Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Attending That Hat Convention

When I saw that the American Cinematheque was holding a 20th anniversary screening of HUDSON HAWK at the Aero in Santa Monica with director Michael Lehmann and co-screenwriter Daniel Waters scheduled to attend I didn’t know how I was possibly going to make it. According to my own personal logic, that meant somehow I absolutely had to make it. Madness, I tell you, madness. Getting there isn’t an easy thing to do these days since I’m working in Burbank and that’s one hell of a drive to get through during rush hour, particularly on the day before Carmageddon was supposed to start, but regardless I felt like it had to be done. As I fought my way through that hellish rush hour traffic I just kept muttering to myself, “For the love of cinema, for the love of cinema…” This is my life and I made it with just a few minutes to spare. There were some other people who had also shown up but the Aero was not exactly packed, leading Waters to introduce the film by saying there were about as many people there as there were on opening night back in May 1991. For the record, I saw it opening afternoon. HUDSON HAWK turned into a legendary flop pretty quick and became the sort of punchline that seems to happen to such films but like a number of others that attain this status it’s really nowhere near as bad as most people seem to think. Granted, I may not exactly be a charter member of the cult that’s built up around the film (because, really, a cult always builds up around these things) enough of it really does make me laugh so everyone just calm down already. At this point in time we need to cue up “Swinging on a Star” (5:32) and take a look back at this thing. And please remember: My name is Mr. Peel. This is not a dream.

Master cat burglar Eddie “Hudson Hawk” Hawkins (Bruce Willis) has barely been out of jail five minutes when he is approached to rob an auction house. Hawk (other defining character traits: from Jersey, can give the correct running time of any song named) isn’t interested and wants nothing more than to drink a cappuccino but threats from the Mario Brothers soon change his mind and he heads off with best friend Tommy “Five-Tone” Messina (Danny Aiello) to do the job. But when they succeed not only is the parole officer who had Hawk pull the heist killed but the auction house is claming that the artifact, a statue designed by da Vinci, was never even stolen. So he sets off to investigate, leading to an encounter with a mysterious, beautiful art expert named Anna Baragli (Andie MacDowell), the ridiculously wealthy Darwin and Minerva Mayflower (Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard), CIA agent George Kaplan (James Coburn) and his henchpersons known as the Candy Bars. Soon Hawk is forced on a sudden trip to Rome where some of these people intend to force him to pull more jobs as the Mayflower’s ultimate plan begins to come into place.

And just after writing that paragraph I feel like I need to lie down for a while. With a plot that is described by a character at one point as “this Gates-Mario Brothers-CIA-Mayflower-da Vinci thing” as if to underline just how convoluted this all is, HUDSON HAWK is willfully absurd, ridiculously broad, has numerous elements that would baffle anyone, bizarre references to things never mentioned again, not to mention being the rare motion picture that offers James Coburn quoting Karen Carpenter. Surprisingly, no one ever breaks the fourth wall by addressing the camera but maybe they felt that would be gilding the lily somewhat. To say HUDSON HAWK is kind of messy is a little like saying that it has sound and color but while it feels somewhat undisciplined it’s hard not to think that what was once thought to be a signpost for all the over-the-top extravagance of Hollywood during the golden age of Joel Silver action extravaganzas it now looks downright quaint, not to mention being pretty funny on more than a few occasions with dialogue that I’ll be happy to quote until the end of time (“The last time you saw me I was bald, with a beard and no mustache, and I had a different nose”—I can’t explain why that makes me laugh, it just does). Plausibility is never the issue with this story and coherence really isn’t either, almost gleefully so, as if the movie is daring us to finally accept that there’s no way to take any of this seriously. After all, anything that happens for whatever reason is pretty impossible to track and it comes off as a spoof that simply never bothers to announced that it’s a spoof or at least what kind of spoof it is but it’s so willfully silly that it’s almost surprising to look back at just how enraged most of the reviews were at the time. They didn’t have anything else to get upset over?

It all plays a little like Bruce Willis decided he wanted to star in a lighthearted caper piece, Joel Silver pitched it to the studios as the sort of giant action film he was specializing in back in those days, then the HEATHERS team of Lehmann and Waters (official screen credits: Story by Bruce Willis and Robert Kraft, Screenplay by Steve E. de Souza and Daniel Waters) were brought in because of the heat off that earlier film. Somehow all these elements were combined and tossed into a giant, over-budgeted blender followed by the cameras rolling before anyone realized it. But I don’t mean all this as a bad thing and besides, any film that names a CIA agent George Kaplan deserves at least some credit. Tri-Star probably wanted a hard-edged Bruce Willis action film, but instead they got him and Danny Aiello falling off a tall building towards an awning…and in a NORTH BY NORTHWEST-type ellipsis the star lands in a chair in a completely different location allowing for the next scene to proceed. It’s a film where a Vatican Cardinal annoyingly exclaims, “We will not lie down for some schmuck from New Jersey.” It’s a film where the villain introduces himself by stating, “I’m the villain.” It’s a film where Andie MacDowell suddenly and without warning imitates the sound a dolphin makes and continues to do so for the duration of a scene. It’s a film where at one point you know that there’s no way a certain character can survive what’s just happened…and they do because, well, of course they do. It’s a film where for no reason we hear a few bored security guards mutter, “673 Wongs in the phone book.” “Hell of a lot of Wong numbers.” And if you can’t appreciate some small semblance of that then maybe just move on to the next Bruce Willis action movie like STRIKING DISTANCE or something.

“Subtlety’s not one of our strong points,” a mob goon played by Frank Stallone says to Hawk and the first thing that should probably be pointed out is that he’s played by Frank Stallone but that aside the line is pretty much indicative of the entire film as well. I suppose a person is either going to find all this funny or they won’t and I freely admit that more often than not I do, particularly when Sandra Bernhard keeps singing, “I’VE GOT THE POWER!” or when James Coburn says just about anything at all. HUDSON HAWK isn’t quite a favorite of mine like I suspect it is for some people—I don’t defend it to the death like ISHTAR for example—maybe because it feels like the movie is missing an integral piece that would let all this wackiness cohere somehow (I wonder if I can possibly sound even more pretentious to make this point) and in its own comic goals it’s never feels quite as sharp as HEATHERS which, in all fairness, is a completely different movie. But I’ll also admit that the film has aged pretty well maybe because what was once unavoidable to watch without the stigma of it serving as the height of all of Hollywood hubris (gee, people couldn’t have gotten upset at DIE HARD 2 for that sort of thing?) now plays as a silly, light, weird spoof with a wacky-sixties-extravaganza vibe with elements like a sound effect from Coburn’s FLINT films tossed in there. Maybe staying consistent with the mood of the lead character the film never seems all that impressed by the expensive-looking location photography in Rome and New York, instead having nothing more on its mind than whatever the next obscure reference is going to be, with a certain emphasis on ‘wacky’ sound effects to keep things incessantly moving to the next out-of-nowhere joke.

