Sunday, November 30, 2008

Leap Before You Look

On Saturday night the New Beverly Cinema had their “Vanity Insanity” triple bill, which consisted of three movies--NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE, ACTION JACKSON and THE LAST DRAGON--that starred the one and only Vanity. It seemed like it was a lot of fun if you stayed around for the whole thing, but the truth is that I showed up to see just the film that was running in the middle of the evening. For reasons that I cannot explain, I had never seen ACTION JACKSON, in spite of the fact that it came out in 1988 when I was a teenager and logically should have gone to see something like it and I usually want to see any action movie produced by Joel Silver anyway. But even though I can’t explain why I never bothered to get to it until now, at least this was the chance to take care of the matter. As it turns out, it’s kind of interesting to watch it to see how the Silver style was still developing in that period between LETHAL WEAPON and DIE HARD but ultimately it seems like a misfire. But at least it’s no longer a mystery.

Hotshot Detroit Police Detective Jericho “Action” Jackson (Carl Weathers) is investigating murders that he believes are connected to auto magnate Peter Delleplane (Craig T. Nelson), who was connected to a notorious case that resulted in Jackson being demoted in the department (Delleplane is being honored as “Man of the Year” in his first scene, so we know he’s evil). After getting the trust of his suspect’s new wife Patrice (Sharon Stone), Jackson is framed for murder and he is forced on the run with Delleplane’s heroin-addict mistress Sydney (Vanity). Trying to avoid capture, Jackson has to take down Delleplane once and for all as he also attempts to clear his own name. Or something like that. In all honesty, I started to zone out by a certain point.

In one scene Sharon Stone’s character asks the question, “Why do they call you Action, anyway?” just before a cab nearly runs them both over. It’s a logical question for her to ask, because at that point we’re nearly a third into the movie and we haven’t even seen the guy do anything yet to warrant that nickname. The first few scenes of the movie seem to be taken up by characters talking about what a badass he is and once he’s finally introduced we still don’t get much more than Bill Duke’s Captain lecturing him with a lot of exposition filling us in on more backstory than we want to listen to. It’s as if the movie thinks that we wouldn’t have much interest in actually seeing any of the things we’re being told. To use an example, it’s as if the Silver-produced DEMOLITION MAN opened without the 1996 prologue where we first see the Sylvester Stallone character in action and for a while we just heard about how great he was. I’m not saying that DEMOLITION MAN should be used as a model of screenplay construction (there’s probably a better example, but it’s what came to mind) but in movies like this we don’t want to hear about how cool a character is—we want to see it. In LETHAL WEAPON, we already have an idea how crazy Mel Gibson’s character is by the time we hear other people saying it, so we don’t need to be convinced. But in this movie, we’re never even given a good reason why he’s called action—Carl Weathers is never given the chance to be all that charismatic and he certainly isn’t as borderline as Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs was. We hear so much about what went down between Jackson and Delleplane that it almost seems like that’s the movie we should be watching instead since it’s where all the exciting stuff happened. Oddly, the plot has the main character stripped of his gun before the start so Weathers has to play the rare movie cop who doesn’t get the use of one through much of the movie. It’s an odd choice which seems deliberate in the screenplay, maybe an attempt to force the character to use other methods but it never pays off in any particularly interesting way. I also can’t help but notice that the film’s poster has the character holding a gun anyway. As it is, ACTION JACKSON is the rare Joel Silver film that is flat-out dull. It’s got all the ingredients that his movies are supposed to have—chases, violence, wisecracks, gorgeous girls. But there’s no pizzazz to any of it, nothing to distract us from how haphazard the story seems to be constructed. Many of his movies get away with such flaws—LETHAL WEAPON 2 has one of my favorite story holes of all time, but the movie is so much fun that I don’t care. The Silver films are like that. ACTION JACKSON is stupid in all the right ways, but that doesn’t make it any good. The plot is dull, it’s directed like a bad TV show, characters don’t seem consistent from scene to scene and even the music by Herbie Hancock and Michael Kamen is boring, even when some of Kamen’s trademark wise guy touches are heard like an ominous “Here Comes The Bride” underscoring a tense scene between a married couple. The film was directed by Craig R. Baxley, who also made I COME IN PEACE a few years later before moving on to a lot of TV and was written by Robert Reneau whose few credits also include co-story and co-screenplay credit on, um, DEMOLITION MAN. Paula Abdul is credited for the choreography, in case anyone’s interested, so she’s probably responsible for Vanity’s movies during her nightclub musical numbers. The songs are pretty bad.

Much of the tone and humor is very obviously going for a touch reminiscent of LETHAL WEAPON, which Silver had just produced the previous year, but that film also had director Richard Donner and writer Shane Black who were able to make the mayhem look easy—when Mel Gibson chases Gary Busey’s car on foot we accept something so ludicrous because the film is already larger-than-life anyway. In ACTION JACKSON we have a hero who successfully jumps over a car coming right at him and in another scene drives a car into a house, up a staircase and towards the room the villain is hiding in but the movie hasn’t established a tone where any of it really works. Sometimes it takes a bad film to show just how hard it is to really make a movie and ACTION JACKSON is one of those. Just about the most interesting thing about the movie is the number of actors who appear in other Joel Silver films from around this time such as LETHAL WEAPON, PREDATOR and especially DIE HARD which opened five months after this hit theaters. There are at least ten familiar faces from these other films that turn up, give or take, with a handful of other people who are just familiar from being in 80s films in general (Nicholas Worth from SWAMP THING and DARKMAN turns up as a bad guy), with maybe the best being Robert Davi who plays a jittery police informant—at least it’s an interesting case of casting against type. It’s almost like ACTION JACKSON is some sort of conduit where the elements of these various movies can meet and co-exist. Or maybe I’m just trying to come up with something to say about it. A few PREDATOR posters can be seen at one point as Weathers, who of course co-starred in that film which was probably in theaters when this was being shot, walks past them.

As for the man who is Action Jackson, I like Carl Weathers. Everyone likes Carl Weathers. But maybe he just wasn’t an action lead. Certainly the script doesn’t do him any favors. Vanity is pretty bad, while Craig T. Nelson and Sharon Stone seem stranded by the material, with neither of them getting much of a chance. Stone in particular doesn’t seem like she was directed much at all. Bill Duke has some potentially funny moments as Captain Armbruster but he doesn’t get enough screentime to make a real impression like he should. The most genuine enjoyment comes from Thomas F. Wilson (Biff in BACK TO THE FUTURE) and Roger Aaron Brown (James Caan’s doomed partner in ALIEN NATION) as a pair of uniformed comic relief cops, pretty much the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern of the movie (did I just type that?). They actually get some laughs from what they do but, again, there’s just not enough of them to make much of a difference. ACTION JACKSON is forgettable and, considering some of the people involved that I usually like, a disappointment. But it’s still fun to go to see something like this at the New Beverly. I’m sure the next movie I see there will be better.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

With All Due Respect

Sometimes I think that I should be so lucky as to wind up at Danny Rose’s apartment for Thanksgiving, having those frozen turkey dinners with Danny, Barney Dunn, the woman who plays “Begin the Beguine” on the glasses and the few others that are there. Woody Allen’s BROADWAY DANNY ROSE only really involves the holiday near the end but its ultimate message of “Acceptance, forgiveness and love” as a philosophy of life turns out to make it ideal viewing for the occasion. I watched the movie the night before by myself and it hit me in just the right way. I think that the next day I was in a better mood because of it and it should be stated that the dinner I had was much, much better than the frozen stuff that Danny serves. BROADWAY DANNY ROSE comes from the early 80s, maybe not the strongest period for Woody Allen, coming between MANHATTAN and HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, and a few of his experiments around this time might not be the most successful. It’s a modest film, funny and biting but not quite one of his “early, funny ones” tonally. Within the humor is an extra level of warmth and sadness, making it the sort of movie where, years after you’ve seen it, the title comes to mind and you think, “That actually was a really good one, wasn’t it?” It really was.

