Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Guaranteed Return

None of us are going to the movies right now. That sentence has to be one of the saddest things I’ve ever written. Maybe all we can do as far as that goes is take care of ourselves and the ones we love, looking forward to the day we get to go back. Maybe talking about how much I miss it is a little overly dramatic but that’s the sort of time this is and it really is truthful so even watching a movie a night, or two or three, on DVD or Amazon Prime or wherever, doesn’t fill the hole. Sure, I’m discovering lots of films I’ve never seen before, some good and some bad as well as a few I never thought I’d give a second look. But it’s no substitute for seeing a film the first time in a theater, for that feeling of walking in with your popcorn and hopefully discovering something with the crowd all around you, the joy of that giant image flickering and no matter what else there is to say, it’s missing. Considering everything else that’s going on this is secondary, of course. But it still matters and everything feels incomplete.

Now, whether people care about any of this is a debate for another point in the future. And we don’t know what’s going to happen or how long this is going to go on for. But the desire to return is there. And to bring up an example, one of the several times I went to the New Beverly Cinema over the final weeks before the world changed was to see THE HOT ROCK, my first theatrical viewing of this film directed by Peter Yates with a screenplay by William Goldman from the Donald Westlake novel. Released in early 1972, it’s one of a number of well-regarded Robert Redford films from the period, never one of his most popular but definitely with its devoted fans. I've even met a few of them. As an honest admission, I’ve always been somewhat lukewarm on it over my handful of viewings through the years, at least until now. Because it was at this screening that I suddenly found myself getting caught up in the casual rhythm and charm felt in every scene so as a result the film totally clicked for me. Oddly, this was exactly the same response when I saw BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID at the theater in late 2018 so maybe it’s a Redford-Goldman thing, but for whatever reason this was a film that really came alive in a theater with a crowd around me. Funny thing, the print of BUTCH was absolutely gorgeous and the one for THE HOT ROCK wasn’t in that sort of shape at all, a little scratchy and faded and, since it came all the way from the UK, even featured the alternate title HOW TO STEAL A DIAMOND IN FOUR UNEASY LESSONS (as a comparison the print of the second feature, Aram Avakian’s COPS AND ROBBERS, was flawless). But none of this mattered. The film just put a huge smile on my face in every scene. As 70s heist movies go it’s pretty mild, no sense of fatalism you’d expect from the genre and no heavy body count. In the end, it’s basically a comedy so the way it takes a cockeyed view of the crime and how the scattered precision becomes such a crapshoot makes it totally endearing. And now it’s a movie that helps puts me in a better mood. Sometimes that’s ok. Right now that’s even better than ok.

It takes no time for career thief John Dortmunder (Robert Redford) to be released from his latest stint in prison than for his friend Andy Kelp (George Segal) to instantly show up with a new scheme, having been hired by one Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn), United Nations representative for the African nation of Central Vatawi, to rob the Sahara Stone from the Brooklyn Museum in order to return it to the rightful place of his homeland. With getaway driver Stan Murch (Ron Leibman) and explosives expert Allan Greenberg (Paul Sand) brought onto the job, the heist goes off but not without a hitch, leading to multiple attempts to steal the diamond again only with something else unexpected going just a little wrong each time. And when Greenberg’s lawyer Abe (Zero Mostel), who also happens to be his father, gets involved with his own agenda Dortmunder and his crew have to resort to more extreme scenarios to finally retrieve the rock from where it is.

The depths of cynicism found in 70s films not only becomes more apparent for me as time goes on, what those films are saying means more as well, a feeling that goes perfectly with the decade and certainly means something now which makes a movie like THE HOT ROCK, which contains none of that, play as even more of a surprise each time out. Characters in heist films never seem to spend much time going over the possible ways things could go wrong, not because of double crosses, although there always seems to be some of that, but because of the plain fact that, well, shit happens, no matter how well the plan might be executed, no matter how ultra-cool the crooks are. This is a film where those unexpected developments happen and instead of staring into the pits of what crime has led these people to it’s a breezy, enjoyable caper film that deals with the expected twists of the genre but always in a surprising way as the layers of the plotting are peeled off to of course reveal that what’s done isn’t really done. None of this makes these guys want to stop, of course. Dortmunder couldn’t do anything else if he tried and is always confident on the surface even with some nasty stomach issues, but he at least takes solace in how his inevitable ulcer is still years away. Kelp, with a nasty habit of freezing up in the middle of a job, doesn’t mind failure and seems to be as much about putting on the act of doing the job no matter what happens even as things go wrong, never knowing for sure who they can trust.

