Action Jackson

April 30, 2012

Sgt. Jericho “Action” Jackson has a police officer’s badge, a 1966 Chevrolet Impala convertible, and a chest the size of Mount Rushmore (and just as neatly carved).

He uses all of these things in his job, which is running down criminals and basically scaring the bejeebers out of anybody who gets in his way.

He also has a degree from Harvard Law School. (Ahem.) Well, he doesn’t use that as much as his chest, but then he seems to prefer the hands-on approach: the legal niceties can wait.

He’s also the hero of Action Jackson, a new movie that clearly would like to establish this character as a sequel-worthy guy who could stretch well into the Roman numerals. Strange thing is, he might just do it. Surprise: Action Jackson is an unexpectedly fast and funny movie.

Action is played by Carl Weathers, the fellow who kept coinciding with the business end of Sylvester Stallone’s gloves in the Rocky movies. Weathers is, to put it delicately, quite a load, and his comedic talent has been heretofore quiet. But Robert Reneau’s script contains just enough clever bits to punch up the character, and Weathers has a sufficiently light touch with the one-liner.

Action, a Detroit cop, has a problem: a really despicable car manufacturer (played by the Poltergeist dad, Craig T. Nelson, with plenty of sarcastic snarl). It’s not that he makes bad cars; no, this guy is killing the auto-union officials who are getting in his way.

Nelson has a wife (Sharon Stone) who is innocent about almost everything. He also has a mistress (Vanity) who is innocent about almost nothing. They’re both in danger. Action tries to get to the man through these two, but can only manage to save one of them.

The plot exists, of course, as an excuse for a few car chases and some spectacular explosions. But to give the film its due, there’s some efficient exposition and a few good secondary characters who are sketched in colorful strokes, like the gravel-voiced ex-pug who manages a rundown hotel, or the hairdresser named Dee who speaks in heavily alliterative phrases prompted by her own first name: “Always delighted to help a detective, dear.”

Director Craig R. Baxley provides the obligatory action stuff, but he also gives Action Jackson a hefty measure of good B-movie bounce. Any director who cuts away from an immolating bad guy to a close-up of meat burning on the grill at a swanky barbecue is clearly enjoying himself.

First published in the Herald, February 1988

Baxley was an experienced stuntman, and is still going strong as a TV director. Vanity, I am sorry to say, did not become the star that Sharon Stone became, but go figure. The Action Jackson franchise did not ignite with this film, so the character wanders forgotten movie byways with Remo Williams and Jake Speed.


Sid and Nancy

April 27, 2012

Sid and Nancy, a harrowing version of a doomed punk love story, is often unpleasant, but that it works at all is rather remarkable.

Near the beginning of Sid and Nancy, a barker stands on a seedy London street corner encouraging passers-by to enter a sleazy club. After giving his litany of degraded attractions, he shouts, “It is worth it?”—then, lowering his voice and looking into the camera, he says, “Yes it is.”

That seems to be writer-director Alex Cox’s nod to the inevitable criticism of his film—that its subject matter is too horrible to watch. It’s about the pathetic love story between Sid Vicious, the bassist for the standard-bearing punk band the Sex Pistols, and his American girlfriend, Nancy Spungeon. She died at his hands; a few months later he was dead of an overdose.

The film documents this with surprising wit, but never glosses over the violence and squalor of the scene. Sid (played by Gary Oldman) and Nancy (Chloe Webb) are sad creatures, but Cox does not condescend to or romanticize them (and they are superbly acted). Cox also infuses his movie with black humor, but of a kind that captures the horror of his characters’ lives (rather than the smart-alecky humor of his first film, Repo Man).

And his ending, in which Sid finds a pizza place located somewhere on the edge of eternity, is beautiful. This film is sad and distasteful, but in many ways extraordinary. It is worth it? For the strong of stomach, yes, it is.

First published in the Herald, November 1986

This is a short review; it must have been a busy week for openings, as this number ran with similarly brief takes on 52 Pick-Up and Modern Girls. I haven’t seen it since it came out, so I don’t know whether I would still call Chloe Webb’s performance superb—maybe just an excellent case of casting. A rather special film in 1986, I have to say–it came out at just the right moment. I wrote Oldman’s name back then as “Gary Oldham,” but who knew?


1984

April 26, 2012

The new film version of 1984 is a solid, well-conceived adaptation of George Orwell’s novel. It must have been a tremendously daunting project to adapt one of the most famous books of the century.

It had happened once before—in 1956, with Edmond O’Brien as a rather incongruously well-fed Winston Smith. But that version has been tied up in Orwell’s estate for years, and movie rights for a remake have been similarly locked away.

Somehow, British producer Simon Perry cajoled the rights from Orwell’s heirs, just in time to start filming during the exact time described in the novel (April through June, 1984). Unfortunately, this meant that the film wouldn’t make it into general release until 1985.

