Tuesday, June 30, 2009
I wonder how much of a tradition there is of comedians who, years after their death, wind up being known by certain people for certain random films more than anything else. There might be somebody out there who only knows Jack Benny from Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE and that would be their loss. More to the point, are there people today who only know Richard Pryor from SUPERMAN III and if so, what does that say about his legacy? However you look at this, it might be safe to say that whatever Andy Kaufman is remembered for these days, it most likely isn’t HEARTBEEPS, his only starring vehicle (he had small roles in a few other films). Not a box office success when it was released during Christmas 1981, it’s comes off mostly as a curiosity today and in many ways feels misconceived but there is something a little endearing about how odd it ultimately is. It’s at least bizarre in its slow-motion sort of way. I watched it late at night, not a problem because of the brief running time, and its pokiness kind of went well with the hour.
Sometime in the future, a pair of service robots meet while in a factory waiting for repairs. Val Com 17485 (Andy Kaufman) is a valet robot (hence the name) and Aqua Com 89045 is a hostess robot who specializes in poolside parties (again, hence the name). Soon after meeting Val and Aqua fall in love at which point they decide to escape from the factory to discover what is in the outside world. Taking off with robot comic Catskill (voice by Jack Carter, really bad jokes written by Henny Youngman) who communicates only by telling jokes. They create their own robot child that they name Philco, eventually shortened to Phil (which actually kind of resembles WALL-E and is voiced by none other than Jerry Garcia) and set off looking for a place to live and also to deal with their dwindling power supply. Hot on their trail is the Crimebuster, a robot crimefighter who speaks in nonstop law enforcement jargon intent on incinerating everything in its path.
Directed by Allan Arkush, who’ll always be OK in my book for directing the great GET CRAZY, HEARTBEEPS began shooting in June of 1980 but didn’t appear in theaters until a year and a half later. Press accounts of the time indicate that production was interrupted by the legendary 1980 Actors Strike a few weeks into shooting but the brief running time of just over 77 minutes and abruptness of a few plot points gives the impression that it spent a protracted amount of time in post-production as well. The Oscar-nominated makeup by Stan Winston is remarkable, no doubt about it, but the more I looked at it the more I wondered if its extreme complexity may have affected the production to the point that everyone could have become preoccupied with it at the extent of everything else. As a result, pacing and comedy may have wound up taking a back seat. Sold as a comedy, understandable considering it stars Kaufman, a fair chunk of it is played fairly straight. There is the robotspeak of the two leads as well as plenty of attempts at laughs from the Catskill and Crimebuster robots, but by a certain point these things feel like overkill. For the most part it feels like a bit of misguided sweetness not really aimed at children (though there isn’t anything that would be considered inappropriate) and not appealing for adults either. It’s an odd misfire—too earnest and technically impressive to be included in some sort of ‘so bad it’s good’ list but not particularly enjoyable either. Too many things don’t quite mesh--the funky, lived-in feel of this future world (nice use of colors in the repair factory) combined with the woodsy setting at least feels different from other films but it all feels a little random. Written by John Hill (QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER) it’s entirely possible that it would have worked better as a straight science-fiction novel and I can’t help but wonder how Isaac Asimov would have approached this story within the confines of his own Robot Universe. At one point Kenneth McMillan says to fellow repair factory worker Randy Quaid, “You think too much,” and the idea that it’s a film about robots who are unable to think for themselves in a world of humans who have chosen to stop thinking for themselves makes for an interesting subtext but there’s not enough done with the notion. At times it does feel like things are missing, particularly in the party scene which climaxes almost as soon as it starts as well as the film’s ending which is a little too abrupt and unsatisfying, but plotwise there isn’t a great deal going on anyway. There’s an idea in the film that could be something, whether a comedy or not, and I’ll freely admit that particularly near the end I found the romance to be rather sweet (it’s Bernadette Peters--I’m not made of stone), but ultimately it all seems to just become about the makeup.
And with the two leads speaking with the same robotic-monotone for the entire time it affects the pacing drastically making this short film seem longer than it is. Seeing Kaufman and Peters playing their roles like this certainly adds to the curiosity factor but it can be a little tough to take at feature length. The work they do here is interesting (I particularly enjoy watching Peters walk and move throughout) but it winds up slowing the pace down to a crawl, even affecting what the actors playing humans are doing. Arkush’s GET CRAZY is about as fast-paced and anarchic a comedy ever made—I’m not saying that would have been appropriate here but it definitely had a rhythm that this film never seems to find. In addition to supporting players Randy Quaid, Kenneth McMillan, Christopher Guest, Melanie Mayron and Richard B. Shull, we also get Arkush regulars like Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel and a slick-looking Dick Miller making welcome appearances. Ron Gans, who narrated many New World trailers that Arkush cut with Joe Dante when they worked for Corman, is the voice of the Crimebuster. And it needs to be said that this must be the only film ever made where Kathleen Freeman plays a helicopter pilot. In addition to the Winston makeup, there’s some striking matte work by Albert Whitlock (it definitely looks like a real movie) as well as a mention a score by none other than John Williams that combines some gently lyrical passages that sound very much like the composer’s work with some funkier electronic work, similar to what Jerry Goldsmith was doing at the time and it provides the film with most of the bounce that it has.
HEARTBEEPS is stranded somewhere between being a futuristic comedy and an odder, more idiosyncratic piece. It’s at least unique enough that I’m surprised it doesn’t have more of a cult because of how sweet it ultimately is. The film doesn’t quite work but at least a chance was taken. The degree that the makeup overwhelms everything makes it all the more unfortunate that this is one of the few records of Kaufman on film, but maybe he would have even taken pleasure in that element of perversity.
Now I’m just going to hope that Allan Arkush doesn’t see this. I was thrilled that he left comments in my piece on GET CRAZY and I’d rather he read the nice things I write about his movies.
Monday, June 29, 2009
John Madden’s KILLSHOT began shooting way back in 2005 with an impressive pedigree that included an Elmore Leonard novel for source material, a cast featuring Mickey Rourke, Diane Lane and Thomas Jane as well as the director of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE at the helm. Once filming was completed it then proceeded to spend the next several years in post-production hell at the Weinstein Company and after whatever reshoots or reedits that took place it finally received a small theatrical run in Arizona earlier this year, probably for contractual reasons, followed by an unheralded release on DVD. Why didn’t the Weinstein Company give it a wide release, especially considering they could have put a Mickey Rourke film into theaters just as he was being praised for THE WRESTLER? Well, it’s the Weinsteins, so why do they ever do anything? I’ll freely say that if I’d paid money to see KILLSHOT in a theater I wouldn’t have felt particularly ripped off—I’ve paid to see much worse—but now that I’ve seen it I can safely say that whatever went on during those several years, it wasn’t worth all that trouble.
On the run after killing the wrong person during a job, hitman Armand “The Blackbird” Degas (Mickey Rourke), still haunted by the death of his younger brother during another assignment, takes on two-bit crook Richie Nix (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as a partner and the two attempt to extort money from a real estate bigshot. When the plan goes wrong and Degas is spotted by real estate agent Carmen Colson (Diane Lane) she and estranged husband Wayne (Thomas Jane) are placed in the Witness Protection Program to get her to testify. As the two try to figure out the state of their marriage in this new setting, Degas insists to their hyper partner that this loose end has to be dealt with, saying,“You don’t ever leave things undone. You don’t ever think somebody’s not going to remember you.” This leads the two men to do whatever they can to track down the Colsons who soon realize that even the government cannot fully protect them.
