June 26, 2020

crackersThere are some movies that exist better on paper, or in somebody’s imagination, than they do on celluloid. For instance, how could a caper comedy with a script by Jeffrey Fiskin, who wrote one of the best screenplays of recent years (for Cutters Way, aka Cutter and Bone, 1981) and directed by Louis Malle, the French director hot from back-to-back successes in 1981, Atlantic City and My Dinner With Andre, possibly fail to be of interest?

I don’t know. Maybe Malle and Fiskin know. But none of the reasons they might give could change the fact that their new movie, Crackers, is a dud.

It’s a remake of Mario Monicelli’s 1956 Italian comedy, Big Deal on Madonna Street. The story, as transplanted to San Francisco’s flavorful Mission District, follows the efforts of a bunch of stumblebums to rob the safe of the pawnbroker whose shop they use as a hang-out.

The caper form – the classic of which is, perhaps, John Huston’s 1950 The Asphalt Jungle – very naturally lends itself to the cinema. The process of watching intricate plans made  and then seeing how they all come together (and, usually, fall apart) during the heist itself, is an irresisitible structure.

In fact, you have to try hard to make the genre uninteresting. Crackers works up some suspense during its big heist sequence, but there is a flatness to the enterprise that keeps things oddly subdued.

There are some nice comic touches, mostly due to behavioral idiosyncrasies captured by the actors. Wallace Shawn, who would have been an eloquent silent screen comedian, is the best thing about the movie. He plays a strange little guy named Turtle, whose main function in life is to devour anything put in front of him.

Sean Penn is also fine. He’s an actor who seems to completely alter his physical appearance for each role he plays (his most noticeable previous turns were in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Bad Boys). Here, he plays a well-meaning, not particularly bright Southern boy who yearns for rockabilly stardom. He also yearns for the kid sister of his best friend, a small-time hustler (Trinidad Silva), who happens to be very protective of his sister.

Penn has the look and sound of his character down perfectly and, true to form, his gangly, squinting musician is a total turnaround from the bulldog-tough hoodlum he played in Bad Boys. Unfortunately, the movie barely exists to support him. It’s such a limp, uninspired affair that you’re hard pressed to figure out what Malle and Fiskin might have had in mind, or what attracted them to the project in the first place. Let’s hope they put this one behind them and get cracking on their next movies.

First published in The Herald, February 1984

The cast is led by Donald Sutherland and Jack Warden, so I’m not sure why I didn’t mention them here, unless something got cut out of the review. The cast is unusual, with Christine Baranski, Charlayne Woodard, Irwin Corey (yes, the professor himself), and Larry Riley, who went on to become a regular on Knots Landing and died of AIDS in 1992. And yet, the movie is as flat as a pancake. I remember Penn being very interesting to watch – lanky and goofy, with his mouth hanging open. Based on the way he held himself, you’d swear he was as tall as Sutherland. Monicelli’s original film was also remade as Welcome to Collinwood, by future Marvel boys Anthony and Joe Russo. It is also a dud.


Finders Keepers

May 4, 2020

finderskeepersRichard Lester, one of the most inventive directors of the last couple of decades, spent the last five years or so working on the various Superman movies. He made a clean job of it and was probably responsible for much of the buoyant humor and satire of the latter two Superman films.

When a director guides big-budget projects to successful release, he’s usually rewarded by getting to do a more personal film. At this point, it’s hard to speculate whether or not Lester actually had that option, but if Finders Keepers is the direction he wants to take, one of our best filmmakers is in trouble.

Lester brought his razor-sharp comedic sense to A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and The Knack, in the mid-’60s; his darker films of that period – Petulia and How I Won the War – now are considered to be among his best work.

Finders Keepers is an out-and-out comedy, but it has little of the zip of Lester’s earlier movies, and it’s also a deeply cynical film. It’s something of a throwback to screwball comedies, in which a series of wildly improbable circumstances throw a group of people together in a busy adventure.

In this case, it’s a hustler (Michael O’Keefe) who steps into a kidnapping plot involving an heiress (Pamela Stephenson) and five million dollars, which is sitting in a coffin on a train. O’Keefe gets wind of the plot, but his efforts to secure the money for himself are hampered by a spacey actress (Beverly D’Angelo), the menacing kidnapper who’s actually in cahoots with the heiress (Ed Lauter), an inept FBI man (Jack Riley), and the world’s oldest train conductor (David Wayne).

Sticking a bunch of weirdos on a train is revered comic tradition in American movies: It always seems to work. You can see that the story might have had possibilities, but the screenplay itself is a shambles. There’s none of the graceful escalation of mayhem that Lester has orchestrated so well in the past – just chaos.

The choice of Michael O’Keefe to play the hero is indicative or the film’s troubles. O’Keefe got an Oscar nomination for playing the son in The Great Santini, but he’s a sarcastic actor, and can’t really provide the anchor needed for the center or the farce.

