Thursday, January 31, 2008

Beyond the Infinite

It was shortly after securing my ticket to the Jan. 30th screening of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY at the Cinerama Dome when I realized that the American Cinematheque was showing, as part of their Mel Brooks series, LIFE STINKS on the very same night. With Mel Brooks in person for a post-film Q&A. What are the odds that those two films would be playing on the very same night? Wondering if I should bail on the 2001 screening, I felt suddenly faced with the ultimate question of cinema: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or LIFE STINKS? Stanley Kubrick or Mel Brooks? How do you really answer such a question? Can any person really speak that answer unconditionally? Whether or not they can, I ultimately went with 2001. I’m not proud. I know certain people will now lose all respect for me.

Which brings me to another issue. Why is the Arclight only running 2001 in the Dome for one showing? It sold out within days. Gee, what are the odds that some people would actually show up for a 70MM print of 2001 at the Cinerama Dome? You think it would do halfway decent if it ran for, say, a week? Wouldn’t the Arclight like making more money? I always thought it was a shame that 2001 couldn’t actually be shown in the Dome during the year of its title, due to the theater being closed down as the Arclight was being built around it. But no matter. If seeing STAR WARS at the Chinese is like going to an amazing ball game, the 2001 at the Dome has the feel of attending mass at a glorious cathedral. I love how the curvature of the screen affects the image of the film, something about the way it’s laid out emphasizes the size of the film, yet in wrapping around you makes you feel as if you’re right there. Back before the Arclight was built, the Dome would run a number of older films throughout the years. It was a thrill to get to see things like APOCALYPSE NOW, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, DR. STRANGELOVE and EL CID there but I somehow knew that this would never last. Since the Arclight opened (and I love going to the Arclight) the Dome has unfortunately rarely been utilized for revivals mostly limited to very welcome engagements of IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD and genuine Cinerama showings of THIS IS CINERAMA and HOW THE WEST WAS WON. Terrific, yes, but not enough. The majesty of the Cinerama Dome should be used more often to display films that really need to be seen in such a place. In some ways, it really is a holy place. It should be treated as such. And if they show certain older titles that really display the brilliance of the theater people will come out for them and they’ll do it for a reason, as the crowd who enthusiastically applauded the Cinerama logo over 2001’s end credits proves.

What went on today in my own world did its best to knock the effect the 70MM screening had on me out of my system, but Kubrick’s universe couldn’t leave my head that easily. The print was not in perfect shape but it was good enough. More importantly, by a certain point I was somehow feeling the movie within me like never before. Maybe now that I’m older I can truly appreciate how one-of-a-kind an experience it provides. On each new viewing for me there’s a shot, a moment, that seems to stick out like never before. This time it was that long close up on Keir Dullea's Bowman at the beginning of the Stargate sequence. Something about it got under my skin, as if the character knew something was coming but couldn’t help but be terrified. Not because of whatever terrors he might witness, but because of the potential beauty. I love those freeze-frame close-ups of him as well. Remembering how certain episodes of THE SOPRANOS have inspired comparisons to Kubrick, the transitions to the aging Bowmans in the bedroom near the end seemed to have a feel similar to some of the fractured cutting used in that show many years later. And I can’t help it, but the quasi-lounge look at that future which never came to be we get a look at in the space station seems more enticing each time I see it. I look forward to whatever unexpected moments leap out to me on my next viewing.

And hopefully that will be relatively soon. If it was playing at the Dome for a full week, I’m sure I’d go again. 2001 is now forty years old and we’re several years past its expiration date, so to speak. But it still presents not only a fascinating future, but a possibility of a future of cinema that could live up to the challenges it presents. The idea of a world of film which contained more artists willing to dare, willing to strive for ideas and images that had not been seen before, to go beyond the infinite in their own way just as Kubrick once did, seems remote sometimes. But I can dream. And when I’m experiencing 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY at the Cinerama Dome, that’s exactly what I do.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Is the month over yet? It looks like we’re getting there. For some reason I feel like once January ends it’ll be like I’m exiting a giant tunnel. I just hope there’s not another big tunnel at the start of February. Anyway, I took in my second viewing of CLOVERFIELD this past weekend. Ultimately, I like the film quite a bit yet I found myself vacillating this time around between thinking it was more and less effective. More, because I found it constantly exciting in how it used this approach to what would normally be a standard narrative. Less, because some of the found footage aspect of it came off as a little less believable this time around. But now, several days later that doesn’t really concern me quite so much. The most intense moments of its brief running time stick with me. I’ll state flat out that I’m not very interested in any of the viral aspects of the story. I don’t need to see the myspace pages of the characters, I don’t need websites focusing on the history of the monster and for that matter, I don’t need any info on the history of the monster. I just don’t care. What I find interesting is what we’re allowed to see through these characters eyes contrasted with what is never learned. There’s no point to it otherwise. I’m sure that there is a logic to it all, but part of the purpose of the you-are-there approach seems to be that we’re never given the long, boring “The monster came from…” speech. In this day and age, metaphors can come from anywhere. Whatever id it comes from in the post-9/11 world that you think it does is probably correct.

There is the issue of what feels like a certain house style that we expect from the J.J. Abrams stable, both in how good looking the various actors are and a certain amount of snark that pokes through in the dialogue. This is me connecting CLOVERFIELD to FELICITY more than anything—LOST, which I think is a fantastic show, is outside the scope of this issue. I can understand the argument that it would be nice to see the version of CLOVERFIELD that starred normal people instead of actors who stereotypically look like they belong in a J.J. Abrams production (in this case, also written by Drew Goddard and directed by Matt Reeves). Of course, that’s what he does and it almost ignores how the opening party feels like a perfect opening to a romantic comedy from the creator of FELICITY. That a monster is interrupting that movie makes it ever better. The second viewing did reveal a certain lack of gravitas to the whole thing, but these seem like characters who wouldn’t be the types to acknowledge gravitas anyway.

