The Big Town

March 31, 2011

If your cinematic tastes run to rain-spattered streets under neon lights, skeletal sharpies with razor-creased pants leaning against lampposts, and brassy dames dishing out the what-for, then The Big Town may be just the ticket. It delivers all of those things in aces.

On the other hand, it doesn’t do much with those things—simply wraps them around a conventional storyline. But it’s a passably enjoyable two hours, for various reasons.

The conventional storyline is the one about the small-town kid (Matt Dillon) who’s handy with dice, and who heads to the big city to make his mark as a gambler. In this case, the big city is Chicago, 1957.

This is the kind of movie in which everybody keeps telling this boy, “Jeez, kid, you’re good with the dice, maybe the best I ever seen.” It follows that the kid gets involved with the local gamblers and has an incredible streak of luck. Romantically, he’s caught in another well-worn dilemma: Does he throw his affection toward the stripper (Diane Lane) down at the Gem Club? Or toward the nice girl (Suzy Amis) who lives away from the neon side of town?

For a while, he throws his affections like dice. Eventually, he’ll come to a predictable conclusion.

The producer of The Big Town, Martin Ransohoff, is an old pro, and he knows how to mount this sort of good-looking production—the music, sets, costumes are a pleasure. He’s also gathered quite a good cast, including a bunch of notable names in supporting roles.

Tommy Lee Jones, for instance, does very tasty work as the nasty organizer of the town’s most freewheeling game. Bruce Dern and Lee Grant play Dillon’s shady financial backers; Tom Skerritt is enigmatically cheerful as a gambler who has a very old secret.

But, believe it or not, the finest work in the movie is done by Matt Dillon. During his teen years, it appeared Dillon’s sullenness would overwhelm him (even in Coppola’s The Outsiders and Rumblefish), and he’d be a goner once he outgrew his acne.

Well, the kid can act. This is the first film in which he looks like a full-fledged movie star, and it’s crucial, because he essentially has to carry the film. It’s a graceful performance, full of the nervous energy of this sharpshooter but without tics or gimmicks.

One other name to note: Suzy Amis, the good girl, will be someone. Maybe not right away, but someday. You read it here first.

The screenplay was written by Robert Roy Pool and directed by Ben Bolt, who has done nice work for TV. They don’t quite lift The Big Town into the big leagues, but they organize the action competently, which is just enough to make the thing work.

First published in the Herald, September 1987

I’m telling you, you heard it here first. But go easy on me—it is as hard to predict the careers of actresses as it is the careers of starting pitchers in the major leagues; too many things can go wrong, regardless of the raw material. So I guess Suzy Amis simply tore her rotator cuff, or its equivalent. I’m surprised my youthful self did not say more about Diane Lane, who’s hard to ignore in this movie. But Dillon deservedly gets the kudos, and Drugstore Cowboy was just two years away. The Big Town was such a flat-line that none of the good stuff, or the bad stuff, really mattered.

The Big Blue

March 30, 2011

At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the most eagerly awaited movie was The Big Blue, a three-hour-plus French epic that boasted the largest budget and perhaps the most complicated shooting schedule of any French production.

It caused something of a storm at Cannes—there was some controversy surrounding its English-language soundtrack, for one thing—and has caused another storm since at French box offices, where it’s dominating the summer business and inspiring the kind of repeat business common to American blockbusters.

For such a source of interest, The Big Blue is a curious production. It’s a sonnet to the sea, the big “blue” of the title, and to the mysterious lure of its awesome depths. All of which is communicated through a story about diver Jacques Mayol (Jean-Marc Barr), transfixed by the beauty of the ocean, and his rivalry with Enzo Molinari (Jean Reno), who holds the world record for free-diving.

Free-diving involves going straight down into the water without equipment, which tests a diver’s lung capacity and endurance. These rivals keep plunging deeper and deeper while they strike up a tentative friendship through Mayol’s innocence about the ways of the world above sea level; when he shows Enzo pictures in his wallet, they are photos of his dolphin friends.

Director Luc Besson (Subway), a 29-year-old whiz kid, compiled his story from his own fascination with the sea and from the real life of Jacques Mayol, a semi-legendary French diver (Mayol worked on the script with Besson and American writer Robert Garland).

