Sunday, November 30, 2014

Mr. Mom (1983)

Silly, inconsequential family situation comedy, enlivened only by the strong performance of Michael Keaton in one of his early star turns as the dad who has to take on his wife's responsibilities around the house (with the expected comic ineptitude) when he gets laid off and she gets a job. The screenplay by John Hughes, one of his earliest, is entirely predictable and really quite uninspired stuff. It's certainly one of his least personal projects, feeling instead like a TV sitcom written on autopilot, and surprisingly lacking in the kind of wild slapstick and weird, offbeat supporting characters that show up frequently in Hughes' work and could have added some much-needed reinforcement to the proceedings here.

Teri Garr isn't given much to do with her role, and even the fine supporting players such as Martin Mull (as Garr's sleazy boss), Jeffrey Tambor (as Keaton's sleazy boss) and Christopher Lloyd (as one of Keaton's fellow engineers), are never really on-screen long enough to make much of their scenes. Only Ann Jillian, as the sexy neighbor intent on seducing Keaton while his wife's away, manages to rise above the material. Michael Keaton's performance demonstrates the kind of offbeat comic energy that made him such a unique and interesting actor, but his talent would be better-served in later vehicles. As it is, there's not much in it for adults, and the humor is really aimed primarily at kids, which is probably why the film seems to be most fondly remembered by people who saw it during their own childhood.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Cool World (1992)

Sort of a poor cousin to WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, this muddled, confused animation-live action crossover stars Brad Pitt as Frank Harris, a returning soldier in 1945 Las Vegas who, following a motorcycle crash, is transported to the "Cool World", an animated universe populated by bizarre cartoon characters, some of whom look like rejects from Joe Dante's "cartoon hell" segment in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE. Flash forward to 1992: Las Vegas-based animator Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne) has just been released from prison, where his only company was in the form of a sexy cartoon character named Holli Would that he drew in his comic books. Jack is so fixated on this character that he even passes up sex with real women, and one night, he gets transported to Cool World himself where, as luck would have it, he meets Holli in the form of an animated character. Unfortunately for Jack, sex between humans and cartoons is strictly forbidden, and Frank Harris is now working as a detective whose sole task seems to be enforcing this law. But Jack gives in to temptation, which results in Holli becoming human herself and traveling to the real world where she proceeds to unleash cartoon havoc. It's up to Jack to save the world from his own creation.

Even that plot description probably makes it sound more coherent than it actually is. The script is a mess, and filled with really strange twists that exist for no apparent reason (Harris' mother is killed in a motorcycle accident at the beginning of the film, and then this event is never referred to again; similarly, the fact that Jack has spent time in prison for murder is completely arbitrary and has no apparent bearing on the plot at all). The interaction of the live action and animated characters is not terribly convincing. It would have certainly passed muster ten years earlier, but coming as it did after ROGER RABBIT (and clearly owing a good deal to the concept of that film), it had a much higher standard to live up to. Kim Basinger's work as Holli is effective enough, but the character lacks both the personality and the exaggerated physical qualities that the character concept seems to call for. Brad Pitt isn't given much to do with his role besides act tough, and he misses out on the chance to really milk the part of the hardboiled detective for its potential due to the weaknesses in the writing. Gabriel Byrne delivers a good performance under the circumstances, but his character too is weakened by the lack of development (and is completely and inexplicably altered in the ridiculous final sequence).

Indeed, the major problem with the film overall is that it feels seriously underdeveloped, like a rough draft of a concept rather than an idea that has been fully fleshed out. It is almost certainly Ralph Bakshi's weakest film, lacking that immensely talented animator-filmmaker's normally evocative and distinctive sense of design, not to mention the sharp social commentary that is such a crucial component of his best work. As it is, COOL WORLD demonstrates some interesting seeds of ideas that could have been explored and executed to more interesting effect, but ultimately falls far short of its potential.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Nebraska (2013)

An intimate and majestic road picture, directed by Alexander Payne, about an elderly alcoholic who becomes convinced he has won a million dollars in a sweepstakes scam, and is determined to get from his home in Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, in order to collect his prize. His bemused son finally agrees to drive him there, and during a stay over in their old hometown, learns a great deal about his father that he never knew.

