Thursday, May 15, 2014

Presentation Is Everything

Maybe there are films that somehow aren’t meant to work no matter what. There can be good intentions, the script might actually read ok, good and talented people are involved but whatever house they try to erect in the form of this two hour narrative simply cannot stand. And that’s just what happens. For the first time in more than a few years I decided to check out MULHOLLAND FALLS and to be honest I didn’t entirely mind sitting through it much at all but that’s almost more because of the film I want it to be instead of the film it really is. I guess I’m just easy in my quest for enjoyment but ultimately even I have to admit that the film never really clicks together and almost seems based on a faulty concept as if the pitch came from a mix and match game of pieces from post-war history. Sure, you can say “The Black Dahlia killing investigated by the legendary Hat Squad crossed with an atomic age conspiracy!” but does that inherently make it a good idea? All right, anything can maybe be turned into a good movie but in this particular case I wonder if something was off in the inception. The film has a variety of interesting names involved both in front of and behind the camera but it all seems sort of for naught considering the effect, or lack of effect, any of it ultimately has. I admit to an odd sort of fondness for the film partly due to the presence of 90s Jennifer Connelly and also partly because a few scenes were filmed in my neighborhood but…actually, I can’t really come up with an end to the sentence to finish that thought. That’s the kind of movie it is.
Los Angeles, the early 50s: Detective Maxwell Hoover (Nick Nolte) runs the four-man Hat Squad an elite LAPD unit that includes Ellery Coolidge (Chazz Palminteri), Eddie Hall (Michael Madsen) and Arthur Releya (Chris Penn) that answers to no one, using their own vicious means such as tossing suspects off what they refer to as “Mulholland Falls” from way up in the Hollywood Hills to make sure that any and all organized crime figures stay out of Los Angeles. Their detail is going along normal as always when they investigate the mysterious death of Allison Pond (Jennifer Connelly), a young woman Hoover has a past with, one that his loving wife Kate (Melanie Griffith) knows nothing about it. Investigating Alison Pond’s life leads to discovery of certain films secretly taken at her apartment and the trail leads them out to the desert and the top secret testing site of the Atomic Energy Commission led by General Thomas Timms (John Malkovich) resulting in the discovery of a much bigger conspiracy altogether.
MULHOLLAND FALLS was released by MGM at the end of April 1996 when I imagine production of the following year’s L.A. CONFIDENTIAL was ramping up and I guess we should be grateful some producer on that film didn’t look at the results of what had just come out and decide to quash the whole thing. A production that seems all the more promising due to the names involved (in addition to the cast there’s production designer Richard Sylbert, cinematographer Haskell Wexler and Floyd Mutrux who is listed for co-story in what appears to be his last screen credit to date) there also are a surprising amount of unbilled bits by recognizable faces giving the impression that this was a project that just exuded a certain coolness at the time, a chance to play in the world of noir for a little while. This kind of period piece seems to have a great deal of potential but these cool characters wind up feeling like they’ve gotten the wrong movie to star in and MULLHOLLAND FALLS doesn’t leave much of any kind of impression, making it ultimately little more than a chance to see some decent actors wear hats and drive around L.A. And then they drive around some more.
Director Lee Tamohori (ONCE WERE WARRIORS, THE EDGE, DIE ANOTHER DAY) seems to have a knack for working with actors but doesn’t display any particular affinity for the material while the screenplay (story by Pete Dexter and Floyd Mutrux, screenplay by Pete Dexter) has potential with the occasional speech that offers genuine bite but it feels like too much may have been bled out via rewrites and studio notes. It was also edited by the late, great Sally Menke and individual sections often play fine with certain edits within scenes in particular showing off how good she was but the entire picture doesn’t coalesce, as if a reel or two was accidentally left out of the release version (Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant seems to have been in the know on the production and confirms that cuts were made). Nothing really connects very much—the central mystery involving Connelly is never as enigmatic as it seems it might be at first and any metaphor, whether connected to the nature of the film’s title or the atomic age imagery, just comes off as a void like that huge pit in the middle of the desert courtesy of a test blast that the squad stops to gape at.
CHINATOWN explored the rape of Los Angeles via the use of water and what that meant for the growing city. L.A. CONFIDENTIAL contained all the passions that emerged from its collision of law and vice. MULHOLLAND FALLS looks nice, I’ll give it that much, but that’s just about all it has so any of the specific points meant to dig into what it’s ‘about’ never really come together. As directed the film doesn’t seem to pay much attention to how much of a brute the lead character is, a thug who falls for this woman who could be a part of his world in a way that his wife couldn’t, that he didn’t want her to be. The sight of her falling for him instantly as he injects something unknown but presumably deadly into a thug has an undeniable charge but it never seems to know a way to probe into these feelings. The movie doesn’t seem to notice much about the characters at all, so elements like Palminteri’s Coolidge being obsessed with psychology as part of his anger management is just left to dangle there, an attempt at letting a particular actor steal the film when maybe it should be paying attention to making the plot more compelling. There’s no heat, no passion so it all stays as tight as the brim on Nick Nolte’s hat. It’s easy to believe that he’s haunted by his affair with Jennifer Connelly because, well, who wouldn’t be but there’s no particular heat from any of it, no believable element of passion. Quick flashes we get of the affair isn’t enough and instead we continually go back to those home movies taken of Allison, looking for clues in them just like searching for meaning in this film. Some spare moments are intriguing like Nolte discussing with Griffith how Hemingway wrote women or Palminteri musing about going to westerns as a child (I’m wondering if he’s too old to have seen Gene Autry in the movies when he was a kid, but never mind) but these moments are too isolated, feeling like refugees from a more intriguing, more resonant storyline.
