Sharma and Beyond

February 28, 2011

That's right: giant VHS box. You try finding an image for this movie.

The Crest theater’s series of filmed-for-British-television “First Love” movies continues this week with another charmer: Sharma and Beyond, from writer-director Brian Gilbert and executive producer David Puttnam.

From its mysterious opening sequence, during which the camera glides down an empty English country road while the soundtrack soars with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, there’s the feeling that a confident presence is in control behind the camera. The rest of the film confirms this feeling.

Sharma and Beyond is about the adventure of Stephen (Michael Maloney), a young science-fiction writer. Actually, he’s a would-be science-fiction writer, although he labors over his lengthy novel every day. To make ends meet, he works in a school teaching foreigners to speak English.

He whimsically drags his students out to the country house of his idol, the reclusive author Evan Gorley-Peters (Robert Urquhart). Stephen knows the writer’s classic Sharma Trilogy practically by heart, and he’s always dreamed of meeting the man. While they stand outside the grounds and look around, a young woman rides up: Natasha (Suzanne Burden), Gorley-Peters’ daughter, out exercising her horse.

She and Stephen speak, he calls her later, and a date is set. But when Stephen arrives at her house for lunch, he seems more interested in meeting the great author than in wooing Natasha, who’s not too pleased about the turn of events. Neither, for that matter, is Gorley-Peters, an aloof gentleman who greets Stephen’s babbling conversational sallies with bemused disbelief.

For Stephen, this period of ingratiation is leading up to one crucial moment, when he will ask his hero to read his rough-draft manuscript. This becomes the central event in the film.

Gilbert’s directorial touch is light and sure (in the production notes, Gilbert cites Francois Truffaut as a stylistic inspiration, and you can see the influence here). It’s easy to get caught up in Stephen’s excitement, but at the same time Gilbert doesn’t let you forget the touching Natasha, who sometimes gets short shrift from Stephen.

Above all, it’s a marvelous trio of actors that holds our attention. Maloney is bright-eyed and buoyant; Burden is sad-eyed and moving; Urquhart is just what you’d expect a remote scribe to be: magisterial, distant, interested in details (he quizzes Stephen about the current costs of the London subways).

I was so captivated by these people and their situation, it didn’t even matter much to me that Gilbert’s script gives them perhaps too little to do. And the movie remains resolutely modest, which appears to be the hallmark of the “First Love” series. They’re gems, but intentionally small ones.

First published in the Herald, April 25, 1986

In its own way, and maybe partly because of its obscurity, this movie is one of my most fondly-remembered films of the 1980s. And its level wasn’t unique in the Puttnam-produced “First Love” series, which included Michael Apted’s splendid Kipperbang and also Arthur’s Hallowed Ground, a movie about a groundskeeper who has meticulously maintained a cricket pitch for many decades—exactly the kind of movie you’d expect to be the only directing project from David Lean’s cinematographer, Freddie Young. But Sharma is just lovely, and I remember it gave my twentysomething self a hint of “If I made movies, this is the kind of movie I would make” (Gilbert liked Truffaut too, after all, it said so in the press kit). Maybe that’s why I take it as a personal disappointment that Gilbert’s film-directing career has not quite reached its promise, despite the odd title of interest. (Plus I used to confuse him with Brian Gibson, a Brit who did What’s Love Got to Do with It, and who I’m sorry to say died in 2004.)

There were movies that used the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh before this one did, and as The King’s Speech proved, it’s still a go-to piece. I can’t argue with that, although it might be nice if they came up with something else. IMDb says that Tom Wilkinson is in the cast. Sharma was a rare lead for Michael Maloney, who does such excellent work as a second-level player in movies (he played Rosencrantz and Laertes for Mel Gibson’s and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlets, respectively; he’ll probably be old enough for Polonius when Justin Bieber gets around to his version). On stage Maloney gets to do more. I saw him play Prince Hal to Robert Stephens’ Falstaff on stage, and he was in full command. In fact, the second-tier status of the people behind Sharma and Beyond fits the movie’s feel just perfectly.

The Lost Boys

February 25, 2011
Vampires by Schumacher

The Lost Boys is a film about the adventures of a group of teenage vampires, undead and footloose in a small California coastal resort town.

This isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds: The setting is a good one, and the vampirism serves as a handy metaphor for the homelessness, drug addiction, or (to use the antiquated term) juvenile delinquency of many at-large young people.

Director Joel Schumacher may be aware of those possibilities, and he takes care to make his vampires look like regular kids. They resemble any group of troublemakers out for fun on a Saturday night on the boardwalk. Until they drink blood from wine bottles and sprout fangs and yellow contact lenses, anyway.

