Julia and Julia

March 21, 2012

If Julia and Julia finds its place as a footnote to film history, it will be more for its technical significance than for anything else. That’s because Julia and Julia is the first major theatrical movie shot on high-definition video, rather than traditional film stock.

In this case, Italy’s RAI network funded the experiment to test the commercial and aesthetic possibilities. A lot of people have been talking for years about a future in which most movies are shot on a high-grade video (and then transferred to 35 mm. film, so they can be shown in theaters), which is much cheaper and easier to handle than film stock.

If Julia and Julia is the current state of the art, we’d better hold off on the video revolution for a while. Although this movie is photographed by one of the world’s leading cinematographers, Guiseppe Rotunno, and directed by an ambitious stylist, Peter Del Monte, it still has some serious visual drawbacks.

Shooting on videotape produces an image that is flatter, duller and less expressive than the same image on film. (If you can’t imagine the difference, compare a daytime soap opera, shot on video, to most prime-time TV shows, shot on film.) The process in Julia and Julia is sophisticated, and even produces some interesting images until, oh, the camera moves. Or a character moves. Then, to these purist eyes, anyway, the image looks streaky and unstable.

In theory, Julia and Julia should be the perfect vehicle for a video experiment, since the movie itself is a hallucinatory mood piece, and thus a strange look could be highly appropriate. Kathleen Turner plays a bride whose husband (Gabriel Byrne, of Gothic) is killed on their wedding day; years later, in Trieste, she experiences a spooky shifting reality, when she abruptly spots her husband again in their old apartment, living as though they’d been married for six years. She happily goes back to him, but this new life has a twist: She begins to realize that this other existence includes a lover, a mysterious photographer (Sting).

The poor woman bats back and forth between her two realities until we begin to get the idea that, as is so often the case, it’s all in her head. Keeping her husband alive is, on her part, merely an extension of her “passion unyielding to the grave” (as her wedding-day quote has it).

This movie is too obscure, humorless, and self-consciously arty to score a success, and much of it is awfully precious. But Del Monte does get some dreamily effective action going (somewhat in the manner of his puzzle film of a few years back, Invitation au Voyage), and there is something to be said for simply watching good-looking people in unusual roles—Kathleen Turner and Sting are both excellent.

The video process actually undercuts the movie’s stylization. Video’s flexibility has been used for exaggerated, surreal effects in everything from commercials to music videos, and some of that work is very intriguing. Spread out over a full narrative, however, video serves to flatten, to endow the proceedings with ordinariness. In Julia and Julia, the exotic begins to look mundane.

First published in the Herald, February 1988

Does nobody remember this movie? Even now, with all the inevitability of digital’s triumph over film? This was much talked-about at the time, a landmark in video’s invasion of film’s turf. I still remember what it looked like, how awkward it was (projected in 35 mm., of course) and how obviously video-made. Too soon, too soon. But surely the time is ripe for Luca Guadagnino to reunite with Tilda Swinton and do a remake of this, on digital, and give it the heavy-breathing treatment it deserves.

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Rustlers’ Rhapsody

March 20, 2012

Even if it were a good movie, Rustlers’ Rhapsody would still have an air of superfluousness about it. Just how many spoofs of Western movies do we need?

Certainly Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles seemed sufficient. Nearly every handy Western cliché took a roasting over the campfire there. Still, there may be room for the occasional camp item such as the recent Lust in the Dust.

But Rustlers’ Rhapsody goes over much the same ground—and, of course, with similar targets—as Brooks’s film. And it keep the anachronistic tone of Blazing Saddles, too; characters in this 1885 plot are likely to break out into some strictly 1985 phrase-making (example: The hero turns to his loyal sidekick and announces he wants to be alone by saying, “Hey, I’ve got to have some me-time”).

Which means that there are a few funny bits. Tom Berenger (the TV star in The Big Chill) plays the squeaky-clean Rex O’Herlihan, hero to millions of movie fans. O’Herlihan always does good, and he can draw his gun faster than any bad guy could ever hope.

