Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Psychic Boomerang

Show me a fantasy, science fiction or horror film from the 80s that tanked, I’ll show you a film that currently has a rabid cult following. Of the many examples I could give you of this theory, some of the films that have achieved respectability include such classics as BLADE RUNNER and John Carpenter’s THE THING. There are many other films that could be named which are very bad. I could name them, but I won’t because from experience I know that there are people who take these things personally. So I won’t name movies like KRULL. But I could.

Now there’s been a midnight screening of HOWARD THE DUCK at the New Beverly, which leads me to believe there’s even a cult out there for that film. Because the film has been such a punchline since it was originally released in August 1986, I’d love to be able to say that this viewing of the film has proven it to be a misunderstood piece of work. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Howard the Duck originated in a Marvel comic devoted to Man-Thing in the early 70s and the response to him, especially after it looked like he had been killed off, was so great that Marvel gave the character brief stories devoted to him in subsequent Man-Thing issues, before launching him into his own comic series in 1976. The character was, more than anything, an opportunity for creator Steve Gerber to explore some of his own neuroses in the form of a duck who just happened to be the lead character in a Marvel comic. Hey, it was the 70s and what emerged was both a satire of the Marvel form and a character who integrated into the Marvel universe. Though Gerber’s reign over the character lasted a mere 27 issues, the character survived for a brief period after and, if my wikipedia is to be believed, he still makes appearances in various Marvel titles to this day.

The character of Howard was so very obviously a personal expression by Gerber that it’s a shame that it will mostly be remembered as the namesake of one of the biggest disasters in Hollywood. In making this film what was personal, what was quirky, what was idiosyncratic, is turned into something that almost personifies what we remember as 80s movies.

Howard T. Duck, resident of a planet where the predominant species are ducks, suddenly and without warning is transported from his home world to Earth, specifically Cleveland, where he meets aspiring singer Beverly Switzler(Lea Thompson) who is willing to help him learn how he wound up in Cleveland and how he can get back home. Once he makes contact with scientist Walter Jenning (Jeffrey Jones) who can help him, another test to get him back results in bring down an alien known as the Dark Overlord of the Universe who takes possession of Jenning in an attempt to take over the world.

Maybe a few elements twice removed seem like they’re from the comic, but really the only element aside from Howard to make the transition is the character of Beverly Switzler, the woman who becomes Howard’s sort-of girlfriend. And just barely—in the comic she’s a 70s hippy-dippy chick who seems interesting, cool and slightly crazy but here in the guise of Lea Thompson she’s turned into a dull nice-girl rock singer for no reason other than to get some more songs onto the soundtrack album. Lea Thompson as the lead in a film seems truly like an artifact of the 80s and bluntly put she’s more fetching here than she probably was at any other point but just as bluntly she’s pretty terrible. In fairness, she’s also miscast and probably would also have been if the film had been faithful to the comic.

Also in the cast is future Oscar winner Tim Robbins as Phil Blumburtt, the lab assistant who becomes the sidekick to Howard and Beverly. Robbins, to his credit, maintains his energy as the comic-relief dork as long as he can but there’s not much he can do with this material. There are appearances by the likes of future Oscar nominee David Paymer, STRANGER THAN PARADISE’s Richard Edson and CSI’s Paul Guilfoyle. Howard himself is played by several credited individuals including Ed Gale, who was actually in the suit, and Chip Zien, the voice of Howard, who went on to many future appearances in the flesh including a regular role as a tv writer on the mid-90s sitcom ALMOST PERFECT, in which his character was married to my future wife Lisa Edelstein. Jeffrey Jones is the scientist who spends most of his screen time possessed by the Dark Overlord of the Universe and gives the best performance of the movie as long as the material holds up. It doesn’t hold up for long.

Much of the problem is that the film takes what was a pretty idiosyncratic character and trashes it in an attempt to make a mid-80s box-office blockbuster. Husband-wife team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz wrote the script (he directed, she produced) and they were also responsible for parts of the scripts for AMERICAN GRAFFITI, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM in addition to some uncredited work on STAR WARS. Some funny lines can be found here—throw that dialogue against the wall enough times, something’s going to stick—but the whole enterprise feels so soulless it actually becomes kind of depressing by a certain point. It’s not even always clear what they’re going for here—certainly the comic wasn’t for children but the tone of the movie at times seems pitched to all ages. And yet, there are enough sex jokes, including the condom Howard carries in his wallet. Howard the Duck shouldn’t be for kids but the movie seems at times unsure of this fact. A comic book character who fit in just right with the nature of the 70s, adapted by a filmmaking team from San Francisco that made its biggest fame in the 70s, turned into one of the most hollow box-office disasters of the 80s…the metaphor is more than a little obvious here.

