Withnail & I

February 3, 2022

It’s 1969, a decade is collapsing, and two would-be actors wake up in their seedy London apartment. Debauched and shaky, they are suffering from the accumulated hangover of that overextended decade. One of them surveys their wasted room and bedraggled selves, and announces, “We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell.”

That’s one of the many bitingly funny lines of dialogue in Withnail & I, a wonderfully acerbic English film by writer-director Bruce Robinson. Robinson’s semi-autobiographical screenplay (and his directing debut) takes these two dissipated blokes through a misadventure in the countryside, where they embody the hopes and disillusionment of the time, and finally find their separate directions.

Withnail is the more florid of the two; Marwood is a quieter chap, still in awe of his friend’s flamboyance. Both are notably unsuccessful in landing jobs: Withnail becomes incensed when beaten out for a low-rent cigar commercial.

Their jaunt in the country takes them to the cabin of Withnail’s uncle (Richard Griffiths), who isn’t using the place at the time. They prove to be completely inept at the most rudimentary living skills, such as making a fire, confronting farm animals, or preparing food (a neighbor presents the puckish pair with a live chicken, which presents an utterly perplexing situation: “How do we make it die?” wonders Withnail).

Then the uncle unexpectedly arrives, with romantic designs on Marwood. The prankish Withnail encourages his uncle, which leads to a farcical chase around various rooms of the old house.

Robinson (who wrote The Killing Fields) finds a marvelously black tone for all of this. He never lets the cleverness of his dialogue become an end in itself, but always makes the words serve the character. And there’s just the right dose of rue that creeps in – particularly surrounding Withnail, who revels in his self-dramatic outrageousness but senses the failure of his acting ambitions.

The actors who play Withnail and Marwood, Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann, are not well-known, but they should be hereafter. They are vocally deft, but also physically hilarious. Some of their physical work is highly memorable: McGann in the country kitchen, recoiling from the uncle’s unwanted advances while absurdly trying to remain polite; a hungry Grant bellowing, “I want something’s flesh!” while striding imperiously through a country stream, sighting fish and blasting away point-blank with a shotgun.

First published in The Herald, June 1987

Grant and McGann have rarely been out of work since. It opened at the Ridgemont in Seattle, a good theater for that kind of thing. In the UK this film has lofty status, understandably so. Robinson’s next film was How to Get Ahead in Advertising, a funny/weird movie, but he directed very little after that (George Harrison’s HandMade Films produced both pictures).


Who’s That Girl

February 1, 2022

Yes, the new Madonna movie is pretty bad, although it isn’t a disaster and it isn’t all her fault. The biggest problems with Who’s That Girl have to do with the sheer overfamiliarity of the romantic situation – daffy girl liberates buttoned-down guy – and with some lead-footed direction.

Madonna, evidently unfazed by the sinking of Shanghai Surprise, throws herself into Who’s That Girl with considerable enthusiasm. She’s playing a newly released convict (bum rap, of course), who collides with a squaresville Manhattan lawyer (Griffin Dunne, relentlessly beleaguered here as in After Hours).

She’s a real force of nature, sashaying blithely through life. Madonna’s fun to watch in the role – it’s shtick, clearly patterned after the platinum-maned, Brooklyn-accented Judy Holliday. But as shtick, it’s certainly appealing.

It’s the rest of the movie that’s gunked-up. James Foley, who brought some interesting intensity to his direction of At Close Range (starring Mr. Madonna, Sean Penn), does not display much flair for comedy.

Or even for simple exposition. It takes him a good 15-20 minutes just to lay down the characters and their situation: that Madonna is getting out of jail, that Dunne is dispatched by his fatcat father-in-law-to-be to pick up Madonna and personally put her on a bus out of town, that Dunne is to be married the next day, that somehow a large jungle cat figures into all this. An old master like Preston Sturges could’ve gotten this information out before the opening credits were over.

The few effective moments are not so much funny as romantic, such as the night Madonna and Dunne spend in a millionaire’s penthouse tropical forest (don’t ask me to explain it). There’s a nice shot of Madonna framed against the moonlight among the vines and the animals, truly at last a part of nature – but such moments are passing.

First published in The Herald, August 1987

Looked like there might have been more of this review, but there you go. The movie was a flop. There does not seem to be a question mark in the title. I liked Madonna just fine at this point, as you can tell. It was one of Stanley Tucci’s first feature credits, as Dock Worker 2.


