Saturday, June 30, 2007

What Kind Of Day Has It Been

So now we’ve reached the end of STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP. What was supposed to be The Next Great Show from Aaron Sorkin, creator of SPORTS NIGHT and THE WEST WING, just never quite happened.

Those two shows are favorites of mine and at times have meant a great deal to me. SPORTS NIGHT in particular came at a point in time in my life that enabled me to realize just how right a show it was. Its examinations of relationships, friendships, the continual issues between men and women, how you become a man, how you’re supposed to behave in this world…THE WEST WING was the more successful expression of these themes, but SPORTS NIGHT at its very best, maybe ten or so episodes in the middle of season one, was the absolute purest display by Aaron Sorkin of what he wants to say that he has ever written. We’re also from the same hometown, a fact that I can’t help but feel is slightly significant.

Months before the pilot of STUDIO 60 went into production I got a look at the script, still titled “Studio 7 on the Sunset Strip”. Simply put, I thought it was brilliant and found myself nearly shaking from how good it was. Here was a chance for Sorkin to deal with television, the media and what those things mean in this age in a way that hadn’t fully been explored yet. When I saw the pilot I thought it was good but…not quite what I had pictured. Some of the casting seemed iffy and there was an overall feel to the tone that was slightly darker and more bitter than I had imagined from what was on the page. But I still had that hope.

Tone is an important issue. Any TV show or film needs a certain sense of realism in the world it is presenting or, to say it in a fancy way, verisimilitude. SPORTS NIGHT had it, so did THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW. In the case of a show like 30 ROCK it succeeds because even in the farcical larger than life approach it takes we can believe that reality because we can believe that the sketch show writers we see really talk and behave like this. To go way back, there was even believability in the interplay between the writers on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. I don’t know what daily life is like in the White House and I’m gonna guess it’s not really like what it was on THE WEST WING, but it doesn’t matter. What was important was that I believed that reality completely and totally.

Right from the beginning there was a believability issue with STUDIO 60, a lack of that verisimilitude, that made things some things almost puzzling. On occasion it was hard not to sit and go, Really? Constant arguments about Christianity? Really? Gilbert and Sullivan? Commedia dell'arte? Really? Tom Jeter’s parents don’t know about Abbott & Costello? A two-part detour into Pahrump, Nevada? We’re supposed to believe that Matt Albie is writing the entire show by himself? Really? Harriet is a comedy genius but can’t tell a joke? And she plays Anita Pallenberg in a film about the Rolling Stones? Really? Really??

I’ve probably read way too much about the auteur theory and, I admit, I always try to find value in creations by writers and directors that fits into the larger picture of their overall work. I’m the guy you’d expect to be bending over backwards defending this show and how it fits into what Sorkin had already done in his other shows. But by a certain point, even I had to admit that this show was getting hard to defend.

As for the actors, I will defend the work of Matthew Perry here. I think Steven Weber was just fantastic week after week. Amanda Peet as network president Jordan McDeere had potential at first but had more and more problems with how her character was written as the show went on. Bradley Whitford was another problem. Not the work he did and not so much the issue of mistaking him for Josh Lyman. But in some ways the character of Josh Lyman burst to the forefront of THE WEST WING so fast and so effectively that I wonder if there was a mistake in his casting here simply because of the possibility that Sorkin had already explored his creative relationship with Whitford in four years of writing that show. Maybe there wasn’t much more to creatively mine between the two men, at least not at this point in time. I also found myself wondering what exactly the character of Danny Tripp did on Studio 60, a question that was never answered.

There was a bigger problem in Sarah Paulson, so good as the Paula Prentiss-like sidekick in DOWN WITH LOVE. The character of Harriet Hayes, the big comedy star of the big comedy show, was written as somebody in a bad mood for the first several shows and the unfortunate result was that we were watching a wet blanket, a supposed big star who wasn’t projecting an iota of the natural charisma that such a star would have. I had issues with some other casting on the show but people who emerged in their roles like Lucy Davis, Merritt Wever and Mark McKinney did make favorable impressions. Unfortunately, some of them never got the chance to do as much as they should have.

Aaron Sorkin had been talking about doing a Behind the Scenes at Saturday Night Live show several years ago, so he obviously had this percolating for a while, maybe going way back to some natural fascination with how something like that must be put together. Obviously, I think he pulled off something very promising with the pilot script. But I have to wonder if he ever realized that maybe he didn’t have as much to say about the subject as he thought he did. Instead, he focused on fights with a girlfriend that ties in with the Christian Right (Sorkin’s relationship with Kristin Chenoweth is well known) and what seemed like some long-dormant issues that he could never deal with on THE WEST WING, such as Reality TV and 9/11. Hey, I hate Reality TV too. Unfortunately, the way the show addressed it came off as simplistic, bitter and ultimately a dead end. He also seemed to fall back way too much on plot points and dialogue phrasings he had used before. Phrases such as “Small fraction of a man”, “I go home when you go home” and “This isn’t TV Camp” were heard before and heard again here. This sort of thing used to be fun back in the days that Sports Night and The West Wing overlapped, but several years down the line his bag of tricks just seems a little bit more transparent.

