Wednesday, January 27, 2010

More Than Most People Would Do

Since the triumph of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL in 1997 it’s safe to say that director Curtis Hanson has focused on films that could be considered more character-oriented than anything else. I don’t have any real complaints on this point, particularly considering how much I love WONDER BOYS. Hell, I think that IN HER SHOES might be one of the most underrated films of the Aughts. But I can’t help but wonder what sort of films we would have gotten if Hanson had chosen to focus on the sort of thrillers that came from him during the early years of his career. Some of these films work so well that I can’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t have had any strong objection if someone told him that he could only make that sort of film for the rest of his career, be it Hitchcock-type thrillers or some kind of down and dirty noir tribute. The little-known THE SILENT PARTNER from 1978 which he wrote the screenplay for is excellent and in the early 80s he even wrote WHITE DOG for Sam Fuller which certainly must have been some kind of dream come true. Around this time he also directed Tom Cruise in the teen-sex comedy LOSIN’ IT which seems like some kind of bizarre joke now (they should do another movie together) but I think everyone in the world saw that one on cable at some point during that decade.

By comparison, almost forgotten now is Hanson’s 1987 thriller THE BEDROOM WINDOW, released by the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group. Very obviously an attempt at making something worthy of being called Hitchcockian, that the film isn’t better known is unfortunate and undeserving but may have something to do with how it stars Steve Guttenberg whose prominence in the 80s maybe also seems like a bizarre joke. The actor appeared in five movies in 1987, including THE BEDROOM WINDOW, one more than Michael Caine. He was everywhere. Even stranger is how the film also stars French actress Isabelle Huppert in one of her only English language appearances during this period aside from HEAVEN’S GATE—year later she had a major role in David O. Russell’s I HEART HUCKABEES. Hanson, a well-known cinephile, was no doubt aware of Cimino’s epic so I wonder if he was an admirer or if he just wanted to work with Huppert. Maybe he was forced to take Guttenberg, a box-office name then if anything, by De Laurentiis and wanted to make sure some class got injected into this. I’m just guessing here. Either way, Huppert’s casting is one of a number of elements that makes THE BEDROOM WINDOW more intriguing than it might have been in other hands not as interested in the genre they were paying tribute to. The final product has its problems, but it certainly displays the considerable talents of the writer/director in development and deserves better than whatever limbo that it’s been tossed into.

Late one night after an office party Terry Lambert (Steve Guttenberg) has a rendezvous with his bosses’ wife Sylvia Wentworth (Isabelle Huppert) at his apartment. With Terry in the other room for a moment after they make love, Sylvia witnesses an assault on a woman in the park below outside his bedroom window and gets a good look at the man (Brad Greenquist). He gets away with the woman unharmed but word of a woman killed later that night hits the papers Sylvia wants to do the right thing and come forward but hesitates for fear of her husband learning where she was. Not wanting to be found out either, Terry reports the attack to the police himself, saying he was the one who got a look at the man even though he never saw a thing. When circumstances cause his story to break down and Denise (Elizabeth McGovern), the woman who was attacked, begins to suspect the truth Terry finds himself a suspect in the murder and soon realizes it’s up to him to catch the killer himself.

“You’re either a romantic fool or you’re an idiot,” McGovern tells Guttenberg at one point, trying to figure out his motivation, and that’s one of the problems in THE BEDROOM WINDOW. For a long stretch of screentime during the first hour it’s tough to figure out exactly why the lead character is acting with such little common sense unless he just knows that he’s in a thriller and needs to behave this way. After all, if he were at all smart would he really decide to lie to the police? Didn’t he have any idea he might be called in to look at a lineup, let alone have to go and testify in a trial? Maybe the character is suddenly feeling more alive by such an affair with this beautiful woman who inspires him to begin drinking white wine (Huppert is three years older but seems decades more worldly—she couldn’t find someone more interesting to have an affair with?) but Guttenberg isn’t enough of a presence to make that register. Fortunately the exceedingly clever plot machinations of THE BEDROOM WINDOW (screenplay by Hanson, based on the novel “The Witnesses” by Anne Holden) begin to kick into gear soon enough displaying a great amount of awareness of why this sort of film works and what can be done to correctly keep all the balls of the plot in the air. It certainly has a few problems—a few sections could be tighter, the lead characters are thinly drawn (what does Guttenberg’s character do? Maybe he's some kind of architect but it doesn't matter), the character of Huppert’s husband played by Paul Shenar isn’t enough of a presence, a preponderance of offscreen dialogue looped in feels placed to clarify things, it feels like Hanson’s direction isn’t as adventurous as it might have been several years later—but the cleverness and unpredictability is good enough to overcome any issues that are due to its leading man. It’s a considerable stretch but you could almost say that by a certain point the miscasting almost becomes a part of the very subtext of the film. The character is a fraud, which makes it difficult to sympathize with him, but in some ways Guttenberg isn’t up to this either and it gives an interesting extra layer to numerous scenes. All throughout the lead is opposite fellow actors, even some who are only onscreen for a few minutes, which manage to make more inventive use of their minor roles than he ever does and you could almost believe that’s exactly what they’re thinking as they’re in frame with him. The considerably more experienced Huppert even gives him a kiss-off line late in the film (I’d quote it but it’s a spoiler) that the actress seems to infuse with the awareness that she can’t believe she’s lowered herself to sharing the screen with this guy and just wants to get back to Europe to work with Godard or Chabrol again as soon as possible.

Putting aside the impatience that arises during some of the actions of the lead during the first half (not helped by the actor, but not his fault either) THE BEDROOM WINDOW is extremely well-assembled and even manages to use what has already been developed in the plot to totally pull the rug out from under us at the midway point (no spoilers, I promise), a surprise tactic that works expertly. Maybe this turn gives everything a jolt of adrenaline but as constructed much of the second half works considerably better, leading to a climax that hits all the right notes in how it’s assembled—if one test of a good director is in the clarity of how he stages a suspense scene in an enclosed space Hanson passes with flying colors (there’s also some liberal use of male and female nudity including, yes, from Huppert which gives the whole thing a considerably more adult feel). Keeping in mind the old Howard Hawks line about a good movie having three good scenes and no bad ones, THE BEDROOM WINDOW certainly fulfills that rule, with moments big and small throughout that work extremely well—when Guttenberg is found with a dead body and blood on him it plays like some sort of NORTH BY NORTHWEST/MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH mashup but Hanson stages it so while we’re very aware of the homage he never lets it get in the way of the scene, clearly knowing how to make these elements work in the best way possible. And maybe he wasn’t just thinking about Hitchcock—interestingly, the way Guttenberg realizes a key piece of information late in the film gives the impression that Hanson has studied his Dario Argento as well (though, it should be said, he holds back on the violence). The film was released by DEG back in the dead of January during 1987 (I didn’t see it then), a dump that wasn’t deserved but maybe appropriate for the sort of film that one should discover during the cold winter months. You don’t expect anything from it and what you get turns out to be an extremely rewarding surprise.

You could make the argument that Guttenberg’s lightweight nature works in his favor in this wrong man scenario. At least, you could try. The thing is, the actor just isn’t skilled enough to make that approach work. He can’t do much beyond playing happy-go-lucky and in a scene where he’s looking for someone and demands, “Damn it, where have they gone!” he doesn’t seem capable of even giving that line any real conviction. Even the bit player in that scene gives off more of a presence. In fairness to Guttenberg, he does seems fully committed to making the film work and maybe the fact that he really does seem to be trying actually is helpful to the snowballing momentum. Elizabeth McGovern, a pretty dependable face in films around this time, brings spunk and intelligence to her underwritten role which gains in prominence as the film continues. While the gorgeous Huppert seems to have some problems working in English the glamour and intelligence she brings to the role, as well as how she gives an extra level of depth to everything around her, is undeniable. Brad Greenquist, resembling a cross between Dennis Christopher and David Caruso, is very well-utilized in his mostly silent role of the killer. Other actors who make a strong impression in their scenes opposite Guttenberg include Carl Lumbly as the investigating police detective, Robert Schenkkan (whose head once exploded on an episode of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION) as the state attorney, Kate McGregor-Stewart as a downstairs neighbor who seems strangely turned on by the possibility that a killer lives in her building and familiar face Maury Chakin as a sleaze in a bar. In just a single scene as Greenquist’s attorney, the always-great Wallace Shawn kicks all kind of ass during his few minutes onscreen (“Don’t trifle with the court, Mr. Lambert”), a hugely enjoyable update of one of those minor roles that Hitchcock always seemed to love having take over his films if only briefly. Hanson, in the way he uses Shawn, seems to know how unexpectedly effective such a personality in this sort of film can be.

