Wednesday, May 4, 2016

"The Browning Version" (1951) Dir: Anthony Asquith



What I Remember:

I think my college girlfriend who loved British cinema turned me on to this one (along with "The Rocking Horse Winner”). There was much for me to relate to. The private school I went to in New York was based on one of these Southern English Public Schools depicted in the film. Episcopalian in foundation, and until I was in 10th grade (they called it “4th Form”) sexually segregated, my school was a real throwback. Also until 10th Grade, which for my class was 1969/1970, we wore jackets and ties every day, recited “The Lord’s Prayer” every day, and every day started with Chapel. In the maelstrom that was the ’60’s, this all felt to us like being educated in some archival museum, and much of the faculty belonged in one of the museum’s exhibits.

There were some great teachers at my school, some not so great, and some outright horrible. Some were nice, some cruel. There seemed to be no connection between how cruel the method and how effective it was. One of the nicest teachers at the school was the best I ever had. He taught Trig, and helped our entire class ace our Math SAT’s. There was another teacher who regularly nailed us with chalk, scolded and punished us brutally, and I learned nothing in his class except how to be a bully. So much for “Whiplash”. As a jazz music teacher myself, I found that film ridiculous, insulting and most of all, absurd.

“The Crock”, I recall, was the nickname for the main character in “the Browning Version”, and as portrayed by Michael Redgrave, he reminded me of some of those hated instructors from my youth. Dour and stodgy, he was universally detested by students and his wife. As a forced retirement approaches, he must come to grips with his legacy. Here is the most execrable of anti-heroes, and yet a young student sees him as a good teacher who simply needs to get in touch with his own humanity. 

My recollection is that this film is a moving tale of redemption, featuring a main character that you abhor. Risky stuff for 1951, and I think that’s why it is so special.

After re-watching:

“You see, my dear Hunter, she is really quite as much to be pitied as I am. We are both of us interesting subjects for your microscope.”- Andrew Crocker-Harris

PLOT SUMMARY:

School master Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave) is retiring from his job as Greek and Latin teacher at a proper English public school. The reasons given are ill health (his heart), but it also seems like the school would like him to leave. Added to this difficulty, he is being denied a pension from the school, because he does not qualify. He is disliked by faculty and student body alike, and seems to have no joy in his work or marriage. His wife, Millie (Jean Kent) is having an affair with a science teacher (Nigel Patrick), and makes no attempt to hide it. As his last day at the school approaches, a young student (Brian Smith) takes interest in him, and tries to revive the emotions for his work that evaporated over the years.


STORY/THEME

I guess I really didn’t recognize this kind of subtlety back in my early 20’s, but now it seems obvious. 
SPOILER ALERT!!!! Lord, how I hate that phrase, but sometimes it’s necessary. It won’t be a plot spoiler, but it’s so clear to me now that Crock is homosexual. 

In that era (mid 20th Century), you had three choices as a gay man:

  1. Live your life as an openly gay man, eschewing career opportunities, embracing life as a pariah.
  2. Live the straight life, marry a woman you cannot satisfy, be miserable and make her miserable.
  3. Join the clergy.

The film is based on a one-act play by the great writer Terrence Rattigan, who did eventually declare his homosexuality despite Britain’s harsh laws. Knowing that, the clarity of his message comes through when it did not so many years ago. Crocker-Harris chose number 2, and by this decision, became a heartless beast. 

In one of the most memorable scenes the film has to offer, he and Frank Hunter, who has been sleeping with Millie, have a heart to heart. Crocker-Harris describes “two kinds of love”, by which we are meant to infer platonic and carnal. He says that his wife wanted one, and he wanted the other. She is beautiful, and he is brilliant. Go ahead, show me a straight, smart dude that doesn’t want to have sex with a hot woman. Didn’t you guys ever see “Weird Science”? “Revenge of the Nerds”?

So maybe, “two kinds of love” is a thinly veiled reference to “gay” and “straight”. Considering the sexuality of the screenwriter, and also probably the director, this is not a stretch. 

Gay men forced to live a straight life are unhappy, and often do bad things. See Roy Cohn, Jerry Sandusky, J. Edgar Hoover, Dennis Hastert. Compared to these bastards, old Crocker-Harris’ crimes seem miniscule. His bad behavior is confined to not be nurturing to his students, using the strict schoolmaster veneer to hide his lack of passion for the work, his wife, his life.

It turns out that my thinking that the audience detests Crock throughout the film was totally off-base. Millie comes across as a harridan, and her willingness to hurt her husband as deeply and often as possible makes her positively villainous. She and the phony headmaster (played perfectly by Wilfred Hyde-White) are detestable, and about midway through the movie you begin to feel sympathy for Crocker-Harris.
That moment comes when young Taplow brings him a parting gift, the titular (Robert) “Browning Version” translation of “Agamemnon”, having discovered that Crocker-Harris had done his own translation of the classic Greek tragedy. Crock breaks down, showing the first true emotion for his character in the film, and it is stunning. 



Crocker-Harris does not really gain redemption, but what he does end up with is a moment of truth, a moment of self-awareness, one he shares with the student body at his farewell speech. He abruptly stops his prepared, pedantic recitation, and begins to go off his script. He says that the only thing he needs to say in farewell are three words. At this point you’re thinking they will be: “Go fuck yourselves”, “Where’s my pension?” or “So long, Slappy!”.

But what he says is, “I am sorry”. It is unexpected, and incredibly moving. 

FILMMAKING

Director Anthony Asquith was the son of a Prime Minister (H.H. Asquith) and the infamous, eccentric Margot Tennant. Apparently he was much more of a closeted type than the playwright Rattigan. However there was much speculation about “Puffin”’s proclivities, and these facts again lead me to my conclusion about the underlying story here. 
Another reason for Asquith’s repression was that his father, as Home Secretary, ordered the arrest of Oscar Wilde in 1895 for homosexuality, a crime in Victorian England. Asquith eventually directed a version of Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” in 1952, maybe as an apology of sorts. 

