Cinemax Friday: The Babysitter (1995, directed by Guy Ferland)


Teenager Jennifer (Alicia Silverstone, shortly before she starred in Clueless) is hired to babysit Jimmy (Ryan Slater), the son of Denise (Lee Garlington) and Harry Tucker (J.T. Walsh) while the Tuckers attend a party over at the the home of Bill and Bernice Holstein (played by George Segal and Lois Chiles).  Harry spends the night drinking and fantasizing about Jennifer while Denise spends the night fantasizing about Bill.  Who does Bernice fantasize about?  The movie doesn’t say.

The adults aren’t the only ones fantasizing.  Bill’s son, Mark (Nicky Katt), is also obsessed with Jennifer and, while his parents are holding their party, he hangs out with his friend Jack (Jeremy London), who also happens to be Jennifer’s bitter ex-boyfriend.  Jack and Mark both start to discuss their own fantasies about Jennifer and they make plans to head over to the Tucker House and surprise Jennifer.  (Mark has even more in mind.)  Meanwhile, even little Jimmy is having fantasies of his own.

Today, it can be easy to forget just what a big deal Alicia Silverstone was in the early to mid-90s.  Even before she landed her star-making turn in Clueless, Silverstone achieved fame as the star of three videos from Aerosmith, all of which featured her playing roles that personified male fantasies.  Her role in The Babysitter fits right in with those Aerosmith videos as the entire film is devoted to men fantasizing about her.  Not much is revealed about who The Babysitter is and her name isn’t even revealed until the end of the movie.  Instead, the movie is about how every male in town, except for George Segal, is obsessed with her.  (What makes George Segal so special?)  Fortunately, Silverstone had the right mix of innocence and sultry beauty to be believable as everyone’s object of lust.  She does a good job playing both the normal teenage girl who just wants to make some extra money babysitting and also the exaggerated caricature who appears in everyone’s fantasies.  (Some of the fantasy scenes are ridiculous but most fantasies are.)

Especially after the release of Clueless, The Babysitter was advertised as being a softcore thriller and it used to show up frequently on late night Cinemax, playing alongside films like Body Chemistry.  Actually, it’s a satire of the suburbs that follows all of the men as they have too much to drink and make fools of themselves.  Thematically, it has more in common with movies like American Beauty, The Ice Storm, and The Virgin Suicides than it does to anything that’s ever been made by Shannon Tweed.  While many viewers were undoubtedly disappointed that Silverstone remained clothed for the majority of the film (and that even the scene where she took a bath was carefully shot to suggest more than it showed), The Babysitter was not a bad movie and it provided the great J.T. Walsh with a rare leading role.  The Babysitter is a better-than-expected mix of Nabokov and Cheever.

 

 

An Offer You Can Take or Leave #13: Hoffa (dir by Danny DeVito)


The 1992 film, Hoffa, opens in 1975, with two men sitting in the backseat of a station wagon.  One of the men is the controversial labor leader, Jimmy Hoffa (Jack Nicholson).  The other is his longtime best friend and second-in-command, Bobby Ciaro (Danny DeVito).  The two men are parked outside of a roadside diner.  They’re waiting for someone who is late.  Jimmy complains about being treated with such disrespect and comments that this would have never happened earlier.  Jimmy asks Bobby if he has his gun.  Bobby reveals that he does.  Jimmy asks him if he’s sure that there’s a loaded gun in the diner, as well.  Bobby goes to check.

Jimmy Hoffa, of course, was a real person.  (Al Pacino just received an Oscar nomination for playing him in The Irishman.)  He was a trucker who became a labor leader and who was eventually elected president of the Teamsters Union.  He was a prominent opponent of the Kennedys and that infamous footage of him being interrogated by Bobby Kennedy at a Senate hearing seems to sneak its way into almost every documentary ever made about organized crime in the 50s.  Hoffa was linked to the Mafia and was eventually sent to prison.  He was freed by the Nixon administration, under the condition that he not have anything to do with Teamster business.  When he disappeared in 1975, he was 62 years old and it was rumored that he was planning on trying to take over his old union.  Everyone from the mob to the CIA has been accused of having had Hoffa killed.

