Monday, October 31, 2016

Live It Over Again

The opening day audience at the Vista wanted blood. You could sense this in the air. I was in that theater, popcorn in hand, and I wanted it too. It was October ’08. A long time ago now and no time at all. I was standing in line when I realized I had forgotten to call a friend that week to wish her a happy birthday. It was mere days from when I finally joined Facebook. And the election was happening, right in the midst of the financial meltdown and everything else swirling around it. Including, of course, the release of Oliver Stone’s W. which had been raced through production to be in theaters before Election Day and get in whatever Oliver Stone wanted to get in there. It was a film seemingly made for just those few weeks and after that who cared. So that Silverlake audience which had no doubt been simmering all that anger since the end of 2000 wanted blood.
W. the film has been mostly forgotten since those few weeks which I guess isn’t really a surprise since not much blood was ever really spilled during the course of those two hours and you could feel the air go out of the room well before the end credits. As it turned out, that clearly wasn’t what Oliver Stone wanted to do with it anyway. Ask me what Stone’s films mean to me right now and you might get a very long, uncertain answer although I’ll still gladly sit through WALL STREET again anytime. Recently SNOWDEN didn’t get that much of a reaction out of me at all and as for certain comments he’s made in the press, I guess if he wants to vote for Jill Stein that’s what he’s going to do. Thinking back on some of his other films, JFK is a gigantic, manic cry in the night for a utopia that never was while NIXON is this gargantuan crazy thingamajig, long, flawed, big and messy. It’s not a masterwork even if it feels designed to be one but even its clumsiness has power and I can’t imagine it coming from any other filmmaker. The best of Oliver Stone is when he’s more than a little crazy, whether he knows it or not and when he downshifts into a more easy listening mode as he’s done in recent years it doesn’t really do anyone much good. And it’s hard not to want W. to get a little crazier, if not full Strangelovian, since having made the film at that time would seem to imply that’s what it was going to be, to not deny the anger anyone had been feeling during those years. Comparing the two, Stone himself once called NIXON a symphony and W. more of a chamber piece but instead it feels more like a loose jam session by talented musicians ready to swing which gradually, maybe before anyone realizes it, turns into more of a formalized performance of what’s on the page. It’s not in any way bad but still has a certain patchwork feel and never seems entirely complete which may in itself be part of the point but the ‘THIS MOVIE NEEDS TO BE MADE NOW’ aspect feels part of its limitations.
Of course, W. is the story of George W. Bush (Josh Brolin), 43rd President of the United States and his journey from hazing rituals at Yale to aimlessness and drinking while meeting wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) to quitting the bottle and finding the lord all the way to his position as most powerful leader in the world. It’s as notable for what it leaves out as much as what’s in there whether for legal reasons or if Stone has simply decided that certain details just don’t matter as much. More than anything it’s about a guy who sought glory, whatever that glory was going to be, since in spite of the silver spoon provided by his family was always looked at as the black sheep for reasons never fully articulated to him almost as if his own parents had an OMEN-like premonition about him from birth. So he fights back to achieve that success at any cost, knowing that in this life it’s who’s up on the marquee that matters and if you can present yourself as that winner, you can own the world. His memory is sharp enough that he can always rattle answers off the top of his head whether nicknames of frat buddies or just knowing that Iran and Iraq are two separate places but he’s not particularly interested in the nuances of differentiating those things or what any of these facts might actually mean. The film bounces back and forth between the heavy drinking of his early adulthood and the days in the White House preparing for the Iraq invasion but it never plays as if he’s personally flashing back to those events—he reflects on himself simply through the baseball fantasy of standing out in center field, which he calls his favorite place, forever in search of that empty glory. That’s all his inner life is, at least that’s the way it is through Oliver Stone’s eyes.
Written by Stanley Weiser, Stone’s co-scribe on WALL STREET, with various pieces presumably pulled from multiple sources, the seeds of satire are ingrained in almost every scene and there’s something about W. which feels designed to play as underground, unauthorized and maybe a little dangerous. Even the modest scale of the production, as opposed to the epic feel of NIXON, adds to this but it all quickly becomes overly genteel, Eisensteinian cutaways as punctuation not having the impact they sometimes do in his work. The approach is also a reminder of how certain characters in his films are very obviously meant to represent Stone—he’s not Gordon Gekko and I don’t think of him as Mickey Knox but he is Ron Kovic in a sense, he is the Charlie Sheen avatars of PLATOON and WALL STREET, Jim Garrison seeing the light of the truth of conspiracy in JFK, Frank Whaley’s paramedic in WORLD TRADE CENTER finding a place for himself in the world again, he’s whichever character is being told in giant letters ‘THE WORLD IS YOURS’ whether by Angelina Jolie or the Goodyear Blimp. W. could easily have been even nastier than it is but it’s held back seemingly to bring gravity to the personal drama of quitting drinking and discovering the lord as well as, I suppose, the all-important oedipal drama which allows Stone to connect Bush to himself (as any piece of publicity about the film reminded us, the two men were in the same freshman class at Yale) so for once this not-quite-yet historical figure can serve as his peer, literally, and he doesn’t have to reach too far for the parallels.
