KAMAD joins several Lambs to discuss the greatest of Christmas Films.
Review by Richard Kirkham Originally Published in thew Fall of 2014
This summer has been a cruel one for fans of “Get Shorty”. In June, James Gandolfini who played Bear the enforcer for Bo the Drug Dealer/wanna be movie producer, passed away at a relatively young 51. Last month, Dennis Farina who played Ray “Bones” Barboni left us at 69. This last week, Elmore Leonard the novelist and screenwriter responsible for the story and characters in the first place, left us at age 87. I’m not suggesting there is a curse or anything, but if this film does not get included before anyone else from the cast dies, I will feel terrible. “Get Shorty” is a star vehicle, and it featured John Travolta in a great part immediately after his comeback role in “Pulp Fiction”. In spite of the obvious star driven nature of the film, there is a great ensemble cast that adds to the quality of the movie and makes it something I think everyone will be glad to have seen.
For movie fans, this is a film that should give them a warm feeling in their dreams. This is a gangster movie about gangsters who want to make a gangster movie. There are dozens of colorful characters both in the crime world and in Hollywood as the story gets told. The crime stuff may be accurate, someone with a better sense of that can judge for us, but the movie end of the story cuts incredibly close to the bone that is the film making process. Last year in the movie “Argo”, John Goodman’s character summed it up this way:
John Chambers: [after hearing of the plan to get the hostages out] So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot…
Tony Mendez: Yeah.
John Chambers: …without actually doing anything?
Tony Mendez: Yeah.
John Chambers: [smiles] You’ll fit right in!
That is the plot of this movie. Everyone thinks they can be in the movie business and they are right. Yet being in the movie business does not always mean making a movie, sometimes it is about talking about making a movie. Our lead character Chili Palmer, played by John Travolta is good at talking.
Chili is a loan shark from Miami, who ends up in Hollywood while running down a customer who has tried to outsmart the mob. He is not a thug but he is not a pushover by any stretch of the imagination. Chili is the kind of guy who is usually too smart for everyone else in the room. He is also a movie fan and like many other fans of film, he thinks he can do better than the people who are currently making it in “Tinseltown”. The plot involves him trying to find financing and a star for the movie he has in his head. That’s right, the movie in his head. There is a screenplay for another movie that is pivotal to the plot, but most of what we see on the screen is the movie that Chili sees turning into his own film. It’s a movie about a loan shark who comes to Hollywood in pursuit of a bad debt. He is making up the movie out of his life story as he is living it. That is a pretty awesome way of creating a screen story, if only all of us could lead an interesting enough life to do that, we would be able to get rid of all the remakes and sequels that come out of the film world today.
Travolta is a walking advertisement of “cool” in this film. He dresses in a sharp manner that doesn’t seem ostentatious, he looks great in sunglasses and finally, he may be able to set the anti-smoking cause back by ten years. When he lights up and stares down an adversary, it is a moment everyone in the business will want to emulate. Travolta was at the top of his game in the moment this film was made. He was natural, charismatic and he had an everyman touch despite the fact that it was clear he was not everyone. Warren Beatty was apparently offered the role, and from the looks department and the cool factor you can understand why he seemed a good fit, but Travolta has a sense of humor in his eye that makes the part work, and when he drops the veneer of friendliness he feels dangerous in a way that I think Beatty would not have been able to match.
In addition to Chili Palmer, there are a dozen other characters that flicker around the flame of Hollywood success. Delroy Lindo, a charismatic presence himself, plays Bo the drug dealer. Bo wants into the business of movies and sees an opportunity to leverage himself in because a director owes him a large sum of cash. Another debt that Chili is trying to recover is owed by that director and Chili manages to insert himself into the process of making movies ( or more accurately movie deals) by trying to extricate the director from his entanglement with the drug dealer. Bo has a partner and an enforcer. The enforcer is a giant of a man who was once a stunt guy in the movie business. “Bear” is played by the late James Gandolfini as a menacing but ultimately ineffective threat. Muscle alone will not be sufficient to put Chili Palmer out of the deal. This is the first time I remember Gandolfini from a movie role. He had a sweet disposition for a thug and his wardrobe was California casual to the max. The big beard and long pony tail he came equipped with was authentic for the times, I know because I saw it in the mirror every day in the 1990s.
