The Dresser

January 31, 2020

dresserAssessing a poor performance by an arch-rival actor, Sir (Albert Finney) declares, with relish, “I was pleasantly disappointed.”

That’s rather the way I feel about The Dresser, the film in which Sir (he has no other name) delivers that tart bit of dialogue. It’s not a great movie or anything. But it’s a pleasant enough diversion.

Sir is the aging lead actor and the manager of a troupe of classical actors touring Britain during the Second World War. He’s starting to fall apart, as the business of running the company and playing grueling Shakespeare every night is taking its toll.

But his dresser, Norman (Tom Courtenay), is holding him together – for somewhat mysterious reasons. When Sir arrives at the theater for a performance of King Lear, and lapses into a catatonic state, Norman must summon all of his powers as cheerleader, taskmaster, and confessor, just to get the old boy on stage.

It’s the old servant/master flip-flop, a subject dear to the hearts of British playwrights (Ronald Harwood has adapted his own very popular play for the film). Director Peter Yates, whose diverse work has included such films as Bullitt and Breaking Away, treats the subject in a very entertaining manner. One of the ways he does this is by letting the actors go at full throttle for much of the running time.

And run they do. The two lead actors behave as though they were starving men sitting down to their first meal in weeks – and it’s Thanksgiving.

Albert Finney has always had a weakness for putty noses and funny wigs – think of his Scrooge or his slicked-down Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express or his bald Daddy Warbucks in Annie. As Sir, Finney gets to pile on the makeup and have a ball; both as the backstage tyrant and as Lear. He plays the wheezing, balding actor as the pathetically self-deluded blowhard he is, but Finney also suggests the few scraps of dignity that Sir retains.

Tom Courtenay, who recreates his stage role as the gay Norman, has to manipulate Sir with coaxing and subtlety. Unfortunately, there’s nothing too subtle about Courtenay’s performance. He’s all flattery and mincing, as though his stage acting had been kept intact; you can sense him playing to the second balcony. This is the kind of part an actor can play primarily with his dimple, and that’s what Courtenay does here.

Which is not to say that Courtenay and Finney aren’t fun to watch – they are. But their enjoyable scenery-chewing doesn’t constitute great movie acting. I preferred Edward Fox, in a small role as one of the company’s supporting players (most of whom are terror­-stricken by Sir). Fox walks around looking as if he just swallowed a lemon whole; he has one eyebrow perpetually arched, as though he were watching the lead actors and thinking, “Good heavens! What is everyone getting so excited about?” It’s a funny turn; but he is almost lost among the sound and fury that Finney and Courtenay whip up. And since that’s what the movie is interested in, Finney and Courtenay hold center stage.

First published in the Herald, December 1983

I post this at Oscar time, and this film is a reminder of how the Oscars tend to seize on the nearest Oscar-ish movies that roll in at the end of the year. There’s not much special about The Dresser, but it got five nominations in the biggest categories: Picture, Director, Screenplay, and two nods for Finney and Courtenay. I suspect the movie is as fun as I say it was, without being anything like the best of anything. You can see how the material would work a treat on stage, with actors thundering about. (I understand that the model for Sir was Donald Wolfit, the mighty stage trouper who sometimes beetle-browed his way through movies.) One thing I recall vividly: the way Finney gulped hungrily, desperately, at the glass of Guinness his dresser had waiting for him upon coming off stage.

Falling in Love

January 30, 2020

fallinginloveThere is no good reason Falling in Love needs to be as thin and tiresome as it is. But a combination of forces has doomed it to a pallid and maddeningly uncompelling existence.

The plot itself, while slim, is not necessarily a washout. As the advance publicity suggested, it’s like a story out of John Cheever – or even more like one of Eric Rohmer’s movies about people who meet, fall in love, then worry themselves sick about the consequences. This love story springs up on the commuter trains rolling into New York City: Molly (Meryl Streep) is going into town to visit her sick father; Frank (Robert De Niro) works at a construction site in town (he’s a building engineer), and happens to be without a car for a few days.

They bump into each other, literally, and for the next 20 minutes or so we see scenes of them doing a tentative mating dance around each other – both are married, but they have a way of winding up on the same train, accidentally on purpose.

Counseling them on should-they­-or-shouldn’t-they are two pals: Frank’s buddy (Harvey Keitel, who also played opposite De Niro in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver), who is undergoing a divorce, and Molly’s friend (Dianne Wiest ), who enjoys no-strings relationships with men.

Throughout this section, when the principals get to know each other, the film works just fine. The situation has charm, and God knows De Niro and Streep have enough presence to hold your attention.

But when things get serious and some commitments need to be made, this movie turns into a real drag. De Niro, as a family man with two sons, plays it cool, and suggests quiet anguish. Streep suffers a lot, and loses whatever spark of life that made her interesting in the first place. Both get many close-ups from the director, Ulu Grosbard (a Broadway vet who directed De Niro in True Confessions a couple of years ago ).

