Saturday, February 27, 2010

There Is No One Definitive Essence

Going over the latter part of Woody Allen’s career can be problematic a good amount of the time. Let’s face it, he doesn’t always make it easy for those of us who dutifully turn up on each opening weekend, particularly when it feels like he just shot the first draft of whatever emerged from his typewriter. When this happens it’s hard not to think that he didn’t bother to take the time to really try to bring out the potential in whatever the particular film is. And yet, we still faithfully go, hoping for some latter day triumph from the guy while at the same time knowing deep down that we’re not going to get another ANNIE HALL or MANHATTAN or PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO. The terrific VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA from 2008 probably comes closest to such a thing and I had a perfectly enjoyable time seeing WHATEVER WORKS on my birthday last year. But hey, when I was a kid I walked in a blizzard to see HANNAH AND HER SISTERS on opening day (what can I say, I was a weird kid) and I can’t help it, I still look forward to every single new film, hoping for the very best, knowing that probably won’t be the case. See, while I prefer some over others and a couple of times I’ve felt a big letdown (that first draft feel was particularly apparent in CASSANDRA’S DREAM) I’m very aware that this isn’t going to go on forever. And if we really stop to examine what he’s doing in a few of these films that he’s made recently it becomes clear that there are riches to be dug up. Even Quentin Tarantino told the LA Weekly last year when he was mentioned, “I think he’s in a renaissance, except for MELINDA AND MELINDA.” I’m glad that somebody out there noticed and, honestly, I don’t even think that MELINDA AND MELINDA, released in the U.S. in March 2005, is the one to single out as some sort of digression. That’s not to say I don’t know where Tarantino is coming from in making the statement. The film has its pleasures but it’s also fairly representative of how his work from the past decade can be frustrating while still containing some substantial rewards.

Four friends are out at dinner in New York during a rainstorm arguing over the eternal question of whether life is inherently funny or tragic. One of them tells a story, which we don’t hear, to ask which one they think it is and two of them, both playwrights, offer up their own version—interestingly the one who argues that life is inherently tragic sees it as a romantic comedy and the one who sees life as comic comes up with a tragedy (these four people combined can be seen as Woody making these arguments in his own head). The serious version of the story is about a woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) who barges in on a dinner part being thrown by old friend Laurel (ChloĆ« Sevigny) and her husband, struggling actor Lee (Jonny Lee Miller). Though Melinda has gone through some serious troubles in her past Laurel attempts to find a man to set her up with but when she meets piano player Ellis Moonsong (Chiwetel Ejifor) on her own, both women wind up attracted to him. The comic version is about another woman named Melinda (also Mitchell) who stumbles into a dinner party being thrown by struggling actor Hobie (Will Ferrell) and his director wife Susan (Amanda Peet) who takes on the task of trying to set Melinda up with somebody even while Hobie secretly falls in love with her. Certain specific themes and ideas recur from one story to the other, some more subtle than others.

The issue of how Woody Allen’s films have teetered between the serious and the comical has long been something he’s dealt with. As good as something like the underappreciated ANOTHER WOMAN might be, it’s hard not to acknowledge that some of his richest work has been the ones where he’s succeeded in combining the two. As the years went on towards titles like CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS and HUSBANDS AND WIVES as a director he seemed to get more confident in attempting such clashes of tone. The basic idea of MELINDA AND MELINDA feels almost like it could be some grand ultimate statement on his part of what the man as writer wants to say about his own creativity best exemplified when Wallace Shawn, in coming up with the humorous tale, offers, “He’s despondent, he’s desperate, he’s suicidal. All the comic elements are in place.” It makes it all the more unfortunate how the final film winds up feeling a little too much like just another toss-off, one that Woody actually did come up with while sitting at dinner with people and it diminishes the final result. Both stories we get come off as kind of half-baked and though they both do get better as they go along (the serious section has a particularly effective feel of lives unfulfilled that I wish had been developed more) too much of it comes off as stilted, too many of the characters are ultimately not all that compelling. These people inhabit a world of plays, classical music and dreams of vacation houses in the Hamptons that feels a little too insular, locked inside of Woody’s head and even when they manage to break out it’s not always a good thing--when we finally get to hear the serious Melinda’s full backstory I lose all sympathy or any other kind of interest I had in her and after this it makes every time she’s told by her friends what a catch she is ring hollow.

There are laughs here and there but very often the jokes, even the ones that work, seem to come from another time like the all-female film Peet’s character is making titled THE CASTRATION SONATA and a disparaging mention of an actor taking a job in a deodorant commercial just seems very 1974. Not to mention the occasional out-of-time phrases we hear like a reference to placing an ad in the personals or somebody mentioning their “laundress”, things that keep the story far away from the decade the movie has been made in. Also, while I can believe that Chloe Sevigny, Radha Mitchell and Brooke Smith are friends, they still don’t look like they’re all the same age. On the other hand, Woody seems to have realized that people are now using cell phones and there’s even a reference to prozac, so there’s a few points in his favor. The inconsistency of the film means that such little things are constantly standing out but then it also will surprise with a number of bracingly well done moments where the elements really do come together-there’s a strikingly intimate scene in a dark bistro between Sevigny and Ejifor that stands out. Credit for much of this could possibly go to the one and only Vilmos Zsigmond who served as D.P., presenting a crisp looking New York all throughout (even if it is an anachronistic, stylized New York that exists only as Woody Allen sees it) and such moments are there if you look for them. Maybe because of the cinematographer’s involvement the film has a slightly stronger visual style, without making a big deal about it, than a few other Woody films from recent years in which he would just plop the camera down and let the actors play out the scene. The film’s visual strength combined with how the two different stories cleverly wind up complimenting each other is much of the reason why it ultimately holds together as well as it does. The similarities and differences between both versions, such as the appearance of a lamp to rub, allows for more resonance on repeated viewings and gives us the chance to pay more attention to how they mirror each other—the running gag of Ferrell’s character always playing parts “with a limp” is silly, I’ll admit that, but it does have a certain thematic resonance.

If there is any particular problem with the film that goes beyond anything else, it’s that the most purely enjoyable part of it is the framing device with the friends played by Larry Pine, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Neil Pepe and, best of all, Wallace Shawn, each of them more likable than anyone else in the entire movie. Yes, it feels like they just walked over from a taping of The Dick Cavett Show in the early 70s but seeing this movie again for the first time in a few years I still find myself wishing I could sit down to join the four of them for dinner and coffee. They seem like they’d be interesting, fun people to talk with and it’s unfortunate that the film doesn’t spend more time with them (the comics in BROADWAY DANNY ROSE got more screen time), maybe even follow them into their own movie when this one ends while we’re at it.

Some of the film's issues extend to the casting, though both halves contain a variety of strong performances. Radha Mitchell has some excellent moments in both guises but the serious half is hampered by a shaky accent during some particularly serious moments and the lighter version of her character doesn’t play as quirky as maybe she could have been, not quite seeming worth building a movie (or even half a movie) around. Will Ferrell comes off as likable but at times seems unsure of how to play things at times in what is pretty much the Woody role but his proudly stating that he got a voiceover job followed by the embarrassing admission, “It’s the voice of a toothpaste” is a cute moment. Apparently Winona Ryder and Robert Downey Jr., Woody’s first choices for the roles, didn’t work out due to insurance issues which is a shame because it sounds like that could have been a much stronger movie, one that might not have felt so insular. The supporting cast contains several considerably stronger performances—Sevigny attacks the over annunciated phrases that have been scripted for her full-on, managing to make an ultimately unpleasant character always somehow compelling (honest admission: I sometimes find Sevigny fascinating and Allen uses the actress very well here, with her close-ups in the bistro scene particularly beguiling). Likewise, Ejifor takes his awkwardly scripted character from “Harlem, U.S.A.” and gives him an inner life that goes beyond his dialogue maybe more than anyone else here, making him someone always engaging to watch. Amanda Peet spars with Ferrell in an enjoyable way (“Of course we communicate. Now can we not talk about it?”), Josh Brolin gets a few funny moments bouncing on a trampoline as a rich dentist who one Melinda gets set up with and EYES WIDE SHUT’s Vinessa Shaw does a lot with her tiny role as a gorgeous investment counselor who once posed for Playboy (“Hard to believe that a Republican could be that sexual”) that Ferrell goes on a disastrous date with--based on her few minutes here, somebody needs to cast Shaw in a screwball comedy and fast. There’s some odd waste too-- Steve Carell, pre-THE OFFICE and THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN turns up in a few small scenes as Ferrell’s best friend to no effect at all—it’s like he was cast as a favor to Ferrell with Woody never realizing who he had in his movie. There is some nice use of music throughout from the expected standards but also some particularly effective use of Bartok as well as the way the soundtrack from THE BLACK CAT plays as we see Vinessa Shaw for the first time.