Even if the tone had been right, even if they’d known enough to do something a little like BUCKAROO BANZAI or HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY or, heaven forbid, the original comic, the fact is that the movie would still be stuck with a duck suit that is genuinely ugly and kind of a disaster. That someone didn’t call a halt to filming after viewing the first few days of footage is genuinely surprising.

Like I said, there’s a handful of good lines sprinkled throughout, but it’s not enough. There are too many chase scenes that go on longer than is necessary. Even the appearance of the Dark Overlord of the Universe in his true form, as a pretty damn cool stop-motion monster, goes on about three times longer than it should. As a matter of fact, there are several action scenes that go on three times too long, yet the film seems curiously underplotted. Ultimately, what we have here is a script that should never have gone into production in its current form. They also should have recast the female lead and waited until they figured out how to correctly portray the duck of the title. Maybe they should have just scrapped making the film altogether. How big a favor did George Lucas feel he owed them?

Originally all the music was to have been composed by then-hot Thomas Dolby, but due to cold feet they brought on John Barry, fresh from winning the Oscar for OUT OF AFRICA, to compose the score. Dolby still did all the songs and makes a cameo as a bartender. I always liked Dolby back in the day and I don’t know what sort of score he would have produced but the songs here are probably among his worst. Even the Barry score doesn’t seem right—it probably makes sense to say it would probably belong in another movie, since a lot of it does anticipate his music for the Bond film THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS that he would compose the following year.

So why is there a following for the movie of HOWARD THE DUCK? Why were there actually people at the New Beverly? Aside from booze and drugs, beats me. I’d love to say that it’s a misunderstood cult classic, but that’s not the case. The character survives, for the few people who care, as a rare example of individual creativity from a major comic book company. The movie survives as an artifact from a decade where individuality was beginning to be crushed. In the case of this film, those fighting against that individuality clearly succeeded.

Friday, September 28, 2007

A Fifty-Fifty Shot

For a long time I’ve felt that if you’re watching a seventies movie, maybe from the early part of the decade, that has an extended title sequence made up of either a song or some Lalo Schifrin-type main title theme, there’s always a period of about thirty seconds of padding, as if the music is gearing up before the big finish when the movie can finally start. The bit of padding always seems to be where the MPAA bug appears. With that bug relegated to the end credits these days, that placement seems to be a lost art. In DEATH PROOF, which we can now evaluate as a full stand-alone feature as opposed to its shorter cut as seen in GRINDHOUSE, Quentin Tarantino makes it a point to put it during the opening credits where it belongs and if this theory I have has never occurred to him, then I honestly believe that he would agree with it.

It should probably be accepted by now that Tarantino can do whatever he wants in his films, including putting the MPAA bug anywhere he damn pleases. In all honesty, I don’t really have a problem with this. His lack of interest in all things digital is to me a refreshing aspect of his films by this point. Even if he’s going to have his characters horrifically killed, you can tell that he takes a great pleasure in them, as opposed to all the directors who are using them as chess pieces for the technology. Whether it’s the joy of having Michael Parks slowly, steadily go through another hypothesis of a particular crime or moving in on loving close-ups of the likes of Sydney Poitier, Rose McGowan and Rosario Dawson, the interest he has in those faces is one of those things you pick up on during multiple viewings.

He’s also interested in those people when they’re just hanging out, in no rush whatsoever to get to the next plot point. This of course is no surprise to anyone who’s seen even one of his films but it’s taken to the most extreme version of the extreme this time around. And DEATH PROOF, for the longest possible time, is a hang out movie, set in a vaguely sinister, 70’s version of a Howard Hawks bar as if HATARI! had been set in Texas with stoners instead of in Africa with big game hunters.

So if Tarantino cut past the bone, as he puts it, when trimming DEATH PROOF down for its maiden voyage as seen in GRINDHOUSE, then he’s made it a point to put back some of that meat in the full version, running about 25 minutes longer. Not everything included in the published script can be found here, so it’s reasonable to assume that the point in this version was never to put back everything, but to fashion what, ideally, would be his preferred cut of the film.

Of course, he’s making his own version of a Grindhouse movie, but he’s also exploring what those films mean to him and commenting on them in the process. More than most people, he’s paid attention to the moments in between the mayhem in those movies, an element of his films that he’s really focused on in DEATH PROOF more than anything. Roger Corman was able to take a simple nightclub set and make ROCK ALL NIGHT in 1957, set mostly in that nightclub. You can’t do that sort of thing anymore, but at the very least he set much of the first half of DEATH PROOF in the same bar, during a long night where the characters do little more than drink and hang out. There’s even a section where a torrential downpour is happening and the characters wait it out as if there was nothing more foreboding than venturing out into that storm. They learn otherwise, of course.

