Thursday, July 31, 2014

How Infinite In Faculty

The night before my birthday in June this year I revisited Jonathan Demme’s STOP MAKING SENSE at the New Beverly. It seemed to make sense for the occasion and this was one of those cases where even though that Talking Heads album had long since been seared into my brain I hadn’t seen the actual film in years. Even though the performance of “Once in a Lifetime” was in heavy rotation on MTV back in the day I think revisiting the number again in context after all this time was almost emotionally overwhelming for me. It is kind of a perfect birthday song, after all, much like how I once decided that Boorman’s POINT BLANK was a perfect birthday film. After all, how did I get here? How old am I now, again? The next morning I drove up to Griffith Park Observatory and looked out at the city, silently thinking about these things, the lyrics continuing to echo through my brain. I dug out an old cassette of the soundtrack and kept listening to the song, wondering about myself just as I imagine anyone in the world wonders about themselves while it plays. It’s still with me now. Maybe more than usual, maybe just as much, as I try to figure out where I’m going. And maybe more than ever it all seems murky, every day another reminder that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. Some may have forgotten but “Once in a Lifetime”—and, specifically, the STOP MAKING SENSE performance of it—is heard over the opening and closing credits of Paul Mazursky’s DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS, one of the biggest successes to ever come from the director who passed away at the age of 84 on June 30.
I’d heard rumors for some time that Mazursky wasn’t doing well but he fortunately had been able to witness a small sliver of tribute in the months before at a tribute when Cinefamily programmed a few of his films over several nights including an evening where he took part in an onstage discussion with screenwriter Larry Karaszewski, followed by a showing of his 1971 film ALEX IN WONDERLAND. They covered the bases of his career from The Monkees to Fellini to Kubrick to the films he directed and while he was obviously somewhat weak he seemed genuinely pleased to be there and it was a thrill to hear his stories. Several weeks later, Illeana Douglas presented a rare 35mm screening of his 1978 smash AN UNMARRIED WOMAN at the theater, finally giving me the chance to see that film—the DVD is out of print and something should really be done about its availability particularly now. That film isn’t as known these days as well as it deserves to be but maybe that’s one of the conundrums of Mazursky’s career, a director who made films that were smash hits in their time but are maybe so locked into the era in which they were made so haven’t stuck around in the consciousness of filmgoers beyond those who take the time to remember. And now, there really aren’t any directors like Paul Mazursky left at all. Same as it ever was.
Released at the end of January 1986, DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS wasn’t the first picture released by the Disney Studios offshoot Touchstone—SPLASH had come out nearly two years earlier—but it was the first under the Eisner-Katzenberg regime. It certainly feels like the first real Touchstone film in how it featured recognizable stars in big splashy vehicles as a cheery voiceover guy excitedly blurted out “Touchstone Pictures Presents!” in the trailer. It also has considerably more depth to it than the formula eventually allowed but DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS was also an R-rated adult comedy where the gross actually went up in its second week of release (as an aside, I saw it opening weekend—the first Saturday afternoon showing at the Yonkers Central Plaza was sold out. When I returned for the next show it had been moved into one of the big theaters, I think kicking the Rob Lowe hockey movie YOUNGBLOOD into the smaller screen) and went on to be the 11th highest grossing film of the year. It was a different time, of course. DOWN AND OUT is very much a Paul Mazursky film of that different time, comical and poignant, deeply personal, extremely funny at times, unavoidably dated and yet there are scenes that wouldn’t really need to be changed at all if someone were to remake it in 2014. Broader than Mazursky’s 70s output and not as essential now as some of them feel, I’m not sure it’s quite as uproarious as it was in ’86. I’m not sure that matters anymore.
Wealthy Beverly Hills clothing hanger manufacturer Dave Whiteman (Richard Dreyfuss) is feeling unsatisfied with his life, unhappy in his marriage to Barbara (Bette Midler), having an affair with his maid Carmen (Elizabeth Pena), daughter Jenny who refuses to eat and teenage son Max (Evan Richards) going through his own sexual confusion. When one day homeless Jerry Baskin (Nick Nolte), having lost his beloved dog, enters the Whiteman’s backyard to drown himself in their pool. After saving his life, Dave tries to help out Jerry but Jerry soon is changing the lives of the family members in ways that they never would have imagined.
Based on Jean Renoir’s BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING and the play by René Fauchois with a screenplay by Masursky & Leon Capetanos, DOWN AND OUT IN BEVELRY HILLS has a tighter pace than many of the director’s films, getting right to the point and not overstaying its welcome at 103 minutes. Looking at them now it feels like the Paul Mazursky cinematic view of the world made the most sense in the context of the 70s, in the BLUME IN LOVE and AN UNMARRIED WOMAN period, a decade which he portrays the journey of in his Truffaut homage WILLIE AND PHIL. Coming six years after the release of that film, the more blatantly comical DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS is just as much about its own moment, coming within the ever-growing rot of the Reagan era and the harsh sunlight caking down onto the cement. Maybe it’s because of the weather in L.A. lately but I look at the shots of the Whiteman’s house and surrounding neighborhood and it always seems so hot and garish, no shade to bring a moment of peace to anything. Even though the film is set during the holiday season it never feels that way in the slightest (the inherent Jewishness of the Whiteman family feels intentionally buried as well). Dave Whiteman feels guilt that no one else around him feels, the guilt that no one in the 80s felt—ultimately, the film is about coming to terms with that guilt and doing something with it. He’s another Mazursky protagonist who, as successful as he is, doesn’t understand how he actually got to this place, as certain song lyrics declare, and isn’t sure what to do about it now that he is.
The director clearly looks at Beverly Hills as a place everyone wants to be and when they get there everyone suddenly becomes the same, all with the same gleaming white Rolls Royce, with each person forced to find themselves once again just as Barbara seems to surround herself with mirrors in her bedroom as if to somehow try to remind herself that she’s still a person. In his own films Blake Edwards always gives the impression that he would be perfectly happy to burn that world he lives in and loves down to the ground, letting the homes crash into the canyons below. With Mazursky the self-loathing feels more internal as if he’s trying to knock down the walls that are within himself and come out the other side somehow changed. Achieving his wealth via clothes hangers feels so deliberately absurd that you wonder if to him it makes about as much sense as being a film director.
Even the memories of the director’s past films linger in the air—Dave observes, “It’s like the 60s,” when Jerry takes him down to Venice Beach, that place where HARRY AND TONTO had its final moments, it’s an odd reminder of the past for the director, a place that he hasn’t thought about in a long time. There is screwball at the heart of DOWN AND OUT but for a movie that’s essentially a comedy, an attempt at a light Shakespearean romp, it feels almost surprisingly introspective and curious about its people. From the nitpicky dialogue where characters obsess over enough white meat in their Thanksgiving turkey, Dreyfuss’ aggravation or the growing insanity of the climactic New Years’ Eve party, he laughs don’t interest Mazursky as much as the open therapeutic nature of it, as if the film itself is as thrown by Nolte’s bluntness as the characters are. It’s a film that acknowledges that sometimes people don’t know what the hell to say to each other. The Touchstone formula hadn’t quite been cemented yet so there’s still some ambivalence about it all, particularly concerning him, it’s willing to let itself breathe at times.
