Five Corners

November 8, 2012

Before John Patrick Shanley wrote the beautifully crafted, crowd-pleasing screenplay to Moonstruck, which has placed him among the hottest writers in the movies today, he wrote a script called Five Corners. This earlier piece, made into a film by producer-director Tony Bill, shares the New York setting and the ethnic flavor of Moonstruck.

Yet, despite the territorial similarities, it becomes clear early in Five Corners that this movie is a different serving of pasta. Here Shanley reveals his theatrical roots, for this film is like a small Off-Broadway play, full of absurdism and daring.

The Five Corners of the title refer to a section of the Bronx where different ethnic groups (and Shanley’s storylines) come together in 1964. The action is triggered by the prison release of Heinz, a brutal thug who was jailed for attempted rape.

Three other people were affected by the attack. Linda was the intended victim, and she assumes Heinz will come after her again. James is Linda’s estranged boyfriend, who was partially disabled when he tried to protect her from Heinz. Harry is another friend who had prevented the rape when he stepped in and “iced Heinz completely with a pitcher of beer.”

Now Harry’s a peaceful follower of Gandhi and Martin Luther King; he’s named his Saint Bernard “The Buddha.” Harry’s off to Mississippi to march for civil rights, but first Linda asks him for protection from Heinz.

This is the main matter of the film, but there are other elements at play. Occasionally intersecting with the central plot are the adventures of two spirited women (Elizabeth Berridge, Cathryn de Prume) as they lark through town. More bizarrely, an algebra teacher is felled by an arrow in the back as the film begins. The Bronx police are stumped. Says one: “Indians?”

Shanley’s script establishes an odd tone throughout, an absurdism that skitters from comedy to horror. For the most part, director Bill is true to this offbeat vision, staging things in an appropriately middle-range, deadpan style (aided by some topnotch photography by Fred Murphy, who recently shot The Dead). There’s an authentic sense of the rundown streets of the Bronx, particularly at an almost magical neighborhood fountain called “The Oval.”

This consistency of tone apples to the ensemble performances, too, especially the central quartet: Tim Robbins as Harry, Todd Graff as James, John Turturro as Heinz (the German name of this very Italian character remains a mystery), and Jodie Foster, as Linda.

Foster, who has a child was an exceptionally honest actress, is noteworthy. One can’t help but observe that her character’s situation (dreading the advances of an unwanted admirer) is queasily reminiscent of Foster’s own problems with the man who shot Ronald Reagan to get her attention, John Hinckley.

I think Five Corners is a tad too self-conscious to succeed at its many ambitions, but it’s good to have around, if only because Shanley’s conceit is usually restricted to the experimental theater. The inevitable question: When is this guy going to start directing his own scripts?

First published in the Herald, January 1988

Shanley did get to direct a in Hollywood two years later, and it was Joe Versus the Volcano, a very peculiar movie that has its fans. Then back to the theater as well as screenwriting, but he returned to the movie-director’s chair with Doubt, in 2008.

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The January Man

October 1, 2012

Usually when we say someone is “hot” in the movie business, we’re talking about an actor who has put a couple of hits back to back, or perhaps a high-profile director who’s struck gold in some showy way. But this temperature talk rarely describes screenwriters.

Screenwriters have a difficult lot. They don’t really have control over their scripts, they don’t often get the credit they deserve, and their scripts are subject to comment by everyone from the studio executives to the star’s hairdresser husband. Screenwriters, in fact, rarely get hot until they can manage to direct their own work.

But at least one Hollywood screenwriter is hot right now. That’s John Patrick Shanley, who won the Oscar last spring for his finely tuned script to Moonstruck. Shanley, also a successful playwright, has a gift for putting his characters in familiar situations and then turning them askew. No one, apparently, has told him that movie scripts are usually produced out of a cookie-cutter.

His latest, The January Man, is a good example. It isn’t a great movie or anything close, but it’s absolutely stuffed with offbeat takes on regular situations. The plot has to do with an ex-policeman (Kevin Kline) who gets called back onto the force when a serial murderer proves too clever to catch. Kline uses his peculiar deductive powers to ascertain the killer’s next victim, and thereby thwart him; Kline also redeems his own checkered past.

Nothing spectacular there. Yet the film, directed by Pat O’Connor (A Month in the Country), regularly veers off into some eccentric conversation or ulterior motive. Kline plays a character who is, by his own admission, a genius; he goes off into a lengthy diatribe about the killer’s probable mother complex, and he sniffs out a strange connection between the murders and Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl.” But he’s bugged by the betrayal of his ex-girlfriend (Susan Sarandon), who married his brother (Harvey Keitel), the police commissioner.

Meanwhile, the latest murderous attack came dangerously close to the daughter of New York City’s wiggy mayor (Rod Steiger, chewing scenery). The daughter (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, from The Color of Money) is smitten with Kline, however, a fact that doesn’t exactly endear him to Hizzoner.

There are scenes in this movie that aren’t quite like anything else being written in films today. When Kline first meets the mayor’s daughter, they share tea at a café next to the Rockefeller Plaza ice rink. Both people happen to be unusually forthcoming at that moment, and within five minutes they agree to walk to the nearest hotel and go to bed. It’s a dizzying conversation, conceived by Shanley for grown-ups and intelligent people, and beautifully played by Kline and Mastrantonio. Maybe after The January Man they’ll all be hot.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

Well this qualifies as a forgotten film, that’s for sure. Apparently I enjoyed it, but it has pretty much vanished from my memory, and it didn’t seem to make an impression on anybody else.