Tag Archives: Elizabeth McGovern

A Shock to the System (1990, Jan Egleson)

A Shock to the System is almost a success. It’s real close. It has all the right pieces, it just doesn’t have enough time at the end to put them away in their new arrangement. Everything’s in disarray because the film changes into a thriller—with a different protagonist—for a while in the third act. After spending the entire movie with Michael Caine, who even narrates, the film temporarily changes perspective to his love interest, Elizabeth McGovern. It’s only for a few minutes—System runs just under ninety so everything’s just for a few minutes—but it jostles the film enough it can’t pull off a perfunctory finish. And it needs a perfunctory finish because budget. System’s got shoot in New York City with good actors but not blow up expensive things budget.

Caine is a Wall Street yuppie who commutes from Connecticut. The movie starts with him about to get a big promotion; boss John McMartin is expecting to lose his job in an imminent merger. Caine’s excited because he feels like he’s unappreciated, even though everyone who works for him thinks he’s a swell guy (including McGovern, who’s got a crush on him). Caine’s wife Swoosie Kurtz is excited because now they’ll finally have enough money for all the things she wants to buy. An implied but completely unexplored subplot is Caine marrying Kurtz for money. Even though there are hints at Caine wishing they were more affection, they never have any chemistry to suggest he married her for her money and she married him because he was going places.

So, of course Caine doesn’t get the job. Worse, one of his kiss-ass underlings (Peter Riegert) gets promoted over him. Caine leaves work early to simmer and gets into an altercation with a homeless guy on the subway platform. The homeless guy dies. And nothing bad happens to Caine.

Although the film opens with Caine getting a literal Shock, that household incident isn’t the inciting incident for anything. It’s a framing detail; the film itself is about Caine realizing he’s a sociopath and figuring out how to use it to his advantage.

The film makes a lot of hash, in the first act, out of Caine being too nice of a boss. He’s not enough of a yuppie scumbag. He doesn’t fire people. He also doesn’t… have any great ideas about his job. It’s just his turn. The only reason he gets any sympathy for not getting the promotion is because Kurtz is mean and Riegert is a weiner. One of the weirder reasons Riegert is a weiner is because he’s dating a model (Haviland Morris) who he likes dating. After the promotion, Caine and Kurtz have to go out to Riegert’s lake house and, ew, they seem to like one another. It’s a strange shortcut for the film to take.

But it’s fine because Caine’s able to carry it. See, he’s empowered now and he’s not going to put up with Riegert’s shit. There’s only so much Caine is going to take from Riegert, Kurtz, or anyone else. McGovern is one of the only bright lights in Caine’s life, even if he’s too busy being miserable with Kurtz to notice McGovern giving him the look.

Once gets around to acting on his newly found murderous instinct, he finds himself almost immediately on cop Will Patton’s radar. Caine’s not good at pretending he cares. It makes sense to the audience because Caine’s narration has made him to… the film’s version of sympathetic. More sympathetic than anyone else. Because Caine’s real good at playing to sympathies, the audience’s and McGovern’s. When he finally does show his truer nature to both, it starts the film moving towards McGovern’s stint as protagonist.

Caine’s outstanding. He’s the movie. McGovern’s got some good moments and some nice implications of deeper thoughts, but her character is pretty thin. McGovern tries to deepen it but there’s only so much she can do. Director Egleson tries to compensate for McGovern’s lack of material with some meaningful shots, but the movie’s less than ninety minutes; they’re all meaningful shots. Especially the way Egleson shoots the film. He, cinematographer Paul Goldsmith, and editors William M. Anderson and Peter C. Frank do some great work in the film. The way Egleson and Goldsmith shoot McGovern and Caine’s courtship, the way the editors cut it—it’s all superb. And probably why, once the film shifts gears, it’s never able to get back up to speed. They lose too much momentum.

Riegert’s pretty good. He resists chewing on scenery a little much, but it works to imply more depth. Probably.

