Sunday, September 27, 2009

Blinded By These City Lights

“It’s a beautiful Monday here in the Big Apple,” says a disc jockey heard coming from a car radio just a few minutes into Peter Bogdanovich’s THEY ALL LAUGHED. That the voice we hear actually belongs to Bogdanovich himself makes a lot of sense. Released in 1981, THEY ALL LAUGHED really is set in a beautiful fantasy version of that city, one of the writer/director’s own making and it is unfortunate that the film has rarely been able to be seen as such. It never really had a chance to be judged on it’s own terms, marred by the horrific murder of star Dorothy Stratten by her husband soon after its completion (leading to a prolonged period of troubles for Bogdanovich, who had been involved with the young actress and emerged emotionally shattered) but in more recent years it’s been hard to watch the film and not focus on the numerous lingering shots of the World Trade Center, not to mention thinking about the now-gone Audrey Hepburn as well as John Ritter, also someone who died prematurely and on the date September 11th no less. It’s almost too much tragedy for this light, airy film to be saddled with but it provides it with a few extra layers nevertheless. I found myself slipping the DVD into the player on September 11th of this year as a small token of respect for those tragedies but also for this film which always deserved better. Looking past its looseness reveals a record on film of the Manhattan that existed at the time that is rather moving to looking at all these years later, but it’s also a fantasy version of that city where everything that happens, even the sadness, seems to flow smoothly and correctly with your own life.

The loosely plotted film—focusing on three private detectives (Ben Gazzara, John Ritter, Blaine Novak) and the women (Audrey Hepburn, Dorothy Stratten, Colleen Camp, Patti Hansen) they get mixed up with for reasons due to their job or otherwise—can be a tough one to get a hold of on first viewing. You’re trying to figure out the film’s proto-Hawksian universe not to mention the issues of who knows each other, who doesn’t know each other and just what the heck is going on. Bogdanovich wants you to pay attention to these things as you watch it to sort it all out for yourselves and if you just relax, letting that New York flavor seep into you, THEY ALL LAUGHED becomes a breath of fresh air, in some ways almost as hopeful a movie as I could imagine. Moving on from some of his earlier films which seemed to openly be about his own worship of the likes of Ford and Hawks THEY ALL LAUGHED finds its director, maybe for the first time, fully taking these influences and merging them with his own preoccupations of life, love and how these things work their way into relationships. The looseness of how we move through the city going from one character to the other reminds me of the films of Jacques Demy as well, particularly LOLA and THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT (punching the two names into Google reveals that I’m not the first person to make this connection), and like that director’s work it can be left up to the individual viewer just how wistful or joyous you wish to view some of this.

There’s also the film’s own vision of New York which is a few times weirdly familiar to me as it is was shot pretty much at the time I first ever really knew the city—the scenes along Fifth Avenue ring a bell in my own memory as does the brief jaunt through the theater district near Times Square—the Music Box Theatre that Dorothy Stratten exits is playing DEATHTRAP even though we never see the marquee but it is clear that the Royale down the block is showing A DAY IN HOLLYWOOD, A NIGHT IN THE UKRAINE which I actually did see during its run there. This world is one where those mail chutes in an old office building are probably always in use (Wes Anderson interviews the director on the DVD and I can’t help but think that’s the sort of touch he responds to) and everyone who meets each other hit it off almost immediately as if they’ve been friends their whole lives. The free-wheeling nature of the camerawork and pacing combined with the apparent springtime shooting provides the film with a wonderful record of what these parts of the city looked like at the time, though in its quest to be what I imagine is Bogdanovich’s ideal representation of the city he comes from very little is ever seen that manages to date it.

Even the music we hear coming from car radios and the roller disco is all “Sing Sing Sing”, Frank Sinatra (all from the “Reprise” album including “You and Me” which also turned up in the Bogdanovich-inspired IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES a few years later) and a lot of country music which is tied into Colleen Camp’s character, a successful country singer in the club that figures in prominently. I freely admit that my own dislike for country music sometimes makes me wish it were something else that fit in more with the New York feel but the upbeat nature of these songs along with how hearing them here gives the world of this film its own unique feel. Or maybe I’ve just seen the film enough times by now that I’m used to it, but by this point I wouldn’t have it any other way. Anyway, very little ever dates the film aside from maybe Audrey Hepburn’s Yoko Ono sunglasses (that she looses them as her character softens up seems to make sense) and it really does succeed in being set somewhere out of time, in a version of this city where even heartbreak is accompanied by a sharp-witted blonde cab driver who is ready to drive out to Brooklyn for a day of raising hell. In that sense, no one ever has to encounter the sort of pain any of us ever do and the people involved in this film certainly did.

Gazzara, the world-weary but content Bogart in all this, provides the center of the film and the hopeful weariness of his increasingly touching scenes with Hepburn, in which each person seems to know exactly what’s going on without needing to say it, run counterpoint to the more frenzied activities of the younger cast members. Ritter, in what is pretty much the Bogdanovich surrogate role, is terrific throughout and his scenes with Stratten, who couldn’t be cuter, are very sweet but it’s spitfire Colleen Camp as country singer Christy Miller who really takes no prisoners in her scenes (“Why, you got a date?”) doing what has to be the best work of her career. Even the people in here who aren’t the big names the headliners are, like Patti Hansen’s cab driver and George Morfogen’s frazzled boss fit in perfectly with the ensemble (Hepburn’s son Sean Ferrer has a rather large role, in his only film appearance) and even somebody who turns up briefly for some snazzy dialogue, like Joyce Hyser in a fast-talking bit with Blaine Novak, seems like somebody in the middle of their own story. This is a New York where even someone just walking by at one point is somebody a character knows, making it the ideal version of the city that we wish were really there.

