Hanky Panky

March 23, 2011

I realized going in to Hanky Panky that I had never seen one of Sidney Poitier’s half-dozen-or-so directed films. Having seen it, I still feel like disqualifying myself, for surely Hanky Panky has not been directed by anyone, and if it has, who on earth would want to take credit for such a fiasco? Poitier had a monster hit with his previous film, Stir Crazy, which I’ve always managed to avoid seeing, even on its Showtime run; did he use his clout and riding-high status to make this?

The screenplay presents a bald ripoff of North by Northwest that could conceivably have been polished and livened up by a great director, but Sidney Poitier doesn’t seem to be that. The opening sequence, of a crazed suicide, is so inept that it seems to have been directed by a high-school film buff who has some very clichéd ideas about suspense. The movie is cheap-looking, and the cast is poorly handled, too. Of course Richard Widmark can always curl a lip when playing a villain, but that’s all he does here; and Kathleen Quinlan acts as though she were in a different movie from the other actors, although in Hanky Panky that’s perfectly all right.

Gene Wilder does his Gene Wilder thing, which has provided many moments of pleasure in films past, but there is the sense here that it’s being extended over one film too many (and his director has nothing new to add to Wilder’s shtick this time round). The movie camera does not like Gilda Radner, and she is playing someone who is supposed to be normal; whereas anyone who has ever seen Radner’s “Judy Miller Show” on “Saturday Night Live” knows that this is no normal person and should not be treated like one.

Even the much-celebrated real-life romance between Wilder and Radner does not come across on the screen; there are no To Have and Have Not-like frissons during which we glimpse two people falling in love in real life even as they are in the movie. But maybe Sidney Poitier didn’t notice. He doesn’t translate any behavioral idiosyncrasy to the screen, and maybe he doesn’t see any in the world around him. I mean, we’re talking about a director who zooms into a candleflame at the end of a love scene so he can dissolve to a crackling blaze in the fireplace. And with that kind of directorial sensibility at work, it’s the audience that winds up getting burned.

First published in The Informer, June 1982

Sheesh. I suppose “audience getting burned” is just as labored a transition as the flame-to-the-fireplace bit. Well, it’s understood, I hope, that saying Radner should not be treated like a normal person is a compliment to a very special comedian; she was frequently uncanny on “SNL.” Poitier, a splendid actor, of course notices behavioral idiosyncrasy in the world around him, despite my comment, but this is a really badly directed movie. In the Wilder-Radner canon, Haunted Honeymoon was no prize either, unfortunately. It’s hard to believe two glorious performers could team up to create such inert movies. And yet there they are.

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Haunted Honeymoon/Maximum Overdrive

January 4, 2011

Here are a pair of chillers with only one thing in common: They’re not scary.

The less said about Haunted Honeymoon the better. If you’re a fan of Gene Wilder’s, as I am, you’ll probably come away from his latest film (he stars, directs, and co-scripts) terribly depressed.

Wilder has a few funny moments as an actor, but he clearly doesn’t know how to make movies. This 80-minute trifle is shockingly inept in the simplest business of storytelling; you’re never even quite sure who the characters are supposed to be, let alone why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Wilder and Gilda Radner play radio actors from the heyday of radio drama who spend an evening in Wilder’s family home, a brooding old mansion straight out of the Universal horror films of the early 1930s. Some lame explanation about Wilder’s uncle (Paul L. Smith) wanting to scare Wilder for medical reasons is given, but it makes no sense.

Once inside, the scares aren’t scary—except perhaps for Wilder’s aunt, played by Dom DeLuise, who isn’t supposed to be scary—and the jokes aren’t funny. Some good actors are wasted, especially the brilliant Jonathan Pryce (Brazil) and Bryan Pringle, who takes the Marty Feldman butler role.

Now to someone who knows how to scare: Stephen King. Having seen a raft of movies released under his name—and reportedly growing increasingly upset about the rock-bottom quality of most—King has finally gotten a chance to direct a movie.

It’s Maximum Overdrive, based on an early King story called “Trucks.” And it’s all about the Earth going crazy when it passes through some kind of force field (possibly a comet’s tail) and all the machines becoming malevolent. Especially these trucks, which descend on a North Carolina truck stop called the Dixie Boy and scare the bewhoozis out of the people inside.

All right, so it doesn’t sound that scary. But Steven Spielberg proved once and for all that a truck could be a very frightening thing, in Duel, so surely Stephen King can do it—right?

No, not really. I’ve not read the story, so I don’t know if King made it work there. But Maximum Overdrive, after a burst of inspiration in its opening sequences, soon becomes mired in the dull situation at the Dixie Boy.

Some of the ingenious and sick touches in the early going suggest a nutty promise. A drawbridge goes haywire and dumps it riders all over the road. A Coke machine goes berserk—all that caffeine, probably—and kills by spitting out cans. A driverless ice cream truck prowls suburban streets looking for human prey, while “King of the Road” tinkles from its bell.

But then King’s well of inspiration runs dry. Back at the Dixie Boy, we watch as the short-order cook (Emilio Estevez) haggles with the redneck owner (Pat Hingle) and romances a hitchhiker (Laura Harrington).

The possessed trucks circle the place endlessly, in a curiously unfrightening way. One good moment: A waitress, distraught, hysterically shouts at the machines, “We made you! Where’s your sense of loyalty?”

King does manage a few gross, effective, perverse touches. What he doesn’t manage to do is to make a particularly scary movie. To give King the benefit of the doubt, I’d like to believe this has more to do with the simple choice of poor material than with his talents as a director. Next time, no trucks. How about an old, dilapidated mansion on a rainy night full of weird people with a lunatic in the cellar….

First published in the Herald, July 1986

It doesn’t seem that a movie with Dom DeLuise in drag could be entirely awful, but there you go. If anybody deserved to make good movies together, surely Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner did, but it didn’t go that way (I have a review ready to go of Hanky Panky here, too, and it’s hard to know which movie is worse).

According to IMDb.com, Stephen King has said he was coked out of his mind while making Maximum Overdrive. I still think it would be interesting to see him direct something, although his “author approved” TV version of The Shining suggests he doesn’t grasp certain things about how scary movies succeed vs. how scary books succeed. Not that I’m questioning his expertise in the latter, but…let’s see how he directs again.