Phil on Film Index

Monday, April 20, 2020

Lockdown Viewing - April 13th to 19th

Bogus (Norman Jewison, 1996)
I was excited by the concept of Gérard Depardieu appearing out of the blue to be a child’s imaginary friend. I imagined all sorts of crazy antics – the film in my mind was entitled Drop Dead Ged – but Bogus seems bafflingly unwilling to explore any of the comic potential this film throws up. Depardieu’s Bogus is brought to life in an airplane toilet by the grief-stricken Albert (Haley Joel Osment), who is on his way to live with his late mother’s foster sister, whom he had never met. Harriet is played by Whoopi Goldberg, who wrings a few laughs out of her character’s puzzlement over this weird kid and his invisible friend suddenly living in her house, but the filmmakers seem content to have Bogus standing on the sidelines whispering words of wisdom to the boy instead of doing anything interesting or fun. He keeps telling Albert to be nicer to Harriet, to be patient with her, to give her a hug, etc. and all the life just drains out of the picture. There are a few fantasy sequences, like Bogus and Albert concocting an ice cream parlour out of thin air, but the attempts at spontaneous joviality feel even more forced than the hackneyed melodrama at the film’s heart. Bogus was written by Alvin Sargent and directed by Norman Jewison, and they push it for treacly sentimentality, losing their grip on the film completely when Harriet gains the ability to see Bogus and then – for some inexplicable reason – does an Astaire and Rogers-style dance number with him. Everything about Bogus feels, well, bogus, especially the final scene, in which Depardieu turns to the camera, ensuring us that he was off to perform more magical adventures for some unhappy souls elsewhere. Frankly, the actor looks like he’d rather be anywhere else.

The Family Jewels (Jerry Lewis, 1965) 
Your reaction to The Family Jewels will depend entirely on your reaction to Jerry Lewis. If you’re even slightly resistant to his charms, The Family Jewels will probably be close to unbearable, as he appears in seven different guises as a series of increasingly eccentric characters, but I love watching Lewis and I loved this picture. Six of the seven characters are uncles to an orphaned heiress (10 year-old Donna Butterworth), and she has to choose one of them as her legal guardian. There are echoes of Lewis’s other work in some of these creations. His clumsy photographer recalls The Nutty Professor, while his clown character recycles the one he played in 3-Ring Circus, although the darkness of this character also perhaps foreshadows The Day the Clown Cried. The Family Jewels’ plot is thin and largely irrelevant (there’s never any doubt that the kid will instead choose Willard, the family chauffer, also played by Lewis) but it does allow him to string together a series of extended skits as his various bizarre uncles each bring a different kind of chaos to the picture. An aged sea captain recalls a bomb disposal that is presented as a silent bit of slapstick; a pilot somehow conspires to get left on the runway as his plane takes off; a detective on the hunt of his kidnapped niece gets distracted by a pool hall and dazzles us with the trick shots Lewis learned from Minnesota Fats. There are also cherishable visual gags dotted throughout the film, like the way a whole row of books falls from a shelf in a perfect pattern when Lewis removes just one of them, or the deep groove he wears into the ground as he anxiously paces. Lewis’s timing and craftmanship on both sides of the camera is impeccable, and The Family Jewels frequently had me cackling on my sofa.

The Outrage (Martin Ritt, 1964)
With films like The Hustler, Sweet Bird of Youth and Hud already under his belt, Paul Newman was riding high as he approached the mid-1960s and surely had his pick of projects, so what on earth prompted him to sign on for The Outrage? I guess he was tight with Martin Ritt – this was their fifth picture together in six years – but he’s all wrong for the part of a Mexican bandit, both in the way he looks and the broad way he chooses to play the role, which verges on caricature. The Outrage is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, with Newman’s Carrasco on trial for the murder of a man (Laurence Harvey) and the rape of his wife (Claire Bloom). Watching Newman’s bandito face off against Bloom’s southern belle gets more tiresome with each flashback; Harvey spends most of these scenes gagged and tied to a tree, and he comes off best in comparison. I kept thinking that something about The Outrage felt strangely stiff and stagebound, and it was only afterwards that I discovered the screenplay was by Michael Kanin, who adapted Rashomon for the stage with his wife Fay in 1959. The Outrage does have its moments, but they tend to occur in the framing device rather than the flashbacks, which benefits from a terrific performance by Edward G. Robinson as a cheerfully cynical snake oil salesman who gets the film’s best lines: “Why, some of my best friends are corpses... they’re the only ones I can trust. Oh, sure, they stink a little but no more than a few alive ones that I know.” His turn is one of the film’s saving graces, with another being the vivid cinematography by the great James Wong Howe. His work is one of the few areas where Ritt’s film gives Kurosawa a run for his money.

Split Image (Ted Kotcheff, 1982)
Released within a few weeks of First Blood, the other 1982 collaboration between Brian Dennehy and Ted Kotcheff is an uneven but very compelling drama about a young man (Michael O’Keefe) who cuts ties with his family when he is drawn into a religious cult. Dennehy plays Danny’s father, a wealthy and flippant character suddenly rendered utterly powerless, and I thought we were being set up for a battle between him and cult leader Neil Kirklander (a malevolently grinning Peter Fonda) over the boy’s soul, but that’s not quite how it plays out. The wild card is Charles Pratt, an obsessive deprogrammer who hates Kirklander with a passion and has dedicated himself to bringing down his operation; I guess you could call him the film’s hero, except for the fact that he’s played by James Woods in one of the most hilariously scummy performances imaginable. “You know what I see college as? One big fuck farm” he tells a colleague as they wait for one of their targets to show, and he seems to take real glee in tormenting and the ex-cult kids as he beats Kirklander’s influence out of them. Woods invests Split Image with a prickly energy whenever he is on screen, but while this is a film with some great moments, it doesn’t quite come together into great film. O’Keefe’s journey from skeptical outsider to true believer feels a bit sketchy and underwritten, with the filmmakers relying too heavily on Fonda’s oily charisma to sell the cult rather than fleshing out its specifics. It’s perhaps easy to see why Split Image has slipped into obscurity, but there are some fine performances to discover here and the film is generally absorbing and unnerving, at least until the disappointingly pat ending.

We're No Angels (Neil Jordan, 1989)
We’re No Angels has a hell of a pedigree. David Mamet wrote the screenplay, Neil Jordan directed it, and it stars Robert De Niro and Sean Penn. Most people would walk into a movie boasting those names with high expectations, but fewer would expect to sit down and watch a wacky screwball caper. Something about We’re No Angels feels off from the start, and it never really finds its groove. The opening sequence in a grim 1930s prison is spectacularly staged, but the scale and darkness of the movie overwhelms the comedy. The idea of two cons disguising themselves as men of the cloth in order to escape the law is a comedy standard, but Mamet and Jordan seem more drawn to the tension and danger inherent in their repeatedly frustrated attempts to cross the border into Canada than they are in mining laughs. Penn and De Niro work hard to lift the movie, but only Penn occasionally succeeds, with an appealingly guileless performance that works particularly well when his character is forced to improvise a sermon on the spot, and he plays well with John C. Reilly, who has a funny recurring role as a young monk who is absolutely in awe of these visiting clerics, hanging on their every word as if God himself was speaking. De Niro, however, is a disaster. The role gives him so little to play he resorts to mugging like crazy, and there’s hardly a scene in the film that isn’t marred by him frantically pulling faces. Coming just a year after Midnight Run, it’s a painful lesson in what can happens when a serious actor actively tries to be funny instead of just playing the scene and letting the humour flow naturally.