Monday, November 30, 2009

In Violation Of Every Natural Law


I’m not really sure what to say about Robert Zemeckis anymore. At times a near master when it comes to comedy, to pacing, to experimentation in the field of special effects, he’s now fallen down the rabbit hole of that whole 3D mo-cap thing and seemingly abandoned the concept of focusing on story in favor of what new mind-blowing visual he can toss into his stew. I’ve seen his version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL and you know what? I don’t care. I’m not impressed by this type of thing anymore and I’d just as soon not be forced to wear those damn 3D glasses ever again. What was a fascinating gimmick when he made THE POLAR EXPRESS has now gotten old fast even if the technology has improved. Not to mention that in making A CHRISTMAS CAROL he’s gone with a story that everyone on the planet has already seen a thousand times and all this former master of screenplay structure has added to it are scenes of Jim Carrey’s Scrooge shooting around the sky like he’s on a rollercoaster. All that results from all this sound and fury is a waste of my time. This is the man who made I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND which gave the world the romantic pairing of Eddie Deezen and Wendie Jo Sperber—doesn’t he know that no technological development will ever possibly be as amazing as that? I guess I have to accept that he sees things differently from how I do. But I still don’t care.


But we still have those films from years past where the director actually decided to use human actors in front of his camera and make, you know, a movie. Years after I first saw it on opening day in 1992, I’m still not quite sure where to place DEATH BECOMES HER in his filmography. Coming between the completion of the BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy and his critical/boxoffice triumph with FORREST GUMP, DEATH BECOMES HER now plays as a stopover from one act of his career to the other. It finds him continuing to dwell in the arena of dark comedy that he had played in a few times in the past while truly pushing the boundaries of what was possible with visual effects, something he has continued to do ever since. And one thing you can certainly say about this film is that the effects this time around at the very least genuinely add to the story being told. The problem, however, is his approach to the story which proves more than a little problematic and these tonal issues were most likely the reason for certain eleventh-hour fixes that occurred. It’s certainly a well-paced, enjoyable movie to sit through but as it goes on something becomes increasingly sour about it all. I don’t think this is a case of the director and everyone involved losing interest in the story being told so much as losing control of it.


After writer Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn) introduces her fiancée Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis) to famous actress Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep), the longtime rival between the two women results in Madeline marrying Ernest away from her. Years later, long after Helen has undergone a complete breakdown, Madeline and Ernest are living in wedded hell in Beverly Hills, her acting career over as she tries to hold on to her faded looks and Ernest reduced to drinking and working as a high-end mortician. When Helen reemerges as a successful author looking better than ever, Madeline’s jealousy rears its head again and she takes drastic action, courtesy of the exotic and mysterious Lisle von Rhoman (Isabella Rossellini)—a magical potion that allows the person who drinks it to have their aging process reversed and then live forever. But certain developments arising from what Ernest and Helen have planned complicate matters and though she might be immortal, her body is of considerably more fragile. Not to mention that it turns out that Madeline and Helen currently have more in common than they first realize.


It moves so fast that it certainly never becomes boring and there are genuine laughs throughout but within its technical ambition and thematic goals, DEATH BECOMES HER winds up feeling kind of empty. Actually, it’s a little strange to be saying that because watching DEATH BECOMES HER for the first time in a while, I did get a certain amount of pleasure from it. In addition to the at-times sharp humor, it’s continually engaging to look at and the actors are all game. But there’s such intelligence behind the filmmaking, such ambition, that it’s too bad that it’s not more satisfying in the end. There’s huge possibility in the material, written by Martin Donovan & David Koepp, with great amounts of clever dialogue and there’s a lot to mine in exploring the ugliness of beauty, particularly when a place like Beverly Hills comes into the picture. It’s certainly thematically consistent throughout, that’s for sure. But Zemeckis spends so much time focusing on not only the effects but the precision of every single extended take that the humor is sometimes lost in the extreme approach. There is at times extreme use of mirrors during those long shots, a concept which is attention-getting and certainly keeps a motif going but it doesn’t necessarily add to the satire or make it a more satisfying story. There are definite echoes of other Zemeckis films in its use of the passage of time as well as, more specifically, some of the ideas in the darker future portrayed in BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II, but I still wish that there was something more enriching to it. All throughout are the biggest, most opulent sets imaginable but what if it had a more naturalistic setting and paid more attention to the story but still contained the same effects?


To be perfectly fair as we’d expect from Zemeckis those effects are not only ground-breaking in how they portray “Mad” and “Hel” but they’ve also dated very well, not something you can say about every film that dotes on these things in a show-off kind of way. And some of his approach to humor, particularly during the first half, is very sharp, making it at times the rare comedy that is actually cinematic—technically, every part of the film is aces. The extended sequence where Rossellini sells the effects of the potion on Streep feels perfect in tone, performance and effects, building up with just the right pace. And even though the trip to a Beverly Hills hospital (actually, “L’Hospital Beverly Hills” as the sign tells us) feels a little scattered in how it’s put together, but it’s still hard not to appreciate how Zemeckis tosses in a split second valet parking joke in there as well as how the hospital curtains seem to intentionally resemble the famous Banana Leaf wallpaper in the Beverly Hills Hotel. That said, around this point is where things begin to go off the rails. Things become more and more frenetic as it goes on, with it finally feeling like the movie is more interested in the big climactic setpiece and chase instead of the characters who have been set up. Much of the story is also set during one of those nights that seem to go on forever which always kind of annoys me. It just feels like somewhere along the way Zemeckis drifted somewhat off-compass because he was focusing so much on the groundbreaking digital effects which would go on to win an Oscar. Some jokes scattered throughout, like the “Sweet Bird of Youth” musical aren’t as sharp as the movie seems to think they are and by the time we get to the celebrity ‘cameos’ of the climax the humor feels on the level of a sketch on an old Bob Hope special. Even the score by the usually reliable Alan Silvestri seems to consist mostly of generic licks which give the impression that he didn’t have any better ideas either. The final moments of the film make all the necessary points and conclude the story about as well as it could but when we get to the final joke it seems like it’s more interested in coming to a screeching halt than actually ending.


One additional point of interest to the film has always been the unusually large number of scenes featured in the trailer that are nowhere to be found in the finished product and with only an older full-frame DVD out there they remain unseen. An awareness of the story gives the idea that some of them were cut most likely for pacing (they might also account for that never-ending night). But the trailer also contains glimpses of things that were excised completely, particularly an entire subplot featuring Tracey Ullman as a bartender who became a sympathetic love interest for Willis and figured into the film’s ending. Her character would have led to what sounds like a gentler version of the denouement that is in the final product, both being set years in the future, one that really may have played better in a less frenetic film. Zemeckis even once said in an interview with Cinefex magazine, “The original ending was soft and didn’t keep with the tone of the picture,” a statement which indicates how much he may have veered away from the points the screenwriters had been trying to make. It could be a case of an approach to a script that is at least slightly misconceived…but considering how expertly some of it is actually put together I’m still not sure. It might be that the film winds up feeling more bitter than genuinely clever as well as the possibility of how misogynist the whole thing may be—heard from an offscreen TV as Bruce Willis is introduced in the present day section is a narrator stating, “The Beaver has always been of interest to man…it is the second largest rodent in the world,” and that may say it all in regards to what the film thinks of women. At the very least, something feels off and, ultimately, unsatisfying about the final product.