Any film that contains Shawn’s scene here as well as the sharply executed pace of the climax is clearly put together by someone who loves engineering this kind of puzzle. It’s clear in what he does here that Hanson knows that Hitchcock’s films were not just made up of the intricate plotting and setpieces but also by their witty asides and supporting players, with everything combined in order to make them into those famous slices of cake. With the great L.A. CONFIDENTIAL ten years in the future his talent was clearly still developing at this point and maybe THE BEDROOM WINDOW needed a little more finesse in the writing and editing but its best moments are very good indeed, maybe even better than that. Seeing it on DVD and for the first time ever in Scope (like a few other well-regarded DEG films were) after seeing it maybe once on video over twenty years ago resulted in a tiny hidden treasure that shouldn’t even be called a surprise. After all, we should be very aware how good Curtis Hanson really is at what he does. There’s apparently a remake coming—what, because the title is so marketable?—with Kevin Williamson attached to write the script (he was recently quoted as calling the original ‘Curtis Hanson’s first film’ which isn’t close to being correct). Skip that version if it actually happens and just see this one since it’s all you’re going to need. And then just go through the rest of Curtis Hanson’s filmography because you can always learn from someone who knows what they’re doing.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Limpers Are Famous For Telling The Truth

The infectious disco-muzak feel of the old Marvin Hamlisch sound set to the sight of crashing waves up near Big Sur signals the opening of SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES, the Christmas 1980 release from Columbia back in the days when they still had that sunburst logo at the start of each film. The comedy marked the reteaming of Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase after the success of FOUL PLAY from a few years before and this time they had a Neil Simon script to work off of which, instead of the Hitchcock pastiche of their first effort together, sought to be an update of screwball comedies from Hollywood’s Golden Age. I can remember seeing this one, just like FOUL PLAY, at the much-missed Scarsdale Plaza Cinema, a second run house which only charged 99 cents at this point and I even recall that the occasion was on a Saturday afternoon to a fairly empty house. Given the feel that Neil Simon was trying to pay tribute to the type of movie he had seen on the late show many times through the years, as SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES approaches its thirtieth birthday it becomes very clear in watching it how they really don’t attempt to make them like this anymore, something that makes its title rather fitting. If shown in a Neil Simon retrospective it would probably go over well with the audience and let’s face it, this sort of thing isn’t always easy to pull off. But the rimshot nature of the jokes doesn’t always play quite as well just watching it at home and some of it has dated in a few unfortunate ways. Somehow deep down I’m not sure that it’s really meant to be seen anywhere other than a half-empty movie theater in Westchester on a lazy Saturday afternoon in early 1981. It’s probably comfort food for somebody out there in the world which I have absolutely no problem with. It’s certainly pleasant enough. The Marvin Hamlisch music almost succeeds in transporting me back to that time while I watch it but let’s face facts, those days are long gone.

Writer Nicholas Gardenia (Chevy Chase) is working in seclusion up in Big Sur when interrupted by a pair of bank robbers who kidnap and force him to rob a bank up in Carmel. After pulling off the job and having his picture taken on a bank security camera Nick is shoved out of the car by them, leaving him on the lam so he seeks out ex-wife Glenda (Goldie Hawn), a pro-bono type lawyer who he still has feelings for. Glenda just happens to live in domestic bliss in wealthy Brentwood with current husband Ira Parks (Charles Grodin) who just happens to be the district attorney of Los Angeles and is about to be appointed by the Governor to be the state Attorney General. They also have at least six dogs living with them who make a habit out of continually running into scenes to disrupt things. When word of Glenda’s ex gets out Ira is naturally worried what this could mean for his chances (“we’re living in a very conservative state” he’s reminded about, um, California). Nicholas, meanwhile, having already done time in a Mexican prison and determined to not give himself up (“Ever since I was a kid I’ve had this wild and crazy desire never to go to jail”) attempts to worm his way back into Glenda’s life with Ira having no idea that her ex-husband is directly under his nose, sometimes literally. With the cops after him, Nicholas pleads with Glenda for help yet also makes it clear how much he still loves her. With both men now in her life Glenda is at a loss to know what to do but matters are made worse by the imminent arrival of the Governor to meet with Ira about the Attorney General position but everyone is aware that his main interest is eating Chicken Pepperoni for dinner.

Directed by Jay Sandrich, whose career has primarily been in television, the visual style of SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES is done in such a simple, get-all-the-coverage fashion that it’s not too much of a reach to speculate that a version of the same premise made in the 30s or 40s by some journeyman of the time wouldn’t have been all that different. The main difference in the two periods of course is Simon’s rat-a-tat dialogue all the way through which combines that screwball feel with the that farcical examination of married couples that we expect from. Enough of the film is set in and around the Parks’s house to the extent that, if necessary, reworking the piece for the stage wouldn’t have been all that difficult. How well Simon’s work dates today is still open to debate but I do wonder if the films based on his plays hold up better than his original screenplays, as if something about their sturdy structure enable them to play better through the years. When watched now, SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES isn’t bad at all with the film’s main problem feeling like the farcical developments never develop into anything much more than a simmer when they should reach a full boil. Every now and then characters seem to be reacting much more than really seems necessary considering the plot and the climactic dinner feels like it needed a few more elements other than just the butler getting drunk, a few more characters leaving the room exasperated a few more times. Even with the presence of all those yapping dogs, the courtroom showdown near the end has got to be the calmest, most well-reasoned explain-all-the-wacky-mix-ups-to-the-judge finales ever.

One alternative might have been to up the zaniness to a WHAT’S UP DOC-type level but maybe they just wanted to set all this more in the real world to allow the triangle of the leads play out better. This absolutely makes sense to allow the drama to work but it feels like there’s a farcical explosion just waiting in the wings that never quite happens. In fairness, there is some really good dialogue sprinkled throughout—I have a particular fondness for the bit where Chase tells a suspicious cop that he runs a business that involves carving the heads of presidents out of driftwood and one tiny exchange as the characters sit down in the dining room for the big dinner is a nice throwaway: “The house looks lovely, what have you done with it?” “We had it reshingled.” SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES put a fairly consistent smile on my face and I even got the occasional chuckle out of it—Chase’s pantomiming response to having his finger stepped on always did it for me and there’s finely calculated exasperation from Grodin nonstop—but maybe not much more than that. There is also some humor involving Glenda’s Mexican clients, the family maid Aurora played by Yvonne Wilder as well as one or two moments involving co-star Robert Guillaume (“As Fred”) that maybe doesn’t play so well these days but I guess we can ignore all that.