Fine, I admit it. I don’t mind this film. At its best, I even like it quite a bit. I’m sitting here now, watching some of it again and enjoying it just fine. True, it’s not MANHATTAN which is one of those films I could sit down and watch at a moment’s notice but when it works MELINDA AND MELINDA is a rewarding look at the concept of just what a story is and why we choose to approach telling one in a certain way, whether it’s inherently funny or serious. Or both. It’s not everything it could be but it doesn’t deserve easy dismissal either. And, to say it once again, there’s something fortunate about getting to live in a time when new Woody Allen movies still come out. We won’t always be that lucky.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Just Look At The Pictures

It was maybe about an hour into THE BRINK’S JOB that I was finally able to stop looking at it as a William Friedkin film and just take it as a low-key heist picture, a sort of romp. A good time, no big deal, nothing to get too worked up over, but still enjoyable. So I decided to watch it a second time and…again, I found myself thinking of it as a William Friedkin film. But since this is Friedkin we’re talking about, somebody who there are certain expectations of, that’s not really that much of a surprise. His portrayal of process, of how something comes together, something he places over character and maybe even clarity of tone--it’s the sort of thing we expect from the guy and when it’s something as breezy as this film is it’s tough to know what to make of it. Released in December 1978, it’s easy to imagine that for the director the project was a chance to reign in his stylistic extremes after the box-office failure of the remarkable but financially disappointing SORCERER, to prove to the money men that he could be a good boy and give the people a movie they’d want to see. The result may be kind of a lark, but that’s not to completely disregard it. It goes for finding some kind of middle ground between the goofiness you might expect from the poster (Funny heist movie with Peter Falk!) and the intense Friedkin experience that we would anticipate, so even if it just sort of winds up hovering over some middle ground in the end, it’s still a fairly enjoyable ride.

Based on a true story and set in Boston mostly during the post-war years, THE BRINK’S JOB follows small time Boston crook Tony Pino (Peter Falk) who almost accidentally stumbles onto the knowledge that the security in the world famous Brink’s security company isn’t as strong as people would have thought. Once he and his gang pull off a minor Brink’s truck heist which doesn’t turn up in the papers, their curiosity is piqued and as they explore the company’s security further they decide to go for what may be the biggest score of all time.

It’s pretty mild stuff which is a particular surprise coming from somebody like Friedkin who doesn’t seem to have a lighthearted bone in his body, let alone an actual sense of humor that would aid in possibly directing actors delivering comic performances. THE BRINK’S JOB is a very slight picture, continually seeming like it’s going to build into something more than it is but never does. The stripped down nature of the storytelling which avoids blatant exposition does actually feel like Friedkin, maybe more than anything else here, but it’s certainly not something that aims for any amount of ambiguity or disorientation like his other films do. Everything is pretty much presented to us in a clear manner, with very few digressions that someone else might have incorporated to make it more of a character piece or even an outright comedy—giving us Peter Falk in the lead it almost manages to become that anyway considering how much enjoyment the actor brings to every single line reading. With a screenplay by Walon Green (who also wrote SORCERER, not to mention being one of the screenwriters on THE WILD BUNCH) from the novel “Big Stickup at Brinks” by Noel Behn THE BRINK’S JOB maintains a straight ahead style much of the time keeping the dialogue for the actors at ground level, with just what we see and hear used to maintain the buildup and no more. There’s some very good Boston flavor that comes from the location work and that’s about as much meat as we ever get from it.

To keep the upbeat tempo going we get a bouncy music score by Richard Rodney Bennett that helps make it all more of a romp than anything (the old standard “Accentuate the Positive" is heard a few times as well), never going for a tone as serious as RIFIFI (or even 2008’s terrific THE BANK JOB, also based on a true story) but not a total piece of fluff (like, say, TOPKAPI or either version of THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR) either. If anything it feels like just about the director’s most user-friendly film, a deliberate step back from the storytelling extremes he had toyed with in the past in order to make something that might appeal to everybody. Someone better than I am is going to have to figure out an auteurist link from THE BRINK’S JOB to those other films but it feels like such a thing wasn’t the idea behind this film anyway, the brief fight that takes place at an elevated subway station aside. There’s no real ambiguity, no particular portrayal of obsession since the job is just portrayed as what these guys naturally do and no drastic disorientation for the viewer beyond the question of why it takes them so long to plan for the heist (which I’m admittedly fuzzy on—it feels like we’re in 1944, then suddenly it’s 1950 with no real explanation). With the possible exception of THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S, which also barely seems to count, it’s as close to a lark as the director has ever made. The question, of course, might be that if William Friedkin isn’t going to be challenging or openly trying to piss us off in portraying an insane display of the dregs of humanity, then shouldn’t we just get somebody else to direct this thing? I don’t really have the answer to that one.

Nothing all that bad ever happens to the characters—it’s not a movie where the guys kill each other over the money or the mob coming after them to get it, after all—so ultimately there’s nothing to really build to other than a feeling of “Hey, whaddya gonna do?” Maybe that’s all they wanted it to be. The FBI in the person of none other than Sheldon Leonard playing J. Edgar Hoover comes into play, heralded by a bouncy official fanfare that could have come from an old YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS sketch and I suppose it portrays the bureau as coming to greater power in order to crack these cases—if the movie is meant to be ‘about’ anything, I suppose it’s to show us the one last time in history when small-timers could have possibly pulled off this kind of heist, crooks who are also nice guys that don’t want to scare old ladies to death when they rob a place. They’re too stupid to know how crazy what they want to do is but also smart enough to figure out the holes in the system to get it done, holes that were placed there by the cocky establishment represented by the Brink’s company who would never have imagined that somebody would actually try to do this. At one point, Hoover gravely states “This could be the most dangerous conspiracy that’s ever threatened this nation,” then we naturally cut to a few of the crooks doing something totally mundane and unthreatening. From the way the shot is staged it’s not even clear that Friedkin knows the joke that’s supposed to go there anyway but it’s still a nice moment.

THE BRINK’S JOB isn’t really a completely lighthearted caper and it’s not a grim crime film either. It’s enjoyable in a mellow kind of way but maybe not much more than that. By the end it feels like the movie gradually arrives at its conclusion as opposed to actually climaxing—you can almost imagine someone going to the bathroom not worried about missing anything, then when they return the credits are suddenly rolling. It does feel like something is missing which may indeed be the case—running times of both 118 minutes and 103 minutes have been listed (the film remains unreleased on DVD but the version running on HBO lately has the shorter length). The film’s editor Bud Smith (who also cut SORCERER and CRUISING) is quoted in Laurent Bouzereau’s book “The Cutting Room Floor” as saying that they “made the mistake of taking out fifteen minutes of the film,” with no elaboration, which might account for the vague feeling of incompleteness in the end, that there wasn’t very much to all this. Ultimately, THE BRINK’S JOB is just about the most pleasant heist movie ever, maybe even moreso than BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET, and it’s all the more surprising considering who made the thing. But maybe that was exactly what he had in mind. It doesn’t leave you with much in the end, but it’s a pleasant enough way to not get somewhere in a hurry.

Peter Falk, no surprise, is always terrific to watch when bouncing off his other actors and this part fits him like a glove so much it feels like he might have slept on the sets when everyone else went home at night. The bounce he brings to every movement he makes winds up responsible for much of the jaunty feel that the movie gives off. The character is believably not the sharpest tool in the shed but, since he’s somebody who doesn’t “just look at the pictures” when he reads comic books, he knows enough to put this plan together. His big speech where he casually spits out his philosophies of how he wants to approach life doesn’t feel totally out of place coming from him as a result. The supporting cast including Allen Garfield (billed as Allen Goorwitz in this, the third straight film featuring him on this site. Make it stop!), Peter Boyle (in his second straight film on this site), Paul Sorvino and the great Warren Oates are all fun to watch, with Oates in particular elevating his part beyond what we would have expected at first glance. Gena Rowlands is sort of wasted as Falk’s wife (it’s easy to guess that she was cast just because they were friends) but she’s a strong enough actress to make us believe that she supports her guy in what he does no matter what. It’s Gena Rowlands, so even if she gets just a few moments they wind up mattering.

