Kevin Spacey: Separating the artist from the art

The summer of 1994 brought the death of two people in Los Angeles, California. I had never heard of either of these people before, but the aftermath brought the names of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman to the ears of most of America. Whether you have an opinion as to whether Nicole’s ex-husband, O.J., committed both murders, what can be agreed on is the very limited entertainment career of Simpson was over from that time on.

Worse for some, including me, is that the three movies he made that had any sort of repeat viewing value, The Naked Gun Trilogy, now sits in a sort of limbo on the shelf. I have not watched the series more than once since 1994, even through I transferred the collection from video cassette to DVD sometime in the early 2000’s.

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As I watched them all, the very enjoyable supporting performance of O.J. as the ironically named Detective Nordberg stood out like a sore thumb. He did some yeoman’s work there, seemingly taking an endless amount of bumps and bruises with a smile on his face. He’s always the loser, until the last film when he catches the baby and in his exuberance nearly spikes it on the ground in celebration.

I was never a huge fan of O.J. and I didn’t really consider him much of an actor, but those films I enjoyed. Not any more.

For Kevin Spacey, the library of films and his acting in them is much more extensive and talented. Again, regardless of your opinion of who he is and whether he did any of the things for which he is accused, the allegations and his own actions since they have surfaced have to have some sort of effect. Ridley Scott just made the decision to completely eradicate him from the upcoming film All the Money in the World in favor of Christopher Plummer.

The move is unprecedented in its complexity and ambition. He’s doing all of the reshoots and still plans to have the film released at its original December 22 date. Some see this as virtue signalling. Knowing that the film is being released in Awards season, however, points to another reason. This film would have no chance to get any sort of recognition in current form.

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Destined to become a trivia question

For another 2017 contender starring Spacey, there will be no such opportunity at revising history. Baby Driver is one of the best films of the year. And up until the moment these allegations began to surface, it was my favorite film this year. It was great for many reasons besides Spacey, but it was also great because of him. It will likely and somewhat unfairly sink into obscurity now.

The film as it stands works with the our present image of the artist that is Kevin Spacey. His character, Doc, is the leader of an ever changing group of thieves. The one constant is a young man, Baby, who is completely under his control. The story is about Baby’s discovery of life outside of Doc’s never-ending series of heists and onto his own life with someone he loves by his side.

That these robberies benefit Doc more than anyone and that Doc is a puppet master only benefits the experience of film for the viewer. We know Baby is a victim, just as we know Doc is really his abuser, as much, if not more than the other antagonists in the film. Kevin Spacey as a puppet master and a manipulator?  Who’d imagine…now more than ever.

The point is, few people will want to.

If one looks back on the career of Kevin Spacey, most of his films are good. Nearly all of his performances are great. I personally own copies of at least 8 of the films of which he’s been a major part.

Now begins life after Spacey’s been revealed for who he is at his worst.

For the films in which he plays a bad or somewhat unprincipled guy, one might be able to get through them. The films made where he’s a shining star, like Pay It Forward, The Negotiator, The Shipping News…well its not like anyone had talked about those films lately anyway.

The real test for Hollywood is what does one do with American Beauty? This is literally a film in which its Oscar Winning star is lustful of an underage teenager (Suvari) while literally being hunted down by a homosexual (spoiler alert). This film’s aggressive handling of social mores is not an easy watch to begin with. Even I got rid of it by 2005, after getting married and having two daughters. Does the Academy continue to recognize this film or does it fade into obscurity.

Likewise The Usual Suspects. Spacey’s performance was good enough to get a supporting Oscar, but how is it viewable now? I hadn’t watched it since the 90’s, but I always kind of knew it was there, for when I wanted to watch it in the future.

L.A. Confidential is a crucial film in many ways. Although Spacey isn’t technically one of the leads, his Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes is a crucial supporting character and is possibly my favorite Spacey performance. His character is perfectly played. The smooth operator who has a chance to be real life hero. He is undone in site of the finish line, never to see true reward. This story is not his to be told, though, and the way it unfolds is a remarkable example of film making. Indeed, we’d never see Curtis Hanson come close to this height again.

For each of these films there are excellent performers beyond Spacey. Watching Crowe beat down a spouse abuser and threatening to “slap a kiddie raper” charge on him is an ironic start for the rising of his star, when the next scene features Spacey. Fortunately for the likes of Crowe, Guy Pearce, Annette Bening, and Robin Wright, they already have established careers before Spacey’s misdeeds came to light.

The people who took part in those films and the show House of Cards extend beyond established stars. Hundreds of people made their living off of these shows and films. What will happen to their future royalties?

