Melanie Griffith

Stormy Monday (1988, Mike Figgis)

Stormy Monday is beauty in despondence. The film is set over a few days in Newcastle, where the local businesses have given up hope on any economic recovery of their own and instead are letting shady American businessman Tommy Lee Jones spearhead an “American week.” You get a discount for being American, there are U.S. flags everywhere, the radio is playing American music. There’s even a scene where Jones addresses politicians and businesspeople and tells them there’s no hope but for them to embrace the American way of… not life, exactly, but mode of corruption. Jones wants to build a development.

The only thing standing in his way is Sting, who owns a little jazz club. Turns out Sting isn’t what he appears (and Jones is less than he appears). They’re playing a chess game against one another, though neither are fully aware of it. Not at the start at least.

But Sting versus Jones for the economic and development future of Newcastle-upon-Tyne isn’t the main plot of Stormy Monday. The main plot is Sean Bean and Melanie Griffith falling for each other. Bean’s new to town and finds a job at Sting’s night club. Griffith is a waitress, but also under contract as Jones’s femme fatale. She convinces politicians for him. When the film starts, it’s been a while since they’ve seen each other and Griffith’s kind of done with it.

Figgis–who, in addition to writing and directing, did the music–has a very gentle hand when it comes to exposition. Bean’s backstory is a note in a read fast or it’s lost shot in the beginning montage. There’s some dialogue, some setup, but for at least ten minutes of Stormy Monday, it’s just Figgis arranging some of the chess pieces with protracted narrative distance, set to an expository radio program. Bean and Griffith are both listening to it on headphones, walking around town, cut off from the world, but–unknowingly–connected to one another.

There’s another plot line involving a Polish jazz ensemble who’s going to be playing at Sting’s club. One of Bean’s first job tasks is to get them from the airport. Coincidence will have them show up in Jones’s story line (they’re all at the same hotel), but eventually Andrzej Borkowski–as the band’s manager–and Dorota Zieciowska, as a Polish woman living in Newcastle, become familiars in the supporting cast. They have their own romance narrative running alongside the main plots. It’s one of the film’s truly lovely details, as none of the principals have much illusion about the unpleasantness around them.

Bean and Griffith pursue romance knowing that unpleasantness, actively working against it, dreaming against it, juxtaposed against Borkowski and Zieciowska’s hopeful one. Not naive though. One of Stormy Monday’s other themes is how ignorance isn’t just bliss, it’s simultaneously dangerous and necessary.

But Figgis never talks about it, of course, because Figgis never really talks about anything. Griffith and Bean will have these intense moments, deep moments, with short dialogue exchanges and endless mood from Figgis (as writer, director, and composer), cinematographer Roger Deakins, and editor David Martin. Deakins’s contributions to the film are outstanding, but don’t define it in the same way as Figgis and Martin’s cutting of scenes, cutting of sound. Stormy Monday is never rushed; there’s tension, there’s danger, but Figgis never races to get there. Even when he’s got a brisk pace, he’s more interested in keeping the established tone and making the dramatics fit into it.

Everything is precise; the film’s just over ninety minutes and Figgis, not changing the tone (which he sets in those first ten or fifteen minutes), employs numerous subtle devices for exposition and plot development. For example, how Figgis handles Sting’s character development (Stormy Monday is Sting’s story, we just don’t follow it). Bean’s fortunes change once he overhears a couple of Jones’s hired goons–James Cosmo and Mark Long, both terrifying–talking about confronting Sting. So Bean’s at Sting’s house for breakfast, telling him about it (information the audience already has; audience actually has more information it turns out), and Figgis does the whole thing from Prunella Gee’s perspective. She’s Sting’s wife. It’s her one scene. But it’s more character development than Sting gets almost anywhere else.

Figgis sets up the audience’s narrative distance, which is different than Bean’s, different than Griffith’s. Even though Bean and Griffith are the leads, co-protagonists. Well, after the first act, Griffith mostly takes over. I’m also using first act rather loosely. Figgis is as exuberant as he can be–stylistically–about breaking plotting expectations. Not plot expectations so much, Stormy Monday has some predictable twists (or maybe more not it just doesn’t have twists as much as reasonable developments), but how the plots run concurrent and where they intersect.

The acting is all good. No one’s particularly spectacular. Figgis doesn’t really ask a lot from his cast in terms of performance; they serve the film, which Figgis is going to precisely cut, precisely score. Lots of silent, thoughtful moments for Bean and Griffith, who both essay them beautifully. For their characters, the saying isn’t as important as the hearing, the sitting with what’s been said. It even comes up as a minor plot point later.

