Sherman’s March

March 30, 2012

In 1981, a documentary filmmaker named Ross McElwee got some grant money together and set off for his native North Carolina to make a movie about Union general William Tecumseh Sherman’s notoriously bloody march during the Civil War.

Perhaps that documentary will be produced some day, and admired by a few academic types. McElwee didn’t quite make it.

Just as he left for the South, his girlfriend dumped him. McElwee found himself alone and despondent; he started filming his relatives in North Carolina, just for the sake of shooting something. At which point his sister offhandedly suggested that his camera might be a great conversation piece, especially when it came to meeting women.

Sherman’s March is the film that resulted, and it still occasionally and metaphorically refers to the Civil War general. But mostly it’s a document of McElwee’s largely hapless, but eminently human, attempt to find romantic happiness during his odyssey through the South.

The camera is strapped to his shoulder seemingly all the time. In fact, we don’t see much of McElwee himself during the movie. Rather, we watch the parade of life and fascinating women that McElwee meets on his journey.

For a while, the poor guy seems to be on a bad run of luck. He meets Pat, who tantalizes with some amazing “cellulite exercises” and then goes to Atlanta with the vague hope of meeting Burt Reynolds and getting into movies. His camera watches implacably while she begins describing a screenplay she’s devised that sounds increasingly like the looniest ravings you’ve ever heard, all about flying to Venus, being decapitated, “and all they see is my head floating.”

Then there’s the innocuous-seeming woman who takes him for a visit to a bizarre survivalist troupe, who liken their freaky ideas to “Little House on the Prairie.”

As odd as some of the people are along this odyssey, McElwee never smirks or judges. He views them all with the same reserved curiosity. Sometimes this can seem a kind of heartlessness, as when he finally breaks with an ex-girlfriend, and his hand enters the frame to stroke her shoulder lovingly and sympathetically.

But, as troubled as the film is with such things, and with McElwee’s worrying about nuclear threats (the subject of apocalypse is oddly common to the people of the film), Sherman’s March is a weirdly happy experience. The film shows a world that veers and soars and turns back in on itself in crazy, inexplicable ways—found life, organized in a shrewd and suggestive manner.

Documentary really does prove the stranger-than-fiction cliché. How can you explain the mall appearance, during a deadly serious discussion of religion, of a 6-foot Easter Bunny (coincidentally entering the frame just at the mention of the Antichrist)? And, after you’ve watched the hilariously recurrent presence of Burt Reynolds, who accrues an almost supernatural meaning during the movie, you’ll never think of him in quite the same way again.

Over the course of two and a half hours, these events all come together. Sherman’s March is a song of the South that becomes, eventually and perhaps to McElwee’s surprise, a very off-center ode to joy.

First published in the Herald, March 27, 1987

Yeah, I really like this movie. It opened at the Market Theatre in Seattle. Seeing the occasional McElwee movie since then has been like getting a nice long letter from a friend you don’t keep in great touch with but always find really interesting. My stupid crack about a Sherman documentary being admired by a few academic types has been proven wrong endlessly, first by Ken Burns and then by the History Channel.

Track 29

March 29, 2012

After Track 29, the “Chattanooga Choo Choo” may never sound the same again. The song gives the movie its title (you know—”Track 29/Boy you can give me a shine”), and it’s prominently featured in a sequence in which a doctor gives a rousing revival speech before an audience of railroad enthusiasts, at the same time a truck is crashing through his house, where his wife’s fantasy child is trashing the doctor’s elaborate computer-operated train set.

This thumbnail description doesn’t being to convey the madness of the sequence, so you can imagine what watching it is like. The perpetrators of Track 29 are two of Britain’s most provocative talents: director Nicolas Roeg, the creator of Performance and The Man Who Fell to Earth, and screenwriter Dennis Potter, who previously wrote Pennies from Heaven and Dreamchild.

Roeg and Potter seem to have egged each other on, into the far reaches of the bizarre. Track 29 tells the tale of a bored housewife (Theresa Russell, who is also Roeg’s wife) in a small town in the American South.

