Monday, August 31, 2009
This ultra-stressful August is just about over now and during such a time where you need to find some way to breathe easy for a little while you sometimes pull out one of those comfort movies which for a few hours help things seem a little more laid back. The adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel EVIL UNDER THE SUN is just such a movie. Released in the States in 1982 it seems like one of the last quality examples of that sort of old-school entertainment where it would have been appropriate to have each of the stars featured in a box at the bottom of the poster, even if the poster didn’t really feature this. The location it’s mostly shot in certainly helps things as does the laid-back nature of the whole thing. Directed by Guy Hamilton, the man behind several of the more iconic James Bond films, you could almost say that the arch approach it takes could very well be read as an attempt by Hamilton to make an ultimate Hercule Poirot movie just as GOLDFINGER might be his initial stab at an ultimate James Bond movie. It's not at all meant to be taken seriously but the mystery holds together pretty well and it does paint a pretty enjoyable picture of the idle rich lounging around an island on vacation, doing little more than sun, drink and, well, drink. In such an environment, even the annoying matter of a murder isn’t going to stop them from putting on the appropriate evening wear.
Working for the London Trojan Insurance Company, legendary detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) is investigating the situation behind a diamond belonging to Sir Horace Blatt (Colin Blakely) which is revealed to be a phony. Blatt insists that a switch was made when he gave the diamond to a woman he intended to marry, who later dumped him for another man. Poirot agrees to meet Blatt at “Daphne’s Place” an exclusive hotel on a small island in the Kingdom of Tyrania run by the King’s former mistress Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith). There, Poirot meets the woman in question, the famous, much despised stage actress Arlena Marshall (Mrs. Peel herself, Diana Rigg). As it turns out, just about all of the guests (played by the likes of Nicholas Clay, Jane Birkin, James Mason, Roddy McDowell and Sylvia Miles) have their own nasty past with Arlena. In spite of this seething hatred the holiday for everyone continues, until of course one of the guests turns up strangled on the beach. This results in ending the ongoing revelry for nearly an entire scene. Urged into solving the crime at Daphne Castle’s urging, Poirot begins to question everyone, but matters are complicated when every single guest has a cast-iron alibi. Not to mention the whereabouts of Blatt’s diamond, which Poirot has yet to recover.
One thing is for sure—you can imagine anyone seeing this film wanting to immediately go vacation in the beautiful surroundings where it was filmed—not in the Mediterranean where it was set in the fictional kingdom of Tyrania but actually Majorca, Spain. At least, watching it always makes me want to go there. It’s a beautiful place to spend a few hours in a movie but more importantly Hamilton always seems to have just the right idea of how to shoot and make good use of it, adding to the feel of frivolous glamour throughout. Essentially a bitchy drawing room comedy which just happens to have a mystery element to serve as its plot, the screenplay was written by Anthony Shaffer and barely a scene goes by without at least one flamboyantly quotable line popping up (“Such a valve still has to be invented, Madam”) that will be remembered always. Director Hamilton has added to this by continually letting his actors, even bit players, have bits of business throughout and all of this combined with the continued use of Cole Porter music as the score make it all extremely enjoyable—the score continues throughout to such an extent that when long stretches finally go by without it as Poirot is investigating and then solving the crime, its absence makes us alert to the fact that we now have to pay attention. Nothing much ever appears to be at stake even after the murder and there seems to be so little concern that a killer is among the guests that everyone still turns up in formalwear for evening cocktails only hours after the body is discovered. Of course, these characters are for the most part the idle rich (observing a passing yacht Sylvia Miles offers, “Odell and I were on it once…I think.”) with little that concerns them beyond their own cash flow problems and signs of the coming war are never in evidence.
The mystery element is well mapped out, with numerous devices to aid in keeping track of things including the “noon day gun” and it gives the audience the chance to pick out certain holes in various character’s alibis (though, cleverly, not all of them). At times the film is more than willing to just sit back and let the music and images play, particularly during an extended montage of the various island activities culminating in the big discovery and except for a certain disturbing shot of a dead rabbit to foreshadow the titular evil under the sun there’s very little attempt to set the stage for such doings. You get the feeling that Guy Hamilton would have been perfectly happy to not have a murder mystery upset all of this fun, but he never lets things get at all grim--it’s just a murder among the wealthy after all, nothing to get too worked up about (even glimpses of the dead body are pretty discreet). There is a place in this film world for much more serious genre exercises but the sunny, twisted comic flavor feel that pervades this entire film thanks to its director and screenwriter, not to mention the beautiful setting, makes it an impossible film for me to dislike. And it’s extremely rewatchable as well. It’s not as good as Lumet’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS but it is much more fun than the grim and overlong DEATH ON THE NILE, the first time Ustinov played the character. Not to mention that it’s a good deal better than Hamilton’s previous film, the Christie-based THE MIRROR CRACK’D, which has some interesting elements in the story (all from the author) but even with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Angela Lansbury, Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson and Kim Novak in the cast it still managed to be completely unmemorable. Either way, if Hamilton decided to learn from that misfire in order to mix the ideal cocktail of intriguing mystery and sharp one-liners in EVIL UNDER THE SUN, then the second attempt certainly paid off. Diana Rigg sings, too.
No real surprise, much of the enjoyment comes from the cast, particularly Ustinov who Poirot seems to believe that so gesture or movement can ever be too grandiose as well as the great Diana Rigg, every inch a star in every shrill, unlikable moment she spends on camera. Maggie Smith is very enjoyable as well in the role of hotel owner Daphne Castle with some nice moments with Ustinov in particular (this film would be ideal as the lighter cocktail to follow Robert Altman’s Christie-inspired GOSFORD PARK on a double bill and it would be interesting to compare the degrees of cynicism found in both). Though it’s tempting to say he is underused, James Mason in fact has one of the most enjoyable moments in the whole film as he carefully, methodically explains how he doesn’t have an alibi and there’s nothing he can do about it. Not to mention that after Elisha Cook, Jr. and Marie Windsor in THE KILLING, the concept of Mason and Miles as a married couple has to rank as one of the more unexpected unions in cinema history.
I saw it in the theater when I was a kid so there’s a certain nostalgia factor in it as well but putting that aside watching EVIL UNDER THE SUN during this time of year just seemed right. Particularly lately when things have been so crazed and hot here in Los Angeles. Peter Ustinov played Hercule Poirot several more times, on TV and in APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH, a Michael Winner film released by Cannon. If memory serves, it’s not a good movie and it seems to be forgotten now. It would be nice if there were another breezily welcoming Poirot effort like EVIL UNDER THE SUN from Hamilton and Shaffer, but this sort of thing was probably falling out of fashion by the early 80s and how many murder mysteries can be scored with non-stop Cole Porter anyway? I can understand someone wanting a more serious approach to these things—or to Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot in general, for that matter and I’m usually one of those people. But this one managed to nail the tone just right and as long as it’s there to watch maybe once a year when you need to take such a vacation to a far-off island with a fully stocked bar, it does just the trick.
“Couldn't we make this a private investigation? You know how peculiar people can be about a spot of murder.”
Saturday, August 29, 2009
Life sometimes happens. If I could update this site much more often I would but things have been a little off-kilter lately. No point in getting into why—not much of it would be very interesting to anyone but me anyway. August should never be this stressful, but there you go. Could some of what’s occupying my attention be part of why I popped NO WAY OUT into the DVD player? There might be a woman involved in some of my thoughts leading me to continually fixate on what’s going on with that little drama, but I’m not going to get too specific. After all, I don’t know for certain how often she reads this. Maybe I should just focus on the movie, a thriller released in August 1987 that holds up pretty well for the most part. The sort of thriller that isn’t made enough these days, it’s pretty much the film version of a good book you read on an airplane, offering enough of a feel of importance when in fact it’s actually pretty trashy. But it’s still pretty damn good, making it ideal to watch on a hot August night and is also gives the feel of a slick Hollywood production that is extremely well put together in all departments.
