The Boost

July 31, 2012

The Boost is worth catching only for yet another nervy portrait turned in by James Woods, the hyperactive star (and critical darling) of Salvador and Best Seller. Woods has created one of his marvelously overheated characters, a born salesman who gets his shot at the big time only to blow it.

Woods has become so good at this that his work in The Boost is almost redundant; he’s enacted this hustling, big-dream lowlife enough times before. Still, it’s a performance with some truly corrosive moments, shot through with Woods’s unsparing, unglamorous honesty.

He plays a New York City salesman who hasn’t quite found his niche yet, although he and his wife (Sean Young, from No Way Out) love each other deeply, no matter what (as they are all too fond of reminding each other). He’s the kind of guy who will invariably spill coffee on his white shirt moments before going into an important job interview. His ship appears to come in when an L.A. executive (Steven Hill) recruits him to come out west and sell high-priced real estate.

Suddenly he’s providing tax shelters hand over fist, and the money’s flowing in. He buys himself a little airplane—nothing outrageous, just a prop job—and he buys his wife a car she saw in a James Bond movie. This is living at Southern California speed, and our hero gets high by breathing in the fumes of money. He gets charged by walking into a party full of Hawaiian shirts and Italian suits: “The discretionary spending power at this party is enormous!” he crows.

This guy has a tendency to pitch himself toward the edge, which is just where he finds himself when the bottom drops out of the market. He and his wife take solace in cocaine, which provides the quicksand for a final descent.

The Boost weakens when it gets into the drug territory, as the cocaine becomes the focus of all the couple’s problems, whereas it is clear from the beginning that Woods’ character is dangerously self-destructive.

The movie has deeper problems, too, like a melodramatic way of lurching forward. Daryl Ponicsan’s script telegraphs disasters; when the pregnant wife tipsily motions toward “A little stairway down to the beach,” you know perfectly well she’s about to tumble down the steps and lose the baby.

Harold Becker, who guided James Woods’ breakthrough role in The Onion Field, directs Woods and Young well, but the downward spiral of their lives takes on a deadening inevitability. After a while, it’s tough to make that compelling, and, despite Woods’ work, The Boost can’t get it done.

First published in the Herald, January 6, 1989

Now, as then, best known as a production marked by some briefly intense feeling between Woods and Young and weird fallout in the aftermath. It was based on a book by Ben Stein.

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Batman

July 30, 2012

Since last December, a coming-attractions trailer has provided some sights that often outclassed the movies that followed it. It was the preview for Batman, a new treatment of the great comic-book character (created 50 years ago by Bob Kane), and the trailer was full of tantalizing visions of a slick Batmobile, an incredible Bat-costume, and an outrageous look for Batman’s arch enemy, the Joker.

That the Joker is played by Jack Nicholson and Batman by Michael Keaton helped fuel the anticipation. So did the fact that the movie was directed by the gifted young director of Beetlejuice, Tim Burton. And the news that the budget had climbed to anywhere from $30 to $50 million suggested all the stops had been pulled.

So, how is it? Well…Batman is fun, offers an evening’s worth of thrills, and contains a few shots and moments that are quite flabbergasting. It is also not a very good movie. On some basic level, Batman doesn’t really know what it’s about, and from the first, it fails to find a satisfying groove.

One reassuring aspect becomes clear from the beginning: This Batman has nothing to do with the campy 1960s television series. Bruce Wayne, the millionaire, spends his free time wearing tights and a hard-shell bodysuit and scaling the skyscrapers of Gotham City in search of evildoers. He’s avenging the death of his parents, shot down in the street before his eyes when he was a child, and he’s serious about it.

In the film’s early scenes, a loopy criminal, Jack Napier (Nicholson), is cornered by Batman in a chemical plant. Falling into a vat of toxic material, he is transformed into the Joker, whose hideous face is matched by his hideous jokes (and yet, as he points out, “Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?”).

The Joker takes Gotham on a roller coaster of terror, but Batman is there to counter every move. What’s a criminal genius to do: “Can somebody tell me,” the Joker wonders, resplendent in his purple suit and green hair, “what kind of a world we live in where a guy dressed up as a bat gets all of my press?”

These battles are played off against the rather pallid romance of Bruce Wayne and Vickie Vale (Kim Basinger), a photographer who falls for the troubled millionaire.

Burton achieves some dazzling angles on Gotham City, a weird, overgrown metropolis, and he catches the menace in the dark clouds than glower over the church tower that serves as the setting for the final showdown of the adversaries.

A triumph of design, the film can’t seem to tell a story. It took 10 years for the project to pass through various scripts and directors before this version hit the screen, and no one found a coherent tale to tell. Scenes feel isolated, unconnected; a scene in which the Joker parties down in an art museum is weird and funny, but what does it have to do with anything else in the movie?

