Saturday, July 31, 2010

Disappointments Thicken Our Skins

It’s been over a week since I was in San Diego and I feel like I’m still recovering from Comic Con. This is particularly surprising considering how I was only there for about a day and a half. It was fun, but by a certain point I was just worn out from it all and decided to head back up the coast via Amtrak. With some of this still in mind and looking for something superhero-related to watch I pulled out my DVD of SUPERGIRL—not just the DVD but the Anchor Bay double-disc set released back in 2000 which contains both the 124 min International Cut (the version I chose, for the record) and the never-before-seen “Director’s Cut” which goes a full 138 min. If that’s your idea of a good time. (The shorter U.S. release version, listed at 114 min., seems to be pretty much unavailable now) I got the DVD when it was released probably for completist’s sake, probably out of curiosity and probably for some odd form of nostalgia even though, like most people in America, I didn’t even bother seeing the film theatrically when it was released at Thanksgiving 1984 (several months after it already played Europe), tossed into theaters by Tri-Star when Warner Bros. apparently declined. There is a definite level of craft to the film which is apparent even now as I watch it—it’s slick enough that for brief periods I’m too distracted to notice just how terrible it is. It’s enjoyable to a point but it all feels like some sort of big-budget miscalculation of a kind that was really only possible back in the 80s with hazy rules and a tone which by a certain point feels kind of smothering. Helen Slater is cute, that much is certain. But it’s really not very good at all.

In the isolated Argo City, existing somewhere in innerspace, Kara Zor-El (Helen Slater) is one of a large number of Kryptonians who live there. The powerful Zaltar (Peter O’Toole) who dreams of going to Earth allows her to see the powerful Omegahedron, a small device which powers the city. But an unfortunate mishap results in the Omegahedron sucked out of the city towards Earth, jeopardizing all of Argo City. Taking matters into her own hands, Kara heads for Earth herself where she discovers her enormous powers in her identity as Supergirl and soon takes the guise at a nearby girls’ school of Linda Lee, cousin of Clark Kent, where she winds up rooming with Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy), younger sister of Lois. Meanwhile, the Omegahedron has landed at the feet of would-be sorceress Selena (Faye Dunaway) who with loyal assistant Bianca (Brenda Vaccaro) fully intends to use the device to allow her to possess hunky gardener Ethan (Hart Bochner) and fulfill her greatest dream, to rule the world.

A movie for pre-teen girls of all ages, SUPERGIRL has energy and spirit but very little about it seems to come together as if those in charge (directed by Jeannot Szwarc, screenplay by David Odell) never quite came up with the right ideas to give this thing the life it needed. It’s admirable that they wanted to set the tone apart from SUPERMAN and the style Richard Donner brought to his film but many of the ideas either feel too different for something set in the same universe or don’t make very much sense on their own level (Since Christopher Reeve ultimately declined to appear as Superman in an extended cameo we’re told via radio early on that he’s on a peacekeeping mission in faraway galaxy). Why are these former citizens of the destroyed Krypton living in what is called ‘Innerspace’? HOW are they living in Innerspace? How do they know about Kal-El and his identity as Superman? Why does the Omegahedron fall on Earth from the sky when it gets loose but Supergirl comes up from the water? Where does she get her costume from anyway? Does anybody understand any of this? The style is much more heightened, more fantasy oriented than the intentionally grounded (no pun intended) approach Donner took but it still feels like no coherent rules were established. Elements are just tossed in there, never explained all that much and we’re apparently just supposed to get caught up in the wonder of Supergirl endlessly flying around to the strains of Jerry Goldsmith’s majestic score.

The loss of the Omegahedron and the potential destruction of Argo City imply an urgent ticking clock but this seems to be forgotten about almost immediately. In the context of this story it just feels like a big waste of time for her to disguise herself as Linda Lee (even if it is a part of whatever Supergirl mythos there is) and enroll in this school, suddenly becoming best friends with Lucy Lane. With her spending time figuring out math equations, playing field hockey and discovering the joy of taking a shower (it’s not like how it sounds) during the first half of the film it just makes it seem like she has no interest in getting her job done and saving the lives of everyone she knows—for a story with what should be a tight timeframe it’s impossible to tell how many days the story is actually set over just on a casual viewing. Szwarc directed JAWS 2 which, whatever else you want to say about it, at least moves but here there’s no tension, no decent spine, no tone that feels either correct or consistent (After one more try with the Salkinds helming the following year’s SANTA CLAUS, the director has spent much of his subsequent career in episodic TV). The emphasis always seems to be on the wrong thing, whether spending fifteen minutes in the girls’ school for ultimately no reason, getting lost in Selena’s funhouse, an attack by killer bumper cars or in Supergirl’s big fight with….a runaway tractor. Can’t she beat up some henchmen or something? Don’t we want to see Supergirl actually doing some stuff that’s cool?

There’s at least an earnestness to the film which helps (particularly when compared with SUPERMAN III) as well as a great deal of evident production value (particularly when compared with SUPERMAN IV) and, to give it some credit, there is some nice use of widescreen framing throughout (cinematography by the recently deceased Alan Hume) and the continuous shots of Supergirl flying, both on set and front projection, really do feel like the effects people involved had perfected all this stuff by that point. It’s never even particularly dull at all. But the vaguely defined fantasy rules (what exactly does Supergirl do to defeat Selena in the end?) just become too frustrating in the end so it doesn’t allow us to have any satisfaction when the heroine emerges victorious. It’s all too soft, too girly (all due respect to any girls reading this, of course) with lots of genuinely lousy dialogue and even if there is money onscreen it still feels like there were cutbacks somewhere along the way. The Argo City section with its giant set that doesn’t look like much other than a set in an 80s fantasy film feels truncated in the scripting so the high-billed cameos by Mia Farrow and Simon Ward of FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED as her parents come off as pretty pointless. Argo City apparently has ‘Guardians’ who are in charge but we never see them just as Zaltar casually says he’ll banish himself to the Phantom Zone then we cut away before anything happens (“Your suffering will be short. Mine…forever.” I don’t know, how magnanimous is that, really?). Even when we get to the Phantom Zone ourselves as Supergirl herself is banished there in the third act we’re told about others trapped in the place but never get to see them (“They’re here, over the hill there…”). There’s also that fake Salkind Productions-style Midwestern town with typical distracting product placement everywhere (Hey! Anybody want an A&W root beer? Let’s get something to eat at Popeye’s!). There’s never any reality established, just this small town with an abandoned amusement park that the villains are hanging out in for some reason so it all feels like it’s set nowhere—Supergirl does fly over Chicago several times but it’s all second unit stuff.

Even the comedy bits throughout wind up feeling too light and too leaden at the same time. And, in the case of Faye Dunaway and Brenda Vaccaro, the film offers a pair of villains who come off as bickering drag queens. Whatever else you want to say about Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor (what can I say, I’m a fan) he was just one part of that movie. Here, Faye Dunaway is let loose and allowed to smother the thing whole. She and Vaccaro seem to enjoy playing off of each other but that doesn’t really have much to do with why we’re watching SUPERGIRL. In many ways the film just winds up feeling like it’s not about much more than a cute young girl battling a mean old woman (playing this role eight years after NETWORK, Dunaway was 43 at this point) for the affections of some lunkheaded shirtless gardener who’s put into a trance by Selena so early that I’m not sure why I should care. For all I know he’s still in that trance when the credits roll, it’s not even clear, so the love story never really means anything. It feels like there are some good intentions among the creative personnel but it just comes off as wrongheaded, like the overall approach wasn’t correctly thought out and the money they had was spent on the wrong things.