What strikes me now is a certain distance I feel from some of it—maybe the 80s broadness gives me bad flashbacks, maybe the fashions do, maybe the more character oriented BLUME IN LOVE sticks with me in the end since it’s that much more about probing into the angst of its lead characters. DOWN AND OUT doesn’t want to go that deep (it does dig deeper than your average studio comedy digs now, to be fair) but it does let the characters deal with each other, making that uncertainty about itself. Plus there’s Mike the Dog playing the family pet Matisse, a joke that shouldn’t work as well as it does, one of the best dogs ever in a movie and could very well be as much of a reason for how big a hit the film was as anything (well, that and the sight of Nick Nolte eating dog food). Maybe I shouldn’t like how much Mazursky uses him as such an obvious button but it works and for that matter few directors were ever so lucky with a dog to cut away to. Matisse even has a dog psychiatrist (played by Donald F. Muhich who played essentially the same role for the director several other times), which plays now as an example of how the film as dated since the joke doesn’t seem as zany as it does then.
It’s one of the problems of the movie now--the sexual confusion of the son isn’t as riotous as it might have seemed then and even if Jerry’s immediate acceptance of him plays as somewhat sweet it does plant the film into the time. But there’s still cockeyed affection for all the people in it and as silly as he might portray some of them you can tell that deep down he likes all of them. Mazursky doesn’t claim to have all the answers (his films are often about people who come to the realization that they don’t have all the answers) which seems brave now when most films seem to want to have a character espouse whatever the theme is. He knew that no one has the answers. We still don’t—revisiting this film in 2014 is an uncomfortable reminder that there seem to be more homeless in my own neighborhood these days than in past years. In the film’s final moments there’s a look on Nolte’s face that displays a certain ambivalence about the decision he’s making, even if he knows that it’s the right one, a moment that I don’t think would have been found in certain Touchstone films later on and almost by itself causes the film to stick more than it might have. It may be one of Paul Mazursky’s minor films but, as broad and commercial as it is, it’s as essential as any of them.
This was actually the first film in several years for both Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss so it served as something of a comeback for each of them and they mesh with the style perfectly, both with expert timing and a willingness to dig into these characters, making their interplay achieve a music within the familiarity the characters feel with each other. They’re clearly rendered speechless in some ways by Nick Nolte’s character and that lends an unpredictability to it all since everything he does is totally unexpected, not even aware that he’s in a comedy. He doesn’t reveal anything to us except for that one look at the end so even then Jerry feels like a mystery to us, let alone everyone else and Nolte wisely keeps that enigma going. Little Richard drifts in and out of the film commenting on the action as next door neighbor Orvis Goodnight while Mazursky, who turned up in all his films as well as many others, plays the Whiteman’s accountant.
It had been a long time since I’d seen this film but was able to find a DVD at the Barnes & Noble in the Grove, right near the area of the Farmers’ Market where he famously presided over many breakfasts with friends for years. That seemed fitting--someone I know said that there should be a plaque commemorating him around there and there should, preferably somewhere over near Bob’s Coffee & Doughnuts. DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS was one of Mazursky’s biggest hits and perhaps his last although ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY garnered a good deal of acclaim when it was released several years later. For the record, I also worked a lowly crew position on SCENES FROM A MALL when it shot in Connecticut but I’ve tried to put that out of mind (I don’t blame him). And now, all these years later, I’m still wondering how I got here. Through his long career Paul Mazursky’s films didn’t always connect, with either myself or the rest of the world, but his intensive exploration of personal was at times brave and it was nice knowing that he was there, somewhere in the city of Los Angeles, presumably having breakfast at the Farmer’s Market. In May I tweeted a photo of the wreckage of Hollywood Boulevard as portrayed in the recreation of Saigon in ALEX IN WONDERLAND. Mazursky himself retweeted the photo, adding simply “i was there”. And he was. Maybe, in the end, it doesn’t matter how you got there and whether you belong, something that Dave Whiteman in DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS seems to spend too much time obsessing over. Maybe all that really matters is that you were there, somewhere that mattered to you, and that you spent the time you had doing something. Because, no matter what, there will only ever be a limited amount of time to do it. Same as it ever was.

Monday, June 30, 2014

How We Lower Our Sights

June 17, 1994: the now-legendary O.J. Simpson slow speed Bronco chase. The world was riveted. Everyone was watching. And yet you just know that there were a few people out there who missed it because they were in a movie theater seeing Mike Nichols’ WOLF which opened that day. The summer of ‘94 is a time that I have particularly vivid recollections of since I was actually working at a bookstore job in Brentwood. It was in the same shopping plaza where Nicole Brown stopped off for Häagen-Dazs on the way home, right across the street from Mezzaluna and just a few blocks away from 876 S. Bundy Drive. Kind of like being in Dallas when the assassination happened, if you get my meaning. I’ve got a few stories that I used at cocktail parties through the years about encounters I had with certain people connected to what had happened (ask me some other time) but none of them have to do with the Bronco chase since I wasn’t around--I had the day off, part of which was spent across town in the first showing of WOLF at the Cinerama Dome earlier that afternoon, of course. But the fact remains that this is one of those things where the release of the movie has been inexorably tied into what was happening that day and for all we know caused the film to slip through the cracks for some people. Ultimately making a not-bad, not great $65 million at the box office, WOLF is a good film, one with goals and thoughts behind it but for a variety of reasons feels like something that was aiming at multiple targets and didn’t quite hit each of them. Compelling all the way through but maybe not completely fulfilling, twenty years later it still engages with a wit to its look at the world that helps greatly. It’s clearly from another time—very much a pre-O.J. film released just as O.J. happened, if you will, and even if Mike Nichols’ ultimate goal in exploring the material doesn’t feel one hundred percent clarified it plays now as refreshingly adult even if the intellectualization behind the approach doesn’t hold all the way to the end.
Shortly after being bitten by a wolf up in Vermont while driving home New York book editor Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is informed of the termination of his position after billionaire tycoon Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer) has bought up the company. He’s even faced with the humiliation that protégé Stuart Swinton (James Spader) is to replace him and although immediately resigned to this fate Will’s personality soon begins to undergo extreme changes which leads to learning a secret involving wife Charlotte (Kate Nelligan) and his decision to finally take action over his place at the company. Things change for Will even more when he meets Alden’s wild card daughter Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer), finding in her another person he can actually talk to and connect with, just as the animal side of him brought out by the wolf bite is beginning to make itself known.