The period feel is pulled off pretty well just as the L.A. location work is always interesting to look at but it also comes off as phony at times, like the early shot of the Squad driving down Wilshire Blvd. on the wrong side of the street. Still, some of what we do get to see is just another reason that I wish that the story was something that didn’t involve going out to the desert for all that atomic stuff. In particular, Hoover’s house is tucked away near where I live in Los Feliz on a residential street that I’ve always admired because of the vintage nature of the homes—since the film was made the house next door has been torn down and a new one built (the replacement is pretty ugly and would never be considered period appropriate if another production came around). Allison Pond’s apartment complex is actually just a few blocks away from Hoover’s, close enough that he could have easily snuck over to his mistresses’ place on foot in the middle of the night if he’d wanted to. I want to give MULHOLLAND FALLS some credit for at least being a period drama aimed at adults set in the always fascinating world of L.A. noir, unlike the awful GANGSTER SQUAD which went over some of the same historical detail in the most moronic way possible and even featured Nick Nolte playing the police chief role Bruce Dern appears in here. But just because you have serious goals it doesn’t automatically make the result any better and just because symbolism is aimed for it doesn’t mean the result will be any deeper. I don’t have any particular animosity towards the film and I honestly did enjoy some of this revisit because of the sort of film it is while acknowledging how little of it came close to being a satisfying watch, just like how I’ve always secretly liked the catchy Dave Grusin score even though what feels like the composer reaching for Goldsmith doing CHINATOWN winds up sounding a little too much like 70s TV. The metaphor of the title seems to connect somehow with the way certain people are thrown to their death more than once from an airplane and…yeah? You got anything here? The point of the movie feels missing like a phantom limb—the metaphor of the atomic age in KISS ME DEADLY was potent and still is now. In spite of the portents within the speechifying by John Malkovich’s General Tims talking about how atoms are made up of empty space (well, there’s inadvertently stating a theme if I ever heard it) not much of it seems to mean anything so when the credits roll it’s hard not to think, ‘that’s it?’ Something’s missing. Maybe it’s a scene that reveals why this movie exists, why this story needed to be told. What is this movie really about in the end? It feels like the answer was lost somewhere along the way so all that’s left is the sight of good actors getting to dress up like they’re in a 50s noir. Which is nice and all but it’s not enough. It’s a mysterious briefcase that looks expensive and inside is, well, nothing.
MULHOLLAND FALLS is also a reminder that a great cast doing very solid work does not automatically mean that the film itself is going to work. The four leads all look like they’d be right at home in a movie about the Hat Squad actually made in the 50s which makes it more of a shame. Nick Nolte does excellent work that lets us see the cracks beneath his hard exterior every now and then as if that damn hat he’s always wearing is some sort of shield to keep people seeing what he’s really obsessing over. Chazz Palminteri (during that ’95-’96 period when he was in seemingly half the films released) is an enjoyable chatterbox going on long after his partners have lost interest in whatever he’s saying but it feels unfortunate how it throws off the balance—as a result Michael Madsen and Chris Penn look continually ready to go into action but don’t get to do very much, more or less disappearing during the second hour. Jennifer Connelly looks about as jaw-droppingly stunning as she ever did (hard not to think of this as her character from THE ROCKETEER meeting an unfortunate end) but with just a few actual scenes is more of an image than anything. Melanie Griffith doesn’t get to do much either but it’s a dud role, really—she’s playing the second choice to Jennifer Connelly and that’s what she is too but the movie doesn’t do anything to transcend this feeling. Andrew McCarthy offers the scraps of what looks like a strong performance but he’s discarded with pretty quickly. Treat Williams as a colonel at the military base seems like he’s going to be an interesting character at first but is really just a cardboard bad guy. Kyle Chandler, now a familiar face, appears as William’s aide but he doesn’t make much of an impression either. John Malkovich is as enigmatic as you’d expect John Malkovich to be but it somehow seems like it’s in the wrong movie—still, it does make me imagine him playing the Albert Dekker role in KISS ME DEADLY so maybe that’s where he should be giving this performance. Daniel Baldwin offers appropriate arrogant slime as a federal agent. Production designer Richard Sylbert appears onscreen as the coroner and has a few nice bits. Familiar face Ed Lauter turns up long enough to get immediately shot and killed, another indication of what might have been cut. Maybe he’s playing his ROCKETEER character too. Along with Bruce Dern as the police chief William Petersen, Rob Lowe and Louise Fletcher also turn up for unbilled bits. In his autobiography Bruce Dern (quite good here, just to say) briefly mentions the title then says he doesn’t want to talk about the film. Maybe that sums it up best.
Not yet twenty years on since its release MULHOLLAND FALLS hasn’t aged badly so much as unfortunately playing about as ineffectual as it did on opening weekend. What do you say to sum up a film where you can’t think of much to say about it in the first place? Maybe the end credits should include a recommendation of non-fiction books that cover the historical period depicted here. “This isn’t America. This is L.A.” growls Nick Nolte near the very beginning. That line has resonance in the end as Nolte realizes how there really are powers greater than him, even in the City of Angels. But it still deserved a better movie. In the meantime I’ll just have to live with dreams of Jennifer Connelly. Dreams of cinematic images depicting the neighborhood I live in. Dreams of the better movie I wish this was as I sit up late at night, wondering what this town used to be like seen through the prism of Hollywood, faced with the reality of what it is now.

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