It’s considered that CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is where the whole found footage subgenre originates, but I could believe these guys never even saw that film—BLAIR WITCH, of course, is another matter, but the movie that really came to mind during that second viewing (and I know I’m not the first person to mention it) is MIRACLE MILE, the rather amazing Steve De Jarnatt film from 1989 which has Anthony Edwards intercepting a phone call which may be telling him that the bombs are in the air and he has less than an hour before it’s all over. Set in the titular area of L.A. the lead is a young man who has just met the girl of his dreams (Mare Winningham) and is desperately trying to find her so they can get out of town together. There’s a darkly comic b-movie tinge to the film which is similar to AFTER HOURS, so its stylistic approach is very different from CLOVERFIELD, but it has a definite soul which makes it all the more haunting in the end. The film offers a feeling of “We had a moment, THIS MOMENT and now it’s all ending,” something maybe we can all relate to and it’s a mood that CLOVERFIELD, much as I like it, only really has in spurts. The haunted glances that Lizzy Caplan’s Marlena gives the camera at several points are almost enough to make up for this, doing a better job of revealing someone who is traumatized that any crying and screaming that comes from the other actors. She’s the most interesting presence at the party in the early going and later on those eyes of hers reveal more soul than anyone else here. (Am I going too far in revealing my own crush on Lizzy Caplan?)

More than anything, I was struck by how CLOVERFIELD seemed to use its own particular approach to give us an alternate take on what is the current standard of the disaster-movie plotline—in the early going, I was comparing it in my mind to the crummy POSEIDON remake (which also featured Chris Vogel in its cast) and not only how much better this film was at laying out its exposition but how much it revealed the formulaic dead end reached by most other examples these days. And it really feels to me like those involved love the approach of putting what is ultimately an old-fashioned monster into this format. The end credits offers the only music we get during the entire film, a phenomenal piece of music by Abrams regular Michael Giacchino entitled “Roar! (Overture from CLOVERFIELD)”. Sounding like the score to the imaginary ‘normal’ version of the movie, it feels like a full encapsulation of the beauty and majesty of the type of film they’re trying to make. There’s really no reason for it to be there except, damnit, those involved just felt like doing it. I don’t just want this on CD—I want to hear this thing performed in concert, it’s that good.

The various elements that make up the breakneck pace in CLOVERFIELD feel like something bracingly new, even if some of its individual parts have been seen before. The slight feeling of gimmickry could diminish repeated viewings and I do wonder how the characters made it all the way up to midtown in that subway tunnel but for now, much of its effectiveness remains. It’s a bracing reminder to us in this day and age that it could always end just like that. And sometimes, there’ll be a monster roaring directly at us while it happens.

Monday, January 28, 2008


Otto Preminger’s HURRY SUNDOWN, released in 1967, has a miserable rep, usually placing it on lists of legendary turkeys. I’m not even sure why I went to the American Cinematheque screening at the Egyptian Friday night, unless I was going for some kind of Michael Caine completist thing, but I’m glad I did. Maybe this is one of those things where since I wasn’t around at the time to fully understand the context this film was made and released in so I can’t fully appreciate how it was viewed then. But looking at it for the first time in 2008 HURRY SUNDOWN plays as a pleasant surprise and even though it is set in the 40s, it could be looked at as a hopeful look, however naïve that may have been, at race relations in the time it was made.

Based on the novel of the same name by Katya and Bert Gilden the film, set shortly after World War II, is a lurid tale set in rural Georgia involving race relations and the hotbed issue of land, offering enough plot that could be expanded out to a full season of a primetime soap (though it would be hard to imagine such a show offering wuch extensive uses of the n-word). Michael Caine, sporting a Southern accent, is Henry Warren, a land-owner buying up as much as he can. Jane Fonda is his wife, a woman whose wealthy family goes back nearly a century in the area. They have a volatile releationship with a fair amount of sex and drinking, but one with continued troubles brought on partly by their (autistic?) son who they can’t seem to control. John Phillip Law, Diabolik himself, and Faye Dunaway are their poor cousins who own land nearby and are reluctant to sell. Robert Hooks is an African-American who lives on land which adjoins Law’s and the two men have to overcome their differences to prevent Caine from acquiring their farms.

Like I said, I can’t plug myself into knowing how this played back then, but looking at HURRY SUNDOWN in 2008 it plays as a very humanist piece of work. It seems to genuinely desire that the Law and Hooks characters work out their differences and this feel for the humanity seeps through to the rest of the film. Michael Caine’s character is pretty much the villain yet he is believably shown to be conflicted at certain points. Jane Fonda’s character in some ways is the heart of the film as a woman torn between the husband she partly despises and what she is beginning to suspect is the right thing to do. Even the blatantly racist supporting characters spread out through the story seem less stereotypical than they generally do in most films of this type. I’m not saying they come off as likable or sympathetic, simply that the movie seems to be operating under the belief that such people wouldn’t come off as villains day after day. They may not be nice, but they do play as believable. And while there may be a little too much of a feel of the ‘noble black folk’ of the film they certainly never come off as ignorant of their surroundings and Robert Hooks, excellent in the film, manages to infuse his portrayal with enough shadings and complexities to override any of those issues with his character. The post-film discussion, which included Law and Hooks, revealed that the movie had been film on location in Louisiana in 1966 and it wasn’t until they had arrived that the production realized just how dangerous a situation this was, with death threats to cast members quickly becoming a common occurrence.

One early scene between Caine and Fonda has them drinking and flirting with each other at night in their mansion as Caine plays his saxophone. Fonda takes it from him and rather suggestively, um, blows on it. Nothing wrong with that and it’s a cute little bit, yet it seems to have been the sort of lurid, over the top moment that people latched on to, as symptomatic for what was wrong with the entire film, thereby ignoring the many other issues that the film raises. Of course, in 1978 HURRY SUNDOWN was named as one of the fifty worst films of all time in the book of the same name by the Medveds. It wouldn’t surprise me if they never bothered to see the film that they were trashing—HURRY SUNDOWN probably wouldn’t be the only film where that was the case. Those Golden Turkey books that those guys put out really do read as rather repugnant now and I suppose I have another reason to feel that way.

There is the problem in Michael Caine’s performance and it goes beyond the issues of the accent to the fact that nothing about him seems believable as somebody from the south. He’s not miscast as much as weirdly cast and it’s not a bad performance so much as one by a talented actor who never got a handle on his character. Hopefully, this will be the worst thing that I ever write about Michael Caine and for those who may be interested, the flashback footage of him in AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER comes from this film. Of the rest of the cast, Law and Dunaway are particularly good, with Dunaway especially a revelation in terms of how unaffecting she is. She’s one who definitely understands her character and where she’s coming from. There are similar affecting moments from Diahann Carroll as Hooks’ schoolteacher love interest and Beah Richards as his mother. There’s also plenty of enjoyment from the supporting cast, including George Kennedy as the local sheriff who is the real comic relief, but the movie is smart enough to never paint him as a total idiot. Burgess Meredith tears right into his role as a racist judge, Madeline Sherwood (a civil rights activist in real life) is very good as the judge’s wife, Robert Reed is a lawyer and Jim Backus turns up as another lawyer late in the film in what is pretty much the Jim Backus role.