Louis Gossett, Jr., strolls into the picture midway, as a cool con man, but there’s absolutely nothing for him to do. It’s disturbing to think this is the best thing to come along for him since An Officer and a Gentleman. Maybe some of his footage got cut out of the finished film; the movie has that kind of feel to it.

It’s also being dumped with a minimal advertising outlay, just before the summer blockbusters are let loose. Finders Keepers has truly been lost in the shuffle – although it’s unlikely anyone would have missed it anyway.

First published in the Herald, May 1984

Jim Carrey’s in there too, and Brian Dennehy. Is there a re-appreciation of this film yet? I am unaware of one. The only thing I really remember is a Supertramp song at the end, along with a sense of resignation. Lester made just one more feature, the ill-fated Return of the Musketeers, before more-or-less retiring, which is a damn shame.

Top Secret!

March 17, 2020

topsecretAt one point in Top Secret! the rock-singer hero bursts out into a little ditty called “How Silly Can You Get?” The remainder of the film may be considered an answer to this question. That answer: Very silly indeed.

Top Secret! presents an un­blushing cavalcade of corny jokes, outrageous sight gags and painful puns. That said, it should come as no surprise that the film is the work of the people responsible for Airplane!, that jumbo jet of foolishness from a few summers back. They also did the late, lamented TV show, Police Squad.

“They” are Jim Abraham, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, and they’ve come up with a fit topic for their brand of parody: World War II movies. Now, Top Secret! is set in the present, and the plot involves some nonsense with an American rock ‘n’ roller (Val Kilmer) whose songs about skeet shooting while surfing have put him on the cover of every major magazine. He’s been sent as a good-will ambassador to East Germany, where he becomes mired in intrigue.

That’s just an excuse to unreel some hilarious send ups of every reliable cliché from the WWII genre. The East Germans look suspiciously like movie Nazis, and there are members of the French Resistance who are lurking quite unaccountably behind modern German lines.

Almost anything is fair game as a target for the machine-gun jokery. Midgets, East German women athletes, the Ford Motor Company – no one is immune. But the real subject of the parody is the cinema. Movie convention and style are wittily and lovingly lampooned.

Not that the humor can be termed sophisticated. But there is good sense behind the jokes, and in the rhythm and the timing of the film. There’s also a sense of friendliness. These guys may perpetrate some outlandishly dumb gags, but they’re not dumb themselves. They know what they’re doing.

War movies and Casablanca are the main source of inspiration, but the scatter shot unloaded by Top Secret! also hits such diverse films as The Blue Lagoon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Wizard of Oz. For good measure, there’s a slap at break dancing, as our hero starts spinning around the floor and bores a hole through to the basement.

What more to say after you’ve considered guest star Omar Sharif, who gets turned into a compacted car; guest star Peter Cushing, who plays his entire role backwards in the space of a single shot; or the most, uh, unusual version of the Nutcracker ballet ever? Not much, because to repeat the jokes is to ruin the movie. Better to keep them top secret.

First published in the Herald, June 23, 1984

Watched this again in the last year and yes, it holds up, gleefully. It was Kilmer’s first film, followed by Martha Coolidge’s fine Real Genius. At the time it was considered something of a box-office disappointment, if I’m remembering right, but it seems to be pretty beloved today. ZAZ came to a University of Washington screenwriting course when Airplane! was in first release, and proved how smart they were about building gags and tying them together.

Irreconcilable Differences

February 12, 2020

irreconcilable diffIrreconcilable Differences is an odd film, and I mean that as a compliment. The ad campaign suggests a screwball comedy. The presence of Ryan O’Neal and Shelley Long – primarily comedic stars – reinforces this.

But when you sit down in front of this movie, you quickly see that we’re not in sitcomland. Irreconcilable Differences is most reminiscent of Terms of Endearment in its efforts to blend comedy with meaningful drama. It doesn’t always work, but it’s an interesting try.

It begins with a little girl (Drew Barrymore) suing her parents (O’Neal and Long) for a divorce, since nobody gets along anymore. The film is then taken up with the way these people got to this point, and is seen in lengthy flashbacks.

It’s the story of a rocky love affair, beginning on a rainy Indiana road where O’Neal, a film teacher bound for Hollywood, is hitchhiking. Long, a flibbertigibbet on her way to marry a domineering sweetheart, gives him a ride. Love at (almost) first sight, of course, and they move to Los Angeles, get married, and have their daughter.

Then O’Neal gets a shot at directing a film. The two of them collaborate on the screenplay, but when the film is a smash, he gets the credit (and the enlarged noggin that goes with it).

For his next film, he discovers a waitress (Sharon Stone) to play the lead – and he falls in love with her. He and Long separate.

