After Hours

July 5, 2012

If Franz Kafka had ever made a movie, it might have looked something like After Hours, a nifty nightmare comedy that puts a guy through the kind of trial you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

It begins innocently enough, with Paul (Griffin Dunne), a mild-mannered Manhattan word processor, re-reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer late one night at a coffee shop. A girl (Rosanna Arquette) across the table from him strikes up a conversation. He gets her phone number, goes home, gives her a call. She says come on over. She lives in Soho.

It’s almost midnight, but the girl was a knockout, so what the hey. He hops a cab, and his money blows out the window. This is an omen, but he chooses not to heed it. From that point on, his long night is full of disasters: Paul seems to have entered not Soho but some malevolent corner of the Twilight Zone.

The date with the girl doesn’t work out; neither does a possible fling with her kinky roommate, a sculptor (Linda Fiorentino) who favors Nazi nightclubs. But things get worse than mere sexual disappointment. Before the evening is over, Paul is threatened with a Mohawk haircut, heisted by a couple of thieves (Cheech and Chong), encased in a no-exit work of art, and chased down the streets of Soho by a vigilante mob who think he’s a cat burglar.

It may not sound like a laugh a minute, but that’s at least what it works out to. This black comedy has a sure feeling for the hilarity of this horrible situation. Martin Scorsese, who is much better known for making movies about nightmares without laughs (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), uses a busy camera to suggest Paul’s disorientation, and he has an appropriately bizarre cast to fill out the marginal roles of this bad dream.

Among the denizens of this otherworldly arena are John Heard, as a sympathetic bartender who almost manages to help Paul escape from Soho, only to be thwarted by yet another catastrophic coincidence (the screenplay, by first-timer Joseph Minion, is full of them); Teri Garr, a waitress caught in a ’60s time warp; and Catherine O’Hara (late of “SCTV”) as a maniac ice-cream truck driver who befriends and then betrays Paul.

Those people are so good, you wish you could see more of them; the only drawback to After Hours is that the supporting players are all brief figures in Paul’s adventure and thus don’t get the kind of screen time that most of these actors deserve.

This is balanced by the watchability of Griffin Dunne, heretofore most notable as the decomposing friend in An American Werewolf in London. Dunne has been a producer as well as an actor. His producing credits include Chilly Scenes of Winter and Baby It’s You, both with partner Amy Robinson. They also produced After Hours.

Dunne comes across as genial, likable, wholly undeserving of his fate in the film. He’s got all the right qualities of a comedic leading man—not so much in the ability to act funny as the gift of just being funny. After Hours may or may not find the oddball niche it needs to survive in a market that rewards predictability, but it is certain that, for Dunne, a comedic career has been launched.

First published in the Herald, October 4, 1985

I dunne-o, maybe he was just more interested in producing and directing. That’s a very peculiar, funny collection of actresses, if you think about it, and kudos to Scorsese for making the mix.


New York Stories

February 8, 2012

New York Stories is a wonderful idea for a film, and it’s two-thirds of a wonderful film. For this omnibus, three of America’s leading directors have each created a mini-movie, with no constraints except that each segment be set in Manhattan.

The three directors are Woody Allen, whose entire movie-making career has been New York stories; Martin Scorsese, who probably relished the thought of making a relatively minor film after The Last Temptation of Christ; and the godfather himself, Francis Coppola. Each has made a 40-minute film.

Coppola’s segment, “Life without Zoe,” is the middle piece. It concerns the world of a pampered 12-year-old girl who lives in the Sherry Netherland Hotel, because her parents are always gone. It is an utterly slight diversion, and not up to the standards of the other two entries.

Scorsese’s segment, “Life Lessons,” written by his Color of Money collaborator, Richard Price, leads off. It’s about a famous painter (Nick Nolte) who wants to keep his hold on his desirable assistant (Rosanna Arquette), an aspiring artist. They’ve recently broken up, and he tries every plea and manipulation he can think of, from the avuncular (“Baby, I’m your ally against horse dung and fraud”) to the direct (“I just had the sudden desire to kiss your foot. It’s nothing personal”).

