Monday, March 24, 2014

Jade (1995)

By the time the 1990’s rolled around William Friedkin wasn’t exactly having the best of luck. Friedkin closed out the 80’s with the brilliant Rampage (1987) although due to the films production company going belly up the film was shelved and didn’t actually see a theatrical release until 5 years later in 1992 and even then the film still flew under the radar. Friedkin followed up Rampage with The Guardian (1990), a film which earned him some of the harshest reviews of his career and to this day the film remains one of, if not Friedkin’s most unfairly bashed films. Fast forward to 1995. By the mid-90’s the erotic thriller was at its peak in popularity. Thanks to the massive success of Basic Instinct (1992) it seemed the public just couldn’t get enough with video store shelves being stocked full of straight to VHS erotic potboilers and late night cable programming being dominated by the subgenre. With a script by Joe Eszterhas who wrote Basic Instinct and featuring a top shelf cast Jade seemed like a surefire hit for Friedkin. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case as the film bombed at the box office and was torn apart by critics resulting in Jade becoming one of Friedkin’s least popular films, right up there with The Guardian and just like The Guardian, Jade is an underappreciated and under seen film that deserves so much better.

Kyle Medford, a wealthy San Francisco art dealer is found dead in his apartment after being sliced up with an antique hatchet. While investigating the crime scene, police not only find fingerprints on the hatchet but also uncover photos of various high profile men in compromising positions with prostitutes, including the Governor of California. The prints on the hatchet are discovered to be those of clinical psychologist Trina Gavin (Linda Fiorentino), making things complicated for David Corelli (David Caruso) the district attorney on the case as not only is Trina an ex-lover of Corelli, she is the wife of Matt Gavin (Chazz Palminteri), a high powered lawyer and Corelli’s best friend. While delving further into the prostitution angle of the case Corelli learns of the favorite prostitute of all the men in the photographs, a woman known only as “Jade” and once again all the fingers point to Trina Gavin. As more people with crucial information pertaining to the case end up murdered, Corelli continues to struggle with his personal feelings towards the case while racing to catch the culprit and figuring out just how the mysterious “Jade” factors in the killings.

There are two things that could have contributed to the disastrous reputation of Jade upon its original release. The first being that the 95 minute R rated cut that was released to theatres was butchered by 12 minutes and the second being that the majority of the public let their opinions be swayed by the numerous negative reviews and never bothered to give the film a chance. No matter what the cause was its a shame either way because Jade, in its unrated, 107 minute version is a rock-solid pulpy murder mystery made with a unique Friedkin style with spoonfuls of Eszterhas sleaze (despite the fact that Friedkin basically re-wrote the entire script). The most common complaint leveled at the film is that its convoluted. To be fair, there is an awful lot going on in the film and while the revelation during the climax does seem a bit blindsiding, at the same time the film as a whole isn’t exactly hard to follow and everything that gets piled onto the storyline does serve a purpose in enhancing the mystery. All the classic whodunit elements are in place and then some, there’s murder, blackmail, adultery and red hearings a plenty. Freidkin even tosses in some political and police corruption for good measure and with all these salacious components overlapping each other the film is never short on intrigue, and both the scorching presence and performance of Linda Fiorentino takes the film to another level along with the rest of the films flawless cast.

Jade was obviously well taken care of in the budget department resulting in one of Friedkin’s slickest looking films. The opening credits sequence is particularly memorable with Friedkin letting the camera give a first person tour of Kyle Medford’s extravagantly decorated residence featuring some really unusual and striking artifacts and artwork ranging from paintings, sculptures, statues and fertility masks which play a pretty big part in what’s soon to follow. Friedkin also took full advantage of the San Francisco locations, more specifically the city’s steep streets which lend themselves to one of Friedkin’s calling cards, the car chase, and the one he designed for Jade is especially remarkable. Not only is it precisely crafted and filmed with masterful camerawork and editing, not to mention nerve wracking in its intensity but Friedkin does something a bit different by slowing the action down by staging a portion of the chase in the middle of a crowded Chinatown street parade. On paper the idea of a “slow” car chase might sound absurd and it does happen to be one thing cited by detractors of the film as a negative aspect but Friedkin finds a way to keep it visually interesting with the crowds of people involved in the scene and all the Asian parade floats. In way its actually Friedkin channeling Hitchcock, creating chaos and confusion in a crowded public place, one of Hitchcock’s favorite motifs and Friedkin even tips his hat visually to the classic Italian thrillers he’s so fond of during the films climax.

