The Icicle Thief

December 21, 2011

The myriad complexities of the new Italian film The Icicle Thief manifest themselves right away: As the movie opens, a film director named Maurizio Nichetti is ushered into a TV studio, where his film called The Icicle Thief is about to be broadcast.

Now, this director is also played by the real Maurizio Nichetti, who is also the director of this Icicle Thief—the one we’re watching, not the TV-broadcast one. Well, both, actually. (Never mind.)

So the black-and-white movie starts playing on TV, where it is frequently interrupted by insipid commercials. After a power outage at the television station, the commercials merge with the movie, to the point where Nichetti himself has to enter his film and set things right. Furthermore, the whole episode is being watched (or half-watched, as with most TV) by a middle-class Italian family in their living room.

Does this sound complicated? It doesn’t really play that way. Nichetti has mapped out the various levels of reality very carefully, so we almost always know which patch of ground we’re standing on. He lets the film-within-a-film, a working-class drama based on the Italian neorealist films of the late 1940s, run on just long enough to suck you into the storyline; then he yanks the string and plops a garish commercial in your lap.

And, in the movie’s crowning moment, a tall blond model from one of the commercials invades the stark neorealist film, in all her Technicolor, aerobicized glory. She’s like one of the ‘toons in Who Framed Roger Rabbit walking around the live-action people. (Or vice versa.)

Maurizio Nichetti is a popular Italian moviemaker who carries the look of a slapstick clown, with doleful eyes, short limbs, and electrified hair and mustache. His style fuses the traditions of film comedy, from the silent mime of Chaplin and Buster Keaton to Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo.

Nichetti visited Seattle recently and explained that The Icicle Thief took a long time to create.

“It was very complicated to make a film about this connection between reality and not-reality,” he said, in his heavily-accented, appealingly fractured English, “between neorealism and the hyper-realism of advertising. The film is fantastic, but the connections inside the film are very real, very credible. If children see the film, they understand all, because all is very simple.”

Nichetti’s inspiration for the movie came out of two things: his love of the Italian neorealist tradition (Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief is the source of the film’s punning title), and the manhandling of movies on TV.

“In reality, you don’t see a film on television,” he said, “you see a lot of pieces of other shows. When you stay in front of TV with remote in your hand, and can choose your channel, you are the author of your own show. So you write your show; you decide the beginning, and the changes, you go out when you want, see a little news, and then you decide that this is my end for tonight.”

Nichetti has worked in television, and he doesn’t knock the medium. “I like television as audience. Not as director of film. A film is completely different in theater than on TV. The real life of a film is in a theater. You see the ghost of the film on television, not the real emotion of a film.”

Thus Nichetti’s film deals, in “a laughing way,” with a serious subject. “People see the world only on television. And this is a social problem, is not only a problem of show business, no? If you change the channel quickly, you pass from fiction to reality, from reality to fiction. From advertising to news, from news to sports. And you have a great confusion in your mind.” And so his movie is “a real situation—is not so fantastic, no?”

First published in the Herald, September 7, 1990

Only a smattering of Nichetti’s work has made it to the U.S., and this 1989 film remains his main release here, along with 1991’s Volere Volare. But the world of Italian comedy is an unknown territory for most of us in the West, as we are assured its slapstick and local references would leave us mystified as to the source of an audiences’ hilarity. Based on what I’ve seen, I would agree.

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Dead of Winter

December 20, 2011

Dead of Winter may be said to be interesting only so far as it gives employment to two large talents in the American cinema: actress Mary Steenburgen and director Arthur Penn. But the interest lies not in the work these two do in the film, but the puzzle of their being involved in it.

Steenburgen’s excuse is the more understandable. Dead of Winter contains a juicy part for an actress—in fact, except for a brief scene with a couple of audition hopefuls, Steenburgen plays all the female roles in the movie. That statement can’t be fully explained without giving too many of the film’s surprises away; let’s just say it’s easy to see why an actress would jump at the part.

Steenburgen is well up to it. She’s an underused but talented actress, adorable in Time After Time and Oscar-winning in Melvin and Howard. Here she plays a struggling New York actress who answers an audition ad, only to find that the auditioner (high-strung ham from Roddy McDowall) wants to cart her away to upper New York state to audition for the eccentric producer.

Once there, she discovers that the producer (Jan Rubes) has chosen her because of her resemblance to an incapacitated actress; Steenburgen will be replacing the ailing woman in a film. But Steenburgen begins to realize the two men have no intention of letting her leave the old, dark house….

