July 20, 2011

Sur les toits de Paris: Frantic

One of the things Roman Polanski is so good at (and, as one of the world’s finest film artists, Polanski is good at a lot of things) is capturing the look and feel of a certain locale. Especially cities: the London of Repulsion, the New York of Rosemary’s Baby, and especially the Los Angeles of Chinatown.

This is all the more remarkable since so much of Polanski’s work takes place in claustrophobic interiors. Now, Polanski tackles Paris, which has been his home base since he fled the United States on that nasty morals charge more than a decade ago.

The film is Frantic, and it’s an exercise in the Hitchcockian form, co-written by Polanski and Gerard Brach. A visiting American doctor (Harrison Ford) loses his wife (Betty Buckley) in the first hour of their stay and Ford is forced to scour the city to find out why this happened and how to get her back. “Cherchez la femme” is the phrase of the day.

Polanski is our greatest purveyor of anxiety and dread, and this effective setup allows him to draw out all the disoriented helplessness of Ford’s situation (the film’s first line, and overriding theme, is, “Do you know where you are?”). Naturally, Ford speaks no French, and just as naturally police and American Embassy officials are no help. Polanski takes delight in throwing the poor chap to the werewolves of Parisian nightlife.

As Ford pieces some clues together, he’s drawn to the nightclubs and especially to a girl (Emmanuelle Seigner) who holds the key to his wife’s disappearance. Seigner is another of Polanski’s lovely young protégées (like Nastassja Kinski and others); she’s even poutier than usual, but she fulfills her role capably.

Although Frantic is adequate in expressing the increasing mania of the husband, it’s not really an actors’ movie. This is a director’s film, and Polanski has some terrific moments, such as Ford’s crawl across an apartment roof (unexpectedly played for laughs), as well as two separate hostage exchanges, nail-biters both. And the opening scene, when the doctor and his wife settle into their swanky hotel, is eerily deliberate, as Polanski establishes the normalcy just waiting to be broken apart.

Time and again, Polanski displays his characteristic scrupulousness. Each camera placement draws the maximum possible effect, nowhere better demonstrated than the moment the lady vanishes; the camera is in the shower with Ford looking out while the water drowns out the woman’s words and she disappears.

For all that is good about Frantic, I have to admit it’s a disappointment overall. It doesn’t go far enough; there’s something minor and bland about it, and the central character lacks the sort of depth and ambiguity that have marked Polanski’s characters in the past. It is, nevertheless, an advance over Polanski’s previous film, the misbegotten Pirates.

First published in the Herald, February 25, 1988

Well, it seems there might have been another sentence there at the end, but what happened to it I don’t know. This film really has not stayed in my mind in a significant way; even the oddball Bitter Moon left more of an impression on me. But the opening hotel sequence is a great Polanski set-piece: “nothing” happens, and you feel utterly creeped out by all of it. He married Mme. Seigner, of course.


License to Drive

July 19, 2011

Graham, Feldman & Haim

License to Drive is a movie clearly made with the assembly line in mind. The filmmakers have taken the body of Risky Business, the chassis of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and the low rumbling engine of After Hours.

Funny thing is, for a film that should (and often does) feel like a mass-produced vehicle, License to Drive provides a pretty painless ride. I know I chuckled at least 12 times, which is about a dozen times more than I’d expected.

There’s nothing new about the main matter of the film, which is a basic recapitulation of basic adolescent hijinks. One kid (Corey Haim) needs to get his driver’s license so he can impress the girl of his dreams and his best friend (Corey Feldman). Unfortunately, he flunks his driver’s test the day he’s scheduled to have a big first date with the dream girl.

The final two-thirds of the movie is the date, which Haim embarks upon despite the absence of the license. Actually, he’s all but given up on the whole idea, until he receives a phone call from the girl on the night in question: “So, you can pick me up in 20 minutes?” That’s a siren call no hormone-pumping young American could possibly resist.

So Haim sneaks his grandfather’s pristine Cadillac out of the garage and glides away. After that, the roof falls in – quite literally, by the end of the movie. Director Greg Beeman and screenwriter Neil Tolkin have devised every possible catastrophe for our young driver and the soon-to-be-unrecognizable car.

Along with the girl (soon soused on champagne), he picks up two buddies and carries them along for the ride, as they encounter a rumble at a burger drive-in, a violent Communist Party demonstration, a humorless tow-truck driver, and finally a drunken car thief.

Nothing too surprising about any of this, and the humor is entirely tied up in pubescent obsessions, albeit the nightmarish side of them (the movie even opens with a nightmare about escape from a hellish school bus).