Burton cast Michael Keaton as Batman because he thought an everyman was needed (the theory: if Bruce Wayne were a superman to begin with, why would he dress up like a bat?). Keaton is not bad, but the conception of the role renders him nearly catatonic—an eccentric who simply doesn’t hold down a 9-to-5 job.

This leaves the field open for Nicholson, who is not about to miss this opportunity. Of course Nicholson attacks the role with demonic fury; he twists out the Joker’s punchlines with heroic energy. When Batman flags, just watch Jack: he’ll pump in the laughing gas.

First published in the Herald, June 22, 1989

Yeah: shrug. I remember that summer, hearing people quoting lines from the movie to each other, and thinking that a new generation (I was 30) was taking over the watching and processing of movies, somehow. The word “fanboy” wasn’t in use, as far as I know (and I wouldn’t have known then whether it was), but this movie, and the increasingly complicated arguments about its authenticity and faithfulness to the spirit of the meaning of Batman, was a turning point that has led us to movies today.


The Cotton Club

July 27, 2012

A few years ago, Robert Evans, the producer of films such as The Godfather and Chinatown, needed a script rewrite for a project about new York’s famous Cotton Club, a place where white audiences paid top dollar to see black entertainment during the height of the Jazz Age.

Evans had worked with larger-than-life director Francis Coppola on The Godfather, and he called Coppola to get some suggestions for a good script doctor. Coppola, ever alert (and coming off a string of commercial disasters), quickly suggested himself. Thus commenced a series of events that probably made Evans wish he’d never heard of Coppola or the Cotton Club.

Before long, Coppola had thrown out the original screenplay (the film’s “story” credit goes to Mario Puzo) and written a completely new script with Pulitzer Prize-winner William Kennedy. Then Coppola assumed the mantle of director, and the production of the film itself was beset by rising costs and constant script rewrites.

And somewhere in the midst of this Robert Evans went bye-bye. The lawsuits are now flying, but it’s hard to imagine they will have any effect on what is already an incredibly expensive movie (something between $40 and $50 million, at last count).

Coppola seems to be attracted by this kind of guerrilla moviemaking, but whether or not it agrees with him is another matter. The films he produced while he played at being the mogul of his own hectic studio were almost wholly uninvolving.

With The Cotton Club, he’s gotten himself interesting again. This film, which whips up a blend of gangsterism and musical comedy, clips along at a confident pace and has enough flavorful characters to fill a speakeasy.

Richard Gere plays a cornet player (and Gere plays his own horn solos, by golly) whose trajectory through the Jazz Age—in the film, from the late ’20s through the early ’30s—places him in close contact with such figures as gangster Dutch Schultz (rivetingly played by unctuous James Remar), the Dutchman’s moll (Diane Lane), and the men who run the Cotton Club (Bob The Long Goodbye Hoskins and Fred “The Munsters” Gwynne, who make a great comedy team).

Gere’s brother (Nicolas Cage, Coppola’s cousin) is a hothead swept into the violent world around the Cotton Club, with bloody results. This story of the brothers is paralleled by a pair of dancing brothers (Gregory and Maurice Hines) who work their way up through the Cotton Club to different levels of stardom.

The film is obviously chock-full; unfortunately, as enjoyable as much of this is, Coppola has a tendency to rush past the building blocks of characterization. He has atmosphere (kudos to designer Richard Sylbert) and rat-a-tat action down pat, but once the smoke clears, I was left with the nagging feeling that the sound and fury didn’t amount to too much.

The scope of the film calls for the three-hour Godfather sprawl, and Cotton Club clocks in at barely over two. Characters meet, split, and kiss and make up with not much validation for their behavior. Coppola asks you to take a lot for granted.

I wish the extra hour might have had more song-and-dance in it, too; although the film is full of terrific music, few numbers are presented in their entirety (Coppola enjoys cutting routines in pieces rather than letting them develop on their own). Still, Lonette McKee’s “Ill Wind” is a stand-out, and the brothers Hines tread the boards with grace.

Coppola likes to describe himself as a ringmaster/magician of chaos. He may not quite prove that the hand is quicker than the eye in The Cotton Club, but at least he keeps all three rings of the circus busy at once.

First published in the Herald, December 15, 1984

As anybody who’s ever seen this movie knows, you can forget about Gere and Lane: Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne are where the action is.


Flowers in the Attic

July 26, 2012

Flowers in the Attic is an instant candidate for those Golden Turkey Awards, in which the worst films ever made are documented and celebrated. This is a hilariously awful “thriller,” full of dumb situations and laughable dialogue.

It’s based on a bestseller by V.C. Andrews, adapted and directed by Jeffrey Bloom. The story finds a newly widowed mother (Victoria Tennant) moving her four children into her parents’ lavish mansion. Tennant tells her children she needs to make up with her parents before they die, so she will share in the huge inheritance; otherwise, the young family will be penniless.

