Thursday, September 25, 2008

March 2006

I hadn’t seen the final film in Alfred Hitchcock’s long, brilliant directing career in years and to say it hasn’t aged well is being kind. “Family Plot,” a lighthearted thriller featuring an impressive collection of actors, is a mess.

Barbara Harris, one of the best actresses of the era but a bit too kooky to ever become a star, plays a con woman posing as a psychic. She successfully tricks a rich, elderly woman into believing she can track down the woman’s nephew, who was put up for adoption at birth. Harris and partner Bruce Dern (also a bit too kooky for stardom) utilize various ruses to track down the heir, but none are very interesting and the process seems way too easy.

At the same time, a jewelry store owner (William Devane) and his girlfriend (Karen Black) use kidnapping to get their hands on rare, expensive diamonds. Only the work of these four interesting actors keeps the film from becoming unwatchable. For the most part, it plays like a very long episode of “Columbo.”

Harris, a regular on the Broadway stage in the 1960s, made an impressive film debut as the very sincere child protection worker who falls for an untraditional dad (Jason Robards) in “A Thousand Clowns” (1965). She worked sporadically on screen, but earned an Oscar nomination for her role as Dustin Hoffman’s off-centered girlfriend in “Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me” (1971) and was equally memorable in “Nashville” (1975) as a very confused wannabe singer who takes the stage at the end of the film. She was busy in the last half of the 1970s, earning a Golden Globe best actress nomination for her combined work in “Family Plot” and the body-swapping movie “Freaky Friday” (1976) and had good roles in “Movie Movie” (1978) and, as the jilted wife, in “The Seduction of Joe Tynan” (1979).

But Harris had only one good role in the 1980s, as the mom in the wacky comedy “Nice Girls Don’t Explode” (1987), and has just a single screen credit, a small role in “Grosse Pointe Blank” (1997), in the last 18 years. It’s a shame she hasn’t worked more; not many actresses have been more successful at creating weirdly likeable characters.

I can’t think of a more reliable recipe for a memorable film than Robert Towne adapting an acclaimed novel about a struggling novelist in Depression era Los Angeles. Towne reportedly first thought about filming John Fante’s “Ask the Dust” as a follow-up to his masterful screenplay for “Chinatown”—and both Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway would have been perfect for the leading roles. Thirty years later, we get Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, who never get a handle on their characters and don’t get much help from Towne’s direction or script.

Nothing in this film set in 1933 comes off as real; from the recreation of the Bunker Hill neighborhood (including Angel’s Flight) to the words and actions of the characters. Even that year’s cataclysmic event, the Long Beach earthquake that killed 115 people, doesn’t leave much of an impression. (Not coincidentally, I’m sure, the film was released on the 73rd anniversary of the quake)

Arturo Bandini (Farrell), just in from Colorado with plenty of copies of his short story that was recently published in a magazine run by H.L. Mencken (whose letters are voiced by film critic Richard Schickel) is ready to embark on a great writing career. What stalls him is his lack of life experience, yet when that experience is suddenly thrown his way he doesn’t know how to enjoy it.

Hayek plays Camilla, a Mexican waitress who falls for Arturo immediately, but he keeps pushing her away. Even if you buy this, it makes for way too many dull and repetitive scenes.

Towne’s attempts to explore the hostility between whites and Mexicans and how that impacts Arturo’s and Camilla’s relationship only serves to trivialize the racial conflict and does little to add spark to this predictable romance.

Towne, whose screenplays for “The Last Detail” (1973), “Chinatown” and “Shampoo” (1975) and uncredited contributions to “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) and “The Godfather” (1972), made him one of the most respected writers in movies, has directed just four films. “Personal Best” (1982) and “Without Limits” (1998) are among the most thoughtful and interesting movies ever made about athletes, and “Tequila Sunrise” (1988) is a sexy, entertaining crime film. With this fine record of film work, it might be best if we just forget “Ask the Dust” ever blew into town.

This mock documentary, in the style of Christopher Guest’s films but less slick and more ingeniously filmed, follows the self-involved star Steve Coogan (played, appropriately, by Steve Coogan) of a screen adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s 19th Century British novel, “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.”

Director Michael Winterbottom, best known for “Welcome to Sarajevo” (1997) and “24 Hour Party People” (2002), presents bits and pieces of this bizarrely told tale of talkative aristocrat Tristram Shandy (most of the story involves events leading up to his birth), but the main focus is on the actors, filmmakers and crew struggling to produce a cohesive movie based on the book.

If even a fourth of what is depicted here actually goes on during a movie shoot, it’s no wonder so many films turn out so badly. Constantly in need of an ego massage, Coogan treats co-star Rob Brydon as a threat; his girlfriend and their newborn as an inconvenience and his attractive personal assistant as a backup girlfriend. At one point, he’s forced to give an interview with an unsavory journalist under threat of him revealing Coogan’s kinky encounter with a call girl.

You don’t get much of a sense of what “Tristram Shandy” is all about, but it serves as fascinating window on the chaotic process of moviemaking. I can’t give this film a better compliment than to say that when it ended I was startled that 94 minutes had passed. I could have watched this collection of characters for another couple of hours.

