Saturday, February 6, 2016

Tightrope

One of Clint Eastwood's darkest vehicles, Tightrope (1984) gives an edge to his usual police roles. Sloppy and uneven, it gets by on atmosphere and Eastwood's self-lacerating performance.

New Orleans Detective Wes Block (Clint Eastwood) investigates a serial killer targeting prostitutes. He's unnerved to know several of the victims personally; a divorced single dad, Block visits prostitutes in his spare time, and continues during his investigation. Block grows convinced that the killer's targeting him, whether to frame him or personally kill him. He finds support in Beryl Thibodeaux (Genevieve Bujold), a rape counselor equally determined to catch the killer.

Director Richard Tuggle makes Tightrope a seamy blend of '50s noir and '80s erotic thriller. He casts New Orleans in oppressive, horror movie lighting, from the shadowy streets to the red-tinged boudoirs, better to highlight the violence and sordid sex. The movie contains effective set pieces, from Block navigating a wax museum to a moonlight cemetery climax. Along with Lalo Schiffrin's jazzy score, Tightrope's so atmospheric we tolerate the generic bits of New Orleans color (a Mardi Gras celebration) or the lack of Southern accents.

Eastwood finds an unsettling avatar in Wes Block. At first he's simply Harry Callahan in the Big Easy, but Eastwood and Tuggle grant the character. At home he's a devoted single dad, on the job a straight-arrow cop; at night, he prowls brothels for kinky thrills. Block watches the murderer act out his fantasies, wondering what's restraining him. Eastwood plays the role with obsessive self-disgust, projecting his personal demons (soon made public in his separation from Sondra Locke) on the screen. It's among his best roles.

Sadly, Tightrope isn't the best-constructed film. Tuggle's script muddles the murder investigation, becoming bogged down in lurid details. Block's killer is a mere cipher hiding behind masks and tennis shoes. The "wrong man" tension built up (that the killer's framing Block) is unceremoniously dropped, resorting to familiar manhunt tension that's serviceable but unsatisfying. While lacerating Wes's sexual hang-ups, Eastwood has no problem with crude sexism; for all Beryl's posturing, her self-defense techniques do nothing against a real killer.

Eastwood's supporting cast is underwhelming. Genevieve Bujold makes an appealing counterpoint, trading barbs and sharing exercise equipment with Wes, even if she becomes a damsel in the final reels. Dan Hedaya gives a dependable character turn as Block's partner. Marco St. John's villain is a cipher and the other actors make no impression. Allison Eastwood, Clint's teenaged daughter, acquits herself well.

Tightrope isn't entirely satisfying, but it's worthwhile for Clint fans. Eastwood spent much of his career deconstructing his image, but Tightrope seems the most raw and penetrating. Beneath the macho exterior is an insecure man, unclear on the line between fantasy and real-life.

Friday, January 29, 2016

RIP Jacques Rivette

French filmmaker and critic Jacques Rivette passed away at age 87.

I haven't seen any of Rivette's movies, but I do remember enduring his insufferable essays in college film classes. Among other things, he was the auteur theory's most dogmatic advocate, epitomized by "The Genius of Howard Hawks," which takes the auteurist argument to unfathomed levels of self-parody.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

You're a Big Boy Now

Francis Ford Coppola's second feature, You're a Big Boy Now (1966) earned him his Masters from UCLA, and a mainstream career after apprenticing with Roger Corman. An eccentric youth comedy, it shows the exuberant excess expected of a 27 year old director.

Mild-mannered Bernard Chanticleer (Peter Kastner) lives with his stern father (Rip Torn) and oppressive mother (Geraldine Page), working in the New York Public Library. Determined to prove himself an adult, Bernard moves into his own apartment. He carries on a chaste flirtation with coworker Amy Partlett (Karen Black) but grows attracted to dancer Barbara Darling (Elizabeth Hartman). Bernard's parents disapprove of his sexual awakening, forcing him to stand on his own.

Based on David Benedictus's novel, You're a Big Boy Now seems an American take on Mod British comedies like Billy Liar and The Knack. New York is a swirling revel of nightclubs, peepshows, and Broadway theaters. Coppola's direction proves giddily excessive, from long tracking shots of Times Square to his climactic dash through shopping malls and street parades. He steals a page from the Brit films with outlandish fantasies: Bernard kissing Amy as billboards flash Barbara's names; Barbara's fight with a one-legged therapist; a black Scottish bagpiper.

Coppola emphasizes the Generation Gap between Bernard's stuff-suit parents, obsessed with Gutenberg Bibles and proper etiquette, and swinging New York, full of eccentrics of all stripes. There's Barbara, who seduces men without bedding them; her midget confidante (Michel Dunn); a landlady named Miss Thing (Julie Harris) with a misogynist pet rooster. Bernard struggles to forge his own identity, feuding with his parents over contact lenses, girlfriends and his dog's name. As in The Graduate a year later, the adults are ridiculous stuffed shirts, the kids confused but cool.

Peter Kastner, star of the Canadian cult favorite Nobody Waved Good Bye, has Tom Courtenay's coarse intensity with a snide, unguarded playfulness layered in. Elizabeth Hartman's (The Beguiled) offbeat sexiness makes a nice counterpoint; Karen Black (Five Easy Pieces) is an appealing girl next door. Rip Torn and Geraldine Page are weak points; pinched and shrill, respectively, they're too broad to be amusing. Julie Harris is equally weird, as a prudish landlady with an unexpected soft side: she winds up with Dolph Sweet's boorish cop.

