Monday, February 23, 2015

Who's That Girl

(PG, Warner Bros. Pictures, 92 mins., theatrical release date: August 7, 1987)

Who's That Girl has been marketed since its 1987 debut without a question mark, thus leaving it open for various interpretation or the simple implication that it is Madonna "who's that girl." Nobody uses that query throughout the film's script, even though Madonna's Nikki Finn is a prime egotist who demands the attention of anyone within a 100 yard radius with her atomic baby doll whine. This lack of coyness is something you could never accuse Madonna of, especially in the mid-1980s, which saw intense interest in the pop goddess' married life, private parts and maybe even the dry-cleaning bills for her gaudy outfits.

But since even Madonna wants to know based on the English and Spanish chants of said inquisition in the chart-topping tune which shadowed the film, I think I have an answer we can all agree on.

Who's That Girl? The answer is: Marlo Thomas. Duh!

You probably expected me to say Nikki Finn, who's that girl Madonna plays here, and you wouldn't be wrong. But whereas Marlo Thomas was the Everygirl of 1960s television, Madonna was a decidedly shrewd personality of her own fabrication. Teenage girls grasping for personality went from the Pat Benatar look popularized in Fast Times at Ridgemont High to dressing like punkettes at a Salvation Army nuptial, as dictated by either Madonna or her contemporary Cyndi Lauper. Think back to TerrorVision and the character Diane Franklin played in that one, Suzy Putterman, and you've got a mirror's reflection of the fad in all its pink-tinted, peroxide-damaged glory.

Remember how I said that Diane went from playing dimwitted sex objects to actual characters with quirks and their own skewed intelligence? Well, I called it "going to Camp" in short, but watching Madonna in Who's That Girl made me pine for a VHS-style tracking error to reveal the other film. Not only had the teacher become the apprentice, but she was bringing home report cards dire enough to get her legally disowned let alone grounded for a month.

Shanghai Surprise should have been a lesson, but Madonna decided to try her hand at old-fashioned comedy and romance once more by pursuing a role in a project initially called "Slammer." She even tried to get an ever-combative Sean Penn onboard to no avail. Madonna did manage to influence the choice of director in James Foley, a friend of the couple who directed Sean in At Close Range and also helmed Madonna in that film's tie-in music video for "Live to Tell" as well as her subsequent "Papa Don't Preach" promo. And compared to Shanghai Surprise, in which she was hired solely as an actress, Madonna was more hands-on in the exposure of Who's That Girl by connecting it to her musical career, cutting four songs exclusive to the compilation soundtrack (which also featured dance pop label mates Club Nouveau and Scritti Politti) and embarking on her first worldwide concert tour to boot.

Alas, more people paid to see Madonna in the stadiums than in the cinemas. Who's That Girl failed to capitalize on the Material Girl's clout and became her second bomb in a row, complete with Worst Actress Razzie Award and plenty of damage control in the meantime as Madonna collected herself for the Like a Prayer/Truth or Dare media juggernaut to follow.

In the tradition of the same year's Mannequin, the movie opens with a cartoon credits sequence that depicts the fateful events which landed Madonna's Nikki Finn in jail on a seven-year sentence. Drawn by April March, who later worked on The Ren & Stimpy Show and became a singer (her "Chick Habit" was memorably used at the end of Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof), we see that Nikki's boyfriend was involved in some kind of duplicity which left her with a key to some incriminating photographs and a dead lover in the back of her trunk which she takes the fall for. Eventually, we learn that Nikki has been sprung from the slammer after four years on the condition she travel to Philadelphia to meet her parole officer.

The megalomaniacal, multi-millionaire Mr. Big who orchestrated her disgrace is Simon Worthington (John McMartin), who is about to marry off his daughter Wendy (Haviland Morris) to one of his underlings. That lackey is Loudon Trott, a bespectacled tax attorney with a tight schedule and a tightwad. In the course of the next 24 hours, time which is booked to do all sorts of preparations for his ceremony with Wendy, Simon demands Loudon to pick Nikki up and see her off on that bus to Philly.

