Bill Conti

Baby Boom (1987, Charles Shyer)

The first half of Baby Boom is this incredibly efficient story about career woman Diane Keaton deciding she wants to be a mom to a baby she inherits. Is inherit the right word? Probably not, but Keaton’s character can’t figure out how to change a diaper (though she can later milk a cow on the first try) so I’m in fine company. Boyfriend Harold Ramis–in a glorified cameo, which is kind of neat on its own–Harold Ramis being in a glorified cameo–isn’t too interested in settling down and there are so many work problems, what will Keaton do?

Baby Boom, written by director Shyers and Nancy Meyers, sort of implies it wants to answer hard questions about gender expectations and the workplace, but then–with only forty minutes left–Sam Shepard shows up with his snaggletooth and some floppy hair and the world changes. Somewhere in this mix–which has two montage sequences to get out of the boring narrative moments (and they’re actually the second and third montages, there’s one earlier)–the whole Baby part falls away and the Boom comes in.

See, Baby Boom isn’t about Keaton discovering how motherhood fulfills her or even about her relationship with the baby. Twins Kristina Kennedy and Michelle Kennedy do fine, though I really hope they used a doll when Keaton’s comically carrying her around like a suitcase. But the funniest stuff with the baby? It’s when she’s terrorizing Harold Ramis. In his glorified cameo.

James Spader, Sam Wanamaker and Pat Hingle are the business guys who just aren’t sure Keaton can hack it as a career woman. Spader’s a great sleaze but he gets no material here. Hingle’s part’s real thin too. Wanamaker ought to have more (as Keaton’s champion and mentor) but he too gets a weak part. Baby Boom is kind of lazy.

Bill Conti’s smooth jazz score gets annoying pretty fast, with no standouts except maybe the theme and even the end credits ruin it. William A. Fraker’s photography is fine until Keaton gets to Vermont; he does the New York City stuff fine, but Vermont is just too stagy. Shyer’s direction’s indistinct as well. His closeups are weak, the reshoots are obvious. Maybe the coolest part about it is how the second unit shots of New York City don’t do any of the standards. They do come with some annoying Conti music though.

Keaton’s good. The part’s a little too thin not to have a director pushing the film further. And, dang, if Sam Shepard isn’t charming.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Charles Shyer; written by Nancy Meyers and Shyer; director of photography, William A. Fraker; edited by Lynzee Klingman; music by Bill Conti; production designer, Jeffrey Howard; produced by Meyers; released by United Artists.

Starring Diane Keaton (J.C. Wiatt), Sam Shepard (Dr. Jeff Cooper), Harold Ramis (Steven Buchner), Kristina Kennedy & Michelle Kennedy (Elizabeth), Sam Wanamaker (Fritz Curtis), James Spader (Ken Arrenberg) and Pat Hingle (Hughes Larrabee).


The Fourth War (1990, John Frankenheimer)

With all the monologues–there aren’t any conversations, just one character talking while another listens–in The Fourth War, it feels like an adaptation of a play. It’s not. It’s based on a novel, which must be a brief read since War is plodding at ninety minutes. Given Frankenheimer got his start in television–adapting plays–one might think he’d notice treating War like a play would produce a better result.

He does not.

He also doesn’t realize Roy Scheider is a lot more interesting a devolving lunatic than as a misunderstood American hero. Harry Dean Stanton–who gives the film’s best performance as Scheider’s commanding officer–occasionally has voiceovers explaining and qualifying Scheider’s actions. It’s a terrible move, especially since the film later turns Scheider’s adversary–an atrocious Jürgen Prochnow–into a stereotypical evil commie.

Scheider similarly suffers. He’s good when he’s unlikable, but it’s Roy Scheider, half his onscreen persona is being likable. Once Lara Harris enters as the girl he needs to help, War falls even further to pieces. Harris isn’t bad, but it’s like she got the job to fool audiences watching the trailer into believing Isabella Rossellini is in the picture.

Tim Reid shows up–occasionally–as Scheider’s second-in-command. His lack of screen time, and Frankenheimer’s reliance on summary storytelling for really simple scenes, makes one wonder if War ran out of money during filming and the script got hacked down.

But in Frankenheimer’s tired hands, the film wouldn’t have been better longer.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Frankenheimer; screenplay by Stephen Peters and Kenneth Ross, based on the novel by Peters; director of photography, Gerry Fisher; edited by Robert F. Shugrue; music by Bill Conti; production designer, Alan Manzer; produced by Wolf Schmidt; released by New Age Releasing.