The film is not striking visually, but it really doesn’t have to be. It was shot at Pinewood studios, the exteriors being at the Sherborne School in Dorset. Everything looks right; Chapel, classroom, faculty residences, the sporting fields. 

It is in drawing out the riveting performances, especially Redgrave’s, that Asquith’s guidance is evident. Obviously there is some personal resonance and experience that Asquith could draw upon. Redgrave himself eventually admitted to “bisexuality” in an interview with his son who was helping him write an autobiography. We should be glad that he went both ways, since he fathered two of the screen’s finest actresses in Vanessa and Lynn. More on Redgrave later.

Asquith makes an interesting decision about the use of music. It brackets the film, but is not used at all during the body of the story. He is quoted as saying that he wanted the story to feel real, and that music would take that away. I feel like it was the right choice. For me, far too often music is used to amplify emotions felt by the characters, and that feels manipulative. I prefer when music is used to provide a mood, whether it be meditative, ominous, anxious or joyous. Also music used to evoke a time and place is effective, as in “Barry Lyndon”, or “O Brother Where Art Thou?”. Oh yeah…those Goddamned pipes in “Tunes of Glory”.

PEFORMANCES

“The Browning Version” is not only dominated by Michael Redgrave, it is overpowered. This may be one of the screen’s greatest performances. There were moments when I wanted to stop the film and just rewind to watch his expressions. Superficially it seems one-note, but there is so much going on under the surface. He is so heinous in the classroom, so pedantic and petty. He is terribly withdrawn socially, and embodies the awkwardness of someone who is uncomfortable everywhere. When his big breakdown comes, he is folded over and you don’t even see him crying until he is drying the tears and trying to collect himself. The sudden crack in his stoic veneer is shocking and poignant. 

The other performances are over-shadowed to say the least. Jean Kent does a fine job of going from love-struck aging ingenue to harpy to ass-kisser. It could have come off as hammy, but she keeps everything in check just enough. Nigel Patrick as the sympathetic cuckolder Hunter is a perfect foil for our lead. Worth mentioning is a very strong turn by young Brian Smith as Taplow; all wide-eyed and open-minded.

I enjoyed the great Wilfred Hyde-White portrayal of the glad-handing headmaster. I believe that Peter Cook’s hilarious turn as a landed aristocrat in one of the episodes in “Bedazzled” is totally based on this character. 

ON SECOND LOOK

What seemed to my memory as a film about teaching methods and personality disorders was completely upended by the true theme of this movie; the hazards of disavowing your own true self, and the collateral damage that can do to your family, friends and career. 
The personal struggles of playwright, director and lead actor help make this a powerful drama, far ahead of its time. 

Of course, now I am wondering of one of those sons-of-bitches who made my school years miserable were actually unhappy, closeted gay men. It makes me forget about the rage I had, and feel sorry for them.


On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭

Monday, February 1, 2016

“North Dallas Forty” (1979) Dir- Ted Kotcheff



What I Remember:

Yes, it’s almost Superbowl 50 time. Panthers/Broncos. Cam/Peyton. As usual, my Sunday night gig will not allow me to watch the game, as I play to an empty room for the 23rd straight year. Oh boo-hoo, you say. Tons of musicians would LOVE to have a steady Sunday night gig for 23 years. True, but it really would have been nice to have seen the Elway helicopter, the Titans’ near TD, and many other great moments, especially any one that entails the Patriots losing. 
I also missed some of the best Game 7’s of the World Series. Sigh.

Oh yeah…this film. I remember seeing it in the theater. We grew up a football family in New York City. Both sides of my divorced family were involved with the pro franchises, my Dad’s with the Jets and my Mom’s with the Giants. We had season tickets to both teams, and I know the game extremely well for someone who has never played it. 

I also got a chance to meet a lot of the players, in particular the Giants of the ’60’s, because they came to my step-father’s restaurant, “Kenny’s Steak Pub” on Sunday nights after the home games. I was a pre-teen. I did not have a steady Sunday night gig yet. 

Yes the Giants loved their steaks, but I think they were there to do a LOT of self-medicating in the form of alcohol. Even as a child, I knew this was not the clean-cut all-american portrait we were being fed of pro athletes at the time. These guys were tough, funny, loud, angry and often in a lot of pain. God knows what they were like as the hours went on and the liquor flowed. By then I was home trying to cram 3 days of homework into 2 hours.

That image of NFL athletes I saw firsthand had not really been shared on film, with the exception of “Semi-Tough” from a few years before “North Dallas Forty”. The great Dan Jenkins, who wrote “Semi-Tough” (a superb comedy) helped lift the curtain that hid the wilder side of these guys. In my memory, “North Dallas Forty”, based on a best-seller by ex-pro Peter Gent, tore the curtain down. 

The movie featured some very memorable performances, by Nolte, of course, along with singer Mac Davis as a Don Meredith type, and G.D. Spradlin,  playing a head coach in the mold of Tom Landry. It was funny, moving, frustrating, and above all iconoclastic, as the anti gung-ho element ran smack dab into the old school military mindset. 

After re-watching: 

“Hell, Poot, we’re all whores. Might as well be the best!” Seth Maxwell to Phil Elliott

PLOT SUMMARY

Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte) is a Pro football receiver nearing the end of his career. He is good friends with his quarterback, Seth Maxwell (Mac Davis), and both spend the time between games struggling with various injuries, womanizing and drinking. Maxwell is a star, so he gets away with it. Elliott is more of a role player, and because of his attitude not only is his starting job in jeopardy, but so is his career.

STORY/THEME

Football is a very violent game. People get hurt. A lot. Like ALL the time. And they play hurt. Sometimes they hurt their heads. Then they get concussions. Then Will Smith becomes an African doctor. Then he yells at NFL officials. Then he doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar because everyone in Hollywood is a racist. Wait, I’m really confused. I’ve been locked in my house for 4 straight days thanks to a massive blizzard. Hold on, let me take a shot of whiskey.