Reinstated to this version is the infamous lapdance scene, as well as a long introductory sequence of the girls in Lebanon, Tennesse which firmly sets this section as taking place 14 months after the first half of the film. Taking place in a convenience store (which, like all good convenience stores, offers Fangoria, Video Watchdog and Shock Cinema on its magazine rack) we also get Stuntman Mike’s first encounter with the girls as he scopes them out with Willy De Ville’s “It’s So Easy” (previously heard over the end credits of CRUISING) on the soundtrack. Some of this section is in black and white before it bursts in the middle of a shot into full-blown color, presumably to continue the illusion that this “print” of DEATH PROOF is being assembled from multiple sources. As a matter of fact, all the film scratches and bad splices seen in the GRINDHOUSE version are still here. I can’t help but think that Tarantino honestly loves the look of the movie this way and maybe to him movies are better with these imperfections. I think I understand where he’s coming from. Also put back are various bits of dialogue throughout including one STROKER ACE comment by Eli Roth in relation to Stuntman Mike. I had to rewind this one to make sure I heard it right. I mean, really…a STROKER ACE reference? It should be mentioned that the only Burt Reynolds comments made about Stuntman Mike all seem to reference his films that were directed by Hal Needham. For whatever that’s worth.

Incidentally, Kurt Russell is fantastic as Stuntman Mike and is probably one of the only viable stars right now who could bring the baggage he offers. You get the feeling that Russell understands the character down to his bones. His long history of working in Hollywood, going back to the sixties has no doubt allowed him to encounter stuntmen with a passing resemblance. I once worked for somebody who is a contemporary of Russell’s—he didn’t become Kurt Russell, but he definitely didn’t become the guy Russell plays here either(he actually became something else altogether, yet still successful). There’s something about the way he considered his acting past that I can recognize in Stuntman Mike and probably exists deep down in Russell as well. The unexplained seething in the character which is clearly there but never commented on becomes stronger with each new viewing.

Of the rest of the cast I particularly like Rose McGowan whose long blonde wig, as is revealed in the special features, is meant to make her resemble Barbara Bouchet, which seems perfectly obvious now that I think about it. And in Rosario Dawson’s face as it changes from terror to elation in one shot as she watches Zoë Bell perform the Ship’s Mast, Tarantino gets someone who can perfectly communicate the experience of what watching one of these movies is supposed to be like in the first place.

Tarantino of course plays Warren, owner of the bar where much of the first half takes place. There’s a bit of a master-of-ceremonies feel to his appearance but it also seems like a reference point to some low-budget movie I can’t think of where the director plays the bartender where much of the film takes place. Maybe I’m thinking of Don Siegel’s appearance in PLAY MISTY FOR ME (which doesn’t apply here) but even so his presence does seem appropriate. Also added back to this version is Stuntman Mike taking pictures of the second group of girls as Ennio Morricone’s theme to Argento’s THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE plays. Which, after the appearance of the suspense music from CAT O’NINE TAILS now makes two Morricone/Argento pieces now in the film.

So DEATH PROOF incorporates each of these various elements and of course others—I haven’t even mentioned the car chase which appears to be untouched and remains a pretty terrific piece of work. The miles and miles of talk that occurs in DEATH PROOF, and yes there’s still more of it in this version, remain enjoyable to me and give the bursts of terror and excitement that much more potency. Stuntman Mike, when he asks Rose McGowan’s character which direction she’s going, figures there’s a fifty-fifty shot she’ll say a certain direction. Tarantino gives the audience the same choice. I guess a lot of them don’t like the direction he chooses, but if it’s the way he wants to go, I’ll go with him. Somehow, I don’t think he’s finished heading in that direction.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


There’s a lot I like about INTO THE WILD, but a few specific elements really stay with me. Hal Holbrook turns up late in the film in a role that first screams out “Hal Holbrook as an old guy” but turns into something so much more than that in his brief screen time. I’m embarrassed to say that I sometimes have forgotten if Holbrook is even still alive, even with his very good guest shot on THE SOPRANOS last year. Until he finally leaves us, I will now no longer be making that mistake. What he does here, what director Sean Penn allows him to do here, transcends all expectations of what you would expect from this section of the film. Holbrook’s final moments in the film, which he plays with star Emile Hirsch, are to me, profoundly moving. Maybe even more so is a simple scene with William Hurt on a suburban street near the end. I won’t describe the context but it managed to touch a chord in me that I can’t even explain. It’s now my all-time favorite screen moment for William Hurt.

