March 12th, 2014

LEGENDS OF THE SILVER SCREEN: ALEC BALDWIN

Alec Baldwin has had a terrific and varied career. He showed his comic chops off in Beetlejuice, flexed his leading man muscles in The Hunt for Red October, and showcased his unparalleled screen presence in Glengarry Glen Ross. Today, we’ll take a look at three of Baldwin’s films; two of which just so happen to be a couple of The Greatest Movies in the History of the Human Race.

First up is…

THE GREATEST MOVIES IN THE HISTORY OF THE HUMAN RACE: MIAMI BLUES (1990) ****

From the opening chords of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”, to the final frame, George Armitage’s Miami Blues casts a spell on you. This is the kind of movie that will stay with you long after the credits roll. It is a comic masterpiece of sustaining a consistently darkly humorous tone without it seeming over the top or (even worse) too-cool-for-school. This is the kind of tone Tarantino mastered early on in his career and the Coen Brothers nail every couple of movies or so.

The film was based on Charles Willeford’s novel of the same name. The book is one of my all-time favorites. And the film is every bit its equal. There is one big complication missing from the novel, but since the movie brings Willeford’s colorful characters so beautifully and effortlessly to life, it’s easy to forgive.

Habitual thief Freddy Frenger Jr., AKA: Junior (Alec Baldwin) gets out of prison and heads to Miami. While leaving the airport he is confronted by an annoying Hare Krishna and breaks his finger. He dies of shock and detective Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward) investigates. Freddy spends the day cozying up with a hooker named Susie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and he instantly proposes to her. Hoke barges in on their bliss with his investigation and even invites himself to dinner. He needles Junior at dinner, and he retaliates by sneaking into Hoke’s room and pistol whipping him. Junior steals his badge and then uses it to commit various crimes. He also steals Hoke’s false teeth, which gives Hoke an added incentive to find him.

Baldwin is at his best here (his cameo in Glengarry Glen Ross notwithstanding). He makes Junior a legitimate threat, but also an extremely likeable character. Sure, he’s a complete sociopath, but he’s a lot of fun to watch. His love for Susie is genuine, even if he is really incapable of showing it. (The closest he comes is eating virtually any meal she puts on the table.) And the demented twinkle he has in his eye is positively infectious. Once Junior steals Hoke’s badge and starts playing his own twisted version of Cops n’ Robbers, you’re having as much fun as he is.

Junior is a fascinating character. Whether he’s breaking the law (he helps Susie write a haiku for her English class while stealing from the neighbors) or upholding it (he shoots a guy committing a robbery and says, “I fired a warning shot and it hit you!”), he’s always doing weird, little oddballs things that endear himself to the audience. The scene we really bond with Junior comes when he’s counting his money and speaking in a Brazilian accent. (“How much is that speedboat, man?”) Even though he’s a psycho, we care about him and are rooting for him and Susie. And when the shit really hits the fan for him, it’s painful to watch.

Ward is equally fun as Hoke. If you’ve read the novel, you know that Fred Ward as Hoke Moseley is a case of perfect casting if there ever was one. (Although if they ever make subsequent films from the book’s sequels, I humbly suggest Walton Goggins playing Hoke.) He’s a loveable old fart who mooches beer off murder suspects and pesters their loved ones for pork chop recipes. It’s kind of like The Fugitive where the pursuer is as much fun to watch as the quarry.

Armitage shows restraint in the scenes of Junior’s homicidal mischief. In lesser hands, these scenes could’ve veered into high camp. But he keeps Junior’s unpredictability a real factor in every scene. I especially liked the scene where he walks up to a cashier brandishing an Uzi. (I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the punchline.) Sometimes when he’s flashing his badge, he actually does some good. (He even solves some of Hoke’s old cases.) Sometimes he goes overboard and kills people.

Armitage balances the violence and humor expertly. He treats the scenes of violence in a matter of fact manner, which shows the true consequences of Junior’s actions. Consider the scene where Junior foils a convenience store robbery (armed only with a jar of spaghetti sauce) and gets ran over by the perp. Or the ensuing scene where Susie has to sew Junior’s eyebrow back on. Or his run-in with a machete-wielding pawn shop owner. Armitage isn’t winking at the camera. These are very real and dangerous situations, and yet they still get a laugh because of Junior’s outlandish, unpredictable behavior.

Miami Blues was produced by Jonathan Demme (who Armitage worked with during their Roger Corman days). And in some ways, it feels like the end of an unofficial trilogy Demme began with Something Wild and Married to the Mob. While I love both of those films a lot, I find Miami Blues to have much more replay value than either of those minor classics.

