Mass Appeal

November 10, 2020

Mass Appeal is the film version of a popular Broadway play about a comfortable parish priest forced into testing his own complacency by the presence of a hot-headed seminarian.

This older priest is a dandy character: a backslapping, utterly likable fellow who reassures his wealthy parishioners that everything is just fine, their sins are absolved, and if they want to donate a bottle of wine to his personal collection, why, what would be perfectly fine, too.

The conceit of the play and movie is that he will approach some sort of spiritual rejuvenation through knowing this excitable young seminarian who is assigned to his care. That’s a familiar (but not necessarily corny) theme, and Mass Appeal doesn’t find the right method of bringing it to life.

However, if the role of the older priest sounds tailor-made for Jack Lemmon, then you’ve been paying attention to Lemmon’s career. Lemmon loves playing these flawed, imperfect characters (for one thing, they usually make for the juiciest roles). And he’s well suited for Father Tim Farley. Lemmon wears the cardigan sweaters and pot belly of the self-satisfied pastor very easily.

Almost too easily, in fact; this kind of role fits Lemmon so well he may be guilty of the kind of laziness that inflicts the good father. But he does do well by the many one-liners in the screenplay by Bill C. Davis, who adapted his own play. The tippling priest excuses his frequent imbibing with the reminder that “Making wine was Christ’s first miracle – and he knew what he was doing.”

And when someone remarks that the arrogant young seminarian used to love to water-ski, the pastor is quick to quip, “He must’ve liked the feeling of walking on water.”

Well, that’s bread-and-butter Lemmon stuff. No wonder Universal Pictures was sure Lemmon would get an Oscar nomination (thus the film’s release date, two days after the nominations were announced). Surprise – Lemmon didn’t get his nomination; frankly, given the competition, that was probably a just decision.

No supporting actor nominations either, although there’s a hefty role for Charles Durning (who is getting pretty hefty himself), as the harsh leader of the seminary. He wants to kick out the young hot-head because the boy, now devoted to celibacy, had some bisexual affairs in his past.

Another possible nominee was Zeljko Ivanek (he was born in Yugoslavia, okay?), as the seminarian. He’s your typical ’80s character – runs 10 miles a day, insists that women be allowed into the priesthood. In short, he is dangerously close to being what Father Farley calls a “Bangladesh Granolahead.”

Technically, Ivanek is a commendable actor. But somehow the camera does not want to flatter him; he looks hopelessly bland. He’s the kind of actor who looks you can’t remember when he’s off the screen, and for all his range, he doesn’t really register.

So that makes it Lemmon’s show, and he dances his way through every compromise and contradiction in his character. Unfortunately, his adroitness swamps the competition and that makes Mass Appeal more of a star turn than a movie.

First published in The Herald, February 12, 1985

Ivanek has enjoyed a long career as a stage actor as well as his many screen roles, and he became more interesting onscreen as he got older. The cast also included Louise Latham, Gloria Stuart, and James Ray, who played the lead in Equus at the Seattle Rep in the late 1970s. Director was Glenn Jordan, a kind of A-lister of TV movies, whose big-screen comedy The Buddy System was something I liked back then.

Far North

August 28, 2020

Not only does Sam Shepard get to be an award-winning playwright (Fool for Love), a sought-after leading man (The Right Stuff), and the live-in companion of Jessica Lange. Now he gets to direct a movie, too.

The film is Far North, and Shepard also wrote the script. For a writer of such clear ambitions, Far North is a surprisingly tame film, as though Shepard, learning a new craft, wanted to start off slowly. This he does, and the movie remains modest, though it’s often a beguiling thing to watch.

Actually, it begins at a brisk clip, as a prickly old geezer (Charles Durning) is sent head first onto the cold Minnesota ground by a skittish horse. This puts him in the hospital, alongside his brother (Donald Moffat), a drunk who’s drying out.

The accident, not a serious one, brings his daughter (Jessica Lange) in from the big city. From his hospital bed, he gives her an assignment: Shoot the horse. Shoot the horse? This bewildering order, which she is determined to fulfill, puts her at loggerheads with her sister (Tess Harper), who still lives out on the family farm with their spacey mother (Ann Wedgeworth).

