Saturday, April 30, 2011

Only Two Routes Of Escape

You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting very much lately. I don’t know if that’s going to change any time soon. Sure, I wish I could write something about a movie several times a week but too many things are distracting me lately. Money running out, no sign of a job. Fun stuff like that. I’m really not sure what I’m going to do right now. The other day I had the idea that I should just stop writing this blog once and for all. A few times I even decided how that was exactly what I was going to do and since I’m just a few away from my 500th post I guess the perversity of the idea kind of appealed to me. Sure, it would be nice to accomplish hitting number 500 but anyone who knows me could tell you that I've never been much for accomplishing things. Some time ago I’d even picked out the movie that I wanted to write about for that 500th post, something I love, something that in writing about it would have been, for me, a total celebration of the joy of cinema. Now I wonder if that's ever going to get done. The other night I posted the question on Twitter and got quite a few people saying I shouldn’t quit, including some who actually make their living as writers, which was honestly more than a little flattering. But considering that writing this blog is just about the only thing I have going for me at all right now the very notion that I’m thinking about ending it probably indicates that stuff is going on. And I don’t want to stop writing it. I’m just not sure I can do it. So what do I do? I don’t know. Right now I guess I’m trying to write something to see if I can still write about anything.

I’ve lost track of James Toback's career in recent years but I’ve long had an interest in his work partly because of the intensely personal nature of much of it and partly because of some of what I’ve learned about the man from his own published diaries, particularly the one that was featured in the filmmakers on filmmaking forum “Projections 4” which documents his various activities during 1994 detailing his life, insecurities and projects that were in development during that time, several of which closely involved Warren Beatty. What he nakedly reveals here about who he is, even more than his films ever do, was something that on occasion through the years I would find myself re-reading certain sections of while looking for inspiration towards my own writing. Near the beginning of his 1983 film EXPOSED the writer/director himself appears as a college professor (he perfectly casts himself as a pretentious liberal arts snob) lecturing how the western world is breaking down and how there are only two routes of escape from that world—art and romantic love. About as blatant a case of stating a film’s themes flat out at the top (there’s also some notations on TOUCH OF EVIL on the blackboard behind him which, considering the plot of EXPOSED, intrigues me), being spoken by the writer/director directly to the gorgeous lead Nastassja Kinski sitting before him in that classroom who barely seems to be paying attention anyway but will soon be forging her own route of escape from her world. EXPOSED is undeniably compelling much of the time but it’s also kind of baffling partly because it seems like two or three films (or maybe more) combined into one within a fast 98 minute running time, its elements thrown together in a way which isn’t entirely satisfying. But nevertheless there is something I’ve found intriguing about it as if propelled by the intensely personal nature of what it's attempting to explore, with Toback telling the story from his own perspective as he observes the sort of woman in this world who fascinates him and how, from his perspective, those women probably feel they are viewed by the world. I felt mixed when seeing it a year or so ago but found myself looking at it again recently, maybe because a few elements are staying with me for better or for worse. The film may be slightly messy and lopsided but it definitely always has something going on even if it isn't quite always clear exactly what that is.

After we briefly witness an act of terrorism which results in the destruction of a restaurant in Paris we settle down into the story of U.S. college student Elizabeth Carlson (Nastassja Kinski, here with the first name still spelled as 'Nastassia') who has reached a point in her life where she has begun to feel like a ‘caged animal’ so she decides to leave her posh school and Wisconsin family farm behind to seek out her fortune in New York. Her wallet is stolen almost as soon as she gets there but she quickly finds a job as a waitress and soon after that she is discovered by photographer Greg Miller (Ian McShane) who promises to make her a model. Almost in a whirlwind she is world famous, making covers of magazines and jetting off to foreign locales for shoots but soon she is approached by a mysterious individual named Daniel Jelline (Rudolf Nureyev), a violinist who has something entirely different in mind for her life, leading to a path that will take her directly to a notorious terrorist known as Rivas (Harvey Keitel) who has his own ideas for Elizabeth.

Adding to the interest for me personally is how for years I always remembered EXPOSED as being the other film playing in the twin where I saw RETURN OF THE JEDI during opening week way back in ’83. This seems a little fitting since EXPOSED feels more than a little like a 70s film slightly stranded in the 80s, a strangely intense character study of a MAHOGANY-like rise to the top of the fashion world combined with a director’s (understandable) fascination with his female lead all mixed in with a terrorist plot on the outskirts of the BLACK SUNDAY/NIGHTHAWKS school as everything gets played against a backdrop of its own somewhat strange unreality (do you believe Kinski is a Wisconsin farmgirl? On the other hand, does it really matter?). It’s a film which contains a narrative that could conceivably span about four hours considering how much seems to happen along with a certain degree of filmic awkwardness evident in Toback’s direction whether in coverage or scenes played entirely in master shots as well as his own idiosyncratic tendencies like the doo wop music heard that also turns up in a few of his other films. There’s a movie somewhere in all this and it’s a really good one but I’m not sure if it’s quite the one that actually got made. The always curious Elizabeth played by Kinski navigates this world in which she is forced to deal with these men who want to dominate her, beginning with the professor played by Toback as well as her dominating father played by Ron Randell then proceeds to move up the food chain leading to the terrorist Rivas played by Keitel who of course was the Toback surrogate in FINGERS (“They all make you,” someone says to her at one point referring to all the men in their lives which could be what the film is really about as much as anything) but much of the narrative feels a little too fractured to fully succeed.

