Friday, February 17, 2017

Moonlight Mile

Brad Silberling got his start directing television shows like Doogie Howser, M.D. and NYPD Blue before making the jump to feature movies with studio fare like Casper (1995) and City of Angels (1998). It wasn’t until Moonlight Mile (2002), however, that he finally had something personal to say. The film was loosely inspired by the grieving period he went through after his then-fiancée, actress Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered by an obsessed fan in 1989. It featured then-up-and-coming actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Ellen Pompeo alongside veteran actors Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon delivering thoughtful performances in this moving story.

It's in 1973 and Joe Nast (Gyllenhaal) is staying with Ben (Hoffman) and Jojo Floss (Sarandon) after the death of his fiancée and their daughter. Ben copes by keeping busy, micromanaging the funeral and the reception afterwards while Jojo suffers from writer’s block. Joe sticks around because he doesn’t know what else to do, feeling like he’s the last link to their daughter, even staying in her room. While trying to retrieve wedding invitations from the local post office, he meets Bertie Knox (Pompeo), who helps him out. They gradually become attracted to one another but they both harbor painful secrets that hold them back.

Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon are believable as a married couple from the short hand they have between each other, like how Jojo frequently reminds Ben to lower his shoulders. It is these little, personal touches that provide valuable insight into their relationship. It is also interesting to see how they cope with the grief of their child’s death in their respective ways. Ben is all nervous energy and tries to keep busy, pushing the grief down deep so that he doesn’t have to deal with it. Jojo, however, channels her pain through anger and bounces it off Ben in little ways that are familiar to anybody’s who’s been married for a decent amount of time. Sarandon excels at playing this no bullshit kind of character and it juxtaposes well against Hoffman’s internalized bundle of energy.

Jake Gyllenhaal is decent as the bewildered fiancé trying to make sense of it all – his feelings for his fiancée, his responsibility towards her parents and what he’s supposed to do next – and Bertie comes along and shakes it all up. Joe is wracked with guilt over a secret he’s keeping from Ben and Jojo and it’s tearing him up inside. Gyllenhaal does an excellent job conveying this internal conflict. He delivers an impressively nuanced performance and at such a young age.

The lovely, pre-Grey’s Anatomy Ellen Pompeo plays Joe’s alluring potential love interest that is harboring deep, personal feelings of loss herself. Like Joe, she’s damaged and adrift in life and this draws them together. The actress conveys a fragile vulnerability under a tomboy façade that is intriguing to watch.

In 1989, Brad Silberling was a film graduate with a promising career directing T.V. he was engaged to 21-year-old actress Rebecca Schaeffer. One day, she was shot and killed by a crazed fan. Silberling remembered, “The moment this happened, there was a voice in my head saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do.’” He moved into her parents’ house in Oregon, staying there for several months while he tried to figure out what to do next and comfort them during this dark time.

Four years later, he channeled this experience into the screenplay for what would become Moonlight Mile (originally entitled, Babies in Black). Silberling said, “Like the girl in the film, Rebecca was an only child with parents who were vital and interesting. I didn’t know them very well and, suddenly, we were thrust into a unique type of intimacy in which the boundaries were unclear and the expectations hazy.”

He didn’t have an easy time of getting it made. Even after back-to-back hits with Casper and City of Angels, it took years for Moonlight Mile to get made. Four studios passed on it, including DreamWorks who felt it was too close to American Beauty (1999). Studio executives didn’t know how to market it as Silberling said, “They’re stumped by stories that are character-driven and don’t box themselves up neatly.” It wasn’t until Susan Sarandon and then Dustin Hoffman agreed to do it that financing came through. Initially, Hoffman turned it down in 1998 but changed his mind two years later when the filmmaker pitched to him again. The actor said, “Hearing Brad talk about it – I detected a yearning in him. He wanted to make this movie to figure something out.” Silberling’s agent contacted Disney’s studio chief and gave him 24 hours to decide on the $20 million film. He agreed to bankroll it in the fall of 2000 with principal photography taking place in the spring of 2001.

Moonlight Mile received mixed reactions from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Moonlight Mile gives itself the freedom to feel contradictory things. It is sentimental but feels free to offend, is analytical and then surrenders to the illogic of its characters, is about grief and yet permits laughter.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Yet somehow the director has put together a collage of period music without succumbing to the usual classic rock clichés, and he has a good instinct for the ways people use pop music to communicate and to express emotions they can’t quite articulate. In fact, if they articulated them a little bit less, Moonlight Mile would be a stronger movie.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “Silberling has crafted a good number of strong, memorable moments—a barroom dance set to the Rolling Stones title song is particularly nice—but finally the presence of real feelings underlines what’s missing when they’re not there.” Finally, Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C+” and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Joe’s cleaving to his replacement parents, letting himself replace the child whose loss they have yet to confront, is a sticky, fraught situation that Silberling reduces to a pileup of TV episodes.”

