Saturday, May 31, 2014

Look How Far It Got You

Even if I don’t hang out at Ye Rustic on Hillhurst anymore or go to various parties throughout Silverlake with the same people I still see some familiar faces from those days every now and then. There’s one woman who I don’t see much at all beyond the odd Trader Joe’s sighting but I know she has a kid now, a few years old by this point. Looking at photos of her on Facebook I see a different person than I knew, or at least thought I knew back in the days when I couldn’t imagine anyone ever seeming more deadpan in life than she was. We were never close but I suppose thinking back on it now she’s one of those many people who pass through your world that you only ever know slightly but still think fondly of. People who show up in your life for little more than random appearances wind up making an impression. So I guess because of that whenever I look at Sarah Polley’s unpredictable, enigmatic, take-no-shit character in 1999’s GO I’m always reminded of that woman. It makes me think that much more fondly of the film as a result. Even though it makes no sense, it makes me think that much more fondly of her too. People are unpredictable. You didn’t know them then. You don’t know them now. You never will.
Written by John August and directed by Doug Liman, GO turned 15 this year, released in April 1999. Looking back, I think of that period as being a pretty carefree time in my life but that’s a lie. I know that I was worried about lot of what was going on. For one thing, NEWSRADIO was canceled right around then. Probably other stuff was happening too, but never mind. That’s what memory does. Enough time goes by, you’re not sure what really happened anymore. I’m still not sure about a lot of things. GO feels like a part of that time for both me and films that were released then, an offshoot of the effect Tarantino and PULP FICTION had on the world but it manages to siphon off the correct elements from that film to go correctly with its own particular style, coming up with its own overall tone in the process. There’s not that much of a story and not very much is resolved in the end to come out of that slight story, giving the whole thing a no consequences, live-to-rave-another-day vibe. The film just happens to be set on one of those days.
It’s the Christmas season in Los Angeles. Supermarket employee Ronna Martin (Sarah Polley) is behind on her rent and takes over the shift of Simon (Desmond Askew) who is going off to Vegas for the weekend with his ‘mates’ (Taye Diggs, Breckin Meyer, James Duval). The sudden appearance of actors Adam and Zack (Jay Mohr and Scott Wolf) looking to score off Simon leads Ronna, accompanied by friends Claire (Katie Holmes) and Mannie (Nathan Bexton), to seek out Simon’s dealer Todd Gaines (Timothy Olyphant) for a favor. But circumstances cause Ronna to try to pull one over on Todd which leads her to an even larger plan to score some more quick cash at the big Christmas rave happening that night. Meanwhile, Simon, who’s using Todd’s credit card, is off on his own adventure in Vegas involving a mishap on a strip club while Adam and Zack are trying to make good with the cop Burke (William Fichtner) they’re working undercover for but it turns out he has yet another agenda in mind for the evening.
The use of the Columbia logo at the very beginning of GO as it blends in with the sounds of a rave over the opening credits perfectly encapsulates the approach of the film, how things are always unexpectedly moving forward before you’re fully prepared, not quite knowing what’s ahead, not taking a moment to think of the consequences. During the period of the mid-to-late-90s when films trying to be in the Tarantino vein went way too overboard on the snarky violence GO walks a tightrope that keeps its tone somehow blithe and effortless. It’s funny but not snarky, edgy but never too nasty, always active and energetic. So much of the film looking at it again now remains enjoyably off-kilter and unpredictable in the very best ways right from the start, its propulsive style keeping things moving no matter what through every beat of the sly, offhand dialogue punctuated by the occasional out of nowhere burst of intensity. Even if things wind up not turning dangerous there’s always the feel in the air that they can.
A slicker, more plot-driven look at the scuzzy end of L.A. nightlife than the Liman-directed SWINGERS from three years earlier, the go-for-broke vibe the director brings to GO along with the AVID hiccups in the cutting style provided by Stephen Mirrone (who won the Oscar for editing TRAFFIC not long after this) is always well-executed, always with a purpose. The way August’s script crosses from one of the stories to the other, hip-hopping around the timeline, feels totally effortless while maintaining a loosey-goosey approach to its plotting that feels somehow correct—there’s a reason why Adam and Zack show up at the rave and it’s a funny one but still pretty irrelevant in the end and even the way two characters during the Vegas section are sidelined almost immediately from food poisoning (“I told you not to eat that shrimp”) adds to that unpredictable feeling as if even the film is a little surprised by who’s about to take center stage. Even the digressions, more than a few of them involving Nathan Bexton’s Mannie, feel totally a part of it all because if this film can’t have a digression involving an imagined conversation with a cat, what film can?
The non-linear narrative approach dividing the three sections felt very Tarantino at the time, even if he wasn’t the first to do that and the dark comedy, offhand violence as well as the handful of pop culture references (that the film never explains a certain Omar Sharif joke makes it funnier) certainly add to that familiar feeling but never takes it to such a dark place that would seem wrong for the material, threatening to go as far as some movies from that period did but not getting there because no one in it is really capable of those kinds of actions anyway. Their lives aren’t even fully real yet, like the story Taye Diggs’ Marcus is being told by Breckin Meyer that actually happened to him. Some of the characters are likable, some are idiots, some of them are clearly trying just a little too hard to seem like something that they’re not and more than a few I would never want to ever meet but the film has an affection for all of them, misplaced as it sometimes might be. And as loose as it might feel at times there is genuine skill evident in Liman’s direction with a point-of-view that always feels present, adding to the danger and dreamlike feel. There’s a skill to how he approaches each scene in the staging that stands out now, always making this world feel that much more filled in He even handles the repetition in the overlapping correctly. Looking at the film from all this distance now it occurs to me how the age gap between some of the characters makes the film caught between the vibes of Gen X and Gen Y, even if that specific term hadn’t been coined yet, which goes perfect with the off-kilter vibe. The film’s one real ‘adult’ (a strip club owner, of course) is left outside of all this with nothing to do but complain about how the world’s become a place where people get ahead just because of someone else’s incompetency. GO doesn’t see anything wrong with that. Its characters aren’t aware, at least not yet, of the alternative.