Besson captures some mystery around Mayol’s character and Mayol’s testy relationship with Enzo; in one scene, the two divers sit at the bottom of a hotel pool and open a bottle of champagne, waiting to see who will run out of oxygen first. Well-drawn, too, is the comical brother act of Enzo and his sibling/servant, Roberto (Marc Duret). Besson is less successful in the inclusion of an American woman (Rosanna Arquette, in a backward-step performance) who falls for Mayol and follows him around the Mediterranean. The whole character feels extraneous and underconceived.

But then a few elements in the movie are underdeveloped. A sidebar sequence about returning a dolphin from an aquarium to the ocean remains a sidebar, and there’s an odd sequence in which Arquette develops a sudden domesticity. The movie must have made more sense at its full-length running time; the American version has been cut down by a hefty chunk from the European release. (It’s also opening in a dramatically larger number of theaters—1,200—than the usual foreign film.)

The Big Blue is probably not going to justify that wide release. It’s too odd, and too many things in it don’t work. But as a cult film, it could surface for air on a regular basis.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

It’s another Jerry Weintraub production! See here for more details. Three of the actors came for a publicity tour: Barr, Reno, and Marc Duret, who had an awfully good time eating lunch at the Olympic Hotel in Seattle (it’s kind of cool that of the two leads, the non-glamorous Reno went on to have the king-sized career; nothing against pinup-ready Barr, who has the advantage of being a Lars von Trier favorite). Clearly a sense of reality was beginning to intrude on my ideas about Rosanna Arquette—and only three years after The Aviator, too. If this movie was blah, Luc Besson’s subsequent output has made him a semi-guilty pleasure for me—his cheesiest plots throb with a certain movie-movie appeal, although his best notions get directed by other people these days.

Big Top Pee-wee

March 29, 2011

As it must to all little boys, time has caught up with Pee-wee Herman. Not content to fritter away his life in the throes of the Peter Pan syndrome, Pee-wee shows in his new bigscreen opus, Big Top Pee-wee, that he is growing up.

Two questions come to mind. The first is: How can one tell? True, Pee-wee still looks like a curiously powdered 12-year-old caught in a 6-year-old’s clothes, but there are subtle differences. The second question is: Why?

Why, when Pee-wee Herman has been such a successful commodity in the last few years (hit movie: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, hit TV show: “Pee-wee’s Playhouse”), would creator Paul Reubens tinker with his formula? Perhaps it’s because Reubens, who plays Pee-wee, is leery of getting trapped in an unchanging persona, of Pee-wee becoming just another forgotten fad.

So Big Top Pee-wee brings the goofy character up to date. Here, Pee-wee is a happy-go-lucky gentleman farmer, who lives with his horses, cows, sheep, and his best friend, Vance, a talking pig. Pee-wee is also working on developing some botanical experiments that will, in time, make the world of tomorrow a beter place. (This greenhouse stuff never quite gets integrated into the movie.)

In the opening scenes, we discover that Pee-wee does have a sex life. Well, at least he wants a sex life, which is the first important step. His fiancée, Winnie (Penelope Ann Miller), is more interested in making him egg-salad sandwiches (Yuck!) than in smooching.

Then the circus blows into town. Pee-wee invites the circus folk to stay on his farm, and the ringmaster (Kris Kristofferson, arguably Pee-wee’s unlikeliest possible co-star) gladly accepts. When our manchild spots the trapeze artist Gina Piccalapoopala (Valeira Golino—hubba hubba), he promptly faints dead away.

As the movie tracks Pee-wee’s circus aspirations and his girl trouble, there are some amusing bits. The opening scene of Pee-wee waking up the farm recalls the sight-gagginess of Big Adventure, and a few of the circus act send-ups are similarly inclined. For sheer wigginess, nothing tops an elephant ride taken by Pee-wee and his new sweetheart (accompanied by the strains of what sounds like an old Yma Sumac record, as bellowed by Pee-wee; the music, as in Big Adventure, is by the gifted Danny Elfman).

Big Top Pee-wee inspires the occasional chuckle, but it is not nearly as funny or original as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. The script, by Reubens and George McGrath, just doesn’t have enough things going on, and director Randal Kleiser (Grease) is busy picking inappropriate camera angles and alluding to other movies, such as A Place in the Sun (for the big kiss between Pee-wee and Gina), The Gold Rush (a hungry lion suddenly sees Pee-wee as a man-sized sirloin steak), and circus movies of the 1950s (such as The Greatest Show on Earth and Trapeze).

