Tag Archives: Albert Brooks

Private Benjamin (1980, Howard Zieff)

Quite a bit works in Private Benjamin, which makes all the creaky parts stick out more. Even though the film runs 109 minutes, a lot seems cut out. Characters just fade away, especially as the film rushes in the second half. But even lead Goldie Hawn just ends up staring in various montages–happy and sad ones–with her character development (the whole point of the movie) on pause.

Hawn’s nearly excellent–she would be with a better than director than Zieff–but still quite good as Benjamin. The first act sets Hawn up as a sympathetic, blissfully unaware Jewish-American princess caricature… though Nancy Meyers, Charles Shyers, and Harvey Miller’s script doesn’t really want to do too much commentary on that aspect. There’s one direct joke slash plot twist later, but the film’s initially just doing it to show Hawn’s screwed up life. Her father (Sam Wanamaker) is an indifferent, dismissive jerk. Mother Barbara Barrie is supportive, but in a limited way. Hawn’s love life is unfulfilling and gross. It’s depressing, not funny.

So when tragedy and contrivance land Hawn in the army, Benjamin all of a sudden finds lightness. Because as recruiting officer Harry Dean Stanton (in a gentle Harry Dean performance) puts it, it’s not like the ladies get the become killing machines in this man’s army. So it’s all sort of fun. Hawn slapsticking it through boot camp, for example. It has a number of solid laughs. It also builds up the supporting cast. There’s Eileen Brennan as Hawn’s commanding officer and nemesis. It should be a great role for Brennan. Instead, it’s a weak, often inexplicable one. The film goes out of its way to avoid giving Brennan her own material after a couple significant setups. It’s a waste of a performance.

Hawn has a pretty solid set of sidekicks in Mary Kay Place, Toni Kalem, Damita Jo Freeman, and Alston Ahern. P.J. Soles should be a sub-nemesis, instead she’s a pointless supporting player and it makes Soles grating. Hal Williams is fun as the drill sergeant.

In the second act, when Benjamin starts to be about Hawn’s character forcibly developing herself, the film hits its stride. Zieff either gets he shouldn’t dwell on it or he just doesn’t get it; his hands off approach leads to some of Hawn’s best acting in the film.

The second act also has Robert Webber as this wacky colonel with dumb nicknames (based off his own name) for everything. It’s silly and great, because Webber is straight-facing it all. Though the film ends up wasting him too.

Because eventually Hawn meets Armand Assante. And Assante is a rich, French gynecologist who speaks perfect English. He’s also Jewish. As an object of Hawn’s desire, Assante’s great. As her love interest, well, even with numerous montages, he wears out his welcome. He’s got a desperately thin part and ends up being the segue into the film rushing to bring back all its worst parts. And none of the good ones. It even scoffs at the idea of bringing back the good ones.

There’s also the weak music from Bill Conti. He plays up the military aspect, which is completely against what Sheldon Kahn’s editing is doing. The lack of rhythm drags down a lot of scenes. It’s like no one knows what anyone else wants to do with the picture.

Private Benjamin is solid situation comedy–sadly all Zieff can direct–with whiffs at greater ambitions. And Hawn’s a great lead.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Zieff; produced and written by Nancy Meyers, Charles Shyer, and Harvey Miller; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by Sheldon Kahn; music by Bill Conti; production designers, Robert F. Boyle and Jeffrey Howard; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Goldie Hawn (Pvt. Benjamin), Armand Assante (Henri Alan Tremont), Eileen Brennan (Capt. Lewis), Barbara Barrie (Harriet Benjamin), Sam Wanamaker (Teddy Benjamin), Robert Webber (Col. Thornbush), Hal Williams (Sgt. Ross), Toni Kalem (Pvt. Gianelli), Mary Kay Place (Pvt. Glass), Damita Jo Freeman (Pvt. Moe), Alston Ahern (Pvt. Soyer), P.J. Soles (Pvt. Winter), Harry Dean Stanton (1st Sgt. Ballard), Craig T. Nelson (Capt. Woodbridge), and Albert Brooks (Yale Goodman).


