Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Brothers McMullen (1995)

Another one of my choices, if for no other reason than that it was the very first Fox Searchlight Film – even though the official intro wouldn’t come along until later.

I first saw The Brothers McMullen back in the summer of ’95, after getting newly hired at a local TV station. With a windfall of brand-new, disposable income, I went to the movies and saw everything…. everything.

Fortunately, there was a lot of good stuff hitting the screens back then, because ’95 was smack-dab in the middle of the indie film boom of the 90s – a sort of cinematic renaissance ushered in by maestros like Tarantino and Soderbergh. And McMullen was a part of that indie subgenre of quality films made on the cheap, films that also included El Mariachi ($7,000) and Clerks (17,000). McMullen, with its comparatively lavish budget of $24,000, came with a success story typical of so many labors of love: writer/director, with a PA at Entertainment Tonight, made the film after-hours, using company equipment, and solicited his product to ET guest Robert Redford, the creator and organizer of the Sundance Film Festival. And the rest is history.

But back to me. I caught the flick at the Towne 16 in Egg Harbor Township. And, as usual for me back then, a recent NYU film school graduate, I admired the craftsmanship of the film and its low-budget earnestness while at the same time being bored by all its relationship talk. Yeah, I was single, and in my early-twenties – not that far removed from the late-twentysomethings that inhabit the McMullen world – but I literally had no clue about women, nor could I possess a real understanding of the interpersonal drama that fuels the film. Just a lot of blah-blah about pregnancy, affairs, marriage, dating, etc… Now where was Die Hard 3 playing?

Of course now, for better or worse, I’ve fought in the trenches of love, battle scars and all, and I have a far greater appreciation for the film. I get now what the brothers are going through, and observe with a knowing smile all the peaks and pitfalls that they find themselves in. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I am truly amazed at how much better The Brothers McMullen has become after 27 years!

It is, as the title implies, all about the Irish-American experience, specifically a trio of second-generation brothers, all in different relationship stages, whose pappy has recently died and whose mom has decided to return to the Emerald Isle for no apparent reason. The eldest bro, Jack, is married to a fine woman named Molly, but is tempted to cheat by a vixen named Ann. He’s got more troubles: his younger siblings want to move back in. Ne’er-do-well Barry needs a place because he’s just broken up, and his ex rented out their apt to a woman named Audrey (whom he’s interested in). And other bro Patrick, the staunchest Catholic among them, is engaged to a woman named Susan, but her plans to cohabitate don’t sit well with his morals, and he’s certainly not ready to marry. But is he just using his religion to cover up his fear of commitment?

Things go from bad to worse for the McMullen family. Jacks goes ahead with he affair, only to have his indiscretion discovered by Molly (the ol’ telltale condom). Pat goes crawling back to Susan, but the breaks up again at the prospect of cruising cross-country with an old “friend,” the local female auto mechanic. And Barry keeps after Audrey until they start something up, but his prospects out West as a screenwriter may mean their breakup. Ah, but never fear: Barry won’t repeat his father’s  sins (whom we discover to be a real louse), and makes a sacrifice for love. And Jack ends his tryst once and for all, with his wife willing to forgive and forget (yeah, right). All’s well that ends well, and so long as the Guinesses keep coming.

My salient reaction to the film this time around has to be that I enjoyed the film, and that enjoyment is mostly due to the fact that I liked these characters. And that’s really saying something for a film about people in their twenties talking about relationships. Mist films of this ilk – usually Hollywood productions – are excruciating to get through because their characters are so self-absorbed, and so self-consciously hip. Every time they open their mouths I just want to tune them out. But McMullen’s cast is comprised of real people, people who mostly say what they mean, and don’t have to make a zillion pop-cultural references to sound clever. And director Burns is smart enough to shuttle back and forth among the three stories with just enough frequency that each doesn’t get too labored. The common thread, of course, are the brothers with each other, ad their beers, which acts as sort of Greek Chorus several times throughout.

Of course, the “twist” here is that we’re talking about young Irish-Catholics, and how their religion often collides with the mores of post-sexual revolution America. Patrick probably epitomizes this the most: his guilt and confusion over how to deal with his marriage-ready Jewish fiancé is played mostly comical but with a troubling undercurrent. And if ther breaking up, getting back together, breaking up pattern feels a bit unstructured, well, isn’t that how relationships are? They don’t always have the tidy rhythms of plot, and in a film like McMullen, they probably shouldn’t.

Ironically, it’s Burns own story that comes off as the weakest of the three. His Barry, who won’t ever settle down with one woman feels like old hat, and his neurotic ponderings and schticky voice-overs are entirely reminiscent of Woody Allen, a similarity none to accidental I’m sure. But all that could be forgiven were it mot for one neary fatal flaw – his casting of model and real-life girlfriend Maxine Brahns as his on-screen love interest (Audrey). She’s a poor actress – let me just say it outright – so poor in fact that it calls to mind Sofia Coppola’s amateur work in The Godfather III. Her scenes were the only ones that really called attention to its low-budgetry, something I hated being reminded of. Fortunately most of this occurs toward the end, after the dramatic heavy-lifting had already occurred by the rest of the far more accomplished cast.

