William Petersen

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985, William Friedkin)

If you’ve ever started watching To Live and Die in L.A. and turned it off because it’s terrible or just heard of it and thought you should see it, let me say… there’s no reason to see it. Or sit through it. Not even morbid curiosity. Or unless you want to see John Pankow’s butt. Director Friedkin does seem to be trying to start a macho male nudity thing with L.A.—including… umm… Little William L. Petersen, but he also does some homophobia in other parts. Not anti-lesbian though. Friedkin’s pro-objectification there.

Also… some vague racism. By some I mean every time someone who isn’t White is around. But all of it—even the dingus—is C-level L.A. shenanigans. They leave far less impression, for example, than the incredible stupidity of Secret Service agents Petersen and Pankow. Though at one point Pankow identifies himself as a Treasury Agent. L.A.’s based on a novel—by co-screenwriter Gerald Petievich—and for some reason I’d assume Petievich would’ve at least looked up the difference. Not Friedkin (the other screenwriter). Friedkin doesn’t even seem aware real guns weigh more than the rubber guns his actors strut around with.

To Live and Die in L.A., when you toss aside whatever is going on with bad guy counterfeiter Willem Dafoe, is about how adrenalin junkie, dirty Secret Service agent Petersen corrupts straight-edge Pankow, teaching him how to blackmail, exploit, and rape comely ex-cons (Darlanne Fluegel gets all the sympathy for being in this one), strut around in tight jeans (though Pankow doesn’t go with two to three inch lifts like Petersen) and shirts unbuttoned to two above the navel, and… I don’t know, act tough or something.

The scary part of L.A. isn’t the idiotic, toxic masculinity is good, actually, sentiment—Friedkin must’ve read some amazing male empowerment books in the eighties—but the idea it’s an accurate representation of the Secret Service. Though, wait, didn’t they get busted for something stupid and… oh. Yeah.

Okay, so it’s probably legit.

Otherwise the movie would be famous for the agency suing them for how they were portrayed. Because they’re idiots. Like, even if you’ve only watched “CHiPs,” you have a better idea of how to run an investigation than this group of dimwits.

The movie starts with a suicide bomber going after Reagan. The stupidest suicide bomber in the world, who comes up with a rappelling thing when he has enough explosive to just take out the hotel or whatever. Once the bomber fails—in an Islamophobic portrayal out of a GOP campaign ad—we get the Secret Service guys getting hammered and Petersen showing off his base jumping.

Every man wants to be a macho, macho man… you know what, L.A. set to Village People instead of Wang Chung (yes, really, it’s got a Wang Chung “score” and, no, it’s not good). But then Petersen’s partner, Michael Greene, three days from retirement, goes off to the middle of nowhere to investigate a counterfeiter who turns out to be Dafoe. Dafoe gets the drop on him because Greene’s an idiot too and so Petersen swears vengeance.

The best performance in the film is probably… Dafoe? Of the leads, anyway. Petersen and Pankow are risible, like they’re doing a spoof of themselves and don’t know it. Dean Stockwell’s kind of okay but then not, which is too bad because he starts better than he finishes. Fluegel’s not good, just sympathetic because she’s so exploited. Robert Downey’s terrible in a stunt cameo. John Turturro… I mean, you can tell he might be good someday but certainly not here. Debra Feuer, despite having the most potentially interesting story, isn’t any good as Dafoe’s muse.

Some of the Robby Müller photography is good. Some of it is not. They go handheld a lot, which would be a questionable choice if there weren’t so many just plain terrible choices Müller and Friedkin make. M. Scott Smith’s editing… is not bad. It’s not good, but it certainly seems like it’d be bad given Friedkin’s vibe here. It’s not. It’s tolerable. So much in L.A. is intolerable—like Lilly Kilvert’s production design and Linda M. Bass’s costumes—the tolerable parts shine.

