Arthur’s Hallowed Ground

December 14, 2012

arthurshallowedExecutive producer David Puttnam’s “First Love” television series is one of the best-regarded projects on British telly, even as Puttnam’s theatrical films—Chariots of Fire, Local Hero, The Killing Fields, etc.—have rejuvenated a shaky British film industry.

Some of the TV tales, notably Kipperbang and Experience Preferred…But Not Essential, already have been imported stateside.

Now the best of the rest have been gathered for a five-week series at the Crest theater. All of the films, according to the theme of the show, are about an early and deep attraction of the heart—although, as the first entry displays, the attraction isn’t necessarily a little boy falling for a little girl.

Arthur’s Hallowed Ground is about the love of a man for—a cricket field? Yes. As Arthur (Jimmy Jewel) marks his 45th year working as the groundsman for a cricket club, his eminence as the leading fieldkeeper in England is unquestioned. Colleagues consider his field the prettiest patch of turf in Britain.

But the directors of the cricket club are grumbling. Arthur rules his field completely. He won’t take direction, he won’t take advice, and he blanches at the suggestion that his meticulous work may actually be hampering the team’s play. There isn’t any evidence he cares at all for cricket, as a matter of fact; his beautiful field is the important thing.

Against the objections of Arthur, the board hires an assistant, a teenage black kid named Henry (Vas Blackwood). Arthur does his best to bring the kid in, but he doesn’t want him to touch anything, move anything, or clean anything—and he’d die before he let Henry step onto the sacred patch of turf he keeps most scrupulously tidy (roughly comparable to the pitcher-catcher battery in baseball, I think).

Eventually Henry learns Arthur’s tricks of the trade—how to ignore management requests, how to tend the ground and mix the fertilizer, and how to avoid the dreaded phone in his workshop. (When Henry asks why Arthur doesn’t answer the phone, Arthur sagely tells him, “It’ll only be somebody wantin’ me to do something.”)

The script, by Peter Gibbs, is slight but sweet; it’s the marvelous characterization of Arthur that puts it over. Puttnam has chosen just the right director to bring out Arthur’s best qualities: cinematographer Freddie Young, making his debut as director (80 years old when the film was made).

Young, an Oscar-winning photographer, is famous for his impeccable, sweeping vistas—particularly in collaboration with David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter). As a craftsman, he’s just like the fussy Arthur, and he obviously empathizes strongly with the detail-oriented groundskeeper.

However, despite his renown as a photographer of epics, Young keeps this story intimate, and he gets a wonderful sense of the green field, where much or the film takes place. From the early, golden-hued flashback of young Arthur being captivated by the verdant square, Young keeps the love story understandable, if eccentric.

The next “First Love” films to roll across the lawn at the Crest are: Sharma and Beyond, April 25 to May 1; Forever Young, May 2 to May 8; Those Glory, Glory Days, May 9 to May 15; and Winter Flight, May 16 to May 22. Most of them are the work of writers and directors from whom relatively little has been heard. If Puttnam’s track record is any indication, they’ll be more prominent in the future. This is a good chance to catch them cutting their teeth.

First published in the Herald, April 8, 1986

This is a minor film, but I have thought of it often. I have especially had many opportunities to reflect on Arthur’s response to the phone call, “It’ll only be somebody wantin’ me to do something.” That line of dialogue has kept me company during my lifelong aversion to ringing telephones. Reading this over makes me wonder, does Young hold the record for oldest directorial debut?

That’s Dancing!

December 13, 2012

thatsdancingThat’s Dancing! isn’t much of a movie—but then it doesn’t have to be. It provides plenty of entertainment by helping itself to large portions of other movies, many of which are very good indeed.

It’s the approach taken by the That’s Entertainment! movies (they’ve even kept the exclamation point), but in this case the musical numbers consist only of dancing—no extraneous material. The dance numbers from the history of the movies are introduced and narrated by Mikhail Baryshnikov, Ray Bolger, Liza Minnelli, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Gene Kelly. Kelly also served as executive producer.

Kelly and Jack Haley, Jr. (who also was responsible for the That’s Entertainment! films), start the film—after a gratingly splashy opening number—with a chronological history of dance in film. Early nickel flickers and silent extravaganzas are glimpsed.

Then that mad choreographer-director, Busby Berkeley, is showcased, with wild clips from some of Berkeley’s 1930s Warner Bros. musicals. Some of this stuff, which really makes you wonder what kind of medication Berkeley was taking, is reason enough to stay up for late-night TV and catch these films in their entirety.

Fred Astaire is duly honored, of course, including his solo to the ironic strains of “I Won’t Dance.” We also get to see a dance from The Wizard of Oz that was trimmed from the final release version.

