Tag Archives: Charles Grodin

Rosemary’s Baby

I saw Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby for the first time this week, and what a sensational, slow burning, delicate piece of unholy dread. I think I was expecting something more heavy handed or outright demonic like The Exorcist, but this is a gauzy, laconic, eerily reflective piece that takes time to hang out with all of its characters until you feel like you too are a tenant in the drafty, beautiful, impossibly spacious New York City brownstone apartment building where this dreamy tale unfolds. Young, naive Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and her gregarious actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes) move into a sprawling suite in this castle overlooking the park and seem poised for an idyllic life there as they try for a baby. Soon they get quite close with their odd duck neighbours, an older couple called the Castevets, played to the fruitcake hilt by Ruth Gordon and Sydney Blackmer. This is where the trouble begins, as these two pseudo parental totems insinuate their way into Rosemary’s life and then, more dangerously, her pregnancy. This is a horror film, a marriage drama, an occult mystery, a screwball comedy and a surreal arthouse enigma rolled into one special experience. I wasn’t expecting the level of experimental unease fuelled into a simultaneously gorgeous and anxiety inducing dream sequence where abstraction, Nightmare logic and off key sound design are used to quite literally transport you to another realm. Farrow is terrific as Rosemary and captures the small town naïveté of this character, inspiring caring and sympathy from the viewer when no one else is fighting in her corner. Cassavetes has some pep in his step, I had no idea he also acted but he’s got a slightly more buoyant Roy Scheider vibe and commands the screen nicely. Gordon and Blackmer definitely steal the show as the Castevets though, what a pair of loons. They dress like Hanna Barbera cartoons, never *ever* stop talking and deftly cover up their sinister intentions with flagrant eccentricity and the fact that no one can get a word in edgewise around them. There’s also fine work from Ralph Bellamy as a weirdo, unorthodox Doctor, Charles Grodin, Tony Curtis and more. Pretty sure I saw Sharon Tate hovering around in the background too, which was cool. The film begins with an overhead chopper shot of NYC as a haunting, melodic lullaby is sung by Farrow herself over the opening credits, luring the viewer into trancelike devotion for two transfixing hours as we see a woman fall victim to dark forces that flutter on the fringes of awareness unnervingly before making themselves known it by bit. A brilliant piece of atmospheric horror anchored by Farrow’s angelic work and eerie, unconventional direction from Polanski.

-Nate Hill

Ron Underwood’s Heart & Souls

Ron Underwood’s Heart & Souls is a lovely forgotten gem from the early 90’s, a metaphysical comedy drama with an all star cast and a heartwarming storyline with just the right amount of tear jerking moments, one of which is really affecting. They say that some people become civil servants in the afterlife, but in this movies case they are social workers, or rather guardian angels. Young boy Thomas thinks he has four imaginary friends who accompany him everywhere, but they’re really the ghosts of four wayward souls whose unfinished business on earth has caused them to linger and provide their service to the living. Shy would be singer Harrison (Charles Grodin), grieving mother Penny (Alfre Woodward), regret filled waitress Julia (Kyra Sedgwick) and guilt ridden petty thief Milo (Tom Sizemore) hang out with young Thomas for years until he grows a bit older, their debt to heavenly society is apparently paid and they move on from him, which is truly a heart wrenching scene to watch the poor kid go through. They seem to have forgotten the most important thing though: resolving their own unfinished issues in this plane, and return some thirty years later to find a now grown up Thomas (Robert Downey Jr.) and get his help in putting their troubles to rest. Seeing very grounded, down to earth Downey as a stern businessman in the midst of stormy issues with his girlfriend (Elizabeth Shue) suddenly be faced with the four childhood chums he thought were figments is hysterical and played for all the laughs one would hope. It’s also played for emotional resonance too though, as he learns about the childlike nature he left behind and regains his dormant sense of wonder, and humour. Each of the four of his friends is played brilliantly by these actors, all with their own important story and part to play in the lives of each other, as well as Downey’s. Director Underwood gives it the lighthearted, cloudy sentiment and humour it needs, but still let’s the moments of sorrow land effectively too, finding that balance between joy and heartache nicely. This one is lost a bit to the ages, but always holds up as a timeless romantic fable, well acted and perfect to brighten up the mood of any TV room.

