Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Funny Sort Of Day

I’ve never been the sort of person to embrace being up late at night. Even when I had a car I didn’t drive around the streets at odd hours, I’m not the sort of person to be found brooding in a bar at last call—although there was a night at the Dresden a few weeks ago which was an exception—and I’m not usually the sort to be sitting at an all-night diner’s counter at 3 AM drinking decaf. Does anyone ever go to Fred 62 and actually do that? What I’m feeling lately isn’t quite insomnia, because I do eventually fall asleep. But there is plenty of tossing and turning so I know that I’m worried, consumed with thoughts of anything that might be coming in the future. It’s been that kind of summer, that kind of August, the kind where I look up and go…what the hell happened? It’s been a strange time, so I’m in kind of a mood. And I still don’t have a car. I don’t even have much interest in looking right now.

So Edgar Wright’s SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD has opened and whatever has happened in terms of its reception has happened. I enjoyed the film (with some reservations but since I’ve only seen it once I’m not going to be writing anything on it right now), maybe slightly more as I was watching it than while thinking about it afterwards, just as I also enjoyed his previous film HOT FUZZ. But, for me, very few films over the past decade have come close to how I feel about Wright’s own SHAUN OF THE DEAD and I really don’t exaggerate when I say that it stands out to me more than just about any other movie that opened in the aughts, right up there with MULHOLLAND DRIVE, SIDEWAYS and maybe a few others. SCOTT PILGRIM examines its array of mostly twentysomething characters from a somewhat outside perspective while still identifying with them and their world as much as possible. In contrast SHAUN OF THE DEAD feels very much right in there with its characters who have moved past the twentysomething stage and are moving close to actually being the perilous age of thirty. I’ve moved long past that stage now too.

To go back a little bit, several years ago I got in the habit of watching SHAUN OF THE DEAD a lot. And I’m not exaggerating, I did at least one viewing a week for what seemed like months. At least once I even followed it up immediately with the original DAWN OF THE DEAD, which is probably a little obvious but it was a great double bill anyway. That was back during the period before I started to write this blog and in some ways it was a good thing to stop watching it so much. For one reason, looking for new films to write about gave me the excuse to start seeing things I hadn’t seen yet, to continue my education as it were. But I saw it enough that returning to it after some time away for another viewing didn’t really offer any new revelations. And now that I’ve seen each episode of SPACED multiple times, seen the various actors in other things, had Edgar Wright fall asleep in the row behind me at the New Beverly during a showing of BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, there’s no way it can provide the same sort of surprise for me that it did way back in ’04. If anything, returning to it now kind of depressed the hell out of me for the first few minutes serving as an almost vicious reminder for me how I haven’t moved as far away from what the lead character is going through as I would have liked to by this point in my life. I’m still trying, but in that sense it kind of stung. And if the film was still going to get me to respond in this way, that has to say something. At a certain point, I was able to put all the feelings of regret and depression aside, allowing me to love it like I always do.

If you haven’t seen SHAUN OF THE DEAD, I don’t know what you’re doing reading this, but just in case: Directionless 29 year-old Foree Electric salesman Shaun (Simon Pegg) who is perfectly content to spend most of his nights drinking pints at the local pub The Winchester is given an ultimatum but longtime girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) to turn his life around but though he wants to he blows what seems to be his one last chance. After Liz dumps him in full view of her best friends David (Dylan Moran) and Diane (Lucy Davis) Shaun spends the night drinking away his sorrows with best pal Ed (Nick Frost), a low-level drug dealer who’s even more of a screw up than Shaun is. They wake up the next morning, fully hungover, with Shaun determined to figure out how to turn his life around, only to discover that something has changed and that for reasons unknown London is suddenly being overrun by zombies. Realizing that he has no choice but to spring into action, Shaun decides he must venture out into the world to rescue his mom Barbara (Penelope Wilton) and stepdad--not his dad--Philip (Bill Nighy) but also make sure that Liz is safe and with Ed decides that there’s only one place where they can all be safe, the very place where Shaun probably would have been spending the day with Ed anyway.

Back on my first viewing in Fall 2004 the experience of viewing SHAUN played as a needed tonic to the unnecessary remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD from earlier that year, a film which after an effective first ten minutes became loud, frantic and witless. From the first moment of SHAUN, I could sense several others in the audience laughing at the same things I was while others there were just as obviously sitting there completely stone-faced but, of course, that’s just the way it goes sometimes with films that ultimately become known as cult movies. More than the spoof it may have seemed from the ads and more than the straight-out horror films that it pays loving tribute to SHAUN is simply a perfectly pitched character comedy that gets deserved, organic laughs in scene after scene while still making plain its complete love for every zombie film ever made in a way that truly means it. Wright’s directorial eye, trained in TV all those years, knows exactly what to be aiming its camera at, whether during the celebrated repeated Steadicam shots of Shaun making his way through his neighborhood in the early morning as well as during the multiple wide Scope shots of his entire ensemble trapped in the middle of this unexpected zombie outbreak. Barely taking a moment to breathe, the film keeps things expertly paced right from the start with the well-staged opening sections containing a growing feel of genuine dread emerging from the background. As a director Wright even uses inserts well, not something that you can say about any number of hacks directing $200 million movies out there. And the references to other famous zombie films, particularly from the Romero universe, feel layered and pertinent such as the radio heard reporting on a returning Jupiter probe and even when the in-jokes are placed in the foreground like the infamous “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!” it manages to still not play as intrusive. The movie manages to nail the issue of exposition in its treatment of explaining why this outbreak has happened and even the news reports seen on TV—always a tricky element of these films—feel completely authentic. The occasional offhand pop culture references feel right as well. Who needs to hang on to their copy of Prince’s BATMAN soundtrack, anyway?

By the time I returned to the film on its DVD release I found myself watching it repeatedly, moving beyond just the jokes and references, intensely connecting to it in how it came from an obviously personal place in its creator’s lives while at the same time getting me to laugh out loud even while watching it by myself. The ultimate joke of the Winchester being the most dependable romantic spot as well as thought of as “an impenetrable fortress” could only have been conceived by somebody who woke up hungover one morning and realized they may have been spending a few too many nights in the same place. I think I’ve been there. The screenplay by Wright and Pegg feels absolutely airtight in how it builds its story through enormously clever dialogue and character development, constantly delineating the ultra-twisted nature of this particular hero’s journey with true expertise in storytelling all the way down to the perfect final shot. Hell, even the film’s fart joke is good and anyone who knows me would confirm that’s something I never say. Just about the one minor issue I can pinpoint on a screenplay level might be how the titular character doesn’t really have much to define him like how Simon Pegg’s SPACED character wanted to draw comic books—background info of him being a club DJ was almost entirely cut out presumably because it didn’t have much to do with things in the end (kind of like how Billy Peltzer’s ambitions of being, what do you know, a comic book artist in GREMLINS didn’t have much of an effect in that film either) which is just about the biggest flaw in how the script is laid out. Of course, if that’s the biggest flaw then it’s probably a good sign and Pegg’s performance infuses him with the right amount of inner life anyway. The schematics of the script do become somewhat apparent after watching it multiple times, which of course sometimes adds to the humor, with dialogue callbacks (“Glad somebody made it”) and repeated actions intended to underline certain situations but the way it all plays there’s not a wasted moment—the running gag with Yvonne certainly has an added level to it after seeing SPACED but it works great either way. It remains amazing to me how the film juggles its tone from having the comedy mix with the gore but neither one ever overwhelming the other and still becoming emotional by a certain point with spot-on dialogue for each character that couldn’t be better. Besides, there’s a lot to be said about a film that correctly balances so many elements in its screenplay as this one does—hell, I’ve tried that before and pretty much failed each time. There have been plenty of late nights where I’ve sat there practically in tears during some moments near the end of this film and, to be honest, that’s probably as much of a reason as anything for my multiple viewings over the years. I love this movie.

