Tuesday, March 31, 2009

That Would Be Just Fine

I can remember the months of anticipation back in 1990 waiting for the release of DARKMAN, Sam Raimi’s followup to his masterpiece EVIL DEAD II. The director appeared at the Fangoria convention in New York at the very beginning of the year and I can remember him just hanging out in the back of the auditorium freely chatting with people—I still have the Darkman t-shirt he gave me, though it’s pretty ratty and small by now. But it wasn’t until months later in August at the very end of summer when the film was finally released, backed by a pretty fantastic campaign by Universal that trumpeted “Who is DARKMAN?” I was there for the very first show, after which I snuck into another screen at the multiplex to see MY BLUE HEAVEN. Let’s just say that the afternoon peaked early. I’ve always had a fondness for DARKMAN for all sorts of reasons and it was a blast to see it again this past weekend when the New Beverly ran it at midnight on Saturday because it was New Bev regular Cathie’s birthday. DARKMAN, you see, is Cathie’s favorite movie. Why? Because Cathie is awesome.

Scientist Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is experimenting with a type of synthetic skin that could revolutionize the field but is unable to get the cells to stay together past 99 minutes. Just as he simultaneously is proposing marriage to lawyer girlfriend Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand) as well as achieving a breakthrough in discovering that the skin will stay together in the dark (“What is it about the dark? What secret does it hold?”) everything comes to a sudden end when his lab is broken into by a team of thugs led by mobster Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake) looking for “the Belisarius memorandum” an incriminating document that Julie accidentally left behind which links property developer Louis Strack (Colin Friels) to certain payouts. Durant and his men destroy the lab, presumably killing Westlake in the process. But Westlake managed to survive, only horribly maimed with burns covering much of his body but when brought to a hospital he has his nerves severed so he will not feel pain, an experimental technique that also amplifies the emotions wreaking havoc on his mental state. Recovering what he can from the wreckage of his laboratory, Westlake seeks refuge in an abandoned warehouse and continues his experiments, fully intent on seeking revenge against the ones who destroyed his life using the very process he has been creating.

Seen all these years later, DARKMAN can be looked at as Raimi’s style continuing to develop, moving from what should probably be called the ‘pure cinema’ of EVIL DEAD II towards the more traditional narratives in the films that he directed in the late nineties which of course led to the SPIDER-MAN movies. There’s a slight awkwardness present which comes from the feeling that the film is tossing a massive amount of elements into the mix from Neeson’s huge emoting to the dark comedy involving his character assuming various villain’s identities to lots of bombastic action to whatever is going on between Larry Drake and Ted Raimi’s characters to the more operatic moments involving Friels’ Louis Strack….this could be an even longer run-on sentence and the extreme shifts in tone don’t always feel exactly elegant. I haven’t even delved into the Belisarius memorandum, which is probably one of the more ludicrous excuses for a McGuffin in film history. What holds the movie together isn’t the script, which in fairness is decent (there is also a certain resemblance to ROBOCOP in the plotting) but with multiple writers credited the stitching shows. Instead, it’s Raimi’s clear love for putting it all together. With everything going on, DARKMAN is consistently exciting and all these years after it was made it’s still an absolute blast to watch. There’s something about it’s scrappiness and nuttiness that even now puts a goofy grin on my face and even if the SPIDER-MAN films are probably “better” in a number of ways in another ten years or so I think I’ll still want to see this one instead. Even the Danny Elfman score, which has always been criticized for its BATMAN resemblance, is an extremely successful glue that holds the picture together and is also a nice reminder of when these scores (and these films) were actually, unapologetically fun. You can feel Sam Raimi’s glee throughout from the surveillance camera coverage of the convenience store robbery to Neeson’s breakdown during the carnival sequence, not to mention the more extreme examples of Raimi’s visual style like the celebrated dissolve involving Frances McDormand at a big emotional point. The visual invention is varied and continually unexpected throughout. It’s not perfect and given the choice, I honestly prefer the three EVIL DEAD films to this one but with the massive eagerness it displays to give us the most enjoyable 96 minutes imaginable DARKMAN is still too much fun to have any serious complaints. I’m certainly not going to argue too much with Cathie on this one.

Raimi’s lack of hard experience with actors at that point is apparent at times—he reportedly had problems on the set working with friend Frances McDormand—but even if this is the case it still feels like there’s a greater sensitivity displayed towards the love story than you normally get from this type of film. Neeson, even when his features are covered by make up, is particularly terrific in the physical aspects of his performance. He clearly knows how to work with what Raimi’s camera is doing and seems eager to rise to the challenge. As a matter of fact, having several actors ‘play’ Darkman at various points when he is pretending to be them works very well in each case—issues of body mass are ignored, but so what. Larry Drake, midway through his run on L.A. LAW at this point, is fantastic as Robert G. Durant (“The name isn’t Buddy…”) and succeeds at creating a truly iconic villain. It’s a shame that he never got such a meaty role again--and yes, I’ve seen DR. GIGGLES. Jenny Agutter with her sensuous voice is a good choice to deliver all the necessary exposition in her unbilled role as the burn doctor, Ted Raimi’s cartoonish features are well-utilized and familiar character actor Nicholas Worth is a small standout as Pauly, one of Durant’s henchmen. Maybe the similarity to his other henchman in Wes Craven’s SWAMP THING is what caused me to really notice it but the actor gets a few very funny moments when the film focuses on him for a brief stretch.

The film went over great with the crowd at the New Beverly, with a particularly loud wave of applause coming during the final shot for the cameo of…well, you’ve seen the movie so you don’t need me to tell you. Several months ago I attended a screening of Raimi’s upcoming horror film DRAG ME TO HELL, which I would freely describe as playing like something he made in between DARKMAN and ARMY OF DARKNESS but we were only getting to see it now. Anyone who likes how that sounds probably has something to look forward to. Afterwards I briefly shook hands with him, saying how much I enjoyed it and it was nice to see him still friendly, willing to say hello to his fans after all these years. A midnight show of DARKMAN after all this time is a fun reminder of how eager he’s always been to please the fans who cheer his name. It was definitely a terrific night at the New Beverly and an ideal way to celebrate Cathie’s birthday. Yup.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Nothing Was Gonna Get Worse

You’d think that after THE TOWERING INFERNO Irwin Allen would have become the biggest producer in the business, an unstoppable mid-70s combination of David O.Seznick and Jerry Bruckheimer. There’s a fascinating presentation reel done for NATO on the TOWERING DVD that includes a whole slate of films announced as coming from Irwin Allen Productions and Twentieth-Century Fox with titles like THE WALTER SYNDROME, THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED and THE CIRCUS (in 3-D!) but almost none of them ever happened. It would be intriguing to learn why. Instead, Allen’s name is on a few TV movies from the middle of the decade with titles like FLOOD! and FIRE! which I haven’t seen but I’m going to figure I can guess what they’re about. And of course there was his legendary killer bee epic THE SWARM, an awful film that is ridiculously enjoyable in its own way that has to be seen to be believed and his reputation as the Master of Disaster never recovered after that. The one film in that promo reel which did eventually get made (at Warner Bros.) was in fact BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE which is promised here as coming by Summer of ‘76 but it didn’t arrive until 1979, seven years after the original. That’s a pretty long wait for a sequel that is supposed to take place on the same day as the original. One of the more unnecessary sequels in the long, sad history of unnecessary sequels, BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE is pretty lousy, without even the unintentional laughs that make something like THE SWARM so much damn fun. I feel some satisfaction at having seen it on a completist level which seems fitting for a movie that was probably made to fulfill some sort of contractual obligation. No one should want to see this film, but maybe sooner or later you just have to.

