Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

Director: Steve Kloves                                 Writer: Steve Kloves
Film Score: Dave Grusin                              Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Starring: Beau Bridges, Jeff Bridges, Michelle Pfeiffer and Ellie Raab

This is just a beautiful music film. The Fabulous Baker Boys is one of those pictures that transcends time and place and remains fresh to this day. It has an incredibly rich and humorous screenplay combined with a wonderful directing touch. Getting the two Bridges brothers to play onscreen brothers was a coup as well, and the work they did to make the piano playing seem realistic is just a joy to watch. The film boasts solid singing from Michelle Pfeiffer and has some great character actors in key supporting roles. If the film has a weakness, it’s the actual music. I’m not a big fan of smooth jazz, a category that Dave Grusin falls squarely into, but even with that it’s a soundtrack that I enjoy for the associations it brings to mind from the film.

The story concerns two piano playing brothers, the Fabulous Baker Boys. Beau Bridges plays the older brother, a nerd who has a facility for playing but lacks the imagination to improvise. His younger brother, Jeff Bridges, is a jazz pianist who is literally handcuffed to prewritten arrangements as well as his brother. The two have been playing professionally for fifteen years and the magic has worn off. To revive the act they hire Michelle Pfeiffer as a singer and suddenly become a hot item again. But when Jeff Bridges and Pfeiffer fall for each other it creates a rift between the brothers, and the dissolution of the group alternately hilarious and heart wrenching.

The most engaging thing about the film is that Beau and Jeff Bridges are brilliant together. Their characters could almost make you think that’s the way they are in real life, though we know they’re not. Michelle Pfeiffer, after a turn in the disastrous Grease 2, certainly redeems herself here. She has a sultry voice that, while not particularly great, is certainly in character for a woman who has struggled getting singing work in the context of the film. Ellie Raab, who had a brief career as a child actress in the nineties, does a terrific job as the neglected girl from upstairs in Jeff Bridges’ apartment building. Bit parts by the great Dakin Matthews as well as Xander Berkeley and Ken Lerner as club owners are also a nice touch. Jennifer Tilly has a nice turn as a goofy waitress who auditions for the singing spot, and Alan Hale look-alike Bradford English is great as the basketball coach at the telethon.

Writer-director Steve Kloves, who went on to write all of the Harry Potter films, did an amazing job with the script. The humor that emerges seamlessly from the characters and the situations is pure pleasure. As I stated earlier, Dave Grusin is not my idea of jazz. But he assembled a nice group here, with Ernie Watts on the tenor saxophone, Sal Marquez on trumpet, and Lee Ritenour on guitar. The opening number, “Jack’s Theme” and “Shop Till You Bop” are great tunes. The only real disappointment is that the killer piano solo by Joel Scott on “Lullaby of Birdland” from the film is not on the soundtrack album. In its place is a fairly tame version by the Earl Palmer Trio. The Fabulous Baker Boys has so much going for it that it’s an easy recommendation. It’s also one of my favorite films of all time and multiple viewings over the years have done nothing to diminish the magic.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Sneakers (1992)

Director: Phil Alden Robinson                       Writers: Phil Alden Robinson & Lawrence Lasker
Film Score: James Horner                            Cinematography: John Lindley
Starring: Robert Redford, Ben Kingsley, Sidney Poitier and David Straithairn

If I had to choose one word to describe this film it would be confident. The script is confident, the direction is very confident, and the acting is extremely confident. The film moves like a precision watch, without a misstep, without hesitancy, and while never achieving anything remotely like transcendence, is so utterly entertaining in nearly every way that one could argue it doesn’t need to be brilliant. Sneakers stars Robert Redford, who had acted in only one other film before this since Legal Eagles in 1986, as a former computer hacker from the sixties who fled to Canada to avoid going to prison. When he reemerged in the United States years later, it was under an assumed name and he now runs a consulting firm that analyzes security for banks and other high-risk businesses to assess their vulnerability to theft.

The film opens with Redford as a young man, played by Gary Hershberger, and Ben Kingsley’s character, played by Jo Marr, in 1969. They are on the college administration building computers transferring funds from conservative establishment figures and giving the money to liberal causes. But when Hershberger goes out for pizza, Marr is arrested. Flash forward to a present day bank heist in progress. On Redford’s team is the brilliant David Straithairn as a blind computer hacker, Sidney Poitier as an ex-CIA man, Dan Ackroyd as an electronics wiz, and River Phoenix as the point man on the entry. But the next day the audience learns it was just a consulting job for the bank. Later, Timothy Busfield and Eddie Jones from the NSA coerce Redford and his crew into stealing a black box that can break any code. The incentive is that Redford will be cleared of any charges for his past crimes. If not, he goes to jail, where Kingsley died. But stealing the box is only the beginning of a wild ride. I could tell you more but, as the tag line to the film says . . . then I’d have to kill you.

Redford has always been an odd choice for comedic films, in my eyes, but he did have his successes in romantic comedies, Barefoot in the Park and the aforementioned Legal Eagles come to mind. He’s very good here, even without the romance. Mary McDonnell plays the love interest, such as it is, Redford’s erstwhile girlfriend who agrees to help him clear his record. This is also what I would consider David Straithairn’s breakout film, before consolidating his popularity in The Firm and L.A. Confidential. Sidney Poitier displays the kind of considerable talent at comedic timing that I first noticed in Shoot to Kill. Ackroyd is a good comedic straight man, as always, and River Phoenix is effective in one of his last roles. Kingsley doesn’t turn up until the second half of the film, but he is captivating. There are also some good smaller roles, most notably by the wonderful Stephen Tobolowsky as well as George Hearn and James Earl Jones in a cameo.

In the end, this is an incredibly satisfying caper film. It has some great twists, and the getaway scene at the end is laugh-out-loud funny. Writer/director Phil Alden Robinson is probably best known for Field of Dreams and the Tom Clancy film The Sum of All Fears, but he also penned a very effective screenplay for the Steve Martin, Lilly Tomlin romantic comedy All of Me, and was assisted on this script by two writers who had worked on War Games. Finally, the incredibly prolific James Horner provides a workmanlike, if unmemorable, score for the film. This film came along right at the time when cinema was shaking off its eighties sensibilities, and is that much better for it. Sneakers won the mystery writers’ Edgar Alan Poe award for best picture, but is just as enjoyable for its comedic elements as well and comes highly recommended.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Paper Chase (1973)

Director: James Bridges                               Writer: James Bridges
Film Score: John Williams                            Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Lindsay Wagner, John Houseman and Graham Beckel

For years I thought this film was based on the book by Scott Turrow entitled One-L, but in fact it was from the novel of the same name by John Jay Osborn, Jr. The film traces the trials and triumphs of a first year law student named James Hart, and The Paper Chase was so popular that it was spun off into a television series that, when dumped by CBS for low ratings, created so much viewer demand that it was picked up by Showtime and ran for several more seasons that even found their way onto PBS. It’s a curious film, one that could only be a success in the seventies, focusing on the relationship of a student to the most challenging professor at Harvard Law School, and the way in which he evolves from a meek student to someone who believes in himself and his own abilities. It’s Rocky for intellectuals, and is just as exhilarating.

