Posts in: November 19th, 2010

Golden Gate (1994)

I’d like to believe a movie can only get as bad as Golden Gate on purpose. Sometimes, a bad film is simply a result of amateurish ineptitude or wild miscalculations. This is a different case. It boasts a screenplay by playwright David Henry Hwang, who (deservedly) won every available award for M. Butterfly. Director John Madden went on to make the overrated but undeniably well-made Shakespeare in Love. Matt Dillon has gone on to be a quietly underrated actor, turning in great performances in even the most unchallenging films (he’s the only reason to watch One Night at McCool’s). Even composer Elliot Goldenthal—who I bring up because Golden Gate has, quite possibly, the worst score I’ve heard in a motion picture, ever—went on to receive three Oscar nominations and one win for his work on other films. So what the hell happened? I wish I knew.

The film opens in 1952, where Dillon tries his damnedest to convince us he’s a hardboiled FBI agent in possession of a law degree. As Agent Kevin Walker, he’s neither articulate enough nor tough enough to make the character believable. (On the plus side, he does a decent job of “aging” his performance as time passes in the story.) Walker is partnered with the fairly obnoxious Ron Pirelli (Bruno Kirby), on the hunt for filthy commies in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When they fail to find any, their boss presses them for a conviction. Walker comes up with the idea of arresting kindly laundryman Chen Jung Song (Tzi Ma) for the extremely thin reason that he’s organized a way for the Chinese-American population to send money to their families back home. Since “trading” with China is illegal, Song gets ten years in prison.

Ten years later, Chen gets released. Still wracked with guilt, Walker reluctantly takes the assignment to follow Chen in the hopes that he will continue his alleged communist activities. Walker tracks him thoroughly enough to watch the man commit suicide by hurling himself off a lovely scenic overlook near the Golden Gate Bridge. Feeling even guiltier, Walker sidles up to Chen’s attractive daughter, Marilyn (Joan Chen), and convinces her he’s a public defender who got to know Chen in prison. He whispers sweet, made-up-but-presumably-true nothings about Chen in her ear, and they start sleeping together. Naturally, Marilyn dumps him when she finds out the truth. Six years later, Marilyn is fully hippiefied and joined up with an Asian-American radical movement to convince the world either that they aren’t communists, or that communism isn’t so bad. Walker manages to get embroiled in this movement, too.

The chief problem, aside from the tragic miscasting of Dillon, is the script. It’s both a structural mess—free-floating through major events of the ’50s and ’60s without much sense of purpose—and features some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard. It’s frustrating that the movie has several opportunities to go into interesting directions, but it fails to capitalize on them. For instance, shortly before Chen’s suicide, Walker pledges to himself that he’ll help him rebuild his life. It’s supposed to be a tragic irony that Chen kills himself immediately thereafter, but I’m more interested in the story of a guilty FBI agent sacrificing his career to help a man he framed than the story the film actually tells. Walker’s romance with Marilyn—a woman less than half his age, and he’s not that old—is kind of creepy, especially since we’ve watched him gaze sympathetically at her as a little girl in 1952. There’s also frustratingly heavy-handed symbolism about the divide between two worlds and how it affects the Chinese-American community but also affects Walker (who’s torn between his own sense of ethics and the FBI’s bloodthirsty commie hunting).

The dialogue is the worst kind of on the nose. For some reason, Madden and Hwang made the decision to utilize something akin to a fantasy sequence for certain moments of the film. All the action stops, spotlights hit the main characters, and they speak to each other as if hypnotized, directly expressing their feelings in the laziest possible way. It’s a baffling choice that makes an already bad film suffer even more. Worse than the dialogue, though, is the grating voiceover narration, which attempts to tell Walker’s story as some sort of pseudo-mystical Chinese fable. He’s always referred to as “the man,” and there are numerous analogies to animals and nature. It would all be very poetic if it weren’t so stupid. It’s also another lazy device: When the film doesn’t slip into fantasy mode, Hwang allows the cheesy narration to explain feelings and motivations instead of working them organically into the characters’ behavior.

Then there’s that godawful score. Imagine someone hired Mike Post to do the soundtrack for a soft-core porn film, but the only instruments they gave him were a sultry saxophone and stereotypical Chinese instruments. That about sums it up. Aside from the stereotypical Asian-ness, it doesn’t match the tone of the film at all, and it does nothing to evoke the period. It sounds like a product of the mid-’80s, not the early ’50s, early ’60s, or late ’60s. And that’s another thing—the film covers 16 years, but the score never makes any changes to reflect the passage of time. Its spooky jazz feel wants to create a ’40s noir vibe, but it’s really better suited to a music video in which Bruce Willis plays the harmonica while dancing on a pool table in a foggy bar.