A number of veteran nightclub comics are sitting around the famous Carnegie Deli telling stories about their profession when the subject turns to standup comic-turned-legendary talent agent Danny Rose (Woody Allen) and his bizarre array of clients. Finally, one of them (Sandy Baron, best remembered as Jack Klompus on SEINFELD) says that he’s going to tell them the “ultimate Danny Rose story”, which he proceeds to do. Danny once represented nightclub singer Lou Canova (real crooner Nick Apollo Forte—you only think you remember it was Danny Aiello) a talent teetering on the edge of being a has-been when, as the nostalgia craze begins to kick in, Danny gets no less than Milton Berle (playing himself) to agree to come to a set that Lou will be performing at the Waldorf, for consideration to use him in his upcoming network special. The married Nick insists that Danny drive out to Jersey to collect his mistress Tina (Mia Farrow, unrecognizable) and bring her to the show as his date. Through a series of circumstances, a gangster who Tina has also dated winds up believing that Danny is actually her boyfriend who she has betrayed him for. Furious, the gangster puts a hit out on Danny, sending him on the run with Tina.

Filmed in that gorgeous Gordon Willis Black & White which adds immeasurably to the “story” aspect of it, BROADWAY DANNY ROSE features an array of over-the-top characters that are very funny but at its core is a very humanistic film. It touches on some of the themes that have come more to the forefront in Woody’s films through the years—the subject of Guilt is a particularly big one here, with Danny’s response to the question “Do you believe in God?” being “No, but I feel guilty over it,” probably a key line for Woody and his persona. Guilt is also something that Mia Farrow’s Tina has to deal with in the choices she makes and what this results in is probably what makes BROADWAY DANNY ROSE one of Allen’s most endearing films, with the nonstop use of Forte’s own song “Agita” as the score adding to the enjoyment. It’s also a very funny one as well—particularly good is the warehouse introduction to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floats and Danny Rose’s classic reply to hearing how Tina’s husband, shot in the eyes, was killed gets me to laugh every single time. Those laughs get caught in our throat every now and then—what happens to ventriloquist Barney Dunn is of course funny but after seeing Danny Rose’s reaction to it, really not that funny at all.

Danny Rose is really a character from an earlier time, the sort of agent whose clients made their big media appearances on The Joe Franklin Show (Franklin, fittingly, makes an appearance when we see Lou Canova on his show). He ultimately believes in goodness and tries to make a connection with every person he comes in contact with in a Catskills way, calling them “sweetheart” and “darling”, relating everything going on to a departed relative, “may he rest in peace”—much of this was reprised with Woody’s character in SCOOP a few years ago but it didn’t hit the mark quite as well. My favorite habit of Danny’s is repeatedly apologizing in conversation for not wanting to come off “as didactic or facetious” which only makes people to tell him to shut up. Still, as he talks about his small, unimpressive client list you can tell what he’s really thinking and deep down he seems to know that the world is passing him by. His innate goodness combined with the rapid-fire patter makes him one of Woody’s most endearing characters. But in spite of how memorable the character of Danny Rose is the film is designed to be stolen by Mia Farrow in her giant sunglasses, playing the most un-Mia Farrow character she ever took on. Abrasive to the nth degree and commanding every scene she’s in, the actress is so good that even when she finally takes the glasses off it still doesn’t seem like that’s Mia Farrow under there. Forte, who makes his only acting appearance here, is ideal and the entire film is perfectly cast with a perfectly convincing array of New York-New Jersey personalities that includes Michael Badalucco in an early role as one of the money rippers at the backyard mob party. The voice of Leo Steiner, legendary owner of the Carnegie Deli, can be heard informing Danny about what’s happened to Barney Dunn. A theater marquee in New York can be seen playing HALLOWEEN III and Larry Cohen’s “Q” which is pretty cool though it does make it slightly confusing since the story is being told as if it took place years in the past. I remember Pauline Kael complaining about this in her review at the time but ultimately it feels like a minor issue.

But in thinking about the movie I come back to the Thanksgiving setting of the closing scenes, beginning with the unspoken way that the Thanksgiving Day Parade, clearly reminding Tina of the day she spent with Danny, gets her to want to make things right. This leads to the small gathering at Danny’s apartment which is no one’s idea of a grand feast, yet still extremely warm and sweet (“Hey, Danny, who’s your f-f-f-guest?”), leading to what may be one of the very best final shots of Woody’s career. Fittingly, it takes place in front of the Carnegie Deli, a location that means so much to the world the film is set in. We don’t get to hear what’s being said between the characters here but after being reminded of “acceptance, forgiveness and love” it’s like we already know and it seems like the characters deserve some privacy to work this out on their own. Funy and emotional, as well as a needed reminder of what New York used to look like, BROADWAY DANNY ROSE was just what I needed when I watched it the night before Thanksgiving. I may have to do it again on the same night next year.

Friday, November 28, 2008

One Word Over The Radio

As usual, Thanksgiving made me think of celebrating that holiday in New York many years ago with that wonderful WOR triple bill of KING KONG, SON OF KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. If you lived in New York back then, you’ll understand. If you didn’t, just go with me here. As I watched my KONG DVD to get into this nostalgic mood, it led to my thinking of all those Sunday mornings spent watching Abbott & Costello on WPIX (11 Alive, for those who were there). For New Yorkers, here's a small hit of nostalgia from those Sundays. Watch it and weep for your lost youth. Here’s my Abbott & Costello theory, based on absolutely zero research: everyone has two favorite A&C movies. The immortal ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, of course, and one other of their own choosing. It could be BUCK PRIVATES, HOLD THAT GHOST, IN SOCIETY or a variety of others. For me, that choice would have to be the 1942 WHO DONE IT?, a murder mystery revolving around the world of radio. It was actually their first film that didn’t get interrupted by a variety of Andrews Sisters musical numbers or boring romantic subplots, allowing us to get right to the two of them and their gags. The songs always bored me back then and while I may be more interested in some of them now, as well as those other odd moments that remind us we’re watching a 40s movie, I still prefer WHO DONE IT?, maybe largely because even as a kid I liked it’s look at radio and how the plot made terrific use of the boys, with few distractions getting in the way. It makes working in the world of radio in the 40s in a big office building with wisecracking elevator operators and soda jerks in the drugstore downstairs seem pretty cool. No one ever gets too upset over the murders either.

Set in the broadcast headquarters of the GBS radio network, Chick Larkin (Bud Abbott) and Mervyn Milgrim (Lou Costello) are a couple of soda jerks in the building soda shop with ambitions to be radio writers, particularly with their own mystery script, “Muck & Myre”. After meeting Jimmy Turner (Patric Knowles, also in THE WOLF MAN) who has just turned down the chance to write “Murder at Midnight” which is produced by old flame Jane Little (Louise Allbritton) the boys manage to sneak in to watch the latest episode of the show but the broadcast is interrupted when network president Colonel J.R. Andrews (Thomas Gomez) is electrocuted just as he is about to read a special announcement. Chick immediately gets the idea that the two of them should solve the murder which will make it a sure bet that they’ll be hired as writers (is that really all it takes? I’ll have to keep it in mind). But it doesn’t take long until the real cops show up to investigate the murder themselves, not wanting anyone else to get in the way.