Bruce Dern delivers a fine performance -- one of the best of his prolific career -- as the defeated, broken-down old man who feels life has passed him by. Will Forte is surprisingly effective as his affable if rather timid son who agrees to indulge his fantasy, which he sees as basically harmless. June Squibb's performance as Dern's shrewish wife is undeniably well-played, but the role as written seems rather one-note, lacking the subtlety that would have made the character both more well-rounded and more sympathetic at appropriate moments in the story. Payne bathes the film in grim naturalism, with a real sense of authenticity in the details of the small town and its inhabitants. The atmosphere is greatly enhanced by the sweeping black and white photography of the flat, sprawling Midwestern landscapes. The milieu, themes and approach all recall very strongly the BBS productions of the early '70s. The naturalism of Payne's approach is undercut at times by the melodrama in the storytelling, though thankfully these moments are few and far enough between that they do not detract from the overall tone, which remains sad, wistful and yet unexpectedly optimistic in the end.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Jumpin' Jack Flash (1986)

Fun, Cold War-era comedy thriller starring Whoopi Goldberg as a bank computer operator who crosses wires with a British spy trapped in Soviet Russia and gets involved in helping him make his escape. The premise is interesting enough in itself that it works as a light little thriller, and it provides Goldberg with one of her best screen vehicles. She had a really likable screen presence that always enlivened the films she appeared in, and her talent with both verbal and physical comedy is well-served here. There are some good action set-pieces too, including a chase involving a phone booth being hauled through the streets of New York, and an exciting sequence on the roof of the British embassy.

It's a minor comedy, to be sure, but is also such a good example of the kind of fun, lightweight entertainment that Hollywood just isn't capable of producing anymore in the era of the blockbuster. There's a lightness to the film, and the sense that it doesn't take itself too seriously, that makes it consistently enjoyable even when the humor is rather mild. Penny Marshall's snappy direction keeps the pacing strong and provides Goldberg with the room to make the most of her role.

The fine supporting cast includes Stephen Collins, John Wood, Carol Kane, Annie Potts, Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, Tracey Ullman and Jim Belushi, along with Jonathan Pryce in a fun cameo revealed at the end.

Monday, November 24, 2014

See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989)

Very funny third teaming of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, about a deaf man (Wilder) and a blind man (Pryor) who are witnesses to a murder, but through a misunderstanding find themselves wanted by the police as the chief suspects in the case. Together they must escape and track down the real killers in order to clear their names. The premise is fairly routine, but what really sells it are the excellent performances of Wilder and Pryor, and the carefully-constructed humor they get out of their respective disabilities, which is handled extremely well and is never in bad taste. Indeed, the tone of the humor deftly walks a very fine line -- extremely vulgar without ever being mean-spirited or offensive -- thanks to the incredible talent of the two comedians at the heart of the film. An unlikely team, they are remarkable to watch because of how well their contrasting personalities complement each other. They have an excellent sense of timing between them, too, which is put to especially good use in the scene where Pryor knocks out a bar tough by throwing punches based on Wilder's instructions, as Wilder maneuvers Pryor around the bar.

The supporting cast includes Joan Severance as the sexy murderess, and Kevin Spacey in an early role as the smarmy villain, effective enough in what amounts to a rather cartoonish stock "heavy" part. Arthur Hiller's expert direction holds the zaniness together and keeps the pacing strong right up through the action-packed climax, but also manages to find room for leisurely, low-key moments, such as the scene of Wilder and Pryor sharing an ice-cream on a park bench and discussing their life philosophies, which provides the film with some of its warmest laughs.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bedtime Story (1964)

A mildly funny comedy that would probably seem even funnier today if it hadn't been remade so much more effectively as DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS two decades later. Marlon Brando and David Niven star in the roles played by Steve Martin and Michael Caine, respectively, in the remake. After seeing the later film, one of the best comedies of its decade, it's a rather uncanny experience to see this original version. With the exception of the opening sequences setting up the Freddy Benson character, and the concluding sequence, it matches the plot of the remake virtually scene-for-scene (and often line-for-line). The highlights here are the same as those in the later version: Brando's turn as "Ruprecht", Niven testing the supposedly-paralyzed Brando's legs for any sign of feeling by whipping them mercilessly, their constant scheming to outwit each other, etc.