These scenes make up a small amount of screen time for INTO THE WILD, a film I liked very much. The movie has much more than that, but I was so honestly affected by them that they required mentioning. Some movies don’t even have that much to offer. Sometimes those moments are all a movie needs.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

What History Decides

When I first saw UNFORGIVEN back in 1992, someone asked me how it was and I surprised myself by simply saying, “It’s the best western made since I was born.” I still believe that statement.

I’m feeling a little hesitant to apply such hyperbole to THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. Maybe it’s just not that kind of movie. Maybe simply referring to it as a Western doesn't seem totally appropriate. The names of Malick, Peckinpah, Cimino and others are very evident in terms of where this movie is coming from but ultimately we have to judge the film on its own terms. And the ultimate power it holds is difficult to ignore, but it’s the sort of power that I feel deep down within more than anything else. It’s not the sort of film where fans jump up and down after seeing it. I imagine it a little more like two people meeting and agreeing to their reaction, silently nodding to this fact, because there’s very little else to say.

Instead of launching into superlatives about the names involved I could simply list off people such as Andrew Dominck, Roger Deakins, Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, Michael Parks, James Carville, Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Dylan Tichenor, Curtiss Clayton, Hugh Ross and others. I feel like that’s about all I need to say.

Sometimes you’re faced with a movie that, on first viewing, has some scenes or some beats that you feel unsure about, sections where you feel slightly lost in the narrative. But for the rest of it you feel so transported, so entranced, that you feel reminded what it really feels like to see a film that feels different, in some ways other, than what you have seen before. And suddenly the dream of cinema doesn’t seem too farfetched. Your passion for it is still alive.

What I’m getting at is that I think THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is a sort of masterpiece, but I’m holding back a little. Partly because I know that some people simply aren’t going to be receptive to it, they’re not going to dive into the deep end and wade through it. It’s also because I feel hesitant to overthink it at the moment. Right now I just want to let this, what the hell, work of art sit in my head and linger. I’ll see it again soon enough. All I’m saying for now is that these feelings about a new film don’t happen all the time. I don’t know what the overall response to it will be, but I know that part of what matters will ultimately be what history decides about this film. Which seems fitting, considering what it tells us about its characters, our own history and ourselves. For now, my biggest worry is that I may be underrating it.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Pelham One Two Three's In Motion

I have to write about THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, I still have to put down my thoughts on the long version of DEATH PROOF and I still haven’t written a post about the Bava book. But all that must wait now, because some things simply cannot wait.

Let me be very, very clear. You cannot remake THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE. You cannot, even though it’s in Variety, on the fast track to be remade with Denzel Washington starring and Tony Scott directing. It’s a fool’s game. I mean, if you’re going to ask the question, ‘what’s the best movie ever made?’ is the answer ever not going to be THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE?

All right, fine. I’m slightly overreacting. But I’m from New York. I grew up knowing this movie. I think there were fewer Saturday afternoons that Channel 5 didn’t show the movie than did. To this day, the poster hangs in my apartment. “We are going to kill one passenger a minute until New York City pays us 1 million dollars.” See, I knew that because I was able to turn around and look at it. And the cast: Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Dick O’Neill, Jerry Stiller, Kenneth McMillan, Doris Roberts, Julius Harris, every single one of those actors who play hostages but don’t get character names, and of course “Tony Roberts as Warren LaSalle” as he’s credited at the bottom of the cast crawl, which always makes me feel like the character reappeared as the lead in some other movie I’ve never seen.

THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE was directed by Joseph Sargent from a screenplay by Peter Stone, writer of CHARADE. It takes place in a seventies New York, one full of dirt and grime and phlegm. One that is vibrant. One that isn’t digital. That’s how it should be. There was a remake back in the late 90s for TV, shot in Toronto and directed by an NYPD BLUE guy, which means it was filled with handheld stuff. It was unwatchable.

Denzel is playing the Walter Matthau part. Putting aside how awesome Matthau is in the film and how great it is to see the schlubby Matthau wake up and be the one guy who can deal with the mastermind that is Robert Shaw, the strangest thing is that Denzel kind of just played this part in INSIDE MAN, a pretty good movie which has held up well while rewatching it on cable recently. As a matter of fact, if rights weren’t an issue, you could easily imagine PELHAM rewritten as an INSIDE MAN sequel. Not that I want to give anyone any ideas.