After saying all this I can’t help but think that I’m being too hard on it. Maybe SUPERGIRL is kind of like a cute little puppy dog that knocks over a lot of breakables but still tries to lick you all over the face. How long can you stay mad at it? Maybe I just like looking at Helen Slater. In her film debut the actress brings a great amount of spirit to things combining grace, innocence, forcefulness and humor in a performance that is responsible for just about any endearing qualities that the film possesses. She is the role. Hell, there are plenty of actresses who could do a lot worse with trying to say, “The Omegahderon, Selena. I want it,” with any real authority. And, yes, she looks terrific in the costume as well. Isn’t she supposed to? Faye Dunaway, meanwhile, is dressed in ridiculous outfits while lit across her bulging eyes like William Shatner in some old STAR TREK episodes while wind blows her hair every which way. Based on her nonstop shrieking I can’t help but genuinely wonder if her director was too afraid to tell her to tone things down a little. So am I saying that she’s actually effective in the role? I’m not sure but in her attempt to go ‘big’ and ‘camp’ or whatever it’s just too much for things as she tries to do as much with every single tiny line of dialogue she has (“Now I am really upset!”). Not to mention that the brief glimpses of Faye Dunaway attempting to play light comedy reveal that it’s not what she’s best at. Peter O’Toole, on the other hand, is enjoyable to watch in his extended cameo with his drunken style like he still has a little of Alan Swann in him but the main problem feels like the material isn’t quite worthy of him, blatant exposition that’s trying to turn itself into juicy dialogue for him to do something with. Brenda Vaccaro is appropriately annoying but her presence never really adds very much. Marc McClure is the SUPERMAN cast member who turns up in place of Reeve, with Jimmy Olsen serving as a love interest for Lucy Lane but not doing much else besides that (actually, I wonder how Lois would feel about that coupling). Peter Cook, during the brief period where he attempted to replicate Dudley Moore’s Hollywood success, is Selena’s abused flunky Nigel and Matt Frewer makes an early appearance as a truck driver who winds up on Supergirl’s bad side when she arrives on Earth. Valiantly trying to do something with all this, Jerry Goldsmith’s score could best be described as ‘twinkly’. It finds the appropriate amount of majesty but its bigness becomes a bit much by a certain point and winds up another one of the numerous scores by the composer where it becomes obvious how hard he’s trying to get a movie that clearly isn’t coming together to somehow work. In this case, by a certain point hearing the same themes over and over becomes a little like eating way too much butterscotch.

SUPERGIRL is a film that’s hated by a lot of people and I don’t even have much that’s positive to say about it myself. I mean, it’s definitely not a good movie. And at the same time I don’t really mind having it around, if only to look at in small doses every now and then. And I’d still kind of like to see a 35mm print of it someday. It’s at least trying, even if it doesn’t succeed, and the optimistic spirit it insistently trumpets along with Helen Slater’s performance at least counts for something. None of this really makes it any good of course, so maybe it is some sort of 80s nostalgia thing after all. Maybe I just appreciate that it’s trying, even if much of the effort is misguided. Maybe I just like seeing movies. And in the end, there’s nothing too wrong with that.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Just A Bunch Of Moments

I sometimes remember it as just about the worst Friday for new releases that I’ve ever encountered. July 26, 1991. Not the best summer ever and not the worst either but that weekend was particularly bad. All huge flops and three of them about as bad as any group of major studio releases that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. The first I saw on opening night--MOBSTERS. Christian Slater, Patrick Dempsey and various others doing YOUNG GUNS during the gangster era. You could tell that even the Friday night Yonkers Movieland crowd didn’t think much of it. But on Saturday evening I went early to the nearby Yonkers Central Plaza where I spent the night theater hopping and seeing each of the other three—ANOTHER YOU (Gene Wilder and a visibly unwell Richard Pryor in their final teaming), V.I. WARSHAWSKI (Kathleen Turner in a godawful adaptation of the Sara Paretsky mystery series) and, closing out the evening at midnight, the Mel Brooks comedy LIFE STINKS. A film with a miserable reputation, it has a storyline that is fairly problematic and yet I have to say that even now I have a fond memory of sitting in that giant, nearly empty theater late at night laughing almost in spite of myself. But this is a Mel Brooks film that we’re talking about, after all. Wasn’t laughing almost in spite of myself what I was supposed to do?

Powerful billionaire Goddard Bolt (Mel Brooks), CEO of Bolt Enterprises, has a plan to tear down much of the slums of downtown Los Angeles with a plan to build the massive Bolt Center but his plan runs into trouble when he realizes that the other half has been bought by his main rival Vance Crasswell (Jeffrey Tambor). So to settle their differences the two make a bet: Crasswell will give up his half if Bolt is able to survive living on those very streets of skid row that he wants to tear down with no money and no help for 30 days. Taking the bet, Bolt suffers the indignities of living on the streets and even befriends Molly (Lesley Ann Warren) a homeless woman who helps him out. But as the 30 days draw to a close, Bolt is in for a big surprise.

It’s no SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, that’s for sure, but that much is probably obvious and I suppose there are far worse things you could say about any movie. One of Brooks’s few directorial efforts which is not an outright parody of some other film genre let alone attempting any sort of fourth-wall breaking, the relatively straightforward LIFE STINKS (screenplay by Brooks & Rudy De Luca & Steve Haberman, story by Brooks & De Luca & Haberman & Ron Clark) is an attempt to be a broad comedy about the plight of the homeless which is a problematic concept to be sure, but also one that never tries to make too much fun of those people. As a result, for a fair amount of the film there’s the feeling that it isn’t quite sure who to make fun of, an odd approach for a Mel Brooks movie to take. The film’s portrayal of the streets and the people forced to live on them, even if it was shot on location, feels like something out of the forties and never really becomes more complex than thinking of them in a ‘hobo’ kind of way. No slapstick comedy with this kind of setting can ever completely overcome such a depressing kind of feel and LIFE STINKS doesn’t totally pull that off. It makes the first half of the film feel pretty grim on occasion as Bolt desperately tries to survive—the point of it all, no doubt, but kind of a bummer for a comedy and by a certain point it feels like just a little too much, even including the death of a supporting character. At the very least Brooks knows to get out of the section by ending it on a very dark joke which isn’t exactly a great joke (one that’s apparently inspired by something that happened to co-star Howard Morris) but at least it’s something and after this point things do begin to pick up, actually becoming funny on a consistent basis. Every now and then LIFE STINKS is able to actually deliver on a number of laughs, from the early scenes of obscenely wealthy Goddard Bolt figuring out how to kick people out of a nursing home without the media finding out (“Do it late at night.”) or much later on when Bolt encounters a crazy person who goes by the name J. Paul Getty ( co-screenwriter Rudy De Luca) and their bickering over which one is richer turns into a full-fledged Three Stooges routine with nonstop slapping which, so help me, gets me laughing out loud no matter how many times I see it. I’m just easy, I guess. Even from the very beginning of Bolt and his lawyer/flunkies entering his headquarters as shown in an opening credits montage from floor level so we see nothing but their shoes proceeding forward (smartly, there’s a callback to this later on), Brooks displays a formality with his framing as if he’s continually trying to figure out in scenes how to pull off a joke in a single shot. The overall effect this approach gives off is genuinely cinematic combining a sleek, old Hollywood deep focus look to the office scenes that effectively contrasts with the gritty nastiness of skid row. There is that specificity but there are also a number of jokes that seem to fizzle away, fading out to the next scene not to mention a genuinely maudlin quality (hell, let's just call it schmaltz) that Brooks never really explored before or since. Actually, much of the approach isn’t entirely unlike a film that I imagine Jerry Lewis would have made circa 1991, which I suppose I mean in both every good and bad possible way.

