Saturday, February 28, 2009

Getting Even

It’s not a title I was familiar with up until a week ago, but Alan Rudolph’s 1978 film REMEMBER MY NAME is a fascinating find, an anti-thriller thriller that contains a genuinely memorable lead character and performance, as well as an off-kilter tone that helps make it truly unique. With Robert Altman producing, as he did many of Rudolph’s films, it does indeed have the feel of a thriller directed by Altman himself but it also provides us with a fascinating look at lead actress Geraldine Chaplin. She’s not someone I would have ever expected to see in a role like this, just as some of the other casting, to put it mildly, feels a little unorthodox. And she’s absolutely astonishing. Shown by Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre with Truffaut’s THE STORY OF ADELE H. (remarkable) on a ‘female stalker’ double bill, REMEMBER MY NAME has never been released on video in any format, reportedly due to music rights. It’s a shame because though it doesn’t deliver what one might expect from its set-up, it’s nevertheless a haunting, darkly funny look at obsession that in its own mundane way is consistently surprising.

A woman named Emily (Geraldine Chaplin), recently released from prison, drifts into a bland southern California setting and after talking her way into a job at a five-and-dime begins following and messing with the lives of construction worker Neil Curry (Anthony Perkins) and wife Barbara (Perkins’ real-life wife Berry Berenson), who are already going through marital troubles as the film begins. What she does starts simply from tearing up their garden and fiddling with the wife’s car, but soon graduates to throwing a rock through their window at night to finally just opening up their door and walking in as Barbara prepares dinner. And as Neil realizes the identity of this person stalking them, Emily’s plan for revenge begins to take full effect.

Though made years earlier, REMEMBER MY NAME could almost be read as a comment on thrillers made in the post-FATAL ATTRACTION/blank-from-hell era (typical for Altman, the comment is made years before anyone asks for it), detailing the process of what this woman does in the most matter-of-fact way that at times manages to be genuinely chilling yet at times weirdly funny, keeping us continually off guard (one of my favorite things about the movie is how it introduces us to Emily by showing the registration tags on her windshield, making it clear that she’s from New York). The extended sequence where the character enters the married couple’s home while Berenson makes dinner is almost anti-Hitchcock in its approach, yet the way it builds suspense to the point where her reveal genuinely startles us is a masterful moment. The film presents Emily not as a criminal mastermind but as a genuinely disturbed person who is also completely determined in what she is going for, even if it could never possibly make any sense to anyone but herself. Her plan doesn’t involve violence but certain actions make it clear that she has no problem resorting to that. Fittingly, the most graphic thing in the movie is presented in a way that makes it not clear exactly what has happened at first, just as if we were watching the same event ourselves from across the street. The film’s refusal to deliver the shocks that we would expect from this basic premise causes it to continually subvert our own expectations, taking it down a number of unexpected paths. By the final half-hour it feels like the world of the film is closing in on the main characters as they give into who they really are, after a long time denying that. As an Altman-like punctuation, throughout we continually hear news reports on TVs about the devastating death tolls coming from an earthquake in Hungary, as well as general commentary about the state of modern life. No one ever pays much attention to it, probably because they are no more equipped to do anything about what they hear on TV than they are to fix what is going on right in front of them. In its own idiosyncratic 70s sort of way, the film is about characters in a world where everyone is trying to get even for something attempting to make sense of their lives and choices as they approach middle age but have no idea how to admit certain truths to themselves. One of the most enjoyable sequences where this really comes out involves Chaplin and Perkins in a Mexican restaurant finally loosening up with each other and proceeding to order every drink on the menu. It’s probably one of the most strangely endearing sequences in all of Rudolph's films and it’s also just what we need to know about two people who are falling from anger right back into how they always behaved with each other. After everything we’ve seen, the ending makes sense but it feels like a beat is missing—as it is, it’s not entirely satisfying but I feel like that’s going to matter less as time goes on and what the movie really is will stay with me. The film even provides another level to the Alan Rudolph joke in Altman’s THE PLAYER (“Hey, you’re Martin Scorsese!” “No, but I know Harvey Keitel.” “I know you do. Hey, I loved CAPE FEAR!”) and I couldn’t help but notice that the short, blonde hair worn by Berry Berenson is actually identical to how Jessica Lange’s looks in the Scorsese film. It’s probably all a coincidence, but it still seems worth mentioning—REMEMBER MY NAME is very much the anti-CAPE FEAR.

Tiny, pixieish Geraldine Chaplin, smoking cigarettes almost every second she's onscreen, would never be someone I could imagine picturing in this type of role, but she is truly astonishing and comes off as genuinely, believably dangerous. However she pulls it off, she understands this character and maybe the fact that she isn’t traditional casting makes her even more of an unpredictable live wire. The most unfortunate thing about this film’s obscurity is that her brilliant work here remains underappreciated. Anthony Perkins was probably never anyone’s idea of a contruction worker (although he does appear to have worked out before shooting), but he maintains a strong presence throughout and the fact that we know he’s holding something back makes his own behavior unpredictable as well. He delivers some very strong, atypical work here. Also appearing in the film’s strong cast are Moses Gunn as the security guard who Emily endears herself to, Jeff Goldblum (looking so thin that a strong wind could probably blow him over) as the store manager of the five-and-dime, Tim Thomerson (credited as ‘Timothy’) as one of Neil’s fellow construction workers and Alfre Woodard, making a strong impression in her first film as the assistant manager who Emily butts heads with instantly. The songs, apparently the reason for the film being MIA on video, are all performed by blues legend Alberta Hunter, fitting perfectly with the theme of the movie and making it seem as if the story we’re watching is just one long blues song as well.

The beautiful Berry Berenson, who made only a few other film appearances, is extremely good as the odd one out, never fully aware of what is going on. The very evident fear and confusion on her face as she holds a knife on the woman who won’t leave her kitchen makes her a fully believable character, yet unpredictable in her own right. She’s of course remembered today as Perkins’ widow, but also sadly for being on one of the planes that were crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. It’s something that brings additional resonance to a moment late in the film where she sits watching a TV that is droning on about the meaning of all the lives lost in that earthquake in Budapest—names which, to go along with the title, will never be remembered. If anything, it just adds another layer of resonance to the film and the excellent performances by the three leads, two of which left us under enormously tragic circumstances. It’s unfortunate that REMEMBER MY NAME will continue to be essentially unknown because of the music rights issue, because a film this good deserves better than to languish in obscurity.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Feeling Cheap

It’s hard for there not to be at least a little bit of mystery around a film that has never been released on video in any format, especially one that has the reputation of being a disaster. Why did the film flop? Why is it being withheld? Is it a lousy movie or is there something genuinely interesting about it? I’m reaching here—I knew there probably wasn’t going to be anything good about MOMENT BY MOMENT. You probably know that too. But The Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre was showing it and…well, I just couldn’t resist. I mean really, it’s the legendary romantic pairing of Lily Tomlin and John Travolta, after all. Coming out in December 1978, Travolta had just starred in both SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and GREASE. Tomlin had been Oscar nominated for NASHVILLE a few years earlier and had just starred in Robert Benton’s THE LATE SHOW. The disastrous reception the film received caused Travolta’s then-exploding stardom to screech to a halt, the first real sign of the downturn his career would take during the 80s and was at least partly responsible for him dropping out of AMERICAN GIGOLO. Tomlin certainly never starred in a role like this again, although the smash success of 9 TO 5 just a few years later certainly helped bury the stench of this failure. Even an airing on ABC in June of 1984 that wound up as one of the Top Ten shows of the week—well, it was June—couldn’t do anything about the film’s miserable rep. That even Travolta’s name could never get this released on VHS seems to say something about how embarrassing it is for certain people so getting to see a 35mm Scope print of it was certainly a rare occasion. At the very least it would be fascinating to try to figure out what was intended here. And I suppose it was, if fascination and falling asleep are one and the same. But seriously, let’s not spend too much time on this.

