Elmore Leonard is not unfamiliar with his writings being turned into movies and television series. After all, his are the stories behind 1995′s “Get Shorty”, 1997′s “Jackie Brown”, and the FX Network series “Justified” with Timothy Olyphant (my personal favorite), so when I saw his name on the cover of this heist-laden movie, I was all kinds of excited. And I wasn’t let down.
“Freaky Deaky” is set in 1974 Detroit and crime is at an all-time high. Almost-former bomb specialist Chris Mankowski (Billy Burke) has been called to the home of a local crime lord named Booker (Page Kennedy) who has unwittingly sat on a bomb strapped under a chair. Mankowski is so jaded by the crime that he barely flinches when the bomb detonates as he’s outside with Narcotics officer Jerry Baker (Roger Bart). Mankowski is forced to look at the case- and others as well- when he meets Greta Wyatt (Sabina Gadeki), who wants him to look into the explosion death of local heir Mark Ricks (Andy Dick), as she fear his brother Woody (Cripin Glover) will be next. Mankowski takes the case and soon finds himself on the trail of demolition enthusiasts Robin Abbott (Breanne Racano) and Skip Gibbs (Christian Slater at his all-time creepiness). He also has to deal with would-be conman and Woody’s bodyguard Donnell Lewis (Michael Jai White), who is looking to better his own situation as much as he can and by any means necessary. Mankowski is forced to watch his own back while reying to keep Woody safe, all while investigating Mark’s death.
This is a quirky story, on that Elmore Leonard has said was one of his favourites that he’s written, and while the story tends to jump from one group to the other a lot and seemed to get a little convoluted, it had a pretty even flow to it. Each actor seemed to go out of their way to overact the hell out of the stereotype they were playing (especially Slater- wow!) and it added to the campiness of the film as a whole. My personal favourite was still Michael Jai White- he was so utterly fantastic as the opportunistic body guard to Glover’s eccentric Woody. And had nothing whatsoever that not only is he Spawn, but he is also Black Dynamite, which you could hear in some of his deliveries.
“Freaky Deaky” is now available on DVD.
Elmore Leonard’s novels are fuelled by dialogue. Punchy, quick-witted words fired off in a way to give you the lowdown on character AND drive you through the story. But film versions? Now that’s a tricky one. For every Out of Sight, Get Shorty, and Rum Punch (filmed as Jackie Brown) there’s a Be Cool, Killshot, and Stick … and the list of negatives outweighs the positives.
Fortunately, Freaky Deaky is no crime against filmmaking. It’s a good, solid, fun movie with a handful of standout performances and, having read the book, I can confirm it stays faithful to Elmore’s words and wisdom.
It’s the kind of film that looks like it was a blast to make, and director Charles Matthau, cinematographer John J Connor and the editing team appear to be a playful bunch. The film has chapter headings, just like a book, and these then scroll back to reveal the scene. There’s some nice ultra low-angle shots and clever tracking sequences, and a throwaway scene in a phone box, through which you can see a cinema promoting a screening of The Front Page, a 1974 film starring Walter Matthau (the director’s dad).
The reason for the 1974 film reference? Well, Freaky Deaky is set In Detroit in 1974, where the collars are wide, the trousers are flared, and as the gumshoe-loving soundtrack will attest, there’s either a saxophone player on every fire escape or a guy with a guitar and a wah-wah pedal on the street corner.
Writing the short version of an Elmore Leonard film/novel is like nailing jello to the wall. But this might help set you on the right lines … Bomb Squad cop gets reassigned to Sex Crimes Unit, meets hot actress who claims she’s been assaulted by wealthy-powerful freaky guy, whose assistant is a cool, scheming, devious piece of work. Throw in a couple of radicals – one a hot temptress and one an acid casualty/stunt co-coordinator – keen to take revenge on the same freaky guy and his brother, and finish it off with the fact that everyone here seems very at home with explosives and guns.
Billy Burke is suitably disheveled as Chris Mankowski, the cop trying to do the right thing, but his thunder is stolen by Michael Jai White as Donelle Lewis, the schemer who’s just trying to get his hands on the big money. Jai White’s performance is comedy gold, full of ticks and twitches, and world-weary exasperation. Freaky Deaky’s women are hot, as befits femme fatales and damsels in distress. Breanne Racano (Robin Abbot) is all sexy looks and feline charm, while Sabina Gadecki (Greta Wyatt) is wide-eyed puppy-dog innocence and heart-melting smiles.