If Figgis’s ambitions for the narrative were stronger, Stormy Monday might be singular. Instead, it’s a phenomenal style exercise (with a solid script). If it were more narratively ambitious however, Jones and Sting would probably be liabilities. Sting gets a lot of help from Figgis’s direction, while Jones always seems like he’s just about to be exasperated with the thinness of the part. Figgis knows how to pivot to a better angle on the character, always implying more depth.

Stormy Monday is a masterfully, exquisitely, intelligently made film. It just doesn’t want to be anything more. Figgis fills it with content–good content–but no potentiality.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Mike Figgis; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by David Martin; music by Figgis; production designer, Andrew McAlpine; produced by Nigel Stafford-Clark; released by Atlantic Releasing.

Starring Melanie Griffith (Kate), Sean Bean (Brendan), Sting (Finney), Tommy Lee Jones (Cosmo), Andrzej Borkowski (Andrej), Scott Hoxby (Bob), Dorota Zieciowska (Christine), Mark Long (Patrick), Prunella Gee (Mrs. Finney), and James Cosmo (Tony).


Working Girl (1988, Mike Nichols)

Towards the end of Working Girl, the film seems to jump around a bit with the timeline. It seems to jump ahead, but then it turns out it doesn’t. And it only seems to jump ahead because of how director Nichols and editor Sam O’Steen structure a couple transitions. It’s not a big thing, but it does cause the viewer to reseat him or herself; it’s sort of a false ending but not. It’s a tension reliever.

Kevin Wade’s script has a lot of obvious material, but it saves the most important revelation–one the film shockingly gets away with not revealing in the first act–until the last few moments. And it’s all paced out perfectly.

But Working Girl couldn’t possibly function without its principal cast members. In the lead, Melanie Griffith is phenomenal. She needs to be sympathetic, but Nichols and Griffith subtly tone down the sympathy she gets for being unappreciated. There’s an initial shock value to her situation and then, over the course of the film, they show that shock was just to get the viewer paying attention.

As her romantic interest, Harrison Ford is fantastic. His character is one of the film’s more complicated–as the evil harpy boss, Sigourney Weaver is similarly fantastic. Weaver’s able to appear likable even when she shouldn’t. Ford is able to be assured even when he shouldn’t.

Nichols, O’Steen and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus put together some truly great scenes here.

It’s rather great; Griffith and Ford are wonderful together.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mike Nichols; written by Kevin Wade; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Sam O’Steen; music by Rob Mounsey; production designer, Patrizia von Brandenstein; produced by Douglas Wick; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Melanie Griffith (Tess McGill), Harrison Ford (Jack Trainer), Sigourney Weaver (Katharine Parker), Alec Baldwin (Mick Dugan), Joan Cusack (Cyn), Philip Bosco (Oren Trask), Nora Dunn (Ginny), Oliver Platt (Lutz), James Lally (Turkel), Kevin Spacey (Bob Speck), Robert Easton (Armbrister) and Amy Aquino (Alice Baxter).


Smile (1975, Michael Ritchie)

Smile is the story of the week of a regional beauty pageant in a northern California town. It’s not exactly the story of the pageant, though it does look at some of the contestants, but it also looks at how the event affects the locals.

Bruce Dern gets top billing and he does tie most of the story threads together. He’s a car salesman and the lead pageant judge. His son (Eric Shea) gets in trouble related to the pageant contestants, his best friend (Nicholas Pryor) is married to the pageant organizer (Barbara Feldon). Through Feldon, there’s a lot more with the pageant itself, but no real direct ties. The film’s two salient character relationships are between Dern and Pryor and how they experience their lives and then between Joan Prather (the film’s closest thing to a protagonist) and Annette O’Toole as two contestants who are rooming together for the week.

While director Ritchie is fantastic and Richard A. Harris’s editing is amazing, Jerry Belson’s script is the thing to Smile. He’s got a lot of great jokes, these sad, little realistic jokes. There are a couple moments–usually with the direction and editing helping a lot–of uproarious humor. But Smile is usually very real and very depressing.

Excellent performances from the entire cast, particularly Dern, Pryor, Prather and O’Toole. Feldon’s good too, as is Michael Kidd as the down-on-his-luck Hollywood choreographer.

Smile is wonderful; Belson and Ritchie create a magnificent clash of hope and reality.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Michael Ritchie; written by Jerry Belson; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Richard A. Harris; released by United Artists.

Starring Bruce Dern (Big Bob Freelander), Barbara Feldon (Brenda DiCarlo), Joan Prather (Robin Hudson), Annette O’Toole (Doria), Nicholas Pryor (Andy DiCarlo), Michael Kidd (Tommy French), Geoffrey Lewis (Wilson Shears), Titos Vandis (Emile), Dennis Dugan (Logan), Melanie Griffith (Karen), Maria O’Brien (Maria), Colleen Camp (Connie), Paul Benedict (Orren Brooks), William Traylor (Ray Brandy), Dick McGarvin (Ted Farley), Eric Shea (Little Bob), Adam Reed (Freddy), Brad Thompson (Chuck), Denise Nickerson (Shirley), Caroline Williams (Helga), Kate Sarchet (Judy) and George Skaff (Dr. Malvert).