In his memoir “The Play Goes On” Simon doesn’t say much about the film beyond generally liking it—he indicates that the screenplay was written during a period of heavy activity and barely even remembers putting it down on paper. Even the plotting doesn’t always hold water with it seeming like several of the characters are having the same argument a few times too many—how many times does Nick say he’s leaving then come back? Not to mention his predicament which feels like it could actually be cleared up rather easily—early on we’re told that the two robbers “were smart enough not to get their picture taken” at the bank then of course later on we get a look at the picture that was taken of them. Of course, one could argue that we’re watching this movie for the laughs and romance, not intricate plot developments, which is completely fair. And we’re there to see Chevy fall down a lot as well. That’s what SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES feels like—a smoothly assembled vehicle made by people who know what they’re doing and it never results in anything more than that, but maybe it doesn’t need to be. While it’s not as hysterically funny as it may have been in 1980, it remains likable and the pacing maintains a sharp comic rhythm—it feels important to mention the involvement of legendary MGM editor Margaret Booth, then in her eighties, credited as Associate Producer and Supervising Editor, giving the film a direct link to what it’s paying tribute to. This sort of comic precision isn’t really attempted anymore, just as the comedies that are made no longer start with that patented Marvin Hamlisch sound. It might be a little cheesy but it’s kind of nice to hear music that seems so excited about the movie it’s underscoring and at least there’s not too much of it done in a cutesy manner to tell us how ‘funny’ everything is since the movie is able to do that on its own. It should also be pointed out that it feels like they never came up with the right ending for it all that would be as satisfying as the buildup. What we do get feels a little like a reshoot so I could believe that was very much an issue at the time. Or maybe this was the ending and I’m just overthinking the issue. After all, how else do you end a romantic comedy starring Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase, anyway?

It's not exactly the career defining performance for anyone here but they all do very nice work and, it could be said, each displays the qualities that we like about them to begin with. Chase fits right in with the Neil Simon syntax and some of the dialogue seems perfectly written for him. Hawn, fresh off the smash hit PRIVATE BENJAMIN at this point, makes her character’s ever-growing hysteria endearing (when was the last time a lead character in a movie was named Glenda?) and Grodin uses his comic expertise to turn what is basically the Ralph Bellamy role into the Charles Grodin role—other actors might have made the character too unlikable but he makes his behavior completely reasonable and still very funny. Robert Guillaume gets some good moments as Grodin’s right hand man, George Grizzard is the unflappable Governor (“Notice how I remain calm?”), T.K. Carter, later in THE THING, is Chester the butler/chauffer and Jerry Houser of SLAP SHOT (and also the man who later married Marcia Brady) is a gas station attendant. As the flustered judge who gets everything explained to him in the end Harold Gould gets a number of genuine laughs and winds up seeming like he would be right at home in a 30s movie more than anyone else here.

The two leads unfortunately never made another movie together, although Goldie Hawn did appear on the first episode of Chevy Chase's legendarily awful 1993 talk show. Avoid it if you can. Putting all that out of mind, I don’t have the same affection for this Hawn/Chase teaming as I do for FOUL PLAY, but one thing the films have in common is the sort of music that I associate with lush, commercial Hollywood films of this period. FOUL PLAY had Charles Fox and Barry Manilow, this one has Marvin Hamlisch. Even as the credits roll on that ending that doesn’t quite satisfy the music comes in full throttle and I’m thrust back to the Scarsdale Plaza once again. I don’t want that music to play for too long but it is a nice place to spend a few minutes and maybe I even enjoy it more than I’m willing to admit here. Just as SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES isn’t all that great but it is pleasant enough to revisit after a long time away from it. Now that I’ve done that, I don’t think I’ll need to see it again very soon. Although I am still curious about how that Chicken Pepperoni tastes.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Between What Is Said And What Is Done

Next on the list of films I should have seen long ago but only got to now is GORKY PARK, the Michael Apted thriller released way back in December 1983. I’m going to take a wild guess that it didn’t really interest me at the time. Looking at it now makes it clear that it’s the sort of commercial film that studios unfortunately aren’t very interested in making anymore and I’m not talking about how it’s set behind the iron curtain. It’s very much a thriller for adults without the need to dumb things down, one that contains gripping action but is in no way an action movie and the intricate plotting doesn’t rush things leading to an end which may not be perfect but is still somewhat satisfying. The equivalent film made now might possibly rework the plot to up the stakes considerably as well as upping the quotients on violence and sleaze—and there is some sex in GORKY PARK already. Or it would go the opposite route and go for the prestige of making an ‘adult’ film, taking a more serious approach and therefore placing the whole thing more in line with the awards race—as it was, the closest the film came was a deserved Golden Globe nomination for female lead Joanna Pacula. The approach used by GORKY PARK, a fairly early Orion release, seems to place it stylistically between the 70s and the 80s styles, caught between being character based and the more expected elements from the genre, making for an interesting mix. It gets points for having its American characters play supporting to Russian at the height of the cold war, something which makes the dramatics more complex than it would have otherwise and the way the story develops reveals more of itself as it goes on. I’m tempted to just look at the whole thing as a nicely put together airplane read though there are a few more layers to it than just that. At its best it’s a very good film which gains in substance both as it goes on and after it ends.

When three dead bodies are found in Moscow’s Gorky Park, Soviet police inspector Arkady Renko (William Hurt) is assigned to investigate which he does so reluctantly due to his belief he expresses to trusted prosecutor Iamskoy (Ian Bannen) that the KGB may somehow be involved and he doesn’t like the thought that he’s being set up as a fall guy. But he nevertheless begins his investigation, which leads to beautiful Irina Asanova (Joanna Pacula) a mysterious young woman with a connection to powerful American businessman (Lee Marvin). When another American, New York Police Investigator William Kirwill (Brian Dennehy) expresses his own interest in the case Renko begins to realize how wide the conspiracy is but as his attraction to Irina grows he begins to find himself in danger as well.

Michael Apted is kind of a nightmare for people trying to look at director’s careers in an auteurist sense with a filmography that includes his famous UP series, biopics seemingly designed to get Oscar nominations for actors, comedies with the likes of John Belushi (CONTINENTAL DIVIDE) and Richard Pryor (CRITICAL CONDITION), as well as the 1999 James Bond film THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. He currently has the third NARNIA film coming up and throughout his career there have been films that in their aim to be extremely serious have come off as many a little too stuffy. It’s easy to imagine a version of GORKY PARK which might have been that as well but even though it goes on maybe a few minutes too long it holds together very well and the director’s best work here is very good indeed. With a screenplay by Dennis Potter (PENNIES FROM HEAVEN) based on the novel by Martin Cruz Smith, GORKY PARK manages to overcome several points which otherwise would defeat a lesser film. William Hurt, complete with accent, is certainly not the most convincing Russian ever seen but it certainly helps that he’s a good enough actor to overcome this and the film has the confidence to make his accent fairly light so it’s not really much of an issue. There’s also the more problematic matter of having everyone speak English which wouldn’t be noticeable if everyone in the film were Russian—after all, we could just pretend they were speaking English—but when Americans played by Marvin and Dennehy turn up language is never even mentioned and when Hurt writes things down it’s in Russian with subtitles used which just muddies things. Maybe people didn’t think about this sort of thing as much at the time. Still, under Apted’s clearheaded direction and Potter’s page-turner of a script GORKY PARK remains both gripping and entertaining all the way through with enough complexity to correctly address the seriousness of it while still not making it too much of a polemic. Unlike any number of thrillers of this type the plotting never becomes overly convoluted yet it avoids the feeling that it’s trying to dumb things down. It’s an intriguing combination of cold-war politics, action scenes and a plot which is continually adding new elements, best encapsulated in how Lee Marvin’s powerful presence in the story grows as it goes on.

With the appropriately snowbound Helsinki subbing for Moscow (that huge mural of Lenin seen certainly helps the illusion) the film avoids becoming too grim by adding drops of wit throughout—even from Marvin—but even these touches are never allowed to overtake the chilly atmosphere that is so necessary. And it succeeds as an intelligent mystery that keeps things complex but still clear enough that it’s not a reach that Hurt is able to put things together—indeed, part of the plot is that certain people almost need him to—and it never does so in a way that feels like he’s accidentally stumbling into answers in order to dumb things down. What’s going on is just as simple as the dominoes he’s trying to put together in one scene yet, as things often are in life, much more complex as well which he seems to be very aware of. It’s easy to imagine another version of the story which makes the Brian Dennehy character the lead in a BLACK RAIN-type scenario which would simplify the politics—the Russians would just be made to be the ‘other’ and let us off the hook as the maverick cop goes barreling through Moscow intent on revenge, an idea it actually briefly touches on. Here, it’s the level-headed person who is the lead and he’s the one who needs to decide how much good that approach in life is really doing him. For the most part it all flows together very well though it could have used some tightening as it approaches the third act. Random rule that I guess I made up: If a film runs two hours and change, you could probably lose those few minutes to get it down to two hours and tighten things up a little (even so, one character’s exit feels unsatisfying though I don’t have a good solution to that). With a running time of 126 minutes, GORKY PARK seems to fall into that category.