The film is also filled with some great one-liners. There are some lines that I have appropriated and use to this very day like: “Shit happens when you party naked” and “You got it all, man. Dog biscuits too!” If that isn’t the true sign of Miami Blues being one of the Greatest Movies in the History of the Human Race, I don’t know what is.

Our next Baldwin flick is…

THE GREATEST MOVIES IN THE HISTORY OF THE HUMAN RACE: THE GETAWAY (1994) ****

Doc (Alec Baldwin) is a thief rotting away in a Mexican prison. His wife (Kim Basinger) makes a deal with a slimy kingpin named Benyon (James Woods) to have him released. The catch is, Doc has to perform a daring robbery. Things go south when Doc’s associate Rudy (Michael Madsen) tries to double-cross him. Of course, Doc’s relationship with his wife becomes strained when he realizes she had to sleep with Benyon in order to get him out of jail. As Doc and his wife try to make off with the money, they are not only pursued by Benyon’s associates, but also a wounded and vindictive Rudy as well.

Remakes rarely exceed their original inspirations, especially those that are more or less shot-for-shot copies of the original. The original version of The Getaway, starring Steve McQueen is a serviceable enough Sam Peckinpah flick. But for me, Roger Donaldson’s 1994 remake is a far superior film. Why? I don’t even know if I could tell you for sure. Some scenes are almost exact replicas of the original, containing the same exact dialogue in some instances.

I guess it all comes down to casting.

Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger were a hot item when they made the film. But then again, so were Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw when they starred in the original. But while McQueen and McGraw had very little onscreen chemistry together, Baldwin and Basinger smolder. Here, you completely buy their aggressive love-hate relationship; a relationship that was rather clunky in the original. Their volatile (and very public) off screen relationship translates very well on screen, and when they are at each other’s throats, it feels very real. The scene where they repeatedly slap each other in the face is hard to watch, but perfectly captures their characters’ relationship.

On the other side of the coin, when they do show affection for one another, it also feels absolutely genuine. Their love scenes in particular, are quite steamy (this was made in the post-Basic Instinct years when nearly every R rated thriller had to have an “unrated” sex scene). And I loved their scene alongside the great Richard Farnsworth late in the game.

Michael Madsen and Jennifer Tilly excel in the roles originated by Al Lettieri and Sally Strothers. With his wild red mullet flowing every which way, Madsen oozes slimy coldblooded menace in all of his scenes as the sleazy double-crossing Rudy. In a career full of memorable tough guy performances, this is one of his best. He also gets lots of great lines in this. I love the scene where he shoots Philip Seymour Hoffman and kicks him out of a speeding car and says, “See ya!”

And Tilly is a lot of fun to watch as the slinky veterinarian assistant who loves the thrill of the outlaw life (not to mention cuckolding her husband). The scenes of she and Madsen fooling around with each other are pretty great. I liked the scene of them throwing chicken at each other and the scenes where they’re clowning around with condoms. These scenes give the flick a different flavor than many of its peers. It’s enough to make you wish they had their own spin-off movie.

James Woods is also on hand as the primary villain. He isn’t given a whole lot of screen time, but he makes the most of it; essaying one of his best villain roles of the ‘90s. And David Morse is excellent as his slimy right hand man. I love the scene where he pats down Basinger and she says spitefully, “I bet that made your day” and he quips, “My morning, anyway!”

Seriously, if you are a fan of Baldwin, Madsen, Woods, or Morse (or seeing Basinger in various states of undress), you definitely need to check this out ASAP.

As good as the performances are, it’s Donaldson’s crisp direction that is the glue that keeps everything together. I’m a sucker for a good caper movie and the dog track robbery scene is a beaut. There’s also a great sequence involving a thief stealing the money from Basinger in a train station, and the hotel shootout finale is pretty stellar. Donaldson gives the film a glossy sheen and the assured camerawork keeps the action sequences popping. His restrained use of slow motion works to the film’s advantage as some of the shootouts are quite beautiful in terms of composition. He’s done a lot of solid work throughout his career (No Way Out, The Bounty, Cocktail, etc.), but for my money, The Getaway is still his best.

The flick also gets bonus points because everyone drinks Tecate beer.

Madsen and Donaldson reteamed for another classic, Species the very next year.

And our final Baldwin movie is…

ALONG CAME POLLY (2004) ** ½

Ben Stiller gets married to hottie Debra Messing and they go to the islands on their honeymoon. On the first day of marriage, she runs off with a naked scuba instructor (Stiller’s Mystery Men co-star, Hank Azaria). He comes home with his tail between his legs and tries to move on with his life. One night, Ben meets up with his old grade school friend (Jennifer Aniston) and musters up the courage to ask her out. Since Stiller is an insurance agent who assesses risks for a living, he thinks they are pretty much doomed from the start. Eventually, he learns not to be so much of a goddamn worrywart and falls in love with her.

