The Best of Times

July 29, 2011

Ever since 9:22 p.m., November 15, 1972, there has been an overriding reality in the life of an otherwise ordinary man from the small town of Taft, California. It was at that very moment, 13 years ago, that Jack (Robin Williams) dropped a last-second pass that would have given the Taft Rockets their first-ever victory over the hated Bakersfield Tigers.

Instead, Jack muffed the catch, Bakersfield won the high school rivalry again, and Jack was doomed to a life as The Man Who Dropped the Ball.

This is the situation for the protagonist of The Best of Times, a spunky, endearing slice-of-life comedy. As the film begins, Jack is recounting a brief history of the town of Taft, which has never seemed to win at anything. In a way, he’s like the town itself—small, unassuming, bloody but not bowed.

Jack gets it into his head that he can remove the nagging memory of that dropped ball—extricate himself from “the bowels of hell,” as he puts it—by replaying the game; that is, gathering all the now-paunchy players from the two squads and going through it all again.

But he’ll need the help of the greatest high school quarterback in the history of Taft: Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell). Reno resists, but a terrorist attack by a man dressed in a tiger suit—everyone thinks it’s a Bakersfield bad buy, but it’s actually Jack, trying to whip up enthusiasm for the game—changes Reno’s mind, and the preparations for the battle begin.

These are amusing; but at least as important to the heart of the film are the marital tribulations of Jack and Reno. Jack’s wife (Holly Palance) has thrown him out of the house because of his insistence on the replayed game. And long-standing problems have driven Reno’s wife (Pamela Reed) to temporary residence at the Top Hat motel.

A sequence with the two couples coming together for a reconciliation dinner is the comic centerpiece. The wives swig wine from the bottle in anticipation, the husbands try to bolster themselves with a game plan (“Be bland, but strong—careful, but with a touch of reckless”).

The women have deliberately scheduled the dinner for a Monday night, with the attendant televised football game; the dinner is a test to see whether the boys can resist the temptation. If that that setup seems a bit familiar, the results are funny nevertheless.

It all builds up to a conclusion that is also familiar and predictable: Every person who watches this movie knows that the big rematch will come down to a single play in which Jack will either redeem himself or become the goat of all time.

The plot may strike some as formula—how many movies can we take with a big sporting event as the finale? And yet The Best of Times has a wonderful freshness; it combines humor and heartache in a beguiling combination—in scenes such as Reno’s off-key rendition of “Close to You” at his wife’s motel room door, or the touching entreaty Jack makes to his wife in the gymnasium restroom during a pregame sock-hop.

Director Roger Spottiswoode (Under Fire) has a keen sense of how people talk, and behave; and he’s well-served by his actors. Williams and Russell have nice chemistry, and Palance (currently appearing in the Seattle Rep’s The Real Thing) and Reed (The Right Stuff) are attractively unglamorous.

The Best of Times doesn’t break new ground, and it’s a decidedly self-effacing work. But it’s a tremendously agreeable movie, and very easy to enjoy.

First published in the Herald, January 29, 1986

Lovely movie. I didn’t mention its screenwriter, because like most people I didn’t know who Ron Shelton was; Bull Durham was still a couple of years in the future. But of course Shelton’s spirit is all over this film, in the best ways. As for the director, this seemed like the moment Spottiswoode was going to settle onto the A-list, which didn’t happen although he did get some high-profile jobs, including a Bond picture. He was married to Holly Palance (yes, daughter of Jack), who didn’t really stick with the movie thing. This film just radiates a good feel, and everybody’s doing top-line work; of course, it didn’t do anything at the box office.

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Cyborg

July 28, 2011

JCVD, crossed up

The only interesting thing about Cyborg is that it represents another step in the career of one Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Van Damme is trying to make the leap from European body building champion to American movie star. It has been done before, and Arnold Schwarzengger’s lessons are there for all to study.

Van Damme has learned well. Like Schwarzenegger, he knows not to talk much (Belgian-born, his accent is about as thick as his biceps) and to do a lot of scenes with his shirt off. He has the body and he has the looks, although he doesn’t seem blessed with Schwarzenegger’s droll sense of humor. In fact, he doesn’t display much sense of anything, except how to move.