Stultified by her marriage to a doctor (Christopher Lloyd) who prefers the company of his train set, she becomes intrigued by the presence of a young Englishman (Gary Oldman, who played Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy).

The drifter says he is her long-lost son who was taken away from her when she was 15 years old and unmarried. She believes him, despite the fact that he appears to be her own age. But then again, it becomes increasingly apparent that the young man exists only in her mind—that he is born out of her frustration and her desire to have a child.

Her husband considers her “totally loco” (no train pun intended); he’s busy spending time with a nurse (Sandra Bernhard) who spanks him while they listen to tape-recorded railroad sounds.

The whole thing plays like something Tennessee Williams might have written after a really, really lost weekend. There is some tired satire of American society, but most of the film examines the peculiar psychosexual unhappiness of the Theresa Russell character. Russell, the star of Black Widow, is a good, daring actress, but there’s never much more than sheer kinkiness at play here, and she has little opportunity to create a performance.

Roeg’s films are getting stranger. They were always odd, but they used to be weird-brilliant, or at least weird-interesting. Now they’re just weird-weird. We have a right to expect more.

First published in the Herald, October 7, 1988

This movie must have some defenders, but I’ve never heard of it crawling up to the level of cult film or anything like that. I stand by everything but the last line of the review; we don’t really have a right to expect anything, and a filmmaker like Roeg can do what he wants. I wish this movie had worked, though.

Throw Momma from the Train

March 28, 2012

The question everyone must be asking: Does Throw Momma from the Train live up to its title? If there’s been a more wackily inspired film title in recent years, I don’t know about it. (Surf Nazis Must Die doesn’t count, because it hasn’t played here yet.)

As it turns out, Throw Momma does tap into the healthy black humor suggested by its moniker. It’s a solid sick comedy, with nearly as many laughs as another movie celebrating modes of travel, Planes, Trains & Automobiles.

Throw Momma is a comic crisscross of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Larry (Billy Crystal) is an English teacher with a massive writer’s block. He can’t complete the sentence, “The night was…”—and that’s just the first line of his novel. The source of his block is his loathing for his ex-wife (Kate Mulgrew); she’s stolen a manuscript from him and turned it into a bestseller under her name.

Owen (Danny DeVito) is a long-suffering dimwit who’s taking Larry’s continuing education creative-writing class. Owen lives with his Momma (Anne Ramsey), a scabrous, monstrous hag who treats him as a slave, and an incompetent one at that. Owen fantasizes about ways of knocking the old lady off.

Somehow Owen gets it into his head that, like the strangers in Strangers on a Train, he and Larry should switch murders and give each other an alibi. So he goes to Hawaii, where Larry’s wife lives, and gets her on a boat in the middle of the Pacific. When she leans over the side to retrieve an earring, well…splash.

When Owen comes home, he expects Larry to return the favor. Larry’s revolted, but Owen is sure that Momma’s natural charms will do the trick: “Just meet her. Maybe she’d be somebody you’d like to kill.”

The dark farce of Stu Silver’s script continues in this vein, and much of it is very funny. DeVito and Crystal work well together, under DeVito’s direction (his first time in feature work). Visually, DeVito gives the movie a flamboyant Hitchcockian look that fits the nutty tone of the material.

But there’s something else about DeVito’s direction that really makes the film go. He doesn’t just set up the guffaws; he also catches smaller bits of humor, such as the student at writing school who’s compiling an absurd list of the 100 women he’d like to make love to (Kathleen Turner, the girl in the taco commercials, etc.). “This isn’t literature,” the teacher says. “It’s a coffee-table book,” the students sniffs.

Throw Momma falters only near its end, when it becomes clear that nobody knows exactly what to do with Momma; the movie gets cold feet when it comes to the point of actually throwing her from the train. Funny as it is, this movie can’t quite fulfill its title after all.

First published in the Herald, December 1987

At the time I would’ve guessed that Throw Momma from the Train might have had a higher profile over time; not a classic, that is, but a fondly-remembered film along the lines of, come to think of it, Planes, Trains & Automobiles. It doesn’t seem to have lasted that way. Beyond that, you know Surf Nazis Must Die is a terrible movie, as I later found out.


