Thursday, December 31, 2009

This Life Came So Close To Never Happening

I think even at the time I knew that I was underrating 25TH HOUR. That probably doesn’t make any sense but sometimes even if you don’t have the biggest response to a film, somewhere in the back of your head you know that this one is going to stick around. Maybe the film just felt too raw at the time, being in many ways an examination of New York and what it had become of it in the months following 9/11. Released at the end of 2002, Spike Lee must have known that people would be resistant to it but he made the film this way regardless and in doing so made what may very well be one of the most valuable films of the decade. I suppose this is the time to make those lists of the best of the year, the best of the aughts. I’m always resistant to making to those things maybe because I’m always worried I’m forgetting something, but like anyone I know that the best film released to theaters over the past ten years was obviously MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Other titles ranking under it would probably include WONDER BOYS, ALMOST FAMOUS, FEMME FATALE, LOST IN TRANSLATION, SIDEWAYS, SHAUN OF THE DEAD, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, BEFORE SUNSET, CHILDREN OF MEN, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES…, ZODIAC, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, THERE WILL BE BLOOD, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. What the hell, put ANCHORMAN on there as well. This is not an official list of any sort, just some names that occurred to me, some films that meant the most to me. But looking back at it now, 25TH HOUR plays as this anomaly, the rare film in this changing world of cinema that increasingly wants to avoid anything having to do with actual reality, that just wanted to pause and take a look around at what was happening for a few moments. It’s as if Spike Lee needed to make these things a part of the film, to get all this on film so the way people were feeling at that point in time would be remembered. And, let it be said, the film received zero Oscar nominations, which now seems particularly shameful. Looking at it again now, it’s just a beautiful piece of work and seemed like on this occasion this is the film that needs to be watched to remember where we’ve been but also to try to move on. I’m not saying that it even belongs on the list, though maybe it does, it just needed to be mentioned before we wrapped everything up. It’s been that kind of decade.

The majority of 25TH HOUR is set over the course of a single day as small time Manhattan drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) faces his last twenty-four hours of freedom before having to report for a seven-year prison sentence. As he prepares to spend one final night seeing girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), old friends Frank (Barry Pepper) and Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as well as bar owner father Jimmy Brogan (Brian Cox) Monty tries to come to grips in his own head with what he’s done and the hell he’s about to enter. It’s not just seven years—for some of them it’s going to be forever because it’s obvious that the Monty they’ve always known is never coming back. This is it. And they certainly can’t forget what he did to have this happen since it’s not like he was an innocent man set up, after all. And the heightened emotions of the night results in the heat on their own personal dramas to boil over as well. With a screenplay by David Benioff based on his novel of the same name, 25TH HOUR is an elegy. An elegy for youth, an elegy for living a life where you think there will be no consequences. And an elegy for New York and whatever that great city was going through during the months when this film was in production early in 2002, something which certainly affected a film which had to have been in the preparation stages when 9/11 happened. Any rewrites that took place to incorporate it were most likely minimal and from what I can tell are kept to the scene at Frank’s apartment downtown which chillingly overlooks Ground Zero and a few mentions at the bar that Jimmy Brogan owns. But the memory of that day permeates the characters and entire right from the beautifully shot opening credit sequence to the American flags seen in the frame all throughout, something that is perhaps not spoken of in dialogue for long stretches but it’s always there.

One thing that stands out in the film watching it now is how steady it is the whole way through, how confident it is in taking its time moving through the scenes, pausing as Monty goes for his morning walk with his dog Doyle. No handheld camera nonsense and scenes are allowed to play out in an unhurried fashion as the characters continually absorb what is happening. When making one of their several toasts of the evening, the cute girl bartender says they should come by on Sunday for her birthday party. Everyone becomes quiet. Sunday isn’t going to happen. Every now and then a moment is briefly repeated like a stutter in the editing, making it clear how much these moments are being absorbed by Monty as he tries to remember them. The device is wisely not overused but it certainly has the right effect to get us to pay closer attention. It may take some time to realize that the film isn’t avoiding getting to the plot by spending time with its characters but that this interaction is the plot, building to what happens with them and how their loyalty will be portrayed. With their own lives happening at full throttle at the same time there’s nothing anyone can say to Monty that will make anything better so all they can do for the time being is just to stay by his side.

The expected Spike Lee stylistics are certainly there on occasion (with strikingly gorgeous use of colors throughout courtesy of D.P. Rodrigo Prieto, shot on film. Film!!) from Norton’s memorably profane rant against everything he hates about New York but also throughout the extended nightclub scene where such exaggerations make sense and these points which we expect from the director have rarely been used in as effective a manner. I won’t say this is Lee’s best film but years from now it might be the one I’d choose to see over all the others. The plot strand that is there—the question of whether Naturelle betrayed Monty by ratting him out to the Feds—does figure into things but not as much as you would expect. The crime stuff doesn’t really matter as much as the interaction between these people who love each other and how much it shows it their faces and actions. This level of emotion extends to the heartbreaking theme by Terence Blanchard which haunts the film throughout, acting as its own eulogy as well as a clock ticking down to the final seconds. It’s even snuck into the film during one bar scene as source music continuing that feel in an almost subliminal way—I admit that I’m a sucker for this type of source music usage but it adds something particularly beautiful to the scene.

I have a specific memory of seeing this film at The Grove in January 2003. At a key point late in the film—right as Norton is being driven away—the film broke. The lights came up and it took several minutes for it to start up again. For all I know, some people left since, at this point, it seemed like the story had reached its conclusion. There was no way to know at that point that what up until then had been a very good film would be transformed to a great film by what was to come with its shattering conclusion brought to the finish line by the great Brian Cox. This ending haunted me after I saw it and haunts me even more now nearly seven years later.

The entire cast rises to the occasion, doing some of their best work and the pain in Norton’s every movement is felt more and more as the film goes on. He’s just phenomenal. Hoffman gives one of his best socially awkward portrayals of this character who clearly has no idea how to handle all this and Barry Pepper does some particularly good, layered work getting better as the film goes on, revealing more shadings than just the ‘Gordon Gekko-wannabe’ he comes off as when first introduced. Rosario Dawson delivers some of her strongest work ever here as Naturelle and the beguiling Anna Paquin is terrifically enjoyable as Mary D'Annunzio, one of Jacob’s students who winds up joining the group at their extended nightclub stop. I’ve already said how amazing Brian Cox is here. I may as well say it again. Isiah Whitlock, Jr., who I’ve noticed through the years in New York-based shoots, is particularly good in his nasty way as the DEA Agent who knows that he’s got Monty right where he wants him. Vanessa Ferlito, Butterfly in DEATH PROOF, appears in a flashback as a friend of Naturelle’s who takes off when she realizes who Monty is—that voice of hers is instantly recognizable.

