Friday, December 28, 2007

I Need The Blood

Sometimes I feel myself becoming less interested in writing about new films at the time of release. Not because of any negative reactions, but simply the feeling that I sometimes need to let these things digest a little to separate the movie from all the hype. After all, I’m not working on a deadline or anything here. There’s also the case of films both good and bad that I simply feel like I don’t have much to say about them. That said, go and see WALK HARD, which is absolutely hysterical and anyone who says otherwise doesn’t understand comedy. As for some of the bad ones, some of them are more mediocre than anything else and spending much time thinking about them isn’t worth the effort. But every now and then there’s a film that can just render you speechless and any insightful commentary seems almost impossible.

I first saw THERE WILL BE BLOOD about three weeks ago and when the closing credits first flashed on screen I felt totally flummoxed. It was as if I had been the subject of an assault in watching this film, but whatever I had just seen couldn’t simply be described. At some point during my second viewing Thursday night, I began to feel this vice-like grip encircling inside of me, and I realized that I had experienced the exact same sensation the first time around. It’s a harsh film, a tough film, a brutal film and this recurring feeling made me realize just how much it was seeping in to me. Naturally, at the very last frame, I couldn’t help but have this enormous, possibly evil, smile on my face. See, THERE WILL BE BLOOD is many things and inspires many thoughts. For starters, it could simply be considered a gangbang between Altman, Cimino, Malick, Ford, Welles and, of course, Kubrick, which results in a child that has been injected with the opinion Paul Thomas Anderson appears to have of humanity. An opinion which may rank somewhere beyond the boundaries of cynicism, but even that doesn’t adequately convey my feelings about it.

I’m going to let this one sit a little longer in me, because throwing around words like “brilliant” and “masterpiece” is too frivolous. It is, in fact, a monumental achievement which cannot be dismissed but it will annoy, perplex and anger as many people as those who become its converts. How much I am one of those converts is something I’m still working out in my own head. There will be further viewings and I anxiously await them. I’m not saying that it’s the best film of the year, because it’s possible that to me it may not be. And I’m not saying that it’s a work without flaws, as it’s possible that even on the film’s own gargantuan terms I’m not certain that maybe I don’t have some issues. However, there are so many things I could list which I love or am disturbed by or feel enlivened by in this film but to do that would rob anyone reading this of the chance to experience those things for themselves. You don’t need me telling you what lies within THERE WILL BE BLOOD ahead of time. For now, I’m finished.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Made For Each Other

It may be one of the best DVD extras ever: the Deleted and Alternate Scenes section of the new, bursting-at-the-seams box set of BLADE RUNNER which, when Play All is selected, reveals itself to be not just a random array of cutting room floor scraps, but a fully edited 45-minute assemblage which covers the narrative scope of the film. In a sense, it could almost be yet another version BLADE RUNNER in addition to the five that already come with the set in its most extensive form. It’s not one that shows it off at its best, of course. For starters, it reveals how much worse the Deckard voiceover could have been and how much more of it could have been in there. The impression given is that they were considering that possibility and some of it is so descriptive in exactly what’s going on that you could imagine it being used in some sort of children’s storybook album of the film or something. Some of it is actually better performed than what was finally used in the theatrical version, but they never did figure out a correct way to do the narration and this is pretty solid evidence of it.

This sort of thing easily inspires daydreams of shorter, alternate versions that could be put together from other favorite movies. What could be assembled from the deleted scenes in THE GODFATHER? What narration for APOCAPLYPSE NOW has never been heard in any version ever released? How would one of the early assemblages of STAR WARS play if we looked at it now? What major subplot cut from a film that we know all too well would forever alter our perception of that film if we were allowed to see it? Of course, BLADE RUNNER is a unique film in this case because we’ve been lucky enough to observe its creative progress over the years. Back in 1999 the famed workprint cut of the film, now available on the 5-disc set, played at the Cinerama Dome for a week. I went twice, thinking I might never get another chance to see it. I wish I’d written down some of my thoughts at the time. BLADE RUNNER is not just a film where we have the chance to explore it in this way, it’s one that lends itself to such examination.

Much of what is here could be considered shoe leather, alterations and extensions to footage we are familiar with. But surprises do turn up. One establishing effects shot with the familiar Off-World blimp uses a matte painting of the cityscape which makes it resemble Gotham City in the 1989 BATMAN. Both scenes where Deckard visits fellow Blade Runner Holden in the hospital are included. One section of Deckard lingering over the photos at his piano has him musing over a shot of him with his ex-wife and the suburban setting of the house resembles the photo of Rachael as a little girl with her mother—production shortcut or a clue to the truth about Deckard? While at the bar at Taffey Lewis’s nightclub Harrison Ford plays a scene with a bartender played by actor Charles Knapp, familiar from his appearance as the morgue attendant in CHINATOWN (“Never better, except for this cough”) and if this scene had been included it certainly would have added to the CHINATOWN allusions already present. The love scene goes on longer as well and includes, it should be noted for the record, an appearance by some Sean Young nudity. There are also two versions of the off-to-the-mountains ending, one with narration but no dialogue and one with dialogue and no narration. The unused helicopter footage (shot by the production, not the stock shots from THE SHINING) show footage of Deckard’s spinner from overhead which make it look a little like the 60s Batmobile, but we do get wider shots of Ford and Young inside (only close-ups were used in the theatrical cut). Maybe it could be argued that no version of this sequence should ever have been a part of BLADE RUNNER, but in all honesty, the last line of Rachael’s—“You know what else I think? That you and I were made for each other.”—is so good and correctly opens up so many possibilities, that it’s a shame that it couldn’t be used somewhere, somehow.