Trisha Rawlings (Lily Tomlin) is a wealthy Beverly Hills housewife going through a divorce with her philandering husband. As we first see her during the opening credits she is walking through the streets of Beverly Hills, then we see her going into Schwab’s Drugstore on the Sunset Strip next to Hamburger Hamlet (that’s one hell of a walk). When she unsuccessfully tries to get her prescription for sleeping pills renewed she is recognized by a young guy named Strip (John Travolta—and yes, I said Strip) who remembers working as a valet parker at a party she once threw. Obviously (and weirdly) showing an interest, he tries to strike up a conversation but she quickly brushes him off. Soon after (about twenty seconds after for us) at her Malibu beach house Strip shows up on the sand with some reds, once again trying to engage her in conversation. As Trisha begins to learn more about Strip and his bad luck (car broken down, friend disappeared) her icy façade soon starts to melt and their older woman-younger man affair begins full throttle when Trish tries to zzzzzzzzzzzz………

Sorry, I nodded off just thinking about it. A few hours before seeing MOMENT BY MOMENT I attended an event in Echo Park where somebody who heard I was going to see it (great to finally meet you, Emily!) pointed out to me the unmistakable resemblance between Lily Tomlin and John Travolta’s older sister Ellen. Naturally, I wasn’t able to watch the film without thinking about this. To put it simply, MOMENT BY MOMENT is such a completely wrongheaded, misguided, awful film that it’s tough to know where to begin in describing it. Written and directed by Tomlin’s partner Jane Wagner I can only imagine that it’s meant to be a showcase for the actress, displaying what she could do away from comedy. But it goes so far in this direction that it becomes stifling—there literally isn’t a single lighthearted or funny moment during the entire running time (not intentionally so anyway) which almost seems purposely designed to drain away any charm or likeability from its two leads as the endless score of a wailing sax that feels left over from a short-lived ABC drama of the time drones on and on. Pretty quickly it feels like the whole thing is unfurling in a late 70s daze of pills and Chardonnay, both of which seems to be consumed continually throughout the picture. The Silent Movie Theatre actually provided glasses of white wine for the screening which was appropriate and very generous of them but seriously, it felt like we needed something considerably stronger. Even minor scenes seem to take about twice as long as they should and though the running time is only around 100 minutes, it feels considerably longer than that. The entire film is filled with overly literal dialogue written by Wagner—“I’m sorry you found out about my affair with Elaine the way you did,” as well as the strangely laugh-inducing “Are you a member of the automobile club?” or just Tomlin mournfully stating, “Oh, Strip,” when she learns of her new guy’s troubles. Travolta is presented as a gentle, innocent soul who is always bursting into tears, latching onto her like a boy who wants his mommy. But, you see, because he’s more innocent (an innocent runaway, yet) he’s also wiser and more excited about the world. Whenever a bottle of wine is finished he places a note inside and hurls it out into the water, not revealing what he has written inside (He tosses it from the deck of the house and I couldn’t help but imagine hearing a loud “Ow!” from below). He also insists on being told by Tomlin that she loves him saying, “Cheap sex leaves me feeling cheap.” And in the category of you’ll-never-wipe-this-from-your-brain is the infamous hot tub scene where Tomlin motions for Travolta to remove the rest of his clothes and join her followed by gravely intoning, “Let’s smoke some pot.” Along with this are several (as in, more than one) love scenes that don’t feature any actual nudity, but let’s just say that they go further than you’d ever expect them to. Seriously, beyond that you don’t want to know. No, really, you don’t want to know.

Of course, Lily Tomlin has never been anyone’s idea of a sex symbol—although the film, as well as the character of Strip seems to think she is—but the overly serious, zoned-out approach drains away any appeal she’s ever had. We never see any reason why Travolta’s Strip goes after her so hard so fast since she displays no personality whatsoever unless she looks like his mother, which certainly seems possible. We also never get any indication why she’s so interested in Strip, unless she’s enamored by someone who acts like a mental ten year-old who asks how she cooks her chicken. Maybe she just wants to be a mother to him—her character does actually have a son, but it doesn’t matter because we never see him, just as her husband is dispensed with in just a few short scenes. Not only is it bad, there’s very little relief from most of the monotony. The majority of the film takes place in the beach house and the cast is so small that no one else is even billed during the opening credits. Trish’s best friend, introduced on the phone getting her legs waxed, is played by an actress named Andra Akers, who looks like someone who gets revealed as the bad guy at the end of an episode of “Charlie’s Angels” and that’s as good as it gets but at least it’s somebody. There’s also a subplot involving Strip’s missing friend who we never meet turning up dead that implies some mob connections but it never seems to affect anything and is eventually dropped. It’s very obvious that Strip is supposed to be ‘The Girl’ in this scenario and the movie is doing a spin on the sexual expectations, but ultimately it’s a case of so what? Is it just a fantasy for 1978 women who looked like Lily Tomlin? It certainly doesn’t seem like it would have appealed to his teenage fans back then. If you know anybody who was a teenage girl in 1978 feel free to ask them. I suppose it’s possible to read all this as a very, very deadpan satire of Malibu lifestyles—and there might actually be something in that approach--but it’s pretty clear that this all supposed to be taken seriously. At one point Strip runs away in tears when Trish tries to pass him off as the delivery boy so she and her best friend go looking for him all around the then-seedier Hollywood Boulevard. It’s a completely stupid, incomprehensible sequence but at least we get to see what the area looked like back then—JAWS 2 is playing at the Egyptian and DAMIEN—OMEN II is at the Vogue. Neither film is great, but it was hard not to think how preferable it would have been to be seeing either one at that point in time. Actually, hitting my hand with a hammer might have been preferable as well.

MOMENT BY MOMENT, though distributed by Universal, was produced by Robert Stigwood’s RSO films (everyone probably remembers the RSO logo) which was also responsible for SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and GREASE, but in 1978 also gave the world SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEART’S CLUB BAND and the notion of pairing that with MOMENT could be one of the most painful ideas for a double bill imaginable. Which probably means somebody will play it one of these days. John Travolta has made enough terrible films (TWO OF A KIND, BATTLEFIELD EARTH, BE COOL—time will tell about that TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE remake) that it’s tough to say if this is the absolute worst but it’s certainly near the very top of that list. Maybe there’s more to say about this film but really, I just can’t do it. So for anyone who actually has seen MOMENT TO MOMENT, they’ll understand when I close this by simply saying...What a world.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Our Universal Language

The Oscars are over and I’m not sure what else there is to say about them. Frankly, I would have written this last night but when the show ended I was just so worn down by the whole thing that I didn’t have the energy. Very early on during my long evening in front of the TV I realized how much I didn’t care about certain things. I think there were five separate channels doing red carpet pre-shows, each seemingly containing an on-camera personality more idiotic than the previous one and none of it interested me in the least. Somebody named Randolph Duke commenting on fashion? I don’t know who that is, but I know that it’s not a real person. It’s a character in TRADING PLACES. Ralph Bellamy was more enjoyable to watch back then anyway. Hell, he’s probably more enjoyable to watch now. I also don’t care about harping on the camera cutting to Brad & Angelina when Jennifer comes out to present. Angelina’s made some bad movies but she’ll always be more interesting and seriously, I don’t care. But a day later gives me the perspective that the show was neither a hugely successful reinvention of the format nor did it make me want to run from the room screaming. Well, I wanted to run from the room a few times but not continually. It wasn’t the best or the worst. The heavens did not open up, the sky is not falling. If anything, it felt like what was really missing was a celebration of the movies. Sure, it was a celebration of Hollywood and all that represents, especially its celebrities, but that’s not the same thing. But the movies themselves seemed to be minimized whether they were the best of this year or, especially, the classics. Even the clips of actors winning in past award shows were more a celebration of the people who won, not what they were winning for. This lack of attention to those older films was made most clear during the interminable musical number staged by Baz Lurrmann and the insulting Montage of Death when the clips were mostly seen in a tiny screen at the back of the stage. The message was clear. These films are in the distance. These films are the past. These films no longer matter.

