of Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason Leigh and, to give credit to this film, it never feels like a retread of that dynamic. Wright is so good (“I’m not getting married until I’m at least 35.”), making such an impression that it’s too bad the character has to deal with such a jerk. Since her character has to provide some nudity as Penn climbs up to her bedroom window, though it’s probably a body double, it feels a little like the movie is undeserving of her as well. What I’m saying is, Jenny Wright is missed. Plenty of other familiar faces turn up throughout including Michael Bowen (recently seen on LOST), Sherilyn Fenn, Lee Ving and playing a surplus salesman in his first film, Ben Stein. Future INDEPENDENCE DAY producer Dean Devlin plays a Liquor Store Clerk and I thought somebody in the final party scene looked a lot like Ron Wood so imagine my surprise when it turned out to actually be Ron Wood. The soundtrack, it has to be said, contains lots of good songs from the time and even has a score co-composed by “Edward” Van Halen, which will probably make the film more interesting to somebody out there.

THE WILD LIFE isn’t one of those movies that has aged well enough that I’m going to want to revisit it all that much after this but it is interesting as a companion piece to FAST TIMES and as an early Cameron Crowe screenplay. Maybe it would work best for completists of Crowe, Jenny Wright, Eddie Van Halen or some of the other people involved. It’s not that good, but I don’t really mind it and it does take me back to an earlier time in my life when there was always that hope that maybe I’d get a girlfriend who looked like Jenny Wright. It never happened, but I’ll get over it. It’s casual.