March 27, 2012

If you like your meals sweetened with saccharin, Russkies may be just your cup of borscht. Otherwise, you’d be advised to skip this particular soup.

Russkies is another one of those movies in which it is determined that, if we only saw each other as human beings, we’d all live together in simple peace and harmony. Already this year, Amazing Grace and Chuck has cleaned up the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Russkies comes along to smooth over the general problems of U.S.-Soviet relations (and just in time for the December summit, yet).

The basic setup here is reminiscent of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, except that movie was a lot funnier. Here, a Soviet ship discharges a raft off the coast of Florida, which founders in heavy seas. Three Soviets struggle ashore.

Two of these Soviets make like the diplomats in Ninotchka, and wind up resembling Shriners at a convention in Key West. The other lost Russkie is a youthful sailor (Whip Hubley) who is captured by three boys.

These three kids like to play lots of gung-ho G.I. Joe games, but the Russian sailor’s humanity puts their jingoistic fervor to rest. Of course. Soon, instead of wanting to turn in the Bolshevik to the authorities, they plot to borrow a pleasure boat and cart their new pal down to Cuba.

This geek patrol is played by Leaf Phoenix, Peter Billingsley, and Stefan DeSalle. In the course of the film, they introduce their friend to the joys of America, including McDonalds’ burgers, go-karts, baseball, and miniature golf. Oh, and also the cute older sister (Susan Walters) of one of the boys. The comrade, for his part, teaches a lesson in international cooperation, by telling them about the “beeg hugs” he gives his family in Russia.

It’s all laid on pretty thick. Not at all what one would expect from director Rick Rosenthal, who made the gritty and potent prison drama, Bad Boys, with Sean Penn. Here Rosenthal goes about his business like a United Nations goodwill ambassador, apparently without shame. But he’s lofting marshmallows all the way, which usually guarantees that no one will pay attention. In this case, justifiably so.

First published in the Herald, November 6, 1987

Leaf is now Joaquin, of course. Sure, I made fun of this movie, a sweet-natured antidote to Red Dawn. But guess what, jerks: the Soviet Union fell two years later and the Cold War ended. Reagan? I don’t think so. Chalk it up to Whip Hubley, Peter Billingsley, and Rick Rosenthal, folks, and be thankful we’re still speaking American.


March 26, 2012

Any film calling itself Rad had best be taken with a grain of salt, regardless of its subject matter. As it happens, the subject matter of Rad constitutes probably the dorkiest storyline we’ve seen this year.

It’s all about the exciting world of BMX cross-country biking, in which a bunch of teenagers jump up and down, twirl, spin, and perform other herky-jerky maneuvers on their little bikes. I don’t even know what BMX stands for, if anything, so I’m not qualified to comment on the authenticity of the biking scenes. But they appeared mindless and improbable, which probably means they’re accurate.

The locale is a small American town (although the extras speak with Canadian accents), in which some money-grubbing businessmen decide to hold the world’s first BMX race, full of stunts and obstacles. The finest racers from the land are recruited, but the race seems fixed in favor of the world champ, who stands to win a fat contract from big-time sponsors if he wins.

But hold everything. Turns out there’s kid in town whose bike racing/twisting/jumping is totally awesome. Radical. Rad, if you will. He’s not about to take the fix lying down, even when the bad dudes try to change the rules on him. He qualifies for the race and the big showdown comes, as the actors go to their trailers for coffee and the stunt riders strap on their concealing helmets and go for it.

If you’ve seen Rocky, you know what happens. But director Hal Needham isn’t taking any chances—he’s even cast Mrs. Rocky, Talia Shire, as the hero’s mom. Naturally, it’s up to her to try to talk the kid out of it, as she does with the Rock.

But our hero doesn’t care that the college SATs are the same day as the qualifying heats. Man, he’s gotta race. And he gets some encouragement from an out-of-town girl who is a pro racer herself, and who quickly falls for the lad’s backwoods charm.