So they move in, and it’s a horror show. Grandpa is immobile and about to croak, but Grandmother is already cracked (Louise Fletcher does a trashing of her Oscar-winning performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Tennant is whipped across her naked back, and the kids are locked up, literally. They can escape only to the large attic.

This situation continues for months, as we wonder why the kids don’t belt the old bag and run away. It’s an incredibly dull exercise, but the time flies thanks to the campy dialogue and the stilted performances.

This is the sort of suspense movie where the music consists of a soprano’s high-pitched wail, as on the old TV show “Dark Shadows.” This is welcome, since there’s no other attempt to create atmosphere.

At one point, the grandmother tells the kids, “You, the children, are the devil’s spawn!” This phrase always and automatically qualifies a movie for the low-rent hall of fame. And at the big climax of the film, when the kids finally turn the tables, the daughter’s big triumphant line is, “Go on, eat it! Eat the cookie!” I could explain, but there’s no point.

There are also some strange hints at an incestuous relationship between the oldest brother and sister—he’s always breaking in on her when she’s taking a bath—but this too seems to have no purpose. It may be developed more fully in the book (I haven’t read it, and hope I never will). Flowers in the Attic has bats in its belfry.

First published in the Herald, November 1987

I have not read the book. So far, so good. I never much liked the Golden Turkey books, which were as facile in their approach to movies as co-author Michael Medved’s subsequent career has been to politics. This particular movie, however, is a bona fide Thanksgiving-ready gobbler.


Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence

July 25, 2012

Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence is the kind of movie you visit without high expectations for cinematic subtlety—what the heck, just a good, juicy cat-and-mouse whodunit will do.

After all, the formula has worked well before. Murder on the Orient Express took a gallery of stars and set them up as bowling pins for Christie’s sleuth, Hercule Poirot. Ditto for Death on the Nile. But as the Christie adaptations continue, the stars get less stellar and the screenplays less inspired.

The form hits its nadir with Ordeal by Innocence, which is being quietly released (read: it’s getting dumped) after having sat on the shelf for a year or so. Not only is it incoherent and cheap-looking, it doesn’t even have Poirot.

This time the sleuth, a Dr. Calgary (Donald Sutherland), is an amateur to the practice of criminal detection. He’s a scientist, drawn into a murder in which he was peripherally involved.

This idea is a good one. Seems Calgary gave a ride to a hitchhiker who left a notebook (with return address) in Calgary’s car. But Calgary was off on an expedition to the Antarctic, where he spent the next two years.

After his stint southward, Calgary dutifully returns the notebook to the address. But it seems the owner is dead—he was hanged for the murder of his mother, which occurred the very night, and at the very time, Calgary had given him a ride.

This means the man did not kill his mother, and Calgary was his only alibi. The scientist sets out to determine the real killer, much to the dismay of the surviving suspects; they all believe the world is a better place without the hanged man, who was a cad.

It’s a good setup, but the narrative goes willy-nilly almost immediately, half-heartedly distributing red herrings. Sutherland does a professional job as the investigator, but the rest of the cast is colorless, and their roles have no meat.

Some of these actors are plain boring (Christopher Plummer, Sarah Miles), some are wasted (Diana Quick, Phoebe Nicholls, both of “Brideshead Revisited”). None of them has anything to do but act British and unperturbed, a deadly dull combination.

The film is so tawdry is relies on black-and-white flashbacks to fill up time, featuring Faye Dunaway as the murder victim. It’s tempting to speculate these scenes were added at some late point in the editing, since the movie, with flashbacks, barely clocks in at 90 minutes.

One other major gaffe: Incredibly, the guilty party is revealed to the audience about 10 minutes before the principals are all gathered into one room for the traditional denouement. This takes considerable wind out of Sutherland’s sails as he leads up to the big accusation.

Ordeal by Innocence is best forgotten, although it does have one quirky feature. That’s the jazz score by Dave Brubeck, which jumps into the story whenever things get dull. This means there’s a whole lot of music. It’s so stupidly out of place in this chilly British world, you’d wonder what was going through the minds of the people who made this movie—if the feebleness of the rest of the film hadn’t already answered that question.

First published in the Herald, November 4, 1985

Does anyone remember this movie? It seems to have no profile at all. Sutherland was busy at this time, filling the lead role in a strange collection of films.


K-9

July 24, 2012

“He’s not just a dog. He’s a cop.” These words are spoken, with complete seriousness, at a dramatic moment in the new film K-9. They pretty much sums up the concept, although the movie generally has more of a sense of humor about it.

K-9 is the latest cop-buddy movie, the twist being that one half of the crime fighting team is a German shepherd. The other half is played by James Belushi, who has the unenviable task of trying to make this thing work.