It’s not much of a murder mystery—I just watched the movie and I honestly couldn’t tell you who the character is who gets unmasked and exactly why that person committed the murders—there’s some dialogue tossed out having to do with wartime espionage but I also couldn’t state its importance with any real certainty. What the movie has is Abbott & Costello stumbling around this building, dealing with lots of things related to the radio station and stumbling across the occasional dead body. There are scenes that involve a sound effects studio, an audio transcript room, wisecracking elevator boys and one point where the two of them argue over the difference between watts and volts which goes exactly as you’d expect it would. There’s also some pretty cool shadow work in the visuals during the scenes where “Murder at Midnight” is broadcast and since the plot is packed into such a tight time frame—all in one night—it never slows down for the obligatory romance between the lead guy and girl. You can infer that it takes place off camera anyway and that’s just as well. None of what’s going on leads to any real deduction—even the plan hatched by Knowles and Allbritton to uncover the real killer is pretty lame. Again, no one cares, especially when the plot stops dead at around the 50 minute mark to allow for the classic Alexander-2222 routine, where the boys rush into a drug store and Mervyn desperately tries to call a number without any success (“Operator, give me Alexander-2222.” “The line is busy.”). His frustration only mounts as carious other people enter the phone to call all points around the globe and are connected instantly (“Operator, give me Long Distance. Long Distance? I want to talk to the Consolidated Coffee Company in Brazil. Hello, Brazil? Oh, is this you, Joe? This is Bill. How’s the coffee business? Just a grind, eh? Yeah, I know. Well, I’ll call you later. So long.”) while he can’t even get a number that’s across the street. We get back to the plot eventually (how they get back into the building is something that might be worth trying someday) but it’s pretty great while it lasts. And even when the murderer whom no one watching the movie knows anything about is uncovered, it’s followed by a rooftop climax that is pretty good, maybe one of the best such climactic setpieces in any A&C movie.

A number of familiar faces from the time have to battle Bud and Lou for screentime as the obligatory red herrings, certainly a losing battle, but a few who do make an impression include Mary Wickes (who worked for decades, up to the SISTER ACT movies) as the Colonel’s secretary who sort of becomes Lou’s love interest and William Bendix as the only cop who could possibly be dumber than Lou (“Don’t you know it’s against the law to impersonate an officer?” “Well, how do you get away with it?”).

I’m not going to make a grand case for WHO DONE IT?. I definitely know that at this late date I wouldn’t have much success in recruiting any Abbott & Costello converts. There are also plenty of jokes that are pretty dated and a few where I could only guess what the reference is (a few having to do with wartime rationing, I’m guessing). Costello also makes a number of references to “making love” in regards to Wickes but I assume that the phrase meant something different than it does today. For all I know, nobody else out there even thinks that it’s one of there better vehicles. But I still like the broadcast radio milieu which is a fun look at a different time and is much, much more enjoyable than George Lucas’s joyless RADIOLAND MURDERS was—I still think there’s an idea in making a movie with this setting today, but I’m sure I’d be the only one to pay to see such a thing. And it makes me laugh out loud, even sitting watching it by myself—hos could anybody not like what Lou Costello does when he asks the cops if he can say “one word over the radio”? But as long as this movie is around it’ll take me back to another time, watching these films on Sunday morning over and over. That’s the sort of thing I’ll never forget.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Painfully United

Soon after exploding into stardom with films like MASH and BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE, Elliott Gould decided to do the unexpected and took off for Sweden to appear in a film directed by no less than Ingmar Bergman. THE TOUCH, the result of this collaboration, is rarely seen these days but the UCLA Film & Television Archive screened the film the other night at the Armand Hammer museum in Westwood with the star in attendance. It was Gould’s own 35mm print that was shown, which he recently donated to the university. The film wasn’t very well-received at the time of its release in 1971 and doing some research on it I find references in articles to the “laughably miscast Elliott Gould”. Even Bergman himself was critical of the film several years later but though it stands slightly apart from the rest of his work, it doesn’t deserve to be dismissed so casually.

Almost immediately after arriving at the hospital to be told her mother has died only moments before, Karin Vergerus (Bibi Andersson) has a brief encounter with a man (Elliott Gould) who witnesses her immense grief. She tells him to go away and leave her alone but soon afterward she meets him again after her doctor husband Andreas (Max von Sydow) has met the man, an archeologist named David Kovac, under other circumstances. They have David over to their house for dinner and the three have an excellent time but just before leaving David tells Karin that he has fallen instantly in love with her. She doesn’t seem sure what to do with this information but soon she finds herself meeting David to begin the affair, which leads to beginning to learn just how tortured an individual he really is which begins to effect her in ways she never would have realized.

The first English language film made by the director, THE TOUCH cannot be considered an American film and the language issue keeps it from being entirely classified as a ‘Foreign’ film as well, placing it somewhere in between those two worlds. It goes without saying that casting someone like Gould in the role of David provides it with a tone unique to his films. It’s a fair question why Bergman even felt using him (or, for that matter, any American star) was at all necessary but it may simply be that he wanted someone who would automatically be an outsider and Elliott Gould certainly falls into that category. The language issue is not 100% successful with some post-synching evident and a vague feel of dialogue written in one language then translated to another, but in all honesty this was something which for me mattered less and less as the film went on. Within a simple plot is an extremely dense telling, with characters that become more complex the more we get to know them throughout the film. The death of her mother could be an impetus for Karin’s actions, possibly feeling at sea in life, but it couldn’t possibly ever explain why she makes the choices she does. And it certainly doesn’t explain why she feels so drawn to a man who can be so abusive towards her and is almost incapable of happiness, unlike her husband who offers her total and unconditional love. As her clothes are removed the first time she goes to bed with her new lover she says aloud an inventory of all the things physically wrong with her--her legs, her ass, her breasts and as we hold on her face the moment becomes beautifully raw. David is working on excavating a medieval church and in one scene he shows a Madonna, a symbol of all that is pure, that has long been walled up but now that it has been uncovered that larvae of an insect have begun to infect it, making it irretrievably damaged. The symbol is not difficult to grasp, but THE TOUCH tries to examine what really can happen once what is pure becomes infected by such an outside force. What did Woody Allen think of this film? Is it wrong to point out Bibi Andersson’s resemblance to Mia Farrow?

Bibi Andersson is shattering in the lead and always completely fascinating. Von Sydow has what would under other circumstances be the thankless role but that never happens here. For that matter, one particular close-up of him as he looks at his wife speaks volumes, more than any speech possibly could. Since we are able to look at the film now outside of the context of Elliott Gould as a star we can look at his performance for what it is, an outsider trying to find his way into this world, unable to fully state what he wants or why he is acting the way he is and that off-kilter screen presence that Gould always had in his best work comes though in his desperation. It’s searing and it’s painful. THE TOUCH got under my skin and even if I’m not the best person to talk about its view of marriage, how it deals with ideas of obsession and pure need are things that are very easy to latch onto. Maybe the high expectations of any film by Bergman at the time caused it to be criticized but such a reputation seems unwarranted and undeserved. Even the very end, which seemed unsatisfying in its tentative manner when I saw it the other night (it’s also immediately followed by the jarring logo and fanfare of Cinerama Releasing without any closing credits) has been haunting me over the past few days. Maybe that’s because there can’t really be an ending to this story. That pain, that insistence that things can only be a certain way is something that just goes on and on, unresolved.

