Friday, March 31, 2023


Written at the time of the film's release...

"The Sweet Hereafter"

I had a friend who disappeared for awhile, and when we made contact again after too long, he had an odd explanation: he'd become psychic, able to read people's thoughts, completely unbidden and unasked for, crowding in with his own, and had undergone a battery of tests to see if he was losing his mind. 

He hadn't, as much as gaining insight into other people's minds. For awhile he found ways to exploit his ability, writing a column, diagnosing illnesses (he claimed to be very accurate) and making a living as a working seer. But, he gave it up. It was too painful for him, and his clients were too needy...pathetic, even. Life is complicated enough in one's own mind to be peeping through the windows of others'. I don't know whether I absolutely believe him (I'm as psychic as a block of wood, and he was a writer), but his observations were so ironically down to Earth—"Oh, man!" he told me one time, "Ghosts are ASSHOLES! They're so obsessed with what's going on here—all the little 'unfinished business'! Why don't they just move ON?"—that I just accepted his stories, while keeping any true belief in check. He was my friend. I supported him.
George Lonegan (Matt Damon) wears gloves. Childhood circumstances and medical complications damn near killed him and left him handicapped—all he need do is touch someone, "make a connection," and he is jerked back to an old haunt, the "white corridor" of light that is the foyer of Death. He's been there before, many times, but the touch of an individual's hand takes him to the spirits of the recently deceased of that particular person's past, so that he may pass on their thoughts to those left behind. He wears gloves, so he can avoid these encounters. But he can't avoid the grieving. He used to be a working psychic, ("Look, I don't even DO that anymore." he consistently tells the persistently bereaved*), but he gave it up, despite the imploring of his exploitative brother, Billy (Jay Mohr, toned down and playing a recognizable human being). "You've got a gift!" he is told.  "It's not a gift!  It's a curse!" Now he works, driving forklift at a sugar warehouse in San Francisco, a "normal" occupation that might lead to a "normal" life. That is his wish. Life, not Death.
My psychic friend's story is highly reminiscent of Lonegan's (nice name, that) in Hereafter, Clint Eastwood's film of an original screenplay by The Queen scribe Peter Morgan. Morgan's subjects are fairly factual, so it's surprising to see him venture into the nether-territory of Bruce Joel Rubin (Jacob's Ladder, Ghost).  
But, he places it in the here and now, our world where Death can come specifically from all realms, natural and unnatural. The film begins with a spectacular effects sequence recalling the horrific tsunami in Thailand,** that viscerally places the audience into such a disaster.  But that is only the beginning. It is what comes after—the surviving of such an extreme occurrence, the coming back from it—that is the subject of the film. How, after Death has touched us, can we go back to a normal life...when what awaits us, normally, is our own ending? How can we live while still grieving?
I called them "The Death Tapes." I have no idea who has them now, I passed all the copies I had to friends who were interested (and who isn't?). I did a recording session that was being used for publicity purposes for a fairly terrible Joel Schumacher pot-boiler called Flatliners, about morbid medical students experimenting with near-death experiences—it is typical hyperventilating Hollywood exploitation—all chases and races-against-time, whereas this Morgan-Eastwood film is intriguingly commonplace. The interviewees were all people who had had NDE's;  they'd died, and were pulled back to the land of the living. They were from all walks of life—one woman had been electrocuted in a television studio, another was a Vietnam vet who'd been mortally wounded in a mortar attack. The particulars of how they'd gotten there were all different, but their itineraries were all the same. They'd gone to a corridor of pure white light, where they were met with spirits of their past, and informed, questioned about their circumstances and released back, back to life. They'd all been significantly changed by their experiences, but in different ways, as Death was no longer the  terrifying unknowable it had once been. Been there. Done that. The woman had been yanked back through no choice of her own, through the efforts of EMT's in the studio. The soldier had volunteered to come back, in a way. Asked in that blinding corridor if there was any reason for him to go back, he implored the Voice,  "I want to see my son!" which is significant for the detail—he knew his wife was pregnant, but there was no way to know the sex of the child in those years before ultra-sound (Sure, it was a 50/50 chance, but...still...). An expert (as much as one still breathing can be of such things) talked about children who'd gone through "the process" and other adults, speculating that, perhaps, it could be some spasming electrical processes of self-preservation. But the stories were so similar—the same corridor, the after-life "concierge," the specifically relevant memories of the deceased (and not the living—would a brain going through synaptic anarchy be so choosy?)—combine that with the myths of "pearly gates" and exit-interviews with St. Peter, and it becomes disquietingly consistent. Yes, we have the same meat in our brains, but chemically, we all have our own brand of soup. So, then, would everybody see it the same way? Don't know. And we won't know. Not until we "see the light."
The people left behind—in both senses of the experience—(Richard Kind, Bryce Dallas Howardshe's a brunette, this timeFrankie McLaren, Cécile De France) are changed by the brush with death, but they all have the same goal—a "normal" life, or what passes for normal given the knowledge of extinction. But as that is something that unites us all, players and audience alike, isn't that "normal?"
It all sounds terribly depressing, doesn't it? But it isn't. There are moments of high drama to be sure, but moments of levity, as well. Rather than a dark and morose drama befitting the Hallowe'en season, it ultimately has the feeling more of a star-crossed romance. And Eastwood, who has been known to denature the color palette of his pictures, particularly in Letters from Iwo Jima and Changeling, returns to a more vivid color scheme here, as if to present life in all the glories of luminous sunrises and sunsets. Those looking for a spook-show, like the poor, unsure desperates who crowd the emporiums of the medium/charlatans in the film, should look elsewhere for signs of the occult, or speculation about what it all means.
Eastwood's movie gives us no definitive answers—Hereafter never crosses the threshold into Shakespeare's "undiscovered country," that final frontier we must all travel, the journey of the spirit taking flight unbound by the physical restraints of life, our mortal coil. It remains solidly in the realm of the comfortingly tactile, and concludes with a smile, a touch—simple, normal acts of being, that stave off the nullifying black and the welcoming light.