His martial-arts skills came in handy in his first starring vehicle, Bloodsport, a karate-chopping extravaganza that did strong business internationally. Now comes Cyborg, a trip into the science-fiction landscape of The Terminator and The Road Warrior.

The script (by Kitty Chalmers) is pretty much incoherent. The earth, some years in the future, has been devastated by a plague, but a cure is held in the brain circuits of a cyborg, a robot. This cyborg must reach, of all places, Atlanta, where a small group of scientists is waiting to secure the data. Times are tough for a traveling cyborg, because a group of marauders called the Flesh Pirates are roaming around asserting their nasty will.

So Van Damme, a sort of roving samurai, makes sure the cyborg reaches Atlanta. Director Albert Pyun obviously has been inspired by Kurosawa’s action movies, and there’s some decently mounted hand-to-hand fighting and a violent climactic battle in the rain. There’s also a wild and weird crucifixion scene in which Van Damme painfully knocks himself off the cross when the bad guys aren’t looking. Ouch.

Otherwise, Van Damme glowers, and manages lines like, “I deedn’t make thees world.” I have to admit that when he and the main villain (Vincent Klyn, a champion surfer) faced off, they reminded me of Hans and Franz, the Germanic body building brothers on “Saturday Night Live,” flexing and bellowing. But don’t tell Van Damme I said that; his muscles aren’t cotton stuffed in a sweat shirt, they’re real.

First published in the Herald, April 14, 1989

To be fair, maybe the cyborg is going to Atlanta because the Center for Disease Control is there. And they’d be smart enough to have built a secure plague-resistant HQ, for sure. So I take that comment back, and regret the umpteenth iteration of the “accent thick as muscles” line, too. Frankly this movie sounds like fun, especially the part about JCVD knocking himself off the cross in mid-crucifixion. For more on the cinema of Albert Pyun, check the review of Dangerously Close and the comments section.


Berlin Alexanderplatz

July 27, 2011

Gunther Lamprecht and friends

For a lot of perfectly sensible reasons, the prospect of tackling 15 hours’ worth of a TV miniseries—and paying to see it in a movie theater, no less—is not merely daunting, but downright repulsive. Especially when you consider the quality of current network “novels for television,” as the high-falutin’ ads refer to them.

But Berlin Alexanderplatz, which is about to be shown locally for only the second time, is no ordinary TV series. It’s nothing less than the most remarkable project in contemporary cinema.

Typically, it came from the mind of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the young German filmmaker who carved out a unique place in film history for himself in the span of his madly paced 36 years. (He died in 1982.)

Fassbinder had long been fascinated and inspired by Alfred Doblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, which detailed the peculiar career of one man through the chaotic Germany of the 1920s. In 1980, Fassbinder got the chance to adapt the book for German television—which meant that, with 15 hours at his disposal, he could allow the narrative to unfold with unprecedented leisure and detail—for once, a true “novel for television.”

That’s exactly how Fassbinder filmed it. Characters move, and speak, and lapse into silence, with novelistic disregard for briskness. That may sound like a 15-hour drag, but Fassbinder’s seductive rhythms establish themselves at the outset, and before long you’re barely aware of watching the film at all—it’s almost more like living through a lifetime, as it is happening.

That lifetime, which belongs to Franz Biberkopf (played superbly by Gunther Lamprecht), forms a strange arc across the backdrop of a nation violently re-forming itself. As the film begins, Biberkopf is being released from prison, and he vows to never get himself in trouble again—taking a noncommittal stance that transforms him into something of a tabula rasa.

Franz wanders through this inferno, but can’t avoid sliding into the criminal world. He also can’t avoid women, most of whom seem wildly attracted to him. This is dubious at first, since Franz—physically and intellectually—resembles a big, likable, graceful camel. But the actor’s presence is persuasive enough to carry it off.

The actors—made up largely of the members of Fassbinder’s loyal stock company—have a lot to do with making the film so watchable. Barbara Sukowa (Lola) is tender and fierce as Franz’ true beloved; Elisabeth Trissenaar is lovely as an early flame; and Hanna Schygulla (The Marriage of Maria Braun) is stellar in a smaller role. Honors go to Gottfried John, for his disturbing creation of one of the most complete villains in memory.

