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.

An Offer You Can’t Refuse #19: Scarface (dir by Brian DePalma)


“Hello to my little friend!”

Hi, little friend….

BOOM!

The 1983 film, Scarface, is a misunderstood film.  As we all know, it’s the story of Tony Montana (Al Pacino), who comes to Miami from Cuba along with his friend, Manny (Steven Bauer).  In return for murdering a former member of Castro’s government, Tony is given a job working for Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia).  When it becomes obvious that Tony is becoming too ambitious and might become a threat to him, Frank attempts to have Tony killed.  However, the assassination attempt fails, Tony murders Frank, and then Tony becomes Miami’s richest and most powerful crime lord.  Soon, Tony is burying his face in a mountain of cocaine while making deals with a sleazy Bolivian drug lord named Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar).  Tony also marries Frank’s mistress, Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfieffer), though it’s obvious from the start the the only person that Tony truly loves is his sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio).  Anyway, it all eventually leads to a lot of violence and a lot of death.  Even F. Murray Abraham ends up getting tossed out of a helicopter, which is unfortunate since his character was a lot of fun.

Scarface is a famous film, largely because of Oliver Stone’s quotable dialogue and the no holds barred direction of Brian DePalma.  However, I think that people get so caught up on the fact that this is a classic gangster film that they miss the fact that Scarface is also an extremely dark comedy.  It satirizes the excess of the 80s.  Once Tony reaches the top of the underworld, he becomes a parody of the nouveau riche.  He moves into a gigantic house and proceeds to decorate it in the most tasteless way possible and there’s something oddly charming about this crude, not particularly bright man getting excited over the fact that he can finally afford to buy a tiger.  Towards the end of the film, there’s a scene where Tony rants while lounging in an indoor hot tub while Elvira languidly snorts cocaine and complains about the crudeness of his language and, at that moment, Scarface becomes a bit of a domestic comedy.  Tony’s reached the top of his profession, just to discover that it takes more than a live-in tiger and a wardrobe of wide lapeled suits to achieve true happiness.  So, he ends up sitting glumly in his office with a mountain of cocaine rising up in front of him.  “The world is yours” may be Tony’s motto but it turns out that the world is extremely tacky.  For all of his attempts to recreate himself as a wealthy and sophisticated man, Tony is still just a barely literate criminal with a nasty scar and a sour disposition.  The only thing he’s gotten for all of his ruthless ambition is an order of ennui with a cocaine appetizer.

I’ve always found Brian DePalma to be an uneven director.  He has a very distinct style and sometimes that style is perfectly suited to the story that he’s telling (i.e., Carrie) and sometimes, all of that style just seems to get in the way (i.e. The Fury).  Scarface, however, is the ideal story for DePalma’s over-the-top aesthetic.  DePalma’s style may be excessive but Scarface is a film about excess so it’s a perfect fit.  For that matter, you could say the same thing about Oliver Stone’s screenplay.  Stone has since stated that he was using almost as much cocaine as Tony Montana while he wrote the script.  The end result of the combination of Stone’s script, DePalma’s hyperactive direction, Pacino’s overpowering lead performance, and Giorgio Moroder’s propulsive score is a film that feels as if every minute is fueled by cocaine.  It’s not just a film that’s about drugs.  It’s also a film that feels like a drug.

Scarface is a big movie.  It runs nearly three hours, following Tony from his arrival in the United States to his final moments in his mansion, taking hundreds of bullets while grandly announcing that he’s still standing.  (Even after all of the bad things that Tony has done — poor Manny! — it’s impossible not to admire his refusal to go down.)  It’s also a difficult movie to review, largely because almost everyone’s seen it and already has an opinion.  Personally, I think the film gets off to a strong start.  I think the scenes of Tony ruthlessly taking control of Frank’s empire are perfectly handled and I love the scenes where Pacino and Steven Bauer just bounce dialogue off of each other.  They’re like a comedy team who commits murder on the side.  I also loved the “Take it to the limit” montage, which belongs in the 80s Cinema Hall of Fame.  At the same time, I think the final third of the movie drags a bit and that Tony’s sudden crisis of conscience when he sees that a man that he’s supposed to murder has a family feels a bit forced.  It also bothers me that Elvira just vanishes from the film.  At the very least, the audience deserved more of an explanation as to where she disappeared to.