Along with the PULP FICTION vibe it’s also a little like the brief gangbanger scene from Liman’s own SWINGERS taken to feature length and the similarities to that film (including a similar poster; no shared cast members though) make them complement each other in intriguing ways. They not only both have 818 jokes—the one in SWINGERS is better, but no big deal—they each take a side trip to Las Vegas that runs close to a third of the running time. Unlike SWINGERS, Vegas in GO feels like its own world somehow cubed—nothing really matters and you can do anything you want, steal a car, get in a car chase, fire a gun, and there are no consequences. With the lives of everyone in it feeling somehow temporary, heading towards a destination that is uncertain, there are no real consequences in GO either. It’s not that kind of film. At a certain age, on a certain night, even if you’re almost in a car crash you sometimes never quite pay attention to those things. GO is minor but it seems ok with that. It has a first film feel, even if it wasn’t Liman’s first film, but it has the right energy to culminate in the ‘surprises’ that Claire talks about in the brief flash-forward that opens the film. It has a life to it all, even down to the winding down hungover feel of the last ten minutes when two characters unexpectedly sit down to breakfast. And it’s strangely optimistic too with the one totally selfless, honest action that happens between two people who never fully know what’s going on. Things are unexplained, then moved on from before they get fully clarified. “Girl in ditch, our problem. Girl out of ditch, her problem,” says Jay Mohr’s Zack to Scott Wolf’s Adam to clarify their position in things when they’ve gotten out of their jam. There’s only so much you can do, so far you can go, in just a few seconds. You do have to deal with your own problems before the sun comes up, after all. Even at the end, the final shot creeps in closer to the location for no particular reason but doesn’t pause. No point in stopping. No point in ever stopping.
It’s a film containing multiple performances that make me want to say, “Well, that person steals the show.” Sarah Polley seems to have left acting behind by now and I look forward to whatever she’s up to next but her work here sets the film apart more than it would have otherwise. She doesn’t have a dull moment here, there’s not a single gesture or inflection in her voice that doesn’t add to her characterization in some way. Frankly, the only thing wrong with the film, as fun as it is, is not only that Ronna isn’t in it the whole way through but that we didn’t get more films with this character—it’s a combination of character and performance but more than anyone else in the film I want to know what her story is beyond the film. Just her body language in a late scene as she limps her way through the supermarket again says so much and it’s a performance with an energy that feels completely daring. Katie Holmes, who seems to play every scene wondering what she’s doing there, matches up well with her as the presumably more straight-laced Claire as does Nathan Bexton who spends pretty much every moment he’s around blissfully unaware of anything around him.
Timothy Olyphant is particularly strong, without a line or reaction shot that is quite what you’d expect it to be while straddling the divider between sharp comic timing and a genuine sense of danger. Desmond Askew’s cockiness is continually enjoyable while even though there doesn’t seem to be much to Taye Diggs’ character on the page past his speech about tantric sex he brings his part a sly intelligence that mixes well with his co-stars. Jay Mohr and Scott Wolf play off each other just right as the bickering couple caught up in one thing after another on this night and this section still plays as a little progressive. Plus there’s Mohr’s mangled pronunciation of ‘bouillabaisse’ too. The unpredictable behavior of William Fichtner during the would-be drug bust and later on opposite Jane Krakowski at that early Christmas dinner adds a whole other element of nervous comedy to the film and I especially love the unexpected intensity in Krakowski’s eyes when she insists on how fast they’re climbing on the Confederated Products ladder. J. E. Freeman is the calm of the entire film as the pissed off strip club owner in his speech about how you get to the top in this world and Melissa McCarthy turns up in what looks like her first feature appearance showing how you absolutely nail a role with less than a minute of screentime.
GO is a movie that reminds me of possibilities that were once there. It resists the darkness. Maybe it was easier to do that in those days. There is the L.A. centric nature to it, as well and as someone who lives right near a JONS but always goes to the nicer supermarket slightly further away I will always have a fondness for how the crappy supermarket is named SONS with the correct sort of lettering in the sign. It reminds me of how freaky things can be, that feeling in your twenties where, just thinking you’re going out for the night, you can find yourself in a strange apartment somewhere almost before you know it. Of how you can do something stupid but you’re young so, well, what’s the worst that can happen? When I think about how young I was when I first came to L.A., how stupid I was, it scares the hell out of me. I never did more than wander through a rave-type atmosphere once or twice (Since I’ve never done ecstasy or most other drugs either, how accurate is all how the movie portrays it? Beats me) but there’s an authenticity to this world. Ronna being so young, another piece of her backstory I wish we could know about, actually also reminds me of another girl I knew way back when, who was probably also way too young to be living on her own the way she was and I suspect may have had a few nights like this one that I was never privy to. She’s elsewhere now, also with a kid incidentally, and I think she’s happy. I hope she’s happy. It’s not 1999 anymore. Things change.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Having Tasted The Goods

A lot has happened since 1996, that Memorial Day weekend when Brian De Palma’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE owned the world breaking whatever box office records were there to break at the time. I loved it, I’ll gladly admit and now years after its release, not to mention long after we’ve all developed somewhat ambivalent feelings towards the personality known as Tom Cruise as well, I wonder if there will be a film this summer that gives me the sort of pleasure this one did. I doubt it. I’m older, more jaded, no matter how much I try to keep an open mind about this sort of thing. Simply put, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was just what I wanted back then and in some ways it’s still what I want right now. It’s not that I was looking for a big screen version of the show. Some people might have been but I didn’t really care about that and while I’m aware the film pretty much tosses out the concept of the series that ran from 1966-73 in the first twenty minutes in favor of “The Adventures of Ethan Hunt”, which is basically what the series became I still don’t care, not when it’s Brian De Palma giving me a hit from this particular crack pipe that contains his own drug of cinema. And it is a mixture, yes. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is Brian De Palma being hired by others to deliver a Brian De Palma film, at least as much as one that the franchise and the very nature of a Tom Cruise star vehicle will allow. And that’s very much what it is, even if within certain boundaries. It may not be 100% pure, uncut De Palma but even that doesn’t always totally connect so MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is a case of auteurship taking on the tentpole release date and coming out ahead as much as the system will allow, at least far as I’m concerned. Revisiting the film I think it’s just as enjoyable a piece of clockwork as it always was, with Brian De Palma using every ounce of his skill to deliver this collision of Hitchcock and Euro thriller in the guise of a big studio star vehicle. It gives me massive pleasure. It’s still what I want from a summer movie now, even if I don’t expect it anymore.