Some of this is fascinating at least partly due to Kinski and how we follow Elizabeth through her story along with how Toback uses her in the frame. In fairness, it’s hard not to be drawn into watching everything she does. Some of it is also fascinating due to the writer/director’s staunch refusal for the viewer to ever get too comfortable in any of its settings before wrenching us forward towards the next section or even stopping the narrative dead for a ten minute-plus stretch as Elizabeth gets to know the next man in her life. There are odd touches I found weirdly endearing such as Kinski and another model going to a McDonald’s in Paris to eat but too much goes unexplained--who exactly is Jelline, anyway?—and I’m not sure what to make of the bizarre notion of terrorists recruited from the modeling world which more than anything may just be a metaphor for what Elizabeth's self-made path is leading her to. The movie stops for both Nureyev and Keitel’s characters to seduce Elizabeth in their own way but the equivalent for McShane’s character feels too abbreviated and I wonder if the ambitious structure needed a stronger director to clarify some of the story points or maybe the overall narrative would simply have worked better in novel form. Or maybe that four hour version I’m imagining would clear a few things up.

Whether Toback would want to hear it or not, the best films which have his name on them are the ones which he was merely the writer on—-THE GAMBLER and BUGSY, to name a few. As a director he definitely knows how to play the dynamics of certain individual moments and there’s an undeniable feel of inevitability to everything that happens which results in a palpable feeling of dread--in this context even the shot of a Concorde landing is somehow hypnotic. And he also continually keeps the tension going with the male world forever trying to assault Elizabeth in their own way, down to a few shady street characters hassling her on occasion—these moments have a genuinely real quality as if Toback had them happen without telling the actress ahead of time. Maybe for the writer/director trying to weave all these themes together in a cohesive manner art and romantic love are actually the same, meaning that the concept of a relationship between a man and woman can be an art in itself. But in the end none of that can help her because without even knowing it she’s still trying to figure out who she is versus how she’s seen by all these men in her life. Some of this isn't as effective as it should be and if what happens between Elizabeth and Jelline is supposed to be some kind of touching romance it doesn’t work at all, playing more as someone who is brainwashing her into becoming a terrorist instead of going up against one. The climax is too abbreviated and based on what's here maybe Toback just wasn’t the sort of filmmaker to try putting together a car chase so the end leaves it all on an unresolved note but there’s the possibility that Elizabeth is finally realizing that she needs to figure out who she is, not who she is to all these men around her. It's frustrating, compelling and maybe a little fascinating. In the end, I don’t know if EXPOSED is even a film that comes together, but it feels worth seeing it again with the very slight hope that I might somehow find out. And maybe it would help me figure out certain women who I've played my own bit part in the lives of in the process.

The film itself may have its problems but none of them have to do with Nastassja Kinski who is amazing to watch every moment of the way so it's impossible not to completely fall for her as a screen presence, whether dancing with freewheeling abandon around her apartment to Betty Everett singing the Shoop Shoop Song or reacting to everything happening to her with total nonchalance. She's mesmerizing to watch and makes me wish that we could have gotten many other movies that were about nothing but her. On a very minor note it occurs to me that both this film and the following year’s remake of UNFAITHFULY YOURS contain elements that set her against the world of classical music and she certainly goes well in that glamorous milieu yet at the same time she seems somehow free enough in her behavior that I could believe she would break away from this script, storyline and everything that her director was asking of her if she were only allowed to. Rudolf Nureyev smolders with his unusual Langella-as-Dracula-like presence but while he obviously has a certain magnetism it doesn’t particularly translate to the screen (maybe Langella would have been a good idea) so it makes the big dramatic centerpiece involving his character–coming after the whirlwind plotting the movie basically halts for this ten minute scene as she gets to know him and while that sounds intriguing in theory it causes everything about the film to pretty much stop dead, turning this film which feels like the narrative equivalent of a game of 52 pick up in how it’s been edited to fall to pieces for too long a stretch. It rises up again when Keitel enters the picture late in the game and even if his terrorist doesn’t seem like it has much to do with real life—good as he is, there’s an unmistakable tinge of ‘special guest star Harvey Keitel’--the actor is extremely strong in his role, making what isn't all that logical totally compelling nevertheless. With such lopsided plotting coming from the story it feels like certain characters are introduced and then seemingly dropped from things before they’ve ever really been established or even allowed to make much of an impression, like Ian McShane’s photographer and James Russo’s restaurant manager. On the other hand Bibi Andersson brings a great deal of emotion to her small role near the beginning as Elizabeth’s mother, seeming like she’s in the middle of playing the lead role in her own film that we never get to see. Familiar faces that appear during the New York sections include Murray Moston of TAXI DRIVER and AFTER HOURS (“I could go to a party. Get drunk. Tell someone. Who knows?”) as a hotel manager and Tony Sirico of later SOPRANOS fame as a shoplifter in a record store.

As I write this I think about how EXPOSED may not be all that successful a film but as I write about it more, I find myself watching sections of it more and I gain in appreciation in how this movie really is its own unique piece of work, something I genuinely, truly respect. I'd gladly watch the entire thing again right now. And it gets me to remember that in some ways it’s more challenging, more rewarding to write about such movies that are problematic (some, like this one, still unreleased on DVD) than the ones which work perfectly—lately I’ve been trying to make my way through writing about NETWORK in a tribute to Sidney Lumet but really, what is there to criticize about NETWORK? EXPOSED may be flawed but it is valid as a creative work, valid enough anyway that I find myself watching it several times to try to figure out just what the hell it is. “You watch movies as you write about them, the more you become aware of how good they are. Or, sometimes, the flaws that hold them back.” That was something I wrote on Twitter a few nights ago out of nowhere when feeling particularly frustrated by everything going on (I’d maybe had a few drinks beforehand, but can you blame me?). Something else I wrote that night read “I can be as fascinated by bad movies as much as anyone. But I want to love movies. I want to inhale them like crack while I love them.” In some ways I suppose that EXPOSED and RETURN OF THE JEDI, along with all films that would conceivably fall in between those two, are always playing in the twin cinema in my brain as I forever try to work them out. And I want to keep on exploring them. I want to keep inhaling these movies as much as possible and in order to do that I have to (and genuinely want to) keep writing all this. So I’m not going to stop and I don't think there's any way that I possibly could. But I may have to ease up on all this, maybe for a period not write as much as I sometimes have, while I try to figure out my life. And maybe I’ll get to no. 500 yet. After all, as it's sometimes been said, there are always possibilities.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Or Simply A Shock

