January 31, 2012

Hanks and Zoltar: Big

When a 13-year-old New Jersey boy confronts an automated carnival fortune-teller called Zoltar the Magician, the kid confesses his most fervent wish: to be big. It’s a natural desire; he’s been hurting because his secret crush is a good foot-and-a-half taller than he. Next morning, when the boy rolls out of bed, he’s 6 feet tall and has stubble on his chin. He’s big, and he looks like Tom Hanks.

Big is the latest movie about a personality transplanted to a new body (a craze that includes Like Father, Like Son, and Vice Versa). Evidently Big was in the works before those other films, and it is the slickest of the three—and, in Tom Hanks, it has a most engaging leading man.

As a newly big person, Hanks can’t convince his parents that he is indeed their little son (they think he’s a kidnapper), so he head to New York to try to find Zoltar and reverse the process. During his search, he gets a low-level job with a toy company and, in the manner of Being There, soon rises to the top through his uncomplicated enthusiasm for toys.

His innocence also captures the eye of a jaded executive (Elizabeth Perkins). Admittedly, they aren’t quite on the same level; while riding in the company limo, she’s sensitively telling him, “I’m really vulnerable right now,” as he’s sticking his head out the sunroof and shouting, “Ejector seat!” But they get along.

Up until the point that it has to resolve itself, Big is a regularly funny movie. The director, Penny Marshall (who used to play Laverne in “Laverne and Shirley”), has a nice way of letting comedic scenes develop; Hanks’s introduction to the niceties of hors d’oeuvres at a fancy company party may be the best slapstick scene of the year (he daintily chews the kernels off a cob of baby corn).

Marshall has a real touch with scenes of liberation. There’s a marvelous moment when Hanks bumps into his boss (Robert Loggia) in a toy store and the two of them play “Heart and Soul” on a huge electronic keyboard activated by their feet. And when Hanks gets Perkins back to his apartment, which is littered with inflatable dinosaurs and wind-up toys, he loosens her up by inviting her to jump on his trampoline—a giddy touch.

The finish, which Marshall plays as sentimental, isn’t nearly as inspired as the earlier anarchy. When the movie goes soft, the wind comes out of the comedic sails. But Hanks does a wonderful job throughout, and continues to be our most energetic light leading man. He was not, apparently, the first choice for the part: When Elizabeth Perkins was in the area recently on a publicity tour, she said that Robert De Niro was originally slated to play the lead role, a fascinating if unlikely sounding possibility. Fascinating, but not necessarily funnier.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

The De Niro thing apparently should be “previously,” not “originally,” because some say Hanks was offered the part first but had scheduling problems. This is one of those movies that have the right elements so agreeably in place that the audience agrees to overlook a series of whopping issues (including the sheer weirdness of having a family experience the disappearance of their kid for a few weeks). In any case, Hanks is pretty glorious, and I enjoyed interviewing Elizabeth Perkins.

Two Moon Junction

January 30, 2012

When the carnival comes to town, watch out. This arena for distortion and exoticism is a great temptation for literary and cinematic characters, who are lured away from their dull everyday existence into a world of danger and mystery.

This is exactly what happens to the heroine of Two Moon Junction, a respectable, beautiful young Southern heiress scheduled for marriage to an equally proper young man from the right family. Then she claps her eyes on the young stud who runs the amusement rides at the carnival, and suddenly she’s acting mighty peculiar.

Having been scintillated by his hulking maleness, she can’t quite concentrate on the upcoming marriage. When the odd couple finally get together for some serious necking, it’s instant passion on both sides. He can’t offer her money or stability or even coherent conversation, but he is, shall we say, effective.

The movie is made up of some heavy-breathing bodice-ripping scenes, interspersed with the conventional stuff about the decision she has to make: safety or adventure? A good deal of this is ludicrous, some of it is rather fun, and some of it is just plain loopy. The loopiness extends to the casting of the supporting roles, which include a bizarre cameo by Kristy McNichol (as a cowgirl who likes taking her shirt off) and a collection of dusty relics taken down from the shelf: Burl Ives, Millie Perkins, Louise Fletcher, Herve Villechaize.

