Guilty Pleasure No. 50: Maid in Manhattan (dir by Wayne Wang)


Whenever I see that the 2002 film, Maid in Manhattan, is going to be playing on HBO or Cinemax, I always think to myself, “I can’t understand why everyone hates on this film.  I mean, it’s not that bad.  It may be predictable and silly but it’s kind of sweet and Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey have a tame but sexy chemistry.”

Of course, then I watch the film and I discover that Maid in Manhattan is not the film where Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey fall in love.  That’s The Wedding Planner.  Instead, Maid in Manhattan is the one where Jennifer Lopez is a maid who works in a big fancy hotel and who is a single mother to a precocious child who is obsessed with Richard Nixon.  Maid in Manhattan is also the one where Jennifer Lopez falls in love with Ralph Fiennes.  Fiennes plays a candidate for the U.S. Senate.  Everyone is worried that he’ll never make it to Washington if people discover that his girlfriend is a maid.  I think his bigger problem is that he’s a Republican running for the U.S. Senate in New York.  (At least, I assume he’s a Republican because — as we learn from his conversations with Lopez’s son — he certainly seems to know a lot about and be rather sympathetic to Richard Nixon.)

I still like Maid in Manhattan, though perhaps not as sincerely as I like The Wedding Planner.  Some of that is because Maid in Manhattan takes place during the Christmas season and I love a good wintry romance.  Some of it is because this is probably the only mainstream film to feature people discussing the good points of Richard Nixon.  There’s the fact that Jennifer Lopez is always perfectly cast as someone determined to make something out of her life, regardless of whether or not the world supports her or not.  She’s always had the ability to make steely ambition sympathetic and that’s a good ability to have when you’re playing a maid who is determined to get promoted into management.

Finally, there’s the odd romantic pairing of Ralph Fiennes and Jennifer Lopez.  It’s one of those things that shouldn’t work and yet, strangely, it does.  Fiennes always brings a certain off-center, neurotic energy to his performances, which not only explains why he’s played so many villains but also why it’s strange to see him starring in a romantic comedy.  And yet, that odd energy is exactly what Maid in Manhattan needs.  It keeps the viewer on their toes and it makes the surprising discovery that Fiennes and Lopez have romantic chemistry all the more rewarding.

Don’t get me wrong, of course.  This is a deeply silly movie and there’s a lot of less than sparkling dialogue and the plot falls apart if you even start to think about it.  The entire story revolves around mistaken identity, with Fiennes not realizing that Jennifer Lopez is a maid and …. well, it’s all a bit unnecessarily complicated.  The film also takes Fiennes’s political aspirations a bit too seriously.  It’s not quite as bad the whole thing with Matt Damon running for the Senate in The Adjustment Bureau (“Due to his charming concession speech, he will someday be elected President,” — whatever, Beto) but it gets close.

But, still — I love romance and I love New York and the pairing of Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes in Maid in Manhattan is just too strange (and oddly effective) for me to resist.

Previous Guilty Pleasures

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear
  15. Cocktail
  16. Keep Off The Grass
  17. Girls, Girls, Girls
  18. Class
  19. Tart
  20. King Kong vs. Godzilla
  21. Hawk the Slayer
  22. Battle Beyond the Stars
  23. Meridian
  24. Walk of Shame
  25. From Justin To Kelly
  26. Project Greenlight
  27. Sex Decoy: Love Stings
  28. Swimfan
  29. On the Line
  30. Wolfen
  31. Hail Caesar!
  32. It’s So Cold In The D
  33. In the Mix
  34. Healed By Grace
  35. Valley of the Dolls
  36. The Legend of Billie Jean
  37. Death Wish
  38. Shipping Wars
  39. Ghost Whisperer
  40. Parking Wars
  41. The Dead Are After Me
  42. Harper’s Island
  43. The Resurrection of Gavin Stone
  44. Paranormal State
  45. Utopia
  46. Bar Rescue
  47. The Powers of Matthew Star
  48. Spiker
  49. Heavenly Bodies

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (dir. by Robert Zemeckis)


WhoFramedRogerRabbitPosterI can’t quite remember how I found out about 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Growing up, most of my movie news came from four major sources – Entertainment Tonight, Siskel & Ebert, the occasional movie poster you’d see at a bus stop or cinema. If you were really lucky, the production company would sometimes create a “Behind the Scenes”/”Making of” showcase a little after the movie premiered. If possible, I would read the billing block of a poster to see if I could recognize anyone familiar, Just seeing Amblin Entertainment meant you’d have Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall involved. Nothing new there. I knew Robert Zemeckis and Alan Silvestri from Romancing the Stone and Back to the Future. Movies have had mixes of animation and live action – Bedrooms & Broomsticks, Mary Poppins, etc., but the big buzz here was the film planned to somehow involve both the Disney and Warner Bros. animation studios. It was an alien concept for me, because they couldn’t be more different from each other. Historically, animation on the WB side of things were edgy and almost dared to be even raunchy if they could get away with it. Disney, on the other hand, was pristine and extremely  kid friendly. Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse? Daffy Duck vs. Donald Duck, all on the same screen? It was the 1980’s equivalent of asking Marvel (which ironically, is owned by Disney now) and DC (which the WB has owned for decades) to write a single Justice League / Avengers crossover story.

