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.

Straight to Hell/Law of Desire

January 17, 2020

straighttohellThere’s the kind of moviemaker who makes a film every couple-three years; he or she waits around for the perfect script, the perfect actor, the perfect moment. Then there’s the moviemaker who churns out flicks on a fairly continuous basis, just to have something to be working on. Such a busy bee is Alex Cox, the wonderfully demented director of Repo Man and Sid and Nancy.

Cox’s newest film, released less than a year after S&N, was cranked out on a measly million-dollar budget (and, reportedly, a three-day writing schedule). Straight to Hell is no masterwork, and it’s obviously something Cox made with his left hand while his right hand was working on the next big movie.

As such, it sure is fun. Stylistically and otherwise, Straight to Hell flagrantly lives up to its title. This is a scuzzy, gadabout movie, barely existing except to spoof the filmic conventions of the spaghetti Westerns (A Fistful of Dollars The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) of Sergio Leone.

If you’re not familiar with Leone’s movies, some of the gags here won’t work. The credits and the music, for instance, which parody Leone’s flamboyant style – plus a lot of overwrought wide-screen compositions in the manner of that directors’s breath­less shoot-outs, which Leone would compose with the scope of a Wagnerian opera.

The plot here, such as it is, takes three greasy outlaws (Cy Richardson, Clash lead singer Joe Strummer, and co-writer Dick Rude) and their moll (Courtney Love) into a dusty Western town. The townsfolk, a deranged bunch of coffee underachievers who are weirdly fixated on caffeine, look as though they’ve dropped directly out of British society and into a Road Warrior post-apocalyptic world.

The movie gets out of control quickly, which may be its saving grace. A bunch of quirky people – Elvis Costello, Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, The Pogues – breeze in to fill up the background. It’s a larky film, very uneven, and everyone involved with it seems to have had a very good time.

lawofdesireLaw of Desire is a new movie from another idiosyncratic filmmaker, Spain’s Pedro Almodovar. He’s an acquired taste, but Law of Desire strikes a kind of giddy balance of hipness, camp, and melodrama.

Almodovar’s story seems to jump out of some sub-par 1950s American soap opera. A homosexual film director (Eusebio Poncela) is dogged by a worshiping fan (Antonio Banderas). Eventually Banderas takes out his madness on the director’s lover, and throws the lover off a cliff.

Almodovar takes this situation and puts a nutty spin on it. He sets the film in Madrid, then throws in the director’s transsexual sister (Carmen Maura), a crazy color scheme, and a subterranean sense of humor. It sounds like as wild a mix as Straight to Hell, but the elements in Law of Desire come together in a way that they never do in Straight to Hell, and Almodovar’s is much the better movie. Both movies, in their exotic trashiness, lend a much-welcome aura of untidiness to the current cinema.

First published in the Herald, June 1987

Pretty interesting twofer. I guess I thought Cox was going on to a career of big films, which, unfortunately, he did not. Nothing against his output, mind you, but one expected more spectacular things. And Courtney Love? Yes, it happened. Things turned out rather well for Pedro Almodovar, as you may have heard; this week his star Banderas got an Oscar nomination for the director’s Pain and Glory, a very good career-looking-back movie. Obviously Law of Desire deserved more space than I could give it here, but hey, you do what you can. And I refer to American soaps as the movie’s source of parody; I wasn’t hip enough to know about telenovelas in 1987.

Summer Heat

January 16, 2020

summerheatTerrence Malick’s Days of Heaven was one of the singular American films of the 1970s. It was poetic, photographically lush, yet it told a story that is as old as the land: a classic triangle of love, lust and death.

One of his assistants on that movie was a UCLA film school graduate named Michie Gleason. She is now a writer-director in her own right, and has made a film that shares a very similar subject with Malick’s Llke Days of Heaven, Summer Heat is a stark tale set in the heartland, a triangle that ends in death.

But Days of Heaven safely retains its singular status. Aside from the resemblance in plot, Summer Heat can’t compare with the earlier film; fact is, it’s barely competent in its own terms.

Gleason adapted the movie from Louise Shivers’ novel, Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail. In this story, set in North Carolina in 1937, the angles of the triangle are embodied by Roxy (Lori Singer), a lanky farmwife, her dullard farmer husband Aaron (Anthony Edwards), and a chiseled drifter (Bruce Abbott) who blows into town, lands a job as Aaron’s farmhand, and quickly slides into Roxy’s bed. As befits the Tobacco Row setting, there is much dust kicked around by bare feet on wooden floors, mandolins picked at night by the fire, and heavy heartland-America music swelling on the soundtrack. In short, all the usual cliches of the genre.

Nothing seems original here. Gleason goes neither for stylization (as Malick did in his film) nor realism – there’s no earthy, believable life. So the movie hangs in between, unsure of its approach. There’s a facile feminist message near the end, but it’s a cheap way to tie things up.

Lacking a distinct vision, Gleason might have let the actors make it interesting, but she barely allows them to perk. Lori Singer, of Footloose, is still a largely impassive  screen presence, although she looks convincingly wan, continually boxed within window frames as she is.