This unusual look between footage we are so familiar with will probably never be the norm for famous films. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It is fascinating, yes, and it does help us to understand even better why certain choices and deletions were made. But there’s the question of how much should we be given to tell us about the making of a film and how much we simply pay attention to the film itself, to study that and ignore everything else? It’s not about getting to see deleted scenes, some of which are legendary to us because they no longer seem to exist. It’s the question of how much attention should we pay to a rough draft of a film or, for that matter, any creative work? It can illuminate, yes, but maybe the final version, the one we know, is the one we should get the most illumination from. Of course, with BLADE RUNNER, there will always be the debate over which version that really is. Sometimes a film is allowed to break those kinds of rules. With this film, the beauty remains unique, in every variant we get to see.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Life's Too Short For Someday

The fact that the Christmastime setting during a portion of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE is fairly incidental to the plot doesn’t affect the fact that I make it a point to watch it every year during the holiday season. Yes, the mainstays such as IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, A MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL and DIE HARD are viewed as well, but OHMSS always seems a little more special to me. I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe the setting high atop a mountain in Switzerland makes it more fanciful to me, even if I have very little use for snow in the real world. Maybe it’s just the dream of Diana Rigg at her most beautiful and alluring in that environment which make it all the more enticing, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. As the end of the year approaches, it’s easy to take stock of certain things and while you can be aware of what is different in your life, some things never change and one of them is how much I love ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. It’s how it stands apart from other entries in the series, from the casting of George Lazenby to the ending to the cool pulp feel that director Peter Hunt brings to it. I think of the views of people high up in the Alps skiing, living the high life, and it’s hard not to have dreams of that. Plus, in those few seconds when Diana Rigg’s Tracy makes her long-awaited reappearance in the film and gives James Bond that look she gives him, that devastating smile, it’s hard not to believe, if only for a few seconds, that all really is right with the world. I wish everyone reading this Happy Holidays and a Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Cocktails and Weapons

A few scenes into CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR a character mentions Scarsdale and it was enough to throw me out of the movie for a minute or so. As far as I can tell, this is the first mention Aaron Sorkin has ever made of his hometown in one of his scripts and since it’s my hometown as well, I’ve always felt a little simpatico with the guy. We’ve never met but if we ever do, I hope it’s an ok icebreaker.

It’s a pleasure to hear that familiar Sorkin syntax again, especially since none of it involves a character named ‘Matt Albie’. If I hadn’t known that he had written this script, it wouldn’t have taken me too long to figure it out and that adds to a lot of the enjoyment in CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR. But here’s the thing: When watched now, AN AMERICAN PRESIDENT is like a kind of jazz played by somebody who is good, but not exactly the right person to be playing that particular music. What Sorkin does on the page completely crystallized with SPORTS NIGHT and THE WEST WING, presenting his dialogue rhythms and indeed his entire world view in the exact right way. Now we have CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR, a piece of music played by a master (Mike Nichols) who does a nice enough job playing it, but seems content to simply noodle around with the notes, never really digging in deeper to find what else might be there.

Set back in the dark days of the 1980s, Hanks plays hard-drinking Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, Roberts plays wealthy socialite Joanne Herring, Hoffman plays CIA operative Gust Avrakatos and the film details their unlikely quest to supply the Afghans with weapons to help them fight the invading Soviets. It’s idea with potential to get across ideas both serious and satiric about where we’ve gotten to now in the world, yes. But throughout the movie I found myself sitting there in the middle of all the politics and history and world events it portrays and wondering, ‘What is this movie really about?’ and the best answer I could come up with was that it was about Mike Nichols sitting back and enjoying these three actors (Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, all doing what they do very well. Especially Hoffman.) go through this snappy patter. There are far worse things to see, but there never seems to be any strong point of view about anything. Deep into the movie, there is a series of transition shots which get a particular point across in a visual, cinematic way and I found myself coming alive in my seat as the movie came alive for a brief moment. But just for a moment.

Maybe the movie didn’t want to delve too deeply into the nitty-gritty of the politics. Maybe someone thought that if certain things were said it would alienate a percentage of those buying tickets. Maybe it was the conundrum of making a movie where the people are alive and the tricky legal tightropes which have to be navigated so topics like 9/11 possibly aren’t alluded to as strongly as they should be so the movie feels like it has a purpose. This all comes to a head by the end (no spoilers) which seems to happen in a rather abrupt fashion, when it feels like there should be a drunken monologue by Hanks or something of real weight to cap everything off. I knew the running time was about 100 minutes going in but if I didn’t I’d wonder if we were missing something. So we probably are.