As W. begins, everything is already in progress and the meeting we witness isn’t about the invasion of Iraq per se as much as the message the administration is declaring, discussing the creation of the term ‘axis of evil’ and the presumed necessity of what they’re going to do. It’s all about perception which is the reality as we’re later told by ‘analysts’ who are clearly meant to represent talking heads on a certain network who stress that W. ‘didn’t fight in the war but he looks like he did’. He’s for real because of how he looks. It’s that hubris of what the man took from his losses early in life and after that deciding not winning was forever out of the question. The film goes back and forth in chronology but W.’s basic character remains the same, he eats with his mouth full and carries on conversations with his wife while sitting on the toilet just like every other slob, ready to get back to watching sports on TV with his Bologna sandwich and Cheetos for lunch. Stone observes this but keeps his excesses in check mostly limited to a few giant close-ups as punctuation and the sly body language coming from some of the actors. A few moments indicate the film could have gone further, as also seen in a few deleted scenes on the Blu, but instead of outright anger is the feel of blithe amusement mixed with some sadness, maybe coming out of how much Stone relates to W. and the paths the two took in life. Maybe that anger had left Stone by this point, bled out from the failure of ALEXANDER, maybe for him it only applies to the fall of his own youth, from what he portrays in the Oliver Stoneland of PLATOON, JFK, THE DOORS and NIXON when to him it was worth getting angry. Maybe he’s just too aware of what seems to be happening again and again so the movie is more of a sigh than a shout, no thundering John Williams score this time presumably because someone of this intellect doesn’t deserve such a theme. Much of the score is somewhat low key as a result, with one of the most notable musical moments a gentle guitar strumming of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as the decision to go to war is made, the light glowing from above W. and the certainty of his choice.
The film also divides W. dealing with both his family and his personal cast of characters in the White House, which is enjoyable if not too fiery in its approach. Dick Cheney as played by Richard Dreyfuss seems content to remain in the darkness off to the side since he doesn’t need the spotlight, Toby Jones as Karl Rove telling him what the public wants to hear, Thandie Newton as Condeleezza Rice loyally deferring to everything W. says, like a henchwoman in a Matt Helm movie. The tone sometimes swings all over the place here but at least feels unpredictable as opposed to the family drama which is somewhat more familiar, James Cromwell as George H. W. chastising him while admitting his own limitations in a way his son is unable to do. Brother Jeb, except for a brief teenage appearance during a flashback, is an unseen Chuck Cunningham, off living up to the ever-important family name the way they want. W.’s break from his father is made clear in how he doesn’t want to be called Junior, but is still so desperate to make him proud that he listens to the two devils on his shoulders in Cheney and Rove. They clearly know how to manipulate him and he wants them to, each getting an equivalent scene ending with W. reminding them before they walk off who’s really the decider but their power standing right behind him is unlimited and they know it. He refers to speaking to the “higher father” about what he’s doing instead of his own actual father figure keeping the former President in exile up in Maine, totally forgotten about (as for his mother figure, the line drawn from Caroline Kava in BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY to Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush here doesn’t seem that long). To all of them it’s as if W. is a kid who just needs to think that he’s really in charge and all they need to do is follow.
Ultimately, it’s a guy who put his life together, kicking the bottle (and good for him) and finding Jesus, but he’s still the same guy, only more focused and now drinking non-alcoholic beer. That in itself says something about him, desperate to hang on to the guy he was, but you could also say that W. is in some ways a non-alcoholic Oliver Stone film, missing the delirium that almost seems like would be a given. Occasionally it comes together, particularly during Stacy Keach’s two scenes as fictional televangelist Earle Hudd offering spiritual guidance who plays the first with massive close-ups, siphoning himself into W.’s very soul, warning him against the pitfalls of regret. The film’s centerpiece, an 11 minute sequence detailing the arguments of going into Iraq, avoids such tricks intentionally and doesn’t really need them, taking the idea of what were presumably hours of discussion and laying out the arguments as dry and forceful as possible, including Jeffrey Wright’s version of Colin Powell as the voice of reason no one listens to, as persuasive as he is, not having any idea that he’s just a small part of W.’s private oedipal drama. The film focuses on the performances and the words circling around to the same argument over and over (“Drain the swamp,” says Scott Glenn’s Rumsfeld) while Cheney’s ‘We stay’ answer to the question of an exit strategy serving as this film’s version of LBJ declaring ‘Just get me elected, I’ll give you your damn war’ as Richard Dreyfuss gets the icy confidence just right as oil is talked about, oil, oil, OIL! Of course, in the film’s eyes the argument is just an excuse for what W. wants to hear to pull it off for daddy and allow the family to ‘honor our commitments’. It builds up to what may be Brolin’s best moment in the film as he takes control, completely focused and talking that Bush-speak that only he fully understands (“We’re not so sure who the ‘they’ are, but we know they’re there.”) with a total lack of regard for anything other than what he’s already decided. For once the film pulls off the tightrope of that language and the full gravity of what’s happening.
