Category Archives: Mystery

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985, William Friedkin)

If you’ve ever started watching To Live and Die in L.A. and turned it off because it’s terrible or just heard of it and thought you should see it, let me say… there’s no reason to see it. Or sit through it. Not even morbid curiosity. Or unless you want to see John Pankow’s butt. Director Friedkin does seem to be trying to start a macho male nudity thing with L.A.—including… umm… Little William L. Petersen, but he also does some homophobia in other parts. Not anti-lesbian though. Friedkin’s pro-objectification there.

Also… some vague racism. By some I mean anytime someone who isn’t White is around. But all of it—even the dingus—is C-level L.A. shenanigans. They leave far less impression, for example, than the incredible stupidity of Secret Service agents Petersen and Pankow. Though at one point Pankow identifies himself as a Treasury Agent. L.A.’s based on a novel—by co-screenwriter Gerald Petievich—and for some reason I’d assume Petievich would’ve at least looked up the difference. Not Friedkin (the other screenwriter). Friedkin doesn’t even seem aware real guns weigh more than the rubber guns his actors strut around with.

To Live and Die in L.A., when you toss aside whatever is going on with bad guy counterfeiter Willem Dafoe, is about how adrenalin junkie, dirty Secret Service agent Petersen corrupts straight-edge Pankow, teaching him how to blackmail, exploit, and rape comely ex-cons (Darlanne Fluegel gets all the sympathy for being in this one), strut around in tight jeans (though Pankow doesn’t go with two to three inch lifts like Petersen) and shirts unbuttoned to two above the navel, and… I don’t know, act tough or something.

The scary part of L.A. isn’t the idiotic, toxic masculinity is good, actually, sentiment—Friedkin must’ve read some amazing male empowerment books in the eighties—but the idea it’s an accurate representation of the Secret Service. Though, wait, didn’t they get busted for something stupid and… oh. Yeah.

Okay, so it’s probably legit.

Otherwise the movie would be famous for the agency suing them for how they were portrayed. Because they’re idiots. Like, even if you’ve only watched “CHiPs,” you have a better idea of how to run an investigation than this group of dimwits.

The movie starts with a suicide bomber going after Reagan. The stupidest suicide bomber in the world, who comes up with a rappelling thing when he has enough explosive to just take out the hotel or whatever. Once the bomber fails—in an Islamophobic portrayal out of a GOP campaign ad—we get the Secret Service guys getting hammered and Petersen showing off his base jumping.

Every man wants to be a macho, macho man… you know what, L.A. set to Village People instead of Wang Chung (yes, really, it’s got a Wang Chung “score” and, no, it’s not good). But then Petersen’s partner, Michael Greene, three days from retirement, goes off to the middle of nowhere to investigate a counterfeiter who turns out to be Dafoe. Dafoe gets the drop on him because Greene’s an idiot too and so Petersen swears vengeance.

The best performance in the film is probably… Dafoe? Of the leads, anyway. Petersen and Pankow are risible, like they’re doing a spoof of themselves and don’t know it. Dean Stockwell’s kind of okay but then not, which is too bad because he starts better than he finishes. Fluegel’s not good, just sympathetic because she’s so exploited. Robert Downey’s terrible in a stunt cameo. John Turturro… I mean, you can tell he might be good someday but certainly not here. Debra Feuer, despite having the most potentially interesting story, isn’t any good as Dafoe’s muse.

Some of the Robby Müller photography is good. Some of it is not. They go handheld a lot, which would be a questionable choice if there weren’t so many just plain terrible choices Müller and Friedkin make. M. Scott Smith’s editing… is not bad. It’s not good, but it certainly seems like it’d be bad given Friedkin’s vibe here. It’s not. It’s tolerable. So much in L.A. is intolerable—like Lilly Kilvert’s production design and Linda M. Bass’s costumes—the tolerable parts shine.