This mind-boggling work, with its many demands and commensurate rewards, was screened over the course of a single week at the Neptune theater in December 1983. (The faithful who staggered from the theater at the end of that week did so in a truly altered state.) Now the Market theater is bringing it back, in a rather more convenient schedule: a single, two-hour block per week, shown every Saturday at noon (then repeated same time next day) beginning this week, through March 9.

It’s still a sizable chunk of time, and quite a commitment. But a commitment to Berlin Alexanderplatz pays off in various ways—not the least of which for the view it provides into the mind of one of the cinema’s most scintillating creators. This enormous work is Fassbinder’s greatest legacy.

First published in the Herald, January 1986 ?

Not RWF’s greatest film, no, but a big legacy, for sure. I watched it during the Neptune’s weeklong marathon, but not during the Market’s rollout. In a way I’m wrong about the movie resembling a novel; actually it becomes more like a dream, one that can stand still for an hour at a time. A novel must keep words going on a page, but here Fassbinder actually seems to stop time for an interlude, or make it feel like non-movie time. Reading the actual novel is absolutely on my list of things to do.


Band of the Hand

July 26, 2011

For a few years, Michael Mann was one of the more interesting directors, with his TV film The Jericho Mile, the high-tech James Caan movie Thief, and the exceedingly weird sci-fi World War II picture, The Keep. Mann looked like one of those original talents who have to scratch and claw for every idiosyncratic project.

Then he stumbled onto a television show about some “MTV cops,” titled “Miami Vice.” As executive producer, he’s the chief creative force on that very successful show. Now, having garnered some clout, he’s flexing his muscles.

The movie that puts him back in the director’s chair, Red Dragon, will be released later this year. First out is another Miami production on which Mann serves as executive producer, Band of the Hand; the directing chores are handled by a “Vice” collaborator, Paul Michael Glaser.

Glaser’s visual style follows the “Vice” look pretty closely (aided by the increasingly active Risky Business cinematographer, Reynaldo Villalobos); the streets and alleys of Miami are dotted with pink and turquoise, the nights shine with neon, the bad guys glisten with evil.

But the most effective scenes in the film take place in the Everglades, where, in the opening minutes, a racially balanced quintet of violent and seemingly incorrigible juvenile convicts is unloaded. They haven’t been told why, they don’t know where they are, and they don’t want to be there.

A mysterious figure appears: a tough commander (Stephen Lang) who barks orders to them but doesn’t spell out why they’re in the Everglades. He does tell them that they’ll have to learn to survive with the elements—and with each other—or he’ll let them die out there.

Lang takes them through a rough regimen of survival skills, in sometimes compelling sequences. It turns out he’s training them as part of a rehabilitation service. When they return to Miami, he’s going to have them work together as a positive force within the decaying inner city.

Unfortunately, once they get back to town, the film becomes as interesting as a subpar episode of “Miami Vice,” but without the black Ferraris. Glaser has trouble with the film’s structure; it goes on for about a half hour after you expect it to end.

And for all of Glaser’s experience on the “Vice” squad, he makes a basic mistake: Too much of Band of the Hand takes place in dull daylight, when the flashy nighttime scenes are what make the TV vision of Miami tick.

The five hooligans are not bad, and Lang, who was superb as Happy in the Dustin Hoffman Death of a Salesman, is effective as the strong-but-silent leader. And, as usual, James Remar is adept at playing the kind of big-time psychopath he essayed so well in The Cotton Club and 48 HRS.

But the film is never again as engaging as the early Everglades scenes. Its attempt to provide a showy conclusion by blowing everything up at the end feels desperate. And the Bob Dylan title tune, heard a couple of times, actually creates a more vivid picture of the urban inferno than anything in this movie.

First published in the Herald, April 15, 1986

Michael Mann would come roaring back in movies, as you know, and “Miami Vice” did a quick quality-swoon after its first season. Larry Fishburne and John Cameron Mitchell are also in Band of the Hand, plus a scad of 80s hits; I take it the movie’s a camp classic now, and clearly I was a little too respectful in this review; ordinarily when I write a sentence like, “he’s going to have them work together as a positive force within the decaying inner city,” I can provide some kind of smirky paranthetical.