Over the years I’ve maintained a continued interest in the career of Peter Bogdanovich and the various roads it’s gone down through the decades from famous director to struggling director to becoming a somewhat familiar face in character roles, particularly on THE SOPRANOS, as well as his self-imposed lifelong function as a film (and Hollywood) historian. In addition to being fascinated by some of his life I suppose I also kind of relate him to my own obsessive love of film and it hasn’t helped how there’s an old friend of mine who for years has insisted on referring to me as ‘Peter B.’ whenever I see her. The obvious affection in her voice at least tells me that it’s meant to be a compliment. I hope. So my admiration for the man continues, whether it’s the amount of times I’ve reread parts of his books of essays and interviews or my love for some of his own films, most especially my latter day love affair with his romantic comedy THEY ALL LAUGHED, one that I’m becoming more and more convinced really is a masterpiece.

But as it must for all men, I suppose, his retro-musical AT LONG LAST LOVE is famously where it all came crashing down for Peter Bogdanovich as Hollywood player and while the director had numerous films to come in the years that followed it’s probably fair to say that the state of his career never quite recovered from this failure. A box office disaster when it was released as well as the subject of massive evisceration by the critics, the film is known now by its ‘one of the worst films of all time’ reputation more than anything, with only scattered TV airings over the years and never released on video in any form. Recently when the title turned up on Netflix instant and in the rotation on the Fox Movie Channel I noticed some alerts reporting this posted via Twitter so there’s obviously at least a slight bit of interest out there from people who have long been curious, probably because the director’s rise and fall plays such a large role in the “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” recountings of that era.

The hatred aimed at the film, its director and female lead Cybill Shepherd when it was released in 1975 was apparently so intense within the industry that Billy Wilder reportedly said when it flopped "champagne corks were popping and the flags were waving all over town". Both the director and star went on to privately refer to it as “the debacle” in the years that followed with it going on to be one of the subjects skewered in the Bogdanovich-inspired roman à clef IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES although these days the film does have its defenders. And, to be honest, I can’t really see anything wrong with anyone wanting to defend it since, after all, over thirty-five years after it was released what sort of harm is a tiny little musical like AT LONG LAST LOVE really doing anyone? Keeping an open mind now that I’ve finally seen the entire thing, I’d say that the film does have enough qualities for me to state flat out that the most extreme criticisms of the film are unwarranted and, honestly, there have probably been worse films released over the past month let alone all time. But as charitable as I might be willing to be towards it and as much as I can see how what the director is going for fits thematically with a few of his other films I think my own defense of it can only go so far. Yes, there is something kind of endearing about how much the production wants to make all this singing and dancing work. Yes, I found myself continually impressed by how well much of it was put together with some particularly good camerawork. But where a few of the director’s best films of his career feel like they effortlessly glide along almost as if on air AT LONG LAST LOVE never quite pulls this off when it badly needs to, instead lumbering along like an elephant from scene to scene, from song to song, with no real pace, no momentum to carry it through. It does have its own quirky charms but too much of it just seems like a miscalculation, a case of someone who knew what they wanted to accomplish but there was no way to get it to work. Still, part of me does want to return to it somewhere down the line to see if it all can click for me somewhere in my brain--I can’t remember a print ever turning up in any of the Los Angeles revival houses but I would go if it ever did, partly to try to will it to work better than I think it does, partly out of curiosity to see who else would show up, also curious to scratch the itch. But right now it just sort of makes me want to put on THEY ALL LAUGHED once again.

Some time in the 30s wealthy and bored playboy Michael Oliver Pritchard III (Burt Reynolds) meets showgirl Kitty O’Kelley (Madeline Kahn) and they begin seeing each other. Meanwhile, broke and desperate heiress Brooke Carter (Cybill Shepherd) meets gambler Johnny Spanish (Dulio Del Prete) who isn’t quite as well off as he presents himself and they begin seeing each other. When they all meet up at Kitty’s show one night it turns out that Kitty and Brooke went to school together. The four hit it off immediately and make their way together out to the gigantic mansion owned by Michael to drink and cavort as well as all heading off to various nightclubs together. But soon enough Michael finds himself falling for Brooke just as Kitty finds herself falling for Johnny. In the meantime, Michael’s valet and chauffer Rodney (John Hillerman) finds himself dealing with Brooke’s wisecracking maid/companion Elizabeth (Eileen Brennan) who has definitely set her eyes on him.

And that about does it for plot. Instead of story development much of what goes on is taken up by the endless warbling of (sixteen) Cole Porter melodies, some making multiple repeat appearances throughout, going from one person singing a rendition of the title song to another for example with much of it ultimately all blending together. Now, it’s not a subject that I’m a real expert on but I think there is something of interest to be found in the study of musicals that take a sort of alternate approach to the genre, disposing of old Hollywood perfection as if in pursuit of the imperfections that can be found in people actually singing and dancing, as well as the sadness and regret that can sometimes be located in such songs. Jacques Demy’s THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT is as beautiful as it gets for me but there are other examples through the years whether Woody Allen’s EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU, John Turturro’s ROMANCE & CIGARETTES, the Herbert Ross film of Dennis Potter’s PENNIES FROM HEAVEN or even Godard attempting one on his own neorealist terms with Anna Karina when he made A WOMAN IS A WOMAN. I sometimes look at these mutant musicals as deliberately attempting to present their own stylized world in a way that is the opposite of the glossy, impeccable approach of the MGM school, using the inherent imperfections of the approach to their advantage. It’s as if these directors are trying to reveal something of themselves and what these musicals really mean to them deep down.

