Cleaning Out The DVR: Class Action (dir by Michael Apted)

Sometimes, it takes a really good actor to give a really bad performance.

That’s what I found myself considering tonight as I watched the 1991 film, Class Action. I recorded this film off of Starz a few months ago, mostly due to the fact that I usually enjoy legal dramas. Class Action is about a father and a daughter, both of whom are attorneys, who find themselves facing each other in court. Gene Hackman plays Jedediah Ward Tucker while Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio played Maggie, his daughter.

From the very first scenes, Jed Tucker is portrayed as being a firebrand, a crusader who stands up for the little guy against big corporate interests. (“Jed Ward is a great man!” one his clients exclaims while the other lawyers nod along in agreement.) Tucker is flamboyant, loud, perpetually outraged, in love with attention, and determined to make the world a better place. This is the type of role that would probably encourage any actor to overact just a bit. However, when you cast someone like Gene Hackman in the role, the performance becomes a masterclass in overacting. Gene Hackman was never a particularly subtle actor to begin with and casting him as Jed Tucker guarantees about two hours of Hackman bellowing, smirking, occasionally flirting, and basically coming across less like Gene Hackman and more like someone doing a particularly antic impersonation of Gene Hackman. Hackman goes so over overboard in the role that it becomes rather fascinating to watch. You watch and you ask yourself, “How much louder can he get? He much more obviously can he telegraph his intentions? Just how Gene Hackmanish is Gene Hackman going to get in this film?” Don’t get me wrong, Gene Hackman was a great actor. (He famously retired in 2004, after the indignity of appearing in Welcome to Mooseport.) One need only watch Bonnie and Clyde, The French Connection, Unforgiven, and The Royal Tennenbaums to see that Gene Hackman was a great actor. But sometimes, it takes a great actor to give a memorably bad performance.

Gene Hackman’s performance, as overbaked as it may be, is actually the only interesting thing about Class Action. It’s a well-made but ultimately rather silly mix legal maneuvering and family drama. Jed was a terrible father so Maggie becomes a corporate attorney in order to spite him. Class Action so embraces the idea that all professional women are motivated by daddy issues that even Aaron Sorkin would probably look at it and say, “Whoa, that’s really demeaning.” At one point, Maggie says to her father, “Have you ever considered that I might be a good attorney?,” just to have her father smirk and say that’s only because he’s her father. Jed’s response is to be expected, as he’s kind of an arrogant windbag. The problem is that the movie itself doesn’t seem to be willing to consider that Maggie could be a good attorney.

The other problem, of course, is that Class Action makes its good guys and its bad guys so painfully obvious that it’s hard to take any of the conflicts seriously. Of course, the big corporate law firm is going to be evil and of course, Jed Ward’s associates are going to be saints even if Jed isn’t. Laurence Fishburne plays Jed’s protégée and he gets stuck with all of the worst lines. Far more entertaining is future U.S. Senator and presidential contender Fred Dalton Thompson, playing a doctor who explains why it actually costs less for a car company to settle a lawsuit than to fix a design flaw.

Class Action is a forgettable film, not so much terrible as just bland. That said, if you want to hear some vintage Gene Hackman-style yelling, this might be the film for you.

Film Review: The Plumber (dir by Peter Weir)

Peter Weir’s 1979 film, The Plumber, is essentially a battle of wills between two very different characters.

Jill Cowper (Judy Morris) is a masters student in anthropology. She’s educated, articulate, liberal-minded, and upper middle class. She’s married to Dr. Brian Cowper (Robert Coleby), a highly respected academic who is on the verge of being offered a position with the World Health Organization.

Max (Ivar Kants) is the plumber at the Cowpers’s building. We don’t find out much about his background, though it’s hinted that he’s had some previous trouble with the law. Max is friendly and talkative and, as soon becomes clear, amazingly determined. When he shows up at the Cowpers’s apartment, he tells Judy that he’s simply doing a check on all the building’s bathrooms. When Judy lets him in to do his inspection, Max announces that he needs to fix something with the plumbing. It should only take a day or two.

Except, of course, it takes more than a day or two. Max continually shows up at the apartment, usually waiting until Brian has left for the day. His comments to Jill become more and more intrusive and, whenever Jill takes offense, Max says that she’s misinterpreting him and that he’s just trying to be friendly. When Jill tells Brian that she thinks Max is intentionally destroying the plumbing so that he’ll have an excuse to be in the apartment, Brian refuses to believe her. When Jill tells her best friend, Meg (Candy Raymond), about what’s going on, Meg says that Max seems handsome and harmless.

Meanwhile, Max continues to work in the apartment’s bathroom, eventually turning it into a maze of pipes that seems to be constructed specifically to trap anyone unfortunate enough to enter the room….

The Plumber was originally made for Australian television. Though it was given a limited theatrical release in the United States (largely due to the arthouse success of Peter Weir’s previous films, The Last Wave and Picnic at Hanging Rock), The Plumber feels very much like a made-for-TV movie or perhaps an extended episode of an anthology series. It has a brisk 76-minute running time and visually, it features none of the striking imagery that one typically associates with Weir’s cinematic work. There’s no beautiful or majestic shots of the outback (like in Picnic at Hanging Rock) or the ocean (like in Master and Commander: Far Side of the World). Instead, the film takes place in the type of ugly and soulless cityscape that Harrison Ford was escaping from in Witness.

That said, The Plumber is still a memorable piece of work, one that feels perhaps more relevant today than when it was first released. Anyone who has ever dreaded having to take their car in for repairs or having to call someone out to fix an appliance will be able to relate to what Judy goes through with Max. The film is a reminder that, as much as we tell ourselves otherwise, we really are at the mercy of strangers. Judy may be better educated than Max and she may have more money than Max but what she doesn’t have, at least until the end of the film, is Max’s animal cunning. Max knows exactly what to say to get inside of the apartment and, once he’s inside, he knows exactly what to do to make it impossible for Judy to keep him from returning.

