Tag Archives: Craig T. Nelson

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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Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986, Brian Gibson)

There’s not much to recommend Poltergeist II: The Other Side, but it does promote family “values” while quite literally demonizing Christianity. That juxtaposing alone, however, does not make it worthwhile.

The film is the perfect example of a bad sequel. There are budget issues, plotting issues (the death of villain Julian Beck during filming couldn’t have helped) but also a strange refocusing of the characters. Somewhere in Poltergeist II there’s this compelling story of Craig T. Nelson overcoming his alcoholism to become a spiritual warrior of the Carlos Castaneda variety. Sadly, that story has no place here.

The Other Side shows exactly why good films should not be turned into franchises. Here, in order to stay relevant, the filmmakers turn JoBeth Williams into an unwilling clairvoyant, something she passed on to daughter Heather O’Rourke. But Williams has no other story. She’s appealing, but her performance isn’t particularly good. Same goes for O’Rourke, who has a lot to do. Oliver Robins, as the son, oscillates between okay and useless.

Special Native American mystical guest star Will Sampson is pretty good, at least seeming respectable. Given a much bigger part than in the first film, Zelda Rubinstein is awful. So is Geraldine Fitzgerald as Williams’s mother.

Beck is terrifying, easily the film’s best performance.

The special effects are decent, but visibly unenthusiastic. Jerry Goldsmith’s schizophrenic score–he uses both chants and synthesizers–is interesting.

It’s clear director Gibson understands what makes the first one great, but he can’t make this one acceptable.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Brian Gibson; written and produced by Michael Grais and Mark Victor; director of photography, Andrew Laszlo; edited by Thom Noble; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Ted Haworth; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring JoBeth Williams (Diane Freeling), Craig T. Nelson (Steve Freeling), Heather O’Rourke (Carol Anne Freeling), Oliver Robins (Robbie Freeling), Zelda Rubinstein (Tangina Barrons), Will Sampson (Taylor), Julian Beck (Kane), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Gramma-Jess), John P. Whitecloud (Old Indian) and Noble Craig (Vomit Creature).


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Poltergeist (1982, Tobe Hooper)

In a practical sense, one can just watch Poltergeist and be in awe of the technical qualities. Hooper’s Panavision composition and Matthew F. Leonetti’s photography alone are enough to make it a singular experience. But then there are Hooper’s additional touches–like how a scene’s establishing shot is usually the third shot in the scene, the first two being close-ups or reaction shots. Or the strobe effect. Or the eerie movement, which is probably the most famous Poltergeist visual.

But then there’s the script. Screenwriters Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor are not big on exposition. In fact, the entire familial relationship at the center of Poltergeist is mostly inferred. One of the film’s obvious “goofs” involves JoBeth Williams only being sixteen years older than daughter Dominique Dunne makes a lot more sense if one assumes Williams is her stepmother. The dialogue–and Dunne’s behavior–even suggests it. But the film is full of those discrete little moments… the filmmakers put an incredible amount of trust in the viewer.

The acting is all excellent. Dunne, in the smallest family role, probably gives the film’s best performance. After her, it’s Craig T. Nelson as the dad, then Williams. These three are absolutely fantastic.

The other kids, Heather O’Rourke and Oliver Robins, are both good.

In the supporting cast, Beatrice Straight is particularly exceptional.

While Jerry Goldsmith’s score is derivative of his other work, it ties the film together quite well.

Poltergeist is great. It’s surprisingly deep and technically magnificent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tobe Hooper; screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor, based on a story by Spielberg; director of photography, Matthew F. Leonetti; edited by Michael Kahn; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, James H. Spencer; produced by Spielberg and Frank Marshall; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Craig T. Nelson (Steve Freeling), JoBeth Williams (Diane Freeling), Heather O’Rourke (Carol Anne Freeling), Dominique Dunne (Dana Freeling), Oliver Robins (Robbie Freeling), Zelda Rubinstein (Tangina), Martin Casella (Marty), Richard Lawson (Ryan), James Karen (Mr. Teague) and Beatrice Straight (Dr. Lesh).


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The Osterman Weekend (1983, Sam Peckinpah)

Very few filmmakers have a good last film. Kubrick was incredibly lucky. Hitchcock was not. In general, directors tend to wane in their later careers–Clint Eastwood’s blossoming into such an artist aside–and, depending on their popularity and influence, they live into the era they inspired and no one wants to listen to them anymore. Orson Welles once accepted an award for Citizen Kane and told his granters he loved getting an award when he couldn’t get money to make a new film. Peckinpah’s producers on The Osterman Weekend took it away from him in editing, while Peckinpah was hospitalized no less. Still, there was nothing for Peckinpah to fix.

I’ve actually read the novel by Robert Ludlum–in eighth grade or something–and Ludlum writes big books. The weekend of the title doesn’t even start until forty minutes into the film, after a lengthy setup and a car chase. Peckinpah had lost the touch, recycling his Wild Bunch style for the chase scene. It’s still somehow effective in a few parts–the slow motion and the regular speed sound–but it’s a desperate attempt to thrill and it doesn’t work. The slow motion comes back in the end, during a fight scene between Rutger Hauer and Craig T. Nelson. Craig T. Nelson knows kung fu in The Osterman Weekend. Unbelievably, Nelson turns in the second best performance in the film too. Hauer made an excellent leading man, even if he didn’t have his accent totally smoothed out in this film.

I didn’t get interested in Osterman for Peckinpah though–his work, starting in the mid-1970s, gets pretty terrible (though The Osterman Weekend is better than Cross of Iron). I got interested because of the writer, Alan Sharp, who wrote Night Moves. The dialogue is adequate, the scenes are dull. Combined with the direction, it’s like watching a TV movie–one you can’t believe you’re still watching. However, nothing–not the script, not the sad attempt at action (woefully lacking the content Peckinpah infused to such success)–could survive the producers. The Osterman Weekend looks cheap. It looks cheap in the main house set, it looks cheap in the CIA headquarters (where poor Burt Lancaster embarrasses himself), and it looks really cheap in John Hurt’s CIA techno-van. The two clowns producing it went on to do Highlander and condemn the viewing public to Christopher Lambert.

A few scenes in Osterman did look familiar, like someone saw the film. In particular, the drive-in scene from Heat has an obvious precursor here, if only the location. I think there was another one, I just can’t remember. So people did keep watching Peckinpah, but it’s shocking how little he had to say by the end of his career.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Peckinpah; screenplay by Alan Sharp, adaptation by Ian Masters, based on the book by Robert Ludlum; director of photography, John Coquillon; edited by Edward Abroms and David Rawlins; music by Lalo Schifrin; production designer, Robb Wilson King; produced by Peter S. Davis and William N. Panzer; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Rutger Hauer (John Tanner), John Hurt (Lawrence Fassett), Craig T. Nelson (Bernard Osterman), Dennis Hopper (Richard Tremayne), Chris Sarandon (Joseph Cardone), Meg Foster (Ali Tanner), Helen Shaver (Virginia Tremayne), Cassie Yates (Betty Cardone), Sandy McPeak (Stennings), Christopher Starr (Steve Tanner) and Burt Lancaster (Maxwell Danforth).


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