Monday, December 31, 2018
Endings do happen but not only do we not always get to decide them we usually don’t even get a say in whether anything really ends. We spend so much time in life searching for a certain connection that sometimes when we’re right in the middle of the thing really happening we just lose sight of it. But we still dream. We are who we are which means we have to face up to what we’ve done and where we failed. And we still hope that it might all turn out ok with us in the end. Even if we have no say in what happens at the end of a year.
But going back much further, it still strikes me as a little odd that my mother took me to a Robert Altman film when I wasn’t even ten years old but the film in question was POPEYE so I guess that’s all right (I don’t think she liked it, but never mind about that). POPEYE opened at Christmastime 1980 and is famously lumped in with directorial follies of that HEAVEN’S GATE era even though it did pretty well, even though it did considerably better than FLASH GORDON which opened the week before. It’s still an odd duck, for the world and for me, and in my own head it’s become the rare film which combines the feeling that comes from those Altmans I’ve discovered as an adult with the unavoidable nostalgia factor of certain films seen when I was growing up. This one is better than a few I can think of, at the very least. And since POPEYE was the first Altman film I ever saw, obviously it was, somehow deep down it feels like that affected the way I approached other films by him when I saw them years later so in some ways it was the best possible intro to his work; along with the Trojan horse of a star from one of my favorite shows at the time it was filled with that sprawling visual style, an idiosyncratic tone and feel unlike what any other director would have done with the basic idea of a Popeye movie along with a very Altmanesque supporting cast of people cramming the frame which of course included the astounding Shelley Duvall the same year as THE SHINING which, needless to say, I hadn’t seen at that point. I’ll never say that POPEYE is one of my very favorite films by Robert Altman, let alone one of my favorite films in general, and there are times watching it that I sort of need to take a break almost from pure exhaustion. It’s a lot, after all. But thanks to the performances and songs, not to mention the the pure artistry involved, I still have a fondness for the sheer defiance it displays in presenting this totally off-kilter world where just maybe the unexpected connections you dream of may still happen even if in the most shambling way imaginable.
Arriving in the seaside town of Sweethaven, a sailor man named Popeye (Robin Williams) rents a room at the Oyl household, intent on continuing the search for his long lost pappy. But his arrival coincides with the engagement of family daughter Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall) to Bluto (Paul Smith) but when she tries to run off from the oncoming wedding she and Popeye discover little baby Swee’Pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt), an adorable tyke who has been abandoned but instantly brings them together. The three become a makeshift family, much to the rage of Bluto, who immediately takes away the protection he was providing the Oyls with from the local tax man but when boarder Wimpy (Paul Dooley) discovers the special power Swee’Pea has it catches Bluto’s attention which leads to them bringing the child to the mysterious Commodore who runs Sweethaven and no one has ever seen.
Sometimes I’m not sure what to think of POPEYE. Who knows what anyone thinks of it these days even as I want it to become one of those Robert Altman films that becomes something else each time out letting me see it through an entirely different prism the way his best films do but maybe POPEYE can really only be one thing. Even though it’s a would-be blockbuster so expensive that it came from a pair of major studios it’s a cartoon-turned-giant-musical-comedy unlike any ever made while also very much a Robert Altman film (it’s also not QUINTET, but the quality of that one is a debate for another time) which partly means that it doesn’t seem to care how big it all is, willing to focus on the smallest thing in the frame while madness of all kinds goes on around it. The film did fine when released, it just wasn’t a blockbuster and along with some less than stellar reviews--Leonard Maltin’s BOMB rating seems overly harsh--wound up having the stink of a flop so as things went it was Altman’s last film for anything resembling a major studio for some years afterward. Robin Williams himself used it as an easy punchline for a long time but that seemed to fade away by a certain point maybe as he realized how special the whole thing really was. Or maybe it was how Altman’s stature seemed to grow as the years went on, maybe it was Generation X or Paul Thomas Anderson or whoever growing up and appreciating how flat out weirdly endearing it really is. Or maybe they just couldn’t get any of those songs out of their head, which is perfectly understandable. I know I still can’t.
With a screenplay by Jules Feiffer based on the E.C. Segar character and songs by Harry Nilsson, POPEYE is very much a kids movie for adults, designed for me then but still appealing now, maybe hurt by an undeniably lumbering quality it has that does become a little tiring and it might even qualify as a film that I sort of love but never particularly want to sit all the way through at one time. But then there are those moments where the emotions behind the music take hold and the way Altman lets certain moments just happen almost out of nowhere between the characters it becomes clear how much the film is really about the affection it has for almost everyone onscreen in this bizarre world, its understanding of how much they yearn for something better in this place. Saying there isn’t any other film like it might not be enough for some people. But it’s true.
The brief cartoon at the start that also cleverly supplies the Paramount logo draws that line in the sand while making sure we never forget where all this originally came from. There was no way to make Robin Williams look completely like a cartoon and I vaguely remember trying to reconcile that in my head as a child. But the way it makes this cartoon world flesh is part of how defiant the film is in obliterating that line between the two and the town of Sweethaven is a miracle of production design by Wolf Kroeger, a giant outdoor set in Malta which is still there as a tourist attraction. When the dawn breaks and the town anthem heard for the first time it becomes magical in its depiction of this bizarre population made up of whatever this town is supposed to be. There’s no way to fully understand this reality so we just accept it, the characters living their lives and going about their routines almost in a cartoon loop that we fully witness as they take place. This is most keenly felt in the organized chaos that Altman allows, the expert choreography of Popeye’s first dinner at the Oyl house, unable to get a word in or find a place to sit or get something to eat as the family squabbles around him. The rhythms of how the film is staged and cut within scenes always gives it a unique tempo, everything going on with the way it’s seemingly framed by Altman helps to give life to every single movement so the feeling of the place is always tangible. They’re cartoon characters but there’s still a humanity in all their pratfalls and over-the-top reactions with an astonishing level of detail in every shot, felt in moments like Bluto lumbering threateningly through the party as he counts off those flower petals, everyone terrified of him, as if Altman decided the way to express this cartoon feel wasn’t through visual effects but instead to use the purity of the filmmaking to bend the laws of physics as far as possible and this turns it all into a fully fleshed world.
