Saturday, April 28, 2007


"This is an eruption!"

Well, not really.
THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY is crime thriller starring Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren. Hoskins plays Harold Shand, who we are told runs all of the organized crime in London. Harold is about to make the biggest deal of his life, one that will make him even more rich and powerful and even respectable. He wants to buy up and renovate some London waterfront property, and doing this seems to have something to do with establishing ties with the American mafia, representatives of which are visiting as Harold's guests. A couple of slayings and bombings in Harold's organization threaten to blow the whole operation, and Harold has to do some quick maneuvering to ensure that his empire will stay intact and on top while not scaring off the Yanks.

This movie should work like, well, gangbusters. It seems to have it all. A great gang story, a terrific script jammed with all kinds of interesting events and tasty near-blasphemy (the movie isn't set on Good Friday for nothing), great actors giving solid work, great gritty atmosphere, funky off-the-beaten-track London locations and some neat pre-Tarantino graphic violence that must have been deeply shocking when the film was first released in 1980. So why doesn't it work? Why wasn't I as involved as I should have been? The film seems to move along in fits and starts, there's never as much tension as there really should be, even Hoskins and Mirren seem to be rather oddly restrained.

They get their moments of course. Mirren's film work has always been oddly uneven, to me. In THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY she plays Victoria, Hoskins' wife and apparent consigliere. A classy and dignified woman who makes a fascinating foil to Hoskins' rougher diamond in the butch. They're a great couple, wonderful to watch, somehow you just know these two have the best sex ever. They really come together in one remarkable scene where she manages to calm him down from a howling rage attack. She punches and slaps him, finally grabbing his hands and staring him down.

But even this scene doesn't quite seem to work as well as it might. It felt like something was missing, that the actors were holding something back. I couldn't help thinking that another take, where Hoskins and Mirren really went for broke, was in order. It's like a really great rehearsal, a really great idea for a scene that needed more time to get the best out of everybody concerned, and that's pretty much how the whole movie winds up feeling.

This can only be the fault of the director, John McKenzie. It isn't fair to McKenzie to compare him to Coppola or Hawks or Scorsese or the Tarantino of RESERVOIR DOGS, but it isn't fair to me as a viewer to make me wish that one of those filmmakers had been in charge. There just isn't the level of tension and simple sustained interest in THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY that you'd find THE GODFATHER or SCARFACE or RESERVOIR DOGS or even in an average episode of THE SOPRANOS or PRIME SUSPECT.

And it is a shame. What could have been a masterpiece isn't.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


"Hooray for Hollywood"

I saw a new print of Robert Altman's THE LONG GOODBYE, his adaptation of Raymond Chandler's last novel, starring Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe. The movie is getting a lot of attention lately as an overlooked masterpiece, an attitude which I'm afraid I can only see as having more to do with belated respect for a recently deceased auteur than the actual quality of the film itself.

The story, such as it is, centers on Elliot Gould's Marlowe, who finds himself being investigated after helping a friend of his, one Terry Lennox, cross the border into Mexico. It turns out that Lennox is accused of murdering his wife, and stealing money, and nobody (the cops, some almost amusing reimagined-for-the-1970s gangsters) wants to believe that Marlowe knows as little about what's going on as he does. There's a major sequence involving Marlowe's aborted investigation into the doings of a rather unstable novelist and his wife (who, in typical Chandler fashion, are involved with the departed Lennox and his deceased wife) and so on and so on.

The plot isn't really the point. The point is Altman's personal filmmaking style, as idiosyncratic as any in movies. The delight in actors acting (both good and bad) and Altman's roving camera are what the film is really about, and there are some wonderful moments. A remarkable scene involving a character's late night suicide on the beach, wandering off into the blackest ocean imaginable, is like something out of Kurosawa, and there's a wonderful cameo by an actress who delivers one of the most moving depictions of fear I've ever seen in a movie.

Is there enough to make the film worthwhile? Yeah. See it once. You might want to see it more than once, as I do, mainly to watch Sterling Hayden's performance and to try to see if the plot makes any sense at all. The problem, as with a lot of Altman's films, is the smart-assery that he just can't seem to resist. Altman simply never met a cheap joke that he didn't love. That goddamn title song that keeps popping up over and over and over and over and over again, even as a tune played on someone's doorbell, starts as an intriguing joke on the idea of movie theme songs but eventually just gets annoying. And there's the allegedly ironic use of "Hooray for Hollywood" at the opening and closing of the film. Okay, it kind of works to call attention to the artifice of old Hollywood versus the allegedly updated more realistic film that Altman seems to think he's providing. But Altman's ending is more movie-friendly than Chandler's ending. Chandler's novel ends with a real cynicism and despair, a real non-Hollywood ending that Altman's smart-assery just can't come anywhere near.
Or did I miss the point?