The House on Carroll Street

November 4, 2019

housecarrollstreetThe opening scene of The House on Carroll Street is a wonderfully rich re-creation of a Senate hearing room, circa 1951. The mahogany tables, the clustered microphones, the angularity of the costumes and attitudes, all evoke the McCarthy era and its sense of reckless interrogation.

On the witness stand is a young woman (Kelly McGillis) who’s some sort of left-­leaning activist. Questioning her, and coolly impugning her character, is an oily Senate counsel, played by Mandy Patinkin as a synthesis of Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn. The most chilling touch comes at the end of the scene when, having destroyed the woman’s career, the panel breaks into a warm round of “Happy Birthday” for the committee chairman.

Adding a layer of reality (and payback) to the early going is the fact that The House on Carroll Street was written by Walter Bernstein, a Hollywood screenwriter who was himself blacklisted in the 1950s for the flimsiest of reasons. Bernstein previously examined the era in The Front.

After the galvanizing opening, Bernstein and director Peter Yates veer off from the blacklisting angle. Instead, their heroine stumbles upon a conspiracy to bring some unwanted foreigners into the country, and uncovers the plot with the aid of the sympathetic FBI man (Jeff Daniels) who’s been watching her.

In other words, the film turns into a rather conventional romantic thriller. As such, It provides a couple of satisfactory sequences, especially a long chase scene in Greenwich Village that travels from a bookstore to a theater, plus the knockout finale in the rafters of Grund Central Station. But the material that links these sequences is muddled; the movie feels as though it’s missing a reel somewhere. The romance between McGillis and Daniels has a perfunctory air about it, which isn’t helped by the awkwardly old-school dialogue (“We’re oil and water,” she tells him). 

Whenever Mandy Patinkin is onscreen, the movie gets a boost – Patinkin, so winning in The Princess Bride, glistens with malice in this film. He sits in a restaurant with McGillis and douses the tablecloth with ketchup as an illustration of – the Communist menace covering the world. Yates’ direction is as ordinary as his work on the similarly unsatisfying Suspect, which also had a couple of suspenseful scenes surrounded by a rickety plot. His – and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’s – best work is simply the evocation of 1951, in the brick houses of Brooklyn and the sharp-creased hats of the FBI men (whose ties come down to the middle of their chests).

It is interesting that a definitive fiction film about the blacklisting era has yet to be made; perhaps still more distance is needed to see the time clearly. Or does Hollywood remain skittish about this period in its history? ln any case, after its opening scene, The House on Carroll Street doesn’t begin to capture the paranoia and shame of those times.

First published in the Herald, March 3, 1988

Yes, a truly dull film that raises but then backs away from the blacklisting angle. Somebody needs to do a powerhouse narrative film on the subject, but this (and the similarly bland Guilty by Suspicion) isn’t it. It sounds like it might almost be worth re-watching for Patinkin, but not really.

Something Wild

November 14, 2012

Hollywood can treat its biggest talents in strange ways. When Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard appeared in 1980, he suddenly looked like the hottest young filmmaker around, and with good reason. That screwball film, which copped the National Society of Film Critics award, had everything: humor, heart, hipness, tenderness.

Since 1980, however, Demme has had a peculiar time of it. He was a good choice to direct Swing Shift, an originally ambitious Goldie Hawn movie, but he clashed with the star and finally lost control of the movie. Then he made the Talking Heads’ scorching concert film, Stop Making Sense, and turned it into the best music film in recent memory. Still, it was an oddball project, and one wondered when Demme would get back to his bread and butter.

He’s cooking again, and Something Wild is his latest concoction. In it, Demme takes an absolutely familiar story and makes something fresh and funky out of it.

The script, by first-timer E. Max Frye, uses the classic situation of the straight-laced guy changed for the better by a wild encounter with a kooky girl. This situation has been a fruitful one in films since the first time Katharine Hepburn dazzled Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby; this variant is decidedly modern, with some new rules, and also some unprecedented seriousness.

This one begins with an up-and-coming tax consultant (Jeff Daniels) casually walking out of a small New York deli without paying his check. He’s been spotted by a young woman (Melanie Griffith) who’s made up to look like silent star Louise Brooks—in fact, she calls herself Lulu, the Brooks character who lured men to their deaths in Pandora’s Box.

Lulu identifies the man, Charles, as a “closet rebel,” a basically good guy who has almost been lost to yuppiedom. She takes him on a nutty ride through a memorably lost weekend that brings out his free-spirit streak.

The first hour of this ride is a wonderfully funny trip, from a motel in New Jersey to Lulu’s mother’s house in Pennsylvania, where she introduces Charles as her new husband. He goes along with it all, because the mysterious Lulu (not her real name, naturally) is so utterly bewitching, and because he’s feeling the thrill of irresponsibility.

Nobody captures this sort of thing better than Demme: the romance of the road, the crazy tourist shops, the fabulous décor of motel rooms.

Then, when the couple drop in at her high-school reunion, they meet a strange, violent man (Ray Liotta, a former soap-opera actor in a striking film debut) from her past. The film veers into some surprisingly serious business, as this dark figure seems intent on reclaiming his old flame.