What will happen to those who helped to create Spacey’s more recent work, including the unreleased Gore? This will have an affect, and that is unfair.

Just like everyone who worked on the classic trio of Leslie Nielsen films, who surely lost out numerous sales on home video when O.J. went through trial after trial asserting his innocence.

All of these works of art had people who depended on the works profits as some sort of living. They were deprived of this by actions they took no part in and most certainly did not condone.

Human nature takes its toll, however. We can’t control how we react to the image of two people viciously slaughtered while watching great comedies. Nor can we push the image of an older man taking advantage of younger actors while we try our best to work through any of myriad films or television shows of a prolific career.

For my part, L.A. Confidential loses none of its power. It’s such a rich and coldly cynical story, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the vastness of its presentation of the deep undercurrent of sickness of Hollywood, California post WWII. That Spacey leads a dual life as police detective and star only serves to underscore how little anything has changed in the years since the story that is portrayed.

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The undercurrent of the undercurrent

If the Naked Gun films weighed on my morality in my 20’s, being almost 50 gives me pause in wondering how I will ultimately react to the work of Kevin Spacey.

I will not ever stop watching the films of David Fincher, even if I skip his work on House of Cards. The Usual Suspects, with its Director Singer also under a cloud of suspicion – might sit on the shelf a while longer. GlenGarry Glen Ross doesn’t  get as much viewing as it does referencing for most.

American Beauty, for all of it’s analysis if the deviance of modern America, is likely pretty much done. There was already too much going on in that film for comfortable evening viewing, much less a Sunday afternoon.

Horrible Bosses and its second film were never considered to be long lasting fare. It was for money, not for posterity. Superman Returns is all but forgotten at this point. If you liked A Bug’s Life, you are amazing, because most people can’t even remember that is the movie they released after the first Toy Story.

This brings us back to Baby Driver. It’s not a movie that deserves to be overlooked, though I am pretty sure it will be kicked to the awards curb. As it stands, I still think this film is one of the most incredibly well directed films of my lifetime. Kevin Spacey being abusive only makes it’s creation more apt and just as amazing.

Don’t let this man’s life outside of his art diminish the work others created in his presence.

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Forgotten Gems: Once We Were Kings…The Lethal Weapon Series

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Lethal Weapon Collection – 1987, 1989, 1992, 1998

Director Richard Donner

Starring

Martin Riggs Mel Gibson
Roger Murtaugh Danny Glover
Leo Getz Joe Pesci (2-4)
Lorna Cole Rene Russo (3-4)
Lee Butters Chris Rock (4)
Trish Murtaugh Darlene Love
Rianne Murtaugh Traci Wolfe
Nick Murtaugh Damon Hines
Carrie Murtaugh Ebonie Smith
Captain Ed Murphy Steve Kahan
Dr. Stephanie Woods Mary Ellen Trainor

Screenplay 

Shane Black(1,2), Robert Mark Kamen(3) Jonathan Lemkin (4)
Jeffrey Boam (2,3), Alfred Gough & Miles Millar (4)
Warren Murphy (2), Channing Gibson (4)

After O.J. Simpson was convicted found responsible for 2 murders, I have never been able to stomach watching the wonderful trio of Naked Gun comedies.  After doing considerably less harm to the world (more to himself than anyone) Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapon films have kind of faded into the background too.  This is a shame and somewhat a loss for people who love movies.

Many have forgotten the first Lethal Weapon movie, not just Die Hard, that forever changed the action film genre.  There had been great films action films before, even buddy cop films, if you ever considered Hackman and Scheider buddies.  The difference in the case of Lethal Weapon is that it took a race role reversal to the cop partnership.

In this story, Danny Glover is the old, wise pro, who is on the verge of age 50.  It’s his character that is the traditional “wife with kids” guy.  This aspect is put into full effect, too, through the development of the series.  The younger, deliberately reckless partner is Gibson.  He’s almost equally experienced as Gibson, given that both served in Vietnam.  His edge is due to the wife that he lost prior to the events of the film.  Through their shared experiences, they find the bad guys and a true, believable friendship in one another.

The formula worked well for the first film, but the best thing about Lethal Weapon is that it never was just the same movie, time after time.  New elements were added, new angles explored, and no one was safe, even if ultimately the main cast survived each film.  New characters, played by Pesci, Russo and Black, added something to the story beyond the gimmick factor.  Much of this was due to writing, and much more, good acting.  The bad guys were never as intriguing as they could have been and the action could sometimes be absurd.  The directing style, music and structure of the films remained smartly stylish and cool.

What follows is kind of love letter to a movie series that made me a fan of movies.  Everyone should own this series, even the weaker later films.  This is a great director at his peak and two movie stars who never would shine brighter.