Granted, this is a production probably didn’t need the sort of scale which required closing down the Brooklyn Bridge for several nights to shoot an action scene (I remember that causing a ruckus in the New York press during the summer of ’90) but hey, I wasn’t stuck in traffic out there so what do I have to complain about? There are points like where Hawk makes his way through a toll booth while he’s on an incessantly moving hospital gurney and he does so pay paying the correct fare in an exact change lane and it’s hard not to admire how determined the movie is to keep moving at such a high-pitched rate (Lehmann studied the Jerry Lewis comedy THE DISORDERLY ORDERLY which also has a runaway gurney. Are you saying you don’t want your Bruce Willis action film to take inspiration from Frank Tashlin?). Speaking as someone who can list off film release dates from memory I can appreciate a hero with a similar affinity for songs lengths and I’ve long had a fondness for the big climactic kiss off line “You won’t be attending that hat convention in July,” which seems to encapsulate the film perfectly. On the one hand it’s totally valid in how it spoofs the random ridiculousness that such wisecracks become in these films, it’s very quotable and yet…why is the hat convention in July, anyway? Was that extra piece of information really necessary? When I saw Daniel Waters at the Trailers From Hell event I couldn’t help myself and asked him. He laughed. Of course, there was no answer and I suppose there’s no answer as to why the hell HUDSON HAWK is the way it is either. What, you need to know the reasons behind everything in life? Now excuse me while I have a cappuccino. Hey, this doesn’t taste like cappuccino…

The enjoyable, rambling Q&A with Lehmann and Waters followed, touching on how difficult the shoot was without going into too many nasty behind-the-scenes specifics. Bemoaning the ad campaign which tried to sell it as a standard Bruce Willis action film, they acknowledged the response the film received on release which has apparently led to both men apparently receiving “It’s NOT the worst film I’ve ever seen!”-level compliments for the past twenty years. The script originated from an idea Willis had for the character way back in the early 80s (The origin of the name Hudson Hawk as described during one scene seems to be left over from this concept) so the basic pitch at first was “Bruce Willis as cat burglar” leading to initial attempts by MOONLIGHTING writers Jeff Reno and Rob Osborn. There was a draft by Steven deSouza when Lehmann was initially attached which he described as more of a standard genre piece that he wanted to put a spin on, leading to bringing in Waters. One subject brought up during the talk was the fabled third robbery which was scripted and in the process of being prepared when Joel Silver announced that the sequence was being axed (For budget reasons or just trying to bring the length down? It wasn’t clear) and moved to Andie MacDowell’s apartment which is why the bad guys show up at one point after having already pulled the job—makes one wonder why they got Hawk to do all this in the first place but I suppose that would have been a bigger issue in a more serious film. The first cut screened for an audience ran two-and-a-half hours because Bruce wanted to test all the jokes they had (check out the deleted scenes on the DVD for a runner about Hawk’s pet monkey which was totally cut). The running time of course came down afterwards which may account for how some of the movie seems so choppy. I think this feel once bothered me more than it does now where it all seems to play as more absurdist than anything but Waters also bemoaned how there practically isn’t a normal straight line spoken in the entire film which I suppose could be considered either a good or bad thing depending on your own point of view. When asked about James Coburn, Lehmann mentioned how the actor totally got the joke of this being an update of the tone of the FLINT films and pretty much smiled through the whole thing although he would sometimes respond to what was going on with a baffled expression on his face. To which Waters replied, “Yeah, you know who else did that? Everybody.”

Also mentioned during the talk by Daniel Waters was how while the basic character Bruce Willis is playing here isn’t all that different from his MOONLIGHTING persona but after what happened with this film he never really attempted that again. I suppose it’s also going for some of the feel of the Hope-Crosby ROAD films with the star essentially playing himself, coasting through all this and never that concerned about much of anything even when he’s supposedly trying to save someone’s life. I do enjoy watching his own responses to the madness around him much of the time and he particularly plays well off Danny Aiello who is basically playing the Danny Aiello role he specialized in back when he was popping up in about half the films released. Even if they are maybe a shade too laid back at times their camaraderie seems totally natural and they definitely pick out some good songs to sing. Andie MacDowell was a last-minute replacement for Dutch actress Maruschka Detmers who pulled out due to a back injury but on the DVD audio commentary Lehmann mentions Isabella Rossellini was set for the part until scheduling issues forced a change and I wonder if she would have been a more intriguing fit in the part than MacDowell who is at least game, I’ll say that. James Coburn, baffled as he may have been, seems to dig into what was probably his largest role in years with total glee. “I have always had a soft spot for Rome. I did my first bare-handed strangulation here,” he says at one point, proudly displaying all those teeth of his and I only wish we could get to hear even more such fantastic dialogue come out of his mouth. Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard as the Mayflowers each begin their first scene completely over the top…then somehow keep finding ways to keep going further. Bernhard is particularly good and as far as I’m concerned the way she uses her own massive lips when in giant close-up is more effective than any kind of 3D could ever be. As the candy bars, Lorraine Toussaint has an unusual intensity as Almond Joy which only adds to the bizarre tone, Andrew Bynarski gets the film’s one rape joke (wow, I forgot that was in there) as Butterfinger and David Caruso is the totally silent Kit Kat, a joke that plays even stranger now than it did then, if that’s even possible. Don Harvey, also a bad guy in DIE HARD 2, is Snickers and watching the film at the Aero I couldn’t help but think how his casting makes it play like some kind of weird melding of that film’s ‘normal’ universe with this one. That may be a stretch but, hey, it’s HUDSON HAWK, so these connections should be allowed. And oh yeah, in case you forgot, Frank Stallone is in it too and he’s pretty funny as one of the Mario Brothers. Yes, the Mario Brothers and thanks for coming, try the veal!

Fitting for a film released by Tri-Star, Hawk is also knocked unconscious by a giant white Pegasus statue at one point which seems to say something about what ultimately happened with the film. And come to think of it, Bruce Willis does sort of acknowledge the camera in the final shot so they get that in too and I almost wonder if his smirk at that moment had as much to do with some of the critical response as anything. It may have been a vanity project for its star but not only does it get me to laugh more than a few times, looking at it now twenty years later I find myself admiring how much the film seems willing to fall off the tightrope it spends much of its running time dangling from. Maybe the sheer size of the production caused those making it to lose track of certain pieces in order for it to come together but the madness HUDSON HAWK possesses is the sort that justifies driving across town in that rush hour traffic. After all, attempting to do so requires a certain amount of insanity as well. Something to remember when attending all future hat conventions. Especially the ones held in July.

"Good, Yogi."

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Dual Chip System

There’s no doubt about it, Joe Dante has been responsible for some of the best times I’ve ever had in movie theaters. And I’m not just talking about the films he’s actually directed, though those certainly count. But my first viewing of THE MOVIE ORGY at the New Beverly several years back was a type of ecstasy that still defies description and just recently at the Cinefamily here in L.A. I was privileged to attend a live Trailers From Hell presentation. Trailers From Hell, in case you don’t know, is a site run by Dante among others where various directors and screenwriters of note offer audio commentary over trailers to films ranging from all genres. It’s completely addictive and I’d rave about it even if they didn’t already link to my blog. The site released a DVD some time ago and the Cinefamily event was held to celebrate the recent release of Trailers From Hell Volume Two. Go buy a copy, you’ll be glad you did.