Some of this is jarring, and it’s certainly startling; but Demme does as well as anyone could with making some of the unevenness fit.

One of the delightful things about the film, and there are many, is the sight of two good actors really breaking through. Griffith, the daughter of Tippi Hedren, has been stalled in sexy nymphet roles (Body Double), but this opens up something new for her. She’ll never quite manage normal roles, I guess, but she certainly fills out her niche here.

Daniels is terrific; he’s the dubious fellow from Terms of Endearment and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Never have his comically flat voice and improbably straight jaw been used to better effect. His absurd habit of referring to waitresses and garage mechanics by the names on their nametags becomes a goofy, friendly, silly catalog of his outlook on life. It’s a lot like the film’s outlook, which is why Something Wild is so much fun to be around.

First published in the Herald, November 1986

I like the movie. Did Melanie Griffith go normal? I suppose so. But here, she filled her niche, so there.


May 21, 2012

Give me a screenplay about a woman fighting for truth and justice in a government scandal, against all odds and by herself, and I’ll give you the latest Oscar vehicle for Sally Field, Jessica Lange, Meryl Streep, or Sissy Spacek.

Well, Streep and Lange were busy, and Field may have the good sense to know she’s done this role enough times, so the part fell to Sissy Spacek. This time it’s called Marie, and the government corruption depicted purports to be the real-life story of the Ray Blanton administration in Tennessee in the 1970s, and of the parole board officer who helped expose the scandal.

Based on Peter Maas’s book (adapted by John Briley), Marie tells the story of a divorced housewife (Sissy Spacek) who bagged a job as parole board officer during Gov. Blanton’s term. As the film tells it, Marie was advanced to her position because it was expected she would play ball and shut up while the governor and his boys were allowing prisoners to buy their way out of jail.

Naturally, Marie wises up pretty quickly, although she finds herself in a bind. She owes her well-paying job and her loyalty to one of the governor’s most corrupt aides (Jeff Daniels), and she’s trying to raise her three children by herself. Eventually, after murder enters into the story, she blows the whistle—and risks losing everything, unless she can be exonerated in a courtroom battle with the governor and his big guns.

By the time these courtroom scenes roll around, the audience has no doubts about Marie’s goodness. Not only is she squeaky-clean when it comes to her job, she’s also Supermom, and she’s had to go through a harrowing medical problem with her youngest boy, which involved him swallowing a pistachio nut and having breathing problems thereafter. It’s a rather weird subplot—it’s all true, of course—and is not terribly well integrated into the bigger story.

If we are completely on Marie’s side, the trial is nevertheless a perfunctory affair. The strange thing is that the evidence that Marie provides is not all that strong, which somewhat undercuts the credibility of the film. (By the way, the trial contains dialogue such as, “Gentlemen, need I remind you this is a court of law?”, which suggests that the judge—or the scriptwriter—has watched a lot of courtroom movies.)

Roger Donaldson, who directed the compelling Smash Palace a couple of years back, is good at working up suspense, and at creating little riffs of tension. But he doesn’t bring together the various pieces of plot here, and he really stacks the deck when characterizing the heroes and the villains.

Spacek is okay, but she plays too much into the saintliness of the role. Still, it is hard to imagine what she might have done to make the film less familiar than it seems. The echoes of Norma Rae, Silkwood, Country, and The River are just a little too much to bear one more time around.

First published in the Herald, October 19, 1985

This period saw quite a run of legal pictures, which used the sure-fire third-act courtroom showdown to predictable effect. Nothing against Spacek here, but this is a really dull picture.

Terms of Endearment

September 13, 2011

Some people call them warm human dramas, others call them “people” movies. Whatever they’re called, they don’t rely on stunts or special effects to tell their stories. Ordinary People was the title of one such movie, and maybe the promise of no-frills, ordinary drama is part of the appeal.

Terms of Endearment probably wouldn’t have been made without the success of Ordinary People. Human drama may be bankable now, and Terms of Endearment has nothing particularly extraordinary in its subject matter, just the behavior of people in the face of life, love, and death.

The people are a bit unusual—and that’s all to the good. Aurora Greenaway (Shirley MacLaine) is a cool, eccentric widow who keeps a tight rein on her daughter Emma (Debra Singer), even after Emma moves away from home to live in Des Moines with her husband, Flap (Jeff Daniels), a college professor.

Aurora and Emma are amusingly at odds through much of their lives—and we get to see a lot of those lives, since the film’s two hours and 20 minutes cover 30 years or so. Aurora so disapproves of Flap that she boycotts her daughter’s wedding. That’s an act characteristic of their testy relationship.

Emma is as trusting and open as Aurora is careful and tidy. Their lives start to look more similar, however, when they both find new loves: Emma, disenchanted with her ne’er-do-well husband, starts spending afternoons with a shy bank manager (John Lithgow).

Aurora really cuts loose. She takes up with the irresponsible, irresistible former astronaut who lives next door (Jack Nicholson, in a wonderful role). Their scenes together are the most liberating in the film, for both Aurora and the audience.