The first shot of the film after the Twentieth Century Fox logo is wiped away says it all, showing the serenity of an empty green lawn at the prison separated from the concrete yard where everyone congregates, the peace of nature always close but just as unreachable. Dortmunder and the crew scrambling after this diamond are in the same position so no matter how close they seem to get it’s still a long way off and considering how these guys are all sort of dopes, each plan turns out better than anyone could have imagined but it never seems to be enough. THE HOT ROCK is the rare crime movie where the guy gets out of jail at the start and never thinks for a minute about going straight because even he knows there’s no way it could happen. He just needs to be talked into this particular heist but it’s really never a question for Dortmunder anyway since, as he puts it, it’s what he does, even if he’d rather not do the job with Kelp. The real conflict doesn’t come from those double crosses and fellow crooks just waiting to fuck you over but from how unexpectedly difficult it all turns out to be, how even when things go almost perfectly there’s still something you didn’t see coming. Within the very casual quality of Yates’ direction is just watching these guys figure out what the next step is going to be so in fairness there’s not that much suspense and as a director he never seems as assured with the broader comedy aspects as he is with the hang out nature of letting certain moments play, naturally letting the humor emerge out of that laid back feel. When Moses Gunn pauses in amazement to exclaim, “I’m a criminal,” as he realizes the plan really is taking shape it’s one of the best moments in the film as if he never quite believed this would happen just as later on he can’t believe the eternal annoyance it’s led to.

Even the big museum robbery which you’d think would be the centerpiece of the whole movie happens sooner than you’d expect and is done with a surprisingly tossed-off feel, as much about the silence of that huge, empty space cutting back to the carefully planned diversion outside as the specifics of the actual robbery even when the focus is the ticking clock of the moment when Kelp unexpectedly gets trapped in the very place the diamond is. The various steps to each scheme are all about the characters in one way or another, whether the way Leibman plays an accident victim for that diversion, Redford silently freaking out in the helicopter or the teamwork involving a certain elevator shaft when even we’re not sure what surprise it’s building to.

Along with the camaraderie of the four guys are the incidental sights of the location shooting, all a reminder of the panic business in New York that Kelp is so fond of and it probably only feels like half the film is set around those expressways circling the outer boroughs with one briefly used location up in the Bronx that maybe I recognize which gives a sudden rush of nostalgia. The plot also basically stops for the quick helicopter trip around lower Manhattan as Leibman’s Stan Murch tries to figure out exactly where he’s supposed to fly to with footage looking directly down on the city and at one point lingering on the incomplete World Trade Center which 10-15 years ago was unnerving, now it’s just heartbreakingly beautiful. The main cop at the precinct being raided is played by William Redfield of A NEW LEAF and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, seeming more annoyed than anything by what’s happening, just another cog in this New York who views it all as just one more pain in the ass, wondering why every problem can’t be solved by just monkeying with it.

Maybe THE HOT ROCK is one of those products of the 70s that now feels like the visual equivalent of easy listening music and the 100 minute film goes by in a flash but if I’m being honest, I can still see what maybe wasn’t clicking for me on past viewings in the way the movie cruises along instead of ever exploding. The tightly plotted story beats are so carefully laid out all through Goldman’s screenplay that I wish it could breathe a little more, maybe with a few better transitions at times to orient us better or just a little bit more bickering between the two main guys to really make those characters pop since it worked so well for Butch and Sundance, after all. Kelp, who picks Dortmunder up from prison in a stolen car, is married to his sister played by the briefly seen Topo Swope in one of those elements it feels like the film could have done more with, but none of the women in the film are around for very long, even the one who becomes integral to the final step of the plan. Looking up the extensive writings and interviews from William Goldman on his work there is surprisingly little about this film beyond a vague quote that it was “not cast well” but who knows what he’s referring to—did he think Segal was a more suitable Dortmunder than the bigger star Redford?