The leads are more appealing. Sherilyn Fenn plays the belle, looking a lot like Madonna in her plantinum-hair/black-eyebrows phase. Fenn looks dazed much of the time, perhaps incredulous at the plot, but she is pretty and uninhibited. The carny is played by Richard Tyson, who looks like Jim Morrison and is convincingly brutish and untamed.

Two Moon Junction is the work of writer-director Zalman King, who used to be a TV actor and recently produced the sexual odyssey 9 ½ Weeks. King unmistakably wants to say some serious things with his hothouse story, but it’s most successful as a crazy, bubble-headed film exploitation. It should very effectively break the ice for couples on a first date.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

Once seen, never forgotten, I suppose. According to IMDb, this is not only the directing debut of the decidedly non-flaccid Zalman King, but also the acting bow of Milla Jovovich. That peculiar cast also includes Juanita Moore, Don “Ironside” Galloway (whose final film credit was for Gregg Araki’s Doom Generation), and Martin Hewitt.


January 27, 2012

Keaton and friend, Beetlejuice

When Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was such a surprise hit in the summer of 1985, credit for its success went mainly in the direction of its nutty star. Somewhat lost in the phenomenon was the director of the movie, a first-time feature filmmaker named Tim Burton.

It was his first feature, but Burton wasn’t exactly unknown. He had a cult reputation already, based on two remarkable short films he had made for Disney: Vincent, an animated film about a morbid little boy who imagines himself as Vincent Price; and Frankenweenie, a bizarre live-action piece about a dead dog brought back to life. Those familiar with the shorts could see a lot Burton’s visual imagination at loose in Pee-wee’s movie.

Burton has now made his first post-Pee-wee film. Beetlejuice is very much in his wild, cartoony tradition, a real romp for an utterly original filmmaker. Not enough of it works as well as it should, and it may be a bit too anarchic, but it certainly doesn’t look quite like anything else to be found in a movie theater today.

As the film opens, a young couple (Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis) drive into town from their storybook house on a hill above a small Connecticut village. Just as we’ve gotten to know and like them, they drive their car through the side of a covered bridge, plunge into the river, and die.

Dead, they return to their house and pick up a copy of The Handbook for the Recently Deceased. Turns out they have to inhabit their old house for 125 years before passing on to the next phase. They’ve reconciled themselves to this idea when an obnoxious couple (Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara) buy the house and move in. In order to get these people to move out, the dead must haunt the place, and for that, they need the help of a professional “bio-exorcist,” Betelguise (Michael Keaton, in rotting-corpse makeup).

So Burton turns the film into an amusement ride of goofy thrills. It’s full of his macabre humor, from the sudden outpouring of “Day-O” at a sophisticated dinner party, to the Charles Addams daughter (nicely played by Winona Ryder) who likes the ghost couple better than her own geeky parents, to the mind-boggling casting of Robert Goulet (as Jones’ business partner) and Dick Cavett (as one of O’Hara’s pretentious art-world friends), both of whom are eventually assaulted by crazed shrimp salads.

But Burton’s masterpiece is the waiting room of the dead, an office where newly deceased people await the next step in the afterlife bureaucracy. The people here look like what they looked like at the moment of death, so there’s a surfer with a shark chewing his leg, and a steamroller victim who confesses he feels “a little flat” today.

What a strange movie. For some reason I have a funny feeling that 11-year-olds are going to like it a lot—not a bad recommendation, at that.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

The movie seemed like a fun mess when it came out, destined for certain cult status, and then somehow it became a huge hit. That’s great, although I still don’t quite get the vault from little cult weirdie to multiplex sensation, but good for Burton—he’s had kind of a charmed career that way.