It’s not exactly bad—it’s certainly watchable and anyone who Netflixes it probably won’t be too upset but overall the end result is pretty lifeless. Madden seems to be too polite in his filmmaking style to have much flair for this genre and if there was ever any sort of real energy present it feels like it’s been removed with the finished version pared down to not much more than just the plot. As a result, things move so fast that very little is ever particularly believable even on a pulp level. Jane’s character seems to settle into his new life in about five minutes (there’s zero credibility to this stuff) and the few details we get about the couple being placed into witness protection makes it seem like it’s not all that different from taking a weekend trip out of town. The plot at least makes sense on a basic level even if there are holes but troubles in post become fairly evident (quick flashbacks to remind us why the characters are behaving a certain way, that sort of thing) and at times it feels like it’s in a rush to get to the 90 minute mark so we can wrap things up and just get it over with. Photographed by the great Caleb Deschanel (BEING THERE, THE RIGHT STUFF) it certainly isn’t a bad-looking film but nothing in the staging ever seems particularly inventive and, mostly set in Michigan and Missouri, it all has that bland shot-in-Canada quality (it was shot in Toronto and a few scenes actually takes place there) which adds to how the film just feels sort of blah. Even the score by Klaus Badelt is so dry and sparse it’s easy to wonder if he even got paid his full fee for the job he turned in. But everything else aside, the biggest problem with KILLSHOT is structural—when the film begins it’s clear that Rourke’s Blackbird is the lead character. He’s a ruthless killer, not particularly likable, but Rourke helps to automatically make him intriguing. For the first ten or so minutes it’s clear that the film is about him and considering the source material is from Elmore Leonard (a book I unfortunately haven’t read) it’s a nice daydream to imagine it having been a pretty good Charles Bronson film back in the 70s during the MECHANIC/MR. MAJESTYK days. Then, as Lane and Jane are introduced and find themselves in their predicament while dealing with their marriage the film suddenly becomes about them which just confuses things. It's as if somebody decided to focus the story on who was believed to be sympathetic as opposed to who should be the center of a hard-boiled crime thriller. Rourke (playing half Indian and, as someone else on the net has pointed out, looking disturbingly like the killer in BODY DOUBLE) and his character are always interesting but, much like his work in Tony Scott’s DOMINO by a certain point I felt like he was doing more for the film than it was doing for him. Late in the film he tells someone, “I’m not the same as him,” referring to someone who’s even worse but though we’ve seen evidence of that dimension the film just doesn’t earn such a moment. By the end, he’s little more than the villain who needs to be vanquished and how the plot winds up isn’t bad but it unfortunately chooses the least interesting way to get there.
With Rourke slightly stranded by the film (although he really is good here and it’s great to think that maybe he’ll be seen in films on a more regular basis now), it’s Diane Lane who does the best work, bringing a great deal of dimension to a part that may have been made more threadbare by the cutting (when asked how many children they have, the tone of her voice when she replies, “Almost one,” suggests a level of complexity beyond anything the film is going to try to approach). She and Jane work together extremely well but their story still feels perfunctory due to how fast things move. In comparison, the reunion of Rourke and Lane decades after RUMBLE FISH brings real energy to their scenes beyond what the story requires. It’s hard not to wish that their material gave the two of them more to play off of each other with than just a few enigmatic glances. Rosario Dawson has a few moments in a fairly small role and she gets extra points for allowing herself to look believably bad, which makes sense for the character. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who did some good work in THE LOOKOUT a few years ago, acts up a storm in every single scene he’s in but as a tough guy I didn’t buy him for a second, even one who’s as stupid as the character he’s playing is. He just comes off as a Vincent Chase-type trying to pretend he’s a cheap crook and it seriously hurts the film as a result. Hal Holbrook appears briefly in a crucial role early on and the tension he shows acting opposite Rourke makes it seem like the film is going to have more punch than it does. Reports indicate that Johnny Knoxville was once in the film playing a supporting role but all traces of him have been cut out, though he’s still listed as co-starring in the Netflix plot summary.
It’s too bad because this type of film is right up my alley and I’d like to see more of them but they really do need to be made by people who understand what they should be—some portentous narration by Rourke near the beginning and end seem to be reaching for a significance that isn’t there and, frankly, doesn’t need to be. Mickey Rourke, who made this well before THE WRESTLER, is obviously coming out of this unscathed and Lane & Jane will as well but it’s a shame when actors like this are clearly able to pull off the best possible version of what should be a cool, no-nonsense crime thriller but don’t quite get the chance because of other factors involved. It definitely has its moments and there are far worse ways to spend 95 minutes but you might want to have another film standing by when it’s finished in case you feel a little undernourished when the end credits roll.
Sunday, June 28, 2009
I’ve seen both CANNONBALL RUNs, I’ve seen CANNONBALL! and now I’ve finally seen THE GUMBALL RALLY which is pretty much the best of all of them. And I say that fully aware that there’s going to be no stealing away the cult status of THE CANNONBALL RUN anytime soon. Hey, I get it, I know. I’ve watched THE CANNONBALL RUN countless times through the years and I could quote it as well as anybody. I’m not out to trash Hal Needham’s magnum opus that means so much to everyone out there in the world, especially not when several of its stars have recently left us (the sequel, on the other hand…). THE GUMBALL RALLY, based on the same race that the other films based their plots on, is pretty much what THE CANNONBALL RUN would be if it were made by people who’s first goal was to make a funny, exciting movie with real attention paid to both the characters and the feel for driving out on the open road, not just focused on shooting out a few of the big name guest stars in a few days so everyone can head off to the bar before happy hour ends. THE GUMBALL RALLY, also more of a comedy than the action-focused CANNONBALL! (which isn’t bad, if memory serves), is pretty modest stuff in the end but it does everything it wants to do in just the right way and put me in a better mood than I was before. It has to be one of the most purely pleasant car crash pictures ever made. As we sometimes remember, it was the seventies.
Bored business man Michael Bannon (Michael Sarrazin) is suffering through an extremely dull business meeting when he suddenly picks up the phone, dials a number and speaks one word: Gumball. It means only one thing, that the Gumball Rally is on once again and the various members, those who have “The necessary skills and the determination to succeed,” of this secret society soon gather in New York to begin another race to drive across the country in the fastest amount of time possible. The rules: there are no rules. As the drivers set out to break the previous year’s record of 34 hours and 11 minutes, Lieutenant Roscoe (Normann Burton, Felix Leiter in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, at one point seen reading “The Sound and the Fury” in a cute touch) continually tries to remain hot on their tail, hoping to put an end to the Gumball Rally once and for all.