The event was hosted by Dante himself featuring several of the personalities from the site doing live commentary as trailers played, too many to list here but to name a few: legend Roger Corman was there to offer thoughts on his own MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and VON FICHTOFEN AND BROWN, Allison Anders earnestly spoke of her love for the Natalie Wood vehicle PENELOPE, ROBOCOP co-screenwriter Ed Neumeier made a convincing case for the importance of EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE in Clint Eastwood’s career, Allan Arkush revealed how he actually prefers the not-available English language version of Fellini’s 8 ½ (which he’s gotten to see thanks to Dante owning a 16mm print!), ED WOOD co-screenwriter Larry Karaszewski covered, of all things, the Allen-Rossi epic LAST OF THE SECRET AGENTS? and made the argument that there has never been a good film with a question mark in the title (I suppose MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT? is arguable). Screenwriter Daniel Waters hasn’t appeared on the site yet but he turned up to present a rejected trailer for HEATHERS which he of course wrote, while BATMAN screenwriter Sam Hamm was there to speak of his love for both PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET and SOME CAME RUNNING--anyone who considers Dean Martin removing his hat in that film’s final shot to be one of the reasons cinema exists is ok with me. Incidentally, Daniel Waters of course rewrote Hamm when he took over as screenwriter on BATMAN RETURNS and as it happened this occasion was the very first time the two men had ever met. Honestly, when I realized what I’d just seen I felt like I was witnessing a piece of Hollywood history. Larry Cohen was also there to do commentary for two trailers sprung on him as a surprise (they turned out to be an Orson Welles pairing of TOUCH OF EVIL and LADY FROM SHANGHAI, which as it turns out Cohen actually doesn’t like!) but maybe the rarest sight of the entire evening was when Joe Dante introduced a brief piece of film, a never-before-seen piece of test footage for an unmade CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON remake from around ’81 showing the Gill Man skulking around Bronson Canyon. Edgar Wright who has also appeared on the site (and is one of the very best commenters--check out what he has to say about THE BLACK HOLE for example) was there in the audience, maybe making him no doubt the one person to attend both this event and the meeting with the visiting Royals in Santa Barbara that weekend. Come to think of it, he may also be the only person to both attend that event and speak with me during those few days although I doubt he finds that very impressive. So I'll be impressed by it--hey, I was talking to Edgar Wright, you think that's not a complete thrill for me?--and as far I’m concerned this event was just a little cooler anyway.

So thanks to Trailers From Hell for getting me into the event and for Joe Dante and Cinefamily for putting together such an amazing evening (site producer Elizabeth Stanley is clearly a key part of it all, so thanks to her as well). And there was also the director’s appearance the previous week at the Egyptian for, of all things, a double bill of JAWS and his own film PIRANHA. He was there to introduce not only his half of the night but also his own personal print and was maybe slightly apologetic about it as well, considering it had to follow JAWS, after all. I enjoy PIRANHA as a late 70s goof and I’m particularly impressed with how Dante handled its multiple locations and sheer amount of elements going on which definitely feels of a larger scale than many other Corman productions from the period. There’s also how hypnotized I get by some of those glares given by evil scientist Barbara Steele as well as how surprising some of the post-Vietnam anti-military slant courtesy of Dante, Corman and screenwriter John Sayles plays today, making me somewhat nostalgic for a time when filmmakers were able to slip such anti-establishment messages into their monster movies because, at that point in time, who was paying attention?

The JAWS/PIRANHA night was actually over Fourth of July weekend, a perfect time for such a double bill, and it was a reminder that once upon a time in 1987 there was in fact a brand new Joe Dante film that was one of the big new releases on that weekend. Of course, that was twenty-four years ago now and maybe Dante himself doesn’t want to be reminded of how that turned out. INNERSPACE might be a better film than Dante’s fondly remembered EXPLORERS from 1985 but one thing the two films unfortunately had in common was a lackluster ad campaign with a poster that, instead of spotlighting the stars of this bright, character-driven sci-fi comedy, featured what seemed to be a thumb and maybe nobody could figure out what else. Coming from the Spielberg factory of Amblin Entertainment it’s a film which feels like it was designed to be a big commercial hit in the BACK TO THE FUTURE vein but it never got there partly due to that faulty ad campaign and partly due to how maybe its director’s style didn’t necessarily translate into mass appeal the way Robert Zemeckis was able to do. Having said that, I probably don’t need to get across how much I wish we lived in a world where the masses loved Dante as much as I do. In some ways it almost pays more attention to story and plot than any other film Dante has ever made and maybe because of this it falls somewhat short of some of his best work. It is still extremely enjoyable through its running time and though it maybe gets a little too busy storywise most of it works extremely well as an example of a genuinely fun summer movie that they made in the eighties and, well, I guess they don’t make anymore. That doesn’t mean it’s the way it should be. And maybe that night of Trailers From Hell was a reminder of that kind of feeling.

Washed up and drunken naval aviator Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid) is selected to take part in a secret miniaturization experiment, which will involve him getting shrunk down to microscopic size in an experimental pod and injected into the bloodstream of a rabbit. But the ramshackle lab is attacked by a rival lab and when the head scientist’s attempt to escape when the syringe Tuck can be found in goes very wrong he winds up injected into hypochondriac supermarket clerk Jack Putter (Martin Short) who is just about to go on a vacation in a desperate attempt to find some relaxation. But the assault on the lab resulted in the chip needed to reenlarge Tuck was stolen and Tuck uses the technology at his disposal to talk to Jack and enlist him, as well as his own ex Lydia (Meg Ryan) who stormed out on him three months before, to get the chip back from the bad guys headed by the villainous Victor Scrimshaw (Kevin McCarthy) before his oxygen supply runs out the next morning.

Just as he did with GREMLINS, Dante kicks off the film with the old Max Steiner fanfare over the Warner Bros. shield as if to state right off the back that this is going to be a movie-movie, an entertainment designed to take full advantage of all its possibilities of showing off his own kind of comic anarchy and Dante seems to love placing all of his actors, lead and supporting, right in his camera to take advantage of what they can do like few other directors. What’s interesting is that, at close to two hours, INNERSPACE is not only the longest film Dante has ever made, as it turned out it’s the most plot-intensive of his work as well, with a script by Jeffrey Boam (a very good screenwriter with credits including THE DEAD ZONE and INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE who sadly passed away in 2000 at the age of 53) from a story by Boam and Chip Proser which cannily melds all these plot elements turning it into essentially the twisted Joe Dante version of a straight sci-fi/espionage picture. It’s tempting to make the argument that a sort of strict plot structure doesn’t display him at his best yet it’s very clear that he loves assembling these pieces together, dividing between the two distinct tones of Martin Short mayhem and Dennis Quaid observing him within the pod, managing to make it all flow together so it never feels like we’re cutting away to some guy in a soundstage somewhere. Maybe it’s the San Francisco setting or just understandable thoughts of FANTASTIC VOYAGE that spill through the brain while watching it but there’s a vague sixties-movie feel to it all the high-spirited comic funkiness and the way he continually moves his camera around keeps things continually active—if he’s setting a scene in a shopping mall or supermarket he’s going to stuff that location with balloons and whatever else he can find to fill the frame, which includes a STRANGERS ON A TRAIN reference that feels like it absolutely has to be there. And the Oscar-winning special effects—that’s right, a Joe Dante film once won an Oscar! This needs to be remembered—by Dennis Muren and others at ILM are not only remarkable but extremely well-integrated into the non-stop flow of the story (much of this effects work is actually in-camera—this would all of course be handled differently now but it’s hard to imagine it done any better), going perfectly with some of the chase scenes particularly Tuck psyching Jack up to make an escape from the back of a speeding truck. Mention should be made of editor Kent Beyda’s work in relation to all this as well and things never feel like they’re screeching to display the effects at the expense of everything else. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is also key to pulling this off and while there isn’t a theme as memorable as his famous GREMLINS rag the yearning nature of its key themes provide much of the emotion and the more evocative moments during Tuck’s journey are just about as important in selling the environment as the effects are. In the middle of this packed-to-the-rafters combination of characters, effects and general Joe Dante tone the overriding goal of INNERSPACE looking at it now seems to be as a somewhat unknowing look at emerging technology with its taser guns, supermarket scanners and computer mechanisms, each of which seem to either never work right or seem to be a little too busy in what they’ve been designed to do. It plays as an uncertainty of what the future will hold and maybe a distrust of it all, though there’s no getting around hearing what Kevin McCarthy’s Victor Scrimshaw has to say in his “Space is a flop” speech which brings a suspicion that no good will ever come of all this. Maybe Dante was right on both points but it’s his suspicion of all this technology combined with the effortless way he combines it with his own style that really shows how good a director he can be.