He’s suffering from a touch of weariness, though. He’s noticed that his life is cyclical: with each new plot, he goes into another small town, gets menaced by another power-hungry rancher, is aided by another town drunk, is befriended by another saloon girl.

When he meets the saloon girl (Marilu Henner) in Oakwood Estates, he guesses that, underneath that flashy exterior, she has a heart of gold. “How’d you know that?” asks the town drunk (G.W. Bailey). “Oh, I just knew,” says Rex, mysteriously.

It goes like that. The power-hungry cattle baron (Andy Griffith) tells his mean bunch of outlaws to kill Rex. When they return unsuccessful, he invites them in “for a gab” anyway. They edge away nervously. “Gee, I don’t know,” says one. “It’s a weeknight.”

These are the good jokes. Most of the film relies on O’Herlihan’s ornate costumes or trick riding to induce some chuckles. Actually, some of the funniest scenes involve Patrick Wayne, the son of the Duke, who turns up late as a fellow good guy hired away by Griffith. This puts both heroes in a quandary: since they’re both white knights, they both have to win at the end.

Rustlers’ Rhapsody is written and directed by Hugh Wilson. At one time, as the main force behind “WKRP in Cincinnati,” he may have seemed like a promising talent. But his directing debut last year, the wildly popular Police Academy, displayed nothing but bad taste. With the success of that film, he had the chance to do whatever he wanted—and Rustlers’ Rhapsody is it. Okay, he’s got one more chance to make good—then we throw in the towel.

First published in the Herald, May 14, 1985

I think this movie is probably funnier than I make it sound, but maybe I’m conveniently forgetting the most obvious jokes. The thread with Andy Griffith is pretty hilarious, and for some strange reason I have thought of that “It’s a weeknight” line a number of times in the years since I saw the picture. Wilson forged ahead with his career, which delivered some okay items but also the occasional complete stiff, such as the shockingly inept Dudley Do-Right.


Lethal Weapon 2

March 19, 2012

While I was watching Lethal Weapon 2, I kind of enjoyed it. By the time I walked to my car afterward, it was already turning sour. And by the time I was home, I was actively disliking it. It’s one of those.

Like its predecessor, Lethal Weapon 2 is hard, fast, and dangerous, a slick Hollywood entertainment made by pros who know how to get the job done. The film’s two hours pass by quickly, what with all the car chases, machine-gunnings, ship-burnings, and house-demolishings. (There’s also a bomb attached to a toilet seat.) Yes, Lethal Weapon 2 is full of action, enough for five such movies.

Sandwiched in between the explosions are glimpses of the friendship of the two cops we met in the first Lethal Weapon: Riggs (Mel Gibson), the crazy, hair-trigger chap, and Murtaugh (Danny Glover), the calm family man. Some of their banter is fun to listen to (there’s an amusing thing early on involving Murtaugh’s daughter and her appearance in a TV condom commercial), but most of their wisecracks are drowned out by the sound of flying bullets.

Director Richard Donner, a once decent talent whose recent work has included the tired Scrooged, also directed the first Lethal Weapon. As though to keep things interesting, he has added a current affairs spin to the bad guys: They’re South African emissaries, blond sleazeballs with funny accents who can’t be arrested because of diplomatic immunity.

Donner also throws in a mob witness (Joe Pesci), who’s supposed to be guarded by Murtaugh and Riggs. This guy doesn’t have a whole lot to do except add pepper to the dialogue between our heroes (and Pesci has one hilarious rap on the importance of avoiding drive-through windows at fast-good restaurants). Other than that, he’s from a different movie.

But then this film feels like several different movies all mixed together. One has a James Bond-size villain (Joss Ackland), one provides a bit of squeeze (Patsy Kensit) for Riggs, one provides a fitting anti-apartheid message, another gives motivation for Riggs’ explosion of violence at the end.

It’s entertaining, but in a mechanical, cynically constructed way. Here’s hoping this sequel really is lethal.

