Sunday, December 29, 2013

You Don't Even Hear It

Thinking about an anniversary that we hit in 2013--Twenty years. I want to say it seems like it was only yesterday, but we all know that’s not true. I was on the Hollywood Freeway when it happened, driving from downtown up to the place in North Hollywood where I was living at the time having spent the day at an all-day horror movie marathon at the Orpheum, one of the longest and most enjoyable times I’ve ever had in a movie theater. Of course, I didn’t know at the time what was happening but I found out soon enough. River Phoenix. Early Halloween morning 1993, right in front of the Viper Room. Such a shame, such a waste. Thinking about it now it’s like the soul of what eventually became known by everyone as Generation X got torn away from us. Just a few months earlier Peter Bogdanovich’s THE THING CALLED LOVE did little business in regional release and I wasn’t able to see it until home video but for whatever reason the film that first comes to mind these days when I think of Phoenix, almost as if it was playing in theaters at the time, is Nancy Savoca’s DOGFIGHT. This particular film actually came out two years earlier in October ‘91 to not much of a response of any kind. I actually saw it in the theater—Yonkers Movieland in theater #3, one of the tiny, crappy ones. I’m not even sure I gave it much thought after a day or so but something about the film wound up burrowing deep down into my brain and thinking back now I suppose it means more to me than any other film River Phoenix appeared in. Even today the film still isn’t widely known although the likes of the excellent blogger Sheila O’Malley, who is probably more passionate about the film than anyone, have certainly proved that it is loved by at least a few. Maybe it’s somehow appropriate that the film still isn’t widely known considering how minor it seems at first, if not outright frivolous, but then sneaks up and knocks you out before you’ve even realized it. And, as others who have seen DOGFIGHT might know, it contains an ending which has stayed with me through the years like few others ever have.
San Francisco, November 1963: Before shipping out with the Marines, Corporal Eddie Birdlace (River Phoenix) takes part in a ritual with his fellow soldiers known as the Dogfight: each of them must seek out the ugliest girl they can find. The one who brings the ugliest girl to the party wins. Birdlace finds Rose (Lili Taylor), a young girl who works as a waitress in a coffee shop and also is a would-be songwriter. Maybe not the ugliest girl he can find, but she’ll do. Even before they arrive Birdlace seems to know that what he’s doing isn’t right and when Rose learns the horrible truth he doesn’t have much to say to defend himself. But when Birdlace seeks her out to apologize for what he’s done the night becomes more than either of them could have possibly imagined.
If we’re lucky in life we’ve gotten to experience one of those BEFORE SUNRISE kind of nights, etched in our brain forever when everything for a few hours was perfect and then it never was ever again. Or maybe it wasn’t quite perfect. Maybe things were a bit messier than we realized at the time or realize even now, with the entire night shrouded in the myth that we’ve created for ourselves to give the illusion our lives make sense. DOGFIGHT makes me think of these things. And it gets me to think about how fucked up what Birdlace and his buddies are doing, four guys who are really only friends because they were standing next to each other in line according to height. As directed by Savoca these are young men too stupid and too angry to know to even try for something good. Even when one of them accidentally has a genuine moment with a girl they’re too thick to realize it. So it’s that much more of a miracle of what happens when Birdlace goes back to Rose and they have this night together. Written by Bob Comfort, DOGFIGHT takes the feelings that come out of its vignettes and they add up. Things don’t necessarily pay off, just like they don’t in life. Birdlace’s buddies go off to have their own night which amounts in not much of anything happening. His own treatment of the snooty maĆ®tre d' doesn’t pay off in a comeuppance for either side, just a brush off. Even the messiness of what develops between Birdlace and Rose as the night goes on feels genuine and earned. The moments where everything clicks between them when they can laugh about it all almost matters more because of what happens when they’re not quite getting along. Even when he comes back for Rose, when he tries to make things right the lengths to which he does it doesn’t always make him likable. The harshness of his behavior means that just one night with the right girl isn’t going to get rid of all that, as well-meaning as he might be. But the night means something equally to both of them, even if they can’t fully express it and the film means more as it goes on as a result.