Let’s start again. NOW I feel like a writer. Or a pro football player. 

Honestly, this film is a bit confused as to what it is trying to say. The main conflict seems to be that the coach feels that Elliott doesn’t have enough selflessness for the team, as in “there’s no “I” in team”. And it’s true. At one crucial point in a game, he silently mouths “drop it” when his replacement is trying for a touchdown reception. At the same time, he risks his health consistently in order to play. He takes the cortisone shots, pops the pills, shows up incredibly early for taping and conditioning. 
So he is selfish or he isn’t? 

Elliott complains that it’s a business, not a game, which of course is true. But if he was truly the cynic he purports to be, then that wouldn’t bother him. At one point, Maxwell chides him for not playing “the game, and I don’t just mean the game of football”. All he really has to do is act all gung-ho, make believe that he cares, and all will be well. It’s obvious that he is a talented receiver. It’s also obvious that he can’t bullshit.

I read the book after seeing the movie back then, and I remember thinking that the book was a lot more like a fictionalized version of Jim Bouton’s classic “Ball Four”. Gent was trying to show the wild side of football, the violence, the insanity, the hypocrisy, the drugs and alcohol. He was also trying to show how none of this affected his desire to succeed. 

This film, on the other hand, seems to be a bit more preachy. It says, “Be aware that when you are rooting for a player to get knocked out of the game, that these are REAL PEOPLE whose livelihoods depend on this.” It also says, “These are animals who live a brutal existence and have the intellect of a grizzly bear”. Now you know why I am confused. It’s not the cabin fever, it’s this damn movie! 

So if there is a point, it’s something like this: The owners and coaches want the players to put team first, even at the sacrifice of their own careers. But in truth, the players need to look after themselves, because they can be jettisoned at any time. The players that are most successful are the ones that serve that duality best, by lying, cheating and above all, winning!

FILMMAKING

Canadian director Ted Kotcheff got his big break with a film called “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz”, a film based on Mordechai Richler’s coming of age book about a young Canadian Jew. Duddy was the first big role for Richard Dreyfuss after his breakthrough in “American Graffiti”. Kotcheff made a name for himself with “Kravitz”, then followed up with two not very memorable comedies, “Fun With Dick and Jane”, and “Who is Killing The Great Chefs of Europe”, both starring George Segal. 

To say that his next feature, “North Dallas Forty” was a departure from his earlier material would be an understatement. Now that I know that Kotcheff is Canadian, it makes an early scene in the film have a bit more punch. Dabney Coleman plays the owner’s brother, Emmett. He is in the process of showing Elliott this year’s first round draft pick’s contract (why they’ve had the draft before the season ends, I can’t tell you), and he takes great pleasure in informing Phil that the pick is a receiver. Then Emmett says, “Well that means that next year you’ll be….well you don’t know how to speak Canadian, do you?” Then he snickers. The CFL was considered to be purgatory for an NFL player on the downside of his career.

Despite the fact that Canadians just don’t get our American game of football, Kotcheff does get some things right. The locker room prep for the big game is a wonderful pastiche of images, conversations and camera angles. Guys sleeping on top of lockers, passed out in their lockers, taking craps, yelling at each other, psyching each other up, praying. It’s chaos, and it’s a place we will never ever be, unless we play in the NFL. I believe that it is probably pretty accurate to the era, since Gent was a player, and there are a few players in the cast, including Oakland Raiders defensive lineman John Matuszak (aka “the Tooz"). Nowadays locker rooms are these country club, spacious oases of calm. Or at least that’s how they look when the cameras go in. 

The film opens with a wonderful cross-cutting segment, showing Phil trying to get out of bed, his apartment littered with empty beer cans and pill bottles. He is dealing with the pain from injuries incurred during yesterday’s game. As he grabs his shoulder, you get a cut to a flashback of him getting thrown to the ground on that shoulder in the game. You see his nose bleeding and cut to him getting forearmed in the face by a tackler. It is very well done.

The score is very dated sounding, lots of ’70’s wah-wah guitars and disco grooves. Speaking of dated, the film actually ends on a freeze frame!  How very ’70’s. After those hilarious endings to the “Police Squad” TV shows, I can’t ever watch a freeze frame ending without cracking up. Remember, at the end of a show they’d say something funny, and then; freeze frame!, and the theme music would come up while the credits rolled. Only the shot was still live, so they’d be trying to hold their poses. In one of the endings, coffee keeps pouring….all over the counter and floor while they hold the pose. Hilarious!

PERFORMANCES

As I said earlier, Nolte, Davis and Spradlin are all very solid and believable. Nolte does his grunting deal, and has a couple of well delivered monologues, particularly at the end. The writing is a hot mess, though; I’m not really sure what point he’s trying to make. He rambles on about his “ability” being the only important thing, but we have determined that that is not true. So the punch of that final delivery is muted by the audience’s confusion as to his point. In any case, he is doing his best with the material. 
But his body….not an NFL body, even back then. Not even close. There is a great scene in the weight room-- everybody is pumping iron, while Phil sits at a weight machine smoking a cigarette, so that’s supposed to show how little he cares about being in shape. 

Nor is Mac Davis in any kind of football shape. That being said, he was probably the discovery of this movie. Known for being a kind of Texas version of James Taylor at the time, he got his start as a songwriter, having penned one of Elvis’ best songs, “A Little Less Conversation”. He had a TV variety show for a couple of seasons, and then was brilliantly cast as Maxwell, a blatant satire of Don Meredith. He is funny, obscene and just great. His acting career did not go very far, however. 

Spradlin does a great job, but basically is in a one-note role. One of his best scenes comes when he is looking at his computer, and you think he is reading stats. He just shakes his head, never looking at Phil. Then suddenly he says, “That’s it. It’s your attitude!” He is so completely humorless, duplicitous and manipulative. 