Scorsese’s camera dances around this tale in the same way Nolte’s brush glides over the abstract canvases. This dynamism suggests the raging vanity and ego of the painter, who is given superb life by Nolte; in capturing this shambling, self-obsessed man, Nolte gives a performance unlike anything he’s done before.

The artist creates his paintings while he blasts music in his loft. There’s an incredible sequence as Nolte attacks the canvas while listening to a live version of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” and Arquette watches in awe. Scorsese is having a field day with this, and it’s exhilarating.

The closer is Woody Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks,” which is basically like one of Allen’s short pieces for the New Yorker magazine done on film. Woody plays a successful attorney who is tormented by his mother (played by Mae Questel, the original voice of Betty Boop); she constantly upbraids him about his clothes, his eating habits, his incipient baldness. And she doesn’t care much for his girlfriend (Mia Farrow).

Then one day he takes her to a magic show, where she is plucked from the audience, placed in a Chinese box, and made to disappear. And she does disappear. Altogether. Even the magician is puzzled, but helpfully offers a pair of free tickets to a future show if she doesn’t turn up.

Actually, she does turn up, in a way that grabs the attention of the entire city, and embarrasses Woody to the bone. It’s a hilarious development, and Allen, as actor and director, keeps up just the right tone of mortification. And he even finds an excuse for the cameo without which New York Stories would not be complete: an appearance by mayor Ed Koch.

First published in the Herald, March 9, 1989

I’d have to see it again to work out the argument, but I have this feeling that something changed for both Scorsese and Nick Nolte after “Life Lessons,” a piece rarely mentioned in either man’s work. They both seemed freer, somehow, especially Nolte, who went into a mighty phase after this.

The Big Blue

March 30, 2011

At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the most eagerly awaited movie was The Big Blue, a three-hour-plus French epic that boasted the largest budget and perhaps the most complicated shooting schedule of any French production.

It caused something of a storm at Cannes—there was some controversy surrounding its English-language soundtrack, for one thing—and has caused another storm since at French box offices, where it’s dominating the summer business and inspiring the kind of repeat business common to American blockbusters.

For such a source of interest, The Big Blue is a curious production. It’s a sonnet to the sea, the big “blue” of the title, and to the mysterious lure of its awesome depths. All of which is communicated through a story about diver Jacques Mayol (Jean-Marc Barr), transfixed by the beauty of the ocean, and his rivalry with Enzo Molinari (Jean Reno), who holds the world record for free-diving.

Free-diving involves going straight down into the water without equipment, which tests a diver’s lung capacity and endurance. These rivals keep plunging deeper and deeper while they strike up a tentative friendship through Mayol’s innocence about the ways of the world above sea level; when he shows Enzo pictures in his wallet, they are photos of his dolphin friends.

Director Luc Besson (Subway), a 29-year-old whiz kid, compiled his story from his own fascination with the sea and from the real life of Jacques Mayol, a semi-legendary French diver (Mayol worked on the script with Besson and American writer Robert Garland).

Besson captures some mystery around Mayol’s character and Mayol’s testy relationship with Enzo; in one scene, the two divers sit at the bottom of a hotel pool and open a bottle of champagne, waiting to see who will run out of oxygen first. Well-drawn, too, is the comical brother act of Enzo and his sibling/servant, Roberto (Marc Duret). Besson is less successful in the inclusion of an American woman (Rosanna Arquette, in a backward-step performance) who falls for Mayol and follows him around the Mediterranean. The whole character feels extraneous and underconceived.