After viewing the film with us in the Billy Wilder Theater, Elliott Gould walked on to the stage (“Don’t worry, you’ll be able to go home and see SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE soon,” he joked at the start) joined by Curtis Hanson who, among his many credits, wrote the screenplay for 1978’s THE SILENT PARTNER in which Gould starred. The actor placed the film in context of his career at the time, saying that when he was first offered the part and read through the manuscript (adding that it was more like a novel than a normal movie script) it scared him but after a phone conversation where Bergman called the actor ‘my little brother’ (Gould imitated the director in saying this) he realized that there was no way he could turn this down. The shoot seems to have been emotionally draining on him, with Gould being quoted here and elsewhere as saying that a few weeks into principal photography Bergman told him, “You have gone beyond your limits. You have to live more to understand what you’ve done.” But Gould stressed that he was welcomed immediately by the director and made a part of the family, with the intimate crew never consisting of more than twelve to nineteen people at any time. He also told of one key scene where Bergman thought he was keeping his eyes closed because of how unsure he was then the director talked him through these feelings, assuring him that “I won’t mislead you” in anything he would be told to do and Gould added that it was the best direction he’s ever gotten. It wasn’t until he arrived in Sweden when he learned just how autobiographical the film was for Bergman and when the character of David is looking through an album of family photos they are indeed of the director’s family, including a close up of his own mother’s photo, where David comments on how pretty she was. When Curtis Hanson asked about the rain that visibly begins to appear during the final shot, the actor said that it “just happened”, one of those happy accidents that truly enhances what we are seeing. He did state that he has always felt that shooting the whole film in English, as opposed to English for his scenes and the characters speaking Swedish otherwise, was a terrible mistake. But he also added Robert Altman’s own review of the film at the time which was to simply tell the actor, “You’ll never need to be better than that.” Gould makes it clear that he wasn’t so sure, but in listening to him speak about the experience of making this film with such a master it’s obvious that it is something he cherishes to this day.

One person did ask about the negative reception the film received at the time, but Gould waved it off and moved onto the next subject. It wasn’t something we needed to dwell on anyway. THE TOUCH is not at all well-known these days and it seems doubtful that it will be getting any serious reappraisal at any time in the near future but those who are fortunate to ever see it will discover a unique combination of artistic sensibilities. It was a privilege to see it under these circumstances.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Delicatessen In Stainless Steel

When I stumbled through the door late at night just after seeing QUANTUM OF SOLACE, I did the only thing I could do. I had a drink. A vodka martini, actually, and I know that sounds a little lame but the truth is that I was out of scotch which was what I would have preferred at that moment. Come to think of it, I still am. I really should do something about that. Anyway, while waiting for the vodka to take effect, I then did the other only thing I could do, which was put my DVD of FOR YOUR EYES ONLY into the player. I needed right then to chill out, to remind myself that there was a time when there was a cool, adult Bond movie with expertly done action scenes, a plot that could be followed and didn’t feel the need to POUND EVERY SHOT AND MOMENT into our heads as we watched it. It’s always been a particular favorite of mine, even though I foolishly had little interest in seeing it in the theater when it was new. I did get my Roger Moore fix in the summer of ’81 with THE CANNONBALL RUN, but we don’t need to dwell on that. To me, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY is one of my favorite Bonds as well as Roger Moore’s best outing, even if most people do prefer the entries with the, um, bigger stuff going on.

After one final encounter between James Bond (Roger Moore) and a man who may or may not be Blofeld, a British spy ship equipped with a device known as an ATAC (similar to the Lektor MacGuffin of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE) goes down in the Ionian Sea in the Mediterranean. Marine archeologist Timothy Havelock is contacted to locate the ship and the ATAC but, shortly after his beautiful daughter Melina (Carole Bouquet) arrives, Havelock and his wife are killed by Cuban hitman Hector Gonzales. Bond is assigned to recover the ATAC before it falls into enemy hands and goes after Gonzales to learn who hired him. Bond of course meets up with Melina, intent on exacting her own revenge.

For me, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY remains a hugely satisfying effort, bringing just the right level of seriousness to the material to balance out the places that allow Roger Moore to still be Roger Moore. Some goofy elements remain, like the occasional one-liner, the plot point that comes from a parrot and the entirety of the Lynn-Holly Johnson character but none of these things are deal breakers for me. Even the obligatory Q scene feels more sedate than usual. Right from the opening scene of Bond visiting the grave of late wife Tracy (a pertinent reference to ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE which this film can be favorably compared to) the lead character feels more like an elder-statesman Bond than before and unlike his next two films, much as I may like them, Roger Moore seems perfectly believable as playing Bond at this age. It feels like a mystery why, after the success of MOORAKER, they chose to go so serious with this entry but I’m glad they did. And even in the middle of violence and deadly serious plot points it never feels like this tone is overwhelming the basic material like in LICENCE TO KILL which possibly goes too far in these matters (I’m not even going to bother bringing QUANTUM into all this). For some reason this is the one case where even when Moore’s Bond is making little jokes in the middle of serious scenes (“Love a drive in the country, don’t you?”) isn’t a problem. I always like Bond’s attitude towards Melina and her quest for revenge (“Before setting out on revenge, you first dig two graves.”) in how he doesn’t try too hard to convince her (he knows she’s going to do what she wants know matter what—after all, she’s “half Greek”) but it occurs to me now that as soon as Bond meets her she’s already killed several people, including the one who pulled the trigger on her parents, which would seem to make it all a moot point, but no matter. It also extremely noticable now how relatively little action there is in the film compared to what we get these days—the major setpiece is the ski chase which is awesome (no, seriously, it’s just great) but it comes before the halfway mark and the most memorable sections of the second half, like Bond and Melina held captive and dragged behind the main villain’s yacht and the mountain climbing climax (which has some jaw-dropping stunt work) are more suspense sequences that outright action, but expertly done nevertheless. Still, and I know this may be nitpicking, it’s possible that the film is one great action scene short of being an all-out classic. The next film, OCTOPUSSY, was possibly conscious of this due to how much of its second half is a series of chases. Maybe FOR YOUR EYES ONLY is just one of those examples of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts—there’s no one outstanding showstopper (although the ski chase comes close) but the entire film is a mixture of all the right elements, making for a surprisingly strong narrative. The infamous prologue where Bond finally dispenses with an unnamed Blofeld figure (the SPECTRE rights were owned by Kevin McClory, then ramping up NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN and it has long been assumed that this was a comment on how the real Bond films didn’t need to rely on that stuff) is about as arch as the film ever gets but over all it’s a very impressive sequence and I still love that Bond’s first dialogue in the movie, responding to the priest informing him that his office called with an emergency, is a simple grave, “It usually is.”

The various locations that include Cortina and parts of Greece are a big part of this success (I'm always fond of how the film pauses to have Bond and Melina wander around Corfu for a few minutes) and this is the rare Bond film where it’s not entirely clear who the main villain is until well into the story. The ATAC remains the MacGuffin until the end, never becoming a plot device that leads into a greater world domination plot. Even the underwater stuff never becomes repetitive like it did in THUNDERBALL, no doubt because it’s all allowed to be about the story and not giant battle scenes. Maybe keeping things at this level—which is pretty much what they did again in CASINO ROYALE--is just the way I like my Bond. Rocket bases in volcanos are very enjoyable but I suppose my ideal Bond fantasy world involves luxurious locations, beautiful women and villains whose goals are kept on tangible levels. That’s just me.

Some notes on the ski chase, since I’m such a big fan of it. It’s expertly done in every way from how it’s shot to how it’s paced. There are obviously a few bluescreen shots of Roger Moore sprinkled in there but there are also close-ups of him obviously filmed on location, presumably with some sort of special camera rig, which gives it an added level of realism. Adding to this is how Bond is in genuine danger through much of it (he’s almost more vulnerable here than he is in any other film). Even if he didn’t lose one of his ski poles he’d still be in a lot of trouble and it’s one of the best things throughout the entire movie how Bond is continually forced to use his wits in these situations. The sequence is also helped by the Bill Conti score—obviously any Bond film that doesn’t have John Barry doing the music is in trouble but Conti does a terrific job, helping with the suspense in the first half of the ski section (the piano plunking when he reach the jump point is jarring, but also effective) and when he breaks out the disco for the second half it may be dated but it’s still pretty cool and provides a level of fun to a setpiece that is otherwise pretty serious. It’s hard for me not to burst into applause at the end of it, even when I’m watching the film by myself. The success of Conti’s work is doubly evident when compared to David Arnold’s thuddingly banal scoring of the ski chase in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH or Marvin Hamlisch’s score for THE SPY WHO LOVED ME which had a similar disco feel but, “Nobody Does It Better” aside, has always felt to me like Hamlisch had no idea how to score a Bond film (and he even got nominated for an Oscar). Conti, in comparison, not only nails the tone but also enhances it on occasion and throughout the occasional absence of music at dramatic points is extremely effective as well, particularly when Bond is chasing hitman Locque’s car up what seems like an endless flight of stairs.