Not even 15 minutes into WOLF Jack Nicholson’s Will Randall lays out an intriguing thesis: “You could make the case that the world has already ended. That art is dead….that instead of art we have pop culture, daytime TV, gay senior citizens, women who have been raped by their dentists confiding in Oprah, an exploration in depth of why women cut off their husbands’ penis…” Spoken by a character who believes with reason that his world is about to collapse in on itself, it partly works as what WOLF is about but even more than that is a reminder of how the film opened on one of the key pop culture events of the last decade of the twentieth century, an event that led to most of us hearing the name “Kardashian” for the first time, where everything would become one giant hellish reality show. The end of the world, you could say. Bit player Allison Janney (THE WEST WING still five years in the future), presumably playing some sort of la-di-da New York media type, tries to naively argue that money doesn’t imply ruthless ambition which is something that even the hardened billionaire she’s talking to doesn’t try to deny. WOLF is aware that polite, pipe-smoking way of doing business is fast on its way out, equating what is to come with a certain animalistic way of humanity, where talent doesn’t matter anymore, where the notion of civility flat out doesn’t matter. The “old fashioned way” of begging isn’t how it’s done anymore and what happens to Will isn’t just inevitable but in some ways actually for the best if this is what the world is to become, turning him into a wolf but also a man, with a capital “M”, for the very first time and not just a polite suit.
On a conceptual level WOLF plays as a horror film made by someone with no particular affinity for the genre or even awareness of how to pull off things like jump scares but is presumably attracted to the concept anyway, possibly with other goals in mind. Kubrick’s THE SHINING, coincidentally also starring Jack Nicholson, certainly contains elements that allow it to fall into this category and based on WOLF I don’t think that Mike Nichols has disdain for horror so much as him never having given the subject much thought at all. It really feels like Mike Nichols making a Mike Nichols film set in a Mike Nichols world where people drink fresh ground coffee from Zabar’s invaded by something else, a straight horror film crossed with the metaphor of embracing one’s inner beast in this day and age. There’s a constant feeling that the director is trying to bring something to the material above and beyond just shooting the script he was given (more than you could maybe say about several other latter day Mike Nichols films) it’s just that he’s not sure exactly what that should be. Since it doesn’t seem to know the basic pattern of a horror film it doesn’t know what clichés it should or shouldn’t ignore which allows for its own unique approach how characters interact in ways. The themes are there, very much so, but it also feels like through multiple rewrites and reedits and working out the effects and all that by a certain point exploring the metaphorical implications had to be dropped in favor of just making the film and getting it finished. Which had to be done, of course, and it’s not particularly surprising that the result isn’t a straight ahead horror film that goes heavy on the gore.
What Mike Nichols is interested in is going to be more interesting than what he’s not, what he can immediately connect with is going to be that much more tangible cinematically. But it does leave WOLF slightly wanting in the end, an array of engaging elements dropped during the second half as the film closes in on a conflict with just a handful of characters along with a climax, apparently greatly reworked during production, that is maybe a little too rote in how some of it plays out. Nichols seems to embrace the imagery and how the mood brought on by Ennio Morricone’s score affects the multiple helicopter shots gliding through New York at night (something else that gets me to think of THE SHINING) plus to his credit makes the ‘Jack Nicholson is a werewolf!’ element of it all much more low key and ambivalent than you would expect. But it’s almost a shade too polite making the occasional overly hyper zoom to underline something feel not quite right as Nichols searches for something to do with his camera. The wit and energy of the publishing house setting is what has the most zip to it all and, maybe like Nichols, I’m more intrigued by how the great director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno shoots the famous Bradbury Building (a familiar L.A. location even though the film is set in New York) than the delirium of the wolf’s runs through the woods at night.
As the film goes on the camera seems to push into close-ups more and more, omitting the world around the few characters, and since Nichols is definitely a director who knows what to do with close-ups, that’s where he finds the most to be interested by. When he’s not in his element the ideas just aren’t there in the same way so when the climactic action kicks in it feels like he’s finally agreed to make the film the studio probably wanted all along. The werewolf makeup effects feature the expected strong work by Rick Baker (along with some intriguingly subtle changes to Nicholson over the course of the film) but I don’t think Nichols has much interest in that either. It’s the intimate moments that have the most impact, such as Nicholson’s confrontation with Spader at a urinal that includes a particularly good offhand mention of “asparagus” to cap the scene. In comparison, the climactic showdown is a little more what’s expected and while it actually doesn’t go on forever like such a sequence might today in my memory it sort of seems like it does. It’s not a bad climax, as these things go, it’s professionally done. It’s the climax to a movie. It just may not have been the right climax for this movie as much as it was the right climax for a major star vehicle released in the summer of ’94.
Much of it remains intriguing, more on a human level than anything and thanks to the lunchtime conversation between Nicholson and Pfeiffer few other films ever made have made me want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich so badly. As the connection builds between Will Randall, a good man fighting against the wolf inside him, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Morose Pixie Dream Woman he simply tells her exactly what’s happening to him, with no thoughts of trying to conceal the truth like other films might waste time with. She accepts it, with thoughts of supernatural never coming into the dialogue and the chemistry between the two actors as they play this material is palpable, unexpected in how it comes off. Elaine May reportedly worked on the script (credited to Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick) and the recognizable sharpness of her dialogue brings the drama into focus so it pops for much of the first half even during the small moments like the dryness of Ron Rifkin’s doctor or how Will is continually trying to talk his way around what’s obviously happening, looking for some sort of rational explanation that “medical science has overlooked”. The bulk of his drawn out visit to Om Puri’s Dr. Alezais is almost too sedate in comparison blatantly laying out the themes in a way that feel designed to get people to check out of the film for a few minutes. Maybe Dick Miller’s Walter Paisley from THE HOWLING wouldn’t have been such a bad idea here (Nicholson and Miller together would at the very least be a cool Corman connection) and while WOLF definitely gets points for taking the serious approach, it that sense it doesn’t always have the right maverick sensibilities to fully click.
It’s an understated, mannered film about a world that is beginning to burst apart at the seams but no one reacts to such changes with anything other than mild puzzlement, another element that removes the events from horror movie logic—the matter of fact response by David Hyde Pierce (FRASIER had just completed its first season when this was released) to Will no longer needing his glasses and the cop played by David Schwimmer (right before FRIENDS premiered) more concerned about his handcuffs than the impossible event he’s just witnessed happen. Even the police investigation during the final third as Richard Jenkins’ detective comes to the hotel room to inform Randall of the brutal murder of the wife who has been having an affair with a younger man (yet more shades of O.J., even if the reality of that event doesn’t quite match up) is portrayed as dry as possible so the big final showdown between werewolves, a word that I’m not sure is ever spoken, can’t help but seem ordinary in comparison. A widely circulated still not in the film showing Nicholson about to transform while Pfeiffer lays beside him in bed speaks to how low key the approach ultimately became. Once the subtext becomes text and the transformation as actually taken place it’s not as intriguing anymore. But the film’s own curiosity about its themes remains intriguing throughout. Just as Will Randall tries to piece together the truth of what’s really happening to him it’s a film that is always trying to understand what it is and it makes the end result that much more compelling even if it doesn’t always hold.