The devastating finale brought tears to my eyes on this viewing and it also reminded me how it is in fact seven years after the film’s original release, the exact amount of time Monty Brogan was due to serve. And in thinking about the character’s own release, I’m finding myself relieved that this miserable, no-good decade where some of the worst things imaginable happened is finally coming to a close. Maybe the idea of his release actually gets me to look forward with a kind of anticipation. The emotion delivered by Bruce Springsteen as the powerful song “The Fuse” plays over the end credits makes couldn’t feel more right at the end of this film about regret, about feeling like you blew it in life. And as I think about this sadness I remember a small beat near the end involving Phillip Seymour Hoffman that gives me more hope than any bogus feel-good movie ever could. I’ll just remember that moment, along with the knowledge that those seven years since the story of 25TH HOUR are now up and maybe in this life that really is happening there might actually be something good found in the first half of the twenty-first century. And on that note, Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Some Schnook That Works In The Office

And now here I am again, approaching New Year’s. Once again I’m wondering if I’ll have my own personal Miss Kubelik finally appear at my door shortly after midnight, sit down and play some gin rummy while I try confessing my love. I don’t think it’s going to happen—hell, there is always the possibility that I won’t be here at midnight anyway which would be for the best—but I still wonder. It’s interesting how Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT ties into the holiday season encompassing both Christmas and New Year’s (how did C.C. Baxter spend his Thanksgiving, anyway? Again at the Automat?) with very little in terms of genuine holiday cheer yet it still seems absolutely appropriate to see yet again around this time. I think about Baxter sitting there at that bar on Christmas Eve already on his—really?—seventh martini. And his meeting up with the terrific Hope Holliday as the woman whose husband the jockey has been imprisoned by Castro makes me sometimes wonder if I should make my way over to the Dresden some Christmas Eve to see if anyone else is in a similar state. Would there be a Mrs. MacDougall there who I could dance with? I never do it though, maybe because I remember that Baxter’s own response to the whole thing is pretty depressing. I’m always into my annual Christmas Eve viewing of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE on that night anyway, so that leaves out that idea. I look at the film again now and I feel like I’m in a similar place. We’re both looking at the New Year without a job. Of course, he willingly left his job on principle. As for me, I’m the one who got took, as Fran Kubelik puts it. See, I’m thinking about C.C. Baxter and the dealings with his apartment these days not just because of the holiday but because of all the other stuff around the character going on. More than few other films I know, THE APARTMENT makes more sense to me every single time I see it. Funnier, sadder, more believable, more truthful.

The film tells the story of C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), employee at the Consolidated Life of New York insurance company-- Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861. This bachelor has a “little problem” with his apartment, namely the higher-ups who take advantage of him by using it to dally with secretaries and the like from the company. Baxter makes light conversation with elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) who he obviously has his eye on but he’s too stressed to do much about it. Baxter’s favorable reports catch the eye of personnel director Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) who figures things out pretty easily and has his own idea in mind, namely to use it with his own girl, the one and only Miss Kubelik. When Baxter gets caught up in all this, he first takes advantage of what good it can do for his place at Consolidated Life but circumstances eventually lead him to having to figure out how to become, as his neighbor Dr. Dreyfus (Jack Kruschen) puts it, a mensch, a human being. But you know that, you’ve seen it, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this. If you haven’t well, that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.

It’s not much of a surprise to me that I became fascinated with Wilder’s films early on. Their humor mixed with darkness, the drunkenness mixed with the sober, the sweet mixed with the sour. Way back in 1991 the Film Forum in New York put on a massive Wilder retrospective, covering films he had directed as well as only contributing to the script, and while there was no way I could take full advantage of it I went as often I was able to, taking in my first viewings of the likes of ACE IN THE HOLE, ONE TWO THREE, LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, IRMA LA DOUCE and others. I’m sure I had seen THE APARTMENT on video before then but I was there for that one anyway. I now look at the full schedule as listed in the New York Times article on the series (Vincent Canby on the occasion: “Barring an unforeseen national emergency to be watched in prime time, the Film Forum is the place to be for at least two days out of each of the next six weeks.”) and it makes me want to weep, amazed that such a complete series was shown, grateful that I was able to see even a few of them, dreaming of an opportunity to see some of these films again. I’ve caught up with a few of the harder-to-see titles over the year—ten years ago the American Cinematheque screened PEOPLE ON SUNDAY a Wilder scripted 1929 film directed by Robert Siodmak in Germany that is fascinating to look at now and just a few weeks ago the New Beverly double-billed FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO and THE EMPEROR WALTZ (my first viewing of the latter) and there’s still a few more out there. I’ve caught it on cable before, but what I would give to see something like A FOREIGN AFFAIR in a theater right now.

Since I’m talking about THE APARTMENT here I could think about how certain points in my life have slightly resembled the schematics of the plot but that’s making more of certain things than was really there at the time and besides, most of those occasions don’t seem to matter anymore. Time moves forth, you forget, you move on. The script by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond for the film released in 1960 nails its bitter look at these individuals perfectly with its harsh humanity going perfectly with the black & white cinematography by Fred LaSalle impeccably composed in Scope which certainly gives it a different tinge than you would expect from any type of comedy—this entire film can be looked at as a lesson in how you can, and should shoot in Scope when approaching a movie set mostly in a few rooms. There’s also the brief though potent look at New York as it was when it was shot there—the production was supposed to spend more time there than it did but the cold sent them back to Hollywood a little early. I’m fairly sure that the film uses both location work and backlot to represent Baxter’s apartment building on 51 West 67th but can’t be certain. We do see Jack Lemmon waiting to go into THE MUSIC MAN, a lovely nighttime shot of the two stars leaving the office building and walking down the street of the business district as the scene plays out and, maybe most evocative for me, a brief Central Park scene as Lemmon, shut out of home, sits down to wait on that very, very long bench. Something about this offers a glimpse of the type of location work that would continue in the 60s and offers a hint of the New York that I remember still being there—a mention of the film made to it in a key episode of the first season of MAD MEN and it managed to make perfect sense on several levels.

I love watching Jack Lemmon’s bored expression at that desk in the giant office, could watch that all day. I love the way Edie Adams continually takes off and puts on her glasses. I love the cavorting during the Christmas party scene. I love how Shirley Maclaine flatly states, “I like it,” as Baxter puts his hat on for the first time. I love the non-exaggerated decency of Jack Kruschen’s next door neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss. I love how Joan Shawlee says, “Hamburger Heaven.” I love how Ray Walston sprinkles his ashes on Baxter’s desk. I love the way Jack Lemmon later drops that key down on Fred MacMurray’s desk, saying, “I dig.” I love the look on Shirley MacLaine’s face as she runs through the streets at the end (or is it the look on her face in the chinese restaurant just before? I can't decide). I love the feeling the film gives off how sometimes the holidays aren’t for celebrating but they’re there anyway and you have to deal with them. I take note of Fred MacMurray’s callous response to the times that Miss Kubelik degrades herself, saying she’s ‘the happy idiot’, responding ‘That’s more like you Fran,’ and I hate him (he lives in White Plains, but I wish it was Scarsdale), thinking of all the guys who got certain girls over me and I hate them as well. I hate that Jack Lemmon is dead. I hate that Billy Wilder is too.

The film moves through it’s plotting like the very best of Swiss watches but no matter how much it was locked into the world of 1960 complete with topical references (“Thursday? But that’s ‘The Untouchables’ with Bob Stack!”) it still holds today because, unlike other comedies from this era, its range of emotions still ring true. I’m a few weeks out from my job now. I wasn’t fired, I was let go. Laid off. Not even allowed to say goodbye to my co-workers. As Mr. Sheldrake would say, “Merry Christmas.” Of course, I also know that in the long run this is a good thing and I’m not going to miss that job any more than C.C. Baxter will miss his. THE APARTMENT ends with its characters in a better place, even though they don’t quite know where they’re going. I don’t know where I’m going either, but there’s still the hope that Miss Kubelik is out there somewhere. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get out my tennis racket since I’m making pasta for dinner.

“Shut up and deal.”

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, originally released on December 7, 1979, is now thirty years old which essentially makes it a part of history. For whatever reason, I did not see it at the time. Considering it had a G rating back then, you’d think my parents would have taken me but of course I know now they would have been pretty bored if they had. Given a massive budget at the time, the film has since become legendary for being one of the most down-to-the-wire Hollywood productions ever seen before or since. The product released to theaters was a version felt by legendary director Robert Wise to be essentially a rough cut. Years later he was finally able to fix these issues with his own director’s edition on DVD but the complicated history of the film has meant that there has been essentially four separate versions seen in public at one time or another, with the various running times coming in at between 132 and 143 minutes. Briefly, the different cuts are as follows: 1. The original theatrical version. 2. The network version which aired on ABC, restoring what was felt by many to be valuable footage and the positive response resulted in it being eventually released on VHS at that length. 3. A slightly altered version first seen when the film was shown at special marathon screenings to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Trek, which reinstated some of that footage but left out others—particularly an unfinished effects shot of Kirk exiting the ship in pursuit of Spock and finally 4. The Director’s Edition, which premiered on disc in 2001. Unfortunately, the reinstated effects prepared for that version were not prepared in HD so the version recently released on Blu-Ray is apparently the theatrical cut.