IMF agent Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) arrives in Prague to meet his team including wife Claire (Emmanuelle Béart) and point man Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) for a new assignment: stop the NOC List, the list that details all IMF agents and would give away their cover. But something goes very wrong and the entire team is all presumably killed by mysterious forces, leaving only Ethan who is on his own soon learning that the CIA in the form of Agent Kittridge (Henry Czerny) believes that, considering he’s alive, he’s the one who had the team taken out. Now disavowed and on the run, Ethan soon discovers that Claire is actually alive as well and soon makes contact with arms dealer Max (Vanessa Redgrave) to begin determining who is behind it all. Recruiting fellow disavowed agents Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno) they determine their only course of action is to break into CIA headquarters themselves, steal the real NOC List for themselves and bring whoever the guilty party really is out into the open. But first, the small problem of actually breaking into CIA headquarters…
The opening scene of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE actually feels like a De Palma narrative in miniature—a deception, a disguise, a crucial piece of information that needs to be learned, a girl in immediate jeopardy, the possibility of guilt surrounding her fate. Much of what we see is in fact staged as we immediately learn so it’s all an illusion but of course it really isn’t since the girl in question really is in jeopardy. This almost feels like a metaphor for the director acknowledging that this is one step removed from his own world but not really since the game is the same only slightly askew his particular visual eye in the context of an established concept crossed with the type of star vehicle it needs to be. It could be pointed out that as a followup to the classic series MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE the motion picture (story by David Koepp and Steven Zaillian, screenplay by David Koepp and Robert Towne) wants to break down the status quo, destroy the old in favor of the new. I can’t say that this bothers me very much at all. Maybe I’m of the wrong generation to venerate this particular piece of pop culture but that’s just the way it is. And, as it should be, De Palma himself never seems bothered by it, his interest in whatever the old show represents not extending any further than the basics of the concept and what it represents in pop culture—espionage, the famous Lalo Schifrin theme, the main title sequence, “this message will self-destruct in…” and all that. Instead he looks at it as an outlet to plug in his own type of visual shell game as if to make the great Hitchcock 60s spy movie that never existed since all we ever got in reality was TOPAZ, after all.
Almost every moment seems a part of this design, every seemingly minor exchange turned into something pivotal as a streak of wit glides effortlessly through it all. Nothing is wasted--for the first time ever on this viewing I think I’ve spotted the placement of a certain character in a shot that recalls when Dennis Franz is first seen in BLOW OUT, but maybe I’m imagining things which for all I know is something the film would want anyway. De Palma’s visual design always brings clarity to the confusion, like in the triple jump cut out to Jon Voight on a bridge near the embassy or even in the inherent muddiness of Tom Cruise figuring out exactly what’s going on, working out the personal flashbacks in his own mind while describing something else entirely in great detail. The slipperiness of the plotting isn’t always perfect, as even I’ll admit, with the occasional shoe leather scene where De Palma can’t quite hide his disinterest in the exposition that may as well have “PERFUNCTORY” stamped on the frame and the rug-pulling-out nature of killing off the team in the first twenty minutes means that we miss the chance for a real Brian De Palma film with Kristin Scott Thomas in a lead role. The way De Palma films her through the fog as she walks to her fate is more hypnotic than gobs of dialogue about that damn NOC list could ever be, making me dream of a true Hitchcock film starring her and I wish there could be another twenty minutes of just this sort of delirium.
With the exception of the Bond film LICENCE TO KILL in ’89 the concept of a hero on the run from his own agency was still fairly fresh back in ’96. By now the very nature of questionable allegiances is old hat with the M:I sequels covering some of the same ground and the return of 24 on TV doing it once again with Jack Bauer spending about half the time at odds with whoever the official good guys are. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE seems to intentionally break this down, do away with the Nixon/Reagan-era colorless suits in favor of the Clinton-era loose cannons fighting for the American way while still going up against the old guard who want to keep the same wars going. It is very much a part of its era -- in the context of the time the midfilm introduction of Rhames and Reno played like Quentin Tarantino and Luc Besson were sending in a few of their guys to help out and some of the now dated technology in the film roots it in this time period, if some of it was ever even real or just designed specifically for the film, at one of those last moments when things like portable phones and internet access were still somewhat exotic.
De Palma always seems interested in exploring the possibilities of Tom Cruise both as actor and as screen presence, filming his head from as many different angles as humanly possible and then searching for more. Ethan Hunt is in his own space just as Tom Cruise seemingly is, continually bemused by others around him and choosing to trust them for reasons of his own, maybe via scent. Even the very nature of Tom Cruise’s personality makes him the perfect De Palma lead, with few other actors able to emote quite as well as those unending De Palma slow motion series of shots play out. On a purely visual level it’s also consistently intriguing to watch him placed against the women in this film with every single one, even bit players, always smartly dressed to provide not so much the simple concept of sex appeal but an undeniable feel of sensuality, even (no, especially) Vanessa Redgrave as Max. Those women lurk around the frame providing this effect, more than I imagine is apparent in the script, more than would be provided by any other director. Each of the male characters, meanwhile, are uniformly suspicious, often not even particularly competent at their jobs, none to be trusted while still not seeming like they contain secrets matching those women.
Scenes with Emmanuelle Béart’s Claire Phelps meant to play up any possible romance were filmed and at least one shot can even be glimpsed in the trailers but this is one case where keeping whatever’s going on that much more of a mystery is in the movie’s favor, the coveting thy neighbor’s wife that is spoken of that much more of a question—one track on the soundtrack album is titled “Love Theme?” which seems accurate—and one imagines De Palma demanding multiple rewrites of these sections containing less dialogue on each pass, just siphoning it down to puzzled glances. Before we move up onto the top of the train for action climax whatever’s going on between the three of them in the baggage car—jealousy, jealousy of who, jealousy of what, feels obscured. With the love scene now gone that absence becomes part of what the film is about as well, an intimacy just out of reach, not able to save the woman in question for real in the end. Ethan Hunt has to be an enigma just like each of these women are enigmas and his own feelings for Claire Phelps are forever hidden away—we don’t know exactly what they are, it barely feels like he knows what they are.
All of these pieces of the puzzle are present in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, even if buried within the subtext. But spending too much time on that ignores how purely enjoyable the film is even if it wasn’t there the film would still contain its dynamic visual style (credit to cinematographer Steven Burum along with De Palma). So much of it puts a gigantic grin on my face through the presentation of the opening embassy sequence, the restaurant seemingly floating in the middle of that Prague square, Ethan Hunt scrawling forever through those search groups in search of Job 3:14, the way Vanessa Redgrave gazes at him, the smugness of Henry Czerny, the way Jon Voight blurts out, “It was Kittridge” (or, for that matter, when anyone says the name “Kittridge”), to the endless silence of the now iconic break-in at Langley which plays as the De Palma take on RIFIFI/TOPKAPI, borrowing from legendary setpieces in two Jules Dassin films but making the conceit totally and forever his own. And the thrill of the high-speed train climax with presumably early CGI effects that are still phenomenal, totally real looking (maybe it’s the wind machines—either way, a similar bullet train sequence in 2013’s THE WOLVERINE doesn’t look half as convincing in comparison) and hugely thrilling. Ethan Hunt jumps from the bullet train to the helicopter and back again. Sure, that’s impossible. Hell, that’s the title of the film. If Brian De Palma doesn’t get me to believe the impossible that can only be possible in cinema, no one can. His direction clicks through the film from setpiece to setpiece as if a finely tuned piece of music, flowing just right, poking its head around the corner of the next plot turn as if trying to determine if it should go there just yet.