But here it is—and despite the apparent anachronism of the title, 1984 seems just as relevant as ever. The story of one man and one woman being “thought criminals” in a totalitarian state controlled by the omnipresent image of Big Brother is chillingly suited to today’s latest-breaking news stories.

Adaptor-director Michael Radford is quite faithful to Orwell’s vision, even to the point of including the phrases that echo through the novel. The newspeak of Oceania is intact, with its sexcrimes, doublethink, and Party slogans, as well as the children’s rhyme that haunts Winston Smith: “Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clements….”

Radford also recreates Orwell’s physical description. This is a grimy, depressed industrial jungle, with telescreens looming over the scurrying citizens and announcers keeping up a steady drone of Party chatter. Radford’s visual scheme includes a bleached-out color that accurately conveys the spiritual blankness of most of the inhabitants of what was once known as London.

Radford’s casting is also true to the book. Certainly one would be hard-pressed to find a more fitting Winston Smith than John Hurt, whose sunken face suggests a lifetime of suffering. Remember, Hurt is the guy who was able to give humanity to the Elephant Man through his voice alone, so his deadened look is an appropriate counterpoint.

Smith is joined in sexcrime by Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), a fellow worker. Their nude scenes are deliberately used by Radford as a vivid contrast to the uniformity of clothing and appearance in the other parts of their world. Big Brother seeks to eliminate sex because it distracts people from the greater good of serving the Party.

It’s very nice that the late Richard Burton (to whose memory the film is dedicated) was able to end his film career—one of the most wildly uneven of any major actor—with something of merit. He is fine as O’Brien, the Party official who tortures Smith into embracing the “love” of Big Brother.

Somehow, this interesting movie never gets really great, and it may be due to is very faithfulness; Orwell’s book is not unusually well-suited to the movies, and the relentless horror of it all becomes numbing after a while. But it gets its point across—as Winston Smith says, “The important thing is not staying alive—the important thing is staying human.” The movie believes in that most insidious thoughtcrime, and it has never seemed truer.

First published in the Herald, February 26, 1985

I caught a few minutes of this on cable recently and it looked good; Burton was chilling. It might be hard to ever get the novel right, because it is such an unforgettable reading experience; one feels superbly illicit just opening the book and committing a thoughtcrime. I was very interested in Radford then, because I’d liked his film Another Time, Another Place; he would find real success with Il Postino but then kind of fall away from prominence.


Wetherby

April 25, 2012

In a small town in a bucolic patch of Yorkshire countryside, a group of friends is enjoying a dinner party. The only note of strangeness in the convivial, civilized dinner is the moodiness of one young man, who seems taken with his own thoughts.

The next day, the young man returns to the house and greets the owner. He reveals that he had not been invited by her friends to the dinner party—as she had assumed, since she had never seen him before; in fact, he knew no one there and simply bluffed his way into the house. While she is pondering the absurdity of this situation, he pulls a revolver out of his pocket, puts the barrel in his mouth, and pulls the trigger.

These are among the opening scenes of Wetherby, and the film will proceed with a complex examination of how this apparently inexplicable act came to pass. You’ve got to admit, it’s a grabby and intriguing idea; but writer-director David Hare has much more on his mind than some kind of murder mystery.

He’s after bigger fish. As with his play and movie Plenty, Hare’s concerns include the nervous spaces between people and (his favorite theme) the emotional paralysis of English people under the weight of too much civilization. Luckily for Hare, he seems to have a sense of how to make movies (this is his first directed feature), otherwise his tackling of these big issues and themes could have been clunky and awkward.

Even so, he has a tendency toward obviousness in some of his dialogue, as though the audience couldn’t catch what he was getting at otherwise.

But I list these cavils in order to better praise Wetherby, which strikes me as one of the most original films of the year. If everything in the film doesn’t go as smoothly as it might have, it’s nevertheless a scintillating experience.

Hare traces the events surrounding the suicide by going back and forth in time—from the arrival of the young stranger (Tim McInnerny), to the dinner party again, to the present, in which the schoolteacher (Vanessa Redgrave) in whose house he killed himself is trying to sort out the mystery. She is visited by a listless girl (Suzanna Hamilton) who knew the stranger at school, and by a police detective (Stuart Wilson) whose own life is not going so well.

There are also flashbacks to Redgrave’s 20-years-past love affair, which becomes more relevant as the film progresses (she is played in the flashbacks by Joely Richardson, the real-life daughter of Vanessa Redgrave). This failed romance has haunted the character ever since, and given her a common bond with the mysterious stranger: loneliness.

