Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Welfare Of The People

After the FREEBIE AND THE BEAN/HICKEY & BOGGS double bill at the Egyptian, I did the only thing that made any sense: I raced down to the New Beverly for the midnight screening of TARGETS. It wasn’t because I’d never seen TARGETS—as a matter of fact when I mentioned what I was doing someone I’d only met the night before asked, “Haven’t you already seen it?” which I honestly found flattering. The truth is I’ve seen TARGETS many, many times through the years including once at the Walter Reade Theater in New York years ago. But even after that night at the Cinematheque, there was no way I was going to miss this chance. It’s made for just about the best triple bill I’ve ever seen. TARGETS is a favorite for me not just because of how good it is, but also because of both its place in the history of film and the story of its making, something that feels almost as important as the film it produced. It shows that you can make something truly special from, if not nothing, then from an idea that on its surface wasn’t very much. In spite of reviews from such places as The New York Times which called it “original and brilliant,” TARGETS didn’t get much of a release in 1968, at least in part due to real world events, but its cult status has justifiably grown over the years. If I could show it to everyone I know who hasn’t seen it, I gladly would.

The 1968 directorial debut of Peter Bogdanovich, the dual plot of TARGETS tells the story legendary horror icon Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff, essentially playing Boris Karloff) who his recently finished THE TERROR, his latest film and though the company that employs him is already planning for his next vehicle he abruptly announces his retirement, feeling that the kind of horror he is known for is now too old-fashioned to be compared to the present day horrors of the real world. As if to prove this point in an alternate plotline, young Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) a gun enthusiast who lives with his parents and his wife in suburban tranquility in the valley while not saying much about his own feelings beyond “sometimes I get funny ideas,” suddenly begins to demonstrate what he isn’t saying in shocking, terrifying way. The two stories begin to converge as Orlok prepares for what he expects will be his final public appearance at a drive-in premiere of THE TERROR.

TARGETS began life when producer Roger Corman offered the young Bogdanovich the chance to direct basically by telling him that he still had Boris Karloff under contract for a few days of shooting. The idea was to combin Karloff footage from Corman’s own 1963 film THE TERROR, new scenes shot with Karloff, as well as filming new footage with other actors that could make up the rest, giving Corman a new Karloff vehicle. What Bogdanovich (as well as his then-wife Polly Platt and an uncredited Sam Fuller who essentially reworked the story over an afternoon) came up with was considerably different from what Corman had in mind, to put it mildly. In many ways it’s a death knell for what was then the history of Hollywood (“All the good movies have been made,” muses Orlok’s director played by, of course, Peter Bogdanovich) and what the world of the late sixties was turning into. The first-time director works wonder with the low budget, even if a few of the sets do look just like sets. Ultimately, thinkgs like that don’t matter very much. Not as we witness the enjoyable interplay between Karloff, Bogdanovich and the underappreciated Nancy Hsueh as Orlok’s secretary and certainly not during the various suspense setpieces which show Bogdanovich using seemingly every trick from Hitchcock he ever learned (the director points out a few of these on the DVD commentary;at the very least, Bobby Thompson’s quiet rearranging of things in one scene has a strong touch of Norman Bates’s post-shower cleanup in PSYCHO). The remarkable drive-in climax in particular is very skillfully cut to give the impression that much more is going on than was available to the production. Bogdanovich has points to make about love of film, the realities of the world and the use of guns but he never puts too much emphasis on any of them. For the most part these things are sprinkled in there and you either take them willingly or just watch it as a normal thriller. But it’s metaphor for what films can really mean is pretty amazing—if it ever played at a drive-in it’s hard to imagine a more unnerving experience and it’s possible that watching it wouldn’t have nearly as much impact on somebody who didn’t have a true love of film in the first place. I’m deliberately trying to be light on plot points here but I’ll just say that when the two stories literally converge (or maybe I should say when one of the stories literally closes in on the other) the moment pays off remarkably well. I showed this film to somebody a long time ago and even with just the two of us in the room that person began applauding at this point. It honestly gives me an emotional chill each time I see it.

The film’s use of Boris Karloff should not be minimized. Not his last film appearance (although it would probably make sense to consider it as such) one thing that struck me seeing the film at the New Beverly is how genuinely old the man looks in it (particularly when compared to the clips we see of him in THE TERROR). A good amount of dialogue is spent what’s going “to happen” to Byron Orlok and though the idea of his death is never discussed, it seems to be something that he is always thinking about, the most unforgettable example of this being when he tells the “Appointment in Samarra” story climaxing in a chilling close-up of his face. He thinks of himself as a relic, a dinosaur and aware that the end is near but what he is unexpectedly faced with is the question of how he is going to face that end. It occurs to me that then as much as now the idea of an actor of this advanced age playing such a lead role is almost unheard of, unless he’s just there to die and pass on a special lesson to someone younger and more vibrant. Even if this was an inadvertent move by Bogdanovich, it still helps make the film even more unique. It’s also a must for any fans of the legendary actor and in spite of the onscreen character protesting that he “couldn’t play a straight part anymore” he does an excellent job from the endearing comic bits sprinkled throughout to the film’s unforgettable final moments.

It’s not totally Karloff’s film, of course, with Bogdanovich (probably familiar these days as Dr. Elliot Kupferberg on THE SOPRANOS) particularly enjoyable to watch in his scenes he plays with the star. As his secretary, the very good and sadly unknown Nancy Hsueh reminds me of somebody I used to know…and let’s leave it at that. Tim O’Kelly, who even Bogdanovich has no idea what became of, is extremely effective as the All-American boy with something simmering inside. It should also be noted that the clips of THE TERROR, which don’t make up as much of the film as Corman originally had in mind, make use of cast member Jack Nicholson. Since EASY RIDER was still a year in the future at that point, his appearance then wasn’t very distracting.

The New Beverly got a pretty large crowd for TARGETS and it was good to see people respond to it so well, particularly near the end. The world has changed since it was made, as has Los Angeles and I should mention that anyone who would be interested in what the city looked like during this time should see the film as well. Many of the locations are gone, but a few here and there can still be spotted. It’s appropriate that enough of the film still resonates including the horrors of guns that we are sometimes face with and what movies can ultimately mean to us, what they can do. It can be very difficult to reconcile that clash between films and reality, particularly when you live in L.A. That’s probably why TARGETS is one of my favorite films about the movies. It might just be one of my favorite films.

“Is that what I was afraid of?”

Friday, January 30, 2009

No Place At All For Fantasies

There are times when you just wind up connecting with some films more than others. I attended the double bill of PLAY IT AS IT LAYS and PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD at the Cinematheque last Sunday, which I suppose could be described as the ‘women who go crazy’ double bill. The women in question were Tuesday Weld playing a denizen of the film industry in Malibu and Faye Dunaway as a fashion model in New York. My main impression was that I respected what each film was going for more than I actually liked them and while I would be willing to sit through either one again in the future, I’m not sure my opinion will change. That said, I am completely open to anyone who wishes to launch a strong defense of either film. I’m not even sure which one I thought worked better, though some of PLAY IT AS IT LAYS sticks with me a little more, from Tuesday Weld’s resigned narration to the overhead shots of L.A. to the randomness of Chuck McCann’s appearance as the guy who drives Weld to her abortionist. The zoned-out feel of all the Malibu sections made me wonder what a version of this film directed by Blake Edwards would have been like, but that’s probably my own personal taste. The pairing of Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins in that movie definitely provides it with some of its unusual energy and that can be seen to even better effect in PRETTY POISON, the very dark comedy they starred in together four years earlier in 1968.

Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) released from a mental institution and told by his sympathetic but stern parole officer (John Randolph) that the outside world is “no place for fantasies”. Soon he is working a factory job in a small town and has his eye on an extreme fantasy, beautiful high school drum majorette Sue Ann Stepenek (Tuesday Weld). Seeming particularly fascinated by the possibility that the factory is poisoning the town water supply by chemicals that are being dumped into it he manages to work his way into Sue Ann’s life, convincing her that he is in fact a CIA agent working undercover, a story she falls for immediately. But when he convinces her to help him out with what he claims is part of his assignment to sabotage the factory things don’t go quite as planned and Dennis soon starts to realize that his lie may have gone way too far.

Directed by Noel Black and written by the great Lorenzo Semple, Jr.(the BATMAN TV show, THE PARALLAX VIEW, the '76 KING KONG and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR among others), it’s an odd movie in that it has a definite sixties feel, yet doesn’t particularly feel very dated at all. There aren’t even other films from that period that I could compare it to. It feels so much like its own thing that even though I can think of better films from the period it still doesn’t seem right to categorize it with certain other titles that were being made around then at the dawn of the New Hollywood. Filmed on location in a small town in Massachusetts, PRETTY POISON almost feels like it exists out of time and it’s easy to imagine that it could have been made in the mid-90s without changing the script much at all and it would have absolutely played (in fact, it was remade for TV in ’96 but lets just assume it’s lousy and move on). Lorenzo Semple Jr’s dialogue feels constantly screwy with even lines that would seem flat on the page playing great in context—it’s an amazing piece of writing in that sense. The Perkins-Weld relationship kind of sliced into me, even reminding me of a few things I’ve written. Or maybe a few relationships I’ve found myself in as well. Not to the extent that things occur here, of course, but it was still enough make me sit up and pay a little more attention. As one of their plans takes effect and she embraces him, Dennis begins to realize that this girl isn’t quite what he expected her to be. “You’re sweating,” she says as she embraces him. “You’re cold,” he replies. That pretty much says it all. I think I’ve had that happen to me too.

The movie remains off kilter by never allowing us to become very comfortable by making clear just what everyone’s intentions are. Is Dennis really crazy? Is he just having fun by telling Sue Ann that he’s a government agent? Is he leading Sue Ann on? Is Sue Ann leading him on? The tone contributes to this uncertainty. When the tone becomes darker, it’s almost like the film doesn’t want to tell us that it’s no longer a comedy. Even the score by Johnny Mandel which doesn’t sound all that different from the music he composed for POINT BLANK adds to this? Why is this film set in a small town scored this way? Is it the music that Dennis, pretending to work for the CIA, hears in his own head? Is the score aware that this is a comedy? Is the film aware that this isn’t a comedy? It goes without saying that the film was very probably a key influence on HEATHERS and one element of the ending is surprisingly similar to how a few particular Steven Soderbergh films end as well, making me wonder how much of a fan that director is of PRETTY POISON.

How many movies begin with Anthony Perkins being released from an institution? Maybe it’s just this and PSYCHO II, but either way he manages to brilliantly pull off the balance of making us believe that he’s slightly off but we’re never sure just how much. Maybe it’s because we can easily believe that even he’s never sure just how much. It’s hard not to think a little of Norman Bates while watching him in this role and while he probably would have hated hearing that, a double bill of both films would probably wind up complimenting both performances. Tuesday Weld is beautiful, fascinating, frightening. It’s a huge surprise to learn that she apparently hates this movie, hated making it and hated the director. Certainly what she pulls off onscreen bares no trace of those feelings. The great John Randolph manages to bring some shading to what could have been a stiffly played role as the parole officer and Beverly Garland is simply amazing as the unforgettably horrible mother to Sue Ann.

PRETTY POISON doesn’t have much of a reputation beyond simply being a cult item but it deserves to be known for more than that. It’s a fascinating example of a film that is sharply funny yet tonally refuses to let the viewer to ever get completely comfortable. And in its amazing pairing of the two leads is a relationship that’s a great example of the sort of ultra-dark romantic comedy that I love. I’d say more about how much I relate to those parts of the film, but I’d rather not. Just see the movie instead.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Not About Anything

Each evening of this past weekend was spent at the Egyptian for the American Cinematheque’s New Hollywood Strikes Back series, focusing on some of the undeservedly lesser known titles of the seventies. It started off on Friday night with the double bill of Peter Yates’ THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (an excellent low-key crime drama set in Boston starring Robert Mitchum) and Sam Peckinpah’s remarkable BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (which I want to write about, but that’s going to take some time). Saturday night, the one I had really been waiting for, was Richard Rush’s hysterical, offensive, massively enjoyable Alan Arkin-James Caan buddy-cop team-up FREEBIE AND THE BEAN followed by the considerably more subdued private eye buddy-film HICKEY & BOGGS. I wrote a short thing about FREEBIE when the Cinematheque showed it a few years ago and it was a blast to see it a second time. Hopefully it won’t be nearly as long until they bring it back yet again—I actually know a few people who wanted to go but weren’t able to and seeing the reactions from people I knew who were seeing the film for the first time made me want to get even more people to see it, with exactly the sort of packed house we were in responding the same way. It’s a great film to see with such a crowd and I know that I was just one of many who were in hysterics throughout. If you could have driven over to the Egyptian that night to see it but didn’t, you only have yourself to blame. There’s no reason that the film isn’t better known these days aside from its (considerable) political incorrectness but even so, the fact that it isn’t available on DVD is flat-out inexcusable (the studio, by the way, is Warners but hey, it’s not like the movie features both a recent Oscar winner and the co-star of one of the most successful films of all time or anything).

FREEBIE AND THE BEAN was a definite highlight of the night, but I was also excited to see the near-unknown and definitely unavailable HICKEY & BOGGS, made in 1972, which managed to work in this context as the complete polar opposite of what we had just seen. Starring Robert Culp, who also directed, and Bill Cosby, it’s also a buddy movie from the early seventies set in a city on the west coast (FREEBIE is San Francisco, HICKEY is L.A.) but while the first film of the night is at times unbearably funny, HICKEY & BOGGS is an unrelentingly grim and downbeat piece which comes pretty close to not having a single light-hearted moment in its entire running time. Any fan of the two actors who had previously starred together in the much lighter I SPY tv show back in the sixties would be genuinely surprised by the harsh tone of this film. Compared to FREEBIE AND THE BEAN which in its way is like an enjoyable six-pack of great beer, HICKEY & BOGGS is several tall, slow glasses of very strong whiskey.

Down on their luck and badly in need of cash, L.A. private detectives Al Hickey (Bill Cosby) and Frank Boggs (Robert Culp) take on a case to find a missing girl who, we already know, is more than just a missing girl. Since the two guys aren’t dummies, they figure that she’s more than just a missing girl as well but they can’t anticipate who they’re going up against or what the personal price they pay is going to be.