Jack Nicholson gives an intriguingly low key performance, not only going against the expected but seeming continually engaged, just as curious about how to explore what’s happening to Will Randall as the character is, always holding the reality of the film together. Michelle Pfeiffer makes sense out of what seems to be practically an impossible role, barely a person at all, giving both her co-star and the film a surprising amount of empathy, indicating how she’s just off enough herself to be the right woman for him and it’s maybe one of her most underappreciated performances. James Spader approaches his role as trying to be the uber-version of his familiar yuppie scum portrayal—compared with characters he played both before and after this I don’t know if that quite comes off but it is a nice turn, playing him as an asshole who not only knows he’s one but revels in the mindgames that it entails. Christopher Plummer brings the expected chilly intelligence to his billionaire that balances just enough disinterest in all this publishing stuff to get momentarily amused by the back-stabbing around him while Kate Nelligan as Randall’s wife has kind of a thankless role but she nevertheless kills it in her last scene. Nichols makes something out of the bit roles as well, particularly Ron Rifkin, David Hyde Pierce and Eileen Atkins as Randall’s loyal secretary. Playing a stock investigating cop role, Richard Jenkins becomes an unexpected off-kilter glue for the film in its last half hour, a refreshing link to the real world while the plot gears of the climax have to turn and Elaine May makes an uncredited vocal appearance as a hotel phone operator—hearing her chipper voice immediately after a brutal werewolf attack says about as much about the dual nature of the film, and the approach taken to it, as anything.
WOLF is a film that I still feel an inquisitive fondness for as I continue to try to find my way through it, trying to understand what it is as it fights against expectations. The end result may be uncertain, it may be battling against its own two halves, but it seems fascinated by that battle. The incessant, haunting score composed by Ennio Morricone which provides the film with an undeniable shade of melancholy that I don’t think is present otherwise feels like a part of that battle as well. But melancholy for what—for Will Randall? For the unexpected romance between the two leads? For revisiting this film 20 years later? It’s about a lot of things that don’t exist anymore, whether the idea of a summer movie aimed at adults, a portrayal of a New York media world that I imagine would be somewhat different now or just people in the world in general. Maybe it’s a reminder of what things were like for a brief period back in the early 90s. One of the final images of the film indicates that the transformation we’ve been witnessing for the past two hours is now complete. If a similar transformation began within the world we live on June 17 1994, I can’t help but worry that we still haven’t witnessed the end of that particular metamorphosis.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Very Accurate Word

Quite a few years ago, longer than maybe I’d care to admit, I went to my friend Dani’s birthday party in Griffith Park one afternoon. Because Dani always had a knack for doing this sort of thing at his events part of the day involved him pairing people up together so they could go off by themselves to various corners of the park and, well, analyze each other. Take my word for it, if you knew Dani this wouldn’t seem at all odd. I was paired up with a woman I’d never met named Jill Soloway and in all honesty much of what we talked about has long since left me but I do remember that our conversation was intense, satisfying and somewhat cathartic. If I had known then that she was going to go on to be one of the main creative forces behind one of the best television shows of the aughts, SIX FEET UNDER, maybe I would have written some of it down. I also probably would have tried a little better to stay in touch with her, but never mind. All this time later I still run into Jill Soloway in random places every few years and get a vague look of recognition on her face which is better than nothing from the writer of the “I’ll Take You” episode of SIX FEET, I suppose. After working on several other series through the years including UNITED STATES OF TARA and DIRTY SEXY MONEY, 2013 saw the release of Soloway’s first feature film as director, the unexpected and piercing AFTERNOON DELIGHT for which she won the Best Director award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and was also named by no less than Quentin Tarantino as one of the best films of the year. A comedy that always remembers to keep genuine emotions in mind, a character study which never holds back on all the flaws of the people in it, it’s a brave and admirable piece of work. That it’s mostly set pretty close to my neighborhood makes it that much more interesting for me, set in a world that I recognize but am not really a part of, fitting since it’s made by someone who I’ve met but can’t honestly say I know.
Upscale Silverlake wife and mother Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) is feeling listless in life with her one child no longer a baby and husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) focused more and more on his app-heavy business with even sex between the two of them not really happening anymore. After a trip to a strip club with some of their friends to spice things up where Rachel is given a lapdance by a stripper named McKenna (Juno Temple) she can’t get the stripper out of her mind and manages to figure out a way to meet up with her again. One thing leads to another and once McKenna finds herself in a jam Rachel brings her home to stay for a few nights until she finds a place to stay. Soon enough Rachel learns that McKenna isn’t just a dancer but a full-fledged ‘sex worker’ as she calls it leading to things becoming even more complicated when McKenna inserts herself into the lives of some of Rachel and Jeff’s friends as well.
“A job does not define who you are,” says Rachel at one point to defend stripper/‘sex worker’ McKenna, leaving it unspoken that she can’t define herself anymore and is drawn to McKenna in some sort of friend/protector/mother/lover combo that she can’t come close to putting into words. Feeling rudderless as she watches life go on outside of her like the car wash she goes through in the first scene, she’s trying to change her own narrative without knowing why and she can’t even find the correct lies to explain what she’s trying to do with McKenna, let alone the actual truth as if she’s wondering, If I don’t feel like myself anymore, can I be someone else? Almost never willing to let a laugh go by without adding an extra layer to the moment, AFTERNOON DELIGHT takes the inherent gimmickry of its story and turns it into something genuine and honest, not going for the easy laughs that you’d expect from a movie that contains the line, “The stripper is in the maid’s room?” while also resisting the obvious melodrama that could occur. When Jill Soloway appeared at a Cinefamily screening of AFTERNOON DELIGHT this past January as part of their Underseen & Overlooked of 2013 series during the Q&A afterwards she talked about how the likes of John Cassavetes and Hal Ashby had been influences on her in making the film. Other directors including Paul Mazursky come to mind as well which might just be me pigeonholing the film as a Silverlake-set DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS with a sex worker (even Josh Radnor’s app invention is like a modern day equivalent to Richard Dreyfuss’ coat hanger business) but regardless such comparisons manage to make AFTERNOON DELIGHT even better, revealing just how much it fits into its own world combing its influences with the unique style of its writer-director and a tone that fascinates me even more.
It takes what would be just the expected laughs that turn up throughout and goes deeper, aware that these characters feel certain things that they don’t know how to put into words, they all have fucked up feelings that they don’t know how to express. AFTERNOON DELIGHT is compelling and alive while also possessing a tone that allows it to be its own thing with a script that is tight and to the point yet always loose enough to explore the characters, to remember that more than anything it’s about those characters. It respects all of them, even the ones who seem like mere caricatures at first, and yet knows that it can only probe so deeply to find out the real secrets, learn what isn’t being said. The interactions never feel easy and the film is much more interested in exploring the faces seen in the Cassavetes-like giant close-ups of her actors than in turning it all into one giant farce, particularly during the extended women & wine sequence where Rachel completely breaks down in front of her so-called friends. An up close connection to McKenna’s world also turns out to be a step too far for Rachel, not as cool for her or as potentially hilarious for us either leading to the undeniable discomfort that can be felt when things go wrong. You can never be certain how much you’re going to get to know some people. Sometimes you realize you didn’t know them at all.