A cult movie that never seems to have become a cult movie, THE GUMBALL RALLY is pretty much like a feature length version of Hanna-Barbera’s WACKY RACES. It’s light, it’s minor, but it is fun with well-established, um, wacky characters that include now-familiar faces like Raul Julia, Gary Busey and THE TOWERING INFERNO’s Susan Flannery. Directed by Charles Bail (lots of TV, but also CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD) it never quite hits the height of hysteria of something like FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, to name another 70s piece of car-chase madness from Warner Brothers, but it is consistently enjoyable from start to finish. Taking pleasure in the small things, it lets us get an idea of the small details of how the race is organized and, unlike CANNONBALL RUN, actually offers a feel of what it would be like driving out there on the open road for long stretches of time. Nobody watching these movies really cares about the logistical details of such things but the degree of attention it pays to when the race starts, how long it takes and the hours passing helps us pay attention to what’s going on as well as making it even more fun. I guess you could compare it to IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD but as much driving and destruction as there is the film is so breezy and relaxed in its comic nature (especially when compared to the top-heavy earlier epic) that it would almost be misleading to do so, though the trailer on the DVD tries for it anyway. The precision of the sequence where a certain Rolls Royce drives through an array of collisions, leaving destruction in its wake yet emerging unscathed isn’t flashy on any level—you never feel like it’s screaming ‘Hey! The Rolls didn’t get hit!’ at you--but the joke gets across and it’s pretty damn funny. That approach sums up a lot of the film as well. It’s goofy, but never too over-the-top in its comedy (well, maybe a few times…). There’s a nice spirit to the whole thing as well—except for Burton’s law enforcement representative (as benign a villain as you could possibly get) there aren’t any bad guys in the actual race, though some mean bikers turn up—hey, just like CANNONBALL RUN! While everyone clearly wants to win they’re also there for the thrill and the camaraderie of it all, making the overall feel of the film even more likable. At one point one of the characters states, “If I have to die, I want to die trying,” which pretty much sums up the philosophy the film lays out. Though there are occasional signs of 70s sleaze to be found (hey! There’s a streaker!), it rarely comes close to rising above PG-level goofiness. There’s also some very good location work all through it (much of it apparently in Arizona; there’s stuff shot in Los Angeles and Long Beach as well), particularly in New York when the race begins, giving a nice look at the city in the 70s. The streets are empty (it’s supposed to be early morning) but people can clearly be seen on the sidewalks watching the cars and there’s some particularly neat footage of a few of the cars speeding through a nearly-empty Times Square (JAWS and LET’S DO IT AGAIN can be seen on marquees).
It’s not a movie about performances but the cast made up of unknowns and familiar faces like Sarrazin, Busey, Flannery, Joanne Nail, Tim McIntire, Harvey Jason, Nicholas Pryor, Tricia O’Neil and others are all very enjoyable, with Julia especially good, no surprise, as the Italian Franco Bertollini. As he says when the race begins, “First rule of Italian driving: What’s behind me is not important!”, while throwing his rearview mirror away. Burton is also particularly funny as the practically sympathetic bad guy. Colleen Camp turns up along the way and actor Med Flory, playing a highway cop who gets conned by a few of the racers, stands out in a funny scene in which he seems to be doing some sort of odd Henry Fonda impression. Even the music by Dominic Frontiere fits it with the tone just right and at times is cartoonish enough that I wonder if this was another part of the film inspired by WACKY RACES (why do I even remember that show?).
There’s not too much analysis to get into about THE GUMBAL RALLY because it’s really not that kind of film. It’s just a fun, easygoing 70s comedy with lots of fun car stuff, twisted characterizations and a nice vibe to it all. I don’t know if this is one of those little-known 70s films that I would proclaim to be a newly discovered masterwork and go shouting from the rooftops about, something that FREEBIE AND THE BEAN is a perfect example of. But in its own modest way it can be pretty damn fun as well as a nice reminder that seeing cars drive fast and sometimes crash into each other can be very enjoyable to watch.
Saturday, June 27, 2009
On the long list of films that I’ve never gotten around to seeing for no particular reason, I can now cross off LONE WOLF McQUADE. An oddball mish-mosh of different styles ranging from Leone westerns, DIRTY HARRY and maybe a little Peckinpah & Hawks, it’s probably one of the best Chuck Norris vehicles I’ve seen…not that I’m any expert on Chuck Norris or anything. Released in April 1983, at times it’s so enjoyable on its own pure, drive-in movie level that it made me wish that Norris had continued to make movies in the 80s for actual studios (I should revisit CODE OF SILENCE sometime) instead of winding up as part of the assembly line at Cannon. Of course, as the 80s continued the big studios weren’t making this kind of film very much anymore, but even so LONE WOLF McQUADE feels like it’s exactly what it was trying to be. And Barbara Carrera is in it, always a plus for me.
J.J. “Lone Wolf” McQuade” (Norris, of course) is a Texas Ranger who prefers to work alone which leads to him getting yelled at by his captain (R.G. Armstrong) in the Texas Ranger equivalent of “In this department we do things by the book!” as he is assigned a new partner (Robert Beltran, later of STAR TREK: VOYAGER) to watch over him (Armstrong does in fact say, “Meet your new partner,” at which point Norris gets annoyed). After learning that his ex-wife and daughter are moving to another part of the state, he gets mixed up in a gun-running investigation that leads him to black marketer Rawley Wilkes (David Carradine, R.I.P., so cool that he puffs cigar smoke at a guy holding a gun in his face during his first scene) as well as local rich widow Lola Richardson (Barbara Carerra) who takes an immediate interest in him because--well, I guess because he's Chuck Norris.
It’s not the most intricately laid out plotline to summarize, but that’s ok. Beginning with an extended sequence after the credits that holds the first appearance of any dialogue until several minutes of screentime have passed, LONE WOLF McQUADE speeds along at a nice clip throughout, moving so fast that it wasn’t until pretty deep into the movie that I realized that the film felt more like a bunch of scenes coming one after the other than any sort of actual story. But the action is good and with a decent amount of intentional humor it somehow figures out the right tone for this type of genre film. No doubt about it, this is the Chuck Norris who can mow down an entire gang of horse thieves in the first scene all by himself, the one which all those “Chuck Norris Facts” jokes are made about. As much as is going on, it never tries to insert any sort of drama that we don’t need in this movie and many of the characters seem to be enjoying each other’s company so much that it does lend a certain Hawksian flavor to things— when Norris and Carradine are introduced, it’s hard to believe that these two guys have never met before and even Norris and his onscreen ex-wife (at least, I think she is—it’s never entirely clear) seem to get along better than any such couple in history. Directed by Steve Carver (BIG BAD MAMA and CAPONE, among others), it’s not in any way a revolutionary action film but considering all the ways that these types of things are genuinely lousy it’s to the credit of the guy who made it that he was able to bring skill, flair and a sense of fun, with even the nastier plot turns never becoming too grim (kinda violent for a PG though, even without a lot of blood squibs, not that I’m going to get too upset about it). To help with the spaghetti western vibe (clearly an affectionate tribute though it never tries to simply copy them) there’s also a terrifically enjoyable score by Francesco De Masi who actually scored a bunch of those films back in the day. There’s also a plot point in the second hour, where Norris and a Fed played by Leon Isaac Kennedy fly over a long stretch of desert looking for something that feels lifted right out of the search for the nuclear warheads in THUNDERBALL—even a little of the dialogue sounds the same. It’s a fun movie, ideal for chips and beer and without ever becoming a parody it seems aware of its own absurdity—with a cackling dwarf crime kingpin in a wheelchair it has to be-- that it manages a neat balance between being a straight action film and wanting to have a good time with things. Yes, Norris and Carrera kissing while lying in mud while a garden hose sprays water all around them is completely ridiculous, but I kind of think that the film knows this. The lack of attention to plot sometimes catches up with it—Carrera is introduced as an ultra-cool Hawks chick (possibly an item with Carradine) who rides horses and can take care of herself in a tough bar but as her romance with Norris develops she soon just becomes The Girl (who cleans up Norris’s messy house as well), with the film not really knowing what to do with her. Maybe Carerra wasn’t a great actress (“This is not my idea of fun!”), but…aw, let me have this one. I still like her.
