Leviathan

January 22, 2013

leviathanLeviathan has exactly the same plot as Deep Star Six, a film released in January. Both movies are about a station at the bottom of the ocean menaced by a sea monster that attacks the crew members one by one.

Is there something in the collective unconscious that fears big, ugly things that emerge from the ocean floor? Perhaps. Or could it be that two production companies had the idea for ripping off Alien at the same time?

Whereas Deep Star Six was a bouncy exercise in B-movie silliness, Leviathan comes equipped with some A-movie trappings. It’s got some actors, for starters, and a more impressive set design. The basic idea is slightly more clever: The crew of a mining station discovers the hull of a Soviet ship resting on the sea floor. They investigate.

A couple of the crew decide to drink from the ship’s still-intact vodka supply. Bad idea. This causes, as the doctor (Richard Crenna) puts it, “Some sort of genetic aberration,” and the afflicted mutate into big ugly slimy things that want to kill.

The response of the guy in charge (Peter Weller, Robocop) is to fire up all the power tools, zip the bodies in plastic, and set ’em adrift. Unfortunately, he doesn’t see the spare limb that gets sheared off and left behind, like a demonic leg of lamb. When it reconstitutes itself, things really shake loose.

Some of the other crew members include Hector Elizondo, Ernie Hudson, Lisa Eilbacher, and Daniel Stern. A decent enough ensemble, but with very little to do except wait around to get slimed. Also, there’s Amanda Pays, a luscious British actress (from the “Max Headroom” TV show), who is the resident fitness expert. This means the filmmakers must find excuses for her to jog around in tight sweat clothes. Which they do.

Director is George P. Cosmatos, best known as the man who guided, or endured, Sylvester Stallone in Rambo II and Cobra. Cosmatos clearly has his heart in action sequences, and Leviathan gives him a few to play with. Unfortunately, there’s nothing else going on, and the movie stiffs out long before it’s over. Lloyd Bridges, where are you when we need you?

First published in the Herald, March 16, 1989

This film is no relation to the 2012 release labeled “best of the year” by Cinema Scope…or is it? I haven’t seen the other Leviathan, so I suppose I really can’t say.

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The Pope of Greenwich Village

January 21, 2013

popeofgThe opening-credits sequence of The Pope of Greenwich Village promises much: As Frank Sinatra’s voice caresses the air with “The Summer Wind,” we see a man meticulously preparing himself for an evening out. He slips on an expensive jacket, natty tie, classy accessories. He walks out into the evening with smooth self-assurance.

The upshot of this is that the guy, Charlie, is a maitre d’ at a fancy restaurant. Still, he knows what he’s about, and he’s got great dreams. He and his girlfriend, Diane, plan to break out of their home in Little Italy and own a restaurant in the country someday.

Charlie’s got a problem, however. The problem is he’s bound by blood to a perpetual loser named Paulie, his third cousin. Paulie, working as a waiter at Charlie’s restaurant, promptly gets them both fired when he won’t stop stealing money.

Out on the street, Paulie comes up with a new scheme. He buys a share of a racehorse—he’s heard the horse is the offspring of a champion, by means of “artificial inspiration”—and then plans a burglary to have enough money to bet big when the horse comes in a winner. Paulie drags a reluctant, unemployed Charlie into the plot, without telling him that the payroll they’re going to take belongs to the local underworld kingpin.

It’s one of those movies in which the characters keep getting deeper and deeper into trouble. The Pope isn’t a depressing movie because of this, however. The only depressing thing is that so little has been done with a potentially rich subject.

Vincent Patrick, whose maiden screenplay this is (he adapted his same-named novel), has things going in all directions. Charlie’s concern for his helpless, no-good cousin is touching, but his gruff devotion isn’t really given enough background to make it comprehensible. It becomes tough to believe that the family connection is enough. And Diane’s character is never successfully integrated into the story; after a while she just disappears.

Director Stuart Rosenberg, who might have brought the film’s tangential elements together, just contributes to the mess. He doesn’t seem to be equipped to impose any overriding sensibility that might have brought things into focus.

If the film is a rather enjoyable mess, it’s because of the cast. Daryl Hannah is appealing as Diane, and there are well-turned supporting bits by Kenneth McMillan, as a thief who helps Charlie and Paulie; Burt Young, as the gangland chief; and Tony Musante, as one of Young’s henchmen, who has tears in his eyes as he tells his old friend Paulie he’ll have to maim him.

