Monday, May 20, 2013
Time Catches Up With Everyone
My admiration for Sam Raimi will always remain, which of course is how it should be. Not only did he direct the all-holy EVIL DEAD II he’s a filmmaker who has tried to grow in his craft, attempting to combine the insane brilliance of his early work with material where the story and characters mattered just as much. A few encounters with the man have certainly added to the fondness, like getting to speak to him at a New York Fangoria convention way back when—I wore that DARKMAN t-shirt he gave me for years—and a few decades later when I spotted him sitting in the middle of a crowded theater talking to fans at a test screening of his DRAG ME TO HELL in Burbank. There was at least one other time too. Looking back at it now Raimi’s western THE QUICK AND THE DEAD seems to fall into a middle ground between the first and second stages of his career, almost as if it was some sort of aberration where he needed to learn a few things in terms of what he should and shouldn’t do before moving on to the next step. Coming between the EVIL DEAD series and the acclaim he received later for other projects culminating in 2002’s SPIDER-MAN, the film also spotlights Sharon Stone right in the middle of her mid-90s hot streak along with still-emerging future stars Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio along with an odd genre slant making it plain that this wasn’t just an ordinary western. Released during the post-UNFORGIVEN wave of such films in February 1995, THE QUICK AND THE DEAD was a disappointment at the box office and it might say something that Raimi didn’t direct anything at all for the next several years, instead focusing on producing TV along the lines of the lucrative HERCULES and XENA shows. I always wondered if he felt dissatisfied with the end result as if he was hired specifically to plug his EVIL DEAD visual style into a big-budget project where that may not have been part of the initial design and maybe to him it made the entire exercise creatively empty as a result. That’s all just speculation but in a recent interview with Vulture he simply stated, “Ultimately, the movie didn’t quite work” without elaborating. Still, the direction his career took in the coming years makes me guess a few things. Regardless of how well it did at the time, the film did go through a period later on when it seemed to turn up on TBS just about every weekend, I imagine at least partly having to do with the cast members who went on to be huge stars and while THE QUICK AND THE DEAD doesn’t feel like it quite hits the target (to use the theme of the film itself) I’ve always liked it ever since opening night at the Cinerama Dome. The heightened quality combined with a female lead in a strong role up against a wide variety of eccentric characters in such a setting makes the impeccable stylization a genuine pleasure to watch. Raimi’s recent massive-budget OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL plays as more uninteresting than outright bad and is surprisingly light on any sort of visual ingenuity outside of the incessant CGI so in comparison THE QUICK AND THE DEAD at least feels like him trying to find his way through this setting with all the bravado imaginable. The result is that the film plays as genuinely alive, even if it doesn’t necessarily cohere entirely so whatever he might say these days it finds him a little further along creatively than 1990’s DARKMAN, a little more confident both in implementing his visual style and combining it with strong characterizations. A mysterious woman known only as The Lady (Sharon Stone) arrives in the old west town of Redemption, a lawless place run by the wealthy and powerful John Herod (Gene Hackman). Her arrival there coincides with the beginning of the annual Quick Draw competition, a gun fight competition where marksmen fire on each other with the final winner receiving a large cash reward. The Lady enters along with contestants that include the brash young Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is apparently Herod’s son, the reluctant former gunfighter Cort (Russell Crowe), a motley assemblage of other gunplay experts and Herod himself. It’s very clear that The Lady has a strong interest in fighting Herod which even he can tell but before she can get to him revealing her darkest secret and his connection to that past she still has a few gunfights to win first. Every frame feels sumptuous in THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, a big-budget combination of Raimi’s ferocious visual style aided by cinematographer Dante Spinotti mixed with the extravagance of the western town created by production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein and costumes by Judianna Makovsky which helps make every single character instantly iconic right down to the hats they wear. Partly spoof, partly tribute, partly its own thing thanks to Raimi, the arch magnificence makes each moment feel genuinely off-kilter as if it was trying to revel in the fact that it’s a western as much as possible, even down to providing roles for actors who had been in a few before—Woody Strode of John Ford films as well as ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST appears briefly as a coffin maker in his final screen appearance—while achieving something