Friday, January 31, 2014

Another Man's Poetry

And so HOUSE CALLS starring Walter Matthau & Glenda Jackson begat HOPSCOTCH directed by Ronald Neame and starring Walter Matthau & Glenda Jackson which begat FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER directed by Ronald Neame and starring Walter Matthau & Jill Clayburgh. Well, I guess Glenda Jackson wouldn’t have been ideal casting to play a Supreme Court justice. Released in August 1981 (same day as AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, speaking of films you’d think I would have written about by now), FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER had its release apparently pushed up several months when the selection of Sandra Day O’Connor as the first ever female Supreme Court justice rendered its storyline somewhat out of date or at the very least fortuitously timely. Based on a stage play which was first produced at the Cleveland Play House in 1975 starring Melvyn Douglas and Jean Arthur (“Within the province of dramatic jurisprudence it is a draggy, flaccid unconvincing brief” so said the Time Magazine review) the film followed a mere six years later yet it feels like a case of an adaptation that was already a little behind the times. The result is 98 minutes that feel sporadically engaging yet I wish it were sharper, I wish that its characters had more interesting and clever things to say during their bickering when the points being made should have all the fire imaginable. When the play premiered on Broadway in 1978 it starred Henry Fonda and Jane Alexander but didn’t run more than a couple of months and hasn’t been revived very much since. It’s not exactly a dinner theater-ready evergreen like a few of the Neil Simon adaptations Matthau starred in during this period and it’s also very much a product of its era, just barely anyway—this film could be the answer to a trivia question, ‘Name another Paramount release that opened the summer of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK’ and that right there is maybe an indication of how this sort of thing was quickly going out of style as the 80s progressed. Like HOPSCOTCH, which came out less than a year earlier, it manages to be pleasant but is also somewhat strained, never as much of a smoothly enjoyable easy listening piece of music the way that earlier Matthau-Neame collaboration is.
When the sudden death of a Supreme Court justice causes a vacancy on the bench, Associate Justice Daniel Snow (Walter Matthau) is thrilled to learn that a woman will finally be appointed to the court. His enthusiasm is tempered, however, when the longtime liberal learns that the woman in question is the Honorable Ruth Loomis (Jill Clayburgh) a staunch conservative who he dubs ‘the Mother Superior of Orange County’. Though the two find a way to clash on every possible issue almost instantly on both their methods and their ideals circumstances cause them to soon find some common ground and develop a certain fondness for each other.
I suppose that any movie in which we get to watch Walter Matthau struggle with using chopsticks can’t be all bad and one can appreciate the Tracy-Hepburn approach taken to the relationship between the two leads, skirting the edge of possible attraction yet wisely leaving the matter hanging with only the hint of possibility. But there’s not much that catches fire in FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER (screenplay by Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee) and the things that do get my attention are almost accidental, byproducts of watching this thirty-plus years on. Walter Matthau certainly doesn’t have a dull moment, playing an intellectual who seems to like nothing more than getting his hands dirty while arguing over the future of the country and the movie convinces me that his Justice Snow would be an engaging person to have a conversation with which makes the fireworks we anticipate all the more promising. Let’s say he’s ‘crusty but benign’ to quote the oft-used character description in NETWORK. Jill Clayburgh doesn’t have quite the same kind of flair for this material—she comes off as more of a puzzled wet blanket rather than annoyed in a persnickety way (which brings how Glenda Jackson approached their sparring to mind) that would add to the humor although the words she’s given don’t really help. Sure, I’m going to agree with what a liberal judge has to say over the conservative one but the specifics of what she argues doesn’t help to bring me around to her side and there’s an edge missing from her portrayal which would help make her case more persuasive. Because of the side she’s on I don’t agree with a lot of what she has to say but that still doesn’t mean the film should make it so easy. But more than that there’s no real spark to their debates, not enough real chemistry between the leads.
What they’re arguing over is never as interesting as it should be anyway and a subplot about exhibition of a porno film (called THE NAUGHTY NYMPHOMANIAC, described as “an educational film” so when we finally get a look at the movie in question it’s supposed to be a joke) feels at least several years out of date for ’81 becoming all the more annoying that the film spends about twenty minutes on a first amendment argument related to it never develops into anything more than platitudes so when Justice Loomis delivers her final comment on the matter the moment doesn’t land like it should. The other major case that figures in is more interesting, again almost unintentionally, since it seems to anticipate the growth of multi-conglomerates of the following decades involving a company named Omnitech buying up patents only to bury the products and even has the arch-conservative judge played by Clayburgh plead its case by arguing “Aren’t corporations people?” in a way that would surely please the likes of Mitt Romney but too much of this plotline feels muddled and the revelations of Loomis’ own possible connection to it are humdrum with a twist that strains credibility, never feeling appropriately explained or clarified.
There are all sorts of interesting possibilities with FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER, like the comical awkwardness of the other justices in dealing with this woman as well as Snow’s obsession with mountain climbing and how that relates to his job. This feels like it should mean something, a metaphor for this self-proclaimed king of his own mountain but it really doesn’t and ultimately just feels like a way to open things up for the start of the film. It would be interesting if the appointment of Loomis brought out Snow’s own inadvertent misogyny going beyond his disagreement with her political beliefs and I guess that’s sort of in there, with runners about women noticing wallpaper and the benefits of a messy desk but it’s not enough. One of the best examples of this sort of thing in the movie doesn’t even feature Clayburgh but rather when Matthau’s Justice Snow and his wife played by Jan Sterling seemingly have two separate conversations at once and the moment plays as totally natural—when she finally asks him a question in response to what he’s actually talking about he doesn’t even get what she’s referring to. But all too often it becomes way too pat, too easy.
