Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Midnight Clear + Inside Monkey Zetterland

(R, InterStar Releasing, 108 mins., theatrical release date: April 24, 1992)

(R, I.R.S. Media, 93 mins., theatrical release date: August 25, 1993)

Let's get hypothetical for a moment. Now, imagine you are a casting director in the year 1986, and you were hired to assemble the stars of a generic teen movie. This is a project that clearly requires actors to play the reliable roles of the bookish boy everyone picks on and the boorish alpha who instigates his humiliation. The nerd and the jock stereotypes, devoid of all subtlety and no different than any characters from B-movies past.

Suppose you were so hard up that you hedged your bets, and, based on the resumes given to you, you would cast these two parts based entirely on experience. You want to choose male performers who not only fit these parts to a T, but have done it many, many times before. There's no time to subvert anybody's image or launch a new career, you just typecast without prejudice. And no, Anthony Michael Hall and William Zabka did not get the memo to try out.

Now, given the scenario, what if two of the guys auditioning were Keith Gordon and Steve Antin? I think your work is officially done, my friend. You don't have to keep searching. You got your men.

If you evaluated the careers of Gordon and Antin throughout the entire 1980s, you'd realize that for as bad as female actors get it having to play idealized, objectified ciphers over and over again, typecasting is generally anti-discriminatory. I couldn't think of a single actor who embodies the tape-rimmed dweeb more than Gordon, and I couldn't imagine a more preening, noxious stud than Antin. Their respective cult successes are based entirely on them playing interchangeable variations of the Dork and the Dick.

Dressed to Kill and The Last American Virgin. Christine and The Goonies. Back to School and Survival Quest. Do I have to spell it out more?

Eventually, both Keith Gordon and Steve Antin got bored with this and broadened their ambitions to honest-to-goodness filmmaking. In Gordon's case, he didn't have to wait too long, as he was already acquiring on-the-job training from the directors whom he worked for, including Brian De Palma, Bob Fosse (on All That Jazz) and John Carpenter. Also, he had read Robert Cormier's best-selling novel The Chocolate War on the set of Jaws 2, and he held onto the prospect of a film adaptation until the moment he started getting offers in the wake of his Mark Romanek collaboration Static (1985).

Antin, meanwhile, was building up connections within the industry and lucked into a partnership with a USC film school professor named Jefery Levy. Yes, the same Jefery Levy who co-wrote Ghoulies, for God's sake. The duo produced a pair of indie movies in the early 1990s that didn't make much of a splash outside the festival circuit, and Levy's own S.F.W. (think a Gen-X version of The Legend of Billie Jean, which was another acting vehicle for Keith Gordon) was a critical and commercial failure in early 1995. Antin kept a low-profile until the 2000s, creating the failed WB series Young Americans, but it was through his sister Robin's neo-burlesque troupe The Pussycat Dolls that he truly began to resurface, parlaying that into 2010's Burlesque, his second directorial effort following a 2006 TV-movie sequel to the teen suspense film The Glass House.

But around the time Antin's maiden effort at screenwriting was coming to fruition, Gordon was already on his second major motion picture. And it is this period in time, 1992 to be exact, which will be the focus of my first dual-movie review since Brian Yuzna's Society and Tobe Hooper's Spontaneous Combustion. I didn't have to work hard on that because both of those movies were on the same DVD, but I rented Gordon's A Midnight Clear and the Antin-penned Inside Monkey Zetterland separately to size up the aesthetics and attributes of both these former actors and budding creators.

And also because I love a good showdown as much as anybody.

First up is A Midnight Clear, based on the 1982 novel by William Wharton, whose debut tome Birdy was previously filmed by Alan Parker and won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 1985. Taking place prior to the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944, this WWII psychodrama focuses on a six-man U.S. Army intelligence & reconnaissance squadron shipped out to the Ardennes Forest to suss out the Nazi Party's next move. This oppressively wintry No Man's Land could be Belgium, Luxembourg, France, or even Germany, as the film's central character and narrator Sgt. Will Knott (Ethan Hawke) relays. But in the thick of the conflict, he admits that "I'm not even sure of my name," the name which he has been ribbed for since the third grade and whom his platoon have affectionately abbreviated to "Won't."

These I&R grunts have been fatally pared down from their original dozen, but that doesn't deter Major Griffin (John C. McGinley), a mortician in civilian life, from handing them their latest raw deal of an assignment. Fortunately, a family dynamic has developed between Will and his comrades in arms, with the eldest of the group, Vance Wilkins (Gary Sinise), nicknamed "Mother" because of his orderly personality and the seminary trainee Paul Mundy (Frank Whaley) as their "Father." The ranks are filled out with dry-witted equipment specialist Bud Miller (Peter Berg), the Yiddish-proficient Stan Shutzer (Arye Gross) and the more-than-capable star soldier Mel Avakian (Kevin Dillon).

They situate themselves in a deserted country house where a previous patrol team went lost, which logically translates to "they're dead," for the week's duration. With plenty of wine, sardines and four satin-blanketed mattresses, this is their rare brush with the Life of Riley. Alas, it isn't long before enemy movement and speech put the squad on their guard, specifically the phrase "Schlaf gut!" ("Sleep well!")

