Monday, October 31, 2011

How The Other Half Lives

Coming a full twenty years after his last directorial excursion in zomebiedom with DAY OF THE DEAD and just over one year after the Zack Snyder helmed redo of his 1978 classic DAWN OF THE DEAD, George A. Romero’s LAND OF THE DEAD was released at the end of June 2005, a film clearly inspired by the post-9/11 world that was then still taking shape. Just a few months after its release the events of Katrina seemed to give the film added potency and now over six years later the film has acquired yet another extra level of meaning with the events surrounding the Occupy Wall Street protests taking place. Watching this film at the time of Halloween 2011 in which both the living and the undead are seen to be existing under the thumb of those living high up in a glass tower led by Dennis Hopper (RIP) it was almost hard to think of anything else. A nice thought and one that certainly adds resonance to how it plays now but it still makes me wish that there was more to dig into the film to help support such a reading. It’s a shame that Romero’s career seemed to stall as much as it did during the 90s but as time goes on I wonder if his creative voice seemed most at home in the late 60s-70s anyway with the ever-popular CREEPSHOW (intentionally aping a comic style from an earlier era which in a way helped to make the movie timeless) the obvious exception. I recently saw KNIGHTRIDERS for the first time and was struck, almost moved, by how that film almost plays now as a defiant resistance towards moving on into the next decade when an unstoppable change to society was going to come for that film’s characters, a more drastic journey off into the void than wherever Ken Foree and Gaylen Ross are headed in that helicopter at the end of DAWN OF THE DEAD. In some ways, DAWN really is the ultimate Romero statement on zombies and the world they stagger through so any followup, whether 1985’s DAY OF THE DEAD (which I like, but haven’t seen recently) or this film or any other spinoff could almost be seen as superfluous going over material that has already been covered thoroughly. Considering how long it took to happen LAND OF THE DEAD could be considered a sort of GODFATHER III or PHANTOM MENACE of the horror game but it didn’t have a pressing narrative to continue so what was really at stake was what it was going to say about how Romero looks at the world now. Overall, the film is a nice way to spend 90-plus minutes and though I think it gets better as it goes on my feelings about it aren’t that strong. I don’t know if it’s that crucial Romero made this film, or either of his other subsequent zombie films for that matter, but it’s nice that it’s there. Plus it has Asia Argento, always a big plus for me.

Some years after the rise of the walking dead many of the remaining humans are living in an encampment in Pittsburgh, protected on all sides by the rivers and electrified fences. Some of the wealthy live in a high rise known as Fiddler’s Green, which is run by the powerful Mr. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) who is in charge of everything, including the life down below where the rest of the people are left to live in squalor. One of his employees Riley Denbo (Simon Baker) is also the designer of the Dead Reckoning a huge armored vehicle that can move through zombie-infested areas with ease so what remains in the outer world can still be looted and the residents of Fiddler’s Green can continue their high-toned lifestyles. Riley, along with buddy Charlie (Robert Joy) stays on Kaufman’s good side but also spends time dealing with those down below. Cholo (John Leguizamo), one of Riley’s men, has higher aspirations that his hard work will get him a spot in Fiddler’s Green but when Kaufman immediately spurns such an idea Cholo hijacks Dead Reckoning holding it for ransom, threatening to destroy the encampment. Kaufman enlists a reluctant Riley, who just wants to get out and get away, to get the vehicle back. Riley sets out with Charlie and Slack (Asia Argento) a woman he rescued from being torn apart by zombies in one of Kaufman’s pleasure palaces, but meanwhile a zombie known only as Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) is somehow finding a way to learn about what’s going on around him and is finding a way to mobilize his fellow zombies which soon enough leads them to the river surrounding Pittsburgh getting ever closer to the sanctuary that is Fiddler’s Green as Riley begins to put his own plan for escape into effect.

There are so many favorable things I could say about LAND OF THE DEAD from the punchy vividness of the characterizations to its display of Romero’s own thematic goals in its views of homelessness, post-9/11 fears and even comments on the U.S. inserting itself into other territories via shock & awe actions. And, it’s probably important to say, there’s some pretty decent zombie action and gore all through the film with a fair amount of disarming humor—like a brief shot of Spam being prepared seems like a nice callback to a certain dialogue exchange way back in DAWN and some particularly good dialogue throughout, especially Hopper’s “In a world where the dead are returning to life the word ‘trouble’ loses much of its meaning.” Which makes me wish all the more that the film, on which Romero has sole screenplay credit, had a stronger story—I guess Dead Reckoning is a cool vehicle but does so much of the movie have to be about it? The degree that the actual plot feels minor is one way that LAND OF THE DEAD feels like only one chapter in an ongoing story and I’m not even specifically referring to the other Romero films in the series but it still feels like it could use more resonance, more things happening that could really focus on the characters as they deal with the continued threat. The post-zombie apocalypse world presented is intriguing but the way so much of is set out in some kind of wasteland in the dead of night isn’t all that visually interesting with maybe too much of an emphasis on a ROAD WARRIOR-heavy metal feel in Kaufman’s slums. Fiddler’s Green is never really established as much as it should be to become a character itself and not much is ever done to display Kaufman’s power over the place and its surroundings—Hopper isn’t even introduced until around the half-hour mark and much of his screentime is spent up in his luxury suite anyway.

LAND OF THE DEAD is compact in its plotting and no complaints about that—there’s no federal law that says a Romero zombie film has to be an epic the length of DAWN—but unfortunately that leaves no time to really get to know the characters and that alone makes it feel like kind of a comedown after what’s come before. And set during such a tight timeframe—it’s almost easy for me to forget that it doesn’t all take place over one night—it really doesn’t allow for much in the way of fleshed-out characterizations anyway. Fitting for a film which begins with an old-school Universal logo, LAND OF THE DEAD feels like the most traditional ‘Hollywood’ film that Romero has ever made with its ragtag group that we follow feeling more a product of the Howard Hawks school than he’s ever done before. The effect is enjoyable but it still feels like something is missing, maybe how Romero was truly able to do something unique with the unknowns in Pittsburgh he was directing once up on a time. Here, as enjoyable as they might be at times, they seem like actors in a movie.

Much of the film is certainly put together in an efficient fashion with a frame that is always active—I believe it’s the only time Romero has ever shot in Scope which in itself seems unlike him since he’s always come off as a director more interested in the process of montage than in paying attention to such precise framing that Scope brings to the table. In comparison this film contains several scenes that seem to start and end abruptly which makes the pacing problematic so the over all effect at times is maybe a little too colorless with a certain feel of disengagement evident. As would be expected for him, Romero seems genuinely interested in observing the characters working together which makes me wonder how much the scale of all this didn’t interest him as much as he thought it might, what with it requiring all sorts of coverage of action, close-up inserts of things like hands shifting gears and maybe more gunplay than I wish it had. It is slick, yes (I’m not sure how you can make a movie in today’s world and not have it be slick to some extent), but I’m not sure anyone ever was attracted to Romero’s films because of how slick they were. On a storytelling level it feels a little lopsided, spending maybe more time than necessary on its opening sequence out in the real world with the team being sent off on what’s basically the mission of the movie at approximately the halfway mark of a ninety-odd minute running time so it plays more than a little like a movie that starts, moves almost immediately to the climax and then it ends. (Note: I saw the film on opening night but the version on DVD I’ve known since is the unrated cut which adds some gore, has one full additional sequence involving Leguizamo’s character and makes some minor editorial changes as well. There’s a listed difference of four minutes in the running time but the two versions can’t be said to be drastically different from one another.)

