Hanky Panky

March 23, 2011

I realized going in to Hanky Panky that I had never seen one of Sidney Poitier’s half-dozen-or-so directed films. Having seen it, I still feel like disqualifying myself, for surely Hanky Panky has not been directed by anyone, and if it has, who on earth would want to take credit for such a fiasco? Poitier had a monster hit with his previous film, Stir Crazy, which I’ve always managed to avoid seeing, even on its Showtime run; did he use his clout and riding-high status to make this?

The screenplay presents a bald ripoff of North by Northwest that could conceivably have been polished and livened up by a great director, but Sidney Poitier doesn’t seem to be that. The opening sequence, of a crazed suicide, is so inept that it seems to have been directed by a high-school film buff who has some very clichéd ideas about suspense. The movie is cheap-looking, and the cast is poorly handled, too. Of course Richard Widmark can always curl a lip when playing a villain, but that’s all he does here; and Kathleen Quinlan acts as though she were in a different movie from the other actors, although in Hanky Panky that’s perfectly all right.

Gene Wilder does his Gene Wilder thing, which has provided many moments of pleasure in films past, but there is the sense here that it’s being extended over one film too many (and his director has nothing new to add to Wilder’s shtick this time round). The movie camera does not like Gilda Radner, and she is playing someone who is supposed to be normal; whereas anyone who has ever seen Radner’s “Judy Miller Show” on “Saturday Night Live” knows that this is no normal person and should not be treated like one.

Even the much-celebrated real-life romance between Wilder and Radner does not come across on the screen; there are no To Have and Have Not-like frissons during which we glimpse two people falling in love in real life even as they are in the movie. But maybe Sidney Poitier didn’t notice. He doesn’t translate any behavioral idiosyncrasy to the screen, and maybe he doesn’t see any in the world around him. I mean, we’re talking about a director who zooms into a candleflame at the end of a love scene so he can dissolve to a crackling blaze in the fireplace. And with that kind of directorial sensibility at work, it’s the audience that winds up getting burned.

First published in The Informer, June 1982

Sheesh. I suppose “audience getting burned” is just as labored a transition as the flame-to-the-fireplace bit. Well, it’s understood, I hope, that saying Radner should not be treated like a normal person is a compliment to a very special comedian; she was frequently uncanny on “SNL.” Poitier, a splendid actor, of course notices behavioral idiosyncrasy in the world around him, despite my comment, but this is a really badly directed movie. In the Wilder-Radner canon, Haunted Honeymoon was no prize either, unfortunately. It’s hard to believe two glorious performers could team up to create such inert movies. And yet there they are.

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Fast Forward

February 10, 2011

Straight outta Sandusky.

It is difficult to synopsize Fast Forward without blushing, but I’ll try: This movie is about eight perky and vivacious youths from Sandusky, Ohio, who travel to New York to find their fame as singers and dancers by winning an annual open call talent show.

Now that we’re all thoroughly embarrassed, let me point out the obvious and say that what we have here is the latest entry in the FameFlashdanceFootloose marketplace (and just in time for the holiday weekend). Which is to say, a film that cleverly mixes loud music, choreography, and a bunch of pearly-toothed dancers to cook up a big barrelful of cornpone.

As for any kind of veracity when it comes to painting a recognizable picture of human beings or modern success or even New York City, forget it. Frankly, although some conventional plot complications get thrown at them, the gang has a pretty easy time of it. These kids show up at the offices of a major promoter. He’d personally guaranteed them an audition for the big talent contest the last time he passed through Sandusky.

Wouldn’t you know it—the old boy dies before they get there, and the sleazy new managers won’t give them a chance. Does that discourage our apple-cheeked heroes? Well, yeah, a little. But they quickly take to dancing on the streets to earn money until they can slide their way into an audition.

Then the leader (John Scott Clough) catches the eye of a girl from a wealthy family, who invites the group to perform at her mother’s lavish lawn party. She also gets into some heavy breathing with Clough. But he’s already involved with one of the members of the troupe (a honey named Tamara Mark); the latter gets understandably miffed and threatens to tear apart the close-knit company.

The biggest threat, though, is posed by a rival group of dancers, who demonstrate (though a lively “dance war”) that our heroes are way behind in the hipness department. This is one of the film’s few honest admissions: The fact is, these routines are so squeaky-clean, the gang wouldn’t stand a chance of getting anywhere in showbiz. Unless, that is, TV variety shows come back, and there is a renewed need for the June Taylor dancers.

When Sidney Poitier’s last outing as a director was released (Hanky Panky), he seemed to be bucking for the mantle of Worst Director in Hollywood. Well, he’s cleaned up his act a bit and this is a smoother show.

In fact, for all its ineptitude, and perhaps because of it, Fast Forward cruises in an almost infectiously ridiculous atmosphere of badness—the out-and-out stupidity of it all becomes hard to resist.

I realize most people don’t go to movies for exactly those reasons; however, I am bound to report even my guiltiest of pleasures. And one more errant observation:

Fame. Flashdance. Footloose. Fast Forward. Notice anything funny there, in an alliterative way? Is there something subliminal going on here? Are the filmmakers sending out coded messages to the dance-hungry teenage audience? There may be a graduate thesis in this. But, then again, let us not waste our time trying to discover why this is happening. Is there any way we can stop it?

First published in the Herald, February 16, 1985

They’re still making this movie, even if they stopped doing the “F” thing. Whatever this review is, I guess it’s what happens when you see too many of these. Also, how could a guy with a name like John Scott Clough miss? I seem to recall him as the poor man’s Tom Everett Scott.