Playing Catch-Up: Crisscross, The Dust Factory, Gambit, In The Arms of a Killer, Overboard, Shy People

So, this year I am making a sincere effort to review every film that I see.  I know I say that every year but this time, I really mean it.

So, in an effort to catch up, here are four quick reviews of some of the movies that I watched over the past few weeks!

  • Crisscross
  • Released: 1992
  • Directed by Chris Menges
  • Starring David Arnott, Goldie Hawn, Arliss Howard, Keith Carradine, James Gammon, Steve Buscemi

An annoying kid named Chris Cross (David Arnott) tells us the story of his life.

In the year 1969, Chris and his mother, Tracy (Goldie Hawn), are living in Key West.  While the rest of the country is excitedly watching the first moon landing, Chris and Tracy are just trying to figure out how to survive day-to-day.  Tracy tries to keep her son from learning that she’s working as a stripper but, not surprisingly, he eventually finds out.  Chris comes across some drugs that are being smuggled into Florida and, wanting to help his mother, he decides to steal them and sell them himself.  Complicating matters is the fact that the members of the drug ring (one of whom is played by Steve Buscemi) don’t want the competition.  As well, Tracy is now dating Joe (Arliss Howard), who just happens to be an undercover cop.  And, finally, making things even more difficult is the fact that Chris just isn’t that smart.

There are actually a lot of good things to be said about Crisscross.  The film was directed by the renowned cinematographer, Chris Menges, so it looks great.  Both Arliss Howard and Goldie Hawn give sympathetic performances and Keith Carradine has a great cameo as Chris’s spaced out dad.  (Traumatized by his experiences in Vietnam, Chris’s Dad left his family and joined a commune.)  But, as a character, Chris is almost too stupid to be believed and his overwrought narration doesn’t do the story any good.  Directed and written with perhaps a less heavy hand, Crisscross could have been a really good movie but, as it is, it’s merely an interesting misfire.

  • The Dust Factory 
  • Released: 2004
  • Directed by Eric Small
  • Starring Armin Mueller-Stahl, Hayden Panettiere, Ryan Kelly, Kim Myers, George de la Pena, Michael Angarano, Peter Horton

Ryan (Ryan Kelly) is a teen who stopped speaking after his father died.  One day, Ryan falls off a bridge and promptly drowns.  However, he’s not quite dead yet!  Instead, he’s in The Dust Factory, which is apparently where you go when you’re on the verge of death.  It’s a very nice place to hang out while deciding whether you want to leap into the world of the dead or return to the land of the living.  Giving Ryan a tour of the Dust Factory is his grandfather (Armin Mueller-Stahl).  Suggesting that maybe Ryan should just stay in the Dust Factory forever is a girl named Melanie (Hayden Panettiere).  Showing up randomly and acting like a jerk is a character known as The Ringmaster (George De La Pena).  Will Ryan choose death or will he return with a new zest for living life?  And, even more importantly, will the fact that Ryan’s an unlikely hockey fan somehow play into the film’s climax?

The Dust Factory is the type of unabashedly sentimental and theologically confused film that just drives me crazy.  This is one of those films that so indulges every possible cliché that I was shocked to discover that it wasn’t based on some obscure YA tome.  I’m sure there’s some people who cry while watching this film but ultimately, it’s about as deep as Facebook meme.

  • Gambit
  • Released: 2012
  • Directed by Michael Hoffman
  • Starring Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, Alan Rickman, Tom Courtenay, Stanley Tucci, Cloris Leachman, Togo Igawa

Harry Deane (Colin Firth) is beleaguered art collector who, for the sake of petty revenge (which, as we all know, is the best type of revenge), tries to trick the snobbish Lord Shabandar (Alan Rickman) into spending a lot of money on a fake Monet.  To do this, he will have to team up with both an eccentric art forger (Tom Courtenay) and a Texas rodeo star named PJ Puznowksi (Cameron Diaz).  The plan is to claim that PJ inherited the fake Monet from her grandfather who received the painting from Hermann Goering at the end of the World War II and…

Well, listen, let’s stop talking about the plot.  This is one of those elaborate heist films where everyone has a silly name and an elaborate back story.  It’s also one of those films where everything is overly complicated but not particularly clever.  The script was written by the Coen Brothers and, if they had directed it, they would have at least brought some visual flair to the proceedings.  Instead, the film was directed by Michael Hoffman and, for the most part, it falls flat.  The film is watchable because of the cast but ultimately, it’s not surprising that Gambit never received a theatrical release in the States.