Watching it now we also have not only the losses of Stratten, Hepburn and Ritter, but every store location that Bogdanovich says on the commentary "isn't there anymore" and of course the Twin Towers which are all over the film. It makes viewing it that much more poignant and me much happier that this movie exists with a record of this New York. The portrayal of romance as Bogdanovich views it in THEY ALL LAUGHED is a hopeful one but it’s a dance that lasts only as long as the running time (“I knew that all this was too good to last.”). There’s sadness in viewing the film, which is unavoidably a result of our own awareness of what happened around its production, but there’s a degree of sadness in our own romances as well. They so rarely go the way we want them to, yet we find ourselves trapped in the dance they’re a part of anyway. The very title of the film implies that the good times are in the past, that where we are now in life once the laughter has ended is nowhere near as joyous. But we keep trying to get back to that feeling anyway in our sometimes fruitless attempts to recreate it. One thing this film is able to do while watching it is make it seem as if the happiness isn’t quite so far away.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Air Is A Lot Better

You could hardly be blamed for not noticing, but a new Peter Hyams movie snuck into theaters a few weeks ago. Well, in New York and Los Angeles anyway. Every few years something turns up at the usually desolate Chinese 6 that gets me to go there and this was one of them--a Peter Hyams movie, with Michael Douglas no less, that quietly opened on a few screens probably due to some contractual obligation. A bit of a comedown for the guy who directed CAPRICORN ONE, OUTLAND, 2010 and THE PRESIDIO among others. The film in question is BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, a remake of the 1956 Fritz Lang film from RKO of the same name which I’m fairly certain I haven’t seen. It’s not very good at all so you don’t need to know much about it, but it did get me thinking about another film helmed by Hyams that was a remake of an RKO noir, namely the 1990 NARROW MARGIN. The original film is a classic of the genre and if you haven’t seen it you should probably do something about that immediately. The remake, never coming anywhere close, is serviceable at best but in all honesty I’ve always enjoyed watching it. This sort of mid-level thriller was still being made at the time and, even if watching it again after a number of years doesn’t reveal some kind of hidden treasure it’s still a pretty enjoyable time killer, the ideal sort of thing that should be running late at night for someone who can’t sleep. Not to mention that it’s a train movie and I love train movies. Doesn’t everyone?

A blind date that Los Angeles book editor Carol Hunnicut (Anne Archer) accepts goes horribly wrong when the man in question, lawyer Michael Tarlow (the much-missed J.T. Walsh), turns out to have been working for, as well as stealing from, mob boss Leo Watts (Harris Yulin) and ends up being shot for this right in front of Carol as she hides unobserved in the next room. She immediately flees but Assistant D.A. Robert Caulfield (Gene Hackman, given the same character name Elliott Gould had in CAPRICORN ONE) and police detective Dominick Benti (M. Emmet Walsh) are able to track her down to a remote house in the Canadian mountains (meaning that there’s actually a valid reason why this was filmed in Canada). But no sooner have they gotten there then it becomes shockingly clear that Caulfield has been followed, sending him and Hunnicut on the run, ending up on a train headed for Vancouver with the killers (including James Sikking—an older version of his hitman from POINT BLANK?) on the train in search of the woman with Caulfield trying to do everything he can to keep them from finding her and, with hundreds of miles of wilderness all around them, nowhere to run even if they could get off the train.

For anyone familiar with the original it’s clear that this NARROW MARGIN, written by the director, uses the basic protecting-a-witness-on-a-train premise as a jumping off point, essentially coming up with its own story but still knowingly tossing in a few points from that film, particularly the crucial character of “the fat man” as well as one twist that certainly at least seems in the spirit of that film. It’s not an ambitious piece of work—Hyams never seems to want it to be anything more than a modern day B-movie—but it is an enjoyable one that keeps the plot moving pretty early on, from a well done truck-and-helicopter chase through the woods to the use of the train in a way that keeps the story moving, knowing enough to concentrate on this suspense and not bother with a phony romance between the two leads.

Hyams also served as director of photography as he usually does and the look is like every other film by him—sleek, low-light levels—but at this point he was still willing to put at least some light in the frame and actually the pitch-black midnight rendezvous at a remote station actually winds up being one of the best looking and staged sections of the film. Some of the potboiler elements work so well that when it reaches for more depth the results are a little mixed. Hackman gets one very good scene in particular where he tells the bad guys why he chooses to stay in his job but Archer’s big emotional moments where she lays out her life and reasons for her actions (including saying that the killing she witnessed was not “like what you see on television, it was horrible” when really, that’s exactly what it looked like) feel a little too calculated for sympathy and just make us wish we were spending more time with Hackman as he moves around the train interacting with various people, narrowly avoiding getting into more trouble. Of course, the movie isn’t about the emotions she is going through so much as it is the cat and mouse chase throughout which culminates in the dynamic climax set on top of the train which is extremely well done and exciting—there’s certainly some work by stuntmen but enough of it is actually the actors up there which completely sells it. If you can’t get some fun out of watching Gene Hackman and James Sikking fight on top of a moving train, I don’t know what to tell you. Seeing this movie again wasn’t any kind of revelation—one of the twists is tipped with an aside that’s as subtle as a sledgehammer and I never caught it before now—but it does succeed in its potboiler way more than a few of Hyams’ more ambitious efforts (I’ve never been the biggest OUTLAND guy, for one thing) and with the exception of CAPRICORN ONE it’s probably my favorite of his films—of course, some might mention that when we’re talking about Peter Hyams that isn’t saying very much. It’s not the classic that the original is, but even if that were the worst thing I could say about it that wouldn’t be so bad. For the most part, it completely gets the job done and is a reminder of how much fun a thriller set on a train can be.