Ultimately, what needs to sometimes be faced is that no matter which version it is, STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE is still going to be STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE. There are certain flaws which will always be present that cannot be removed. The film is epic, mythic, no doubt about that, especially for anyone who was a certain age at the time (that includes me, who was certainly exposed to the advertising—must have been the effect of Orson Welles narrating the ads) and I could imagine also for anyone who had spent the ten years since the show’s cancellation waiting for more. One of the most fascinating things about ST:TMP then and now is that, for a film whose existence can be attributed to the success of STAR WARS, the film has many more similarities to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Much of the same could be said of THE BLACK HOLE, which opened in theaters only two weeks after this one (both films were also the last films ever to feature overtures at the start). Of course, THE MOTION PICTURE doesn’t quite live up to that 2001 comparison for a variety of reasons. For that to happen it needed a visionary behind the camera who could at least aspire to being his own Kubrick, willing to shatter the Trek mythos and send it hurtling in different directions. Instead, they got men who were there to make this movie, a big outer-space extravaganza at a time when everybody was making one. Nevertheless, I’ve still seen it countless times through the years to the point that when a two-second change occurs in the director’s edition it still sticks out. It’s also impossible to deny how valuable this groundwork which was laid was to what the franchise of Star Trek was to become over the coming years. At its best the film seems filled with possibilities as we watch it and dream of the human adventure it tells us is just beginning. At its weakest it feels like a bunch of people standing in a room staring at a monitor, without a script that can live up to the questions they seem to be asking.

Several years after the end of the original ‘five-year mission’ a giant cloud appears, destroying several Klingon vessels and a Federation outpost in the process as it makes its way directly towards Earth. With the newly refurbished Enterprise (which in my mind I’ve always equated with the 70s renovation of Yankee Stadium) the only vessel within range, now-Admiral Kirk (Shatner) takes command of his old ship, taking the seat from the younger Will Decker (Stephen Collins). With much of his old crew (DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, Majel Barrett, Grace Lee Whitney) and new navigator Lieutenant Ilia (Persis Khambatta), the Deltan former love of Decker in place, the Enterprise sets out and is soon joined by Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) ready to help but also carrying his own agenda. The ship soon encounters the massive cloud and, after spending a great deal of time flying around inside it, Ilia is absorbed by a piece of energy emitted from it in an attack but her form soon reappears as a probe which refers to the cloud only as V’Ger, an entity which is in search of its creator. With Decker the only link to her human side, the crew desperately tries to uncover answers as the cloud gets closer to Earth.

The problems with ST: TMP have been well-documented by now and are quite numerous. It would be easy to place the blame on the script (Story by Alan Dean Foster, Screenplay by Harold Livingston, though quite a lot of it feels like it comes from Gene Roddenberry) but multiple accounts have it being a very difficult production with the various powers involved (Wise, Roddenberry, Paramount, the stars) continually involved with things. At times rewrites on scenes were coming in several times in a day. So it’s impressive—hell, miraculous—that this film got finished at all but it still feels like there are problems which should have been addressed at a very early stage. We not only spend most of the movie on the Enterprise, the majority of it occurs in the confining area of the bridge, a place populated by principal actors who never seem as energetic as you’d think they would be. Not to mention how that bridge looks like an awfully gloomy, unexciting place to spend this much time, so it says something about how Nicholas Meyer took the exact same set when he made WRATH OF KAHN and actually brought some life to the room.

There’s a basic coldness to much of the production which is certainly intentional, from how the uniforms seem designed to make every person blend into the walls of the ship (how functional would these things be down on a planet?) to the essential problem of just which character’s thematic journey this film is supposed to be. What is the dramatic goal of anyone here? Kirk just wants the Enterprise back, which he does at the beginning—problem solved (the next film found a way to make this plot strand work as drama). Spock wants his ‘answers’ which he kind of gets, I guess, but it’s not entirely clear what this is supposed to mean to anyone watching it. McCoy isn’t there for any reason other than to provide Kirk with a sounding board and why is he spending so much time hanging out on the bridge, anyway? Decker wants, I don’t know, another chance with Ilia? The Decker-Ilia romance, an obvious rough draft for Riker-Troi on THE NEXT GENERATION, is a total non-starter and we’re never given any reason to care about either one. All we know about Ilia is that she’s Deltan, which means she has several vaguely defined special abilities, so she hasn’t really registered in any real way before she’s ‘killed’. That this film is apparently presenting her bald look as sexy also seems to say something about the blandness of this future utopia. Decker is, well, a jut-jawed stoic type, coming off determined enough but I guess is no match for Kirk in the captain’s chair--his final decision comes off as not much more than a desperate act by a man determined to get with his main crush no matter what. I’m not sure that even I’d go to this sort of extreme and I’ve carried some major fixations on girls in my time.

To a great extent the story feels like it’s reaching for a profundity that no one working on it could ever agree on so it’s not always clear why the characters are thinking about it as well. After McCoy asks Kirk a question about Spock which Kirk interprets as wondering if the Vulcan could put his own interest in V’Ger ahead of the ship, Bones then asks, “How do we know about any of us?” but there really seems to be no reason for anyone, let alone McCoy, making such an inquiry about anyone but Spock (I’m sure that the novelization that I read decades ago clarified certain things, not that I’m going to go looking for a copy now). There is something in the greater idea of putting aside this utopia in search of bigger answers to life…but STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE turns out to be the wrong film in which to ask it, instead teasing us with the mystery of V’Ger and the promise that it will lead to an extraordinary revelation, which it really doesn’t. STAR TREK V, a film with its own issues, had a similar problem and they weren’t able to solve it there either.

We do get many, many striking visuals thanks to the likes of Douglas Trumbull, John Dykstra and countless technicians (there were massive problems with the effects before Trumbull & Dykstra came onboard, resulting in the tight schedule), along with the occasional gripping moment. Robert Wise deserves a great deal of credit for keeping this all together—there are some striking compositions throughout featuring the Scope frame, some of which make repeated use of the split diopter, but too often his camera feels staid, constricted, with not much happening either visually or storywise. The buildup where the characters are getting reacquainted is one thing but when the ship gets there we get way too much footage of spectacular visuals within V’Ger, followed by a cut to people looking amazed, then repeat that process endlessly. Even when the Ilia-probe finally appears it becomes more waiting as Decker shows it/her around the ship complete with Kirk and McCoy sitting, drinking coffee as they watch what’s going on.

Looking at the entire film this time one of the most successful sequences was in fact Spock finally taking some initiative and journeying into the heart of V’Ger himself via spacesuit. The effects here are not just beautiful but genuinely striking and that imagery combined with Jerry Goldsmith’s score and the for-once kinetic rhythms of the editing (credited to Todd C. Ramsay) make it genuinely cinematic in all the best ways. The sequence is as exciting as we would want this film to be—unlike how this sort of thing is done these days, it’s not about action but a form of discovery and following Spock as he experiences all this for himself is thrilling even now. Of course, even here I look at that genuinely striking image of ‘Ilia’ as it is presented to Spock and I can’t help but think, what is this really supposed to be? Is it anything more than just a striking image? Ilia has no special meaning for Spock so what does it matter that this is presented to him?