The cinematography by the great Giseuppe Rotuno helps us feel the essence of the town and the wood the houses were built with and the sea beyond, a look typical for Altman in how it retains the telephoto quality of keeping everything in wide shots with very few close-ups. But it also feels more deliberate than the sprawl of some of his other films as if a decision was made to let us seek out and be able to find specific pieces of clutter in the frames which goes perfectly with the idea of a comic strip, unlike the mistiness of McCABE & MRS. MILLER that makes that film seem so much like a dream. Altman always, however feasibly possible, keeps characters alive in the corners of the Technovision frame acting like the animated figures they are, and those details are always essential in this ramshackle film with those buildings that each look like they might collapse at any minute and moments of inspiration that go by so fast we can barely believe we’ve seen it which includes painting the set and all the clothing red for a shot lasting a mere few seconds at one point. Even as it turns me into a kid for a few minutes I start thinking about other Altman films to compare it with, placing Popeye and Olive’s relationship up against some of his other not-quite romances. So it’s not quite a kid movie rewrite of McCABE & MRS. MILLER—I kind of wish it really was—but that film is still what comes to mind in the yearning found in the simmering hostility which turns into a sort of love that can’t be put into words. In this film they’re just able to find the way. I’d love to see a double feature of POPEYE and McCABE, the two romances set in distaff communities found in an almost impossible location, although I’d imagine a few parents bringing their kids might not be so happy.
There’s not much of a plot and who cares, avoiding the easy solution of Popeye eating spinach for every fight by making this essentially a prequel that presents his love for that particular vegetable as an inevitability which hasn’t happened yet, so the story ultimately hangs on how Popeye, Olive and Swee’Pea become a family. It’s not something that happens in one single moment, so Popeye and Olive go from bickering to loving each other without even realizing their feelings, it’s just the way it’s supposed to be, the way she ends their ‘phooey’ argument with a tiny, gentle little kiss. This goes perfectly with the songs—because, in case it’s been forgotten this is a fully fledged musical—that are almost like ditties that never quite turn into full melodies (the end credits suite offers a chance to really hear the lyrical quality that they might have) but reveal the hearts of the characters anyway particularly something like the lovely duet “Stay With Me” where the two of them sing gently to Swee’Pea practically whispered. But I still get a charge from Popeye shouting “I Yam What I Am” in that song and I love just watching Robin Williams charge through everyone during that number which is shot in the wide Altman style, not at all visually distinguished in how it’s filmed from a distance but I love it anyway.
The steady tempo of the “Everything is Food” number early on is one of the best examples of how each cut to another part of the restaurant adds to the scene, giving the film the same energy the town has, and the famous “He Needs Me” number sung by Duvall’s Olive Oyl is almost like pure cinema in its simplicity, holding almost entirely on her and the wistful joy at the connection being hoped for, her shadow sometimes filling out the space nearby and her gaze at Popeye as she moves around hiding from him is like a form of heaven. For a few minutes the film becomes the perfect symbiosis of director, star and music which provides the undeniable sweetness of POPEYE and how for once in an Altman world this kind of selfless connection can be made with no strings attached. Coming in at a little under two hours there are maybe a few too many songs particularly in the second half as if they couldn’t decide on which one to cut or maybe they’re just too close together which I suppose is what happens when you don’t have much of a plot, even if it doesn’t matter that you don’t have much of a plot.
Popeye is a loner at first, someone who I guess has been traveling from port to port in his tiny boat, not feeling like he belongs at first and even sleeps in his hammock above the bed while rooming at the Oyl house as if he can’t even bring himself to pretend to be part of a community. This is also certainly not the first Altman lead character to mumble to himself, whether John McCabe or Philip Marlowe and it seems like some kind of kismet that he made this film because of that, making him the perfect director not just for the world but for the character alone. And for all of its scale the film is at its best when simplest, when it’s just Popeye and Olive bickering over taking care of Swee’Pea and a little too often all that other noise gets in the way. As much as it willingly ignores the laws of physics that effort is sometimes a little too evident and as crazy as the gags are, you sometimes feel the effort all those artisans put into it.
The specific editing within certain scenes to give it the right surreal comic strip style is counterbalanced by just how long the damn thing seems to go on for and, yes, that includes the climax featuring slow moving boats heading for the big fight with Bluto we all know is coming, although any appearance by an Octopus is always welcome, and it all just kind of abruptly ends the way an actual Popeye cartoon would because how else should it end. It even feels a little like POPEYE goes against basic screenwriting formula since Popeye doesn’t even make the choice to finally try some spinach so some of that greatness is thrust upon him but he achieves it anyway and, besides, Bluto had it coming. Ultimately, it finds the happy ending for all those couples in Robert Altman films who weren’t allowed to get one and that’s really all that matters. POPEYE isn’t perfect. It isn’t THE LONG GOODBYE or NASHVILLE or McCABE & MRS. MILLER. As far as sheer weirdness goes, it may not even be BREWSTER McCLOUD. With POPEYE you feel the effort a little too much and there are sequences like the boxing match where I’m focusing on how much effort went into building this set and shooting it than actually paying attention to the movie. But each time I’m still a little amazed at it all, marveling at how they could have possibly pulled this off. Besides, if POPEYE was perfect and not this ramshackle oddity unlike anything else then it wouldn’t do us much good at all, no matter what our age is.
Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall are spectacular, each of them embracing the need to inhabit these characters making their surface quirks an integral part of everything they do and say. Robin Williams in his first film is jittery rawness in projecting each side of his character, the sweetness that comes out when he and Olive connect but also the angry side always ready for another fight, especially if someone is coming after Swee’Pea. Shelley Duvall is just about otherworldly in how she brings life to the very essence of Olive Oyl, never winking, treating every absurd situation as if it’s the most understandable thing in the world. I love everything she does here but everyone in the large cast is tireless in the energy they bring to making this world come alive, even the ones who barely get a line of dialogue. This includes Paul Dooley with the perfection to his walk and mannerisms who couldn’t be a more perfect Wimpy, Roberta Maxwell’s unending exclamations of surprise as Nana Oyl, Donovan Scott as Castor Oyl, David Arkin in his final film once again playing someone a step behind everyone else as he always did for Altman, Dennis Franz is one of the toughs and Wesley Ivan Hurt (Robert Altman’s grandson) as Swee’Pea is one of the most adorable babies ever seen in a film. Ray Walston’s late appearance Poopdeck Pappy is a reminder of how much more of an old-school musical guy he is when placed up against the rest of the cast and he seems to get Robin Williams to almost change the register on how he approaches things for a few minutes plus it’s almost perverse how he gets maybe the oddest song to perform since it’s barely a song at all and the great Donald Moffat (RIP) is memorable as the tax man, who would probably charge me a nickel not-mentioning-him-until-the-end-of the-paragraph tax.
Maybe the happiness the film makes me feel almost makes me sadder, maybe because I’m not back watching it again on a cold day in Yonkers Movieland screen #3, even if my mother wouldn’t want to see it again, maybe because of what hasn’t come true. Thinking of the past can do that. Many years after that first viewing I was at an Altman tribute where I found myself sitting in front of Vilmos Zsigmond and Paul Dooley who for all I know had never met but were exchanging Altman stories, the man who was once Wimpy saying, “We were over there six months, we had Fellini’s crew,” as he recalled the past he once experienced on this film. Even now I think of that when I see all those Italian names in the end credits. You always want to find that connection to your past in search of a future but maybe the severing is inevitable. Everything ends. You just don’t get to decide when that happens. So here I am looking to the future, wondering what kind of future there is. I just know, like it or not, I am what I am. I also want to claim that it’s ok with me, to reference what really is my favorite Altman film, but the truth right now is I’m not so sure. Maybe I’m somewhere in the middle. Right now it’s probably the best I can hope for.
