Sunday, August 31, 2008

It's As It Always Was

There are kids going off to college right now who never had the opportunity to see a Cannon Film in the theater. What a sad, incomplete life they must be leading. How do you explain Cannon Films to someone who wasn’t alive to witness the glory of Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris vehicles every few months, movies devoted to breakdancing, contracts with Godard signed on cocktail napkins? And the infamous SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE, an attempt by the studio to break out into the big leagues by taking an established franchise and making it their own. By now everyone knows of course that didn’t happen. Really, it’s never a good idea to take a film that runs 135 minutes and cut it down to 90. I saw it on opening day way back in July 1987 and thought maybe the theater had left out a reel or two. I went back a few days later to make sure. Nope, same film. It’s always been the same film. I actually purchased the Young Adult novelization, which I was too old for, just to find out what was missing. By now I’m sure the script can be found somewhere online as well. If you look further around the net you’ll find fans talking about that missing footage, addressing the subject as if debating what’s missing from THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and I’m sure the appearance of some of this footage on the recent DVD provided more things to argue about. Many, many stills from these and other scenes have long been available. But I’ve long since come to the conclusion that while a more complete version of the film would definitely have been more coherent, it still wouldn’t have been very good. That just wasn’t to be.

In case you aren’t one of the people obsessing over it, THE QUEST FOR PEACE begins with Superman (Christopher Reeve, of course) saving the life of a Russian Cosmonaut. Shortly after, we learn that arms talks between the U.S. and Soviet Union are breaking down. Just as this is occurring, the Daily Planet is acquired by publishing tycoon David Warfield (Sam Wanamaker) who, with his socialite daughter Lacey (Mariel Hemmingway) turns the paper into a trashy tabloid. As Clark, Lois Lane, Perry White & Jimmy Olsen react with horror to what’s happening to the paper, Warfield is of course thrilled by what the situation will do for business (“We could double our circulation with a good international crisis.”). Meanwhile, a young boy named Jeremy writes to Superman asking him to do something about all the nuclear weapons. As Superman makes his decision, Lex Luthor (the returning Gene Hackman) is freshly escaped from jail and is working out a plan to use all this to his advantage.

Working from a story idea by Christopher Reeve, the film seems extremely earnest in its approach to the basic premise, doing its best to move on from the Richard Pryor antics of the last film. There’s a definite through-line buried in there somewhere about how Superman is fully and completely ready to make the planet Earth his home. The problem is that the story is basically unworkable and all the good intentions the film may have can’t disguise the fact that the seriousness of this real-world issue doesn’t really belong in this context and there’s no way to do it without simplifying every aspect of it. Hey, I’d like Superman to show up and take care of all the problems in the world too, but we all know that this isn’t going to happen. At one point he makes a brief reference to the possibility of “warped individuals” who may be hiding the weapons but it’s implied that everyone everywhere is all for what he’s doing. So what exactly happens, then? What leads Superman to the realization that his tossing all the missiles into the sun isn’t going to stop all war forever? It’s tough to say and even in a complete version of the story it would have been hard for this film to seriously address such issues without turning into something completely different.

Just to clarify, that 45 minutes were taken out means that the story ceases to make sense on a number of occasions (Luthor’s plan is never clear, we don’t know how Superman knows that Nuclear Man is looking for Lacey). A lot of what’s left isn’t very good either. Compounding the problem is the fact that the film contains the absolute worst, cheapest looking special effects imaginable, a true embarrassment after the groundbreaking effects of the original film and a sign that the film was being bankrolled by people who either didn’t care about sustaining the quality or found themselves financially unable to. With some genuine sloppiness occurring because of this, SUPERMAN IV is about as incomplete and unreleasable as any major film that was released in the 80s. There’s a feel that in cutting down the movie to such a short length, they were aiming it at a younger audience but really, kids deserve better than this.

But what if the Salkinds or Warner Bros. had been in charge? What if Richard Donner or even Richard Lester had been at the helm? That’s a tough call because while the basic approach in the script by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal is well-meaning it still faces the problem of being too much like what we already saw in the Donner original. Superman rescues, insults by Lex Luthor, the Lois-Clark relationship, battles with villains of equal strength of Superman, all of these things were done better before. When Clark/Superman is roped into a double date with Lois and Lacey, leading to a farcical setpiece, it’s actually not that good a scene (and it doesn’t really get a decent close), but at least it’s not something we’ve seen before. Some of the problems can be attributed to director Sidney J. Furie (THE IPCRESS FILE and THE BOYS OF COMPANY C, among others) but it’s also easy to imagine that the production realities put him in an impossible position. Still, there’s a very dry feel to many scenes almost as if he had just set the cameras up and let the actors say the dialogue without giving them much guidance. Many shots throughout have a very wide feel to them (at least it’s good Scope use) but it feels reminiscent of Scope movies from the 50s and 60s that would just set up a scene and have the actors play it in a long master, and not in a good way. Too often scenes feel like they’re played in masters and Furie just never bothered to get any coverage for close-ups or medium shots.

It’s hard to ignore these and a myriad of other problems but at least the film has Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder and I think it helps more than has ever really been stated. Reeve is thinner than he should be, both as Superman and Clark Kent, but more than the other films in the series this entry really feels like it is examining the character of Kal-El, which is of course who he is anyway. The film may be an embarrassment but Reeve never is and in this context that really is saying something. Kidder, given a full role again after the cameo of the previous film, seems to be playing it as if she knows Clark Kent’s secret but has psychologically buried that knowledge. I’ve always liked Kidder’s portrayal of the character and while it may not be as sharp as her performance in the first film (the material’s not there either) her presence helps immensely. Throughout the film there seem to be little moments coming from Reeve and Kidder, small bits of business within scenes, and while they seem to have nothing to do with the story they succeed in showing how familiar they really were with each other. It gives this aspect of the film a feeling that is more human (for lack of a better word) than it otherwise displays and is certainly something more of an emotional touch than we ever get from Bryan Singer’s recent film.

It’s nice to see Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor again and it’s hard not to get some enjoyment out of his scenes, but, along with not even wearing a bald cap this time, he clearly isn’t giving the part the same sort of energy that he once did (Lengthy aside: There’s an article in discussing actors who reprise roles, but don’t really seem to be playing the same character. That could be Heston in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, Brian Dennehy in F/X 2, maybe Shatner in STAR TREK:GENERATIONS and Hackman in this film). Mariel Hemmingway is likable, maybe too likable, but doesn’t seem to be getting the right direction from Furie to sell her character. Jackie Cooper and Marc McClure return as Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, but neither one gets to do very much. Jon Cryer is Luthor’s nephew Lenny, a more annoying comic relief than Ned Beatty ever was. I should have asked him about this movie when he showed up at the New Beverly for PRETTY IN PINK. Jim Broadbent and William Hootkins are a few of the arms dealers Luthor deals with. Jayne Brook, Dan Rydell’s psychiatrist on SPORTS NIGHT, plays a schoolteacher (was she living in England at the time?) but her voice is obviously dubbed, just as a number of bit players seem to be (the kid playing Jeremy is probably dubbed but he’s a kid, so let’s leave him be). Mark Pillow, who was never heard from again, plays Nuclear Man and is dubbed with Hackman’s voice which it commented on but one wonders what the real reason for that was. Did Gene Hackman get paid extra by Cannon for voicing a second character?

