Friday, July 31, 2009

Getting The Spiritual Side Of It

It just feels like it’s been a lousy summer at the movies. Sure there are a few films I won’t mention that I still haven’t seen and by this point I’m thinking I never will. Sometimes, life’s just too short. Remember when three or four movies would open on a Friday in the summer, not just one giant soulless would-be blockbuster? I miss those days. So if you haven’t seen Kathryn Bigelow's THE HURT LOCKER yet just know that it’s highly recommended. Bigelow is a director whose films are not always as good as she is…as good as NEAR DARK definitely was. I bring this up because it reminds me of a summer movie that Bigelow directed a number of years ago, namely POINT BREAK. I saw it then, but was always kind of resistant to it, mostly because I was thinking of its inherent ridiculousness more than anything. Now I look at it and I not only realize how good we had it with our summer movies in comparison back then, I’m kind of in awe of how some of the action is pulled off. That doesn’t mean that I still don’t think some of it is damn absurd though I’ll freely admit that the tribute to it in HOT FUZZ (“No, I have not ever fired my gun up in the air and gone, ‘Ahhhhh!’”) pretty much justifies its existence as far as I’m concerned. POINT BREAK may in fact be the ultimate example of the best and worst elements of its director but at its best it’s pretty damn awesome. It’s a film where, in the middle of a shootout a cute blonde taking a shower screams in terror then the next time we see her she’s gotten the drop on our hero, fully naked, is kicking his ass and doing a damn good job of it. Hard not to love a movie that features that.

FBI Agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) arrives for duty in L.A. and, partnered with longtime agent Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) begins investigating a series of bank robberies perpetrated by a team that calls themselves the “ex-presidents” due to the masks of former commanders-in-chief they wear in each of their robberies, numbering 27 banks in three years. Circumstantial evidence has led Pappas to believe that the Ex-Presidents are in fact a team of surfers and he recruits Utah to begin surfing (“You’re saying that the FBI is going to pay me to learn to surf?”) in order to make his way into that culture and possibly locate the culprits. After convincing surfer girl Tyler Endicott (Lori Petty) to teach him the basics of the sport he soon is introduced to her group of friends led by the charismatic Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). Utah soon finds himself drawn to this lifestyle they lead particularly their approach to the art of surfing but, after focusing on another gang who turn out to be innocent, Utah begins to suspect that the ones he’s looking for are closer than he realizes.

The screenplay by W. Peter Iliff (story by Iliff & Rick King) is frankly absurd in its plausibility but strangely compelling in how it commits to its themes, something you feel the director drawn to from the very first frame. Kathryn Bigelow’s films seem to all be about taking it to the limit in life and through that trial by fire you discover who you really are. Each of them varies somewhat in their effectiveness but in POINT BREAK you really do feel that surge of adrenaline and at its very best it’s damn near impossible to not get sucked up in that. It’s as if in ignoring the ridiculousness of the basic concept and plot points, Bigelow takes a bungee jump off a high bridge in the hopes that it’ll all come together and in that total conviction to what she shoots it somehow does. The entire film is put together in immaculate fashion, with the director displaying a remarkable eye for framing and the relentless pacing of the action scenes is at times remarkable (For the record: Donald Peterman was the DP and Howard Smith was the editor. They deserve a huge amount of credit as well). The surfing scenes, no matter how indebted they are to John Milius’s underrated BIG WEDNESDAY are absolutely beautiful and, like the Milius film, actually sell me on how addictive this lifestyle can be, if only for a few minutes.

The justly famous foot chase is about as good an example of this sort of thing ever seen, almost making me forget about wondering how someone can pull off this sort of thing with a giant mask on their head and I just marvel at how this is shot and put together…why aren’t there action movies made today that are this exhilarating in their total clarity? But in thinking about this it does lead me to thinking about one of the key flaws though…the scripts Bigelow works off of rarely feel like they don’t have a few holes that could be patched up and it feels like a flaw in her as a director that she doesn’t have that done…so as a result the end of the foot chase where Keanu doesn’t shoot Swayze “because he loves him so much” as HOT FUZZ put it, just doesn’t play for me. The sensation is there in the moment but I don’t buy it, not on a plot level of Johnny Utah getting sucked into this world and not on a homoerotic level either. The film could have gotten there…but in its quest for ultimate sensation it doesn’t go the distance in making me buy some of the plot and it feels like one of Bigelow’s great flaws in that she doesn’t seem able or willing to push her own story to its limit, instead focusing on that adrenaline rush.

I could believe that there are plenty of people who have never been bothered by any of my own little problems with it—I mean, everybody seems to remember this movie-- but there are still issues both big and small that linger throughout. This includes basic plausibility in character interactions to the little things that have bugged me for years from the pitch black nighttime scene atop Mulholland Drive that is apparently happening at 7:30 in the middle of the summer to the legendary order of two meatball subs, two lemonades and tuna on wheat that is not only ready in about ten seconds flat but comes to a grand total of $7.84. I don’t think was possible even back in 1991 and there are several threads on the film’s imdb page devoted to this conundrum. These little things add up in the end but it doesn’t mean that we can’t still enjoy it in all its ludicrousness including the sky-diving stuff with star Swayze doing it himself, one of the very last points in film history where this could have happened and been genuinely impressive, since it wasn’t possible yet to do this digitally.

In all of this pure sensation and enjoyment I still don’t buy certain plot points late in the game. In particular, the end involves a gesture that I didn’t buy back then and I don’t buy now, mainly because the character on the receiving is pretty much an asshole and undeserving of any magnanimousness. My own take on this, I know. Not that the alternative would have been much of an ending either and in a sense the final beat that comes out of this actually helps in making it an ideal movie for the summer. Learn your lesson, move on. That’s life. Next. POINT BREAK is extremely well made and entirely absurd. I’ve watched it twice over the past few weeks and I could very easily watch it again without getting bored so that right there has to say something.

In the middle of all this is a group of actors who deliver not necessarily realistic performances but each in their own way fit into this world in their own way. Everything that they do that they get derided for here seems absolutely correct. This goes for the way-out line readings and facial expressions provided by both Reeves (“Zero distortion, sir.”) and Swayze (all good wishes go out to him at this time )as well as the unfortunately one-note FBI jerk played by John C. McGinley who, in spite of a strong first scene, is usually is better than this. I’ve gotten used to these things by now. I don’t think I would have it any other way. Petty, who dropped off the star radar faster than anyone expected (I guess after TANK GIRL), is particularly good as Tyler and through her own nimble ferocity makes the role possibly more than it was on the page. Busey, whose casting results in much more than just a reference to BIG WEDNESDAY, is off in his own world much of the time—how has this character lasted twenty years in the FBI?—and for all I know is making up his own dialogue in every scene (“They dump the vehicle and they vanish. Like a virgin on prom night.”) but he delivers an amazing energy that enjoyably runs counter to everyone else onscreen. In a brief unbilled role as a pissed off DEA Agent Tom Seizmore (later one of the leads of Bigelow’s STRANGE DAYS) kicks all kinds of ass. With music by Mark Isham, the film is not just well-scored but intelligently scored, with the music at times held back until it’s absolutely necessary, particularly during the great foot chase.