much more theatrical. The spin of a female lead adds to the potency and the director continually places his star in the frame as if trying to make her presence as iconic as Barbara Stanwyck in FORTY GUNS while avoiding the trap of making it a gimmicky ‘female western’ (like the previous year’s BAD GIRLS which doesn’t have much to recommend outside of a terrific Jerry Goldsmith score—I saw that one opening night at the Dome too). Discussion that women aren’t allowed in the Quick Draw competition is discarded pretty quickly and Stone’s Lady has no desire to be any sort of hero to the admiring young girl played by Olivia Burnette. She’s clearly more interested in downing those tall glasses of whiskey and keeping to herself, only doing something about what’s happening to the girl when it’s clear no one else will and the memories bubbling up inside her can’t keep from exploding. Written by Simon Moore, it maybe is a little all over the place--the absurdity of the basic plotline means that it could be played for camp or even as a starkly existential conflict but instead Raimi decides to dive in and make every single frame of a piece with his unique visual style as every note of the Alan Silvestri score pounds away in this setting that is strangely stylized and fully lived-in all at once. There are genuine pleasures all the way through such as that expressionistic montage of the first day’s matches which I sometimes feel like I could watch over and over for hours and even the way certain actors move within the frame as the camera rapidly dutches its angle can be exciting in itself. Every gunfight is filmed in a slightly different way each time which definitely helps avoid repetition but it also means that some are going to be less effective than others, some will have just a few too many zoom shots for their own good even in the context of a neo-spaghetti western. The transitions from day to night and harsh sunlight to pouring rain allows for a surprising amount of attention paid to the simple passage of time even if it does result in some structural oddities such as how the delay of Stone’s first fight means that act one is stretched out to a surprising degree and since we’ve already seen her shoot it’s not a point of suspense to delay showing how good she is. There’s some cool laconic dialogue sprinkled in there (“How do you spell that?” “Correctly.”) and all the actors, both leads and supporting, seem to dig into their roles as if biting into juicy steaks—they’re not playing the parts for kicks or camp, they’re fully inhabiting these roles and the characters within them, as if Raimi allowed them to actually live in this town in character for a week before shooting began. The filmmaking never feels at all uncertain but the tone does as if unsure how to reconcile the drama with the craziness Raimi brings to it. For all I know it’s the craziness he thought he was supposed to bring to it, along with the intensity brought to each moment by the best actors in the cast which continually amps up the tension. At the same time there’s the occasional scene, which turns up every now and then in his films, where he doesn’t seem to have any idea how to stage normal dialogue interactions and actors just wind up standing there awkwardly before the blocking moves them better into position (one conversation between Gene Hackman and Keith David plays like the film just wants to get the scene over with quickly). There’s also a few indications of possible gaps in the story occurring in the editing room—a love scene between Lady and Cort is missing from the U.S. version (apparently it’s there in the international cut) which presumably explains why Crowe calls her “Ellen” late in the film without it being stated otherwise. Though she’s known as “Lady” all through the film she’s listed as “Ellen” in the end credits anyway. But for all that was reported at the time of Sam Raimi’s conflicts with Gene Hackman who apparently didn’t take kindly to the director’s heavily storyboarded approach there is a power to how each of the faces are framed in such iconic ways, how much the sumptuousness allows the film to be continually thrilling as illogical as it all might be (I wonder how Herod is able to acquire all those fresh apples he keeps in his home). Part of the subtext seems to be about how the various gunmen who have entered this contest have each crafted their larger-than-life personas over who they actually are for all the west around them to automatically be impressed by and what lies beneath the bravado when the bullets actually, unexpectedly, hit. Combined with the extreme fetishization of all these guns and how sick it all is this at times makes the film even more of a satire in 2013 than it probably ever was before. It’s always struck me that Jerry Swindall’s shoe-shining “Blind Boy” who is always near the action and providing crucial help when needed has an unmistakable resemblance to Raimi himself, as if representing the filmmaker quietly standing by as a sort of seer while all this carnage occurs, wanting to turn his movie into an extended Three Stooges short—touched on in small bits, like the cutaway to a panicky resident closing a window behind him right before a match—but knowing it can’t be, that there has to be more power to it than that for anything to matter. Aside from the