Belushi’s a funny guy, but he can’t bring it off without some good support. There is none here. Oh, the dog, Jerry Lee, is fine, but the script is a connect-the-dots enterprise, and the director, Rod Daniel (Like Father, Like Son), can’t tell a joke to save his soul.

The story follows a predictable format. Belushi is reluctantly teamed up with the canine, one of those trained dogs able to sniff out hidden drugs. (The plot has something to do with brining down a big drug kingpin, although the story is so feebly told that it barely registers.)

Belushi and Jerry Lee have a personality clash at first; Jerry Lee elects to sit in the front seat of Belushi’s 1965 Mustang, and disdains the doggy deodorant Belushi picks out for him. But when Belushi gets caught in a sleazy bar by some ruffians, Jerry Lee comes to the rescue by snapping his fangs closed on the bad guy’s crotch. It’s the start of a beautiful friendship.

There are jokes about dog food (chili is preferred), dog flatulence, and dog sex. The latter involves a tete-a-tete between Jerry Lee and a white poodle, in the privacy of a Mercedes. Immediately after this encounter, Jerry Lee romps around to the strains of a James Brown song and heads off with Belushi into a San Diego sunset. He does everything but light up a Pall Mall.

There’s not much human sex, although Belushi is given a decorative girlfriend, in the form of Mel Harris, who plays Hope on “thirtysomething.” But the movie can’t work up much interest or affection for her, not with that scene-stealer Jerry Lee around; he has all the good lines.

First published in the Herald, April 1989

Aaaaaarf.


Murphy’s Romance

July 23, 2012

In the opening scenes of Murphy’s Romance we see Sally Field bring her young son (Corey Haim) to a small Arizona town where they’ve rented a ranch house, and set about fixing the place up. They get out the hammer and nails and paintbrushes, and Field puts out leaflets for her new horse-stabling business.

You think to yourself: Is this going to be another movie in which the indomitable Field establishes herself against all odds in a rural setting, picking up an Oscar nomination in the process?

The answer is no, not really. Oh, there’s a bit of that in Murphy’s Romance, and Field will probably get another Oscar nomination, but the film has other fish to fry, and they are very flavorful ones.

For the most past, it’s a low-key portrait of people just trying to get by—not winning big battles, but just trying to make life work out. As such, it’s an immensely appealing character study.

Field plays Emma Moriarty, a divorcee who may be getting involved with an older widower, Murphy Jones (James Garner), who owns the town drugstore, and who is something of an eccentric. He’s a stubborn old coot who prides himself on the shine on his 1927 car, plays the fiddle at the town dances, and is reportedly working on a chili cookbook. Garner is a natural in the role, the best film work he’s done in many years.

This maybe romance is interrupted, however, by the arrival of Field’s ex-husband, Bobby Jack (Brian Kerwin), a classic ne’er-do-well who moves back in with her, although their relationship remains platonic. He just needs someone to sponge off of for a while.

It’s a measure of the good feeling of Murphy’s Romance that even Bobby Jack, undeniably a weasel, is seen with some measure of sympathy. Director Martin Ritt, who guided Field to an Oscar in Norma Rae, creates a very placid, likable world in this film, and everyone fits into it in some way.

Ritt’s unhurried rhythms allow time for some lovely moments: three people sitting on a town bench, enjoying the stars on a clear night; a bingo game at the Elks club; a quiet kitchen during a big barbecue, as Emma tries to get Murphy to disclose his age.

These moments are sweet, but not icky, largely because of the charisma of the stars. It’s an old-fashioned movie that way. It unabashedly relies on star power to communicate character traits not contained in the screenplay. Luckily, Field and Garner are well up to these demands.

The score was composed by Carole King, who also sings several songs on the soundtrack. These add to the laid-back atmosphere. So does the small town itself – Florence, Ariz, according to the credits – which, by the authentic feel of its main street, looks like a wonderful place to be.

Ritt allows his story to ramble somewhat more than it needs to, and one may question the use of so many romantic sunsets. But quibbles tend to fade away in the light of the pleasant glow that emanates from this movie’s quiet appeal. Murphy’s Romance provides, in an old-fashioned way, a real nice time.

First published in the Herald, January 30, 1986

Well, I wish I’d done a better job of talking about this movie, which really is pretty nice. Martin Ritt, while not giving off a strong movie-movie vibe, was able to hit the ball solidly now and again, and it’s somewhat surprising to see that he worked steadily through his career. Somewhere in there, if I’m remembering it right, is a scene in which Field suggests going to a movie with Garner, whereupon he gets a faraway look in his eyes and says, “I haven’t been to the movies since the Duke died.” Which is just exactly what that fellow, and many like him, would say. I like the line, I like the movie.