Putting the politics of the day aside, the one thing which really strands GORKY PARK in its time period is the score by James Horner. It starts off in a sparse, evocative manner but soon incorporates a few too many 80s synths, not to mention that steel drum action thing that Horner used in all his urban-action efforts of the decade including 48 HRS., COMMANDO and RED HEAT—really, they all just wind up sounding like the same thing. If I were being chased through city streets to this music then, yes, it would be kind of cool but it still feels a little out of place here when compared to those more action oriented films. Regardless, the standoff climax shrewdly plays out with no score (I miss that sort of thing), which is allowed to remain tense from hearing not much more than the wind blowing through the trees in the woodsy surroundings and the entire sequence, extremely well-staged by Apted, succeeds admirably. The story pays off in the end, but the romance and political angle don’t work quite as well. I get the feeling it wants to be CASABLANCA in the end which it’s not, of course, and though it falls short in that goal I suppose there are far worse things you could say about a film’s ending than that it isn’t as good as CASABLANCA. Ultimately, the thriller elements of GORKY PARK work better than when it attempts to be a serious meditation on people trapped behind the iron curtain but overall the film succeeds as just the sort of adult thriller that, well, doesn’t get made much anymore.

William Hurt’s subtle work overcomes the accent issue very quickly (frankly, with multiple Brits playing the Russians, this isn’t a film to look for appropriate accents from anyone, except maybe Brian Dennehy) and his earnest nature becomes likable, particularly the way he freely tells Marvin in one scene, “I always wanted to meet an American.” He’s one of the key reasons why the film gains in resonance as it goes on—like the film, his cool exterior eventually gives way to something that has more going on underneath. Maybe if there’d been more films like this one out there the actor wouldn’t have gone off and disappeared for a few years or whatever it was he did. The off-kilter casting of Lee Marvin works very well—it’s the sort of role that might have been more expected from the likes of Richard Widmark in his COMA period but Marvin makes it so you never know what to expect from him in his three-piece suits and he’s very intimidating as he stares down Hurt, as if studying him to prepare for the kill. Suddenly Lee Marvin has become more threatening just sitting at a table wearing a suit than he ever was during a long career of holding a gun. Even though he died less than four years later, there’s still a great deal of power that he brings to even minor moments throughout and is one of the best performances from the latter part of his career. There’s also solid work by the supporting cast that includes Brian Dennehy (sarcastically calling Hurt’s character ‘Boris’ on occasion), Ian Bannen, Richard Griffiths and the forever icy Ian “Senator Palpatine” McDiarmid who provides much of the film’s levity as the sardonic Professor Andreev, the anthropologist who helps restore the mutilated faces of the victims. And there’s Joanna Pacula, a beauty who never seems to have had the career she might have had based on her excellent performance this film, though she has worked here and there through the years. She’s very beautiful with a lithe vulnerability yet she doesn’t come off as a supermodel playing a film role. Maybe that’s why she never got a Bond girl-sort of part but it certainly adds to her effectiveness here. There’s enough of a Nastassia Kinski resemblance to make it not much of a surprise that Polanski recommended her for the part as reported in a Time magazine profile on the actress way back in 1983. Casting the unknown paid off and it seems a shame that she never got such a good part again, displaying a maturity beyond her years as well as possessing a relatable type of beauty which keeps her from seeming out of place, a rarity for these types of movies.

And, yes, there is a sex scene complete with nudity from Pacula about which I have no complaints but since it seems to happen more because it was expected from this type of film (maybe cashing in on Hurt’s BODY HEAT success) than anything to do with the vulnerability of the characters it winds up making me think of the movie as more of a commercial thriller than anything else. GORKY PARK tries to combine those genre elements with a would-be serious look at life behind the iron curtain, culminating in a ‘one day we’ll be free’ metaphor along with a standard ‘corruption is everywhere’ theme about taking sides in the cold war. It’s as if the film is unwilling to admit that it’s, well, ‘just’ a thriller but in spite of its seriousness it ultimately does feel like more of a straight genre piece than, say, THE LIVES OF OTHERS turned out to be a few years ago (actually, that sounds like an interesting double bill). Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a movie that’s ‘just’ a thriller and there’s nothing particularly wrong with GORKY PARK either. As the credits roll and that damn (but admittedly pretty cool) James Horner steel drum music returns again it feels like the movie wants to say yeah, we know this was more about the chases and mystery, not the political message, and that satisfaction is what we’re ultimately left with. Even if its setting is now one that lies in the past the mystery remains strong and the film plays well, a work of intelligence that doesn’t need to account for itself at all.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Looking At Things Realistically

It’s the age-old question: in DON’T MAKE WAVES, do you prefer Claudia Cardinale or Sharon Tate? I freely admit that at one point in time I may have said Sharon Tate. But looking at it more recently, my mind seems to have been changed. Yes, Claudia Cardinale’s character is crazy and scatterbrained, not to mention at times being unable to stop screaming at Tony Curtis for so much as five seconds, but she’s certainly passionate. Not to mention that along with that passion you get the feeling that she may cook you a big spaghetti dinner with lots of red wine followed by amazing conversation, maybe still another argument where she loses her temper over some minor issue and then you’ll go to bed where more of that passion will continue to display itself. Plus she was in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST—that should solve the matter right there. We should all be so lucky to meet such a woman. Sharon Tate is gorgeous, yes—in the context of some goofy 60s beach comedy she displays an energy which seems practically otherworldly—but it’s going to be hard to keep up much of a dialogue with a girl who sits in bed for long stretches staring at a Spanish-language program on TV, even though she doesn’t speak Spanish. She’s mind-bogglingly beautiful but there has to be something else there. Maybe, as in the film, it’s simply up to some bodybuilder to find out what that is. Either way, it’s a nice choice to pretend to have.

The 1967 southern California lifestyle satire DON’T MAKE WAVES isn’t quite a hidden classic although the Maltin book does refer to it as “the one gem out of nine million bad Tony Curtis comedy vehicles.” I haven’t seen every one of those nine million movies just yet, but DON’T MAKE WAVES does have a certain unique feel to it which sets it apart from other such films of the era, no doubt provided by director Alexander Mackendrick, the man who previously directed Curtis in the masterpiece THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. It’s the sort of sixties comedy with enough of a genuinely oddball take on things that makes it enjoyable to return to every now and then but looking at it right now after seeing it several times over the years one element of the movie which strikes me just now might be how quickly its lead character is able to talk his way into a reputable job and a new life for himself out of nothing in the process. It’s enough to make me think that maybe I should take some pointers from such an approach at this point in time. After all, it might not hurt. It’s all kind of scattershot in the end and pretty much a mess, but many sixties comedies are anyway. At least it’s an interesting mess and contains some sharp satire of how the Los Angeles and Malibu lifestyles were perceived at the time, thought of as a place where you can reinvent your entire world as the continuous sound of those waves crash around in your head.

Carlo Cofield (Tony Curtis) has no sooner moved to Los Angeles and arrived at the Pacific Ocean to stare serenely out at the water than through a comical mishap his car and all of his belongings are destroyed by beautiful failed actress Laura Califatti (Claudia Cardinale) who was at the lookout point working on a painting. Insistent on getting her insurance info Carlo goes with her to her oceanfront apartment but that soon proves difficult when he runs afoul of her “patron”, her married boyfriend Rod Prescott (Robert Webber) who owns the car she was driving. Carlo soon uses what he knows about Rod to his advantage, not to inform his wife Diane (Joanna Barnes) but to secure himself a salesman job with the Prescott’s swimming pool company. Things are soon working out for Carlo faster than anyone could have imagined but he still finds himself continually on the beach infatuated with Malibu—not the place, but the girl (Sharon Tate, getting an “introducing” credit), a gorgeous beachgoing skydiver who he can’t keep his eyes off of even with her bodybuilder boyfriend Harry (real-life bodybuilding champion David Draper) nearby.