Whether during giant Scope shots of fields being dynamited to allow for irrigation of intimate scenes between a few people in a room, HURRY SUNDOWN is also very much a movie, with a dynamite visual sense that is constantly compelling. Even though it is set in the 40s, the fact that it was made in the 60s in the heart of the very worst of what it portrays spotlights how much it’s director seems to be saying about what he thinks could happen in the world if the right people would just agree to come together. It may be lurid and it may be an overripe mixture of different elements but it’s a shame that HURRY SUNDOWN has been buried for so long.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Writing Comedy In California

“You can’t write comedy in California! It’s not depressing enough”! spits out Sy Benson, played by Bill Macy, late in MY FAVORITE YEAR. It’s just about the only indication of what would happen to any of the film’s characters after it ends and, obviously, you know that at least a few of them had to eventually make it out to California to continue writing comedy. But what I have to ask is right now, this week, are you sure that California isn’t depressing enough? With this rain? With this cold I’ve had? With this entire damned month of January that I want to be over so bad? It’s perfectly depressing right now, if you ask me. Not to mention that, as we all know, there’s definitely not enough writing going on in this state right now.

Yet another viewing of MY FAVORITE YEAR is at least a tiny little aid in all of this. A movie I love which takes on additional resonance as time goes on, it falls on that list of movies that make you feel better, a little happier to be alive. When I was a kid I enjoyed it for the laughs. Now that I’m older the laughs remain, but there’s also the bittersweet tinge to it which makes me think of my own life when things just were simpler and more carefree.

The year of the title is 1954. Mark-Linn Baker plays Benjy Stone, the young writer of the Comedy Cavalcade, a very thinly veiled fictional version of Your Show of Shows—Stone is by all accounts based on Mel Brooks, who, though it was produced by Brooksfilms, takes no credit though he was apparently closely involved with the production. The film is set in the week when legendary movie star Allan Swann (Academy Award nominee Peter O’Toole) is set to guest star. When the clearly washed-up legend shows up so drunk he passes out, Benjy is assigned to be Swann’s keeper, to make sure he stays sober and actually turns up for the show.

This was Richard Benjamin’s first film as director and it remains far and away his best. Much of this has to do with the warm likability that comes from the script by Denis Palumbo and David Steinberg but it also has to do with his expertise in bringing out the perfect-timing laughs from one of my very favorite ensembles in all of film. In addition to O’Toole and Baker, there’s Joseph Bologna, SUSPIRIA's Jessica Harper, Bill Macy, Lanie Kazan, the legendary Adolph Green, Anne DeSalvo, Basil Hoffman, Lou Jacobi, Tony DiBenedetto, Selma Diamond, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE’s Cameron Mitchell, George Wyner and a silent Gloria Stuart. These are actors who rarely get as much of a chance to shine as they do here and there are a few who I honestly never like very much otherwise. Here, they are all perfect.

And it’s a wonderful New York film as well, giving us an array of people from that city, writers and others, who fought their way into these positions and are looking to keep on fighting. Some of this feel lives on today in episodes of 30 ROCK (the absence of which is another reason to be depressed) and MY FAVORITE YEAR gives us an antic world of people who bite each others heads off, yet they remain likable. And when we have a sequence like the one with Boss Karl Rojeck’s meeting in the Comedy Cavalcade offices, it plays for all the world like it could be a sketch on Your Show of Shows and it perfectly fits into this world, as if it’s an everyday occurrence to toss things out a window in the middle of Manhattan. If the film isn’t perfect—and I’m saying if, like maybe the romance doesn’t work, maybe there’s some abruptness to the plot which gives the feeling that a few things are missing—and even if these things are true, it ultimately doesn’t do anything to affect how many huge laughs there are or how ultimately affecting it is.

We’re a few months past the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of MY FAVORITE YEAR, but right around now is actually the twenty-fifth anniversary of its second-run appearance at the late, lamented Scarsdale Plaza, an old time movie palace which I saw countless movies in while growing up and was torn down a few years ago to build condos. I’d seen it already, but I remember going with my family to see it on the Saturday night of that week to see it again. I remember it playing like gangbusters for the crowd with huge laughs and cheers at the end, as good a response as I’m sure it ever got. After it ended my father, who was seeing it for the first time, turned to me beaming and exclaimed, “You didn’t tell me it was that good!” I wish I could tell him right now how much that memory means to me. In some ways, that memory is what MY FAVORITE YEAR is all about.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Something More

When Sean Connery was lured back to play James Bond once again in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, part of the deal with United Artists was that the studio would produce two non-Bond films starring Connery in the future. The only title produced under that arrangement was THE OFFENCE, a devastatingly grim police drama directed by Sidney Lumet. It’s almost as far away from the world of James Bond that one can imagine—maybe not as far as ZARDOZ, but you get my point—and shows the actor in a light that he rarely ever appeared in again.

Set in a characterless British town, THE OFFENCE stars Connery as Johnson, a police officer investigating a series of child abductions who after he personally locates the latest victim brutally beats and kills a suspect. Forced to deal with what he has done, Johnson must face how his job has affected his very being over the past twenty years. Written by John Hopkins (one of the writers on THUNDERBALL) from his play “This Story of Yours,” THE OFFENCE is at times stunningly good and sadly underseen. It’s also as despairing a portrait of the human race as I’ve seen in some time and, in many ways, feels all the more truthful because of it.

It starts as a seemingly routine police procedural, becomes a character study, then almost without warning becomes something else entirely, which can possibly only be described as an intense dive into the main character’s soul. Directed by Lumet in the third of what would be five films the actor and director would make together, Connery’s almost the whole show here. In some angles his mustache and eyebrows seem a bit overly theatrical and while there’s the slight feeling that he would have been even stronger in the part a few more years down the line it’s hard not to notice how much the actor is fully plunging into the role. Ultimately, it’s a triumph for him and his talent.