Even if the actors play things as big as the director’s approach requires, there’s no denying that each one is willing to completely throw themselves into the material. Streep is fantastic and works off Willis so well it’s interesting to think how he was actually a fairly last-minute substitute for Kevin Kline, who departed when he reportedly couldn’t come to a salary agreement with the producers. Hawn is fun in what isn’t necessarily a stereotypical ‘Goldie Hawn’ role but some of the plot structure means that she doesn’t have quite as much to work with. Isabella Rossellini, looking particularly impressive, is hypnotic to watch every time she appears and Michelle Johnson of BLAME IT ON RIO fame has one well-played scene in which her character drops her French accent without comment from anyone, one of the most nicely subtle jokes in the entire film. As good as everyone might be, the film is easily stolen by the uncredited Sydney Pollack playing the emergency room doctor examining Streep in one of his three screen roles that caught everyone’s attention back in ’92. Even if it is pretty much a ripoff of the equivalent scene in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (a film which, let’s face it, completely works as black comedy when compared to this), Pollack manages to make it work hugely well and, maybe because he’s isolated from the rest of the film, he’s able to play things more real than anyone else and he gets the most laughs as a result. I particularly like when he refers to Streep and Willis as ‘kids’ in the dialogue, a touch which sounds like it came right from him. If the whole film had been as sharp as these few minutes then maybe all the revolutionary effects wouldn’t have been so necessary.


But that’s the thing. To Robert Zemeckis, these effects are completely necessary and in his ultimate goal to push the boundaries of what’s possible to portray on the screen—which, even I’ll admit, is admirable—he loses sight of whether it’s always necessary in trying to make the best possible film. DEATH BECOMES HER has many points that either work or come very, very close to working extremely well in its portrayal of the darkness that lies under beauty. Bruce Willis’s terrific response to the possibility of immortality that begins with the ultimate question “What if I get bored?” manages to get the point across more succinctly than any episode of STAR TREK on the subject ever did. The best of Robert Zemeckis can be found in this film as well as…well, maybe not the worst but it’s all part of an approach that I’m never going to have any interest in going along with him on. His talent is still there, it’s just interested in pursuing another kind of result right now. I suppose there’s always the chance that he’ll once again develop an interest in the things that made us love his films in the first place, but I’m growing increasingly unsure of that. So it’s safe to say that whether I’m going to have any interest in seeing any more films directed by Robert Zemeckis from this point on simply remains to be seen.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Necessity Of A Few Good Deeds


Richard Fleischer’s CROSSED SWORDS, a filming of the Mark Twain classic “The Prince and the Pauper”, is totally forgotten by the world. I’m not sure if it was ever really remembered, let alone known at the time it was released—beats me why I have any recollection of its existence at all. It seems that the only notable thing about it—if this point even counts as notable—is that it seems to have been the last non-event first run film to play at Radio City Music Hall, back at the end of the days when the grand palace still ran movies on a regular basis. Looking it up, this places the film’s run there during March 1978 (nine months after it opened in the UK where it was more predictably titled, what do you know, THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER), just a few months after I actually would have seen PETE’S DRAGON in the place. I freely admit that I’ve never actually read it, but I have seen the episode of THE BRADY BUNCH where Peter runs into his exact double in the school hallway so it’s safe to say that I’m up to speed.

Produced by the legendary Salkinds—well, Alexander & Ilya Salkind along with Pierre Spengler— the team who were about to hit the world jackpot with SUPERMAN, the basic approach of the film almost gives the impression that the project could have begun as another sequel to their successful THE THREE/FOUR MUSKETEERS, but when that idea fell through they came up with a new plan. At the least, it certainly seems like an attempt to recapture that dual glory. But this time, instead of bringing on someone like director Richard Lester they hired the more workmanlike (well, at least at that point in time) Richard Fleischer, whose recent films had included SOYLENT GREEN and MR. MAJESTYK as well as the infamous MANDINGO. Scattered through the story are actors returning from the two MUSKETEERS films along with several who had also worked with Fleischer before (and, in some cases, both). It looks like the film was a commercial dud on both sides of the Atlantic and I can kind of see why. It’s tough to understand which age group it’s supposed to appeal to and its old-fashioned nature probably totally out of step with the times when it was made. Not to mention that it feels like creatively it just misses the mark, at least partly due to the ineffectual nature of the lead playing the two main roles. That said, watching it in the holiday mood, I didn’t really mind CROSSED SWORDS much at all. Coming in at just over two hours, it’s slightly overlong and a little too stodgy but its old-fashioned nature, like a 50s film that didn’t correctly update its sensibilities combined with the work of a number of artisans involved, make it kind of refreshing in this hyped up day and age. Maybe I’m just getting older and more appreciative of this sort of thing.


It's such a familiar story by now that you know the plot even if you don’t know it. Tom Canty (Mark Lester) is living a begger’s life in 15th century London with an abusive father (Ernest Borgnine who just screams “England” of course) making his life hell when one day he accidentally stumbles into the palace of King Henry VIII (Charlton Heston) where he meets the Prince of Wales (also Lester, of course) who turns out to be his exact double. Intrigued, the prince suggests they change clothes but the result of this has the actual prince thrown out into the street while Tom, unsuccessful in convincing anyone of the truth, remains in the castle. Soon the Prince meets up with Miles Hendon (Oliver Reed), a soldier-of-fortune who takes an interest in this boy’s lunatic ravings and decides to help him out. But soon fate steps in and Tom is about to be crowned the King of England with the only one who knows the truth unable to get anywhere near him.


There must be people in this world who would want to see any film in which Oliver Reed gets involved in swordfights and they will definitely want to take a look at CROSSING SWORDS, which offers plenty of looks at how the actor could truly hurl himself into those kinds of scenes. The downside of the film is that it lacks the enjoyable irreverence that marked Lester’s two MUSKETEERS films (hits in their day, now totally forgotten by the general public). Under Fleischer’s direction, CROSSED SWORDS feels a little too stodgy in comparison, less inspired. Tonally, it’s a little too unsure of itself and as far as something presumably aimed at a family audience the result winds up in the no-mans land between Disney and an old-style MGM-type approach (odd screenplay credits too—of course, Twain is mentioned, then we get “original screenplay by Berta Dominguez D. and Pierre Spengler, final screenplay by George MacDonald Fraser”). With the UK opening coming right around the time STAR WARS premiered, not to mention the eventual arrival of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK a few years later, this type of entertainment would be totally transformed away from this sort of thing. In comparison, CROSSED SWORDS really does feel like it’s from a different age, without a lot of flip anachronisms getting in the way. It isn’t able to excitement going at every moment but there is a desire to entertain and at points where the energy lags it knows enough to bring in another name actor for a guest appearance—when George C. Scott comes in for a few minutes it’s like the energy shoots up ten-fold. And there’s the amazing Oliver Reed truly giving this role his all and his increased prominence in the story as it goes on also seems to parallel how the film itself improves as it goes along. With his lovable rogue/Han Solo/Captain Jack character gaining in depth as we discover the gravity of his own personal narrative, there really is something to lock into and get involved with. The film gains a surprising amount of focus and depth late in the game, really the final quarter of the film and may be a large reason of why I feel so favorable towards it. Bringing in a few of the name stars like Raquel Welch as late as the film does, instead of cheating us by their delayed arrival, gives the feel of new elements continually being added to the story as it propels to its conclusion.


And in addition to the stars, there’s the immense amount of British talent behind the camera—it feels like a well-crafted film in the best ways of the phrase—with lots of familiar crew names from British films of this period in the credits (and Olivier Assayas is listed as one of the 3rd Assistant Directors!). The great cinematographer Jack Cardiff in particular makes it all much more visually distinguished than the somewhat flatter visuals in Lester’s films, with Scope compositions that continually made me want to pause the DVD to admire things and shots that almost resemble paintings at times—Maltin’s book even states “Jack Cardiff’s photography will suffer on TV” and having watched the DVD which correctly shows things in the 2:35:1 ratio I can believe it. There are a few effects shots here and there which were probably a big deal to accomplish in those days as well. Sometimes there’s the slight feeling of a tight budget being clamped down on by the Salkinds, at other points the film is as sumptuous as we would want it to be and that’s what comes out ahead. Maurice Jarre’s score is as majestic as you would expect as well.