Yet the best moments from this film can't help feeling like something of a dry run for the remake, where the writers had the benefit of hindsight and were able to mine this earlier film for all of the comic potential that it missed the first time around. A good example of this occurs in the scene where the character of Freddy Benson is jailed on false pretenses and tries to remember the name of Lawrence Jameson, a prominent local resident whom he met earlier on the train. In the original film, Brando (as Benson) recalls the name with only a moment's thought, which serves the plot just fine but completely misses the potential for any laughs. Contrast this with the remake, where Steve Martin turns this scene into one of the comic highlights of the film, as he struggles frantically to remember the name.

Nonetheless, Brando acquits himself surprisingly well in such a silly comic turn, and it's a testament to his versatility that he could so successfully pull off the kind of zany, nutty "jerk" humor that Steve Martin would make so distinctively his own in the coming decades. David Niven was, of course, born to play roles like the suave, elegant gentleman-thief Lawrence Jameson, and practically made a career out of playing such types, especially in these kind of continental comedy capers (see: THE PINK PANTHER). Perhaps because of this, he comes across as rather bored in the role at times, lacking the spirited energy of Michael Caine in the remake. Still, it's a "David Niven role" if ever there was one.

Special mention should be made of Shirley Jones, who shows up about halfway through the film as Janet Walker, the "American Soap Queen" and target of the crooks' scheme. She works quite well with Brando and Niven, bringing the right amount of naivete and charm to the role. Character actress Dody Goodman also has a nice supporting part as "Fanny Eubank of Omaha", one of Niven's unsuspecting victims.

Overall, it's an often amusing and funny little comedy, but is primarily of interest for having inspired a much funnier and successful remake.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Hotel Torgo (2004)

Short documentary on the making of the now-infamous 1966 low-budget horror film MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE, which was notable for having been directed by a local El Paso fertilizer salesman and has earned the dubious distinction in many circles as the worst film ever made. The doc, directed by Aaron Allard, James Lafleur, and Marco Pazzano, is a fascinating glimpse into regional filmmaking, and the resources that MANOS' director, Hal Warren, drew on to put his rather bizarre vision on the screen.

The thrust of the documentary are the interviews with historian Richard Brandt, and Bernie Rosenblum, who acted in MANOS as well as pulling double duty on seemingly a dozen other crew positions. Rosenblum's stories about the production are delightfully funny and often quite interesting as an insight into the intentions of the filmmaker. His account of the film's disastrous premiere is especially of interest as an indicator of how audiences -- even the very local audience for whom the film was a major event -- reacted to the film at the time of its release. There are also visits to the locations that were used for the house and the Master's lair, neither of which seem to have changed much in the intervening 40 years. An entertaining and revealing doc about a film that has endured much longer than anyone involved in its creation would have expected.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

One of Spielberg's finest films, encompassing many of his favorite themes. It's one of the few major Hollywood films to deal intelligently (though still, at times, perhaps a bit too sensationally) with the possibilities of extraterrestrial life and alien abduction, and Spielberg wisely focuses on how a chance UFO sighting forever changes a simple Indiana family man's perception of the universe and his place within it. Richard Dreyfuss delivers one of his finest performances as Roy Neary, whose obsession with the UFO he has witnessed and his subsequent efforts to make contact with the aliens erodes his family and personal life, filling him instead with a singular purpose.

Although it is not primarily a special effects picture, much credit has to go to photographic effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, who achieves some really magnificent imagery here. The spaceship is an incredible piece of artistry and design, and Trumbull's effects inspire the requisite amount of awe and wonder, without which the film would fall apart.

It is Spielberg's emphasis on the human condition that make the biggest impression, however. The scenes of Dreyfuss' mundane home life reveals the banality of the existence he has been living, making his character's curiosity about "what's out there" all the more profound. Spielberg does a remarkable job capturing that sense of wonder that keeps people watching the skies. Indeed, the film's rather protracted conclusion reveals perhaps too much detail, removing some of the mystery that comes from things left unseen. Perhaps that's why the ending -- in which the alien beings and the fate of their abductees are revealed -- seems a bit anticlimactic. As well-done as it undoubtedly is, it's simply too literal, and thus a bit of a let-down from the preceding events of the film.