First published in the Herald, July 9, 1989

It wasn’t the end, of course. I suppose this one must be better than the sequels that followed, although I would never want to go back and find out.


Shanghai Surprise

March 16, 2012

During its production, Shanghai Surprise must have set a record for press coverage of a work-in-progress. The reason, of course, was the presence of its honeymooning co-stars, Sean Penn and Madonna, who quickly became America’s most notorious couple.

Fueling the media’s gung-ho interest was the shyness of the couple. This often found expression through Penn’s unofficial practice of dentistry, in which he forcefully removed the teeth of his least-favorite photographers. Such behavior soon earned the couple the nickname of The Poison Penns.

It also, very probably, created an atmosphere in which most people were eager to see the film fall on its face. As it turns out, that is precisely what has happened.

There’s not much that’s redeemable about Shanghai Surprise, although it probably won’t derail the careers of its stars too much. It should, however, dissuade them from pursuing projects too far afield from their strengths. They’re both out of water here.

Penn plays an opportunistic adventurer, in Shanghai, who looks to make a killing in garish pink-and-green girlie neckties. Madonna is a missionary who’s trying to find an illegal opium cache, in order to make it available to wounded soldiers. She enlists his help, for his connections and translating abilities. This leads them on a series of adventures, surprises, and naturally, romance.

Oh yeah, it’s set in 1938. This means that not only are Penn and the Missus cast against their strengths, they’re also outside their time zone. I sort of like Madonna, but she’s a completely contemporary figure; the ease and hipness she showed in Desperately Seeking Susan are denied her in Shanghai Surprise.

Penn showed himself to be the wiliest of the younger actors in such films as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Bad Boys, and The Falcon and the Snowman. He’s one of these actors who subscribe to the chameleon theory, and he works hard to disappear into each role.

Which is why he’s all wrong for this part. The film (based on a novel called Faraday’s Flowers, by Tony Kenrick) is a throwback to the sort of romantic adventure movie typified by Red Dust, Mogambo (both with Clark Gable), and His Kind of Woman (Robert Mitchum).

Gable and Mitchum could not play all the roles that Sean Penn is capable of doing; but Penn is hopeless when trying to re-create their no-sweat, self-confident poise. The film needs a solid center to counterpoint Madonna’s missionary, but Penn doesn’t provide it.

Shanghai Surprise was directed by Jim Goddard, who has done much work in British television. He should probably lick his wounds and try again, under less insane circumstances.

George Harrison’s Handmade Films produced the movie. The end credits claim that Harrison appears somewhere in the film, as a singer. I may be a dyed-in-the-wool fan of certain British music groups from the 1960s, but even the prospect of Beatle-spotting could not convince me to watch this movie, ever again.

First published in the Herald, September 27, 1986

It’s always nice when a production plagued by controversy turns out to be rather good after all; but in this case, it was just as gratifying somehow that the obnoxious twosome had driven their own movie into the ground. Or maybe it was a misbegotten project from the beginning. Now, if they’d switched roles, and Madonna played the quick-talking hustler and Penn played a nun – then, right there, maybe you got yourself a picture.


Salvador

March 15, 2012

Everywhere he goes, journalist Richard Boyle (James Woods) is met by old friends with a recurring salutation: “Boyle? I thought you were dead.”

It’s a suitable greeting. Boyle, an actual photojournalist whose experiences inspired Salvador, is an addictive, out-of-control personality who is clearly running on empty. As the film begins, he’s hit rock bottom in San Francisco, as his wife leaves him and his press card is revoked.

Going on instincts, Boyle figures that the place to be is where the action is: El Salvador (the film is set in 1980-81). Seeking some glimpse of personal and professional redemption, Boyle heads south. He can’t afford the air fare, so he drives to Central America with a pal, a boozy disc jockey named Dr. Rock (James Belushi, shrewdly used for audience identification and comic relief).