Hare draws all this with a delicate brush, and the film is as good to look at as it is to think about. Vanessa Redgrave is superb; she doesn’t hit a wrong note in the entire performance. Ian Holm, as usual, gives fine support, and Wilson is subtle in the unexpectedly touching role of the police officer.

The most disquieting performance is given by Tim McInnerny, in his first film role. His character, the suicide, is described as having “a blankness—a disfiguring blankness” that sums up his place in the world. McInnerny gives this character, through his acting abilities and through his unusual looks, a disturbing normalcy that sets the eerie tone for the rest of the movie.

First published in the Herald, October 22, 1985

An opening sequence that certainly puts its hooks into you. Hare keeps his hand in with movies, and directed that unsettling adaptation of The Designated Mourner.


Plenty

April 24, 2012

After the kind of moronic cinematic summer we’ve just suffered through, almost anything halfway intelligent ought to be greeted with boundless gratitude.

And Plenty, the first film of a fall season highlighting seriousness (it’s the time Hollywood likes to roll out its potential Oscar nominees), is so ambitious and thoughtful, one is tempted to applaud it without objection.

That reaction may not be appropriate, because I suspect Plenty has some problems. But overall, it’s a bracing tonic for any moviegoer interested in something other than the travails of a pimply-faced teenager’s introduction to sex.

Plenty is adapted by British playwright David Hare from his hit play. It chronicles about 15 years in the life of an Englishwoman (Meryl Streep), from her war service as a spy in occupied France, through her unsatisfying existence in postwar London, an unhappy marriage to a diplomat (Charles Dance), and her increasing disability and mental illness.

The film is elliptical in development; there’s no indication of the jumps in time, except for what we catch through a news report or dialogue references. And there’s no attempt to glamorize its complex main character—she’s hardly a heroine in the traditional mold.

She spends her life trying to find meaning through a series of incidents: a handful of uninteresting jobs, a weekends-only affair with the diplomat, a purely sexual attempt to have a child without marriage (assisted by a lower-class acquaintance, well played by rock star Sting).

As she goes on, she shows a growing tendency to lose control—to indulge in behavior that simply won’t stay within the bounds of British decorum.

She seems to be searching for a heightened form of living that she knew only during the idealistic war years—and especially an intense one-night encounter with an English paratrooper (Sam Neill) behind enemy lines.

Hare has a playwright’s bent for overstating his thesis; but the vibrancy of the character he and Streep have created (the role was played on stage by Kate Nelligan) outweighs the occasional obviousness.

And although Australian Fred Schepisi would seem to be the last sort of director for this kind of material (he did Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Barbarosa—both Westerns, of a kind), he turns out to be a superb choice.

Schepisi and cameraman Ian Baker have created a powerful visual scheme; in their widescreen frames, the characters are often seen as helplessly dwarfed by landscape, or separated and isolated by architecture. These images say as much as Hare’s words about the sterility and tragedy of these stunted lives.

Schepisi gets good work from a diverse cast. Tracey Ullman, another English rock star, gives her character a warmth that Streep’s character cannot approach.

And John Gielgud is outstanding as a diplomat whose traditional Britain he sees crumbling. Gielgud gets most of the good lines, and you can’t blame Hare for that—who could resist, when Gielgud can toss out drollness that puts most “comic” actors to shame.

Plenty is an odd film, with strange rhythms unlike any other movie (excepting possibly Hare’s equally bizarre Wetherby, which hasn’t opened here yet). I suppose a lot of people won’t like it—it’s hard to get a handle on.

But by the time its luminous final scene came on, it certainly had a handle on me. For anyone who thinks movies can be something more than a colorful accompaniment to popcorn-eating, it must be seen.

First published in the Herald, September 1985

You don’t hear much talk about Schepisi (pronounced skep-see, if you do talk about him) these days, but he displayed a very distinctive eye and sensibility back then; The Devil’s Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith were stunning entries in the Australian New Wave, and his first decade in Hollywood produced some fine results. A turn toward comedy in the last 20 years has resulted in very peculiar choices, and not very many funny movies (although he lent a nice touch to the HBO adaptation of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls). As for Tracey Ullmann, as far as I knew she was a rock singer then, and not primarily famed as a comedian, so lay off.


My Beautiful Laundrette

April 23, 2012

My Beautiful Laundrette is a sneaky little movie. It unspools so languidly, and plays its cards out so coolly, that you can’t quite figure out where it’s headed until at least halfway through. By that time, however, the considerable charms of the film will have worked their influence.

The subject matter presents an unfamiliar and exotic milieu. The main characters are members of London’s Pakistani subculture, who have their own customs and hierarchy.

At the top of the heap is Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey), an entrepreneur with vaguely underworldish connections. As a favor to his brother (Roshan Seth, who played Nehru in Gandhi), he agrees to give nephew Omar (Gordon Warnecke) a start in the world of business. Omar can wash cars at Nasser’s garage.