It’s a weird thing because I get the feeling that POINT BREAK might be considered some kind of so-bad-it’s-good movie by people out there. Someone recently told me that she took part in a drinking game while watching it and got extremely plastered. I don’t know what this game consisted of but, considering the movie, the possibilities seem limitless. That said, some of it is so phenomenal in how it’s put together that it seems a little wrong and yet there’s just too much in there that I just don’t buy into. Maybe that’s just because I’ve never learned to surf so I can’t quite buy into a lot of the nonsense that Bodhi espouses but, seriously, a bank robber who proclaims, “This was never about the money, this was about us against the system. That system that kills the human spirit. We stand for something. We are here to show those guys that are inching their way on the freeways in their metal coffins that the human sprit is still alive,” is still just a bank robber. I don’t know if the film agrees with me but maybe that’s part of the reason I’ve always been a little resistant to it, no matter how much skill and love of the pure rush that Kathryn Bigelow brings to it (and up until now I’ve completely avoided becoming the 5,000th person to mention that she’s also really hot, I don’t care if she is 57. A fantastic action director who’s also gorgeous doesn’t come along every day so it warrants being pointed out). The best of the film is better than the whole film and the best that Kathryn Bigelow brings to it is better than just about anything else we get in action films these days. And that definitely counts for something. I freely admit that POINT BREAK is a no holds barred, adrenaline-fuelled thrill ride and will give it huge amounts of praise for that alone but, as Sergeant Nicholas Angel once told us, there’s no way you could perpetrate that amount of carnage and mayhem and not incur a considerable amount of paperwork. Still, as long as it’s summer, I guess you can forget about that for the time being.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Seven-Shot Six-Shooter

When I was a kid I was unsuccessful in convincing my father to take me to see THE VILLAIN with Kirk Douglas. Now, only thirty years later and long after one of its leads became the biggest star in the world, I’ve finally gotten around to seeing it on my own. So, I ask you, who’s laughing now, huh? Actually, he probably is, if only because he avoided being forced into sitting through this thing. It’s safe to say that I’ve gotten over it by now, just as I’ve long since forgiven my mother for not taking me to see HERBIE GOES BANANAS. Boy, I guess I wanted to see a lot of really bad movies when I was young. I hope I’ve improved in that sense except, well, I did actually sit through THE VILLAIN even though the disc from Netflix turned out to be a full-frame job and those are usually only useful as coasters. But, well, I figured the film wasn’t in Scope, I already had it, so I decided to give it a look. And so went the next 89 minutes of my life. This review can be considered, as Variety would put it, for the record.

Back in the old west, notorious bandit Cactus Jack Slade (Kirk Douglas) is arrested after unsuccessfully trying to rob a bank. He is sentenced to be hanged but is soon released by the local banker (Jack Elam) who hires Slade to rob the money that the banker has to hand over to Charming Jones (Ann-Margret) who has been sent there to retrieve it by her father and is now being escorted back by friendly cowboy Handsome Stranger (our beloved Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger). Slade sets out with his trusty horse Whiskey to try everything possible to retrieve the money but soon finds that more difficult than he expected. Paul Lynde, who narrated the commercials that I found so hysterical all those years ago, plays the Indian Chief Nervous Elk, in case you still weren’t sure how serious all this was supposed to be.

It doesn’t take long to describe the plot, mostly because there’s not much of a plot. For the most part THE VILLAIN, directed by future CANNONBALL RUN helmer Hal Needham between in between HOOPER AND SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II, consists of a series of gags in which Kirk Douglas tries and fails to retrieve the money in the most outlandish way possible. Then he gets up from the huge fall he just took or whatever and tries again. That THE VILLAIN is essentially a live-action Warner Bros cartoon, with Douglas as the Wile E. Coyote-Daffy Duck character, is something it never particularly tries to disguise particularly at the end when it even brings in the familiar Looney Tunes music to help wrap things up (actually, it’s surprising that Warner Bros. allowed this, since the film was made by Columbia). There’s tons of gags involving Douglas jumping onto a train and missing, Douglas crashing through a window that turns out to have bars on it, as well as him contending with a very large boulder which in separate sequences both falls on and rolls over him—shouldn’t they have just picked one boulder gag and gone with it? I’m tempted to call THE VILLAIN just a crass knockoff of CAT BALLOU but the honest truth is that I haven’t seen that film in years. Still, with the veteran serious actor playing comedy, comely female lead (Ann-Margret is practically falling out of her dress in every single one of her scenes) and musical interludes to further the narrative, in this film sung by Mel Tillis (who also appears as a telegraph operator), I’m not sure what I’m supposed to think. It seems rather reminiscent of Blake Edwards’ THE GREAT RACE as well and there’s certainly no comparing it to that.

To not be too critical, and with this film there’s very little point in spending too much time being critical, I’ll at least say that the first half works better, mostly because the setup for everything is fairly enjoyable, the pacing is quick and it’s always going to be fun watching certain old-school character actors in a western. But by a certain point everything sputters to a halt, not because this Warner Bros. cartoon stuff gets in the way of the plot but because it turns out that it’s all the plot is, with the setup revealed as little more than just a setup to all this stuff. There are some pretty shoddy scene transitions as well as everything just feels kind of fractured sort of like lurching from scene to scene in one of the CANNONBALL movies, only here we never get a break to go back to some other characters we haven’t seen for a half-hour. And as much as I get the joke trying to make a live-action cartoon, very little of it actually winds up being funny.

Maybe I smiled on occasion but by a certain point—pretty much when Paul Lynde as the Indian Chief begins to play a central role in things—any good will I had towards the thing had drained away and I was just looking at the clock. It was really only 89 minutes? Was there really still an audience for this sort of thing as late as 1979? The nature of both the jokes and the various people who make cameo appearances put me in the mind of a boozy, Dean Martin Celebrity Roast feel by a certain point (paired with the Looney Tunes-type jokes, that’s an odd melding of tones) and then when I was researching the film earlier I discovered that the screenwriter Robert G. Kane had actually worked on the Celebrity Roasts back then. So there you go. And the end just feels like nobody had any other ideas of how to wrap the thing up. At one point Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character proudly shows off his gun, what he calls a “seven-shot six-shooter.” When asked why he had such a pistol specially made he stops, puzzled, and simply replies, “I don’t know.” (That’s the joke) To a great extent, that sums up the movie.