And I thought when I saw THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN that I’d seen the absolute grimmest 70s crime film out there. The first screenplay credit for Walter Hill, HICKEY & BOGGS gives us two guys who do what they do and barely seem to know why anymore. They muse about what their profession has become, are aware that they’re one step away from being glorified process servers and that it’s “not about anything” anymore. There’s absolutely no romanticizing about the private eye profession here and there are points where it seems the two of them are barely going to be able to stop drinking long enough to do anything about their case. What they eat isn’t any better—in one scene the partners order two chili dogs apiece and when we get a look at them I briefly thought that the film might not need any villains to try to kill them off. They have women problems as well—major women problems. The office the partners work out of appears to be just off Hollywood Boulevard, just a few blocks away from the theater we were seeing this film in and there’s some very good L.A. location work throughout including a terrific shootout at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum—I even recognized a house in one scene that was also used in John Boorman’s POINT BLANK. But in spite of this Culp’s direction presents a completely bland, colorless look at Los Angeles—I mean this is a good way—letting us know that these guys have long since stopped looking at their surroundings with any kind of pleasure and even the numerous beach scenes don’t feel like they’re a particularly pleasant place to be like they would in any other film. There definitely isn’t any cool ROCKFORD-like vibe to this 70s private eye world. It’s unfortunately the only feature that Culp ever directed and he does an excellent job in presenting this world to us in the most matter-of-fact way possible, as unpleasant as some of it is, with some occasional striking imagery. When the action kicks into gear it never feels tonally off, even when a big explosion occurs. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that some kind of relief would have been nice, but HICKEY & BOGGS definitely gets points for sticking to its nasty view of the world and making no apologies for it. The climax is also on a beach, just like the John Wayne 70s cop film McQ, but by this point we’ve long since thought of any of this as being cool action and I was impressed that the film actually regards the fates of some supporting characters here with some sympathy—almost any other film would just note the deaths and move on.

Because of what we expect from the Cosby and Culp personas it’s fascinating to see them commit to these characters so fully. Both of them are absolutely terrific. Rosalind Cash of THE OMEGA MAN is very good as Cosby’s estranged wife and lots of familiar faces turn up in early roles, including Vincent Gardenia, Michael Moriarty, Isabel Sanford, Ed Lauter and James Woods who, no surprise, is the most motormouthed person in the whole film.

The characters of Al Hickey and Frank Boggs have long since given up any illusions that their profession is about anything or that anyone is going to notice if it matters and how this winds up only confirms their belief. HICKEY & BOGGS is not a great film—like anything in this genre the complexities of the plot are tough to completely follow on first viewing and some of the smaller details seem needlessly murky at times. But it is an important example of the genre from the period and one that I hope to see again at some point, even if it’s not something I would want to watch all the time. Each of the films I saw this weekend had at least something of interest to them and the good part of this sort of series is that the Cinematheque shows films that are otherwise impossible to see. The bad part of it is that it doesn’t always feel like one viewing is enough to fully appreciate them. Either way, it just makes me want to see more films from the period and not see something made recently that genuinely isn’t about anything instead. Of course, that always seems to wind up happening sooner or later.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Laugh Is Nothing To Be Sneezed At

The problem with getting mad at the seemingly never-ending onslaught of remakes these days is being forced to admit that every now and then there are some good ones. Back in 1983 I’m sure that somebody was outraged that Mel Brooks had the audacity to remake an Ernst Lubitsch masterpiece, namely 1942’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE. At the time I had very little awareness of the issue since I wasn’t one of those kids who are experts on Lubitsch, like so many of them seem to be today. So I accepted and enjoyed that remake, only to take a look at the original years later and finally see what people were talking about. Watching the two of them now in immediate succession is an interesting experiment—actually, viewing two such versions of any film where the remake maintains such close, affectionate fidelity that compliment each other as much as these do is something I would recommend. How does it affect your opinion of the two films? Does the fact that I remember one of them from when I was a kid affect my judgment? How does the storytelling differ? It’s a good way to see how slightly different approaches can affect things and the reasons why you might prefer one over the other.

Set at the time of the 1939 invasion of Poland, each film tells the story of a theatrical troupe headed by a husband and wife team (Jack Benny & Carole Lombard in the original/Mel Brooks & Anne Bancroft in the redo) that through a variety of circumstances have to use all of their expertise to try to pull one over on the Nazis who are in the process of destroying their homeland. The other characters involved include a young Polish flyer who is infatuated with the wife (Robert Stack/Tim Matheson), Polish resistance leader Professor Siletski (Stanley Ridges/Jose Ferrer) and the feared Col. Erhardt (Sig Ruman/Charles Durning) head of the Gestapo in Warsaw.

Upon its release in 1942, TO BE OR NOT TO BE (Story by Melchior Lengyel, Screenplay by Edwin Justus Meyer, with contributions from Lubitsch as well) was not particularly well received. Reviewing it in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther stated that “To call it callous and macabre is understating the case,” adding that he much preferred a brief documentary on the R.A.F. that played with the main feature. The tragic death of legendary star Carole Lombard in a plane crash, only a few weeks after the completion of photography, was no doubt a factor in the response but a greater reason was certainly the fact that a comedic take on the Nazis at that point in time was not exactly looked at favorably. It wasn’t until later that the film began to be appreciated for the masterwork that it is. The famed Lubitsch Touch is something that I can only begin to understand and describe to someone not familiar with it but it certainly refers to the elegance the director brought to his films, the way the jokes sneak up on you in a quiet way while the story still manages to have a great deal of depth to it through those laughs. There’s also a great deal of brilliant plot construction that seems to have been forgotten about in recent years and what the director brought to his films deserves to be better known today. Peter Bogdanovich has recounted Jack Benny telling him that the star accepted the lead in the film when it was offered him without the slightest inkling of what the story was, saying that considering how many lousy directors he got stuck with on his films then if a director of Lubitsch’s caliber wanted him, “Who cares what the script is!” As a result, it’s the only film the great comedian is remembered for on any serious level. He’s very good in the role of Joseph Tura, particularly in the second half when the ultra-vain actor has to begin taking on other personas to help pull one over on the Nazis, but Carole Lombard is the one who is truly amazing and as Maria Tura has to be one of my favorite comic performances by an actress ever. The elegance she brings to it, the inner life she projects in every shot makes it perfectly believable why every single male in the movie falls for her instantly. The spin she continually brings to her already sharp dialogue is simply amazing. She has one line to Robert Stack’s flyer, who as leaving their first meeting says that it’s the first time he ever met an actress and she responds , “Lieutenant, this is the first time I’ve ever met a man who could drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes. Bye!” That reads like nothing on the page but the loopy, thunderstruck way she says it makes it one of my all-time favorite line readings and it’s hard not to want to climb into the movie just to meet her. The film is filled with lines that you don’t expect anything from such as the runner of Benny’s vain star referred to as “that great, great actor” which pay off wonderfully. TO BE OR NOT TO BE—the title is used in the film as the special code for when Stack should exit the play to go backstage to meet Lombard, leading to, as Benny puts it, "What every actor dreads"--is endlessly rewatchable. The more serious elements of the story are of course there and while they’re not given short shrift, the movie doesn’t make a big deal out of them. In fact, they help to give added resonance to every joke in the film.