I went for a walk trying to think of what to say about Hugh Jackman and didn’t come up with very much. He was fine. He was charming. I can’t remember much of what he said. A great deal of his effort seemed to go towards an opening number that for me was so-so at best and a mid-show number involving some special guest appearances that for me exemplified the worst of what I had feared. When Jackman told the crowd that Baz Luhrmann was responsible at the end I got a strong whiff of “On the bass—Derek Smalls. He wrote this.” If “The musical is back!” then they needed something better than this to prove it. Jackman also seemed to be absent for long stretches which limited his effectiveness. What was he doing during these periods? He presumably wasn’t conferring with joke writers. Was he out back grabbing a smoke? Did he take off to grab a quick bite at Canter’s? That’s a bit of a drive but I think he could have made it.

The conceit of having past acting winners speak to the nominees was at least different but it still needs some tweaking. For one thing, they must have decided that including clips of these performances would have made the segments too unwieldy--I can understand that viewpoint but it would have given people the chance to get a glimpse of the performances by unknowns like Melissa Leo and Michael Shannon so they could get an idea of why they were there. It wasn’t a total wipeout—DeNiro talking to friend Sean Penn was a nice moment and when Shirley MacLaine, speaking what truly seemed to be her own words, offered praise to a visibly moved Anne Hathaway it became one of the most genuinely emotional moments of the night. It made me hope that Hathaway would win. In comparison, seeing Melissa Leo a moment later praised by Halle Berry (I almost wrote “praised by a second-rate Bond girl” but I won’t get that snarky) didn’t have quite the same power. There’s probably a good magazine article in the shell game of how they arrived at the five in each category. I think we can all think of people who may have been alive and willing that we would have liked to see. Maybe they were hopeful this would work and didn’t want to blow their wad the first time out. Still, how great would it have been to see Ernest Borgnine up there with DeNiro and Brody?

Steve Martin and Tina Fey were the funniest part of the night. Martin’s timing was particularly on target.

Ben Stiller (with Natalie Portman) was pretty funny as well. For that matter, so was the entire Judd Apatow film.

Am I mistaken or is the SLUMDOG cinematography win the first time it has happened with a movie mostly shot digitally? And isn’t it the first time such a film has won Best Picture? This seems significant. I don’t think anyone else cares.

Why did the vampire dude spend his entire time up on stage making goofy faces? Is that part of his shtick? What am I not getting?

The Tribute-to-Genre montages seemed unnecessary and not very well done. And what was really the point of it? The whole controversy surrounding the snub of THE DARK KNIGHT aside, isn’t the point of the Oscars that they acknowledge movies that actually have ambition? If you do this, aren’t we heading into IDIOCRACY land? As a result, the likes of SPACE CHIMPS and Brendan Fraser’s third MUMMY movie had more of a presence on the show than LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, W., CHE and probably others I could think of. On the other hand, there was something useful about these montages—for example, all it took was a 5 second clip from WANTED to remind me how much I hated that film.

Will Smith said “Boom Goes the Dynamite!” Now I get that. Thank you, Keith Olbermann.

Werner Herzog at the Oscars, appearing to have a good time? There are some things you never expect to see. For that matter, Sean Penn could be seen enjoying himself even before he won. Who are these people?

Did anyone else catch MAN ON WIRE Philippe Petit glancing upward when he was onstage? Was he wondering what he could possibly pull off in that theater?

Penelope Cruz. I love her.

Beyonce—Please go away.

I don’t care if Alan Arkin flubs a name, I still love him anyway. And it was particularly nice to see guys like Christopher Walken and Joel Grey up there as well.

Jerry Lewis seemed somewhat weak, possibly choosing to simply say “Thank you” and get offstage without letting anything muddy the waters. But unfortunately the film package used to precede his appearance seemed perfunctory. I know, he was being honored more for his humanitarian work but all we really got was “Jerry Lewis was a comedian and then he did telethons!” Couldn’t they have spent a few minutes to cover things like his partnership with Dean Martin, becoming a director, the invention of the video assist, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, Jerry-as-Auteur, with maybe some on-camera testimonials from people like Scorsese leading up to the MDA so we could offer a more complete look at the legend? But it certainly wasn’t an insult to him and it wasn’t as bad as certain other tributes in the past.

Sophia Loren looks good and all that, but was she casting a spell on Meryl Streep?

Kate Winslet is wonderful. Even if I still wish that she had won this award for something else.

Since Peter Gabriel declined to sing his song from WALL-E when they cut his time down to a minute, was anybody else hoping that they would bring in Ann Reinking as a replacement? (I hope somebody got that.)

I like Queen Latifah a lot but her presence onstage to sing over the Montage of Death felt unnecessary. Not to mention that keeping much of it on a screen at the rear of the stage which couldn’t always be seen well on television was a bad idea and, frankly, not a little insulting to the people that were supposedly being honored. I’m sure someone’s come up with a list of people who were snubbed but some of the names I’ve heard bandied about (Patrick McGoohan, Harvey Korman) may have been considered more famous in television. John Phillip Law was certainly someone who seemed to be missing. Still, I’ll give them points for including the likes of Vampira and actor Robert DoQui, two people I would never have expected to see here. But really, the format used for it was an embarrassing botch.

Did I miss something with the Foreign Language nominees? It didn’t seem like they actually read the titles. This was very puzzling.

I freely admit that I was rooting for Mickey Rourke. For that matter, I was rooting for WALL-E to win Original Screenplay. This isn’t a slam against MILK—actually, that was my favorite of the five nominated for Best Picture. It’s just the way the chips fell on this one and I can’t help but picture anyone who wasn’t pulling for Mickey Rourke as being the sort of person who tells kids that there’s no Santa Claus. That said, the two wins for MILK resulted in the most heartfelt acceptance speeches of the night. Penn and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black each lived up to the responsibility of their respective moments and both men were extremely eloquent. Plus, Penn mentioned Rourke, which made it even more special.

Since the show wasn’t paying much attention to the actual history of movies, it was left to orchestra leader Michael Giacchino to provide some of it with his music choices. Among the selections heard were THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN as the lineup of Best Actors came out, his own awesome overture from CLOVERFIELD and, maybe most bizarrely, Jerry Goldsmith’s main title to ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, heard as the show was going to commercial after the romance montage. If he was trying to amuse himself and maybe a few other people, I guess it worked. The thing is, you can’t please everyone with the Oscars. Maybe there’s a way you could keep all the fashion and glamour and still somehow make it a real celebration of the movies and everything they represent—the universal language that Penelope Cruz spoke of—as well. Of course, it’s possible that I’m wrong and people who want to watch the Oscars really don’t care about that stuff which would be something else altogether. But I’m unconvinced. For now, I freely admit that I can’t get “Jai Ho” out of my head, which at least proves that I didn’t hate all the musical numbers of the night. So all that’s left to be said right now is we’ll just wait and see what happens next year.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

One Of Those Long, Lingering Things

At times a truly striking collision of cultures in plot, character and style, THE OUTSIDE MAN has to be one of the oddest yet most engaging crime films of the early 70s. With its brutal action, oddball humor and unique look at life in Southern California, you’d think the film would have achieved a considerable following by now, but it seems practically unknown and has never been released on DVD. I’d never even heard so much as a mention of the title until I saw a clip of the film in the documentary LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF a few years ago and the last time it played at the American Cinematheque I wound up not going. It was my loss. The next time something like GET CARTER or THE LIMEY plays, this would be an ideal choice to pair with them.