The direction by Ronald Neame (whose lengthy filmography also includes THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE as well as personal favorite GAMBIT) is polite and workmanlike but aside from knowing how to frame all this for 2.35 in a way that makes what comes from the stage as visually active as possible (points to veteran cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp as well) there’s really not much to be done to make it a movie since it really is ultimately a play. It’s the sort of film where with little else to think about I find myself paying attention to what a bad job Clayburgh does parking a car in one scene, shades of Janet Maslin’s negative review in The New York Times in which for some reason she complains about a film that opens in August being set in the winter. It’s like the film rubbed her the wrong way but since it’s not quite a ‘bad’ movie per se she couldn’t quite pinpoint exactly why (going along with their review of the original stage production, Time Magazine didn’t like the movie much either). Featuring a moment where Matthau high-fives the sole African-American judge on the court, the film doesn’t seem to have much of an opinion about anything that gets discussed beyond the pomp & circumstance of the traditions of the Supreme Court along with playing variations of “Stars & Stripes Forever” over establishing shots which feels like a way to somehow try to open things up.
Maybe portraying the two political sides fighting for the glory of democracy while finding a way to work together even with their differences just feels too out of date. Things just aren’t this way anymore and maybe I doubt if it ever really was. The dialogue needs to make both their arguments stronger beyond just the boilerplate and the way Matthau’s character is portrayed sounds like he would want it that way too (in one of my favorite moments he muses, “I don’t agree with a word with it, but it’s well written,” upon reading one of Loomis’ opinions) but the movie doesn’t live up to that. And some of what Clayburgh discovers late in the film relating to the Omnitech scandal which is never very clear anyway and the conclusions she draws from that realization weakens her character as a result, leaving Matthau to talk some sense into her. It’s patriarchal and rather dull but hey, she can help him with his dumplings when he fumbles with those chopsticks. It makes this battle of the sexes unequal even if I know I’m never going to agree with her to begin with. I found myself imagining what a better version of this might be and at one point the fantasy began to coalesce—bring it back to Broadway, have Aaron Sorkin do a complete top-to-bottom dialogue polish and set it in period. Sure, some of his sexual politics are sometimes problematic as well but at least the dialogue would sing and placed in the proper context might allow us to think about how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t. This would no doubt be disrespectful to the original playwrights (who were, incidentally, also the writers of INHERIT THE WIND so who the hell am I to talk?) but now that I’ve seen FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER, I honestly think it’s a good idea.
At the very least, Walter Matthau making a Hitler joke is always going to get a laugh out of me. He’s a pleasure to watch even though it may not be one of his best performances, possibly due to how he sometimes doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the words on the page, particularly during some more serious moments. But most importantly he seems to enjoy digging into playing this guy and making him as much of a curmudgeon as possible while still demanding that the person he’s arguing with make their feelings known. In contrast, Jill Clayburgh was an excellent actress and though this came during her post-AN UNMARRIED WOMAN hot streak (one film I really do need to get around to writing about is STARTING OVER) but she still doesn’t seem quite right here. As an actress Clayburgh gets you to believe what she’s saying but not enough of it sticks to the wall, maybe because she doesn’t always have faith in the words, or maybe the arguments, either so the character just isn’t as strong as it needs to be. Incidentally, Clayburgh is introduced playing tennis making me wonder if when Joan Allen does so in Rod Lurie’s THE CONTENDER if it’s an homage and that gets me to wonder how Joan Allen would been in the role if made at another time. It also occurs to me that if it had been made a few years this would have been a Meryl Streep role but she was just too young back then and not as much of a name. In 1981 Marsha Mason might have been an interesting choice as well though I wonder if she would have come off quite so regally the way Clayburgh seems to naturally carry herself. As the Chief Justice Bernard Hughes is always good for some enjoyable moments throughout and Jan Sterling from Billy Wilder’s ACE IN THE HOLE appears as Matthau’s wife in her last film.
There are certainly multiple reasons why I was curious to finally see FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER. Walter Matthau is probably the best of them. But more than that is because it’s yet another one of those films that I remember existing when I was a kid (here’s the trailer which I vaguely remember from way back then) and never saw because they were rated R or simply not for kids in general so for reasons that I could never possibly explain I’ve always been curious about them. More often than not they’re the sort of films that aren’t made by major studios anymore but I get to finally seek them out. On principle, I’m fine with something like FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER (available now from the Warner Archive if you're so inclined) and I don’t mind at all that I saw it, not one bit. But even if its premise is dated it still doesn’t have the snap that the best possible version of the storyline might have had. As a movie it’s pleasant but unmemorable and that’s really about it. So I just need to move onto the next film I’ve always wondered about, whatever that is. And it may be better, but most likely it won’t have the glorious sight of Walter Matthau fumbling with chopsticks and if nothing else at least FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER has that.

Monday, January 27, 2014

That's A Fact

Twenty years on since TOMBSTONE, released December 25, 1993 and the film has survived as one of the most fondly remembered westerns of the past few decades. No one really saw that coming—a chaotic production which was rushed into theaters (presumably to beat the following summer’s WYATT EARP) the studio barely put any effort into selling the film beyond the formality of letting people know it was there only to find surprisingly good reviews, healthy business and talk that Val Kilmer might have gotten an Oscar nomination if they had bothered to push him for one. I enjoyed the film too when I caught up with it on New Year’s Day of that holiday season and actually have a recollection of feeling a sudden sense of ease during an early scene as I found myself realizing that this film was going to work. And it does, for the most part anyway. It kinda sorta falters at a certain point in the last stretch but enough of TOMBSTONE holds together that it’s still a rewarding one to return to. It’s a flat out western with a capital W and it’s become such a rarity to find one willing to revel in the sheer pleasure of that quite so much. In that celebration of the genre is a portrayal of family, of friendships, of myth as well as an acknowledgement that this in telling this story again on film it’s part of that myth, right from how the black & white footage in the opening prologue narrated by the legendary Robert Mitchum is capped by the famous final shot from THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY. In that sense, TOMBSTONE is saying, little has changed. We still need those legends and every now and then it’s good to find one which embraces that idea the way this film does.