Pretty silly stuff and in the way it has dated DON’T MAKE WAVES doesn’t necessarily contain a laugh a minute but it’s breezily enjoyable the whole way through, partly due to the cast and partly due to how innocently appealing the world of the Malibu beaches looks today over forty years after it was made. Even in this goofy context it’s as if Mackendrick brought a surprising amount of intensity to this material, allowing it to hold together to a greater extent than any number of other comedies of the time which also had very little to do with reality—it actually feels directed, like there was genuine thought given to how to stage some of this silliness. There’s not much to it all, maybe indicated by how we never learn a single thing about the past of Tony Curtis’s character—going by the animated title sequence he’s come from somewhere back east and that’s all we ever know. He’s just Tony Curtis shacking up with beautiful women—what more do you need? But it has a nice snappy style in every single scene and its portrayal of a southern California lifestyle where everything imaginable falls into the lap of Carlo Cofield seemingly within days of arrival is infectious, particularly when backed up by a Vic Mizzy score. The Byrds sing the title song over the opening credits as well, making for a pretty enjoyable soundtrack album. The beach scenes are silly, but fun as well, with the bodybuilders and oddball girls who hang out there never portrayed as anything more than mildly eccentric (on his official website, bodybuilder Draper says of the film’s portrayal of the real-life scene, “It was not entirely accurate nor was it a mindless spoof.”). At the least, they’ve got things more together and understand their place in the world more than Tony Curtis’s character seems able to.

If there’s anything wrong with the film on a serious storytelling level (it’s based on the novel “Muscle Beach” by Ira Wallach, adaptation by Maurice Richlin, screenplay by Wallach and George Kirgo), it’s that the tightness of the plot isn’t able to sustain itself past the first forty-five minutes or so. Once Cofield moves into his Cliffside house overlooking the ocean the trail begins to get a little lost, with characters and plot strands seemingly vanishing for long stretches culminating in a climax that seems to begin rather abruptly. As Cofield hatches an elaborate scheme to win Malibu over, a plot strand that is dwelled on a little too long, Cardinale’s Laura gets a little lost gets a little lost in the mix like the plot doesn't know what to do with the character and it’s tough to know what she ever really thinks of the two men interested in her. Certainly a few more minutes of Cardinale screaming in Italian at anyone in this movie wouldn’t have hurt, but at the least we get to see her soaking wet wearing a provocative dress in the rain looking pretty amazing. At times it feels like there’s not much to DON’T MAKE WAVES other than seeing Tony Curtis gaze longingly at Sharon Tate (or a body double) bounce up and down on a trampoline for whole scenes at a time, but maybe that’s all we’re supposed to get out of it anyway. The climax could be seen as stating that the very foundation of Malibu—or maybe even all of sunny California—is so weak that the first crack will show itself at the first sign of a rainstorm, indicated by what happens to one of the swimming pools that are so doted on, sending everything spiraling into destruction (I can’t help but realize that I’ve written some of this during a pretty harsh rainstorm, making me wonder what’s in store for me soon).

The various plot strands get wrapped up in rudimentary fashion and the credits quickly roll as a few of the leads bounce around in the surf, not a single other care in the world since there’s ultimately nothing to worry about. One passage in the title song by The Byrds goes, “And when all the toys that you dreamed of finally come/They all will break and you’re back where you started from.” That’s all that DON’T MAKE WAVES really has to say—no matter what happens, even the loss of all your possessions, once you’re in L.A. (a place where “looking at things realistically” in regards to love doesn’t do anyone any good) ready to live “a full life, a rich life,” as Cardinale’s character puts it, the world is your oyster and anything you want can be right at your fingertips. This of course can include an expensive car, a luxury home looking out at the ocean, and the choice between Claudia Cardinale and Sharon Tate. Like I said, I’m going with Cardinale but you may have your own feelings.

For the record, in his recent autobiography “American Prince: A Memoir” Curtis doesn’t have much to say about DON’T MAKE WAVES beyond how happy he was to be working with Mackendrick again though he does offer, “The plot was utterly ridiculous, but I agreed to appear in the film because I got a percentage of the gross.” He also states that he plays “a professor” in the film so it’s doubtful much of that ridiculousness ever stayed with him. As for Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski later wrote in his own autobiography that she didn’t enjoy herself on the production, a tense set which was certainly exacerbated when a stuntman drowned when parachuting into the Pacific during the shooting of one scene.

Tony Curtis is certainly enjoyable to watch here, attacking the role with all the energy it needs but, in his early forties at the time, he does seem a little long in the tooth. Robert Webber and Joanna Barnes as the Prescotts manage to make their roles less of a stereotype than they might have been in other films although the resolution of their divorce storyline probably doesn’t play so well in this day and age. Mort Sahl and Edgar Bergen as “Madame Lavinia” appear as Special Guest Stars. Jim Backus cameos as himself with wife Henny, doing his Mr. Magoo voice during his brief appearance. As for the two women in question, Claudia Cardinale’s performance may be slightly hurt by how she seems to disappear for a little while during the second half but she’s a true firebrand whenever she’s around and her musings when she tells Tony Curtis about her life makes her extremely endearing. This wasn’t the only movie she made in the U.S., but there weren’t too many others so it seems somehow valuable there’s at least this one film featuring her in this town. As for Sharon Tate, she brings an undeniable magnetism to a pretty thin role almost as if she does has a power to do something special to the camera lens whenever she steps in front of it—it feels like any other film would have gladly made the character the mindless bimbo and left it at that but with Tate’s presence that’s impossible. That we’re reminded of the dark side of California in the sixties every time we see her in this film is unavoidable but her unique allure which is felt to this day lets this movie stand out more than it might have otherwise.

Claudia Cardinale worked for Sergio Leone in the legendary ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST the following year. Sharon Tate was tragically murdered two years later. Tony Curtis soon starred in Richard Fleischer’s THE BOSTON STRANGLER but his status as an A-list star wouldn’t last for much longer. Alexander Mackendrick never made another movie, instead going on to teach film at CalArts. The carefree world presented in DON’T MAKES WAVES certainly didn’t last much longer either making what we see here a fascinating record to have as presented by MGM. The film is unfortunately unavailable on DVD, although TCM does run it every now and then. A product of its time and kind of a relic now, DON’T MAKE WAVES remains endearing for the enjoyable look at the scene it portrays and the presence of the two female leads seen at their most attractive definitely helps. Sharon is truly stunning but, like I said, I go with Claudia. Crazy as she is, she’s got a lifeforce that’s easy to fall for and life with her would certainly be unpredictable. Just as the California of DON’T MAKE WAVES still is.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

There Are No Truths, Only Stories

Remember the days when films released in January were obviously being casually dumped by their studios, clearly snuck into theaters in the hope that no one would notice due to the heavy blizzard outside? It doesn’t seem to happen much anymore—even the crap that comes out during the slow weeks nowadays generally has a big campaign behind it. Though I didn’t see it until it hit cable, I can vaguely remember when the big-business satire HEAD OFFICE was snuck into theaters on January 3, 1986 without the benefit of any reviews for critics, maybe because I had a reaction of ‘where did THIS come from?’ Ads at the time spotlighted a few of the bigger comedy names in the cast, though since they only appear in what are essentially cameos, the marketing people weren’t really selling what they had. There’s something strange about the film, something off, almost as if it was some sort of Canadian tax-shelter thing attempting to seem as if it was some big Hollywood comedy. Surprisingly, even though it was shot in Canada (though set in Chicago, which never really matters) the film was produced by Peter Guber and Jon Peters which makes the whole about as Hollywood as it gets. The oddness that’s present is probably due to a clashing of tones which seems to have affected the final product in an unfortunate manner, resulting in a strange film tonally and one that doesn’t even seem aware of what its best elements are. The movie is totally forgotten now except for maybe people who vaguely remember seeing it on HBO which makes it a little surprising it was even released on DVD—shot in anamorphic (Gerald Hirschfeld was Director of Photography), the transfer crops the Scope aspect ratio once the opening credits end which makes you wonder why they even bothered. The inconsistent approach makes it feel like we’re seeing portions of several different films over the course of 91 minutes, though there is some genuine cleverness in there and some unique casting choices at least means that it’s of some interest.

