The Bedroom Window

February 11, 2013

bedroomwindowI’m sitting there watching The Bedroom Window, and distracted enough to play a movie mind game: Who are the two actors, in all of world cinema, least likely to show up in the same film frame?

My nominations: Steve Guttenberg, lightweight star of the Police Academy movies and Cocoon, and Isabelle Huppert, the sultry actress who has graced scores of French films, including Violette and Sincerely Charlotte. Two such divergent styles are inconceivable together; Guttenberg’s shallow knockabout play couldn’t possibly strike sparks against Huppert’s flinty Gallic edge.

These two share centerstage in The Bedroom Window, and, in fact, their chemistry is non-existent. Their inability to interact turns out to be characteristic of the film as a whole. While it’s based on a good thriller idea, the movie flounces around desperately in search of a style.

The writer-director, Curtis Hanson, knows he has a pretty good setup, and he wrings a certain amount of juice from it. But he can’t find his own consistent voice, so he reaches for a variety of quotes from the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitch might have liked this basic situation: A guy (Guttenberg) is messing around with his boss’s wife (Huppert) at Guttenberg’s apartment one night after a party. She hears a noise in the middle of the night, goes to the window, and sees a woman (Elizabeth McGovern) being attacked on the street. She also gets a clear view of the attacker, a pale, red-headed fellow who looks a little like Howdy Doody—who immediately sprints away when he know he’s been spotted. Guttenberg, arriving at the window too late, doesn’t see the man.

The thug is a suspected murderer, so Guttenberg feels they should go to the police and try to identify the culprit; but Huppert doesn’t want to expose the infidelity, so Guttenberg decides to pretend he was the one who saw the attacker, borrowing Huppert’s description.

In such a situation, it is inevitable that the deceit will come unraveled. Here, it happens when Guttenberg is confronted by a police lineup. Naturally, he can’t make a positive identification; but afterward, he follows the most suspicious of the suspects on his own, and gathers his own evidence. His weird behavior leads the cops to wonder whether Guttenberg might be involved as more than just a witness.

Not bad, but Hanson has trouble even with the early expositional scenes. The actors are out of sync, the camera often feels misplaced, and the red herrings are feebly scattered. (Hanson’s sole innovative directorial stroke is making Baltimore an atmospheric, scenic setting.)

There’s one scene that really comes alive: the trial in which Guttenberg gives the testimony. He’s grilled by a defense attorney, played by playwright Wallace Shawn (of My Dinner with Andre), who brings so much sauce and wit to his brief role that it only reinforces how lame the film has been thus far. Perhaps this was the sort of offbeat casting Hanson had in mind when he chose his leads, although Guttenberg is out of his depth and Huppert acts as though she has learned her English phonetically. Together, they have all the compatibility of creatures from different species, which is about what the film deserves.

First published in the Herald, January 15, 1987

Hanson, a great cineaste, would get to Bad Influence in 1990, an upgrade in almost every way, and of course go on to do excellent work in L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys. I stand by my assertion here: the Guttenberg-Huppert liaison remains my weirdest screen couple.

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The Man Who Wasn’t There

November 14, 2011

Guttenberg and a Tab: TMWWT

There are bad movies, and then there’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, a new film without a single redeeming feature. Movies like Flashdance and Staying Alive, which, no doubt about it, really stink up the joint, at least provide a kind of appalled fascination, and scream their availability as fodder for a good end-of-the-cinema-as-we-know-it article. Not so The Man Who Wasn’t There. It’s just plain deadening.

This junior State Department official (Steve Guttenberg) is framed for murder and gets stuck with a formula that, when ingested, turns the ingester invisible. The guy goes through some would-be adventures, finds a troo luv, and is duly surprised by a would-be surprise ending.

With a lot of movies, it takes a long time before you realize that the film is just not going to cut it. Not so with The Man Who Wasn’t There, which establishes its utter incompetence in the first incomprehensible minutes. It goes downhill from there because of a complete lack of anything resembling narrative logic. Every scene has a “conflict” that could easily be resolved by any one of the characters thinking about the problem at hand (like, Why doesn’t he just shoot the guy? or Why doesn’t he just give up the formula? or Why doesn’t he simply tell the police what the deal is when he’s caught at the murder scene?).