Golden Gate is the rare film where a group of talented people gathered together to make the worst possible product. Maybe it’s unfair to insinuate they made a bad film intentionally, but it’s hard to imagine these people doing such terrible work on accident.

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Triage (2009)

I guess I can see why Triage went direct-to-DVD. It’s a very good film, but it’s relentlessly dour and unpleasant. As has been typical of Colin Farrell’s choices over the past few years, he’s challenging himself by playing a difficult character in a difficult film that I found difficult to watch. Still, it’s a lot less oppressive and self-conscious than something like 21 Grams, so shuffling it off to DVD seems like kind of a cruel punishment for a film that’s significantly more passionate than that exercise in ACTING.

Farrell plays Mark Walsh, a cynical photojournalist documenting the Iraqis’ anti-Kurdish attacks in 1988 Kurdistan. His best friend, David (Jamie Sives), has accompanied him, and they’re both a bit shocked at the medical treatment there. Among other things, the triage doctor (Branko Djuric) shoots those he can’t save. Mercy killings, but it’s still very disturbing. David abandons Mark to get home in time for the birth of his first child, and Mark is seriously injured in a mortar attack. He’s taken to the Kurdish triage unit, and it’s only luck that keeps them from mercy-killing him. Although severely battered, he has no serious bone fractures. As Mark recuperates, he begins to develop an understanding of the doctor’s methods. This does not stop him from selling his story as soon as he returns to Dublin.

Once he’s home in Dublin, Mark finds a new set of problems. His lover, Elena (Paz Vega), finds him cold and distant, but she doesn’t know why. He tells her his injuries came from a nasty fall into a river. Also, a knee injury seems to debilitate him despite the lack of any physical reason for it to worsen. Before long, a doctor finds a piece of shrapnel stuck in his brain, and Elena realizes Mark must have lied about how he got his injuries. A neurologist informs her that Mark may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and that may be causing his psychosomatic leg problems. Elena brings her psychiatrist father, Joaquín Morales (Christopher Lee), from Spain to treat Mark. She and Joaquin have a contentious relationship—he was responsible for treating soldiers under Franco’s regime, which in her mind makes him a traitor to Spain.

The central question of the film is: What happened to David? He left before Mark, but he never made it back to Dublin. His wife, Diane (Kelly Reilly), is deeply concerned, and Mark’s shady behavior makes everyone around him think he’s hiding something. Is he, or is he just suffering as a result of his injuries? The answer to the question isn’t terribly surprising, but it’s not exactly meant to be, either. Like a less histrionic Salvador, the film is meant to be a brooding, gut-wrenching examination of a photojournalist in wartime. It succeeds, thanks in large part to Farrell’s quietly fierce performance and Lee’s smugly pedantic take on Joaquín.

Writer/director Danis Tanović first made a name for himself with the phenomenal 2001 film No Man’s Land. Triage sometimes shares that film’s dark humor, but mostly Tanović keeps the tone grim and uncomfortable. It may not be easy to watch, but it matches Mark’s dire outlook on things.

If nothing else, Triage deserved a small theatrical run to give it some exposure to critics and/or awards committees. Instead, it’s a forgotten film that will have a hard time developing a cult audience because, frankly, cult audiences tend not to flock to brutal wartime character studies. Still, it’s well worth checking out on DVD if you’re the type to respond to this sort of film.

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Bad Medicine (1985)

Based on a novel inspired by true events, the setup of Bad Medicine is this: in an unnamed country “somewhere in Central America,” Dr. Ramón Madera (Alan Arkin) has established an underfunded medical school that will accept virtually anybody and somehow provides degrees that are good in the United States. Among the Spanish students are a handful of Americans who couldn’t get into any U.S. medical schools. It’s a combination of fish-out-of-water comedy and political satire, but more than that, it’s about how medical school is difficult even when you go to a bad one.

Hilariously self-asborbed, Madera runs the school like a dictatorship, concerned more with meting out harsh punishments and garnering positive publicity than providing a decent education. He rides around campus in a limousine bearing the school flag. Humorless goons (Joe Grifasi and Gilbert Gottfried) issue demerits for wearing “loud” (tan) pants and white shoes. They mark students absent for sitting in the wrong seats. Students have to wait in long lines for a five-minute anatomy session working on the school’s only available cadaver (which has been in use since the school opened five years ago). Classes are taught entirely in Spanish, despite the segment of the student body who doesn’t speak the language. They live in roach-infested hovels, and according to the only American sophomore (Julie Kavner), very few foreigners survive their first year. It’s unclear if this is a result of stress or death.