If someone who hadn’t seen the original for a long time watched the 1983 remake (Screenplay by Thomas Meehan & Ronny Graham), they might think it was closer than it really is. It’s not quite a scene-for-scene redo. More like a plot-stroke-for-plot-stroke sort of thing. The story is essentially the same (though the lead’s name is changed from Tura to Bronski, the name of a minor character in the original) and a fair amount of dialogue recurs throughout, even a handful of serious lines (“People are going to kill each other and be killed.”) But the remake takes a much broader approach to the material, inserting jokes where there didn’t used to be any and taking places where jokes used to be and making bigger, more obvious laughs out of them. The “great, great actor” runner is left out this time (a substitution is the line “He’s world famous in Poland,” which is funny, but a little more obvious) and there are numerous types of bits like Mel Brooks saying “Don’t look at me! Don’t look at me!” when he’s wanted to impersonate somebody, followed by the hard cut to him in full costume, shouting “Look at me!” in disbelief. Reaction to the film when it was released during Christmas 1983 was mixed although somewhat fittingly, in The New York Times Vincent Canby called it “smashingly funny,” while also making his admiration for the “brilliant” Lubitsch version very clear. I started to watch the remake as soon as I finished the original and with the extremely satisfying elegance of that experience still fresh in mind within a few minutes I was wishing for everyone onscreen to just calm down for a moment. It probably is funnier than the original since technically there are more jokes throughout, but the jokes that are in the Lubitsch version are more satisfying and so is the film. That’s not to say in any way that the remake is bad, it’s actually consistently enjoyable. Stylistically, it’s not even all that different—while camera setups may not be recreated the basic style of it feels pretty similar to how a film in the 40s would have been shot (though it’s in color, of course). The changes are mostly to amp up the comedy--it’s Brooks who dresses up as Hitler, which Benny’s character didn’t do in the earlier film and instead of a straight theatrical troupe, the Bronksi Theater presents this company as putting on a full revue which allows for musical numbers (including the famous rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown” sung in Polish), a Hitler sketch (which plays like something that might have been on YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS if the censors would have allowed it) and, to allow the Shakespeare element, has Brooks’s Bronksi featured in “Highlights from Hamlet” allowing the character to perform the soliloquy that kicks off the plot. Directed by Alan Johnson (choreographer of the famed “Springtime for Hitler” number in THE PRODUCERS) it’s very much in the style of an old-style Hollywood film. Much of it is presumably shot on a backlot and there are very few attempts to make the story bigger than it is. This doesn’t prevent the remake from adding a few elements, such as the plot point of the Bronskis being kicked out of their mansion to make way for the Gestapo (it’s not enough that the Nazis invade Poland—it’s gotta be personal!) as well as more serious subplots involving Bancroft’s gay dresser (James Haake) being captured to be shipped off to the concentration camp and persecuted Jews being hidden in the theater’s cellar worred about the same thing—this is something that never came into play in the original, no doubt because the full truth of these matters weren’t known at the time. It provides the film with an added threat though it doesn’t explain why Mel Brooks never seems to be in any direct danger from the Nazis himself. He’s not a Jew? This plot element helps the final section feature a ‘bigger’ climax including an airstrip escape. But none of this overwhelms the story—it’s always clear that the construction of the Lubitsch version is being treated with respect and affection. The various supporting actors playing the troupe that include welcome familiar faces like George Gaynes, Ronny Graham, Jack Riley, George Wyner and Estelle Reiner, make slightly more of an impression in this version than their counterparts in the original which gives things a slight Sturges feel as well. Even Tim Matheson as the young Lt. Sobinski gets more to play than Robert Stack does—Stack is very good, but his character feels like it gets lost in the second half. Jose Ferrer, in the key role of Professor Siletski is one of the elements that definitely seem to work better this time. Played by Stanley Ridges (star of the interesting Universal horror film BLACK FRIDAY) in the original, that performance winds up coming off as colorless next to Ferrer who is an excellent straight man and even gets a few laughs himself (particularly from some reactions to Anne Bancroft in one scene), though it never detracts from the basic seriousness of the character. Charles Durning, Oscar-nominated for this role, is almost too likable as Lt. Erhardt considering he’s a Nazi (“So, they call me ‘Concentration Camp’ Erhardt!”) but he’s consistently funny every moment he’s on screen, as is Christopher Lloyd as his lackey Schultz. Marley Sims, who I pointed out in my piece on HERO AT LARGE, briefly appears as well, playing the mother to Brooks’ own son Max, recently the author of the zombie novel “World War Z”.

Just as Carole Lombard became the best thing in the original, Anne Bancroft has the same effect in the remake. No, she’s not Lombard, just about the worst thing I can say about her, but she’s consistently enjoyable and funny, providing the film with more weight than it would otherwise have. Brooks isn’t quite as good an actor—just as Benny wasn’t as good as Lombard—but his coming timing is as sharp as always and besides, it’s Mel Brooks! I’m going to complain about his performance? Since this is one of the few occasions that we get to see the couple onscreen, it actually becomes more of a romantic comedy about marriage than the original film was as well and the chemistry they had in real life does genuinely come through. The 1983 version of TO BE OR NOT TO BE is a modest film, but it’s still extremely likable, very funny and awfully hard for me to dislike. It also knows enough to retain the classic closing gag, probably knowing that there would be no way to do any better.

If I had the opportunity to show someone a version of TO BE OR NOT TO BE it would be the original because that really is the classic of the two. A model of plot construction and delightfully unexpected humor, make all the more surprising by the subject matter it focuses on. In addition to exposing someone to the genius of Ernst Lubitsch, it would also give them a look at the likes of Jack Benny and Carole Lombard which wouldn’t be a bad thing either. But the Mel Brooks version of the classic remains extremely enjoyable over 25 years after it was released, a reminder that remakes aren’t always a bad thing and sometimes they wind up being made by people who are aware that there’s a reason why the material worked so well in the first place. So maybe there’s nothing wrong with keeping an open mind. That said, if you think I’m ever going to go see that TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE remake when it comes out later this year, you’ve got another thing coming.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Why Should Machines Be Perfect

It seemed only fitting that after a day of dealing with extremely annoying computer issues, I then sat down with some Chinese food to watch another tale of man versus machine. The film in question was RUNAWAY, the Michael Crichton movie starring Tom Selleck from 1984 which for some reason I had never seen. Why this is, I cannot explain. I was the right age to go see it. You’d think I would have rented it somewhere along the way. But no, it wasn’t until Saturday night that this finally happened. Are there any essential Tom Selleck movies that I have left to see now? Has anyone taken a look at LASSITER anytime recently? Anyway, I was watching RUNAWAY while eating some Szechwan Beef and it was maybe about twenty minutes in that I began to wonder if maybe I should pop in a DVD of a better version of this sort of thing like ROBOCOP or THE TERMINATOR instead.

During an unspecified time in the future where many jobs ranging from farming to construction to household chores are performed by robots, Sgt. Jack Ramsey (Selleck) works as part of a police unit which deals with “Runaways”, the term for malfunctioning. As the film begins, Ramsey is partnered up with Karen Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes) and one the first assignments they go on takes them to a household where a robot has murdered several members of the family. After Ramsey single-handedly disables the unit, chips are discovered inside which override its safety features (“This isn’t a Runaway,” says supporting cop Stan Shaw. “This is murder.”). Soon enough their investigation leads them to the brilliant Dr. Charles Luther (Gene Simmons) who plans to get wealthy over whoever might want such chips (“the mafia, terrorist organizations, foreign agents…”) so they can use them for their own nefarious purposes. And he’s not about to let anyone get in his way.

One of the first things that comes to mind about RUNAWAY after seeing it is that it’s of the few science fiction films I can think of where the future presented turns out to be less appealing than the one we actually got. The robots used in this world are pretty boxy and uninteresting looking, the sort of thing that it’s hard to imagine people would actually want in their homes. Even if they are “realistic” looking, it still makes for a dull overall design and it’s not always clear how some of these things are able to perform every task they’re allegedly designed for. Written and directed by Michael Crichton, RUNAWAY has an OK premise but lousy execution and not even a fully convincing world it’s all set in. Society has been altered by robotic technology yet it’s apparently so potentially unstable that a special police unit exists to deal with it? Don’t the companies in charge of this stuff have Quality Control divisions? Crichton is also so interested in the technical aspects of all the tasks that can be performed by robotics that there’s never the slightest nod towards the societal changes that may have occurred with presumably millions of jobs rendered obsolete. Selleck’s character at one point expresses his belief that “People don’t work right. People make machines, so why should machines be perfect,” which certainly sounds like Crichton and is just about the most interesting idea expressed here but it’s glossed over too quickly in favor of dull action.