To Live and Die in L.A. is an excruciatingly bad two hours. It’s hilariously pretentious and full of itself, but it’s got no laugh value; the joke is on whoever’s watching it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by William Friedkin; screenplay by Friedkin and Gerald Petievich, based on the novel by Petievich; director of photography, Robby Müller; edited by M. Scott Smith; music by Wang Chung; production designer, Lilly Kilvert; costume designer, Linda M. Bass; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Petersen (Chance), Willem Dafoe (Eric Masters), John Pankow (John Vukovich), Darlanne Fluegel (Ruth Lanier), John Turturro (Carl Cody), Dean Stockwell (Bob Grimes), Debra Feuer (Bianca Torres), Steve James (Jeff Rice), Robert Downey Sr. (Thomas Bateman), Christopher Allport (Max Waxman), and Michael Greene (Jim Hart).


Magnum Force (1973, Ted Post)

With forty minutes left in its way too long 124 minute runtime, Magnum Force starts getting real tiresome. The film’s already gone through multiple set pieces, with the Clint Eastwood ones pointless to the narrative but apparently what screenwriters Michael Cimino and John Milius think is character development, while the ones related to the a plot—a cop assassinating San Francisco’s top criminals—somehow even less interesting. After an okay first one, director Post runs out of composition ideas but still pads out the hits.

In the meantime there are the women throwing themselves at Eastwood, which is sort of amusing because he gets to mug charm a bit and Christine White showing sexual agency in a housewife in 1973 is kind of unintentionally progressive (ditto Eastwood’s “gay rights” moment, so long as they shoot well, less the film’s sexualizing women of color, Adele Yoshioka and Margaret Avery, in its “see, they can be objectified too” approach), and then the red herring suspect for the killer cop. All the red herring stuff does is make Eastwood look dumb because it’s obviously not the red herring.

Oh, and then there’s Hal Holbrook. So much Hal Holbrook. Holbrook’s Eastwood’s boss and a flag pin wearing straight edge dweeb who berates Eastwood in front of everyone and cracks jokes about him being a killer then flinches whenever Eastwood looks his way. Far more macho are the motorcycle cops, who end up being the de facto suspects because… well, Milius and Cimino aren’t really very adept at mystery plotting. Especially once the movie starts sharing all the information with the viewer and it’s just Eastwood paying catchup. The motorcycle cops are rookies David Soul, Tim Matheson, Kip Niven, and Robert Urich, and then Eastwood’s old buddy and weathered, drunken veteran Mitchell Ryan. Ryan’s also married to White; it’s obvious why she’s snuggling up to Clint versus Mitch Ryan.

Eastwood’s partner this time is Felton Perry, who’s around to be a positive Black character (i.e. only gets called the n-word by White criminals). Perry’s really likable and pretty good–Magnum Force does not have much in the way of good performances, so Perry’s a bit of a godsend. You at least aren’t sorry when he’s around, which can’t be said for, you know, Holbrook, Matheson, Ryan, or Soul. Soul’s probably the best of the bunch, performance-wise, but it’s such a thin character–with the primetime supporting cast and Post’s pedestrian direction (the car chases are dismal), Magnum Force often feels like the action for a bad TV cop show with some scenes from a poorly written Clint Eastwood vehicle thrown in. But never enough of the Eastwood vehicle; he doesn’t get an arc, unless you count hooking up with Yoshioka—and whatever Post thought lingering on what appears to be Eastwood’s character’s wedding photo (the last movie established he’s a widower) just before he gets slamming with Yoshioka… well, it doesn’t work. Even if it’s supposed to be weird. It’s not lingering enough to be weird. Because weird would be some personality and Magnum Force has zip to offer in that department. Even Lalo Schifrin’s scant score disappoints. And when he uses the original movie’s themes… it just reminds this one is such a downgrade.

Frank Stanley’s photography isn’t bad. The three times Post wants him to do things with focus, Stanley can do them. The rest of the time, it’s all well-lighted, just rather boring Panavision. You’d think the poor composition would be better than Post’s terrible direction of actors—who, to be fair, get lousy dialogue from Cimino and Milius—but the third act convinces, no, actually Post’s bad composition is a bigger problem.

Somehow a shootout on an aircraft carrier is boring. Bravo Ted Post. The bad guy frequently shoots six rounds at nothing, reloads, shoots six more rounds at nothing. It takes until the finish, but I guess being bewilderingly in its badness is better than being mundane in it.

The only other thing of note is a scene where Albert Popwell—returning from Dirty Harry but presumably not playing the same punk who didn’t feel lucky—brutally murders a woman. The movie just pauses and says, “Welp, we need some brutal violence against women in this movie, so let’s make it as garish as possible.”