By a certain point at least Brooks seems willing to throw down the gauntlet of the grim plotting and actually throws the two leads into a full-fledged Astaire-and-Rogers dance routine between him and Warren seemingly out of nowhere. It’s one of the few times that Warren has been able to make use of her dancing background during her film career and the free-spirited nature of it which tosses all pretense towards realism out the window manages to come off as somehow experimental in the way it seems to willingly go against everything the film has been doing up to that point—it feels genuinely European in a way I can’t quite pinpoint and it’s also, I suppose, as close to one of Brooks’s requisite musical numbers that the film can provide. Suddenly past the halfway point the film has begun to become alive and in the final half-hour it begins to have a touch of fearlessness in its dark humor with the aforementioned J. Paul Getty scene and a considerably grimmer section in a hospital as the destitute Bolt is continually over-medicated by a doctor who doesn’t notice he’s examining the same person over and over. It’s as if once Brooks and the film has figured out what exactly to be making fun of there’s something kind of pure about it all. Once the film achieves the freedom of the latter sections, culminating in a Godzilla like battle between two giant wrecking machines being controlled by Brooks and Tambor the silliness of it definitely gets to me. Maybe there’s a purity in Brooks’s stylistic approach throughout even if it does make it kind of like an old man’s film, for lack of a better term (and, I admit, I also like DRACULA DEAD AND LOVING IT), but that purity at least makes it something. In the end, the latter section of the film tries to disprove itself of the sentiment behind its title by stating that Bolt’s money doesn’t really matter and all that matters is how life is ultimately good, expressing this in the most sentimental way possible. I don’t know how much that idea really holds, but I suppose there are worse things than a film which tries to say such a thing. There’s very little to get out of LIFE STINKS about helping the homeless beyond simple platitudes but watching it now I can remember a few of the genuine laughs that I got out of it during that empty late-night screening and those laughs stand out to me now as well. It’s not great but there is a certain freedom to its elegance so maybe it’s just the sort of film that you’re supposed to see in a mostly empty theater late at night and forever have a sneaking admiration for.

Maybe Mel Brooks was never the best leading man in his films when compared with somebody like Gene Wilder but he is absolutely eager in his performance, willing to dive in and embrace the madness when it’s needed particularly during his frantic dance emulating a little kid to try to get a few pennies (yeah, that gets me to laugh out loud as well) or his non-stop fight with Rudy De Luca (who, it really should be said, winds up stealing the whole movie). As a woman who’s been going through an admitted nervous breakdown for the best eight years, Lesley Ann Warren can sometimes come off too broad in her inherent goofiness but it fits her character here and when she does a small mock-performance to illustrate just what happened to her character to end up on the street it’s genuinely disarming and affecting—for the first time the movie seems to be about something other than just Mel Brooks exploring a comically questionable subject and the actress manages to elevate it all with her off-kilter nature. Jeffrey Tambor displays a lot of enjoyably passive-aggressive behavior as the bad guy with his best moment being when he states concern for Bolt’s safety then immediately begins carelessly humming a song aloud as soon as he’s alone. Comedy legend Howard Morris makes one final appearance for Brooks here as Sailor, Theodore Wilson (who died just days before the film’s release in ’91) is Fumes and the always very funny Stuart Pankin is Bolt’s main attorney getting a particularly well-timed extended moment with De Luca near the end. Billy Barty’s in there too.

I don’t want to make any grand case for the movie and I don’t even feel like drawing some parallel between the title and some of the stuff that’s happened to me lately. But as Lesley Ann Warren tearfully tries to say near the end, “That’s all life is. Just a bunch of moments,” I can’t help but think about how this film once capped off a night of seeing terrible movies, during a time long ago when I probably didn’t know how good I really had it, a time when I felt free enough to take a night and not worry about anything but seeing those terrible movies—not that I think this film counts as terrible at all. But my point is that whatever anyone reading this might be thinking about how I’ve spent my time in life, I wouldn’t give up the memory of that night for anything. And with the mood I’m in these days, I kind of wish that I could relive it all right now. And I would do it. As long as I could get the pure enjoyment of all that laughter from the midnight show of LIFE STINKS, a movie that probably few other people have any real fondness for, in that huge, empty theater once again. As Mel Brooks himself says in this movie, there's so many things that you can't do when you're dead.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

And Dream It Never Ends

I’m sitting here, wondering what I should do now. No car. It was recovered but there’s the minor issue that it has no engine. Or carburetor. Or any of that other stuff that’s supposed to be in there. So that’s that, I guess. As a result, I’m just sitting here staring at the wall, trying to avoid the issue of just what I’m supposed to do next. Not to mention, just how am I supposed to get to the New Beverly now? Comic Con happened and I was there briefly, somehow managing to get into Hall H for the amazing TRON: LEGACY panel but I never had any decent encounters with one of the other films which got a lot of press during the weekend, namely Edgar Wright’s upcoming SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD. This doesn’t really upset me. I’ve got more things to worry about.

I mention the film because it was a few months ago now that I was at the New Beverly having a conversation with a certain correspondent for a well known film news website. The subject of Wright’s film came up and he was saying how the film was the director’s way of paying tribute to Brian De Palma’s 1974 rock horror comedy PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE which he’s more than a little obsessed with, his chance to make his own version of that movie. I nodded, remembering how I already knew that the film was a favorite of Wright’s and that that he had even screened it at the New Beverly once several years ago but, embarrassingly, it had been so long since I had seen PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE that I couldn’t add very much to this part of the conversation. I must have been too busy seeing HONKY TONK FREEWAY over and over again or maybe my rock comedy needs were filled by GET CRAZY. I also have never read the Scott Pilgrim comic book and as I write this I’m still waiting to get to see the film which doesn’t open for a few weeks though from the looks of Twitter quite a few have seen it already (I should add that Edgar Wright isn’t even following me on Twitter! What’s up with that?). I guess they could say something about these apparent similarities more than I can. Anyway, thanks to Netflix as Wright’s film was screening at the Con down in San Diego I took a look at PHANTOM for the first time in years, so long that it was almost like seeing it for the first time. It’s a truly unusual film partly because its satirical slant seems to be such a personal touch by the person who made it and yet on the surface it stands so far apart from the rest of De Palma’s career. If I had seen it more often and under other circumstances when I was younger it might very well be a favorite of mine now as well. As it is, it’s an enormously enjoyable movie and while I can kind of understand why it never became some sort of ROCKY HORROR-level cult favorite something about it feels more endearing, more personal, more edgy. And it’s a safe bet that it’s going to stick around more in my memory from here on out.

When mega mogul record producer Swan (Paul Williams) spots struggling songwriter Winslow Leach (William Finley) performing a song that he must have, he arranges to have the composition, actually an excerpt from Leach’s own musical version of FAUST, stolen. Winslow of course only thinks that Swan is taking a look at it but after stumbling into an audition that he realizes is for his own music and instantly falling for the beautiful Phoenix (Jessica Harper) who can sing his song like no one else his repeated attempts to get it back from Swan go bad by the time Leach realizes just what had happened. After being framed and thrown into prison he escapes but his attempt at getting back at Swan goes wrong and Winslow, hideously injured and scarred, is presumed dead…but he soon returns as a figure known as the Phantom, haunting Swan’s grand new theater known as the Paradise and intent on finally seeing his music performed his way although Swan has a few surprises of his own to reveal.