Hart is played by Timothy Bottoms, who had recently been very successful in Peter Bogdonavich’s The Last Picture Show, and he’s incredibly good in the role. John Houseman plays the daunting Professor Kingsfield. He is masterful in the performance and it's easily his best known work, winning him an Oscar for best supporting actor in the process. Bottoms is befriended by the student across the hall, Graham Beckel and the two become friends of sorts, similar minds that have very different upbringings, and their push to study for finals is both humorous and ingenious. Things go well until Bottoms meets Linday Wagner and he learns the hard way that having a girlfriend will not allow him to study the way he needs to in order to be successful in school. It’s painful to watch at times, but there is also a nice twist with her character and ultimately a satisfying ending. Other members of the cast include the great David Clennon, as well as Edward Herrman, James Naughton and Blair Brown.

The film is imbued with a seventies sensibility, from bow ties and corduroy jackets to bell bottoms and big hair, but because of the law school setting it retains a certain timeless quality to it. Director James Bridges was primarily active in the seventies, writing and directing such hits as The China Syndrome and Urban Cowboy, and even went on to write for The Paper Chase television series. The film also boasts one of John Williams’ early scores, utilizing some existing classical music as well as relying on the harpsichord which he would also use to great effect on Hitchcock’s Family Plot.

It’s an intimate film, in a way, the drama being mostly self-contained within the characters, and the conflict in the film develops more from what is left unsaid than the dialogue itself. While Houseman does, in fact, have a relationship with Bottoms, he refuses to acknowledge it, continuing to ask his name the few times they speak. It’s maddening for Bottoms, who wants the recognition almost more than the grade. At the same time Wagner understands that in order for Bottoms to be successful in school he can’t continue to see her, and their breakup is tough for him because she never tells him that. It may not sound like much on paper, but The Paper Chase is incredibly inspiring and one of the greatest films of the seventies. I can’t recommend it enough.

One Eight Seven (1997)

Director: Kevin Reynolds                              Writer: Scott Yagemann
Film Score: David Darling                             Cinematography: Ericson Core
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, John Heard, Kelly Rowan and Clifton Collins Jr.

The numbers One Eight Seven, we learn in the first few minutes of Kevin Reynolds’ public education drama, are the police code for homicide. Teacher Samuel L. Jackson finds it written all over the pages of the science book on his desk. Naturally he goes to one of the councelors and is told it means nothing. But of course the audience, as well as Jackson, knows that’s not true. A year and half later, after moving to Los Angeles, Jackson tells a fellow teacher that what he’s angriest about is the robbery. They stole, “my passion, the spark, my unguarded self. I miss him. I want him back.” Can he get his old self back? Should he really want to? And how can he expect do that by moving from one socio-economic disaster of a school to another, even though it’s three thousand miles away?

Like all films about public education, this one is long on problems and short on solutions. The fact is, public education has always been a flawed system from its inception. For a hundred and fifty years it worked, however, due to external pressure from home. The last fifty years, however, have exposed the primary flaw: you can’t make people--kids in this case--do anything they don’t want to do. There have always been kids who want to learn, just as there will always be kids who refuse to do anything. The other eighty percent simply go along with whatever the dominant culture of the classroom is. The fact is, while this film portrays the worst kind of schools, there is little difference between them and every other classroom in the country. Teachers have no power and so the people who stay in teaching are typically those who can’t teach, and ultimately the kids learn very little. The only difference between this film and what goes on in every other high school in the country . . . is simply the degree of the dysfunction.

Kevin Reynolds has had a fitful career, though he has directed some popular and well-made films. He’s a favorite of Kevin Costner ever since helming his Robin Hood, and went on to direct Waterworld and his Hatfield & McCoy’s miniseries. But in a career that has spanned almost twenty-five years, he’s only directed eleven films. Screenwriter Scott Yagemann has been primarily a television writer and this script came out of his experience as a former teacher himself. When Jackson attempts to maintain discipline, and his own dignity, in his classroom he incurs the wrath of one of the school’s minor gang leaders who begins a systematic campaign of revenge. Finally, when Jackson’s been pushed past the breaking point the film turns into an updated version of Death Wish. And that’s too bad.

In his review of Mississippi Burning, the brilliant film reviewer Frederick Barton expressed a similar disappointment. As an audience we are expected to identify with Jackson and feel good about his finally taking action in a system in which he is given no power and feels helpless. But how in the world is that supposed to really satisfy when his only solution is to break the law? Does it go anywhere near solving the problem? Not at all. In fact, by indulging in the same sort of terrorism that his students subject him to, Jackson himself becomes no better than they are. And then what are we left with? There is one aspect of One Eight Seven that is brilliant, however, the ending. It is the perfect metaphor for education in America today. Whether it’s teachers or students, there are no happy endings for anyone.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Sea Wolf (1941)

Director: Michael Curtiz                               Writer: Robert Rossen
Film Score: Erich Wolfgang Korngold            Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino, John Garfield and Barry Fitzgerald

Warner Brothers’ take on Jack London’s best-selling novel obviously benefits tremendously from its brilliant source material, but also the considerable imagination of screenwriter Robert Rossen. Alternately fascinating, mysterious and horrifying as a story, it’s also an incredibly successful film due to the talents of the great Michael Curtiz behind the camera, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s magnificent score, and the extremely talented cast of actors who bring London’s characters to life. The Sea Wolf is a character study of Captain Wolf Larsen, played by Edward G. Robinson, as observed by a writer, Alexander Knox, who unfortunately finds himself onboard Robinson’s ship with no way of escaping.

The film opens with John Garfield as a man on the run from the police. To avoid their grasp he signs on to a ship whose officers unscrupulously beat and drug men to get them to serve on it. At the same time Ida Lupino, also on the run, is aboard a steam ship with Alexander Knox and the two are tossed overboard when the ship is rammed in the fog. Robinson’s crew pulls them from the water and Knox is immediately put to work as a cabin boy while Lupino recuperates below deck. Robinson, who first appears as a cruel, inhuman overlord, is eventually discovered by Knox to be a self-taught intellectual who became a ship’s captain in order to feed the desire for complete, god-like control over other people. It’s only when Knox begins talking to others onboard that they slowly begin to resist and challenge that authority, with tragic results.

Robinson, in his last few years as a leading man, is masterful in the role. He has a screen presence that goes beyond simply acting and his characterizations are chilling in their reality. Garfield is good as well, but his character has far less depth, his anger being the primary motivation. Ida Lupino is just a tremendous actress. Why she wasn’t a bigger star is mystifying. Knox is the narrator of London’s story, and while he’s rather a weak figure, his intellectuality is the perfect counterpoint to Robinson’s cruelty. Lupino falls for Garfield and, along with Knox they attempt to escape on an open boat. The ironic twist at the end is truly great storytelling. There are also some solid character actors onboard as well. Barry Fitzgerald is the ship’s cook and stoolpigeon, Gene Lockhart is the ship’s physician and stereotypical drunk, and Howard Da Silva is a cynical crewmember.

