Biloxi Blues

July 16, 2012

Biloxi Blues is the second film to be adapted from Neil Simon’s current Broadway trilogy of autobiographical plays. The first adaptation, Brighton Beach Memoirs, didn’t give much evidence to explain why these plays had been hailed as the finest and most personal of Simon’s career. It looked like the same-old-same-old from the king of the relentless one-liners.

In the wake of that film’s failure, somebody got smart. For Biloxi Blues, production values are up, the actor who created the character on Broadway is installed as Simon’s alter ego (replacing Brighton‘s Jonathan Silverman), and a top-line director, Mike Nichols, has been brought in.

The setting is an Army training camp in sweltering Biloxi, Miss., in 1945. Simon’s youthful self-portrait, Eugene Jerome (Matthew Broderick), finds himself surrounded by weird bunkmates (“It was hard to believe that these guys had mothers and fathers who were worried about them”) and an even weirder drill sergeant (Christopher Walken).

Simon has devised a number of small-scale adventures for Eugene, all designed to help him come of age; and all, according to the narration, true events from Simon’s own life. These include some animosity directed toward the two Jewish recruits, a homosexual incident, Eugene’s first serious crush (Penelope Ann Miller) at a USO dance, and, of course, Eugene’s loss of virginity, which happens at the hands of a pro (Park Overall).

The material itself is standard-issue, familiar service-comedy stuff. But Biloxi Blues is pretty easy to enjoy. Matthew Broderick provides an immediately likable center for the film, and he gives an unfussy performance, appropriately innocent for his age but sufficiently intelligent to suggest the budding writer.

And the barracks scenes are made strong by some good ensemble work, by Corey Parker as Eugene’s “fellow Jew,” a bookish malcontent; Casey Siemaszko as an amiable nonentity; Michael Dolan as a decent Irish kid; and Matt Mulhern and Marcus Flanagan as hulking, stereotypical soldiers. Walken, not surprisingly, manages to invest some original subtleties in the stock character of the demonic sergeant.

But the best thing Biloxi Blues has going for it is Mike Nichols, who directs with considerable care (although one should note that this nostalgic look at Army life makes an unlikely companion piece to Nichols’ caustic 1970 film of Catch-22). Nichols shoots a number of scenes in long, unbroken takes, which gives an authentic feeling to the ensemble barracks scenes, and allows the actors to stretch out and find their own rhythms.

And Nichols, unlike Simon, understands the power of silence. The film’s sweetest moment comes when Eugene dances with his new love at the USO club. After some banter, they shut up and let their eyes and their dancing do the talking, as “How High the Moon” plays on the hi-fi. A picture is worth a thousand Neil Simon rim shots.

First published in the Herald, March 26, 1988

Mise-en-scene wins out over formula writing; there are indeed shots in this film that create a real sense of suspension, somehow adding to the Africa-hot atmosphere. There is something sad about the trajectory from Heller to Simon, however.

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Family Business

June 29, 2012

For a movie that boasts three big-money leading men, Family Business is a surprisingly underwhelming affair.

Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, and Matthew Broderick have all lent their talents, but their participation in this movie prompts more head-scratching than anything else. Why’d they do it?

It’s not a bad film, exactly. Connery, very much in his roguish element, plays a lifetime crook named Jesse McMullin, who’s always conducted himself by his own code of honor. He’s spent plenty of time in jail over the years, yet he’s respected and even loved by nearly everyone who knows him.

Everyone, that is, except his middle-aged son, played by Hoffman. (Because the elder McMullin was married to a Sicilian woman, their son was named Vito, a fact that continues to rankle the old man.) Vito, after briefly following his father’s criminal ways as a young man, has painstakingly built up a Manhattan meat business, which he loathes. But it is a badge of accomplishment to him that he has shut out his father’s life. The fact that Vito does not seem particularly happy is, to him, beside the point.

