Wednesday, March 31, 2010

An Inch At A Time


I’ve recently returned from visiting family in Bethesda for a few days. That’s right, I actually left Los Angeles for a brief period and I had a very relaxing time too. Yes, I missed a few things here in town but that’s ok—these days, it feels like any time I head off I’m going to miss something so I may as well suck it up and realize how important it is to see family and, what the hell, breathe in some clean air as well. It was a little cold, but still nice. I had a good time though it did get me to think about how certain family members will never be into film like I am but that’s just the way it is. There are plenty of things I don’t know about and when I look at my sister’s giant bookshelf it’s hard for me not to feel a little envious of everything that she’s been able to store in her brain. But while I was flying back home on a very crowded American Airlines flight (and no thanks to them for the fees to check baggage) I was listening to the Beatles on my iPod and I found myself fixating on the famous lyric, “Nothing’s gonna change my world” and all I could think was nothing is going to change my world, at least nothing’s going to change the way I am when it comes to all this. Maybe someday I’ll be able to take my sister to some glorious screening somewhere here at the Academy or the Egyptian and give her a taste of it all. But maybe not. And that’s ok. You know, let it be and all that.


Anyway, I’m back in town with a few days to spare for the annual Film Noir Festival at the American Cinematheque and, speaking of movies set at night in black and white, the evening before I flew out I made it over to the New Beverly for what turned out to be a pretty incredible double bill of films directed by Phil Karlson and starring John Payne, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL and 99 RIVER STREET. Hard to say which one I liked more—truthfully, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, about a guy falsely fingered for a bank robbery in, of course, Kansas City, and sets off to find the guys who set him up, may have been slightly better but 99 RIVER STREET from 1953 was the one that I got more of a genuine charge out of and found much more purely enjoyable, the one that made me sit there smiling as I thought about how much I loved these movies and thrilled that I found a new one I liked so much. Containing a hard-hitting noir atmosphere, enjoyable actors, healthy doses of pure 50s pulp and sleaze as well as a story that for a while didn’t let me know where it was going combined with one of those great all-in-one-night scenarios that might be impossible but feels absolutely perfect nevertheless it provided me with a very tight 83 minutes of pure bliss. If it’s not the best film noir that you’ve never heard of, well, it certainly belongs on the list.

I don’t even want to give away too much of the plot (Story by George Zuckerman, Screenplay by Robert Smith) since I knew next to nothing about it going in and, as things turned out, that was the ideal way to see it. Anyway, former boxer Ernie Driscoll (MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET’s John Payne, also the star of that night's KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL) is several years after his final fight—the one that almost got him the championship—forced him to retire, making a modest living as a taxi driver and dealing with his unhappy, bitter wife Pauline (Peggie Castle), who spits out things like, “I’d have been a star if I hadn’t married you!” When trying to make up with her after their latest fight he discovers her having an affair with the shady-looking Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter, later one of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) who is mixed up in some kind of diamond heist ring and getting Pauline involved as well. Also in Ernie’s life is the friendly Linda James (Evelyn Keyes) a struggling actress possibly on the verge of her big break when she comes to him with a big problem. Something then happens, something Ernie definitely wasn’t expecting. Maybe someone even turns up murdered. I’m not going to say.


The harsh pulp tone oozes out from the screen, providing bursts of violence that go further than you’d expect from a film of this vintage along with a few particular shots of Peggie Castle, playing Driscoll’s wife, emphasizing her legs enough so we know that they do indeed go all the way down to the floor in a way that makes me want to nervously glance around to see if anyone knows that I’m watching this thing. The boxing element is given to us right up front with a close-up look at Driscoll’s last fight making us know the guy before he’s said a word—this particular sport seems like the only one that sad sacks like Driscoll are ever mixed up in during these movies, so everything good and bad that happened are his fault and his fault alone, with all maybe left in the end is him saying to himself that he once had a real shot at being champ. Now all he has left is a cab, a beautiful yet bitter wife and the entire mean, dark city of New York surrounding him as he tries to remind himself and anyone around him, “The harder you’re hit, the harder you have to hit”. All he wants is to save up enough to own a gas station someday--hey, as goals go it worked out just fine in THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. As played by Payne the character is recognizably human and likable but just looking in his eyes we can see how close to the edge he is—the way he repeats “Where would he go?” to a thug he’s just gotten the upper hand on making it sound more of a threat each time reminds us of what he’s capable of. As well-meaning as this guy actually trying to make a bad marriage work ultimately is (When he hopefully says, “Let’s try to make the best of it,” to his wife she spits back, “What would it get me?”) it’s not hard to imagine that with a few slightly different plot turns in the long dark night of his life he might turn out to be not such a nice guy after all.


More than a lot of noir films that can seem a little tossed together even while it can still be pretty cool to get lost in their mood for a while 99 RIVER STREET seems made by people who clearly know how to straddle that line between dreamlike and rationality, between behavior that is ridiculous (an offer to quickly get rid of a body, for one thing) and surprisingly human, particularly in one character’s complicated response after someone close to them turns up dead, no doubt thinking about how even if they weren’t responsible you can still sometimes “kill somebody an inch at a time.” And it’s also subtly yet nastily clever at times, particularly in the payoff of how someone expresses a desire to ride in a certain cab’s back seat. For a film set all over one night the plot (which I wish I could discuss more but I won’t) covers a lot of ground, continually adding new elements that feel right at home in this genre yet nothing about it ever feels like it’s cheapening its own story just because this was a B Picture—even the main crime figure behind the whole diamond scheme comes off as logical on his own level. One section late in the film slightly recalls some of the plotting from near the end of THE BEDROOM WINDOW—maybe Curtis Hanson remembered this one or maybe such things just come with the territory. Photgraphed by Franz Planer the sinuous feel of the blacks and silvers that emanated from the print screened at the New Beverly were so potent that it made me want to believe that I could step out into this world and into my own story of double-crosses, empty late-night streets and wisecracking bartenders. The only thing that could make it any better aside from a few extra shots leering at Castle would be a scene set at an all night automat, just for the atmosphere. Also the man behind things like 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE and SCANDAL SHEET among many others, Phil Karlson’s direction has the effect of being blinded by the flashbulb of a photograph taken by Weegee at the exact same moment you’re being punched in the face, continually moving things forward through its long night. It all culminates in a climax that correctly ties in the plot with the own internal struggles of the lead character in a way that is ferocious, invigorating and hugely satisfying.

Gazing at that eye of his in a mirror as he thinks, “I coulda been the champ,” John Payne presents a surprisingly complex look at a decent guy just about at the end of his rope in life—he seems tough enough to be the boxer that he once was and is still a likable guy as well but there’s a darkness to him that makes us wonder how far he might actually go. As for Evelyn Keyes, I probably can’t reveal just how amazing she is in this film, particularly in one long speech she has at a crucial point. She pulls off showing two distinct sides of the kind of woman Driscoll says he’s found himself up against his whole life—the one who he once thought would stick in his corner no matter what (the boring innocent in these movies, usually), but “then I grew up,” he says, and the ones he thinks have always been playing him for a sucker. Keyes has a particularly amazing moment involving a pair of cigarettes, the sort of business that’s usually only done by the fun bad girl in one of these movies. Peggie Castle, with a sour expression and great legs, is enjoyably nasty as Payne’s wife and Frank Faylen—recognizable to anyone on the planet earth as Ernie the cab driver in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE has a slightly similar role here playing Payne’s boss at the cab company. The whole film seems to be populated by actors familiar from this world and they all fit right in perfectly.


I can’t say that 99 RIVER STREET is the ultimate hidden noir masterpiece or something that’s going to win over anyone who isn’t already into the genre but it is a movie that reminds me of how damn good these hidden away titles can be sometimes as I sit in my seat thinking, boy, I love movies. It’s fun, it’s nasty, it’s plotted as tight as a drum and the black and white imagery is so potent that you could almost get the stuff on your fingers. Naturally, it’s not on DVD but you can find it on Hulu, so enjoy. I’m very aware that writing about this film has nothing whatsoever to do with my trip to Bethesda, but the experience of seeing it that night in the mean streets of Los Angeles did stick in my thoughts while I was far away from it, surrounded by family that maybe I could never adequately explain my enthusiasm for this sort of thing to. But it stayed in my mind anyway, reminding me that the search to find films out there that will surprise me this much, no matter what the genre, will probably never end as long as I don’t want it to.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

One Day You Wonder Why You're Doing Things


A few weeks ago I was at the Target on LaBrea waiting on line to pay for the items I was purchasing. It wasn’t much, mostly because I’m being careful with money these days. Anyway, standing behind me on line were two women, one of whom looked somewhat familiar. I don’t mean that I knew her and maybe I didn’t though I suppose you never know. But she had a certain resemblance to a type of woman I’ve known before as if she was someone a year ahead of me in high school or college that I had a crush on, somebody I might have gotten up the courage to talk to a few times at a party or something and wound up making no impression whatsoever. Though she looked like somebody who may have lived a few wild nights in her time, on that Sunday she was wearing a very loose-fitting summer dress. Very becoming. The possibility of past wild nights seemed to be confirmed when I heard her telling the older woman she was with about the time she saw the Beastie Boys at a club (in New York? I couldn’t tell) way back in 1984 before anyone knew who they were. I glanced at what she was buying. Refrigerator magnet letters. Obviously meant for kids. That she was probably the mother of. I paid for my things and walked off, thinking of how there may have been a time long in the past when I might have been able to actually speak to her. Things like this have been sticking in my mind lately.