With AT LONG LAST LOVE Bogdanovich isn’t doing a tribute to the famous Astaire-Rogers musicals (good or bad, references I’ve seen out there to this being such a homage seem to be missing the point) so much as a riff on Lubitsch-directed early thirties romantic comedies and just like in those films all the singing was done by the actors live on set—an approach not taken since that era—with all the limitations that doing it that way implies readily apparent. Like in those films the framing is kept simple throughout with many scenes played out in single takes allowing the actors to bounce off each other and there’s a definite ‘black & white in color’ look to the film with Art Deco set design keeping the visual palette as elegant as possible. So much of AT LONG LAST LOVE seems like it should work and frankly in moderate doses some of it really does. There’s some wonderful camerawork by Lazlo Kovacs, such as one entire sequence in a nightclub is done in a single shot that eventually pulls out into a full dance number and on occasion all the elements seem to come together so you can feel the charm, the blitheness of what they were going for. But as it moves from one song to the next with very little variation it quickly becomes clear how there’s not enough going on beyond the principal gimmick so it all just becomes constricting and forced, as if the film itself is waiting for screwball developments in the plot that never really happen. The cumulative effect of it all is that it just becomes wearying. The musical numbers aren’t performed intentionally badly, just intentionally imprecise (sometimes in imprecise musical settings like when Reynolds and Shepherd cavort in a swimming pool) and there’s something in that which should be charming, totally exhilarating, but the movie seems to miss something in order to pull that off on a consistent basis. Some bits do register like a cute game of musical chairs as several of the characters are stuck behind several tall people at a stage show and everyone joining in on “Friendship” while crammed into a car together plays just as loose as it needs to almost as if they just made up the scene on the spur of the moment. But for something that clearly is always trying to be frothy and sparkly the desired effect doesn’t happen often enough. It’s like watching somebody who’s trying way too hard to convince you of what a wonderful mood they’re in so there’s just something about all this would-be cheeriness which just feels a little too forced. It would help if it played zippier but it would also help if it were shorter too—movies like this were never meant to be two hours no matter what decade they were made in and by a certain point every second of that running time is felt.

Considering some of what’s been written about him I also can’t help but think that this story of the idle rich is meant to play as Bogdanovich’s cinematic dream of his own tony lifestyle of the time lounging about with paramour Cybill, living the high life as the toast of Tinseltown. “The movie was my fantasy of divorce. Everybody remains friends,” he’s quoted as saying in Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” no doubt making reference to his marriage to Polly Platt that had ended by this point and when he made an appearance at a screening of the film in San Francisco a few years back he stated, “It was really about a bunch of frivolous people who couldn’t talk to each other so they sang lyrics that were made up by somebody else.” A promising thesis, yes, and I can see the traces of that in the four lead characters who are all hiding something, eventually brought together by this music but I’m not sure that the concept he speaks of ever fully comes across. Bogdanovich is credited with the script himself (the main titles have a boastful “written, produced and directed by” credit) but maybe to do something with the basic idea he needed to bring in someone else to work on the script with him and give some real life to things, maybe even provide it with an actual story along with all that patter between the numbers. The vibe of characters meeting and within seconds acting like the best of friends is a constant in some of his work, so the sense of camaraderie leading to changing partners within a dance that can’t go on forever causes me to now look at what he would do several years later in THEY ALL LAUGHED as a very loose remake or at least a recapitulation of some of these themes. The difference between the two is that in the latter film it feels like the director has become a little bit more a part of the world again, or at least a part of his own stylized take on the world, so that sense of both longing regret and exhilaration comes fully across with an emotional resonance. You can feel AT LONG LAST LOVE going for the effect, but it just winds up hanging there.

The disastrous initial reception is presumably part of the reason why there have been several different cuts of the film with various running times listed--“the recut version is a tiny cult favorite” offers Bogdanovich in his phenomenal book of directors’ interviews “Who The Devil Made It”. Without knowing the specifics of the variants I can’t be certain of exactly what is running on FMC right now but it times out at 121 minutes which seems to be the longest version out there but apparently a print that screened in San Francisco several years ago was not only shorter it also contained some different footage. To make this slightly more frustrating, I actually remember catching some of a cable broadcast in the 90s which had a slightly different ending that seemed to offer more of an acknowledgement of how all this is really just a fantasy (since there’s no way to confirm that, I’ll allow my memory could be faulty) and now I’m wondering how that version played. Vincent Canby in the New York Times wasn’t quite favorable with his initial review (still, it’s practically a rave compared with how vicious some other critics were) but even within his negativity he still somewhat acknowledged the film’s own audaciousness. “It's a movie compounded of nerve and a lot of cinematic intelligence, which is no substitute for fun,” said Canby. That’s what occurs to me. An attempt to directly ape early thirties musicals is admirable, just as some of the elegant camerawork it offers is as well and there’s certainly nothing wrong with Cole Porter (one film that might be interesting to compare it to is the Agatha Christie mystery EVIL UNDER THE SUN directed by Guy Hamilton, which is also completely scored with Cole Porter tunes). But the film needs to provide its own distinct spark beyond just the one-liner that insists on what a great time we’re supposed to have. I would love to be one of those people who insist that the world is wrong and that this is really a sparkling wonder of a modern-day interpretation of what a musical could possibly be. But the film needs to meet me halfway to do that and so far except for a few minutes scattered throughout, enough to make me wish I liked it better, it really hasn’t.