To Live and Die in L.A. is an excruciatingly bad two hours. It’s hilariously pretentious and full of itself, but it’s got no laugh value; the joke is on whoever’s watching it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by William Friedkin; screenplay by Friedkin and Gerald Petievich, based on the novel by Petievich; director of photography, Robby Müller; edited by M. Scott Smith; music by Wang Chung; production designer, Lilly Kilvert; costume designer, Linda M. Bass; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Petersen (Chance), Willem Dafoe (Eric Masters), John Pankow (John Vukovich), Darlanne Fluegel (Ruth Lanier), John Turturro (Carl Cody), Dean Stockwell (Bob Grimes), Debra Feuer (Bianca Torres), Steve James (Jeff Rice), Robert Downey Sr. (Thomas Bateman), Christopher Allport (Max Waxman), and Michael Greene (Jim Hart).


The Beast (1996, Jeff Bleckner)

The Beast is, like most television miniseries, engineered to be watchable without being compelling. It’s like a McDonald’s milkshake (are they still called milkshakes or are they back to shakes?)–you’re in the mood for a milkshake, so you figure it can’t be too bad and order one… only to finish it and discover you should have waited for a real one. The Beast is never real–it’s incredible how many opportunities the movie misses, mostly out of laziness, but also out of disinterest. It’s a TV miniseries about a giant squid, which is–according to wikipedia–a real thing. So I guess it’s a little real, anyway.

But it’s never too terrible, just like most event miniseries. There are sturdy, recognizable cast members. William Petersen does his TV leading man thing here, the working class guy–just look at his beard, but he’s well-groomed enough for the viewer to know he’s not any working class guy… he’s the soulful, quietly intelligent working class guy who’s going to get the job done. While battling his demons, of course. Petersen doesn’t have many demons in The Beast–though a scene where he impales his daughter with a stake (and Missy Crider does have some exceptional talons on her fingers here, scarier than any of the rubber squids) sadly did not make it into the film. It must have been in my imagination, since Crider’s one of the worst actors I think I’ve ever seen. And in a TV miniseries from the 1990s, the acting’s not supposed to bottom out… it’s supposed to be where the network showcases its actors who aren’t leads on popular shows. You know, so viewers will follow them from the event miniseries to the weekly show. (This entire system has all changed and I have no idea why, so I’m not even going to bother hypothesizing–but it worked to a degree).

In other words, most of Petersen’s fellow cast members are good. Karen Sillas is somewhat wasted as the Coast Guard officer who can’t get any respect because she’s a woman. Her really good moments just remind how Sillas never really found a great role. Charles Martin Smith’s in it a bit–he’s fine, though the character’s poorly written. Ronald Guttman is goofy. Both Sterling Macer Jr. and Denis Arndt are good. As Crider’s friend, Laura Vazquez doesn’t have enough scenes (and should clearly have gotten the bigger part). Larry Drake’s funny as a drunken moron, kind of an incompetent Quint.

The comparisons to Jaws are legion. Peter Benchley only has so many scenes he can do, regardless of what characters he can fill them with. The scenes generally move the same way, with a lot of the same props. I remember when Beast first aired, Entertainment Weekly pointed out it didn’t just rip off Jaws, but also Jaws 2 and Jaws 3. The Jaws 3 rips are stunning. I missed the Jaws 2 stuff.

Oh, I forgot to mention Murray Bartlett–he’s awful too.

Bartlett’s one of the movie’s Australian cast members (where it shot). Occasionally accents are iffy, but the production values are good. The special effects are lame. I kept wondering how it couldn’t look better than the original Jaws, given the developments in special effects in the twenty years between the two adaptations. Maybe because giant squids just look dumb. But there’s only one really terrible CG shot and there is one good sequence with a miniature boat.