At the time, Steven Spielberg was already well known for blockbusters like the Indiana Jones films and E.T., but did he really have enough clout to bring two major companies together like that? It blew my 13 year old mind and I became completely obsessed.

Around the time Who Framed Roger Rabbit came out, I picked up anything I could find about it. I had Alan Silvestri’s soundtrack, a poster, a stuffed Roger doll, and the video game when it came out. I even read Gary Wolf’s novel. I begged my parents to let me see it, and it was one of the rare times where my Mom took my sis and I to the movies instead of my dad (the major movie buff, who took us to see Robocop twice the year before). I think she went in part to shut me up, and to give herself a break from my nearly 2 year old brother. It remains one of the two best movie related memories I have of her.

In the world of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, humans and cartoons share the same space in Los Angeles. Cartoons live in Toontown, owned by Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye). It’s the story of Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins – Hook, Mermaids), a Los Angeles Private Eye with a bit of a grudge against toons. For a quick buck, Valiant is hired by R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern – Firefox, Little Shop of Horrors) to snoop on Acme. Valiant’s work puts him in the path of Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer, Back to the Future Part II), after Eddie takes some racy pictures of Acme playing patty cake with Roger’s wife, Jessica (Kathleen Turner, Romancing the Stone). Roger angrily swears they’re still a happy couple and that Acme somehow coerced her before running off into the night. The next morning, Eddie is informed that the Marvin Acme’s been killed overnight. To make things worse, Acme’s Will is missing, leaving the fate of Toontown up in the air. All of the evidence points to Roger, but Roger asks for Eddie’s assistance in clearing his name. Can Eddie save Roger before Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd, Back to the Future) and his pack of weasels get their hands on him?

The production for the film required jumping over a number of hurdles. Zemeckis, himself a cartoon fan, wanted to bring some of the Warner Bros. characters along with Disney characters. Even better, he also wanted to add some of Tex Avery’s classic style to the film. Similar to what he did with Ready Player One, Spielberg negotiated with some of the studios, and while he couldn’t get everyone, he did manage to get Disney, WB and a few others to commit. With this in place, they had to somehow merge animation with live-action in a way that made it look like the cartoons were interacting with their environment.

This would require one really huge magic trick, made up from an assortment of parts.

Since it was around 1986-1987, there really was no CG, yet.. James Cameron made 6 stuntmen in Alien suits look like 600 through the use of Oscar Winning Editing, and the technology that gave us the paradigm shifting dinosaurs of Jurassic Park wouldn’t occur for another 3 or 4 years. For Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the approach was a mix of robotics, puppetry, sleight of hand gadgetry, and a lot of imagination.

The art was handled by Richard Williams and his team, who would go on to win a Special Achievement Oscar for his contribution to the film. They had to draw every cell/frame by hand, on paper and then have them inked. These would then go to Industrial Light & Magic, who would add shadow, highlights and special effects To make things harder, the artists had to work around Zemeckis’ filming style and figure out how to fit the characters into each scene.

Take Jessica Rabbit’s performance of “Why Don’t You Do Right?”, sung by Amy Irving (Carrie, The Fury). At first glance, it seems a really easy shot. Girl steps on the stage, performs and leaves, right? However, there are so many things happening here on an effects level that I still don’t fully understand how they did it after all these years. ILM handled the lighting, from the sparkles in the dress, the use of the handkerchief and the great moment where Jessica blocks the spotlight in her walk from Acme to Valiant. I had to later explain to my mom that the “Wow” I whispered in the theatre during that scene had little or nothing to do with puberty. It was because I hadn’t seen anything like that before with a cartoon, and I’d hate the Academy forever if the movie didn’t win an Oscar for that.

Having cartoons on screen is one thing, but making it feel like they were interacting with people is another. Hoskins was the anchor that tied most of it all together. Having to work with nearly nothing – not even a green screen – and perform the physical actions required of the role was quite a feat compared to what some actors do with the motion capture rooms and digital walls we use today. Near lifesize models of Roger were created to help Hoskins handle some of the physical “grab and move” sequences, and actor Charles Fleischer actually spent time dressed as Roger on set (but off camera, of course) to feed his side of the conversation to Hoskins when filming a scene.