Strangely enough, this minor family crisis turns out to be the mainspring of the plot, which unfolds to include the wayward antics of Harper’s own daughter (Patricia Arquette). Eventually, the entire clan ends up combing the woods for the horse, who has understandably quit the scene.

The whole movie is played as a rural comedy, and a lot of it is gently amusing. When Lange asks her father why he couldn’t just wait until he gets out of the hospital to shoot the animal himself, he replies, with perfect logic, that the horse won’t know why he’s getting shot if they wait.

Shepard is perfectly willing to drag in some familiar drunken philosophizing between the two brothers, and he’s not above using old gags, such as the moment when Lange finds daddy’s shotgun in a cupboard and assures her sister that it isn’t loaded—bang. At these moments, you wonder: This is America’s boldest playwright?

But if you go into Far North with lowered sights, it’s enjoyable. The locations are nice, the music by the Red Clay Ramblers is bouncy, and all of the people in it are nice to be around. Lange does particularly good work, from her initial nervousness with her pa to her high-heel clunkiness when she’s trying to fit in at the farm. She and Shepard are obviously a simpatico couple.

First published in The Herald, November 1988

Shepard directed one more feature, Silent Tongue. This was in the first year of Patricia Arquette’s career, and give Shepard credit for casting: That’s a heckuva line-up.

The Rosary Murders

August 19, 2020

Who is killing the priests and nuns of Detroit? This is the pressing question in The Rosary Murders, a movie based on one of those mystery novels that charts a serial killer’s dastardly acts. In this case, the killer excommunicates clerics on successive Fridays, for reasons that puzzle the cops.

Against his will, the key to the puzzle is given to Father Koesler (Donald Sutherland), a warm and understanding priest (he wears a sweatshirt that says “Holy Redeemer” on it and he drinks Virgin Marys – wink, wink). The killer has told his crimes to Koesler, in the sanctity of the confessional. Due to church law, Koesler can’t tip the police lieutenant (Josef Summer) or the reporter (Belinda Bauer) who are working on the case. He also can’t blab to his superior, an old-school priest (Charles Durning), the kind of guy who’s likely to greet the prospect of Good Friday by saying, “I don’t see what’s so good about it.”

Koesler’s ethical dilemma will be recognizable from a variety of previ­ous sources, notably Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess. Naturally Koesler can do nothing but track down the clues himself, and try to convince the maniac to stop.

The novel The Rosary Murders was written by William X. Kienzle, and the plot bears the typical murder mystery gimmicks: The killer leaves a rosary in the hand of each victim, the victims’ names are linked to a Biblical reference, etc. The screenplay has occasional bite, possibly because it was adapted by Elmore Leonard, the excellent crime novel­ ist.

Unfortunately, director Fred Walton (When a Stranger Calls) can’t convince us that the material is anything but warmed-over. Walton resorts to a series of cheap suspense­-enhancers: the votive light that blows out when a doomed nun walks past, the ringing phone that splits the silence in a tense situation. He even gooses the soundtrack with the frenzied church-like chanting that gave such a corny charge to The Omen.

More nonsensically, Walton is excessively coy about hiding the killer’s face from the audience. The confessional scene when Koesler first realizes that the murderer is next to him, and a later encounter with a nun who’s taken a vow of silence, both contain a couple of chilling moments. But it’s not enough.

First published in The Herald, September 1987

Obviously the eyebrow-raiser here is that Elmore Leonard worked on the screenplay, but apparently that didn’t enhance my viewing experience. According to IMDb, Jack White plays an altar boy, a profession he gave up for music. This was one of the mid-career roles for Belinda Bauer, who made an impression in William Richert’s films Winter Kills and The American Success Company; she quit showbiz and became a psychologist.


July 12, 2012

You can see why James Woods would be attracted to the lead role in Cop, a new police thriller. His character, a volatile big-city cop, is both an intelligent, sensitive family man and a nervy, hair-trigger obsessive. The role fits right into Woods’ gallery of unclassifiables, from the killer in The Onion Field to the buzzsaw reporter in Salvador to the perverse thug in Best Seller.