And though it’s hardly gone unnoticed, Jerry Goldsmith’s now-classic score is indeed a true masterwork—it’s as if he’s scoring the movie we wish we were seeing, convincing us of how exiting it all is. The six-minute flyover of the Enterprise is one of his most perfect marriages of imagery and music, pretty much justifying the scene’s excessive length. I’m sure I’ve made jokes about how long it is like most of the world but I still wouldn’t want it any shorter. More than anything else in the film (including our brief look at twenty-third century Earth, which has that seventies-LOGAN’S RUN look to it) this sequence gives us a glimpse of the possibilities within the old STAR TREK optimism. It sets us up to be excited for a spectacular adventure…but it would of course be several years before something with Star Trek in the title would really provide one.

Amidst all of this are a group of actors who possibly seem worn down by all the pressures of the production and with all the low-level lighting frankly are at times not particularly shot in flattering ways (cinematography by Richard H. Kline). The muted approach seems to rob us of some of the fun of their interactions (the supporting cast of course has next to nothing to do), with the exception of the always welcome DeForest Kelley who gets just about the only colorful dialogue, particularly the classic “Why is any object we don’t understand always called a thing?” That one line seems to sum up the dry approach they were taking more than anyone involved may have realized. I always do like hearing Shatner-as-Kirk say ‘parallel’ however. Stephen Collins has shown much more personality in other projects through the years and Persis Khambatta, who died in 1998 at the age of 49, seems like a nice person who isn’t getting much help from anyone. She is good at giving the camera yearning stares in her Ilia-probe guise, though.

My first viewing of the film was on VHS a number of years after its release. It was the longer TV cut, naturally and it wasn’t until several years after that when I got to see the original theatrical cut (it was the only way you could see it letterboxed at the time). After hearing over the years about all its problems I was surprised to find in some ways a much cleaner film then I was expecting—the character bits added back for the TV version in feel a little clumsy at times. The famous scene of Spock crying for V’Ger was seen as the greatest revelation—I can imagine that it was originally cut due possibly to seeming redundant after his speech in sickbay, but it still belongs there, adding much needed resonance to everything that occurs. The Director’s Edition keeps some things and loses others while tightening pieces in the process—the smile exchanged by Decker and Ilia as the Enterprise departs is taken from elsewhere, correctly losing the pointless dialogue that was once heard because their acknowledging each other is all that matters. The selling point in 2001 was probably the added digital effects which are nice and at times extremely helpful to the flow, like the longer introduction to Vulcan, something I always thought was needed. But looking at them now with several years distance they don’t seem as necessary as the editorial changes which I imagine had been bugging Wise all those years. One shot in particular where we’re shown the full exterior as V’Ger as it approaches Earth actually hurts the film a little since showing it to us in its entirety actually makes it seem smaller than what was previously implied. Still, this final cut of the film was the last work ever signed by the late director and it feels important for that reason.

Whatever else one can say about it, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE still feels more like a monument then a film, suspended in the imagery seen on the famous poster. The characters are there, but not exactly the way we think of them and as a result the film seems like this odd anomaly, caught between Gene Roddenberry’s vision of perfect humanity and Robert Wise’s old Hollywood craftsmanship, with little regard for making all the elements correctly come together. Something needed to be stirred up to get rid of some of this rigid control and, as it turned out, Paramount made the right move when Nicholas Meyer was hired to direct the next film. But STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE in all its epic form is still impressive to see all these years later even if sometimes I feel like all I’m left with at the end is the uplift of the Goldsmith fanfare. Maybe it’s because within the muddled thematic approach and overly bland visual palette the film genuinely maintains the power to remind us that that the human adventure is just beginning. And all these years after it was first released, it still is.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

How Many Things Go Right In This Crazy World

Released in December just in time for the holidays way back in 1981 NEIGHBORS is rarely talked about these days, remembered as John Belushi’s last film as much as anything. In spite of terrible reviews the film still did decent box office at the time though for whatever reason it remains unreleased on DVD, curious considering how any number of other comedies from Columbia Pictures have long since come out. Good or bad, it is a strange film and remains one because the clashing of different comedic sensibilities keeps it from being a complete success. It has its admirers, no doubt a result of watching it countless times on HBO back in the day and it’s safe to say that even as a non-success it’s still more interesting than any number of other comedies featuring SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE alums from the past few decades. You could say that one thing wrong with NEIGHBORS, as a comedy, is that there aren’t very many laughs in it. That doesn’t make it a chore to sit through in itself but it seems worth mentioning. There’s also the issue of the music, but we’ll get to that.

Suburbanite Earl Keese (John Belushi) is settling in for another boring Friday night of drinking wine and watching TV with wife Enid (Kathryn Walker) when the sudden appearance of a car parked in front of the vacant house next door indicates that someone has moved in. He soon meets the new neighbors Vic (Dan Aykroyd) and Ramona (Cathy Moriarty) and while Enid takes to them immediately they manage to get under Earl’s skin just as fast and before he knows it his dull existence is turned into something out of a nightmare.

Part of the oddness of NEIGHBORS is due to the approach taken by director John G. Avildsen who at this point had won the Oscar for directing ROCKY but may not have been the ideal choice for a dark satire based on a novel with a very specific tone. NEIGHBORS does have a tone but too often it just feels weird for the sake of being weird and unlike Joe Dante’s THE ‘BURBS, which also stays entirely in its cul-de-sac, it never feels certain of what it wants to say. So the bad news would be that it’s just kind of weird. With that said, the good news is also that it’s kind of weird, which at least means that it’s continually engaging to watch particularly considering the oddness of some of the dialogue (script credited to Larry Gelbart, who was not happy with the final result—the director and two stars apparently worked on it as well). Adding to the mood the director is also willing to just let whole scenes play out in one take, with the post-dinner argument between Belushi and Walker being a particularly good example of that—actually, the entire dinner sequence with the four actors is a very well-played sequence, nailing just the right uneasy tone. I haven’t read the book for years but my vague recollection is that plotwise it’s not all that different and even some dialogue carries over (the memorable restaurant name “Caesar’s Garlic Wars” for one) but the difference is mostly due to an approach which just somehow feels off. I like the randomness of some of that dialogue—like the two-dollar bill—but too often it all feels like the result of warring (comedic?) sensibilities and some of this-- mentions of garlic, Walker’s Indian fetish--feels like someone—(Aykroyd?) sticking some of their preoccupations into things.

By a certain point it all can only really be accepted as a nightmare type of logic but it’s not always clear if that’s what the story is going for or if it’s just a result of haphazard filmmaking. The end in particular could be seen as some sort of dream (maybe even at the point of a certain character’s death, which would be consistent with the novel) but then again so could most of the film. The odd cul-de-sac setting of the two houses doesn’t resemble any suburban street in existence, with no other houses within view (so can this automatically be considered style?) and the various stabs at social satire usually wind up feeling like they’re just left hanging there—since the film was shot in New York out on Staten Island I can’t help but wonder what a version directed in deadpan style by Sidney Lumet would have been like. Either way, it doesn’t provide laughter so much as a response of “Hmmm….that’s interesting,” followed by a slight smile and even any attempt to get a laugh which catches in our throat in response to Earl Keese’s predicament doesn’t really happen. If NEIGHBORS hadn’t been so dependent on the presence of its two stars to be sold as another vehicle and provide uproarious laughter it may not have gotten such a harsh response at the time. Someone like Peter Falk and Alan Arkin might have been more appropriate for the demographic…but it still might have become more about their personalities than anything the original author had been going for. Interestingly, the film’s release came only a week apart from the Lemmon-Matthau teaming BUDDY BUDDY, also a dark comedy which wasn’t received particularly well at the time. It was the final film for Billy Wilder, yes, but I doubt that many people would have correctly guessed which of these two comedy teams would still be making movies seventeen years later. Details of the production were covered extensively in Bob Woodward’s controversial Belushi bio “Wired”, portraying the star as being against Avildsen directing (so was Aykroyd, only not quite as vocal) and, during the shoot and into post-production, becoming more and more uncooperative as it became clear that the film wasn’t coming together the way everyone wanted.