Puppeteers were brought on for moments were toon characters needed to hold objects, such as guns or knives. There is a moment of the movie where you can see one of the holes for the guns that the weasels, but it’s a pretty minute hiccup with all of the great work that was done. For the car sequences with Benny the Cab (also Fleischer), they used a special mini-car with a driver in the back. The car and driver were painted over (still, frame for frame) by the animators.

And ff course, it wouldn’t be a Zemeckis film without Alan Silvestri at the helm, musically speaking. Silvestri’s score for was a mix of detective noir and cartoony antics, which made for a perfect fit for the film. Overall, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one of those films I cherished growing up, and it’s almost impossible for me to avoid recommending it.

 

 

A Movie A Day #264: The Cotton Club (1984, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)


The time is the 1930s and the place is New York City.  Everyone wants to get into the Cotton Club.  Owned by British gangster Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins), the Cotton Club is a place where the stage is exclusively reserved for black performers and the audience is exclusively rich and white.  Everyone from gangsters to film stars comes to the Cotton Club.

It is at the Cotton Club that Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) meets everyone from Dutch Shultz (James Remar) to Gloria Swanson (Diane Venora).  Shultz hires Dixie to look after his girlfriend, Vera (Diane Lane).  Swanson arranges for Dixie to become a movie star.  Meanwhile, Dixie’s crazy brother, Vincent (Nicolas Cage), rises up through the New York underworld.  Meanwhile, dancing brothers Sandman and Clay Williams (played by real-life brothers Gregory and Maurice Hines) are stars on stage but face discrimination off, at least until Harlem gangster Bumpy Rhodes (Laurence Fishburne) comes to their aid.

The Cotton Club was a dream project of the legendary producer, Robert Evans, who was looking to make a comeback after being famously charged with cocaine trafficking in 1980.  Having commissioned a screenplay by his former Godfather collaborators, Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, Evans originally planned to direct the film himself.  At the last minute, Evans changes his mind and asked Coppola to direct the film.  After working with him on The Godfather, Coppola had sworn that he would never work with Evans again. (When he won an Oscar for The Godfather‘s screenplay, Coppola pointedly thanked everyone but Robert Evans.)  However, by 1984, a series of box office flops had damaged Coppola’s standing in Hollywood.  Needing the money, Coppola agreed to direct The Cotton Club.

Evans raised the film’s $58 million budget from a number of investors, including Roy Radin.  Roy Radin was best known for putting together Vaudeville reunions in the 70s and being accused of raping an actress in 1980.  Radin and Evans were introduced to each other by a drug dealer named Lanie Jacobs, who was hoping to remake herself as a film producer.  During the production of The Cotton Club, Radin was murdered by a contract killer who was hired by Jacobs, who apparently felt that Radin was trying to muscle her out of the film production.

While all of this was going on, Coppola fell into his familiar pattern of going overbudget and falling behind schedule.  This led to another investor filing a lawsuit against Orion Pictures and two other investors, claiming fraud and breach of contract.  When the film was finally released, it received mixed reviews, struggled at the box office, and only received two Oscar nominations.

With all of the murder and drama that was occurring offscreen, it is not surprising that the film itself was overshadowed.  The Cotton Club is a disjointed mix of gangster drama and big production numbers.  As always with post-Apocalypse Now Coppola, there are flashes of brilliance in The Cotton Club.  Some of the production numbers are impressive and visually, this movie has got style to burn.   However, among the leads, neither Richard Gere nor Diane Lane seem to be invested in their characters while the talented Hines brothers are underused.  The supporting cast is full of good character actors who are all in a search of a better script.  A few do manage to make an impression: James Remar, Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne as veteran gangsters, Nicolas Cage as the film’s stand-in for Mad Dog Coll, and Joe Dallesandro as Lucky Luciano.  The Cotton Club is sometimes boring and sometimes exciting but the onscreen story is never as interesting as what happened behind the scenes.

 

The Daily Grindhouse: The Long Good Friday (dir by John MacKenzie)


Long Good Friday 1

Today, the film community woke up to the news that British actor Bob Hoskins passed away on the 29th.  He was 71 years old.  Over the course of his career, he appeared in over 100 films and is well-remembered for performances in everything from Brazil to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to Spiceworld to Felecia’s Journey to Made in Dagenham.  However, perhaps his best performance is to be found in a film that’s still not very well-known here in the States.

In 1980’s The Long Good Friday, Bob Hoskins plays Harold Shand.  Harold is a crude, violent, and ruthless London gangster who, at the same time, remains oddly likable.  Perhaps his likability is due to the fact that, for all of his sociopathic tendencies, Harold does seem to be genuinely devoted to his girlfriend Victoria (Helen Mirren).  Or perhaps it’s because Harold is a fighter, a man who refuses to surrender and, as a result, has managed to make something of himself in one of the most rigidly class-conscious countries in the world.  Say what you will about his methods, gangster Harold is still more honest than your typical businessman.