The rest of the cast includes Bo Svenson, who is very believable as Joe Bob, an incredibly violent and infantile offensive lineman. Charles Durning has a sizable role as a strident assistant coach, and he is amazing at being both comic and loathsome at the same time. 
As for the Tooz….well, he is fine until he has a big important monologue after The Bulls lose the big game. While he is chewing out Durning, his anger comes through well enough, but his delivery is horribly amateurish, pausing between lines like he’s trying to remember what’s next. It’s awkward as hell. 


The weakest roles and performances are for and by the two women, especially Dayle Haddon as Phil’s love interest Charlotte. Haddon has that late ’70’s look: super perm, black hair, blue eyes. She is striking all right, but she can’t act. She was an SI swimsuit model, and, like Kotcheff, is from Montreal. Great pains were taken to have everyone who is from Texas sound like they are Texans: Nolte, Davis, Spradlin and Coleman are all pitch perfect. Haddon, on the other hand, sounds like she is from Ohio. Charlotte is a huge role in the book… there is an entire sub-plot with her ex-husband stalking and eventually killing her. This film is already overloaded and confused enough, and with Haddon’s obvious shortcomings, probably a good idea to not go there.

The other woman, Joanne, played by Savannah Smith Boucher, sounds a little more like what you’d expect (she is from Louisiana) but that doesn’t matter when you are just a bad actress. 
Lynn Stalmaster- what the hell were you thinking?

ON SECOND LOOK

Man , this movie is dated. You would think that with all the news out there about athletes sacrificing their bodies for the game (think of Matt Harvey and Steven Strassburg), and suicides from post-concussion syndrome, that so much of this would still feel fresh and pertinent. But all of the trappings: film style, score, editing—they make the thing feel like you are watching a bad made for TV movie. What would have helped this become a classic?
  1. A clearer message
  2. Better roles for and performances by the women
  3. An American director with a sports film background like Ron Shelton or Michael Ritchie. 

On First Look: ✭✭      On Second Look: ✭✭

Saturday, January 23, 2016

"Cutter's Way" (aka "Cutter and Bone") (1981) Dir- Ivan Passer

What I Remember:

My first viewing of "Cutter's Way" was on cable, probably HBO. I missed it in the theaters. Michael, a close friend from film school, recommended it to me, contending that it was a masterpiece. The original name, “Cutter and Bone” was jettisoned because the producers thought it would make the film sound like a hospital comedy. It does, actually. 
I think of three things when I think of "Cutter's Way": 
1) It was the last gasp of the '60's. This film came out at the dawn of the Reagan era, and it's message of "don't trust the upper crust" was the last thing America wanted to hear at the time. Considering the huge debacle known as "trickle down economics", maybe they should have been listening! Anyway, don't you think it was pretty clear what the Reaganomics gang meant when they used the word "trickle"? If they'd called it "cascade down" or "torrent down" maybe we could be excused for falling for it. 
2) For our two leads, these are defining roles, albeit in different ways. For John Heard, Cutter was the role of his career. Nothing else in his oeuvre approached this performance and character. For Jeff Bridges, it was the breakout role, the first for which he could be considered a serious actor, and the beginning of a long, successful run. 
3) In a way, the film borrowed from the Don Quixote/Sancho Panza trope. This time, El Don is a crippled, alcoholic war veteran, and Sancho his handsome wastoid of a best bud. Quixote tilts at windmills (millionaires), Panza warns him of the dangers. It's all very valiant, and even more ill-advised.
The film is not only a great character study (and we can throw in Lisa Eichhorn's Mo as a third very moving portrayal), but a fine detective story. When I saw "The Big Lebowski" the first time, I wondered if the Coen's were thinking of Bridges as Bone when they cast him in the title role. He bumbles through both films in such different ways, one tragic the other comic, yet the left coast burnout connection is unmistakeable. 
I loved this movie, and I can't wait to see it again. 

After re-watching:

"I’m like your leg. Your leg? Sending messages to your brain, and there’s nothing there anymore.” Mo Cutter

PLOT SUMMARY

Alex Cutter (John Heard) is a disabled Vietnam War Veteran who has lost an eye, a leg, and half an arm. He drinks heavily, and his smart-ass demeanor gets him into trouble regularly. His best friend, Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) is a handsome, uncommitted sort, who witnesses a man in an expensive car drop the dead body of a young woman into a dumpster. He identifies the killer to Cutter when he sees him in a parade the next day, and Cutter realizes that the man is J.J. Cord, local oil tycoon. Cutter becomes obsessed with outing Cord, while Bone refuses to name him to the police. When the victim’s sister (Ann Dusenberry) gets involved, she and Cutter hatch a plan to blackmail Cord. Cutter’s depressed wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), disapproves of the scheme, and the mutual attraction between her and Bone complicate the situation. 

STORY/THEME

Before I go any further, let me simply say that “Cutter’s Way” is the reason I’m doing this blog. No, not the inspiration for it, I have already made that clear in my first entry all those years ago. What I mean, is that I got to re-watch a movie that I loved, and it was still a great experience over 30 years later. Also, by writing about it, I hopefully will get a few of my readers who haven't seen it to go find this thing and check it out. 

Yes, I was correct in saying that the movie represents kind of a dying gasp of anti-establishment sentiments in a decade that would do it’s best to crush that kind of thinking. I was also right in remembering how fine the performances are. And arguably the whole Don Quixote deal was pretty on target.
I was incorrect about a few things however. It’s not much of a whodunit, and Bridges’ character is not a burnout at all. He is more of a waste of space than a wastoid. He’s a guy who uses his looks to 1) screw women with money, and 2) hold down a part-time job selling sailboats at a marina. 

The contrast between Cutter and Bone is at the heart of the movie. One is deformed but brilliant and somehow still idealistic; the other is virile, slow-witted and detached. Cutter needs a cause; his life has been destroyed by a war that nobody believed in. Bone wants to run away from confrontation of any sort. In a way, they are a small but accurate cross-section of that generation. Then there's Mo, the woman whom both love, but who has become collateral damage. You don’t need a flashback to understand the history there. This triangle started long before the movie starts, and probably long before the war.