But Schumacher botches whatever intriguingly scary-seductive potential the concept has. The Lost Boys exists on an entirely superficial level, and Schumacher fills the movie with a lot of fast cutting and hip fashion, which is supposed to convince us the movie is stylish. Actually, it’s just so much noise. (It’s the same approach he took with his previous film, St. Elmo’s Fire, which was a lot more unintentionally scary than this thing.)

We enter the town of Santa Carlos through the eyes of two brothers (Jason Patric and Corey Haim) who move there with their mother (recent Oscar winner Dianne Wiest). The town is known as “The Murder Capital of the World,” and there are strange disappearances going on constantly.

The older brother, Patric, catches the eye of a local hot number (Jami Gertz), but she turns out to be one of the bloodsuckers, and leads him into the circle of motorcycle-riding vampires.

The leader of the pack is a bleached-blond tough (Kiefer Sutherland, also on current view in Crazy Moon). He holds nocturnal meetings in an underground cavern dominated by a huge poster of Jim Morrison, featuring a wine cellar that has only one vintage, the full-bodied red. It’s up to little brother Haim to rescue his sibling.

Only Sutherland captures a sense of stylization in his performance—he at least seems genuinely haunted—and suggest what the movie might have been had it adopted a spookier tone. Anyone who’s ever walked along a lonely boardwalk at night knows that the resort setting, with its seediness and sense of transience, might have made a terrifically atmospheric locale. Somehow The Lost Boys never quite finds that.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

When Kiefer Sutherland is my favorite performer in anything, something is wrong. Also, I think I was too young when I wrote this to use the word “troublemakers”; that’s off-limits until one turns 55. The spur to dig up this review comes from just having watched Lost Boys: The Thirst, a direct-to-video offering I reviewed for It returns Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander, who played the Frog brothers in the original film (and who I did not deign to mention in this ’87 review), to their roles—and actually, the sequel has a fairly shrewd appreciation of its low-budget purpose in life; it also contains a few clips of Corey Haim from the first movie, acknowledging his (and his character’s) death through plot developments. Joel Schumacher, of course, would go on and on.

Night Visitor

February 24, 2011

Night Visitor makes a bid to be the kookiest horror movie of the year, and it may well end up with that distinction. For its first half-hour or so, it’s a straightforward teen horror flick, full of strained adolescent banter and some leering jokes about voyeurism.

In this section, a teen (Derek Rydall) watches intently as his new neighbor moves in. She’s a shapely, extremely friendly blonde (former Playboy Playmate Shannon Tweed) who seems to be a call girl. One night while Rydall is peeping into her window, he sees her murdered. The killer is wearing a devil mask. When it falls off, Rydall recognizes the perpetrator; it’s his history teacher!

Obviously, there’s a certain amount of wish-fulfillment going on here, in fantasies of high school teachers as demonic emissaries. At this point, Night Visitor takes a turn for the wacky, as it turns out the teacher (Allen Garfield) and his half-wit brother (Michael J. Pollard) are practicing Satanists. Garfield flounces around their home in a fire-red jogging suit while bossing his brother (“Praise Satan. Now start my kidney pie”). They also kidnap and chain up prostitutes in their basement, before sacrificing them in a room decorated with pentagrams and goats’ heads.

Garfield is a balding, rotund character actor who always brings an offbeat gleam to his work. The elfin Pollard, who gained fame (and a supporting actor Oscar nomination) for Bonnie and Clyde, is also a reliably peculiar performer. In their scenes together, they seem to be making an entirely different movie; blackly humored and subversive.

And the film isn’t even finished throwing curveballs. Arriving halfway through is a burned-out ex-cop (played by Elliott Gould) to help the young heroes prove they’re not just making the whole thing up.

Properly handled, Randal Viscovich’s screenplay might have had some fun possibilities. But Night Visitor is so ineptly and unevenly shot and acted that it’s pretty much a wash. When Garfield and Pollard are on screen, though, the film takes on a crazed grin.

First published in the Herald, May 1989

The cast also includes Henry Gibson and Richard Roundtree—well, sure it does, it’s that kind of movie. The IMDb entry on screenwriter Viscovich gives this movie as his sole credit, but under the “Trivia” section it says, “Mentor – Howard Hawks.” And I suppose we will never know more than that.

An American Werewolf in London

February 23, 2011

David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, parkas: AWIL

An American Werewolf in London is a super title; it suggests an arch, off-the-wall approach to a certain film genre, but also manages to affectionately evoke older, much-beloved horror movies, like Werewolf of London. It also provides enough information for an audience to be fairly sure of what they’ll see (Although writer-director John Landis has reported this his favorite interview question he’s been getting asked is, “An American Werewolf in London…now, what’s that about?”).

Funny thing is, once our American friend (head Pepper David Naughton) gets out on the streets of London (the lucky dog is accompanied by Jenny Agutter), the inventiveness and spirit that Landis has displayed in the first part of the movie starts dribbling away. Almost as though the title, finally, was enough; as though inspiration has been exhausted by the mere act of luring an audience into a theater (Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part 1, and Escape from New York are a couple of examples of this kind of thing: a wonderful premise for a movie—and audiences did come—gives way to the film itself turning out to be a lackluster disappointment).