There are some chills to be felt with that set-up, especially given the creepy house, with its stuffed polar bears, squeaking mice, and the odd corpse in the attic.

The script, in which Steenburgen learns the dark plot and tries to escape from it, is a hokey piece of a work by two guys named Marc Shmuger and Mark Malone. Steenburgen, carries on bravely, but after a point she can’t make it credible by herself.

Which brings us to Arthur Penn. Penn’s direction is professional and sometimes eerie, but why on earth should he bother with such a contrived and ludicrous screenplay?

The central situation—a woman in a house, at the mercy of tormentors, and the attendant suspense—bears some resemblance to Wait Until Dark, which Penn directed on Broadway in the 1960s, but the comparison makes Dead of Winter look more feeble.

Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde was one of the seminal films of the 1960s, and Night Moves one of the best of the 1970s. In this decade, Penn has managed only three movies: Four Friends, Target, and this one. Not much to show for a director who was once in the vanguard.

First published in the Herald, February 1987

The guy named Marc Shmuger later became chairman of Universal for a while, so writing this dumb movie wasn’t the worst move in the world. The film must offer a certain amount of B-picture fun, right, if caught on TV late of an evening? I just have never stumbled on it that way.


The Big Chill

December 19, 2011

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older?” asked the Beach Boys, in words that seem to sum up the great yearning of rock ‘n roll music. How great to be different from adults, but wouldn’t it be nice to get some of the privileges. How great to get the fringe benefits without the side effects. Man, that’d be the day. For many people, this day of freedom with limited responsibilities really happens—some of us call it college, although it can assume other guises. The sun is out, dreams take flight, and companionship is constant and crucial—at least, that’s the way it takes shape through the filter of memory. Two things are certain about the endless summer: 1) It will end, and 2) It will be romanticized.

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” pops up in the course of Lawrence (Body Heat) Kasdan’s new movie, The Big Chill, and it’s a pretty appropriate choice. The Big Chill is about a group of people, a decade or so past their college chumminess, who reunite for a weekend. They’ve been drawn together by the suicide—and subsequent funeral—of one of the old gang. His suicide haunts their rosy memories, as does the fact that none of them has lived up to the uncompromising ideals of the good old days. Many-tentacled adulthood has grasped them all, and the weekend looms as a chance to recapture some of the old warmth. Is the fire still there? God only knows. But few moviegoers will be able to resist that delicious feeling of settling back and awaiting the various sexual, emotional, chemical, geographical combinations that tend to erupt on such an occasion.

That brings us up against the fact that we’ve seen this kind of movie before—recently and beautifully in John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus Seven, which also presented a weekend of ex-radicals discovering a sheepish mellowness as well as certain ties that bind. Some people may be bothered by similarities between the two films. Frankly, I found it easy to look at the first five minutes of The Big Chill and say, “Oh, it’s going to be something like Secaucus Seven. Okay. Let’s go.” It was very easy, and Kasdan and his co-screenwriter Barbara Benedek have their own path to chart across this tried-and-true territory.

The on-screen people Kasdan has gathered together to make this weekend interesting are some of the most exciting young actors around right now. Kevin Kline and Glenn Close host the reunion in their fine old Southern mansion; their marriage, made comfortable by the profits from their burgeoning shoe company (and despite Close’s past affair with the dear departed) seems to be going all right. Maybe that’s what’s bugging them. Mary Kay Place plays an executive who is sick of men but desirous of a child, a situation that is, shall we say, pregnant with possibilities. Tom Berenger plays the pretty star of one of those beefcake private-eye TV shoes; he may not be as savagely bright as the rest of the gang, but he’s very well-meaning (that’s a good piece of casting; Berenger has been a male-model type for a while now, and you can almost sense his excitement at being in something good. The fact that he’s not as sharp an actor as Glenn Close or William Hurt simply serves his character). Hurt plays a seriously burned-out (and impotent) Vietnam vet whose drug-dealing has turned into something more than a sideline. Jeff Goldblum is the former crusading college-newspaper reporter who now spends his time rationalizing his job at People magazine. JoBeth Williams wanted to be a writer, but finds herself deeply into housewifery these days; she is looking for something—specifically a long-delayed something with Berenger—to happen, and it’s now or never.