The DVD documentary makes a big thing over how Roger Moore objected to the most vicious action Bond takes in the film, involving the death of a secondary bad guy, thinking it went too far. But he does perform the moment in the film and does it without flinching. He seems reenergized by how much more there is to play in this film as opposed to MOONRAKER and it’s the best performance he gave during his run. The gorgeous Carole Bouquet, who had already worked with Bunuel by this point, is ideal as Melina, making her believable as someone unwilling to back down from her goal. She’s not an equal physical match for Bond but it’s not something she cares about—all she knows is that she’s “one woman” as she puts it and as far as she’s concerned that’s enough. Plus, she has those eyes. And that hair. Julian Glover and Topol are both excellent as a few of the key players in the plot but the bad guy side is quietly stolen by Michael Gothard from SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, who never utters a word as one of the very best secondary Bond villains (also silent is Charles Dance in his first film role) In the small role of Contesa Lisl von Schlaf, Cassandra Harris (married to Pierce Brosnan at the time) brings just the right touch of old-school glamour to her scenes and the moment where Bond guesses her secret past is one of the movie’s sweetest. Lynn-Holly Johnson’s character of Bibi is slightly more problematic but Roger Moore correctly plays the scenes as if he is fully aware of this and the whole thing is out of his control. Johnson’s coach Jacoba Brink, “once a world-class skater herself” is played by Jill Bennett, who glares at Bond so much that I always wonder if the actress is playing her role with the added subtext that maybe she had an affair with Bond long ago and that she’s spending the whole movie waiting for him to acknowledge this.

It all boils down to personal taste and what we look for in a Bond movie. As I write this, the sequence where Bond and Melina scuba dive as we hear the gentle instrumental version of the title theme is playing behind me and it makes me think of the romance that needs to be in these movies. It’s the sort of feeling that is enhanced when the filmmakers commit to a tone that aims for pulpy seriousness without forgetting to make a movie with a coherent plot, action, suspense and, yes, some fun as well. It’s not everyone’s kind of Bond. But at least they’ve made a few that are like that and maybe they’ll make another one of these days.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

More Philosopher Than Soldier

William Friedkin’s SORCERER is a key title in the story of the 70s auteurs whose careers began to spiral as the likes of STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS were going through the roof. In many ways it was to Friedkin what APOCALYPSE NOW was to Coppola—both involve dangerous journeys through jungle territory and both were physically, as well as mentally, grueling shoots for their directors. Of course, APOCALYPSE was eventually released to great acclaim and is now considered a classic, whereas SORCERER was deemed a disaster as soon as it hit theaters, disappearing from view almost immediately. It seems historically significant that it was the movie that followed STAR WARS into the Chinese and, no surprise, it didn’t exactly do the same amount of business. If you live in the Los Feliz area, you may want to stop in at the Bank of America on the corner of Hollywood and Vermont. Behind the counter is a large mural of what Hollywood Blvd around the Chinese looked like in the late 70s and, yes, SORCERER is the film playing there in the mural. I don’t expect it to turn up again there for a revival screening any time soon but fortunately the New Beverly picked up the slack for a rare screening this past Saturday at midnight, coming just a few days after what would have been star Roy Scheider’s 76th birthday and even featuring an old March of Dimes ad narrated by the actor preceding the film. It’s an unusual choice for a midnight movie, but if that was the way to see it, that’s ok. I was a little concerned that I was too tired to be there, but once the film started it felt absolutely impossible for me to even become slightly drowsy. Even at that late hour, it took hold and you could feel that the audience, a very good turn out, was gripped by the film as well. It’s a remake of THE WAGES OF FEAR which I’ve seen and thought was brilliant, but it was so long ago that I don’t remember very much about it. It’s also a long time since I saw SORCERER and whatever I thought of it then, it’s nothing compared to what I think of it now.

Four men (including Scheider, with a hat that not too dissimilar from the one Popeye Doyle wore) from different parts of the world, on the run from the law for various reasons which we learn about in four separate extended prologues, wind up in a remote village in some hellish past of South America. When an oil well nearly 300 miles away catches fire, it is determined that the only way to put it out is with explosives but the ones to be used are so unstable that they are essentially “sweating nitroglycerine” and it’s advised not to even carry them as much as ten feet for fear of detonation. With no other way to get the dynamite there, our four lead characters are chosen to drive two trucks (one of which is dubbed "Sorcerer") with the dynamite in back over the most treacherous jungle terrain imaginable but it’s the only way they can possibly earn some decent money and be assured that the local government will no longer harass them. But first they have to get there alive.

I have a vague recollection of reading an interview long ago with Friedkin where he talked about a shot during the Iraq prologue of THE EXORCIST where Max Von Sydow walks through a marketplace. It added nothing to the story but Friedkin was so enamored by the shot that even after he had cut it, he put it back in at the last minute. I bring this up because it occurred to me that in many ways SORCERER is nothing but shots of Von Sydow walking through a marketplace, so to speak. I don’t mean this as a bad thing at all. The entire film feels like it’s telling its story through these striking visuals, getting us to pay attention to this world, filmed in the Dominican Republic, France, Israel and New Jersey, through the most visceral way possible (which reminds me, is that the demon Pazuzu behind the opening title?). In many ways, I found SORCERER to be absolutely mesmerizing and while I’m not going to rush and suddenly declare it to be his masterpiece (maybe it is, who knows) it does feel like the most Friedkin all of all the films that William Friedkin has ever made. The multiple prologues introducing the four guys seem to take the stylistic dislocation of the openings to THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE EXORCIST, which told us nothing and made us work it out for outselves, to its most extreme degree. It’s as if Friedkin was saying, How long can I wait before I start explaining things? How far can I go in letting the audience work it out for themselves? Through its depiction of these men, particularly the Scheider character, and what they do the movie feels like it ultimately presents a kind of world view of humanity and everything that represents. This is followed through right down to the conclusion which says that no matter what you do, you can’t outrun your crimes, they’re strapped to you like a crate of nitroglycerine on your back. In other words, you’re fucked. I can’t think of too many other directors aside from Friedkin who would present a briefly-seen wedding feature a bride sporting a black eye, standing next to the groom with all the obvious implications (this comes during a robbery sequence set in New Jersey which, with its extremely twisted humor and violence, feels like a mini SOPRANOS episode). One of the most surprising things about this extremely grimy, violent film was actually the PG rating card that shows up at the very end of the credits. It may not be the most cheerful summer movie imaginable so coming a month after STAR WARS may not have been the best time to release it. It also opened the same day as Scorsese’s NEW YORK NEW YORK so maybe it seemed like auteur overkill to critics at that point in time (Peter Biskind's "Easy Riders Raging Bulls" contains some very juicy stuff on SORCERER's production and is recommended for anyone who might be interested in this period).