His next starring vehicle for his new protegee shall be nothing less than a musical remake of Gone With the Wind. Since no one in Hollywood is foolish enough to back him, he sinks his own money into the project. It becomes the biggest stinker in film history.

Long rebounds from months of depression and extra pounds with a nasty autobiographical book, He Said It Was Going to Be Forever. Her star rises just as quickly as O’Neal’s plummets. In the midst of all this the daughter spends most of her time with the Mexican maid – with whom she truly feels cared for.

There are very funny sequences here, and some genuinely tender moments. The chronicle of the first days the couple know each other is lovingly detailed, and the Gone With the Wind bit is hilarious.

These filmmaking scenes are a somewhat cruel fictionalization of the career of Peter Bogdanovich, a critic­ turned-director whose life greatly resembles that of Ryan O’Neal’s character (ironic, since O’Neal has done some of his best work, including What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon, for Bogdanovich). Bogdanovich also ruined his career (at least for a while) by trying to make a star out of his discovery, Cybill Shepherd.

Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers (they wrote Private Benjamin) do not do enough things well enough to make the film work all the time. But the fact that they try to do so many things, and do them with sensitivity, is reason enough to be impressed. The ending, accompanied by Frank Sinatra’s “You and Me (We Wanted It All),” is admirably restrained. It’s not exactly a happy ending, but it certainly is an honest one – and I find it very easy to reconcile myself to that.

First published in the Herald, September 1984

Well that’s weird, because where this movie seemed to meanly borrow from Bogdanovich’s life story at the time, in retrospect it seemed to predict the way Nancy Meyers’ career would eventually outpace her husband’s. Maybe Bogdanovich got some satisfaction from that.

George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey

February 7, 2020

georgestevens2Documentaries about artists are not unusual; it is one of the mot exalted (and most effective) ways we can pay tribute to the creators around us. But how often has a son paid tribute to an artist father – in the very medium in which the father distinguished himself?

This has happened in lovely fashion in George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey, a tribute by George Stevens Jr. to his director-producer father. Stevens Jr. has already carved out an important place for himself as a custodian of film history; he was one of the founders of the American Film Institute, the organization devoted to saving and preserving old films, which also honors the giants of the industry with its annual Life Achievement Award. But his new film about his father should stand as his most honorable – and warmest – accomplishment.

A Filmmaker’s Journey takes us through the career of George Stevens via generous film clips, interviews with contemporaries (among them Katharine Hepburn, Joel McCrea, Frank Capra), and old impromptu footage by (and with) Stevens.

Stevens, who died in 1975, was one of the most respected directors of his day. He cut his teeth as a cameraman and gag writer for the Hal Roach studios, where he worked on many Laurel and Hardy comedies. By the mid-1930s , he was directing his own features, and his films of that time – Alice Adams, Swing Time, Woman of the Year, The More the Merrier  – established him as one of the most intelligent people in films.

There’s some extraordinary footage, shot with color 16mm film, taken by Stevens during production of Gunga Din. Anyone who loves that film (merely one of the most enjoyable movies ever made) will delight in the off-the-cuff shots seen here – although it’s strange to see costumes, sets and actors from that black-and-white classic in color.

It’s also strange, but in a much more somber way, to see Stevens’ color footage of his wartime experience (the only color footage of the European war, according to the film). Stevens, like a number of his Hollywood compatriots, enlisted and served as a filmmaker in a special Army unit. He captured some exhilarating shots – the liberation of Paris – and also much disturbing footage, including the discovery of the concentration camps. The documentary makes a persuasive case that Stevens’ outlook darkened considerably during the war; he made no more comedies, but did turn out such serious classics as A Place in the Sun, Shane, and Giant.

A Filmmaker’s Journey is a valuable contribution to film history, and it should improve Stevens’ flagging critical reputation, which has been in decline since the 1960s.

But the film may be most fascinating as familial tribute. Throughout, especially in the clips, there is an emphasis on embraces and partings; and the end is taken from the last sequence of Shane, where the little boy calls the surrogate father to come back.

The emphasis is clear, and quite moving. You come away knowing that this Filmmaker’s Journey has been not merely a journey of the famous father’s, but of the son’s as well.

First published in the Herald, October 13, 1985

A great movie-history documentary, and moving for the reasons described. Has Stevens’ reputation rebounded? This is the film with Warren Beatty’s unforgettable story about how the sound of pistol shots from Shane inspired him to do the same effect with Bonnie and Clyde, an effect ruined by a meddling projectionist.


February 6, 2020

recklessSomewhere in one of those Pennsylvania mining towns is a teenager who just wants to settle down and live a quiet, peaceful life in his/her birthplace.

But you won’t find that character on the movie screen, at least not for a while. Small-town angst is very hot right now, and Reckless is the latest film in which a teen is compelled to bust out of the polluted home environment.