Mark Lester, famous from OLIVER! which had come out a decade earlier seems rather ill-at-ease in his dual role (much younger in the book and it does feel awkward how that is presented here) and even though it does feel like he’s genuinely trying it still comes off as something that would have been more at home in a more simple, Disney-type version of the story. It probably says something that Lester switched careers after this film—he’s recently reappeared in the public eye somehow connected with Michael Jackson but I really don’t want to look up the details on any of that. Michael York would have obviously been a better choice but by this point that actor was definitely too old for it. Surrounding Lester are a variety of actors who make up for this discrepancy particularly Reed, a powerhouse in a production that is almost too genteel to hold him. He never seems to play anything for laughs and we really feel his hurt when someone has betrayed him, yet he is hugely enjoyable to watch in his numerous fight scenes throughout—when he realizes the jig is up at one point he doesn’t hesitate for a second to throw a punch and it seems like just how Reed himself would have behaved in such a situation. Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison approach their supporting roles with all the gravity and relish you would expect from them, George C. Scott chews up all the scenery in sight in his ten-minute cameo and is hugely enjoyable and Raquel Welch is well-used, looking game and not given too much dialogue to get in the way. Besides, it’s hard to hate any film in which Oliver Reed gets to play a romance with her. David Hemmings makes an effective appearance in the key role of Reed’s brother—years later the two actors also appeared in GLADIATOR, the production Reed died on. Borgnine is fun to have around even if he’s not the least bit convincing as British and we never hate him all that much anyway. Harry Andrews, one of the Krypton Elders in SUPERMAN, has a sizable role, Sybil Danning is unrecognizable as Canty’s mother and the numerous familiar British faces that pop up include PINK PANTHER veteran Graham Stark and Hammer Films mainstay Michael Ripper. In the supporting role of Princess Elizabeth, Lalla Ward actually does have genuine screen presence and it seems to say something that she is allowed the privilege of the film’s final image, helping to give the closing moments more depth than might have been expected.

That final narration is kind of like the film—part amused with itself, part earnest and it has a satisfying effect overall. Besides, who doesn’t want to see a movie where Oliver Reed fights Ernest Borgnine? And if you don’t, what kind of horrible person are you? It’s a minor footnote for everyone involved and even all Richard Fleischer’s autobiography has to say about it is a story detailing a syphilis scare that occurred on set. Considering how unknown it is, it’s pretty surprising that it even got released on DVD. It’s really not at all a bad film and was probably an appropriate choice for the role it played at Radio City. The era of films there was over and showing this, which must have seemed already out of place even then, was no doubt representative of that fact. I shouldn’t oversell it and it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to trim this thing down a little, but it hit me in the right mood. Anyone with an interest in people like Fleischer, Cardiff, Reed, a few of the others involved or just this genre in general really might want to check it out. It actually feels like a film that should be seen in a huge movie palace and these days that’s saying something.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Hope Springs Eternal


The 1995 release of Pierce Brosnan’s first James Bond film, GOLDENEYE, seemed to begin a mini-tradition of bringing films in the series out right around Thanksgiving time. Pretty appropriate, actually, considering how Bond films have become a tradition themselves and it seems perfectly appropriate for a family to eat dinner then go out to the theater to see the latest film (TOMORROW NEVER DIES came out closer to Christmas, but the point still stands). I think I did it one year myself when visiting my sister in D.C. The release of the film came after a lengthy six-year absence during which the future of 007 was put into question over complex issues that involved problems with United Artists, perceived dissatisfaction with Timothy Dalton in the role and other matters. The exciting teaser trailer which played for months introducing Brosnan asking, “You were expecting someone else?” got everyone excited and it’s safe to say that the film was almost considered a smash success even before it opened. When it finally did and everyone got to actually see Brosnan in action the whole world seemed to smile in agreement. Moving on from the hard-edged approach of the Dalton films, the goal of GOLDENEYE was clearly to make the series popular again as well as restart things for a new generation—it’s not as radical as what occurred years later with CASINO ROYALE but that wasn’t what people wanted at the time. They wanted Brosnan to finally take possession of the role and that’s really all the film had in mind. Looking at it fourteen years (!!!) after it opened reveals a film that is nice and fairly enjoyable but it still bears signs of uncertainty that came along with introducing this new incarnation of the character.


Nine years after being involved in a skirmish in the Soviet Union that ended with the death of fellow agent Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is lounging around in Monte Carlo doing nothing in particular aside from being evaluated when he meets the enticing Russian beauty Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), who he suspects is up to something. He’s right, of course, and it turns out that Onatopp is in league with a mysterious crime organization named Janus with their eye on procuring an experimental military helicopter which will allow them to steal the disc named Goldeneye, designed to control several satellite weapons. The theft ends with a massacre at a Russian satellite outpost which results in an unexpected survivor, beautiful computer programmer Natalya Siminova (Izabella Scorupco). Bond is assigned by the new ‘M’ (Judi Dench) to find Goldeneye as well as find who is behind the plot and his path takes him to St. Petersburg in search of the face behind Janus where he discovers….well, not to give anything away but if someone who’s name is on the poster gets killed during the pre-credit sequence, what do you really think is going on?


Taking another look at GOLDENEYE now reveals a film that is perfectly decent and never in any way dull but still not quite as energizing as it was on opening weekend way back then. The immediacy of the post-cold war element as well as the use of computers in the plot certainly places the film at the time it was made in and while this all might slightly date the film this isn’t really a bad thing. What’s more evident is how the film seems to be struggling with figuring out exactly what this new version of the character is going to be—how funny, how serious, how much action. As a result, it winds up having a bit of a prefab feel in an attempt to make it as accessible to everyone as possible. The character of James Bond seems to be explained to us almost as much as we actually see him do stuff. It almost feels the way a Bond film really should, but somehow just misses the mark. The screenplay by Jeffrey Caine and Bruce Ferstein (story by Michael France) leaves a number of things unaccounted for throughout—there’s really no reason to have Bond in Monte Carlo at the opening, let alone being ‘evaluated’—for doing what? How he spends a vacation? Of course, the powers that be clearly wanted to make all this as much of an introduction to this new Bond in the world we would expect to see him in but it feels like the film went through so many rewrites that some things got lost along the way. When Bond arrives in St. Petersburg in particular it feels like things have to tread water for about twenty minutes as characters who ultimately serve little purpose get introduced and much exposition is spoken (some of it off-camera as characters drive to a destination). Tcheky Karyo is introduced in a way that anticipates a significant role as a Russian bureaucrat but he’s dispensed with pretty quickly. Likewise Gottfried John, who does get a big introduction in the pre-credit sequence and buildup as “future iron man of Russia” General Ourumov but when he exits it happens so quickly that I literally missed it while blinking on this viewing. The film spends so little time on the details but lavishes so much attention on the stuff it assumes we want that it has Bond order drinks just so he can say “shaken, not stirred” but none of the characters wait around for them to arrive.


