Sunday, August 16, 2020

Hitchcockian Blogathon – Jumpin' Jack Flash

This post is part of the Hitchcockian Blogathon,


All of the other posts will be linked to from here as they become available.


In 1986, I don't think there was a single actress who had come as far and as fast has Whoopi Goldberg at that point in time. She had just come off a hit one-woman show on Broadway that was recorded for a HBO Special that was released to a very well-received home video. 

At this point, she only had two motion pictures under her belt, a small independent film called, Citizen, and a little film that you might have heard of from Steven Spielberg called, The Color Purple. Whoopi Goldberg was nominated for best actress for the role. Personally, I think she was robbed. In fact, I think The Color Purple was robbed (11 nominations, no wins, don't get me started). In spring of 1986, she would star in an episode of the hit TV series Moonlighting, which would bring her a nomination for a  prime-time Emmy for outstanding guest actress in a drama series.

Next up, is the discussion of today's post, Whoopi Goldberg's 3rd film, Jumpin' Jack Flash. The film is the feature film directorial debut of Penny Marshall, and from my point of view, it seems like it was built around Whoopi Goldberg's unique talent for characters and comedy. Reading the Wikipedia post on the film, Jumpin' Jack Flash originally started as a vehicle for Shelley Long. I assume but the entire film had to be reworked for Whoopi Goldberg. I can't see Shelley Long doing any of the things that Whoopi Goldberg does in the film. 

At the box office, it was a modest success, made its money back and then some. The critics on the other hand hated it almost universally. The critic for the New York times said that Penny Marshall directed Jumpin' Jack Flash "as if she were more worried about the decor than the effect of the performance." Ouch. Me, I loved it then, and I love it still. I love Whoopi Goldberg's performance. I love the kitch 80s decor and totally outlandish clothes that Whoopi wears. And the story, I thought it was a clever little Cold War thriller. You heard that right, I said Cold War thriller. This blogathon is about films emulating the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and this story puts it right in the wheelhouse.

Whoopi Goldberg plays Terry Doolittle, a computer operator at a New York bank, working in the department that handles foreign transactions. It turns out that the bank shares a satellite with Russian television and about once a day, she starts picking up a Russian aerobercise  show on Soviet TV.

Though Terry practically runs the place, she is always at odds with her conservative boss over her attire, the tchotchkes adorning her monitor, and her penchant for having private conversations with her customers. After completing business, she talks to her customers about everything from trading Springsteen bootleg tapes to exchanging recipes to hearing the down and dirty of one her French client's erotic escapades. Called on the carpet by her boss who admits she is his most productive employee, her boss tells her that if she cannot refrain from private chit chat, she will be looking for work elsewhere.

Almost immediately afterwards, Terry receives a private chat message on her machine after business hours:
Anonymous User: KNOCK KNOCK

One of her co-workers (Carol Kane) thinks that it must be her boss trying to trap her, but she knows better. Her boss is way too square to come up with something like Jumping Jack Flash. In the brief conversation that ensues, she discovers that this mysterious user is a British agent trapped in Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain. In order to help him, she must guess his code key, so they can speak privately without others eavesdropping.

From that point on, Terry is drawn into a world of spies, killers, CIA operatives, KGB moles, and an uncooperative British government as she tries to help "Jack" obtain an exit to escape Soviet-controlled territory. She must use her wits, computer skills, and quirky personality to navigate this web of intrigue.

I don't want to say much more about the plot for those who haven't seen it, which I'm guessing at this point is most people. Admittedly, certain things may seem goofy, but it plays off Goldberg's strengths for doing characters and handling outrageous situations, like when she infiltrates a British Consulate Ball, by posing as a Diana Ross impersonator.

The cast is good, a mix of comic actors that you do know and others that you do not or at least have to think about where you saw them before. Carol Kane is great as one of Terry's coworkers, the office tramp. Annie Potts is also good as one of Jack's spy contact's wife. SNL alums Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman have small roles as Terry's co-workers at the bank. Veteran actor Roscoe Lee Browne adds a little dignity as one of Jack's contacts, who despite sympathizing with Jack and Terry's predicament is unwilling or unable to help. James Belushi it's actually pretty menacing as a heavy. Finally, there's a cool cameo from Michael McKean and Tracey Ullman.

Most of the rest of the cast, you're left kind of scratching your head trying to figure out where you saw them last. Stephen Collins is good as another of Terry's seemingly square co-workers, as is John Wood as a British Consulate bureaucrat. Jeroen Krabbe (shown to the left) shines in a brief role as one of the spies.

Last but not least, we have Jonathan Pryce as Jack. You only see him in the last 2 minutes of the movie, but at one point early in the film, Terry goes into Jack's apartment and listens to his answering machine. From that point on, Terry's chat conversations with Jack feature his voice-over. Honestly, I can't think of what I've seen Pryce in before or since, though he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for The Two Popes last year. What I like about him in Jumpin' Jack Flash is the big reveal. All too often spies are portrayed as a hybrid of male model/superhero in a white dinner jacket. Jack just looks like a guy, not bad looking, but not supremely handsome either.