Even if it is maybe too laid back at times, there’s a confidence to the shots and Yates never lingers on them even when it’s a good one and the way moments are staged to place characters in relation to each other in the frame makes their dynamic even stronger. Sometimes it feels like the film is even more interested in that vibe than the plot and it’s sometimes more than willing to just let the Quincy Jones score play for a few extra beats as it goes to the next scene. That sense of seventies cool is a reminder it was likely more of an inspiration for Steven Soderbergh’s OCEANS’S ELEVEN than the film that was actually a remake of. So much of THE HOT ROCK is just going along for the ride with the star power of Redford, and Segal too, and directed by Yates a year before he made the truly great crime film THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, this one has no bigger goals in mind with very little even to say about the racial politics of the colonial aspect but presumably all’s fair when thievery is involved, after all. For Dortmunder, being a thief is not about being tough but about being just smart enough to get the job done before the other guy does and win out over this diamond that’s jinxed him. It’s the suspense of the climax that works beautifully moving from shot to shot, each beat that leads him to the all-important safe deposit box comes off as effortless, with one particular reaction shot of Redford after he utters the infamous key phrase “Afghanistan banana stand”, not knowing for sure if what he says will work, that is basically what the movie is building to. And it earns the refreshingly offhand moment as Redford calmly walks down Park Avenue, finally getting a sense of the serenity he couldn’t have earlier. I think the movie knows this is only temporary for the guy but these days it’s a reminder that even a brief feeling is better than none.

The Robert Redford portrayal of Dortmunder is very much about the movie star quality of it all, the laid back charisma crossed with his casual nervousness and the sense that he can’t let go of something once he’s going for it. The film is light and Redford is maybe even too light for that insignificance but the way he lays out how the plan has to work and why he’s doing it along with just the sight of him thinking things over gives it much of its heft, knowing that even his smarts may not be enough to figure out everything. As Kelp, George Segal is secondary but that desperate glad-handing style keeps the energy going and it’s always just right to bounce off Dortmunder along with the sense that he knows just how to get under his partner’s skin. It’s those little character moments that make up the most idiosyncratic moments with the manic glee in the great Ron Leibman laying out the precise directions of how he got somewhere along with Paul Sand as Greenberg who always seems to be wondering what the hell he’s doing there. Moses Gunn lends the perfect amount of dry humor to his growing exasperation as Amusa while Zero Mostel always plays it as having one over on everyone which he almost always does. Charlotte Rae is Stan’s ma, Lee Wallace of THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is Dortmunder’s doctor and Robert Weil, also from PELHAM ONE TWO THREE as well as MOONSTRUCK is the bank employee who unknowingly assists Dortmunder at the film’s most crucial moment.

But even after all this, my honest admission is that watching the film again on DVD at home, it’s still not the same. Seeing THE HOT ROCK in the theater makes it, like all films, bigger than life and allows us to focus on the sheer personality of these guys, on the charm of Robert Redford, the stalling tactics of George Segal, the toothy grins of Ron Leibman, the jittery nervousness of Paul Sand. And those New York surroundings, which right now provide a level of comfort. It’s still fun, just not the same. Moving past this film for a moment, there have been other Dortmunder vehicles taken from the Donald Westlake book series although you’d be forgiven for not knowing. Martin Lawrence played the character under a different name in WHAT’S THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN? a major summer release in 2001 but now forgotten and so did George C. Scott in 1974’s BANK SHOT which I recall being strictly so-so but it’s been a few years. Paul Le Mat was actually named Dortmunder in the Gary Coleman vehicle JIMMY THE KID which I recall from early 80s cable and have never seen again since. The point here is THE HOT ROCK, which I’d always thought was a nice, pleasant movie, which it is, and how much a theatrical viewing caused it to rise in my estimation. It’s one of those things I think about right now, since we can’t go to the movies. And we don’t know when we’re going to be able to go back and what’s going to change when we do, but I dream of that return when it’s safe. There’s nothing like the rush of that feeling when you’re at the movies, especially when you’re making just the right discovery but sometimes just the experience of being there to see, well, anything is enough. Maybe it’s an addiction. But even now, when staying away is for the best and absolutely necessary, it’s something I never want to give up.