You can’t say that the actors aren’t energetic and they’re clearly trying but because the script doesn’t give any of them much in the way of characters to play beyond one-line descriptions they never take any sort of hold. Maybe because they’re so obviously making the effort I don’t even want to say that much against them. There does seem to be a slight emphasis on top-billed Reynolds and Shepherd who maybe don’t quite go with the period setting but are likable and seem willing to do whatever the film needs of them. Burt seems to freely act his way through his songs as if he knows there’s no way he’s actually going to cut an album on his own after this—interesting that seven years later he sang again in THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS—and he does offer his own sort of effortless charm, with his timing and screen persona going just right with the occasional ‘why is somebody singing?’ joke that gets tossed in there. Cybill Shepherd was always more of a Carole Lombard than the Miriam Hopkins which would be more appropriate here and it wouldn’t be until her MOONLIGHTING days that she would really be able to play this sort of thing but at least she’s clearly trying, eager to do whatever’s needed, and is very clearly enjoying herself immensely. Madeline Kahn does fit in just right with the period, I’m just not sure she always seems like she seems to go with some of her co-stars and maybe it says something how her best moments, the ones where she totally goes with the setting, are when she’s onscreen by herself. John Hillerman and Eileen Brennan also seem totally appropriate for the period setting as well and they seem absolutely right for the movie. Brennan is tailor made for this sort of wisecracking best friend role while the ultra-dry Hillerman is particularly good with his comic timing. More than anyone else in the film he seems brave and willing to change a song’s tempo to whatever the heck he wants it to be and it gives his bits that much more life. Given a fixation on Little Orphan Annie as practically a lone character quirk, Dulio Del Prete, also in DAISY MILLER for Bogdanovich, gets a little lost in all this with an accent so thick he’s often unintelligible as well as seemingly disappearing even when he’s front and center during scenes. Mildred Natwick plays Michael’s mother in a few scenes but the musical number she once apparently had was cut out and M. Emmet Walsh turns up as a doorman doing a W.C. Fields impression.

Throughout his career Peter Bogdanovich has made movies about what the movies meant to him and how he was able to tie those feelings in with his own life and worldview. As ambitious as it might be I still wish I thought that AT LONG LAST LOVE worked better, a feeling that doesn’t entirely account for the vehement response the film received but maybe I just would have had to have been around at the time to fully understand whatever was in the air. Maybe it was his own over-confident persona and his insistence that he could make this new-old type of musical work in the seventies, maybe it was just the wrong post-modern approach at the wrong time. The end of AT LONG LAST LOVE has the two couples finally paired off the way they should be, deciding they all like each other better now that they’ve finally wound up with the right one. And, maybe appropriately, this is a movie that doesn’t work, that I can’t fully open up my arms to, yet I find myself gazing at it with a certain amount of affection anyway. Like it is with many films that both fascinate and frustrate us as we desperately try to find a way to somehow love them, maybe that’s the way it should be.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

As If Life Isn't Tragic Enough

“It’s the Millennium. Motives are incidental,” went the line spoken by Jamie Kennedy’s Randy in the original 1996 SCREAM and I suppose I always looked at the entire SCREAM series directed by Wes Craven as a piece of pop culture-infused, pre-millennial hysteria, exploring some of those feelings that were in the air at the time with as much blood flowing as possible. In those post-OJ years of the second half of that decade it seemed like things were going to a pretty dark, extreme sort of place though while, of course, we had no idea how dark and extreme things would become later on but back then all that nihilism just seemed to kind of go with the times. Falling in that relatively laid back (in retrospect) stretch between the millennium and 9/11, SCREAM 3 was released in February 2000 and what with the air from the Y2K panic still clearing at the time the film seemed to basically say, “It’s over. We’re fine. Chill out.” Come to think of it, 2000 was actually a pretty good year, at least up until early November anyway. The first appearance of Courtney Cox Arquette’s Gail Weathers here as she lectures to a crowd of students who look upon her hard-edged tactics with disdain seems to confirm the optimistic feeling of those days and while all this may seem kind of a reach as far as SCREAM 3 goes, well, that’s probably ok considering how each of the SCREAM films seem to dispense with their overall thesis by a certain point, ultimately just focusing on providing the scares. I like the SCREAM films and even have a certain amount of sentimental affection for them but I suppose that to me they made their lasting mark more in the pop culture realm than in providing any real long term benefits to the horror genre. Likewise, although the third in the series has become the most derided over the years for various reasons (absence of screenwriter Kevin Williamson, less extreme gore) maybe because I don’t think the first two films are necessarily beyond reproach I also don’t think the third is all that much of a comedown. True, it does seem to be a deliberate pulling back from the most extreme darkness of the second chapter into something, well, more “funny” which sets it apart in its own way and while the film isn’t without its own problems I still think it’s a pretty good ride. Up to a point, anyway. Kind of like the other SCREAM films.

Several years after the events of SCREAM 2, now-released and now-famous talk show host Cotton Weary (Live Schreiber) is murdered along with his girlfriend Christine (Kelly Rutherford) by a Ghostface Killer demanding to know the secret whereabouts of Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). As they begin their investigation the police, headed by Det. Mark Kincaid (Patrick Dempsey) quickly believe that the killings may have something to do with the brand new STAB 3: RETURN TO WOODSBORO (is that sort of what the plot of SCREAM 4 is? At this writing, I haven’t seen it) which Cotton was making a cameo in and which has just begun shooting in Hollywood. Kincaid enlists reporter Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox Arquette) to aid in the investigation but as it turns out, former Deputy Dewey (David Arquette) is already in Hollywood himself working on the film (being made by ‘Sunrise Studios’ shot at CBS Radford which also served as the movie studio in S.O.B. and JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK) as a consultant, reuniting the former couple as they bicker their way through whatever is going on with the actress now playing Gail, the excitable Jennifer Jolie (Parker Posey), also joining them as they track the killer. When the murders continue, it becomes clear how there must be a connection between the film and the decades-old photos of Sidney’s late Maureen Prescott found with the bodies leading everyone to believe that the killer’s real target is none other than Sidney herself, living in solitude as a woman’s crisis counselor. But when the killer seems to learn where she is, Sidney finally realizes that she may have to emerge from hiding to confront the new killer so she can end this chapter of her life once and for all.