Still, before Landis gets his werewolf to London, there is a good deal of fun to be had: two vacationing American boys disengage themselves from the back of a truck carrying sheep (“We’re gonna miss you guys”) and set off across the lonely moors of Northern England, with their backpacks and brightly colored down parkas distinguishing them as aliens in this world (a very striking, right touch). They don’t exactly seem like innocents abroad, however; in fact, they’re both likably wiseass. This is clearly a modern monster movie, not attempting to recapture the feel of old Universal horror films; still, Landis wants it to be scary as well as hip, and manages that up through Naughton’s stay in a London hospital (I won’t say what happened out there on the moors) where he has a really terrifying nightmare. In fact, this sequence—Naughton dreams his family is attacked by creatures from –well, from his own imagination—hints at ambitions in the film that are never quite confronted head on; could be Landis doesn’t want to risk bumming out his mostly teen audience, or maybe he’s just not ready to confront such issues within himself.

At any rate, most of the stuff that follows is pretty tame, and the finale is particularly disappointing. The ending is vaguely reminiscent of Altered States; though at that ending, Ken Russell had the delirious courage to back up Chayefsky’s contention that Love is the civilizing and conquering factor over darkness. Landis doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with a similar situation, and the movie just sort of stops. Or should we take this ending—the werewolf cannot answer a woman’s cry of love—as an autobiographical confession on Landis’s part? The filmmaker as werewolf, compulsively howling and shocking, needing to grab our attention but unable to articulate his feelings? Okay, I’ll let it go, even though the werewolf in Werewolf literally does rampage and suck the blood from a Piccadilly movie audience. John Landis has provided some very enjoyable times in the last few years (Animal House and The Blues Brothers) and one hopes that he might reconcile his cleverness with the expression of that hint of ambition; although his next project, Dick Tracy, would not seem to encourage that prospect. Landis has shown enough so that we might expect more than just genre-tweaking revelations such as the fact that a silver bullet is actually not necessary to kill a werewolf.

First published in The Informer, September 1981

Head Pepper? David Naughton was indeed the star of a series of all-singing, all-dancing commercials for Dr. Pepper. It seemed sort of logical that he would get the lead off a movie after that, even if bigger stardom never happened. There’s a lot to be said for the film’s remarkable effects and that opening sequence with the guys in their down parkas, even if the mixed review seems sound. I always enjoy the armchair psychologizing of these reviews written by a 23-year-old – but hey, maybe Landis wasn’t ready to confront such issues within himself. He didn’t make Dick Tracy, at least.

Life is a Long Quiet River

February 22, 2011

I watched most of the new French film Life is a Long Quiet River without feeling much about it one way or the other. Then, in its last 10 minutes, this film turns so wicked, so devious and so satisfying, that I realized in retrospect just what a good movie it is.

It’s a sneaky film. It begins by presenting two utterly different families: The Le Quesnoys are the model of upper-middle-class circumspection, with every aspect of their lives neat, tidy and suburban. The Groseilles are their slobby, lower-class opposites; they fairly wallow in their own tackiness. The Le Quesnoy children are destined for higher education: the Groseille kids will likely end up sniffing glue.

Then, a revelation, from a dozen or so years earlier. It seems that, thanks to some drolly funny antipathy between the town doctor (veteran actor Daniel Gelin) and his mistress, a nurse (Catherine Heigel), a switch had taken place on the maternity ward. The Le Quesnoy baby and the Groseille baby, born virtually at the same time, were exchanged in their cradles. The secret has been held until now.

When the families find out about the gaffe, there is, of course, panic. The Le Quesnoys want to adopt their wayward son, but keep their mistaken “daughter”—after all, the child is used to a certain level of comfort, vrai? The Groseilles, for their part, are perfectly content with this arrangement, because the Le Quesnoys intend to furnish them with a healthy stipend for their trouble.

This set-up allows writer-director Étienne Chatiliez to score some points on the old nature vs. nurture debate. But if this sounds like a typically charming French comedy of manners, think again. Life is a Long Quiet River is a funny enough film, but it runs dark and deep and it displays considerable dubiousness about human nature. (The title, incidentally, is contradicted by one of the characters near the end of the film.)

There’s something utterly uncompromising about the way this movie sees the world. The actors, especially Hèléne Vincent and André Wilms as the wealthy parents, keep the characters from slipping into caricatures.

Chatiliez was a director of some reportedly outrageous TV commercials before he made this, his first feature film. Based on the evidence, he possesses a uniquely warped vantage point on the rest of us. May he remain productive.