Jade had a pretty interesting back story including a fairly well documented butting of heads between Friedkin and Eszterhas due to Friedkin’s extensive script re-writes which led to Eszterhas threatening to have his name taken off the film until he settled with the studio for a lucrative payoff. In his memoir The Friedkin Connection, Freidkin sort of glosses over the controversy but does stand by the film and has gone on record saying its one of his favorites, although he feels that because of the films poor performance he let down the cast along with his wife Sherry Lansing who at the time was a higher up at Paramount, the studio behind the film. Its the kind of production history that would be prime for a behind the scenes feature as an extra on a DVD but alas, not only have all versions of Jade that have made it to disc been bare bones, all have featured the R rated cut, the 107 unrated version is still only available on VHS. The tape is obviously worth tracking down as its the way the film was meant to be seen in the first place. Jade might not be Friedkin’s best film but its a film deserving of a reassessment and fans who’ve yet to see it should give it a chance as its far better than what popular consensus might lead some to believe.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Wild at Heart (1990)

AKA Sailor and Lula

In June 2013 while giving an interview promoting his album The Big Dream, David Lynch made a depressing statement claiming his future as a filmmaker was uncertain, citing the current state of the industry saying “With alternative cinema, any sort of cinema that isn't mainstream , you're fresh out of luck in terms of getting theatre space and having people come to see it… Unfortunately, my ideas are not what you'd call commercial, and money really drives the boat these days. So I don't know what my future is. I don't have a clue what I'm going to be able to do in the world of cinema." While Lynch is hardly an obscure name as the man said, his stuff just isn’t multiplex material and while it might seem strange to those unaware of the phenomenon that was Lynch’s television series Twin Peaks but back in the early 90’s the thought of Lynch having trouble getting funds seemed almost as strange as his films. Still, despite the success of Twin Peaks, Lynch’s films remained dividing as ever. During the height of Twin Peaks’ acclaim, Wild at Heart was released and per usual the film, based on Barry Gifford’s book of the same name, divided both critics and audiences every which way and it still remains one of Lynch’s most polarizing films, as well as one of his most off the wall and entertaining.

After serving a 22 month sentence for manslaughter Elvis obsessed bad boy Sailor Ripley (Nicholas Case) is greeted at the prison gates by his equally free-spirited girlfriend Lula (Laura Dern) and the two immediacy rekindle their fiery romance, much to the chagrin of Lula’s domineering mother Marietta (Diane Ladd) who despises Sailor and is determined to end the relationship between him and Lula any way possible. Looking to get away from it all, Sailor and Lula hit the road, a decision which infuriates Marietta who sends her private eye “boyfriend” Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton) to find the two while also hiring gangster Marcellus Santos to put a hit out on Sailor. At first oblivious to it all, Sailor and Lula continue on their journey, along the way encountering one odd, and ultimately dangerous character and situation after another.

Wild at Heart has the distinction of being one of Lynch’s more “user friendly” films while at the same time still being a completely psychotic piece of cinema bound to alienate more than it attracts. Like the majority of Lynch’s output its the type of film that simply cannot be pigeonholed into one genre or another. Its a road movie sure, yet its unlike any other road movie to come before or after it. This is a (head) trip across David Lynch’s America, a strange and at times horrifying, nightmarish place yet there are times where its also very beautiful. The film is also an absurdist comedy when it wants to be and the films bizarre style of humor actually wouldn’t feel all that out of place in a John Waters film but there’s something about it that it certifiably Lynch. Really though the film is essentially a love story and its the romance between Sailor and Lula that’s the centerpiece of the film and where those moments of beauty come into play, as Lynch himself described the film as about “finding love in Hell”. The film has a habit of going from one extreme to the next, oftentimes going from sweet and funny one moment to terrifying and violent the next without warring with jolting doses of classic Lynch surrealism tossed in all throughout the film. These abrupt changes in tone are usually cited by detractors of the film but in actuality they suit the style of this type of film perfectly.