Unlike Flashdance or All the Right Moves, this hero (Aidan Quinn) doesn’t have a talent he can parlay into a ticket out. He’s a rebel without a pause, who snarls at the wholesome, clean-cut kids. You know the cliché: He ain’t bad. He’s just misunderstood.

So this guy falls for a cheerleader/queen-of-the-prom (Daryl Hannah), who is supposed to be going steady with the school’s quarterback. Then she falls for our rebel hero – but you are ahead of me already, probably.

There isn’t a new wrinkle in all of Reckless, which is a disservice to the two stars, who aren’t bad. Daryl Hannah was the replicant who tried to kill Harrison Ford with her thighs in Blade Runner, and she’s got a very sexy quality on screen.

Aidan Quinn is getting a build-up as the new James Dean, although he looks more like Bruce Springsteen. Quinn does have a magnetic presence: you can see why director Martin Scorsese picked him to play Jesus in Scorsese’s now-postponed film project, The Last Temptation of Christ, over such heavyweights as Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken.

But the material is so uninspired that we’ll have to withhold prognosis on Quinn’s career for the moment. Chalk it up as a promising debut.

First published in the Herald, February 4, 1984

Directed by James Foley, written by Chris Columbus – not perhaps the first director-writer combo that comes to mind, but hey, whatever works. This makes me recall the time I intereviewed Foley for (I think) his film Fear; we sat down in the lobby of Seattle’s Seven Gables, a cozy arthouse theater, and he enthusiastically said he was in the mood for a beer, sending the publicist across the street to bring us a couple of bottles of Rainer, which we drank during the interview. It was 9 a.m. (He’d said something fond about Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” and its line about getting a beer buzz in the morning.) Good interview, and an interesting director. Speaking of degrees of separation, I sat next to Aidan Quinn at a Seattle International Film Festival awards breakfast one time – many years after this movie – and he was a heckuva nice guy. Anyway, this movie is probably better than I gave it credit for, but I haven’t gone back to check. 

Garbo Talks

February 5, 2020

garbo talks - cinema one sheet movie poster (1).jpg

Garbo Talks is your basic New York Jewish comedy, just this side of the average Neil Simon picture. It’s got the usual heartwarming predicaments and the funny nebbish hero and the eccentric overbearing Mama.

Problem is, it’s not terribly amusing. The plotting is so formulaic and the outcome so expected that the film just plods along in a bland, inoffensive way.

Ron Silver, a bearded New York actor who has scored some very funny supporting roles, usually playing sleazy agents (he was the tennis­-playing studio boss in Best Friends), has his first lead role here. (He shaved off his beard for it, too.) Silver plays a milquetoast accountant with a wife(Carrie Fisher) who wants to move to California, and a mother (Anne Bancroft) who regularly gets herself thrown into jail for supporting activist causes.

The story slips into gear when Bancroft comes down with a bad case of Hollywood terminal disease, and decides she has a last wish. She’s adored Greta Garbo all her life. So she wants to meet the ultra-reclusive movie star, who keeps an Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan, before she dies.

Silver is inspired to throw off his cloak of nerdiness once and for all. Finding Garbo and somehow convincing her to meet his mom – becomes his great personal test.

It also becomes the basis for the film’s slapstick. Silver goes through a series of humiliating schemes to get close to the star. He takes an afternoon job as a delivery boy for a food store so he can take veggies up to her apartment. Doesn’t quite work – he gets discovered at the kitchen entrance and booted out.

He also encounters a gallery of Big Apple weirdos: a broken-down photographer (Howard Da Silva) wbo once took pictures of Garbo from 50 feet; an aging character actress (Hermione Gingold) who used to play opposite Garbo; a traveler (Tony-­winning playwright Harvey Fierstein) to Fire Island, who lends Silver a pair of fuschia sweat pants after an accident with a friendly dog.

These are stock types, and there’s not much new in the playing out of the various wild cards. Silver does OK, in a part that would have been played by Elliott Gould or Richard Benjamin 15 years ago.

The director, Sidney Lumet, is as much to blame as anyone for the flatness of the proceedings. Lumet has a fairly high profile among Establishment critics – his movies (Network, The Verdict, Daniel, among many others) often get Oscar nominations, because he loves tackling the serious topics.

But every once in a while he gets it into his head that he wants to make a comedy. Anybody out there remember Just Tell Me What You Want? Didn’t think so. He doesn’t have a lively comic sense, and without a nimble telling, the light touch that the film needs seems as heavy as Greta Garbo’s sultry eyelids.

First published in the Herald, October 1984

That’s right – those Establishment critics, man. But this wasn’t one of Lumet’s bright spots, so there. Sort of interesting to recall a time when there were not only too many Neil Simon movies out there, but too many sub-Simon efforts. This I do not miss. (Also: a “food store”?)