The Little Thief

March 18, 2013

littlethiefWhen Francois Truffaut died in 1984 at the tragically young age of 52, he left a hole in the world of the cinema that can never be filled. Happily, he also left a series of masterpieces—Jules and Jim, Day for Night, Two English Girls—that will keep his presence, his large and generous soul, with us always.

As it turns out, he left us with something else: a screenplay, written with collaborator Claude de Givray. The Little Thief is a project Truffaut had wanted to make as early as the mid-1960s, when he proposed it as a female version of his first feature, 1959’s The 400 Blows, which was also about a lost, adolescent rebel.

Now The Little Thief has been realized by some of Truffaut’s friends, including Claude Miller, who was Truffaut’s assistant for years before becoming a director himself. Miller does not have the master’s touch, and The Little Thief can’t technically be counted as a Truffaut movie per se. But Miller captures the spirit of his former mentor enough so that Truffaut’s hand is well evident.

The protagonist is a 16-year-old named Janine (Charlotte Gainsbourg, an expressive actress whom Truffaut would have adored), abandoned by her parents, who lives with her poor uncle and aunt in the French countryside of the early 1950s. When we first see Janine, she is swiping a carton of Lucky Strikes from an unlocked car. Janine steals things.

This habit gets her sent away to work as a maid. Janine fails in love, first with an older married man (Didier Bezace), then with a teenage rebel (Simon de la Brasse) who has a motorcycle. Her troubles include a stay in reform school, but she is a survivor.

The movie has many wonderful moments, recalling Truffaut’s romantic sensibility: Janine at a movie theater, falling asleep on the shoulder of a stranger who will become her lover; Janine stealing a volume of Victor Hugo from a bookstore; the biker’s trick of flipping cigarettes in his mouth.

Like the hero of The 400 Blows, Janine eventually ends up at the ocean, which she sees for the first time. “I didn’t expect that color,” she says quietly, gazing at the water, perfectly capturing the adolescent’s mix of wonder and disappointment; a moment evocative of Truffaut at his most characteristic. All in all, a perfectly lovely time at the movies.

First published in the Herald, September 1989

A nice movie, though it seems to have been forgotten. Gainsbourg went on to her international career, as could hardly be avoided from the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, including her place in the realm of Lars von Trier.

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Best Seller

March 15, 2013

bestsellerThe main pleasure of Best Seller comes from watching two of Hollywood’s best actors play off against each other in weird and wonderful ways. James Woods plays a longtime hit man who’s hatching a bizarre plot. Brian Dennehy plays a cop who is also an author, turning his experiences into books a la Joseph Wambaugh. He’s currently suffering from writer’s block and looking for a story to tell.

Woods is about to give him one. He’s murdered a long list of “liabilities” for a stupendously wealthy corporate criminal (Paul Shenar). Now Woods wants to bring down Shenar’s empire, and he knows where all the bodies are buried. He approaches Dennehy with a proposal: Woods will give him the crime story of the century. All Dennehy has to do is get it down right, and maybe humanize Woods in the process.

So the two of them forge a dubious partnership; Dennehy, in particular, doesn’t know whether to believe any of this or not. Now, this story is already eccentric—not your usual cops and robbers. But the screenwriter, Larry Cohen, has even more up his sleeve. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, since Cohen is an original and maverick talent who puts his quirky mark on everything from horror films (It’s Alive) to biographies (The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover).

Although Best Seller contains the requisite guns blasting and cops running down darkened side streets, Cohen and director John Flynn are really fashioning a character study. The hit man and the cop are trapped in this improbable relationship, which keeps getting weirder as Woods becomes more and more insistent on the two of them becoming friends.

The cold-blooded killer turns out to be a guy who just wants some brotherly love. He presents Dennehy with an engraved watch, takes him home to meet his parents, and flashes some jealousy at Dennehy’s publisher (Victoria Tennant).

The film does a sufficient job of fulfilling the thriller plot while embroidering it with these oddball touches, although the big climax is somewhat wanting, I think.

But the two actors make it work. Woods, who was Oscar-nominated last year for Salvador and just won an Emmy for the TV-movie Promise, is simply one of the most exciting actors going. Here he easily slides from cool menace to hurt boyishness.

Dennehy is the monument-sized fellow from Cocoon and FX, and his girth plays well off Woods’ lean shiftiness. Dennehy plays the straight man role, but this actor is so authentic that he gives it considerable presence.

It’s truly a left-field movie, unpredictable and odd. But there are sequences in it that really reach a high, such as the bar scene in which Woods roams through the room, hitting on a woman, provoking a fitstfight, and testing his pain threshold by burning himself with a cigarette. Best Seller certainly goes its own way.

First published in the Herald, September 1987

The filmography of Larry Cohen: a great Hollywood subject in itself. I can’t say I remember this movie well, but from the sound of it, somebody could easily do a remake today and make it work.


The Great Outdoors

March 14, 2013

Great OutdoorsTwo brothers-in-law sit on the deck of a vacation hideaway, gazing out over the serene lake in front of them. One is content to enjoy the trees on the other side, but the other has a different idea: He takes one look at all of that unused space and has a grand vision for a toxic dump for medical refuse.