Other futuristic devices appear throughout and the movie seems to making the point that they’re not always reliable but I kept imagining a movie where these points would be made in an entertaining way, like in a BRAZIL-type scenario or a Joe Dante movie along the lines of INNERSPACE. Characters are thinly drawn; Selleck is consumed with guilt over a suspect who got away because of his fear of heights (so just a lame swipe from VERTIGO? And because of this, what do you think the chances are that the climax takes place at ground level?) and that’s mostly what we ever learn about him. I can’t even think of anything to say about Rhodes’ character beyond that she’s blandly pretty and has no aspirations beyond wanting her partner to ask her out. The film’s idea of character dialogue seems to be to try to give us casual conversation about futuristic things where we have no idea what anyone’s talking about (“What is it a 5590?” “Yeah, it’s a 5590 processor, but with a Z-77 phonetic ROM.” That’s just one example). To give the movie some credit the robot spiders utilized by Simmons’ Luther are kind of cool as are the heat seeking bullets (something I remember seeing clips of when I was a kid), but I did wonder how the bullets know which specific person to target. Maybe this was explained in exposition and I just missed it. One of the features of this future is apparently the police use of psychics to help with the crimes they’re investigating. To be honest when this turned up I was already starting to zone out a little and I wondered if Crichton had stuck this in there to see if people were still paying attention. The psychic character spouts off some nonsense about the “karmic bond” that the hero and villain share but none of this leads anywhere and we never hear from her again. There’s not much at all that’s good about the movie but ultimately it’s just plain dull as opposed to outright lousy. The Scope cinematography is by John Alonzo and the music is by Jerry Goldsmith—just like CHINATOWN! Goldsmith’s score, appropriately coming during the phase when he was heavy into electronics, isn’t one of his best and is unfortunately absent too much of the time, but the composer didn’t really have very much to work with. At the very least, it’s not the worst film Michael Crichton ever directed and since I’ve seen PHYSICAL EVIDENCE I know what I’m talking about.

Not that I’m the biggest fan of Tom Selleck or anything but it does feel like the actor never quite got the film role he deserved. This one certainly wasn’t it and since he’s apparently directed to play things extremely low-key there’s very little he can do to liven things up. More successful at that is villain Gene Simmons who doesn’t play much more than one-note but at least it’s an enjoyable note on a purely comic book level. As Simmons’ girlfriend, Kirstie Alley looks gorgeous (“She’s very attractive,” Selleck says upon seeing her for no reason) but is pretty lousy especially during her big dramatic scenes. The actress always was best when playing characters with a cool exterior, like Lt. Saavik, or playing comedy on CHEERS. Here, it just feels like miscasting. Anne-Marie Martin, who would marry Crichton a few years after this as well as starring on SLEDGE HAMMER!, sticks out in her small role, certainly making more of an impression than Rhodes does in her much bigger part. Also enjoyable to watch is familiar face G.W. Bailey, who as Selleck’s superior manages to convincingly play someone able to intimidate him even while being nearly a full head shorter. At least his scenes have an energy to them. Chris Mulkey plays an electronics engineer who figures into the plot making this the second straight film I’ve written about that he appears in. How do these things happen?

RUNAWAY feels like a series of dull action and suspense scenes with extremely little flavor leading to a hackneyed climax that feels like Crichton couldn’t think of anything better and certainly doesn’t take much advantage of the potential of his own idea. I doubt I would have been all the excited about the film even if I had seen it when I was a kid. It feels like the writer-director spent way too much time establishing the world these robotics could exist in—and even that’s got plenty of holes—and not nearly enough time working out an interesting story for them. Maybe he needed to try it as a novel first. It worked a few other times. I don’t know what the general consensus is on RUNAWAY—Harlan Ellison, of all people, gave it a good review when it came out—but I guess I just find it so uninteresting that I can barely come up with much to say about it. I certainly was curious enough to want to check it out after all these years, so I can’t blame anyone else who might feel the same. Still, I would just recommend that anyone interested should just watch THE TERMINATOR, a much better film about robotics from the same year, again. Or maybe check out I, ROBOT. And when I say I, ROBOT, I’m referring to the book, not the movie. But you probably knew that.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Positive Reflection of Yourself

ALL NIGHT LONG was apparently a pretty notorious flop for Universal when it was released in 1981, but it’s really not a bad movie at all. Minor, yes. Slight, yes. A few problems, maybe. But there are enough good things about it that make it a nice little surprise and it’s also nice to see what is, for all intents and purposes, a “Gene Hackman movie” since it’s doubtful at this point that we’re going to get any more of those. The films where the actor plays the true lead are a select group and seeing something like this is a real reminder of just what a great talent he was to have in movie theaters as long as we did. For anybody who is a fan, this would be worth seeking out.

When pharmaceutical salesman George Dupler (Gene Hackman) finally cracks and throws a chair through a window after being turned down for yet another promotion, instead of being fired by the corporation he is instead demoted to a night manager job at Ultra Save, one of their drug stores. When he and wife Helen (Diane Ladd) attend the funeral of a relative who is roughly George’s age he discovers that son Freddie (Dennis Quaid) is involved with the married Cheryl Gibbons (Barbra Streisand), Freddie’s ”mother’s sister’s late husband’s brother’s wife”. When he tells his son to knock it off, Sheryl herself comes to the store seeking out George to talk it over with and the two naturally hit it off, with her being fascinated by his all night job, thinking he lives “on the edge” and George just being fascinated by her and what she represents that isn’t in his life in general. George soon not only falls under her spell, but also starts to take action to actually change his life.

Directed by Jean-Claude Tramont and written by W.D. Richter (the ’78 INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, among others), it’s a very light comedy with an undeniable amount of depth brought to it by a relaxed, confident performance by Hackman, playing somebody who has already reached the end of his rope--now that he’s cracked as much as he ever will, he’s just trying to figure out what he’s supposed to do with the rest of his life. A great amount of the notoriety of the film comes from the slight miscasting of Barbra Streisand who replaced actress Lisa Eichorn after several weeks of shooting. It’s a supporting role that feels transferred into a lead just from her presence, presumably engineered by Tramont’s wife, legendary agent Sue Mengers who was also representing Streisand at the time. For this extremely modest film, the star received $4.5 million, a huge amount at the time, for 27 days of shooting. Streisand isn’t bad but while the issue isn’t that she shouldn’t be playing a character part, it just doesn’t seem like she should be doing this particular role, which is kind of meant to be the Marilyn Monroe role in the scenario—she even wears a Marilyn-type dress in one scene. Married to a jerk of a fireman (Kevin Dobson) she rides around on a motor scooter and even aspires to being a song writer, meaning we even get to see her sing a terrible song at one point. The scene almost comes off as self-parody but it would probably have worked better with somebody who didn’t need to pretend to be a lousy singer. There are actually a few scenes like this one which feel like they may have been added to beef up her part after she joined the cast and it’s the sort of thing that slightly makes the movie feel like it loses focus for brief periods.