Running only 94 minutes, DOGFIGHT isn’t very long at all but it doesn’t need much time to say what it needs to say, to let us go past the period detail and misogyny of the basic premise. It doesn’t underline very much—even the flashback structure is low key you might forget it was even there. The depiction of the 60s feels vivid, yet not unnecessarily overdone (maybe pair this with INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS on a double bill). The night in question is November 21, 1963 which is as much of a sledgehammer as you can get, but the movie wisely doesn’t make a big deal of it. Even with the occasional attention paid to the Marine buddies--the last thing spoken by one of them is the stupidest joke imaginable yet thematically right--the focus stays on Birdlace and Rose, how hopeful they both are in their own ways and what ultimately happens with the two of them that night. Even the most romantic moments between them are endearingly awkward like their first kiss in the piano museum (shades of MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT, also set in San Francisco). And moving past the haunting grace note of River Phoenix running down the middle of the San Francisco street in the early morning light as Bob Dylan plays there’s what it all builds to. Several years back I found myself stumbling across this film late at night on cable for the first time for years and realized that I was watching the entire second half of the film for the sole reason of getting to see that end again. Even when it reaches this point the film delays the inevitable for a few minutes, pausing for a vignette in a bar—films seem to pause for this sort of moment as it approaches the end all too rarely—and a brief display of how the local San Francisco scene has changed in just a few years. But it’s the end that really makes the film. During a roundtable with Sheila O’Malley and Matt Zoller Seitz several years ago they had a lengthy discussion about this with Seitz basically saying that it’s a good film with a final ten minutes that turns it into a masterpiece. I’m tempted to use hyperbole and go further by saying that it’s the last ninety seconds or so that turns it into a masterpiece. Maybe that’s not quite true either but if you don’t have that last scene (even the music playing on a radio feels absolutely perfect, not to mention how much we’re seeing in the eyes of these two people) you don’t have a movie.
Is it really a masterpiece or is it a case where I disregard the occasional awkwardness and flaws—there’s a lot to read in the unspoken behavior of Holly Near as Taylor’s mother but it still bugs me that they don’t resemble each other much at all—and will it to being a masterpiece in my own head, just as maybe sometimes in the past I’ve tried to turn a slight connection I had with certain people into something more. I’m still not sure. I only know that DOGFIGHT is special and if I’m going to be just one of a few people in the world who feel that way, well, I hope that’s enough. And in that ending we don’t necessarily find certain things out. Certainly there is much left unsaid. But for that moment, nothing needs to be said. At that moment both characters are exactly where they’re supposed to be.
River Phoenix as Birdlace takes the uncertain sensitivity we sometimes associate with him and burrows through that as if turning it into an unspoken self-loathing through his character’s behavior and continuous swearing. Birdlace is trying even if he doesn’t know how to put it into words and it makes it ultimately affecting. When she lays into him and he just sputters out an “OK” you can tell that he knows she’s right down to his bones. Lily Taylor, sitting in her bedroom listening to Joan Baez and hoping for something good in the world, is absolutely wonderful every step of the way—her shyness, the excitement in her eyes as she quickly gets ready for the party, up to her anger and desperation later on. I love even tiny inflections in her voice heard in seemingly unimportant lines of dialogue—hell, I even like that look of nervous happiness on her face as she plays Whack-a-Mole. Revisiting this film reminds me of just how great Lili Taylor really is—it’s an unfair association but the nature of her SIX FEET UNDER character was something I frankly hated and seemed to annihilate any residual goodwill I felt towards her earlier roles—it meant she was doing her job, I suppose, but still. Now returning to this film I feel like I’ve fallen in love with Lili Taylor and this girl who is too scared to sing for someone all over again. One close-up of her late in the film is possibly the most beautiful Taylor has ever appeared on film, as if this movie was wresting away its own premise and reminding us of how not only how cruel it was to put the character through it but how ridiculous it was to see her any other way. As Phoenix’s buddies Richard Panebianco, Anthony Clark and Mitchell Whitfield all manage to add touches that makes them ultimately endearing, E.G. Daily is memorable as the toothless ringer in the Dogfight and Brendan Fraser is briefly spotted in his first film appearance as a sailor.