French hitman Lucien Ballon (Jean-Louis Trintignant) arrives in L.A. to perform a hit. After checking in at the Beverly Hilton, he heads to the Beverly Hills address in question where, shortly after meeting the man’s wife (Angie Dickinson) does exactly what he went there to do. He leaves the property without incident but when he returns to the hotel, finds that he has been checked out. With his belongings gone (including, most importantly, his passport) he soon finds himself on the run from another hired killer (Roy Scheider) and heads off into the strange city of L.A. where he must seek out the mysterious woman (Ann-Margret) who may be the only person who can help him.

It seems significant that the opening credits of THE OUTSIDE MAN play over a helicopter shot of downtown L.A., taken from a vantage point that I at first couldn’t quite place. Yet as the shot continued it eventually settled on a part of the freeway that I instantly recognized from driving through countless times. That pretty much states in a nutshell the Los Angeles that is presented here—unrecognizable, yet completely familiar once you really start to look at it. Directed by Jacques Deray and written by Deray, Jean-Claude Carrière and Ian McLellan Hunter, it’s mostly in English and features a number of recognizable American actors but it would still probably be correct to think of this as a French film that just happens to be set in America, but that’s not to say that it’s some kind of existential art piece. It just feels somehow different, even in ways that you can’t entirely put into words and it’s very much shown to us through eyes that are unfamiliar with this landscape, with moments that seem to pause as we and the main character take in these unusual surroundings. It fits right in with Antonioni’s ZABRISKIE POINT and Jacques Demy’s MODEL SHOP as movies with a unique viewpoint made by foreigners about L.A. But unlike those, as well as a few others, THE OUTSIDE MAN doesn’t feels like it’s passing any sort of judgement on the city, good or bad, instead looking at the city as a completely alien landscape for our hero. He doesn’t understand this terrain one bit, but he has to navigate it somehow if he’s ever going to get away. Though it would be correct to describe it as a French crime film shot in L.A., it’s not some kind of POINT BLANK-type existential art piece. It just feels somehow different, with an odd look at the landscape that leads to some truly unique L.A. location shooting, from the streets of Beverly Hills to the bars of downtown to the tiny apartments of Venice, leading to a foot chase that ends in the abandoned and dilapidated Pacific Ocean Park. One of the oddest little bits involves Ballon using a coin-operated razor in a public restroom—it’s hard to imagine that such a think once existed. It’s such a striking look at what the town was back then that I can imagine the film almost being an emotional experience for somebody who grew up in the city during this period. In one sequence Trintignant’s character, looking for a place to hide, carjacks a woman played by Georgia Engel (already an odd casting choice for this kind of film) and has her take him to her apartment on the Sunset Strip in the building that used to be located next to Tower Records (which I don’t think was ever residential) where we meet her son played by a very young Jackie Earle Haley and the hitman winds up on their couch watching “Star Trek” with them--about as odd a juxtaposition of personalities as I could possibly imagine. The film is filled with odd touches like that within the tension of the hitman plotline and many of the bit roles almost seem deliberately cast with people who might have been appearing in sitcoms around this time, such as John Hillerman’s department store manager who consoles widow Angie Dickinson on her husband’s violent death by bizarrely saying that “At least it wasn’t one of those long, lingering things.” The line readings by many of these personalities and how it clashes with Trintignant’s deadpan lead means that things feel consistently off—as if it’s the director’s own take on what Angelenos, or maybe just Americans in general, are like. It’s interesting that THE OUTSIDE MAN adds these touches yet still manages to come off very much as a no-nonsense crime film, albeit an odd one, with extremely well-done action and chase scenes, unusual characters and a badass score by Michel Legrand (what other times have badass and Michel Legrand ever gone together?) as well as a surprising amount of sleaze.

Jean-Louis Trinitignant, star of THE CONFORMIST and Kieslowski’s THREE COLORS: RED, is a steady, composed screen presence that gets us to continually wonder what he could possibly be thinking as he takes in the bizarre sights in front of him. In this context, he’s as unfamiliar to us as this American landscape is unfamiliar to him and it makes for a unique identification with a lead character, even one who is a killer. Roy Scheider, in that period between THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE SEVEN-UPS, is ultra-ultra-cool as the opposing hitman, with relatively few lines spread throughout the picture and the way he plays certain scenes feel consistently unexpected. For any fan of Scheider’s out there who hasn’t seen this, this performance would come has a huge surprise. Ann-Margret, given a memorable introduction wearing a tiny, very low-cut white dress while sporting a white wig is fairly stunning and just about as good as I’ve ever seen her. She also says “shit” an awful lot which is kind of surprising, as is the scene where she gets violently roughed up by Scheider—they’d play husband and wife over a decade later in 52 PICK-UP. Angie Dickinson, looking like she’s about to enter her POLICE WOMAN phase, doesn’t have as good a role and comes off as pretty stiff at times, but she does provide an appropriate connection to POINT BLANK and has one terrific moment where she sees a certain person in an unexpected place and has absolutely no idea what to do about it. In addition to the familiar faces mentioned above, Alex Rocco also appears in a key role as does Talia Shire, who is unrecognizable but it’s obvious who it is the second she begins to speak. Connie Kreski, once a Playboy playmate, makes a memorable appearance as a streetwalker who says to Trinitignant, “I’m sorry we didn’t make it. I like your accent.” The cool title song that plays over the opening credits is sung by Joe Morton, presumably the actor of the same name. At the very least, it sounds like him.

THE OUTSIDE MAN doesn’t quite hold up until the very end—the climax set in a funeral home involving the corpse that is positioned upright probably sounded more interesting in concept, with a shootout that isn’t very well blocked out along with an end which feels like it’s striving for an existential significance that it hasn’t quite earned. It still works as an extremely satisfying crime thriller nevertheless but more important than that it’s just…kind of weird. The plot always keeps the viewer on its toes, never entirely letting on which way it’s going to go next. There aren’t many other crime films quite like THE OUTSIDE MAN. If the Cinematheque shows it again, I’ll be there. And I’ll bring people with me so they can see it too.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Not Into Parenting Right Now

Just as Ryan O’Neal’s career was fizzling and Shelley Long’s was on the rise, Drew Barrymore’s was at a post-E.T. high, starring in the Stephen King dud FIRESTARTER as well as the comedy about a girl who divorces her parents, 1984’s IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES. Except that’s not really what the film, written by then-married team of Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers and directed by Shyer, was about. It’s actually kind of impressive how much of the finished product isn’t at all what was sold at the time and though it holds up pretty well today as a comedy about what can happen to people once they hit L.A., it’s more interesting to try to figure out the parlor game of who is really being portrayed in it.

Nine year-old Casey Brodsky (Drew Barrymore) takes her parents, the divorced Albert Brodsky (Ryan O’Neal) and Lucy Van Patten Brodsky (Shelley Long), to court, suing them for divorce. While on the stand, each parent tells their history together which began when Albert, on his way to a film professor job at UCLA (after writing his NYU thesis, entitled “Phenomenological analysis of sexual overtones in the early films of Ernst Lubitsch”), met and fell in love with Lucy while hitchhiking out to L.A. Once there, after having daughter Casey, Albert’s vast film knowledge catches the attention of film producer David Kessler (Sam Wanamaker) but when he is recruited to try his hand at rewriting a moribund script finds himself making no progress until he convinces Lucy to work on it with him. The eventual film, which Albert directs, is a huge hit and while Lucy bears some jealousy at her husband getting all the attention, the real trouble comes when Albert hires beautiful unknown Blake Chandler (Sharon Stone, getting an “And Introducing” credit even though this wasn’t her first film) as the lead in his next film and winds up falling for her. Lucy, extremely bitter, leaves Albert, but the tables of success are soon turned and young Casey winds up caught in the middle of the two warring parents, which of course leads to her eventually taking drastic action.