The long, lazy afternoons in Los Angeles sometimes drift on, with not much else in sight. The walks I take become more frequent and before I know it the sun is setting off in the distance framed by Century City on the horizon. In those office buildings are people still working and maybe sometimes I feel like I should be drinking a cocktail while I watch that sunset only I’m just too antsy to relax that way. Maybe I start writing instead. This feel of drifting isolation is unavoidable sometimes and maybe not such a bad thing. At random moments it even brings on a form of peace. At the very least, I don’t have to go driving around in rush hour traffic. That feel sometimes gets me to think of CISCO PIKE, the neglected 1972 film which presents a Los Angeles just as isolating, just as trapping. I would say that CISCO PIKE is best known for being the film that gives us the “He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher,” Kris Kristofferson song (“The Pilgrim – Chapter 33”) that gets quoted in TAXI DRIVER as Betsy tells Travis Bickle what he reminds her of but of course CISCO PIKE isn’t best known for anything. Not released on video in any format before it quietly turned up on DVD a few years ago it’s a cult movie that has yet to be discovered, destined to unspool to isolated audiences in half-empty theaters until the end of time. I’ve seen it screened twice over the years, once well over a decade ago at the New Beverly with TWO LANE BLACKTOP, another portrayal of the alienation of that age, and once at the Egyptian with Jacques Demy’s MODEL SHOP, a personal favorite and another Columbia Pictures release of the time which features a lot of aimless wandering around this particular city. The lonely feel that CISCO PIKE gives off lingers in the brain longer than anything to do with its drug dealing storyline and even that has a certain amount of interest to it. The time capsule feel to the film makes it valuable considering the locations used don’t really exist anymore but that feel of drifting day after day is still around if you look hard enough.


One-time rising musician Cisco Pike (Kris Kristofferson) has fallen into drug dealing something he’s intent on getting out of after some trouble with the law that he’s still dealing with and is intent on keeping that promise to girlfriend Sue (Karen Black), who he lives with in Venice. Leo Holland (Gene Hackman), the crooked narc who busted him, shows up at his door one day with a proposition looking for Cisco to unload a great amount of marijuana (“It’s bad dope man…I mean GOOD bad,” Kristofferson tells the clueless Hackman) in less than three days time so he can get his hands on a badly needed $10,000. Cisco isn’t crazy about the proposition but he has little choice but to agree and still needs to deal with Sue when she figures out he’s dealing again, his strung out old music partner Jesse (Harry Dean Stanton) who turns up in town and, with little success in getting anyone to listen to one of his tapes, an L.A. music scene that seems to be passing him by.


Written and directed by B.W.L. Norton, CISCO PIKE ambles along like a short story that could shrug its shoulders and end at any time as the title character drifts out of frame, never to return. Or maybe it's just the film version of one of the songs written and sung by Kristofferson that we hear throughout as we follow Cisco making his way around the city trying to unload this weed. The deadline is an annoyance but the hole he’s found himself in is just as bad and it’s clearly beginning to feel like nothing is ever going to change, with demo tapes he’s spreading around town getting no response from producers, dealing with money men who remember how much a show he played years back grossed but have no interest in him now other than what he’s selling and how cheap they can get it. He tries selling his guitar but the owner’s not buying, saying it’s yours. It is and he’s right but there’s nothing he can do but use the guitar case to carry the drugs around instead since nobody out there seems to want him to do anything else with it.


The world of CISCO PIKE is very much a Los Angeles populated by people who seem quietly aware that they’re a few years past the good times. The sixties are over and all that’s left is, well, not much beyond memories of places people used to hang out at back in ’66. But that’s all mostly left unspoken as they find themselves talking with young girls who refer to music a few years old as something they used to listen to in Junior High. Trying to avoid the subject of why he really needs the money, Hackman’s cop says, “I don't know. You do things and, uh, one day you wonder why you're doing things. You know? I don't know,” which turns out to be a better explanation of what everyone is going through than anyone else in the movie can offer. As portrayed here L.A. seems somewhat abandoned as if all the fun’s gone out of everything—as it looks here Venice resembles a ghost town as if everyone who hung out there in 60s split for a better party somebody heard about (maybe I just remember how the area is portrayed in Oliver Stone’s THE DOORS, set during a few years prior). The film has a feeling of characters, especially Cisco, wondering, is this it? Am I always going to be staring through glass windows at people doing things I want to be doing? Even the flashback snatches of Cisco’s good times we see are surprisingly brief, as if they’re not appearing even in his own head very much anymore. Something I can understand—just because it’s specifically about the 60s moving into the 70s doesn’t mean that I can’t read a few things relating to myself into it—the way Harry Dean Stanton loses interest in a waitress who mentions recently getting married feels awfully familiar. The L.A. locations seen throughout continue giving us glimpses of a city that has slipped away—one quick pickup happens out in front of The Source, the restaurant where Annie Hall broke up with Alvy Singer several years later. The time capsule element of it is invaluable but CISCO PIKE stands on its own as meditation on the concept of stopping looking at the past and trying to head towards the future, turning it into a film that lingers in the brain far longer than you expect it to at first. It’s a simple crime story that gains in resonance as I watch it and wonder where Cisco can really go at this point, something I’m not sure the film knows either. Where can he ever escape to if he leaves L.A.? What can he do next? I’m not looking to escape, but what can I do next? Who was that woman in Target, anyway?


Several of the film’s characters come off as so vivid with enough left unspoken that it’s easy to imagine them being the lead in their own movie. Given an “Introducing” credit for his starring debut, Kristofferson barely seems to be acting. It almost feels more like this guy just wandered into camera range while taking a break from trying to unload all this dope and we feel his bitterness as he deals with people who desperately want what he’s got and treat him with contempt at the same time, unable to get anyone interested in his music. Gene Hackman gives what has to be one of the most unsung performances from the early part of his career, in a role shot before THE FRENCH CONNECTION but released after, with the feverish hunger that comes through in his performance truly palpable and the character’s increasing desperation makes it all the more clear how much this cop is out of place in this world that Los Angeles has become. The plot dictates that Hackman stay offscreen for a long time in the middle section (it really is a supporting role) and when he reappears it completely feels like he’s been continuing his narrative off screen and the way he plays things allows us to piece together the degree of his breakdown almost instantly—for years after seeing it for the first time I still remembered the unnerving way he runs in place to deal with what he claims is a heart flutter. He’s really good in his limited screen time, clearly acting on a different wavelength than everyone else but since he’s supposed to be the odd one out compared with everyone else in the film that actually works in the movie’s favor. Introduced doing yoga, Karen Black (briefly topless, for anyone who might be interested) brings a great amount of sensitivity to what is just about the only stock role here and also just about the most level-headed person in the film—maybe when the character is written in a relatively colorless fashion you need somebody as off-kilter as Karen Black naturally is. Warhol superstar Viva plays rich girl Merna who is keeping up her hard partying ways despite being pregnant (asked about this, she replies that she’s “just holding it for somebody for a couple more months.”) and though written as slightly flaky interestingly plays it as much more aware of things than she lets on. No doubt she’s been through a few of these nights that go very bad already. Plus, no one has probably ever seemed like a Merna more than Viva. Harry Dean Stanton palpably displays his awareness of being too old for this scene when he appears as Cisco’s ex-partner (actually, he never looks quite as bad as some dialogue claims—he’s Harry Dean Stanton circa 1971 so he looks pretty cool to me), Joy Bang is another party girl who tags along (both she and Viva were also in PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM) and the likes of Roscoe Lee Browne, Allan Arbus, Severn Darden and Antonio Fargas are in there at various points. Also turning up as a customer looking to buy a lot of what Cisco’s got is William Traylor, FLETCH’s Mr. Underhill, making this film his second straight appearance on this site.


It might make for a fascinating look back now, but it didn’t do much for the film at the time, even critically—Vincent Canby pretty much dismissed the film in his New York Times review when it was released there in January 1972 by saying “there isn’t much to say about it.” He does, however, mention that Columbia opened it on a double bill with MACHINE GUN McCAIN the Italian gangster picture set in America starring John Cassavetes. Definitely an odd pairing but it still sounds like a worthwhile day at the movies to me. Canby also adds that the story in “the foreground is no match for the realism of the found objects in the background.” Still dismissive, but interesting how what he points out isn’t all that different from a few of the things that I find myself responding to—Canby just didn’t care about them. But those signs of a city that seems to be dissolving as you look at it are there and tossed into this low-key mix of sex, drugs, music and isolation almost forty years old now is a movie that makes me stop and think for a few minutes, wondering about its characters, wondering about its Los Angeles. As well as wondering about my own personal version of those Kristofferson lyrics playing in my head as I approach another day of trying to make all this work, wondering if my car will ever make it over the next hill.

