Sunburn is a Farrah Fawcett star vehicle. It’s really Charles Grodin’s movie for the most part, but it’s Farrah Fawcett’s vehicle. She can be down home, she can be glamorous, she can be faithful when playing Grodin’s fake wife (which Grodin can’t), she can be adventurous, she can be dumb, she can be smart, she can be scantily clad, she can be topless in bed but with her back turned. Because sometimes Sunburn is all about the male gaze. Sometimes it’s all about gentle comedy. Sometimes it’s bad car chases. Sometimes it’s about puppies.
In addition to Grodin and Fawcett, Art Carney rounds out the lead characters. Grodin’s an insurance investigator, Fawcett is his presumable local model fake wife (he calls an agency to hire her and it’s made clear it isn’t an escort agency), Carney is the local P.I. buddy of Grodin. Carney’s got some cred, but Sunburn is boiling over with credibility cameos. There’s Keenan Wynn, Eleanor Parker, John Hillerman. Wynn is in one scene and has like two lines. Parker doesn’t even get a close-up. She’s the widow of the case and Grodin never gets around to interviewing her. Hillerman has a couple scenes and no character. William Daniels at least has some personality.
But then there’s Joan Collins. And she’s awesome. She’s got the promiscuous, unhappy older rich married lady part. “She must be forty!” Fawcett tells Grodin at one point, hoping to dissuade his interest without appearing jealous. Because Sunburn is nothing if not a product of its time. Three screenwriters–James Booth, Stephen Oliver, producer John Daly–and the best acted moments in the film are when Grodin and Carney are mugging it for the camera. Seriously. Carney sort of assumes the space in the film Collins does in the first act or so. It’s unfortunate. Collins is a lot more fun. Carney is cute, but it’s a nothing part. Collins has a nothing part and goes wild with it.
Shame Sarafian can’t direct it. He can’t direct any of it. He goes from mediocre to bad to worse. Geoffrey Foot’s editing is awful, but it’s obviously a lack of available footage. Sarafian can’t figure out how to direct any of it. Not interiors, especially not exteriors, not his actors, not action, nothing. In the second half, once the investigation is going full steam, there’s almost some attempts at style, but Foot’s editing ruins it.
Álex Phillips Jr.’s photography is solid. Acapulco looks nice. John Cameron’s poppy score is preferable to the top 40’s soundtrack, which actually is part of the story–Fawcett is always playing cassettes on her portable player.
Grodin’s occasionally got moments. Not many, not great ones, but some. He’s able to survive Sunburn. He’s doing his thing, he’s doing it turned up to eleven, and he’s able to get through.
As for Fawcett, after a slightly promising start, she gets a terrible arc for a star vehicle and there’s only so much her likability can get through. The film lays on a lot of backstory to get sympathy, along with a clumsiness subplot it immediately drops, but it’s all show. There aren’t any real scenes between her and Grodin, just exposition–which is initially fine because of their awkward bantering–and when she makes her second act transition to intrepid, scantily clad adventurer, there’s just no support for it. Sunburn stops pretending it’s going to give Fawcett anything to do.
The cast of Sunburn is strong enough to do this thing. It’s a noir spoof, or should be. Sarafian can’t do it, the script can’t do it. The actors could. Collins sort of does.
Oh, and the non-credibility cameo stars. Robin Clarke, Joan Goodfellow, Jack Kruschen, Alejandro Rey. Alejandro Rey is awesome. Robin Clarke tries really, really, really, really, really hard. And he sucks. Goodfellow’s bad but likable. Kruschen needed to be the best credibility cameo. Sunburn’s Mr. Big needs to be someone formidable, because there is actual danger.
So, an interesting film to dissect given its motives, but it’s dramatically inert due to technical incompetence.