In 1879 former lawman Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) has decided to settle down with wife Mattie (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) in the growing mining town of Tombstone, Arizona along with brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott), Morgan (Bill Paxton) and their wives. The Earps are soon joined by Wyatt’s old friend Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) with his girl Big Nose Kate (Joanna Pacula) and the group begins to take charge of a local saloon as Wyatt turns down any and all offers to wear a badge again. But with troubles in his marriage even as Wyatt’s attention is distracted by traveling performer Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany) matters are soon complicated by the presence of The Cowboys, a gang that includes the likes of Curly Bill Brocius (Powers Boothe), Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) and Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang) with their eye on taking charge of Tombstone. Unwilling to stand by and watch this happen to the town the Earps soon take charge, imposing a weapons ban within the city limits but even as Wyatt resists getting involved the tensions between the two sides grow leading to the legendary showdown at the O.K. Corral.
It’s that early scene when the newly arrived Wyatt Earp lines up himself and wife Mattie along with his brothers and their wives in the reflection of a nearby window, just to let them gaze upon that moment of the reunion. And as the music swells a certain sense of comfort is felt, a realization of what this film is going to care about and it all begins to click from there, whether or not these feelings have anything to do with the real Wyatt Earp and his kin. Written by Kevin Jarre and directed by George P. Cosmatos (and more on those credits in a bit), TOMBSTONE isn’t a great film but it is an extremely enjoyable one, more endearing than anything else, which counts for a lot and as a result it remains a rousing example of the genre, an unabashed piece of unpretentious entertainment. Much as there might be a tinge of updated revisionism it quickly becomes clear that it’s flat-out in love with the idea of being an old-fashioned western and is the sort of film that wants to celebrate moments like riding through the range towards the next frontier, the next town, more than any such film in the immediate post-UNFORGIVEN period. It depicts the setting of the title in a way that feels lived-in and movieish all at once as well as featuring an expansive look and feel thanks to cinematographer William Fraker with historical touches on the edges of the frame all set to Bruce Broughton’s triumphantly full-bodied score. Going along with that is group of actors who seem perfectly cast for a movie where you would just want to hang out with the people who are up onscreen and that just adds to the sense of pleasure felt right off.
Even if some of the narrative is a little too choppy at times the story holds together to an almost surprising degree with a great deal of momentum building as the tension ratchets up towards the confrontation we’re all waiting for and it’s fun to just sit back with it, to enjoy the brothers and Doc Holliday bantering, to take in the wide expanses of Wyatt and Josie getting to know each other as they ride their horses during their first real meeting. It clicks along, there’s a real energy to it. Maybe it’s not the old west of classic Hollywood old west but it gets the spirit right and feels like the right sort of update for the 90s and also beyond. Plus the O.K. Corral sequence with its Leone-like close-ups (I assume that some of the violence wants to ape Peckinpah but it doesn’t mix in quite as successfully) building to a wink from Doc Holliday that really sets off the fireworks is a nifty piece of action filmmaking that pays off what’s been built up. As much as certain elements may have been added for this telling, like the red sashes of The Cowboys which feel like they’re meant to blatantly resemble gang colors, the straight-forward nature of the story being told feels flat-out refreshing looking at it again now, maybe even more than it was then. If the same script were made today I’d imagine the whole thing would be grunged up—the primary colors of the red sashes and certain costumes wouldn’t be quite so prominent, the period appropriate moustaches would probably be done away with in favor of a more grimey unshaven look (Sam Elliott’s moustache here has to be the Sam Elliott Moustache to end all Sam Elliott Moustaches), Tombstone probably wouldn’t appear as welcoming. Plus I’d imagine that it wouldn’t be allowed to be nearly as much fun. And that pure enjoyment is so much of what causes TOMBSTONE to work. In some ways it feels like a movie about fun actors playing cowboy as much as anything and those good feelings bring an epic feel to this retelling of the famous story almost more than anything else about it.
Keeping in mind the troubled shoot, the pacing is at times a touch haphazard with some scenes that could remain just as easily as being left out, which makes it easy to believe that there are also such moments missing. With some of the actors on the edges of those crowd shots seemingly doing their business whether the camera takes notice or not there seems to be enough lurking on the outskirts of the plot to make us wonder what we’re missing, like whatever’s going on between Billy Zane and Jason Priestly (even though he’s fourth billed in at least one trailer Priestly doesn’t have much presence at all in the final film) or how Dana Delaney’s relationship with Jon Tenney’s County Sheriff Johnny Behan seems to both start and end out of nowhere. Dialogue refers to the town being terrorized by the Cowboys but outside of one crucial murder it feels like we don’t see enough of that. But to its credit the movie does know how to compensate by keeping characters alive within scenes when they don’t even have dialogue like a tight close-up on Joanna Pacula’s Big Nose Kate while Doc Holliday receives news from a doctor and it keeps certain minor players active in the narrative even when they’re not doing anything so they aren’t forgotten about—that it knows how to juggle so many faces feels like a triumph in itself. It’s not perfect and as much as certain scenes feel like they’re given a chance to play out in a relaxed way between the chararcters, like when Morgan Earp talks about a book he read on spiritualism, just as many feel like they’re slamming through to the basic expository plot points as fast as possible, giving the impression that lots was cut down to get the film to a reasonable length—Cecil Hoffman, recognizable from L.A. LAW around this period, gets decent billing (and even a name for her character) for what appears to be a single reaction shot while an important court hearing is only discussed after the fact making me wonder if the scene was cut during shooting.
The post-Tombstone section of the last half hour is the weakest section containing a few fast montages of rapid action and not a lot of plot since much of the interesting stuff has happened already--I saw the film once when it played theaters but not again for years afterward and I remember that I checked out of the film for a few minutes at the exact same time on both viewings. Maybe it’s because when Wyatt & friends set off on a roaring rampage of revenge it feels like a new movie is starting—it’s like we’re getting to see cool stuff that it didn’t know how to fit in otherwise but the style seems all wrong and even though this is just a few minutes of the running time it still causes the movie to stumble at this point with way too much repetition. The story strands do come together near the very end with two scenes that resolve both Wyatt’s relationship with Doc and with Josephine in ways that feel appropriate for what the film is so even the final narration by Robert Mitchum (who was set to play Old Man Clanton before sidelined by an injury suffered on set; the part was simply omitted) which races through multiple important events that we never got to see has the right spirit.