Along with bringing in some of the tried-and-true Bond tropes, the film includes some dialogue in the conflict between Bond and Trevelyan of the ‘we’re not so different, you and I’ that seemed to become very popular in these movies during the 90s. There’s also stuff like 007 stating ‘what keeps me alive’ in an attempt to actually dig deep into what makes the character tick. None of it seems very necessary and it’s not nearly as interesting as the film seems to think it is, although Judi Dench's much-praised banter with Brosnan as she deems him a 'sexist, mysoginist dinosaur. A relic of the cold war,' is immeasurably helped by how the two actors play this stuff. With any worries that this one would fail in the past, later Brosnan entries seemed to table these types of discussions which is probably for the best. After all, everyone has their own idea of who James Bond is and should be—my take on it might be different from yours, yours different from someone else’s. Sometimes having Bond (whoever is playing him) give a one-word, deadly grave response to something is all we’ll ever need to know about him and how he feels about what he has to do.


The special effects work is interesting in how the film comes right at that point as practical work (you know, like actual models) was quickly becoming digital and soon resulted in the Bond films looking a lot like every other blockbuster that gets made. Here, at least, some of it does feel a little old-school and helps give it a feeling like it all deserves to be seen in a theater with the biggest screen possible. Fittingly, it was the final film featuring the work of effects maestro Derek Meddings, to whom it’s dedicated. Some of the uncertainty extends to the use of violence as well with a lot of people getting machine-gunned (even for one of these films) but very little in the way of blood or squibs ever seen. There are a few points here and there where it feels like slight cuts were made to keep the PG-13—it doesn’t hurt things that much but it does feel like they weren’t quite sure how far to go with things. GOLDENEYE gets a number of things right but also quite a few wrong as well, a one-step forward, two-steps-back approach that became the norm for the Brosnan entries, each of which seemed to have different strengths and weaknesses unique to each entry. All this said, it’s still a James Bond film, with a variety of the elements that you want from one and it pretty much falls in the middle of the pack. Director Martin Campbell has a knack for giving us some grace notes throughout in the luxurious settings of places like Monte Carlo and the film does have a nice, wide-open feel to it but he did a much better job in all respects in 2006 when he introduced the next actor who played Bond in CASINO ROYALE. Still, this one isn’t an embarrassment. It’s fun, enjoyable, no doubt about that. But after it was over I felt like popping in one of the really good ones to get the full effect.


What is an embarrassment, and a very unfortunate one, is the score by Eric Serra. With composer John Barry presumably unwilling to return to the series they decided to go with a new approach by using Luc Besson’s regular composer and certainly what was heard in something like LA FEMME NIKITA is very striking. But it not only comes out all wrong it feels so lackluster in how it’s dropped into the picture, as of Serra either lost interest somewhere along the way or maybe even choked under the pressure with the score that is there coming off so sparse at times that it feels like the film is getting almost no support from it. Whether it’s the worst Bond score of all time is open to debate (Marvin Hamlisch’s THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and Michel Legrand’s NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN would also be in the running) but there are points where what is heard is as damaging to a film—any film—as I’ve ever heard from a film score. Every once in a while there’s a brief glimmer heard that sounds like it could be a genuinely modern take on Bond music, and in fairness there are a few of these moments, but they go away fast and the climax in particular winds up giving off a ‘meh’ response instead of any sort of excitement almost entirely due to the lameness of the score. Just imagine the final moment of the teaser with the actual Bond theme instead of the nothing that’s there and you can get an idea of what is sadly missing from this film. I’ve heard scuttlebutt over the years that the producers wanted to replace the score but with the release date looming there was just no time. As it is, they did have conductor John Altman put together a new version of the tank chase music, as well as the scenes leading up to it, featuring the classic theme and when this facsimile of the Bond sound suddenly appears this deep into the movie it’s like everything suddenly springs to life. Finally, it feels like the person behind this music is actually, thankfully excited that this is really a James Bond movie that they get to score. It’s not a perfect compromise considering how different it is from what’s heard during the rest of the film, but at least it’s something (for the record, both the opening song, even if it is written by Bono and The Edge, and Serra’s closing number are each pretty weak as well). Beginning with the next film, TOMORROW NEVER DIES, David Arnold was brought in to handle the duties and while his successful aping of the Barry sound has given way to a more propulsive, techno oriented approach over the years, his approach has certainly been more beneficial to the films.


People wanted to see Pierce Brosnan in this role, they were waiting for it. He’s good here, but not as strong as he would be a few films later. His more serious moments are best, with the lighter stuff seeming not quite right. Maybe I’m also not crazy about the idea of Bond wearing a sweater, as we see him right after the opening credits. To me, it makes James Bond seem more like someone who does all this as a lark on weekends, not someone who really lives this life, but maybe that’s just me. Sean Bean is a fairly decent villain, Alan Cumming is appropriately annoying as the secondary hacker bad guy but Famke Janssen is awesome, absolutely fantastic as Xenia Onatopp, taking what seems to be written as a gimmicky bad guy, best at crushing men with her thighs, and bringing a surprising intensity to it. She manages just by her quiet presence in some scenes to keep herself active even when the character isn’t much more than just a henchman. She dives headfirst into the role with such a ferocity that it makes us wish she were around more than she is. Yes, Janssen absolutely is ultra-hot as well, but plenty of beautiful women have been unable to do much with the parts they were given in these movies and there’s a reason why Janssen was able to have a career after this film. She knows how to work the camera and she knows how to get us to miss her when she’s offscreen. By comparison, Izabella Scorupco comes off as a bit of a wet blanket. Beautiful, yes, but always pouting and when held up against the insanity of Xenia Onatopp, not nearly as much fun. The film also introduced Judi Dench as ‘M’ but judging how they don’t figure out a way to bring her back for a final gag seems to mean that they didn’t quite realize what they had in her—we’re left hanging there, waiting for something and then suddenly the end credits quietly begin to roll. As a result, the closer doesn’t really have the kick it needed. Also introduced here and returning in later entries were Joe Don Baker as Jack Wade, Robbie Coltrane as Valentin Zurkovsky, Samantha Bond as Moneypenny and Michael Kitchen as Bill Tanner. Desmond Llewelyn is of course back in his legendary role as ‘Q’ and gets us to smile the instant he appears.


No one is ever going to entirely agree on all the Bond films they prefer and one of the things wrong with GOLDENEYE is that it tries to be all things to all fans. Certainly one thing that helped CASINO ROYALE succeed so well is how it totally committed to the serious, pulpy approach it took. GOLDENEYE isn’t in that league, but it does have exotic locations in far-off places, decent action, beautiful women, silly one-liners. It does enough of these things well-enough that it winds up enjoyably entertaining in the long run, something that I’m sure played great with all those families who saw it after their turkey dinners, even if it is a little hollow in spite of all its attempts at depth. It’s still surprising to think that it came out fourteen years ago. Bond will go on through the years, no matter who is playing the character and we’ll probably go on arguing about each of those films as well, trying to come to some sort of agreement as to who this character is and why we continue to obsess over them.

“Enjoy it while it lasts.”

“The very words I live by.”


Saturday, November 21, 2009

You Let The Moment Fly


As anyone who knows the film well might realize, the idea of a special screening of Robert Altman’s masterpiece THE LONG GOODBYE at the Hammer Museum in Westwood Village was very appropriate if only because the museum is located by the corner of Wilshire & Westwood, situated exactly where Elliott Gould’s Phillip Marlowe chases after the Mercedes driven by Nina van Pallandt’s Eileen Wade late in the film. No was I going to pass that up. The screening seems to have been held in conjunction with a recent donation from Altman’s family to UCLA including the very print were seeing that evening. I suppose there was a function held before the screening which I did not attend but did see several people who seem to have come from there. Soon after I arrived and waiting to be let in I spotted Elliott Gould, there for a post-film discussion, lurking around near the edges of the Hammer’s courtyard almost unnoticed. All I could think was, there’s Phillip Marlowe, right there. I chose not to disturb him. Incidentally, the actor just guest-starred on LAW & ORDER and it was kind of nice seeing NBC trumpet him in the promos. Once inside the Billy Wilder Theater, I soon realized that the great Vilmos Zsigmond, the legendary cinematographer on the film, was sitting right behind me. Sitting behind him was Paul Dooley, familiar from a million things, and I could hear him chatting with Zsigmond about the Robert Altman films he had appeared in—When I heard, “We were there for six months, we had Fellini’s crew,” it was easy to figure that he was talking about POPEYE. A number of other familiar people were there and I have a feeling I missed a few but Lauren Hutton was somewhere in the row in front of me and shortly before the film started I spotted Sally Kellerman walking around the packed theater looking for an open seat, a sight which seemed rather…Altmanesque. The film started soon enough (and I noticed she had indeed found a seat) and we were treated to a beautiful-looking print of a film that I’ve already seen numerous times and still can never get enough of. I might watch my DVD again before the night is through.