It’s an extension of the Scarecrow’s “If I Only Had a Brain” dance, and it’s perfectly delightful—nothing great, mind you, but with Ray Bolger bouncing between rubbery fence posts and flying over the corn fields, it certainly qualifies as a wonderful almost-lost nugget of Hollywood history.

A section on classical ballet in movies follows, and this is the point at which That’s Dancing! goes astray. A bit too much time is spent paying tribute to classical greats, many of whom had little to do with dance in movies.

This is also the point at which the film abandons its chronological movement, becoming instead a tribute to the key stars of the genre. Thus the movie seems directionless, although it’s hard to care much when the clips are this good.

There’s a sensational duet of one-upmanship by the Nicholas Brothers, from Down Argentine Way; a hilarious bit from It’s Always Fair Weather with Kelly, Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd hoofing it up with the handicap of a garbage can lid attached to each foot; and the sizzling “Cool” from West Side Story.

The narrators take pains to tell us who the principal dancers are, and even the directors and choreographers. For some reason, and this is unfortunately common in compilation films such as this, there is no written identification of each clip. It’s always nice when a title is flashed at the bottom of the screen when a scene comes on, but maybe they thought it would be too complicated for the audience. Hmm.

First published in the Herald, January 19, 1985

Yes, for some reason this one didn’t catch the giddy magic of the first couple of compilation films under this banner. In the 1970s the first two That’s Entertainment! movies were big box-office hits; but they’re all museum stuff now.

Thief of Hearts

December 12, 2012

thiefofhearts2Douglas Day Stewart had the darndest time trying to sell a script he wrote quite a few years back. It was called An Officer and a Gentleman, and the problem seemed to be that the story was just too old-fashioned and hokey for today’s hip audiences to believe.

Of course the film went through the stratosphere when it opened a couple of summers ago, and Stewart was quickly a hot property. But although An Officer and a Gentleman is likable enough, the screenplay was still hokey; what’s good about that film comes from the spirited direction and the magnetic star performances.

Stewart has now made his directorial debut (from his own screenplay), and he’s gone with a cast of virtual nobodies—so this time there’s nobody to bail him out. As a matter of fact, his screenplay is the best thing about Thief of Hearts, so you know the movie is in trouble.

It’s based on an interesting idea: A thief (Steven Bauer) absconds with the diaries of an attractive, upscale interior designer (Barbara Williams). He reads them and becomes obsessed with her written fantasies. He meets her (without tipping his hand), and courts her by miraculously seeming to be her perfect man.

Perhaps Brian De Palma could have made something sinister and kinky out of that situation. Stewart comes up with nothing more than a sexy fashion show, with great-looking people drinking white wine in fancy restaurants, in bathtubs, in sailboats, with witless “comic relief” provided by sidekicks (played by George Wendt and Christine Ebersole).

This movie falls squarely into a filmmaking tradition that descends (and I do mean descends) from the superficial sensibility of Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo. All is surface in these films: The characters seem to be more entranced with their own sleek images than with the other people on the screen. It’s a dispiriting, narcissistic trend.

Two offscreen people have been important in formulating this movement (both Italian, oddly enough): Giorgio Moroder, whose music gave a soulless throb to Gigolo, Cat People, and Flashdance, and Ferdinando Scarfiotti, a “visual consultant” (gee, didn’t these people used to be called art directors?), also an alumnus of American Gigolo.

Moroder is not involved with Thief of Hearts, but Harold Faltenmeyer’s score is an obvious rip-off of electronic Moroder motifs. Scarfiotti serves as visual consultant, and he gives San Francisco a weird, fashion-plate look similar to his New Orleans for Cat People and Miami for Scarface. Maybe he’s intent on making all the major American cities look like alien landscapes.

Stewart uses these stylish production values to little end: He has no flair with the camera, and his actors are uncompelling. Bauer, who made a solid debut in De Palma’s Scarface, can’t quite forget how handsome he is. Barbara Williams actually has the central role—the movie is really about her marriage, with the dalliance with the black-clad thief a temptation—and she has an attractive, if damagingly low-key, personality.

John Getz is okay in an utterly thankless wimpy husband role (he’s the author of children’s books, for cryin’ out loud), and David Caruso, the red-headed scaredy-cat from An Officer, is effectively nervy as Bauer’s punked-out partner in crime.

I didn’t really hate this film while I was watching it. It’s not boring, and it’s pretty to look at. But you know, at the climax of a film, whether or not it’s hooked you. This made up my mind about just how bad this movie was: At the juicy end of Thief of Hearts, I just didn’t care two figs what happened to any of these people.

First published in the Herald, October 24, 1984

The movie didn’t do well, and didn’t launch its leads into top stardom. Barbara Williams, who has an interesting face, is married to Tom Hayden; Bauer was married to Melanie Griffith in the 80s.