And I don’t mind Tony Scott’s films, especially THE LAST BOY SCOUT, TRUE ROMANCE, ENEMY OF THE STATE and sections of MAN ON FIRE. But he’s the wrong guy for this. It’s not gonna be a New York movie and it’s gonna be too slick, which is the antithesis of what this movie should be. It’s not gonna have the ultra-propulsive score by David Shire, one of the best ever in my opinion. And it won’t top that ending, one of my very favorite final shots of all time.

For those sad souls who have never seen it: One afternoon in New York, four heavily armed gumen hijack a subway car and demand one million dollars in cash…IN ONE HOUR…or they will begin executing the hostages. Walter Matthau is Lt. Zachary Garber of the New York Transit Authority, the one who gets roped into communicating over the radio with the gunmen, the ultra-cool Robert Shaw is the mastermind. The city of New York plays itself, at once pissed off and disbelieving of what the hijackers are insisting they will do—as Dick O’Neill says, “What the hell do expect for their lousy thirty-five cents, to live forever?” The gunmen all refer to each other using color code-names, a plot point no doubt later lifted for RESERVOIR DOGS. No one has any idea how the hijackers plan on getting away but as Jerry Stiller suggests, “They’re gonna fly the train to Cuba.”

There’s no point in my going on. It’s another movie that’s gonna be made, it’ll be soulless, it’ll be bad, it’ll play on cable a million times, it’ll be ignored by the people who know. Who know how enjoyable the original is. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you put it on your Netflix queue. It’s a tremendously fun ride. It always will be.


Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Nicest Neighbor

It’s always nice to take a day off, particularly a Friday in September which starts off with totally clear skies and ends with the sun going down as rain begins to fall. There were several choices for lunch, but something told me that we should go to Nate ‘n Al’s. Nate ‘n Al’s in Beverly Hills, my favorite Deli on the west coast where the food is terrific, the atmosphere is friendly and Polanski has referred to it as one of the things he misses most about L.A. But even with all those factors, something told me that this was a day to definitely go. When we entered, even before we could put our name on the list, I saw why. Elliott Gould was standing there waiting for a table. Elliott freaking Gould. Ted Henderson, Trapper John McIntyre, Charlie Waters, Robert Caufield, Ruben Tishkoff, Harry Greenberg, Jack Geller, Dr. Howard Sheinfeld (feel free to look that one up), Time Magazine cover boy, husband to Streisand, six-time host of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, beauty pageant emcee in THE MUPPET MOVIE, friend of Groucho and, most importantly to me, Phillip Marlowe in THE LONG GOODBYE. Elliott Gould. Waiting for a table. In Nate ‘n Al’s. The woman even called out “Gould, party of two,” for him and his friend when his table was ready.

I’d love to say that I went up to him to tell him how much I worship THE LONG GOODBYE and that it led to a spirited discussion about Robert Altman, but we all know I didn’t do that. Instead, we were led to our table, all the way at the other end of the restaurant, so there was no way I could overhear what Elliott Gould was saying, unlike the time my friends and I were seated right across from Tom Poston & Suzanne Pleshette, eating with Arte Johnson and his wife. The entirety of THE LONG GOODBYE clicked through my brain as if on a moviola and I thought of favorite moments from it. Elliott Gould was far away. But the good news was that the corned beef was delicious.

Just last month I wrote a brief item where I discussed my love of THE LONG GOODBYE and how much I’ve come to connect to it over the years of living in L.A. By coincidence, somebody I know recently commented that Gould’s Phillip Marlowe had reminded them of me. I could never have said these things to him, but I hope he knows that there are people who love his work, particularly this film and how much fun it has been to see his latter-day resurgence of success both as the sort-of father to Generation X-type and especially as Reuben Tishkoff in the OCEAN’S movies.

My lunch consisted of a cup of the Kreplach and a corned beef with cole slaw. After we left and were walking down the street I happened to turn around and saw Elliott Gould and his friend leaving as well, walking in our direction. The man looks older now. He’s pushing 70 and was moving slower than I would have imagined. I remembered him chasing Nina Van Pallandt’s car through Westwood on foot, one of those times where you can definitely tell where a scene is being shot, and it was clear that he wasn’t about to recreate that moment. But I didn’t care because it was Elliott Gould. I hope he had an enjoyable lunch. Maybe I’ll just watch THE LONG GOODBYE again later. It’s OK with me.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Not Precise, Not Formal

“Very good. Maybe a little too good. Too clean. Yes, too precise. Too…formal. It should be more…trashy.”

