The Fourth Protocol

February 1, 2013

fourthprotocolMichael Caine didn’t plan to have two British spy thrillers released on the same day, it just worked out that way. Of the two, The Whistle-Blower is the more involving and emotional. The Fourth Protocol, while admittedly crisper, is a more mechanical affair.

It’s based on the Frederick Forsyth novel, and Forsyth also adapted the screenplay, as well as executive-producing the movie with Caine. Forsyth’s idea here is that a KGB agent (Pierce Brosnan) infiltrates England and sets himself up in a house near an American air base. Through the Soviet espionage network, he receives a series of items which, when assembled, will construct an atomic bomb.

Caine plays an English intelligence man, something of a renegade, who first sniffs out the plot and must collar his adversary before the bomb goes off. There is, or course, much complicated spy stuff to be chewed over in the course of the hunt.

Caine is fine, though I’d like to see him in a comedy again soon. Brosnan, the star of “Remington Steele,” is effectively grim, perhaps with the memory of how he lost the James Bond role.

The film finds juicy supporting parts for Ned Beatty (who, with The Big Easy, also had two films open on the same day) and Ian Richardson. There’s not much of interest for the beautiful Joanna Cassidy (Under Fire), as a Soviet agent who, in the course of putting the bomb together, gets an erotic yen for Brosnan. She deserves better than this.

The director, John Mackenzie, made a crackling gangster film a few years ago, The Long Good Friday. He’s a better director than this material, but he does keep The Fourth Protocol on its clock-watching course.

First published in the Herald, September 1, 1987

George Axelrod is credited with “screen story,” but Forsyth wrote the novel and also the screenplay. Go figure.

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Half Moon Street

October 10, 2012

The bare bones of the plot of Half Moon Street suggest a promising, if convoluted, spy thriller. It’s based on Paul Theroux’ novel Doctor Slaughter and begins with a youngish American (Sigourney Weaver) landing a job in London with an Arab affairs bureau.

She’s hobnobbing with some high mucky-mucks, but she’s making almost no money. Then an anonymous videophile sends her a tape espousing the advantages of prostitution.

Why? She hasn’t got a clue. But it makes a practical impression on her, and before long she joins the ranks of a high-class escort agency.

She finds this unusual double career acceptable. One night, she is the companion of a bona fide Lord (Michael Caine), who is one of Her Majesty’s most important politicians. They hit it off and keep seeing each other; at the same time, he’s working on a delicate Middle Eastern peace treaty.

The threads that will tie up the plot may already be apparent; be assured that Weaver’s Arab associates and Caine’s peace efforts are going to intersect somehow. It’s a typically convoluted process—you know how these spies love to be complicated.

On paper, all this sounds like the makings of a nifty little espionage piece. But it doesn’t work out that way on film. Half Moon Street steps off on the wrong foot almost from the first moment.

A lot of clunky exposition gets shoved at us in the opening scenes. But there is a more serious and sustained problem, too: a graceless lack of style. Director Bob Swaim flounders in search of some kind of fluency. The actors are inexpressive, the camera always seems to be in an uncomfortable place, and much of the dialogue is delivered in a dead-voiced monotone (a lot of the hollow-sounding dialogue sounds as though it were post-synchronized).

In fact, the film sounds and moves like one of those uncertain efforts that result when foreign directors make their first English-language films. This is ironic, since Swaim is an American who made some successful movies in France (notably La Balance, a hard-driving cop flick). Evidently Swaim flourished in French, but twisted his mother tongue.

The film is saved from being a disaster by the innate perverseness of the basic idea (when Caine spots Weaver at a party, he has to ask her what hat she’s wearing that evening: Is she a diplomat or a hooker?), the sturdy professionalism of Caine, and the watchability of Weaver.

She has lately carved a spot for herself as one of the glorious women of the current cinema—and yet, something is wrong here. Either Swaim wanted her character to come off as hollow, or she and he missed connections somewhere; either way, her performance does not begin to work until she wins you over by sheer presence (she’s onscreen most of the time—Caine is assigned a supporting role).

Swaim even commits the incredible feat of making Weaver’s frequent nude scenes curiously non-erotic. And if that’s intentional, I think it goes without saying that the guy needs to have his head examined.

First published in the Herald, September 1986

There is great variability in Weaver’s performances over the years; she can be smashing, and she can be toneless, her vocal limitations being a particular challenge. Swaim did Masquerade after this and then went back to French cinema.


Hannah and Her Sisters

May 26, 2011

Woody Allen seems to love experiments, and he’s got the sort of working situation (nobody tells him what sort of movie he’s required to make) that allows him to indulge his tastes.

It’s a good setup, and Allen has pleased us in recent years with odd baubles such as the pseudo-documentary Zelig, the raucous showbiz Broadway Danny Rose, and last year’s small gem, The Purple Rose of Cairo, none of which reached a very large audience. As lovely as those movies are, a nagging thought stayed with me: When is Woody going to get back to doing the sort of rueful, wise, romantic comedy (Annie Hall and Manhattan) he does best?

Now, such a thought is completely unfair to the Woodman (as Bill Murray used to call him), and if on the arrival of Hannah and Her Sisters we shout “Woody’s back,” it does a disservice to his recent films. Still—Hannah does represent a return to the flavor and feel of Manhattan, and it is his best and most characteristic film since that 1979 masterpiece.

