Friday, August 26, 2011

Stephen King's The Night Flier

Most people see tabloid newspapers at the checkout stands in their local grocery store and hardly give them the time of day. Their purpose is to kill time until it is time to go through the checkout. Once in awhile you may think to yourself, who writes the stuff that populates these rags? Where do they get their material from? Stephen King’s The Night Flier (1997) answers these questions by giving them a supernatural spin. What if these more outrageous stories that populate the tabloids were based on actual otherworldly horrors? Because people don’t take these newspapers seriously they can be a safe place to talk about the bizarre: UFOs, the end of the world, and so on.


When one thinks of Stephen King adaptations, invariably the high profile examples come immediately to mind: Carrie (1976), The Shining (1980), Misery (1990), and so on. However, every once in awhile there’s one that flies in under the radar like The Night Flier, an adaptation of a short story that appeared in the 1994 bestselling anthology Nightmares and Dreamscapes. It’s a nasty little piece of work that came out during a time when horror had become stagnate, too self-flexive and, worst of all, lost its ability to scare. The film featured a thoroughly unlikable protagonist pursuing a cold-blooded monster and deserves to be ranked among some of the finest adaptations of King’s work.

Richard Dees (Miguel Ferrer) is a veteran reporter for Inside View, a National Inquirer-esque tabloid rag that peddles in alien abductions, dead babies, attacks on the handicap, and demonic possession to name but just a few of its lurid favorites. His editor Merton Morrison (Dan Monahan) hands Dees a new assignment: a serial killer who flies into small, deserted airports at night, kills and then drains the blood of his victims. The killer even calls himself Dwight Renfield (a reference to the first name of the actor who played Renfield in the 1931 film version of Dracula) and pilots a black Cessna. Dees is not impressed but Morrison reminds him that he’s lost his touch – he hasn’t had a cover story in ages and this one is prime material that could put him back on top.

When Dees still refuses to cover the story, Morrison assigns the job to a young woman named Katherine Blair (a Phoebe Cates-esque Julie Entwisle), a recently hired inexperienced reporter looking for her big break. A bemused Dees immediately dubs her “Jimmy” (after Superman’s trusted sidekick Jimmy Olsen), just another aspiring reporter he has seen come and go from Inside View. His gruff, no-bullshit attitude comes as a shock to Katherine whom he tries to discourage by offering his take on the magazine he writes for: “Inside View is an illustration of the insane. It’s a diary of the deranged and dangerously sick.” Despite this glowing endorsement, Katherine stays with the magazine.

Pretty soon another murder happens and the job becomes too irresistible for Dees. Morrison puts him on it, much to Katherine’s chagrin. As luck would have it, Dees is a pilot with his own small plane and he pursues the killer all along the eastern seaboard. Initially, this gig is nothing stranger than any of the other countless jobs he’s worked over the years. Yet, this assignment gets under Dees’ skin and he begins to lose his touch with reality as he’s plagued with nightmares of Renfield.

Director Mark Pavia establishes just the right creepy mood from the opening scene of a fog-enshrouded airport in the middle of night. There is a palpable atmosphere of dread as the film’s first victim is viciously killed. He populates The Night Flier with gloomy cemeteries, dimly-lit hotel rooms and dark and stormy nights.

The always watchable Miguel Ferrer nails the world-weary cynicism of Dees right from his hard-boiled introduction where he berates a co-worker for messing with his latest article. The actor isn’t afraid to play Dees as a repellent human being that profits off the miseries of others. Years of this have clearly made him jaded and lacking ambition, which Ferrer conveys in only a few minutes of screen-time. His deep, gravelly voice is ideally suited for Dees’ been there, done that attitude. It’s the kind of role James Woods might have played in the 1980’s as he was another character actor unafraid to play unfiltered protagonists. The Night Flier is an excellent showcase for Ferrer’s considerable talents. Known for his scene-stealing supporting roles in films like RoboCop (1987) and television shows like Twin Peaks, it’s great to see him in a starring role doing what he does best – playing prickly bastards. Despite all the terrible things Dees does, Ferrer’s natural charisma keeps us invested. We don’t care about his character but he is interesting enough for us to see what happens to him.

