Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep is a powerful, smart, grounded drama revolving around the seriousness of one’s actions, the consequences they may make even decades down the road, and the lengths that some people will go to put things right. Redford has shown only improvement throughout his career, and has been really awesome as of late (All Is Lost was a favourite for me) and he directs here with as much confidence and empathy as he puts into his performance. He plays Nick Sloan, a former underground activist who was involved in a tragic accident as a result of his protesting, and branded a domestic terrorist. He went into hiding for nearly 30 years, until an intrepid journalist (Shia Lebeouf) uncovers traces of his tracks, and he’s forced to go on the run, leaving his young daughter with his brother (Chris Cooper). Lebeouf suspects his agenda is to do more than just hide, and indefinitely stay on the run. A federal agent (Terrence Howard) makes it his tunnel vision mission to find him. Sloan’s agenda only gradually becomes clear to us, as he navigates a tricky, treacherous web of former acquaintances, trying to locate his former lover and fellow activist (Julie Christie, phenomenal in a comeback of sorts). Old wounds are slashed open, the law closes in, and Nick wrestles with the notion that despite the good he tried to do in his idealistic youth, he is indirectly responsible for bloodshed. It’s enthralling to watch Redford play this man in his twilight years trying to put things right, waist deep in decades of acting experience, supported by an amazing script and a supporting cast that you couldn’t dream up . There’s memorable appearances from Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Brit Marling, Stephen Root, Susan Sarandon, Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Elliott, Susan Hogan and Nick Nolte, all in top form. For a thriller that takes itself seriously, takes its time building character and suspense, and sets itself in a realistic, believable tale that completely engrosses you, look no furthe
The best way to describe Easy A is calling it a wiseass high school retelling of The Scarlet Letter. That can also be a temperature gauge for someone to tell ahead of time if it’ll be there thing, or not. I enjoyed it a lot, thanks to a funny as hell Emma Stone who doesn’t leave out the vulnerability peeking through her guise as strong young woman. It’s a little more relaxed in the content department than some of the bawdier stuff that she got her start in, but still contains sufficient amounts of raunch to please the comedy hounds. Stone also has a veritable army of seasoned pros backing her up, an element which helps her, however she’s quite capable of carrying a film and does so as well. She plays Olive, a spitfire high school girl who finds herself in a funny yet unfortunate situation after her dunce of a friend starts a wildfire sexual rumor about her. Soon the whole school is talking about it, and she takes action in a bizarre move to fight fire with fire…of a certain kind. She boldly takes up the mantle of the school harlot, forever changing things in her quiet serengetti of suburban youth. It all spins wildly out of control, a common characteristic of adolescence, with poor Olive stuck right in the middle of the debacle, which sucks for her but is too funny not to enjoy. Stanley Tucci (“The Bucket List”) and Patricia Clarkson are darlings as her parents, Thomas Haden Church scores points as a deliberately hip and sympathetic literature teacher, and Lisa Kudrow that old flamingo, has fun as a dour guidance counselor. There’s also work from Amanda Bynes as an unhinged religious nut, the perpetually wooden Cam Gigandet, Penn Badgley and a brief cameo from Malcolm McDowell as the world’s most cynical high school principal. As a riff on The Scarlett letter it keeps theme alive, and as a teen comedy with a gaggle of adults trying to keep up with the youngsters, it’s a charmer. Stone holds the proceedings together very well.