Directed by Richard C. Sarafian; screenplay by James Booth, John Daly, and Stephen Oliver, based on a novel by Stanley Ellin; director of photography, Álex Phillips Jr.; edited by Geoffrey Foot; music by John Cameron; production designer, Ted Tester; produced by Daly and Gerald Green; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Farrah Fawcett (Ellie), Charles Grodin (Jake), Art Carney (Al), Joan Collins (Nera), Alejandro Rey (Fons), Robin Clarke (Karl), Joan Goodfellow (Joanna), Eleanor Parker (Mrs. Thoren), John Hillerman (Webb), William Daniels (Crawford), Keenan Wynn (Mark Elmes), Jack Kruschen (Gela), and Seymour Cassel (Dobbs).
It’d be easily to blame Paris Blues’s lack of success on the screenplay. With three credited screenwriters and another with the adaptation, there’s literally not enough going on the film to keep it going for the ninety-eight minute runtime. There’s filler, whether it’s a jazz number or a scenic Paris walk, but there’s not enough story. There’s not enough character or there’s not enough story. But director Ritt needs to get some of the blame as well. He’s got enthusiasm, but he’s strangely inert when it comes to medium shots.
Here’s the story–Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll are friends vacationing in Paris from the United States. They meet Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman, who are jazz musician ex-patriates. They pair off, Woodward and Newman, Carroll and Poitier, and they all fall in love. Except Poitier and Newman don’t want to leave Paris. Poitier because it sucks to be a black man in the United States while it’s pretty darn cool in Paris; Newman because… he’s a troubled artist. Or he wants to be a troubled artist. He’s a great trombone player, but he’s not a troubled artist. He’s moody because he’s not.
Newman and Woodward’s romance and its problems are mostly just that moodiness. Newman has a bad day, is crappy to Woodward, who’s crazy about him and wants to dote on him. Meanwhile, Poitier and Carroll are having this great philosophical debate, with their romance taking a back burner to their arguments about Poitier’s refusal to participate in the American Civil Rights movement. Sure, the script never goes too far with their arguments and usually just ends a scene–Woodward and Carroll spend most of their time acquiescing to their men’s mood swings–but it’s something. Carroll and Poitier are playing characters. Newman’s a caricature. Woodward’s stuck pretending to be one, just because the script doesn’t give Newman anything more.
Oh, wait. It gives him Serge Reggiani’s cocaine problem. Newman’s trying to keep him clean because deep down he’s a good guy who cares.
There’s occasionally wonderful direction from Ritt–usually just composition, though Carroll’s performance in the third act, basically just watching Woodward and Newman, is fantastic. It’s a slight, because she should have had more to do, but she’s still developing her character. Everyone else has given up by that time. But Ritt loves trying to do the “real” Paris, cutting between sets and location, with the sets often fantastical but grounded thanks to Christian Matras’s black and white photography.
Weak editing from Roger Dwyre–thanks to Ritt’s messy medium shots and general lack of coverage–doesn’t help things. The Duke Ellington score does help things, however. And it’s awesome to see Louis Armstrong cameo as the whole package artist who Newman admires. Shame there’s not enough on their relationship. Or Newman and Poitier’s. Or Newman and Woodward’s. Or Woodward and Carroll’s. Or Carroll and Poitier’s. About the only relationship getting the appropriate attention is Newman and his French lover, played by Barbara Laage. But even she ends up just harboring slightly veiled hostility towards Woodward instead of actual scenes.
Messy, messy script.
Carroll’s great. Poitier’s great. Newman and Woodward are good, not great. Their material’s too thin to be great. Armstrong’s more cute than good. He’s having a blast acting. Reggiani’s good. Laage’s good. The problem’s not the acting. It’s the script, then Ritt, then the editing. Then, I don’t know, the rear screen projection.
Directed by Martin Ritt; screenplay by Jack Sher, Irene Kamp, and Walter Bernstein, adaptation by Lulla Rosenfeld, based on the novel by Harold Flender; director of photography, Christian Matras; edited by Roger Dwyre; music by Duke Ellington; produced by Sam Shaw; released by United Artists.
Starring Paul Newman (Ram Bowen), Sidney Poitier (Eddie Cook), Joanne Woodward (Lillian), Diahann Carroll (Connie), Serge Reggiani (Michel Devigne), Barbara Laage (Marie), and Louis Armstrong (Wild Man Moore).