When you come right down to it, it’s hard not to look at THE BRINK’S JOB as a William Friedkin movie that involves a slapstick sequence in a gumball factory, but it’s not really as wild as that makes it sound. If I sound a little flummoxed by the whole thing then maybe that’s because I’m looking for something that really isn’t there, something to tell me why William Friedkin directed this beyond that it seemed like a good idea at the time. It probably was. You’re not going to tell me that this is a bad film, just a mild one that never goes full throttle on any level. There’s still some fun stuff in there and thought the slightly screwy take on the material doesn’t linger in the brain when the film is done it’s still nice to have around while it’s there.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Some Things You're Never Gonna Understand

It probably makes sense that if you keep seeing enough movies then sooner or later you’re going to stumble across the funniest James Caan movie that no one has ever heard of, not to mention the greatest role that Sally Kellerman ever had. As a result you wind up wondering what kept you from seeing it a long time ago. The tape was sitting there in Jerry’s Video all those years I rented from them but Jerry’s is gone now so I had to go seek this film out elsewhere. The unexpected pleasures of SLITHER, released in 1973, begin immediately after the MGM lion roars with character actor Richard B. Shull singing an incessantly upbeat version of “Happy Days Are Here Again”, clearly remembering every single word of every single verse. Meanwhile, James Caan sits beside him clearly not believing a word of it and as things start to happen to him we see why. There’s very little point in trying to explain the charms of SLITHER so maybe I shouldn’t even bother writing this. After a protracted start that barely makes it clear what kind of movie this is going to be, not getting to the opening credits until nearly ten minutes in, the film’s charms begin to sneak up in a way that is totally unexpected and it becomes more and more disarming by the minute. The tone is always slightly goofier than you expect but somehow grounded at the same time until the thing is suddenly over and you almost want to say, “What the hell was that? Can I please watch it again immediately?” Somehow light on plot and enormously complicated at the same time, SLITHER is the sort of film that could have killed its comic approach with too heavy a hand but pulls off the balance just right. I’m still smiling from whole stretches of the movie and I wish I could organize a party around getting people to see it for the first time now that I have.

Released from prison after a two year stretch, car thief Dick Kanipsia (James Caan) is traveling with buddy Harry Moss (Richard B. Shull) also just released. Intending to stop by Harry’s place just to have a beer, there celebration is halted by gunfire and before expiring Harry is able to give Dick two names—one, Barry Fenaka, who he’s supposed to track down and two, Vincent Palmer, the name he’s supposed to give Fenaka. Dick tracks down Barry (Peter Boyle) and his wife Mary (Louise Lasser) and they soon set out on the road with Fenaka’s Airstream to retrieve the money that Harry and Barry once embezzled and is now being held elsewhere by a third party. Also figuring into things is the awesomely named Kitty Kopetzky (Sally Kellerman) who Dick encounters out on the road and is even crazier than she looks, not to mention the mysterious black van that seems to be following Dick wherever he goes. There are other things I could reveal, entire pages of dialogue I could quote, but there’s no fun in giving it away.

Certainly one of the best films to ever have a key suspense sequence set at a Bingo game, SLITHER (no relation to the 2006 film directed by James Gunn) is a road movie that is never in much of a rush to get anywhere which turns out to be ok by me, considering how much fun it is to not be in any kind of rush. The directorial debut of Howard Zieff (later behind the likes of PRIVATE BENJAMIN) and written by W.D. Richter (later the writer of the screenplays for INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS ’78 and the immortal BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA) SLITHER barely has a moment that isn’t unexpectedly engaging in some way, creeping up on you with details that may or may not be important until later on but while trying to figure these things out you begin laughing almost before you realize it. There’s not even really that much to say about the film—it would be better if you discovered all its surprises for yourself—and in that sense it’s extremely slight, minor, a movie where barely anything of note seems to happen, but who cares. It’s about the tiny pleasures that build up, the characters which first appear to be suspicious yet suddenly, without warning, become likable. And sometimes the likable ones become suspicious.

There’s so much to enjoy throughout---the way Peter Boyle’s character loves listening to the swing music that he had transferred from old 78s to 8-track tapes, how every single nutso line out of Sally Kellerman’s mouth is something unexpected, the banal villainy of every guy we see wearing a short sleeve button down shirt, the exasperation of James Caan as he wonders why no one ever seems to listen to him. Then there’s the recurring bad guy music that comes onto the soundtrack every time that black van drives onscreen which gets funnier every single time it happens. It’s close to the halfway mark before the plot bothers to kick in, if it ever even does. And it doesn’t matter. Why is it called SLITHER? Aside from that it just kind of slithers along, not in any hurry, beats me. In the end, SLITHER isn’t about much more than how the world is one giant nuthouse and the people who look the most normal are probably the ones you need to watch out for the most--maybe watch out for the ones who look crazy as well, just in case. And even that is probably a stretch. The happy days you may be waiting to be here again may never come and all that may be left is to travel down the road encountering every nutcase out there. Which is good enough for me. It’s hard not to think that the Coen Brothers are big fans (Harlan Ellison loved it as well) and like their best comedies, it doesn’t provide big laughs so much as a general stream of laughter that becomes gradually bigger as the ongoing repetitions build up. Why this film doesn’t have more of a cult following is a mystery, one of those strange quirks of fate that makes about as much sense as anything that happens during the full 97 minutes before it drifts off and we wonder what the hell we just saw. It must play great with a crowd.

The film has an amazing cast with each playing along with things in an unpredictable manner. James Caan works his slow burn to fantastic effect, coming off as likable and believably exasperated. When he says, “I don’t know how to deal with you…You’re goddamn crazy!” to Kellerman it comes off as the most natural thing in the world because, well, she is. Sally Kellerman has probably the best role of her career as that crazy person, driving barefoot, popping pills, eating junk food and possibly some sort of witch but you can barely follow what she says at any given moment (“There's this battle going on inside me. The forces of evil against the forces of light. I'll swing with the winner.”). The actress freely bungee jumps into this mundane insanity with expert precision and attacks every nutso line she has with huge amounts of relish. She’s hugely sexy in the role as well, making her physical aggressiveness part of her very being even when she’s just sitting down. Boyle (who worked with Zieff again on 1989’s THE DREAM TEAM) keeps a few strands of hair combed over his bald head and correctly maintains the correctly screwy balance of not making it certain how much you can trust this guy. Lasser, whose character prefers to ride in the Airstream, has a few endearing moments where she tells Caan about the crush she had on him in high school and Shull (one of the best things in Zieff’s remake of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS years later) brings some quirky humanity into his brief role at the start. Allen Garfield (in his second straight film on this site) makes a crucial appearance as someone with information on the mysterious Vincent Palmer and Alex Rocco plays the key role of “Man With Ice Cream”, sharing the screen with James Caan just as he would in FREEBIE AND THE BEAN but not, of course, in THE GODFATHER.

Watching some of it again, I find myself loving just hanging out with these characters, as ridiculous as they are, and listening to this oddball dialogue as it drifts out, not caring if we respond or not. (“We’re being followed.” “Where?” “Where? Behind us.”) Zieff handles this tonally in an expert manner (there’s an incessantly catchy score by Tom McIntosh as well) but it feels like much of the credit should go to Richter for his screenplay with gobs of continually funny and unexpected dialogue. Not to mention the turns in the plot which at times feel more like accidental stumbles by the characters who can’t figure out what’s going on any more than we can. (I don’t know if there’s much to tie this film into BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA aside from Richter, but anyone who loves that film should seek out SLITHER immediately) All the elements come together as if it were being performed by a finely tuned company, everyone in synch with each other. The final result is filled with pleasures and yet the feeling it gives off of wanting to get out there on the road and keep moving fits right in with the road films of the early 70s. Shortly after one of its characters exclaims ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ near the end we hear that familiar wind that could be associated with films of this time, the one that you hear out on those long stretches highway that feel like they go on forever. The wind is out there, the happy days are out there, but they’ll probably always pass you by as you keep on looking for it. A twisted flipside to all the other early 70s road films which makes it the ideal chaser to follow something like TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, FIVE EASY PIECES or SCARECROW on a double bill, SLITHER is a huge surprise to finally catch up with on the long road of movies, mostly hidden away from the world on some forgotten stretch of highway but still there to provide pleasures for anyone willing to seek it out.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Once Wasn't Good Enough

For those people who always thought that FREEBIE AND THE BEAN wasn’t offensive enough and that the lead characters didn’t display enough callous disregard for public safety you could always try BUSTING, the nearly-forgotten buddy cop movie that was released in early 1974, still a number of months before those other two cops managed to trash half of San Francisco. The directorial debut of Peter Hyams, who also wrote the script, BUSTING teams Elliott Gould and Robert Blake in another iteration of two cops intent on angering everyone in sight while trying to nab their prey as innocent bystanders get hurt in the crossfire, a subgenre which seems right at home in the early 70s. So that takes care of Arkin and Caan, Gould and Blake--where’s the politically incorrect buddy cop movie with George Segal and Donald Sutherland from that period, anyway? BUSTING isn’t as free-wheeling as FREEBIE AND THE BEAN and therefore not as much fun but it has different enough ambitions to slightly set it apart. In terms of action it really doesn’t compare and maybe shouldn’t even be considered an action movie at all but instead a cynical, somewhat downbeat cop drama with dashes of potent, offensive humor tossed in there. It stands apart from the crowd of other cop movies enough to defy easy categorization while also providing a sharp look at the two stars at this point in their careers. It also has more going on than it seems it will at first, managing to sneak up on you in the end.