I’ve always been a sucker for small-town American slices of life stories and Moonlight Mile is one that stayed with me for days. Even though it’s set in ’73, Silberling doesn’t hit you over the head with period details, letting the soundtrack, populated by Sly and the Family Stone, T-Rex, Van Morrison, and others do that instead. He focuses on the characters and their dilemmas, which are compelling in their own right. The music compliments them and so we get a touching moment when Joe and Bertie slow dance to “Moonlight Mile” by the Rolling Stones or when they drive off to an uncertain future to the strains of Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing.”

What makes this film distinctive from others of its ilk is how personal it feels, from the song choices to the specific behavior of the characters. This doesn’t feel like some generic studio movie – it is a personal statement from someone that had to make it. It’s a film that features characters dealing with grief and guilt and trying to communicate these feelings with others. It also explores the real need for personal connection and how that can help people open up and be vulnerable, which helps deal with their personal traumas. How does one go on with their life after the death of someone close to them? Everyone has their own way of dealing and Moonlight Mile shows several coping methods – none of them are easy. This film was a highmark for Silberling and after its commercial failure (it was the victim of a studio regime change), he went back to standard studio fare and directing T.V. It’s a shame he hasn’t found anything as personal and moving as this film but it remains a poignant tribute to Rebecca Schaeffer’s memory and that part of his life.


Diaconescu, Sorina. “All the Way Back.” Los Angeles Times. September 22, 2002.

Ojumu, Akin. “The family that grieves together…” The Guardian. February 15, 2003.

Waxman, Sharon. “A Director’s Longest Mile.” Washington Post. September 29, 2002.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Bonfire of the Vanities

“And I think if you look at the movie now, and you don’t know anything about the book, and you get it out of the time that it was released, I think you can see it in a whole different way.” – Brian De Palma, Empire magazine, December 2008

Has enough time passed that Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s best-selling novel The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) can be judged on its own merits? Has enough time passed that its critical and commercial failings don’t matter (if they ever did)? And has enough time passed that its troubled production history, as chronicled in Julie Salamon’s tell-all The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco, no longer matters? Perhaps this is a case of going into a film without having read the source material being a good thing as it allows the film to be judged on its own merits.

De Palma starts The Bonfire of the Vanities in typically audacious fashion with a long take with no edits as we follow alcoholic journalist Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis) from an underground parking garage up through the bowels of a building, interacting with several people, including a chatty P.R. woman (Rita Wilson), and going up an elevator, getting changed, and finally arriving at the premiere of his own book. You have to admire the seamless choreography of this sequence (courtesy of cinematographer extraordinaire Vilmos Zsigmond) as we get crucial insight into the drunken letch that is Fallow.

His voiceover narration informs us that he’s not really the hero of this story – Sherman McCoy (Tom Hanks) is – and a feature-length flashback tells his story. Sherman is a wealthy Wall Street bond trader and we first meet him taking his dog outside his apartment building for a walk on a dark and stormy night. He meets a man (Kurt Fuller) outside and their exchange feels off as they awkwardly speak stylized dialogue – the first indication that perhaps Tom Hanks was miscast in this film. It’s painful to watch and painful to listen to even in a stylized film such as this one.

The actor fares even worse in a scene where his wife (Kim Cattrall) confronts him over his cheating ways. The initial tone is a comedic one and then awkwardly downshifts to a serious tone so fast that it induces whiplash. The other woman is Maria (Melanie Griffith), a gold digging Southern belle. One fateful night, he picks her up from the airport and accidentally gets lost in the Bronx where he and Maria get to see how the other side lives much to their panicked disdain. They’re accosted by two young African American men and manage to escape, running over one of them, which puts him into a coma.

Fallow is all washed-up and one story away from being fired from a tabloid newspaper until he gets a lead on a story about a hit-and-run involving the same African American man that was run over by Sherman and Maria. He writes about it, which makes Sherman understandably very nervous. With her coaxing he does nothing, figuring it will go away but of course it doesn’t. The rest of the film examines how this crime is exploited by the local community leaders tired of being screwed over by the powers that be time and time again, the media looking for the next sensational story that will sell papers, and the district attorney (F. Murray Abraham) looking to score points with voters as he’s up for re-election.