The Moderns

January 26, 2012

Alan Rudolph continues to stake his claim as the most intriguing and original young director in America. His independently produced films (Choose Me, Trouble in Mind) are stunning, seductive movies, and even the projects he occasionally makes within the studio system (such as last year’s Made in Heaven) are more interesting than almost anything else around.

With his newest film, The Moderns, Rudolph has realized a dream project that he’s been trying to make for nearly a decade. It’s quintessential Rudolph: a deceptively drowsy look at the various intellectual and sexual configurations within a group of offbeat characters, marked by the director’s tilted sense of humor, surrounded by a superb score (by Mark Isham) and played out in a luscious setting.

That setting is Paris, 1926, where some American expatriates are devouring the city that Hemingway called “a moveable feast.” The focal point is Hart (Keith Carradine), a painter who is coerced into forging some masterpieces. But his main concern is the re-emergence of a woman (Linda Fiorentino) from his past, who is now married to a brutal businessman (John Lone, fresh from his title role in The Last Emperor).

Others include the icy (but tres chic) society dame (Geraldine Chaplin) who commissions the forgeries; a sardonic art dealer (Genevieve Bujold) who declares, “Art is only an infection. Some people get it, some people don’t”; a gossip columnist (Wallace Shawn, simply a joy); and Hemingway (Kevin J. O’Connor) who is affectionately used as Hart’s comic foil.

Rudolph and his co-screenwriter, the late Jon Bradshaw, have given these characters some stylized dialogue. You can’t quite get a handle on it; some characters speak in epigrams that may or may not be serious, and Hemingway stands in the corner saying things that are poetic and comic at the same time: “It’s easy to be hard-boiled in the daytime. But at night….” Just when you think things are getting thick, the gossip writer scuttles in and announces, “I just ran into Maurice Ravel in the men’s room. He didn’t recognize me!”

The characters inhabit a loving re-creation of the cafes, galleries, and studios of Paris (filmed, with appropriate irony, in Montreal). Rudolph and cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita don’t aim for a slavish period homage, but for a living place full of dark corners, smoky rooms, and the breath of artistic creation.

The movie is full of irony, such as the thought that Hart’s lasting contribution to art history might be the forgeries he so grudgingly creates, and that in the end the characters escape the disintegrating Paris scene for the siren song of Hollywood.

But Rudolph always brings a sweetness to his films, and The Moderns has a typically off-center happy ending. The happy ending doesn’t diminish the emotional complexity of the film and its characters. It just increases the sense that The Moderns is one of those movies one could easily live inside.

First published in the Herald, May 26, 1988

They showed this at the opening night of the Seattle International Film Festival that year, and a friend and I, full of Hemingway enthusiasm, went over to Rudolph at the party to say how much we’d gotten a kick out of the depiction of Hemingway in the movie. Whereupon Rudolph seemed to want to get away very quickly—I think he was used to people criticizing that aspect of the picture, and misunderstood our approach. Whatever. Then all those years later Woody Allen went and worked his own variation on the theme.

Funny Farm

January 25, 2012

Does the prospect of another Chevy Chase movie fill your heart with trepidation? Make your toes curl? Prompt you to look around for a place to spit? Believe me, my friend, you are not alone.

Chase has made a lot of bad movies over the years, and lately he’s also been bad in them, his once-fine sense of timing apparently gone. However, Chase seems to have cleaned up his act a bit (including a much-publicized layover at the Betty Ford Clinic), and his new film, Funny Farm, finds him in surprisingly good form.

Maybe that’s because Funny Farm isn’t a “vehicle” but a real movie, with some semblance of story, structure, and character, qualities that have been treated cavalierly in some of Chase’s previous outings. There’s even a top-line Hollywood pro, George Roy Hill (The Sting, The World According to Garp), in the director’s chair.

Hill, unlike many of Chase’s directors, is actually capable of setting up a shot so that the camera angle is an enhancement of the joke (and is sometimes the joke itself). This is true even of the moments in the film that are clearly designed to take advantage of Chase’s slapstick reputation (all of which are gathered in the movie’s awful coming-attractions preview). And Hill is not a sketch director; he requires that some sense of character be evident for the comedy to work.