It’s very loose in the plotting but BUSTING focuses on vice cops Michael Keneely (Elliott Gould, with a giant mustache) and Patrick Farrel (Robert Blake, clean-shaven). Spending much of their long hours on the job trying to bust hookers, drug dealers, sex shops and sex clubs they're also intent on taking down crime boss Carl Rizzo (Allen Garfield). Many of their busts lead right to Rizzo but as they attempt to get closer and take him down the partners find barricades placed in front of them at every opportunity not just from what they encounter on the street but from up on above in the department as well.

FREEBIE AND THE BEAN is probably known by only cinephiles and film geeks these days, but its reputation was enough to fill up the Egyptian when they ran it a year ago. I doubt that BUSTING would do the same if it played and I’d never even heard of it until relatively recently. Beats me how I missed hearing about it but I’m glad I caught up with it now even if I did have to seek it out on VHS—no DVD release has ever been in sight for this thing. BUSTING is a pretty grimy piece of work in the way movies were during those days and it was hard not to feel like washing my hands a number of times while watching it, maybe even take an extra shower or two. It’s similar to FREEBIE in the callous way the two leads are willing to burst into places for the bust, disregarding the rules that have been set up (also like FREEBIE, this film will definitely win no points with GLAAD and BUSTING is probably worse in that regard) but their determination also recalls Popeye Doyle and Cloudy Russo in THE FRENCH CONNECTION, with this film ultimately coming off as even more cynical. For that matter, the meager sliver of power these two guys wield over the ones they drag into jail only goes so far and it’s in this sense the BUSTING sets itself apart, giving us a pair who are totally helpless when it comes to the more powerful forces hovering over them as they try to do their jobs. Clearly shot in good ol’ Los Angeles but never identified as such (I imagine the LAPD wouldn’t cooperate with a film that implies this level of corruption) BUSTING presents a world where it doesn’t matter how many hours you put in to take down the bad guys, they’re just going to go free anyway and there’s not a damn thing you can do to stop it. The DON’T WALK sign that starts the film could be seen as a warning to the two leads—don’t bother doing any of this, nothing good can come to make it worth the trouble and it stays true to that right up to the bitter finale.

With its focus on what the two lead characters aren’t able to accomplish, BUSTING can barely even be called an action movie, but the combo of 70s, Gould and Blake make it a must for anyone whose eyes light up at those elements. As an added plus, there are even two absolutely dynamite action setpieces, a foot chase that comes close to the midway point and the second at the climax, a chase featuring two ambulances, with both extremely well-executed done in a style that sets it apart from other such films around this time (very cool score by Billy Goldenberg as well). It’s not the rollicking good time that the endless action scenes in FREEBIE are, with a surprising harshness to the violence, but the futile nature of this film is obviously going for a different result. The ultimate message of FREEBIE AND THE BEAN is that as insane as their world is at least the two leads have each other to kick the crap out of—in the case of BUSTING, it’s just not enough. The familiar traits of Scope, smoke and low light levels that Peter Hyams would later become notorious hadn’t really begun to develop at this point and the visual style is fairly similar to other cop movies at the time. If anything distinguishes the film cinematically (the D.P. was Earl Rath, who mostly worked in TV) it’s the extensive dolly shots used throughout particularly during a few chase scenes but also turning up at other points as well. Coming a few years before the steadicam was implemented that sort of feel is clearly what Hyams is going for even if his camera is obviously locked down on wheels with extensive rapid movement used as it goes down numerous hallways and, most noticeably, during the big footchase leading to a shootout in Grand Central Market. The pronounced imperfections that are evident from using the dolly make it more noticeable, but it adds a funkiness that completely adds to the scrappy tone of the film, making it feel that much more alive. If he saw it, it’s hard not to wonder what Kubrick thought of all this footage.

The two leads, both with cigarettes hanging from their lips which one of them never lights, are extremely cool all the way and maybe almost too laid back by a certain point. When compared to Arkin and Caan who were always at each others throats in their movie (and I know I keep harping on it, but it’s hard not to compare the two films), Gould and Blake seem to click together almost a little too well in their rhythms which sometimes keeps things at a low hum when it really needs to pick up some steam. Gould, also always chewing gum, has fantastic moments throughout with his loose manner coming off as a clear extension of his work on THE LONG GOODBYE—there’s definitely some Marlowe in the moment when he first enters the men’s room in the park. But this character lets his true feelings hang out a little more in comparison, made most clear in a long scene in the toilet stall he’s been forced to stake out where he reveals what being a cop once meant to him. When he reveals these things about himself after all the grime we’ve already witnessed it flat-out stings. Gould is also just great in a few silent beats he gets on occasion and it’s not much of a surprise that Hyams used him again in CAPRICORN ONE a few years later. Whether by accident or design the film seems to emphasize him slightly over Blake (the ratio is maybe 60-40), whose scrappy nature adds immeasurably to his character but there’s still the feeling at times that he’s interacting with Gould more than he is playing for the effect of the film, causing him to slightly disappear in comparison. It’s hard not to notice that he calls Allen Garfield ‘Spanky’ a few times, though. Garfield, who was in about ten million movies around this time, terrifically oozes slime as the crime kingpin who’s not the least bit concerned about these guys trying to bust him. Future Oscar nominee Michael Lerner, Antonio Fargas and Sid Haig are among those who turn up throughout. The very intriguing Cornelia Sharpe plays the hooker in the opening scenes, making such an impression it’s surprising to see that she didn’t do more in her career.

Gaining in seriousness as its running time continues, BUSTING holds back on any sort of catharsis and doesn’t even offer the small amount of triumph in its climax that the end of THE FRENCH CONNECTION did. To its credit, it holds true to its bitter convictions right up until the final image. Just over 90 minutes, BUSTING is potent stuff that gives us sleazy sex shops, hookers that pay visits to dentist’s offices, homophobic slurs and a pair of cops dealing with how little good is actually coming of all their nasty work. The balance it pulls off feels so skilled that it makes you wish that the career of Peter Hyams had wound up going a little more in this direction. Well, CAPRICORN ONE is kinda fun, I’ll admit that. Something like this film was probably only possible in the 70s but at least it survives now, even if only on VHS. It may not be fair that it’s the only way to see it but as this film nastily displays, little about life is really ever fair.

Friday, February 12, 2010

You Don't Have To Know About It

True, I’m not employed these days which some people might consider a bad thing but the good part of the situation is that I don’t have to get stressed out over all sorts of ridiculous occurrences like I would at the place I once worked. There’s still plenty in life to get stressed out over, obviously, but several things are certain for the time being--I can freely go for long walks in the middle of the day. I can go meet a friend and her dog, I’m able to drive down to the ocean and stare out at it for a long time. And I can write. There are times when I’m not sure that I can bring myself to care about anything else. So it was in this frame of mind that I encountered the free spirit charms of the little-known QUACKSER FORTUNE HAS A COUSIN IN THE BRONX, which seems to confirm some of these feelings I have. Originally released in 1970, it’s easy to place it alongside other such coming-of-age films of the time, with maybe some of it recalling GOODBYE, COLUMBUS in terms of its class concerns, but the film has a particular nature of its own. There are tonal issues here and there but it’s still a sweet movie, one that was interesting to finally catch up with, particularly considering the two people who star in it.

Quackser Fortune (Gene Wilder) lives a carefree Dublin existence in his family’s tiny house as he ekes out a meager living as a manure salesman, spending much of his days pushing his cart around the city collecting his merchandise from the horses who make the daily milk deliveries and freely ignores his father’s demands that he take a job at the nearby foundry as he would be expected to do. One day he meets Zazel (Margot Kidder) a beautiful rich American girl taking classes at Trinity nearby who takes a sudden interest in him. They quickly hit it off in spite of having little in common, though just as they’re getting to know each other Quackser’s life is further turned upside down when modernization causes the horses to be sent away and replaced by trucks, essentially putting him out of business. He knows that it’s only a certain amount of time before Zazel returns to America and he must soon come to a decision what to do with the hand life is dealing him.

In Danny Peary’s “The Guide for the Film Fanatic”, which I first read over two decades ago, the writer refers to this film as ‘a cult favorite for college-age viewers mostly due to its non-conformist stance but those days have probably long since passed. I’m not sure if many people my age, let alone college students, have even heard of QUACKSER FORTUNE HAS A COUSIN IN THE BRONX anymore and to some people it would probably be little more than an oddity if only because of the two leads. Certainly not perfect, the film presents a character that is flawed in his simplicity but it the respectful way in which it presents him means that he’s not made to represent all that’s pure and good in the world. Quackser Fortune barely knows how to read or write and even comes off as completely unaware of how much contempt Zazel’s college friends treat him with when he comes into contact with them.