On a personal note, I saw Gambit while Jeff & I were in London last month.  So, I’ll always have good memories of watching the movie.  So I guess the best way to watch Gambit is when you’re on vacation.

  • In The Arms of a Killer
  • Released: 1992
  • Directed by Robert L. Collins
  • Starring Jaclyn Smith, John Spencer, Nina Foch, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, Sandahl Bergman, Linda Dona, Kristoffer Tabori, Michael Nouri

This is the story of two homicide detectives.  Detective Vincent Cusack (John Spencer) is tough and cynical and world-weary.  Detective Maria Quinn (Jaclyn Smith) is dedicated and still naive about how messy a murder investigation can be when it involves a bunch of Manhattan socialites.  A reputed drug dealer is found dead during a party.  Apparently, someone intentionally gave him an overdose of heroin.  Detective Cusack thinks that the culprit was Dr. Brian Venible (Michael Nouri).  Detective Quinn thinks that there has to be some other solution.  Complicating things is that Quinn and Venible are … you guessed it … lovers!  Is Quinn truly allowing herself to be held in the arms of a killer or is the murderer someone else?

This sound like it should have been a fun movie but instead, it’s all a bit dull.  Nouri and Smith have next to no chemistry so you never really care whether the doctor is the killer or not.  John Spencer was one of those actors who was pretty much born to play world-weary detectives but, other than his performance, this is pretty forgettable movie.

  • Overboard
  • Released: 1987
  • Directed by Garry Marshall
  • Starring Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Edward Herrmann, Katherine Helmond, Roddy McDowall, Michael G. Hagerty, Brian Price, Jared Rushton, Hector Elizondo

When a spoiled heiress named Joanne Slayton (Goldie Hawn) falls off of her luxury yacht, no one seems to care.  Even when her husband, Grant (Edward Herrmann), discovers that Joanne was rescued by a garbage boat and that she now has amnesia, he denies knowing who she is.  Instead, he takes off with the boat and proceeds to have a good time.  The servants (led by Roddy McDowall) who Joanne spent years terrorizing are happy to be away from her.  In fact, the only person who does care about Joanne is Dean Proffitt (Kurt Russell).  When Dean sees a news report about a woman suffering from amnesia, he heads over to the hospital and declares that Joanne is his wife, Annie.

Convinced that she is Annie, Joanne returns with Dean to his messy house and his four, unruly sons.  At first, Dean says that his plan is merely to have Joanne work off some money that she owes him.  (Before getting amnesia, Joanne refused to pay Dean for some work he did on her boat.)  But soon, Joanne bonds with Dean’s children and she and Dean start to fall in love.  However, as both Grant and Dean are about to learn, neither parties nor deception can go on forever…

This is one of those films that’s pretty much saved by movie star charisma.  The plot itself is extremely problematic and just about everything that Kurt Russell does in this movie would land him in prison in real life.  However, Russell and Goldie Hawn are such a likable couple that the film come close to overcoming its rather creepy premise.  Both Russell and Hawn radiate so much charm in this movie that they can make even the stalest of jokes tolerable and it’s always enjoyable to watch Roddy McDowall get snarky.  File this one under “Kurt Russell Can Get Away With Almost Anything.”

A remake of Overboard, with the genders swapped, is set to be released in early May.

