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.

Mrs. Soffel/Witness

October 16, 2019

mrssoffelIt should come as no surprise that leading foreign directors inevitably gravitate toward America; there’s still no better place to make movies if you want the most sophisticated technicians and equipment, not to mention actors.

The exciting boom in Australian filmmaking in the late 1970s has produced a bushelful of interesting directors, many of whom are working in America now: Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies), Fred Schepisi (Iceman) and George Miller (Twilight Zone) have lost none of their talent in the transoceanic crossing.

The latest immigrants are Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Year of Living Dangerously) and Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career). They’ve both managed to retain their idiosyncrasies, while adapting well to a clean, forceful style suited to American moviemaking.

Armstrong’s Mrs. Soffel is the more problematic of the two. It’s based on the true story of convicted murderers (brothers played by Mel Gibson and Matthew Modine) who were sprung from their Pittsburgh prison in 1901 with the help of the warden ‘s wife (Diane Keaton), who had fallen in love with the Gibson character.

Intriguing situation. It offers the irresistible spectacle of l’amour fou and the perplexing filmmaking problem of dramatizing action that takes place primarily within prison walls. The growth of the love – which begins with Keaton trying to convert the brothers to Christianity and Gibson trying to take advantage of her position – is well drawn.

Even better is the sequence of flight, after the breakout, which begins with the fugitives sliding gleefully on the icy Pittsburgh streets, and ends with their getaway sleigh being pursued across snowy farms near the Canadian border.

Until that time, however, Mrs. Soffel remains strangely uncompelling, despite the passion of the actors. It’s the kind of movie that seems more impressive as you re­member it than when it is actually playing.

witnessWith Witness, you know right off the bat you’re in mysterious Peter Weir country. The sense of unidentifiable strangeness that Weir can convey so well is present in the early scenes in a Pennsylvania Amish community, which has not updated itself in a century.

During a journey outside the community with his widowed mother, a little Amish boy (Lukas Haas) witnesses the murder of a policeman in a Philadelphia train station men’s room. In the course of the investigation, the cop in charge (Harrison Ford, cannily and humorously used), finds a bigger conspiracy than he had imagined, and it’s necessary for him to flee with the boy and mother (Kelly McGillis) back to that insulated Amish community.

Weir loves to examine the clash of cultures, and this situation gives him plenty of opportunity. It also gives him the chance to develop a lovely, tentative love affair between the cop and the Amish widow. There’s a beautiful scene when Ford fixes his car radio (his car is the only one around, since the Amish still use ­horse-drawn carriages) and he and McGillis do a romantic little dance to “Wonderful World,” a song she’s probably never heard.

The Amish community is nowhere more wonderfully drawn than in the character of McGillis’s other hopeful suitor, played beautifully (and close to silently) by ballet star Alexander Godunov. He loves her, but he sees that she likes Ford; as a believer in nonviolence, and apparently genuinely respectful of this other passion, he does not interfere with the newcomer. He even starts to like him a little.

Weir has achieved something very impressive here: Witness succeeds as a commercially viable suspense movie, without ever compromising itself as a lyrical examination of different people and cultures. You don’t see that too often, and it’s something to take heart in.

First published in the Herald, February 14, 1985

It is entirely possible that I would like Mrs. Soffel today more than Witness, but at the time there was no question the latter film caught the 80s moment much more than Mrs. Soffel did. Witness has people in it I didn’t mention, such as Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, and Patti LuPone. It also provided a memorably amusing moment at the Oscars when one of the writers made the comment about his career having just peaked.

Winter People

June 1, 2012

Winter People is a sincere and almost total misfire. A curiosity, it doesn’t quite fit any single genre—which, generally speaking, is not a bad thing—but Winter People is just too weird and clunky to create its own niche.

The film is set in the 1930s. In the opening scenes, a gentle, widowed clockmaker (Kurt Russell) and his young daughter pull up stakes to search for better job opportunities for him. They get as far as a country hollow, where his car breaks down and he seeks shelter from a woman (Kelly McGillis) who lives alone in a small house in the backwoods.

This woman has a baby but no husband, a scandalous state of affairs that has led to her exile from the rest of her family, although she is still on speaking terms with her father (Lloyd Bridges) and her brothers. Russell, of course, ends up staying in the small community and building a clock tower for the town.

In doing so, he gets dragged into one of those classic backwoods family fights, because McGillis’s family is a-feudin’ with some ornery folk across the river. (They have long hair and beards, so we spot them for villains right away.) This brings about the movie’s main confrontations, although they turn out to be not quite as violent as you might expect.