It’s not an actor’s movie and one could easily imagine a Jason Miller-type unknown in Scheider’s lead role (interestingly Friedkin has always said he wanted Steve McQueen). Written by Walon Green, who has THE WILD BUNCH among his many credits, it’s also not a dialogue-driven movie. It’s so purely visual that it’s not too much of a reach to imagine being able to follow it perfectly with the sound turn off, but the Tangerine Dream score, fairly revolutionary for the time, should prevent that from happening. The trucks don’t even leave for the destination until around the halfway point but once we’re on the way much of it is genuinely, stunningly suspenseful and, on occasion, not a little awe-inspiring, particularly the sequences involving both trucks trying to get across a precarious-looking suspension bridge. If I have any serious issue with the film it’s that, at 121 minutes, the journey does feel a little truncated. If Scorsese and Coppola could make NEW YORK NEW YORK and APOCALYPSE NOW close to two-and-a-half hours, it’s fairly easy to imagine a version of SORCERER that would be about as long. Whether it should be that long is something I guess we’ll never know, but as it is the ultimate forms of madness that Roy Scheider goes through feel like they occur a little too abruptly. Still, the film feels like a remarkable achievement, one that deserves serious reappraisal so more people could be aware of it and I only wish there were a decent DVD so I could watch whole sections again right now. But at least the New Beverly showed it, just another reason why I love going there these days.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

It Stands At Zero

When I saw THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH on opening night back in 1999 it felt like a huge disappointment but over the years the film has played slightly better on repeated viewings. It’s not that great and certainly isn’t a model of screenplay construction, but the fact that the story has a little bit of meat to it definitely helps. By contrast TOMORROW NEVER DIES, which I loved back in ’97, hasn’t aged all that well, partly because the film is such wall-to-wall action that there’s not as much to pay attention to. The DVD audio commentaries reveal that there did used to be more to the story but various rewrites seem to have siphoned out all the stuff that would have been of interest and the film is ultimately hurt by this. I mention all this because my own response to QUANTUM OF SOLACE as soon as the end credits rolled was the sort of thing where I found myself saying, “It was all right,” wondering if I was avoiding tell the truth to myself about what I really thought of it. Of course, there’s always the possibility that I’ll think differently of it down the line.

If lessons were learned from CASINO ROYALE, which I loved beyond reason and still think plays surprisingly great, then it seems they were the wrong ones. There was action in that film, yes, but there was also a surprisingly strong love story and a middle section of poker playing that had a cool feel of that fantasy world we look for in Bond films. It also had an extremely strong narrative backbone, partly coming from Ian Fleming’s original novel and as it turns out storywise QUANTAM (title taken from a Fleming short story it has no relation to), which picks up immediately afterwards, isn’t much more than an addendum to that film. I don’t have it in me to recount the plot right now, but it doesn’t really feel like a story so much as a way to shoot Bond around the world from one action scene to the next and ultimately feels hugely unsatisfying. We do get action, lots of action, just about all the film’s makers seem to have paid attention to, and it’s seemingly deliberate choice to not pay any attention to coherence, all done in the BOURNE style of staging and incomprehensible editing, comes off as a huge comedown after the extremely satisfying action of the previous film. The character of Bond himself is much more Jason Bourne than he was last time and, with his tendency to suddenly go rogue every five minutes, there’s a little bit of Jack Bauer in there as well. I love those characters, but what about Bond? Can’t the film take just a few minutes to, I don’t know, dwell on him enjoying a fine meal or something? (for Ian Fleming fans paying attention, at least the character of Bill Tanner appears) At 106 minutes, it’s cut to the bone…beyond the bone, probably. There are various points where it does feel like something is missing or has been abbreviated, but I can’t bring myself to get very upset about it. I certainly can’t imagine this story having the weight to warrant CASINO ROYALE’s 144 minute running time and I wouldn’t particularly want to see a version that was expanded to that length. It’s slickly made, as expected, but every beat feels like it wants to get to the next beat before we can absorb anything and visually there’s a much more claustrophobic feel to it, unlike the previous film which displayed great confidence in how it’s wide, roomy imagery had an almost old-school quality to it. Even the most stylistic elements, like intercutting an action scene with a nearby opera performance of Tuccini, seems to overreach for some significance that isn’t there, almost as if its makers were ashamed of the movie they were making.

The thing is, everyone has their own idea of what a Bond movie is supposed to be, whether they want it to be faithful to Fleming or not. To say that I wish this film were more ‘fun’ does not mean that I wish it had a villain with an underwater lair, funny henchman and lots of wisecracks. CASINO ROYALE found a cool, adult tone that acknowledged a degree of pulpiness to the foundation and that in itself was enjoyable. Even its lighter moments—it doesn’t feel right to call them jokes—like Bond’s “I have a dinner jacket” protest or the other poker players following Bond’s lead when he orders a Vesper cocktail for the first time feel appropriate in that context and succeed as wit. In QUANTUM it never even feels like we get that much of a relief from the dour tone and I almost want to say that this wouldn’t be a problem if there was strength to the story or if the action were well-done but this isn’t the case and besides, what is wrong with wanting a James Bond movie to be enjoyable? It’s not SYRIANA, after all, even though the story at one point seems to head in that direction--even the music in one scene sounds like it was temp-tracked with the score from BABEL, of all things. But most of all, it never feels like it has that indefinable Bond thing, that moment in these movies which you can’t quite define where it feels like all the elements onscreen, from the action to the music to the mood, coalesces and seems to state loudly, “This. Is. James. Bond.” as the film itself celebrates everything about what it is. I never got that feeling from this movie, making me wonder if director Marc Forster was ever really interested in making it. Shouldn’t they have found somebody who had that interest? Wouldn’t you? Even a few direct visual references to GOLDFINGER and THE SPY WHO LOVED ME did very little for me and feel like they were shoehorned in to convince us that the people who made the movie are familiar with previous entries in the series. It takes more than that.

I like Daniel Craig. I thought he was terrific in his first crack at the character and I have no problem with what he does here, but he’s hurt by the fact that the basic material isn’t as strong. The character of Camille, played by Olga Kurylenko, feels like a semi-retread of Melina Havelock in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, a daughter out to avenge her family, but she doesn’t even get a “when setting out for revenge, first dig two graves,” type-speech from Bond, who seems to have little more than a ‘whatever’ type attitude towards her goal. I guess it cuts down on the dialogue. For the female lead, Kurylenko doesn’t really make much of an impression. Of course, she’s hampered by comparisons with Eva Green and the film, for better or for worse, doesn’t try to contrive Bond falling for her which makes sense since he’s still got Vesper Lynd on his mind. But there’s not much chemistry of any kind between the two of them to make up for that. Kurylenko’s kinda hot in a vacant sort of way but, frankly, if it wasn’t for the billboards splattered every ten feet all over town I’m not sure I’d be able to remember what she looks like. Much better is Gemma Arterton as Agent Fields, who brings some genuine pep and spark to her scenes, but she ultimately doesn’t have enough screentime to affect things that much. Mathieu Amalric, terrific in THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, is one of the most ineffectual Bond villains ever as Dominic Greene and it feels like no one was able to come up with any character for him to play. Giancarlo Giannini makes a welcome return as Mathis and his scenes, for obvious reasons, feel more like CASINO ROYALE than anything else. For a few minutes, it’s like we’re in a real movie. Jeffrey Wright also turns up again as Felix Leiter, able to do something with moments where he has nothing more than a single word of dialogue. Giving what has to be the most distracting performance I’ve seen in a movie in a long time has to be actor David Harbour, as CIA agent Gregg Beam, who for some reason seems to be doing an impersonation of Phillip Seymour Hoffman in CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR, both in appearance and mannerisms, to the point where every time he appeared onscreen I found myself sitting there thinking, “Wha? Huh? WHA??”

