Lock Up

January 24, 2013

lockupSylvester Stallone’s new movie, Lock Up, begins with shots of our hero exchanging loving hugs with his girlfriend and sifting through sentimental old photographs, all accompanied by sensitive piano music.

Piano music? And they call this a Stallone movie? Well, yes, as it turns out. Soon enough, Lock Up gets back to basics. It turns out Sly is a convict on a weekend furlough; he’s quickly back in prison, where he awaits his upcoming release. (His crime, of course, is completely justifiable, so there’s no problem being on his side.)

Unfortunately, he gets transferred from his comfy county club jailhouse to the state’s “garage dump,” a place run by a psychotic warden (Donald Sutherland) who has it in for Stallone. When Sly arrives at the prison, the warden takes him down to look at the nice electric chair and, bathed in red light, announces, “This is hell. And I’m going to give you the guided tour.”

The tour consists of the next 90 minutes, wherein Stallone is beaten up, slammed into the mud, knifed, and driven into the sewers. Such masochism is, of course, a Stallone hallmark, and as always he revels in getting shellacked. There’s also a lot of absurd buddy-bonding, as well as the customary Stallone catch phrases (“Nuthin’s dead ’til it’s buried, man,” is the favorite here).

Director John Flynn (Best Seller) does a competent job in terms of moving things along, but the film is watered down, colorless. The only suspense comes from waiting to see which of Stallone’s little buddies is going to get killed and thus set him off into a climactic rage.

You find yourself waiting for Donald Sutherland to glide into view, because it’s such a relief to see someone who’s interested in doing a little acting. Sutherland doesn’t have very much to work with—most of his role consists of walking over to a window to watch Stallone be humiliated in the courtyard below—but he does bring an elegant sense of depravity to his scenes.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

Not often mentioned when Stallone’s 1980s career is cited, and it was no blockbuster. But as you can see, it taps into some of the man’s most cherished obsessions, and nothing is dead until it’s buried, man.

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Wolf at the Door

August 29, 2012

Wolf at the Door chronicles two decisive years (1893-4) in the life of Paul Gauguin from his arrival back in Paris after painting in Tahiti, until his return to the South Pacific. It was, according to the film, Gauguin’s last fling at trying to live in civilization, and it was a complete failure.

Gauguin is played by Donald Sutherland, who plays it intelligently, if never thrillingly. I suppose this performance is somewhere between a couple of previous cinematic approximations of the Gauguin character—the different approaches of Anthony Quinn in Lust for Life and George Sanders in the fictional The Moon and Sixpence.

Sutherland does not attempt an accent or anything like that; the movie is a potpourri of nationalities before and behind the camera, as is the case with most international co-productions.

When Gauguin arrives in Paris, he has nothing but the superb canvases upon which he pours his brilliant genius. Naturally, it follows that his one-man show is a disaster (everyone hates his work), and he has no idea how to support himself. (The film includes a flashback to the moment some years before when he walked away from his family and a lucrative job as a stockbroker to pursue painting.)

At the lowest moment, an inheritance arrives, which will support his time in Paris. Gauguin tries to organize a colony of artists who will return with him to Tahiti, though this dream falls apart. He also dallies with many women, including a Javanese girl who models for him and shares his room.

It is an interesting period in his life (it included an encounter with a cranky August Strindberg, played by Max von Sydow), and the movie is a trim enough telling of it. It’s seen through the eyes of a 14-year-old neighbor girl who idolizes and romanticizes Gauguin.

The movie is essentially a Danish production, directed and produced by Henning Carlsen, a veteran Danish filmmaker.

Carlsen’s Scandinavian scrupulousness keeps the film tidy and decent. But that approach is hardly suitable to deal to Gauguin’s raging primitivism, and a fuller account of the artist’s life awaits a gutsier, more romantic film—and, probably, a more volcanic actor.

First published in the Herald, September 1987

Henning Carlsen is still alive; he did adaptations of Knut Hamsen’s Hunger and Pan, 30 years apart. I’d watch this movie again, because the story of Gauguin is so hard to resist, but I do remember being disappointed by Sutherland’s take on the role.


Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence

July 25, 2012

Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence is the kind of movie you visit without high expectations for cinematic subtlety—what the heck, just a good, juicy cat-and-mouse whodunit will do.

After all, the formula has worked well before. Murder on the Orient Express took a gallery of stars and set them up as bowling pins for Christie’s sleuth, Hercule Poirot. Ditto for Death on the Nile. But as the Christie adaptations continue, the stars get less stellar and the screenplays less inspired.

The form hits its nadir with Ordeal by Innocence, which is being quietly released (read: it’s getting dumped) after having sat on the shelf for a year or so. Not only is it incoherent and cheap-looking, it doesn’t even have Poirot.