Michael Curtiz does a nice bit of work on the ship, which looks to be the same one used in The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood, though the voyage itself never feels very realistic because the entire exterior is shrouded in fog, which doesn’t seem very likely in the Pacific Ocean where they are supposedly sailing. His shots are nice, though, and he creates some interesting visuals. This is also one of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s major scores, with memorable melodies and an ominous undertone throughout and is justifiably popular among fans of film music. Robert Rossen, who would reach his artistic peak with The Hustler, does a real butcher job on London’s story, not only truncating it but also changing several characters and completely reinventing the ending. But it works. In the end The Sea Wolf is a fascinating picture, a real Warner Brothers classic, and well worth seeking out.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)

Director: F.W. Murnau                                  Writer: Henrik Galeen
Film Score: Hans Erdmann                          Cinematography: Fritz Arno Wagner
Starring: Max Schreck, Gustav von Waagenheim, Greta Schröder and Alexander Granach

It’s still beyond my comprehension why the British Film Institute version of Nosferatu has not been made available to American audiences yet. I’ve seen a ten-minute excerpt of the film and it is by far the best version out there, with subtle tinting, hand drawn title cards and, most importantly, a new score by the late James Bernard who had so much success scoring horror films for Britain’s Hammer studios. Bernard’s film score has been available on CD for a dozen years. What the legal holdup on releasing the film in the United States is I can’t even guess, but it honestly makes it difficult for me to enjoy the existing editions available here when I know how much I’m missing.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is, of course, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s unauthorized version of Dracula. Based on Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Murnau attempted to avoid paying royalties by making changes to the plot and characters just as he had done with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when he make Der Januskopf. But Stoker’s widow sued, won, and all of the prints were ordered destroyed. Fortunately, by that time the film had been distributed around the world and a number of prints survived. Ironically, by attempting to disguise the original story Murnau made a number of artistic changes that make the film a masterpiece in its own right, and allow it to stand on its own as a film apart from Stoker’s now overwhelming legacy.

Thomas Hutter is a real estate agent who is sent by his boss, Knock, to Carpathia for a client named Graf Orlok. Knock wants him to offer the house across the street from Hutter, which is one of several that are abandoned in Wiesbad. Hutter’s wife, Ellen, has a bad feeling about his leaving, but says nothing to him. On the trip to Orlok’s castle, Hutter meets villagers who fear the castle and Orlok. He is taken halfway to the castle and there he is met by a carriage with a mysterious driver, Orlok himself. At the castle he cuts his finger while slicing bread and Orlok grabs his hand to drink the blood. The next morning, with his host nowhere in sight, he discovers two marks on his neck, and it’s not until the next day that he discovers Orlock in his coffin and realizes he’s a vampire. Meanwhile Orlok has seen a picture of Ellen and so he locks Hutter in the castle and leaves to find her. The rest of the film is a race to see if Hutter can get home before Orlok kills her.

While Nosferatu is often called an Expressionist film, I would argue that it’s not. Most of the sets and exteriors are very realistic, which is what gives the film much of its power. The special effects were already outdated at the time, and yet they work surprisingly well, the most effective being the negative image of Orlok’s carriage as it goes to the castle. Orlok himself is a rat-like creature, diametrically opposed to the Lugosi image that would be created at Universal nine years later. In fact, the farther into the film one goes, especially after Orlok arrives in Wiesbad, the more distorted and nightmarish the film becomes. It’s a brilliant film that still has a tremendous ability to frighten almost a hundred years later. While the Kino version is a good restoration, I feel it has a poor selection of soundtracks and poorly done title cards for dialogue. Until the BFI version comes along I would stick with the Image version which boasts an informative, if droning, audio commentary.

In Andy Klein’s essay on the film for The A List, he spends most of his time rehashing the plot and claiming that Murnau’s film “begs for a Freudian interpretation.” Sigh. Not only is that a pointless idea, but one could make the case that nearly every work of art can be given a Freudian interpretation and so in the end that entire approach really fails to be enlightening any more. He does go on to make a case for an unconscious anti-Semitic interpretation, with Orlok being the Jew who brings pestilence and disease on the community, but he is so apologetic that it sucks all of the persuasiveness out of it. Stoker’s novel is, in fact, an allegory of the outsider as monster who comes into the midst of society and begins to destroy it. It’s an idea that was not only used by the Nazis, but lots of other nations and ethnicities to warn of the dangers of outsiders. Naturally, there’s no evidence of anti-Semitism in Murnau’s work, which Klein points out, because that sub-theme was already there in Stoker’s work. It’s a testament to a gifted director that Nosferatu continues to hold such a high place in film history. I just hope that those of us here in the U.S. will be able to see the definitive version sooner than later.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Great Escape (1963)

Director: John Sturges                                 Writer: James Clavell & W.R. Burnett
Film Score: Elmer Bernstein                         Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp
Starring: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough and Charles Bronson

There were a lot of big-budget, epic films from the fifties and early sixties that fail to be artistically relevant today. In fact, nineteen fifty-five through sixty-five was the last real decade of the epic film and The Great Escape might even be considered the last great epic in film history. It has everything, suspense, excitement, danger as well as a healthy dose of humor. It has an all-star cast, a brilliant screenplay, a first-class director and an exhilarating film score. The film is almost three hours long and feels like only half of that. It’s based on a true story from World War II about a mass escape attempt in 1944 from a German prisoner of war camp that held mostly British and Commonwealth officers. The book was written by one of the officers, Paul Brickhill, and was a huge best seller at the time.

The film opens on a new prisoner of war camp that the Germans have built especially for their problem prisoners, the ones in other camps who keep attempting to escape. Both Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson had come over with director John Sturges from filming The Magnificent Seven a few years earlier, while James Garner had just finished his six-year run on the television show Maverick. The other American, playing an Australian, was James Coburn, who had been doing mostly television at this time. The great British actors include Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson and, most importantly, James Donald who had made such a strong impression in the other great war epic of the era, The Bridge on the River Kwai from 1957. The supporting cast, too numerous to mention, were very well chosen and help make this one of the great films of all time.

The head of the escape committee is Attenborough, who decides that as long as they have all of these skilled men in the camp he might as well use them and immediately decides to dig three tunnels instead of one, attempting to get as many as two hundred and fifty men out. At the same time McQueen and Angus Lennie are doing everything they can to break out on their own. Just before the big breakout, the officers in charge ask McQueen to go out once more and get captured so he can bring back information about what the surrounding area is like. It’s an device that would be repeated in the John Huston POW film Victory in 1981. Ultimately there are some problems with the breakout and only seventy six men wind up escaping. McQueen is great on a twenty-year old motorcycle. Garner flies out in a plane with Pleasence, Coburn rides a bike into France, and Bronson takes to the water in a boat. Though few of the men actually escape, some do, and it winds up being a very uplifting story despite the downbeat ending.