-Nate Hill

Midnight Run

Buddy comedy. Action crime extravaganza. Road trip flick. Endlessly charming. Funny beyond words. Surprisingly emotional where it counts. Midnight Run is a low key American classic and one of the best films ever put out by any studio. As close to perfect as it gets, engaging from beginning to end and rooted in it’s central relationship between terminally cranky bounty hunter Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) and straight laced, on-the-lam embezzling accountant Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Gordon). They couldn’t be more dysfunctional, paired together on a country wide goose chase and pursued by the FBI (hilarious buffoon Yaphet Kotto, subject to a running joke for the ages), the world’s angriest Chicago mobster (Dennis Farina), a hapless fellow bounty hunter (John Ashton) and a weaselly bail bondsman (Joe Pantoliano). Deniro is a bitter, alienated lone wolf whose brittle exterior is gradually chipped away at by the warm-hearted, endearingly persistent Grodin, and their mutual character development is simply some of the best ever written and acted. The supporting cast whirls about them in perfect harmony, while every stroke of the plot lands neatly, for about as close to a perfectly staged narrative as you can get. My favourite sequence has to be the most affecting (because I’m a sap): the pair visits Jack’s ex wife and kids, and a heated, long overdue domestic squabble is stopped dead in it’s tracks as Jack’s daughter, who hasn’t seen him in nine years, walks into the room. It’s a heart wrenching scene in a mostly glib and cavalier film, but it’s little moments like that that set this apart and turn it from a formula flick into a formula flick populated by genuine human beings, and not simply written avatars for plot propulsion. The two leads have banter for the ages too, like when Grodin coaxes Deniro out of resentful silence by hinting that chickens they just spotted on an Indian reservation are looking pretty foxy, one in a countless stream of fresh, pithy and completely believable verbal interaction the two share throughout the film. It’s fun, exciting, rowdy, effortlessly well made, brilliant storytelling, and will always be way up there on my list of all time favourites.

-Nate Hill

MIDNIGHT RUN – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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One of the most popular trends in the 1980s cinema was the buddy-action film. The best ones to come out of this period were 48 HRS. (1982), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Lethal Weapon (1987), and Midnight Run (1988), which spawned numerous imitators and sequels. Along with Lethal Weapon, Midnight Run is arguably the genre’s last gasp before slipping into formulaic predictability and self-parody (see Rush Hour, Blue Streak, et al). What makes Midnight Run so good, even after all these years, is the unbeatable combination of an excellent cast, a witty script and solid direction.

Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) is a bounty hunter hired by his bail bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano) to find and transport to Los Angeles, one Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin) — a.k.a. “The Duke,” an accountant who stole $15 million from Las Vegas gangster Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina). What is initially a simple “midnight run” from New York City to Los Angeles, turns into the road trip from hell as Walsh and Mardukas are pursued across the country via plane, train, and automobile by dim-witted gangsters, frustrated FBI agents led by Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto), and a rival bounty hunter named Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton).

While this film may be a comedy, Brest lets us know right from the get-go that it’s going to have a slightly unpredictable edge to it as Walsh is almost killed by a deadbeat he’s supposed to bring in. If that wasn’t bad enough, his guy is almost snatched away from him by Dorfler. I like that Brest takes the time to show Walsh doing his job and that he’s good at it. The bounty hunter is able to track down and find Mardukas where the Feds and the Mob were unable.

Brest wastes no time introducing the film’s various antagonists starting with Mosely who approaches Walsh on the street. The bounty hunter quickly finds himself surrounded by four FBI agents. Walsh knows what they want and gives them nothing but smartass replies to their questions. Yaphet Kotto doesn’t play Mosely as an inept bumbler but instead brings an impressive intensity to the role that makes his character something of an intimidating figure which, of course, makes his kind of incompetent lackeys that much funnier the more frustrated he gets when they are repeatedly unable to catch Walsh and Markdukas. For example, there’s the withering glare Mosely gives one of his flunkies when he states the painfully obvious – that Walsh has his identification.

