Monday, December 1, 2008

The Osterman Weekend (1983)

The Osterman Weekend is an interesting picture nearly ruined by an incomprehensible screenplay. Sam Peckinpah's final gasp before years of drug and alcohol abuse would claim him less than a year later. I find it interesting that Peckinpah was trying to re-establish himself in the film community with this picture since he must have known the end was so close. This one feels more like a gun-for-hire job with the usual Peckinpah flourishes appearing all too infrequently. It's based on a Robert Ludlam novel by the same name and, according to most accounts, Peckinpah had no love for the source material. He simply wanted to make a picture that the masses would see so he could make some cash and get back to making pictures that interested him. And then he died.

So, his heart wasn't really in this thing but, regardless, it's still pretty damned enjoyable even if I couldn't understand what the hell was going on at times. The film opens with a grainy video of a couple making love. I became worried that the entire picture would be filmed this poorly as there was no immediate indication that what we were seeing was a video within a movie. The man (John Hurt) leaves (bare assed) to go to the bathroom and a couple of men walk in and murder the woman in typically covert fashion (as it turns out, she's his wife). Turns out the video is being watched by William Danforth (Burt Lancaster), the head of the CIA. He ordered the hit on Hurt's wife. Strangely, he doesn't even remember why. Ironically, despite the most high tech video surveillance equipment (I think they used beta!) at their disposal, the CIA is fucking blind and Danforth is another case of the blind leading the, um, blind. Hurt, CIA operative Lawrence Fassett, is called into Danforth's office where he reveals the existence of a group known as "Omega". Some sort of soviet spy network. He presents a plan that entails "turning" these spies instead of simply eliminating them. He is, apparently, unaware of Danforth's participation in his wife's murder. He believes "Omega" to be responsible.

I'll be honest here, I cheated a bit with that previous paragraph. Some of those plot details arrived courtesy of wikipedia. The rest will be all me. This is a fucking needlessly convoluted mess. If it wasn't for the performances and the action and the constant titties on screen I probably would have turned it off. Anyway, Rutger Hauer (yes, him again!) also stars as John Tanner, the host of a television show called "Face to Face" where he allows guests, usually of a political nature, to come on and be ambushed by his anything goes line of questioning. Once a year, Tanner hosts what have come to be known as "Ostermans" (named after college buddy Bernard Osterman) at his isolated country home. Bernard Osterman, a marvelous performance by Craig T. Nelson, is a film producer. Also in attendance will be plastic surgeon Richard Tremayne (Dennis Hopper) and dog hating doucher Joseph Cardone (Chris Sarandon). Also, their horny wives. Tanner is married to Meg Foster, her with the frighteningly strange pale eyes, and she's as hot as she'll ever be in this thing. Something about a broad with a bow and arrow. Tanner also has a young son and a dog.

So, basically Fassett and Danforth approach Tanner and convince him (with video evidence) that his three college buddies are spying for the soviets as part of "Omega". Tanner, while leaning far to the left, is stringently loyal to his country. The plan is for Fassett to rig Tanner's home with hidden cameras and spy on them for the weekend. Tanner, without much prodding relents, but on one condition: That Danforth will appear on his show. Meanwhile, Tanner's friends hold secret meetings where it's clear they are up to something. It's not made clear exactly what that something is. One thing is made clear. They're not sure they can trust their "friend" John Tanner. It's going to be an uncomfortable weekend.

So many questions, so few sensical answers. First, just what the fuck is "Omega"? I'm still not really sure. Second, what is Fassett's motive? That one I finally figured out but it took some heavy lifting. What I loved about the film were the performances. John Hurt is great as Fassett, a shadowy man who spends most of the film appearing on the TV. He's rigged up every television in Tanner's home to run on a closed circuit and at one point communicates with Tanner on the TV in the kitchen while his guests are enjoying drinks in the other room. The guests suddenly appear and Fassett atempt's to disconnect the feed are hilariously fruitless so he's forced to give the weather forecast as Tanner is engaged in conversation. If you actually listen to what he's saying (he repeats himself a few times) it's clear he's got no idea what he's doing. This is probably one of the better performances Craig T. Nelson has given. He's introduced in a funny scene where he is getting his ass handed to him by his sensei. The sensei turns off the lights to "even things a bit". The audience hears typical fight sounds and when the lights come on the sensei has been destroyed in a non-lethal, almost friendly, manner ("I feel like that was better").

You know a movie is doing something right (or, is it wrong) when Dennis Hopper gives the film's most muted performance. He barely registers here and is, often, dominated (in several ways) by the performance of Helen Shaver, as his drunken, coked up wife. Chris Sarandon is clearly the baddest seed of the group. Upset by losing a game of water polo he kicks Tanner's dog and then threatens his wife with a gun after the tension reaches it's breaking point. Lancaster is pretty good too though his role can barely be called a glorified cameo. Hauer is fine as well although he's in the obligatory everyman part. "Everyman" as in it could have been played by any man.

The building tension, the breasts (ass too), the performances all help to sell this thing even as the faltering story tries to return it. However, this is Peckinpah and even disinterested, drunk out of his mind he still knows how to give us the action. Typical Peckinpah the action scenes are shot in a slightly disorienting slow motion as if the gods themselves were watching the event's unfold with their hands on the remote control. Kind of like me when I get to the nudie parts these deities prefer to break down the action and see how it unfolds. They can see breasts anytime they want after all they created the damned things. The assault on Tanner's house by CIA agents (?) is a master stroke. Osterman (whose side is he on?) kills one agent with his bare hands and spends most of the rest of the movie slow-mo diving out of the way of gunfire. Why are the agents suddenly descending upon the house with orders like "terminate" and "eliminate"? Where did Sarandon, Hopper and their wives get that motor home (did I take a bathroom break here?) so they could try to make their getaway. Thankfully, the motor home is also rigged with video cameras (and explosives) so Tanner can watch while Fassett delivers the picture's best line: "Think of them as fleas on a dog hit by a car driven by a drunken teenager whose girlfriend just gave him the clap. It will put things into perspective."

Fassett may or may not be evil (likely just driven crazy by grief). Osterman may or may not be evil. I'm pretty sure Danforth is evil (head of CIA after all). Meg Foster looks evil but I'm pretty sure she's ok. Chris Sarandon is a son of a bitch but I'm not sure that makes him evil. Fuck, and Hopper seems like a decent enough guy who just happened to marry a rotten money grubbing bitch. The critics, at the time and probably still to this day, were harsh with this one. The studio butchered it. A director's cut was released in 1988 but not sure if it had the official Peckinpah stamp of approval since he'd been dead for four years. Anway, I was never bored and mostly entertained. Out of all the Peckinpah films that I've seen this is the worst and that's still a fucking ringing endorsement because the worst of Peckinpah is better that most of the bullshit that Hollywood shits out these days. Damn, I just wish I could have better described the plot or even understood what, and more importantly why, things were happening. Maybe I'll watch it in slow-mo next time.

3 comments:

elmo said...

This movie reminds me of that cactus I sat on: rather alluring, but capable of bringing much pain.

steve said...

What's wrong with 'Hollywood these days,' gramps? They gave us "High School Musical 3," didn't they?

And soon ... quiverquiverquiver ... Star Trek!

brian said...

let's not forget about 'the hottie and the nottie'!!