Also appearing in the film are Trevor Howard (making his second straight appearance in a blog entry here) as an investigating superintendent, Ian Bannen as the primary suspect and FRENZY’s Vivian Merchant as Johnson’s wife. All three of these actors, who interact with Connery more than anyone else in the film, are excellent and each seems to provide a different cadence for him to play off of, thereby adding additional shadings to his character. The extremely long confrontation between Connery and Merchant in the middle of the film is grueling all by itself as all the anger and frustrations of what has built up through the years between the two come out. Admitting that he never even thought his wife was pretty, Johnson admits that he’s not even sure why he married her, why he made the choices he made in life since he always wanted “Something more…” He trails off, not knowing what else to say and her suggestion that he “talk to someone” are dismissed. Even if he did seek somebody out, it’s clear that he wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to articulate what’s inside him. It’s a reminder of how much this comes from an earlier time, when people didn’t talk about what was being bottled up inside of them. But it’s the “something more” which is haunting me now. It’s possible that it could be read as Connery himself wanting to move on to do other things after a decade of playing James Bond, to find another outlet to express himself creatively. But that “Something More” is, I think, something we can all relate to, that unexplainable thing which is out there in the world that we all aspire to, but somehow feel unable to fully put into words. Or, if it can be put it into words, we are afraid to articulate it to someone else. And it seems strangely resonant on this day, when we are all dealing with the death of Heath Ledger and wondering what could possibly have been going on in his own soul.

There was a brief moment during the film when I wondered if it was going to turn the tables and end in some kind of gimmicky twist, but the revelations that THE OFFENCE produces are much more internal and therefore more haunting. The day after I viewed it, I found myself thinking about it more, not just because of the real events that had transpired, but also because those feelings of darkness are tough for any of us to shake. That feeling of wanting “something more” is always going to be out there. Maybe we just need to at least try to come to terms with it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Best Way to Shoot Yourself

The 1974 11 HARROWHOUSE seems to be unknown by most people which puzzles me slightly, since it plays exactly like the sort of movie which would have been shown all the time by Channel 5 in New York back in the day. Unfortunately I have no recollection of ever flipping past the film and it seems to be forgotten. Except, of course, by Quentin Tarantino who on the DVD commentary track for HOT FUZZ tells Edgar Wright that when he met Candice Bergen he told her he loved her in 11 HARROWHOUSE. Without missing a beat, she replied, “Everything they say about you is true.” Now that I’ve seen it, I guess this means I’ll have to come up with another opening line in case Bergen and I ever meet.

The fairly simple plot involves diamond merchant Howard Chessner (Charles Grodin) and his girlfriend Maren Shirell (Bergen) who are blackmailed by multi-millionaire Clyde Massey (Trevor Howard) to pull off a heist at the London Diamond Exchange, an well-guarded office run by the unscrupulous taskmaster Meecham, played by John Gielgud. Chessner finds an unlikely ally in Charles Watts (James Mason), an employee of the Exchange who has terminal cancer and is not expected to live long enough to cover the pension needed by his family. Looking to exact revenge, Watts is all-too willing to help out with the crime. As indicated on the poster, a cockroach painted red turns out to be crucial to the crime.

The whole thing is pretty light stuff, even as far as light entertainments go, but there is a certain satisfaction in seeing how some parts of the heist turn out. Checking around the internet, I’m surprised to learn that there are two separate versions of 11 HARROWHOUSE in existence, one which contains a voice-over narration by Grodin’s character and one without. The version I saw, a pretty ancient Playhouse Video cassette, contains no narration. Reviews on IMDB which have seen both versions seem to feel that removing Grodin’s commentary kills most of the humor. I could actually believe this, since Grodin’s lax screen presence doesn’t really do much for the film. He’s never given the chance to display the sort of memorable character he provided in films ranging from THE HEARTBREAK KID to MIDNIGHT RUN. I love Charles Grodin, but he just seems out of place in a Cary Grant-type role. Taking a look at his autobiography “It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here” (an event during location shooting at a castle inspired the title) sheds some light on the narration and even Grodin, who says he was trying to play a character entirely different from his HEARTBREAK KID persona, felt he came off as too laid-back as well. He claims that when the narration was added, the response from audiences was much better, but he never sheds any light on why there are apparently two versions in circulation nor does he even talk about his own work on the script outside of the voiceover which seems to have resulted in the odd screen credit “Written by Jeffrey Bloom, Adaptation by Charles Grodin”. I enjoyed 11 HARROWHOUSE, but it does play a little dry and it’s easy to imagine that the narration being reinstated would help things.

Whatever dramatic heft the film does have is provided by James Mason’s meek employee who, once his situation is revealed, fully has us on his side and rooting for him. It’s a little like if Carl Reiner’s health scare in OCEAN’S ELEVEN didn’t turn out to be merely part of the heist. For some reason I kept picturing Cybill Shepherd playing Bergen’s role but I have to admit she does make for a striking figure when she and Grodin are in the middle of target practice and considering she’s introduced speeding out of control down the highway in a convertible with a copy of the I Ching next to her, it’s hard to imagine anyone else at the wheel. She’s definitely a fetching cohort to pull off a heist with. The opposite natures of the two elder statesmen in charge are ideal, with John Gielgud ideally officious as the head of the exchange and Trevor Howard is enjoyably off-kilter as the millionaire behind the scheme (so help me, I kept thinking of Kyrpton Elder he played in SUPERMAN during his scenes).

If 11 HARROWHOUSE got some play on cable it would probably be a nice surprise to people. Even better would be a DVD release that contained both versions and maybe an interview with Grodin. He seems to express ambivalence towards it in his book but the film plays like it’s deserving of an audience and certainly is entitled to have the correct version out there in circulation. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to see it sometime.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Cadillac Without Doors

Blake Edwards’ A FINE MESS is a curious film, one which has the director returning to a type of tribute to old-style Hollywood comedy that he had done many times before. The most obvious example of this would have to be THE GREAT RACE, which began with the dedication “For Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy”. A FINE MESS, a title presumably taken from Oliver Hardy’s “another nice mess” exclamations, began with a similar intent as a feature-length remake of the Laurel and Hardy classic THE MUSIC BOX. A player piano does, in fact, figure in the plot as a sort-of MacGuffin, but in the middle of the film’s protracted post-production process, the entire sequence intended to serve as the MUSIC BOX remake was cut from the film. The film still makes sense without it, but the question of what exactly A FINE MESS is doesn’t really get answered.

