Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Dark Inside Ourselves

Some things in life are impossible to recreate. You come to a movie for the first time several years after it was first released and there might be some baggage, something about the film’s reputation that you’re automatically aware of. Seeing JAWS in a theater now can be wonderful but we’ll never be able to recreate the thrill of what it must have been like to see it brand-new in a packed theater back in 1975. But we can take that film by itself, discarding the later sequels if we so choose. With something like HALLOWEEN, it’s as if we don’t have that choice. Not in just how we can’t go back to the 70s to see it but the sequels, all of them, are largely where what we know of as the HALLOWEEN mythology really came from and those plot points are always going to be there in the back of our minds when we watch that original film. Whatever of John Carpenter’s classic 1978 original was meant to be a simple scary movie gets somehow lost in all that. Coming three years later, HALLOWEEN II is one of those sequels meant to begin immediately after the original as if the goal is to have both films play back-to-back and the conceit really does work about as well as it possibly could, even if there is an undeniable slickness to the sequel that indicates the bigger budget right from the start not to mention how the returning actors really do look a few years older. The thing is, as many who have seen HALLOWEEN II are aware, it’s nowhere near as effective as the original. Not as scary, not as potent. I doubt there was any way it could have been. Of course, I’ve still seen the movie plenty of times by now anyway and as much of a comedown it might be, as much of a cash grab as we all know it is deep down and even as puzzling as some of the story choices are, compared to plenty of other slasher movies made during the last thirty years HALLOWEEN II is flat-out elegant at times. Maybe that’s an odd thing to say about a movie where a beautiful topless girl is horrifically scalded to death but sometimes these things need to be pointed out and recognized.
On Halloween night, 1978 in Haddonfield, Illinois: Immediately after Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) has shot the escaped madman Michael Myers (Dick Warlock) six times while attacking Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) the doctor discovers that he has unaccountably escaped into the night. As the authorities are faced with who has been killed, Lauie is taken to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital and Loomis continues his search, not knowing that Michael is already on his way to the hospital to finish what he started. But soon enough Loomis learns the biggest secret of all about Michael Myers, one that reveals why he really came back to Haddonfield and why Laurie is the one he’s been focused on.
The decision to stick to the same night without any sort of time jump probably placed some limitations on where the story could possibly go. But there’s also a mood to the original film which remains primal even today in how the killer in question is never a character named Michael Myers so much as The Shape or just ‘He’ as in ‘He came home’ when Dr. Loomis refers to him, somehow connected to that house where he grew up, somehow connected to Laurie Strode in a way that can never be put into words and his presence only has a power on this particular night. The film is so sparse in its design and Carpenter uses this to his advantage—in the daytime scenes the streets of Haddonfield with those leaves blowing along the ground feel emptier than even a normal street in a small town would ever feel and it adds to our sense of impending dread which continually lingers so we forget to watch for just how small scale the production really is, just a few locations and characters along with a top-billed actor who doesn’t do much more than wander a few streets while spouting off exposition.
Directed by Rick Rosenthal, HALLOWEEN II dispenses with this approach either knowing that it can’t be recreated or just willingly going along with the larger budget provided by Universal—it’s all much more kinetic and even the rendition of the famous theme is more hyper this time around which does effect the ongoing mood. It’s of course set later at night now but nevertheless there are more people out on the street, even more lights illuminating the sleepy town of Haddonfield. This is really the point in the ongoing series where the killer ceases to be The Shape and is very much Michael Myers—as if to underscore this, the slight recutting of the end of the first film at the start omits the glimpse of his pathetic face as if to keep ‘Michael’ that much more of a threat as time goes on. From here on his name emerges more and more, making him less of that Boogeyman Loomis once confirmed he was, represented by the human skull lying within the Jack O’ Lantern seen in the opening credits. And if Michael Myers kept his goals in the first film mostly limited to the characters somehow connected to Laurie Strode in this one he goes all over the place dispatching strangers and just random people in that deserted hospital while the star of the film lies catatonic for a fair chunk of the running time. In a weird way the not-quite-right recreation of the original film’s setting is part of the charm, as if wanting me to try harder in pretending that there really is a mythology to all this.