On the night the S.S. Poseidon goes down, tugboat captain Mike Turner (Michael Caine) finds himself out in the very same storm which results in losing his cargo (presumably this tiny boat doesn’t encounter the same wave that capsized the massive ocean liner—but don’t ask questions). When Turner spots the helicopter carrying the survivors from the first film flying overhead he decides to investigate with his crew that consists of first mate Wilbur Hubbard (Karl Malden) and spunky passenger Celeste Whitman (Sally Field). They soon discover the capsized Poseidon and Turner, badly in need of money after losing the cargo (“In times of real trouble, the one thing a man can depend on is the sympathy of a bank,” Caine sarcastically states in maybe the film’s one good line), decides to claim salvage rights to the boat. His plan is essentially to make his way inside and locate the Purser’s office to retrieve anything that might be in the safe. But almost immediately a much spiffier boat turns up, containing a man identifying himself as Dr. Stefan Svevo (Telly Savalas) who with several men he refers to as his henchmen, sorry, medical team, claiming to look for survivors. The two teams reach an uneasy truce (given the ridiculously sleek look of Savalas and his boat contrasted with grubby Caine and his crew, for about five minutes there’s a bit of a LIFE AQUATIC vibe going on) and make their way into the boat through the exact hole the passengers were retrieved from at the end of the first film. Soon enough they do actually find passengers but things of course go wrong leading them to be forced to search for a new way out. Of course, there’s the added problem with what Svevo really has in mind and the tension rises as I exclaim, “How much longer does this damn thing go on for?”

It feels cheap right from the very first scene of Michael Caine in his little tugboat with lame rear screen projection presumably getting splashed with buckets from just out of camera range. Directed by Allen from a screenplay by Nelson Gidding the whole film is flat-looking, with next to no style beyond just getting the shots in the can. Even during the dullest sections of the first film it manages to achieve a dank, moody creepiness—when the other survivors heading to another part of the ship turn up it always has a nightmarish tinge to it. There’s none of that feel here with much of it actually playing like the pilot for a POSEIDON TV show (what such a series would be, I have no idea) and there’s no feeling of any kind of craft behind it. When the two teams enter the ship there’s a brief moment of anticipation that comes from how it really does feel like they’re entering the same set that we remember from the end of the first film and even some presumed use of stock footage (no point in building that entire engine room set again) isn’t a problem right away. But this feeling soon goes away with many of the sets baring little resemblance to the ship we got to know in the first film and, frankly, they all look much more like sets—speaking of stock footage, it feels like there’s about a hundred cutaways to that shot from the first film of the ship upside down underwater as explosions go off. But the film is also a failure right from the beginning not just because of sub-par effects or production design but because there’s no way we can care about lead characters heading into this boat where we’ve seen a bunch of people horribly killed just to look for financial glory. Not to mention that it seems ludicrous for anyone to be going in there so the fact that we’re essentially watching a bunch of greedy idiots doesn’t really give us anyone to have much of an interest in. Even with a handful of survivors found it doesn’t feel like enough of a reason to actually be watching this movie. And considering the ticking clock of the water racing towards the lead characters in the original it just comes off as ridiculous that people are sitting down and having relaxed conversations a few times too many. Lots of stuff happens, but nothing very interesting—the film loves wasting time so all the characters can spend time jumping over a hole in the floor. There isn’t even any one big setting or setpiece like the chaos that erupts in the first film’s massive banquet hall or Shelley Winters swimming underwater. It really plays like they had to make the thing but nobody every came up with any good ideas. No spoilers, but Savalas’s plan (anyone would deduce that he's got something going on) when revealed seems like it makes no sense on several different levels—unless I’m missing something it comes off like he was planning for when the boat was capsized ahead of time. There’s a gunfight, too—I guess Allen never realized that when the S.S. Poseidon is sinking you shouldn’t need to bring in a gunfight to liven things up.

There are lots of good actors trapped in here but none of them make the iconic impression that the likes of Hackman, Borgnine, Buttons, Stevens, etc. made. That’s the nice way to put it. The not-so-nice way is to say that a few of them are pretty lousy. Caine never reaches the heights of his hysteria in THE SWARM but there’s not much he can bring to his part. He’s very much an actor doing a job here, not embarrassing himself, but not elevating things either. Telly Savalas plays Telly Savalas, Slim Pickens plays Slim Pickens, Sally Field is spectacularly annoying the whole way through and Peter Boyle is awful from the moment we see him where practically the first thing he says is, “Last night was the worst New Year’s party I’ve ever been to!” and then spends the next fifteen minutes shouting, “We gotta find my daughter!” over and over until his daughter, played by Angela Cartwright, just happens to appear. He’s essentially playing the Borgnine role, but watching him in his dirtied tuxedo I couldn’t help but think he was auditioning for the Harry Cooper role in some sort of Irwin Allen NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD remake. Hey, I had to think about something while watching this thing. Veronica Hamel at least adds some spunk to her role as a mysterious passenger in her brief scenes and she looks pretty great too—by that point I was desperately looking for something to be interested in. Karl Malden and Shirley Jones have a gentle, quiet scene near the end together which is probably ridiculous but at least it was something to connect with in here. Jack Warden (playing blind!) and Shirley Knight never get much of a chance to add anything and Mark Harmon is in there too as a Poseidon elevator operator, but he’d probably rather you didn’t mention it. Each of these actors probably knew exactly what this was and they shouldn’t be blamed for the result especially since there’s plenty of stuff in this script that actors should never be asked to play. The whole thing is so lifeless and pointless that no one could have made this thing work. Not that it matters, but Caine, Field and Boyle all co-starred together again eight years later in the romantic comedy SURRENDER which I saw but have next to no recollection of. Which I think will be exactly the case with this movie a few months from now.

The feeling I get is that Irwin Allen never seemed to realize that there couldn’t be a sequel to THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. It wasn’t just the boat that people responded to in the original, it was the characters, as well as the whole mythical journey concept of climbing to life, to the morning after. Those are the elements that get people to watch it again and again, whether it’s for reasons of camp or not. If a hardcore fan of the original were to watch this I could very easily imagine them saying about the plot, “Who cares about any of these people? Shelley Winters is lying dead a few dozen yards away!” The thing is, I’m not sure that they’re wrong. BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE exists, but it’s a film that pretty much consists of nothing with no reason whatsoever for it to exist and it never comes up with a convincing argument otherwise. It’s probably best viewed after you’ve seen each of the other disaster films way too many times, sort of the reason why I watched it. And now that it’s taken care of, I can move on.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Deterioration Of The Spirit Of Man

With Neil Simon presumably retired and hopefully doing well wherever he is in the world right now, it’s not entirely out of line to wonder just how his plays and films are holding up these days. There’s no arguing with THE ODD COUPLE, of course, and THE SUNSHINE BOYS is pretty damn good but it’s hard not to feel that a number of them are held back in their eras, stuck in that sort of New York-Los Angeles 60s-70s vibe, unable to travel to the present day. Even a few that I liked when I was a kid feel a little like they’re dissolving in front of my eyes today whenever I happen to flip past one on cable. These days I have a much greater personal connection with his two autobiographies, “Rewrites” and “The Play Goes On,” which are fantastic and highly recommended to any writer who may despair that they’re never going to get it right. How much it matters how his work is aging and will continue to age may be open to debate—his Wikipedia page tells us that his plays “reflect on the twentieth century Jewish-American experience,” so maybe that’s all they’re supposed to do. Looking at one of those films for the first time now it’s hard not to wonder what I would have thought if I’d seen it back then. I didn’t dislike THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE, released in 1975, but feel kind of muted towards it anyway. I could believe that much of it worked better on stage but there’s an uncertainty to the tone of it as a film that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. The jokes, even when good, sometimes feel a little out of place and the darker elements of the drama might have worked better with a different director. Was there ever a film of a Neil Simon comedy with more serious aspirations directed by somebody who wasn’t just a traffic cop? I never liked BILOXI BLUES much but at least that had Mike Nichols. Anyone else? In “The Play Goes On” Simon recalls some reticence at translating this particular work to the screen, stating, “The darker my plays became, the more lackluster the results when they were transferred to the big screen.” He doesn’t offer his opinion about the final result of this one, but I think he’s got a point. Most of them were helmed by directors just shooting the thing without bringing anything else and considering who these guys were, that’s all they were hired for. Sure, THE ODD COUPLE was airtight and probably always will be, but a number of the others don’t have that luxury. THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE has a lot going for it and is genuinely potent at times but it feels like it needs true anger behind it, someone in charge who can harness bite and frustration out of great actors—instead, they got Melvin Frank, then in his sixties, who years earlier directed Danny Kaye movies. He wrote WHITE CHRISTMAS and MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE, fer cryin out loud. He may not have been the best choice in the age of Archie Bunker.