Sometimes in life you know a person. You hope there’s something there. But maybe whatever connection there is isn’t what you want it to be. And then, for just an instant, you feel it. All is well. And then it goes away. This started to be about River Phoenix and how it’s been twenty years, then it was really about DOGFIGHT, now I suppose it’s really about me, twenty years since hitting L.A. but even longer since I first saw this film. And the older I get the more it makes me think about how far away certain nights I once had, certain girls I once knew, now are. Maybe all this is part of why that ending is more heartbreaking now. Thinking about all this, about my own past, about the two decades, DOGFIGHT may be one of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen. Partly because of what happens onscreen. Partly because of what ultimately happened to one of its stars. And, yeah, I suppose partly because of my own life.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Chefs Do That

There is the film that is and there is the film we secretly want it to be. There is the life we find ourselves in the middle of and the life we imagine it could suddenly become if only the right sort of jazz would play to go along with what’s in our head. Not long ago I ran into someone who I hadn’t seen in well over a decade and certainly someone I hadn’t spent any considerable time with since the 90s. Not an ex-girlfriend, just someone I used to hang out with. She has three kids now and seems happy. Time really is a son of a bitch, isn’t it. Naturally, this got me thinking about the 90s for a few minutes, when even if things weren’t really more innocent at least it seemed that way. It’s not like I knew I was going to get older or anything. Released in October 1996, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT was a pretty good movie for that decade. Action, violence, laughs, fun, no real consequences and a screenplay that sold for a record price. That was definitely going to go on forever, right? Right? Shane Black wrote that script which sold to New Line for $4 million, Renny Harlin of DIE HARD 2, FORD FAIRLANE and CLIFFHANGER fame directed and it plays now as what could be called the greatest Joel Silver film ever made not actually produced by Joel Silver (maybe it’s neck and neck with DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE) although I could believe that there’s a pretty good story behind why Joel didn’t get this one. I saw it in Century City on the Saturday morning of opening weekend with Larry King sitting right behind me. I liked it then, I like it now and yet I still can’t shake the feeling that it doesn’t quite make it all the way around the bases, as if its director didn’t totally follow through on the potential in the screenplay the way Richard Donner did with LETHAL WEAPON or the way Black himself did years later with his own KISS KISS BANG BANG (both also set during the Christmas season, but you knew that). But I still think it’s kind of awesome, if I’m allowed to feel that way. Revisiting the film now, my mind hasn’t really changed all that much but if you want to do nothing but praise it I’m not going to stop you. I’m not even going to make an assumption that you feel the way I do about it because, after all, everyone knows that when you make an assumption you make an ass out of you and umption.
Samantha Caine (Geena Davis) is a normal schoolteacher living in a normal small Pennsylvania town with daughter Caitlin (Yvonne Zima) with everything about her life utterly normal except for the fact that she has no memory from before eight years ago, right when she was pregnant with her daughter. Just when a nasty car accident results in her displaying certain abilities that had never been evident a one-eyed escaped convict shows up out of nowhere looking for her and she dispatches him with abilities she didn’t even know she had. At the same time, low grade private detective Mitch Hennessy (Samuel L. Jackson) who has been hired to investigate her past, uncovers a few leads. Aware that things might not be safe at home, Samantha takes off with Hennessy in search of some answers only to find them in the form of her true identity, that of a government assassin known as Charley Baltimore who is only all to ready to leave her invented identity behind only certain people may not be willing to let that happen so quickly.
There’s so much in here that I like and yet I still can’t help but focus on a few things. Simply put, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT is a movie with a phenomenal main character in a pretty cool pulp storyline placed into a production that I wish just felt a little more solid as if they didn’t always have the money to get certain things onscreen in the best possible way. I can remember people back in the 90s pointing out how New Line films always seemed to feel a little lacking in production value (David Fincher is one of the few who made it work for him when he directed SE7EN) and that very thing could be said about THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT which as enjoyable as it is still has a fairly low rent shot-in-Canada feel that is considerably different than the vivid Los Angeles of other Shane Black screenplays. Maybe this is a byproduct of the snowbound setting (it would make for an appropriate pairing with Frankenheimer’s REINDEER GAMES, anyway) but with a variety of empty back roads, locations that feel a little too chintzy and early digital effects that haven’t aged so well I can’t help but wonder if someone like Joel Silver would have insisted on more of a slick big studio quality control feel all the way through.
The pacing is an issue as well with scenes not always flowing into each other correctly through some abrupt transitions, like the early car crash which is extremely harrowing in how the action is staged and is of course meant to be the first thing that brings Charley out of Samantha yet the event feels so isolated from everything else around it that it’s almost as if the movie isn’t even aware of this. Structure-wise it’s an odd thing where even though it’s a mismatched buddy movie we never get to see the two people actually meet since it presumably happened before the start of the film and I also wonder if maybe the introduction of Craig Bierko’s bad guy should have been held until he pops up in the railroad station bar to keep the suspense going at that point. For that matter, the lead character of Samantha/Charley has so many possibilities that I wish the film did more with her in the second half before moving onto the overlong machinations of the climax. Maybe I just wish it wasn’t a buddy movie (terrific as Samuel L. Jackson is). Maybe it’s a case of a lead character (or dual character, as the case is) who I wish was in a different movie altogether. I don’t know. The pieces are there and the story always keeps moving forward with as much bombast imaginable but they don’t always feel like they go together entirely right.