This time the sleuth, a Dr. Calgary (Donald Sutherland), is an amateur to the practice of criminal detection. He’s a scientist, drawn into a murder in which he was peripherally involved.

This idea is a good one. Seems Calgary gave a ride to a hitchhiker who left a notebook (with return address) in Calgary’s car. But Calgary was off on an expedition to the Antarctic, where he spent the next two years.

After his stint southward, Calgary dutifully returns the notebook to the address. But it seems the owner is dead—he was hanged for the murder of his mother, which occurred the very night, and at the very time, Calgary had given him a ride.

This means the man did not kill his mother, and Calgary was his only alibi. The scientist sets out to determine the real killer, much to the dismay of the surviving suspects; they all believe the world is a better place without the hanged man, who was a cad.

It’s a good setup, but the narrative goes willy-nilly almost immediately, half-heartedly distributing red herrings. Sutherland does a professional job as the investigator, but the rest of the cast is colorless, and their roles have no meat.

Some of these actors are plain boring (Christopher Plummer, Sarah Miles), some are wasted (Diana Quick, Phoebe Nicholls, both of “Brideshead Revisited”). None of them has anything to do but act British and unperturbed, a deadly dull combination.

The film is so tawdry is relies on black-and-white flashbacks to fill up time, featuring Faye Dunaway as the murder victim. It’s tempting to speculate these scenes were added at some late point in the editing, since the movie, with flashbacks, barely clocks in at 90 minutes.

One other major gaffe: Incredibly, the guilty party is revealed to the audience about 10 minutes before the principals are all gathered into one room for the traditional denouement. This takes considerable wind out of Sutherland’s sails as he leads up to the big accusation.

Ordeal by Innocence is best forgotten, although it does have one quirky feature. That’s the jazz score by Dave Brubeck, which jumps into the story whenever things get dull. This means there’s a whole lot of music. It’s so stupidly out of place in this chilly British world, you’d wonder what was going through the minds of the people who made this movie—if the feebleness of the rest of the film hadn’t already answered that question.

First published in the Herald, November 4, 1985

Does anyone remember this movie? It seems to have no profile at all. Sutherland was busy at this time, filling the lead role in a strange collection of films.


The Trouble with Spies

January 19, 2011

There are subtle ways of surmising that a movie has been sitting on the shelf for a while. You can check the dated fashions, listen for year-old speech anachronisms, or note the untimely subject matter.

Then there’s the acid test: How many of the cast members have died since the film was made?

Sounds macabre, right? But when actors who’ve been dead for a couple of years turn up in a new movie, you know the film was in no hurry to be released.

Such a film is The Trouble with Spies, which features Ruth Gordon in a supporting role. Not to dwell on the morbid, but Gordon has been deceased for a while now, which suggests that The Trouble with Spies has been collecting dust for a couple of years.

The reason for the delayed release is abundantly clear. The Trouble with Spies is excruciatingly bad, without an ounce of wit, charm, or suspense.

There was a time when the basic premise—a bumbling spy set up as a Judas Goat by his own government, with comic consequences—would have been appropriate material for director-writer-producer Burt Kennedy. Kennedy made a few funky Westerns in the 1960s, such as The Rounders and Support Your Local Sheriff!, which proved his talent for mixing comedy with action.

But Kennedy doesn’t find any of the comedy here. This film’s idea of funny is summed up in its opening scene: British spy chief Robert Morley asks clumsy agent Donald Sutherland to please be careful with that machine gun in Morley’s neat office. Sutherland assures him not to worry; the gun isn’t loaded. At which point the gun begins spraying lead all over Morley’s walls. Gee, we haven’t seen that gag before, have we?

Sutherland, who seems to be following Michael Caine’s policy of taking every job offered, is sleepwalking through this one. The oddest thing is that, despite the film’s official status as a comedy, Sutherland remains quite stolid.

Elsewhere, Gordon does the cute-little-old-lady thing, and Michael Hordern and Ned Beatty are similarly wasted. Lucy Gutteridge manages to make the phrase “love interest” a contradiction in terms.

Another oddity: Though the film includes Sutherland’s walk along a topless beach on the island of Ibiza, it gets a tame PG rating. Presumably the censors were (understandably) asleep by that time.

First published in the Herald, 1987.

Another forgotten movie, produced by DEG, Dino De Laurentiis’s shingle at the time. Had some hopes going into this, because of Burt Kennedy, but obviously it appears to have fallen short of expectations, and everything else. For the record, Ruth Gordon died in August 1985, and this movie was released in December 1987. I still think the length-of-actors-being-deceased is a good yardstick for suspecting something amiss about a movie. In any case, this is the kind of thing that would go straight to video today, but was able to actually secure a release in those innocent days. Another reason not to be nostalgic.