John Carpenter and Debra Hill wrote the script (they produced as well) and it’s hard not to think around the half-hour mark that very little has happened with the sparse plot causing too much to play as filler like a security guard’s interminable walk around the hospital that finally arrives at a predictable conclusion. Of course, the same thing could easily be said about HALLOWEEN, a film which was more about mood than anything else, including the plot, and one in which its lead character isn’t even put in any sort of jeopardy until the last fifteen minutes or so (that’s not a criticism of HALLOWEEN, for the record). But maybe that’s a trick which can’t be repeated, at least not in a way that can feel satisfying so maybe the clutter and sudden plot revelations of HALLOWEEN II almost overwhelm the simplicity, one of those cases where both too much and not enough is happening all at once. A big thing is made out of Michael stealing a knife early on but I don’t think he uses it once during the entire time at the hospital. And again, not much happens which involves Laurie until the last fifteen minutes. Loomis learns the secret truth about Michael’s connection to her while she just winds up getting chased around again and this endless night just goes on and on.
Much of the credit should certainly go to the great director of photography Dean Cundey for impeccably adding to that continuous sense of dread—one particular shot involving The Shape emerging from pitch darkness still gets a gasp out of me. And I will give the movie this: it has moments, whether in its use of deep focus in the gliding Panavision frame, displaying the dark humor of the holiday like the unexplained story behind the kid who has had an unfortunate accident with a razor blade or the odd touches that seem so correct in this context, the nurses’ shoes that drop to the ground as she dies, Lance Guest’s Jimmy slipping on that large pool of blood (I always find it hard to watch this, actually), the way The Shape’s Shatner mask seems to be getting more tattered as the night continues. The little touches involving the supporting characters don’t stick as well as they did in the other film but they’re there, like ambulance driver Leo Rossi offering love advice to Lance Guest in a way which recalls the conversations between the three girlfriends in the first film (there’s even a little pot smoking) along with a few touches involving people we only heard about previously like the fate of poor Ben Tramer. Plus the various swirls of red and green colors that turn up, giving the overall film a more fantastical feel than the original—the moment when Michael’s blade almost causes an elevator door to open back up again feels very Argentoesque.
The studio slick vibe, along with a certain occasional crassness, does give the film a feel that is more similar to the following year’s HALLOWEEN III than the original and even what we briefly see of downtown Haddonfield is a location reused in III (along with a few odd similarities—both share a deserted hospital where the doctor on duty has presumably just come from the bar). But there’s a reason why I keep watching at least some of this film every year along with the original and the non-Myers SEASON OF THE WITCH (but not the subsequent sequels, forget about those)—it’s that feel that John Carpenter and associates captured which always puts me in the mindset of films from that time, the shiver I gets whenever I see the Scope Universal logo from the period. It’s as if for a few moments I can forget that this story structure was slammed together to get a sequel out of nothing and accept it. That deserted hospital still doesn’t make much sense at all but the darkness stays with me and so does Michael swatting that scalpel with that whoosh in the air or the blood dripping down from the sockets of his mask even as we see the eyes. HALLOWEEN II went through changes in post-production which included some Carpenter-shot pieces so for all I know that’s why certain characters like Gloria Gifford’s sensible nurse just disappear and why certain threads like where Laurie’s parents are never get followed through on (I wonder if the novelization answers a few of these questions). The ending originally wrapped up the story of Lance Guest’s character, last seen in the release version having banged his head pretty bad and passed out with us never knowing what happens to him, but that was trimmed out too. So the film is a little sparse in closing out this long one night three hour story of Laurie Strode but the more I watch it the more it makes sense. There is no happy ending. This is one holiday that will never end and can never be fully explained, mysteries that only the Sandman will ever understand. Happy Halloween.