He not only knows how to juggle a disparate array of tones in its combination of comedy and sci-fi elements but also an enormous amount of exposition to get through both in terms of Tuck’s mission before things go wrong as well as the specifics of getting the chip back. I wonder if the decision seems to have been made to partly punt and forgo explaining the specifics of Tuck’s mission in favor of telling the story visually so anyone watching the movie cold may not even know what’s going on right away. It may account for a certain distance to the narrative until Short is injected but it displays how much Dante wants to avoid having people just standing there explaining things. As deftly as he combines these elements it also reveals some of his own story limitations in terms of where his interests may have really been, with a few points slightly forgotten as the narrative looks for a place to come to a stop. I always kind of wind up losing track of Vernon Wells’ silent, one-armed Mr. Igoe when he gets shrunk down himself during the climax and it seems a mistake that such a character is given a prominent gimmick (reminiscent of Chuck Connors in 99 AND 44/100% DEAD) which he is then robbed of. It also seems strange that when Jack has to get out of the Vectorscope lab to help Tuck his own—which makes sense in the plot—we’ve just heard a few supporting characters willing to give up Tuck for dead yet when the finale comes they’re smiling just like everyone with all antagonism forgotten--actors Harold Sylvester and Mark L. Taylor are fine in the parts, but Dante never seems all that interested in them beyond serving as plot functions. Tuck Pendleton is also one of those occasional movie alcoholics who (presumably) hasn’t decided to quit drinking when the credits roll so his own predicament which was established at the beginning feels like it doesn’t really pay off. Maybe some of this reveals what Dante is really interested in and it may be what most people care about watching the film as well--when Jack gets confronted with the people in his life who he has to discard it has much more impact than any of the other plot threads involving the chips or whatever—there is something bittersweet in what happens with Short’s Jack Putter but the Chaplinesque nature of him winding up alone feels honest and the triumph in the “Jack Putter to the rescue!” declaration feels totally earned as a result.

On the DVD audio commentary Dante comments how the film was criticized for ending with what seems like a set up for a sequel---he doesn’t specify but I’m guessing the director is referring to what Janet Maslin said in The New York Times, where she basically makes this the centerpiece of her mixed review. Dante and the others on the commentary plead ignorance to this point yet regardless the final beat does in part feel like an attempt coming from studio notes to duplicate the “off onto the next adventure!” ending of BACK TO THE FUTURE a film which, incidentally, Maslin also reviewed on opening day but didn’t seem to have a similar problem with--I guess you could say Tuck helping Jack become a man has a slight resemblance to Marty McFly teaching his own father how to assert himself but whatever. I guess it could be said that storywise Joe Dante isn’t Robert Zemeckis (who is also a screenwriter, so it’s apples and oranges anyway) but since I feel conflicted as to how certain Robert Zemeckis films are aging I would never want him to be. Besides, I’d rather see a Joe Dante movie, one that pays just as much attention to its characters as it does to the groundbreaking effects, than a Robert Zemeckis mo-cap extravaganza made today anyway. Granted, when we get to Tuck somehow reshaping Jack’s face to look like Robert Picardo’s Cowboy in order to fool the bad guys things feel like they’re moving pretty far afield from what the original concept was and you can imagine a technical advisor standing there wondering, “What am I doing here again?” But considering how sharp and well-timed the entire scene that results from it is, containing the bizarre sight of Robert Picardo playing Martin Short playing Robert Picardo, it’s hard to imagine another filmmaker playing this in quite the same way—it really comes off as Joe Dante at his most free as a director as if he’s saying ‘why the hell not?’ to trying to pull off the patently absurd plot development. It gives one of his favorite actors a chance to somehow play the lead in the movie for a few minutes and is maybe one of the very best examples of how he can get finely attuned comic rhythms from actors he clearly loves seeing work together. It’s gives the film a kind of comic madness and while that may not be the sort of thing that summer blockbusters are always made of I wouldn’t want it any other way. At its very best INNERSPACE really is a Joe Dante film. And that’s what it should be.

Looked at as a twisted kind of Martin & Lewis movie (and if only those guys had ever gotten a script this good way back then—Dante seems such a kindred spirit to Frank Tashlin that he would have been just as ideal to make that version too) the two leads Dante put together in those roles fit perfectly. Dennis Quaid is perfect movie star casting for the part and makes Tuck Pendelton so vivid that it’s easy to forget he spends most of his screen time by himself. Looking at Martin Short in this film now, in what I guess was a role that was supposed to make him a huge star, it’s kind of a surprise to see him playing a relatively normal guy. As a performer Short seems to love having a tongue depressor placed in his mouth like few others with comic timing that is always impeccable. Clearly he relishes getting to scream in terror as if he was a Looney Tunes character, so he’s perfect for Dante and he totally pulls off the more sincere moments as well. Meg Ryan, not yet a big name and still possessing some of that raw cuteness she also had in the previous year’s ARMED AND DANGEROUS opposite Eugene Levy (like Short, an SCTV alum) pops off the screen with a new kind of energy when she finally gets involved and she seems tailor-made for the role of ‘spunky reporter’ as if she was right out of the 30s (I guess this is where Quaid and Ryan met, right?).

The legendary Kevin McCarthy as Victor Scrimshaw creates a hysterically lunatic blend of white-suited insanity tossed with a hint of genuine danger, clearly relishing the chance to dig into this great part he has. Fiona Lewis of STRANGE BEHAVIOR and DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN as Dr. Margaret Canker is the sort of dragon lady who turns up in occasionally Dante films, sort of a middle ground between Barbara Steele in PIRANHA and Haviland Morris in GREMLINS 2, playing each scene as if she’s thinking dirty thoughts every moment of every day and loving it. And while this may not quite be my favorite film of his (what can I say, I have an undying love for GREMLINS 2) it’s possible that on no other occasion did he provide such good roles for those who essentially make up his rep company and an entire piece could be written on just the supporting cast—in addition to McCarthy there’s Henry Gibson as supermarket manager Mr. Wormwood (“You've got a great future in front of you in Retail Food marketing”), Robert Picardo as the Cowboy (and, of course, Jack Putter for a few scenes), Wendy Schaal as supermarket coworker Wendy, William Schallert as Dr. Greenbush (“Demons talk through you, not to you.”) Archie Hahn as a suspicious messenger, Kathleen Freeman as a frightening lady in the supermarket and Kenneth Tobey, given a one line part which is generally acknowledged as getting just about the biggest line in the film (if you’ve seen it, you know what it is. If you haven’t, no point in my spoiling it). John Hora, often Dante’s cinematographer, has a sizable key role as Dr. Ozzie Wexler, Orson Bean is the frazzled newspaper editor and Dick Miller makes his required-by-law Dante film appearance as a cab driver. He gets a laugh too.

