THE JACKAL (1997) – This movie should not have seen the light of day

Poster

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never seen The Day of the Jackal, the highly acclaimed 1973 thriller that was the inspiration for the movie The Jackal. Having said that, it’s still quite easy to see where the updated version falls short.

The original movie was about an international assassin who methodically plans to kill France’s General DeGaulle. Starting with that scenario, let’s outline how the newer movie has been thoroughly Hollywoodized.

First, the new version drags in the Cold War Russians–who, as movie cliches go, are now on a par with the Nazis. Some sort of Russian baddie (a drug dealer, I guess)–it’s not made very clear) is killed due to the efforts of Preston (Sidney Poitier), the FBI’s deputy director. The baddie’s brother enlists the aid of The Jackal to avenge his death by killing an American public figure.

In the hopes of building suspense, it’s left vague as to who is to be killed. To help uncover The Jackal’s planned target, Preston enlists the aid of Declan Mulqueen, an imprisoned Irish terrorist who used to work with The Jackal. Unfortunately, this tower of teror is played by Richard Gere with a slatternly Irish accent (he sounds like John Lennon with a head cold), and he ends up coming across as the friendliest terrorist you’ll ever meet.

images

To round out the miscasting, The Jackal, a feared assassin and a master of disguise, is played by…Bruce Willis?? Every time The Jackal changes his hair color or grows a mustache, it’s supposed to throw the FBI wildly off-track. But as usual, Willis wears the same smug sneer throughout the movie, so it doesn’t seem that he’d be hard to recognize. Consequently, Willis’s attempt to change his personas come off like a misguided episode of his old TV series “Moonlighting.”

Nothing in the movie makes much sense. At one point, Preston uncovers Mulqueen having a one-night stand with one of his female agents, and Preston doesn’t bat an eye. We’re given to understand that Mulqueen might jump ship to return to his native Ireland, but the movie doesn’t want to turn the audience against Gere, so this potential plot point turns out to be a red herring. And after spending two-thirds of the story telling us that the target is a particular American official, the movie suddenly offers Mulqueen a vague clue that tells him the target is someone different.

The movie’s publicity took great pains to convince us that The Jackal was not a remake. Well, it is a remake, but not of The Day of the Jackal. With its nasty Russians, a leading man whose Halloween costumes are supposed to pass as disguises, and a vague attempt at a soppy romance, The Jackal comes across as a retread of Val Kilmer’s The Saint, another movie retread that came out at about the same time. And given that movie’s terrible box-office figures, one wouldn’t think the public was crying out for more.

The only person who comes off decently is Sidney Poitier, who seems to project more fiery authority with each passing year. When he points a finger at the Russian baddie and barks, “That’s enough!”, you truly believe the man has been put in his place. The rest of the cast is quite negligible.

No, I haven’t seen The Day of the Jackal, but I have seen plenty of self-important thrillers, of which The Jackal is obviously an offshoot. Except for a couple of brief, nicely done set-pieces, the movie’s musical score gets more worked up about the so-called suspense than a viewer will.

Advertisements

BIRTH (2004) – After-birth queasiness isn’t just for women anymore

 

Birth is the story of Anna (Nicole Kidman), a widow engaged to be re-married, who is accosted by a 10-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) claiming to be the reincarnation of her late husband Sean. Initially affronted by this kid’s claim, Anna eventually comes to believe him all too much.

Some reviews just write themselves, don’t you think?

Nevertheless, I’ll be happy to point out the obvious: No matter how you slice it, this premise involves some most unseemly matters. If Anna falls for this kid, it’s going to lead to the kind of subject matter that you’d never want to see in a mainstream movie, even if the MPAA let you.

images

I’m relieved to report that the movie doesn’t quite go that far. At the same time, it veers closely enough to the edge — what with a boy-woman bathtub scene, and later a frank discussion about how the kid would handle Anna’s “needs” — that by movie’s end, you feel like a slimed Ghostbuster.

And what of this kid, anyway? The movie explains his presence so lackadaisically, it’s as though the movie was trying to reach a rare demographic of 10-year-old boys who suddenly want to be married to Nicole Kidman.

And don’t even get me started on Anne Heche, whose part in the story is supposed to be mysterious at first. Even so, from the very start, you can tell that her character has an interest in young Sean that has gone seriously awry.

The supporting cast, including 80-and-still-fabulous Lauren Bacall (What would Bogie think of this?), all have the same shell-shocked looks on their faces, as though they signed on for the movie before reading the script.

NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) – It’s still on Double Secret Probation with me

Poster

For 26 years, critics and fans have been sounding the drum for what a classic comedy National Lampoon’s Animal House is. At the risk of sounding like Dean Wormer, I’m here to declare: It isn’t.

images

It certainly has its merits, not the least of which is the late John Belushi as the one-man id gone haywire that is John “Bluto” Blutarski, seven-year college vet. Watching him snort up a cafeteria buffet like a human vacuum, or bash beer bottles over his head to amuse a dejected classmate, Belushi seems the very essence of liberating comedy.

See that guy on the far left? Since 1978, he gained a few pounds and now plays a very conservative acting role on cable's "Rizzoli and Isles."

See that guy on the far left? Since 1978, he gained a few pounds and now plays a very conservative acting role on cable’s “Rizzoli and Isles.”

Also funny is the way Animal House–about a slovenly ’60s college fraternity named Delta House–turns frat-boy cliches on their head. In most college movies where a guy tries to get a view of nubile females undressing, the comedy would come from how the guy gets caught. Here, the comedy comes from the guy’s (again, Belushi) dramatic reaction to reaching his goal. And the old routine where the seasoned college students get a frosh to pull a major prank gets one of the movie’s biggest laughs, when a horse reacts lethally to being locked up in the dean’s office.

On the debit side, there’s a side to this movie that is never touched upon its reviews–the fact that Animal House is hardly endearing to African-Americans. When the black group Otis Day and the Knights is brought in to play at Delta’s toga party, they seem to be used solely for their exoticness. And when the Deltas visit Otis and his band at an all-black bar, the scene is played strictly for a racist terror from which the movie takes forever to recover.

Lastly, Animal House can arguably be accused of ushering in a still-debilitating genre of gross-out comedies, where the laughs come not from funny personalities but from bodily functions. From Porky’s to The Farrelly Bros.’ filmography, this movie has a lot to answer for.

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Wimpy in SHIVER ME TIMBERS! (1934) – A ship-shape adventure

ShiverMeTimbers

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Wimpy run ashore on an island and come across an old wrecker marked, “Ghost Ship – Beware!” Olive and Wimpy don’t want to get near it — but how intimidating can a ghost ship be when it plays the Laurel & Hardy theme as a come-on? Naturally, as soon as the trio boards the ghost ship, it sets sail, and the stowaway ghosts do their best to scare the passengers.

A wonderfully atmospheric “horror cartoon,” with lush animation throughout (pay attention to the “ghostly” Olive, among other delights). A real treasure.

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCanCan

THE SIMPSONS MOVIE (2007) – D’oh, boy!

220px-Simpsons_final_poster

Most reviews of The Simpsons Movie have the same curious tone: They complain that the movie isn’t as edgy or funny as they expected, and then they say that the movie is funnier and edgier than most movies that came out at the same time.

I’ve always found the “Simpsons” TV series hilarious, but I don’t know if it was ever as edgy as people said it was. Its main strength has always been to come right up to the edge of subversion, only to end up embracing the nuclear-family concept.

Since the movie is 89 minutes long (four times the length of a TV episode), it has a broader spectrum in which to play. But it never dawdles; as with the series, the movie is briskly paced, funny, and incisive. Would that every movie comedy met that standard.

Amazingly, this cartoon version of an epic — it uses 15 past and present “Simpsons” writers, and the show’s hundreds of supporting characters — begins with only the idea of the series’ anti-hero, Homer Simpson, falling in love with a pig.

From that moronically simple plot development, the movie blossoms like a flower on steroids. It takes trips physical (north to Alaska) and psychological (Homer goes hallucinogenic). It has erudite references that will sail over kiddies’ heads, and it gets its PG-13 rating by having Bart Simpson briefly doing the full monty.

It takes pot-shots at its parent company Fox and their rival Disney, as well as squeezing in a public-service announcement from Tom Hanks.

And strangest of all, it is often downright touching. (At one point, Homer’s put-upon spouse Marge, voiced by Julie Kavner, leaves Homer a “Dear John” video that might be — no kidding — Kavner’s best-ever acting job.)

As with the show, The Simpsons Movie does what the best comedy does: take a jaundiced eye at the kind of insipid behavior that most of us are either too polite or too ignorant to point out.

I’m cynical about most TV-to-movie spin-offs, but The Simpsons Movie shows that it can be done right, if its makers care enough about the quality. (Oh, and maybe your TV show has to last for 18 seasons first.)

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto in DIZZY DIVERS (1935) – Buried, but not exactly a treasure

DizzyDivers

Popeye tells fellow deep-sea diver Bluto of a sunken treasure. Popeye says they’ll split the treasure 50-50, but Bluto knocks Popeye out and steals the treasure map. Popeye comes to and heads for the treasure on his own (albeit with Olive Oyl in tow).

Popeye and Bluto go back-and-forth underwater. Bluto tries to trap Popeye in a giant clam, but Popeye sends a signal up to Olive, who funnels down some spinach to him. Popeye subdues Bluto and hauls up the treasure chest. When Bluto comes back up and demands his half of the treasure, Popeye breaks the chest in two and knocks Bluto over the head with his half.