That’s a terrific bunch, and there’s not an off-key performance in the lot. Two others, outsiders, figure into the proceedings: Williams’ unbearably straight-arrow husband is played by Don Galloway (yes, of TV’s “Ironside”—another fine casting stroke), and the air-headed young girlfriend of the deceased is played by Meg Tilly. In a bad movie, Tilly’s character might be meant to represent the purity of the instinctual nature as opposed to the overly analytical attitudes of the main group of friends. In The Big Chill, she’s something less—and more—than that. Her silliness plays against that sort of symbolic interpretation, and her fascination with the morbid Hurt leads the film towards a sense of revitalization. Kasdan seems interested in facing clichés and lashing back at them, and her character is no exception.

There’s a delight in turning things on their head here that springs less from cruelty than honesty. Some of the heated dialogue exchanges are choice, particularly when a character will spout something sensible and platitudinous—the kind of thing that usually passes for wisdom—whereupon someone else may pause a beat before saying, “That is such a crock of shit, I can’t believe it.” (JoBeth Williams’ unexpectedly fiery reaction to Berenger’s gentlemanly thanks-but-no-thanks retreat from her sexual gambit is the greatest of these moments.)

The Big Chill is full of good dialogue, but some of the things I’ll remember most about it have nothing to do with words: the look on JoBeth Williams’ face when she turns to look out her car window (and toward the camera) as a way of taking her mind—or, at least her eyes—off her husband as they drive away from the funeral; the lovely group dynamic as an after-dinner clean-up is transformed into a dance; the camera movement that captures the moment Glenn Close gets an idea about Mary Kay Place’s desire for a partner in progeny.

These people speak with grown-up mouths and move with grown-up bodies, but we get the idea they’re more confused than they were in college. They could sing, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older,” for years, and still wonder when the state of adulthood will really happen. The Big Chill gives a benevolent blessing to this state of mind. “The good old days” may well be a crock of shit, but it matters, as we learn by the end of this weekend, that some of that time remains alive, even after the big chill.

First published in The Informer, September 1983

This is one of those reviews where I have to chuckle about the worldly wisdom being doled out by a 24-year-old writer. But fine, that’s in the spirit of the movie, I guess. I haven’t seen the picture since it came out, but I infer that to the generation that was just coming up, The Big Chill is the epitome of Squaresville, which I guess I understand. By the way, I have always wondered exactly where the title came from; Kasdan has explained it as a reference to the cooling of youthful fires, which is clear, but it sounds like a quote from something. A couple of years after seeing the movie, I came across the phrase “big chill” in a Kerouac novel, I think The Subterraneans, and wondered whether it could be a source, but who the hell knows.


The Chipmunk Adventure

December 16, 2011

The Chipmunk Adventure is the full-length animated feature starring Alvin and the Chipmunks. Let’s put that another way: This is a cartoon. “Animation” suggests some life and motion. This snoozer has neither.

The animation is on the level of your basic Saturday-morning cartoon. The plotting is a couple of cuts below that. As this opus opens, the mysterious human figure called Dave, who has long been the caretaker of the Chipmunks (since they were invented in 1958 by songwriter Ross Bagdasarian), is preparing to leave for a European vacation. He does just that, which leaves the door open for plenty of Chipmunk mischief.

One day the Chipmunks and their distaff equivalent, the Chipettes (some sort of mutant rodent strain, evidently) are playing video games down at the malt shop when two creepy foreigners offer them lots of money to race around the world in a balloon. Naturally, the munks and ettes accept the offer.

The foreigners are really bad people who are using our gopher-like friends to drop off precious jewels all around the world. So the Chipmunks and Chipettes clamber aboard two competing balloons, and race.

This is the excuse for a bunch of different locales, all of which are sketched in stereotypical strokes (Mexicans grin a lot and shout “Ole!,” third-world tribesmen prepare the boys for ritual execution, etc.).

It’s also the excuse for a variety of songs, which the Chipmunks and Chipettes warble in full helium-throated glory. Now, some of these things are funny when they’re meant as parody, as with the Chipmunk Punk album that brought these cartoon creatures back to popularity a few years ago. But presented straight, as in the film, the songs are pretty excruciating.

One of the most chilling moments I’ve had at a movie recently was Chipette Brittany’s challenge to Alvin: “Wanna bet we can out-rock ‘n roll you?” Which is followed by “The Girls of Rock ‘n Roll.” Put simply, Chipmunk-ese, like French, is not the proper form for rock. It just doesn’t work.

Don’t get me wrong. The Chipmunks have their spot in popular culture, wherever that might be. But the movie, which was assembled by Bagdasarian’s son, Ross Jr., and Janice Karman, isn’t the vehicle for their squeaky-voiced talents.