Friday, March 19, 2010

No Elephant Books


I mentioned that I had seen INTO THE NIGHT on a double bill with FLETCH at the New Beverly several weeks ago now and it’s probably easy for anyone to guess which film had the bigger crowd. Now, I admit it, I like FLETCH. Actually, sometimes it seems that everyone likes FLETCH and I suppose that if somebody around my age doesn’t know how to drop lines from this movie at random than as far as society is concerned there’s something wrong with them. But I’ve never gotten into the whole massive FLETCH cult thing that gets referenced in articles in The Onion and seems to accept it as one of the greatest films ever made. I sometimes feel like standing on a rooftop shouting, “People, calm down! Seriously, it’s just FLETCH!” But seeing it again this time I totally enjoyed it and found myself appreciating what director Michael Ritchie pulled off with the movie. After a terrific run of films through the seventies that included PRIME CUT, SMILE and THE BAD NEWS BEARS the eighties had the director helming a vehicle for seemingly every big-name comedy actor out there, not always to the best results—THE SURVIVORS, WILDCATS, THE GOLDEN CHILD, THE COUCH TRIP. Maybe there are some scattered laughs in there but are you really going to try defending these things? Released on May 31, 1985 FLETCH is without a doubt the best of any of them, taking a star who clicks totally with the character and a story that never becomes too much for the material. Taken out of its place in pop culture FLETCH is still a very sharp, enjoyable movie as well as a really good star vehicle and it’s a shame that they never made any sequels. Well, that’s not entirely true but we’ll avoid discussing that for the time being.


An adaptation of the original novel by Gregory McDonald (and a pretty loose one though some of the skeleton is there), the story of investigative newspaper reporter I.F. Fletcher (Chevy Chase), better known as Fletch, and his investigation of drugs on the beach as he gets hired to—hang on, you don’t really want me to recite the plot, do you? You’ve already seen this movie a hundred times, right? You know the fake names he uses, the disguises and all the lines, whether coming from the screenplay by the great Andrew Bergman or ad-libs by Chevy himself—Dr. Rosenrosen, charge it to the Underhills, The Mattress Police, Frieda’s Boss, no elephant books, I can’t figure out what I was doing in Utah, Morris or Pierre, my car just hit a water buffalo, a steak sandwich and a steak sandwich as well as an always welcome BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA reference. Many of the jokes throughout really do work well, but FLETCH keeps all this on a grounded level of comedy and mystery by not trying to make its modest investigation plot more complicated than it is. In the best detective story way of both cases ultimately collapsing into one the plot may be a little too clean in that regard but all the elements do come together in the end and it doesn’t make a particularly big deal about it. It’s as if the film is saying, you want to pay attention to all this exposition, fine—it’ll all make sense. But if all you care about is Chevy acting goofy without caring why, that’s ok too.


My several decade-old memories of reading the book are that the storyline is considerably darker (it also had Fletch doing characters when he calls people on the phone to ask them questions, which wouldn’t be very cinematic) particularly in the beach stuff which even here still feels a little like scenes left over from considerably darker earlier drafts (plus I’m guessing that the Los Angeles Chief of Police probably wouldn’t have much interest in Santa Monica, but whatever). Michael Ritchie brings a relaxed style to this film which considering how much the high-concept nature of it feels locked into the 80s the looseness it projects isn’t all that different from his best work in the 70s. He may have been just a director-for-hire on this project to keep the star in line but the casual nature of it all gives the impression that the two worked well together—it’s like Chase was given a certain amount of freedom to go as far as he wanted with some of these characters and Ritchie knows which jokes to focus on and when. Even the climax where everything is revealed leading up to a small amount of gunplay is basically confined to one small room—what matters is the plot and Chevy’s wisecracks so there’s no need to make this a big action scene anyway. That’s not why we’re watching this thing. Ritchie clearly knows how to make this what a star vehicle should be, showing Chevy off in the best way possible and as a result the film is just about the best pure demonstration of that we ever got. His performance as Fletch shows that he clearly knows what a good character this is and he’s totally present, fully committed to doing everything possible to sell us this guy who’s sharper than everyone around him and get us on his side. And he’s present not just for the laughs but the serious moments—when he lays out the plot to Dana Wheeler-Nicholson’s Gail Stanwyk the laughs are correctly dialed back with even the running gag of the Underhills playing like extra tension here and Chase plays it basically straight in a non-showy way that doesn’t kill the plot—there have been plenty of other comic actors through the years who haven’t pulled off this kind of tonal switch nearly as well.


But even when things become slightly more serious it never kills the ultimately breezy tone of the whole thing. Random comment on the music which adds greatly to that feel—the Harold Faltermeyer main theme isn’t as recognizable as BEVERLY HILLS COP’s “Axel F”, also his, but I’ll bet if you watched FLETCH a bunch back in the day you’d know it if you heard it. What’s cool about the way the music is used here is that it scores not the comedy but, in addition to action and suspense stuff, the attitude of Fletch (and Axel Foley in that film), providing flavor to the transitional stuff as he goes from one place to the other trying to piece the case together. When he arrives at his destination to act goofy the music stops and the jokes begin. It scores the mood instead of the laughs and the bouncy, sardonic tone it provides to these movies is a large reason why we remember them so fondly all these years later. Kevin Smith brought back Faltermeyer to score the recent COP OUT in an attempt to give it the feel of one of those movies but though a few transitions have that vibe too often the music is used throughout to score the wacky comedy antics of the two leads. It certainly doesn’t help make that film any funnier and gives the impression that while Kevin Smith may have liked those themes he never bothered to sit down and figure out why they worked so well (it’s not a good movie anyway and that’s all that needs to be said about COP OUT). The music in FLETCH might be an artifact of the 80s but it’s definitely fun, it totally supports the character of who this guy is and helps sell the whole film immeasurably.


Considering how much the film is meant to be a pure spotlight for Chevy it's easy to forget how he’s backed up by a well-cast group of people who manage to make impressions with not much screentime—in some cases, just a single scene—and this adds hugely to the world of the film. If these other actors didn’t make any sort of impression then how Fletch fools them under his various guises wouldn’t have any real comic effect. Remember reliable character actors? Remember when casting someone like M. Emmet Walsh for just a few scenes was a normal thing? Just watching Walsh in a scene with Chase is fun, Tim Matheson is appropriately smarmy as Alan Stanwyk (I always thought his casting was interesting considering how Chase almost played his ANIMAL HOUSE role), Joe Don Baker’s Chief of Police is a convincingly nasty threat, William Traylor (also in Ritchie’s SMILE) is the insufferable Ted Underhill and Richard Libertini’s editor is believably exasperated yet within the film’s own logic he’s still a character that makes sense. Dana Wheeler-Nicholson as the female lead (she later played Wyatt Earp’s wife in TOMBSTONE) is a likable choice for Chevy to bounce lines off of and the movie wisely doesn’t try to overdo her cuteness—usually I hate when someone laughs at how “funny” the lead is but here it actually works and because of that we buy her response to him. Throughout the film are actors who when dealing with Fletch in his various guises are correctly directed to play it as real instead of a sitcom, like they really aren’t sure how to deal with this person. Alison LaPlaca has several well-played reactions as the airline clerk and Beau Starr’s obvious suspicion in his single scene opposite Fletch’s disguise as “Gordon Liddy” doesn’t pay off but it doesn’t have to—it just provides his moments of screen time with an unexpected intensity, as if the actor didn’t even know he’d been hired to be in a comedy. George Wyner makes such an impression in his role as Fletch’s ex-wife’s divorce lawyer that it’s surprising to see how brief his role really is and Geena Davis provides a spark to her role as ever-reliable Larry at the newspaper, one of a number of elements that would have worked well in a sequel.


Of course, there was a sequel—1989’s FLETCH LIVES, also directed by Ritchie (who died in 2001) but not written by Bergman. With a plot set around Fletch inheriting a plantation down south and getting mixed up with a murder, it’s pretty lame stuff and strangely not based on any of the books--you’d think that they would have found something to use in one of them. A movie based on FLETCH AND THE MAN WHO actually was in development at one point and Bergman even wrote a script so it seems strange that this didn’t happen—were studio politics involved? Of course, FLETCH made $50 million back in the summer of ‘85 which was certainly a decent amount but didn’t make any kind of sequel inevitable. They must not have realized how much the whole world would know lines from this thing eventually. A recent article in Entertainment Weekly extensively goes over Kevin Smith’s attempts in recent years to revive FLETCH as a film series but doesn’t provide much information as to what went down in Universal City back in the 80s. For his part, Bergman offers, ''I think Chevy could have done five Fletch movies. It really could have been his Clouseau. It should have been.'' He’s probably right. It would be nice to imagine a new FLETCH movie that was more like the books but the public’s identification with Chase in the role would probably prevent that. So I’m not sure what the answer is to what to do with the character anymore but there is still this one movie. It was worth revisiting with a good crowd—nice new print at the New Beverly, too. Still, let’s not make a big thing out of it. After all, it’s just FLETCH. But I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Beginning To Feel Something


This is one of those days where I’m trying to figure out what to say, how to write it. Maybe I’ve forgotten how but I’m not sure at the moment. At least I still remember how to type. But what do you say when you encounter a film that you love so much that you barely know where to even begin and you find yourself as clueless as that film’s characters? The trip out to Santa Monica to go to the Aero for American Cinematheque programming seems to get longer every time I do it but it’s worth it when it turns out to be something like the tribute to Buck Henry that was on Sunday night. The evening included an appearance by Buck Henry in person and a screening of gorgeous prints of two films from a key period of his career: Mike Nichols’ extraordinary CATCH-22, which Henry scripted and co-starred in and what was for me the real find of the night, a film which starred the man normally best known for writing, playing supporting roles and multiple appearances hosting SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Released in 1971, Milos Forman’s TAKING OFF is practically unknown these days no doubt partly due to its never being released on video in any format but seeing it here for the first time felt to me like a revelation, a scrappy little film that to me was quite extraordinary in its small way, a counterculture generation gap comedy that feels somehow different, funnier yet more human, from many of the others from that time. Almost from the first song heard at the very beginning something in me clicked with it in a way that I almost can’t fully express. Largely improvisatory and at times almost unbearably funny, it has practically nothing to do with the Milos Forman we know of who made epics like AMADEUS and there’s a freedom to every single shot, every single frame that I find truly, unmistakably beautiful in more ways than I can say. I felt so lifted up by it that I wanted to ask someone around me, “Is this as good as I think it is?” Maybe they wouldn’t agree but then I probably wouldn’t want to talk to them anyway. Naturally dated yet still managing to be relevant in its portrayal of feeling totally at a loss of how to sometimes survive in a world that is never quite what you expect it to be, it’s a dead-on satire that to me feels nothing but compassion for every single person in it.