* The script by Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon, The Damned United, The Last King of Scotland) is extraordinarily precise in its use of English and French (there are subtitles...Eastwood, who directed the all-Japanese Letters from Iwo Jima isn't afraid of them), and quickly you pick up that, more than usual, he uses specific ones, over and over, that tie his characters together...almost like they were a mantra.

** This sequence is exploited in the trailers and advertising for the movie, making it seem like it's a 2012 disaster-like "entertainment."  But, if I can be allowed a SPOILER-like caution, don't be fooled. This sequence...and another jolting one that recalls an arbitrary terrorist attack...are merely means to an end. The story is about recovery of such incidents, and in living a life of hope, despite the common glimpses through the opening of Death's Door.
Eastwood's version of the Thailand tsunami is the stuff of nightmares

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

A Man Called Otto

A Man Called Otto
(Marc Forster, 2023) "What now?" Otto Anderson (Tom Hanks) likes to know how things work. And maintenance is 90% of civilization. So, he makes his rounds around the condo complex where he lives. Grouses about the neighbors' pets. The tire-tracks on the lawns indicating someone's driven around the security gate. He growls and grumps at his neighbors, who are just stubborn (or incessantly cheery) enough that they don't cross the street when they lay eyes on him.

It's a different gear for Hanks, who has become, if you believe the headline writers, "America's favorite actor" and "America's Dad." But, it's not a path he prefers. Before doing Road to Perdition, he was famously quoted as saying "I'm sick of playing pussies!" and his characters took on a harder edge, and gained darker tones, weaker resolves, more shadowy nuances. But, he could only take it so far before audiences rebelled—a remake of The Ladykillers was a pronounced box-office dud (despite being written and directed by The Coen Brothers). The actor who habitually likes to photo-bomb weddings reached the zenith of "Mr. Nice Guy" when he played Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and his Otto is cold-shouldered polar-opposite from that. Where Rogers met people with the expectation of seeing the best in everyone, Otto assumes everyone's "an idiot" and treats them the same, expecting the worst.
Otto has "issues" and its Marc Forster's film's job to explain them and (if we're to predict the beats) have them softened and even come to some sort of apotheosis where he's not the meanest man of the block, the "Mrs. Kravitz" in a world full of witches, and everyone's last candidate for "Mr. Congeniality."
It doesn't take much detective work to see what's going on: Otto obsessively sleeps on one side of the bed; he keeps one single "lucky quarter" on the dresser, he dresses every day in the same business casual attire—we first see him on the day of his retirement. Got any plans? Yeah! He can't fight an impromptu retirement party so he flights it, goes to the hardware store, buys some rope, cuts off his electricity and phone—arguing all the way through these acts—and after visiting his wife's grave ("Nothin' works when you're not home."), goes home, sets some newspaper on the floor, installs a strong hook in the ceiling and puts a noose around his neck and hangs himself. In the last moments of consciousness, he has just enough time to spy some neighbors moving in, irritatingly, and then...the damn ceiling gives 'way. Damn hardware store and its cheap products. Better pick yourself up and see what the new damn neighbors are doing, trying to parallel park their moving van like jack-asses.
John Lennon wrote that "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans." Guess the same goes for death, too.
The new neighbors, Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) are young, Hispanic, two kids with one on the way and moving in, way over the heads. Otto parallel-parks the van—it's blocking the sidewalk!—and lends a tool-set, and it becomes clear that despite his worst intentions they're going to be "friendly" neighbors, imposing themselves, like life, when he's trying to "off" himself. Well, that hole in the ceiling needs to be fixed, if the house is going to be sold afterwards, so he does a fast-seal over it, and considers new options for killing himself. Carbon monoxide poisoning? Getting hit by a train?
What we're looking at, here, is