First published in the Herald, May 24, 1987

I had completely forgotten that the Chipmunks had a feature film in the Eighties, well before their recent resurgence at the box-office. And this is that.


Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home

December 15, 2011

No, Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home is not one of those movies in which the author’s name is contractually included in the credits, like Neil Simon’s Only When I Laugh, or Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline. Besides, Coming Home has already been used. No, it’s just an ungainly title.

It’s about poor little rich boy Morgan Stewart coming home from seven years of boarding school. A rude homecoming, this: He’s dropped off by Mom’s helicopter—she’s got to run to the hairdresser—tackled by mansion security guards, and greeted by his father with a lackluster, “I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate your coming here.”

No wonder the kid feels unloved. He’s only been called home in order to act as a pawn in his father’ Senate re-election campaign, since the campaign theme is “family.”

So Morgan schemes to bring his family together into a loving unit—like the one he sees on television in old reruns of “The Brady Bunch.” God forbid. Actually, he fails at this, although the scriptwriters invent a political contrivance that saves the day.

Saves the day in terms of the plot, that is. There isn’t much that could save this movie, short of dumping the negative into the sea and starting from scratch.

Oh, there are a couple of okay ideas. The kid is obsessed with horror movies, and meets the girl of his dreams in line at a mall for a personal appearance by George Romero, director of Living Dead movies. Later, when they take a shower together, all they can do is talk about how the knife never touches Janet Leigh in the shower scene from Psycho.

Morgan also does a funny song and dance to celebrate his new love, much to the consternation of his parents, who assume he’s freaking out on drugs.

But most of what’s good about those scenes comes from Jon Cryer, who plays Morgan. (The parents are played by Lynn Redgrave and Nicholas Pryor, in best over-the-hill fashion.) Cryer’s the likable guy who did such nice work in Pretty in Pink last year. He shouldn’t be in this movie, but he tries awfully hard.

The whole movie tries hard, too hard. Direction is credited to someone calling himself Alan Smithee. This person needs to take some refresher courses in the basics of composition and blocking. Believe me, the title is far from the last ungainly thing about this movie.

First published in the Herald, February 1987

An unusually terrible movie. You can guess from the final paragraph that the practice of taking the “Alan Smithee” credit by a director who doesn’t want to sign his name to a movie was not all that widely known at the time, or at least not to me. One of the reliable things about IMDb is that no matter how awful a movie is, and Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home is among the worst ever made, somebody will post a comment about how it is a film classic and they loved it growing up and wore out their VHS copy. Which is how you know there’s something wrong with the world and the people in it.


Flight of the Navigator

December 14, 2011

Back in the relatively innocent days of 1982, Steven Spielberg updated and energized the old chestnut about a boy and his dog, with an extraterrestrial standing in for the pooch. The success of E.T. had Hollywood scrambling to make movies about kids and creatures (while Spielberg flipped the formula with Gremlins).

Many of the creatures turned out to be mechanical; robots marching in the electronic wake of the Star Wars machines. But by and large, the movies were pretty mechanical, too.
In just the last couple of months, the boy-and-machine formula has been used in Short Circuit, SpaceCamp, even The Manhattan Project if you count Christopher Collet’s closeness to his atomic bomb. And who could deny that Tom Cruise’s most meaningful relationship in Top Gun is with his F-11?

Given this recent, largely regrettable track record, all who approach Flight of the Navigator (the latest from the revitalized Disney studio) with clenched teeth are to be forgiven. This time the boy’s best friend is a wise-cracking flying saucer.

But I must report that my own clenched teeth relaxed considerably during the running time of this film. It’s nothing great, but it’s efficiently entertaining and based on a neato idea that ought to impress a lot of 10-year-olds. And it’s cute without being cutesy—most of the time, anyway.

One reason may be that the flying saucer, which is basically a flying computer with a dash of personality, doesn’t enter the film until halfway through. Until then, we’re tantalized by a mystery.

One night in 1978, a 12-year-old boy (Joey Cramer) falls into a ravine near his parents’ house. Knocked cold, he rouses himself later and scampers home. But his parents (Cliff de Young, Veronica Cartwright) aren’t at the house; in fact, they don’t even live there anymore.

Eventually, the kid finds them, but they’ve aged eight years (they’d given him up for dead). His little brother now stands a foot above him. Our hero can’t have been unconscious more than a couple of hours, so what gives?

Fans of time-travel stories will figure out that the kid must’ve been traveling at the speed of light, where aging is slowed—he didn’t change, while eight years went by on Earth. That’s exactly why NASA grabs the boy—they want to find out why he reappeared just when a pretty silver spaceship plonked down on Florida soil.

