Thanksgiving Pause

November 26, 2020

It’s a holiday in the USA and there’s a Horton home-moving going on over the next couple of weeks, so we pause briefly in posting 80s reviews on this site. Back in December.


The Money Pit

November 18, 2020

The Money Pit was scheduled as a Christmas release, and then pulled a few weeks before show time. The studios always put on a good front and say that such a switch occurs merely to avoid market saturation. But usually these about-faces signal big trouble.

This time, however, it looks like the studio was telling the truth (the film was produced by Steven Spielberg’s production company). The Money Pit is a perfectly enjoyable and very commercial lark, about one of those universal human disasters with which everybody can sympathize.

In this case, it’s the purchase of a house that turns out to be a horrific, gigantic, monstrous lemon. From the day that our upscale (and unmarried) protagonists (Tom Hanks and Shelley Long) move into their lovely place in the burbs outside New York City, the house does an inexorable slide into disintegration.

They should’ve known. It was sold to them by an eccentric (Maureen Stapleton) with peach-colored hair who had to sell the place because her husband had just been exposed as Hitler’s poolman.

Within hours, the dream house is exacting a terrible punishment upon the new inhabitants. The door falls in, the stairs collapse, and a panicked raccoon leaps out of the dumbwaiter. When Long turns a water valve, the house emits strange, primeval groans and shrieks as the pipes prepare to give way.

Thus begins the process of repairs, and the parade of sleazy gougers who offer to fix the place up. First it is necessary to destroy the house, which they cheerfully do.

Naturally, the eruption of this chaos puts a strain on our central relationship. And so does the lechery of Long’s vain ex-husband (played by ballet star Alexander Godunov), a conductor, who plies Long with wine and song when Hanks is away on business. You see, the relationship is supposed to be like the house – it falls apart, but the foundation is solid, and it all comes together again.

Okay, fine. Unfortunately, David Giler’s script isn’t strong enough to convince us that the break-up is all that serious. Frankly, the characters are pretty one-dimensional, and the split is a transparent device to goose the happy ending.

Luckily, however, Giler’s situation is so fundamentally funny – and Hanks and Long are so good – the comedy plays very nicely. The disintegrating house has been sure-fire movie material since at least the days of Buster Keaton, and it’s still working.

And in Richard Benjamin, The Money Pit has a director who knows how to exploit the comic potential of the situation. He has a sure sense of how to unload the film’s many punch lines, including the ones that tag the couple of Rube Goldberg set-pieces, in which one disaster leads to another.

I miss the quieter, graceful moments from Benjamin, the kind he found in his directing debut, My Favorite Year. But he had the crowd at the preview I attended laughing louder than any audience I’d sat with in months. That’s usually a good indication that the director has laid a solid foundation.

First published in The Herald, March 27, 1986

I’m really digging up some lame-o reviews now, for surely this movie is not good? David Giler has long been associated with the Alien franchise, and he also scripted Myra Breckinridge, The Parallax View, and Southern Comfort. Gordon Willis photographed this movie.


Broadcast News

September 4, 2020

Add another title to the Christmas list of pleasantly surprising movie releases: Broadcast News, the second film from writer-director James L. Brooks, whose Terms of Endearment made an Oscar killing a few years ago.

Brooks also was a driving force behind the classic Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Broadcast News finds him back in the TV newsroom. This time it’s a network bureau in Washington, D.C., as Brooks charts the personal and professional interminglings of a brilliant trio: a dynamic, no-nonsense producer (Holly Hunter), a terrific reporter (Albert Brooks), and an up-and-coming anchorman (William Hurt).

By all rights, it is the Albert Brooks character who should be rising in the network world, but he’s unhandsome, too ethnic, and too smart. His shot at anchoring becomes an adventure in perspiration (“Nixon never sweated so much,” mutters a technician, waving a hair dryer at Brooks’ sopping shirt). Hurt, on the other hand, is something of an airhead, but his golden-boy looks and his onscreen cool have him ticketed for the top. Despite her better instincts. Hunter finds herself romantically torn between these two opposite numbers.

The film works on a number of levels: as a deliciously barbed treatment of the world of news gathering, as a study of ethics in a business that rewards superficiality, and as a serious romantic comedy. It succeeds just about everywhere.

The movie falters occasionally, because Brooks is still a stiff director; the rhythms of the film are blocky, and the very ending of the flash-forward epilogue draws everything to an oddly limp close.