Little Dorrit

January 13, 2022

In the days before the 30-hour miniseries, moviemakers who sought to adapt a lengthy novel were faced with an obvious problem. Charles Dickens, for instance, was a particular hurdle; how does one boil down the teeming, sprawling brilliance of David Copperfield or Pickwick Papers into a two-hour movie?

Somehow it was done, in innumerable adaptations. And, except for the occasional long-form made-for-TV opus, such as the BBC’s recent Bleak House, that’s how it always has been done. Until now.

Little Dorrit runs six and a half hours. Adapted and directed from Dickens by Christine Edzard on a shoestring budget, the film is in two distinct parts, of more than three hours each.

The most intriguing thing about Edzard’s approach is that she tells the story not just in two different ways. Part I, called Nobody’s Fault, covers virtually the entire novel, as it would have been seen through the eyes of one major character, Arthur Clennam.

As the film opens, he returns to England after 20 years abroad. Clennam finds a passion for Amy, the daughter of William Dorrit, who is a resident of the Marshalsea, London’s debtor prison. Clennam begins his own business and endeavors to get Dorrit released from the prison.

The second film, Little Dorrit’s Story, covers the same time from Amy’s point of view. She is born within the walls of the prison and raised there, though it is she who cares for her father and two older siblings. Both films end in the maelstrom surrounding the collapse of the mighty financier, the great Merdle.

The novel is one of Dickens’ greatest, and the characters provide a banquet for actors. Alec Guinness, who made his first major film appearances in David Lean’s versions of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist in the 1940s, plays William Dorrit, the grandiloquent debtor who behaves like a Duke despite his insolvency. Guinness has his great moments, though at the risk of sounding a blasphemous note, I found his performance almost too theatrically florid, even though it is in his character’s nature.

First published in The Herald, October 1988

I’d like to know what I said in the rest of this review, which has been cut off, especially because the film has fallen off the map (it snagged a Screenplay Oscar nomination at the time). Presumably I was about to say more about the cast, which includes Derek Jacobi as Clennam, Joan Greenwood in her final film, and a loooong line of British actors – Miriam Margolyes, if I’m remembering right, has a standout part. Little Dorrit is played by Sarah Pickering, whose only film role this was. My review doesn’t reach a particularly excited pitch (do they ever, really?), but I remember liking the film a lot, and it made my Top Ten list for 1988 – I guess I’m wrong, though, because apparently it came out in the UK in 1987.


Planes, Trains and Automobiles

December 22, 2021

John Hughes has absorbed some criticism for repeatedly tapping the teen-movie market, with such hits as Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Never mind that these are easily among the better teen films of recent years: When was Hughes going to make a movie with, and for, grown-ups?

The prolific Hughes answers the call with Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Actually, he made a movie called She’s Having a Baby before Planes, but that film won’t be out until February, for some reason.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles will do nicely in the meantime. It’s a frequently uproarious comedy, with a deceptively simple comic spine: Harried, buttoned-down ad man Neal Page (Steve Martin) just wants to get home from New York to Chicago. Thanksgiving is two days away.

When his plane is rerouted to Wichita and he can’t find another flight before the holiday, it’s not the end of the world. However, the end of the world may well be present in the form of Del Griffith (John Candy), a self-proclaimed “annoying blabbermouth,” who sells shower-curtain rings for a living and can’t seem to get enough of Neal’s company.

Actually, both men simply find themselves in the same boat. Or, more appropriately, in the same bus, train, rental car, truck, and motel room. As behaviorally disparate as they are, it behooves them to stick together as they struggle toward the Windy City, even as one disaster follows another.

Hughes has constructed the ultimate travel nightmare, in which absolutely everything goes wrong. Even when they do find a motel room in sold-out Wichita, Del and Neal must share the same bed. But then Del uses all the towels. And turns on the bed’s Magic Fingers. Which shakes up the beer and gets the bed wet. Then Del must go through a series of nerve-shredding sinus-clearing and finger-cracking exercises.

That’s just the first stop. Hughes has more torture in store, and almost all of it is funny. Throughout the film, Martin is the straight man, reacting to Candy’s outrageousness, and both actors fulfill their functions superbly. They’re seasoned pros, adept at physical humor, timing, inflection. They’re bouncing off each other for virtually every moment of screen time, but Candy always finds new ways of oozing unctuous jolliness, and Martin always finds new ways to burn.