Starring Roy Scheider (Col. Jack Knowles), Jürgen Prochnow (Col. Valachev), Tim Reid (Lt. Col. Clark), Lara Harris (Elena), Harry Dean Stanton (Gen. Hackworth), Dale Dye (Sergeant Major) and William MacDonald (MP Corporal).


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).


The Big Fix (1978, Jeremy Kagan)

The Big Fix is a fundamentally different detective movie. While there are some elements updating it to time period, a lot of it is still a detective investigating in LA, meeting all sorts of people all around town and so on. It’s still Raymond Chandler to some degree–with Dreyfuss playing his (marginally) goofy, but caring standard and the setting changing from film noir to plastique (the exploration of America post-1960s) but the film makes an even severer change. Richard Dreyfuss’s detective is not defined by being a detective, the genre norm. Instead, Dreyfuss is a guy who happens to be a detective and finds himself in this whole mess, but the character’s truest moments are when he’s with his kids, when he’s trying not to fight with his ex-wife, when he’s getting excited about a date. These are not detective movie norms.

The big mystery is sufficiently convoluted enough for the genre. It’s a little simpler then Chandler–and the anti-establishment air of Chandler is present here, sort of finally finding the perfect fit of tone and setting–but it’s a good mystery. The ending, even if some of the details are perceivable, is a surprise. But the ending–the mystery’s ending, the supposed a-plot’s ending–is lackluster. It’s quiet and subdued, something Dreyfuss rarely is during the film. Then the close comes and the close is where The Big Fix becomes something else entirely. There were the moments throughout where it broke from the genre, but it always got back on track with a car chase or a gun cleaning. The close erupts from genre constraints and then, once it’s genre-less, takes it a little higher. Kagan–who I’ve never heard of before this film–closes off the mystery and the film on an appropriately humorous plane… but then he does something else, something I never would have seen coming. It’s kind of forward, but only in its simplicity. For a detective movie, with the comedy, with the socially relevant updating, it’s stunning. Kagan just lets the viewer see the characters for a bit, totally free of story or character establishing. It’s beautiful.

The acting in the film is generally excellent. Dreyfuss is bombastic when he needs to be and touching when he needs to be, it’s one of his most sure-footed performances and he’s great. He plays it with a fortified vulnerability. Susan Anspach and John Lithgow are both okay, effective at times, not so much at others. Bonnie Bedelia is great as Dreyfuss’s ex-wife. The second tier supporting cast, Ron Rifkin as Bedelia’s boyfriend and F. Murray Abraham, are fantastic. Abraham’s performance is unexpected; it’s so long before he nosedived, he still has enthusiasm and, given his character’s one of the plot’s enigmas, he surpasses expectation. Rita Karin is also particularly wonderful as Dreyfuss’s senior center revolutionary.

The Big Fix is important for a couple reasons. First (and easier), it’s about the aftereffects of the 1960s, an important period consigned to–and not even anymore–big network miniseries. It occurred to me, watching the film, even with all the film footage from the period, all the books, it’s going to be forgotten… even though the protestors’ billboards say a lot of the same things as, well, the banners on liberal blogs today and the politicians are still talking about identity cards. The second and more important thing is, obviously, that genre-bust at the end. The Big Fix isn’t out on DVD anywhere. It never even came out widescreen on laserdisc. It’s forgotten and it shouldn’t be.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jeremy Kagan; screenplay by Roger L. Simon, based on his novel; director of photography, Frank Stanley; edited by Patrick Kennedy; music by Bill Conti; production designer, Robert F. Boyle; produced by Carl Borack and Richard Dreyfuss; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Richard Dreyfuss (Moses Wine), Susan Anspach (Lila Shay), Bonnie Bedelia (Suzanne), John Lithgow (Sam Sebastian), Ofelia Medina (Alora), Nicolas Coster (Spitzer), F. Murray Abraham (Eppis), Fritz Weaver (Oscar Procari Sr.), Jorge Cervera Jr. (Jorge), Michael Hershewe (Jacob), Rita Karin (Aunt Sonya) and Ron Rifkin (Randy).


F/X (1986, Robert Mandel)

About ten minutes in to F/X, I got wondering how the film was going to deal with being a special effects-filled film about a guy doing special effects for films. I suppose they didn’t have to deal with that relationship, but it kept seeming more and more like they were going to need to address it. Then, at the end, rather simply, they did. It’s a quick “thank you” at the end of the film to the audience. Movies tend not to do the ending “thank you” anymore (Ocean’s Twelve coming the closest in recent memory) because it’s an acknowledgment of the film’s unreality… it probably has a lot to do with films being more centered towards the eventual home video market as opposed to the theatrical experience. An ending “thank you” for watching is definitely a theatrical consideration (I mean, doesn’t Predator even thank its audience?).