The film was completely snubbed at Oscar time, earning only a single nomination for film editing, which is a shame. Of the other films that were nominated that year none of them have matched the sustained popularity and the artistic recognition that The Great Escape has acquired over the years. John Sturges was a great director with a flair for action, going on to film John Wayne in McQ and helming another World War II classic, The Eagle has Landed, before retiring. Future seventies novelist James Clavell and former thirties crime writer W.R. Burnett did a terrific job on the script, infusing it with plenty of humor to leaven the suspense. The film score by Elmer Bernstein is regarded as a classic in its own right, instantly recognizable and obviously inspired. With the stellar acting talent and the solid supporting crew, The Great Escape has remained a favorite among fans of war films, and is among my favorite films of any genre.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Dead Zone (1983)

Director: David Cronenberg                           Writer: Jeffrey Boam
Film Score: Michael Kamen                          Cinematography: Mark Irwin
Starring: Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Herbert Lom and Martin Sheen

Stephen King hasn’t had a very good track record when it comes to having his works made into films. He collects the check from Hollywood and then the production company goes about butchering his work and serving it up as summer schlock. Every once in a while, though, someone gets it right, like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Rob Reiner’s Misery and Stand By Me. Well, The Dead Zone is one of the good ones. And it certainly didn’t hurt that it was directed by David Cronenberg, at the height of his popularity having just finished Videodrome earlier the same year. It was a good match, too, a good story for Cronenberg as it lacked a lot of the overt gore he had become known for. More of a supernatural suspense story, he was able to focus more on character the way he would later in his career in films like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.

The story begins with English teacher Christopher Walken and his teacher girlfriend Brooke Adams dating. When Walken goes home from her house one night he gets into a head-on collision with a semi and winds up in a coma for five years. When he comes out of it he has the ability to see things when he touches people, things associated with them both past and present. It’s very chilling. Sheriff Tom Skerritt asks Walken to help with a serial killer case and Walken manages to solve it. But Herbert Lom is Walken’s doctor and he has alarming news about his condition: it’s killing Walken. At the same time Walken has reconnected with Adams, somewhat. She’s married and has a child, but he keeps running into her while she is working on a U.S. Senate campaign for dirty politician Martin Sheen. The climax of the film is a fascinating “what if” question that arises out of Walken’s psychic abilities.

The intensity of Walken’s personality and acting style is perfect for the role. He is alternately bitter, angry, and confused about what has happened, and he elicits a great deal of sympathy with his considerable acting skills. Brooke Adams is positively radiant onscreen. After a great job in the remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, she did a few other films before landing this part. Unfortunately she wasn’t able to turn it into the kind of film career her acting deserved. One of the most brilliant jobs of casting on the shoot was Herbert Lom as the doctor. He was an amazing talent and when Walken is at his crisis point before the climax, he delivers one of the best lines in the film. Tom Skerritt is also good in a small role, as is Martin Sheen as the psychotic politician, and Colleen Dewherst as the serial killer’s mother.

This was only screenwriter Jeffrey Boam’s second film, and he did an excellent job of structuring Stephen King’s story in three distinct acts. The first is the prolog and Walken coming out of the coma. The second is the discovery of his psychic abilities and helping solve the murder cases. The third is the politician. Cronenberg shows tremendous restraint and, as a result, this is one of the most artistically successful films in his career. The film score by Michael Kamen is fairly atmospheric. It still holds up today and doesn’t sound dated like a lot of eighties soundtracks. The Dead Zone is a powerful film with a strong cast and confident direction, making it one of the handful of successful Stephen King films and a must have for any horror buff’s collection.

Friday, August 9, 2013

London After Midnight (1927)

Director: Tod Browning                                Writer: Tod Browning & Waldemar Young
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons               Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Starring: Lon Chaney, Marceline Day, Conrad Nagel and Henry B Walthall

I wanted to write about the reconstructed London After Midnight, even though the film no longer exists. But when I went online to look at what other people had to say, they are very divided about the TCM reconstruction available on the Lon Chaney box set, and very heated about the reasons for their opinions. Firstly, this is not a real film. It is made up entirely of promotional stills which, as anyone who has compared such stills to a film will know, they are posed shots on the set that are usually not duplicated in the actual frames from the movie. It goes without saying, then, that there is no motion at all. The camera can zoom in, pan across the shot, or cut to another picture, but that is all. The biggest argument online is when people actually give the film a rating when it's obviously impossible for them to have seen it. Hopefully, I can avoid such a reaction by not writing about it as a film.

The first time I ever saw a silent film augmented in a few places with publicity stills was the 1984 re-imagining of Fritz Lang's Metropolis by Giorgio Moroder, and I thought it worked well. At that time it was the most complete version of the film, even though the running time was shorter because he used subtitles rather than title cards. The most extreme example of augmentation I've ever seen was with the reconstruction of Erich von Stroheim's Greed, which felt as if almost half the film was recreated using stills. In that case it was a little frustrating for me to watch because it seemed as if the action of the film was always being broken up by the stills. London After Midnight, on the other hand, comes with a completely different set of expectations. I actually enjoyed the reconstruction. I think it was a satisfying experience and really fills a need. Now, it certainly isn't going to satisfy everyone. And for those who dismiss it completely because . . . IT ISN'T AN ACTUAL FILM, I totally agree with them.

It brings to mind, in a very different way, the film Thru Different Eyes from 1929. That is an early sound film in which the only version in existence is a silent version with title cards. Is that the same experience as it would have been with sound? Absolutely not, and it some ways it was a frustrating film to watch because of that. But I am still incredibly thankful to have the silent version rather than nothing. And while it's definitely not the same thing here, I am just as thankful that there were so many publicity stills from London After Midnight, enough to make the effort of the reconstruction worthwhile anyway. And there is a good argument to be made for making the reconstruction.

Browning remade the film eight years later with Bela Lugosi as Mark of the Vampire and that would be a legitimate starting point in comparison with the stills of London After Midnight. In addition, Browning and Chaney worked together on a number of films and their previous, The Unknown, would also be a reasonable template for understanding the director’s style and applying that to the reconstruction. Using those two films to guide the creators makes me feel pretty confident about the end result. I watched the film with the Philip Glass score to Tod Browning’s Dracula and I thought it was a fantastic experience, making the film darker and more like a horror film. Though London After Midnight no longer exists, this conjecture about what it would have been like is definitely worth a viewing.

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

Director: Roy Del Ruth                                 Writers: Maude Fulton & Brown Holmes
Music: Leo F. Forbstein                               Cinematography: William Rees
Starring: Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels, Dudley Digges and Dwight Frye

After the incredible popularity and longevity of John Huston’s 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon, it’s fascinating to look at the original rendering of Dashiell Hammett’s novel. The 1931 Maltese Falcon has all the same characters and the same plot, and while it doesn’t have anywhere near the personality of the later version, it’s still an engaging mystery that does justice to the original story. Ricardo Cortez began acting in silent films and spent the vast majority of his career in low budget, B films. His Sam Spade is actually a pretty good interpretation, brash instead of Bogart’s cynic, and of course he benefits from Hammett’s original dialogue. Bebe Daniels, who made hundreds of films before the sound era began, is the femme fatale and I actually prefer her over Mary Astor.