The story finds its anchor in Jeff Marx (Steve Guttenberg), the black-sheep son of a family of frowning physicians. He’s smart but unmotivated, and he doesn’t have the grades to get into medical school. His insistent father (Bill Macy) registers him at Madera Universidad de Medicina (M.U.M., one of the subtler references to Madera’s hilarious mother issues). Although he has the brains for it, Jeff doesn’t know that he wants to be a doctor. At one point, he gripes that he never had a choice—he asked for a firetruck for Christmas, and his parents bought him an ambulance. This has always been his path, whether he wanted it or not. One of the nice things about Bad Medicine is watching Jeff find a sense of purpose as he starts to embrace medicine.

Jeff quickly meets Liz Parker (Julie Hagerty), a nurse back in the U.S., and they form a social group with the other Americans: Dennis (Curtis Armstrong), a wealthy Southerner obsessed with psychopharmacology; Cookie (Kavner), the seasoned veteran; and Carlos (Robert Romanus), a Puerto Rican New Yorker trying to pass for a native to get a tuition discount. The characters go from a disparate, disjointed group to a cohesive medical team over the course of the film, despite the dubious nature of their studies.

You see, as a PR stunt, Madera assigns them to go to a nearby village where nobody has ever seen a doctor, but he’s too cheap to send them with medicine. When Jeff gets shot in the leg by an irate and confused villager, Madera cancels the program. However, the villagers are in desperate need of medical care. The students realize it means more to them to help the villagers than to remain at Madera, so they forge pharmacy requests and open a clinic in the village. Quickly, the students all realize how desperately they want to learn in order to help those who need it, but they have to resort to stunts like bribing a morgue attendant to get a fresh cadaver for their anatomy studies. (They keep it on ice in Dennis’s bathtub.)

Meanwhile, Madera has become smitten with Liz, who agrees to go out with him in order to cover up their clinic. Madera is the source of the film’s most offbeat comedic moments. Typically, writer/director Harvey Miller mines comedy from the characters and their struggles to self-educate in less-than-desirable conditions, as well as the culture-clash antics of confused Americans adjusting to Central American life. Although Madera’s comedic beats come directly from the characters, he’s quite bizarre, the sort of man who thinks a statement like, “God sent me to you in order to spawn,” is the height of romance. A huge, tacky painting of his elderly mother hangs on one wall of his office; an elaborate gun collection adorns another. Despite the way he runs the school, his heart really is in the right place: He wanted to create a medical school where nobody suffers the discrimination he did while interning at his alma mater, UCLA. Ultimately, that all roots back to his self-absorption and inferiority complex, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. As played by Arkin (in one of his most underrated, criminally forgotten roles), Madera goes from a one-note stereotype to a fully-formed human, a walking contradiction whose ambition is frequently hampered by his ignorance and short temper.

Aside from having deceptively strong, believable characters played by a cast of ringers, Bad Medicine finds another major strength in its portrayal of medical school. Obviously, things at M.U.M. are patently absurd, but Miller gets the finer details right: A small group of students spending the majority of their time together, developing trust and deeper relationships than is typically portrayed in raucous “college” movies. Instead of mining conflict from competition among students, it allows them to work together in conflict against the school and the crumbling city of Valencia. It also, amazingly, emphasizes the rewards of education, and the notion that education comes more from experience and self-motivation than quality schools and competent instructors. This is suspiciously complex for a genre that’s usually more interested in keggers. Ironically, it does a better job of tapping into nerdy ideals than the previous year’s much more well-remembered Revenge of the Nerds (a film whose success is probably the reason Bad Medicine exists at all).

If I have one qualm with the movie, it’s that it employs numerous “native” extras who go to M.U.M., but none of them have anything to do with the American group. I understand that the movie focuses on the foreigners trying to make their way through medical school amid cultural confusion, but it’s a tad dispiriting that none of the native students have any interest in giving their own countrymen needed medical attention. I admit, from a dramatic standpoint, it’d make it way too easy for them to have both a translator and an ally familiar with the country’s cultural customs, but it’s a stark omission in an otherwise enjoyable comedy.

I’ve seen Bad Medicine a half-dozen times over the course of 15 years, and it seems to get better with each viewing. The fact that it doesn’t even have a proper DVD release—in an age where DVDs are on the decline—is criminal. Twentieth Century Fox put The Adventures of Ford Fairlane on DVD, but not Bad Medicine? What a world. On the plus side, if you have Showtime, you can TiVo it and have a nicer copy than my fading, fuzzy VHS tape.

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