“The Christmas Show”, which aired in early December, was possibly the best episode after the pilot and gave hope that this show might actually succeed. Unfortunately, what appeared after the New Year was a group of episodes that were trumpeted as emphasizing the show’s romantic comedy elements instead of the look at the making of the show. Well, they got it partly right. Emphasis on the show was decreased, but what we got instead was Danny Tripp stalking the pregnant Jordan McDeere, much more of Matt & Harriett fighting and supporting characters engaged in subplots about keeping secrets from potential girlfriends that made no sense on any planet. When the show came back from hiatus to run the final episodes after the season had officially ended, what remained was a lengthy arc all taking place over one endless night designed to wrap up certain plotlines and toss in whatever arguments Sorkin felt he still needed to make. There was also one standalone episode entitled “The Disaster Show” which focused on Timothy Busfield’s show director Cal and guest star Allison Janney (playing Allison Janney, former star of THE WEST WING).Presumably as a cost-saving measure, the episode eliminated the three main leads and also attempted to be broadly funny to an extent that the show never did otherwise. When placed in context with the other, much more serious episodes that come before and after, it may be one of the most bizarre hours of television I’ve seen over the past year.

The final moments of the last episode of Studio 60--titled, like the season one finales of SPORTS NIGHT and THE WEST WING, “What Kind Of Day Has It Been”--have lingered in my brain as a curious combination of regret and hope. Regret that Sorkin somehow, inexplicably, screwed this up. Hope that he, to recall a phrase he’s used before, is gonna get up off the mat and once again show how good he really is. “We can do better,” says Danny Tripp near the very end. Several moments later, Matt Albie says, “I’m gonna make a friend out of you yet,” in what turns out to be the last line of the series. It’s like Sorkin is speaking to us and saying that he’s not gonna let this get him down. Among the many, many constants that recur in the fictional universes of Aaron Sorkin, one of the most potent is that the man always believes in the continual optimism of what’s next.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Definitely Not Ordering A Pizza

I’m trying to be fair about this. I even put off writing this up when I got home last night because I felt I should sleep on it, let my feelings simmer for a little bit. And that’s what I did.

An old roommate of mine, an effects buff, once came to the conclusion that the last great all-optical effects job (meaning no digital nonsense) was the original DIE HARD. Try as I could, I never came up with a better alternative. Which was perfectly appropriate. It was DIE HARD, one of the best action films of all time, bigger than big and it deserved that special piece of cinema history. Even the sequels, which vary in quality, at times manage to continue that feeling of bigger than big, that feeling of DIE HARD and they manage to be entertaining. They’re just not DIE HARD.

So faced with the prospect of another DIE HARD it was impossible to ignore what elements that made the original so great, with the obvious exception of Bruce Willis, weren’t involved. No John McTiernan, No Joel Silver, No Steven E. de Souza, No Bonnie Bedelia, Michael Kamen’s dead, Super 35 instead of anamorphic Panavision, PG-13 instead of R…

Look, if you’re going to make another DIE HARD movie in 2007 there are two ways you can go in choosing a director. You can get someone who is not just an ace at directing action, but someone who understands the tone of the earlier films and wants to make an attempt at being faithful to what they were aesthetically. Not necessarily go some route of disallowing digital effects but insisting that everything done looks true to that real-life route that has been taken. Separate the men from the boys. Believable, not cartoony. Or, you could get some hack who’s going to deliver a crappy action film.

I know, I know. Why be such a stick-in-the-mud skeptic? They made a decent TERMINATOR sequel without James Cameron, didn’t they? They can make a decent DIE HARD sequel. After all, they have to know what worked in the others, right? After all, hope springs eternal.

Hopes dashed.

Let me be blunt. I fucking hate LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD. I fucking hate it. As a matter of fact, I can think of very little that I don’t hate about it. Yes, there’s that slight thrill in hearing Bruce Willis being called John McClane once again. Maggie Q is gorgeous. Timothy Olyphant has one (count it) line that I thought was funny. And…that’s about it.

There are talented people and there are untalented people and even among the untalented people you’d think that you could find some who are fans of DIE HARD, who might want to at least attempt to emulate the other films to even a tiny extent. I can think of a few offhand. Twentieth Century Fox has chosen to have this film made by people who very clearly don’t like the films, have no interest in them, have no interest in even attempting to make a film that is deserving of the DIE HARD moniker.

They also don’t have much interest in making a movie that is interesting, exciting, well paced or well staged. Director Len Wiseman directs action like a two year-old handles algebra. Ability to follow the action during fight scenes is consistently non-existent. Whether this is due to poor staging, editing it down for the PG-13 or some combination of both doesn’t really matter. Ultimately, none of it’s any good.