Ultimately TOMBSTONE pays off in a way that feels satisfying, like a meal at a roadside diner which you never imagined could be so good. And it’s all anchored by Kurt Russell, bringing all his onscreen confidence to the role with every bit of likeability and power associated with him, turning this version of Wyatt Earp into an earthbound legend that deserves to be followed. Ultimately, the film is about Wyatt Earp embracing the destiny of the lawman that he is and leading a charge into hell against the evil of The Cowboys while at the same time looking for his own idea of heaven in the form of Josie, the woman he winds up dancing in the snow with right before ordering room service. Whether that’s really legend or fact, it seems correct for this particular film.
Production began with screenwriter Kevin Jarre making his directorial debut but after falling behind and apparent dissatisfaction with his footage he was replaced several weeks into shooting by George P. Cosmatos (some of what Jarre shot, including Charlton Heston’s entire role, remains in the film). While reports of the troubled production made it out there at the time—including an Entertainment Weekly article which is surprisingly frank—it wasn’t until a 2006 interview in True West magazine that Kurt Russell basically admitted to essentially ghost-directing the movie himself when Cosmatos was brought in after Jarre was fired. Many scenes were lost in the rush to keep the shoot on schedule and Russell, who claims he made substantial cuts to his own role to get the other actors to trust him, says just enough in the interview to leave me with even more questions—I also wonder about a claim in the Entertainment Weekly article that those revenge montages were a Cosmatos addition, considering they’re my least favorite stuff in the film. Not to mention what Kevin Jarre, let alone anyone else on set, would say about it all.
Sadly both the credited writer and director have since passed away—Jarre in 2011, Cosmatos in 2005—so there are some answers we’re never going to get but it’s still hard not to hope for some sort of expanded version featuring scenes that are only glimpsed in the trailers and that didn’t even turn up in the 2002 “director’s cut” released on DVD (In 2006 Russell answered, “Because I got a life. Someday I may do it,” when asked why he hadn’t reconstructed the film). Whatever is the truth about Russell’s involvement, and I can believe that it’s a complicated truth, it’s sometimes a miracle that a film is ever made, let alone good, so however good this one is has to be this confluence of events where several people just determined to get something done and they pulled it off. Or maybe it was just in the stars, although I don't know if something that becomes remembered as fondly as TOMBSTONE ultimately is happens without some work getting done. Maybe that’s partly what the film is about as well.
The cast, filled with people who I imagine in ’93 often weren’t even the third or fourth choices for big movies, is a large part of what makes the movie work and you can feel their excitement for playing these characters—Kurt Russell is the sturdy rock that holds much of it together, while Val Kilmer who clearly has the best roll (and best dialogue of anyone) feels almost like he’s doing Captain Jack Sparrow ten years before Johnny Depp yet never feels like he’s in a different movie than everyone else. He’s always adding to his character by playing off those around him and when he chastises Wyatt for insisting that this isn’t Doc’s fight the feelings in his voice are genuine even through the flamboyance. Sam Elliott’s serious determination and Bill Paxton’s youthful enthusiasm play well off of Russell as well. The movie is willing to give the actors the chance to do things with their moments, like the Latin-off between Kilmer and Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo. Biehn with his nasty intelligence is particularly good but Powers Boothe and his slimy canniness, Stephen Lang’s filthy cowardice, Thomas Haden Church’s slow-witted callowness and Billy Bob Thornton’s hollow bluster in a small role all stick out in their own ways. As Mattie, Dana-Wheeler Nicholson does something with what might come off as a one-note role in lesser hands, while though Dana Delaney doesn’t quite seem period appropriate she still manages to be completely disarming making you believe that Wyatt is totally stopped in his tracks by this modern woman and Joanna Pacula as Big Nose Kate has such an effective, smoldering presence that it makes me wonder why there aren’t whole tumblr pages devoted to her in this film. Harry Carey, Jr., veteran of Ford and Hawks plays Marshal Fred White while Charlton Heston turns up in the final section as real-life rancher Henry Hooker--I particularly like the way the full breadth of his character seems to be revealed in the way he offers his hand to Wyatt right before he rides off. Maybe the scenes don’t really add up to very much beyond giving Heston a chance to make an appearance but it still has resonance as if he’s reprising a role he played in a western long ago and is helping out the leads in this film because, well, that’s what heroes do.
Twenty years on TOMBSTONE is now its own legend, a film with an old fashioned approach that still succeeds in being something new. Six months later it was clear that WYATT EARP wanted to be the David Lean western. This one wants to be a good time, one that still has the shadings needed in the story of Wyatt Earp, while still respecting that legend. I’m not saying one automatically makes it better than the other, they’re just two approaches, but somehow it succeeded. Maybe TOMBSTONE is a case where part of the intent makes me overlook certain flaws and overblown elements but its best moments work so well that they get me to dream of a world where westerns like this still get made. Thinking about this, when the end circles back to Robert Mitchum’s narration the very last line that details what Tom Mix did at Wyatt Earp’s funeral feels absolutely correct. I could imagine that most people seeing TOMBSTONE don’t even know who Tom Mix is, but the point is clear. Those legends matter. It’s why we love westerns to begin with.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Not Even A Song

“Let’s face the music and dance,” as Fred once sang to Ginger. Sooner or later you need to, even if things don’t always work out so well in the real world when you try. Long ago when Quentin Tarantino appeared on Charlie Rose to discuss PULP FICTION (the interview can be found on the DVD and Blu-ray--it’s a good one) he brought up the concept of the evolution of director’s careers, specifically during the period of the 70s through the 80s, examining where certain directors seemed to pivot away from the interesting stuff—often, Tarantino says, there would be one big film from a director which would be then dismissed if not the biggest flop of their careers, after which they would begin to repeat themselves or just do star vehicles. Tarantino declined to mention anyone specifically, only saying he had a few in mind, but I’ve always felt he was onto something interesting about tracking certain careers that doesn’t get discussed very much and while I have no idea who he was actually thinking of one who has always come to mind for me in terms of this, probably not the most expected name, was Herbert Ross. With a background that began on the stage, particularly working as a choreographer, Ross has a genuinely interesting run of films in the 70s with titles like THE LAST OF SHEILA and THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION along with acclaimed hits like THE TURNING POINT, THE GOODBYE GIRL (which were nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars in the same year) and CALIFORNIA SUITE. His ambitious, expensive adaptation of PENNIES FROM HEAVEN came in 1981 after which there were more Neil Simon adaptations (I OUGHT TO BE IN PICTURES followed in theaters a mere three months later), a huge hit in FOOTLOOSE as well as a number of, well, star vehicles like the very 80s THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS and MY BLUE HEAVEN which reunited Ross with PENNIES star Steve Martin.