Norris, a regular guy who doesn’t want to drink any beer as fancy as Heineken, is pretty much Norris, coming off as likable and determined, willing to let actors like Carradine, Armstrong, Beltran, Kennedy and L.Q. Jones slightly overshadow him in the charisma department as long as he gets to be in the center of the screen and kick all the ass that he can. Carradine, driving a Mercedes with a license plate reading “CARATE”, is so cool in his first scene that it’s almost too bad that he has to be a bad guy but he’s pretty damn effective as an ultra-evil guy as well. Carerra, driving a Rolls Royce with the license plate “LOLAS”, may be a little stiff at times but she exhibits more flair here than she did in certain other roles and seems fully aware of what her character’s place in the film is, even if her place in the plot isn’t always clear. Beltran is likable in one of his first film appearances and William Sanderson, unrecognizable thanks to some huge glasses, is very good as a jittery informant, a good example of how the film lets a minor character make an impression. Yes, this film isn’t about the actors, but to its credit I got the feeling that Carver never minded pausing in the plot to let them add their own quirks like when Beltran stops to keep from walking under a ladder or Carrrera singing to herself as she vacuums up McQuade’s place. Bits like this throughout add to the good vibes and make the film more likable in the end.
There’s lots of fighting and there’s some pretty big explosions as well—one involves Norris and Sanderson (at least I think it’s them) actually in the shot which looks pretty crazy but it’s still kind of cool. And there’s also the big scene near the end where McQuade is in a truck and—actually, no point in giving it away, but it’s a neat moment of me saying, “Wow, did he just do that? Did they actually think they’d get away with that?” And they do. I’m not going to try to claim the LONE WOLF McQUADE is any better than it is, but it is entertaining whether someone is planning on laughing with it or at it and an enjoyable genre piece of the sort that unfortunately isn’t made anymore. And certainly not with Barbara Carrera playing the female lead.
“Get me a beer, kid.”
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
THE ROCKETEER opened on my birthday back in 1991 and as far as birthday movies go (this year it was WHATEVER WORKS, which I wholeheartedly enjoyed), I’ve always had a particular soft spot for it. Heavily promoted with a beautiful one-sheet and released against the Julia Roberts dud DYING YOUNG (which no one remembers), the film only did so-so business at best, putting a stop to whatever franchise Disney was hoping to get out of the concept. Still, I’m guessing it has its fans out there and I’m one of them. But much as I may like the film there’s something about it in the script, the production, the overall look, that always gave it a sort of close-but-no-cigar feeling for me, falling short of the mark it was trying to hit. But I get a lot of enjoyment out of it to this day so I have no problem in saying that I like it. Hell, I may as well flat out admit that I love it, problems and all. It’s fun, it’s exciting and it offers an overall feel of innocence that makes watching it even more wistful as time goes on.
Set in 1938 Los Angeles, the film opens on test pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) trying out the plane that he hopes will be his ticket to glory, when the flight is interrupted by a shoot out between the Feds and some mobsters who are trying to get away with a mysterious device. The plane is destroyed in the shootout, but Cliff and his trusty mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin) later find what one of the mobsters hid when they were trying to make their getaway—a mysterious rocket device that Cliff quickly deduces is designed to be worn by the user in order to fly. The two agree to keep it under wraps, not even telling Cliff’s girlfriend Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) but things change when Cliff realizes he has to use the rocket during a malfunction at the local air show. Now everyone wants to know the identity of the mysterious “Rocketeer” as he is quickly dubbed, especially the gangsters who are in cahoots with famed matinee idol Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) who has his own reasons for wanting the rocket which he keeps to himself. As it turns out, Jenny is working as an extra on his latest film THE LAUGHING BANDIT and when he overhears Cliff talking to her Sinclair soon decides to use this to his advantage.
Directed by Joe Johnston, THE ROCKETEER was based on an acclaimed graphic novel by Dave Stevens (who sadly passed away in 2008), clearly inspired by both pulp novels and movie serials with a slightly more adult tone than the film it spawned—for one thing, in that format Cliff’s girlfriend, there named Betty, was very obviously meant to be Bettie Page. This was all toned down by Disney to make it more family friendly, though a few remnants of that approach survive in the final film (like a bit involving W.C. Fields admiring Connelly’s breasts—hey, I’m not complaining about the close-up we get but still…), giving it a slightly uneven tone throughout, as if there were agreements over what exactly the audience was going to be. The film is so genuinely exciting, fast-moving and flat-out fun that I always find myself wishing that it were as good as I want it to be. There’s something about the mostly-all-in-one-night storyline that has always made the plotting seem a little slight and while bringing Nazis into the mix shows that some of it is clearly inspired by INDIANA JONES (and, in its Hollywood setting, 1941 with one of the key gags coming right from that film) the staging at times feels lacking. This is particularly true during the South Seas sequence which cries out for some genuine flair in both the design of the place (sometimes the film feels like it wants the sort of budget DICK TRACY had) and also how it’s shot, particularly in how in the end it doesn’t really build to anything more than just the Rocketeer bursting in and aimlessly flying around the place for a while. While these flaws are never quite forgotten about, what the movie does have going for it is an innocent sense of old-time fun and an earnestness that makes the movie-movie nature endearing. Johnston doesn’t bring anything new and different to this type of film, but very little of what he does ever seems wrong. It’s very clear that he knows how to keep things likable and continually moving as well and it all holds together with the right spirit. Even the James Horner score, which sounds exactly like every other score Horner did before or since, has a feel of matinee excitement that just flat out works here. Something about this approach makes it feel like more of a relic now than it did then--the film was released just a few weeks before TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY happened, changing everything in the summer movie game forever and there is a sense that the approach THE ROCKETEER takes is still stuck back in the 80s.
The setting of a kind of fantasy version of Los Angeles & Hollywood of the 30s adds to the feel such as how the design of the Bulldog Café perfectly evokes that type of diner that can be seen in old photographs and such real locations such as Griffith Observatory that are used fit in perfectly. There’s also the Oddjob/Jaws-type henchman played by Tiny Ron, meant to be a dead ringer for BRUTE MAN Rondo Hatton, as well as the character of Neville Sinclair being based on Errol Flynn and certain allegations about his private life. There’s also the use of real-life figure Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) in a key role, making for a mixture of real and fanciful elements that gives everything an ideal pulp feel. Not to mention that it’s hard to dislike any film, particularly from Disney, that presents us with an animated Nazi propaganda film, detailing how they intend to conquer America. The portrayal of 1938 isn’t always accurate—the music being played when we see THE LAUGHING BANDIT being shot in particular has always really bugged me—but the film does succeed in portraying what we like to imagine as a more innocent time and that feeling is what I always take with me after seeing THE ROCKETEER.