Friday, April 10, 2020

The Capacity To Recover

Maybe we can never fully escape the world we come from. Our parents are our parents, our siblings are the ones we can never impress, the dreams we have sometimes turn into memories of places we never want to return to. And deep down we have a better idea of who we are than we want to admit. Directed by Mike Nichols, REGARDNG HENRY was released during the summer of 1991, less than a month after the 25th birthday of its screenwriter Jeffrey Abrams, now better known to everyone as J.J. Abrams so this is an easy reminder of just how young that guy has always been. And this isn’t even his first screen credit which was the previous year’s TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS co-written with Jill Mazursky and directed by Arthur Hiller for anybody with memories of watching that one a hundred times on cable. By this point plenty of us have our opinions on the work of J.J. Abrams whether strong feelings about his STAR WARS films or even the second season of FELICITY. The slightly forgotten REGARDING HENRY (which, as a fun fact, opened the same day as POINT BREAK) hasn’t been examined quite as much but it makes sense to look at it now as a reminder of where his career path began and maybe what his point of view of the world has always been. In some ways it’s a starter screenplay, one that comes off as basic as possible while still being complete and ready to shoot to make itself an actual film. But even those are never easy. Not even as easy as getting away from the places that made us.

Manhattan lawyer Henry Turner (Harrison Ford) is successful and respected at the powerful firm where he works but cold and unfriendly to everyone in his life, even to wife Sarah (Annette Bening) and daughter Rachel (Mikki Allen). He’s seemingly willing to do anything to get ahead in his career and the society life, more interested in the big case he’s just won than anything else. But late one night Henry goes out to grab a pack of cigarettes when he stumbles on a holdup and is shot in the head by the gunman. He surprisingly recovers but along with a secondary wound that resulted in a lack of oxygen to the brain he has essentially no memory of the person he once was. After a long recovery process aided by physical therapist Bradley (Bill Nunn), Henry gets well enough to return home, getting to know his wife and daughter anew. He also goes back to work at his firm but is soon confronted with the sort of lawyer he was as well as the sort of person he was and is forced to come to grips with figuring out what sort of person he’s going to be now.

The austerity of Mike Nichols’ early films became a considerably more casual style through the 80s and one of the surprises of looking at REGARDING HENRY for the first time in years is that to a certain extent this represents a sort of return to that approach, even if the ultimate effect leads to a different place. That intent is apparent right from the start with the credits rolling on a long look at the courthouse on Centre Street in lower Manhattan over a cold grey afternoon with snow falling, perfect for the harsh world the main character is so successful in. The following extended shot introduces Ford’s Henry Turner in what is close to a full 360 as he gives the closing argument in the big case he’s about to win and knows how to win. His slicked back hair and expensive suit blend seamlessly into the background of that courtroom, inherently part of the world he occupies just like his briefly mentioned father was. The first dozen or so shots of the film spread out over the first six minutes set up this very particular visual approach aided by the great Giuseppe Rotunno as cinematographer (who also shot CARNAL KNOWLEDGE for Nichols, among many other films) which gives REGARDING HENRY what complexity it has since this is at heart a simple film in all sorts of ways, simple in plot and structure as well as how it plays out to the point it almost feels like there’s next to no drama at all. Henry is a cold, selfish prick who only cares about himself, then he’s not and everyone is either ok with that or they’re not. As a screenplay it’s a fairly straightforward telling of the story with few diversions of any kind but as a film Nichols turns it into an exploration of how we can relate to the world we occupy, how much we ever actually belong there and how much of that decision is really up to you.