Woman With No Name (well, almost) and a story point near the end trying to be its own version of the revelation in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST the film isn’t trying to directly ape specific spaghetti westerns except in the most obvious ways, instead feeling like a mash up of various periods of the western as made in Hollywood and beyond. I won’t go as far as Raimi’s own criticisms but I do wish it didn’t have such a 90s climax with massive explosions and maybe because of the satirical slant the emotion never quite holds or even matters all that much so something like the rousing TOMBSTONE from ’93 is probably more endearing in the end. But Raimi’s visual power helps the film to feel true to its own purposes, like how even the fade out feels somewhat tentative as if no one knows what to possibly do next…a piece of quiet that acknowledges the price paid in leading to all this. It doesn’t provide THE QUICK AND THE DEAD with a huge payoff but it does acknowledge that this wasn’t all fun and games, something that may have occurred to Raimi as he was putting this together and wondering where things were going to go next. Giving a performance that goes beyond just amused stoicism Sharon Stone does a terrific movie star job, making clear how much is going on underneath the steely isolation she projects. No surprise, much of the genuine dramatic impact of the entire film comes from Gene Hackman and his very presence, fully embracing how much of a bastard Herod really is but even without a script that makes him as three-dimensional as UNFORGIVEN was still keeps him somewhat human. I just love the inflections in the way he states, “If you live to see the dawn it’s because I allow it” as he barks at the town’s frightened citizens. Watching Stone and Hackman play off each other throughout the film has numerous pleasures--she doesn’t have the power of Hackman but that makes sense anyway considering how intimidated she’s supposed to be and when he casually asks her, “Do you have some particular problem with me?” he makes the moment genuinely disarming. Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio are still a little raw here but the screen presence of both of them can’t be denied. Crowe comes off as so damn earnest which plays as an unexpected counterpoint to all the post-modern irony in the air and DiCaprio’s bravado plays as endearing instead of arrogant which feels crucial to making things work in the end. Along with enjoyable work by the various character actor gunfighters like Keith David, Lance Henriksen, Mark Boone Junior and Tobin Bell, Roberts Blossom is the town doctor, Gary Sinise plays Ellen’s father in flashback, Kevin Conway is particularly good as the scummy Dred and Pat Hingle brings quiet humanity to his role as the saloon proprietor and tournament manager, presiding over every single moment and powerless to do anything about it. Bruce Campbell is credited as “Wedding Shemp” in the end crawl but apparently is never actually seen in the film. For whatever reason one piece near the end sticks out to me—the triumphant return of a major character for the big final showdown is scored not by a bombastic fanfare but by the appearance of a gentle guitar version of the main theme representing the lost innocence that’s being avenged, going for the emotion over the spectacle even as it builds to a payoff where someone only learns they’ve been shot when they look down and see a hole in their own shadow. It’s an indication of what the film is trying to do and how it’s trying to modify certain expectations throughout whether those modifications are expected or even necessary. It makes me think Sam Raimi was trying for the unexpected, even if the end result didn’t always work, and maybe that’s what we need from a director like him more than a big, slick studio tentpole. Whatever his feelings about the film now ultimately are, I suspect he knew that needed to try something different at the time when all was said and done. At some point way back in ’94 I was working at a bookstore in Brentwood when one day a couple with a baby came into the store looking for a particular paperback which they had called ahead for. I recognized the man as Sam Raimi immediately although I kept quiet--as much as I was hardly ever shy when it came to talking to people it felt like since there was a baby around best to let them be. As things turned out, his next film released at the end of 1998 was based on the book he purchased that day, “A Simple Plan” by Scott Smith, one where in making it he essentially plunked his camera down on the ground and just shot the thing, the exact opposite of the films he had made up to that point. This brought him acclaim but also seemed to open up his directing style beyond the heavily-storyboarded approach of the past, providing it with more possibilities when he eventually returned to films that once again let him make use of such visual insanity. It doesn’t seem right to casually dismiss THE QUICK AND THE DEAD but I can understand why a filmmaker might want to grow creatively and explore what else they might have to offer when they don’t resort to their usual bag of tricks. The films which get them to that point may be flawed, they may be messy, but they’re films I sometimes love anyway as I watch them and obsess over what they are.