The cast couldn’t be more ideal during all comic and serious moments throughout with Wright making his ensemble work together just as well , maybe better, than the cast of SPACED ever did. Simon Pegg is just amazing in the lead role, making his character’s transformation to from indecisive electronics salesman to DEER HUNTER-style warrior totally believable in this context. The leap in the quality of his performance as Tim on SPACED, where he was arguably sometimes outshined by his female co-star, and Shaun in this film is undeniable. Nick Frost as Ed pulls off the neat trick of playing someone who should by all reason be totally intolerable and making him a believably loyal friend. Kate Ashfield also does a good job with what is a very tricky role that in other hands might come off as too much of a drip—after all, Lucy Davis might be a little cuter but Ashfield plays Liz as someone who would be a great girlfriend if you’d pay the right kind of attention to her. She’s intelligent enough that you can believe she wants something a little more while also injecting a little humor into the character so you can buy why Shaun feels so strongly about her. Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran and the great Bill Nighy each bring a great amount of sharp comic depth to the quirks of their supporting roles and every time I see the film Penelope Wilton as Shaun’s mom Barbara just destroys me in her final scene to the point where I sometimes feel like skipping past it. There’s not a bad moment by an actor here, even the bit players and Wright’s treatment of things makes it so even the unlikable ones make sense—Roommate Pete as played by Peter Serafinowicz (the voice of Darth Maul, of course) really is kind of a ‘prick’ in how he behaves, but he’s not wrong in what he has to say to Shaun either. Maybe I’ve seen this film so many times that I easily separate it from SPACED in my head and I never quite see the character of Daisy in Jessica Hynes née Stevenson’s very funny running cameo of Yvonne. If anything, I’m always wondering just what’s going on in that character’s own, immensely more exciting movie as we’re probably supposed to do.

It’s the personal tinge to SHAUN OF THE DEAD that moves through every hysterically arch and deadly serious moment that I feel in my bones, that has made me want to keep watching it countless times over the years, As if that touch not only adds to the drama but to the cinematic invention in there as well, a release of everything creative that Wright and Pegg had ever wanted to achieve up to that point with the final result working beautifully. HOT FUZZ is very enjoyable but it feels like more of a genre goof in comparison and even if Wright did shoot most of that film in his hometown, maybe following through on some childhood fantasy of what kind of film he could shoot there, the touch of the undeniably personal feels lost. SCOTT PILGRIM is a bigger, more intense clash of real life vs. pop culture in all its forms (movies, video games, music, whatever) than he has ever attempted before and while there are many things about it I genuinely like I’m not sure how much of it has stayed with me. The female character of Ramona Flowers in that film is the sort of cool, attractive girl I’d go for myself but she remains a little too much of a vision as opposed to a character even when compared to the younger, more excitable Knives Chau, who seems nice enough but I’m not sure I could ever stand to talk to her for more than thirty seconds. Maybe some of this has to do with why the film hasn’t stayed with me all that much. I’m not sure what the answer is for the next film (the third in the presumed trilogy with Simon Pegg?) or even if he wants to go more personal again—an 8 ½-style comedy about a film director who uses Twitter a lot? It would probably be a lot better than the film of NINE but is that really the answer? Besides, if I ever said some of any of this to Edgar Wright he could very well glare at me with anger and say that SCOTT PILGRIM couldn’t have come from a more wrenching, personal place from the very bottom of his soul. And all this has to do with my own personal response, my own attachment to SHAUN OF THE DEAD, anyway. It’s been a film I’ve been able to count on through the years and it’s still there now as I sit here and wonder what the hell happened this summer? What the hell do I do now? Am I ever going to feel like getting a new car again? Am I ever going to feel like I’ve moved away from the sort of thing Shaun is going through at the beginning of his story? Maybe part of my problem is that I’m looking for an answer to these questions by relating what I’m going through to movies and TV shows. But that’s just what Edgar Wright has always done, come to think of it, and maybe if that sort of thing results in a movie like SHAUN OF THE DEAD then it’s not such a bad idea after all.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Life Has Its Little Bonuses

Both DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE and the remake of THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, each film directed by John McTiernan, begin on a morning in a pre-9/11 New York that is currently in the middle of a sweltering Indian Summer. It’s curious why this is—maybe the director found the basic setup more interesting than just having it part of a regular hot summer day and since it worked well enough the first time he decided to do it again. There’s not all that much to actually say about this point of comparison but I bring it up because it’s one of any number of things in DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE that play as kind of interesting but are still just sort of tossed in there to see if they’ll stick to the narrative. Released in May 1995, the third in the DIE HARD series came five long years after the release of DIE HARD 2 and was the first film directed by McTiernan, who sat out the first sequel, since the train wreck of 1993’s LAST ACTION HERO. DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE feels like a calculated attempt by all involved to give the audience what it wanted while still tossing a few new elements into the mix and for the most part it pretty much succeeds at what it wants to do in its over-the-top fashion. It is a curious film, partly in how it drops the whole conceit of setting the film in an enclosed space on Christmas Eve (a version set on a cruise ship was scrapped when UNDER SEIGE hit, to later sort of resurface as SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL) and the departure of producer Joel Silver from the franchise affects the feel of things as well. McTiernan’s level of craft definitely helps but the film was made at a time when the ways that digital effects would alter the industry were still being formed so the film feels somewhat caught between eras, between optical and digital, between old-school craftsmanship and the all-encompassing hell of Michael Bay that was yet to come. All things considered it is certainly the second best DIE HARD film ever made but considering the competition that may not be saying too much—Renny Harlin’s DIE HARD 2 is a piece of hackwork that’s kind of watchable but hasn’t dated all that well and my complete hatred for the fourth film, which I maintain was made by people with contempt for the DIE HARD franchise and its fans, is equivalent to the heat of a thousand suns. The third entry isn’t without flaws and is probably a little all over the place but I liked it when I saw it on opening day and I still like it now. It’s sort of half a DIE HARD movie and half something else but that’s probably enough. The other half is pretty good anyway.

When a bomb explodes in New York early one morning, a mysterious man named Simon phones the police and informs them that he will continue to strike unless the one and only Lt. John McClane (Bruce Willis), currently suffering a massive hangover in the middle of a suspension from his job, performs several specific tasks. When the first thing McClane has to do goes dangerously wrong it results in an encounter with militantly angry Harlem electrician Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson) whose role in assisting McClane catches Simon’s attention and insists Carver follow along with this ongoing game of “Simon Says”. After the next assignment the two men must follow results in a massive subway explosion down in lower Manhattan, the identity of Simon (Jeremy Irons) soon becomes clear to everyone although as McClane & Carver jumping through Simon’s hoops the ultimate goal of the mad bomber’s plan, which is bigger than anyone possibly realizes, remains secret.

For the first forty-five minutes or so DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE plays just swell, working as a canny character-based action thriller with two leads bickering nonstop that is tightly plotted and also manages to not seem like a retread, tossing in some decent New York flavor as well. Taking a script by Jonathan Hensleigh entitled SIMON SAYS and converting it into a DIE HARD entry with the screenwriter, the film barely stops moving once it revs up which is a good thing and easily the strongest elements of it are in the early stages that keep things on a more earthbound PELHAM ONE TWO THREE level. Even the scoring is fairly sparse during the first third and very well done, like the percussive nature of the taxicab trip through the middle of Central Park and as the sequence moves into the subway section it pulls off the feel of the music gradually building with the rising nature of the tension working extremely well. When the nature of Simon’s master plan becomes clear it all begins to shift into full-fledged DIE HARD mode as big as it can possibly be which is fine—it’s appropriate, after all considering what the movie is—but maybe because the basic plot involving the Federal Reserve is a little unwieldy, not to mention totally implausible, it never becomes quite as satisfying as what went on back in Nakatomi Plaza on Christmas Eve. Watching this film where key sequences are set down in lower Manhattan with the World Trade Center visible in numerous shots (the 1993 bombing is even referenced in dialogue) also makes plain how much this storyline comes from another time for the city of New York, with even a jokey cutaway to financial bigwigs watching the goings-on from their office window, no real concern for what’s actually happening. Things were different then.