The main problem may be that Pee-wee is funny and outrageous as an anarchic child, not so funny as a sort-of civilized adult. Memo to Paul Reubens: Don’t let Pee-wee grow up. He’s too valuable right where he is.

First published in the Herald, July 24, 1988

Bad sequel. Still, I wonder in retrospect: was Reubens trying to do something interesting/creepy/transgressive by making Pee-wee sort of adult in this movie, or was it just a complete bungling of a franchise? The circus also seems like a misstep; part of the joy of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is seeing this freakish individual walking around in the real world, but the circus is already exaggerated, and Pee-wee becomes not as funny. In any case, I’m solid on one thing: Back to the Beach, featuring a Pee-wee Herman cameo but top-lined by Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, is a much better movie than this.

Big Trouble in Little China

March 28, 2011

Cattrall, Russell, Pai

Big Trouble in Little China reunites director John Carpenter with Kurt Russell, a collaboration that got off to a flying start with the TV-movie Elvis, in which Russell’s remarkable impersonation of Presley really launched the former Disney child star into a new career.

After Elvis, the two teamed up for Escape from New York and The Thing, a pair of unsatisfying thrillers. Now they’re back together with a much livelier outing; Big Trouble in Little China finds the two of them completely in sync. That’s lucky, because with far-out material such as this, it’s sync or swim.

Russell, who’s been steadily improving in recent years, has never been this loose or comically heroic. He plays a beefy, slightly dim-witted truck driver who delivers a regular load in San Francisco’s Chinatown one night, gets into an all-hours poker game, and somehow is drawn into the disorienting search for a missing girl in Chinatown’s netherworld.

This world is pretty outrageous. Carpenter throws in all sorts of vaulting kung fu action, a Tong war, booby-traps, a mysterious Chinese potion (which prompts an intoxicated Russell, upon drinking it, to good-naturedly observe that he feels, “Kinda—I dunno—kinda invincible”), human sacrifice, and a 2,000-year-old dude who needs the blood of a green-eyed bride to restore him.

As that grocery list might suggest, the tone of Big Trouble is largely comic. Somehow Carpenter avoids making fun of the material—that’s a big booby-trap in itself—so that the tongue-in-cheek tone has the flavor of Raiders of the Lost Ark rather than outright parody.

The kung fu fighting is blown out of proportion, but Carpenter keeps a lot of stuff honest. Near the beginning, there’s a kidnap scene at the airport that quivers with a sense of impending danger and claustrophobia, which the movie’s subsequent jokey tone can’t quite erase.

The goofiness probably keeps it from being anything great or memorable, but it certainly makes for a rowdy fun time. Carpenter and his actors establish an almost immediate audience rapport, sustained by the clever direction and the script. The screenplay bears the stamp of W.D. Richter, who wrote the keen update of Invasion of the Body Snatchers a few years ago.

Richter is credited with “adaptation” among the screenwriters, but it’s a good bet he’s responsible for much of the arch, ’40s-style dialogue. Much of Russell’s delivery, in which he spouts some he-man braggadocio, only to be immediately contradicted by the turn of events, is the ’40s movie adventurer given an appropriate ’80s twist.

Russell is splendid, and Carpenter gets the best work yet from Kim Cattrall, previously wasted in Porky’s and Turk 182!, and Kate Burton, the late Richard’s daughter. Cattrall plays a headstrong lawyer, Burton a naïve reporter—yes, yes, those sound like cliché “types,” but that’s the idea.

So Big Trouble in Little China joins this summer’s weirdly crowded circle of good-summer-entertainment-but-nothing-more films. It may be the most unbelievable, but it never lets that get in the way of the overriding party atmosphere.

First published in the Herald, July 6, 1986

Ha ha—”disorienting”—I kill myself. This movie didn’t cause much of a stir at the time, but it has become a cult picture, and for good reason, I think. And I really don’t find The Thing unsatisfying anymore. Will look for my Turk 182! review. By the way, this opened in Seattle at the Oak Tree, Alderwood Mall, and Grand Cinema, if anyone cares.

The Aviator

March 25, 2011

The Aviator is a traditional sort of Hollywood entertainment that seems less old-fashioned than just plain old. Its setting and characters—a bunch of mail fliers in the late 1920s—are promising, but the story bogs down in a dumb plot hitch and just sputters away.