But the occasional stumbles are eclipsed by the sheer, juicy enjoyability of this film. Brooks’ script is so densely packed with comedic observations that many of them may be missed the first time round. One of the movie’s biggest laughs comes when a network executive (Peter Hackes) tells the national anchorman that a good way of bringing down corporate costs would be for the anchorman to shave a million bucks off his salary. The anchor is played by Jack Nicholson (returning the favor for the Oscar he won for Terms of Endearment), who wrings maximum effect out of his ensuing poisonous look.

One of the most remarkable things about Broadcast News is that its characters speak like witty, complicated people. Not, in other words, like most movie people. When the exec tells Hunter, “It must be nice to think you’re always the smartest person in the room,” she replies, “No, it’s awful.” A funny comeback, but also true.

The dialogue is superbly spoken by the three main actors. Hurt is likable and shallow in a role that could easily have been played as a plain creep, and Albert Brooks reminds us again that he is one of our funniest natural resources.

But it’s Holly Hunter, previously seen as the baby­napping wife in Raising Arizona, who really flies. Short and not conventionally glamorous, Hunter embodies a riotous clash of emotions, from anger to fear to contempt, all laced through with stinging intelligence. This performance puts her on the inside track for this year’s best actress Oscar. It might not be the only prize for this wildly entertaining movie.

First published in The Herald, December 1987

A movie that has assumed its place as a classic. It did get nominated for seven Oscars, but won none; Hunter was nipped by Cher, for Moonstruck, which also won the Best Original Screenplay award, and overall the big winner was The Last Emperor. I guess Brooks wrote the film for Debra Winger, who dropped out just before shooting because she was pregnant.


Jumpin’ Jack Flash

August 25, 2020

Jumpin’ Jack Flash looks suspiciously like the sort of project that begins life as an innocent-enough idea, then becomes more and more unrecognizable as it is tailored for the talents of a particular star.

In this case, the star is Whoopi Goldberg, the gifted actress/comedian whose profane stage show set Broadway on its ear and whose first starring film was The Color Purple. Since Jumpin’ Jack Flash is clearly a vehicle for Whoopi, it has been necessary to gear the plot to her specific style.

The script of JJJ (and it’s credited to four writers, always a bad sign) carries a plot-heavy story about a lonely computer worker who gets mixed up in international espionage. Goldberg would have been better off ditching this absurd premise and building a film out of her own funky material.

Instead, the dictates of plot carry her away from any fruitful comic possibilities. She’s a computer operator who starts getting mysterious messages across her screen. Seems an English secret agent is trapped in Eastern Europe, and his only hope for escaping is by linking up with an outsider who can pull a few strings for him.

This sets off some sitcom problems: Whoopi crashes a party for the Queen at the British Embassy; Whoopi meets an odd Dutch agent on the docks of New York; Whoopi gets stuck in a phone booth and is dragged through Manhattan. The working sensibility here seems to be an unfunny Get Smart crossed with I Love Lucy.

Presumably this comedic approach comes mainly from director Penny Marshall, who used to play Laverne on Laverne and Shirley. Marshall actually resorts to having Goldberg’s dress get caught in a paper-shredder for laughs.

I can think of only one, original comic scene: Goldberg trying to decipher the lyrics of the Rolling Stones (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is a clue, you see). They’re impossible—“Mick! Speak English!” she yells—but there are some interesting interpretations. “Born in a crossfire hurricane” becomes “Bored by a column by Herb Caen.”

Elsewhere, however, Marshall does show directorial spark, especially in some of the opening scenes of the bank where Goldberg works, and in her interplay with her fellow workers (some of whom are played by Carol Kane, Stephen Collins, and Jon Lovitz). This is funny, natural stuff. Had the film focused on these people rather than the mechanics of plot, Jumpin’ Jack Flash might have turned toward a truer kind of comedy, which seems to be Goldberg’s forte anyway.

Instead it’s mostly a drag. It’s certainly a disappointment for someone of Goldberg’s promise. She deserves a project now that’s going to really free her up. When that happens, jump back.

First published in The Herald, October 10, 1986

I recall one thing from this film: Carol Kane delivering the words “Well, shit,” in such a way that you are sure no one has ever said them before. Anyway, this was Marshall’s first feature film as director, after Howard Zieff was fired; the screenwriters included Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer (pseudonymously) and, allegedly, at some stage of development, Richard Price. The cast includes Jeroen Krabbe, Annie Potts, Jonathan Pryce, Tracey Ullman, Michael McKean, and Phil Hartman.


Joy of Sex

August 24, 2020

The question is: How did they make a movie out of The Joy of Sex? They didn’t. They made yet another teen exploitation comedy, all about the usual problem of losing one’s virginity. This one takes place at Richard Nixon High School and involves a girl (Michelle Meyrink) and a guy (Cameron Dye) who set out to accomplish this goal.