In the middle of a massive heat wave in mid-70s New York Mel Edison (Jack Lemmon) finds himself at wit’s end with the madness going on all around him. With the recession upon them, he finds himself worrying about his job but soon enough he doesn’t have to worry anymore with the company he works for laying him off after 22 years. He waits a few days before telling wife Edna (Anne Bancroft), but before he is able to their apartment is robbed in the middle of the day with most of their belongings taken. Finding himself unemployed in middle age and unable to find a new job Mel soon is in the full throes of a genuine nervous breakdown and Edna, who has been able to find herself a job, has absolutely no idea what to do about it.

It might make for an interesting double bill with DEATH WISH—they both feature middle-aged white men lost in the New York of the mid-70s, trying to figure out their lives. Even the daytime break in feels vaguely (well, very vaguely) similar. And since I wondered how that film would have played with Lemmon in the lead role, go ahead and try to picture THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE with Charles Bronson in the lead. Naturally, the Anne Bancroft role would be played by Jill Ireland. I can’t help it, maybe it would be a train wreck but it sounds fascinating. In this form, THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE is at times an extremely uncomfortable viewing experience. The dialogue we expect from Neil Simon is there and at times it contains real juice but it only makes me wish all the more that the whole thing were better. It’s not a bad film, just a frustrating one and it least it has some points of interest. It’s certainly very well-shot and never becomes dull visually even with much of it set in the apartment. To its credit, the scenes set elsewhere in the world never feel simply like trying to open the play up. Particularly surprising, even from the opening scenes is how timely the film is now, set in a recession-era New York—and, presumably, world--where layoffs are hanging over everyone’s head. Considering how imperfect it is, this is one film that could actually stand to be remade, maybe transposing it to the current post-Guliani New York where the characters are driven crazy by what the city has become in this era. Of course, the characters would be made younger since seriocomedies starring people in their forties never get made anymore and the whole thing would probably be dumbed down big time. So let’s just forget the whole thing. There is genuine anger evident when Lemmon tells Bancroft that “you’re too lazy and too ignorant and too uninformed,” but the movie never follows through on these moments in ways that feel genuine. We need to something more of Lemmon’s breakdown other than just an awareness of how much he’s chewing the scenery. Any sort of catharsis never happens and the various ‘funny’ news reports heard throughout that are meant to parallel the breakdown of society just feel overly reaching and by a certain point become annoying. We also get a Marvin Hamlisch score that too often seems designed to tell us how funny everything is. It feels like this stuff should have been dialed down but it definitely would have helped if it had been funnier. It doesn’t make us laugh as much as we’d like and the drama doesn’t go all the way either, so as a result things feels stranded somewhere in between.

Mel Edison’s situation is just as dramatically valid as what the Lemmon characters in SAVE THE TIGER and THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES go through but something feels slightly off and it may be the lack of a disciplined hand to guide the actor. Lemmon’s always there, totally committed. It just sometimes feels like somebody isn’t telling him what to do and though everything he’s screaming about it completely valid and well-written it just feels too much. Bancroft’s performance is considerably more successful in this sense, making me wonder if she figured out these problems on her own. She’s so good that it almost comes close to overwhelming the jokes and more then a few times I found myself hoping that she would just go off script so she could really dig into this. For all I know Lemmon and Bancroft got along great—jeez, I’m complaining about watching a film with Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft?--but they don’t always mesh together so strongly. As a matter of fact, Lemmon has much better rapport with supporting actor Gene Saks as his brother. Saks, best known as a director of many Neil Simon plays and films, plays his scenes with Lemmon extremely well and the final scene with the two brothers near the end is so strong in its own modest way that it almost accidentally becomes the real emotional climax of the film. I’m willing to offer the possibility that it’s not the fault of Lemmon or Bancroft--sometimes two actors don’t go together as well as we’d like and it’s only exacerbated when there’s not a strong director around to get it to happen. A few other recognizable faces appear, such as Elizabeth Wilson and Florence Stanley, but there are also early appearances by F. Murray Abraham as a cab driver in the opening sequence, M. Emmett Walsh as the building doorman and, most enjoyably, Sylvester Stallone as “Youth in Park” who Lemmon accuses of stealing his wallet.

The Warner DVD looks great, like the film was shot yesterday. Maybe even too good—I’ve not sure there’s a 70s film where New York appears so bland and what someone in the comments section of my piece on DEATH WISH calls “the default coolness of a 70s New York movie” never happens here I suppose if I want that sort of Jack Lemmon-Neil Simon film, I should go watch THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS again. Maybe that’s not how I’m supposed to be looking at this film, but it ultimately seems like a Neil Simon comedy smothering a more desperately serious film with genuinely good intentions that’s trying to get out. I wish I’d liked it better, but these things happen. I wonder how a few of the others, like CALIFORNIA SUITE or the more farcical SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES, hold up these days. Maybe better, maybe about the same.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Everybody Wants His Picture In The Paper

“I hate football,” says a character at one point in 1976’s TWO-MINUTE WARNING, a movie set almost entirely at a football game and I don't have much of an argument with that statement. One thing’s for sure, this film isn’t going to get me to change my mind. It displays the Universal disaster movie cycle at its absolute least inspired, containing very little that I think I’ll have much memory of in the future. To not be too harsh on the thing, I watched it while eating Chinese takeout and it served its purpose for that—hey, I knew what I was getting into—so as dull as the whole thing is I was at least able to enjoy the basic formula and never actually felt compelled to shut it off. But it’s a lousy, crass piece of work and maybe even seems worse the more I think about it.

It’s the day of the big Championship football game in Los Angeles. A nameless, faceless sniper, mostly portrayed through a first-person camera setup, starts his day off by shooting an innocent person from the balcony of his hotel (whether it’s for practice or to distract police is never clarified) then after he checks out, calmly drives downtown to the Coliseum where he enters with his ticket, then makes his way up to a perch above the scoreboard where he can remain unobserved (security is very lax—it’s probably harder to steal a cup of coffee from a Starbucks) and after he has assembled the rifle that he brought in under his jacket (seriously, I hope this sort of thing is harder to pull off these days) calmly waits for the moment when he will strike and cause terror among the thousands watching the game. The various characters there that day include police captain Peter Holly (Charlton Heston), SWAT team commander Chris Button (John Cassavetes), the stadium manager (Martin Balsam), the maintenance man (Brock Peters), a gambler who desperately needs his team to win (Jack Klugman), a middle-aged unmarried couple at a crossroads in their relationship (Gena Rowlands and David Janssen), a young husband and father (Beau Bridges), a pickpocket (Walter Pidgeon) and various others. For the record, George Kennedy does not appear. He must have been busy that week.

The following year’s ROLLERCOASTER, also from the Universal assembly line, contains three lengthy amusement park sections in its running time made up of observing the various little dramas going on as it builds up to the calamity that is supposed to occur. TWO-MINUTE WARNING, directed by Larry Peerce, is that basic idea only at feature length, complete with the ‘day in the life of wild n’ wooly L.A.’ feel from EARTHQUAKE that they were obviously trying to do once again here. Nothing about this film is worth sustaining suspense for the length of time that it does and since we know the sniper isn’t going to do much of anything before a certain point (you could probably guess when by looking at the title of the movie) it probably made it very easy for people to go get more popcorn, confident that they wouldn’t be missing anything. It’s directed by Larry Peerce (GOODBYE COLUMBUS and WIRED, as well as lots of TV) in a way that almost feels like it’s desperately reaching for some kind of style but never finds much beyond the stock studio look of the time. With its sniper plotline, I guess you could say that it’s the Universal disaster movie version of Bogdanovich’s TARGETS and though I was willing to look at any similarity as a coincidence, it’s hard not to notice how this film’s killer munches on a Baby Ruth before starting his shooting spree, just as it happens in the earlier film. There’s no real comparison to how each treats this subject--Bogdanovich films his sequences with a deadpan terror putting us in the place of the people terrorized by their unseen assailant. Larry Peerce seems to get off on the huge squibs that go off when any character is taken out, spurting blood all over the place, with wild zooms and shocked melodramatic reactions which feel like it’s rubbing our noses in things. Needless to say, there’s also no real position on gun control ever taken and any real point of view on the subject is avoided entirely except for one nasty swipe at the media near the very end which seems like a lame bit of DIRTY HARRY-type posturing. With little of the “Oh, the humanity!” hysteria or endearing characters of the Irwin Allen pictures, or even in EARTHQUAKE, it just becomes a dull slog after a while. Most of these films set up their characters then as the calamity occurs part of the suspense is how they will deal with it, in addition to wondering if they will survive. TWO-MINUTE WARNING just sets them up like a row of ducks and any interest we’ve invested in them—and lousy at this all is, if we’re watching people like Rowlands and Klugman we are going to be a little invested—just feels like a waste of time. When panic in the stadium does finally begin, the shots of the teeming masses of people running and screaming is kind of effective but it goes on so long that it becomes clear how ridiculous it can be to see extras running around screaming, their arms flailing everywhere. By a certain point I began to wonder if this was at all an inspiration for how John Landis staged the climax of ANIMAL HOUSE.

