Wednesday, August 31, 2011


From the Vault: Beethoven

Good family films make you feel like a child again. In one respect, Beethoven succeeds on that level — it certainly made me want to lie down and take a nap.

Charles Grodin, the latest victim of a career setback caused by co-starring in a film with Jim Belushi, returns as the gruff, money-obsessed father of a family who adopts a lost dog. Grodin's character hates dogs — especially large St. Bernards like Beethoven that he fears will wreck his life.

Grodin should have been more concerned with a movie this lame wrecking his career.

Beethoven tells the story of the young St. Bernard's life from puppydom to maturity. It seems that Beethoven was stolen from a pet store where he was destined to be used for experiments by the requisite evil authority figure.

Happily, a canine pal escapes with Beethoven, sparing both from the dastardly plot. Alas, the moviegoer has no such luck.

Dean Jones (ironic, considering he once was The Shaggy D.A.) plays the veterinarian who earns money by testing new forms of ammunition on the heads of dogs. Now, that will certainly making kids seeing the film more comfortable the next time dad takes Fido to the vet, won't it? ("Don't worry son — it's not like the doctor is going to shoot Fido in the head.")

The film itself contains nothing else so original. It takes every cliche from every dog story ever told. From urination to drool in the shoes (a sly reference to Turner & Hooch), every plot development conveniently provided alongside typical superdog twists.

I checked the writing credits and lo and behold — guess who gets half credit for concocting this mess? None other than John "King of Formula" Hughes.

This St. Bernard truly earns his sainthood — he gets the oldest daughter a date, allows the son to get the better of bullies and saves the youngest girl from drowning. The kids are your standard sitcom variety — bland and talentless Stepford Child performers.

As in most family TV shows, Grodin's family contains the requisite three kids. A sappy musical score even accompanies the film, substituting for the fourth child TV families inevitably get in the third or fourth season.
Yes, all the TV elements show up — yuppie foils, sensible mother, frazzled father, bullied kid, little daughter who speaks rhythmically, oldest child with a streak of rebellion, evil authority figure, the dog's canine pal. Beethoven houses neither anything new nor good. The movie needed to be put to sleep so the audience could be put of its misery.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011


From the Vault: Husbands and Wives

Into every life a little rain must fall and in Husbands and Wives, Woody Allen summons a sizable storm. The inclement weather take many forms in Allen's new and much talked-about film and Rain (Juliette Lewis) is just one of the cloud formations in this documentary-style look at the aftermath of one couple's decision to split.

Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis) start a chain reaction when they tell their longtime friends Gabe and Judy (Allen and Mia Farrow) that, after 15 years of marriage, they plan to separate.

That announcement causes upheaval for all involved, forcing Jack and Sally to re-enter the singles scene and Gabe and Judy to re-evaluate their own relationship. Jack pursues a relationship with a New Age aerobics instructor (Lysette Anthony) while Sally gets fixed up with Judy's co-worker Michael (Liam Neeson).

Secretly, Judy pines for Michael herself while Gabe becomes attracted to one of his students at Columbia, the 20-year-old Rain who reminds him of a long lost love.

While similar to other Allen works, Husbands and Wives diverges from his usual path in terms of its language and, at times, its harsh, unblinking ugliness. The film chronicles these events not only by showing them but through conversations the characters conduct with an off-screen interviewer. The movie never explains this device and much of the film begs questions about the movie's intentions as well.

Allen films most of Husbands and Wives with a hand-held camera that darts around rooms like a camcorder being used for the first time by a technologically inept man after the birth of a grandchild. The desired effect doesn't quite work because instead of the jerky movements subliminally mimicking the chaos on screen, it simply distracts from the content.

While few screenwriters produce as much good dialogue as Allen and he's shown success at varying script structures, each time he embarks on something adventurous in terms of direction, it comes off more as a stunt than as the proper way to convey his story.

As usual, Allen wears his symbolism on his sleeve. He not only creates a lightning storm for a pivotal scene but makes a point of explaining its significance to the audience. When he delicately suggests that time is the true enemy of all relationships, Husbands and Wives works. Too often though he beats the audience over the head with his points. The subtle moments though work, especially those dealing with truths and half-truths that cause people to be uncertain of what they know.

Pollack delivers a solid performance as the blustery Jack who finds himself drowning in his own midlife crisis. Lewis fulfills much of the promise she displayed in Cape Fear as the tempestuous Rain, getting many of the film's best lines and scenes, especially in a sequence that visualizes what she thinks as she reads Gabe's unpublished novel.

Without question, the remarkable Judy Davis earns the prize for cast MVP as the hyper and aggressive Sally. She was robbed of Oscar nominations last year for solid supporting work in David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch and the Coens' Barton Fink and for her lead role in Impromptu, but hopefully this performance will garner a stream of awards.

As for Allen and Farrow, Woody is, as always, Woody, and Farrow, who has done her best work with Allen, comes off as somewhat sad and pitiful in a role that makes her unsympathetic. Given recent events in Allen and Farrow's real life, it's impossible not to read things into much of the dialogue and situations. Despite that, Husbands and Wives hits some universal nerves. Though it fails to live up to Allen's best works, it still deserves a look.

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Monday, August 29, 2011


"There is a vast difference between curing an ailment
and making a sick person well"

By Edward Copeland
Joseph L. Mankiewicz accomplished something in 1949 and 1950 that has never been equaled in Oscar history: He won the awards for directing and writing in two consecutive years. John Ford also had won directing Oscars in consecutive years, but no one had won for both directing and writing as Mankiewicz did for A Letter to Three Wives and the incomparable All About Eve. That would be an impressive one-two punch for any filmmaker (and between those two films he co-wrote and directed the solid 1950 suspense drama No Way Out starring Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier in his film debut) but in 1951, Mankiewicz made another great film, one that gets better each time I see it. Adapted from the play Dr. Praetorius by Curt Goetz, Mankiewicz wrote and directed People Will Talk, which was released 60 years ago today. It didn't receive any Oscar love, but it does contain one of Cary Grant's very best performances and aches to be re-discovered by film buffs or seen for the very first time by those who haven't.

Compared to Mankiewicz's previous two films, People Will Talk defies categorization at just about every step of its story. Though those title cards shown in screenshots above indicate that this will be the story of Dr. Noah Praetorius, we won't meet him in the form of Cary Grant right away. The first person we see is none other than the Wicked Witch of the West herself, Margaret Hamilton, sitting on a bench in a hallway. A man (Hume Cronyn) comes walking down the hall when the woman addresses him as Professor Elwell. He responds, though he doesn't know who she is. It soon becomes clear that she is Sarah Pickett, a woman he's been expecting from a detective agency. Professor Rodney Elwell unlocks his office door and invites her inside. The dialogue between the pair implies that we're definitely in store for a comedy.

PICKETT: If I come in, does the door stay closed?
ELWELL: Naturally.
PICKETT: Then I don't come in.
ELWELL: Why not?
PICKETT: You know why not. You're grown up.
ELWELL: My dear Mrs. Pickett —
PICKETT: Miss Pickett — and don't butter me up.
ELWELL: I have conducted my affairs behind closed doors for 20 years.
PICKETT: Not with me.
ELWELL: You overestimate both of us.