Now we get to the inevitable point in the review where we have to talk about Madonna the Wonder Thespian. Oh, boy.

When she played conniving Christian treasure hunter Miss Tatlock in Shanghai Surprise, Madonna betrayed the spark and sexiness she demonstrated in Desperately Seeking Susan with a stiff, confused central performance. Not only was she out of her element, she didn't even appear to have one to begin with, as the vexing screenplay couldn't even commit to allowing her to play a flaky femme. She helped to drag the movie's energy level down just as much as the director, the writers and her co-star did, and Madonna took a very public hit for her efforts of lack of them.

But the opposite works, too.

This time, Madonna goes from having too little personality to smothering us with her presence. I read a review over at DVD Verdict which gets to the heart of Madge's newfound miscalculation. Madonna was already blessed with a live wire presence that made her the premier female icon of the 1980s, even more so than Cyndi Lauper. "Like a Virgin," both the video and her VMA performance, are legendary in cementing this compelling, carnal image. And though Madonna actually did go on record as confirming Rob Lineberger's later suspicion that Nikki Finn was meant to be "a tough-on-the-outside, kind-on-the-inside oddball with camouflaged good looks and street smarts," the resulting attempt at Billie Dawn (from Born Yesterday) isn't even as good as Billie Jean [Davy], let alone anything Judy Holliday or Melanie Griffith could accomplish.

I'm trying to be as polite as I possibly can in my criticisms, because if I weren't so civilized, I'd come right out and say this: Nikki Finn is the least loveable, most overbearing and downright ANNOYING heroine of any film I've ever seen in my life!

What the hell, Madonna?! Were you trying to be the gender inverse of Pee-Wee Herman? Were you so threatened by Cyndi Lauper that you felt you had to one-up her with a persona that would make even the King Ad-Rock turn and run? I mean, Lauper herself didn't lay it on this thick when she made her own star vehicle with 1988's Vibes. Let's ignore the fact that Madonna's painfully forced Brooklyn patter often kills the fast-paced banter to such a degree that her co-stars seem just as mortified as the audience. All you need to know is that she skips...she SKIPS! And not in a playfully sexy way, either, nothing that would endanger the movie's PG rating. No, she SKIPS like a kindergartener!!

Come back, Diane Franklin! I'll take back almost every negative thing I said about The Last American Virgin if you'll please just save me from Nikki!

So...Loudon makes the rendezvous to intercept Nikki, who dutifully begins her campaign of free-spirited (read: mentally-impaired) anarchy by taking control of his mother-in-law's Rolls Royce and damn near causing a catastrophe on the expressway just so she can go the mall and shoplift a few cassettes. A half-hour into the film, Loudon has to be hospitalized in response to Nikki's sociopathic, stunted arrogance, the better for her to hijack the Rolls and go to Harlem to pick up a gun on his stolen credit card.

And there's a wild puma.

Its adopted name is Murray the Tiger (Nikki can't even make the obvious distinction based on his lack of stripes), and Loudon had previously stowed it in the back of his Rolls as a favor for a client named Montgomery Bell (Sir John Mills). He takes a liking to Nikki and pops up to roar at various interlopers from time to time, kind of like an Amazonian car alarm. But anyhow, Loudon becomes essentially a hostage in Nikki's grand scheme to get revenge on the thugs who deceived her, eventually being so enticed by the wild, wild life that he becomes romantically entwined with her.

So far, I've avoided naming the actor who plays Loudon Trott because I feel like I'm trying to preserve some kind of Witness Relocation bargain. That would be Griffin Dunne, who prior to this endured burial under some macabre Rick Baker prosthetics as the mauled schmuck Jack in An American Werewolf in London. But more crucially, he is also best known as the wound-up yuppie stranded in Soho from Martin Scorsese's After Hours.