John Frankenheimer’s BLACK SUNDAY, which dealt with a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl, was happening at the same time and was based on a huge bestseller by Thomas Harris. I don’t know to what extent TWO-MINUTE WARNING was, um, ‘inspired’ by this other film being in production but it feels like a chintzy knock-off all the way and whenever it cuts to shots of the Goodyear blimp (a key plot device in the Frankenheimer) overhead, even if it does figure into the plot, it feels like it’s deliberately thumbing its nose at the other film. Now I’m wondering why I’ve never bothered to write a full piece on BLACK SUNDAY which, needless to say, is much, much better. Even though there’s a fair amount of footage in this film obviously shot at an actual game, many of the details are phony—like the game in THE SUM OF ALL FEARS it’s never actually called the Super Bowl (“What exactly is this Super Bowl?” asks Robert Shaw in BLACK SUNDAY) even though everything about it indicates that’s what it is—“Championship X” seems to be its official moniker and the two teams playing are just “Los Angeles” and “Baltimore”, no names given. Forget about how it’s impossible to believe anything here even on a B-movie level involving the police, stadium security or the room below the scoreboard that’s been checked by a single maintenance man even with the President coming to the game. Even when noted singer Merv Griffin turns up to sing the National Anthem he’s only seen in close-up on TV monitors. I guess they didn’t even want to bother with having the guy driven down to the location. On the list of memorable Merv Griffin film appearances, it’s no THE MAN WITH THE TWO BRAINS or THE LONELY GUY. There’s some nice L.A. location work like there always seems to be in these movies, particularly the circular Holiday Inn just off the 405 in Brentwood where the film opens, but this time it’s not enough.

Heston pretty much plays Heston, his performance notable only for how much he seems to be sucking in his gut the entire time, and at one point when he dramatically removes his sunglasses while trying to make a point I half-expected there to be another pair underneath. He does, however, at one point say, “Who the hell’d want to kill an assistant professor of botany?” a line I doubt he delivered at any other point in his career. Cassavetes as the second lead never seems to think anything other than that this film is a piece of shit—did he do it for cash or did he owe a film to Universal?-- but at least he gives a moderately interesting spin to his scenes in what is pretty much the Steve McQueen-TOWERING INFERNO role. He seems to play his confrontations with Heston as if he’s thinking that this big shot desk cop is just a by-the-book hack coasting on his rep, which for all I know is what Cassavetes thought of Heston as well—at least it gives this stuff an interesting subtext. His last line of dialogue at the end is just about the most naturalistic reading in the entire film, made more interesting by how Cassavetes barely seems able to contain his contempt for what he has to say. It’s hard not to wonder what he’s really thinking at that moment (for anyone curious, he and Rowlands have no scenes together). Beau Bridges’ character isn’t well-defined—he slaps his kid early on, then it’s never mentioned again—but he does take part in a few of the only effective moments late in the film, including one genuinely impressive shot where he runs through the outer corridor of the stadium only to find a huge swarm of people coming right at him, trying to flee. I’d love to hear from him what filming that particular scene was like. Considering all the big names in the film, the only one who is even remotely likable is, of all people, David “Rhoda’s Husband” Groh as a guy at the game alone who finds himself sitting next to a woman (Marilyn Hassett, Peerce’s then-wife) whose date is much more interested in the game, leading to a mutual interest developing between the two. I found myself continually hoping they would cut back to this plotline, the only part of the film where I actually cared about what was going to happen.

There’s a shot near the end involving Martin Balsam’s character, a beat designed to acknowledge all the horrific tragedy that has just occurred, kind of like Lloyd Nolan saying, “This used to be a hell of a town,” at the end of EARTHQUAKE or similar moments of reflection in other disaster films. Maybe they’re silly but we do come away remembering those things and how they valiantly grope for significance. With this film however, it just feels all the more perfunctory as if Universal is trying to stick to the formula to the very end. That prevailing dullness as well as the undercurrent to the nastiness in TWO-MINUTE WARNING makes it not nearly as much fun as some others from the cycle but I’ll freely admit that the basic structure of this sort of thing is kind of comforting by this point. Maybe I’m just easy. It’s a pretty terrible movie with next to nothing endearing about it but if you enjoy this sort of thing as much as I do you’ll probably find something in there to like. That probably shouldn’t be taken as a recommendation.

Monday, March 23, 2009

It's Always Later Than You Think

There’s a lot on my mind right now, but I’m not going to talk about most of it. It’s much easier to focus on other things, like certain films that I feel more connected to as time goes on. To mention one of them, I couldn’t stick around to see THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE when it played at the New Beverly a few weeks ago. The reason for this was mainly because the first film of the night was A BOY AND HIS DOG and was immediately followed by a Q&A with Harlan Ellison which, no surprise, lasted only a few minutes shorter than the running time of A BOY AND HIS DOG. I can safely say that it was the most unbearably funny post-film discussion I have been witness to since...well, probably the time I saw Ellison speak after a Cinematheque screening of THE OSCAR a number of years ago. He'll be at the New Beverly again in April with a festival of films that he's programmed, so don't miss it. Anyway, with the second feature starting over an hour after it was supposed to, there was no way I could stick around. I have to get up too early. As I was heading off to my car Ellison, bless him, was still holding court with people on the sidewalk out in front of the theater. The film started, I went home to sleep. So I missed out on a chance to see a 35mm print of THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (Joe Dante’s, from what I hear), not the first time it’s happened. Another occasion was a few years ago when it played at the Egyptian with director Val Guest (since deceased) in attendance. I've heard from several people who were there that it wasn't a large crowd, but when the film ended the power of the film was such that they gave the director a standing ovation. I'm genuinely sorry I missed that. It’s a remarkable film that seems to become more powerful to me with every viewing.

The premise is deseptively simple: simultaneous nuclear bomb tests have caused the earth to break out of its orbit and head for the sun. The complexity of 1961’s THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, a title which makes it sound like something else altogether, is what stands out in it. Much of the film is a newspaper story, centering on cynical, alcoholic reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd, who passed away only a few short weeks ago) who stumbles into this story just as he meets Jeannie (Janet Munro), a young woman who works for the government office that is engaged in trying to cover up what has happened. As the world spirals further into disaster and their relationship intensifies, Stenning finds his own passion beginning to reemerge.

