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RELIVING THE SUMMER OF 1991 - WEEK TEN

by Brian Orndorf

Pinching the cheeks of the “Mobsters,” doing some high-heeled detecting with “V.I. Warshawski,” and watching the careers of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor flame out with “Another You.”



Mobsters

Nutshell: Four ruffians raised on the harsh streets of New York City, Charlie Luciano (Christian Slater), Frank Costello (Costas Mandylor), Bugsy Siegel (Richard Grieco), and Meyer Lansky (Patrick Dempsey) have grown into a powerful gang of criminals, using their intellect and youthful bravado to storm the underworld. Standing in their way are bosses Faranzano (Michael Gambon), Masseria (Anthony Quinn), and Rothstein (F. Murray Abraham), forcing the team to playing a gruesome game of intimidation and calculation, looking to rise to power by encouraging their enemies to kill one another.



1991: Obviously modeled after the startling success of 1988’s “Young Guns,” “Mobsters” ditched the leather and grime of the old west for the dapper wear and tear of prohibition and the rise of the gangsters. Also relieved of duty were the dreamboats of the 1980s, replaced here with the forefront of 1990’s Tiger Beat stardom, with producers latching on to rising star Slater as he suited up for starring duty. For some reason, perhaps obvious ones, none of this seemed ridiculous to me 20 years ago.

I thoroughly enjoyed “Mobsters” at the time, charmed by its youthful appeal, reworking a known genre with actors I was familiar with. Again, I was young and impressionable, not fully aware of “The Godfather” and its ilk. For me, this was Gangster 101 on the big screen, complete with blasting Tommy guns, naked dames, tough-talking brutes, and generous turns of fate. I wasn’t utterly won over, but the feature supplied the essential jolts and glares to generate a wild matinee viewing experience. At the time, I believed in the picture’s history and its frosty attitude. The feature’s calculated origins and perhaps silly exterior didn’t matter. I just thought the movie was badass.



2011: Time has provided a different perspective on “Mobsters,” especially with my life now as a film critic. Having been exposed to decades of mafia-themed storytelling and actual criminal history, it’s easier to spot the picture as a work of escapism, with its revisionist tale of Luciano and the founding of The Commission more easily digested as a cartoon, not as a serious examination of young iconic men rising to power.



Despite its formula and dabs of absurdity, there’s plenty to enjoy about this picture. Director Michael Karbelnikoff provides a compelling polish, capturing a heightened mood of the 1930s, heartily playing up the conventions of the gangster genre, even attempting to replicate sweeping montages and stare-downs, butching up the boys with some tricks from cinema history. It’s a stylish directorial achievement, infusing the material with a little more panache than it deserves, while keeping the four stars semi-believable as baby-faced brutes. Well, maybe not Dempsey, but Slater, Grieco, and Mandylor share a few heaving moments of thug posture.



“Mobsters” is glossy and shouldn’t be taken seriously. It’s not quite “Bugsy Malone,” but there are plenty of cringe-worthy moments where the young guns have clearly wandered out of their element. With hams Quinn (who’s always eating here), Gambon, and Abraham stomping around the frame, it’s easy for the four lads to look a little overwhelmed by the acting challenge. Unfortunately, much of the dialogue leans toward silly exchanges of bravado, sold with Chef Boyardee stuffed ravioli accents. The opening alone is an endurance test of goofiness, teeming with overcooked verbal emphasis, feats of testicle endurance, and the film’s ridiculous attempt to team up the titular teen titans. If you can stomach the initial 10 minutes of the picture, grasping its funny book attitude, than the next stretch of greased-back merriment is going to feel like a breeze.

It’s easy to disregard “Mobsters,” to point and guffaw at the premise and the casting. But let’s get real here, it’s far from the most embarrassing developing in gangster cinema.



The script is a huge detriment to the “Mobsters” experience. A blizzard of motivations and last names, the story is surprisingly difficult to follow, eschewing a simple task of booze running and protection sequences to build up a web of personalities all in competition with each other, with little time made to firm the associations. The picture feels paired down from an original, breathable version, leaving the 100 minutes here a sweaty sprint that grows sluggish halfway through. Considering its fractured take on history, “Mobsters” is best played simply and fiercely. Instead, the script is all over the map, puffing out its chest with a show of misguided storytelling force. There’s even a romantic interest for Luciano played by Lara Flynn Boyle, permitting a small serving of sex to compliment the violence. It’s all too much work, especially for a film that doesn’t reward patience.