This is an ideal lead for Gene Hackman, who seems slightly energized by material as if he’s looking forward to seeing how this is all going to play out. He approaches his character as an essentially decent guy (“An honest man.”), one who we genuinely like following through the film and he earns our trust. Even if only looked at as a “Gene Hackman vehicle” it definitely succeeds. His basic nature here is interesting to contrast with Anne Archer and how much anguish she projects, to a degree which might not be necessary, but she admittedly doesn’t get too many notes to play since her character is supposed to be terrified for much of the time. Still, there’s a casualness that Hackman seems to share with most of the other actors in the movie that he never shares with Archer as a result of this, something which is prevented out of necessity from the plot, and as a result we wind up liking him more even considering what she’s going through. M. Emmet Walsh is lots of fun to have around when he’s on screen (which, unfortunately, isn’t for very long) and James Sikking, given really only one scene where he has any dialogue of note, is smoothly effective as the main bad guy. Susan Hogan, who I always remember from David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD, appears in the key role of a woman on the train who becomes a little too friendly with Caulfield. The score by Bruce Broughton is sparse, maybe a little too much so and there are a number of scenes throughout that feel like they could use some extra oomph. Considering that CAPRICORN ONE has one of the all-time great kick-ass scores by Jerry Goldsmith, it’s too bad that Hyams chose the opposite musical approach with a later film like this one.

No, it’s not the original but it is the kind of programmer starring, you know, adults, which used to be a more common sight out there and setting one on a train seems so pure, so naturally cinematic. Because of this, on the rare occasion these days when one of them does get released I’m that much more interested in seeing it to find out how such a pure genre piece can work in this day and age. That’s why it’s such a shame that something like the new version of BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT comes off as such a misfire and if you haven’t gotten to see it you’re not missing very much. But Hyams’ NARROW MARGIN remake is a completely enjoyable popcorn movie that, for the most part, does what it needs to do and doesn’t stick around too much to try to do much more. And it holds up pretty well because of that.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

It Won't Have To Look For Us

When I think of A FISH CALLED WANDA the first thing that comes to mind is the laughter. See, I was working as an usher the summer of 1988 when it opened and I can remember, over the multiple weeks it played to packed houses, the near-hysteria that would erupt in the audience throughout the entire film. It became possible to pinpoint down to the second when the laughter would come and it was always enjoyable to watch whole sections of it because of that. It’s easy to forget now, but A FISH CALLED WANDA played for months from the summer into the fall, finally becoming the number one movie in the country a full ten weeks after it was released. And of course, the acclaim for the film led to multiple Academy Award nominations, not to mention Kevin Kline winning for Best Supporting Actor. Extremely funny throughout, the film is truly a high water mark for many of those involved, particularly star John Cleese who in his screenplay (from a story by him and director Charles Crichton), came up with the most complete and satisfying narrative of his career, a story where the pieces satisfyingly (and, in some cases, shockingly) come together like clockwork right up until the fadeout. Probably deserving of at least minor classic status, the film’s visibility feels like it’s faded in recent years. Maybe this type of comedy has fallen out of fashion or maybe it’s possible the way the film was put together is in some way responsible. After all, it’s hard to compete with the memory of being in the middle of an entire audience laughing uproariously.

A jewel heist is organized by mastermind George Thomason (Tom Georgeson) along with Ken Pile (Michael Palin), weapons man Otto (Kevin Kline) and beautiful Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis) who is pretending to be George’s lover while secretly in cahoots with Otto. Once the job is done Otto and Wanda place an anonymous call to the police which gets George arrested so they can take the money for themselves (and which Wanda secretly plans to take for herself) but George has already hidden it away. Therefore, Wanda gets the idea to become friendly with George’s barrister Archie Leach (John Cleese, taking Cary Grant’s real name for his character) and use the situation to find out where the diamonds are. Meanwhile the stuttering Ken, a staunch animal rights activist, has to deal with the one witness to the crime who could put George away.

A complicated setup and there are plenty of elements I deliberately left out but everything goes together so well it makes the film an example of screenplay construction which should probably be studied more than it is. You could say it’s essentially an Ealing Studios comedy of the sort Crichton used to make back in the 50s made even more twisted courtesy of Cleese’s Python humor along with a willingness by those involved to make it a greater degree accessible (and, let’s be honest, commercial) than these films usually are, for better or worse. The plot holds together, the characters are well-drawn in this comic style (particularly in how the different combinations wind up interacting with each other) and the movie has no qualms about taking certain things to the extreme limit in pursuit of huge, savage laughs (it’s tempting to do nothing more than just list favorite scenes and lines). Not all of this will be appreciated by some people out there, but all of it works and it manages to be twisted and dark…but still all strangely likable.

Director Charles Crichton, one of the film’s Oscar nominees for his work, was in his late 70s at the time of filming and the deceptively simple style brought to the film gives it barely a single wasted shot or cut the entire time, knowing exactly where to frame certain setups to maximize the laughter. Much of the time things are played out in a single shot—he’ll never cut the shot if he can pan or tilt the camera to get the story point across—and this really lends to the feeling of the film’s four leads truly interacting with each other in their various combinations. The way this all goes together so seamlessly gives the impression that this could have been one of those films where you hear everything was pretty much cut in camera, so it’s a surprise to see so many deleted and alternate scenes on the DVD, displaying how far they had to go in tinkering with the main romance as well as the ending to find the right tone for the film. But the final product results in a construction that feels nearly airtight in addition to the laughs. And since the DVD shows us that even someone like John Cleese has to work at these things to get it just right, that gives hope for us all.