And going along with that feel is the off kilter nature of the Danny Elfman score which truly does turn the film into something other, jangly and alien, made all the more miraculous considering it was a late in the game replacement for a score by Alan Silvestri (who did score ERASER which was released a month later and features some odd plot similarities to this film) and more than is usually the case I can’t imagine what the film would be without it—plus there’s bongos. Bongos! With the classic main title theme placed judiciously (three times – beginning, middle, end) the music always adds to our paranoia, our insecurity, that anything could be hiding behind the next corner while, correct for De Palma, just the right twinkle in there building up to the climax where that score explodes once and for all. It may not be a work of pure De Palma cinema like DRESSED TO KILL but with the exception of Jan De Bont’s SPEED, I can’t think of another 90s summer blockbuster that gives me as much pure, unencumbered, love-of-cinema joy the way this film does. At the end Ethan Hunt gets his next assignment from yet another comely woman offering him the next chance. The illusion continues. Well, it didn’t in a way that came from Brian De Palma, but maybe we can always imagine those sequels.
I’m probably not the only person to notice how Tom Cruise was consistently working with strong directors back in those days, not so much now, and it added to his performances it added to whatever he was bringing to the role. It made him interesting, it made the films play like he was willing to toy with his image. He overdoes it at times in trying to seem ‘intense’ but so does Ethan Hunt and whatever rumored tensions were going on between him and De Palma onscreen he seems to totally give himself over to the approach (one minor misstep: the old age makeup early on which strangely makes him look more like Matthew Modine in old age makeup than Tom Cruise and you get the feeling they’re trying to cut around it as much as possible. It doesn’t bother me that much, though). Jon Voight plays the deadpan nature of Jim Phelps well and when he spits out his big speech later on, not about himself but only about himself, you can feel the anger building up that’s been seething long before the film began (dialoguewise, it’s the best moment of the film). Henry Czerny, playing basically a funnier version of his CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER role, nails the smarmy arrogance of Kittridge, giving the feeling that anything someone says to him, however trivial, is a massive inconvenience. Emmanuelle Béart’s enigmatic presence as Claire says more than any dialogue would ever need to and makes her that much more intriguing, although it still feels like something is lost when Kristin Scott Thomas exits. I’m still curious about what the prequel that gives her a larger role would be, just like how Emilio Estevez’s unbilled cameo feels like a goof as if he’s reprising a role from an unseen 80s version of the franchise. I’ll have to wonder.
1996 was a summer that also featured the likes of INDEPENDENCE DAY, ERASER, THE ROCK (god help us all), KINGPIN and STRIPTEASE. Maybe not the greatest but not the worst either. My rose-colored glasses tell me that those were ok times and looking back on it now this film feels like a high-water mark (to lift from Hunter S. Thompson) for blockbuster filmmaking of the era before things became that much more corporatized, CGI overwhelmed things and the superheroes hit the scene. They still had the potential for fun, they could still be cool. The mid-nineties didn’t last. Nothing ever does although for all I know MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE sequels just might, whoever stars in them. But the cool vibe De Palma infused this film with stays with me, the images of this film stay with me, the flow of how certain shots go together along with the growing intensity of the score are undeniable. Through every frame of its cinematic delirium De Palma makes the film his own. He makes MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE his own. And, as far as I’m concerned, it’s what MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE always will be.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Billionth Of What's Going On Out There

So whatever happened to the characters in wacky 80s comedies? They get involved in all these crazy mix-ups and mistaken identities then the whole thing climaxes in some kind of big chase after which the bad guy is pulled away screaming by the police for some reason that never makes sense. Everything is cleared up, the lead guy and girl kiss, everyone dances as the end credits roll and the music video (by someone like Starship) plays on MTV for the next six months. I’m guessing that afterwards they go on and lead very dull lives like even fictional characters have to eventually do. And now, decades later, I stumble across one of these movies on cable every now and then which reminds me that, good god, I actually lived during this period. Well, maybe some of the music is better then I’d like to admit and at least there were movies released by Orion but can’t we just seal up the 80s and forget the whole damn thing? Sadly, we can’t. And what’s worse is sometimes I wind up watching one of these movies straight through to the end.
LOVERBOY was released at the very end of April 1989 which makes it just barely an 80s movie although the animated opening credits certainly gets it to seem right at home in the era. In some ways it’s not much better or worse than a lot of other things but some part of me deep down wants to say it’s actually not bad at all. I even feel a little guilty about saying this and I hate the very concept of the guilty pleasure, a term which has become so ridiculously overused by this point that it’s lost all meaning. But maybe there’s no other way to describe it in this case. Directed by Joan Micklin Silver (HESTER STREET, CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER, CROSSING DELANCEY) and with several women among those responsible for the script (story by Robin Schiff, screenplay by Robin Schiff and Tom Roplewski & Leslie Dixon) the film has more of interest in terms of gender politics than its logline would indicate, a greater sensitivity to the overall approach than would be expected. That’s the good news. The bad news, even more than the lack of attention paid to matters like AIDS and makes the whole thing seem even more retro than was probably intended, is a gay panic subplot that plays as so unfunny now that in some ways it makes me think that the whole film should be covered in cement and forgotten about. You know, kind of like the 80s. Sometimes you’d be more than happy to defend a film that no one cares about, something that maybe has a slight amount of something that no one would expect. Sometimes the film doesn’t help you as much as you’d like. Sometimes the film falls somewhere in the middle. I guess LOVERBOY is one of those films. What, I’m supposed to be attached to MANNEQUIN instead? Who actually sat down and wrote the surprisingly detailed LOVERBOY plot summary on Wikipedia? Why did I buy the DVD? When did I buy the DVD? Why did I actually sit there and watch it to the end when it played on cable recently even though I have the DVD? Why am I writing this? Why are you reading it?
The goof-off college life of Randy Bodek (Patrick Dempsey) has reached its end with his parents (Kate Jackson and Robert Ginty) furious over his grades while girlfriend Jenny (Nancy Valen) breaking up with him over not admitting to his parents that they’re living together. Worried that the pizza delivery job he takes at Senor Pizza when he goes home might turn into something more permanent, Randy soon meets older, attractive boutique owner Alex Barnett (Barbara Carrera) who, impressed by Randy’s assertiveness, promptly seduces him then begins to pass around word of delivery boy Randy to other women around Beverly Hills via the code ‘extra anchovies’ as part of their order. Hesitant at first, Randy soon begins taking advantage of the onslaught as a way to fund the college return his father refuses to assist with while the various women he encounters teach him how to be a man. But soon the impending return of Jenny and the possibility of his parents’ divorce causes all of these elements to collide.
