8 Million Ways to Die

January 29, 2020

8millionways8 Million Ways to Die is the, uh, interesting title for a crime melodrama that turns out to be a hard-bitten, utterly traditional entry in the genre.

The movie does not outline all 8 million ways. But it does provide the requisite amount of bloodshed for this sort of potboiler.

It also does more, or at least tries to. The story of an alcoholic ex-cop who sees a shot at redemption in the solving of a murder is a classic set-up for this kind of film, and it’s taken quite seriously here.

The credits are from the A-list: director Hal Ashby (Being There, Coming Home), screenwriter Oliver Stone (Scarface), and the two expressive stars, Jeff Bridges and Rosanna Arquette. Actually, Arquette (in a role that Jamie Lee Curtis backed out of at the last minute) doesn’t have a great deal to do. But Bridges, as he generally does, provides a strong center that pulls the film over the holes in its plot.

He’s the ex-cop. One night he receives a bewildering invitation to a party from a woman (Alexandra Paul) he doesn’t know, or at least doesn’t remember. She’s a prostitute mixed up with some heavy hitters in the Los Angeles crime scene, and she asks Bridges to help her exit.

But she’s killed before he can get her out of town, and Bridges, after landing in detox, resolves to find out whodunit and why. He enlists Arquette, who’s also a paid party girl, to help him get to the truth.

Ashby gets the seediness of this side of Los Angeles just right – lots of strange locations, like a mobster’s house that has no right angles. Stone’s script, while far from sublime, contains some fierce dialogue, and probably more vulgarity than any film since The Last Detail. In terms of plot, there isn’t a lot of clarity, and there’s certainly no suspense about whodunit – not that there need be, necessarily.

The big climax, a tense showdown in an abandoned warehouse, is pitched just this side of absurdity – intentionally, I think – and has the characters screaming at each other in debased desperation. A lot of people are going to think it’s stupid; I found it brutally effective.

There are a few expository scenes where everything comes to a standstill, most of the supporting parts are coarsely acted, and the final few shots are gag-me hokey. But with all the jagged edges, the movie carries an occasional punch.

First published in the Herald, May 21, 1986

The interesting title comes courtesy of Lawrence Block’s source novel. When I recall the film, I have a mostly positive reaction, especially for its L.A. look. It turned out to be Ashby’s last feature film. Andy Garcia is in the cast, and the movie is one of a series of AA-themed stories that came out around this time, including Garcia’s When a Man Loves a Woman, which is maybe why I think of these films together (Clean and Sober, with Michael Keaton, was another). I just looked up Alexandra Paul, who would enter the Baywatch world soon after this movie, and learned that she is a longtime activist and the 2014 Vegan of the Year.


Against All Odds

December 19, 2019

againstalloddsAgainst All Odds is another of those sweaty, hot­ looking movies that builds up a great sense of atmosphere. It may be that the director was too busy whipping up this atmosphere to notice that the movie was coming unglued, because Against All Odds is a rambling piece of work that succeeds neither as a love story nor as a thriller. It bears scant resemblance to the 1947 film on which it is based, Out of the Past, directed by Jacques Tourneur. That film was a lean, hard story about a guy with a past, a shady deal and a bad girl. It hurtled toward the hero’s eventual doom with efficiency and terseness.

Against All Odds meanders through a more complicated scenario. The story may be more ambitious, but it’s also more confused. And the film is so awkwardly shaped that it seems to come to a full halt a few times.

This washed-up Los Angeles football player (Jeff Bridges), at loose ends, agrees to go to Mexico to find the girlfriend of a sleazy bookie (sleazy James Woods) who is also the daughter of the football team’s wealthy owner (Jane Greer, who played the lead in Out of the Past opposite Robert Mitchum).

Woods has evidence incriminating Bridges in a fixed game, and Bridges is more or less blackmailed into looking for the girl, who stabbed Woods before she ran away. When Bridges finds the girl (Rachel Ward) on a Caribbean island, he quite naturally falls for her himself. Their island idyll is cut short when they realize that Woods will not give up looking for her.

But Bridges finds out that Ward plays a mean game, too; she leaves him standing on top of a Mayan temple with blood on his hands. At this point, the film switches back to Los Angeles, and you start to get almost as confused as Bridges’ character must be.

The love story gets woven into a bigger scam that involves Greer’s development of a Los Angeles hill into condominiums, and the devious and dangerous ways this is done. But by this time, so many crosses have been doubled that it’s hard to keep up with the complications.

Director Taylor Hackford – who scored such a big hit with 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman – has paced the film to an inappropriately lazy beat. A fast car chase toward the beginning of the movie and some nice suspense in an office building toward the end are taut sequences, but there’s too much slack in between, and many things don’t make whole lot of sense. For instance, Woods’ henchman (Dorian Harewood) hangs around in a lot of scenes, but ultimately doesn’t seem to be there for any reason.