Immediately after graduating from business school Jack Issel (Judge Reinhold), son of corrupt Senator Issel (George Coe), is recruited to join multi-conglomerate INC International, a massive company run by Chairman of the Board Peter “Pete” Helmes (Eddie Albert) in which corruption and back-stabbing is the order of the day. After witnessing several executive fatalities on only his first morning, Jack is assigned to work under ambitious exec Jane Caldwell (Jane Seymour) in the process of sleeping her way to the top and on his first day he becomes attracted to Rachael, (Lori-Nan Engler), a beautiful young activist intent on preventing INC from shutting down a plant in the small town of Allenville and moving the plant to a Latin American the company has an interest in. Jack soon finds himself caught between accidentally stumbling up the corporate ladder and trying not to lose his soul in order to win Rachael’s heart.

I’ve sometimes said that Joe Dante’s GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH, a personal favorite, has such a good cast and sharp comic tone that I would gladly see a version of that movie with just its characters and no Gremlins. In some ways, HEAD OFFICE could almost be considered an attempt at making that movie (maybe it’s the similarly metallic design of the corridors), a skewering of the 80s business world and the back-stabbing that occurs on a daily basis. The thing is, with or without the title creatures Dante’s film is sharper, more dead-on in its satire and funnier throughout. I certainly helped that it had a director as good at comedy as Joe Dante. The ads for HEAD OFFICE at the time spotlighted Rick Moranis and Danny DeVito—this was the time when I think a federal law had passed requiring DeVito to be in every movie—but they’re both gone by the twenty-five minute mark so the focus is nice guy Reinhold (also in his period when he was in most of the movies that got released) as the Jimmy Stewart type who gets caught up in all the madness as he tries to keep his sanity. Written and directed by Ken Finkleman (AIRPLANE II: THE SEQUEL), HEAD OFFICE feels like it began life as a comedy for adults in a Sturges vein that got transformed (I’m going to assume by Guber & Peters) into going for a more crassly funny CADDYSHACK/Ramis/Reitman/SNL kind of thing combined with elements that come in from a Capra-wannabe kind of thing. All this leads to a plot involving a toothless satire of dealings with Latin America which feels overly complicated yet is never very interesting and even tosses in a chase climax involving gunplay as if no one could come up with anything better. Plenty of comedies have the laughs take a backseat when the third act comes around but in this case it feels like the serious stuff comes in a little too soon and having Reinhold’s character stumble his way up to the top is never handled in a way that actually makes it funny. By the hour mark, it’s as if the film has decided to stop with the jokes and just take care of the plot—a shame, considering the characters it’s leaving in the dust.

Finkleman displays some genuine talent throughout in his dialogue (he went on to do some well-regarded work on Canadian television) but it’s such an odd combination of tones that it’s not particularly clear who the audience for this is supposed to be—I guess that explains the January release date (this is as good a place as any to note how at one point Reinhold looks through his empty appointment calendar when trying to set up a date with Engler and jokes that he’s “free through 2010.”) The whole Allenville subplot has potential but the film focuses way too much on it at the expense of laughs, killing the momentum and leaving such promising subplots as Wallace Shawn’s midlevel exec with eight months to live in the dust, forgotten along the way. The third act is pretty much forgettable and the ending feels patched together by some last-minute voiceover narration in order to shove the credits onscreen as quick as possible. There are some very good things throughout that I genuinely enjoy, making me wish I actually liked it better, such as the symmetry of how certain characters are paired up in twos and threes allowing these combinations to play off each other in interesting, clever ways. One particularly droll restaurant scene is written, played and paced in all the right ways but as the film goes on the film feels like it’s more interested in the annoying 80s soundtrack (dated synth score by James Newton Howard) and nightclub scenes, while not making nearly enough of an effort in making any sort of satirical point. By the time it’s clear that the whole Allenville thing has become the plot of the movie, it feels like a missed opportunity has taken place.

Reinhold was always likable and he still is here but his character isn’t given much to play beyond the understandable hesitancy to getting sucked into this world, leaving him to be overshadowed by everyone around him. Fortunately, one of the most intriguing things about HEAD OFFICE is some of those people he plays off of. DeVito and particularly Moranis (presumably doing a Joel Silver impression) are hysterically funny during their brief minutes of screentime but there are also some genuinely unexpected casting choices which include SNL legend Michael O’Donoghue in the largest acting role he ever had as one of the main company men. He’s very good, bringing a smooth, steady nature to every second of his performance (appearing in a few scenes with George Coe, someone who was also in the very first SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE ever) and he would have fit right in to a Sturges-like ensemble piece, particularly during his moments opposite Ron Frazier, also particularly funny as another company prick. Underused but making every moment count are Wallace Shawn and Bruce Wagner (author of the bitingly funny Hollywood novel FORCE MAJEURE), with normally upbeat Shawn mistakenly confiding in pessimist Wagner how he’s learned that he has eight months to live—Wagner’s moment when he lies to Shawn’s face about spreading the truth saying, “If I’m lying my wife and kids should be tortured and killed today,” is the single best line reading in the entire film.

Jane Seymour looks gorgeous and brings a definite spark to her scenes but there’s nothing really to her role other than being, as she puts it, the “A-1 bitch” sleeping her way to the top (and given a large, blatantly phallic sculpture in her character’s office) who later muses how she’s lost her soul, with no shadings to it either way. It feels like more a fault of the thinness of the material than Seymour who gives the role more dignity than was probably intended. Eddie Albert, playing a CEO so nasty that he personally goes over customer’s late phone bills to make the decision to disconnect, is always nice to have around but he’s portrayed as a little too much of a straight villain for a comedy. Even if he is seen eating Cocoa Krispies at one point there’s not enough of a cockeyed twist given to what he does to place it in more of a Sturges vein, which would have helped. With not enough to counteract that feeling, his scenes wind up dragging things down as the plot proceeds in the latter section. Likewise, Lori-Nan Engler (no credits after this film) in what is basically the role of “the girl” is cute but her character is so serious about the whole Allenville issue that in the context of a comedy she winds up coming off as kind of a wet blanket. Couldn’t Judge Reinhold show some interest in Jane Seymour instead? Richard Masur’s relaxed nature as Reinhold’s seen-it-all mentor is something to look forward to all the way through, Don Novello has funny bits as Sal the limo driver, Merritt Buttrick (STAR TREK II’s David Marcus) is a junior company weasel, William B. Davis (Cigarette Smoking Man on THE X-FILES) is a University Dean and Don King is in there somewhere too for some reason. I’m not sure why, but there are plenty of things about the 80s that can never be explained.