Much is left out, of course. Except for Bush 41 saying how he had to “pull your ass out of the fire in Florida in 2000” there’s no mention of the Florida recount, 9/11 is only referred to in the past tense (and enigmatically in the future during one flashback) maybe because Stone had covered the day in WORLD TRADE CENTER, there’s no mention of Katrina since the film ends before the 2004 reelection campaign, etc etc etc. For the purposes of this film, these are just details we know about already. Aside from one quick montage of war protests there’s not even that much of a feel of the outside world, whether for or against him (again, that part of the film would have been the audience in October ’08 watching it). This could have given the film a more underground, maverick feel but it never quite gets that wild, searching for the middle ground between truth and satire, sometimes coming close to the mark. In a broader sense the film remains compelling over repeat viewings since of course the Oliver Stone version of this story is never going to be a standard cable biopic and it is entertaining, probably better than its rep in the end. The sequences of Bush and ‘his gang’ figuring out how they’re going to approach the process of war are at times particularly sharp and, hey, I like movies with guys in suits talking anyway, it’s just not as fully formed as it maybe should be. There wasn’t time for that anyway since it was roughly five months from start of shooting to release. In the film’s eyes, for all intents and purposes Iraq is the W. presidency and the lightly comical nature of it all makes the film a little like ‘The Bush 43 Follies’ but also in its incomplete nature is maybe just ‘Highlights From W.’ the laughs correctly undercut by the brief scene of him visiting wounded soldiers as everything starts to crumble, trying to keep a brave and noble face on where this all led. Stone can’t satirize this of course and doesn’t try. All the film needs to do for these few moments is observe.
I was just watching a Rachel Maddow interview with Stone from the time of the film’s release where she speculated that Bush simply wanted to ‘be President’ and would pretty much disappear from the public eye when he left office. For what it’s worth, Stone doesn’t seem so sure that he will. I won’t say revisiting W. after all this time gives me nostalgia for any of those days but compared to some of what’s going on now and what might be in the future it doesn’t actually seem so bad. It’s very clear that elements of W. are in there purely for dramatic purposes, certain quotes removed from their original context. Back then we’d maybe heard a few of the ‘You don’t get fooled again’ type phrases a few times too many. Now, of course, all this is in the past. W. sort of comes to a stop near the end as everyone realizes there are no WMDs, ‘nothin’ on nothin’’ as the President puts it, his staff eating pie as the world burns. And when it comes time for an answer without Cheney or Rove whispering in his ear he merely shrugs and has nothing to say. ‘The End’ abruptly flashes onscreen as if the film is telling us, we know that’s not really the end but what more do you need? We were so looking for blood at the time and so desperate to get all that done with that in some ways the film works better now as a reflection of that period than it did then, even if it still doesn’t feel complete. We know the ending anyway, or at least that particular ending. The past always seems more innocent as we get further away and new monsters emerge. The Rosebud in NIXON was that President’s mother, the pain of his poverty-stricken childhood. There are no flashbacks to childhood in W. which could almost mean that he never grew up at all, no Rosebud aside from the warning his father once gave him. The final scene indicates he never even figured out what that Rosebud could have been. In the end, or at least this version of the end, he’s nothing.
As difficult as it clearly was to portray George W. Bush without coming off like an SNL sketch, Josh Brolin does a phenomenal job combining the man’s stubbornness with a genuine need to prove himself, as lunkheaded as he always was going to be in doing so. You can almost see the wheels turning as he does the simple arithmetic in his head to determine each new step and the pride in his face when he assumes command of a room as if pulling off an impersonation of a genius. It’s not quite the real W. but it does communicate the empty essence of his very being. While there isn’t much to say about the character of Laura Bush as presented in the body of the film, written as doing little more than being supportive after their initial meet cute where she displays at least a little independence, but Elizabeth Banks is able to find much of her performance between the lines in her silent gazing while forever remaining by his side. Richard Dreyfuss, the one actor in the film who seems to have publicly spoken about his issues with it, transforms almost more than anyone while still looking exactly like himself, playing Cheney as totally focused, arrogant and quietly dismissive of almost everyone else around him with a dryness to his presence as if there may be intellect in there but definitely no soul to sell. It matches up well against Jeffrey Wright, quietly seething as Colin Powell, clearly aware how much his expertise is being disdained and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it. Tonally speaking some of these performances do waver but I’ll give points to Thandie Newton for going as far as she does as Condeleeza Rice even if she clearly thinks the film is much broader than it is while Scott Glenn is oddly almost too lackadaisical as Rumsfeld whether it’s he or the film holding back a much harsher portrayal. James Cromwell comes off as more of a Bush-type than actually George H.W. Bush (the glasses are right at least) but the inherent decency he tries to project from that man comes through as the future he once foresaw never comes to pass. Though playing a fictional character Stacy Keach manages to find the truth in this material almost more than anyone with even a beat or two of ambiguity in there but no condescension in the religious fervor with how he plays his scenes opposite Brolin and the power from his presence is undeniable.