She also recognizes his talent: “It took me six months to airwalk; it took you one afternoon,” she says admiringly. Airwalking is something you do with your bike while arcing about 10 feet off the ground.

Needham, who used to direct Burt Reynolds’ down-home comedies, doesn’t even try to get around the corny storyline. Oddly enough, this tactic works. The movie may be ludicrous, but it has its entertaining moments. The leads are fresh, especially Lori Laughlin as the big-city girl who does a bike dance during the sock hop. Ray Walston and Jack Weston provide rather tired support as the pillars of the community.

Since the film doesn’t carry a disclaimer that says, “Professional bikers; please, don’t try this at home,” a lot of kids are probably going to wind up with collections of bumps and bruises, attempting to imitate the riders. When is somebody going to make a film that dramatizes the excitement and reward of studying for college SATs? That’d be radical.

First published in the Herald, April 1, 1986

I don’t know how I failed to mention that the competition is known as Helltrack, but somehow I did. (And by the way, it was shot in Calgary.) If you’re wondering how I didn’t know what BMX stood for, it was because this was before the Internet and I was frequently apart from any kind of research sources.

This is how I wrote about movies in 1986: I would go from an evening screening to the AP office across the street from both the Northwest Preview Room (a tiny little space for 35 mm. previews) and the Seattle Times building. I would walk into the office of the bureau chief and retrieve a slightly-larger-than-typewriter-sized box left there for the use of Seattle-based reporters for the Herald (as far as I could tell I was the only one). Sometimes I would nod to the AP reporters who sat there in their office; they must’ve wondered who I was and who set up such a cockeyed system (I was never without the cringy sense that I didn’t belong there, which encouraged me to write my reviews as quickly as possible). I would write a review on a teeny screen on this bulky black box, and when I was finished writing, would dial a telephone number (and some codes or something) and place the receiver on the phone-sized openings on the top of the machine, where it would screech and send the story. Then I would fold up the machine, place it back in its corner, and skulk out. I am sure this affected my writing in some strange way. All of this now seems like some kind of vaguely-remembered dream, thankfully long in the past.


March 23, 2012

The title of “greatest living director” has rarely had a smaller field of competition: most of the old guard have passed away in the last decade, and the younger group still have a lot to prove.

That’s why it’s easy to proclaim that one name is at or very near the top of the list right now: 75-year-old Akira Kurosawa. He is the man most responsible for bringing an awareness of Japanese cinema to the West (beginning with the international success of Rashomon in 1951) and also has the singular honor of having more plots ripped off than almost any other filmmaker (Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven, Yojimbo became A Fistful of Dollars).

He’s also a man who can’t get his films financed in his native country. Since 1970, when the failure of Dodeskaden prompted depression and a suicide attempt, all his films have been supported by outside means: Dersu Uzala (1975) received Soviet funding; Kagemusha (1980) was partially sponsored by George Lucas and Francis Coppola; and now Ran, the most expensive movie ever made in Japan, exists because of a French co-production with Japanese studios.

It was worth it. Ran, which Kurosawa has been working on for a decade, is the crown jewel of Kurosawa’s career, a startling, visionary masterwork.

It’s been described as a Japanese King Lear, and although Kurosawa has based much of his story on Shakespeare, it is not a simple translation. Kurosawa weaves Japanese history and legend into the tale, to form a completely new epic that owes little to any previous work.

For one thing, the Lear story has undergone a gender change. This time, a kingdom is divided among three sons rather than three daughters. The High Lord (Tatsuya Nakadai) feels it is time to end his rule, and gives each of his sons a castle and surrounding lands; he will keep a small retinue for himself, but the oldest son will be the head of the clan.

The youngest son questions the wisdom of this scheme, and his unyielding impertinence prompts the High Lord to banish him. Almost immediately, the two older sons betray their father, and the High Lord falls into wanderings and madness.

Kurosawa has spared nothing in the telling of this epic tale. The astounding costuming of the warring armies, with their colorful armor and horses; the howling typhoon that blows in during the High Lord’s descent into insanity; the burning of an enormous castle—these are mightily impressive, but not just for the sake of show. They’re a crucial part of the film’s enormous tapestry.