  • Shy People
  • Released: 1987
  • Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
  • Starring Jill Clayburgh, Barbara Hershey, Martha Plimpton, Merritt Butrick, John Philbin, Don Swayze, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Mare Winningham

Diana Sullivan (Jill Clayburgh) is a writer for Cosmopolitan and she’s got a problem!  It turns out that her teenager daughter, Grace (Martha Plimpton), is skipping school and snorting cocaine!  OH MY GOD!  (And, to think, I thought I was a rebel just because I used to skip Algebra so I could go down to Target and shoplift eyeliner!)  Diana knows that she has to do something but what!?

Diana’s solution is to get Grace out of New York.  It turns out that Diana has got some distant relatives living in Louisiana bayou.  After Cosmo commissions her to write a story about them, Diana grabs Grace and the head down south!

(Because if there’s anything that the readers of Cosmo are going to be interested in, it’s white trash bayou dwellers…)

The only problem is that Ruth (Barbara Hershey) doesn’t want to be interviewed and she’s not particularly happy when Diana and Grace show up.  Ruth and her four sons live in the bayous.  Three of the sons do whatever Ruth tells them to do.  The fourth son is often disobedient so he’s been locked up in a barn.  Diana, of course, cannot understand why her relatives aren’t impressed whenever she mentions that she writes for Cosmo.  Meanwhile, Grace introduces her cousins to cocaine, which causes them to go crazy.  “She’s got some strange white powder!” one of them declares.

So, this is a weird film.  On the one hand, you have an immensely talented actress like Jill Clayburgh giving one of the worst performances in cinematic history.  (In Clayburgh’s defense, Diana is such a poorly written character that I doubt any actress could have made her in any way believable.)  On the other hand, you have Barbara Hershey giving one of the best.  As played by Hershey, Ruth is a character who viewers will both fear and admire.  Ruth has both the inner strength to survive in the bayou and the type of unsentimental personality that lets you know that you don’t want to cross her.  I think we’re supposed to feel that both Diana and Ruth have much to learn from each other but Diana is such an annoying character that you spend most of the movie wishing she would just go away and leave Ruth alone.  In the thankless role of Grace, Martha Plimpton brings more depth to the role than was probably present in the script and Don Swayze has a few memorable moments as one of Ruth’s sons.  Shy People is full of flaws and never really works as a drama but I’d still recommend watching it for Hershey and Plimpton.

A Movie A Day #235: Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977, directed by Robert Aldrich)

In Montana, four men have infiltrated and taken over a top-secret ICBM complex.  Three of the men, Hoxey (William Smith), Garvas (Burt Young), and Powell (Paul Winfield) are considered to be common criminals but their leader is something much different.  Until he was court-martialed and sentenced to a military prison, Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster) was a respected Air Force general.  He even designed the complex that he has now taken over.  Dell calls the White House and makes his demands known: he wants ten million dollars and for the President (Charles Durning) to go on television and read the contents of top secret dossier, one that reveals the real reason behind the war in Vietnam.  Dell also demands that the President surrender himself so that he can be used as a human shield while Dell and his men make their escape.

Until Dell made his demands known, the President did not even know of the dossier’s existence.  His cabinet (made up of distinguished and venerable character actors like Joseph Cotten and Melvyn Douglas) did and some of them are willing to sacrifice the President to keep that information from getting out.

Robert Aldrich specialized in insightful genre films and Twilight’s Last Gleaming is a typical example: aggressive, violent, sometimes crass, and unexpectedly intelligent.  At two hours and 30 minutes, Twilight’s Last Gleaming is overlong and Aldrich’s frequent use of split screens is sometimes distracting but Twilight’s Last Gleaming is still a thought-provoking film.  The large cast does a good job, with Lancaster and Durning as clear stand-outs.  I also liked Richard Widmark as a general with his own agenda and, of course, any movie that features Joseph Cotten is good in my book!  Best of all, Twilight’s Last Gleaming‘s theory about the reason why America stayed in Vietnam is entirely credible.

The Vietnam angle may be one of the reasons why Twilight’s Last Gleaming was one of the biggest flops of Aldrich’s career.  In 1977, audiences had a choice of thrilling to Star Wars, falling in love with Annie Hall, or watching a two and a half hour history lesson about Vietnam.  Not surprisingly, a nation that yearned for escape did just that and Twilight’s Last Gleaming flopped in America but found success in Europe.  Box office success or not, Twilight’s Last Gleaming is an intelligent political thriller that is ripe for rediscovery.

