Shorter Cuts

2 Days in the Valley
Directed and written by John Herzfeld. Starring Danny Aiello, Teri Hatcher, Paul Mazursky, Marsha Mason, and Glenne Headly.

Sansho the Bailiff
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Starring Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kinuyo Tanake, and Kyoko Kagwa

The kitsch ad campaign for 2 Days in the Valley features a bulldog in sunglasses and a dame in skintight clothing, a police outline of a corpse and a couple of menacing silencers. It got me excited until I remembered I'd seen the movie. It's a chic extravaganza about a weird execution-style killing in the San Fernando Valley -- a piece of packaged quirk with a dozen cartoonish caricatures. Chief among them are Danny Aiello as a down-on-his-luck hit man, James Spader as a sleek assassin who employs Aiello on a murder-for-hire deal, and Teri Hatcher as an Olympic skier who finished fourth three times and looks to lose even bigger when her hated ex-husband does the Big Sleep in her bed. Those drawn into their orbit include Paul Mazursky as an unemployable director and Marsha Mason as a nurse he befriends at a cemetery; Greg Cruttwell as a pretentious art dealer and Glenne Headly as his long-suffering assistant; and Jeff Daniels and Eric Stoltz as a couple of mismatched vice cops. Part of the fun of the movie should come from seeing how these disparate types fit together. But how much fun is a jigsaw puzzle when the choices are limited and several pieces are misshapen? (To name just one: Spader expresses surprise that a fellow professional wears a bulletproof vest.) The writer-director, John Herzfeld, wants to leaven his nouveau-slick storytelling with absurdist jolts, but in trick movies like this one, neatness counts.

A friend pushed 2 Days in the Valley on me by saying "It's half as long as Short Cuts, twice as violent, and it has an ending." Herzfeld has funneled the casual amorality of Angelenos into a jeopardy-filled black-comic plot. But the mock urgency of the emotional pitch, and the laugh-if-you-want, gasp-if-you-want tone, reminded me of nothing more than the season opener of Melrose Place. (The one episode I've ever watched. Honest.) The movie also contains a thick, old-fashioned strain of macho sentimentality. Aiello may be a failed wise guy, Mazursky may be a failed filmmaker, but in this film there's love and honor only among the tired and washed-up. (Mazursky has a little terrier called Bogie; Cruttwell has an admirable canine, too, but there's supposed to be something perverse about a pit bull that swims.) Herzfeld pins the Purple Heart on these weary guys and pushes them toward redemption; the soundtrack may feature Otis Redding ("Down in the Valley") and Wilson Pickett ("Hello Sunshine"), but the theme song should have been Frank Sinatra's rendition of "Here's to the Losers."

As a director, Herzfeld's too intent on being a winner. There are hints of art house aspirations here and there: Mazursky's dog pays homage to Umberto D's, and Cruttwell spins off the yuppie scum he played in Mike Leigh's Naked. But Herzfeld, a TV pro, swerves around any outcroppings of real emotion as if they were nettlesome speed bumps. The characters who don't have to make much sense, like Charlize Theron as Spader's partner and mistress, a sort of postmodern sex kitten, come off best. Mazursky can be an uproarious screen presence, and here he has one piquant interchange with a resentful actor (Austin Pendleton) who lowers the psychological boom on him. But it's unsettling to see him in the role of a skidding director of sometimes-inscrutable comedies after the successive failures of Scenes from a Mall, The Pickle (which starred Aiello), and Faithful. It's only seven years since Mazursky made the great Enemies: A Love Story, and he caught his own essence-of-L.A. in movies like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), and especially Blume in Love (1973). Of course, if he tried to make Blume in Love today, it would have to be half as long, twice as violent, and have an ending.

Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff (playing at the Pacific Film Archive on October 20) brings to mind the first line of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." It has a penetrating mournfulness. Mizoguchi develops his medieval fable about moral freedom and slavery with intuition, cunning, and an overarching sense of tragedy; as it uncoils, this masterwork spirals and expands to encompass all the tricks of history and fate, all the failures of ethics and character that can defeat the best intentions of idealists. Despite the antiquity of Mizoguchi's epic folk tale, it speaks to a world scarred by fascism -- indeed, the movie may register with American audiences more strongly now than when it premiered four decades ago. The setting is an 11th-century regime that rewards automatic obedience and efficiency, punishes individualism and altruism, and condones private slave camps that grind men and women to death. The whole environment -- physical, emotional, and moral -- is close to that of Schindler's List. When the antihero, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi), an escaped slave who becomes a governor, succeeds in freeing his former fellow captives, he, like Oskar Schindler, loses everything except his self-respect.

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