The craft of the pacing, staging and sense of place that was present earlier, especially in the first film, is totally absent here. The cinematography consists of the same blue-hue that is way overused these days and contains none of the power of the wide-screen vistas used by Jan De Bont, Oliver Wood or Peter Menzies Jr. in the other entries. The score by Marco Beltrami is pretty generic, even with some familiar echoes of the themes by the late Michael Kamen popping up. What Kamen did in the other films was one of the strongest elements that linked them together. He gave a perfect musical voice to that sort of “Ya gotta be kidding me…” that John McClane is always thinking, combined with the use of classical music which always added a certain epic, yet still tongue-in-cheek feel. The use of “Ode to Joy” as the vault is finally opened in the first film is one of the best examples of this. And there’s never even an attempt at that feeling here, which makes me wonder, how exactly is this a DIE HARD movie?

The basics of the plot, John McClane getting unexpectedly caught up in a computer hacker’s plot against the nation over the July 4th weekend, has potential, none of which is realized. The DIE HARD tradition of getting interesting and funny actors for supporting and bit roles to lend it a certain flavor is totally abandoned. Justin Long is a computer hacker who gets caught up in the plot and has to go along for the ride with McClane. Timothy Olyphant is the bad guy who not only has to compete with the spectre of Alan Rickman but never gets a chance to compete due to a dully written role. Maggie Q is the bad guy’s girlfriend who, again, is gorgeous but is presented as being such a Terminatrix—hit by a truck and getting right up again?—that she never becomes interesting. DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE offered singer Sam Phillips as the mute girlfriend as the bad guy and did it much better. Kevin Smith plays a hacker, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Lucy McClane and a bunch of other people have dialogue on occasion but the movie doesn’t have any interest in them, so why should you or I? There are supporting roles in this movie played by people that, a day later, I can’t remember the faces of. This is a comedown from the other films, which included the guy on the plane who offered the “fists with your toes” advice, the girl who helped McClane with the fax machine, or the truck driver-history buff who offers up information on Chester A. Arthur at a moment’s notice. It’s not so much that it becomes a one-man show for Bruce Willis—even John McClane feels kind of neutered here. It’s that the simple idea of ordinary people swept up in extraordinary events has been totally scrapped so watching the ciphers who say and do things throughout these 130 minutes is never believable, suspenseful or remotely exciting. Watching this film was a depressing experience to an extent that I’m still thinking about.

No one expected anything from the original film in 1988. Months before the film’s release, all people could talk about was how much Bruce Willis, a TV star fer cryin’ out loud, was getting paid, with an article in the New York Times that had the headline, “If Bruce Willis gets $5 million, how much for Redford?” When seeing THE PRESIDIO in a theater a month before it came out a friend responded to a DIE HARD stand-up with disdain, saying “I don’t wanna see a movie with that guy.” He didn’t know. I didn’t know, either. But Fox knew what they had and nurtured it, with sneak previews, with an initial limited release in 70 MM that offered up a TOWERING INFERNO-style artwork in the ads that sold the building, not Bruce Willis. But the film succeeded and raised the bar on the action genre, a bar that few of those who attempted ever come close to meeting. Even today it plays as an almost perfect storm of directing, producing, cinematography, editing, music and many other elements including a cast of characters and lead performance that made the actor playing John McClane an absolute star. That film sings. This new film isn’t worth the amount of time I’ve spent writing about it.

And, as Hans Gruber once carefully stated it, it’s Yippee-Ki-Yay...motherfucker. Substitutions will not be accepted. Happy trails.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Mentioning The Music

It’s very difficult to explain why I like the music of the late Henry Mancini so much. Maybe its style makes me think of an era that has since passed. Maybe it’s because his music compliments the films it underscores to such a correct degree. Maybe it’s because Mancini, at his, best, perfectly captures not only the elegance of drinking a martini but also the bitterness of drinking that Martini alone.

Despite my immense admiration for such scores as TOUCH OF EVIL, SILVER STREAK and yes, even LIFEFORCE, the Mancini I love, truly love, is the Mancini that scored so many films for his great friend Blake Edwards. There are few other director-composer partnerships that, to me, display such a true meeting of sensibilities to the point that it’s difficult to imagine the director making a film without a score by that composer. In fact, after they began working on the PETER GUNN TV show together Edwards directed only a handful of films that weren’t scored by Mancini.

The list of sequences in Edwards’ films that are heightened by the Mancini magic is lengthy. The party sequence in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. The main title of A SHOT IN THE DARK. The eerie coolness of the theme to EXPERIMENT IN TERROR as Lee Remick drives across the Bay Bridge. The unexpected disco-izing of the Pink Panther theme in REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER. Dudley Moore playing his full composition on the piano as he thinks of Bo Derek in “10”.The unexpected zaniness of the car chase in S.O.B. that will soon be undercut. The underscore of James Garner sneaking around the hotel room in VICTOR/VICTORIA. Even something like TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER has an unexpectedly lovely piece called “The Easy Life In Paris” that is just tossed off in the film—was it something that Mancini just had lying around? And THE PARTY has a track called “Elegant” on the album which is a true example of bittersweet, well, elegance that remains a favorite of mine.