Shortly after visiting his psychiatrist to cure him of his smoking habit milquetoast husband and father Larry Tyne (Buck Henry) discovers that his teenage daughter Jeannie (Linnea Heacock) has disappeared, perhaps run away. With him and his wife Lynn (Lynn Carlin) extremely worried he begins to look for her and when a brief return by Jeannie ends disastrously, Larry extends his search, resulting in he and his wife getting involved with the SPFC, the “Society for the Parents of Fugitive Children” in a desperate attempt to locate and somehow understand their missing daughter.

Elliptical in its plotting, extremely improvisatory in nature, the story of TAKING OFF isn’t the issue as much as just observing the characters of the parents, two people who are totally clueless yet never just shallow caricatures who don’t understand the younger generation. Their lives are vague with nothing really to define them so it makes sense that they have a painting in their living room which changes its image depending on which vantage point you look at it—they don’t even have any firm feelings on what to hang up in their home. They’re foolish, but no more than anyone else on the planet earth and they’re each clearly trying to understand what’s going on with their daughter (“No, she’s just a baby,” says Carlin when asked if their fifteen year-old has a diaphragm), who barely seems able to say a single word to them whenever we see her. The laughs in TAKING OFF are at times random but continuous—Buck Henry trying to a hard boiled egg while drunk, him dealing with the awkwardness of carrying around a giant framed photo of his missing daughter, his anti-smoking exercise mistaken for a black power salute, what results when he suddenly gets involved with another teenage girl who’s missing that he randomly spots, not to mention at one point seeing more of Buck Henry than you probably ever thought you’d see. Possibly best of all is an extended sequence of parents at an SPFC meeting trying to understand their offspring by attempting “an experiment”: smoking marijuana for the first time, guided into this uncharted territory by an expert played by eventual Milos Forman regular Vincent Schiavelli, who is absolutely unforgettable in his film debut as he explains what to do in the most methodical way possible. (“The remnant is a roach?” asks one mother to clarify as she jots down this piece of information) The continuous stream of oddball dialogue coming from these people (“Can you speak freely? Just answer yes or no,” says one parent to a mysterious phone call), most of it improvised, makes one wonder how any of these adults can understand each other, let alone any of their children.


Bracketing all this as counterpoint to these confused adults are continuous audition scenes of countless young girls, including Jeannie, singing various songs including one extended sequence of many of them singing a song called “Let’s Get A Little Sentimental”. This is where much of Forman’s fascination with America comes into play with continuous shots of these girls, some weird, some sweet-looking, all somehow unique as totally untalented as many of them are. Included in this (essentially) documentary footage among the singers is Carly Simon, unknown at this point but looking ready and confident for fame to happen. More surprisingly we also get a glimpse of a very, very young Kathy Bates, billed as Bobo Bates, (the gasp heard from the Aero audience was audible at this point) singing the strangely haunting “Even the Horses Had Wings”. The continued effect of all the music throughout, from what is heard during these sections to the harshly dissonant classical sounds that accompany Buck Henry’s search through lower Manhattan, the surprise of the acoustic “Ode to a Screw” as well as the jolting appearance of the Ike and Tina Turner revue is much of what gives the film its unique lifeforce that several days later I still can’t fully shake.

TAKING OFF is short (93 minutes), maybe shorter than I realized it would be while watching it and maybe it doesn’t say anything other than just gathering up the courage to sing for someone is about as brave as you can ever get. Or maybe it’s not saying anything and is just a quiet observation of how there is no way for two generations like this to ever understand each other and we may as well relax about it all. There’s something truly freeing in how the movie expresses that. Henry and Carlin as the two leads are wonderful with each person becoming flat-out touching in the totally earnest and confused sincerity. Georgia Engel & Tony Harvey nail the flat suburban feel as their friends with more going on than we first realize but even better is the unforgettable combination of Audra Lindley and Paul Benedict as a couple they meet through the SPFC and eventually involve them in a game of strip poker—I love Benedict’s moment when he tries to describe what he thinks he’s beginning to feel as he tries marijuana for the first time. The use of what are obviously non-actors throughout pays off amazingly well particularly in the case of Linnea Heacock as Jeannie who has just a few lines but a hauntingly beguiling look on her face each time we see her, no doubt with director Forman’s help, which makes it clear just how lost she is and just as clear that we’re never going to know why. Allen Garfield plays a guy in a bar who hits on Carlin, going a little too far in trying to pursue her and a young Jessica Harper can be quickly spotted in the crowd waiting to audition with even her name audibly getting called at one point.


The post-film discussion featured Buck Henry being interviewed by Larry Karaszewski (co-screenwriter of ED WOOD and Forman’s THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT) shed some light on all this madness but even to this day Henry seems not entirely sure exactly why he was cast beyond possibly having what Forman thought of as “a sad face”. He talked about how the film, the director’s first in America after arriving from Czechoslovakia was put into production when Universal began a system to fund several low-budget films (also including TWO LANE BLACKTOP) around this period in the wake of the massive success of EASY RIDER. Henry says it was all essentially improvised with Forman providing specific instructions to the actors and he never saw any kind of script (Forman, John Guare, Jean-Claude Carrière and Jon Klein are all credited for writing it nonetheless). He talked about how Forman actually got Lynn Carlin drunk for the strip poker scene when her character is meant to be and more surprisingly remembers the lengthy pot smoking sequence as only taking a day to shoot. As for the intriguing Linnea Heacock, who never made another film, apparently even Milos Forman has no idea whatever happened to her. Larry Karaszewski commented that one reason why he and partner Scott Alexander wanted Forman to direct THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT was due to how something like this film revealed how well he can combine comedy and drama to the point where the two almost blend together. The film unfortunately remains unreleased in video in any format due to the enormous complications of the music rights but Karaszewski reported to the crowd that he’s heard it’s in the pipeline at Criterion. I hope that happens.

Apparently after the film flopped on release, Forman expressed regret that in making something like this he had made a Czechoslovakian film, not an American film. Maybe this feeling is what to the projects he chose in the future—of course, just a few years later he won the Oscar for directing ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. So maybe it makes sense that in TAKING OFF, a film with different possible interpretations depending on which way you look at it, one character says, “I accept contradictions.” It might be the wisest thing spoken by anyone on either side of the generation gap during the entire film and naturally it comes from just about the least likely person to say it. I can’t fully express why I love this film that I just encountered for the first time so much. I wish I could. But in trying to come up with the words I feel as helpless as this film’s characters in trying to say anything about what’s really going on. Which maybe isn’t so bad.

“The other thing you must remember is that after you inhale, you take the joint and you pass it to the person sitting next to you. Do not—repeat—do not hold onto the joint. This is called Bogarting the joint and it is very rude.”

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

All You've Learned


A few nights before the Academy Awards I decided to prepare for the occasion by once again watching 1966’s THE OSCAR starring Stephen Boyd, Elke Sommer and Tony Bennett. Deadly serious and almost unbearably funny from the first scene to the unforgettable finale it has to be one of the most entertaining bad films of all time. I should write about it some day. Late at night after the actual awards ended, when I was completely worn out from all the nonsense of the evening, I decided to wind things down with a considerably more bizarre 60s foray into the dark side of Hollywood, Robert Aldrich’s THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE, released in 1968. It probably isn’t a stretch to call it one of the stranger films to ever come from Hollywod, let alone one of the stranger films about Hollywood, but that would probably make it sound better than it is. It’s still interesting enough, not to mention bizarre enough, that just trying to figure it all out after seeing it again makes me want to write about it for what marks my 400th post on this site. By a strange coincidence, the great Joe Dante’s essential and addictive site Trailers From Hell which features a variety of directors doing commentary on a wide range of film trailers from all eras, recently ran its 400th trailer. I don’t think they’ve covered THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE yet but considering a few of the films that have turned up there they’ll probably get around to it sooner or later. For now, I’ll just write about it because if I don’t try to figure out THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE then who else is going to?


