Tag Archives: Hal Ashby

The Last Detail (1973)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Seaman escorted to prison.

Billy Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Richard Mulhall (Otis Young) are two navy lifers assigned the task of escorting an 18 year-old seamen named Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to prison. Meadows had been caught lifting $40 from a charity fund run by a wife of a senior officer. In return he got court-martialed and given an 8-year sentence in the brig. Buddusky and Mulhall feel the sentence is too harsh and immediately take a liking to the soft-spoken young man who despite his tall height seems harmless and mile-mannered. During the trip, which is expected to take a week, the two men decide to show Meadows a ‘good time’ by taking him on many side-trips including a whorehouse where the young virgin has sex with a prostitute (Carol Kane). As the time grows near for them to turn their prisoner over to the authorities they start to feel reluctant about doing so, but the fear of being kicked out of the navy and losing all of their pay and benefits keeps them grounded in their responsibility even as Meadows tries several times to escape.

It may seem amazing to believe now, but this film, which has won over almost universal appeal both from the critics and film viewers almost didn’t get made due to the fear from the studio that the word ‘fuck’ was spoken in it too many times. Screenwriter Robert Towne, who adapted the story from the novel of the same name by Daryl Poniscan, was pressured to take most of the uses of the profanity out of the script and in fact production was delayed while both sides had a ‘stand-off’ about it with Towne insisting that “this is the way people talk when they’re powerless to act; they bitch.” Eventually the script got green-lit with all the ‘fucks’ intact, which at the time was a record 65 of them. In retrospect I’m glad Towne held his ground as without the F-word being used, or some silly lesser profanity substituted in, would’ve given the film a dated feel when being watched by today’s standards where the word is said hundreds of times on social media and sometimes even in commercials where it’s only slightly bleeped-out. This is a problem when watching other films from the late 60’s and early 70’s where goofy slang gets thrown in to compensate for the lack of the F-word, which in turn hurts the film’s grittiness and edge, which thankfully got avoided here.

The story was a problem too as many studio execs considered it too ‘non-eventful’ to make for an interesting movie, but this is the whole reason why the movie is so special as it doesn’t try to throw in the cheap antics other Hollywood films might to make it ‘more entertaining’. The film remains low-key and fully believable throughout and may remind others, as it did me, of one’s own coming-of-age experiences when they were 18 and hanging out with others who were older and more worldly-wise. Cinematographer Michael Chapman, who appears briefly as a cab driver, insistence at using natural lighting only also helps heighten the realism.

The story takes many amusing side turns that manages to be both poignant and funny including a brawl that the three have with a group of marines inside a Grand Central Station restroom, though I did wish some of the other segments had been strung out a bit more. One is when the three men attend a group encounter, which features Gilda Radner in her film debut, to a bunch of chanting Buddhists. I felt it was weird that the men just stood in the background and didn’t assimilate with the group during the meeting and begin chanting alongside the others, which would’ve been funny. The scene inside the hotel room where Buddusky can’t get his roll-out cot to fold-out right and forcing him to sleep in a uncomfortable position should’ve been played-out more too. Are we to believe that he slept that way the whole night?

Of course it’s the acting that makes this movie so special. While I never pictured Nicholson with his over-the-top persona as being someone who would be a part of the regimented culture such as the navy I ended up loving him in it and felt this was the performance he should’ve won the Oscar for. I especially got a kick out of the way he would get all fidgety when outside in the cold, which I don’t think was acting at all as it was filmed on-location in the Northeast during the very late autumn/early winter and I believe he was really freezing as he was saying his lines.

While his character is not as flashy, Otis Young is every bit as excellent as it takes a good straight-man, which is what he essentially is, to make for a good funny man. The part was originally meant for Rupert Crouse, who unfortunately got diagnosed with cancer just as the production began forcing the producers to bring in Young as a last minute replacement, but he manages to deliver particularly in the scene on the train where he loudly castigates Buddusky for his misbehavior. Quaid is quite good too even though he goes against the physical characteristics of the character, who in the novel was described as being ‘a helpless little guy’, but director Hal Ashby, who can be seen briefly during a barroom scene, choose to cast against type by bringing in a tall, hefty fellow who looked like he could defend himself if he had to, but is just too sheltered to know how.