Such a narrative in a comedy feels like a lost art these days—I laughed throughout something like THE HANGOVER but a movie like that in comparison just feels like a bunch of scenes put together, as opposed to the expert construction here. And it’s not just madcap craziness either, as the film seems to have decided to make a few of these characters at least a little bit likable, particularly during Archie’s speech about how he and his fellow citizens of England are always “terrified of embarrassment” compared to the magical Wanda who is inexplicably (he thinks) attracted to him. This unabashedly endearing quality among the madness (which sometimes occurs moments later) sets WANDA apart from things like the earlier Cleese vehicle CLOCKWISE as well as the later Eric Idle vehicle SPLITTING HEIRS which also featured Cleese and at the time struck me as a unsuccessful attempt to make another WANDA-type effort. A FISH CALLED WANDA, unlike those other films, seems to be aware that the more satisfying story leads to more satisfying laughter and keeps it from being just a series of silly slapstick bits. Of course, some of the slapstick is priceless and the momentum it builds near the end up to its payoffs works hugely well.

The thing is however, compared with my memories of uproarious laughter, A FISH CALLED WANDA plays a little sparse when viewed at home. Multiple viewings always made it clear how much the film seemed to have been cut to allow for that audience laughter, maybe more so than a film usually would—the point when certain people walk in on Archie in an embarrassing situation is probably the most blatant example of this, but there are others throughout. Something like TOOTSIE, to use a very random example, can play great at home but maybe it’s the out-there broadness that causes WANDA to diminish at home and it’s never quite what I want it to be. In fairness, it doesn’t hurt the film too much in the end but it is does reveal how much this really was dependent on those audiences. That said, at it’s best A FISH CALLED WANDA is at times a hysterically funny British comedy with elements that come together to make it extremely satisfying.

The cast works wonderfully together. Cleese was very probably never better than he is here and Jamie Lee Curtis is possibly more beguiling than she ever was. The two work together very well and a certain fondness they share feels apparent, down to the laughter they seem to bring out in each other and it helps make the love story, which otherwise might be the most dreaded part of the movie, surprisingly believable and even a little touching. When Cleese is supposedly ignoring her as she talks to him during a driving scene late in the film it really looks like the actor is trying to keep from smiling, not the character. Oscar winner Kline is completely fearless in every fiber of his being as Otto and Michael Palin, who since he spends a fair amount of time in his own storyline could easily be forgotten is amazing with every bit of sadness and humiliation the character goes through. When he is desperately trying to blurt out a certain name near the end the absolute desperation in his face looks real, tragic…and absolutely hysterical. Maria Aitken has some very funny moments as Archie’s decidedly unpleasant wife and gets extra points for how she is able to spit out “Manfredjinsinjin” without missing a beat. The now-famous Stephen Fry turns up very briefly near the end. The score by John Du Prez forgoes the comedy and treats the whole things straight, varying from pounding suspense during the heist and action scenes to gentle lyricism for Archie and Wanda. The main theme heard over the end credits is extremely hummable and every time I see the film I can’t get it out of my head for days afterward.

The surprise success of the film led to a change in the career trajectory for most of those involved except for Crichton who, after his Oscar nomination for Best Director turned down all offers and chose to go out on top, dying in 1999 at the age of 89. The four stars reunited for 1997’s stillborn FIERCE CREATURES, an attempt to recapture the lightning in a bottle of WANDA that was unfortunately saddled with a weak concept and story, resulting in a film that went through so many reshoots that two directors wound up with screen credit in the end. That film is pretty much forgotten now, but A FISH CALLED WANDA is still around as one of the last great British comedies and will someday hopefully play somewhere on this planet with a large audience once again. I still get a great amount of enjoyment out of it, but it’ll never again be like seeing it with one of those audiences back in the summer of 1988.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Losing Touch With Reality

Though I was taken to see Disney’s CONDORMAN in the theater when it was released way back in the summer of 1981 it’s possible that the most interesting thing about that fact is that I actually saw it on a double bill with the infamous, now-withheld SONG OF THE SOUTH. I guess this not only says something about how times have changed but also how much time has gone by. I don’t even remember very much about what I thought of CONDORMAN at the time. I suppose like most movies I saw as a kid I liked it just fine but looking at it now I’m more interested in what the Baskin-Robbins flavor Condorman Crunch that tied into the release was like. However, since I’m stuck with the actual movie I’ll just have to deal with it. There’s potential in CONDORMAN for a decent spy spoof, even one aimed at kids but it’s squandered in all the Disney blandness of that time and even some decent casting choices can’t keep this going for the full 90 minutes. There’s nothing about it worth forming a sentimental attachment to and I wouldn’t even bother with trying to show it to kids nowadays. They deserve something better.

Comic book artist and writer Woody Wilkins (Michael Crawford) is a perfectionist who has not only traveled to Paris to get a feel for where he wants to set his new book “Condorman” he also insists that anything which happens in any of his books must be tried by him first, which is why when we meet him he is attempting to fly off the Eiffel Tower in full Condorman costume (no, those aren’t wires you see there holding him up…). When his government buddy Harry (James Hampton) needs to find a civilian to handle a quick exchange in Istanbul, Woody enthusiastically dives in which results in him meeting beautiful Soviet agent Natalia Rambova (Barbara Carrera, now and forever a favorite of mine). Falling for her instantly, Woody claims to be a real spy, giving his codename as “Condorman” and soon after when Natalia chooses to defect she insists that she will only deal with the agent named Condorman on her escape. Woody works out a deal with the CIA to get them to build some genuine versions of some of the fictional hero’s gadgets but he doesn’t count on Natalia’s jealous former lover and KGB superior Krokov (Oliver Reed, as in “What the hell is Oliver Reed doing in a Disney film?”) coming after her.