So I wonder if PENNIES FROM HEAVEN was the sort of artistic summation Tarantino might have been thinking of. It’s just a theory, that Ross in assembling the material from Dennis Potter adapting his own teleplay, along with bringing in genuinely brilliant technical craftsman like director of photography Gordon Willis and production designer Ken Adam as well as a star in Steve Martin who at that point was looking to try something different was able to achieve more than he ever had in a film, to put up on the screen everything about the medium that he wanted to express. And what happened, happened. PENNIES FROM HEAVEN was a commercial disaster when released in December 1981 (that’s one hell of a Christmas gift from MGM) but it did receive considerable acclaim from some circles including an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay as well as a win at the Golden Globes for star Bernadette Peters. Plus Pauline Kael, in one of those rapturous reviews that she occasionally turned out, declared it “The most emotional movie musical I’ve ever seen.” It also wouldn’t be a bad guess to make that Lars Von Trier has probably seen it a few times. On a historical level, you could even point out that the film is for all intents and purposes the last MGM musical that was ever filmed on that famous lot even if some people might take issue with the term ‘musical’ here. PENNIES FROM HEAVEN isn’t an easy film. I’m ok with that. Some of it is also transcendent in a way that few films ever even attempt, let alone achieve.
In 1934 Chicago, smack during the middle of the Depression, sheet-music salesman Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) is unhappy in his life and in his marriage to equally unhappy wife Joan (Jessica Harper). The only respite he has from his daily life and unsuccessful business is his frequent journeys into his own dreamworld where he fantasizes a world where the songs he peddles come true just like they do in Hollywood musicals. He thinks things might change when he meets schoolteacher Eileen (Bernadette Peters) although while she lets him take advantage he doesn’t tell her the truth about his marriage. But as bad as things soon get for Eileen who finds herself in her own predicament and unable to find Arthur, an unfortunate twist of fate is about to make things much, much worse for him and even the songs in his head are unable to do anything about it.
Considering they both come from the same late 70s-early 80s filmic period (although actually released four and a half years apart) on the surface PENNIES FROM HEAVEN seems somewhat of a piece with Scorsese’s NEW YORK, NEW YORK in terms of how they’re both over-stylized look at a clash of the film world and real world, between dreams and reality, between what we wish would be and how it’s going to turn out no matter what. As I’ve written about before NEW YORK, NEW YORK, fascinating as it is, kind of makes me want to jump out the nearest window whereas PENNIES FROM HEAVEN hits something deep down, more than I want to confront, more than I want to admit. Even after many viewings I’m still taken aback by how nasty certain moments in its real-world half are, how utterly despondent and vulgar. But they have to be there. The conceit, for anyone who doesn’t know, is that all of the ‘musical numbers’ actually and intentionally consist of lip-synched performances of vintage recordings in fantasy sequences which is what makes it partly a musical and partly not. But what the hell, let’s call it a musical, just about the most blissful musical imaginable, and looking at a few of the numbers on Youtube by themselves always provides a momentary hit of joy but when properly framed against what surrounds them makes that joy presented in them all the more palpable. Why can’t life be that simple, that glorious? Whoever said you could stop a dream? Aside from the whole world, that is, and it’s the world that PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is set in.
Taking on this film so soon after his run as the most successful stand-up comedian around as well as the smash hit of THE JERK two years earlier was about as brave as it could have gotten for Steve Martin and while there have been comic actors in the years since who have made similar stretches I can’t think of another example where it came so soon and attempted to move so far from where that person previously had been. Coupled with how jarring the film intentionally is, how utterly despairing the story being told really is deep down, is how the star is playing a role not only miles away from what he was famous for at the time but also someone who is, much as he talks about wanting to live in a place where the songs come true and are real, a total shit. Not at all the nice, kind and gentle person Eileen thinks he is, just a cowardly shit with a secret desire of where he wants his wife to put some lipstick on, who can’t comprehend a life that might have to come after those songs. How far the movie takes this is just about the most surprising thing about it now. But there’s a palpable desperation in Martin’s voice as Arthur that I recognize, what he’s dreaming of seems more eerily familiar to me than I want to admit. Both utterly joyous and beyond sorrowful at once, it’s a near miraculous piece of work as a film.
Part of that miracle has to be every single one of those musical numbers beginning with the simplicity of the first yearning moment as he ‘sings’ to his wife in the bathroom as she brushes her teeth to the exhilaration of the bank scene, Eileen's schoolhouse fantasy to the tune of “Love is Good for Anything That Ails You”, Christopher Walken coming out of nowhere for his one scene performance of “Let’s Misbehave”, Martin and Peters taking the place of Astaire and Rogers in a recreation of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from FOLLOW THE FLEET and maybe most memorably of all, the absolutely otherworldly dance performed by Vernel Bagneris as the Accordion Man during the title song. Every single one of the musical numbers cuts deep more than expected, the film clearly wanting to believe what’s in the musical numbers and the dreams of happiness, joy, laughter, wealth, as much as Arthur wants to, but it knows that it can’t and at times the songs don’t seem to end as much as either drifting off into the mind of the person imagining it or otherwise rudely interrupted by reality. The entire production has such an otherworldly aura somehow placed onto its celluloid it seems unreal that this was ever really accomplished and along with Ross’s direction the look provided by Gordon Willis could make him the auteur of the project as much as anyone, pitting the two worlds against each other—the GODFATHER-like shadows seen in the darkness framed against the unspeakable beauty of the musical numbers. In addition, the recreation of Edward Hopper paintings and Walker Evans photography being an integral part of the overall design which combined only adds to the heightened reality of a world that we may never come close to achieving.