The 6th Day is a brash, in your face sci fi actioner with some deft scientific notions that it plays around with in near satirical fashion. It chooses to shoot most of its scenes in my hometown of Vancouver, including a set piece atop the spiral shaped Vancouver Public Library tat sends sparks raining down into the streets and choppers spinning wildly to their demise. I love when films shoot here, because it gives my city an exciting chance to be a part of escapism, and it’s amusing to watch them digitally maim all sorts of landmarks and then chuckle as I see them intact on my way to work the next day. Schwarzenegger, in one of his last great flicks before his deliberate hiatus (we shall not speak of the abomination that is Collateral Damage), plays Adam Gibson, a helicopter tour guide who has a strange blackout in mid flight while transporting the CEO of a swanky scientific corporation (slick Tony Goldwyn). He arrives back home to find a clone of himself living with his family, and things only get weirder from there. He has stumbled into the inner workings of extremely illegal experiments involving human replication, and Goldwyn & Co. are none too pleased about it. Goldwyn has secretly made human cloning an everyday thing for the company, hidden from the aging eyes of the moral upright doctor who founded the company (Robert Duvall). This is all enforced by a ruthless corporate thug for hire (Michael Rooker) and his foxy assistant (Sarah Wynter). Schwarzenegger is faced with the daunting task of taking down this un-sanctioned empire, reclaiming his family and blowing up some stuff along the way. It’s a terrific flick, and Arnie gets to say the best line he’s ever spoken, directed at Goldwyn, which I won’t spoil here but it’s pure gold. Goldwyn is hateable and malicious, the horrific third act prosthetics fitting him like a slimy glove. Duvall strikes a noble chord and almost seems to have wandered in from a more serious film. Rooker is intense, evil and scene stealing as always. Watch for Wendy Crewson, Michael Rapaport and Terry Crews as well. In a movie so committed to the trademark Ahnuld fireworks, it’s cool to get a whiff of actual thought provoking, Asimov-esque intrigue with the cloning, a concept which is fully utilized and really a lot of fun here.
In the late 1980s, Michael J. Fox attempted to break out of the typecasted roles he found himself stuck in – light, breezy comedies like Teen Wolf (1985) and The Secret of My Success (1987). He also didn’t want to be known just for his role as the ultra-conservative Alex P. Keaton on the hit television sitcom Family Ties. To this end, he tried his hand at three dramatic departures: the gritty, blue collar Paul Schrader film Light of Day (1987), playing a musician in a bar band; a naive American foot soldier faced with a tough moral dilemma in Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989); and a cocaine-addicted fact checker whose life is falling apart in Bright Lights, Big City (1988). You can argue the merits of each film but clearly the mainstream movie-going public was not interested in seeing Fox’s serious side and all three films failed to set the box office on fire. The critics were just as unforgiving and the films received mixed reactions at best, or outright savaging at worst.
Out of these three films, I find Bright Lights, Big City to be the most interesting one, especially in terms of Fox’s acting. The film is an adaptation of Jay McInerney’s best-selling novel of the same name and the production was plagued by all kinds of problems, which makes the fact that the finished product is as coherent as it is that much more impressive. For all of its flaws, the constant is Fox’s excellent performance as a struggling New York writer trying to figure out why his wife Amanda (Phoebe Cates) left him and why his life is a mess.
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning, but here you are…”
And with these words both the book and the film begin with Jamie Conway (Fox) drunk and coked to the gills on what he calls “Bolivian Marching Powder.” With McInerney adapting his own book, he is able to preserve its distinctive second person narrative, which only reinforces Jamie’s self-absorbed state of mind. For example, there are several shots of Jamie looking at himself in various mirrors as he recognizes less and less of the person staring back at him. He works as a fact checker for Gotham magazine, a fictionalized version of The New Yorker. What he really wants is to be working in the fiction department. It’s interesting to see all the grunt work Jamie has to do at his job in the days before the proliferation of computers and the omnipresence of the Internet. At home, he works on his novel on a clunky old typewriter. It is these things that date Bright Lights, Big City in a wonderful way, especially for those of us who can remember these things.
The film’s most glaring flaws include an ill-conceived dream sequence involving “the coma baby,” the story of an unborn child trapped in a woman in a coma as documented on a daily basis by The New York Post. In the dream, Jamie sees the baby through the mother’s transparent belly. Not only does the baby look obviously fake, Fox does its voice as well. I guess the selfish child is supposed to be him or something like that. This sequence always takes me out of the film temporarily. Then, there’s the scene where Jamie and his best friend Tad Allagash (Kiefer Sutherland) break into the Gotham offices to plant a live ferret in his ex-boss’ office. Naturally, all hell breaks loose and the film’s tone veers dangerously close to slapstick as the understandably freaked out animal bites Jamie’s hand and almost tears off Allagash’s balls. They are caught in the act by Alex (Jason Robards), the veteran staff member who spends most of his time drunk, rambling on about working with the likes of William Faulkner and Dorothy Parker. Alex is almost taken out by a suit of armor in a kind of goofy moment. This scene isn’t quite as bad as the coma baby dream sequence but both could easily be removed from the film and no one would miss them. Interestingly, both of these scenes are in the novel but some stuff just doesn’t translate as well on the big screen as it does on the page where your imagination can create its own images.