Miss Pickett joins Elwell in his office and the door remains open as the medical professor begins quizzing Miss Pickett about whether she knew a man named Praetorius in her hometown of Goose Creek. Yes, Pickett says, "He was a doc.…He healed people," Dr. Elwell asks how he did that. "If I knew how I'd be a doc myself," she replies, telling Elwell that he saved her grandmother. Elwell assumes that the old woman must have passed by now, but Miss Pickett says she's still alive. He asks her grandmother's age. "103, but I think she's lying," Pickett responds. "She's 108 if she's a day." She tells Elwell that her grandmother lay down to die four times and each time, Dr. Praetorius got her back up on her feet. Elwell inquires about the methods of this "miracle man." "Well, some healers use one thing, some use another, but Doc Praetorius used 'em all," she tells him. Elwell shows her a book of faculty members and points to a photo of Praetorius (our first glimpse of Grant) and Pickett positively identifies him, though she says he looked younger then. He asks Miss Pickett if Praetorius was a university-trained doctor.
PICKETT: When you say doctor, do you mean school doctor, out of books?
ELWELL: That is precisely what I mean.
PICKETT: Can't say. For my part I wouldn't get caught dead in a room with one of 'em.
ELWELL: Miss Pickett, I am a school doctor, out of books.
PICKETT: That's one reason why the door is open.

A student (George Offerman Jr.) interrupts the meeting to remind the professor that he's late for his anatomy class that Elwell asked Dr. Praetorius to attend. Elwell tells him to deliver the message that he's been unavoidably delayed. After the student leaves, he asks Miss Pickett what more she knows. Suddenly, Pickett looks around and she shuts the door. "You're a professor. It's hard to make you understand anything that ain't in the books. Well, most of what goes on in the world ain't in books." Elwell's skepticism is quite palpable. He then asks what she knows of a man named Shunderson. "I didn't know very much. Nobody did," she says with a shiver, though she admits they used to call him "The Bat" before she changes the subject, reminding him that Sergeant Canton of the detective agency that found her mentioned Elwell might have a job for her. This is a rare dropped ball in People Will Talk. It's implied that Elwell wants to plant Pickett as a housekeeper to spy on Praetorius, but her character never appears again. We really have no idea where this film is heading at this point. Is it a comedy? A mystery? As usual in a Joseph L. Mankiewicz screenplay, the dialogue comes full of gems, but since it's not an original screenplay, how much originated in the play, though it was written in German?

As we finally leave Elwell and Miss Pickett, we arrive in the lecture room of Professor Elwell's anatomy class. The infamous Dr. Noah Praetorius stands playing with the class' skeleton with his mysterious friend Shunderson (Finlay Currie) standing behind him. Praetorius keeps moving the jaw of the skull and wonders out loud, "Why should a man die and then laugh for the rest of eternity?" The student who had interrupted Elwell's meeting comes in and the doctor addresses him as Uriah and asks what he knows about Elwell. "He regrets exceedingly that he is unavoidably detained," Uriah tells him. "A meaningless phrase which could signify anything from oversleeping to being arrested for malpractice," Praetorius replies. The doctor walks to a table at the center of the room where a corpse lies under a sheet. "I would be quite unable to give the lecture you came to hear and I'm not sure you should hear the lecture I'd like to give," Praetorius tells the students who all clamor, fearful he's going to leave without saying anything. Obviously, the doctor's reputation has made him a figure of fascination among the aspiring physicians and they'd be willing to hear him talk about anything. He asks them to get out their notebooks and uncovers the body, which turns out to be that of a very young woman. He gingerly strokes her long brown hair as he explains to the class, "Anatomy is more or less the study of the human body. The human body is not necessarily the human being. Here lies a cadaver. The fact that she was, not long ago, a living, warm, lovely young girl is of little consequence in this classroom. You will not be required to dissect and examine the love that was in her — or the hate. All the hope, despair, memories and desires that motivated every moment of her existence. They ceased to exist when she ceased to exist. Instead, for weeks and months to come, you will dissect, examine and identify her organs, bones, muscles, tissues and so on, one by one. These you will faithfully record in your notebooks and when the notebooks are filled, you will know all about this cadaver that the medical profession requires you to know." Following the doctor's introduction, a young lady (Jeanne Crain, one of the wives in Mankiewicz's A Letter to Three Wives) sitting among the students starts to flutter before she falls into the aisle. The students swarm her until Praetorius clears them away, saying, "A group of Cub Scouts would know better than to crowd like this." He asks if she's ever fainted before, but she says no. She says she's feeling better and the doctor gives her a piece of hard candy and asks another female student to escort her to the bathroom to splash some water on her face. Praetorius has grown impatient and decides to leave, bumping into Professor Elwell at the door. Elwell again apologizes for his delay. Praetorius says that Elwell wanted to ask him something about a tumor. "A malignant dysgerminoma," Elwell responds. "Professor Elwell, you are the only man I know who can say 'malignant' the way other people say 'Bingo!'" Praetorius tells his tardy colleague, unaware of Elwell's investigation into his past. The doctor and Shunderson leave with Praetorius' clinic as their destination.

At this point, a viewer still would be unclear where this story is heading, especially with the added presence of the large, mostly silent Shunderson usually near Praetorius' side. However, once we get to Praetorius' private clinic, which really functions more like a full-fledged hospital, the plot will start spinning in more directions. As I wrote earlier, I have no familiarity with the Curt Goetz play upon which it was based. Goetz began his career in Germany as a performer in silent films, including one directed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1918. He also began writing plays. In 1939, he went to Hollywood to try to get into filmmaking there, but got frustrated by the system and moved to Switzerland in 1945 (since he was Swiss by birth) and wrote some novels. His play Dr. Praetorius originally was written in Germany in 1934. The first English translation was called How to Die Laughing, was in seven acts and while it has some similarities to People Will Talk, the synopsis sounds quite different and even brings Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson into the tale. In 1949, Goetz co-directed with Karl Peter Gillmann a German-language version called Frauenarzt Dr. Prätorius that sounds exactly like People Will Talk, has Goetz himself playing the title role and is described as a "melodramatic comedy." That's probably as good a description as any of Mankiewicz's People Will Talk, which may be as idiosyncratic a film as he (or Cary Grant for that matter) ever made.

When we do get to the clinic, we do get more of a sense of what kind of doctor Noah Praetorius is and what the opening title cards meant when they said if he didn't exist, he should. If that were the case in the early 1950s, it's been multiplied exponentially by 2011. No sooner does he walk in the door that he starts getting hit by nurses and other staff with problems. One nurse informs him that a woman about to be discharged wants to take her gall bladder home with her. Praetorius finds that sweet and tells her to let her. The nurse says he knows they don't keep them after they are removed but the doctor guesses that the woman has no idea what her gall bladder looked like so just get another and "send her home happy." A bean counter talks to him about the costs of the hours for the kitchen staff and they should consider cutting back in terms of the patients' food. (That one is out of my life experience where one for-profit hospital I stayed at wanted to get their kitchen staff out early and served horrendous food out of a box for dinner.) Praetorius tells her that he has "the firm conviction that patients are sick people, not inmates." He then checks in on an older patient (Julia Dean) who doesn't look well and obviously is depressed about her condition.

PATIENT: I was thinking it's not much fun when you get old.
PRAETORIUS: It's even less fun if you don't get to be old.
PATIENT: I want to die.
PRAETORIUS: You'd like that, wouldn't you? Lie around in a coffin all day with nothing to do.

A nurse brings the good doctor a report on the final patient of the day and he asks her to show Mrs. Higgins into his office. She enters and it is the woman who fainted in class. Praetorius tells her the good news that there's absolutely nothing wrong with her and she can continue her studies, at least for a while. She confesses that she's not a medical student. She was just sitting in on the class to see him. Mrs. Higgins, who tells him to call her Deborah, shows signs of relief until Praetorius asks if she'll make a follow-up appointment or would she be getting her own obstetrician. Deborah breaks down, confusing the doctor, until he realizes that while she may be pregnant, he'd been mistaken to assume she was married. He inquires about the father, but she tells him that he's out of the picture. It seems he was called up to serve in Korea, which led to their coupling, and promptly got himself killed soon after arriving overseas. The doctor attempts to calm her, but Deborah isn't just worried about the shame unwed mothers faced at that time but she's convinced the news will kill her father. Praetorius tells her that parents can surprise you and be very understanding when you least expect it. Deborah insists her father is the most gentle, understanding man in the world, but his heart would be unable to take it.