Am I being too hard on her? Perhaps, but that’s only because I hold the rest of the film in such high regard. Everything about McMullen just feels pitch perfect – its style, its theme, its tone (adding just the right amount of Irish music to key scenes to tie it to the motherland). And there’s an earnestness, too, that imbues its indie cred with a sense of purpose. I was reminded of the early films of John Cassavettes as I enjoyed McMullen – here, as in those films, the stripping down of human life, and the laying bare of all its frailties and complexities, is what makes it such a necessary film. And  that’s one of the reasons we all go to the movies, isn’t it?

Burns would go on to direct more polished, mainstream flicks, but none would top the potency of his debut effort. Such seems to be the case with most directors. So skip She’s the One and No Looking Back and go with where it all began.

Rating:  ****

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Nell (1994)

(My choice again, as this was a modest critical fave and got a few Oscar nods.)

In the 70s, Jodie Foster was a pre-teen wonderkund, making a name for herself with a couple of Scorcese classics and a Disney fan-fave. But the 80s were not he her decade; Hollywood din’t quite know what to do with her puckish charm and razor-sharp intellect. All that changed with The Accused and her subsequent Oscar win for Best Actress, and all that really changed with her-follow up, a little-known thriller named The Silence of the Lambs, and yet another Oscar win for it. By the mid-90s she was in the driver’s seat, and could pretty much pick whatever she wanted to peruse.

And so one project she opted for was an adaption of the play Idioglossia, producing it with her newly founded company, Egg Pictures. She placed herself in the lead role of Nell (also the film’s title), an illiterate backwoods woman who can communicate with a language known only to herself. Clearly Foster had an affinity with this character and this topic matter – it’s evident in her devotion to the role – and she was rewarded with another Oscar nomination, although no win. And the movie itself has much going for it; it entertains some pretty heady ideas about basic human rights and the “what’s best for…” argument, particularly where it pertains to those with special needs and uncivilized. But while Nell is hard not to like, it’s also hard to too get too excited about it. The material here feels just a bit thin to sustain a feature-length release.

Liam Neeson plays Jerry Lovell, a country doctor who discovers Nell, left alone after the sudden death of her elderly mother, in a remote North Carolina shack. Kicking and screaming at the first sight of a stranger, she appears to speak a language of gibberish, but Lovell is determined to “tame” her enough to be able to help her. He enlists the help of Dr. Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson), an autism specialist, but when she arrives with a court order to institutionalize her, he responds with a court order of his own to prevent it. The judge withholds a verdict for three months, long enough for both doctors to study Nell and learn her language so he can render a more informed decision.
Lovell and Olsen move out to the woods (she in a nice boat on the river) to study the “wild child,” and, through the use of monitoring devices, observation and sheer patience, begin to realize that Nell’s language isn’t that far removed from English – it actually turns out to be a very distorted dialect learned from her mother, who had suffered a severe speech-affecting stroke. Lovell, in particular, develops a rapport with Nell – after he realizes that Nell’s fear of men stems from her witnessing her other’s rape, he resolves to use her gender as a way of neutralizing that phobia. All goes well with the study (with both doctors seeming to develop romantic feelings for one another), until the outside world steps in; local boys learn about Nell and taunt and sexually harass her, followed by inevitable media coverage. Nell is brought to a psychiatric hospital with disastrous results, and her court appearance doesn’t look so good either. But Nell rises to the occasion with an unexpected attempt to speak – enough, evidently, for a judge to allow her independence, and in an epilogue five years later, she enjoys a reunion with the doctors, now married to each other, along with an extended family of locals. And she appears to speak better English too.

Nell has a lot of nice tings going. Planted in the luscious mountains of North Carolina (and filmed there too), the story makes use of its misty vistas – you can almost feel like you’re there too. The “bad guys” in the film – the psychologists who want to study Nell (we all know how that goes) – are depicted without too much caricature. Clearly the Olsen character, who becomes Lovell’s love interest, must be somewhere in the middle, and I admired her underplayed ambivalence. Only at the end does she truly demonstrate feelings toward her colleague, and even then it’s more a matter of professional course. Not every movie has to have a sun-drenched love scene halfway through.

And I liked the Lovell character a great deal – he, after all, affords the film its main theme about how civility keeps us from feeling free and truly alive, cognizant of what really matters. (A recurring picture of Nell standing on a river log, arms outstretched toward the heavens, is its representative image.) Neeson ably makes the character work, along with its dynamicism. His change is not quite as obvious as Olsen’s, but it’s there. And he even manages to rescue some scenes that could easily have been completely laughable, such as the moment when he needs to show Nell his penis so she’ll be less fearful of the “weapon” used against he mother. Or the scene where he and Olsen sweet-talk each other using Nell’s gobbledygook, the premise being that her tongue is more emotionally connective.

But Nell has some flaws too, director Michael Apted takes a leisurely pace in telling his tale, even when parts of the film require a stronger momentum (like the buildup to the court case and the threat by outside interlopers). As a matter of fact, the whole thing could benefit from being more tightly wound, and even featuring a bit more backstory for Lovel and Olson – why does he yearn for that freedom of spirit that he see’s in Nell; why does she stick so rigidly to her pedantry?