The soundtrack album of THE PINK PANTHER contains two versions of the song “Meglio Stasera (It Had Better Be Tonight)”, one instrumental and one choral. Unfortunately, it doesn’t contain the version performed by Fran Jeffries in one of the film's most delightful scenes. Watching THE PINK PANTHER when I was younger, it was easy to become impatient with certain aspects of the film. As a matter of fact when the number in question occurs it’s at a point in the film where Peter Sellers’ Clouseau has already been offscreen for about twenty minutes. But the more I’ve seen it, the more I’ve become attracted to the jet-set ambiance of the film, the careless nature of these revelers cavorting around this ski resort in Cortina, with phonograph records emitting only the soothing easy-listening tones of Mancini. The movie even stops dead as Jeffries performs “Meglio Stasera” for everyone—on the DVD audio commentary even Edwards sounds a little mystified why he did this. Blocked for our viewing, not the characters on screen, and expertly shot in full-on Panavision in only two camera set-ups, it becomes more intoxicating the more I see it. People eventually get up to dance during the number, with a little bit of choreographed comedy for Sellers, and the visuals combined with this wonderful performance of the song make it one of my favorite examples of all of Edwards’ films where he allows the music by his friend to take center stage for no reason other than he simply felt like it. The song can be heard again in the background during THE PARTY as Sellers attempts to navigate the physics of a roll of toilet paper in a bathroom, so it’s hard not to think that the two men had a fondness for it. It goes perfectly with the action there as well; not Mickey Mousing, but providing a backup to the visual that adds a certain amount of juice to the scene.

My love of some the films directed by Blake Edwards and scored by Henry Mancini is too extensive to fully express in just a few paragraphs. But their continued collaboration certainly proved that few other filmmakers have ever understood the necessity of certain kinds of music to provide backup to comedy. And how elegant it sometimes needed to be as well.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Kneel Before Queen Kari

Well, here it is. Another year older. And what have I done. Having a birthday in June sometimes means that some summer blockbuster will open on that day. I still remember the “ON JUNE 21 GET ERASED” billboards that heralded the upcoming ERASER and the trailer for THE ROCKETEER that hugely trumpeted JUNE 21 as the release date. I was there opening night for each movie and still have a fondness for them, whether they deserve it or not. On June 21st, 1998 the Nuart showed, of all things, a Diana Rigg double bill, consisting of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE and THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU. Which, come to think of it, qualifies as a Diana Rigg-Telly Savalas double bill. Not too many of those. Either way, I was there. There isn’t much out this year that seems to qualify as a birthday movie.

In recent years, I’ve sat down on or around my birthday with PREHISTORIC WOMEN and I—hang on, I just realized what I typed. It’s very embarrassing. I swear, the reasons have nothing to do with my feelings about women but simply my feelings for the film’s star, Martine Beswick. Yes, Martine Beswick. Zora in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, Paula Caplan in THUNDERBALL, Hyde in DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE, the Queen of Evil in Oliver Stone’s directorial debut SEIZURE and others, including the role of Kari in this 1967 film from Hammer Films which may be her best role. I freely admit that when Beswick turns up in a movie I cannot be objective. I’m only human.

PREHISTORIC WOMEN is a pretty bad movie, actually, with an opening twenty minutes that can seriously test the patience of any non-Hammer Films convert who may happen to be watching. But when Beswick makes her entrance as Queen Kari it instantly springs to life due to the energy and raw sexuality that seems to just ooze out of her. Kari is the leader of tribe of dark-haired women who rule over the blond-haired women, keeping them as their slaves. There’s very little reason to recount the plot. There’s very little here worth defending. But Beswick’s mere presence in the film remains one of the more ferociously sexy performances I’ve ever seen and, bluntly put, if it’s my birthday, I’ll watch what I want and that’s what I did again this year. Long Live Martine Beswick.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

From Joe Leland to John McClane

As we approach the release of LIVE OR FREE OR DIE HARD, the time has come to ask a very important question. Can we really call DIE HARD the sequel to THE DETECTIVE? DIE HARD was based on an unlikely source, a novel called “Nothing Lasts Forever”, written by Roderick Thorpe and a follow-up to his novel “The Detective” which was filmed in 1968 starring Frank Sinatra as Detective Joe Leland. Leland became John McClane for 1988’s DIE HARD and the rest is history. Did Sinatra and Willis ever meet and if so, did the subject come up?

THE DETECTIVE is possibly best known as the film which led Sinatra to divorce Mia Farrow, who was due to play a role but still working on Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY, which was way behind schedule. At least, that’s what has been reported. Either way, the role slated for Farrow was taken over by Jacqueline Bisset in what appears to be her first film in America.