Driven on by Major Griffin to locate their command post,  Will, Stan and Bud find themselves in the enemy's rifle sights on the trek back, but the situation doesn't escalate into violence. The Germans disappear like a mirage, leaving the Americans further confused. The next night out in the foxhole, after Stan has built a snowman as an insult to Hitler, the Germans continue to taunt them, only this time with a snowball fight. Stan is convinced that this is a sign of genuine pacifism or possible surrender, suggesting this theory first to Will and then the rest of the group.

The German soldiers they are surveying appear willing to negotiate an armistice in the wake of getting creamed on the Russian front. The only caveat is that both sides have to fake a battle so that there is no accusation of treason. The culmination of this acquired intelligence, which is duly kept under wraps by the Yanks from their superiors, is a festive pageant of peace in which the Germans mount a Christmas tree and offer presents and carols to the befuddled but humane Americans, not unlike the similar holiday ceasefire on the Western Front during the previous world war.

How this development implodes is not surprising, nor are the film's equally sobering themes of lost innocence, weathered humanity and the many tolls visited upon the psyches of the varied troops. The real brilliance of A Midnight Clear is in Keith Gordon's preternatural knack for economy as both writer and director. Working within limited means both scenic and sensational (filmed as it was in a vengefully chilling Park City, Utah), Gordon strips the firepower and narrative clutter from the mostly Vietnam-centric war films before him to craft a character piece about intelligent if inexperienced young men demonstrating grace under pressure.

Birdy, as you may recall, was as much about the poignant friendship between two teenage boys of distinct social skills as it was the damage inflicted upon them after the war, be it physical or mental. The titular Philadelphia youth's avian obsessions became a self-defense of the soul. Wharton's A Midnight Clear is more linearly aligned, but the real life G.I. and impressionist artist's empathy was at its peak. And Gordon is singularly passionate enough to realize the story's mournful power on the screen, without descending into unsubtle madness like Alan Parker or erstwhile influence Stanley Kubrick.

The six protagonists demonstrate boyish humanity and an appreciation for beauty, whether it be in the joint sexual awakening of Will, Stan & Mel by a suicidal, widowed waif named Janice (Rachel Griffin, the future Mrs. Gordon) or Mother's awe at the paintings preserved in the chateau's attic: "Somebody made something, probably not even for money. For love." Mother is the most frail-minded of the soldiers, established as early as the opening scene, his surrogate children now in the position of protecting him and devising some scheme of honorable discharge as mortal intervention.

Gary Sinise, forever known as Lieutenant Dan, offers the most heartbreaking characterization of the ensemble in one of his first film roles. There's not a weak link in the entire cast, with rising stars Peter Berg (another major grower in the industry like Gordon and Antin), Ethan Hawke and Kevin Dillon all turning in their most proficient, natural performances. Even the reliably gruff John C. McGinley (like Dillon, another Platoon vet) as the power-mad Major Griffin doesn't fashion a caricature out of a performance that with a little more screen time and a lot less discipline could have been truly worthless. The same goes for Larry Joshua as Lt. Ware, Griffin's less bellicose but equally no-nonsense flunky.

Gordon has himself copped to anti-war intentions in his story, but they are more organic than matter-of-fact when you watch his film. Compositionally, Gordon is on-point in the bleak humor, realistic dialogue and tableaux of frostbitten violence which he has sourced from Wharton's tome. There are images as disturbing as they are divine, from the saintly statue clutching its own decapitated head to the way two sparring soldiers are trapped under ice in an eternal dance, no different from when their living counterparts show off their USO choreography to lighten the mood.

A Midnight Clear left me deathly eager to view Gordon's subsequent Kurt Vonnegut adaptation Mother Night and Waking the Dead, his celluloid tone poem to lost romance. And also to ponder the injustice of this film not getting the high-definition restoration for the U.S. home video market like it recently received in the U.K. Gordon and his regular DP Tom Richmond (whom Ethan Hawke would draft for his 2001 directorial debut Chelsea Walls) deserve to remaster this personally, as this is a Criterion Collection catalog title in limbo.

I re-watched A Midnight Clear out of joy as opposed to Inside Monkey Zetterland, which was more out of the kind of mercy Gordon's film encouraged. And even then, I felt like I wasted my time twice.

Jefery Levy and Steve Antin's previous low-fi effort Drive (1991) earned a healthy respectability thanks to the former's visual flair and the latter's ability to play straight man to the unhinged British thesp David Warner. You could call it the 1990s heir to Alex Cox's Repo Man if you were feeling charitable, maybe even a rewrite of Elmer Rice's play The Adding Machine, replacing its vibration-metering calculator for monochrome chrome.

The pseudo-autobiographical Inside Monkey Zetterland, alas, is an insider's joke which makes the poor viewer feel like Antin's Passenger from their earlier film, desperate to be dropped off for the good of your soul. Antin, morphing from the poor man's Eric Freeman into the poorer man's Eric Stoltz, casts himself as the depressed title character, an out-of-work actor who openly derides his career of "teenage exploitation shit" to those who recognize him and laments his wayward passage into adulthood in psychiatry sessions he volunteers to have publicly studied by med students.

