The Unbelievable Truth

April 14, 2022

For a movie that was filmed in 11 days on a shoestring budget by a first-time director in Long Island, The Unbelievable Truth is an entirely decent piece of work. Actually, it looks good by anybody’s budget.

This movie is part of an inspiring trend among young American independent filmmakers, who aren’t waiting for Hollywood to call. They’re making movies for themselves. Hal Hartley, the writer-director of The Unbelievable Truth, made his film for around $20,000 (small beer by Hollywood standards), but it turned out just fine, and the movie is all his.

The story, and Hartley’s style, embody some drop-dead hip attitudes. We meet a teenager (Adrienne Shelly) preoccupied with anxiety about a coming nuclear war. As she is trying to decide between college and a modeling career (both irrelevant, because the world won’t exist six months from now), a stranger comes into her life.

But he (Robert Burke) is no stranger to the town. He has been in prison for years, rumored to have killed a man. He goes to work in an auto garage owned by the girl’s excitable father (Christopher Cooke). Mysteriously, like a character out of Twin Peaks, she steals the stranger’s wrench and carries it around in her purse.

The film is full of absurdist tangents. A sample exchange of dialogue occurs between the girl and the daughter (Julia McNeal) of the man murdered years before:

“He seems like a nice man.”

“You think so? Even though he killed your father and your sister?”

“People make mistakes.”

For my taste, the film’s unceasing archness becomes monotonous, as though it were overly pleased by its own cleverness. Hartley doesn’t seem to have the sneaky depth of feeling that characterizes the films of Jim Jarmusch (Mystery Train), who works in a similar style.

Still, Hartley has made a great-looking movie, he’s put together a few fine running gags, and his eye for actors is excellent. Burke is a hunk in the making, while Shelly and McNair have beautiful, haunting faces. This director will be heard from again.

First published in The Herald, August 3, 1990

This was the first of Hartley’s indie successes. I guess I wish his career had been more consistent, but he’s certainly gone his own way, and I was moved by some of the action in Ned Rifle (2014), the most recent title of his I’ve seen. I don’t know what happened to Julia McNeal, but the cast also included Edie Falco, Matt Malloy, and Kelly Reichardt. I remember interviewing Hartley once at the University Bar & Grill on “The Ave” in Seattle, and he really liked my sunglasses; I had actually spent some money on them, which is unlike me, and I lost them soon after.


April 13, 2022

Vampire comedies are all the rage, it seems, although only last summer’s Fright Night was a worthy entry in the subgenre (Love at First Bite and Once Bitten are among the more debased representatives). Now comes Vamp, which attempts a more stylish tack than most, but suffers from a thinning familiarity.

Coupla guys at a boondocks college need to drive into town one night to procure a stripper for a frat party. They borrow a car from a rich kid (who insists on tagging along). Nothing unusual there, except these guys stumble into the wrong place at the wrong time: the After Dark club, after dark.

The joint, it turns out, is crawling with vampires, and the queen of ’em all is a supple dancer (Grace Jones) who wears a wire bikini over leopardskin body paint. When she asks what the boys in the back room will have, they naturally answer: her.

She has a surprise for them; she loves the hemoglobin of college guys. After she drains the essence out of one of the kids, the hero (Chris Makepeace) just wants to get out of the place, while the third-wheel rich kid (Gedde Watanabe of Gung Ho in another amusing performance) is busy ogling the girls on the runway.

This film has some silly zip in its early reels, considerably buoyed by the zombified dance routine by Grace Jones, who wears (with the aforementioned costume) red geisha hair and blue contact lenses. It’s just hubba-hubba enough to nudge the boundaries of the R rating.

Director/co-screenwriter Richard Wenk clearly wants Vamp to have some visual style, so he tries to inject some by flooding the dark milieu with green and purple lights. Unfortunately, an armful of filters and gels do not a visual style make.

Most of the gags are tired, too. By now the jokes about stakes in the heart have been heard; and Wenk can’t marry the goofy stuff to the scary vampirization of some of his main characters.

He clearly intended a black comedy, though; in fact his model seems to have been not Love at First Bite but After Hours, Martin Scorsese’s nightmare comedy about a one-nighter gone bad. Wenk achieves a comic-horror balance once in a while. When Sandy Baron, as the club owner, wistfully muses about opening a vampire lounge in Las Vegas, it’s a good freaky moment.