Every comedy has to have a fool somewhere, otherwise everyone would just act in their best interests and reason would dominate rather than laughter. “Get Shorty” has the biggest self deluded fool in Hollywood; low budget exploitation director/producer Harry Zimm. Harry wants to play with the big boys but we know he doesn’t have what it takes from the beginning. Harry owes a Vegas casino, he owes a drug dealer, he has a script he can’t quite get control over and a girlfriend who is way too smart for him. Casting gives this movie another secret weapon, Gene Hackman. Pound for pound, movie for movie, I would put Hackman up against any other actor of any time, but he was not always thought of as a comedian. That makes no sense in light of the Superman movies where he was the antagonist and the comic relief at the same time. His three minutes in “Young Frankenstein” may be the highlight of one of the greatest comedies ever made. He turned down the part originally because he did not usually do comedies. Zimm is a funny character not because he makes jokes but because he is a parody of the movie business itself. Hackman just had to play a character who was so clueless and yet so certain that he could really be a Hollywood figure. He nailed it.
One of his funniest lines comes when he can’t even speak because of a beating that he took. Crawling out of the hospital to make it to a lunch with the potential star of his breakthrough quality picture, Chili and Karen, Harry’s girlfriend, wonder what the hell he is doing at the lunch meeting at “The Ivy” in his condition. Harry can only croak out the phrase “My project” through his jaws that have been wired shut. That is a true sense of commitment from a producer protecting his interests.
So far our focus has been on the Hollywood element, let’s not neglect the gangster part of the story. Bo and his partners have problems of their own, a South American drug lord has come in search of money and a lost nephew. The FBI is watching money that has been stored in an airport locker, and Bo tries to trick Chili into exposing himself to get at the cash. Harry’s big mistake in addition to not listening to Chili earlier and getting more deeply involved with Bo, is that he thinks he can big shot his way around the mob. Harry makes the mistake of trying to go it alone and contacts Chili’s gangland connection in Miami, hoping to shake loose some cash for his film. Enter Ray “Bones”, played with the usual gusto by Dennis Farina. Farina played gangsters in dozens of projects (he also played cops pretty well being a former Chicago cop himself). Farina had a poetic way of delivering a line with complete disdain and superiority. His conversations with just about everyone in this film suggest a barely contained rage at how idiotic he thought everyone else was. From the start of the film, he was the east Coast version of Harry Zimm, too big for his britches and not able to really stand toe to toe with Chili despite his elevated position of power. The scene where he and Harry meet is a high point of comedy in the movie. It is violent and abusive in the way that modern gangster films are wont to be. It is also hysterical.
Rene Russo is Karen, a b-movie scream queen, and Harry’s girlfriend. It doesn’t take long for Chili and Karen to connect because they are the two most intelligent characters in the movie. Whenever Chili is confounded by some stupidity in Hollywood, Karen is right there to to interpret for him. Russo is completely believable as a working actress who should know better and has greater ambition than originally seems. As the ex-wife of movie star Martin Weir, she connects Chili and Harry to some real power in Hollywood, a major star. Danny Devito seems like an odd candidate for the role but he channels his friend Jack Nicholson and creates an actor who is serious about his work but indifferent to how it effects others. In the film “The Player” Tim Robbins’ character orders a different kind of fashionable water at every meeting, and then he never drinks. Martin Weir special orders food and then never takes a bite. It is one of the irritating ways that the pecking order in Hollywood might be measured.
