Twelve Monkeys (1995, Terry Gilliam)

Twelve Monkeys is one of the more unhappy films. Unhappy films are difficult to pull off–The Godfather Part II is the finest example–but Monkeys does it. When I say unhappy, I don’t mean a sad ending or an unpleasing one or an unrewarding one. Not even a cynical or downbeat one. An unhappy film, if it does its job, sucks the empathy from the viewer and chucks it in an incinerator. The unhappy film leaves the viewer spent and unwilling to try again. They’re tragedies in the truest form and films, being the most commercial form of fiction–in a reasonable sense, I’m not counting television (with some notable exceptions, of course)–tend not to go too far in to real tragedy. A person wouldn’t want to see it again or, more modernly, double-dip on the DVD releases. To do it right is to make an experience worth the draining effect. These films are not infrequent (at least not during the period Monkeys was made), but they are somewhat occasional.

Monkeys has something else to make it a rarity, anyway. It has a script from David Webb Peoples, who hasn’t had a new script produced since Monkeys came out in 1995. While Gilliam might bring the mood of the film, the sets, the warped technology (and, according to IMDb, Willis and Pitt’s excellent performances), the Peoples (and Peoples, written with his wife) script brings the perfect plot structure–including a fantastic, three-act structured forty minute first act–and the romance.

If Gilliam is responsible for getting Willis’s great performance out of him, the Peoples got the stunning work out of Madeleine Stowe. I’m a big Stowe fan, lamenting her absence from cinema on a weekly basis, but I’d forgotten her performance in this film. It’s easily one of the finest performances in the 1990s, but probably since then too. Stowe’s function in the film is to convince the audience and she takes it to a level beyond, the one where it’s possible for Twelve Monkeys to be so depressing, but also so rewarding.

The film moves through time and frequent settings–whether the future or mental hospitals–the first act definitely establishes some common grounds. Then Stowe and Willis go on the road–the only defect has got to be some of the blue-screened driving composites, I was hoping they were some homage to Hitchcock, but I don’t think so–even though the settings still repeat and become the familiar, the terrain the film crosses in to is new. There’s a scene in the woods with Stowe and Willis fighting–she’s kicking him–and I realized I was watching a wholly unique moment of cinema. The best moment in the film, direction-wise, is that scene in the woods (as well as the scene returning to the woods). Gilliam is showing the viewer something he or she cannot see anywhere else; more, it’s impossible to incapsulate–to get the most from that scene, one has to watch what comes before and what comes after, regardless of how it turns out–which is what makes Twelve Monkeys one of those films. The rewards are in appreciating it.

Sometimes I think I’m remembering wrong and the 1990s wasn’t such a superior decade for filmmaking. Then I watch a film like Twelve Monkeys.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Terry Gilliam; written by David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples, based on the film La Jetée by Chris Marker; director of photography, Roger Pratt; edited by Mick Audsley; music by Paul Buckmaster; production designer, Jeffrey Beecroft; produced by Charles Roven; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bruce Willis (James Cole), Madeleine Stowe (Kathryn Railly), Brad Pitt (Jeffrey Goines), Christopher Plummer (Dr. Goines), David Morse (Dr. Peters), Frank Gorshin (Dr. Fletcher), Jon Seda (Jose) and Joseph Melito (Young James).


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Manhattan Melodrama (1934, W.S. Van Dyke)

It’s funny how obvious writers’ contributions can be in certain films. For instance, Joseph L. Mankiewicz very likely wrote some of the best scenes in Manhattan Melodrama and Oliver H.P. Garrett wrote some of the worst. The clue is the dialogue. Mankiewicz has distinctive dialogue, even in a film relatively early in his career, and it’s very good dialogue.

Unfortunately, uneven writing isn’t the only problem with Manhattan Melodrama. Running ninety minutes and covering thirty years, it plays like a summary of a longer film. The characters exist only in their scenes, never in between. Myrna Loy’s got a particularly troublesome role in that regard, because her character rarely makes sense for longer than ten minutes at a time. She’s good in some of her scenes and a little lost in the others, the fault clearly resting on the script. Her character is constantly yo-yoing between, she thinks, Clark Gable and William Powell. Except, rather specifically, Gable informs her she is not. But the script keeps it up, because without it and with the rapid pace, there’s not enough… pardon the term… melodrama.