For whatever reason we got a brief run of these things starring Patrick Dempsey in the late 80s. The 40s-set IN THE MOOD directed by Phil Alden Robinson was actually a very good film that few people ever saw (that’s the one Mr. Peel really should be writing about so maybe someday) while CAN’T BUY ME LOVE which was a surprise hit during the summer of ’87 is one that everybody in the world seems to remember but no one ever has much to say about LOVERBOY which didn’t do any business at all when released at the very end of April ‘89. It’s not that good a movie—or maybe I just can’t bring myself to admit that it might actually come within shouting distance of being a good movie—but it does manage a deft juggling of tones that is actually rather impressive, slyly circling from the overriding goofiness throughout to a genuine sensitivity apparent that it takes to the female characters placed up against their thuggish husbands who are at times played as broadly as possible. The film comes down on the side of those women who teach Randy how to be a better man and yet at the same time it seems to acknowledge that almost everyone is fairly screwed up to begin with. Throughout it attempts to somehow keep itself a harmless date movie while still being about what it’s obviously about along with trying desperately to get a running gag out of the whole ‘extra anchovies’ thing. Randy’s a nice guy, a schnook really, while taking pratfalls into the beds of beautiful women. How can he help himself?
Of course, this mishmash of tones can only be taken so far. It is, after all, a comedy about a male gigolo that is strictly PG-13 and never really comes close to pushing the boundaries of that rating—the movie takes great pains to make sure we know that he’s not even sleeping with all of the women in question but I wonder if anyone really buys that excuse. He’s just being nice to them, listening to them and in doing so learning from them and learning how to respect them. Any actual drama that comes out of this like girlfriend Jenny learning the truth co-exists uneasily with all the pratfalls—some expertly done pratfalls, it should be said—so her feelings are swept under the rug pretty quickly and based on her performance as Randy’s mother I can’t help but wonder if anyone ever told Kate Jackson that she was actually appearing in a comedy. But to give it some credit, the film does offer a vibe that approaches old-school screwball at times that I would almost say comes off as Sturges-like in its overall feel if I didn’t want to risk totally losing whatever credibility I have. There's a nicely relaxed style to the way scenes are often allowed to play out and the actors continually seem engaged by each other which helps add to the old Hollywood feel.
Plus there’s all that wacky chase stuff that seems to take up much of the last half-hour—while searching for the kid their wives have been having an affair with Vic Tayback (seriously, ALL HAIL VIC TAYBACK), Robert Picardo and Peter Koch crank up Jerry Lee Lewis, drink whiskey and psych themselves up into becoming Men, ready to close in for the kill with the film seemingly reveling in just holding on the three of them for a few extra beats. When a fight breaks out during the big climax at the Tiki restaurant where the anniversary party is being held we hear “Hold That Tiger” presumably meant to be played by the band it feels like a ridiculous joke out of a 40s movie and I can’t entirely hate that. There is a spirit to it all along with all that bouncy 80s music, I’ll give it that much (plus some distinctly 80s fashions, par for the course for this sort of thing). And, yes, the subplot involving Randy’s dad thinking he’s gay and his exuberant relief at the end when he learns the truth (“You have no idea how happy I am to meet you!” he proudly exclaims to his son’s girlfriend) makes the film date pretty terribly now if it even played all that well then—in this sense, even THREE’S COMPANY has aged considerably better. Maybe this can be a metaphor for that decade the film appeared in. Kind of fun, breezy, enjoyable, but ultimately pretty ugly, rancid and full of hate underneath it all if you want to take a few seconds and think about it.
Keeping his energy going the whole way through Patrick Dempsey carries the film and always remains likable, even pulling off a few pretty nice pratfalls. Nancy Valen as the more-or-less female lead doesn’t have much of a role but she displays enough personality and charisma, never coming off as just the nice boring girlfriend, that it’s a shame she doesn’t have more credits. Backing them up is a pretty impressive cast, with some of the key women Randy gets involved with possibly only hired for a few days each. Personal favorite Barbara Carrera is the boutique owner who first discovers Randy, Kirstie Alley is the Fred Astaire-loving doctor (she gets the best material and brings to it just the right screwball timing), Carrie Fisher (who says ‘fuck fiber’ in the most appealing way imaginable) is the photographer whose body-building husband has lost interest and Kim Myori plays the would-be geisha. As her husband Vic Tayback, who died about a year after this came out, rips into every one of his scenes without fear particularly during his speech where he explains exactly what he believes marriage is--maybe if this film provided one of Vic Tayback's last really good roles that alone justifies its entire existence. As one of the other suspicious husbands, Robert Picardo slices through his dialogue with precision playing the sort of prick who knows he’s being a prick and seems to have made the choice to spend as much screentime with a drink in his hand as possible. E.G. Daily gets a few nice moments displaying some comic flair too. Kate Jackson and Robert Ginty at the parents each have layered moments but it's also some of the most problematic material at odds with the overall cheery approach. Dylan Walsh, later of NIP/TUCK, turns up as the prototypical yuppie bad guy with sweater tied around his neck. Rob Camilletti, who was somewhat infamous at the time as Cher’s much-younger boyfriend, has a pretty sizable supporting role and his presence locks the film into the time it was made about as much as anything.
Maybe just writing about this film marks a sort of low point. I mean, I’m supposed to say it’s a terrible movie. Even people who like terrible movies that I can’t bring myself to write about have no interest in this film. And some of it is pretty morally repellant—of course, I’m talking about the anti-gay stuff, not the Patrick Dempsey sleeps around stuff. But forgetting about that for just a few minutes, there is an enjoyable screwball feel in there I honestly respond to (plus Barbara Carrera, even if she is only in it for a few minutes) which somehow reminds me of going to the movies when I was a kid with seemingly no worries, even if it was the dreaded 80s, a period that I’m more happy to put in the rearview mirror the more time goes on. Now all these years later there are those days when I have lots of worries that result in watching a movie on a lazy weekend afternoon, when I really should be doing something more valuable with my time, and I find myself gladly, willingly revisiting that state of mind. Of course, there is no better use of time on a weekend afternoon than watching a movie. You see, it’s a conundrum. And maybe it’s one that I hope I never figure out.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Presentation Is Everything

Maybe there are films that somehow aren’t meant to work no matter what. There can be good intentions, the script might actually read ok, good and talented people are involved but whatever house they try to erect in the form of this two hour narrative simply cannot stand. And that’s just what happens. For the first time in more than a few years I decided to check out MULHOLLAND FALLS and to be honest I didn’t entirely mind sitting through it much at all but that’s almost more because of the film I want it to be instead of the film it really is. I guess I’m just easy in my quest for enjoyment but ultimately even I have to admit that the film never really clicks together and almost seems based on a faulty concept as if the pitch came from a mix and match game of pieces from post-war history. Sure, you can say “The Black Dahlia killing investigated by the legendary Hat Squad crossed with an atomic age conspiracy!” but does that inherently make it a good idea? All right, anything can maybe be turned into a good movie but in this particular case I wonder if something was off in the inception. The film has a variety of interesting names involved both in front of and behind the camera but it all seems sort of for naught considering the effect, or lack of effect, any of it ultimately has. I admit to an odd sort of fondness for the film partly due to the presence of 90s Jennifer Connelly and also partly because a few scenes were filmed in my neighborhood but…actually, I can’t really come up with an end to the sentence to finish that thought. That’s the kind of movie it is.