With genuine laughs scattered throughout, HEAD OFFICE feels like an almost-good movie, but one that is damaged by the feeling that it began life aimed at a certain audience then somewhere along the way was forcibly altered in an attempt to appeal to someone else altogether, not satisfying either group as a result. It makes the film just good enough to be frustrating, since its potential can constantly be seen but the tone is too inconsistent and the overall feel is too thin to take hold. The best moments—coming from Moranis, O’Donoghue and others—make it absolutely worth a look for someone who might be intrigued but it still feels like something was missed along the way. Some of what is portrayed is still relevant today and as of late I can certainly related to working in an insane environment with fear of getting the axe—yeah, that turned out really well—and all the talk of lies versus the truth seems to also resonate in today’s world. It’s just too bad that the weaker elements wind up taking over to such an extent. As far as movies that got buried on release in January and have rarely been seen again go, HEAD OFFICE doesn’t fully work but at least it has certain ambitions as well as an admirable amount of comic intelligence so it certainly gets credit for that.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Little Danger Never Killed Anybody

The news of Sharon Stone being cast in an upcoming multi-episode arc on LAW & ORDER: SVU has caused the usual minor uproar over how far her career has fallen, something that seems to be a lot of talk about nothing. For starters, it’s hardly the first time she’s done TV. Compared with the exposure she got doing, say, a few episodes of a series on Showtime several years back (that would be HUFF and it was a good show) it seems like a safe bet that these episodes of L&O:SVU will at least be widely seen, certainly moreso than some independent film that never gets released—a few recent titles on Stone’s imdb page ring no bell at all. Yes, Sharon Stone has made a bunch of lousy movies throughout her career--things like CATWOMAN and BASIC INSTINCT 2 definitely didn’t help during the last decade--but at this point in time Hollywood isn’t exactly looking to cast any woman of a certain age whose name isn’t Meryl Streep. Her chilly nature has always meant that she’s never been one of the most beloved of stars, but that’s not really the job of a sex symbol anyway. In truth, I’ve always liked Sharon Stone and the old-school movie star vibe she exudes. It’s a shame that we don’t have one or two more decent films that made good use of her, but there are plenty of stars one could say that about. So there’s BASIC INSTINCT as well as her remarkable work in CASINO, one decent comedy in Albert Brooks’s THE MUSE plus, if I’m in a good mood, THE QUICK AND THE DEAD. We also got THE SPECIALIST, her teaming with Sylvester Stallone which can hardly be called a good movie but if I flip by it on cable it’s hard for me to shut the damn thing off. Released one week before PULP FICTION rocked the world in October 1994, THE SPECIALIST is one of those occasional star team-ups which feature its leads doing exactly what they’re famous for, demonstrating the reason they’re such big stars to begin with. The movie in question may not be very good but it still makes decent money—this one die—and then everyone can forget that they ever made it as they go off to do the films they really care about. THE SPECIALIST is pretty ridiculous stuff, but watching it now the whole thing feels like it comes from another time when this sort of R-rated thriller with sex, sleaze and violence could still get made. It’s pretty stupid stuff and barely seems to have a plotline that I feel like I could synopsize and make sense, but it’s still kind of fun in a totally trashy way. Maybe I just like looking at Sharon Stone, I don’t know. There’s also the enjoyment to be found out of watching James Woods, plus explosions. A lot of explosions.

Ten years after a job in Columbia goes bad, former CIA explosives expert Ray Quick (Sylvester Stallone) is in Miami, a freelance ‘specialist’ with bombs who has been tracked down by the beautiful May Munro (Sharon Stone) a woman intent on exacting revenge against the people who murdered her family when she was a child. Specifically, she’s after mobster Tomas Leon (Eric Roberts) and his father Joe (Rod Steiger—“who sounds like Ricky Ricardo and looks like Fred Mertz”—Maltin). May uses her beauty to make her way into their confidence in the guise of Tomas's new girlfriend, but she captures the interest of Ned Trent (James Woods) the family security head who is also Ray’s former partner and someone who has his own revenge in mind.

It’s not much of a plot. Hell, it’s a terrible plot and if there’s anything in there that was taken from the credited Specialist novels by John Shirley I’m going to guess that it doesn’t have much to do with Sylvester Stallone beating up a bunch of punks on a bus when they try to take a seat offered to a pregnant woman. There’s barely any sort of story to latch on to that makes any sense and it feels like the film knows this, or at least doesn’t care. Much of the film is taken up with Stallone on the phone all by himself meaning that the two stars don’t meet in the flesh until way past the halfway point— it’s slightly amusing that he only communicates with people via pay phones and there’s much talk that he can’t be found because no one can ever keep him on the line long enough to get a trace. “Time’s up, 58 seconds,” says Stallone as he hangs up on a call which goes over two minutes, but I guess they figured they could get away with this. When a minor plot twist comes into the mix close to the midway point it just feels like the film is trying to come up with a reason why it can’t end sooner than it does—what we learn at that point doesn’t really affect anything anyway. It’s like we’re being given some kind of fake plot revelation to trick us into thinking that we’re watching an actual movie. Not to mention how when at one point a main character has possibly been killed, it’s not clear if the film actually wants us to think this—maybe they know that we wouldn’t buy the idea that this person would be killed off so early but it just causes everything to dribble into incoherence. Even some of the details are questionable--flashbacks show Roberts playing the younger version of his character but May Malone, Sharon Stone’s character, is portrayed as a young girl. In real life Roberts is only two years older than Stone and they look about the same age anyway but…oh, forget it. The film is much more interested with showing Stallone with his shirt off (Eric Roberts too) and Stone does some so as well, though even though with some nudity there’s the feeling that the film is paying more attention to how Sly looks—maybe he threw around more weight in the cutting room. The way the film dwells on this stuff is pretty silly and makes it seems as if this is some late-night Cinemax thing, not a big budget action movie from Warner Brothers. Stallone is given a cat to befriend as well, in case someone thought that this guy who kills people for a living wouldn’t be likable enough.

The credited director is Luis Llosa (later of ANACONDA infamy) and the credited writer is Alexandra Seros (also responsible for the LA FEMME NIKITA remake POINT OF NO RETURN) but in addition to the then-powerful stars I could believe the real person in charge on the set was producer Jerry Weintraub. It’s interesting to compare his approach towards this material to the one Joel Silver—who Stallone was making other films with around this time—might have taken. That version of this film would probably have had several more action beats but Weintraub is clearly more interested in keeping the stars in frame looking the best they can along with the sex, nightclubs and cigarette smoke hanging in the air through every scene (points to Director of Photography Jeffrey L. Kimball for the crisp, sleek look). At least the Miami location is well utilized—the movie certainly feels like it’s actually set somewhere—but there’s not much to all this in the action department beyond the endless amount of explosions we get near the end. One of the key setpieces involving a hotel room contains effects that are actually embarrassingly bad, something it’s hard to imagine Joel Silver ever letting get by, and just makes it all feel kind of chintzy. The sex-drenched approach extends to the score by the legendary John Barry in full BODY HEAT mode that sells this vibe as much as it possibly can and brings more legitimacy to this idiocy than the film probably deserves. The recurring action beats by Barry heard throughout are pretty terrific as well (certainly better than the lousy songs heard throughout) and is another element that almost manages to convince us we’re watching an actual movie—points to whoever decided to favor the music in the mix over the sounds of the endless explosions we’re seeing during the climax. Maybe it’s all the total ridiculousness that makes THE SPECIALIST so much fun to watch when just watching on a lazy Friday night. What, you mean you don’t own the DVD also? It can’t be defended for a microsecond but I really don’t care.

The two stars do what they’re supposed to do, knowing full well what they’ve been hired to deliver. Actually, Stallone seems to be coasting just a little bit more than Stone who actually does come off as somewhat committed to her part, bringing what is at times an admirable degree of intensity and she looks fantastic as well. Even with all the emphasis placed on the two star’s bodies during the running time, the film is easily stolen by James Woods (“And he’s welcome to it”—also from Maltin) who gives a fearless performance as the sort-of villain, eating up every scene and chomping off every bit of dialogue he has like he’s eating the best steak he’s had in months—his bit in an elevator telling an extra to get a new shirt was apparently an adlib and really is priceless. It’s massive amounts of fun throughout just watching Woods doing things like leering at extras for no real reason. More points in the movie’s favor that it knows what it has in him and doesn’t cut away during some of his best moments. Woods also has a few nice moments sparring with Sharon Stone, who seems willing to work with his craziness in their scenes (a year later they’d be seen together again in CASINO). Roberts and Steiger can’t compete with that, but every now and then I get the feeling that they’re in on the joke as well.