It’s far too easy to talk about how awful the special effects are (and they are), but there are also numerous issues with other aspects such as the basic ugliness of the film. From the dingy cinematography to the bland and cheap looking sets and production design to even the costumes which all look chintzy and designed by the same person. When Clark Kent visits Smallville to discuss the sale of the Kent farm, it’s a nice little scene and the farm, which I can only assume isn’t the same location as in the first film, actually does look right and is a reasonable facsimile of what was in the earlier film. It’s actually the rare thing the production seems to do right. None of the principal photography was shot in New York, of course, but it feels like there’s miles and miles of second unit footage shot there for the battle scenes as Superman and Nuclear Man fly around fighting (the World Trade Center is, as usual, very visible) and the way it’s shot just begins to feel repetitive after a while, even for a film that’s as short as this one is. If I’m pressed, I’d say that some of the model work throughout looks to be decent, but it plays alongside flying footage that is so terrible that you don’t really notice. The score is credited to John Williams, with it being ‘adapted’ by Alexander Courage. I think, along with his original music, Williams composed the themes for Lacey Warfield and Nuclear Man and again, pay close attention, there might be some interesting stuff in there, but it really is tough to tell.

There are so many other things wrong with the film that I could go on, but there’s no real point. I admit that there’s a degree of earnestness to it which can’t be found in SUPERMAN RETURNS (a movie that, for me, gets worse every single time I flip by it on cable for five minutes) and having Reeve & Kidder present here means I can’t entirely hate it. But, like SUPERMAN III, I find myself watching it again every now and then, marveling at how things were allowed to go so irrevocably wrong. The nuclear arms plotline of course dates it automatically now but, like the gas shortage subplot in SUPERMAN III, watching the Daily Planet scenes in THE QUEST FOR PEACE now makes it seem surprisingly relevant. This feels especially true in this town as the Los Angeles Times is currently being decimated by the tycoon who now owns that paper, what with mass layoffs and favorite sections getting cut. I don’t even buy the paper anymore because of that. It’s a shame, because I hate the idea of being without a hometown paper in what is, after all, a major metropolitan city. Just like I hate the idea of not having a SUPERMAN film with Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE may be a terrible movie and I may have only scratched the surface of all the things wrong with it, but at least it has that.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Good For The Department's Image

I’ve tried, but I can’t approach writing about THE DEAD POOL with any real degree of seriousness. It’s easily the goofiest of all the DIRTY HARRY sequels and nothing about it feels like anybody overexerted themselves too strongly in making it. But in spite of this I always find myself enjoying watching every last ridiculous second of it. Come to me on my death bed and ask me which of the HARRY sequels I want to see before it’s too late, I’ll pick THE DEAD POOL without even thinking about it.

As the film begins, Harry is getting some unwanted media attention after successfully putting crime boss Lou Janero behind bars. The credits are barely off the screen when as he’s driving along one night some of Janero’s goons come after him with machine guns. They give chase and run him off the road, but Harry manages to take care of them, with a shot to the head each for two and taking care of the last by shooting him in the back as he runs away (Jeez, Harry). His captain expresses his displeasure over the incident by yelling at Harry for trashing yet another squad car. All the attention Harry’s been getting is good for the department’s public image however (we see him on a magazine cover—how did any photographer ever get close enough to take a photo?) and to keep a leash on him, Harry is assigned a new partner, Al Quan (Evan C. Kim). Meanwhile, rock star Johnny Squares (Jim Carrey, credited as “James”) o.d.’s while shooting a horror film in San Francisco. Harry and his partner investigate, with suspicion naturally falling on the film’s egotistical director Peter Swan (Liam Neeson) but it soon comes out that Johnny Squares was a name on a Dead Pool game being played by Swan and other crew members…and Harry’s name is on the list as well. Harry’s attention is also occupied by beautiful television reporter Samantha Walker (Patricia Clarkson) who has her own interest in Callahan.

Made extremely quickly in 1988 (five months from start of production to release in theaters) and directed by Buddy Van Horn, THE DEAD POOL was presumably made as a tradeoff with Warner Brothers so Clint could direct BIRD, which was shot before this but released after. It’s a very silly movie but much of that was presumably intentional, especially the Captain’s repeated rants at Harry (“When I told you to stop wrecking our cars, I didn’t mean to go out and find something else to destroy!) and after the scuzziness of SUDDEN IMPACT it actually makes for a more enjoyable popcorn movie, so much that the few points where it approaches the extreme of the other movie seems maybe a little too much in this context. The nature of the media and celebrity circa 1988 is at least a nod towards some depth (Clarkson’s character is actually fairly believably written and played in this sense), but it’s tough to take too much of this very seriously particularly when it comes to some of the bad-TV level dialogue that overexplains things to all the dummies in the audience (one discussion of the case between Harry and Al includes: “The coroner said Squares was using Speedballs.” “An injection of cocaine and heroin?” “Yeah.” Gee, thanks for the information guys). The portrayal of the horror movie being shot is pretty ridiculous too—the production continues immediately even though the star has just died, the films Swan makes wasn’t being made by anyone in 1988 (we hear titles like HELL WITHOUT THE DEVIL and NIGHT OF THE SLASHER) and all the crew members are blatantly incompetent. When the cops sit down to watch clips from Swan’s films (represented by actual unidentified movies) they react to them as if watching something that came from a deranged mind. I guess violent action films are ok, but anyone watching violent horror films should seek immediate psychiatric help. But saying all this implies that I’m taking any of this seriously, which I of course don’t, and the total ineffectiveness of it as a mystery (Who’s killing the people on the dead pool list? Um, that guy, over there) almost underlines the point. Still, you could argue that this movie exists to see Harry Callahan blow people away with his Magnum, not to see him solve an intricate series of crimes. The best part of the entire film, almost its very reason for being, is of course the chase with the miniature car, outfitted with a bomb, pursuing Harry in his car through the streets of San Francisco in a pretty damn fun spoof of the car chase in BULLITT. Parts of this film are almost played for comedy and Eastwood does a good job playing it that way, but the chase is played totally straight and it’s all the funnier for it—much like BULLITT, also scored by Lalo Schifrin, it’s almost entirely played without music. The sequence doesn’t come at the end which means everything that follows seems anticlimactic, but it really is worth watching the entire movie for it.

