Film Review: Fingers (dir by James Toback)

Welcome to method actor Hell!

The 1978 film, Fingers, tell the story of Jimmy “Fingers” Angelilli (Harvey Keitel).  Jimmy is a creep who works as a debt collector for his father, a small-time loan shark named Ben (Michael V. Gazzo).  Jimmy is violent and brutal and often wanders around with a disturbingly blank-look on his face but we’re supposed to like him because he’s a talented pianist and he’s got a recital interview coming up at Carnegie Hall.  Jimmy carries a radio with him wherever he goes and he’s obsessed with the song Summertime.  He’s the type who will sit in a crowded restaurant and play the song and then get upset when someone tells him to turn off his radio.  By the end of the movie, I was really hoping that someone would take Jimmy’s radio and smash into a hundred pieces.

Jimmy is in love with Carol (Tisa Farrow, who was a far better actress than her sister Mia and who would later appear in Lucio Fulci’s classic, Zombi 2), who doesn’t really seem to all that into him.  Despite being in love with Carol, Jimmy still hits on every woman that he meets and, because this is a 70s films, he’s constantly getting laid despite being kind of a charmless putz.

Jimmy meets a former boxer named Dreems (Jim Brown).  Carol is apparently one of Dreems’s mistresses.  Jimmy silently watched while Dreems knocks two women’s heads together.  Jimmy stands there with his little radio and a blank expression on his face.  Is anything going on inside of Jimmy’s head?  It’s hard to say.

Eventually, Jimmy finds out that a gangster (Tony Sirico) owes his father money but is refusing to pay.  It all leads to violence.

As a film, Fingers is pretty much full of shit but that shouldn’t come as a surprise because it was the directorial debut of James Toback and there’s no American filmmaker who has been as consistently full of shit as James Toback.  Fingers has all of Toback’s trademarks — gambling, crime, guilt, classical music, and a juvenile view of sexuality that suggests that James Toback’s personal development came to a halt when he was 16 years old.  It’s a pretentious film that really doesn’t add up too much.  Again, you know what you’re getting into when James Toback directs a film.  Don’t forget, this is the same director who made a documentary where he was apparently shocked to discover that no one wanted to finance a politically-charged remake of Last Tango in Paris starring Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell.

Fingers is a bit of an annoying film and yet it’s not a total loss.  For one thing, if you’re a history nerd like I am, there’s no way that you can’t appreciate the fact that the film was shot on location in some of New York’s grimiest neighborhoods in the 70s.  While I imagine it was more of a happy accident than anything intentional on Toback’s part (because, trust me, I’ve seen Harvard Man), Fingers does do a good job of creating an off-center, dream-like atmosphere where the world constantly seems to be closing in on its lead character.  Jimmy is trying to balance his life as violent mobster with being a sensitive artist and the world around him is saying, “No, don’t count on it, you schmuck.”

As well, Harvey Keitel gives a …. well, I don’t know if I would necessarily say that it’s a good performance.  In fact, it’s a fairly annoying performance and that’s a problem when a film is trying to make you feel sympathy for a character who is pretty unsympathetic.  That said, there’s never a moment in the film where Keitel is boring.  In Fingers, Keitel takes the method to its logical end point and, as a result, you actually get anxious just watching him simply look out of a window or sit in a corner.  Even though Jimmy eyes rarely shows a hint of emotion, his fingers are always moving and, just watching the way that he’s constantly twitching and fidgeting, you get the feeling that Jimmy’s always on the verge of giving out a howl of pain and fury.  It doesn’t really make Jimmy someone who you would want to hang out with.  In fact, I spent the entire movie hoping someone would just totally kick his ass and put him in the hospital for a few weeks.  But it’s still a performance that you simply cannot look away from.  Watching Keitel’s performance, you come to realize that Fingers is essentially a personal invitation to visit a Hell that is exclusively populated by method actors who have gone too far.