Then there’s Grace Jones, who isn’t really in the movie much (although she’s been emphasized in the film’s ad campaign). She’s otherworldly enough to carry this sort of thing off, and the movie wimps out a bit when she’s not around. Wenk could have learned something about visual style from her; a smooth, hard enigma, she seems to exist – even in appearances “as herself” on talk shows – purely as an exotic figure of style.

First published in The Herald, July 25, 1986

Always nice to have a Sandy Baron reference. Also in the movie: Dedee Pfeiffer, Francie Swift, and Billy Drago. (“Dedee, meet Gedde. Gedde, Dedee.”) As for Wenk, since his screenplay 16 Blocks was filmed in 2006, he’s gotten a lot of writing work on action pictures. The trivia on IMDb claims Grace Jones’ stripper chair involved creative input from Dolph Lundgren and Keith Haring.


April 12, 2022

Over the years, there have been many examples of different film versions of the same story. For instance, Frankenstein is remade regularly, and did you know that The Maltese Falcon had been filmed twice before its classic 1941 version hit the screen?

But rarely has a novel been adapted twice, with major productions, in such proximity to each other as Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the 1781 novel by Choderlos de Laclos, which was filmed last year as Dangerous Liaisons, starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer.

While Dangerous Liaisons was being filmed, so was Valmont, a version of the same story, adapted by Jean-Claude Carriere and directed by Milos Forman. Forman, the man who made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, is notorious for his painstaking approach to filmmaking. Valmont has been in production for years, and he could hardly have been thrilled when Dangerous Liaisons, released last Christmas, did nicely at the box office and was honored with a batch of Oscar nominations.

But it is always interesting to see how two different directors will treat the same story. Liaisons director Stephen Frears found a cool, brisk style with which to chart the devious doings of the sexually adventurous aristocrats. Forman is more deliberate, opulent, and romantic. The emotional life of these characters is closer to the surface.

Valmont (Colin Firth, of Apartment Zero) is a well-traveled seducer. But the purity of the married Madame de Tourvel (Meg Tilly) has him stymied. He cannot seem to break her down. And, in the process, his heart may be moving a bit.

“Can a man change?” he asks his confidante and soulmate, the widow Madame de Merteuil (Annette Bening). “Yes, for the worse,” she tells him, a typically terrible response. Madame de Merteuil is the hard diamond that keeps Valmont ticking. Her wicked plots trap everyone in her web. To strike back at her lover (Jeffrey Jones), a nobleman who plans to marry an adolescent virgin (Fairuza Balk), Merteuil enlists Valmont in a scheme to deflower the girl. Meanwhile, she bets him her own favors that he can’t bed down with the angelic de Tourvel.

Fans of Dangerous Liaisons will recognize the characters, but Valmont is different in detail and motivations. Forman’s film is more expensively lush and has more warmth, although I think the film takes an odd turn in its last act, and has at its core too great an enigma surrounding the character of Madame de Merteuil.

Forman’s tendency to cast lesser-known actors works nicely. Firth makes a more dashing Valmont than John Malkovich, although Malkovich’s performance seemed more charged and daring. But that may be because Valmont is almost a secondary character here; Madame de Merteuil is the central figure, and newcomer Annette Bening makes the most of the role. Bening, oval-faced and even-voiced, takes command of every scene she is in. We will be seeing more of her.

First published in The Herald, January 14, 1990

I would like to see this again. It certainly has a bunch of good people at an interesting moment. Bening’s next film was The Grifters. Firth and Tilly began a relationship on this movie that included having a child together. Strange to think that this was Forman’s follow-up to Amadeus, and he only made three features after.

Worth Winning

March 17, 2022

The concept of Worth Winning is like something out of an incorrigibly caddish 1960s movie, in which grown men expound on the Playboy philosophy and toy with women like chess pieces. Boeing Boeing and Guide to the Married Man come to mind.

The idea here is that a successful ladies’ man (Mark Harmon) is proposed a wager by three buddies. They say Harmon can’t persuade three women to accept his proposals of marriage; he says he can, and he can even produce videotaped proof. The women, however, will be chosen by the buddies, who intend to make the bet as difficult as possible to fulfill.

