The Pick-Up Artist

January 24, 2020

pickupartistFor its first 20 minutes or so, The Pick-Up Artist shapes up as a lively little comedy of manners, as it chronicles a day in the life of a hopeless womanizer named Jack Jericho (Robert Downey) and his fast­-talking cruise-through existence. Jericho can’t drive down the block without spotting a pretty girl, trotting up next to her and laying down a line of pick-up patter.

Usually, this line is, “Has anyone ever told you, you have the face of a Boticelli and the body of a Degas?” Although once, he gets confused and substitutes Chagall and Rubens, with predictably mixed results.

Jericho’s routine abruptly comes up short when he meets a woman (Molly Ringwald) who gives as good as she gets. After an afternoon quickie, she treats him the way he usually treats his women – by walking away, with no strings attached. Naturally, he’s hooked.

But just then, the movie bumps right up against a problem: plot. For whatever reason, writer-director James Toback has decided to take this romantic comedy, charming up until now, and graft it onto another story entirely.

It seems the woman’s dissipated father (Dennis Hopper, doing an amusing rehash of earlier roles) owes $25,000 to some local gangsters (led by Harvey Keitel). Jericho wants to help her, but she insists on finding the money herself. Everything ends up in Atlantic City, with gambling the only solution to making the money fast.

Basically, this is a mess. Scenes aren’t developed, characters are thrown away, motivations are murky. Toback seems to be making two movies in one.

However, Toback, who wrote The Gambler and directed the disastrous Exposed, is nothing if not idiosyncratic. The movie may be all over the place, but at least you get the feeling that it was made by one person, not a committee (although it’s been rumored the film underwent some post-production tinkering; at the very least, a few four-letter words have clearly been blipped out to avoid an R rating).

And the energy level is high, keyed as it is into the performance of Robert Downey, who may be most recognizable as a regular on Saturday Night Live a couple of seasons ago. He gives a full-speed portrait of a guy who does indeed bring an artistry to his vocation.

The film boasts good credits, with nice supporting work by Danny Aiello and Victoria Jackson, and typically tasty cinematography by Gordon Willis. One collaborator is not credited: Warren Beatty, a friend of Toback’s who reportedly served as an unlisted executive producer. Beatty’s own reputation as the all-time pick-up artist suggests the reason for his involvement, but one suspects that he could make a much more interesting movie on the subject.

First published in the Herald, September 19, 1987

Toback, of course, is strongly implicated in monstrous behavior that came out with the #MeToo movement. I suppose that changes this movie these days. Downey had bounced around and gotten noticed, but this one was a real lead. Beatty was apparently the producer and took his name off the movie; this was the period when he was somehow heavily concerned with guiding Molly Ringwald’s career, always a curious movie-history blip.

Personal Services

January 23, 2020

personalservicesEvidently, Personal Services is based, loosely, on the life of one Cynthia Payne, who became something of a popular heroine in England by running a genteel brothel in the London surburbs. The film, which debuted last week at the Seattle International Film Festival, is a fictional treatment of her rise from everyday waitress to no-nonsense madam.

Aside from the opportunities for social comment and bawdy-house humor, the film provides a broad vehicle for Julie Walters, the actress best known for her Oscar-nominated work in Educating Rita. Walters uses her brassy drive to chart the character’s changes. At first she’s tentative, not quite knowing all the sexual terminology, but cheerfully playing along. (I would quote specific jokes here, but then this review would have to be rated R).

Later, she’s a bureaucratic whirlwind, organizing teas for the clients, moving her girls from dingy apartments to a polished house in the suburbs, barking orders at the clients who agree to clean the place up (many of them enjoy being – how shall we say this – “disciplined”).

David Leland’s screenplay is every­where at once, jumping around among wacky situations, never quite settling down. But he has just the right director for this sort of thing in Terry Jones, a Monty Python member who has had much experience in sketch comedy (on the Python TV series and as the director of The Meaning of Life, among others).

Jones brings a lively and amoral presence to the proceedings. The brothel caters to elderly, civilized men, and Jones gleefully depicts these upper-crust British gentlemen dressed in knickers, dresses, schoolgirl’s uniforms, and bikinis – all outfits for their, um, satisfaction.

Some of the savage satire of the Python troupe is evident, and of course the typically self-lacerating British sense of humor – but Jones manages to find time for quieter moments during which Walters’ loneliness is suggested. There’s a nice, silent scene when she’s on vacation, and accidentally glimpses two young people making love. She gazes wistfully at them, as though remembering that sex can be something other than a commodity.

I’m glad that reminder is in the movie, as opposed to Working Girls, another current film about prostitution, in which sex in general is made to look dingy and ugly.