Michael J. Fox does a really good job showing the gradual spiraling of his character, like when Jamie shows up to a fashion show featuring his wife (Phoebe Cates) as one of the runway models. He arrives a sweaty, disheveled mess, bribes the bartender (a then-unknown David Hyde Pierce) to pour him a couple of drinks even though the bar is closed, and then tops it all off by trying to get his wife’s attention by attempting to climb up onto the catwalk only to get ejected for his troubles. During this scene, Fox has a glazed look in his eyes of someone clearly not fully in control of their faculties. If that wasn’t bad enough, when spotted on the street by his brother (Charlie Schlatter), Jamie runs away, sprinting through the streets like a madman until he loses his sibling on the subway. The end of this perfect day comes when Jamie has dinner with a kind, former co-worker (Swoosie Kurtz) and proceeds to get drunk and make a clumsy advance towards her that is intentionally awkward and uncomfortable to watch. What a shock these three sequences must’ve been for fans of Fox’s squeaky clean roles on T.V. and in film.
Fox is excellent playing someone in denial that their life is falling apart. He just keeps piling on more alcohol and drugs in an attempt to deaden the pain or to forget about the reality of his situation. As the film progresses, you keep wondering when is Jamie going to hit rock bottom? It’s hard to say if he ever does but there is a scene late in the film where he finally acknowledges the reality of his situation. Whether he will finally be able to straighten out his life is left rather open-ended but there is a suggestion that he has come out on the other side of a pretty dark place and lived to tell the tale, just like the coma baby.
I’ve always admired Kiefer Sutherland’s courage to play unlikable characters that are interesting to watch. With his leading man good looks it would’ve been so easy for him to play one-dimensional romantic leads or flawless heroes but he has stubbornly refused to do so time and time again. Just think of some of his signature roles. In Stand By Me (1986), he played a vicious bully that terrorizes the film’s three teenage protagonists; in The Lost Boys (1987), he played the leader of a pack of vampires that delight in feeding off the riff raff at a California beach community; and in Flatliners (1990), he played a gloryhound medical student willing to kill and then resuscitate his classmates in order to prove life after death. In two of these three films he plays out and out villains and in the other one he plays a deeply flawed protagonist and yet we kinda like all of these characters because of Sutherland’s natural charisma. As an actor, he’s just so damn interesting to watch.
In Bright Lights, Big City, he plays Fox’s best friend Tad Allagash, the kind of Yuppie slimeball character that James Spader perfected during the ‘80s (I guess he was busy doing another film when this one was cast). On the surface, Allagash seems like a good friend to Jamie. After work, Allagash takes Jamie out clubbing and introduces him to several beautiful women in an attempt to help his friend forget about his disintegrating marriage and thankless day job. However, they really have a toxic relationship. He only pretends to listen to Jamie’s problems and always seems to be hitting him up for drugs. With the exception of a clandestine visit to Jamie’s workplace after hours, Allagash only seems interested in taking Jamie to nightclubs and parties. Sutherland uses his natural charisma to show why someone like Jamie would hang out with a guy like Allagash. He’s the kind of guy that is hard to say no to, especially when he’s offering you drugs, alcohol and women.
In 1984, Jay McInerney’s semi-autobiographical novel Bright Lights, Big City became a hot commodity. Brat packer Emilio Estevez wanted to option it and adapt it into a film. He met with the author who was working on his own screenplay version. However, it was Robert Lawrence, vice president at Columbia Pictures, who ponied up the money for the option and championed the novel despite resistance from older executives who saw it as “subversive and unconventional.” Lawrence saw it as his generation’s The Graduate (1967) with “a little bit of Lost Weekend in there.” Columbia agreed to make it with Jerry Weintraub producing and Joel Schumacher, hot off St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), directing. Soon after McInerney started writing the screenplay, Schumacher started rewriting it. Considered for the role of Allagash were the likes of Judd Nelson, Estevez and Rob Lowe. Tom Cruise was all set to play Jamie Conway and even took a tour of the New York City night life with McInerney and Schumacher.