I will give THE VILLAIN this much—Kirk Douglas brings a huge amount of energy to the role, more than the film probably ever required and it becomes rather admirable by a certain point. It’s not just a case of him clearly having a fun time chewing up scenery. He completely commits to playing this cartoon character full throttle through ever indignity he suffers as well as doing his absolute best Kirk Douglas impression in the process. He certainly doesn’t do all his own stunts but, still in very good shape in his early 60s here, he does enough leaping onto his horse (incidentally, the horse is very funny as well) and getting dragged along the ground to be impressive enough. As the other male lead future Governor Schwarzenegger is likable and eager enough but he can’t quite make much of an impression in comparison. He’d get better as the years went on. Ann-Margret, bursting out of her dress (wait, did I already say that? It bears repeating) is pretty enjoyable as Charming, hitting just the right spirited tone the whole way through. I can’t help but think that there are plenty of actresses from this period who might have been equally fetching to look at but they wouldn’t have been able to bring just the light, appropriately cartoonish touch to this role. The various familiar faces in smaller roles (Elam, Tillis, Foster Brooks, Strother Martin) are as dependable in their brief screen time as you’d expect them to be. Ruth Buzzi turns up as well, for anyone who ever wanted to see her share the screen with Schwarzenegger. Paul Lynde, riding a horse with a Swastika painted on it for some reason, just annoyed me, bringing nothing to his scenes which just seemed to go on for a while as a result. What’s worse, lack of political correctness or lack of laughs? Anyway, this was his last film. The Arizona scenery is very nice, because nothing helps out a comedy like nice scenery (snarky comment, I know. At least it helps it feel a little like a real western at times). The score by Bill Justis leans a little too heavily towards ‘funny’ music but at least the main theme is appropriately energetic with a three-note fanfare that is pretty much identical to the big chorus in the old PERFECT STRANGERS sitcom theme song (“Standing Tall…”)

There’s not much else to say about THE VILLAIN. Some of the stunts are pretty cool, I guess. Lately things have been hectic enough that I’ve found myself occasionally drifting away to thoughts of going to the movies over the summer years ago, a time I would look at the newspaper ads or see the commercials on TV and they would make such a strong impression on me. I guess this film was one of them but finally seeing THE VILLAIN all these years later was such a ho-hum event that I can barely even compare it to an itch being scratched. I really can’t blame my dad for not wanting to see it, even though he probably didn’t base the decision on anything other than reading the Janet Maslin review in The New York Times. To give him some credit if I’m remembering right, he actually took me to see that other comedy western HOT LEAD AND COLD FEET some other year but I have absolutely no recollection of that one. And to give him even more credit, he took me to see Jacques Tati films as well. He took me to a lot of films. He was a good guy. I’ll just think about that for a while.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Chapter Always Ended Before This Part

I wish I had enough free time these days so I could see more films that seem appropriate for summer viewing, whether they’re any good or not. But that free time just isn’t there. Things have been pretty crazy lately and while I’m not going to get into any of that here, you’d think that I’d take advantage of what little downtime I did have to make a point to see films that were a little more enriching. Instead I find myself wondering why I haven’t gotten around to a summer viewing of THE CANNONBALL RUN yet this year. And, for the hell of it, I decided that it was about time that I finally saw TARZAN, THE APE MAN. The Bo Derek version, just so no one will be confused. It came out way back in the summer of 1981 so I just figured it was time. It’s not a good movie and I wasn’t really expecting one. Does this film still have any notoriety? Does anyone really care about Bo Derek anymore? There’s not much that’s good about it, but I did get some enjoyment out of seeing a film that was so obviously made in some exotic, far off locale. And yes, Bo Derek is very nice to look at whether clothed or unclothed. Aside from that, um….I don’t know if I really have anything.

Africa, 1910. Having recently lost her mother Jane Parker (Bo Derek) sets off far darkest Africa in search of her father James who abandoned his wife and child decades earlier. She finds him in the form of Richard Harris, either half mad or, well, just being played by Richard Harris. Setting out on an expedition, she soon hears of the legend of Tarzan (“A great white ape, supposedly ten feet tall…”) and before she knows it is face to face with the beast in the mute form of Miles O’Keeffe. She falls for him immediately, much to her father’s obvious horror as he becomes more determined to capture Tarzan himself but when certain denizens of the jungle set off for the Parkers, of course Tarzan is the only one to do anything about it.

Reviled upon release which didn’t prevent it from doing pretty well at the box office (although none of Derek’s other starring vehicles were released by a major studio like this was), there’s very little I can say about TARZAN, THE APE MAN that is particularly favorable but considering how legendary the film is as being notoriously awful I guess I’d have to say that I didn’t think it was quite that bad. If anything, it’s just really boring. Maybe I managed to be diverted by the location work (not Africa, but Sri Lanka and the Seychelles Islands) which at least managed to make it feel like a real film or the genuinely impressive amount of footage of human actors interacting with presumably dangerous animals clearly in the same shot. The animals are enjoyable to watch as well. There’s always the possibility that I was just distracted by the sight of Bo Derek but, in all honesty, I didn’t think it was quite the level of bad that I was expecting. It was just bad. Period. And dull. No need to overreact about it. Not that this means that I’m going to launch into any sort of defense of it.

If part of the negative response to the film at the time had to do with director John Derek’s Svengali-like approach to directing wife Bo (well, the company behind the film is “Svengali Productions” complete with a provocative logo drawn by Frank Frazetta) but since that’s not really a concern anymore all we can really deal with now is an erotic adventure story that focuses more on the “erotic” half that would never be made today and clearly directed by someone who is unable to piece together a film in a particularly coherent, or engaging, fashion--it’s simply designed to showcase his wife in the best possible way. And make no mistake, Bo looks beautiful throughout, framed in extremely well-lit close-ups like something out of 1940s MGM even while her male co-stars in the same scene only get medium shots. She’s so beautiful that it’s too bad that she doesn’t display much in the way of actual acting ability. She works just great in “10” mostly because she’s supposed to be a figure of fantasy for Dudley Moore and when she’s supposed to display more depth than that it’s clear that Blake Edwards worked very closely with her, probably being very careful in how he chose the takes he ultimately used. Here, John Derek seems just interested in the look which is admittedly rather stunning but there’s no personality, no spunk, no real character beyond that gorgeousness, even if the script credited to Tom Rowe and Gary Goddard tries to give her snappy dialogue, like comparing her encounter with Tarzan to something that might happen in a cheesy romance novel. She’s also revealed to be a forward-thinking woman which seems inspired by discussion of Women’s lib circa 1981—the concept of Tarzan from the point of view of Jane may be the point of the entire movie it just comes off as being shoehorned in there—but she doesn’t say these things with any real conviction, instead coming off as the very definition of vacuous.