They both look very good in these close-ups. But there isn’t much of a movie going on around them – just a series a very civilized and eventually rather dull episodes.

This is something of a family production: Many of the principal creators had worked together before. It got started because De Niro and Streep, who were both in The Deer Hunter, wanted to do another movie together. In a way, they’re an odd combination. Both are devoted to the theater, and to styles of acting that have much to do with what might be called “Post-Method.” They might be too much alike – in terms of overly wrought acting technique – to make sparks fly.

Scriptwriter Michael Cristofer had acted with Streep on Broadway (around the time he copped a Pulitzer for writing the play The Shadow Box); David Clennon, who plays Streep’s doctor husband, acted in that same production; and Grosbard and Keitel were longtime friends.

It’s a New York production – it’s almost a New Yorker short story – with just the trace of snobbishness that implies. None of those vulgar Hollywood folk sticking their noses in here. Thing is, maybe they should have had those movie people there – because after about an hour of this enervated and tasteful production you start wishing somebody would do something really vulgar.

First published in the Herald, November 1984

Both brilliant actors, but the energy that goes on between them (combined with the film’s dreary sense of mood and place) generates zilch. And does the title itself make anybody else cringe? It’s just not happening here, nothing, nada.


8 Million Ways to Die

January 29, 2020

8millionways8 Million Ways to Die is the, uh, interesting title for a crime melodrama that turns out to be a hard-bitten, utterly traditional entry in the genre.

The movie does not outline all 8 million ways. But it does provide the requisite amount of bloodshed for this sort of potboiler.

It also does more, or at least tries to. The story of an alcoholic ex-cop who sees a shot at redemption in the solving of a murder is a classic set-up for this kind of film, and it’s taken quite seriously here.

The credits are from the A-list: director Hal Ashby (Being There, Coming Home), screenwriter Oliver Stone (Scarface), and the two expressive stars, Jeff Bridges and Rosanna Arquette. Actually, Arquette (in a role that Jamie Lee Curtis backed out of at the last minute) doesn’t have a great deal to do. But Bridges, as he generally does, provides a strong center that pulls the film over the holes in its plot.

He’s the ex-cop. One night he receives a bewildering invitation to a party from a woman (Alexandra Paul) he doesn’t know, or at least doesn’t remember. She’s a prostitute mixed up with some heavy hitters in the Los Angeles crime scene, and she asks Bridges to help her exit.

But she’s killed before he can get her out of town, and Bridges, after landing in detox, resolves to find out whodunit and why. He enlists Arquette, who’s also a paid party girl, to help him get to the truth.

Ashby gets the seediness of this side of Los Angeles just right – lots of strange locations, like a mobster’s house that has no right angles. Stone’s script, while far from sublime, contains some fierce dialogue, and probably more vulgarity than any film since The Last Detail. In terms of plot, there isn’t a lot of clarity, and there’s certainly no suspense about whodunit – not that there need be, necessarily.

The big climax, a tense showdown in an abandoned warehouse, is pitched just this side of absurdity – intentionally, I think – and has the characters screaming at each other in debased desperation. A lot of people are going to think it’s stupid; I found it brutally effective.

There are a few expository scenes where everything comes to a standstill, most of the supporting parts are coarsely acted, and the final few shots are gag-me hokey. But with all the jagged edges, the movie carries an occasional punch.

First published in the Herald, May 21, 1986

The interesting title comes courtesy of Lawrence Block’s source novel. When I recall the film, I have a mostly positive reaction, especially for its L.A. look. It turned out to be Ashby’s last feature film. Andy Garcia is in the cast, and the movie is one of a series of AA-themed stories that came out around this time, including Garcia’s When a Man Loves a Woman, which is maybe why I think of these films together (Clean and Sober, with Michael Keaton, was another). I just looked up Alexandra Paul, who would enter the Baywatch world soon after this movie, and learned that she is a longtime activist and the 2014 Vegan of the Year.

Entre Nous

January 28, 2020

entrenousHelene – or Lena, as she is more often called – is herded into a concentration camp during the Second World War. She endures the dehumanizing experience, until one day during lunch she finds a note in her bread. The man serving beans on the chow line put it there, and his note says that he’s getting released the next day. If he has a wife, she can be released, too; would Lena like to be that wife? She looks across the compound at him. He doesn’t look so bad. Any method out should be seized. She nods.

So begins the odyssey of the central character in Diane Kurys’ new film, Entre Nous. Lena (Isabelle Huppert) goes ahead with the marriage, and walks out into a strange world with a stranger by her side. She grows accustomed to his face, and the marriage holds, as the couple escapes into Italy and then settles in Lyon after the war, where they have two children and a comfortable living.