The thing’s got Barbara Carrera, a score by Henry Mancini and beautiful European locations, a combo which for me is totally ideal but just about nothing in CONDORMAN maintains any interest. Directed by Charles Jarrott and written by Marc Stirdivant (inspired by Robert Sheckley’s novel “The Game of X”) the story has potential but no real juice to it and saying that it’s just a kids’ movie from Disney is no excuse—for the record, this is actually one of their earliest PG titles. There’s something wrong with any movie with location work in Paris, Monaco, Switzerland, etc. that plays so bland, not to mention one that traps you with one of the most annoying lead characters imaginable. The film continuously seems to ignore interesting paths it could go down that you wonder if they were going to be this lackadaisical with everything why didn’t they just shoot the whole thing in Burbank. The story is dull, the chase scenes are lame, the secondary bad guys are uninteresting and whole plot points feel jumped over at various points as if they just didn’t feel like going to the trouble to shoot those scenes. Any attempt at being a Bond spoof comes off as lackluster at best and even the plot point that Woody uses this opportunity to have his own designs actually made for him by the government (ridiculous, but there’s at least potential for comedy) never feels exploited in any way that ever becomes clever or fun—they couldn’t do a copy of the Q lab to go for a few laughs? There’s no real style, very little is funny (“Make it a triple” is a good line, I’ll give it that much), very little even comes close to being exciting. Even when there’s potential for conflict between the leads, the film dispenses with it as quickly as possible. All of the comic book details come off as phony as well, though I doubt anyone making it ever cared. Yeah, it’s just a Disney movie, but they made some good ones at some point, didn’t they? If I was ok with all this when I was a kid, and I think I was, I’d rather not think about it.

It’s too bad because there really is potential in a light-hearted superhero/caper combo about an artist forced into bringing his creation to real life and, so help me, it wouldn’t be a bad choice for a remake. The location work does at least give the whole thing a sense of scope and there’s one helicopter shot during the boat chase near the end (for all I know it’s second unit) in which a bad guy’s boat is revealed to be following the heroes that comes off as so purely cinematic that for a few seconds the thing actually becomes exciting. But the moment ends pretty quickly. The special effects range from blatantly visible wires holding up the stuntman in action to weak rearscreen work but if any of this succeeded in being fun how much would any of that matter? This sort of thing just worked better in the 60s than the 80s ( I guess this is where I make the obligatory DANGER: DIABOLIK reference) but either way the Disney formula at any point in time probably meant the basic approach would always have been pretty toothless.

After saying all this, it’s no real surprise that just about the best thing about the movie is the score by Henry Mancini. Yes, some of it sounds a little like pieces he never got to fit into one of the PINK PANTHER sequels (maybe they should have brought in Blake Edwards to work on the script) but it helps with the light-hearted tone more than anything that occurs on screen and the main title theme is pretty damn cool. Even a light theme for Natalia’s character comes off as reminiscent of something that the composer would have created for Audrey Hepburn back in the day and is actually rather lovely. Sadly, there was never a soundtrack album released. Since there’s not much else to say about the movie I have to point out that this 1981 film features all the credits up front, with just a card at the finale reading THE END. No end credit crawl, no nothing. If there’s another wide release film that came after this where such a close is the case I can’t think of it.

At times the lead actors seem like they’re in a very good mood, almost as if their offscreen camaraderie is bleeding over—this could be that they’re trying to be cheerful because it’s a family film or maybe everyone’s just happy to be shooting a movie in exotic locales all around Europe. You can hardly blame them, but it doesn’t mean that we’ve been saddled with a decent lead. I like Michael Crawford in Richard Lester’s THE KNACK but he’s extremely annoying here as he tries way too hard to be peppy and upbeat, shouting things like “Let’s go!” at every possible opportunity. I guess we’re supposed to like his enthusiasm but it winds up sucking all the air out of the room in scene after scene. With him in the lead he winds up being as responsible as anything else for how forced the film turns out to be. Barbara Carrera (sigh), in addition to being a much more soothing presence, is of course quite beautiful (I prefer her with darker hair, but whatever) and, particularly when she shares scenes with Oliver Reed, the two come off as so unavoidably adult in their behavior that it’s hard not to wish that they had real scenes to play. Reed seems to be putting up with all this as if appearing in a Disney film is a form of punishment by somebody. When he gets a look at Condorman in action near the end it’s hard not to read his face as wondering what the hell he’s doing in this thing. Character actor James Hampton, familiar on sight, is just about the most likable person in the whole thing--he has a decency that is genuine even in this context, with a relaxed air that gives the feeling that he’s actually willing to have some fun and not try too hard to do it.