In spite of the large cast of humans it still feels like Romero is most interested in Big Daddy as he leads his ever-growing throngs across the River towards Fiddler’s Green, rising from the water in CARNIVAL OF SOULS style in some of the film’s most powerful imagery and when they crashing through the windows of the glass tower as Kaufman screams, “You have no right!” the moment means something now more than ever. It’s clear that’s where the director’s sympathies lie even more than the good guys and it is a potent array of imagery of these walking corpses joining forces and gathering weapons while the guys in suits way up high pick their noses but the actual setting of Fiddler’s Green isn’t established much one way or another beyond a vague awareness that these people are still dining in a lifestyle of luxury while the world smolders in the ashes around them. It makes sense—all Kaufman cares about is the profits, not bothering to consider what an antiquated concept this is and presumably he’ll be in power as long as that still means something. Those not let into the Green are counted on to simply spend their money to keep this meager shred of capitalism going and the ‘stenches’ are just ignored as a nuisance. Either way, the strategy is just to keep them outside. Fuck ‘em. Who cares. Which all makes sense. There just needs to be more.

But like I said, the film does improve as it goes along—the pacing is tight even if I sometimes wish that the focus could be on other things and while the ultimate statement the film makes about its individuals and their relationship to the zombies is nowhere near as willfully incendiary on the subject as Joe Dante’s “Homecoming” episode for the MASTERS OF HORROR series the argument could be made that’s not the film Romero is trying to make anyway. It’s an efficiently told genre piece with a political and personal bent that is undeniably admirable but I wish it had a few of those odd touches which would make it into more than it is, the guy at the beginning of DAWN awkwardly declaring “Our responsibility is finished,” or the eternal argument from NIGHT over whether they should stay upstairs and fight or lock themselves down in the basement. I like it, but maybe those touches which are such a large part of why those movies have in a way become such acclaimed classics and maybe that’s what LAND OF THE DEAD is missing more than anything. One other thing that sticks out now is the desire of some of the characters to make their way up north to Canada away to get away from all this madness. (“There’s nothing up north.” “That’s the idea.”). It’s a little odd considering the film was actually shot in Canada, not Pittsburgh where it’s set and where Romero had become famous for making these movies. It manages to become part of the subtext, of Romero by necessity abandoning the world where he was king in favor of something else in order to keep going, to finally make another film after so many years out of the game. The end sort of makes sense that way, as expressing the belief of a filmmaker who, much as his characters are, is still looking for a place to go, for movies that he hopefully can still make. As they drive off in Dead Reckoning the characters have some kind of hope and it feels like that optimism has been earned.

Part of my fondness for the film admittedly has to do with seeing Dennis Hopper in the audience at the Arclight on opening night. His presence carries a definite weight with it from various points of his iconic status—while doing press for the film he was fully aware how both NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and EASY RIDER were key films of the late-60s zeitgeist and his latter day political leanings affect how it plays as well, with his portrayal of Kaufman apparently modeled on Donald Rumsfeld. He deliberately seems to underplay things until his last moments (and, really, everything about his final sequence works great) and his very presence carries a great deal of weight to it, just from him quietly smiling at a few points although I still wish he wasn’t locked up in his suite most of the time. Simon Baker seems engaged with the material and he does come off as likable but still feels too clean cut to be this guy in this world. John Leguizamo’s wiry energy fits in somewhat better and he’s just more fun to watch, making me imagine a massive rewrite combining the two male leads to make Cholo the focus. Baker does work well with his costars including Asia Argento who is pretty great in a role that seems designed to just be along for the ride and not much else. She may be The Girl but she brings her undeniable presence to the part all the way through and besides, isn't Asia Argento supposed to be in this movie anyway? Her acting style adds to all the shorthand so the unspoken chemistry she shares with Baker plays right from when they first look at each other and seem to know immediately they’re going to be a couple, a Hawksian beat which is all we need to be told about their relationship. I could write several more paragraphs on what I think about her but I’ve probably done that before anyway. The underrated Robert Joy also plays well off both of them as Charlie, bringing a needed likable quality to much of the film and selling his unstable confidence when he insists on what guns are the ones he needs. Eugene Clark is extremely imposing during both loud and quiet moments as Big Daddy. As zombie characterizations go I’m not sure how it could work better although I still think his makeup looks a little too much like obvious zombie makeup. Actually, a number of the bit actors and zombie extras are given small moments here and there to make an impression—also in there are Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright who cameo as zombies as does Tom Savini turning up quickly as his biker from DAWN OF THE DEAD, in surprisingly good condition after all this time.

The writer-director credit for Romero over the three zombies still defiantly playing instruments in a town square gazebo may be an indication that he’s fully aware of how long he’s been doing this sort of thing, but maybe also that it’s become such a part of who he is as a filmmaker that there’s nothing he can do to change that. He doesn’t seem to mind it either. The two films he’s made since, DIARY OF THE DEAD and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, are more obviously a stab at going back to the low budget roots he came from and that doesn’t necessarily make them automatically better but it does seem like that approach is something he’s more comfortable with. Regardless, I still like LAND OF THE DEAD, even if some of its problems are still there even when I try to will them away, but enough of the movie has a power of the sort that only Romero still knows how to do, continuing the ongoing narrative of humans going up against the walking dead that has now lasted for decades. Plus it has Asia Argento. Which will always be a plus for me. I sat down to write about LAND OF THE DEAD because it’s Halloween but I also knew that some of what was drawing me to it had to do with other things going on out there in the real world. So maybe I wound up focusing on parts of it that didn’t simply have to do with being just a horror film, no matter how impressive some of those gore effects as the zombies rip people apart might be. Of course, focusing on some of those other things is one of the reasons why we have horror films anyway.

Friday, October 28, 2011

From That Devastation

There’s no way I could do an accurate count but it feels like I’ve seen Richard Donner’s THE OMEN about a hundred times. Its follow-up, 1978’s DAMIEN: OMEN II directed by Don Taylor I’ve seen exactly once, years ago, and about all I remember about it is William Holden’s anguish as someone is pulled under the ice at a lake. I even made it a point to see the superfluous remake of THE OMEN on the day it was released, 6/6/06, because, well, I just couldn’t resist. However, until now I’ve seen the third film in the original series, THE FINAL CONFLICT (the most recent DVD release referring to it on the packaging as OMEN III: THE FINAL CONFLICT) exactly zero times. I cannot explain this. There is no reason. But Halloween was coming up, the desire to see more horror films than usual was in the air, so it made sense to finally take care of this one. In spite of never actually seeing it I’ve been curious about THE FINAL CONFLICT for a long time and now that the deed is taken care of I guess I’m still a little curious, partly because the movie really doesn’t leave much of an impression. It’s as if Twentieth Century-Fox decided they needed to make another sequel but didn’t feel like putting that much money into it and nobody had a really good idea for what the story should be but they just decided to make it anyway. There is some dialogue about the state of the planet which could just as easily be speaking about the way things are now but that right there makes the film sound more interesting than it is. The whole thing is just kind of a void, with too much about what’s happening left vague, as if in search of an idea for this movie. Or maybe my attention just kept wandering. There wasn’t all that much to focus on anyway.

Antichrist Damien Thorn (Sam Neill), who was adopted by Gregory Peck’s Robert Thorn in THE OMEN and raised as a teenager by William Holden’s brother Richard in the follow-up, is now the 32 year-old head of Thorn Industries, the numbers 6-6-6 still hidden under the hair on his head with him in charge of much of the world supply of food (for those who care—the film ignores how the first two films were contemporary to when they were released and just retcons it to date them as happening decades before). Fully aware of his true identity and presumably biding his time until he can make his secret known to the world he discovers in the Book of Hebron that a particular alignment of the stars indicates that the Second Coming is at hand. Meanwhile, he convinces the President to appoint him as Ambassador to Great Britain after the current one conveniently arranges to have his own head blown off in front of the press. Once in England, Damien shows an interest in television journalist Kate Reynolds (Lisa Harrow) and her pre-teen son. As he settles a group of priests led by Father DeCarlo (Rossano Brazzi) who are also aware of the celestial activity have acquired the seven daggers of Megiddo, the only ancient holy weapons that can harm the Antichrist, intent on destroying him. Meanwhile, in a desperate attempt to prevent what has been prophesized Damien has his own disciples track down every male child born on a certain day so he can destroy any chance of the second coming occurring and presumably, take full control of all the world once and for all. I guess.