One of the interesting consistencies of Twentieth Century Fox films from that period is the degree to which they take advantage of Century City, which was just beginning to appear in the backyard of the studio where much of its backlot used to be. It turns up in films as diverse as the BATMAN movie and MYRA BRECKENRIDGE. A GUIDE FOR THE MARRIED MAN has a construction site scene at what I believe is the future location of the Century Plaza Hotel. One of the best examples has to be 1972’s CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES where the just-completed Century City mall is used to represent the film’s futuristic world of “North America 1991”.

Set in New York, THE DETECTIVE doesn’t make any use of Century City locations, but the area’s appearance in DIE HARD is now legendary. The use of the then-new Fox Plaza building as the Nakatomi Plaza remains iconic and some of the footage of the helicopters moving hurtling through the area is truly dynamic, giving a really good look at how different the area looked 19 years ago. I always liked how once I moved to L.A. I was able to get a much better geographical handle on everything going on in the film. It just occurred to me that with all the emphasis that is placed on how the situation is affecting people nearby, no one ever mentions the movie studio that is right next door. Maybe in DIE HARD’s universe Nakatomi Plaza doesn’t have to share any real estate with Twentieth Century Fox.

THE DETECTIVE remains an interesting and, in some ways, surprising picture considering when it was made, but it really hasn’t dated all that well. Sinatra, nearing the end of his interest in film stardom, seems more committed here than he does in a few other films made around the same time—give LADY IN CEMENT a try sometime—but the material here isn’t quite up to the heights of THE MANCHURIUAN CANDIDATE or SOME CAME RUNNING. For a movie made in 1968 there’s a surprising amount of sordid material both in plotting and dialogue but even with some good New York location footage too much of the film feels flat and stage-bound. Director Gordon Douglas made many other films including THEM! and several other Sinatra vehicles in the 60s, but much of his work here isn’t very interesting with the occasional exception. At certain intimate moments between Sinatra and wife Lee Remick the film switches to a first-person technique for the scenes as if to emphasize their closeness. Considering how how-hum much of the visual style of the film is, it’s surprisingly effective and is similar to the approach Jonathan Demme has used in many of his films. I wonder if he was influenced at all by THE DETECTIVE.

The film takes a decidedly adult approach to its story of a police detective trying to balance his personal life with an investigation that takes him into certain seamier areas of New York. The personal life includes his troubled marriage to Lee Remick and the investigation includes an excursion into the gay underground of the city, over ten years before William Friedkin's CRUISING. The unfortunate thing is that it all this sounds more interesting than it actually is.

The large cast of familiar faces also includes Jack Klugman, Ralph Meeker, William Windom, Lloyd Bochner, Robert Duvall and Tom Atkins. Jerry Goldsmith’s very good score features an emphasis on trumpet which strongly anticipates his score for CHINATOWN, then six years in the future.

As for what all this has to do with LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD, well, pretty much nothing.

Monday, June 18, 2007

His Eyes, Her Eyes

There’s no way I could analyze all the lyrics in Michel Legrand’s “Windmills of Your Mind,” but there was a point several years ago where a particular line, “Half remembered names and faces, but to whom do they belong” really jumped out at me for the first time. It was like I was realizing as an adult that there were people I knew that I was going to know for a very long time…and some I wouldn’t. There was I girl I would see at parties and talk to a few times with a tone of being flirtatious but not really. One time, slightly drunkenly, I mentioned this line to her and how it was as if she was one of those half remembered faces for me. I can’t even remember her name now. So there you go.

“Windmills of Your Mind” originates from the original 1968 version of THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, a heist picture with a cocktail of romance written by Alan Trustman and directed by Norman Jewison. A true showcase for the elegance of its two stars, Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, the film succeeds partly on its style and their chemistry. But much of its success comes from Legrand’s score and the true uniqueness of its Academy Award winning theme song which provides it with about 90 % of whatever depth it has.

The thrust of the film is the two leads are inevitably drawn to each other, but circumstances and character do not allow them to find a way to remain together. It seems to accept this as inevitable; McQueen and Dunaway's characters are like two comets that blaze past each other for a brief period of time and nothing longer is allowed. To remain together would result in a sort of death for each. The film seems ok with this inevitability, considering the only real look we get a normal marriage is Jack Weston’s crooked salesman and his (for good reason) untrusting wife who seems to shriek all of her dialogue at him.

The justly famous chess sequence, when the characters of Thomas Crown and Vicki Anderson really begin to connect, is as deliriously erotic as any scene ever shot. As they continue to play the close-ups become more intimate, more beguiling, more dreamlike. For several minutes, they say nothing. And that’s all they need to say.

It's a 60s fantasy, that's for sure, but it somehow manages to dig in and be something more than just half-remembered. Maybe it's that fantasy of how men and women find themselves drawn to each other, crossed with the inevitable reality of what comes after. Those are two things that remain difficult to reconcile. Suddenly aware that the autumn leaves were turning to the color of her hair, indeed.