It’s the burnished wood signifying wealth that seems to make up the recurring color palette of each of these courtrooms and restaurants, a signpost of the tradition all around them with the lack of color infusing how these people really feel about anything that isn’t money. The mammoth apartment where Henry lives with his family is located in a building recognizable from being prominently featured in THE FRENCH CONNECTION (“Remember Don Ameche, the actor? He lives here.”) but it also has no real color, an overly decorative dining room table that Henry hates, all contrasted with the endless green lawn of the rehab facility that gives him life again. The short, clipped scenes that detail much of this gives a no muss, no fuss feel to the storytelling so edited by Sam O’Steen there’s not an ounce of fat on the film as if nearly every moment is seemingly about getting the correct amount of plot and thematic information into a scene but maybe not much more than that, to simply follow Henry through his recovery as he tries to figure out just who he is. He definitely becomes friendlier with a newly floppy haired look to underline his innocence—some scenes aren’t too far removed from Harrison Ford playing a kid in a body switching movie—but it’s not all that interesting and when Henry gets an empty frame as a gift it’s a reminder, maybe a little too obvious, of the blank slate he is. One brief moment of some society types scarfing down spoonfuls of caviar at a party feels a little too broad to make the point (just like much of the extravagant wardrobe of Robin Bartlett as Sarah’s best friend) and such undisciplined moments feel like a broadly satirical indulgence out of step with the tone but it also feels like there’s an energy to it which at least gives some life to the scene that too much of the rest of the film is doing without.

The question of how medically accurate what happens to Henry is could be argued but it doesn’t even really matter since this is all mostly about the symbolism of that scar on his forehead so the whole movie plays as not a story of recovery but a signpost for moving from the cruelty of the Reagan 80s to what was going to be the calmer, gentler 90s. Bill Nunn infuses the stock type of his physical therapist of color with an undeniable sincerity but it’s still hard not to think of it as the stock type it is, dispensing the right sort of wisdom at just the right time. Between that and the lessons Henry learns from his helpful daughter it’s as if the wisdom he receives from these people is more important than anything his actual doctors ever did and briefly musing over what he became in life thanks to his father it feels like the message is that getting shot in the head was the best thing to ever happen to him. Through the arc of the film he basically goes from being a child, baking cookies with his daughter--the bit where he suggests making ‘one big cookie’ is cute--to essentially being forced into maturity when confronted about the truth of what his life was and how to decide which path he’s going to take, a reminder of other films from the time about a workaholic husband/dad who learns what really matters (it’s better than HOOK, I’ll give it that much). It makes me wonder how much importance the concept of intellect actually has in the work of J.J. Abrams or if it’s all just about good fortune and luck, to do the right thing with the birthright you received whether James Kirk in STAR TREK’09 (a film I still like, but that’s a discussion for another time) wrestling with the legacy of his father, Sydney Bristow and the mystery of her mother on ALIAS, all of which pointing towards the reasons for what ultimately makes the lead character so special in their world.

On the Mike Nichols side of things, some of the films that he made during the second half of his career including HEARTBURN and WORKING GIRL all have a genuine sense of living in New York and the east coast stratosphere but in the case of REGARDING HENRY it also feels like a film made by people with an undeniable self-loathing for that world, filled with society types forever wandering the streets of Manhattan clutching the Playbills of the Broadway show they just saw heading off to dinner. All this makes it feel like little more than the product of someone who comes from privilege whether that someone is Nichols or Abrams or a little of both, wrestling with that privilege and the thought of turning their back on it. Looking at it now, the film has a surprising similarity to WOLF, Mike Nichols’ next film released a few years later and at least a more interesting one, also featuring a middle-aged man going through a transformation that improves his life after an unexpected encounter late one night. WOLF now plays like a film more about acknowledging the cruelty and where the world was clearly headed, so the creature Jack Nicholson turns into in that film is the only way to fight back against it. REGARDING HENRY, clearly the more benign version of this concept, merely serves up what happens unquestionably and with kindness.

The elemental quality of Nichols’ direction means there’s that smooth sense of professionalism which makes it clear that he knows what each scene has to be about and what to focus on in any given moment. At other times he lets those moments relax and play out in a single shot to let the actors fully relate to each other but the problem is too often the scenes in question aren’t about very much. When Henry disappears to wander around New York, winding up in a porno theater at one point, nothing bad happens and he even buys a cute dog. The real drama which emerges when Henry’s daughter goes away after becoming his big human connection from his old life at first then she’s removed as the maturity comes into play all feels like it’s all easily resolved after Henry skulks around the city for a few minutes looking serious. It would be a little harsh to say that it becomes as empty as Henry’s head with what may be the most low-key Hans Zimmer score of all time to inch the scenes forward but maybe this makes the collaboration an ideal combo: a director who seemingly approaches everything from a standpoint of intellect with a writer who’s all about instinct and what happens in the moment, never thinking too far into the future.