Hughes has a good eye for the paraphernalia of traveling, such as those mysterious Magic Fingers, the little airplane bottles of booze, and the unendurable sing-alongs on buses. The movie falters only when it gets soft; every time Hughes seems set to soar off into manic nastiness, he’ll have a scene where Neal starts to feel bad about berating poor Del. The sentimental ending, however, works rather better.

There’s enough good stuff here to carry the film well past Thanksgiving, into our other imminent holiday. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a smooth entertainment, and as far as John Hughes’ entry into grown-up filmmaking is concerned, it’s just the ticket.

First published in The Herald, November 1987

I think it is safe to say the movie became a classic. Apparently there was a much longer version, which got cut back down to 93 minutes. The last time I saw it, the schmaltzy stuff seemed as sentimental as ever, including the ending. You could see the Hughes mojo dissolving in all that.


Promised Land

December 15, 2021

When Robert Redford established his Sundance Institute for the development of small independent American movies, Promised Land is just the sort of film he must have had in mind.

This movie is absolutely uncompromising in its portrayal of the souring of an American Dream and a tragic aftermath. Only a gutsy producer would follow through on such a script.

Having said that, and full of applause for Redford’s high ideals, I have to admit I wish Promised Land were a better movie. It is serious, ambitious, and doggedly non-sensational; unfortunately, those elements don’t automatically produce interesting cinema.

Writer-director Michael Hoffman, teaming up again with his producer partner Rick Stevenson (their most recent film was Restless Natives), based the script on a true story that happened in the small town where Hoffman grew up, a story that ended with a boy shooting and killing another boy one winter night. The kids were former high school classmates.

In Hoffman’s fictionalized film, the two boys go off on different courses after high school. The misfit (Kiefer Sutherland) leaves the small Utah town to wander around the Southwest. When we pick him up two years later, he’s a scruffy drifter marrying an unstable girl (Meg Ryan) whom he’s known for three days. On a whim they decide to head back to Utah.

Meanwhile, the class basketball hero (Jason Gedrick) has found a bitter aftermath to his brilliant high school career: He wasn’t good enough in college and he lost his athletic scholarship. Now he’s a policeman, back in the small town, all too aware that he’s losing his old girlfriend (Tracy Pollan); she’s tasting the exotic newness of far-off college.

The movie cuts back and forth between the barren road travels of the misfit couple and the equally barren life in the small town. They come together in a terrible encounter in a convenience-store parking lot.

The on-location shooting in Utah provides a suitably bleak setting for this story, in the looming mountains, the snowy side streets, the eerie joyride that Sutherland and Ryan take through the salt flats. Hoffman gets these and other details right, but there’s something empty and stolid about the film’s relentless grimness. The despair of these lives simply isn’t all that illuminating, and the film’s forward motion feels arbitrary. Of course, Hoffman may argue that that’s part of the point, but it doesn’t make the story any more compelling.

The actors are a little lost in all of this, too. Meg Ryan (Innerspace) is a star a-borning, but she can’t suggest why her goofball character does what she does; and Sutherland has played the hesitant outsider one too many times. Only Gedrick, almost unrecognizable from his dopey role in Iron Eagle, scores strongly. He really captures the taut self-hatred of his disappointed character, and he’s got a jackal-like intensity that, in the aftermath of the meaningless tragedy, makes his hair-trigger explosion seem all to inevitable.

First published in The Herald, February 4, 1988

I have not re-visited the film. Around this time I got to know producer Rick Stevenson, a Seattle-area filmmaker who had met Hoffman at Oxford (where they launched Hugh Grant’s career with their film Privilege, also the first film of James Wilby and Imogen Stubbs and composer Rachel Portman, which is a pretty impressive batting average).


The Principal

December 8, 2021

It’s revealing to compare the different approaches of the Belushi brothers to their acting careers. John Belushi, after a couple of supporting movie roles, used his Saturday Night Live success as a springboard into starring parts. His younger brother James has also appeared on SNL, but has been building a film career very slowly, with small roles in interesting films such as Thief, growing to major supporting roles in Salvador and About Last Night.

John, of course, burned out quickly and died; his screen presence never quite came together. He always looked like a sketch comedian, never quite like a movie actor – although his role in Neighbors suggested that he might find a convincing style in a lower key.