Anyway, the ending brings F/X up a little bit, because the film’s a narrative mess (it also has the most obvious stuntmen I can remember seeing in a long time). It has a solid opening, great first twenty minutes, maybe even twenty-five, then the narrative splits between Bryan Brown and Brian Dennehy. Brown goes from being the protagonist to the subject for half his scenes and the others are action scenes–and good action scenes–so he’s sort of lost. The Dennehy arc is great stuff (though incredibly unrealistic), with Joe Grifasi as his sidekick.

The film’s really well-paced, given all those narrative difficulties, and it’s a constant pleasure to watch. The experience stems from three things, audio and visual. First, Robert Mandel is a good director. He knows how to frame a shot, he knows how to have it lighted and he knows how to have scenes put together (Terry Rawlings’s editing has some outstanding moments–there’s also some scenes where it appears he cut too early, like the dialogue was interrupted for running time, but then I realized it was a stylistic choice and a fine one). F/X looks great from that department, but also because it’s an on location New York movie. Lots of great stuff to show off why New York is the best city to shoot a movie in. Third, and probably most important tying together points one and two: Bill Conti’s score. From the opening credits, Conti establishes his importance to the film and he keeps it up throughout. Conti’s filmography is spotty in terms of film quality, but he does amazing work here.

While Brown is good as the lead, his character–after the story’s moving–rarely has any time to reflect on what’s happened. It’s a little off-putting, but F/X actually has some wonderful subtle moments to take care of those deficiencies. Dennehy’s great. Brian Dennehy could sell real estate on Jupiter and make it believable. Supporting wise… Grifasi’s okay, Cliff De Young’s real good–particularly in the first twenty minutes, which appear to have had tighter revisions–Jerry Orbach’s funny, Jossie DeGuzman’s scenes are all good… The real acting champ, besides Dennehy, is Diane Venora. Her role’s relatively small, but she’s fantastic.

However long the laundry list of problems, F/X is still a fine diversion. And an exceptionally effective one, thanks to the fine production values.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mandel; written by Robert T. Megginson and Gregory Fleeman; director of photography, Miroslav Ondricek; edited by Terry Rawlings; music by Bill Conti; produced by Dodi Fayed and Jack Wiener; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Bryan Brown (Rollie Tyler), Brian Dennehy (Leo McCarthy), Diane Venora (Ellen), Cliff De Young (Lipton), Mason Adams (Col. Mason), Jerry Orbach (Nicholas DeFranco), Joe Grifasi (Mickey), Martha Gehman (Andy), Roscoe Orman (Capt. Wallenger), Trey Wilson (Lt. Murdoch), Tom Noonan (Varrick), Paul D’Amato (Gallagher) and Jossie DeGuzman (Marisa Velez).


Avenging Angelo (2002, Martyn Burke)

Avenging Angelo plays like a Sandra Bullock comedy from the late 1990s, except it’s Madeleine Stowe in the Bullock role and… I don’t know Stallone in the Keanu Reeves role, if Keanu Reeves did romantic comedies. Maybe still-on-“ER” George Clooney or someone. There aren’t any Italian movie stars in Hollywood right now… oh, obviously, Antonio Banderas playing an Italian. Anyway, instead of Bullock and Banderas, it’s Stowe and Stallone, which makes Avenging Angelo all of a sudden a very different romantic comedy. First, it’s a romantic comedy about the Mafia; that genre is rarely explored. But the reason it works as a romantic Mafia comedy is because of the second different aspect… Stallone and Stowe aren’t young. Stowe being a bored wealthy housewife on Long Island makes a lot of sense. Stallone as the bodyguard who’s always been too busy protecting Stowe (without her knowing, of course) to have a life of his own. Too little of the time lost angle is discussed in the film–it’s way too subtle, to the point I almost suspect the writers never went in and made it age appropriate for Stowe and Stallone, leaving it for Bullock and Banderas or whoever.

Stallone pretty much makes the movie; it’s clear from the beginning, he’s having a great time, whether it’s working with Anthony Quinn (in these scenes, Stallone doesn’t even bother acting, just spends them enjoying Quinn’s company) or doing the romantic comedy lead. The movie’s not long, so the first act is when Stowe actually has the most character-defining acting to do and she’s fine. There’s not much of a role (her husband is a louse, she misses her kid, her life is boring and shallow) for her to work with, but, since it’s a short movie, pretty soon she’s in full romantic comedy lead mode too.