“Mommy, this isn’t what the movie is supposed to be.” That’s not an exact quote, but it is something I remember a little girl sitting behind me saying about twenty minutes in when it was quickly becoming clear that the film, after an opening that seems designed to get any rational adult to flee the theater, was instead focusing on the story of the characters played by O’Neal and Long. Nope, this wasn’t really a kiddie comedy starring Drew Barrymore after all. What, that little girl didn’t appreciate a movie that contained references to Ben Hecht? Kids, what are you gonna do. In spite of that response, what IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES contains is a considerably more interesting comedy than would probably be expected. As I got older, I realized that it was also a not-so-thinly veiled expose of the marriage of Peter Bogdanovich and first wife Polly Platt. Much like the director of TARGETS, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and PAPER MOON among others, Ryan O’Neal’s Albert Brodsky is a walking encyclopedia of film knowledge who drops old Hollywood references into conversation (that’s where we hear about how fast Ben Hecht wrote NOTHING SACRED) and charms his way through the Bel Air party circuit leading to a huge success that his wife is a key part of. And, once an actress who the director casts in a film comes between them (the real life version of that would be Cybill Shepherd, of course) that of course leads to the break up of the marriage and the director taking on material designed to spotlight that new girl which turns into a huge embarrassing flop. The details are different, but the broad strokes are definitely there and the payoff to this, the unauthorized GONE WITH THE WIND musical remake titled ATLANTA, is a pretty dead-on skewering of all the out-of-control productions of the late 70s combining Bogdanovich’s own musical disaster AT LONG LAST LOVE with what play like stories that come straight from the set of HEAVEN’S GATE. The plot point of Albert sinking his own money into this seems lifted from the THEY ALL LAUGHED fiasco (a good movie, it should be noted) and with that only a few years in the past at the time combined with the Dorothy Stratten tragedy almost makes it seem like this was kicking the guy when he was down. There have also been the occasional rumblings over the years saying that Polly Platt, by all accounts a key creative force on the director’s early films, was such a crucial component to their success that he was never able to recapture that glory once they split. Of course, while this film makes it clear that Shelley Long’s character is one of the main reasons of this fictional couple’s success, reading anything more into that is really just guesswork. Sometimes it’s tough to tell just how to take some of these details anyway—certainly Platt did very well for herself as a Hollywood figure through the years as a producer though was never particularly known by the general public. For that matter, when we see Sharon Stone’s Blake Chandler on the set of ATLANTA doing coke before a take, are we supposed to take that to mean that Cybill Shepherd did coke? Does that cross any sort of line? Even stranger is how Bogdanovich is actually name checked during a Rex Reed news report in the middle of the film—I guess if William Randolph Hearst could get a mention in CITIZEN KANE, then this sort of thing is acceptable. Put that way, maybe even Bogdanovich himself would appreciate the irony. While neither I nor that little girl naturally had no awareness of any of this when I saw the movie as a kid, the similarities did not go totally unnoticed at the time—Roger Ebert mentions the similarity in passing in his review and People Magazine criticized the film for being too much of a “party game disguised as a movie.”

There isn’t very much I could find out there on the inception of this film or even what kind of response it may have gotten from some of the people “portrayed”—Shyer and Meyers don’t seem to have ever worked with any of them professionally though it seems like they know what they’re talking about. If anything, the modest budget the film was presumably made on shows at times—we hear much more about Albert’s success than we ever see of it and the story of Bogdanovich is such that it feels like some of the satire could go even further—not doing anything with his stints guest-hosting “The Tonight Show” seems like a missed opportunity—but maybe the film should simply be looked at as an earnest examination by the husband-wife team who wrote it of what living and working in Hollywood can do to families and their children. It sounds like it could also be about some of the fears the then-married couple was working through—“I’m not into parenting right now,” says one bit player and it sounds like something that might have once been said at a Brentwood party. The truth that can be felt under the bitterness that extends through the final sections definitely feels more genuine than the plastic dramatics of any of the subsequent films Shyer and Meyers have made either together or separate (I just feel like saying that to me there has rarely been a worse film released by a major studio than I LOVE TROUBLE). As a result, IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES holds up pretty well as a breezily entertaining serio-comic look at family relations and divorce amidst those who work in the film business and what it can do to the children the parents pit against each other. Anyone out there who also appreciates that Ben Hecht reference would probably like the film as well.

Adding to the odd collision of film and reality is the presence of Ryan O’Neal, star of Bogdanovich’s WHAT’S UP DOC?, PAPER MOON and NICKELODEON and pretty much the director’s alter ego in a few of those films. So he’s essentially playing his former boss and admirably doing it with what feels like little hesitation. As a result, he seems to nail the rags-to-riches-to-rags persona he’s portraying with continually sharp comic timing--for whatever reason when he mumbles “I need a haircut,” while at the end of his rope shooting ATLANTA it’s a truly nutty moment that gets me to laugh out loud. In 1989 he co-starred with, of all people, Cybill Shepherd in the comedy CHANCES ARE so presumably there were no hard feelings. Or maybe it just never came up. Shelley Long, maybe slightly underrated as an actress because she never became the huge star she tried to be after CHEERS, gives what is probably her best big-screen performance here, getting her own character’s gradual transformation just right. Sharon Stone is very funny as well, particularly during the ATLANTA section and even goes topless at one point, not something you normally expect to see in a comedy marketed for children. Rounding out the Oscar nominees present in the cast, David Paymer makes an early appearance as Albert Brodsky’s lawyer in the framing sequences.

Drew Barrymore is very cute, even though it does feel slightly strange to see a sight gag made out of her guzzling champagne when we know what she went through at her young age. But even at that early age she already seems to have an awareness of this world and when her role becomes more prominent in the latter half it does give the film more depth than it had earlier on. It feels like she earns the chance to get the big speech that wraps things up. The Hollywood stuff is probably what is most memorable about the entire movie, but even so the whole thing remains surprisingly enjoyable and even sweet. O’Neal’s character muses early on that “people don’t like to leave a theater feeling empty” and IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES, while not perfect, is good enough that it doesn’t happen. Plus it ends with a Frank Sinatra song over the credits, so it gets extra points for that. The film doesn’t seem to have ever been released on DVD anywhere in the world so it’s pretty much forgotten these days, an ending that this film about Hollywood doesn’t really deserve. It would be nice to get a new film from Peter Bogdanovich sooner or later as well.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Everything You Desire

Over at his essential Moon in the Gutter site, Jeremy Richey is in the middle of a month-long celebration of films that have for whatever reason not yet been released on DVD. I have several favorites that fall into this category that I’ve written about before but I’ve tried to come up with a few other titles that qualify. Some of my own favorites in this category seem to be those that have slipped through the 70s-80s crack, forgotten about by everyone except for film buffs who pay attention to such things. You know, the FREEBIE AND THE BEANs of the world. Why certain films aren’t getting a release is a mystery, particularly the ones that feature recognizable names. But going beyond that to other eras, what’s also strange is that just about every post-1958 film from Hammer Films has been released on DVD in America, even the most obscure titles, but there has been no sign of their excellent but largely unheralded version of the H. Rider Haggard novel SHE. This is particularly unfortunate because it remains one of the most accomplished entries made by the company. It seems like a Region 2 release has happened, but nothing in Region 1 for us in the States (and for the record, I have no intention of getting a multi-region player, thank you very much). It’s tough to figure out if this is a case of a studio not caring or maybe even if there is some kind of obscure rights issue (oddly, the quasi-sequel THE VENGEANCE OF SHE, which I’ve never seen, has been released on DVD though it’s owned by other hands). Even odder is that when MGM released it on tape back in the 90s, it was letterboxed to its full CinemaScope ratio so it has at least been available to see in the proper form in some format. Fortunately, I managed to nab a copy when Jerry’s Video closed down. SHE stands apart slightly from many of their other films not only because it’s more of an adventure-fantasy than a horror film but also feels somewhat more upmarket, maybe because of the presence of star Ursula Andress. The budget feels slightly bigger, the running time is longer and the story feels like it holds together a little better as a result.