One of the more memorable elements of the movie as it turned out was the score by Bill Conti which in its attempt to be as cartoonish as desperately possible becomes either the best or the worst score attached to a movie you’ve ever heard, depending on your point of view. It does help provide a distinct tone, whatever that is, but if there isn’t already a hard and fast rule that music in comedies should never try to be ‘funny’ this score would be a good piece of evidence. And for much of the running time it just doesn’t stop. “Wired” mentions that Avildsen had tracked in cues from old horror movies during editing as temp music, which sounds like a good idea. Belushi apparently wanted songs by the punk group Fear, fronted by Lee Ving, used in the film and musician Tom Scott whose work had already appeared in films like STIR CRAZY and CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES provided a score with a dark tinge definitely more serious than comedic (clips featuring it can be found on YouTube). The fact that it was dropped seems like it was an issue of concerns over the response to what they had more than anything else—a Belushi-Aykroyd comedy was promised so that’s what they needed to deliver, complete with music which would veritably shout at the audience, “Laugh! It’s funny!!”

That the two leads went against expectations in which roles they wound up playing has always been talked about, but looking at it now it’s one of the things about the film which works best. Even if he did hate working on the film, Belushi hits the right notes on how to play his frustrated suburbanite character while also making him sympathetic, something I’m not sure Aykroyd could have done at this time (has anyone ever really felt sorry for Aykroyd’s Louis Winthorpe III in TRADING PLACES?). If anything is wrong with it, Belushi is a number of years too young for the role, something which becomes more apparent every time he takes off his glasses. Aykroyd winds up nailing his own role in his best motor-mouth style, making him slightly dangerous but still weirdly likable. Cathy Moriarty, in only her second role after RAGING BULL, is terrific as Romona, funny as well as sexy but also kind of sweet--her continued teasing of Belushi’s character leads to what feels like a genuine chemistry between the two actors. Of the four leads, Kathryn Walker is the least known (although she does have one terrific scene with Paul Newman in SLAP SHOT and later on married James Taylor) and the actress provides a definite intensity which goes beyond what other actresses may have just played as a standard shrewish wife. The fact that we never quite know what to expect from her because of this makes her even more unpredictable, more of a danger to her husband than the two people who are the actual strangers in the story. Under heavy makeup, Tim Kazurinsky is very funny as the elderly Pa Greavy, who spits insults at Belushi almost as soon as their phone conversation begins.

Watching the characters drive off at the end I can’t help but think how the ending of NEIGHBORS would start to seem out of place just a few years later as the eighties proceeded to clamp down on things, turning into a world more appropriate for Earl Keese than Vic & Ramona. Not to mention the awareness of how this performance would be the last glimpse of John Belushi we would ever get. If anything, this film remains a tantalizing look at what he may have been capable of in films if he moved beyond the Bluto stereotype. Unfortunately, we never got to find out. For good or bad, some of the dialogue and elements of this film have stayed in my head for years afterward, proving that some things really do stay with you if you first encounter them at the right time. In 2002’s EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS somebody mentions a character trying to flee a mall by taking an exit between “the Cinema Cineplex and the Singer Sewing Center” and I can recall being amazed that somebody had actually cribbed that line from NEIGHBORS. You can’t really say that the film works—the approach is too unsure of itself for that to have happened—but looking at it now all these years later it’s much more engaging, much more oddball, than many other SNL-inspired teamings that have happened over the past few decades. The laughs may not be there but the weird energy that is present even when the film doesn't quite work, the weird tone that makes it tough to pin down what it's really supposed to be, always manages to stay with you.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Treason Is Merely A Matter Of Dates

I’ve seen DIE HARD 2 so many times by now that I barely know what to think of it. The original DIE HARD is one of the greatest action movies ever made and I don’t wish to hear otherwise. No, seriously I will not listen to dissenting opinions on this point. Coming just under two years after the release of the film which promised to ‘blow you through the back wall of the theater’, the sequel which pledged to ‘blow you sky high’—and, contrary to the advertising, not actually called DIE HARDER—was no doubt one of the first times a follow-up turned out to be more successful, in this case partly due to how huge the original had become on VHS after its theatrical run. If anyone out there was complaining about the ridiculousness of John McClane being sucked into another terrorist assault on Christmas Eve they couldn’t be heard over the excitement the film engendered—this thing was huge whent released over the July 4th weekend in 1990. Gene Siskel somewhat infamously proclaimed it as “the best film of the summer” finally placing it at #6 on his year-end ten best list and with all due respect to the late critic he did overstate things on a few occasions. I’ve seen this film and hated it, I’ve seen it and enjoyed it, but when it comes right down to it when compared to the stunningly well made original, DIE HARD 2 comes off as more of a piece of hackwork than anything else. With super producer Joel Silver bringing in hotshot director Renny Harlin (who had just helmed THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLAINE for Silver—the two films wound up opening a week apart) to take the reins. It’s slick, it’s expensive looking and it does get the job done for 124 minutes. It still kind of bugs me.

One year after the event at Nakatomi Plaza, John McClane (Bruce Willis) is now an L.A. cop but is spending the Christmas holiday near the nation’s capitol with the parents of wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). At Dulles Airport to pick up Holly (who pages him on an airplane phone to tell him the plane will be late—because airports don’t have any kind of system in place to inform people if the flights are on schedule) McClane notices some odd activity going on and his snooping turns out to have to do with the incoming General Esperanza (Franco Nero), South American drug lord and dictator being expedited to the US for trial—naturally, the state department is flying him into a crowded airport on Christmas Eve, with one lone soldier guarding him on that plane, no less. McClane runs afoul of Colonel Stuart (William Sadler) leader of a group of mercenaries (which include Robert Patrick, John Leguizamo and the guy who played ‘Meat’ in PORKY’S) intent on rescuing Esperanza and they’ll do anything to keep it from happening, starting with taking over the airport’s control systems so they’ll be unable to communicate with the planes so none can land. As the planes become increasingly low on fuel and with seemingly no one listening to him, McClane is intent on doing whatever he can to stop the terrorists and therefore save his wife, along with everyone else trapped up in the air.

The film recently screened at the Cinematheque on a double bill with DIE HARD, of course, appropriate for the season and a good opportunity to see these bigger-than-big action movies on the big screen for the first time in a while—at their release it played like a stylistic touch how both films used the full Twentieth-Century Fox fanfare as if to state flat out how big the coming film was going to be. Nearly twenty years after its release what is now interesting about this sequel is looking at how it tries to addresses the then-coming nineties and how old-school John McClane will deal with them but it also gives us a Hollywoodized look at what now seems like a quainter time in airport terrorism. This comes complete with a security chief played by Dannis Franz who never wants to take a single thing McClane says seriously, an old woman who brings a taser onboard the plane with her and a enormous airline crash figuring into the plot which could either be looked at as a low point for this sort of entertainment or a case of upping the action-stakes as high as possible for 1990. That summer also included hundreds of people getting killed in TOTAL RECALL and ROBOCOP 2 so this subject was getting a lot of ink at the time. I have to admit that I never really mind DIE HARD 2 particularly when compared to sequels that are genuinely lousy (like, say, SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL) but it doesn’t really come close to the first film and I’m always surprised how it seems to rank so highly. There’s very little credibility from the big points (why do they tell the planes to hold at the ‘outer marker’ instead of immediately sending them to another airport?) to the small (why is Dick Thornburgh being moved from First Class to, I assume, Business during what’s supposed to be the last half-hour of the flight? Why does Security Chief Lorenzo tell McClane that he just broke five District of Columbia regulations when they’re in Virginia?) but even on a purely stylistic level things it doesn’t feel like it measures up.