What exactly is it about THE LONG GOODBYE? It was somewhat notoriously hated at the time of release, trashed by fans of the detective genre with the Maltin book proclaiming that “Altman’s attitude toward the genre borders on contempt,” in terms of the film's unorthodox approach to adapting Raymond Chandler's novel. But by this point in time the film has achieved acclaim as at least a minor classic and to some people something considerably more, one that they are genuinely attached to. I know I am. The audience in the Billy Wilder Theater was clearly at least partly made up of the faithful, judging from the laughter heard right at the start as Marlowe lit his first cigarette of the movie, of course the first of many. The feeling was that everyone was settling in, ready to follow this version of the character through his travails one more time as he navigates this early 70s version of Los Angeles. Over 35 years after it was made, it seems as mysterious to the stranded-from-the-40s Phillip Marlowe as 2009 Los Angeles can seem to anyone who finds themselves there and wonders how they’re supposed to be acting from day to day. The film seems designed for anyone who has found themselves at a party like the (admittedly pretty groovy looking) beachfront barbecue that the Wades are throwing for their presumed friends who have turned up from I don’t know where. Marlowe has nothing to say to any of them, they take no interest in him and the only one who does show any interest is the dog who never stops barking in his direction—he must know something about the cat.


I’ve seen the film enough times by now that I don’t need to spend too much time thinking about the plot so instead I pay attention to various moments that make that much more of an impression when seen on the big screen. Marlowe’s reaction to the dried apricot Eileen Wade tosses him, Henry Gibson’s Dr. Verringer laying the slap on Sterling Hayden at the third “Write the CHECK, Roger,” Jack Riley’s careful rehearsing on the piano in the bar and that almost unspeakably horrific look on Nina van Pallandt’s face just before Sterling Hayden shouts “BALLS!” at her. Not to mention the continued rewards at studying Elliott Gould’s face throughout, wondering how much he’s actually revealing to someone he’s talking to, wondering how much things really are ok with him as he always says. As well as every conceivable version of the main theme famously heard at every possible point during the film (favorite unheralded version: the one heard on sitar wafting over from the girls next door outside of Marlowe’s pad, but the rendering performed by the marching band down in Mexico is strangely haunting), that one song that sticks in your head in this town, just like that girl that you never seem to forget even years after the first time you spend a few minutes desperately trying to just talk to her. Although one or two things still bug me a little even now: when we jump from the late night crime scene at the beach to Marlowe being dragged into Marty Augustine’s office, how much time has passed? An hour? A day? A week? It doesn’t matter, I suppose.


I read the Chandler book maybe over ten years ago so memories are vague but the basic plot of the novel is in the film and structure wise the changes made aren’t necessarily any greater from how most 379 page books are ever adapted down to a two hour running time. It makes me think that screenwriter Leigh Brackett, the legend who had worked with Howard Hawks on THE BIG SLEEP and RIO BRAVO, deserves more credit than she has ever received for her work here and even if the actors tossed out the script (or used it as a loose outline in a way that maybe something like CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM is now put together) it feels like Altman always had it in mind—if he was going to verge from it, he at least knew what he was verging from. It could be one reason why this film is so much stronger than certain other Altman films which don’t already have such a strong spine in place (I guess something like PRET-A-PORTER comes to mind). And it’s all in the service of not the two mysteries that Phillip Marlowe stumbles into which become one but the greater meaning of what it all means in the end. Friends betray you (“That’s what friends are for,” as someone says near the very end), women toss you aside as they drive off with “LOV YOU” on their license plate and you’re left with that memory with them still lingering in the air as you wonder what happened—the long goodbye.


And I find myself looking forward to the performances of everyone in front of the camera caught by the eye of Altman and Zsigmond, whether Sterling Hayden and Nina van Pallandt in their scenes with Gould or David Arkin muttering “I remember when people just had jobs,” Mark Rydell’s ferocious pragmatism as Marty Augustine, Ken Samson’s guard at the gate of the Malibu Colony (“I just don’t understand why I don’t understand,”) or Jo Ann Brody’s ultra-innocent Sharon Tate-ness as Augustine’s girl who has no idea what she’s in for as she asks for a Coke. Naturally, there was audience laughter at the Billy Wilder Theater as Arnold Schwarzenegger made his silent appearance as one of the goons (Altman’s proud declaration on the DVD that “Arnold never speaks of this film” was proven untrue when our Governor did just that in the official statement released at the time of the director’s death). And instead of going on for pages about the work of the lead actor here, in his first film after returning from working for Bergman, I’ll simply say that almost more so than any other screen work by an actor that I’ve ever seen, Elliott Gould gives the performance of a free man and the only example that ever needs to be offered of how good he was. I wish I could somehow be this free.


The post-film discussion with the star and Mitchell Zukoff, author of the recent “Robert Altman – An Oral Biography” (recommended) got into how Gould got involved with the film and also touched on his starring roles MASH and CALIFORNIA SPLIT (the only other times Altman and Gould worked together, not counting a few cameos). Gould talked about specifics of the production a little bit, including how he almost drowned while shooting the late night scene out in the Malibu surf and then after that they did two more takes. The talk perhaps revealed how for Gould it seems to sometimes be difficult to put the improvisatory nature of the specifics of working with Altman into words but enough of the feeling got across and more importantly he was able to express what Altman who he referred to as a “force of nature” and how he was able to provide all the creative people he worked with “life”. As a sort of summation late in the evening when trying to express how they worked together Gould simply stated, “Bob deserves all the credit.” Not much else needed to be said after that.


This is all rambling, I know, maybe kind of like the film. Maybe there’s no way to fully put into words what the work of Robert Altman and Elliott Gould here means to me and all I can do is look forward to someday getting the chance to express that by showing it to someone who’s never seen it. And I hope she likes it too. After a lousy day earlier this week all I could really do at the end was let that Williams/Mercer theme song into my head and say to myself, “It’s ok with me,” as I walked off from the day alone, imagining myself in my own homage to the end of THE THIRD MAN. No one was around to hear me when I said that, but that doesn’t really matter. When it comes right down to it, I think I love this film so much that I don’t even want to tell you. And, let it always be said, Hooray For Hollywood.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Power Of A Demonstration


Released in November 1983, William Friedkin’s DEAL OF THE CENTURY doesn’t seem to have the support of even the most die-hard fans of the director out there. I think THE GUARDIAN actually has more admirers and I’d be happy to say something nice about THE HUNTED (sadly, I have never seen THE BRINK’S JOB, which seems to be unreleased on DVD in the U.S.). But as for this Chevy Chase vehicle, it’s possible that Friedkin-philes don’t remember that DEAL even exists…or at least that Friedkin directed it. It’s tough to figure out even why he did. At this point it was a long three years after CRUSING, so maybe he was hurting for offers, maybe he needed the cash, maybe he was just looking for something to do. For the most part, it doesn’t even really seem like one of his movies. Shot in a way that could have come from some other director, it looks like any number of brightly lit comedies of the time and while it goes for the feel of dark satire, none of that really holds. Those who were around then might remember that it was sold just as a crazy Chevy Chase comedy and coming just a few months after the release of NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION, the film actually could fall in the category of comedians who were trying new things around this period, darker satires to fall in with the unease of Reagan’s recession-era first term coming out of the end of the 70s—things like John Avildsen’s NEIGHBORS and Michael Ritchie’s THE SURVIVORS certainly come to mind. There’s Richard Brooks’s own unsuccessful arms race satire WRONG IS RIGHT as well.