In the four phases of John Carpenter’s career, the final one–starting in 1992 and going on eighteen years–contains almost forty percent of his theatrical output. This final period is almost an afterthought’s afterthought. While Sandy King produces most of the films, Gary Kibbe photographs most of them, and Peter Jason has a part in most of them, the films are not defined by Carpenter’s collaborations but by their lack of success, creatively, critically, and commercially. It’s a somewhat cynical way to classify these nine films, but not an inaccurate one. Nothing Carpenter does works, regardless of cast, regardless of budget. He’s no longer creating or recreating genres, he’s firmly–and often disinterestedly–in established ones. His closest thing to a success from the last half of his career is just a return to his early standards, only half as good.
Given 1992’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man kicks things off, I suppose Carpenter’s final phase could be a lot worse because Memoirs–four years after Carpenter’s last film, They Live–threatens an already asleep at the wheel John Carpenter. Memoirs is the first Hollywood “Invisible Man” with CGI, it’s an attempt at (another) revitalization of Chevy Chase’s career, and it’s the return of John Carpenter. It’s also one of the least “John Carpenter” John Carpenter films. He’s doing a studio picture without his regular supporting cast, without his regular crew (though he did previously work with editor Marion Rothman on Starman and Christine); it’s very different John Carpenter film.
It’s also an unfortunate John Carpenter film. The script is weak and Carpenter is checked out. It’s like he knows it’s not going well. The CGI’s good, anyway, but it’s fairly clear Carpenter hasn’t got any more a handle on it than he does the rest of the film. There’s a distressing lack of personality when it comes to the production, except maybe in Carpenter’s indifference.
Memoirs of an Invisible Man was a fairly big box office bomb, but it’s not like anyone blamed Carpenter exactly. You don’t blame the directors for bad Chevy Chase movies. They’re not the problem. Even when they’re bad, they’re not the problem. Since its release, Memoirs has not gotten a better reputation or a discovery. There’s nothing to discover; at least it’s available widescreen now, so you can see the Panavision, but you shouldn’t because there’s no reason to see the movie.
Carpenter’s next film, In the Mouth of Madness, stars Sam Neill in the lead. Neill was the villain in Memoirs, promoted here to an insurance investigator who has to try to stop a Stephen King wannabe from ending the world. It’s made more difficult because the entire world is going crazy from reading the author’s books. Violence and chaos ensues. It’s New Line–written by studio exec Michael De Luca no less–so some occasional gore. The film does bring back a bit of Carpenter “flavor,” with Peter Jason in a cameo, Sandy King producing (she worked on Starman through They Live), and Gary B. Kibbe on photography.
Mouth of Madness has a lot of varied fans. I’m not one of them. The Maltin guide, at least at the time, described it as (partially) Carpenter’s “best work as a director” or something to that effect, which is a ludicrously absurd (and patently wrong) claim. The acting is terrible–Neill and leading lady Julie Carmen in particular. It’s got a bad script, the production isn’t good, Kibbe’s photography is bad. Some of the editing does work out. Otherwise, it’s a too short, unfocused slog.
Of all Carpenter’s post-They Live films, which is actually almost half his career, In the Mouth of Madness easily gets the most regard. Still, it’s never had much curation on home video; solid home video releases always encourage Carpenter discovery. But I still think it’d be too much of a slog to catch on. Neill’s really lame.
Squinting at Carpenter’s remake of Village of the Damned, one can almost pretend there’s a parallel to The Thing. It’s a Universal release, it’s a remake, it’s… no, it’s just those two elements. It’s Carpenter’s only other remake and has his most “all-star” eighties genre cast, with Superman Christopher Reeve, Star Trek Kirstie Alley, and Star Wars Mark Hamill, along with Michael Paré, Linda Kozlowski, and Meredith Salenger. It’s like the perfect cast for a movie in the HBO Guide from 1987. Unfortunately, it’s from 1995 (the same year Madness got a domestic theatrical release, those two films the only Carpenter pictures from the same year–features at least). Carpenter brings back some familiar players–Peter Jason, of course, and George ‘Buck’ Flower–and crew–producer King, cinematographer Kibbe, editor Edward A. Warschilka. Village of the Damned sort of kicks off a sub-period for Carpenter, one where he’s no longer casting unappreciated character actors and leads, but trying to tap into something retro. Sort of. It might just be a signal of what kind of Carpenter films are to come.