One element about THE FINAL CONFLICT which has long intrigued me was Roger Ebert’s review written when the film opened which discusses in great detail the opening section, in which we follow the precise path leading to exactly how the seven daggers of Maggido find their way into the right hands about which he says “The first ten minutes of THE FINAL CONFLICT are such a masterful job of storytelling that I dared to hope that the OMEN trilogy had pulled itself out of the bag.” In truth, the sequence is just under four minutes (as we all know, Roger has sometimes been a little inexact about these things) and maybe shouldn’t be considered anything more than a compactly told sequence of events designed to play under the opening credits. I’m not sure it shouldn’t be considered masterful as much as simply a well-executed montage told in an appropriately cinematic manner, something you’d think should be a prerequisite when we go to the movies but maybe it was just the context of things that surprised Roger. It might not exactly be a sudden display of filmic genius, but it is a nice scene. And, as it turns out, just about the high point of the entire film.

It feels like something was lost along the way while making THE FINAL CONFLICT, as if the budget got reduced or some sort of key element to the script (written by Andrew Birkin, based on characters created by David Seltzer) got lost in rewrites. There’s no real continuity of character to make this feel like the conclusion of a trilogy and one of the key selling points of the first two films then and now—respected actors being knocked off in increasingly gruesome, painful ways—feels done away with not to mention how few of the costars of lead Sam Neill seem up to matching him. Even the casting of familiar face Mason Adams “as the President” feels off as if the actor doesn’t have the physical stature to be a plausible commander in chief. Interestingly, two directors of photography are credited—Phil Meheux and Robert Paynter—which seems like a possible indication of strife during production but while it does manage to be a rich-looking film with striking Scope compositions throughout it’s all very flatly directed by Graham Baker (ALIEN NATION) who never seems interested in much that happens beyond placing emphasis on the twitching of a few bodies that have recently been brutally killed. The strange thing is that THE FINAL CONFLICT is a film which in the first fifteen minutes we see someone’s head get blown off with a shotgun in full graphic detail and yet the film couldn’t be more humdrum about how this is all portrayed with even an assassination attempt on Damien that goes awry shot in such a way that doesn’t seen to notice that a pretty impressive stunt would be noticed by the cameras if only they could get a decent angle on it. Even when Damien and Lisa have a serious discussion about the state of the world how true evil is as pure in its way as innocence it’s staged in such a faraway shot it’s as if it all just bores him.

You could feel free to consider the overall approach of the OMEN series as garbage or hackwork but there is a certain showmanship at other points in the series which is undeniable—you know, David Warner meeting up with a certain sheet of glass, that sort of thing. In comparison, THE FINAL CONFLICT just sort of lies there, no real energy to it, zero flair even when it’s well-photographed which it often is. It does have a certain multinational feel that I associate with certain films of this era which is actually kind of comforting but it’s really not enough. I’m no real expert on the cycle of devil-related horror that was around in the 70s but while watching this I couldn’t help but wonder if the whole thing was kind of played out by 1981. Whether it was or not, THE FINAL CONFLICT certainly doesn’t help. It’s an 80s horror sequel with no particular cult following which seems like an impossibility but I suppose it’s also stranded between the two eras—the devil/disaster cycle combo and the slasher cycle which hadn’t taken full shape just yet. Plus it’s not at all scary. Or even particularly unnerving. Or entertaining.

Too much of what happens is just humdrum. Damien skulks around plotting. The priests skulk around plotting. Damien shows interest in Kate Reynolds but any implied romance comes off as half-baked beyond the two of them ending up in bed together in a scene that is at least a little odd, implying that some kind of violation takes place but is too oblique to ever be offensive, just another ‘so what’ event that occurs. Damien takes her son on as a disciple but that feels half-baked as well, as if he’s only doing it because he thinks the kid kind of looks like him. Damien knows who he is and is never conflicted about any of it, so there’s no suspense on that angle. Don Gordon (Steve McQueen’s partner in BULLITT, so he’s a-ok in my book) is his right hand man and seems to be fully aware of it who his boss is as well but it’s never clear if he’s a Satanist or a loyal employee or what—he certainly doesn’t seem all that committed to the cause when he needs to be. It’s a film without a hero or at the least anyone to maintain a rooting interest in so the experience of watching it becomes too detached. The few characters who could have had such a role are either too thinly drawn or not focused on enough such as Rossano Brazzi’s priest who is second billed but he could almost have a ‘special appearance by’ credit considering how much screen time he has. There’s a long foxhunt scene which isn’t bad (you don’t get many foxhunts in movies. The only other ones I can think of offhand are MARNIE and THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER) although having someone attacked by relatively benign looking dogs is a nice spin on the beasts who attacked Gregory Peck and David Warner in THE OMEN it doesn’t quite feel like a bullseye. Maybe because they still look like nice dogs.

The film also seems to misunderstand what I assume people have always responded to in the other films in the series, which mainly focused on the brutal deaths of people (some of them played by big stars) with the hint of the power of Satan hanging over it all, as well as the subtext of parents’ fears of their own child in the first film. The events that took place may have been patently absurd but they also managed to be strangely unnerving, walking the line between odd accidents and something else unexplainable going on—as improbable as many things were they weren’t impossible, keeping away from supernatural elements or even simple stalk-and-murder scenes, even arguably the death of Lee Remick. THE FINAL CONFLICT seems to drop much of the mystery found in this ambiguity in favor of boring astrological details, people having dull conversations in rooms and Sam Neill brooding, occasionally giving long speeches (one scene where he speaks to an enormous gathering of disciples is strikingly shot, I’ll give it that much) and building to the ultimate plan to prevent the second coming. None of this is ever as scary as Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock merely staring at someone and much of it is shot so discreetly it’s almost as if the film is embarrassed that it has a plot about killing babies. Hey, I think that sounds kind of unpleasant too, but if that’s the case why are you even bothering making this movie? There’s also the feeling that it wants to suddenly develop this entire mythology around Damien so the trilogy can be paid off but did anybody ever really care about that angle? The film feels underpopulated. Underwritten. And under-thought out. A key showdown between two characters late in the film involving a hot iron for example should have some impact but since there’s been so little reason to care about them, outside of not wanting to see their baby get killed, there really isn’t any. I’d heard long ago that the ending is lame beyond belief and, well, it is, feeling rushed, incomplete and anticlimactic as if they just ran out of shooting time. Or money. Or ideas. I can’t tell. Instead the film just gives us glorious music and biblical quotes shoved onscreen as if to try to disguise the fact that not very much happened followed by the quick appearance of the end credits. Thank you and goodnight. Is THE FINAL CONFLICT the dullest Satanic horror film ever made? I’m probably not the person to answer that. The late Hammer entry TO THE DEVIL-A DAUGHTER was also somewhat unfulfilling in this regard with a similarly undernourished conclusion but it still probably works better. Either way, there can’t be very many other such entries out there that feel quite so lackluster, so uninterested in what the film is supposedly about.