In the background of the story are several other perfectly cast characters. David Paymer does nervous and combative at the same time. Bette Midler, who was unbilled in the film, does sexy and smart ass. Miguel Sandoval has made a living playing drug lords and government officials. Here he is menacing as he discusses taking in the Universal Tour and then maybe murdering some of the other characters in the movie. There is a long line of character actors who all bring this movie some realism and personality.
The director Barry Sonnenfield should get a lot of credit for making the movie play so well. There are great tracking shots that don’t call attention to themselves but make the movie feel even more movie like. The look of all the locations is also important. Martin Weir’s arrival for lunch at “The Ivy” is staged like a red carpet moment for an every day Hollywood activity. Harry’s office looks rundown, over stuffed and heavenly to a movie fan who would love to have those kinds of film mementos on the walls and bookshelves. Bo’s house in the Hollywood Hills is both pretentious and strangely attractive.
The real hero of the movie though is the creator of all of these characters, the late Elmore Leonard. His book is really the script for the movie. Scott Frank is credited with the screenplay and he and Leonard shared the same relationship on another project “Out of Sight” a couple of years later. Leonard’s plotting and dialogue keep us involved. The actors bring the characters to life and it all comes off as a good natured poke in the eye to the movie business that is responsible for putting this out in the first place. In light of all the recent passings, it is a good time to embrace the quality of this film and remember how much a talented cast of professionals can do to entertain us. “Get Shorty” may have been a star vehicle for John Travolta, but it was a project that showed us that real stars are found in every well cast part.
Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.
I’d not intended to write a post n this event, because I did not realize until we got to the venue that they were going to play the entire film. I was under the impression we would be getting a medley type concert, but it turns out this was one of those performances where the music in the film is entirely replaced with the live music in the concert hall. Since it is my policy to post on any film I see in a theater, this roughly qualifies.
“West Side Story” is one of the few movies I remember going to with just my Mother and older brother. It must have been 1968 when I first saw it and it was on a double bill with “In the Heat of the Night” of all films. I don’t know if it was a nationwide match but I do know that the Mirish Company produced both films so a double feature was a probability. So I saw two Best Picture winners on the same night and I was probably just ten years old. I did write about “In the Heat of the Night” earlier this year when it was the opening film at the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival, but as far as I can see, there is not a previous post on “West Side Story”.
I know that the Lambcast this week was going to be a movie musical draft, and I hope this is one of the films that got picked. It has always been a film that moves me. My daughter laughs at me because I tear up at the finale of the film. That’s right, I’m a big wuss. The modern day re-telling of Romeo and Juliet is deeply moving just concerning the story, but when you pile on the fantastic dancing, the dynamic performances and the Leonard Bernstein music, it just knocks me over.
The overture today got my heart racing. As each melody is introduced, I could pick out the instruments in the orchestra that were playing and listen for the personality of each performer. When the lush violins come in for “Tonight” I began to feel the emotion build. The Jet Song gets the plot started and sets up the premise of the rivalry, and then Tony sings “Maria” and I frankly well up with admiration for the delicate poetry of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics. The whole orchestra bangs into the Dance at the Gym numbers and it was loud and powerful and gets the blood stirring. When people say they don’t like musicals, to me it is almost like saying you don’t like music. How could you not want to follow our lovers, feat for our friends and families and marvel at the dances in this movie?
So much of the credit goes to the original Broadway director/choreographer Jerome Robbins. He managed to make gangs doing ballet moves look like something that would express their feelings and still leave them as dangerous youth. Robert Wise brought cinematic magic to the movie as well. The opening helicopter shots and the quick edits to the locations match up with the Bernstien music and drag us into the context of the film quickly. There are a half dozen transitions that are clearly created by Wise and the color design of the film with the terrific cinematography is definitely more Hollywood than Broadway. Twenty years ago, one of the English Teachers who taught a cinema based class was out for a few weeks. The Dean asked me if I could take over the class and show a film one day and talk about it enough the next class day to help the students with their paper. I was happy to do so and the film that they were showing was “West Side Story”. The Dean knew that I was a film buff and could probably carry it off. Fortunately, I did not have to read the thirty or so papers that were written, but I did get to talk about the film making techniques, and director’s choices made here. It might have been my first attempt at a movie blog, even if it was not published on line.