It’s a film about connections natural or forced, in general or at this specific point in time and fittingly the first word we hear is an automated voice stating “connection”--the film being very much set in a world of Twitter and apps and blogs (“Name one good thing that’s come from blogging,” Jeff the app inventor dismissively states) that isn’t secondary to its main concerns as much as a believable acknowledgment that it’s how we’re living right now, particularly in the way Rachel describes her present day existence as being “online” and nothing more. The dialogue throughout is razor sharp and as much as it does feel like a film made by a writer willing to allow a certain amount of improv from the actors Soloway continually displays not only a director’s eye but also a soul that causes her to care for all of her characters. She makes use of the space in the architectural beauty they live in, placing the characters opposite each other in the frame but also with an eye for the little details sprinkled throughout, the quick shot of flies on lox as a brunch party dies down, the look on Hahn’s face as she lies in bed post coital while Radnor collects some change from the side table. That particular shot is a sly, subtle illustration of how much it feels very much about the female point of view while still being very aware of the men around them shrinking into beta maledom—in this film it’s the guys who hug when greeting each other, not the women. Even the deleted scenes on the DVD reveal bits that would have brought out such details if they had remained—one particular shot might have been my favorite moment in the entire film if it had stayed in.
Maybe this particular subgenre, if there even is one, could be termed Silverlake mumblecore along with some SIX FEET UNDER that’s certainly in its DNA and the details feel right, whether the presumably ad-libbed dialogue talking about my favorite local taco place or even the radio in Rachel’s car that’s tuned to KCRW because, well, of course it is (speaking of which, the soundtrack is very KCRW-friendly in all the best ways). Even if I’m not in a place in life to relate to all of it the characters and their world feel continually real, they feel like people, fucked up as they might be which makes something like the reality disconnect in Judd Apatow’s THIS IS 40 all the more plain. That film has an angry encounter with fellow parents as well only in that case the ultimate goal is basically wacky improv whereas in AFTERNOON DELIGHT it strips away the stereotypes to the point where we can’t judge them so simply anymore. The well-off lives of Rachel and Jeff crossed with her own uncertain sexual obsession brings Blake Edwards’ “10” to mind as well—ultimately McKenna is about as much of a blank for Rachel as Bo Derek is for Dudley Moore and in both cases the hoped for connection turns out to be something very different. AFTERNOON DELIGHT could have been played as straight comedy (it certainly still qualifies for the term) and nothing more but it digs deeper, exploring what’s really going on under the skin of the characterizations. Even Jane Lynch as Rachel's therapist, which almost seems like the sort of role you can fill in yourself, plays as much more earnest and genuine in addition to her ultra-sharp comic timing (plus the way Jane Lynch says ‘quinoa’), than you would expect. The film doesn’t answer certain questions and stays in my brain longer as a result. The final shot feels like the most perfectly natural place to leave it on, a feeling that the lead character has genuinely earned, showing us who the movie is about, what it took to get to this place and how much the feeling really matters.
Kathryn Hahn (who, if I’m going to be honest, has ranked third or fourth on my list of pretend girlfriends for some time) has already proved herself to be that sort of actor who can effortlessly go between comedy and drama and here she’s phenomenally brave down to the little physical touches, bringing every palpable ounce of Rachel’s own daily awkwardness to life. Juno Temple balances between showing us just enough of McKenna to flesh her out and yet still keeping her an enigma, playing moments in ways that seem specifically designed to throw the other actors off balance while keeping the character totally unapologetic and refusing to allow the film to judge her. Temple is absent from the chummy DVD audio commentary between Soloway and Hahn which feels weirdly appropriate as if it keeps the actress an enigma as well. Josh Radnor plays the distracted puzzlement around the whole situation just right, giving him the chance to show more range than he was ever able to do on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER and when he finally lays in on Rachel about whatever she’s done he does a great job. It’s a terrific cast all around—Michaela Watkins has been a secret weapon in various films and TV shows lately and here she continually adds layers to what at first seems like simple comic relief while Jessica St. Clair has a completely effortless style as Rachel’s best friend. John Kapelos, familiar from many credits including THE BREAKFAST CLUB is one of McKenna’s clients, balancing the tightrope between sleaze and just a guy who’s perfectly happy to pay for her. Correctly, the movie doesn’t judge him either.
Near the end of the DVD audio commentary Soloway and Hahn talk about the film playing at the Los Feliz 3 which was actually where I saw it. Just another reminder that it’s a world I partly recognize and that I hope there are more films to come from the director in this oddly personal Cassavetes-Mazursky-Edwards vein. And it hasn’t escaped my attention that this is a film featuring strong female characters written and directed by a woman—that fact should be more incidental than it is in 2014 but unfortunately I suppose it still isn’t. If someone is going to create roles this good for someone like Kathryn Hahn not to mention other underutilized actresses out there like Illeana Douglas and Lisa Edelstein it might as well be her. Right now she’s producing a series for Amazon that she created entitled TRANSPARENT and the way things are now in getting films made I can’t say I blame her but, regardless, Soloway is a voice that I hope we get more films from. I hope some of them are set in Silverlake too. At its best AFTERNOON DELIGHT is clever and funny but also intense, satisfying and somewhat cathartic. Just like that long ago day in Griffith Park. And this time around, I know that I’ll remember it.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Look How Far It Got You

Even if I don’t hang out at Ye Rustic on Hillhurst anymore or go to various parties throughout Silverlake with the same people I still see some familiar faces from those days every now and then. There’s one woman who I don’t see much at all beyond the odd Trader Joe’s sighting but I know she has a kid now, a few years old by this point. Looking at photos of her on Facebook I see a different person than I knew, or at least thought I knew back in the days when I couldn’t imagine anyone ever seeming more deadpan in life than she was. We were never close but I suppose thinking back on it now she’s one of those many people who pass through your world that you only ever know slightly but still think fondly of. People who show up in your life for little more than random appearances wind up making an impression. So I guess because of that whenever I look at Sarah Polley’s unpredictable, enigmatic, take-no-shit character in 1999’s GO I’m always reminded of that woman. It makes me think that much more fondly of the film as a result. Even though it makes no sense, it makes me think that much more fondly of her too. People are unpredictable. You didn’t know them then. You don’t know them now. You never will.
Written by John August and directed by Doug Liman, GO turned 15 this year, released in April 1999. Looking back, I think of that period as being a pretty carefree time in my life but that’s a lie. I know that I was worried about lot of what was going on. For one thing, NEWSRADIO was canceled right around then. Probably other stuff was happening too, but never mind. That’s what memory does. Enough time goes by, you’re not sure what really happened anymore. I’m still not sure about a lot of things. GO feels like a part of that time for both me and films that were released then, an offshoot of the effect Tarantino and PULP FICTION had on the world but it manages to siphon off the correct elements from that film to go correctly with its own particular style, coming up with its own overall tone in the process. There’s not that much of a story and not very much is resolved in the end to come out of that slight story, giving the whole thing a no consequences, live-to-rave-another-day vibe. The film just happens to be set on one of those days.