What strikes me about PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is how much on the surface it seems to have nothing to do with Brian De Palma’s other films—honestly, if I encountered this movie without credits I doubt I would have pegged it as being directed by him. But not only does every frame feel completely and totally personal in the sort of cinematic way that the more De Palmaesque films are but it does in fact contain certain similarities the more I think about it from various stylistic traits to the elements of satire which can certainly be found elsewhere in his filmography, not to mention the as well as the odd Hitchcock reference. But what PHANTOM does is to reconfigure various elements of legendary stories with the horror legends like Phantom of the Opera and Faust being the most obvious examples along with some DR. CALIGARI nods, taking these themes and combining them with a bizarrely satirical look at what must have been De Palma’s own take on what the music business was becoming during the early 70s. Waves of nostalgia, beach music, glam rock and whatever else come into play tossed together with Winslow’s strangely haunting Faust creation. Some of this certainly sounds like the work of Paul Williams—goofy, emotional, haunting—yet in its own exuberant fashion doesn’t feel particularly dated at all or at least not dated in a bad way. I also can’t imagine many end credit numbers I love as much as “The Hell of It” and in context it comes off as a full celebration of everything that this movie achieved.

Written by its director, the story feels paced within an inch of its life in all the best ways with a continuous array of invention in scene after scene lends itself to a tone that feels not just uneasy and uncertain but genuinely dangerous, setting itself apart from the simple camp of ROCKY HORROR. It’s satirical, but never arch. There’s a passion to it as bizarre as every scene ultimately is with this world of the Paradise coming off as a place of mirrors, layers—it’s a film where reality can’t be easily determined because there is no reality. There is a certain frenetic feel to the film which means that reading up on how it was apparently a somewhat disorganized production (as discussed in the very comprehensive website The Swan Archives) such as how they had to deal with the total removal of the name Swan Song Enterprises (sometimes just seen as Swan Song) as the name of Swan’s company for legal reasons and it added touch of chaos to the editing by Paul Hirsch actually feels appropriate--it’s hard for me not to wonder if this is one of those cases where the editor deserves a huge amount of credit for what’s achieved--even if within the chaos of the climax there is a slight feel of abruptness to how everything ends.

The tone is so truly off-kilter much of the time that I can imagine when I first saw it years ago I may not have even quite known what to make of it all. In some ways I think I still am but looking at it now its portrayal of the literally soulless world of popular music co-opting the ambition of someone like Winslow Leach after years of American Idol make all this strangeness seem all the more real. I guess you could say the madness of the world has caught up with the madness of PHANTOM and the result is at times exhilarating, shot in a way that you can feel De Palma pushing himself even when his inspirations are obvious—an extended take which builds to a bomb in a prop car is an obvious TOUCH OF EVIL homage but also incorporates a split screen effect (an obvious De Palma troupe) and the way it is staged with the timing between the two works extraordinarily well, combining the warring portions of audio and incorporating trickery that may make it one of his most successful uses of the device. Even an obvious PSYCHO shower scene parody feels like De Palma was deliberately trying to make it as little like a PSYCHO parody as possible—as it happens, the joke becomes something else altogether. The entire film is satirical and energetic but it’s never just simple parody—you feel De Palma’s love for music even as he skewers it, his love for difference kinds of horror as he embraces it, making it his own through continuous invention and as a rock/visual phantasmagoria—which I’m guessing is what Edgar Wright is trying to do with his own movie—it’s just thrilling. There’s no other De Palma film quite like it. There certainly isn’t another rock horror comedy like it.

Just as Winslow Leach does when he meets her, I watch this movie and find it impossible not to fall in love with Jessica Harper, a beguiling screen presence that makes her stand out instantly from all the other girls and this combined with SUSPIRIA just makes me want to bow down to her. When she sings her audition of “Special to Me”, sliding around the stage in that absolutely bizarre dance and giving beguiling looks to the camera I can’t think of anyone who could have pulled this off the way she does. De Palma seems to be in love with her too, making her seem like the perfect seventies waif and yet near the end photographed as if she would be right at home in a thirties movie. Give an 'introducing' credit, her screen technique still feels unformed somehow but the effect she gives off is totally adorable, utterly beguiling and her talent is undeniable. It makes me wish that we lived in a world where more movies worshiped Jessica Harper like this one does (now I’m curious to revisit SHOCK TREATMENT, the ROCKY HORROR sequel where she plays Susan Sarandon’s role). The very oddness of Paul Williams is extremely well-utilized as Swan, making it clear how in this extremely bizarre world he is able to rule over everyone around him. He embraces the part completely making it truly memorable. It’s hard for me not to love Paul Williams because of things like THE MUPPET MOVIE and yet even normal close-ups of him here look somehow indescribably creepy to me. William Finley, one of the leads of SISTERS and seen recently in THE BLACK DAHLIA, is absolutely fantastic as both sides of Winslow and the Phantom infusing the part with the right amount of pathos and danger just as any monster who has been wronged should. I also wonder just how he’s able to bulge out that eye visible through his mask so wide. As glam-rock star Beef, the great Gerrit Graham of USED CARS owns every single second he’s onscreen, making it seem in retrospect that he has a much bigger part than he actually does. Archie Hahn, a future Joe Dante regular, is one of the Juicy Fruits (and the Beach Bums and the Undeads) and with CARRIE still two years in the future Sissy Spacek is listed in the credits as the set dresser.

Even without seeing SCOTT PILGRIM yet, knowing Edgar Wright’s approach to things I could believe there are a lot of obvious influences throughout the film. Naturally, I’m looking forward to it, although from the looks of the Internet when opening day finally comes I may be the last person to see it. As for PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, it does have a devoted following, if not an outright cult, with websites devoted to the film as well as fervent appreciations of it that I’ve read over the years. It’s so full of life, energy and cinematic daring that I can definitely understand this, even if my head is elsewhere right now. I feel a little like Winslow Leach, I suppose—no success with women, dealing with something valuable being stolen, feeling trapped in some bizarre dark comedy with wide angle lenses. Part of me is a little afraid to find out what happens next. Maybe I’ll just drink some wine and listen to “The Hell of It” one more time while I try to avoid thinking about anything else for the time being.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Everyone Has Their Faults

So my car got stolen. Not fun. Not cool. I’m still looking for work and the dollars are dwindling. Again, not much fun at all. It’s been a pretty lousy week. You know how in movies when somebody gets their car stolen it’s all part of some wacky farcical mix up or the Dude getting mad in THE BIG LEBOWSKI? Yeah, in real life it never feels as funny. For the record, it was legally parked, I had no outstanding tickets or anything. It was just gone. Strange thing is, it happened when I was in the middle of writing about a movie where an entire running gag centers around a pair of car thieves and the film itself could even be looked at as the sort of dark comedy one feels when they’re trying to figure out what happened to their car. So I figured I’d continue writing about it. What, like you’ve got a better idea? Right now I’m finding it difficult to write very much about anything so please just go with me here.

Fifteen years after Richard Lester came over from England to direct PETULIA, a satirical, heartbreaking look at a changing America, the director covered the same territory with SUPERMAN III, another comically skewed look at the U.S. but from a much more sour, angry perspective making for a somewhat unpleasant experience. Only twelve years after making the Oscar winning MIDNIGHT COWBOY, an even sadder look at the USA, English director John Schlesinger returned to the States to make his own comically sour, cynical look at present-day America with HONKY TONK FREEWAY, with much of it actually set in the very state that Joe Buck and Ratso are trying to get to at the end of their movie. Two directors, responsible for some of the most iconic films of the 60s, returning to similar territory in a way that reveals how the sadness they once expressed in a time of dwindling hope had become what feels like outright anger towards things at the beginning of the Reagan eighties. HONKY TONK FREEWAY doesn’t have a scene set on an unemployment line, unlike how SUPERMAN III begins, but it certainly feels like it could have. Costing a then-huge $24 million in an effort to make a sprawling, multi-character comedy clearly going for a Robert Altman vibe (“NASHVILLE on wheels” said Variety, though that was more a point of description than actual praise) crossed with the crass flavor of a post-SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT road movie, HONKY TONK was a huge flop at the time of its release in August 1981 and looking at it now doesn’t offer very much evidence that its director had any real sense of humor. I never saw it in the theater though I do remember countless viewings on cable back in the day, where I imagine that much of the satire and a few of the racier jokes went right over my head. Those memories as well as the fact that I like this sort of multi-character comedy anyway means that I still have a fondness for the movie and while there might not be much of a case that could be made for it, I could still try.