I liked some sections very much, particularly an extended sequence where Hoffman’s CIA man visits Wilson’s office for the first time. The interplay between those two men has more teeth than anything else here. Amy Adams plays Wilson’s chief aide(some nice shades of Josh Lyman and Donna Moss there), helping to prove that putting Amy Adams in your movie is a pretty good way to make it automatically better. And yes, Sorkin’s script does a very good job of getting to the point it needs to get to in scene after scene. It’s what’s missing in CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR that gnaws at me, the places it seems unwilling to go to that make me wonder exactly what the purpose of the movie is. Unless it really is watching the three leads say the snappy patter. It’s entertaining to a point, but I wish there were more to it than that.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

More Times Than She's Had Hot Meals

“This is one hell of a way to spend Christmas.”
--opening line from LAST ACTION HERO, possibly written by Shane Black

I stumbled onto a series of very enjoyable podcasts at containing the various post film Q&As at the recent festival hosted by Edgar Wright at the New Beverly. Hearing Shane Black talk about a variety of topics including his directorial debut KISS KISS BANG BANG reminded me that we in L.A. are all pretty much in a Shane Black movie right now, it being Christmastime in L.A. Why he keeps on doing it is a mystery to me, but LETHAL WEAPON, the non-L.A. THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT and KISS KISS all use the holiday as a backdrop. At a Motion Picture Academy anniversary screening of LETHAL WEAPON earlier this year, Black recalled a conversation with a Warner publicist while promoting the movie in ’87, where the publicist asked the then-23-year old, “So, were you in ‘Nam?” Black then commented that a version of the joke eventually wound up in DIE HARD. (This must be the “Just like fucking Saigon!” “I was in Junior High, dickhead,” exchange) So does this mean that Black worked on the script for DIE HARD? I’d never heard anything about that before. And is it possible that the Christmastime setting for the film was supplied by Black? Until I get to ask the guy myself, I’ll have to wonder.

I actually have been around him before, particularly at a few parties thrown at his mammoth house, but we never really met, so I have no colorful anecdotes about talking to the guy. But some of the vibe of those parties is very much in evidence in KISS KISS BANG BANG, a Los Angeles where the Christmas party is populated by very few people who seem to know the host and it all seems to be about networking.

KISS KISS BANG BANG is compulsively rewatchable, with a dynamic plot that does exactly what it wants to do: pay homage to the Raymond Chandler books it apes in the chapter titles throughout and also put a new spin on both them and the buddy movie genre. Even better is the chemistry between the lead characters played by Robert Downey, Jr., Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan. If the movie had been a hit, it would have been great to get to see the three of them in another Black-penned scenario, sequel or otherwise. If there’s any real flaw in the film to me, it’s that the relationship between Downey, Jr.’s Harry Lockheart and Monaghan’s Harmony Faith Lane never really gets resolved. If anything, it seems to fall away after the climax in favor of ending with Harry and Kilmer’s Gay Perry. I like those scenes and I like the coda which feels like a reshoot, but it just makes the whole thing come up a little short.

It’s an annoying little nitpick, it really is, considering how damn entertaining the whole film is and that the movie was tossed away by its studio just means that there’s something wrong out there these days. The two male leads do some of the best work they’ve ever done, but it’s Monaghan who’s the real revelation, a genuine spitfire playing a character that is unique in films these days. I don’t believe that she’s thirty-four, but I do believe that she is beautiful, intelligent, vivid, vivacious…but also more than a little damaged, and unapologetic for it. And when Harry lets Harmony know how he feels, right now it makes me think of about two or three women I know who I’d like to go to right now so I can yell at them about they way they act sometimes…but also tell them in the best possible way how I really feel about them. It’s not gonna happen though, not right now, because I know for sure that I’d somehow screw it up.

It’s Christmastime in Los Angeles, as one of those trailers might have said. Los Angeles is vivid enough as it is, but it somehow becomes more vivid at this time of year, as if what you usually get from this city when just walking down the street becomes heightened at a time when you would think there’d be nothing more than people caroling. Shane Black must know that. Of course, there’s always the possibility that when walking down that street you just might get Harmony Faith Lane. I should be so lucky.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Power Making A Woman Masculine

December 17th marks the 25th anniversary of the release of TOOTSIE. To put that into appropriate perspective, it means that the film is now several years older than SOME LIKE IT HOT was when TOOTSIE came out. That’s how much time goes by. Directed by Sydney Pollack, it’s been a favorite of mine ever since it first came out. I'm sure I thought it deserved to win Best Picture even then and now I’m absolutely certain it deserved the prize. After many, many viewings over the years it remains an example of a film which has what is pretty close to a perfect screenplay but it's well known that there were many hands involved in that script through years of development and well into shooting. Don McGuire, Murray Schisgal and Larry Gelbart are the writers credited, but there were reported contributions by numerous other scribes including Elaine May, Barry Levinson and Pollack himself.

The film was made under what were apparently strenuous conditions—it wasn’t a happy set—but whatever Sydney Pollack did was absolutely right. He wasn’t the first director on the project, but he turned out to be the right one. Hal Ashby was involved at one point, but it’s possible that the relaxed nature of plotting in his films meant that he wasn’t the right fit. Blake Edwards made his own gender-confusion comedy the same year with VICTOR/VICTORIA, one that was strictly his own style. There’s an irony in that Sydney Pollack, a director not known for comedy and who never directed another, turned out what is undeniably one of the best comedies of all time. Maybe this rogue entry in his filmography works to such a large extent because it seems to demand absolute realism in its outlandish premise. It’s something that seems to be missing from many comedies these days, which usually look like crap and force characters to suddenly act stupid for lame reasons while taking lame pratfalls.