It’s the Christmas season in Los Angeles. Supermarket employee Ronna Martin (Sarah Polley) is behind on her rent and takes over the shift of Simon (Desmond Askew) who is going off to Vegas for the weekend with his ‘mates’ (Taye Diggs, Breckin Meyer, James Duval). The sudden appearance of actors Adam and Zack (Jay Mohr and Scott Wolf) looking to score off Simon leads Ronna, accompanied by friends Claire (Katie Holmes) and Mannie (Nathan Bexton), to seek out Simon’s dealer Todd Gaines (Timothy Olyphant) for a favor. But circumstances cause Ronna to try to pull one over on Todd which leads her to an even larger plan to score some more quick cash at the big Christmas rave happening that night. Meanwhile, Simon, who’s using Todd’s credit card, is off on his own adventure in Vegas involving a mishap on a strip club while Adam and Zack are trying to make good with the cop Burke (William Fichtner) they’re working undercover for but it turns out he has yet another agenda in mind for the evening.
The use of the Columbia logo at the very beginning of GO as it blends in with the sounds of a rave over the opening credits perfectly encapsulates the approach of the film, how things are always unexpectedly moving forward before you’re fully prepared, not quite knowing what’s ahead, not taking a moment to think of the consequences. During the period of the mid-to-late-90s when films trying to be in the Tarantino vein went way too overboard on the snarky violence GO walks a tightrope that keeps its tone somehow blithe and effortless. It’s funny but not snarky, edgy but never too nasty, always active and energetic. So much of the film looking at it again now remains enjoyably off-kilter and unpredictable in the very best ways right from the start, its propulsive style keeping things moving no matter what through every beat of the sly, offhand dialogue punctuated by the occasional out of nowhere burst of intensity. Even if things wind up not turning dangerous there’s always the feel in the air that they can.
A slicker, more plot-driven look at the scuzzy end of L.A. nightlife than the Liman-directed SWINGERS from three years earlier, the go-for-broke vibe the director brings to GO along with the AVID hiccups in the cutting style provided by Stephen Mirrone (who won the Oscar for editing TRAFFIC not long after this) is always well-executed, always with a purpose. The way August’s script crosses from one of the stories to the other, hip-hopping around the timeline, feels totally effortless while maintaining a loosey-goosey approach to its plotting that feels somehow correct—there’s a reason why Adam and Zack show up at the rave and it’s a funny one but still pretty irrelevant in the end and even the way two characters during the Vegas section are sidelined almost immediately from food poisoning (“I told you not to eat that shrimp”) adds to that unpredictable feeling as if even the film is a little surprised by who’s about to take center stage. Even the digressions, more than a few of them involving Nathan Bexton’s Mannie, feel totally a part of it all because if this film can’t have a digression involving an imagined conversation with a cat, what film can?
The non-linear narrative approach dividing the three sections felt very Tarantino at the time, even if he wasn’t the first to do that and the dark comedy, offhand violence as well as the handful of pop culture references (that the film never explains a certain Omar Sharif joke makes it funnier) certainly add to that familiar feeling but never takes it to such a dark place that would seem wrong for the material, threatening to go as far as some movies from that period did but not getting there because no one in it is really capable of those kinds of actions anyway. Their lives aren’t even fully real yet, like the story Taye Diggs’ Marcus is being told by Breckin Meyer that actually happened to him. Some of the characters are likable, some are idiots, some of them are clearly trying just a little too hard to seem like something that they’re not and more than a few I would never want to ever meet but the film has an affection for all of them, misplaced as it sometimes might be. And as loose as it might feel at times there is genuine skill evident in Liman’s direction with a point-of-view that always feels present, adding to the danger and dreamlike feel. There’s a skill to how he approaches each scene in the staging that stands out now, always making this world feel that much more filled in He even handles the repetition in the overlapping correctly. Looking at the film from all this distance now it occurs to me how the age gap between some of the characters makes the film caught between the vibes of Gen X and Gen Y, even if that specific term hadn’t been coined yet, which goes perfect with the off-kilter vibe. The film’s one real ‘adult’ (a strip club owner, of course) is left outside of all this with nothing to do but complain about how the world’s become a place where people get ahead just because of someone else’s incompetency. GO doesn’t see anything wrong with that. Its characters aren’t aware, at least not yet, of the alternative.
Along with the PULP FICTION vibe it’s also a little like the brief gangbanger scene from Liman’s own SWINGERS taken to feature length and the similarities to that film (including a similar poster; no shared cast members though) make them complement each other in intriguing ways. They not only both have 818 jokes—the one in SWINGERS is better, but no big deal—they each take a side trip to Las Vegas that runs close to a third of the running time. Unlike SWINGERS, Vegas in GO feels like its own world somehow cubed—nothing really matters and you can do anything you want, steal a car, get in a car chase, fire a gun, and there are no consequences. With the lives of everyone in it feeling somehow temporary, heading towards a destination that is uncertain, there are no real consequences in GO either. It’s not that kind of film. At a certain age, on a certain night, even if you’re almost in a car crash you sometimes never quite pay attention to those things. GO is minor but it seems ok with that. It has a first film feel, even if it wasn’t Liman’s first film, but it has the right energy to culminate in the ‘surprises’ that Claire talks about in the brief flash-forward that opens the film. It has a life to it all, even down to the winding down hungover feel of the last ten minutes when two characters unexpectedly sit down to breakfast. And it’s strangely optimistic too with the one totally selfless, honest action that happens between two people who never fully know what’s going on. Things are unexplained, then moved on from before they get fully clarified. “Girl in ditch, our problem. Girl out of ditch, her problem,” says Jay Mohr’s Zack to Scott Wolf’s Adam to clarify their position in things when they’ve gotten out of their jam. There’s only so much you can do, so far you can go, in just a few seconds. You do have to deal with your own problems before the sun comes up, after all. Even at the end, the final shot creeps in closer to the location for no particular reason but doesn’t pause. No point in stopping. No point in ever stopping.
It’s a film containing multiple performances that make me want to say, “Well, that person steals the show.” Sarah Polley seems to have left acting behind by now and I look forward to whatever she’s up to next but her work here sets the film apart more than it would have otherwise. She doesn’t have a dull moment here, there’s not a single gesture or inflection in her voice that doesn’t add to her characterization in some way. Frankly, the only thing wrong with the film, as fun as it is, is not only that Ronna isn’t in it the whole way through but that we didn’t get more films with this character—it’s a combination of character and performance but more than anyone else in the film I want to know what her story is beyond the film. Just her body language in a late scene as she limps her way through the supermarket again says so much and it’s a performance with an energy that feels completely daring. Katie Holmes, who seems to play every scene wondering what she’s doing there, matches up well with her as the presumably more straight-laced Claire as does Nathan Bexton who spends pretty much every moment he’s around blissfully unaware of anything around him.
Timothy Olyphant is particularly strong, without a line or reaction shot that is quite what you’d expect it to be while straddling the divider between sharp comic timing and a genuine sense of danger. Desmond Askew’s cockiness is continually enjoyable while even though there doesn’t seem to be much to Taye Diggs’ character on the page past his speech about tantric sex he brings his part a sly intelligence that mixes well with his co-stars. Jay Mohr and Scott Wolf play off each other just right as the bickering couple caught up in one thing after another on this night and this section still plays as a little progressive. Plus there’s Mohr’s mangled pronunciation of ‘bouillabaisse’ too. The unpredictable behavior of William Fichtner during the would-be drug bust and later on opposite Jane Krakowski at that early Christmas dinner adds a whole other element of nervous comedy to the film and I especially love the unexpected intensity in Krakowski’s eyes when she insists on how fast they’re climbing on the Confederated Products ladder. J. E. Freeman is the calm of the entire film as the pissed off strip club owner in his speech about how you get to the top in this world and Melissa McCarthy turns up in what looks like her first feature appearance showing how you absolutely nail a role with less than a minute of screentime.