I like Griffin Dunne a lot. He can be side-splittingly funny in a deadpan manner and has a propensity for physical abuse which is reminiscent of vintage screwball comedy without forcing it. A vast majority of the film's chuckles and guilty pleasure guffaws come from Griffin's commitment to the material, whether he's humping a hospital door in a frenetic escape attempt or trying to gain control of his situation with the sardonic strictness of a disappointed parent. He has the Cary Grant-as-nerd look down pat, but there's nothing misguided about Griffin's characterization.

Aside from Griffin Dunne and Sir John Mills, who have the timing and precision to make even the hoariest one-liner seem fresh, nobody comes across well, not even Haviland Morris, who I praised to the high heavens in a previous assessment of Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

The biggest trouble with Who's That Girl is that it strains to be a classic screwball farce in contemporary drag. The 1980s weren't very dry as far as this conceit went. Romancing the Stone, The Sure Thing and A Fish Called Wanda were all highly entertaining and immaculate pastiches of successful romantic comedies of yore. And Who's That Girl could've joined the ranks if only more discipline and taste had been applied. As it stands, writers Andrew Smith (The Main Event) & Ken Finkleman (Grease 2) are allergic to genuine wit. And poor James Foley, whose specialty is brooding character drama, the best being his adaptations of edgy writers Jim Thompson (After Dark, My Sweet) and David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross), shows little finesse in trying to orchestrate the madcap proceedings. Howard Hawks he will never be.

As if taking a cue from Madonna's fatally broad wannabe-broad, Who's That Girl confuses shrillness with satire and falls smack into the smug trappings of most dopey comedies of its era. It's sound and fury typifying nothing, clumsily edited and hardly as cute in its chaos as it purports to be. Whether it be the Harlem gun dealer firing machine gun rounds over the head of Loudon, who has just tried to field a call from Wendy over the sounds of his Rolls being vandalized, or Nikki screeching for her precious key in a jewelry shop, Foley continually undermines a scene by having some random extra scream bloody murder.

Even when the volume does drop, the jokes are as hackneyed and telegraphed as ever. Of course, it will be revealed that Wendy was the village bike of Scarsdale, or that the two detectives tailing Nikki will have the kind of catty repartee which outs them as gay lovers, or that the gangsters Nikki shakes down for information will plummet into the river and return dragging seaweed behind them like the tided-over zombie lovers from Creepshow. The pace may be speedy but since the timing and the imagination behind such gags is transparent, these are further noisy distractions. By the time Wendy's bridesmaids are kidnapped, those who haven't experienced tinnitus will have groaned loud enough to have done the job.

The few decent gags include a prenuptial agreement which doubles as the anti-Kama Sutra, but I, for the life of me, can't remember anything else. I was damn exhausted at the end of it all, and less in the mood for love than the need to get a physical.

I recently bought Bloodhounds of Broadway on DVD, which is impulsive in non-hindsight, but it's actually one of Madonna's more tolerable efforts. That troubled film's reputation only grows as I find myself being inundated with more ephemera from Madonna's abominable marquee name past.

Who's That Girl, eh? Well, if I may end it like Ricky Roma, maybe the better question to ask is "What's the point?"

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989)

(PG, Columbia Pictures, 93 mins., theatrical release date: November 3, 1989)

It's "The Broadway Melody of 1928" as produced by PBS, but Bloodhounds of Broadway ended up swallowed whole on The Great White Way. Surprisingly obscure for something which boasted an ensemble of once and future movie stars, the disastrous release of the film in late 1989, nearly two years after it began filming, was particularly bittersweet in recounting the sad fate of its director, Howard Brookner. The NYU-schooled playwright and two-time documentary filmmaker finally got his gamble in the Hollywood racetrack. Unfortunately, Brookner was living in the early stages of AIDS for months before production, the chilly Jersey climes and tight schedule weakening his defenses as he refused his AZT regimen. Initial editing of a rough cut version had to be carried out whilst he was hospitalized in the summer of 1988.