The lack of people to follow for us to care about almost makes the whole thing that much more clinical, as if it wants us to watch the movie from a distance. No longer being ‘introduced’ Jamie Lee Curtis gets top billing this time but doesn’t have much of a role to play at all, spending most of the movie either catatonic or just trying to get away, barely able to scream. At the very end she asks if she can ride in the front of the ambulance that’s taking her away, a nice touch which displays how much she’s refusing to remain a victim but it’s literally her only piece of characterization in the movie. Unlike P.J. Soles and Nancy Loomis (briefly seen as her body is being wheeled out) they don’t feel as much like real characters just the slasher movie fodder familiar from so many of these films and not many of them make an impression. Leo Rossi and Pamela Susan Shoop do manage to stick out a little and enough time is spent with them that the timing of how fast they’re eventually done away with is actually a little bit of a surprise. There’s a slight feeling that Lance Guest is meant to be some kind of equal to Laurie, if not her full-on love interest but it ultimately comes off as half-baked so she’s really the one we care about. The returning Charles Cyphers, third billed as Sherriff Lee Brackett, departs early to tell his wife about their murdered daughter and is never seen again. Jeffrey Kramer from JAWS gets fourth billing for one tiny scene. Nancy Stephens appears again as Nurse Marion Chambers, not looking much like she did in the first film--“Oh, I didn’t recognize you,” says Loomis when she turns up even though he last saw her a day ago. Dana Carvey makes his film debut and seen a few times but is really just an extra. Donald Pleasence goes full throttle with the no break between movies conceit and while everyone talks about his hamminess, his speeches, his endless speeches, going on about the evil he’s pursuing long after everyone onscreen and in the theater has gotten the point, revisiting the film this time I found myself strangely drawn to his brief description of the festival of Samhain, referring to the end of summer and the meaning of Halloween. It really doesn’t have anything to do with anything but lends such weight, such gravity to it all that these few seconds alone manage to make the movie that much more haunting.
To be honest, when I sat down to write this I was approaching this film with an ‘it’s not very good’ approach but now that’s changed a little. Maybe because I don’t want to stop watching it, along with the first and third films, at least until the sun comes up on November 1st. It’s also one of those Universal movies that has such a pull for me from my childhood along with being one of the films they put out that like JAWS 2 includes an ‘ALL NEW’ on the poster for anyone still confused by the idea of a sequel and I have a fondness for that quaint notion as well. I always remember that it’s ‘just’ a sequel. By nature it’s not even really a complete movie. But it’s become more than that. I want films like this to be there. I need films like this to be there. Yes, it will always be unfortunate that we can never again look at HALLOWEEN as just HALLOWEEN. It really is a film where there should never have been a sequel, let alone many of them. And yet, no one ever said that the reasons why we can’t stop watching these things and continue wondering about those bogus convoluted mythologies ever had to make the slightest bit of sense. Maybe if they ever did that would take all the fun out of it.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Illusion Of Continuity

I’m not going to use any names here, but sometimes I can’t tell. Is there fondness? Is there respect? Is there hate? Is there contempt? Is there some sort of affection mixed in there somewhere deep down? Is there, worst of all, total apathy? In some cases, I’m still not sure. Maybe someday I’ll get a partial answer and finally be able to get a full night’s sleep, but I sort of doubt it. I can think of a few who I’d like to call and ask them. One I’m not talking to right now. One isn’t talking to me right now. There are a few others who I’d be curious to ask but my relationship with them isn’t of that nature. It’s late. No point in trying to get someone on the phone.
In the first few years of the twenty-first century Woody Allen signed a multi-picture deal with DreamWorks leading to a run of films that could pretty much be called ‘funny’ ones. The response varied and so does the quality—SMALL TIME CROOKS actually did decent business due to a strong campaign, CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION is one that I’ve always liked (not everyone agrees), HOLLYWOOD ENDING didn’t come together for me (not everyone agrees about that either) and ANYTHING ELSE, released in September 2003, was possibly the most unusual of them as well as the most disdained. Sold around a campaign that not only tried to present it as much more of a normal romantic comedy than it is the trailer doesn’t even feature any footage of Woody Allen, which I’m guessing is a first for the films he appeared in. Of course, Woody Allen is very much in the film, one which is about as far from a charming romantic comedy you can get while still somehow being in the same ballpark.