Despite the wordiness of the script, much goes unexplained or at most subtly implied. It takes almost until the climax to understand what the connection is between Bone’s boss George and Alex, and why George feels responsible for him. The fact that George works for J.J. Cord makes the entire film insular. How is it that Bone doesn’t know who Cord is when Cutter reveals him at the parade? We are led to believe that Bone just doesn’t give a shit, and that falls nicely into our theme. 

Give a shit— and you get hurt. Don’t give a shit-- and your hair stays perfectly unmussed. Some of us went to jail protesting the war. Others just got high and skipped school. So——were you a Cutter? Or were you a Bone? 



FILMMAKING

Part of the Czech New Wave movement in the ’60’s, Ivan Passer co-wrote two of Milos Forman’s hugely successful early works, “Loves of a Blonde” and “Fireman’s Ball”. There’s no way that you would think that he could handle this material having seen that work. Apparently his work directing Czech new wave classic “Intimate Lighting” was the reason UA and producer Paul Gurian chose him. Sadly for Passer and “Cutter’s Way”, the UA people in charge left the company for Fox, and the new executives in charge didn’t like the movie. When it premiered, NY Times critic Vincent Canby panned it, and the studio almost buried it. Yet one week later, Time Magazine’s Richard Schickel and Newsweek’s David Ansen both raved about it, so it had a new life. 

Passer gets the atmosphere of Santa Barbara and that Central Coast feel just right. There is a juxtaposition of big money and hippie bohemia that makes it the prefect setting for this story. As I said earlier, he also gets career defining performances out of his leads. 
Jeffrey Alan Fiskin wrote the script, which has so many memorable lines and exchanges that you can’t keep count. Cutter’s commentary during the parade is classic in itself, as he sexualizes even the most wholesome of cheerleaders, and generally leads the league in snark per second.
There are wonderful moments, like when the victim’s sister Valerie goes boating with Bone in an effort to get him to commit to fingering Cord. When he refuses to commit, they dock, she jumps out of the boat, and Bone offers her a lift. She turns him down and says that she’ll hitchhike instead. Ouch! Thank you, Bone. I’d much rather be raped and killed and dumped in a dumpster like my sister than get in your car. 

A weird moment occurs when, after a devastating tragedy, George, Cutter and Bone all go to a polo match. Huh? When Cutter goes manic after seeing Cord there on his pony, the scene makes a bit more sense. 

Photography was by Jordan Cronenweth, who bracketed this film with work on Ken Russell’s “Altered States” and Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”. Those two films are probably as iconic for visuals as anything in the past 50 years, so that is quite a resume. “Cutter’s Way” will not make anyone forget about either, but has it’s moments, particularly some of the soft focus shots of Mo, and the sailing sequence. He also makes a big deal about Bone’s bluer than blue eyes, and Cord’s sunglasses. Along with Cutter’s eyepatch, there is definitely a theme going on here.

The music by Jack Nitzche is very ’70’s, and very similar to his score for Forman’s masterpiece “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”, minus the Indian tom toms. The main instrument is a “Glass Harmonica” whatever the hell that is. It sounds like a Theramin and a Saw had an out of tune baby. I think it’s like an instrument made out of the same principle as when you run your finger around the edge of a glass and it makes that “whoo” sound. It’s quite unsettling, and it works well with the story. I also loved the use of incidental music at the climax, when Cutter and Bone have crashed Cord’s party. There is a Flamenco duo in the house, and a Mariachi band on the patio. As the action goes back and forth, the changing music reflects the tension. 

PERFORMANCES

What more can I say about John Heard in this film? It is a powerhouse performance, one that takes what Jon Voight did in “Coming Home” and ups the ante. Watch this film, then watch Tom Cruise in “Born in the USA” and then tell me who did a better job. His voice is raspy, his delivery ranges from Popeye’s snide comments sotto voce to the screaming mania of Nicholson in “The Shining”. His physical demeanor is astounding; how he races around with a prosthetic induced limp is nothing short of miraculous. If this film were released today, he’d be a lock for an Oscar nomination. 
The role was intended for Dustin Hoffman, but he had timing conflicts. Did “Cutter’s Way” catapult Heard into Hoffmanesque leading man status?  Hardly. He worked with a lot of top directors; Scorcese, Penny Marshall, Ridley Scott, Robert Redford and many more. He has 171 credits to date on IMDB, but he never became a household name. Maybe he should have changed his name to like J. Matthew Heard, then we wouldn’t confuse him with John Hurt.

As for Bridges, he definitely steps aside in the film to let Heard shine. He does ‘diffident’ farely well, and I guess he looks hunky in a Californish way- surfer dude/chick magnet. You certainly wouldn’t know from this film which of the two would go on to be the bigger star. That being said, he is spot on for the character, and shows flashes of what would later be a more developed artistic talent.

The really interesting supporting turn is from Eichhorn, who plays Mo Cutter as a depressed alcoholic struggling with her love and loyalty to her wounded husband. She has a nasality to her voice, which amplifies the pain and silent suffering she is going through. The scene where she gives in to Bone’s advances is particularly heartbreaking; you can tell she is being pleasured, but her face reflects the pain her betrayal is causing her. She is either laughing, crying or both at the same time. I also loved a moment earlier in the film when she and Bone have been drinking out of a vodka bottle, and Mo reaches out for what looks like Bone’s hand. He goes to hold it, but her smile recedes and she simply says, “Bottle”. It is a chilling moment for sure, and you know there is no solace Bone can give her for her predicament.

ON SECOND LOOK


No way this shouldn’t be considered a classic of American Cinema. It is the first movie I would put on that list of “The Greatest Movies You’ve Never Seen”. From opening to climax it is pitch perfect, and the performances, script and theme are as good as it gets. Call it what you want, “Cutter’s Way” is a masterpiece, just like my friend Michael said.

