Steve Martin

The Spanish Prisoner

1997                           

Sweetland Films

Directed And Written by David Mamet

Produced by Jean Doumanian

I like the work of David Mamet a lot.   He’s a writer who knows how to write extraordinarily good dialog and no two characters in any of his works sound the same.  His movies are enjoyable just to listen to, not to mention their complex stories and plots.  I loved “House Of Games” which was about a psychologist delving into the world of con men and finding out she doesn’t know as much about psychology as she thought she did and I’ve seen THE SPANISH PRISONER twice now and you would think that after watching one time it would be spoiled for me but it wasn’t.  Even knowing what was going on and how the movie ended I found myself still being totally engrossed in what was happening and I credit that to the meticulously crafted story and terrific performances.  A lot of modern suspense movies are labeled ‘Hitchcockian’ but THE SPANISH PRISONER is one of the few that I can say actually deserves to be compared with Hitchcock’s best work.

Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) is a brilliant scientist flown down to Bermuda with his partner George Lang (Ricky Jay) by their boss Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara) for the purpose of giving a group of investors an update on ‘The Process’ Joe has invented.  We’re never told what ‘The Process’ is and it really doesn’t matter.  ‘The Process’ is the movie’s ‘MacGuffin’, which was Hitchcock’s term for whatever it was that got the plot rolling.  The important thing we need to know is that ‘The Process’ is worth a whole lot of money.  How much?  We never find that out either but during the meeting with the investors, Joe writes a figure on the blackboard that we don’t see but the investors react as if they’ve seen Jesus bring forth Lazarus.

Joe tries to engage Mr. Klein in discussion as to just how much of a bonus Joe and George can expect but Mr. Klein is suspiciously vague and just keeps reassuring Joe that he’ll be taken care of.  While this is going on, Joe is trying to puzzle out the really weird conversations his new secretary (Rebecca Pidgeon) assigned to him keeps initiating and he meets Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin) a New York businessman who is in Bermuda having an affair with his partner’s wife. Jimmy asks Joe to deliver a package to New York for him.   The package is meant for Jimmy’s sister but as Jimmy says later on, that was just an excuse so that Joe could meet Jimmy’s sister.  Jimmy likes Joe and thinks he’d be good for her.  Problem is, every time Joe’s supposed to meet her, she never shows up.  And while this may not seem like much, it proves to be very important later on.   Because while the friendship between Joe and Jimmy grows in surprising ways, Joe is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the way Mr. Klein is treating him and all these elements make up the first half of the movie which may seem slow and nothing much happens but you’ve really got to pay attention because the second half is where it all pays off.

The problem with reviewing a movie like THE SPANISH PRISONER is this: everything depends on a first time viewer going into it cold, without having any idea of what it’s about because the story is put together so well that going into too much detail could unintentially spoil the experience of seeing it for the first time and I wouldn’t dream of doing that.  THE SPANISH PRISONER is a movie made for people who love the kind of plot that demands your attention.  It’s a thinking person’s suspense thriller and one you can’t shut your brain off on and coast along on autopilot.  And if you watch it with somebody who insists on talking while watching movies, kick ‘em the hell out of the room.  It’s not that kind of movie.  You miss something and you’ve missed a lot.

The performances are all absolutely first rate with Steve Martin easily walking away with the top acting honors.  Steve Martin is so good in this that if I had watched this without knowing a thing about Martin’s history as a comedian, I would have taken him for a career dramatic actor.  Yes, he is that good in this role.  He plays it absolutely straight with respect for the story and the character and it works supremely well.  Campbell Scott is an extremely appealing hero.  He’s a genius, yes, but he’s also a bit slow and dim when it comes to dealing with people and he’s charmingly simple and uncomplicated.  None of which helps him when he finds out what kind of shark pool he’s been thrown into and he has to smarten up damn fast if he wants to stay alive.

Rebecca Pidgeon plays Susan Ricci, the secretary and it’s the quirkiest, most eccentric performance in the movie.  She’s got an unusual way of talking and finishes her sentences as if she’s waiting to be patted on the head and told she’s a good girl.  Some of her scenes were irritating and others downright strange but by the time you get to the end, they make sense.  Ed O’Neal has a small but pivotal role.  I was disappointed that Ricky Jay didn’t have more screen time but he makes the best of it, dropping several lines of beautifully quotable dialog such as: “Beware of all enterprises which require new clothes”.