Directed by Waris Hussein and written by Gabriel Walsh, QUACKSER FORTUNE occasionally comes close to treating its lead character with too much of a Chaplin-like pathos but he’s ultimately canny enough that this is avoided. He has no interest in a ‘normal job’ but he’s certainly not an innocent, particularly in his dalliances with the local spinster on his route played (very well) by Eileen Colgan, and all he really wants is a certain amount of freedom in life. He’s not even trying to flee Ireland for America, though the possibility continually looms as a threat put there by his parents. Quackser clearly isn’t the smartest person around—and it may be a flaw in how the film goes almost a little too far in displaying this—but at it’s best it portrays him not as stupid either but as someone who only knows that he doesn’t want to be sucked into the soul-deadening life he sees all around him. He’s just trying to avoid what a life working in the foundry would mean to his spirit, to the dreams that he has of nothing but holding on to the freedom of being outside all day with the ability to go where you want. It’s not the greatest life that he leads, but it is a life and it’s by his own rules, which is something.

And when they come together the two leads make for an engaging couple, even though their differences keep them from always knowing where the other is coming from (“You silly bitch. You don’t even understand,” he tells her harshly at one point). A free spirit who gladly gives up her shoes when asked, Zazel represents something that Quackser’s never had, never even considered, a piece of the future coming to tell him that he doesn’t have to give up his freedom but there’s still more possible in this life. She’s ultimately an enigma who only ever tells him just part of what she’s feeling at any given time but maybe there’s no other way to present her. “Are you happy?” she asks Quackser at one key point and I believe that it’s important to Zazel at that moment that he is. I know that in my life I’ve seen that smile she gives him before in my life when they sit for tea with his mother. Makes me miserable just thinking about it. If there’s one thing the best women you encounter in life have in common it’s that their influence makes you want to be better, to accomplish things and under certain circumstances you really do emerge from that relationship in a better place than you were when you started.

QUACKSER FORTUNE HAS A COUSIN IN THE BRONX (the title refers to the cousin Quackser and his family often speaks of, who interestingly lives in a borough where the Hartford-bred Zazel has never been either) isn’t about leaving where you are behind or in solving a problem with empty gestures—and at one point I thought that was how it was going to resolve itself—but in genuinely making progress, avoiding the cynicism that something like the GOODBYE, COLUMBUS movie had. Some tonal uncertainties make me think that a more disciplined directorial hand would have helped get a handle on the film’s tone which just strolls along when it needs to glide--one drunk scene in the local pub late in the film in particular makes sense but it feels like Hussein doesn’t have any other idea of how to present things beyond the gimmick of a fisheye lens (this aside, the cinematography by the legendary Gil Taylor evocatively portrays the city of Dublin and its surroundings). That slight crassness which creeps in on occasion keeps it from being more satisfying than it is and a few times I couldn’t help but think of how it was a sort of early attempt to do the sort of ‘nice’ provincial movie the likes of Miramax would do years later. But the best parts of QUACKSER FORTUNE give off a nice vibe, often backed up by the lovely score by Michael Dress, with a certain amount of depth to it as well. It’s not about turning your back on what and where you are but of making something of the possibilities that really do lie in front of you.

Gene Wilder (who apparently tried to get Jean Renoir to direct at an early stage) doesn’t seem like perfect casting for someone from Dublin and it would probably make more sense if it were someone younger playing the character (even though dialogue refers to him as being ‘nearly thirty’ he still seems just a shade away from being too old for the role) and I’m not sure he fully overcomes that. Certainly the moments where he seems to be going for a more overt ‘Chaplinesque’ approach are the most problematic but there are times when he seems to drop that and just become this person with zero gimmicks just by being present in the scene. The ultimate effect is that if Wilder seems a little out of place in this environment that actually makes a little sense. Margot Kidder is beguiling, no doubt about it (boy, she was fetching way back then and there’s brief nudity too, in case anyone cares) and manages to hold close to her vest just what her character thinks about Quackser. How much of this is in the script is tough to say but Kidder is such an evocative presence that it makes us always wonder how the gears are turning in her head. She silently makes it clear that she likes him but, clearly uncomfortable whenever Quackser comes within proximity of her school friends, also never seems to think of him as anything more than a diversion before she has to go back to the life that’s expected of her in Hartford. These things all combine to give us an intriguing glimpse of her, but we know it’s never the entire picture and that’s the way it should be.

In the middle of writing this piece over the past several days I happened to hear part of an episode of the NPR show “Bookworm” in which an extensive discussion of The Kreutzer Sonata was taking place. As I listened to this, I suddenly found myself thinking of how a certain girl who I knew long, long ago introduced me to The Kreutzer Sonata, both the musical work by Beethoven and the novella by Tolstoy. She was certainly someone who opened my eyes to some things in life and while listening to the piece on NPR I suddenly found myself wanting to pull the car over to the side of the road and lose myself in some sort of reverie of the past. QUACKSER FORTUNE HAS A COUSIN IN THE BRONX (which I saw on DVD in a very poor-looking transfer, but at least the film is out there) is slight and it does have its flaws but the best parts of the idiosyncrasies that arise from its setting and two lead characters add up to something special during the brief 86 minute running time. It offers certain rewards in the end and in its own way gives me even more to think about the next time I take one of those very long walks in the middle of the day.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Everybody Deserves A Second Chance

Released in August 1988, Jonathan Demme’s MARRIED TO THE MOB came less than two years after his remarkable SOMETHING WILD and while it continues the previous film’s portrayal of a type of Americana Funk that the director really began to excel in around this time within its stylistic extremes it’s also a much more minor work. Very lightweight stuff, it plays more like a lark than just about anything he’s done throughout his long career. For all I know this tone was an extremely strenuous thing to pull off for the director, but the fact is that it's the style combined with how the film uses its actors that you remember about it after the final credits have rolled, certainly more than anything about the story. It’s to Demme’s credit that he keeps what little depth it all has limited to making sure that the people never wind up as caricatures but for the most part it has about as much substance as listening to Rosemary Clooney sing “Mambo Italiano”, the song that enjoyably plays over the opening credits. It’s all a great deal of fun, but extreme depth shouldn’t be what you’re looking for. It is, however, a nice reminder of the much more playful director that Demme used to be as well as being a look at emerging talents from back in 1988, some of whom were also seen in the New York-shot WORKING GIRL the very same year. I can also remember it playing great with a crowd and if the biggest beef I can have with a movie is that it’s ultimately kind of minor, well, there are worse things you can say about something.

Angela DeMarco (Michelle Pfeiffer) is feeling dissatisfied by her marriage to Long Island mobster Frank “The Cucumber” DeMarco (Alec Baldwin), with even her pleas for divorce received with nothing but laughter. When Frank is abruptly killed by mob boss Tony “The Tiger” Russo (Dean Stockwell) after Tony discovers they’ve been sharing the same mistress (Nancy Travis), Angela grabs the opportunity to flee the life, taking son Joey with her and moving to a tiny apartment in lower Manhattan. But leaving the life isn’t as easy as she thought, with Tony’s interest in her leading the FBI to suspect that she had a hand in Frankie’s death. As Agent Mike Downey (Matthew Modine) keeps tabs on her in the new building while trying to keep her from finding out who he is and Tony continues his pursuit, arousing the suspicions of jealous wife Connie (Mercedes Ruehl), Angela realizes that leaving the mob behind is easier said than done.

Revisiting MARRIED TO THE MOB after several years away reveals a film that is very, very light on story, one that goes straight for the laughs found in this zany world more than anything as it tries to keep everything as broad as possible. Made two years before GOODFELLAS was released and over a decade before THE SOPRANOS, the finished product could have been a crass, unfunny film placed in the wrong hands (speaking of which, the script is by Barry Strugatz and Mark R. Burns, the men also responsible for writing the crass, unfunny SHE DEVIL) but it’s all made extremely enjoyable by Demme’s continued comic inspiration which never seems to let up for a second. He crams every single frame with lots of activity, yes, but he also allows his mobster characters to be more likable than you would expect in believably good and bad ways, with a spirit to everything that becomes infectious. He manages to humanize everyone, even the bit players, no matter how crazy they are which all keeps MARRIED TO THE MOB high-spirited and actually endearing even as the bodies begin to fly. As written the script barely seems to contain a speck of believable human behavior (David Johansen turning up as a priest gives an idea of the reality the film is going for) but Demme never allows it to become too screwy, keeping up a visual style that is consistently active and interested in everything going on, including an early version of the first-person camerawork that would be used so prominently in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS a few years later. True, the plot never becomes all that strong—little is done with the farcical setup of Mike and Angela living in the same building (they could have gotten a whole sitcom out of that setup), the second act barely seems to have gotten going before it all begins to propel towards the climax and there doesn’t even seem to be much tension between the two leads as we reach the end, but the continued good feelings it gives off make it so these things don’t matter all that much. On a thematic level it bears some similarities to SOMETHING WILD in its use of traveling into the world of lower Manhattan (seemingly a mainstay of films released by Orion during these years) towards more artistic pursuits from the constraining environment of Long Island but it really does feel like the film is just more interested in the craziness of it all. In some ways, the film could be viewed as a way station between the darker themes of SOMETHING WILD and the deadly serious elements of SILENCE, just a fun stopover to have one more enjoyable party with friends before it’s time to grow up and start making the serious movies.