This feeling extends to the cast. Bill Campbell became neither a success nor a pariah based on this film and he’s at least worked through the years. He’s likable enough here in a gee-whiz way that totally works for the role. Jennifer Connelly is an absolute vision, just terrific as Jenny Blake, making for a perfect damsel in distress although I freely admit that I’m more than a little biased when it comes to her--sometimes I think of 1991 Jennifer Connelly and weep (There’s a reason why I haven’t embarrassed myself by writing about CAREER OPPORTUNITES yet). The movie makes good use of the array of character actors who appear, especially Dalton who is a blast as the bad guy but there’s also Arkin, Paul Sorvino, Ed Lauter, Jon Polito, William Sanderson and O’Quinn who is particularly good in his few scenes as Howard Hughes. Melora Hardin, now and forever Jan Levinson on THE OFFICE, appears as the singer at the South Seas Club, with her renditions of “Begin the Beguine”and “When Your Lover Has Gone” turning up on the soundtrack album.
I put the disc into the player the other night almost on the spur of the moment and quickly found myself having a great time watching it again after not having seen it for a while, so it’s nice to know that it’s aging pretty well. It’s also much more successful at nailing this tone than other 90s attempts at this sort of thing like THE SHADOW and THE PHANTOM. The optimistic feeling THE ROCKETEER offers is still there, even if I’ve long since given up on ever winning the heart of Jennifer Connelly. And if the problems that were there on that birthday long ago are there as well, it remains extremely enjoyable, notable because these things seems to go for the bombast over the fun these days. Hell, even the zeppelin climax works pretty well on every level and how often does that happen anymore? THE ROCKETEER has its heart in the right place and the genuine sense of earnest fun that comes from it is still there. I’d love to see the New Beverly run it at midnight some Saturday in the future. If they want to wait for my next birthday, I’ll definitely make sure to be there.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
I doubt that Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. was ever a particularly believable look at the goings-on of Hollywood. Of course, that’s not at all the point of the film. Instead, it’s clearly meant to be an exaggeration, but more importantly it’s supposed to be as bitter and angry as cinematically possible. Released on July 1, 1981 we don’t need to know much of the history of the director’s career to guess that the Hollywood portrayed probably made more sense in the context of the early 70s, when the events that inspired this pitch- black farce occurred. That the film is set slightly out of time doesn’t hurt it now. If anything, it makes the film seem more fanciful than ever since compared to the film industry portrayed in ENTOURAGE this film feels set on Mars in comparison. I’ve always loved multi-character comedies like this, the ones that demand a full cast-recap of the main players at the start of the closing credits. It’s arch, it’s dark and it’s not without its own problems but it shows Blake Edwards as writer and director more confident and fearless than he ever was before or since.
Mostly remembered today as the film where Julie Andrews goes topless (the trailer on the DVD includes an offscreen voice exclaiming, “You want America’s G-Rated sweetheart to appear in the nude?” which is never actually heard—it’s a key part of the film, but it’s still only just a part of it) S.O.B. is much more, a full-on nuclear assault on the nature of Hollywood but though it is obviously extremely personal, based on battles that Edwards himself went through (reportedly mostly involving Paramount and 1970’s DARLING LILI) he never makes it an autobiographical piece like 8 ½ or something where the lead is the one noble voice in a sea of sleaze (like how the Paul Mazursky version would have gone). Richard Mulligan’s Felix Farmer isn’t Edwards since he’s the producer of NIGHT WIND for one thing and neither is Holden’s Tim Culley, a hack director being more interested in being “shacked up with a sixteen year-old and a case of Jack Daniels”. None of these characters can be considered tortured artists or auteurs. They’re just in the game for the money, glory and power, like everyone else in Hollywood. It’s not always easy here to know exactly who’s being skewered but knowing that the film is essentially about Paramount (who ironically released the film produced by Lorimar) at the least it’s not too difficult to figure out that Vaughn is supposed to be Robert Evans and negotiations to have girlfriend Marisa Berenson star in a film with a hunky leading man played by David Young appear to be based on what resulted from Evans’ wife Ali MacGraw starring with Steve McQueen in THE GETAWAY. That’s what I’m guessing, anyway. One thing that I’ve always been attracted to about S.O.B. is that not only is there no one single lead, someone that an audience can “identify with”, the film is ruthless in making an audience work to figure out who all these people are. NIGHT WIND has already opened when the film starts and the characters are never really even introduced—they’re all immediately present and accounted for in their first scenes, with a few people who make vivid impressions when first turning up are rarely or even never seen again. Nobody is let off the hook in its pursuit of all-out condemnation, not even the characters (like Andrews’ Sally Miles) who you would expect to behave nobly and everyone, down to the bit player cops who offer to give Farmer some great cop stories for a movie (“And none of that SERPICO crap. The real cops.”) is desperate to claw there way into some sort of power position.
The structure is even a little fascinating—the first fifteen minutes seem to ramp things up before taking off, then it does, with much of the first half happening over the course of a single day, followed by the madness of the NIGHT WIND reshoot, which leads to a third act that deals with the repercussions of something that causes the story to take a horrifically dark turn…but since this is Edwards’ jet-black comic look at things, not really. There’s so much going on in the film that it’s almost easy to take for granted how it contains some of the best, most biting and free-flowing dialogue of Edwards’ entire career—the best example of this is Robert Preston’s doctor, clearly a role designed to steal the movie and just about everything he says gets a laugh from his very first moment onscreen (“Why is it nobody ever asks how the doctor is first? Did it ever occur to you that I could be sicker than the patient?”). If there are any drawbacks on this viewing of S.O.B. for me it’s that much of the hysterical ravings by Felix Farmer about the state of the film industry almost get lost in all the madness. Farmer is kind of this film’s equivalent of Howard Beale in NETWORK (a Holden connection) but it’s tough to know how to read some of it since we never get a good enough look at Felix Farmer in his ‘normal’ state. Mulligan is amazing whether catatonic or ranting—he really dives head-first into this part—but there are times when as much attention appears to be paid to the sheer physicality of his performance and the Scope framing of Edwards at times takes in everything around him as well, so all of these worlds don’t quite register as much as they should. I can’t help but feel like we could use another long speech or two from Felix Farmer that would take things to another level that the film seems to resist, but even behind the ultra-archness in S.O.B. there is genuine anger felt towards all the people who once tried to screw Edwards over.