John Derek’s direction doesn’t reveal much personality either. Aside from the Johnny Weismuller yell over the MGM lion and the old-fashioned wipes between scenes (you know, like STAR WARS) there’s no real sense of excitement or fun, even when Tarzan is engaged in some life-and-death struggle. As for the title character, he doesn’t turn up in the flesh until close to forty-five minutes in, never speaks so much as a grunt outside of his trademark yell and displays next to no personality which is presumably just what the liberated (but virginal, which she reveals as she goes over him closely) Jane Parker is looking for. In her autobiography “Riding Lessons” Derek describes O’Keeffe as having “the most beautiful body I have ever seen” and her character says to him, “Do you know you’re more beautiful than any girl I know?” He at least looks the part of Tarzan but aside from that he’s just a blank—which pretty much seems to be the point—paired up against a Jane who is a blank herself, but that part doesn’t seem as intentional. I’m the wrong person to discuss the film’s fidelity to the original Edgar Rice Burroughs creation but if the original story were this dull I can’t imagine anyone would have ever cared. The fact that the villainous natives near the end, including the one who Tarzan has to fight, are at least in part clearly played by Caucasians keeps everything in a fantasy realm which keeps things from getting too uncomfortable but it really doesn’t matter.

Photographed by its director it’s at least a good-looking film, particularly in the close-ups of the star and it does seem to make some good use of the locations they filmed in. But being well-shot and well-directed are not the same thing and scenes are continually staged in a completely dull and, at times, confusing way. Even the set-ups used feel badly chosen. Every single one of the action scenes are terribly directed and, with massive amounts of skip-framing used to slow things down, seem to go on forever. Actually, most of the movie seems to go on forever, including what has to be the longest death scene for a major character in film history and the entire thing clocks in at what feels like an interminable 114 minutes. The various animals are very likable, however, particularly the chimpanzees and orangutan. Since it’s probably all anyone cares about, there is considerable Bo Derek nudity but it’s not like she’s nude throughout the entire film, although we do get to see her unclothed and on all fours being scrubbed clean when she’s taken captive, with lots of coverage on this as she screams, “They’re washing me just like a horse!” Still, there’s never any kind of soft-core action that would jeopardize the R rating and really, anything you’d ever need to see in the film can be found in the end credits which features a topless Bo cavorting with O’Keeffe and their orangutan. Everything that the film is, or wants to be, is right in that shot and it only took nearly two hours to get there. It’s really the only part of it you ever need to see. If that's the sort of thing you're looking for, of course.

Playing against the romantic leads with zero charisma is Richard Harris who seems to be trying to compensate by generating enough energy for twenty other actors. He’s either playing his part as genuinely insane or maybe wanting us to think that he really is that insane as he plays some sort of odd Freudian drama in his own head in regards to how beautiful his daughter is and how much she looks like the late wife he abandoned so many years ago. Maybe John Derek never tried to get him to bring it down a few dozen notches, maybe this is exactly what the director wanted but rarely has a star as big as this come off as so truly deranged as he catapults over the top and past several mountain ranges as well. At times he yells so much it’s tough to imagine how the actor could have worked more than a few hours in a day without his voice being shot. As Mr. Holt, who is in charge of the expedition, John Phillip Law brings a genial likability to his early scenes but then he just winds up not doing much of anything even though he’s around just about the entire time. Diabolik deserved better.

TARZAN, THE APE MAN is a dull, badly made film with next to no real style, plus it seems to go on for a very long time. It really isn’t one of the worst films I’ve ever seen but I can’t think of a reason for anyone to seek it out at this late date apart from Bo Derek completists, Edgar Rice Burroughs completists or maybe just someone like me who can’t come up with even that much of a reason and simply wanted to see it anyway. Watching movies like this were more fun when I had more time to kill in the summer months. It would be nice if I could get a little of that feeling back but I guess this wasn’t the film to allow that to happen. Maybe I really should watch something like THE CANNONBALL RUN again.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Everything But The Kitchen Sink

I’m always happy to launch into a defense of the films of John Frankenheimer and I hope that one day some theater in this town does a full retrospective combining his classics with some of the lesser-known, but still worthy, efforts. But even though it’s not a total washout I freely admit that I can’t come up with much of an argument in favor of PROPHECY, his big-budget horror film that was a major release from Paramount in June 1979. I’m not sure if it’s a case of just a bad idea, or an idea that was done badly but it feels like an effort where, for the most part, his best instincts seem to have failed him. Maybe he took it for the cash, maybe he was trying to go for a big commercial hit but the impression is that he had no real affinity for this genre and material. Whatever the answer, the New Beverly screened it at midnight recently for those who were curious and surprisingly, the turnout of horror fans was actually pretty good. PROPHECY actually got a decent crowd! Who knew? The print screened was of a relatively recent vintage, struck in 2001 and when I was told this I couldn’t help but wonder ‘why?’ but hey, I was there, so who was I to question anything?

Dr. Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth), feeling unsatisfied with the futility of treating the tenement denizens of the D.C. slums (just about the fakest such slums ever seen in a movie), takes an assignment with the EPA to observe and report on a logging operation up in Maine that is currently embroiled in a dispute with the local Indians. His wife Maggie (Talia Shire) who has recently learned of her pregnancy accompanies him and is hesitant to tell her husband she wants the baby because she knows he is dead set against having children. They soon find themselves in the middle of this struggle between the two sides with the Indians led by John Hawks (Armand Assante) and Dr. Verne soon suspects that there is more to what’s going on than he’s being told by paper mill director Bethel Isely (Richard Dysart), particularly chemicals found in the water (so maybe Maggie eating that fish was a bad idea). But all that is dwarfed by talk of “one of their legends,” Katahdin, who the Indians describe as a spirit who may have been awakened to protect them. Katahdin is a hideous creature that is described as being “larger than a dragon and got the eyes of a cat,” but let’s just say that if you like the phrase “mutant killer bear” then this movie is for you.

Written by David Seltzer (THE OMEN), PROPECY is slow to the point of almost being hypnotic in the early-going and is also an oddly-paced, lopsided narrative which gives the impression that someone in charge (I’m going with the director more than the script) didn’t feel the need to follow the playbook of what is required from the horror genre. This would be fine if it could be defended more on a serious level but there always feels like something is missing from the narrative whether it’s a plot that makes sense or just something that had more of an awareness of the story that was being told. After a moody, well-done prologue which features none of the main characters a surprising amount of grim narrative goes by before the horror we’re expecting begins to occur, instead focusing on the conflict between the paper mill and the Indians as Foxworth investigates what is going on. True, this does result in a chainsaw-axe showdown and while we know what this film is building to because we know what the film is, it still seems like a long time for the movie to try to convince us that it’s actually about environmental issues. Frankenheimer’s craft always shows through but so does his lack of affinity for the genre and too much of the time it feels like he’s missing the chance to explore what should be disturbing, like the various things which turn out to be wrong with the landscape and the creatures who inhabit it. When the big revelation about how the water might affect Maggie happens it feels like it’s taking way too long to make the point (“It corrupts the fetus to the point where it gives birth to a monster.”), almost confusing what should be a simple revelation to get across, something that could actually be used to describe much of the film. It’s soon after this point during a rather notorious scene involving a sleeping bag (the New Beverly audience exploded at this) that the horror element finally comes to life, leading to much of what’s being debated by the characters totally forgotten about and the effort to get away is all that matters. Is anything about the human drama at all resolved when we hit the final shot? Could what the final shot shows be representative of how little is resolved or is that just a total reach?