However, the ending does force the viewer to ask themselves if they would leave behind their family, their home, and indeed, their very beliefs, in exchange for the experience of making contact with extraterrestrials and traveling with them to places unknown -- questions we may find ourselves pondering on clear nights under the vast expanse of shining stars, and wondering what's out there.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

One of the real delights to come out of Hollywood screen comedy in the past 30 years has been the collaborations of comedian Steve Martin and director Frank Oz. Their finest film -- certainly my favorite, anyway -- is this 1988 comic crime caper, about two con men: one a dapper English gentleman-thief (played to perfection by Michael Caine), the other a rather loutish and crude American (Martin) who find themselves as rivals working their confidence schemes in the town of Beaumont-sur-Mer, on the French Riviera. Trying to outwit each other, the men make a bet that whichever one can successfully scam the fortune of a newly-arrived, naive young woman from the Midwest (Glenne Headley) will have complete run of the territory, although this task turns out to be far more complicated than either of them had anticipated.

The film feels like a throwback to those continental heist pictures of the '60s, filled with impossibly sophisticated characters and exotic locations. There are also very funny moments of low humor, especially involving Martin's unforgettable impersonation of "Ruprecht the monkey-boy". Although Martin is at his comic peak here, Michael Caine very nearly steals the film from him, as the suave, elegant crook -- the kind of role that David Niven specialized in years earlier.* It's great fun watching them match wits, trying to one-up each other in surprising and unexpected ways. Oz has to be given much credit for keeping the proceedings reined in enough that they never go too far, never disrupting the tone or style he has achieved so well. His impeccable gift for directing comedy has never been better served than it is here. Certainly one of the best comedies of the decade.

*Upon further research, I learned that this film was indeed a remake of a 1964 Universal comedy, THE BEDTIME STORY, which indeed starred David Niven in the role played by Michael Caine here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Turks & Caicos (TV, 2014)

An offbeat but gripping political thriller produced for British television and aired on PBS as part of the "Masterpiece Contemporary" anthology series. Bill Nighy plays Johnnie Worricker, a former MI-5 agent who gets involved with an eccentric and unorthodox CIA agent (Christopher Walken) to bring to justice a group of businessmen who have been defrauding the US government for millions of dollars in the process of building prisoner-of-war camps.

Writer-director David Hare crafts an exciting political mystery around this premise, creating in the process an odd contrast between the contemporary setting and the seemingly-deliberate stylistic throwback to what feels like it could have been a late '80s-early '90s erotic thriller, complete with a moody, saxophone-heavy jazz soundtrack and little touches, such as tape-recorded answering machines, that seem slightly anachronistic. Whether or not this is intentional, I'm not sure, but it undoubtedly contributes to the fun and off-kilter tone of the piece. Hare also successfully implies a much larger and overwhelming sense of political conspiracy that moves well beyond the immediate characters and surroundings, wisely avoiding needlessly-complicated set pieces in favor of emphasizing the tensions and relationships between the characters and the various political organizations involved.

Nighy and Walken are especially fun to watch. Nighy brings just the right amount of "secret agent cool" to the part without losing any of the character's world-weary sadness and sincerity; indeed, one of the most effective aspects of the character is his touching friendship with a local policeman and the native islanders. Walken is clearly having a ball playing the two-faced CIA agent, delivering very much an over-the-top "Christopher Walken performance" that borders on the comical and absurd at times, and yet it fits right in with the off-balance world that Hare has created in this unique thriller. The top-notch supporting cast includes Winona Ryder, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Rupert Graves and Ewen Bremner. This was a follow-up to David Hare's earlier "Johnnie Worricker" thriller PAGE EIGHT (2011).

Monday, November 10, 2014

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Could this be the crowning achievement of the Hollywood studio system? It's certainly a perfect example of what that system, and especially MGM -- the mightiest of studios -- was capable of producing at its peak. It holds up as a phenomenally entertaining and exceptionally well-mounted production, one that never grows dull even after multiple repeat viewings. Frank Lloyd had purchased the rights to the novel by James Norman Hall and Charles Nordhoff, based on the events of the 1787 mutiny on board HMS Bounty, and in turn sold the rights to MGM on condition he could direct. Lloyd and Irving Thalberg produced the film for MGM, pouring the studio's full resources into the production as their big blockbuster film of the year, and the results are nothing less than spectacular. Charles Laughton gives one of his finest performances -- in a career full of fine performances -- as the brutal and sadistic Captain Bligh. Clark Gable's noble, heroic Fletcher Christian rivals his performance as Rhett Butler in GONE WITH THE WIND as his best work. The 132 minute running time flies by -- thanks to the excellent script and editing, there isn't a wasted moment in any of it. Every scene, indeed every shot, achieves its maximum potential. A truly masterful combination of art and entertainment.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Life With Father (1947)