Midnight Run
adheres to the basic formula of the buddy-action film with two diametrically opposed characters teaming up to fight the bad guys. Inevitably, humorous situations arise from constant bickering while the duo shoots, punches, and fights their way out of action-packed set pieces. Ultimately, what makes Midnight Run work so well is how it messes around with the formula. Instead of having one funny guy and one straight man, you have two straight men with De Niro and Grodin. And yet it works, due in large part to the skill of the two leads who complement each other perfectly — De Niro plays Walsh as a gruff, foul-mouthed guy constantly annoyed by Grodin’s clean-cut accountant, armed with a seemingly endless supply of personal questions to ask his traveling companion. Their scenes together seem very spontaneous and real as they annoy the hell out of each other.

Fresh from his scene-stealing appearance in The Untouchables (1987), Robert De Niro was eager to try something different. He wanted to do a comedy and to this end, pursued the lead role in Penny Marshall’s film, Big (1988). Marshall was interested but the studio was not and thankfully the role went to Tom Hanks. Martin Brest, who directed Beverly Hills Cop, had found another script by George Gallo in the same vein — one that blended elements of comedy and action. He sent it to De Niro and was very up front with the actor: Midnight Run was a commercial film, not an in-depth character study. Regardless, De Niro researched his role by working with real-life bounty hunters and police officers.

Paramount was originally interested in backing Midnight Run but they wanted a big name star opposite De Niro in order to improve the film’s chances at the box office. Their production executives suggested that the Mardukas character be changed to a woman and wanted Cher for the role in the hopes that she would provide some “sexual overtones.” Brest wisely rejected the idea and so Paramount suggested teaming De Niro up with Robin Williams. Williams was a big star in his own right and eager to get the role. He even offered to do an audition for Brest — a rarity for the comedian whose name alone could green light projects. However, Brest was impressed by Charles Grodin’s audition with De Niro. The director felt that there was a real chemistry between the two actors. As a result, Paramount backed out and the studio’s president Ned Tanen claimed that the budget became too high and decided that “it wasn’t worth it.” Universal Pictures became interested in the project. It is to Brest’s credit that he supported Grodin down the line and refused to change his decision despite studio pressure.

Brest brought Grodin aboard with the understanding that the actor would have the opportunity to improvise. Grodin was very much open to De Niro’s improvisational technique. He remembered that De Niro “was all about ‘work,’ plain and simple, and being with him felt like breathing pure oxygen.” Some of their best scenes feel like the screenplay was just thrown out and that they simply riffed off one another. For example, the night boxcar scene where Walsh and Mardukas bond, after illegally stowing away on a train, was improvised entirely.

Much of Midnight Run’s humor comes from these moments as they constantly antagonize each other. This relationship is believable because the film takes the time to develop it with many scenes where the two men just talk, and this allows us to get to know them. Most buddy films spend only the bare minimum amount of time on character development and instead cram as many action set pieces and explosions in as possible. As a result, we do not become attached to the characters. Midnight Run does not fall into this trap.

For all of its commercial elements, George Gallo’s script has very strong, three-dimensional characters that transcend their stereotypes. It was the script that first drew Grodin to the project. He said in an interview that “the script had dimension beyond what I’m used to seeing. The dimension of character. It looked like a good action-adventure genre picture with strong character evolution.” De Niro, being the consummate actor that he is, still manages to inject little touches and details, like a habit of constantly checking his faulty watch, or the nice bit of comedy when he checks out Mosely’s identification that he pickpocketed during their first meeting. De Niro walks away from the camera only to quickly turn around and flash the stolen ID in an amusing parody of an FBI agent. It is these little bits of business that provide insights into his character. Brest commented in an interview that, “sometimes I’d let the camera run after finishing a scene to see if he did any bits, and invariably he did.”