As harsh as the story surrounding those musical numbers can be, almost brutally harsh, the moments of grace in the real world scenes make a mark, the moment of silence on the street with Arthur and the Accordion Man, John McMartin’s outwardly stern principal quietly remembering when he taught in Eileen’s classroom years before, all deliberately thrown against scenes where characters are not connecting with each other for different reasons, the ability of human connection rarely ever able to be as ideal as they are in those songs. Even with those beats of unbearable emotion, the 108 minutes of PENNIES FROM HEAVEN feels almost surprisingly tight with editor Richard Marks keeps the pacing impeccable—during a 20th Anniversary panel at the Motion Picture Academy back in 2001 (an edited version of which can be found on the DVD) several deleted scenes were mentioned including a final scene for Bagneris’ character and, more surprising, what was described as a scene showing the full murder of someone who in the final film is only found dead later on. I can recall Steve Martin commenting that ‘you can feel the movie running out of money’ at a certain point, possibly referring to how the same location is oddly used multiple times. Or maybe he was referring to how the ending feels like it’s missing a beat, a reminder of just how much of a fantasy it is, beyond just showing us that fantasy. These are minor points. And yet when one character calls after another near the very end, the sound echoing as if to accentuate the fakery of the scene simply being shot on a soundstage, the effect is about as haunting as I could possibly imagine.
I’m also reminded about how the character of Arthur is pretty much a prick who can’t give someone a quarter without being an ass about it, even as he’s looking for his own form of grace. When he calls out a declaration to a blind girl he meets played by Eliska Krupka he means it with all his heart, as clumsily melodramatic as the words sound. Late in the film he breaks down as if pleading for mercy declaring, “I’ve always known something terrible was going to happen to me.” I don’t even want to say what I think when I hear that line, only that it reminds me of how the recurring use of the song “Somewhere the Sun is Shining” causes it to sound like the inevitability of fate, a reminder that as much as you want it there’s nothing turning back from the road you’re on. I’ve disappeared into my own dreams more than a few times as well. I’m not sure if PENNIES is the single most emotional musical I’ve ever seen, to borrow the line from Kael, but it seems to understand the unreachable gap between the two halves like few others ever made. It’s not just emotional, it’s soulful. It’s gorgeous. It’s despairing. It’s haunting. It’s not a film I want to live without. If anything, I’m just worried that it’s only going to get sadder as time goes on, as I keep on returning to it in search of that joy.
On initial viewings years ago Steve Martin seemed not quite right to me as if as an actor wasn’t up to the challenges of this part just yet (certainly following up THE JERK with this was commercial madness; now, it doesn’t matter). But looking at it now he seems perfect, every ounce of bitterness feeling truly genuine as those songs play in his head, every piece of bullshit that Arthur slings in wooing Eileen showing off just how much he’s trying to keep the truth from slipping out. Plus his innate sense of timing serves him perfectly when he dances. Bernadette Peters is astonishing, going right from her timidity when she first appears before Arthur in a music store to when she gives that one final ‘yes’ to Christopher Walken to make it clear she understands him and through all that makes it clear how much stronger she is than Arthur as well. Good as the two leads are, it’s very possible that Jessica Harper does the strongest work here, playing a character who is nowhere close to the vision of wonder of something like PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE but someone who the anger and fear that clearly lies within her is absolutely palpable. Either written as shrewish or just perceived that way through how Arthur sees her (which makes me think of how astonishing it is to just look at Jessica Harper’s eyes at certain points), she’s never comes off as friendly at all yet there’s clearly a human being under there, one who’s hurting as much as anyone. It’s just been smothered by life and a husband who she may know better than he wishes but she still has no idea how to communicate with. Christopher Walken is a total powerhouse in his one scene as the pimp encountered by Eileen, Vernel Bagneris is truly haunting as The Accordion Man, while among the many actors who make an impression even in small roles John Karlen is particularly effective as the twitchy police detective who questions Joan about Arthur and as the blind girl Eliska Krupka (per imdb only one other screen credit, in 1988’s DANCE ACADEMY) is beyond ethereal. When he meets her Arthur’s reaction makes sense. I’m pretty sure I’ve wanted to say what he says to girls I’ve never seen again. Some of them haunt me in the dead of night the way this film does.
Oh yes, it all originated as a miniseries, didn’t it? It aired in 1978 on the BBC and starred Bob Hoskins. Feel free to put it on my tombstone, ‘He never saw the original production of Pennies From Heaven’. All right, maybe that’s a little harsh since I’m sure the original is pretty great—I can imagine it has considerably more breathing room with the plot allowing it co clarify certain details that feel a little rushed over—but I’ve reached the point of being fed up with people who, whenever the film version is mentioned no matter what the context, have to pipe in with declaring that the only real Pennies From Heaven is the original and anyone who says otherwise is a philistine. It’s like arguing with the people who insist that Tony Soprano died when that final episode went to black. Actually, it’s worse. I’m done engaging with those people, on Facebook or otherwise. The PENNIES FROM HEAVEN that I’ve always known flopped but it exists now and it certainly has enough admirers to allow for that packed house at the Academy to celebrate its 20th anniversary back in 2001. During the discussion that followed the screening one of panelists onstage mentioned that it was possibly the greatest screening the film ever had. Having been there and seen how well the audience responded to it, I can believe that. It was glorious. The audience loved it. It’s a sort of joy that films rarely have, the kind that understand you can only really appreciate that joy when things are at their absolute worst. And it’s the sort of film that knows both feelings often remain with you forever.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

To Numb The Sense Of Impending Doom

I’ve always been the sort of person to dwell a little too much on the past but so much time has gone by since I left the town I grew up in (Scarsdale, NY, as I’ve written about before) that any ghosts left back there when I moved away have reverted to being little more than tiny pieces of memory rummaging around the back of my head. I’ve long since moved onto other hopes, other women, other regrets, other dreams that never quite worked out. You get older but those things still chase after you in the dead of night, the girls in question still pop their heads up when you run into them at the exact wrong time.