Everyone in TOOTSIE is believable in their own comedic way, from the bit players at the opening party to Bill Murray’s (presumed) ad-libs which are always funny but he correctly plays it as part of the movie and his character, not just as ‘Bill Murray’ doing a cameo. In fact, there’s not a false note to be found in the cast, from Hoffman, Garr and the Oscar-winning Lange, to Charles Durning, George Gaynes, Doris Belack and Geena Davis in her film debut. Even when Dabney Coleman’s Ron attempts to explain himself to Dorothy Michaels, he never actually becomes likable, but he does come off as believably human. And Pollack himself as George Fields is phenomenal as well. Too often comedies seem to force characters to act unbelievably stupid, making it seem as if it doesn’t take part in any world we are familiar with. If it is allowed to be grounded in some version of reality, the story can work better and the jokes can be funnier. TOOTSIE is one of the best examples of that imaginable.

Outside of the numerous musical montages, which I’ll admit do lock the film back in the 80s, very little about TOOTSIE is dated and however much it is used as an example as a screenplay to emulate in quality, it’s not used enough. One episode of 30 ROCK from earlier this year had a TOOTSIE-watching Liz Lemon waking up one morning to the TOOTSIE DVD screen presumably after having fallen asleep watching it the night before. Liz has the right idea. It’s such a great film.

However, I still sometimes wonder how Michael Dorsey was able to square things with the Southwest General people and presumably avoid a massive lawsuit. That and the eventual response to RETURN TO THE LOVE CANAL will have to remain a mystery.

Do Not Stand Up

I’ve always been a little fascinated by the slight differences in the Universal logo which was used during the 70s and the 80s, the one where we travel through space towards the Earth. The one used for all Scope releases is a slight variant, in which the approach to the planet seems slower, shorter and more mysterious. Back before I fully understood the differences in aspect ratios it somehow gave me the impression that the following film was going to be somehow grander than normal movies—well, it works in the case of JAWS. Why were there these two slightly different versions? And why does the Universal logo before E.T. play backwards? That’s right, these are the things I wonder about. I no longer make apologies.

The Scope Universal logo is seen in all its glory before the 1977 ROLLERCOASTER which I just saw for the first time. There was no big reason for seeing it now, except that I had never seen it before. Visually it bears all the marks of the various disaster-type films that came from the studio back then, with the flat, TV look shot in Panavision fully present. The film was released in Sensurround, the big gimmicky sound system developed by the company in that decade which of course is not replicated on the DVD. The film is set around what I guess was the amusement park craze of the 70s. Did you ever notice how in films based around a fad everyone in the world seems to be crazy about that fad? If it’s a video game movie, everyone’s nuts for video games. If it’s HALLOWEEN III, everyone’s crazy about those masks. In ROLLERCOASTER it’s amusement parks and, of course, rollercoasters that everyone is bonkers for. It was released in June 1977, feels about as dated as an issue of Dynamite Magazine with Mark Fidrych on the cover and was probably a total relic by the following year. I got some enjoyment out of that 70s style of suspense but then again, I got some enjoyment out of the logo at the start, so what can I tell you.

Timothy Bottoms plays a madman who sabotages a rollercoaster with a radio-control explosive, killing a number of innocent people and attempts to use this to extort money from the authorities so he won’t commit the same act again. George Segal plays Harry Calder the insurance investigator who figures out Bottoms’ agenda very quickly, which attracts the attention of the madman who begins to take a personal interest in Calder and involves him in his further plots.

There seems to be miles and miles of rollercoaster and amusement park footage in ROLLERCOASTER and really not very much else. It utilizes a little of the disaster movie formula made familiar by Universal by this time, along with the basic TOWERING INFERNO/BLACK SUNDAY template of public events where innocents are placed in jeopardy. The three acts contain three separate amusement parks with the first two filmed in Virginia and the 'thrilling' climax taking place in the familiar environs of Magic Mountain in Southern California. That climax has a little of the same problem that BLACK SUNDAY has—if the villain succeeds, what occurs would be horrifying but the hero can’t fail so how could there be anything spectacular that will occur in that climax? The film is directed by James Goldstone, a journeyman probably best known for the second STAR TREK pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. His direction here is strictly workmanlike and never seems to be able to ratchet up the tension even during the climax which is dully shot like every other scene in the film. Do not look for Hitchcockian-level thrills here. Still, if you’re a rollercoaster buff, and I know some of them are out there, there’s at least a lot of documentary-type footage at the various locations used. The finale is bungled, as if they couldn’t or wouldn’t figure out a more exciting way to stage it and when the credits roll, there’s a feeling that they weren’t interested enough to come up with a simple wrap-up scene. It all makes you wonder what sort of film JAWS would have been if it had been directed by somebody like Goldstone working with the same writers and starring somebody like Chuck Heston. Actually, I’d rather not think about that.