Sam Neill is a very good actor who is clearly trying to make this all work in his first American lead role with a very nice slipperiness to his voice at times but there still isn’t much he can do with this script. He does at least have presence (we also get to hear him say the word ‘Nazarene’ about two-hundred times) and that a few weeks ago Salman Rushdie of all people made a reference to him playing this part on Real Time With Bill Maher a few weeks ago has to say something about what kind of impression he makes. But aside from the way his hair is styled which seems queasily appropriate for the visage of Damien Thorn he still feels left a little on his own, as if the film is missing an elder statesman role as a follow-up to Peck and Holden for him to play off of so it places a kind of void at the center of the film. Brazzi barely has any screentime with him and while it’s interesting to see how Neill works with Don Gordon (whose huge glasses are almost as much of a character as he is) it’s not really enough. Shouldn’t this be one of those films that have the stars in boxes at the bottom of the poster? Lisa Harrow actually began a lengthy relationship with Neill from this film and they had a child together but she never seems strong enough either. Few other actors who appear make much of an impression although Hazel Court, star of Roger Corman’s THE RAVEN and MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, can be quickly seen at the start of the fox hunt in her final film appearance. Jerry Goldsmith, one of the few names in the credits who carry over through the entire trilogy, provides much of the power that the film does have with all the spectacular bombast of his score and while its effectiveness never rises to the heights of the first film—the one which gave him his only Oscar, of course—what he had to work with probably wasn’t all that inspiring.

After watching THE FINAL CONFLICT via Netflix I was curious to look at OMEN II againt for reference to see how it matched up and oddly Amoeba had zero copies of that film but had about a dozen of this one. What’s up with that? Did everyone who got a box set decide there was no reason to keep this one? And why did I even bother seeing it anyway? I do have a vague recollection of it playing at a theater while getting pizza one night nearby with my family so maybe deep down I have a strange desire to see every film I vaguely remember playing when I was a kid but was too young for. There’s probably a reason for that buried deep down within my psyche but I don’t need to figure it out just now. So it goes without saying that I’m not at all sorry I finally saw THE FINAL CONFLICT but I’m also not that surprised the experience turned out to be not much of anything either. I could believe that if there had been something mildly interesting to it maybe I would have heard something by now but there’s nothing wrong with keeping an open mind. It can be fun to do that with these things, particularly horror sequels that you’ve wondered about for over thirty years. There’s always the hope that one of those will offer you something completely unexpected which makes it all the more unfortunate when what it gives you isn’t much of anything at all. And when that happens, you just have to move on to the next one.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I've Seen That Face Before

One thing’s for sure, if the power goes out unexpectedly that really does put a crimp in your plans. It’s happened in my neighborhood twice recently, within a few days of each other, once on Sunday and then again on Wednesday, lasting well into the evening on a night that I had planned to just stay home and not do much of anything. It was hot. There was little point in sitting there in the dark and I had no idea how long it was going to be. So I drove off from the neighborhood, grabbed an In-n-Out Burger in Hollywood and then cruised around in the night for a little while with the TRON: LEGACY score playing. I stopped off at the Grove for a few minutes to look around, Julia Roberts walked by me at one point, I did a double take when I realized it was Julia Roberts, then I headed down the street from there to the New Beverly to see Roman Polanski’s 1988 thriller FRANTIC. I’d seen it before. Actually, I’d seen it many times before including on a cold opening night in February at Yonkers Movieland way back in those dark ages. The New Bev was showing it as second on the bill after the recent French action movie POINT BLANK (no relation to the Boorman--when it comes on DVD check it out, you’ll like it) and though it had crossed my mind to go simply to see FRANTIC again it was honestly low on the priority list. So it’s fortunate that the power went. The reaction I had to the film couldn’t have thrilled me more.

I remember loving FRANTIC when I first saw it all those years ago—even then there was something about how the film just laid out its thriller plotline in a perfectly logical fashion that I responded to even though I had yet to fully discover Polanski at that point. As time went on I began to make those discoveries and pay more attention to films like REPULSION and CHINATOWN which made me curious to revisit FRANTIC after a number of years away from it. So there I was at the New Beverly seeing it again in a theater after all these years in a print that probably dated from ’88 with noticeable scratches near the reel changes and I was absolutely knocked out by how it reminded me, in all seriousness, that I actually kind of love this film. There was something about it that reminded me of the undeniable charge of true cinema that I felt in Yonkers all those years ago. You can grow, you can change, you can see films that expand your boundaries of what films you might be interested in but ultimately you are what you are. It may not be top tier Polanski—considering what it’s up against, I’m not sure it could be—but I’d gladly call it one of his most underrated. Because of its box office failure at the time and maybe due to being lumped in with every other ‘Harrison Ford’s family gets kidnapped’ movie that’s been made since it’s become more than a little forgotten, which is a shame. This is Polanski, damn it. And you can feel what the director is bringing to the movie in every frame, in every tiny gesture that characters make. It’s funny how I’m saying it’s underrated because since this screening I’ve spoken to several people including a few who where also there and when I tried to describe my reaction each one of them have replied, “Yeah, I know. It’s great.” Maybe I just know the right people. Maybe I just know the only people who would agree with me. I say it’s that good.

Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) arrives in Paris in the early morning hours with wife Sondra (Betty Buckley) to attend a medical convention. The arrive at their hotel exhausted from their long flight, looking forward to a few hours of alone time before Richard has to prepare his speech when Sondra realizes that she accidentally took the wrong bag at the airport. Richard makes a call to deal with this and all seems normal but just a short time later after he’s dozed off Sondra, last seen going down to the lobby, has disappeared. Richard isn’t sure what has happened but with the management of the hotel, the Paris police and even the American Embassy only able to do so much, he follows what few leads he can trace beginning with that mysterious suitcase collected by mistake. He starts to believe that it must have something to do with his wife’s disappearance and the trail soon leads him to the beautiful and mysterious Michelle (Emmanuelle Seigner) who has recently been involved in smuggling and may be the only person who can help him find out what happened to Sondra.

The argument could be made that on the surface FRANTIC, written by Polanski & longtime collaborator Gerard Brach with uncredited work by Robert Towne, is almost too simplistic of a concept for Polanski, one without the twisty views of reality which can sometimes be found in his best work. And while the basic setup seems like it could play as much more normal than it actually does (some of the DNA can certainly be found in this year’s Liam Neeson vehicle UNKNOWN but let’s not make any comparisons beyond that) from the first frame FRANTIC feels totally like Polanski, playing out as much of a pure examination of behavior as anything. It’s not all that much of a stretch to look at some of this film, with a lead character from the Bay Area who I assume has a 60s-lefty background but is now politically apathetic, as the director expressing some of his own feelings about America, a place he had purposefully removed himself from a decade earlier due to his infamous legal troubles (and that’s all I’ll say about that here) with a certain an arch, yet undeniably yearning, quality to the way a certain Statue of Liberty souvenir figures into the plot, in addition to the views of the famous replica on the river Seine first seen upside down in a point of view shot. In some ways you could even call the film a very dry comedy—no one has ever made drier comedy than Roman Polanski, after all—as it observes a man desperately fighting sleep in a city where almost no one speaks his language and even the ones who do never seem to listen to him.

“Do you know where you are?” Richard Walker’s wife Sondra asks him as they’re driving in from the airport to Paris. “No, it’s changed too much,” he replies, in reference to the last time they visited the city on their honeymoon some twenty-odd years before. Settling in after the provocative sounds of Ennio Morricone’s off-kilter score combining synths and horns with a deliberate French feel to its main title theme I found myself locked in with FRANTIC immediately, while at the same time being somewhat astonished on this revisit by the sheer quiet of its opening scenes. Very little happens at all for the first ten minutes or so beyond the Walkers checking into their hotel and discussing how their day is going to go. Everything is laid out with a methodical deliberateness, from the flat tire their first taxi gets to the procedure to taking their passports out as they check in to simply ordering some breakfast. Polanski pays more attention to this behavior than few other directors do, I suspect than few other directors ever could. It would never happen this way today—hell, it could never happen this way today, no studio would allow it—but it feels absolutely essential for the film to take effect to somehow find yourself in Richard Walker’s shoes, uncertain what to do, who to talk to or what to possibly do next since for all the reasons having to do with the realities of their own lives they react to him with simple officiousness if not outright dismissal, with every single thing happening paid attention to so we’re constantly on guard, in some ways turning the film into a depiction of the basic indifference of the world. The point of view remains strict—we know something when he knows it so for a time we’re about as clueless about what’s going on as Walker, who for a while has to deal with people who pretty much believe that this is a simple case of marital strife. And what else can they do anyway?