Dan Monahan has a juicy role as Dees’ unscrupulous editor – an opportunistic scumbag not above playing the veteran writer against the inexperienced Katherine in order to get the sensationalistic story that will sell lots of copies (“God, I hope he kills more people!” Morrison exclaims at one point). The scenes between him and Ferrer are a lot of fun to watch as their unrepentant, amoral characters bounce off each other. Morrison is a slick salesman masquerading as a magazine editor as evident by the sales pitch he gives Katherine during her interview for a job at the Inside View, which he describes as “a cultural microscope – focusing in on the collective unconscious of the American populace.” Even the relatively naïve Katherine doesn’t entirely buy Morrison’s hyperbolic bullshit but he says it convincingly enough that she accepts the job.

Director Mark Pavia grew up watching Creature Features every Friday night in Chicago and read genre magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland and Fangoria. He made amateur films all through grade and high school, including an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Lambs to the Slaughter, which earned him a scholarship to film school and won an award at the Chicago Film Festival. While at film school, he made the zombie short film Drag on black white, 16 mm film stock with friends for only $25,000. Pavia sent copies separately to legendary film producer Richard P. Rubinstein (Dawn of the Dead) and Stephen King, both of whom he greatly admired. At the time, the two men were working on a film adaptation of King’s magnum opus, The Stand while also considering an adaptation of The Night Flier. King had taken a crack at the screenplay but got stuck and abandoned it. He and Rubinstein were impressed with Pavia’s work on Drag and called the young filmmaker asking him if he wanted to write and direct a low-budget adaptation of The Night Flier. Pavia and childhood friend Jack O’Donnell spent two weeks putting together a presentation and then flew to New York City to make their pitch. Two weeks later, Pavia got a call and was told that he got the gig.

Pavia and O’Donnell wrote six drafts in six weeks with King reading and approving them all while also giving them notes. However, the production was delayed a year when Rubinstein’s company folded and he started up a new one. In that time Pavia polished the script and scouted locations, picking Wilmington, North Carolina. He also storyboarded the film extensively, which saved time during principal photography. Pavia said, “Storyboarding allows me to see the movie before I shoot a single frame.” When it came to casting the role of Richard Dees, he thought only of Miguel Ferrer. Pavia had been a fan of the actor since seeing him in RoboCop and told Rubinstein that he would be perfect for the role. King agreed and they sent Ferrer a copy of the script. Coincidentally, he had just finished work on the T.V. miniseries version of The Stand and was also a huge fan of the author’s work. Pavia had 30 days to shoot The Night Flier and brought it in a day early and under budget.

After finishing the film, the producers shopped it around Hollywood. Several major studios were interested, in particular Paramount, but they wanted to wait over a year to release it theatrically. Rubinstein wasn’t crazy about that idea and sold the film to HBO, which premiered it to strong numbers on their channel. The Night Flier went to receive mixed to negative reviews from critics. The New York Times’ Stephen Holden wrote, “The story has been so poorly adapted that intriguing clues to the killer’s motives and modus operandi are introduced, then left hanging,” but felt that “the movie’s sole strength is Mr. Ferrer’s relentlessly hard-boiled performance.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas, he wrote, “this blood bath of a movie, which bears King’s name in the title, indulges in the very wretched excesses it attempts to criticize.” The harshest criticism came from Entertainment Weekly, which gave the film a “D+” rating and felt that it was “as impersonally designed as a car commercial.”

The climactic showdown is an unhinged bloodbath as Dees and the object of his obsession meet head on. After years of covering the worst aspects of humanity, Dees has become a parasite, much like his target – only instead of blood, Dees feeds on misery and suffering. Where Renfield drains his victims of their blood, Dees takes photographs of horribly mangled corpses in a grisly highway accident. The Night Flier is about one man’s search for a moment of greatness, which mirrors Dees’ quest for Renfield. While Pavia does a nice job of laying on the atmosphere, Ferrer’s relentless performance is the film’s strongest selling point and makes a convincing argument for more leading roles for this underrated character actor.