For anyone who grew up in the 1950s or ‘60s, it’s hard to picture anyone but Raymond Burr as Perry Mason. But an earlier incarnation of novelist Erle Stanley Gardner’s too-good-to-be-true defense attorney offers a very different portrayal. Instead of the all-business Mason of television, Warren William, in four movies in the 1930s, presents him as a ladies’ man, gourmet chef and someone more than willing to skirt the truth if it would help his client. They do share one characteristic: Both enjoy being a thorn in the side of the district attorney.

Michael Curtiz, before gaining fame as the director of “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” Casablanca” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” turns a standard issue murder mystery into the kind of high-class comic detective tale made popular the year before with the first “Thin Man” film. William’s Mason, hitting the high spots in San Francisco before a planned boat trip to China, gets interested in a case involving a blackmailing ex-husband (soon-to-be star Errol Flynn) who ends up dead.

Curtiz keeps the action moving at a brisk pace and fills all the key roles with superb character actors, include the always hilarious Allen Jenkins as Mason’s main investigator Spudsy Drake, Barton MacLane as the put-upon police detective, Donald Woods (who played Mason in a 1937 film) as the girl’s fickle fiance, and Claire Dodd as Della Street, who is clearly more than just a secretary to Perry.

Warren William, like William Powell in the “Thin Man” pictures, brings an air of sophisticated, devil-may-care wit along with a Holmes-like instinct for hidden clues. In this film, Mason clears his client before the case ever gets to court.

Not quite as entertaining, but still better than your average mystery is “The Case of the Howling Dog” (1934), the first of the series. William’s Mason helps a wife (Mary Astor) get out of a murder rap in a case that involves infidelity, courtroom trickery and a noisy dog.

The lanky William, who often played corrupt but charismatic characters, appeared in 45 films between 1931 and 1939, including his signature role as adventurous jewel thief the Lone Wolf, a series that continued into the 1940s. He had barely slowed down when he died of cancer in 1948 at age 53.

Jerry Lewis’ first venture into directing is a series of comic set pieces featuring himself as the most incompetent bellhop in a large Miami Beach hotel. The degree to which you’ll enjoy the film hinges on whether you find Lewis’ bellhop as pitiful as Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” or as irritating as the real-life Lewis.

Clearly the film is a tribute to the silent comedians, with Lewis’ character (named Stanley) remaining silent until the final scene of the picture, and, on top of that, a Stan Laurel imitator appears in a few scenes.

The movies best episode centers around the arrival at the hotel of the famous actor-comedian Jerry Lewis, surrounded by fawning assistants, and thoroughly lampoons celebrity life. It also leads to the funniest bit in the picture, involving mistaken identity and Milton Berle.

It was during the filming of “Bellboy” that Lewis made his most lasting contribution to the directing profession, coming up with the idea of videotaping scenes at the same time that they’re being filmed. That allowed him, and nearly every director since, to get a general idea what the shot looked like while it was being filmed.

One of the key factors that make comedies of the 1930s so entertaining is that the stars talk faster than anyone you’ve ever known. Filmmakers understood that if the actor says a line fast enough, even a second-rate joke can get a laugh. Cary Grant, James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck and Claudette Colbert were all amazingly fast talkers. But the mostly forgotten ‘30s star Lee Tracy was the king of the motor mouths.

This film, in which he takes over a gossip column and turns it into something much more scandalous, made him a film star, coming after his stage success in “The Front Page,” maybe the fastest of all fast-talking plays.

The plot of “Blessed Event” is forgettable (even as you’re watching it) but Tracy is a marvel; so full of energy you’d think his head was about to explode. He’s nearly matched in vocal velocity by his sarcastic secretary (Ruth Donnelly) and is ably supported by other interesting voices, including the cigar-chomping, gravel-throated Ned Sparks and Allen Jenkins (also in the Perry Mason films), whose nasal tones were used, 30 years later, as the voice of Officer Dibble in the cartoon series “Top Cat.”

After years away from the big screen, Tracy returned to earn an Oscar nomination for his role as the president in “The Best Man.” He had also scored a Tony nomination for the same role in the original stage version of Gore Vidal’s play.

PHOENIX (1997)
This violent, cops-gone-bad thriller features both good performances and intense, bloody action but can’t rise above its B-movie roots.

Ray Liotta, an actor who always looks as if he’s about to have an aneurysm, plays a tough-guy, gambling-addicted cop who finds himself being blackmailed by his bookie. His idea of a solution is to recruit his three best friends, all part of the same “crime” unit—played with over-the-top machismo by Anthony LaPaglia, Daniel Baldwin and, to a lesser extent, Jeremy Piven—to pull a heist on the town’s low-life strip joint operator. As if you haven’t guessed, things go badly.