Lethal Weapon
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Year 1987
Story
One of Roger’s old army buddies (Tom Atkins) gets caught up in a heroin dealing front and his daughter is killed.  Roger has a new partner, Martin Riggs seems like a burden until they get on the trail of the dealers.
Main Bad Guy Mitchell Ryan was good, but really the most conventional type of 70’s/ 80’s bad guy.  He adds nothing but stern talking kind of Ward Cleaver effect.
Main Henchman Gary Busey on the verge of his crazy downward spiral.  He’s good at everything, but there is no way he would have lasted 2 seconds in hand to hand combat.
Best Sequence
The escape from torture with by electrocution by Endo, played by the inimitable Al Leong.  The fact that this comes after a botched attempt to rescue Riggs daughter heightens the tension and the feeling of relief.
Worst Sequence
The fight on the lawn.  Its got too much water and Gary Busey.  They took the tine to clear the house but seemingly left the two cops out front clueless that Mr. Joshua was coming over to kill.  Then they drive those cops’ own car into Murtaugh’s house?  No way.
Best Line
Murtaugh: You ever met anybody you didn’t kill?  Riggs: Well I haven’t killed you yet.
2nd Best Line
Riggs: I ran into some of those Shadow Company pussies in Saigon in ’69.
Worst Line
There’s no more heroes left in the world.
Memorable Song
Jingle Bell Rock
Review/ Rating  
Many iconic moments and Shane Black’s incredible screenwriting  offer a contrast to the gritty realism and sadness that permeates the atmosphere.  The dialogue is funny, but brutally real as it needs to be.  Every time one views Riggs put the gun in his mouth, contrasting with Murtaugh daring him out a short time later, it seems like he really might pull the trigger this time.  Seeing Riggs interact with Murtaughs family and coming over for dinner, bad roast and all, there is a warmth and kindness that could be done in throwaway style.  To everyone’s credit, it all feels real.

The action scenes in the first film pale a little after Gibson breaks everyone free, but I am not sure if that is due to the sheer number of old-timey stock bad guys that just over do it.  Being cast opposite the intense Gibson and Glover just may do this.  If the bad guy had been someone besides Mitchell Ryan, the film could have benefit, but who knows if the producers knew what they had here.

(****1/2 out of *****)

Lethal Weapon 2
Year 1989FF-Lethal-Weapon-Toilet
Story
Apartheid is bad is kind of what I have always gotten out of this script, although, tying general dealing of contraband to “diplomatic immunity” serves as reason enough to do away with the gaggle of South Africans in the story.  Murtaugh and Riggs are set to work protection duty on a money launderer (Pesci) who gives them way more than they thought they were getting.  Riggs gets involved with an administrative assistant and discovers these guys have intersected with him before.  
Main Bad Guy Joss Ackland as Arjen Rudd has as much menace as Palpatine, even if he does not appear to have the strength to walk the length of a shipping boat.
Main Henchman Derrick O’Connor as Pieter Vorstedt is creepily effective.  If he doesn’t look the part, he redefines what the part should look like.  He doesn’t talk much, but he is effective and lupine.
Best Sequence
The movie is filled with them, but all things being equal, the film’s opening chase is frenetic, funny and it sets the pace for the rest of the story.
2nd Best Sequence The toilet.  Enough said.
Worst Sequence
Dropping off Ms. Hagen-Daas at her apartment alone after the big firefight on the beach?  Really?  Tied with leaving Leo Getz alone in the car outside your house which has been attacked twice already?  Really?  Really?
Best Line 
Arjen Rudd: Diplomatic immunity!
Roger Murtaugh [shoots Arjen in the head]: It’s just been revoked!
2nd Best Line
Riggs: We’re back, we’re bad, you’re black, I’m mad.
Worst Line
Pick any line that the shrink says or is spoken to her.
Memorable Song
Cheer Down by George Harrison.  One of his greatest songs and totally appropriate given what they went through.
Review/ Rating
Head and shoulders above the rest of them and one of the few sequels that exceeds the original.  More camaraderie, more slick rough language, more brutality.  And Leo Getz (Pesci).  Anyone else that would have played him would not amount to half of the character Pesci injects.  He takes a beating from literally every character and he still comes out on top.  He helps to make the film as funny as it is brutal.  The movie has no lulls and works the ending into a frenzy where both leads are crucial.  This film must be seen.