Doesn’t help Popwell’s victim is one of the film’s only likable characters.

As for Eastwood… it’s not a good vehicle. While his material’s not good, it’s also not atrocious; it’s just he has to play stupid without ever actually acknowledging he’s playing stupid because he’s Clint Eastwood, which only makes it more obvious when he’s not smart enough on the pickup. But he’s kind of barely in it? Eastwood’s love life subplot is about as big his non-main plot cop stuff.

The script’s also got some spoofy laughs in it, like it’s a satire of the original Dirty Harry. But it can’t be because Post’s not good enough for it.

It’s an exhausting, unrewarding two hours and four minutes.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ted Post; screenplay by John Milius and Michael Cimino, based on a story by Milius and characters created by Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink; director of photography, Frank Stanley; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Lalo Schifrin; produced by Robert Daley; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Clint Eastwood (Harry Callahan), Felton Perry (Early Smith), and Hal Holbrook (Lt. Briggs), Mitchell Ryan (Charlie McCoy), Christine White (Carol McCoy), David Soul (Davis), Tim Matheson (Sweet), Kip Niven (Astrachan), Robert Urich (Grimes), Richard Devon (Ricca), Tony Giorgio (Palancio), and Adele Yoshioka (Sunny).


Still of the Night (1982, Robert Benton)

At the end of Still of the Night, the film puts aside the “whodunit” to give second-billed Meryl Streep—who’s playing the femme fatale part but not at all as a femme fatale—a lengthy monologue. It’s all one take, Streep just acting the heck out of this mediocre thriller monologue. It doesn’t make the film worthwhile, but it does make one wonder if it’s what writer and director Benton had in mind the whole time. Was he just setting up this moment in the preceding eighty minutes.

Because he’s definitely setting up the third act, which has lead Roy Scheider walking through the real location of a former patient’s dream. And it all being for a mediocre Streep monologue… well, it'd be something. Otherwise, Still of the Night is anti-something. And when you find out it’s a Hitchcock homage… you wonder what Benton liked about Hitchcock. Outside a blonde Streep and fifty-something Scheider’s only friend being mom Jessica Tandy. Streep’s thirty-three or so, but seems younger. Maybe because she’s introduced as Josef Sommer’s mistress and, even though Sommer’s not even fifty, he seems older. He seems like a dirty old man… because he is a dirty old man. But emphasis on the old.

Scheider’s a psychiatrist, Sommer’s his patient, who works at a New York auction house. Streep works at the auction house for Sommer and he always has affairs with his subordinates; his wife gets a lot of mention in the first act, with Streep bringing a watch Sommer left at her apartment to Scheider’s office so Scheider can return it to the wife, Sommer complaining Scheider never wants to hear about Streep, just about his bad marriage. Lots in the first act. Nowhere else.

I forgot to mention: Sommer’s dead. The picture opens with his dead body. He’s in a lot of flashback though, as Scheider reviews their old sessions and Still flashes back either to Sommer describing the events in the session or the described events themselves. Always beautifully edited; Gerald B. Greenberg and Bill Pankow do some lovely cutting. Sommer’s an elitist auction house snob and a poor quality human being. His description of “seducing” Streep made me wonder if anyone involved with the film in 1982 had ever thought of pairing “enthusiastic” with “consent” or if the concept would melt their minds (at the time).

Joe Grifasi, who’s thirty-eight in the film but somehow looks like he’s seventeen going on fifty-three, is the investigating detective. Scheider doesn’t give him any information about Sommer, even though he’s dead. Maybe because Sommer told him Streep killed someone once and got away with it and would she do it again. Also Sommer can’t shut up about how much he thinks Scheider would be into Streep.