But no matter!  Flaws and all, Scarface is a violent satire that holds up surprisingly well.  Al Pacino’s unhinged performance as Tony Montana is rightly considered to be iconic.  Pacino’s gives such a powerhouse performance that it’s easy to forget that the rest of the cast is pretty impressive as well.  I particularly liked the wonderfully sleazy work of F. Murray Abraham and Paul Shenar.  That said, my favorite character in the film remains Elvira, if just because her clothes were to die for and she just seemed so incredibly bored with all of the violent men in her life.  She goes from being bored with Frank to being bored with Tony and how can you not admire someone who, even when surrounded by all Scarface’s excess, just refuse to care?

Scarface is an offer that you can’t refuse.

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

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface (1932)
  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
  13. Hoffa
  14. Contraband
  15. Bugsy Malone
  16. Love Me or Leave Me
  17. Murder, Inc.
  18. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

Cleaning Out The DVR: Consenting Adults (dir by Alan J. Pakula)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  It’s going to take a while because Lisa has over 200 things recorded.  However, one thing is for sure: it’s all getting erased on January 15th.  Will Lisa be able to watch everything before doomsday?  Keep checking here to find out!  She recorded the 1992 thriller, Consenting Adults, off of Cinemax on February 22nd!)

Consenting Adults is a rather silly film from 1992, one which starts out as a typical sex-and-sin-in-suburbia type of film and then turns into something else.  It was directed by the distinguished director, Alan J. Pakula and the cast features people who have been nominated for (and, in some cases, won) multiple Oscars, Tonys, and Emmys.  It also features the daughter of somewhat overrated playwright, Arthur Miller.

“Wow!,” you’re saying, “who exactly is in this film?”

Well, there’s Kevin Kline and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.  They play a seemingly happy married couple.  They have a nice house in the suburbs.  Kevin Kline has a good job as a composer.  Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio has really pretty hair.  It should be a perfect life but they’re both secretly bored with their safe marriage.

And then there’s Rebecca Miller.  She’s the wife of the new neighbor.  She does thing like sing and bathe in front of an open window, allowing Kline to peek in at her.  She’s also apparently murdered about halfway through the film.  As the result of a wife-swapping scheme that was suggested by his neighbor, Kevin Kline’s semen is found in her body.  Kline goes to jail for murder.  His wife divorces him and marries the neighbor.  Hmmm….does it sound like maybe someone set Kline up?

That’s what Forest Whitaker thinks!  Whitaker plays an insurance agent who is investigating Kline’s neighbor.  It seems that the neighbor has made most of his money through insurance fraud.  Whitaker looks incredibly young in Consenting Adults.  He’s probably the most likable person in the film.  He seems to be amused by it all.

“Hey,” you’re saying, “you keep mentioning this neighbor but you have yet to tell us who played him.  You just keep saying, ‘the neighbor,’ which seems kinda awkward…”

I’m getting to the neighbor!  The neighbor is the evil genius behind all of Kevin Kline’s misfortune.  He’s a totally and thoroughly evil suburbanite and, even when he’s pretending to be a good guy, he doesn’t make much of an effort to hide the fact that he’s not to be trusted.  In fact, you could argue that Kline and Mastrantonio both had to be complete idiots to trust this guy in the first place.  That’s kind of one of the problems with this movie.   Not only is the neighbor’s scheme ludicrously complicated but, in order for it to work, he had to find two of the stupidest people ever…

“We get it, Lisa,” you’re saying, “Just tell us who plays this super villain neighbor!”

Uhmmm… *whispers* Kevin Spacey.

When I saw Consenting Adults on my DVR and I also saw that it starred Kevin Spacey, I figured that I would watch it as a test.  After everything that’s come out about Kevin Spacey, is it still possible to watch him in a movie and forget about the fact that you’re watching Kevin Spacey?  Or does Spacey’s very presence now make it impossible to watch any of his previous films?  In the grand scheme of things, of course, that should be the least of our concerns when it comes to Kevin Spacey but still, regardless of who he may be as a human being, he has appeared in some very good movies.