When aspiring actress Elsa Brinkmann (Kim Novak) who bears an uncanny resemblance to legendary movie star Lylah Clare (a fusion of Monroe, Dietrich, Garbo, Harlow and probably others), who mysteriously died twenty years ago, the icon’s director and husband Lewis Zarkan (Peter Finch) decides to press forward with a revealing biopic on the star, making what is to be his first film in twenty years. But as he presses forward with transforming Elsa into Lylah with dying agent Bart Langner (Milton Selzer) dialogue coach (and former lover of Lylah’s) Rossella (Rossella Falk) and studio chief Barney Sheean (Ernest Borgnine) who all once knew Lylah around them, Elsa begins to uncannily resemble Lylah in behavior as well as looks. Secrets surrounding Lylah’s mysterious demise begin to come out as Zarkon falls in love with Elsa—or is he just still in love with Lylah?—and it begins to seem as if history is about to repeat itself.


The genuine weirdness of the mood that the film gives off sticks in the mind long after seeing it but very few of the specifics of what goes on ever do outside of a moody opening credits sequence featuring Kim Novak wandering down a deserted Hollywood Boulevard which looks like it has to have really been shot very early in the morning (Aldrich’s own THE DIRTY DOZEN is seen on a marquee—researching some dates shows it probably was actually playing at the time) and an unexpected ending that I’ll get to shortly. THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE is strange, no doubt about it, but considering it could be looked at as an attempt by Robert Aldrich to recapture the success of his previous dark-side-of-Hollywood’s-past WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? the resulting film is pretty much totally insane yet still never comes off quite as hysterical as you might be expecting. Too much of the background of this story is never really clarified, too many tantalizing elements aren’t really explored—have Zarkan and Rossella really been living together in this huge mansion for twenty years doing nothing but sniping at each other? Why? What could have happened during that time almost sounds like a more interesting movie than the one we got.


In his review when it was released Roger Ebert refers to it as “an awful movie, but fairly enjoyable,” as if the very concept of so-bad-it’s-good was still pretty new at the time. But in terms of camp, satire, whatever, way too often it feels unclear just what the movie is trying to say or do and on a very basic level it feels like if Robert Aldrich had a concept that was clear to him, he was never able to impart that to anyone else involved with the film. Whether looked at as shrill camp, satire or thriller WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? is certainly over the top but it irrefutably works with an ending that comes crashing down like the end of the world, a veritable showbiz apocalypse. LYLAH CLARE has the logic of watching something half-drunk on the late show in the middle of the night with every other scene cut out but even saying that might be overstating the case.


Tying the basic concept into VERTIGO certainly sounds like an interesting concept for Kim Novak as a comment on the early part of her career at Columbia Pictures but it ultimately just comes off as odd, as if the movie itself isn’t clear on what to do with the reference point. In 1996 Novak told the Washington Post, “That was a weird movie. It didn’t have to be that bad,” adding that she didn’t know until the night of the premiere that Aldrich had dubbed in someone else’s voice for the scenes where the German-accented “Lylah” supposedly takes over. It’s not even clear what is going on at these points. Elsa Brinkmann is a woman with no past, no character, nothing beyond an undefined fascination with Lylah, so who is she? Is she a brilliant actress? Is she actually possessed by the legend? Is she some kind of acting savant? Since these scenes just come off as simply weird and nothing else it kind of winds up killing the movie right there. It’s not that these are points that necessarily needed to be answered but it feels like even the movie doesn’t know quite how to play it all so we’re not sure how funny or serious to take it. It’s interesting just to watch Novak in this context but she never gets any sort of character to play on a coherent level.


With a screenplay by Hugo Butler and Jean Rouverol from a teleplay by Edward DeBlasio and Robert Thom, too much of the movie focuses on the wrong things with not enough happening at times. I suppose this is one way to say that it’s fairly dull stuff. You want laughs? Watch THE OSCAR, seriously. THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE’s odd tone is certainly hypnotic at times with an appropriately haunting score by De Vol but too often it’s not all that compelling. Sitting here right now I’ve just rewatched the first hour and I can barely tell you what happens during most of it. I suppose it consists of scene after scene of characters arguing over whether Finch is going to make this film, whether Borgnine’s studio is going to release this film, who is going to produce this film and so on. There’s a seemingly endless scene of Finch and Borgnine in the Brown Derby arguing over financing and how much they hate each other but not enough attention paid to what’s going on with Novak’s character. She’s certainly not some sort of Joe Gillis-type audience surrogate dragged into this world and irrevocably changed by it—at least, if she’s supposed to be it doesn’t read as such and since the production of what is apparently called LYLAH CLARE: FILM STAR (what a dull title) where you would imagine this transformation would take place, doesn’t even start until close to ninety minutes into this 130 minute movie so everything is just lopsided.


Even the tone feels off—there’s a slight dream feel to everything which makes sense but something about the photography makes it look cheap—maybe shooting the whole thing in black and white a la BABY JANE wasn’t an option by the late sixties (though the flashbacks are presented this way) but the dullness of the colors give it a flat look that makes everything kind of sleepy. The set of Zarkan’s mansion looks about as phony as the movie version of it we later see on a soundstage. Which may be the point, but since there’s no feel that the movie is toying with reality versus fantasy it’s just kind of confusing. It’s tough to know what to make of how the story resolves itself—part of the point seems to be its inevitability but it’s not clear if the movie is treating this as deadly serious, as satire, or something else entirely so when Finch muses how he’s just reliving the same mistakes he’s already made it doesn’t have much effect. The film certainly doesn’t need to outright state what it is but if it seemed to know then we’d be able to take it however we want (just like BABY JANE). That clarity isn’t there, though there are enough haunting grace notes that cause the whole thing to stay with me, like a high shot near the end of a nearly empty Grauman’s Chinese, that make it all continually fascinating even if very little of it actually works. I can’t help but imagine Blake Edwards being fascinated by it as well and figuring out what to do with the potential of the humor in the material in order to write S.O.B. You could call it Aldrich’s angriest statement about the industry, you could call it a camp classic, but it never reaches the boil it feels like it needs to and just winds up as a head scratcher. Enough of a head scratcher for me to watch it multiple times as I try to figure the damn this out, but still.

The other memorable element of the film, which everyone who’s seen it always seems to mention, is the very end which features a certain dog food commercial unlike any ever seen before (it’s also kind of an extension of a similar joke in BABY JANE) and, placed in this context, drives home Aldrich’s total contempt for everything related to what’s happened—there’s no point in trying to describe it and you really need to see it for yourself anyway. It feels like an ultimate statement about Aldrich’s feelings regarding Hollywood but, as Woody Harrelson in NATURAL BORN KILLERS once observed, “I’m not exactly a hundred percent sure what it’s saying. ” But I’m willing to make a few guesses. If anything, it succeeds in wrenches us away from this film before we’re expecting it, refusing to give us any sort of satisfaction just as Hollywood often does, churning out junk, tossing aside its finest talent as everyone within consumes themselves and everyone around them. The abrupt ending KISS ME DEADLY once had before it was correctly restored is nothing in comparison to this.


Coming near the end of her run as an above-the-title star, Kim Novak is still extremely beautiful but obviously somewhat older—older than this character should be, anyway—as well as being visibly more full-bodied. Her very presence certainly adds to things but as the muddled nature of the tale goes on it becomes very clear that though she’s doing her best the actress is as lost as everyone else and the dubbing issues certainly don’t help matters (Aldrich several years later: “I really didn’t do her justice.”). But I’m not sure what any actress is supposed to do with scenes where she walks around in a bra and a sweater tied around her neck as she does at one point—maybe this is where SEINFELD got that idea. Much of the cast seems stranded but they at least seem to be trying as well. Finch acts gravely serious but doesn’t always seem to be in the same frame as people which, considering he’s supposed to be an egomaniac could be part of the point. Ernest Borgnine, sneering “I make movies, not films!” is enjoyable as always as the studio head (he’s even watchable in THE OSCAR as far as I’m concerned), Coral Browne brings more depth to her shrewish Hedda Hopper-like columnist than might have been on the page and 8 ½’s Rosella Falk as Lylah’s long-ago lesbian lover has a fascinating presence and is maybe one of the key elements that makes the movie as bizarrely compelling as it ever is. Valentina Cortese has a few showy moments as the wardrobe mistress and Michael Murphy, as the son of the studio head, doesn’t seem to have much reason to be in the movie making me wonder if there was something between him and Novak that got cut. Aldrich veteran George Kennedy can be spotted in an unbilled cameo as an actor in one of Lylah’s old films and Dick Miller turns up in one scene as a reporter.