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE is filmed in stark, black & white Scope (there's a special red tint used in the framing sequences as well) with surprisingly effective uses of stock footage integrated to make the presumably modest-budgeted film seem much bigger than it really is. It’s not a film about special effects—the focus is on the people, with a loving, detailed look at the ins and outs of newspaper life in post-war England—that aspect of the film is sadly beginning to seem like science fiction as well—and it’s thrilling to see this fast-paced world presented in such a way. The dialogue is so crackling and fast-paced that it’s a shame the Anchor Bay DVD doesn’t come with subtitles to keep up with it at times. But even more than that, the presents us with a burgeoning relationship between two lonely, suspicious people who find themselves able to open up to each other just as the world may be in its death throes. Interestingly, the escalating nature of their relationship seems to parallel what is happening to the planet, as if each step closer to doom is matched by the intensity of their need to be with each other. The film is shot in a dynamic, sometimes naturalistic style with fantastic camerawork as we follow these characters through the newspaper offices—it’s not quite documentary-like but the intensity of it is such that director Guest pulls off including footage of an actual ban-the-bomb rally that figures into the plot, complete with leading man Judd making his way through the scene. The British setting of a genre storyline that makes use of such blatantly political statements is very reminiscent of CHILDREN OF MEN and while the two films bare no real connection to each other, with the exception of the presence of a certain actor, it’s just about the greatest compliment I can think of to say that THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE fully deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as that more recent film. For all I know, stylistically it could even have been a key inspiration for Alfonso Cuaron when he made it and the way they compliment each other would make an ideal, if emotionally exhausting, double bill. Each film in its own way seems to be stating that maybe the absolute worst is going to happen—but what we do still matters and maybe in those times it matters more than ever. As they begin to get serious with each other Munro’s character asks the lead character, a reporter named Peter, “What happened? They say you used to be a writer.” This line of questioning obviously cuts deep for him. On a day like this, I feel like the question is being asked of me.

Both Judd and Munro give affecting, layered performances that become richer with each viewing but longtime character actor Leo McKern is damn near brilliant in the supporting role of Bill Maguire, the hardened newspaper reporter who is able to deduce what is going on before anyone else can. Seen very briefly in an early appearance as a traffic cop is Michael Caine and there’s no mistaking that voice. There’s the direct connection to CHILDREN OF MEN.

This is my 300th post on this site and I wanted to mark the occasion with a mention of a film that somehow deserved it, that deep down I truly care about. Not too long ago somebody asked me why I write this blog and I didn’t have a good answer. I suppose if I did I might not have to write it anymore. Maybe it’s to figure out what it is about films like this that make me want to think about them, to write about them, to see them again and again. Maybe it’s to figure out what they mean to me.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Too Civilized

Since I love being embarrassed by things in life, I should mention that until just the other day I had never actually seen DEATH WISH. That’s right, Michael Winner’s DEATH WISH. The original. How did I ever miss this one? I know, I’ve got work to do on Charles Bronson post-1970 but I guess the title always seemed so ubiquitous that it was almost as if I’d seen it already. Maybe it was a long-ago exposure to the Mad Magazine parody. I’d love to read that again. Finally, I realized that I could not continue with this horrendous lie any longer. So the deed has been done. I was expecting a piece of early 70s hackwork with lots of New York grime and sleaze but with a certain primal power. That’s pretty much what I got.

Charles Bronson IS Paul Kersey, mild-mannered, bleeding-heart liberal architect who returns from a Hawaiian vacation with wife Joanna (Hope Lange) to their apartment on the upper west side of the early 70s cesspool of New York. Just as they are settling back in to their routine, Joanna and their married daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) are returning home one afternoon from shopping at D’Agostino’s when unbeknownst to them they are followed by three ultra-nasty hoodlums (including Jeff Goldblum in his film debut) who break in looking for money but when they are unsatisfied with the take proceed to terrorize the women, raping Carol and ultimately killing Joanna. As it becomes clear that the ordeal has left Carol irrevocably traumatized, Paul feels absolutely helpless about what has happened, even to the point of confronting a mugger with a few well-placed rolls of quarters one night. Soon after he takes some time away from the city to go to Tucson to work on a project with real estate developer Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin) where he eventually becomes reacquainted with firing a gun, something he hasn’t done since the Korean War when he served as a conscientious objector. When the job is done Paul returns to New York where, after learning his daughter’s condition has worsened, he soon discovers a revolver that Jainchill left as a present in his suitcase. Kersey takes the gun, puts it in his pocket and heads out to the park late at night to take a little walk…

The attack on the wife and daughter—particularly nasty for a mainstream film but of course designed to get the anger flowing at maximum--followed by the wife’s subsequent funeral seems to occur so quickly after the opening credits that I was willing to give the movie credit for assuming a sort of nightmare logic, with things becoming so bad so fast that there’s barely any time to process it. I’m not really sure that’s the case though, since this pace continues pretty much the whole way through, feeling like the film was just slammed together in the cutting. For whatever reason, it’s cut as if editor Bernard Gribble (who, among other films, also cut THE SENTINEL and I’LL NEVER FORGET WHAT’S ‘IS NAME for Winner) simply wanted to keep things moving at a (for then) breakneck speed, leaving no time for anyone to ask how all this would happen in the real world. I found myself admiring this about DEATH WISH and I liked that primal power that I was kind of expecting, as well as the very adult tone that even films l ike this were able to have way back then. It really does succeed in making New York seem like the most terrifying place imaginable. Who in 1974 would ever want to go anywhere near the place after seeing this? But it is pretty much hackery, with lots of stuff tossed around throughout that never really goes anywhere. Kersey goes home and pukes after killing his first mugger but it doesn’t affect anything he does. Later on he appears in a good mood, his apartment painted in brighter colors and with bouncy music blaring (this actually seems more like an interesting idea) but that doesn’t really affect anything either. If this is all supposed to be nuanced character development, it doesn’t come across. Thinking about the screen persona of Bronson, the very idea of DEATH WISH seems both perfectly tailored to him and at the same time a little too obvious. What if the role had been played by somebody we could really believe as a “bleeding-heart liberal”? What if it were, say, Gregory Peck? Jack Lemmon? Tony Randall? I did find myself interested in how the three men who break into his apartment (“Freak #1” is Goldblum’s credit) are never seen or heard from again;it seems slightly realistic that they would never be caught but this depersonalized sort of vengeance feels different from how this sort of plot would be handled today—didn’t THE BRAVE ONE with Jodie Foster make it all personal? Never seeing the freaks again makes it feel like there’s nothing to really build to in the climax and I wondered about a possible ending tinged with irony that could have involved them without Kersey even realizing. Of course, that wasn’t the movie Michael Winner was making—he just wanted to send Charlie after all the bad guys on the streets (some black, some not) and make the whole thing one big catharsis for everyone watching. I’m not sure that I blame him. One of the surprising things is that for all the fireworks some of the stand-offs Bronson has with his various attackers has the least amount of punch of anything in the movie. It’s the moments of dread and building waves of anger that the movie makes you feel building up to the chunks of action that really have an effect. I’ll bet that in the theater this didn’t really matter –people were probably just so swept up in everything that all they cared about was that Bronson gunned all that scum down. It’s a graceless piece of work but damn, the thing moves.

Various elements that seem potentially intriguing keep popping up but not much is ever really done with them. We get a glimpse of media coverage as seen on headlines of newspapers and magazines (some are fakes) in a pretty lame sequence as Bronson picks up one after the other but I kept wishing that Paul Kersey would turn on The Dick Cavett Show to see what he had to say about this vigilante. Again, that’s not the movie they were making. I’m also a bit hazy on the meaning of how much it harps on Stuart Margolin’s reluctance to tamper with the natural landscape around his development, espousing an ideal of ‘space for life’ that ‘conforms to the land’. Maybe it’s simply that the character of Paul Kersey has to go back to the earth out in the heartland to gather the strength and knowledge for how to handle things back in the big city, but I’ll admit that sounds like a reach. There’s not always the best attention to detail— Kersey repeatedly gives his address as being “33 Riverside” but it’s clearly on a cross-street, something that was nagging at me the whole movie. Apparently it was actually West 75th Street and it looks like practically half the movie was shot there, including a news report seen on TV featuring Helen Martin, recognizable from 227 and many other sitcoms. For that matter, it’s surprising that real supermarket chain D’Agostino would willingly go along with the plot point that the wife and daughter’s brutalization occurs because these crooks are able to easily read a delivery slip visible in their store. I wonder if that kind of plot point could fly today. Like other films from this period New York is seen in the worst light imaginable but every scene in a subway car looks bright and sparkly, not an inch of graffiti in sight. In one scene where a blizzard is supposedly occurring we can see bright sunlight coming through a window and the final moment, set in Chicago’s Union Station, will be easily recognizable to any New Yorker as having been shot on the second level of Grand Central Station (that aside, it’s a pretty cool ending, going out on just the right beat).