So should you watch THE SPANISH PRISONER ?  I’d most certainly say yes if you’re in the mood for a brain twisting labyrinth of a thriller where nothing and nobody is as it seems with wonderful dialog and great performances.  Turn your brain on and enjoy.

Rated PG

110 minutes

Pennies From Heaven

1981
MGM

Directed by Herbert Ross
Produced by Herbert Ross & Nora Kaye
Screenplay by Dennis Potter based on the BBC miniseries

In 1979 Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters teamed up for what is one of The Ten Funniest Movies I’ve Ever Seen: “The Jerk”  It’s a movie that like “Blazing Saddles” “Porky’s” “Young Frankenstein” “Back To School” and a  few others I’ve seen over and over and even though I know when the jokes are coming I still laugh my ass off as though I’ve seen it for the very first time. “The Jerk” was incredibly successful and when word hit that Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters were going to re-team in another movie, everybody couldn’t wait. So what did they follow up their hilarious comedy smash hit with?

Oh, nothing too shocking. Just a movie about adultery, prostitution, abortion, murder, rape, alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual obsession and psychological dysfunction. Oh, yeah. It’s also a musical.

PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is different from your conventional musical in that the actors don’t sing in their own voices. Instead they lip synch the songs, all of which are popular, happy, merry tunes of The Great Depression sung by the original artists. They are songs that express the inner feelings and fantasies of the characters who inhabit that dark and depressing period of American history where there is very little happiness and hope is non-existent. So for instance, when Steve Martin sees Bernadette Peters for the first time and breaks out into “Did You Ever See A Dream Walking?” he’s lip-synching to Bing Crosby’s voice. It takes a bit of getting used to and it’s not just a gimmick either. If it weren’t for the happy songs and the glitzy, lavish musical/dance numbers that are done in true 1930’s Busby Berkeley style, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN would be a painfully difficult movie to sit through.

Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) is a man who spends most of his life wishing he were doing something else or being somebody else. He’s sick of his nowhere job as a sheet music salesman and dreams of owning his own record store. He’s insanely in love with the songs he peddles and honestly believes their promises of a happy and prosperous life full of dance, rainbows, eternal sunshine and champagne bubbles. His marriage to the sexually repressed Joan (Jessica Harper) is even more boring than his job and it doesn’t take much for him to stray when he meets Eileen (Bernadette Peters) a painfully shy schoolteacher while he’s on a four-day road trip. Arthur seduces Eileen and then returns home where he pathetically and selfishly wheedles Joan into giving him the sizeable inheritance her father left for her to buy his record store.

Eileen discovers that she’s pregnant and is forced to leave her job and her home. Having no support from Arthur she falls in with a dangerously charming pimp (Christopher Walken) and begins a new life as a prostitute. It’s a life that Eileen takes to surprisingly well since her affair with Arthur awakened a darkly sluttish aspect of her personality that Eileen finds she likes a whole lot. It’s while she’s servicing a customer in an alley that she and Arthur encounter each other again. They find that their unholy lust for each other is as strong as ever and they make plans to run away and start a new life together. Eileen wants to get away from her pimp and Arthur now hates the record store he once wanted more than anything else in the world. However, they’re unaware that Arthur is being sought by the police for the rape and murder of a blind girl he had a five-minute conversation with. The same day that Arthur gave a lift and bought a meal for a homeless accordion playing beggar (Vernel Bagneris) who may be the one to actually have committed the crime.

Now I’m sure that there are some of you who are saying that this sounds like a horribly depressing and sad movie and in fact, it damn sure is. If it weren’t for the wonderfully elaborate and fun musical numbers presented as the inner fantasies of the characters, watching PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is enough to make you want to go get drunk afterwards. When the movie stays in the real world it’s a gloomy, depressing world with no brightness and no joy. Arthur’s seduction of Eileen has no romance or charm and is in fact embarrassingly clumsy.  There’s a really sleazy scene where Joan at last gives in to one of Arthur’s fetish fantasies and the pain on her face made my stomach flip.  Arthur verbally abuses everyone he meets.   Even while he’s buying a meal for the accordion player he takes every opportunity to insult the feeble minded man.  I think it’s very telling that the only person in the movie Arthur treats like a feeling human being gets killed.