A Movie A Day #23: The Valachi Papers (1972, directed by Terrence Young)

The best thing about The Valachi Papers is this:


That is Charles Bronson, playing real-life mob informant Joe Valachi and making a gesture that expresses the way many people feel about the world right now.  Valachi, in both the film and real life, was a bit player in the Cosa Nostra, a driver and an occasional hitman who was lucky enough to marry the daughter (played by Bronson’s real-life wife, Jill Ireland) of one of the bosses.  In prison for smuggling heroin, Valachi runs into one of those bosses, Vito Genovese (Lino Ventura).  Genovese, convinced that Valachi has broken the code of omerta, gives Valachi the kiss of death.  Valachi kisses him right back and then becomes a rat.

Valachi’s 1963 testimony to the U.S. Senate was the public’s first glimpse into life in the Mafia.  Many of the cliches that have since appeared in every mob movie or television show were the result of Valachi’s testimony and Peter Maas’s subsequent book, The Valachi Papers.  (In the “Test Dream” episode of The Sopranos, Tony can be seen holding a copy of The Valachi Papers.)

Over the years, doubts have been raised about both the validity of Valachi’s testimony and his claim that he only turned rat because Genovese put a contract on his life.  The film version of The Valachi Papers takes Valachi’s claims at face value, telling Valachi’s story in a series of flashbacks.

The Valachi Papers is often compared to another mob movie that came out in 1972, The Godfather, though there’s really not much of a comparison to be made.  Whereas The Godfather was a family saga, The Valachi Papers is much more concerned with the day-to-day operations of the Mafia.  It never comes close to matching The Godfather‘s epic feel and the cheap production values don’t help.  (Keep an eye out for the twin towers of the World Trade Center, anachronistically towering over depression-era New York City.)

Storywise, The Valachi Papers actually has more in common with Goodfellas than with The Godfather.  Like Henry Hill, Joe Valachi is not a major player.  He’s just a working man whose employer happens to be the Mafia.  Stylistically, of course, The Valachi Papers has nothing in common with Goodfellas.  If not for the violence and some the language, it would be easy to mistake The Valachi Papers for an old made-for-TV movie.

The best thing about The Valachi Papers is Charles Bronson as Joe Valachi.  When The Valachi Papers was made, Bronson was a huge draw in Europe but was still largely unknown in the United States.  It was not until Death Wish came out, two years later, that Bronson became a star.  He does a good job as Joe Valachi.  In a way, it’s the perfect role for Bronson, who was a genuine tough guy who, like Valachi, spent decades working in the trenches before eventually becoming a household name.

I don’t think Charles Bronson ever would have turned informant, though.

Not our Chuck.


Embracing the Melodrama Part II #77: Quicksilver (dir by Thomas Michael Donnelly)

QuicksilverWho doesn’t love Kevin Bacon?

Seriously, I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t have a positive reaction to seeing Kevin Bacon on screen.  He may not be a star in the way that Bradley Cooper or Bollywood sensation Shah Rukh Kahn are stars but still, he is one of those actors that everyone just seems to instinctively like.

I think, to a large extent, that is because, despite the fact that he’s been around and acting forever, Kevin Bacon himself still comes across as being a normal, blue-collar sorta guy.  Whenever you see him being interviewed, you get the feeling that Kevin Bacon basically shows up, does his job to the best of his ability, and, as opposed to many other actors, he doesn’t take himself or his movies too seriously.  He’s justifiably proud of the good films that he’s appeared in and he’s never had any problem admitting that he’s been in a lot of bad films as well.

In fact, it was Kevin Bacon’s openness about his bad films that led to me discovering 1986’s Quicksilver.  This is the film that, in a 2008 interview, Kevin Bacon referred to as being “the absolute lowest point of my career.”  (Consider, for a minute, that this is being said by the same Kevin Bacon who had an arrow shoved through his throat in the original Friday the 13th and that will give you some clue of how much disdain Kevin seems to have for Quicksilver.)