Saturday, December 29, 2018
There I go again, trapped on the floor in a fetal position. That’s basically where I’ve been for the past year. It happens. So that’s where I am, wondering where this is all going. But I’m trying, I really am. We try to fight our way through these feelings, to somehow understand them and hopefully come out the other side in one piece. I’m getting doubtful of that happening by this point. There’s been too much pain, too many mistakes, too much regret. Too many things not said. I blame myself, partly. Not entirely, but of course we all need a little help to make the mistakes we have to live with.
Whatever else you want to say about the films he made, Burt Reynolds will always mean something to us. We’ll always dream of speeding off with him, whether he’s the Bandit or J.J. McClure, hearing that laugh of his as we evade another Smokey. But there’s that other Burt with the vulnerability we know is there, not too far down under the skin. The injured Lewis of DELIVERANCE who spends much of the second half of that film out of commission with his bravado no good against the elements, trying to begin his life anew after a divorce in STARTING OVER, even the look of anger on his face when that guy tells him off in BOOGIE NIGHTS and he can’t hold it in anymore. The 1983 Blake Edwards remake of THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN that Reynolds starred in came near the very end of his superstar run of several films a year, seemingly going back and forth between action, whether comical or hard-boiled, and attempts at something more sensitive. Two halves of the coin, almost as if one of them was the way he wanted to be seen, one was the way he really felt. Speaking as a Blake Edwards adherent, this is one of those movies I pull out again every few years hoping it will click into place but by this point I’ve accepted it as an odd anomaly as well as a film that comes off as strangely personal. It’s a difficult film to pin down, almost defiant in how it avoids making an actual statement about the truth of its main character but if anything, it has soul in how willing it is to acknowledge the pain that can sometimes come from just from walking down the street.
The funeral of sculptor David Fowler is attended by a wide array of women. One of them is his analyst Marianna (Julie Andrews) who tells us the story of David (Burt Reynolds) and his continual quest for women including an escapade down to Houston where he gets involved with the wife (Kim Basinger) of one of his benefactors, the former prostitute (Jennifer Edwards) who becomes his assistant and a woman (Marilu Henner) he tracks down as part of his never ending pursuit of what he believes are the perfect pair of legs. As David’s therapy sessions with Marianna continue, circumstances cause their relationship to shift and she finds herself willingly becoming another one of those women loved by him.
THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN is an odd film, a remake of someone else’s and yet an obvious continuation of themes explored by the director a few years earlier in “10”. The 1977 Francois Truffaut original of the same name is oddly not credited here although the way it’s billed as “A Blake Edwards Film” as opposed to the usual credit above the title (such as “Blake Edwards’ CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER”) that so many of his films during this period featured is an indication of the lineage. It’s recognizable as a piece of work by Blake Edwards regardless, but one that feels like it has deliberately stripped away the energy they usually contain, possibly in an attempt to be faithful to the spirit of the original but also with an eye towards exploring these themes with more seriousness than he had done before. But it feels like something is missing, whether the sort of comic setpieces he’s a master in pulling off or the specific narrative goal towards something like seducing Bo Derek, almost as if it wants to deny us what a film directed by Blake Edwards should be in the first place. Always moving at a slow, gradual pace through the episodic storyline there’s no real momentum to the narrative and it’s the sort of film where you always feel like you’re a half-hour in, no particular rush to get to any sort of plot. You’d expect it to play as comedy, which is certainly how it was sold, and some of it does but that’s not really what the goals of the film are and it doesn’t even seem interested in exploring these possibilities anyway. At one point David picks up a prostitute (played by Jennifer Edwards, daughter of the director who appeared in several of his films) and takes her home but after some conversation instead of having sex with her she becomes his assistant only to be tracked down by her pimp later on in a supermarket where she knocks him out with a frozen leg of lamb. This last part sounds like a typical Blake Edwards setpiece but in this film we only hear about it afterwards—if it turned out something was shot and cut, I could believe it—and the film is clearly more interested in the drama of their initial encounter where he acts paternal towards her as they discuss one of his sculptures and she reacts as if no one ever asked her about such a thing before.
That subdued conversational mode continues throughout and it’s just about the quietest film I can think of, always focused on the tortured ponderings as David Fowler moves from one woman to another with occasional panic attacks, in some cases doing whatever he can to meet them. Maybe it isn’t accurate to say all of the dialogue in the film is spoken in a slow hushed whisper but that’s sure what it feels like, all set in a L.A. west side that is so hermetically sealed it’s like the air’s not getting in with a Blake Edwards vibe of wealth, white wine and valium, where people idly jet off to Switzerland for a few weeks, everyone is relaxed and no one is happy in spite of it all. Even the main theme by Henry Mancini feels more ominous than his usual light confections, as if more appropriate for a mid-70s thriller where somebody drives through the snow up to a haunted New England mansion over the credits, the feeling of dread for what’s coming always left hanging in the air. It wants to laugh at times but can’t get over the sadness of the inevitable. Shot by the great Haskell Wexler, it’s one of the few Blake Edwards films not in widescreen which alone gives it a different feel, a soft naturalism but also a much more visually straightforward look which would feel like it was draining the life out of scenes if everything wasn’t already so quiet. It’s almost as if the lack of that framing removes a tool from Edwards’ creative arsenal giving this film a lack of dynamism as the scenes softly move forward, connecting but just barely and the film almost evaporates while it plays.
Compared with the original where the lead played by Charles Denner worked a relatively normal profession in Montpellier, Burt Reynolds as David Fowler lives in the Blake Edwards version of the world so he’s a wealthy sculptor in Malibu or thereabouts. In the Truffaut film the main character attempts to write his memoirs in an attempt to make sense of his life but here that sculptor goes into analysis, the result of his insecurity and panic attacks. Therapy is a continuing theme in Edwards’ films even when the subject is Commissioner Dreyfus being driven insane by Clouseau in the PINK PANTHER series and THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN takes the concept further in that Edwards actually wrote the screenplay with his own analyst Milton Wexler along with son Geoffrey Edwards. It’s all done in very straight-faced fashion, taking this level of depression and insecurity seriously while always searching for the next available woman and the therapy becomes the driving force of the plot even while still somewhat episodic, occasionally drifting off into digressions like an actual therapy session would, then returning back to the home base of Julie Andrews’ couch. At one point the film pauses for him to go grocery shopping, one of the most relatable moments in there and I wish the movie had lingered a little longer in such touches but instead it moves on to the next conquest or just discussions about them. The dryness extends to the doctor played by Julie Andrews doctor consulting with her own analyst about him, which makes me think of Lorraine Bracco going to see Peter Bogdanovich in THE SOPRANOS only without any satirical archness, all purely analytical as they discuss his situation with great earnestness. Flashbacks to his childhood (including the de rigueur scene of losing his virginity to a prostitute which is all sepia tone and soft focus) are largely taken from the original film and the film doesn’t use that much from the original, but still enough to make for an interesting point of comparison.