Los Angeles, the early 50s: Detective Maxwell Hoover (Nick Nolte) runs the four-man Hat Squad an elite LAPD unit that includes Ellery Coolidge (Chazz Palminteri), Eddie Hall (Michael Madsen) and Arthur Releya (Chris Penn) that answers to no one, using their own vicious means such as tossing suspects off what they refer to as “Mulholland Falls” from way up in the Hollywood Hills to make sure that any and all organized crime figures stay out of Los Angeles. Their detail is going along normal as always when they investigate the mysterious death of Allison Pond (Jennifer Connelly), a young woman Hoover has a past with, one that his loving wife Kate (Melanie Griffith) knows nothing about it. Investigating Alison Pond’s life leads to discovery of certain films secretly taken at her apartment and the trail leads them out to the desert and the top secret testing site of the Atomic Energy Commission led by General Thomas Timms (John Malkovich) resulting in the discovery of a much bigger conspiracy altogether.
MULHOLLAND FALLS was released by MGM at the end of April 1996 when I imagine production of the following year’s L.A. CONFIDENTIAL was ramping up and I guess we should be grateful some producer on that film didn’t look at the results of what had just come out and decide to quash the whole thing. A production that seems all the more promising due to the names involved (in addition to the cast there’s production designer Richard Sylbert, cinematographer Haskell Wexler and Floyd Mutrux who is listed for co-story in what appears to be his last screen credit to date) there also are a surprising amount of unbilled bits by recognizable faces giving the impression that this was a project that just exuded a certain coolness at the time, a chance to play in the world of noir for a little while. This kind of period piece seems to have a great deal of potential but these cool characters wind up feeling like they’ve gotten the wrong movie to star in and MULLHOLLAND FALLS doesn’t leave much of any kind of impression, making it ultimately little more than a chance to see some decent actors wear hats and drive around L.A. And then they drive around some more.
Director Lee Tamohori (ONCE WERE WARRIORS, THE EDGE, DIE ANOTHER DAY) seems to have a knack for working with actors but doesn’t display any particular affinity for the material while the screenplay (story by Pete Dexter and Floyd Mutrux, screenplay by Pete Dexter) has potential with the occasional speech that offers genuine bite but it feels like too much may have been bled out via rewrites and studio notes. It was also edited by the late, great Sally Menke and individual sections often play fine with certain edits within scenes in particular showing off how good she was but the entire picture doesn’t coalesce, as if a reel or two was accidentally left out of the release version (Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant seems to have been in the know on the production and confirms that cuts were made). Nothing really connects very much—the central mystery involving Connelly is never as enigmatic as it seems it might be at first and any metaphor, whether connected to the nature of the film’s title or the atomic age imagery, just comes off as a void like that huge pit in the middle of the desert courtesy of a test blast that the squad stops to gape at.
CHINATOWN explored the rape of Los Angeles via the use of water and what that meant for the growing city. L.A. CONFIDENTIAL contained all the passions that emerged from its collision of law and vice. MULHOLLAND FALLS looks nice, I’ll give it that much, but that’s just about all it has so any of the specific points meant to dig into what it’s ‘about’ never really come together. As directed the film doesn’t seem to pay much attention to how much of a brute the lead character is, a thug who falls for this woman who could be a part of his world in a way that his wife couldn’t, that he didn’t want her to be. The sight of her falling for him instantly as he injects something unknown but presumably deadly into a thug has an undeniable charge but it never seems to know a way to probe into these feelings. The movie doesn’t seem to notice much about the characters at all, so elements like Palminteri’s Coolidge being obsessed with psychology as part of his anger management is just left to dangle there, an attempt at letting a particular actor steal the film when maybe it should be paying attention to making the plot more compelling. There’s no heat, no passion so it all stays as tight as the brim on Nick Nolte’s hat. It’s easy to believe that he’s haunted by his affair with Jennifer Connelly because, well, who wouldn’t be but there’s no particular heat from any of it, no believable element of passion. Quick flashes we get of the affair isn’t enough and instead we continually go back to those home movies taken of Allison, looking for clues in them just like searching for meaning in this film. Some spare moments are intriguing like Nolte discussing with Griffith how Hemingway wrote women or Palminteri musing about going to westerns as a child (I’m wondering if he’s too old to have seen Gene Autry in the movies when he was a kid, but never mind) but these moments are too isolated, feeling like refugees from a more intriguing, more resonant storyline.
The period feel is pulled off pretty well just as the L.A. location work is always interesting to look at but it also comes off as phony at times, like the early shot of the Squad driving down Wilshire Blvd. on the wrong side of the street. Still, some of what we do get to see is just another reason that I wish that the story was something that didn’t involve going out to the desert for all that atomic stuff. In particular, Hoover’s house is tucked away near where I live in Los Feliz on a residential street that I’ve always admired because of the vintage nature of the homes—since the film was made the house next door has been torn down and a new one built (the replacement is pretty ugly and would never be considered period appropriate if another production came around). Allison Pond’s apartment complex is actually just a few blocks away from Hoover’s, close enough that he could have easily snuck over to his mistresses’ place on foot in the middle of the night if he’d wanted to. I want to give MULHOLLAND FALLS some credit for at least being a period drama aimed at adults set in the always fascinating world of L.A. noir, unlike the awful GANGSTER SQUAD which went over some of the same historical detail in the most moronic way possible and even featured Nick Nolte playing the police chief role Bruce Dern appears in here. But just because you have serious goals it doesn’t automatically make the result any better and just because symbolism is aimed for it doesn’t mean the result will be any deeper. I don’t have any particular animosity towards the film and I honestly did enjoy some of this revisit because of the sort of film it is while acknowledging how little of it came close to being a satisfying watch, just like how I’ve always secretly liked the catchy Dave Grusin score even though what feels like the composer reaching for Goldsmith doing CHINATOWN winds up sounding a little too much like 70s TV. The metaphor of the title seems to connect somehow with the way certain people are thrown to their death more than once from an airplane and…yeah? You got anything here? The point of the movie feels missing like a phantom limb—the metaphor of the atomic age in KISS ME DEADLY was potent and still is now. In spite of the portents within the speechifying by John Malkovich’s General Tims talking about how atoms are made up of empty space (well, there’s inadvertently stating a theme if I ever heard it) not much of it seems to mean anything so when the credits roll it’s hard not to think, ‘that’s it?’ Something’s missing. Maybe it’s a scene that reveals why this movie exists, why this story needed to be told. What is this movie really about in the end? It feels like the answer was lost somewhere along the way so all that’s left is the sight of good actors getting to dress up like they’re in a 50s noir. Which is nice and all but it’s not enough. It’s a mysterious briefcase that looks expensive and inside is, well, nothing.