The premise itself is none too original; it’s the one about the successful city couple who decide to chuck it all for the simple country life. Andy (Chase) is going to create that novel he’s always meant to write, and Elizabeth (Madolyn Smith) is going to fix the place up and start a family. Right. Everything, of course, goes wrong; the movers get lost, the neighbors are nasty, the corpse of the previous owner turns up in the garden.

This is well-worn comic material—you half expect Ma and Pa Kettle to come wandering out from behind a tree, ready to teach the slickers a thing or two—but it’s well-worn because it usually works. The neat twist here is that while Andy suffers from serous writer’s block, Elizabeth writes a warmly received children’s book. Her book is about a squirrel from the city named Andy, who endures a series of misadventures in the country, and is run over by a truck at the end of the story. Of course her husband is thrilled.

Chase assumes his proper place in the universe: not as a mugging funnyman, but as a regular guy to whom bad things happen. At least as important in the film’s comic scheme is the performance of Madolyn Smith as his wife. She’s got an expressive face and body for comedy, and she matches Chase step for step. I’ve been waiting for this actress to break through in movies ever since she laid an unbelievable kiss on John Travolta in Urban Cowboy, and I’m happy to report that this starring role may just do the trick.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

The film turned out to be a surprise box-office flop, so nothing much happened for Madolyn Smith, who doesn’t have many subsequent credits; Chevy Chase retreated to some sequels, but the decline set in about a year later. It was also George Roy Hill’s final picture. But darn it, this is actually a credible movie, and the kind of thing Chase might’ve saved his career with if he’d started a while earlier. Sometime in the decade I remember him speaking wistfully about how critics always bombed his movies but adored Steve Martin’s quirkier projects. There’s a reason for that, and Funny Farm is what might have been.


January 24, 2012

Theresa Russell, in mustache

Even to non-opera buffs, the idea behind Aria must sound fascinating: The movie rounds up 10 distinctive directors, and lets each make a short film to accompany the operatic aria of his choice.

British producer Don Boyd gave the directors no constraints when it came to approach or subject matter. Which means that Aria is essentially an omnibus of high-brow music videos, and a chance for some top-flight filmmakers to flex their muscles. Predictably, what results is a very mixed bag.

There’s a framing story, about an opera singer (John Hurt) entering a theater and preparing for a role. This serves as a bridge between the individual pieces, the first of which is a witty narrative to the strains of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera.

This is directed by Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now), who tells the true story of an assassination attempt on Albania’s King Zog in 1931. Zog, who survived the attack, may be the only assassination target who ever saved himself by shooting back. Adding a ripple of perversity is Roeg’s casting, which puts his wife, Theresa Russell, in drag in the role of Zog.

This is a promising start, but the next piece, with music from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, directed by Charles Sturridge, is uninspired and obtuse. Next is Jean-Luc Godard, who takes the veg-o-matic approach to Lully’s Armide, chopping up the music as he shows some bodybuilders ignoring the attractions of two women in the gym. It’s a typically Godardian workout, full of repetition, ambient noise, and a large knife.

It’s Verdi again—Rigoletto—for the film’s centerpiece, a 15-minute farce directed by Julian Temple. Temple mounts a comedy of adultery, as two marrieds (Buck Henry and Anita Morris) enjoy other partners at a motel with “theme” rooms (the Neanderthal Room, Heidi’s Hideaway).

This one’s amusing, but aside from a great moment when the aria is lip-synched by the motel’s Elvis impersonator, this entry isn’t significantly better than some of Temple’s long-form music videos (such as “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean,” with David Bowie).

Australian Bruce (Crimes of the Heart) Beresford brings his literalist approach to an aria from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt—he simply has a couple sing to each other—and then Robert Altman checks in with a curious ode to the 18th-century habit of letting people from insane asylums attend the opera on Sunday afternoon. The music is from Rameau’s Les Boreades.