Bobby Ciaro, however, was not a real person.  Apparently, he was a composite character who was created by Hoffa’s screenwriter, David Mamet, as a way for the audience to get to know the enigmatic Jimmy Hoffa.  Bobby is presented as being Hoffa’s best friend and, for the most part, we experience Jimmy Hoffa through his eyes.  We get to know Jimmy as Bobby gets to know him but we still never really feel as if we know the film’s version of Jimmy Hoffa.  He yells a lot and he tells Bobby Kennedy (a snarling Kevin Anderson) to go to Hell and he talks a lot about how everything he’s doing is for the working man but we’re never really sure whether he’s being sincere or if he’s just a demagogue who is mostly interested in increasing his own power.  Bobby Ciaro is certainly loyal to him and since Bobby is played by the film’s director, it’s hard not to feel that the film expects us to share Bobby’s admiration.  But, as a character, Hoffa never really seems to earn anyone’s loyalty.  We’re never sure what’s going on inside of Hoffa’s head.  Jack Nicholson is always entertaining to watch and it’s interesting to see him play a real person as opposed to just another version of his own persona but his performance in Hoffa is almost totally on the surface.  With the exception of a few scenes early in the film, there’s doesn’t seem to be anything going on underneath all of the shouting.

The majority of Hoffa is told via flashback.  Scenes of Hoffa and Bobby in the film’s present are mixed with scenes of Hoffa and Bobby first meeting and taking over the Teamsters.  Sometimes, the structure of the film is a bit cumbersome but there are a few scenes — especially during the film’s first thirty minutes — that achieve a certain visual poetry.  There’s a scene where Hoffa helps to change a man’s flat tire while selling him on the union and the combination of falling snow, the dark city street, and Hoffa talking about the working man makes the scene undeniably effective.  The scenes where Hoffa spars with Bobby Kennedy are also effective, with Nicholson projecting an intriguing blue collar arrogance as he belittles the abrasively ivy league Bobby.  Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to those scenes.  By the time Hoffa becomes a rich and influential man, you realize that the film isn’t really sure what it wants to say about Jimmy Hoffa.  Does it want to condemn Hoffa for getting seduced by power or does it want to excuse Hoffa’s shady dealings as just being what he had to do to protect the men in his union?  The film truly doesn’t seem to know.

Hoffa is definitely not an offer that you shouldn’t refuse but, at the same time, it’s occasionally effective.  A few of the scenes are visually appealing and the cast is full of character actors like John C. Reilly, J.T. Walsh, Frank Whaley, and Nicholas Pryor.  It’s not a disaster like The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight.  Hoffa is an offer that you can take or leave.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil
  9. Rob the Mob
  10. Gambling House
  11. Race Street
  12. Racket Girls

Tequila Sunrise (1988, directed by Robert Towne)


Mac (Mel Gibson) and Nick (Kurt Russell) are old friends who are on opposite sides of the law.  Mac was once a legendary drug dealer though he says that he’s now retired.  Nick is a narcotics detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.  Early on, Nick warns Mac that, if he is dealing again, he’s going to have to arrest him.  Mac says that he has no interest in getting back into the business but no one believes him.

Mac is actually more interested in Jo Ann Valleneri, who owns his favorite restaurant.  Since Jo Ann is played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who can blame him?.  After tracks Mac to the restaurant, he becomes attracted to Jo Ann too and again, it’s impossible to blame him.  Soon, Jo Ann and Nick are a couple but is Nick just using her to find out about Mac’s relationship with a mysterious drug lord named Carlos?  And when Mac moves in and starts his own relationship with Jo Ann, does he really love her or is he using her to throw Nick off of his trail?

Tequila Sunrise should be a great film but instead, it’s only a good one.  It has all the elements of greatness — Michelle Pfeiffer at her sultriest, Kurt Russell at his coolest, and Mel Gibson before he lost his mind.  It also has a good supporting cast, including Raul Julia, J.T. Walsh, and Arliss Howard.  Ultimately, it doesn’t really come together because the film’s director and screenwriter, Robert Towne, doesn’t seem to be sure what type of story he wants to tell.  Tequila Sunrise could have either been a great crime thriller or a steamy love story but, by trying to be both, it gets bogged down in its own convoluted plot.  That probably won’t matter to most viewers, though.  Not when Russell, Gibson, and Pfeiffer are all on screen together at the same time.  Tequila Sunrise tries to be many things but it works best as a celebration of movie star charisma.

One final note: The film looks great.  Visually, this is one of the ultimate California films.  Cinematographer Conrad Hall received an Oscar nomination for his work on this film and it was more than deserved.

A Movie A Day #90: Red Rock West (1992, directed by John Dahl)


The place is Red Rock, a little town located in the middle of nowhere Wyoming.  When a man from Texas (played by Nicolas Cage) wanders into his bar, the owner, Wayne (J.T. Walsh), assumes that the man is Lyle From Dallas, the semi-legendary hit man who Wayne has hired to kill his wife, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle).  Wayne gives the man half of his payment in advance and promises the other half after Suzanne is dead.  What Wayne doesn’t realize is that Lyle From Dallas is not actually Lyle From Dallas.  Instead, he is a drifter named Michael who has just recently lost his job.  Michael takes Wayne’s money but, when he sees Suzanne, he tells her that Wayne wants her dead.  Suzanne responds by offering to pay Michael to kill Wayne.  Michael mostly just wants to leave town but his every effort is thwarted, with him continually only managing to get a mile or two out of town just to then find circumstances forcing him to once again pass the Red Rock welcome sign.  Meanwhile, the real Lyle From Dallas (Dennis Hopper) has shown up and he is pissed.