The Night Before

December 11, 2012

nightbefore2_5“I was supposed to have her home by midnight. Instead, I sold her to a pimp.” Such is the existential lament of the high-school hero of The Night Before, a nerd who’s lost his date on prom night.

The only reason the popular cheerleader (Lori Laughlin) is going out with the school pencil-neck (Keanu Reeves) is that she lost a bet, and is stuck with his company. But the nightmare doesn’t really begin until they’re deep into the inner city, having taken a few wrong turns along the way. There, with unerring dimwittedness, Reeves manages to misplace his car, his wallet, and his date.

At a club called the Rat’s Nest, Reeves has been served a Mickey, in the form of a tequila and ginger ale. In this state, he unknowingly sells the cheerleader for $1,500 to a pimp (Trinidad Silva). A bystander notes that Reeves should’ve held out for at least $3,000. The rest of the movie has Reeves trying to recover the girl before she is sold into white slavery and shipped off to Morocco.

This movie shoots itself in the foot right away, since it begins with the night already half over and Reeves piecing together the preceding events in flashback. This device effectively halts any healthy narrative development, not that there is much to begin with.

Director and co-writer Thom Eberhardt piles on the bad news for our hero, but the inner-city disasters pale next to the recent model for such nightmare comedies, After Hours.

Reeves, who was the kid with a conscience in River’s Edge, gives an utterly graceless performance here, although that appears to be what the director wanted. Laughlin spends the entire movie in an attitude of perpetual (and occasionally amusing) disdain. The only performer to strike an interesting note is Theresa Saldana, who plays a good-natured lady of the evening. Other than that, this film is best consigned to that burgeoning population of films that are soon to be seen at a video store near you.

First published in the Herald, March 15, 1988

Eberhardt had directed Night of the Comet in ’84. Trinidad Silva should be fondly remembered for his ongoing role as the gang leader in “Hill Street Blues”; he died in a car accident a few months after The Night Before came out. Saldana had, earlier in the decade, been attacked and seriously wounded by a deranged man. Nobody remembers this movie.

No Mercy

December 10, 2012

nomercyNo Mercy is a derivative action movie that repeats geriatric clichés from almost every detective movie you’ve ever seen.

It begins with the renegade Chicago cop (Richard Gere) who follows a tip on his own, without his gruff-but-lovable chief’s permission. It proceeds to the death of his partner, in the line of duty. Naturally it follows that he must avenge his partner’s death, by looking for the icy blonde (Kim Basinger) with the tattoo on her shoulder.

So he goes to New Orleans, which prompts the fish-out-of-water stuff we loved so much in Witness. He’s actually offered a mint julep, eats crawfish, and walks down Bourbon Street, looking for clues. When he runs into the local police, they tell him—all together, now—to stay out of town, that they don’t need some smart guy from Chicago telling them how to do police work, etc. And somehow he finds the icy blonde.

At which point No Mercy reaches way back to Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and has the hero and heroine handcuffed to each other. This film seems designed to trash all the detective conventions.

It’s the work of scriptwriter James Carabatsos, who is also represented this month with the equally salty Heartbreak Ridge. Carabatsos seems to think that if he dresses his clichés in oddball language, no one will notice they’re clichés. Example: Gere walks into a restaurant full of expensive-looking women and remarks, “Most of these broads still got their price tags hangin’ from their noses.”

Directed Richard Pearce (Heartland) treats all of this as though it were good or something—and through sheer commitment he makes the opening 20 minutes or so fairly gripping. Eventually the script’s bozo contrivances take over, as when Gere and Basinger escape from under a dock teeming with bad guys, or when they drift into the bayou country, then improbably allow their canoe to drift away (after hanging on it it all night long).

Worst of all is the stagnant finale, which takes place in an old hotel and lasts a dull 20 to 25 minutes. It’s cramped, and Pearce can’t make the setting come alive.

Gere is barely adequate. He seems preoccupied with getting on to some other movie, perhaps one with more ambition. Basinger, having a busy year (9 ½ Weeks, Fool for Love), is also not all there. Together, in supposedly steamy love scenes, they only manage to muss each other up.

They both have the movie stolen from them by the villain, a pony-tailed snake who likes to carve people up with a gutting knife. He’s played by Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe (The Fourth Man), who easily outshines the protagonists. Under such circumstances, it’s not all that much to be proud of.

First published in the Herald, December 20, 1986

Dead, dead, dead—an absolute misfire. Interesting that Gere eventually did age into some good performances, including a fine turn in 2012’s Arbitrage.

Shy People

December 7, 2012

shypeopleWhen I was driving around in the bayou country of southern Louisiana last year, I happened to tune into a radio talk show discussing the subject of movies filmed in the state.

The commentators spoke with some weariness and bemusement about the way that movies set in rural Louisiana always portray the locals as a bunch of inbred crazies, performing weird rituals in the swamps and attacking stray outsiders (as in Southern Comfort, for instance).