The film begins with Daniels coming into the office of Cortez and his partner. This film establishes the affair that he’s having with his partner’s wife, something only hinted at in Huston’s film. Daniels hires Cortez and his partner, Walter Long, to follow someone and that night both Long and his quarry are killed. The police hound Cortez, but he knows he didn’t do it and that they can’t prove anything. He quickly learns that Daniels was lying to him when he discovers more people are interested in the “black bird” including Otto Matieson and Dudley Digges. Gradually they all begin to think that Cortez actually has the jewel-encrusted statuette and soon he’s being held up and slipped a mickey to get it. Dwight Frye has a tiny role as Digges’ muscle, and the guy Cortez wants to give to the cops as the murderer. The anti-climax with the falcon, and spade giving up Daniels, is almost as good as the remake.

Of course it’s impossible from our modern vantage point not to make comparisons with Huston’s iconic version of the story, but it really is a good film on its own. Otto Matieson does a terrific job as Joel Cairo, while Dudley Digges’ Caspar Gutman is a little too sleazy which makes the viewer appreciate even more what Sydney Greenstreet brought to the role. It’s also a beautiful looking film. The surviving print is crisp and clear, with rich, velvety black and white tones. The camerawork is admirable as well. Director Roy Del Ruth is probably best known for the many musicals he filmed during his career. But he and cameraman William Rees do a great job with depth of field and a fairly mobile camera that, while still deeply rooted in an early thirties sensibility, is quite effective. As with many films from this era, some kind of film score would have been a nice addition, but all we’re left with is some incidental source music.

The story would be remade once more before the definitive version. This film from 1936 was played more for comedy and was titled Satan Met a Lady, featuring Bette Davis and the great Warren William. A special edition of the 1941 film includes all three versions of The Maltese Falcon made by Warner Brothers. The cast of Huston’s version made a radio show of the film in 1946 for Squibb, but there was also a Lux Radio Theater production made three years earlier starring Edward G. Robinson. It seems an odd choice of casting but he does a great job and it’s a version worth seeking out. All in all, the original version of The Maltese Falcon is a satisfying early thirties mystery, and though it has nowhere near the vibrancy of the 1941 remake, it still comes highly recommended.

Cast Away (2000)

Director: Robert Zemeckis                           Writer: William Broyles Jr.
Film Score: Alan Silvestri                            Cinematography: Don Burgess
Starring: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Nick Searcy and Chris Noth

One of the most fascinating things about this film is consideration of the title. It’s not Castaway, a noun indicating the person who has been stranded or abandoned. The title is Cast Away, a two word verb phrase that indicates something has been cast out against its will. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s an important distinction because of what it says not only about the main character, but because of what that character has had to abandon in order to survive, and what he has had to abandon when he returns to civilization. When the film is viewed through the symbolism of the title, it takes on a host of relevance that goes beyond the mere simplicity of the plot. And the plot is a relatively straightforward desert island story, but also has some subtle wrinkles that are impressive.

Tom Hanks is an executive at FedEx who is obsessed with time which, no doubt, makes him great at his job. The film also emphasizes time when it deals with his relationship to Helen Hunt. After a return trip from Moscow, he goes to her office in the college where she’s finishing her doctorate and it becomes clear they must spend a lot of time apart. At Christmas dinner he gets a page and the scene cuts directly to the two of them going through their day-planners to carve out time for themselves. Finally, as he is boarding the plane for his next trip, he proposes and she gives him a pocket watch with her picture in it. After the crash has cast him away on the island time has suddenly stopped. There is only the ebb and flow of the waves, the weather and the sun. It’s fascinating to watch. It’s only after a few years that we see the calendar that he’s made that measures the months on the cave wall by the position of the sun.

The other obvious aspect of this kind of story deals with isolation. Hanks is very good in this part of the film, but writer William Broyles also helped him out by having packages from the cargo plane wash up on shore, one of them containing the volleyball that, with the addition of Hanks’ bloody handprint becomes “Wilson,” allowing Hanks to talk out loud on occasion. Gradually the castaway begins to abandon everything in his island life that he doesn’t need, the pager, his clothes, even human contact. Though it seems there is a definite undercurrent of desire in him for human contact, and a suggestion that the lack of it is making him a little crazy, what I read into this is merely a coping mechanism that is clearly jettisoned once he gets back to civilization. This is reinforced by the fact that his seemingly suicidal gesture of making it off the island is really a well thought out plan to avoid accidental death, and a way of maintaining control in his life.

Robert Zemeckis has had a very successful career in Hollywood, with some unavoidable duds along the way. But despite some absolutely huge successes, like the Back to the Future trilogy, he continues to challenge himself by making intense character studies like Flight. This film is in a similar vein. Filmed in chronologic order so as to document Hanks’ inevitable weight loss on the island, he is also unafraid of making necessary choices that will benefit the artistic underpinning of his pictures. Hanks, ever since Apollo 13, has been masterful on screen and this is yet another example. Helen Hunt has also been very good in films like As Good as It Gets and Pay it Forward. Cast Away is a character study, plain and simple, but Hanks’ everyman quality brings the film home to viewers in a way that they can see themselves in a similar situation. It’s a powerful and engaging film that continues to deliver with repeated viewings.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Criss Cross (1949)

Director: Robert Siodmak                             Writer: Daniel Fuchs
Film Score: Miklós Rózsa                            Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo, Dan Duryea and Stephen McNally

Yvonne De Carlo’s career had a very strange trajectory, beginning with some good roles in films noir, including Brute Force and Criss Cross. In addition to numerous westerns in the nineteen fifties, she also played Mrs. Moses in The Ten Commandments and by the mid-sixties was mired in TV’s The Munsters. Still, after what would seem like career suicide, she continued working steadily, on into the nineties. Her highly stylistic way of acting fit well in the noir films she did with Burt Lancaster. In the opening of this film we see De Carlo and Lancaster embracing in the parking lot of a nightclub. The owner of the club is Dan Duryea and his wife is . . . Yvonne De Carlo. The plot continues to unfold in a similar fashion. An argument between Lancaster and Duryea turns out to be a ruse to throw the cops off a heist being planned, and when the driver of the armored car has to go home to his sick wife there is Lancaster taking his place.

It’s a nice script, and after the opening the bulk of the story is told through a flashback with Lancaster doing the voiceover. Once the two timelines catch up, the heist careens toward the conclusion. The way that director Robert Siodmak guides the viewer through the intricacies of it all shows why he was so revered as a noir director. The most prevalent motif in the picture is that of the prison bars. They show up on the door when Lancaster goes in to the back room of the club to fight with Duryea, when the armored car is driving out of the bank, and at the train station. The daylight scenes in post-war Los Angeles are great too, every bit as noir as the dark and shadowy rooms usually associated with the genre.