Easily the best thing about ROLLERCOASTER is George Segal as Harry Calder, making for a likable lead and one a little different than expected from the Universal disaster stable. He helps make the movie about as enjoyable as it is. Paired with Elliott Gould’s Robert Caulfield in CAPRICORN ONE, these films would make for a nice “70s schnooks with similar names who become unexpected heroes” double bill. Richard Widmark plays an FBI agent who butts heads with Segal, though there’s not as much yelling as there is between Widmark and Michael Caine in THE SWARM. Henry Fonda has a handful of scenes as Segal’s boss, Susan Strasberg (wasted) is his girlfriend and a pre-teen Helen Hunt makes her film debut as his daughter. You of course think she’s going to be placed in jeopardy, but as is typical in the half-assed nature of some of these 70s Universal films (EARTHQUAKE, also in Sensurround, is the best example) that never happens, which means that there’s never a reason for her character to exist. Craig Wasson and an uncredited Steve Guttenberg make early appearances as well. The rock band Sparks appears during the Magic Mountain climax, playing a few really bad songs that seem to go on forever. The rollercoasters play themselves. They are very convincing. I’m sure I’ll never get the chance to experience the thrills of ROLLERCOASTER in Sensurround as it was intended, but I’ll get over it. It may not be much of a movie, but I’m still kind of glad it exists.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

All Through The Night

Maybe THE OMEGA MAN is a tough movie to defend, but sometimes I still imagine driving around town while an 8 track of the Theme from A SUMMER PLACE plays. And maybe some of THE OMEGA MAN is pretty goofy, but…all right, a lot of it is goofy. Too much of it is goofy, too much of it doesn’t make enough sense, but it manages enough creepiness to go along with the silliness and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.

The surprise for me is that I AM LEGEND, which can be classified as an OMEGA MAN remake based on the credits as well as based on the original novel by Richard Matheson, isn’t as bad as I imagined was a possibility. It’s not as good as it obviously wants to be either. Yes, every now and then a plot point would unfold and I would think “Well, that deals with that implausibility from the other movie” but the one of the big problems with the film is that it thinks it’s aspiring to more than you would expect but it really isn’t. The majority of the most interesting stuff feels like it’s been done before in other end-of-the-world and man-alone type films and in each case it was done better. CAST AWAY is the obvious inspiration in the one-man-show aspect along with how the lead has a companion to talk to, in this case being a dog. Even the lightly spotted score by James Newton Howard recalls the sparseness of the music in the earlier film. For the end-of the-world aspect, by this point it’s hard not to think of CHILDREN OF MEN(the best version of this sort of thing in recent years), Spielberg’s WAR OF THE WORLDS, maybe TWELVE MONKEYS and the novel of THE STAND. A few tiny elements from THE OMEGA MAN actually slip in as well.

Sure, the whole albino “Family” element of OMEGA is silly, but the idea of a TV anchorman-turned-prophet-turned-cult leader is a genuinely interesting one well played by Anthony Zerbe and, for all I know, had some genuine punch in the post-Manson era the film was made in. I AM LEGEND jettisons this entire element and replaces it with not very much of anything. For better or for worse it really is a man-alone-in-New-York movie and the interesting issues brought up with “The Family” in OMEGA, such as discussions of how Neville--and, in effect, the entire human race--is now “obsolete” are avoided in favor of vague themes like “Hope” and “Peace”. I’m for those ideas too, but it doesn’t leave much meat for the film to chew on.

The vampire-like creatures of the original novel, the 1964 Vincent Price vehicle THE LAST MAN ON EARTH and the albino family of OMEGA are replaced with, well, zombies. Zombies of supernatural speed, agility and movement, the sort that you’ve seen in 28 DAYS LATER. Many of which in this film are achieved via CGI. So let me just make this clear: CGI zombies aren’t interesting. Heck, even CGI zombie dogs, several of which make appearances here, aren’t interesting. They’re not frightening, they’re not threatening. I don’t like them, don’t think they’re effective, and there’s not much you can say to convince me otherwise. Sure, there may be a jump when a zombie unexpectedly appears with a LOUD NOISE but that doesn’t mean that the scene has done anything other than create a loud noise. Like vampires, they cannot handle bright light of any kind and when the zombies are first glimpsed in a darkened setting from behind, it’s intriguing…then when they turn around and start to run, jump and flail around all the tension dissolves. There are also plenty of interesting digital shots used to create the abandoned Manhattan, but even that becomes a bit of overkill. By the time we were swooping down yet another deserted street that obviously isn’t real I was thinking not, “Wow, New York is really deserted,” but instead, “Hey, this reminds me of that old HBO Feature Presentation intro.” There are moments of intensity and emotion in I AM LEGEND, many of which have nothing to do with digital enhancement and are supplied by Will Smith. His performance is better than the movie and it refreshingly explores the grimness of the basic concept and how he genuinely is slightly cracked from spending so much time alone, more than any other version of this material has ever done. The pain you can see in his eyes sells that and he doesn’t back away from that feeling.