After Praetorius has at least dammed the flow of Deborah's tears, she hastily exits. His receptionist returns and he asks if Deborah made another appointment but she informs her boss that she did not. The words have barely left her mouth when a shot is heard. Shunderson joins Praetorius in the hallway as does a nurse where they find a sprawled Deborah, derringer in hand. Miss Higgins is rushed into surgery and after much work, appears to be out of danger. Shunderson enters the operating room as Praetorius removes his surgical garb. "It's a good thing that most people don't have the foggiest notion where the heart is," the doctor says. "She missed it by a mile." Shunderson takes that to mean that her suicide attempt failed which Praetorius confirms. "Then she'll try again," Shunderson declares, giving Praetorius pause and a look of concern. At any rate, Miss Higgins will be out for awhile and Praetorius has an appointment to make. As if the doctor didn't have enough on his plate, he's also the conductor for the university's student-faculty orchestra and it's practice night.

Among the members of the orchestra is Praetorius' closest friend on the university's faculty — physics Professor Lyonel Barker (Walter Slezak) — who plays the bass violin in the orchestra, often to Praetorius' frustration. After the practice has finished, Barker asks Praetorius to stay behind because he needs to speak with him. Despite their playful bickering during rehearsal, Barker asks Noah if he considers him a trusted friend. Of course, Praetorius says. "Therefore I have the right to point out to you that there are occasions when you behave like a cephalic idiot," Barker tells him. He warns Praetorius that he's heard that Professor Elwell has been snooping around his past in the hopes of making a case with the university out of it. Praetorius doesn't seem concerned, but Barker admits that there are things about his past that even he doesn't know. Noah asks the physics professor if he told him everything there was to know about him, would it affect their friendship? Barker says not in the least. Noah pats Barker on the knee. "I know it's not much to have a friend who knows all about you but one who's afraid he's not quite sure, that's worth having," Praetorius smiles. He tells Barker not to worry, but he needs to drop by the clinic to check on a patient but tells his friend to drop by his house for a late supper when he returns from the clinic.

With Shunderson's words still echoing in his mind, Praetorius pays a visit to the recovering Deborah and tells her a whopper of a lie. He says they discovered that a lab error accidentally switched labels on two pregnancy tests being run at the same time and hers actually was negative while another woman's was positive. She therefore has no reason to be concerned. It still turns on the waterworks anyway. He asks her why she's crying now, but she says he wouldn't understand. He wishes her goodnight and tells her to rest because she has nothing to worry about now. When he gets home, he tells Barker what he did. The physics professor says he has to know that it's just a stall and she will learn the truth eventually. Noah says that he realizes that, but if he can ease her mind until perhaps he can talk to her father, things will be better. Barker's mind wanders off subject as he raves about how good the sauerkraut is, saying it reminds him of home. Praetorius lets him on his secret: He has his housekeeper make it. "Sauerkraut needs to come from a barrel, not a can," the doctor declares. He promises to send some home with Barker, but it's taken Praetorius' mind off subject as well to a pet peeve of his. He grabs a stick of paper-wrapped butter. "Our American mania for sterile packages has removed the flavor from most of our foods. Butter is no longer sold out of wooden buckets and a whole generation thinks butter tastes like paper," Praetorius complains. "There was never a perfume like an old-time grocery store. Now they smell like drug stores which don't even smell like drug stores even more." Before his tirade can go much further, the phone rings. It's the night matron at the clinic (Maude Wallace). It seems that Deborah has disappeared. She tells the doctor she doesn't know how she slipped out. Praetorius tells her that she probably walked past her and out the front door just as he did about an hour ago. When he hangs up, Barker guesses that the missing patient is the one that Noah lied to and now the doctor finds himself in a bit of a quandary.

Now as you probably can ascertain, as usually happens in films of this period and earlier, romance sparks insanely fast between Deborah and Noah, though to the film's credit you can't be certain at first if Praetorius truly has fallen for Deborah or if he simply proposes to her as a way of saving her reputation and rescuing her father Arthur (Sidney Blackmer) who lives under the thumb of his ultraconservative brother John (Will Wright) on his farm. Mr. Higgins describes himself as "an indifferent journalist, a minor poet, an ineffective teacher, a wretched businessman unable to provide for my wife and my child and then not even for my child" who ended up as his brother's dependent. In another classic Mankiewicz exchange after Praetorius has heard about all he can from Deborah's Uncle John, he and Deborah's father share this dialogue.
PRAETORIUS: How old were you when you learned to walk?
ARTHUR: I did pretty well by the time I was 4.
PRAETORIUS: When did you leave the farm?
ARTHUR: When I was 16.
PRAETORIUS: It couldn't have taken you 12 years to make up your mind.

We've got several plates spinning in the air now: A sudden marriage, a pregnant woman who doesn't know she's pregnant, a mysterious man, a professor secretly crusading against a popular doctor — no wonder if you peruse reviews written recently or when People Will Talk came out in 1951, many scratch their head because it doesn't fall into any standard formula. People criticize it for not being a good romance, but that's the weakest element and least interesting part of what's going on here. Praetorius admits to Deborah that he didn't marry her just to stop her from committing suicide and to save her reputation because that wouldn't be a very practical solution should a similar case arise. He can't marry all his patients. Deborah also finds the reality of the man once she lives with him and for his 42nd birthday buys him an elaborate toy train set which he sets up with her father running a line from one bedroom, Barker from another and Noah serving as chief conductor in another. Of course, there's a spectacular crash causing the three men to yell at each other and it coincides with the delivery of a message from Professor Elwell that the dean is assembling a hearing of faculty members to hear charges against Praetorius (set for the same night as the big orchestra concert no less). Deborah goes to their bedroom and collapses to the bed in tears. Noah assumes she's upset about the letter but she tells him, "It's just that I love you so much and I went and put all those candles on that cake when you're really only 9-years-old."

I think the reason People Will Talk confuses so many people comes down to three main factors: 1) Expectations for a Joe Mankiewicz film based on A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve; 2) Expectations for a Cary Grant movie; and 3) Viewers lumping their own ideological baggage onto the film. With his two previous films, Mankiewicz truly established himself as a master of sharp, witty dialogue and that's present again in People Will Talk, only it doesn't always take the form of comedy. He has some points to make and I think that makes some feel uneasy, especially since the opening scene between Hume Cronyn and Margaret Hamilton sets the audience up to expect another pure comedy is on the way. When we switch to the anatomy class, though there are laughs to be found, he's subtly switching the tone to be more multi-faceted, particularly when he speaks of the cadaver's former life. By the time we get to the clinic, he's driven the point home that different approaches to medicine are what he's after here. It shouldn't have been a surprise: That's why I used the screenshots of those two title cards that start the film to start the post. There was a third, praising doctors in general, but given some of the doctors I've run across in my hellish journey through the health care system, that title card reads as hopelessly out of date because while there are good doctors today there also are a lot of greedy and incompetent bastards who don't give a shit as well. People Will Talk often is called ahead of its time because of its treatment of Deborah's out-of-wedlock pregnancy, but what really makes the film prophetic is how it pits Dr. Praetorius' commitment to healing the patient as the priority above everything else while doctors such as Professor Elwell want less to do with them and accountants try to cut costs on things such as food service for hospitals. This was made 60 years ago and it's only worse now. Imagine if the issues of billing and health insurance came into play.

