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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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The Two Jakes Special Collectors edition DVD rejoins J.J. Gittes in 1948 Los Angeles, 11 years after the events of Chinatown. He is older, fatter, balder and slower. Although highly anticipated, many factors, not just Jack Nicholson pulling double duty as star and director, weakened this film.

In Chinatown, Gittes stumbled onto a plot Noah Cross’ to divert water from the San Fernando Valley and devalue the land so he could buy it up cheap. The mysterious death of his son-in-law and former business partner, Hollis Mulwray further complicated the plot. The Two Jakes chronicles the legacy of the Cross conspiracy. The San Fernando Valley is still under contention. Oil and mineral rights are the prizes (instead of water) and Katherine Mulwray is the key to the mystery.

Doesn't cut it as a "Special Collector's Edition"
Doesn’t cut it as a “Special Collector’s Edition”

Robert Towne created J.J. Gittes and the world of Chinatown for his then roommate and struggling actor, Jack Nicholson. When Paramount bought the script and Evans and Polanski became attached, it became Nicholson’s breakthrough role and won Towne an Oscar for Best Screenplay. According to Nicholson, it was supposed to be a trilogy. After this abomination, the series thankfully never saw its third chapter.

Legendary disagreements between producer Robert Evans, writer Robert Towne and actor Jack Nicholson did not help an already shaky proposition. Roman Polanski wisely extricated himself from a vanity sequel that had no hope of measuring up to the original. Nicholson was not equipped as a director to sort out a sequel with an inconsistent story, shoddy script, inattention to visual and aural continuity and still fill Gittes’ gumshoes.

Had Nicholson ceded to another director, he could have concentrated on replicating the pacing of the fast-talking, quick-witted private detective of Chinatown. Instead, we get Jack Nicholson trying to pass himself off as J.J. Gittes, but neither quacking nor waddling like Polanski’s original article.

Instead of complex characters and nuanced interactions, we get maladroit portrayals of basket cases in unmotivated interactions. It begins with the absence of Dick Bakalyan as the original Detective Loach. Instead, we get David Keith playing Loach’s son. Although the name is the same, Junior and Gittes have no discernable history or reason to hate each other. Gittes would understandably hate the elder Loach for killing his client, but we did not get enough of a sense of the original Loach or his relationship with Gittes in Chinatown to know if he would pass that antipathy on to his son. As such, the younger Loach serves no purpose other than baiting Gittes and becomes caricature.

Another cheap and ineffective stunt is the return of James Hong as Evelyn Mulwray’s butler, Khan, to move a plodding story forward. Given how contentious things were between him and Gittes in Chinatown, Khan would seem an unlikely source for information on the absconded Katherine. Khan reveals nothing and the exchange plays like two girlfriends gossiping over coffee.

Other characters like Gittes’ assistant, Walsh and the pencil-necked Clerk at the Hall of Records from Chinatown also returned. Their return only provided a “hey, that guy is still alive” value and did not enhance story movement or continuity.

I am not arguing for one character or actor over another, just differentiating between a cameo and a detracting character that weakens story and disrupts continuity. James Hong, David Keith and Dick Bakalyan were unnecessary and warranted an amalgamation of function and information into a stronger character. Maybe Bakalyan was the only one to recognize that fact and that’s why he bowed out.

Madeline Stowe, an otherwise competent and watchable actor, stalled the plot with her vaudevillian histrionics as the grieving widow Lillian Bodine, who in spite of suspecting foul play still angles for her inheritance.

Meg Tilly’s portrayal of Kitty Berman failed to evoke the same sense of jeopardy as Faye Dunaway did in Chinatown as Evelyn Mulwray. No matter how the supporting characters plot, profit or languish, Kitty is never in any real distress. This invalidates Harvey Keitel efforts as husband and protector, Jake Berman.

This movie lacks the hallmarks of noir drama: protagonists in peril; beguiling, traitorous characters; plot twists; and audience surprise. It is so bland, you will figure out the “mystery” before the big reveal.

We must also endure the insult of a poorly crafted romantic subplot with a fiancée for Gittes. She telephones once, appears once, and dumps him. Are we to believe he is sad when she splits?

“Although an audience won’t always be able to articulate when something is wrong in a picture, the sense of something being wrong is enough to take them out of the experience,” said Los Angeles Valley College media arts professor Dan Watanabe.

Two such areas that are hard to identify are art/production design and musical score.

The transition between cinematographers John A. Alonzo and Vilmos Zsigmond was not enough to alter the visual tone. However, the shift in production design from Richard Sylbert to the less experienced Jeremy Railton (Salsa) and Richard Sawyer (Three Amigos) became a liability.

The shift in musicianship from the subtle score of Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek) to the manipulative orchestrations of composer, Francis Hannah and arranger Van Dyke Parks (Goin’ South) negatively affected the noir mood of The Two Jakes. Rather than supplementing the unfolding of the plot, the score overemphasizes the fact we are watching a noir and takes attention away from the story.

Both production design and orchestration are integral components to the feeling of a picture. In the case of a sequel, audiences expect a certain look and sound. The failure to take greater steps to match tone with Chinatown also hurt The Two Jakes’ viability.

Sequels and series are tricky beasts. Sometimes they work, other times they do not. Ultimately, The Two Jakes joins Godfather III, Blues Brothers 2000, and the Star Wars prequels in the museum of unnecessary movies you wish never existed. Either too much timed passed between original and sequel to recapture the magic, or too many elements changed.

So revisit Chinatown and skip The Two Jakes because two jakes do not equal one Chinatown.

DVD Extras

As a Special Collector’s edition DVD, The Two Jakes just does not cut it. Merely putting the movie on DVD and slapping the original theatrical trailer behind an interactive menu is not enough to justify the edition.

By comparison, the Chinatown DVD has many more extras to recommend it. These include interviews with Jack Nicholson, Roman Polanski, Robert Evans and Robert Towne that discuss the genesis, filming and legacy of the Chinatown mythos. Overall, the featurettes are fond reminiscence of confluences of events that yielded an iconic film and launched careers.

I guess that time; money and courtside seats for the Lakers heal all wounds.