The elegance that McTiernan and company brought to that film amidst all the mayhem still makes it extremely satisfying to see and one of the reasons it plays so great at Christmas is that it keeps the notion of the holiday alive throughout, from witty dialogue to Michael Kamen’s music. Part 2 doesn’t really pay much attention to the holiday after the first few minutes and unlike McTiernan’s confidence in how his scenes, both dialogue and action, are staged to use the entire frame at times, Harlin’s approach seems to be to shoot every scene from as many angles as possible and he uses every single one before the scene ends and as a result the whole film has a very ‘cutty’ feel to it (Stuart Baird is oddly credited as both Supervising Editor and, with Robert A. Ferretti, editor). In his film McTiernan stages whole scenes with multiple actors from one angle and is willing to let it play out. Harlin barely lets a dialogue exchange, let alone an entire scene, go by without several cuts and this approach just becomes less satisfying as the film goes on. He holds it all together, but there’s no real wit or style to it and most of the ‘funny’ dialogue feels pretty crass this time (points for 'Just the Fax,' however).

Unlike the very specific L.A. setting of the first film, which still plays great today, the setting of Dulles International Airport just winds up feeling like a generic snowy location in comparison. I always enjoy flying in and out of Dulles, a very cool place which wasn’t used by the production—such a thing probably wasn’t possible but using that unique architecture and layout would have been cool and they don’t even bother to try to make it seem like the real place (the particularly sizable disclaimer over the end credits indicates that it wasn’t easy putting all this together considering all the real-life agencies they probably couldn’t name or even thank). Exteriors were shot at various points throughout North America as the production went hunting for snow but airport interiors were clearly shot in L.A., as evidenced by the famous blooper showing Bruce Willis clearly speaking on a pay phone labeled ‘PACIFIC BELL’ in big letters, something I remember spotting on the day it opened. Much of the time the overriding feeling from the script by Steven E. de Souza and Doug Richardson (from the Walter Wager novel “58 Minutes”) is one that is intent on racing to get itself done unlike the layered thematic elements of the first film. Look, I’ll admit that DIE HARD does actually have a few flaws but even the broadest characters in that film feel like vivid characterizations. Here, for the most part they feel like, at best, non-entities and, at worst, written as idiots. Some of the action does feel staged in a listless kind of way but I’ll admit that once we get to the fight-on-the-wing climax it really manages to deliver what it promises and in keeping all the narrative balls in the air throughout it does get the job done. Thing is, it doesn’t really do much more than that, so it all feels kind of empty. I know, clearly very few people have cared about these nitpicks through the years. Besides, it works up to a point…and since much of the mayhem still had to be staged for real at this point in time that certainly adds to the excitement watching it now as well.

Bruce Willis is once again fun as McClane and, totally freed by TV by this point, he clearly has the confidence throughout in the role even though by the film’s nature he doesn’t have as much dramatic stuff to play. At the least, his character is still not portrayed as a super hero at this point and that level of humanity is certainly something. The other actors do what they can with the script but it’s not their fault that the material isn’t as vivid as the other film. Fred Dalton Thompson maintains his dignity and projects quiet authority as Dulles head Trudeau—few people deliver a line like “That stupid, arrogant son of a bitch” like he does. Dennis Franz certainly makes an impression as Carmine Lorenzo but that’s partly due to his shouting. Spaghetti Western mainstay Franco Nero makes zero impression as Experanza and William Sadler, who has done lots of great work over the years, is fairly bland as Colonel Stuart when compared to Alan Rickman—I get the feeling that Harlin and D.P. Oliver Wood enjoyed framing the contours of his face to project how evil he is, but that’s about it. John Amos plays the leader of the Special Forces unit called in to handle the crisis and Tom Bower, seen recently as Nicolas Cage’s father in BAD LIETENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS plays Marvin, the airport janitor because, of course, an airport this size only needs one janitor. Bonnie Bedelia (nothing to do, but she still manages to make it credible), William Atherton and (briefly) Reginald VelJohnson reprise their roles from the first film. Tons of familiar faces appear throughout, including Dick McGarvin, Ted Farley in Michael Ritchie's SMILE, as an anonymous air traffic controller. At least it’s well cast and this film is an enjoyable reminder of a time when using such familiar faces was more the norm, instead of just hiring cheap non-entities to back up the film’s star. Michael Kamen’s score does away with the arch Christmasy licks that helped make the first film stand out so what’s left is the same type of straight action music which is still good, but, like the film itself, not as noteworthy. If Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” was the big musical concept in the first film, here it’s “Finlandia” by Sibelius which is probably a nice in joke for the film’s Finnish director and works fairly well but it’s still not quite the same thing.

The double bill at the Cinematheque was introduced by co-screenwriterwriter Steven E. de Souza who talked about the creative genesis of both films, including how they really did approach Frank Sinatra first for DIE HARD to get him to reprise his role from THE DETECTIVE as the source novel “Nothing Lasts Forever” by Roderick Thorpe was a sequel to the book that film was based on. Even crazier, when the studio was trying to get costs on the sequel down on the sequel they explored the possibility of doing it without snow. Since the film revolves around planes that can’t land due to a snowstorm the temporary solution was to have them unable to land due to heavy fog. Fortunately, saner heads prevailed even if the resulting shoot was apparently pretty hellish. For whatever reason, the DIE HARD series went in a different direction after this film which I’ve always suspected had more to do with things going on behind closed doors (I assume resulting in how Joel Silver was never involved from this point on) than with any feelings of creative stagnation. I admit I’ve always kind of liked 1995’s DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE but thought the fourth film, which has a title I can’t bring myself to type out, was a reprehensible insult to anyone with any fondness for the original and I maintain that it was made by people who hated DIE HARD. Some things I do not forgive. Anyway, DIE HARD 2 comes from a time when you could have a giant plane crash killing hundreds of people then an hour later everyone’s smiling and grinning as the credits role. The world has changed considerably since then but back in 1990 we could avoid thinking about those possibilities for a few hours. Besides, Dennis Franz says at the very end, “What the hell! It’s Christmas!” and that line could sum up everything about the first two films in the series as well. Vaughn Monroe is of course famously heard singing Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow as the end credits start up…and, even now, DIE HARD 2 doesn’t want to say anything more than that either.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

As Long As The Circulation Is Rising

I suppose there’s only one thing better than a newspaper movie and that’s a newspaper movie in black & white, the kind with wisecracking reporters who wear hats, snappy-looking Lois Lane-types to spar with at the desk across from them, gruff editors overseeing the operation and the clack of the typewriters going endlessly. It may be simple romancing of the whole idea of it, but so what? 1952’s SCANDAL SHEET, directed by Phil Karlson, is a pretty enjoyable example of this—I feel like it would make perfect sense if I sat here chomping on a cigar and called it a “damn good picture”. Speaking of people who chomped on a lot of cigars in their time, the film was based on Sam Fuller’s novel “The Dark Page” and not being involved in the production, Fuller merely refers to the final product in his autobiography as “disappointing,” adding that he wished that Howard Hawks, who once owned the rights, had wound up directing (he doesn’t mention any desire to have made it himself). This didn’t stop Columbia from including the title as part of their recent Fuller DVD box set, in which his widow Christa can be seen in the supplements speaking well of it. I can imagine a few points in there which could have been made stronger on a psychological level and something more than just a potboiler but it’s not meant at all disparaging to say that’s ultimately what it is. A version of the story directed by Fuller, or someone else even, may have allowed for some of these points but simply put, there are any number of old noirs which once you get accustomed to the cool old-school feel you realize that the plot simply isn’t connecting—it’s enjoyable but not all that satisfying as a story. That’s not at all the case with SCANDAL SHEET, which clicks together during its 82 minutes and even if it’s not a classic, it’s comes off as just the sort of thing to sometimes watch late at night and dream of that black & white world.

Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford), recently placed editor of the New York Express, has seen his cheap tabloid approach to journalism (speaking as someone who has recently departed a TV show with a similar take on things, all I can say is the more things change…) pay off with a rise in circulation and he’s intent on bringing it as high as possible, putting much of his trust in rising young reporter Steve McCleary (John Farrow). Steve, pretty much Chapman’s protégé, is all for anything his Editor wants to do to sell a newspaper, as much as it angers fellow scribe Julie Allison (Donna Reed) who has no interest in this tabloid garbage. At the night of a Lonely Hearts Ball, Chapman’s latest headline-grabbing event, he is quietly recognized by a woman named Charlotte Grant (Rosemary DeCamp) who turns out to be the woman he married years ago under his former name George Grant, which he changed when he desperately abandoned her—he doesn’t seem to have done this out of anything other than boredom and hatred—as he says, his biggest mistake was, “I fell for an attractive hunk of flesh.” When he goes to confront the woman in her tiny apartment they quarrel which leads to a fight, resulting in her accidental death (so, was it deliberate in Fulller’s original novel? That wouldn’t surprise me). Soon enough, Steve stumbles onto the crime and begins to investigate, leaving Chapman with no choice but to allow his reporter to begin snooping—after all, it means a rise in circulation and maybe he can even influence what happens as he hopes that his reporter won’t discover the deadly secret.

Broderick Crawford pats his sweating brow a few times here and there but aside from that SCANDAL SHEET doesn’t deal with the psychology too much. The basic idea here would presumably be how the younger reporter is betrayed by his older mentor/editor he’s learned all his tricks from but all this is lost is how fast the plot moves forward. This is certainly a difference between how this may have been in a version that might have starred, say, Edward G. Robinson and directed by Fritz Lang which would have been all psychological subtext (THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW and SCARLET STREET come to mind as this type of approach). Of course, that’s not what SCANDAL SHEET is meant to be about and the plot could pretty much be described as THE BIG CLOCK only without the younger lead being set up as a suspect. It’s not always clear what endgame Crawford’s character has in mind beyond the paper’s rise in circulation—he seems to not want to pull his reporter off the story but also hopes that it’ll all just fade away. The result is smoothly put together by director Phil Karlson (helmer of many things including 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE and THE SILENCERS) who brings a great deal of lucidity to the narrative, executing the script in a skillful way that wasn’t always the case with these films (Screenplay by Ted Sherdeman, Eugene Ling and James Poe, from the Fuller novel)--some shots are skillfully executed in how they allow the story to reveal itself as they play out. During one sequence, a character leaves one location and is then seen arriving somewhere else a short time later in nearly a real-time context tying both settings together to keep us alert to everything going on, point of clarity that the movie pulls off very well. And even in the context of the fast narrative there are touches which seem unique to this type of movie, from the somewhat depressing glimpses of the people at the Lonely Hearts Ball as well as how the film pauses to examine the faces of the bowery winos who might be helpful (“That does it, I’ll never touch another drop for the rest of my life,” someone says). It may have mostly been shot on the Columbia backlot but it still has a punchy New York feel with touches that give it a considerable amount of realism and slick style.

The camerawork by Burnett Guffey that is extremely rich and layered--one shot of Rosemary DeCamp approaching someone at the dance is extremely ambitious for this type of picture and at another point there’s even a neat trick effects shot involving an el train to give the effect that we’re actually in New York. It’s also hard not to notice how Cawford moves himself in and out of the light as he learns certain things in one scene near the very end, one of those touches that black & white is just perfect for. Crawford and Farrow do have nice interplay together in their scenes set amidst this backdrop but it still feels like the potential complexity of their relationship is only paid lip service so the climax doesn’t have quite as much punch as it should. With a little more than the workmanlike approach that’s there, SCANDAL SHEET could have been a minor genre classic but what’s there anyway is still pretty cool. It’s in black & white, it’s set at a newspaper, it keeps its crackerjack story going right up until the end and is just the sort of film you want to see when, well, you’re looking for some of these films that you haven’t seen yet.

Crawford is excellent, never making his character sympathetic but still always keeping him more interesting than just a brutish villain. This complexity may be about as deep as the film gets, but it certainly gives one something to chew on. Donna Reed is snappy and cool in her role which frankly feels just shy of underwritten and Rosemary De Camp is extremely effective in her scenes with Crawford, with the two ripping at each other in a ferocious way. John Farrow seems a little lightweight as the nominal lead but he has his moments like that glint in his eye as he tells a sobbing woman, “I have to have the facts,” willing to stop at nothing for the story. Anyway, he works better when he keeps his hat on, maybe because I wasn’t getting distracted by his pompadour. Harry Morgan, incidentally also in THE BIG CLOCK, plays the wisecracking, cigar-chomping photographer, still using Henry as his first name in the credits.

It may not be as historically notable as Fuller’s own PARK ROW, his tribute to the the rise of New York journalism in the late 1800’s, but SCANDAL SHEET is still very enjoyable on its own. Fuller may have been disappointed in it, but it in no way feels like a betrayal of his lifelong fascination with the newspaper trade although if anyone out there who is much more of a Fuller expert than myself disagrees, feel free to chime in. Anyway, for those times when I have a desire to only see black & white films that I haven’t caught up with yet, this is exactly the sort of thing I’m looking for. And, speaking from a certain amount of experience, if you just substitute ‘ratings’ in place of ‘circulation’ the very things that some of its characters are obsessed with remain true even in this day and age. The clack of those typewriters, however, is sorely missed.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

In The Right Way

This is a tough town, filled with insecurity, doubt and self-loathing. And that’s only what goes on in my apartment. I’m not sure if I have the necessary experience to be the guy to write a screenplay that focuses on the hell of a long-term relationship. Too much time by myself, I guess. But that doesn’t mean I can’t understand every single frame of the anguish in Albert Brooks’ essential MODERN ROMANCE, his 1981 comedy that succeeds so well it’s almost the only Albert Brooks film you’ll ever need. Of course, a few of his other films, as well as his great album COMEDY MINUS ONE, can easily be placed in the pantheon but this one is just extra special in its own way. It plays like the purest expression of the man’s own comic persona that he ever pulled off and possibly the closest to pure, honest discomfort that any form of American comedy took until Larry David decided to get in front of the camera full time. By this point, it’s a fair question why Albert Brooks has never actually appeared on CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. Maybe the dialogue he crafts is carefully worked out into the proper syntax and because of that his individual approach just wouldn’t work in that type of improv environment. Maybe there is no good reason. Only the second feature Brooks directed, MODERN ROMANCE was according to accounts a favorite of Stanley Kubrick who had long wanted to make his own film on jealousy—Brooks once told Entertainment Weekly, “…one day I was sitting at home and the phone rings. It's Stanley Kubrick. He had seen the movie and wanted to know how I did it. That's the first thing he said -- 'How did you make this movie? I've always wanted to make a movie about jealousy.' I said to him, The guy who did 2001 is asking me how I did something?''' One wonders why no one has ever run a double bill of this film with EYES WIDE SHUT. I say that the New Beverly should get right on that.