A year later, when Weintraub became the chief executive at United Artists, he took the project with him. Now Bright Lights, Big City needed a new producer and so Sydney Pollack and his partner Mark Rosenberg agreed to come on board. They hired Julie Hickson to write the script. Schumacher lost interest and Cruise got tired of waiting. They left and Weintraub also exited, leaving the studio. The project was tied up in a complicated settlement until late 1986 when the studio decided to start from scratch with the notion of casting a relative unknown like Charlie Sheen (pre-Platoon) as Jamie. Tom Cole, who adapted a Joyce Carol Oates story into the screenplay for Smooth Talk (1985), was hired to adapt McInerney’s novel. His wife Joyce Chopra had directed that film and her high-powered agent not only got her involved in Bright Lights but also sent the novel to another of his clients, Michael J. Fox.
Initially, Pollack and Rosenberg weren’t too crazy about the idea of Fox starring in Bright Lights but then they got worried that mainstream audiences wouldn’t relate to a selfish Yuppie like Jamie. Pollack reasoned, “There is something in the persona of Michael that makes you care what happens to him, no matter how bad the character is.” However, with the casting of Fox, Bright Lights changed from a modestly budgeted film to a major commercial feature shot on location in New York City with a top box-office movie star. Fox used his clout to request Kiefer Sutherland play the part of Tad Allagash.
The producers surrounded Chopra with a crew that had worked with Pollack and were loyal to him. To make matters even more interesting, she brought James Glennon, her cinematographer on Smooth Talk, on board, thereby drawing sides with her, Glennon and Cole against the rest of the Pollack-loyal crew. To complicate matters, a Directors Guild of America strike was predicted to start early in July 1987 (that ended up never happening). Fox had to resume work in Los Angeles on Family Ties by mid-July giving Chopra ten weeks to finish her film.
Principal photography barely started and already studio executives were not happy with Chopra’s working methods. Some felt that she relied too much on Cole and Glennon and took too much time setting up shots. The director claimed that she “kept insisting that we take time each day to give the actors a chance to find their way,” and worked “collaboratively” with Glennon. Clearly, this slow, methodical approach was not going to work for the time crunch that the production was working under and something had to give. Executives did not like the footage Chopra was getting and a week into principal photography the chairman of United Artists and the president of production flew in from L.A. to New York. They had rushed the film into production without reading Cole’s script which diverged significantly from the novel. McInerney felt that Cole “was writing out all the drugs.” In his defense, Cole claimed that Pollack instructed him to do that because the producer was worried about tarnishing Fox’s squeaky clean public image.
Officially, Chopra was fired over creative differences with the studio. Fox cheekily referred to the month that Chopra was in charge as “a rehearsal period, though it wasn’t meant to be.” On the short list of replacements were Ulu Grosbard, Bruce Beresford and James Bridges. On a Friday, Bridges received a phone call from his agent telling him that Bright Lights, Big City was in trouble. He read the novel that night, flew to New York on Sunday and saw the footage Chopra shot. He agreed to take over only if he could start from scratch. Bridges was known for box office hits like The China Syndrome (1979) and Urban Cowboy (1980) but was coming into Bright Lights with back-to-back flops of Mike’s Murder (1984) and Perfect (1985).
On Monday, Bridges contacted legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis who agreed to sign on to the production. In a week, Bridges wrote a new draft of the script that had Jamie’s mother’s death as the emotional core of the film. He brought McInerney back into the fold and fired six actors, replacing them with Jason Robards, John Houseman, Swoosie Kurtz, Frances Sternhagen, Tracy Pollan, and Charlie Schlatter. They all read the novel because the script wasn’t ready. Bridges wisely kept Kiefer Sutherland and Dianne Wiest as Allagash and Jamie’s mother respectively. Before each day of shooting, Bridges worked on rewrites of his script and on weekends worked on it with McInerney. Bridges brought a much needed stability to the production and the film was shot in six weeks.