There’s also a few loose ends. The local sheriff’s wife has some psychiatric issues of her own that are never made clear, and we’re led to believe that perhaps she’s Nell’s long-lost sister, but that’s never ascertained. And then there’s the ending, which pushes the disbelief that we’ve been heretofore willing to suspend. Just before the judge will likely remand her to a hospital, Nell suddenly rises to the occasion with an impassioned quasi-coherent speech about love and interconnectivity. And suddenly we dissolve to the five-years-later epilogue, in which we must assume she’s legally won her independence and can live back where she belongs. Apted robs us of that payoff, that doesn’t have to be overdramatic but it does have to be there.

By and large, Nell just feels too TV-movie, despite some occasional cinematic elements. I will remember these characters, but only as flattened representations of characteristics, not as fully fleshed-out people in their own right. And for a play adaption that is all about character, that is important. Still, it’s worthwhile for some of the ideas it entertains.

 Rating:  ***


Saturday, November 11, 2017

True Lies (1994)

(Another one of ,my choices – Fox’s other big action film in the summer of ’94)

Director James Cameron turned to Fox for the third time to back his 1994 project, True Lies. Made perfect sense, after all: the studio stuck with his megalomaniacal excesses throughout the strum und drang known as The Abyss, and probably figured a more conventional action flick would be a safer bet. They were right – Lies turned in a tidy budget despite a then-insane budget of 120 million – a ratio that would pretty much define the director’s profit margin thereafter.

But after lensing flicks about extraterrestrial and undersea aliens, and unstoppable cyborgs, where would the director go next? Well… Bond, it turns out. James Bond.

Well, somewhat. The opening sequence in True Lies, at least, is a Bond pre-credit sequence to a T. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Harry Tasker, a spy for a top secret US agency who infiltrates a party in Switzerland where the head of an Arab terrorist group is in attendance. His mission is to grab some top secret info on his group – which he does – before promptly making a grand exit by blowing the place up real good and then meeting up with his co-operative, Albert (Tom Arnold) to leave town completely, Roll the Bond titles.

But there’s a problem here, and it’s an issue that has dogged the film ever since its release 23 years ago. Cameron’s conceit here is that Tasker leads a double life – he is secretly a happily (or so we think) married man to a woman named Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), leading her to believe his jetsetting is just a requirement for his salesman job. So far the ruse has worked for a good 20 years; despite a typically bratty teenage daughter, they lead the idyllic suburban life… until Harry discovers a shattering truth: his wife is having a affair. The other man? A skuzzy used car dealer (Bill Paxton) who ironically delights in pretending to a be an international spy. His fantasies intrigue Helen, who indulges his trysts passionately yet (still) chastely. Tasker gets the skinny on this guy and is enraged – to the point of using his federal resources to conduct a search and seizure mission on Helen and her beau – the former he locks in a room and interrogates while his and Albert’s identity is concealed behind a one-way mirror and voice distortion, the latter he dangles over a cliff and tells to get lost.

And it’s about at this point that the movie commits an unpardonable sin – it turns its heroes into assholes. And when they’re the only protagonists in the film, that’s deadly. They keep Curtis in the dark for a good half hour or so, culminating in her embarrassing striptease in a scene that was likely intended to be funny but winds up just cringingly awkward. I remember that the critics were cringing as well when Lies first came out, rebuking its dislocation between the terrorist-fighting plot which bookends the film and its ill-conceived midsection, which seems fatally out of sync in both storyline and tone. I was pretty much in agreement: Harry’s setup, I felt, was both cruel and digressive, and since I even liked the Bill Paxton character, I felt that his penalty was even crueler. Yeah, sure, he comes back in the end in a token scene of repentance, but big deal.

But now, seeing it 23 years later, I have to say that I wasn’t crazy about the terrorist stuff either. Harry’s primary enemy throughout the flick is some Middle Eastern honcho who spouts threats in Arabic and looks wide-eyed most of the time. And I just felt that his violence, and the violence Harry uses against him, was extremely off-putting. Perhaps it’s because we’re living in a post 9/11 world and scenes of a harrier jet firing rounds into a skyscraper just aren’t divertingly entertaining anymore. Or maybe we’re had too many incidents of mass shooters using semi or fully automatic weapons on civilians to really find similar actions depicted in the movies to be a barrel of fun.

There’s an extended chase scene – Tue Lies’ first act finale – that sums up my distaste. It begins in a men’s bathroom, where Harry confronts his nemesis for the first time. What begins with a simple would-be shooting quickly escalates into a hail of gunfire – dozens of rounds fired at lights, stalls, tiles, the floor, you name it – and then turns into a bloody fistfight. Now Cameron is no stranger to graphic violence -  look at his Terminator movies – but here his violence is unsettling and unrelenting. What should be fun, James Bondian antics winds up being joyless and brutal. But it doesn’t end there – it turns into a prolonged chase with Harry on horseback chasing the Arab on motorcycle – throughout just about every unlikely Washington venue you can name, and I kept thinking about what the horse was going through, and was all that really worth what they’re putting up on the screen?

By the time we get to the film’s finale – in which the terrorists detonate a nuclear warhead on a Florida keys island and threaten to do the same atop a Miami skyscraper, using Harry’s daughter as a hostage – we’re worn out, but not in a good way. We’ve been stung along, forced to follow a guy of questionable principle, on a mission of glorified, comic book antic of serious undercurrent. The helicopter rescue of a limousine-bound Helen, and the harrier jet rescue of Harry’s daughter on the Miami skyline, just isn’t exhilarating in the way it should be. There’s too much baggage, both in the way Cameron depicts his central character, and in the way the world has changed about terrorism since the mid-90s. And even though the latter isn’t necessarily the director’s fault, it still affects the way we perceive his movie.