A huge new Freeway is constructed in Florida and the small resort town of Ticlaw is denied an exit even after town mayor Kirkby T. Calo (William Devane) personally arranges a payoff to the construction coordinator, delivered in a Kentucky Fried Chicken box. As Kirkby marshals the town to figure out alternatives to their dilemma, which includes literally painting the town pink, a diverse array of people are making their way to Florida heading down that new freeway in the direction on Ticlaw, including a pair of New York City garbage men (George Dzunda & Joe Grifasi) who have recently robbed a bank, Duane Hanson (Beau Bridges) writer of children’s story “Ricky the Carnivorous Pony” who meets up with the beautiful Carmen Odessa Shelby (Beverly D’Angelo) who is taking a promised vacation with an urn containing the ashes of her late mother, a husband and wife (Howard Hesseman & Teri Garr) vacationing in an RV with their two kids who do nothing but watch TV including a son (Peter Billingsley, two years before A CHRISTMAS STORY) with his own particular phobia, a pair of nuns (Geraldine Page & Deborah Rush), a retired ad man (Hume Cronyn) who "invented bad breath" with mixed drink-swilling wife (Jessica Tandy), a pimp (Sledge Hammer himself, David Rasche) traveling down to Miami with one of his girls (Sandra McCabe), a drug-peddling hitchhiker (Daniel Stern) and a truck driving songwriter (Paul Jabara) headed for Ticlaw with a Rhino for the local safari park. There’s also a water-skiing elephant named Bubbles in Ticlaw who Kirkby hopes will be their star attraction.

Written by Edward Clinton (no other credits), HONKY TONK FREEWAY at least has a lot going on in every scene. It’s energetic, acted by a high-spirited cast and features a great amount of activity in the frame throughout (legendary production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti is credited as “Visual Consultant” just as he was on AMERICAN GIGOLO and SCARFACE) but it’s never particularly likable and just winds up a sort of hodgepodge even while being entertaining. Schlesinger’s point seems to be that all of America is the same, a nonstop freeway of cheesy motels and restaurants populated by people who are just drifting aimlessly, eventually drawn together to the tiny “wonderful, beautiful” town of Ticlaw populated by good-hearted citizens representing the little guy who stay attached to their roots and bring all these wandering travelers who represent America together. Daniel Stern’s hitchhiker comments how ever city is the same and Beverly D’Angelo’s beauty mentions how she sits at the same table in every single IHOP restaurant she goes into, smiling as she says, “The International House of Pancakes is the one constant in my life,” so they’re the perfect people to wind up in Ticlaw, a place striving to be unique while still being recognized by the world and given that greatest of prizes, an exit to allow the tourists to reach them.

It’s a big, sprawling character comedy but if it is sort of a mess it’s the kind I guess I’ve always enjoyed (shades of 1941). I didn’t laugh all that much while watching it this time around but did find myself smiling pretty consistently, much of it due to the high spirits given off by the various actors and though I’d never call the tone endearing it still treats everyone better the outright contempt Richard Lester regards his characters in SUPERMAN III. In the case of this film, it’s more like Schlesinger looks at these people from a bemused distance, shaking his head with a slight bit of sympathy but not wanting to get too closely involved. Nothing too much ever really happens in the various story threads except for the main one and everything screeches to a halt with massive car-crash ending, which is definitely impressive but just feels kind of cruel with ‘funny’ sound effects--even if the movie shows us that nobody is injured it still feels like a few of them are being punished for no reason other than they were just being themselves on the big Honky Tonk Freeway that is America. One of the few real grace notes in the film, involving Deborah Rush’s novice nun taking a private morning swim, seems to express the ambivalence Schlesinger feels for these people, possibly not quite sure how he should be treating them. The final punchline involving ‘Ricky the Carnivorous Pony’ and some Asian orphans is pretty awful and there’s also some running gay jokes, which seems notable considering it’s coming from the director of MIDNIGHT COWBOY—well, since Schlesinger was gay if he was ok with them then whatever. And there’s the car thieves, but they’re nice car thieves—they take the car but always leave whatever was inside because to take the stuff would be wrong. When Hume Cronyn lets loose all his frustrations about his life after his prized antique car has been taken it now kind of hits close to home, maybe the first time I’ve ever found myself identifying with Cronyn in anything. Interestingly, Janet Maslin in The New York Times (It opened in New York at the Ziegfeld! Damn!) seems to have had a similar reaction to the film when she reviewed it that I have now—thinking it’s a mess, the racier jokes are no good and yet finding it “almost as surprisingly funny as it is silly.” Maybe it’s the enthusiasm of the whole thing, the willingness to get out there on the road to make this movie and present all these people for better or for worse. Maybe I can’t really defend it to any great extent but I still kind of like it.

IMDB reports that the first cut was around three hours which with this type of film seems possible but because it’s all so loose it feels like very little is getting short shrift, with the possible exception of Hesseman and Garr’s bickering married couple. The production is large and impressive with some footage of the freeway construction over the opening credits that would probably have some interest for somebody who lives down there as well as, in addition to the huge crash scene, a massive explosion late in the film which possibly didn’t get the right kind of coverage when they shot it since we never seem to cut to a fully satisfying angle. Of course, John Schlesinger was never exactly a director noted for shooting huge explosions so maybe getting the big money shot wasn’t as necessary to him. William Devane also responds to that big explosion by saying “Holy Shit,” a pretty guaranteed laugh getter way back then. Adding to the fun is a diverse array of music from the title number which we hear about five separate times throughout (sometimes I think I hear this song in my sleep), “Faster Faster” which is sung by Paul Jabara as the truck driver and written by him as well, a country ditty on the soundtrack sung by Beverly D’Angelo, the memorable “Ticlaw Anthem” (again, something that probably haunts me during odd hours) co-written by George Martin and an extremely energetic main theme by Elmer Bernstein some of which sounds so similar to the score for STRIPES, out the same summer, that I almost wonder if he was working on the two at the same time and got them confused or something.

My good feelings about it extend to the actors and there really isn’t anyone in here I don’t enjoy watching. The very best of them make their characters more likable than I suspect they were on the page, including the boisterous Devane (also in Schlesinger’s MARATHON MAN), the ultimately endearing relationship of Cronyn & Tandy, Beverly D’Angelo’s adorable glances that indicate her own ambivalence about herself (she slept with 300 men in Paducah, Kentucky adding, “It wasn’t easy”), the double act of Dzunda and Grifasi, a sort of Laurel & Hardy act done as PG-rated sleaze and, maybe my favorite, Deborah Rush (familiar from numerous TV and film roles) as a nun clearly having doubts about her choice. The very familiar Celia Weston makes her film debut as a waitress who gets recruited by Rasche, Jerry Hardin plays the Governor (he has what I think is the one F-word in this PG film and the way he says it gets a laugh out of me) and Anne Ramsey, before her voice changed, can be spotted as a TV chef. Twins Jason and Shane Keller (graduates of the Scarsdale High School Class of 1989, thank you very much) appear briefly as Beau Bridges’ sons.