Well, it turns out Omar has a natural savvy for capitalism. Within days, he finagles his way into managing one of Nasser’s rundown launderettes—a low rung on the ladder, to be sure, but Omar has bright dreams of success. First, a laundrette dynasty, then…who knows?

By chance, Omar runs into a former school chum, Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis, last seen as the prig in A Room with a View), who is now punked-out, roaming the streets, and harassing “Pakis” like Omar. But Omar offers Johnny a job fixing up the little launderette, and the business, and a friendship, is off and running.

As it turns out, the friendship between these two is more intimate than you might expect. One of the film’s most ingenious sequences is the grand opening of the refurbished launderette, as Nasser and his mistress waltz among the washers to the Muzak of “The Skater’s Waltz” while Omar and Johnny are doing a different kind of waltz in the back room.

There are plenty of cold realities along the way, like the gangsterism within the Pakistani business world and the vicious punks who want the Pakistanis out. Yet the overriding tone of My Beautiful Laundrette is sweetness.

Hanif Kureishi’s nimble script takes its own time setting up characters and situations. And director Stephen Frears, that fine stylist (The Hit) who has spent most of his career making a score of films for British TV (unfortunately unexported), is in no mood to rush things along. The gentle pace and tone are underwhelming at first, but the cumulative effect is quite beguiling.

My Beautiful Laundrette was filmed for British TV, which explains its modest technical quality. It’s been such a hit at film festivals, including this year’s Seattle fest, that it’s getting play all over the United States. That’s a happy event, but it makes you wonder: Are all British TV movies this good? If they are, those of us without transcontinental-power satellite dishes have been missing a lot.

First published in the Herald, June 18, 1986

This felt like the beginning of an interesting moment for a group of Britain’s most talented filmmakers, some of whom were coming back to big-screen work after doing TV for a while (Ken Loach and Mike Leigh included). I’m not sure I would call Frears a “stylist” exactly.


American Ninja

April 20, 2012

It had to happen eventually. Oh, the Ninja pictures lighting up movie screens in recent years were popular enough; but think what would happen if, as the ads put it, “The deadliest art of the Orient” fell into the hands of an American.

Apparently Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the two wizards of schlocky, profitable Cannon Films (home stable for Chuck Norris), thought about it for a couple of seconds and decided that the idea would be a box-office bonanza. You put your hero (played by Michael Dudikoff) in front of a big American flag, put a Japanese sword in his hands, and the cash registers start beeping. How about American Ninja as a title?

Here’s a Ninja to identify with. He’s young, he’s clean cut, he’s one of our boys. He’s also a sociopathic psycho, of course, but it’s all in a good cause.

The protagonist establishes his credentials early. As a U.S. soldier in a Latin American country, he’s helping escort the general’s daughter across some tricky country when they’re stopped on the road by kidnappers. The other soldiers surrender quickly, but our man knows that surrender is for sissies—so he grabs a tool box and starts throwing wrenches and screwdrivers, with a Ninja spin, at the attackers. Their machine guns are no match for this, and they quickly disperse.

But some heavy-duty Ninja are watching. They’re the henchmen of an evil landowner who is aiding the right-wing rebellion in the country (and, as it turns out, is also in cahoots with the American military—interesting political stance, for an exploitation movie). The Ninja leader looks at Dudikoff’s martial-arts antics and proclaims, “He possess great skills.” He sense, or senses, a Ninjaness about this young man.

But, as everyone knows, it is impossible for a white man to understand the ways of the Ninja. Ah, but Dudikoff was taught the ways by an aging Japanese master on a remote Pacific Island, when the two were stranded there (don’t ask how, it’s much too complicated).

Funny thing is, Dudikoff doesn’t remember his training sessions. He was found unconscious and amnesiac, and he knows nothing of his past. But put a box of screwdrivers in front of him, and he goes into Ninja action immediately.

The film is a series of action sequences, as Dudikoff finds himself put upon by most of the factions in the country. That Japanese master pops up again, doing some gardening for the evil landowner, but he’s really just waiting for the return of his pupil so they can overthrow the bad forces and make things right for the country. “Your karma and mine—they are connected,” he tells Dudikoff.

Pretty silly stuff, although there is a plot in the movie. That’s more than could be said for Ninja Mission or Ninja III: The Domination. Before we declare a winner, however, we’ll have to wait for Sylvester Stallone to make his Ninja movie—not to mention its inevitable sequels.

First published in the Herald, August 1985

I’ll take Dudikoff and a box of spare parts over a machine gun any day; nothing beats a connected karma. Well, such are the ways of the Ninja. Or is it ninja? I didn’t know then, and still don’t now. Sam Firstenberg directed this one.