It is, in all honestly, the least visually distinguished of the series. It’s the only one not shot in Scope (at 91 minutes, it's the shortest too) and looks pretty much like a TV show—THE NAKED GUN probably has as much visual style. The fact that the opening or closing are pretty much exactly the same as in SUDDEN IMPACT (opening credits over the city at night, ending credits that start with helicopter shot from Eastwood and the leading lady) is the sort of thing that would indicate a continued use in a series but since the earlier films didn’t utilize this idea it just seems like it’s a case where it was used once before, they may as well use it again. Lalo Schifrin’s score isn’t all that memorable, but bits of themes from the earlier films can be heard if I pay close attention and it’s always fun to hear Schifrin music backing up Clint Eastwood anyway.

Eastwood’s a lot of fun to watch. Of course he is. He knows the part and seems relaxed enough this time to know how much to play some of it for the laughs. He also gets to say “Swell” a few times once again. Patricia Clarkson, not the sort of actress you’d expect in this sort of movie, is enjoyable to watch partly because of her height—she seems genuinely amused at how Clint Eastwood is at least a head taller than her and plays it as determined to use this to her advantage. Anyway, she’s pretty darn cute here. Evan C. Kim, whose immortality will be as the Bruce Lee figure in the “Fistful of Yen” segment of KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, manages to make his character likable despite the fact that he tells some very bad jokes. He also uses a few martial arts moves during one shootout in Chinatown (the obligatory Harry-stumbles-onto-a-crime sequence). Michael Currie, reprising his role in SUDDEN IMPACT, plays the Captain who yells at Harry a lot. Liam Neeson and Jim Carrey, truthfully, don’t make much of an impression for me here, but it is cool to see them in such early roles.

There’s nothing about THE DEAD POOL that makes any nods towards it being a “final” Dirty Harry film. It simply allows Clint Eastwood to spend ninety minutes portraying his famous character one more time. In no way does it approach the level of seriousness of other films in the series, but even in that goofiness there is a slightly adult tone to it all, the sort you don’t get anymore, which reminds me how these films really do come from another time. I’m pretty sure that it’s not a favorite of any of the people involved but I still need to pull it out and watch it again every now and then, even if it’s just to see Clint Eastwood’s realization that a toy car is trying to kill him one more time.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Pretty Girl is Never Ridiculous

It probably says something that I remember thinking 1972’s THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS was a particularly sleazy giallo entry when I first saw it a few years ago. Looking at it again, that vibe is still there for me but maybe not quite as much. Maybe that says something about how many other giallos I’ve seen by now. Maybe it says something about how I’ve gotten used to all that 70s sleaze. The film isn’t the best or the most elegant or the most fun but it is pretty enjoyable in its own nasty way. And it has Edwige Fenech, which makes it even better.

A beautiful young woman is stabbed to death in the elevator of an apartment building (resembling a scene Brian De Palma would shoot a few years later—come to think of it, the woman even looks like Angie Dickinson) and soon after another young woman (TORSO’s Carla Braidt) who was one of the people who discovered her is also killed, by being tied up in her own bathtub, then drowned. Just then, the owner of the building Andrea Barto (George Hilton) happens to meet model Jennifer (Edwige Fenech) who, with her best friend Marilyn (Paola Quattrini) is looking for a new place to live. Since he owns a building and she’s Edwige Fenech, Andrea decides to help Jennifer out by leasing the two girls the now-vacant apartment. Marilyn, the ditz of the two, seems to find everything about the murders absolutely hysterical. Jennifer, a recent escapee from a sex cult (presented in hyper-real flashbacks) is still being stalked by her husband who was in charge of the cult, soon finds herself terrorized by the masked killer. But is it the killer? Is it her husband? Is it the mysterious lesbian down the hall? Could it be Andrea, who claims he has an aversion to the sight of blood? Why do all the men in these movies look like George Hilton? And why can’t I stop watching this thing?

IRIS, also released under the extremely awesome title WHAT ARE THOSE STRANGE DROPS OF BLOOD DOING ON JENNIFER’S BODY?, is a bit of an odd duck, containing more genuine weirdness than usual but also a surprising amount of intentional laughs, most of them coming from the police inspector who seems more interested in stamp collecting and bemoaning his salary than ever actually solving the crime (The actor playing him, Giampiero Albertini, also dubbed Peter Falk’s Columbo in Italy, which seems significant). He also has to deal with the incompetence of his unlucky second-in-command, leading to more laughs. As that detective follows Fenech & Hilton, in the midst of their new romance he reports in on the police radio what’s going on with the pair: “Don’t be surprised if instead of a corpse, we get a birth on our hands.” The sex cult subplot feels more than a little tacked on to everything, but I don’t think I’d want the movie to be without it and besides, it does go with the particularly sordid world view here. Everyone in the movie is abnormal somehow, even the old lady next door who’s addicted to horror magazines (“To really like horror tales, you have to be nuts,” says the news vendor who sells them to her).

It should be noted that the dubbing is particularly bad, even for these movies. It honestly doesn’t effect my enjoyment at all, but it might be a little tough to accept for somebody not already used to this sort of thing. I’m not sure how well it works in any language for a dead body to be discovered and then a few seconds later someone calmly says, “I think I’d better go now, I’ve gotta be at rehearsal in an hour.” Of course, maybe I need to do some research into how brutal violence may have been calmly accepted in Italy during the 70s. At one point George Hilton’s character, during a particularly heated confrontation with the police, blurts out, “You mean to say, Commissioner, that I might be a suspect, that I could go crazy and murder a girl like that?” and it’s stated with all the emotion of a radio reporter giving traffic updates. Anyway, the one time this feels at all damaging, for me anyway, is when we (briefly) hear the voice of the masked killer and, sounding like it comes from a twelve year-old, it drains any tension at all from the scene (I also don’t buy that whoever is playing the killer is also the character eventually unmasked, but whatever).