Some of it does wind up being effective—the mutated baby bears are fairly disturbing, for one thing (hey, you put those things under your coat, I’m not gonna) and some of Frankenheimer’s filmmaking intelligence comes through like how a giant helicopter establishing shot winds up helping movie the story along. And easily the best scene in the movie is upon the first major attack of the, um, mutant killer bear (mostly shown in fast cutting that never quite works) on the lead characters leading to them seeking shelter in a nearby cave which culminates on a seemingly endless series of close-ups and medium shots as everyone, in a state of complete terror, listens to everything the creature is doing above them. As they exchange looks with each other these fairly static interpersonal relationships somehow manage to pay off and as it cloaks us in this oppressive chill that we feel from this onslaught of imagery for the first time in the film we can completely feel the presence of its director. For just a few moments, it’s as if he’s able to tap into what is actually able to scare us. This is achieved in a movie that is ultimately about a mutant killer bear. PROPHECY is an odd effort by a terrific director that isn’t as weird as it probably should be but, more importantly and horror never really goes together in a way that makes it feel complete. Coming during a problematic stage in his career (two years after BLACK SUNDAY) it’s not the waterloo of his career like some may think—I can honestly appreciate why all these people turned out late on a Friday night—but it’s still pretty problematic.

In the middle of all this, Foxworth, Shire and Assante seem to be playing every single line of dialogue with the utmost seriousness, with Shire in particular seeming to think that she might be nominated for an Oscar for this thing. Foxworth’s big beard and hair always makes me think of the look James Brolin had in THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, released the same year. I guess this look was just more common at the time, but it seems fitting for 70s male leads in horror movies. As Assante’s wife, the intriguing Victoria Rasimo winds up doing more with just a few glances than anything the script ever bothers to give her. Richard Dysart winds up giving the most ingratiating performance finding subtext that might not be there on the page, interesting because he’s more or less the villain of the piece, and between this film, BEING THERE and THE THING he has to be one of the most underrated character actors of the period, though I suppose even by me he’ll always be remembered as Leland MacKenzie on L.A. LAW. Frankenheimer’s wife Evans Evans appears as a fellow concert cellist who gives advice to Shire early on. The score by Leonard Rosenmann doesn’t work at all, providing majesty where there should be mystery, almost giving the impression that no one told the composer what kind of film this was. I’ll be charitable and say that he was always an acquired taste, particularly in his genre work. I mean, really, have you ever heard the theme to ROBOCOP 2? I like his score for THE CAR, though.

Even taking another look at it now, I find myself wondering, is this good or bad? It winds up feeling kind of muddled, which is as much of an answer that I suppose is needed. There feels like there’s a valid idea for a movie somewhere in here—not just in using the treatment of the Indians as a metaphor for the rise of a strange creature, but in just a straight-ahead horror film as well. But something in the idea seems to have been lost along the way, whether it was in the script or in Frankenheimer’s approach to the concept. But ultimately if you can’t find any enjoyment in a mutant killer bear then I don’t know what to tell you. There are scattered titles in the directors’s filmography that really deserve to be better known. PROPHECY isn’t necessarily one of them but its own insistence at going against the grain of what would be expected from this sort of film still makes it at least a little interesting.

Monday, July 20, 2009

From One End Of The Pacific To The Other

In an effort to see each of the films which originally played theaters in the glory of Sensurround (From Universal, Patent Pending) I finally took a look at the World War II battle epic MIDWAY which was released in June 1976, presumably just in time for the Bicentennial. The Netflix plot description takes note of the film apparently featuring “nearly every actor who wasn’t in A BRIDGE TOO FAR” which is a cute way to look at it, but maybe not quite accurate. A BRIDGE TOO FAR was made in Europe, financed by an independent producer and the bulk of the name actors used (the Americans anyway) were pretty much of the younger generation, part of the New Hollywood. The bulk of the big names in MIDWAY are of the old guard, still active at the time but during the last years that any of them would be considered headliners. Even the few younger names who turn up feel in that realm, as if they were cast because they were already under contract with the studio.

Because the people involved presumably cared more about the real-life story they were telling, it feels considerably more thoughtful than the disaster films that the studio released around this time but most of MIDWAY has a patched together feel, revealing it to be an epic that isn’t one at all. Not that this comparison is at all fair or valid but as much of a slog as A BRIDGE TOO FAR was, I felt the scope and effort behind making it in every single scene. MIDWAY just feels straight from the Universal City assembly line through and through. It’s not really an embarrassment and I can imagine a World War II buff being much more interested in it than I was (to paraphrase George Costanza: I’d love to be a World War II buff. What do you have to do to be a buff?) but it never becomes the great battle movie it looks like the posters promised and this only increases as it goes on.

Using a combination of actual war footage as well as battles shot for previous films, MIDWAY tells the true story of the Battle of Midway, a key event in World War II which in 1942 marked a turning point in the Pacific Theater only six months after Pearl Harbor. Though the film features a variety of Hollywood stars on the level of Fonda, Mitchum, Holbrook, Ford, Coburn and others playing real-life figures, the nominal story the film is centered around fictional character Captain Matthew Garth (Charlton Heston) who, as plans for the battle proceed has to deal with his own personal drama in the form of his son Tom (Edward Albert) a pilot who has just been arrived at Pearl Harbor for his assignment. But he has a surprise in that he has recently fallen in love with a Japanese girl who has been arrested with her parents and is looking for his father to help him. Meanwhile, plans for the battle continue as both sides try to predict what the other will do, leading to non-stop aerial action. Just not necessarily non-stop aerial action shot for this film.

I’ll give MIDWAY this much: the film gave me a real sense of not only the scale of these operations but of the near-impossible nature of trying to plan for these battles without fully knowing what lies ahead, turning everything into one massive chess game. At this early stage of the war there truly are fears of how far the Japanese can go and there’s no telling how disastrous any decision could ever turn out, with someone even expressing “deep concern for the safety of the west coast and the Hawaiian Islands”. Directed by Jack Smight (HARPER, AIRPORT 1975), there’s a no-nonsense approach taken to the exposition while somehow making all of these big names in the leads personable, which can’t quite be said for every one of these multi-star war epics. And the balanced approach the film takes means that the Japanese are never just “the bad guys” instead treating them as carefully considering every decision they make for what they feel are the correct reasons in battle, even the ones that turn out disastrously. Treating both sides with a degree of respect—of course, with an obvious emphasis on the American side--the film holds back from simple flag-waving to admit that sometimes the reasons for victory, whether skill or just dumb luck, is just the way things sometime go. The right decisions were made due to men with the brains and courage to make those decisions but even then they seem to realize that they could just as easily have been wrong.