ALL NIGHT LONG (no relation to the same year’s slightly similar George Dzundza sitcom OPEN ALL NIGHT, which is thought of fondly to this day by the seven people who actually remember it) is never quite what I expected it to be and I mean that in the best possible way. Despite the above synopsis, it’s not a farce about a father and son sleeping with the same woman, or a romantic comedy about Hackman and Streisand and never really becomes a wacky comedy about people working late nights in a drug store. Maybe because of this when it seems to try to be one of these things—like a few sections with “zany” goings on in the store, I found myself losing interest. It’s almost a frustrating film in this sense, particularly in the cutting which at times seems to both start and end scenes before we expect it, possibly an attempt to make us feel as at sea as George Dupler, whose name is consistently mispronounced by people, does in his life. At its best, at its core, ALL NIGHT LONG is a story of a guy at sea in his life, feeling he has it in him to do more than he’s being allowed and he’s just trying to figure out what to do about that. The film has a slightly odd feel to it, which may be its own storytelling approach or may just be a result of a troubled production. The sense of humor coming from Richter’s script is slightly screwy, like how Hamilton Camp appears briefly as the same bit character in two separate locations and the dialogue has small gems throughout like when Quaid tells his father that somebody died of a “brain hemorrhoid.” Some of its story seems to fit in with the recession that was going on in the days when things were changing from Carter to Reagan—interestingly, there also a few nods towards computerization and corporations taking hold of things which makes it all feel somewhat prescient. But tonally it feels like it would have fit in much more if it had been made five years earlier during the looser seventies (it actually feels like it would make a good second feature to the Hackman private eye film NIGHT MOVES--even the opening credit sequences are similar). What Hackman’s character is looking for in life might have worked better than as well, not that this is a significant issue watching it now. “Everybody’s looking for the easy way out,” he muses at one point to Streisand who, getting him, replies, “Except you.” His character aspires to be an inventor and his big idea is for a mirror that gives you a positive reflection, one that “allows you to see yourself exactly the way other people see you.” Looking around him he sees people moving up in the world based on nothing and he’s just looking for a small piece of what may be genuine in the world. It does feel problematic at times even during the good sections—there seem to be multiple composer credits during both the opening and end crawl, a good indication of troubles. It also only runs 88 minutes and throughout I had a sense that offscreen lines for Hackman were being looped in after the fact either to connect scenes or to cover up some holes. Possibly a clashing of differing sensibilities coming from the script and director (and possibly other hands who were involved), even at it’s best ALL NIGHT LONG feels tonally stranded somewhere between a Neil Simon-type comedy and a mild character piece that maybe would be more at home in Europe.

With more emphasis placed onto Streisand’s character a few of the other actors seem to lose out on screen time, possibly resulting in Diane Ladd not seeming to be able to bring much to her one-dimensional role as Hackman’s wife. Dennis Quaid makes a strong impression early on (he gets a very funny moment when he tries to express condolences at a funeral when his mouth is full with food) but soon seems to disappear from the film with some beats for his character near the end feeling like they’re missing. Chris Mulkey from TWIN PEAKS appears as the overeager Ultra Save security guard and the husband and wife team of William Daniels and Bonnie Bartlett, later on ST. ELSEWHERE together, both appear here but separately. More surprisingly, at least for me, I think one restaurant scene may have been shot in what is now my neighborhood and my building may even be visible in one shot.

The pleasures in ALL NIGHT LONG are minor, but they do creep up on you. At one point when I realized that certain supporting characters were exiting the picture I found myself a little bummed that we weren’t going to see more of them. Even a few days later I find myself remembering certain elements about the film that I realize I genuinely liked. They may have been small things, but they were potent. The very end holds on a long shot of Hackman as he regards what has happened to him and the feeling is that both the character and actor have earned this moment. It’s a reminder of how films used to pay much more attention to these simple grace notes and since nobody seems to have any memory of what a big flop ALL NIGHT LONG was anymore, it’s worth it to remember the film for something like that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Some Things Can't Be Helped

I could go on and on about how much I love the films of John Carpenter. I probably have at some point and I really should write about my favorites in the future. His use of the Scope frame, the music he provides, that roving camerawork, that basic feel that pervades them at his best can be like a drug that I want to continually return to for another hit. And they’re just a lot of fun as well. But though there are several Carpenter movies that I’ve seen almost countless times over the years, his film of CHRISTINE, based on the Stephen King novel, isn’t one where that has been the case. Released during Christmas of 1983, I can remember going to see it with my father one night and though I have a nice enough memory of that occasion for whatever reason I don’t have any particular sentimental attachment to the film. It’s entirely possible that I haven’t even looked at it since the eighties, a big difference from how many times I’ve seen HALLOWEEN, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA or even THEY LIVE. It makes for a decent viewing, but doesn’t feel particularly notable in any way and on the lists of both Carpenter’s films and also of Stephen King adaptations it pretty much falls somewhere in the middle.

It’s also been a very long time since I’ve read the Stephen King novel it’s based on—briefly, it’s the story of nerdy high school kid Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) who buys an old beat up 1958 Plymouth Fury named “Christine” that, as he fixes it up, seems to transform him as well. Though the new Arnie manages to acquire new student Leigh (Alexandra Paul) as a girlfriend, his best friend Dennis (John Stockwell) becomes worried about how his friend is changing. Eventually when Arnie is past the point of reasoning with, Dennis and Leigh begin to believe that it may be Christine who is behind it all. The main difference between book to film that I can vaguely recall, beyond the obvious condensing of the plot, is how the novel seemed to make much more of the spirit of Christine’s previous owner Roland LeBay being a part of the car and what was happening to Arnie. Here, the car is evil from the moment it rolls off the assembly line which we see in a prologue set in 1957 (introduced in a scene which John Carpenter says is a homage to a famous never-filmed scene from NORTH BY NORTHWEST). One of my more vivid memories of the book is the rather terrifying New Year’s Eve section involving the rotting corpse of Roland LeBay. Possibly hurting from the negative response he received the previous year to his remake of THE THING (fortunately, the tide has turned in favor of that one by now), Carpenter holds back on the gore in CHRISTINE possibly more than any other horror or suspense film he ever made.

On the DVD special features, Carpenter mentions how the scene where we actually see Christine restoring herself back into a perfect form in front of Arnie was added after shooting in an attempt to give the film “more juice”, something I understand because the overall effect of the film is…a little dry. I can’t think of a single thing that I dislike about CHRISTINE, but I can’t think of much that I’m all that passionate about either. It reminds me of the old Howard Hawks axiom saying how a good movie is “three great scenes and no bad ones.” CHRISTINE doesn’t have any bad scenes, but it doesn’t really have any great ones either. Things click along throughout in that cool, laconic Carpenter style, with his impressive Scope imagery present throughout. I was consistently impressed by various things, like how the football game where Dennis is injured doesn’t have a single wasted shot—no extraneous shots of cheering crowds or the game being played, just exactly what is needed to tell the story. I also appreciated how within the genre elements, much of the film stays at the level of a relatable character drama and Carpenter doesn’t see the need to make it into more than that. The film version of the New Year’s Eve drive, a straight-ahead portrayal of the event as opposed to the terrifying rotting corpse of the novel, plays more effective than I remember, maybe because by this point in my life I know that being out on the road late at night can sometimes be scary enough. The interplay between the two friends here who are drifting apart hammers home how much of the story is really about the disintegration of a friendship during the period when each person grows and changes and maybe one of the reasons that the films seems to unfortunately fall short is that Carpenter doesn’t make more of this. The way the climax is structured (no spoilers) seems to forget that story element in favor of the machinations of the action and the effect the film has is less because of that. And why is the film set during 1978, anyway? It doesn’t bother me and maybe I’m missing something but it just seems unnecessary. The concept of a relationship between man and machine also made me think of David Cronenberg (at the time making his own King film with THE DEAD ZONE) and how he would have approached this basic material. Would there even have been rock n’roll songs? I will say that returning to this film after so long, I found the basic sound and feel of Carpenter’s score (composed “in association with Alan Howarth”), much of a piece with the music from his other films around this time very comforting, like revisiting a favorite street from my childhood that I’d completely forgotten about. The brief beat of Leigh leaving Dennis’s house crossing the street to her car feels like vintage Carpenter right out of HALLOWEEN, particularly when Christine turns onto the street way in the background. It’s that sort of injection of pure mood that the director was always great at achieving. The moments leading up to Christine actually rebuilding herself in front of Arnie, containing only the dialogue, “O.K. Show me,” is one of the best examples of visual and music in the film in that spare, cool style that we expect from Carpenter but…yeah, it feels like there could be some more juice. The shots of Christine in flames, shooting down the highway after a potential victim, are very impressive and it’s almost enough. But not quite.