Lancaster is as steely-eyed as ever and does a great job. It’s one of his best performances in a noir film after The Killers with Ava Gardner and I Walk Alone with Kirk Douglas. De Carlo’s strange acting style really works in this film because it’s so difficult to tell who she is or what she actually wants. Her love/hate relationship with Lancaster is a rollercoaster for the first half of the film and it’s difficult to figure out where her allegiance lies until the very end. For once a director reigned in Dan Duryea and he actually delivers a watchable performance. I really don’t like him much, but in this role he is measured and attenuated and adds so much more menace to the part than his usual petulant wise guy character. Stephan McNally has the thankless job of playing the good cop, trying to help out Lancaster and getting little thanks for it. Percy Helton is cast slightly against type as a bartender, and does a nice bit. And in the dance scene De Carlo’s partner is an uncredited Tony Curtis.

An interesting aspect of the film is how it can be seen as a transition of noir into more documentary style caper films like John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. Another important part of the film is the powerful score by Miklós Rózsa, who is the composer most associated with great film noir. The film was remade in 1995 as The Underneath, with Peter Gallagher reinterpreting the Lancaster role as a reluctant participant in the heist rather than the originator of the idea. Criss Cross is a masterful and confident noir from Universal and has a lot to recommend it.

Stolen Holiday (1937)

Director: Michael Curtiz                               Writer: Casey Robinson
Film Score: Werner R. Heymann                  Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Starring: Kay Francis, Claude Rains, Ian Hunter and Alison Skipworth

From the moment Stolen Holiday begins, Kay Francis stands out. She is working as a model in Paris, in 1931. Amid a bevy of blondes in white moves Francis, her dark hair pulled severely back and braided tightly to give her the appearance of a man, her dark dress setting her apart even further. She doesn’t look at all like the other models. She is strong, knowing, driven toward some other destiny. When the rich Claude Raines comes in after the show, looking for a model to show some clothes to his wife, he naturally selects Francis. Once back at his mansion, however, something becomes clear. Not only is Rains not married, but he’s not rich either. He has a proposition for Francis. If she poses as his wife, and his work succeeds, he will give her the money to open her own dress shop to produce her designs. She agrees, not knowing that he is working an illegal scam. Five years later, they are both incredibly wealthy and she is a famous designer.

In spite of the presence of the great Michael Curtiz behind the camera, this is definitely a lesser Warner Brothers film. The problem is with the script: it just takes too long to get going. At a ball given by Rains, it’s clear that he is still in the business of cheating people out of money, this time selling worthless bonds. He and Francis have a social relationship, but with no emotion--at least not on the part of Francis. She has no time for anything but business, and Rains has a full-time job on his hands keeping his head out of the guillotine. At the ball Francis meets Ian Hunter, her love interest in so many of these Warner dramas, like Another Dawn and Confession. They have absolutely no romantic interest in each other, except for a deep fascination about each other. Thrown together during a trip to Geneva while Rains is busy, they soon begin spending time together and fall in love.

The whole thing actually sounds a lot more interesting than it really is. The police investigation uncovers the plot by Rains, and naturally they believe Francis must be a part of it. The romance in Geneva between Francis and Hunter is charming, if a bit forced. But Kay Francis is a feast for the eyes and that’s really the main reason to watch the film. She plays her usual role of sacrificing herself for someone else and, also as usual, her willingness to do so usually shames the other into doing the right thing and allowing her happiness in the end. It’s a formula that was woven into an actual French scandal that the story was based on. Claude Rains is his usual magnificent self, scheming and completely unflappable even in the face of disaster. It’s also difficult not to like Ian Hunter in these films, in spite of his weak roles. Stolen Holiday, despite its mediocrity, is a must for fans of Kay Francis and Claude Rains. For everyone else . . . not so much.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Director: Robert Aldrich                               Writer: Lukas Heller
Film Score: Frank De Vol                            Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Starring: Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Victor Buono and Maidie Norman

It’s unfortunate that, for many people my age, our first exposure to Joan Crawford came via television and Robert Aldrich’s horror classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Bette Davis, it seems, not only didn’t suffer from her psychotic portrayal, but it led to a whole new reevaluation of her work and the fact that she lived a decade longer than Crawford kept her memory alive. Crawford’s reputation, on the other hand, was justifiably sideswiped by her adoptive daughter’s autobiography and its attendant film, Mommie Dearest, which made her out to be psychotic in real life. Whatever personal demons may have haunted Crawford, her work on the screen should stand apart, from the silent era through the sixties, as a brilliant career, a powerful character, and a genuine movie star. Her reputation deserves to be rescued so that people can see here for the great actress she really was rather than the joke she eventually became.

Aldrich begins the film by establishing the characters right from the beginning. Child star Baby Jane is a spoiled brat who manipulates everyone around her to get what she wants. Sister Blanch, however, is patient and perseveres, eclipsing her sister’s former fame by becoming a films star while Jane becomes box office poison. The director used clips from Davis’s films Parachute Jumper and Ex-Lady, and from Crawford’s Sadie McKee. Then one night, when Blanch opens the gate for the car, Jane apparently rams the car into her paralyzing her sister. There’s certainly more than a bit of Sunset Boulevard here, from the decrepit old mansion to the aging stars playing demented versions of themselves. And like Gloria Swanson in that film, both stars here give tour de force performances with Davis earning an Oscar nomination for her work.

The plot doesn’t really get going until the present day, with the two old women in the house. Crawford is confined to a wheelchair in the upstairs bedroom, while Davis runs the household and must wait on Crawford. The tension between the two is palpable, and one has the sense that it’s been that way for a long time. The crisis comes when Crawford decides to sell the old mansion and have Davis put in some kind of institution because of her drinking and her obvious decline in mental stability. But before that can happen Davis launches into a horrifying campaign of psychological terrorism against Crawford until the final reveal makes sense some of it all. Watching as a young person one Saturday afternoon, I was transfixed by the two stars--though I had no idea who they were--and was particularly horrified by Davis’s actions. To my mind it was, and still is, more horrifying than any monster movie.

Robert Aldrich made the startling Kiss Me Deadly in 1955, but had his best run of pictures in the sixties with The Dirty Dozen and Flight of the Phoenix in addition to his two “horror” films with Bette Davis. Victor Buono, the unfortunate accompanist who was lured into aiding Davis’s Baby Jane comeback in the film, was mostly a television performer, most notably in the Batman series of the late sixties. This is the aspect of the film that sometimes earns the film the tag black comedy. And it is pretty funny watching Davis rehearse, and even funnier seeing Crawford’s reaction when she does. But little else in the film has much humor, and the film draws as well on Hitchcock’s Psycho as we watch the disintegration of Davis and her torture of Crawford, powerless to stop her. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is simply a magnificent film featuring two screen giants. And though it spawned a dozen copycat films shortly after, it still remains the most powerful and most original of the lot.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Story of Temple Drake (1933)

Director: Stephen Roberts                            Writer: Oliver H.P. Garrett
Film Score: Bernhard Kaun                          Cinematography: Karl Struss
Starring: Miriam Hopkins, William Gargan, Florence Eldridge and Irving Pichel

Based on his popular novel Sanctuary, published in 1931, this is a bit of Southern Gothic from William Faulkner. The Story of Temple Drake stars Miriam Hopkins as a young girl who likes to tease boys. But when her childhood sweetheart, William Gargan, wants to marry her she refuses because she knows she’ll only cause him heartache in the end. One night she leaves a party with a drunk college boy and they crash the car on a lonely country road. When they are found they are taken back to a ruined plantation house full of poor white trash. Bootlegger Irving Pichel is making liquor for his gangster client, Jack La Rue. Early the next morning La Rue kills the dimwitted boy who keeps spying on him and then rapes Hopkins. Unbelievably, that’s when the real horror starts. Apparently Faulkner was dissatisfied with the sales of his more literary novels and had the idea to write something sensational that would make a lot of money. He succeeded, as Sanctuary remains his best selling novel.