By 1951, Cary Grant had been a star for a long time so most moviegoers had come to expect a certain type of role from him. Whether it be a fast-talking smoothie in a screwball comedy such as His Girl Friday, a more refined romancer in The Philadelphia Story, an adventurer in Gunga Din, a serious romantic with a mission that takes precedence in Notorious or even a fretful father in the weepy Penny Serenade, he always seemed to be in charge or at least care about the outcome. The only possible exception would be Bringing Up Baby where he's at Katharine Hepburn's mercy. As Praetorius, he certainly goes above and beyond when it comes to caring about his patients, but he plays the doctor at a distance from the audience, something quite unusual for him, and Praetorius seems indifferent to the investigation by Elwell. The real switch, which really I can only think of happening in Baby, is that Deborah figures out rather quickly what he's up to when he pursues her at the farm and she starts stalking him around the dairy. It's unusual to see Cary Grant be the prey and it’s to Jeanne Crain’s credit that she makes Deborah’s transition believable. Grant gave a lot of great performances and is one of Oscar's biggest crimes that he only was nominated twice, both for tear jerkers. While I love Walter Burns, I have to admit that Dr. Noah Praetorius might be the best work he ever did on film.

Now little can be done to control what people think they see in things. We live in a world where TV preachers thought certain Teletubbies were gay for crying out loud. Admittedly, the film does have some unmistakably liberal viewpoints, particularly in the scenes where Uncle John spouts his views at the farm, but I think far too many people mistake Professor Elwell's campaign against Praetorius as some sort of metaphor for McCarthyism. (This was based on a play originally written in Germany in 1934 after all.) People Will Talk's only concern is comparing medical philosophies. Elwell's only interested in one admittedly unusual faculty member who has an odd friend who always stands by his side. I won't give away the details of the hearing because I want more people to see this movie. It's not a perfect movie and it's certainly no All About Eve, but I think it's better than A Letter to Three Wives and I like that film a lot. The performances across the board are great and that sparkling Mankiewicz dialogue is as quotable as ever. Time and again I'm amazed how many early films addressed problems with our health care system in different ways such as 1931's Night Nurse and Mankiewicz's own No Way Out the year before, even though racism was its bigger issue. The Brits even exposed their own failings in 1938's The Citadel before they reformed their system. We in the U.S. should be ashamed. I think one great quote that Praetorius delivers during his hearing proves particularly prescient.
"The issue is whether the practice of medicine will become more intimately involved with the human being it treats or whether it is to continue to go on in its present way to become more and more a thing of pills, serums and knives until it eventually will undoubtedly evolve an electronic doctor."

Honestly, given some of the M.D.s I've encountered, I'm not so sure an electronic doctor would be worse. I do know though that what makes me like People Will Talk more each time I see it falls along the same lines as many new films that captivate me: They dare to be different and to eschew formula while employing talented casts to tell unusual stories well.

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Sunday, August 28, 2011


The Mystery of the Missing Movie (or Body Heat at 30)

By Damian Arlyn
There’s a kind of freedom that comes in knowing you're about to die. A lack of fear. Once you’ve finally accepted that your number is up, a strange sort of detachment comes over you. I’ve always been a pretty apathetic fellow, but I’d never experienced anything like what I felt standing in that alleyway, staring down the barrel of a .38, two fresh corpses sprawled on the grimy ground beside me, knowing full well that my next breath would be my last. I found that I didn’t give a damn about anyone or anything anymore. Not only that, but I’d lost my ability to B.S. There's no deceit in death. A man who lies to save his own skin does so because he still thinks there’s a chance he’ll live. A man who resigns himself to his fate cannot lie. So, in those last few moments of my life, as I reflected back on the twisted course of events that led me there, I knew it was the absolute truth.

It all started two days ago. It was a hot August evening in the city. I sat in my chair watching the ceiling fan spin, which did nothing to cool things off. It just blew the hot air around. The Venetian blinds in my window cast long shadows across my desk where a nearly empty bottle of bourbon sat comfortably next to an empty shot-glass. I glanced at the clock on the wall. It was almost closing time. Suddenly the door to my office opened and a tall, thin brunette dressed to the nines strolled in and closed the door behind her. “Are you Joe Cannon?” she asked.

“If I’m not, then one of us in the wrong office,” I said indicating the name on the door window that clearly read "JOSEPH CANNON: PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR." She sat down in the chair in front of my desk and crossed her legs giving me a swell view of them. "So, what can I do for you, Miss…?"

“My name isn't important. What matters is that I need your help. I would like to hire you to find…" she hesitated, took a deep breath and said, “…a movie.”

“Come again?”

“I need you to help me find a movie.” Now, in all the years I’d been a snoop, I never had a request like this. I’ve educated various women in the extracurricular activities of their husbands. I’ve helped locate missing persons. I’d even tracked down and fingered the occasional blackmailer, thief or murderer, but finding a movie? That was a new one.

“Not my line of work, doll,” I uttered. “Why don’t you try Blockbuster? There’s one down the street.”

“It closed down,” she said. I really need to get out more, I thought. “Besides, I know precisely what movie it is I’m looking for. All I need is a name. I caught it late one night on cable many years ago. I thought it was an excellent example of that genre known as film noir. It involved a man who had fallen in love with a dangerous blonde. Together they plotted to kill her husband but after the deed is done, he starts to suspect that she’s just using him for her own selfish purposes and —”

“I know that film,” I interjected. “It’s Double Indemnity.”

She shook her head. “No, that’s not it. I’m familiar with that film too and although it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it was used as a source of inspiration given the many similarities, the film I’m looking for has some distinct differences. First of all, Double Indemnity was made in the '40s and is in black and white. My film was made in the '80s and is in color. The protagonist of Double Indemnity is an insurance salesman while the protagonist of my film is a lawyer. That one is set in Los Angeles while my film takes place in Florida in the middle of an intense heat wave. In fact, because of that I believe the title has something to do with ‘heat’ or ‘hot’… also because it’s a very sexy film. There are several love scenes that are quite erotic, though it never crosses the line into becoming pornographic. There is some nudity, but far more is implied than displayed. Whoever made it knows that the most powerful tool in making something appear sexy is the audience’s imagination.” She suddenly stopped talking, a little embarrassed that she’d just gone on for two minutes about this mysterious film. “Please, I have to find it. It means a great deal to me. I was told that if anyone could help me, you could.”

I was about to tell her that I had better things to do than help some needy broad (who wouldn't even give me her name) track down some random flick she’d had a late-night fling with years earlier, but there was something about her eyes that grabbed me: a look of desperation in them that I couldn’t shake. That’s when I made a mistake that you never make in my line of work. For the first time in a long time, I felt sorry for a client. I told her I’d help her out. Her face lit up. As I discussed my pay, she jotted down some more information on a scrap of paper (along with a number where I could reach her) which she handed to me. She rose and sauntered to the door. “Thank you, Mr. Cannon,” she said looking over her shoulder with a smile.

"Call me Joe," I said. "What do I call you?"

"I'm known to my friends as 'The Siren.'"

So, a Greek mythological creature hired me to find a movie. I guess I'd had weirder cases. I decided to start with my old Army buddy Matt Zoller Seitz. Matt was such a film freak that he had forgotten more about movies than I would ever know. The next day I called his workplace. He wasn’t there, but his office told me where I could find him. I caught up with Matt at a local park playing with his kids. He was pushing one of them in a swing when he saw me coming toward him and smiled. “Joe,” he said holding out his hand as I approached him. “It’s been a while. What’s new? You still in the gumshoe business?"

I shook his hand. “Still. In fact, I’m on a case right now. I’m looking for a movie.”

“Well, I’m your man. What do you got?”

“It’s film noir. Story involves some sap who gets mixed up with the wrong dame. Together they kill her husband and then things start to go bad for him.”

“Sounds like Double Indemnity. Released in 1944. Directed by Billy Wilder.”