Next, Franc Roddam (The Bride) does a haunting update on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, in which a young couple (James Mathers and Bridget Fonda—Peter’s daughter) go to Las Vegas, make passionate love, and commit suicide. Very nice.

You expect Ken Russell to bring the house down with this sort of thing, and Russell’s fantasia on Turandot by Puccini is one of the film’s weirdest turns. It’s a surreal glimpse of what appear to be the near-death thoughts of a woman who has just been in a car accident. She is played by England’s most famous stripper, Linzi Drew.

The film is rounded out by Derek Jarman’s impressionistic take on Charpentier’s Louise, and by the end of the framing story, which closes with Il Pagliacci, directed by Bill Bryden.

Well, I liked the three Rs—Roeg, Roddam, and Russell—and Godard’s thing. Even though it’s something of a disappointment overall, Aria is still an intriguing concept. Now, can we do the same thing with rock ‘n’ roll?

First published in the Herald, July 1988

Tilda Swinton was in the Jarman segment, one of her first screen roles. Some of this movie was pretty dull, as I recall, and not because of the opera, but because the filmmakers fell down.

Bull Durham

January 23, 2012

Sex and sports. Are these the crucial issues for human existence?

Possibly, and they certainly are important to Ron Shelton, a screenwriter who makes his directorial bow with Bull Durham.

Shelton wrote the script for The Best of Times (1986), a delightful little movie about marriage and football. In Bull Durham, he combines some man-woman stuff with a loving look at minor league baseball. The result is one of the most likable debuts in recent memory.

The movie is introduced by Annie (Susan Sarandon), a team follower who annually chooses one young member of the minor league Durham Bulls to—ah—guide and comfort during the season. For her, baseball is spiritual business (she notes that a baseball has 108 stitches and a rosary has 108 beads). This season, she’s chosen a rangy rookie pitcher named Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins, recently seen as Jodie Foster’s protector in Five Corners), a kid with a cannon arm who’d rather fool around then concentrate on baseball. She gives him her “life wisdom” and a much-needed nickname, “Nuke.”

But then someone else arrives to help bring the kid along. Veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) joins the club to help the pitcher prepare for the majors (or “The Show”) in baseball talk). Crash is one of those guys who’ve bounced around the minors forever, or, as he says when he arrives in the clubhouse, “I’m the player to be named later.”

It doesn’t take long before Annie and Crash are sensing some mutual interest. But Annie has certain standards: “I am, within the framework of the baseball season, monogamous,” she says, so Crash must put up with her reluctance and with Nuke’s rowdiness.

The film bops around in a slightly shapeless but always agreeable way. Shelton’s work is recognizably that of a first-time director; there’s an extraneous line of dialogue here, an uncomfortable camera angle there. But for the most part his keen eye for human behavior carries the day.

Individual scenes click: Crash advises Nuke that “Clichés are your friends,” when it comes to answering bland post-game interviews, and provides a litany of examples; the players, who want a day off, induce a rainout by sneaking into the ballpark at night and turning on the sprinklers; and Annie creates her version of foreplay by tying Nuke to the bed and reading poetry to him (Annie: “Do you know Walt Whitman?” Nuke: “Who’s he play for?”)

Shelton’s got a good head for the feel and talk of baseball (there are some nifty, funny interior monologues that focus on what goes through a player’s mind when he is standing in the batter’s box or on the pitcher’s mound). It’s absolutely germane that this story is set in the minor leagues; as in The Best of Times, Shelton seems most interested in those characters who haven’t quite made it, and never will. That element lends Bull Durham a poignancy that never leaves the film, even when it’s at its flakiest.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

The movie sure was welcome at the time, I’ll say that for it. Shelton seems to have become disenchanted with movies, or they with him, or something; I’m not sure what explains Hollywood Homicide, his last completed feature, which was a real bust on all counts.