On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭

Monday, October 26, 2015

"Frequency" (2000) Dir: Gregory Hoblit



What I remember:

With my beloved New York Mets returning to the World Series for the first time in 15 years (since this movie was in theaters), I feel it's appropriate and timely to bring this film back for reconsideration. 

I think I caught this on HBO or whatever a year or so after it’s release. Of course, had I known that the MacGuffin was the 1969 World Series, then I would have probably gone to the premier. I don’t remember it being much of a hit. From the outside it seemed like another of those cheesy pseudo-scifi jobs, like much of the UFO films of that era. However, upon watching, I found it extremely clever, and more than a little heart-string pulling. 

Many of my generation were turned on to baseball by our Dads, and I am no exception. The fact that we were a broken home, meant that any activity we did together was treasured by me. Some of my earliest memories were about sports; going with Dad to Rutgers football, singing the songs we used to sing (Vive la MORE, or was it Vive l’amour- now I am not sure, but I always assumed it was about scoring more points since we sang it after a touchdown). There was also one time he took me to the Polo Grounds to see the 1962 New York National League expansion team, the Metropolitans. I was 7 years old. I remember that you entered on the top level and walked down to your seats. I also remember it being the greenest place I’d ever seen. Green grass, green stands, green poles, green seats. 

New York was Yankee crazy in those days of Mantle, Maris, Ford and Stottlemyre. For some reason, I always liked the underdog, and the Mets woeful play appealed to me, maybe because I, too, sucked at sports. This all changed in 1969, when the Miracle Mets took over baseball. New York went Mets crazy, and I finally had a winner to root for.

Right; we were talking about movies. Well, that wasn’t as much of a digression as you’d think. Much of this film’s plot hinges on a man’s reconnection to his father whom he lost when he was very young. It also hinges on a quite absurd phenomenon, and, oh yes, a very miraculous World Series. I do recall enjoying this film a lot. It was densely plotted, and fairly action packed. Let’s see if the absurdities don’t come back to haunt it, as I time travel back to (sing it like Conan) the year 2000.

AFTER RE-WATCHING

 "Ya'know the past is a funny thing, we all got skeletons in closet and ya never when one is gonna pop up and bite ya in the ass.” -John Sullivan 

PLOT SUMMARY
John Sullivan, a NYC policeman (Jim Caviezel) somehow reconnects with his fireman dad, Frank (Dennis Quaid) using an old ham radio. The twist is that Dad is dead, having been killed in a fire doing something heroic 30 years prior when John was but a child. The sonic time travel is assisted by an extremely powerful Aurora Borealis. When the son (now a grown man) figures out that he is in touch with the past, he tries to warn his Dad about the fire, to maybe change history. His father is saved, but the history change causes a series of events that include his mother, Julia (Elizabeth Mitchell) getting murdered by a serial killer. So now, the job is for the son and father to catch the killer, saving not only the mother but also an additional 7 women killed by the villain.

STORY/THEME

Ahhhh…Time travel movies. It is such a difficult row to hoe. I mean, no problem going to the future, but yikes—when you go to the past, and do anything, well, devastation can occur. Let’s say you’re a fireman, and your son 30 years hence, by some miracle, is able to communicate with you and warn you that you are going to die tomorrow if you go the wrong way to rescue someone in a burning warehouse. That next night you go to the hospital to visit your wife, a nurse, who ends up saving a man’s life because she catches a doctor giving the man a second dosage of a strong medication. Then that man lives, and ends up killing a whole bunch of nurses to show his gratitude. One of those nurses is your wife. 
Now hold on, you say, that’s just the tip of the iceberg! What about the so-called "Butterfly Effect"? I mean, maybe one of THOSE saved nurses saves a man’s life who might end up inventing cold fusion, or the doctor who would have had his license revoked after killing the bad guy, stays practicing and saves the life of an FBI guy who manages to uncover a plot to fly planes into the World Trade Center….

What I am saying is that, if you admit that changing history is going to affect a few things, then you must admit that it would probably change a boatload of things, possibly everything! What I am also saying is, you can’t watch one of these change history jobs and not be in full possession of your Suspension of Disbelief (SOD) pill. That’s the pill you take to deal with a serious case of holy plot-line. 

In actuality, the “Butterfly Effect” deal was not my strongest bone of contention with “Frequency”. It is the fact that the way our two heroes communicate is via a ham radio whose signals bounce off of a clearly visible Aurora Borealis in Bayside, Queens. Let’s set aside the fact that there is nothing scientific in the LEAST about an atmospheric illusion having an effect on the time/space continuum. Let’s just deal, shall we, with the improbability of even seeing the Aurora Borealis in New York City.  Bayside may be the most northern point of Queens county, but it is a damn sight too southern to be anywhere close to seeing the Northern Lights. I was there in New York in 1969, and lemme tell ya….if you could see the Northern Lights, then the Mets in the World Series might have been the second most popular topic of conversation.  Meanwhile, in “Frequency”, it seems like the old AB is flashing brighter than the Great White Way! Why, you’d half expect it to have a sign flashing “Tonight’s lights brought to you by Rheingold Beer”. 

One other problem for me is that they (father and son) are both traveling through their respective time periods at the same rate. Why, tell me, when John says we’ll talk tomorrow, is it actually the following day in 1969 the next time they talk? Why would it not just be tomorrow in the present but still the same day in the past? 

That being said, like Rian Johnson’s very cool time travel flick “Looper”,  a medium size dosage of the SOD pill does this movie just fine, because it is a fun little thriller, with lots of cute moments and some really creative plot turns. In fact, I believe “Looper” borrowed one very sweet effect from “Frequency”, but I will leave that to you to discover since it is a pretty big spoiler. 

Is there profundity here? No, it’s not profound, even a bit. The deepest message one gets is—wait for it;  we love our family. 

Oh, and that being a baseball fan could save your life! 