These two guys aren’t going to get along at all, which is the operating idea behind The Great Outdoors, yet another comedy from the pen of John Hughes. Here Hughes reworks some of the chemistry from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which straight-laced Steve Martin was terrorized by geeky John Candy.

In The Great Outdoors, Candy is back, but this time as the straight man. He plays an ordinary businessman who takes his wife (Stephanie Faracy) and two sons up to the lake cabin for a week of peace. There’s a surprise waiting for him: the crazed, crass brother-in-law (Dan Aykroyd), who’s brought his wife (Annette Bening) and spooky twin daughters up unannounced for the week.

Hughes’ script allows these two to lock horns over most of the familiar outdoorsy situations that are liable to confront the urban adventurer: water-skiing technique, fishing, a battle with a bat (“radar-guided vermin” in Aykroyd’s vernacular), and the ultimate test of camping manhood, the proper way to build a fire.

Howard Deutch directs these almost elderly jokes. He also directed Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful, two other Hughes scripts. Deutch’s main task is to set the two comic actors up and allow them some room, which is does passably. As for the subplot with Candy’s son (Chris Young) romancing a comely local (Lucy Deakins), it is a completely separate sidebar.

Deutch and Hughes have a curious tendency to kill a comic sequence before it’s over. The set-up is there, the joke is delivered, and poof. On to the next gag. You almost get the feeling that these jokes are so well-worn, Deutch and Hughes are content to let the audience complete the missing material.

The Great Outdoors doesn’t approach the inspired high points of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and the final 30 minutes or so of resolution are particularly half-hearted. Candy is perfectly okay as the laid-back family man, and Aykroyd does have a few amusingly grotesque moments, though his performance is something of a rehash of his role in Neighbors, in which he played that nightmarish figure, the friendly next-door neighbor.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

Huh–the review seems to be missing an ending. I forgot Bening was in this thing—it was her first big-screen job. The movie’s really dead in the water, a real dud after the first two Hughes-Deutch successes.


The Great Mouse Detective

March 13, 2013

greatmouseWalt Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective is easily the legendary studio’s most satisfying animated feature since—well, who knows how long it’s been? Observers have charted the decline of Disney, and of the animated feature in general, for so long, it’s difficult to remember the last time anyone spoke of a Disney cartoon with real admiration.

After last year’s ambitious (but unsuccessful) The Black Cauldron, Disney desperately needed a hit. They went so far as to test-market the title of their next feature, which throughout its long schedule of production (animated films are years in the making) was known as Basil of Baker Street.

Sorry, Basil, the market researchers say that The Great Mouse Detective is a more appealing title (even if anyone with an ounce of sense knows it isn’t).

Whatever its title, the new Disney shapes up as a much-needed pride-booster for the animation department. It’s lively, scary, and utterly without the kind of cartoon condescension that assumes kiddies will be unable to follow the most rudimentary story.

Actually, the plot of The Great Mouse Detective is pretty rudimentary, but condescension is more a question of attitude, anyway. It’s a Sherlock Holmes story in which Holmes and Watson (called Basil and Dawson) are crime-fighting mice in 1897 London, and archenemy Moriarty is a nasty, effete rat called Professor Ratigan.

This Basil fellow lives in a corner of the building where the actual Holmes lives (we get a brief glimpse of the human counterparts); but there’s no bones made about the fact that our mice heroes are meant to be the rodent version of Conan Doyle’s sleuths. Basil deduces, cries “The game is afoot!”, and plays the violin. (Don’t expect Basil to emulate Holmesian cocaine use, however—this is the Disney version, after all.)

Professor Ratigan (spoken by Vincent Price, the only big name in the cast) and his icky henchman Fidget (a peg-legged, yellow-eyed bat), kidnap a toymaker for a devious plan involving the upcoming visit from the Queen of Rodentia. The toymaker’s daughter goes to Basil for help, and the rest is elementary.

The story is broken down into a series of set-pieces, including a chase in a toy store, a hearty barroom brawl, a nifty bit in which Ratigan snares Basil and Dawson in a seemingly hopeless trap, and the big finale hanging from the clock of Big Ben.

There are no dead spots, the animation is atmospheric (if hardly revolutionary), and the scary stuff is good and creepy—not watered down.

Before the film is a not-quite-classic Mickey Mouse short, Cleaning Clocks, which shares a few gags with the Big Ben sequence in the feature. It’s oddly comforting to know that, after decades of animated progress, a cartoon character’s head still makes the same CLANNNGGGGG when stuck inside a ringing bell.

First published in the Herald, July 1, 1986

The Little Mermaid deservedly gets credit for turning things around for Disney, but this was the tip-off: a really smart, crackling entertainment from (of all people) the Disney animators. You can tell from the tone of this piece how unlikely that seemed at the time, and what a low point “family films” had reached. Things changed.