To take a stab at the incident-heavy plotline: Spence Holden (Ted Danson) is a extra working on a film shoot at the racetrack when he overhears two low-level mobsters (Richard Mulligan and Stuart Margolin) talking about their plan to drug a horse named Sorry Sue, enabling them to fix a race the next day. When he is spotted, they chase after Spence who steals a car from the film set to get away. He then ropes his best friend Dennis Powell (Howie Mandel) into helping him make his way to the racetrack the next day without the mobsters finding him. This leads to several other chases in addition to numerous developments that include an auctionhouse, two women who come into their lives, the police, a mob boss, the aforementioned player piano and multiple car crashes.

A FINE MESS begins and ends with sequences that appear to be ‘real’ but are then revealed as films being shot. There’s an entire layer of reality/unreality issues that move through the entire film but none of it ever seems to mesh into anything cohesive. Dennis Powell is introduced as working as a carhop at a drive-in which seems like something out of the fifties with roller-skating waitresses all moving in synchronization. Even all of the customers seem like teenyboppers out of the fifties. Within all of this we get Spence Holden pulling into a spot in the stolen car looking like something out of the thirties. There’s obviously something going on here which is intended to be a commentary about what we’re seeing but what exactly is it? A director doesn’t need to flat out state what he’s doing thematically in a particular film since if his intent is clear then we can sort that out for ourselves. When these elements turn up in A FINE MESS it simply seems curious. When compared to, say, BLIND DATE, Edwards’ farce which was released the following year, it’s clear that the latter film is meant to be set more in the ‘real’ world, or at least Blake Edwards’ idea of the real world(not that it necessarily makes BLIND DATE a better film, but it’s a useful comparison). In the case of A FINE MESS, as well-paced as it is, the issue of its own reality never quite gets clarified. A Cadillac driven by the bad guys gets involved in multiple accidents, resulting in both of its doors missing. It’s a funny sight, but in some ways A FINE MESS resembles that Cadillac without doors, only in the case of the film as a whole we never feel like we’re told exactly why those doors are missing.

The project apparently originated with the intent to be mostly improvised, much like THE PARTY, but it went into production with a full script. It was originally scheduled to be released in Christmas 1985, got pushed back to May 1986 before it finally came out in August of that year. With the number of chases it contains and extreme amount of stuff going on throughout it never becomes dull and I sometimes find myself enjoying the rigidly structured frenzy of the slapstick. It’s filled with farcical coincidences that strain credibility, but no more than certain episodes of SEINFELD do. Still, there’s an empty feeling to the whole thing which indicates that whatever the original intent was, something that goes beyond that MUSIC BOX sequence being excised, got lost somewhere along the way. The fact that the MUSIC BOX section got cut isn’t even that surprising, since it comes at a point in the plot when the various elements are getting ready to crash together in the climax and to go off-point for an extended length of time may not have worked. As it is, the only indication of it left in the film is Howie Mandel visibly wondering how they’re going to get it up the staircase before them. When we return to the two leads after cutting away to another scene, the job has already been completed. Putting this aside, the film at least feels tonally consistent and the only thing that feels genuinely off while watching it is the presence of the continuous rock songs on the soundtrack. Henry Mancini is, no surprise, credited with the music but none of those songs are his and it is very obvious how out of place they are. The eighties-ness of the tracks are much of what hurts it—maybe they’d work fine in THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS, but not in a film which seems specifically designed to exist somewhere out of time. As it is, Mancini’s contributions in the final film are minimal. Most notable is the recurring song heard coming out of the player piano, which sounds like it could come from the piano museum in the Mancini-scored MANS’S FAVORITE SPORT? or maybe even Marlene Dietrich’s bordello in TOUCH OF EVIL.

Ted Danson and Howie Mandel are at least likable and energetic in the leads. It’s Richard Mulligan and Stuart Margolin as the mobsters Turnip and Binky who seem like the real Laurel & Hardy surrogates—Mulligan is the childlike idiot and Margolin barely seems able to walk two feet without banging into something. Maria Conchita Alonso and Jennifer Edwards, both game, are the girls, Paul Sorvino is the opera-singing mob boss and Keye Luke gets pretty high billing for doing little more than saying “Come in”. James Cromwell plays one of a pair of Mutt and Jeff cops (the other guy does most of the talking), Dennis Franz plays Danson’s brother-in-law, still acting like one of his De Palma sleazes and Dr. Herb Tanney, billed as Shep Tanney, plays a veterinarian. Julianne Phillips, who would work with Edwards again in SKIN DEEP, appears unbilled as one of Danson’s many sexual conquests.

At one point in A FINE MESS a character is informed by his butler of a woman who has called for him on the phone and the man does an immediate spit take as his wife sits there, silently fuming. There’s a full narrative revealed in these few seconds and it’s a moment like that which displays the comic mastery that Blake Edwards is capable of. The entire film is somewhat more problematic, but at least some of that mastery comes through on occasion. It can’t exactly be called an artistic success, but there are far worse punishments I can imagine than sitting through A FINE MESS again.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Somewhere In Between

A colleague of mine leant me his DVD of RACING WITH THE MOON quite some time ago and I still hadn’t popped the thing into the player. Must have been all those SIMPSONS reruns I was watching. Whatever it was, I figured the time had come to check it out.

Richard Benjamin’s directorial followup to MY FAVORITE YEAR, the 1984 RACING is most notable for the early look it gives at future stars when they were still somewhat raw. Set in 1942-43, it’s an early starring role for Sean Penn, playing seventeen year-old Henry 'Hopper' Nash in a small Northern California coastal town. Weeks away from reporting for duty with the Marines, he spends time working at the local bowling alley with his best friend Nicky (Nicolas Cage), who is also about to head off to war. Bored, he takes an interest in a girl named Caddie (Elizabeth McGovern) who, though she works at the local movie theater, apparently lives in a large mansion and therefore must be a “Gatsby”, their slang for the rich people in town. Hopper and Caddie grow close very fast, but she avoids telling him the truth about her situation.

When Penn and McGovern are walking in the woods looking for something in one scene they come across an arrow directional arrow which offers no help and she says, “It’s gotta be that way, that way or that way,” and Penn replies, “Or somewhere in between.” With nothing left to look forward to in this town and an unknown future lying after that, Penn’s Hopper finds himself somewhere in between as well. Even the car radio heard in one scene which is turned from news reports on the warfront straight to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and the entire movie could be described as lying somewhere between those two basic ideas of the time it is set in as well. Instead, it chooses a more relaxed approach which takes allows us to take our time getting to know the characters so we are able to accept them for who they are, even with their faults. It’s interesting that Benjamin’s second film goes ten years back from the fifties of MY FAVORITE YEAR and doesn’t share any of the heightened tone that film has. Of course, that approach wouldn’t fit in this case and it’s refreshing to see a film set in the forties that presents things so naturally, not in any deliberate ‘forties’ style. The simple tone can’t be compared to the tragedy of other end-of-youth pieces like, say, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and because of that the ending doesn’t quite resonate in any tremendous way but the film is ultimately too likable and sweet to criticize very heavily.