The night at Cinefamily wore down with a very bizarre trivia contest involving questions that seemed designed to be impossible for even the most hardened film geek, of which there were quite a few in the crowd. I won twice. I’m not proud. One of the prizes was, of all things, the CD for Jerry Goldsmith’s score to INNERSPACE which I’ve had on quite a bit while writing this and just hearing the crescendo of the final track always makes me smile. Which I guess ties all this together, even though it really doesn’t, but it was nice to be handed that disc by Dante himself. As nice as he always is to me about this blog I still feel a little shy around him maybe because I never quite know how to express all the appreciation I have. I felt that way when I first saw INNERSPACE and now I have it again since thanks to him a bunch of die hard film buffs, some of which happened to be more well-known than others, got to have fun together in Hollywood on a Sunday night because of this website that he created create. Which I guess means that whether I want to admit it or not technological advancements can sometimes be a very good thing.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Unless One Can Set Up The Target

It’s safe to say that I’ve probably seen ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE way too many times by now. I’m not sure when it all started but at a certain point in my life I began to feel particularly attracted to this rogue entry, the one to star George Lazenby in his only performance as James Bond, and as time has gone on my feelings for it have only deepened. At first it was due to the certain interest that I’ve long had in Diana Rigg—well, you have noticed the title of this blog, haven’t you? But as time has gone on the dislike for the movie in the mainstream has made less and less sense to me. Yes, I wasn’t around in ’69 to get a feel for how both the film and its star were received at the time which led to Lazenby’s name becoming a sort of catch-all punchline. And, for the record, yes, I love Sean Connery in the role as much as anyone and it’s safe to say that until Daniel Craig turned up as far as the world was concerned he truly was James Bond. But would this particular film have been better with Connery in the lead? Tough to say. For one thing, it’s generally well known by now that the star was fed up with everything surrounding the role by the time of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, the previous film in the series. Really, you can’t expect a guy who doesn’t want to act to act and you definitely can’t just assume he’ll invest himself in the material if he doesn’t have the interest. The development of SPECTRE and Blofeld as the primary antagonist to Bond probably could have been developed more carefully over the course of the sixties to allow things to deliberately build to the point where it made story sense for the first meeting between Bond and the heretofore unseen villain to take place. As it is, the epic scale of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE always feels a little tossed away to me at times—the location footage of Japan is beautiful, that giant volcano set is jaw-dropping and John Barry’s lyrical score captures every ounce of this beauty needed but the way scenes are photographed feels kind of random and the character of Bond is so incidental to everything that happens, more so than ever before, that you can understand the actor being unable to stay engaged. ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE is of course all about the character of James Bond and what sort of person he becomes due to what he does so its impressive fidelity to the original Ian Fleming novel, something that means there are no major action scenes to speak of for well over an hour of screen time, seems flat out radical now.

Considering how much has been written on it already whatever I offer can’t be the definitive look at the film. It can’t even be my own definitive look at the film, just what it means to me right now at this point in my life. I’m not even sure how many times I’ve seen the film over the years. On my birthday in ’98 it actually played at the Nuart in L.A. on a double bill with THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU (that other pairing of the famous romantic team of Telly Savalas and Diana Rigg) and I was there. Right around Christmas ’01, not one of my favorite periods, I sat down to watch it one night thinking it would be appropriate for the season. Seeing it right then struck me in such a way that I wound up watching the entire thing again several nights later from start to finish. Ever since, I’ve made it kind of a tradition to watch the film on Christmas Eve, or as close to it as I was able to. We’re far away from that date but it was close enough to my birthday that when it was announced that it would be showing at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood with none other than George Lazenby himself in person after the movie, I knew I had to be there. It wasn’t easy—my day went later than expected and I had to fight the traffic from Burbank but once I cleared the hill everything seemed to go perfect and five minutes before the lights went down I was in a seat, ready to see this film I had seen many times before. And I still loved it almost more than I expected to. I can’t make any kind of grand statement like it’s the best James Bond film because I’m very aware how much individuals react to this series, each person in their own way because of their own experiences, because of how they first encountered the films when they were young. But, by now, it is my favorite. I have my reasons. For me, much of it is exactly what I want these films to be.

While off in Portugal, presumably on the trail of Blofeld and staying out of the watchful eye of Universal Exports, James Bond (George Lazenby) encounters a beautiful woman (Diana Rigg) on a beach who may be trying to kill herself. He prevents this but out of nowhere several men attack him. He defeats them and the girl gets away but he soon encounters her again, learning that she is the notorious Countess Teresa di Vicenzo, or simply Tracy as she likes to be called. After spending the night with her Bond is abducted but the reasons are more benign than he first thought and he is brought to Tracy’s father who turns out to be crimelord Marc Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti) who offers Bond a dowry of one million pounds if he will marry his daughter and take care of her. Bond, no surprise, is more interested in the whereabouts of Blofeld and Draco seems willing to help with certain conditions, but when Bond returns to London he is informed by M that he is being removed from the case. Bond makes a stab at resigning but the interference of Miss Moneypenny turns it into a leave of absence. He takes off, interested in what Draco can tell him, but his relationship with Tracy begins to deepen at the same time. He makes his way back into active duty with information on a mysterious individual (Telly Savalas) attempting to claim the title 'Comte Balthazar de Bleuchamp' from the College of Arms. Suspecting this may be none other than Blofeld himself, Bond arranges to impersonate one of their genealogists in the guise of investigating his claim but as Bond travels to meet the man in question (Telly Savalas) at an allergy research clinic high up in the Alps, getting closer to the truth he places himself in greater danger and there may be only one person to help him get away. It all leads to one of the most unexpectedly romantic gestures ever seen in a James Bond film, culminating in an ending where…well, if you haven’t seen it yet, I probably shouldn’t say anything.

It’s always seemed obvious to me that those in charge inserted an opening scene involving familiar characters “M”, “Q” and Miss Moneypenny as if to assure people that even with Connery gone this was still very much a James Bond film set in the world everyone was familiar with, not Matt Helm, not Derek Flint and certainly not some kind of cheapjack offshoot like OPERATION KID BROTHER which starred Connery’s brother Neil and actually featured a few of these familiar faces from the official Fleming series in sizable roles. And, really, there’s no way to reconcile how Bond and Blofeld already met in the previous entry but don’t recognize each other here for the sake of continuity—this wasn’t a problem in the book since the order they came in was different so maybe we should just accept this entry as a proper Ian Fleming adaptation (screenplay by Richard Maibaum, with “additional dialogue” by Simon Raven), orbiting the other films all by itself, no matter how many ways it connects with everything otherwise. But once we’ve past the ‘never happened to the other fella’ in joke we hit that opening title sequence with that it becomes its own film unlike anything else in the series, even with that sequence moving back through the hourglass of highlights of what has been seen before. From the deadly-serious-yet-ultra-cool feel to the John Barry theme (not a song) that I could listen to endlessly there’s a decidedly different feel to this entry through every scene with an opening section in that luxury casino hotel in Portugal which displays it’s own kind of glamour with a baccarat sequence involving a batch of extras who seem cast not because they’re glamorous but that they seem interesting, something I was put to mind of when observing the fellow poker players in the ’06 CASINO ROYALE, all very much a pulp fantasy world actually populated by adults. When Bond and Tracy face off with each other in his hotel room, as he grabs her wrist holding that pistol on him, the scene is played in electric fashion between the two but when things calm down momentarily and Lazenby tries to be open with her there’s a gentleness seen in the manner of how the actor plays things, a quality almost never seen in the character before or since. There’s a similar feeling later on when he beds Angela Scoular’s Ruby Bartlett at Piz Gloria--Lazenby actually seems interested in her, whereas it’s easy to imagine Connery playing it as his Bond being annoyed by this girl from the English countryside with a downscale accent. Connery could have played the material if he had done the film, and we obviously know how good an actor he always was, but I almost wonder if he’d still be sort of lording over the Countess who insists on being called Tracy (it’s still one of the great tragedies that Connery and Rigg never played opposite each other, in Bond or otherwise). Lazenby, faced with the one and only Mrs. Emma Peel, seems open to being on the same level with her as an equal—it’s as if this revelation is what makes him fall in love with her once and for all—and maybe there’s something about how the movie yearns for this to take place is one of those things that attracts me to OHMSS as much as anything.