Jim Belushi is a better movie actor than his brother ever was, and, as he proved in Salvador, a much more daring one. The Principal is Jim’s first starring role, and it very comfortably crowns the upward course of his career thus far.

The part fits him like an old glove: He’s a schoolteacher whose unorthodox ways land him a new assignment. He’s the new principal in a high school deep in a city’s war zone, where kids roam the halls, felonies are committed hourly, and the true ruler of the school is a sleek punk who comes and goes as he pleases.

It will fall to Belushi, of course, to turn things around and clean the joint up. And, in perfectly predictable fashion, he does, with the help of the school security guard (Louis Gossett Jr.) and a sympathetic teacher (Rae Dawn Chong).

This movie has been made many times before – The Principal is something of a color reversal of To Sir, With Love – and there’s not too much new. But, under the swift, hard-nosed direction of Christopher Cain (The Stone Boy), this movie is reasonably effective.

Much of this is due to screenwriter Frank Deese’s shrewd use of humor to defuse the various brutal situations. And a lot of this comes from the fact that the principal (unlike Sidney Poitier in To Sir) is hardly saintly. When we first see him, he’s drunk, and bashing the windows of his ex-wife’s lawyer’s Porsche. His other sins, however, don’t get much worse than mixing powdered chocolate milk with Coca-Cola.

All of which suggests why Belushi is so well cast. The movie plays very nicely into his deadpan style of comedy, without once becoming jokey, or losing its serious thread. Belushi handles the whole range with an uncomplicated directness, and he never loses the audience’s loyalty. It looks suspiciously like a star performance.

First published in The Herald, September 1987

Belushi’s career puzzles me; there are enough interesting projects mixed in among the dreck to suggest an interesting person there – but oh, all the dreck.


A Prayer for the Dying

December 7, 2021

A couple of weeks ago film director Mike Hodges was in the news, complaining that his new film A Prayer for the Dying had been taken out of his hands and recut. Hodges considered the result a hodgepodge of his work, and he wanted his credit taken off the movie.

Well, his name is still on the film, and Hodges’ lack of enthusiasm for the finished product is understandable; A Prayer for the Dying is pretty much a mess. However, there’s some evidence here that the movie would have had some serious problems, no matter how you cut it.

There’s also some evidence that the source novel, by Jack Higgins (I haven’t read it), might have had a few interesting ideas floating around in it, though even these seem reminiscent of the works of Graham Greene. Fundamentally built as a thriller, the story is also a character study of an IRA revolutionary (Mickey Rourke) who has had too much of killing, is politically disillusioned, and wants out altogether.

As the story begins, Rourke is a hunted man. He can escape Britain via a passport held by a gangster (Alan Bates), but the gangster demands that Rourke rub out a fellow mobster in exchange. Rourke figures, well, one hood more or less won’t make much difference. So he kills the guy, but the hit is witnessed by a priest (Bob Hoskins).

Much to the priest’s surprise, Rourke doesn’t immediately kill him, too. Instead, Rourke goes to confession and tells the very same priest of the killing – thus preventing the father, bound by the secrecy of the confessional, from saying anything to the police.

It’s not a bad idea – Alfred Hitchcock examined some of the same moral questions in I Confess. But A Prayer for the Dying lays on the sobriety and symbolism, and even has the nerve to drag in the priest’s niece (Sammi Davis), a blind girl who plays the church organ. That part gets a bit thick.

Hodges has an interesting way of looking at things, but he can’t combine the Christian redemption allegory and the political thriller into a satisfying whole. The finale, when the roof quite literally falls in, is either deliriously bold image-making or wretched symbolic excess, depending on your taste.

Rourke negotiates his Irish accent with better success than you might guess. Bates doesn’t have a lot to do – it’s a cameo role, which he plays mostly with his expensive overcoat – but he slips a few sly glances in.

Hoskins, who has made his name with his explosiveness (The Long Good Friday, Mona Lisa), seems to enjoy being cast against type here. He gives a measured performance, using his combustibility to prevent the priest from being at all saintly, which creates a priest more convincingly of the streets than anything Pat O’Brien ever conjured up.

First published in The Herald, September 10, 1987

Mickey Rourke also disowned the finished film, which along with the other re-edits had a new score by Bill Conti added. Other folks in this: Liam Neeson, Alison Doody, Anthony Head. Today, I’m not sure I would write this with confidence that the reader would know who the hell Pat O’Brien was.