Elements of You're a Big Boy Now haven't aged well: the humor is flip rather than funny, the supporting characters are crude, its message glib: everything will be all right if you just get laid. Nonetheless, the movie's infectious energy makes it a worthwhile, if unusual experience.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Peggy Sue Got Married

Francis Ford Coppola's director-for-hire work, The Godfather notwithstanding, matches his weakest personal films. Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) was Coppola's biggest hit of the '80s, yet it's as safe, conventional and affectless as anything he ever made.

Peggy Sue Bodell (Kathleen Turner) blacks out at her 25th high school reunion. She reawakens in the early '60s, thrust back into high school. Uncertain whether she's time traveled or simply delusional, Peggy tries to rectify her past mistakes. She breaks up with her future husband Charlie (Nicolas Cage), weighing instead a relationship with brooding hunk Michael Fitzsimmons (Kevin J. O'Connor). Peggy is struck by Charlie's devotion, which shines through his outward sliminess.

Peggy Sue Got Married tries to be a mature Back to the Future, but lacks that film's wit and creativity. Instead, Coppola and scenarists Jerry Leichting and Arlene Sarner trade in '50s nostalgia and shopworn melodrama. Peggy uses time travel as therapy, finding that her cheating, two-timing husband was really a good fella all along. The humor largely fizzles, only obtaining laughs when a Masonic lodge offers to send Peggy forward in time! The character dynamics are strictly rote, with supporting players (Michael, Barry Miller's school nerd) so thinly sketched the outcome's inevitable.

Kathleen Turner's earnest, warm-hearted performance earned an Oscar nomination. She's unfortunately balanced by Nicolas Cage. Sporting blond hair and sounding like Eddie Deezen impersonating a surfer, Cage is thoroughly charmless. Leon Ames and Maureen O'Sullivan enliven things as Peggy's grandparents, along with John Carradine as their lodge leader. Future stars Jim Carey, Joan Allen, Helen Hunt and Kevin J. O'Connor inhabit supporting roles. Sofia Coppola fares okay as Peggy's sister.

Peggy Sue Got Married has its fans, but I confess its charms eluded me. What might have been a poignant look at roads untraveled becomes a soggy pile of unearned sentiment. Still, Coppola fans can rejoice at one thing: it's better than Jack.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Tucker: The Man and His Dream

Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) mutated from musical to biopic over its 15 year gestation. Francis Ford Coppola couldn't find backing until George Lucas offered to produce. It offers a glossy portrait of Tucker as a little man fighting the System. Accurate or not, it's one of Coppola's better '80s movies.

Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges) designs automobiles and military equipment in 1940s Michigan. After World War II, he pushes his idea for a "dream car": the Tucker Torpedo, a streamlined, safety-conscious design flying in the face of convention. The Big Three auto companies reject it, so Tucker enlists financier Abe Karatz's (Martin Landau) support. Tucker builds his own company in Chicago, garnering tremendous publicity. However, Senator Ferguson (Lloyd Bridges) and his business allies work to suppress him; the Securities and Exchange Commission indicts Tucker for fraud and targets his business.

Old-fashioned doesn't begin to describe Tucker. Coppola offers an unusually wholesome throwback, scrubbed of "adult content," with Vittorio Storaro's glossy photography (alternating with striking monochrome) heightening the nostalgia. Coppola goes for broad humor, with Tucker driving his kids in an armored car to get ice cream, or showing accident victims to a roomful of CEOs eating roast beef. Joe Jackson's jazzy, playful score complements the story's boundless energy.

Tucker makes an appealing libertarian fable, with its businessman-hero fighting entrenched interests and government oversight. His harangue lauding free enterprise seems more Ayn Rand than Frank Capra. Tucker's certainly a defense of creative individuals, evinced by Tucker's unlikely alliance with Howard Hughes (Dean Stockwell), also shunned by conventional businessmen. Why are innovators mocked, scorned or beaten into line? No doubt Coppola, reduced to sellout pictures like Peggy Sue Got Married, sympathized.

An opening credit cheekily identifies Tucker as a promotional film, and the portrait's resolutely positive. It doesn't question Tucker's dubious business practices or investment irregularities. Conversely, the film envisions a conspiracy between Federal authorities and the auto companies, where in reality an overzealous SEC targeted Tucker. Coppola further stacks the deck with cartoon villains, like Dean Goodman's deceitful bigwig and Peter Donat's slimy prosecutor. Such discrepancies don't bother Coppola, solely concerned with celebrating his hero.

Jeff Bridges's assured performance that makes Tucker work. His cheerfulness and boundless energy sells the flawless, all-American hero concept. Joan Allen gives snappy support, supporting her husband and telling off corporate rivals. Martin Landau's endearing performance engaging earned him an Oscar nomination. A young Christian Slater plays Tucker's teenaged son. Coppola hands Dean Stockwell, Frederic Forrest and Peter Donat appear in supporting roles; Mako and Elias Koteas are among Tucker's employees.

Tucker: The Man and His Dream is so aggressively nostalgic, so hagiographic in its portraiture that many viewers will be put off. But Coppola's infectious enthusiasm overcomes most objections: it may not be accurate or nuanced, but it sure is engaging.