Chevy Chase has plenty of bad movies to his credit but whatever the quality this seems like one of the few times he tried something genuinely different--more so than UNDER THE RAINBOW and MODERN PROBLEMS, anyway. Since it’s long since forgotten it doesn’t seem to have affected his subsequent career trajectory much at all. It’s a curious film, but not very good on any level. Maybe worst of all for Friedkin, it’s simply not out there enough—it’s just too average in its mediocrity. And if there’s no level of insanity to be found in a Friedkin film, however misplaced it might turn out to be, the result comes off like there was no reason for him to show up on the set. Of course, this brings up the issue of the pure oddness of William Friedkin directing any sort of comedy, dark or light. Does he actually have any sort of sense of humor? It really just feels like an unfortunate clashing of different individuals and when it was all put together there was nothing for the studio to do but release it since there wasn’t going to be any fixing the thing.


Not to try to spend to much time on the plot, since it isn’t very much of one, DEAL focuses on Eddie Muntz (Chevy Chase) arms dealer who travels the globe and while working over Christmas down in some Central American hellhole an ambush results in him losing all his money and being shot in the foot but his luck turns around when an encounter with Harold DeVoto (Wallace Shawn) also down there working on a deal causes him to luck into an opportunity of selling a new pilotless weapon from Luckup Industries called the Peacemaker. The circumstances causes Luckup head Frank Stryker (Vince Edwards), desperate to unload the faulty device, to want to make use of Muntz’s talents and expertise but DeVoto’s beautiful wife Catherine (Sigourney Weaver) takes an interest in the deal as well and there’s still the issue of Muntz’s partner Ray Kasternak (Gregory Hines) undergoing his own breakdown/religious conversion to deal with.


As Vincent Canby said in his New York Times review, DEAL OF THE CENTURY “fails as a satire, partly because it seems to think that all it has to do to win an audience is to announce its good intentions, and partly because it's terrible.” That about says it all. There’s no consistent tone and, frankly, there’s no consistent anything through the running time and frankly it’s tough to know exactly what the point of DEAL OF THE CENTURY is. The darkly funny idea of weapons being offered in such a manner is hammered in pretty early on with Chase spending scenes selling weaponry like used cars which really is the one joke the film seems to have. Even when it’s told in a more elaborate way during demonstrations of the Peacekeeper it feels like we’re hearing the same punchline again and again. The pacing at least feels like Friedkin’s style in the editing (Bud S. Smith, who also cut SORCERER and CRUSING, is credited), as if stripping away the story down to its essentials, whatever that story is, but it doesn’t seem like the correct way to structure a comedy. Narration by Chase begins at his first appearance around eight minutes in, after several scenes have already occurred and it just makes things feel lopsided—why aren’t things starting there if he’s the one telling this story? It’s tough to tell from watching it if the narration was always part of the picture—maybe not and I couldn’t help but notice when the end credits rolled that Bud Yorkin was listed as producer and certainly the previous year he had been a producer on BLADE RUNNER, which itself had famous problems with a voiceover.


Ultimately, there’s not very much good I can say about it—it’s not funny or subversive in any way that sustains interest, the characters aren’t likable (or even appealingly unlikable) and there’s no real story to latch onto. If the script by Paul Brickman (RISKY BUSINESS) had one, I can’t get a hold on it and all I feel left with is the unusual site of a lead character who spends most of the film with his leg in a cast. There is an idea there in how both Muntz and Kasternak discover in their own ways how to save their soul but the film doesn’t seem to be aware of it. Even the sections that work relatively well don’t have much of an effect--cutting from a ceremonial plane launch to the guys in the control booth taking the place apart as they try to fix a problem (caused by washing the plane the night before) has some twisted appeal and it’s not a bad sequence even if the effects aren’t that great—I like the appearance by the star of the hit sitcom “One’s a Crowd”—but it’s too isolated from the rest of the movie, so no momentum ever comes from it. Every now and then there’s a glimmer of imtelligence but it never has very much effect--any darkly comic film that chooses to roll the credits with the Chipmunks playing has to make it clear what it’s about. Maybe Friedkin just thought that it would signify something, even if no one would ever be sure what.


Since we’re a number of years past Chevy Chase being a bankable movie star it seems safe to say that his biggest hits were mostly in Chevy Chase-type roles with people he was comfortable working with. Here, he feels too much out of his comfort zone, maybe an indication that he was never going to be able to move into character roles in a Murray or Aykroyd kind of way. Throughout the film Chase seems miscast, vaguely uncomfortable and he doesn’t even look very good, with a pasty, pale face and bad haircut, all things that seems to have more to do with him than the character he’s playing. Sigourney Weaver, by contrast, does look pretty great (and, for the record, at times she looks amazing and Chase looks terrible in the same shot—Richard Kline was cinematographer—so it’s fitting that they have little chemistry) but she doesn’t seem to have received much direction with a character who never really registers—they go from her pulling a gun on Chase to them being a couple in short order but we never can tell why, beyond that they’re the two leads. The film doesn’t seem to have a very high opinion of her character either based on one sequence in particular and it feels like some punches were pulled in editing to soften some of this. She does have one great moment out on the dance floor at the Arms For Peace trade show that allows her to finally cut loose and for a few seconds it almost feels as if everything is about to come alive. Gregory Hines seems to have a handle on his character somewhat better, making me believe his interest in planes and coming off as likeably cracked, battling with his own demons culminating in a scene involving a minor fender bender and a flamethrower. It’s a scene that partly because of how he plays it goes to a dark place the rest of the film seems unable to but sadly doesn’t resonate because nothing around it does. Vince Edwards is nicely oily, but Wallace Shawn is pretty damn near brilliant in his one scene, nailing the tone of the hoped-for dark satire better than anyone. Robert Cornthwaite from the original THE THING has a great moment as a General giving a speech explaining how the United States can survive a first strike from the Soviets “and retaliate, inflicting more damage on them than they inflict on us,” adding V.P. Bush has said that “far more than five percent of our population will survive.” It looks to me like that Tracey Walter is in there playing a computer technician as well even though he’s not listed in the credits. We even get a few shots of Reagan seen on TV sets (hey, just like SPIES LIKE US!) including one point which seems particularly pertinent that looks like it comes from at least several years earlier.