Red Rock West is a clever and energetic neo noir that plays out like the child of a marriage between the Coen Brothers and David Lynch.  Like the Coens’ Blood SimpleRed Rock West is a violent movie that is full of twist and turns and features characters who are often confused and rarely understand what is actually going on.  From David Lynch, it borrows both Twin Peaks‘s Lara Flynn Boyle and Blue Velvet‘s Dennis Hopper.  Red Rock West was made when Nicolas Cage still gave a damn and it also shows why, during his short career, J.T. Walsh was everyone’s favorite duplicitous character actor.  Hopper is his usual crazy self and Boyle is a sultry and sexy fatale.  Red Rock West is one of the best neo noirs of the 1990s.

A Movie A Day #70: Wired (1989, directed by Larry Peerce)


Sometimes, you watch a movie and all you cay say, at the end, is “What the Hell were they thinking?”

Wired is one such movie.  Based on a widely discredited biography by Bob Woodward, Wired tells two stories.  In the first story, John Belushi (Michael Chiklis, making an unfortunate film debut) wakes up in a morgue and is told by his guardian angel that he has died of a drug overdose.  Did I mention that his guardian angel is Puerto Rican cabbie named Angel Vasquez (Ray Sharkey) and Angel drives Belushi through a series of flashbacks?  Belushi meets Dan Aykroyd (Gary Groomes, who looks nothing like Dan Aykroyd).  Belushi gets cast on Saturday Night Live.  Belushi marries Judy (Lucinda Jenney).  Belushi uses drugs, costars in The Blues Brothers, dies of a drug overdose in a sleazy motel, and plays a pinball game to determine whether he’ll go to Heaven or Hell.  While this is going on, Bob Woodward (J.T. Walsh) is interviewing everyone who knew Belushi while he was alive.

There are so many things wrong with Wired that it is hard to know where to even begin.  I haven’t even mentioned the scene where Bob Woodward travels back in time and has a conversation with Belushi while he’s dying on the motel room floor.  Wired tries to be a cautionary tale about getting seduced by fame and drugs but how seriously can anyone take the message of any movie that features Ray Sharkey as a guardian angel?  The scenes with Woodward are strange, mostly because the hero of Watergate is being played by an actor best known for playing sinister villains.  (Seven years after playing Bob Woodward, J.T. Walsh was actually cast as Watergate figure John Ehrlichman in Nixon.)  Considering that this was his first movie, Michael Chiklis is not bad when it comes to playing a drug addict named John but he’s never convincing as John Belushi.  He never captures the mix of charisma and danger that made John Belushi a superstar.  Wired wants to tell the story of Belushi’s downfall but never understands what made him special to begin with.

Wired tries to be edgy but it only succeeds for one split second.  During the filming of The Blues Brothers, a director who is clearly meant to be John Landis walks over to Belushi’s trailer.  Listen carefully, and a helicopter can be heard in the background.

As for the rest of Wired, what the Hell were they thinking?

A Movie A Day #2: Blue Chips (1994, directed by William Friedkin)


blue_chips_movie_posterBlue Chips is a movie that will always make me think of England.

When I was a kid, I would spend every summer over in the UK.  When I flew over for the summer of ’94, the in-flight movie was Blue Chips.  I can still remember sitting in the back of the plane, trying to watch the movie on that tiny screen.  At the time, I did not pay much attention to Blue Chips.  It was about basketball, which was not something that I was interested in.  It also starred Nick Nolte, who, over the years, starred in a lot of the movies that I saw while flying over the Atlantic Ocean.  Try as I might, I could not understand a word that Nolte was saying.  It was impossible to separate his gravely voice from the drone of the plane’s engines.  I didn’t care much about Blue Chips.

Two months later, I was sitting in the back of my return flight when the flight attendant announced, “Our in-flight movie will be Blue Chips, starring Nick Nolte.”  Still not caring about basketball and still unable to understand a word that Nick Nolte was saying, I sat through Blue Chips for a second time.  What else was I going to do?  Step outside and go for a walk?