There are gobs of funny dialogue throughout (I remember Trey Wilson’s line about the difference between the mob and the FBI getting the biggest laugh of the night back in the 80s) but the real enjoyment comes from the invention Demme constantly tosses in there, from the music that turns up in nearly every scene to how he sticking interesting personalities into bit parts as well as not one but two fast food franchises (given the names Chicken Lickin’ and Burger World, the latter with its own theme song) invented just for this movie. But he keeps things level-headed enough that even in this farcical context the characters always make sense--Connie might be a monster who you’d never want to cross but ultimately she’s just a woman hurt that her husband is cheating on her. The infamous end credit sequence which reveals bits of cut scenes (mostly it’s very easy to determine where they would have gone) offers the impression that Demme wanted everything to be as energetic as possible so he could keep things moving—most of the deleted stuff we see appears to be some minor plot points, introspective character stuff and some shoe leather, things which ultimately aren’t missed. The film knows to keep it moving, keep it all popping, getting things down to 95 minutes and change minus those credits. Fluff, yes, but it’s got a pulse that lends a feel of vibrancy to every single moment and it even has a certain amount of heart, which is certainly something.

Michelle Pfeiffer is extremely endearing in the lead role, maybe my favorite performance of hers from this period. She seems to know how to play things for laughs while still making the character likable and it adds immeasurably to the fun. Boy, is she cute in this movie. Modine has some nice moments scattered in there but at times feels like he may be trying too hard to be equally ingratiating—the nuttiness he’s supposed to project comes off as a little overly calculated as opposed to feeling like it comes naturally from the character. Stockwell, Oscar nominated for this role, is fantastic as Tony the Tiger, projecting quirky intelligence into his villain and never makes his presence too heavy for the humor. Mercedes Ruehl, who deserved to be Oscar nominated for this role, is both freakishly hilarious and utterly terrifying throughout. She doesn’t just steal every scene she’s in, she grabs it from the other actors and chomps it to bits right in front of them while always making her over-the-top character somehow credible. Alec Baldwin, in one of his five movies from 1988, is so much fun as Frankie that it’s a shame he has to be gone by the twenty minute mark—there’s no surprise that the actor got very big very fast. Joan Cusak, Ellen Foley and O-Lan Jones are three other mob wives, Oliver Platt is Modine’s partner, Chris Isaak is a hitman, Demme regulars like Charles Napier, Paul Lazar and Tracey Walter turn up briefly, ‘Sister’ Carol East from the end of SOMETHING WILD is Angela’s new boss and Trey Wilson is the FBI regional director. It’s a huge, and hugely fun, cast--by the time Al Lewis turns up, it seems like everyone is in this movie. Todd Solondz is ‘The Zany Reporter’ and Roma Maffia is ‘Angie’s First Customer!’ among the many other oddly familiar people spotted throughout. Even people who just wander past the camera for a few seconds seem to make an impression. For all the terrific songs throughout (I really should get the CD), it’s easy to miss how enjoyable David Byrne’s score is, with a very nice theme for Angela that helps give the movie such endearing vibes and a funny recurring saxophone riff that isn’t so much a theme for the character of Tony as it is for his libido.

I don’t know if there’s any one particularly outstanding scene or element in MARRIED TO THE MOB that sticks out in memory but the overall experience is still a lot of fun. I definitely remember it playing great with a crowd on a Saturday night at the Scarsdale Plaza way back when. After years of Oscars and more serious efforts (not to mention the lousy THE TROUBLE WITH CHARLIE, which could be seen as an attempt to recapture this kind of spark) at this point in time it feels safe to say that Jonathan Demme may very well never make a film this breezily enjoyable again, which really is our loss. A true sense of playfulness carries it all the way to the end, even to a lovely brief sequence after the end credits that gives the feel of a party that doesn’t want to end. With a film as much fun as this is, there’s no reason to want it to either.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Greatest Kick Of All

The acclaim that Kathryn Bigelow has received for making THE HURT LOCKER is totally deserved and if she winds up winning the Oscar for Best Director, making her the first woman to do so, that can only be a good thing. She’s also an extremely beautiful woman, something that has been pointed out by more than a few people during the past year. The amount of times it’s been brought up has led a few people out there to wonder about the tact of such remarks, particularly some that were made when Bigelow won at the DGA awards. I do honestly wonder if a 58 year old woman would necessarily have a problem with her striking good looks continually being pointed out but hey, it’s not like people are being sarcastic about it. And sometimes it’s just the way we are. The combination of enormous talent and beauty isn’t necessarily something that can easily be ignored. At least, I’m not going to try to ignore it and I’ll gladly say to anyone that as an action director she’s one of the best working today. If I ever met her I hope I’d be able to compliment her on her work through the years and not babble helplessly like Ralph Kramden but I won’t make any guarantees. Damn, she really is stunning.

Still, I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again—I wish that more of her movies were as good as she is. NEAR DARK remains fantastic more than two decades after it was released and while I have relatively few issues with THE HURT LOCKER (it’s not my choice for Best Picture but I wouldn’t be too upset if it won), too often the scripts she’s working with, and in some cases helped to write, feel either underdeveloped or undernourished. Looking at them enough times it becomes clear that she is more interested in the stylistics and thematic goals which she is trying to achieve, something that can easily be to the detriment of the narrative. Not to mention that at times the movies wind up playing as flat-out absurd as a result. Her cop movie BLUE STEEL, released in March 1990, is a prime example of this and remains a work that contains genuinely striking imagery as well as a provocative premise which in a number of ways interestingly ties into recent discussion about people commenting on her looks. But the script feels like it was jotted down on a few scraps of paper the weekend before shooting started, making the overall effect seem empty and far less resonant than it should have been. If some of the visuals weren’t laid out in such an expert manner it probably wouldn’t have gotten any attention at all—we’d just be watching yet another lousy cop film out of the millions that have already been made, only this one just happens to cast a woman in the lead. But the skill that is present makes it a shame that it didn’t have a stronger script that would compliment its imagery. It makes the film not substantial enough and, ultimately, extremely frustrating. There barely seems to be a frame that isn’t impressive in some way and yet I can barely take anything in it seriously for a second.

Rookie cop Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis) has just joined the New York Police Department when during her very first night on patrol she stumbles onto a supermarket robbery which results in her shooting the assailant. As his body shatters the plate-glass window he falls through his gun flies to the ground unobserved, landing right by stock trader Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver). Staying quiet, he pockets the weapon and walks off into the night. The lack of weapon found at the scene turns out to be a problem for Megan with the investigation placing her on suspension but, unknown to her, the event has triggered something in Eugene who simultaneously manages to ‘accidentally’ meet Megan while beginning to use the weapon for his own purposes. When bullets found at the scene of a crime have Megan’s name stenciled on them she’s brought into the investigation unaware of how close the answer she’s looking for really is.

All things considered, it’s a fair question to ask how much of this film is really about Kathryn Bigelow, having made NEAR DARK and co-directed THE LOVELESS at this point, trying to get ahead in the man’s game of being a film director and what this does to every male she comes into contact with. Curtis’s mannerisms in the lead have a certain resemblance in their confident-yet-shy nature to how Bigelow comes off in recent appearances at awards shows and Megan’s flip explanation for why she wants to be a cop, saying “I wanted to shoot people,” could certainly be taken several different ways. Made at the time Bigelow was married to James Cameron, her current Best Director Oscar competition, to give BLUE STEEL credit its clearly stated theme of a woman trying to get ahead in a man’s world while maintaining her individuality captures the attention from the very first images. The character possesses strength and intelligence (she knows that the robber had a .44 from forty feet away and we believe her even if the other characters don’t) but she knows enough to she hasn’t yet overcome her problems, which seem to have their roots in her parents’ horrible marriage, which makes her unable to open up fully in a relationship. Her own interest in men is at times ambiguous (but ultimately not really) and she is clearly envious of her best friend who has a husband and kids but it’s as if it’s not in her wiring to do the same. One potential guy asks her, “You’re a good-looking woman, beautiful in fact. Why would you want to become a cop?” making me wonder if any Hollywood sleaze ever asked Bigelow if she was more interested in acting than directing back in the day. The men who are around her, good or bad, can’t help not because they’re impotent or evil but because ultimately she has to overcome these issues herself. The cinematic skill brought to this is undeniable with truly bold imagery throughout but is irrevocably hurt by what comes close to being a complete and total lack of compelling narrative.