That’s what’s intriguing about MIDWAY. What is considerably less so is the movie’s full-on approach to use stock footage, some actually shot during the war and some from earlier films, to provide much of the airborne thrills. In the retrospective documentary included on the DVD producer Walter Mirisch makes no bones about this, saying it was the only way to get the film made on a reasonable budget. While a more strict docudrama that avoided any interpersonal drama might have gotten away with this, the film that resulted is one that feels like the bulk of the footage actually shot for it consists of actors in mostly in rooms, meeting areas, bridges on the various ships and exteriors filmed in a way that manage to avoid large crowds. Stuff seems to have been shot in naval yards and on an actual ship (the Yorktown, we’re told) for at least a modicum of verisimilitude but when, say, Heston is watching planes take off or land we’re obviously cutting from the actor to stock footage, something that happens again and again all through the running time. We pretty much never see any of the actors directly interacting with any big action except for when one of them gets into a plane, which is of course rear-screen projection time. This actually results in an interesting approach at times—there’s a kind of newsreel approach to the cutting as I kept thinking about how if a certain piece of footage like a big explosion had actually been shot by the production the final film might have lingered on it more. Some of it does work pretty well, particularly one shot very late in the film that integrates actual war footage with actors in the foreground as a plane crashes into a ship, a very effective moment that may very well have inspired the moment in RETURN OF THE JEDI when a rebel ship crashes into the Super Star Destroyer, instigating its destruction.

But the preponderance of stock shots combined with new footage feels exactly like what it is much of the time and when a piece of footage is used to directly effect the story of one of the main characters near the end it winds up seriously damaging the effectiveness of the moment. The movie isn’t quite a scam—there’s enough going on throughout that I wouldn’t have felt too ripped off if I’d paid to see it, but it still feels more like a feature-length reenactment aimed at war buffs than an actual movie. The subplot of Capt. Garth’s son (the only such digression) doesn’t help much either and when the film seems to jump into this story just a few scenes in I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d stumbled onto one of those mammoth World War II miniseries from the 80s that I’ve never seen. There’s probably a valid story in the basic idea, and one that surprisingly makes the film slightly critical of what America was doing at the time, but this isn’t the film for it and the soapy plotline seems to have little effect in the end. The film is also hurt by how every Japanese character is only heard to speak English, which seriously damages any feeling of realism that the film is going for. Is it somehow less distracting when Nazis speak English in these movies? I’m not quite sure of the answer to that, but it certainly kept me from engaging with the film much of the time.

The big stars all do strong work, as we’d expect them to, with some appearing for just a handful of scenes. It’s hard for me to completely dislike any war film that features a scene where Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Hal Holbrook and Robert Wagner are crammed into a jeep together. Fonda makes us believe every once of his determination, Ford’s directness sells every moment he’s onscreen and Coburn gets one strong, well-written scene where he reasonably lets Fonda know Washington’s hesitation about his plan of action. Robert Mitchum, in particular gets a few funny moments playing his role mostly in bed, laid up with a skin disease that leads him to pick his replacement, one of those interesting indications of how the overall battle could have gone differently. In addition to the names there are a huge amount of familiar faces that turn up throughout on both sides including Robert Webber, Dabney Coleman, Erik Estrada, Pat Morita, Tom Selleck, Clyde Kusatsu and PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE’s Gregory Walcott. The great Toshiro Mifune plays Admiral Yamamoto. He seems to have been cast mostly to bring some prestige to the project but even with his limited screen time and presumably being dubbed by Paul Frees (just like he was on Frankenheimer’s GRAND PRIX) he still projects a massive amount of gravity just from his presence. I should add that Toshiro Mifune played his entire role in Japanese a few years later in Spielberg’s 1941—that was a comedy and it was willing to use subtitles!--and it adds hugely to that performance compared to here. As for an actor clearly speaking with his own voice, I spent practically half the film wondering who played Vice Admiral Nagumo until realizing that I recognized him because the actor, James Shigeta, also played Takagi in DIE HARD—those deep tones certainly stand out.

By a certain point in the final hour we’re just kind of watching these stock shots over and over again. They’re certainly impressive on their own but in this context it just comes off as part of a cut-rate effort from Universal (and this film never feels like it could have come from any other studio) trying to pretend it’s a much more expensive movie than it is. However gripping things ever gets almost feels like it’s in spite of this approach rather than helped by it in any way. As exciting as watching aerial battles might be, in a WWII film like this we also wind up spending a lot of time watching some really good actors standing around dressed up in military uniforms debating strategy. Which, after all, is never going to be as exciting as watching John Wayne and his grunts try to take a hill or whatever might happen in some other war film. I’m sure that MIDWAY was pretty great to experience in Sensurround, not that it does me much good now, and watching it this way is really only sporadically engaging. It’s probably appreciated by anyone who just loves watching all that old aerial footage and has already read books on every single one of the military commanders represented here. If so, then help yourself. It’s allowed.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Using Movies As A Guide For Reality

OPERA aka TERROR AT THE OPERA may have been the first Dario Argento movie I ever laid eyes on, on VHS of course, but I’m not completely certain of that. It doesn’t matter anyway, but watching it again I realize that the earliest exposure you have to something manages to effect the perception you have of it from then on. In a variety of ways, a number of the things that I always expect from Argento in his work deep down can be traced right back to this film. Though I’ve seen it numerous times over the years it had actually been a while when I went to see it as the opening night film of the recent Italian Grindhouse series at the American Cinematheque. Returning to it after a number of years I wasn’t quite certain how it would play but once we hit that masterful transition early on from the apartment to the opening night performance of MACBETH the film had me and, for a brief period of time, I thought that the film might be even better than I remembered—it’s that powerful a moment and I wish the entire picture could live up to what that one brief passage promises. OPERA isn’t quite that good and yes, much of it is as ludicrous as it’s always been. But within all the madness it’s a striking example of the director really trying to dig deep into his own preoccupations and even if it all doesn’t totally connect much of it is extremely well done and effective.

When “The Great” Mara Cecova, world famous opera singer, is injured after storming out of a rehearsal of a new avant-garde version of Verdi’s Macbeth being helmed by horror film director Marc (CHARIOTS OF FIRE’s Ian Charleson) it falls to the understudy Betty (Christina Marsillach) to take over (“It usually only happens to people in the movies”) in spite of her own hesitation that she is too young for the role as well as a fear that she can’t quite articulate. In the finest tradition of old-fashioned backstage musicals Betty is a big success even as an accident during the performance gives rise to the fear that the opera is cursed. All seems to be well until, late that night while at home with boyfriend Stefan (TEXASVILLE’s William MacNamara) Betty is suddenly attacked by a masked assailant who proceeds to tie her up and uses his own means to force her to keep her eyes open as he stabs Stefan to death. Before leaving, the killer unties Betty enough to allow her to get away and she does, leaving Stefan behind without calling the police for reasons of her own. The crime is soon investigated headed by Inspector Santini (Urbano Barberini, recently seen in CASINO ROYALE) but as the company prepares for another performance the killer is out there preparing to strike again and force Betty to watch as someone else close to her is horribly killed.