Nostalgia has its limits. Just because I saw something when I was a kid that doesn’t mean I’m going to defend it and it sure doesn’t explain why I own it on DVD, even if it is the only way to hear the Mancini score and did I mention how beautiful Barbara Carrera is? Maybe those aren’t good reasons, but they’ll have to do. It feels like CONDORMAN had the potential to be good but was stuck in the stranglehold of whatever was happening in the Disney offices at the time and that seems to have resulted in it being as bland as possible, like the whole thing is just waiting around to fill out the running time. The Mancini fanfare occasionally almost convinces you that a really good movie is happening but the feeling never lasts. With the Anchor Bay DVD that was released a number of years ago out of print and currently fetching high prices on Ebay, one gets the feeling that Disney is keeping this film about as buried as its one time co-feature SONG OF THE SOUTH. The thing is, in this particular case, the world really isn’t missing out on anything.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Routine Procedure

In case anyone’s been wondering, part of the reason I haven’t been updating as much lately is because of some very minor surgery that I had recently. It’s not the only reason for my absence but it’s a good one and even though it was minor, surgery is surgery, right? It hurts. It takes some time to recover. That’s all you need to know. But since I made it through I figured I’d take a look at Michael Crichton’s COMA since I didn’t have to worry about some kind of worst case scenario anymore. One of those many movies that somehow always slipped through the cracks for me until now COMA feels a little like a movie I’d already seen even though I hadn’t. This isn’t a criticism of it as much as a comment on how enough of it feels like it’s seeped into other films and TV shows through the years so maybe what was once shocking or surprising (if it was--hey, I don’t know) isn’t really anymore. It’s still interesting in how it tries to inject sexual politics circa 1978 into such a thriller and, ultimately, it is pretty entertaining as long as you don’t spend too much time dwelling on certain plot points.

Dr. Susan Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold) is a surgery resident at Boston General Hospital as is boyfriend Dr. Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas) who she shares a somewhat combative relationship with. When close friend Nancy (MOONRAKER’s Lois Chiles) goes into the hospital for a routine abortion something unexpected goes wrong, leaving Nancy in an irreversible coma. Soon after another young, healthy patient goes in for a routine procedure with similar tragic results and when Susan begins to investigate she encounters roadblocks in the form of a hospital staff (as well as her own boyfriend) which seems to believe that these are nothing but tragic accidents. And what does OR #8 have to do with any of this? Nancy’s actions soon catch the attention of Chief of Surgery Dr. George Harris (Richard Widmark, who is of course playing a bit role which will have no bearing on the plot, right?) but even as she begins to sense that she is in true danger, her investigation soon leads her to the door of the mysterious Jefferson Institute run by Mrs. Emerson (Elizabeth Ashley) where certain shocking answers await.

Based on the novel by Robin Cook with a screenplay by Crichton, COMA moves fast and is tightly plotted, maybe to keep one from asking certain questions as much as anything. The basic nature of the mystery seems to be figured out a little too easily in a Nancy Drew-sort of way (including the maintenance man who turns up out of nowhere to point her in the right direction) and it’s hard not to think how much of this basic conspiracy thriller framework has been used a number of times over the years (not to mention Michael Apted’s 1996 medical mystery EXTREME MEASURES) and without coming up with specific examples a number of beats in the plot just feel overly familiar in this day and age. It probably isn’t this film’s fault but it does display how much of it just isn’t very surprising anymore. That’s not to criticize the framework too much and I found myself continually surprised in minor ways like how Bujold’s lowest emotional point in the film turns out to be exactly when she becomes forced into really dealing with the danger of the situation and even some minor bits of dialogue wind up paying off in satisfying ways. That’s not to say that this is an airtight plot and for that matter I could almost imagine a doctor watching the film taking offense that Bujold’s character is the only one who seems to take a genuine concern in what is going on at this hospital—that no other doctor comes off as very worried would make parodying this film pretty easy (I’m guessing that Mad Magazine took a crack at it).

Probably more interesting is the film’s treatment of lead Bujold—she’s presented as a woman fighting her way upstream against the chauvinism around her, even with her boyfriend who she is seen arguing with not too long after the opening credits—one imagines the two of them fighting on the way home from seeing AN UNMARRIED WOMAN. Using this plot as an opportunity to explore such sexual politics is a way to make the film more than it is—when she gets rid of her heels and pantyhose to crawl around in the hospital’s air ducts the symbolism of the moment is tough to ignore and when a character says “I like a woman who drinks scotch” late in the film the implication is that her character has earned such a compliment. Of course, this may or may not be exactly what the goal should be and the nature of the climax which places her in jeopardy as opposed to someone else feels like this theme isn’t quite carried through to the end. How much Crichton was invested in this theme is tough to say considering how Bujold is seen taking a shower in one of the very first scenes in this PG film (not that I’m complaining, he crassly admitted).

Considering the current health care debate going on I was on the lookout for how the film might be relevant to today but the truth is so much of the medical world presented here, in which the idea of a medical institution that is less than honorable may actually have been genuinely shocking, feels pretty far removed from today (we hear about the Jefferson Institute being “government funded” but that seems a little ambiguous). When the chief mastermind is ranting about how the world isn’t black and white near the end the moment is hurt by how simplistic the conflict really is. It occurred to me that a remake set in today’s world which really did address how complicated today’s medical world is would be able to address such things…but it’s tough to imagine that an audience wouldn’t figure out the truth behind what is going on pretty quickly these days. If anything, the presentation of the Jefferson Institute and its eerie, austere lay out both inside and out (I imagine the building being used as part of a liberal arts college) is extremely effective and if the main point of praise to give to COMA is that it’s a decent popcorn thriller that remains engaging over thirty years after its release, then that’s certainly something.

One point of particular interest is the film’s use of the score by Jerry Goldsmith which as part of the film’s approach to its escalating pace doesn’t make its first appearance until nearly fifty minutes in. Once it’s there it barely seems to leave and while some of the stuff sounds a lot like other material Goldsmith was turning out around this time for the likes of THE OMEN, LOGAN’S RUN and even the V’Ger material for STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE it’s still an excellent piece of work and the fact remains that as far as chase music goes you can’t get much better than 70s-era Goldsmith. I should also mention that the Bujold-Douglas weekend getaway is backed up by what on the soundtrack album is titled “Love Theme From COMA” so be sure to cue that up on your next romantic night. The final moments of the movie might in other hands play as an obligatory villain-gets-comeuppance beat but in Goldsmith’s hands it works just great sending everyone off on the right moment (and, presumably, before too many questions get asked).