School Daze

July 25, 2011

For a guy who scored a major independent success with his first film, She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee had a devil of a time getting his follow-up feature made. School Daze was canceled during preproduction by Island Pictures, the company that distributed She’s Gotta Have It. Happily, Columbia Pictures immediately picked up the project.

But Lee’s problems were not over. Halfway through filming, he was barred from shooting at the black campuses (including his alma mater, Morehouse) where the film is set. Evidently the school administrators felt that Lee’s comic-dramatic-musical remembrance of his days at a Southern black college was giving a negative image to black education in general. Lee had to scramble to find alternate locations.

Even with the film successfully completed, Lee must now fight the sophomore jinx. There are inevitable expectations when a moviemaker hits it big the first time out; as though to head off those kinds of expectations, Lee has made a very different (and much more ambitious) sort of film.

School Daze touches on a number of complicated issues in tracking the activities of a passel of students over a weekend at mythical Mission College. At the heart of the matter is the split between two classes of students. The light-skinned black students join fraternities and sororities and wear blue contact lenses. The dark-skinned blacks are contemptuous of them, and more defiant in their attitudes.

Out of this ensemble piece come a handful of different stories: the efforts of a pledge, Half-Pint (played by Spike Lee himself) to join the elite Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity, and survive a variety of hazing humiliations; the protests led by Dap (Larry Fishburne) to make the school divest its holding in South Africa; Dap’s touchy relationship with his girlfriend (Kyme), who wants to pledge a sorority.

There are also breaks in the conventional storytelling for songs and dances (much of the music is by Spike’s father, jazzman Bill Lee). Included is a musical set-piece about women’s hairstyles called “Straight and Nappy,” in which the light-skinned students are taunted in song, “Your eyes are blue, but you ain’t white, your hair is straight ’cause you pressed it last night.”

There’s a lot going on in this film, including moments of surrealism such  as the ending, addressed directly to the audience. Enough going on to invite justifiable charges of unevenness; this is recognizably the film of a young sensibility, of an impertinent, free-swinging instigator.

But for a young film, School Daze shows considerable complexity. The characters, despite their physical differences, are not easily divided into the goods and the bads.

Spike Lee has a way to go before he becomes “the black Woody Allen,” as some critics have irrelevantly dubbed him. But School Daze is a gutsy step in the right direction.

First published in the Herald, March 24, 1988

For my money Lee took quite a few steps in wrong directions as the years went by, but there was still a certain fizzy youthfulness to this movie that excused the director’s clumsier tendencies. The suggestion that Spike Lee does not divide his characters “into the goods and bads” comes as some surprise to the present-day me, especially given the films that have come since 1988, and it’s pretty clear which side he favors in this movie, but he does make some effort to cloud the waters. Finally, the sheer brio of the movie’s approach takes the day, to say nothing of the satisfaction of seeing a film about an African-American institutional system made from the inside out, rather than the other way around.


Red Heat

July 22, 2011

When he was dreaming up the story for Red Heat, director Walter Hill (visiting the area last week on a publicity tour) says there was just one sticking-point to his story: “Would the American filmgoing public accept an unregenerate Soviet hero?”

Hilll’s problem may have ben solved in the casting of the role, for these days almost anything with Arnold Schwarzenegger is automatically ticketed for public acceptance. The Soviet hero of Red Heat is a Moscow policeman who comes to Chicago in search of a lethal Russian criminal. There he gains the prickly comradeship of a Chicago cop (James Belushi) on the trail of the same man.

The cop-buddy movie is a familiar formula, but Hill consistently finds a way to put a distinctive spin on individual scenes. He begins the film in the Soviet Union with a crisply mounted manhunt, wherein Schwarzenegger pursues his quarry through a coed steambath, a fistfight in the snow, and a seedy Russian bar, where the pursuit climaxes in one of the truly outrageous physical punchlines of recent memory.

When the scene shifts to Chicago, Hill strikes the appropriate balance in the comic collision between Belushi and Schwarzenegger, a few effective action sequences, and some funky fish-out-of-water business for Schwarzenegger, who strides into a rundown hotel and bellows his name—”Danko”—to which the desk clerk replies, “You’re welcome.”