Not an easy plot to summarize, but I’ll try to avoid explicit spoilers: Naval Officer Tom Farrell (Kevin Costner) is attending an inaugural ball where he is introduced by old friend Scott Pritchard (Will Patton) to Secretary of Defense David Brice (Gene Hackman). Soon after encountering Brice’s complete lack of interest Farrell meets the intriguing Susan Atwell (Sean Young) and, after an enjoyable tryst in a limo that takes them around the capital the two offer their names and begin an affair. Tom soon has to leave to go overseas but soon enough a brave rescue attempt catches the attention of Brice, who arranges for Farrell to return to Washington to work under him. It isn’t long after Farrell’s return to Susan that he discovers that she is actually Brice’s mistress. Though Farrell expresses his displeasure at the arrangement things are soon complicated when a shocking development (no spoilers!) results in Brice and Pritchard, looking for the other man she is seeing, attempting to use the situation to pretend to be looking for a KGB spy planted somewhere in the department who is thought to be imaginary. Farrell of course knows that it’s all a sham as he is placed in the impossible position of leading the search to uncover someone only he knows is himself.
Like I said, it holds up pretty well even with the change in the political climate and the now-ancient technology used in the search. Actually, the only 80s element that is almost entirely unbearable are the lousy pop songs (including a few tracks by Paul Anka) which turn up here and there. It’s pretty much a potboiler, which I mean in the best possible way, but it’s expertly put together by director Roger Donaldson (still doing good work with last year’s THE BANK JOB), screenwriter Robert Garland (the film is essentially a remake of the classic noir THE BIG CLOCK from the novel by Kenneth Fearing), legendary cinematographer John Alcott (who died before this film’s release). Garland skillfully keeps things moving with new elements continually coming up and minor political issues like the continually-discussed “phantom submarine” which never really amounts to much but gives the impression that important matters are being discussed. Particularly in the second half there’s a continually moving, continually roving camera that is never showy but constantly ratchets up the suspense and it feels like everyone is on the same page to make all this as effective as possible. Along with one infamous camera trick carried over from THE OMEN, there’s some terrific production design by J. Dennis Washington which helps a lot in convincing us of the sets that are supposed to represent the Pentagon, even if it’s impossible to swallow the climactic search through that enormous building—they try to get away with it by having Gene Hackman protest “It’s the largest building in the world!” but it still doesn’t help.
Combining those sets with extensive location work in the D.C. area it’s a film that makes very good use of the frame in almost every scene and the overall production pulls off the illusion of credibility with only a few minor missteps here and there (I don’t know, would the streets of D.C. be that deserted on Inauguration Night?) and to say that there are a few questions when the credits role is putting it mildly—I’m still wondering about the potential validity of a certain piece of evidence that Costner fabricates. But maybe that’s a moot point considering the somewhat notorious twist ending (like I said, no spoilers!) which in all honestly never bothered me much at the time and matters even less now maybe because the more I know about the world the more it becomes clear how little people in charge (I’m not even specifically talking about politics here, just the way the world is in general) really know about anything that’s going on and it’s one of a handful of things that makes NO WAY OUT a little more than just a sex-infused summer thriller. It is that very thing of course, but it’s a pretty damn good one too. Just another reminder of when popcorn movies with a smidgen of intelligence like this were more the norm. You can imagine some lame critic back in ’87 calling this a “crackerjack thriller” and getting quoted in the ads but in this case that person would be absolutely right.
Returning to this film for the first time in a while, I was struck by the presence of Kevin Costner in this role, filmed before his breakout in THE UNTOUCHABLES but held back until after its release. He’s not great in the part but his talent is clearly developing and it’s hard not to watch this and think, This guy was going to be Redford, damn it! I guess he was for a few years, but what the hell happened? After his Oscars and blockbusters I suppose the answer would be hubris, bad publicity and simple unfortunate choices. There are a handful of underrated titles sprinkled throughout his filmography which deserve more than they’ve gotten but looking at him here it’s hard not to hope a little that there’s still something else on this level that we can look forward to from him. Gene Hackman does some skillful work in an even trickier role, taking an essentially cold, unlikable person (forgetting even that he’s sort of the villain of the piece) and giving him some touches that make him recognizably human. The unpredictable energy Sean Young brings to her performance allows her to almost steal the film, taking what I would imagine is just written as ‘the girl’ and bringing oddly endearing touches which allows her presence to linger in the mind even when she’s offscreen. For all I know, the goofy touches of the character reveal her as more like the actual Sean Young than any other part she ever played (No Sean-Young-is-crazy jokes here—it’s too easy and besides, I always liked her). And yes, she’s pretty hot here too, particularly in the infamous limo scene.
In contrast, Will Patton’s shifty Scott Pritchard lets him take control of the second half making it funny and icy at the same time (I particularly like his response when Hackman throws a file folder at him) even though the nature of his character might not get by if the film were made these days (he’s revealed as gay in offhand dialogue—“I’ll be damned.” “So will he, if you believe the Old Testament,” says Fred Dalton Thompson and you know that this particular actor believes this). Watching it again, I can’t help but think that his ultra-pretentious use of Latin when he’s proving a point late in the film has been parodied somewhere—maybe Phil Hartman on a NEWSRADIO espisode. Among the character actors doing strong work through Donaldson’s direction are George Dzundza, Jason Bernard and DARKMAN’s Nicholas Worth as “Cup Breaker”. Future Oscar nominee David Paymer appears for a few moments as “Technician”. Composer Maurice Jarre contributes a mostly electronic score which fortunately only sounds blatantly 80s (so there’s one more thing which dates it) during a crucial chase scene.
It’s a slick potboiler that doesn’t require a great deal of analysis but I suppose you could say that NO WAY OUT is ultimately about what happens to men when a woman who’s a live wire beyond anything they’ve ever encountered enters their life and what can happen as a result. Total chaos, that’s what. I don’t believe that’s what the movie’s about and it’s certainly not anything which is going on in my life right now. You believe that, don’t you? Don’t you? NO WAY OUT is a product of its time but it’s a solid example of a film made for adults which can be enjoyed without feeling like you’re being insulted, something that Orion was pretty damn good at back in the 80s. And if it causes other things to come to mind…well, that’s my own business. Like I said, life sometimes happens and if you think about it that could be what NO WAY OUT is about as well.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
BLIND DATE is the sort of film that you'd think would be on cable constantly but it seems to have disappeared from the airwaves in recent years. I can’t bring myself to get very worked up over this. Directed by Blake Edwards and primarily sold as the first big-screen vehicle for Bruce Willis in March 1987, the film was made near the tail end of an extremely busy decade for the director and it feels considerably less personal than even a few of his considerably broader entries from around this time. The screenplay is credited to Dale Launer (who also wrote RUTHLESS PEOPLE and DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS) and maybe it says something about its relative normalcy that unlike a number of other films which are billed as Blake Edwards’ followed by the title, this one is simply “A Blake Edwards Film” almost as if to separate it slightly from the pack. There are a few nice things in here so I don’t totally mind it but it unfortunately gets weaker as it goes on and seems to surrender to a lack of logic and, ultimately, actual laughs.
Overworked, overstressed “assistant portfolio assessor” Walter Davis (Bruce Willis), who is badly in need of a date for an important business dinner lets his brother Ted (Phil Hartman) set him up with his wife’s cousin Nadia Gates (Kim Basinger) with the simple warning to not let her drink because “she loses control.” The two tentatively hit it off but to relieve some of the awkwardness Walter picks up champagne which they share before heading to dinner. She reluctantly joins in but by the time they hit the restaurant Nadia is indeed beginning to lose control, sending Walter spiraling into a nightmare of an evening which, combined with the appearance of Nadia’s ex David (John Larroquette), may end with his life in shambles and maybe even going to jail for a very long time.
