Family Business

June 29, 2012

For a movie that boasts three big-money leading men, Family Business is a surprisingly underwhelming affair.

Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, and Matthew Broderick have all lent their talents, but their participation in this movie prompts more head-scratching than anything else. Why’d they do it?

It’s not a bad film, exactly. Connery, very much in his roguish element, plays a lifetime crook named Jesse McMullin, who’s always conducted himself by his own code of honor. He’s spent plenty of time in jail over the years, yet he’s respected and even loved by nearly everyone who knows him.

Everyone, that is, except his middle-aged son, played by Hoffman. (Because the elder McMullin was married to a Sicilian woman, their son was named Vito, a fact that continues to rankle the old man.) Vito, after briefly following his father’s criminal ways as a young man, has painstakingly built up a Manhattan meat business, which he loathes. But it is a badge of accomplishment to him that he has shut out his father’s life. The fact that Vito does not seem particularly happy is, to him, beside the point.

Vito’s son Adam, played by Broderick, has been strictly raised. Nothing but the best for this boy, the better to shield him from the family’s criminal streak. True to form, however, the kid has dropped out of college, just before getting his master’s degree. It seems he has an itch to try something a bit more dramatic.

Adam has a scheme cooked up whereby a cool million can be made by robbing a big chemical company. He enlists the aid of his wily grandfather, who suggests bringing Vito into the caper. After much reluctance, Vito joins up.

The rest of the movie is the robbery, plus the inevitably tangled consequences. Vincent Patrick’s screenplay, adapted from his novel, has a lot of scenes of people talking, and a static quality regularly creeps into the movie. Still, much of the talk is good and the actors who deliver it are just fine, so a lot of it works.

There’s just this sense of blandness about the whole thing. Even the ad campaign, three men in suits and ties staring at the camera, is dull. Director Sidney Lumet, who has made so many films in New York, gets an effective feeling for the city, and a nice contrast between Vito’s blue-collar business and his antiseptic, stylish high-rise apartment. There’s also a fitting clash of acting styles, in Connery’s juicy straightforwardness against Hoffman’s catch-in-the-throat Methodizing.

But Lumet can’t conquer a central flatness. Family Business finally washes itself out, as bland as a suit and a tie.

First published in the Herald, December 19, 1989

Tell you the truth, a suit and tie look pretty hotsy compared to this thing. The review is too generous. The movie is a stiff. It has some kind of writer’s strike vagueness to it, although I don’t know whether it was actually affected by such an event.

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He’s My Girl

June 28, 2012

He’s My Girl is just about as bad as you’d think a movie with that title would be. Maybe worse.

At some point, the screenwriter who originally sat down and conceived the thing may have had honorable intentions: Gender-confusion farce is one of the oldest dramatic forms, right? But the script has passed through the mill—there are four different writers credited—and has become pretty degraded in the process. (There’s a lesson, here, somewhere; the more persons handle a screenplay, the less personality it has.)

The basic idea is creaky enough. A small-time rock singer (David Hallyday) and his equally small-time manager (T.K. Carter) hit it big by winning a trip to Los Angeles to meet a dissipated rock star. But, for reasons never quite explained, Hallyday is required to bring his “girlfriend,” not just a pal.

But Carter really, really wants to go. So he adopts a drag costume, which will allow him to pass as a woman and will cause many supposedly amusing complications in L.A.

Don’t make me go into details. The film flops around from one predictable situation to the next, under some appalling directing by Gabrielle Beaumont, though in this case “direction” may be a misleading term, since the movie seems to be utterly out of control.

In a situation like that, you watch the actors for something, anything. Surprisingly enough, the least offensive thing here is Carter’s drag act, which at least has some lowdown exuberance. Hallyday is terrible, stiff and lifeless.

Most embarrassing is David Clennon, a heretofore respectable actor (Meryl Streep’s husband in Falling in Love, for crying out loud—how much more respectable can you get?), who really goes over the top as the music executive who sponsored the contest. Most mysterious is Jennifer Tilly, who plays Hallyday’s waitress girlfriend. I assume she’s Meg Tilly’s sister, but she has her own oddball delivery; 25 years ago they would have called her “kooky.”

First published in the Herald, September 1987

Just another two-hour chunk of time to peel off the lifespan. I don’t remember it. T.K. Carter and David Clennon were in The Thing; Clennon was on the verge of going minimalist with his Hall of Fame performance in thirtysomething; Beaumont directed a huge amount of TV. David Hallyday is the son of French rock star Johnny Hallyday, a real icon in France and a more interesting movie presence than his son.