Anthony Edwards, the funny sidekick from Top Gun, barely registers in this somber role. Bruce Abbott looks his part, but isn’t required to do much more than smolder. All three of them remain children of the 1980s; you never quite buy the period. And the movie has no resonance, despite its grim subject, partly because these actors are so young. Their faces don’t register any past experiences.

Gleason does avoid having her cast assume heavy Southern accents, a tendency that usually makes the soundtracks of films such as this sound like a really painful high-school production of Tennessee Williams. Curiously, this bit of good taste has the effect of making Summer Heat even duller than it already is.

First published in the Herald, 1987

This one has slipped through the cracks. Kathy Bates was in it, too, three years  before Misery.  It’s narrated by Dorothy McGuire, which is sort of interesting (A Summer Place shout-out?), and shot by Eliot Davis. The IMDb comments say there’s a song by Kim Carnes, too.



January 15, 2020

suspectLike many movie packages, Suspect appears stuffed with possibilities; it’s got two attractive stars, a strong supporting cast, the aura of Hitchcock­ian thrills and romance, and a director who’s been known to make some nondescript but entertaining films (Peter Yates, of Eyewitness and Breaking Away). Unfortunately, it also has a script that, in terms of invention, merely rounds up the usual suspects.

The idea is that a public defender (Cher) takes on the defense of a deaf-mute transient (Liam Neeson) in a murder trial. Nobody particularly cares about the case, since victim and suspect are equally insignificant. The judge (John Mahoney) wants to get the trial over quickly, so he can accept a higher appointment; the prosecutor (Joe Mantegna) wants to fatten his political resume.

But there’s more here than meets the eye, as if you couldn’t guess. The first person to catch errant clues is a juror (Dennis Quaid), a high-powered Washington lobbyist who’s been roped into jury duty. He starts seeing discrepancies in the evidence. But he can’t pull a Perry Mason and thunder from the jury box, so he contacts the defender on the sly, and together they compile some tantalizing evidence.

The fact that such attorney­-juror interaction is highly unethical adds an extra layer of suspense, which Yates exploits in the movie’s best scene, a wordless sequence when the judge enters a law library where Cher and Quaid are doing research – if he sees them together, it’ll blow everything sky-high.

Elsewhere, Yates relies on standard tricks. Dark hallways, hands entering frames with heavy music cues, all designed to jolt you out of your seat. Some of it actually works.

But not much of it feels that good, at least to these jaded senses. The ethical touch-and-go seems borrowed from the success of Jagged Edge, and the remarks about the inadequacies of the justice system are tired. Cher the defender talks about her spiritual dissatisfaction, but that’s about all the evidence we have of it; otherwise, the actress is on her own in filling out the character (which she does rather well, in fact).

Quaid’s lobbyist is even more underconceived; he remains a blank. We don’t really know the connection between his amoral political activities and his jury­-bound bloodhound routine.

The movie even fails to bring these two together for prurient interest, I’m sorry to say. (Obviously, the prurient interests need a better lobbyist.) Somehow it’s OK to tamper with a juror, but no slow dancing ’til the trial is over.

I enjoyed watching John Mahoney and Philip Bosco as two cagey politicos. Joe Mantegna, currently on view in House of Games, is disappointing as the prosecutor. He’s occupying the same position George C. Scott had in Anatomy of a Murder – a hotshot young stage actor who comes in for a juicy featured part (prosecutors are reliably nasty roles). But Mantegna plays it low-key, when the role calls for him to show off a little.

Suspect has large patches that are enjoyable. But its fundamental weakness is that it doesn’t quite play fair; if you’re going to mount a whodunit, play by the rules.

First published in the Herald, October 22, 1987

Another one from that legal-thriller craze of the era. The movie did well, despite its reluctance to put Cher and Dennis Quaid in the clinches (I guess; or do they get together eventually?). The long-careered Eric Roth wrote the script.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

January 14, 2020

supermanivAfter the lukewarm success of Superman III, the Superman series seemed to be dead; Christopher Reeve, who had made such a heroic Superman (and such a charmingly inept Clark Kent) declared he’d have no more of it. He wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, and he went to some pains to prove it in a string of box-office duds such as Monsignor, The  Bostonians, and the recent Street Smart.

Those films having stiffed, Reeve now finds it within reason to take the old role again. But it may be more than career inertia that lured Reeve back into the tights and cape. He’s been given some creative control on Superman IV – he’s credited on the screenplay – and he’s turned the project into a message movie.

This is achieved in much the same way that the latest Star Trek movie became a save-the-whales picture. Superman IV is an anti-nuke movie, although it wraps its message in the familiar characters and situations that have made these films so successful. Prompted by a letter from a schoolboy, our hero decides to eliminate all the nuclear weapons on the Earth. And he does.