If only it were as easy to communicate with women as Steve McQueen does when he simply looks at Faye Dunaway. If only.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

We've Still Got Time

Went to see the Dodgers play the Mets the other night and spotted Richard Lewis sitting nearby. A New Yorker to his bones no doubt, he was rooting hard for the Mets, which means he probably didn’t have a very good night since the Dodgers got in three home runs on three straight pitches in the second inning. Later in the game they did the Kiss Cam thing in between innings and in the middle of it cut to Lewis with the woman he was with. To say that he looked like he would rather have a bullet in his brain at that moment may be an understatement.

Slightly more touching than Richard Lewis caught by the Kiss Cam is ONCE, a non-musical musical which is easily one of the most romantic films I’ve seen in a while. Glen Hansard plays a street musician in Dublin (named in the credits as “Guy”) who works at his father’s vacuum cleaner repair store. While singing a particularly passionate song that he wrote to what he thinks is an empty street one night he meets a girl (named in the credits as “Girl”) played by Markéta Irglová. After some conversation it comes out that she plays the piano and once they play together the musical connection that exists between them is impossible to deny. As they continue to creatively inspire and possibly fall for each other, it becomes clear that they also have to deal with the realities of certain other issues in their lives.

Hansard and Irglová are both actual musicians, not professional actors, who have also become a real-life couple and their chemistry here is impossible to deny. The songs they perform happen and sneak up on you in a way that is somehow magical. It’s also an energizing look at the creative process in how the characters are almost reborn in what they do for each other. Some of the most potent pieces here stayed with me after the movie was done. Strangely, I almost got the soundtrack album immediately after seeing it, but decided I wanted the purity of what I’d just heard to linger for a little while first. And it has.

There’s a little bit here reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s BEFORE SUNRISE/SUNSET double bill, which are the most recent films this could be compared to. But more importantly ONCE is the first film I’ve seen in a long time that brings to mind Jacques Demy, the French auteur of THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG and THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT. CHERBOURG, a bittersweet romance--an operetta, really--which contains songs that remain standards to this day, is the most well known but it’s LOLA, his first film, that really comes to mind here. From its provincial setting to the possibilities of meeting someone who will change your world while walking down the street, it’s LOLA that comes to mind, even if the two film’s plots have nothing in common. LOLA also isn’t a musical and ONCE has a gritty visual style which doesn’t resemble Demy at all, but there’s a sense of yearning, heartbreak and possibility that the films share that it’s hard not to wonder if Demy’s work wasn’t at least a small inspiration to writer-director John Carney.

Either way, ONCE is a very special film. I’ll get the soundtrack eventually, but for now the spell that this film and music have cast remains with me and its power is a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Movie Never Ends

So what is a story anyway? Is there a significant difference between ‘plot’ and ‘story’? And if there is, is it always necessary for the ‘plot’ to be resolved if the ‘story’ has essentially been finished? And what exactly means that the story has been finished? If the show is a story about a family named The Sopranos and at the end we’ve reached more or less a conclusion about who they are and where they are in the world, is it really necessary for the Russian from “Pine Barrens” to suddenly turn up again? Or to find out who’s turning state’s evidence?

What’s more important in the particular piece, the plot or the story? What are you more interested in?

Sitting in the restaurant eating Onion Rings, Tony has won for now, but more is coming. He knows it. Carmella has moved on from wondering about Adrianna, A.J. has stopped worrying about the war, Meadow has forgotten about medical school. His family is with him, as he wants, but all he can see as he looks up at every person coming in the door are people who might be coming at him. The guy in the truckers’ hat that says USA, that woman who looks slightly like Janice, the two black guys near the door, the guy in the Members’ Only jacket who may or may not be kinda familiar…This is who he is. And he’s not gonna stop, it’s gonna go on and on and on and on. And even though other things will very likely happen that we’ll never get to see, maybe that’s all that needs to be said.

I’m just wondering.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Shaking Hands With Sinatra

Not fun—Driving along on a Saturday and suddenly noticing smoke coming from the front of your car as the temperature gage goes all the way up to H. A Sunday tow to Pep Boys and a pricey repair later and everything was taken care of. But still not fun.

Fun—Steven Soderbergh’s OCEAN’S movies. In watching the first two as a refresher course last week, I was surprised to find that OCEAN’S ELEVEN has not only aged just fine, in some ways it plays even better than I remembered. And I can’t hate OCEAN’S TWELVE like everyone else seems to. I’m totally cool with the whole anti-sequel, anti-heist, 60s French New Wave vibe they’re going for. Maybe it’s not exactly what everyone expected, but the hate is still a little harsh.

OCEAN’S THIRTEEN is easily the lightest, fluffiest of the three, which is probably saying something. ELEVEN has the Clooney-Roberts plotline and TWELVE had Pitt and Zeta-Jones which provided them with what emotional content they had, not that there was a huge amount. THIRTEEN doesn’t bother with such pretenses and there isn’t even the time-waster of getting everyone back together. They’re back, they formulate their plan, boom. On with the caper.