A film made in 2002, Avenging Angelo has as much use of songs for background music as one made in 1988. There are at least six of these montages and the film’s got a nice Bill Conti score, so either the script really didn’t have enough going on (as it plays, the film’s sub-plotless) or Conti was just too busy… or I suppose they wanted to have enough for a soundtrack release?

Being a romantic comedy, the film hinges on Stallone and Stowe’s chemistry and they’re good together, but it’s understandable why the film didn’t get a theatrical release. Stowe never recovered from her disappearance from the screen in the late 1990s (at the height of her career) and Stallone’s fans never went for his comedic turns… and it reminded me a lot of Faithful (the comedy with Chazz Palminteri and Cher)–down to the action being centered around two people in a house. And no one ever asked for another Faithful….

But, all in all, it’s a pleasant, traditional romantic comedy. Perfectly fine.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martyn Burke; screenplay by Will Aldis and Steve Mackall, from a story by Aldis; director of photography, Ousama Rawi; edited by David Codron; music by Bill Conti; production designer, Eric Fraser; produced by Tarak Ben Ammar, Elie Samaha and Stanley Wilson; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Frankie Delano), Madeleine Stowe (Jennifer Barrett), Anthony Quinn (Angelo Allieghieri), Raoul Bova (Marcello), Harry Van Gorkum (Kip Barrett), Billy Gardell (Bruno), George Touliatos (Lucio Malatesta) and Angelo Celeste (The Priest).


Rocky Balboa (2006, Sylvester Stallone)

I’m fairly sure there’s never been a film like Rocky Balboa before. The closest is probably Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Rocky Balboa is about its story and its characters, but it’s also about the audience’s pre-exisiting relationship not with the characters, but with Rocky movies as a piece of history. Stallone uses this relationship early and sparsely, to establish Balboa as something worth watching. Once he’s done, he moves on to more interesting things, but Balboa maintains a mystique about it. The idea of a movie character aging in a film’s absence is one infrequently dealt with and usually poorly (The Color of Money). As a concept, it ought to work. (Clint Eastwood once said he’d do a ‘Dirty Harry Goes Fishing’ sequel). But Rocky Balboa is the first time I can think of it’s worked and it works really, really well. It’s easily the best film of the series (which, minus the first one, isn’t hard).

The boxing aspect of Rocky Balboa comes in so late, it’s actually unimportant to what’s going on in the movie itself. If Rocky had been a bowling champion, it’d be the same degree. Well, maybe not bowling. Arm-wrestling maybe. (I can’t remember the name of Stallone’s arm-wrestling movie). He’s old and he’s alone and it’s about him working his way out of a long rut, trying to reform a family around himself. When the boxing finally does come along, it seems like it might not even–if it weren’t a Rocky movie–go anywhere.

Stallone directs Balboa quieter than I’ve seen anyone direct a modern film in a long time. It’s a loving, patient approach and it works beautifully. Only when it gets to the boxing match, shot to look like a televised bout (on DV), does the film lose that understated beauty. Watching it, I wondered if Stallone intended it to look different because it actually was so removed from the rest of the film. I also wondered if it’d look different on DVD, once everything had been digitized. During the boxing match Stallone stumbles a little, trying to find the right way to present the story in film. These stumbles are never annoying though, just visible.

The acting from the principles is great–Stallone’s very aware of what he can and can not do and he only gives himself the stuff he can do. Similarly, Burt Young’s got a bunch of great stuff to do too. Geraldine Hughes plays a grown-up version of a character from the first film and she’s fantastic. Antonio Tarver is fine as the adversary, with some too weak scenes but enough to be a problem. As Rocky Jr., Milo Ventimiglia acts a little bit too much with his styled hair, but Stallone does a lot of work in those scenes and carries him through. The other scenes Ventimiglia’s in, he needs to look like a men’s watch model and manages. The stuff between Stallone and Young is great, but familiar. The stuff between Stallone and Hughes is great and new and somehow more rewarding, because this relationship is what kick-starts Rocky Balboa‘s story.

Going in to Balboa, I wasn’t expecting much. I was expecting something decent or at least inoffensively watchable, but certainly not something great. It was a really nice and totally unbelievable surprise.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone; director of photography, Clark Mathis; edited by Sean Albertson; music by Bill Conti; production designer, Franco-Giacomo Carbone; produced by Charles Winkler, William Chartoff and David Winkler; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Burt Young (Paulie), Geraldine Hughes (Marie), Milo Ventimiglia (Robert Balboa Jr.), Antonio Tarver (Mason “The Line” Dixon), James Francis Kelly III (Steps) and Tony Burton (Duke).


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