It strikes me that a movie which explored the ambivalence of never being able to fully unlock the mystery of who Henry used to be sounds like a much more interesting one, just not as heartwarming so maybe the answer is as much of a void as that empty frame and isn’t particularly fleshed out for a reason. Even the issue of Henry’s father who apparently believed life was all about the ‘work ethic’, which is mentioned at the start and brought up again later, never becomes a touchstone of all the answers like it seems it will. And aside from a few clever foreshadowing touches in the script that stand out on repeat viewings, like the Rosebud of the word ‘Ritz’ that Henry initially responds to as well as the key piece of evidence he withheld in the big trial, there’s not much to uncover and instead it wants to be a warm blanket of a movie that never says very much of substance. Along with a few cozy expressions to help Henry out such as, “When you have enough, you say ‘When’” the overall feeling of niceness is what makes up both the text and the subtext with nothing else to read into it. The best of Mike Nichols generally offers some degree of ambiguity whether the endings of THE GRADUATE or WORKING GIRL all the way to his final film CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR and without that feeling of wondering what’s being left behind, REGARDNG HENRY doesn’t have much of anything beyond the fuzziness. At the very end the credits just roll when they’re more or less supposed to, no real crescendo given to the final moment so it’s all more of a pleasant feeling than an actual movie.

Even Harrison Ford’s crooked smile makes an appearance as Henry comes to life again and that long stretch with no dialogue gives us a look at what he can do without it, almost making him vulnerable like never before. It’s the most interesting part of his performance which by its nature feels like we’re missing a key ‘Harrison Ford’ element even if it does manage to find a balance between the adult and the little boy, playing as slightly endearing but still a little calculated. This film also comes in the middle of Annette Bening’s 1991 run, falling between GUILTY BY SUSPICION and BUGSY, and she’s terrific here bringing an undeniable strength which helps to make sense of a role where it doesn’t feel like the script has given her all the answers. Mikki Allen, who has no other screen credits, brings a totally believable sadness as their daughter but it never feels overdone, playing as totally believable as she tries to connect with her father. Bill Nunn offers a valuable directness in his scenes which gives them a focus as pat as they are and it is, in fairness, an excellent supporting cast with what feels like familiar New York theater faces or maybe just friends of Nichols meant to fill out that world including Donald Moffat, Rebecca Miller, Bruce Altman, James Rebhorn, Robin Bartlett and Elizabeth Wilson (Benjamin’s mother in THE GRADUATE). John Leguizamo is the liquor store gunman, Abrams himself cameos as a delivery boy and an unbilled Nancy Marchand gets almost the last line of dialogue.

Thinking back to when this film came out, I remember seeing it with my father who at the time was right in the middle of some of his own extensive health issues so because of that memory you’d think the film would have more pull for me now but not really and I can’t even remember what he had to say about it. There’s not really a lot to chew on here. As an honest admission, when I first had the idea several months ago to write about this film (it won out over TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS, primarily because of Mike Nichols) it was in the immediate wake of Abrams’ THE RISE OF SKYWALKER which made me think to connect the overall poorness of that film to the simplistic ideals of this one. And, in a way, Daisy Ridley’s Rey comes to the same conclusion at the end of her film that Henry Turner does in his, to reject where she comes from and find another way to move forward. All this may be valid and it’s a little hard not to look at Abrams’ work in film & TV and think that his view of the world has never been about intellect but the sheer luck of what you’re born into, what you supposedly have coming to you as destiny. Of course, a lot has happened since I had that idea and spending much time thinking about the J.J. Abrams STAR WARS films doesn’t interest me very much at the moment. As for REGARDING HENRY, I’m not in too much of a mood to strongly object to what is ultimately a ‘nice’ movie with a message of, ‘Be who you are deep down and don’t let anyone else tell you what that is’ but there’s still not very much to say about it. The question for us right now is what are we going to be in this world that we have to live in? That’s an answer we don’t have yet. We’re trapped here, after all. And, at the moment, there’s nothing we can do to escape.