The film is megadumb, but nevertheless it’s a lot more fun than other bad movies I can think of. It’s an R-Rated thriller for adults, not that such a thing makes it smart in any way. But it is the sort of movie that doesn’t get made anymore, not these days. Of course, some might question if that’s in any way a bad thing. The film is garbage but it’s the type of junk that you sometimes need, especially when it features someone as willing to embrace it as Sharon Stone, somebody that there really isn’t a decent present-day equivalent of in the necessary age group. Movie stars, sleaze, great music, explosions, ridiculousness and bogus plot twists, all courtesy of Jerry Weintraub. When found in something like THE SPECIALIST, those things can be wonderful in their crazy way. Those things can be essential to how much you enjoy a movie and whether or not it’s any good sometimes has nothing to do with it.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Next Year's Crowd Already

So it was a little while after midnight on New Year’s, I’d made it home in one piece and I decided to sit down with some champagne and watch a Lubitsch film. What could be more appropriate, right? Exactly. BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE doesn’t have one of the greatest reps out there, with Maltin giving it two stars and Frank S. Nugent writing in The New York Times upon its release in 1938 that its good points “do not entirely compensate for the arid and barren stretches which not even Lubitsch could make yield light comedy.” Considering those involved that seems pretty unbelievable. It’s directed by Ernst Lubitsch, written by Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett (based on the play by Alfred Savoir and the previous English adaptation by Charlton Andrews), stars Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert, it’s one of those 30s romantic comedies that paints Europe (or, more specifically, France) as the most desirable place on the planet and has what must be one of the most prototypical meet cutes in history. What could possibly be wrong? The thing with BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE is that all those elements are in place not to mention tons of sparkling dialogue and genuine laughs but after a few minutes something just seems…off. It’s tough to even pinpoint what that is. Maybe it’s just that it’s a lack of tangible story that you can put your finger on—it doesn’t really have one that lets you say “This movie is about…”. And maybe since there isn’t one that means that all the witty repartee ultimately doesn’t mean very much in the end. Billy Wilder told Cameron Crowe, “It was not a very good picture, but it was kind of all right,” which sort of sums it up. You see this film and you certainly don’t want to dislike it and it’s not that you do…but some of the best screwball comedies during this time are effortless. When something like this film happens you can see the flailing a little bit more.

In an upscale boutique along the French Riviera Michael Brandon (Gary Cooper) and Nicole De Loiselle (Claudette Colbert) meet under the bizarre circumstances where he is looking to buy a pajama top—he’s not going to fall for the racket that forces him to buy the whole thing—and she is looking for a pajama bottom. Brandon is intrigued by her but unable to find out just why she only wants the bottom but circumstances provides him with the answer—it’s for her father the impoverished Marquis De Loiselle (Edward Everett Horton). After some haggling over a Louis XIV bathtub Brandon is able to convince the Marquis that he wants to marry Nicole…but it’s not until the engagement party when Nicole learns of his marital history. She agrees to marry him anyway, but intent on teaching him a lesson it’s clear that their problems are only beginning.

The laughs are there from the very beginning—with the language notations on the store window including ENGLISH SPOKEN, then directly below that it reads AMERICAN UNDERSTOOD—and has all the sparkling feel that we would expect from one of these Paramount screwball comedies of the era with wonderfully witty dialogue throughout but with no real story to go beyond the opening sequence that can be connected to on a basic human level, even a screwball human level, it makes BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE seem like a string of enjoyable scenes which aren’t supported by anything. Just a vague idea of a man and women caught between love and hate for each other in ways that don’t always made very much sense. I found myself thinking of an earlier effort by the director I happened to see the previous week—1930’s MONTE CARLO starring Jeanette MacDonald and Jack Buchanan, a film which was lighter than air and more dated than just about anything you’ve ever seen but nevertheless a total delight. In the frothy context of a musical comedy early in the sound era everything seemed to flow beautifully into each other, making for an extremely enjoyable 90 minutes. Here we have elements like a plot point involving the ownership of a Louis XIV bathtub as well as David Niven’s put-upon secretary, which is an enjoyable plot runner on its own—I particularly like how he types out a letter one key at a time in a scene—but since it never really connects or pays off it’s just left hanging there. The pajama gag that opens the film is cute and certainly gets your attention but feels like it’s almost trying too hard to be a meet cute tailor made for Lubitsch by Billy Wilder. At least one gag within the sequence (which Wilder credited to Lubitsch) is the sort of payoff which makes it all worth it, making elegant what might otherwise seem slightly strained. Even better is Colbert’s suggestion to help her leading man fall asleep—try to spell Checkoslovakia backwards, which results in several nice bits of business.

The business of the Cooper’s character innocently spilling the beans on all his previous marriages is cute but the casual way he reveals it doesn’t make much sense even in a screwball comedy making it understandable why she’s so upset and it kills some of the laughs. The way the sequence of events flows in a haphazard fashion is enough to make one wonder if Preston Sturges was inspired to turn around some of this setup for the similar sequence in THE LADY EVE. There’s comical exasperation in that film as well but since the whole thing is a lie the casual revelation makes total sense. To anyone interested in screwball comedy and trying to recreate it for today’s world, BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE (paired on this DVD from the Claudette Colbert Collection with I MET HIM IN PARIS, another romantic comedy set over on the continent but with no involvement by Lubitsch or Wilder--frankly, it did nothing for me) might be a valuable example to study—all the elements imaginable are there, so why doesn’t it work as well as it should? Isolated moments stand out, like Gary Cooper playing the piano while singing “Here Comes Cookie” or even just the look Colbert gives whenever she begins conniving but it’s not enough. It makes me think of INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, the 2003 Coen Brothers screwball effort about marital discord and pre-nuptial agreements with some vague plot similarities, a film which also has moments of absolute brilliance (“Fine! We’ll eat the pastry.”) but ultimately doesn’t fully connect due to some level of comic reality conceivably missing.

Gary Cooper isn’t who immediately comes to mind when you think of casting for a tycoon living in France who gets mixed up in a screwball plotline. It makes me think that it’s not a big surprise how the actor never worked with Preston Sturges, maybe because his very nature would be too slow—still, he got by in 1941’s wonderful BALL OF FIRE, written by Wilder & Brackett and directed by Howard Hawks. That said, he is manages to overcome this fairly quickly here, playing it just right all the way through—his insistence at only buying a pajama top is funny due to how deadly serious he is and I always like any rich tycoon who on a business call with New York takes a moment to ask “how Flash Gordon got out of that burning submarine” in that Sunday’s paper. Claudette Colbert is ideal as well—that’s certainly no surprise—and she slips into this role as smoothly as Lubitsch’s camera sometimes glides. David Niven is particularly funny as the tortured secretary Albert De Regnier, making the most of every moment onscreen even if his part never quite pays off as much as maybe it should have. Playing Colbert’s father, on more than one occasion Edward Everett Horton pulls off the feat of getting a laugh with just a single word in a scene.

The following year saw better results for the writing team of Wilder & Brackett, reteaming with Lubitsch for the genuine classic NINOTCHKA for MGM and they also were responsible for the script for MIDNIGHT, also with Claudette Colbert, which might be as close to an Ernst Lubitsch as one ever got without actually getting Ernst Lubitsch to direct (Mitchell Leisen did). If you haven’t seen either of these films, stop reading right now and get that taken care of. As for BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE, I don’t even like writing something disparaging about it. Out there around the net I find some positive reviews of this film which, aware of what people have said about it, seem a little defensive and why shouldn’t they be? It’s a frothy screwball comedy from the 30s with some of the best people involved. What’s to complain about? In many other cases, that’s exactly the way it is. Looking at this film might be an education to see an example of all the right elements from the right people not quite connecting and with a number of genuine laughs throughout it can in no way actually be called bad. Just problematic. To fully learn about the famed Lubitsch Touch, viewing certain other films might be necessary. Of course, you sometimes still need to see everything a certain director is responsible for so to fully learn about their approach to things and, after all, lesser Lubitsch is still Lubitsch. That much is obvious. And if someone has their own reasons for loving BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE, I’m not going to try arguing the point with them.