And the film is almost humorless – a disappointment when you’ve got a very witty actor, Jeff Bridges, in the lead, as well as some supporting players with solid comic credentials (Alex Karras, Saul Rubinek, and Swoosie Kurtz especially; only Kurtz gets to supply some much-­needed comic relief).

The acting of former model Rachel Ward seems to be improving. She’s a whole lot less wooden here than she was in TV’s The Thorn Birds, certainly, and she throws herself into the love scenes with gusto. She’s so gorgeous that the relative merit of her technical skills stops mattering after a short while.

First published in the Herald, March 3, 1984

A lot of plot revealed here. Maybe I didn’t know what else to say about this blah remake. And yet no mention of the impossible-to-escape Phil Collins title song (the film’s only Oscar nomination). My description of Out of the Past sounds odd now, as that movie strikes me as voluptuous rather than lean or terse, but maybe I was trying to make a point. Richard Widmark’s in this movie, too.


The Morning After

December 3, 2019

morningafterAmericans are in the midst of a surging love affair with the mystery story; the hard-boiled novel is booming, and television sleuths proliferate. The movies, however, have not had much to be proud of in the genre lately, but audiences were so hungry for the form that they made Jagged Edge, a bad movie, one of the surprise hits of 1985.

The Morning After is much in the Jagged Edge vein. It even borrows the star of that film, Jeff Bridges, for another shifty role.

The set-up is good, and the stuff of classic mystery: A woman (Jane Fonda) wakes up one morning in a strange apartment, with no idea how she got there. That’s not unusual; she’s a boozy has-been actress who has seen one too many mornings like this. She looks over at the man next to her, who seems to be in a dead sleep. Except that, as it turns out, he’s not asleep, just dead. There’s a huge knife sticking out of his chest, and she doesn’t know how it got there.

She’s got to find out whodunit while avoiding the attention of the police. Her husband (Raul Julia), from whom she is separated, is some help. An unlikely ally is the redneck ex-cop (Bridges) she bumps into. 

This is a perfectly adequate way to launch a thriller. But director Sidney Lumet does not know quite how to treat the tawdry story, and the film unravels early on.

Many such suspense films take place in a night world, full of shadows and darkness. Lumet places this story in the harsh Los Angeles sunlight, presumably in keeping with the title, and to remain thematically consistent with the heroine’s spiritual enlightenment. Unfortunately, this bleaches any atmosphere out of the film; the daylight has a dulling effect on the mystery.

There is one nice scene – at night – when the newly acquainted Fonda and Bridges share a Thanksgiving dinner of turkey cold cuts and Thunderbird wine. She talks of her starlet past, and tells him that “they were grooming me to be the next Vera Miles.” (“Who?” he says.)

But Lumet flubs the mystery. The movie cheats on its characters – one crucial person isn’t introduced until the film is almost over – and logical lapses abound.

Bridges is his professional self, though he doesn’t have very much to do. He seems to be single-handedly bringing back the suspenseful thriller tradition of film noir, with his roles in Cutter’s Way, Against All Odds, Jagged Edge, and 8 Million Ways to Die in the last few years. It’s a good cause, but the films need to get better.

Fonda, whose production company helped make the movie, all too obviously considers this role a stretch (no pun on her exercise regimen intended). She has a few good scenes, but most of her performance is laid on too thick.

Lumet is completing a family circle. His first feature film, Twelve Angry Men, starred and was produced by Fonda’s father. Henry insisted the young Lumet be given the directorial shot then, and the kid was off to a busy career. Not necessarily a progressive career, however. Twelve Angry Men will be remembered a lot longer than The Morning After.

First published in the Herald, December 1986

I wonder if this films looks better today; it certainly hasn’t been remembered much, as I suggested. Someone should really do a series devoted to 80s Bridges Noir, even if the results (save for Cutter’s Way, a masterpiece) were not individually satisfying. The hard-boiled revival I refer to must have included the re-discovery of writers such as Jim Thompson at this time, which was an exciting moment.


Nadine

May 25, 2012

Perhaps the gifted writer-director Robert Benton needs a cooling-off period between his big movies. His multi-Oscar-winner Kramer vs. Kramer was followed by the chilly, compact thriller Still of the Night. Then came more big Oscar attention with Places in the Heart.

Now Benton’s playing it small again. Nadine is a stubbornly modest little movie, turning on the merest wisp of a plot and not even stretching out to a full 90 minutes. On its own terms, it’s charming, though frankly I expect more from Benton. This is a little like a major novelist tossing off a novella for his own amusement.