FILMMAKING

The director of this little number was a man named Gregory Hoblit, and I am sorry to say that I have not seen anything else that he has made. His films consistently rate between 6.2 and 7.8 on the Tomatometer, so mediocrity is apparently his norm. Most of Hoblit's career has been TV direction, and almost all have been either police procedurals or thrillers. 
"Frequency" can fall into both categories in a way, since the tracking of the serial killer is a major part of its engine. Since the film's plot is so dense, what falls upon Hoblit is the intensity of the action scenes, and then whatever he can do creatively with the camera and cutting. Also, it fell upon him and DP Alar Kivilo to do something interesting and convincing with the history change moments, particularly the first one, when Frank beats the warehouse fire.
Those scenes do seem to be a bit forced, but to their credit, they are done differently each time. The first is a classic glass falling in slow motion, intercut with possible new history being made. Memories are obviously being changed, and the whole thing is a tad heavy-handed. For some reason, when the change involves his mother being eradicated, the montage of images from his life being added or eradicated just works better, possibly because you're not sure what's happening. There is no question it's done more subtly. 
There's another scene, right after the ripple that saves Frank, where he finally gets to teach John how to ride a bike, and the camera does a crane shot, while the boy and his father do circles, dancing with their shadows and multiple versions with their multiple shadows. Hey, it's as close to artistic as a movie like this gets, and I really appreciated it.

One really bad moment is early in the film, when Frank and Julia are doing some horseplay/pda stuff in the kitchen, and there’s a shot of young John and best bud Gordo watching them with big smiles. No. Most 7 year olds would be totally disgusted at seeing their parents do this sort of stuff. The proper reaction would be for John to yell “EWWWWW”.



Musically, Michael Kaman's score is exactly what you'd expect in a movie like this. Maybe just a bit less would have helped you feel like things were more realistic, but who am I kidding. That's not gonna happen with this movie.

One shout out to the make-up department is needed. I thought the aged versions of everyone were very true to what they would look like, especially Andre Braugher's Satch character (more on him in a bit).

PERFORMANCES

Let's start with the two leads. I've never been a huge Dennis Quaid fan, and this film didn't really change my mind. He does a good job with the affable, somewhat frenetic hero. That's his job here, but I think a better actor would have played the meeting with his grown son much more powerfully, kind of the way Kathleen Turner does when she talks to her Grandmother on the phone in "Peggy Sue Got Married". The same can be said about Jim Caviezel, whose character is more dour (having lost both of his parents and his girlfriend during the film). His response to the realization that he is talking to his Dad, well it's just not what you need to strengthen the emotional punch.

The one actor who does a great job at realizing his part is Braugher, who is simply brilliant. He plays John’s boss in NYPD Homicide (typecast, much?), and is also a family friend. One scene that was exactly as I remembered it, was the part where Satch is talking to Julia, explaining exactly why Frank is the prime suspect in the serial killings (yes, it goes there). Frank has already told Satch about the conversations, and that he and the grown up John have figured out who the killer is. Of course Satch thinks that Frank has gone insane. For proof that he has knowledge of the future, Frank describes play for play how the Mets will get a key couple of runs in the game that starts later. As Satch is briefing Julia, this part of the game starts to happen on a nearby TV. His expression goes from sour and serious to delighted as the game unfolds in the precise manner which Frank described. Much of it is with his back to the camera, facing the TV. As he realizes that Frank is a) not insane and b) not the killer, he turns back to Julie with this bigger and bigger smile on his face. 

As for the other players, Noah Emmerich, whose brother Toby wrote the script (and also the script for “The Butterfly Effect”) plays the grown up Gordo. He’s a bit dopey, and quite believable. He’s great in the current TV series “The Americans”. Do you think naming him Gordo was a shout out to Quaid’s first real breakthrough role as Gordon “Gordo” Cooper in “The Right Stuff”? 

Here’s a bit of trivia: Sharp eyes will see that adult Gordo's son, Gordo Jr. is played by a prepubescent Michael Cera! 

ON SECOND LOOK

Your question to me might be, “Well, Wayne. Did you choke down the SOD pill, and did it help you enjoy this movie as much as the first time you watched?” 
Answer: I tried. I really did. But I guess a combination of mediocre acting and lots of time travel issues did manage to take this film down a notch for me. It is one hell of a plot, maybe even more dense than I recalled. It is well paced, and the action and chase scenes work quite well. I think a tweak here or there with the time stuff, and maybe casting some really great actors might have made this a classic. Instead, it’s a clever, fun movie, and a nice diversion if you are in the mood for something like that. If you want to watch a great film about fathers and sons and baseball, then go see “Field of Dreams”, or better yet, read the book it was based on, “Shoeless Joe”.

Last but not least, let me just add…..LET’S GO METS!

On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭

Monday, August 3, 2015

"The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" (2004) Dir- Wes Anderson


I didn't get it.

What I remember:

I have a strange relationship with Wes Anderson. I feel like I should like his films. Yet for some reason I generally can't stand them. They're just so damned precious, you know? Sure, they all have a bit of an edge, yet I can't help but think to myself, "where's the beef?" It feels like every punch is pulled, every kiss is on the cheek, and even when the stakes are high on paper, they seem inconsequential on screen. 
Anderson's humor is supposed to be one of his signature qualities, and I know a lot of people enjoy it. For me, the jokes are all telegraphed: I know the punch lines before they are delivered. I particularly felt this way when watching "The Royal Tennenbaums". I remember thinking that when “The Life Aquatic” was released, that surely Bill Murray in the lead role would be the antidote to these falling flat gags. I mean, when has Bill Murray not been funny? As I recall, in this film.

So here's the question; is it a hip diffidence on display, or just everything being held at arm's length? Is it dry, urbane wit or just bad comic timing? Is it stiff-upper-lip WASPy cool, or just an inability to convey real emotion?

Yes, I'm aware that was three questions. You are very good at counting. 

All righty then, the real question becomes; is Wes Anderson's genius just beyond my appreciation, or did "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" suck Jaguar Shark balls? Let's watch it again and get the answer.