Going back to that dog food commercial, since I mentioned Joe Dante’s Trailers From Hell site it reminds me that several years ago in a piece that I wrote on THE HOWLING here I wondered if an appearance of a dog food commercial at the very end was in fact a LYLAH CLARE reference which several days later was confirmed here by none other than Joe Dante, saying that I was the first person to ever pick up on that. I’m not sure what that says. Maybe it’s a reminder of how close I’m looking into these films sometimes. Maybe it doesn’t say anything other than that I was once lucky enough to see THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE which is rarely screened and until the Warner Archive made it available on DVD I don’t think it was ever released on video in any format. Maybe it doesn’t make any difference. Beginning to write this blog was probably one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. I’ve met people I wouldn’t have met otherwise and after 400 posts I find myself loving films, and loving looking at films, even more than I already did. Even if it’s THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Moment Of A Lifetime


Yes, at one point before the Academy Awards began I made the crazily bold prediction that INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS was going to win. I was being ornery, what can I say. I was going out on a limb and it’s what I was hoping for anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I really did think that THE HURT LOCKER was terrific, I just wasn’t sure that the Academy was going to give the award to what would be the lowest grossing Best Picture winner in modern times. And coming a year after SLUMDOG MILLIONARE this makes it two years in a row that the Best Picture winner probably came close to getting next to no theatrical release at all. It would be nice that all this would mean that the studios wouldn’t put all their resources into making nothing by mammoth tentpoles in 3D and start releasing a few films that could use this sort of attention but by this point I think we all know better. By the way, I saw ALICE IN WONDERLAND in 3D over the weekend. But let’s move on. Some might say that THE HURT LOCKER didn’t get much of a release anyway. Maybe because of the economy, I never felt like Summit tried to get the film out there as much as they could or should have. Ultimately they probably put more effort into the Oscar campaign than actually getting it into theaters which kind of annoys me. But it’s on DVD now and everyone can see it. So it’s all over now. I don’t have to worry about the handful of titles that I never got around to. I no longer have to pretend that I might go see AVATAR a second time. I can watch my DVD of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS all I want. Or just see any movie that I want to see for my own reasons like I usually do anyway. Truthfully, I thought the Oscar show itself was pretty terrible but not in a horrific Allan Carr train wreck kind of way—it was as if lots of little things were arranged in such a haphazard fashion to make it all feel totally lumbering and out of control before even the first hour was up. Yes, there were plenty of gorgeous women looking great (looking at the tape again a few really do stand out) but I couldn’t care less what they were wearing so I’m the wrong person to talk about that stuff anyway. It makes you ask the question what are the Oscars in 2010, what does the show want to be? Because I’m not sure it wants to be about movies.


Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin are almost always very funny doing this sort of thing and I’ll admit I laughed a number of times during their monologue (face it, jokes about Meryl Streep and Hitler are funny) but by a certain point that section began to feel way too shapeless, feeling like it was building up to something—a big musical number? A surprise appearance? A joke on the joke?—that never happened. Anyone who’s seen their running ‘feud’ on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE knows that the two of them can play off each other but there wasn’t enough of a chance to do that here, although I did enjoy the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY spoof. Maybe the room is too big for that sort of interplay, maybe stuff got cut. Way too often in these shows the host(s) seems to disappear for long stretches of time and we wonder where they’ve gone. Shouldn’t the host always be around to, I don’t know, host? When Billy Crystal made all those running Jack Palance jokes back in the day it’s because he was actually on stage to make them but somehow those fun chances have been squeezed out of this show in an effort to keep things moving and it still runs long. What we did get at the beginning was a musical number featuring Neil Patrick Harris that I guess was designed to introduce these guys who were going to be around all night—except they really weren’t and I’m not sure why that number was needed at all. Couldn’t we have gotten one of those Chuck Workman history-of-movies montages to get us all excited? Instead of that we got a line in the song about dropping the soap in prison—thank you, Marc Shaiman! That’s the glamour of Hollywood for ya.

And part of it just felt like the rhythm and pacing of the whole thing was off, which made it all seem even longer than it was. The camera seemed to be continually swooping around presenters as they were opening the envelopes like someone behind the scenes was trying to show off a new camera rig and shots of the audience showed people who looked as if they had been told that family members had just died. I guess the joke of the Steve Carell-Cameron Diaz bit was that it was intentionally awkward but the timing wasn’t sharp enough so it just became confusing. Miley Cyrus tried to excuse her nervousness by saying it was her first time there except it wasn’t. Meanwhile George Clooney had some kind of runner with Alec Baldwin that really didn’t work but by a certain point he even acted goofy for the camera so maybe by staying seated he clearly had the right idea. Maybe someone needed to pump more oxygen into the room to keep everyone awake. We also got interminable clips showing the actors and actresses in the supporting categories along with the displays of sound editing and those short film segments with Zoe Saldana and Carey Mulligan which seemed to go on for hours (plus the crazy lady rushing the stage) then certain other things were raced through way too quickly as if somebody had suddenly decided to pick up the pace. And they cut the songs? How was this whole thing timed? By the time we got to friends of the lead acting nominees singing their praises it felt like whiplash with everything slowing down when it actually did need to get moving so the whole thing could just end already. The John Hughes tribute felt like it happened way too early in the show, coming at a point where things needed to get going not stop for this long digression and things just felt out of whack. Plus, Judd Nelson was really scary looking.


And I guess we could debate singling out John Hughes at all when you and I could easily name all the worthy people didn’t get such treatment when they passed away either this year or during years past. One of the only other ones I can think of is Kubrick so maybe you need to become a recluse. Of course, John Hughes hadn’t directed any kind of movie for twenty years and a fair amount of the things that his name appeared on—stuff not featured in this montage which included scenes from only six of the eight films he directed as well as several he wrote—were total garbage. I can’t dispute what these movies meant to people and hey, I grew up on them too. I just know that this didn’t happen when Billy Wilder died. And lots of other people as well. The weird thing is it felt like such a digression maybe because it was a segment that was actually trying to be about someone who made movies. Maybe they could have tried a few more of those while they were at it. And hey, a clip from WEIRD SCIENCE got shown on the Oscars.


Which makes this as good a time as any to discuss the Montage Of Death which featured all the people who apparently didn’t deserve their own segment and all the things wrong with it. For starters, they brought back last year’s massive screwup by placing the segment on a screen within the stage at the beginning, making it more about who was performing this number (James Taylor) than about the people they were supposedly paying tribute to. Patrick Swayze I could make out, but one or two others seemed to get the shaft (Mark Evanier says they were Maurice Jarre and Monte Hale). Not to mention how the visual layout of the segment looked ugly and the way they were obviously trying to race through each name didn’t go well with the tempo of the song. Not included were people like Dominick Dunne, Arnold Stang, Dan O’Bannon, Zelda Rubinstein and, as everyone seems to be talking about, Farrah Fawcett who though she’s mainly remembered for television did appear in a number of films during her career. The omission of Bea Arthur seems to make more sense to me considering how the actress really was more famous for TV (honestly the only film appearance of hers I can think of is the HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART 1 cameo) and you could argue that several of those absent like Gene Barry and Edward Woodward are also remembered more for their TV roles so—hey, you know what? I’m not gonna cut them a break. These people starred in legendary films like WAR OF THE WORLDS and THE WICKER MAN so they deserved to be included. You know who’s also known mostly for TV? Neil Patrick Harris! So what the hell was he doing on the show? And, maybe most unforgivable of all was the omission of Henry Gibson who deserved to be in there if only for work roles in Altman’s NASHVILLE (he wasn’t nominated for it, but he deserved to be) and THE LONG GOODBYE alone. Points however for including Fellini collaborator Tullio Pinelli, who I wouldn’t have expected to make the cut, among the screenwriters.

Barely getting more time themselves were lifetime honorees Roger Corman and Lauren Bacall, who received their awards at a non-televised ceremony in November (as did Gordon Willis, who probably declined to fly out from New York again just for the privilege of sitting in the Kodak). The two of them received a cursory introduction last night that wonderfully resulted in what felt like a completely spontaneous standing ovation which was almost the emotional high point of the night. Of course, it probably made the show’s producers break out in hives considering how quickly they shut it down so Robin Williams could come out to present the next award. Is there anyone who wouldn’t have loved to hear Bacall speak, however briefly, about what working in Hollywood with the legends she knew intimately meant to her? Wouldn’t an appearance by some of the legions of famous people who got their start with Corman have been one of the classic Oscar clips of all time? These two people from different worlds of the industry combined could have been a historic moment. It should have been. And the people putting on the show just didn’t care.


We all knew Christoph Waltz was going to win and he delivered a variation on the speech he’s given a number of times the past several months but it was still deserved and sadly just about the only time the film was heard from all night long.

I was glad that UP won, but that bit of interviewing the “stars” of the animated movies kind of made me wish that Dug the Dog from the film was hosting the show. He probably would have brought more energy to it all.

For history there was a montage to show the history of horror films or something but I’m not sure what the point of it was—it also included THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS which, in case you forgot, did come out after THE EXORCIST. It sure wasn’t to show off the greatness of horror films, considering how the person who assembled it (not Chuck Workman, the master of these things) thinks that BEETLEJUICE and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS qualify and it also contained way too much of a focus on early appearances by future stars (hey, it got LEPRECHAUN in there). At least there was a quick shot from EVIL DEAD 2 as well as CHILD’S PLAY but very little Romero or Corman (a shot of Nicholson in LITTLE SHOP and that’s it) and absolutely no Lewton let alone anything from the worlds of Hammer and Bava. For the most part, it was a wasted opportunity that probably existed only to give the stars of TWILIGHT time onstage. Maybe they should have just run a few minutes from TERROR IN THE AISLES.

At least we got Bob Murawski, one of the editors who won for THE HURT LOCKER, who in mentioning his obvious love for horror films (they should have gotten him to cut that package!) and Roger Corman, showed more genuine enthusiasm for movies than anyone else during the whole night. He’s one of the heads of Grindhouse Releasing and he’s also the editor on Sam Raimi films (a friend and I met him very briefly at a DRAG ME TO HELL test screening last year—we complimented him on all the sound effects culled from SUSPIRIA) so all congratulations to him.