Anyway, my feelings about Fingers were mixed.  Can you tell?  It’s an interesting movie.  I’ll probably never watch it again.

Cleaning Out The DVR Yet Again #31: Black and White (dir by James Toback)

(Lisa recently discovered that she only has about 8 hours of space left on her DVR!  It turns out that she’s been recording movies from July and she just hasn’t gotten around to watching and reviewing them yet.  So, once again, Lisa is cleaning out her DVR!  She is going to try to watch and review 52 movies by the end of Wednesday, December 7th!  Will she make it?  Keep checking the site to find out!)


On November 15th, I recorded the 1999 melodrama, Black and White, off of Encore.

Black and White is a film that I’ve seen several times and I’ve always meant to review it.  It’s an attempt to explore the state of race, rap, crime, and sex in the late 20th century.  It’s also a James Toback film, which means that it contains all of the stuff that appears in every James Toback film: a threesome in the park, improvised dialogue, cameos from famous people playing themselves, an obsession with college basketball games, casual sexism, and a lot of talk about why you should never send “a little boy to do a man’s job.”  By his own admission, the white Toback is obsessed with the black experience but, when you watch a James Toback film, you get the feeling that his entire knowledge of African-American culture comes from watching other movies.

In short, Black and White is probably one of the silliest and most misjudged films that I’ve ever seen.  In fact, it’s so misjudged that it’s compulsively watchable.  Though I’m always hesitant to casually toss around the term “guilty pleasure,” that’s exactly what Black and White is.

Black and White tells several different stories, some of which are connected and some of which are not.  Sam Donager (Brooke Shields) is an independent filmmaker who is attempting to make a documentary about white people who try to act black.  Her husband, Terry (Robert Downey, Jr.), is gay and hits on every man (and boy) that he sees.  Sam and Terry start following around a group of privileged white kids who are obsessed with rap music.  Sam asks them if they want to be black.  They say that they’re going through a phase.

One of the kids is named Wren and he’s played by Elijah Wood.  He doesn’t really do much but every time he shows up in the film, you go, “It’s Elijah Wood!”  And then there’s Marty King (Eddie Kaye Thomas) who is the son of the Manhattan District Attorney (Joe Pantoliano).  Marty’s older brother is Will (William Lee Scott) ,who is some sort of low-level criminal.  And finally, the unofficial leader of the kids is Charlie (Bijou Phillips) and she gets to give a long monologue explaining the various uses of the n-word.

(Their teacher, incidentally, is played by Jared Leto.  If you’ve ever wanted to listen to Jared Leto lecture about the relationship between Othello and Iago, this is the film to see.  That said, the whole Othello and Iago lecture is just kinda randomly tossed in and doesn’t really pay off.)

Charlie is one of the many girlfriends of Rich Bower (Power), who is not only an up-and-coming rap producer but he’s also the head of a criminal organization.  (There’s a lengthy and kinda pointless scene where he and his associates demand money from a club manager played by Scott Caan.)  Rich is also friends with Mike Tyson.  Tyson plays himself and he gets to deliver an entire monologue about how Rich should never send a boy to do a man’s job.

But we’re not done!  Rich’s cousin is Dean Carter (Allan Houston), a college basketball player.  Dean is dating an anthropology graduate student (Claudia Schiffer, giving a hilariously terrible performance) who is obsessed with fertility symbols.  Dean is also being blackmailed by a corrupt cop named Mark Clear.  Guess who plays Mark Clear?


Needless to say, Ben Stiller is massively miscast.  He delivers he lines in his trademark comedic fashion, which makes it next to impossible to take him seriously as any sort of threat.  He also has a backstory that is needlessly complex but at least it allows him to say, “I’m Saul of Fucking Tarsus!”

Anyway, almost the entire film was improvised, which is one of those things that probably seemed like a good idea at the time.  A few of the actors do well with the improvisation.  Stiller may be miscast but at least he can come up with stuff to say.  Robert Downey, Jr.’s character may seem out-of-place but again, Downey knows how to keep things interesting.  But the rest of the cast seems to be a bit stranded so we end up with a lot of lengthy scenes of characters struggling to make some sort of sense of Toback’s storyline.