After re-watching:

I know, honey. Look at the map. We go your way, that's about four inches. We go my way, it's an inch and a half. You wanna pay for the extra gas? -Steve Zissou

PLOT SUMMARY:

Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is a Jacques Cousteau type television/film personality who specializes in undersea photography and wildlife. His friend and partner was eaten by a giant “Jaguar Shark”, and Steve is on a mission to find and maybe get revenge against this possibly mythic creature. Along for the voyage is his ex-wife/manager (Anjelica Huston), his bastard son (Owen Wilson), a pregnant magazine reporter on whom he has a crush (Cate Blanchett), a financial auditor sent by his Producer, and of course his crew. Complications arise from everywhere, including pirates and a rival oceanographer (Jeff Goldblum).

STORY/THEME

Maybe I missed this upon the first viewing, but I do believe that “The Life Aquatic” is an allegory for the process of filmmaking, and that Anderson is really showing us the wacky and unpredictable world of an obsessive filmmaker such as himself. Steve Zissou is a childish, petulant, courageous, jealous and ultimately likable main character. It’s a part few actors could pull off, but Murray is the perfect fit. Sadly, he doesn’t get a lot of just plain funny moments. Much of it is “I’m laughing on the inside” stuff. I think the word is “amusing”. Anderson seems to revel in these lead characters that you both love and hate. Maybe this is how he sees himself. 

What’s truly odd about this is that Anderson's films are run as tightly as Zissou’s world is loose. The entire operation on his boat, “The Belafonte”, is one bad piston from going under it seems. Compared to his competitor, Alistair Hennessey, his equipment looks like something from Popeye. In this way the allegory seems false. Anderson feels like the ultimate control freak, with every shot perfectly composed. 

So if it’s NOT an allegory, then what the hell is it? I guess it’s somewhat entertaining, but I really don’t get what the point of the movie is. Again I return to my issue with Wes Anderson. If the film doesn’t hit me emotionally, and there is no greater societal or psychological issue involved, then it better make me laugh or scare/thrill the hell out of me. I’d say these are all swings and misses, except for the feeling that Anderson is just standing at home plate with the bat resting on his shoulder. 

FILMMAKING

The two films I enjoy by Anderson are "Rushmore" and "Moonrise Kingdom", both of which fit snugly into the Anderson canon, but in both cases I connected emotionally to the material much stronger than his other films. That's funny, since you would think "The Royal Tennenbaums" is much closer to my childhood experiences than anything else. Regardless, it is the juxtaposition of Anderson's style and the subject matter which is at the root of my problem. In the case of "Moonrise Kingdom", the subjects of summer camp and puppy love really fit Anderson's style. Children see the world in much the same way that Anderson does. There is a wide-eyed innocence interlaced with a touch of the sardonic. 
The subject matter of "The Life Aquatic"; broken relationships, egotistical artists, single parenthood, delinquent fathers--these are hardly subjects for the childlike treatment we see here. Seeing the world through Anderson's lens, not to mention the music by Mark Mothersbaugh and the animation by Henry Selick, is very much a trip into the imagination of a youngster. 
As usual, I could forgive this disconnect if I found myself laughing heartily throughout. An occasional chuckle was about all I could muster. Instead of working with Owen Wilson, as he had done in the past, Anderson’s screenwriting partner this time was filmmaker Noah Baumbach. Baumbach’s films are uneven to say the least, but he is certainly a like minded soul to Anderson when it comes to innocence and irony. Basically he’s another kvetcher in the wry. 

I made that up! You like that?

Anderson's penchant for symmetry and color are beautifully on display in the "Life Aquatic". The crew's color uncoordinated pastel blue uniforms and cherry red knit hats are central to setting off the beautiful sea photography. Combined with the animated fish and creatures, the film is a feast for the eyes.

As for the ears, well if you are not a huge Mothersbaugh fan (such as I), then you do get the benefit of Brazilian star Seu Jorge singing Portuguese versions of classic David Bowie hits like "Rebel Rebel". Jorge is also in the cast as one of the crew members. I will say that Mothersbaugh's scores match the quirkiness of Anderson's stories and visuals in almost lockstep. If you like what you're watching you will probably like what you're hearing. 



PERFORMANCES

As stated above, the complexity of Zissou's character is perfectly portrayed by Murray. He may not be much of a chameleon ala Hoffman, Streep or the other Hoffman, but he picks the right roles for his demeanor and humor. I almost can't imagine anyone else doing this part. Murray is kind of a plain looking version of Cary Grant.
Even at his most frazzled there is a cool relaxed undercurrent. It’s like they are participating and observing at the same time. They don’t exactly break the 4th wall, but they certainly hint at it.

The rest of the cast is a dream repertory. Blanchett and Willem Dafoe in particular are joys, and Goldblum does his part. Owen Wilson, who is probably as close to a partner as Wes Anderson has, brings his slightly whiney, slightly cocky persona to the part of the estranged bastard son. His innocence doesn’t seem even slightly forced. 

The only one-note performance in the film is, sadly, from Anjelica Huston, who is normally one of the main reasons to watch anything she is in. The role of the ex-wife and manager is one of constant disapproval. Maybe it was just written that way, but there is no sense from her that she cares for Zissou, or ever did. She never cracks a smile, and plays the whole film with the same expression on her face. What a waste!

ON SECOND LOOK

Yes, this was definitely better upon second viewing. As I read my complaints above, it seems I am being rather picky, and not giving the film the credit it is due for it’s creative juice and phenomenal production values. Compared to some of the junk I’ve watched lately, why, it’s a great work! The cast is wonderful, the visuals and animations are superb. But seriously, couldn’t it have been just a bit funnier? All that quirk and not one side-splitting scene. I am also reminded of my freshman year film teacher, who’s reaction to my 1st short was; “So why did you make this film?” Somehow, I always feel like that at the end of a Wes Anderson movie. 

On First Look: ✭✭      On Second Look: ✭✭