And those films, like Village of the Damned, are going to be pretty lame. I even remember when Village of the Damned came out in the theater and I wouldn’t walk six blocks to see it. I just couldn’t subject myself to another lame Carpenter. It’s got a weak script, it’s utterly lacking in terms of Carpenter’s interest. He’s done confined towns successfully before (Halloween), even in Northern California (The Fog), but he doesn’t do anything to make it work in Damned. But Carpenter also hasn’t got any idea what to do with the “monsters” in the film. Why remake Village of the Damned if the damned kids aren’t going to be scary? Again, there’s some gore, but not to any great effect.
Village of the Damned had a decent Universal LaserDisc release–which I also couldn’t bring myself to purchase back in the nineties because the movie’s crap–and a late DVD release, but has since had a Blu-Ray release with some kinds of special features. Not enough to make it worth a look (Carpenter doesn’t contribute an audio commentary); it’s another sore thumb in Carpenter’s nineties bevy of sore thumbs. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of anyone liking it.
However, while the nineties didn’t bring much in the way of good John Carpenter, the decade did do something to (temporarily) resurrect Kurt Russell’s stardom and he utilized it to get Escape from L.A. made. Released fifteen years after Escape from New York, Russell’s the only returning actor, though the film does finally reteam Carpenter with Debra Hill. She and Russell produce; she, Russell, and Carpenter write. Kibbe’s back on photography, Warschilka on edits. The film also reunites Carpenter with production designer Lawrence G. Paull, who did Memoirs (though one assumes his Blade Runner experience came more in handy than that one). And Peter Jason’s back, of course.
It’s a film with a lot of familiar actors–from standards like Cliff Robertson and Stacy Keach to trendier ones like Pam Grier, Bruce Campbell, and Steve Buscemi (as Russell’s sidekick)–and some solid performances, but it doesn’t work out. If his nineties output showcases anything about Carpenter, it’s his inability to work with CGI. Escape from L.A. relies heavily on it to terrible result. And Paull’s production design turns out pretty lame. I was a moderate fan when it came out–as a teenager–but I was hopefully just hopped up on “Starlog” press about it.
If anything, Escape from L.A. starts Carpenter’s final phase of his nineties work, where he gets a bit of a pass. Unlike almost every other Carpenter film, Escape has never had anything approaching a special edition. Russell’s star power got a grateful studio–Paramount–to make the film, but after it flopped (and helped knock Russell’s career back down), it’s not like they were going to put anything into special features. The film’s since been released on Blu-Ray (from Warner, through their Paramount catalog deal), but still without special features. Presumably there’s nothing anyone wants to say about it; though people do watch it. There are some Carpenter films from the nineties no one watches (Memoirs of an Invisible Man, for instance).
And so, Vampires, Carpenter’s last film of the nineties, gives him a perfect post-Kurt Russell lead in James Woods and a strong supporting cast. Unfortunately, most of that strong supporting cast gets killed off too soon and it’s not like Woods has a good face-off with lead vampire Thomas Ian Griffith. The film’s got a high concept–the Vatican employs a band of vampire hunters, led by Woods, and they get in trouble. That trouble involves combining a road movie with a star-crossed romance (not even for Woods, but Daniel Baldwin and Sheryl Lee). There’s comic relief too, albeit entirely thanks to Woods’s yelling. Carpenter’s nineties crew stable is present–King, Kibbe, and Warschilka; but… the film’s distressingly without a Peter Jason appearance.