Benton again explores the Texas that has served him so well in the past (in Places and the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde). The time is the 1950s, and the setting is Austin, where Nadine (Kim Basinger, continuing the comic vein of Blind Date) accidentally stumbles over the murder of a greasy photographer (Jerry Stiller).

He’d taken some, uh, “art studies” of her, promising that they would come to the attention of Hugh Hefner. Corpse or not, she wants the pictures back, and she enlists her estranged husband (Jeff Bridges) to help; all of which plops them smack dab in the middle of the land-grabbing scheme of a local crime boss (played by Rip Torn and a 10-gallon hat).

Naturally, it also puts them back in each other’s company, and Benton is sharp when it comes to observing that two people who have been together for a long time have a tendency to keep a flame going for each other. It’s the old situation of ex-lovers who constantly declaim how much they can’t stand each other, while helplessly falling in love again.

Basinger and Bridges are easy to watch, and have considerable fun spewing Benton’s Southern-flavored dialogue. The small scenes are the best: Basinger and Bridges drinking milk on their first night back together; Bridges killing time in his tavern, the Bluebonnet Bar, a deserted and hopeless joint on the edge of town.

It’s a resolutely modest film, and sometimes the framework of the movie barely supports its characters.

I was disappointed. But Basinger and Bridges work up enough charm to justify Torn’s description of them: “Yer livin’ testimony to the fact that it’s better to be lucky than smart.”

First published in the Herald, August 6, 1987

I have a lot of admiration for Benton’s vibe, which is why it is a particular bummer when his movies underwhelm. This film isn’t quite at the “What were you thinking?” level, and maybe it’s aged well. But it is very modest.


Starman

February 1, 2012

In the opening scene of Starman, we see the Voyager probe, which was sent into outer space a few years ago. In a parody of the musical space ballets of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the vessel glides through the solar system—but instead of the strains of “The Blue Danube,” as in 2001, we hear the Rolling Stones singing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” which, apparently, was included in the sampler of cultural artifacts as part of the message of invitation for alien civilizations.

Right then you know this is not going to be a stuffy movie.

The Voyager’s invitation will be accepted, by a highly advanced civilization, and this premise—a grown-up E.T.—is the story of Starman (which, by the way, is being touted as the science-fiction sleeper of the season, especially compared to the bigger-budgeted 2010 and Dune).

Starman had an air of notoriety even before the cameras started rolling. This is the project that Columbia Pictures decided to develop instead of E.T., which was then passed on to Universal. We all know how that one turned out, and Columbia had egg on its face for a while.

Starman makes Columbia look better. It’s not as good as E.T., but it’s got a similar innocence and hopeful view of man and alien. It’s also got unavoidably similar situations, such as the alien learning to eat, speak, and behave in the human world. Some of this stuff has been overworked lately (it’s going to turn up again in the upcoming Brother from Another Planet), but much of it is sure-fire in terms of engaging an audience.

Both films are love stories between the alien and his finder. The big difference between E.T. and Starman is that this story has an adult romance, not a child’s.

The Starman crash-lands in Wisconsin near the farm of a widow (Karen Allen, from Raiders of the Lost Ark). He scopes out her home and reforms himself to look like her late husband (so, he looks like Jeff Bridges).

He’s on Earth just to get a feel for the place and then return to his own world with information—and perhaps to help a little down here. But he went off course, and he has to get back to his pick-up point (in Arizona) in three days, or he’ll miss his ride and die.

So Allen is recruited as a reluctant chauffeur, and as a tutor—teaching the Starman, during their cross-country journey, about the joys of driving, language, truck stops, Dutch apple pie, and other intimate human functions.

A parallel story develops: the pursuit of the Starman by official forces. The government people, being government people, want to capture him and run all kinds of nasty tests. Not very good manners, considering that, as one expert puts it, “We invited him here!”

That UFO expert (a good role for Charles Martin Smith of Never Cry Wolf) tracks the Starman with the government officials (led by that mean guy, Richard Jaeckel). By the time everybody meets up in Arizona, he’s got more feeling for the Starman than for his official job.

This film should open up some doors for director John Carpenter, who has had a hard time breaking out of the horror genre (Halloween, Christine). He gets the humor very nicely and the performers are solid. I would quibble only that the film takes a long time getting into its groove, but it grows on you enough to make you forget that. When Starman reaches its rapturous ending, you’re with it all the way.

First published in the Herald, December 12, 1984

It may have opened some doors for Carpenter, but it turned out he wasn’t a guy to walk through them anyway. Nice movie, and it must be well-liked, but it sure doesn’t come up much in conversation; maybe there’s too much mushy stuff for it to hold a lot of nerdosphere cred? Jeff Bridges is terrific in it, and got a well-deserved Oscar nomination.