Of course, I quickly learned that Consenting Adults is not one of those very good movies.  That was obvious from the very first scene, which featured Kevin Kline looking like a madman while composing some of the most maudlin and less interesting music that I’ve ever heard.  In fact, Consenting Adults turned out to one the silliest movies that I’ve ever seen.

As for Kevin Spacey, he is cast as a cold-hearted narcissist who hides his true self underneath a charming and witty facade.  I think a lot of people would watch this film and assume that Spacey is basically playing himself.  (I have to admit that was pretty much my reaction, despite the fact that I usually try to separate the art from the artist.)  Since Spacey’s playing a loathsome villain, his presence doesn’t make Consenting Adults any more or any less difficult to sit through.  If anything, you really can’t wait to see him get his comeuppance.

(So, I guess the real Spacey test will be whether or not I can still watch L.A. Confidential and Baby Driver.)

Anyway, Consenting Adults is occasionally entertaining in an over-the-top, WTF is going on sort of way.  Spacey’s scheme is just so out there and makes so little sense that you can’t help but be impressed that everyone making the film kept a straight face.  Otherwise, this is a truly forgettable movie.

In Praise of Alan Rickman: The January Man (1989, directed by Pat O’Connor)


JanuarymanposterLast week, when the world first learned of the death of the actor Alan Rickman, it was shocking to realize just how many great roles he had played.  He made his feature film debut as Hans Gruber in Die Hard.  He played Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies, the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Hilly Kristal in CGBG and Marvin the Paranoid Android in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  He even played Leonard Nimoy Alexander Dane in Galaxy Quest.  But the first time I ever saw Alan Rickman, he was playing Ed the Painter in The January Man.

As The January Man begins, the new year is barely a day old and already Manhattan is in a panic.  Over the past 11 months, a serial killer has terrorized the city, killing one woman per month.  His latest victim, Allison Hawkins (Faye Grant) was murdered on New Year’s Eve.  Now, it’s January and everyone in New York City is waiting for the killer to strike again.

Mayor Flynn (Rod Steiger, bellowing his lines as only an Oscar-winning “great” actor can) is upset because Allison was a friend of his daughter, Bernadette (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio).  Flynn orders the police commissioner, Frank Starkey (Harvey Keitel), to put his brother on the case.  Nick Starky (Kevin Kline) was the best detective in New York but Frank framed him on corruption charges.  Now, Nick is working as a fireman and does not want to return to police work.  However, Nick tells Frank that he will investigate the murders on one condition: Nick wants to make dinner for Frank’s wife (and Nick’s former lover), Christine (Susan Sarandon).

After cooking an octopus for Christine, Nick works the case.  His unorthodox methods get on the nerves of Capt. Alcoa (Danny Aiello, bellowing almost as much as Rod Steiger) but also wins him the heart of Bernadette.  Helping him investigate the case (and repainting his office) is his neighbor, Ed (Alan Rickman).  Ed is not only a painter but he’s also a computer expert who figures out exactly where the killer is going to strike next.

The January Man was Alan Rickman’s second film and followed his debut in Die Hard.  Other than sharing a similarly sarcastic sense of humor, Ed the Painter is the exact opposite of Hans Gruber.  Gruber was a murderer who would do anything for money.  Ed is an artist who wants only to paint and hang out with Nick Starkey.

When I first saw The January Man, I was seven years old and I was on an airplane flying to London.  I was too young to really understand what was happening in the movie but I knew that Ed was my favorite character because he was the one who got all the funny lines and he spoke with a British accent.  When he told one of his models “Don’t molest anything,” I thought it was hilarious even though I did not really understand what he was talking about.  (Years later, I would watch The January Man on HBO and I would discover that Ed made his living painting nudes and that Bernadette and Nick were having sex, all information that was edited out of the airplane version.)

After I heard that Rickman had died, I rewatched The January Man for the first time in years.  I discovered that The January Man is a terrible movie that tries to unsuccessfully to mix slapstick comedy with brutal serial killer action but Alan Rickman still gives a really good performance, the best in the film.  (A close second would be Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, whose smile lights up every scene in which she appears.  She married the movie’s director so at least she got something good out of appearing in The January Man.)  That Alan Rickman is one of the film’s few bright spots is a testament to his talent as an actor.  Alan Rickman was such a great actor that he even made The January Man watchable.

Alan Rickman

RIP, Alan Rickman.