Of course, by the time this film that the director wrote a decade earlier finally opened, audiences were more interested in the likes of SUPERMAN and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK so even taken as an exaggeration it was still considerably out of step with the times, an issue even brought up when Holden says, “It’s been my experience that each time I think I know where it’s at, it’s usually somewhere else,” when he and Mulligan agree on their mutual hatred of LAST TANGO, which the producer wants to emulate (the only mention of a writer in the entire film, which also seems significant considering what Edwards is saying about things). Not that the release date matters much now but thinking about that I can’t help but wonder exactly what we see of the new version of NIGHT WIND is supposed to say about who’s making it. Everything we see appears to be way too consciously symbolic considering what they’ve said but this is never commented on. Maybe these characters are aware of it, but they’re just cynically placing these elements in their film to give the illusion of actual substance. I don’t know if all of these elements hold together seamlessly, but there’s so much going on in the film that I’ve watched it numerous times over the years and I still haven’t gotten tired of it. The film is also loaded with the best of Edwards’s own comically cinematic style, from the fast-cut round-robin of phone calls around town immediately following Polly Reed’s visit to the beach house to the full-circle feel the person who dies in the first scene brings to the plot (no one ever expresses concern for someone in front of them but hearing about it faraway gives them permission to seem worried in Hollywood) to a pretty awesome Malibu party sequence (why haven’t I ever used some of Preston’s armadillo dialogue here myself?) to crazy car-chase slapstick as well as comically horrific injuries suffered by unlikable characters, not to mention what at times feels like more alcohol consumed than in any other film. The nature of the Henry Mancini score means that it really wouldn’t work as an album so it’s no surprise that there was never a soundtrack but he brings more variety to “Polly Wolly Doodle” than should ever be asked of anyone and the ultra-peppy version that plays over the end titles feels just right.
Listing all the dead-on performances would practically be a full cast list (and, interestingly for a film about the movies, a surprising number of people associated with television), but particularly good are Andrews, Holden (I love the moment when he admits to Mulligan that he has lied to him on a few occasions--incidentally, with this actor you could also link this film to SUNSET BOULEVARD), Mulligan, Vaughn, Berenson,Swit, Larry Hagman, Stuart Margolin, Robert Webber and Shelley Winters. It’s a fantastic cast. Rosanna Arquette and Jennifer Edwards are each very funny as the two hitchhikers picked up by Holden—Arquette was apparently displeased by being asked to go topless by Edwards in front of the crew, so maybe there’s a reason why she kind of disappears from the orgy. Benson Fong plays the petty stereotypical Chinese cook for the farmers—hey, at least it wasn’t Mickey Rooney. Larry Storch is the Guru whow delivers a particularly memorable eulogy at the funeral. Herb Tanney plays the key role of the man on the beach, the first person we see in the entire film, credited as “Stiffe” Tanney. For the first time ever on this viewing I realized that in a film that has a line referencing THE THING in a particularly funny moment, it’s Kenneth Tobey, that’s film’s star, who appears briefly doing sound on NIGHT WIND. At least, I think it’s him, since he’s not listed in the credits but there’s something about an actor who was a part of such an important film in Hollywood history playing such a bit part in this film which seems…well, like something out of S.O.B.
Even through all this, the final gesture by a few of the main characters near the end is one of friendship, of trying to cut through what S.O.B. stands for, that does in the end offer this film a small semblance of depth. Even in this town you can find friendship as well as loyalty and on a day like this, one I haven’t really been looking forward to, the ones I know that I can call friends really do mean something to me. S.O.B. is one of my favorite films about this town. Part of that is because of the Blake Edwards-Henry Mancini fantasy of how I would want it to be, part of it is the pure nastiness it reveals. But part of it is because of its ending, which acknowledges that you may resent the town much of the time but by a certain point you never want to be rid of it. With certain people, the ones who really matter to you and are in it as well, you can really know where you stand. And maybe that means something in the very end, even if you wonder where your own life is going in this very dark comedy. Happy birthday dear somebody, indeed.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
The thing about JAWS 2 is that the most memorable part of the entire film will always be that amazing teaser poster which contains of the most memorable tag lines ever, “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water...” Though I was too young for these movies in ’78 I still remember the impact that simple, brilliant artwork and catchphrase had. I would be that anyone who actually did see it then probably has a fondness for the actual film, never mind how it doesn’t and never could have lived up to the original. I like it pretty well, but every now and then I’ve sat down to watch the movie and found myself thinking, “Why do they spend so much time on these damn kids?” whenever they cut to the damn kids. In fairness, that this happens probably doesn’t hurt the movie as much as the fact that most of the plot seems like its there to give the movie an excuse to spin its wheels for a while, as if pretending that it’s going to be about something other than just another shark showing up in Amity. Of course, it’s really just about another shark showing up in Amity. All this said, I freely admit that I may have liked it slightly better on this viewing than I have at other times, with many of its best setpieces proving to be extremely satisfying. It’s not great, but it gets the job done.
Several years after the events of the first film, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is still Chief of Police on Amity Island and as another season is getting started several mysterious events lead him to believe that there just might be another shark in the vicinity. He mentions his suspicions to Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) who brushes him off and even his wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary) begins to express concern how his behavior could disrupt the realty business she now works for. As the evidence mounts, Brody decides to take action which unfortunately turns out disastrously, just as their (surprisingly older, considering their ages in the last one) sons Michael (Mark Gruner) and Sean (Marc Gilpin) are getting more involved with the local sailing culture and decide to head out for a day of boating with Michael’s friends.
Spielberg was off making CLOSE ENCOUNTERS at this point and stated that he had no interest in sequels (not at that time, anyway) so JAWS 2 began production under the direction of John Hancock (LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH). After several weeks of principal photography that was deemed to be unsatisfactory Hancock was fired and was soon after replaced with Jeannot Szwarc, who had previously helmed numerous television episodes as well as the William Castle production BUG at that point. A journeyman director, he may have been just what Universal wanted after the experience with Hancock—someone with the ability to drive the story forward and get us to the shark attacks which, after all, was what everyone was going to want to see in the first place. As much as everyone obviously wanted Roy Scheider back and as much work seems to have gone into giving him stuff to play, the various plot threads introduced (like Brody’s rivalry with realtor Joseph Mascolo) seem there just so they can be dropped by a certain point. After a killer whale washes up on the shore decimated (some sort of wipe at ORCA?) Brody briefly asks an investigating marine biologist if a shark could have been attracted to Amity by a form of sonar from the one killed in the first movie. It’s quickly shot down, but there really isn’t much that could have been done with this idea (what are they going to do? Insert a flashback showing how this shark and the one from the first were close friends?). They also couldn’t have gone the route of having Brody question if his own obsession was getting the better of him—for one thing, it’s revealed to us before anyone in the movie that there really is a shark out there and Universal was never going to let this film be about a shark who may not exist after all (without knowing the specifics, I could imagine that this is something that John Hancock would have focused on, if only based on the tone of LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH). After Szwarc was brought in to start from scratch the production abandoned Martha’s Vineyard and began again in Florida (the water was warmer, for one thing, not to mention that the Vineyard wasn’t particularly welcoming this time around). Carl Gottlieb, one of the writers on the original, was brought in at this point to rework the screenplay (he shares credit with Howard Sackler) and at times the plot structure gives the impression of being scripted under the gun, moving through the various beats of the setup in as streamlined a way as possible so we can get to the second hour, where the real shark stuff is, without too much fuss. Some of the best sequences, particularly the one with the water skier but especially the attack on teenagers Tina and Eddie in their boat, are expertly done (the older I get, the more watching this stuff makes me never want to go out on the water in one of these tiny things) with effective touches in each that insure that they don’t simply feel like they’re being shot by an anonymous second unit. The attack on the rescue helicopter also works extremely well. I definitely get the feeling that all the kinks had been worked out by the crew with Bruce the shark this time around allowing for a greater amount of fluidity in shooting it and Szwarc’s insistence at showing the shark more this time takes good advantage of that (it still looks fake during some of the climax, though). With no attempts to match certain grisly images from the first film in order to get a PG rating (no severed legs falling to the ocean floor this time around) a few of the attacks seems slightly lacking but there’s so ignoring the shock of Tina’s boyfriend Eddie slamming into their boat off-camera and the decision to have the shark horribly scarred much of the time makes for a very effective image every time he shows up.
