Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Ready? Get Set!

I’m told the latest indignity of travel is that instead of the handy personal seatback TV screen that makes long flights tolerable, you are now encouraged to hook up the airline’s communications system to your very own personal device, like an awkward iPad or an itty-bitty mobile phone.  Aargh! Fortunately for me, on my last business trip to NYC I had a genuine (and mostly working) seatback screen to amuse me. Of course, the movie offerings were spotty, which is why I found myself choosing to see a most unlikely documentary, one that had never before come to my attention. It’s called Set!, and I was hooked by the explanatory subtitle: “An Inside Look at the World of Competitive Table Setting.”

 Yes, really. It’s called “Table-Scaping,” by those in the know. The idea is to set a table that observes all formal rules of correctness (utensils, plates, and napkins all in exactly the right position), while also displaying creativity through the use of backdrops, table coverings, and elaborate decorative tchotchkes. Each competition selects a theme, of course, and hands out medals and trophies to those who fulfill it best. Set! focuses on one such competition, a major annual event staged on the grounds of the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa, California. Vying for the coveted Best of Show honors are a number of middle-class, middle-aged ladies, and at least one amiable man. The documentarians clearly are having fun exploring the various personalities on display: the much-decorated table-scaping veteran; the mother/daughter duo; the world-traveler showing off her souvenirs;  the kook with mystical leanings. Mostly they’re a convivial bunch, until push comes to shove. But some of the more affluent (those who set their tables with Waterford crystal goblets) do tend to look down on one poor schnook. He’s out of work and short on cash, which is why his decorative supplies come from the local dollar store. How déclassé! 

 At the competition being covered in Set!, the theme is International Travel. This lends itself quite naturally to colorful displays of the “It’s a Small World” variety. (The out-of-work guy tries a sweetly childlike Dr. Seuss variation: “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”) Someone evokes Marrakesh, while one big winner simulates dinner in an Italian vineyard, complete with a grape-festooned gazebo lit by a Venetian chandelier. Two contestants choose African safari settings. One of them bets big on a romantic picnic in the veldt, while the other has something quite different in mind. This particular contestant, something of a maverick, traditionally begins her table-scaping efforts with a good soak in a sensory deprivation chamber to stir up ideas. Maybe that’s why she leans toward the macabre. She surrounds her tableware (all correctly placed, of course) with taxidermized African wildlife, accented with rifles, bullets, and fake blood. Though she wins no big prizes, she certainly gets a lot of attention.

I once was a huge fan of Christopher Guest spoofs, those hilarious mock-docs in which—with a cast full of gifted improvisers—he affectionately satirized people’s passion for folk music (A Mighty Wind) or regional pageants (Waiting for Guffman).  Perhaps the most popular of these was Best in Show (2000), an outrageous look at the contestants, both human and canine, in a snooty, highly-competitive dog show. Guest seems, alas, to have left that genre behind, but I’d think table-scaping would inspire him to reach even greater heights. Just imagine what Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy could do with some plates, forks, and goblets. That’s a meal I’d gladly eat. Cheers!



Friday, July 1, 2022

Making a Killing in “Coogan’s Bluff”

I first saw Coogan’s Bluff more years ago than I’d care to count (OK, it came out in 1968), when I was a fledgling film critic for the UCLA Daily Bruin. Not much of a fan of action films, I was totally lacking in context with which to assess Clint Eastwood’s first of five collaborations with director Don Siegel. Today, familiar with Eastwood’s early spaghetti-western period as well as his later renown for tough-guy roles, I can clearly see how Coogan’s Bluff led directly into Eastwood’s infamous Dirty Harry period.

 The movie’s opening scene tells you everything you need to know about Coogan. Driving a jeep purposefully through the bleak but beautiful Arizona desert, he ignores the urgent bulletins coming in through his police radio. A Native American in a loincloth, armed with a rifle, seems to have the drop on him, but Coogan fells him with a kick to the balls, then snarls, “Put on your pants.” The guy turns out to be a wife-killer, so we’re not too sorry for him. But Coogan’s treatment of Running Bear is surprisingly cavalier: he chains him to the post of a local home, then scoots inside and initiates a bathtub romp with the pretty homeowner, whose other half is conveniently out of town.

 Deputy Sheriff Walt Coogan always gets his man. But he doesn’t care how many formal procedures he violates in the process. To take him down a peg, his superiors send him to New York City, to bring back a fugitive named Jimmy Ringerman (Don Stroud) who’s being charged with murder. The tight-lipped lawman and the Big Apple turn out not to be a good fit. First he’s stiffed by a cabbie who demands that his tiny satchel be charged as luggage. Then Ringerman is not immediately available for extradition: he’s suffered a bad acid trip and landed in Bellevue, which means a lot of red tape must be navigated before Coogan can fly home. And everyone he meets assumes that, with his Stetson and his pointy boots, he must be from Texas. So he’s hardly an “I ♥ NY” kind of guy.