There seems to be considerable research involved with the weaponry which seems a little like the Friedkin approach. He probably did a lot of work on that but there has to be something more to the joke of the sickness of all this and we never get it. It just becomes a bunch of scenes of either people shouting at each other or, in the case of Chase & Weaver, simply leering at each other. Just about the funniest thing about the film is that three years after its release, when the Iran-Contra scandal was beginning to heat up, CBS scrapped a planned airing of the film due to “its relation to recent news events.” I kind of doubt anyone would have cared. DEAL OF THE CENTURY seems to acknowledge the seriousness of its subject but it has no idea how to navigate the perversity of all that for comedy. If there are any Friedkin fans who want to defend the thing, by all means go for it. But if anyone does, frankly, I’d be surprised.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Broken Nose Ain't Gonna Kill You


I’ve been feeling a little listless lately, wondering about a lot of things that I won’t go into here. With this in mind I happened to pop Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film SOMETHING WILD into the DVD player for my first full viewing in quite some time. It’s interesting how the opening title sequence consists of views of Manhattan—funkier, more low-level shots of the island than you’d get in most films (with the World Trade Center seen a few times) but it’s still surprising how little of the film actually takes place there since in memory it almost seems like one of the key New York films of the period. Maybe that’s my memory of seeing it and how it affected me at the time. One of the few lower Manhattan locations it actually uses, the small restaurant at the beginning, is located at an intersection that I can remember being right around where the old Film Forum, quickly visible in one shot, used to be. This really has nothing to do with SOMETHING WILD itself except that maybe everything about the film is a reminder of a time where there was a greater energy in the air, more of a sense of possibility. The thrill, the pop of walking down the streets of lower Manhattan in 1986, the notion that everything in the world could be right in front of you. The possibility that maybe you really would meet a girl all in black named Lulu with a Louise Brooks haircut. The idea of winding up with her in a cheap motel in Jersey just a little while later wasn’t really considered by me, but still. Looking back on it now, I’m sure that I didn’t know how good we had it in Manhattan way back then. It’s an energy that Jonathan Demme brought to his films at his best and it’s displayed here in a way as good as it ever was. It’s maybe something that was a recognizable element of films that came from Orion, one of the few byproducts of the dreaded 80s that really is missed, and its freewheeling nature could almost be as purely representative of any film which ever came from that studio. Let me put it this way: returning to it after a number of years, I found myself loving SOMETHING WILD and being extremely moved by its portrayal of possibilities, the idea of breaking off from your set routine. Maybe watching it again made me want to somehow will that feeling into existing once again.


When strait-laced financial advisor Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) suddenly skips out on his lunch check while leaving a funky café in lower Manhattan, he’s caught by free spirit Lulu (Melanie Griffith) who instantly pegs this boring looking guy as “a closet rebel” and whisks him away in her car, not back to work like she offers, but towards the Lincoln Tunnel and off to adventure. Things proceed in a manner that is unexpected but not disliked by Charlie, including a romp in a Jersey motel but then as they drive further away from the city towards Pennsylvania, secrets about each of them are gradually revealed not least of which is Lulu’s real identity as Audrey Hankel but also the sudden appearance of ex-husband Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta) who moves things in a direction Charlie never imagined.


With a screenplay by E. Max Frye which is continually surprising in all the right ways, the shock of SOMETHING WILD’S tone shift at the midway point could never be felt now the way it was back in ‘86, but it does certainly place it as coming after the previous year’s INTO THE NIGHT and AFTER HOURS, two other films about Reagan-era yuppies suddenly thrown into an expected darkly comic nightmare. Less surreal than AFTER HOURS, this film seems to be more merciless about the tone shift and completely acknowledging the danger at hand. This dark side was certainly comparable to David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET which had only opened six weeks before and the two could easily make an ideal double bill of the dark side hiding under Reagan’s America circa 1986. The freewheeling nature of the first half also feels more like a product of the seventies and it could easily be read as detailing how one era lead into the other—what was once innocent and not-so-innocent fun (even if it does include larceny and drunk driving) leads into something not too dissimilar (the hellish motel Ray is staying in compared with all others seen through the film), but still very nasty. But these things may only really matter on an academic level as time goes on. More important could be how the film fits in with Jonathan Demme’s continued growth as a director, fully taking control of his directorial style with a presentation of Americana, the sights and sounds that can be found on every corner, music which doesn’t represent the characters so much as this amazing world around them. Not to mention the bit players throughout that pop, many of whom certainly aren’t professional actors but they each bring such a level of humanity to their individual moments that the cumulative effect becomes rather beautiful. Almost no one is a joke in the film including Dana Preu as Audrey’s mother Peaches and familiar face Jack Gilpin as Charlie’s co-worker who takes what could be a stereotypical dweeb and makes him somehow decent (I also like how he quietly makes an appearance in the film long before actually being introduced).


And Jonathan Demme clearly loves his two leads, he loves them for all their immense quirks and foibles and it’s a credit to the script as well how it reveals their layers and what they’re willing to do, how far they’re willing to break away from what’s expected (like Charlie’s gradually changing relationship with his credit cards) more as it goes on. Demme’s perfectly happy to stop the whole film midway through for a few minutes just to let them dance and enjoy themselves as The Feelies perform Bowie’s “Fame” in a kind of peak moment, just before things suddenly change right in the middle of a shot. But more than that the film still has a relevance to me, to what the idea of being an individual can mean in the world at large. You can say you’re a rebel but what really matters is what happens when somebody calls you on it and in that you can discover how much of that rebel, that individual, you truly have in you. Ray is in many ways the opposite number of Charlie, his submerged dark half come to life in a way he never imagined (“You’re like me,” said Frank Booth to Jeffrey Beaumont in that other Fall ’86 film), just as Audrey seems to be an opposite of Lulu. She’s someone who when the truth about Charlie (to use the name of a later, lesser Demme work) comes out it reveals itself to be as much of a lie as her Lulu persona and she doesn’t like it. Of course, that doesn’t put her into the clear and even up to the end the impression given is that you never really fully get her…but as I’ve learned over the years with certain women that’s par for the course anyway. Keeping all this in mind with how we ultimately feel about Audrey/Lulu in the end, I freely admit that I’m still not entirely sure how to feel about the implications of the final shot (not counting the part involving Sister Carol, of course). Do we want Lulu back? After everything that’s happened, can we even get Lulu back?


I’ve been light on discussing the plot here, but if you’ve never seen the film it deserves to be experienced as fresh as possible. Coming in the year when TOP GUN was the biggest box-office hit, SOMETHING WILD remains a work about individuals, an act of defiance in the middle of a decade where things were beginning to get away from that concept a little too fast. It doesn’t seem to have all the answers and it does fall short of perfection—the director’s staging of the climax isn’t as expert as he might have pulled it off a few years later and that final beat involving the lead characters comes close to being a letdown, but by this point the film has done so many things right that these feel like minor points. Watching it again not only made me happy, it made me feel a little hope, a desire to wish for the possibilities that don’t always seem to be out there. I’m not sure if it’s the best film Jonathan Demme has ever made (of course, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS looms large) but it may very well be the most purely Demme of all of them, the one that is most in love with not only the idea of getting this film made, but the hope and pleasure of what could still be out there to discover.


Under Demme’s direction, the two leads do what remains some of their best work. Daniels gets you to believe that his guy in a suit really would drop everything in his life to take off for the weekend and Griffith fully sells both sides of her character—at least, the two sides that we actually get to see. Liotta is dynamite, taking control of everything around him the minute he interrupts the movie right in the middle of an extended shot of the leads dancing at the reunion. He comes off not only as genuinely dangerous, he manages to make his cackling question, “You don’t want me to tell Charlie how you spend your free periods, do you?” sound shockingly filthy. Margaret Colin is provocative and looks great in her dress as Ray’s date at the reunion, musician Su Tissue in her only acting appearance as Gilpin’s wife Peggy makes me wonder what exactly her high school memories of Ray Sinclair are and the always interesting Anna Levine from DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN and UNFORGIVEN is The Girl In 3F. Demme regulars such as Robert Ridgely, Charles Napier and Tracey Walter are in there as well as John Waters and John Sayles. ‘Sister’ Carol East makes an appearance near the end that once you’ve seen you’ll remember for the rest of your days with a smile.