This is the kind of movie where you start watching the extras in the crowd scenes because it’s too excruciating to concentrate on the principals. In particular, look for a blond guy in the scene in a Washington rotunda—he’s standing behind the tour guide, and he’s making all these ridiculous faces to indicate interest, dismay, etc. Even the 3-D is cruddy—there’s no reason for the process, actually—and the cinematography itself is dirty and ugly. But the worst thing is, this is supposed to be a comedy as well as an adventure. I looked for some comedy, but couldn’t find any. But then I, fool that I am, looked for something like a movie, in any way, shape, form. It wasn’t there.

First published in The Informer, August 1983

I saw it a long time ago, and have notched many bad movies since then. But this goes high a list of the very worst. Null, void, a non-movie. Of course, it had Steve Guttenberg in it, so put that on top of everything else. Happily, the Coen brothers came along and made a movie of the same title, thus neutralizing the toxic aura around, at least, the words The Man Who Wasn’t There.


Short Circuit

September 30, 2011

Number Five, awful robot

The main character of Short Circuit is a robot named Number Five. It’s intended as a military death machine, armed with a laser-zapper on its left shoulder. But one day Number Five is itself zapped, by an errant bolt of lightning, effectively cleaning its clocks and turning it into an $11 million steel-plated tabula rasa.

The robot escapes its Army camp and wanders into the streets of Astoria, Oregon, where it is given shelter by a sympathetic animal lover (Ally Sheedy). Number Five then absorbs the encyclopedia and 12 hours of television. Understandably, this drives the robot quite insane, and it starts believing—and the movie starts insisting—that the robot is now alive.

Of course, we’re not supposed to think it is now insane. Number Five means to be cuddly and humanoid, dishing out advice as well as breakfast and making with the jive slang. See, he’s picked up little bits of information from everywhere and incorporated them into his button-pushing biorhythms. He’s likely to segue from a stalwart John Wayne imitation to a TV anchorman’s pomposity to a re-creation of the physical profundities of the Three Stooges.

Ahem. What we have here is a movie engaging in a little unwitting self-description. Like its metallic hero, Short Circuit incorporates (read: steals) ideas from a gaggle of recent sources, most glaringly E.T., and regurgitates them with breathless hipness. So what you get is something fast and occasionally funny, but not remotely new.

Short Circuit is from director John Badham, who has made strikingly similar berserk-hardware movies before (WarGames, Blue Thunder). There was a time when Badham seemed like a promising director, with his lively version of Dracula and Saturday Night Fever (the latter is cannibalized by Badham for input fodder for Number Five, who apes a John Travolta dance routine on his able treads).

But Badham’s technique here, so clearly inspired by what has worked before, is pretty empty. The stranger-in-a-strange land routine is reliable, but it’s time to give it a rest. In fact, this movie might kill it: Not only does Number Five spout his cute newly learned American slang (to an opponent robot: “Hey, laser lips, yo’ momma was a snow-blower!”), so does a scientist (Fisher Stevens) from India (to his partner: “Let us go pick up some female chicks”).

Badham’s cast doesn’t help. The robot has more depth than Sheedy or Steve Guttenberg, who plays the robot’s inventor (yeeh, suuuure); he tries to find Number Rive before a gung-ho Army commander (G.W. Bailey) gets his hands on the thing.

They’re secondary to the technology. Number Five is constructed with great ingenuity—his wide-set eyes inevitably recall E.T.’s—but for all his savvy talk, he is a uniquely charmless being. This was a minority opinion at the laughing full-house preview where I saw the film, but even the laugh-getting seemed like a mechanical process, just a matter of pushing the right buttons.

First published in the Herald, May 8, 1986

Really bad movie, really a quintessential Eighties success story. I do recall being sort of fascinated by Fisher Stevens’ impeccably rendered Peter Sellers-like Indian character, because one had thought that such a stunt was long past doing. But there it is. (And he returned in the sequel, too.) This movie was a big hit.


Bad Medicine

August 18, 2011

Bad Medicine is a situation comedy that relies solely on its situation to get laughs. The situation is this: A kid who can’t get into a reputable medical school buys his way into a tawdry Central American university just to get a medical degree—any medical degree.

Okay, that’s a funny setup. But Bad Medicine leaves us with that and doesn’t supply any material that might have fleshed out the premise.

The kid (Steve Guttenberg, late of Cocoon) is not all that sure he wants to be a doctor, and his college grades seem to reflect that. But his father (Bill Macy) is a wealthy plastic surgeon, and his son is bloody well going to follow in his footsteps. Mom insists the boy has a choice of careers, to which the kid replies, “Yeah, like Prince Charles has a choice.”