Terms of Endearment is full of such changes of plot and character. That’s both a strength and a weakness. It’s nice when you can’t predict where a film is going, but too many of the plot devices in Terms of Endearment feel like—well, devices.

This is writer-director James L. Brooks’s first job as director (he’s had extensive work as a television writer—especially with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Taxi,” and he wrote the Burt Reynolds movie, Starting Over). Brooks has written (from Larry McMurtry’s novel) some terrific dialogue here.

One of Brooks’s best scenes has the astronaut telling Aurora that he can’t continue seeing her. He needs greater freedom, etc., etc. Halfway through his spiel, she looks at him, makes a face, and start muttering, “Blah, blah, blah.” She’s angered by his shallowness, and he realizes what a rotten egg he’s being—and eventually slinks away, ashamed. “Blah, blah” may not sound like good dialogue, but at this moment, it is—and Brooks recognized that.

Unfortunately, Brooks doesn’t have the knack for structure that he does for dialogue. The film has a lumpy shape to it, and it’s sluggishly paced. There’s also a melodramatic curve in the last 40 minutes that seems as though it might have worked better in the novel than in the film, where it feels rather contrived.

The strange coincidences of life sometimes feel contrived, too—and maybe Brooks was trying to make that point. But despite the good intentions, flavorful dialogue, and engaging performances, Terms of Endearment comes off just a little too pat. That’s regrettable, because with fewer easy answers, the film might have been much richer, just on its own terms.

First published in the Herald, December 9, 1983

I sort of generally feel, when I see a movie, that I can predict what kind of a reception it is going to get. This is not very difficult to do. Terms of Endearment I did not guess. Before today’s hype machine came along to prepare us all for a movie’s box-office and Oscar chances well before it opens, I saw this film, enjoyed it, wrote a review, and expected it to pass along like the nice crowd-pleaser it was. I didn’t have a clue it would be a smash and sweep the main Oscars in a few months. In fact I don’t know when I’ve been so wrong when it comes to sensing how a movie is going to ride the zeitgeist. Winger and MacLaine are terrific, Nicholson is hilarious, and for almost a year there was no stopping the thing. Brooks had written, along with his great episodic TV work, one of my favorite TV movies, Thursday’s Game, a wistful little should-be cult title with Gene Wilder and Bob Newhart.

The Purple Rose of Cairo

May 25, 2011

Ever since he is early, knockabout comedies, Woody Allen has always had a bittersweet streak. It’s a tendency that reached full flower in the romantic glories of Annie Hall and Manhattan, but it was always there.

It remains with Allen, but lately the sweet has been dominating the bitter. Woody’s latest films, particularly Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose, have been sweet-souled, whimsical little movies, full of charm and small-scale humor. They’ve also seemed just a bit insubstantial, even if they may be every bit as well-made as his earlier high points.

This newest, The Purple Rose of Cairo, continues in this vein. It’s a slim, utterly likable fantasy about an unhappy New Jersey housewife (Mia Farrow) whose solace in life is disappearing into the movie theater and losing herself in the flicker on screen. One day, however, the screen looks back at her—when Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), an archeologist-adventurer-poet character in a silly comedy called The Purple Rose of Cairo turns to her and asks her why she’s seen the movie five times.

Naturally, the housewife (not to mention the rest of the audience) is disconcerted—but she’s even more surprised when the character steps out of the screen and rushes her out of the theater. You see, he has fallen in love with her, and he wants to get a taste of real life.

The farce builds nicely: The other characters in the Purple Rose movie sit around and worry about how to finish the film, while filmgoers are disgruntled by the lack of plot. The owner of the theater calls the studio head, who contacts the actor who played Baxter (also played by Jeff Daniels, natch) to fly out and find his imaginary alter ego.

Meanwhile, Baxter, clad in pith helmet and khaki knickers, is learning that real life is a tougher row to hoe than happily ever-after film existence, while the housewife starts to believe maybe she doesn’t need her brutish husband (Danny Aiello) to get along in life.

What a terrific idea for a movie—something of a variant on Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr., in which a projectionist enters a film and becomes a new character. Allen’s approach eschews slapstick and big laughs; he emphasizes Farrow’s wan love of movies, and Daniels’ energetic work (he was Debra Winger’s husband in Terms of Endearment) as the innocent Baxter and the fatuous actor who plays him.

Some of the choicest bits come courtesy of the fictional Purple Rose cast: Edward Herrmann, John Wood, and Deborah Rush do versions of Noel Coward, Edward Everett Horton, and Jean Harlow, respectively, and they exist in a beautifully realized recreation of an early 1930s black-and-white comedy, in which all the scenes are obliged to begin with one character jauntily bounding over to the cocktail table and piping, “Who’ll have an eye-opener?”

At 82 minutes, The Purple Rose of Cairo—the first of Allen’s films since Interiors in which he does not also star—is perhaps too modest for its own good.

First published in the Herald, March 1985

I wonder what the ending of my review was before someone snipped it off to fit it onto the page? Because the way it stands, it’s too modest for its own good. Oh well. Maybe it fits the smallish accomplishments of this movie, which isn’t vivid enough in my memory to inspire any new insights.