Just as the film seems to be settling into its own groove the pace picks up on a trip to the opening of a commission in Houston where Kim Basinger turns up as Louise, the frustrated wife of a local benefactor, a sequence of events that actually has an equivalent in the original but it’s the section that feels most comfortably like a Blake Edwards film, the energy rising each time she turns up to always insist on having sex in the most daring place possible and this is where things come to life while also seeming dangerous enough that the film can’t entirely go along with the joke, knowing that this is one of many ways that the main character is playing with fire. Some of it still plays a little dry but Basinger provides a comic energy that almost seems out of another movie altogether and it’s also at times a reminder that Edwards, particularly when it comes to farcical bed hopping, always knows how to get the point of a scene across in one shot if necessary. Along with hiding in closets and getting his hand glued to his mouth, along with a dog glued to his other hand, the peak maybe comes when Reynolds has an encounter with a parking attendant played by Ben Powers munching on a snickers that builds to both men talking with their mouths full, making perfect sense to each other. The moment goes by fast but suddenly it feels like the film has come alive from the comic possibilities that Edwards has worked out with both actors, getting the timing just right and for a moment it actually gets me to laugh out loud. Even though Basinger turns up again later on (for a threesome, no less) this section is so isolated from the rest of the film that it could almost be part of something else altogether, as if for the director the parts involving the therapy were a film he felt he needed to make but this was the one he actually enjoyed making. Maybe that’s the difference between a Blake Edwards film and a film that belongs to Blake Edwards.
The original film acknowledges the pain that gathers from living this kind of life filled with connections that are only temporary and the main character even keeps a drawer full of letters from ex-lovers wanting to know what happened. But this one just has melancholy with a lead who is unable to give up the idea of more women while at the same time hating leaving the women he’s with but we never hear much about what they think of all this with a few brief appearances by Cynthia Sikes as someone who he’s ‘kind of, semi-living with’ and the character is presented as an equal to him in some ways but she moves through the film so fast the relationship barely seems clarified for him or her or us, the concept of commitment blithely accepted as impossible. Part of the point is that Reynolds loves these women and the way he sees them is as much his vision of the world as the sculptures he creates and even at his worst the film is never particularly critical of his behavior at all. His unrequited pursuit of them, bordering on stalking in some cases, means the film has more problems than it did even then 35 years ago but of course in every way this is a director and star coming at it all from a different generation and mindset although oddly in her opening narration when Julie Andrews discusses what he meant to all these women who loved him she then adds, “Well, yes, to me, too.” The film makes it clear that it’s about the poetry which comes from how he sees them and experiences them just as much as the sex but when her final narration talks about how they were all soft clay to be molded by him I wonder if that might not be the goal of some women out there, even if the molding is done by Burt Reynolds.
All those poetic descriptions whether coming from him or Julie Andrews’ narration shows off Edwards’ inherently literate nature to his word usage and it all feels personal, particularly when David is curled up on the couch, terrified to even move, as if this office is a womb that he doesn’t want to depart. He’s too desperate to uncover further memories of his mother who he still has more of an attachment to than any long gone girlfriend, immediately associating the memory of seeing her in the bath one day right after seeing up his analyst’s dress, an event which turns out to be the catalyst for his rejuvenation, their affair and, most importantly, being able to work again. This all seems to be holding back from a true revelation, maybe because it puts Edwards out of his comfort zone and the result is somewhat stifling as if he’s trying to analyze material that doesn’t have enough weight to warrant it. In some ways it feels like the movie never fully comes together because he’s holding back his instincts in favor of this strict therapeutic approach that he’s decided on, even as the relationship goes from doctor-patient to lovers. Edwards’ later SKIN DEEP released in 1989, which itself began life in script form as a direct “10” sequel, feels like a more broadly comical remake of this remake, also about a bearded creative type going through severe psychological problems and though it’s as episodic is also much more broadly comical as well as intentionally redemptive in its storyline, hitting on answers this film avoids and it that sense this allows the plot to actually build to something. All this makes me think about my own stabs at therapy and maybe it got me to stop drinking (although that’s another Blake Edwards film entirely) but I’m also aware of the limitations of where the process went, of what I didn’t talk about, what I didn’t admit to myself even while trying to. These were my fears of trying to confront what I wanted and where I screwed up, mistakes that I’m still brooding over now. This film acknowledges the screw ups and the limitations but narratively speaking feels like a dead end.
In some ways the film wants to take itself to the logical extreme of what Dudley Moore was pursuing in “10”, literally falling down a mountainside, before he came to his senses. THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN, a downer released by Columbia Pictures during Christmastime 1983, would be darker if it wasn’t so self-servingly morose, the lead character floating through the world in his private, wealthy bubble, unable to see past the periphery. Gallows humor is totally at home in a Blake Edwards film but this one puts too much emphasis on just the gallows. The broad comic stunt as Reynolds attempts to cross a street early on becomes something very different near the end, as if the message of the film is simply that life is funny, just as love is funny, in how far you may be willing to go to find that ideal...until it’s not. You have to pick a side of the street or, ultimately, it’ll be too late. And the film embraces the character a little too much as this truth becomes evident, unable to ever treat him otherwise. As quiet as it is, as out of touch as it feels (for 1983, never mind now), there’s still something genuine in those yearnings here, the film just isn’t able to arrive at any sort of answer. The film shows Blake Edwards trying to sort something out, even if he can only partly put it into words what it means to pass that next woman on the street. Maybe it’s just the mystery of being alive.
