Saturday, June 23, 2018

Jagged Edge

Columbia released this solid courtroom thriller written by Joe Eszterhas, who was coming off hits FLASHDANCE and BLUE THUNDER (which he script-doctored without credit), and directed by Richard Marquand, who was still hot off RETURN OF THE JEDI. It opened at #2 at the box office (behind COMMANDO!), but stayed steady near the top of the charts for several weeks. It may be best remembered today for its surprise ending, which confused so many viewers that SISKEL & EBERT did a separate episode several weeks after their initial review in which Gene and Roger explained the killer’s reveal to their audience.

San Francisco publishing magnate Jack Forrester (Jeff Bridges) stands accused of slashing his wife to death in their bedroom and spelling “BITCH” on the wall in her blood. In fact, district attorney Krasny (Peter Coyote) and investigator Martin (Lance Henriksen) make no effort to look for another suspect. Forrester, of course, proclaims his innocence, and when he is arrested and formally charged, he appeals to defense attorney Teddy Barnes (Glenn Close) to defend him in court.

Forrester is wealthy, charming, handsome — hell, he’s Jeff Bridges, right? — and the divorced Teddy finds herself doing with him things no attorney should be doing with her client. And she hates the sketchy Krasny, for whom she used to work and whose ethics-skating routine she knows well. Robert Loggia (BIG) earned an Academy Award nomination for playing Sam Ransom, Teddy’s crusty investigator (what other kind is there?) with an expletive for every sentence.

What worked in a courtroom thriller in 1985 doesn’t always hold water decades later, simply because we know more about the legal process and procedures. For the most part, JAGGED EDGE’s court shenanigans lack bite. Ransom is Teddy’s detective, but he doesn’t do a helluva lot of detecting. And, frankly, Teddy is kinda dumb, rarely missing an opportunity to violate common sense. Of course, Eszterhas (who went on to BASIC INSTINCT) and Marquand are manipulating their audience to deliver thrills — that’s their job — but by stacking the deck in their favor, they make it difficult to play along with them.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Ghost Story (1981)

Universal shelled out $225,000 for the rights to Peter Straub’s 1979 best seller. With the casting of four Golden Age movie stars in central roles, GHOST STORY must have freaked out geezers who paid to see a Fred Astaire movie and were inundated with R-rated gore and nudity (male and female). It did pretty good business, though, for a thoughtful, slow-burning horror movie released at the height of the slasher craze.

Craig Wasson (BODY DOUBLE) plays a young college professor who returns to his snowy New England hometown to attend the funeral of his twin brother, who fell naked from a window and splatted on the ground many floors below. Wasson’s father is the mayor (Douglas Fairbanks Jr., LITTLE CAESAR), who meets with his childhood friends Melvyn Douglas (NINOTCHKA), John Houseman (THE PAPER CHASE), and Fred Astaire (THE BAND WAGON) regularly to drink brandy and tell ghost stories.

All four have recently been suffering from nightmares, and Wasson comes to suspect it has something to do with a trauma they experienced together fifty years earlier. By the climax of the story adapted by CARRIE’s Lawrence D. Cohen and directed by John Irvin (THE DOGS OF WAR), only one of the old men is left alive to face the terror that has taken the lives of his three friends.

Stealing the picture from the veterans, which ain’t easy, is an ethereal and erotic performance by Alice Krige (in CHARIOTS OF FIRE the same year) in two roles that turn out to be more closely related than the characters realize until too late. While not a total success, due partially to limp pacing and subpar visual effects (though horror makeup by THE EXORCIST’s Dick Smith is superb), GHOST STORY capably sends an occasional shudder. Moody photography by the pioneering Jack Cardiff (SONS AND LOVERS) sets the proper atmosphere, aided by Philippe Sarde’s (TESS) score and one of Astaire’s finest non-musical performances.

Patricia Neal (HUD) co-stars as Astaire’s wife, and Jacqueline Brookes (LAST EMBRACE) is Douglas’ wife. Astaire, Douglas, and Fairbanks never appeared in another feature, and Douglas, who looks frail, died before the film was released in December 1981.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

It's Alive (1974)

Upon its initial 1974 release, IT’S ALIVE was a box office flop, due to what director/producer/writer Larry Cohen believed to be poor marketing. It made money overseas, however, and Cohen convinced new management at Warner Brothers to re-release the film in 1977 with a new campaign. Cohen was right, as IT’S ALIVE went on to gross millions against its original $500,000 budget. Two sequels followed, both directed by Cohen (BLACK CAESAR), and a 2008 remake, which nobody gives a damn about.

Unique and in questionable taste, IT’S ALIVE is certainly the best horror movie ever made about a mutant baby who crawls about killing people. Like FRANKENSTEIN and KING KONG, the monster is humanized in the storytelling and presented with sympathy, even while it’s slaughtering.

Intelligent screenwriting presents two sides of the issue. One faction, including Los Angeles law enforcement and the baby’s father (John P. Ryan with a strong dialed-down performance), wants to destroy the killer infant. Another, led by curious scientists (including LANCER patriarch Andrew Duggan) who want to study the phenomenon, wants the baby captured alive. So does its mother (Sharon Farrell), who doesn’t see her son as a monster, but merely a confused child looking for love from its creator, just like Frankenstein’s monster.