Unfortunately, elements like that coexist uncomfortably with the zombie stuff which ultimately feels hackneyed and lacking in ambition. It kills the tone and it kills any chance of the movie being better than it is, something that it clearly aspires to. THE OMEGA MAN has its problems, but even in its obvious backlot setting, there’s a nightmarish vibe to the whole thing which I still get off it. I don't feel particularly hostile towards I AM LEGEND, I just feel like it's a missed opportunity to make a film that was truly exceptional. Ultimately, the best things about it aren't unique enough to allow that to happen.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Josie McClellan is 37

Some movies we have a soft spot for, even though we shouldn’t. Sometimes girls grow up and change, but the crushes we have on them never fully go away. We’re only human. That’s me saying I have to wish a very happy birthday to Jennifer Connelly.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Too Much Politics

Has there ever been a serious analysis of John Wayne’s late career DIRTY HARRY knockoffs? Maybe a graduate student somewhere wrote a thesis entitled something like, “The Death of America as witnessed by John Wayne: McQ and BRANNIGAN in the shadow of Watergate”. Sounds pretty snappy to me.

In McQ Wayne plays a Seattle cop who beats up punks and uncovers police corruption. In BRANNIGAN he plays a Chicago cop who travels to London to extradite a subject and gets involved in a kidnapping plot. He doesn’t do much in the way of beating up punks, but it’s a good bet that if a punk wandered by he’d be taken care of.

Interestingly, referencing Watergate in relation to McQ actually makes sense as its story of citywide corruption being uncovered by the title character does make sense in light of what was in newspaper headlines at the time. Wayne plays Lon McQ, a Seattle Police Detective investigating the murder of his best friend and partner. He finds himself in the middle of a wave of police corruption and the drug dealers who are searching for a missing stash, or “junk” as characters are continually calling it. McQ actually resigns from the police department relatively early and spends much of the film as a lone gun, becoming more disgusted with what he’s turning up in this world that he thought he knew. “Too much politics,” he mutters as he tosses his badge and gun down. Directed by THE GREAT ESCAPE’s John Sturges, it moves along very much like the work of an old pro who knows what he’s doing. There’s a very good cast of familiar players like Eddie Albert, Clu Gulager, David Huddleston, Julie Adams, Colleen Dewhurst, Al Lettieri and especially the underappreciated Diana Muldaur as the partner’s wife. The Seattle setting, much of it shot on location, is well-utilized but best of all are a few pretty terrific chase scenes, capped off by a final chase along the beach on the Washington Peninsula which is a true beauty.

Yes, there’s plenty of DIRTY HARRY throughout, but there’s also a little bit of BULLITT (a credit sequence that sets up the plot before the main character shows up which features an easy-listening version of the main theme) and THE FRENCH CONNECTION (during one chase McQ drives under a freeway instead of under a subway, in pursuit of a subject). I’d have a problem with all this if it wasn’t so damn cool. And there’s a fantastic Elmer Bernstein score which practically blares out ‘SEVENTIES!’ but is purely and simply kick-ass. The expected double-crosses that the plot contains are never all that surprising after many years of similar cop movies and it’s hard not to notice that Wayne is a little too old to be living on a houseboat and driving a Firebird—seriously, he’s zeroing on seventy and he drives a 1973 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. I also challenge anyone to do a McQ drinking game where the requirement is to do a shot every time we see Wayne walk down a hallway. He seems to spend half the movie doing that.

The actor was already gone by the time the 1980-set NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN takes place but listening to Wayne’s McQ talk about disillusionment in the context of the early 70s, I found myself thinking of Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell and wondered if maybe he’d ever seen McQ. Surely somebody like him must have seen every movie Wayne ever made. What did the Duke’s loyal western-loving audience think of McQ, anyway?

The much lighter BRANNIGAN, directed by Anthony Hickox, followed a year later. Wayne plays Chicago Police Detective Jim Brannigan, sent to London to aid in the extradition of gangster Ben Larkin, played by John Vernon as a stuffier version of his POINT BLANK character. However, Larkin is kidnapped just as Brannigan arrives and he has to work with the English cops to find him and deal with the contract on his life that has been put out.

The opening credits run over exciting shots of Chicago as a Dominic Frontiere score plays(not as cool as Bernstein’s McQ theme, but not bad) and this is followed by a brief appearance by KISS ME DEADLY’s Ralph Meeker as Brannigan’s captain. The first scenes play up how maverick an officer Brannigan is and it’s almost a shame that the entire film didn’t take place in Chicago since Wayne never seems quite as much of a loose cannon as we’ve heard about. Casting such a familiar face like Meeker in a small role almost makes it seem like this is a sequel to a BRANNIGAN set entirely in Chicago. It even brings to mind that BEVERLY HILLS COP sequel never made that would have followed Axel Foley on a case to London.

The kidnapping plot is actually fairly intriguing at the start, but the movie soon focuses as we simply follow Wayne around more than anything. It’s still pretty enjoyable but it seems a wasted opportunity that we don’t get more of Wayne and Vernon facing off against each other. We do get a decent chase scene, a brawl in a pub (“highlight is amusing brawl in pub”, says Maltin) and a track-the-suspect sequence which goes on way too long. Richard Attenborough is fun as the London officer in charge of the case—he’s the one who faces off with Wayne more than anyone, but it never gets too heated. Judy Geeson is very cute as the detective assigned to Brannigan even though we’re never sure if the relationship is supposed to be a flirtation or what—how much younger is she supposed to be, anyway? Lesley Anne Down also briefly appears in an early role. We get a lot of footage of Wayne traveling all around London as well as a plot point used in SPEED years later and an exploding toilet long before one turned up in LETHAL WEAPON 2. But in the end the movie comes up a little short. An anticipated confrontation never pays off as we'd like it to and when the credits roll it feels like there's a big slam-bang setpiece missing that either never got filmed or we simply never got to see.