The more sensitive side of Burt Reynolds’ star persona will maybe always be underrated—possibly Alan J. Pakula’s STARTING OVER (a huge hit in its day, now sadly forgotten; see it if you haven’t) is the best example of it but however much THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN succeeds in what it’s going for is largely due to him as for is largely due to the pure ease he projects and I’m not sure who else at the time could have played this role in a way that was so truly, genuinely, emotionally naked. There’s something to his performance here (this came between STROKER ACE and CANNONBALL RUN II, his last films for Hal Needham), the way he reveals himself through his pure physicality that displays an enormous amount of freedom in how he desperately wants to curl up on that therapist couch and never leave, the way he relaxes when easing into scenes with one of his female co-stars during their first encounters. Plus how relaxed he is playing dialogue with Julie Andrews who maybe is playing a little of herself in the way she was with Blake and how much gravity she brings to the material from her innate sensibility. Even when the material isn’t entirely engaging, Reynolds’ connection with his co-stars is felt particularly with Marilu Henner (who mentions that she has a great memory which the actress somewhat famously does, adding to the intimacy of the whole thing) as well as Kim Basinger, who reteamed with Edwards a few years later for BLIND DATE, and here more than just about anyone is always doing something unexpected to add to the danger of what she’s getting him to do.
So there I am. At the end of a year when I saw Burt Reynolds speak after a screening of his latest film THE LAST MOVIE STAR then a few months later we all said good bye to him, before he got to film his role in the new Tarantino film that might have given him one last shot of glory. Once upon a time in Hollywood he really was the greatest movie star, after all. The framing device of The MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN sometimes returns to a shot of David Fowler considering a slab of granite and what to make of it, unsure how to proceed. The original film comes to a conclusion made by the main character’s editor as his book is being published that his search for happiness among all those women was misguided considering how much can be found in one person but in making his own film Edwards seems to disregard any such quest for a Rosebud and for him the real unanswered mystery comes from the quest of who those legs really belong to, who they ever belong to. And just like them we never get any answers beyond the complex and unreadable beauty of the sculpture that the film closes on, the one he was presumably pondering all that time, forever inspired by all those women. Of course, things never make sense. And when it ends it hurts, all the way down to the bottom. So I’m still on the floor, trying to remember that there are no answers. There’s no redemption. There’s not even an end. A year goes away and there’s nothing that can be done about what didn’t happen. There’s just you.
Wednesday, December 19, 2018
Sometimes you check out of a film right away. You don’t want to, it just happens. There’s something about it you don’t connect with, something that feels off or not correctly thought out and there’s no getting around it. You may as well leave right then but you don’t, partly because you went to all the trouble to go to the theater, pay your money and sit down to see the thing so you might as well give it a chance that things will suddenly turn around. That doesn’t happen very much and it didn’t really with George Clooney’s SUBURBICON, a film that did close to zero business when it opened at the end of October 2017 and was forgotten almost instantly. At first when I saw the film at a sparsely attended matinee on opening weekend I wasn’t even sure what this was supposed to be, the first few scenes so alienating that it played like we were being dropped into a film partway through and left to fend for ourselves. But, as is sometimes the case with these things, once the mechanics behind the plot began to reveal itself about a half-hour in I suddenly found myself getting interested. This didn’t save the film but at the very least I was curious which is better than nothing and, besides, I’ll always take a failure that has stuff going on over a mediocrity that remains consistent all the way through. Of course, neither is really ideal but there are times when you take what you can get. With SUBURBICON, a film so hated and ignored that only a year later it barely seems like it even existed, at least this was something.
In 1959 the peaceful tranquility of the post-war planned community known as Suburbicon is disrupted when the African-American Mayers family (Leith Burke and Karimah Westbrook) move in to their new home, immediately causing friction among the neighbors who waste no time beginning to protest. Meanwhile, a shocking home invasion nearby results in the death of town resident Rose Lodge (Julianne Moore) leaving husband Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) to pick up the pieces with young son Nicky (Noah Jupe) and Rose’s sister Margaret (also Moore) who stays with them to help out as they recover. But as things get worse for the Mayers with neighbors harassing their home at all hours, Nicky makes a startling discovery which convinces him that there may have been more to the robbery than he first realized and insurance investigator Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac) begins snooping around the Gardner home in search of answers as well.
According to George Clooney that when he screened SUBURBICON for Norman Lear, the TV legend’s first response was to say, “This is the angriest film I’ve ever seen.” Which may have been exactly what Clooney wanted. The project began life years ago as an early script written by the Coen Brothers then after being pulled out of mothballs was reworked by Clooney with partner Grant Heslov and both teams are credited with the screenplay. The background of the project has interest as any unmade script by the Coen Brothers would and it certainly should be included at least as a footnote when discussing their filmography (as for how great THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS is, we’ll save that for another time) but while watching it this only matters so much. It feels like the basic story of SUBURBICON contains elements of neo-noir and dark humor with social commentary in the background to give it all some context but plays as if while in production George Clooney became influenced over how ugly things were getting in the real world, and who can blame him, which caused a shift in how he approached the material and what the film ultimately turned into. The noir elements become almost incidental, the humor feels bled out which leaves only the social angle of the whole thing, the place where that anger comes from, which in the end is basically what the film winds up being and it unfortunately never builds into something more than that single emotion.
Whether intentionally or not, SUBURBICON feels disorienting right from the start in how it delays the introduction of several main characters then deliberately throws us into a frightening situation before we’ve even gotten our bearings. It makes the first section of the film almost clinical but also distancing since without any definite point of view it’s not clear at first who or what the film is actually about. When the twist introducing the noir elements via what actually led to the death of the wife occurs close to the half-hour mark this at least helped me to finally get engaged in the basic story but too much of SUBURBICON feels underutilized, focusing on the wrong details from scene to scene and sometimes even shot to shot. Elements feel like they were possibly designed to play as overt references to certain classic films, what with the general DOUBLE INDEMNITY nature of the storyline and particularly a VERTIGO nod involving a brunette taking the place of an identical blonde who has departed early. But too often the film doesn’t do much with the visual possibilities of everything going on in the Lodge household, not even making such touches a clear part of the narrative as if it simply doesn’t have the interest. Too often it’s more interested in getting right to the next plot point and though crisply photographed by the great Robert Elswit, it feels like the Scope compositions have too much air in them as if the shots lack any real focus so as a result the film itself is missing that focus as well.