However, it turns out that this idea is just one tendril from a real jellyfish of a script. There’s also the dilemma of the Daily Planet being taken over by a Rupert Murdoch-type scandalmonger (Sam Wanamaker); then there’s his daughter (Mariel Hemingway), who takes much romantic interest in Clark Kent; another tentative match between Superman and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder); and, of course, that archvillain Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), who’s up to his old tricks.

Hackman’s scenes serve up much of the film’s fun. His campy villainy remains from the first two Superman films, with the assistance of a dim-witted nephew (Jon Cryer). This time, he’s got a strand of Superman’s superhair, which he clones into a solar-powered anti­-hero called Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) who does battle with Supe on the moon. In one of the film’s funniest scenes Hackman chides Superman, “You’re so involved with this world peace thing, you don’t have time for social calls,” and advises the Man of Steel to relax; get a hobby, or a pet.

The film is much too rangy and fragmented, but their are flashes of the old wit. Much of the likable, self-effacing tone is here, under Sidney J. Furie’s direction, and the easy comedy that surrounds the Clark Kent character is intact.

But is also feels rushed, and it’s too short at 90 mlnutes to hook us deeply. The movie needs another half-hour to stretch out; I had the feeling that whole scenes had been slashed out at some point in the filmmaking process. Some bridging scenes might have explained the biggest mystery in the film: How exactly does Superman eliminate the nuclear weapons, anyway?

Apparently he grabs them as they’re shot up into space, one by one, although this doesn’t explain how he will account for every warhead. Worse, we then see him gather the missiles into a galaxy-sized fishing net, swing it around, and heave the whole mess into the sun. This cockeyed image throws the movie’s anti-nuke message into the realm of the incredible, where it will probably remain until a real Superman comes along.

First published in the Herald, July 28, 1987

I’m afraid I have forgotten everything about this movie, including the fact that it reunited the old gang and threw Jon Cryer into the mix. But I do remember the feeling of a non-event, especially the almost insulting running time; Cannon Films produced the movie, and along with taking their cut-rate approch during the filming itself, they also ripped a bunch of footage from an original preview version. I’m not sure why I accuse a Superman movie of going into the realm of the incredible, but maybe you know what I mean.

Sammy and Rosie Get Laid

January 13, 2020

sammyandrosieIn My Beautiful Laundrette, director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi took a cook’s tour through the underside of a teeming, stewing London. In their follow-up collaboration, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Frears and Kureishi are back in the same milieu, but this time they’ve turned up the heat.

As the film begins, a former Pakistani cabinet minister named Rafi (Shashi Kapoor, India’s most popular actor) is returning to London, and he muses, “Before I die, I must know my beloved London again.” But his elegant city is transformed into a vision of hell: Buildings are burning, crowds are rioting, the streets are full of blood and broken glass.

Though the city may seethe, the people who live there go on with their own problems. Rafi stays with his son Sammy (Ayub Khan Din) and Sammy’s wife Rosie (Frances Barber). Rosie is something of a militant; she doesn’t believe in “getting the dinner on, or sexual fidelity.” Sammy’s lazier. He gives lip service to Rosie’s notion that all the unrest is “an affirmation of the human spirit,” but  quickly reverts to capitalist horror when the rioters overturn his own new car.

Sammy has an American mistress (Wendy Gazelle) with an interesting tattoo (the explanation of which is best supplied by the film). Rosie meets an enigmatic but kind-faced drifter (Roland Gift, lead singer of the Fine Young Cannibals) for a torrid encounter in an impromptu Third World conclave under a decaying highway bridge. Rafi hirnself calls upon an old flame (Claire Bloom) now living a respectable life.

If this begins to sound like the stuff of searing social comment, be assured that it certainly is. But the audaciousness of this film lies not merely in its social criticism (or in its I-dare-you-to-censure-me title), but also in its slashing comedic style. Sammy and Rosie Get Laid is a comedy of hysteria, a franctically funny satire in which no one is safe.

For instance. Rafi’s history includes the torture and murder of his political opponents, but this bitter past is absorbed right into the film’s general wild outrage; when Sammy and Rosie prepare a reception for Rafi, the son insists, “We can’t let a bit of torture get in the way of a party.” (This sly acceptance is aided by Kapoor’s wonderful, buttery performance.)

Of course, Margaret Thatcher is lambasted, her words accompanied by shots of the city smoking, seemingly in ruins. But the left is also susceptible to ridicule; Rosie’s shrill  lesbian pals are appalling in their deadly political correctness, and turn out to be just as capable of petty jealousy as anyone.

Kureishi, London-born of a Pakistani father and an English mother, is often strident and didactic in interviews. Which is why it’s such a pleasure to see his screenplays so marvelously multi-sided and daring. Some of Kureishi’s fire is tempered by the generosity of Stephen Frears (Prick Up Your Ears) whose more mature sense of irony makes a nice match with Kureishi’s ferociousness. Together they seem capable of taking London by storm, if they don’t burn it down first.

First published in the Herald, February 18, 1988

Such a fine and original film, with Kapoor making a particularly outrageous character. Opened in Seattle at the Egyptian theater, a good choice. And yes, political correctness was a thing, not yet co-opted by the right wing.