The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990, Brian De Palma)

It’s amazing anyone could screw up The Bonfire of the Vanities–and I’m only making that statement based on the movie and the material in it (never having read the book)–but if anyone was going to do it, adapter Michael Cristofer is the one to do it. When the movie started–it has a beautiful opening title sequence, followed by a wonderful De Palma steady-cam shot (the following seventeen million steady-cam shots are not, unfortunately, wonderful)–I thought David Mamet wrote the screenplay and the worst I was really in for was a bad Melanie Griffith performance.

Was I wrong.

Blaming Cristofer for all the film’s problems–even the majority of them–is a mistake. The producer–oh, it’s De Palma, how convenient–or the executive producer who didn’t realize making Bruce Willis’s reporter the main character would create a fantastic black comedy are the ones who made the biggest mistake. Whoever saw Tom Hanks’s performance the first day of shooting and didn’t realize he had to go (Hanks essentially plays the same character he did in Volunteers, only without the humor… it’s painful), that person made the second biggest mistake. The film’s potential as a black comedy, the media circus version of Wag the Dog (there’s a second Mamet reference), set in New York City, with Willis’s detached, smug performance (perfect for the role), and a Dave Grusin score. It’s a shame De Palma got a hold of this picture. It’s from Warner, so I’m going to guess Cristofer was set for the project regardless of director (Cristofer just coming off Witches of Eastwick), which is a still serious defect but a good director for the project would have known to eighty-six him.

De Palma tries real hard to make Vanities visually interesting; he’s got Vilmos Zsigmond wasting time with those endless steady-cam shots I mentioned earlier and I guess they’re supposed to substitute for creativity. De Palma simply cannot direct much of the script, the human scenes between people, the comedic scenes. He just can’t do it. When he does, it looks like a UHF commercial for carpet-cleaning. The movie’s also atrociously edited.

Like I said, Willis is good and if he’d run the whole show, the movie would have been good. Hanks is bad, though he gets a little betterå towards the end. Griffith isn’t good, isn’t bad. She’s occasionally funny (but, of course, De Palma doesn’t know what to do with it). Kim Cattrall is awful (again, De Palma’s fault for not understanding comedy). Kevin Dunn is really good… Morgan Freeman is wasting time. Saul Rubinek starts good, ends bad (again, has more to do with direction and lack of script–I was stunned to read Rubinek’s character was one of the novel’s central figures).

I think there’s some other stuff I really liked in the movie, but I can’t remember it right now. The Bonfire of the Vanities has got to be De Palma’s biggest failure, artistically speaking, since he didn’t approach it with anything but contrived, bestseller-to-blockbuster mentality… it’s unfortunate.

1/4

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Brian De Palma; screenplay by Michael Cristofer, based on the novel by Tom Wolfe; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by David Ray and Bill Pankow; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Richard Sylbert; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Tom Hanks (Sherman McCoy), Bruce Willis (Peter Fallow), Melanie Griffith (Maria Ruskin), Kim Cattrall (Judy McCoy), Saul Rubinek (Jed Kramer), Morgan Freeman (Judge Leonard White), John Hancock (Reverend Bacon), Kevin Dunn (Tom Killian), Clifton James (Albert Fox), Louis Giambalvo (Ray Andruitti), Barton Heyman (Detective Martin), Norman Parker (Detective Goldberg) and Donald Moffat (Mr. McCoy).


The Drowning Pool (1975, Stuart Rosenberg)

The Drowning Pool is a strange sequel. Not only doesn’t it continue Harper‘s attempt to make PIs hip and modern (more hip than modern, actually), it’s also doesn’t seem like the same character. In Drowning Pool, Newman’s Harper is the standard 1970s Newman character. He’s sick of the world, but he can’t quite give up on it. And even though Drowning Pool has a familiar cast, it doesn’t have the Technocolor glow Harper did. When the film started, I noticed there was nothing going on for Newman in the film, it was all about his exploration of the events around him. It all works out beautifully in the end. It’s like a Chandler set in the modern day, without drawing attention to the time between the novel being written and the film being produced. It’s a rather simple mystery, the kind Hollywood made all the time in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s and have always been the standard for mystery novels. (They’re too expensive for Hollywood to make any more and probably even in the 1970s… except Drowning Pool had Newman and he was the biggest or second biggest star in the world in the 1970s).