So Guttenberg finds himself in the unnamed Central American country, where he surveys his cockroach-infested apartment with dread and nausea. But the school itself is a worse shock: a sleazy operation where students experiment on the school’s five-year-old cadaver (the only one the institution can afford, so they say).

Predictably, Guttenberg finds some love interest, in the form of Julie Hagerty (Airplane, Lost in America), the spacey actress who never quite seems in touch with this particular planet. Her character’s presence actually strains credibility—if she’s as competent and intelligent as she seems to be, what’s she doing at this two-bit school?

She catches the eye of both Guttenberg and the owner of the university, a moody dictator (Alan Arkin). Arkin, as he often does when he plays offbeat supporting roles, finds ways of making this character interesting. He’s a widower who wants to make Hagerty his next bride, so that she may bear him the sons his first wife was unable to give him: “I believe that God has sent you to me so that I may spawn,” he says, in the film’s funniest line.

The movie ambles along, playing out tired gags. One sequence centers on a corpse-snatching escapade (the students need another cadaver, after all). Corpse-snatching is sure-fire comedy, as we all know.

And writer-director Harvey Miller tries to develop a heart-warming subplot, as the students steal medicine to help a group of poor villagers whom Arkin denies assistance. It meshes with the low-comedy med-school antics about as well as you’d expect.

All in all, Bad Medicine is just another space-filler as the studios wait for the Christmas movies to open. As such it can be pretty easily ignored, which is the suggestion from this corner.

First published in the Herald, November 28, 1985

Steve Guttenberg and Julie Hagerty—funny, you’d think it was a can’t-miss Eighties comedy. All right, possibly not. Harvey Miller was an old school comedy guy with lots of experience in sitcoms but not much luck, it seems, in directing pictures; he got Oscar-nominated for co-writing Private Benjamin. Julie Kavner and Gilbert Gottfried are in the cast, and, oddly, so is Allan Corduner, who played Sullivan in Topsy Turvy.


Police Academy 3: Back in Training

February 1, 2011

Somehow or other—call it laziness, call it poor planning, call it a cruel punishment from the gods—I missed Police Academy 2, in which the nuts and bolts from the original film were sent out on assignment.

So I can’t judge how the formula from the first film worked when taken out of the academy and brought to the streets. But it must have displeased somebody, because in Police Academy 3: Back in Training, it’s back-to-school time for the original class of recruits.

Except that, this outing, they’re helping instruct a new set of flatfoots (flatfeet?) in the delicacies of police work. So, returning are: the normal guy (Steve Guttenberg), the huge guy (Bubba Smith), the Rambopsychotic guy (David Graf), the, ah, robust woman (Leslie Easterbrook), the wimpy woman who says “Dirtbag” (Marion Ramsey), and the guy who makes funny noises with his mouth (Michael Winslow).

These retreads are trotted out to perform their same gags from the first film (and, I’ll bet, from the second); each has his or her personalized shtick, which is played out in bizarre, not particularly funny ritual. The only difference: This film depends less on gross-out humor than the original, in which, if you’ll remember the scene, a man’s head and a horse’s hindquarters were given much comic emphasis.

The cops have been brought back to school to help the dithering, senile commander (George Gaynes). One of the town’s police academies is to be shut down, and Gaynes has to turn out a better class than his rival (Art Metrano) to stay in business.

These new recruits have more to do than the veterans. The insane pairing of former “Saturday Night Live” nerd Tim Kazurinsky and a manic screamer named Bobcat Goldthwait is given some attention, although the film soon forgets about them.

Most notable new recruit is played by former Miss Universe Shawn Weatherly, a knockout who made some sort of television history last year when she starred as an amateur deep-sea diver in the decade’s weirdest TV series, “OceanQuest.” She dons a wetsuit here, too, for the big finale, in which the bad guys are apprehended in a jet-ski chase.

PA3 is an entirely limp affair. Luckily, it is only 75 minutes or so long. Gene Quintano’s script actually contains the kernels of a few comic ideas, but they’re buried in Jerry Paris’s direction (he used to be the neighbor on the “Dick Van Dyke Show”), which flits from one joke to the next without rhyme, and god knows without reason.

First published in the Herald, March 1986

The Police Academy movies were a nightmare. When people say “movies are worse than ever,” please remind them of this era. Just completely grueling. But why did I bother mentioning “OceanQuest”? Because I had spent a summer doing the TV column for the Seattle Times, and had a little fun at the expense of that daffy TV show, and somehow I felt territorial about it.