Miriam Hopkins, though a wonderful actress, seems a bit miscast here. She always seemed to have the upper hand in films like Trouble in Paradise, and seeing her as the victim is a bit hard to believe. Even so, she does a nice job and has some powerful moments. Her first love in the film, William Gargan, made dozens of films in the thirties and played the detective Ellery Queen in a series of pictures for Columbia in the forties. Jack La Rue was sort of a second string gangster, losing out roles to Paul Muni in Scarface and Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest. When the great Irving Pichel reports the murder he is instantly arrested and charged. Gargan is the public defender who pleads with him to tell the truth, but he refuses to testify against La Rue for fear of being killed in reprisal. Florence Eldridge plays Irving Pichel’s bitter wife, and does a fantastic job, a beautiful woman who has been beaten down.

The film is definitely pre-code, dealing with the theme of abduction and rape. In fact, "Shame" was the original title, not "Story." With Hopkins undressing early in the film and later being beaten by La Rue, it’s a pretty potent mix of sex and violence. In his fantastic book on the period, Pre-Code Hollywood, by Thomas Doherty, he tells how even screen gangster George Raft, then under contract with Paramount, refused to do the picture in the La Rue role, calling it, “screen suicide.” Had the film been more definitive--though I still think it’s clear--that Hopkins had no real way of escaping from La Rue, and had there been a scene or two showing her suffering from the forced prostitution, it probably would have been more satisfying. As it is, there’s a certain disappointment one feels at the end of the picture that’s hard to escape. It’s a short film, too, at seventy-five minutes, which makes sense. The Story of Temple Drake, for all it’s pre-code infamy, winds up feeling like an unfinished picture.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Director: Sergio Leone                                 Writers: Luciano Vincenzoni & Sergio Leone
Film Score: Ennio Morricone                        Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach and Rada Rassimov

This is the third of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the iconic civil war story of bandit Eli Wallach, mercenary Lee Van Cleef, and bounty hunter Clint Eastwood. The most interesting thing about the story is how little difference there is between the three characters. Their personalities are definitely different. Wallach is wild and unpredictable, Van Cleef is very tightly wound, and Eastwood is emotionless. But Leone’s point is ultimately the lack of distinction in the west and how the attempt to make those distinctions can lead to unfortunate results for those who attempt to find some order in a place where the man with the gun makes the rules. The demonstration of this concept is writ large, however, emphasized by the backdrop of the Civil War and the futility and carnage that resulted.

Wallach is a professional criminal, but more of a crazy, wild man who refuses to conform to society’s laws. Eastwood captures him in the desert, killing three men and turning Wallach in to the law to be hanged. But before the sentence can be carried out, suddenly Eastwood shoots him down and they both escape. After splitting the reward money the two do the same thing again in a different town. Meanwhile, Lee Van Cleef is searching for a man who has stolen a money box with two hundred thousand dollars in it from a robbery. He accepts payment from men who want him to find it, kills the men, then continues on his search. After Eastwood has had enough of Wallach, he turns him loose in the desert but Wallach makes it out alive and seeks revenge on Eastwood. It’s not until Wallach and Eastwood discover where the money is that all three men converge in the climax of the picture.

Leone’s westerns have absolutely nothing to do with genre conventions. They are stripped down character studies. Wallach is the evil man with nine lives, if not more. It seems as if he can never be killed, and always manages to escape. Van Cleef is just as amoral, but far more practical, calculating, making long range plans and being patient until the information he needs comes to him. As always, Eastwood’s character inhabits a sort of ethical no-man’s land. He kills the three other bounty hunters without a thought, and yet when he’s assisting in Wallach’s escapes he only shoots the hats off the townspeople. The three of them are ostensibly working together to get the money, but there seems to be little pretense about that and, much like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, we know that none of them will he happy sharing.

While Ennio Morricone’s music for Leone’s previous westerns was distinctive, his score for this film has passed into cultural memory it has become so recognizable. Leone himself takes his time with the story, as the restored version clocks in at three hours long. While the film is the last of the three he would make with Eastwood, it occupies the earliest place chronologically, and we see toward the end when Eastwood puts his coat over a dying soldier that he picks up the poncho that will be his trademark in the other two films. Some people have a difficult time with this because Lee Van Cleef was in For A Few Dollars More. But he was a completely different character in that film, and in fact was a last minute substitute for Charles Bronson. Is it the greatest western ever, as many claim? Not really, but it is a very well-made film. It has a bigger budget than the previous two, and has a more sprawling scope. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is without a doubt a milestone in cinema and has not only stood the test of time, but grows in distinction with every passing generation. And that’s what classics do.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Tootsie (1982)

Director: Sydney Pollack                              Writer: Larry Gelbart & Elaine May
Film Score: Dave Grusin                              Cinematography: Owen Roizman
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr & Dabney Coleman

Tootsie is one of the great films in the history of cinema. Another instance when everything came together in a perfect way, actors, director, screenplay, to create a film that defies all logic. Dustin Hoffman as a woman? You couldn’t get any more ridiculous than that, and yet it not only works, it’s brilliant. A large part of that success must go to the screenplay by Larry Gelbart, who had worked on the M*A*S*H television series for years, and Elaine May who would go on to adapt The Birdcage. The humor in the story is so genuine, so character driven, that it emerges naturally and that it makes it all the more enjoyable. There’s no physical humor either, which I absolutely love. All the humor comes from the situations, which winds up making Tootsie a fantastic and totally unique romantic comedy.

Dustin Hoffman plays a difficult to work with actor who is finding work impossible to come by because directors don’t want to work with him. Finally, in desperation, he auditions for a soap opera . . . as a woman. His screen test is actually quite moving and he gets the job. The only one who knows about the deception is his playwright roommate, Bill Murray in a terrific supporting role. Unfortunately he falls in love with one of the show’s stars, Jessica Lange, who becomes his closest “girlfriend.” Hoffman wants to use the money from the soap to finance the production of Murray’s play. He and Teri Garr, who he has fallen into an accidental relationship with, are going to star in the play. But when the production company picks up their option on him for another year, he can’t see any way out of working for the rest of his career as a woman or, more importantly, being able to have a “normal” relationship with Lange.

Another thing that makes the film work so well is that Hoffman plays it completely straight. There was a tradition of farcical cross-dressing roles at the time from the Tom Hanks-Peter Scolari sitcom Bosom Buddies all the way back to Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot. That would have ruined this film. Not only does the seriousness make his performance more believable within the film, but the supporting cast who buy into it don’t come off as dimwits. It’s an incredibly smart way to go. Director Sydney Pollack, in addition to his primary chores, takes on the small but crucial role of Hoffman’s agent and is magnificent. Jessica Lange is slightly ditzy, but makes it work as Hoffman’s love interest and took home an Oscar for her work. Dabney Coleman, however, is perfect as the demanding soap director who can’t shake the feeling that there’s something wrong with the female Hoffman.