The script by Bigelow and Eric Red correctly acknowledges the subtext throughout but never seems aware of just how ludicrous it all is. It maintains a conviction but also has a certain lack of intelligence and the one unexpected beat the whole time is just how early Eugene Hunt gives up on his charade of just being a normal guy interested in her. Silver’s character is a ludicrous construct, desiring to use the gun/penis extension that was once unsuccessful in penetrating the woman he becomes obsessed with and now is fully intent on using it to get her attention, giving the impression that Bigelow is having him represent every lame guy she ever went out on a bad date with. This would be fine if there were any wit or compelling reality on hand but the plotting is too thin to keep from being frustrating with it and only becomes more so as it goes on with stupid decisions made (“I’ll take you home to get some sleep,” Megan is told when there’s a lunatic out there who could turn up at any time) and characters who seem to exist only to be sacrificial lambs. The nature of the visual style only manages to amplify this feeling of frustration like when someone gets killed in a truly visceral manner complete with a bullet hit that seems meant for us to feel it more than we would in another movie, complete with a close-up of blood splattering on a wall. The elements are there to make this a truly feminist action film combined with a boyfriend-from-hell element for the post-FATAL ATTRACTION era but on a conceptual level Bigelow doesn’t do much with these things other than provide us with the basic ideas. By the hour mark I always kind of check out, with nothing left to pay attention to but the style. Because of the thinness of the plotting there’s only one way this action movie could end, no matter how long the third act decides to drag things out (and the running time is still only 102 minutes). It’s presented in a climax which gives us an interestingly unreal showdown between the two leads in New York’s financial district but also features panicking extras that always make me think of people screaming as they run in the way of the shootout in old POLICE SQUAD! episodes. But even here, there’s always something fascinating about how Bigelow places her characters in the frame (cinematography by Amir M. Mokri), depicting them in ways that go beyond what any dialogue could tell us—she’s certainly more interested in them than she is in depicting New York which never seems to be anything but a generically big, teeming mass of, well, blue and steel. BLUE STEEL is admirable and certainly not a piece of hackwork but is ultimately hurt by being completely unwilling to acknowledge that a compelling story wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Displaying a great amount of physical confidence in the lead role, Jamie Lee Curtis is ideal casting, coming off as believably forceful in the action scenes and yet displaying an intriguing amount of shyness when she doesn’t quite know what to make of a guy. And when she figures things out—like when a guy at a barbecue played by Matt Craven is clearly turned off by what she does—she knows how to take control of things again and Curtis plays these contrasts very well. Ron Silver, who passed away in March 2009, has the more problematic role going from some more intriguing silent moments—he doesn’t have any dialogue of note for the first half hour of the film—to moments of hysteria which, granted, are meant to be over-the-top but don’t lead to much more than him becoming not much more than just another reincarnation of Michael Myers for Jamie Lee Curtis to fend with. By a certain point I just lose all interest in him and it feels like a waste of such a good actor. Clancy Brown has some nice moments as Curtis’s sort-of love interest coming off as the most likable and reasonable person in the entire picture, the very good Elizabeth Pena is wasted as her best friend while Louise Fletcher & Philip Bosco can’t seem to do much with the awkward material as her parents (Bosco saying, “I get mad,” is a touching moment almost because of how clumsy it is). Richard Jenkins, playing Silver’s attorney, brings some intriguing sharpness to the nothing role and I found myself wanting to see this sleaze get his comeuppance since he actually knows what he’s doing as opposed to the wacko Silver who by a certain point can barely even be considered a character. Tom Sizemore, later one of the leads of STRANGE DAYS, makes an early appearance as the supermarket robber at the beginning. I assume that the J.C. thanked in the end credits is Mr. Cameron.

One thing I’ll say is this--while watching BLUE STEEL this time more of it worked than I had remembered, particularly during the initial courtship of Megan (their initial dinner scene is strange and enticing in all the right ways) and leading up to the character’s discovery of her new man’s true nature. It was only as the film went on combined with thinking about it afterward that my impatience with it grew. The lack of interest in any sort of reality or credibility could be considered dreamlike, meant to be experienced in a primal frame of mind but the finished product needs to be better for that argument to hold. Much of the action is impeccable, with the movie’s visceral feel genuinely admirable but its lack of interest in providing a compelling story, something that could only provide depth to its own feminist subtext, is enormously frustrating. Based just on how the action is directed, it’s surprising that Bigelow hasn’t gone on to do a dozen other movies of this kind since its release. Why not the BOURNE sequels? Why not a Bond knockoff? Why not more giant star vehicles after POINT BREAK? (has anyone ever seen K-19 THE WIDOWMAKER? I know I haven’t) Maybe she doesn’t want to just take jobs for hire which is certainly admirable but it’s still hard not to wish that there haven’t been more explorations of extreme behavior from the director because, as THE HURT LOCKER (written by someone else, it should be said) has proven, she’s only gotten better. And oh yes, she’s beautiful. Hopefully there will be more films by her to look forward to in the future. Seen in the wake of all the acclaim that has resulted from the recent film BLUE STEEL remains a tantalizing, but nevertheless frustrating, look at the immense degree of her talents.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Major Chords

I know I wasn’t the only one who noticed that during the impressively assembled tribute to Martin Scorsese on the Golden Globes a few weeks ago there wasn’t a single image seen in the entire montage from his legendary 1977 musical NEW YORK, NEW YORK. Not the title card, not a single shot of the two leads, nothing. The reasons for this feel mysterious unless there was some sort of legitimate rights issue (still, RAGING BULL is also UA and that was certainly in there) and for all I know the director himself requested its absence but even so it was hard not to notice that when Scorsese made his way to the up to the stage the band even played the legendary theme from the film. In spite of the harsh reception the film received at the time, just one year after the triumph of TAXI DRIVER, Scorsese has always addressed the subject of the film fairly in interviews, at times acknowledging the flaws in the work. The final result, whatever else you want to say, could certainly be seen as a stepping stone to what Scorsese and star Robert De Niro later achieved so brilliantly in RAGING BULL and beyond so in that sense the effect it had on their careers was positive in the long run. And it has to be pointed out that some of the film remains genuinely impressive and monumental years after it was made. So much so, that it makes me wish that I actually liked the thing.

Despite the fact that after multiple viewings through the years I’ve never gotten much pleasure out of the experience of watching NEW YORK, NEW YORK I sometimes feel drawn back for another try to see if all the extravagance and genuine passion will finally click for me. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened yet—and with some films that turnaround has—but I’m still waiting, hoping. That passion for cinema that bleeds through in every single frame Scorsese directs here certainly has that kind of effect. Shots stay with me for weeks, moments linger through the years but the whole thing feels like it goes on for a day and a half with the overall effect I get from the experience coming off as such a pummeling that I begin to think that having De Niro in character as Jake La Motta yelling at me for two hours straight would almost be preferable. The unresolved feeling I have towards it makes it seem as if Scorsese never found the correct balance between the lightness of the classic Hollywood musicals he was so inspired by and the darker nature of his own thematic interests. The love for those old films that he is obviously aping comes through but he seems to be missing some key ingredient, like a vital part of the DNA necessary to its success never got added. The experience of sitting and watching it sometimes feels like trying to lift a piano over your head all by yourself. After a while you have to stop trying and just go outside to take a break.

The film was released in June 1977, one of several troubled auteur releases during a month which also included John Boorman’s EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC and William Friedkin’s SORCERER. Each of these films turned out to be commercially problematic (SORCERER, at the very least, is remarkable nevertheless) and that response wasn’t helped by the blockbuster success of STAR WARS at the time. The business was about to change fast and with the films they had completed pretty much rejected by the public Scorsese, Boorman and Friedkin weren’t doing anything to stop it. As it turned out, the major contribution to popular culture by Scorsese’s film was giving the world the title song, “New York, New York” which became legendary in 1979 when covered by Frank Sinatra. It’s kind of crazy when you think about it—this song that feels like it’s been around forever only comes from 1977? Even crazier is that it didn’t even receive an Oscar nomination for Best Song (the winner that year? The immortal “You Light Up My Life”). Maybe everyone back then really did think that it came from the era the film is set in and they’d heard it before in some bizarre dream, one that NEW YORK, NEW YORK had itself made an appearance in. The final film is about that dream state we associate with the movies we love and the cracks we sometimes see in the worlds that they present. It’s a daring thesis, but one that Scorsese and company possibly could never reconcile with what they were actually making.

Presented in the style of a musical that might have been made at MGM in the late 40s, NEW YORK, NEW YORK begins on V-J Day at a massive celebration where saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) meets Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) and though she doesn’t respond to any of his advances she soon realizes that she can’t get rid of him and once he learns that she is not only a singer but a really good one, he’s hooked. He follows her off on the road where she sings with a traveling big band and with both of them clearly turned on by the others’ talent it isn’t long before they fall in love and get married. But Jimmy’s insistence on playing his music his way gets in the way of things making both sides of their relationship ever more tempestuous and things are only exacerbated when Francine reveals she is pregnant which drives yet more tension between them.