Palestine, 1918—With the war over, archeologist Holly (Peter Cushing), his valet (Bernard Cribbins) and young friend Leo (John Richardson) are feeling without purpose, with no desire to go back home to England. Musing over drinks one night, saying how they’re not sure what to do with their lives, the decision winds up being made for them when Leo meets a young woman named Ustane (Rosenda Monteros) who takes him away from the nightclub to where he learns what certain people have in mind for him—he is in fact the reincarnation of the long-dead love of the luminous Ayesha, “She who must be obeyed” (Ursula Andress). Convinced that he has been told the truth, Leo and his companions, decide to make the long trek across the desert in search of the lost Pharaonic city of Kuma where he hopes to once again find Ayesha and discover “everything he desires” which may even mean eternal life as well.

The older I get, the more problems I see in certain Hammer films, probably a result of meager budgets, weak casting and haphazard scripting. That doesn’t mean I don’t love some of those films. To be honest, I’m not even sure I’m as big a fan of SHE as some of those (Hammer doesn’t get much better than FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED), but if anything that may have to do with my own genre preferences. Quite a few of those films are 80 minutes of buildup followed by a brief climax but SHE (directed by Robert Day, written by David T. Chantler, “based on the famous novel” as the credits tell us) feels like a more complete and developed story with characters that are well-explained and developed as well as a mood that captures our imagination right from the start. Shot by Harry Waxman, who also photographed THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE and THE WICKER MAN among others, it’s easily one of the best and most richest-looking films from Hammer during this period. True, not all of it has dated particularly well--its portrayal of dark-skinned natives ruled by light-skinned masters (including the likes of Ursula Andress, among others) does feel slightly uneasy in this day and age but at least this element never overwhelms the basic story. It does resemble certain other Hammer films by keeping the top-billed Andress offscreen through much of the first-half after a big introduction but that makes sense—the protracted journey of the characters across the desert adds to the anticipation and having the actress play a supernatural creature who is dreamed of more than actually seen is really an ideal use of her. Lead actor John Richardson, whose role in Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY would make these two an ideal double bill, is an appropriately stoic main character but looking at it today one of the big pleasures of SHE is getting to watch Peter Cushing in one of his best supporting roles. He doesn’t have to be the paragon of virtue that Professor Van Helsing was and he’s not the uptight bastard that Victor Frankenstein and certain other villains he played were. It’s hugely enjoyable to see him in a looser, more human role, one in search of life and adventure, but still very much the voice of reason. The mixture of excitement and emotion we hear in his voice when he looks at a map and exclaims, “So it’s all true. And I shall live to see it,” makes it a genuinely thrilling moment. As the queen’s right hand man Billali, Christopher Lee has a role that is a little more of the sort he’s been seen in before, but the longer running time allows a character such as his more shadings than he would get otherwise. One scene where Cushing asks Lee certain questions almost seems to have been inserted to give the two actors a scene to play together but it does help clarify both characters’ viewpoints and does keep certain balls in the air that ultimately make for a more rewarding experience. Another scene where Cushing discusses the reasons why immortality doesn’t have as much appeal to him at his advanced age is also something that could be lost in a tighter cut but it provides some food for thought that the film doesn’t otherwise contain and is probably the actor’s best moment here. Seeing these two great actors in such roles that are worthy of them is a real treat for anyone who’s had to deal with numerous films that didn’t take proper advantage of their presence—in some cases, other films that both of them appeared in.

The film’s score by James Bernard is probably one of my very favorites by that composer, with the recurring ‘trek across the desert’ theme being a personal favorite, lending the perfect feel of a boys’ adventure to the whole thing. But the heavenly theme heralding the presence of Aeysha, coupled with the otherwordly beauty of Ursula Andress feels perfect in how it convinces us that we really are on some other plane of reality where achieving immortality may really be possible. Or maybe it’s just the feeling given by a film from another time, the kind of film that presents us with this mood that we will never see again. Like many Hammer films, the pacing is somewhat leisurely in this day and age, maybe even moreso with this film’s 106 minute running time but seeing multiple entries from that studio where it feels like the end credits get rushed onscreen as soon as humanly possible at the end (and kept at around 90 minutes, I assume to allow for double billing), this is a reminder of how much more rewarding a viewing experience something like SHE can really be. It’s a memorable display of how thrilling the films that came out of Hammer were and also makes one wish that they had made more of them that contained as much ambition.

It’s also a tape I guess I’ll have to take care of, because I’m going to want to see it again at some point. Here’s hoping we get a disc one of these days, because it could be a beautiful thing. Certainly SHE deserves to be placed alongside some of the best films that ever came from Hammer. And to keep with Jeremy’s current theme, here are links to a few pieces I’ve written in the past on movies that also sadly remain unavailable on DVD.











Sunday, February 15, 2009

What The People Want

Because of a week that kind of got away from me, I haven’t been able to post as much as I would have liked lately. Hopefully that’ll change. But to bring up a film that seems to be getting lost in the shuffle, THE INTERNATIONAL hasn’t gotten much of a response from critics or at the box office and it’s a damn shame. It’s a terrific movie, one that is consistently tense and exciting, always making me wonder where the story was going. Yes, it’s got a lousy title and the trailer was boring but it feels very much like an attempt to make an old-fashioned 70s conspiracy thriller for the present day and, in a very satisfying way, never allows its characters to suddenly become stupid. It’s a very rare thing in this day and age, a popcorn movie for adults. Maybe I’m the crazy one here or maybe people just don’t feel like seeing this sort of things these days. There wasn’t a very big crowd at the Vista on Saturday afternoon but it felt like the people who were there were with it all the way.

Almost beginning with the plot already in progress, THE INTERNATIONAL tells the story of Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and Manhattan Assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman working together to investigate shady arms dealings that seem to point to one of the world’s most powerful banks, the IBBC. When several suspicious deaths occur, the two follow a lead that may take them to an assassin who they could connect to the bank but, of course, they have no idea just how deep the conspiracy really goes.

The film was directed by Tom Tykwer of RUN LOLA RUN fame but surprisingly never resorts to flashy, empty visuals. Instead, THE INTERNATIONAL is shot in Scope in a cool, open style that is almost always visually compelling. Set in a variety of international locales, its approach seems like the opposite of the norm these days—there’s no shaky cam and it’s never difficult to follow the action when that is necessary. And as complex as it is, which these films always are, it never falls into the trap of becoming confusing. The script by Eric Warren Singer hits the ground running, almost as if somebody ripped out the first 30 pages to start with the story already in motion and the characters up to speed but it gives the audience enough credit to be able to catch up to them. When somebody bumps into Clive Owen about twenty minutes into the film, we’re already on edge based on what we’ve learned even in that small amount of time. Owen’s Louis Salinger is believably gritty and determined but he’s no superman—when the plot compels him to chase after a speeding car on foot it becomes very clear almost instantly just what a losing proposition that really is. He’s good at his job, but he seems very aware that he isn’t Jack Bauer. For the past few weeks I’ve been jokingly referring to TAKEN (which I enjoyed) as LIAM NEESON KICKS ASS—using that same formula you could call this film CLIVE OWEN GETS PISSED. It absolutely delivers on that promise. Avoiding flashy visuals and CGI nonsense, the film is very clearly going for a 70s type of aesthetic—when a sequence in New York turns into a trail-the-suspect-on-foot setpiece I found myself sitting in my seat beaming at the whole FRENCH CONNECTION-ness of it all. And when the film’s visual centerpiece happens, a full action sequence set in the Guggenheim, it’s phenomenally well done and a reward for all that tension that has been building up. Even the critics out there who hate the movie (and they’re wrong) seem to love this scene and, actually shot on a stage in Germany, it really is a thing of beauty.