Vito’s son Adam, played by Broderick, has been strictly raised. Nothing but the best for this boy, the better to shield him from the family’s criminal streak. True to form, however, the kid has dropped out of college, just before getting his master’s degree. It seems he has an itch to try something a bit more dramatic.

Adam has a scheme cooked up whereby a cool million can be made by robbing a big chemical company. He enlists the aid of his wily grandfather, who suggests bringing Vito into the caper. After much reluctance, Vito joins up.

The rest of the movie is the robbery, plus the inevitably tangled consequences. Vincent Patrick’s screenplay, adapted from his novel, has a lot of scenes of people talking, and a static quality regularly creeps into the movie. Still, much of the talk is good and the actors who deliver it are just fine, so a lot of it works.

There’s just this sense of blandness about the whole thing. Even the ad campaign, three men in suits and ties staring at the camera, is dull. Director Sidney Lumet, who has made so many films in New York, gets an effective feeling for the city, and a nice contrast between Vito’s blue-collar business and his antiseptic, stylish high-rise apartment. There’s also a fitting clash of acting styles, in Connery’s juicy straightforwardness against Hoffman’s catch-in-the-throat Methodizing.

But Lumet can’t conquer a central flatness. Family Business finally washes itself out, as bland as a suit and a tie.

First published in the Herald, December 19, 1989

Tell you the truth, a suit and tie look pretty hotsy compared to this thing. The review is too generous. The movie is a stiff. It has some kind of writer’s strike vagueness to it, although I don’t know whether it was actually affected by such an event.


WarGames

August 15, 2011

We’ve had years of warnings. We’ve all known that computers were going to take over the world someday. But the books and the movies that predicted it never said it would be such a quiet overthrow. The machines slipped into our homes and businesses and modestly suggested that they serve us; we jumped at the offer, and they made us dependent on them. Quietly—with only the low purr of entering and the gleeful chattering of printing to mark the shift of power.

Don’t get me wrong—I like the computer at my workplace. It knows so much. And it tries to keep me from going wrong—when I give it the wrong date, it stops me and says, “WHAT YEAR?” When I move to eliminate information, it wonders whether I should reconsider: “DELETE? ARE YOU SURE?” Like a wise grandfather—but without the accommodating knee—it cares about the decisions I make, and wants me to do the right thing, though it won’t actually stop me, as long as I’m sure about what I want.

We even share secrets, like the special password that will let me into its system. So why is it I don’t really trust the thing? Maybe it’s the influence of all those paranoid fantasies about computers seizing control of the world, plus the nagging suspicion that they’re like those dogs who serve the master faithfully for years and then turn homicidal one day, without apparent reason.

Popular culture has played with that suspicion for a couple of decades now, and WarGames—officially designated this summer’s E.T., even before it opened—is in the tradition of computer mistrust. This Seattle kid (Matthew Broderick) has an astonishingly elaborate set of computer terminals in his bedroom, which he uses to make long-distance airline reservations, change his computer-recorded high school grades, and the like. One day he realizes he’s bumped up against the system of the U.S. National Defense. Neat! But he can’t get in—until he hears that computer programmers sometimes leave a “back door” (that is, a secret password) in systems they design so that they can go back in someday, if they ever need to. Broderick comes up with the password, and asks the system if it would like to play a little game. Chess? Naah. Mebbe some checkers? Forget about it. Thermonuclear war? Cowabunga! The computer takes the American side, Broderick is the Russians (among his first moves: nuke the Emerald City) and they’re off and running on some harmless fun.

A boy and his computer; it’s a new twist, but it had to happen. The only problem is, the head honcho (Dabney Coleman) down at the War Room just convinced the government to switch responsibility for a nuclear retaliatory strike from human operatives (too unreliable) to the monster computer known as WOPR (as in, “Aren’t You Hungry?”). So when Broderick start playing hide-the-densepack, WOPR thinks it’s for real, flashes an image on the War Room screen of a warhead arcing toward the Space Needle, and prepares for a full-scale counterattack. Broderick has to interrupt the game when his Dad calls him downstairs to clean up the garbage in the driveway, but the computer wants to keep right on playing the game…and so it does.