The slightly cruel undercurrent which is definitely there keeps me from being more favorable about it, but any anger the film expresses about the state of things (or at least, the state of things in 1981) is something I can kind of understand this week. After all, right now I’m not able to go driving out on the freeways like the characters in this movie in search of something better. I didn’t even get to keep the stuff that was in my car. But while watching the film again I’m reminded that its energy keeps it moving, some of the characters are endearing, the music is catchy, Beverly D’Angelo sure is cute and sitting here right now I can’t even say I think the movie’s cynicism is all that wrongheaded. It’s just not always as funny as it should be. Which doesn’t prevent me from thinking fondly of it and I could imagine popping the disc in once again sooner rather than later. In the meantime, could anyone out there please buy me a plane ticket that would send me someplace faraway like the Amalfi Coast? I really could use that right now. It’s been that kind of year.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Genuine Taste For It

You should probably know that I’m a pretty dull person with relatively boring taste in things that can sometimes fall right in line with the mainstream. I think CHEERS is the best sitcom ever, to me THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY is the funniest film the Farrelly Brothers have ever made and I may as well admit that in all honesty when it comes to films based on the novels of Thomas Harris I prefer Jonathan Demme’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS to Michael Mann’s MANHUNTER. Demme’s film was justifiably deemed a classic so quickly that it’s allowed the hardcore auteurists out there to pick up the slack in favor of the earlier film. It’s probably helped that Mann’s career has come a long way in the past few decades while Demme’s career has gone in other directions away from the mainstream, clearly showing that the man’s interests lie elsewhere (speaking for myself I can respect someone who marches to their own drummer but still feel that Demme’s post-SILENCE career has to be one of the biggest disappointments of the past twenty years of film). THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was of course a massive hit (domestic gross: $130 million), won five Oscars including Best Picture and so much of it has seeped into pop culture that its most famous elements have long since crossed the line into parody. In contrast, MANHUNTER, based on the novel “Red Dragon”, is the more sedate procedural, critically respected but a box office disappointment (domestic gross: $8.6 million), eschewing blatant serial killer thrills for instead attempting to truly examine how such things get under your skin and doesn’t necessarily deliver in the way you might expect. It also offers a presentation of its most famous character in a way that, whatever else you might want to say about it, doesn’t offer much interpretation for spoofing.

At least part of my preference is due to my own personal experience. Seeing THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS on its opening weekend back in February 1991 was an electric experience of the sort that I have rarely experienced in a theater before or since, where I genuinely felt a charge through the audience as if it was witnessing something truly exciting, truly memorable. That memory is certainly an emotional response for me, a feeling I retain to this day and such a reaction is not something that MANHUNTER, released less than five years earlier in August 1986 by DEG, ever goes for—it’s not so much a more intellectual approach as it is a clinical one and while it doesn’t work as well for me its best moments are there, unavoidable, in some cases unexplainable. And yet those scenes and moments never quite coalesce into a whole as effective as some of it truly is. With MANHUNTER’s reputation growing through the years along with the status of its director the film recently screened at the New Beverly for a Saturday midnight show. As it turned out, I didn’t think the movie exactly came off as ideal for the late hour—it may actually be the quietest serial killer movie ever made, the famous use of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” excepted, but even in this context getting to study some of these images on the big screen had its own rewards.

Retired FBI specialist Will Graham (William Petersen) who has the ability to think just like the killers who he pursues is talked into coming back to the job for one more case by his former boss Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) against the wishes of wife Molly (BRAZIL’s Kim Greist) to help catch a serial killer who has been snidely dubbed the ‘Tooth Fairy’ who has been known to brutally kill entire families. Graham’s investigation includes him having to meet with Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) a brilliant psychopath whose capture was the reason for Graham leaving in the first place. As Will continues to pursue the Tooth Fairy he once again has to deal with these feelings he has been able to keep buried as his family is suddenly forced to go into hiding and the Tooth Fairy himself, actually named Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan) finds himself falling in love with a beautiful blind co-worker Reba McClane (Joan Allen) who he thinks may be his one chance at a normal life.

It diminishes both films to compare them so directly and the two directors are different enough in their basic approaches that it really seems pointless--one imagines Mann and Demme not having enough in common to carry a conversation over dinner, let alone taking source material that shares certain characters and approaching them in the same way. In comparison to Demme’s much more humanistic approach with the Bernard Herrmann-like power of Howard Shore’s score, MANHUNTER is much quieter, introspective as if its trying to force us into paying attention to what’s happening—its opening credits are just a few steps close to being totally silent as if reminding the audience to listen (and look) closely for the next two hours. MANHUNTER has appeared in several different versions over the years including a single network airing back in the nineties which nonsensically retitled it RED DRAGON: THE PURSUIT OF HANNIBAL LECTER in order to capitalize on the growing Lecter popularity. The different cuts (even reading up on the film I can’t tell how many there really are. Four? Five? Six?) seen on tape, disc and cable in addition to the original theatrical release are par for the course for Mann who never seems to tire of tinkering with his films past the point of theatrical release (I imagine him at home right now, recutting some section of THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS for a new Blu-Ray release. Does he work on old STARSKY AND HUTCH scripts too?). Since I’m not an expert on this film like some people are I couldn’t state all the differences but I certainly noticed that the 2001 Anchor Bay DVD I’m checking out as I write this for reference is missing what for me seeing it at the New Beverly was a key point of dialogue spoken by Will Graham, providing a point of clarity to his feelings on who he’s pursuing (“As a child, my heart bleeds for him. Someone took a little boy and turned him into a monster. But as an adult... as an adult, he's irredeemable…”) so the whims of Mann in reworking his films clearly know no end of frustrations. The degree of obsession his films express makes this understandable but no matter what, MANHUNTER, watching it at home or at the New Beverly, is always MANHUNTER. It’s a work that at times reaches almost masterful levels yet I constantly feel at a distance from it as if a silk screen is in the way preventing me from reaching some further understanding of it all.

Maybe Kubrick is an obvious point of comparison in its portrayal of obsession but more than that the film puts me in the mind of William Friedkin and not just because Petersen had just starred in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. the previous year. Actually, it’s not even that the style of MANHUNTER feels all that much like Friedkin but there is a certain attention to detail as well as the basic idea of observing process which causes certain moments to stick out—those crime scene photos left out on the plane so the young girl gets an unfortunate look at them is one, or Graham somehow trying to focus on the grass in front of him after the trauma of his meeting with Lecktor--but I feel distanced from the cool style, stark angles with architecture to match, the overwhelming feeling of Blue & White that screams some of my least favorite traits of the eighties (I never got into the MIAMI VICE TV show all that much back in the day either—maybe I’ve got a mental block to this type of thing) along with some music that works great and some that is, for me, the worse the decade has to offer such as the song “Heartbeat” over the end credits, for one. It causes me to mentally check out on occasion, wondering if this is deliberately elliptical storytelling or if we’re just missing a reel of vital info, searching for that extra layer just as I get lost in gazing at those birds flapping behind Petersen in one of his reveries as the character gazes at his wife. Part of Mann’s M.O. seems to be to avoid the expected suspense at certain points and the late appearance of Joan Allen’s surprisingly forward character throws us just as it throws Dollarhyde—we don’t know what to make of this expression of seeming warmth any more than he does. Elements like this mean that I always feel like I’m studying MANHUNTER more than watching it. This isn’t a bad thing at all but there are points where I wonder if there aren’t a few drawbacks.