“Nah, this one’s more recent,” I said pulling out my notepad and looking at the details The Siren gave me. I told Matt that this film was made in the '80s. I mentioned it featured William Hurt as the sap, Kathleen Turner (in her first movie role) as the voluptuous vixen he falls for, the late great Richard Crenna played her husband, J.A. Preston was the investigating cop, Ted Danson (in what apparently was one of his best performances) portrayed a sleazy rival lawyer who is always dancing wherever he goes and a very young Mickey Rourke was an explosives expert. I went on about what the lady had told me regarding the film’s visual style: how the camera could glide with confidence and grace but also know precisely when to let it rest in a static shot. As I read more and more details off, I noticed Matt’s smile slowly fade away. It was replaced by a look of concern. He was clearly getting uncomfortable. “I…uh, I don’t know that one. Sorry. It just doesn’t ring a bell.”

“You not knowin’ a flick? That doesn’t sound like you, Matt.”

“Well, I guess you can’t know ‘em all, huh?” he said wiping the sweat off his forehead with a handkerchief. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta take the kids home.”

“What’s wrong, Matt?”

“Nothing. Just…let this one go, Joe. Let it go.”

Matt’s warning echoed in my head as I drove all over town talking to other friends of mine who happened to know a lot about movies. Everywhere I went I got the same answer. They didn’t know. Of course, I knew they were lying. They did know and they weren’t talking. They were scared. Someone had put the fear of God into them, but who? And why? As the evening rolled in, I was no closer to finding this flick than I was to finding Nick Jonas’ talent. I decided to try the local library. Not only did they have a very extensive collection of movies to check out, but I happened to know a girl who worked there. Her name was Sheila O’Malley. She was a blonde, bookish type with whom I’d had a thing going a while ago, but she wanted more so I got out while the getting was good. Since then she’d had a string of casual boyfriends, but I still think she was waiting for me to come to my senses again and I was able to use that sometimes to my advantage. I caught up with her as she was getting ready to lock up. “Well, look at what the cat dragged in.” she said smiling wryly. “What brings you here, Joe?” I told her everything I knew about the movie and she agreed to help me out, for old time’s sake. She typed the information into her computer database. “Ah, yes. Here we go. The film you’re looking for is called Body Heat. It was released on August 28, 1981 and was written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan. He’s the guy who wrote the screenplays to Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back. He later went on to direct The Big Chill, Silverado and Mumford, but Body Heat was his first film.”

“Yeah, fascinating," I said suppressing a yawn. "Do you have it?”

“As a matter of fact, we do.” She led me to the area where they kept their movies. As she looked through the numerous rows of plastic cases for it, I decided to ask her if she had ever seen the film herself and if so what she thought of it. “Oh, sure. I saw it a long time ago. I quite liked it. I remember thinking that the music in particular was very good. John Barry, the fella responsible for such great scores as Midnight Cowboy, Somewhere in Time and many of the James Bond films, wrote a very lush, sensual jazz score. It captured the steamy essence of the story quite effectively I thought. In fact, it’s one of his best scores.” She stopped and looked off nostalgically. "I can still hear that sultry sax solo playing over those opening credits." I cleared my throat, she snapped out of it, pulled out a case with an image of a mustached guy and a hot blonde dressed in white on the cover. “Here we go.” She opened it and her brow suddenly furled. “Well, that’s strange. It’s not in here.”

“What?” I asked.

“It should be here, but it’s not. There’s no movie in the case. Someone stole it.”

This just gets more and more bizarre
, I thought. “Something’s going on here, Sheila. I don’t know what it is, but it doesn’t feel right. Can you tell me who the last person was to check it out?”

“Sure.” She led me back to her computer where she looked up the film’s rental history. “Someone named Ross Ruediger.” I thanked her and headed for the door. “What are you getting’ yourself into here, Joe?” she called out to me. I pretended not to hear.

So, I had a title and I had a name. I decided to pay a visit to this Ruediger fellow and see what he knew. I found his address in the phone book and the following morning showed up at his home. It was a nice suburban house with a perfectly mowed lawn and a white picket fence. As I approached the front door, I noticed that it was slightly open. I drew my piece and cautiously entered. The living room had been ransacked. Someone was looking for something. Chairs were overturned, couch pillows were cut to bits and dozens of opened movie cases were spread out all over the floor. It was quite the collection: L.A. Confidential, Brick, Devil in a Blue Dress, The Long Goodbye and many more. What was most striking about this residence, however, was the dead body lying face-up in the middle of the floor. He looked like he had been shot in the chest. I leaned over, pulled out his wallet and checked his I.D. It was Ross. There was very little else in the wallet aside from a couple bucks, a library card and a scrap of paper with some random letters and numbers that looked like they'd been scrawled hurriedly on it: "D.B. 5552314 82881." I pocketed the cash and the paper, rose to my feet and made my way to the kitchen. Unlike the living room it was immaculate. The floor had been swept, the counters were clean and there were healthy potted plants everywhere throughout it. Suddenly something hit me over the head. I fell forward and everything went black.

When I woke up, my ears were ringing like the national anthem and my head felt like it had gone 12 rounds with Tyson. How long had I been out? I opened my eyes and found myself staring up into the faces of two of my least favorite people in the world: Lt. Dennis Cozzalio and Sgt. Jim Emerson of the police department.

“Hey, sleeping beauty. Welcome back to the land of the living,” Cozzalio said. Together, the two of them picked me up and threw me into a chair next to a small table in the middle of the kitchen. They told me that when they received a call from some neighbor who heard a gunshot in this house, they never expected to find me here. They then proceeded to ask me a series of questions in rapid succession, each one taking a turn. It was like watching a tennis match — and I was the ball. I told them everything I knew but decided it was wise to leave out a few little things, such as the truth. Cozzalio wasn’t buying my yarn.

“That’s some story,” he said rolling his eyes. “If I ever enter a fiction-writing contest I’ll have to remember it.”

“Now, why would I lie?”

“To protect your client maybe. Tall, thin brunette. Goes by the nickname 'The Siren?'” I froze. How did he know about her? Cozzalio pulled out my notepad. "It was found on the floor next to you. What's this Siren want with you? And what does it have to do with all these details about some neo-noir movie?"

"You know I can't tell you about what goes on between me and a client, Lieutenant."

"Well, you're not going to be doing her any good by keeping quiet. We just got a call that her body was found in her apartment across town. Looks like she was plugged with a .38.”

“Same weapon it seems was used on Mr. Ruediger here,” Emerson added.

"So, you see, Cannon," Cozzalio continued. "This is a double homicide. Somehow you’re connected to both of them and you damn sure know more than you’re tellin’ me. So, give…or am I gonna have to haul you in on suspicion of murder.”

He was bluffing. “Oh, come on, Lieutenant. You think I came in here, popped this guy and then decided to take a nap until you boys showed up?”

“Then give us something, Cannon.” Emerson barked. “What can you tell us about this Ross Ruediger?”

“He liked neo-noir?” I joked. Cozzalio wasn't amused. Emerson looked confused.

“What’s neo-noir?” he asked.

Cozzalio turned to him. “Neo-noir is a term used to describe a recent sub-genre of movies that attempt to replicate many of the same elements seen in classic examples of film noir from the '30s, '40s and the '50s. Some have said that noir was a genre distinctive to a particular historical era of cinema. Others have said that the genre is more defined by its content (style, themes, etc). Neo-noir tries to imitate the form, if not perhaps the function, of traditional noir and sometimes it’s highly successful, as it was in Chinatown. Other times, such as The Black Dahlia…well, not so much.”

“Can I go now?” I asked. Cozzalio glared at me. He knew he had nothing he could hold me on.

“Don’t leave town,” he snarled.