It’s obvious that James Toback felt that this film had something important to say but, instead of any insight, it can only offer up the occasionally strange-as-Hell scene.

Like this scene, for instance, in which Mike Tyson literally attempts to kill Robert Downey, Jr:

Or this weird little scene between Ben Stiller and Joe Pantoliano, which is dominated by Stiller’s odd delivery of his lines:

Or the closing montage, which is actually rather well-put together and makes great use of Michael Fredo’s Free:

Sadly, the video above ends before it gets to the part where we see Claudia Schiffer on a date with Mike Tyson, telling him about fertility symbols.

Anyway, Black and White is one of those films that wants to say something despite not being sure what.  Again, it may ultimately be rather silly but it’s still compulsively watchable.

(For the record, Marla Maples — who also appeared in Maximum Overdrive and was married to future President Donald Trump when this movie was made — has a cameo as a character named Muffy.  We live in a strange fucking world, don’t we?)

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #101: Harvard Man (dir by James Toback)

Oh please, Harvard Man sucks.

I watched this 2002 film for one reason and one reason only.  It stars Sarah Michelle Gellar and I used love Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  In fact, now that I think about it, my love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer has led to me watching a lot of really bad movies.  Seriously, somebody give Nichols Brendon a role in a good movie and do it now!  I’m tired of reading about him getting arrested at conventions.

But anyway, in Harvard Man, Sarah plays Cindy Bandolini, a student at Harvard.  Her father is a gangster and he’s played Gianni Russo, who is best known for playing Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather.  Cindy is also dating the star of Harvard’s basketball team, Alan Jenson (Adrian Grenier).  Cindy knows that Alan’s parents have just lost their farm to a tornado.  She tells Alan that if he’ll throw an upcoming basketball game, her father will pay him $100,000.  However, Mr. Bandolini isn’t really in on the deal.  Instead, Cindy has set it up herself with the help of two of her father’s associates, Teddy (Eric Stoltz) and Teddy’s girlfriend, Kelly (Rebecca Gayheart).

But what Cindy doesn’t know is that both Teddy and Kelly work for the FBI.  She also doesn’t know that Teddy and Kelly are engaging in threesomes with a philosophy professor, Chesney Cort (Joey Lauren Adams) and that Chesney is also having an affair with Alan.

Got all that?

Good.  Of course, it doesn’t really make that much of a difference because Alan is such a passive character that you get the feeling that he really doesn’t care what happens one way or another.  About halfway through the film, he takes a massive dose of LSD and he spends the rest of the film tripping while all of the various characters chase him across Boston.

And then Al Franken shows up, playing himself.  As Alan wanders across campus, Al Franken walks up to him and says, “Hi, I’m Al Franken.”  It turns out that the future senator is showing his daughter around Harvard and wants to ask Alan what the campus is like nowadays.  As future President Franken speaks in his nasal tones, we get all sorts of fun distortion effects so, if you’ve ever wanted to see Al Franken with a big googly face, Harvard Man is the film for you.  Al Franken’s scenes are, however, partially redeemed by the way that the actress playing his daughter rolls her eyes at her desperately uncool dad.

And, of course, while this is going on, we get random scenes of Joey Lauren Adams giving an endless lecture about ethics.  Why, exactly?  I imagine it has something to do with fooling critics like me and making us mistake Harvard Man for a movie with a brain.

Harvard Man is a pretentious mess of a film but it’s a fascinating example of what happens when every single role in a movie is miscast.  Eric Stoltz and Rebecca Gayheart are the least believable FBI agents ever.  You don’t believe for a second that short and scrawny Adrian Grenier could be a basketball star.  Joey Lauren Adams comes across like she’d be lucky to teach at Greendale Community College, much less Harvard.  Al Franken makes for a remarkably unconvincing Al Franken.  And, as much as I loved her in Buffy, Cruel Intentions, and Ringer, I do have to say Sarah Michelle Geller is one of the least convincing Italians that I have ever seen on-screen.