“Mobsters” convinces, but only in small doses. The picture has trouble shifting gears, moving from one incident to the next. It feels like a history lesson from a particularly inept substitute teacher, hitting only a few highlights before it returns to a flat read of gangster specifics.






V.I. Warshawski

Nutshell: Private investigator V.I. Warshawski (Kathleen Turner) is a tough cookie, facing a community of crooks, cons, and men who disregard her ability. After a brief fling with former hockey hero “Boom Boom” Grafalk (Stephen Meadows), V.I. is shoved into the case of a lifetime when the man is murdered by unknown assailants, leaving his precocious daughter, Kat (Angela Goethals), in her custody. Hunting for clues in her own special way, V.I. comes to bond with Kat while probing deeper into the case, using her gift for male manipulation and help from horndog reporter Murray (Jay O. Sanders) to solve the crime.



1991: After the box office sputter of “The Rocketeer,” Disney was hit with another franchise failure with “V.I. Warshawski.” Adapted from the popular Sara Paretsky novels, the picture was intended to kickstart a series of detective pictures with Kathleen Turner, using her breathy appeal and high-heeled moxie to target a female demographic, looking to create some moviegoing heat with an underserved audience. Unfortunately, for all concerned parties, the celebration was fleeting, with “V.I. Warshawski” unable to encourage many ticket buyers.

The film opened at my theater to little fanfare or interest. Plopped into the smallest house in the complex, the feature was basically hung out to dry, leaving only a few curious souls to sample the picture, with many showings playing to an empty theater. And there’s nothing sadder than a summertime new release playing to an audience of none. Just ask “Super Mario Bros.”



To double the humiliation, some brave soul took the time to scratch a crude vagina on Turner’s body on the cardboard lobby standee. I wish I had a picture of this. I’ve witnessed the destruction of many marketing items in my lifetime, but nothing as overtly sexual, anatomical, and perhaps misogynistic as a vagina bluntly fashioned by someone with a few moments to spare, an enviable sense of peripheral vision, and access to a house key.

I caught the movie in sections while on shift, finally piecing the parts together with a full showing. I rather enjoyed the film’s brassy tone and swift pace at the time, digging Turner’s sass and boozy brawn. Although the concept of a female bruiser for a lead character wasn’t novel, it was still unsteady terrain. I immediately sparked to the concept, relishing the fisticuffs and general detective action of the picture. Turner was a smart casting choice, though this would come to be the motion picture that would mortally wound her big screen career.



2011: “V.I. Warshawski” is best viewed as an artifact from a transitory era, when female characters bred with an action instinct were just beginning to take hold of Hollywood. Nowadays, a brief glance of cable programming reveals show after show of rough ladies engaged in dirty work. Back in 1991, a character like V.I. Warshawski was an anomaly and Disney knew it, ordering a script that constantly underlines the detective’s femininity and puzzled male reactions to her forward behavior. It’s a rather odd film to watch in 2011.

“V.I. Warshawski” retains a brisk pace (though I’m sure there’s an enormous amount of deleted footage somewhere) and Turner is amusing to watch, not only for her effortless command of the frame, but her fading sexual appeal as well. The camera studies the actress’s legs, feet (shoe pervs, this is your “Citizen Kane”), and smile, while Turner seems eager to rough up her co-stars, visibly looking irritated with the sexpot routine that defined her career in the 1980s. The performer wants to play up Warshawski’s detective instincts while Disney would rather ogle with the intensity of a Mormon, unsure how to successfully launch a franchise like this without alienating male audiences.





Though blessed with a solid sense of Chicago and a compelling central mystery, “V.I. Warshawski” is thoroughly unremarkable, constructed more as product than a textured cinematic endeavor. Director Jeff Kanew lays on the gloss with workmanlike ease, trying to slip in and out of incident without the film collapsing, yet his lack of vision dilutes the final product, which resembles a television movie peppered with a few f-words. It’s a smooth picture, easy to watch, but there’s little here that sticks to the senses. Adding Kat to the mix also hurts the chance for any repeat viewings. She’s a contrivance that Kanew refuses to ignore, and Goethals seems a little too skilled at summoning bratty behavior. Her scenes are death.