Before it came out, I was waiting what seemed like forever for Vampires to get picked up for domestic release. Columbia eventually picked it up–Carpenter’s first Columbia Pictures release since Starman in the eighties–and it’s not a terrible film. I mean, it’s boring, dramatically inert, entirely phoned in creatively by Carpenter, but it’s watchable. It’s also maybe the only Gary B. Kibbe photography to impress me. He does a lot better with the New Mexico location shooting than one would think.
The film doesn’t have much of a reputation, but it does have enthusiasts. Again, it’s James Woods in a John Carpenter movie called Vampires. You get what you paid for (and not a thing more).
After five films playing with different genres (and sub-genres), in 2001, Carpenter went as back to basics as he could, sort of remaking Assault on Precinct 13, only on Mars with zombies–or, more accurately, Ghosts of Mars. Even with a limited budget, it had the biggest mainstream, “name” cast for a Carpenter film in years. Leads Natasha Henstridge and Ice Cube were at (or near) the tops of their careers and showy co-star Jason Statham was about to be on his way up. Pam Grier and Robert Carradine are back from Escape from L.A.. Peter Jason returns. Kibbe and King are back, with Paul C. Warschilka (Edward’s son) handling the edits. Carpenter even co-writes (with Larry Sulkis), which goes a lot better than the L.A. script, even with less budget.
I’ve always had something of a soft spot for the film, which I saw reluctantly in the theater; Carpenter’s not reinventing the wheel with the handling of the special effects, but at least he’s trying. There’s a mix of miniature and CGI, with the CGI nicely blending in the miniatures; Carpenter knows how to make this film. His cast isn’t the best in terms of, you know, acting, but they’re all eager. Unfortunately, a lot of the editing implies shortcuts–whether actual or just perceived–and Warschilka, fils isn’t particularly subtle with his cuts. Still, it works out far better than expected. Carpenter’s got ideas, context, and momentum, something his nineties films otherwise severely lack.
Ghosts of Mars, despite being somewhat well-received and having a number of casual fans, has never garnered much more attention. It doesn’t really deserve much more, but it does deserve some. It’s workman, but gloriously so. I should note some Carpenter fans really can’t stand it–I spent years trying to get it on the “Alan Smithee Podcast” schedule but my co-host steadfastly refused.
Following Ghosts of Mars, it was another nine years until Carpenter’s next feature. The Ward is Carpenter’s only ghost story–and his only period piece (the film’s set in the mid-sixties)–and his only eighty-five percent female cast. It takes place in a women’s mental hospital, features no Carpenter regulars in the cast or on the crew. It’s just him (and some of his regular effects crew).
It’s a disappointing film, no doubt, but not an entirely worthless one. There’s some bad acting and some okay acting. The script’s weak. The lead (Amber Heard) is one of the bad performances, which never helps. But there are twists and turns, even if Carpenter’s not really good at this kind of film. He just doesn’t care enough.
The Ward has become an footnote in Carpenter’s filmography; maybe it never was anything more than a footnote in it. I’m fairly certain I’ve never talked to anyone else who’s even seen it. The Ward’s biggest impact is–since its release–there hasn’t been much clamoring for Carpenter to return to the director’s seat.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve wanted John Carpenter to stage a great comeback. The strange thing about these seven films is any of them could have been a critical comeback for Carpenter. He could’ve created a special effects driven comedy genre, he could’ve done super-literate gore, he could’ve done moderately budgeted, moderately successful genre remakes, he could’ve made an Escape from L.A. so awesome Escape from Earth got greenlit before the first Sunday box office was in, he could’ve started a series of awesome collaborations with James Woods, he could’ve done sci-fi Westerns on a budget, he could’ve done great twenty-first century low budget, CG-enhanced horror. But he didn’t do any of those things. It just didn’t work out. It sucks. But it didn’t work out.
What has worked out is the preservation and presentation of Carpenter’s films on Blu-Ray, usually thanks to Shout! Factory. And it’s not like Carpenter isn’t finally interested in doing something; it’s just music, not movies. At least not directing them. Maybe it’ll be a good thing.