I say McQ wins this round. It just feels more full-bodied in its story, action sequences, music and overall seventiesness. In both films Wayne of course seems too old to be doing this but even if I’d been there at the time I sure wouldn’t have told him that. It's pretty clear that he still would’ve been able to kick the crap out of me.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Swimming Through the Center of the Sun

The New Beverly is currently running a festival programmed and hosted by Edgar Wright, billed as The Wright Stuff. Wednesday night’s entry was a double bill of two rather legendary comic book films produced by Dino De Laurentiis, FLASH GORDON and DANGER: DIABOLIK, with a few special guests in attendance. Shortly before showtime I was in the lobby when suddenly I was confronted by the sight of Timothy Dalton and Joe Dante embracing. Hey, it’s a LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION reunion! Edgar Wright was standing there between them, looking pleased as punch at what he’d engineered. Back in the theater I spotted DEATH PROOF’s Zoe Bell seated directly across the aisle from me. Sigh. Just another night at the New Beverly.

Dalton of course plays Prince Barin in Mike Hodges’ 1980 updating of FLASH GORDON and was there to do a Q & A with his HOT FUZZ director. The film was preceded by a bunch of trailers for post-STAR WARS sci-fi films like BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, GALAXINA, STAR CRASH, THE BLACK HOLE (a personal Rosebud) and for the Dalton fans, THE ROCKETEER. I can’t explain it, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve never seen the entirety of FLASH GORDON from start to finish. One thing I kept thinking of while watching it was how certain I was that this was surely shot in the stages of Cinecitta in Rome and how I could imagine Fellini storming these sets over the weekend and shooting some impromptu footage. Turns out I was wrong. It was shot in England but the sets and costumes were the work of Danilo Donati who worked with Fellini many times before and after this film. Edgar Wright also pointed out this unique feel that the film has and watching it now, since it’s really not a childhood touchstone for me, that flavor is the most interesting thing about FLASH GORDON. The film feels dated, yes, but except for the Queen music (which, admittedly, is awesome) it doesn’t feel as shackled to the period as things like the BUCK ROGERS show do. Maybe it’s a basic European feel but I kept feeling reminded of a basic mood that can also be found in other De Laurentiis productions ranging from BARBARELLA to DUNE. Even the extensive special effects, while in no way “realistic”, are actually very goofily enjoyable and also correct, considering the artificial tone that is the goal here.

While stars Sam Jones (dubbed by another actor—shades of other sixties productions) and Melody Anderson may be kind of dead wood, there’s more than enough energy from the supporting actors like Dalton himself, Topol, Max Von Sydow as Ming the Merciless, Brian Blessed, SWEPT AWAY’s Mariangela Melato and the spectacularly gorgeous Ornella Muti. Plenty of familiar faces pop up in bits throughout—when you think ‘Is that Richard O’Brien?’ there’s really not anyone else it could possibly be. The film is directed by Mike Hodges who was probably more at home making the classic GET CARTER, but even though I may not be about to become a card-carrying member of the FLASH GORDON cult, it’s a fun movie, especially when viewed with the crowd at the New Beverly.

In the post-film Q&A Timothy Dalton displayed a charm that has been unfortunately absent from too many of his film roles, including when he played James Bond. He may have been visibly taken aback by Edgar Wright’s first question (“Did you f*** Ornella Muti?”) but overall he seemed delighted by the large crowd and how much the audience genuinely enjoyed this film which didn’t do that well here in the states back in 1980. Wright also revealed that Dalton wore a mustache in HOT FUZZ primarily as a reference to this movie.

Joe Dante was on the premises to introduce DANGER: DIABOLIK and, I suppose, give the audience a bit of a Mario Bava primer. Fortunately, I had the impression that a number of other people there were already up to speed on him but Dante is always enjoyable to listen to. He talked a little bit about the director, justly praised Tim Lucas’s epic Bava biography All the Colors of the Dark to the skies and even discussed Dino De Laurentiis, telling the story of how he tried to hire Dante to make ORCA II, capped off by a priceless impression of the producer.

Before DIABOLIK we were treated to trailers for such other sixties epics as KISS THE GIRLS AND MAKE THEM DIE, DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE, OUR MAN FLINT, THE AMBUSHERS. None of which, of course, come close to measuring up to the stylish glories of DANGER DIABOLIK. I’m going to write a full piece on it another time, but for now I’ll just say that each time I see this film I like it a little more. I used to have issues with the episodic nature and how it makes the pace a little pokey and it does, but now I feel more than content to let the movie simply glide along as we revel in the exploits of Diabolik and Eva. The interplay between John Phillip Law and Marisa Mell is spellbinding as they come off as the coolest couple you’ve ever seen. All you can do is dream of being part of a pairing that produces such electricity. As great as the DVD is, the extensive glass matte work by Bava is even more impressive when seen on film. I loved every second of seeing this film again. After a late start, the intros and Q&A the night at the New Beverly ended later than expected so I was a little tired the next day. It was well worth it. DANGER: DIABOLIK has that effect and so do nights like that at the New Beverly.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Special Appearance

In case anyone is interested, the length of screen time that Christopher Lee has in THE GOLDEN COMPASS is roughly equal to how long his screen credit appears. In addition, Daniel Craig’s in the movie for about ten minutes and Eva Green’s in there for maybe five, give or take.