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Drive (2011, Nicolas Winding Refn)

It’s amazing how much mileage Drive gets out of its soundtrack–not Cliff Martinez, though he does a great Tangerine Dream impression, but the licensed songs from Kavinsky and College. They deserve opening titles billing.

Drive is an eighties L.A. crime thriller with a slight seventies sensibility and some ultra-violence. It’s unclear why director Winding Refn thought it needed ultra-violence because, after the first instance, everything else pales. He even goes too far with a later scene of Carey Mulligan discovering the violence her Romeo, Ryan Gosling, is capable of. Otherwise, Winding Refn does an excellent job. He’s aping eighties Michael Mann (Drive was better when it was called Thief and starred Jimmy Cann) along with some John Woo, not to mention Walter Hill’s The Driver.

While there are some slightly unpredictable details, Drive is utterly predictable. There’s one question to the entire film–is Gosling going to make it? He’s a precise, successful criminal who breaks the rules because of his emotions. Of course things go wrong. Of course he turns out to be tougher than John Rambo.

Since it’s not an exercise in originality, Drive‘s mostly just a good excuse to be impressed with Gosling and Albert Brooks. Ron Perlman’s great in it, but he’s playing Ron Perlman. Mulligan’s okay, though somewhat unbelievable as the wife of a dumb criminal. She’s too delicate. Bryan Cranston is utterly wasted.

But Gosling and Brooks? They’re both outstanding.

Drive‘s not bad, but Winding Refn has nothing original to say.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn; screenplay by Hossein Amini, based on the novel by James Sallis; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Matthew Newman; music by Cliff Martinez; production designer, Beth Mickle; produced by Michel Litvak, John Palermo, Marc Platt, Gigi Pritzker and Adam Siegel; released by FilmDistrict.

Starring Ryan Gosling (Driver), Carey Mulligan (Irene), Bryan Cranston (Shannon), Albert Brooks (Bernie Rose), Oscar Isaac (Standard), Christina Hendricks (Blanche), Kaden Leos (Benicio) and Ron Perlman (Nino).

Critical Care (1997, Sidney Lumet)

Critical Care opens on its main set–sets are important in Critical Care–with Helen Mirren (as a nurse) checking up on ICU patients. The ICU is a circle, Mirren rounding it by the end of the titles, returning to the station at the center, where James Spader (as a resident) naps during a thirty-six hour shift. The two have a conversation about medical school, Spader’s dating habits and mundanities. It’s a strange opening–technically superior thanks to Lumet–with the ICU an all white environment (it’s like 2001, actually). When the film moves into a world of color, Critical Care maintains the same tone–which is incredibly difficult, or should be, given Albert Brooks is in old age make-up (with Spader as his disinclined protégé). It’s slightly off. Lumet’s got a specific visual style for the film, but even taking it into account, it’s still slightly off.

And then–just before the Blow Up homage–I realized what makes Critical Care so particular. It’s the finest adaptation of a stage play where the source material is not a stage play. Lumet’s approach to the film is to present the action–in the ICU, the material outside that setting is a lot more filmic–like it’s playing out on stage. This approach doesn’t affect Lumet’s composition, which is excellent and cinematic, and I can’t even tell if it’s in Steven Schwartz’s script. But the time Lumet gives to his actors–Spader and Mirren–is stunning. They have scenes together throughout the film, but they both have their own story arcs (Spader’s being the major one) and when they reunite at the end… it’s almost like the film’s been holding its breath and no one noticed. It’s fantastic.

Lumet also makes a lot of time for Brooks, but it’d be criminal if he hadn’t. Not only is Brooks constantly hilarious–and frightening, given he’s talking about healthcare–but it’s the one time (in recent cinema) where someone playing aged works perfectly. The logic mazes–Brooks’s character suffers from short term memory losses–in the scenes are hysterical.