The very first scene includes Rick Dees’ show heard on the radio, featuring a parody ad for the “James Brown Car Alarm”. It’s an odd note to start a movie on, with a joke that isn’t really part of the movie. It may be a reach but looked at now this seems almost intentional, as if Edwards is saying that the humor in this movie isn’t quite going to be his, but it will be as broad as humanly possible. Something as farcically divorced from reality as A FINE MESS at least seemed like it could have been directed by no one else working and BLIND DATE, even with a few digressions, seems a bit more normal and (I can’t help but assume this was the intention) commercial by comparison, which doesn’t really go with what the material should be. The notion of Basinger easily getting drunk and losing her inhibitions might make sense in a pitch-black satire (one that would be right in this director’s wheelhouse) but doesn’t really lend itself to light romantic comedy—in one of the few interesting touches, Edwards foreshadows her condition by having her addicted to chocolate, just like Lee Remick in THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES. A little too often it feels like Edwards is playing to the cheap seats, like the early joke of Hartman boasting of how good-looking Basinger is—“I’m looking at a picture of her now,” he claims when he’s really looking at a picture of Marvin Hagler, adding “She’s a real knockout”.
Signs of a real presence behind the camera pop up through out, from the impressive long takes that play out whole scenes in one shot or the well-executed chaos of the business dinner scene that is the reason for the plot in the first place—at this early stage the movie is really popping and the entire sequence, particularly when compared to a similar section in the current THE UGLY TRUTH (yes, I saw it—trust me, there was a good reason but it was still lousy) is extremely well-executed in writing, pacing and acting. It’s also hard not to enjoy Edwards’ insistence on the running gag of Larroquette’s car crashing into numerous buildings (when it crashes into a flour factory it of course results in a veritable explosion of flour). But the whole thing seems to run out of ideas—and, in numerous ways, a reason for existing—by around the one hour mark. It’s as if the script was being made up as it was written, then when the story hit a wall sixty pages in it never occurred to anyone to go back to change things. In fairness to screenwriter Launer, the bio on his official website calls the film a “lame, slapstick piece of shit,” (his own words) also stating that the script was rewritten at different points by Edwards and Leslie Dixon.
The film could be a lighter, L.A.-set AFTER HOURS but it never reaches the heights of mania it really should and even simple logic never seems to be part of the movie’s game plan like why Willis buys champagne for her, why Basinger drinks it, or why either one of them want to ever see each other again when the night is over. If we can’t believe what they’re doing at first, how can we believe them later on when total farce has taken over? Does anyone really care whether Bruce Willis’s character gets back into music? When it moves into the third act, featuring Larroquette’s character attempting to blackmail Basinger into marriage it just feels like the wrong creative choices have been made. Even when presented with people in a large house just missing each other in farcical fashion, which you’d think Edwards could turn into a crackerjack sequence of event, it still falls flat even with doors slamming and people falling off of balconies it never hits any kind of stride. Most of the sneaking around Bruce Willis does here seems to have next to no effect in the end which makes it seem like the movie is just treading water before the climax. The end, incidentally, makes me wonder if there isn’t a rule stating that if the final scene of a romantic comedy has both leads jumping into a swimming pool the movie can’t be any good, then there should be. There’s also a mean attack dog named Rambo, so here’s an elemental Comedy Question—is it funny to have an attack dog named Rambo? Wouldn’t it be an actual joke if the big mean attack dog was named something like Princess? It just feels like another example of a number of attempts at laughs throughout that are probably a little too easy but never succeed in being all that funny. Something like that makes me really wonder if Edwards was just decided to play things a little easy this time and not go into wild flights of comic fancy like in a few of his other films.
Bruce Willis at least was able to prove that he could pop on the big screen but the role, pretty much the opposite of MOONLIGHTING’s David Addison, is a little too much of a straight man to be appropriate for him and, no surprise, he only begins to really come to life when his character begins to crack and goes nutso at a fancy party—you could also say that, since this is how we actually expect to see him it’s not as effective or funny as it should be. Basinger (who already worked with Edwards in THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN) isn’t bad and plays the drunk scenes with the appropriate recklessness but doesn’t seem quite able to fully make sense of her character. I’ve also never been crazy about how she looks here—Basinger always looked better as a blonde. Larroquette, ideally cast, works considerably better and is most effective in the scenes where his character has to act craziest. He’s also very good at screaming wildly before his car crashes into a building. Familiar character actors George Coe and Mark Blum are very good as Walter’s boss and coworker but they’re each unfortunately out of the picture by the half-hour mark. Phil Hartman has some nice moments, William Daniels gets a few funny lines during the final third, PINK PANTHER series regular Graham Stark turns up as William Daniels’s butler (his introduction seems like a conscious echo of his role in VICTOR/VICTORIA) and Edwards regular Dr. Herb Tanney appears as the minister in the final sequence, billed as Sacerdo Tanney. The score is of course by Henry Mancini but, surprisingly for him, very little about it makes any real impression. "Piano and Strings" from the PINK PANTHER soundtrack turns up in the background during the business dinner sequence, not that I've heard some of this music too many times or anything.
Set in more of a normal romantic-comedy world, as opposed to the Blake Edwards world familiar things like the PINK PANTHER movies or even the broadest jokes in something like “10”, the film is barely able to get through a couple of minutes without fashions or music turning up that scream “80s!” in the loudest way possible. The movie is disappointing not just from its lack of real laughs but also from how the director really seems to be trying to make a star vehicle more than one of his own films which results in a finished product that just feels kind of thin. There are a handful of laughs but not enough. Still, it was one of his more successful pictures from this period so maybe he was onto something. I’ve made it clear in the past how much I’ll defend some of his films that most of the world hates--and I'll go on defending them--but BLIND DATE just seems like one he had to make to keep certain people happy so he could get back to making the ones that he was really interested in. It’ll turn up on cable again eventually, but you don’t need to go out of your way to give it another look.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
I freely admit that if I’m going to be seeing a WWII POW camp movie set in Europe, I’d rather have it feature Steve McQueen on a motorcycle. If it’s got William Holden spitting out Billy Wilder dialogue, I guess that’s OK too. But if it’s Sylvester Stallone playing soccer in a POW camp, I’m not sure that’s really good enough. 1981’s VICTORY, directed by John Huston, isn’t all that bad. It’s fairly sober and intelligent in its first half and when the big game takes center stage it’s hard not to get swept up in things which makes it pretty satisfying in the end.
At a German prisoner of war camp, Major Karl von Steiner (Max von Sydow) takes an interest in the soccer being played by former pro Captain John Colby (Michael Caine) and suggests a friendly game be played between the Allied POWs and the Germans. As Colby begins to assemble his team (which includes a fellow captive played by none other than Pelé), continually ignoring the interest of American Captain Robert Hatch (Sylvester Stallone), von Steiner’s superiors take an interest in the match and arrange for the game to be played in Paris in order to display the superiority of the Germans. Colby, continually at odds with the British officers in the camp, begins to plan for the big event to be used as a chance for his team to escape and soon Hatch figures out a way to be part of Colby’s team.
Known as ESCAPE TO VICTORY over in England, it’s not bad but maybe a little too dry and it didn’t help that in my own head I kept imagining similar beats in THE GREAT ESCAPE being played out. Doing some looking around the net, I get the feeling that the film has a following over in England which makes sense since the sport actually means something there. Whatever the reasons for it getting made, at times it just plays like an excuse to capitalize on whatever popularity the sport had back then. Certainly at this time there were still attempts at popularizing Soccer here in the states—almost as if to balance things out, the game is called both “soccer” and “football” at various points and the inclusion of Stallone’s American (let’s call it the Steve McQueen role, since that’s really what it is) feels like a pretty blatant attempt to get the movie to cross the Atlantic and unless I missed someone, he’s the only American in the film. John Huston’s direction is sturdy, basically photographing the script (screenplay by Evan Jones and Yabo Yablonsky, story by Yabo Tablonsky and Djordje Milicevic & Jeff Maguire) and since that script is workmanlike at best, it never really transcends things. It never really escapes a movie-movie feel which ultimately has its good and bad points. Some of what happens is compelling, but really not enough until the game starts. There’s more tension in a brief scene of von Sydow trying to get Caine to promise that none of his men will escape than in the numerous sequences of the allies arguing over how to escape or the specifics of the game. On both sides there seems to be a feeling of keeping one’s word about the honor of how the game will be a fair one, making this a pretty polite look at World War II (it’s not too surprising to learn that the actual event this film is loosely based on had a considerably grimmer conclusion) but it is interesting to see adversaries equally interested in upholding a degree of honor, which is about as much meat as the script ever really has. When Stallone is convinced to get captured again to get some valuable information to those inside he begins to resemble just a cross between McQueen and William Holden in RIVER KWAI and particularly in the middle the film begins to feel like pages from a number of rewrites being stapled together.