It’s pretty much his signature role and maybe it did turn into a joke in the later films, but Bronson is pretty damn good here, using his screen presence to bring a lot of weight to what the character is going through, even if the script seems erratic or underwritten. Vincent Gardenia is pretty terrific as the police detective investigating the vigilante shooting, playing a character that is wisely written as much sharper than these types usually are (but why is he on the cover of People Magazine?). The actor is particularly good in a long one-take sequence as he gives a speech to his department telling them how they have to track down this guy and makes me wonder how Gardenia would have handled the role of Lt. Kinderman in THE EXORCIST. I was particularly surprised by Stuart Margolin, who I didn’t even recognize at first, as the Tucson real estate guy who puts a gun into Kersey’s hand, fully aware of the “extension of our penises” stereotype. He brings a surprising directness to his relatively brief screen time, making his character part angel (sorry), part devil and part audience surrogate as he hands over that penis extension to Charles Bronson, as if goading him to start doing what we all came to see him do. Other vaguely familiar faces turn up throughout, a reminder of how well cast even movies like this once were, including Stephen Elliott (“Why don’t you forget the moose for a moment!” in ARTHUR), Jack Wallace (young Alvy Singer’s doctor at the beginning of ANNIE HALL), Eric Laneuville (THE OMEGA MAN, but later on ST. ELSEWHERE), Paul Dooley and Christopher Guest seen separately as cops and Olympia Dukakis, sharing the frame with Vincent Gardenia thirteen years before MOONSTRUCK. The score by Herbie Hancock avoids the trappings of being cool in a 70s way but never tries to make the film more respectable than it is. Getting a jazz musician for this was probably influenced by Don Ellis’s score for THE FRENCH CONNECTION but this music seems laid out in a more traditional way and it’s not particularly well done, though it does help in adding to the feel of unease that we should have.

So that’s my first look at DEATH WISH, a nasty piece of button-pushing exploitation as delivered by Charles Bronson, Michael Winner and Dino De Laurentiis that I couldn’t stop watching. It made me grateful that I never have to made my way down those early 70s New York streets where according to this movie I would surely be mugged or worse. I also wonder how I survived walking the late 80s-early 90s New York streets that I did go down and some of those were pretty dimly lit. But more than anything, I think the film will make me forever wonder what liver and spaghetti as prepared by Charles Bronson would taste like. Now I suppose I’m going to have to check out the sequels.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Better Than Not Getting The Job

Tim Burton’s ED WOOD, an enormously entertaining and touching film which I never grow tired of, opens and closes with a nighttime downpour over Hollywood, not a normal occurrence. But every now and then it does happen so this unusual sight makes it an appropriate bookend to this look at a side of Hollywood not often seen in movies about the place, a biopic on the man who is generally thought of at the worst director in the history of the movies. My own perspective on the story it tells is bound to be different from a lot of people because it deals with names that I had long been familiar with when the film was made. And now that I’ve known this film for a long time as well, it just gains for me with every viewing.

I first heard of Edward D. Wood, Jr. when I was still just a kid, reading the various books by the Medved Brothers about the “worst movies of all time”, especially The Golden Turkey Awards which probably still remains the most famous of the four they put out. I was completely obsessed with those books way back then and they were my first exposure to names like Wood, William Castle, Ray Dennis Steckler and many others. Years later as I began to learn about these films and the people behind them, I came to the conclusion that the books were pretty reprehensible overall, treating their subjects as nothing but figures to be mocked and bafflingly even naming titles like BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA and LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD as among the worst films ever made. Even their research seems shoddy, at times giving the impression that they hadn’t even seen the films they were writing about. There’s nothing wrong with a love of junk or shining a light on the bad stuff, but there was never any affection in what they were writing about. It was just kind of nasty in its crass attempts to be funny. For purely sentimental reasons I still have these books all these years later, but they’re hidden away. I don’t particularly have any desire to look at them now or ever. But some of what the Medveds did made an impression in the world and to me as well, especially when it came to making the world at large aware of the story of Ed Wood, who they voted worst director of all time and his magnum opus PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE which was awarded the honor of worst film ever made. As people got to see these films through the years the cult grew, eventually resulting in screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski writing this biopic about the director, which led to Tim Burton deciding to direct it when his career was at its post-BATMAN hottest. The film did very little business when it was released in the fall of 1994 but it received a great amount of acclaim including several Oscars and certainly played a part in the continued career growth of the key figures behind it. The people who saw it always knew how good it was and seeing it again nearly fifteen years after it was released the film holds up as a valentine to the love of making movies, even when under the most deluded and ridiculous of circumstances.

Just in case there is somebody reading this who hasn’t seen the film, Johnny Depp plays Ed Wood, an aspiring director in the Hollywood scene of the 50s with a predilection for cross-dressing, a secret that he keeps from girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker). Just as he is trying to talk his way into a job directing a film based on Christine Jorgensen, pure chance results in him meeting idol Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), once a huge star, now a broke drug addict who hadn’t worked in years. Ed uses this opportunity to get to direct the movie, a singularly bizarre mish mosh entitled GLEN OR GLENDA, and as his pushes to direct again he continues to assemble the creative team around him which also includes would-be transsexual Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), gigantic wrestler Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele), local TV horror hostess Vampira (Lisa Marie) and famed psychic Criswell (Jeffrey Jones). Of course, Ed really is a terrible filmmaker, with no discernable talent but he presses on, trying to get new films made, completely in love with the idea of doing that.

Part of my sentimental fondness for the film, along with knowing a great deal about the subject beforehand, is also due to having seen the film for the first time at a test screening held at the now-closed Hollywood Galaxy in the summer of ’94. Some of that audience aside from me definitely knew about the subject—I can remember the employees of Hollywood Book & Poster sitting in the row behind me. That version we saw was a little longer with scenes and bits of shoe leather that got cut before release and also contained the original ending which just went back to Criswell’s narration at the end, with no "Whatever Happened To..." titles that were added for the release cut to tell us what happened to all these people after the end of the movie (this is discussed on the DVD commentary, referring to it as the only test screening they had). I’ve always missed that ending a little, maybe because it seemed cleaner—it just told you the story and dropped you back into the real world leaving you to decide for yourself about what you’d just seen, but I can understand the desire for people to want to know more and also let them know that, ridiculous as they may have been, these really were real people.

The script by Alexander & Karaszewski succeeds in pulling off a balance of hitting the factual beats to tell the story while not losing focus of the story they want to tell—a guy with dreams of Hollywood glory and what that can mean to anyone who shares those aspirations. He has gobs of enthusiasm but not a speck of talent, exactly what anyone trying to make it in this business fears deep down. Many of the details presented in the film seem to come from “Nightmare of Ectasy”, Rudolph Grey’s oral history of Wood’s life which is credited in the end crawl and it very much feels like that book was on their desk the entire time they were writing the script. A number of major points come from there along with a surprising amount of tiny details which anyone unfamiliar with this story would probably think were made up (Ed never met Orson Welles at Musso & Frank, though—the pair freely admit to coming up with that one themselves). There are a few inaccuracies here and there, but they matter less to me as time goes on. Sprinkled throughout the film are reams of screwy dialogue that somehow feels right for the period but in a way that becomes infectious also feels like they’re writing some of this stuff just because it amuses them—Sarah Jessica Parker’s confused response at one point, “Better than not getting the job?” is a personal favorite of mine. The spin that Tim Burton brings to it feels like it has its own aims that concentrate on the character’s personal optimism and not quite paying attention to the sadness that lurks underneath a lot of this—all through the film it feels like there’s a lot of drinking going on at the edges of the frame, maybe an indication of the denial these characters have. Thinking of it that way I could almost look at the triumphant premiere that ends the film, not what happened in real life, as Wood’s own fantasy. It doesn’t matter, really but after everything we’ve seen him go through he deserves it. He may have made PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE, the worst movie of all time (Is it really? Has anybody seen ROBOT MONSTER? MURDER BY TELEVISION? VAN HELSING?), he made it. He accomplished that much. Always on his side, always treating the absurdities of these characters with the greatest amount of affection, ED WOOD the movie gives back the man a little of the dignity that was taken away from him by the likes of the Medveds. His films may have been lousy—they kind of are, as fascinating as his story is--but everything he represented matters. The film is important to me as a small piece of my own love for films and history in this town as well as maybe a small validation of those things. It really is something that I love.