Cameron would, of course, rebound – his Titanic just three years later remains one of my all-time favorite epics, and I’ve definitely gotten flack for that opinion. But it does just prove that the man knows how to get the adrenaline pumping. As he previously showed us in The Abyss, he can manipulate the movie viewer in such a way as I’ve never seen anything else like it. He’s got the old-school storyboarder’s mentality; like Spielberg, he knows the nuts and bolts of the craft, and he’s best when he works with just his camera and his editing machine. It was the Cameron of the original Terminator that I missed while watching True Lies.

But I’d be quite happy if I never had to see this movie again. James, just leave Bond to the Brits, and give us something from your heart.

Rating:  **

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Speed (1994)

Another Fox selection. Hmm, could this be a trend?

Regular readers of this blog know I’m no stranger to carping about the blockbuster mentality that consumed most Hollywood product starting the 80s . Gone was the indie spirit that characterized so many fine films made during the Golden Age of the late-60s and early 70’s, and I still believe that. Yet, this “Bigger is Better” shift did produce at least one noteworthy by-product: the action movie. It was a genre of which Tinsletown excelled, and they led the world in its production.

From The Terminator to Lethal Weapon to Rambo to Die Hard, producers like Joel Silver and Simpson/Bruckheimer packaged expertly-made, heavy-duty rollercoaster rides loaded with action, action and more action. No these weren’t shlocky little exploitation numbers like the Dearth Wish movies. Nor wee they cerebral character studies like The French Connection. They had one purpose and one purpose only: to keep you on the edge of your seat for a couple of hours, wanting more.

Die Hard adjusted he paradigm just a bit by enclosing the setting or situation, and ratcheting up the intelligence and immorality of the bad guys – a must in a new world now of better technology and more media-savvy audiences. Several imitators followed, and afte awhile it became shotrthand to sell a script with the shorthand “Die Hard on a ___________.”

By 1994, the subgenre seemed to be headed for life support, until a movie named Speed took the premise and shook it up a bit. Rather than have a bus taken over by terrorist, why not have it carrying a bomb, programmed to detonate if the bus slows down to under 50 MPH? Longtime DP Jan DeBont thought this would be a groovy idea for his first film as director; others weren’t so sure. So Fox ponied up a B-list star, Keanu Reeves; a completely unknown co-star, Sandra Bullock; and a paltry budget of 30 million dollars to give this guy a chance. The studio was fully expecting its True Lies (the next movie) to be the only action hit of the summer. But while that movie made money, it cost 100 million to make, far less profitable than Speed’s take of over 300 million. And it didn’t get nearly the critical acclaim.

That’s because Speed is phenomenally good. At just under 2 hours, it whizzes by in an instant – that’s because you’re on the edge of your seat throughout the whole damned thing. He sets up the characters fast, fast because…. there’s no time! A mad bomber in the form of Dennis Hopper has cut an elevator’s cables and now controls its emergency brake; the passengers will die unless he gets 3.7 mil. Quickly we meet LAPD officers Jack Traven (Reeves) and Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels, who just barely manage to secure it to another cable so they can get everyone out. They get awarded, but don’t sit back because…. now Hopper’s mad and still wants the money and wants to get back at Jack! So he sets up the aforementioned bus bomb and sits back to see what his nemesis will do. Well, with the help of Annie Porter (Bullock) as the driver, he manages to keep rolling along, overcoming an unfinished highway, a ruptured fuel tank, a video surveillance camera prohibiting anyone from getting off, twists and turns and curves in the road and a myriad of assorted physical obstacles. When all that is said and done… wait!... there’s more: Hopper is still on the loose, and Jack may just have to go mano-a-mano on a runaway subway train, with hostage Annie tied up to enough packed explosives to blow her away to the next planet.

I’ve always had a short fuse with writers and directors who try to pile on too many crises. It comes off as contrived and desperate. But DeBont simply doesn’t give you the time to quibble. Once one sticky situation is averted, he’s got another one lined up to throw at you. He mastery with both story and film editing is beyond reproach – he has an uncanny ability to know just how long you’ll pay attention to something before you wander. Some critics critiqued Speed’s three-act structure, but I think it’s brilliant: DeBont knows the bus plot won’t carry the full two hours – it’s perfect at just over one. And the bookend vignettes are perfect at their respective lengths as well.

DeBont was a DP on Die Hard, not surprisingly, and he clearly put that experience to good use on Speed. But while Speed lacks the human interest and character development of Die Hard, it’s serviceable enough. There’s still plenty of hip, flip, police-buddy dialogue and semi-authentic banter amongst the troops for us no to blanche too much. And somehow, during those few moments where we actually are listening to what they’re saying, we’ve come to like them so much, particularly Reeves and Bulock, that we’ll let them read the phone book. Because by he end we feel like we’ve survived a war with them.