The film is directed by Giuliana Carnimeo, credited as “Anthony Ascott”, who helmed a number of spaghetti westerns, and it’s a continually interesting looking film. The visuals always feel slightly off kilter, slightly elegant in their trashy way and there are a lot–a lot- of zooms. There’s one murder sequence which has been pointed out by many as being similar to a scene Argento would later shoot in TENEBRAE and by all logic it should be one of the best scenes in the film. Unfortunately, it’s hurt in the cutting be being too dragged out (a few seconds less would really make all the difference) and also by having a character in the scene act in a completely illogical fashion, possibly to maintain their status as a suspect. On the other hand, this very sequence also contains a cut from the body in question falling to the police detective trailing the other character, yawning, putting his sandwich together. It zooms out from the sandwich, of course, and is an elegant little touch in the middle of the mayhem. For the record, the DVD contains an “Alternate Stabbing Scene” which is in fact shorter but actually cuts it down way too much. The script by Ernesto Gastaldi contains the puzzle-like structure you expect from these movies. It moves fast but not fast enough that it doesn’t leave a few plot holes behind. But it’s so enjoyable that I really don’t care. The score by Bruno Nicolai ranges from sharp, slightly up-tempo suspense tracks to the luxurious easy listening cues that you expect from this sort of film, especially when Edwige Fenech is in the middle of one of her deliriously erotic love scenes with George Hilon.

And it’s Edwige Fenech that I should be talking about it here. Introduced sporting body paint on herself for a photo shoot, at times dressed in some terrible 70s fashions and at other times wearing nothing at all, she really is mind-bogglingly beautiful here and is quite wonderful to watch as she is repeatedly terrorized over the course of the film. As for The Bloody Iris, it doesn’t figure into the plot all that much, unless you want to accept the film as a metaphor of all these people connected by their immorality being broken apart by the blood on that flower (looking at it that way, the fade-out almost manages to make sense). Jennifer is told in flashback by her sex cult leader-husband, “They are the symbol of what our group has formed. A single body made up of many members. As this flower has many petals.” It’s the best I can do for finding meaning in the name and if it helps, there are in fact very few drops of blood on Jennifer’s body during the film. It’s ridiculous and still pretty sleazy but still lots of fun. And remember, never waste a stamp by mailing a letter.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Summer's End

This past weekend, for the first time in over ten years, I did not go to the annual Sunset Junction Street Fair. The Junction is held down in Silverlake every year in late August and for a long time it was something I looked forward to every year. A fair with food, drink, booths to shop in, friends you’d run into, music and massive swarms of people. Up until a few weeks ago, Isaac Hayes was scheduled to perform on Saturday night. But in the past few years the admission price has gone from a reasonable suggested donation to a mandatory entrance fee culminating in what this year was raised to twenty dollars. This, combined with reports of local merchants upset over how the Festival is being organized, caused me to want to make other plans. Besides, twenty dollars for the privilege of walking down a street I always get to walk down anyway with no offering of free booze, no promise of a Lisa Edelstein sighting like in years past? I don’t think so. Several articles in the Los Angeles Times in recent days have detailed the unhappiness local store owners have expressed over elements of the Festival, like where the footprints would be. In response to this, the Times quoted the organizer as saying those people were unhappy because they never got “strawberry ice cream as kids.” Nice. Clearly, the Festival is being run by somebody eager to work with everyone in the neighborhood. Now I’m willing to pay a fair price, but this is just a step too far. I’m sure enough people showed up that my cash wasn’t missed, but I also know that I’m not the only one who felt this way. And now there are further allegations being made about the Festival, causing me to not regret plunking my cash down. So those are the sort of people we’re dealing with. It’s a shame because for a long time the Festival was a lot of fun. I especially liked the last-blast-of-August vibe and there always seems to be a certain point on the Sunday of the Festival every year where you can almost believe that the summer is just going to go on forever. But this time I found other things to do. On Saturday I went to see TROPIC THUNDER at the Vista (big and loud, some laughs but not enough of them) then soon went down the street from there to the Tiki Ti where I spent the next several hours and was eventually joined by a few friends who also chose to instead spend their hard-earned money on delicious cocktails. We had a great time and the ones who run the Sunset Junction weren’t going to stop that from happening.

Another excellent substitute for that end-of-summer vibe turned out to be VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA. Without going into too many details, it’s a terrific piece of work, probably Woody Allen’s best film in a number of years. This is a very pleasant surprise, considering the number of recent films of his where I’ve felt like I was bending over backwards a little to defend it or, in the case of something like CASSANDRA’S DREAM, felt disappointed by the whole thing. There’s none of that feeling in VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA, which not only feels more vibrant and alive than anything he’s made in a while, it shows that he still has something to say creatively, without merely going over beats and themes that he has covered numerous times in the past. Considering I’d sometimes wondered if he still had something this good in him, the result is a little thrilling.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson) are two young women who travel to Barcelona for the summer. Vicky is engaged to be married and Christina, a would-be artist “at liberty” as she puts it, is single. Soon after they arrive they meet an artist named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who abruptly invites the two of them to Oviedo for the weekend where the three of them can sightsee, eat good food and, of course, make love. Christina is intrigued, Vicky is appalled. Where the three of them go from here turns out to be somewhat unexpected, a situation compounded by when his ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), with whom he had a somewhat volatile relationship, re-enters the picture.

I can’t imagine that this is how Woody Allen looked at it, but the film plays to me like a modern version of the sort of film I would imagine was made in Europe in the 70s. Funny, interesting, sexy, beautiful settings, weighty but not too serious. The issues of monogamy, desire and attraction are nothing new for Woody’s films, but it genuinely feels like he was reinvigorated by the change in locale. Or maybe it just put him in a good mood and that seeped into the film. After all, it’s hard not to be attracted by this setting. However it happened, for me VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA seemed to glide along seemingly without effort and it quickly became a true pleasure to sit through. All of the actors are good here, with Bardem and Cruz bringing a particular electricity to their roles, even if they aren’t really the leads. It's particularly hard to avoid staring at the screen, not blinking, every second Cruz in onscreen. The unknown Hall, playing pretty much the Diane Keaton part (she never actually says “I’m from Philadelphia, we believe in God,” but you can hear that in her voice) is a terrific find as well. And Johansson manages to pull off being interested in the romance of the artist’s lifestyle, but you can easily see how inexperienced the character is in such matters as well.

One viewing doesn’t make me feel like I can write extensively on it, but I have a feeling that VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA might become one of those movies I return to repeatedly not just because of the additional layers I expect to find, but because I think it will be such a pleasure to live in this movie again. It’s funny and intoxicating, just like its setting appears to be, but it’s also weighty enough to be aware of the doubt that lies when those late-night dinners in Spain eventually end. Because, like summer, they always do. The film is like a really good white wine served with one of those wonderful meals and the buzz it provides is the sort of thing you gladly remember when the seasons finally do change. And there’s always the hope that we’ll get another one this good from Woody in the future.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

More Humane That Way

As I was heading into the John Ford double bill on Friday at the New Beverly, I was talking on the phone with my friend Elina and when I told here what I was seeing she replied, “No giallos?” In spite of what Elina thinks, I don’t only watch giallos these days, although I won’t tell her what I’d just been watching on DVD the other night. Anyway, this particular John Ford double bill consisted of films that aren’t usually screened, so it caught my interest. Plus, I’m still technically on vacation, so I’m trying to stay relaxed. And I should see more John Ford films anyway.

