Palatable: Eyewitness

Eyewitness (1981)
Directed by Peter Yates
Written by Steve Tesich
Produced by Peter Yates, Kenneth Utt
Starring William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Plummer, James Woods, Steven Hill, Morgan Freeman, Pamela Reed, Kenneth McMillan, Irene Worth, Albert Paulsen, Keone Young, Chao Li Chi, Alice Drummond
Burdened by supernumerary character development, Yates’s and Tesich’s second coaction after Breaking Away doesn’t quite compass its potential as a murder mystery or a romance. A janitor (Hurt) employed at a palatial office building reports the murder of a businessman (Chi) who’d leased an office therein to two cynical detectives (Hill, Freeman), who correctly suspect his maniacal buddy (Woods) of means, motive and opportunity. Their case is complicated by the unsophisticated custodian’s incomplete disclosure — recounted first to them, then to a fetching news reporter and chamber pianist (Weaver), who’s enticed by the prospect of breaking a story that’s closer to home than she imagined. Tesich’s story is timely and absorbing, but his script’s plagued by his zeal to humanize nearly every single character with at least one deepy personal, expository monologue or discourse — all of which are delivered so well by Yates’s eximious ensemble that one almost doesn’t notice this superfluous sentiment. Singly fresh from Altered States and Alien, Hurt and Weaver effortlessly inhabit proper parts with charm and conviction, but their shortage of chemistry does nothing to make their amorous developments seem any more probable. Woods hyperactively betokens some of his best work to come as the volatile Vietnam vet who drives the plot. Most notable for its population of established and ascending stars, this one almost hits its mark, and almost satisfies.

Palatable: Hickey & Boggs

Hickey & Boggs (1972)
Directed by Robert Culp
Written by Walter Hill, Robert Culp
Produced by Fouad Said, Joel Reisner
Starring Bill Cosby, Robert Culp, Carmencristina Moreno, Rosalind Cash, Lester Fletcher, Louis Moreno, Bill Hickman, Matt Bennett, Gerald Peters, Robert Mandan, Michael Moriarty, Bernie Schwartz, Ron Henriquez, Vincent Gardenia, Ed Lauter, James Woods, Roger E. Mosley, Gilchrist Stuart
As its scanty box office receipts revealed, theatergoers energized by and accustomed to aggressive spectaculars courtesy of Peckinpah, D’Antoni, et al. hadn’t a collective palate for Hill’s auctorial debut, a costive, cheerless reunion of I Spy stars Cosby and Culp (meanly overseen by the latter) as luckless, partnered Angelean private dicks whose professional search for an elusive femme (Moreno) enmeshes them in dicey convolutions eventuating from her husband’s (Moreno) canny abstraction of a small fortune in large bills heisted from a bank in Pittsburgh. Perseverance, rich tricks, intuitive acumen and magnum revolvers suffice to sustain them on a fraught, flexuous trail to $400K, but not to forestall the collateral damage proceeding from a few ugly retaliations. It’s shot as well as played, nimbly plotted in Hill’s usual manner and extending to viewers no more clues than to its prostrate protagonists. Familiar faces that weren’t in ’72 abound: on loan from D’Antoni, supreme stunt driver Hickman heads a vicious trio of hitmen; police detectives Gardenia, Lauter and Woods are three steps behind the desperate dyad; copiously coiffed, Moriarty grins winningly as a buoyant mob attorney. Modest by both current and contemporaneous criteria, Culp’s sole cinematic feature is still worth a watch for its unostentatious craftsmanship and refreshingly unsentimental pathos.
Recommended for a double feature paired with The Getaway.

Execrable: True Crime

True Crime (1999)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Andrew Klavan, Larry Gross, Paul Brickman, Stephen Schiff
Produced by Clint Eastwood, Lili Fini Zanuck, Richard D. Zanuck, Tom Rooker
Starring Clint Eastwood, Isaiah Washington, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Denis Leary, James Woods, Diane Venora, Bernard Hill
Two filmmakers inhere within the figure of America’s most durable erstwhile leading man: an insightful journeyman whose movies bare a conscientious balance of tough individuality and sensitive characterization, and a prolific purveyor of embarrassingly overheated hokum. Forty minutes of plot are stretched into two egregiously temporized hours in this awful adaptation by the latter of another novel in which Klavan broadcasts his equalitarianism and adulterated conservative values…and tangentially, an incident where a disgraced, alcoholic newsman of licentious impulsivity (Eastwood) intuitively happens upon a discrepancy in the case of a convicted murderer (Washington), whose execution impends hours following their scheduled interview. Only during its last fifteen minutes does any suspense whatever arduously emerge from the mire of this scurvily costive narrative fraught with innumerable and abashing personal vignettes, a glut of puerile dialogue and institutional contrivances that render the entire production as divinable as mortifying. His dream cast weathers Eastwood’s uncertain direction with varying, often surprising results: despite their outstanding presence and delivery, veterans Venora and Woods (who enacted superbly in plenteous contemporaneous and inconsequential collaborations with Carpenter, Sofia Coppola, Larry Clark, et al.) are inexplicably hammy and inches off their marks in the roles of Eastwood’s gruff senior editor and estranged wife; Michaels Jeter and McKean endue memorable quirk to their ridiculous roles as a natty, unreliable murder witness and a sillily sanctimonious prison chaplain; Leary fares well, typecast as a thornily seething assistant editor as cuckolded by Eastwood’s subordinate as Klavan’s strain of conservatism has been for decades; curiously, Washington outperforms everyone including his iconic director with a stoic solemnity that braces his cliched, wrongly accused archetype with some desperately necessary plausibility. During every other scene, Eastwood’s temperamentally terrific when he isn’t so conspicuously self-conscious in a role clearly intended for a man twenty years his junior, but the septuagenarian had at this late date outlived his function as a viable sex symbol, and his stilted, slightly creepy propositions to and flings with women who could well be his granddaughters clearly verify that even the most ruggedly sexy men are subject to expiration dates. That any of these histrions surmounted so much precious persiflage, artlessly voiced exposition and cheesy flashbacks typical of of those in a third-rate televised police procedural might actually be to Eastwood’s credit, much as smooth laxation may be ascribed to a sound diet. What Klavan and these three screenwriting hacks ply as humor is unbearable, manifest worst as a shnorring black hobo whose comic relief seems tantamount to a minstrel show, and a dretching scene in which Eastwood hurriedly carts his daughter through the Oakland Zoo to maximal cutesiness prior to a scheduled interview. When a ray of reality bursts through all its smarmy artifice and unidimensional characters, momentary and unintentional comedy is once realized at 1:49:55, when the actual killer’s grandmother, in perfect conformity to her stereotype, confesses to Eastwood’s reporter: “He wasn’t a bad boy, but he did a terrible thing!” Some of Klavan’s plot’s twists are cleverly contoured, and it’s hinged on a twist of modest ingenuity, but his failed fusion of crime drama and soap opera is ultimately as pointless as the private administration of capital punishment. How anyone with 28 years and a score of precedent pictures to his directorial credits can craft something so abysmally amateurish beggars astonishment, but as perhaps the most inconsistent of American cineastes, Eastwood closed the last century with one of his very worst offerings.