I don’t imagine these commentators will be too thrilled with Shy People, which is another film about some outsiders finding a strange new universe in the bayou.

But, to be fair to filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train), Shy People goes to some lengths to establish a sympathy for the backwoods people, even if they ultimately come off as flaky.

It’s a culture-clash movie, about a New York writer, Diana (Jill Clayburgh), who takes her teenage daughter (Martha Plimpton) to Louisiana in search of a story. She’s got relatives there, but she’s never met them.

The bayou family is now ruled by her distant cousin, Ruth (Barbara Hershey, winner of the best actress prize at the ’97 Cannes Film Festival for this performance), who is raising three sons in a dilapidated house, far away from the reach of civilization.

One son is a trapper (Don Swayze), one is retarded, and the other is locked in the tool shed for an unnamed offense. Her older boy (Merritt Butrick) has moved into town, where he runs the Pussycat Lounge; he’s not mentioned in the family anymore.

Konchalovsky is interested in contrasting these two different mothers, and in showing the changes they bring on each other.

Diana is all big-city pose, her gold bracelets clanking as she confronts a crisis with, “I’m from Cosmopolitan magazine! Don’t you know what that means?”

Ruth remains bound to the swamp, insisting with mysterious belief that her late, larger-than-life husband is still alive out there, somewhere.

The climax of this clash of lifestyles comes when the two women leave the house to go into town, and the daughter teases the boys into a lather. She also gives them a sniff of cocaine, and soon they’re setting free the goats and turning loose the chickens, and generally behaving like characters in some cautionary reefer madness movie.

As Konchalovsky tells the story, he ladles on a heavy dose of social criticism. For all their oddities, he sides with the natural life of the country people, as opposed to the neuroses of the city folk.

He’ll stop the show to focus on a can of Bud plunking into the bayou from the highway above, in slow motion yet, and he’s eager to show the decadence of civilization.

A great deal of this becomes simple-minded to the point of dopiness. But if Konchalovsky is bald about his ideas, you can’t deny this director’s powerful visual sense.

Konchalovsky finds some definitively spooky sights in that swampy backwater; the gray-green mists seem to hide a bounty of secrets. This is the forest primeval, indeed.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

Before we go elevating Andrei Konchalovsky (the brother of Nikita Mikhalkov) to the Powerful Visual Sense club, let us note that Shy People was photographed by Chris Menges, who knew something about all that. Konchalovsky went to school with Tarkovsky. The slo-mo on the beer can sort of sums up the director’s approach. 

An Innocent Man

December 6, 2012

innocentmanWhen the action heats up in the maximum-security prison of An Innocent Man, one con surveys the scene and says to another, “Tension in the Big House. Just like in the movies.”

That’s got it about right. Despite the fact that An Innocent Man was written by a first-time screenwriter (Larry Brothers) who has spent some time behind bars, it trots out the basic, familiar elements of a good prison melodrama. It’s solidly in a line from the wronged-justice movies of the 1930s (such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) to Stallone’s outing from a couple of months ago, Lock-Up. Not much changes.

As these things go, An Innocent Man is hard-nosed and effective. Tom Selleck plays a normal guy, with a good life and a happy wife (Laila Robbins), whose existence is messed up when two crooked cops mistakenly bust into his house and shoot him. In order to cover their error, they plant drugs in his home and, when he recovers, frame him for dealing.

Selleck goes up the river, where he learns that his ideas about fair play don’t exactly hold sway. He falls in with a wily con (F. Murray Abraham, the Oscar winner from Amadeus), who’s been in prison “since Jesus was a baby,” and learns the rules of the jungle. The hardest lesson is: Kill or be killed.

There as some clever lines along the way and Abraham gets a lot of the good ones. The occasional moment suggest writer Brothers’ knowledge of prison experience; when Selleck is paroled and picked up by his wife, he murmurs, “Riding in a car,” as though reminding himself of the phenomenon. That’s a telling line.

Peter Yates, whose work has ranged from Bullitt to Breaking Away, is a veteran director who knows what to do with this sort of thing. He keeps it moving, in his colorless fashion, with little wasted motion. The movie’s spikiest moments are not with Selleck, who presents a bland protagonist, but with the two sleazy cops who framed him. They are played by David Rasche and Richard Young, and they are as hissable as villains come these days. Rasche, who achieved some sort of glory on TV’s “Sledge Hammer” series, has a particularly evil romp.

The film is too clockwork; the latter half involves Selleck’s revenge, and it’s predictable. It works, of course, because the bad cops are doing everything but kicking puppies around, and we can’t wait to see justice served. We’re not disappointed.

First published in the Herald, October 6, 1989

Here’s another film, and not actually a bad one, that seems almost entirely without a profile. Does anyone remember this movie fondly, or at all?