Production-wise, Jumpin' Jack Flash is a film of the 80s. Terry wears some of the most outlandish outfits, but her character is a quirky young woman, and that's how people of a certain ilk used to dress back then. It works for me. Her apartment looks a bit like a Spencer's exploded, then again so did mine at the time. At one point, she is forced to defend herself when she has an unannounced guest show up, and she attacks with a gigantic toothbrush. Stupid, yes, ridiculous, yes, but also funny, yes. And I remember seeing those giant toothbrushes back when, and Terry is just the type of person who would have one. The walls of her apartment is also covered with classic film posters, also a thing in the 80s, and you have to love that.

The film does suffer the typical pre-1990 computer anachronisms that most films involving computers from that era do. You get computer graphics that are reminiscent of a cell phone startup screen from when cell phones were the size and shape of a Three Musketeers bar, and they're rendered on a Sperry business machine, which probably wouldn't have had the software or processing power to render graphics anyway. Terry's monitor goes from amber to color and back again at will. Part of this is understandable, the chat messages have Jack's messages in blue and Terry's in red, which does make them easier to follow. For people who don't know, most computers in the mid-80s had either amber or green monitors that only displayed simple graphics, like lines and boxes, and text in amber (or green) on a black background. Then again, pretty much any film from the 80s looks terribly terribly dated whenever the camera is pointed anywhere a computer screen. 

All in all, I love Jumpin' Jack Flash, despite what the critics say. For me, it's a fun mix of comedy and action, poured into the mold of a Cold War thriller. As a vehicle for Whoopi Goldberg's unique brand of comedy, it works great. It was her one woman show that got her noticed and made her a star in the first place. Jumpin' Jack Flash definitely takes advantage her talent for characters and voices and making humor out of a weird situations. After all, what is an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, but one big weird situation. You take an ordinary person and throw them into a web of spies. It doesn't get much weirder than that. Admittedly, Whoopi Goldberg's character is not ordinary, but she is believable and so is the situation. Jumpin' Jack Flash has humor, intrigue, betrayal, action, and suspense, wrapped up in a Cold War spy story. If that's not Hitchcockian, I don't know what is. 

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Hitchcockian Blogathon - The Wrong Trousers

This post is part of the Hitchcockian Blogathon,


All of the other post will be linked to from here as they become available.


When you think of the films of Alfred Hitchcock, or in this case, films inspired by Alfred Hitchcock, probably the last thing you would think of is clay stop-motion animation. Of course, that is what makes, the Academy Award-winning The Wrong Trousers such a treat. 

The Wrong Trousers is the second a series of clay-animated films, directed by Nick Park and featuring inventor Wallace and his trusty dog Gromit that spawned two more short films, one feature-length film, and several TV spinoffs. Still not seeing it? Yeah, I kinda get that, but let's look at the story of The Wrong Trousers. Okay, for the sake of people who have never seen the film and not wanting to do spoilers, let's take a very high-level look at the story, like 40,000 feet. An man and his trusty companion are running short on money and decide to rent a room to a mysterious lodger, who they come to learn has nefarious plans.

Sound a little be more like something that Alfred Hitchcock might be involved in? See I told you. Okay, you do have to look past the fact that Wallace is an inventor whose gadgets include a system that drops you out of bed, down to the breakfast table, and dresses you just in time for the toast to pop up. And Wallace's trusty sidekick Gromit is an anthropomorphic dog, who doesn't talk, but communicates every bit as clearly through gesture and facial expressions. 

 Putting Hitchcock aside for a second, Wallace and Gromit and all of Nick Park's films are cute and funny and at times have almost roller coaster action, and The Wrong Trousers is no different. The gags are clever, and even background objects like sets and props are a hoot to look at. All of the Wallace and Gromit films are first-rate productions from top to bottom.

In The Wrong Trousers, Wallace has invented techno-trousers as a birthday present for Gromit, a mechanical pair of pants designed to take Gromit for walkies. Gromit is less than thrilled with the idea. Discovering they have piles of unpaid bills, Wallace decides to rent out the spare room. The lodger is a penguin, and despite an upbeat taste in music, Gromit suspects he's up to no good. There's even a chicken who's wanted by the police, but you're going to have to watch it to figure that part out.

I honestly don't know whether director Nick Park was consciously trying to parody Hitchcock or not, but I see it all over the place, from dramatic strains of music to heighten the tension to way he lays out the shots, going from a perspective shot to what's being looked at and then turning on a dime to lead into a truly funny gag. 

The Wrong Trousers gives you love, betrayal, action, suspense, a music score that works just the way it needs to, great perspective shots, clever visual story-telling, a jewel heist, a fight on top of a train, and situations where the feeling goes from fear to relief to humor with a grace and style that would make the Master of Suspense proud. Things go sideways and you even find yourself pulling for the bad guy, or penguin. The climactic chase is just something you have to see for yourself. In  a scant 29 minutes, The Wrong Trousers gives you everything you'd expect in one of Alfred Hitchcock's better films.