It’s a film that is more reflective than I gave it credit for at the time, but maybe without that blood spilled even to this day the experience of watching W. will never be as cathartic as I still want it to be deep down. So now we’re here, eight years after all this. As I write this it’s an ugly time. Just revisiting W. is a reminder of where we were then and we don’t know if we’re going to go back to that. Or worse. The fictional Earle Hudd warns W. about the pitfalls of wanting to live your life over again and you can’t live it over again. But you can’t get rid of your regrets either, let alone your dreams of what might have been. Sometimes it’s hard not to let out a scream in the night about it all. I suppose that W., at least as portrayed here, has decided at the end that those things don’t matter since in the future, as he reminds us, we’ll all be dead. In my mind I live those eight years over. I live the past eight years over too. It’s hard not to think about the past and try to put right all those time you fucked up, when you missed what was right in front of you. I suppose we spend way too much time in life missing things. That’s the way we are.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

What That Reason Is

Sometimes films get forgotten. Who knows why, that’s just the way things go. Abel Ferrara’s BODY SNATCHERS never had much of a chance apparently since it never got much of a release. After playing in competition at Cannes in ’93 it slipped into a few theaters in early ’94, as if Warner Bros. was trying to hide it, to at least a few good reviews (including four stars from Roger Ebert) and some positive response. I still remember seeing it in Westwood Village, back when people went to the movies in Westwood Village, and the sheer rush of the film’s most powerful moment (if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about) caused the audience to burst into spontaneous applause. Partly because of its style, partly because I was the sort of guy to champion films that it seemed like the studio was hiding, I talked the film up a lot back then. Now all these years later it’s become something I haven’t revisited in over a decade at least. Maybe this remake that follows the ’56 and ’78 versions of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS isn’t as good as those two but there are far worse things you could say about any film than that it doesn’t quite live up to a pair of classics. Returning to it again after however many years, if this BODY SNATCHERS has any problem it’s that the very best moments and ideas don’t necessarily make up a completely satisfying narrative in the end and maybe that’s one reason why I sort of forgot about it. But considering the onslaught of thematically empty remakes/reboots/whatevers that we’ve had to deal with in recent years this one is pretty damn near daring in what it even attempts to accomplish. The film is still flawed and either lacks the necessary ‘big idea’ or the one it has is a little too obscured but what’s there is still effective which, especially these days, is better than nothing.
Teenage Marti Malone (Gabrielle Anwar) is traveling through the country with her father, EPA chemist Steve Malone (Terry Kinney), stepmother Carol (Meg Tilly) and half-brother Andy (Reilly Murphy) as Steve investigates possible contamination involving the chemicals used on military bases. When they arrive Steve gets to work in spite of a hostile reception from base commander General Platt (R. Lee Ermey) but is soon consulted by Major Collins (Forest Whitaker) the base medical officer who appears extremely worried about the possible effects these chemicals are having on the people who live at the base. Although Marti quickly makes friends with Jenn Platt (Christine Elise) daughter of the General and helicopter pilot Tim Young (Billy Wirth) they at first are unaware of the changes taking place but quickly start to believe that maybe certain people around them aren’t who they claim to be.
Maybe connected in my mind to how it barely opened, the film feels like some sort of aberration both for Ferrara and the ‘Body Snatchers’ concept in general. Truth be told, I haven’t even seen a new Abel Ferrara film in a long time and by now just the idea of such a thing seems lost to another era, whether grainy videotapes of MS. 45 or half remembered viewings of THE ADDICTION or THE FUNERAL. BODY SNATCHERS came out right around the same time as Ferrara’s other foray into big studio filmmaking, the Madonna-Harvey Kietel team-up DANGEROUS GAME which I also saw (at the Beverly Center; there was a healthy walkout ratio) and have pretty dim recall of. Hey, it was the 90s and odd digressions were actually being made at the studios even if they all didn’t open wide. BODY SNATCHERS (screen story by Raymond Cistheri and Larry Cohen, screenplay by Stuart Gordon & Dennis Paoli and Nicholas St. John, based on the novel by Jack Finney) makes a point to pay homage to the previous films but wastes very little time in taking its own path, not at all a strict redo of what had come before.
Following the earlier two films which took place in a small town and the big city, the setting of a military base lends it a different feel on its own, an enclosed community unfamiliar to the leads and one where you really can’t tell what certain people are thinking. It’s a film with characters who are already withdrawn from each other, led by a teenage girl who refers to her stepmother as the woman who ‘replaced’ her mom as if for her the family she’s a part of has already dissolved into dust and the pod people don’t have to do very much to get their job done. It’s bluntly directed with a spare sense of dread that adds to each scene, containing lots of dead space in the widescreen frame where almost anything could be going on yet in spite of a certain arty nature still maintains as a genre piece that could have easily opened wide and I doubt there would have been rioting in the streets. Elements do feel dropped in from various drafts as if they’re more like pieces which don’t quite make up a complete whole and the myriad writing credits (with a few intriguingly familiar names in there) indicate a project that may have gone through numerous changes but some of those pieces still work in letting that dread seep in, like a particularly sly daycare sequence where every child’s artwork is creepily the same except for one. As it is, the narrative feels sliced to the bone anyway which manages to add to the tension while also providing a certain amount of speed to each event as if the film itself is fully aware that we already know some of these story beats so there’s no reason to dwell on them.