In terms of anything unique VICTORY doesn’t offer much more than the game in question being played and speaking as an American once or twice I couldn’t help but think to myself, slightly bemused, “Why am I watching Stallone play soccer?” Still, the big game is at times well-choreographed and shot—at least we get to clearly see what Pelé is doing a several long, unbroken takes, though in a movie way it seems to spring ‘only four minutes remaining!’ type things out of nowhere. The climax of the film is dependant on a choice which is difficult to swallow—escape at halftime or stay and try to win the game?—but by a certain point, with the entire stadium of presumably repressed French citizens chanting, “Victoire!” that game becomes so rousing that the film is just about able to get away with it. Even when nearly the entire stadium in the climax breaks into La Marseillaise in a pique of defiance against the Nazis it’s as strong as it wants to be even though there’s no avoiding thinking of CASABLANCA in such a context. Actually, this just got me thinking of how Huston was probably around on the Warner lot when that film was shot forty-odd years earlier and he of course worked with Bogart a number of times…film history can be strange in that way. Hitting his seventy-fifth birthday at the time of VICTORY’s release, the director still had four movies to go at this point.
Most of the team is comprised of actual players as opposed to actors, so they don’t register very much as characters and Caine with a thinly-scripted character keeps things low-key much of the time letting his presence do much of the work. This leaves Max von Sydow’s vaguely sympathetic von Steiner (you know—one of those nice Nazis) with the most interesting character and story arc to play. Stallone, who according to Caine’s autobiography wasn’t a fan of Huston’s lack of direction to the actors is actually quite good at times, coming at this stage when he wasn’t quite the total superstar he’d be in a few years. When the middle section finds him in Paris playing scenes with minor love interest Carole Laure (a subplot which feels pretty shoehorned in but hey, they got a girl in the movie—even THE GREAT ESCAPE didn’t pull that off) he actually comes off as much more relaxed than we usually think of him. Playing the goal kicker in the game, he gets one long moment where he does nothing but stare down the German goal kicker near the very end, like Rocky about to fight the last round and it seems to be a moment that’s there for no reason other than it’s Stallone but hey, it works.
Of course, much of the reason VICTORY is remembered by anyone today is the unique casting of Pelé as one of the prisoners recruited to play in the game—he states in dialogue that he’s from Trinidad, I guess an attempt to somehow explain away his casting. He probably doesn’t get more than twenty lines of dialogue but that’s not why he was hired anyway and we certainly get to see him play lots of soccer, particularly his famous climactic bicycle kick. The movie is so obviously excited about presenting this that it makes sure we get a good look at it—three separate times. For those keeping track of such things, years later Stallone worked with von Sydow again in JUDGE DREDD and he also appeared again with Michael Caine in the GET CARTER remake but, as far as I can tell, he has yet to work with Pelé again. The score by Bill Conti (of ROCKY fame, of course) at times doesn’t try to do much more than ape Elmer Bernstein’s GREAT ESCAPE march but he also pulls out all the stops for the big climax and it’s ultimately perfect music for what is, ultimately a boys’ adventure movie.
It’s a fairly enjoyable movie that holds together pretty well in the end. Even if the story takes its time getting going, the excitement of the climax more than makes up for this. The old-fashioned nature of the film is almost endearing. On one of the SPACED commentaries Edgar Wright, referring to it by its British title, speaks fondly of it and I can understand. World War II movies that are decades old (which, shockingly, this one now is) seem to be able to do that and it’s nice to always have them around. Not to mention that in addition to seeing THE LAST VALLEY at the New Beverly last week, finally taking a look at VICTORY helps in my goal to see as many films that star Michael Caine as humanly possible so it’s all good.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Michael Ritchie is a tough director to pin down in an auteur sense, since his career moved from genuinely interesting, biting films in the 70s (THE CANDIDATE, PRIME CUT, THE BAD NEWS BEARS) to a long stretch of star vehicles in the 80s and 90s (FLETCH, THE GOLDEN CHILD, FLETCH LIVES) that seemed to include every comic actor working during that time. Mixed in there were also a few oddball titles that included the long-shelved film version of THE FANTASTICKS, which finally got a small theatrical release not long before the director’s premature death from prostate cancer in early 2001. Possibly his best film, the 1975 satire SMILE feels like a key work from that decade which has gotten lost in the shuffle when that era is discussed. Bitingly funny yet at the same time strangely empathic towards its characters it takes a look at a suburban America which is too familiar to be exaggerated. There’s barely a laugh in the film that doesn’t catch in the throat somewhat as we realize the sentiment behind it really isn’t a joke. Written by Jerry Belson, certain elements that seem to be barely there on first viewing somehow are able to stay in the head days later. And it should be mentioned that there are so few comedies which trumpet “Starring Bruce Dern” on the poster it seems like one that does deserves as much special attention as it can get.
The loosely plotted film focuses on the California finals of the “Young American Miss” beauty pageant held in the Northern California town of Santa Rosa, after which the winner will move on to the national show. A number of the contestants are focused on (including the likes of Melanie Griffith, Annette O’Toole and Colleen Camp) but so are the pageant’s executive director Brenda DiCarlo (Barbara Feldon), her terminally depressed, alcoholic husband Andy (Nicholas Pryor), pageant producer Wilson Spears (Geoffrey Lewis) as well as famed choreographer Tommy French (Michael Kidd) but much of the focus is on Miss Antelope Valley, Robin Gibson (Joan Prather) a fresh face to this cutthroat world and local hot shot Big Bob Freelander (Bruce Dern), mobile home salesman and head judge of the contest with a self-imposed sunny outlook on things which begins to get some kinks in it as the week proceeds.
Bitingly satirical yet never too nasty, SMILE gets its darkness not from nasty humor but from the blandly bleak look at this lifestyle, a suburban California back in the 70s where people seem to be doing everything they can to put off thinking about the realities of their day-to-day life. The contest is a charade of optimism, pretending to put these girls on the road to “a bright tomorrow” but all they’re doing is setting them on the path to the life the adults are miserable in—not to mention the matter of parading teenage girls in skimpy clothing in front of everyone, something a few pre-teen boys around seem determined to take advantage of in one of the numerous subplots. “I went to Julliard for this?” “We all went to Julliard,” goes an exchange between two musicians playing “Spring is Here” for one of the numerous tone-deaf singers. “It’s a depressing thing to see one person be mean to another person,” is another key line and the bitterness in SMILE may linger throughout but it stays light by never being too mean to anyone. The movie avoids cheap shots by not making the girls standard ditzes and even those who don’t seem all that sharp are never spotlighted for ridicule—they’re just too young and naïve to be subjected to all this and the film doesn’t hold back in showing off how utterly lacking in talent a few of them really are.