The film’s two biggest stars, Christian Slater and Glover, get the kooky, crazy-guy roles and both are good value for it, particularly Glover whose Woody Ricks is played like a man always answering the question you asked four questions before – and then answering the question you know you hadn’t asked.
Occasionally, Freaky Deaky steers too close to pastiche: a tracking shot along a police department corridor could almost have come from Airplane! and this distracts you from the action, and the film’s own sense of humor. And sometimes it’s just not quite fast-paced enough or as funny as it thinks it is. However, there’s so much to enjoy and so many clever touches to admire that it’s almost certain to leave you with a smile playing around your lips or a wiseass putdown on your mind.
Prebook 12/19; Street 1/16/07
First Look, Comedy; $24.98 DVD, ‘PG-13’ for sexual content.
Stars Estella Warren, Christian Kane, Michael Weatherly, Rachel Dratch, Kathy Griffin, Victoria Jackson,Ivana Milicevic, Flex Alexander.
After the success of The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, how many more comedies about adults who have never had sex can there be? Charles Matthau’s new film, written and produced by novices Jim and Debra Meyers, should answer that question for any interested parties.
Wisely choosing to avoid imitating the Steve Carell hit, this film takes a similar premise but keeps it very clean, turning it into an old-fashioned comedy of errors and a twist on the conventional battle-of-the-sexes story.
The “minor thing” in the title refers to the fact that, at 25, the wildly attractive, accomplished and intelligent Gina (Warren) is still a virgin. Her secret inadvertently goes public when her boyfriend, vain newscaster Tom (Weatherly of “NCIS” and “Dark Angel”), mistakenly mentions it on the air, touching off a series of events that brings both rabid virgin-hunters and frothing feminists out of the woodwork.
Needless to say the broadcast cancels the relationship between Gina and Tom, leaving her to weather the storm of publicity, struggle to retrieve a refund for a cruise that the once-happy couple planned to go on, and attempt to avoid becoming attracted to Paul (Kane, from “Angel”), the new guy in town and Tom’s cameraman.
The major thing that Her Minor Thing has going for it is a wildly appealing cast. Now, where it was completely believable that Steve Carell’s geeky character was a virgin at 40, it is the ultimate exercise in suspension of disbelief to accept the astonishingly beautiful Estella Warren’s smart, successful and lovable character as a 25-year-old virgin.
But, the experience of watching Warren and the rest of the cast, which also includes Dratch from “Saturday Night Live,” having so much fun really elevates the featherweight plot and sometimes hokey dialogue to enjoyably watchable film status.
In a production that gives every evidence of being a labor of love, Truman Capote’s 1951 novel “The Grass Harp” has been brought to the screen. The result is a success: a sweet, wise, funny, poignant film that rides on a first-rate cast applying its considerable talents to the engaging tale of young Collin Fenwick (played as a teen-ager by Edward Furlong), who comes to live with his spinster cousins in a sleepy Southern town after his mother and father die in swift sequence.
It’s the era of Glenn Miller and swing, but while war is looming in the world outside, life there is relatively peaceful. That is, until his cousin Verena Talbo (Sissy Spacek), who owns everything else in town, begins to harbor designs on the dropsy elixir concocted according to a Gypsy recipe by her fey sister, Dolly (Piper Laurie), and their servant, Catherine Creek (Nell Carter), who looks black but insists she’s Indian.
At that point, Collin, Dolly and Catherine flee to a treehouse in the woods and to fields of windswept grass — the grass harps that carry the voices of the dead, Dolly says — where they gather their herbs. Before long Verena discovers she has been gulled out of her fortune by the slick Morris Ritz (Jack Lemmon) from Chicago. Meanwhile, the sheriff (Joe Don Baker) is sicced on the fugitives in the treehouse and on Sister Ida (Mary Steenburgen), a hip-swinging evangelist who turns up with her 15 children for a tent meeting that very much upsets the town’s resident cleric, Reverend Buster (Charles Durning). All of this, of course, is the subject of considerable tongue-wagging at the barbershop run by Amos Legrand (Roddy McDowall).
The gallant who comes to Dolly’s defense and rediscovers love in so doing is lonely old Judge Charlie Cool, played by Walter Matthau, whose son Charles directed the film from a screenplay by Stirling Silliphant and Kirk Ellis.
There is more to “The Grass Harp” than the antic comedy that provides its chaos and conflict. Judge Cool isn’t the only character who learns something about love and life. There are lessons here, too, for the stern, mercenary Verena and for young Collin, Capote’s alter ego, who, by the film’s end, is well equipped to leave for New York to pursue a career as a writer.
