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.

The Presidio

April 6, 2012

The Presidio is the first major dud among the summer movies, a silly film that employs almost every formulaic situation in the current book. The idea is a clash between an Army M.P. and a city cop when both are investigating a murder that happens on a military base.

This is not an unviable concept, but screenwriter Larry Ferguson and director Peter Hyams (2010) immediately step in the direction of cliché, and they never look back. In fact, the opening sequence is a car chase down the streets of San Francisco. Now there’s an idea that hasn’t been used in a movie in at least a year.

The military base in question is the Presidio, the hallowed compound at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Of course the Army man (Sean Connery) is a stiff-necked, by-the-book kinda guy, and of course the San Francisco cop (Mark Harmon) is a hothead who makes up his own rules. Connery was basically responsible for getting Harmon busted out of the Army a few years before, so these two fellows don’t much like each other, though you may suspect they will reconcile their differences before the final reel.

It probably goes without saying that Connery has a cute daughter (Meg Ryan) with whom Harmon strikes up an affair. And as long as we’re dragging in everything but the kitchen sink, let’s not forget Connery’s corny old pal (Jack Warden) from ‘Nam. Throw in a chase through Chinatown and the obligatory final showdown in an industrial factory, and all of the elements are there.

Except that none of the elements is new, or interesting. The Presidio is bad in many ways, from the regularly excruciating passages of dialogue to the palpable uncertainty of Mark Harmon essaying a tough-guy role (he’s trying to bring his voice down low, in an attempt to get away from his Mr. Nice Guy image).

The worst thing about the film is the way Hyams has left Sean Connery, his Outland star, out on a limb. Connery is fresh from winning the Oscar for his great work in The Untouchables, and he does try to fashion a performance here, but the role is so poorly written he doesn’t have a chance, except to get by on sheer professionalism.

The most embarrassing moment comes during Connery’s drunk scene, when he waxes about how the Army is “America’s Doberman pinscher,” always on the ready but not treated with respect. Or something like that. Anyway, The Presidio should do a fast fade and Connery can get on to what sounds like perfect casting: He’ll play the father of a certain globetrotting archaeologist in the next installment of the adventures of Indiana Jones.

First published in the Herald, June 15, 1988

Yeah, now this is a really awful movie. In 1988, based on the chewy pulp of Capricorn One, I still looked forward to seeing if Hyams might create a decent popcorn picture. The Presidio has the feel of something both contractually obligated and somehow left over from a writers’ strike, a deadness that sucks all the light out of the screen.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

November 24, 2011

Dr. Jones and Dr. Jones: Ford and Connery

In 1981, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas combined their already successful talents and invented a hero to match their memories of the great breakneck cliffhangers of the 1940s. His name was Indiana Jones (played so memorably by Harrison Ford), and the film was Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Ah, you’ve heard of it. This mammoth hit was followed by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, another smash. Now Lucas (as producer) and Spielberg (as director) have brought their hero back for a final go-round, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

As usual, the movie is constructed around a series of hair-raising stunts and chases. In this case, there’s a twist at the start: The curtain-raiser features not the mature Dr. Jones but an adolescent Indy (River Phoenix), a Boy Scout who stumbles across some tomb robbers and leads them on a merry chase when he snatches the artifact they’ve dug up (“This belongs in a museum!” shouts the serious lad).

This sequence is a delight, as young Indy prances about on a speeding circus train; we learn how he came to fear snakes, adopt the Stetson, and even how he acquired the scar that graces Harrison Ford’s chin. It’s a wonderful sequence, and gets the film off to a rousing start.

It also introduces the idea of Indy as someone’s son, which is taken up in more detail as we skip ahead to 1938. Dr. Jones, it seems, is the son of another Dr. Jones (Sean Connery), himself a great expert on ancient artifacts, and a somewhat distant father. But the elder Jones is in trouble. He has been searching for the Holy Grail, the most famous artifact in history, and he has vanished. Indy suspects some competing crusaders, such as the Nazis, may have kidnapped Dad when the location of the Grail was deduced.