Some very good acting definitely helps keep things grounded. Gordon is excellent in a very difficult role, pulling off going from one extreme to the other in a pretty short amount of screen time. Stockwell and Paul both do very nice jobs even if it feels like the script could give them more to work with and Kelly Preston (all condolences to her right now) makes a nice impression as Rosanne, a cheerleader who Dennis turns down to go after Leigh. The late Robert Prosky chews a lot of scenery as Darnell, owner of the garage Arnie keeps Christine in and Harry Dean Stanton delivers some quirks to the fairly colorless role of the cop investigating Arnie. Christine Belford, a familiar character actress from the time, brings a surprising amount of depth to what otherwise may have been a cardboard role as Arnie’s strict mother and Roberts Blossom from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS just about steals the movie in his few appearances as LeBay’s brother George (“That’s just about the finest smell in the world…”).

I have a theory about the end of many John Carpenter films and again, I say this while stressing how much I positively love his films and hope that we get something new from him in the near future. But it has occurred to me that the very end of a number of them are the equivalent of Carpenter himself turning to the camera and basically saying, “Hey, man, that was pretty cool, wasn’t it? Now let’s ROCK OUT!” And a rock song plays over the end credits whether it fits or not. Sometimes it feels like it slightly undermines the effect of what we’ve just seen. Sometimes, as in the case of CHRISTINE, it just feels like there’s not much more to be said about the whole thing, so why not. As a result, not enough of the film lingers in the brain. There’s a lot that’s good about CHRISTINE, but it feels like there could have been even more.

Monday, January 12, 2009

No Matter How Hot It Gets Up There

I guess shouldn’t be surprised how much I enjoyed THE TOWERING INFERNO at the Egyptian the other night when it was shown as part of the Cinematheque’s Masters of Disaster series, but maybe I just wasn’t expecting just how terrific it really would be to see it on that huge screen. Whatever you want to say about the crassness of the Irwin Allen style or all the stock elements which were later commented on by the likes of the Zucker Brothers, the film feels like it fully succeeds as a type of Hollywood entertainment that isn’t made anymore. I’m not blind to its faults—and some of this story about a massive conflagration at the dedication of the world’s tallest building is considerably less enjoyable when you start thinking about certain real-world events—but that doesn’t make me like it any less. There are too many things about this movie that I've enjoyed, or at least noticed, over the years to mention but a few things definitely stuck out to me while finally being able to view it in 35mm.

Though THE TOWERING INFERNO was the bigger hit when it was released at the end of 1974, Irwin Allen’s previous disaster epic THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE probably has more of a following in recent years on a cult level and I understand even if for reasons of personal preference I don’t entirely feel the same. For a long time I’ve preferred INFERNO and seeing them both on the big screen has confirmed that feeling. I like POSEIDON, don’t get me wrong, but every time I see it there’s always that dull middle section—you know, the stretch where the characters are just wandering around dank hallways—during which I always wind up zoning out. INFERNO is nearly an hour longer but I stay with it the whole time. Directed by John Guillermin with “action sequences” helmed by Allen, the movie just has more of everything, probably intentionally so. More characters, suspense and situations allow a greater amount of balls to be kept in the air throughout. The camerawork feels more consistently fluid. I don’t even mind how, because of the lengthy running time, the film seems to go on and on. It’s like it’s some kind of an uber-movie in that sense. Anything you could possibly want from your night’s entertainment is provided here and then some. Even the John Williams score has more diversity than in POSEIDON which has a memorable theme that gives the story much of its mythic feel but not much else. INFERNO has a dynamic main title, terrific suspense music, cool 70s easy listening (I find it hard to believe that, except for Mike Lookinland and his headphones, there isn’t a character in this film who doesn’t have their dial set to the San Francisco easy listening station) and a pretty astounding nine-minute cue (“Planting the Charges” on the album) building up to the big explosion at the end.

But to give POSEIDON its due, I understand why people hold it so closely, camp value aside: There is a ‘mythic journey’ feel to it that builds from Gene Hackman’s confrontational priest which, combined with the emotional weight its cast provides, really sticks in the head. The metaphor of climbing through the ship to safety, to ‘life’ as Hackman puts it, which the Williams score helps with immeasurably, is something that seems to be absent from INFERNO, which for whatever reason seems to take the opposite approach. Since the characters trapped up in the Promenade Room can’t escape even if they wanted to (unlike the nameless extras who refuse to go with Hackman and the group in POSEIDON) the idea of such a metaphor is pretty much lost. The all-star players of this film were not the sort who would provide the type of ‘big’ moments we got from Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons and the others. Paul Newman’s speechifying feels more a product of the method and the big cry of anguish William Holden gets near the end feels strangely genuine (he has a similar reaction at one point in DAMIEN-OMEN II that I always remember). The best moments for the ultra-cool Steve McQueen (who seemed to get the biggest round of applause from the audience on his first appearance and deservedly so) are of course the kind where he does almost nothing—actually, he’s got just about the two best actor moments in the movie, that bit where he takes off his gear before entering the party for his brief meeting with William Holden and, of course, his legendary “Oh, shit,” when he asks how he’s going to get back down after performing a certain task near the end. I’m not sure why this overall feeling of general coolness is, if it was planned by Irwin Allen or if the various casting cards just fell this way. The closest it gets to some of the POSEIDON-type histrionics are the Mayor and his wife worried about her daughter who “doesn’t even know where I keep the key to the safety deposit box.” Paul Newman and Faye Dunaway make a fantastic-looking couple (they get a great love theme too, especially in the easy listening version) but their chemistry just feels like a different type of movie. Maybe they just felt that the partygoers trapped at the top of the Glass Tower should be presented as more sophisticated city folk than those who were trying to escape the S.S. Poseidon.

And like I indicated, I’m certainly aware a lot of the issues which make the entire premise seem extremely transparent the more you think about it. Whole chunks of dialogue, entire scenes, feel ready made for parody. Maybe it’s part of the charm of the movie that many of the dialogue scenes feel like they’re actually scenes being shot in a movie about Hollywood. I’m continually imagining the clapperboard in front of the actors and someone yelling “Action!” before each take. Even some of the bit players and extras add to this—Don Gordon, Steve McQueen’s partner in BULLITT plays pretty much the same role here and a few of the characters address a waitress in the Promenade Room, the one who Faye Dunaway famously almost gives her place on the elevator to, as “Marge” and I can’t help but wonder who she is and what she’d have to say about this shoot. I’m also continually fascinated by all the sets (particularly that giant backdrop of the Bay Area out the window, later used as the view from Kirk’s apartment in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN) but I never think they look anything like sets. The elevator doors in the Promenade Room, for example, are only slightly more convincing than the turbo lift doors on Star Trek. And when we’re in what looks like an actual interior location—the home belonging to Richard Chamberlain and Susan Blakely—it always looks to me like they just shot the location as is, with no effort to make it seem like a place these characters would actually live, even if I do find the upspoken tension between the couple a little fascinating (Susan Blakely is awfully cute, too). The acoustics in this room aren’t ideal either, giving the impression that they didn’t think that this scene was important enough to have perfect sound. It’s like Irwin Allen, much like William Holden’s Jim Duncan, chose to cut corners in certain areas. These elements don’t do that much damage but it does make the reality feel somewhat more tenuous. Did Irwin Allen care? Do you care? Do I care? Do these things just make the movie better in our eyes? Sterling Silliphant’s dialogue often feels like it’s trying to be quotable in an old-style Hollywood way, like Faye Dunaway’s “Years from now when they talk about this, and they will, remember to tell them that it was my idea.” Whatever you say, Faye. Others, like Paul Newman’s anguished “What do they call it when you kill people?” speech feel like it’s reaching a little too hard for profundity. Not that much of this stuff isn’t still extremely memorable. When William Holden angrily tells Richard Chamberlain, “…if it was caused by anything you did I'm going to hang you out to dry, then I'm going to hang you,” it’s a totally wacko line but I still want to go around quoting it.