As some of the pieces begin to come together for Walker with the vision that is Seigner’s Michelle joining up for her own reasons the expected Hitchcockian tropes begin to emerge along with the McGuffin he’s been looking for (which, incidentally, may have more meaning in the real world now than it did then). Even the grey suit Harrison Ford wears could be another Hitchcock nod what with its resemblance to the one Cary Grant forever has on in NORTH BY NORTHWEST and it feels just as much a part of his identity. But the point could very well be made that there isn’t any one great setpiece in the Hitchcock style, it’s more a case of the various elements steadily accumulating piece by piece, forever building to a fever pitch (the great editor Sam O’Steen no doubt deserves as much credit as Polanski and the other writers do) and even if Richard Walker is never seen to be behaving in a manner that could be, well, frantic, the tension ratchets up so tight that I don’t really care. So much of it works, whether it’s the way certain shots are held for prolonged periods of time, how moments that seem like they might be important get diffused or just the false leads that turn up, particularly a scene in a nightclub which features a small touch of drug use by a certain movie star that I doubt would be allowed today. The rhythm to all this feels masterful aided by the sheer logic behind the plotting combined with the veritable daze the character finds himself in, making a treacherous and unwise excursion out on to Michelle’s roof to gain access to her apartment without thinking about what he’s doing. When he almost loses his grip the ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ look on Ford’s face seems absolutely perfect in the moment.

And there’s a certain nightclub scene involving Walker and Michelle, a place where he believes will lead them to the next step towards finding Sondra. Michelle puts Grace Jones singing “I’ve Seen That Face Before” on, the umpteenth time we’ve heard the song in the film, she leads him out onto the dance floor and basically slinks all over him in full view of everyone else there. Walker in his jetlag daze doesn’t seem to know how to respond to this vision, this substitute for his wife who is falling all over him and it becomes hypnotic how the film just stops dead for the moment. In his review Roger Ebert weirdly referred to it as “…a dance sequence in a nightclub that continues until it is inexplicable.” Come on, Roger! Hell, isn’t this scene one of the reasons that movies were invented to begin with? Of course, just staring at Seigner fall all over him on that dance floor is enough of a reason for it to continue as anything. But since we’re on this subject, I’m still a little hazy on the angle of all this playing as a sort of idealized vision of an American middle-aged man going off to Paris from a life that’s become staid, like that bracelet of Sondra’s that doesn’t close very well anymore, trading his wife in for a younger model who attaches herself to him almost immediately, one red dress for another, forever in search of what he’s lost. With the sound of Grace Jones continually warbling “I’ve Seen That Face Before” heard through scenes it all seems like a noir-tinged view of the world anyway and maybe FRANTIC is about the things you encounter in life being forgotten by everyone else while you’re left there, alone with your memories of what haunts you. Polanski has certainly learned of how indifferent the world can be to horrible things that happen. But life goes on, just like the circularity accentuated in the haunting Ennio Morricone score. Business still has to be transacted. Beautiful women are killed. Trash gets picked up. The Eiffel Tower still stands.

Just a few years after WITNESS and still somewhat adventurous in the projects he was choosing, this remains one of Harrison Ford’s best performances and his work here is just as underappreciated as the film itself is. Some of the tics we’ve all gotten used to are there, present an accounted for (The Finger does make an appearance), but there’s an energy to it, he feels totally engaged with a palpable intensity down to how his hand shakes as he tries to fast forward on that tape message he’s having the concierge translate. When he asks, “Where’s my wife?” to someone on the phone at a key moment the desperation couldn’t feel more honest and it feels as if he’s working with his director more than usual to achieve the proper effect along with some surprising bursts of humor from his personality as well. Considering how glum his screen persona would become only a few short years later this film and his supporting role in Mike Nichols’ WORKING GIRL later this year are just about the last glimpse of the Han Solo-early Indiana Jones we know and love. In some ways, FRANTIC is the ideal fusion of the screen presence he developed in the early part of his career (even Richard Walker coming from San Francisco feels like a connection to his early Lucas/Coppola days) with an obvious look ahead to the “My family’s been kidnapped!” joke of the latter part of his career. FRANTIC was not a box office hit but while it isn’t really any sort of career turning point—Pakula’s PRESUMED INNOCENT, which did just fine two years later, isn’t as interesting but it’s not at all bad—it maybe could be seen as a rare case of a director trying to push him beyond his comfort zone and the actor totally willing to go along with the challenge.

Always looking up to Ford with those big eyes and maintaining the right balance of innocence and determination, Seigner’s work here may very well be a product of direction by somebody infatuated with her (I’m not sure I could blame him—she and Polanski have been married since 1989) but nevertheless she’s fascinating to watch with all of her unspoken glances at Harrison Ford—when she’s hanging from a rooftop, legs dangling straight down she doesn’t even seem all that concerned as if she knows that this American doctor who’s suddenly entered her life would never drop her. The likes of Betty Buckley and John Mahoney as an embassy official don’t have much screen time but the work of everyone down to the smallest roles is strong and adds to the tension—the now familiar Dominique Pinon is a wino with a key piece of information and particularly good is Gerald Klein as a sympathetic hotel concierge.

The power had long since been turned back on by the time that I arrived home late that night but all I could think about was the giddy cinematic high I was on, the kind I wish happened more often. FRANTIC remains an underappreciated film. There was never even a decent release on DVD, just a full-frame job from Warner which doesn’t do Polanski’s intricate compositional sense any favors and the Blu-ray, presumably an improvement, shares its disc with PRESUMED INNOCENT. Makes sense, I suppose, but still a shame that it has to be thought of as ‘just’ another Harrison Ford thriller and compared with the versions of this sort of thing that get made today (well, I did mention UNKNOWN earlier) it’s practically an art film in comparison. No, it doesn’t rank as high as certain other Polanski films but how many films really do, anyway? I may never fully understand why I responded to it the way I did way back then, but I don’t really care. All I know is that I was reminded of what that felt like in a way that was completely unexpected. Maybe seeing FRANTIC when I was younger was a step towards my understanding why films like this directed by somebody like Roman Polanski were ultimately going to mean something to me and what that was going to do for my love of film. And maybe I love it all the more now because of that.

Monday, October 24, 2011

People Who Are Never Alone

It’s possible that I’ve mentioned it in the past, but over the past year or so I’ve developed an odd attachment to the Open All Night bumper on TCM, the one shown before one of their late movies, and it’s gotten to the point where my evening doesn’t feel entirely complete if I haven’t seen it shortly before going to sleep. Consisting of a series of mostly black & white shots depicting downtown life during the late hours, a few of which are recognizable from certain films, it sometimes make me want to leave my apartment, in search of my own personal noir experience as I sit at the counter of a diner drinking coffee in an attempt to somehow fight off sleep. I’m not sure if Fred 62 or House of Pies would really be appropriate for what that vibe demands but I guess those places are there if I ever need them at that hour. But instead of doing that I usually just lie there with TCM staying on, wondering about what I’m not doing in life and just watch what’s on, letting whatever decades-old movie that’s playing take its effect. I prefer it when the film is something even slightly resembling a noir. It just seems right for the hour. On one particular evening recently I was lying there, in bed earlier than usual, feeling like I was on the verge of soon being half-asleep but not quite there yet. Nicholas Ray’s 1952 film ON DANGEROUS GROUND came on, one that I’d seen before. But then it started and I wondered, wait, have I seen this film? And if I haven’t, what movie am I thinking of? And what am I watching, anyway? Is it a noir? Is it a straight drama? A love story? Is it something else altogether? At 82 minutes, is it the shortest epic about a man’s true nature ever made? Is it the longest short film about an event in a man’s life, one which reveals who he really is? I’m not even sure where the film is supposed to be set, where this world Robert Ryan occupies and is sent away from is supposed to be. It looks like New York, I’d imagine it’s supposed to be New York, but when he’s sent ‘upstate’ as it’s referred to in dialogue, the wide open vistas don’t resemble any part of upstate New York I ever knew (apparently location work was done in Colorado, which sounds unusual for the time—I was guessing they shot it up in the Sierra Nevadas). Maybe it’s not supposed to be anywhere specific…it’s just the ‘upstate’ that can be found when you drive away from any of those nameless big cities which exist only in black & white that films like ON DANGEROUS GROUND are set in. The ones which are playing continuously in my head as I sleep, dreaming of that Open All Night bumper on TCM.

Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is a cop, part of a squad who are being pressed by their captain to find the culprits in a gas station robbery that resulted in a fellow officer being killed. He goes about his business while displaying all the ruthlessness he has bubbling up inside him as he continues his investigation but when one beat down that he gives out goes a little too far, to get him out of the way for a bit his boss sends him to the quieter reaches of upstate (“Siberia” as Jim calls it) where help has been requested after a murdered girl was found. But after encountering the murdered girl’s enraged father (Ward Bond) and chasing down a possible culprit the path they take leads them to the remote cabin of a blind woman named Mary Malden (Ida Lupino) who herself has more secrets and revelations than Jim could have possibly realized.

“I don’t like being alone,” are just about the first lines of dialogue heard in ON DANGEROUS GROUND, spoken by somebody we never even see again. Not much happens in the way of plot for a very long stretch at the beginning, or at least not the sort of plot which might be expected. We follow around Robert Ryan’s Jim Wilson as he does his job, looking for these cop killers. He ignores a good-looking floozy (Nita Talbot, quite stunning) in a bar who’s almost certainly underage and gets the bartender to throw her out. He roughs up an innocent guy on the street who matches a description. He responds to the friendly interest a girl who works at a soda fountain shows in him with good spirits but doesn’t pay much attention to her. He pummels a possible informant repeatedly, but not before chillingly taunting him by asking, “Why do you make me do it? Why do you make me do it? You know you’re gonna talk. I’m gonna make you talk. I always make you punks talk, why do you do it? WHY? WHY?” Shortly after we witness this, he shares a friendly moment with a paperboy in front of his building when he finally arrives home at the end of the night. Alone in his tiny apartment he pauses to glance at his Best All-Round Athlete trophy, no doubt from long ago, then he tries scrubbing his hands clean, as if he desperately wants to wash away the filth of what he knows he just did, fully aware that he’s not going to succeed. He’s under the command of a captain played with the expected bluster by Ed Begley who seems as interested in the food he’s being served at a restaurant for lunch as much as anything. With all this swirling around him Jim Wilson doesn’t seem to know anymore what point there is to what he’s doing. He’s alone. “What kind of a job is this anyway? Garbage, that’s all we handle, garbage!” he cries to someone who doesn’t care what he has to say. And with no one to strap his gun holster in for him at the start of the night he doesn’t have anything else other than that garbage.

Jim Wilson is probably in an even worse mental place than Bogart's Dixon Steele in Ray’s IN A LONELY PLACE. This is a man who’s going to explode, no doubt about it. Everyone around him knows this. When he’s sent off to deal with this case in the middle of nowhere it feels like a jolt to the film as if the plot (Screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides based on an adaption by Bezzerides and Ray of the novel ‘Mad With Much Heart’ by Gerald Butler) which has been building gradually suddenly gets hijacked for an unexpected detour. After some time running around in the snowy wilderness with Ward Bond as the enraged father of the murdered girl (for a few minutes it feels as if the conflict between the two of them might actually be the focus) we stumble into something else altogether involving the introduction of Ida Lupino’s character (a surprisingly late entrance for one of the leads of such a short film) and Wilson seems as taken aback by her as we might be. Who is this woman? What movie is this, anyway? ON DANGEROUS GROUND feels dreamlike and strangely, hauntingly real at the same time, aided by a stunning score by Bernard Herrmann, some of which clearly looks forward to his work on NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Even some of the early section set in the city, obviously done on the backlot, feels somewhat different with a few points-of-view shots taken from a car that feel unusual for the time, allowing for camerawork that is surprisingly adventurous. The fatalistic tone is such that even if the time spent in the city doesn’t take place entirely at night it still feels like it does—a night that I suspect never ends for Jim Wilson while he’s there, contrasted with the wide open feel of the second half. Suddenly we’re in an environment that is beautiful yet cold, harsh and unwelcoming yet what winds up happening couldn’t be more the opposite of that, with every single moment involving the almost otherworldly vibe given off by Ida Lupino in her cottage being almost unspeakably beautiful.

It’s almost impossible to imagine this woman existing anywhere else than that cottage. And even if she’s not entirely forthcoming at first with more than a few of her own secrets that she doesn’t want to discuss, it’s as if she’s the beacon of all that is pure in the universe. “Sometimes people who are never alone are the loneliest. Don’t you think so?” she asks Wilson. “I don’t know, I’ve never thought it out,” is his reply and it’s hard to believe he ever would have but I just love that piece of phrasing which seems to indicate she’s hitting him in a soft spot and he’s not sure how to respond to it, how to act with this woman who’s got his number, not hearing any pity in his voice as he’s forced for once to be a professional against the fury of Ward Bond’s enraged father seeking vengeance. She’s blind but it’s as if he desperately wants her to see him and, in a way, she can although she seems to have shut herself off from the world as much as he has, instead choosing to live through the brother she’s desperately trying to hide from these men. “You don’t have to be afraid,” he tells her at one point which could almost be what they’re saying to each other in every sentence, finding their way towards what it’s like to not be alone. The desolation doesn’t feel like any other movie from this period and this section is so moving in its dreamlike qualities that I almost don’t know what to say about it. The sheer weight of emotion that is felt doesn’t really resemble any other movie either. Even the pain clearly shown by a briefly seen young girl over her murdered friend is palpable. Isn’t this supposed to be just a B noir? Not according to Nicholas Ray, I suppose.

With the brief running time it’s hard to avoid the feeling that some of the film does seem truncated (apparently due to tinkering involving Howard Hughes, then in charge of RKO) and the manhunt plot is wrapped up earlier than might be expected. But it’s the aftermath to that manhunt which really turns out to matter, lingering on certain moments involving the haunting image of the two stars in frame together doing nothing but walking, which leads to an ending that feels necessary yet I’m still not completely sure how I feel about it--some reports have reshoots being directed by Lupino and whether this is true or not I do wonder if the final moments could have maybe had a slightly more tentative feel to them. But the emotion holds—even the Ward Bond’s brute is allowed to display a certain amount of compassion in the end in how he regards Ryan. “I don’t like being alone,” went that line spoken at the beginning. Sometimes it’s a difficult thing to say to another person. Sometimes it might be the most important thing to admit of all.

I’m almost tempted to say that this might be my favorite Robert Ryan performance—when a few others like ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW come to mind it’s not such an easy choice to make but regardless there’s an intensity to what he does here that is much more palpable, that lets you feel the bitterness and the quiver in his voice while still letting the inherently decent person that’s deep down there somewhere show through somehow. Ida Lupino is remarkable as well—a figure of mystery who maybe because of how disarming she is reveals more than is apparent at first and her determination visible in her presence draws you to her every time she’s in frame, doing more with those eyes than I can almost believe. There are moments throughout from some of the other actors that work very well--Ward Bond’s fury, Ed Begley asking for more peas in that restaurant, Joan Taylor as Hazel, the friendly girl behind the soda counter. But it’s Ryan and Lupino in the frame together which makes the film, which matters most of all.