Considering how much the script of SCREAM 3 (credited to Ehren Kruger, with Kevin Williamson getting a prominent “Based on Characters created by” credit) feels like it was sort of slapped together and how much of the production seems to be arranged around various cast member’s schedules, it’s kind of amazing how well some of the final film actually does work. The basic plot holds together more or less as a follow-up to the previous entries tying in nicely with what came before (Even if everyone's seen this by now, I'm going to avoid spoilers related to the killer) and director Craven expertly lays down the various necessary beats as he lays out his buildups to the killer striking (I particularly like the low tracking shot behind the barefoot Rutherford as she walks through her apartment). The movie is also extremely well-photographed by Peter Deming with some terrific use of the anamorphic frame along with Steadicam work that always adds to the queasy effectiveness of the growing suspense. Some of the plotting is definitely kind of lopsided with Neve Campbell’s Sidney absent from things much of the time, probably off shooting whatever other movie she had going then, that it almost feels like a film without a real lead character—having her hiding off in the mountains somewhere actually plays more interesting now considering how much the actress herself has disappeared from the Hollywood scene in recent years but even when Sidney arrives in Los Angeles to join the other characters she’s still offscreen for a long stretch. To compensate we get a lot of screen time for Gale, Dewey and Jennifer Jolie as played by Posey (who, unless I’m mistaken, doesn’t even have any scenes with Campbell) which is fine but it still makes the structure seem kind of scattershot.

Like the other SCREAM films there’s a fair amount of wheel-spinning to make it seem like there’s more of a intricately structured plot than there really is (worrying about people getting killed in the order they die in STAB 3 doesn’t amount to much) and a few too many elements never amount to very much, like how some of the side characters make almost no impression as if their parts were lost in whatever multiple rewrites that went on. The whole talk of trilogies sounds nice but doesn’t really have all that much to do with any actual ones that may have ever existed, even including JEDI and GODFATHER which actually get name-checked and overall, the more meta (dialogue about ‘keeping the ending off the internet’) and at times in-jokey feel (Jay and Silent Bob’s cameo, the overly cute concept of combining actual star’s names for characters) makes things maybe a touch too light amidst all the mayhem even if some of the tone seems right in theory for what the film wants to be. The first two entries in the series weren’t perfect but there was at times a genuine sense of danger mixed with the laughs and those edges feel maybe a little too shaved down here in favor of an approach that is almost a little too humorous, with some of the dialogue going for being broadly funny in a way the first two films never did--supposedly the recent matter of Columbine resulted in both story changes and a reduction in the gore which in some cases feels very apparent and in this context it does diminish the effectiveness.

Some of the darker elements that are there don’t work either--Sidney’s mom briefly appearing to her as a ghost in a dream feels like it’s out of another movie and Sidney exploring her own psyche with Patrick Dempsey’s detective who has his own demons just feels half-baked with any sort of romance/connection/whatever between the two just seeming unnecessary. Still, it’s clear throughout how good Craven can sometimes be at putting these sequences together and looking at it again now for the most part the film has a fun, fast-moving pop flavor that at times works extremely well. Compared to some of what followed in the wake of the original SCREAM it almost plays as a classic, a comparison that could also be made to certain other Wes Craven movies. Hey, I’ve got a fondness for the guy like anyone my age but by now it’s pretty clear how he’s not always the ‘master of horror’ the ad campaigns like to sell him as. DEADLY FRIEND? VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN? CURSED? Last year’s MY SOUL TO TAKE? Like the SCREAM films the climax for that last one goes on about forty-five minutes in the same location as well only never scary or compelling or anything for a second so, seriously, you should take what works when you get it. Even the endless climax of SCREAM 3 (every SCREAM film has an endless climax that seems to take up most of the second half) has its share of effective moments. Maybe it doesn’t all work but in its best moments, like the bending of reality when Sidney finds herself wandering around a movie set depicting what happened to her two movies ago, it’s a genuine reminder of why people responded to these films so strongly. The film has some odd touches of dark humor as well that do work just right, particularly the disarming cut from a moment of peak tension involving Ghostface to a punch of cops in the police station having pizza and it’s moments like this that I really do love. Maybe it makes sense that SCREAM 3 is the least dark, least nasty film of the series. After all, one of them had to be and that they made it this way due to happenstance or design it seemed to represent something about coming out of the darkness that was there during the turn of the millennium. Well, it was a nice thought while it lasted.

The three returning leads all fall right back into their roles as if they hadn’t taken a few years off. David Arquette emits his endearingly Elvis-wannabee charm, Courtney Cox races through her dialogue like her life depends on sucking all the air out of the room and Neve Campbell adds the right amount of earnestness, as if all this meta nonsense means absolutely nothing to either her or the character of Sidney Prescott. Parker Posey dives in to things from her first scene as if she’s determined to make this the ultimate Parker Posey performance of all time, acting up a storm even if she’s in the corner of the frame but maybe because of the way the plot goes it never feels like there’s any sort of payoff to all her hard work. In just a few scenes Jenny McCarthy displays some sharp comic timing that I don’t think she ever got another chance to do (both she and Kelly Rutherford look particularly good as photographed here), Scott Foley is STAB 3 director Roman (ha ha) Bridger, Patrick Warburton is security expert Steven Stone (maybe he’s doing your basic Patrick Warburton performance, but is that really such a bad thing?), Patrick Dempsey, building his career back up again at this point, give some nice harsh glares as Police Detective Mark Kincaid to keep suspicion on his character building and the always welcome Lance Henriksen is STAB 3 producer John Milton. Emily Mortimer, Matt Keeeslar and Deon Richmond are the other STAB 3 cast members, Carrie Fisher has a maybe too-jokey cameo (although I like her line about having “respect for the unknown actor”) and probably the one non-major cast member who gets to make any impression is Josh Pais, who offers some slyly funny line deliveries as Dempsey’s partner. Live Schreiber is a welcome presence even for just a few minutes as Cotton Weary, Jamie Kennedy makes his Special Appearance via videotape as the deceased Randy Meeks explaining the rules of trilogies while Heather Matarazzo appears briefly as his sister. Roger Corman appears briefly as a studio exec commenting how “violence is a big deal in cinema now” though strangely he doesn’t have any dialogue where he complains that the film is going over budget or something.