The performances are uniformly expert, sharp renderings of distinctive individuals. Charles Matthau, who is also among the film’s producers, has managed to set them in a landscape specifically distant and atmospheric, but also one where timeless messages speak across the generations and decades.
“The Grass Harp” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It includes some violence.
THE GRASS HARP
Directed by Charles Matthau; written by Stirling Silliphant and Kirk Ellis, based on the novel by Truman Capote; director of photography, John A. Alonzo; edited by Sidney Levin and Tim O’Meara; music by Patrick Williams; production designer, Paul Sylbert; produced by Mr. Matthau, Jerry Tokofsky and John Davis; released by Fine Line Features.
Running time: 107 minutes. This film is rated PG. WITH: Piper Laurie (Dolly Talbo), Walter Matthau (Judge Charlie Cool), Sissy Spacek (Verena Talbo), Jack Lemmon (Morris Ritz), Mary Steenburgen (Sister Ida), Edward Furlong (Collin Fenwick as teen-ager), Grayson Fricke (Collin Fenwick as child), Roddy McDowall (Amos Legrand), Nell Carter (Catherine Creek), Charles Durning (Reverend Buster) and Joe Don Baker (Sheriff).
(Drama — Color) A Fine Line Features release of a Charles Matthau-Jerry Tokofsky-John Davis production. Produced by James T. Davis. Executive producers, John Winfield, Solomon LeFlore, Michael Mendelsohn. Co-producers, Kirk Ellis, Stirling Silliphant. Directed by Charles Matthau. Screenplay, Stirling Silliphant, Kirk Ellis, based on the novel by Truman Capote.
Helmer Charles Matthau combines a sensitive screenplay adaptation of Truman Capote’s autobiographical novel “The Grass Harp” with a wonderful ensemble cast to create a jewel of a film. Fine Line will need some creative marketing here, but buoyed by good reviews, this should click with audiences hungry for a movie with substance.
Collin Fenwick, Capote’s alter ego, loses both his parents at an early age. The young Collin (Grayson Frick) is forced to move in with two of his father’s cousins, the Talbo sisters. In an inspired bit of casting, they’re played by Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek (who portrayed mother and daughter in “Carrie”).
Laurie is the sensitive Dolly, who makes do during the Depression peddling a home remedy created in her kitchen with the help of family cook Catherine (Nell Carter). Dolly’s sister Verena (Spacek), is a businesswoman who owns most of the stores in town, and treats everyone — including Collin and Dolly — as employees.
Episodic story focuses on Collin’s coming of age, with Edward Furlong taking over as the teenage character. Collin is a shy, hesitant type, but he loves Dolly and learns from her about the “grass harp,” the ability to hear the voices of departed ones as the wind rustles through the tall grasses.
Walter Matthau (the director’s father) approaches hamminess as the town’s eccentric retired judge but skillfully avoids crossing the line. In another terrific bit of casting, frequent Matthau collaborator Jack Lemmon appears as Morris Ritz, a Chicago sharpie who’s romancing Verena. The two men have only one brief scene together, but director Matthau is clever enough to realize that audiences would be disappointed if it wasn’t there at all.
Stirling Silliphant and Kirk Ellis have fashioned a big-hearted script that manages to evoke Capote’s wistful reminiscences without becoming mawkish.
Director Matthau gets credit for keeping several balls in the air.
He manages to quickly sketch in supporting characters like the Reverend Buster (Charles Durning) and the sheriff (Joe Don Baker) without letting them seem like throwaways. They are integral to the texture of life in the town, as is Roddy McDowall as the gossipy town barber. Mary Steenburgen scores as the proprietor of a traveling revival meeting.
While no performance is off the mark, the film rises or falls on the Talbo sisters. Laurie and Spacek are riveting.
Tech credits are solid.
There’s an audience out there for a movie like this, and if Fine Line takes the time to build awareness, it has a winner.
A Fine Line Features release of a Charles Matthau-Jerry Tokofsky-John Davis production. Produced by James T. Davis. Executive producers, John Winfield, Solomon LeFlore, Michael Mendelsohn. Co-producers, Kirk Ellis, Stirling Silliphant. Directed by Charles Matthau. Screenplay, Stirling Silliphant, Kirk Ellis, based on the novel by Truman Capote.