But those musical numbers are so full of life and energy that you can’t help but be lifted out of the depressing mood of the other parts of the movie and pat your feet along with the music. “My Baby Said Yes, Yes” is a showstopper with Steve Martin and dozens of chorus girls high kicking on a staircase that looks a mile long while ten foot high silver coins merrily roll all over the place. Eileen is in front of her dingy classroom filled with sad-eyed children in ragged clothing when suddenly the classroom is transformed into a gorgeous music hall and the kids are tap-dancing like mad on mini baby grand pianos dressed in gleaming white outfits while Eileen herself is now wearing a silver gown that looks as if she was sewn into it while singing “Love Is Good For Anything That Ails You” Christopher Walken brings down the house with “Let’s Misbehave” and a terrific dance routine where he loses every article of clothing except for his hat, shoes and shorts. And the best number of all is the wonderfully surreal “Pennies From Heaven” with Vernel Bagneris dancing in a rainstorm that actually turns into a shower of pennies. He does a marvelous dance during the violin solo and his lip-synching of the song is so powerful that I was mesmerized.

I thought the performances in this one, especially by Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters was exceptionally good. Remember that in 1981 he had only done four movies and starred in one, this being his second. I think it took a lot of guts for him to play such an unlikable bastard so early in his movie career. There are parts of the movie that had me wishing I could reach into the screen and strangle the shit out of Arthur for screwing up other people’s lives with such selfish callousness. Bernadette Peters is easily an acting match for her co-star and her transformation from depressed schoolteacher to streetwise streetwalker is a bit too convincing. Once Eileen gets a taste of the Dark Side she gives herself over body and soul.

This movie does the one thing I though it was impossible to do: make Jessica Harper look plain. She goes through the movie looking as if she expects a safe to drop on her at any second and some of the scenes where Martin’s character verbally abuses her, the pain in her eyes is so clear that I was hurting for the poor child myself. Christopher Walken makes the most of his only big musical number and does more with it than most other actor would have done with an entire movie. And that’s another reason why I liked PENNIES FROM HEAVEN: when I watch a dance routine I like to be able to see the whole dancer, not just their feet or their smiling faces. Herbert Ross knows how to film a dance scene. He lets the camera stay still and lets the dancers move. The result is exhilarating.

So should you see PENNIES FROM HEAVEN? Absolutely. Yes, its story is depressingly grim and the characters are desperately sad but it’s a marvelously powerful movie with outstanding musical numbers and great acting. I honestly think that it was a movie made well ahead of it’s time and it probably scared the hell out of the legions of Steve Martin fans who paid their money expecting a laugh filled romp and got this instead. Don’t you miss out. PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is one of the most imaginative and innovative musicals I’ve ever seen. Enjoy with my blessings.

108 minutes
Rated R

Bringing Down The House

2003
Touchstone Pictures

Directed by Adam Shankman
Produced by Ashok Amritraj
Written by Jason Filardi

Right off the bat I guess I should tell you my first impression after the first ten minutes of my watching BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE: it’s a pilot for a sitcom.  And Patricia agreed with me 100%.  But you know something?  The right elements are there and it’s entertaining enough that by the half-hour mark I didn’t even care.  The cast is obviously having fun with what they’re doing and that fun comes across so well that I sat back with a goofy grin on my face and waited for the next outrageous situation and enjoyed the belly laughs as they came.  And the movie does have quite a few belly laughs and more than a few quieter chuckles.  It’s nowhere near in the same league as Blazing Saddles or Porky’s but it is a very funny movie and does the one thing I absolutely demand from a comedy: it made me laugh.

Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin) is a corporate lawyer struggling through a separation from his wife and trying to stay two jumps ahead of the younger, more aggressive lawyers at his firm looking for his slot.  There’s a major client who has inherited a multi-billion dollar corporation and Peter is in charge of the account.  If he lands it, he’ll be made a partner and set for life and if he loses it…well, there’s always ambulance chasing.  Meanwhile, Peter has been having chat room conversations with a young lady named Lawyergurl since the separation from his wife and they agree to meet at Peter’s house for a date.  Imagine his surprise when instead of the tall, willowy blonde he was expecting, he gets the full-figured, more-bounce-to-the-ounce chocolate goddess Charlene Morton (Queen Latifah) who claims she was framed for the armed robbery rap she served time for and wants Peter’s help in clearing her name.  And that’s the set-up for the movie’s plot, thin as it is.  If you’ve seen the trailers for this movie, they tell you all that right away in 45 seconds.  Toldja it was a thin plot.