Generally thought of as Woody’s nadir before he regrouped and took off for Europe, nobody seems to like this movie very much except for Woody Allen himself who in a 2008 interview said that it’s the film which best sums up his world view, adding “There’s a lot of me in there.” Also, Quentin Tarantino of all people in 2009 named it one of the twenty best films released since he made his first film in 1992 (“that’s the Jason Biggs one” he says in the video after revealing the title, without further elaboration) and I’d love to hear him expound on that sometime. I won’t go as far in defense of the film but I do think there’s enough there to warrant not simply dismissing it outright. At least it’s an interesting one. Interesting in how Woody, perhaps increasingly aware of his age, for the first time places himself in a supporting role and just what the context of that part is. Interesting in how it’s his first film shot anamorphically since MANHATTAN and an example of how the widescreen format gives the narrative a dynamism it wouldn’t have otherwise with a more open-aired look at Manhattan than his films sometimes contain. Interesting in how genuinely bitter it becomes through the prism of what you’d expect to be a light romantic comedy but also interesting in terms of what he’s trying to say about himself at two different points in life. The film is somewhat similar to the Alec Baldwin segment in 2012’s TO ROME WITH LOVE and one other thing both have in common is how Woody, as if deciding that such deference to ‘reality’ is unnecessary, seems to have dispensed with clarifying such matters to overexplain things. It’s a movie, after all, so why be so literal? It’s just like anything else.
On the day that writer Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs) celebrates his anniversary with girlfriend Amanda Chase (Christina Ricci) he meets another writer, the beyond misanthropic David Dobel (Woody Allen) who seems only too willing to give his opinions on life and love to Falk. And the more he learns from Dobel, in addition to various pressures supplied by Amanda’s mother Paula (Stockard Channing) and his manager Harvey (Danny DeVito) coming at him from both sides, the more suspicious he gets about what Amanda really has going on, leading to Jerry being forced to learn some of the toughest life lessons that Dobel has to offer just as his career is getting off the ground.
Proposal: If Woody Allen himself felt at all that he was in a creative rut around this time then even if ANYTHING ELSE isn’t one of his strongest efforts it still feels like an attempt to break out of that rut. People have been saying for years that as a filmmaker he seems strangely out of touch with the real world and this is the point where that notion seems to irreversibly pivot with a New York that really doesn’t seem like the actual place, where intellectual comedy writers who have already been divorced by the time they’re twenty-one are hired to write jokes for ‘intellectual comedians’ and head off to see Diana Krall at a jazz bar with their friends at night. Maybe this doesn’t matter. Maybe Woody has no idea. Either way, I don’t think he cares. By a certain point it becomes very clear that the film more than a portrayal of Manhattan life in 2003 is basically about Woody Allen at the age he is talking to the younger self in his own head, observing him, trying to offer advice but none of it makes any difference by a certain point. The reality of the situation is never really explained and isn’t important anyway—Dobel does interact with other people so it isn’t like he only exists in Jerry’s head but, really, who cares?— as Woody figured that if he doesn’t need to pay attention to strict reality in a short story for the New Yorker why do the same for a film, even if it is allegedly set in the real world. And maybe he’s got something there.
Secondary proposal: If an artist declares that a work is ‘significant’ should we therefore pay more attention to it? What does his own fondness for it say about him as an artist or as a person for that matter? And how does the relationship Jason Biggs’ Jerry Falk (one of two Woody surrogates in the film) has with Amanda Chase as played by Christina Ricci recall certain characters in the past played by Diane Keaton or Charlotte Rampling or Jessica Harper or Judy Davis or others that could be mentioned? Amanda harps on how fat she is, insists that she can’t do therapy—“Shrinks don’t work for me. I know how to fool them,” she believably claims—while occasionally coming off as the most charming, supportive girl imaginable but ultimately those moments aren’t enough either for Jerry or the film. I want to find something charming in ANYTHING ELSE beyond the pessimism, just like I want to find something charming in certain relationships that I’m a part of which could be a big reason why the film gets under the skin and maybe even is why people were so turned off by it. While watching this film now, much more than when I saw it on opening day ten years ago, the relationship it portrays becomes more like nails on a chalkboard the more the film goes on, as the arguing continues, he tension slowly building each time Amanda’s behavior keeps things from being as ideal as Jerry wants them to be, how it becomes more maddening the older I get. Part of this is believable but it doesn’t make viewing the film any less frustrating and at some points it’s hard not to want to strangle someone onscreen. Maybe more Riggs’ character than Ricci because of what he allows to happen, which for all I know is the point of it all.