1935’s THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING stars Edward G. Robinson as a meek clerk named Jones who, as it turns out, is an absolute dead ringer for the vicious crook ‘Killer’ Mannion (also Robinson, of course) who has just escaped from prison. Soon Jones is apprehended by the police and though they eventually realize their mistake and release him amidst a swarm of press, it’s only a matter of time before Mannion turns up to take advantage of the resemblance. Jean Arthur co-stars as Wilhelmina, the girl in the office Jones has a mad crush on.

The Columbia logo and presence of Jean Arthur make it seem as if this could have been directed by Frank Capra and though the film is essentially a comedy, Ford deals with the situation Jones finds himself in with the utmost seriousness. At one key stage when Jones approaches his apartment, as well as possible death, the stark lighting his building hallway is given looks like something out of a nightmare. The overall approach of the film, landing in that valley between screwball comedy and early film noir (make that very early, considering in 1935 film noir didn’t really exist yet), makes it somewhat unique. Considering the director, I assume it was the particular humanistic touch that Ford had which lends the film its own distinct tone which would no doubt come off differently in other hands. Actually, it’s not too hard to imagine the basic premise being used a few years later as either a total screwball comedy (possibly done in madcap style by Preston Sturges) or playing up the fatalistic aspect for a full-on noir ten years down the road when that genre was in full bloom. The script, by Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin, isn’t airtight—the first few scenes of the film seem strangely like the beginning of an entirely different scenario and when Robinson rushes out of his apartment leaving his bathtub faucet running it turns out to be a setup for a punchline that we never get (this feeling of odd disconnection seems to happen in some 30s films but it would take someone more knowledgeable than myself to expound on it). Arthur’s character is also thinly sketched, never becoming much more than a fast-talking 30s gal which, granted, was a role the actress was pretty well suited for. But these minor issues for a film that contains as much funny, fast-talking patter (“And Howe.”) throughout as this one does. And even though the weak nature required of Robinson’s lead character is at times frustrating, the story remains engrossing and unpredictable until the end. A running gag which threatens to become annoying turns out to directly effect the outcome near the end, a nice bit of construction. The effects that present both Robinsons onscreen at once—calling it simple split screen doesn’t do it justice—is excellent for the time with a particular shot involving a mirror getting a “How the hell did they pull that off?” out of me. Robinson, who of course played versions of both these parts throughout his career, is excellent. THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING may be minor Ford, but it’s still very enjoyable and worth a look for anyone who might be interested.

Jumping forward twenty-six years in Ford’s career, second on the bill was 1961’s western TWO RODE TOGETHER, starring James Stewart and Richard Widmark. Joseph McBride’s excellent Ford bio quotes the director himself as calling it “the worst piece of crap I’ve done in twenty years,” and McBride himself refers to the film as “one of the lowest points of the director’s career”. Which, I suppose, means I should have looked the title up in that book before I went to see it. Stewart and Widmark are a U.S. Marshal and Cavalry officer, respectively, who wind up on a mission to rescue whites captured years earlier by Indians. Widmark’s love interest is played by a young Shirley Jones, as in “Hey, that girl’s kinda cute---holy cow, it’s Shirley Jones!” As I sat there in the New Beverly while the plot unfolded I began to think, isn’t this just THE SEARCHERS slightly rewritten? This feeling was only compounded when the Indian Chief is revealed to be Henry Brandon, playing essentially the same role he had in that earlier film. And it is, but this film turns out to be so uninteresting, lacking in incident for long stretches of time that it comes off not as another attempt by the director to explore themes that interest him, but just a movie being made by somebody who didn’t really have any ideas beyond simply going out on location and shooting footage with these actors. There’s no real consistent tone or approach to the material and though there’s a hint of the genuinely darker cynicism that would come on full bore in his masterpiece THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, his film immediately following this one, it doesn’t really mean much in the end because the movie has no real effect, complete with a ponderous score by George Duning which seems to grind away, unending, through scene after scene. The likes of Andy Devine and John McIntire play essentially the Andy Devine and John McIntire roles. Woody Strode, who had played the lead role in SERGEANT RUTLEDGE the previous year, plays an Indian savage which seems like a step down but Ford was certainly keeping him employed. Much is made in the McBride book of a long, unbroken take between Stewart and Widmark sitting by a river bickering with each other and though it’s a pleasure to watch the two stars interact with each other (Widmark is particularly good in the film) the material just isn’t strong enough and by a certain point it feels like the scene is just going on and on. Which also kind of describes the movie. It is slightly odd that it’s a Ford western with no part for John Wayne, but as the script is it would be hard to imagine him being appropriate in either role. Since he was of course teamed with Stewart in VALANCE soon after, that’s really all that matters.

It wasn’t a very large turnout for the two films and, not surprisingly, some of the audience was older than the sort of people you usually see at the New Beverly. But it is nice to get a chance to see films which rarely get screened otherwise, another reminder how great it is to have a place like the New Beverly to go to. I went one-for-two on this pairing, but those are the chances you take. And it’s a pretty good percentage anyway.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Not Phony Enough

I’ve recently returned to Los Feliz after spending a week in Bethesda visiting family. Of course, I’m from New York but no one’s there anymore and Maryland is where my sister went. You may of course remember Bethesda from being mentioned when Homer Simpson met Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, who had just moved to Springfield because of how phony Hollywood had gotten. Homer: Why not try some place like Bethesda? Alec: Not phony enough. So I spent nearly a week in that place that isn’t phony enough, enjoying delicious food & drink, as well as having a great time with family members. Sightseeing in D.C was limited to visits to the Natural History Museum and the National Cathedral, the latter I was familiar with mostly from being used for Mrs. Landingham’s funeral on THE WEST WING. That was it for the D.C. area but there’s not much there that I haven’t already seen. After all, I’ve climbed the steps from THE EXORCIST in Georgetown (no way Jason Miller could ever make that jump) so it’s not like there’s much to do in the town after that. The nights I spent eating delicious food inspired me to look for a movie to bring with me that would go with the atmosphere. For some reason, Ridley Scott’s box office flop A GOOD YEAR jumped out at me. I missed it in the theater, it didn’t make much of an impression when I rented it, but whenever I flipped past it on cable I found myself sticking around for a few minutes, maybe hoping to soak in some of that luxurious atmosphere brought on by all that wine, not to mention Marion Cotillard. I think I picked up a cheap used copy once almost on impulse. As it turns out, I think it’s one of those movies that plays best when you only watch it in small doses.