And he learned from Die Hard that suspension of credibility is easy if – you gusssed it – you don’t give them time to think. In the wonderful world of home video, when you can go back and watch again all those questionable moments, you can reassess just how far we’re suspending some of those moments. Answer: very far, as in:

1.     The gap in the freeway. Reeves claims it has a slight incline, so they can jump it. They showed it. I didn’t see it. All I saw was the big moment, when somhow, the bust did jump up – VERY high – easily landing on the other side. Bo and Luke Duke, eat your heart out.
2.     Jumping the subway track at he end. Of course, the line comes to a end, so what to do? Keanu flors the train so it jumps the track, and proceeds to destroy the station wall and wind up on a outside road, Wait, weren’t they below ground?
3.     Re-editing the TV signal. When Reeves discovers Hopper’s watching them on the bus-cam, he has the media intercept the signal who then lay it to tape, edit it so a running loop, rebroadcast the signal to its intended recipient and overriding the original signal. While this procedure is theoretically possible, there’s no way it could be done in the time allotted of a just few minutes.

And there’s more, but why bother going on? I wasn’t thinking about them the first time I saw it back in ’94. I liked it back then, and my opinion hasn’t changed much in the ensuing 23 years. (Jesus, has it been that long?) But there is one thing I appreciated more this time: Dennis Hopper. That dude can play a friggin’ villain! I think it mostly has to do with his combination of intelligence (all good baddies must have it) and chilling psycopathy, which he demonstrates with a sort of poetic philosophy. I was both intrigued and disturbed by his rants about bombing as an art, and how every unexploded bomb is a tragedy, never realizing fulfillment or self-actualization. For just a moment I even felt sorry for him. Just a brief moment, that is; then I went back to hating his living guts.

And one more thing. Made in 1994, Speed came out well before digital effects subsumed everything in entertainment, and I look back fondly on films that worked their magic purely on models, editing, stunt work, extensive second-unit and painstaking set labor – all things that have since become easier in the CGI era, and more obviously so. Seeing a film like Speed again gave me the same reaction I had after revisiting Die Hard – How in god’s name did they make this picture?

I’m not going to ask any more – I’m only going to watch and enjoy. That too, after all, is the magic of the movies.

Rating:  ****

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

Back to the Fox Collection selection. But don’t worry – there will be future digressions. I will make it so.

After the dynamic wunderkind known as Robin Williams set the TV scene on fire in the late 70s with Mork and Mindy, it was only natural that make the move to the big screen and perform the same magic. But his cinematic offerings turned out to be far more uneven, the primary reason being that he often dismissed his role in favor of the same antics that made him a household name. Sure we got gems like Popeye and Moscow on the Hudson, but we also got stinkers like The Survivors, Club Paradise and The Best of Times. In short, if the director couldn’t force him to stay in character, he almost never did.

And then filmmakers got smart. Starting in 1987 with Good Morning Vietnam, they figured out that if they deliberately chose a role that was already a Robin Williams-type character, he could go to town, chewing al the scenery he wanted and still stay in character. Vietnam’s Adrian Cronauer was a motor-mouthed DJ who did skits and scenes and funny voices. Voila! The film was a critical and box-office hit, even netting Willams an Oscar nod for Best Actor. Not bad for someone pretty much playing himself.

The tactic continued with Dead Poet’s Society, The Fisher King, Hook, Aladdin and then Mrs. Doubtfire, in which he plays the titular character’s alter ego, a man recently fired from his job as cartoon voice. Of course, later in the film he dons the dress and wig and becomes a dowdy old woman who can be fresh-mouthed when the situation dictates, so now we have the best of both world – Robin Williams as himself and contained character. And under the processed yet often reign-releasing directorship of Chris Columbus, he excels in both capacities. For this reason, Doubtfire may very well be the definitive Robin Williams role. After a decade and-a-half of ups and downs, experimenting, succeeding, bombing and doing everything in between, he finally has a great comfort level on screen – and he can do whatever is necessary to keep ya laughing for the price of yer ticket.

But for all his unbridled comic energy, I discovered that the reason Williams works so well on film has nothing to do with jokes. There’s a moment near the beginning of Doubtfire in which Williams’ daughter asks him if he’ll ever leave her the way he did mommy, and he looks at her square in the eye and says, “Never. I’ll never leave you. You’re my children, and I love you.”

Not the best line in the world, but it doesn’t matter: when Williams says it, you friggin believe it. He has an absolute sincerity in his performance that you just can’t teach – it’s the stuff that movie stars are made of – and producers will pay top dollar for it in Hollywood. You just want to go up and break through to the screen and give the man a hug. From that moment on, there’s not a single soul in the audience who doesn’t want this guy to be with his kids.

But if course, given that this is pretty much Hollywood product, we must get the usual the usual plot machinations to stymie his efforts to do so. After Daniel (Williams) and Miranda Hillard (Sally Field) talk divorce (more her idea than his), they go to court; she wins custody, and he gets mere visitation visits only conditionally, pending his proof of employment and paternal fitness (I’ll bet Ted Kramer wished he got that deal in Kramer Vs. Kramer.) This of course sets up two things: his requirement to dress up as the nanny Field eventually hires to watch the kids after school, and an adversary in the form of the court inspector, who certainly can’t find out that her charge is a drag queen. But he clears that hurdle, and Doubtfire, not surprisingly, turns out to be a great caretaker. And Daniel even lands a decent job – all we have to do now is wait until the probationary period is up, right?