It’s a very handsome film, with director Ted Kotcheff getting a nice feel for the woods and the small town. Kotcheff, unfortunately, is a colorless director, and he doesn’t shape or pace the material at all; some scenes seem to go on endlessly (and dourly—not a lot of humor here).

But even a better director might not have been able to conquer some of the thumping dialogue of Carol Sobieski’s script. For instance, McGillis is forced to say to her old flame, the hairy brute who is the father of her child, “I beat my head on the barn door once for you.” No wonder she seems so confused.

Winter People groans slowly along, losing steam as it goes. Both Russell and McGillis, two watchable actors, are in deliberately low gear, and the movie gets stolen by Lloyd Bridges, Don Michael Paul (as McGillis’s garrulous youngest brother), and a large bear that is sacrificed by a point-blank gunshot to the head. All are equally hammy.

First published in the Herald, April 13, 1989

Sobieski wrote a lot in a foreshortened life (she died a year after this film was released), including co-credit on a favorite TV-movie from my childhood, The Neon Ceiling. Kotcheff does everything. Among his many stops was Weekend at Bernie’s, which I believe gets more hits than any other movie on this site.

Top Gun

August 17, 2011

Cruise and the flag: the future of movies

Top Gun has all the earmarks of a summer blockbuster. It has glitz, it has stars, it has high technology, it has the new patriotism (or is that the old xenophobia?). Every little element seems calculated to produce a true-blue audience-pleaser.

Doubtless it will please audiences. But there may be too many earmarks. Somewhere within the yards of shiny jet fighters and the approximately 1,095 close-ups of sweat-drenched faces, somebody forgot to make a movie—a movie, at any rate, with anything like a sense of recognizable life.

The brainchild of those packaging wizards, Paramount producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop), Top Gun is the story of a Navy pilot (Tom Cruise) who enters an elite flying program called Top Gun. He’s obsessed with being the best there is and he’s willing to break the rules to do it.

At the program, he attracts the rivalry of a fellow hotshot (Val Kilmer), the fatherly interest of the school’s commanding officer (Tom Skerritt), and the non-fatherly interest of a knockout instructor (Kelly McGillis, late of Witness).

Most of these relationships are programmed to fulfill their particular niche in the story, as is Cruise’s friendship with his goofily likable Radar Intercept Officer (Anthony Edwards)—that’s the guy who sits behind him in the F-14. Edwards serves much the same—no, make that exactly the same—function that the David Keith character served for Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman.

In fact, the screenplay for that film might have served as the blueprint for Top Gun, so familiar are the new film’s plot turns. The big difference is in directorial style. Where An Officer and a Gentleman was straightforward and traditional, Top Gun is full of diffused light, screeching Dolby, and high-powered techno-sheen.

This comes courtesy of British director Tony Scott, whose first film, The Hunger, also was marked by irritating visual tics. Scott is undeniably nervy with the aerial battles, which include a couple of encounters with Soviet MiGs.

But he can’t shoot a simple scene of people talking without turning it into a battle of close-ups. This insistent style becomes oppressive, and shuts down whatever life the actors might have provided. I can think of only one scene, when Cruise and McGillis share a dinner and listen to Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay,” when the human element enters. When Scott labors to inject some humanity, as when Edwards (who displays some nice comic flair) and Cruise jam on “Great Balls of Fire,” it’s forced.

Having said all this, I have to admit that there are sequences in Top Gun that are entertaining. Most of the dogfight stuff is engrossing, even through there’s a consistent problem with knowing who’s who in the sky.

But Top Gun really reminded me of Short Circuit, last week’s supposed early summer blockbuster. Both seem wholly derivative of past successes, and overwhelmingly mechanical in their appeal. If they are any indication of the ’86 summer season, we are in for a long dry spell.

First published in the Herald, May 1986

As it turned out, the Year in Film 1986 was indeed not one for the ages. This film, of course, did all right; apparently I didn’t quite see the phenomenon coming, and it’s absolutely in the running for the representative film of the decade. I actually think it’s a very significant title in terms of influence, at least as much as Star Wars. The shadow of Top Gun is still in play, as Bruckheimer and Tony Scott continue to make pictures and Michael Bay and his ilk are directly descended from this movie, but the movie lives in our culture in ways that go far beyond the multiplex; the gross mindset on display here has gone everywhere, and may even have determined a few elections along the way. Right, Maverick?