(***** out of *****)

Lethal Weapon 3
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Year 1992
Story
Riggs and Murtaugh are busted down to beat cops for about one scene.  This is long enough for them to stumble into an internal affairs issue.  Fortunately this involves Lorna Cole, who immediately strikes up an adversarial relationship with Riggs.  Murtaugh gets caught up in the troubles of his son’s friends, who happened to be packing heat lifted from the police.  All roads lead to one source.
Main Bad Guy AWOL Cop Stuart Wilson as Jack Travis is brutal and ruthless.  There is still something missing.  It could be that is all he is.
Main Henchman Not really any.  Maybe that Dan Fogelberg looking guy with the glasses, beard and mustache.
Best Sequence
Seeing Lorna Cole kick ass is invigorating.  Pick any one of her fights and I am in.
2nd Best Sequence
The shaving scene with Murtaugh and his son is one of the most beautiful moments in the series.
Worst Sequence
The bomb in the car, complete with a cat jumping on the car from absolutely nowhere.  There is absolutely no reason for them to do it other than to have an opening scene with lots of chaos and destruction.
2nd Worst Sequence
So many bad ones, but I will go with the Dog Biscuits.
Best Line
Riggs: Where’d you learn to fight like that?  Cole: Catholic School.
Worst Line
Any time Dr. Woods is involved, groans ensue.
2nd Worst Line
Riggs [spitting out gas]: Exxon.  Cheap political throwaway line that no one hears, except the audience.
Memorable Song
Sting and Clapton: It’s Probably Me, and BoyzIIMen: It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.
Review/ Rating A thoroughly average film that is leveraged by the performance of Russo as Lorna Cole.  She lights up the screen and gives Riggs the perfect foil.  The best moments in the movie are those with her in them.  Pesci gives a little of the light that he provided in the last film, but it doesn’t help that his part was written in late in development.  The action is ridiculous, existing only to give sound and fury.  Very few lines are that funny or have much in the way of resonance.  The argument with Riggs and a drunk Murtaugh is the only thing that rises to their earlier level.  There is some other good stuff here, and it’s so good to see the family expand to include Leo and Lorna.

(*** out of *****)

Lethal Weapon 4
Year 1998
Story
Immigrant slavery.  Riggs, Leo and Murtaugh stumble across an immigrant slavery ring and Roger decides to step in a little too deep, finding something he identifies with historically.  Riggs and Cole are expecting a child, but have not pondered marriage.  Murtaugh’s oldest Reeann has married a cop and is expecting, but neither can tell Roger.   All of this ties back to making counterfeit money and shipping it back to China.
Main Bad Guy Uncle Benny (Kim Chan) he’s a staple in the movie biz as either the wise old friend of the good guy or the head bad guy.  He gives a stereotypical performance, old “Horrywoo” style, to make up for the borders that they are crossing with the other Chinese characters in the movie.  If you laugh, you are racist.
Main Henchman Wa Sing Ku played by Jet Li is one of the most devastating bad guys in the series.  He is seriously too much for any of them to take on.  They paid the actor as much respect as one could while still keeping the belt with the champs at the top of the bill.
Best Sequence
The fight inside the house after the family is taken.  Lorna can still kick ass, even when in late stage pregnancy.  Jet Li waits like a cat and strikes, disarming everyone.  He even knocks Lorna out without harming the child.


Worst Sequence
So many bad scenes, too many to mention more than the car chase where Roger jumps a car literally into a multi-story building and then drives through the building and…jumps back onto the freeway.  It feels like they just stopped trying.
Best Line
Leo: What is that smell?  Old Lady: I was on my way to the toilet when she (Lorna) grabbed me.
Worst Line
Anything between Riggs and Uncle Benny.
2nd Worst Line

Memorable Song
None.  But they had plenty of that delicious Sanborn saxophone and Clapton guitar.
Review/ Rating
For a series that concentrated on being real in language and action, they really fall of the rails here.  For some damn reason, no one can tell Roger that his near 30-year-old daughter is married to Butters (Rock).  Then no one can tell Riggs that Murtaugh’s wife is a famous smut author.  Riggs and Lorna are pregnant, but have yet to consider marriage.  Even when they bring it up, they act like they don’t know how to talk about it.  Stupid plot contrivances.  Then we have the mish mash with the Chinese.  Are they the butt of jokes, or worthy of our sympathy?  The action is as insipid as it was in the last film, with the nod to Riggs admitting to getting older, just like Murtaugh.

Still by this point, the cast is so comfortable in their roles, it is hard not to root for them and just sit back and enjoy the whole mess.  They had the same characters for each part through all four films, even the kids!  The show moved from noir to a rated R family comedy.  It’s a mess, just like Leo’s character, but you miss them if they are not there.  For this reason, its hard not to like this one better than the one that precedes it.

(***1/2 out of *****)