Probably Jones means us to see the film as a broader metaphorical statement about the state of England today, but the movie’s too scrappy and blunt for this to be effective. Personal Services is, however, a frequently funny, knowingly ironic success story.

First published in the Herald, June 5, 1987

RIP Terry Jones, who just died at age 77. I think this film is mostly forgotten, at least outside Britain, but at the time it found an appreciative audience at SIFF. Interesting that I included a mention of Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls, which is well-thought-of today.


January 22, 2020

shagWho needs a sequel to Dirty Dancing? Shag is here. The dancing is a bit cleaner in this new movie, but otherwise the vibe is about the same.

It’s summer in South Carolina, 1963, and four teenage girls are out to have a last big weekend. One (Phoebe Cates) is about to be married, two (Annabeth Gish and Page Hannah) are scheduled for college, and the fourth (Bndget Fonda) figures she might try being a movie star. They set off for Myrtle Beach to have themselves a time.

The rest of the movie is the weekend, which, of course, turns out to be tumultuous. Cates is supposed to marry a young dullard (Tyrone Power Jr.) who’s going into his rich father’s tobacco business. As she notes, “He’s already got some ideas on how to improve filter-tips.” But a few minutes alone with a hunky Myrtle Beach stud (Robert Rusler) and her fiance goes up in smoke.

The movie is cleverly constructed around two events. Fonda enters the Miss Sun Queen contest to grab the attention of the judge, a massively pompadoured singing sensation; unfortunately, the prize is won by a trashy little vixen in a Confederate flag bikini.

And Gish and her new beau (Scott Coffey) enter the Shag contest, in which couples dance the Shag, a swingin’ dance. (This movie, like “Dirty Dancing, was choreographed by the spirited Kenny Ortega.)

Shag features the usual components of this sort of thing, with lots of old songs, one really big party, and a decisive deflowering. It doesn’t have anything new to say, but some of the individual scenes are nicely directed by Zelda Barron, who brings a warm touch to the girl talk.

Otherwise, the film veers between American Graffiti and Where the Boys Are. The actors keep it appealing; Gish was one of the pizza girls in Mystic Pizza, and she brings a similar level-headedness to these proceedings. The standout is Bridget Fonda, recently seen in Scandal. She’s very savvy, which is probably natural for someone who grew up in a family acting tradition. Incidentally, her father Peter made his movie debut in 1963 in Tammy and the Doctor, a film the girls of Shag would probably have loved.

First published in the Herald, July 20, 1989

Zelda Barron had a long career doing odd things in film (everything from script girl to a rumored script doctor on Reds to directing Boy George videos). She was also music video director Steve Barron’s mother. I can’t say anything about Shag, but at one time I did have a soft spot for Beach Party movies and the likes of Where the Boys Are, and probably still do. Scott Coffey has been in the David Lynch galaxy since having a “scenes deleted” credit for Wild at Heart; he’s in most of Lynch’s projects since then. Page Hannah married Lou Adler. Fonda hasn’t made a movie in 18 years.

Around the World in 80 Ways

January 21, 2020

aroundtheworldThe aggressively zany new Australian film Around the World in 80 Ways begins with the most breathless opening sequence since the insane 10-minute prologue of Raising Arizona. In Around the World, we’re introduced to the narrator, an Aussie tour guide (Philip Quast) who wears a banana headdress, and he provides a whirlwind history of his bizarre family.

Seems the parents have been in decline since dad (Alan Penny) lost the car dealership to their tacky next­ door neighbor; now mom (Diana Davidson) is heading off for a ’round­-the-world vacation, leaving non­-ambulatory dad in a “rest” home. Meanwhile the little brother (Kelly Dingwall) concocts weird noises in his homebuilt sound studio.

The movie rockets along until it splits in two parts. One part follows mom’s trip, to Hawaii, Las Vegas, Rome, and Tokyo. The other part describes a different sort of journey. When dad learns that mom is being accompanied on the trip by the hated next-door neighbor, he insists that his sons arrange for him to follow the gallivanting woman.

The sons, however, decide that this would serve no purpose. So they devise a plan whereby the enfeebled father, who is nearly blind and none too alert, will think he’s on a world tour. In fact, although the boys dress up in Hawaiian garb, play hula music and serve pineapple and mangoes, the traveling party never leaves its back yard. (Airplane rides are taken care of via an elaborate ruse involving the older son’s revamped tour bus.)

So the film cuts back from the real rip to the imagined one. It’s a mad idea for a movie, and it comes from writer-director Stephen MacLean, who wrote Gillian Armstrong’s energetic Starstruck a few years go. MacLean’s got lots of pizazz; he’s like a crazed juggler trying to keep an armload of objects in the air.