It’s also a very special film because it allows us to see these leads before they became too fixed into what their screen personas became. I’m not sure Penn was ever this likable, relaxed and natural at any other time on screen before or after. It’s his movie, but Cage is very good as well, with next to none of the mannerisms he’d be known for in just a few short years. He also looks weirdly like a missing Baldwin brother in a few shots. Elizabeth McGovern, not always one of my favorites, turns out to be touching and just right as the girl Penn loves. In one of those strange quirks which somehow causes one film to blend into the other, McGovern is introduced practicing ballet by herself, twirling in a circle as Penn gazes at her from afar unnoticed. It’s oddly similar to ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA when the young version of De Niro (hang on, isn’t Sean Penn the young De Niro?) gazes at the twirling Jennifer Connelly who would, of course, grow up in the movie to become Elizabeth McGovern.

Much of the film is a three-character piece, but also spotted in small roles are people like Crispin Glover as a local rich jerk, Carol Kane in an enjoyable cameo as a hooker and, most surprisingly, a terrific bit with a young Michael Madsen as a crippled soldier home from the war. It barely lasts two minutes and Madsen almost steals the movie.

The film’s conclusion might not be as emotionally strong as it should be, but maybe that isn’t necessary. The characters, after all, are still growing up and it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t have them register what a crucial turning point in their lives this time is. That’s the sort of thing that people realize later on in life as events of the past gain in stature and I have the feeling that’s exactly what RACING WITH THE MOON is going to do as well.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there's a DVD that I have to return.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Unilateral, Concerted, Diplomatic Effort

Just to clarify, I like SWEENEY TODD but it suffers from the same problem each Tim Burton film since MARS ATTACKS! has, namely a total lack of Martians who repeat “ACK ACK ACK ACK!” over and over again. It wasn’t received very well at the time, then a few years later there was a period where the very nature of the film was probably a little too touchy for the real world, but now it seems we’ve come full circle and are more than ready for this jet-black comic world that Tim Burton and company seem more than willing to destroy. It takes a lot to get me to laugh when I’m sitting by myself watching a movie. MARS ATTACKS! has always been able to do it. In many ways, the film is like the culmination of everything Burton had done in film up to this point, the closing of the first chapter of his feature career that started with PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. Sometimes the look of his films is criticized as appearing too dark and dingy but maybe with this film he was getting using as many colors as physically possible and he’d never have to use any of them ever again.

It’s Burton’s most wickedly funny film, both in love with the characters in the frame and more than willing to treat many of them in as sadistic a manner as possible—much emphasis seems to be placed on how painfully it actually is when the characters are disintegrated by the Martian’s rays. This is the only film on record which puts Jack Black, Joe Don Baker and Sylvia Sidney in the frame at once and there are numerous other such combinations throughout that only add to the fun. As a matter of fact, it’s a flat-out bizarre cast, with other scenes that give us combos of people like Jack Nicholson, Rod Steiger, Pierce Brosnan, Paul Winfield and Martin Short (Martin Short??). Not quite Black, Baker and Sidney, but still pretty impressive.

Maybe it’s arguable, but his films in recent years feel slightly more impersonal than what he directed in his first decade. Whatever their respective sizes, BATMAN RETURNS and ED WOOD feel like they share a very distinct sensibility and MARS ATTACKS! (the screenplay is credited to Jonathan Gems but Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski worked on extensive rewrites as well) may be an outgrowth of that but it’s a baffling one. It almost defies analysis. The BATMAN sequels are about the wearing (and not-wearing) of masks, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and ED WOOD are explorations of the nature of creativity and how personal that can be. What, then, is MARS ATTACKS? It’s anarchic, yes, maybe taking some of what Joe Dante did in the two GREMLINS films a few steps further but more than anything the answer may simply be that it’s the one true Tim Burton expression of creativity and what he loves about movies, from its rimshot punchlines that end scenes to the wide expansions of its settings to the scattershot idea of who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are. I may identify more with the eagerness of Lukas Haas’s misfit than the self-satisfaction of Michael J. Fox’s reporter, but the thought of swigging martinis in the “Kennedy Room” certainly sounds appealing, especially if it’s scored with the kind of lounge music Danny Elfman provides. I just hope that the company would turn out to be a little more pleasant. The Martian Girl is of course played by Burton’s then-paramour Lisa Marie. here’s very little sexuality present in the film among any of the female characters apart from her and even she is a very bizarre example. The kicker is when her dead body is being examined, Burton stages the scene so someone walks in front just as the top of her dress is being pulled off. He knows that we’re wondering if we’re going to see Martian breasts and he teases us with thinking we’re going to see it until the last possible second. It’s a small touch but one given to us by someone who fondly knows the feeling of hoping for something forbidden in a movie, even though we know that it’s never going to actually happen.

But more than anything is the impression that Burton has taken the gleeful viciousness of how characters were killed off in Irwin Allen movies, tossed in various wicked STRANGELOVE vibes and updated it all to apply to our modern-day world. It’s now more than a decade old, but after various events of the past few years it feels timelier than ever. The simple juxtaposition of the headlines on the New York Times-like paper (“Existence of Interplanetary Life Comfirmed”) and the one on the correctly-named New York Post (“MARTIANS!!!!!”) feels more pointed than anything in all of INDEPENDENCE DAY but the constant scenes of those in power bickering endlessly just seem flat out true today. Maybe that’s why the most ferocious fight between Nicholson’s President and Steiger’s General “(Annihilate! KILL!! KILL!!”) gets me laughing no matter how many times I see it.