Having said all that, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT does contain some of the best pure filmmaking that Renny Harlin has ever achieved, particularly when compared with the blockbuster DIE HARD 2 which feels better produced (by Joel Silver, of course) than actually assembled. Even if I am nitpicking, I really do think this is his best start-to-finish work with continuous invention at hand as the pace builds and even if Harlin isn’t the greatest action director in history he knows how to make every one of the sequences here click along (even the climax is pretty terrific, as overlong as it might be), he knows how to sell them for their worth and get the punchlines to land correctly so the laughs are as big as possible. You can really sense the pleasure he’s getting out of framing his then-wife in as iconic a way as possible which freshly reminds me how it’s a shame that this film pretty much marked the end of Geena Davis as a movie star. She just throws herself into this fantastic role completely, her eyes always working the scene through both halves of her character. Strange as it is to say and it probably points out how many old movies I’ve been watching lately but during this viewing I couldn’t help but imagine THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT as a vehicle for someone like Joan Crawford and it just reminded me of how rare it is for a film such as this to feature such a powerful female lead. Plus, what was the last new movie that you could imagine Crawford starring in? Sandra Bullock in GRAVITY? Jessica Chastain in ZERO DARK THIRTY? Even leaving out genre, just how many other writers are crafting this sort of juicy part for actresses these days?
It makes me wish that some of the story held together better and ultimately it doesn’t have the weight that something like LETHAL WEAPON had with its Shadow Company Vietnam backstory that helped sell what made Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs the lethal weapon that he was. There’s an intriguing pre-9/11 plot involving government agents trying to stage a catastrophe code named “Operation Honeymoon” to keep their funding coming—actually, all the government characters here are either evil (the bad guys) or simply ineffectual (like the President, played by THE GODFATHER PART II’s G.D. Spradlin) but not very much of it sticks even with a now-surprising reference to the 1993 WTC bombing. The movie has the right amount of entertainment value but it feels like a number of enjoyable parts that kinda-sorta go together as opposed to a satisfying and complete narrative. There are far worse things I could say about this movie, any movie. Some remain great no matter how many times you see them. Some are pretty good and when you revisit it, wondering why you haven’t seen it for a long time you realize the reason is that it’s simply pretty good and unfortunately doesn’t reach any further heights than that. Maybe what makes them even more frustrating is when you think it had the potential to be better than that.
If the film isn’t as great as I want it to be deep down, I won’t say that about Geena Davis who is the best thing in it giving a performance that still might not have gotten an Oscar nomination even if the film had been better (since, after all, this sort of movie usually doesn’t) but she would have deserved it. It largely plays as a transformation of what we expect as a ‘Geena Davis’ role into something else altogether and it absolutely works, she’s completely dynamite more than fulfilling Godard’s line about how all a movie needs is a girl and a gun. Samuel L. Jackson, in addition to being an excellent foil for her, digs into the part just as he does with his Tarantino films, clearly loving getting to play this guy and wearing his 70s wardrobe. As a character Mitch Hennessy is pissed off about a lot of things but his own self-deprecation allows him to just lay down in the street after Charley has pushed him out of a moving car and you can feel Jackson’s own confidence in letting that scene play out, that he understands the feeling of just simply wanting to stay there. If the film had been a success leading to sequels I wouldn’t at all have minded one with just his character. It’s also a pleasure to watch Brian Cox (actually, the few moments we get these two guys bouncing off each other has its own pleasures as well) as the exposition-spouting Nathan Waldman who has some of the greatest Shane Black dialogue imaginable and only makes me wish that there were more of him in the movie. A lot more. Jackson and Cox are the two strong males here and it makes sense how none of the others seem quite worthy of Davis. Craig Bierko is just the right sort of douchebag while still coming off as a genuine threat and Tom Amandes as Samantha’s boyfriend Hal has what is possibly the most thankless male role in a movie this side of Efram Zimbalist Jr. in WAIT UNTIL DARK but considering all the thankless female roles in action films this doesn’t bother me at all.
It’s also a film that has a clip from THE LONG GOODBYE spotted on a TV as well as all that cool 70s soul music adding to the vibe so I can’t be too hard on it. THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT did ok but not great at the box office ($33 million domestic) so that wasn’t enough to withstand the encroaching tide of Michael Bay movies to come. That this followed up the massive flop of CUTTHROAT ISLAND from the previous year didn’t help the director-star combo either—Geena Davis didn’t appear in another film until 3 years later in STUART LITTLE, a film which was hardly dependent on her marquee value, while Harlin’s next was DEEP BLUE SEA also in ’99 (their divorce became final in 1998). The name Shane Black didn’t appear on the credits of any film for way too long to come after this although he did throw some pretty great parties at his house. I even got to go to a few back then and may have exchanged a word or two with him in a crowd but never got a formal introduction. And I got to see this movie sitting in front of Larry King who, if you’ve seen it you already know, turns up in a cameo near the end. That was an odd sensation. But in thinking about how fun those days were while still not being perfect I’m reminded how a friend of mine immediately after seeing it mentioned that the very last scene is missing a final line, one which he felt was obvious. And even now as I watch the end of the movie I still think that line really needs to be in there. So, close but no cigar. But I still like THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT. It’s still a fun ride. A reminder of the 90s, like how I even wrote my own female assassin script way back then. Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to read it. Those days were fun while they lasted. Even if they weren’t always what I wanted them to be.