As they ingest various controlled substances, the film starts to look like a version of one of Hunter S. Thompson’s milder escapades. But once in El Salvador, things heat up: Boyle and the doctor are taken prisoner and nearly shot, until they find a sympathetic general.

Then Boyle locates an old girlfriend and goes after the story. It’s a nightmare; the right-wing officials are perpetrating atrocities everywhere, and the leftist rebels are hiding in the hills. While taking communion in church with his girlfriend, Boyle watches an anti-government archbishop get shot dead. Boyle and a fellow photographer (John Savage) explore a dump site of human corpses.

Finally, a sympathetic American (Cynthia Gibb) and two nuns are murdered. There is little doubt that, although the film carefully acknowledges the fictionalization of most of the characters, we are viewing versions of the news stories of the time. This is a film that minces neither words nor actions in its denouncement of the horror of that time, including the American government’s involvement.

Heady stuff, considering that most films today are falling all over themselves to toe the popular line (see Top Gun for a real cheerleading rave-up). The director of Salvador, Scarface writer Oliver Stone, broadly caricatures most of the U.S. government flunkies—they even wear their sweaters tied around their necks, a sure sign of moral instability.

Stone, who co-wrote the screenplay with Boyle, allows some ambiguity—in the end, the leftists are seen to adopt the same brutal tactics as the fascists, and the American ambassador (Michael Murphy) is allowed humanity. But most of the time, Stone’s style is cruel, angry, and slanted, and at one point the film stops altogether so Boyle can assert that he really does love his country. All of which, perhaps, weakens the film as a work of art, while at the same time making Salvador the most sheerly alive movie I’ve seen this year.

Salvador hurtles along at a slashing pace. It’s completely tapped into the energy of Boyle (given a brilliant performance by James Woods, always fun to watch but never better than here). The film spins and whirls, sometimes threatening to go as out of control as its protagonist. Salvador may be controversial, so much so that no major studio would pick it up for U.S. distribution, but it’s also intoxicating. It’s a good swift kick right where American moviemaking needs it.

First published in the Herald, April 1986

It’s easy to criticize Oliver Stone, but if you remember the rah-rah feeling of the Top Gun era, you will always be a little grateful for this furious diatribe, which landed like a gob of expectorant in the middle of the punchbowl. Woods is absolutely in the groove here, and Stone would release Platoon a few months later, launching his feverish run of big projects.


Man Facing Southeast

March 14, 2012

The new Argentine film Man Facing Southeast has been compared to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and called “an adult E.T.” Both of those allusions seem inadequate, because I’ve not seen another movie quite like this one.

The film begins, and largely remains, in an insane asylum. The frayed, burned-out Dr. Denis is surprised one morning to discover an extra person responding to roll call: a gaunt man with soulful eyes who calls himself Rantes.

When Rantes is asked to explain his presence, he says that he’s from another planet, and was sent to Earth to investigate and transmit messages. The doctor is unfazed; he sees a few would-be extra-terrestrials a week, so he lets the stranger stay around. Mostly Rantes stands in the hospital courtyard, staring intently to the southeast.

It doesn’t take long for the doctor and the other patients to realize that Rantes is…well, different, “a very special lunatic,” as someone says. He genuinely has no history on file. He can occasionally move objects about with his mind. The other patients follow him around. Soon, he’s being referred to as a “Cybernetic Christ.”

And it doesn’t take too long to realize that writer-director Eliseo Subiela is working another variation on the Second Coming. But he embroiders the movie with such a beguiling sense of mystery and ambiguity that it never becomes a facile sci-fi Jesus story. Rantes might be plain crazy.

Like the doctor, we begin skeptically, but succumb to the tantalizing possibility that Rantes may be touched by the supernatural. Subiela draws us into this web by weaving lyrical and peculiar happenings into his story that have a haunting cumulative effect. Sometimes a throwaway line of dialogue will suddenly soar, as when Rantes picks up a human brain—he’s gotten work in the pathology department of the hospital—and points to a spot on the grooves of the brain, earnestly wondering about the physical location of human memory: “Where is that afternoon where he first fell in love?”