Like the previous two versions, there’s a certain Rosencrantz & Guildenstern approach to the story in how everything has already kicked off by the time the opening credits have rolled and the main characters are separated from the action even more this time so we only get to hear about some of what’s going on at the base. Along with that is a strain of verrrry dark, deadpan humor that the film does a good job in knowing when to undercut with another chill. This is especially evident in the portrayal of Marti’s uncomprehending half-brother, so young that he barely understands anything going on except that his mom has died and if he goes to sleep he’ll die too. The shot of him barely comprehending the nudity of his new ‘mother’ as she approaches him in its perfect form is one of the film’s best moments, a queasy eroticism in a way that few films ever seem to go for. One real problem with the film is that there’s so little happening around the central narrative that there’s only so many places to take it before everything is revealed and it all turns into a third act chase/escape—certainly with the myriad intellectuals of Philip Kaufman’s San Francisco debating things in the ’78 version there was more ‘stuff’ going on. Here there’s a left-right conflict of the EPA chemist representing ‘hippies saving the planet’ with the (then) post-cold war military that clearly wants to be left alone but the conflict never becomes very substantial, much of the EPA angle pretty much leading nowhere plotwise. The real impact comes from the teenage lead character who feels isolated from the entire world already, not feeling at all part of a family that has already broken apart. She doesn’t even know what personality she is yet, let alone what she’s going to become, in contrast with her new friend who rebels against her surroundings yet fully expects to turn into her parents eventually.
It’s also a case of a film building to its fever pitch too soon, but it’s still one hell of a fever pitch, a certain speech by Meg Tilly’s pod person in which she decries the futility of running away since there’s ‘no one like you…left.”. The moment of the big reveal that immediately follows is where the audience applauded long ago and even now the sequence is so effective, so powerful, that it deserves to be ranked among the great moments in horror of the past thirty years. The only problem is there’s nowhere BODY SNATCHERS can go afterwards to top it and part of me wishes it didn’t have to try—if the film ended here I’d be perfectly satisfied although I can understand why a studio wouldn’t want to release a 50-odd minute film where nothing gets resolved. But there is a certain maverick confidence to the film as if it was actually made under the radar during such an alien invasion while it was occurring and at its very best, there’s something seeping underneath each scene that you can feel, something unpleasant which almost matters more than any of the plot. Maybe the film is too underpopulated but the unique approach to the material does offer a new look at how individuality gets stripped away and Ferrara knows where to find the visuals that underline this; one shot dwelling on an American flag being taken down as the sun sets seems to be saying the real invasion is starting now, the idea of that country and its people no longer matters (naming the empty bar the ‘Top Gun’ also has certain connotations and there’s no flashy 80s patriotism to be found here).
That sameness forces us to pay attention to the people, the nervousness that a few of them don’t know how to hide just as he brings an individual feel to this film that’s about it being taken away. In the intimate scene between Marti and her potential love interest played by Billy Wirth where he confesses to killing someone while in Kuwait the film makes the military base setting into something meaningful, as if it’s the regrets which make us who we are more than anything. Just like it’s the music we listen to while hiding away from the world or the crazy persona we put on when we’re behind closed doors with our loved ones or even how much we try to drink away that pain and how no one can take that away from us…or at least shouldn’t. The film is at its best when it veers off course into those digressions, particularly during Forest Whitaker’s two scenes which, isolated from everything else, feel like they could be excerpts from an Abel Ferrara arthouse take on the ‘Body Snatchers’ concept and I’d like to see that film. It’s those moments where I almost can’t explain why they’re so unnerving which cause the movie to stick. Even that tiny little camera move during Meg Tilly’s big speech gives me a chill when I see it all these years later.
Part of it may be how Ferrara’s direction seems to pay less attention to spatial awareness or even daylight continuity than in isolating the actors in the frame and how it’s all presented as if out of a living nightmare, just as he quietly observes the insidious physical process of how bodies are taken over. The physicality of it adds to the dread that continually hangs in the air and even some subtly recurring dialogue turns the casual into almost unaccountably unnerving in a way that can’t quite be pinned down. There’s something unpleasant seeping under the film and even the tiny house where the family stays is framed in ways that make it look like being woken up at 3AM into the most nightmarish situation imaginable. It’s the lack of a real second half which makes it all feel not quite fully formed, like the state of the half-formed bodies of the pod people which get discarded.
So it’s a little bit of a shame that it doesn’t lead somewhere except for the chase with all subtext pretty much done away with, as well as how what happens means discarding some of the best elements for much of the second half. I wish there was a good solution for this aside from rewriting the third act entirely--as it is, one beat implies the possibility of more complications during the final third, then the movie oddly disregards it. It’s all still well executed, if anything, and the look of blackness is expertly achieved by DP Bojan Bazelli with a propulsive score by Joe Delia which adds immeasurably to the atmosphere that almost wafts out of the frame. Put together it feels a little like Ferrara was able to make half of the film he wanted then treated the rest of it as work-for-hire and went along with the compromise. But even a few moments during the final third stand out, particularly one moment where a recently born pod person suddenly rises into frame, the sound work combined with the movement of the actor creating a frisson of the sort that can only be found when a film is even attempting to approach greatness.