The point of SUBURBICON of course is the inherent racism that explodes from the residents of the town and how they disrupt everything by insisting on how much the new neighbors are disrupting everything while taking no notice of what’s actually going on right down the street. This makes sense on a surface level but it never bothers to make the Mayers family into actual characters, giving them nothing to do but merely act stoic in the face of all this horrific racism. They barely even have any dialogue through the entire film beyond their son played by Tony Espinosa who befriends Nicky and passes on the advice of “Don’t show ‘em you’re scared” which turns out to serve him well. The storyline is based on William and Daisy Myers, an African-American couple who moved into the all-white Levittown, PA in 1957 and the eventual riots which ensued so the idea behind this is all well and good. But instead of dealing with them as people it merely makes them a sort of moral counterpoint to the main action, never staying with them for long, never acknowledging that they might have much to say as if Clooney decided he wasn’t allowed to put words in their mouths. Aaron Sorkin, writing in Vulture recently about the pitfalls of adapting the new production of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD for Broadway mentioned, “In 2018, using black characters only as atmosphere is as noticeable as it is wrong,” and, well, that’s what SUBURBICON does. Maybe one way to make it work would have been if the true-life storyline served as merely as an abstract punctuation to the main action as if in a Robert Altman film, perhaps with the family only ever seen in the background while the insurance plotline plays out letting us make the connection for ourselves. The main plot involving the Lodge family should be twisty, nasty, a pitch black comedy noir but Clooney’s direction is so intent on focusing on the Mayers that it has no patience for locating any of those pleasures and in some ways he’s right considering how ugly it all is but without any of that it merely becomes a film interested in talking around the problem. With no sense of dark humor being brought out it makes the main plot secondary, as if he wants to get back to that other house but when it’s there the film can’t spend much time because, after all, nothing has been written for them to say. What the film seems to forget is how some of the best pieces of pure genre filmmaking ever keep those elements as mere subtext and it’s the power of those messages which emerge that help them stay with us to dig in and uncover whatever we might find. SUBURBICON just keeps all that on the surface so there’s nothing to really explore, making it all play as kind of a void.
There are bits of behavior that stand out, such as the awkwardness in how people respond to tragedy and the recurring theme of people looking for scapegoats while refusing to accept responsibility for what they’ve done. The film smartly drops hints of Gardner’s past so we can piece together enough of the mistakes he’s made as he refuses to cop to his part in them. “It’s not my fault…” one character unaccountably says during a key scene and just about any major character in the film could say it, trying to pass on the blame just as the entire population of Suburbicon are trying to blame the Mayers for moving in where they’re not wanted. The very artificiality of the setting serves the film well in how it displays this particularly when the expected shocking violence erupts but even that could have been pushed further, the occasional visual foreshadowing making it seem like this all could have been more adventurous in how it was shot. Gardner and Margaret each refer to Nicky to his face as a “little boy” at various points and their treatment of him extends to the wholesome image of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich alongside a glass of milk being used as a potentioal weapon at one point, a metaphor so good that it deserves a better film but it still works as a symbol for people doing anything they can to stop the future. Which is clever but the film needed to find more humor in that nastiness to get mixed up with the melodrama, playing too much of it so naturalistic that it lets the comic tension out of too many scenes. One other film that comes to mind is Bob Balaban’s sadly neglected 1989 film PARENTS which I haven’t seen for years but remember as an unrelentingly pitch black satire of 50s suburbia and consumerism, that in spite of a slim plot balanced the horror and comedy in a way this film unfortunately loses track of.
Some of the threads do have potential like the uncle who wants to help even though his bachelor status keeps him out of that more normal world and in his own unknowing way provides a sense of goodness in all this horror. Even in its clumsiness I find the noir possibilities of the plot intriguing within this suburban veneer of absolute perfection that people are trying to maintain and what is found underneath. When the claims investigator played by Oscar Isaac final enters the film, for a few minutes it remembers to have some fun egged on by the Bernard Herrmann-by-way-of-Danny Elfman score by Alexandre Desplat. But to be honest, I don’t like SUBURBICON very much at all and most of it plays so blunt in its anger that reading a description of the film’s tone would be about as useful as actually sitting through it. There’s a sharpness missing, even when the dialogue wraps around to itself in that Coen Brothers style (however much remains from the early draft, Clooney keeps acknowledging the Coens on the Blu-ray audio commentary when discussing the dialogue) along with characters repeating phrases to get them to feel better as if those words alone would solve all their problems in their tiny heads incapable of honest reflection. But it feels like Clooney didn’t want to focus on these points, merely paying attention to the bigger issue. The didacticism worked in GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK (probably his best directorial work) since focusing on the issue at hand was all that film was supposed to be but here there needs to be something more so when potentially big moments like Nicky making a horrifying discovery in the basement occur they fall a little too flat and even when the calm attempts to gaslight him are well played the scenes have no real impact.
The Coen influence is felt and Gardner Lodge certainly feels like a cousin to William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard in FARGO. Even the recurring “It’s not my fault” theme feels like a precursor to A SERIOUS MAN’s “I didn’t do anything” and the preoccupations with people’s religions such as how Gardner is mistaken as Jewish in one scene also feel like they’re out of that film. It’s loaded with such thematic diversions but as a great man once said, “If it doesn’t jell, it isn’t aspic.” The message might be valid but that alone doesn’t do it much good as a film. While watching SUBURBICON, I don’t want to be there, I don’t want to be around these people and I barely even like thinking about it very much. Then again, I suppose that can easily describe the world we’re all living in at the moment so maybe Clooney was onto something with his approach to the material. It ends on a small gesture meant to look towards something better but after all that anger I’m not sure I buy it since even kids grow up, after all. But maybe my perspective is skewered since it’s been a lousy year. Maybe longer. There’s a movie in SUBURBICON that I wish was in the movie, it just didn’t figure out the mixture of whatever that was. At least it was going for something, as misconceived as some of those goals were, so I’ll give it that much. Better that than a film without any ideas in the first place.
Matt Damon and Julianne Moore deserve credit for committing to such unpleasant characters and not holding back, although it feels like there’s something missing from their performances; it’s not that they need to be more likable, but that they feel like characterizations that haven’t been totally fleshed out. Damon plays his role as if some unspoken rage is building up with no attempt to make his character likable and his big scene at the end where everything comes out he brings total focus to the moment. As the sister-turned-wife & mother Julianne Moore plays her cheerfulness with a completely blithe denial of her actions as she attempts to talk her way through things but there’s oddly more characterization found in the few lines she has as the wheelchair-bound wife, playing someone with no interest in niceties or politeness anymore but still unable to put the pieces together of what’s really going on. As the son, Noah Jupe does have dialogue but it’s the look on his face in every scene that matters with the realization of all the lies he’s being told sinks in with the way he holds it together during Damon’s climactic speech trying with all of his might to hold back how he really feels. As the insurance investigator, Oscar Isaac as the insurance investigator is the one who gives the film a jolt bouncing off Julianne Moore in their scenes together and for once somebody in the film really feels like they’ve come to play. It’s not so much appropriate for the tone of what the film is but what it maybe should have been which also goes for the nastiness of Alex Hassell and Glenn Fleshler as the two crooks and Jack Conley as the investigating policeman—they get the tone right too. Gary Basaraba, the Jaguar exec with an interest in Joan on MAD MEN is Mitch the uncle with good intentions and there’s a brief glimpse of actual humanity thanks to him while Pamela Dunlap, also recognizable from MAD MEN as the mother of Henry Francis, is a customer at the local supermarket.