A withdrawn, soul-deadened pilot (Christopher Reeve) gets a special load on his Nevada-to-Idaho mail run: the spoiled daughter (Rosanna Arquette) of a local businessman (Sam Wanamaker). The plane goes down somewhere in southeastern Washington (doubled here by Yugoslavia!) and Reeve and Arquette have to make do as best they can, fighting the weather, the wolves, and each other.

The idea here, of course, is that Reeve will discover a new humanity through his reluctant friendship with this loud, endearing girl. That theme is unfortunately never given life in this flat adaptation (from Ernest K. Gann’s novel).

It’s too many different kinds of movie: There’s the survival story, the mismatched love story, the tense situation back at the fliers’ headquarters (with Jack Warden presiding), and the character flaws of Reeve’s friend (Scott Wilson). The overall conception is not strong enough to make these things mesh, so we care about nothing but the love story.

Even that is only interesting because of Reeve, who isn’t bad (unlike the Superman movies, he does his own flying here—Reeve really is a licensed pilot), and Arquette. She played Gary Gilmore’s girl in The Executioner’s Song and the lead in John Sayles’ Baby It’s You. She was extraordinary in both.

Here, she’s stuck with a whiny role that’s pretty thankless—and she’s dressed and photographed in an unflattering manner. Still, she has such a natural, spontaneous style, you can’t help but watch her. She’s going to be from heard a lot in the coming years.

We might have expected a little more zing in the outdoor sequences, since The Aviator was directed by George Miller, an Australian who made a lively—if utterly silly—directorial debut with the outdoor action pic, The Man from Snowy River. It’s clear from The Aviator that whatever prowess suggested by Snowy River was purely superficial.

By the way, he’s not to be confused with that other Australian director named George Miller, who so brilliantly visualized The Road Warrior and that knockout episode about the terrified airplane passenger in the Twilight Zone movie. For the sake of those of us who follow these things, couldn’t one of these directors adopt a middle initial?

First published in the Herald, March 13, 1985

Jeez you guys, stop teasing me about Rosanna Arquette—I’m telling you, that’s the way it seemed at the time. I couldn’t have foreseen how quickly her career would stall out, any more than you could have predicted the end of Yugoslavia. This seems to have been the biggest shot for that other George Miller, and it’s a stiff; it helped grind down Reeve’s Superman momentum, too. The books of Ernest K. Gann (The High and the Mighty, for instance) could be found in most houses of my parents’ generation, and I’m sorry to say I have yet to read one. One of his titles—Fate Is the Hunter—always gave me a good chill when I glanced at it as a child.


March 24, 2011

Brazil is not set in Brazil, has no spoken reference to Brazil, has nothing to do with the South American country. Every now and then, a character in the film will whistle a snatch of the old Xavier Cugat tune, and that’s enough to give the film its title.

It’s an ironic touch, because the happy world of that snappy song is in direct contrast to the world we find in Brazil. An opening title tells us we are “Somewhere in the 20th century,” and the exact time seems to be the 1984 envisioned by George Orwell—a totalitarian state in which bureaucracy is the overriding, choking reality.

Brazil is the vivid creation of director Terry Gilliam, a member of the Monty Python troupe (the only American Python) and director of Jabberwocky and Time Bandits. Gilliam, who used to do the wild cartoons for the Pythons, has brilliantly created a world of bureaucratic overload. Everywhere, there are pipes and tubes carrying human needs and wastes. The technology of this world seems to be stuck somewhere in the late 1940s—decaying machines, tied together by an advanced computer system, operated by the dour, defeated citizens.

If you can picture England run by Stalin’s iron fist, you’ll get an idea of the society Brazil describes. (When decrying a terrorist bombing, a minister with proper British decorum tut-tuts the attack as “bad sportsmanship.”) The film is full of Orwellian posters with slogans such as, “Suspicion Breeds Confidence” and “Don’t Suspect a Friend—Report Him.” The single most terrifying image in the movie may be the huge billboard, rising above the dingy city streets, that shows a pathologically cheerful family above the slogan, “Happiness—we’re all in it together.”

Through this eye-popping world, Gilliam (who wrote the script with Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown) spins the story of a petty bureaucrat (Jonathan Pryce) who lives a good portion of his life in his fantasies—in which he sports wings and armor, and saves his dream girl from outrageous evildoers. Other than that, he just wants to get through reality with as little bother as possible.