SCREAM 3, containing references to such then-prominent pop culture items like 60 MINUTES II and Posh Spice, maybe seemed more at home when it was released than it does now but that up to date feel is certainly appropriate for each of the three films. Regardless, the way the series always attempted to explore the clash between the real world and what Hollywood does to that real world remains potent even now, even if this particular entry feels like it has a few less teeth than the others. Overall, it still plays pretty well for me anyway. Honestly, I always liked the final beat here involving Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott and how it seems to willingly do without a final scare, insisting that everything’s going to be all right, even if I suppose now it’s been rendered moot with the release of a fourth part of the franchise. But looking all around at everything that’s happened since this film was released, it’s maybe more clear than ever how the scares in this world continue even as we’re a decade past the millennium. Whether the movies have anything to do with them or not.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Some People Just Can't Lie

The nights seem to get later and later as I find myself drifting off into my own personal film noir. What am I going to do now? What’s going to happen? Should I call that girl? Will I wind up staying up later as I wonder if I should eventually call that girl? Actually, I have a feeling that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Probably just the right thing for my current mindset, the American Cinematheque’s annual Film Noir Festival at the Egyptian is happening again and it really is one of the great things about living in this town. Those who program the series seem to go to every possible length to select films that have too often fallen through the cracks, so we’re not just shown the DOUBLE INDEMNITYs and MALTESE FALCONs that everyone already loves and knows by heart. Almost every single one of them turns out to be worth seeing, shown on what are more often than not beautiful 35mm prints, wonderful to see on the huge Egyptian screen. The crowds have been coming out too so it’s very nice to see the theater so filled up with people who are genuinely excited to see these films. The one strange thing about a few of the titles this year, pointed out to me by someone else, is how a surprising number of them have had endings which are, well, kind of happy. All well and good with some of them but do we really want a happy ending when it comes to film noir? Isn’t part of the point of them to remind you how futile all your dreams are, how screwed you are, how much you’re screwing yourself by falling for certain women? Isn’t that just the sort of thing I need to remember as I drift through those late night hours? Should I really try to imagine things might somehow be otherwise?

The occasional familiar face turns up at this festival as well, like how on opening night a year ago at one point I held a door open for Curtis Hanson. I was happy to do it and it was hard not to think about all the films he’s made that I could have mentioned, a few that probably make it clear how much of a fan he is of this particular genre, but as I usually do under these circumstances I left him alone. One which came to mind and certainly makes it seem like he’s studied these films was his 1990 thriller BAD INFLUENCE, a coolly effective neo-noir set in Los Angeles that seems to go as well with the era it was made in as your average late 40s mood piece goes right with that age. Featuring a pair of leads who are provocatively cast against type and, in addition to having a plot point which bore a strange similarity to something which had actually happened to one of those leads, is one of a number of thrillers the director made during this period that led to his critical and commercial triumphs such as L.A. CONFIDENTIAL later on. The film has never gotten all that much attention since it first played theaters but for anyone who hasn’t caught up with it until now it might be a nice surprise, playing as sly and dangerous with a refreshing amount of intelligence on hand as it does something a little different than you’d expect with what at first glance looks like it will be the usual plot turns.

Mild-mannered Los Angeles financial analyst Michael Boll (James Spader) seems to have his life all planned out for him with an impressive job and a wealthy fiancée but as he finds himself getting pushed around a little too much in both places in his life the pressure is beginning to get to him. Then one day as he nurses a beer sitting in a bar after a bad day at work he finds himself rescued from a possible pummeling by the sudden appearance of the mysterious Alex (Rob Lowe) to defend him. When the two happen to meet again Alex brings Michael into an after hours underground world of Los Angeles which leads to Michael being introduced to the gorgeous party girl Claire (Lisa Zane). This results in certain events that begin to change Michael’s life for the better but when Alex’s games begin to go a little too far and Michael tries to put a stop to it all Alex has a few unexpected plans of his own to keep his own idea of fun going.

Hey, did I ever mention that I was in Atlanta for the Democratic Convention in ’88? So I would like to take this opportunity to emphatically deny that I had anything to do with Rob Lowe being videotaped with those underage girls. I wasn’t around for that. To this day, Rob Lowe and I have never even met (I did spot certain other famous faces down there, but he wasn’t one of them) so you may as well stop asking. A video camera that gets used for similarly sleazy means turns up in the plot for BAD INFLUENCE as well, just a coincidence apparently, but since all that has probably been forgotten about by the world (many people probably aren’t even aware of the incident now) the distance of over twenty years helps the film stand on its own, which it does very well. What works for BAD INFLUENCE is how while its plot seems to have an array of influences from the world of film noir along with a little bit of Hitchcock—STRANGERS ON A TRAIN comes to mind, of course—it seems very impressive how much attention it pays to its characters and how much they affect the flow of the story all on their own. In spite of how there may be vague echoes of something like the 1951 Hitchcock classic in the dynamic of the two men it’s not in any way a knockoff of that film as much as it is a case of screenwriter David Koepp exploring what such a dynamic might be if placed into the modern world. It definitely makes for an intriguing portrayal of an underground Los Angeles circa 1990 and how one gains entry into such places, with some cool music heard during these scenes and even the well-cast bit players provide the right kind of seductive effect.