Maybe it’s all a matter of perspective. This is an odd case where I emotionally disengaged from SUBURBICON so early on that when what it was doing became clear it almost put me on the film’s side. Who knows what the film would have been if it had been made years ago or even if George Clooney had simply shot that version but, of course, that alone wouldn’t make him the Coen Brothers when he directed it. And there is something to be said about the anger he wants to express in a film made for a world where things like what it portrays seem to be happening all the time. This isn’t a movie about 1959, after all, that’s just when it happens to be set. Regardless, our own personal expectations may not always matter. Maybe SUBURBICON doesn’t jell and maybe it makes several crucial mistakes and maybe the way it attempts to make its statement is misguided but, in fairness, it isn’t totally wrong. At least there’s that.
Thursday, November 15, 2018
Maybe it only feels like John Frankenheimer’s RONIN is just about a car chase. That’s what everyone seems to remember about it, after all. It’s actually several chases, just to be more specific, but however many there are it’s the sort of pure action filmmaking you don’t get much anymore, not with this kind of sheer weight, bravado and excellence. But this can’t be the only thing the film is about. It’s now twenty years since I saw RONIN on opening night way back in September ’98 and once I stop thinking about how much time has gone by I still have to deal with what the film really is, beyond the coolness and speeding cars heading directly at the oncoming traffic. I loved the film then not just for the phenomenal action but also the unexpected, no-nonsense energy it provided which was refreshing at the time when it felt like things were always trying to get more heightened up. Instead this was a cool, adult action film with a brisk intelligence that played as strong, confident and totally assured. That stands out even more now, making the rush it provides returning to it all these years later still refreshingly potent.
At the time it felt like something of a comeback for Frankenheimer after the notorious wipeout of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU two years earlier in addition to the various lower profile cable films he directed for much of that decade (some of which, for the record, are pretty damn good) but now it seems like a true last hurrah, which I guess it was. We just didn’t know it then. It’s occurred to me before that when the director died just a few years later in 2002 it was mere weeks after the opening of THE BOURNE IDENTITY, a film that in retrospect seemed to shift the European spy thriller genre into the future. Suddenly, John Frankenheimer was the past. I never like thinking that. But even now RONIN is not a relic but a stripped down, spectacularly assured piece of work, a film that is in many ways ice cold but the feelings are there, they’re just buried way deep down where they have to be. It’s a film I still can’t help but love, for everything it represents cinematically both then and now.
Meeting late one night at a Paris bistro, Sam (Robert De Niro) is one of a team of mercenaries and thieves each with their own skills that include Vincent (Jean Reno), Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), Larry (Skipp Sudduth) and Spence (Sean Bean). They’ve been assembled by a mysterious woman named Deirdre (Natasha McElhone) to retrieve a metallic suitcase, contents unknown. After a series of events tracking and working out the plan during which Sam and Deidre connect, the case is ultimately retrieved but after a double cross which splits the team into separate factions that also involves Deirdre’s handler Seamus (Jonathan Pryce), Sam must join forces with Vincent, the only one of them that he feels he can trust, to figure out why they were betrayed and how the case can be retrieved once again.
Part of me simply wants to say RONIN is awesome and leave it at that. I may as well admit this is the sort of film that holds a place in my head where I can never be too critical of it for reasons I can’t entirely explain. Maybe I just respond to the specific tone, one that gives me a pure rush of cinematic adrenaline in the way it strips the heist movie plotting with a side of espionage down to its essentials, putting all the characterizations into the glances between the people, the allegiance shifts found entirely in the camera moves as it glides along ominously to the next person waiting to strike. In the end it plays as nothing less than an abstract view of the world as seen by its director, a glimpse at what happens when people who are meant to be shadows get thrown together as well as a chance to make the sort of film he was best at while leaving out anything and everything that didn’t need to be there. The ultra-spare plot (story by J.D. Zeik, screenplay by J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz; Weisz is actually a pseudonymous David Mamet) is almost staggeringly simple on a surface level yet it still deals with the unavoidable human factor of it all, giving us as little exposition as possible since those details are in the looks, all in the necessity of retrieving that case and anything else is found in between the words. That dialogue is forever enigmatic yet still playful in its murkiness with references to things like a prominently mentioned ‘man in the wheelchair’ who we never meet and people who choose not to admit to the past they share unless forced. Just like the characters, it’s a film that knows you should never reveal too much of yourself by giving any secrets away.
Some of the motivations are a little murky at times and certain plot beats feel either extraneous or confusing but the film is always focused on how the various story points are revealed as much as anything, the way we carefully follow around De Niro’s Sam as he approaches the tiny bistro during the film’s first few minutes, scoping out the area in case he needs to get away. Every shot has something in it and Frankenheimer always knows how to place people in relation to each other, even if it’s sometimes for pure effect, but he loves getting them to share the frame so when he moves in for the close-up, truly isolating the character, it means something. What gets learned during a photo taking charade isn’t as important as the process of it happening and the film is more interested in the improvisation of those beats to get the job done, never cutting to something that it’s decided we don’t need to know. “What’s in the case?” De Niro keeps asking, as if the answer is ever going to matter.
The exterior world of RONIN is a grey, overcast winter in the South of France filled with tourists seemingly everywhere looking to hear about the history around them and it’s all but ignored by the insular reality that the film’s characters share, one where after talking to a person for five seconds, you know all you need to know. There’s a little Jean-Pierre Melville here only much more propulsive and the sparseness might all be a byproduct of the Mamet dialogue anyway, stripping down the necessary information to its essentials while keeping the frame always active, no time for anyone to think too long about what they have to do next. The instant rapport Sam and Vincent develop through a Howard Hawks-style method of sharing cigarettes feels very much like Frankenheimer’s own take on such relationships in understanding how little needs to be said. It’s the best way to tell if somebody is good enough, the way one character set up as a major player in the plot is essentially dismissed from the movie after an unsuccessful test run.
To a certain extent all this feels a little like it’s about the nature of filmmaking itself, with a group of people thrown together to pull off a crazy assignment within a specific timeframe, arguing over what has to get done with all that coffee drinking and waiting around late at night, developing into relationships that are transitory at best. Even the fleeting romance feels like an on set liaison, one where very little is ever said about those inevitable feelings and the possible willingness to walk away from it all that you know deep down will never be acted on. However much the characters talk about needing the money and the honor involved even when there’s a paycheck it feels like the rush of the job is too much to ever leave behind as long as they’re alive. All this goes together with a plot that hangs like smoke in the air, the editing by Tony Gibbs creating a metronome pace always adding to the pure concentration that needs to be maintained and a score by Elia Cmiral which is perfectly attuned to its rhythms, providing the essence of the whatever soul the film is allowed to have. Frankenheimer focuses on the little things, the metallic cups they drink coffee out of, the assassin keeping an ice skating target in its sight during her routine, the dogs guarding Michael Lonsdale’s compound. The incidentals give everything a certain gravity, however stylized it is, along with a shrewd sense of wit that hangs somewhere on the outskirts of every scene, slyly keeping tabs on everything left unspoken.