While the concept is campy on the surface, Cohen directs his actors to play it straight, resulting in genuine chills and thought-provoking themes of intolerance, ecology, and the power of the family unit. Opening scenes are filmed in a realistic documentary style. Perhaps that was done to help the audience accept not only the outlandish concept, but also the characters’ acceptance — nobody ever questions that a mutant baby killed a whole operating room of medical personnel.

Both Ryan (DEATH WISH 4) and Farrell (LONE WOLF MCQUADE) tended to ham performances, but are properly restrained here, which helps sell the premise (give Ryan extra credit for a hell of a Walter Brennan impression). Rick Baker (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON) created the monster child, which is shown infrequently (probably a wise decision on Cohen’s part, though frustrating for the viewer), and Bernard Herrmann (PSYCHO) composed the score. Ryan, Duggan, and Cohen regular James Dixon as a cop returned for the sequel, titled — what else — IT LIVES AGAIN.

Thursday, June 07, 2018


Enormously popular (the seventh biggest hit of 1979, snuggled between ALIEN and THE JERK) and influential (a lot of white ladies sported cornrows for awhile), the touching farce 10 boosted the career of star Dudley Moore (FOUL PLAY) and made leading lady Bo Derek (TARZAN THE APE MAN) an international superstar. The title refers to Derek’s beauty on scale of one to 10, and writer/director Blake Edwards didn’t have to work too hard to convince audiences it was true.

Moore, who replaced George Segal during shooting, is George Webber, a successful Hollywood songwriter having a midlife crisis at age 42. He spots a breathtakingly gorgeous woman (Derek, natch) and becomes so obsessed with her that he follows her on her Acapulco honeymoon just to be near her.

As played by Moore and written by Edwards (DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES), Webber’s emotional ennui is deeper than just a crush on a sexy young woman. Despite a steady partner, Sam Taylor, who is successful, talented, intelligent, and attractive (as is Julie Andrews, who plays Sam), not to mention his wealth and his four Academy Awards, George is unhappy, and his depression manifests as an obsession with sex.

But let’s not get too deep. 10 is also a film with a lot of trademark Edwards slapstick, played by Moore as well as Peter Sellers ever did, and silliness. Moore even drinks funny. One of the film’s most uproarious scenes finds an awkward Moore cringing through a terrible song (intentionally composed that way by Henry Mancini) performed by reverend Max Showalter (NIAGARA), while a doddering old blind woman shuffles around the room (and into a wall). One hilarious running gag has Moore constantly spying on his neighbor (Don Calfa) with a telescope, only to be frustrated by all the kinky sex going on over there.

The acting is terrific across the board. Moore is playing a basically unsympathetic character, but you can understand why a great woman like Sam would love him (Andrews’ performance helps in this regard as well). Robert Webber (S.O.B.) scores as George’s gay songwriting partner. Dee Wallace (CUJO) is poignant as George’s unsuccessful Mexican fling. Brian Dennehy (FIRST BLOOD) practically steals the picture as a sympathetic bartender (“I’m 37. But I look 40.”).

And then there’s Bo, who certainly was no great shakes as an actress, but in the hands of a talented director, comes across very well. It’s tough to play, in effect, the sexiest woman in the world, someone so beautiful that it drives George almost literally mad with desire. 10 is probably the only time the young Bo Derek doesn’t come across as vapid (she once admitted to David Letterman she didn’t remember the name of her high school). But then she never worked with a director like Blake Edwards either.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Night Moves (1975)

Alan Sharp (ULZANA’S RAID), appropriately enough, wrote this sharp crime movie that ranks among the best private eye films of the 1970s. Sharp’s plot is fuzzy, but he and director Arthur Penn (BONNIE AND CLYDE) are concerned with mood and characterization and playing around with the standard tropes of the detective genre. Actors in every important role receive something meaty to play, all the way down to Anthony Costello’s (WILL PENNY) snickering stuntman and the film director played by Edward Binns (12 ANGRY MEN), who has a great bar scene.

Director of photography Bruce Surtees (DIRTY HARRY) helps Penn establish the film’s grim tone, and, for character, who better than Gene Hackman to inhabit the burned-out soul of an idiosyncratic Los Angeles P.I. Comparisons to the works of novelist Ross Macdonald are accurate with Hackman’s Harry Moseby a close approximation of the weary Lew Archer — certainly more so than Paul Newman’s Archer (renamed Harper for two films).

Hackman’s wife Susan Clark (COOGAN’S BLUFF) is having an affair with crippled Harris Yulin (SCARFACE). Past-her-prime movie actress Janet Ward (THE ANDERSON TAPES) hires Hackman to go to the Florida Keys and fetch her runaway daughter, played by 16-year-old Melanie Griffith (WORKING GIRL). He finds her living with her former stepfather John Crawford (JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS) and Crawford’s earthy lady friend Jennifer Warren (THE INTRUDER WITHIN), to whom Hackman is instantly attracted.

It wouldn’t be a private eye yarn without a murder or two, and it wouldn’t be a Seventies thriller without an emotionally taxing climax and downbeat ending. Hackman is brilliant (what else is new) in this underrated picture that was mostly ignored by audiences during its original release. A young James Woods is strong as a Hollywood mechanic, and Ward — not a major name — lays it all out for the camera in a surprisingly humble performance.