It’s not quite clear right away exactly where this film is going to go, being led by the shady character of Alex, and the plotting is such that things move so fast, with Michael getting quickly sucked into this secret nightlife quicker than he realizes, that we realize how much he’s in over his head about as fast as he does. With its plot developments coming from what the characters do as opposed to some fake McGuffin that gets whipped up to keep the plot wheels artificially spinning BAD INFLUENCE is free to play as an examination of relationships whether between men & women or men & men, set against the fears of not wanting to get trapped in a boring life but also realizing ones own limitations when confronted with just how far they want to take things. “Who are these people?” asks Spader at one point, with the simple answer turning out to be, “Just people.” Just people like him, as he soon realizes what exactly that means. The neo-noir trappings in this case focus mainly on the relationships between these men in a way that goes beyond simple definitions of homoeroticism with enough left unspoken between the two of them to keep things provocative as Michael, who speaks of how when he was a kid he always dreamed of getting off in the middle of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride so he could live there, finds himself attracted to what this kind of freedom can do for him in the light of day until, of course, he begins to realize what this can all lead to.

The women in the lives of these guys remain on the outskirts of things, but that doesn’t mean the movie isn’t sympathetic to them. There’s even what feels like a certain unspoken sensitivity to those women that is evident in Hanson’s direction, with a particular emphasis placed on various female halves of arguing couples seen throughout, having to deal with these crappy men in their lives. It’s almost surprising how the small bits of extra attention paid to Kathleen Wilhoite’s put-upon secretary pay off as she begins to like Michael less and less without ever knowing why. Playing Spader’s fiancée in an early role, Marcia Cross might be written in a mostly vapid fashion ready to be discarded when her plot function is done with but she comes off a little more sympathetic than that, with the actress playing her as kind of sweet even if she does seem to be approaching marriage as a business arrangement as much as anything. The story moves fast, maybe a little too fast for credibility at times but even if the plot isn’t totally original Hanson’s direction adds immeasurably to what feels like a fairly modest production and a full seven years before L.A. CONFIDENTIAL it’s already very clear how well he knows how to use the frame. And he knows how to keep the suspense going during the second hour, when things move into somewhat more expected thriller-type plotting—when one possibly expendable character is placed in jeopardy since it’s clear what Lowe’s character is capable of it adds that much more to the suspense. BAD INFLUENCE is a modest piece of work that maybe I shouldn’t lavish too much praise on but it winds up working so well the whole way through that I honestly can’t think of very much bad to say about it. Maybe it’s caught me in the right frame of mind, but in a way that few such thrillers ever seem to do anymore, the film lays out its cards in a way that becomes more unexpected and dangerous as it goes on, leaving us with enough to chew on at the point when the credits roll.

The concept of the two leads playing the opposite roles you’d expect them to (at least, in 1990) may not be as much of a surprise now as it was then but the result still works so well that I can’t imagine it any other way. James Spader is introduced in the mens room at his office looking queasy and then proceeding to spend the next several scenes being bullied in one way or another but he’s so instantly likable that when he begins to assert himself about twenty minutes in we’re totally on his side. His control of the character continues throughout with one thing he does during a moment of extreme panic so totally unexpected that it winds up making both his performance and the entire film around him just much more human than usually seems to be allowed with this type of movie. Completely getting me to forget about Sam Seaborne or any other of his nice guy parts, Rob Lowe totally sells both how seductive his character is as well as the turn to the insidiously nasty. As Alex, he comes off as totally immature—that stupid French accent he puts on wouldn’t fool anyone but he seems to know that—and the flippancy works. He’s not a smooth bad guy in a 40s-50s noir but that type wouldn’t work here and the tone is played just right. Paired up against them, Lisa Zane really is kind of dynamite as Claire, the feckless party girl who gets involved with these guys. In relatively little screentime Zane comes off as so disarming in everything she does that it’s as if the actress just happened to wander into the frame and then the film just decided to roll with it. Why didn’t Lisa Zane become a big deal after this? She gorgeous, charming and has enough of an unpredictability to her very presence that we can’t even be sure what’s really going on with her at first. Among the generally strong cast, Kathleen Wilhoite does a lot with her minor role as Michael’s secretary and Christian Clemenson, who years later co-starred with Spader on BOSTON LEGAL, does very strong work as Michael’s brother, a former drug addict who may be the only one he can depend on--when Clemenson tells Spader during a moment of panic he can’t promise what he’ll do if something is found out I just love the way his voice rises slightly. Among the intriguing faces who briefly appear during the party sequences is apparently David Duchovny, credited as “Club Goer” but (assuming I’ve correctly spotted him) he appears so briefly that he’s basically an extra. Still, it’s intriguing to imagine how if it had been made several years later that Duchovny, maybe playing Spader’s role, would have been perfect in the cool vibe the film projects.

For Curtis Hanson, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL eventually marked the dividing line where he moved away from noir towards more character-oriented dramas but unfortunately the various types of films he’s made throughout his career just aren’t getting made very much by studios nowadays—his last film was LUCKY YOU in 2007 and at this point he seems to be directing something at HBO. I’ve actually loved a few of his more recent films but I still kind of hope he’ll make another one as icily effective as BAD INFLUENCE someday. The world needs noir, even in 2011. Maybe especially in 2011. Keeping in mind what I wrote earlier about how several of the films at the current Cinematheque series happen to settle for an unfortunate ‘everything’s all right now’ ending it maybe says something about Hanson’s affinity for the genre that BAD INFLUENCE seems to hold back a little from that. Watching it this time, I couldn’t quite remember the resolution before it happened and I was impressed by how the film left a touch—if only a touch—of a correct sort of ambiguity to things. The final shot even provides some small hope to what’s going to happen in a way that doesn’t violate what’s came before and the unacknowledged gesture feels totally earned. Instead of going for some kind of lame feel-good coda, BAD INFLUENCE seems to know that what happens between people late at night in the middle of a dark city is often something you can’t forget about so easily when daylight finally hits. Which is just the way noir should be. And the way Los Angeles often is.