He becomes radicalized, more or less, when he spots this dream girl (Kim Griest) in the flesh, and gets himself promoted to better pursue her. In his new position, he sees the horrors of the police state more clearly and finally feels moved to do something about it.

Pryce is superb at portraying this sort of passive protagonist, and the film is full of terrific performers in supporting roles. Michael Palin, a Python cohort, is chilling as a surgeon-torturer; Katherine Helmond is suitably demented as Pryce’s mother, who undergoes grueling facelifts; Robert De Niro is a heating engineer and guerilla hero of the resistance; and Ian Holm, who may go through his career without giving a bad or uninteresting performance (most recently as Lewis Carroll in Dreamchild) is wonderful as Pryce’s highly nervous boss.

Part of Gilliam’s point in all this, of course, is to show that the world of Brazil is already here, and many of the terrifying attitudes and policies are recognizable. He does this with horror, humor, and sometimes obviousness; but always with vigor.

It’s a relief that Gilliam’s version of the film, which almost didn’t make it out intact in the United States, is the one we’re seeing. Brazil has its own rhythms and rules, and the version we see is true to those rules—and to the mad inner workings of Terry Gilliam’s mind.

First published in the Herald, December 1985

Gilliam came to Seattle when Brazil came out and I interviewed him during his limo ride to the airport as he left town, an interesting setting that only added to the fun of the interview. I remember two things well: he said that he lived in London because it was the city where he was “less unhappy” than he was anywhere else, and he talked about the technical process he’d been working on for making a horse split into two parts, which I guess was preparation for Baron Munchausen. I’ve never been convinced Brazil is a great movie, although I like it. Gilliam is a filmmaker who makes great pieces of movies, and perhaps this is the closest he came to sustaining an entire picture at a pretty high level.

Hanky Panky

March 23, 2011

I realized going in to Hanky Panky that I had never seen one of Sidney Poitier’s half-dozen-or-so directed films. Having seen it, I still feel like disqualifying myself, for surely Hanky Panky has not been directed by anyone, and if it has, who on earth would want to take credit for such a fiasco? Poitier had a monster hit with his previous film, Stir Crazy, which I’ve always managed to avoid seeing, even on its Showtime run; did he use his clout and riding-high status to make this?

The screenplay presents a bald ripoff of North by Northwest that could conceivably have been polished and livened up by a great director, but Sidney Poitier doesn’t seem to be that. The opening sequence, of a crazed suicide, is so inept that it seems to have been directed by a high-school film buff who has some very clichéd ideas about suspense. The movie is cheap-looking, and the cast is poorly handled, too. Of course Richard Widmark can always curl a lip when playing a villain, but that’s all he does here; and Kathleen Quinlan acts as though she were in a different movie from the other actors, although in Hanky Panky that’s perfectly all right.

Gene Wilder does his Gene Wilder thing, which has provided many moments of pleasure in films past, but there is the sense here that it’s being extended over one film too many (and his director has nothing new to add to Wilder’s shtick this time round). The movie camera does not like Gilda Radner, and she is playing someone who is supposed to be normal; whereas anyone who has ever seen Radner’s “Judy Miller Show” on “Saturday Night Live” knows that this is no normal person and should not be treated like one.

Even the much-celebrated real-life romance between Wilder and Radner does not come across on the screen; there are no To Have and Have Not-like frissons during which we glimpse two people falling in love in real life even as they are in the movie. But maybe Sidney Poitier didn’t notice. He doesn’t translate any behavioral idiosyncrasy to the screen, and maybe he doesn’t see any in the world around him. I mean, we’re talking about a director who zooms into a candleflame at the end of a love scene so he can dissolve to a crackling blaze in the fireplace. And with that kind of directorial sensibility at work, it’s the audience that winds up getting burned.

First published in The Informer, June 1982

Sheesh. I suppose “audience getting burned” is just as labored a transition as the flame-to-the-fireplace bit. Well, it’s understood, I hope, that saying Radner should not be treated like a normal person is a compliment to a very special comedian; she was frequently uncanny on “SNL.” Poitier, a splendid actor, of course notices behavioral idiosyncrasy in the world around him, despite my comment, but this is a really badly directed movie. In the Wilder-Radner canon, Haunted Honeymoon was no prize either, unfortunately. It’s hard to believe two glorious performers could team up to create such inert movies. And yet there they are.