From the two leads to the rest of the supporting cast, each character is given a moment or two to say or do something that makes them distinctive and funny. For example, there is John Ashton as Dorfler, a rival bounty hunter who falls for the same stupid trick every time. Dorfler is not just some generic bounty hunter. Ashton transforms him into a self-absorbed idiot who is completely oblivious to the big picture. Even though Dorfler is always on the receiving end of many jokes, he gets his chances to prevail. However, you know that, ultimately, he is destined to fail. Dorfler has a distinctive personality instead of being merely a cardboard cutout.

Joe Pantoliano is so good as the increasingly exasperated bail bondsman. His opening exchange with De Niro early on in the film is so well played. In a matter of moments De Niro and Pantoliano suggest a long history between their two characters in the way they act towards each other. Eddie is a consummate bullshit artist but Walsh sees right through that. I like the nice little detail that Brest throws into this scene where Eddie pays Walsh by taking out a wad of cash stashed in his pink and white socks. It is details like this that say so much about a character. Eddie cares only about money and his reputation. These characters could have been presented as clichéd stereotypes but Brest wisely casts veteran character actors like Ashton and Pantoliano in these roles.

Many of the supporting characters appear constantly throughout the film in a series of recurring gags, like Mosely running into people who’ve encountered Walsh posing as him, or Mardukas’ never-ending questions about Walsh’s personal life (“Why were you so unpopular with the Chicago Police Department?”), or Dorfler getting fooled by the same trick time and time again. Then there’s Joey (Robert Miranda) and Tony (Richard Foronjy), two dumb Vegas wiseguys that work for Serrano. Tony’s the slightly smarter one but not by much. The give and take between these two minor characters is really funny and the script gives them a moment of actual competency which makes them more than just one-dimensional thugs. It helps that the two actors playing them do such a good job bringing these characters to life.

Much like Yaphet Kotto does with Agent Mosely, Dennis Farina plays his character as if he were in a drama and not a comedy. Unlike his goofier mobsters in Get Shorty (1995) and Snatch (2000), the actor transforms Jimmy Serrano into an imposing figure best illustrated in the scene where he confronts Mardukas and tells him that he’s going to die. For a brief moment, Midnight Run stops being a comedy and there’s a real sense of danger thanks to Farina’s chilling presence in this scene. He’s also quite funny in the scenes where he threatens his underlings with all sorts over-the-top violent acts if they don’t do his bidding.

Nowadays, it’s hard to remember when De Niro doing a comedy was something of an anomaly. Sure, he had done The King of Comedy (1983) but by and large he was known at the time as a dramatic actor. So, teaming him up with veteran comedic actor Charles Grodin in an action comedy must’ve seemed like a risky prospect to the studio. But this would be tempered with director Brest behind the camera. This was years before Gigli (2003) when he was still enjoying the good will from the smash hit Beverly Hills Cop. If anybody could make De Niro funny while still retaining his trademark intensity, it was Brest.

Now, there is a whole generation of filmgoers that only knows De Niro from comedies like Meet the Parents (2000) and Analyze That (2002). Charles Grodin has, for the most part, shunned the limelight. He had a short-lived talk show but has, unfortunately, not done anything on par with his work in Midnight Run. In fact, he hasn’t acted much since 1994 and said in a recent interview that he has quit acting altogether. By the late 1980s, early 1990s, the buddy-action film had become a tired and hackneyed cliché. Screenwriter Shane Black offered a brief breath of fresh air with Lethal Weapon (1987) and The Last Boy Scout (1991) but generic time-wasters, like De Niro’s own Showtime (2002), Serving Sara (2002), which blatantly rips off Midnight Run, or the more recent The Bounty Hunter (2010), are still cranked out with predictable regularity by the studios. Back in 1988, Brest delivered the goods in a big way, serving up an R-rated film that mixed exciting car chases and shoot-outs with hilarious recurring gags and assortment of colorful characters.