Nope. Miranda fancies a British hunk in the form of Pierce Brosnan, stirring Daniel’s (Doubtfire’s) envy. And Daniel gets the chance to be a daytime children’s show host, with his “interview” at the same restaurant he’s supposed to dine with his family… as Doubtfire! This leads to the inevitable unmasking scene – in Tootsie it was done as broad farce and then poignant tragedy, all on a live soap opera. Here, it comes off as a bit awkward and maudlin, in the aftermath of a near-choking incident, with Doubtfire more than a bit tipsy (OK, drunk). After Field realizes hiw good he was with the kids, dress or no, she finally, finally, finally agrees to let him watch the kids after school. And Doubtfire closes with a PSA about divorce as an often-inevitable part of life.

Now, don’t me wrong, Doubtfire has its moments, and most of them involve Williams with the kids, half acting, half ad-libbing, but always connecting. It’s clear they had chemistry both on and off the set. And then there are a few charming moments with Doubtfire as the TV show host, yukking it up with a puppet monkey, and how he was slighted in the casting of Planet of the Apes in favor of Roddy MacDowell. But of the film is an oh-so-carefully crafted Hollywood Plot, replete with just enough conflucts and twists to keep the story, like a shark, moving forward. We even get the requisite gay man (Harvey Firestein), Williams’ brother, appointed to create Doubtfire’s dress and makeup. He’s already done the British old lady voice on the phone, so why do they go through an old Russian woman and Barbra Streisand? So Williams can do his accents and the three can sing a Streisand song, that’s why.

And then there’s the Sally Field, playing the thankless role of the wife who wants a divorce. The film has to walk on eggshells with her – she has to be the heavy, the one who’s denying custody, she can’t be too touch-feely. On the other hand, she can’t be a monster, either; we’d wonder how they ever got together in the first place, and she has to be nice enough so her “turn” at the end is credible. Ultimately, the writers dig themselves into a hole, and the character is a confused non-entity. In the real world, she’d gladly have her ex watch the kids (why wouldn’t she, contrived “party scene” notwithstanding?), but that would make the film a heck of a lot shorter.

Doubtfire has become a “favorite film” in the years since its release, and it probably deserves that distinction. Like Chris Columbus’ previous film, Home Alone, the film has a coziness about it, fit for holiday gatherings where no one is paying much attention to it; they just know it verbatim from repeated viewings. But if you look beyond the gloss and in between Williams’ routines, you’ll find that the emperor has no clothes, or at least vey few.

For its pop appeal, and Williams’ comedy, it gets….

Rating:  ***

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Sandlot (1993)

(Another personal addition. You’ll read why.)

Cult films are a funny thing: you next know what’s going to click. Take The Sandlot, for example. I saw it when it came out in the late spring of ’93, and had a pretty ho-hum reaction to it – watered-down Stand By Me, with baseball at its core, and, despite a few charming moments, nothing terribly outstanding.

But within the past decade or so I’ve heard people quoting it and talking about it – it enjoys frequent play at my kids’ child-care service at the gym – and now it seems to have emerged as a modern-day classic. After seeing it again for this blog, my opinion hasn’t changed much, but now I sort of see why such a steadily growing fanbase. It features that “one summer” where a young boy truly lives for the first time (which we’ve seen before), it shows us how that boy, underappreciated by his parents, must turn to his friends for self-actualization (which we’ve seen before), and it remembers a bygone era as the last true moment of innocence, both for its youthful characters and for the country they’ve grown up in (which we’ve seen before).

But there’s a subgenre within the cult film category, and it might help explain The Sandlot’s popularity: cult films that became popular because their audiences were young when they first saw them. Everyone I’ve talked to who’ve sung the film’s praises had one thing in common – they first saw it when they were kids. And then it sort of makes sense – in ’93, nearly in the middle of the cynical, hipper-than-thou Tarantino decade, The Sandlot stood out as an example of sanguine innocence, a retrospective look back at a time when life was simpler, as represented by the purity of baseball. They don’t care that “we’ve seen it before” because they didn’t see it before – its stock characters (the nerd, the gross-out, the jock, the sensitive one) weren’t clichés at all; they were the friends and teammates they went to school with and played ball with.

Now there is a story here, albeit a thin one: an insecure boy and his mom and stepdad move to a middle-American town (oh, I don’t know – Ohio, right?), and the boy needs to get shown the ropes by a more athletic yet understanding boy from the neighborhood. The two soon form a baseball team, and find an abandoned sandlot on which to play. Only one problem – the adjacent lot houses a ratty old junkyard, protected by the mother of all mean ‘ol dogs – an infernal “beast” who, according to legend, eats baseballs, as well as their attendant players, in their entirety. As we move from character-developing vignette to vignette, we get to the “plot” about halfway through: after losing their only ball when it goes over the fence to beast territory, the boy goes back and foolishly uses his stepdad’s Babe Ruth-autographed number. Of course, it goes over the fence too, ad the boys devise a way to get it back. I won’t spoil the ending, but it does involve an appearance by the junkyard owner, played by James Earl Jones (basically reprising his role from Field of Dreams), who all-too-conveniently, happens to be something of a baseball legend himself.