SOURCES


Barnick, Adam. “Fright Exclusive Interview: Mark Pavia.” Icons of Fright. July 19, 2006.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

DVD of the Week: The Killing

Before graduating to studio films for the remainder of his filmmaking career, Stanley Kubrick cut his teeth on several lean independent films with producer James B. Harris, chief among them was The Killing (1956), a masterful take on Lionel White’s novel Clean Break. Adapted by Kubrick with dialogue written by none other than legendary crime novelist Jim Thompson, The Killing tells a fairly standard tale of a heist gone wrong. However, it is how Kubrick tells it, which makes the film one of the all-time classic noirs. He rearranges the sequence of events in a way that puts a fascinating spin on how everything goes down, decades before Quentin Tarantino made it cool again with Reservoir Dogs (1992).


During the fifth race at a horse track several incidents occur, which are seemingly unrelated to the casual observer but, of course, are all part of a masterful plan as conveyed by the knowing looks between a number of men. Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is the de facto mastermind of the job and a savvy crook who understands the odds: “Anytime you take a chance you better be sure the rewards are worth the risk because they can put you away just as fast for a $10 heist as a million dollar job.” He plans to take his cut and fly off with his girlfriend and childhood sweetheart Fay (Coleen Gray).

Kubrick skips around chronologically to introduce all the significant players in the drama: bartender Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer); track cashier George Peatty (Elisha Cook) and his shrewish wife Sherry (Marie Windsor); as well as her lover Val (Vince Edwards); gambler Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen); with two hired hoods – sniper Nikki Arcane (Timothy Carey) and brawler Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwariani). Like most heist films, everyone has their own agenda and nobody can be trusted. Kubrick establishes these characters, shows their roles in the job and their respective fates in its aftermath.

The Killing features an impressive cast with the likes of Sterling Hayden, a veteran of these kinds of films (see The Asphalt Jungle) and ideally-suited as the no-nonsense leader. Idiosyncratic character actor Timothy Carey has a small but memorable role as a grimacing sharpshooter, but it is Elisha Cook and Marie Windsor who steal the show as a deeply dysfunctional couple. She is a two-timing schemer who has her husband wrapped around her finger (or so she thinks) while he’s the proverbial doormat, ignorant of his wife’s duplicitous ways. Some of the film’s best scenes feature their rocky relationship – one that can only end badly.

Like most film noirs, The Killing chronicles the inevitable countdown to the doomed finale for all involved. We know it’s coming, we just don’t know how and one of the perverse thrills is watching as everything goes horribly wrong. An early film in his career, Kubrick already demonstrated a masterful touch as he orchestrates a meticulously plotted heist film with the confident hand of a seasoned maestro. He also shows his knack for observing human behavior – in this case that of the criminal mind as he illustrates how a carefully planned job is ruined by greed and jealousy.

Special Features:

On the first disc is an interview with producer James B. Harris who talks about working with Stanley Kubrick and, of course, The Killing. Harris recounts how he met the director and the genesis of this film. He gives a nicely detailed account of several aspects of the production and his contributions.

Also included are excerpts from a 1984 interview with actor Sterling Hayden for French television. He talks about working in Hollywood and with Kubrick. Quite the colorful character, Hayden is refreshingly candid about his experiences making films.

“Polito on Thompson” features Robert Polito, author of Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson, talking about the legendary writer’s relationship with Kubrick and the problems he encountered while working in Hollywood. Kubrick was a great admirer of Thompson’s books, especially his knack for writing dialogue, and wanted to utilize this strength in The Killing. Polito recounts how the two men met and their collaboration on this film.

There is a theatrical trailer.