Sublime: Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004)
Directed by Xan Cassavetes
Produced by Steve Matzkin, Rick Ross, Marshall Persinger, Susan Heimbeinder, F.X. Feeney, Jonathan Montepare, Leslie Lowell, Alison Palmer Bourke, Ed Carroll
Starring Jerry Harvey, F.X. Feeney, James B. Harris, Vera Carlisle Anderson, Robert Altman, Stuart Cooper, Henry Jaglom, Douglas Venturelli, C.L. Batten, James Woods, Paul Verhoeven, Theresa Russell, Charles H. Joffe, Kevin Thomas, Alan Rudolph, Alexander Payne, Charles Champlin, Jacqueline Bisset, Penelope Spheeris, Bob Strock, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, Vilmos Zsigmond
For cinephilic Angelenos, seven years of incomparable entertainment and edification broadcast by L.A.’s early subscriptive telecast Z Channel encompassed an international sweep of commercial blockbusters, celebrated classics, exploitation flicks, neglected chefs-d’oeuvre, softcore pornography: the boundless and omnibus orbit of its disturbed, innovative program director Jerry Harvey, briefly a spaghetti western’s screenwriter and pioneer of the commercialized director’s cut who successfully screened The Wild Bunch with Peckinpah’s ministration as the luminary had intended it at the Beverly Canon Theater, not too many years before an irate epistle to Z Channel evincing his expertise concerning televised presentation won him there his managerial berth. Cassavetes’ comprehensive account of Harvey’s uproarious life and ruinous demise embodies press clippings detailing every phenomenon that the channel induced and weathered, abundant scenes from features which subtly demonstrate the amenity and allure of content that Harvey so avidly aired while paralleling narrative tenor, and an embarrassment of interviews with his ex-wife (Anderson), friends, collaborators and subjects, all interspersed with excerpts from a radio interview in which Harvey articulated with some inhibition many of his objectives, passions and disappointments. Perhaps the most gratifying highlights of this mass are instances in which surviving filmmakers (Harris, Altman, Jaglom, Rudolph, Cooper, Spheeris, Verhoeven), actors (Woods, Russell, Bisset) and critics (Feeney, Thomas, Champlin) who Harvey celebrated, popularized and befriended explicate the aesthetic apercus by which he discerned great cinema, and how his engaging programming monopolized an audience. Z’s worldwide televised premieres of director’s cuts presented the erst abbreviated Heaven’s Gate, Berlin Alexanderplatz and Once Upon a Time in America to audiences who had seen only contracted cuts in theaters; thematic marathons showcased accomplished filmmakers and stars whose renown was limited beyond their native France, Japan, Italy, Netherlands, etc.; classics and their remakes were cablecast in consecution; beset visionaries from Cimino to Altman to Friedman were exclusively interviewed and solicited for projects that had enjoyed scant if any distribution. During a period when New Hollywood was winding down, Harvey was eager to screen its many brilliant flops…or sebaceous sex comedies, jidaigeki, silent obscurities, early Technicolor epics…the universal breadth of feature films transmigrated to television for transfixed audiences was both his secret weapon successfully deployed against the impingement of HBO and Showtime in the L.A. market, and mechanism by which he curated a vast panoply of filmic works to a local subscriber base. This singular dedication to the endorsement of motion pictures unfortunately proceeded from the same dysfunctional formative years as the melancholy that haunted Harvey lifelong: son of a callous Catholic judiciary hardliner who routinely administered capital punishment and phlegmatic mother, and brother to two sisters who capitulated to suicide, the glowering alcoholic’s mercuriality was as familiar to his circles as his generosity. Compounding frustrations fomented the execution of Harvey’s adored second wife an hour before his own suicide served as a sick expiation for his iniquity. If Harvey’s sad, short life seemed destitute of course or satisfaction, his secondhand vision nonetheless communicated a sprawling reverence for the cinematic art that no TV broadcaster had theretofore expressed. Fellow cineaste Cassavetes does her eminent patronym no disrepute with this exhaustive assessment of a supremely sagacious cognoscente who strove to publicly chart a medium from its heart of intrigue to its thrilling fringes.