It needs to be said how much of the success of the film is due to the chemistry between the two leads. It’s obviously a marked change from the lone man DIE HARD formula and the ongoing arguments about each man’s racism feels too shoehorned in at times (somewhat dating things, keeping it back in the post-Rodney King 90s) but the different approach gives Bruce Willis different notes to hit in his character and he rises to the occasion in a story that puts John McClane in a bad place at the start but it feels consistent with what always seemed like a self-destructive nature in the character anyway. The backstory of whatever has happened to McClane in between movies gets kind of brushed aside and with Bonnie Bedelia’s Holly McClane absent I can’t help but wish we could have actually seen a movie detailing the breakdown of their marriage, which reminds me--what kind of paperwork is involved with a cop going from the NYPD to the LAPD and back again within just a few years? The two leads are definitely building on whatever energy they got from the recently wrapped PULP FICTION, a film they really had no scenes together in. There’s even some (probably ad-libbed) dialogue alluding to that film which hadn’t even opened when this began shooting and the way Willis & Jackson come off as fearless in bouncing off each other helps the movie past any number of its rough stretches.

Much as I enjoy it, I do wish that—yes, this would have required a totally different plot for the second hour and I have no solution to this problem—the film had found a way to keep itself confined to the island of Manhattan, which wouldn’t have necessarily violated the concept of a DIE HARD film in an enclosed space. The plot as it turns out dictates that things do have to veer away from the city, unfortunately, with some of the NY flavor falling out of it at this point (some shooting was done in South Carolina) and after all these years I still can’t figure out just where that bridge the two men spot the barge from is supposed to be in the reality of the film, with geography that doesn’t make much sense at all. There is some pretty decent plotting to keep things moving and unpredictable, particularly in the first hour, although McClane’s hangover that he keeps commenting on does play as a slightly contrived equivalent of having no shoes in the original. There’s also bits like Zeus Carver just happening to drive by as McClane shoots right out of the aqueduct hole which feels like the production just said “oh, screw it,” when trying to rationalize the moment. And the missed opportunity nature of the strangely brief Yankee Stadium sequence feels like they either ran out of shooting time or maybe rewrites prevented them from figuring out a way to actually utilize the location within the story.

On a deeper level than contrived individual moments DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE winds up not having very much depth to it in the end with the two leads eventually forgetting all the tension between them and getting along, well, just because. The pretense of the bad guys faking a political slant to their scheme is just too close to what Hans Gruber’s game plan was in the original—at least that was given a comic spin to it (“Asian Dawn?”)—so here the conceit doesn’t have any real teeth and it makes the bad guys not as strong as a result. By the time their full plan is revealed lots of narrative balls feel in the air anyway--as it goes on DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE contains numerous strands that increasingly feel like compromises between people who couldn’t agree on an ideal solution so in the end they had to shoot something, deciding to toss every possibility into the mix. The ok-but-not-great final sequence was shot months after the fact and feels it, but it probably delivers better than the discarded ending found on the DVD which is interesting, but really doesn’t feel much like part of a DIE HARD film. Frankly, there are probably other films where pieces like the whole subplot with Zeus’s nephews would bug me more than it does here but I suppose sometimes when you’re with a movie you tend to forgive certain things. And I could believe that multiple rewrites resulted in a few strands that don’t matter—Irons’ migraines seem to result in a payoff that feels hackneyed beyond words and the character’s stuttering trait serves no purpose whatsoever.

It’s not perfect but the film is extremely tightly paced throughout in all the right ways and since digital technology wasn’t being used as much just yet there are a great amount of impressive stunt work and physical elements on display—the subway explosion actually done on set is much more effective than a similar sequence in last year’s Nicolas Cage vehicle KNOWING which lamely did it with CGI. Now that I know a few of the shots in this film that do have digital enhancements to them (like a car effectively screeching to a halt right next to Bruce Willis’ head) I’m still pretty impressed by how they mixed things together. It’s not up to the level of the original DIE HARD (the events of which are referred to here as “that thing in L.A.”—the audience remains more impressed by what John McClane once did than anyone in the film is) and it doesn’t even always feel set in the same universe as DIE HARD but at least it doesn’t insult that film or its fans. As a giant action extravaganza it’s directed by someone who knows how to map these sequences out in the right ways and to deliver all the elements that are needed making for me what has always been an enormously satisfying 131 minutes. Even if it isn’t perfect. It has a healthy amount of disarming humor with bit characters and once things get going after the first act the DIE HARD style comes into play again full throttle—McTiernan’s wide Scope use, massive lens flares and roaming Steadicam work all help give it that feel of continuous excitement. Producer Joel Silver no longer being involved does change things in ways that seem to veer away from what was then seemingly the producer’s house style—that 80s-90s pop feel is long gone, not to mention how this film’s bad guys don’t necessarily kill everyone they come into contact with. This film also doesn’t bother with any annoying side characters that seem to exist primarily to annoy John McClane—all the professionals here, once the tension ratchets up, are completely willing and able to get along. Michael Kamen’s music, once it goes full steam in the second half, certainly helps a great deal with a bouncy quote of “Singin’ In The Rain” as the aqueduct gets flooded and while making the conceit of the score be “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” may not be quite up to the sophistication of “Ode To Joy” (I’m guessing part of the joke is that it can be connected to another Kubrick film) it still works off the visuals very well, correctly adding to the nonstop feel of things.

Bruce Willis expertly falls right back into playing his iconic role, reluctant as he is, and he comes off exactly as confident as he needs to be while Samuel L. Jackson’s racially charged electrician with Malcolm X-type glasses, both someone for McClane to argue with as well as being a slight audience surrogate at the time felt like a solidification of the actor’s stardom following the thunderbolt of PULP FICTION. Looking at it now some of feels maybe a little too calculated with a few speeches clearly designed for the way he could scream them but a small beat like the intensity of his saying, “Just go,” when the pair can’t deal with some handcuffs also shows how good he can always be with just a few tiny words to say. Jeremy Irons seems to be playing his role as kind of a lark but considering the way it was written I’m not sure there was really any other approach he could have taken—it’s more of a gimmick than a character and while Irons has his moments—moving from one phony character to another, calmly eating a hard-boiled egg as Jackson confronts him, the character is too often isolated from things playing his game of “Simon Says” and his lack of interaction with others (at least in person) means that the character isn’t as effective as he probably should be. Sam Phillips, a singer making what is practically her only acting appearance, doesn’t do all that much as the silent but lethal henchwoman Katya, complete with a love-triangle that barely seems alluded to, but she’s certainly striking to watch no matter what she’s doing and the film cuts to her so much within scenes it begins to feel that McTiernan is quite frankly fascinated by her. I’m not sure I blame him.

The supporting cast also brings added strength to some stock characters with McClane’s fellow cops Graham Greene and Colleen Camp (heavy on the New Yawk accent) bring weight to their minor roles—Greene crossing himself at a key moment and Camp cradling a few kids before she thinks something terrible is about to happen feel like genuinely human touches that never seem to turn up in these kinds of movies. Larry Bryggman brings believable concern to his role as McClane’s captain and Kevin Chamberlin is likable comic relief as the bomb expert, hitting just the right humorous tone with a touch of heroism. BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES screenwriter Michael Cristofer is the government official “with another agency”, Joe Zaloom gets some laughs as the history buff truck driver and Aasif Mandvi of THE DAILY SHOW appears for about three seconds as a taxi driver whose cab is hijacked by McClane. Apparently Dick Cheney is in the film as an extra—seriously—but when John McTiernan says, “There he is,” to point him out on the commentary it’s not entirely clear who he’s referring to. Exactly what this possible association says about John McTiernan, the director of one of the finest action films of the past thirty years and currently appealing his conviction for lying to the FBI in the Pellicano wiretapping scandal, is something I’d frankly rather not speculate on.

DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE pulled in an even $100 million at the domestic box office (much more internationally) which wasn’t too much less than what DIE HARD 2 has grossed but it didn’t seem to make the same splash in pop culture. Even the ad campaign was somewhat subdued, possibly a result of the Oklahoma City bombing. Looking at it again now the film feels like one of the last gasps of the old school Hollywood action film, which by the time the late 90s were happening had begun to morph into a sort of Jerry Bruckheimer-Hans Zimmer fusion-of-sound-and-fury extravaganza, no matter who the director was. These days this type of well-crafted, non-ironic R-rated entertainment feels like an endangered species, surviving mostly in forms of unexciting, PG-13-rated, CGI encumbered nonsense (one even tried to pass itself off as a DIE HARD film) and I don’t have much hope that things will turn around. There’s always the small chance, I suppose, that a filmmaker will come along with the ability and know-how to do things right which would be one of the best things to happen to the action genre imaginable. Because this type of movie should always be around, to give us reasons to look forward to eating that popcorn amidst massive explosions, huge orchestral scores and one-liner quips as henchmen are dispatched. Like Lt. John McClane himself, the action genre as we will forever know and love it needs to die hard.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Slipping Into A Mad Obsession

Woody Allen has apparently made it into the press again for saying how he can’t afford to make his films in New York anymore. Whatever the absolute truth there is in this statement is something I’m not going to look into but it doesn’t seem to be anything different from what he’s said in the past about the current realities of where he gets his financing (last year’s New York-set WHATEVER WORKS excepted). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—I think we’re fortunate to still be getting new Woody Allen films and the past several years of his European excursion has possibly served as a true creative shot in the arm. CASSANDRA’S DREAM was an unfortunate misfire but SCOOP had its pleasures and even just thinking about VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA makes me want to stop everything to watch it again right now. The world has changed since Woody was at the top of the heap, that fact certainly cannot be ignored. And, from what I understand, New York has changed as well and maybe even there people wouldn’t line up at the Beekman or the Paris or wherever in a blizzard on opening day like they used to anymore. His August 1993 comedy MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY came during a particularly turbulent period in his personal life with the public collapse of his relationship with Mia Farrow (who originally would of course have starred opposite Woody here) and his subsequent marriage to her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. If it wasn’t for these events it would be easier to read this film as a gentle comic chaser to the bitter, brilliant HUSBANDS AND WIVES from the previous fall (just as SCOOP played as the comic response to the much more serious MATCH POINT just a few years ago) with the equivalent female lead in each film asking the character played by Woody Allen similar questions about the state of their relationship. But MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY easily stands by itself as well as a genuinely funny piece of work, an extremely rewarding entry to revisit years later that plays light and engaging throughout. Even Pauline Kael liked it, if memory serves, though more as a comic look at marital strife than mystery movie and while I may not be any sort of expert on relationships, the interplay between the various characters does hold water as I get older as well as being extremely funny in scene after scene. It’s a delightful film.

Larry Lipton (Woody Allen) and wife Carol (Diane Keaton) are a normal New York Upper East Side couple, gliding towards middle age and they are happy together though Carol worries that the excitement is going out of their lives. Shortly after they meet their elderly neighbors Mr. and Mrs. House (played by MAD ABOUT YOU’s Jerry Adler and SEX AND THE CITY’s Lynn Cohen) Mrs. House suffers a fatal heart attack. When the couples next few encounters with Mr. House make Carol suspicious that something else has happened, like possibly murder, she begins to investigate much to Larry’s annoyance. Her investigation continues as more clues turn up as Carol drags their divorced friend Ted (Alan Alda), who possibly has eyes on Carol, into the case and Larry himself seeks out help from brilliant novelist Marcia Fox (Anjelica Huston) who possibly has her own eyes on Larry.

MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY began its life way back in the 70s as a very early version of what ultimately became ANNIE HALL. When the director decided to revive the basic storyline years later he brought in original co-writer Marshall Brickman to collaborate on the script and the finished film plays as a breath of fresh air, moving away from whatever sour feel had been infusing Allen’s work (in both good and bad ways) over the past decade and the result feels like he’s finding something enjoyable in it all once again. The argument could even be made that the spirited feel this one gives off helped to pave the way for what I’ve always thought was a very strong, more fulfilling run of films he made through the mid-to-late 90s. The film also came during a point where Woody Allen briefly decided to shift his visual style to a more documentary approach, yanking the camera off the tripod and shooting handheld. This was much more noticeable with the documentary-oriented HUSBANDS AND WIVES and he received much more criticism for the absolute extremeness of that style at the time. Through the years I often thought that the approach which worked perfectly with that film’s more intense drama didn’t quite mesh with this lighter story (he used this style once again with the TV movie version of DON’T DRINK THE WATER, then returned to his usual process afterward). And while there’s maybe more of a genuine purpose to it with the prior film it’s hard not to notice how the handheld style has infused through so much of film and TV over the past seventeen years that looking at it now the style isn’t all that much different from any random episode of LAW & ORDER or 30 ROCK. Shooting handheld may not have been in vogue back in ’93 but it definitely gives an added level of energy to scenes throughout, whether the setup is just Allen and Keaton arguing or multiple people talking over each other in various restaurants. It may be one reason why MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY seems to have aged so nicely as a well-played, well-executed comedy with actors who know exactly what they’re doing and a story that keeps moving through each of its laughs.

Looking at it again, it really does work better as a marital comedy than a mystery. The requisite twists play fine within the context but aren’t anything earth-shaking and as sometimes happens with these things, multiple viewings allow one to gloss over the ‘plot’ by a certain point. It’s fair to say that it becomes more enjoyable to just pay attention to the story of this married couple mixed in with their friends, all trying to figure out just what the other person is thinking and feeling amidst their own rat-a-tat dialogue , hoping to somehow avoid winding up in a situation like the Houses. Keaton’s scenes with Alda who practically fawns all over her play as if he’s always trying to keep from going too far in their friendship play as an enjoyable contrast to Allen’s decidedly different rapport with the flirtatious Huston, who keeps things cool but occasionally slips a disarming phrase in there and there’s not a moment where I don’t enjoy spending time with these characters. It even provides a certain amount of depth to this fantasy of a middle-aged couple and their friends living their upscale New York life, arriving home late on a Saturday night with the next day’s papers, wanting to do nothing more than watch a Bob Hope movie on late night TV. From this carefree lifestyle comes getting mixed up in a potential murder plot which could very easily have come from some New Yorker-infused memories of that Bob Hope movie seen on late night TV maybe crossed with the viewing of DOUBLE INDEMNITY that the characters even go to see early on.

The nonstop patter between the leads is befitting for an screwy upper east side Nick and Nora pairing maybe without the martinis (there are a few wine bottles spotted throughout) and a few of the basics of the plot contains some definite nods to REAR WINDOW, complete with the occasional downpour, and even a little VERTIGO. In some ways it is ultimately a minor piece of work from Allen, almost feeling like a lark that he made with some friends to get his mind off things and that’s probably all it’s supposed to be but while it’s not one of his that I could see again literally any day of the week (you can guess a few of those titles) revisiting it every now has its own pleasures. It’s aged extremely well, considerably better than a few that for Allen probably weren’t so minor. And, fitting with its title, it uses the city very well from the streets and flea markets to the apartments and the tiny restaurants, giving it an energetic feel that infuses every scene with that camera shooting around everywhere. The big comic setpiece involving several tape recorders is ridiculous but very funny nevertheless and while the use of LADY FROM SHANGHAI in the climax may be a touch too obvious as these things go (“I’ll never say that life doesn’t imitate art again!”) the nimbleness of how it plays recalls the feel of Woody’s short stories from long ago and considering how well it’s executed I’m not sure I’d want it any other way. Without getting into Woody’s own history a film like this also plays as one of the best possible endorsements for marriage, even making me wistfully imagine my own scenario of growing into middle age with certain women I know out there. Hey, I can dream.