I’m not going to come out and say that the film deserves to rank along the finest conspiracy thrillers like THE PARALLAX VIEW, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR or BLOW OUT but on its own it feels genuinely satisfying. Maybe there’s very little left to be shocked about anymore when it comes to what well-dressed men are doing high atop these glass towers, that doesn’t necessarily negate its effectiveness and besides, it’s hard not to be a little suspicious of what’s going on in banks during these times. The film mainly focuses on the conspiracy plot over its characters—it’s easy to imagine the Sydney Pollack version of this film choosing to focus on the two leads and their relationship but it never goes there. Watts’s character has a husband and child so romance never enters the picture—they’re just two people who are working together and trust each other. The two stars work very well together, looking at times believably haggard and always feeling human. They manage to never become ciphers even when they are at the mercy of the plot. It’s Owen’s film more than hers anyway and by the time we’re confronted with his dilemma at the end I found myself thinking that another film with this character is a sequel that I’d actually want to see. I guess that isn’t going to happen now, but if Clive Owen wasn’t going to play Bond then this could have been his version of Harry Palmer and it would have been fascinating to see where they might have gone with it. Armin Mueller-Stahl plays a key figure at the center of the conspiracy, familiar character actor Jack McGee is a New York cop who aids Owen and Brian F. O’Byrne, also in William Friedkin’s BUG, is very effective as the assassin who is being sought by Owen and Watts.

Maybe I’m the crazy one because the word out there seems to be that this film is bad or boring or bland or maybe it’s just being criticized for using the plot point of a bank at the center of its giant conspiracy. But it’s never dull, it’s consistently gripping, it has one absolutely phenomenal action sequence along with plenty of other good scenes—it’s a real movie and a smart movie, the kind I wish we got more of. I barely write about new releases anymore either good or bad partly because often there doesn’t seem to be very much new to add to what’s being said. But here’s a film that seems to be getting a bum rap and I just wanted to put that out there. I’ll try to be back with more soon.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Psychology Of The Lens

I didn’t make it to the recent midnight show of BASIC INSTINCT at the New Beverly but that was partly because I’ve seen the film so many times already. I think it’s fantastic, hugely entertaining, but just didn’t feel like seeing it again. With that fresh in mind, I decided to take another look at Sharon Stone’s immediate followup to that blockbuster, SLIVER. It’s pretty much forgotten about these days, but the sexual thriller was the subject of a great deal of publicity when it first came out. It even was a major Memorial Day release from Paramount (opposite HOT SHOTS! PART DEUX if I remember right), a good indication of how much the business has changed, but there was terrible buzz swirling around it and the final product didn’t even get screened for critics. It’s possible that all the attention at the time helped add to the negative reviews and the domestic box office topped out at a meager $36 million, though the foreign take was considerably heftier. But now, when the film can be watched free of all that controversy…it’s still not any good. Actually, just speaking for myself, SLIVER comes off as being a pretty intolerable piece of work.

Shortly after beautiful Naomi Singer is pushed to her death from her apartment high up in New York’s Sliver building, recent divorcee Carly Norris (Sharon Stone) moves into that very apartment. It doesn’t take long before she begins to meet some of her fellow tenants which include younger Zeke Hawkins (William Baldwin) and crime novelist Jack Lansford (Tom Berenger) both of whom set their sights on Carly almost immediately. What Carly doesn’t know is that there is someone in the building able to watcher her—and everyone else’s—every move on hidden video cameras and soon enough more dead bodies begin turning up. As Carly begins an affair with Zeke, she begins to wonder who is really behind the mystery.

I’ll be honest. I watched SLIVER and started to write this nearly a week ago now. The only thing is, every time I started to think about what to say about the film and my response I felt like I was dying a little inside. Sometimes a bad movie can be fascinating to study to see what went wrong and maybe you can still find worthy elements to it, but at other times the experience just causes your brain to shut down as you wonder what exactly you’re doing with your life. SLIVER was written by Joe Eszterhas (like Stone, hot off BASIC INSTINCT) from the Ira Levin novel of the same name and directed by Phillip Noyce in between PATRIOT GAMES and CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER. To add to its prestige, it was also produced by legendary producer Robert Evans during his mini comeback of the mid-90s. The whole thing is as slick as imaginable but it’s also completely, absolutely empty. Sure, it pretends that it’s about certain weighty themes but ultimately it’s really just about getting Sharon Stone into another sex vehicle at the height of her BASIC INSTINCT fame. Not that there’s anything wrong with that or even the concept of the star vehicle in general--it's no doubt exactly what Robert Evans wanted out of it. But here it’s in the service of a movie that has nothing to it, including a spectacularly dull plot and a leading couple in Stone and Baldwin who have less than zero chemistry. The script isn’t one of Eszterhas’s better efforts (and it’s a waste of time to think about the vague ROSEMARY’S BABY echoes)—there’s a discussion about how one of the characters can’t live without caffeine which feels like an attempt to redo the smoking stuff from BASIC INSTINCT but ultimately comes off as half-hearted, like he’s just trying to get the draft done with so he can start on his next big spec sale. Why are we wasting our time listening to any of this dialogue? Has there ever been a less engaging group of characters in a movie? Phillip Noyce certainly isn’t a bad director but he seems to have nothing to bring to this and can’t make stupid scenes where Stone takes off her panties in a restaurant to please Baldwin into anything clever. Without somebody forceful at the helm, the film has no real flavor, with none of the ferocity Paul Verhoeven brought to BASIC INSTINCT or even the daringly misguided dissection of the genre that William Friedkin would bring to JADE a few years later. SLIVER just doesn’t have anything to it worth discussing--it’s the filmic equivalent of a bagel that someone was about to put in the toaster in the morning, but then it was forgotten about and now it’s just been sitting in the break room all day, waiting to be thrown out.

Photographed by the great Vilmos Zsigmond, it’s definitely a slick, attractive looking movie—I particularly like the continuous feel of rain through the second half—and there is the occasional striking composition, although the DVD for some reason crops the Scope imagery which doesn’t help matters. When the plot moves into the character of Carly Norris being attracted by the idea of staring at a bank of monitors intruding on private lives, we’re apparently supposed to be shocked but there’s no real punch to any of it. With these elements as well as a Columbia professor who speaks of teaching a course about ‘the psychology of the lens’ it’s obviously striving for significance (YOU LIKE TO WATCH, DON’T YOU blared the poster) but all it makes me do is wonder why I’m wasting my time watching this thing. And why am I writing about it? Is there anyone out there really waiting to read something on SLIVER? Would it be a better use of my time if I just banged my head against the wall for a while? Even worse is that the movie doesn’t seem to care about any of its thematic goals—the shell game of who the killer is (and it’s never even clear if all the people who turn up dead were actually killed) was famously tinkered with before release. The production problems extended to extensive reshooting and recutting—including the axing of the original ending, so Baldwin musing how he would someday like to fly into a volcano never pays off. An Entertainment Weekly article from the time that can be found online is surprisingly frank about many of the issues and Eszterhas’s autobiography “Hollywood Animal” is even franker about some of the offscreen shenanigans that were going on. The DVD available is of course an unrated version adding several minutes to the sex scenes that had to be cut down to secure an R rating. I saw this in the theater but of course I can’t remember what the specific differences are and, frankly, I don’t care. But they go on for a long time. It’s really just a lame movie that I get next to nothing out of, except maybe what it would be like to attend a cocktail party in Sharon Stone’s apartment with Martin Landau. Sometimes you look for the pleasures where you can get them.