The end of the year has now turned into the beginning of the year. Whether it’s the beginning of anything else for me, I suppose time will tell. A year ago at this time I announced that I was ending this blog. Of course, I changed my mind several months later and now have no plans to stop again. I’d update it more if I could. If I’d thought about it rationally at the time I would have just taken a quiet sort of sabbatical and left it at that but whatever my reasons were, burnout or what have you, I ultimately came to a place where I missed it. Writing this blog is a good thing for me, regardless of who is reading, it’s an outlet to express myself and what I love. Crazy as it sounds now, this blog is a part of me. And if anyone out there appreciates odd, long looks at the likes of CISCO PIKE or STRANGERS WHEN WE MEET then you have my gratitude. As I’ve written about before, few films have resonated with me the way Edgar Wright’s SHAUN OF THE DEAD was able to when it was released in 2004 and now going on a decade later I’m finding a certain similar kinship with Wright’s recent THE WORLD’S END (written by himself & star Simon Pegg), billed as the final part of his Cornetto trilogy with 2007’s HOT FUZZ coming in the middle. It’s a film which is as tightly plotted as possible while at the same time a complete and total character study within that incessant narrative drive—it’s swirling with what feels like a lot of ghosts from the past of the people who made the film. It’s often hilarious as well, although the laughs have a different goal than they did in Wright’s earlier films, a reminder of how they’re not designed to go down as easy as they have in the past. They’re not supposed to.
Fortyish and aimless Gary King (Simon Pegg) suddenly comes up with a plan to reunite his childhood friends Andy (Nick Frost), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine) and Peter (Eddie Marsan) to return to their hometown of Newton Haven and recreate the night they attempted the Golden Mile, a crawl of the small English town’s twelve pubs which they never finished way back when on a night Gary remembers as the greatest night of their lives. Somehow talked into it by Gary, the reluctant four turn up and as Gary wonders why a few of the bartenders don’t remember him old tensions soon begin to rise up not the least of which is when Oliver’s sister Sam (Rosamund Pike), who Gary and Steven always fought over, also turns up. But all of these arguments are back-burnered, or at least you’d think they would be, when Gary makes the most surprising discovery of what has really happened to their hometown of all.
Often designed to allow for jokes that can only fully register on repeat viewings, this is a part of what makes Edgar Wright's films so good and so rich but ultimately it’s not what draws me back over and over. There’s clearly something I’m connecting with--as director and screenwriter his style is developing, growing, making his characters even more vivid, the continuing onslaught of dialogue that much more memorable and makes me sit there in awe, whatever identification I feel towards some of it more than a little unnerving in how it hits close to home. In making up a ten best list for 2013 (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is at number one and that’s what I have to say about that; much of the rest is in flux) I found myself putting this one pretty close to the top for a number of reasons. And I’m not rewatching just for the pure sensation of it all.
While looking at some of THE WORLD’S END again I found myself fixating on the setting of Newton Haven and the prominent glimpses of renovations taking place along with the sameness of it all, the landscape being improved (WE BUILD WE IMPROVE WE PERFECT a few banners read) with the ‘Blanks’ that pose the overall threat chasing after Simon Pegg’s Gary King and his friends, to reach out and make sure they can never leave again with every metaphorical significance imaginable. HOT FUZZ didn’t contain anything quite so specific in its storyline but Edgar Wright actually filming that one in his hometown adds a subtext of a place that wants to get its grip on you and your individuality, getting out some of his feelings about what was burrowing underneath before he could move on. And that’s all over THE WORLD’S END, a film that has the past chasing after you, the place that was once an integral part of your world chasing after you, trying to get you to submit to conformity and abandon what was always your true identity. The phrase “It’s time to go home” turns up in THE WORLD’S END, reminiscent of a similar sentiment in SHAUN OF THE DEAD, but even though it doesn’t necessarily mean something literal in each case it stings as if recalling what someone actually said long ago. If anything, it seems to mean that someone who’s been putting off actually becoming an adult should finally start to live like everyone else. Just grow up already. Stuff that keeps me up in the middle of the night is different these days than it once was, but I do understand the concept of the past chasing after you, having to realize that you’re never going to fully reconcile certain things as you try to somehow face the future. Does that even matter? Does anything about the past even matter? It’s a film about people who are older than they used to be—some are ok with that, some clearly aren’t. I’m still not sure which category I fall into.
The first 35 minutes of THE WORLD’S END are so tight and well-played that it’s tempting to imagine the version where it doesn’t take such an extreme right turn and remains a character-based comedy with the five leads getting progressively drunker, the inner demons coming out more and more. Maybe some would have preferred this and, yes, it would be nice to see what the Edgar Wright version of something purely character based would be one of these days (with this trilogy now complete, there has to be something else to come, right?) especially considering how good his narrative skills are. But the genre element is not only appropriate as a way to follow SHAUN and FUZZ, it also serves as an updated version of British stories of decades past along the lines of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED not to mention INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (particularly the ’78 version—that film showed at Wright’s pre-release ‘World’s End is Nigh’ series at the New Beverly in August along with other pertinent titles like WESTWORLD, AFTER HOURS and IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER). As things proceed from one pub to the next on this 12-step journey it becomes fascinating to see how the two genres are melded together and the pacing is so non-stop which adds to the growing paranoia immeasurably. After the first third the John Carpenter-like frisson of the townspeople continually lurking there in shots has that much more of an effect (Bill Pope’s evocative cinematography feels deliberately anamorphic in all the best ways) and somehow the overall narrative manages to reference both PRINCE OF DARKNESS and THEY LIVE at once.