Both Cage and Dern were born to play the roles of Sailor and Lula. Cage, complete with snakeskin jacket, is charisma personified with the Elvis mannerisms down to a science and Dern perfectly captured both Lula’s youthful idealism and naivety along with her fierce sexuality and resolve. As (brilliantly) over the top as both get in their performances, its again their romance that drives the film and the love the two  share for each other comes across as more than legitimate. Alongside Cage and Dern is perhaps the best cast Lynch ever assembled. Diane Ladd, Dern’s real life mother really goes for it and deserves extra praise for her unhinged performance. Ladd does wonders for the film in the comedic department, bringing the right amount of camp to Marietta while still being believable as a complete lunatic. As fantastic as Cage, Dern and Ladd are, stealing the show is Willem Dafoe as the slimy hitman Bobby Peru. Although Dafoe doesn’t enter until late in the film and isn’t actually in it for very long the impression left by his character is strong enough to completely own the film. Also making memorable appearances are Crispen Glover in one of the films most celebrated comedic segments, fellow Lynch regulars and Twin Peaks alum Grace Zabriskie, Isabella Rossellini, Jack Nance, Sherilyn Fenn and Laura Palmer herself Sheryl Lee in a scene that, despite the films constant references to The Wizard of Oz (1939) still seems to come out of nowhere, even for a film like this.

Lynch was tailor made to direct a road film with much of the films scenery being prime for Lynch’s signature iconography. Lynch’s attention to detail both visually and sonically is apparent right from the opening credits where the films reoccurring visual motif of fire is immediately established. All throughout the film Lynch offers a plethora of extreme close up’s of lit matches and the end of cigarettes as well as flashbacks to a massive fire which plays a major factor storyline wise, all accompanied by monolithic sounding low end sound effects. If Wild at Heart isn’t Lynch’s loudest film its damn close, in fact when the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival the technicians thought Lynch was joking when he requested the volume levels to be raised so high. As is always the case with Lynch the song selections for the soundtrack are impeccable proving once again that when it comes to matching picture with sound Lynch is untouchable and its often the songs that make the scene for instance the guitar twang of an instrumental version of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” playing while Sailor and Lula drive along a desolate highway featuring Lynch’s trademark shots of the open road at night. Also featured prominently in the film is “Slaughterhouse”, courtesy of underrated thrashers Powermad who even make an appearance in the film and of course there’s the two Elvis songs “Love Me” and “Love Me Tender” performed by Cage himself not to mention the contributions from the always reliable Angelo Badalamenti.
French poster and various DVD/Blu-ray releases for the film under
the Sailor et Lulu title.

Wild at Heart not only premiered at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival but it won the Palme d'Or which many in the audience were non too pleased with. In fact that boo’s were nearly as loud, and probably louder in select sections of the auditorium than the cheers. According to the Wikipedia article on the film Barry Gifford, who would later go on to co-write the masterpiece that is Lost Highway (1997) with Lynch, felt that many film journalists were against the film and Lynch from the very start and encouraging all the negativity. The reaction to the film winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes seemed to foreshadow the reaction once the film saw a wide release as again the film is the epitome of a love/hate type of situation and one of Lynch’s most dividing works. There are even some hardcore Lynch fanatics who can’t stand the film and despite the fact that its one of Lynch’s more straightforward from a narrative perspective its understandably still a difficult film for many to warm up too. Such is the mystifying world of David Lynch, but one things for certain, like all of Lynch’s films Wild at Heart is an unforgettable experience. Perhaps the film is best summed up by its title when referenced by Dern as Lula when describing her view of the world, “Wild at heart and weird on top”. Essential Lynch.