A delightful and charming film, adapted from the Lindsay-Crouse Broadway hit about late-19th century Wall Street broker Clarence Day, whose devoted wife and children slyly but lovingly undermine his authority as the head of the household. A nostalgic look at the past and a richly-developed family comedy, the Broadway show was the longest-running non-musical play at the time, and the film adaptation, produced by Warner Bros. and directed by Michael Curtiz, appears to try very hard to stay true to its theatrical origins. The results work well due to Curtiz' expert direction, which manages to remain visually interesting throughout, achieving some subtly effective camera movements within the limited space of the Madison Ave. house and courtyard set. Indeed, it appears little effort was made to open the play up for the screen at all -- with only a few exterior street scenes taken on the backlot -- but when the source material and performances are this strong, it's hard to argue with the approach. It is more low-key than one might expect from a 1940s Hollywood comedy, trading the fast pace and clever dialogue of the screwball style for a slower, warmer, genteel kind of humor that arises naturally out of the characters.

The production design, costumes, and Technicolor cinematography all evoke a strong period atmosphere, bathed in hazy, pastel tones that conjure up a wistful sense of nostalgia for times gone by. William Powell gives one of the very best performances of his career as the stern but affectionate father, with Irene Dunne equally superb as his wife, and the two create a genuinely touching and rich screen couple. They are ably supported by Elizabeth Taylor in a really sweet and charming performance, as well as the fine character actors ZaSu Pitts and Edmund Gwenn.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The Call of the Wild (1935)

Rousing good adventure yarn, from the Jack London classic. The combination of director William Wellman and star Clark Gable is an inspired match for the material, bringing out all the rugged, masculine qualities of the story. This is exactly the kind of role Gable could play better than anyone else, and he gives one of his best performances here, achieving a real chemistry with co-star Loretta Young. Jack Oakie is the likable comic support, and he does his usually fine job in that capacity. The script, by Gene Fowler and Leonard Praskins, provides a winning combination of humor and romance between the action, and Wellman balances all of these elements expertly.

It's a handsomely-shot production, too, with location footage combined with indoor sets that convincingly give the impression of the great outdoors, greatly enhanced by Charles Rosher's striking cinematography. Special mention should be made of the excellent direction of the animal actors, too, especially of the expressive and really quite touching performance of the lead dog, Buck. Wellman's eye for expansive scenery and the natural beauty of the wilderness adds immeasurably to the power of this great film, really one of the best of its kind made in Hollywood.

Death Comes to Pemberley (TV, 2014)

Two-part miniseries, produced for British TV and aired on PBS as part of the "Masterpiece Mystery" anthology program. An elaborate yet tasteful adaptation of P.D. James' novel, which incorporates the characters from Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" into a mystery plotline involving the murder of a British soldier in the woods on the Pemberley estate. I have not read the James novel, but it's an interesting concept to watch a murder mystery unfold in the world of Jane Austen with her familiar characters, and the adaptation to the screen appears to  have been served quite well by writer Juliette Towhidi. Director Daniel Percival manages to create real suspense out of the tensions between the characters and situations; his handling of the climax, with its last-minute race to the rescue, is especially effective. The production design is, not surprisingly, first-rate and at times stunning in its opulence. The fine cast includes Matthew Rhys as Darcy, Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth, Matthew Goode as Wickham, Tom Ward as Col. Fitzwilliam, and Trevor Eve as Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, who acts as the investigator in the case. Recommended for Austen fans and "whodunit" enthusiasts alike.

Monday, November 03, 2014

The Immortal Story (TV, 1968)

Haunting character drama, written, directed by and starring Orson Welles as Mr. Clay, an eccentric, wealthy old American living in Macao who elaborately re-creates an old sailor's legend using people he has picked out to play the parts in this little story. Made in 1968 for French television, Welles achieves some remarkable effects even on the obviously tight budget. It's very much a film about its own plot, with Welles, ever the master storyteller, as a kind of puppet master controlling the destinies of his characters. Featuring Jeanne Moreau, Roger Coggio, and Norman Eshley; Welles' script, co-written with Louise de Vilmorin, was based on a novel by Karen Blixen.