The emotional peak of the music occurs during the “Tonight” Quintet, as several different voices trade off their stanzas, each one using the same notes but lyrics that are sadly at odds. The heat breaking innocence of Tony and Maria is contrasted with the bitter sniping from Riff and Bernardo and underscored with Anita’s lustful planning. It builds to a crescendo and then it is immediately followed by the haunting silence which is broken by familiar whistles as the two gangs converge for the rumble. The L.A/ Philharmonic stays right in place with the screen and the music works marvelously. Today they were led by David Newman, an Oscar nominated composer and a regular conductor of classical music and film performances. I have seen and heard his conducting work at the Hollywood Bowl on numerous occasions and this day he dis another smashing job bringing the music of the movies to life for an audience.
The experience today was an invigorating end to a long holiday weekend. It was a great surprise and offered me an additional opportunity to write something for you “Tonight”.
It might look like a comedy from the trailer, but “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has a subject as unfunny as anything you can probably think of. The fact that Writer/Director Martin McDonagh manages to get us to smile so often is a testament to his writing skills. The death of a child through a brutal crime generally does not set off the chuckle meter for most of us. However, if you have seen his previous films, “In Bruges” or “Seven Psychopaths”, you might not be too surprised. Each of them deals with dark themes with comic overtones and while not always successful in the case of “Seven Psychopaths“, it all clicked in the feature debut “In Bruges”.
Crime leaves a scar on everyone it touches. The feelings may not be the same from one victim to another, and they certainly do not get expressed the same way, but everyone has a piece of themselves changed by these kinds of events. Mildred Hayes is the mother of a dead teenage daughter. He anger seethes for months and when she reaches a boiling point she is ready to let it out on anyone in the vicinity. Frances McDormand will probably win her second Oscar as the brutally self centered, guilt ridden and thoughtless Mildred. She is pushing for answers but there are none coming her way. Mildred is a character that you can at first feel for, but as we see what her mania is doing to others in the community that would otherwise sympathize with her, we can also hate her a little. She still has one child and he is battered by her pitbull like approach to the problem she sees. The Sheriff in the town is not guilty of negligence, just a lack of evidence to pursue. A man who shows a romantic interest in her and tries to be a friend, is belittled by her blindness to the feelings of others.
This movie never goes where you think it is going to. It feels like a vengeance film and a procedural, wrapped up in small town melodrama, but it never takes a conventional course. There are a number of moments that come out of left field, although they really are significant and related to the characters. The Sheriff’s story turns out to be as sympathetic as Mildred’s. Just when you think the deputy is getting his just desserts, there is a string of information and behavior that changes our attitude towards the character. People in this movie say and do hurtful things to each other, but rarely with the intention of having the kind of effect that occurs. It’s as if each is throwing a temper tantrum and the whole town feels like the bewildered Mother in the grocery store with a ego-centric toddler to deal with.
Woody Harrelson can play both psycho and family man. Here, you will find his performance ultimately heartbreaking. At the same time, he manages, even when off screen to delight us with a sense of humor or a moment of empathy that everyone should appreciate. John Hawkes plays Mildred’s ex-husband, the abusive Charlie. He too can be sympathetic one moment and loathsome the next. Lucas Hedges, who was so effective in “Manchester by the Sea” last year, again plays a teen, trapped by a family drama that he has difficulty coping with. There are a dozen performances by secondary characters that are just spot on: Zeljko Ivanek, Samara Weaving, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones and others make this feel like a real place with real people who have real faults and qualities.