And yes, the boy’s estranged relationship with his stepdad is patched up nicely, as are all the other loose threads. But truth be told, there aren’t many of them. The Sandlot is mostly a patchwork of self-resolving scenes, almost anthology-like, and they’re mostly borrowed from other sources. In addition to the aforementioned Field of Dreams and Stand By Me, the film unabashedly lifts from The Natural, The Wonder Years and just about any exercise in early-60s nostalgia. But unabashedly is the key word – The Sandlot commits its larceny with blithe apathy. It knows what it’s doing, but it just wants to stroll down memory lane. It’s a Normal Rockwell painting of a trousered boy with his bad and glove, heading home after a game. You can almost hear the crickets chirping.

And in the end, that’s what carries the film. How can you rebuke a film whose tone is so lovingly reminiscent? Well, you can try, but it’s sort of like kicking a puppy. And The Sandlot is also smart to not be too polished – it’s got a slightly unrefined look about it that makes it immune to naysayers who complain that it’s a studio product. It’s not, right down to its decision not to hire any child stars for the leads.

So if you’re kid, and you love baseball, this will probably be unchartered waters for you, and you’ll probably love it. The rest, tread with caution. It’s a pleasant film (save for an ill-advised scene of vomiting on a rollercoaster; it didn’t work in Stand By Me either), but not exactly guffaw-inducing.

Oh, wait  - there is one exception, having to do with a boy who fakes drowning so he can be “resuscitated” by the hot bombshell lifeguard. (He can only take so much oiling and rubbing and rubbing and oiling…) That scene is a classic.

The rest gets…

Rating: **1/2

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Back to the Fox Collection elections now, and you can’t really argue with this one, given its huge B.O. success, rousing score and oft-uttered line “I will find you!” even if most often snarkily.

For some reason, back in 1992, crime-drama impresario Michael Mann (Miami Vice) decided to take a whack at James Fennimore Cooper’s musty tome The Last of the Mohicans. Was he locked into a deal at Fox for which he would be proffered a tidy sum for his directorial services? Or was he feeling nostalgic for a required reading selection from his high school years? Or, and probably most likely, did he feel he could add a modern day spin to a timeless tale of action, adventure and the great America tradition of whupping the ol’ redskins? For whatever reason, Mann’s take on the story took in a mighty fine 85 million at the box office, made actress Madeline Stowe a major star and proved that Daniel Day Lewis could carry a film that wasn’t a British indie about a physically handicapped artist.

So what does a film about the French/Indian war look like in the hands of the man who brought us Sonny Crocket and our first cinematic look at Hannibal Lecter? Not terrible, believe it or not. Mann is a visual director, make no mistake, but he settles comfortably in between the video-game sensibilities of your Michael Bay and the art-house leanings of a Terrence Mallick (both of whom have also helmed war epics). Sure, we get the overwrought bombings of the film’s centerpiece – the evacuation of Fort William Henry (I mean, can we be realistic about pre-20th century warfare in film? It took time to pack those muskets, load those cannons). But we also get tender moments between Hawkeye (Lewis) and Cora (Stowe), with better-than-average dialogue for films of this ilk. The Brits and the French deliver their lines with the appropriate, mannered histrionics, and the whole thing is corralled together with a steadying quasi-realism that gives us the veracity without its requisite tedium.

Of course, we know the story (dust off  those books), but Mann’s Mohicans takes more than a few liberties with its source. Yes, it begins pretty much the same – Cora and Alice Munro are being escorted from Fort Edward to Fort William Henry to meet up with heir father, the soldier in command. Major Duncan Heyward escorts, but Magua, the Huron native, protects – at least he’s supposed to, When he leads them into an ambush, Natty Bumpo (Lewis) intercedes. We know him as Hawkeye – a white man raised as a native by Chingachgook, who also has a purebred son named Uncas. Hawk and the others lead the women safely to the fort as Magua escapes. Don’t worry; he’ll be back.

And here’s where movie version breaks from the book. Alice gets hot and steamy over Hawkeye – as the fort falls to the French, they fall in love. Colonel Munro, in refusing to offer succor to his Native American guests, and ordering Hawk’s hanging, comes off as the bad guy. And when everyone evacuates and Magua comes back to slay the loathsome redcoat in cold blood, we’re not exactly choked up. Another departure – Alice (not Cora) becomes attracted to Uncas, and Major Duncan gets burned alive by Magua when the soldier offers to trade his life for Cora’s. And instead of a big bloodbath when our heroes meet up with the Delewares, we get more precse deaths – Magua kills Uncas, Cora kills herself out of grief Chingachgook kills Magua out of vengeance. All that remain are Chingachgook, Hawkeye and Cora, facing the future – the horizon – intent on forging the new land with the memory of their slain brethren and the hope of a brighter frontier.

Mohicans didn’t exactly set the Oscars on fire that year – as I recall it had Oscar bait written all over it being a Fall release and having epic themes – and part of that might have to do with the fact hat it simply didn’t much to say. The costumes looked great and it was well shot – by today’s action standards it comes off looking refreshingly deliberate – but in the end we’re just looking at a sturdy adventure yarn. If they still taught he book Mohicans in schools today I can see this being well-viewed, but without its mandatory source material I can’t see an overwhelming reason to revisit this flick.

Ok, maybe a few. It was a pre-CGI, so all of the action scenes were real people, hard negative, no F/X. The Trevor Horn score is fantastic, no matter how many times you hear it.

And then there’s Madeline Stowe, who just might have been the most beautiful woman in the solar system when she was big. Mann knew it too, with loving, candlelit closeups and lingering profile shots of her fair-skinned face. Stowe was on fire then, in good films too, and she set my heart on fire. Boy, I loved the early 90s.