Contestant Joan Prather is petty much the audience surrogate, wide-eyed but never too unknowing, open to doing the best she can but clearly someone who wants to keep her own identity intact—it says a great deal how much this is communicated through Ritchie’s direction and the actress’s performance, not from written dialogue. Believably, she’s not aware enough yet to put these things into words but we can tell it’s what she’s feeling. Bruce Dern’s Big Bob provides the moral compass as someone with a cheery exterior who “learned a long time ago to accept a little less from life” but is now beginning to find the flaws in this approach catching up with him. In just about the key scene of the whole film he tells of a date he once had long ago with Elizabeth Taylor that never happened, an event that seems to have shaped the way his life turned out. Dern is amazing here, just about as good as he ever was and by the end of the film he seems like a man without an answer to anything. He doesn’t know how to help his alcoholic friend Andy (despondent partly over turning 35—jeez, now I’M depressed) beyond just offering, “You gotta get out there and start having some fun,” and when confronted with a psychologist that his son has to see he seems to think that the whole thing is a waste of time. One of his mottos to his customers –“We don’t worry about credit, why should you?”—has affected his attitude towards things and now he seems to be reacting as if all his credit is suddenly used up.
The relaxed style of SMILE seems to tonally fall between Altman and Ashby—there is probably more specific focus in individual scenes than how Altman would have approached it (his version would probably been a little nastier as well) and the comical tone is slightly more exaggerated than what Ashby might have done. Ritchie’s style at times feels invisible but when studied closely it becomes clear how strong a hand he had in shaping this film. Even an almost bizarrely nightmarish sequence involving the local lodge and members kissing a raw chicken never feels like it goes too far in its outlandishness. Like much of the rest of the movie there’s a mundane feel to these idiotic things that people are doing which always grounds he movie in a believable reality. Despite the bitterness and dark turns it takes late in the game there are no real bad guys in the film with the exception of Geoffrey Lewis and even he seems to be more of an uptight prick doing an impossible job. Even Barbara Feldon’s character is given a moment of peace as she silently watches the final ceremony in tears and the movie respectfully lets her have this moment.
In the end it says something that the character who winds up doing the absolute worst thing is the one who may have come the farthest in the course of the film and, though the film never shows us, may be one of only one of them in at better place when the credits roll (who wins the pageant, as it turns out, is completely incidental to things). The world of SMILE is one where everyone is in the same boat, looking in the wrong places for what might enrich their lives and without a clue how to fully express what they need to do. Early on Feldon’s pageant director tells the girls to remember two things, “Just be yourselves and keep smiling.” It’s pretty blatantly the theme of the film and almost no one is able to do one without the other. Dern’s Big Bob comes to realize that he doesn’t know what the first half of that sentence really is if he’s not smiling for the world and without that knowledge to fall back on, he doesn’t know what he has.
Dern really is fantastic in the role all the way down to the smallest gestures of his character (the last moment the movie focuses on him is just beautiful) and Prather silently seems to bring the focus on herself more and more as the film goes on with a particularly great moment revealing her lower lip quivering as the contest nears its end. Tommy Kidd (mostly a real choreographer but also one of the leads in IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER) is simply fantastic as the harsh but fair-minded choreographer—in a lesser film this might have been a film-stealing performance but here he fits in perfectly with the ensemble and his character displays a huge amount of dignity which no one but us ever really knows about. Griffith and Camp are around throughout in fairly small roles but Annette O’Toole has a bright presence as Prather’s roommate and Maria O’Brien is very funny as Maria Gonzales, determined to use her half-Mexican half-American heritage to her advantage at every turn. Feldon, Lewis and Pryor are each excellent as well under Ritchie’s direction but so are numerous performances throughout even from bit players. Fans of the director’s FLETCH will probably want to know that actor William Traylor, that film’s Mr. Underhill (he’s also in THE TOWERING INFERNO for those keeping track of such things), has a sizable role here as the pageant’s band conductor and is very funny in the part.
With the film coming second on the bill following THE ‘BURBS at opening night of the recent Dante’s Inferno festival at the New Beverly, Bruce Dern appeared before this film with Joe Dante to discuss both films. Dante basically asked him, “What do you remember about making SMILE?” which was followed by Dern in hugely entertaining fashion talking about seemingly everything under the sun for the next half-hour or so (isn’t anyone going to post this on Youtube?). Dern talked about how the role of Big Bob was such a departure for him since he was usually cast as villains, fondly recalling Ritchie (they worked together again years later in DIGGSTOWN) and, as I wrote about in my piece on THE ‘BURBS, compared him favorably to Dante in how each would work closely with their actors to continually try new things in scenes. He also praised cinematographer Conrad Hall who came onto the film and shot the 104 page script in only 28 days, sometimes with as many as 61 setups done in a day. It was a huge thrill to be in the man’s presence and think about how valuable he has been to so many films over the years.
This year’s Dante’s Inferno festival is over now and in addition to this night it consisted of a Corman double bill (a beautiful Scope print of THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE), an end-of-the-world pairing of Dante’s own MATINEE and the astounding MIRACLE MILE (as well as the full version of MANT!, the film-within-a-film in MATINEE), the 60s comedy night of COLD TURKEY & THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST and the festival closed out with a double feature of two lesser known films scored by John Barry, THE LAST VALLEY and ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND (lots of great, random trailers shown most nights as well). And of course, the festival also included the return of THE MOVIE ORGY, a little longer this time, closer to five hours, and still just about the most enjoyable time anyone lucky enough to see it will ever spend in a movie theater. But maybe more than anything, a chance to see SMILE in a theater with an appreciative crowd is what this festival is really about. It’s a film that has never received the attention A film which has never really received the praise it deserves being paid tribute to by one of its stars in the most affectionate way possible: a modest movie theater in Los Angeles where the people who show up are there because they love movies. Maybe that’s why I feel a little at sea this weekend—as was the case at the end of the first Dante festival, I have very little interest to go out and see the new stuff, most of which will be forgotten about within a few weeks. For the people who care, SMILE isn’t forgotten, MATINEE isn’t forgotten, MIRACLE MILE isn’t forgotten and I look forward to the next time Joe Dante returns to the New Beverly, to give us a few more reminders of why movies like SMILE deserve to be remembered and why we love them as much as we do.
“…and that girl had a wooden foot.”
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
There’s not much I can say about the death of John Hughes that hasn’t been said already. Yes, I was just the right age for his films back in the 80s and even now I have a real fondness for a few of them—of course, some more than others. At the time they hit just the right note for teenagers and it makes it even more of a shame that somewhere near the end of that decade—around the time that SHE’S HAVING A BABY failed at the box office followed by the more successful but awfully problematic UNCLE BUCK—he began to drift off compass from the sort of thing he did best towards creatively bankrupt kids junk like FLUBBER (as well as, yes I’ll say it, the HOME ALONE movies) until eventually…there was nothing. Not a word. He was essentially the poet laureate of Generation X and he was pretty much done before that term was ever even coined. Whatever the reason is for this, and there have been a number of them speculated lately, there’s no avoiding how it always felt as if he drove us to the very edge of the volcano of adolescence until he dropped us off there and took off into the distance screaming “So long suckers!” without even saying why.
Ten years ago Kevin Smith’s DOGMA correctly nailed these conflicted feelings about the man by seeming to deify him in how Jay and Silent Bob show up in the plot looking for what turns out to be the non-existent Shermer, Ill., where most of Hughes’s films took place, but later in the same movie Salma Hayek’s Muse proclaimed that the only one of the top grossing films of all time she had nothing to do with was the one with “the kid by himself in his house, burglars trying to come in and he fights them off…” adding that, “Somebody sold their soul to Satan to get the grosses up on that piece of shit.” So that pretty much says it all. How much of a reach is it to suggest that the reason the so-called Generation X seemed to drift for a few years in the early 90s could have had something to do with this abandonment?
The last film he directed was CURLY SUE in 1991. I never saw it. Really, what would be the point? The comedy CAREER OPPORTUNITIES, written by Hughes and released earlier that year, is the closest we ever got to an indication of the creative direction he could have gone in but interestingly, it also points towards where he did go and in the most unfortunate way. It would be a stretch to call it a good film. Maybe it’s an almost-good film, and even that is generous, but the intriguing stuff in there meant something to me at the time to a degree that I was always a little surprised by and the potential which can be found in these few scenes make it hurt even more that the guy just up and disappeared.