Columbia Pictures waived final cut, though, and would impose post-production chicanery after Brookner's inaugural edit was deemed incomprehensible. It was also unceremoniously sold to fledgling Vestron Pictures only for the rights to boomerang back in the wake of 35-year-old Brookner's passing on April 27, 1989. To add further indignity to the late artist, according to former Tri-Star Pictures chairman Mike Medavoy, the film's theatrical rollout saw an entire reel go missing which nobody apparently noticed. The critical consensus was unkind, and despite being made for roughly $4 million, it netted close to $43,500 at the box office in limited release.

Plus it gave Madonna, who took a supporting role as a favor to Brookner instead for any hefty salary, her third consecutive Golden Raspberry nomination, although this time she mercifully lost the dishonor to Brooke Shields' mile high flub from Speed Zone! It's safe to say that unlike her previous failed grasps at leading lady credibility in Shanghai Surprise or Who's That Girl, Madonna is much less of a problem this time around. Indeed, like in Desperately Seeking Susan, her character of Hortense Hathaway, Flapper Queen, makes no demands other than her natural wattage, and chances are you could remember her fondly either doing a Mummy Dearest striptease or belting a decent if anachronistic take on the 1931 Bing Crosby hit "I Surrender Dear."

Or you could remember it if Bloodhounds of Broadway itself didn't get treated like a major studio's Poverty Row refugee. With its reshuffled yet still dysrhythmic footage and tacked-on narration worthy of Blade Runner in its thudding literalness, Brookner's supposed intention for a dense, intertwined anthology culled from the Damon Runyon catalog instead plays as if an entire miniseries was chopped down to 90 minutes. Based on four of the Roaring Twenties wordsmith's romanticized paeans to les années folles, this has a lot more going on than the 1952 Harmon Jones musical of the same name, albeit detrimentally.

As scripted by Brookner and Colman deKay, Bloodhounds of Broadway ostensibly charts the fates of four schlubs and the dames who enflame their hearts:

a) Schlub #1 is Regret (Matt Dillon), a cocky bettor nicknamed for the only pony who delivered. His paramour is Lovey Lou (Jennifer Grey), a solemn showgirl whose patience is wearing thin in her pining for the skirt-chasing Regret. Their strained courtship is further beset by a murder rap which leads Irish-brogued Inspector McNamara (Gerry Bamman) to suspect Regret.

b) Schlub #2 is The Brain (Rutger Hauer), Broadway's top mobster and wry gentleman about town. At Mindy's café, which is where all of the main cast are gathered for introduction, The Brain treats Regret and stranger John Wangle (Alan Ruck) to a hearty meal, accompanied by Wangle's two hungry bloodhounds. But it's the impresario's last supper before getting shivved by Daffy Jack (Brookner), emissary to rival Mafioso Homer Swing. The Brain's henchmen seek out his various mistresses hoping for safe haven, but they all reject him. However, his karma could change if his act of kindness to a poor flower girl named Mary (Madeleine Potter) goes rewarded.

c) Schlub #3 is Basil Valentine (Ethan Phillips), a Nervous Nelly who falls under the amorous eye
of socialite Harriet McKyle (Julie Hagerty). After giving Inspector McNamara the slip by introducing him to Wagner's hounds, Basil makes his way to Harriet's posh New Year's bash and bluffs his way into convincing her he's a thug. But when humiliated playboy Handsome Jack (Esai Morales) takes a shot at her prized parrot in a fit of rage, Basil finds himself an accidental assassin.

d) Schlub #4 is Feet Samuels (Randy Quaid), an honorable, hapless goofball "lousy in love" with Hortie Hathaway (Madonna), the star attraction of Missouri "Mizzoo" Martin's (Anita Morris) nightclub and niece of type-writing confidante Waldo Winchester (Josef Sommer). In his suicidal desperation, Feet sells his body to quack Doc Bodeeker (Robert Donley) for $400, which he invests in craps and poker games which make him even richer. Torn between his gradually requited love for Hortie and his impending obligation to Doc, Feet is forced to welsh for the first time in his life, either for true love or an end to his misery.