The fractured narrative of MANHUNTER, screenplay adaptation written by Mann, includes not introducing its ‘villain’ until nearly the halfway point but even if the already incarcerated Lecter/Lektor character didn’t happen to become much more famous later on (in a film which used the spelling of the character from the original novel), it’s possible that the Tooth Fairy would still be overshadowed by the handful of appearances of Dr. Hannibal Lecktor as played by Brian Cox. With only a fraction of the screen time Anthony Hopkins had in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, a performance which became legend by the end of that film’s opening weekend, Cox brings a chilly force to his few minutes, a power that is unexplainable in its own way—several years after I first saw this film for the first time on cable just about all I remembered was the calm, chilly power he has in casually getting Will Graham’s home address during the phone call scene. If it were his only appearance it might be considered one of the best one-scene performances of all time but his earlier meeting with Graham is almost as powerful in how the two actors play it (his third scene, where he and Graham confer via phone late in the film, isn’t at all bad but doesn’t feel quite so essential to me, maybe because the narrative has moved past Lecktor by that point). The humor of this character, tossed off as he places a stick of gum in his mouth feels almost offhand, just as any of the spare pieces humor in the film does, like the technician who offers, “You’re so sly, but so am I,” when making a discovery, which I know was once said by Phil Hartman on an episode of NEWSRADIO.

With the meaning of the Red Dragon and its relation to Dollarhyde that the novel took its title from (for the record, I’ve read the books of SILENCE and HANNIBAL but never this one so all I have to go on is my perception of the film) feeling like it has been de-emphasized in accordance to its removal from the title (the existence of certain stills indicate how much was really shot to tie into the mythos) it seems to mean that when Dollarhyde’s death pose recalls the look of the Dragon doesn’t have as much resonance as it probably intended to at one stage. The point of MANHUNTER appears to be observing the process of how these characters studiously move through this case to a point where its no longer safe for their own stability, but Mann as director also somewhat makes it about his own experimentations with structure, with periods of silence and oblique jump cuts in the climax (not as noticeable in the print as it’s always been on video for me, but maybe it was the late hour). He’s not interested in the machinations of the plot as much as examining what this is all doing to the character of Will Graham as he studies this case of a killer who invades white upper middle class households. It’s a world that I imagine Graham would like he and wife Molly to be a part of, but it’s not something he’s able to do and his tiny beachfront house with no backyard (how the Tooth Fairy seems to gain access to each of the homes he invades) feels appropriately like a place to hide out from the world. Mann prominently focuses on the trauma that the lead character once went through and is now going through again, feelings he articulates to his son played by David Seaman in the strangest supermarket scene ever shot and even if it didn’t contain the most distracting continuity errors in the history of film it would still feel like these several minutes are more about the Kubrickian prominence of the cereal boxes behind William Petersen more than anything the two are discussing. It doesn’t help but the child actor playing the son isn’t particularly good either (among other non-actors distractingly sprinkled throughout the film) and it occurs to me that all of the strengths and weaknesses in the film are best exemplified in this one scene. A foreground we desire to pay attention to in danger of being overwhelmed by a background that for reasons which come off as mysterious makes its presence known whether it should or not. It winds up revealing the best and worst of what Michael Mann is capable as a director, all in what would in most other director’s hands be a simple dialogue scene. I’ll gladly state that I worship at the altar of HEAT, THE INSIDER as well as parts of COLLATERAL and don’t wish to hear from anyone saying otherwise…but there are times in some of his other films where the flaws that result in spite of (or is it because of?) his obsessive quest for perfection are impossible to ignore. They’re just as clear in the frame as those damn cereal boxes.

Petersen delivers a strong conviction to the character, bringing the viewer into his eyes and selling the scenes where he does nothing but talk aloud, piecing together the puzzle, not something every actor could pull off without getting bad laughs. Greist and Farina both strong support, Tom Noonan’s inherent oddness as Dollarhyde barely seems to warrant calling him a villain…he’s just somehow other, compulsively watchable every single second he's onscreen. Stephen Lang (one of the best things in Mann’s PUNLIC ENEMIES is enjoyably sleazy as Freddy Lounds and Joan Allen is greatly effective in her relatively brief screen time, making me wonder what her character is like when she’s not suddenly finding herself in a serial killer thriller. Chris Elliott turns up briefly as one of the FBI analysts (in an interview years later he confessed to feeling bad that his presence may have caused some unfortunate laughter), Benjamin Hendrickson brings some intriguing officiousness to his brief portrayal of Dr. Chilton (an extra Chilton scene exists, just not cut into the film) and Frankie Faison, Barney the orderly in the three Lecter films with Hopkins, is seen as Lt. Fisk. A number of bit players seem to be non-actors, some more distracting than others in their appearances—this is one of those areas that I think Friedkin succeeds at more.

Even if I feel somewhat resistant to it, the nature of what Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti achieve with their framing of these stark images is at times impossible to shake and reminds me of Tarantino’s comment spoken once at the New Beverly that when Michael Mann went all-digital we lost him as an artist. Whatever my feelings on its drawbacks, the film’s approach to the serial killer format has been influential—I’m no fan of the TV show CRIMINAL MINDS but I see much more MANHUNTER in there than SILENCE (For the record, I haven’t brought up Brett Ratner’s RED DRAGON, the film that remade this with Hopkins because, really what’s the point?). Taken on its own, MANHUNTER exists as a record of Mann’s style in development on its way to greatness which hadn’t revealed itself yet. If there’s something in there I don’t respond to it may be me, it may be the film. It may be my own expectations or even limitations. Or maybe I just haven’t looked closely enough yet. But, like every film I encounter, I can only really judge what I see with my own eyes.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

If You Can't Say Something Nice

THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE is now twenty years old, but what the hell are we supposed to do with that piece of info? Am I supposed to actually try to explain who Andrew “Dice” Clay is to kids out there or have they already heard of him at some point? Shouldn’t we just forget the whole thing ever happened? The film opened during the summer, during the heat of all the controversy surrounding the shock comic, how people found him and his routines hugely offensive. Just a few months earlier an uproar occurred when he hosted SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, an event that included cast member Nora Dunn refusing to go on with him and the night before FAIRLANE opened was probably Dice’s most notorious TV appearance ever, a spot on THE ARSENIO HALL SHOW (oh no, am I supposed to explain who Arsenio Hall was to kids now too?) where he looked right into the camera, explained himself and started to cry. The film opened the next day, July 11, 1990 and I was there at Yonkers Movieland with Twizzlers in hand to see the first show. Sure, I’d gotten sick of all those damn nursery rhymes by that point but it was summer. It did decent its first weekend (it finished behind GHOST, also released then, but ahead of QUICK CHANGE) but it soon after crashed and burned, dropping over fifty percent in its second week which was a much bigger deal then than it is now and stopping dead at $21 million. Fox didn’t release the concert film DICE RULES that August like they were going to at one point and Andrew “Dice” Clay, as movie star, was pretty much done. THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE is crass, sloppy, stupid, juvenile and maybe a little offensive. It’s nothing that I can defend or even should try to defend. And yet, truthfully, against my better judgment, I’ve never really minded it. I probably should be embarrassed to admit that, but there it is.

Ford Fairlane (Andrew “Dice” Clay) is the hottest rock n’ roll detective in Hollywood living a dream life complete with a car that bears his name, swank pad out in Malibu and loyal secretary Jazz (Lauren Holly) but constantly in need of cash due to his famous clients paying him off in expensive trinkets. When old friend Johnny Crunch (Gilbert Gottfried), the sleaziest DJ in the west, hires him to find rock groupie Zuzu Petals (Maddie Corman) no sooner is Ford on the job than Johnny is brutally murdered on the air. When uber-wealthy Colleen Sutton (Priscilla Presley) turns up the next day also looking to hire Ford to find the same girl he finds himself mired in a case involving the recently O.D.’s rock star Bobby Black (Vince Neil), record mogul Julian Grendel (Wayne Newton), annoyed cop Lt. Amos (Ed O’Neil), a hitman named Smiley (Robert Englund) with a habit of turning up unexpectedly and the mysterious Art Mooney who Ford believes holds the answers to all of his questions.