We’ll never know how this would have played with Mia Farrow—maybe not quite as light on its feet—but probably because of all those ANNIE HALL memories Allen & Keaton go together so well onscreen that it becomes almost impossible to accept that they really haven’t been married all these years. The movie is about the two of them in every possible way and they play off beautifully in every single one of their scenes, with Woody seemingly more than happy to let Keaton go off on some sort of tangent in the middle of their dialogue and she couldn’t be more appealing. Naturally, he gets the screen for the final beat of the film which seems absolutely correct. Alan Alda plays his role completely relaxed as well (I could believe he’s playing himself here more than any other role in his career) and Anjelica Huston takes control of every one of her scenes just as her character does, infusing her cool, ultra-confident novelist with the right amount of self-awareness getting every guy in her sights to instantly fall for her. Jerry Adler is appropriately cagey as the neighbor in question so for a while we aren’t quite sure exactly what he’s up to up, Ron Rifkin and Joy Behar play a few of the Lipton’s friends who get mixed up in their scheme, Aida Turturro is briefly seen as a hotel clerk (spotting SOPRANOS actors in Woody films made in the years before that show is practically a pastime) and Zach Braff, not that I have any idea who that is, turns up in one scene as the son of the two leads. Years later Braff said in an interview, “When I look at that scene now, all I can see is the terror in my eyes.”

MANHATTAN MUDER MYSTERY opens with a rousing version of Bobby Short singing Cole Porter’s “I Happen To Like New York” and every scene of the movie feels like New York down to its very bones. With its doting on old movies and using Benny Goodman’s “Swing, Swing, Swing” on the soundtrack more than once it’s very much an exercise in nostalgia that clearly comes straight from Woody’s head. And now less than twenty years later, as Woody is still active though openly shooting elsewhere, the New York presented here feels like a little piece of nostalgia as well. The town may be as vibrant as ever but even though I haven’t been there for a few years I’m aware that it changes. Everything changes. Except, of course, for the font Woody Allen uses. Which is probably the way it should be. A film like this is a lovely reminder of the celluloid-infused New York that only he could give us.

“Hello, Mr. House? This is Larry Lipton. I’ve got a package I think you’re gonna want. Of course it’s gonna cost you $200,000 in small, unmarked bills. Or large marked ones, if you want to go that route.”

Monday, August 23, 2010

That's In The Past

I guess sometimes you never really know. Sometime last year I saw EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE for the very first time. How it escaped me all these years is something I really couldn’t say. Maybe the box in the video store always looked too goofy to me, maybe just the idea of Clint Eastwood teaming up with an Orangutan while country music is heard in the background wasn’t my idea of a good time. And, sure enough, I got next to nothing really out of the experience and it was one of those cases where the whole thing was so lacking in any sort of enjoyment that it took me several days just to get through the damn thing. When I mentioned to the great Kim Morgan that I was watching it she said something like, “That movie even looks like it smells bad.” And she was absolutely on target with observation (of course, Kim Morgan usually is) and I doubt I could think of anything else during the rest of the film. To give it a few random points in its favor, there was something about the film’s late seventies portrayal of L.A. working class stiffs up in the farthest reaches of the valley that I found interesting in a time capsule sort of way. Plus I freely admit that a few months ago when visiting Taos, New Mexico I was standing in the main square of the town when somebody showing me around mentioned that a sequence from EVERY WHICH had been shot there. I actually recognized where I was immediately at that point, so something about the film must have stuck in my brain. I just didn’t like it very much.

Anyway, recently looking for something to Netflix that would be appropriate for the waning days of summer I decided to check out the sequel, ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN. I guess I felt like it was something I needed to do for completist’s sake and what do you know: I actually genuinely enjoyed it. I’m not even sure why that is because it’s not like I was in a better mood this time since I’ve been in a pretty consistently lousy mood lately. And I wasn’t exactly more receptive to the idea of watching it—after all, who looks forward to a part two when they didn’t like part one? It’s as if when Clint & Co. agreed to make the sequel, giving Warner Brothers an automatic hit, they somehow figured out the tone this time—it’s pretty much an overlong goof, but it’s a likable overlong goof, one that focuses on the characters having fun over any kind of plausibility or jeopardy caused by the plot and it got me smiling along with it right from the start. It even looks like it smells better, to continue with what Kim Morgan was saying. So go figure. In a two-star review at the time it was released in December 1980, Roger Ebert called it “not a very good movie, but it’s hard not to feel a grudging respect for it.” His review is never quite harsh enough to warrant a meager two stars and I wouldn’t be surprised if later on he thought he had been too hard on it. Janet Maslin in The New York Times, never exactly a paper to go for this sort of thing, called it “better and funnier than its predecessor.” So maybe this surprised reaction isn’t just me.

After whatever happened at the end of EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, trucker and bare-knuckle fighter Philo Beddoe (Clint Eastwood) is still hanging out with faithful pet orangutan Clyde, pal Orville (Geoffrey Lewis) and his Ma (Ruth Gordon), still taking part in fights for money but decides to quit while he’s ahead when he realizes he’s starting to enjoy the pain. But when an offer comes in for one a fight with the notorious Jack Wilson (William Smith) it’s too much money for Philo to turn down. Philo also happens to run into Lynn Halsey-Taylor (Sondra Locke) who nastily spurned him at the end of the last movie but is now only too happy to fall back into his arms. With things seemingly going his way Philo decides to turn down the fight but he soon discovers that he doesn’t have a choice in the matter anymore.

The release of ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN came just six months after the opening of the lovely Eastwood-directed comedy BRONCO BILLY and there’s a feel to this one that Clint and his crew just decided to keep going with the fun spirit they achieved on that film. (Director credit on this one goes to Buddy Van Horn, Clint’s stunt coordinator and director of record on THE DEAD POOL and PINK CADILLAC) The good vibes seem to infect this sequel throughout with a Hawksian feel of camaraderie coming from the various characters and I found myself enjoying just hanging out with them. Even the main adversary is somebody who very quickly achieves total respect for Beddoe and the feeling becomes mutual as they get to know each other. It’s almost as if Clint himself was dissatisfied with the grimey, overly serious and sour vibe of the first film, even if it was a huge hit about a monkey, and decided to essentially redo it by making everything more fun, likable as well as even a little endearing in the end. The approach this screenplay by Stanford Sherman takes feels more correct for a movie that is at least partly about an orangutan who hangs out in bars and gets beers poured for him while practically no one complains (“Clyde is a clean ape.”). Even the stuff with Clyde is more fun this time around and with the exception of a side trip to Bakersfield midway through for a romantic rendezvous with a female orangutan (all pretty silly, really) the movie somewhat surprisingly never goes overboard with those scenes—having him strip cars, the ‘right turn’ running gag or merely messing around in Philo’s backyard and just keeping him hanging out in the background at times is really enough without his presence overwhelming everything. The problems between Philo and Lynn are smoothed out relatively fast—maybe it’s a stretch considering the nasty way their relationship ended in the last film but it’s not that big a deal and why would we want to spend half the movie with them sorting things out anyway? Besides, Locke comes off as way too charming with those big eyes to resent her for very long.

It’s hardly an intricately plotted film but at least it never quite crosses the line into being flat out cartoonish, even with the return of the Black Widow motorcycle gang from the first film which was honestly maybe the one element that caused me to roll my eyes but in the end I still just went with it. There are some low points like the two (count ‘em) scenes involving Clyde doing his business on someone’s car seat before the film is even a third over and the old guy who suddenly becomes infatuated with Ruth Gordon, seeing her head on Bo Derek’s body in some “10” fantasy footage from and yet I by a certain point the earnest, amiable nature of it all got me to brush over those sections. There’s even the occasional visually clever moment in the direction, particularly in one camera setup during the Bakersfield section that both gets a laugh as well as continuing the progress of the story in a very economical way. At a few minutes less than two hours it’s probably way overlong—when Philo first accepts the offer for the fight the movie just seems to forget about it for the next twenty minutes—but at least it’s enjoyably overlong and the movie does more with the Jackson, Wyoming setting for the big third act fight than it ever does with the valley locations in either film. I guess all these rich gamblers of all types descending on this sleepy Wyoming town is sort of the Clint Version of the endearingly crazy Americana seen in the Reynolds-Needham SMOKEY and CANNONBALL movies, which is broad, but never too far over the top with a sight gag involving a private plane that, so help me, actually got me to laugh out loud. There’s even a bar fight where Clint and William Smith team up together to defend Sondra Locke’s honor as the band onstage sings a song called “The Good Guys and The Bad Guys” and that very image almost says all you need to know about the film—these people really are the good guys. Even the band up onstage knows that. The big final fight between the two of them also works pretty damn well and in the end the whole thing plays as pretty satisfying entertainment. Which is probably exactly what it was supposed to be.