Special attention however must go to a second likely Academy nominee for this film. Sam Rockwell has been a favorite of mine since I first saw “Galaxy Quest“. He was neglected for Awards attention a few years ago for one of my favorite films from 2013, “The Way, Way Back“. That injustice is unlikely to be repeated. Rockwell is simultaneously repellent and sympathetic in the part of a Dim Deputy who has anger issues but also a strong need for justice. The less you know about the film and it’s plot twists, the more compelling the performances turn out to be, Dixon is a character in search of a redemptive storyline, and it doesn’t matter that he is sometimes an awful person, he is also a human being. Mildred’s quest for justice for her daughter changes lives in many ways, none of them are predictable, and Rockwell’s Dixon is the least predictable of all.
Elegantly filmed and put together with great craftsmanship, this new version of “Murder on the Orient Express” is fine entertainment for an evening but it lacks the elements that would make it a true classic. Remakes inevitably will suffer by comparison to earlier versions because of changes that might need to be made to the story, the use of technology that distracts from an older version of the same events, or simply nostalgia. We can’t unsee that which we have previously watched, and we can’t unknow that which has been previously unraveled for us. Kenneth Branagh can’t escape comparisons to the Sidney Lumet version from 1974. There is much to be admired here but in the final analysis, this film will live in the shadow of it’s older twin.
There are things to compliment about the film, but let’s save those for the end and start with the disappointments. The first thing that I noticed is that the score of the film is serviceable but not elegant. Patrick Doyle has worked with director Branagh on a number of projects and he has a great track record on many contemporary films. Unfortunately there is nothing that stands out about this music. It sometimes helps build a little tension, but it does not accomplish the same thing that the score from the 1974 movie provided, romance. Listen to the opening musical passage as the train leaves the station, it is light, elegant and decidedly romantic in a traditional sense. It sets the tone for the whole film and that touch provided by the late Richard Rodney Bennett is sorely missing in the new incarnation.
Another element of the new film that I think is problematic, is the very rapid introduction of characters, many of whom are shown before we even get to Istanbul. There is a very solid attempt to familiarize us with the detective Hercule Poirot at the start of the movie. The eccentricity that Albert Finney brought to the part in manner of dress and personal grooming cannot be matched, so Branagh goes for character in some idiosyncrasies. As he solves a puzzle in Jerusalem that starts off like a bad joke, we get a small taste of the OCD that the character must suffer from. He manages to be cordial however, to even the most tiresome people he encounters. Branagh lets his mustache do a lot of the acting for him. Other than Poirot however, we get very little from the other characters by way of personality. They often feel like pieces on a board game being moved around merely for the benefit of blocking the detective’s progress. That is especially true of the four youngest passengers on the train, the Count and Countess and the Governess and the Doctor.
Now for a few things that work. Johnny Depp has been scorned quite a bit the last few years for his personal life and film selection. In this movie however, he plays an ensemble character very effectively and let’s just say that he gets treated the way a person guilty of his crimes probably deserves. Depp had the right attitude as the gangster Ratchett, he is self confident and sniveling at the same time. The exchange between him and Poirot over a piece of cake was a dlightful sequence of droll put downs by the detective. He also has an effective moment with Michelle Pfeiffer in the hallways of the train. For her part, Pfeiffer started off a little rocky but by the climax of the film, her performance settled into a more intriguing character. The film also features Penelope Cruz, Jason Gad, Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench, none of whom manage to make much of an impression despite all the histrionics involved. The reveal of the plot comes much too rapidly and the flashbacks to the events that launched the whole affair are lifeless.
It’s a good old fashioned plot and the performance of Branagh as the Belgian detective that make this worth seeing. The sets are fine but my memory of the original is that it was more detailed and elegant, even without all the special effects computer graphics. If you are looking for a night out, this is still doing business and you will find that it is entertaining enough. If you are staying home however, watch the ’74 version and appreciate the old time storytelling and performances that make the movie so memorable.
https://podomatic.com/embed/html5/episode/8627029?autoplay=false KAMAD is included in the epic 400th Episode of the Lambcast.
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