Whatever the other problems, Bujold does a terrific job in the lead and her inherently icy nature feels like an ideal match with this character who has to prove herself to all the men in the world. Michael Douglas wasn’t quite a movie star at this point (though he did have an Oscar for producing ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST) and his performance here feels a little like he’s being tested to see how he works on the big screen—it’s not the meatiest role but he does some god work playing not a Cary Grant to Bujold’s Audrey Hepburn but someone who the film successfully makes us unsure if he’s in on it or just unwilling to stick his neck out to help her. Elizabeth Ashley seems to be playing her first scene as if she’s one’s of the robots from WESTWORLD—she tones it down a little later on, but just a little. Richard Widmark plays what in terms of this point in his career is pretty much the Richard Widmark role as Dr. Harris, bringing more credibility to the part than someone else might have and Rip Torn is excellent in just two scenes (one with no dialogue) as the hospital’s Chief of Anesthesiology. Tom Selleck (who later starred in Crichton’s RUNAWAY) makes an early appearance as one of the unfortunate patients and Ed Harris definitely makes an impression in his first film role as a pathology resident.

Anyway, I’m recovering now and though I’m not 100% yet I’ve been out in the world, going to movies and even stopped into Tiki Ti one night. Which has nothing to do with COMA but there’s not much else to say about it anyway. It was a big hit at the time and even if the sexual politics play slightly dated today, as interesting as they are, its portrayal of the medical world still succeeds at being a little unnerving. That’s the case for me particularly after having just gone through this sort of thing so I guess that’s all it really needs to do.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Closest We Ever Get

First of all, I’d like to set the record straight on a matter. In spite of what a friend posted on Facebook, I would like to state that after seeing INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS at the Arclight on opening night I did not fall to my knees in the upstairs lobby to shake Quentin Tarantino’s hand and call him a god for making the movie. Seriously, calling anyone a god for any reason is just not part of my M.O. The falling on the knees part, yeah, that’s true. As I recall it I stated, “I bow to you, sir,” got down on my knees, shook his hand and thanked him for making this movie. He happily shook my hand and was led off into the crowd. The exhilaration I felt after seeing this film was only something I have felt a handful of times in my filmgoing life and that would include the time I drove around the city for hours in a light drizzle, almost in a daze, after seeing PULP FICTION for the very first time on opening night at the Chinese, a night where it felt like a new world was being born. That world may not be so new anymore, but that lightning bolt feeling that Tarantino brings to his films hasn’t left. That night at the Arclight, I seemed to feel it like never before. And now several weeks later, after several further viewings, I not only have greater admiration for the movie but a greater love for not only how much it displays a love of movies but for its very insistence on the very power of what movies are to us in the world and what they can represent. What does my love for this film say about me, as well as my own love of films and how they are continually playing in a projection booth somewhere in my brain? I still don’t feel like I can write a full appreciation at this point but nevertheless the film still won’t leave me (there will be liberal discussion of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, I don’t know what to tell you). Whether or not it’s the best film of the year doesn’t really matter for me right now. But as a lover of the power of film, for me it’s the one that matters the most.

When the title of Chapter One of the film, “Once Upon A Time…In Nazi-Occupied France,” comes onscreen it is very clear what we are about to see—not the war as it occurred but as it exists in a cinema infused brain. Of course, no World War II film ever made has shown us what it was really like. Not SCHINDLER’S LIST, not THE GREAT ESCAPE, not FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO. The very opening of last year’s Jews-fight-back entry DEFIANCE tells us that the following film is “A True Story,” not even bothering to put a “Based On” at the front of that. This is a lie of course, as much of a lie as certain key plot points in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS are. The absolute truth is not what interests Tarantino and it’s his mission to get something different across, just as it’s put to German Private Butz (“Who or what is a Private Butz?”) by different parties with different agendas to not reveal exactly what was done to him. None of this interests Tarantino, quite rightly. Real history isn’t what interests Tarantino for his purposes--as far as I can tell, the greatest amount of pure fact that comes through in the final version is the extensive probing it does into the German cinema produced by Joseph Goebbels (David O.Selznick would be his opposite number, not Louis B. Mayer, as we’re told)

After hearing for years how Tarantino had his never finished “Guys on a mission” script somewhere in the pipeline it is somewhat surprising to discover how much of a supporting role they play in the film allegedly named after them. The way things are structured the Basterds wind up being spoken as legends almost as soon as we have met them. What the finished film turns out to be is not a rejiggering of the basic concept of THE DIRTY DOZEN (not to mention the 1977 THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, directed by Enzo Castellari, where this film’s title but next to nothing else came from) like we would imagine. And for all the Sergio Leone iconography, along with how ONCE UPON A TIME…IN NAZI-OCCUPIED FRANCE may have been a more apt title for the film (would even Tarantino have the gumption to have done that?), it can’t be looked at as the World War II that Leone himself might have made. What we get in 152 minutes in a nonstop barrage of film and world history colliding in Tarantino’s brain, spilled out onto celluloid (definitely not digital) and presented to the audience in the theater, forcing everyone watching it to sort out how fiction and (in this case, pulp) fact are supposed to go together. The film tosses out mentions of Riefenstahl and UFA as if everyone will understand the references (and why shouldn’t they?) as well as bringing references to the likes of Edwige Fenech and Antonio Margheriti into character names for seemingly no reason other than the pure fun of it.