Much of the human drama never comes together very well in comparison, since the film knows that most of it’s never going to go anywhere and as a result everything just seems a little thin. Roy Scheider gets a drunken monologue when Brody is fired but instead of the character trying to come to grips with his obsession he just talks about how sad he is that he lost his job, feeling his manhood threatened I guess, and there just doesn’t seem to be very much to it. The trio of Brody, Hooper and Quint in the first film lent it much of its power and all three of the actors played together beautifully. Here, the returning Scheider doesn’t really have anyone to play off of in a similar way, with the possible exception of Jeffrey Kramer who makes a welcome return as Deputy Hendricks and has a little more to do this time out. The scene where Brody wades out in the water to investigate something suspicious is a good example of making an effective bit out of nothing but it’s still the actor playing all by himself. The character stuff with the kids doesn’t quite hold together either—Mike Brody is convinced to go out on the big excursion by a girl who is clearly interested him (it’s a plausible enough motivation on his part) but when she’s finally placed into jeopardy his character is elsewhere, not even present for the big climax. Did the actor get hired on another film? No one notices anyway, because we’re really just paying attention to the shark.
And yeah, there’s those kids (including Keith Gordon, a few years before DRESSED TO KILL), who might make this all more nostalgic for anyone who was this age when the movie came out (Release date: June 16, 1978). It’s interesting to consider how this works as an early version of the slasher movie pattern that would begin to develop with FRIDAY THE 13TH just a few years later but even though there are casualties this of course isn’t a body count film. But, more importantly, am I really supposed to be interested in these kids after we got a movie with Robert Shaw? Not to mention Richard Dreyfuss--when Brody is informed that Dreyfuss’s Matt Hooper is in the Anartctic and unreachable until the next year my heart always sinks a little. Szwarc is no Spielberg, but there definitely is more energy to it than any number of other Universal titles from the late 70s (something like ROLLERCOASTER comes to mind pretty easily) and in spite of the different location used (it does seem sunnier out there on the water than in the first film) it does do a pretty good job in seeming like an outgrowth of the first film—John Williams’ score, which builds in natural fashion from the original themes, definitely helps a lot. In the end, it gets the job done well enough which was probably the best anyone ever could have hoped for. It’s not at all unsatisfying but the way the credits are rushed onscreen at the end always makes me think that they wanted to get people out of the theater quick before anyone realized that a fast one had just been pulled. JAWS 2 isn’t the worst sequel ever—hell, it isn’t even the worst JAWS sequel ever—but the notion that it was probably one of the first big-budget follow-ups that made the studios realize how much money they could make off these things really underlines how much it really is just a sequel.
Roy Scheider apparently wasn’t too happy making this movie but, in all honestly, it’s hard for me to keep from enjoying him in this role. The fact that we always trust and like him helps a lot (“Nine-oh-eight means get me out of there!”) and just the sight of him shouting “You’d better do something about this one, because I don’t intend to go through that hell again!” always puts a huge smile on my face. He still has nice chemistry with Lorraine Gary as well and we really do care about these characters of theirs. Murray Hamilton, who just drops out of the picture before the midway point, probably had his role reduced since a crisis with his wife’s health resulted in an agreement to shoot his part out in just a few days. I can almost believe that the actor seems genuinely distracted during some of his screentime and it’s too bad that his character never gets a decent finish—one of the deleted scenes on the DVD shows him as the only holdout on the town council when they vote to fire Brody. This would have taken away some of the sour taste I always felt but the truth is that it’s not a very good scene, so its excision is understandable. The kids have their moments and each of them refreshingly all look like normal kids. A few are just blankly forgettable and there’s no reason to say anything worse about them than that.
Szwarc went onto a lengthy career that continues to this day, directing films like SOMEWHERE IN TIME and SUPERGIRL before landing back in television directing tons of shows like THE PRACTICE, ALLY McBEAL and, more recently, HEROES. Scheider forever refused all offers to play Martin Brody again although Gary, married to then-Universal head Sid Sheinberg did wind up starring in JAWS THE REVENGE in ’87. JAWS 2 did what it needed to do and there are a few scenes where it does better than that. No, it’s not anywhere near the first film and maybe I have gotten impatient with it on a few viewings but it still manages to do the job on those late summer nights when you just need to watch not a great film, but the sequel to that great film. There’s a lot of pleasure to be gotten out of watching a Part Two sometimes. If you can’t enjoy watching one of those, then what’s the fun of any of this?
Sunday, June 14, 2009
If you’ve read any of the numerous histories on the making of THE GODFATHER some of the same tales begin to pop up each time, with a few of the most famous stories occurring during the post-production process. One of them involves how at one point during this period director Francis Coppola screened a version of the film for Paramount head Robert Evans. The running time clocked in at a little over two hours and, so the legend goes, as soon as the screening was over Evans flipped his lid, wondering why so much that had been shot had been taken out, calling it “a two-hour trailer.” He insisted on delaying the release so they could put back much of what he felt was missing and somehow work some magic to turn it into the masterpiece he insisted was in there, resulting in the 175 minute-version of THE GODFATHER that we know to this day. The rest, of course, is history. Different versions of what went on around this time have been told by both Coppola and Evans, which each giving their own side of the situation, but there doesn’t seem to be much disagreement that the film was indeed considerably shorter than three hours at one point.
THE COTTON CLUB, directed by Coppola and produced by Evans, hasn’t had as much written about it in recent years, not counting the various scandals that later became associated with the production. Though I can remember hearing over twenty years ago about huge amounts of footage that was cut, particularly musical numbers, without a script in front of me or any real knowledge about what happened all I can go on is what I see. So whether you believe Coppola or Evans or someone else when it comes to the stories about THE GODFATHER, I can’t help but think that, to me, THE COTTON CLUB does indeed play like “a two-hour trailer” for a longer, richer, more complete epic that I guess we’re never going to see. The film received a mixed response when it was released back in December 1984 (same day as DUNE, speaking of problematic movies that should have been longer) and is never really discussed very much these days. There’s greatness in there and at times there are scenes which feel like they could be part of a genuine masterwork but for a variety of reasons but it doesn’t come to life as often as it should and it’s hard not to wonder about what we’re not seeing.