It’s very, very strange. But also a lot more engaging than anything in the second half. Sommer’s a major creep, but he’s a major creep with a pulse (wokka wokka). When Tandy’s not around to liven things up, everyone seems on the verge of a nap. Scheider’s recently divorced, living in an almost empty apartment, focusing on his work; we know he’s a good guy because his first scene establishes he’s going to see a laid off white collar guy even if the guy can’t pay him. Scheider’s… not really believable as a psychiatrist successful enough to have an office even in eighties New York. Tandy’s a psychiatrist too and they get together and talk shop a couple times throughout the film. After they go over the dream sequence, which would still be somewhat creepy even if Benton didn’t… objectify a seven year-old girl, Tandy tells Scheider to call the cops but he won’t because of Streep. He’s got for the hots for her now. Their first kiss is rather uncomfortable because we’ve just seen Scheider getting all this intel on her mental state and then taking advantage of it. His unprofessional behavior is somehow even worse than the perceived age difference (Streep appearing younger, Scheider appearing possibly even older). When he complains in the third act about how he could lose his license… it’s like, yeah, Doc, you probably should.

While the first half build-up is—with qualifications—solid, the second act and its two big action sequences don’t play. Benton doesn’t have much music in the film. John Kander has a single piece they play three or four times, a very romantic piece; has nothing to do with the film or its tone. So there’s no music in the action sequences, just the gorgeous sound design. Sound design, editing, they’re where Still of the Night excels. Everything else has problems.

But having this muted vérité-style just draws attention to how absurd the action plays out. Scheider gentle stalking Streep through Central Park; great sequence, beautiful direction on it too, but it doesn’t work because Benton’s got things too firmly set in reality. Néstor Almendros’s photography plays into that footing too. Almendros does a throughly competent job in the film but in entirely the wrong style. It’s flat, plain, boring. Benton doesn’t showcase New York very much, not even the Central Park thing (which helps on this sequence), but Almendros also lights it without any personality. The lighting is off from the first scene.

The film is off from the opening titles. Lighting first scene. At some point in the film, almost everything becomes off in some way or another. Except the sound, the editing, and Jessica Tandy. Tandy’s awesome.

Maybe the reason everyone looks so dejectedly constipated in the film—save Tandy—is because they all felt it not working but no one said anything. They just made the movie and it really didn’t work, which a ninety-three minute runtime for the first picture Benton directed after winning… Best Director would certainly suggest.

Great sound though. If the third act weren’t so disappointing, I could see Still being worth it for the sound.

That Streep monologue you could just watch in a clip.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; screenplay by Benton, based on a story by David Newman and Benton; director of photography, Néstor Almendros; edited by Gerald B. Greenberg and Bill Pankow; music by John Kander; production designer, Mel Bourne; costume designer, Albert Wolsky; produced by Arlene Donovan; released by United Artists.

Starring Roy Scheider (Sam Rice), Meryl Streep (Brooke Reynolds), Jessica Tandy (Grace Rice), Joe Grifasi (Joseph Vitucci), Sara Botsford (Gail Phillip), Frederikke Borge (Heather Wilson), and Josef Sommer (George Bynum).


Twilight (1998, Robert Benton)

Unfortunate bit of trivia to start us off—Twilight is supposed to be called The Magic Hour, but just around the time of release, Magic Johnson’s high profile (and quickly cancelled) TV show had the same title and they changed the movie’s title. Titles are both important and not. They definitely establish a work’s intention—you may know nothing about something but once you see the title, you ostensibly know something. The problem with Twilight’s title change is two-fold. While, sure, Twilight is The Magic Hour as far as a time of day when Los Angeles looks particularly hot and haunting, but Twilight also carries with it some implications given the film’s all about being old and dying. Whereas The Magic Hour does not carry those similar implications.

So about a hundred and fifty words to say, you most likely know it as Twilight, but it will always be The Magic Hour to me.

Twilight opens with Paul Newman having a beer at a Mexican resort, then another. He’s on the trail of seventeen year-old Reese Witherspoon; she’s run away with inappropriate older boyfriend Liev Schreiber. We get a little of the Newman charm as he extricates Witherspoon from Schreiber, but things soon go wrong; Newman’s passive gender expectations get him shot.

Fast forward two years and Newman’s living above the garage of seventies Hollywood stars Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon. Newman does odd jobs around the house, plays cards with Hackman, flirts with Sarandon, bickers with their daughter… Witherspoon. Hackman felt bad for wounded Newman and gave him a place to stay. Then Hackman got sick and they needed Newman around. The inciting action is Hackman asking Newman to run an errand… which may or may not have something to do with Hackman’s simultaneous news—his cancer is back and he’s not going to be doing anymore treatment, which is pissing off Sarandon.