Shooting on location in New York City gives Bright Lights, Big City a real authenticity and serves as a snapshot of a city that looks and feels quite different now. In the ‘80s, it was quite a hedonistic time with materialistic Yuppies snorting cocaine in nightclub bathrooms while holding down jobs in the publishing industry or on Wall Street. I always felt that Bright Lights was the east coast answer to Less Than Zero (1987), also a flawed adaptation of a best-selling novel about affluent twentysomethings mired in drug addiction. Bright Lights is more successful because it doesn’t soften the edges of its protagonist as much as in Less Than Zero, which feels more compromised and less faithful to its source material. It’s really a shame that audiences and critics didn’t respond more favorably to Bright Lights. I would’ve liked to have seen Fox take more chances like he did with this film. Instead, he retreated back to safe comedies like Doc Hollywood (1991). It’s a rather unfortunate case of what could have been.
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.
Brown’s Requiem is a neat little slice of Los Angeles film noir in the tradition of L.A. Confidential and Mulholland Falls. It’s based on a book of the same name that’s written by James Ellroy, who actually wrote L.A. Confidential as well, so the crime vibe here is thick, rich and geniune. Michael Rooker is flat out fantastic as Fritz Brown, a world weary, hard bitten private investigator who is hired by a rotund caddie named Fat Dog (Will Sasso) to find his kid sister (Selma Blair) a wayward girl who has apparantly run off with a her sugar daddy, and may be in danger. Brown noses around and before he knows it he’s neck deep in police corruption, violence and murder. It’s convoluted, but film noir always is, and when the plot is left to bake in the California sun, it’s going to be nicely sinewy and labyrinthine to please all the filmgoers put there who fancy themselves gumshoes and like to decipher the happenings along with the protagonist. The trail leads Brown to sinister police captain Cathcart (the late Brion James), brutal thug Richard Ralston (Jack Conley) and many other bottom dwelling nasties. This is a rare lead role for Rooker and he’s riveting, fitting this genre protagonist like a glove. His innate menace and gruff whisper of a voice are put to good use as the hangdog tough guy takes care of business in style. Watch out for Kevin Corrigan, Tobin Bell, Christopher Meloni and a brief but darkly funny cameo from Brad Dourif. Where L.A. Confidential hid it’s grit beneath a sheen of glamour, Brown’s Requiem wears it proudly on its seedy sleeve, a scrappy little cousin to Confidential, and a sturdy little noir mystery boosted by Rooker’s work.
Barry Levinson’s What Just Happened is an unfairly overlooked little Hollywood satire, a little less bombastic than his excellent Wag The Dog, but no less biting. It’s like Entourage on Zanax, a surprisingly laid back entry into an oeuvre that is usually foaming at the mouth with frenzy. Robert De Niro plays Ben, a very stressed out movie producer who is dealing with a zillion different things at once, most of which are going wrong. The character is based partly on real life Hollywood producer Art Linson, and his book. Ben has a lead actor (Bruce Willis playing Bruce Willis) who refuses to shave his bushy beard for a film. Anyone who remembers the film The Edge with Alec Baldwin and how big his beard was in that, well, that’s where the idea came from. That’s just a taste of how many weird things that both Hollywood and his personal life toss at Ben. He’s also in post production on a Sean Penn film (Penn also plays himself) with a very stubborn and flamboyant director named Jeremy (Michael Wincott) who refuses to cut the film in accordance with the studio’s wishes (here manifested by an icy Catherine Keener). Ben’s daughter (a weepy Kristen Stewart) is going through personal crisis, he’s also got a bitter rivalry with an obnoxious writer (Stanley Tucci) and has to babysit an anxiety ridden agent (John Turturro). It’s all a lot for him to handle and we begin to see the turmoil start to boil under Ben’s cool exterior. The cast is beyond ridiculous, with additional work from Moon Bloodgood, Peter Jacobson, Lily Rabe and Robin Wright as Ben’s estranged wife. Standouts include Michael Wincott who is a comic gem and gives the film it’s life with his pissy, enraged and altogether charming performance. Willis is also priceless as he ruthlessly parodies himself to the hilt. It’s slight, it’s never too much and is probably a bit too laid back for its own good, but I had a lot of fun with it, and it’s always cool to see meta movies about the inner workings of Hollywood.