Friday, February 4, 2011
Straight To The Happily Ever After Part
One Saturday long ago, in May 1990 to be precise, I spent pretty much the entire day in a multiplex with various people I was going to college with and when it was done we had seen a full total of four movies. I won’t get into the specifics of it all but it’s safe to say that it was one of the more extreme examples of theater hopping that I’ve ever undertook and over the years I’ve done quite a few. Three of the four movies weren’t even all that good but part of me still wouldn’t mind going to see any of them if they were playing in theaters now. Anyway, in order they were TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE, CLASS OF 1999, Friedkin’s THE GUARDIAN and, to finish out the day, George Armitage’s MIAMI BLUES starring Fred Ward and Alec Baldwin, which was definitely the best of the bunch and it wasn’t even close. It’s funny how thinking about it now I remember that day and how miserable things were for me due to what had been going on in my life at the time and yet in retrospect the whole thing just seems so carefree, the sort of extreme kind of moviegoing I love that you only do when you’re young and I know that I wouldn’t have the patience to do it anymore even if I wanted to. But now all these years later on the final night of Edgar Wright’s amazing The Wright Stuff II series at the New Beverly Cinema I found myself once again closing out such a run of seeing various movies with MIAMI BLUES. The more things change, you know? It was the second on the double bill, following Michael Cimino’s eternally fantastic THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT with the two films maybe not having much in common beyond just not being as well known as they really deserve to be. MIAMI BLUES isn’t a great movie and I’d go so far as to say that I wasn’t as excited about it as some people at the theater that night were but it is a good movie, a nasty piece of darkly comic mayhem which at its best turns out to be genuinely disarming in all the right ways. Edgar Wright seemed particularly pleased by how it went over, saying that as far as he could remember he’s never seen it with another person let alone in a theater and, as was proven that night, it really is terrific to watch with a big crowd.
A mysterious, but clearly dangerous, man who is using a stolen ID that enables him to go by the name “Herman Gottlieb” but who prefers to be called Junior (Alec Baldwin) has arrived in Miami and is looking for trouble. Before even leaving the airport, he’s stolen some luggage and broken the finger of an overeager Hare Krishna which results in the Krishna falling over dead. Once at his hotel he immediately hits it off with the prostitute he has sent up to his room who calls herself Pepper but is actually the very innocent Susie Waggoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and almost instantly the two decide to move in together. Meanwhile, the police in the person of Sgt. Hoke Mosley (Fred Ward) begin investigating the Krishna’s murder and Mosley soon turns up looking for Junior as a possible witness to the crime. After a dinner of pork chops cooked by Susie, Junior seeks Mosley out at his hotel and assaults him, stealing his badge and gun, looking to use them for his own means as he tries to begin his new life.
Based on the novel by Charles Willeford, who featured the character of Hoke Mosley in several other books, MIAMI BLUES establishes its own level of nastiness early on and never looks back, playing right up to the end as the ideal film version of the sort of darkly funny crime novel it’s based on. As pointed out by Edgar Wright in his introduction the mixture of nasty violence and arch comedy of the film which didn’t do so well when it was released (just under $10 million domestic) certainly anticipated what would become more prominent in just a few short years with the first films from Quentin Tarantino and others but of course we didn’t know that at the time and I suppose we just took it as an especially fierce, yet still very funny, crime tale with some terrific performances particularly by Baldwin and Leigh. Directed by George Armitage, who also wrote the screenplay and seven years later helmed GROSSE POINTE BLANK, it’s a nasty character piece with a genuine sense of danger to it all the way through, centered in its own odd way with the weirdly angelic presence of Leigh’s prostitute who dreams of owning a Burger World, someone who has to be one of the most innocent creatures ever put in the middle of this sort of thing even while having several nude scenes that still play a little surprising in terms of how willing the actress seems to be to just take off her clothes and simply do it.