TCM has been running various films directed by Nicholas Ray in celebration of the centennial of his birth and one thing that ON DANGEROUS GROUND makes clear, even if there were changes made along the way, is the undeniable feel of emotion that comes through. There's something to the level of spirituality in this man rediscovering who he is, of why he is, making this film more than I can imagine it would have been in anyone else’s hands. “What difference does it make?” someone asks late in the film about how long something might have taken. And really, what difference does it ever make? What does it matter how alone we are? That late night response I had to ON DANGEROUS GROUND feels personal. I’m not even sure if I ever want to watch it with someone else, let alone among people in a crowded theater. You never know when they’re going to start laughing. And maybe it should only be watched late at night, via TCM or otherwise. It should be watched alone. And never lonely.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Between A Rock And A Hard Place

The distant sounds of seagulls chirping and waves breaking on the shore over the Universal logo may seem an odd way to begin a screwball comedy about divorce which never goes anywhere near the beach but as I was watching the beginning of this particular film from the Coen Brothers once again I flashed on the legendary final scene of their own BARTON FINK and where that film’s title character ends up, then suddenly it all made sense. Maybe the best way to deal with INTOLERABLE CRUELTY is to look at it as the Coens finally figuring out a way to make a movie (maybe even a wrestling movie, so to speak) for the Jack Lipnicks of the movie world who even they sometimes have to deal with, to finally at least try to make something that will please everyone. The very first onscreen credits don’t even mention them but rather producer Brian Grazer (or the way he always had to be referred as on the entertainment news show where I once worked, “Academy Award Winning Producer Brian Grazer”) and it also occurs to me that the film they made right before this was THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, probably the least commercial project they’ve ever made, so maybe they simply decided to go the complete opposite route with this one and see if making such a movie could work for them. Presuming they got over the writer’s block and figuring out what was in that box Barton was carrying around, of course. That part of it was important.

The thing is, though, it’s the ones that don’t quite make it that sometimes hurt the most. The films that are bad, where you can tell they’re bad from the very first moment, can be easier to shake off. But it hurts when so much about a particular film works and maybe it hurts even more than that when it’s the Coen Brothers. I always want to love their films. I desperately want to get even a sliver of the rush that their best work can give me, like when eons ago I emerged from the Coronet Theater on the Upper East Side after seeing BARTON FINK on opening night shattered to my very core or when gladly returning to BURN AFTER READING multiple times on opening weekend just for the sheer pleasure of the experience or when I saw TRUE GRIT on opening day knowing full well that I would return several days later on Christmas. And I did. Loved it even more the second time. But things don’t always work out the way I’d want it to. Released in October 2003, INTOLERABLE CRUELTY already seems to be kind of forgotten, pushed to the side for other more acclaimed films they’ve made since as well as a few George Clooney vehicles that have also gotten better reception from the world. It’s probably thought of as one of their weaker efforts by now—one hell of a curve to be grading on, that’s for sure—and I wish I could feel differently. It’s almost baffling for me to have this response considering that on the surface it seems like a movie that was made specifically for my own tastes and how some of it works extremely well, with more laughs packed into just the first third than some alleged comedies can manage in ninety minutes. But maybe thinking it was made for me is part of the problem—I still want it to be the sophisticated satire that I wish it was. Of course, if anyone is ever unsure just what the tone is supposed to be the preponderance of cartoony alliterate and rhyming names (“Ramona Barcelona” and “Bonnie Donaly” among others) alone should make it clear—the film clearly wants to be an update of the sort of manic flavor Preston Sturges specialized in and every beat of the plot feels mapped out with clockwork precision in a way that I can’t help but admire. But, and as I write this I’m still figuring out how to put it into words, something about the result just feels off as if a few key scenes were lost along the way or something in the stylization just didn’t translate correctly. Even down to the feel and look of the film it’s as if there was some kind of overall miscalculation of what the approach needed to be. Or maybe the ruthlessly dark comic method of the Coens which was later expertly placed into something like BURN AFTER READING was an imperfect fit for this rewrite job, their comedic approach not fully gelling with what was clearly meant to be a big-budget commercial comedy. Still, it’s not often these days that a film contains what is essentially a full-fledged Abbott & Costello routine which takes place as the trial sequence begins (“Have you sat before her before?” “No, the judge sits first, then we sit.”), so at least the film provides that much to the world. Smiles happen for me and more than a few times some sizable laughs as well but I still find myself sitting through a good amount of the running time wondering just what seems to have gone amiss.

When Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) learns from the private detective she has hired that husband Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann) is in fact cheating on her she immediately initiates divorce proceedings but little does she know that Rex has retained that great Miles Massey (George Clooney), famed for the legendary Massey pre-nup, for his side of the case. Once the two meet during preliminary arguments Miles becomes instantly fascinated by her while at the same time being fully aware of her game plan to marry rich men followed by a speedy divorce. During the trial Miles does indeed prove his brilliance by proving without a doubt that was Marylin’s plan all along when marrying Rex, leaving her with nothing, but she soon reappears at Miles door with a new fiancĂ©e in the person of oil magnate Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton) and it soon becomes clear that she’s not going to be out of Miles’ life for long as his fascination with her only increases.

No movie that opens with a pony-tailed Geoffrey Rush in a convertible speeding through Beverly Hills as he sings along with “The Boxer” a beat ahead of the lyrics can be a total loss but in the case of INTOLERABLE CRUELTY the blitheness of this moment actually feels like an unfortunate Trojan horse, a bit of business that makes me feel like I’m in good hands but soon turns out to be almost a high point. For much of the first 40 minutes of the film things feel like aces, the plot clicking along as it builds to the hysterically funny boiling point of the divorce trial between the Rexroths leading to the appearance of Heinz, The Baron Krauss von Espy to blow the lid off her plan. But once that section ends something just seems to go wrong, almost as if there’s a reel missing at this point or something in the way the plot got mapped out was shuffled wrong somehow (Official screen credits: Story by Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone and John Romano, Screenplay by Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen. For the record, this appears to be the last time where Joel is the only director credited, with Ethan still among the producers). The way things move feel a little like the story is leaping forward to the next step in the plot too quickly and maybe doesn’t allow for enough variation in how the characters interact with each other. One problem may be that there’s no grounding to things, no emotional center to bring any of this down to earth—I’m trying to come up with a better way to put it than saying that there’s no one to care about or ‘like’, but it feels true and winds up making the entire film feel kind of hollow. Miles Massey is presented as a snazzy, confident Master of the Universe type willing to do anything to win but at the same time he’s totally at sea in life, fearful of his own mortality and his comical ennui never feels all that genuine. Marylin Rexroth is a dragon lady without any qualms of what she’s doing, barely a single sign of a momentary hesitation that would justify any interest in her.

As for the supporting characters up against the leads, it’s not at all a stretch to imagine a swath of actors from the Sturges stock company taking on roles here if that director had made this film back in the 40s (I can actually remember somebody somewhere on the internet doing exactly this at the time the film came out and I wish it had been me) but the formula gets screwy in the case of Clooney and Zeta-Jones who are both directed to behave as larger than life as anybody else so any of the momentary hesitation that the likes of Henry Fonda or Barbara Stanwyck would display in the middle of all the screwball madness in the likes of THE LADY EVE never gets a chance to ring true here—their behavior is entirely made up of madcap behavior like the rest of what goes on around them. Some of it is genuinely funny madcap behavior, yes, with plenty of dialogue that deserves to be bottled but too much of it stays at one level, no variation of tone. Those first 40 minutes feel like they need to build to something between the two leads but the script instead plays games with them leading to a surprising twist as well as actions begun by both that make the fade out unsatisfying while also feeling like it’s attached to the wrong movie. And there’s never a genuine moment between the two of them where they drop all pretenses and become actual people. Yes, the film is doing a riff on Sturges but there’s no attempt to emulate the undeniable elegance of those films, Barbara Stanwyck trying to seduce Henry Fonda in his stateroom with him barely knowing what to do about it. I believe the Coens know how to pull off that sort of thing. They have at other times. Here it doesn’t seem to be part of their M.O. and it feels like there’s a hole at the center of the film as a result. Maybe there’s a certain structural oddity as well—the first act feels impeccable in how things are laid out, the second act feels slightly choppier building up to the revelation of the and then the rushed third feels crammed into about fifteen minutes so even though none of what happens is meant to be serious in the slightest it still feels malnourished. It connects together plotwise and the pacing is there—there really isn’t a scene which could be called superfluous and in some ways this tightness feels like it goes past the bone which is maybe why it seems like something is missing. Plus I wish that it were funnier. Or at least I wish it had a different tone that made it feel like the jokes, which I’ve hopefully indicated sometimes work very well, weren’t being pushed quite so hard. It all makes me feel like I’m being a grouch. Am I being a grouch? I can’t tell.