So the adventure of The Last Crusade is twofold: find the father, and find the Grail. The quest leads from the canals of Venice to an Austrian castle to the belly of a zeppelin to a mythical Middle Eastern country. For the details, you’ll have to see the movie. I’m not about to spoil the fun.

In the most basic way, The Last Crusade delivers the goods, and a lot of it is exhilaratingly mounted by Spielberg (the script is credited to Jeffrey Boam). The production is lavish, Connery is just what one would hope, and there’s effective supporting work from Denholm Elliott and a newcomer named Alison Doody; she’s Indy’s girl.

That said, the film still has an air of redundancy. The format is essentially unchanged from the previous films, and Spielberg and Lucas seem wary of breaking out of the thrill-a-minute rhythm. I’m surprised Spielberg hasn’t wrought more emotion out of the father-son relationship; it’s supposed to be a reconciliation, but it simply doesn’t pay off effectively.

And I wonder whether Spielberg’s heart is in the boys’ adventure genre any more. He abandoned Rain Man in order to fulfill his Indy agreement with Lucas, and Spielberg has described The Last Crusade as his final film for the youth market. I suspect he has already moved on.

First published in the Herald, May 1989

So Spielberg didn’t entirely abandon the youth market, and it wasn’t even the last Indiana Jones movie. I recall Spielberg saying that the original conception was about a very shy, bookish father who was transformed by the adventure; but when they cast Connery, that idea became impossible, and the theme of the movie changed. But that original idea sounds better.

The Untouchables

November 9, 2011

For all its explicit violence and mayhem, there’s something gloriously old-fashioned about The Untouchables. Not just because it recalls the Robert Stack television show; not even because it’s set in 1930 and evokes memories of hard-bitten Warner Bros. gangster movies.

No, The Untouchables is old-fashioned in more crucial and meaningful ways. It has the simplicity, for instance, to suggest that might doesn’t necessarily make right, and that a small band of men on the side of good may triumph. These days it takes a lot of gumption to support ideas like those, and The Untouchables has gumption in excess.

Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is the Treasury agent who rides into 1930s Chicago like a cowboy determined to rid the town of its black-hatted villain. The villain, of course, is “Scarface” Al Capone (Robert De Niro), who rules the city utterly, and has much of the police department in his deep pockets.

So Ness forms his own troupe of men: Malone (Sean Connery), a wise old-timer who tutors Ness in the Chicago ways; Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), a Treasury accountant who studiously discovers that the blood-spattered Capone might be tripped up on a tax-evasion charge; and Stone (Andy Garcia), a young Italian sharpshooter.

The film delivers this investigation through a series of tit-for-tat encounters between Ness and Capone, a bloody citywide war that eventually has no limits. The playwright David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) has written characters and dialogue that manage to be fresh while conforming to historical facts (and certain Hollywood traditions).

And he layers the movie’s straight-forwardness with some ironies; for instance, that the law Ness was defending, Prohibition, was a bad idea, which allowed organized crime to take over in the first place. And Mamet doesn’t shrink from the fact that Ness’s tactics begin to resemble those of the very men he’s sworn to put away.

Choosing Brian De Palma to direct Mamet’s script was a brilliant stroke. De Palma has already cut his teeth on the operatic crime film (his Scarface was actually an update of the 1932 film based on Capone). De Palma and cinematographer Stephen Burum find the kind of clean, unfussy period look that the material demands.

Yet when opportunity presents itself, De Palma is capable of taking wing. Two set pieces stand out: Ness’s men charging across the countryside on horseback to seize a shipment of illegal hooch, and a delirious sequence in a train station involving Ness’s capture of Capone’s bookkeeper in a furious crossfire. De Palma’s thrilling staging of these scenes marks a new virtuosity in his work.