The main problem the film has is the miscasting of Hanks as a ruthless Wall Street trader. The actor can do many things but ruthless and unlikable is not among them. Even in his darkest roles – Punchline (1988) and The Road to Perdition (2002) – there is always an inherent empathy. He can’t help it as it is in his DNA. This goes against the character of Sherman McCoy who is supposed to be an unpleasant son-of-a-bitch and the casting of Hanks was clearly a move to dilute the character and make him more relatable. What he does do well is sweaty desperation when the cops come calling and casually grill Sherman.

Morgan Freeman kills it as a tough-talking, no-nonsense judge in the South Bronx who schools a naïve assistant district attorney (Saul Rubinek) on how things work in his court via a fiery and masterful monologue – the kind that Samuel L. Jackson usually gets in Quentin Tarantino films – that is a sight to behold and makes me wish the veteran actor would get juicy roles like this again. This is merely a warm-up for the film’s climax where it goes all Frank Capra as Freeman delivers a powerful speech condemning all the parties involved, calling for decency as the judge represents the lone voice of reason.

At the time of The Bonfire of the Vanities, Bruce Willis was at the height of his Die Hard (1988) / The Return of Bruno smarmy charm phase and this role lets him lay it on thick while also showing his willingness to play a deeply flawed character in search of redemption. He’s also not afraid to play up the less likable aspects of Fallow, the high society suck-up and the alcoholic lush.

The Bonfire of the Vanities works hard to make Sherman sympathetic when it should be roasting him. He embodies entitled white privilege, which was big during the materialistic 1980s and is making a comeback with Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States. In one scene, De Palma makes a point of juxtaposing the African American protestors outside Sherman’s apartment building with the dinner party inside populated by his white rich friends as they metaphorically circle the wagons and show support for one of their own. These people are portrayed as arrogant racists that don’t care about anyone but themselves. If they get into any trouble they just make it go away with money.

The film also exposes the hypocrisy of the justice system. The D.A. doesn’t want to punish Sherman because he’s guilty but because it will help him get re-elected. He’s an opportunist that sends out his minions to do his bidding. Then there is the media that are portrayed as a mob of vultures feeding on the latest story of misery, adhering to the ago old credo, if it bleeds, it leads. Sherman is just the latest headline to sell papers – nothing more, nothing less. If Freeman’s climactic Capraeseque monologue seems too gee whiz of an idealistic ending, De Palma ends things with a brilliant visual punchline that hints at how great the film could have been if the studio hadn’t messed with him behind the scenes.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is a cynical take on modern society with everybody available for a price, from the D.A. vying for re-election to the mother (Mary Alice) of the young man in a coma suing the hospital for $10 million. Divorced from its source material, De Palma’s film is a biting satire that attacks the rich, those that exploit tragedies, and the media. At times, it is also a light farce and, as a result, the film is all over the place tonally as it can’t make up its mind what it wants to be. Yet, for all this sloppiness and the miscasting of Hanks (who actually does get better as the film goes along), Bonfire is not the complete disaster it is commonly portrayed as and is actually quite entertaining. It deserves to be re-visited and regarded on its own merits.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Kiss Me Deadly

After the classy film noirs of the 1940s, Robert Aldrich’s adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s hardboiled crime novel Kiss Me Deadly (1955) pushed the boundaries of the genre as far as it could back then. It was as tough and uncompromising as its protagonist Mike Hammer. The film reflects the Cold War paranoia that was rampant during the 1950s and fuses it with an apocalyptic science fiction climax in a way the critiques the decade in surprisingly unflinching fashion.

The film begins with a barefooted woman (Cloris Leachman) running breathlessly along a stretch of highway road at night. Hammer (Ralph Meeker) nearly runs her over. He picks her up and it’s a decision he will regret later. The opening credits play over an odd audio juxtaposition of Nat King Cole’s silky smooth singing playing over the car radio and the woman’s frantic breathing and crying. This creates an edgy vibe that is a hell of a way to start a film.

Even though Hammer gives the woman a hard time he lies for her at a police roadblock when he finds out she’s escaped from a mental hospital. Cloris Leachman makes the most of her screen-time as her character happily critiques her savior: “You’re one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, his self,” and follows it up with, “You’re the kind of person that never gives in a relationship. Who only takes.” These are rather odd things to say to someone who just saved her life.

Three unidentified men subsequently run them off the road and over the soundtrack we hear the woman’s terrified screams, which carry over to the next scene where she’s being tortured. All we see are her dangling feet, leaving the frightening rest to our imagination. The men attempt to get rid of Hammer and the woman by staging a car accident that he somehow survives. Once he gets out of the hospital, government officials unsuccessfully grill him in a scene absolutely dripping with sarcasm and contempt that is also quite funny to watch, especially with the punchline at the end when Hammer leaves the room and one fed says with obvious disdain, “Open a window.”