Peter and Charlene go through the usual conventions of this kind of material where they argue and fight and bicker. They seem more like a old married couple halfway through the movie than most RealLife married couples I know, especially in the scenes where Charlene helps Peter’s kids through their various problems (kinda reminded me of that old Nell Carter sitcom Get A Life) and I had hopes that the screenplay would take the daring step of actually having the two characters fall in love, which would seem to me to be a natural outcome of them spending so much time together.

But no, the movie takes a different angle and has Charlene helping Peter get his wife back while Peter’s partner, Howie (Eugene Levy) falls mad hard for Charlene.  He actually becomes Charlene’s romantic interest while Peter and Charlene remain friends.  Peter goes undercover at a hip hop club in the last half hour to find out who really framed Charlene for the armed robbery rap.  And that’s where the movie makes a serious misstep.  I’d have liked to see the movie go for broke and have Peter and Charlene actually find themselves falling in love with each other and having to deal with their feelings for each other.

I haven’t seen Steve Martin have this much charisma and energy with a female co-star since Bernadette Peters, who he co-starred with in “The Jerk” (one of The Ten Funniest Movies Ever Made) and “Pennies From Heaven”.  It would have been really interesting to have seen the movie explore a romantic/sexual relationship between a man and woman from such radically different backgrounds and I think that would have raised the movie out of the TV Sitcom-On-Steroids feel BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE has and made it into something truly special.  The relationship between the two characters is so entertaining and intriguing that by the halfway point of the movie, you are hoping they’ll get together and have a real relationship.

But let’s deal with the movie for what it is.  It’s honestly and truly funny.  Steve Martin has long been one of my favorite actors and here he shows why he’s been around this long.  He’s terrific when he has to be funny and in the quieter scenes he’s a seasoned pro. This is material he’s been doing for a long time now and he knows what he’s doing.  One of his big scenes comes during his infiltration of the hip hop club and it’s a scene that had me holding my sides from laughing so hard.  He and Queen Latifah look great together and make a wonderful comedy team.  I wouldn’t mind seeing what they could do in a dramatic movie together

Queen Latifah walks off with the movie and it’s cool to see a full-figured woman looked upon as a sexy object of desire.  Patricia wondered where her character got the money for all the outfits and many different hairstyles she was wearing during this movie, but I didn’t care a lick.  As long as she was looking great.  And as she’s proved in many other movies she can act.  She looks wonderful in this movie and her sense of comedy timing is impeccable.  Her scenes with Joan Plowright (an accomplished English actress) are really terrific and Queen Latifah more than holds her own with an actress who was doing Shakespeare before Queen Latifah was born.

The rest of the cast has their moments except for Jean Smart.  Every time she’s on the screen, the movie slows down because there’s a boring subplot where’s she’s dating a young man that goes nowhere and does nothing but eat up screen time.

Eugene Levy is a standout as Howie, Peter’s best friend who falls hard for Charlene. Howie’s cooler than Peter and knows all the hip-hop slang and lingo and one of the funniest things in the movie is his delivery of that slang in straight-up lawyerese.  He has a wonderful scene where he first sees Charlene in slow motion that I think is a parody of those scenes with your typical willowy blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Katherine Heigl types and it worked for me.

And I can’t finish this review without mentioning Missi Pyle, who plays Ashley, the sister of the Jean Smart character.  She’s one of the villains of the piece and she’s so good because she turns out to be just as bad as Charlene in her own way.  They trade wicked insults back and forth with style and bear-trap wit and they have a fight scene you have to see to believe.  Imagine the female equivalents of Mike Tyson and Stephen Chow going toe to toe and you’ve got an idea of what I’m talking about.

So should you see BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE?  Yeah, you should.  Hey, we’re not talking high art here or Academy Award winning performances.    It’s a standard sitcom plot but the cast makes it work and they gave me my money’s worth, no doubt.  You wanna laugh for 105 minutes?  BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE will make you laugh.  Enjoy.

105 min.

Rated PG-13: The language, drug references and sexual stuff in this movie are so mild I can’t imagine anybody getting offended or bent outta shape.  You’ll find more racy scenes and harsh language in an episode of “Nip/Tuck”