Taking a fresh look at 1987's OPERA there seems to be something in it which sets it apart from standard Giallos, not to mention slasher films or Agatha Christie-type mysteries. There’s the feeling that, as mad as it all is, it’s possible Argento means all this to a greater extent than he ever had before, best represented in the central image of a killer who is forcing the heroine (and, by hopeful implication, the audience) to keep looking at every single unspeakably horrible thing that is occurring (“Keep your eyes open,” said John Goodman in Joe Dante’s MATINEE). It’s as if for the first time he’s trying to really confront the horrific nature of this violence and what it means for him to make films that express it, a concept he would explore further in THE STENDHAL SYNDROME which I still maintain is kind of a masterwork. The plot of TENEBRAE, made several years before was also to a degree about how madness informs the creative process had happened to him but, much as I love that film, it seems to be operating on a surface level. Maybe because the very world it’s set in allows for a more heightened display of emotion, OPERA seems like it’s trying to dig beneath that surface.

It’s arguable whether or not Argento’s murder sequences are any more vicious than in previous films, but there is a density to it all that feels different. OPERA is a particularly nasty film both in tone and in violence, feeling like a decidedly cynical look at the world and how people, good and bad, ultimately relate to each other. It’s the nicest characters most sympathetic to Betty who meet the most horrifying ends (with one key exception that I suppose even Argento couldn’t bring himself to depict), while the selfish ones, whether valid red herrings or not, wind up lurking around the outskirts of the plot unharmed, fitting in perfectly with the cruel reality this is all set in. I’m not even certain whether it’s the most violent of his films but the very nature of certain things definitely makes it seem more brutal.

As might be expected, there are the usual plotting issues that always seem to be there with the director—even watching it at home you can almost hear the audience mumbling in puzzled laughter as Betty leaves the first crime scene without a moment’s thought (right now we won’t even discuss what has to be swallowed to allow the final twist to work). After seeing it all these times I can barely track the killer’s true motivation as well as the demons that haunt Betty but I’m not so sure it really matters. There are demons present as there would be for any artist and they have to be confronted—to be truly looked at—before you can admit to yourself who you really are, which, if this film is to be believed, may in itself be a form of giving into the madness. Whatever else you want to say about the denouement, which was not in the print that was screened and is certainly difficult to defend on any rational level, it does give the impression of coming from a very personal place, just one that it’s difficult for us to enter. Maybe the film is about accepting that artist within you and learning to no longer be afraid of being alone. I can’t be certain—within the film’s density is a seemingly genuine insanity and there are points in the movie, like during the endless attack by the crows or during the legendary peephole sequence (“I want to see your face again!”) we become enraptured by the camerawork and imagery so all we can do is just surrender to the lunacy in front of us.

It of course could be looked at as one of Argento’s most personal films whether it’s about his own relationship to what he creates, the type of artist he wants to be (“I always jerk off before I shoot a scene,” Charleson admits at one point) or the nature of his relationships with the various young leading ladies he often works with (like perhaps PHENOMENA star Jennifer Connelly?) years before he began making films with daughter Asia. It’s telling how self-critical he comes off in much of this, one of the most endearing touches of the entire film. As undeniably powerful as much of it is—the remarkable camera work by Ronnie Taylor deserves special mention--it’s not quite the cohesive whole that I would want it to be deep down. The scattershot nature of the music is a good representation of how every part doesn’t quite connect together, veering from Verdi to Simonetti’s heartbreakingly beautiful main theme to the metal by Steel Grave underscoring several of the murders. That stuff in particular doesn’t work, not meshing well with everything else, it’s not particularly good and, in its hair metal way, dates the picture back in the 80s more than anything else onscreen. The print shown at the Cinematheque titled TERROR AT THE OPERA had the Orion logo on it, for a release in the 80s that never seems to have happened (did it ever play any U.S. theaters, even on 42nd Street?) and has the same dub job that I’ve always heard with it, not the worst in history, but not all that great either. The gore seems to be uncensored (at least, I think it is—no way would this ever get an R rating) but several dialogue scenes have been cut down or missing altogether, including that somewhat notorious coda. On the visual side, the DVD (the most complete version) is letterboxed at an ideal-looking 2.35 Scope, while the print shown is a flat ratio at 1.85 or even 1.66, a slight drawback in how it makes this film seem somewhat visually less than what it is.

Located within all this madness is one of the better ensembles that Argento has had in his career, particularly Marsillach and Charleson both managing to find a human connection in all this madness, even if the script (not to mention the dubbing) doesn’t always make it easy. The film is filled with interesting faces that work well together (even those who don’t have any lines seem to make an impression by appearing slightly suspicious), almost as if they’ve been cast not for a horror film but a dark, character-oriented comedy. Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, who I’ve always really liked, in particular seems to be playing her role as if she’s the overeager best friend in a screwball farce and the bounciness in her character is so enjoyable to watch that it even overcomes how she seems to have been dubbed by a much older English woman and makes it all the more shocking when certain developments finally happen.

When viewed again in a theater OPERA, flaws and all, offers a reminder of how good Argento can be at his best and how absurd he can be during those times as well. Seeing it this way allows the darkness of its emotion to seep down within you, allowing the imagery to take hold. The genuinely brutal determination it has to really make you watch—to keep your eyes open—transforms it into sort of confrontation that makes it truly memorable. I can’t quite remember exactly what I thought of Argento and this film when I first saw it, but I’m glad that I kept watching to try to figure out exactly what these films were and what they wanted to say. Sometimes when you keep watching the greatest rewards can occur.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Being Willing

Looking around the net, I can tell that I’m definitely not the first person to link Clint Eastwood’s GRAN TORINO with THE SHOOTIST, the last film John Wayne ever made, but the point still seems worth making. We can’t say for certain at this point that TORINO will be the final acting appearance by Eastwood (after all, that seemed to be the case before) but it certainly seems like a possibility and it definitely seems designed as such in how it plays as a sort of final summation of him as a screen persona. There’s no way to know if Wayne approached THE SHOOTIST, released in 1976 with the idea that it would be his ‘final’ film but considering the parallels that could be made between the lead character of that film and his own health problems which were certainly common knowledge, it’s not too much of a stretch (he eventually succumbed to cancer in 1979). Directed by Don Siegel, THE SHOOTIST opens with clips from past Wayne films which are presented as glimpses of the film’s lead character in his younger days (a little like Soderbergh’s THE LIMEY) but there’s not a person who will ever see this film who won’t know what this footage really is. It gives the impression that the movie is pretty much implying that all John Wayne films are pretty much one big film and this is pretty much the end of the story. I don’t know if there’s much to THE SHOOTIST beyond this one simple notion but, in the film’s defense, it doesn’t really try to pretend that there is either.