And it’s a fun ride as far as it goes. Old-school Vegas mogul Ruben Tishkoff (the returning Elliott Gould) has partnered with the unscrupulous Willie Bank (Al Pacino), gets screwed over, despite Tishkoff protesting that the men should have an automatic bond with each other due to having both shaken Sinatra’s hand. So our boys come back together to sabotage the opening of Bank’s deluxe Resort Casino for high-rollers, fittingly called The Bank.

In addition to Pacino and the usual gang, we also get Julian Sands, Bob Einstein, “Special Guest Stars” Eddie Izzard and David Paymer, maybe one or two familiar faces from earlier installments and Ellen Barkin, reunited with SEA OF LOVE co-star Pacino and looking amazing. The Bank could also be considered its own character as well, making use of amazing sets constructed on the Warner backlot and effects that place it in the middle of the strip, making it look like some sort of modern Las Vegas version of The Glass Tower from THE TOWERING INFERNO—done more convincingly, of course(fittingly, Irwin Allen even gets mentioned in dialogue). Considering the disdain for the first sequel, there is some follow-up to lingering plot threads including the continuation of a running joke involving producer Jerry Weintraub in a recurring role that has seemingly gotten way out of hand and even I’m not sure I could fully explain it.

Clooney, Pitt and Damon are in their expected groove and as enjoyable to watch as you’d expect. Carl Reiner spends his own subplot pretending to be an Englishman there to review the hotel and possibly bestow it with the ‘five-diamond’ award. Reiner plays it by affecting what must be the worst English accent since Dick Van Dyke in MARY POPPINS and I guess there’s some sort of in-joke in that as well.

Pacino, extremely fun as Willie Bank, doesn’t overplay things as he’s done recently but instead seems to be aping Ron Liebman in his role. Maybe I’m imagining things, but just imagine Liebman here and you’ll see what I mean. Barkin, playing Cougar to Matt Damon and his false nose, doesn’t get to be the lead as the other actresses were in their installments but is totally game and very enjoyable to watch.

It’s a smooth ride and it goes down easy. There’s some great music too—I’m dying to know what plays over the Warner logo at the beginning. OCEAN’S THIRTEEN can’t in any way be called the best work of everyone involved, but it is an enjoyable reminder of what can be done in Hollywood when the goal is simply to produce an entertaining piece of pure elegance.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Once Again Saying Never Again

Here’s the full official statement from Sean Connery revealing that he will not be appearing in the new Indiana Jones movie:

"I get asked the question so often, I thought it best to make an announcement. I thought long and hard about it and if anything could have pulled me out of retirement it would have been an Indiana Jones film. I love working with Steven and George, and it goes without saying that it is an honor to have Harrison as my son. But in the end, retirement is just too damned much fun. I, do however, have one bit of advice for Junior: Demand that the critters be digital, the cliffs be low, and for goodness sake keep that whip by your side at all times in case you need to escape from the stunt coordinator! This is a remarkable cast, and I can only say, 'Break a leg, everyone.' I'll see you on May 22, 2008, at the theater!"

Well. That was nice of him. Will he really be at the theater on May 22nd? Will he camp out the night before? Did he dictate this or write it out longhand? This statement indicates that Connery and the film are still on good terms, which is nice. Maybe there’s even more to this. Maybe Connery simply decided he just wasn’t up to it anymore, which isn’t entirely out of the question. It doesn’t really matter.

My real question is, with the start of filming very close, wouldn’t something like this seriously screw up the production? And how big a part would the character of Henry Jones have been? Was it a cameo? Would he have turned up late in the third act to lend some assistance? Was he so integral to the story that at the eleventh hour he could just say, “Eh, no thanks,” and the production would proceed as planned with out a serious rewrite? Will there be another character—played by, say, the recently announced John Hurt—who will clearly be what was supposed to be Indiana Jones’ dad? I guess we’ll find out in May, but I still wonder if Connery will actually be there, holding me a place in line.

“I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.”

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Always Possibilities

This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN. Its opening weekend pulled in over $14 million, making it the biggest in history. I didn’t get to see it that weekend—on Sunday my parents took my sister and I downtown to see a new musical called “Little Shop of Horrors” which was playing Off-Off Broadway at the WPA Theater. I guess this makes me lucky enough to have seen the show in its original run, with Ellen Greene in the role as Audrey that she later played in the film version. It was a terrific show and my memories of it are surprisingly vivid, but I was still upset that I didn’t get to go see STAR TREK II. That would have to wait until the following weekend. Saturday, the 3:10 show at Yonkers Movieland. It’s funny the things you remember.

The numerous times director Nicholas Meyer has talked about the process of writing the script he tells the story of how he had been set up with producer Harve Bennett, there had been several drafts for this attempt to milk a few more dollars out of Star Trek after THE MOTION PICTURE had been a wildly out-of-control production. Not entirely certain what they were after, the drafts written had satisfied no one. The scripts had various elements, Khan, Kirk’s son, Saavik, Genesis. In a meeting Meyer suggested they make a list of all the things they liked from those drafts, plot points, scenes, characters, dialogue. They would put them together and see what kind of script they could get out of that. Harve Bennett told him that the problem was that if ILM didn’t get the script in twelve days then they could not guarantee the film could be ready by the projected release date. Meyer said he would write the script in twelve days. They looked at him like he was crazy, but that’s what he did. And that’s pretty much the STAR TREK II that we have.