The Beast kind of made me miss miniseries. Strangely, there’s an exceptional amount of potential for the format–the abbreviated third act in the first half and the abbreviated first act in the second half, it changes the pace of the storytelling… maybe even in good ways. There’s also the opportunity for a lot of character development. It’s just too bad the source material (I’m guessing) wasn’t very good here. With a lot of the cast–and maybe minus a giant rubber squid or two–it would have been fine.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jeff Bleckner; screenplay by J.B. White, based on the novel by Peter Benchley; director of photography, Geoff Burton; edited by Tod Feuerman; music by Don Davis; production designer, Owen Paterson; produced by Tana Nugent; released by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring William Petersen (Whip Dalton), Karen Sillas (Lt. Kathryn Marcus), Charles Martin Smith (Schuyler Graves), Ronald Guttman (Dr. Herbert Talley), Missy Crider (Dana Dalton), Sterling Macer Jr. (Mike Newcombe), Denis Arndt (Osborne Manning), A.J. Johnson (Nell Newcombe), Larry Drake (Lucas Coven), Murray Bartlett (Christopher Lane), Laura Vazquez (Hadley), Robert Mammone (Ensign Raines), David Webb (Jameson) and Marshall Napier (Commander Wallingford).


Manhunter (1986, Michael Mann), the restored director’s cut

The last time I watched Manhunter (the first time I saw the director’s cut), my friend maintained the film’s superiority laid in the added scenes. The director’s cut mostly features more scenes concerning the effect of manhunting serial killers on William Petersen’s character. On this viewing, it’s clear the film’s greatness isn’t so simply assigned. While Manhunter‘s approach to the serial killer genre–the emphasis on the investigation’s psychological destruction–and those additional scenes to contribute, it isn’t the only factor. Also incredibly important, maybe just as important, is Mann’s humanization of Tom Noonan’s serial killer. Manhunter‘s actually at its lowest point when the Petersen-centric plot comes to a close. A lot has gone on (even though the film’s approach to police stings–a distant one, without explaining anything to the viewer–is brilliant) and it seems like it’s not going anywhere, the film switches focus to Noonan and becomes something wholly new. Mann doesn’t juxtapose the characters, he doesn’t mirror them; the scenes are totally unrelated, except in the beat when Petersen has his eureka and Noonan has his meltdown. And then it’s only stylized cinema.

Mann’s approach to the filmmaking, the vibrant colors, the singular composition (I can’t imagine what it must have looked like on a big screen), the synthesizer soundtrack, wows. It sets Manhunter apart not just from every other serial killer movie but also every other Mann film. He takes what is, at most times, a small and quiet story and makes it as big as Cinerama. The realization montages are still unparalleled and the procedural investigation ones are spectacular as well. But Mann’s best scene, maybe his best scene as a director, is still that walk down the supermarket aisle where the boxes don’t match from shot to shot. The way he opens it up. It’s absolutely brilliant.

All of the acting is good. Petersen isn’t perfect, but he has some great moments. His “my man” line reading, combined with the score and the sound, is great film. Noonan’s great, as are Joan Allen and Brian Cox. Dennis Farina, back before he had his schtick down, is also good. Only Stephen Lang is a little broad, though it’s probably intentional, as he is playing a tabloid reporter. The best performance in the film is Kim Greist, though Mann’s probably responsible for it.

I always think about turnarounds–quality turnarounds–and I think Manhunter‘s the best example of one with a bump-up (due to the Noonan focus) from superior genre picture to an actual masterpiece. It’s strange, because I can remember it getting monotonous in the middle, but I’d never use that word to describe the film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Mann; screenplay by Mann, based on a novel by Thomas Harris; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Dov Hoenig; music by Michel Rubini; production designer, Mel Bourne; produced by Dino De Laurentiis and Richard Roth; released by De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.

Starring William Petersen (Will Graham), Kim Greist (Molly Graham), Joan Allen (Reba McClane), Brian Cox (Dr. Hannibal Lecktor), Dennis Farina (Jack Crawford), Tom Noonan (Francis Dollarhyde), Stephen Lang (Freddy Lounds), David Seaman (Kevin Graham), Benjamin Hendrickson (Dr. Frederick Chilton), Michael Talbott (Geehan), Dan Butler (Jimmy Price), Michele Shay (Beverly Katz), Robin Moseley (Sarah), Paul Perri (Dr. Sidney Bloom) and Patricia Charbonneau (Mrs. Sherman).


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