Renny Harlin was directing FORD FAIRLANE when Fox and producer Joel Silver decided that he was the man to helm the eagerly awaited DIE HARD 2. The films wound up opening a week apart with the film that had been shot second coming first, to much bigger box office. Gene Siskel, who went bonkers for DIE HARD 2 calling it “the best film of the summer” (not when GREMLINS 2 had come out, it wasn’t), expressed disappointment in his review that it came from the same director but, seriously, this hardly seems like an auteurist issue. It was probably impossible to ignore the furor surrounding the film’s star but I can’t help but think that critics were reviewing him more than the actual movie which really does have a fair amount of invention going on throughout. A totally fanciful look at Los Angeles circa 1990, THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE (Screenplay by Daniel Waters and James Cappe & David Arnott, Story by Cappe & Arnott, based on the character who appeared in stories by Rex Weiner) has about as much to do with real life as BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS did in its day and I’ll bet that film’s screenwriter Roger Ebert probably noticed, calling this one “loud, ugly and mean-spirited” in his negative review, none of which I have any real argument for. It’s a Dice vehicle through and through but even if you hate him there’s plenty of other stuff to pay attention to going on in the constantly busy frame. It’s a completely immature film, with the sequence at the I Ata Pie sorority house filled to the brim with hot college girls either the high or low point depending on your point of view and it’s safe to say that if an inanimate object like a camera can actually leer, it definitely does so during these scenes.

The tone is pretty much all over the place--spoofy but surprisingly violent, violent but pretty damn goofy, a story that never makes any sense at all. There are a surprising number of nasty deaths, the cute-as-a-button Lauren Holly gets thrown through a second story window as well as brutally punched in the stomach at various points and then again there’s the blatantly fake Koala Bear that figures into things. It’s also got its share of clever dialogue that is pretty obviously the style of HEATHERS screenwriter Waters, who I could believe was more interested in doing a Los Angeles music satire/private eye spoof (if Waters is responsible for the name Zuzu Petals, as I suspect he is, the man deserves as much praise as he can get) more than a vehicle for the guy starring in the movie, with the written material sometimes clashing uneasily with stuff (sometimes in the constant voiceover narration) that are either adlibs by Dice or just bits pulled from his routine—a gay joke, a reference to getting banned from MTV. And with lines like “I’m sorry that I made you clean the toilets and the bathtubs, who did all the work in bed?” that he asks his hapless assistant Jazz, I could believe that some of these adlibs actually make the character more unlikable than he already was, pushing him over the line from scoundrel into outright sleazoid. In an attempt by the film to not get us to totally hate him, Ford befriends a kid (Brandon Hall) who wants to hire him to find his father, with only a Fred Flintstone ring as a clue, but it doesn’t really work. And I’m not sure the film even cares, which is actually a little admirable. When the camera lingers on him during a few points as if he was just told to adlib like crazy, it’s some of my least favorite stuff in the film and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that I like this film almost in spite of the guy who’s starring in it. And there are bits where he doesn’t much matter that I always look forward to like Jazz telling some bad guys, “If either one of you ever has a son, I hope his dog dies,” the chant the sorority girls make when inducting Ford as well as the ultra-sleek look it provides of Los Angeles which to me once seemed like it may as well have been another planet. Once during an appearance Daniel Waters made a sarcastic reference to ‘the comedy stylings of Renny Harlin’ and, yes, there probably isn’t a great case to be made for him as a director who understood what made something funny. For that matter, he probably took some of the action more seriously than he need to and I almost wonder if he even realized how ridiculous the action scene where characters climb down the side of Capitol Records really was, or maybe should have been.

All of that said, there’s a definite energy to the film the whole way through and, almost surprisingly considering how DIE HARD 2 is one of the most overcut movies of all time with numerous scenes using seemingly dozens of angles FORD FAIRLANE is much, much more fluid in this regard and the style gives a certain life to the world around the lead character. It feels like Harlin is constantly tossing stuff into shots to keep the film engaging to look at, always willing to feature a supporting character doing some kind of business on the side of the frame. For me this approach is definitely preferable to the recent rock world comedy GET HIM TO THE GREEK which at times feels like it consists of nothing but scene after scene of alternating close-ups of two people talking, making it about as dead a film experience as I could imagine. FORD FAIRLANE at least has some life to it, even if I do need to shower afterwards and what’s wrong with taking a shower, anway? There are probably more than a few topical jokes (“The Rob Lowe Channel”) that are pretty dated now but it does contain an early device of computer-disc-as-McGuffin as well as what has to be one of the first uses of a cell phone in an action movie to make things seem as high tech as possible. There are also some pretty random film references both in dialogue (CHINATOWN is the most obvious) as well as a few of the band names handled by “Fred’s Condom Company” as glimpsed on a computer monitor at one point. There are a few cameos by rock stars I didn’t care about then or now and some of the music’s actually pretty good, even if it does give me flashbacks to 1990 that I’d just as soon not have. There’s no great case to be made here for the film as a satire which hasn’t gotten its due but at least it’s not a boring film even if it is constantly all over the place—hell, if it never quite settles down into a disciplined style that makes sense at least it still feels somewhat unique . Besides, it’s hard for me to hate a film that features a party at an obscenely wealthy Bel Air estate complete with a serving of shark meat. FORD FAIRLANE may be lewd and immature and sleazy but it’s unapologetic about all those things and, while hardly perfect on its own level, is still true to its principals.

I’ll give Clay some credit—as least his portrayal as a sleaze is consistent but as an actor he’s got genuine presence and as a comic personality he’s not afraid to look (or act) totally foolish on occasion. Lauren Holly couldn’t be cuter playing the Velda figure to his Mike Hammer and she brings a genuine spark to her scenes. Maybe the actress wouldn’t want to hear this, but it’s probably the role of hers that I have the most fondness for. Priscilla Presley probably deserves some kind of good sport award for her few scenes here, Robert Englund looks like he’s having a total blast as the nasty henchman complete with British accent, Ed O’Neill is fun as Ford’s cop adversary still upset about something that happened in the past, Wayne Newton seems totally in on the joke and brings a comic edge to his character that goes beyond just playing this as camp (“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, Baby.”), but Maddie Corman, Eric Stoltz’s sister in SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL, damn near skips off with the whole film as the insanely stupid groupie Zuzu Petals. Diving into this role with such a lack of fear, she turns the standard ditz character into a zen kind of thing that is frankly awe-inspiring by a certain point. Kari W├╝hrer is Melodi (“As in, a pretty girl who’s like a.”) who wears a short dress that inspires one of the film’s most oft-quoted lines spoken by Morris Day, David Patrick Kelly is a stalker Ford has to deal with named ‘Sam the Sleazebag’, Willie Garson of SEX AND THE CITY turns up as a frat guy and there’s also a New Beverly calendar spotted in one scene, so I’ll just add that I hope they run this at midnight one of these days.

Plenty of rock-oriented musical comedies that wind up feeling somehow wrongheaded in how they were conceived have acquired cults through the years. There’s probably no such following around FORD FAIRLANE and I suspect that if anyone out there does like it (after all, there’s always somebody out there who likes something) they’re probably too embarrassed to fess up. I won’t say that I like it or even think that it’s actually any good…but even though I know I shouldn’t there are a number of elements that I honestly find enjoyable. And besides, if for this film I’ll bet very few people would still know the name Art Mooney. Since it’s now twenty years old the music world that’s being spoofed has now probably become much more insane than is portrayed here—it sounds crazy to say it but it really does portray a simpler time so watching it for a little while does kind of take me back. And at its best it’s actually, so help me, kind of entertaining. But don’t tell anyone I said that. And remember to always answer your phone by saying ‘Hit Pay Dirt With KDRT.’