Harvard Man is an incredibly bad film but at least you get to see Al Franken with a googly face,


Documentary Review: Seduced and Abandoned (dir by James Toback)

I recently watched James Toback’s 2013 Seduced and Abandoned on HBO.  This documentary failed to seduce me but it certainly left me feeling abandoned.

Seduced and Abandoned follows James Toback and Alec Baldwin as they wander around the Cannes Film Festival, interviewing filmmakers and attempting to raise money for Toback’s latest film.  That film, incidentally, is a remake of  Last Tango In Paris.  Though neither Toback nor Baldwin goes into too much detail about the film (and I’m not exactly convinced that they’re all that serious about it to begin with), we do learn that this remake would be set in Iraq.  Alec Baldwin would play a right-wing CIA agent while Neve Campbell  would play a leftist journalist.  We watch as Baldwin and Toback pitch this film to a countless number of potential producers and ask for twenty million dollars.  Without fail, every producer replies that he loves Alec Baldwin but he’s not willing to spend that type of money on him because Baldwin is not a bankable star.  As Baldwin and Toback frequently lament, nobody seems to care what the film is about.  Instead, they’re only interested in making money.

And this brings us to this documentary’s main problem.  It would be easier to agree with them about businessmen sacrificing art for greed if not for the fact that the movie that Toback and Baldwin are talking about making sounds like perhaps the worst fucking film ever pitched.  A remake of Last Tango in Paris starring Alec Baldwin, directed by James Toback, and taking place in Iraq?  Are you freaking kidding me?  I would never pay money to see a movie that sounded that pretentious.  I would never ask anyone else to buy me a ticket for this movie.  If I saw this movie on HBO, I would cancel my cable subscription.  Seriously, no way.

And yes, I do understand Baldwin and Toback’s point.  They’re arguing that a politically-themed, Iraq-set remake of Last Tango In Paris could not be made today because the system has been set up to silence the voice of artists. The industry is more concerned with making money than making an artistic statement.  I happen to agree 100% but that still doesn’t change the fact that Toback and Baldwin’s film sounds terrible.

Toback and Baldwin interview everyone from Ryan Gosling to Jessica Chastain to Martin Scorsese to Francis Ford Coppola and the one thing that every interview has in common is the sound of Toback’s braying laughter.  It’s a very forced and calculating laugh, one that seems almost as fake as Toback’s pseudo-intellectual persona.  And that’s the other big problem with Seduced and Abandoned.  Toback and Baldwin never really come across as being the rebels that they obviously believe themselves to be.  Even when Toback is talking to the financiers that he and Baldwin appear to blame for ruining the movies, it’s obvious that Toback wants us to impressed by the fact that he knows so many fabulously wealthy people.  In the end, the film feels self-congratulatory in the most undeserving of ways.

And yet, there are occasional moments where the film, almost despite itself, manages to escape from the suffocating egos of James Toback and Alec Baldwin.  The section of the film that deals with the history of Cannes Film Festival is fascinating and Martin Scorsese is such a lively and sincere artist that it’s impossible not to enjoy his interview.  (In many ways, Scorsese seems to be the anti-Toback.)  For a few seconds, Alec Baldwin stops being insufferable long enough to do a reasonably humorous impersonation of Woody Allen.  If you’re a student of Italian cinema, you’ll be happy to see a brief appearance from Mark Damon, a former actor turned producer who appears in several Italian spaghetti westerns in the late 60s.  Damon is the first producer to have to sit through Toback’s pitch and its fascinating to watch just how indifferent he is to idea of remaking Last Tango In Paris with Alec Baldwin and James Toback.

Mark Damon aside, Seduced and Abandoned is a documentary that fails to do the former and will probably inspire many viewers to do the latter.