January, 1901. Legendary gunfighter J.B. Books (Wayne) makes his way to Carson City, Nevada to see old friend Doc Hostetler (none other than James Stewart, coming in for a few scenes) to learn the cause of some pain he’s been feeling. It doesn’t take long before Hostetler tells Books the bad news, that he has “a cancer” and it’s not going to be very long until the end, either. Seeking a place to wait things out until the end, Books rents a room from the widow Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and her son Gillom (Ron Howard). He tries to keep things quiet, not even giving his real name, but it doesn’t take long until not only is his presence known, but of how little time he has and certain people are determined to settle and score once and for all.

Some westerns might be about waiting for a gunman to arrive on the next train. THE SHOOTIST, on the other hand, is just about waiting for death to come (yup, I know how to pick my fun Saturday night viewing). All the signs that the future is coming are everywhere in Carson City—telephone wires, horseless carriages, even a Coca-Cola sign is seen, signaling how much the lead character’s time has already passed and THE SHOOTIST is basically a funeral dirge for one of the most legendary stars in the history of Hollywood and that’s really all it is. In addition to Bacall and Stewart a number of other famous faces turn up in roles including Harry Morgan, John Carradine, Hugh O’Brian, Scatman Crothers, Bill McKinney and Sheree North as if to say farewell. Considering that THE SHOOTIST consists of not much more than waiting around for the end, it’s not exactly dull—the charisma of Wayne and a few of the other actors help with that—but even with Don Siegel directing it’s a flat-looking picture that resembles a movie made for television back in the seventies with very little oomph of any kind. It’s visually and dramatically static to the point that it’s not difficult, with a few tweaks, to imagine the entire script presented on live telelvision back in the fifties. There’s some location work done in Nevada—the book it’s based on was set in El Paso, but the more wintery setting of the film was a good choice—but most of it looks to be shot on the backlot in Burbank (the layout of the town square is familiar to anyone who’s seen stuff shot there) and there’s a simplicity to the production which feels like it was done to accommodate Wayne as much as possible. There’s not much action, very little humor (except for Harry Morgan’s Marshal, thrilled that this famous gunfighter isn’t going to be a threat) and not even much of a plot either—just John Wayne hanging around with a bunch of people pretending that there’s actually a movie here, not just a monument erected all around him.

Parallels to GRAN TORINO are pretty clear—the lead character’s approach towards the climax is certainly similar as is Wayne’s relationship with the boy played by Ron Howard, though TORINO managed to make the film more about the younger character which helped focus that story (for the record, I like that film quite a bit—watching THE SHOOTIST, I like it even more now). More surprising are a few similarities to UNFORGIVEN—Books is described as a “a notorious individual, utterly lacking in character or decency” by Bacall’s character and there’s even a scene where he has to deal with a news reporter played by Richard Lenz, interested in telling his story which certainly recalls Saul Rubinek’s writer (‘of letters and such?’) in the Eastwood film. There’s talk of Books brooding over how he feels about having killed so many people but it just feels like sentimental homilies as opposed to whatever is eating up Eastwood’s William Munny from the inside in the 1992 film. The script for UNFORGIVEN was written years before it was actually filmed I can’t help but wonder if part of the inspiration for the screenplay by David Webb Peoples was to craft a version of this story that would really examine the nature of such a character, as opposed to simply being about what a legend John Wayne (or Clint Eastwood, or whomever) is. This makes me wonder what a version of UNFORGIVEN starring Wayne made in the mid-60s would have been like but I can’t quite imagine Wayne confronted with a girl offering him a ‘free one’ like Anna Thomson offers Eastwood. (How many films better than UNFORGIVEN have there been in the past twenty years? Not very many, I’d say. I once met Peoples but didn’t tell him how much I love it. I regret that now.) As funeral dirges go, THE SHOOTIST isn’t bad but it still feels unfortunate that it didn’t try to be something other than a tribute to its star.

In spite of the flatness of the visual style (which seems to prove how wrong anyone who criticizes Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE for the same thing really is) it could be argued by someone that it doesn’t matter considering that the film is really about Wayne as cinema icon starring in a western one last time. It may not be a great performance—the basic material doesn’t really allow for that—but it is an affecting one and he works very well in the frame with each of the other actors, even at time coming off as generous to them. As if to act as a contrast, Lauren Bacall doesn’t seem at all interested in playing her role as a figure of Hollywood history. Instead she’s completely present, totally committed to the character and in that sense she brings much of the dramatic power that the story, independent from John Wayne, actually has. Among the other familiar faces that turn up, John Carradine as the local undertaker is very enjoyable in what is pretty much the John Carradine role and Sheree North is particularly good in one long scene with Wayne as a former conquest who shows up for reasons he isn’t aware of at first. Playing a role that should be more of the center of the film, Ron Howard was never the weightiest of dramatic actors and his basic likeability only gets him so far (you can’t buy Ron Howard taking an experienced swig of whiskey, that’s just never going to happen) but his casting here still seems important, as if the likes of Wayne and Stewart are passing the torch along to the next generation, somebody who’s going to direct the latter-day equivalents of their starring vehicles with people like Tom Hanks and Russell Crowe. Thinking about what lay in his career’s future, I kept imagining him paying more attention to how the film was being put together by Siegel than ever thinking about his character.

As a film, there’s not much to say about THE SHOOTIST. It’s visually bland, dramatically inert and ultimately not very much happens. But there is the feeling of it being the ultimate, no fooling, this is the final hurrah, last gasp of any element of the old studio system, coming fourteen years after the release of John Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, also with Wayne and Stewart, which Peter Bogdanovich has pegged as representing the final film of Hollywood’s golden age. Ford died in 1973 and Howard Hawks, Wayne’s other favorite director, was at this point just a year away from dying himself. But here we still have Wayne in a film that is about nothing more than his star power and what that means. How many other Hollywood legends have appeared in what was such an obviously symbolic ‘final’ film? It doesn’t make it any better than it is, but it still seems significant and the genuine desire to celebrate every single step the actor takes across the screen got to me at a certain point. As he gets on a streetcar near the very end to head for his appointment with destiny he greets a pretty young girl (Melody Thomas Scott, also in Siegel’s THE BEGUILED, among other credits) sitting across from him with a “Good morning.” She then replies with all the naiveté in the world, “Morning, sir. Isn’t it a beautiful day?” and so help me, the absolute, unabashed sweetness of what she says made me tear up a little. There’s of course a shootout climax which follows but as Wayne replies, “It sure is,” knowing that this just may be the last peaceful moment that he’ll ever experience in this lifetime, I could almost have shut the DVD off right there. In some ways, that’s how we want to remember the legends of Hollywood that we love in the end, whatever else we know about their politics or anything else. For just a moment, everything is calm and their place in history is just what it is supposed to be. THE SHOOTIST probably didn’t affect that place very much one way or the other, but taken as the postscript to a career that it is it still feels like it matters even if only in a small way.