The ending is the one segment where I wished it had been a little more emotionally upbeat. It’s still a big improvement over the one in the book where Buddusky dies, which fortunately doesn’t happen here, but it still isn’t too memorable either. The film though overall does a good job of conveying the underlining theme of how the navy men where just as imprisoned as Meadows, at least psychologically, and unable to consider life outside of the navy box that they had spent their entire lives in and where thus locked-in more so than Meadows, whose sentence in jail would only last 8-years versus a lifetime like with Buddusky and Mulhall.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 12, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 44 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Hal Ashby

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Lookin’ to Get Out (1982)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Hiding out in Vegas.

Alex (Jon Voight) is a high stakes gambler in debt for $10,000. Joey and Harry (Allen Keller, Jude Farese) work with the syndicate and when they come around to collect their debt from Alex he escapes out of the city with his pal Jerry Feldmen (Burt Young) where they go to Las Vegas in hopes of recouping the money by playing blackjack. Alex employs the services of Smitty (Bert Remsen), an expert card counter, to help him at the dealer table, but just as he and Jerry think they’ve got their situation solved Joey and Harry reappear and chase the two through the hotel demanding that the debt be repaid immediately.

The script was written by Al Schwartz who based it on some of his own life experiences as he struggled to make it in the entertainment world. While working as the business manager to singer/songwriter Chip Taylor he showed him the script to get his opinion and Chip suggested that Al send it to Jon Voight, Chip’s brother, and when Jon read it he purportedly ‘fell in love with it’ within the first 30 pages. The story is a bit different as the situations itself aren’t necessarily funny, but instead it relies on the desperate nature of the characters and the way they interact with each other for its humor.

It was filmed at the MGM Grand Hotel, which at 6,852 rooms is the largest single hotel in the United States and third largest in the world. The ambience of the place is well captured and reminded me of the atmosphere of a lot of casinos I’ve stayed at where everyone is looking to ‘get lucky’ while in the process living very much on the edge. Having the plot that place over only a two-day period nicely reflects how gamblers live for the moment without any concern for either the past or future. It’s all just about the risk and excitement of beating the odds, which on that level, the film captures admirably well.

The acting helps, particularly from Voight who gives a souped-up rendition of his more famous Joe Buck character from Midnight Cowboy, playing a clueless schmuck who believes he can con his way out of anything and it’s also great seeing him share a scene with his real-life daughter Angelina Jolie, who at age 4 makes her film debut, appearing briefly as Alex’s daughter near the end and to date has been the only project that the two have done together. Young is also quite good as his more sensible friend and to an extent that he becomes the person the audience connects with. Remsen has a few key moments too playing a character that initially seems insignificant to the story, but slowly begins to have a much more meaningful presence by the end. As a buddy formula it works, but throwing in Ann-Margaret as Alex’s former girlfriend who comes back into his life, doesn’t gel and she should’ve been left out.

The foot chase where Alex and Jerry try to outrun Joey and Harry by dashing throughout the hotel is the film’s single best moment and I was impressed with how unlike other movie chases scenes there were no jump cuts and you can visually follow the action even as it shifts between different rooms. The other segments though get overly drawn-out. While his trademark was a slower, more subtle pace, which worked in his previous movies, director Hal Ashby would’ve been wise to have paired this one down. The plot isn’t intricate enough to justify the long runtime and a 90-minute version would’ve been ideal. The original theatrical cut was 105 minutes, which had issues too, but the longer director’s edition isn’t perfect either and in this instance less definitely would’ve been more.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: October 8, 1982

Runtime: 2 Hours (Director’s Cut)

Rated R

Director: Hal Ashby

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

The Landlord (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: In over his head.

Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges) is a spoiled 29 year-old from a wealthy family who is still living at home with his parents in an affluent suburb of New York.  He decides it is time to ‘make his mark’ by purchasing a rundown building housing black tenants in inner-city Brooklyn.  He plans to evict the people and have the structure renovated into a posh flat.  He starts having second thoughts though as he gets to know the people and learns of their struggles.  He begins a relationship with one of the women (Diana Sands) and soon he is working to upgrade the building as well as trying to enlighten his racist, snobbish parents (Walter Brooke, Lee Grant) to embrace the black movement.