Dolly Talbo – Piper Laurie
Verena Talbo – Sissy Spacek
Judge Charlie Cool – Walter Matthau
Collin Fenwick – Edward Furlong
Catherine Creek – Nell Carter
Morris Ritz – Jack Lemmon
Sister Ida – Mary Steenburgen
Riley – Sean Patrick Flanery
Sheriff – Joe Don Baker
Reverend Buster – Charles Durning
Amos Legrand – Roddy McDowall
Maude – Mia Kirshner
Young Collin – Grayson Frick
Narrator – Boyd Gaines
Camera (color,) John A. Alonzo; editor, Sidney Levin, C. Timothy O’Meara; music, Patrick Williams; production design, Paul Sylbert; art direction , Chris Gorak, Stan Jolley; costume design, Albert Wolsky; sound (Dolby), Clark King; casting, Mary Jo Slater, Shay Griffin. Reviewed at Sony Copley Place Theatre, Boston, Sept. 1, 1995. (In Boston and Toronto film festivals.) Running time: 107 min.
Date in print: September 18, 1995 – Los Angeles
Tired of hate? Feel like a five-Kleenex movie? “Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love,” with captivating performances by Ellen Burstyn and Walter Matthau, won’t leave a tear-duct dry Sunday (at 9p.m. on Channels 2 and 8).
This is the kind of plot that theatrical movies won’t touch. The material is even rare for a network prime-time movie. It’s character drama, and the characters are old people, plus a little kid — not exactly a high concept.
But this production breathes; it makes a burnished statement about aging (a nursing home scene is ripe with cinema verite grittiness), it’s an emotional snooping, and Grandma and her 9-year old grandson hit the road, on the run from mindless civil servants and venal relative and his dime store girlfriend who want the old lady’s house and custody of the boy (a solid performance e by Ryan Todd), as loveable, mildly eccentric old family confidant (Matthau) comes to their rescue.
And that doesn’t be in to describe the heavy stuff that concludes the drama in an operatic blizzard of joy and angst.
Amazingly, the sentiment works, thanks to Burstyn’s shaded performance. She’s on the screen twice as much as Matthau, and anybody ever emotionally bundled up by a grandmother will relate to this survivor in her frayed coat and battered sedan. Charles Matthau, Walter’s son, directed for producers Robert Halmi, Sydney Pollack and Alan Jacobs.
Ryan Richmond is teen-aged nerd with a problem. Even his own family can’t accept him. He’s bookish, inventive, strangely different from the norm of life in Sunnydale, Ariz., prune capital of the world.
Soon young Ryan discovers the reason that he feels like such an outcast – he’s an extra-terrestrial. His ancestors mated long ago with creatures from another planet and he is the result, along with a select handful of other weirdos who regard Ryan as their leader.
Doin’ Time on Planet Earth is a fairly clever send-up of old sci-fi movies and current films about virginal nerds. It also gleefully skewers domestic life by showing that you don’t have to be from outer space to be weird.
Everything must be normal and pleasant at the Richmond house, or so it is hoped by Ryan’s family. Older brother Fred is about to be married and his fiance and her parents (Hugh O’Brian and Martha Scott) are visiting. Ryan’s happy, gauche father (Hugh Gillin) can’t understand why the guests aren’t more excited about his prize achievement the revolving dining room nightclub he installed atop the local Holiday Inn that he owns.
In good-natured fashion, the film makes fun of the chief obsession of teen movies in the 1980′s making love for the first time. Apropos of this being a satire, Ryan goes after the sleaziest gal in town, Lisa, the Vegas-styled lounge singer. “She’s a hooker,” his best friend tells him, but those are not words about to stop Ryan.
In the best tradition of Ann-Margaret imitators, Lisa sings badly, destroying MacArthur Park, and rides a motorcycle. Ryan is enchanted. Gradually, so is she with this fresh-faced young Jerry Lewis type, especially if he has big plans to get out of Sunnydale.
Adam West (TV’s Batman) and Candice Azzara (wearing a ridiculously high beehive hairdo) are funny as fellow E.T.s sent to prepare Ryan for his mission. Newcomer Nicholas Strouse is convincing as a wide-eyed reactor to increasingly absurd situations, such as the arrival of a Kuwaiti college recruitment counselor who says, “I spit on the Ivy League.” The tone of the picture is off-the-wall and most of the time, screenwriter Darren Star and director Charles Matthau bring it off.
Not everything works. Ryan’s sleep-walking visit to the already occupied family bathroom is dumb. But there’s enough nuttiness to sustain the story.
Doin Time on Planet Earth makes hash of ideas brought forth seriously in other films. At a time when good satires are hard to find, this one is welcome.
DOIN’ TIME ON PLANET EARTH
Directed by Charles Matthau; Written by Darren Star
WITH: Nicholas Strouse, Andrea Thompson, Adam West