Whether this is reading too much into it, I don’t know. But viewing these people of power react in their various ways to the attacking aliens is strangely liberating when the real-world equivalents are doing the things they do. It’s a cheerful apocalypse in MARS ATTACKS! and if that seems a little harsh coming from what should be simply a wacky comedy, it’s hard not to take a look at the headlines of today’s paper and realize just how much the movie gets right. Maybe if there is any message within the anarchy of MARS ATTACKS!, it’s to do what you think is right in this world, rather than what you think you’re supposed to do. Maybe that’s a way to watch films as well.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Different Sides

Serious spy movies from the 60s usually get forgotten on those days when Bond isn’t talked about in the wake of Matt Helm and Derek Flint, but Harry Palmer is known by a few people and thankfully we have the American Cinematheque to fill in a few more of the blanks, like when their Overlooked and Underrated series features such titles as A DANDY IN ASPIC and THE DEADLY AFFAIR. Both serve as very interesting examples of the genre and while each contains the typical plot confusions that you would expect from such films, they deserve to be better known than they are. I want to be careful with plot details, even though both are unavailable on DVD, but there’s also the honest issue that it sometimes takes at least a second viewing with some of these films to sort out every plot point anyway. Still, if this is your sort of thing, then it’s your sort of thing.

A DANDY IN ASPIC stars Laurence Harvey as a British spy who is actually a double agent for the Russians. He’s also desperate to be sent home and his troubles are compounded when he is sent to Berlin to track down and kill the Russian agent who is in fact himself. The film is given the unique plot point of a hero who is desperate to break in to the iron curtain and would make a good Reluctant Spy double feature with THE IPCRESS FILE. In fact, it’s easy to think that IPCRESS, several years old by this point, was a key inspiration in this film’s production. It never goes quite as far as the wacko camera angles that Sidney J. Furies used in the earlier film, but the feel is sometimes there. And to me DANDY seemed to be considerably better than the two Harry Palmer sequels that were made. Dry, very dry, DANDY is just about the cinematic equivalent of the tone of Laurence Harvey’s voice, something which partly makes sense when you consider that Harvey took over direction from credited director Anthony Mann who died during filming. In addition to a very good Tom Courtney, the enjoyably eccentric cast includes Mia Farrow, sporting her short ROSEMARY’S BABY haircut, Lionel Stander as a Russian agent introduced reading a Batman comic and a post-BEDAZZLED Peter Cook, lending the tone just enough of a twist to help ensure that this is more than just a straight spy movie. There’s also very interesting location work in London and Berlin, some very cool Scope use and an evocative credit sequence featuring a marionette, presumably meant to represent Harvey. If it wasn’t for that unfortunate title—which, it should be said, is from the novel it is based on—maybe DANDY would be better known than it is.

THE DEADLY AFFAIR was the second feature and made an interesting comparison. Directed by Sidney Lumet, it’s more serious and also more emotional. Both films share enjoyable supporting performances by Harry Andrews and each contains a score by Quincy Jones. The music for DANDY is more successful as it correctly fits the tone of the IPCRESS approach but the sixties-lounge nature of the music in DEADLY doesn’t really work at all. True, the film offers the rare pleasure of a theme sung by Astrid Gilberto and it would probably work just fine if heard on its own, or with a more appropriate film. But as heard here it unfortunately clashes with the gravely serious tone of the piece. Lumet’s never been very much for using full scores (BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD is a notable exception) and maybe the music for this film is a reason why.

Based on the John le Carré novel “Call for the Dead” the plot of DEADLY tells of British agent Charles Dobbs (played by James Mason—he’s le Carre’s running character George Smiley in the novel) investigating the mysterious suicide of a government official who had just been cleared of an investigation. He’s also dealing with a troubled relationship with his wife (Harriet Andersson in a rare, strangely awkward English-language appearance) and how his visiting friend (an enjoyable Maximillian Schell) fits into that. “Thematically it was a film about life’s disappointments,” wrote Lumet in his book “Making Movies” and that comes through in the utter bleakness of London that we witness but the script by Paul Dehn (who worked on GOLDFINGER and the various PLANET OF THE APES sequels) feels a little too unfocused at times, although certain plot revelations to help earlier sections of the film in retrospect. This sort of thing is why I wish I could see the movie again. Simone Signoret plays the late officer’s wife and there are unusual, enjoyable appearances by Roy Kinnear and Lynn Redgrave as well.

I wish I could see both of these films again to get a better handle on them, but each contains an interesting look at that other, less flashy version of the spy sub-genre from the sixties, one where the different sides become blurred to the point where even the hero doesn’t know what he’s fighting for. For their own reasons, they’re each worth a look if you get the chance.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Dialogue Written By Kafka

Richard Lester directed such films as A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, THE KNACK and PETULIA. They are three films which I can love as much as any film I have ever felt passionate about and all three are a pleasure to revisit multiple times, providing richness and layers, revealing much to say about them. So naturally, I’m choosing to look at another Lester film, the little-seen comedy FINDERS KEEPERS.

Released to little notice in May 1984, FINDERS KEEPERS was discovered by me on cable. Now, I love train movies, which this is a terrific example of and much it is very funny, but I think it was its intricate structure that led to me viewing it multiple times. It received a surprisingly positive review from Vincent Canby in The New York Times, who called it “unexpectedly satisfying,” with a cast that included “as talented group of comic actors as has been collected in an American film since Jonathan Demme’s MELVIN AND HOWARD.” The run in theaters was brief but it remains surprisingly enjoyable and should be a pleasant surprise for anyone out there still interested in Richard Lester.

The tightly-packed plot packs a lot of incident into 96 minutes so any summary might ruin some of the fun but to give it a try: Somewhere near Oakland in 1973, heiress Georgiana Latimer (Pamela Stephenson) fakes her own kidnapping with the help of her cohort/lover (Ed Lauter) while at the same time stealing several million dollars from her father’s safe. They plan to sneak the money out of town on a train in a coffin. Meanwhile, roller-derby manager Michael Rangeloff (Michael O’Keefe) finds himself on the run from the cops--it's too complicated to explain, but it involves the wife of the Chief of Police--and hops a train to get out of town, soon finding himself mixed up with that coffin. Other characters who get involved on or around that train include an actress in the middle of a nervous breakdown named Standish Logan (Beverly D’Angelo), Rangeloff’s con-artist foster father (Louis Gossett Jr.) who is disguised as a priest, an FBI agent (Jack Riley) investigating the kidnapping, an extremely old train conductor (David Wayne) who won’t stop talking about past presidents, a small-town mayor (Brian Dennehy) and a surprising revelation about a soldier who was reported missing in action. Whew.