Stone, playing a book editor whose job seems to consist of coming up with snappy answers to questions like, “Where are you with the James Dean bio?”, feels miscast in this film centered around her, only adding to the feeling of genuine miscalculation. She’s not always shot or costumed in the most flattering way, but the bottom line is that Sharon Stone as a screen persona is most interesting when she is playing someone who has or is trying to get the upper hand on somebody. To see her playing such a meek divorcee just feels like it’s not making the best use of her abilities. There’s nothing shocking about seeing her give into her inhibitions to William Baldwin—after BASIC INSTINCT, how could anything about what she does be shocking?—and it just feels like a waste of time trying to convince us that there is. William Baldwin, who always looks like a Mad Magazine caricature of himself, doesn’t have the screen presence to help any of this. Stranded by the plot, there’s nothing Tom Berenger can do with his role—I think Kurt Russell turned down this part, something that probably seemed like a mistake until the film actually opened. There’s not very much to say about the array of good actors also lost in this thing. Martin Landau gets high billing for a role that has absolutely no bearing on the plot. Colleen Camp probably deserves a medal for playing the most annoying ‘best friend’ role in film history. Amanda Foreman, years before playing a college student on FELICITY, appears as Stone’s assistant. Polly Walker, also from PATRIOT GAMES, plays Stone’s coke-fiend neighbor and gives the impression that she might bring some real spark to her role but she barely even gets noticed, maybe another casualty of all the cutting.

It’s just a bland, blah movie even with the lengthy sex scenes and it’s probably not even deserving of all the hatred I’m displaying towards it. It’s not that interesting. It’s not bad enough to be that good. The lack of chemistry between Sharon Stone and William Baldwin extends to the very end, with the infamous, idiotic final line that Joe Eszterhas insists in his book that he didn’t write. The way it’s delivered, it suddenly gives the added subtext that Sharon Stone has had it with this younger, more immature actor she can’t stand and just get the hell out of there to go star in a movie with someone more her equal. You know, something like THE SPECIALIST. It has nothing to do with the rest of the movie but at least it’s thematically consistent in how absolutely inconsistent it is. And hey, they were able to make their Memorial Day release date. All I know is, after seeing SLIVER again I think I want to spend some time seeing some films that I’m probably not going to hate. I hope I deserve that much.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Eternal Recurrence

I’ve always liked movies set in wintertime that actually got released during wintertime, particularly thrillers and horror movies. There’s something about those types of genre films that got released in the dead of January that always made me want to get out to the theater on those chilly, snowy weekend afternoons. I still look forward to those films coming out each year even when it’s not so cold here in L.A. So I guess that’s why I wish that WIND CHILL had actually gotten a real release in theaters because I can’t help but think that if Sony/TriStar/Whoever had actually put some effort into selling the thing they might have done ok with it, particularly if they had released it in one of those months where the fear in the cold and snow can really be felt. Instead, it slipped into just a handful of theaters at the end of April 2007, in spite of having Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney as Executive Producers and, maybe more importantly, the fact that it’s not particularly bad at all. If there are any commercial issues with the film it’s that in spite of an R rating, which feels undeserved, it’s fairly light on the gore and you could make the argument that not all that much happens in the end as is usually expected in these films. Instead, it focuses on the mood and dread that the characters feel in their situation, so it feels like the film was punished for no reason other than paying too much attention to the characters. If there were still a late show that people watched it would be a natural for that sort of thing as well. It’s not perfect, but it does at times work extremely well as a thriller that holds your interest.

When a college girl (THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA’s Emily Blunt) decides at the last minute to try to share a ride to get home to Delaware for Christmas break, she accepts a lift from a fellow student she doesn’t know (Ashton Holmes, Viggo Mortensen’s son in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE). She reluctantly makes conversation with him as the ride begins but as he turns into a snowy side road in a valley which he insists is a shortcut it soon becomes apparent that there are a few holes in the things he is saying about himself. But before she can get any answers the two are run off the road by a mysterious car and into a ditch. Unable to get the car out and with night falling as well as the temperature dropping, the girl is now stuck in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone reception, no food and with a guy she doesn’t trust. But as strange occurrences begin to happen she gradually realizes that there is something out there in the woods which neither one of them can fully explain.

WIND CHILL was directed by Gregory Jacobs who usually works as Soderbergh’s First A.D. (a title he still holds on CHE) and previously helmed the not-so-hot NINE QUEENS remake CRIMINAL. Written by Joe Gangemi and Stephen A. Katz, this horror film might best be described as more of a character piece with strong horror elements and, at times extremely well put together, never tries to make its story bigger than necessary. But more than that it’s a surprisingly successful example of one of my favorite types of film—a guy and a girl locked away somewhere together and they have to try to figure each other out in order to make things work. It really is too bad that it never got a real release because the skillful direction and photography deserve to be seen on the big screen--there are a few shots, particularly where something undefined can definitely be seen way over on the other side of the Scope frame that I can imagine would have gotten a cool murmur from a crowd. The way the story is laid out would make it ideal for an hour-long episode of an anthology show but the just under-90 minute running time allows it to spend more time on the characters, something it does a very good job with. Blunt’s unnamed character isn’t always nice, particularly during the opening scenes, but she’s still somehow relatable and always believable in what she does. It’s to the film’s credit that right from the start neither character is necessarily more likable than the other, yet it doesn’t hold back from making both of them slightly off-putting and even a little suspicious. For that matter, there’s a feel to the opening sections that certain things are slightly off—whether for reasons supernatural or not, our guard is already up because the movie is making us feel genuinely uneasy. It even manages the trick of being continually cinematic even when most of it is just taking place in a car. It feels like there was a surprising amount of thought given to the logic of the supernatural aspects of the threat—I’m being deliberately cagey here—with some provocative discussion about Nietzsche’s concept of “Eternal Recurrence” but, interestingly, a few of the more chilling moments are those that can’t really be explained even after the credits roll.

I can imagine a bad test screening with the wrong crowd that may have been why the film didn’t get a full release—not much gore, no giant action ending with a ‘final confrontation’ feel, characters who aren’t instantly likable—but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with it. The flaws really are minor, although I could point out that the movie is not always successful convincing me that it’s as cold (or as dark) as it’s supposed to be (it’s hard enough getting these things on film and I’m complaining about that? Doesn’t this movie have enough problems?). And even if some of what is going on outside the car feels like something that has been done before, it still manages to pull off some truly effective moments throughout. As I was watching it fairly riveted I kept waiting for the moment where everything would suddenly fall apart, leading to a lame, anticlimactic finale. That never quite happens but the ending doesn’t feel totally there either. It’s as if it’s trying to find some middle ground between total ambiguity and a slam-bang finale with fireworks the studio probably wanted but where the whole thing lands is slightly off from being 100% effective. It still works pretty well anyway and ultimately I don’t have very many negative things to say about it.

Emily Blunt delivers a fantastic performance that proves her talent as much as anything I’ve seen her in. The coldness she projects early in the film pays off extremely well later when she needs to become more genuinely fearful about the gravity of her situation. As she opens herself up, her character arc even manages to become rather touching. So now I'm even crazier about Emily Blunt than I was already. Holmes, in some ways, has the more difficult role, because he needs to play much of it as if his character could go either way by a certain point and he does a very convincing job of it.

As a short genre exercise that its studio wouldn’t even release, WIND CHILL is surprisingly effective and at the very least deserved better than it got. The scares and atmosphere are present but the amount of attention it pays to its characters may very well be the most memorable thing about it. Even without a climax that is as strong as one would expect the entire film culminates in a final shot which genuinely feels earned. It may not be the typical horror movie ending but it’s still absolutely correct in acknowledging what the film is ultimately about. It’s powerful in its modest way, it stays with me and it’s the sort of touch that these films never seem to have these days. Maybe that’s why it barely got released. But it’s still worth seeing.