GO is a movie that reminds me of possibilities that were once there. It resists the darkness. Maybe it was easier to do that in those days. There is the L.A. centric nature to it, as well and as someone who lives right near a JONS but always goes to the nicer supermarket slightly further away I will always have a fondness for how the crappy supermarket is named SONS with the correct sort of lettering in the sign. It reminds me of how freaky things can be, that feeling in your twenties where, just thinking you’re going out for the night, you can find yourself in a strange apartment somewhere almost before you know it. Of how you can do something stupid but you’re young so, well, what’s the worst that can happen? When I think about how young I was when I first came to L.A., how stupid I was, it scares the hell out of me. I never did more than wander through a rave-type atmosphere once or twice (Since I’ve never done ecstasy or most other drugs either, how accurate is all how the movie portrays it? Beats me) but there’s an authenticity to this world. Ronna being so young, another piece of her backstory I wish we could know about, actually also reminds me of another girl I knew way back when, who was probably also way too young to be living on her own the way she was and I suspect may have had a few nights like this one that I was never privy to. She’s elsewhere now, also with a kid incidentally, and I think she’s happy. I hope she’s happy. It’s not 1999 anymore. Things change.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Having Tasted The Goods

A lot has happened since 1996, that Memorial Day weekend when Brian De Palma’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE owned the world breaking whatever box office records were there to break at the time. I loved it, I’ll gladly admit and now years after its release, not to mention long after we’ve all developed somewhat ambivalent feelings towards the personality known as Tom Cruise as well, I wonder if there will be a film this summer that gives me the sort of pleasure this one did. I doubt it. I’m older, more jaded, no matter how much I try to keep an open mind about this sort of thing. Simply put, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was just what I wanted back then and in some ways it’s still what I want right now. It’s not that I was looking for a big screen version of the show. Some people might have been but I didn’t really care about that and while I’m aware the film pretty much tosses out the concept of the series that ran from 1966-73 in the first twenty minutes in favor of “The Adventures of Ethan Hunt”, which is basically what the series became I still don’t care, not when it’s Brian De Palma giving me a hit from this particular crack pipe that contains his own drug of cinema. And it is a mixture, yes. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is Brian De Palma being hired by others to deliver a Brian De Palma film, at least as much as one that the franchise and the very nature of a Tom Cruise star vehicle will allow. And that’s very much what it is, even if within certain boundaries. It may not be 100% pure, uncut De Palma but even that doesn’t always totally connect so MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is a case of auteurship taking on the tentpole release date and coming out ahead as much as the system will allow, at least far as I’m concerned. Revisiting the film I think it’s just as enjoyable a piece of clockwork as it always was, with Brian De Palma using every ounce of his skill to deliver this collision of Hitchcock and Euro thriller in the guise of a big studio star vehicle. It gives me massive pleasure. It’s still what I want from a summer movie now, even if I don’t expect it anymore.
IMF agent Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) arrives in Prague to meet his team including wife Claire (Emmanuelle Béart) and point man Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) for a new assignment: stop the NOC List, the list that details all IMF agents and would give away their cover. But something goes very wrong and the entire team is all presumably killed by mysterious forces, leaving only Ethan who is on his own soon learning that the CIA in the form of Agent Kittridge (Henry Czerny) believes that, considering he’s alive, he’s the one who had the team taken out. Now disavowed and on the run, Ethan soon discovers that Claire is actually alive as well and soon makes contact with arms dealer Max (Vanessa Redgrave) to begin determining who is behind it all. Recruiting fellow disavowed agents Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno) they determine their only course of action is to break into CIA headquarters themselves, steal the real NOC List for themselves and bring whoever the guilty party really is out into the open. But first, the small problem of actually breaking into CIA headquarters…
The opening scene of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE actually feels like a De Palma narrative in miniature—a deception, a disguise, a crucial piece of information that needs to be learned, a girl in immediate jeopardy, the possibility of guilt surrounding her fate. Much of what we see is in fact staged as we immediately learn so it’s all an illusion but of course it really isn’t since the girl in question really is in jeopardy. This almost feels like a metaphor for the director acknowledging that this is one step removed from his own world but not really since the game is the same only slightly askew his particular visual eye in the context of an established concept crossed with the type of star vehicle it needs to be. It could be pointed out that as a followup to the classic series MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE the motion picture (story by David Koepp and Steven Zaillian, screenplay by David Koepp and Robert Towne) wants to break down the status quo, destroy the old in favor of the new. I can’t say that this bothers me very much at all. Maybe I’m of the wrong generation to venerate this particular piece of pop culture but that’s just the way it is. And, as it should be, De Palma himself never seems bothered by it, his interest in whatever the old show represents not extending any further than the basics of the concept and what it represents in pop culture—espionage, the famous Lalo Schifrin theme, the main title sequence, “this message will self-destruct in…” and all that. Instead he looks at it as an outlet to plug in his own type of visual shell game as if to make the great Hitchcock 60s spy movie that never existed since all we ever got in reality was TOPAZ, after all.
Almost every moment seems a part of this design, every seemingly minor exchange turned into something pivotal as a streak of wit glides effortlessly through it all. Nothing is wasted--for the first time ever on this viewing I think I’ve spotted the placement of a certain character in a shot that recalls when Dennis Franz is first seen in BLOW OUT, but maybe I’m imagining things which for all I know is something the film would want anyway. De Palma’s visual design always brings clarity to the confusion, like in the triple jump cut out to Jon Voight on a bridge near the embassy or even in the inherent muddiness of Tom Cruise figuring out exactly what’s going on, working out the personal flashbacks in his own mind while describing something else entirely in great detail. The slipperiness of the plotting isn’t always perfect, as even I’ll admit, with the occasional shoe leather scene where De Palma can’t quite hide his disinterest in the exposition that may as well have “PERFUNCTORY” stamped on the frame and the rug-pulling-out nature of killing off the team in the first twenty minutes means that we miss the chance for a real Brian De Palma film with Kristin Scott Thomas in a lead role. The way De Palma films her through the fog as she walks to her fate is more hypnotic than gobs of dialogue about that damn NOC list could ever be, making me dream of a true Hitchcock film starring her and I wish there could be another twenty minutes of just this sort of delirium.
With the exception of the Bond film LICENCE TO KILL in ’89 the concept of a hero on the run from his own agency was still fairly fresh back in ’96. By now the very nature of questionable allegiances is old hat with the M:I sequels covering some of the same ground and the return of 24 on TV doing it once again with Jack Bauer spending about half the time at odds with whoever the official good guys are. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE seems to intentionally break this down, do away with the Nixon/Reagan-era colorless suits in favor of the Clinton-era loose cannons fighting for the American way while still going up against the old guard who want to keep the same wars going. It is very much a part of its era -- in the context of the time the midfilm introduction of Rhames and Reno played like Quentin Tarantino and Luc Besson were sending in a few of their guys to help out and some of the now dated technology in the film roots it in this time period, if some of it was ever even real or just designed specifically for the film, at one of those last moments when things like portable phones and internet access were still somewhat exotic.