First published in the Herald, 1988

One of the ideas of doing this 1980s website was to marvel at the realm of the how-did-that-ever-get-made? movie, a mode that was common at the time. But it also affords the chance to celebrate films that have, for a variety of reasons, slipped out of sight and mind—and this is one of those. The sardonic style of M. Chatiliez was honed in advertising, and I remember hearing that one of his really successful campaigns before debuting in feature films involved a TV ad for a fast-food chain that had a slogan like, “Look, if you’re going to eat shit, you might as well eat our shit.” The finale of this film is remarkable and leans on Mireille Mathieu’s full-throated rendition of the theme from Is Paris Burning? for much of its wicked effect. Chatiliez’s next feature, Tatie Danielle (about a mean old lady) got a U.S. release and some good notices, but it’s been hard to see his other work over here.

Police Academy 6: City Under Siege

February 21, 2011

If you want to see a smart-smart comedy, go see Chances Are. If you want to see a smart-stupid comedy, go see Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. And if you’re part of the population that must see a stupid-stupid comedy, go see Police Academy 6: City Under Siege.

It’s really stupid-stupid. The same old regulars return, still doing the tired shtick that has kept this series propped up in the face of logic and good taste. There’s a plot in here somewhere, about a criminal mastermind who wants to drive up real-estate prices. (Really.) The hunt for this evil genius involves the Police Academy crew, under the dotty leadership of their commander (George Gaynes, who must be piling up a nice little retirement nest egg in this role).

As always, the main brunt of the humor, such as it is, gets directed at the captain (G.W. Bailey). The movie proves that there are still new ways to humiliate a person, as Bailey is dangled from a skyscraper, spewed with ink, sent aloft by helium balloons, drenched with hot coffee. For Bailey, it must be a considerable actor’s challenge just to arrive on the set in the morning.

The other regulars go through their paces, which add up to precious little. (Bubba Smith, who is top-billed, has perhaps 10 lines of dialogue.) Comic Michael Winslow does an amusing imitation of Jimi Hendrix, and also revives his kung fu character, whose English phrases don’t quite match the movements of his lips.

Kenneth Mars, a former Mel Brooks regular, plays the mayor. He puts a goofy zip into his role as a very absent minded bureaucrat: “My hands are…uh…oh, the thing with the rope…tied!”

The director this time is Peter Bonerz, who is better known as the dentist on the old “Bob Newhart Show.” Bonerz displays some inclination toward mounting a few visual jokes, but these efforts are practically irrelevant in this setting. This movie’s just marking time, and everybody seems to know it.

First published in the Herald, March 16, 1989

Surely a reminder that Kenneth Mars was in Police Academy 6 is a poor tribute, but this funny actor, immortal in The Producers and Young Frankenstein, died last week, so there you have it. At least he had a couple of moments in this one. At this point in the dismal progression of the PA pictures, Steve Guttenberg had decamped the series, and so regulars David Graf and G.W. Bailey tried to get something going—that is, if you care about these things.


February 18, 2011

I think most of us agree that the Rolling Stones’ classic “Satisfaction” has been waiting for the definitive interpreter, the inspired reader, the all-new rendition. Who else to give this new reading of the song but …Justine Bateman, of course.

Just kidding. Mick Jagger’s immortal intonation is quite safe from this feeble imitation. But as another song puts it, the girl can’t help it. Bateman, the star of “Family Ties,” wanted to make a movie, and this one happens to be about a girl group, so she sings, all right? The fact that she really has no singing voice did not stop this trouper, just as it has not stopped many actors in the past.

The plot of Satisfaction hangs on the threadiest of threads. It’s a summer movie about a gang of girls, just graduating from high school, who take a summer gig at a beachside bar before they must scatter for college.

Believe it or not, in the course of the summer they all learn a lot about love and life. (Though they never learn why a bunch of 17-year-olds can perform in a bar.) Bateman falls in heavy like with the bar’s owner, a former rock star (Liam Neeson, who had the title role in Suspect).

He’s now burned out, but obviously available for rekindling, and you can bet that before the film is over he’ll write a song under the fresh inspiration of his new muse. The song selection overall is a bit unlikely; the girls seem to know everything from “Iko Iko” to Elvis Costello’s “Mystery Dance.”

Screenwriter Charles Purpura and director Joan Freeman work mainly in shorthand, which may be the best way. Justine Bateman is pretty and toothy and can’t be faulted for this thing, particularly since it takes a certain grand kind of guts to perform a cappella with a voice like hers. And it could have been worse: At least they didn’t ask her to sing “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” or “Dock of the Bay.”

First published in the Herald, February 19, 1988

At the time, honestly, it seemed as though Justine Bateman could possibly turn into some sort of movie star—and if not her, then bandmate Trini Alvarado, also an appealing performer, had a shot to break out. And oh yes, there was Julia Roberts in there too. She and Neeson came out of this pretty well.