So, The Siren was dead. Probably shot by the same gun that killed Ruediger. What was going on? What was so important about this movie? I walked the streets trying to figure it all out, but my head hurt. I stopped at a drugstore a block from my office and bought an ice pack. My head was still throbbing as I trudged up to the stairs to my office. Before I could get my key in the lock, the door flew open and a hand pulled me in and threw me to the floor. “Good evening, Mr. Cannon,” a polite but sinister voice said. I looked up and saw a small, extremely well-groomed man in a suit that cost more than a year’s worth of my rent sitting in my chair with his feet up on my desk. I wasn’t sure how, but there was something familiar about him. “I hope you don’t mind that we let ourselves in.”

“Not at all,” I muttered as I slowly stood up. “Make yourself at home.”

“Thank you. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is David Bordwell and this is my associate Odie.” I turned around and got a good look at the goon who pulled me in. He was easily twice my size with hands as big as cocoanuts. He grunted a greeting. The little guy in the fancy suit pulled a tiny clipper out of his pocket and started to trim his nails as he spoke to me. “Word is that you’re looking for a movie that goes by the name of Body Heat? Is that true?”

“What’s it to you?” The mountain slapped me upside the back of the head and my knees became acquainted with the floorboards once again.

“Let’s just say that I am also interested in obtaining that particular motion picture. I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but it is very hard to find these days. All existing copies seem to have vanished. If one is indeed located, it could be very valuable. I was wondering if I could retain your services in finding it for me?”

“Thanks, but I’m not interested.” Again, his henchman smacked me to the floor. That’s it, I thought. I’m tired of being knocked around on this case. As I slowly rose to my feet I shot him a dirty look. “Touch me again and you’ll regret it,” I threatened.

“Easy, Odie.” the suit remarked. “I don’t think you realize how important a person I am. I could reward you very handsomely for it.”

“I don’t know who you are and I don’t care.” I said. Odie took another swing at me, but this time I ducked and brought my knee up into his groin. He went down like the walls of Jericho. “I warned you.” I gloated as he rolled around on the floor whimpering. The suit rose from my chair and walked around the desk toward me.

“It’s so hard to find good help these days.” He reached into his jacket, pulled out a small pad and a pencil and started writing something on it. “If you are ever interested in becoming a rich man, ring this number here. It's my private line.” He ripped the slip of paper from the pad and held it out to me. Reluctantly I took it. With a bow, he was gone, taking his limping sidekick with him.

I sat down at the desk and removed my hat. Who was this guy and why did he seem so familiar to me? I glanced down at the paper and was about to crumple it up when I noticed something. The phone number he wrote was "555-2314." I pulled out the paper I got off Ruediger's body. "5552314." It was the same number. That's when I noticed the letters. "D.B." David Bordwell! Ruediger knew Bordwell! Not only that, he had his private number. The only thing that I had left to decipher on the sheet was the remaining number: "82881." That's when it hit me. I grabbed my phone and called the library hoping Sheila would still be there. She was. I asked her when she had said the release date was for Body Heat. "August 28, 1981," she immediately responded. 82881. It was a date! 8-28-81! Thirty years ago today! In a flash, it all suddenly made sense. I remembered where I'd seen Bordwell before and I knew where to find the flick.

"Sheila, I need you to do something for me," I said. "I need you to call the police department. Ask for a Lieutenant Cozzalio or Sergeant Emerson. Tell them to meet me in 30 minutes at this address."

"What's going on, Joe?" Sheila asked.

"Just do it, Sheila," I asserted. "I know who murdered Ruediger and The Siren. I also know where to find the missing movie." I gave her the address to tell the police and she agreed to call them right away. I hung up and immediately dialed Bordwell's private number to set up a meeting. First, however, I had to make a quick stop somewhere else.

A half-hour later I was standing in the middle of an alley between Cain Street and Chandler Boulevard. My hat's brim dipped low, my trench coat's collar rose high. It wasn't that I was cold. This was just the kind of neighborhood in which you didn't want to draw attention to yourself; the kind of place where the sound of gunshots were so common that neighbors weren't reporting them to the police. I looked around nervously as I waited. Suddenly, I heard a voice behind me.

"Well, that didn't take long, Mister Cannon," I turned around and standing before me was the little guy and the big guy. "Is that it there?" he said pointing to the disc I held in my hand. I nodded. "Where did you find it?"

"At Ruediger's house. When you tossed the place you forgot to look in the potted plants in his kitchen…one in particular. When a man takes great care to mow his lawn and see that his plants are watered and healthy, it should stand out to you when one plant is dying. It means he's got something else hidden in there." Bordwell looked impressed as he held out his hand. "Before I hand it over, I was wondering if you could tell me what would someone with unlimited access to the Warner Bros. movie archives want with a copy of Body Heat?" He smiled and asked me when I realized who he was. "I knew your face when we spoke in my office earlier, but I just couldn't place it. Then I remembered reading an article in Variety a few months ago about how you had taken over the DVD/Blu-Ray division at Warner Bros. studios. I just couldn't figure out why someone in your position would so badly want to get their hand on a copy of this or any other Warner Bros. title."

"Have you ever seen it, Mister Cannon?" he asked. I shook my head. "Well, it's a fine film. A damn fine film. It was well-received by critics back when it was released and the years have been very kind to it. It's one of the treasures of our library and were it to be re-released on DVD and Blu-ray in a special 30th anniversary collector's edition it could make us a fortune…but only if people didn't already own it. The economy has hit everyone hard, Mister Cannon. Consumers don't double-dip anymore. They're tired of having to repeatedly purchase their favorite films in new formats. Just as Ridley Scott's FINAL CUT of Blade Runner promised closure to so many cinephiles, so would this definitive release of Body Heat be the last chapter in the life of a significant piece of cinematic history."

"That's why it's so hard to find nowadays," I continued. "You've been snatching up every available copy out there so that demand would be high for your release of Body Heat with all its 'bells and whistles.' You also bribed or intimidated reputable cinephiles, such as my buddy Matt Zoller Seitz, so they'd keep their mouths shut. Tell me, why did you kill Ross Ruediger? Was he refusing to give up his copy of it? Did he love neo-noir movies so much that he couldn't bear to part with it? Or was he just threatening to spill the beans on the whole operation? And what about The Siren? She was just a woman in love. What did she ever do to deserve what she got?"

"You know, I'm bored with this conversation," he said casually pulling out a .22 and pointing it right at me. "Now, if you don't mind, Mister Cannon, kindly hand over the disc." I tossed it to him. "Thank you."

"Are you going to kill me too? Just as you killed Ross Ruediger and The Siren?"

Bordwell chuckled. "This may be hard for you to believe, Mister Cannon, but I've never heard of this…'Siren.' I didn't kill Mister Ruediger either. In fact, he and I had an understanding. He was very keen on selling me his copy of Body Heat. That's why I gave him my private number. He was supposed to get in touch with me by today, but he never called. However, it's no matter now. Goodbye, Mister Cannon." Bordwell bowed and turned to leave. Odie grunted his usual response and turned with him. Was he telling the truth? Did I have it all wrong? If he didn't kill them, then who did? At that moment two gunshots rang out and both Bordwell and his henchman fell to the ground. The shots came from behind me. I whipped around and standing there holding a smoking .38 was the last person I ever expected to see.


"That's right, Joe," she said smiling at me.

"What the…? I don't get — How? Why?"