Within all this is constant discussion of roles people are playing, disguises they must assume and simple flat-out thwarting of expectations, with characters prevented from going into the normal war movie we expect them to be involved in, holed up in a scene for nearly a half-hour where all of the expectations are irrevocably altered. Even the director’s treatment of movie star Brad Pitt is at times perverse—not only does he keep his character offscreen for long stretches, he even has the actor play nearly an entire scene from off camera with only his voice heard, not to mention keeping him away from much of the key climactic action. Not that Tarantino seems to bear any resentment from having Brad Pitt in his movie, quite the contrary. Aldo Raine becomes so enjoyable to watch that the film does wind up leaving us wanting more and, well, the simple utterance of “Gorlami” may in fact be my favorite Brad Pitt screen moment ever. As his opposite number, the acclaimed Christoph Waltz really is quite astounding as Hans Landa, possibly giving the performance of the year, and it occurred to me that much of his placement in the film’s iconography (turning up when unexpected, use of a certain pipe) bears a certain resemblance to Lee Van Cleef’s character in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY and when these two leads finally meet late in the film it’s worth all the anticipation. But the entire cast adds immensely to the film from the likes of Diane Kruger as film star Bridget von Hammersmark and Daniel Brühl as Frederick Zoller all the way to the more unsung likes of Denis Menochet as the farmer Perrier LaPadite, the legendary Rod Taylor with a few lines as Churchill and even B.J. Novak as Utivich who seems to be using his own befuddlement at getting such a role in this film to play his response to unexpectedly getting a close look at history unfurling right in front of him. I could go on and on with a long list of all the performances I’m still looking forward to seeing again in subsequent viewings.

The theater where much of the key action winds up taking place feels meant to be a combination of the New Beverly and the Vista, two L.A. theaters Tarantino has continually expressed a fondness for in the past (at the least, he certainly goes to both of them), both modest single-screen houses that have “real respect, almost church like” as none other than Joseph Goebbels himself describes this theater. With plot points focusing on this theater and the flammability of nitrate film, instead of backing away from his interests (“Why doesn’t he make something other than a Quentin Tarantino movie?” seems to be the refrain) the director embraces them maybe more than ever before, giving us a World War II where a certain knowledge of German Cinema history makes one ideal for a covert operation (though, as it turns out, it’s still a flawed choice). We know very little about the four years Shoshanna (the extremely fetching Mélanie Laurent, excellent throughout both with dialogue and without) has spent since witnessing her family brutally massacred so we don’t know if her sentiment, “I'm French. We respect directorsin our country,” was something she learned or a feeling she would have had anyway. It doesn’t matter, of course. She says it and that automatically earns her all the respect in the world, as well it should. Not that real life has no interest for him--we can tell that the act of knowing people, of conversation, of “smoking and drinking and ordering in restaurants”, where that living can take place, is something he loves as much as Bridget von Hammersmark. Mountain climbing, of course, is just a waste of time.

The Basterds are interestingly some of the only characters in the movie named after them who have no real knowledge or opinion about films—when Aldo Raine boasts of Donnie Donowitz’s baseball bat prowess saying “It’s the closest we ever get to going to the movies,” the character’s use of the phrase is pretty casual but of course the line isn’t at all coincidental. Cinema is what matters to Tarantino so therefore it’s what matters in the universe this film is set in, possibly more than anything. To view it as a criticism, almost invalidating the movie as a result, is downplaying how crucial the very concept of it is to him. It makes me think of his extended use of Ennio Morricone music throughout. Some, but not all, are from Spaghetti Westerns but what these pieces by that composer do share is a passion for life, a type of forcefulness that has all but left film scoring in this day and age. When Shoshanna has her final encounter with Pvt. Zoller in the projection booth the haunting piece that underscores her decision and her fate, coming from a not-bad crime thriller entitled REVOLVER, it makes it clear how much the moment possibly only makes sense in a spaghetti western kind of logic but it still works beautifully. Contrasting what is going on in that booth versus her glances at the screen all to that music really says it all. Cinema is humanity. Cinema is life.

And on my third viewing of the film (at the Vista, actually) everything seemed to hit home for me, this Jewish girl telling this theater full of Nazis what is about to happen to them…tying it right into what Lt. Archie Hickox (a sharply funny performance by Michael Fassbender) had earlier said was part of Goebbels’ plan to fight that element of Hollywood. I don’t think that Tarantino is trying to turn the tables on the audience here and makes us contrast our own response to how the Nazis were cheering during the repellent NATION’S PRIDE with its faux-Eisenstein montage. With the hard cut in that film from one close-up to another that was not meant to be there he transforms not only the film, he transforms history making it not an ironic reflection but a vision of what, to him, is supposed to be. The ghostly visage of Shoshanna coming off like the Wizard of Oz, already dead but triumphant, laughing at those Nazis who “ain’t got no humanity” as they burn to death, as well they deserve to…it’s just about the most nakedly emotional insistence on what the power of cinema could be, should be, as I’ve ever seen. And the pure beauty of the image, provided by FX maestro John Dykstra, makes me want to stand on a rooftop and, using my best Aldo Raine voice, shout “Fuck CGI all to hell!” up to the stars. Because what INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS ultimately is deep down is a film about the majesty of cinema, how it can be allowed to change the world, how nothing in this world is ultimately as beautiful, as horrifying and as powerful. And whether it results in his masterpiece or not, if Tarantino wants it to change the course of world history then damn it, it will. And that’s the way it should be….Once Upon A Time…in Nazi-Occupied France.