MULHOLLAND FALLS is also a reminder that a great cast doing very solid work does not automatically mean that the film itself is going to work. The four leads all look like they’d be right at home in a movie about the Hat Squad actually made in the 50s which makes it more of a shame. Nick Nolte does excellent work that lets us see the cracks beneath his hard exterior every now and then as if that damn hat he’s always wearing is some sort of shield to keep people seeing what he’s really obsessing over. Chazz Palminteri (during that ’95-’96 period when he was in seemingly half the films released) is an enjoyable chatterbox going on long after his partners have lost interest in whatever he’s saying but it feels unfortunate how it throws off the balance—as a result Michael Madsen and Chris Penn look continually ready to go into action but don’t get to do very much, more or less disappearing during the second hour. Jennifer Connelly looks about as jaw-droppingly stunning as she ever did (hard not to think of this as her character from THE ROCKETEER meeting an unfortunate end) but with just a few actual scenes is more of an image than anything. Melanie Griffith doesn’t get to do much either but it’s a dud role, really—she’s playing the second choice to Jennifer Connelly and that’s what she is too but the movie doesn’t do anything to transcend this feeling. Andrew McCarthy offers the scraps of what looks like a strong performance but he’s discarded with pretty quickly. Treat Williams as a colonel at the military base seems like he’s going to be an interesting character at first but is really just a cardboard bad guy. Kyle Chandler, now a familiar face, appears as William’s aide but he doesn’t make much of an impression either. John Malkovich is as enigmatic as you’d expect John Malkovich to be but it somehow seems like it’s in the wrong movie—still, it does make me imagine him playing the Albert Dekker role in KISS ME DEADLY so maybe that’s where he should be giving this performance. Daniel Baldwin offers appropriate arrogant slime as a federal agent. Production designer Richard Sylbert appears onscreen as the coroner and has a few nice bits. Familiar face Ed Lauter turns up long enough to get immediately shot and killed, another indication of what might have been cut. Maybe he’s playing his ROCKETEER character too. Along with Bruce Dern as the police chief William Petersen, Rob Lowe and Louise Fletcher also turn up for unbilled bits. In his autobiography Bruce Dern (quite good here, just to say) briefly mentions the title then says he doesn’t want to talk about the film. Maybe that sums it up best.
Not yet twenty years on since its release MULHOLLAND FALLS hasn’t aged badly so much as unfortunately playing about as ineffectual as it did on opening weekend. What do you say to sum up a film where you can’t think of much to say about it in the first place? Maybe the end credits should include a recommendation of non-fiction books that cover the historical period depicted here. “This isn’t America. This is L.A.” growls Nick Nolte near the very beginning. That line has resonance in the end as Nolte realizes how there really are powers greater than him, even in the City of Angels. But it still deserved a better movie. In the meantime I’ll just have to live with dreams of Jennifer Connelly. Dreams of cinematic images depicting the neighborhood I live in. Dreams of the better movie I wish this was as I sit up late at night, wondering what this town used to be like seen through the prism of Hollywood, faced with the reality of what it is now.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Like A Shooting Star

It took a few years for the 80s to become the 80s, as far as films were concerned anyway. Many major studio releases during the first few years of the decade feel like they’re just beginning to branch away from the feel of the 70s but there’s still some of that roughness in the air and the future doesn’t seem completely formed just yet. The montages that we remember from the likes of TOOTSIE or NIGHT SHIFT are still done with that sort of Grusin/Shire/Bacharach easy listening vibe that feels like remnants of the very 70s world of AN UNMARRIED WOMAN--an excellent film and one I should write about one of these days but still very much a part of that decade. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this (to prove it I will now go for a walk listening to the TOOTSIE score on my iPod. All right, I’m back) but with some distance you do get a feel of how certain movies fit into exactly when they were made whether intentionally or not. If 1984 wasn’t the most 80s year of that decade it at least feels like the year where what we remember the 80s to be blossomed full bore. And looked at that way Robert Zemeckis’ ROMANCING THE STONE, released 3/30/84, could almost be considered one of the first real 80s movies. How much you consider this to be either praise or criticism, maybe I should leave up to you. Hell, even I’m not entirely certain. Maybe better described as CHARADE in the jungle than the RAIDERS knockoff the ads presented it as, the plot of ROMANCING THE STONE feels so slickly assembled to the point that there really isn’t much substance in the film at all and at times it feels like it was designed strictly for the purpose of demonstrating structure insisted on in screenwriting books, many of which didn’t even exist yet. Having said that, there’s not a wasted moment through the entire running time in a way that is genuinely admirable and revisiting it now it’s a very entertaining film which is no easy feat even if there’s still not a lot of meat on the bones. Do you care? Does anyone? It’s still pretty good. At the very least, I don’t regret the five bucks I paid for the Blu-ray at Target. Maybe sometimes it makes sense to study these things.
Shy New York romance novelist Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner), who lives all her romantic fantasies within the books she writes, is forced to go to Columbia when her kidnapped sister Elaine (Mary Ellen Trainor) desperately needs a certain treasure map which was mailed to Joan from the country by her recently murdered husband. Once Joan lands she is immediately sent in the wrong direction by villainous Colonel Zolo (Manuel Ojeda) who clearly is after the map himself and soon meets up with bird smuggler Jack Colton (Michael Douglas) who is the only one that can help her get out of the jungle to help Elaine. But soon they are on the run from Zolo and his army as well as antique smuggler Ralph (Danny DeVito) who is trailing her close behind but once Jack becomes aware of the map he soon comes up with his own plan for the two of them to go after what it leads to.
The deleted material included in the special features section on the ROMANCING THE STONE Blu-ray, presented without explanation, is particularly interesting since it seems to consist solely of rough versions of scenes that were later reshot using some of the same dialogue but played completely differently. Certain visual clues in this footage make me wonder if a good amount of the film’s structure in its first half may have been arrived at after the fact in the editing room and reshoots—in particular, lots of information seems to have been consolidated into when Joan and Jack hide out overnight in the downed plane hull to allow for more emphasis on chases and banter at other points so things don’t get overly bogged down in exposition. The final versions of these scenes in the finished film almost inarguably play better than the discarded footage without exception—humdrum scenes involving Joan Wilder and her male book editor have been replaced in the finished film by much snappier material featuring Holland Taylor in the role—getting right to the point in stronger ways, all serving as a reminder that these films don’t just fall from the sky fully formed. As it plays now, ROMANCING THE STONE (written by Diane Thomas although several other writers including Lem Dobbs reportedly worked on it uncredited) wastes no time with its plot and moves startlingly fast with Swiss watch-level pacing that has helped it to age pretty well, playing as continually engaging along with being bolstered by a cast that gives it lots of energy, not to mention the obvious chemistry between the two leads. It’s tight, well-assembled (credit for this pacing should go to editors Donn Cambern and Frank Morriss as well), exciting, constantly moving and continually enjoyable. Even if the building blocks of the structure feel much more apparent to me than it once did the way it pulls that off feels a little like a lost art now when so many films going for the same goals are both dumbed down or drag on interminably past the two-hour mark.