Around the World has some funny bits in it, so I suppose MacLean, succeeds some of the time. I enjoyed the fake plane rides, the villain’s migratory hairpiece, and also the mother’s pilgrimages to the two key experiences of Western culture, an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas and the pope in Rome.

But the film has an unpleasant nasty streak; a lot of the humor, after all, is at the expense of one character’s borderline senility. And the relentless frolicking left me with the feeling that the movie was trying too hard, like a party at which everybody is desperately and loudly declaiming what a great time they’re having. Sorry, but it doesn’t quite scan.

First published in the Herald, June 6, 1988

Does anybody outside Australia remember this? Does anybody inside Australia remember this? I confess I did not. MacLean also directed what sounds like an Aussie gay-history documentary and a biopic of Peter Allen, and died at age 56. Starstruck is a fun movie and has a big following Down Under, as I understand it; seems a shame MacLean didn’t do more.

Crossing Delancey

January 20, 2020

crossingdelanceyCrossing Delancey is a movie to curl up next to. Utterly contemporary in many ways, it nevertheles incorporates the manners and morals of an old­-fashioned romantic comedy.

It’s set in Manhattan, where a bookseller, Isabelle (Amy Irving), who works in “New York’s last real bookstore,” is leading an ordinary, and solitary, life. Izzy, as she is known to all, is sophisticated, literate, and in thrall to the writers who frequent the store. But she’s also loyal to her grandmother, her “Bubbie” (Reizl Bozyk), who lives among the traditions of the Lower East Side. Bubbie and the local matchmaker (Sylvia Miles) decide it’s time to end Izzy’s singlehood and make a match.

Izzy, of course, recoils at the archaic custom, insisting that “this is not the way I live. This is a hundred years ago!” And an arranged meeting between and a man who owns a pickle stand (Peter Riegert) goes apparently nowhere.

But that’s where Crossing Delancey begins to shine. The pickle man turns out to be a complex and subtle person, while Izzy’s crush on a famous writer (Jeroen Krabbe) cools as she gets to know him. Izzy comes to understand this both through her own investigation, and through the delightful plotting of her Bubbie.

Crossing Delancey is directed by Joan Micklin Silver, and it’s a film that finally fulfills the promise of her Chilly Scenes of Winter, which came out almost decade ago. (And it’s reminiscent of her Hester Street, which also examined traditional Jewish customs.) Silver is wonderful at etching characters, finding the way they talk, the way they stand. She can capture the romantic aches of modem folk better than anyone this side of Woody Allen.

The script is by Susan Sandler, based on her own play. It’s full of rich nuances of speech, particularly for Bubbie, who is partially based on Sandler’s own grandmother. Even Sandler’s minor characters are generously treated: The roguish writer is endearing even at his most fatuous, while a childish married man (John Bedford Lloyd) who occasionally sleeps with Izzy acts like a gentleman when he finally meets the pickle man.

Silver gets splendid performances. The film is a showcase for Amy Irving, and Peter Riegert (he was the American businessman in Local Hero) is just wonderful, investing his pickle man with dignity and self-possession.

This is one of those movies in which a certain enchantment seems to hang over all. When, on her birthday, a lonely Izzy stops for a hot dog at a little frankfurter place, a woman strides in and sings “Some Enchanted Evening” a cappella. This movie describes a world in which this sort of thing can happen. It’s a very nice place to visit.

First published in the Herald, September 1988

Yup, lovely movie. Silver should have had a more prominent career. This movie does that thing that I particularly like, which is to allow the not-nice characters their moments of grace.

Straight to Hell/Law of Desire

January 17, 2020

straighttohellThere’s the kind of moviemaker who makes a film every couple-three years; he or she waits around for the perfect script, the perfect actor, the perfect moment. Then there’s the moviemaker who churns out flicks on a fairly continuous basis, just to have something to be working on. Such a busy bee is Alex Cox, the wonderfully demented director of Repo Man and Sid and Nancy.

Cox’s newest film, released less than a year after S&N, was cranked out on a measly million-dollar budget (and, reportedly, a three-day writing schedule). Straight to Hell is no masterwork, and it’s obviously something Cox made with his left hand while his right hand was working on the next big movie.

As such, it sure is fun. Stylistically and otherwise, Straight to Hell flagrantly lives up to its title. This is a scuzzy, gadabout movie, barely existing except to spoof the filmic conventions of the spaghetti Westerns (A Fistful of Dollars The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) of Sergio Leone.

If you’re not familiar with Leone’s movies, some of the gags here won’t work. The credits and the music, for instance, which parody Leone’s flamboyant style – plus a lot of overwrought wide-screen compositions in the manner of that directors’s breath­less shoot-outs, which Leone would compose with the scope of a Wagnerian opera.