The birth of this film was difficult. For years people worked on screenplays that might fit the exploitable title, but nothing worked.

When the current film finally came together, it was known as National Lampoon’s Joy of Sex until a couple of months ago, when the Lampoon requested that its name be taken off the project.

That’s just as well. This Joy of Sex doesn’t really have the proper quotient of gross-outs to merit the Lampoon moniker. It has a lot of stupid, tasteless jokes, but it also has a few genuinely funny ideas – and a buoyant spirit, too.

It was directed by Martha Coolidge, the director of Valley Girl, the charming sleeper of 1983. Coolidge is an intelligent person, and that makes her, in a way, the wrong choice to film this kind of movie; she doesn’t quite deliver the down-and­ dirty goods. (It’s almost nudity-free, for example – practically a sin in this genre.)

But she is responsible for the tone of some of the sly, deadpan humor. The situations are stock – like the monkey business in the sex-education class – but Coolidge injects some life in the proceedings by casting Joanne Baron as the repressed teacher who looks starched and proper while hissing lasciviously about the sex life of “The fascinating flatworm!”

And Coolidge has selected some attractive actors. Colleen Camp does funny work as an overdeveloped newcomer to Nixon. There are many oddballs among the supporting cast, and they keep the film watchable even when the material lets them down.

Many of the actors were also in Valley Girl, including the leads. Michelle Meyrink is fetching as the heroine who finds a mole and (naturally) believes it is cancer. Thinking she only has a few weeks to live, she sets out to discover what sex is all about. After a number of failures, she’s discouraged: “I’m trying to be an easy lay,” she sighs. “Doesn’t that count anymore?”

Cameron Dye doesn’t register as strongly as the boy, but the film does shift subtly toward the girl’s story, which manages to touch lightly on the issue of a pregnant girl getting kicked out of Nixon High.

There’s also a subplot about an undercover narc among the kids. Like most films of this kind, Joy of Sex makes no bones about the sexual activity and drug use rampant among high-schoolers. It treats them as matters of fact.

Finally, Coolidge can’t make a silk purse out of this sow’s ear. The film is weighed down by the conventions of exploitation films. But there’s enough offbeat and/or funny stuff in Joy of Sex to make me. look forward to a film in which Coo­lidge works from decent material.

First published in The Herald, August 8, 1984

Yes, big fan of Coolidge here (Valley Girl is a dream), but this doesn’t do it – not that I’ve seen the movie since ’84 (I did a career-appreciation piece on Coolidge for Film Comment in the early 90s and I’m pretty sure I skipped a re-watch on this one). Meyrink was also in The Outsiders and Real Genius and dropped out of movies shortly thereafter.


Maurice

August 21, 2020

With A Room With a View the stubbornly highbrow filmmaking team of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory notched the biggest hit of their long association. For their follow-up movie, they might’ve played it safe and solidified their commercial success; instead, they’ve gambled a bit.

Maurice is, like Room, an adaptation of a novel by E.M. Forster, and also recreates a lush time in Edwardian England. But Maurice – pronounced “Morris” – departs from Room by focusing entirely on the story of a homosexual protagonist. Forster himself was so anxious about the novel’s subject matter that he never published it; the book finally appeared posthumously.

The film, after a hilarious prologue in which an adolescent Maurice is given a sex lecture drawn in the sand by a teacher, takes Maurice (James Wilby) from his university days, where he and a fellow classmate, Clive (Hugh Grant), experiment in illicit love. As they grow older, Clive becomes interested in a political career, and he begins to see the advantage in renouncing his past.

Maurice, however, can’t deny his inclination, though he seeks explanation and advice from various unsympathetic sources. At one point he desperately seeks help from an American hypnotist (deadly funny cameo by Ben Kingsley), who assures Maurice that carrying around a gun might enhance feelings of masculinity. Maurice ends up finding some measure of happiness with a stableboy (Rupert Graves).

At about two-and-a-half hours, Maurice every so occasionally loses its momentum. And it’s certainly not as much sheer fun as A Room With a View, the movie that brought a new sprightliness to Merchant Ivory films.

However, the movie unfolds like a rich period novel. Any Anglophile who enjoys disappearing into the likes of Brideshead Revisited will find much to savor here. This time out, Ivory himself wrote the screenplay, in collaboration with Kit Hesketh Harvey.