Turns out the kid had taken a little intergalactic trip, and his flying days aren’t over yet. For the last half of the film, he’ll reacquaint himself with his spaceship friend, who unaccountably sounds a lot like Pee-wee Herman.

Strictly lightweight fare, but under the direction of Randal Kleiser (who guided Grease and the memorably vapid Summer Lovers), it doesn’t get too stupid. Mindless, maybe, but not stupid. There is a difference, and for Kleiser, good-hearted mindlessness is actually a step up. And if you don’t think that’s saying much, you obviously didn’t see Summer Lovers.

First published in the Herald, August 1, 1986

I try to get in a Summer Lovers reference whenever I can. I have to say this movie has been wiped from the brain pan, but the basic idea sounds sort of interesting, and more than a little freaky for the core Disney audience.


Hope and Glory

December 13, 2011

John Boorman has been one of our most interesting filmmakers for more than two decades now, but his movies, from Deliverance to Excalibur to The Emerald Forest, while marked by intelligence and visual inventiveness, have for me always been hampered by an English dourness.

So it is a pleasure to report that in Boorman’s newest film, Hope and Glory, he has found a novel way of relating the experience of living in London during World War II. He plays it as a comedy.

For Boorman, this is a major advance, and Hope and Glory is an immensely pleasurable movie. Boorman has admitted that it is largely autobiographical, as the war years are seen through the eyes of a young boy for whom the war is a long adventure.

For suggesting that wartime might be fun for kids, Boorman has drawn some criticism, especially in England. But this approach represents great honesty, for a child doesn’t necessarily see the moral implications of war or the larger suffering it causes. What young Bill Rohan sees is bombs going off like pretty fireworks at night, fallen shrapnel that can be added to his collection, and the opportunity to gleefully smash things up in houses that have already been destroyed.

Bill is somewhat confused when his father (David Hayman) must leave for military duty. But there’s still fun to be had at home, despite mom (Sarah Miles) and a little sister (Geraldine Muir). There’s even a friendly Canadian soldier (Derrick O’Connor) who’s dating Bill’s older sister (Sammi Davis).

Despite one character’s insistence that “This is war! This is not a laughing matter!”, Boorman finds warmth and humor in nearly every scene, yet the film never becomes frivolous, or loses the underlying gravity of war. Boorman’s got an amazing memory of his childhood, for the individual scenes in this movie gleam with accuracy: Bill notices that all the lawn mowers stopped mowing at the moment the declaration of war was read over the radio; a German can of jam is argued about at the dinner table—what if it’s poisoned?; a barrage balloon deflates and floats across the roofs of Bill’s London suburb.

That suburb, by the way, is beautifully re-created. Boorman has built (and destroyed) a block-long set of vintage houses, all designed to resemble his childhood middle-class neighborhood. It becomes pockmarked enough so that the family eventually moves farther out of the city, to the Thameside home of the grandparents, where the children learn the joys of country life.

Veteran character actor Ian Bannen, as the crusty grandfather, gives the sort of performance that garners Oscar nominations. Bannen plays the very personification of an age when half the world was under the British flag. Most of the time, he’s irascible about the passing of his era and his class, although he does have one moment of grace as he drunkenly recalls the women he’s loved before his marriage.

The film’s most surprising performance comes from Sarah Miles, who spent much, if not all, of her early career as an English sex kitten. In Hope and Glory, Miles is properly matronly for the first time in her career, and she handles the transition effortlessly. It’s a particularly impressive feat, because it’s the mother who must hold the film as well as the family together.

Elsewhere, David Hayman is exemplary as the father, while Derrick O’Connor does beautifully understated work as Miles’ long-ago beau. Young Sebastian Rice Edwards, in the central role, gives another of those unblemished, naturalistic child performances.

The movie ends on a typically ironic, giddy high note: A stray bomb has demolished Bill’s school, and the children celebrate. Boorman won’t moralize; this is a child’s version of the world. If you remember what it was like to pray for the destruction of a school building, you’ll understand the unsweetened nostalgia of Hope and Glory.

First published in the Herald, November 5, 1987

A tip-top film indeed, one that could only have been made by someone who knows the truth about how things really work. Certain objects have such power—a jar of jam, for instance—they will stick in your brain pan for good. Boorman is one of those filmmakers you wonder about: what if he’d had unlimited opportunity to make the movies he wanted to make all along? Such a stop-and-start career, but frequently remarkable.