The second disc starts off with a fantastic extra for Kubrick fans – a newly re-mastered transfer of Killer’s Kiss (1955), a low budget film noir the director made prior to The Killing. Shot on the streets of New York City, it concerns a small-time boxer by the name of Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) who is past his prime. He becomes romantically involved with his neighbor and dancer Gloria Price (Irene Kane) while also getting mixed up with her violent boss Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silvera). Kubrick’s background in documentaries is evident in the way he shoots every day life in New York. The city is almost a character unto itself and the film serves as a fascinating snapshot of a metropolis that no longer exists.

Film critic Geoffrey O’Brien talks about Killer’s Kiss. He compares it to a student film in the sense that it was done for very little money, was an opportunity for the young Kubrick to experiment, and demonstrates his promise as an aspiring filmmaker. He points out that there is a loose, almost improvisational quality that would be less evident in later films as Kubrick became a more skillful director.

Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.

 


Friday, August 19, 2011

Top of the Food Chain

After a 15-year hiatus from making feature films, Canadian auteur John Paizs returned with a wickedly funny, little-seen 1950’s alien invasion parody, Top of the Food Chain (1999). He was no stranger to deconstructing genres as he had satirized the B-crime/noir previously with Crime Wave (1985). However, this film actually featured two recognizable name actors with Campbell Scott and Tom Everett Scott. Sadly, they could not save this gem from obscurity where it has been languishing on home video. However, it was the beginning of a cycle of films that parodied ‘50s B-movies, along with Psycho Beach Party (2000), The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001), and more recently Alien Trespass (2009). For my money, Paizs’ film is the funniest of the bunch as it pokes fun at the repressed attitude towards sex that was indicative of that era and brings the kinkiness right up front with hilarious results.


The town of Exceptional Vista looks like the aftermath of a George Romero zombie invasion: deserted, abandoned cars littering the streets with run-down-looking buildings everywhere. It seems that the Fine Nuts factory (“The finest nuts in the western central northeast.”) closed down and moved to Left Hemisphere some time ago with almost all of the other businesses following suit. What a perfect spot for the beginning of an alien invasion! A hapless fisherman is the first victim when he encounters a beautiful woman who asks him, “Would you like to perform the copulatory act with me?” The fact that her come-on is right out of a science textbook should send up a red flag but it’s too late for this backwoods angler.

A few of the remaining townsfolk hang out at the general store where they complain about the lack of television reception. Among them is Mayor Claire (Bernard Behrens), a character who seems to be channeling Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy with incredulous exclamations like, “By the beheaded John the Baptist…” or “By the blessed fruit of Mary’s womb!” The beautiful Miss Sandy Fawkes (Fiona Loewi) shows up with news that Dr. Karel Lamonte (Campbell Scott), the most brilliant atomic scientist at the atomic academy, will be staying at her motel. She encounters him lurking at the back of the store, perusing a pig fetishist magazine (called Pig Parliament no less?!) He is the typical brainy scientist albeit with some kinky twists that become apparent later on.

Dr. Lamonte soon encounters other significant townsfolk. There’s Officer Gayle (Hardee T. Lineham) who takes an instant dislike to the professor. Guy Fawkes (Tom Everett Scott) is Sandy’s dimwitted brother with whom she seems to have an incestuous relationship. Also staying at the motel is Michel O’Shea (Nigel Bennett), a little too-friendly traveling salesman who specializes in vacuums. In most alien invasion films it is the people who act strangely that we suspect are from another world but in Top of the Food Chain everyone is odd.

While hiking through the lumpy bumpy part of town outside of town, Dr. Lamonte discovers the decomposing remains of someone and dutifully informs Gayle and the mayor. Meanwhile, the townsfolk are being picked off by the aliens. Just who are they? Is it, as Mr. O’Shea speculates, some sort of man-eating Sasquatch-type thing roaming the countryside, or quite possibly a gang of genetically engineered serial killers, possibly devil worshippers?

Campbell Scott doesn’t do many comedies but displays fantastic comic timing in this film as a straight-laced (sort of) scientist. The actor nails the stuffy, uptight archetypal ‘50s egghead with uncanny fidelity, right down to the authoritative voice all these characters seem to have, which makes his kooky dialogue that much funnier. The 1990’s were a great decade for Scott as he appeared in such diverse fare as Singles (1992), Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), and The Spanish Prisoner (1997). Top of the Food Chain demonstrated his knack for broad, farcical comedy.