Twenty-one year old “town liar” Jim Dodge (Frank Whaley) has just about reached the end of his rope in the small community he lives in, having been fired from his umpteenth job (for Hughes fans who care, this is not Shermer but the more working class Monroe, which appears to actually exist though the film was shot in Georgia). Reluctantly, he takes the only job he can still get working as Night Clean-Up Boy at the local Target. Though he likes to brag to the local kids about all the big deals he has going, since he’s being threatened with being kicked out of the house by his parents he has no choice but to take the job. By happenstance local beauty Josie McClellan (Jennifer Connelly), who Jim grew up in the same town with but never really knew is herself at wits end with her own father and, desperate for attention, is about to shoplift from the store when she hides out in a dressing room when the store closes. With the door locked from the outside, when the two of them meet they wind up addressing their pasts and the black hole of their futures in very honest terms but even though they begin to work out a plan for that future, they still have to get through the night which it turns out includes a pair of local crooks (Dermot and Kieran Mulroney) with their own plans for Jim & Josie.
Directed by Bryan Gordon the first half-hour is pretty mediocre with the exception of a fun cameo by an uncredited John Candy as the Target manager. It plays like a ‘wacky’ comedy which doesn’t seem aware that watching this cut-rate Ferris Bueller who’s a little old to still be behaving this way is actually a little depressing. The final third, in which the two robbers take center stage in the plotline, verges on incoherent and feels like Hughes never got around to taking care of a badly needed rewrite. It’s the middle section, beginning at exactly the half-hour mark, which is where the real interest lies.
The dramatic meat of the movie can pretty much be called a post-high school equivalent of THE BREAKFAST CLUB with two characters the same age who grew up in the same town and went to the same school but never had any real contact finding themselves on the right night to open up to the other person. This comes just as they are fed up with everything in their lives, still wondering when things are really going to begin and they’ve lucked into finding the right person who will force them to admit certain things deep down (After trying to say that his new job is a beginning, Connelly bluntly tells him “It’s an end,” in a way that no one else will offer him). With each one finding nowhere else to go in this town, the film suddenly becomes about looking out into that volcano that Hughes has driven his characters up to and the two of them discovering that they have to jump now into full independence or it’s going to be too late. The past which has turned into the present has to be confronted head on which means that Jim has to finally stop being such a goofball and take action in a number of ways before he can move on into a future with promise. It’s not profound, but it makes sense and with a frankness that I remember not expecting, some of this cut extremely close to the bone for me way back when which made it all the m ore frustrating how the movie refused to follow through on its promise. It’s all a fantasy, of course, but when this film came out the idea of fleeing for L.A. with Jennifer Connelly sure sounded pretty good to me.
For a few minutes, the degree of Hughes’ dialogue and the frankness of the actor’s performances approach a maturity that would never again be found in his work from this point on. So it seems almost metaphorical how this storyline is interrupted exactly thirty minutes after it began (and exactly one hour into a film that runs only 83 minutes) by the idiocy of the two robbers breaking into the place who seems like a rough draft of the more comical thieves who would turn up in practically every other movie Hughes would write during the 90s-- if PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES had been made just a few years later the film would have added an extra half-hour by making Steve Martin and John Candy deal with this sort of thing and if this had happened then the film wouldn’t be as fondly remembered today. It makes sense that something had to come between Jim and Josie to bring some conflict into the immediacy of the scenario but it’s as if Hughes went with the first thing that came to mind (for him, that would of course be a pair of idiot crooks, just like every other movie in the 90s that he had a hand in) and never thought there might be another option.
Even the good stuff isn’t perfect—the roller skating montages go on a little too long and that they hop into a tent together a little too quickly to fool around seems to ignore the greater depth of their connection and dilutes the impact of their first kiss. I’ve probably said before that if a movie has a guy and girl locked somewhere together, trying to figure each other out, I automatically get interested and within this unrealistic nonsense are moments here and there that seem like more than the movie deserves. Once this ends, as the two leads are held at gunpoint for very long stretches the tone gets a little too unpleasant (maybe because it feels like someone behind the camera is leering at Connelly’s cleavage—out of politeness, that’s the only time I’ll refer to the subject) and inconsistent although it should be stated that the films most iconic image—Jennifer Connelly on that kiddy horse—comes from this section and hey, it is pretty hypnotic to watch.
The final moments run over a montage which wraps up the plot threads in the most rudimentary way possible and when the credits roll at the 78-minute mark there’s not much more than a feeling of emptiness. It’s as if the film never bothered to follow through on everything that was brought up by the two leads beyond the expected happy ending. Considering the brief running time and the abruptness of numerous scenes throughout, it’s clear that there’s stuff missing but it could only be guessed at how much better it really would have been with some of this stuff put back in. CAREER OPPORTUNITES feels unfortunate not just because how it falls short but how in doing so it seems to illustrate how shallow Hughes could be at his worst. At its best it promises a film that could really address dealing with the ghosts of what happened to you while growing up but that potential is sadly squandered in favor of some pretty lame gags.
So does Jennifer Connelly hate this movie now? She’s really very good in it, giving an intelligence as well as an interior life to her character that may not have made complete sense on the page and—yes, it has to be said—is maybe more gorgeous here than she ever was before or since (some might quibble with those eyebrows, though). Frank Whaley comes very close to being too annoying but still manages to maintain some likeability in his desperation and is able to pull off the transition to more serious moments later in the film. Dermot Mulroney is a good actor, but he’s playing this character in the wrong film. Among the various familiar character actors in the adult roles, I particularly like William Forsythe in his appearance as the store custodian. Photographed by Donald M. McAlpine in Scope, the film looks considerably different from pretty much every other production with the Hughes name attached (which, at times were about as visually ambitious as an episode of DRAGNET), with expansive Steadicam shots down the Target aisles and at times extreme use of the widescreen frame.
It’s not a guilty pleasure and I’m not trying to make any claims that it’s better than it is. But if something in CAREER OPPORTUNITIES caused me to connect with it way back when then I suppose that counts for something. Yes, it offers the dream of being locked up somewhere alone with Jennifer Connelly (maybe my favorite incarnation of Jennifer Connelly ever, no less) but it also made an attempt at addressing the confusion which can be felt when you’re at a certain age and don’t quite know what you should do to cause change in your own world. The movie sadly falls short of really doing something with this notion but what’s there has always meant something to me as I go through life dealing with my own Josie McClellans. It’s possible that John Hughes hated the end result and maybe what happened with it was even a part of his decision to get out of the game. Still, within this misguided effort is something that I genuinely responded to—in a weird way, maybe more than I did with a number of his better films. So I suppose this is why during this past week after hearing news of his death I wanted to revisit CAREER OPPORTUNITIES more than some of the more famous titles and think about how far I had come since I was living my own version of the film’s first half-hour. My attachment to it doesn’t really make much sense but reactions to certain films in life rarely make sense to begin with and since this will always be part of his cinematic legacy my fondness for it is going to remain.
Saturday, August 8, 2009
Joe Dante’s THE ‘BURBS is now twenty years old which really isn’t that big a deal because, well, lots of movies are twenty years old. But it was hard to watch it the other night at the New Beverly for opening night of this year’s Dante’s Inferno film festival and not think about how much has happened since I saw it opening weekend out in some actual New York suburbs all those years back. It doesn’t always seem so long but I know it is. Now I’m seeing it introduced here in L.A. by the director with one of the stars in attendance. First things first: the New Beverly has new seats and I’m fairly certain that anybody reading this who has been there will appreciate that (so at least something good came out of the Festival in Westwood closing). Second of all, the new 35mm print of THE ‘BURBS was absolutely beautiful and only added to the enjoyment of the evening. Opening the week in February 1989 that Tom Hanks was Oscar-nominated for BIG, the film was able to take advantage of that bit of timing and do rather good business in spite of some pretty nasty reviews (“…as empty as something can be without creating a vacuum,” said Vincent Canby in The New York Times). The film has survived over the years on video and cable not only because it’s funny but because there’s something comfortable about its rhythms that makes it ideal to return to for multiple viewings, maybe because people can absolutely relate to living somewhere where there’s nothing to do, even if it does look like a studio backlot. It just seems ideal for something to watch on a lazy Saturday when there’s nothing better to do. It’s minor Dante and yet it still seems like essential Dante.