I’m not going to write about THE GOLDEN COMPASS because it doesn’t really interest me, but Christopher Lee’s presence in the film, with a character simply named “First High Councilor”, does. His name isn’t billed in the ads but it is the third and fourth credit among the actors at the end and it’s there in big, booming letters—not even a “special appearance by”-type mention which you’d probably expect for this sort of thing. Getting prominent billing for such a miniscule appearance reminds me there was once a time when Lee’s name would be used as the selling point for a film, even though his part didn’t really warrant it. Maybe it’s THEATER OF DEATH or some Jess Franco film I’ve forgotten, but maybe I’m really thinking of one of the Dracula films where he doesn’t get resurrected until the halfway point and even then he gets next to nothing to do—there are few films other than TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA where the top-billed star has such little screen time. And now here he is, once again, playing a role where he gets great billing in the credits but appears for about the time it takes to buy a soda from a vending machine. Hearing that familiar boom of his voice does manage to make THE GOLDEN COMPASS seem like a real movie for a few seconds, however. It’s nice to know that some things don't change.

Anyway, his part is so brief that I couldn’t find a still of him, so here’s a shot of Eva Green in the film. This will have to do.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Phantom Feelings

There’s a type of thriller that seemed to exist when I was growing up and I almost can’t put into words what the subgenre would be. Dark tales of modest ambitions featuring stars in the lead roles, many set in rural aeas, some about people who have come there from the city. I imagine many of these films beginning with the Avco-Embassy logo as well. I’m not sure I understand what this phantom sort of movie is, but that’s what memory does to you.

Oliver Stone’s THE HAND (featuring an Orion logo at the start, not Avco-Embassy) is one of those movies and yet it isn’t. It’s a straightforward horror thriller, yet it isn’t. It has a performance by an actor who goes over the top, yet he doesn’t. It’s about a killer hand, but no, that’s not really what its about at all.

Michael Caine is comic book artist Joe Landsdale. During a car ride he is having an argument with wife Anne (Andrea Marcovicci, also of THE STUFF and THE CONCORDE: AIRPORT ’79) about the state of their marriage. In the middle of the fight, the two are nearly in an accident and while Caine is waving for a car to get out of the way, it is sliced clean off by the truck who is closely driving in front of them. Robbed of his creativity, Landsdale tries to put his life back together as his marriage crumbles, but he begins to have visions of his hand which was never located after the accident. And what about these visions of violence that he is having? Is he going mad or is the hand simply causing what he wants to happen to certain people?

Made after his Oscar win for the screenplay of MIDNIGHT EXPRESS and his first attempt to film BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (with Al Pacino) had failed, THE HAND is Stone’s second directing effort after the little-seen 1974 horror film SEIZURE. That first film is not particularly good, but it is interesting (the presence of Martine Beswick in the lead role certainly helps). THE HAND is interesting as well, but it never fully works because it seems unsure where to go with its basic idea and how far to take it.

The film’s basic theme of an artist losing control of his creativity is a powerful one but THE HAND seems to take even more interest in portraying the collapse of this marriage. As an exploration of the themes of fidelity and trust, I was strongly reminded of some of David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD, made two years before this. But that film is a good example of Cronenberg’s strengths, while THE HAND plays like the work of a director who is unsure of how to handle the genre. In fact, Stone makes a comment on his enjoyably earnest DVD commentary for the film that he doesn’t think he has the “horror gene”. The sequence where the hand is severed is bloody and effective, no question about that, but it’s clear that Stone would figure out the right path for his directing career soon enough.

The performance of Michael Caine falls somewhere in between his over-the-top rantings in things like THE SWARM and his more acclaimed work from around this time such as DRESSED TO KILL. At first he seems a little too strait-laced to me as this comic-book artist and the main argument at the beginning features him yelling just a little too much. (It frankly plays like Caine overacting as opposed to the character overreacting) On the other hand, when he simply expresses himself and his anger with looks he is very strong (Caine has such great eyes for that sort of thing) and he also seems much more believable, chillingly so, late in the film when he really starts to go over the edge. As his wife, Marcovicci is very good, as well as fetching, and the movie’s portrayal of her never seems to tip in one direction or the other too much. It’s too bad that she never became a more familiar face, though she has achieved a more successful career as a cabaret singer.

Ultimately, Oliver Stone as the director of THE HAND is more interested in the exploration of a character’s descent into madness and the destruction of a marriage than he is in making a movie about a killer hand. That’s all well and good—hey, it’s what I’d be more interested in as well. But he doesn’t seem to know how to use the genre to make those two separate things play off each other. And, as he would probably admit, he doesn’t seem interested in figuring out how he would do that. That’s why I dislike the ending so much, one which screams “let’s reshoot so we can play up the horror angle and go out on an illogical scare” just about more than any other bad horror movie ending I’ve ever seen. Sometimes a director makes a certain movie to find out that he doesn’t want to make that movie. So maybe the best way to look at THE HAND is as a short detour in the path of Oliver Stone’s evolution.