The movie crisscrosses between these four primary stories in a rather unwieldy manner, relying on Waldo's voice to make the necessary transitions and color commentary. After Feet hits it off with Hortie at Harriet's and Regret woos fellow lonely heart Miss Maud (Dinah Manoff) to Lovey's confused chagrin, the two schlubs are immediately transported to a poker table presided over by Big Shelley (Herschel Sparber), a temperamental goombah who tries to grease the wheels in his favor against the improved odds favoring Feet. These sudden shifts are indicative of much of the film's structure, which sacrifices any real breathing room or compelling flow for simple whimsy.

Judged on their own merits, only a couple of the stories truly retain their power to charm. "The Brain Goes Home" segment is carried along by appealing turns from regular rogue Rutger Hauer, who is a thrill to watch even pale-faced and dragged around in near death, and the beatific Ms. Potter. As a simple morality play, it gets the job done. But the most pathos is mined from the most pathetic character in the lot, Randy Quaid's Feet, in an overlooked showcase for the cracked comic talent to truly flaunt his character chops. Quaid's so physically vibrant and devoted to the role, he makes Waldo's narration surrounding him all the more redundant.

The dalliances between Basil and Harriet as well as Regret and Lovey unfold with a more comedy-of-errors tone, replete with copious double-crosses and misunderstandings, which demand a certain momentum this movie cannot achieve. The catchall ending which resolves the four stories tries to link these two particular strands together with equal indifference. The twists they offer up are shrug-worthy, at best. Better to just appreciate Hortie's fantasy of the simple life, replete with chicken farm and an overnight wedding ceremony in Hackensack that doesn't require a blood test.

Brookner's not entirely without promise, though, especially in the handling of his wide variety of performers as well as the periodically perfect production design. The likes of Matt Dillon and Jennifer Grey don't appear to be stretching beyond their comfort zones (rascally and angsty, respectively), thus making for easy amiability. But Julie Hagerty builds upon her reputation as a grand comedienne (honed from Airplane! and Lost in America) with a chameleonic abandon as the politely repressed Harriet. And in taming the wild Madonna, here with a brunette bob reminiscent of Louise Brooks, Brookner coaxes the superstar into an honest-to-goodness performance, cheekier and less grating than either of her previous cinematic disasters.

As well as reliable turns from Esai Morales, Dinah Manoff and Ethan Phillips, Brookner's film is loaded with plenty of recognizable mugs even in the margins. There's a boyish Fisher Stevens as a practical joker named Hotfoot Harry, always on the lookout for shoes to torch; Richard Edson (Super Mario Bros. flashbacks, anyone?) as dice parlor emcee Johnny Crackow; Steve Buscemi as one of the bums Feet bests at the card game; Michael Wincott as Soupy Mike, the smirking fugitive tending bar at Harriet's Park Avenue palace, plus William S. Burroughs (the subject of Brookner's first doc) as her butler; Tony Longo as Crunch Sweeney, The Brain's right hand man and love interest for Miss Maud; Stephen McHattie as Red Henry, the gunsmith who antagonizes Handsome Jack; and Louis Zorich as Mindy, the restaurateur with the wavering policy towards serving bloodhounds.

Brookner also shows some humorous compositional flair, whether it be the sight of Hortie slow dancing with Feet, using his oversized cleats as a cushion, or the actual countdown to 1929 heralded through a montage of ticking clocks and barking dogs alongside the usual revelers.

But even after giving Brookner the benefit of the doubt, what Bloodhounds of Broadway reminds me most of is another screen adaptation made over a decade later, Rent. The original stage production was notoriously overcast by its creator Jonathan Larson's early death and the film version was so belated that by hiring both mainstream mogul Chris Columbus and the same actors who originated their roles, it was played way too safe. Brookner's legacy seems to parallel Larson's in as morbid and misfortunate a way. It's not a total bust, and I would watch this over Shanghai Surprise any day, but I don't feel like giving Bloodhounds of Broadway my love, my life, my all.