On the tiny cul-de-sac of Mayfield Place in the town of Hinkley Hills, suburban husband and father Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) is taking a week off from work. Ignoring the pleas of wife Carol (Carrie Fisher) to go away for the week, Ray has nothing in mind but hanging around the house and relaxing but is soon sucked in by neighbors Art Wiengartner (Rick Ducommun)and Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) into suspicion regarding new neighbors the Klopeks who no one has ever seen and don’t seem the least bit interested in maintaining their yard, not to mention the suspicious noises that are coming from their basement. When the three men spot one of the Klopeks late one night shoving a mysterious looking bag into one of the garbage cans by the street, their suspicions escalate and soon suspicions arise when elderly neighbor Walter Seznick (Gale Gordon) disappears. And like it or not, Ray soon begins to think that there really is something going on in the house next door.
Watching the film again at the New Beverly all these years later, I realize that while I may not have always been laughing during the running time—and I did laugh more than enough—I certainly did have a smile on my face throughout. The entire film is set on a suburban street which is obvious to anyone as a studio backlot—Universal’s Colonial Street to be exact which, while it was probably familiar at the time is now no doubt recognizable to anyone who’s seen an episode of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. The film has probably received criticism for this element of unreality but looked at as a pure Joe Dante film, this seems to be part of the point. The famously stylized Universal logo that opens the movie, diving towards the Earth all the way down to the street where it’s set in one shot, gets the point across—this film may be set on Earth but it’s set on the Earth that can be found only in Universal City, maybe the sort of place where Dante feels most comfortable. What sort of other conceivable suburbia would Gale Gordon reside in, anyway? John Avildsen’s Belushi-Aykroyd teaming NEIGHBORS, also set entirely in a cul-de-sac, has always played like it’s weird just for the sake of being weird in but in THE ‘BURBS much of that feel seems specifically calculated to what Dante is going for, to examine the odd, hermetically sealed nature of all the films and TV shows that have been shot on a street like this and why the people in them behave the way they do, with the constant bickering of Hanks and Fisher in particular coming off as a sharp contrast to that. Even the dream sequence seems ideally executed to combine dreamlike surrealism with a simple degree of the mundane to and the entire film reveals a consistent cinematic mind at work.
The film also gets a lot of mileage out of a cast which goes together just right and as he often does, Dante wisely stages many scenes to allow everyone to interact with each other as much as possible and let them take full advantage of their surroundings—check out the constant eating Rick Ducommun does during the early kitchen scene. In some ways it would be a interesting experiment to any director who has a personal style—have them shoot an entire film in an enclosed location—a room, a house, a suburban street at Universal—let them cast anyone they want, have the film be what they want and see what happens. What will that director try to do with the idea? What will such an approach tell us about the director and their thematic interests? THE ‘BURBS does take a look at the essential laziness that can come from living in the suburbs, along with random conversation about new tool sets and the like as well as Dante’s own attraction to the underlying nastiness that people try to ignore in those places. But more than that it seems to reveal that what he is going for is the pure enjoyment out of watching these people in this plastic environment and to see how far he can push both the uncomfortable comedy of the scenario as well as his own filmic interests within it.
Every now and then it feels like there’s a darker turn that it could take considering the implications of the storyline, something it doesn’t do in favor of being a goofy Tom Hanks movie—not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course—but enough of the Dante nastiness lingers if you let the movie stay with you. The issues that the film brings up about living in the suburbs don’t seem to matter as much as viewing this backlot world through his eyes and the skewered entertainment that comes from that is more than enough. There are laughs throughout, some of them in abrupt dialogue (“Klopek. Is that Slavic?” “NO!”), some of in filmic conventions that the director is playing with, well, just because he can, like the Leone-Morricone like series of close-ups that occur out of nowhere or the infamous hyperactive zoom lens. It all still puts a smile on my face. In many ways, THE ‘BURBS should just be taken as it is.
Tom Hanks, coming off as entirely willing to push the envelope of his then-expected nice guy persona, is backed up by a terrific cast particularly Rick Ducommon, who seems willing to add his own bits of business more than anyone and the great Bruce Dern, deadly serious when addressing the subject of something like “the goddamn brownies,” making everything he does extremely funny throughout. Fisher gets points for coming off as not caring if her bluntly pragmatic wife is not the slightest bit likable, Henry Gibson and Brother Theodore seem just right in this odd comic universe as the Klopeks and the Dante regulars (Dick Miller, Robert Picardo, Wendy Schaal, Corey Feldman) who turn up are all extremely well-used. Dante’s clear enjoyment at letting everyone do something that fits in with his approach is much of the reason why this film, as well as most of his films, are so continually rewatchable and presenting them in a cast recap over the end credits shows how much he enjoys what they’re doing as well. Jerry Goldsmith’s terrific score completely adds to the relaxing nature of the film, with his twist on his own score for PATTON to represent Bruce Dern’s vet one of the best touches. One key music cue near the end turned up again in the following year’s GREMLINS 2 in which it actually fits the scene in question better.
Dante introduced the screening and briefly spoke about how the film was shot during the 1988 writers strike and the script by Dana Olsen hadn’t quite been nailed down when shooting began. As a result, the director made use of a lot of improv by the actors and he had the film shot in sequence to allow for this, using Scorsese’s NEW YORK NEW YORK as an example of how improv shot out of order can result in things spiraling out of control. Either way, they still wound up veering away from the script considerably. This looseness really comes across at times and some of what’s said—particularly during the arguments between Hanks and wife Carrie Fisher—has a messiness to it that seems strangely realistic in this oddly fake environment. I also can’t help but think that Brother Theodore was responsible for calling Corey Feldman and his friends “Hepcats!” Dante commented on the bad reviews the film received at the time including the notice from Vincent Canby (Ironically, considering Dante’s comments on the script, Canby also said in his review that Hanks, having just received an Oscar nomination, was this time “attempting to act a role in a screenplay whose pages are blank.”) but also mentioned how over the years people from all walks of life have quoted dialogue back to him when they find out he made it and the fact that the New Beverly was packed indicates that it does remain popular all these years later. The director brought down special guest Bruce Dern, also the star of the evening’s second film SMILE, to speak between the movies and after a brief intro Dern pretty much spoke non-stop for the next half-hour about a variety of things, including comparing Dante with SMILE director Michael Ritchie in the freedom both directors give their actors. He spoke at length about the likes of Kazan and Corman (I’ll get to SMILE soon enough) and a variety of other things throughout his long career, offering a great amount of praise for the director standing next to him—he’s also in Dante’s upcoming 3D horror film, THE HOLE.