"It's a long story, Joe, but it goes back several years…to the day that you dumped me. I was heartbroken, devastated. I invited my best friend over to comfort me. I believe you two have met. She called herself 'The Siren.' Anyway, we ended up watching a movie on late night television together. It was Body Heat. I didn't quite know what to think of it that first time. I enjoyed it but was not blown away. Over the years, as I went through relationship after relationship with other men, I couldn't get certain images and lines of dialogue from that film out of my mind. Kathleen Turner in that gorgeous white outfit standing alone on the pier staring off at the ocean, William Hurt admiring his new fedora in the reflection of the car window, the haunting sound of those beautiful wind chimes…All these moments stuck with me. That's when I decided, a few months ago, I needed to watch it again. By this time I had the job at the library and checked out our copy of it. It was then that the film's greatness became apparent to me. I fell in love with it. Its style, its elegance, its romanticism. It is an impeccably-made motion picture. I realized that I didn't need a man as long as I had Body Heat. But Bordwell and his greedy friends at Warner Bros. were making sure that nobody could get their hands on it. I knew it was only a matter of time before they tried to take the library's copy away too. I had to make sure that didn't happen. So, I chose a sap whom I could seduce into checking it out permanently."

"Ross Ruediger," I said.

"It was a cinch picking him. I saw him in the library all the time. He loved neo-noir and when I came on strong to him one day, he folded like a pup tent. Men are so easy to manipulate. In a few weeks, he would do anything for me…even hold on to my movie for me, hiding it so that nobody could find it."

"And you were able to make sure that it was constantly checked out, so that nobody could ever take your precious Body Heat away from you. Clever." Sheila wore a somewhat triumphant expression. "So, why'd you kill him?"

"Because he was weak. The day after you came by the library, I went over to his house bright and early hoping to get him to give me the movie before you showed up and strong-armed him into handing it over to you. The man loved good movies, but he had no backbone. Bordwell had already gotten to him, as Ross tearfully confessed to me that morning, and talked him into selling it back to the studio. He could no longer be trusted. He had to go."

"So you shot him and then ransacked the place looking for the movie. Is that when I showed up and you ambushed me?"

"You guessed it. I have to admit that I was a little surprised to see you turn up at the library looking for it, Joe. I couldn't figure out why you were suddenly interested in the film, so while you were out cold I went through your pockets, found your notepad and saw the name and phone number of your new client: my old friend, The Siren. I guess the same thing had happened to her. She also had fallen in love with that film that we were both introduced to that night. She must also have became obsessed with having it. Well, I couldn't let her. This movie was mine and mine alone. Nobody was going to take it away from me. Ever." She raised the gun. "I guess I owe you some thanks, Joe. Not only did you locate the movie for me, but if you hadn't broken up with me all those years ago, I never would've even found out about it. Now, get the disc."

"You'll never get away with this, Sheila. The police will be here any —" I stopped when I realized that I had asked her to call the police. She smiled at me. I sighed, walked over to the Bordwell's small body which lay on the ground behind me, took the disc out of his hand and turned back to face Sheila. "Throw it to me."

"Don't do this, Sheila," I pleaded with her. "No movie is worth this."

"You don't know that. You haven't seen it."

"And I guess I never will." I crunched the disc in my hand before dropping it to the ground and stepping on it. Sheila let out a noise like nothing I'd ever heard. It was more than a scream. It was the sound of a person's soul being crushed. She looked at me with tears streaming down her face and a look of intense fury in her eyes.

"You bastard!" she said cocking the gun.

This is it, I thought. This is how you die. I closed my eyes and waited for the gunshot that I knew was going to end my life. There was a loud boom. I actually heard the sound of my own death. So, where did she hit me? I couldn't tell. I felt nothing. Did she miss? I opened my eyes just in time to see Sheila fall forward. At that moment, Sgt. Emerson emerged from around the corner holding his gun. He asked me if I was OK. I told him I was fine. Just in shock. "Cozzalio's been having me follow you around ever since you left Ruediger's place this morning. Good thing too."

"Where were you when she killed the other two?" I asked.

"I was…um, indisposed at the moment," he said looking a little embarrassed. "I ran over as soon as I heard the gunshots and that's when I saw her pointing that .38 at you. Don't worry. I heard her whole confession. You're off the hook, Cannon." Within 10 minutes, there were a dozen cops at the scene, the alley was quartered off and Lt. Cozzalio was taking my statement. This time, I decided to tell him everything, leaving nothing out.

"Well, it's only a shame you had to destroy the movie too, Joe. We could've used that."

"I didn't destroy it." I said pulling another disc out of my pocket. "While I was picking up Body Heat at Ruediger's place I grabbed another disc just in case. I don't even know which one it was. Sin City I think." I handed it to him.

"All this trouble over a movie," he said holding it up and looking at it. "I hope it was all worth it." I asked him what would happen to it. "Oh, it's evidence now," he answered. "It'll get put away with all the other junk for a long, long time. Why? Were you interested in watching it?"

"No, thanks," I replied lighting a cigarette. "Too many people have died for that thing." Cozzalio was still examining it as I turned to exit the alley. I stopped, however, and glanced back over my shoulder one last time before walking off into the night. "But I hear it's damn good."

A special word of thanks to all of my film-blogging friends who allowed me to use their names in this crazy, but amusing, little endeavor of mine:
Matt Zoller Seitz
The Self-Styled Siren
David Bordwell
Jim Emerson
Ross Ruediger
Odie Henderson
Sheila O'Malley
Dennis Cozzalio

Black-and-white image courtesy of Jim Ferreira Photography.

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Saturday, August 27, 2011


"No Cuffs!"

By M.A. Peel
Fred Astaire was born in the last year of the 19th century. Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we pause for a moment to consider Swing Time — one of his greatest achievements — on its 75th anniversary.

The big assessments all are available to read: Arlene Croce’s The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book; John Mueller’s Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films; Hannah Hyman’s Fred and Ginger. There you can read about George Stevens and Howard Lindsay and all the formal calibrations and comparisons that are the world of film studies.

For myself, one question stuck in my head: What does Swing Time offer us in the 21st century?

Well, it is stunningly fresh in so many ways. It sweeps us into lush monochrome beauty, offering a respite from the glare of the colors of real life. The absurd storyline is not alien in the age of Wedding Crashers and The Hangover, not in plot points per se but in plot probability: man’s friends waylaid him from getting married because they don’t want him to leave the act, and twice — not once but twice — important things happen because characters aren't CERTAIN that men’s morning trousers shouldn't have cuffs.

Fred’s first entrance as Lucky Garnett in full wedding suit regalia sets up the distinctive tone for our time together. His uncanny ease in formal attire never loses its power: authority of place and time, conviction of character, and an understanding of the tools of his trade of dancing wrapped in genuine nonchalance. His waistcoat, top hat and spats are his second skin, and his understanding of this gives us all permission to simply enjoy the visual beauty of the lines of his exquisite suits rather than being put off by them.

Calling Judd Apatow, Jon Lucas, et al.: No one is watching Swing Time for the story, but it has charms to offer the 2011 viewer.

Lucky Garnett (Fred Astaire) has a best friend, Pop Cardetti (Victor Moore), which makes him a rich man in the important ways. But it’s 1936 and people are still reeling from the Depression.

The boys in the act take the cash Lucky gambled from them, but that doesn’t stop him. He wants to “go to New York” to make his fortune so that he can marry his fiancee. With no money for a ticket he hops a freight train. Pop runs along the train with a suitcase of all their clothes. It bursts open and they lose everything but a toothbrush. But since this is not a drama, they keep laughing. That’s part of the fantasy. In New York, they will have to talk their way into an apartment, and then Lucky tries to gamble a tuxedo off of a mark so that he go to the dance audition with Penny Carrol (Ginger Rogers). This ease in the face of serious issues — being broke — pulls you in. Yes, I want to have that much chutzpah and courage in the face of economic strain.

La Belle, La Perfectly Swell Romance: To try to capture the songs and the dance of Swing Time in words is a little painful: It earthbounds what lives on a celestial plain of motion and soundscape. But words (and YouTube) are the best we have to share the experience of this piece of art.