The film centers on three sisters (as did Allen’s Interiors): Hannah (Mia Farrow), the oldest, who seems to have her life in perfect order and control; Lee (Barbara Hershey), whose relationship with a domineering artist (Max Von Sydow) is skidding; and Holly (Dianne Wiest), a would-be actress, would-be singer—would-be almost anything, if she could find her niche and get over her resentment of Hannah’s perfection.

These three get into various romantic entanglements with the three men in the film. Hannah’s husband (Michael Caine) launches an affair with Lee, Hannah’s ex-husband (Allen) has a date with Holly that he likens to the Nuremberg Trials. After Holly’s promising date with an architect (Sam Waterston), her partner in the catering business (Carrie Fisher) snatches him away.

Rounding out the cast are the parents of the sisters, played by Lloyd Noland and Maureen O’Sullivan (she’s Farrow’s mother in real life); and Daniel Stern, in a hilarious cameo as a vacuous rock star who wants to buy some of Von Sydow’s paintings, without vaguely understanding why.

It’s a terrific ensemble, and the action cuts back and forth evenly between the characters (some of whom narrate different sections of the film). Allen himself actually has one of the smaller roles, but he garners a lot of laughs as a man who, despite his lifelong hypochondria, is caught short when he suddenly realizes he may actually be seriously ill. At that point, he embarks on a metaphysical journey that leads him to try Catholicism (his survey of 3-D Jesus postcards is a comic high point) and Hare Krishna.

Allen strikes a lovely balance between hurtful romanticism and rueful humor; the characters are immediately recognizable, with all their human faults and durability. Holly is a particularly sharp figure, and Dianne Wiest—a Broadway actress heretofore relegated to peculiar roles in movies such as Independence Day and Footloose—captures all of Holly’s desperate search for a means of expression.

Gordon Willis has been photographing Allen’s films for years, but Carlo di Palma did the honors this time, and he allows a bit more light into the proceedings. It’s a wonderful thing to behold. Allen very likely has his biggest hit in a long time with Hannah, and it couldn’t come at a better time; for him, or us.

First published in the Herald, February 7, 1986

Kind of disappointed in reading this review again—not that I’m wrong about the movie, but this doesn’t convey the particular glow the film conjures up. A great success for Allen, and yet he went on to more unusual projects, which just kept getting unusualler as the years went on.


Blame it on Rio

March 22, 2011

Johnson and Caine, less than razor-sharp

Blame it on Rio? Oh, I don’t know—surely the city itself is not to blame. Why don’t we blame it on screenwriters Charlie Peters and Larry Gelbart, not to mention director Stanley Donen, instead?

We’re blaming them for Blame It on Rio, an excruciating comedy set in Rio de Janeiro, where the two main characters (played by Michael Caine and Joseph Bologna) are vacationing with their teenage daughters. It happens that Bologna’s daughter (Michelle Johnson) has a crush on Caine, who is enduring a separation from his wife.

Rio being Rio, and this being a situation comedy, sparks fly between the two. The girl then tells her father that she’s had a fling, but doesn’t tell him who the lucky man was—which sets Bologna raging. He decides to find the defiler himself, and—of course—enlists Caine to help him.

Much commotion follows, usually in the direction of colorful Rio scenery. This is a wise move: when the story’s a dog, use anything that distracts from it. But you can’t avoid the plot forever, and the film regularly grinds to a halt.

This is something of a surprise, since director Stanley Donen instilled so much verve in the musicals he made with Gene Kelly (including Singin’ in the Rain) and in such movies as Charade and Two for the Road. Donen contributes some splashy color, but with Rio as the backdrop, that’s almost a given. And Gelbart, who apparently served as script doctor here—he performed the same function on Tootsie—is one of the wittier writers around.

Poor Michelle Johnson, who launches her screen career as the excitable girl, is a remarkably untalented performer. She reads her lines in the kind of insipid tone that makes you wonder how the other actors were able to keep straight faces (which, unfortunately, they do). She takes her clothes off a lot, though, which is another lesson from the distract-’em-with-scenery school of filmmaking—in this case, a perfectly understandable decision.

Blame Blame It on Rio on these people, but don’t blame it on Caine. It’s not easy for Michael Caine to be bad, even in bad movies (and he’s had his share of them). In Blame It on Rio Caine fulfills the role of the slapstick dupe with relative ease. Even when flying into dithers, he manages to retain a certain class.

He’s so classy, in fact, that when questioned on a recent TV interview about the histrionic qualities of his co-star, the aforementioned Johnson, he gamely offered, “Well, she’s not Katharine Hepburn yet.” Now there’s classic British restraint for you. It’s a shame Blame It on Rio couldn’t have been as droll.

First published in the Herald, February 1984

I had a horrible night the night I saw this movie. I think it actually ruined a party for me. So even people like Gelbart and Donen have a lot to answer for. The other main actress was Demi Moore, who isn’t mentioned by me here, but then it was hard to make a good impression in this film. At least the writing of the review allowed me to make a cheap Elvis Costello reference. But even he is soiled by association with Blame It on Rio.