Gable gives a fantastic performance, a great leading man performance. He’s amazing in every scene, bringing both a sense of humor and sadness to the film.

Nat Pendleton and Isabel Jewell help with the humor when Gable’s being sad and their comedic scenes–along with some of the romantic scenes between Powell and Loy–are when Van Dyke’s doing his best work in the film. His worst work is when he’s being melodramatic and, oddly, a little artistic. Way too artistic for him. There’s a clear divide in the film–the good scenes sound like Mankiewicz and have good direction, the bad scenes don’t sound like Mankiewicz and have poor direction. It’s just not Van Dyke’s kind of film–the ninety minutes sounds right and I can even understand some of the lack of coverage (Van Dyke shot notoriously fast)–but Manhattan Melodrama occasionally feels like The Godfather in terms of its potential and it doesn’t (or couldn’t) even acknowledge them.

It’s clearest at the end, when Gable and Powell shake hands, when it’s perfectly honest–even in this film–they need to hug. Well, it was 1934 and they couldn’t hug and that reality is probably what makes Manhattan Melodrama a doomed effort.

The film does feature some of Powell’s best acting. I’m not familiar enough with his work outside the Thin Man series and a handful of other films–all comedies–but he had a very definite ability as a dramatic actor. So, of course, most of his more important scenes are the ones poorly written. Also, the film ends abruptly, resolving itself in the alloted time (with a really, really unfortunate scene).

I’d seen Manhattan Melodrama before and I remember it being a disappointment, but certainly not as disappointing as it turned out this time. However, Gable’s performance (and Powell’s too, but not in the showy, movie star way) is incredible.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on a story by Arthur Caeser; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by Ben Lewis; produced by David O. Selznick; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Clark Gable (Blackie), William Powell (Jim), Myrna Loy (Eleanor Packer), Leo Carrillo (Father Joe), Nat Pendleton (Spud), George Sidney (Poppa Rosen), Isabel Jewell (Annabelle), Muriel Evans (Tootsie Malone), Thomas E. Jackson (Snow), Jimmy Butler (Jim as a boy) and Mickey Rooney (Blackie as a boy).


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Gold Coast (1997, Peter Weller)

I was going to start saying the amount of Elmore Leonard adaptations had dwindled, peaking after soon Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Jackie Brown. However, it appears Leonard adaptations are a mainstay, whether theatrically or–mostly–on television. Gold Coast actually might not even have come from that period (except David Caruso’s hero is in the Out of Sight mold), given director Peter Weller’s experience with Leonard (starring in an adaptation scripted by Leonard) on Cat Chaser. But whatever. More interestingly–and more depressingly–Gold Coast was supposed to kick off Weller’s career as a director, but then he dropped out of his first theatrical (Incognito). It’s too bad, because even though there a few broken moments in the film, Weller does a good job. The worst broken moment is a car shot, on the hood, Caruso driving, the moving landscape visible, through the driver-side window, behind him. The camera’s tilted and it’s clear what kind of shot it’s supposed to be and it doesn’t work because it’s not a Cars music video. It actually reminds me a lot of Sin City or something along those lines. Or a Cars music video. Otherwise, besides a handful of bad cuts, Weller does well. His handling is scary when it needs to be and delicate and tender and sad when it needs to be.

Caruso doesn’t hurt. Gold Coast features his best leading man work, even if the script occasionally fails him. Caruso’s the lead in Gold Coast in a movie star kind of way–much like Clooney in Out of Sight or Travolta in Get Shorty, which is what makes Gold Coast feel like a Leonard adaptation as opposed to a mean-spirited Carl Hiaasen–and the script does everything it can to sabotage the film as an excellent character study. Caruso and Weller seem to work very well together–the best directed scenes are either the ones with Caruso or with scene-chewing villain Jeff Kober–and the potential for the film really comes out, in the second half, when Caruso’s free of Marg Helgenberger’s clutches. Caruso’s fine in the scenes with Helgenberger, she’s exceptionally bad. She’s exceptionally bad throughout and the only thing keeping her from ruining the film is the other actors.

I can’t forget Kober, but I need to get the script out of the way. The film ought to be about a man who helps a woman who is in trouble, but Gold Coast gets so wrapped up in all the details about the woman’s trouble–wasting time going over it and over it–it loses the basic idea. It’s almost as much about Helgenberger’s maid as it is anyone else. And these characters aren’t quirkily amusing, they’re defined by the harm Kober’s villain threatens to do to them. It’s a mess. A solid Scott Frank rewrite and a real female lead would have turned Cold Coast into something fantastic.