The end of the movie indicates that the character has fully and truly become the character that we know of as James Bond which, come to think of it, is pretty much how the last movie ended. I can’t help but think that after a few years maybe we were looking for a little more than just a blank getting filled in. The very last moment before the credits feels like it was tacked in there to give us an ‘up’ finish where one doesn’t otherwise exist, but it’s not enough. All it really does is remind us of what we didn’t get to see. I don’t hate the movie. In all honestly, throughout I kept thinking to myself, “Well, I didn’t dislike that as much as I might have.” Even the Jack White/Alicia Keyes song is something that I would expect to hate yet strangely don’t (the credit sequence is another can of tuna entirely). Maybe all these feelings are just a reminder of how I genuinely, truly wanted to like QUANTUM OF SOLACE. But, ultimately, it just does next to nothing for me. Maybe multiple viewings will cause me to look at it more favorably. But that would require having a desire to see it again, something I don’t particularly want to do right now. Still, I suppose that in the future anything’s possible.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Intuitive Improvisation

On the off chance that I have any credibility with anyone, this is probably where I lose what little there is. Here’s the thing. I like A VIEW TO A KILL. Yes, really. I genuinely enjoy it. I get pleasure out of the thing, what can I say. I’m not saying I think it’s in the top tier of the series and I’m definitely not saying that I’m blind to some of its faults like how Roger Moore is obviously way too old but if I sit down to watch the thing it puts a smile on my face. I can’t help it. The film has a scene where Bond is snooping around in a tux during a fancy party when he is discovered by an old ex-Nazi doctor who asks him, “Can I help you?” “Yes, I was looking for the bar,” replies Bond. “Come, I will show you,” offers the old ex-Nazi and they walk off to the bar together. I don’t know about you, but this has never happened to me. Isn’t that the sort of reason why we watch these movies over and over again?

The plot: does it matter? Fine, here it is. After retrieving a microchip in Siberia during the pre-credit sequence, Bond arrives at M’s office where the chip has been thoroughly analyzed. Q stuns everyone by describing a scenario where a magnetic pulse of a nuclear explosion could disable every such chip in England, thus rendering their defenses powerless against an attack. Before we have a chance to absorb such news, Q adds that chips are now being made that are impervious to such an attack. Whew, that was a close one. I guess that won’t be the plot of the movie. However, Q then adds that the chip Bond recovered is identical to microchips made by Zorin Industries on their side of the Iron Curtain. As everyone tries to determine how this happened Bond, using his brilliant deductive reasoning, asks, “What about Zorin himself?” Cleary, Bond knows that Max Zorin, referred to as “a leading French industrialist, a staunch anti-communist with influential friends in the government” (surprisingly, there is no sequence where he is being awarded “Man of the Year” by somebody) is being played by Christopher Walken and they wouldn’t have cast him in the movie unless he was the villain. Bond, accompanied by Sir Godfrey Tibbett (a welcome Patrick Macnee) attends a horse auction at Zorin’s estate to investigate the matter. What do horses have to do with anything? Beats me, especially since the thread is essentially abandoned midway through in favor of Zorin’s main goal: a diabolical plan to destroy Silicon Valley so he can corner the world microchip market.

It doesn’t sound like I’m making fun of it, does it? A VIEW TO A KILL is fairly ludicrous from start to finish, with a script that’s feels like it’s assembled by a bunch of ideas for setpieces and locations thrown together at random, not by any desire to create a storyline where one section flows into the other organically. And yet, there’s something about it that I honestly find entertaining. Part of this is certainly nostalgia—most people no doubt have an attachment to the James Bond they first knew and for me it’s not a case of preferring Roger Moore but in enjoying the entries he was appearing in around this time. Unlike the transitional growing pains of LIVE AND LET DIE and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN or the epic grandeur of THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and MOONRAKER, Moore’s final three films as the character, all directed by John Glen are pretty much straight-ahead adventures more than anything else. VIEW is certainly the weakest of the three but there are still lots of things about it that I like. I enjoy the pre-credit ski chase (no matter how obvious it is that Roger Moore never went anywhere near the location), the jump off the Eiffel Tower and it’s hard for there not to be a huge grin on my face once we get to the final fight on top of the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ll watch it again if I feel like it. There’s even a feeling throughout that, as much as the character of Bond relies on lame one-liners he is constantly forced to use his wits with surprisingly few of Q’s gadgets as his disposal this time around. The script might be a little lame but it does present us with a 007 who for the most part is working on his own and has to figure things out on occasion, more than he does in a few entries that are much more popular. There’s also a bright, open feel to the film with enjoyable location work, particularly in France and San Francisco, maybe the one city in the States where it really makes sense to have Bond visit. People really prefer THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, a film which contains Christopher Lee and Kung Fu yet still manages to be dull, to this? Maybe they saw that one when they were a kid like I saw this one.

There’s also an odd attempt to keep the cold war threat alive in the film by spending valuable screen time on the Soviets—part of this is to establish the backstory of the Zorin character but much of it never leads anywhere and as a result the beautiful spy played by Fiona Fullerton serves no real purpose. Walter Gotell once again appears in his recurring role as General Gogol. The producers must have liked him because each of the Bond films from this period seems to make it a point to bring him in for ten minutes or so, whether his character was needed or not. In this case much of his role really isn’t. The film also strangely seems to have more sacrificial lambs than any other film in history, with characters continually getting killed off one their plot function is completed, followed by a shot of Roger Moore looking concerned. It’s not exactly tonally consistent, with grim plot points like Zorin machine-gunning a bunch of people contrasted with the slapstick stupidity of the fire-engine chase in San Francisco, but well-done sequences do creep through, like Bond being attacked by henchmen while on horseback or the elevator shaft escape in a burning San Francisco City Hall. John Barry’s excellent score is well-spotted—some of these sections don’t even have any music while others contain a recurring action motif for the film that I’ve always liked. It’s just about the one saving grace of that fire-engine chase since it staunchly refuses to admit how lame the scene is. Maybe it was an attempt to do something unique with the idea of “San Francisco car chase”, but did it have to be something that would have been considered to lame for a Hal Needham film? I could also mention that A VIEW TO A KILL, a title taken from the short story title “From a View to a Kill”, never even provides any reason for its title. If memory serves, the story contains assassins on motorcycles trying the kill Bond and there are descriptive passages involving them lining up Bond in their sights—they couldn’t work something like that into the movie somehow? I’ll freely admit that the movie contains what might be the single dumbest use of a movie title in the actual movie. If you’ve never experienced it for yourself, then that is sad. At least the title helped to give us the pretty awesome Duran Duran song, which is still pretty damn cool today.

So if there are plenty of things in this movie that I have to act sheepish in my enjoyment, that’s not at all how I feel about Christopher Walken’s performance as Max Zorin. It’s one of the things about the film that plays best now. I’m not sure he has a single line reading that sounds like you’d expect it to be. He provides an unusual, but not at all inappropriate vibe for this sort of film. He’s revealed in interviews that he thought so little of the blonde hair he was given for the role that his own private subtext was to play each scene as if asking the other actor “What do you think of my hair? What do you think of how they made me look?” Now it’s hard for me to watch the film and not think of that while I love every scene he appears in. As for Grace Jones, well, she’s certainly the most unusual woman Roger Moore ever had to play a love scene with. ("I see you're a woman of very few words." "What’s there to say?") At least her casting feels different. Patrick Bauchau, who years later had a terrific role in Michael Tolkin’s THE NEW AGE, a personal favorite, plays Scarpine, one of Zorin’s chief henchmen. Alison Doody, Elsa Schneider in INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, plays Jenny Flex (nice name), one of Zorin’s employees who gets a big introduction so we can get a nice look at her then spends the rest of the movie running around with no dialogue.