Looking back, I can understand why Blue Chips would be shown on a plane.  There’s nothing unconventional or controversial about Blue Chips.  It’s not going to start any fights or leave anyone offended.  Nick Nolte plays Pete Bell, a college basketball coach who, coming off of his first losing season, resorts to unethical measures to recruit three star players.  Ricky Roe (Matt Nover) is a farmboy from Indiana and his racist father wants the college to buy him a new tractor.  Penny Hardaway plays Butch McRae, whose mother (Alfre Woodard) wants a new house.  Neon Bordeaux (Shaq!) doesn’t want anything but still gets a new Lexus.   The corrupt head of the school’s booster club is named Happy and is played by J.T. Walsh.  Other than Happy Gilmore, has there ever been anyone in a movie named Happy who hasn’t turned out to be bad news?

Blue Chips was directed by William Friedkin, though you’d never guess that this by the numbers movie was from the same director who did The French ConnectionThe Exorcistor To Live And Die In L.A.  In his autobiography, The Friedkin Connection, he devoted just a few words to Blue Chips, saying, “It’s hard to capture, in a sports film, the excitement of a real game, with its own unpredictable dramatic structure and suspense. I couldn’t overcome that.”

Friedkin’s right but I’m always happy whenever I come across Blue Chips on cable because it reminds me of that long-ago summer in England.

For tomorrow’s movie a day, it’s another sports-related film that always makes me think about Britain: Alan Clarke’s The Firm.

blue-chips-nick-nolte

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: A Few Good Men (dir by Rob Reiner)


A_Few_Good_Men_poster

So, late Saturday night, I turned over to TCM’s 31 Days Of Oscar and I was watching the 1992 best picture nominee, A Few Good Men, and I noticed that not only was there only one woman in the entire film but she was also portrayed as being humorless and overwhelmed.  While all of the male characters were allowed to speak in quippy one liners and all had at least one memorable personality trait, Lt. Commander Joanne Galloway (Demi Moore) didn’t get to do much beyond frown and struggle to keep up.

“Hmmmm…” I wondered, “why is it that the only woman in the film is portrayed as basically being a humorless scold?”  Then I remembered that A Few Good Men was written by Aaron Sorkin and it all made sense.  As I’ve discussed on this site before, Aaron Sorkin has no idea how to write woman and that’s certainly evident in A Few Good Men.  Joanne (who goes by the masculine Jo) is the one character who doesn’t get to say anything funny or wise.  Instead, she mostly serves to repeat platitudes and to be ridiculed (both subtly and not-so subtly) by her male colleagues.  You can tell that Sorkin was so busy patting himself on the back for making Jo into a professional that he never actually got around to actually giving her any personality.  As a result, there’s really not much for her to do, other than occasionally scowling and giving Tom Cruise a “that’s not funny” look.

(“C’mon,” Tom says at one point, “that one was pretty good.”  You tell her, Aaron Tom.)

A Few Good Men, of course, is the film where Tom Cruise yells, “I want the truth!” and then Jack Nicholson yells back, “You can’t handle the truth!”  At that point in the film, I was totally on Nicholson’s side and I was kinda hoping that the scene would conclude with Cruise staring down at the floor, struggling to find the perfect come back.  However, this is an Aaron Sorkin script which means that the big bad military guy is never going to have a legitimate point and that the film’s hero is always going to have the perfect comeback.  Fortunately, the scene took place in a courtroom so there was a wise judge present and he was able to let us know that, even if he seemed to be making the better point, Nicholson was still in the wrong.

As for the rest of the film, it’s a courtroom drama.  At Guantanamo Bay, a marine (Michael DeLorenzo) has died as the result of a hazing.  Two other marines (Wolfgang Bodison and James Marshall) have been accused of the murder.  Daniel Kafee (Tom Cruise), Joanne Galloyway (Demi Moore), and Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollack) have been assigned to defend them.  Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon) is prosecuting them.  Kafee thinks that the hazing was ordered by Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) and Lt. Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland).

We know that Kendrick’s a bad guy because he speaks in a Southern accent and is religious, which is pretty much the mark of the devil in an Aaron Sorkin script.  We know that Jessup is evil because he’s played by Jack Nicholson.  For that matter, we also know that Kafee is cocky, arrogant, and has father issues.  Why?  Because he’s played by Tom Cruise, of course.  And, while we’re at it, we know that Sam is going to be full of common sense wisdom because he’s played by Kevin Pollack…

What I’m saying here is that there’s absolutely nothing surprising about A Few Good Men.  It may pretend to be about big issues of national security but, ultimately, it’s a very slick and somewhat hollow Hollywood production.  This, after all, is a Rob Reiner film and that, above all else, means that it’s going to be a very conventional and very calculated crowd pleaser.

Which isn’t to say that A Few Good Men wasn’t enjoyable.  I love courtroom dramas and, with the exception of Demi Moore, all of the actors do a good job.  (And, in Demi’s defense, it’s not as if she had much to work with.  It’s not her fault that Sorkin hates women.)  A Few Good Men is entertaining without being particularly memorable.

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