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 clichĂ©s 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 fiancĂ© 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

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Grand Canyon (1991)

[Another supplemental choice – I picked this one because, although not a hit, it was a critical darling, and certainly a film I’ve thought much of since I first saw it all those years ago…]

Although he didn’t know it yet, Lawrence Kasdan, in 1991, began a subgenre. His Grand Canyon, which he wrote and directed, alongside Steve Martin’s L.A. Story earlier that year, sought out to explore the frailty of life, ad how the random ways we interact with each other, often as strangers, are sometimes only the things that can offer us salvation, physically, psychologically and spiritually. It’s no accident the films of this ilk take place in Los Angeles – the home of most of these filmmakers but also a discordant brew of various races, ethnicities and generations in which harmony does not always come easy. Later films, like Short Cuts, Magnolia and Crash continued up this theme – all feature ensemble casts, too, showing us those lives that bounce around the room, and somehow give us the meaning to it all we so desperately lack in solitude.

But I think it all started with Grand Canyon, and it’s a worthy progenitor. It doesn’t have the distinctive style of an Altman or an Anderson, but it’s got a style nonetheless – a glassy, straightforward and often jarring timepiece of he early 90s, with B&W basketball scenes for the opening credits and a synth-beat score that gives the film just the dreamy ether it needs for such an examination. But, more importantly, it depicts a group of people just on the verge of a shattering chasm – the 80s just recently ended, a few months before the L.A. riots, nine years before the new millennium and and ten before 9/11, it so perfectly depicts the collective anxiety of America culture on the precipice. Sure, it’s L.A., but it could happen here, or there. We all feel it coming.

But yet, Grand Canyon is a hopeful film. Its players all yearn to find fulfillment in one way or anther, despite the likelihood that, as the Danny Glover character puts it, “we’ll all have at least a few truly terrible things happen to us in our lifetimes.” He oughta know – as Simon, a tow-trucker driver in the bad part of town, he’s got a thankless beat. But one night, he must give a lift to an upper-class immigration lawyer named Mack, lost and broken down, and about to be mugged – or worse – by a street gang. The two start up a friendship, and Mack, vowing not to let a savior’s good deed go unrewarded, buys Simon breakfast, sets him up with a date with a woman named Jane (Alfre Woodard), and arranges a better-located apartment for his sister and her family, currently struggling in a crime-riddled neighborhood.

Perhaps Mack’s benevolence has something to do with the uncertainty of his own life. His wife, Claire (Mary McDonnell), while jogging, had discovered an abandoned baby, and now wants to adopt it, possibly relating to the anxiety of her upcoming empty-nest syndrome. Their marriage may be on the rocks as well; Mack had an affair with a co-worker named Dee (Mary Louise-Parker), and her story is told too – through the tears of a young woman who just wants love, and knows she will never get it out of infidelity. And last we have Davis (Steve Martin), a violent-action movie producer (based on Joel Silver, of Die Hard and Letha Weapon), who, who after getting shot in the leg by a robber, gets an epiphany – no more glorification of blood. No matter that his change is to be short-lived; he’s changed nonetheless, as is everyone in this story. In he end, Simon takes them all on a trip to the Grand Canyon, as a measure of their own insignificance in the grand scheme of things.

Kasdan, of course, is mining the same territory that he did with his 1983 masterpiece The Big Chill – coming to grips with one’s own mortality while at the same time relying on each other to make sense of it all. Chill was a work clearly borne of the director’s post-collegiate existentialist dillema, and his antipathy with those outside his generation who couldn’t understand what all the “love-in” nonsense was all about. It was a loving picture, as loving as the people who inhabited it, about a pack of baby-boomers who get together after the suicide of a colleague, and, although each of them have individualized feelings, it’s soundly structured around that weekend together – on a crisp, fall day, when the sanctity of their sanctum is all that makes sense.

Canyon is sort of a follow-up – it’s characters don’t all share the same graduation date but they’re all experiencing the same ennui. But the film lacks the focus of Chill; it doesn’t have that anchoring timeframe; rather, it circulates in and out of the characters’ lives like a new-age music video, and we’re sort of left to find a connecting thread. It’s not terribly difficult, and to make our lives easier Kasdan uses the symbol of the Grand Canyon, quite literally, to rope it all together (like Altman did with the earthquake and Anderson did with the frogs). In the end, we feel beaten up by the black strife and the gang warfare and the shooting and Mack’s cut finger, but we somehow feel an affinity with these characters because they’re all talking about their experiences, as if we’re a fly on the wall of their therapy sessions. And that’s what ultimately lifts Canyon above and beyond others of its kind.

This is nothing to sneeze at, either – how often do you hear discourse about the infinitesimalness of life in a major studio picture? Never, I’ll bet, but Kasdan wisely cloaks it as a social satire of modern L.A. life. Yes, it is that, but it’s so much more. Watch the film, and glean for yourself its messages. (I found it enormously ahead of its time in its chronicle of race relations; far superior to the later, heavy-handed Crash). That’s because I applaud its “we’re all in this together” bottom line. When Kevin Kline and Danny Glover share a beer, not as blacks or whites but as people, I was gladdened. I had a similar conversation with a black man not too long ago. We didn’t talk about racial differences – we talked about life. And maybe that’s what we all need to start doing.

Grand Canyon has some intense moments – too intense perhaps – and some of it is a bit indulgent (Kevin Kline flying over L.A.? to spy on his mistress?). But on balance I admired the reach of this film. It’s a film of ideas.

And we just don’t get that too often.

Rating:  ****

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