You get the idea. And a good idea it is, too. It’s a shame WarGames never really gets past the level of being a good idea; the plot starts to go kattywampus about the time Broderick gets arrested while sucking down a Big Gulp outside the local 7-Eleven. The holes in the script begin to whistle in the wind; more important than that, there’s that Something Missing that keeps good movies from being great ones—the absence of commitment, of artistic investment. The blame for this hollowness is most handily given to the switch in directors during shooting—Martin (Going in Style) Brest began the movie, but it was A John Badham Film before the cameras stopped rolling.

Mr. Big Close-Up tries hard to pump some suspense into the proceedings, but that’s tough to do when the audience can sit there and say, “Uh, why doesn’t somebody just pick up the phone and call the War Room….” There’s nothing wrong with Badham’s method, but it’s not particularly inspiring. Still, Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy (the morsel of jailbait on a recent “Hill Street Blues”) are likable, and John Wood does more with his confusedly-written part than it deserves. It just seems as though we deserve a more coherent and unified piece of filmmaking, especially with the stakes so high.

First published in The Informer, June 1983

Densepack: I had to Google it just now to find out what it meant in 1983. I watched Martin Brest make a shot for this film one day on the University of Washington campus, a brief look at Broderick crossing some stairs by Red Square. I worked in an office with a computer back then, and I was still in the early stage of wonder about the thing. Watched this movie again about a year ago, and sure enough, it isn’t as good as it should be. Also: RIP John Wood, who died a few days ago, and whose patrician air somehow fit his name.


Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

May 11, 2011

Bueller in excelsis.

“How could I possibly be expected to handle school on a day like this?”

These words are spoken near the beginning of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off by the title character, and there is simply no arguing with him. High school promises another day of learning about European socialism; but the blue Chicago skies portend adventure and fun. Faced with such a choice, you gotta be realistic.

So Ferris (Matthew Broderick) adopts a sickly mien for the benefit of his parents, who swallow his routine whole and leave for work. For the next 10 hours, Ferris, his buddy Cameron (Alan Ruck), and his girlfriend, Sloane (Mia Sara), play hooky in the Windy City, in a day that turns out to be pivotal for all of them.

This fandango is the brainchild of writer-director John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club), who seems to be an inexhaustible source of sharp ideas. The simplicity of the day trip here allows Hughes to dabble in surrealism at times, and he lavishes attention not just on his main threesome but on the supporting characters as well.

As Ferris and his pals take off in the pristine red Ferrari that belongs to Cameron’s fussy father, we also watch the parallel stories of Ferris’s sister (Jennifer Grey), who resents her brother’s charmed life (he gets away with everything) and tries to have his subterfuge exposed; and the school’s dean (Jeffrey Jones, the daffy emperor from Amadeus), who loathes Ferris’s occasional vacations and personally sets out the track the kid down.

The day itself consists of mostly tame diversions: a visit to the museum, a ballgame at Wrigley Field, a look down from the tallest building in the world, and some improvising at a parade. The events themselves don’t count so much as the liberating sensation of freedom. And that feeling works more powerfully on Cameron, a hypochondriac who lacks Ferris’s understanding of the necessity of fun.

As delightful as much of this is, Hughes still hasn’t put together a film that really clicks all the way through. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off ranges pretty broadly off course a few times—the dean’s mishap with a frisky guard dog at Ferris’s house is probably overextended—and Hughes slips into platitudinizing in a rush to get everything in at the end.

Having duly noted these reservations, they can now be put aside. This film is more sheerly enjoyable and invigorating than any other movie out right now. Time and again, Hughes’ film turns into a celebration of living; shorts scenes burst with ingenuity, none more so than in the big parade scene, when Ferris grabs center stage on a passing parade float to lip-synch to Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schoen,” an inspired bit of nuttiness.