Kurtz is fine. It’s not a great part and it’s not a great performance, but it’s not a bad one. It’d be nice if there were some nuance to she and Caine’s relationship, but it’s not Kurtz’s fault. Egleson and screenwriter Andrew Klavan just can’t be bothered.

Patton’s okay too. Similar situation to Kurtz.

Jenny Wright gets a nice small part as McGovern’s roommate who starts working for Caine at the start of the film as an example of him being nice, hiring McGovern’s friend. Actually, it’d make the most sense if the film were from her point of view. But anyway.

A Shock to the System has a strong performance from Caine, a good one from McGovern, some spectacular direction from Egleson, some great filmmaking, and some very questionable eighties-to-nineties music from Gary Chang. The music’s a problem. Unless Caine’s preference for smooth jazz is supposed to be a sign of his sociopathy.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jan Egleson; screenplay by Andrew Klavan, based on the novel by Simon Brett; director of photography, Paul Goldsmith; edited by William M. Anderson and Peter C. Frank; music by Gary Chang; production designer, Howard Cummings; produced by Patrick McCormick; released by Corsair Pictures.

Starring Michael Caine (Graham Marshall), Elizabeth McGovern (Stella Anderson), Peter Riegert (Robert Benham), Swoosie Kurtz (Leslie Marshall), Will Patton (Lt. Laker), John McMartin (George Brewster), Jenny Wright (Melanie O’Conner), Haviland Morris (Tara Liston), Philip Moon (Henry Park), and Barbara Baxley (Lillian).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE SECOND MARVELLOUS MICHAEL CAINE BLOGATHON HOSTED BY GILL OF REALWEEGIEMIDGET REVIEWS.


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Ordinary People (1980, Robert Redford)

Two really big things to talk about with Ordinary People. The technical filmmaking–John Bailey’s beautiful, muted photography, Jeff Kanew’s actually peerless editing, Redford’s direction in general–and then Timothy Hutton’s performance, his place in the film, Redford’s direction of Hutton in particular. I just as easily could’ve included the treatment of Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore as Hutton’s parents in that list, but Ordinary People is a lot to talk about, a lot to think about and my ambitions are realistic here.

To start–Bailey’s photography, because it has the least to do with how the film needles the viewer. It’s gentle, but always realistic. Bailey’s very careful about the depth, the reality of the locations and how the characters interact with them. When Bailey does break–for a flashback, for instance–the reality has to break a little too. In some ways, the stylized flashbacks are more realistic because they’re from a character’s perspective. The rest of the film is objectively presented, with Bailey’s gently lush photography a comfort.

Redford needs the viewer comfortable, because he wants the viewer to pay attention. To think. There are no explosive scenes in Ordinary People. There are noisy scenes, but it’s not about the noise, it’s not even about how things get noisy. The noisy scenes are about what that noise does to people. But there are maybe three or four noisy scenes in the film. The rest of the time–most of the run time–Redford and editor Kanew are priming the viewer to pay attention.

Ordinary People changes gears in the third act, widening its ambitions. What starts as Hutton’s story becomes much bigger as Hutton is able to emerge from his shell. Hutton gives an exceptional performance, but Redford directs one too. Hutton is both the subject–how characters look at him instructs the viewer how to consider him–and the viewer’s entry into the film, always simultaneously. At the same time, the film isn’t reductive. It’s not a seventeen year-old’s look at his troubled family. It’s often about a seventeen year-old looking at his troubled family, but it’s about a lot more. Screenwriter Alvin Sargent deftly moves between plot lines. The film has this simple narrative structure; Sargent and Redford set it up, trust the viewer to remember it, move on with the film. Redford wants the viewer to get it. They make it brilliantly simple.