Canadian television screenwriters and co-producers Phil Bedard and Larry Lalonde (Kung Fu: The Legend Continues) were looking for a director with the right sensibilities for their unusual screenplay and happened to catch John Paizs’ first feature film Crime Wave one night on pay T.V. and were taken with its deadpan humor and faux-Technicolor look. They wanted Top of the Food Chain to have the same look. Afterwards, they knew he was the right person for the job. He was sent a copy of the script in 1994. Paizs developed his comedic sensibilities directing episodes of the T.V. show The Kids in the Hall whose oddball, often surreal humor was perfect for this film. He described it as “an amalgam of a certain kind of rural comedy and the 50’s sci-fi picture. Or as a sort of cinematic platypus.”

The filmmakers called Campbell Scott’s agent and asked if he was interested in being in the film. He was drawn to the project for the chance to work with Paizs after seeing and enjoying Crime Wave, and to also dispel the notion that he was not funny. He also had a fondness for old ‘50s monster movies and used to watch them on T.V. as a child. “It was perhaps the only era where science was considered sexy.” Lalonde and Bedard had previously cast Fiona Loewi in the T.V. series John Woo’s Once a Thief and were impressed with her work and cast her in the film. She had done a lot of dramatic work and was drawn to this film for the chance to do something different, funnier.

Top of the Food Chain took years to finance because it was such unusual project but producer Suzanne Berger found a wealthy investment banker in New York City who wanted to invest in a film. Scott signed on a week before production began and this helped secure the last bit of financing the filmmakers needed. The film was shot over five weeks in the summer of 1998 in a former G.E. factory in west-end Toronto. Paizs encouraged Loewi to improvise and she “sexed up the character to a degree not seen on the page,” the director remembered. She said, “we were allowed to experiment – Campbell and I would make up our own little bits.”

The production mostly eschewed CGI in favor of old school prosthetic and animatronic effects mostly because of the small budget they had to work with but also to give the film a campy, retro feel. F/X and makeup artist Paul Jones tried to keep the opticals to a minimum, “so all the transformation in the movie is in the camera.”

In his review for Variety, Ken Eisner wrote, “Not everything in the script works, but there's so much irreverent, movie-loving stuff flying at you, it hardly matters. Real belly laughs come only occasionally, but the chortle-out-loud factor is almost 90%.” The Montreal Gazette’s John Griffin wrote, “With any justice in this darned old world it will become the cult movie about cult movies by which all cult movies about cult movies are judged.” The Toronto Star’s Peter Howell wrote, “Paizs and his cast obviously had a ball making this film; at times they can barely keep straight faces. But they make this cheeseball roll, if a little too slowly at times. Most impressive are the retro-riffic special effects, which are better than you'd expect for a movie with a budget of about $1.98.” However, the Calgary Herald’s Katrina Onstad wrote, “Despite some smiley moments and good intentions, Top of the Food Chain never generates the big laugh payoff. In comedy, that's an issue.” In his review for the Village Voice, Dennis Lim wrote, “the movie seems curiously off-target, like a spoof of a spoof, and for every moment of throwaway lunacy, there are too many that turn Mystery Science Theater-style lampoon into heavy lifting.”

No matter how ridiculous things get (and they get pretty wacky), the cast plays it straight, never winking knowingly at the camera, which makes the crazy dialogue they say even funnier. Bedard and Lalonde’s script is very clever with many laugh-out loud moments. These guys are obviously big fans of ‘50s B-movies as they serve up many of their clichés and then poke fun while also celebrating them. This is an affectionate satire. They have a deliciously warped sense of humor that comes out in their dialogue, which apes the often stilted speak of those old films. Much like Psycho Beach Party would do a year later, Top of the Food Chain takes all the sexual subtext of those old B-movies and brings it right to the surface with hilarious results. It is one of the funniest, little known alien invasion spoofs with a perverse sense of humor that gives it an added zing. When it was released on home video in the United States it was unfortunately renamed Invasion! and deserves to be the kind of cult film that people quote from fondly.


