Friday, April 18, 2014



I have landed in Baghdad where Hildegarde, my production manager, has managed to secure us accommodations in some tatty manse that was at one time, I am led to understand, a palace belonging to someone named Sodom. From the extremely tacky artwork on the walls, that seems to involve half naked women, muscle bound mustachioed men and battles with large serpents, the name seems fitting and I wouldn't be in the least surprised to find out his other name was Gomorrah. My bedroom has a gilded bed in the shape of a swan, several oversized crystal chandeliers, and a large bomb crater in the ceiling. I suppose it will have to do as I understand that rooms are a bit hard to come by, Halliburton and Bechtel are occupying the majority of the hotels.

Rob Marshall and I spent the afternoon rehearsing numbers for my USO tour, Vicki Lester is Shocking Awful and it's starting to come together nicely. We've put in a new number, a tribute to that plucky war correspondent Geraldo Rivera, Mapmaker, Mapmaker, make me a map from Fiddler on the Roof. I thought a number from this show should be de rigueur as we're in the Middle East where all those nice Jewish people live. Of course, I've jettisoned the traditional broom for an Electrolux vacuum and an extended tap solo during the bridge.

I had a few free hours before dinner this evening, so I wandered over to the nearest Army camp to say hello to the boys, sign a few autographs and to see what film they were watching in the mess hall. Someone in the Department of Defense must have Hollywood connections for the feature was the new thriller, Identity which opened wide in the United States this past weekend. I just had to keep our men and women in uniform company and sit through it with them.

Identity is a film with multiple personality syndrome as it cannot decide whether it is a traditional whodunit, a psychological thriller, or a supernatural meditation on the nature and meaning of reality. It blends all of these genres, none to skillfully, in a script by Michael Cooney (the auteur genius behind the Jack Frost killer snowman films.) The movie opens promisingly enough. Somewhere in the Nevada desert, a series of apparently random chance occurrences cause a group of disparate strangers to become stranded together at a lonely motel. A gully washer of a rainstorm conveniently washes out the roads, effectively stranding them. The early cutting back and forth between incidents involving a high heeled shoe, a traffic accident, a cell phone with a dead battery and the like are effective at setting atmosphere.

The film is being sold as a post modernist twist on Agatha Christie's famous story, Ten Little Indians (which has been filmed at least seven times in the past). The initial set up comes directly out of this whodunit legacy as the unexpected guests start to disappear one by one in gruesome ways. The setting, a seedy motel in a desert rain, of course refers back to the model for modern grotesque psychological thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. I half expected Anthony Perkins in a cameo. This story, which sets up characters we care about, is intercut with another story, one involving a demented murderer (Pruitt Taylor Vince) whom a psychiatrist (Alfred Molina) is trying to save from a death sentence. The two stories ultimately connect up, of course, but the way they do so is a cheat. It's one thing to pull a last minute twist (such as The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects) which recasts the events of the film in a completely different light, and another to basically tell us to dismiss part of a carefully constructed reality as a complete red herring. A better scriptwriter than Cooney might have been able to pull off the conceit of his central idea without cheating, but it would be difficult. The ultimate denouement of the film is telegraphed way in advance to those clever enough to pick up on it but will still infuriate a lot of folk.

Anyway, back to the story. The motley crew in the motel includes stock types more than real characters including the burnt out cop turned limo driver (John Cusack), the plucky prostitute (Amanda Peet), the somewhat scary motel clerk from the Norman Bates school of motel management (John Hawkes), the sad sack suburbanite (John C. McGinley) with injured wife (Leila Kenzle) and traumatized son (Bret Loehr), the eye rolling teeth gnashing escaped criminal (Jake Busey), the cop with the hair trigger temper (Ray Liotta), the snooty has been actress (Rebecca DeMornay) and the bickering young couple (Clea Duvall and William Lee Scott). Someone, or something, starts to pick them off one by one, marking the bodies with a countdown of motel room keys while the survivors screech at each other and do stupid things like run around back alleys alone in the rain. Before long, there are human heads with missing bodies, bodies in confined spaces, bodies killed in interesting ways with baseball bats, and, eventually, inexplicably disappearing bodies.

Director James Mangold, who once made a good film with Heavy and a whole lot of hackwork like Copland and Kate and Leopold ever since, uses all of the usual devices to try and ratchet up the suspense. Unfortunately, when the central motivations of the plot are revealed, all the tension wheezes out of the film like a deflating balloon and we're left to await the inevitable trick ending. One that involves a supposed Florida orange grove which is shot with a large mountain right behind it. Either Mangold is stupid, or it's a deliberate bit of visual unreality. The jury's still out.

There are some redeeming values to the film in the performances. John Cusack gives what could be a cardboard character real soul and gravitas and he's the one who makes the central revelation work at all. A lesser actor and most of the audience would walk out at that moment. Amanda Peet also has good moments as the tough as nails prostitute who's determined to survive. Ray Liotta does his usual psychotic bit, matched only by Jake Busey who seems to specialize in Aryan demented these days.

This is a film which will need to be seen early in its run, before the plot tricks are too widely discussed. Should you have interest in it, go now. It's not going to work if you go in forearmed with plot knowledge; but go to the half price matinee.

Burnt out neon signs. High heel blowout. Motor vehicle versus pedestrian accident. Motor vehicle versus pedestrian accident repeated. Gratuitous body in freezer. Second gratuitous body in trunk of car. Baseball gastroscopy. Gratuitous psychotic journals. Stolen money. Xeroxed drivers licenses.

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