Ben Stiller—less is more. Please.

Speaking of which, hey, STAR TREK won an Oscar!

After screenwriter Jeffrey Fletcher gave his moving acceptance speech upon winning for PRECIOUS one of the people they cut to, in addition to the film’s stars, was Morgan Freeman. Because it’s a black film, you see. And Steve Martin made the joke to Christoph Waltz about all the Jews being there they cut to one of the Coen Brothers. Oh, I get it! He’s a Jew! Why do they do this sort of thing year after year? It’s one thing to cut to George Clooney when someone makes a George Clooney joke, but STOP THAT.


Whenever groups of acting nominees were lined up together all I thought of how George C. Scott called the whole thing a “two hour meat parade” back when he declined to show up and yet I wondered how much more dignified it must have been in those days. Try to imagine a universe where George C. Scott would be up on stage in this sort of thing. Try to imagine George C. Scott even getting a job in a movie today.

Getting some people who had previously worked with the directors of the nominated films to introduce the clips—Keanu Reeves for THE HURT LOCKER, John Travolta for INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS—was a nice touch.

What is up with these dudes with their floppy hair and not-really beards? They’re not all Mark Boal and/or Jason Reitman, are they? That’s it, I’m not shaving today. The hair, however, there’s only so much I can do about that at this point.

Doesn’t it feel like there were people missing from this show? Some type of movie star who didn’t bother showing up? Are there movie stars anymore? Am I just really cranky?

I still wish that Tarantino could have won screenplay if BASTERDS wasn’t going to get Best Picture. Just wanted to toss that in there. That said, congratulations to Mark Boal.

The choice of what to play as presenters appeared mostly seemed to be classic songs—some connected to beloved films I guess, but not songs that came from films and certainly not any selections from actual film scores which isn’t exactly any sort of way to go about celebrating movies—one exception to this was when the theme from AMARCORD played as Tarantino and Almodovar came on to present Best Foreign Film, which was the most respectful nod to actual film scoring the show made all night long.

And that includes the interpretive dance thing to present the Best Score nominees which was godawful, yes, and certainly bizarre in how it had nothing to do with anything we tuned into this show to see but it came off as disrespectful to film scores and the people who create them—hell, not to mention the people who actually enjoy them—as well. Does anyone think it’s actually a good idea to somehow relate THE HURT LOCKER to dancing? I guess show producer Adam Shankman did. I just had to look up who actually won Best Score (congratulations to Michael Giacchino) since I think I had blocked this part of the show from memory. Wasn’t this sort of thing outlawed due to the Debbie Allen Act of 2002?

Come to think of it, maybe Tarantino and Almodovar should host next year. These guys actually like movies.

In case anyone was wondering, the clip from INTO THE LOOP shown during the screenplay nominations was the most they could show without getting into bleeping issues. Seriously, you should see INTO THE LOOP.


I never saw THE BLIND SIDE (actually I never saw three of the ten up for Best Picture--the other two are AN EDUCATION and PRECIOUS. What can I say, I'm unemployed) so I can’t speak to Sandra Bullock’s performance at all but I’m going to guess that no one who voted for her saw Tilda Swinton’s brilliant, searing work in JULIA which is seriously just about the best performance I’ve seen anyone give in years. Of course, no one saw that film. I only saw it myself on DVD a few weeks ago. JULIA is long, messy, at times a little insane and absolutely amazing. It should be seen. That has nothing to do with anything, I just thought Tilda Swinton’s performance in this film warranted mention.

Jeff Bridges abides.

“Well, Kathryn Bigelow won for Director, I guess they’ll go to commercial. Maybe I’ll get something from the kitchen to drink—hey, there’s Tom Hanks, is he presenting? Wait, what’s he saying? Is he reading the list of nominees? What? THE HURT LOCKER won? It’s over? Hey, wait up!”

To make another slam about music, when Kathryn Bigelow walked off the stage after winning Best Director the orchestra actually played “I Am Woman”. Are you kidding me? Does someone think it’s still 1972? Is Don Draper producing this show? Does someone think it’s cute and quirky that a woman is actually trying to direct movies? Do they think that all she needs to do is find a man and she won’t want to make messy, nasty action movies anymore? Maybe they never saw BLUE STEEL.


So since the actual show didn’t seem to have any real appreciation for the moment I’ll just congratulate Kathryn Bigelow, a terrific director who, even if some of her past films have been flawed, is always willing to push the material as far as it can go. Her work has continually been ferociously cinematic and pulsating with a brutal rhythm that can be tough to shake. She's enormously beautiful, yes, but it needs to be said once again that she didn't get this award because she's a woman who's a director. She got it because she's a damn good director. I truly hope that we have yet to see her best work.

I didn’t notice until I was looking at the tape this morning but the show’s closing credits included a credit for a piece directed by Laurent Bouzereau titled “What Winning An Oscar Meant To Me” but I’m guessing it got cut for time—the show did seem to begin awfully abruptly. Maybe that’s what was missing—not just a love for movies but a love for this tradition of Hollywood and instead what we’re left with are a lot of would-be stars who people watching aren’t really tuning in to see. Those like Bacall and Corman don’t get to speak and moments celebrating them are truncated. It’s embarrassing. It’s short sighted. But I suppose it’s to be expected. The old guard of Hollywood’s golden and silver ages have pretty much died off with those who might take up the mantle today having fallen off the radar or at least aren’t showing up anymore. Those from those eras who are left are relegated to, at best, a quick shot of them sitting in the audience. So I suppose this means that Tom Hanks (interestingly, March 9th marks the 26th anniversary of SPLASH, his starring debut) can now officially be deemed the old guard, beloved by all. At least for now. Maybe someday he’ll be the one sitting out there who the camera can’t wait to cut away from. So congratulations to THE HURT LOCKER, a film that absolutely deserves the exposure it’s going to get from this. Even though the big winner of the night wasn’t the massive CGI spectacle that everyone thought it would be at one point that’s probably where the concept of movies seems is headed anyway so as far as I’m concerned it’s a good thing for something else to be celebrated. But in watching this year’s Oscars I’m very aware that more than ever it’s beginning to feel like history just isn’t what it used to be and the people in charge of these shows aren’t very interested in it anyway. As I long as films are still screened somewhere on celluloid (which I guess as long as I live within driving distance of the New Beverly), as long as I get to watch old black and white noir films, bizarre car chase movies from the seventies, Italian horror movies from the sixties and who knows what else then I’ll find a way to live with it. And now, since this is all over and done with, I’m going to go watch my DVD of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS once again.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Into The Or What Category


There’s a lot that could be said about John Landis but right now, at this moment in time, I’m just going to say how much I genuinely enjoy INTO THE NIGHT. That’s right, INTO THE NIGHT, the Landis-directed comedy thriller that opened to little box office in February 1985 and was forgotten soon after, probably by the time his next film SPIES LIKE US opened for the Christmas holiday at the end of the year. Forgotten, that is, except for a handful of people out there in the world who have maintained a quiet admiration for its sneaky and at times genuinely screwed up charms. It’s one of a handful of movies from the director that, since it is freed from having to serve as a vehicle for Aykroyd/Belushi/Murphy/Chase/Whomever, revels in the chance to play as pure, unfiltered Landis and that’s where a good chunk of the screwed up element comes into play. But maybe life in Los Angeles is like one giant dark John Landis comedy anyway, where some twisted combo of comedy and danger in our lives is always teetering on the brink of madness. INTO THE NIGHT screened at the New Beverly recently on a double bill with FLETCH, which despite what you may think isn’t a John Landis film (that film’s director would be Michael Ritchie) but it did serve to make the night a double bill of ‘films released by Universal in 1985.’ In case that’s what they had in mind. Have I said before that the 70s-80s Universal logo is my favorite of all time? It feels like it goes perfectly at the front of INTO THE NIGHT coming just as the sound of a plane taxiing in for a landing starts to be heard. Whatever the studio, I was looking forward to seeing it and as the film unspoiled I found myself not just enjoying it, but flat-out loving how the movie had clearly taken such pleasure in creating itself.


Depressed and insomniac aerospace engineer Ed Okin (Jeff Goldblum) sees his problems only get worse when one day he drives home from work early desperate to get some sleep and discovers his wife having an affair. He doesn’t confront her but late that night, still unable to sleep and presumably following a co-worker’s suggestion to spend a night in Las Vegas, he drives to the airport when while in the parking lot he stumbles across a beautiful woman named Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer) who is being chased by four mysterious men who obviously want something she has. Ed rescues her and drives her off into the Los Angeles night but as he takes Diana several different locations throughout the city in search of safety, they soon realize that not only are the four men still in pursuit but several other interested parties are as well.