But then a few elements in the movie are underdeveloped. A sidebar sequence about returning a dolphin from an aquarium to the ocean remains a sidebar, and there’s an odd sequence in which Arquette develops a sudden domesticity. The movie must have made more sense at its full-length running time; the American version has been cut down by a hefty chunk from the European release. (It’s also opening in a dramatically larger number of theaters—1,200—than the usual foreign film.)

The Big Blue is probably not going to justify that wide release. It’s too odd, and too many things in it don’t work. But as a cult film, it could surface for air on a regular basis.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

It’s another Jerry Weintraub production! See here for more details. Three of the actors came for a publicity tour: Barr, Reno, and Marc Duret, who had an awfully good time eating lunch at the Olympic Hotel in Seattle (it’s kind of cool that of the two leads, the non-glamorous Reno went on to have the king-sized career; nothing against pinup-ready Barr, who has the advantage of being a Lars von Trier favorite). Clearly a sense of reality was beginning to intrude on my ideas about Rosanna Arquette—and only three years after The Aviator, too. If this movie was blah, Luc Besson’s subsequent output has made him a semi-guilty pleasure for me—his cheesiest plots throb with a certain movie-movie appeal, although his best notions get directed by other people these days.

The Aviator

March 25, 2011

The Aviator is a traditional sort of Hollywood entertainment that seems less old-fashioned than just plain old. Its setting and characters—a bunch of mail fliers in the late 1920s—are promising, but the story bogs down in a dumb plot hitch and just sputters away.

A withdrawn, soul-deadened pilot (Christopher Reeve) gets a special load on his Nevada-to-Idaho mail run: the spoiled daughter (Rosanna Arquette) of a local businessman (Sam Wanamaker). The plane goes down somewhere in southeastern Washington (doubled here by Yugoslavia!) and Reeve and Arquette have to make do as best they can, fighting the weather, the wolves, and each other.

The idea here, of course, is that Reeve will discover a new humanity through his reluctant friendship with this loud, endearing girl. That theme is unfortunately never given life in this flat adaptation (from Ernest K. Gann’s novel).

It’s too many different kinds of movie: There’s the survival story, the mismatched love story, the tense situation back at the fliers’ headquarters (with Jack Warden presiding), and the character flaws of Reeve’s friend (Scott Wilson). The overall conception is not strong enough to make these things mesh, so we care about nothing but the love story.

Even that is only interesting because of Reeve, who isn’t bad (unlike the Superman movies, he does his own flying here—Reeve really is a licensed pilot), and Arquette. She played Gary Gilmore’s girl in The Executioner’s Song and the lead in John Sayles’ Baby It’s You. She was extraordinary in both.

Here, she’s stuck with a whiny role that’s pretty thankless—and she’s dressed and photographed in an unflattering manner. Still, she has such a natural, spontaneous style, you can’t help but watch her. She’s going to be from heard a lot in the coming years.

We might have expected a little more zing in the outdoor sequences, since The Aviator was directed by George Miller, an Australian who made a lively—if utterly silly—directorial debut with the outdoor action pic, The Man from Snowy River. It’s clear from The Aviator that whatever prowess suggested by Snowy River was purely superficial.

By the way, he’s not to be confused with that other Australian director named George Miller, who so brilliantly visualized The Road Warrior and that knockout episode about the terrified airplane passenger in the Twilight Zone movie. For the sake of those of us who follow these things, couldn’t one of these directors adopt a middle initial?

First published in the Herald, March 13, 1985

Jeez you guys, stop teasing me about Rosanna Arquette—I’m telling you, that’s the way it seemed at the time. I couldn’t have foreseen how quickly her career would stall out, any more than you could have predicted the end of Yugoslavia. This seems to have been the biggest shot for that other George Miller, and it’s a stiff; it helped grind down Reeve’s Superman momentum, too. The books of Ernest K. Gann (The High and the Mighty, for instance) could be found in most houses of my parents’ generation, and I’m sorry to say I have yet to read one. One of his titles—Fate Is the Hunter—always gave me a good chill when I glanced at it as a child.