Jonathan Demme was one of the producers and it certainly has the feel of his films of this period, no doubt helped by the presence of crew members like cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, and the somewhat freewheeling approach results in a tone that comes off a little like a version of MARRIED TO THE MOB where the violence was allowed to become truly nasty, where the jokes suddenly turn a little darker as the blood becomes real. It definitely has a certain vibe that the other Demme films from the period have and, no surprise considering Armitage began his career working for Roger Corman several decades before, in some ways it plays like a 70s film that was somehow allowed to be released in 1990. It’s not perfectly arranged and the pacing is a little lax but it’s effectively scrappy in its own way and seems willing to never tells us exactly how to take certain things, how much sympathy we should be feeling for Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character or even how much we should dislike Junior, saying he’s going to take care of her immediately after laughing in her face about wanting to own a Burger World franchise (presumably the same Burger World with the jingle that Dean Stockwell sings in MARRIED TO THE MOB). In spite of all this she sees “some good qualities” in him, no doubt from the earnest admission he makes when they first meet and she still wants to do everything possible to make him happy, even agreeing with him about the air conditioning when she probably doesn’t feel the same way. He’s a total sociopath, of course, but he is fun to watch and it’s never clear from one moment to the next if what he’ll say will make him sound like a polite child or if he’ll suddenly pick up a jar of spaghetti sauce to use as a weapon.
Armitage knows how to keep the frame busy and while the story moves fast all the way through it’s definitely more interested in the characters than anything—with Junior just going out and stumbling onto crimes that he takes advantage of with his new badge in various ways there’s no big heist to build to and he probably wouldn’t have the attention span to put something like that together anyway, so it never gets too bogged down in plot mechanics that George Armitage doesn’t seem too interested in anyway. It’s more about the question of if Junior can somehow recreate himself in a domestic life while still living outside of the law in the guise of a cop and how Susan is finally going to react to all this when she admits to herself what kind of person this guy really is. On occasion the funniest things in the movie just glide in and out of scenes like when Ward and fellow investigator Charles Napier are laughing over something while looking over the dead body of the Krishna or Baldwin’s Junior amusing himself as he counts out all the money he’s just stolen, with Armitage presumably just stopping everything for Baldwin to do an improv. I knew the movie was working with the New Beverly crowd when there seemed to be a collective intake of breath over a certain bit with an Uzi gun before the gag was revealed and that right there says a lot about MIAMI BLUES—a film that doesn’t always state right away whether it’s a joke or not but it keeps the nervous energy going as Junior becomes even more unhinged, more than just a regular crook and that sense of danger moves through the whole film. By a certain point Junior seems to decide that if he says he’s a cop then for all intents and purposes he really is one, a strategy maybe best displayed in a convenience store scene which plays like what would happen if Travis Bickle taking out the crook in the tiny grocery store in TAXI DRIVER went very, very wrong for him. Baldwin taking in the answer to his question, “Where is the whipping cream?” before he leaves might be my favorite moment in the whole film.
There’s also a slight structural issue in how Hoke Mosley would presumably be the franchise character who might return in future films but a lot of it really becomes about Junior and Susie, resulting in the alleged main character playing a supporting role in his own movie which causes things to be slightly lopsided. He gets laid up in the hospital for a fair amount of the running time and it would be nice to see a little more of the character in his element—suddenly I’ve come up with the random idea of starting with a pre-credit character scene involving Mosley so we meet him first. When this cop who has willingly gotten a set of false teeth and loves sharing recipes really gets to do his thing rather than just sit on the sidelines it’s like both sides of the movie are totally clicking together, like in the supermarket scene with that girl trying to hand out samples of sausage feeling right in that Demme road company wheelhouse, becoming one of the best acted scenes for both Ward and Leigh as well. The bursts of action are fun particularly when both Mosley and Junior are screaming “Freeze! Police!” as they shoot at each other, but it’s the little things sprinkled throughout, Baldwin going over a haiku as he breaks into an apartment or just the lounging of the leads having a tense dinner of pork chops and beer that make it a fun movie to spend time with and return to. It totally sells how crazy Junior is and because he seems capable of anything at any time, so does the film. MIAMI BLUES is good to the point where I wouldn’t mind much at all if it had been even better, maybe just a little sharper at the script stage, but who am I to complain? It played fantastic with the packed house at the New Beverly especially with the continued reactions to a certain scene involving a needle and it was particularly memorable to hear the response to that scene in the pawn shop where…well, if you’ve seen it you know what I’m talking about. The effect the film has best exemplified in the smile Baldwin gives at one point when he realizes just how much power this badge is going to give him so it’s like both he and the movie can’t believe they’re getting away with this. It’s that kind of movie and the feeling becomes infectious. Some of it is uneven at times and I might make the case that GROSSE POINTE BLANK works better as a mixture of violence and dark comedy but that film never quite displays the sense of danger that gets achieved just from Junior staring somebody down in any given scene, the sort of thing that makes moments like what Baldwin is doing in the back of the frame as Jennifer Jason Leigh explains her ultra-simple pork chop recipe so completely and disarmingly effective.