But since I brought it up, why do I have such an interest in this particular James Bond film? I can watch any movie from the series anytime, anywhere, no matter which one it is. There’s just something special about this one that has to be a combination of elements coming into place or maybe it was the right people working on the right kind of material, inspired by the chance to make this one something special. For what the series was presumably aspiring to at its best, its biggest, it’s most epic, all of the elements seem right here, even down to what plays as flat-out weird on context, like the allergy clinic’s treatment of one patient with a certain fear of chickens. Making his directorial debut after serving as editor (as well as a key creative force) on the films in the series up to this point, Peter Hunt approaches every single scene in a genuinely cinematic way, utilizing the frame and everything that happens within it as much as possible along with an attention to color in Michael Reed’s cinematography, particularly the recurring use of purple which add to the particularly sumptuous feel that completely pops off the screen in 35mm. Hunt really does seem intent on bringing everything he’s learned about filmmaking up to that point to the table as well as his own take on the Bond universe (there are nods to Bond lore in general, such as learning how the motto on the Bond family crest is indeed “The World Is Not Enough”). Maybe there’s a case to be made that a director of a James Bond film should have an interest in those aspects of that world and approach those elements with a modicum of seriousness, as if he’s examining his own fantasy of the world being like this. Peter Hunt did. Terence Young, responsible for more of the cinematic version of the character than has ever been fully appreciated, did. John Glen did (Glen, this film’s editor and second unit director, brought a similar seriousness when he made his directorial debut with FOR YOUR EYES ONLY but not the same degree of style). I can believe Martin Campbell did in making CASINO ROYALE. Guy Hamilton and Lewis Gilbert, I’m not so sure about which may be why I never respond to their films the way some people do. Somebody like QUANTUM OF SOLACE director Marc Forster seemed to approach it all as little more than a glum action movie that had to continually race forward to the next scene with not very much interest in those elements which I’m still convinced seriously damaged that film.

Hunt’s work here is so striking, so confident that if you look at the style of THUNDERBALL and YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, the two previous films in the series, it’s almost as if by a certain point the directors (Terence Young and Lewis Gilbert, neither one of which were hacks) just gave up on lending any sort of style to productions of this magnitude, resorting to standard, uninspired coverage and mass amounts of footage shot by the second unit. In contrast, Hunt always seems to know where to put his camera to keep scenes active whether framing the most intimate scenes between Bond and Tracy or the journey via helicopter to Piz Gloria in which we stay with him the entire time, viewing the travelogue footage of the various nearby ski resorts from his perspective. And the editor-turned-director also displays his skill in assembling sequences like the Hitchcockian suspense of the sequence in the lawyer Gumbold’s office—I’ve always been impressed by the rising tension in John Barry’s score here and like much of Barry’s work the composition is based on repeating one musical phrase over and over again. The score affects our own feeling of tension as Gumbold begins to return and how that is undercut by Lazenby forcefully but unhurriedly tossing that photocopier into the waiting container, as if the movie was worried for him but Bond isn’t worried at all. The way the music elevates this scene has always stood out to me but, really, Barry’s entire score is phenomenal, one of the very best achievements of the late composer’s career, Bond or otherwise. There’s a true sense of—pardon the word—majesty to what Barry accomplishes here, a genuinely epic feel as if for once he was inspired by what the film actually was as opposed to what it was supposed to be based on whatever the title song said it was. Forgoing any lyrics under the opening credits couldn’t be more rousing, “We Have All The Time in The World” is heartbreakingly beautiful whether in its instrumental version or sung by Louis Armstrong with lyrics by Hal David. Also appearing in the score during the Piz Gloria section in an intriguing fashion the source track “Do you Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?” is credited as sung by “Nina” who is actually Nina van Pallandt, later of THE LONG GOODBYE. Some of my favorite films always seem to meld with each other somehow.

A valid complaint might be that Bond is up on that mountaintop investigating Blofeld for too long a stretch at the expense of any action, not to mention how much of a mistake it is to keep Diana Rigg offscreen for such a lengthy amount of time, but I just love luxuriating in the vibe exuded from that location unlike any you ever see in a movie. The way it evokes its own jet-set style with the scenes at Piz Gloria, one of those locations I always dream of visiting in real life and even the oddity of these beautiful girls there for reasons that aren’t clear right away provides just enough off-kilter strangeness to keep the mystery going. And when the action finally comes it really is astounding to watch, particularly on that huge Egyptian screen, with Bond’s nighttime escape from Piz Gloria reminding me how evocative day-for-night can look when done in a certain way. The nighttime car chase with Tracy at the wheel is rousing in its excitement and the daytime ski pursuit moves from unbelievably romantic to thrilling all within moments. It’s also a true example of being left wanting more—storywise I suppose the chase doesn’t need to be longer but it’s still so unspeakably beautiful and thrilling all at once that I always wish we cold get a few more moments of those helicopter shots combined with that John Barry score. I can think of few other action films that ever reach such a level for me. You never know how certain films are going to play at the Egyptian and a fair amount of people did in fact raise their hands when asked during introductions if they hadn’t seen the film. But it seemed to play for the packed house, with the audience laughing at all the right places and during the final moment of the film….well, you could hear a pin drop. That’s all I really know. And, yes, it me as hard as it always does and once again I cried. I guess I always will. I love this film like few others.

And just seconds after that silence at the end George Lazenby himself appeared and was greeted with a standing ovation from the packed Egyptian Theatre. We were warned ahead of time that his talk with Bond expert Steven Jay Rubin might be hampered due to a sore throat and though his hoarse voice was apparent that didn’t seem to stop him one bit during the enjoyable, lengthy discussion. Simply put, George Lazenby seems like a man who has proudly spent his life drinking, fighting and screwing and the full transcript of the talk only gives a taste of what he was like. He wasted no time in telling some of these stories like his relationship with Diana Rigg during production (“Diana and I would have been good friends except she wanted a deal where I don’t muck around with any of the other girls. And I couldn’t keep it.”) as well as his claim that after a falling out on the first day of filming which he won’t discuss Peter Hunt never spoke to him again. He also discussed his reasons for not continuing in the role which, whether it’s the full story or not, he basically pins on himself. And that’s really just the tip of it all. I’m sure he’s told many of these stories before but it was a joy to hear it from this too often unjustly maligned star of this film.

Much of what’s said about Lazenby’s performance is how he comes off as a more human Bond and this is ultimately very true. He manages to seem human and vulnerable while also projecting his physical strength and it shouldn’t be ignored just how fantastic he comes off in the fight scenes as well, displaying a total ruthlessness at times. Yes, the occasional one-liners really aren’t his best moments but by the end he turns this performance into a look at this character which remains unique, valid and could have been built on if he had gone on to play it in other films. Matched up against him, if I haven’t made it clear just how jaw-droppingly amazing in this role I think Diana Rigg is here I’ll say it again. Whether projecting her uncaring manner at the start with utmost coolness (the deliberately flat reading of “You’re hurting me” says so much) or the complete turnaround from that evident in her behavior later in the film, beautifully shown in that tilt up to her smiling face which I’ve written about before, one of those moments which remind me there are good things in this world. She's spellbinding here. Telly Savalas, holding his cigarettes (and, I suspect, pouring champagne) the way he does in all the other films he was making around this time, oozes this wealthy trashiness unlike any other Bond villain—certainly different from the likes of Donald Pleasance and Dr. Evil—and he does a dynamic job, continually adding a slight layer of menace to even casual conversation. Gabriele Ferzetti (dubbed by David de Keyser) as Draco and Ilse Steppat (who died just days after the film was released) as Irma Bunt offer intense support while Hunt gives both Bernard Lee as “M” and Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny slightly stronger moments than they sometimes get although Desmond Llewelyn’s appearance as “Q” is pretty quick this time. Angela Scoular is a memorable delight as Ruby Bartlett (“Number 8”), Joanna Lumley and THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER’s Catherine Schell are a few of the other allergy clinic patients and George Baker as Sir Hilary Bray also dubs Lazenby as that character during the Piz Gloria segment, which always seems an odd choice but the mood the film already captures is so strong that it never seems damaging. Or maybe I’ve just gotten used to it by now.