But Beeman displays some sense of how to set up an honest joke, and the performers are generally likable, if somewhat nondescript; Richard Masur and Carol Kane do their usual good work as Haim’s hip-but-not-that-hip parents. At the very least, Beeman taps into many of the central terrors peculiar to the state of being 15 ½ years old.

First published in the Herald, July 1988

“Nothing too surprising about any of this”? How did I say that after typing the line about the violent Communist Party demonstration? I guess I was dazzled, to some minor degree, by the movie. It got bad reviews and was one of those movies reviewers could point to in order to trace the collapse of American cinema, but I liked it. This is a shameful thing to admit about a Two Coreys picture, but I remember it having a decent sense of comic timing and momentum. Not that I’ve seen it since it came out. Director Beeman went on to a very successful TV career, including stuff like Heroes and Smallville. I didn’t identify the female lead here, but it was Heather Graham, a year before Drugstore Cowboy.

Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach

July 18, 2011

Inertia rules the production of the Police Academy series—the inertia of constant motion, that is. These movies are scheduled to come out at spring break every year, and so they do; they might just keep going forever. Would anyone notice? Does anyone notice now?

The inertia dictates that a certain formula must be followed, regardless of the results. The results, for quite a few installments now, have been rigorously unfunny movies, but that’s not enough to deflect the awesome momentum of the series, which has made an obscene amount of money for producer Paul Maslansky. We’re up to number five (as though the numerical distinctions make any difference).

Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach wisely transports the troupe to a new locale. Other than that, everything is in place; almost every joke in the movie is a retread, with the slightest possible variation, of a gag from a previous film. As in the last couple of outings, the students of the first film—Bubba Smith, et al.—are simply a nondescript glob of people who surround the guest stars.

Steve Guttenberg is gone; his contract must’ve run out. Holding down the fort is George Gaynes, as the doddering commandant of the school, and in this installment he occupies center stage when he is kidnapped by some sharp-dressing Miami bad guys.

Also stepping to the forefront are non-regulars Matt McCoy, playing Gaynes’ almost-normal nephew, and Janet Jones, the luscious girl on the beach in The Flamingo Kid, who performs much the same function here.

As usual, most of the film’s energy is directed at the degradation of the hated lieutenant (G.W. Bailey). Also as usual, Bailey earns the film’s only near laughs, particularly when he adopts the guise of a swinger in a beachside bar.

Last year when PA4 came out, Rex Reed swore he would quit the business if another sequel were made. If he keeps his word, this would be the only positive thing to come out of the series in years. Well, Rex, we’re waiting. Rex?

First published in the Herald, March 1988

Rex Reed kept going, but you knew that. I don’t actually know how much money Paul Maslansky made, but I assume it was a great deal. Matt McCoy went on to have the career of a seemingly very good sport, in everything from his amusing role in L.A. Confidential to a corner of the Seinfeld universe. Janet Jones went on to marry Wayne Gretzky.

White of the Eye

July 15, 2011

In 1970, a film called Performance became one of the remarkable conversation pieces of its time, a strange and disquieting picture that breathtakingly caught the fragmentation of life and the disintegration of identity in the modern world. Mick Jagger and James Fox were the stars; the directorial credit was shared by Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell.

Since Performance, Roeg has gone on to build a distinctive career, with high points such as Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Cammell, on the other hand, remained something of a mystery. He directed only one subsequent film, the 1977 Demon Seed, an interesting horror movie that flopped, commercially and critically (reviewers seemed repelled by the central plot point, in which Julie Christie was impregnated by a computer).

So it’s been convenient all these years to assume that, given Roeg’s fascinating work, Performance was almost certainly his film all the way, and this chap Cammell could be filed away as a subject for further research.

Whoops. Wipe away a critical complacency. Cammell has made his third film, White of the Eye, and it’s a stunner. Not only that, it reveals just the kind of style—visually and thematically—that so marked Performance.

White of the Eye is a film of violence, insanity, and (oddly enough) love, set in a small town in Arizona. Someone is viciously murdering women, and the investigating officer (Art Evans) is zeroing in on a likable stereo salesman (David Keith) who lives in the desert with his wife (Cathy Moriarty) and daughter. The marriage, which began 10 years earlier (seen in flashback) when Moriarty was passing through town with her then-boyfriend (Alan Rosenberg), is about to be tested in a variety of ways.

Not a lot of the plot should be given away. Anyway, it’s Cammell’s treatment of the story that is intriguing. His camera moving and creeping, his editing rhythms jagged, Cammell risks pretentiousnss and sometimes achieves it. But just as often he finds the explosive image: a goldfish flopping on a piece of meat; the soundtrack—elsewhere composed by Nick Mason (of Pink Floyd) and Rick Fenn—swimming with Italian opera as the camera soars over the appalling ruins of a mining company; the detective noting that the bloodstains at the murder scene resemble a “post-Cubist Picasso.”