Why are the Feds involved? Who was the mysterious woman and why was she killed? Intrigued and understandably pissed off at almost being killed, Hammer decides to get some answers – ones that lead to something bigger and more dangerous than he could have possible imagined.

Kiss Me Deadly is saturated with a paranoid vibe, like when Hammer comes home from the hospital and carefully checks out his apartment for intruders. Later on, his sexy secretary, Velda (Maxine Cooper, who always seem to be sweaty when on-screen), warns him to stay away from the windows because “somebody might blow you a kiss,” which implies that someone is trying to kill him. Aldrich employs shots of Hammer talking to people as if someone else is spying him on and this keeps the viewer on edge. Later on, things get serious when Hammer finds dynamite and a bomb rigged to blow up his car. Aldrich also doesn’t skimp on the violence, which must’ve been shocking for its time. Hammer viciously beats a man who tries to kill him with a switchblade by punching him down a flight of steps. In another scene, Hammer disables a henchman so quickly and efficiently that he scares off his cohort.

Ralph Meeker anchors the film with his uncompromising performance. Hammer is a crude, sexist man with a deep distrust of authority, anticipating Dirty Harry by several years as a righteous avenger with his own brand of justice. This is typified by the perpetual smirk affixed to Meeker’s face but that expression changes over time as his life and those close to him are repeatedly put in danger. Meeker is a good-looking tough guy that does a fantastic job of portraying Spillane’s protagonist.

Kiss Me Deadly is populated by a colorful assortment of characters, like Nick (Nick Dennis), a gregarious Greek mechanic who punctuates his speech with words like, “Va-va voom!” and in the next breath proclaims Hammer’s exit from the hospital, “like Lazarus rose out of the grave!” He’s a good friend that gives the private detective hot tips and genuinely cares about him. There’s also Lt. Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy), Hammer’s cop friend with a droll sense of humor as evident in the singsong way he tells him that he’s revoking his gun permit and if he catches him with one he’ll throw him in jail. Wesley Addy has a deliciously dry delivery of dialogue that is excellent. The film also presents a multi-ethnic Los Angeles with many memorable locations that no longer exist anymore or have been radically changed, from the low city of Bunker Hill to the high with Beverly Hills. You really get a sense of place from this film and the city almost becomes another character.

Robert Aldrich worked for RKO in 1941 as an assistant director and got his solo start on the anti-American film Apache (1954) and the cynical western Vera Cruz (1954). He teamed up with producer Victor Saville to make Kiss Me Deadly, based on Mickey Spillane’s novel of the same name, in 1954 and hired A.I. Bezzerides to write the screenplay. At the time, Spillane was one of the most popular writers in the United States but Aldrich was not a fan of the novel. He and Bezzerides discarded most of the original story, shifted the location from New York City to L.A., and kept the title. The latter wrote it quickly “because I had contempt for it. It was automatic writing. Things were in the air at the time, and I put them in.”

The edgy Kiss Me Deadly ran afoul of the MPAA during the script stages for its depiction of drugs and violence as well as “sexual suggestiveness.” Aldrich removed the drugs but the violence remained and it was eventually approved. On the eve of its release, the Legion of Decency condemned it, demanding 30 changes, cuts and deletions. It weathered that particular storm with only a few minor cuts.

Kiss Me Deadly presents a harsh and cruel world and in order to survive it Hammer has to act accordingly. He thinks he has it all figured out but the deeper he digs into the mysterious woman’s past the more dangerous his life gets as he finds himself dealing with serious men that are able to scare anyone they come in contact with – even a boxing manager Hammer has known for a long time. They are serious enough to kill those close to him, which raises the stakes considerably. As a result, Hammer’s tactics become more savage: crushing a coroner’s hand in desk drawer for a key and slapping around an athletic club manager for more information on said key.

Kiss Me Deadly features a smart, cynical screenplay by Bezzerides who tweaked the book’s setting and removed the first person voiceover, but retained the hardboiled attitude. Aldrich’s film takes us on a journey through the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles culminating in an explosive finale that would influence the likes of Repo Man (1984) and Pulp Fiction (1994). It came out around the time that other grim, bleak noirs, like Pickup on the South Street (1953), were starting to appear, and anticipated films like Touch of Evil (1958) Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964).


Hoberman, J. “The Thriller of Tomorrow.” Kiss Me Deadly DVD. Criterion Collection.

Stafford, Jeff. “Kiss Me Deadly.” Turner Classic Movies.