That's what David Hemmings says via subtitles to his fellow musicians in the first real scene of DEEP RED. At least, that’s what he says in the only version of DEEP RED I’d ever seen up until a few days ago. It’s a potent thought and very obviously repesents Dario Argento giving a little hint about what is to come in the following two hours. “Movies don’t like good taste…the things that you’re a little embarrassed about, little show-off things, they’re the ones that are most alive,” says another director of note, Mike Nichols, in the audio commentary for CATCH-22 on that DVD.

Over thirty years after it was made, DEEP RED remains bracingly alive, to an extent that makes certain other giallos made in Italy during that decade seem stilted in comparison, not to mention a few films that Argento himself has made in more recent years. The power of some of its Scope imagery, the ferocious score by Goblin and the chemistry between Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi are just a few of the elements that allow the film to hold up so well. I’d seen it a few times over the years but after picking up the Blue Underground DVD earlier this year I found myself returning to it numerous times. I don't know if it should be considered Argento’s best, but for whatever reason right now it’s the one I’m most drawn to.

I’ve seen several Argento films in theaters over the years, but never this one. Of course, the only print of it that I’ll probably ever see is the version cut down for US release, about 20 minutes shorter than what can be found on DVD. I suppose for years people only knew that variant of DEEP RED so I guess I’m coming at it from the opposite spectrum, being very familiar with a long cut which, while very good, is maybe a touch too long. This past weekend I was able to take advantage of the New Beverly screening it for a midnight show. The theater was surprisingly packed, a nice surprise, but not with anyone else I knew. Maybe they all figured it would be a lousy print. Well, they were right.

For those who have not yet seen DEEP RED: In Rome, psychic medium Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril) is appearing before the European Congress on Parapsychology when she senses a murderer among the audience. “You have killed…and you will kill again,” she proclaims, and that turns out to be true that night when she is brutally murdered in her apartment. The killing is witnessed from the street by pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) who lives in her building and rushes inside when he sees what is happening from the street. After discovering the body, he has the strangest feeling that he witnessed something when he first entered, but can’t quite figure out what it was. Fast-talking reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi, mother of Asia Argento) teams up with him to try to solve the crime and uncover the solution to these mysteries. There’s also some pretty extreme gore here and there.

The print of DEEP RED screened at the New Beverly, which I assume was pretty much the standard American cut, bore the title THE HATCHET MURDERS and was admittedly in pretty terrible shape. I suppose that in the parlance of our times this would be considered the Grindhouse version (fittingly, the long cut of DEATH PROOF comes out on DVD this week) and it was actually interesting to view the film from this perspective because part of the problem with DEEP RED, to me, is that at 126 minutes it sort of goes on and on. The shorter version doesn’t exactly cut it down to the bare essentials of the plot—there’s still plenty of the stylistic excess expected from Argento—as much as it makes it more of a straight-ahead horror thriller. Gone is the development of the romance between Hemmings and Nicolodi, along with extra character stuff, additional exposition and other various ephemera. The opening scene I mentioned is also gone, along with the most extreme gore.

Now, I freely admit that there was once or twice where I noticed that five or so minutes had been shaved off and it actually seemed to make things move along nicely, but at times this cut things way too close to the bone. Some sort of happy medium between the two would probably work best—apparently there’s a Japanese version which a different running time, so maybe that’s it. For the record, English dialogue was never recorded for scenes not used in the American release, so the audio on the English track uses subtitled Italian for those sections. Not perfect, but really the best that could be done. The Italian cut which runs a full 126 minutes is a valuable piece of work that is somewhat richer, and I also enjoy spending more time with Hemmings and Nicolodi, but I can't deny how well the shorter U.S. cut flat-out moves. In fact, one slight problem with the film is that the end in both versions seems to wrap up the plot better than it does the characters, but that’s a minor quibble. And probably one that is irrelevant with the type of movie this is anyway.

The famous opening shot, which for much of the film remains unexplained, was also missing from this version but I honestly don’t know if that was due to the lousy state of the print or not. The New Beverly also managed to start the film without the Scope lens on, which for all I know may have been intentional. There was also some sort of breakdown about forty minutes in, which means I found myself sitting in the dark at the New Beverly at one in the morning, wondering exactly what I was doing there. But I didn’t regret it—even though this print could not compare to how vibrant and colorful the film looks on DVD, there was a definite potency to its imagery that I found thrilling to finally view on celluloid. Even with twenty minutes missing, the film still played terrific. Whether or not DEEP RED is a masterpiece of its genre, in any version it remains vivid, alive and unforgettable. It may be brutal, but it’s also beautiful. And trashy.