The script is credited to Ronny Graham, production designer Terence Marsh and Charles Dennis, based on Dennis’s novel “The Next-to-Last Train Ride”. That it’s based on a novel may account for the slightly oddly-jointed structure. It’s rather relaxed for a farce and occasionally pauses for a sepia-toned flashback to Rangeloff as a child being raised by Gossett. These scenes don’t really add much to the story, though they do add some screentime for the Oscar winner who otherwise makes his first appearance rather late, but they do help us get to understand the characters a little more. Much like that other train film SILVER STREAK, FINDERS KEEPERS was primarily shot in Canadian locations, some of which will be familiar from having served as Smallville in Lester’s own SUPERMAN III from the previous year (of course, Pamela Stephenson appears in both films as well). The eccentric group of characters also brings to mind several Preston Sturges films, most particularly HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and the genuinely funny climax, centered around a house that is being moved, feels like it came from Lester and his love of silent film more than any other part of the movie. There’s clumsiness—the plot really doesn’t kick in correctly until O’Keefe boards the train, a few scenes aren’t as funny as they’d like to be and the use of period songs doesn’t always work but the lightness of its farce overrides any problems I have with it. It makes me wish more comedies like this were attempted these days. I’ll take more train movies, too.

Playing characters working outside of the law O’Keefe and Gossett are so enjoyable to watch that it’s easy to imagine them returning in other adventures. Beverly D’Angelo’s wonderfully named Standish Logan is described as having “the mind of a maniac and the mouth of a longshoreman”, possibly says the word ‘fag’ more than any other screen character I can think of and yet her performance is another reason why I’ve been crazy for Beverly D’Angelo for years now. Almost everyone else in the movie has something to hide except her—she’s a nutcase of a person who just puts everything out there and she’s crazy sexy while doing it. Even Ed Lauter’s nasty bad guy is allowed enough comic moments for me to like him a little as well—after all, he’s caught up in all the same farcical complications that all the other characters are. Brian Dennehy, John Schuck and David Wayne as “the oldest train conductor in the world” are all fantastic in their twisted-authority roles and each is well-used. Jim Carrey turns up as well in his first film and gets several laughs. In her first and last film appearance the strangely funny Barbara Kermode is Dennehy's daugther and I should mention Jack Riley as “Ormond, FBI” who has what is probably the best film role he ever had. Anyone who became more interested because of that sentence should probably seek out FINDERS KEEPERS.

Way back in 1991 the Museum of Modern Art ran a pretty massive “Trains and Film” series and actually showed FINDERS KEEPERS as part of the festival (on a double bill with SILVER STREAK, of course). There was something kind of terrific about hearing the laughter which emanated from the audience during the screening and realizing that I wasn’t alone in my enjoyment of the film. It should in no way be ranked among Lester’s best and even the book of interviews with Steven Soderbergh, “Getting Away With It”, dispenses with the subject in only a sentence or two. It's not even on DVD and I don't expect it to be any time soon. But the off-kilter approach of its farcical structure and likable, eccentric characters continue to make it endearing and if anyone ever enjoys this film because I recommended it then that’s ok with me. And I promise I’ll write about THE KNACK one of these days.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Other Way Around

Way back in November Jeffrey Wells wrote a post on his Hollywood Elsewhere site, commenting on Harry Knowles’ review of SWEENEY TODD, which at that point Wells had not seen. Noting that Knowles had mentioned Mario Bava as one of the tonal inspirations he picked up on in the film, Wells goes off on a tiny little rant about this. I can’t tell what his ultimate position on Bava is, but he sounds a little dismissive. I don’t want to get into what these guys have to say too much, but I didn’t pick up too much Bava in SWEENEY TODD. To be fair, the Knowles quote isn’t the only thing I pick up when “Sweeney Todd Bava” is googled but certainly the fact that we get gushing blood isn’t in itself the sign of an automatic Bava influence. I honestly got more of a Hammer vibe from the film—weirdly, the London setting confined to ultimately a small amount of locations made me think of DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE more than anything else. Exactly what makes something be considered “Bava-like” is an arguable point considering how such a thing would constitute, for me, more of a mood than anything else. It’s not always something which could be considered entirely tangible. That said, it is something which could be found in SLEEPY HOLLOW perhaps more than SWEENEY TODD, and I have to admit it’s a feeling which strongly came to me even more recently while viewing THE ORPHANAGE as well.

As directed by Juan Antonio Bayona and “presented” by Guillermo del Toro, THE ORPHANAGE tells the story of a woman (Belen Rueda) who returns to the home which served as the orphanage during a period of her childhood to raise the son she and her husband have adopted. Strange occurrences begin and events of the past are questioned, but since the film is best viewed knowing as little as possible ahead of time, I won’t go into too many details. This exploration of certain themes was of course explored by Bava himself in SHOCK aka BEYOND THE DOOR II which he co-directed with his son Lamberto who himself returned to these themes in the recent GHOST SON, which I wrote about in an entry last August. The two films have as many similarities as they do differences, but it’s THE ORPHANAGE which really got under my skin and it’s the one which really seemed to deliver a frisson of dread that reminded me of the elder Bava at his best. It’s anchored by a strong lead performance by Rueda who is enormously effective and should be receiving Oscar buzz right now but naturally isn’t. But it’s also the direction by Bayona and screenplay by Sergio G. Sanchez which reveal them to be students of this genre, filmmakers who have paid a great deal of attention to how this sort of story should be told. The film even brings out what has become one of the most overused shock effects of the past few years—no point in saying what it is—and makes it work. Maybe it doesn’t always work—one section involving the use of technology to investigate certain things (shades of the middle section of POLTERGEIST here) lost me a little bit. But the overriding effect of THE ORPHANAGE is that of a really good cinematic drug and I thrilled in taking a few hits off it. I won’t say that you can’t make this film in America today—it’s that studios simply won’t make this sort of film today, where encroaching dread is discarded in favor of noise, incoherence, lack of thought, shallow one-note actresses in their 20s, listless remakes of J-horror and dull Canadian locations. I haven’t written about ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM and I won’t but simply put, to call that movie garbage is an insult to garbage and a sad indication of how truly low the genre has sunk. It’s just depressing and makes one not want to deal with any of those movies for a long while, so anyone who wants to let me know how ONE MISSED CALL is, please feel free.

THE ORPHANAGE is the official Spanish entry for the Foreign Film Oscar and Jeffrey Wells, who likes the film (points in his favor for that) has more recently run an anonymous comment from an Academy member basically wondering why Spain submitted something which was “just” a horror film. It’s too bad that some people have such blinders on, because what THE ORPHANAGE accomplishes is something which should be applauded, not denigrated. It’s cinematic. It’s effective. And, ultimately, it’s also very moving.