The women are: a blond bombshell (Maria Holvoe), who’s constantly surrounded by beefy pro football players; a married woman (Lesley Ann Warren) with a large appetite for sex; and a concert pianist (Madeleine Stowe) who already hates Harmon and everything he stands for. No problem for our hero, who quickly works his magic.

Of course, these are not the 60s, and in enlightened times such as ours, Harmon must have his consciousness raised. And, despite its apparently sexist premise, Worth Winning (which was written by two female writers) gives the boot to romantic gamesmanship, and casts a vote in favor of the “C” word – commitment.

The movie has some amusing sequences, especially the scenes involving Madeleine Stowe, who brings a lightness to her role (she played the lady in distress in Stakeout). Director Will Mackenzie, a veteran of television, does a respectable job of guiding things, although the decision to have Harmon speak directly to the camera at various moments (after sleeping with a conquest, he tells us, “I’ve had better times pulling out splinters”) was probably ill-advised.

The big problem with Worth Winning is Mark Harmon. To put it mildly, Cary Grant he ain’t. Harmon, a likable enough screen presence, consistently tries to act funny, which is one of the worst things you can do in this sort of comedy. Playing it straight would have yielded much better results. As it is, he’s a hole in the center of the movie, hardly worth anything.

First published in The Herald, November 3, 1989

Will Mackenzie acted on TV and then became a director, steadily working in sitcomland for decades. As far as I can tell this is his only big-screen feature as director. The screenwriting team of Josann McGibbon and Sara Pariott is still going; they also did Runaway Bride. This came during the big Mark Harmon moment, and I suppose it helped wind that down. It was the final screen credit for Maria Holvoe, who was also in Willow.

The Wizard

March 16, 2022

The Wizard is a patched together little movie that starts off as a kind of poor relation to Rain Man but then begins to resemble an extended commercial for Nintendo video games.

Is the whole world in on Nintendo? Children, teenagers, and parents evidently are, although there are still some of us who remain uninitiated. The makers of The Wizard assume that audiences are fully appreciative of Nintendo’s dominant place in the universe.

In any case, the movie is about a traumatized little boy who regularly runs away from home. He’s mute and unresponsive, and his mother and mean stepfather are considering putting him in a home.

This raises the ire of the boy’s half-brother (Fred Savage, from TV’s The Wonder Years), who takes off down the highway with his little brother in tow. In a bus station, they run into a saucy redheaded number who’s just about Savage’s age – though, being a girl, she’s more mature. Savage’s father (Beau Bridges) and other brother (Christian Slater) give chase, as does a creepy private investigator.

The road business, and the discovery of the mute boy’s secret gift, give all of this the flavor of a pint-sized Rain Man. In Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman was found to be an autistic savant, able to apply his peculiar skills to the gambling halls of Las Vegas. In The Wizard, the young savant is a terror at video games, specifically Nintendo.

As fate would have it, there is a Nintendo grand championship about to get under way in Los Angeles, in a building at Universal Studios (Universal also happens to be the producer of The Wizard). So after a brief studio tour, the whole thing comes together at his big Nintendo-off, with results you really ought to be able to guess.

I’m guessing that simply staying at home and noodling at your own Nintendo would be more exciting than seeing The Wizard.

First published in The Herald, December 1989

It has a cult following, you say? Yes, I suppose it would. Director Todd Holland went from this to directing a couple of Twin Peaks episodes, so there. And if you’re wondering, I still haven’t played Nintendo, to my knowledge, but I am grateful to them for rescuing the Seattle Mariners.

When Harry Met Sally …

March 10, 2022

When Harry meets Sally, they are college students thrown together while sharing a ride from Chicago to New York. Both are moving to the Big Apple, but Harry is skeptical about being friends. He insists that men and woman cannot maintain platonic friendships. Inevitably, he says, “the sex parts” get in the way. Why bother?

Nevertheless, as we see in Rob Reiner’s new film, When Harry Met Sally…, a platonic friendship is possible between these two. At least, it’s possible until the sex parts get in the way. Maybe Harry was right after all.