Film editor Robert Cole (Albert Brooks) decides to break it off with girlfriend Mary Harvard (Kathryn Harrold). Surprised that she won’t stay for dinner after the breakup (“Wait a minute, come back, we can at least eat.”), he returns to work where he is editing a sci-fi film for his director David (James L. Brooks) and assistant editor Jay (Bruno Kirby). Unable to concentrate on work, he sets out to rebuild his life to do whatever he can to get his mind off Mary. This is of course easier said then done and the pattern of what their relationship is going through proves impossible to break. Meanwhile, his film’s director has come up with the perfect way to make the whole last part of the picture work: footsteps.

If pressed, I would probably admit that Brooks’ LOST IN AMERICA which came several years later is his most purely enjoyable film with the most quotable dialogue and some of REAL LIFE is pretty damn near brilliant as well but it’s MODERN ROMANCE, written by him and Monica Johnson, more than any of the others that can really get under your skin. When I was younger I thought while some of it was hysterical, other parts were a little too bland—the use of “You Are So Beautiful” seemed clichéd, the arguments a little too monotonous. But now that I’m older I can see that these elements are how Robert Cole sees it all and his tiny house in the hills with his record albums (“Look at all my albums!”) and his Porsche should be enough but every single step he takes has to be overanalyzed before he breaks down and admits every fear that he has. The prolonged scene of him at home after taking the ‘ludes that assistant editor Jay gives him, wandering his house, looking at his albums (“God I have so many great albums! I love my albums! I love ‘em, I love ‘em!”), making phone calls to people (including one back to Jay after the ‘ludes have ‘kicked in’ to say that he loves him “in the right way”) shows us the guy unexpurgated and seemingly things can only get better after that. Or so we think, as we follow him make attempts to start his post-breakup life, prefacing every time he goes shopping for life-improvements with an explanation of what he’s doing (“I just broke up with somebody and I’m trying to start a new life and I feel that running should be a major part of it.”) It’s not a visually distinguished movie in the slightest but it’s really not supposed to be. In following Robert Cole around everywhere looking at it through the direction of the man playing him it does exactly what it’s supposed to do cinematically and its unflinching manner makes it clear why Kubrick was apparently such a fan. And unflinching in terms of the discomfort—I’ve made it through certain awkward scenes on CURB without fleeing the room but the aborted date with HERO AT LARGE’s Jane Hallaren (“What does she look like?”) is almost too painful for me to watch without fast-forwarding.

It’s tempting to say that the whole movie should have been just Brooks by himself, torturing the world with his troubles (“I broke up with sombody, I’m just gonna buy a few gifts!” he tells a parking attendant) since the tension does calm down a little after Harrold reenters the picture. After all, the pre-credit sequence where they break up at Hamburger Hamlet the breakup seems to encapsulate everything we need to know about that relationship, peaking all the tension right away--trying to say that they’re in a no-win situation which Mary says she’s never heard of Robert asks, “Really, you’ve never heard of one? Vietnam. This.” In some ways the movie’s final stretch is almost its least satisfying part, something which is probably what ranks this one below a few of his other films. It makes sense to finally isolate the two characters in a cabin away from everyone by a certain point but the ultimate inspiration that is present in the rawest moments when Brooks is by himself isn’t quite there. Endings have never exactly been Albert Brooks’s strongest point but the truth in MODERN ROMANCE is what finally matters and even if the accoutrements surrounding the lead have changed in this modern world the truth still holds. After all, guys still do drive by the houses of women even when they shouldn’t be. So I hear. I mean, I’ve certainly never done that and don’t believe anyone who ever tells you otherwise.

Those who’ve seen and can recite whole pages of dialogue from MODERN ROMANCE by heart probably also love it for the side stuff as much as anything, namely Robert’s film editing job in which he is cutting a sci-fi film, apparently for AIP. We never hear the title of the opus but we do get a few glimpses of it as they work on it, complete with use of old-style Steenbecks. The exact plot of the film being directed by the character played by James L. Brooks (who at this point had yet to make his first feature but of course later used Albert in several he directed) is never clear but it clearly does star George Kennedy whose big scene seems to consist of screaming about a secret code then shouting down the immortal line “You know nothing!” at one of his underlings who claims to know that code. We see the editors played by Brooks & Kirby figure out a way to lose the line to help the plot but the director insists it stay in because, well, he loves the line. After all, don’t you love “You know nothing!” also? In the ADR session that follows in which Brooks and Kirby try to deal with the issue of “footsteps” they are also confronted with the audio library track “Hulk Running” which brilliantly introduced that simple phrase into the lexicon. This probably played as mundane in-joke at the time (HEAVEN’S GATE, the short version, is the next film coming into the looping stage during the ADR scene) but now comes off as flat-out absurdity and in its way is probably as believable a look at the Hollywood creative process that there’s ever been. And seriously, the glimpse of Kennedy in the film has to be one of my favorite things ever—he also appears as “himself” later in the film as well, making this not only the second consecutive film I’ve written about featuring George Kennedy, but the second one made by a director who also stars in it. For Brooks fans there’s a few hints of films to come as well, with some phone conversations with an unseen mother character of course looking forward to 1996’s MOTHER and there’s even an EASY RIDER mention that prefigures LOST IN AMERICA.

A few points also give a nice look at zoned out L.A. circa 1981 as well with a party scene that contains bit parts from a few behind-the-scenes people Brooks was probably friends with, Kennedy as “Himself” telling a long story that his director wants him to use on Merv Griffin and even Meadowlark Lemon in a random cameo that is presumably meant to be a comment on, well, random cameos in movies. The sequence also seems to contain some casual offscreen drug use by one of the film’s leads (“You have some white on your nose”) and the observational nature of it seems to come from someone who has definitely been to more than a few of these types of parties. For anyone who knows L.A. there are a few interesting locations spotted as well—the Hamburger Hamlet where the opening scene occurs was still there until some point in the mid-90s. I miss how there used to be Hamburger Hamlets scattered around the city and MODERN ROMANCE seems to be a record of a time when this was the case. For the record, there’s some fairly liberal nudity from Kathryn Harold and to mollify those who complain about lack of equality we also get to see just how hairy Albert Brooks was.

It’s impossible to talk about Brooks as an actor in this film without also dealing with him as director since it barely seems like there’s a frame in the film he’s not in. He’s fearless, never seeming to worry about trying to make this guy in the slightest bit likable which almost makes him more relatable. There’s no distance so we can absolutely identify with him. It should also be stated that Brooks performs the best fake taking down of a phone number ever seen in a movie. Some of the best stuff in the movie is just him dealing with people on the phone. Kathryn Harrold is a very good level-headed personality for him to bounce of off in all this and even if her part isn’t as strong as what Julie Hagerty would have a few years later opposite Brooks she gets you to absolutely believe how she feels about this guy at both ends of the spectrum. James L. Brooks is generally not an actor so his effectiveness as the director makes you wonder if this is what it’s like to really work on one of the real guy’s films. Albert’s brother Bob Einstein (amazing as Marty Funkhauser on, whaddya know, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM) is perfect in his deadpan way as the sporting goods salesman ready to get Robert Cole to buy as much in his store as humanly possible (“Where’re you gonna carry your money? You gonna run broke?”) and as for George Kennedy, his reading of “You know nothing!” is, if I didn’t make it clear, without a doubt one of the finest moments of his career. As James L. Brooks says, I love that line.

Albert Brooks has spoken of how he resisted attempts by Columbia to get him to add a psychiatrist scene which would allow the film to explain why the character acts the way he does. Such a scene would not only have bee unnecessary it would have thrown things out of whack because in its strict observational fashion the film shouldn’t be answering this anymore than Robert Cole could or any of us could about our own private versions of this film. Maybe MODERN ROMANCE doesn’t keep up its own level of painful brilliance all the way to the end, but its best sequences are so dead-on in how hysterically accurate they are much of the time that it always feels necessary to have a copy of this DVD close by. And I still wonder how that George Kennedy movie finally turned out.