No stars turned up to discuss the film with Edgar Wright but we did get executive producer Edward Saxon who also plays the role of the ill-fated Hare Krishna and they were also briefly joined before the film by GROSSE POINTE BLANK co-screenwriter D.V. DeVincentis. Saxon talked about the genesis of the film, telling of the glory days when Orion just let filmmakers go off to make their movie but this time was slightly different when the studio was presented with the package of Fred Ward playing Junior and Gene Hackman as Mosley. The studio hesitated at this, fearing the movie would skew a little too old, resulting in Hackman being let go and Ward, attached to the project from having bought the rights for himself early on, switching roles (also a character who could have appeared again if the movie had been a hit). Baldwin had already worked for Demme in MARRIED TO THE MOB, was about to explode and certainly wasn’t someone the studio was going to object to. Though the film was shot before HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, the release was deliberately held back until after to let his stardom happen. The reason why there were never any films made out of other Hoke Mosley books (apparently Curtis Hanson owns the rights now) was no more complicated than that it didn’t do very well, although Saxon agreed with Wright’s suggestion that Baldwin would be terrific playing Mosley now. Interestingly, he also mentioned that there were some extra scenes featuring Mosley that were shot but they were all pretty much ‘plot’ and he acknowledged that by a certain point Armitage just became more interested in Junior and Susie than the cop on their trail. Maybe it doesn’t make the film come together as well as it might have but moments like that particular way she winds up making that vinegar pie have always stayed with me. For that matter, so does the film’s final shot of Leigh, a moment of unresolved contemplation that I doubt many others who might have made this film would have bothered with.
Pulling his teeth out, Fred Ward (“Beer’s gone, I’m gone.”) is a lot of crafty fun as Mosley even if it does feel played a little more like a character part than a lead role, just a few scenes short of maybe what his character needs to really pay off and, yeah, it would have been cool to see Ward play the role again if it could have happened. Playing one of the most sadly unsung roles of his career, Baldwin is truly fierce and unpredictable with beats like that glare of his when realizing he has to have dinner with a cop, barely seeming able to comprehend things people say to him during conversations as if to him they’re some other kind of lifeform. Leigh is phenomenal, infusing every single moment with her character’s sweetness and pep, finding touching moments where you wouldn’t have expected them to be like in the way she looks at Junior, eyes, fully open, when they kiss. I couldn’t agree more with Wright when he pointed out afterwards that if the film had been received better at the time it’s not a stretch to imagine her being nominated for an Oscar. One thing’s for sure, no one has ever been more adorable when saying the word “teapot”. Nora Dunn and the legendary Charles Napier are a few of Mosley’s fellow officers, Paul Gleason is a corrupt vice cop, Shirley Stoler of THE HONEYMOON KILLERS is the imposing pawn shop owner, Bobo Lewis is the landlady who hopefully knows what she’s doing with that needle (Baldwin’s “Your husband must have been glad to die” pretty much sends me into hysterics when he says it) and DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE’s Martine Beswicke appears for a flash as a waitress.
For a film I may admittedly have a few small problems with, MIAMI BLUES was an ideal choice for the series to end on and not just for my own weird personal reasons. It’s a film that is messy, yes, but it’s also a film with massive pleasures, with engaging characters that feel alive in their own twisty ways and at its best displays a willingness to go down some unexpected avenues. And the rush I get from a film as alive as this one is really is what I took away with me at the end of this festival. In its aftermath I’ve felt on a definite cinematic high after seeing this diverse batch of fantastic movies Edgar Wright programmed—actually, there’s been a lot of great stuff shown in L.A. lately, like the Roman Polasnski series at the American Cinematheque which played a double bill of gorgeous prints of REPULSION and ROSEMARY’S BABY that genuinely set my soul on fire. Things feel in a little bit of a tailspin for me these days in terms of the pressures of looking for a job and all that but during the best moments of this series I was reminded of how much I love films, reminded of how I have that flicker of celluloid always running through my veins and it’s not a habit I have a desire to ever break. And realizing what Edgar Wright and all the people who work at the New Beverly did with this amazing series that packed the house each night with people who were also there to love these films, to see them as they were really meant to be seen, it’s clear that there are others out there who continue to feel the same way.