SOURCES

“Acting: The Sweet Hair After.” Toronto Star. March 8, 2000.

Files, Gemma. “Cannibals from Outer Space!” Eye Weekly. September 9, 1999.

McKay, John. “Sci-Fi Success.” Hamilton Spectator. September 10, 1999.

Schaefer, Glen. “Sexy Star Sizzles in Sci-Fi Film.” Vancouver Province. March 16, 2000.


Top of the Food Chain Production Notes. 1999.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The January Man

Outside of Ishtar (1987) or maybe Gigli (2003), you’d be hard-pressed to find another more critically savaged film than The January Man (1989). And what an ass-kicking it took at the box office, pulling in just under five million dollars in the United States. Why so much vitriol directed at one film? Coming off the success of his Academy Award-winning screenplay for Moonstruck (1987), John Patrick Shanley assumed he could do no wrong and for his next film assembled an impressive roster of talent with Pat O’Connor (A Month in the Country) directing, Marvin Hamlisch (The Sting) composing the score, and a cast that featured the likes of Kevin Kline, Susan Sarandon, Alan Rickman, Harvey Keitel, and Rod Steiger. For good measure, Shanley’s Moonstruck director Norman Jewison produced the film.


With this insane amount of talent in front of and behind the camera, how could The January Man fail? Critics and audiences were not ready for the end result: a thriller with sudden tonal shifts, veering from comedy to romance to mystery, often within the same scene. Some of the cast delivered low-key performances while others chewed up the scenery. The film was deemed a mess, a disappointing misfire from brilliant artists that should have known better. Yet, the messiness of this film is what I like about it as it reflects the messiness of the protagonist’s life. The January Man is an underrated critique of the thriller genre and deserves to be rediscovered and re-assessed now that enough time has passed.

Someone in New York City is strangling and killing beautiful young women. It has been going on for almost a year with 11 women dead. When the latest victim (Faye Grant) was last seen by the mayor’s daughter Bernadette (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and could have easily been the one dead, his Honor (Rod Steiger) leans heavily on police commissioner Frank Starkey (Harvey Keitel) to do something about it. He wants the best man the chief’s got on the job and that would Nick Starkey (Kevin Kline), Frank’s estranged brother. It turns out that Nick used to be a hot shot police detective but was screwed over royally in some sort of scandal and is now a firefighter.

We are introduced to Nick as he heroically saves a child from a burning building. After reviving the kid, the understandably exhausted man requests an espresso – the first indication that The January Man is going to be something different. It’s the absurdity of Kline asking for an espresso amidst the carnage of a raging inferno that deflates his heroic action and gives us a clue as to what kind of person we’re dealing with. Nick isn’t some glory hound but genuinely cares about saving lives at the risk of his own. Frank appeals to his brother to help him out and in return he’ll be fully reinstated and given carte blanche on the case. Nick only has one condition: to make dinner for Frank’s wife and his ex-lover, Christine (Susan Sarandon). Judging from her reaction when Frank tells her, she still has feelings for Nick.

Nick returns home to find his best friend Ed (Alan Rickman) painting with a nude female model and a kitten as his subjects (let’s not forget a talking parrot commenting on the action in the corner). Coming off his classic villainous role in Die Hard (1988), Alan Rickman goes completely in the opposite direction with this hilarious low-key character full of dry wit. The actor proceeds to steal the scene (and every other one he’s in) with a simple look he gives Kline while defending his intrusion in Nick’s apartment. He goes from defensive to warm and inviting when he agrees to clear out so that Nick can prepare his dinner for Christine. What also makes Ed such a memorable character is how he speaks, like the way he tells the model, “Just languish there, darling. Don’t molest anything.” It’s how he emphasizes the words, “languish” and “molest” that make this bit so funny. It’s an incredible example of what a great actor can do with a bit of dialogue just by how he says a word a certain way. Apparently, Ed is some kind of computer expert in his spare time and Nick hires him to help out in his investigation.