Can’t Buy Me Love

June 27, 2012

Can’t Buy Me Love is a tired high-school comedy, taking off from yet another big concept: This time, a nerd wants popularity so desperately that he buys the friendship of the queenly cheerleader. In with the in crowd, by association.

Our young hero (Patrick Dempsey) is weary of his endless hours of lawn-mowing, of spending every Saturday night playing poker with his geeky friends. He yearns to be accepted. So, by a rather farfetched invention, he takes the money he’d saved for an expensive telescope and applies it toward his transfiguration.

The cheerleader (Amanda Peterson) needs the money to replace her mother’s ruined dress. So she strikes a deal. She’ll give the nerd a fashion makeover, walk down the halls with him, even have lunch with him. But only partial hand-holding. And no smooches.

The experiment is a success, if gaining the grunting appreciation of the school Neanderthals is a measure of success. Of course, there is a lesson about popularity and friendship and humility in all of this, which the ex-nerd will dutifully learn. And, there’s the entirely expected attachment that springs up between the members of this financial transaction.

This premise is so clearly contrived to engineer predictable plot complication that probably nobody could have made it come alive. To give some credit, director Steve Rash does try. Rash scored nicely with The Buddy Holly Story in 1977, though he hasn’t worked much in feature films since.

Rash strains to find some tender romantic moments in first-time screenwriter Michael Swerdlick’s story, but they come off as pretty cornball. And the principal actors don’t have the star quality to carry the idea into memorable—or even reasonably diverting—territory, though Amanda Peterson grows on you.

Finally, there’s a feeble attempt to add buoyancy by splicing the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” on to the credits and the very title. (The movie was originally called Boy Rents Girl.) If the Beatles are going to sue Nike over the use of “Revolution” for those sneaker ads, they ought to do the same here. As a matter of fact, there’s more cinematic invention in those 30-second Nike spots that in this entire movie.

First published in the Herald, August 1987

This was part of an inexplicable Patrick Dempsey moment (the first Patrick Dempsey moment, that is), when filmmakers became convinced he was the second coming of Jack Lemmon, or Matthew Broderick, or something. I think the film is worse than I make it sound here.


Down and Out in Beverly Hills

June 26, 2012

During the credits sequence of Down and Out in Beverly Hills, you feel the tingle of something clicking: A bedraggled bum pushes a grocery cart full of junk down a Los Angeles street in the early morning light, as the soundtrack plays one of the most striking songs of recent years, the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.”

The images are sharp and pointed, the music pulls it together, and there’s a crackling sense of direction. Unfortunately, once the music stops and the film proper starts, this tingly feeling dissolves all too rapidly.

What we have here is vintage Paul Mazursky social satire, Beverly Hills variety, as we are introduced to an archetypal ’80s family. Husband (Richard Dreyfuss) is a fatcat in the wire-hanger biz, whose non-existent sexual relationship with his wife is replaced by midnight liaisons with the maid. Wife (Bette Midler) is a shrieky kook who tries every form of meditation, fire-walking, and wacko religion available in California—and that’s saying a lot.

Their son faces every family event with a video camera attached to his head, as he worries about his sexual orientation; the daughter escapes the madness by jetting off to her Ivy League school. They have a Rolls-Royce, a swimming pool, and a psychologist for their dog; they’re wildly unhappy, needless to say.

Mazursky hits his targets—he’s been drawing this sort of satire since Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice—but with surprising obviousness. A satirist, above all else, must be a part of his times, and Mazursky seems to be making the same jokes that were new and effective in the late ’60s.

He takes this ripe family and throws in a loose cog: that bum (Nick Nolte) from the credits, a dropout from society who represents everything they’re not. Nolte, having lost his dog, decides to end it all by throwing himself into Dreyfuss’s pool. Saved, he moves into the household, thereby changing the lives of all present.

After he gets cleaned up, Nolte takes Dreyfuss down to Venice Beach, where they drink cheap wine, eat garbage, and sleep under the stars. Naturally, Dreyfuss sees this as an utterly energizing experience.

Then Nolte teaches the heretofore horrified Midler about the secrets of Balinese massage, which works as a prelude to a cosmic sexual encounter.

Some of this is predictable, some is not. But even when Mazursky’s touch is heavy, the players are very good. No one but Nolte could play the hulking bum this well, and Midler is born to the part (although Mazursky might have encouraged her to be even a bit more outrageous).