That castle is burned at the end of a spellbinding seven-or-eight-minute sequence that shows the storming of the building and the demolition of the small group of defenders. It is entirely silent except for Toru Takemitsu’s superb music, and it is a sequence of such power that it will be talked about for years to come.

The word Ran means “chaos” or “turmoil,” and while that may describe the events of Kurosawa’s tragic story, it has nothing to do with the director’s powers of expression. Finally, 1985 has brought us a truly great film.

First published in the Herald, December 1985

Thinking about this movie brings up the question: how often will we see a movie like this again, featuring the actual burning of an actual castle, actual casts of thousands, all captured on film rather than digital? Because however much you might value the small indie, this is why movies were invented.


March 22, 2012

Sylvester Stallone, it seems, will not make a movie today unless he can monkey around with it. He did an on-location rewrite of First Blood that turned a screenplay examining the effects of Agent Orange on some vets into a dumb (if sometimes brutally effective) hunt movie.

Then he trashed Staying Alive, which he rewrote and directed, by creating an appalling hybrid of Flashdance and his Rocky films.

Somewhere Stallone must have read that drama is built on conflict. Unfortunately, Stallone’s character clashes exist just for the purpose of creating meaningless friction. One of the reasons Staying Alive died at the box office after its huge opening weeks was that Stallone had dragged the film down with dreary, senseless exchanges between John Travolta and his female co-stars.

Rhinestone, which Stallone rewrote, has these same dopey disagreements. There’s no reason for Stallone (playing a New York cab driver) and Dolly Parton (playing a country-western singer) to bicker, but they’re periodically given irrelevant excuses to do so.

Parton is a singer in a Manhattan club owned by a weasel (Ron Leibman); he handles Dolly’s career and would like to handle much more of her. She makes a bet with him: If she can take the first person they see, and turn him into a country singer who can last through a single song on the stage of Leibman’s rowdy club, Leibman has to release her from her contract.

If she doesn’t do it, then Leibman gets to extend her contract—and he gets a no-strongs roll in the hay.

Of course, the first person they see is uncouth Italian hack Stallone, and Dolly carts him down to her Southern home town to teach him how to be Country in two weeks’ time. There ensue some amusing adventures, although the gags sometimes have a condescending attitude toward the South that becomes rather smug.

After Stallone’s first rehearsal with Dolly’s pickers and fiddlers—in which he screams an eardrum-bursting version of “Devil with the Blue Dress On”—Dolly’s father (Richard Farnsworth, adorable as always) sidles up to Stallone and levels with him: “That was scary, son.” I can’t improve on that.

But Stallone gets a taste of country when he goes on a drinking bout with a local singer (Tim Thomerson). Their drunk scene is one of the funniest in the movie, but Thomerson is later thrown away as an interesting supporting character so he can be a villain and Stallone can punch him out. Actually, Parton punches him out first.

Rhinestone does make the effort to depict Parton as a perfectly self-sufficient, independent person, and the cast (under the direction of Bob Porky’s Clark) has fun with the fact that she often grabs the initiative before Stallone has a chance.

If you have any doubts about how the film ends, then you’ve never seen a Rocky movie. However, by the time we get to the finish, we’re worn out from the arbitrary crises that crop up time and again. Besides, the film has already had one climax: Before they leave the South, Stallone gets a try-out in front of Parton’s home-town crowd. They sing a delightful duet (something like, “I Don’t Want to Fall in Love, I Just Want to Fall in Bed”—like all the film’s songs, written by Parton) and bring the house down.

It would have been nice if the film had ended there. A subject this wispy shouldn’t have to be stretched to more than 90 minutes. But like Stallone’s showy, wisecracking performance, the movie doesn’t know when to stop.

First published in the Herald, June 1984

I don’t really know what else to say. The movie doesn’t exactly haunt my dreams, but you’d think that somebody might have been able to take the raw ingredients and actually make something fun out of it.