As upsetting as Max’s actions are, what’s even more upsetting is how everyone refuses to believe Judy when she tries to tell them what’s going on. Judy is told she is overreacting. Judy is told that she just doesn’t understand how these things work. Max gets offended that Judy doesn’t appreciate all of the hard work that he’s doing for her, despite the fact that she never asked him to do any of it. He does everything short of telling her that she needs to smile more. He’s the ultimate toxic presence, invading Judy’s life and refusing to leave. Everyone has had to deal with a Max but, for women, he’s an especially familiar and loathsome figure. The film may have clearly been made for Australian television but its themes are universal.

Because almost all of the action takes place in one small apartment, The Plumber is undeniably stagey. (It’s easy to imagine it as being a two-act play.) However, it’s also very well-acted and occasionally even darkly humorous. (As loathsome as Max is, it’s hard not to laugh a little when you see the maze of pipes he’s constructed in the bathroom.) It occasionally shows up on TCM so keep an eye out.

7 Shots From 7 Films: Special Dennis Hopper Edition

Dennis Hopper (1936–2010)

4 (or more) Shots From 4 (or more) Films is just what it says it is, 4 (or more) shots from 4 (or more) of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 (or more) Shots From 4 (or more) Films lets the visuals do the talking.

85 years ago, Dennis Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas.

It seems rather appropriate that one of America’s greatest cinematic outlaws was born in a town that will be forever associated with the old west. Dennis Hopper was a rebel, back when there were actual consequences for being one. He started out acting in the 50s, appearing in films like Rebel Without A Cause and Giant and developing a reputation for being a disciple of James Dean. He also developed a reputation for eccentricity and for being difficult on set and he probably would have gotten completely kicked out of Hollywood if not for a somewhat improbable friendship with John Wayne. (Wayne thought Hopper was a communist but he liked him anyways. Interestingly enough, Hopper later became a Republican.) Somehow, Hopper managed to survive both a raging drug addiction and an obsession with guns and, after a mid-80s trip to rehab, he eventually became an almost universally beloved and busy character actor.

Hopper, however, always wanted to direct. He made his directorial debut with 1969’s Easy Rider, a film that became a huge success despite being an infamously chaotic shoot. The success of Easy Rider led to the Hollywood studios briefly trying to produce counter-culture films of their own. Hopper was given several million dollars and sent to Peru to make one of them, the somewhat dangerously titled The Last Movie. Unfortunately, The Last Movie, was such a bomb that it not only temporarily derailed Hopper’s career but it also turned Hollywood off of financing counter culture films. Hopper spent a decade in the Hollywood wilderness, giving acclaimed performances in independent films like Tracks and The American Friend, even while continuing to increase his reputation for drug-fueled instability. Hopper would eventually return to directing with his masterpiece, 1980’s Out of the Blue. (Out of the Blue was so controversial that, when it played at Cannes, Canada refused to acknowledge that it was a Canadian production. It played as a film without a country. Out of the Blue, however, is a film that has stood the test of time.) Unfortunately, even after a newly cleaned-up Hopper was re-embraced by the mainstream, his directorial career never really took off. He directed 7 films, of which only Easy Rider and Colors were financially successful. Contemporary critics often didn’t seem to know what to make of Dennis Hopper as a director. In recent years, however, Hopper’s directorial efforts have been reevaluated. Even The Last Movie has won over some new fans.

Today, on his birthday, we honor Dennis Hopper’s directorial career with….

7 Shots From 7 Dennis Hopper Films

Easy Rider (1969, dir by Dennis Hopper, DP: Laszlo Kovacs)
The Last Movie (1971,dir by Dennis Hopper, DP: Laszlo Kovacs)
Out of the Blue (1980, dir by Dennis Hopper, DP: Marc Champion)
Colors (1988, dir by Dennis Hopper, DP: Haskell Wexler)
The Hot Spot (1990, dir by Dennis Hopper, DP: Ueli Steiger)
Backtrack (1990, dir by Dennis Hopper, DP: Edward Lachman)
Chasers (1994, dir by Dennis Hopper, DP: Ueli Steiger)

Music Video of the Day: Taxman, performed by George Harrison and Eric Clapton (1991, directed by ????)

Today is Tax Day here in the States so this music video of the day feels especially appropriate.

George Harrison originally wrote this song in 1966. It appeared on Revolver. The song was inspired by the fact that, even tough the Beatles were making a huge amount of money, they were also expected to give a huge amount of that money to the government. Harrison said that the music was inspired by the theme song for the Batman TV series and once you learn that, it’s impossible to listen to this song without thinking, “Batman!”

This performance is from a 1991 concert in Japan and features Harrison’s frequent collaborator and friend, Eric Clapton. Eric Clapton has said that he originally disliked the Beatles because he felt that they were too “poppy,” and that he preferred the blues. Clapton, of course, went on to collaborate with all four of the Beatles on several different projects. When it appeared that Harrison had left the Beatles during the tense recording of the album that would become Let It Be, John Lennon briefly speculated about replacing him with Clapton. Harrison, however, returned to the band and the Beatles broke up shortly afterwards.

(Clapton, for his part, says that if Lennon ever had made the offer, he would have refused because of his friendship with Harrison.)

In 1969, following his famous spiritual awakening, George Harrison would tell BBC Radio, “”No matter how much money you’ve got, you can’t be happy anyway. So you have to find your happiness with the problems you have and you have to not worry too much about them.”