Woods is never a dull actor, which means there’s always something to watch in Cop. But the movie is a strange, unsuccessful mélange of different styles. For a while, it appears to be a provocative character study of a cop on the edge, similar to Clint Eastwood’s Tightrope, wherein Woods is curiously attracted to a serial-murder case involving innocent girls.

Then the film veers off into an odd look at man-woman relations, as Woods engages the help of a feminist poet (Lesley Ann Warren) with some predictable clashes in sensibility. And then some of the movie is black comedy, as when Woods picks up the companion of a hood he’s just shot in the street; she looks down at the corpse and asks, “Is what’s-his-name dead?” just before Woods takes her home to spend the night.

None of it ever gets in gear. The tone of the film seems to shift from scene to scene, as though writer-director James B. Harris (who also produced the movie with Woods) were trying out different, awkward styles. Harris, who made his niche in film history by producing three of Stanley Kubrick’s earliest pictures (The Killing, Paths of Glory, Lolita), has had a fitful career as a director, and Cop does nothing to advance it.

Every time Harris starts to touch on a potentially interesting subject, the film suddenly shifts back into cop-movie cliché (the by-the-book police captain growls to Woods, “If you go to the media with this, I’ll crucify you!”).

The performers seem uncertain, too. What to make of Warren’s poet, who goes from defensiveness to giggles within a few moments? (Check out her wonderfully blowsy performance in HBO’s recent Baja California instead.) Charles Durning and Charles (“Hill Street Blues”) Haid, both looking more rotund than ever, are fellow cops, but both are sketchily drawn.

Woods’ electric presence—the sharp shoulders, the lean, haunted face, the breathless jabber—can carry a film, but can’t make it comprehensible. Cop may be guilty of relying too much on its star to piece things together. Woods is good, but he can’t do it all himself.

First published in the Herald, April 10, 1988

I don’t remember the movie, but this was in the period when Lesley Ann Warren was finding her post-ingenue career very fruitful. Same for Charles Durning, of course.

Happy New Year

December 30, 2011

There’s something almost French about the tone and rhythm of Happy New Year, a new movie about a jewelry heist: in the way the narrative pokes along, with more attention to detail than concentration on the big picture. And that’s no accident; this is an adaptation of a French movie of the same title from a few years back, directed by Claude Lelouch.

Hollywood regularly exposes its paucity of imagination by stealing (or buying) foreign vehicles, and French comedies are high on the shopping list. Look for a star-heavy American version of the French hit Three Men and a Cradle later this year.

This translation of Happy New Year doesn’t try to jazz things up. It’s very low-key, almost apologetic, as it plods on in its shapeless way.

Peter Falk takes the lead role, as a congenially crumpled little guy who masterminds the robberies. He recruits an old pal (Charles Durning) to assist in one final job, a trés chic jewelry store in West Palm Beach. They’re an old-fashioned pair—”dated” might be a better world—who talk about “chasing skirts” and old prison memories.

Since the store is physically impenetrable, Falk plots to worm his way in by gaining the trust of the manager (Tom Courtenay) and saleswoman (Wendy Hughes). This he does by applying heavy makeup and pretending to be a doddering old millionaire (and, on alternate visits, the doddering old millionaire’s sister). Eventually, Falk will use the guise to get him in the store after closing time.

Falk also contacts Hughes as himself, and soon finds he’s won over by her charm. So will the audience be: Hughes, a gorgeous, very intelligent actress, who has appeared in many Australian films including Lonely Hearts and Careful, He Might Hear You, brings palpable grace to this movie.

In fact, there are a few bits and pieces of this film that can be enjoyed along the way. John G. Avildsen, who made the first Rocky, clearly is trying to achieve some honestly touching moments, most of which involve Hughes and Falk and the recurrence on the soundtrack of “I Only Have Eyes for You.” These moments don’t add up, unfortunately, because unlike the necklaces and bracelets in the jewelry store, these ornaments lack a complex setting.

First published in the Herald, August 9, 1987

The title of this movie provides a handy send-off for 2011, which was a lively affair. Coincidentally, a send-off to Peter Falk, an actor I liked a lot for Columbo, many other things, but, well, especially Columbo.