You have been reading the Mr. Peel's Sardine Liqueur review of DEEP RED.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Motorcycle Meets Mercedes

At some point early in EASTERN PROMISES, the new film from David Cronenberg, there’s a shot of a Mercedes backing up next to a parked motorcycle. Something about the texture of the shot, in how it clearly represents two particular people who are about to enter each other’s worlds, stood out to me. Immediately I was reminded that I was watching a film made by a director with the clear command to make a shot of a car parking about much more than simply about that car parking. Of course, I thought to myself. That’s Cronenberg.

Naomi Watts plays Anna Khitrova, a midwife at a London hospital who is present as a teenage girl dies while giving birth to a baby. Discovering the girl’s diary, which is written in Russian, Anna seeks to find out what happened to the girl and her quest to get it translated leads her to a Russian restaurant which serves as a front for an Eastern European crime family. Viggo Mortensen plays Nikolai Luzhin, a driver for the family who also performs certain other functions.

I don’t want to say too much about EASTERN PROMISES just yet, partly because it hasn’t opened wide and partly because I want to see it again to sort out certain elements in my head. How it fits into his continuing body of work is something that will become more clear on repeat viewings and I look forward to them. For now, I’ll simply say it’s very, very good. Following Cronenberg’s career trajectory for the past twenty-plus years has been extremely rewarding and at times frustrating. One thing which seems evident is that this film paired with A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE feels like the director has begun a new stage in the ongoing transformation of his cinematic style. It’s enticing and thrilling to watch. The leads feel locked into their roles in a way that is rare these days—Mortensen is particularly excellent as his work here contains a level of nuance that makes it feel like it shouldn’t even be called ‘acting’. I don’t know what the word is, but it just feels like what he does here is on another level altogether. It’s not the sort of showy role that wins awards but is infused with an awareness of what his craft should be, and so often isn’t, that is undeniable. The film also contains one sequence, set in a Turkish bath, which has to be considered an instant classic. That’s all I’m going to say for now.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Death By Carrot

Clive Owen never got to be Bond, Monica Bellucci never got to be a Bond girl and Paul Giamatti probably would never have been in a Bond movie anyway (though he’d make an interesting Felix Leiter) but all three of them are for some reason starring in SHOOT ‘EM UP. Several days after seeing the film, I’m still not quite sure what to say about it.

It takes about 30 seconds of the film before mayhem begins, involving gunplay, a pregnant woman and surprising use of a carrot as a weapon. Clive Owen is Smith, a guy eating a carrot at a bus stop who gets caught up in the plot involving a baby and a seemingly endless supply of bad guys who are trying to catch the baby. Paul Giamatti is the lead bad guy, constantly dealing with his wife on a cell phone which contains a ring tone identical to a piece of Wagner that Elmer Fudd used to sing opera to. Another carrot conection. Monica Bellucci is the, um, lactating prostitute who comes in handy for Smith at this particular time.

Look, it’s a goof. I totally get that. It’s extremely offensive. I’m totally cool with that. It’s like some bizarre subgenre has popped up in the past year of post-post-Tarantino types who are trying to take things to some sort of next level. There was CRANK, there was SMOKIN’ ACES, and in all honestly I may have liked this one better than those two—I certainly laughed more—but I’m not entirely certain what the point is. To be a comic book/videogame/comment on action films in general? If that’s the case, I wish it were better made—maybe better is the wrong word. Maybe I’m trying to say that I wish that the extreme offensiveness had a more earnest feel to it, if that makes any sense at all. As it is, the movie feels like it’s bending over backwards in its attempt to piss off somebody. A few days ago I stumbled onto last year’s RUNNING SCARED on cable, a tremendously violent film and found myself riveted by the lengths it went to in order to shock me in a uniquely audacious fashion. Sometimes there’s a difference with these things that is tough to put your finger on. Maybe that film just felt more committed in its madness.

Maybe SHOOT ‘EM UP is an intentional throwback to the sort of genre films New Line used to make. It’s set in an unnamed American city but was shot, probably on a strict budget, in Toronto. Maybe that’s part of the joke. Maybe the lousy digital effects are part of the joke. In his apartment Clive Owen has a giant old TV which for some reason made me think of the sets in VIDEODROME and the costumes were done by Cronenberg’s sister Denise, so maybe that’s part of the joke. Which is probably a reach but a good indication that I was sitting there during a fair chunk of the running time wondering what exactly the joke was.

Clive Owen is a phenomenal actor, as is Paul Giamatti. Monica Bellucci, with her Barbara Carrera-type looks, is to me beyond gorgeous. I don’t want to say that this material is beneath them, that’s not where I’m coming from. I guess what I’m saying is that if there’s going to be one movie on this planet featuring these three unique screen presences, then I just wish it were something more interesting. Spectacularly offensive or not.