This climaxes in an extraordinary scene at an outdoor concert to which the doctor has escorted Rantes and a friend. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” inspires an unexpected and utterly magical reaction from Rantes, who establishes his power as a mystical leader. It’s one of the great scenes in any movie this year.

Man Facing Southeast is a triumph for this new Argentinian filmmaker, but he couldn’t have done it without two exceptional performances. Lorenzo Quinteros plays the doctor with a totally convincing degree of world-weariness, and, later, just the barest glimmerings of hope. Hugo Soto as Rantes maintains an awesome spirituality throughout; starved and magnetic, he seems as focused as a New Age Joan of Arc.

First published in the Herald, March 1987

An impressive movie. As far as I can tell, I have never seen another movie by Subiela. Quinteros is still working in films; Soto died of AIDS-related issues in 1994.


Sahara

March 13, 2012

Would you believe that, after hours of staggering around sand dunes in the Sahara Desert, being chased by camels and getting attacked by a horde of squirmy little scorpions, her hair still looks just great? I’m talking about Brooke Shields, of course, the teenage starlet who’s build a small conglomerate based on that hair, those lips, and those eyebrows.

Naturally, there’s no way that hair is going to get mussed, even in the Sahara. Sahara, Brooke’s latest opus, is very much her movie. At this point in her career, she can fairly well dictate what goes on when she’s in front of the camera.

Brooke decided to go the adventure route this time out, in still another would-be Raiders of the Lost Ark package. She plays the daughter of a legendary racer, with a yen to compete in a race across the Sahara Desert (the picture is set sometime in the early part of the century).

When race day comes (she’s allowed to race because she’s disguised as a man—you gotta see this to believe it, folks), the participants are perturbed to discover that a tribal war has broken out across the race route. Turn back? You underestimate Brooke’s pluck.

The road is somewhat hard to follow (at one point someone actually says, “Turn left at the camel”—the film is full of gems like that), and after the first day, Brooke and her racing team are captured by some bad guys. Actually, it turns out later that they might be good guys, but we don’t know that yet. The burly captain of the nomad fighters (John Rhys-Davies) wants to have his way with Brooke. But his nephew, the coincidentally handsome ruler of the tribe (Lambert Wilson), invokes executive privilege and takes Brooke for himself.

Don’t worry, she makes life rough for them. No way a gang of Bedouins is going to push around Brooke Shields, especially when her mother is the executive producer of the movie. Oh, there’s some sexy stuff, but only on Brooke’s terms: She won’t do nude scenes, but she will stand under an oasis waterfall in a sheer T-shirt. When she gets captured by the rival tribesmen, and their horrible leader tries to get overly chummy with her, she pummels him right back. “Fight me! I love it when you fight me,” he cries. “It heats the blood!” Hmm. Different countries, different customs.

So anyway, she and Wilson start liking each other, but Rhys-Davies and the tribespeople think she’s a demon, and want to boot her out of camp. That would suit Brooke fine; she wants to get back to the race, and tries to escape (along with Wilson’s British valet/slave, played by—John Mills! How’d he get in here?), but she’s abducted by that other tribe, who are an even more barbaric bunch.

They throw her into this chamber in which she stands on a rock, surrounded by a moat full of panthers. Brooke gets to really let fly with some high-energy emoting here.

Poor Brooke Shields. It’s almost a shame that a kid like her will probably take so much flak for this movie. It’s not her fault if she doesn’t have an ironic or witty bone in her body, and her acting talent—even her simple screen presence—is non-existent. But I’ll say this for Brooke: Her hair looks just great.

First published in the Herald, March 1984

Pretty easy pickings, I guess. The movie was directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, the maker of some sturdy big-scale projects, the son of Victor McLaglen, and friend of the Duke. And oh yes, Sahara was a Cannon Film, not just produced by Golan-Globus but with an original story credit for Menahem Golan.