The Enders character is a perfect microcosm to the 70’s period where idealism and efforts to improve inner-city life, as well as some of the harsh realities that came with it, where at an all-time high.  Director Hal Ashby’s first film is full of strong gritty visuals from the rundown, graffiti-laden buildings to the garbage strewn lawns. Everything was filmed on-location and you get a vivid taste of the black experience. It is boosted even more by the detailed cinematography of Gordon Willis, which makes the most of the natural lighting and making you feel like you are right there.   The honest no-holes-barred approach is terrific. It perfectly captures the mood and feel of its era. I was surprised for a first time director, even a really good one like Ashby,  how well-constructed and technically sharp this was, which could have some link to the fact that it was produced by another great director, Norman Jewison, whom I’m sure lent a lot of input.

Initially I found the Elgar character to be off-putting, but that could’ve been intentional.  We first see him sitting on his lawn chair being served a drink by a black servant while talking about his great plan and looking like a spoiled, snot- nosed kid who has been coddled all his life.  The one scene that I remembered from this film when I first saw it over 20 years ago is when he  gets out of his Volkswagen bug to look at the building while wearing a tacky looking Pat Boone white dress suit.  When some of the black men sitting on the building’s front steps tease him a little, he immediately panics and runs eight blocks down the street in terror even though no one was chasing him.  However, he does start to grow on you as the film progresses.  I liked the fact that he faces adversity and is not scared away.  He learns to persist and adapt.  He genuinely starts to care about the people and backs-up what he says to the extent that he single-handedly carries new toilets one-by-one from the hardware store to the apartment building when the plumbing breaks down in an amusing vignette.  He isn’t afraid to tell off his arrogant parents when he needs too and his definition of NAACP is pretty funny.  It is satisfying to see him mature, learning that instituting change is not easy and things are the way they are for a reason.  He eventually is forced to confront his own limitations, but becomes a stronger person for it. This is without a doubt Bridges best performance to date.

There are other great performances as well.  Pearl Bailey is a gem as one of the building’s feisty, older women tenants who is the first to befriend Elgar.  Her awkward visit with Elgar’s equally feisty mother is considered the film’s highlight by many viewers and critics. I also loved the look she gives Elgar at the very end when he tries to wave goodbye to her.  The gorgeous Diana Sands is outstanding playing the role of Francine who has an ill-fated affair with Elgar. She shows just the right balance of sexiness and seriousness and it was a shame that just a few years after this film was made she ended up dying of cancer at the young age of 39. Susan Anspach is fun in one of her early roles as Elgar’s pot smoking sister.  The performance though that leaves the strongest impression is that of Lee Grant who is hilariously hammy as Elgar’s priggish mother.

When I first saw this film I came away thinking that it was uneven and a bit bipolar. It runs most of the way as a gentle, quirky satire filled with goofy cutaways, but then ends with a very stark and frightening scene with Elgar being chased down the grimy hallways of the building by Francine’s angry ax-waving husband (Louis Gossett Jr.) when he finds out that Elgar has gotten his wife pregnant.  The scene is ugly and intense and a far cry from the rest of the film’s gentle tone. Yet upon second viewing I think this scene works and was necessary. It makes a good statement at how volatile temperaments can be of those that are forced to leave in squalor as well showing how easily people, even with the best intentions, can get in over-their-heads when they don’t fully appreciate, or understand the situation that they are getting into it.

The side story involving a mulatto women (Marki Bey) who falls in love with Elgar is solid as well and gives the viewer a keen insight as to how difficult it is for someone who can’t seem to be accepted by either race. The language and conversations are tough and vulgar, but always laced with realism.

The only complaint I have with the film is the portrayal of the white characters who are buffoonish and overly idiotic even for satire.  I thought the idea of having them still use black servants was over-done, but then when one of them shows up at a party wearing blackface it was overkill. I thought it was unfair and unrealistic in the way that the film worked so hard to give depth to its black characters, but then turns around and, with the exception of Elgar, paints the whites as nothing more than broad caricatures.

The Landlord has finally been released on DVD through MGM’s Limited Edition Collection. I would suggest this film for anyone who enjoys an intelligent comedy-drama with something to say. It is also a great chance to see young up-and-coming actors. This includes Hector Elizondo as well as comedian Robert Klein. You can also get a very quick glimpse of Samuel L. Jackson who appears briefly in an uncredited role as a minister near the end.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: May 20, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 52Minutes

Rated R

Director: Hal Ashby

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, DVD