Written and directed by John (I Love You Man) Hamburg, Along Came Polly fluctuates from being your standard romantic comedy and a grossout one. There’s a scene where Stiller’s playing basketball with a hairy, sweaty guy and he gets hit with a face full of his hairy, sweaty gut (in slow motion, no less). Then there’s the scene where he eats Moroccan food and takes a big shit that floods Aniston’s bathroom. There’s also some unfunny business involving a nearsighted ferret too. All of this is sort of amusing, but not much of it is laugh out loud funny.

Stiller is yet again playing one of his ne’er-do-well leading man roles. I prefer seeing him playing crazier characters like Zoolander, Dodgeball, and the aforementioned Mystery Men. I guess he’s got to pay the rent somehow. He isn’t bad though, but like the film itself; he seems to be going through the motions. Aniston is pretty good and she has a reasonable amount of chemistry with Stiller.

It’s the supporting cast that steals the show though. After his leading man status started to wane, Alec Baldwin found new life playing colorful supporting characters. He’s pretty funny in this playing Stiller’s gruff boss. Baldwin’s particularly good in the scene at a urinal where he’s obviously never heard of the term “personal space”. He isn’t onscreen much, but he does making a lasting impression.

Baldwin’s co-star from The Getaway, Philip Seymour Hoffman is pretty funny too as Stiller’s best friend. He’s a former child star who has a camera crew following him around for a “Where Are They Now?” special. And his scenes with Stiller are some of the funniest in the movie.

Next week’s Legend: Marilyn Monroe!

SAVING MR. BANKS (2013) ***

Nearly broke, children’s author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) reluctantly agrees to let Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) turn her beloved children’s book, Mary Poppins; into a movie. She travels to California and pretty much chews the screenwriters a new one every time they try to change the story. Meanwhile, she has constant flashbacks of her days living in the Australian outback with her drunk father (Colin Farrell). After a lot of wheeling, dealing, and schmoozing, Travers finally warms up to Disney and helps pitch in to make the movie.

Saving Mr. Banks is essentially a story about selling out; but selling out while keeping your dignity and principles intact. And while Travers doesn’t want to give her precious Mary Poppins up, once she finally sees that all involved are trying to make the best movie possible, she acquiesces and winds up enjoying the collaborative process. (The scene where she starts dancing and singing along with the music in the writing room is a real winner.) I also liked that that Disney recognizes a kinship with her (he loves Mickey Mouse as much as she loves Mary Poppins); although he never pushes that fact on her.

The constant flashbacks to Travers’ childhood prevent the film from really gaining any traction though. These scenes take up half the film and the constant back and forth gets a bit frustrating at times. Had the flashbacks been pared down to about a 75/25 split, I think it would’ve been much more effective. Colin Farrell does have one or two world class drunk moments in the flashbacks though.

The performances pretty much sell the whole deal. Thompson is excellent, giving one of her best performances as the emotionally guarded Travers. And while Hanks rarely looks like Disney, he captures that “everyone’s favorite uncle” quality that Walt had. I also liked Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the harried Sherman Brothers and Paul Giamatti has a few good moments as Travers’ loyal driver.

WANDERING GINZA BUTTERFLY 2: SHE-CAT GAMBLER (1972) ** ½

The sword-wielding gambler Nami (Meiko Kaji) is back! This time, she’s in Tokyo looking for the man who murdered her father. Along the way, she rescues some girls from a life of prostitution and befriends a hard luck gambler (Sonny Chiba). Eventually, she learns the identity of her father’s murderer and gets Sonny to help take him down.

The combination of Meiko Kaji and Sonny Chiba is a potentially potent one, but they don’t spend a whole lot of time kicking ass together. Only in the film’s final five minutes do they actually combine forces and start slashing the shit out of people with samurai swords. So if you’re watching Wandering Ginza Butterfly 2: She-Cat Gambler on the strengths of their pairing, you may be a tad disappointment.

The film gets off to a great start. The scenes of Kaji saving girls from their would-be pimp are pretty cool. And the finale is fairly bloody and exciting. However, things get really bogged down in the middle section of the flick. It’s here where Kaji takes a backseat to the (too many) supporting characters. Only when she finally learns the whereabouts of her father’s killer does she once again become a presence in the film, but it’s a long time coming.

Kaji once again delivers a great performance as the cool and calculating Nami. Sonny Chiba on the other hand is badly miscast as the stuttering, down-on-his-luck gambler. He’s not terrible or anything, just… badly miscast.

AKA: Wandering Ginza: She-Cat Gambler