I watch the final scene with a haunting sound of a blowing wind mixed onto the soundtrack and I wonder, does the place where the final scene was filmed still exist? It has to, right? Do people make pilgrimages there? Is there a plaque on the site marking its importance? The response to ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE not only led to Sean Connery returning to the part for one more official go-round but also to a much lighter approach courtesy of GOLDFINGER director Guy Hamilton meant to recall that films heightened larger-than-life tone, ultimately leading to where the series went during the Roger Moore 70s. But since OHMSS isn’t held captive to the context of its release or occasional airings on the ABC Sunday Night At The Movies anymore, hopefully its growing reputation has come from people seeking it out on their own, who grew up in a world where multiple actors known as James Bond isn’t such a strange concept and are open to what surprises can be found in some of them. Sure, I love some James Bond films more than others but I’ll gladly sit through any of them at a moment’s notice. This is just one James Bond film where its world isn’t presented as flimsy camp or transparent spectacle. Instead it means every bit of pulp in there that I can feel down to my bones, which may partly be some kind of Euro jetset 60s fantasy for me, partly a Diana Rigg fantasy and just an overall response to what this approach manages to achieve. And I look forward to continually returning to it through the years, on future Christmas Eves, on future birthdays, bringing me dreams of snowy wonderlands and Diana Rigg, a reminder how the love I have for this film is really the sort of love that adds to all my love of films. Maybe I’m going a little overboard on all this but I really do feel this way. “We Have All the Time In the World” is the name of its famous love theme, as well as being a phrase which comes direct from Ian Fleming’s original novel. I know that I really don’t and this was the sort of birthday that certainly made me aware of that. But sometimes what this film does is to remind me of just what that phrase really means, whether it’s about life, films, or that world I sometimes find myself residing in which falls somewhere in between. And it stays with me.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Every Temporary Measure Of Grace

The sound of Groucho Marx in ANIMAL CRACKERS singing “Hello, I Must Be Going” pokes through during the opening credits of Woody Allen’s WHATEVER WORKS and though the song’s title goes just right with the lead character we’re about to meet the tinniness of the distant audio also seems somehow fitting for a film which itself seems to be from a distant place, a place that few people ever respond to, where most of the recent films directed by Woody Allen seem to reside. Because of this there’s something extremely gratifying about the overwhelmingly positive response to Allen’s most recent film MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, at this writing likely to surpass even the $40 million gross of 1986’s HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, and I’ve honestly taken great pleasure hearing how much people seem to genuinely love this wonderful film, some of them even going back to see it multiple times. When I saw it on opening day I left the Arclight feeling as if I was walking on air and, if anything, my second viewing several weeks later put me in an even better mood. Actually, I hope it continues to play for a while in case I ever need to be cheered up that way again in the coming months. Allen’s previous film, the darkly cynical drama YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER, didn’t get much in the way of any support—I’ve actually heard wildly divergent responses from both ends of the spectrum and MIDNIGHT IN PARIS almost plays as some sort of rebuttal to himself, as if doing a complete 180 from the most bitter traces of that film to the unbridled optimism and vibrancy of this new one. The approach of magical realism the film takes is very much of a piece with some of his previous work and there are, as sometimes happens with him, also spare traces of dialogue that can be recognized from earlier films. Who knows why and how it happens sometimes but this one just seems to have clicked.

I admit it, I’m one of those die hard Woody fans who have faithfully gone to see each new film released as soon as possible and I have no problem admitting that this has actually been extremely rewarding at times to trace the continued evolution of this now-legendary director after most of the world has already written him off. In spite of the ‘meh’ response that has occurred more than a few times there are maybe only a few from the past decade that haven’t worked for me much at all but, in fairness, I even know people who have good things to say about those. And let me be clear, I go into every single Woody Allen film wanting to love it, hoping to once again get that rush you sometimes get from him at his very best. But here’s the thing, when it comes to Woody Allen films of recent vintage they fall into three categories— the ones I think do work and would recommend without hesitation (MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA), the ones that sadly don’t work (for me, HOLLYWOOD ENDING, CASSANDRA’S DREAM), and those that speaking as a Woody Allen fan I honestly admit that I like and get pleasure from but nevertheless have to bend over backwards considerably to try to defend them to anyone. These would include the likes of MELINDA AND MELINDA, ANYTHING ELSE, CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION…and, for me, WHATEVER WORKS. Starring the great Larry David in what can essentially be called the Woody-surrogate role I saw the film on my birthday during its opening weekend back in June ’09 and the bitter pleasures it offered were really all that I needed on that particular occasion. Like several of the films he’s directed as of late it’s hard not to read into the message being espoused as some kind of artistic summation of his entire world view and in that sense this one plays as kind of an old man’s movie without much of any real artistic pulse, which may actually be its biggest drawback. Some of it is a little too bitter and doesn’t seem to have much to do with the actual world, at least not the one that was going on outside of the theater in 2009. But at the same time the whole film is nimble enough, even within its own darkness, that it seems to go by in about twenty minutes and there’s something about the film’s own attempt at an acceptance of what the world is, and always will be, that has caused me to occasionally rewatch it over the past few years. And it was one of several films I found myself recently looking at again, what with my birthday coming around again and contemplating exactly what this particular birthday, one where I’m faced with the prospect of getting older more than usual, meant in the big picture. I don’t have an answer for that but somehow having this film nearby helped a little. And some of it genuinely makes me laugh even after multiple viewings, what can I say.

Boris Yelnikoff (Larry David) is a brilliant physicist and former Columbia professor who was once “almost” nominated for a Nobel Prize but after an unsuccessful suicide attempt left him with a limp he left his wife, moving downtown to “eke out a meager living” teaching chess and pontificating over the outrages of the world with his few friends. One night he arrives home to find the very young, very beautiful and somewhat dim Southern runaway Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) sleeping in his garbage outside and begging him for some food. Reluctantly he brings her in and as much as she instantly annoys him Boris lets her stay on the couch. After weeks pass, Melodie is still staying there. Though she gets a job walking dogs and begins dating as she continues to annoy him, Boris’ misanthropic influence begins to rub off on the Southern belle more than either of them thought possible and they are soon married, despite being decades apart in age. A year later, Melodie’s mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) shows up on their doorstep outraged over what has happened to her but she soon begins to become attracted to the new lifestyle of New York. But she has no intention of allowing the marriage to continue and that’s nothing compared to the interest Boris’s friends show in her or what will happen when John (Ed Begley, Jr.), Marietta's cheating husband and Melodie’s father shows up himself.

In 2005 Woody Allen was in Los Angeles doing publicity for MATCH POINT, appearing at a number of screenings presumably to grease the wheels for possible award consideration (this was all for naught as it turned out, though the picture turned out to be one of his biggest hits in years). It was a packed house at the DGA to see the film which would be followed by a Q&A and there were several familiar faces in the crowd—my friend and I were close enough to EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND creator Phil Rosenthal that we were able to hear him say, “Nobody’s more excited about this than me!” Jeff Garlin of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM was also nearby and before the film he stopped to talk with someone, presumably from the CURB crew, directly behind us and it was impossible not to listen to what was being said (You know, the old ‘between eavesdropping and couldn’t help but hear’ that Stuntman Mike referred to). Wondering if Woody might have ever seen the show, Garlin mentioned a mutual friend who had apparently once asked him if he knew who Larry David was to which Woody supposedly responded without hesitation, “Of course, I know who Larry David is, I used him in two movies.” True, of course, as Larry has small roles in RADIO DAYS and the OEDIPUS WRECKS segment of NEW YORK STORIES, a scene in which he and Woody actually share the screen. It’s kind of an amazing thing to see now and some of the Woody Allen jokes that occurred on SEINFELD (“These pretzels are making me thirsty.”) only adds to the amusement of the feature length team-up of WHATEVER WORKS even existing as well. The cinematic meeting of the two comic geniuses as director and star never really catches fire beyond a level of experimentation and simple overall pleasantness but maybe because both of them are set in what their basic comic personas ultimately are there’s no real way it could have. As it is, the film just sort of ambles along which maybe is good enough anyway.