Dave Grusin provides a nice score, early eighties, before the heavy synthesizer influence. Singing vocals on a couple of numbers is Stephen Bishop. The soundtrack is a good one, still riding the seventies sensibilities that made both musicians stars. In terms of Academy Award recognition, the film was given ten nominations, in all of the major categories except supporting actor and best actress--which, of course, would have been Hoffman. Apparently Hoffman and Pollack went round and round during the production and the result is well worth the effort. Tootsie is not only one of the great comedies of all time, it’s a brilliant film, and seemingly has not aged a bit. It is still as relevant as the day it was released. It’s worthy of inclusion on anyone’s top twenty list, and is certainly on mine

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Core (2003)

Director: Jon Amiel                                        Writer: Cooper Layne & John Rogers
Film Score: Christopher Young                        Cinematography: John Lindley
Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Bruce Greenwood and Stanley Tucci

I expected not to like The Core. It’s one of those star-studded disaster movies that usually winds up being a disaster itself. First of all, the premise is crazy. The core of planet Earth has been slowing down for reasons that cannot be explained . . . apparently. This is destroying all of the electromagnetic energy on the surface and the only way to restore the balance and keep the rotation going is to drill to the core of the Earth and set off a nuclear bomb. You can almost buy that, but the science-fiction inner-space ship that is designed to go through rock like it was butter is absolutely comical. With Hilary Swank manning the cockpit to save the planet from destruction one would think it would be difficult not to laugh. And yet . . . somehow . . . despite all the improbability . . . it works.

The opening of the film includes a scene like something out of Hitchcock’s The Birds, but the birds aren’t attacking humans, they’re dying. The change in the electromagnetic field is causing them to fly into buildings, windows, and buses, all with disastrous results. Add to that the near crash-landing of a space shuttle due to the faulty information from the altered electromagnetic field, and it’s clear there is a problem. Aaron Eckhart is the scientist who discovers the anomaly. Stanley Tucci is the snooty scientist who predicted the doomsday scenario. Delroy Lindo is the scientist who actually invented the technology to fly through rocks including the heat resistant metal Unobtanium that James Cameron stole for Avatar, Turkish actor Tchéky Karyo is the weapons expert, and Hilary Swank and Bruce Greenwood are the erstwhile shuttle pilots who are now driving to the center of the Earth. The government immediately begins a Manhattan-like project to build the ship, then sends the terranauts into the ground.

There are lots of good supporting stars as well, Alfre Woodard is the commander of mission control, and Richard Jenkins is the army Chief of Staff. As with all good disaster films, there is a tremendous rate of attrition for the stars. The further they go beneath the surface of the Earth, the more of them start dying. There are also plenty of opportunities for sacrifice for the greater good. It’s textbook all the way. Moments of panic and indecision are interspersed with moments of crisis and resolution. It has the requisite tension, the requisite suspense, and the requisite humor. And, of course, since I’m writing this ten years later, obviously the world was saved. Unfortunately Rome and San Francisco take a real beating, but the rest of the planet survives.

In The B List essay by Charles Taylor he makes some astute observations about the film. The first is that it is a return to what made these kinds of movies popular in the first place: an intimate relationship to the characters and a kind of claustrophobic tension that goes along with it. He also points out the relative lack of CGI in terms of moving the plot forward. The majority of the film takes place on the ship, in the cockpit and the other sections, and therefor the drama focuses on the characters and their problem solving. Also, the characters are actually pretty good. The only misstep in his analysis is when he undercuts his opinion by touting the merits of the 1976 remake of King Kong, which was a joke. Otherwise he makes a pretty good case for the merits of the film. Unlike most modern disasters of films, The Core is a disaster film that worth checking out.

Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974)

Director: John Hough                                     Writers: Leigh Chapman & Antonio Santean
Film Score: Jimmie Haskell                            Cinematography: Michael Margulies
Starring: Peter Fonda, Susan George, Adam Roarke and Vic Morrow

This is one of those films that enthralled me as a kid in the local movie house--they were actual theaters back then--like Sky Riders, which has held up remarkably well over the decades. Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, however . . . not so much. This is an exploitation film, pure and simple, with lots of sex, violence, and car chases. Even though it was a low-budget venture, it still has a nice quality to the print, and some descent production values. It also boasts some fine acting talent, especially in the smaller roles, and also has one of the great film endings of all time, foreshadowed by the opening shot in the credits. The film is also a terrific look back at the early seventies, nostalgic for those who lived it and historical for those who didn’t.

The film begins in Stockton, California, with Peter Fonda and Adam Roarke embarking on an ingenious grocery store heist. Roddy McDowall is the store manager, and his wife, Lynn Borden, and their daughter are being held hostage secure his compliance. Unfortunately for Fonda, he slept with Susan George the night before and she doesn’t like being a one-night stand. He finds her sitting in his car when he comes out and, rather than argue about it, Fonda takes her along on the getaway. Vic Morrow is the cop assigned to track down the trio, and Kenneth Tobey is the sheriff in charge. The chase begins as the criminals head south along the back roads toward Manteca, with Morrow taking their successful evasion as a personal affront, similar to what Smokey and the Bandit would do as farce a few years later. And the outlaws avoid their pursuers in pretty much the same way, with the cops making mistakes and spinning out or crashing.

It’s unfair to compare this to today’s chase films. Next to something like The Transporter this seems almost sedate. But that’s part of its charm. Despite the title, both Fonda and George seem very much in control of the situation. In fact, at one point Fonda pulls out what looks like a hundred-page copied report of escape routes and switch cars that was obviously prepared well ahead of time. And like the film Drive, there is a real need for the criminals to stop occasionally in order to create holes and breaks to go through. Non-stop action in real life, it would seem, is not the best way to elude capture. The weakest part of the film is easily the script. There’s almost nothing about it that’s original, save the X-rated threats that Fonda makes against George when he gets mad. Still, there’s nothing about it that is pointedly bad. In some ways, it is as natural and innocuous as the script for Two-Lane Blacktop.

Fonda and George are fine in their roles, though honestly it could have been any stars from the period and it would have been just as good, if not better. And can anyone imagine a star like Susan George working today without having her teeth fixed? One also wonders if rock star Steve Miller wasn’t inspired a little by the film when he wrote “Take The Money and Run” in 1976. The car chase doesn’t really get exciting until the end of the film. The really unique part of the story, which was based on the novel The Chase by Richard Unekis, is the surprise ending, and it does pack a wallop. I can remember my jaw dropping to the theater floor as a kid and barely being able to get up out of my seat at the end. Is that enough to make it a great film? No. But as a time capsule to the period--in any number of nostalgic ways--it sure is a fun film to watch again. I can’t say I would recommend Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry to everyone, but if you saw it way back when then it’s definitely worth another look.