Still, there’s that feeling of dread and you can tell that Ferrara never forgets that this is, for all intents and purposes, a horror movie, in moments like when an alien body that isn’t fully formed pops out from under a bed like a monster in a haunted house. There’s also a fair amount of elements taken from the ’78 version, particularly that iconic shriek, as well as a few touches which harken back to the original like how the local bar is oddly empty. It also has an ending that I suppose falls somewhere between the framing device wrap up of the original and the bleakness of the ’78 denouement as much as it’s barely an ending at all. The final sequence manages to be shot in a way that implies a science fiction ZABRISKIE POINT but still feels a little too patchwork to have the full effect. The last half hour is at least cinematic, I’ll give it that much, with at least one plot turn that I’m still surprised made it into a major studio film so what’s there are the pieces of a potential classic but still just pieces. I don’t love the film like I did back then and a few of these flaws stick out to me, but revisiting it now while it still plays like an aberration it feels like one in a few of the best ways possible. It’s made by someone willing to let it be slick like a studio film usually is but also knows to give it enough quirks that you can tell the pod people haven’t fully taken over. Maybe it’s all summed up in the early line where someone says, “You’re scared. Good.” You still have those emotions and that’s the way the film wants it to be.
Part of that reminder of humanity comes from the main cast, particularly Gabrielle Anwar who brings a wounded innocence to Marti, not knowing where she is in life and forced to deal with that even when she doesn’t fully understand what’s going on. And one memory coming back to me now is how I had a crush on her way back then. Terry Kinney seems too young to be her father but that almost seems part of the point with the actor playing much of his part as willingly disconnected from whoever he’s talking to, unable to relate to just about anyone. Christine Elise’s undeniable energy plays well off Anwar as Marti’s new best friend just as Billy Wirth’s aloofness does, lending a distinct vibe to the chemistry each of the actors have with each other while Forest Whitaker nails his two scenes, not letting the full extent of the sheer dread he feels show right away—Ferrara holds on him for a long moment early on to let us grasp this and his line “I’m worried about these…people” is drawn out as if he desperately wants to believe they still are. But Meg Tilly easily gets some of the film’s most powerful moments including her big speech but there’s also a completely wordless moment where she exchanges glances with another woman, presumably a pod person, dealing with a baby crying, which doesn’t even need the science fiction context to be unnerving. It could be anything, whether its two women trapped in this place or two alien beings. It doesn’t really matter. Even one early moment of Tilly in her bedroom when she’s still human feels like a touch that only Abel Ferrara would have encouraged an actor to do, another reminder of how human we can be, unencumbered by inhibitions when we’re in private and how that makes us human as much as anything.
And of course there was yet another remake in 2007 called THE INVASION (directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, partly reshot by others) which even with Nicole Kidman starring already seems to have forgotten by everyone, including by me and probably you, with no sign of even a semi-interested cult around it. There’ll be another remake eventually, you know there will. What Abel Ferrara has had to say about the lack of release of his BODY SNATCHERS in some interviews leads to more questions but still isn’t the ‘Ferrara pissed off the Warner execs’ anecdote that I was expecting, apparently having more to do with skullduggery within the studio at the time than any maverick behavior on his part. But the recent release of a Blu-ray from the Warner Archive means that hopefully this film will still be out there. “You always remember the good things about people,” says Marti at one point, just as I need to remember seeing this film in Westwood long ago, and in some ways the film is about how we need to remember whether it’s the good things about other people or the bad things about ourselves. Like it or not, it’s part of what we hold on to, it’s part of what makes us who we are, even if those other people never know this and even if they never remember the way we feel about them.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Only Deign To Work

Memory. Usually I’d rather just forget everything. I don’t want to think about it, I don’t even want to write about it. Even when it comes to good memories if enough time goes by and certain people you once knew recede further into the past, there can still be the tinge of regret and of the road not taken. Autumn comes and no matter what else is going on I’ll think of New York, not because of Frank Sinatra but because of the excitement I felt back in those days working at a daily entertainment news show for a certain news network. I started that job in a September long ago and to this day during those months I remember the feel of autumn in the air combined with the excitement I felt. I was young, I was hopeful, I was stupid, I would leave the office every night and the entire city was out there, every single possibility was out there. On the same floor where I worked was the long running “Style with Elsa Klensch” and I never paid much attention to it or to her or any of that stuff but it was there with those monitors always displaying what seemed like endless b-roll of fashion shows. How much of this stuff went on day after day? I never found out and I still don’t know. Looking it up tells me that show ran all the way until February 2001 and an article in the New York Observer at the time references how the network “has drastically reduced its fashion-news coverage” which now sounds like a sentence from another dimension. According to Wikipedia the show I worked at in the early 90s (“Showbiz Today” for anyone who remembers that one) had its final airing on, um, September 10, 2001. We know what changed after that but it was already long in the rearview mirror for me by then.
Anyway, that’s the past and no point in dwelling there. The world moves on, after all. But I still get that rush from certain films set in New York that remind me of the hugely tangible feeling of being on those streets when you’re young enough to know you want to reach for something but maybe too stupid to know what the right choices are. Released during the summer of ’06, the film version of THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA is ten years old now and I’m guessing even the world of fashion magazines isn’t the same as it was then--Googling around I spotted a headline which read “How ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ Would Be Different in 2016” and I didn’t click on it since I’ve got other things to do. Putting all that aside, even without all the up to date gadgets that would be used by the characters, revisiting the film now it still feels current as if it’s very much part of this increasingly media intense environment. Not to mention that it barely feels like I’m revisiting this film at all since it’s never really gone away due to constant cable airings and how much it’s generally remembered. As a contrast, the DVD features a few trailers of other Twentieth-Century Fox comedies released the very same summer which serves as proof of how fast these things are usually forgotten. Plus the other film that opened the very same week was SUPERMAN RETURNS which also hasn’t exactly stuck around (that one’s a conversation for another time) and I saw it opening night at the Chinese with one of the most excited audiences imaginable but even then it was clear which film was more satisfying, which one hit the target. THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA isn’t perfect and it’s so slick that maybe there isn’t much to discuss in detail but it gets much of the overall approach just right and it’s just a damn good movie. Maybe not a great one but on a pop level of what a film like this is supposed to be in the best of all worlds it feels almost, pretty much, just right.