Great performances from all the main actors (Hutton, Sutherland, Moore, Judd Hirsch as Hutton’s therapist). Hirsch has the smallest part, but his contributions are essential. Much like Bailey’s photography, Hirsch–tied entirely to one setting–provides a comfort to the viewer, a familiar. Moore has the film’s most difficult role. Sutherland has some amazing moments. Very strong supporting turn from Elizabeth McGovern as Hutton’s love interest. M. Emmet Walsh is a complete asshole as Hutton’s coach, which is a compliment.

Anyway, Ordinary People is a masterpiece.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Redford; screenplay by Alvin Sargent, based on the novel by Judith Guest; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by Jeff Kanew; produced by Ronald L. Schwary; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Timothy Hutton (Conrad), Donald Sutherland (Calvin), Mary Tyler Moore (Beth), Judd Hirsch (Berger), Elizabeth McGovern (Jeannine), Dinah Manoff (Karen), James Sikking (Ray), Fredric Lehne (Lazenby) and M. Emmet Walsh (Salan).


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The Bedroom Window (1987, Curtis Hanson)

Given The Bedroom Window was part of my VHS EP collection, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it. I do know I haven’t seen it in at least a decade and I also know this time is the first I’ve ever wondered about the source novel. The Bedroom Window is very busy; maybe director Hanson wants to distract the audience from where the movie’s going–which he really can’t since “guest star” Elizabeth McGovern gets second-billing–but maybe it’s from the novel. Maybe it’s a really long novel and Hanson, who also wrote the screenplay, had trouble adapting the pace.

But the novel’s only 200 pages. So it’s Hanson.

A good thriller, not even a great one, needs some fusion between the storytelling and the filmmaking. Hitchcockian means the way the film tells the tricky narrative. Or at least, it needs to have that definition. Because bewildered straight man in trouble isn’t Hitchcockian. It’s pedestrian. In The Bedroom Window’s case, the bewildered straight man is Steve Guttenberg. If it weren’t for Guttenberg’s rather buff physic, it might be funny having Guttenberg do a thriller. But it’s not a spoof, it’s Guttenberg trying.

He doesn’t do well. But he’s affable, surrounded by a lot of good actors, and Hanson is trying just as hard to pull of Guttenberg’s performance. Even though it’s often tedious, The Bedroom Window tries. Well, except when it comes to the composition. Hanson and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor shoot Bedroom Window in Panavision and it doesn’t need it. About the only thing the film’s got going for it visually is the Baltimore locations. Taylor’s photography is pretty flat–even though there are lots of eighties wet streets at night shots–but well-lighted. The city looks amazing and you want to see more of it. It gives Window some slack, which the film always needs.

Guttenberg’s an office guy–he has no responsibilities–who starts schtupping his boss’s wife, Isabelle Huppert in a ludicrous performance in a ludicrous role. Huppert witnesses Elizabeth McGovern getting assaulted, but Guttenberg plays witness to keep the affair a secret. This concept might have worked as late as the early sixties, but it’s just unbelievable in 1987. Hanson’s constantly trying to get away from police procedure, lawyer stuff, because he knows he’s peddling a malarky handling of it.

Instead, he introduces a subplot about Robert Schenkkan’s district attorney–trying rape cases–a complete pig. Only then, almost immediately following a big plot twist, we’re supposed to like Schenkkan again. Why make him a pig? Misdirection. Hanson is not a master. He’s not even moderately adept.

But he’s also ambitious in how responsible he wants to be; he’s trying not to make the film feel exploitative. Though one has to wonder why Huppert, given she and Guttenberg have zero chemistry, other than her willingness to disrobe. When Elizabeth McGovern finally shows up as something other than an object–which, quite frustratingly, isn’t until her second or third scene in the film–she gets a lot of good stuff to do. Even when the content is questionable, McGovern’s performance and Hanson’s handling of her performance are stellar. As much as Hanson wants to sell Steve Guttenberg as Jimmy Stewart, he wants McGovern to have a good part.

