Haviland Morris

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).


Dear Diary (1996, David Frankel)

Dear Diary was originally a TV pilot, which didn’t get picked up, then got (slightly) re-edited into a short. It’s impossible to imagine it as a weekly show, just because Diary does so little to establish what would be its regular cast.

It opens with star Bebe Neuwirth writing about her day in her diary. She narrates the whole film, with her musings about what she encounters–usually about people she meets, sometimes about herself, sometimes memories, or a lot of concepts (golf, photography)–visualized. If it’s people in the cast, they’re in the musings. If it’s an idea or a memory, it’s stock footage. On video. But Diary is shot on film. So it’s constantly visually jarring. Director Frankel is constantly moving the camera after cuts. It’ll tilt to focus on the actor, it’ll tilt away. It’s not effective. And it’s a problem for the first act.

The first act introduces Neuwirth and her family. They’re New York yuppies. She’s a magazine editor, husband Brian Kerwin is an attorney, they’ve got a couple kids who don’t matter except to remind Neuwirth she’s forty. Kerwin doesn’t figure into the plot at all. He’s an accessory, albeit one with more going on than the kids.

Neuwirth goes to work, where she ends up quitting almost immediately after her boss, Bruce Altman, gets introduced. Then she’s just got a free day; that free day is where Diary starts getting a lot better. She goes lunch golfing, where she meets avid golfer and department store security guard Mike Starr. They hang out for long enough to see her old college friend, Haviland Morris, rip off a dress. So Neuwirth tracks down Morris, meeting her husband (Ronald Guttman) eventually, and he knows Altman, which ties it all together with Neuwirth losing her job. Or quitting. That opening scene didn’t play well because Frankel’s not good at directing dramatic or expository scenes.

So Neuwirth’s narration is all-important. And it’s great. And her performance, even as problematic as the first act gets–there are hiccups in the Morris section too–but her performance is always fantastic. You just have to pretend there’s enough character. The diary entry she’s writing aloud is nowhere near as effective as the film postulates.

The third act ties it all together, not just Neuwirth’s days’ events, but also the film in general. It works because its well-acted. It works because of Neuwirth.

Though it’s Starr who saves the thing when it’s still getting through the rockier stuff. Altman’s good, Guttman’s funny (it’s a very small part), Kerwin seems fine. Morris is way too affected, but Dear Diary is way too affected so it fits. Enough.

Given Frankel’s direction and the general production concepts–the stock video footage is a disaster (why not just shoot the whole thing on video)–Dear Diary should be a lot less successful. As for the writing (by Frankel)… it’s fine. But it’s a sitcom. An okay sitcom. So you’ve got an okay sitcom script directed goofy (or worse) and a great lead performance.

Neuwirth makes Diary happen. However, last thing, the diary she’s writing seems to be very thin. Is it a new diary? Doesn’t matter. I guess.

But it does matter. Frankel’s way too loose on detail.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Frankel; director of photography, Maryse Alberti; edited by Michael Berenbaum; music by Wendy Blackstone; production designer, Ginger Tougas; produced by Barry Jossen; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Bebe Neuwirth (Annie), Brian Kerwin (Tom), Bruce Altman (Griffin), Mike Starr (Fritz), Haviland Morris (Christie), and Ronald Guttman (Erik).


Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990, Joe Dante)

Gremlins 2 might be one of the more absurdly funny films ever made. Much of it relies on the viewer laughing at him or herself laughing at the film. My wife claims her occasional giggles were in response to my laughter, not the film itself. I just read Dante wanted it to be a spoof of itself, of the idea of a Gremlins 2 and it’s incredibly successful.

The film is very much a product of its time. There are Die Hard references (both in the film, with Gizmo heading into a duct, and out–the single setting of an office high rise), there are references to classic films, there are references to not so classic films. Where Gremlins 2 is particularly strange is in the corporate branding. Besides the Looney Tunes opening–to celebrate Warner’s anniversary–there’s a big Batman reference and then the Warner Bros. logo shows up tattooed to a Gremlin. It’s strange, but I guess Warner really did establish itself differently back then (I still remember the Warner Bros. store catalogs with their Batman, Gremlins 2 and “Murphy Brown” goodies).

It all combines to make the film a strange experience, since movies dedicated to making the viewer laugh out loud–not just smile–are difficult. But Gremlins 2 takes it a step further, practically requiring moderate film literacy.

The film relies heavily on its actors–John Glover being the most outright fantastic. Glover doesn’t do a Donald Trump imitation (his character’s a mix of Trump and Ted Turner), instead just goes crazy in a way only he can–one of Glover’s best scenes is one of his simplest. He walks around his office, bored, until he decides it’d be fun to do a memo. It’s great.

The rest of the supporting cast–Robert Prosky, Christopher Lee, Dick Miller, Gedde Watanabe and especially Robert Picardo–are excellent as well. Only Haviland Morris, with an over-affected performance, is lacking. Zach Galligan, who starts out more in the center, is good… even as his character takes a backseat to the wacky Gremlins. Phoebe Cates has a few good scenes, but she’s absent even more than Galligan. They literally get her lost in the building and forget about her.