All these years after that first viewing at the Galaxy, I went to the New Beverly to see it again, as part of a series of films programmed by A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE screenwriter Josh Olson. The two writers were there (second on the bill that night as a perverse joke, was the last remaining 35mm print of PROBLEM CHILD, the first film they wrote. I didn’t stick around for it) as was the great Martin Landau, who won the Oscar for his transcendent performance as Bela Lugosi in his final years. Olson introduced the beautiful print we saw by calling it “the best film about a film director ever made”, with the qualification that the lead of 8 ½ was fictional, after all. During the Q&A which followed Alexander & Karaszewski talked about how writing a film as reviled as PROBLEM CHILD (which they also hate, incidentally) led them to the idea of this take on the life of such a hated director. When Tim Burton was waffling on committing to another project, they took advantage of his interest in the idea and banged out a first draft in six weeks, which he committed to instantly, not even asking for a second draft (much of this info can also be found on the DVD audio commentary, which is highly recommended). As far as I was concerned they could have gone on for hours but there was no stopping Martin Landau when they brought him up to join them. The actor spoke with great humor and insight about various facets of his career, including working with Tim Burton, the challenge of playing Lugosi, meeting Boris Karloff in the sixties, knowing the real Vampira back in the fifties when she dated James Dean (“That was over half a century ago,” he added, almost in wonder) and, maybe coolest of all, talking about how back then he taught acting classes in the space that the New Beverly was at the time when he first arrived in Los Angeles. It was a thrill to be there that night, even if I couldn’t stick around for PROBLEM CHILD. All these years after seeing it, ED WOOD the film still means a great deal to me. In more ways than I could possibly express here, it beautifully and hilariously manages to tap into the dream of wanting to make movies, to write, to do what you need to do in life, in spite of everyone telling you that you shouldn’t because of who you are. Whether they’re right is beside the point. Sometimes these things need to stay alive.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

All The Wrong Things

There’s not a lot to say about Robert Aldrich’s HUSTLE, released in 1975, but it does offer the unique romantic pairing of Burt Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve. She never made very many movies over here in America, so why did she pick this one? Who knows? Maybe she wanted to see what L.A. was like. Maybe she liked Robert Aldrich. Maybe she liked Burt Reynolds. Maybe they asked her. It’s not the best work of anyone involved—Maltin’s book gives it a BOMB rating which, to be honest, seems a little harsh but frankly there isn’t really a strong argument to be made in its favor either. It’s still interesting.

Homicide cop Phil Gaines (Burt Reynolds, no mustache) is investigating the death of young Gloria Hollinger, whose body recently washed up on the beach, with his partner Louis Belgrave (Paul Winfield). As all of Los Angeles seems to be obsessed with a Rams-Vikings game that is being played, it doesn’t take long for the coroner to rule the death a suicide, but Gloria’s father Marty (Ben Johnson) won’t leave the case alone. Meanwhile Phil, who is continually lost in a reverie as he thinks of a long ago trip to Rome, is dealing with his hooker girlfriend Nicole Britton (Catherine Deneuve) and sort out their odd relationship. But soon one of Nicole’s customers, the powerful Leo Britton (Eddie Albert) enters the investigation and things become considerably more complicated.

HUSTLE feels like a number of elements thrown together—with the snazzy sports car driven by Gaines, he might be an attempt to create a new Frank Bullitt/Harry Callahan-type character but the mystery at the heart of the film is more like a CHINATOWN-GET CARTER scenario but unlike those films it doesn’t really stick. Despite the title, sports car and big explosion on the DVD cover, HUSTLE is an extremely slow-moving film with very little action but while watching it late at night I found myself strangely compelled by what was going on while admittedly never exactly liking it. It is, after all, a difficult picture to like. Every now and then there’s a shot with the pulp ferocity that Aldrich is known for but too much of it feels like a dull, surprisingly sleazy tv show as if the director was just getting the coverage needed and many of the details like what occurs during a hostage situation come off as unconvincing. When Reynolds and Winfield learn of something late in the film they race to the car and the music (by Frank DVol) kicks in big time out of nowhere for no particular reason and all I could think was, “NOW the movie’s getting excited? It couldn’t do that an hour ago?” Much of HUSTLE has a drab, depressing look to it as if it were shot in somebody’s basement and as a result it’s a drab, depressing movie. No one in the film is very happy about the state of things, but no one is doing anything about it either. Several times somebody asks about Johnson’s character, “Is he anybody?” meaning does this case really matter anything worth a damn? The answer is no of course and not even Reynolds’ character can work up the enthusiasm, spending much of his time fretting over Catherine Deneuve or lost in a reverie over his obsession with the thirties which he boasts that he’s a “student of” (a simpler time, I’m guessing) or remembering a trip to Rome that he can’t get out of his mind. I found myself getting more interested when Paul Winfield’s supporting character began to get upset over the case’s runaround than our alleged hero was—after all, usually it’s the other way around--but what these characters are doing and why sometimes gets a little too muddled. There is some cool location footage of Los Angeles throughout, including Catherine Deneuve’s triangle-shaped house (or do she and Reynolds share it? It’s unclear) which I’m pretty sure is located in the hills over Silverlake and can even be seen from the roof of my building. Like the house, the most interesting things in the movie are located around the edges of the plot, like how it contains just about more drinking than any other film ever—at one point in the plot it feels like there’s a stretch where Reynolds is just going from one bar/restaurant to another to meet people for further conversation and each time when we cut to an interior, we’re joining him already in mid-drink (HUSTLE drinking game—any time Burt Reynolds or anybody else takes a drink, you take a drink). One other point of interest might be that some of the particulars involving the murdered girl slightly resemble the plot revelations in THE LIMEY, which is interesting because on the audio commentary for that film screenwriter Lem Dobbs speaks of dropping his first draft of that script off at Aldrich’s office (presumably after this film) in an attempt to get his attention. HUSTLE is low-key and fairly mature, but it comes off like Robert Aldrich was more interested in just showing up and making a movie with Burt and his friends than in actually bringing a point of view to all this. Written by Steve Shagan (SAVE THE TIGER—now there’s a double bill!), too much of it seems to be straining for a significance that is unclear, like Reynolds making a big thing out of MOBY DICK playing on the late show. And what’s the deal with all this “Bingo” stuff? It feels like it either needed somebody to solve these problems in the script or a different director who had an idea of what to focus on and decide what this story needed to be. But with all the booze, strip clupbs, Ben Johnson obsessing over his dead daughter and overall sleaze it’s a pretty grim film to sit through. Maybe it’s supposed to be ultra-cool, but it just comes off as a bummer. If somebody ever showed this on a double bill with HICKEY AND BOGGS, that other ultra-bleak Los Angeles crime film from the 70s, the theater would probably need to hand out free bottles of Bushmill’s to everyone leaving, as they walked back out into the world, certain that there was no hope for anything in the future.

Reynolds isn’t bad, but in some of the most dramatic moments it feels like he’s not as strong as he should be and it’s hard not to think that with a director who was more committed to this story he could have risen to the occasion. He’s at his best, and most believable, when he’s just supposed to be a prick. The various performances are a mixed bag with Paul Winfield and Eileen Brennan, as the murdered girl’s mother, particularly good, but a few like Ben Johnson and Eddie Albert have been seen to better advantage other times. Ernest Borgnine dials his persona down and is enjoyably nasty in his several scenes as the police captain. With these good actors sometimes flailing, it’s left to Catherine Deneuve to bring the human element to the film. Her English isn’t great, she seems a little more, um, full-bodied than she was in the sixties and her entire role is pretty ludicrous--she's a hooker who also performs coy phone sex as part of her job as Burt Reynolds sits nearby and broods--but it’s Catherine Friggin’ Deneuve, which elevates everything she comes near and some of her work here is the only stuff in the movie that feels truly, genuinely, natural. She brings out some of the best in her co-star as well and when she has Reynolds tell her once again what Rome was like it’s the one sweet scene in the picture, almost as if Aldridge just turned the camera on and quietly let them talk. Her response to the possibility of a McDonald’s opening up on the the Champs-Elysées is a nice little bit as well. (The point where they start slapping each other around before winding up in bed together is a little more problematic in this day and age). When the two of them go to see a revival in Westwood of A MAN AND A WOMAN at the Plaza Theater (now gone) it feels like there’s some kind of in-joke going on and her very presence in Los Angeles is so unusual that it’s hard for it not to bring a distinct feel to the film. It’s not much and yes, the role is pretty hard to swallow, but it is something. Various familiar faces turn up here and there throughout but most notable are early appearances by Fred Willard in a straight role as a cop and Robert Englund in a small but key role as a holdup man.