The characters are fun to watch together and it’s easy to believe in how well they’re getting along. Clint is totally confident and relaxed, Sondra Locke never stops being endearingly spunky and Geoffrey Lewis is backs up his costar as much as his character is always willing to back up Philo. As Jack Wilson, William Smith is a terrific addition to the cast, totally believable in how physically threatening he is but also sellling how the character quickly acheives a genuine respect for his potential rival. Ruth Gordon gets a few funny moments but disappears as the movie moves to Jackson—was the actress not well enough to go on location? Michael Cavanaugh, also in THE GAUNTLET, goes heavy on the dese-dem-dose mobster accent like he’s in a Damon Runyon knockoff. Harry Guardino (the captain in DIRTY HARRY), Barry Corbin, Bill McKinney, James Gammon and various other familiar faces appear throughout. Julie Brown is spotted in there too. The orangutan who plays Clyde, a different one than the first film, gives a very enjoyable performance as well. Even the songs are kind of catchy and I say that as somebody who never much likes country music—performers include Fats Domino, Glen Campbell singing the title song (the title song—truly a lost art), Locke of course doing a nice job with “One Too Many Women In Your Life” and Clint & Ray Charles performing the fun “Beers To You” over the opening credits.

I don’t want to make any big case for the experience of seeing ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN and if I pause on one of the scenes with the Black Widows too long I may regret writing this. It definitely hasn’t inspired me to revisit the first film. But in the end it’s a very likable movie, catching just the right spirit that never becomes mean in any way. With the obvious exception of the mobster bad guy stooges everyone winds up getting along, including Clint’s main adversary, all the people who show up in Jackson, Wyoming to see the big fight, even those damn bikers. When you come right down to it, there’s something kind of refreshing about a movie that ends with a big knuckle-down fight between two guys who actually respect each other yet are both completely determined to come out on top. It’s not so much about beating the guy you’re fighting, it’s about doing the best you damn well can even if you’re being forced into it. There’s a feel of camaraderie that practically everyone onscreen can join in with and it’s the sort of innocent fun that seems very 70s. Maybe this film could almost be seen as a noble farewell to that type of filmmaking. Clint got another big hit out of it this sequel but instead of making a part three he quit while he was ahead and moved on to other things. Which was probably the right choice. Maybe he knew things were changing, maybe he wanted to do other things, maybe he was happy to let Burt Reynolds go on making this sort of film with Hal Needham—and, well, we all know how that turned out in the end. ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN isn’t anything all that special but it sure is likable, with moments throughout that got me smiling from its genuinely likable nature and on occasion, even laughing as well. Philo and Clyde probably aren’t remembered as much these days as Burt’s Bandit and Jackie Gleason’s Buford T. Justice are but in this followup that’s a lot more fun than the first, the pairing does what it needs to do. Onward.

“Right turn, Clyde.”

Friday, August 20, 2010

If You Want Her To Come In

Right now there are a number of people that I know who are off somewhere else in the world on some sort of vacation with quite a few of them in Europe and they’re all presumably having an enjoyable, relaxing August (a handful are also in Canada, but that’s neither here nor there). Since I can’t even get to Santa Monica without a massive amount of difficulty right now, I guess I’m a little jealous. Don’t get me wrong, I hope they all have a great time, but since I’m just sitting here, it’s hot, and I see all these photos on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, whatever, what can I really say. A few years ago I was seriously looking into taking a trip to Italy but then the recession began to happen, I got worried about my job and we all know what happened with that. So it was probably the smart thing that I didn’t spend my savings on the trip, but I still wish I could. I mention all this because there’s a certain kind of movie that for me always goes with August, during those dog days when it begins to be a little too hot. I watch one of these films and they make me wish I could get involved in some kind of romance or jet off to an island in Europe somewhere. Certain Blake Edwards movies scored by Henry Mancini seem to go with this feeling, there’s always Bava’s FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON and, among numerous others, there’s also Billy Wilder’s 1972 comedy AVANTI!, set on an Italian island during the lazy summer months. Reading up on the film it wasn’t particularly well-received at the time of its release and, coming after the disaster of THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, was another nail in the commercial coffin for the aging director. I can see that it has some problems but in its quest for a certain kind of Lubitsch vibe at its very best I find it totally infectious, somewhat moving and for a film that takes its time more than most, even at two hours and twenty-four minutes I feel more than happy to simply let it glide along at its own luxurious pace. I suppose that sort of thing is all right during the lazy month of August, even if you are just sitting in your small apartment not going anywhere.

Conservative businessman Wendell Armbruster, Jr. (Jack Lemmon) arrives in Italy (with the Italian stewardess stating, “Please fasten your cigarettes and extinguish your seat belts,” as they land), traveling to the island of Ischia where he was spending his annual vacation at an island spa named the Grand Hotel Excelsior. Soon after he is greeted by the hotel director Carlo Carlucci (Clive Revill) he makes the acquaintance of British Pamela Pigott (Juliet Mills) there to collect the body of her own mother. It doesn’t take long before Armbruster figures out that not only were his father and her mother killed in the same crash, but they were in fact lovers who had been keeping up this secret assignation at the same hotel. As he tries to unfurl the massive amounts of red tape Armbruster, in spite of himself, starts to become rather fond of Miss Piggott and the surrounding environment as the two of them begin to fall for each other just as their parents once did.

In his series of interviews with Cameron Crowe, Billy Wilder doesn’t have much at all to say about AVANTI! outside of being pleased with the authentic feel shooting on location in Italy brought to it. His detached attitude towards the film in retrospect may be partly due to the less than great response it seems to have received upon its release in December 1972 but since all I can do is go by what I think when watching it now what I see is a film which is slightly flawed in its tone, possibly mildly hurt by topical references that feel a little too shoehorned in by a director possibly trying to keep up with the times (mentions of Kissinger, Ralph Nader and even LOVE STORY) but for the most part it glides along smoothly, elegantly, a true pleasure to watch and to live in. The script by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond (loosely based on the play by Samuel Taylor) offers a truly emotional feel that becomes stronger as it goes on but never drops the patented sharp, cynical dialogue these men excelled in. AVANTI! treats the love story of the deceased with respect, lives that deserve to be celebrated and remembered, but never dwells on that point instead choosing to focus on the possibilities those left behind still have with Armbruster Jr. becoming more drawn into this lifestyle as the film proceeds almost without even realizing. Lemmon’s executive is an uptight Nixon-era prig but any unpleasant aspects of his behavior are never taken too far (he’s definitely not his insufferable OUT-OF-TOWNERS character), just enough to allow a slight—ever so slight—transformation to take effect in the man over the course of the narrative even down to a practically unspoken acceptance of the life his father had that he never knew about.

On occasion the film does feel like it may be straining a little too much to seem effortlessly light and charming—the opening dialogue-free sequence involving a misunderstanding on the airplane, for example, doesn’t quite work for me—but by a certain point I just focus on the easygoing vibe AVANTI! gives off, letting the environment soak in to me as much as it does the film’s lead character. Every scene bares the confidence and brilliance of Wilder as director, with exquisitely timed dialogue between the actors throughout as well as the pure elegance of passages like Juliet Mills dancing in front of the hotel orchestra in the early morning light. And in the middle of it all is possibly one of the most unsung sequences in all of Billy Wilder’s career, when Lemmon and Mills must identify their parents’ bodies in the local morgue, which comes off as truly gentle and emotional particularly coming from a director who was never known for that sort of approach and the genuine humanity that comes from the scene affects the entire film around it more than can even be stated.