Gran Torino-lite (as it is much the same story), but without the vindictive dismissal of religion, the guns, the gang-bangers, the reflexive racism. The reflexive racism that's pierced by food, though. That's here (Otto likes Marisol's cooking). And the cars. Cars are big in both films. But, Torino was rooted in the here and now, and Otto spends a substantial amount of its run-time in the past, getting to know Otto in his younger days (played by Tom's son, Truman Hanks) and his late wife, Sonya (Rachel Keller), all indicative of Otto not being able to let go of the past, despite its pain, and despite its loss.
It's a simple story, and Marc Forster, try as he might to try and complicate things and make it an "art" film, does manage to tell it simply, despite the fancy angles, the occasional "whispy" art shot that has nothing to do with the scenario or with reality—they're faint mind-echoes, maybe from Otto's head, but it doesn't seem likely—it's just enough to put you on your guard for pretension, which, thankfully, he manages to avoid.
One would call it light-weight, but it's impossible. There should be a warning with this movie, informing those who came for escapism, and a warm-fuzzy "Tom Hanks movie" that it is a movie about suicide. You get a few attempts, their unsuccessful resolution not engendering belly-laughs of relief. No, life gets in the way (as it is wont to do), inconvenient and messy—but not as messy as these suicide attempts would be (despite Otto's pains to minimize the splatter and clean-up). 
Triggering? Maybe, I would think, especially if your expectations are for froth. One should enter these worlds without expectations or preconceptions, despite the posters and trailers, and press (even if that seems nigh on impossible) setting you up, whetting your appetite, doing the "Big Con."
Just, as a word of warning, then, not a spoiler. I won't give away how it resolves, other than to quote Orson Welles, who said
“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
And, of course, the real-world experience that says that "life will go on, no matter how bad it gets." There's something reassuring in that, as annoying and frustrating as it can be. It beats the alternative.
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
Resumé by Dorothy Parker, 1926

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Wrong Box (1966)

The Wrong Box* (Bryan Forbes, 1966) Bryan Forbes is a British director not known for a light touch, nor as a writer (and—in the few instances I saw him, not as an actor, either!). So to see him in charge of a comedy leaves one a bit nonplussed as opposed to amused (which should be the bloody intention!). The same can be said for this film, which tries very, very...veddy... hard to be funny, but ends up evoking feelings of something akin to pity (which just won't "do" for a comedy, much as Chaplin liked to use it in his bag of tricks).

The story of a tontine—a trust created for a clutch of privileged school-boys that will go to the last man standing (and the controversies that ensue—The Wrong Box should have the same breakaway, mean-spirited greediness of, say, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (And one should say that with Stanley Kramer, you wouldn't think of being able to do a comedy, either, but look at that result!), Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, or The Great Race, but instead has a leaden lethargy sometimes punctuated by awkward transitions, ill-timed (and rather unnecessary) close-ups, and the frequent appearance of title cards (to explain something the direction does not adequately provide) in a black-out format that recalls silent movie transitions. However, they come in at souch odd times, they're more interruptions that transitons (Odd that one can even mis-time interstitials!)
It's Bryan Forbes imitating Richard Lester making an Ealing Comedy, but without Alec Guiness, and as slap-dash as the Lester's direction could be at times, he at least could tell a story, and give it the momentum so it would never flag or falter. As it is it's one of those 95 minute movies that seem to last forever.
Great cast, though: Michael Caine, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, John Mills and Ralph Richardson; Peter Sellers has an extended cameo as a fraudulent doctor that starts slowly but finally picks up a weird head of steam. And there's an odd love story between Caine and Forbes' actress-wife Nanette Newman that seems unconvincing.
The screenplay is by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, who wrote the book for the Broadway musical "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (Lester's film of which was released the same year—coincidence?) John Barry's galumphing score works overtime to make it frothy, but this is one granite souffle. What is missing is whimsy, rather than desperate manicness, and it fortunately is found in Sellers' work, and in the odd performance of Wilfrid Lawson as the harried (not that you'd know) butler, Peacock.