The release of MATCH POINT in 2005 seemed to mark the beginning of what will probably ultimately be known as Allen’s European period so the return to his New York stomping grounds for WHATEVER WORKS may seem like something of a regression and this is kind of actually the case. Due to worries of a possible strike that would affect shooting schedules Woody dusted off an unfilmed script he had written for Zero Mostel back in the 70s and reworked it for present day, casting Larry David in the lead (well, he did sort of once play Max Bialystock). And it does seem like it was written for that earlier decade, even with any number of references inserted into dialogue to bring it up to date almost as if it were a revival of a play reworked by the original author to let it play in present times. Because of the distinctive Woody Allen tone much of it has a familiar sort of feel to it anyway but sometimes things are just a product of the era they were created in and there’s not much that can really be done about that. WHATEVER WORKS is slight and dated as well as being more of a short story or sketch put on film than anything else. It’s also considerably misanthropic so maybe a little too much of it just comes off as awfully sour, maybe more than might have been intended. When a friend of mine saw the film, he sent me an email recalling a famous line from ANNIE HALL which simply read, “And they all became left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers. The end.” Well, it’s funny because it’s true. WHATEVER WORKS isn’t really about much more than that in the end, although enough of it just sort of meanders along in pleasant, modest fashion.

The opening and closing monologues spoken by David direct to the camera, even acknowledging the audience watching the film, feel profound enough that they almost manage to make the movie more than it is no matter how familiar the gimmick is by now. I’d make the argument that there has been more experimentation in some of Woody Allen’s films in recent years than he’s gotten credit for but this wouldn’t be a prime example of that—almost more than usual, the camera just sort of stays put, observing things from a distance in a somewhat static, old-school style which on one hand feels right for the basic material and at other times it all just feels a touch stodgy, as closed off from the world as Boris himself is. Sometimes this works like the multiple scenes of just David and Wood playing off each other or the bar scene between Ed Begley, Jr and Christopher Evan Welch—watching that scene this time I not only found myself admiring the simplicity of it but also the willingness to have such a key scene near the end of the film involve two characters who had really just been introduced. In thinking about how the movie succeeds at some of those points it makes me admire it all the more and for that matter much of the camerawork by Harris Savides is quite lovely throughout in its simplicity, offering a particularly nice feel of spring.

WHATEVER WORKS certainly isn’t the best of Woody Allen from recent years, but maybe it doesn’t need to be perfect since it’s about someone who can’t stand things when they’re too perfect anyway—instead, he needs to find a way through his own obsessive-compulsive nature to accept how what is unexpected and ultimately imperfect, the things in life that don’t conform precisely to what he needs, can lead to a more fulfilling existence all around. As well as discovering that sometimes a cliché really is the best way to make ones point. It has the feel of a small scale chamber piece to the point that it’s as if we’re actually in Boris’s apartment watching these scenes being performed and there’s something comforting about it in a way that goes with the famous Groucho Marx song that opens the film, with the recurring lilting softness of “If I Could Be With You”, a piece of music performed by Jackie Gleason and his Orchestra which itself sounds like it’s desperately reaching out for some form of happiness and by this point the film comforts me in a way that watching an old Fred Astaire movie on TV does for Boris. It might be about finding what’s good in the world courtesy of Manhattan liberals and in doing so dismissing all beliefs of people from a certain part of the country as well as certain religions but taking such blatant jabs at things like the NRA doesn’t bother me anyway. Maybe some of it does seem a part of the past, but this never hurts the film to the point that it turns into total irrelevancy. In the end, maybe people can change and open their eyes to what can really happen in the world they occupy, as impossible as that may sometimes seem. And maybe that’s a good thing. Yes, it’s kind of an old man’s movie. Yes, I know plenty of fair weather Woody Allen fans out there who don’t have much use for this. What can I say. I know I’m in the minority and I’m not saying that anyone who loved MIDNIGHT IN PARIS should necessarily give this one a try. But it makes me laugh. It speaks to me somehow. When it comes to what I need from Woody Allen’s films sometimes, well, whatever works.

Larry David never seems quite as comfortable here as he does playing himself within the freedom of improvisation on CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM but he does infuse Boris with a certain nature that makes it almost impossible to imagine the part being played by Woody himself (which would probably come off like his lead role in DECONSTRUCTING HARRY). Say what you want about him seeming wooden or awkward at times at least he’s eager in approaching this part. When he has to confront his lengthy opening and closing monologues you can feel that he genuinely means what he’s saying as if these are thoughts that David himself has had through his own comedy every now and then. The earnestness of Evan Rachel Wood as Melodie totally works and you can feel her character’s subtle changes as she gets more attached to Boris, selling her devotion to him as much as just seeing the two of them in the same frame together, let alone married, seems totally ridiculous. Patricia Clarkson, little surprise, practically steals the film clearly having a great time as Marietta with her eager Southern way who almost instantly becomes more interested in certain worldly pursuits than she ever realized. Ed Begley, Jr. seems a little more unsure—I’m not sure I ever buy him in the role but then again there are moments like that extended take bar scene he plays with the very good Christopher Evan Welch as “Howard Cummings, née Kaminsky” where I just get pleasure out of these two actors working their way through this scene together. Conleth Hill has a relaxing Manhattan academic air as Boris’s friend Leo Brockman, Michael McKean is another one of Boris’s friends, the soon-to-be-Superman Henry Cavill is the young Randy Lee James with a definite interest in the married Melodie and the surprisingly empathic nature of Jessica Hecht as a woman Boris meets through unexpected circumstances feels totally appropriate to help wrap up the story in its final scenes.

And I think about where I am at this point in time, after this birthday which means a little more than other birthdays, a birthday that really does make me wonder where I’m going in life. Boris Yelnikoff bitches people out at every opportunity yet at the same time he kind of understands because, with everything around us in the world today, “it’s overwhelming.” I’m still trying to figure out how to balance these things out for myself. I mean, I have a lunch with someone, a phone conversation with them, we exchange text messages and it all leads me to examine whatever that relationship is and what it all means. Because what does it all mean. Unlike many other films that came out in 2009, WHATEVER WORKS gives me some pleasure and laughs but it also helps to tell me that the small things I can find that do actually work, even if they’re things I wind up worrying about anyway, are usually the things that matter the most. The things that can keep one going. Woody Allen films can be included in that. I think one of them even had him coming up with such a list. Maybe all the more affecting because for all we know it might even be the last film he ever makes in New York, WHATEVER WORKS will never be ranked anywhere near MANHATTAN (or ANNIE HALL or LOVE AND DEATH or THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO or …) but I like keeping it close by regardless as I continue to keep making my way down the street and wonder if I’ll ever be able to see the whole picture.

“You are not the gentleman I was expecting.”

“I'm sure not. I'm sure you'd be happier if she married the guy who caught the biggest catfish in Plaquemine County.”

“I'd be happier if she married the catfish.”