The scene where local precinct captain Vincent Alcoa (Danny Aiello) confronts the mayor about reinstating Nick under his watch is a master class in over the top profane scenery chewing. Danny Aiello comes in bellowing (“Don’t bullshit me besides screwing me!”) and then takes it up another notch. Not to be outdone, Rod Steiger cranks it up to a whole other level (“You think I’m your wife, you wanna fuck me?!”) and becomes so enraged that you swear his head will explode at some point. Harvey Keitel wisely plays it low key as he does throughout the entire film. So much so that it’s kind of spooky, like he’s sleepwalking his way through the film – uncustomary for the usually intense actor. There is a method to Shanley’s madness, however, as this scene satirizes the hot-tempered chief chewing out a subordinate by showing how ridiculous it is to have two grown men yelling at each other.

The dinner scene between Nick and Christine also subverts convention. One assumes that he is trying to win her back and would prepare food that she would like. But no, he has made the most unusual culinary challenged meal that includes octopus, which Christine is clearly not thrilled with eating. What’s odd about this sequence is its placement in the film. Shanley stops the thriller story cold and inserts this scene that is straight out of a romantic comedy as Nick and Christine rehash old times. Coming off her earthy, sexy role in Bull Durham (1988), Susan Sarandon plays a very different character – one that is cold and distant as she is part of an unhappy marriage. This sequence feels like a different film entirely but it works if you understand what Shanley is trying to do: subvert the conventions of the thriller genre by plopping down a tonally different scene from a disparate genre. It’s a ballsy move on Shanley’s part and a potential deal breaker for an audience expecting a standard thriller. However, what he’s doing is what Quentin Tarantino would excel at in the 1990’s (see Pulp Fiction) so maybe it took audiences a few years to catch up to what Shanley was doing in The January Man.

During his investigation, Nick befriends and then becomes romantically involved with Bernadette, which complicates things on two fronts: she was friends with one of the murder victims and she’s the mayor’s daughter. Their initial meeting is interesting in the sense that it’s a meet-cute right out of a romantic comedy except that their conversation veers from the murder to Nick’s relationship with Christine to him hitting on Bernadette and then having sex with her in the next scene. She’s upset over her friend getting killed and he’s feeling vulnerable after the uncomfortable dinner with Christine. They find a bit of solace together, a brief respite from the ugly murder that they’re both linked to. The script alludes to a rich backstory for Nick with a complicated past that involves his brother and Christine. The details aren’t particularly important, just the fallout and how it informs their relationship with one another in the present.

What I like about Kevin Kline’s character is that he’s a thinker. Director Pat O’Connor shows him studying evidence, observing people and their behavior, all the while analyzing the case in his head. Nick is definitely a left-brain person who thinks outside the box. The role also allows Kline to show off not only his comedic chops (of which are superb) but also his aptitude for drama, like when Nick begins to delve deeper into the case, or the complex relationship with his brother Frank. Kline is a versatile actor able to go back and forth from comedy and drama, often in the same scene, making him the ideal choice for this role. I’ve always found Kline to be an offbeat leading man. He’s not traditionally handsome, like Brad Pitt or George Clooney, but he has a very likable persona that is charming and disarming. Only Lawrence Kasdan (I Love You to Death) has really been able to consistently utilize him to his full potential. The actor had just come off his Academy Award-winning turn in A Fish Called Wanda (1988) and with The January Man played a radically different character – an intelligent romantic as opposed to the outlandish buffoon as in Wanda.