What unfolds is a mess of dreams and nightmares. Newman’s got his own dreams and nightmares, but he’s wading through everyone else’s. There are the older folks’—retired ex-cops James Garner and M. Emmet Walsh, who’ve gone on to the private sector with differing results; Newman’s old cop partner, Stockard Channing, who’s got commonalities with the old ex-cops but very different dreams; Giancarlo Esposito’s Newman’s de facto old partner from private investigating days, still starstruck at the possible glamour of the profession. You’re in Hollywood, even if you avoid it, it’s a magical place where dreams come true. Even the obvious villains—Margo Martindale’s blackmailer, for instance, or Schreiber—are just mired in the cultural magical thinking. The script—by director Benton and Richard Russo—does an exceptional job layering in all that subtext. Essential in getting that subtext across is Piotr Sobocinski’s lush, deliberate photography, Elmer Bernstein’s lush, deliberate score, Carol Littleton’s lush, deliberate editing, and David Gropman’s… no, not lush and deliberate, but sharp yet functional production design. Twilight is very much about people in their chosen environments. The difference between locations speak volumes about the characters who live in them, who visit them, as well as the setting in general.

Because Twilight is exceptionally smart.

And should’ve gotten whatever title it wanted.

(The Magic Hour).

Anyway. Great performances. Benton and Russo’s script provides just the right amount of foundation, Benton’s direction stretches the canvas—all the mixed metaphors—and the actors then inhabit and expand. Should’ve gone with some kind of sculpture thing.

The best performance, just in terms of pure unadulterated success, is Martindale. She’s magnificent. But the most successful with the least is Esposito, who seems to be taking what ought to be a caricature and turning it into the film’s realest person. Witherspoon’s got some really good moments, ditto Schreiber. But it’s all about the older adults—though Newman, Hackman, and Garner are a decade and a half (at least) older than Sarandon. It’s all about the complicated relationships Newman’s forged with Hackman, Garner, and Sarandon; as the film progresses, we find out more and more about Newman before the opening mishap in Mexico. Twilight’s a Raymond Chandler story about seventies Hollywood done twenty years later with Hollywood stars playing type and against but also a character study. Kind of more a character story. It’s not really an L.A. movie only because Benton doesn’t dwell. He’s all about the locations, but showcasing the action occurring in them.

Because even though Benton does a great job with the supporting actors—Sarandon the most-it’s all about Newman. It’s not clear in the first scene—the Mexico flashback—because Newman’s got on sunglasses, but the film’s all about his performance. About how the events wear on him, how he reacts to them. Benton makes his cast sit in their emotional states—freezing them, just for a second or two—and shows how the pressure is crushing them. Not the pressure of their failures or successes, but the Hollywood dreams.

Again, should’ve been called The Magic Hour. Or something else entirely.

Hackman and Sarandon are both great. Garner’s got this wonderful flashy ex-cop turned studio security turned old codger part. He’s really enthusiastic about taking that extra reaction time. Hackman seems used to it, Sarandon’s different—but Garner’s visibly (albeit reservedly) jazzed; the performance does a lot to establish Garner’s place in the story, which is more often than not offscreen. Hackman and Sarandon, Garner, they’re places Newman visits. Sometimes for a long time, but he’s always a guest in those places. It’s very a Chandler-esque narrative.

Because Twilight is very much within the genre constraints of a mystery, which is the only thing wrong with it—Russo and Benton are careful never to strain said constraints too hard; they’re too respectful of genre. But what they do—what the film does—is magical enough.

Because it should’ve been called the damn Magic Hour.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; written by Benton and Richard Russo; director of photography, Piotr Sobocinski; edited by Carol Littleton; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, David Gropman; costume designer, Joseph G. Aulisi; produced by Arlene Donovan and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Harry Ross), Susan Sarandon (Catherine Ames), Gene Hackman (Jack Ames), Reese Witherspoon (Mel Ames), Stockard Channing (Lt. Verna Hollander), James Garner (Raymond Hope), Giancarlo Esposito (Reuben Escobar), Liev Schreiber (Jeff Willis), Margo Martindale (Gloria Lamar), John Spencer (Capt. Phil Egan), and M. Emmet Walsh (Lester Ivar).