Friday, January 31, 2014
HOPSCOTCH directed by Ronald Neame and starring Walter Matthau & Glenda Jackson which begat FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER directed by Ronald Neame and starring Walter Matthau & Jill Clayburgh. Well, I guess Glenda Jackson wouldn’t have been ideal casting to play a Supreme Court justice. Released in August 1981 (same day as AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, speaking of films you’d think I would have written about by now), FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER had its release apparently pushed up several months when the selection of Sandra Day O’Connor as the first ever female Supreme Court justice rendered its storyline somewhat out of date or at the very least fortuitously timely. Based on a stage play which was first produced at the Cleveland Play House in 1975 starring Melvyn Douglas and Jean Arthur (“Within the province of dramatic jurisprudence it is a draggy, flaccid unconvincing brief” so said the Time Magazine review) the film followed a mere six years later yet it feels like a case of an adaptation that was already a little behind the times. The result is 98 minutes that feel sporadically engaging yet I wish it were sharper, I wish that its characters had more interesting and clever things to say during their bickering when the points being made should have all the fire imaginable. When the play premiered on Broadway in 1978 it starred Henry Fonda and Jane Alexander but didn’t run more than a couple of months and hasn’t been revived very much since. It’s not exactly a dinner theater-ready evergreen like a few of the Neil Simon adaptations Matthau starred in during this period and it’s also very much a product of its era, just barely anyway—this film could be the answer to a trivia question, ‘Name another Paramount release that opened the summer of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK’ and that right there is maybe an indication of how this sort of thing was quickly going out of style as the 80s progressed. Like HOPSCOTCH, which came out less than a year earlier, it manages to be pleasant but is also somewhat strained, never as much of a smoothly enjoyable easy listening piece of music the way that earlier Matthau-Neame collaboration is. GAMBIT) is polite and workmanlike but aside from knowing how to frame all this for 2.35 in a way that makes what comes from the stage as visually active as possible (points to veteran cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp as well) there’s really not much to be done to make it a movie since it really is ultimately a play. It’s the sort of film where with little else to think about I find myself paying attention to what a bad job Clayburgh does parking a car in one scene, shades of Janet Maslin’s negative review in The New York Times in which for some reason she complains about a film that opens in August being set in the winter. It’s like the film rubbed her the wrong way but since it’s not quite a ‘bad’ movie per se she couldn’t quite pinpoint exactly why (going along with their review of the original stage production, Time Magazine didn’t like the movie much either). Featuring a moment where Matthau high-fives the sole African-American judge on the court, the film doesn’t seem to have much of an opinion about anything that gets discussed beyond the pomp & circumstance of the traditions of the Supreme Court along with playing variations of “Stars & Stripes Forever” over establishing shots which feels like a way to somehow try to open things up. trailer which I vaguely remember from way back then) and never saw because they were rated R or simply not for kids in general so for reasons that I could never possibly explain I’ve always been curious about them. More often than not they’re the sort of films that aren’t made by major studios anymore but I get to finally seek them out. On principle, I’m fine with something like FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER (available now from the Warner Archive if you're so inclined) and I don’t mind at all that I saw it, not one bit. But even if its premise is dated it still doesn’t have the snap that the best possible version of the storyline might have had. As a movie it’s pleasant but unmemorable and that’s really about it. So I just need to move onto the next film I’ve always wondered about, whatever that is. And it may be better, but most likely it won’t have the glorious sight of Walter Matthau fumbling with chopsticks and if nothing else at least FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER has that.
Monday, January 27, 2014
WYATT EARP) the studio barely put any effort into selling the film beyond the formality of letting people know it was there only to find surprisingly good reviews, healthy business and talk that Val Kilmer might have gotten an Oscar nomination if they had bothered to push him for one. I enjoyed the film too when I caught up with it on New Year’s Day of that holiday season and actually have a recollection of feeling a sudden sense of ease during an early scene as I found myself realizing that this film was going to work. And it does, for the most part anyway. It kinda sorta falters at a certain point in the last stretch but enough of TOMBSTONE holds together that it’s still a rewarding one to return to. It’s a flat out western with a capital W and it’s become such a rarity to find one willing to revel in the sheer pleasure of that quite so much. In that celebration of the genre is a portrayal of family, of friendships, of myth as well as an acknowledgement that this in telling this story again on film it’s part of that myth, right from how the black & white footage in the opening prologue narrated by the legendary Robert Mitchum is capped by the famous final shot from THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY. In that sense, TOMBSTONE is saying, little has changed. We still need those legends and every now and then it’s good to find one which embraces that idea the way this film does. article which is surprisingly frank—it wasn’t until a 2006 interview in True West magazine that Kurt Russell basically admitted to essentially ghost-directing the movie himself when Cosmatos was brought in after Jarre was fired. Many scenes were lost in the rush to keep the shoot on schedule and Russell, who claims he made substantial cuts to his own role to get the other actors to trust him, says just enough in the interview to leave me with even more questions—I also wonder about a claim in the Entertainment Weekly article that those revenge montages were a Cosmatos addition, considering they’re my least favorite stuff in the film. Not to mention what Kevin Jarre, let alone anyone else on set, would say about it all.