A slew of good performances, too: Costner does well with the difficult task of keeping straight-arrow Ness interesting; Connery is marvelous in a role he inhabits with warmth and authority; Billy Drago contributes a chilling cameo as hit man Frank Nitti. De Niro, who replaced Bob Hoskins as Capone, is effective as usual, never more so than in a stirring speech about baseball that ends in his Louisville Slugger connecting with the skull of an incompetent underling. It’s a whole new suggestion of the true American pastime.

First published in the Herald, June 3, 1987

I recall how satisfying this movie was when it came along; it didn’t have to be great, it was just so very good. Which meant a lot in 1987. A prequel has been rumored for a while, and I have a strong feeling somebody’s going to remake this soon, and probably not stray far from the Mamet screenplay.

Five Days One Summer

October 3, 2011

Fred Zinnemann’s tastefulness has long been a bone of critical contention. He has collected lots of awards over the years from the establishment critics and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but since the early Sixties he’s been living with the burden of being considered the most impersonal of the impersonal directors in (by now) most critical circles. My own limited experience with Zinnemann movies suggests to me that the latter group is probably close to the truth on Zinnemann; High Noon is, well, High Noon, but The Search, Oklahoma!, A Hatful of Rain, and A Man for All Seasons are pret-ty boring (not that this represents a definitive survey of his career). On the other hand, From Here to Eternity is one of my favorite movies, but it has always seemed to me that that film gets its personality from Montgomery Clift’s melancholy hardhead Robert E. Lee Prewitt as much as from its director.

Anyway, Zinnemann’s newest film seemed to hold the promise of engaging him more than usual; Five Days One Summer is set in the time of his youth, around and on the mountains that held fascination for the Austrian-born Zinnemann (not that literally autobiographical qualities have anything to do with how personal a film is, but it was a promising sign). The movie’s about a doctor/mountaineer (Sean Connery) who escorts his much-younger lover (Betsy Brantley) to a resort in the mountains of Switzerland. Their troubles: he is a married man, she is his niece, the Swiss mountain-climbing guide disapproves—and also happens to dig the girl very much.

There is not much story there, and Zinnemann doesn’t flesh things out or dig too deeply. He does give the story a strange subplot: in the course of hiking, the trio discovers the body of a man who disappeared forty years earlier—on the night before his wedding. His bride-to-be, never married, is confronted with the corpse, kept mint-condition by the snowpack; she, of course, is an old woman by now (this scene takes place beside a river that is the result of a melting glacier). You can see why Zinnemann wanted this episode in there, even if the strain to integrate it into the plot is too much for the movie. In fact, it’s not integrated in, Zinnemann doesn’t quite pull it off, and this little bit does not really seem all that mythically haunting or perversely eerie—but that’s sort of why I like it. Zinnemann’s trying for the mythic, and just not quite making, is somehow touching. After this point, it is much easier to be sympathetic to the film; besides that, in the picture’s second half there are fewer murky intimations among the people and more sensational mountain climbing.

The climbing sequences are spectacular. The last part of the small human drama is played out on the sides of the mountains, and the action is quite breathtaking. The assault on a sheer face of solid ice, carving toeholds on the way up, is astounding. It’s an apt visualization of the ultimate Zinnemann situation: ambiguities put aside, a problem is clearly seen, the solution executed with icy, dogged simplicity. Would that the movie were less muddled. But it’s on to the next mountain—if Fred Zinnemann thinks it’s worth the trip.

First written for (but not published in) The Informer, December 1982

When I was looking for something under “Z” in my file cabinet (Zemeckis-related, actually), I came across a Photostat of this review, which was cut from the Seattle Film Society’s monthly journal, The Informer. I never did get around to printing it, so here it is. The review may be nothing great but the movie is an interesting “old man’s film,” a late-in-life effort from a filmmaker who isn’t trying to impress anybody anymore. Freddy Z goes back to the Bergfilm era of German film, with its ecstatic renderings of nature and the big melodrama played out there. Except that Zinnemann doesn’t do big melodrama, he makes watches. The movie is pretty obscure now, and it is not a conventional success, but it does have a genuinely haunting element at play. I had more to say about the Z-man when I did a career piece for Film Comment in 1997, which I will reprint one of these days.