Roger Moore is, frankly, clearly coasting here, even though as late as OCTOPUSSY he was given some actual meat to his scenes to do something with. The script doesn’t allow him much beyond the wisecracks, making what the character does not even make sense a few times. Why does he jokingly ask Zorin about fly fishing? To deliberately blow his cover? Why does he still tell Tanya Roberts that he’s a reporter when he could flat-out state his identity to gain her trust? I’m at a loss. Patrick Macnee’s role doesn’t add up to much but it is nice to see him playing scenes with Moore. The plot has them meeting at the start but it’s hard to buy that they haven’t known each other for years. David Yip, Wu Han in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, plays CIA contact Chuck Lee, one of the film’s 5,932 sacrificial lambs (no wonder they didn’t use Felix Leiter—in this movie they would’ve had to kill him). As for Tanya Roberts, the one human in the history of the world who doesn’t notice a blimp sneaking up behind her, what can I say? She’s probably the chief example of the sort of screaming Bond girl that they always try to avoid now. I’m sure she’s a nice person. I’m not in the mood to be too harsh here. When Moore and the recurring supporting cast dress up and head off to the races early in the movie it almost seems like they’re getting to play dress up and throw a party during this one final time they’re spending together. Maybe that’s why I feel slightly charitable towards it all. The whole thing is just too breezy for me to get worked up over.

I could list all the things that I’m very well aware are wrong with the movie, but I just don’t feel like it. I know they’re in there. I still like it anyway. For the record, I’ve been a big Bond fan through the years. It’s safe to say that I go for the cool, serious, pulpy aspects of them more than the big, glitzy, campy entries through the years. I think FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE AND OHMSS are as good as it gets. I love the middle section of THUNDERBALL where Bond wanders around the Bahamas as if on vacation. I love the sheer romance to YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. I love the dead-on seriousness of much of FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. I think that the Dalton and Brosnan entries have a lot of issues many of which aren’t the fault of the two actors. I’m still amazed at how good CASINO ROYALE is. As I write this, I’m going to be seeing QUANTUM OF SOLACE shortly and I know word is mixed but I’m looking forward to it and I hope no one thinks I might be saying, "Gee, I hope it's more like A VIEW TO A KILL". That's not what I'm getting at here. I’m just trying to say that I don’t just go for the camp of the Bond films and yet I still like A VIEW TO A KILL. If anyone throws up their hands at this, that’s just the way it’ll have to be. I’m going to want to see it again at some point and I’ll enjoy it. Sometimes these things need to be allowed.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Selling The American Dream

The lack of availability of Joseph Ruben’s THE STEPFATHER these days is unfortunate and probably part of the reason there was a decent-sized crowd lined up for it at the New Beverly’s midnight show on Saturday. The film didn’t do much business during a staggered regional release in 1987, in spite of an amazing lead performance by Terry O’Quinn, now an Emmy winner for LOST, and an array of favorable critical notices which included the Los Angeles Times calling it “one of the smartest and most entertaining films” of its year as well as a genuine rave from no less than Pauline Kael. People presumably began to catch up with it on video and cable, which led to a sequel a few years later also starring O’Quinn (but made by others) and is no doubt the main reason behind the pre-LOST cult around the actor. I can proudly say that I saw THE STEPFATHER during its original release and I also got to see STEPFATHER 2 in the theater, though that’s not quite as impressive. Largely because of its star, the film has held up surprisingly well and its no-show on DVD (rights issues, I’m guessing) is a shame.

The lead character of THE STEPFATHER played by Terry O’Quinn is introduced just after he has (offscreen) brutally murdered his entire family, including his wife and stepchildren. Preparing to leave the house, he then cuts his hair, shaves his beard to change his entire appearance and, whistling “Camptown Races”, leaves the house and walks down the otherwise quiet suburban street. One year later, he is Jerry Blake, a real estate salesman married to new wife Susan (Shelley Hack) and stepfather to sixteen year-old Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). Susan, widowed just a year ago, looks at her husband as the perfect man but Stephanie can’t help but feel there’s something off about him a feeling compounded when she stumbles across him ranting and raving to no one in the basement. In spite of her suspicions, Jerry is determined that his family will be absolutely perfect but when they disappoint him, which is of course inevitable, the question is how soon history will repeat itself.

It sounds like a generic thriller, the sort of thing that’s played late nights on cable for decades, but THE STEPFATHER surpasses those expectations by being not only a tight, compact thriller but also a clever commentary on the Reagan-era America that Jerry Blake seems to subscribe to a little too much, with the character making speeches about how being a real estate agent allows him to “sell the American dream”. Part of the confidence of the film, which has a screenplay by Donald Westlake, is that it doesn’t make too much of a thing of this subtext, allowing the viewer to read as much of that into it as they wish. Even when the lead is watching a sitcom on TV that harkens back to a simpler time, the show is MR. ED which allows us to imagine him watching it as a kid but doesn’t make too much of it like a LEAVE IT TO BEAVER-type clip would do. The film seems to be locked into its era so much that it’s tough to imagine how it would work in today’s world without completely altering the meaning (naturally, the remake is due next year) but those reminders of how nostalgia was looked at during the eighties can still resonate. The plot is fairly well put together, but it certainly isn’t airtight. The subplot of one of the murdered family members hunting him feels somewhat mechanical, like a combination of Scatman Crothers in THE SHINING and a chance to get some exposition in there that we wouldn’t otherwise have access to. It’s also a bit much to swallow Jerry Blake meeting a woman recently widowed, marrying her and establishing a foothold in the community all within the space of a year, for one thing.

For that matter, the character of the wife is so thinly written so as to favor the daughter that it comes off as one of the few elements that seems like it would be part of the cheesy, bad version of the film. I’m not going to make any grand claims for the talent of Shelley Hack (love her in ANNIE HALL, though) but it’s not really her fault that she’s playing a character written as such a doormat. That’s one area that the remake could actually improve on but they’ll probably spend half the running time delving into backstory that the original wisely only hints at as well as jettisoning all the interesting subtext and besides, let’s not give them any ideas. Fortunately, the character of the daughter is well-written and played, with Schoelen (in her early twenties when the film was shot, but looking age-appropriate) coming off as likable and completely believable as a normal suburban kid who’s been going through a bad time.

But it’s Terry O’Quinn who everyone remembers from this film and that is deserved. While director Joseph Ruben is able to bring some genuine suspense to much of the film, he seems correctly aware of how dependant its success is on its lead actor. O’Quinn is absolutely fantastic in the role, at times veering from a jovial, comic manner to steely rage within seconds and making it work. The movie is at its best when Ruben seems to have the confidence to simply observe him, watching his face as it remains still yet whatever is going on in the eyes is impossible to miss. Late in the film there’s a point where the character is beginning to put the next portion of his plan into effect and the entire film stops and he just walks around his neighborhood taking in all the sights of home, children and family around him. The section doesn’t advance the plot--it’s just about watching the character observe things and tells us more than any monologue ever could. The sequence ends with a fade to black before continuing with the rest of the film and I wondered if it was the director’s way of allowing himself a quiet, ambiguous ending that he knew he really couldn’t give it, since the slasher movie climax was what had to happen. It’s an interesting thought, although that climax does contain the memorable beat of the character of Jerry Blake suddenly forgetting which persona he is and stopping to ask himself, “Wait a minute, who am I here?” before finally realizing, followed by a response of shocking brutality. It’s the sort of moment that is so effective that it’s impossible to imagine the rest of the movie without it. Those few seconds practically make the movie what it is and it’s safe to say that it might not have the cult that it does have otherwise.

Without O’Quinn, THE STEPFATHER wouldn’t be able to transcend its B-level roots. Maybe it doesn’t fully do that anyway—that climax I mentioned does contain some shower scene nudity (no body double for Schoelen, it should be noted) which feels shoehorned in, like the producers insisted on it. Some of the violence is pretty nasty, which was no doubt what led Gene Siskel to call this “a truly sick film”, though Roger Ebert pointed out in their review that those scenes only seemed to be that much more brutal because some of the rest of the film seemed to have loftier ambitions. Going into that New Beverly screening, I was slightly worried that the movie would play somewhat cheesy in this day and age but while some of that is in there, and probably always was, much of it still remained potent and the power of Terry O’Quinn’s performance certainly hadn’t diminished. If the remake causes the original to finally be released on DVD, then at least it will serve one purpose. If that does happen, be sure to stay home and watch the original instead. It’ll be worth it.