Dreyfuss, who hasn’t scored a hit in a long time, is very good in a less showy role. The longer the film goes on the more you realize his character is really at the center of the story.

There’s also nice work by Tracy Nelson (Rick Nelson’s daughter) as the daughter, and Little Richard is amusing as a flamboyant (what else?) neighbor, whose Rolls-Royce is an exact duplicate of Dreyfuss’s car.

The film is a loose remake of a 1932 French film by Jean Renoir called Boudu Saved from Drowning. In that film, the bum, played by Michel Simon, was even more of an uncontrollable force of nature than here—indeed, the earlier film was much more uncompromising in its satire. All of which proves that, to the industry’s discredit, movies are often less daring now than they were 50 years ago.

First published in the Herald, January 31, 1986

“No one but Nolte could play the hulking bum this well,” but of course Michel Simon did it, too. Nobody but the two of them. I remember a look Nolte has at the end of this movie that achieved the same flash of existential shock that “Once in a Lifetime” provides, and thinking how good he was, and is.


Manhunter

June 25, 2012

As I was walking out of the theater after seeing Manhunter, I overheard a young woman say, “It was like—I don’t know—it didn’t have any flash.”

No flash? I don’t know what movie she thought she saw, but if the Manhunter I saw doesn’t have flash, then no movie does. In fact, I’m sure the common criticism of the film will be that is has too much flash, much in the way “Miami Vice” is said to sacrifice substance to style.

The comparison is not accidental. Manhunter is the latest from Michael Mann, the executive producer of “Miami Vice.” Here, he serves as writer-director, as he did with his previous theatrical features, Thief and The Keep.

Mann has taken a basic cop story and, with ferocious panache, dressed it up in designer duds and high-tech visuals, just as he has on “Vice.” But Mann is a better director than his “Vice” hired hands, and so he achieves some powerful and perverse moments in the film.

In the early going, the plot itself is strictly formula stuff. A retired cop (William Petersen) is called back to assist in an unusually horrible set of murders—much to the consternation of his wife (Kim Griest). He’s retired because his working method is too intense. He caught killers by identifying with them, by learning to think like them, and the last time he caught a murderer, he went a little over the edge.

Once he’s on the case, the film crackles along as a good, basic police thriller. Then, two-thirds of the way through, there’s a startling shift in point-of-view, as we focus on the killer (Tom Noonan), a real creep who suddenly, unexpectedly, finds a sympathetic friend. This shift is weird, and perhaps not structurally sound, but fascinating.

Mann tries to layer in a lot of variations on the theme of sight and vision. Movies themselves play an important role in the murders. Not all of this is coherently expressed, and the business about Petersen’s disturbing identification with the killers is somehow not quite resolved. But Mann does work hard to make Manhunter more than just a cop movie.

He often succeeds. Some of the detection sequences—the decoding of a crucial note sent by the murderer, the kidnapping of an obnoxious reporter (Stephen Lang) and his shocking demise—are potent indeed.

Mann’s visual and narrative intensity is matched by the solid group of performers. Petersen, recently named by Rolling Stone magazine as the year’s hot actor, is burning on a low flame throughout. He inhabits this world well, as evidenced by his previous role in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A.

Petersen’s screen roles have not had enough variety to suggest that he can do more than be one intense dude. But he can certainly spark the kind of flash that Manhunter requires.

First published in the Herald, August 14, 1986

Who knew about the whole Hannibal Lecter phenomenon to come? Not me, apparently. I’d like to be able to say that a paragraph extolling Brian Cox’s performance as Lecter got cut from this review at some point, but I have no recollection of that. A strong movie, anyway.


Subway

June 22, 2012

A series of recent French films have aped the style of the popular, flashy Diva, in hopes of hitting the international jackpot once again. I didn’t care that much for Diva when it was first released, but its imitators have made it look much better in retrospect; where Diva was colorful and witty, the pretenders are soulless and stupefying.

The latest clone is Subway, which features similarly New Wavey visuals and off-the-wall humor. The gimmick here is that almost the entire film is set underneath Paris, in the extensive subway system, which, with its restaurants, stores, and hiding places, is a world unto itself.

It’s the inadvertent end point for a safecracker (Christophe Lambert of Greystoke—known as Christopher when he makes movies in English) who’s just escaped the gendarmes in a high-speed chase. He’s a bit conspicuous in his tuxedo and bleached spiky hair, but he soon discovers the hidden corridors of the subterranean world, and finds a few friends to help him fit in.