I like HUSTLE maybe more than I should. It’s not much fun, but it has a number of actors I enjoy watching and it presents a Los Angeles milieu that in its own depressing way makes it stand out. It’s not great. I don’t even know if it’s good. It might not be. But maybe a downbeat, surprisingly adult movie like this, which also comes with the pleasing notion that maybe Catherine Deneuve is really living just over in Silverlake, is exactly what you need to see sometimes in the middle of the night.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Lot Of Water

William Friedkin’s THE FRENCH CONNECTION only seems to get better as the years pass. In contrast John Frankenheimer’s less well-known 1975 followup, FRENCH CONNECTION II, seems pretty much the same. This is not a slam—it’s a good film, very taut, very 70s, but as much as Frankenheimer brought his own expertise (which I’m admittedly a huge fan of) it doesn’t seem to gain as time goes on, maybe because some of it goes a little slack or maybe because of the unavoidable issue that the film didn’t really need to exist to begin with. It’s still pretty damn good at times and considering there may be some people out there who don’t even know it exists they might even be surprised by how genuinely effective some of it is.

Some time after the events of THE FRENCH CONNECTION, Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) arrives in Marseilles attempting to track down Charnier (Fernando Rey) who has presumably proved elusive since getting away at the end of the first film. What Doyle doesn’t know is that both the New York and Marseilles police are actually using him as bait in an attempt to bring Charnier out into the open. Though local cop Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson) has Doyle constantly followed, thing don’t quite go as planned when Charnier, aware his nemesis has shown up, has him captured. When Popeye refuses to answer any of his questions, Charnier has him repeatedly injected with heroin over a long period of time. When Charnier finally believes that Doyle has no useful information, he has him dumped in front of the police station where, fully hooked, he has to go through the agonizing process of cold turkey with little but revenge on his mind.

The setup feels slightly contrived and the way Popeye Doyle just shows up by himself frankly comes off more like something that would happen in a sequel to a big movie than it would in real life—in the aftermath of the real case, attempts to extradite the French Connection never succeeded. Popeye Doyle also came off as so much of his environment in the original that it’s almost hard to believe that he would ever leave the five boroughs willingly (Of course, Charnier himself declares, “Wine will travel. It is people who have difficulty.”) However, the film proceeds almost as if it’s both fully aware and determined to defy this contrivance. In spite of being a direct continuation of the story of the Friedkin film, with various asides like a callback to “pick your feet in Poughkeepsie”, it’s probably best to look at FRENCH CONNECTION II as a stand-alone mid-70s crime film, where Hackman just happens to be appearing as a character he’s played before. Ultimately what’s most interesting about it is that it really does manage to feel like both an American and a French film at the same time and seems to use this battle of styles to its advantage. This is no doubt an influence of director Frankenheimer who was living over in France at this point and may have experienced some of this feeling of being caught between two worlds (even the scenes of Charnier living his life of luxury feel like something Frankenheimer has first-hand knowledge of). His basic aesthetic isn’t too different from Friedkin’s approach but even with certain scenes very obviously shot out among people unaware that there’s a camera nearby, like a lot of the terrific footage of Hackman wandering around Marseilles it feels a little more staged like a normal movie this time, it still is a very effective one with some of the most memorable sequences having little to do with the plot—they’re bits like Hackman playing scenes with actors who obviously speak little or no English and each person is skilled enough to use that to their advantage. When he tries to order a drink without knowing how to say it (“Jack Daniels?” “Jackie?”) his interplay with the bartender is a particularly good bit. What’s most surprising is how, for the most part, the film makes little or no attempt to top the classic action scenes of the original film. That it doesn’t offer its own car chase is not just brave, it’s downright perverse, forcing us to wait for the action that we’re expecting. As good as Hackman is and as strong as the mid-70s French atmosphere holds, FRENCH CONNECTION II lets the tension dissipate a little too often. Friedkin’s film, at 104 minutes, feels cut to the bone—maybe beyond the bone—and it never lets up for a second. FRENCH CONNECTION II is 119 minutes and frankly doesn’t feel like it contains enough plot to warrant that running time. For whatever reason, the story has a feel of being made up as it goes along, something I don’t entirely mean in a good way.

Doyle’s forced addiction and subsequent withdrawal is harrowing in all the right ways but really does go on too long, culminating in a long setpiece between Hackman and Fresson where Doyle tells about his past when he tried out for the Yankees. It’s an interesting scene in the sense that it’s about two people who are genuinely trying to communicate with each other but due to language and cultural barriers they can’t quite get there. But it comes off as a little too much of a showcase for Hackman who, when you think about it, won an Oscar for playing this character in a film that contained no such scenes. For that matter, from when Popeye begins to be on the move again (in a cool jump-cut montage I always look forward to, propelled by Don Ellis’s music) and then begins his rampage of revenge (“Bring some water. A lot of it.”) the movie should never let up for a second but unfortunately it does, particularly with a boatyard shootout scene that goes on way too long. The foot chase climax is pretty terrific though, and the way Frankenheimer assembles the pieces together it feels like it plays as part of the flow of things as opposed to existing for the sake of its own setpiece. It also culminates in one of the absolute great “BOOM. MOVIE’S OVER.” endings of the seventies that makes it feel extremely satisfying in the end, but it just feels like there could have been a little bit of tightening. What we get out of that foot chase is one of the most memorable things in the movie—Popeye Doyle in pain, exhausted, seemingly pushed as far as he can go, but still moving driven by nothing other than his own obsession (a theme that feels very much like Frankenheimer) and determined to finish things once and for all. It would be nice if the whole movie could live up to these moments but what’s there is still pretty good anyway.

There are a variety of interesting French actors in bit roles in addition to that bartender, but this is very much Hackman’s show. The movie may not be as good as the original but everything about him feels more confident onscreen than he was the first time he played Popeye Doyle and something about this makes me think that he had an easier time working with Frankenheimer as well. If I sould like I’m criticizing him when I say that the middle seems too much like a showcase well, there are certainly many things worse than watching this actor deliver a long monologue. One drawback is that Roy Scheider doesn’t reprise his role as Cloudy Russo (working on THE SEVEN UPS? Actually at this point in time he was probably on JAWS). Considering the plot it makes sense to have Doyle all alone in the film but Scheider and his chemistry with Hackman is still missed. Fernando Rey delivers his smarmy elegance in excellent fashion—the shot in the restaurant where he almost expects Popeye Doyle to appear at his table is a very accomplished bit of silent, simple screen acting. Bernard Fresson is very good, particularly as he tries to figure out how to help Doyle during his cold turkey sessions and familiar face Ed Lauter, someone who also seems appropriately out of place in a French setting, plays a Washington contact for Charnier in a few scenes.

Jazz musician Don Ellis, who provided the harsh, dissonant sounds of the original, provides the score for this one as well and, just like the movie, feels a little more conventional—some of the main title even sounds like it’s actually approaching a melody, almost as if it’s announcing Popeye Doyle in his own James Bond-type adventure. But since it’s cool 70s action music this is hardly a bad thing and I always love—LOVE—that pounding percussion which appears when Doyle slams down the receiver on that pay phone and storms toward the hotel with a certain canister in hand always makes me want to stand up and cheer the moment. It has its flaws, but it also has its showcase for Hackman, Frankenheimer using his camera to explore Marseilles and the dynamite climax (including, I’ll say it again, THAT ENDING) and while FRENCH CONNECTION II’s story may be a little thin, the energy it leaves you with feels like more than enough.