As a mystery, it’s not particularly surprising. Detective stories like this one–in that Chandler vein–aren’t so much about the surprising motive or the identity of the killer, but about the detective’s adventures forcing his way through the case. In The Drowning Pool, Newman’s surrounded by interesting people to interact with. The film’s got a number of great performances: Murray Hamilton’s fantastic as a crazy oil baron (crazy as in criminally insane, not ha ha funny crazy), Gail Strickland’s great as his wife, Andrew Robinson is good. The best performance–besides Newman, who’s perfect at this world weary thing–is Anthony Franciosa. His character goes through the most change and Franciosa just gets better throughout. Joanne Woodward’s good, though she seems like she belongs in a different movie, not just more serious, but one centered around her. The only bad performances are Melanie Griffith and Richard Jaeckel. Griffith’s limp, basically repeating her performance from Night Moves, only with more to do and she can’t handle it. Jaeckel’s just bad.

The Drowning Pool‘s greatest asset, however, is the production quality. Stuart Rosenberg’s got some amazing shots, one after the other–though I’m not thrilled by the editor–and the way Gordon Willis shoots Louisiana is something particularly special. Whoever did the sound design–maybe Hal Barns (it’s hard to tell from IMDb)–did an amazing job.

It all comes together very nicely. The Drowning Pool, as a mystery, isn’t rewarding in that sudden, rousing way. But a bunch of people who knew what they were doing put together a film and they did a pretty damn good job.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg; screenplay by Tracy Keenan Wynn, Lorenzo Semple Jr. and Walter Hill, based on the novel by Ross Macdonald; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by John C. Howard; music by Michael Small; production designer, Paul Sylbert; produced by Lawrence Turman and David Foster; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Paul Newman (Harper), Joanne Woodward (Iris Devereaux), Anthony Franciosa (Broussard), Murray Hamilton (Kilbourne), Gali Strickland (Mavis Kilbourne), Melanie Griffith (Schuyler Devereaux), Linda Haynes (Gretchen), Richard Jaeckel (Franks), Paul Koslo (Candy), Andrew Robinson (Pat Reavis), Coral Browne (Olivia Devereaux), Richard Derr (James) and Helena Kallianiptes (Elaine Reavis).


Night Moves (1975, Arthur Penn)

I have a confession to make with Night Moves. I first started watching it when I was fifteen and home sick from school. I wanted to see Knight Moves with Christopher Lambert and I got this one instead. I liked Gene Hackman (or said I did) so I started watching it and I turned it off. Why?

Because fifteen-year olds are stupid.

I don’t know how I rediscovered it. I had the old Warner Home Video laserdisc, pan and scan from the early 1980s with the bubbles around the picture on the cover (f you know, you know). That must have been before film classes at college, so the only thing I can think of is Arthur Penn. I saw an Arthur Penn film on AMC (back when it was good) and went after his other stuff. At this period, I was buying laserdiscs film unseen. Blind buying. People do that with DVDs and DVDs cost $10. LaserDiscs cost a lot more. It’s possible I got the Night Moves laser on sale somewhere….

Night Moves is probably Arthur Penn’s best film, unless The Missouri Breaks is better than it looked from the moments I saw (I have it coming, right now, from Nicheflix, actually). That’s a big deal when you directed Little Big Man. I just realized I have watched Night Moves lately (2001). But this time is the first widescreen. Oh, so beautiful.

In the old days (2001), I’d have to tell you to find a good video store and still hope they stock Night Moves. With DVD, I don’t have to. You can just see it.

I’m still trying to figure out what happened to Jennifer Warren. She was in Night Moves and Slapshot and then did TV movies. She’s a great actress. Odd to appear in two of the more important American films of a decade and then nothing. Susan Clark’s in Night Moves too. Susan Clark is really good (no, I never watched “Webster.”) And as for Eugene Hackman. He’s become–edging out Dustin Hoffman–my choice for the finest actor the 1970s ever birthed. I know it’s cheating, I know Hackman and Hoffman started in the 1960s, but still….

He’s simply astounding. See Night Moves.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Arthur Penn; written by Alan Sharp; director of photography, Bruce Surtees; edited by Dede Allen and Stephen A. Rotter; music by Michael Small; production designer, George Jenkins; produced by Robert M. Sherman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Gene Hackman (Harry Moseby), Jennifer Warren (Paula), Susan Clark (Ellen Moseby), Ed Binns (Joey Ziegler), Harris Yulin (Marty Heller), Kenneth Mars (Nick), Janet Ward (Arlene Iverson), James Woods (Quentin), Melanie Griffith (Delly Grastner), Anthony Costello (Marv Ellman), John Crawford (Tom Iverson) and Ben Archibek (Charles).


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