Sure, some of it moves fast enough that it’s probably pointless to ask logic questions. A maintenance man in Joan’s building is killed off early on but you can bet that’s never heard about again. The scenes involving Holland Taylor’s editor, all sharp and funny, seem comprised of dialogue that is at least three-quarters blatant exposition. Even the detour involving the kindly drug runner played by the always enjoyable Alfonso Arau doesn’t pause to let the characters sit down to discuss things just giving it enough time for the bad guys to show up and let them make their getaway (I particularly like Arau pointing out sights in his tiny village during the chase). I’m particularly hazy about the logic behind some of what happens around the 70 minute mark and any suspense the film tries for over what Jack Colton’s real motivation might be for going after the stone (where the title of the film more or less comes from) never amounts to much of anything. And though some of the dialogue is just a little too broad at times like Joan Wilder’s “I went to college,” response to finding marijuana in the downed plane, the chemistry between the characters—all of them, not just the two leads—makes the film endearing, more than it might have been in other hands. Maybe not so politically correct in its portrayal of life in South America (hey, it was the 80s, who cared about political correctness?) but in its own slick style the film achieves exactly what it’s supposed to throughout.
ROMANCING THE STONE opened in fourth place on opening weekend at the very end of March 1984 so maybe the heavily RAIDERS approach to the marketing campaign didn’t get people excited right off the bat but I’m going to assume good reviews and word of mouth resulted in the film playing for months even after TEMPLE OF DOOM arrived in theaters. By the time the big summer guns began to emerge in June it was still hanging around the top ten finally coming in eighth place for the year. A film that knows how to get right to the point in scene after scene, there’s not an ounce of fat in there and it keeps the plot moving, knowing all the right beats to bring out character detail as well. Yes, some of it is a little broad now and, yes, it’s really not a deep film although I can’t imagine anyone wanted it to be. And, yes, this is a for-hire gig for Robert Zemeckis who buries much of the manic Preston Sturges style of the earlier scripts he co-wrote with Bob Gale and directed himself (I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, USED CARS; they also wrote the screenplay for 1941) to make this that much more of a mainstream commercial entertainment. Even the character beats like Colton pining for dreams of the boat he wants to sail away on feel nicely doled out.
The deleted scenes do make me wonder how much of the original material was about Joan Wilder finding her dream man and how much it was meant to tweak that notion since in the end Jack Colton seems to bring Joan Wilder out of her shell as opposed to serving as the rugged fantasy hero she dreams of from her books that will save her in the end. His introduction seems designed to deliberately resemble how the book’s hero ‘Jesse’ appears on the cover of those books but Zemeckis seems all right with tossing away the moment--Turner even seems to play the beat as recognizing the image but the director doesn’t hold on her response. Douglas is even a few beats too late to save her at the climax, arriving just after she’s already accomplished the job herself. It is her story after all and while I’m not sure how interested Zemeckis ever was in any feminist viewpoint at least the movie remembers this much. Not bothering to pause even as the plot winds down (Joan’s sister Elaine is presumably ok at the end, but we just kind of have to assume), the period of time between the middle of the final fight and when the credits roll is less than ten minutes. No point in sticking around, the film seems to be saying. Jack and Joan had fun, you had fun, now let’s go to dinner. Was there a better date movie in 1984? Probably not. Yes, the Zemeckis-Gale scripts offer more in repeat viewings than this does but that’s of minor concern (the overall shallowness of certain Zemeckis films is something that I’m still pondering). Incidentally, when Fox first saw the film they thought so little of it that they fired the director off of his next project for the studio, COCOON and when ROMANCING was a hit he was finally able to get BACK TO THE FUTURE, which he had already co-written with Bob Gale, going elsewhere. Maybe there were more problems in that early cut than we realize but it’s also a reminder that in this business you just never know.
One of the most successful and likable characterizations of Kathleen Turner’s career, revisiting this performance is a reminder of how perfect she would have fit in during Hollywood’s golden age. She pulls off the correct balance between her character’s insecurities and whatever assertiveness pulls out, selling the let-down-her-hair transformation just right. Michael Douglas plays his role as totally confident, ready for big-screen stardom and with no problem in occasionally looking foolish during the climax which manages to make him seem even cooler. Between the two of them, it’s a certain kind of movie star chemistry that just doesn’t happen very much anymore. Danny DeVito, coming hot off TAXI with maybe his first really good Danny DeVito role in a film, gets laughs in practically every moment while Zack Norman (as in, “Zack Norman Plays Sammy in ‘Chief Zabu’”) as Ira gets the right sort of slimy, canny intelligence to his smuggler while getting laughs as well. At one point he has a well-played speech about main bad guy Zolo which implies more characterization than we ever really get from the one-dimensional portrayal but Manuel Ojeda still offers an intriguing presence with relatively little dialogue. Alfonso Arau, also in Zemeckis’ USED CARS, kills in every moment he has like the scene stealer his character is clearly meant to be and Holland Taylor spits out all that exposition in the opening scenes like a total pro.
The very 80s sax courtesy of composer Alan Silvestri (who provides a solid score with hints of his later work for BACK TO THE FUTURE and PREDATOR) that accompanies the end credits reminds me of a girl I once lent my old DVD of the film to who never gave it back. Actually, later on she claimed that I had said she could have it. Maybe I could seek her out to learn the truth, but best to let this one lie (hence my picking up this Blu-ray for five dollars). Anyway, she clearly had a fondness for the film and I’m sure others out there do too. Funny, exciting and fast-moving with endearing lead characters maybe ROMANCING THE STONE is exactly what it should be. ROMANCING THE STONE of course was followed by the non-Zemeckis THE JEWEL OF THE NILE less than two years later which was also a hit but no one seems to remember that film now, Billy Ocean music video aside. A remake has been in the works for some time now and I’ll bet somewhere in the halls over on the Fox lot in Century City it still is. The 80s are long over (thankfully) but somewhere someone tries to keep them alive. ROMANCING THE STONE is the sort of film that people still want to be there as a sort of comfort food, just like whatever Joan Wilder is dreaming about in her Upper West Side apartment. Nothing too wrong with that, I suppose.