Russell Crowe is London investment banker Max Skinner who, in the midst of his latest financial triumph, receives word that his Uncle Henry (played in flashback by Albert Finney), owner of a vineyard in Provence, has recently died. Since he is Henry’s only living relative and therefore the beneficiary of the estate, Max travels to Provence to quickly unload it. After arriving at the vineyard for the first time in years, he finds the place in disrepair, producing undrinkable wine, yet Max soon finds himself enchanted by…well, you see where all this is going, I’m sure.

The film tanked when it opened in Novemeber of ’06—if they couldn’t even get me to see it, they were definitely in trouble. The gist of the criticism seems to be that Scott and Crowe were the wrong guys for such a lighthearted tale and I have to agree with that. By all accounts Scott lives in the area where this was shot, so he probably wanted to make a film close to home. That’s nice and all and while it’s obviously a good-looking film it gives me the nagging feeling that it’s clearly made by somebody who already knows these surroundings. A director who has a visual eye but is unfamiliar with these surroundings might be interested in exploring them. Scott seems merely content to put it all on film and while we get the expected picture postcard shots of vistas they’re never all that interesting. The London stuff, photographed in the most stark, metallic way imaginable outside of a futuristic sci-fi film, actually works visually. But the basic Ridley Scott style is now is all wrong for this anyway. Right at the start there’s an ultra-hyper Steadicam shot swooping around Freddie Highmore (playing the young version of Crowe) and the heavy AVID cutting that occurs throughout is constantly too much for the laid-back vibe the movie wants to project (a scene in a crowded restaurant seems to have as many edits as a fight scene would in another Scott film). It never feels like there’s any breathing room, a point where Crowe could relax for a minute, look around at his surroundings and just be. A scene where he takes Marion Cotillard, playing a local woman he falls for, out to dinner at an elaborate outdoor setting should be able to provide a genuine romantic feel but the movie seems to want to keep going non-stop, intercutting it with another scene and never giving us a chance to take a whiff of the atmosphere. And any attempts at bringing comedy into the mix, from a funny little rental car Crowe drives to a funny dog, just feels like serious people trying to prove how funny they can be.

There’s also the essential problem with how little drama there is here. Ultimately, the choice Crowe’s character has to make boils down to being a rich investment banker (which means losing his soul, but whatever) or living on a wine estate in the south of France (if he had to decide being an investment banker or helping starving children in Africa, that might present some drama). Maybe this sort of fantasy, this type of phoniness, was easier to pull off back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, but certainly somebody could probably do something with this story. These just aren’t the guys. Russell Crowe’s character is a prick from start to finish and when he says, “I can’t for the life of me think of why I stopped coming down here. I love this place. It’s intoxicating,” the actor sells the potentially sappy moment maybe better than anyone else these days could, yet I still don’t care. I’ve only seen bits of the Diane Lane vehicle UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN, which seems like a similar thing, but I can imagine actually caring what happens to her. With Russell Crowe, that never happens—it also bugs me how he’s always unshaven, but maybe that’s just me. Anyway, he doesn’t wind up with Marion Cotillard for any reason other than that he’s Russell Crowe and he has a vineyard. Thanks, that gives me a lot of hope for my own romantic possibilities. The plot also contains elements of secret letters, mysterious wines and stock trading intrigue, but I can’t bring myself to have much interest. For a movie that should be ideal to view while on vacation, A GOOD YEAR just made me impatient and frustrated. Late one night, after a delicious dinner, I sat down with my sister and her husband to watch an episode of “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” in which the host traveled around Spain eating delicious food and the presentation managed to do for me what this film never did. I’ll have to remember to watch that show again.

At least there’s Marion Cotillard, even though she doesn’t have as much screentime as I’d like and the film’s attempt to convince me that she and Crowe are the same age is unconvincing, to put it mildly. Even better is Archie Panjabi as Crowe’s loyal Girl Friday, who offers a spark that allows her to sneakily walk away with the film. When she turns up again after being offscreen for a long period it’s a big relief. Since the movie lets her have the button as the credits role, I suspect Ridley Scott knew this as well. Several actors from HOT FUZZ also turn up in the London sections, but I’d rather just think of them as actors who were in HOT FUZZ.

Overall, Bethesda was wonderful, with one of the highlights being how I got to spend some time lying in a hammock, staring up at the trees, content to be with nothing but my thoughts for a brief period of time. A GOOD YEAR may not work, but it wasn’t bad enough to mess with that. I’m back now, ready to enjoy the weekend here in L.A. and continue to relax. Because I know that feeling is going to end soon enough.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Living In The Past

Here’s one of those facts that means nothing to anyone but me, but THE TWO JAKES was the first movie I ever saw in Los Angeles. I hadn’t moved out here yet. I was just visiting. But I was here, it was the big release I was excited about, it was what I chose. As I think about it now, it looks like a very appropriate choice for the occasion. The film is extremely flawed, but certain elements of it have stayed with me enough that I have returned to it on occasion through the years. And there’s the sentimental fondness for it which I can’t ignore.

For those who have seen CHINATOWN: Los Angles, 1948. Private detective J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson, of course), flush from post-war posterity, is going through the motions on a standard divorce case when it results in the jealous husband Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel) shooting the man who he finds with his wife Kitty (Meg Tilly). To complicate matters, the man turns out to be Mark Bodine, Berman’s own business partner. Jake, under suspicion as an accessory, must clear his name but as he listens to the wire recording of the shooting hears the about-to-be murdered man utter the name Kathryn Mulwray, daughter of Evelyen Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) who was killed at the end of the first movie. As the name continues to ring in his ears, he tries to find out what it means and what has happened to Kathryn after all these years. For those who haven’t seen CHINATOWN or aren’t familiar with every single line of dialogue: I don’t know what to tell you. Sit back and eat your popcorn, it’s gonna be a long movie.