What saves this film from the DVD bin at the 99 Cents Only Store (actually, I think I found it at Big Lots), is a thoughtful relationship between Liotta and a needy bar owner played by Anjelica Huston. They meet after her wandering daughter (Brittany Murphy) throws herself at Liotta and he brings her home. When he’s not stuck shouting profanity-filled cliches, Liotta isn’t half bad an actor; he seemed poised for stardom after carrying Martin Scorsese’s epic mob picture, “GoodFellas” (1980), but it didn’t happen. Huston is superb as always, injecting realism into the frenetic scenario.

“Phoenix” director, Danny Cannon, has gone on to become one of the main directors of the “CSI” television franchise.

This film, the first of way too many Neil Simon plays adapted for the screen, could pass for a Frank Sinatra variety show, but that’s the least of its problems. In fact, if not for Sinatra’s tried and true hipster playboy instructing his younger brother on the ways of the swingin’ life, there’d be nothing worth watching.

In one of the worst performances you’re likely to see in a studio-made motion picture, 23-year-old Tony Bill, future producer and director, makes his acting debut as Buddy, the inevitable Simon alter-ego, who escapes the clutches of his cloying parents and moves in with his bachelor brother. Bill tries very hard but he’s always “acting”; in some scenes his performance looks and sounds like a parody of a amateur actor. He’s not helped much by the way his character suddenly changes near the end of the film. One minute he’s boyishly tripping over himself to escape the clutches of sexpot Jill St. John and the next he’s a cool replica of Sinatra.

Frank, playing 35 at age 48, looks great in a tux and fedora and throws in imitations of Bogart and Gleason between sexual innuendos and juggling three girlfriends. And if there was any doubt as to whose show this is, Dean Martin shows up in a bit as a beggar.

Lee J. Cobb, in the thankless role of the loud, bossy and stubborn father, and legendary Yiddish actress Molly Picon, as the self-sacrificing mother, are Simon’s stereotype Jewish parents, characters he’s never grown tired of.

Norman Lear, who went on to create “All in the Family” wrote the script for “Come Blow Your Horn,” and his longtime associate Bud Yorkin directed. Five years later, Simon’s adaptation of “The Odd Couple,” with a much more entertaining pair of roommates, erased all memory of this disaster, and the playwright’s future in movies was assured.

I can just image the Universal executive pondering what film to assign to director James Whale following his run of horror films, “Frankenstein” (1931), “The Invisible Man” (1933) and “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), put the studio on the Hollywood map.

How about a frothy screwball murder mystery?

Though hardly what Whale will be remembered for, this champagne-soaked, hectic whodunit works as a diverting entertainment, mostly because of the kooky performances of Robert Young and Constance Cummings. I’ve never been much of a fan of Young—his acting in serious roles usual came off as either ponderous or strained—but here he shows a knack for portraying the tuxedo-wearing, fun-loving man-boy who’s always has a glass in his hand and a sarcastic joke at the ready. And Cummings matches him drink for drink, joke for joke and is sexier than most of the comic actresses of the era.

After a wilder than usual night of carousing (including an offensive scene in which the partyers don black-faced masks), the couple awake in a friend’s incredibly posh Long Island mansion to find the host dead. Tough-talking but sympathetic investigator (Edward Arnold) arrives to solve the crime but Young and Cummings do most of the sleuthing, racing from clue to clue.

Some of the funniest lines come from Arthur Treacher, playing a droll British butler (30 years before he became Merv Griffin’s TV sidekick), who exchanges sarcastic asides with a very New York detective, played by Edward Brophy.

Cummings, for reasons that certainly had nothing to do with her acting abilities, never was cast in good roles in A pictures and by the 1940s returned to the stage. She also often worked in live television during the 1950s, and then capped her career by repeating her stage role of the drug-addicted matriarch Mary Tyrone, in a 1973 TV adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” co-starring Laurence Olivier.

As for Whale, he followed this comedy with an entertaining adaptation of the stage classic “Show Boat,” featuring Irene Dunne and Paul Robeson.

This amusing satire on the politically incorrect task of promoting cigarettes for the tobacco industry should make Aaron Eckhart a star. As the smart, effective and supremely confident lobbyist Nick Naylor, who has the nerve to turn a TV encounter with a young cancer victim into a pro-smoking message, Eckhart never allows his character to become a cliché.

At the heart of the story is the relationship between Nick and his reserved, but bright teen son (superbly played by Cameron Bright), who lives with his mother. By focusing on the more humane aspect of this man’s life, it becomes hard not to like the guy.

The film is filled with outstanding supporting characters, led by J.K. Simmons (once of “Law and Order” and “Oz”) who plays Nick’s hyper boss; William H. Macy as a righteous senator from Vermont who has Nick in his sights; and Maria Bello and David Koechner as the other members of the self-named MOD (merchants of death) squad, lobbying for alcohol and firearms. In a small role as the dean of tobacco company owners, Robert Duvall perfectly captures the arrogance of power.

The script, adapted by director Jason Reitman (son of director Ivan Reitman), from a novel by Christopher Buckley (son of William F. Buckley) manages to be over-the-top without becoming idiotic, a rare feat in a Hollywood comedy these days.

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