It can’t get much worse than Memoirs of an Invisible Man, after all.
Newlyweds is an exceptional disappointment. Not really because of the concept–upper upper middle class New Yorker whining–or the execution–Burns has his actors speak into the camera, the characters giving interviews–but because it’s always shaking and Burns, as writer and director, always takes the worse path. Newlyweds is a what happens, at least as far as Burns’s script, when you make bad choices. Every single time.
The film opens with titular Newlyweds Burns and Caitlin FitzGerald out to brunch with her harpy sister, Marsha Dietlein, and her sister’s miserable, sexually frustrated (all because of Dietlein) husband, Max Baker. Burns goes out of his way to make Baker as gross as possible, and Dietlein as mean possible. The audience is supposed to be annoyed with Baker’s whining, but they’re supposed to hate Dietlein. She’s such a prude she doesn’t want to listen to Burns’s comic retellings of he and FitzGerald’s problematic sex life (it’s all FitzGerald’s fault, of course).
No slut shaming though, because they’re prudes. All the slut shaming is for Kerry Bishé, who shows up immediately following the introduction, as Burns’s long lost little half sister. Burns, writing himself possibly the shallowest role in the film–he really uses those into camera interviews to sidestep narrative responsibility–and Bishé had a bad dad, which has nothing to do with the film. It’s just there for immediate sympathy (not for Bishé, because she’s always being slut shamed, but for Burns). Bishé’s exceptionally traumatic visit all gets to serve to make Burns into an even better guy. Bishé’s shit out of luck.
Along the way, Baker hooks up with a twenty-three year-old girl (Daniella Pineda), Bishé hooks up with FitzGerald’s ex-husband (Dara Coleman), and chaos ensues. But it does give Burns the chance to write FitzGerald as a harpy in training and himself as a male savior. A sensitive male savior to some degree, but not much of one.
The worst thing is how much FitzGerald and Bishé appear willing to try to make this movie work, Bishé especially. And her performance is a mess. Burns and editor Janet Gaynor cut magic with every other actor in the film–Burns berating Baker is legitimately hilarious, regardless of Burns’s irresponsibility as a writer, and the walking shots (everyone basically walks from scene to scene Newlyweds, in William Rexer’s nicely lighted Manhattan) have great cuts–but Bishé’s editing is awful. Once the script gets around to revealing all her secrets, it’s like the editing is designed to make the audience sympathize less and less.
But, to some degree, everyone’s pretty good. Dietlein has a terrible, shameful part, but she plays the hell out of it. Burns has to double down on her being awful because otherwise it means he’s got the film wrong. And he does have it wrong. FitzGerald’s good, Coleman’s kind of great, Baker’s a cartoon (as opposed to everyone else’s caricatures). Even Burns, as an actor, is really pretty good. He’s mugging a little, but the rest of his cast isn’t, which provides an interesting contrast.
He just can’t seem to figure out how to direct his script, because it’s a bad script. He can make the movie–the actors work, Rexer and Gaynor are great, P.T. Walkey’s music is solid–but he can’t direct this script. There’s no relationships. Burns intentionally starts the film with these characters having no apparent foundation.
I wish Newlyweds were more pedestrian, because then it wouldn’t be such a disappointment. Burns really should’ve worked a little bit harder on the writing, because everything else is there.
I mean, if he’d actually been able to sell Baker as a legitimate character… the sky’s the limit. Though he probably wouldn’t have been able to sell him wearing a golf cap–Burns, not Baker–the whole movie. Did Burns have a golf cap company he was promoting or something?
Written and directed by Edward Burns; director of photography, William Rexer; edited by Janet Gaynor; music by P.T. Walkley; produced by Aaron Lubin, Burns, and Rexer; released by Tribeca Film.
Starring Edward Burns (Buzzy), Caitlin FitzGerald (Katie), Kerry Bishé (Linda), Marsha Dietlein (Marsha), Max Baker (Max), Dara Coleman (Dara), Daniella Pineda (Vanessa), and Johnny Solo (Miles).