It’s a bizarre film, not soon to be shaken. Easy to overlook in the director’s tour-de-force are two excellent performances—by David Keith, who does his best screen work, and the blond beauty, Cathy Moriarty. She must’ve appealed to Cammell. Since her Oscar-nominated debut in Raging Bull, she’s made only one film. White of the Eye restores both Cammell and Moriarty to their proper station: active in the movies.

First published in the Herald, 1987

Cammell killed himself in 1996, leaving behind an incredible-sounding series of cancelled productions and scripts left in drawers (the one feature he finished after White of the Eye was Wild Side). This movie is not, at the moment, on U.S. DVD, which somehow doesn’t come as a surprise. It’s an intense and singular experience, even if the subject matter sounds all too familiar.

April Fool’s Day

July 14, 2011

Deborah Foreman, eyebrows at work

Let’s see now—unless I’m mistaken, we’ve run through just about every major holiday for teen horror films: from Halloween through My Bloody Valentine with a detour for that nasty thing with a crazed Santa Claus. April Fool’s Day should put an end to the cycle, unless some wise guy dreams up Arbor Day Massacre.

In fact, by now, April Fool’s Day is just a tad anachronistic. The holiday horror cycle peaked about three or four years ago. Lately, we’ve seen some class return to horror movies.

But April Fool’s Day finds a new angle: to continually pull the rug out from under you, in the nature of the holiday. And the film has enough humor to suggest that it’s almost parodying the genre. Almost, but not quite. It still relies on the cheap thrills of the degraded slice ‘n’ dice formula.

The setting, as one character notes, is quasi-Agatha Christie. A troop of college-age kids is ferried out to an island hideaway, where they will expire one by one.

Ominous signs crop up the first night. The hostess, Muffy (Deborah Foreman), puts whoopee cushions at the dinner table and sets someone up in a collapsible chair. Is this woman murderously insane, or does she merely think she’s the entertainment director at a Shriners convention?

As it turns out, the whoopee cushions are eerie harbingers of the evil to come (not the first time whoopee cushions have functioned this way). Muffy combs her hair straight back and wears nurse’s shoes, which tips off her friends that something is very, very wrong. Then the kids start disappearing, and then reappearing with parts of their bodies missing, like the heads.

April Fool’s Day contains many familiar scenes, such as the climb down into the dark slimy well, the jaunt out to the end of the pier at midnight, and, of course, the trip to the attic, where two of the kids learn that Muffy has been decapitating Barbie dolls.

It’s all too, too horrible, and continues to play itself out until almost everyone is eliminated. Director Fred Walton springs a few twists toward the end, but early on you can pretty well guess what they might be.

Foreman, who overacted shamelessly in the recent My Chauffeur, has a few creepy moments, although most of her performance exists in her eyebrows. The other cast members are negligible, except for a real looker named Leah King Pinsent as Muffy’s intellectual friend (she reads Milton on the ferry trip, which, like, really bums out the other kids), and Griffin O’Neal, who sounds a lot like his father, Ryan.

It’s better-looking and more good-natured than most films of its ilk. But, ultimately, April Fool’s Day still plays the same dumb game, even if its tongue is in its cheek.

First published in the Herald, March 29, 1986

Fred Walton had directed When a Stranger Calls, but you don’t need me to tell you that. The fact that I can remember nothing about this movie makes me feel absolutely nothing. It was sort of remade in 2008.


July 13, 2011

No question about it: Henry Jaglom’s Always is a true one-of-a-kind, a movie not quite like any other. It’s a film Jaglom made about his painful divorce.

The twist is, not only did Jaglom write and direct the film, he also stars as himself, and his real ex-wife, Patrice Townsend, stars as his ex-wife.

Technically, this feat is not quite unprecedented. Other actor-directors made films with their actress-spouses and sometimes obliquely commented on their relationship: Charles Chaplin and Paulette Goddard in Modern Times, Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall.

But those movies couched themselves in fictions of one kind or another. Jaglom’s movie is about the actual divorce, with the actual participants, filmed in the house he and Townsend shared while they were married.

As the film begins, Jaglom speaks directly to the camera and explains that two years have passed since he and his wife broke up. Now, this evening, she is coming over to sign the divorce papers and make it legal. He fixes her dinner, they have a few drinks, she starts feeling nauseated (she accuses him of trying to poison her). So she spends the night, and they never quite get the paper signed.

The next day, friends arrive unexpectedly to spend the weekend (they are played by Joanna Frank and Alan Rachins who, not surprisingly, are real-life friends of Jaglom). Then Townsend’s sister shows up with a new boyfriend in tow. In a concession, Jaglom cast a non-related actress in the part of the sister.