 Still, there are compensations, Strictly in the line of duty, he gets it on first with a sappy social worker  (Susan Clark) who is far too protective of her clients to watch out for her own welfare. Then there’s the pretty but ditsy hippie chick (Tisha Sterling) who likes Jimmy Ringerman and psychedelics, not necessarily in that order. The women in this movie, who also include Ringerman’s hard-boiled mother and an ancient hag convinced that every man she’s ever met is out to rape her, are not the brightest representatives of the female of the species.

  Coogan loves sex, but he’s equally a fan of beating people to a pulp. Still, he can’t entirely hold his own in a pool hall where he’s jumped by a whole squad of Ringerman’s pals. He makes up for it later up at the Cloisters (yes, there’s some New York location shooting to go along with some highly artificial-looking interiors), where Ringerman is hanging out. They both commandeer motorcycles, and we’re treated to some classic stunt driving before Ringerman is finally felled.

 Which doesn’t mean Coogan can sidestep all red tape. The local police lieutenant, played by Lee J. Cobb, sees to that. But the film concludes with what passes for a happy ending, with Coogan and his prisoner heading home, while Susan Clark in a red miniskirt tearfully waves bye-bye.  

 Kudos to Lalo Schifrin for his jazzy score, and to Hollywood veteran Betty Field as Ringerman’s no-bullshit mom.









Tuesday, June 28, 2022

“Prizzi’s Honor”: Where Are They Now?

After The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather, Part II (1974) swept up every honor in sight, Hollywood couldn’t get enough of Italian-American mafioso types. But well before Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990, starring the late Ray Liotta) and TV’s The Sopranos (for six seasons, starting in 1999), came Prizzi’s Honor, directed by one of Hollywood’s oldest and feistiest lions. I’m talking about John Huston, responsible over the decades for such studio gems as The Maltese Falcon in 1941, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948, The African Queen in 1951, and The Man Who Would be King in 1975. As an actor, he also turned in an unforgettable performance as sinister tycoon Noah Cross in 1974’s Chinatown. Prizzi’s Honor was released in 1985, when Huston was almost eighty. It was his last film but one; he followed it up with a poignant adaption of a James Joyce story, The Dead, made as he approached his own death in 1987.

 Prizzi’s Honor, too, has its somber moments, but it is at base a comedy, if an extremely macabre one. Jack Nicholson, reuniting with Huston a decade after Chinatown, plays a Mafia hitman with a deep loyalty toward his ancient padrone. The latter, Don Corrado Prinzi, is vividly played by a sepulchral-looking, gravel-voiced William Hickey, who earned an Oscar nomination for this role. The body of the film starts, à la The Godfather, with an elaborate cathedral wedding scene in which an overblown bride is joined in holy wedlock to a shrimpy little groom, as a massive group of wiseguys looks on with approval. Nicholson’s Charley Partanna is one of them, cocky and slightly cynical about the world around him, but newly entranced by the unknown blonde in the balcony.

 That luscious lady in lavender is played by Kathleen Turner, just three years after she’d burst onto the screen as the dangerous Matty Walker in Body Heat. Svelte and blessed with an seductively throaty voice, she couldn’t be more enticing. Of course Charley is smitten, but the surprise is that she seems to be enraptured by him as well. Their coupling plays out both in New York and L.A. (lots of amusing shots of a now-defunct airline heading right to left, then left to right, across the screen). But who is this mysterious blonde, and what’s her game? The audience figures it out before Charley does. (He’s not too smart. She likes that in a man.) 

 Tension builds, as Charley’s love for Irene starts to interfere with his obligation toward the honor of the Prizzi family. All is resolved in a conclusion you won’t soon forget. This was a movie that was adored by critics, but perhaps less so by squeamish audiences. Though nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, it won only for Anjelica Huston’s supporting-actress turn as  Maerose Prizzi, the Mafia princess spurned by Charley and itching for revenge. Sweet revenge for Anjelica too: the talk had been that she was cast in the film only because she was Huston’s daughter and Nicholson’s girlfriend. Turning in a seethingly angry performance, she fooled them all.

 John Huston, of course, is long gone now. Jack Nicholson, once Hollywood’s favorite man- about-town, has not been on screen in a dozen years, and rumors fly abut his physical and mental state. Turner’s still working, notably in TV’s The Kominsky Method opposite Michael Douglas, but her svelte shape is long gone and her husky voice is now almost a baritone. Happily, Anjelica too remains active, though a lot of her recent work is in voiceover. Time is cruel in the entertainment biz.