One of Dante’s great achievements with this film is his handling of the sets. He directs the chaos in the hallway scenes like it’s an old B picture, but these scenes match perfectly with the rest. The exterior scenes–Galligan and Cates walking home, Miller fighting the flying Gremlin outside–all look exceptional. But those interior scenes are even better. Then, with the musical number at the end, Dante makes Gremlins 2 into the greatest Muppet movie (on acid) ever.

The script’s good a lot of great one liners, but what really sets it apart is when Cates is telling a Gremlin-to-be to be careful around the kitchen, she and Galligan don’t have the money to replace broken appliances. It’s a strange, wonderful detail and just makes Gremlins 2 more singular.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Dante; screenplay by Charles S. Haas, based on characters by Chris Columbus; director of photography, John Hora; edited by Kent Beyda; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, James H. Spencer; produced by Michael Finnell; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Zach Galligan (Billy Peltzer), Phoebe Cates (Kate Beringer), John Glover (Daniel Clamp), Robert Prosky (Grandpa Fred), Robert Picardo (Forster), Christopher Lee (Doctor Catheter), Haviland Morris (Marla Bloodstone), Dick Miller (Murray Futterman), Jackie Joseph (Sheila Futterman), Gedde Watanabe (Mr. Katsuji) and Keye Luke (Mr. Wing).


Sixteen Candles (1984, John Hughes)

I enjoy throwing odd ones up occasionally, whether they’re inexplicable (Transporter 2) or heavily based in nostalgia (any Godzilla film). Sixteen Candles is somewhat both, though renting it was the fiancée’s idea. My freshman year of college, I did one of my presentation on racism in John Hughes’ films. Sixteen Candles has some great examples–not just the Chinese exchange student frequently referred to as “the Chinaman,” and played by the obviously ethnically Japanese Gedde Watanabe–it also makes fun of the physically handicapped. Great stuff there. I also remember it being one of my favorite Hughes films. It’s hard to have a favorite Hughes film because none of them are any good, but after this viewing, I think I can safely say Sixteen Candles is my favorite. In fact, it’s the only one I’d watch again.

Immediately after this film, Hughes started infusing his films with social commentary (usually about the poor boy and the rich girl or the poor girl and the rich boy) and it was pretty bad. For the first half of Sixteen Candles, I was going to decry Hughes as the forebear of shitty Hollywood story structure. Molly Ringwald–the lead of the film–disappears for about twenty minutes, maybe more, and the film’s only ninety minutes long. In her absence, there are these great scenes with Michael Schoeffling and Anthony Michael Hall–and I realized why I liked Sixteen Candles so much. The film makes no claims at reality–it speaks directly to the viewer on a few occasions, something Hughes later milked in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off–and there’s no real dramatic tension. It’s an incredibly light comedy and taken as such, it’s a pleasant diversion.

Oddly (given National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation), Sixteen Candles fails the most in the simple family situation. Hughes doesn’t know what to do–he gives Ringwald an asshole little brother and a doped-up sister. He can’t even give Paul Dooley anything to do. Ringwald holds a lot of the film together, but it’s Schoeffling and Hall who really have the most to do. I’d never been particularly impressed by Hall–never had any idea why, for instance, Kubrick wanted him for Full Metal Jacket–but he does a good job in an impossible role. His character completely changes–in the viewer’s perception–in a six or seven minute scene. It’s good work. Schoeffling never really went anywhere. However, according to one website, endless numbers of baby boys born in the mid-1980s were named Jake after his character. He has even more impossible role of being the perfect guy and turns it into a deep performance. There’s none of that serious Hughes teen angst in this one, so the actors aren’t given anything impossible to pull off. Their only job is to make the viewer enjoy the film.

As for Hughes the director… well, Sixteen Candles has got to be his best looking film. The cinematography is incredibly lush in this one. It’s not as far removed as Technicolor, instead a welcoming, idealized reality (there’s also little damaging violence inflicted on the film’s many “geeks,” another bit of that idealization).

Sixteen Candles is not a great film. Even without the bigotry, there’s the incredible shallowness. However, it’s acceptance of that shallowness is exactly what makes it an enjoyable experience.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by John Hughes; director of photography, Bobby Byrne; edited by Edward Warschilka; music by Ira Newborn; produced by Hilton A. Green; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Molly Ringwald (Samantha Baker), Justin Henry (Mike Baker), Michael Schoeffling (Jake Ryan), Haviland Morris (Caroline Mulford), Gedde Watanabe (Long Duk Dong), Anthony Michael Hall (The Geek), Paul Dooley (Jim Baker), Carlin Glynn (Brenda Baker), Blanche Baker (Ginny Baker), Edward Andrews (Howard Baker), Billie Bird (Dorothy Baker), Carole Cook (Grandma Helen), Max Showalter (Grandpa Fred), Liane Alexandra Curtis (Randy), John Cusack (Bryce) and Darren Harris (Cliff).


Scroll to Top