The entire Robert Wagner/Susan Flannery section, where they play a boss and his secretary, lovers after hours who are trapped by the fire unable to call for help, nicely encapsulates a large amount of the ongoing appeal of the film. After their ‘cute’ patter Flannery’s famous “Did you leave a cigarette burning?” line inspires snickers but the speed in which the sequence builds to total danger almost gives it the feel of a bizarre nightmare complete with wall-to-wall carpeting. And the speed at which the flames undercut Wagner’s final heroic statement leading into the subsequent scene with Flannery is startling. It feels like she’s made into more of a victim than anyone else in the movie, punished for no reason other than shacking up with her boss. The scene of her demise is the film’s cruelest, maybe a result of Irwin Allen wanting to give us something more disturbing than just another falling body or burning stuntman running around. It also has more real-world associations than anything else and for a few minutes the fun from it all goes away. Not that the film allows us to dwell on this for too long, because soon it’s back to the spectacle. While watching the film I sometimes can’t help but think, “136 stories? Really? Does that work?” but maybe this stretching of what may have been possible provides the film with its own sort of mythic feel anyway. When the final bars of John Williams’ score ring out at the very end, it’s almost like a benediction being provided to us by Irwin Allen (self-appointed in the role of God) himself, like he’s saying “You remember these lessons now and take care.” It’s ridiculous, it’s self-important and, like everything else in THE TOWERING INFERNO, I kind of love it. It’s the sort of larger than life touch which keeps the film not only memorable, but extremely rewatchable. If the Cinematheque shows it again in the future, it’s going to be very tough for me to stay away. Anyway, they'll know where to reach me.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

An Idea I Had That Looked Like You

It’s as good a time as any to take another look at THE JANUARY MAN, the New York-set comedy-thriller-romance that was released almost exactly twenty years ago and of course takes place during the first days of the new year. It’s never been a very good movie and hasn’t gotten much better over the years but the whole thing is oddball enough to inspire repeat viewings if only to try to figure out what’s going on both plotwise and tonally. I still haven’t come up with a decent answer to that but I took another look at it anyway. It’s a case of too many plot points left vague, too many tiny things that don’t make much sense on even a basic level of human behavior so it’s a mystery in itself exactly how the movie is supposed to be taken.

New Year’s Eve. After New York socialite Allison Hawkins spends the evening with best friend and mayor’s daughter Bernadette Flynn (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), she goes home (oddly, before mindnight—one of a number of things that don’t add up) and it strangled to death by a serial killer who has been terrorizing the city, murdering one woman per month for the past eleven months. Mayor Flynn (Rod Steiger), enraged by his daughter’s proximity to the crime, demands that police commissioner Frank Starkey (Harvey Keitel) reinstate his own brother Nick Starkey (Kevin Kline wearing a mustache, so we know he’s ‘wacky’ in this film) who was booted from the force a few years ago in a scandal that is never quite clarified, to catch the guy. Nick reluctantly agrees, with his one condition being that he can cook dinner for Frank’s wife and his own former love Christine (Susan Sarandon). When the dinner goes disastrously, Nick begins working on the case which includes a relationship that suddenly begins with Bernadette. As Nick starts to figure certain things out about the killer’s patterns he realizes that he may be the only one who can prevent the January Man from killing for a twelfth and final time.

Buried in THE JANUARY MAN are a number of elements with a lot of potential, but nothing about it really works in a coherent way. It’s not particularly funny or suspenseful and the serious sections don’t really register either. Character relationships and histories are unclear-- at one point Keitel’s character says something unforgivable to Kline, his screen brother, but it’s never made clear where this hatred comes from and what we do get doesn’t hint at what’s unseen in a satisfying way. By the time we’re an hour into the movie so little has actually happened that it’s not even clear what the movie is really supposed to be about. It certainly takes way too long for Kline’s character to begin working on the case so we can see something of interest about him beyond living like a bohemian and annoying people. The mystery plot has possibilities but it’s ultimately so ludicrous that it’s impossible to accept what gets deduced by Nick even using movie logic—I think I remember a murmur from the audience over opening weekend indicating that they weren’t swallowing some of what was being revealed. Or maybe it was just the response in my own head. Written by John Patrick Shanley (now in theaters with DOUBT, his second directorial effort) much of the dialogue indicates that the film has aspirations to meaning something—“In a hundred years we’ll all be dead,” Mastrantonio muses at one point to Kevin Kline followed by a long speech from her about the futility of small talk, concluding with her demanding to Kline, “Shouldn’t we really be talking?” Things like this feel like a basic theme is being stated but it’s all so muddled it’s never very clear what the film is trying to say. This sort of philosophy came to the forefront a year later in Shanley’s directorial debut JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO, which I haven’t seen for years, but even if that film was also a mess it was still an easier one to engage with. For that matter, so much of THE JANUARY MAN’s backstory involving police corruption, frame-ups and a mysterious canceled check is never clarified to the point of frustration. Characters yell at each other for reasons we don’t understand and by a certain point the movie just becomes a bunch of tonally confusing scenes strung together. The New York feel is ok, but not great (interiors were Toronto) and part of it may be that Irishman Pat O’Connor wasn’t the ideal director for a hard-nosed New York satire—I’ll admit that there’s my personal desire for this to play more like THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE talking—and the tone feels consistently uncertain. Of course, O’Connor did meet and marry Mastrantonio off of this, so at least it worked out for them. At times it feels like whole chunks might be missing—I saw Spalding Gray speak at the 92nd Street Y the year before it came out and though he mentioned that he would be in the film, makes no appearance in the final edit.

The cast is all over the place, but it feels more like the fault of the director. Kline plays his wacky persona, with a bit of a New York twang to it but it’s an unworthy followup to his Oscar-winning work in A FISH CALLED WANDA. Rod Steiger bellows all over the place but weirdly a few of his quietest moments are the funniest. Danny Aiello, as the police captain who hates Nick Starkey, yells as much as he can but there’s no way he can compete with Steiger in that department. Almost as if to compensate, Harvey Keitel underplays things so much that by a certain point there barely seems to be a characterization at all. Alan Rickman, just after DIE HARD, is dryly amusing but his performance also feels like there should be a little something more there. Mastrantonio, briefly topless, is very good—I always liked her, especially in THE COLOR OF MONEY--even if she’s not particularly believable as twenty-three year old. Susan Sarandon, no real surprise, does the most interesting work even thought her role is as erratically and sketchily written as the others are, maybe moreso. But she still gives the indication of her character having an inner life and there always seems to be something going on in her eyes even if it doesn’t necessarily match up with the rest of the film.

The twisted philosophies that turn up in Shanley’s script give the thing added interest, probably one of the reasons I’ve watched it a few times over the years. These things certainly help but it’s not enough since there’s never a good enough reason to care about anything. Near the end Kline’s character tells someone, “I don’t love you. I loved an idea I had that looked like you.” It’s a line that has always stuck with me and it’s too bad it wasn’t attached to a better film. It’s one of those signs that the movie was actually going for something, but I’ve never managed to figure out what that is. The movie probably isn’t worth spending this much time thinking about it, but if there weren’t anything there at all, I wouldn’t bother. Of course, that’s what happens sometimes.