Naturally, having read that, I knew that I simply had to see Quicksilver.  I’ll admit right now that I was hoping to discover that it was some sort of loss and unappreciated classic.  I wanted this to be the review where I defended the unacknowledged brilliance of Quicksilver.  I wanted to say, “Don’t be so hard on yourself, Kevin!  Give Quicksilver another chance!”

But no.

Quicksilver doesn’t quite suck but it definitely comes close.

At the same time, it is interesting as a classic example of what happens when a filmmaker tries to assign some sort of deeper meaning to or find inherent nobility in an activity or job that really isn’t that interesting.  Often times, this will happen with sports movies.  A director or producer will make the mistake of thinking that just because he’s obsessed with beach volleyball that means that there’s a huge audience out there just waiting for someone to make the ultimate beach volleyball film.  Or, you’ll get a film like 1999’s Just The Ticket, where Andy Garcia is described as being the “world’s greatest ticket scalper” and the audience is supposed to be impressed.

In the case of Quicksilver, it’s all about being a bicycle messenger.  I’m assuming that, one day, director Thomas Michael Donnelly was stuck in traffic and he happened to see a bike messenger rushing down the street, whizzing past all of the stalled commuters.  And Donnelly probably thought, “I wish I was that guy right now!”  Every day after that, whenever Donnelly was stuck in traffic, he thought back to that bike messenger and slowly he grew obsessed.  All of his friends and his family got sick of listening to him talk about how much he envied the freedom of that bike messenger.  Finally, a little light bulb turned on over Donnelly’s head and he said, “I’ve got to make a movie out of this!”

And then the bulb burned out but nobody noticed.


Kevin Bacon plays Jack Casey.  When we first meet Jack, he’s a successful stock broker and he’s got a really bad, porn-appropriate mustache.  One day, he’s sitting in the back of a cab and he goads his driver into getting into a race with a bike messenger.  The messenger beats the cab.  Jack is amazed!

And then, perhaps the very same day (the film is so poorly edited that it’s hard to tell), Jack not only loses all of his money but all of his parents’ money as well.  Since poor men couldn’t afford facial hair in the 1980s, he shaves off his mustache.  Desperately needing work, Jack applies to be a  — you guessed it! — bicycle messenger.

The rest of the film is basically Jack delivering messages and talking about how he’s free now to live the life that he’s always wanted to live.  And the thing is, you like Jack because he’s being played by Kevin Bacon.  I mean, Kevin Bacon is so inherently likable that audiences even liked him when he was trying to kill Professor X and Magneto in X-Men: First Class.  But, at the same time, you listen to Jack go on and on about how much better his life is now and you just want to say, “Who are you kidding?”

Needless to say, Jack has a group of quirky coworkers.  Of course, by quirky, I mean that they are all quirky in a very predictable Hollywood sort of way.  For instance, there’s the crusty old veteran and the goofy fat guy and the hard-working Mexican guy who wants to start his own business in America and the cocky black guy who is mostly notable for being played by Laurence Fisburne.  One thing they all have in common is that they all love and damn near worship Jack, who has quite the common touch despite having formerly been a super rich stock broker with a bad mustache.

Anyway, Terri (Jami Gertz) also wants to become a bicycle messenger but she’s being used to deliver drugs by Gypsy (Rudy Ramos).  She and Jack fall in love and, along with helping out his quirky coworkers and finding a way to make back his fortune, Jack also has to deal with Gypsy.  It’s all very dramatic (though the drug dealer subplot feels as if it was awkwardly inserted into the film at the last moment) but mostly, the plot is just an excuse for scenes like the one below:

Quicksilver is … well, it’s not particularly good.  It has a few good bike weaving in and out of traffic scenes but it’s definitely no Premium Rush.  But it is kinda fun, in a “Oh my God, look at the 1980s” sorta way.  And, for what it’s worth, it’s a film that proves that Kevin Bacon can be likable in almost anything.