Recently arrived in New York and looking to work in journalism, Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) takes a job as second assistant to the all-powerful Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), editor-in-chief of Runway Magazine. Nothing about Andrea fits in at Runway, as she deals with the daily humiliation put forth by Miranda as well as first assistant Emily Charlton (Emily Blunt) who worships everything the magazine represents and dreams of nothing more than the upcoming Paris trip during Fashion Week. But once Andrea begins to find her way at the magazine with the help of art director Nigel (Stanley Tucci) her relationship with boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier) begins to suffer and her ability to do the job surpassing even what she thought was possible she finds herself getting sucked into Miranda’s world at the expense of everyone else around her.
But you know this already. Everyone’s seen this film by now, my 12 year-old niece has seen it. It’s one of those perfect lazy Sunday afternoon movies to find on cable just like 2015’s THE INTERN which also starred Anne Hathaway and on a recent Sunday I had absolutely zero problem with finding that one on again. In comparison, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna, based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger) is equally pleasant but it’s also meant to be sharper, darker even if it never goes too far in the direction of unpleasantness. Whatever the novel was, and I haven’t read it, the goal of the film is clearly not to blow the roof off of the treatment of assistants in the fashion industry and as dark comedies go it doesn’t go all that far, as if the most hostile physical action in the movie is the way Streep’s Miranda Priestly slams her coats down on the desk in that rapid-fire montage. The punches are even pulled a little when it comes to the worst thing Andy is asked to do she’s asked to do as if to make it not quite so terrible, as if there were a number of script discussions about this plot point but by this point so much of the film is clicking in the right way that it really doesn’t matter. The cutting dialogue keeps things moving through each of Miranda’s fucked up mind games and it feels continually grounded during each of the ridiculous tasks partly because it’s so easy to identify with Hathaway and her own goals.
And tone can be a tough nut to crack. Sure, just because the movie wants to be slick and commercial doesn’t mean it’s easy to pull that off. A little too much one way the whole thing is just too silly, like a bad ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS knockoff. Too much the other way and the dark humor would just become too sour. The Harrison Ford-Rachel McAdams comedy MORNING GLORY which came a few years later is clearly trying to do a similar thing (the two films even share the same screenwriter) and it’s not an unpleasant film in the least but is maybe a little too broad and ultimately insubstantial that there’s a ‘so what?’ feel to the conflict. Even comfort food has to have standards, after all. Whatever the book was, it feels like the goal of adapting THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA was to make it not a revenge piece (bringing to mind how Nigel mocks Andrea’s whining with a ‘poor you’) but to find a way to show how making this hellish job matter, to realize that you’re not forced to live in this world but if you’re going to be there you should at least try to live up to its standards since even fluff can mean something. It’s not about making Miranda Priestly a bitch to be put in her place but to live up to this challenge you’ve created for yourself and keep what you were meant to be in the process. Not easy, but no one said it was going to be.
Directed by David Frankel whose work before this film included the ENTOURAGE pilot, some SEX AND THE CITY episodes and the 1995 Woody Allen-ish romantic comedy MIAMI RHAPSODY, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA is fast paced to the point that the speed almost becomes the very tone of the film using the breakneck approach established on ENTOURAGE and modifying it here to accentuate the stylishness of this world as opposed to the frenetic handheld feel of that show. The main exception is maybe during the famous scene where Miranda Priestly explains to Andrea with dripping contempt what it is they really do with the word ‘cerulean’ serving as a key part of that explanation and it’s one of the best in the film both in how it’s written and played by Streep with those words slithering out from the contempt she clearly feels for who she’s explaining this to while expertly doing her job at the very same time. The camerawork here goes handheld not in a manic way but just enough to add to the immediate unease that Andy suddenly feels (another headline I spotted was “What That Famous ‘Devil Wears Prada’ Scene Actually Gets Wrong” and I didn’t care enough to click on that either) and even in this scene the film doesn’t linger, moving forward immediately instead of on an expected reaction shot of the person who’s been momentarily rendered irrelevant. The deleted scenes on the DVD include a bit where Stanley Tucci’s Nigel introduces himself to Andrea; nothing wrong with the moment but in the film’s eyes it’s not necessary, pleasantries aren’t required here and you have to run alongside everyone else or you won’t catch up.