The Good Mother

March 12, 2013

goodmotherThe Good Mother, a film adapted from the novel by Sue Miller, takes its time about springing its main plot point. First we learn some history about the protagonist, Anna (Diane Keaton), recently divorced, who lives in Boston with her young daughter.

Early in the film, she meets a sculptor (Liam Neeson) with whom she has a torrid, and very satisfying, affair. The movie is a good 50 minutes old before the revelation that changes everything, a revelation that centers on child molestation, or at least the appearance of impropriety.

The movie delves into Anna’s family history, recounting her hero worship of her rebellious aunt, and the still-formidable presence of her wealthy grandparents (Ralph Bellamy and Teresa Wright).

Anna was supposed to be the pianist in the family, but she never quite had the passion for it, a lingering failure. And the film sketches Anna’s current confusions, her will to independence that wars with her reliance on the grandparents for money, and her meaningless job. The crucial thing she has is her child, and raising her daughter is the source of her passion; it’s the one thing in her life she does well.

All of this is sensitively directed by Leonard Nimoy, who continues to move farther away from the pointed ears of Mr. Spock. Nimoy’s good with actors and he stages individual scenes well, such as the first lovemaking between Keaton and Neeson, which takes place in an artist’s loft full of weird sculptures, casting strange shadows.

On some level, I’m not quite sure what the movie is about, or thinks it’s about. For instance, Keaton’s character describes herself as having “always been frigid,” until she meets the romantic sculptor, with whom she has great sex. Just when she reaches this point, she gets slapped down, and loses the most important thing in her life. The film does not denounce or endorse this theme and you wonder to what extent it is intended.

A lot of what the movie is about, however, seems to be in Diane Keaton’s performance, and I think that is where it succeeds most. Keaton is often accused of mannerism and ditheriness, and she is sometimes guilty. In The Good Mother, she’s still every inch Keaton; Nimoy has given her free rein. So her performance is full of her customary half-sentences, dotty gesticulations, and quicksilver changes of facial expression.

But it seems to be that these Keatonisms are to the point, for this character. She is supposed to be a woman very much in the process of finding herself, and under those circumstances, the performance is all too apt, and frequently poignant.

First published in the Herald, November 1988

One of those How Did This Get Made? movies, made during Nimoy’s unexpected success as a director. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone refer to this film.


The Good Father

March 11, 2013

220px-GoodfatherposterIn the opening scene of The Good Father, we see the title character, played by Anthony Hopkins, pushing his young son on a swing. The camera stays on the father’s face and upper body, as the boy arcs in and out of the picture. The man is lost in thought; gradually his pushes become harder, unconsciously violent, until the son lets out a frightened squawk. The man recovers and eases up.

This is a brilliant way to begin the film, for it represents with perfect economy this man’s rage. And it also signals that we are going to see a major performance from Hopkins, the Welsh-born actor (lately in 84 Charing Cross Road) whom the English press has touted as “the next Olivier” for two decades.

Hopkins plays a recently separated Londoner who sees his son only for short spells and whose failed marriage has turned him against women and feminism. Throughout the film, Hopkins lets his rage fly out in red-hot bursts, full of self-hatred and bitterness.

His seething finds a coolly nasty outlet, which takes up the major part of the film. A friend (Jim Broadbent), an oafish and homely teacher who is also separated, tells Hopkins that his own wife has decided to take their children to Australia with her lesbian lover. This sets Hopkins in cruel motion.

Hopkins becomes obsessed with his friend’s case: He pressures Broadbent into legal action against the wife, offers to pay the expenses, and helps gather the dirt that can be used against the woman in a custody hearing at court. He’s working through his own problems with this similar case, but he disregards the damage he may be doing to these people.

Christopher Hampton’s screenplay, from the novel by Peter Prince, touches on a number of themes, including the post-feminist hangover. Most important, it suggests that Hopkins’ anger is not exactly evil. When Hopkins asks his new young girlfriend (Joanne Whalley) why she doesn’t get excited about anything, compared with his combative college days in the ’60s, Hampton hints that rage may be preferable to nothingness.

In some ways, the legal action may dominate the movie too much; I actually preferred some of the opening scenes of Hopkins’ unfocused diatribes. The director, Mike Newell (Dance with a Stranger), doesn’t do much to shape the material, and he turns the legal folk into caricatures, aided by Simon Callow’s gleefully hammy performance as a barrister. This provides someone to hiss, which is at odds with the script’s even-handed approach.

But Newell gets fascinating work from Hopkins. Hopkins has always seemed hemmed in by movies, as though his histrionic tendencies were best served by live theater, where actors may expand. Here, that harnassed quality is crucial to his performance. He plays a man who does bad things without himself being bad. That’s difficult enough to capture, but Hopkins even gives him a measure of sympathy. Under the circumstances, that’s amazing.

First published in the Herald, February 1987

Some interesting people mixed into this, but not much recognition for it all these years later. Obviously, at this pre-Silence of the Lambs point Hopkins was still not established enough to presume the reader would know him.


Spring Break

February 18, 2013

Another brief hiatus as the author finds himself at sea. We’ll resume the Eighties march the week of March 4.