Ivory’s direction is perhaps his most sensitive ever. Aside from the obvious physical beauty of  the period setting, he builds careful visual motifs around certain objects; the recurring use of windows to signal important turning points, for instance.

And Ivory has a superb cast. The leading roles of Maurice and Clive, while perfectly acted by Wilby and Grant, are ever so slightly colorless. I think Ivory realizes this, and so he’s put some very tasty British actors in the supporting roles, including Kingsley, Billie Whitelaw and the ever-ripe Simon Callow.

Denholm Elliott, fresh from an Oscar nomination for A Room With a View, turns up as Maurice’s elder, who attempts to convince Maurice that all is normal by examining Maurice’s working parts and pronouncing them functional. Maurice insists he has a problem; Elliott chirps back, “Oh, we can fix that!” He can’t, but in the end Maurice is the story of a man who comes to terms with something he can’t “fix.”

First published in The Herald, November 12, 1987

Little-known fact: James Wilby and Hugh Grant first appeared in Privileged, a movie shot at Oxford by director Michael Hoffman and Seattle native Rick Stevenson. So you’re welcome, Merchant Ivory. (I didn’t realize this until now, but Privileged was also future Oscar winner Rachel Portman’s first credit as composer.) Wilby got his big chance in Maurice because Julian Sands dropped out of the role; I think that was for the best. Did Merchant Ivory think of elevating Hugh Grant to the central role?


A Man in Love

August 20, 2020

At one time or another, most successful European filmmakers are tempted into making an English-language movie; the chance to work with different actors and receive broader distribution is too good to pass up. As often as not, the efforts are defeated by a fundamental bugaboo: The director doesn’t understand English well enough, and the whole tone and sound of the movie goes awry.

The upcoming film from Italy’s gifted Taviani brothers, Good Morning, Babylon, is just such a project: intriguing and well-meaning, but misfiring largely because of an apparent unease with English.

French filmmaker Diane Kurys (Entre Nous) has now made her first movie in English, A Man in Love. Happily, Kurys proves the exception to the transcontinental rule; she’s obviously got an ear for English. The movie may have a few problems, but a feeling for the way people talk isn’t one of them.

An American movie star (Peter Coyote) arrives in Rome to shoot a biography of Cesar Pavese, an Italian poet who committed suicide. None of his advisers want him to make the film, but Coyote is a heavy­ breathing, ultra-serious Method type who won’t be talked out of it.      

For a small crucial role, an unknown actress (Greta Scacchi) is chosen. She and Coyote share an intense lovemaking scene, and they both allow the feeling to spill over into their real lives. This causes problems for Scacchi’s boyfriend (Vincent Lindon), who’s rude to Coyote when the actor pursues her to Paris; and it’s hard on Coyote’s long-sufferng wife (Jamie Lee Curtis).

Kurys has taken some criticism on the movie, mainly because Coyote’s character is almost completely unsympathetic. But it soon becomes clear that the film is not about him – it’s about Scacchi, and her character’s enlightenment. Scacchi, seen in Defense of the Realm and, coincidentally, Good Morning, Babylon, is radiant, and continues to be on the verge of a commercial breakthrough.

In some ways, the movie fails. We certainly don’t crack Coyote’s shell. He remains obtuse, and undeniably irritating. And the film’s observations about the interplay of fiction and real life are not given any new angles, and finally are dropped.                              

But Kurys captures enough achingly romantic moments to make the experience worthwhile. Late-night phone calls, looks exchanged across studio sets – plus a lovely scene in which Coyote receives a phone call from Scacchi while he’s in a screening room, watching her footage. That one’s worthy of Truffaut.

There are also some unusually good supporting performances. Peter Riegert (Local Hero), as Coyote’s personal assistant, adds some much-needed dry comedy.

And Scacchi’s parents should have been in the movie more: The father, a blustering writer, is wonderfully played by John Berry, a former Hollywood director who was blacklisted during the 1950s. The mother is  played by Claudia Cardinale, one of the card-carrying international sex kittens of the 1960s, now luminously middle­ age. Cardinale can take a line such as, “That’s what life is about – weaving memories,” and make you believe it, or at least want to.

First published in The Herald, October 1, 1987

I am sure I did not know this at the time, but Kurys based the film on her experiences as an actress in Fellini’s Casanova, which starred Donald Sutherland. You fill in the dots. Good Morning, Babylon, was another Scacchi film that slowed her career. I liked Kurys’ next film, C’est la vie, and enjoyed interviewing her for that film. I’ve seen very few of her films of the last couple of decades, which seems strange for a director who once had a prominent seat at the table, at least as far as French films distributed in the U.S. are concerned.