Spanning a number of years during the twenties and into the thirties, the film focuses on an array of characters both black and white, focusing on coronet player Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) who one night accidentally saves the life of gangster Dutch Schultz (James Remar) and, roped into working for him, falls for Dutch’s mistress Vera Cicero (Diane Lane). Gregory Hines plays dancer Sandman Williams who falls for beautiful Lila Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee) while breaking away from his brother Clay (Maurice Hines), also a dancer with whom they had a double act. Lila, with a black father and white mother, is herself caught between these two worlds as she tries to puruse her own show-business career. Dwyer’s own brother Vincent (Nicolas Cage) falls deep into the world of gangsters while Dixie himself breaks away from that world to become a big-time Hollywood star but as he soon learns it’s difficult to break away from it completely. All this is centered around the legendary Harlem nightclub The Cotton Club where only blacks performed but only whites were allowed in to see them, run by the powerful Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins), who keeps a firm eye on everything going on there.
For a location that is allegedly supposed to be what the film is centered around, it’s unfortunate that The Cotton Club seems to have at times such a tangential presence in its own film. Except for the opening titles and a brief daytime scene, the film is nearly a quarter over before we’ve entered the legendary place to see it in all its glory—by this point the plot has begun but it’s not until here when the movie feels like it’s coming to life to and such a sluggish opening turns out to be a difficult thing for the film to get past. Coming at a point in his career between the visual phantasmagoria of ONE FROM THE HEART and TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM it’s hard not to feel like Coppola made this film at a low energy level, maybe looking for a happy medium to combine the stateliness of the GODFATHER films with the stylistics of an old fashioned musical and never quite finding it. Or maybe he was just resisting putting a certain type of visual stamp on the film. Not to mention the problematic narrative, which includes not starting the film at the club—we can always track what’s going on in the script credited to Coppola and William Kennedy (Mario Puzo gets a story co-credit as well) and the narrative makes sense on a basic level but too much of the time there’s no natural flow to any of it. Things seem to happen out of nowhere and when they’re resolved they finish out of nowhere as well. Too many of the plot strands such as the falling out of the Williams Brothers and Vincent Dwyer’s descent into crime happen so abruptly that too often we wonder where certain motivations are coming from. When these subplots end, they’re never mentioned again and as a result they don’t seem to matter much in the long run.
The matter of racial politics never feels like it’s getting enough attention either and when a character mentions somebody wanting to be successful in “white show business” it feels like there’s a genuinely relevant topic which isn’t being explored enough for this to be a real examination of the period. Too much always seems to be missing to allow us to fully connect with it—it’s as if THE GODFATHER just had the plot and dispensed with scenes like Clemenza teaching Michael how to make spaghetti sauce. When we jump forward in time with the use of swirling newspaper montages (like in THE GODFATHER, but there are too many of them) instead of feeling like we’re watching an epic tale that spans years it’s hard not to feel a little disoriented each time. Why are we abruptly cutting off the narrative we’re following at these points? Every time this happened, I found myself losing any connection with the film for a few minutes.
But as the film continues it becomes clear how there are numerous delights to be found and these elements really come to the forefront. The entire production looks great throughout, everything involving the music and production numbers is continually thrilling and it occurs to me that this is one of the very last times that a music-heavy film doesn’t make use of what would later be generally known as “MTV cutting.” The final 15 minutes or so, which begin with a piece of cross-cutting building to violence that can stand up to the best of THE GODFATHER moving into a musical number that manages to take place simultaneously in both the club and Grand Central without resorting to overly convoluted trickery, are so phenomenally well-done that it’s hard not to wonder, where has THIS amazing movie been the entire time? It sends us out on a high note but there’s still a certain feeling of emptiness felt when “From Zoetrope Studios” appears in the final shot as if we’ve been shortchanged. There are things in here that I love and which show off everyone involved at their very best, but because of the feeling that they never quite nailed down the script structure, not to mention the awareness of what we’re not seeing, THE COTTON CLUB has to be one of the most frustrating almost-great films ever.
What works extremely well throughout is the cast, even if it slightly falters when it comes to the leads. Gere and Lane are decent but not much movie-star heat comes from them either together or separate (I’ve liked each of them much better in other things). Gregory Hines makes much more of an impression in every facet of his character’s arc—he and Lonette McKee do genuinely have chemistry together, even if their own story never fully comes together. Aside from those couples there’s the hugely enjoyable Lisa Jane Persky as Schultz’s girlfriend Frances Flegenheimer with some of her best moments coming when she’s spouting off wisecracks practically in the corner of the frame (“They're conquering the world with arithmetic.”), the amazing Julian Beck (“I didn’t have a mother. They found me in a garbage pail.”) and best of all the double act of Hoskins alongside Fred Gwynne as his right-hand man. It’s hard not to think that in a more complete, well-received film that Hoskins could have had a shot at an Oscar, but the two men’s friendship feels like the most emotionally rewarding element of the entire running time and a scene involving a certain watch is just about the best moment of the film (I know I’m hardly the first person to say this, but it’s still true).
James Remar, scowling throughout, looks like he came right out of a Warner Brothers movie of the thirties as Dutch Schultz (even if he’ll always be Ganz to me). Nicolas Cage feels fine as Gere’s brother but his effectiveness his hurt by the abruptness of some of his character’s turns in the plot. I get the feeling that at this point Cage wasn’t confident enough at this point to do something totally wacko with his role like he would start doing a few years later. And it’s hard for me not to get a kick out of the vast amount of familiar faces that turn up throughout, including John P. Ryan, Gwen Verdon, Jennifer Grey, Tom Waits, Ed O’Ross, Woody Strode and James Russo just for starters. Laurence Fishburne plays Bumpy Rhodes, a fictional version of Bumby Johnson who he later played in 1997’s HOODLUM (he’s good, but his scenes almost always feel like they’re happening on the outskirts of the plot). Joe Dallesandro resembles a DeNiro-like apparition as Lucky Luciano, Diane Venora leaps off the screen in a bit as Gloria Swanson and Sofia Coppola appears briefly as a child on the street.
Sometimes much of the enjoyment comes from what the actors are doing within scenes—I can’t imagine that Diane Lane’s little trick with her tongue is there for any reason other than Coppola saw her doing it on the set and decided to include it. There are enjoyable little bits like this throughout. Coppola’s love of his actors comes through and it’s hard to fully dislike any film that displays that so fully. There are so many recognizable people, all of whom are clearly engaged with these roles, that it’s almost like the straight version of how Warren Beatty used familiar actors in DICK TRACY several years later, only covering them all in makeup (a couple of minor players turn up in each)—even the montages used in that film are very similar to the ones here. At the least, both films share production designer Richard Sylbert. Maybe someone should do some looking into this.
THE COTTON CLUB deserves better than to be remembered for the scandals that surrounded it and if were always as good as its best moments it might be a masterwork. But it’s not. I don’t know if it was just the cutting or writing or numerous behind-the-scenes disagreements between the major players but what resulted feels like a shadow of what may have been a great film. I guess we’ll never find out if it was going to be, but at least we have the moments, the musical numbers, the pieces of magical, unforgettable cinema which maybe only somebody like Coppola can provide to give us that impression. In the long run, those things count for a lot.