John Barry's ultra-light waltz is lovely but at odds with the material.
* The asterisk is used so that it isn't confused with the silent version of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel (with Lloyd Osbordone i913—not that a lot of people have seen it.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Don't Make a Scene: Bull Durham

The Story:
There have been many fiery, inspiring speeches in the history of movies...and in the history of baseball (by the way, Opening Day is March 30th).

This isn't one of them.
There are so many wonderful scenes in Bull Durham, one can hit random play on a DVD and be within 90 feet of one. But, I've always loved this one for the sheer comic insanity of it. "Skip" goes out to motivate his team with a locker room speech.
He starts by throwing a clutch of bats at them. And his words? Nuggets of philosophy? Psychology? Positive reinforcement? Inspirational anecdote? Passages from "The Art of War?" 

Yeah, nope. He's got nothing. He doesn't even have the stats (he gets those from his assistant, Larry—played by an inspired Robert Wuhl).

It's just a rant without anything to it, but the basics. And one well-chosen word. It wouldn't work nearly so well without the considerable talent of the excellent Trey Wilson, who turns this into a master-class of angry passive-agressiveness. Agressively passive-agressive. Wilson was a master, turning drama into funny. He'd been in movies since 1976, but was hitting his stride with turns in this film and Raising Arizona.
He died of a cerebral hemorrhage seven months after the release of Bull Durham, just shy of his 41st birthday and starring as Leo in the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing. "We wuz robbed."
The Set-Up: The single-A Durham Bulls are in a slump. Their star pitcher is not performing, and the L's are overwhelming the W's. Coach Joe Riggins—call him "Skip" (Trey Wilson) is about to take the team on the road, after their home-field advantage has failed to sway the odds. What to do? Motivate. How to motivate this bunch of losers? First step of grieving is denying. The next step is provided by the team's 12 year veteran Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), who's cleaning up.
Play Ball!
SKIP [sighs] Hell of a shot. 
SKIP Sorry it got wasted. 
I don't know what to do with these guys. 
I beg, I plead. I try to be a nice guy. 
I'm a nice guy, but I don't - - 
CRASH Scare 'em. - 
They're kids. Scare 'em. 
CRASH That's what I'd do. 
SKIP Yeah.
SKIP [chuckles]
Naked bodies in the steamy room. No joking around. A team on a losing streak. 
SUDDENLY SKIP STEPS INTO THE SHOWER in his uniform and angrily throws an armload of bats into the shower.
Everybody into the shower! 
Anybody ain't in this shower in 10 seconds gonna get fined $100!
- Larry! - 
One Mississippi! Two Mississippi. 
Three Mississippi. Four Mississippi. - 
Get in there! Hurry it up! - 
Five Mississippi. Six Mississippi. 
LARRY Seven Mississippi. Eight Mississippi. 
LARRY Nine Mississippi. Ten Mississippi. 
The Durham Bulls sit and stand quietly.
You guys! 
You lollygag the ball around the infield. 
You lollygag your way down to first! 
You lollygag in and out of the dugout. 
Do you know what that makes you? 
Larry. - 
Lollygaggers. - 
Lollygaggers. - 
What's our record, Larry? - 
LARRY Eight and 16. 
Eight and 16. 
How did we ever win eight? - 
It's a miracle. - 
It's a miracle. 
CLOSE ON FACES OF THE PLAYERS -- Sitting silently.
SKIP This is a simple game. 
You throw the ball. 
You hit the ball. 
You catch the ball.
[shouts] You got it? 
BACK INSIDE THE LOCKER ROOM -- Skip is winding down. 
Now, we have got a 12-day road trip... 
SKIP ...starting tomorrow. 
SKIP Bus leaves 6:00 in the morning. 
SKIP HEADS BACK INSIDE his little office with Larry.
Goddamn son-of-a-bitchin' 
SKIP ...
motherfucking shitheads. DAMN!

Words by Ron Shelton
Pictures by Bobby Byrne and Ron Shelton
Bull Durham is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from from M-G-M Home Entertainment and the Criterion Collection.