The one key flaw in the film may be in how it dwells on a certain nasty attitude towards Juliet Mills’s character, a woman written as being somewhat overweight It seems pretty obvious that the character as scripted is supposed to be somewhat larger than she really is—Mills apparently gained 25 pounds for the role but it never made much difference—and doesn’t really work with the tone, even playing a little odd since she never looks anywhere near as big as what we’re being told. If it does provide a slight nasty tinge to things the film overcomes this and the actress does as well with a stroll that she takes through the local village at one point, pausing to buy herself four ice cream cones, playing as a lovely little interlude and the actress couldn’t be more endearing. In the end, it’s just about the most optimistic film about adultery imaginable. Of course, it’s the nice kind of adultery which it endorses wholeheartedly, one that takes place in what practically seems like the most luxurious place on earth, enough to reinvigorate the most hardened soul if only in a small way.

It is long, yes, but every beat is laid out with such clockwork precision throughout every one of its lengthy scenes that there would be no way to cut things down without seriously damaging the intricate flow. Even set within a fairly tight time frame the film feels like it’s in no rush whatsoever, choosing to dote on the food preparations or in the methodical way the local notary at the morgue lays out all his materials in an almost musical fashion. And as much time as it goes on for it still feels like it ends too soon, just as the lead character (as well as the viewer) has finally accepted the beauty of this odd paradise in a spa filled with geriatrics, such as a 90 year old baron with two comely nurses, choosing from 16 different kinds of pasta at dinner. Even the one subplot which plays a little too broad, concerning the bellhop and his jealous Sicilian wife with a mustache, winds up mattering in the end with the way the structure is expertly laid out. And as much as filming this on location certainly helped, the structure and dialogue still plays as if this entire thing is happening on Paramount soundstages back in the 30s or something in the best possible way. Of course, that’s what Wilder knew how to do and even if it didn’t play all that well back in ’72, now it seems absolutely right.

The use of color from this era might affect things a little—the cinematographer was Luigi Kuveiller (Argento’s DEEP RED and INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION) who framed things in the more intimate 1.85 as opposed to Wilder’s usual Scope use which feels right for the story but as much as this DVD is as good as I’ve ever seen it the film still has that somewhat flat look a lot that was somewhat common around this time. This elements of style may be one reason the whole thing never feels quite as light-footed as maybe it should be for me, yet I feel kindly towards it anyway, loving it more as it goes on, not wanting it to end. It’s a film that is the work of someone more mature, but also of someone willing to open themselves up to something like this new development in life, to pause, to let the sunlight come through these windows and for just a few minutes there’ll be nothing at all to worry about. There are always more things to worry about for Wendell Armbruster Jr. as well as myself once the film ends but for a small amount of time it’s a nice dream. In the end, AVANTI! is about making peace with the past, embracing the possibilities of what your own future can be if only in a small way and after everything that’s happened throughout Jack Lemmon’s final line to Juliet Mills comes off as absolutely ideal, even a little beautiful. But it is a script written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, after all, so that really isn’t too surprising.

It feels like, if not an old man’s movie, than at least a middle-aged man’s movie completely uninterested in the counterculture from the time it was made in and maybe it’s even appropriate that Jack Lemmon looks somewhat older than the 42 he’s supposed to be. Incidentally, if you ever wanted to see Jack Lemmon with his clothes off, well, this is the movie for you and while it’s not the most endearing character of his career Lemmon underplays things admirably, nailing every pause through each ounce of exasperation that he goes through. Even when his character begins to warm up he doesn’t overplay the matter, keeping it subtle. By the time the change comes, the viewer knows him well enough that it becomes apparent. Juliet Mills (who surprisingly goes topless during an early morning swim the couple takes) is continually delightful, full of life, full of vulnerability, expertly bringing to the film all the heart she can along with wonderful chemistry with Lemmon. As sweet as their relationship is, the film is easily stolen by Clive Revill as the ever-resourceful hotel director Carlo Carlucci, always with another solution to each problem that arises. Revill, an actor with hundreds of credits (including serving as the voice of the Emperor in the original version of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK) plays every single line and beat he has with pitch-perfect timing as if he was born for the sole purpose of saying such finely crafted dialogue. There’s not a dull moment whenever he speaks and the movie receives a small lift every time he reappears onscreen. It should also be said that there has rarely been an actor with a way of allowing the word ‘crap’ to roll off their tongue as he does here. The actor received a Golden Globe nomination (so did each of the other players involved as well as the film itself, for that matter) but if the film had been a success it’s easy to imagine that he would have been nominated for an Oscar as well. As U.S. state department representative J.J. Blodgett, familiar face Edward Andrews makes every moment he has near the end count and it feels like a small gift of masterful comic timing when he gets to play a scene with Revill. Their dialogue together pays off in a line from Andrews which for me may be the biggest laugh in the whole movie. The soundtrack is filled with lovely standards that perfectly go with this luxurious scenery, music arranged by Carlo Rustichelli who composed many films including Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE and KILL BABY KILL. Billy Wilder working with a cinematographer who shot for Argento and a music arranger who composed for Bava all set in one of the most beautiful locales I’ve ever seen. It’s like AVANTI! is some sort of nexus of the sort of filmmaking that I love all combined in one package.

So the way this summer has gone for me isn’t very much to celebrate. I no longer have a car, I still don’t have a job, I definitely haven’t had any luck with certain women lately and there are plenty of nights where I have trouble falling asleep. A film like AVANTI! is filled with hope and sadness so I suppose it fills me with hope and sadness right now as well. In that sense I guess it’s the perfect film for me at this moment in time, with every vibrant frame that it contains making me feel a little better while at the same time causing me to wish all the more that I was somewhere else right now. Like on an island somewhere in Italy. But the way things are right now I guess I’m stuck here in Los Feliz with the hopeful and the bitter running through my head, one continually trying to overtake the other as I think about a few of those women out there, keeping myself up nights as I wonder just what the future holds. It’s kind of like a Billy Wilder movie in that sense, only nowhere near as compelling. At least I have something like AVANTI! to serve as a potent cocktail during those lazy August nights when I need it.

“Three hours for lunch?”

“Mr. Armbruster, here we do not rush to drug store for chicken sandwich and Coca-Cola. Here we take our time. We cook our pasta, we sprinkle our parmesan, we drink our wine, we make our love.”

“What do you do in the evening?”

“In the evening, we go home to our wives.”

Monday, August 16, 2010

Down To The Millimeter

Somewhere on the long list of movies that it’s probably acceptable to watch while under the influence of something would have to be Michael Crichton’s sci-fi conspiracy thriller LOOKER and I wonder if it’s all right to be under the influence of something while I write about it as well. I can’t imagine that it would cause the movie to make any less sense to me and maybe it would improve things. A mishmash of various thematic concepts, LOOKER has a decent amount of trashy charm as well as a certain degree of prescience in regards to the media’s treatment of women and how far computer technology has come in the decades since. But none of it really comes together in a coherent way and it plays as if all the pieces Crichton thought would somehow magically fall into place during shooting simply never did. The movie needed a stronger directorial hand to bring the disparate elements together as well as bring some juice to all the satirical possibilities but apparently Michael Crichton wasn’t the man for that and even at just over 90 minutes it becomes kind of a bore. An oddly enjoyable bore, but still.

Dr. Larry Roberts (Albert Finney), known as the best plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, reluctantly performs surgery on several beautiful women, television commercial actresses to be precise, according to exact specifications to the millimeter that they have given him. When the women begin turning up dead from apparent suicides, the police take an interest in the doctor but since this isn’t an episode of COLUMBO we of course know that he’s not the culprit. Some paperwork left behind leads Roberts to the high tech research firm Digital Matrix, a company run by Jennifer Long (Leigh Taylor-Young) who is in league with the powerful commercial producer John Reston (James Coburn). When Digital Matrix takes an interest in Roberts’ patient Cindy Fairmont (Susan Dey, charmingly introduced blowing a huge bubble from the gun she’s chewing) the doctor begins to keep a close eye on her even tagging along with when she goes to the Digital Matrix headquarters to possibly be recruited, determined not to let anything happen to her as the two get to know each other even better.