However, ultimately, the main reason we root for Harold is because he’s played by Bob Hoskins.  Hoskins turns Harold into a true force of a nature, playing him as manic, charismatic, and — as the film progresses — more and more desperate.  The genius of Hoskins performance isn’t that he suggests that Harold isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.  The genius is that Hoskins lets us know that, despite all of his bluster, Harold understands that he’s not as smart as he’s pretending to be.

As the film opens, Harold is the most powerful man in the London underworld and is on the verge of staking his claim on the legitimate world as well.  All he has to do is convince an American gangster (played by Eddie Constantine) to agree to partner with him on a real estate deal.

Pierce Brosnan

However, two assassins (one of whom is played by a silent and devilishly handsome Pierce Brosnan) are killing his associates.  Somebody is blowing up his businesses.  Even as Harold desperately tries to impress his American guests, he finds himself under siege by an unknown enemy.  At first, Harold assumes that a rival gangster is coming after him but, as the day progresses, it becomes evident that there’s a new threat to Harold’s power.

Long Good Friday2

Without Bob Hoskins’ performance, The Long Good Friday is an entertaining gangster film, one that is distinguished by John MacKenzie’s sure direction, Francis Monkman’s energetic and powerful score, and an absolutely perfect final scene.  With Hoskins’ performance, The Long Good Friday is one of the best gangster films ever made.

And, as today, it’s a tribute to a truly talented actor.

Long Good Friday

Bob Hoskins, R.I.P.

44 Days of Paranoia #30: Nixon (dir by Oliver Stone)


For our latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at Oliver Stone’s 1995 presidential biopic, Nixon.

Nixon tells the life story of our 37th President, Richard Nixon.  The only President to ever resign in order to avoid being impeached, Nixon remains a controversial figure to this day.  As portrayed in this film, Nixon (played by Anthony Hopkins) was an insecure, friendless child who was dominated by his ultra religious mother (Mary Steenburgen) and who lived in the shadow of his charismatic older brother (Tony Goldwyn).  After he graduated college, Nixon married Pat (Joan Allen), entered politics, made a name for himself as an anti-communist, and eventually ended up winning the U.S. presidency.  The film tells us that, regardless of his success, Nixon remained a paranoid and desperately lonely man who eventually allowed the sycophants on his staff (including James Woods) to break the law in an attempt to destroy enemies both real and imagined.  Along the way, Nixon deals with a shady businessman (Larry Hagman), who expects to be rewarded for supporting Nixon’s political career, and has an odd confrontation with a young anti-war protester who has figured out that Nixon doesn’t have half the power that everyone assumes he does.

Considering that his last few films have been W., Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and SavagesI think it’s understandable that I’m often stunned to discover that, at one point in the distant past, Oliver Stone actually was a worthwhile director.  JFK, for instance, is effective propaganda.  Nixon, which feels a lot like an unofficial sequel to JFK, is a much messier film than JFK but — as opposed to something like Savages — it’s still watchable and occasionally even thought-provoking.  Thanks to Hopkins’ performance and, it must be admitted, Stone’s surprisingly even-handed approach to the character, Nixon challenges our assumptions about one of the most infamous and villified figures in American history.  It forces us to decide for ourselves whether Nixon was a monster or a victim of circumstances that spiraled out of his control.  If you need proof of the effectiveness of the film’s approach, just compare Stone’s work on Nixon with his work on his next Presidential biography, the far less effective W.

(I should admit, however, that I’m a political history nerd and therefore, this film was specifically designed to appeal to me.  For me, half the fun of Nixon was being able to go, “Oh, that’s supposed to be Nelson Rockefeller!”)

If I had to compare the experience of watching Nixon to anything, I would compare it to taking 10 capsules of Dexedrine and then staying up for five days straight without eating.  The film zooms from scene-to-scene, switching film stocks almost at random while jumping in and out of time, and not worrying too much about establishing any sort of narrative consistency.  Surprisingly nuanced domestic scenes between Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen are followed by over-the-top scenes where Bob Hoskins lustily stares at a White House guard or Sam Waterston’s eyes briefly turn completely black as he discusses the existence of evil.  When Nixon gives his acceptance speech to the Republican Convention, the Republican delegates are briefly replaced by images of a world on fire.  Familiar actors wander through the film, most of them only popping up for a scene or two and then vanishing.  The end result is a film that both engages and exhausts the viewer, a hallucinatory journey through Stone’s version of American history.

Nixon is a mess but it’s a fascinating mess.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed
  29. A Face In The Crowd