Sort of the L.A. equivalent of AFTER HOURS, INTO THE NIGHT sets itself apart by not only placing its darkly comic atmosphere in the middle of a complicated smuggling plotline but in the very distinct tone that Landis gives every moment, one where in just a few seconds things can turn more deadly than you may have expected. Billed as “A Dangerous Romance” on the poster, most of the romantic element seems to be implied more than anything and the character of Ed Okin, who admits that he feels “like I’m from another planet or something” barely seems capable of entering into one at this point in time anyway. It’s not really a romance at all but a collision of a guy from an allegedly real world with a gorgeous blonde who comes from a world he barely could have dreamed of, one represented by a superficial world of beach houses, huge yachts, sleek cars and movie studios where nothing whatsoever is real. One thing I was slightly surprised by on this viewing that I didn’t remember is that the two lead characters do actually kiss at one point but it comes off as a surprisingly human moment in the middle of all this, not a lame bit of romance that just feels shoehorned in. The rest of whatever’s going on between the two of them you just have to take on faith. They seem to trust each other because there’s no one else for them in their own world’s that they can depend on. It’s all set in a Los Angeles of blah people living blah lives in blah houses as Cal Worthington ads play nonstop on TV seemingly unaware of what’s going on right around them in the dead of night, a city that also seems like it’s from another planet and is much more beautiful and foreboding at the same time with beautiful women, including our lead character, living lives with rich older men without any apology whatsoever from them or the movie.


Written by Ron Koslow, INTO THE NIGHT is certainly a different film to look at after having actually lived in L.A. for years, now fully knowing the geography of it all and realizing how much ground it covers making it even more fun to watch this time around. I do honestly wonder if the city streets were this much of a ghost town in the middle of the night even back in 1985 since it’s really not the case these days (Beverly Hills I could believe) but it provides the perfect atmosphere for this familiar yet strangely unreal world that we enter. There are continual laughs throughout and it is a comedy but one with a very skewered perspective and with people at times seemingly appearing out of nowhere things sometimes make about as much sense for Ed Okin as they would in any sort of dream—in this context, the few scenes that take place during daylight hours almost come off as more intimidating as a result. The whole thing is shot in Landis’s trademark DRAGNET dead-ahead style as if challenging us to decide what we make of some of this with the occasional quick cut away from something brutally surprising but some occasional forays into a certain kind of dark comedy go beyond even what he’d done before. The four Iranian secret police agents pursuing Diana, one of which is silently played by the director himself with a giant scar along his throat (guess who gets the most violent death during the climax?), come off as kind of the Four Stooges yet more than ever before for me their destruction of various people’s homes comes off as genuinely vicious and frightening—maybe it’s meant to be funnier than it comes off or maybe Landis is testing us to see how we respond to these luxurious places being trashed. Either way it leads to one particular sequence that starts off as darkly funny then almost before we realize it results in a character’s death, done in such a way that comes off as somehow wrong, going to a different level than even the darkly comic nastiness of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON ever did. It’s particularly surprising considering the whole TWILIGHT ZONE-THE MOVIE thing, then still just a few years old, to a point where you almost want to say, “What the hell, Landis?” There’s the feeling that maybe he wants to say something about the destruction of material objects versus the objectified person who has been shockingly killed but it either comes off as too subtle or just something that he isn’t interested in exploring to any great effect. Maybe that’s the effect that Landis is going for or maybe he was just in need of some serious psychiatric help but for a few minutes in the second half the nastiness almost becomes too much.


Coming in the wake of what occurred on the TWILIGHT ZONE set the number of familiar faces who turn up in small roles feels like a show of support for him, not to mention all the infamous cameos by directors and others—Paul Mazursky, David Cronenberg (playing a scene with Goldblum a year before THE FLY), Roger Vadim, Waldo Salt, Jack Arnold, Don Siegel, Paul Bartel, Colin Higgins, Rick Baker, Jonathan Lynn, Jim Henson, Amy Heckerling, Lawrence Kasdan, Carl Gottlieb, Jonathan Demme and I’m sure I’m forgetting somebody. The story covers various points of the L.A. basin from the Marina to Hollywood to Beverly Hills to Century City to Malibu to Bel Air to downtown, along with a visit to the Ships Coffee Shop that used to be on La Cienega as well as several key trips out to LAX. The side trip to a studio filming a TV show gives us random but still pertinent jokes as Ed makes a fool of himself over all the things that aren’t real but this section also presents us with the most blatant exposition of the movie as Diana lays everything out for Ed in front of a brownstone facade, a blatant movie type-plot laid out in a blatantly phony environment.


Tied into these elements that reflect on what we’re watching the script is genuinely well-constructed with some clever dialogue sprinkled throughout though Goldblum does wind up saying a variation of “This is just too weird for me,” a few times too many to Diana as he tries to get away back to his boring life where he can’t fall asleep. But there’s never any shortage of inspiration with several terrific setpieces including a car chase through the deserted Century City and the parking lot of the Century Plaza towers, the climactic airport shootout (this is like a John Landis movie—lots of people panicking) and, best of all, a long, drawn-out sequence at the midway point as Goldblum slowly makes his way through a huge, seemingly deserted apartment with none other than ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN playing on TVs in each room (Bud, Lou, Lugosi and Chaney all justifiably are given screen credit in the end crawl). The way the sequence gradually builds to its payoff is extremely well put together (the film was edited by Malcolm Campbell who cut several other films for Landis around this time), wit the counterpoint of the older movie seen everywhere being one of the most unexpected and successful uses of this kind of device that Landis has ever achieved. Much of this mayhem is backed up by a fantastic score by Ira Newborn along with B.B. King and some of the most pleasurable moments throughout are when Landis has the confidence to just let the music play as Ed Okin goes from one place to the other and by a certain point this sort of thing just had me grinning from ear to ear. INTO THE NIGHT definitely isn’t perfect with those weird tonal issues but maybe that’s part of the point anyway since it’s not always easy to figure out the tone of where you stand here in L.A. But I will admit that I love it, crazy as it is. The movie, I mean. OK, the town too. The film almost shows who Landis is more than anything else he ever directed—a screwed up guy yet eager to get you to like him in a twisted way. I’ll say that it’s not only John Landis’s best film but for total entertainment value probably my favorite of his as well.


Goldblum and Pfeiffer play off each other extremely well and they have a genuine chemistry which really makes it feel like the two actors truly like each other so it makes it easier to like both of them as a result. It may not be a sexual chemistry but it’s definitely something and it’s a feeling that grows as the film goes on. Goldblum’s responses to this madness always stay grounded no matter what, maybe best exemplified when he catches a quick look at Pfeiffer walking around nude. The nonplussed look on his face at that moment feels totally genuine and he couldn’t be more likable as a result. He’s a complete rarity in this world, a menschy everyman who trusts in this beautiful woman, so she trusts in him. Just a guy who wants to know why he can’t sleep, he winds up bringing to the movie some kind of morality that it may not have had otherwise. Pfeiffer infuses her character with some kind of inner life that makes her endearing even though it could very easily have come off as too chilly. Her talent is still developing here but it’s impossible to miss how good she already is. And, yes, she’s stunningly beautiful as well. Among the supporting cast are a number of actors who are able to turn what are essentially jokey cameos that couldn’t have taken more than a day or two to shoot into full-blown characters--Bruce McGill as Pfeiffer’s Elvis impersonator brother is particularly good as is David Bowie (who winds up in a mortal struggle with Carl Perkins) playing the mysterious Colin Morris. Director Paul Mazursky has an actual role playing a producer, Kathryn Harrold is Diana’s too-willing actress friend, Dan Aykroyd (more than anyone else here, obviously doing a favor) makes a nondescript appearance as Ed’s co-worker, Richard Farnsworth is terrific in one scene as the rich old man Diana once loved and Irene Papas is appropriately intimidating as the powerful Shaheen Parvici figures into things late in the game. Not to mention that near the end we get a terrific appearance by Clu Gulager as a Federal Agent glaring at the two leads big time—for anyone curious, the veteran character actor is seen pretty regularly at the New Beverly these days and he was absolutely there that night. His main line when asked “Are we under arrest or what?” is “I’d say you’d fall into the or what category” which he repeats a variation of moments later and, maybe because of his character’s annoyance in delivering it, is one of those lines that you remember years after you’ve ever seen the film. The New Beverly audience gave his name a big round of applause when it appeared in the credits. For those looking for Landis trivia the same version of “The Girl From Ipanema” heard in the elevator in THE BLUES BROTHERS turns up here as well and a SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY poster can be seen in Mazursky’s office.


It’s such a tonally strange movie vacillating between something genuinely likable and at times surprisingly violent that you begin to wonder who’s in charge of all this messiness. The answer, of course, is Landis, a madman who throws all these elements into this stew whether it goes together or not. Thinking about it as I write this I find myself almost feeling more critical about it than I first intended but that night I found myself sitting there in the New Beverly with a big grin on my face, feeling hugely satisfied by this film I first saw long ago and extremely pleased by how this twisted comedy with characters who I’ve always had a fondness for remains so enjoyable. The truth is that I think I like it even more than I'm saying. The truth is that I think I love it. When B.B. King singing “In The Midnight Hour” kicks in as that patented Landis cast recap starts as the end credits roll it feels like an absolute celebration of the movie we just saw which at its best is hugely entertaining and I was thrilled to see that’s still how it plays. It’s a movie that makes the line, “Can I have a ride to the airport?” sound like the most wonderful entryway to a more exciting life imaginable. If only it really did work out that way with the Dianas of this world but as I’ve learned any number of times by now, it’s usually not the case. At least there’s still INTO THE NIGHT to let us dream and I’m very glad it’s still there. And remember: When in Hollywood, visit Universal Studios. Ask for Babs.