THE TWO JAKES, directed by Nicholson himself and written by Robert Towne, was meant to be the middle part of a trilogy focusing on private detective J.J. Gittes and the building of Los Angeles. JAKES attempts to continue the story of CHINATOWN begun by Towne while moving its thematic preoccupation from water to oil (by all accounts the third would have concerned air). Coming sixteen years after the first film, it never really deepens the meaning of that film so much as it acts as an epilogue. In addition to this the plot, at least for first-time viewers, is difficult to penetrate (impossible to understand without having seen CHINATOWN) and I could imagine winners of CHINATOWN trivia contests having trouble following everything. At one point a character played by Tracey Walter makes his entrance excitedly saying, “I know Mr. Gittes from the DWP when I worked for Hollis Mulwray,” only the actor wasn’t in that movie so we don’t pay attention to his exposition-heavy speech while we try to remember if we've seen him before. Characters both major and minor from the first film appear as well (not everyone, which seems realistic) but, along with those who are just being introduced, it’s often unclear who is important and who isn’t. When a character asks Jake, “Who’s that?” and the reply is, “Maddie Rawley. She’s from Pasadena,” it’s tough to figure out how she figures into the plot and when it will be explained how important she is (kinda, but not really). As we all know, nobody has ever been able to follow THE BIG SLEEP either but it gets by on the Hawksian cool of Bogart, Bacall and everyone. THE TWO JAKES, in comparison, attempts to be a mature mediation on human nature and coming to terms with the past, but if we can’t penetrate the plot it’s tough to have any sort of emotional connection for what’s going on. Too much never really registers—to say that the subplot of Jake and his fiancé seems like an afterthought is putting it mildly. What emotion does emerge mostly has to do with the connection to CHINATOWN and not the movie we're watching. I’ve seen the film enough times by now that I can follow the plot pretty well (at least, I think I do) but the mysteries meant to parallel the ones in the first film, while not necessarily predictable, do not necessarily qualify as bombshells either. Yes, there was no way it could ever compare to CHINATOWN both in quality and in coming up with an equivalent for the shocking plot developments. If there was ever something that could have tied all the elements together it feels like the movie never found what that was and even moments of suspense feel muddled—when, during a game of golf, Keitel tells Nicholson to “give me the wire recording by the end of this round or I’ll have you killed,” there’s so little tension you wonder if the movie is even paying attention to itself.

But part of what I’ve always been willing to defend about THE TWO JAKES, apart from any sentimental attachment, is a genuinely humanistic feel which runs through it. It’s hard for me to avoid the feeling that more than anything the film is really about Jack Nicholson’s thoughts about drifting through Los Angeles all the years he has and what that means to him. Little touches that have nothing to do with the story such as the audio drifting out of radios and early televisions feel like they came from his own memories, even if the actor didn’t grow up in the city. The character of J.J. Gittes, like Nicholson, has gotten considerably fatter and more prosperous in the time since CHINATOWN (“My business may not be reputable, but I am. In this town, I’m the leper with the most fingers”—Is Gittes saying this, or Nicholson?) and he seems more confident in his dealings with the world yet can’t help but get sucked back into previous events (“ I don’t want to live in the past. I just don’t want to lose it.” How do we do one without doing the other?). The eye of the director in this case happens to be the eye of the actor playing the lead character and it feels like one soaks into the other, for good and bad. “You stay in this business long enough, every street leads to a place you’d like to forget,” he states in voiceover, something I can imagine anyone living in Los Angeles relating to and the film seems to expose the musings of someone trying very hard not to get lost in memories. He concludes that thought by adding, “…every skirt reminds you of another woman. Or, if you’ve got it bad enough, the same woman.” Not that I have any experience in that sort of thing. There is emotion in THE TWO JAKES. It’s just difficult to stop getting confused by the plot in order to begin to find it.

THE TWO JAKES was meant to be released in Christmas 1989, presumably to be pushed for Oscars, got pushed back to March 1990 and then was finally release in August of that year, soon before the release of Bogdanovich's TEXASVILLE and, also from Paramount, Coppola’s THE GODFATHER PART III—it’s like something was in the air with these belated sequels. The film was reportedly a troubled production (I’m not even going to get into the aborted version of this that was to be shot in ’85, directed by Robert Towne and featuring Robert Evans as the other Jake) and ultimately it feels like the film was never able to overcome this. The extensive narration Jack reads, I assume a post-production attempt to clear up confusion, isn’t bad but seems to overreach for metaphorical significance a few times too many.

The film features a number of actors I like, but few of them are really seen at their best here. Nicholson probably knows the chracter better than anyone, not counting Robert Towne, but it still seems like there's a spark missing from his performance. The comic moments sprinkled throughout are some of his best. Harvey Keitel and Meg Tilly seem either misdirected or under-directed at times, neither one seeming to achieve what is required. When Keitel breaks down in tears near the end, there’s no emotional impact at all (that said, his last moment is his best). In comparison Madeline Stowe, in the role of Mark Bodine’s widow Lillian, hits all the right notes turning in a performance both sexy and funny, providing a dangerous energy the film otherwise lacks. It makes me wish that somebody at the time had taken advantage of this and teamed up the two actors in something where they would both be the leads (Madeline Stowe is missed in movies today). The likes of Ruben Blades, Eli Wallach, Frederic Forrest and Richard Farnsworth all turn up but they never wind up making much impact. Familiar face Tracey Walter, who I always like, had just appeared opposite Nicholson as the Joker’s second-in command in BATMAN. Rebecca Broussard, then Nicholson’s girlfriend, plays Gittes’ secretary. At least she looks the period. Faye Dunaway makes a voiceover appearance as a letter is read in one scene. David Keith plays the police detective son of Loach, the character who fired the fatal shot in the first film, which seems like one of those contrivances that only happen in sequels. Joe Mantell, Perry Lopez, Allan Warnick and James Hong all reprise their roles from the first film and Hong’s scene with Nicholson is particularly good even though it’s a bit much for me to swallow the two characters sitting down for tea. Again, it just seems like one of those sequel contrivances, like the file photos Nicholson looks at which probably came straight from the Paramount archives.

Nicholson also did not use certain key personnel from the first film, in spite of the fact that they were still alive and active at the time. Vilmos Zsigmond served as Director of Photography replacing John Alonzo and though it’s a beautiful looking movie—I always look forward to the shadows all the women’s hats make in the La Brea Tar Pits scene—the framing feels too erratic much of the time, something I wonder if in this case is more the fault of the director than DP. Van Dyke Parks, who had worked with Nicholson on 1978’s GOIN’ SOUTH, composed the score and while it can’t be compared with Jerry Goldsmith’s work on the original, I find it consistently interesting and intelligently designed, a favorite being the recurring “Jake driving around” music. The locations used throughout work very well, expertly evoking the feel of another time in a more emotional way than the film is at times otherwise unable to. This is another personal connection I have to the film—when Jake arrives to meet Tracey Walter’s Tyrone Otley at the Blue Parrot Bar and Grill (played by the Dresden, address incorrectly given as “On Cahuenga, just south of Franklin”) Nicholson pulls up in front of a building that I am very familiar with. That’s pretty much exactly how it looks from this particular vantage point even today.