Frankel’s direction is continually assured in how to keep moving, like in the extended shot where Simon Baker’s slick columnist makes the move on Andrea as she gets lost in the drunken feel of this power just as he later tells her how sexy it is that she’s becoming part of that world so for those few seconds she sees the appeal in that. In each beat like that the film knows how to keep moving, it continually gets to the point of each scene and the dialogue gets it to the right point. And almost in a musical way it knows when to calm down, to allow for the quietness of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly to cut through everyone else who knows they don’t have anywhere near the power she does. Streep’s the one who gets the speeches, cerulean-related and otherwise, whether designed to humanize her or add to the inevitable cruelty—Hathaway doesn’t get to say as much, there to merely listen since her place in the world is still being formed with a flashback to the beginning at one point just a few mere seconds as if that memory of what she was is already fading away. Even with the broader moments and the craziness of some of the fashions and yet it still is about the character more than strictly comedy, the world has its own internal logic. You’re either part of it or you’re not. And if you’re not, that’s all. Show yourself out.
Even when dealing with the absurdity of the then-unreleased Harry Potter book Andrea’s victories are small, relatable and for the purposes of the plot, significant. The film doesn’t have a deep or heavy message but it still knows to show how important this is in the way when you’re that young and everything seems so big and possible. All you want to do is not fuck up and you don’t know yet that you will. The feel is underlined by Theodore Shapiro’s score (who also did the score for, whaddyaknow, THE INTERN) which works for a comedy but also as Andy’s own personal soundtrack, as she stares up at the buildings all of this matters. For us, it’s Hollywood fluff. But it’s her story so it means something, as heightened as it is, as much as though we hear about the hours and the stress the glamour of working that job is still what comes across. Maybe it’s more of a coming of age story than satire or even a comedy—maybe it’s just an aspirational thing, since as much as we hear about it things never seem that awful. All we know is that when Andy buckles down and does the work it all looks pretty nice, leading to the Big Question of do you become your job or is your job just what you’re doing while waiting for the next thing. Plus with a few lines it drops in the subtle theme of women in the workplace and it could easily be called more progressive than WORKING GIRL with Sigourney Weaver last seen being told to get her bony ass out of there (and, lest anyone forgets, WORKING GIRL is a favorite of mine). It’s not too hard to imagine that version of this material being made by lesser hands, one that would make Miranda Priestly (or Emily) a one-dimensional bitch to be humiliated and even when Andrea makes her choice she’s not taking back any defense she’s made of her. It’s just not who she is. This all manages to bring a sliver of depth to this lightweight material, knowing that no more than a sliver is needed, dropped in to lines like Nigel’s dream of coming to Paris and actually getting to see Paris—the glamour of such a job letting you travel all over the world but still not entirely part of the world. Without that sliver the movie wouldn’t have turned into the perennial I guess it already is. I’m no expert on what my 12 year old niece should be watching but this seems like a pretty good one.
This film also seemed to mark the beginning of the Meryl Streep renaissance of the past decade or so and as big as this role seems in the surface the quietness she brings to her intensity, even on those rare occurrences where she shows what's underneath, is palpable. Whatever she’s doing, even if it’s just holding out her hand for what she expects to be placed there immediately, all those touches make it the perfect combination of star and larger than life character. Rachel McAdams reportedly turned down the role of Andrea and we’ll never know how that would have been (she wound up doing MORNING GLORY in 2010; let’s just say that film’s biggest issues aren’t her fault) but Anne Hathaway is an ideal audience surrogate, grounding the film with her insecurities in how she’s clearly trying to be better as the film goes on. Her steadiness makes it believable how much she ultimately fits into the world even if she can’t help herself. There are some scenes where Hathaway barely says anything at all, merely listening, and the way she listens helps to keeps the film about her during these moments. The supporting cast hits all the right marks as well—Stanley Tucci is awesome and totally laser focused with his timing with every line he has while the fantastic Emily Blunt brings nuance and believable panic to her innate over-the-topness with such sharpness that it’s still my favorite performance in this film. Simon Baker oozes the smarm of someone who knows exactly how to play this game while even the bit players pop--a few small roles almost feel like they were designed to possibly be played by big names in cameos but so what (a few real life notables do appear in cameos) and of course there’s along with Adrian Grenier of ENTOURAGE as the patient boyfriend pushed to his limits, Tracie Thoms of DEATH PROOF, Rich Sommer of MAD MEN and Rebecca Mader, now on ONCE UPON A TIME.
I’ve said very little about all the fashion, but I’m sure there’s someone else out there who can focus on all that from what I can tell, what Emily Blunt wears does the best job at getting across the exaggeration. And it’s hard not to notice those reminders of how the world really has changed—disparaging references to people forced to work at Auto Universe and TV Guide now sound like people they’re probably lucky to have any magazine job at all. But the world of the film is not so much the glossy New York I remember as it is a New York that I wish I remembered even if it is many years since I’ve been there now and, besides, that was so long ago that I’m not even sure if there’s any point in remembering it all. I’m perfectly ok with remembering a movie like this instead, since it’s a reminder that there aren’t enough like it these days (one I haven’t seen is David Frankel’s later HOPE SPRINGS which reunited him with Street). It goes down so easily that it doesn’t bother me that it never gets too believably dark Yes, there could have been a scene where Andy gets believably screamed at. I’m sure it’s happened in those offices before and it happened to me once at another entertainment news show I once worked at. I got over it. You shake these things off. You have to, while you wonder once again if you’ve become your job or if your job is just what you’re waiting for until the next thing. And while you try to figure that you walk off into the distance to go home at night, looking for a new day. Anyway, to steal a toast from the film, to jobs that pay the rent. That’s all.