This is topped by Schwarzenegger’s deadpan announcement after he ditches his uniform and dons an ill-fitting blue suit: “I am working undercover.” He still looks every inch (and there are a lot of them, of course) the alien.

Though Red Heat is fundamentally lightweight, and its narrative locomotion occasionally threaten to outstrip the niceties of logic, it is always informed by wit. It’s a return to cruising speed for Hill, whose recent outings have included the curious byways of Brewster’s Millions, Crossroads, and Extreme Prejudice.

Hill says the genesis of Red Heat was his desire to direct Schwarzenegger, which brings some built-in problems. “He’s a little hard to make work, the accent and all. He can’t play from Peoria, or somewhere.” So Hill came up with the Soviet angle, and “We really wrote the script after we had the actors, which is unusual. The iconography of actors is critical,” he says.

Hill has heard Red Heat compared to his biggest hit, 48 HRS. “It resembles 48 HRS. a lot less than a bunch of other movies made in the last three years. 48 HRS. was a very funny movie, as long as you didn’t think it was a comedy.” Exactly the same is true of Red Heat.

What I make of Hill’s movies is that they continue to represent one of the most provocative talents in the American cinema. My favorite Hill film is The Long Riders, arguably the best Western in the lean two decades after The Wild Bunch.

Says Hill, “I don’t think the Western genre is going to make a comeback. And I say that with a sense of regret—underlined. I have a couple of scripts. You got any money?”

First published in the Herald, June 16, 1988

I interviewed Hill in a busy restaurant, but I can’t remember which one. He wore sunglasses during the interview, which a publicist explained had to do with his sensitivity to light. I probably told him I had a poster for The Long Riders hanging in my room. As for Red Heat, I seem to have enjoyed it, although the specifics have gotten hazy and the exchange, “Danko” “You’re welcome,” makes me question my standards.


Phantasm II

July 21, 2011

Ominous Scrimm

Back in 1979, an apparently crazed 25-year-old writer-director named Don Coscarelli came out with a weird little horror movie called Phantasm. It was a jumble of imaginative effects, and turned into something of a sleeper, both commercially and critically.

Coscarelli seemed to be a filmmaker to keep an eye on, but he hasn’t done much since Phantasm (his most high-profile project was The Beastmaster). So it is natural that he would return to what he knows best, and Phantasm II is the inevitable result.

There’s a cursory flashback at the beginning of the new film, for those who missed the original. It doesn’t really provide any helpful information, but then storytelling is not Coscarelli’s strong suit, and Phantasm II doesn’t make very much sense in any case. The main thing here is that the special effects and grotesque imagery are in hyperdrive by the end of the movie.

The hero from the first film is grown up now, but still haunted. Mike (played by James Le Gros) has visions, and his visions tell him that bodies are being stolen from graves. When he bumps into his old friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) in a cemetery, Mike is raving: “Doesn’t it strike you strange, Reg, that every single corpse in this entire graveyard is missing?” Indeed it should. The dead are being recruited into an army of hunched creatures who scuttle around in monk’s robes and perform nasty deeds.

The two men hit the road to track down the ringleader of all this evil. It is, of course, the villain from the original Phantasm, that ominous mortician (or is that a redundancy?) known only as “The Tall Man,” played here, as before, by a cadaverous actor named Angus Scrimm. Even his name is scary.

Mike and Reg chase the Tall Man to a remote town in Oregon, where they are aided by Liz (Paula Irvine), who has been having strange visions, and a hitchhiker named Alchemy (Samantha Phillips), who is something of a vision herself. Everyone in this town has disappeared, and the priest is shouting about the Tall Man: “He’s taken them all! He’s harvested the entire town!”

This sets the stage for the really gruesome finale. Coscarelli combines the fearsome physiognomy of the Tall Man with the deadliness of these flying silver balls, which lock themselves onto their victims’ foreheads and make like dentist’s drills. Ouch.

The movie has some startling sequences, but it’s too rangy and disjointed to sustain itself. You can say this for Coscarelli, though: He knows how to put the screws on.

First published in the Herald, July 10, 1988

I’m pretty sure I missed the remaining films in the Phantasm saga, although fond memories of seeing the first one in a drive-in theater remain. Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep has enough pretty wonderful moments to make you wonder why this guy doesn’t make more movies.