This element is really only one of the things about ANYTHING ELSE that makes it come off in some ways as the most misanthropic and cynical of all of Woody Allen’s comedies with very little about it playing as likable or endearing. Tonally it goes even further than the drinking, whoring, swearing lead character played by Woody in DECONSTRUCTING HARRY ever does, a film where even its bitterness plays out in a more effortless manner, and in the case of this film too often there’s not much respite to make it seem worth it. It’s an unusual approach to take and I suppose that no one other than Woody Allen would bring discussion of the Holocaust into a romantic comedy—Dobel is mad enough to try to give Falk a rifle to keep in his apartment so when the day comes “they don’t put you in a boxcar”—but too many jokes like the psychiatrist who almost never speaks just become as annoying to us as they are to the lead character. The older character as played by Woody Allen, essentially the first time in which he’s been supporting to a single lead, expresses this cynicism in both action and words --in MANHATTAN Isaac Davis rebuffs the idea of satire in favor of bricks and baseball bats which ‘get right to the point’ but it’s all just words spoken at a cocktail party. In this film when Dobel is threatened by a tough looking guy who has just stolen his parking spot and Jerry suggests they write something to make light of the event the older writer takes a tire iron and bashes in the car driven by the meathead in question. Whether doing this or living through all those big words he somehow tosses into casual conversation Dobel (or Woody?) is old enough to not care anymore. The really bad stuff has already happened, or maybe he just knows that it’s going to happen no matter what.
I doubt it’s intentional but sometimes Woody Allen movies reflect each other—SCOOP came off as a sort of comic answer to MATCH POINT just as the very bitter YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER, a film in which the only people happy at the end are the morons who aren’t even trying, was followed by the extremely upbeat MIDNIGHT IN PARIS which was of course his most successful film in decades. Maybe in its look at a relationship ANYTHING ELSE attempts to be some sort of middle ground, saying something about the futility of it all while trying to somehow be positive and willing to move onto the next point in life beyond what has been holding you back. I want to find more good in the film but it still frustrates—the pleasant feel of springtime in the imagery mixing uneasily with the harsh tone, the deceptively relaxed Scope compositions courtesy director of photography Darius Khondji whether keeping multiple people in the frame or isolating Ricci in her close-ups, no one allowed to be near her, clashing with the occasional sloppiness. Mixed in with some solid characterizations in the supporting cast is a clearly nervous Jimmy Fallon who turns up for a few scenes as Amanda’s previous boyfriend and visibly looks at the camera a few times, no idea what to do with himself when he doesn’t have dialogue, not receiving any guidance from his director. Some of the jokes—“I had some wine.” “Wine? Why? It’s not Passover.”—feel like relics of another era in their rhythms but more than that the film frustrates not because I’m made uncomfortable by any point of identification but because it wants to keep some sort of distance, maybe an offshoot of the Scope framing, in its cold and misanthropic look at the world, observed by Woody Allen as both onscreen character and writer/director.