Much as the dread builds and the sci-fi plot takes over, much as the tight time frame of the story keeps things moving, the character aspect never takes a backseat—there’s a dream element to it all, actually—and it’s as if these parts of the movie are battling with each other which almost seems like part of the point. Within what turns out to be more than just a sci-fi spin on SHAUN OF THE DEAD that you’d expect the film seems aware that there’s something wrong with this bar crawl that these guys are really too old for this. More than that, it’s whatever’s wrong with Gary King that nobody seems quite willing to call him on it right away. As you’re facing 40 (not to mention moving beyond it) certain things start to matter more so some of the drama in THE WORLD’S END matter more as well. Not only does Gary King want to recreate what he insists was the greatest night of his life—and, really, who wants to peak when they’re 18 anyway?—it’s as if when he sees the truth of what’s really going on it’s a chance to make it even greater. Pegg’s Shaun in SHAUN OF THE DEAD seems to know that the clock is running out on the chance to take some responsibility for his life but with Gary King, either he knows the clock has run out or he’s not paying attention anymore, long since having disappeared from the lives of his friends and the movie gets that awkwardness of seeing an old friend who you don’t have much of a connection with anymore—Gary’s strung-out appearance makes me think of when I’ve gone way too long without a haircut recently and reminds me that, for all I know, I am that guy. To be honest, I’ve sometimes feel a little like I’ve imploded in the past few years. I don’t really want to remember the past but I’m not sure what else to say either.
Paced like a metronome that gradually gets faster and faster (the work by editor Paul Machliss is impeccable and composer Steven Price’s score is dynamic as well), with Wright’s visual style stronger and more confident than ever allowing for a genuine flow in the scenes between the five guys playing off each other. The way moments are choreographed within the frame are so precise in their activity even during otherwise standard medium shots is continually thrilling, the shots are almost musical in how everything goes together. The fight scenes are phenomenally well executed but more than that I love the unrelenting kinetic feel of that foot chase to the Hole in the Wall and fight that follows which almost feels like a complete musical number in itself. Certainly part of what draws me back for repeat viewings are the various ideas that are mixed into how utterly densely thematic is its, the insistence on the individual over conformity going up against a force that’s controlling everything, a conglomerate if you will, which declares that ‘there are no losers’ in their new world order but we know otherwise. It’s the sort of thing that science fiction is rarely allowed to do in films anymore since they’re mostly just action movies. So it’s about not just regret but also what’s happening to your town, to the world, the Starbucking (I actually could use a Grande Pike right now, so it isn’t like I’m not willingly a part of all this) and wondering what that’s doing to everyone around you. And there’s the idea that the best way to deal with the growing awareness of the threat is to get progressively drunker—hey, it’s probably the best way to handle that sort of thing anyway. THE WORLD’S END doesn’t have the solutions to what to do about all this beyond the very concept of the oblivion that lasts beyond the end credits—maybe moving past 40 is a sort of oblivion anyway. How everything wraps up has been controversial and I’m still not sure how well the end works but I do admire it for how much Wright and Pegg are trying to take their concept even further than we would have imagined. Plus there is something correct about it. Gary King, in the rubble of all that he causes to happen, comes up with the right answer for himself. The most pure version of himself, pure as water.
The characterizations are continually alive within the frame and the unspoken baggage of the individual interactions between Gary and his various friends who have grown apart makes it all the more real. The few minutes where they do get along in pub no. 4 have a hangout vibe that makes me wish there could have been more of this sort of thing, not that I have any idea where such scenes would have gone. As broadly drawn as they are I believe each of these guys and whatever lives they’ve lived since they last saw Gary King—Eddie Marsan’s Peter with his innocent awkwardness, Paddy Considine’s Steven with his lurking hostility towards Gary, Martin Freeman’s Oliver with his Bluetooth forever an extension of the rest of his precise movements. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have the meatiest stuff to play, a sort of culmination of their on-screen relationships in previous films and they both do some of their very best work, each with little touches there for you to find it. The bottled-up way Nick Frost plays Andy is some of the most subtle work in the film with physical movements that become more aw-inspiring the more the film goes on while Simon Pegg’s performance as Gary really shows how far he’s come in the years since SPACED and SHAUN OF THE DEAD, his overbearing insistence on how great everything’s going to be building just right to what he finally admits near the end. Rosamund Pike (good god she’s gorgeous. Why can’t she be in every movie?) is immediately endearing as Sam, projecting whatever lived-in resignation her character has along with her obvious intelligence. She’s not onscreen very long but is more endearing here than ever before and provides just the right sort of light as the night grows darker. Plus there’s the brief lift given by a certain famous former co-star of hers who turns up in a prominent cameo and, for that matter, many of the bit players who appear throughout. I particularly like the unnerving cheerfulness of SPACED’s Mark Heap as Publican 7.
“Gary, what happened?” asks Sam during their first moment alone. Yeah, what did happen? I walked around the village of Scarsdale a lot back in the day--some of Frankenheimer's SECONDS was filmed there before I was born right around the corner from the house I grew up in, speaking of films that might have inspired THE WORLD'S END. For all I know I looked like some weird kid wearing a long coat and carrying a newspaper like he thought there was actually a reason to do that. Maybe somebody noticed that I was a regular presence. And I wonder if anyone ever noticed when I was gone. I suppose the answer doesn’t matter. Not to mention that the movie theater has long since been torn down and I just don’t want to see what the place looks like without it. Gary King’s business in Newton Haven is finished, sort of like everything Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg were trying to say about their own pasts with these three films is finished. My business in Scarsdale has long since been finished there too (most of the drinking I’ve done was actually after I moved away from Scarsdale so it’s one association I don’t have with the film, but that’s another can of tuna). No one’s waiting for me back there. But we each need to face up to our past in our own way. The future, meantime, is a sort of oblivion where if we’re lucky we can figure out what our own happy ending is. And maybe somehow I still have a shot. Anyway, time to move onward to 2014. There’s more to do. More films to see and write about. Drink up. Let’s Boo-Boo.