Reiner’s story, which he developed with writer Nora Ephron, carries these characters over more than 10 years, during which they lose track of each other, find significant relationships with others (which ultimately fail), and settle into a comfortable best-friend groove. They call each other from bed when Casablanca comes on late-night television, and debate whether Ingrid Bergman should’ve stayed with Humphrey Bogart, but that’s the closest they come to sharing a bed until an impromptu hugging session turns serious.

This is a funny movie with a big laugh every three or four minutes, but it doesn’t go quite as deep as Reiner clearly intends. And Reiner has difficulty escaping the long shadow cast by Woody Allen’s movies, especially Annie Hall. Reiner’s vision of Manhattan is quite loving – two friends discussing important stuff at a hot dog stand on the corner, lovers walking through Central Park – but we’ve seen these things before, and better, in Allen’s films.

Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan play Harry and Sally; their good friends, who naturally find happiness with each other long before Harry and Sally do, are played by Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher. Ryan is still maturing as an actress, but she has a couple of confidently managed showstoppers, including a scene in a crowded deli in which she demonstrates the technique of faking an orgasm. (The house is almost guaranteed to be brought down each time this scene plays.)

Crystal, better known as a comedian than an actor, seems a curious, superficial choice at first, but he eventually settles in. With his unerring sense of where to aim a one-liner, he’s obviously what Reiner wants in the role.

When Harry Met Sally … is above all a vehicle for Rob Reiner’s blend of sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and Borscht-belt comic instincts (the latter honed, no doubt, at the knee of his father Carl who wrote for Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar and created “The Dick Van Dyke Show”). After he capably directed other peoples’ stories in Stand by Me and The Sure Thing, you have the feeling Reiner is telling his own story this time. It’s a nice one.

First published in The Herald, July 13, 1989

For a movie that seems to have taken a secure place as a modern comedy classic (“modern” even though over 30 years old now), it’s a little surprising that it got only one Oscar nomination, for Ephron’s screenplay. It’s a well-jiggered piece, with many funny moments, but I will say that its central premise, that a man and woman cannot be friends, seems very un-modern, and more suited to a 1950s Doris Day picture – but then I find a lot of Ephron’s attitude and humor to be retrograde, despite her comic gifts.

Welcome Home

March 9, 2022

Welcome Home is a film so without irony, so without hipness, that it could be mistaken for a soap opera from the 1950s. Except for its subject matter, that is, which tells of a soldier in Vietnam who was lost behind lines in 1971 and presumed dead.

The soldier (Kris Kristofferson) emerges in Thailand 17 years later. He has spent his time in prison camps and later in hiding in Cambodia, where he married and had two children. The sore point: He also has a wife back in Vermont, who thinks he has been dead all these years.

The movie’s main matter is bringing Kristofferson back to the United States and letting the dramatic chips fall where they may when he reappears. His father (Brian Keith) gets over the shock readily and happily, but the wife (JoBeth Williams) is, understandably, shakier. She’s remarried (to Sam Waterston), for one thing; then there’s a son, now 17, whom Kristofferson knows nothing about.

The revelation of the son is entirely predictable, and a lot of the hubbub surrounding the wife-with-two-husbands business seems hyped up. The film also lays on a side plot about a military coverup of Kristofferson’s re-emergence that seems to exist purely to have something else going on.

With all of that, Welcome Home should be a bad movie. It may very well be a bad movie. I must say that I found it so completely unaware of its own implausibilities, so unashamed of its melodrama, that it was effective, even moving, on its own terms. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

Williams and Waterston are capable as always, Brian Keith is better than he’s been in years, and Kristofferson – well, he’s nobody’s idea of a master thespian, but if you want to communicate the immediate sense of a scorched soul, he’s the man. The script, by Maggie Kleinman, often skirts around the sizable clumsiness of some scenes with economical, stripped-down dialogue.

Welcome Home is the last film from Franklin J. Schaffner, a generally solid craftsman who enjoyed a brief time in the upper echelon of American directors (he won the Best Director Oscar for Patton). Schaffner, who died earlier this year, won’t be remembered as one of the greats, but he made some entertaining movies and he always showed a strong sympathy for the outsider. As a sendoff, Welcome Home is nothing to be ashamed of.

First published in The Herald, September 1989

For Schaffner, better to go out with this than Yes, Giorgio or Sphinx, I suppose. It was also Trey Wilson’s last film. I remember nothing about the movie, sorry. Henry Mancini did the music.