And yet there are moments throughout where everything clicks, where the chemistry between Jerry and Amanda shows why their relationship makes sense in the first place and the mercilessness of a particular scene involving Danny DeVito’s old school manager is extremely well played in just how believably awkward it is but at the same time it feels like a case where the odd energy of the moment just somehow happened. In comparison, a scene where Falk has to deal with Amanda and her mother deciding to try some coke brought over by a ‘horse whisperer from Topanga Canyon’ just winds up sitting there, maybe with the memory of the famous ANNIE HALL moment hanging too closely over it. Then again, there once was a time when I did bong hits with a girl I was dating and her mom so maybe there’s honesty to that particular moment as well. When a character has to go to the hospital late in the film the character played by Woody Allen isn’t worried and afterwards in voiceover we’re told by Jerry, “As Dobel predicted, he survived.” The worst happens and we still live through it whether we like it or not, leaving us alone and wondering how much we’re like that prize fighter who won’t punch back in that joke Dobel tells at the beginning of the film. At one point Stockard Channing as Amanda’s mother who’s been yammering on and on about the nightclub act she may or may not do sits at the piano and plays “There’ll Be Another Spring”, the moody shakiness of her voice somehow causing everyone to quiet down in spite of itself. When she gets to the lyric, “We’ll surely be together” the words seem to hang there in the air, Jerry and Amanda seen in separate shots not sure about anything anymore. Sometimes you just need to sit back and breathe, even if you know it’s still not going to get you any closer to the answer.
One thing that is a little surprising about the film is its ambivalent attitude towards Los Angeles, maybe indicating that Woody has either mellowed towards the town (including a stint directing at the Los Angeles Opera a few years back) or was never all that harsh about the city in the first place--“All the action is out there. It’s not here, it’s out there,” says Dobel when he talks about making the move. In promoting MIDNIGHT IN PARIS he spoke of wondering how his life would have gone if he had stayed there after making WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT and in ANYTHING ELSE, unlike the days when Tony Roberts was automatically seen as a sellout for living a tony lifestyle in Beverly Hills, moving to Los Angeles is simply seen as another possibility in life, a fresh new start. Maybe he’s wondering if it wouldn’t have been so bad after all. I doubt Woody Allen regrets spending much of his life in New York, but nothing wrong with wondering a little about where those other paths could have led. Maybe this element as one part of the visit to his younger self makes ANYTHING ELSE more optimistic than I’ve been able to realize.
Pretty much everyone in the film seems game, that’s for sure, happy to be working for Woody Allen in what looks like a very pleasant New York spring. Christina Ricci is particularly good and the “offbeat sexual quality” she has leaps off the screen in her close-ups that make wonderful use of her eyes, with the balance of how appealing or not she is correctly varying at times from moment to moment. Jason Biggs seems eager and willing to do a good job with some ingratiating moments, I’m just not very sure I always believe that what’s coming out of his mouth in his multiple talks directly to the camera are his actual thoughts. Woody correctly seems a little freer in his performance than he sometimes does, not shackled down by having to be the lead character or the slightest bit likable or sane and maybe the darkness in him is closer to what he is than we sometimes realize. Stockard Channing and Danny DeVito add to the darkly comic tension in their various scenes—they’re the pros you’d expect them to be, they know how to make each moment count. KaDee Strickland and Erica Leerhsen as both Jerry’s former and potential future girlfriend are each intriguing in their own beguiling ways and a pre-ENTOURAGE Adrian Grenier (also in CELEBRITY, actually) plays an actor Amanda knows who Jerry instantly becomes suspicious of.
As Amanda says to Jerry, “Idiots who are total losers in New York go to L.A. and become millionaires.” All right, so I’m proof that this movie isn’t entirely accurate. “Too much rejection causes cancer,” says Dobel to Jerry at another point. Christ, Woody, don’t you want me to get some sleep tonight? ANYTHING ELSE isn’t a Woody Allen film that I want to pull out as much as some of them but looking at it again now there is something there. The movie is enraging and yet honest to a certain extent with an edge that makes it stand apart from other films during this latter stretch of his career, even if it isn’t always for enjoyable reasons. Maybe someday when all is said and done we’ll be able to boil down the conflicts of Woody Allen’s films, or just Woody Allen himself, to five or six basic questions one of which would have to be ‘What’s underneath her?’ And just like Jerry Falk we never get an answer, only the continual asking of the question. Which, after all, is what life is. Just like anything else.