It’s that sort of touch which makes me think of the movie fondly in spite of itself, giving me a connection from now to a night long ago when I first saw it in Westwood Village. A film about L.A.’s past which came out at a time when I was considering L.A. as my future but here I am now in the present thinking about that time as the past, one which I suppose I’m trying to avoid losing more than trying to live in it. And that future is still in front of me. It’s kind of a structural mess, it’s overlong and the emotional effect it clearly aims for never happens. I’m not even sure that it contains what could be described as an actual character arc—“It doesn’t go away,” is what Gittes expresses about the past in the end, but it doesn’t seem like an idea which just occurred to him. Of course it isn’t CHINATOWN, but at the very least THE TWO JAKES is earnest in its attempt to express one person’s battle with their past filtered through the history of Los Angeles. It might be Jack Nicholson’s, it might be my own.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sustaining The Character

If I were going to recommend HERO AT LARGE to anybody for any reason it would be as a snapshot of New York in 1979. The opening shot of the film starts off on that one lone Diamond Vision screen that used to be in Times Square and then zooms way out to show the entire area. On the west side of Broadway there’s a massive billboard for John Badham’s DRACULA with Frank Langella covering the side of a building and when I saw it I had a funny feeling that I was going to be more interested in that DRACULA ad than anything else in HERO AT LARGE. That pretty much turned out to be the case. I think I loved this movie when I was eight but what can I say, things change.

Struggling actor Steve Nichols (John Ritter) is working part time making personal appearances for the just-released "Captain Avenger" movie (starring “Ryan McGraw” for all you LOVE STORY fans) wearing the costume of the lead character when, as he stops in a grocery store late one night after a night of work, finds himself in the middle of a holdup which he thwarts posing as the actual super hero. When word gets out in the media of what has happened, Steve decides to try his luck at being Captain Avenger for real again as both the failing movie’s publicists and the mayor’s office try to work the appearance of this mysterious hero to their advantage.

It’s amiable, fairly likable stuff but, directed by Martin Davidson, pretty unmemorable. As it turned out, I spent much of the film thinking about all the better movies it kind of resembles. A few scenes play like an early version of TOOTSIE, with an out-of-work actor dealing with unsuccessful auditions as well as an agent bearing the last name Fields, but this one, played by Allan Rich, is strictly Tin Pan Alley, not at all like Sydney Pollack. We see Steve Nichols crack up midway through an audition, under circumstances which would probably anger Michael Dorsey and it doesn’t make him more likable. It just makes us look at him as a goofball pretending he’s an actor (for a very random observation, the old woman who blows out half the candles on Michael Dorsey’s birthday cake can be spotted behind Ritter on the street early on). The basic tone of the film seems to strive for a Sturges- Capra feel crossed with a little of that 70s New York-PELHAM ONE TWO THREE feel--PELHAM’s “Old Man”, Michael Gorrin, appears here as the grocery store owner but the Jewish caricature of him and the actress playing his wife is played way up here as opposed to the matter-of-fact nature of his character in the earlier film. It’s spirited, but the whole thing winds up just being bland, not too far off from what the film would have been if Disney had made it as one of their live-action comedies of the time, not too surprising since writer AJ Carothers has some Disney credits from before this. Much more interesting are the allusions to TAXI DRIVER which turn up; Ritter is sitting in a cab in front of the Belmore Cafeteria in one scene, the Mayor is played by none other than Leonard Harris (Charles Palantine himself) and the street drummer who memorably appears as Travis and Betsy walk off to their date (“Now back to Gene Krupa's syncopated style”) even turns up during the opening credit montage. As a matter of fact, buried in this material is the potential for a twisted comic spin on Travis Bickle’s story but very little is ever made of this possibility. What we get instead is an “It’s the idea of Captain Avenger that counts” homily with the big conflict coming when the movie publicists and city officials try to corrupt Steve Nichols for their own benefit. Any real madcap satire gets lost in the idea and what remains is pretty toothless. Good-natured, but toothless.

I always liked John Ritter and though I suppose this was meant to be his big starring vehicle after THREE’S COMPANY hit it big it really isn’t one of his best roles. Steve Nichols isn’t much more than a nice guy, emphasis on the word “nice”, with very little to him otherwise—he even gratefully takes a homeless guy (character listed as “Bum” in the end credits) out for coffee when he can’t find anyone else to talk to. To underscore the point he comes from Cawker City, Kansas (sounds like a place Travis could have come from) and he remains peppy and cheerful even after being kicked out of his apartment, making him seem more naïve than anything. Anne Archer plays J. Marsh, the elegant Jean Arthur-type love interest from across the hall who he zeroes in on when they first meet (her first shot is of her rear as she gets out of a cab but hey, it was the seventies). She turns him down almost instantly making his continued pursuit of her kind of creepy (plus they live in the same building—boundaries, dude). She’s fairly likable in the part but a little too bland and Ritter actually has more chemistry with the briefly seen Marley Sims, playing an actress at the very beginning who he runs lines with but though they plan to meet “on Monday” we never seen her again. She kind of resembles Lisa Edelstein and looking her up reveals that Sims only made a few other appearances before moving behind the camera to work as story editor on shows like SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH. So that’s why I like her—she’s a writer. Bert Convy (looking like he just stepped off the set of MATCH GAME) and Kevin McCarthy play the publicity sleazes who try to use the Captain Avenger situation to their advantage. Archer’s rich boyfriend Milo is played by Rick Podell who looks weirdly like Convy, making me wonder what the subtext is—all nice guys look like John Ritter and all the creeps look like Bert Convy? Jane Hallaren (the victim of an aborted date with Albert Brooks in MODERN ROMANCE) plays The Bitch Reporter intent on finding out the identity of Captain Avenger and seems to represent all the cynicism in the world. Kevin Bacon appears briefly early on harassing Ritter in his costume but longtime New York residents will be interested in various local reporters from the time who turn up, including Rolland Smith, Carol Martin, Chris Borgen and John Roland (I can’t believe I actually remember some of these names).

That New York flavor we get even extends to a late night car chase through midtown around Grand Central that ends with a crash at about Park and 53rd, as well as a fight scene on an elevated train somewhere in the outer boroughs. None of it’s done with any particular flair but it’s fun to see these kind of sequences filmed on location. During one exterior outside of Sardi’s we can see THE CHAMP on the marquee of the Loews Astor Plaza down the street, placing when the scene was shot at somewhere between April and June of 1979. Once again, I’m finding myself more interested in the stuff going on in the corners of the Manhattan frame than the actual movie. I was paying so much attention to this aspect that when the film got to the big burning building climax (a lot of elements in this seem to have turned up in the SPIDER-MAN movies, but that probably comes with the territory) and familiar face Kenneth Tobey turned up playing the firechief I figured this section had to have been filmed on a backlot in Hollywood (no local reporters turn up here either). It was probably easier considering all the logistics involved and the movie manages to cover it well—the sequence climaxes in a pretty impressive physical effect as well. Immediately following this, the film even cuts back to location footage in New York for the final shot and the result is pretty seamless. Things like that probably impressed me more than anything else in HERO AT LARGE and while it’s ultimately kind of forgettable, it’s too likable for me to get worked up over. And yes, it sucks that John Ritter is still dead.