The postmodern tone of NEW YORK, NEW YORK which apes not only MGM but numerous other styles from the period was an early example of a film that would somehow attempt to recreate a style associated from older Hollywood movies (and elsewhere—Jimmy Doyle’s habit of checking into hotels as M. Powell namechecks Scorsese’s hero, the director of THE RED SHOES), attempted through the years in disparate projects from Joe Dante’s GREMLINS to Todd Haynes’s FAR FROM HEAVEN among others. The film isn’t really about the city of New York or even a hazy memory of what New York was but of memories provided by movies set there but always and only shot on Hollywood backlots during the 30s to the 50s. Scorsese was working on what was then still the old MGM backlot, with the presence of Judy Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli playing the female lead no doubt adding to the intense desire to recreate what came before. Stylized to the extreme during every minute with impeccable cinematography by Lazlo Kovacs and production design by Boris Leven, the often empty backlot streets never strive to look anything like what they actually are, rearscreen projection is made obvious and the sets have a distinctive heightened tone throughout that makes their basic falseness readily apparent. In attempting to clash these settings with the more naturalistic performances that Scorsese was interested in achieving during these days it’s clear that he was trying to combine the type of film that he loved while growing up with the type of film he made, whether the two things matched up or not be damned. It’s a fascinating idea but something feels like it never quite connected during the process. NEW YORK, NEW YORK has remarkable moments throughout that you can’t quite shake but something feels almost top heavy with how it’s put together almost from the very first minute making it a tough movie to get a hold of.

The improvisatory nature ultimately never disguises how the issues of the relationship between the two leads never really feel like they were solved on a script level (Story by Earl Mac Rauch, Screenplay by Rauch and Mardik Martin who also co-wrote MEAN STREETS and RAGING BULL). Part of it feels like a dry run for how De Niro’s Jake LaMotta treated Cathy Moriarty’s Vicky in RAGING BULL and that type of hostility combined with a queasy charm in this context sounds compelling but we never can buy into why anyone would want to be around this guy. In the context of his own world the Scorsese-De Niro incarnation of Jake LaMotta is much more compelling. Jimmy’s own feelings about his music are never quite articulated in a way that we can connect with beyond just having a few nightclub owners complain about what they’re hearing so all we get is De Niro’s hostility to everything that’s said to him. Looking at it now it’s obvious how he really represents Scorsese, who himself could very easily submit to giving the studios and audiences what they want and reap all the glories but has little interest in capitulating to that. But since the character can’t quite put those feelings into words Scorsese can’t quite portray that cinematically. Pointing at his saxophone while talking to Francine Jimmy says, “If I can’t do this I’m not good for you and I’m not good for anybody,” which is something but not really enough.

The use of Liza Minnelli in this context is certainly striking—she’s essentially playing a version of a role her own mother might have played in something directed by her father Vincente Minnelli but the character can’t seem to understand that she’s not really in one of those movies and is instead caught up in something else, a much grimmer and possibly more resonant film than we would expect. Seeing this figure in such a context is fascinating but the heavy improvisatory nature of it all turns out to be extremely problematic—some sequences play by fine by themselves but when put all together, particularly during some nightclub scenes in the second half, it just goes on and on into infinity. Even when taken by themselves the scenes sometimes go on way too long and as a result the film begins to feel like it was edited in slow motion by people extremely groggy after having not gotten enough sleep the night before (there was apparently heavy drug use going on by Scorsese at the time, but I’m just going to sidestep that issue). CASINO is actually twenty minutes longer than this film and winds up feeling about two hours shorter, with a much stronger and clearly defined dynamic between the husband and wife in the leads as well. Even some establishing sections near the beginning seem to go on forever and yet something about Scorsese’s direction never seems quite as dynamic as we think he could go. It’s like he’s resisting the more extreme elements of his style so that it will correctly replicate a 40s movie—maybe he should have gone for the post-1955 CinemaScope look instead.

Only occasionally do the elements connect—when Jimmy’s being dragged out of a nightclub through a hallway filled with lightbulbs that he kicks out the feel of total cinema comes alive for a moment and one band rehearsal scene on the road seems to encapsulate all the musical and romantic tensions in a way that feels just right, giving the impression that they were able to break down what the actors came up with during rehearsal and put it on the page into something coherent. I was impressed in the commentary to hear Scorsese comment that he also felt it was one of the more successful sequences in how it correctly worked the improvisation into what was necessary to the story. But the film is so focused on what is going on with the characters that it never quite does justice to the world (real or unreal) around them—there’s probably a lot to mine in the story of the big band era’s end but it winds up buried here in the Doyle character’s own uncompromising insistence on the music he wants to play. Every now and then some dialogue—written or improvised, who knows, maybe both at times—connects (I like when Lionel Stander says, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes, so I’ll make another one. This one’s on me.”) but the movie seems to spend too much time wandering in its own wilderness to get to those moments. The degree to which the film is problematic makes it linger in the mind longer than if they had made just decided to make a simple homage to old musicals—it’s almost haunting how close it comes to greatness—but it’s hard for me not to remain frustrated by it ultimately.

The problematic history of the film at the time of its release included the issue of the legendary “Happy Endings” number, a nine-minute musical sequence late in the film which is intentionally kind of a combination of “Born in a Trunk” from A STAR IS BORN and “Broadway Melody” from SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN combined with who knows what else, holding up a mirror to everything that has happened in the film and what our own expectations from it probably have been. A favorite of the director all through shooting, the number was cut shortly before its unsuccessful release in an attempt to get the running time down but was finally restored when the film was reissued in 1981. Much of the problem is really structural—the sequence comes almost immediately after the character of Francine takes control of her life as represented in singing “The World Goes Round” and there’s still the climactic rendition of the title song to come. It’s all overpowering in that patented Liza style and each of these numbers in rapid succession almost becomes too much by a certain point, diluting the overall impact until we’re close to losing consciousness. This is especially a problem because even in saying all this the sequence feels absolutely necessary both in resolving the romantic conflict and as the ultimate statement of what Scorsese is trying to say with this film—it’s both a commentary on what this type of sequence represents and it’s truly earnestly trying to just be one of those scenes. There is something about it that feels like it just misses the mark that I can’t quite put my finger on (maybe because 70s filmmaking technology can only look so much like what was done in the 50s) but even the use of a blatant jumpcut near the end feels somehow correct—I know there’s an old musical that has something similar but can’t recall what. Maybe SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN?—as if Scorsese has no problem admitting how much he loves even this sort of technical imperfection in those movies. The sequence should probably be cut for our own sanity yet it absolutely needs to be in there for the film to make any sense. This issue alone feels indicative of how much the movie clearly wound up out of control at a certain point, lost to its own artistry and unreality. The imperfections haunt the film, like the hallway Liza Minnelli plays her last scene in which seems like just about the only naturalistic setting in the entire running time and stands out that much more as a result like splashing a tub of cold water on our faces after all that time. Whether it’s intentional or not, I don’t know. It probably doesn’t matter. I wish I could love the film. Sometimes I can’t stand it. It remains harshly, completely fascinating. Even the alternate ending on the DVD coming after years of dissatisfaction with the resolution is fascinating to finally see in how much of a revelation it is yet also in how it feels absolutely, completely wrong.

The performances are not the issue here unless one has a basic problem with De Niro’s basic approach towards this type of movie, which after all is partly the point. He doesn’t look like someone who would have starred in one of these movies during the late forties and his intensity would have been too much for someone playing a minor gangster in one of them. His goofy charm sometimes shows through but his drive to succeed on his own terms, damn the whole world trying to stop him, is impossible to ignore. It’s not Travis Bickle, it’s not Jake LaMotta—it might be the closest to Robert De Niro, circa 1977 that we ever got onscreen. Whether successful or not, how his style clashes with Liza Minnelli is sometimes fascinating to watch and the actress is fearless in how she seems willing to match him even if she knows she might lose. Say whatever you want about Minnelli and her performing style she dives head first into this approach and it works beautifully. Among those appearing throughout Mary Kay Place is Francine’s inadequate replacement in the band, Lionel Stander gets some nice moments as Francine’s agent, De Niro’s then-wife Diahnne Abbott (also in TAXI DRIVER and THE KING OF COMEDY) sings an enticing version of “Honeysuckle Rose” at the Harlem Club and the legendary Dick Miller turns up in the first of two Scorsese appearances as the owner of the Palm Club.

Even looking at some of it now I’m torn between thinking some of it is extraordinary and the desire to stop watching it immediately, never to put the disc back into the player. The very nature of it all—an examination of the movies that a person grew up watching, exploring the notions of why someone loves them and how it connects to their own lives means that there are few films that I wish I loved as much as I wish I loved NEW YORK, NEW YORK. But the film’s almost willful self-destruction, like what is occasionally exhibited by its characters, makes that desire impossible and as it is I’m not even sure that I like it all that much. It says something about my own attraction to this type of minutiae that the film’s final shot is just about my favorite thing in it—as the credits roll, we see a deceptively simple image of a deserted street in darkness somewhere on a studio backlot as a heavy rain falls. It gives the impression of a dark corner of some long-forgotten film that haunts our very dreams long into the night and never quite fulfills our desires the way we wish it would. That’s what these films do sometimes and when you come right down to it there’s very little reason in trying to figure out why. If I knew, I probably wouldn’t be writing any of this anyway.