De Palma always seems interested in exploring the possibilities of Tom Cruise both as actor and as screen presence, filming his head from as many different angles as humanly possible and then searching for more. Ethan Hunt is in his own space just as Tom Cruise seemingly is, continually bemused by others around him and choosing to trust them for reasons of his own, maybe via scent. Even the very nature of Tom Cruise’s personality makes him the perfect De Palma lead, with few other actors able to emote quite as well as those unending De Palma slow motion series of shots play out. On a purely visual level it’s also consistently intriguing to watch him placed against the women in this film with every single one, even bit players, always smartly dressed to provide not so much the simple concept of sex appeal but an undeniable feel of sensuality, even (no, especially) Vanessa Redgrave as Max. Those women lurk around the frame providing this effect, more than I imagine is apparent in the script, more than would be provided by any other director. Each of the male characters, meanwhile, are uniformly suspicious, often not even particularly competent at their jobs, none to be trusted while still not seeming like they contain secrets matching those women.
Scenes with Emmanuelle Béart’s Claire Phelps meant to play up any possible romance were filmed and at least one shot can even be glimpsed in the trailers but this is one case where keeping whatever’s going on that much more of a mystery is in the movie’s favor, the coveting thy neighbor’s wife that is spoken of that much more of a question—one track on the soundtrack album is titled “Love Theme?” which seems accurate—and one imagines De Palma demanding multiple rewrites of these sections containing less dialogue on each pass, just siphoning it down to puzzled glances. Before we move up onto the top of the train for action climax whatever’s going on between the three of them in the baggage car—jealousy, jealousy of who, jealousy of what, feels obscured. With the love scene now gone that absence becomes part of what the film is about as well, an intimacy just out of reach, not able to save the woman in question for real in the end. Ethan Hunt has to be an enigma just like each of these women are enigmas and his own feelings for Claire Phelps are forever hidden away—we don’t know exactly what they are, it barely feels like he knows what they are.
All of these pieces of the puzzle are present in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, even if buried within the subtext. But spending too much time on that ignores how purely enjoyable the film is even if it wasn’t there the film would still contain its dynamic visual style (credit to cinematographer Steven Burum along with De Palma). So much of it puts a gigantic grin on my face through the presentation of the opening embassy sequence, the restaurant seemingly floating in the middle of that Prague square, Ethan Hunt scrawling forever through those search groups in search of Job 3:14, the way Vanessa Redgrave gazes at him, the smugness of Henry Czerny, the way Jon Voight blurts out, “It was Kittridge” (or, for that matter, when anyone says the name “Kittridge”), to the endless silence of the now iconic break-in at Langley which plays as the De Palma take on RIFIFI/TOPKAPI, borrowing from legendary setpieces in two Jules Dassin films but making the conceit totally and forever his own. And the thrill of the high-speed train climax with presumably early CGI effects that are still phenomenal, totally real looking (maybe it’s the wind machines—either way, a similar bullet train sequence in 2013’s THE WOLVERINE doesn’t look half as convincing in comparison) and hugely thrilling. Ethan Hunt jumps from the bullet train to the helicopter and back again. Sure, that’s impossible. Hell, that’s the title of the film. If Brian De Palma doesn’t get me to believe the impossible that can only be possible in cinema, no one can. His direction clicks through the film from setpiece to setpiece as if a finely tuned piece of music, flowing just right, poking its head around the corner of the next plot turn as if trying to determine if it should go there just yet.
And going along with that feel is the off kilter nature of the Danny Elfman score which truly does turn the film into something other, jangly and alien, made all the more miraculous considering it was a late in the game replacement for a score by Alan Silvestri (who did score ERASER which was released a month later and features some odd plot similarities to this film) and more than is usually the case I can’t imagine what the film would be without it—plus there’s bongos. Bongos! With the classic main title theme placed judiciously (three times – beginning, middle, end) the music always adds to our paranoia, our insecurity, that anything could be hiding behind the next corner while, correct for De Palma, just the right twinkle in there building up to the climax where that score explodes once and for all. It may not be a work of pure De Palma cinema like DRESSED TO KILL but with the exception of Jan De Bont’s SPEED, I can’t think of another 90s summer blockbuster that gives me as much pure, unencumbered, love-of-cinema joy the way this film does. At the end Ethan Hunt gets his next assignment from yet another comely woman offering him the next chance. The illusion continues. Well, it didn’t in a way that came from Brian De Palma, but maybe we can always imagine those sequels.
I’m probably not the only person to notice how Tom Cruise was consistently working with strong directors back in those days, not so much now, and it added to his performances it added to whatever he was bringing to the role. It made him interesting, it made the films play like he was willing to toy with his image. He overdoes it at times in trying to seem ‘intense’ but so does Ethan Hunt and whatever rumored tensions were going on between him and De Palma onscreen he seems to totally give himself over to the approach (one minor misstep: the old age makeup early on which strangely makes him look more like Matthew Modine in old age makeup than Tom Cruise and you get the feeling they’re trying to cut around it as much as possible. It doesn’t bother me that much, though). Jon Voight plays the deadpan nature of Jim Phelps well and when he spits out his big speech later on, not about himself but only about himself, you can feel the anger building up that’s been seething long before the film began (dialoguewise, it’s the best moment of the film). Henry Czerny, playing basically a funnier version of his CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER role, nails the smarmy arrogance of Kittridge, giving the feeling that anything someone says to him, however trivial, is a massive inconvenience. Emmanuelle Béart’s enigmatic presence as Claire says more than any dialogue would ever need to and makes her that much more intriguing, although it still feels like something is lost when Kristin Scott Thomas exits. I’m still curious about what the prequel that gives her a larger role would be, just like how Emilio Estevez’s unbilled cameo feels like a goof as if he’s reprising a role from an unseen 80s version of the franchise. I’ll have to wonder.
1996 was a summer that also featured the likes of INDEPENDENCE DAY, ERASER, THE ROCK (god help us all), KINGPIN and STRIPTEASE. Maybe not the greatest but not the worst either. My rose-colored glasses tell me that those were ok times and looking back on it now this film feels like a high-water mark (to lift from Hunter S. Thompson) for blockbuster filmmaking of the era before things became that much more corporatized, CGI overwhelmed things and the superheroes hit the scene. They still had the potential for fun, they could still be cool. The mid-nineties didn’t last. Nothing ever does although for all I know MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE sequels just might, whoever stars in them. But the cool vibe De Palma infused this film with stays with me, the images of this film stay with me, the flow of how certain shots go together along with the growing intensity of the score are undeniable. Through every frame of its cinematic delirium De Palma makes the film his own. He makes MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE his own. And, as far as I’m concerned, it’s what MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE always will be.