The film covers this weekend, which turns into an endless group-therapy session for the gang. Jaglom encourages his actors to improvise from a loose outline, so there’s endless touchy-feely dialogue as everybody tries to find themselves.

There’s something just awful about all of this. Every winsome truth that was ever spoken by a pop psychologist turns up in the course of the weekend. Everyone hugs each other, constantly. And the thought that these people are nakedly acting out the things that really happened to them—well, it’s either courageous or embarrassing, depending on your point of view. Maybe both.

Jaglom—who’s been making his low-budget independent films (Sitting Ducks, Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?) since he worked as editor on Easy Rider—does, at least, have some sense of structure. And Always is no Ingmar Bergman gloomfest. It’s a comedy, but about pain.

But, boy oh boy, when a film looks at a bunch of actors (and non-actors) improvising dialogue about things that really happened, they had better be watchable people. And, for me, the people got more excruciating as the film went on.

They’re constantly talking about their messed-up lives, what to do about them, and generally letting it all hang out. This leads to an inescapable conclusion as to why they’re so messed up: they talk too much about getting in touch with their feelings, they hug too often, and they let far too much hang out. But this is, I suspect, not exactly the message Jaglom wanted to send with this film.

First published in the Herald, October 1985

Of course this was not a one-of-a-kind movie, because Jaglom has gone on to work his very particular corner of the cinematic universe for twelve subsequent features (and counting), often films starring his latest protégée. He’s got a following of fans, and he seems to have a lot of loyal friends, and although I don’t much like his movies I have developed a kind of fascination-response to them, the way you can’t draw yourself away from some terrible spectacle. By the way, the actress who played the sister-in-law was Melissa Leo; David Duchovny was another early find that Jaglom should get some credit for. But the movies just keep coming.

Blood Simple

July 12, 2011

Legendary Hollywood movie mogul Harry Cohn used to say that he had a infallible system for predicting the box-office success of his productions.

Cohn would count the number of times his sizable posterior twitched during a screening of his movie. The more his keister moved around, the less chance the film had of catching on with the public—Cohn believed that if his interest was held, his rear end wouldn’t shimmy at all.

Well…that’s how movie moguls get to be legends. But Cohn had a point, after all: When a film really hooks you, you lose yourself to the degree that you forget all about your surroundings.

But I would suggest Cohn’s Law has a contradictory corollary. There are films so good, so thrilling, so endlessly inventive that they physically lift you out of your seat, because of the sheer excitement on the screen and the giddy struggle to keep up with what’s happening.

Submitted for you approval, then: Blood Simple, a new American thriller guaranteed to have you out of your seat as much as you are in it. It is the low-budget baby of two Minneapolis brothers, both under 30: director Joel Coen and producer Ethan Coen (they wrote the convoluted screenplay together). Made for just over a million dollars—roughly the budget for finger food on an average studio production—the film breathes self-confidence in every delicious twist and turn.

It’s a modern film noir, located just down the unwholesome road from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, but laced through with a diabolically black sense of humor. The basic situation is classically pulpish: Bored woman wants out of her humdrum life, takes up with the bartender of her husband’s saloon. Husband finds out, hires a private eye to kill the adulterers.

It would be unthinkable to elaborate on any more of the plot, since, as Alfred Hitchcock put it regarding Psycho, the audience is programmed to go nuts.

The players are either unknown or anonymously recognizable as character actors. Frances McDormand, the restless wife, looks like a neglected, gone-to-seed Jessica Lange, tired of a beer diet and hungry for an end to her marriage. John Getz, the hapless bartender, is usually the last one to find out about the plot twists, and finds himself in a most uncomfortable encounter with a corpse in the middle of a wide Texas farm field.

Dan Hedaya, the husband, is a familiar character actor who looks like a refugee from the Ape House doing an impression of Richard Nixon.

The real stars of the show are the filmmakers, however; every sly turn of plot or phrase, every deliberately stylish camera movement suggests an abundance of cinematic intelligence.

The fact the film is violent, hip, and inspired by popular art may lead to a backlash against its initial critical success. (Already Stanley Kauffman did a stuffy put-down of it in The New Republic.) And for those who like their art with respectable trappings, Blood Simple will seem confounding. But for the rest of us, this dazzlingly disreputable trip to the other side of the tracks may well look like the most exciting movie of the year.

First published in the Herald, March 1985

I saw it first at the Seattle International Film Festival in May 1984, a pretty potent full-house night. I would say that it never quite gets to you the way it gets to you the first time you see it, but as debut movies go, it’s a corker. Apologies to Hedaya; he’s good in this. My favorite line is one that passes through my mind at regular intervals, usually for no reason; it’s M. Emmet Walsh, gazing at Hedaya: “You look stupid now.” It has everything to do with the line reading.