When Kevin Kline read the screenplay for The January Man, he thought it would be fun to do. “It’s so outrageous, it’s got such panache. It’s not really a murder-mystery thriller, it’s about family and betrayal and the individual outside the system.” In addition, producer Norman Jewison described it as “a romantic comedy thriller.” The film was shot over ten weeks in Manhattan and Toronto. With a background in documentaries, director Pat O’Connor made sure the precinct featured prominently in the film looked authentic, right down to the layout and the way the extras looked. He hired Ed Zigo as a consultant. He was one of the police detectives who helped catch David Berkowitz a.k.a. the Son of Sam. Zigo took some of the cast and crew on tours of precincts in and around New York City. By all accounts, principal photography went smoothly so what went wrong? Perhaps something during the post-production phase? The most telling comment came from screenwriter John Patrick Shanley who saw three cuts of the film. “One time I saw it, I didn’t like it. One time I saw it and I really liked it. And then the third time I saw it I was confused and wasn’t sure how I felt.” Guess which version was released.

It is a gross understatement to say that critics savaged The January Man when it was released. Roger Ebert gave the film one out of four stars and wrote, “Nothing fits. Every role seems to have been faxed in from a different movie, and the actors are on such various planes of emotional intensity that sometimes you can catch them, right there on the screen, looking at each other in bewilderment.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Pat O'Connor, the director (Stars and Bars, A Month in the Country, Cal), has imposed no risible order on this minor chaos, nor has he been kind to Mr. Kline. He allows this very gifted comic actor to work so hard trying to be funny that one alternately sweats and cringes while watching him.” USA Today gave the film one out of four stars and Matt Roush felt that “the movie is all concept, with little ingenuity applied to the execution.” Time magazine gave the film a mixed review, addressing Shanley’s script: “His busy plotting may require a suspension of incredulity, but he is well served by good actors; by a director, Pat O'Connor, with a taste for the acrid flavors of big-city life; and by his own delight in human eccentricity.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “Eliot called April the cruelest month, but then he hadn't seen The January Man. Billed as a mystery with romance and comedy, it is a damp sock of a movie that makes you wish for leap year.” The Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen wrote, “There are isolated scenes (bantering with his artsy sidekick, confronting an old flame, seducing a new) that sail along marvelously. But, each time, our raised hopes are quickly dashed, and apparent redemption ends as merely a momentary reprieve.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “The whodunit is spectacularly implausible, the comedy misjudged, the romance forced.” Finally, in his review for the Los Angeles Times, Charles Champlin came the closest of anyone to giving the film a positive review when he wrote, “You are left with some genuine laughter, with a renewed awareness that Shanley is a special and considerable talent, and with an equally renewed feeling that nobody wins 'em all.”

Shanley casts a discerning eye upon the thriller genre without beating the viewer over the head with its conventions. Most thrillers are plot-driven but The January Man is inhabited by characters that you care about – you want to see Nick end up with Bernadette at the film’s conclusion. The film critiques the police thriller by presenting all of its conventions – the loose cannon cop who doesn’t play by the rules; the gruff boss who’s tired of his screwball antics; the ex-lover who creates romantic tension; tantalizing hints of political corruption; and the serial killer following a specific methodology – and then proceeds to subvert them by confounding our expectations, like the killer turning out to be a nobody just following his own sick impulses, or making the cop protagonist an artsy bohemian type. Even the climactic showdown is unusual – a messy, amusing sequence that goes on longer than you’d expect as Nick is portrayed as not the most adept at physical combat. The film’s intent is best summed up by its most memorable line of dialogue that Nick says to Christine when he realizes that he doesn’t love her anymore: “I loved an idea I had that looked like you.” It’s like Shanley loved an idea he had of a thriller that looked like the one that is the film. As if anticipating the critical shellacking his film was going to take upon its release, Shanley has Ed say at the end of the film, “The world’s either great or wretched, isn’t it? So many people are just finished.” He could so easily be talking about Hollywood and what I always assumed to be Shanley’s love/hate relationship with it.

This article was inspired by Mr. Peel's thoughtful examination of the film over at his blog.
 
*note: these fantastic screencaps were taken from the Movie Screenshots blog.


SOURCES

Alaton, Salem. “Punchin’, Kissin’ Writer Puts Pop in January Man.” Globe and Mail. January 13, 1989.


Pitt, David E. “The January Man Dossier: The Force is With It.” The New York Times. January 15, 1989.