The mechanical nature of most of the gags, and the lack of music in the underwater sequence, render this a decidedly average Popeye cartoon.

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCanHalf

Laurel & Hardy at Twentieth Century-Fox – Another nice mess

LaurelAndHardyFoxContract

Above is a copy of the contract that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy signed with Twentieth Century-Fox on July 26, 1943. It indicates the renewal of the initial contract between L&H and Fox that was signed in May 1941, thus continuing Fox’s series of Laurel & Hardy comedies.

This contract renewal might seem surprising to anyone familiar with L&H’s history. After leaving Hal Roach Studios in 1940, Laurel & Hardy Feature Productions was established, and Stan signed the “company’s” services over to Fox, thinking he’d finally have the creative freedom he wanted. The movies Great Guns (1941) and A-Haunting We Will Go (1942) quickly proved Stan wrong.

In later years, Stan said he re-signed with Fox because he had thought that Fox would finally let him do Laurel & Hardy movies his way — which they finally did, somewhat, though Stan never again had the creative latitude he’d had with Hal Roach. L&H also did two 1940’s feature films for M-G-M that are, if possible, even more painful than the Fox films.

images

In nearly every L&H biography ever written, the author breezes through Stan and Babe’s Hal Roach years and then takes a long breather to apologize for the movies to come. And yes, it’s worth noting: The movies L&H made for Fox and M-G-M are done completely in Big Studio style, which is to say, anti-Stan style. The movies were no longer shot in sequence, and Stan and Babe were given make-up treatment that made them look older than they did when they were touring Europe ten years later. Most reprehensibly, Stan, the uncredited writer-director-editor of their Roach movies, was completely shut out of the movies’ creative processes at Fox; instead, he and Babe would be given completed scripts on Friday and were told to memorize their lines by Monday.

(L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt detailed how a creatively muffled Stan would show his displeasure with the Fox scripts by filling their margins with huge squiggles whenever he came to an out-of-character passage – but to no avail, since no studio personnel ever saw or cared about Stan’s editorializing.)

Yet it bears mentioning that even at the Roach Studios (where Stan was given his most creative latitude), even the L&H/Roach features rarely operated at full steam. When you start naming L&H’s finest Roach features, the most frequently mentioned titles are Sons of the Desert and Way Out West. There are also L&H buffs who make valid cases for Fra Diavolo, March of the Wooden Soldiers, Our Relations, and Block-Heads. That still leaves seven Roach features – more, even, than their entire Fox output – which are middling at best, and often have their own out-of-character moments. (Witness Ollie’s unusual berating of the chef in Swiss Miss, or the mechanical gag quality in much of L&H’s Roach swan song, Saps at Sea.)

When viewed in this light, at the very least it doesn’t seem as though, as L&H biographer John McCabe once suggested, Fox was out to “freeze out” Laurel & Hardy or unduly humble them. (Indeed, why would a major studio sign up a money-making comedy team and then deliberately try to put them in a bad light?) It seems as though Fox’s screenwriters, as alien as they were to Stan and Babe’s working methods, at least sympathized with them and tried to write material in their style (though that often amounted to simply cribbing old routines from earlier L&H movies). Stan and Babe were also lucky that for their last three movies, Fox paired them with Malcolm St. Clair, a comedy veteran from Buster Keaton’s salad days, who seems to have mostly left L&H alone to do what they could with some uneven scripts.

Everyone seems to have a most- and least-favorite L&H/Fox movie. For me, The Bullfighters is enjoyable almost all the way through (quite a feat for a Fox film); even its climax isn’t really annoying, just sort of a fizzed-out dud. For all-out character assassination, you just have to vote for The Dancing Masters, with scenes that barely connect from one to the next, and a brain-dead ending that looks as though it was filmed on the floor of your kid brother’s treehouse.

On the other hand, if you want to discuss 100% laugh-free L&H, check out their two M-G-M features of the 1940’s, Air Raid Wardens and Nothing But Trouble. Suffice to say, M-G-M’s then-studio head (and American-apple-pie purveyor) Louis B. Mayer seemed determined to stuff these two features full of his ripe view of Americana at the expense of any comedy. (But then, he was also responsible for squelching both Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers at their creative peaks, so what can you expect?)

So – even though they’re not operating at full throttle, and one wants to lay a sympathetic hand on the shoulder of 1941’s Stan Laurel – maybe we should be grateful that late-era Hollywood allowed Stan and Babe any wiggle (or squiggle) room. As Peanuts’ Linus once suggested for reading The Brothers Karamazov, enjoy what you can from these movies, and then just “bleep” out the rest.