When introducing Bruce Dern after the film, Dante offered to the packed house that there wasn’t very much to say about it in summation. That may have been a slightly flip comment, but there was a bit of truth to it. In some ways, he said everything he needed to say about the movie in the movie. I freely admit that I’m a fan of the director going back decades now and THE ‘BURBS is, maybe more than any of his other films, just a pure example of the director doing his thing, whether it all works or not. As a simple example of that, it’s nice to have the film there and it’s great to have this festival at the New Beverly so we can discover such things about this film and others as well.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
There are films in life that you love almost because you love the idea of that film, or even just the memory of seeing that film, more than the film itself. FOUL PLAY is definitely one of those for me, a movie that I have such a fondness for that its flaws don’t even really matter anymore and haven’t for years. I was taken to see it when I was a kid and to this day I still wish that there could be more movies like FOUL PLAY made that I could go see. Unfortunately, I think the time for that kind of comedy-thriller has passed and there certainly seems to be a hesitation out there to make a popcorn movie that even attempts to go for a type of style and wit. Now I’m not saying that it’s a perfect movie—to go with my rose-colored glasses take on it which may not be entirely accurate, my recollection of seeing the movie has snow on the ground at the time so it’s surprising to discover that the film was actually released in July of 1978. Now, I did see it at the late, lamented Scarsdale Plaza which at that point was a second-run house, but jeez, how long did this film play for? But FOUL PLAY is still, for me, trapped in time, just like those people at the pre-wedding party that opens the film. Where is this house? Who lives there? Has anybody reading this ever been to a pre-wedding party at a place with that view of the Golden Gate Bridge? But nothing could express my genuine sentimental attachment to this film any more than admitting that because of it I actually have a slight fondness for Barry Manilow. Not too long ago when I had a chance to see him do some performing in a private setting for a television show I showed up just kind of hoping that he’d do “Ready to Take a Chance Again.” He didn’t. Clearly, there’s something wrong with me. Lately I’ve found myself pondering certain possibilities in life, both good and bad, and it makes me think of a film like this which is in no way a great one but I love it as well as the fact that it exists anyway.
Recent divorcee Gloria Mundy (Goldie Hawn) is content to spend her days working in the local library and going to see old movies when a chance encounter with a man named Bob Scott (Bruce Solomon) she picks up on the side of the road leads her into a world of danger when that night at the movies the man drops dead in front of her whispering "Beware of the dwarf!" But he's already passed her his pack of cigarettes which, unbeknownst to her, contain a microfilm that may lead to information on an upcoming political assassination. As it soon becomes clear that several mysterious characters are out to get her she receives help from San Francisco detective Tony Carlson (Chevy Chase) who in spite of being snubbed by her at a party that opened the movie is clearly smitten with Gloria and will doing anything he can to crack the case just as none other than the Pope is arriving in San Francisco for a visit.
FOUL PLAY was the directorial debut of screenwriter Colin Higgins, who, if his script for the earlier SILVER STREAK was an homage to NORTH BY NORTHWEST then FOUL PLAY’s chief inspiration would have to be CHARADE (considering Solomon’s strong resemblance to Gene Wilder, this could almost be read as killing off the lead of the earlier film). It may be a bit of sacrilege to say but some of CHARADE is kind of dated these days but as much as saying anything against it might be heresy, not all of FOUL PLAY works flawlessly anymore either maybe because we’ve all seen this type of scenario before, maybe because the vibe of the thing feels so trapped back in another decade (“You’ve gotta drag yourself into the 70s,” Gloria’s best friend tells her) or maybe just another type of film than we’re used to in general. But the charm of FOUL PLAY remains present and it still works extremely well as a lightly enjoyable comedy thriller. The cheery San Francisco setting is part of that charm, but so is the snappy patter of the dialogue that has stayed with me for years ("Look out for the elf!") as well as the obvious chemistry that’s there between the two leads, which makes the overall film more emotionally satisfying after the non-starter romance of SILVER STREAK. The plot pretty much holds together. I think. I’m not sure it really matters. When Chase’s cop needs to learn details to piece together the case he’s pretty much just told everything he needs to know, followed by him explaining everything to Hawn. Certainly not elegant but it is coherent and it clearly tries to keep everything as simple as possible in h ow a few of the key bad guys (including longtime character actor Marc Lawrence) are visually distinctive yet kept almost completely silent all through the film (well, no dialogue for “The Albino”. Lawrence gets a few lines but nothing that you remember). But it still feels a little too constructed—the opening pre-wedding party seems kind of stuck in there, without even a lame excuse given why the male lead happens to be there. When the details of the “Tax The Churches League” are explained near the end, are you really paying attention? Even so, the design of the structure is sharp enough that I can imagine Hitchcock, if he saw actually saw it, nodding his head in approval at how the cigarette pack/microfilm McGuffin is finally discarded in a way that makes it totally inconsequential.
The plot is pretty much discarded in the end anyway in favor of the ‘wacky’ race across town down long San Francisco hilly streets (“Come on, we gotta get to the opera house!” shouts Chase from offscreen, maybe looped in there in case the eight year-olds like myself weren’t following things) in a fairly energetic attempt to combine 70s car-crash hijinks with the more Hitchcockian flair of a large audience watching THE MIKADO with the Pope in attendance. Each time I see it that finale never seems quite as complexly laid out as I think it’s going to be…but I still enjoy it. Granted, all of the comedy throughout doesn’t seem quite as hysterical as maybe it once was and that includes the old ladies playing scrabble, the entire Billy Barty sequence (not that I don't enjoy seeing Billy Barty), “Far Out!” and “Kojak, Bang Bang!” so some of the crasser elements of SILVER STREAK are still present this time around—that said, Colin Higgins (who sadly died of AIDS in 1988) also wrote HAROLD AND MAUDE so he gets a pass until the end of time for pretty much anything.
And there is the added bonus of Dudley Moore as Stanley Tibbets, a character who turns out not to be the strait-laced type he seems at first. The part feels designed to steal the movie (I can remember not being aw are of Dudley Moore’s existence before his first appearance here and the joke still works) and the running gag of his appearances totally succeeds right up to his very last moment near the end of the film. Unlike Richard Pryor’s midfilm entrance in SILVER STREAK, Moore is kept on the outskirts of the plot as strict comic relief so as to never muck up the romance, which comes off as an attempt to fix the one element that never worked about the earlier film. In fact, he’s kept on the outskirts just enough that you could cut together a version of FOUL PLAY that removes his character (and Billy Barty, among other things) and it would still make sense (I think I may have seen a version like this on WPIX in New York decades ago). Even if it’s not perfect, FOUL PLAY for the most part remains hugely enjoyable and when the instrumental version of “Ready To Take A Chance” swells as Chevy & Goldie are out on that houseboat, I pretty much get goosebumps as I remember not only seeing this film long ago but think that it wouldn’t be so terrible to have that music play when I kiss a certain girl. I guess I’m just a softie.
Nearing the end of her 70s run which seems considerably different from her post-PRIVATE BENJAMIN career, this is easily one of Hawn’s best starring roles and a terrific display of her talents. Chase, likable as he is in his first starring role, doesn’t seem quite sure how to always behave in front of the camera just yet (note his brief glance towards us just before the scene cuts away from him to the opening credits) and maybe this is one of the reasons why he never seemed particularly jazzed about the film later on in interviews. The film compensates for any of his insecurities with the actors backing him up in his scenes, particularly Hawn and they do have genuine chemistry. The terrific character actors in supporting roles also include the great Burgess Meredith as landlord Mr. Henessy (his brawl with Rachel Roberts is broad, but still pretty funny), Brian Dennehy as Tony’s partner Fergie (maybe more than anyone else here, doing something with nothing), Don Calfa as Scarface (by my count, there are three actors here who are also in “10”) Chuck McCann as the manager of the Nuart and Marilyn Sokol as Stella who looks so familiar watching this is surprising to see that she hasn’t actually been in more films (looks like she’s mostly worked on the stage). It really is a terrific San Francisco film with the exception of the Nuart, where Gloria attends the film festival near the beginning (showing the nonexistent THIS GUN IS MINE using footage from an actual film) which is of course a well known theater here in L.A. That must have been one very long walk home for Gloria. The layout of the lobby actually still pretty much looked the way it does here up until just a few years ago. The score by Charles Fox is much broader than the elegance Henry Mancini brought to SILVER STREAK but the honest truth is that I’ve seen this film so many times that I don’t think I’d want a note of the music to be any different.
My response to FOUL PLAY these days is admittedly a personal one in terms of how seeing just a few minutes of it brings me back to a more innocent time in life. The film isn’t flawless and maybe it wouldn’t play nearly as well for someone just seeing it for the first time. But it has a comfort level that I can’t deny and I suppose it says something that all these years later as I watch Gloria and Tony take their bows at the end, I honestly find myself hoping that things worked out for them. If the high of that final moment reminds us of anything it’s that sometimes in life, you really do get what you get when you go for it.