Movie Reviews

by Mark Leeper

We still don't know much about Mark Leeper, but he writes a damn good review!

Blood and Wine -- Waiting For Guffman
L5: First City in Space -- Marvin's Room

Blood and Wine

Two crooks plan to steal a million-dollar
diamond necklace, but having the necklace is
one thing, holding on to it is something else.
This is a violent and often bloody but low-key
crime story set in grimy, sweaty, muggy South
Florida. The plot is tangled without being
difficult either to follow or to believe. Jack
Nicholson and Michael Caine nicely outdo each other
as slimeball thieves in the humid and sometimes
sexy crime story.
Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4)

These days crime films seem to have spectacular gun-fights, big explosions, crazed madmen, and, of course, tense car chases though metropolitan centers. The films go for the spectacular, roller-coaster experience. And the characters are bigger than life. You cannot get much better a feel for what has happened to the crime film than to compare the original CAPE FEAR with its high-tech remake. Explosive film-making has replaced gritty little crime films. One misses the low-key crime dramas like the original CAPE FEAR. Occasionally there is a throwback like THE GRIFTERS, but they are all too few. BLOOD AND WINE has the feel of a John D. MacDonald novel from the 50s. The characters are smallish and petty, but they are believable and except for perhaps its complexity, the story is believable also.

Alex Gates (played by Jack Nicholson) runs a Southern Florida wine store and in his spare time cheats on his wife Suzanne (Judy Davis). Both Suzanne and his son Jason (Stephen Dorff) have had their fill of him and the marriage is in its last stages. Alex is fooling around with the Gabrielle (Jennifer Lopez) the nanny of a rich customer, but he also has his eye on that same customer's safe where he believes there to be a diamond necklace worth over a million dollars. To get the necklace Alex has to go into partnership with Victor (Michael Caine), a tubercular safecracker who might well just be using Alex. This is not a very tightly-knit little group at the best of times and add to the mixture a necklace with "diamonds the size of chocolates" and the bonds of family and friendship may be totally forgotten.

The film revolves around five characters, but the heart is Nicholson and Caine, of course. In a sense they are playing much the same character, suddenly-violent, constantly-vile. Caine plays the British version of the character, Nicholson the American. Bob Rafelson has directed Nicholson before, in fact he was largely responsible for Nicholson becoming a respected actor with FIVE EASY PIECES (1970) and THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972). It has been suggested that the three films form a pattern with Nicholson playing a son in the first, a brother in the second, and now playing a father. There does not seem to be a whole lot of connection beyond that. To Nicholson's and Caine's characters the greasy lowlife life-style comes naturally, but Judy Davis seems to be someone who was once decent, but in self-defense has been pushed to become the same sort of violent person her husband is. Significantly even after she has escaped the control of her husband she is attracted to another man with many of the same characteristics. Her performance could easily be overlooked playing against the two scheming greaseballs, but she does a nice job at playing a no longer very nice person. Jennifer Lopez is attractive and reasonably convincing, but her thick Cuban accent obscures some of her lines. Stephen Dorff is nominally the main character. But his performance is the least textured of the five major characters.

As films go today, this was probably a fairly low-budget one. In the realistic crime story style the characters use golf clubs against each other rather than dynamite. If there are explosions they are ones of sudden anger. This was a good role for Nicholson and a better one for Caine. The production values are decent, though I would swear Nicholson's black eye comes and goes from scene to scene. Other continuity errors have been reported also, though I did not catch them. This is a small film and one that works not on photography or pyrotechnics, but in acting and script. As such it may be a sort of nostalgic reminder of the days when that went without saying.

This is not a major film but it is watchable and at times tense. I would give it a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.

More info at the Internet Movie Database

Waiting for Guffman

This mockumentary is of a small town
celebrating its 150th anniversary by putting on a
show in complete ignorance of the fact that nobody
in town has any talent. The film invites
comparison to the classic comedy SMILE, but that
film at the same time was far more serious and more
funny than this one. While this film has its
moments and the occasional funny bit, it never
really takes off as well as it might have.
Rating: +1 (-4 to +4)
New York Critics: 9 positive, 1 negative, 4 mixed

The town of Blaine, Missouri, was a mistake from the very beginning when pioneer Blaine Fabin overestimated the distance he had brought his party and assumed they had reached California. The residents of this town appear to have over-estimated their accomplishments ever since. The town, famous for its footstools has dubbed itself the Stool Capital of America. As the town approaches its sesquicentennial it is planning for a celebration large by Blaine standards, capped by a play telling of major events of the history of Blaine in a musical pageant called "Red, White, and Blaine." The production is to be put in the hands of the multi-untalented auteur Corky St. Claire (played by Christopher Guest who also co-authored, directed, and wrote some of the music for the film). The stars of the show are the town's myopic dentist (Eugene Levy), the town's two travel agents (Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara), the cute waitress from the Dairy Queen (Parker Posey), and the town hunk (Matt Keeslar). Corky is temperamental and has the same over-estimation of his own abilities that seems nearly universal in Blaine. The only person in town who seems to have any taste at all is the tightly wound music teacher who leads the band in too small a part for Bob Balaban. The film has repeated gags on the ego and vulgarity of the town residents, but for the most part the characters are more caricatures than believable people. WAITING FOR GUFFMAN might be more impressive if it was not so similar in approach to the wonderfully-observed SMILE, directed by Dennis Ritchie. In that film, which tells the behind-the-scenes story of a California town's hosting of a teenage beauty pageant, the characters seem considerably more real and are at the same time a lot more funny with often-caustic humor.

Christopher Guest has written the meatiest role for himself as the fey director and only at times has the talent to carry the film. Guest previously co-wrote THIS IS SPINAL TAP, but his most creative film was THE BIG PICTURE, a particularly insightful lampoon of the Hollywood film-making process. Perhaps this film's most memorable image is Guest's odd little improvisational stomach dance, done wearing his pants backwards. When the Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers proposed making the film AIRPLANE!, the studio wanted to cast the film with well-known comic actors in the major roles. The filmmakers very intelligently held out to get a set of actors not associated with comedy and the film was all the more funny as a result. Guest would have been well-advised to follow a similar policy since one has already seen over- the-top comedy performances by Levy, Willard, and O'Hara. Their characters needed an air of authenticity and credibility that these actors simply lack.

WAITING FOR GUFFMAN is certainly worth a viewing for the parts that do work, but afterwards, for a real treat, rent SMILE and see what can really be done with a lampoon of a small town and its icons.

In this film there certainly are at least three good laughs and no slow portions, so WAITING FOR GUFFMAN does work as a comedy but it never works well. I rate it a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.

More info at the Internet Movie Database

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