He’s followed by the bored upper-class woman (Isabelle Adjani) whose safe he just blew. He lifted some important papers from the safe, but just what they are, we never find out, or maybe I missed it in all the hubbub. Anyway, she wants them back, but she also seems to feel a bit of the old animal magnetism for the fugitive. And he feels the same thing for her.

But their eventual romantic clinch is delayed by all sorts of problems, including her brutish husband’s henchmen and the daffy police force, who split their time between searching for Lambert and trying to find a particularly frustrating roller-skating purse-snatcher.

The most interesting thing about all this is the creation of the underground, where a community of oddballs lives off petty crime and nighttime thievery: an untrustworthy flower-seller, a collection of musicians who throw parties for each other, and a weight-lifting giant who breaks Lambert out of his troublesome handcuffs with a good hard yank.

Director Luc Besson’s efforts at telling a coherent story aren’t too successful, not that he seems to be trying that hard. The plot strands splatter in all directions, and he doesn’t bother cleaning up after.

His primary concern is effect, so he throws some fancy camerawork into the mix. An occasional shot, such as the subterraneans watching welders working on the rails at night, pays off. The frequent hyperactivity doesn’t do anything for the movie’s clarity, but it does make for fun, sometimes. Look, put it this way: Boiled down to 15 minutes, Subway would make a good long-play music video.

First published in the Herald, November 1985

Now that I have grown into a somewhat guilty Luc Besson fan, I wonder if I might like this more. Somehow I doubt it. By the way, when I say “New Wavey,” I assume I refer to the Eighties pop-culture movement, and not the Nouvelle Vague of Besson’s predecessors.


The Evil That Men Do

June 21, 2012

Fans of late-night movies have fun following the early career of a fellow named Charles Buchinsky (sometimes Buchinski), a striking supporting actor who hangs around the edges of scenes in program fare from the 1950s. He made B-movies, including Westerns, and his Slavic features were used for comedic effect when he played a milk-drinking tough guy in the Tracy-Hepburn movie Pat and Mike.

In the mid-50s he changed his named, and what a change it brought about. Charles Bronson. Grrr. Suddenly, he was one of The Magnificent Seven riding off into a squinty-eyed sunset. Bronson was to become even bigger in the 1970s, when his action films grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, and he was a gigantic box-office draw all over the world.

Bronson has made some good movies—such as Once Upon a Time in the West and The Great Escape—but he’s been coasting for years. He’s no longer as popular in the United States, but overseas his name still brings ’em in, and he continues to make movies with violent (especially revenge-related) themes.

The Evil That Men Do is formula Bronson all the way. He’s a professional killer lured out of retirement when a friend is murdered. This time, the fish is a big one: an evil man known as “The Doctor” (Joseph Maher) whose work and pleasure is in torturing and murdering innocent people.

Bronson goes undercover to what seems to be Guatemala (the film was shot in Mexico), accompanied by his friend’s widow (Theresa Saldana), who poses as his wife. She’s always saying things such as, “Why is he so cold? Nothing affects him,” about Bronson—which he finds out, because he can read lips. But he doesn’t care, because he’s cold and nothing affects him.

The Doctor is surrounded by vicious bodyguards, all of whom are destroyed by Bronson. Not too many surprises here, since we know how the film will turn out, but there is a kinky first for a Bronson film: One of these creeps (Raymond St. Jacques) propositions Charlie and Saldana, who pose as a sexually adventurous couple. Bronson even puts his wrinkled paw in the dude’s hand and proposes a threesome.

Charles Bronson? In a threesome?

Thanks heavens, nothing weird happens, because before the guy can get out his leather socks, Bronson wastes him good.

The rest is standard fare: Bronson speaks little, and much blood is shed. Director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Naravone) keeps things moving at a snail’s pace, which really drags down a film with a dusty Mexican setting.

What gives the film a strange feeling is the presence of Theresa Saldana, who had a role in Raging Bull. A couple of years ago, she was stabbed on the street by one of those psychos who become obsessed with a media image. That’s the kind of scenario that might crop up in a Bronson film, and somehow her casting here—although she’s perfectly okay in the role—lends an uncomfortable eeriness to some aspects of the movie. Unfortunately, though hardly unexpectedly, that’s the only interesting thing going on here.

First published in the Herald, September 29, 1984

For me this one started the run of unbelievably moribund Bronson pictures in the 1980s, including three Death Wish sequels. Driving up to the Aurora Village theater to see one of these on the Friday afternoon it opened was a truly numbing experience, in every way.