During this early section Of Entre Nous, we have also seen episodes from the life of Madeleine (Miou-Miou ), a woman whose husband was shot and killed in the streets while in her arms.

When the film jumps to 1952, Lena is a normal housewife, and Madeleine, married again to a shiftless actor, has a young, terminally shy son. The two women bump into each other at a school recital and strike up a friendship. It’s the kind of friendship in which both people know immediately, instinctively, that some special bond has been made.

Their lives soon become dominated by this friendship, and they realize that the men to whom they’re married are becoming less and less crucial. Lena, especially, seems aware of the possibilities within her capable self, for the first time.

If this all sounds like feminist-tract fodder, it’s not intended to. Entre Nous could have been another essay on Woman Oppressed in Man’s World, but it turns out to be nothing of the kind. The people in this film are neither good nor bad. The men are not monsters, and the women are not simplistic. They’re just struggling to find out what their lives mean – or what they should mean.

Kurys is a director with a keen feeling for the details of absolutely average bourgeois life. The rhythm of the movie may appear peculiar: the arresting images of war at the opening give way to gently unfolding observations of family life. But this deliberate storytelling makes Lena’s gradual awakening believable, and it conveys the sense of this woman just drifting – without maliciousness or premeditation – away from her husband.

You can’t always tell in what direction the film is headed from scene to scene, and yet you sense there is a method to it all. The final scene of Entre Nous justifies Kurys’ method; it’s a superb summing-up, as the characters find themselves balanced in a situation fraught with both liberation and heartbreak. It’s tough to make a movie finish on an unresolved note that is nevertheless exactly accurate; and even more difficult to make it emotionally satisfying and stylistically appropriate. Kurys and her gifted cast have done just that, in not just the final scene but all of Entre Nous.

First published in the Herald, March 16, 1984

This movie was a strong arthouse hit at the time. I like Kurys’ early films, and I have no idea what her recent work has been like. The cast includes Guy Marchand, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Patrick Bauchau, and Christine Pascal. I think I know what I was going for in reassuring the reader that this wasn’t one of them women’s lib pictures, but it isn’t exactly eloquently expressed.


January 27, 2020

firstbornFirstborn is a skillfully manipulative example of American suburban Gothic, with enough jolts and hollers to get the blood pumping at a satisfyingly high rate.

It has a novel subject for a thriller: a pair of brothers (one in high school, the other grade school) watch with increasing anxiety as their divorced mother falls under the spell of a suspicious-seeming new boyfriend.

You’ve seen this kind of creep before: the buzz-word patter, the smarmy heartiness, the incessant talk of just getting that one big score. All the while living off other people; in this case, the mother, who invites him to move in with the family.

To the older boy, it become clear that the freeloader is not just obnoxious – he’s actually dangerous. He appears to be a dope dealer who has the mother so hopped-up on cocaine she doesn’t realize what she’s doing. The showdown, clearly, is going to be the kid vs. the dark invading monster.

Since so many elements of the film work on such a primal level – the invasion of the home, even the hinted-at Oedipal threat – it really gets to you in a basic way. The preview audience with whom I saw the film was whooping loudly when the first-born son started standing up to the boyfriend. This emotional response is carefully prepared for – almost too much so, as the film takes a while to get untracked.

It’s manipulation, but with an interesting idea. After all, just what are children to make of their single parents’ new friends and lovers? This film exaggerates what must be a common anxiety for children in this situation.

Britisher Michael Apted directs from the point of view of Jake, the older boy (Christopher Collet), and he does a shrewd job of revealing sinister bits of information about the menacing boyfriend – who is played with scary intensity by Peter Weller, lately the hero of Buckaroo Banzai. Weller’s dark, ghoulish face and iridescent blue eyes make for a spooky enemy.

You can see how the mother could fall for him; but you can also see why Jake instinctively distrusts him. When the little boy (Corey Haim) asks Jake how he knows mom’s new friend is no good, Jake can only say, “I just know.” No reasonable explanation – but sometimes you just know.

Teri Garr, who plays the mother, has some trouble getting a handle on her character. Garr, usually cast in comic roles (as in Tootsie and Mr. Mom and many others), is by no means out of her league, but the role itself is poorly written. She has to be very passive, or else she would have booted the bum out of her house much earlier. The explanation – that cocaine has clouded her reason – doesn’t quite work in dramatic terms.

But enough of Firstborn does work in dramatic terms to make it tick. There are weaknesses in Garr’s characterization and some serious deck-stacking, but when it comes to the business of making your blood race, Firstborn is quite satisfactory.

First published in the Herald, October 25, 1984

Mostly forgotten, yes? Robert Downey, Jr., and Sara Jessica Parker are in this movie, and it was Corey Haim’s first film. It seems like some sort of cult status should attend to this thing, given that all the elements are in place.

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.