It’s a strange case, this film I find myself fighting with, because I could easily make a list of the things about it that I like or maybe even love—the Geoffrey Rush bit I already mentioned. Stacey Travis’ obviously unkempt hair that isn’t noticeable at first. The detailed speech as George Clooney’s Miles Massey comes up with a brilliant game plan for a client off the top of his head. The almost silent performance by the unbilled Royce D. Applegate as a client. Cedric the Entertainer slyly suggesting, “You want tact, call a tactician.” Clooney’s spit-take upon hearing Richard Jenkins’ first offer. The legendary line, “Fine! We’ll eat the pastry!” as the perfect button to that scene which gets a laugh out of me every single time. A sort of gulp/spit take made by Kiersten Warren as a friend of Marylin’s (maybe I just like spit takes). Edward Herrmann’s look of total bafflement at the end of the Abbott & Costello routine. Paul Adelstein’s hysterical “Why are we eating here?” during a stop at a crummy diner. Richard Jenkins coming back with, “Is this a legal argument, what’s good for the gander?” The judge in the Rexroth trial played by Isabel Monk O’Connor repeating, “I’m going to allow it” over and over until its payoff. The ultimate fate of Wheezy Joe. Come to think of it, all of those things I mentioned take place in the first forty minutes except for the final one (which is actually kind of similar to something Clooney also witnesses in OUT OF SIGHT, so maybe it’s a running theme for him) and maybe a few things like Cedric’s “Nail your ass!” catchphrase just aren’t as wildly funny as the movie seems to think they are. Visits to the inner chamber of the old man who runs the law firm, designed to provide all the terrors of mortality for Miles fall right in with the Coen Brothers approach but here it just feels out of place--even Rex Rexroth’s obsession with trains, which plays like something out of a thirties comedy just feels a little too silly. I don’t dislike INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, not at all. I’m really trying to find the good in it like few other films but maybe in some ways I wish the Coens had tossed everything in the script after page 40 and started over.

That one-two punch in ’03 & ’04 of the Coens making this and THE LADYKILLERS with Tom Hanks back to back always felt like an odd aberration as if they were testing things to see what it would really be like to attempt making no-holds-barred commercial comedies in the studio trenches—I suspect the odd credit in this film’s end crawl reading, “Adios SENOR GRAZER. Hello MISTER HAND.” refers to this. Neither film is among their best, let alone their most popular (how THE LADYKILLERS holds up, I have no idea since I haven’t seen it since opening day) and whether by coincidence or inspiration due to how they turned out when the duo reappeared in ’07 with NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN it began what is inarguably one of their strongest periods. For that matter, it’s as if with BURN AFTER READING, another darkly comic look at divorce and disillusionment which also tosses a few dead bodies into the mix as well as George Clooney, they figured out how all of the farcical developments and tonal variations here were meant to go together. And with certain characters like the lovelorn gym manager in that film, played once again by Richard Jenkins, that film did manage to ground things amid the insanity. But here the result just plays as clinical, an experiment to make an old-fashioned screwball comedy with a modern day twist but even the aesthetics seem off—I keep thinking this should all look ultra-glossy with a very direct hard-light appearance when instead it’s shot in what look like burnt ember earth tones (Great, I think I just said something to criticize the great cinematographer Roger Deakins. Please forgive me).

And there’s just not much of a reason to care what happens—the movie starts and ends with a certain character who except for one brief moment is not seen at all for the rest of the running time and while there is a symmetry to how it all works out it also gives a feeling of a film where nothing that happened mattered, no change took place beyond a few good-looking people sparring with each other over things that never really matter. It’s a movie about a cynical person (or cynical people, or cynical world for that matter) trying to find something genuine in his life only to find out that the cynicism is really the only thing that makes sense and only when he’s honest about that cynicism can he find something genuine. That’s my guess, anyway. The existentialism of all this is a concept which feels ideal for the Coen Brothers but maybe this was the wrong movie to do that with so the end result just winds up being one of those films stranded in the middle somewhere, neither one thing or the other. I’m not sure they believe their particular brand of cynicism this time around and maybe they’re more comfortable when they don’t have to wrap things up in the expected way with a happy ending, like how they dispatch their characters at the end of something like BURN AFTER READING into a void, forced to finally deal with what they’ve done offscreen.

The performances feel like what they’re being directed to do as opposed to what the actors are probably capable of. George Clooney of course knows how to sell the confidence so he works much better during the first third just like the film as a man who pays so much attention to his teeth, appropriate for his profession. Points to him for also never being afraid to look like an idiot but I wonder if maybe one really great cartoonishly hysterical look by him would work better than twenty. Catherine Zeta-Jones, looking great, never seems human and she’s perfect casting for that, making just saying “Hello dahlings,” come off as genuine but she also doesn’t get much in the way of variation and the few looks of guilt or hesitation she gives late in the game just aren’t enough. Since it makes sense for the supporting characters to be broader, some of them work better although I wish there was maybe half as much of Paul Adelstein’s squirming Wrigley who loudly shrieks a few times too many. But Edward Herrmann, Geoffrey Rush, Richard Jenkins, Julia Duffy and Cedric the Entertainer all have their moments, plus Stacey Travis has a particularly good confused eyeball roll during one scene. Even a few of the bit players get to add small touches that add to the momentum like Wendle Josepher as Miles’ secretary and the memorable Irwin Keyes is Wheezy Joe. Playing her next husband Howard D. Doyle, Billy Bob Thornton doesn’t make as much of an impression, almost as if he was just showing up for a few days to do the Coens a favor but he does appear briefly alongside an unbilled Bruce Campbell, one of several cameos he’s made for the Coens.

It was a few years after THE LADYKILLERS until the Coens returned with the triumph of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and the start of one of the best streaks of their career. It’s a shame that 2011 is going to be Coen-less but if they need to hunker down in their office back in New York to produce more great material then they can take their time. Plus considering the box office heights of something like TRUE GRIT they’ve proven they can achieve they might not need to undertake this sort of experiment again. But even if I find some of INTOLERABLE CRUELTY lacking I can’t help but think that there are few out there who can twist the fabric of structure the way they do here, with a pre-credit sequence seemingly detached from the main plot which winds up tying right into everything at the very end (fun discovery for hardcore Coenphiles—the name ‘Gopnik’ turns up six years before A SERIOUS MAN). Everybody has off-days, maybe this was just one of theirs, or maybe it was just an attempt at something which didn’t quite pan out. There are worse things to say about a film. In the end, I guess we’re still not sure if it was beneath Barton or not to even try writing that wrestling movie but maybe they didn’t need to find out for themselves. Barton, as we all know, never quite knew if that box was even his. I’m still not sure if the Coen Brothers ever decided if INTOLERABLE CRUELTY was theirs either. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I will eat some of the pastry. They’ve been going begging.