Released in October 1981 (the same day as HALLOWEEN II, for those interested in such things) LOOKER certainly has a surprising amount of nudity for a PG rated film and while I suppose you could argue that it’s all presented in a ‘clinical’ context considering the gorgeous Playboy models we get to gaze at, as well as none other than Susan Dey as she’s scanned at Digital Matrix, I’m not sure I’m buying. Not that I’m complaining, mind you, I’m just pointing this out. Scripted by Crichton himself, (or, as Vincent Canby in The New York Times put it, “which Mr. Crichton has directed from his own original, stupifyingly nonsensical screenplay.”) LOOKER starts out as what seems to be a commentary on the treatment of beauty in wealthy Beverly Hills combined with a murder plotline. From there it moves into the then-advanced concept of computer generated imagery and media manipulation with a focus on “the most powerful selling medium in the history of mankind” to use digital animation to sell things to the viewer and essentially turn them into zombies with the hope that this will all go together. Not to mention containing various sci-fi elements like a special gun (which we’re told is the LOOKER device, providing the title with a double meaning) that both gives its user invisibility and has the power to immobilize people for lengthy periods of time. Just typing all this out actually makes all this sound pretty cool but the way it plays is unfortunately not as much fun. Part of this is due to how the oddness of the concept has dated when compared to how the actual technology developed—the early look at how digital actors could be used to manipulate the media and also the world of politics is intriguing looking back at it now (though using computer generated actors in real settings and never trying the opposite seems a little strange) but there are also some dull, clumsy maintenance robots similar to what Crichton would center RUNAWAY around a few years later. There’s an uncertain feel to the approach the film takes as if Crichton himself was unsure as to what this movie was supposed to be or at least how to present this technology that was still being developed at the time. It’s as if he didn’t quite know how to visualize enough of the future just yet or maybe he started working on the project without ever making it clear to himself what the story was actually about.

Even with some of the weirdness it contains the whole thing still feels strangely flat, complete with a number of sets that just feel like sets as if this were a science fiction film being made in a movie about Hollywood—characters and situations aren’t adequately explained as it moves from one sequence to the next, like it’s hoping that the technology and oddball tone will be enough to distract us. This even extends to how as much as ultimately gets explained about Digital Matrix (plus I’m also a little confused by how Susan Dey’s character seems to have already had the surgery yet is just now going to the facility for the first time) we’re never told just why the models in question that Albert Finney operated on were actually killed to begin with. Apparently the TV version contained some extra footage that did explain this (and yet, reading up on this makes the whole thing sound like more trouble than it’s worth for the bad guys) but in the theatrical cut the matter is just left hanging there, pretty much forgotten about and the movie is content to just let the villains discuss their plans in places where you’d think they’d be concerned about somebody overhearing them.

The blackouts caused by the LOOKER gun gives everything a genuinely off-kilter feel for brief periods before we fully know what’s going on but it winds up feeling like weird for the sake of being weird, a plot gimmick that maybe Crichton couldn’t fit into some other project. Maybe it fits in with the film’s view on perceptions of reality but it still winds up feeling slightly shoehorned in. Even on a structural level the brief time frame of the movie’s plot feels a little screwy in a “Hang on, all this only started yesterday?” kind of way. There’s a car chase through Century City (still being built up then, from the look of things) that is intriguingly staged but the way it begins literally out of nowhere with no explanation where the characters are coming from feels like the movie was having problems in the cutting and they just decided to jump in to the scene, hoping that no one would ever notice. Also, at one point the chase moves from Century City to a fountain in Los Feliz miles away in the blink of an eye and I’m sure this isn’t meant to be taken literally (maybe they just didn’t get permission to use the fountains actually in Century City) but it’s still slightly indicative of how much sense this film really makes in the end. Crichton absolutely offers some cool ideas and interesting concepts but there’s no real dynamism to how any of it gets presented and this, combined with how muddy the plot becomes, kind of kills the fun. There’s nothing wrong with a film that contains as many elements as this one does but if it doesn’t all fit together in the right way it just becomes kind of a hodgepodge. True, in this case it’s a hodgepodge with gorgeous, scantily clad women (like 1981 Playmate of the Year Terri Welles during the opening scenes) and cool sci-fi concepts but if something like that can’t be made to work in a coherent way by somebody like Michael Crichton then what hope is there for any of us?

There are a number of genre projects from this period which deal with perceptions of reality—ALTERED STATES and VIDEODROME come to mind—that also went through revisions during and after production. In the case of VIDEODROME it certainly all came together brilliantly. With this film, it’s just kind of a bunch of stuff. Sleazy stuff, with enough potential intrigue that I can imagine wanting to see it again at some point but even at 93 minutes it sort of drags. There are elements here and there that stand out like the striking compositions when Albert Finney is getting continually pummeled in the Looker Lab and a particularly good bullet hit near the end that is pretty damn impressive. Based on comments left by people on my Facebook page after I had said I watched it I could believe that if I’d seen this film on HBO when I was a kid (and, frankly, I’m not sure how I missed it particularly since it was PG) I’d be even kinder to it than I already am right now, but such is life.

Albert Finney as the famous plastic surgeon who operates to the strains of Vivaldi seems mildly intrigued by all this new technology but it almost seems as if he figured out at some point this was not much more than a connect-the-dots thriller so he decided to cash his check and focus on where to go to dinner when the day’s shooting wrapped. It’s hardly the most demanding role of his career. Susan Dey (to some she’s Laurie Partridge—to me she’ll always be Grace Van Owen) doesn’t get to do very much to display her acting talents but she is pretty and likable, easily coming off as more intelligent than any of the models who briefly appear. James Coburn in his immaculate three-piece suits has an enjoyable presence as always but he seems distracted as if he hasn’t had things fully explained to him and isn’t even sure if he’s supposed to be a villain or not. At one point he confidently states, “We don’t have anything to hide, do we?” while at the same time seeming fully aware of what’s being covered up, not to mention how later on he’s brandishing a gun in a place where he can be easily spotted by the entire world. Ultimately, he’s just a bad guy and that’s about it. Leigh Taylor-Young of I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS! and SOYLENT GREEN is maybe this film’s equivalent of Elizabeth Ashley in Crichton’s COMA, with the actress’s inherent woodenness used to hide something much more sinister and the odd feeling it gives off at least seems to go with the film’s tone. Dorian Harewood is the cipher cop whose suspicions of Finney don’t amount to very much, former NFL pro Tom Rossovich is “Moustache Man”, Darryl Hickman from THE TINGLER is another plastic surgeon in a few brief scenes (actually, he may be the most likable person in the entire film) and apparently Vanna White is in there as a model somewhere but I didn’t bother looking for her. The electronic score by Barry De Vorzon has some effective stretches, particularly during the climax, but the way it sometimes drones on like any number of similar scores from this period makes it hard not to wish that Jerry Goldsmith had been brought onboard to give things some oomph. There’s also the ultra-cheesy main theme song sung by Sue Saad (“She’s a Looker/That’s what they say/She’s got it all, yeah, she’s got it made”) that sounds like it’s meant to be intentionally cheesy in a satirical context but it’s probably just cheesy. Not to mention that I still can’t get the damn thing out of my head. I’m not even sure I want to get it out of my head. Please send help.

So I made it through writing this piece without any outside assistance, booze or otherwise, but nevertheless I actually feel like I have a stronger appreciation of this exploration of then-future technology than when I started. I doubt that any of the main people involved, currently alive or deceased, would consider this among their finest work but none of them have anything to be embarrassed about either. It’s not as good as it could have been and that music actually reminds me that maybe a version of the basic concept would have worked better coming from somebody like John Carpenter, a director who could have focused on the satirical thrust of the message the film is trying to make (Paul Verhoeven comes to mind as well) instead of the exploration of the technology, the area where Crichton’s expertise always lied. But since this is the LOOKER we have I’ll have to live with it, just like I’ll have to live with that annoying theme song and right now I can’t seem to get either one out of my head. I think months from now I’ll remember the ridiculousness of this movie and smile a little. It’s not all that good. It’s not something I really should recommend. In the end, I guess I kind of liked it anyway.