Something memorable might’ve been offered down the line had Warshawski been permitted further big screen cases. With the gender anxiety settled, I’m sure the series would’ve found a comfort zone that permitted Turner to flourish. Instead, there was only one, and while spunky, it doesn’t leave a lasting impression.





Another You

Nutshell: Con artist Eddie (Richard Pryor) is paired with reformed liar George (Gene Wilder) as part of his community service requirements. Tasked with showing the institutionalized man around Los Angeles, Eddie soon takes great interest in George when he’s mistaken for a rich and powerful beer baron named Abe. Ushered into a life of privilege and into the arms of his wife Elaine (Mercedes Ruehl), George is overwhelmed, finding himself unable to stop lying to protect the scam, prodded on by Eddie. Complication arrives with accountant Rupert (Stephen Lang), who holds all the answers to Abe’s past, present, and future.



1991: Most movie maniacs received their introductory shot of the Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder comedy chemistry with films such as “Stir Crazy” or “Silver Streak.” Maybe even 1989’s “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” which came later in their careers, but offered the added bonus of Joan Severance in a supporting role.

I wasn’t as lucky as everyone else. “Another You” was my first Wilder/Pryor motion picture, which is a helluva way to say hello to a pair of comedy icons arguably at the lowest point in their respective careers. Chalk it up to bad timing.



Troubling is how I would describe my initial viewing of the film. Going in with a vague idea of Pryor/Wilder accomplishments, it was a heartbreaker to see these two squander their energy on such a mangled cartoon, running headfirst into a brick wall. Outside of Kevin Pollack’s supporting role as a patient in George’s hospital with a knack for impressions (I wouldn’t consider this “acting” today), there was nothing humorous about the picture. Instead, it was pure tedium, observing Wilder pop a few blood vessels to make the material dance while Pryor struggled with his multiple sclerosis symptoms, spending the majority of the movie sitting rigidly or taking limited, lurching steps.

Degenerative illnesses aren’t very conducive to comedy.



2011: While there’s no reason to cover “Another You” for the summer diary considering how poorly the film performed and how quickly it was forgotten, I had a sick need to revisit the title, if only to see how the picture compared to my memory. Also of interest was the opportunity to view Wilder in his last feature-film performance.

How bad was the movie? It made Gene Wilder quit show business.



Indeed, “Another You” is awful. The central mistaken identity plot alone is nonsensical at best, with Pryor and Wilder furiously riffing and yelling their lines in an effort to keep the energy up, perhaps fully aware the script was humorless and the logic impaired. Wilder is more committed here than he has to be, making his work endearing in gotta-be-professional manner, while Pryor is just sad to watch, clearly imprisoned within his own body. His mind his sharp, but his petrified physicality is distracting. Ruehl and Lang also work overtime to shovel this garbage, providing some pucker to the supporting characters, but it’s a wasted effort.

Director Maurice Phillips shows no flair for comedy. His timing stinks and he’s too permissive with Pryor, who just says whatever’s on his mind -- perhaps he never even held the script in his hands. Not that a funny flick should acknowledge its deficiencies, but watching a comedy commit fearlessly to utter nonsense is difficult to watch. The pained expressions from everyone involved suggest a bleak mood on this set.



While plagued with production problems (original director Peter Bogdanovich was fired after six weeks of shooting), it’s curious to note this rare occurrence: “Another You” is a summer 1991 film displaying a marquee for another summer 1991 release. They were really working down to the wire on this turkey.



It’s depressing to see the two performers bow out with this dud, but the future wasn’t bright, especially for Pryor. The end of “Another You” acknowledges the finality of the pairing, a sentimental touch the film could’ve used a lot more of. About halfway through the movie, anything but renewed attacks of comedy would feel like a summer vacation.





Coming next week…



We head back to a time when Charlie Sheen was intentionally funny.



Michael J. Fox goes country.



And Milla Jovovich does her best Brooke Shields impression.




link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3267
originally posted: 07/26/11 14:25:33
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