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
THE LAST OF SHEILA and THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION along with acclaimed hits like THE TURNING POINT, THE GOODBYE GIRL (which were nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars in the same year) and CALIFORNIA SUITE. His ambitious, expensive adaptation of PENNIES FROM HEAVEN came in 1981 after which there were more Neil Simon adaptations (I OUGHT TO BE IN PICTURES followed in theaters a mere three months later), a huge hit in FOOTLOOSE as well as a number of, well, star vehicles like the very 80s THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS and MY BLUE HEAVEN which reunited Ross with PENNIES star Steve Martin. NEW YORK, NEW YORK, fascinating as it is, kind of makes me want to jump out the nearest window whereas PENNIES FROM HEAVEN hits something deep down, more than I want to confront, more than I want to admit. Even after many viewings I’m still taken aback by how nasty certain moments in its real-world half are, how utterly despondent and vulgar. But they have to be there. The conceit, for anyone who doesn’t know, is that all of the ‘musical numbers’ actually and intentionally consist of lip-synched performances of vintage recordings in fantasy sequences which is what makes it partly a musical and partly not. But what the hell, let’s call it a musical, just about the most blissful musical imaginable, and looking at a few of the numbers on Youtube by themselves always provides a momentary hit of joy but when properly framed against what surrounds them makes that joy presented in them all the more palpable. Why can’t life be that simple, that glorious? Whoever said you could stop a dream? Aside from the whole world, that is, and it’s the world that PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is set in. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE but someone who the anger and fear that clearly lies within her is absolutely palpable. Either written as shrewish or just perceived that way through how Arthur sees her (which makes me think of how astonishing it is to just look at Jessica Harper’s eyes at certain points), she’s never comes off as friendly at all yet there’s clearly a human being under there, one who’s hurting as much as anyone. It’s just been smothered by life and a husband who she may know better than he wishes but she still has no idea how to communicate with. Christopher Walken is a total powerhouse in his one scene as the pimp encountered by Eileen, Vernel Bagneris is truly haunting as The Accordion Man, while among the many actors who make an impression even in small roles John Karlen is particularly effective as the twitchy police detective who questions Joan about Arthur and as the blind girl Eliska Krupka (per imdb only one other screen credit, in 1988’s DANCE ACADEMY) is beyond ethereal. When he meets her Arthur’s reaction makes sense. I’m pretty sure I’ve wanted to say what he says to girls I’ve never seen again. Some of them haunt me in the dead of night the way this film does.
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
CISCO PIKE or STRANGERS WHEN WE MEET then you have my gratitude. As I’ve written about before, few films have resonated with me the way Edgar Wright’s SHAUN OF THE DEAD was able to when it was released in 2004 and now going on a decade later I’m finding a certain similar kinship with Wright’s recent THE WORLD’S END (written by himself & star Simon Pegg), billed as the final part of his Cornetto trilogy with 2007’s HOT FUZZ coming in the middle. It’s a film which is as tightly plotted as possible while at the same time a complete and total character study within that incessant narrative drive—it’s swirling with what feels like a lot of ghosts from the past of the people who made the film. It’s often hilarious as well, although the laughs have a different goal than they did in Wright’s earlier films, a reminder of how they’re not designed to go down as easy as they have in the past. They’re not supposed to. ’78 version—that film showed at Wright’s pre-release ‘World’s End is Nigh’ series at the New Beverly in August along with other pertinent titles like WESTWORLD, AFTER HOURS and IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER). As things proceed from one pub to the next on this 12-step journey it becomes fascinating to see how the two genres are melded together and the pacing is so non-stop which adds to the growing paranoia immeasurably. After the first third the John Carpenter-like frisson of the townspeople continually lurking there in shots has that much more of an effect (Bill Pope’s evocative cinematography feels deliberately anamorphic in all the best ways) and somehow the overall narrative manages to reference both PRINCE OF DARKNESS and THEY LIVE at once. SECONDS was filmed there before I was born right around the corner from the house I grew up in, speaking of films that might have inspired THE WORLD'S END. For all I know I looked like some weird kid wearing a long coat and carrying a newspaper like he thought there was actually a reason to do that. Maybe somebody noticed that I was a regular presence. And I wonder if anyone ever noticed when I was gone. I suppose the answer doesn’t matter. Not to mention that the movie theater has long since been torn down and I just don’t want to see what the place looks like without it. Gary King’s business in Newton Haven is finished, sort of like everything Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg were trying to say about their own pasts with these three films is finished. My business in Scarsdale has long since been finished there too (most of the drinking I’ve done was actually after I moved away from Scarsdale so it’s one association I don’t have with the film, but that’s another can of tuna). No one’s waiting for me back there. But we each need to face up to our past in our own way. The future, meantime, is a sort of oblivion where if we’re lucky we can figure out what our own happy ending is. And maybe somehow I still have a shot. Anyway, time to move onward to 2014. There’s more to do. More films to see and write about. Drink up. Let’s Boo-Boo.