Monkey really wants to be left alone to pursue a film project based on the corporate demise of L.A.'s Red Car transit system (the exact same scandal referenced in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), but is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish (i.e. carjackers, overzealous cops) and the tyranny of family.

Monkey's mother Honor (Katherine Helmond), an aging soaps queen, is pugnacious and pushy to a breakpoint. His younger sister Grace (Patricia Arquette) is an emotional wreck upon learning her lesbian lover Cindy (Sofia Coppola) has gotten herself illicitly pregnant in an attempt to start a family. His swish brother Brent (Tate Donovan) works at a salon and is constantly distracted by his cordless phone. And his absentee father Mike (Bo Hopkins), a deadbeat hippie, returns home for Thanksgiving with his pet parrot Joey, although he is greeted with comparatively less disgust than Grandma Zetterland (Frances Bay).

Such a contentious kinship dutifully courts bedlam, but there's nothing genuinely comedic or compelling about the wall-to-wall petulance on display. Every character, even Antin's ostensible mild-mannered woobie, seems to have been written and directed with an unwavering emphasis on mundane narcissism, without a trace of wit in the dialogue or progression in plotting. It's too lethargic to be farcical; even the time-honored snuffing of the parakeet or the goodbye obscenity shouted by a little old lady fall as flatly as the conflicts which set up these hackneyed jokes.

The episodic nature of the film, which more often than not comes across as improvisational (not for nothing is Brent groomed up by his appearance on the Groundlings stage), makes Bloodhounds of Broadway and Singles resemble prime Robert Altman or Alan Rudolph. The result means that this distinctly plays out as an outline more than a real, staged script. And Jefery Levy's quirky aesthetics render them no less insufferable. Visually, he locks down his camera as actors wander out of frame or are heard behind walls, straining to juice vicarious vérité from insipid cliché. The sound design is equally sour, deploying Tchaikovski passages on both piano and calliope and indulging ear-splitting impressions as Monkey pitches his screenplay and recites passages from it like the world's worst puppet show entertainer. It's almost as if Levy wants to leave me as tin-eared and dead-eyed as his supposed proficiency.

The combined vanity of both Levy and Antin trickles down into the kind of stunt-casting which ought to grant Quentin Tarantino eternal critical clemency, even from Mark Kermode. For it's not enough that Monkey Zetterland's home life be a parade of the horribles, but Antin keeps tossing in outsiders to test his faith and our patience simultaneously.

Monkey's girlfriend Daphne (Debi Mazar) dumps him out of boredom and has taken his beloved yellow bedroom drapes with her. Meanwhile, Sandra Bernhard as girl-next-door(!) Imogene flirts mysteriously and maniacally with Monkey at the local library. Less welcome attention is provided by Bella (Ricki Lake), a disturbed fan of Ma Zetterland who stalks about their not-unlisted abode. And then there are Sasha and Sofie (Rupert Everett, Martha Plimpton), anarchic new neighbors who prove a bad influence on the vulnerable Grace.

Bernhard and Mazar are, for all intents and purposes, each recycling their verbally castrating shtick. Imogene shrieks a loony lullaby whilst giving Monkey a lift from a taco stand, deliberately passing his home as she inquires if he's a fan of Faulkner. Later, she will greet Monkey from out of his daydream by gabbing on about a gang-banged friend and then immediately asking "Do you wanna have lunch?" Bernhard gives the most charming performance of the entire film, which most certainly cannot be said of either Debi Mazar, whose Queens accent has never been more abrasive, or Ricki Lake in a major downgrade from her work with John Waters.

However, it's the gross misuse of both Rupert Everett and Martha Plimpton which finally awards Keith Gordon the victory by K.O. Like much of the cast, Everett is a real life icon of the gay community and a performer not lacking for charisma. He deserves a plum role every go, but the material here reduces him to a dime-store Mel Gibson. It's even worse for Ms. Plimpton as the bulimic firebrand, a role so irredeemably nasty it would backfire on anybody who performed it, no matter their degree of fame. Even accepting her involvement as a kindly favor for her Goonies co-star, this whip-smart actress still should have said no.

All of the trendy star power on loan here fails to distract from the crashing realization that Steven Antin's male ingenue insularity and Jefery Levy's coarse amateurism amounts to a legit endurance test. Let's be honest and admit that these guys' true destiny is creating outright schlock, not satirical dispatches from the Hollywood fishbowl. At least The Last American Virgin (Kimmy Robertson gets a special thanks) and Ghoulies (Luca Bercovici appears in a cameo) struck a chord with the intellectually-challenged 1980s children who grew up with them, no matter if you agree or not with Antin that they are "teenage exploitation shit." I, personally, find them very inessential rather than quintessential. But Inside Monkey Zetterland is frivolity with pretensions, which means both Antin and Levy are in way over their heads.

Red Car? Good point! Now do yourself a favor and seek out A Midnight Clear on home video, or, as an added alternative to Inside Monkey Zetterland, any of Bobcat Goldthwait's movies from Shakes the Clown to Willow Creek.

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