The world may not still be as enjoyable funky as it is presented here but very little that’s seen actually dates it (well, maybe those Baby on Board tags). I still love much of the music throughout and even the wardrobe choices throughout haven’t dated all that much, with the exception of something Daniels is seen wearing near the end—and hey, I know that if I saw a girl looking like Lulu on the street, she’d definitely catch my eye. It might be a product of its decade, but SOMETHING WILD has held up beautifully and in a strange sort of way I found revisiting it rather moving. More than anything this was because of the cumulative effect it gave off in displaying how those possibilities might still be out there, how in realizing that ‘it’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion’ you really do need to keep moving, to maintain the willingness to be at least a little wild.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Man Has To Have Some Vices


The Cannon Films logo isn’t anywhere on DEATH WISH II but the names of Golan and Globus as producers are prominently featured, which is almost the same thing. The logo probably wasn't in use yet by them but if it were there it would make perfect sense. Coming in 1982, the film pretty much marked the beginning of the run through that decade of Charles Bronson churning out what seemed like countless vehicles for the company. DEATH WISH II has him returning to his famous role of Paul Kersey but around this time all the characters began to be the same anyway, one time after the other of Bronson gunning down as much scum as he could find. Directed by Michael Winner, who also called the shots on the first film, DEATH WISH II does have a slightly similar feel but not as much immediacy, no real point of any kind beyond the gunplay. The first was iconic, this is just kind of a Charles Bronson vehicle. And not one of the better ones. Of course, once we hit 1980 it’s safe to say that no Charles Bronson vehicle can seriously be considered one of “the better ones”. And I say that as someone who sheds a small tear every time he sees a film that opens with the Cannon logo.


Several years after the events of DEATH WISH (either two, four or five depending on conflicting dialogue that we hear), Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is now living in Los Angeles, still working as an architect, taking care of his still semi-catatonic daughter (now played by Robin Sherwood) and dating beautiful news radio reporter Geri Nichols (Jill Ireland—who else is going to play his love interest?). Kersey is now living a life of peace, without any of the violence he experienced in the first DEATH WISH…but then we hit the five minute mark of the sequel and it all goes to hell. Kersey runs afoul of a multi-ethnic group of muggers (including one “Laurence Fishburne III” as well as Kevyn Major Howard, later in FULL METAL JACKET) and when he tries to fight back after they get his wallet they use his drivers license to fight back…invading his home in a genuinely shocking, extremely unpleasant sequence of events that results in both his housekeeper and poor daughter, who still can barely speak, both raped and ultimately killed. Kersey insists to the police that he never got a good look at the gang to make any identification but we know the truth and soon enough Kersey is pulling a gun out of hiding and preparing to track down the toughs on the mean skid row streets by himself and once the Los Angeles police is investigating the vigilante shootings they’re bringing in New York Police Detective Frank Ochoa (the returning Vincent Gardenia) as a consultant and it doesn’t take him long to figure out what’s going on.


The original DEATH WISH was set on the mean streets of New York and even if it was a piece of big ol’ hackwork there was a certain primal power to it that anyone could identify with. Certainly the image of what that city became by then was a part of it as well along with just the simple idea of the terrors of going for a walk in Central Park late at night. DEATH WISH II moves things to Los Angeles and it’s not like this city has ever been crime free but it’s just not the same thing and considering how it’s portrayed it doesn’t seem to matter where they set it anyway—it feels like they only shot the movie here because no one felt like going anywhere else. Unlike the first film in which the hoodlums were never seen again after the initial attack, this film features Kersey, who knows their faces, on the hunt for them (gee, kind of like THE BRAVE ONE) but there’s no real plotting to any of it. He just goes out into the streets (completely different parts of the city at times) and stumbles into them (not to mention helping out an innocent married couple being brutalized themselves). The first film had the gritty 70s New York atmosphere but this one just feels like a cop show of the time that got way out of hand with lots of violence and sleaze—even the actors are mostly blah L.A. types as opposed to the interesting 70s New York personalities in the first film. Unlike just seeing the characters walk out into the potentially deadly streets, it’s just not going to be the same thing seeing Paul Kersey get in his car and drive around looking for muggers. Or taking the bus or heading out of the way down to skid row for that matter, changing into different clothes (so he won’t stand out like a sore thumb in his jacket and tie) like he’s some very low-rent version of Batman or something. The location work isn’t all that special (the geography’s pretty bad as well) though we do see various points downtown and on Hollywood Boulevard, although none of it’s shot in a particularly interesting way. Worse, they don’t show enough movie theater marquees, always a bonus in these things, although we do get to see that EXCALIBUR is playing at the Chinese.


The film has the same slammed-together feel that the first film has but considerably sloppier as if Michael Winner held a contest to see which aspiring editor could bring a two-hour cut down to under 90 minutes. As a result we have plenty of scenes of people making a big deal about heading out to a nice dinner, as if it mattered, then we never get to see that scene. Other extraneous bits of dialogue occur throughout where actors say things as if they mattered (a radio station manager taking a minute of screen time to complain about ratings, for example) but they never do. Some of Kersey’s architectural work is dwelled on as if it contained some thematic significance (there was some dialogue along these lines in the first film as well) but I’m at a loss to guess what that could be. There’s very little reason to expect elegant plotting or substance from DEATH WISH II but it’s as if the film is daring people to point out how sloppy all this is, even featuring out of place comic bits like Gardenia arguing with a cab driver. It’s so fast moving that it’s never in any way boring but there’s nothing particularly exciting about any of it. As much as they’re built up, the bad guys who Kersey picks off throughout are so cartoonish (has Fishburne ever commented on his role?) that there’s no real satisfaction to let us identify with any of it so it’s all just a big whatever of a movie.


Unlike the first film and of course the source novel by Brian Garfield (who actually wrote his own sequel entitled DEATH SENTENCE which was finally filmed a few years ago) the script by David Engelbach makes no attempt to broach the seriousness of the subject in even a half-ass way. At least the first film raised these issues even if it discard them quickly—it’s like that one was set in a bad-movie version of the real world, but this can’t even try for that amount of credibility. It’s just Charles Bronson picking up his gun and heading out for the kill, with no further though given to what he’s doing other than what affects the lame plot.


There’s not much to say about the actors. Bronson is more Bronson rather than any attempt to recreate the character of Paul Kersey and not much dialogue ever emerges from his lips. Jill Ireland seems sweet as she always did even if she was never actually very good (her character is never placed in any sort of jeopardy which makes me wonder if it was a demand by Bronson to keep her from being in such unpleasant scenes). Vincent Gardenia’s character gets a cold as soon as he arrives in L.A. which at least feels like an attempt at some kind of business to play but he never possesses the same amount of credibility he had last time around. Really, none of the actors feel like they’re overexerting themselves. Anthony Franciosa gets great billing for some reason in a tiny role as the Police Commissioner who never has any bearing on the plot. Henny Youngman is seen on a TV for a few seconds and gets screen credit for it. The music is by Jimmy Page. Jimmy Page? Really? It’s at least energetic, probably the only element of the film that really is.


At least it ended soon enough and, like I said, I was never bored. It was certainly over fast enough. I had little reason to actually sit down and watch this thing and it only made matters worse to have the MGM DVD that arrived from Netflix turn out to be full frame. I highly doubt much was lost in the framing but really, doesn’t anyone have any pride when it comes to these things? The packaging even includes a 2 in the title instead of a II. Of course, all this is appropriate considering the job Michael Winner did with the movie anyway. It’s unpleasant and sloppily made but really, should it be any other way? Hey, I own a Cannon films t-shirt so that should say something about where I’m coming from. There was no joy to be found in finally sitting through DEATH WISH II both because of the nastiness onscreen and because of how lousy it was. But it had to be done. That’s all there was to it.