And those car chases remain truly spectacular and expertly done in their simplicity—they’re ‘just’ car chases, no added elements like the subway of THE FRENCH CONNECTION—as if the director of the legendary GRAND PRIX had been saving up all these ideas for years, waiting for just the right chance to combine the spectacular stunts and energy so he could show the world he still knew how to do this with no CGI or any of that. Frankenheimer gives the whole thing a true pulse that makes us feel like we’re not just watching these chases, we’re locked in the cars with them through every pulse-pounding beat so it all plays with total precision and clarity. It always knows to focus on the details we need to pay attention to, even while cutting to a close-up of some fish in a marketplace right before the oncoming mayhem (there’s a recurring use of fish in some of his films that I wish the director was still around to explain). The story moves to Paris for the second chase late in the film which is especially spectacular going from speeding down those tiny streets to eventually on the wrong way down the motorways with even these cool characters revealing on their faces just how stressed out they’re getting from every near miss and each time it happens feels a little more surprising. To compare it to something like the car chase in William Friedkin’s TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., which is all about the nightmarish fury of the moment, Frankenheimer goes for more of a studied exhilaration and even a businesslike approach to how furiously paced it all is with the total focus they’re forced into through every single moment upping the intensity to the absolute breaking point. It’s phenomenal action filmmaking.
Those chases as well as the expertly choreographed shootouts contain a surprisingly heavy body count of extras which might cause the film to play even more shocking now than it did then but it adds to the overall feel of a film that clearly doesn’t give a damn about respectability but instead acts as a reminder that this is a cold, blunt world that you can’t walk away from, just as De Niro insists on “no booze” to help with the pain as he helps perform makeshift surgery on himself after being shot. Michael Lonsdale plays the sort of retired mercenary hiding away from the world that you find in these movies, who patiently describes how the miniature figurines he paints represent the 47 Ronin and how people like them are the modern day equivalents, each in some ways waiting for the day when they’ll meet the end they know is coming. De Niro’s Sam doesn’t seem totally convinced by all this introspection and rationalization which itself makes sense since this feels like a film willing to discard what it’s actually about as being too wordy. But in its determination to undercut such a solemn theory the film creates its own honor, its own myth, which is maybe all it really needs.
John Frankenheimer was never a director to shy away from world affairs in his films but if there’s any geopolitical angle at all in the Irish and Russians battling it out for the case it’s dismissed by some radio reports meant to clarify the plot that basically paint them as rogues. Even a few vague hints from the plotting indicate that De Niro’s past CIA connections will insure the case won’t fall into the wrong hands so everything’s going to be ok. Do we really believe that twenty years later? I’m not sure. But this is a film about the for-hire individuals caught in the middle of all that, people without true allegiances who it feels like are the ones Frankenheimer truly understands and the McGuffin of the metal case everyone is after barely matters even as a McGuffin by a certain point. Just the people do, even if it is for revenge or just some basic human connection. Even Katarina Witt playing not herself but the head Russian’s famous ice skater girlfriend, just about the only carefree person in this universe, is potential collateral damage, nothing more. With the exception of a smiling little girl Stellan Skarsgard’s emotionless Gregor aims his gun at in one scene for no reason other than he can, it’s possible there’s not a death in RONIN that anyone would get upset over even when it’s one of the good guys, let alone all those extras caught in the crossfire. It barely feels like the film even has villains; just adversaries.
To Frankenheimer this is a brutal world, which he’s right about, and all you can do is brush it off, face forward. It’s not that he doesn’t value life, he just knows it’s all so random and like Frank Sinatra racing through Madison Square Garden to get to Laurence Harvey on time at the end of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE there’s no stopping it. There’s only so much you can ever do, so much you can ever know. Seeing RONIN back then it occurred to me how the ice skating show climax almost plays like a condensed version of Brian De Palma’s SNAKE EYES, which had opened the month before, only this film gets to the point of loyalty, betrayal and judgement in just a few brisk scenes and the only other thing that matters is what you’re choosing to give up in order to achieve those goals. The old school vibe of the film plays as total professionalism now just as De Niro’s ex-CIA man insists on. There are films you need more from. I don’t need more from RONIN. It’s a film that is exactly what it’s supposed to be.
Everything about Robert De Niro here is razor sharp, right before ANALYZE THIS began to soften him and he still lays out the patter in classic style while playing every action scenes with the sort of total precision it feels like his character insists on. He bounces off his co-stars in a ways that brings a certain rough pleasure to their interchanges, particularly with Natasha McElhone who brings a strength to her mysterious character that never wavers, holding her gaze against the next person asking a question that she refuses to answer. The strong male supporting cast oddly includes several actors who previously played James Bond villains, as well as a few who might just as well have. Jean Reno’s sly humor gives the film what little heart it’s allowed, Stellan Skarsgard is particularly good in the way he gives total inner life to his weariness with slim dialogue that never reveals any of it, Sean Bean’s annoying cockiness that folds in record time as well as the smarmy arrogance displayed by Jonathan Pryce, sharing the screen with De Niro again over a decade after BRAZIL. As the mysterious Jean-Pierre who Vincent brings to wounded Sam to for help, Michael Lonsdale puts so much gravity into every pause and glance, even when asking about a simple plot point, as if he’s waiting for some cosmic shoe to drop and put all doubts to rest before he’s able to wipe whatever horrible things he’s done long ago from his mind.
Of course, you could ask what any film is really about deep down. RONIN is a harsh glass of whiskey downed fast but even if it is merely about a car chase you could still read so much into all those pauses and glances at relationships that will never be completed to find a way to understand the world. Frankenheimer’s 2000 follow-up REINDEER GAMES was his next and last theatrical film (it has its moments, let’s put it that way) followed by the excellent 2002 LBJ biopic PATH TO WAR for HBO. He was set to direct the EXORCIST prequel with Liam Neeson starring after this but dropped out for health reasons then on July 6 of that year following spinal surgery he suffered a stroke and died at the age of 72. What he was as a filmmaker, what he did, what he represented, has never been replaced. More than just a car chase, RONIN is about questions that don’t get answered because that’s not what life is about, whether asking what’s in the case or what’s inside a person and what are they keeping from you. Do we ever know? And does it even matter? Maybe sometimes while trying to figure that out you find yourself in the middle of that car chase going the wrong way because there’s no other choice. And if I revisit RONIN after another twenty years of trying to figure out certain people and viewing certain John Frankenheimer films several dozen more times each, I suspect that feeling will only get stronger. Whatever the answer is, admit it to yourself and no one else ever needs to know. Do what you can with that truth. Accept it and move on. Everything is temporary.