Kober’s crazy villain is, strangely, just the kind of role Weller probably would have broken out with if he’d ever done one. Caruso’s got to be reserved, because if he tried to make any noise, Koger would just drown him out. Fantastic villain.

Rafael Báez and Wanda De Jesus are both very good as well. The scenes they’re in with Caruso are excellent, indicative of a much better film. (The less said about Richard Bradford’s embarrassing cameo the better).

So, in conclusion, get rid of Helgenberger and fix the script and Gold Coast might have been something. As it stands, it’s a fine show of Weller’s promise as a director and it’s a great Caruso performance.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Weller; screenplay by Harley Peyton, based on the novel by Elmore Leonard; director of photography, Jacek Laskus; edited by Dean Goodhill; music by Peter Harris; production designer, Maria Rebman Caso; produced by Richard Maynard, Jana Sue Mernel and Weller; aired by Showtime.

Starring David Caruso (Maguire), Marg Helgenberger (Karen DiCilia), Jeff Kober (Roland Crowe), Barry Primus (Ed Grossi), Wanda De Jesus (Vivian), Richard Bradford (Frank DiCilia), Rafael Báez (Jesus) and Melissa Hickey (Martha).


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Soldier in the Rain (1963, Ralph Nelson)

Soldier in the Rain is a peculiar film. It’s one of Steve McQueen’s odder performances–his character is a doofus, both the protagonist and the subject of the audience’s (intended) laughter. Jackie Gleason gives an excellent performance, though his scenes with McQueen compare poorly to the ones with Tuesday Weld. Their scenes really bring something special of out of Soldier, so it’s a big disservice when their importance is ignored, the film instead concentrating on gags. The problem with the film–besides the script, which I imagine is partially William Goldman’s novel’s fault, the wandering emphases, but also the terrible Blake Edwards and Maurice Richlin script–not so much the dialogue, but the plotting. It’s separated into a handful of scenes, almost intended more for the stage. And Ralph Nelson really tries to be an interesting director–whether it’s the omnipresent (sometimes louder than dialogue) Henry Mancini score, or the silent scenes with nothing but breathing–Nelson is definitely trying for something and he’s failing miserably. The film’s atrociously edited, discombobulating at times. Nelson will occasionally have a good shot, a good sequence of shots, then he’ll toss any goodness away with a terrible cut. Either he didn’t get enough coverage or he’s just incompetent and sporadically lucky.

Nelson’s problems don’t just hinder the film visually (and audially, that music gets annoying fast)–every scene is told in summary until the last half hour. Worse, the actors aren’t working towards anything. While Gleason has a good role and even with the film’s problems, it turns out very well for him, McQueen’s is convoluted. He goes from being a doofus to being a smart guy in a flash (the film needs a conclusion, after all). Weld’s similarly wronged. All of those scenes in summary suggest the film is leading up to something, even though it’s long clear it’s not. They’re starter scenes, ones to be expanded one on later, but Soldier in the Rain never goes in a traditional or good direction. While it’s the closest Edwards has probably ever come to art house, it’s not intentional–the scenes are ripe for trailer moments and commercial breaks. Edwards and Richlin’s script isn’t just erratic (it either takes place over a week or a month, there’s nothing definite and a few contradictions), it’s cheap. Soldier in the Rain feels incomplete, slapped together and pushed out the door.

I remembered thinking it was a stunning piece of work–and with McQueen and Gleason and Weld, it could have been–but instead it’s a mishmash. A poorly directed one too.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ralph Nelson; screenplay by Blake Edwards and Maurice Richlin, from the novel by William Goldman; director of photography, Philip H. Lathrop; edited by Ralph E. Winters; music by Henry Mancini; produced by Edwards and Martin Jurow; released by Allied Artists.

Starring Jackie Gleason (MSgt. Maxwell Slaughter), Steve McQueen (Sgt. Eustis Clay), Tuesday Weld (Bobby Jo Pepperdine), Tony Bill (Pfc. Jerry Meltzer), Tom Poston (Lt. Magee), Ed Nelson (MP Sgt. James Priest), Lew Gallo (Sgt. Fred Lenahan) and Rockne Tarkington (Sgt. William Booth).


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