The plot here, such as it is, takes three greasy outlaws (Cy Richardson, Clash lead singer Joe Strummer, and co-writer Dick Rude) and their moll (Courtney Love) into a dusty Western town. The townsfolk, a deranged bunch of coffee underachievers who are weirdly fixated on caffeine, look as though they’ve dropped directly out of British society and into a Road Warrior post-apocalyptic world.

The movie gets out of control quickly, which may be its saving grace. A bunch of quirky people – Elvis Costello, Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, The Pogues – breeze in to fill up the background. It’s a larky film, very uneven, and everyone involved with it seems to have had a very good time.

lawofdesireLaw of Desire is a new movie from another idiosyncratic filmmaker, Spain’s Pedro Almodovar. He’s an acquired taste, but Law of Desire strikes a kind of giddy balance of hipness, camp, and melodrama.

Almodovar’s story seems to jump out of some sub-par 1950s American soap opera. A homosexual film director (Eusebio Poncela) is dogged by a worshiping fan (Antonio Banderas). Eventually Banderas takes out his madness on the director’s lover, and throws the lover off a cliff.

Almodovar takes this situation and puts a nutty spin on it. He sets the film in Madrid, then throws in the director’s transsexual sister (Carmen Maura), a crazy color scheme, and a subterranean sense of humor. It sounds like as wild a mix as Straight to Hell, but the elements in Law of Desire come together in a way that they never do in Straight to Hell, and Almodovar’s is much the better movie. Both movies, in their exotic trashiness, lend a much-welcome aura of untidiness to the current cinema.

First published in the Herald, June 1987

Pretty interesting twofer. I guess I thought Cox was going on to a career of big films, which, unfortunately, he did not. Nothing against his output, mind you, but one expected more spectacular things. And Courtney Love? Yes, it happened. Things turned out rather well for Pedro Almodovar, as you may have heard; this week his star Banderas got an Oscar nomination for the director’s Pain and Glory, a very good career-looking-back movie. Obviously Law of Desire deserved more space than I could give it here, but hey, you do what you can. And I refer to American soaps as the movie’s source of parody; I wasn’t hip enough to know about telenovelas in 1987.

Summer Heat

January 16, 2020

summerheatTerrence Malick’s Days of Heaven was one of the singular American films of the 1970s. It was poetic, photographically lush, yet it told a story that is as old as the land: a classic triangle of love, lust and death.

One of his assistants on that movie was a UCLA film school graduate named Michie Gleason. She is now a writer-director in her own right, and has made a film that shares a very similar subject with Malick’s Llke Days of Heaven, Summer Heat is a stark tale set in the heartland, a triangle that ends in death.

But Days of Heaven safely retains its singular status. Aside from the resemblance in plot, Summer Heat can’t compare with the earlier film; fact is, it’s barely competent in its own terms.

Gleason adapted the movie from Louise Shivers’ novel, Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail. In this story, set in North Carolina in 1937, the angles of the triangle are embodied by Roxy (Lori Singer), a lanky farmwife, her dullard farmer husband Aaron (Anthony Edwards), and a chiseled drifter (Bruce Abbott) who blows into town, lands a job as Aaron’s farmhand, and quickly slides into Roxy’s bed. As befits the Tobacco Row setting, there is much dust kicked around by bare feet on wooden floors, mandolins picked at night by the fire, and heavy heartland-America music swelling on the soundtrack. In short, all the usual cliches of the genre.

Nothing seems original here. Gleason goes neither for stylization (as Malick did in his film) nor realism – there’s no earthy, believable life. So the movie hangs in between, unsure of its approach. There’s a facile feminist message near the end, but it’s a cheap way to tie things up.

Lacking a distinct vision, Gleason might have let the actors make it interesting, but she barely allows them to perk. Lori Singer, of Footloose, is still a largely impassive  screen presence, although she looks convincingly wan, continually boxed within window frames as she is.

Anthony Edwards, the funny sidekick from Top Gun, barely registers in this somber role. Bruce Abbott looks his part, but isn’t required to do much more than smolder. All three of them remain children of the 1980s; you never quite buy the period. And the movie has no resonance, despite its grim subject, partly because these actors are so young. Their faces don’t register any past experiences.

Gleason does avoid having her cast assume heavy Southern accents, a tendency that usually makes the soundtracks of films such as this sound like a really painful high-school production of Tennessee Williams. Curiously, this bit of good taste has the effect of making Summer Heat even duller than it already is.

First published in the Herald, 1987

This one has slipped through the cracks. Kathy Bates was in it, too, three years  before Misery.  It’s narrated by Dorothy McGuire, which is sort of interesting (A Summer Place shout-out?), and shot by Eliot Davis. The IMDb comments say there’s a song by Kim Carnes, too.