Even writing that last paragraph, I’m reminded of a few things in the film that bring a smile to my face. It’s not a film I disliked and the cult is going to begin the day the DVD comes out. The thing is, with some sleazy, offensive movies there’s an element that gets under your skin for better or worse and they become memorable, giving you that true rush which reminds you why you’re seeing that movie in the first place. Not so much here. Even as Clive Owen became involved in a shootout while simultaneously in a compromising position with Monica Bellucci, I just felt like there wasn’t much there. It’s funny, but it’s empty. It’s empty, but it’s funny. That about sums up my feelings on the matter.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

One Night in the Seventies

On September 10, 2001 I spent the day at Disneyland with a friend who was visiting from New York. Quite a place to have been in retrospect. I think the sounds of the Main Street Electrical Parade from that night will always remain frozen in time to me. Early the next morning I was woken up by my sister shortly after 6:00 L.A. time and everything changed.

I don’t have very much to say that hasn’t been said already. I think of walking around Greenwich Village when I was a teenager and always being able to see the towers. I think of how large they always loomed to me from the time I was a child. I try to think of the people who were so directly affected by the events of the day and how deep in my heart I continue to ache for them.

It’s strange how certain films have taken on a more poignant feel because of the presence of the towers in them. I especially think of the 1976 KING KONG, which used them as the centerpiece of its climax and the famous poster, which remains one of my favorites. The film has its detractors, to put it mildly, but I have sort of a soft spot for it, a feeling that has only grown in the past six years. Maybe part of the reason is that I think of the shooting of the final moments in the film, an occasion that had thousands of extras show up to be present for the death of Kong and to witness him lying there in the plaza of the World Trade Center. I wish I’d been there that night. Watching it now, it looks like a special event in Lower Manhattan somewhere in the wilds of the seventies, spent as those grand towers loomed above in the night sky. But, ultimately, my memory of them doesn’t matter. Instead, I try to think of the people I never knew whose lives were ended that day. And the great city I once knew very well, a city which will remain great forever.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Putting Off The Burial

It’s always been interesting to me that the last real spurt of westerns came just at the dawn of CGI—almost as if the genre was being allowed one last shot at Hollywood glory before the new wave of digital effects and AVID editing took over and it was officially buried once and for all. In the wake of 1992’s brilliant UNFORGIVEN we got such films as TOMBSTONE (not perfect, but kind of a blast), BAD GIRLS (lousy, but an awesome Jerry Goldsmith score), Sam Raimi’s THE QUICK AND THE DEAD (ok but kinda hollow) and Walter Hill’s WILD BILL (almost defiantly uncommercial and very interesting). In recent years Kevin Costner’s OPEN RANGE has been one of the few westerns to come along and I enjoyed it, almost because it had few aspirations beyond being a no-nonsense adult western. On one film discussion board I frequent there was someone who made a point to mark the one weekday in the middle of August that OPEN RANGE was the number one film in the country, as if to say, see? There are people who want to see westerns. But like noir, it seems to be a genre that in this day and age is appreciated mostly by the film buffs, which is too bad. That there hasn’t been some ultra-slick, CGI-laden western to happen yet is probably because they do terribly at the foreign box office. But it’ll still probably happen one of these days.

For now, I was able to get a great deal of enjoyment of 3:10 TO YUMA, a film that seems to have been directed by James Mangold as if it’s no big deal whatsoever that a western was being made. Which is probably the way it should be. A remake of the 1957 Delmer Daves film starring Glenn Ford (which I haven’t seen) which was based on an Elmore Leonard story (which I haven’t read) YUMA is a mostly simple story which gathers a lot of steam as it goes along, bringing out themes of what it takes to really be a man, to show true strength. Christian Bale and Russell Crowe are excellent and the strong cast also includes Ben Foster, Gretchen Mol, Alan Tudyk, Vinessa Shaw, a brief appearance by Luke Wilson and Peter Fonda who has to be one of the few real connections to old-time Hollywood present here. There’s also a minor deputy character named “Sam Fuller”.

Along with Mangold’s strong direction there are a number of FX artists listed in the end crawl and the highest compliment I can pay is that I have no idea what they did in the film. There’s really no evidence of digital futzing to be seen at all which is just fine with me. But more importantly, it’s an example that the western remains an enjoyable, potent and powerful myth in American films. More westerns are needed. The new 3:10 TO YUMA may not be on the level of UNFORGIVEN, but it’s a strong start.