Oh, right, Back to the movie. Overall good stuff. Rent it on Netflix and have a beer or two. And it might teach you something about early American history. Maybe.

Rating:  ***

Monday, September 4, 2017

My Cousin Vinny (1992)

(Another supplement to the Fox collection – this one a personal fave of mine, and it’s also grown to become a minor classic to boot. Serendipitous!)

Few actors had the kind of career resurgence that Joe Pesci enjoyed in the early 90s, momentary as it was. Hot on the heels of his Oscar-winning, Oscar-deserving performance as hair-trigger-tempered Tommy DeVito in Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas, Pesci went on to star in seven films, all within the course of two years – and most of them pretty good. His clear apex during this period, though, has got to be My Cousin Vinny, a surprisingly solid courtroom comedy, which proved to be just as much an announcement of a rising talent in the form of Marisa Tomei, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for her role, as it was a career-reviving break for its headliner.

And Vinny may also be the most epitomal of his performances: it aptly captures the actor’s ability to swerve between both drama and comedy, often within he same scene (although the overriding tone of the film itself is decidedly comical, and broadly so). He also somehow manages to convey an actor’s empathy – and this is no mean feat considering how potentially unlikeable his characters can be. (Didn’t we al feel a little sorry when he got offed in Goodfellas?) And in Vinny we absolutely want his poor schmuck of a lawyer – a completely inept yet earnest fish out of water – to win the case in the end. And (spoiler alert) when he does, it’s a surprisingly euphoric moment – the film’s script has calibrated it that way – but it’s also due to Pesci’s masterful, unassuming handiwork.

Pesci’s lawyer is Vinny Gambini – the last-ditch saving grace to cousin Bill and his best friend Stan, wrongfully accused of murdering a convenience store clerk in the sticks of Alabama. Vinny and his fiancé Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei), Brooklynites to the core, make the trek to the deep South – but their hospitality is decidedly not Southern. They’re treated like an alien species anytime they set out, their sleep always seems to get disturbed by blasting noises outside their window, and Vinny has a devil of a time collecting 200 dollars Mona had lost husting pool. And the case isn’t looking so good either – beset by sleep deprivation and his overall greenness in lawyering, Vinny keeps striking out in the courtroom, getting arrested on multiple occasions for contempt of court, and ding nothing to stop the prosecution from aligning a row of witnesses who all attest to seeing the boys’ exact car peel out of the parking lot after the gunshots.

But then Vinny gets his mojo back – and one by one is able to discredit the witnesses’ accounts. When the DA brings in a federal forensics expert on car tires, it looks pretty hopeless – until Vinny calls Mona to the stand who proceeds to confirm, unequivocally, that there can be no conclusive evidence that the defendants’ tires matched the tread marks in question. With the judge (Ed Wynn) close to calling Vinny’s bluff (he had misadvertised himself an accomplished counsel), the dismal of all charges couldn’t be better timed. And now Vinny must answer to another order: his fiance’s demand that they marry, as per his promise to do so after winning his first case.

I’m always a sucker for a Rocky-like crowd-rouser, and My Cousin Vinny is a prime paradigm. In fact, it reminds me very much of another favorite – The Verdict – and the two films in fact share the same plot: down-on-his-luck lawyer takes an impossible case, only to prove himself with perseverance and gumption (and both also share a specific element – an eleventh-hour, surprise witness, who turns it all around). And both contain hat all-important lynchpin: the hero you desperately want to succeed. Both films accomplish this with crystal-clear miscarriages of justice, and through protagonists you are fully invested in.

The other hero of Vinny must be the screenwriter, Dale Launer (Ruthless People, Blind Date). He not only craft a narrative rich with laughs but he makes damned sure it’s all legally sound (another parallel with The Verdict). There wasn’t a moment in the film that I didn’t believe, and, despite the generally broad tone of the comedy, it all seems quite possible in the quirky courtroom of the South, where even the legal eagles must at least somewhat loony. Perhaps my favorite supporting character here is the judge, played by Fred Gwynne. As Vinny’s other nemesis, he rides a fantastic balance between officious courtroom procedure and a delicately unspoken admiration for Vinny’s moxie. I really loved this guy, and it’s just sublime that it was Gwynne’s final role, as underrated a character actor as there ever was.

Yet it was another supporter, Mariso Tomei, who gleaned the most praise, and it’s hard to naysay it. It’s no wonder they saw a rising star in her based on this – she essentially took a New York caricature and filled it with a mix of insecurity, impatience, and an overriding devotion to her man. I was always watching her in the margins, from her clearly improvised foot-thumping during the “biological-clock” scene, to her witness stand testimony – essentially a rambling of car facts with a “take that!” ‘tude, the Oscar-bait scene. And she sure is sexy as all hell; what male in the audience wasn’t secretly wishing they had a woman like that, gutsy yet gushy, taking no s**t from anyone yet unflinching in her support for her man.

Vinny was a modest BO hit, but has since enjoy cult favorite status (Tomei’s Oscar, and the urban legend surrounding it, doubtless helped). And I’ve always liked it too – one of those word-of-mouth goodies that can actually stand repeated viewings.

And a good start if you want to explore Pesci’s post-Goodfellas canon. Try The Super next.

Rating:  ***1/2

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