I love that story. Sometimes an act of creative madness can result in the best work possible. It was as if the ideas that were suddenly flowing allowed Meyer to produce the best film work he has ever done. He wound up not getting screen credit for the work he did on the script, but it’s been pointed out before that in one key scene Kirk echoes a line, “I know nothing,” that was spoken by H.G. Wells in Meyer’s previous film TIME AFTER TIME.

At this time there was no real inkling of a future for Star Trek. STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE had done well, but was no doubt creatively unfulfilling for all involved. Shatner wasn’t that interested, Nimoy really wasn’t interested. Brought back into the fold by somebody as talented as Meyer, everyone clearly got energized by how good they knew this movie could be. Has Shatner ever been better than he is here? Forget the “KHA-A-A-N” scene, think about how effective a tiny moment like, “Here it comes. Now, Mr Spock,” is. Does Ricardo Montalban know how legendary his work here is? I truly hope he does.

And the smaller scale doesn’t hurt it. So much of the movie is really just in a couple of rooms. Even the bridges of the Enterprise and Reliant are the same set, just dressed differently. This movie thrived on limitations like that.

Watching the movie now it strikes me how different a summer movie it is from what we get now, not because of how different the action or effects are done, but because of how simple and potent it is in theme and story. Kirk feels age catching up with him, not knowing what to do about it, when suddenly pieces of his past come at him from seemingly every direction. A foe he once vanquished off to exile on Ceti Alpha V, a son that he never knew. Feeling that he has to act, to do something, for the first time in a long time, he brings out the best of himself and winds up reborn. Not in a sci-fi way. In a human way.

One reason this was allowed to be so strong was at this stage a Star Trek movie was still a movie, not a part of a franchise. In the space of a few hours we go from Kirk saying “I feel old…worn out,” to “Young…I feel young,” and it’s extremely powerful. No Star Trek movie could ever do this again. Because the sequels were meant to be part of a continuing series, more than this one was, there could never again be a theme as strong, as enjoyable as some of them are. Part III had to do little more than bring Spock back. Part V had this nonsense of Kirk stating, “I’ve always known, I’ll die alone,” but doesn’t mean anything. Part VI (also directed by Meyer) has Kirk starting off with a hatred of Klingons and by the end he overcomes this for reasons that are kind of vague, feeling like the machinations of the plot more than anything else. STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN doesn’t feel that way.

It’s the story of a hero who learns of his mortality and learns to accept that. I’m not saying it’s the best summer movie ever, I’m not even saying it’s my favorite. But I have a special love for it that is difficult to put into words. It’s a love that stretches from childhood into a hesitant peace with adulthood and makes me remember about the possibilities that truly are there in this life. And maybe that’s a far better thing.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Street Fairs, Hotel Room Chairs and Lots of Pie

The bad news about having a street fair literally right outside your door is that you’re kind of stuck there for the day—you know that if you leave, it’ll be a nightmare getting back so you may as well stay put and enjoy yourself. So the good news is that the Los Feliz Street Fair was a fun time, with lots of food, music, people to run into, all the good stuff. By late last night the street was still closed off as stuff was being taken down. For a few minutes I was tempted to run madly through the empty street like I was Mickey Rourke in ANGEL HEART, but I never got around to it. By this morning it was all gone.

Of the two movies I saw over the weekend, exactly two of them dealt with unwanted pregnancies. This was unintentional. Judd Apatow’s KNOCKED UP was very enjoyable and I particularly liked Paul Rudd for his scene in the hotel room and Leslie Mann (Mrs. Apatow) for any time she says the word “fuck”. No, scratch that—any time that Leslie Mann is onscreen is enjoyable. She steals the movie. One scene she plays with Craig Robinson (Darryl on THE OFFICE) as a club bouncer is the best thing of the entire 132 minutes. There’s also some dialogue about MUNICH that is pretty brilliant. I still preferred THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN, a movie with a main couple in Steve Carell & Catherine Keener that are funnier and more compelling than Seth Rogen & Katherine Heigl and an ensemble that just felt more realized to me. But yes, there are lots of laughs.

I didn’t know that an unexpected pregnancy was part of the plot of WAITRESS. Honestly, I don’t have much to say about it. And far be it from me to criticize the creative work of someone who was brutally murdered. Adrienne Shelly was a very good actress and what happened to her was horrible. She’s very good here in her supporting role as are Cheryl Hines, Eddie Jemison and Keri Russell, who carries the movie nicely. And the pies that Russell’s character creates throughout all look very tasty. It’s a nice movie. A nice movie. Take your mother to see it. That’s about all I have to say about it. Moving on.