Spader’s got a very leading man role here and he plays it well. It’s probably the finest film performance I’ve seen him give. Mirren’s excellent as well–her scenes with Jeffrey Wright, where he doesn’t talk, are great. Wright’s scenes with Wallace Shawn, where he does talk, are also great. One of the greatest things about Critical Care is its fearlessness. The film doesn’t have a big hook at the beginning, it doesn’t have any reason to expect a lot of involvement from its viewers; it just goes ahead without concerning itself with them.

The supporting cast–Kyra Sedgwick, Anne Bancroft, Philip Bosco, especially Colm Feore–is superior.

I’ve known about this film for eleven years–I remember seeing a picture of Brooks in make-up–but I never got around to seeing it until now. Through its running time, it just gets better and better. Near the end, as the film shifted into its final stage, I worried about it forgetting itself. It doesn’t. The end has all the right ingredients, mixed wonderfully.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Lumet; screenplay by Steven Schwartz, based on the novel by Richard Dooling; director of photography, David Watkin; edited by Tom Swartwout; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; produced by Schwartz and Lumet; released by Live Entertainment.

Starring James Spader (Dr. Werner Ernst), Kyra Sedgwick (Felicia Potter), Helen Mirren (Stella), Anne Bancroft (Nun), Albert Brooks (Dr. Butz), Jeffrey Wright (Bed Two), Margo Martindale (Connie Potter), Wallace Shawn (Furnaceman), Philip Bosco (Dr. Hofstader), Colm Feore (Richard Wilson), Edward Herrmann (Robert Payne), James Lally (Poindexter) and Harvey Atkin (Judge Fatale).

Unfaithfully Yours (1984, Howard Zieff)

If I’d had to guess, I’d say remaking Preston Sturges and having it work to any degree was impossible. Unfaithfully Yours proves me wrong. Instead of doing a–no pun intended–faithful remake, this version is more geared as a Dudley Moore comedy. It’s not a stretch for Moore (though he does, eventually, get to do some great physical comedy) but he’s good, even if it is the kind of role he can sleep through. The script plots out these fantastic set pieces–the last act is spectacular, even if the denouement is a disaster–but there’s great ones throughout. There’s a dueling violins scene between Moore and Armand Assante, which is probably director Howard Zieff’s high point.

Zieff’s an indistinct director, so the script is what makes Unfaithfully Yours work. The scenes between Moore and Albert Brooks–Brooks’s character in general–are great. They made me wonder why Unfaithfully Yours is either dismissed or unknown. Moore’s character being slight never really affects the film’s quality, because of the comedic payoff in the last act, but Nastassja Kinski ruins it. She’s trying to mask her native accent as an Italian one and it doesn’t work. It’s an unpleasant mix of confusing and confounding. She gives the film’s only weak performance, but since her character–married to the older Moore–has to be believable and she never manages, it’s a damning problem.

Assante’s rather good (I never thought I’d believe him as a classical violinist) and Richard Libertini’s got some hilarious moments (Libertini has no problem trading in his Massachusetts accent for an Italian one) and the whole production has a good tone. Bill Conti’s score is playful, the New York locations look great. The scenes with Albert Brooks do look, strangely, like they’re from a different movie in terms of lighting and editing, but they help carry Unfaithfully Yours to its conclusion. The first three-quarters of the film is amusing (it survives an opening 1980s voiceover) but it’s never particularly good. The script’s got strong dialogue exchanges, a few good set pieces, but it never gives away the eventual payoff.

And for someone expecting a more direct lift of the Sturges (like me), it’s a big surprise and a nice one.

It’s just a shame it all falls apart in the last scene. Unfaithfully Yours transitions, in the last few moments, from being a comedy to being a romantic comedy (pejorative intended). It makes it less successful, but it’s still a fine movie.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Zieff; screenplay by Valerie Curtin, Barry Levinson and Robert Klane, based on a screenplay by Preston Sturges; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by Sheldon Karr; music by Bill Conti; production designer, Albert Brenner; produced by Joe Wizan and Marvin Worth; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Dudley Moore (Claude Eastman), Nastassja Kinski (Daniella Eastman), Armand Assante (Maxmillian Stein), Albert Brooks (Norman Robbins), Cassie Yates (Carla Robbins) and Richard Libertini (Giuseppe).


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