This is immediately followed by a lip-synch to the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” which Hughes transforms into a love song to Chicago. It may be a tad obvious, but it’s so giddy and unabashed, there’s no avoiding being charmed by it.

The movie contains no violence or nudity or other nasty bits, but it got slapped with a PG-13 rating rather than a PG. Well, sure, a film that encourages sweet liberty, especially among high-school students, has got to be handled very carefully. Notice they waited until after school was out to release it—in the hopes that young minds may forget before autumn, perhaps?

First published in the Herald, June 14, 1986

I’ll stand by it. Like the previous Hughes films, FBDO was a marvelous idea for a movie, even if the execution was variable. “Twist and Shout” was probably overkill—if he hadn’t had such hits with Sixteen Candles and Breakfast Club, Hughes probably would have stopped with “Danke Schoen,” but you can see he was feeling his oats a little bit there.


Project X

March 17, 2011

Project X shapes up as one of springtime’s probable movie hits: it has all the clean efficiency of WarGames or last summer’s unjustly neglected The Manhattan Project.

Project X shares with those films a thriller format in which the plot turns on a super-secret government project (with a whiff of nuclear disaster). Naturally, I can’t reveal much more—why do you think they call it “Project X”?—but I can say that this project involves apes.

Chimpanzees, to be precise. We follow the story of one bright chimp in particular, a simian who goes by the name Virgil. Virgil is trained at a university program by a graduate student (Helen Hunt) and reaches an advanced capability with sign language and conceptual thinking. But eventually that program ends, and Virgil is carted off to a military base in Florida.

Seems he’s been drafted to participate in a government test, along with a few dozen other apes. The test requires chimps to train on flight simulators, so they might, uh, ape the behavior of human pilots under severe conditions.

The exact nature of those severe conditions is not revealed until late in the film. But it’s something that gives pause to Virgil’s trainer and pal (Matthew Broderick), a would-be Air Force pilot who’s been busted down to monkey duty because of some lapses in military etiquette. (He got caught with a girl in a plane during an unauthorized night flight.) The swift-moving second half of the film has Broderick bucking his superiors and getting Virgil out of a very hairy situation.

Stanley Weiser’s script takes some rather long leaps in plausibility, especially during the climax. But director Jonathan Kaplan manages to make the whole film so inventively entertaining, you may well be sold on it by the time the ending rolls around.

Kaplan is one of these filmmakers who has busied himself on the fringes of the mainstream for years now, often doing interesting low-budget work. Finally Heart Like a Wheel gained him cult status (and critical acclaim). This is his first at-bat with big-league material, and it surely won’t be the last.

Kaplan mounts a couple of genuinely exciting suspense sequences (and a very disturbing one when Broderick finally learns the true nature of the “testing”). He’s got a crisp, uncluttered approach, so that you always know what’s going on. And he know to take time out for quieter moments; the wordess prologue shows little Virgil in his African home, before he’s bundled up by hunters. The chimps spots a bird, and expresses a yearning to fly, which will eventually lead to his talent in the training center.

Inevitably, there are a few too many shots of chimps acting cute. This, of course, is the standard drawback with animal movies. But Kaplan has fewer of them than usual, and even Matthew Broderick doesn’t act cute. Those are two solid achievements, and the rest of the film isn’t bad either.

First published in the Herald, April 1987

This is the movie Broderick made after Ferris Bueller and while on top of the bankability world. What a strange choice. Kaplan, who came up through the Roger Corman ranks, always had a good touch; he came to Seattle when Heart Like a Wheel was re-launched and re-discovered in part by future Big Lebowski life model Jeff Dowd—this was at a moment when Seattle was the place where indie movies (before they were called that) could be nurtured and given a fresh start.