Pick Yourself Up: The most exuberant of the duo’s dances, perfectly punctuated by the flare of Rogers’s biased-cut dress. Astaire’s sheer lightness of movement creates a visual definition of “joyous” that never has been topped. The advice to “dust yourself, start all over again” is welcome to all ages at any age. The dance and the songs spark with optimism and confidence.

The Way You Look Tonight: The great nondanced song from the ultimate song-and-dance man. Its opening lines are in imprinted into the psyche of several generations. I love that Penny is not waitin' on no man, she’s going on with the details of life, such as touching up the dye job on her hair. Astaire needs only to sit and sing to exude his considerable charisma.

Waltz in Swing Time: One of the great orchestral pieces with big, pendulous declarative riffs which Astaire and Rogers dance around, between, amidst.

A Fine Romance: I love the snow. I love the fur coats. I love the inside joke of a “fine romance with no kisses,” given Astaire’s dislike of onscreen kissing. He said that his lovemaking onscreen was in dance. Oh yes.

Bojangles of Harlem: Fred and his three shadows. Another song with a bracing beat and an imaginative chorus line sequence. While a tribute to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, as many have pointed out the flashy jacket is Sportin’ Life, not Bill who dressed very plainly. The challenge for some today is the blackface.

Never Gonna Dance: Even if you’d never read that this is considered the pinnacle of the Astaire/Rogers art, you would know it after one viewing. (Click here for proof.) More accessible and less fussy than Top Hat’s "Cheek to Cheek," it actually is more sophisticated and “deeper” in how it tells the whole story of “boy meets girl/loses girl/boy is crestfallen” in six exquisite minutes with a spectrum of moods, steps, and rhythms amid twinkling Art Deco splendor. Rogers’ gown is stunning: a simple satin slip dress with rhinestones crossing under the bust and across the bare back. When Rogers starts to walk away midpoint, Astaire pulls her back, just like the audience wants him too. Then the motion up the stairs to the big finish, with an amazing series of fast pirouettes from Ginger, until with one final pirouette she pivots away.

The plot then winds its way through more absurdity until Lucky and Penny find themselves with each other free and clear, with one boffo reprise singing “A Fine Romance” against “Just the Way You Look Tonight.”

You Do, Something to Me: The Astaire/Rogers team tantalizes because of how much more is their whole than the sum of their considerable and lovely parts. It’s the alchemy that happens when certain people are together: The Beatles, Vivien Leigh & Clark Gable, Crockett and Tubbs, Brangelina. There are pairings that just make people want more, want to know more, want to BE a part of the pair somehow. That phenomenon is in full force in Swing Time. Fred and Ginger are the most equal of partners; the synchronizing of their parallel steps is magical. For me, I can’t take my eyes off of Fred. For me his unfailing virtuosity overshines Ginger’s. I’m in the camp of “Eleanor Powell is a more accomplished dancer than Ginger Rogers.” But Powell never had the rapport with Astaire that Rogers did.

And so Rogers and Astaire are in a pantheon all their own. I hope that pop culture points the younger generation toward this artistry sometime in a big way. As I said, there’s lot that will make sense to The Hangover crowd, and much that would jazz them. What they might not know is just how hard Astaire worked at his art.
"This search for what you want is like tracking something that doesn't want to be tracked. It takes time to get a dance right, to create something memorable." — Fred Astaire

Best tribute, go watch the film!

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Friday, August 26, 2011



By Edward Copeland
Most film aficionados know that Anhedonia was Woody Allen's original choice for the title of Annie Hall. This isn't to imply that the British comedy (and I use the term comedy loosely) Swinging With the Finkels, which played across the U.K. last year and receives a limited U.S. release beginning today, approaches Allen's masterwork in terms of quality but simply that the definition of anhedonia fits Swinging With the Finkels rather well. For those unfamiliar with its meaning, anhedonia is the clinical term for the inability to experience pleasure and trust me, you won't be deriving anything pleasing from this movie that apes all the greater films writer-director-star Martin Freeman obviously loves but doesn't comes close to eliciting even a smile with its cinematic kleptomania.

Freeman, who recently portrayed Dr. Watson in the well-received television miniseries Sherlock Holmes and will star as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's two-film adaptation of The Hobbit, must hold a special place in his heart for Woody Allen's best films because he certainly tries to imitate them in Swinging With the Finkels. He divides the film with black-and-white-title cards à la Hannah and Her Sisters (even if Woody himself was taking that from Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage), there are elements reminiscent of Husbands and Wives and he even goes so far as to film a scene where a couple shares a romantic moment on a park bench against a beautiful sky, only in color instead of black-and-white as in Manhattan. Newman does show that he's doesn't steal from a single filmmaker — he swipes from Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally as well (though he's taking more from Nora Ephron's script than Reiner's direction).

Perusing Newman's credits as a writer-director, it would appear that he's also recycling himself because in 2008 he wrote and directed a film called Sex With the Finkels, only it had an entirely different cast though the plot sounds the same and includes characters with the same names such as "Toe Jam Man." If at first you don't succeed, fail, fail again I suppose.

Newman stars in Swinging With the Finkels as Alvin Finkel, (He even had to have a name similar to Allen's character of Alvy from Annie Hall? Oh boy.) who after nine years of marriage with his wife Ellie (Mandy Moore) finds that the spark has seemed to have gone out. Alvin's best friend Peter (Jonathan Silverman) and his wife Janet (Melissa George) are going through similar problems, though they've been wed longer and the introduction of their children into their relationship have dimmed their flame.

The two couples raised several questions for me, namely how Brit Alvin ended up with both an American wife and an American best friend who has a thriving dental practice in London. I assume Janet is supposed to be British though George herself is Australian. There also is the issue of age disparities. Flashbacks imply that Alvin and Ellie met at college and once a picture of Alvin's hairstyle at that time is dated as 1994 (when in real life Mandy Moore would have been 10.) The film never goes to the trouble of saying how old anyone is supposed to be but the 27-year-old Moore is supposed to be in her ninth year of marriage to the 38-year-old Newman whose best friend is the 45-year-old Silverman? Of course, if anything else in the movie worked my mind wouldn't have started wandering to silly details such as these.

Using the black-and-white title cards, most of the film plays as blackout sketches, so there isn't any chance for character development on anyone's part. As a result, the viewer has no vested interested in what happens to either marriage. The movie also can't settle on what type of comedy it wants to be. Occasionally, it aims for more sophisticated types of humor, then it will try to get laughs off drinks with naughty names. When Alvin and Ellie make the decision to interview couples to see if spouse swapping will revitalize their marriage, we get the expected series of silly couples. The only things all the different humor styles have in common is that as scripted by Newman, they all land with a thud. It makes you grateful at times that the musical score by Mark Thomas steps on so much of the dialogue, sparing you from at least some of the bad jokes.

The absolute worst moments come when the film tries to step into material that might be too lowbrow for the American Pie movies. A guest at a New Year's Eve party mistakes cat food for a dip and, when he learns what it is, continues to eat it. Janet carries on a conversation with Ellie while lactating and saving her breast milk into bottles. She asks Ellie if she would like a taste and proceeds to drink some herself.

The movie's low point though has to come when Alvin goes to the airport to pick up Ellie's grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Winters (Jerry Stiller and Beverley Klein). Ellie thinks that she'll be alone long enough to experiment with self-gratification through vegetables. Guess who arrives home sooner than expected! If you think I'm being too hard on Swinging With the Finkels and visualizing Jerry Stiller getting hit in the nuts with a lubricated cucumber makes you laugh, maybe this is your type of film.

For me, after enduring what has to be one of the longest 85 minute periods of my life watching Swinging With the Finkels, I just felt like bellowing the mantra of Stiller's character Frank Costanza from Seinfeld: SERENITY NOW!

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