I have a VHS problem. They are my Chapstick: bought frequently, replaced before sufficient use, and lost from my pockets as collateral damage when I retrieve change overzealously. Adventures in Home Video is an attempt to subsidize that problem and justify its consuming ruin by digging into three loosely connected, barely discussed VHS tapes that I happen to own. There’s no telling what we’ll find when we rewind. You’re all enablers now. Join me, won’t you?
We need reporters now more than ever. Not the fourth estate kind that defend the truth as thorns in the side of elected grifters — I mean, yeah, they’re alright. But I’m talking the kind that end up prime suspects in no less than 70% of the crimes they cover, and work in newsrooms staffed by character actors that can reasonably pass for chainsmokers. I’m talking about movie reporters, like the three in today’s tapes: The Osterman Weekend, The Public Eye, and The Mean Season.
John Tanner is an all-American broadcaster who loves hunting, hates government oversight, and hosts a political talk show that specializes in “addicting people so they can’t switch it off.” He’s what Alex Jones sees in the mirror, but softened by the Germanic charms of Rutger Hauer in his casual-supermodel prime. The cast may be the only part of The Osterman Weekend that works: Hauer, Dennis Hopper, Burt Lancaster, John Hurt, Craig T. Nelson, Chris Sarandon, Meg Foster and her x-ray eyes. All signed on the cheap just for a chance to work with Sam Peckinpah on what would tragically be his last film, which would even more tragically be fed to a Cuisinart and come out a lesser Cannon programmer in all but production company.
Every year, Tanner and his old Berkeley chums spend a drunken weekend playing water polo and coveting each other’s wives. But this year, the CIA strong-armed Tanner into helping prove his buddies are conspiring with the Commies by rigging his house with cameras. Meanwhile, his “neolistic anarchist” pals suspect blackmail. It should be a recipe for tense double talk and much flexing of jaws, but besides some worryingly enthusiastic horseplay in the pool, The Osterman Weekend gives up the game as fast as it can, logic be damned. Osterman is only worth watching for Action Jackson completists as another entry in the “Craig T. Nelson: Karate Master” canon, anyone curious to hear how Lalo Schifrin would’ve scored softcore porn, and fans of sleazy ‘80s thrillers that end with the hero gleefully blowing a crater through the bad guy because he loves his wife.
The Public Eye has no such heart for family values. In fact, most of the supporting cast takes turns explaining to Joe Pesci exactly why he’ll die alone. “No woman could love you,” says his best friend. At least his enemies call him “a little man with a camera and a five-cent cigar.” Like Osterman, this movie is more noteworthy for what it represents than what it does. The Public Eye is a rare cinematic cryptid – the Joe Pesci vehicle. It’s also writer-director Howard Franklin’s only ‘90s work without Bill Murray. As the prelude to Larger Than Life and The Man Who Knew Too Little, it’s whiplash. As the follow-up to Quick Change, an essential NYC-as-purgatory text, The Public Eye is underwhelming.
Pesci plays The Great Bernzini, a thinly veiled surrogate of famed street photographer Weegee. He keeps a dark room in his trunk and doesn’t mind posing as a priest to get a better angle on the butcher knife in somebody’s skull. If there’s a reason to seek out Public Eye (and Universal hasn’t done it any favors) it’s Pesci, running with his Oscar momentum from GoodFellas. He’s quieter than his legend here, a thinly veiled sweetheart who sees the beauty in life’s ugliest alleys. Barbara Hershey, luminous as a velvet-voiced club owner, watches Bernzy meticulously pose a passed-out drunk for a picture with something like awe. Everything else, handsomely produced as it is, feels back-ordered from the noir catalog. The Public Eye is no more or less than the sum of its parts, but given the parts, even that’s a little disappointing.
The Mean Season may not have the pedigree of Osterman or Public Eye, but it doesn’t need it. This is the kind of Great Value thriller that seemingly went direct-to-free-HBO-weekend and lives on in set pieces falsely ascribed to other, better movies. But most of those other, better movies don’t star Snake Plissken running around desaturated Florida in stone-washed jeans and prescription aviators matching wits with a sweaty serial killer.
Kurt Russell plays a Miami Journal reporter who’s lost it all: “A little enthusiasm, ambition, drive.” He wants to quit, but a murderous fan refuses to talk to anybody else. Trouble is, nobody else seems to understand why he’s obligated to listen to the guy. The cops wish he’d get out of the way. His wife screams “It’s turned into a collaboration!” after he reminds her to lock the front door. If a surlier actor played the part, ego would’ve been an easier sell. Then again, the man runs clean across Miami and jumps a rising drawbridge to make sure his wife is okay instead of calling for a squad car, and that’s some A-number-one Kurt. Early on in the newsroom, a reporter watches a fleet of TVs, all tuned to the local affiliates but one, showing Tom and Jerry chase each other around. Somewhere in between, you have The Mean Season.
Two choice chunks of ‘80s junk food and one reheated TV dinner from the ‘90s that’s better than its reputation, but only if you’re in the mood. About the only thing they have in common now is an accidental genre and setting – fantasy, a utopia where newspapers are financially viable.