He just doesn’t know how. He’s sincere about Bedroom Window, which carries over. You want it to be better. Like the music from Michael Shrieve and Patrick Gleeson. Ninety percent of it is disposable smooth jazz. That other ten percent of it is slightly less disposable smooth jazz. But you still want to hope for it. Like the score will eventually get better. It doesn’t.

Great supporting cast–Carl Lumbly, Wallace Shawn, Frederick Coffin, Brad Greenquist, Maury Chaykin–Hanson uses them for temporary amusement. Actually, lots of people in The Bedroom Window are just “guest starring,” which also leads to it feeling like a two-night TV movie event cut down to one VHS tape.

Real strong editing from Scott Conrad. It occasionally goes bad because of Hanson’s bad ideas, but real strong otherwise. He’s better at editing the dramatic than the suspense.

The Bedroom Window is almost significant for McGovern’s performance. She’s great. But the script’s not there and Hanson’s got too many problems. Instead, it’s a curious bit of eighties popular cinema with some fantastic shots of Baltimore.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Curtis Hanson; screenplay by Hanson, based on a novel by Anne Holden; director of photography, Gil Taylor; edited by Scott Conrad; music by Michael Shrieve and Patrick Gleeson; production designer, Ron Foreman; produced by Martha De Laurentiis; released by De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.

Starring Steve Guttenberg (Terry Lambert), Elizabeth McGovern (Denise Connelly), Isabelle Huppert (Sylvia Wentworth), Paul Shenar (Collin Wentworth), Carl Lumbly (Det. Quirke), Frederick Coffin (Det. Jessup), Brad Greenquist (Carl Henderson), Robert Schenkkan (State Attorney Peters), Maury Chaykin (Pool Player) and Wallace Shawn (Henderson’s Attorney).


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Lovesick (1983, Marshall Brickman)

Lovesick is an unassuming comedy. Director Brickman will occasionally bring in frantic, sitcom-like plotting to jazz things up momentarily, but otherwise the film’s exceedingly calm and measured. It only runs ninety-some minutes; it’s gradual, without much conflict at all–in fact, when there’s conflict introduced, Dudley Moore’s protagonist will actually relieve pressure on the situation. It’s strange.

Moore’s an analyst who becomes infatuated with a patient–Elizabeth McGovern–and finds his life in upheaval. Brickman carefully layers in how the upheaval causes Moore’s self-discovery. These are little asides, never the focus of a scene or conversation. It’s very confident stuff, especially since Brickman also goes the extreme route of having Alec Guinness (as Freud’s ghost) counseling Moore about his life.

Alec Guinness as Freud, John Huston as Moore’s mentor. The film’s got excellent performances all around–Selma Diamond runs rings around Alan King, who’s also good–but Guinness and Huston give Lovesick a lot of charm.

So does McGovern, who has to become a character in a few scenes after she’s revealed as the object of Moore’s affection.

Also good in smaller parts are Ron Silver, Larry Rivers, Wallace Shawn and Anne Kerry. At times, if it weren’t Gerry Fisher’s exquisite photography and some excellent composition from Brickman, Lovesick feels like a little thing Brickman got together and worked on with his friends in their spare time.

The film’s gentle, sweet, rewarding. It’s always genial and never without charm, but gets rather good in the second half.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Marshall Brickman; director of photography, Gerry Fisher; edited by Nina Feinberg; music by Philippe Sarde; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; produced by Charles Okun; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Dudley Moore (Saul Benjamin), Elizabeth McGovern (Chloe Allen), John Huston (Larry Geller, M.D.), Alan King (Lionel Gross, M.D.), Gene Saks (Frantic Patient), Wallace Shawn (Otto Jaffe), Ron Silver (Ted Caruso), Renée Taylor (Mrs. Mondragon), Anne De Salvo (Case Interviewer), Selma Diamond (Harriet Singer, M.D.), David Strathairn (Marvin Zuckerman) and Alec Guinness (Sigmund Freud).


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