Eric Roberts—most recently the psycho husband in Star 80—manages to be both studied and overwrought as Paulie. Oddly enough, that’s appropriate for this character, but Roberts would benefit from watching his co-star, Mickey Rourke, for a lesson in natural screen acting.

Rourke, the hairdresser of Diner and the motorcycle boy in Coppola’s Rumble Fish, is short, not conventionally handsome, and speaks softly most of the time. But he’s got the kind of screen presence that inspires immediate audience sympathy, and when he’s on screen in The Pope, the film blows through with the ease and pleasant feeling of the summer wind.

First published in the Herald, June 26, 1984

Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke: what a set it must have been. IMDb says this movie was prepared and steered through pre-production by Michael Cimino, which conjures up a wilder project.


The Milagro Beanfield War

January 18, 2013

milagrobFor the better part of a decade, Robert Redford has been working on bringing John Nichols’ novel The Milagro Beanfield War to the screen. Not as an acting job, but as the second installment of Redford’s directorial career, a career that began with an Oscar in 1980 for Ordinary People.

Redford’s main problem was finding a workable screenplay in Nichols’ largish novel (eventually David Ward, who wrote Redford’s The Sting, conquered the scripting job). Then the shooting itself was dogged by unpredictable weather at the New Mexico locations and by Redford’s own lackadaisical approach to matters of scheduling.

Having lavished all this attention on the property (not to mention a healthy chunk of change), Redford has made a surprisingly lightweight film. It’s not that Milagro is a bad movie, exactly, but it certainly is slim.

The storyline is extremely simple. A small New Mexico town is threatened by the proposed development of a resort community. One farmer (Chick Vennera) diverts the developer’s water to feed his own modest beanfield. The fatcat (Richard Bradford) has a dilemma; if he arrests the farmer, he risks poisonous publicity. But he can’t let the villagers get the upper hand.

That’s all there is; it taps into the oldest strain of little guy vs. the unfeeling system, this time set in the beguiling Chicano community and culture. To Redford’s credit, he does take pains to paint the stock characters in more complex colors. But most of them come out looking like stock characters.

There’s the weary sheriff (Ruben Blades) caught between the warring factions; the feisty businesswoman (Sonia Braga) who tries to organize the town against the money men, with some amusingly mixed results; the jaded ex-activist lawyer (John Heard) whom she tries to rejuvenate for the cause; the gangly graduate student (Daniel Stern) who falls in love with the people he’s observing; the easygoing mayor (Tex-Mex singer Freddy Fender).

Presiding over it all is an ancient (Carlos Riquelme, a popular Mexican star) who discusses everything with his pig and with the angel (Roberto Carricart) who passes by now and then. Riquelme is the film’s touchstone, a mischievous presence evidently close to Redford’s heart, and he sets the movie’s whimsical tone.

The ensemble is attractive, relaxed, and the film is easy on the eyes and mind. Thus one inclines to excuse the slapdash nature of the storytelling, the vague sense that we’re missing some crucial connective tissue.

Not quite so easy to excuse is the literal-minded prettiness of Robbie Greenberg’s cinematography (of the oh-look-there’s-a-rainbow variety), or the coziness of the film’s finale, which presents an awfully neat (and naïve) way out. It’s a bit difficult to believe some of the last-minute changes of heart, and I for one couldn’t shake the nagging sense that Redford didn’t quite believe them either. It’s hard to dislike The Milagro Beanfield War, but it’s also hard to champion it.

First published in the Herald, March 31, 1988

I don’t know what I meant by Redford’s approach to scheduling; must have been something I read in Premiere. But then not much about this movie sticks in the mind, beyond the agreeable cast.


Off Limits

January 17, 2013

offlimitsNow that we’ve gotten the definitive films about Vietnam out of the way—movies that deal with the Vietnam War itself as a phenomenon, such as The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket—it’s time for the genre film to move in. Thus in Good Morning, Vietnam, we see the sketch comedy set in Saigon; in Off Limits, it’s the formula cop movie.

The cops are McGriff (Willem Dafoe) and Perkins (Gregory Hines); according to the formula, one is white, one is black. They’re patrolling the seediest streets of Saigon in 1968, as part of a special Army investigation unit, when they detect a pattern in a series of prostitute killings.

As it turns out, the suspect list includes some high-ranking officers in the American services, which means that McGriff and Perkins had best chill the investigation or risk losing their jobs, or worse. Naturally, they continue, trying to find both the killer and “some (bleeping) meaning” to concentrate on in the madness around them.

Director and co-screenwriter Christopher Crowe creates a hellish environment for his violent heroes, all dirty rooms and bloody corpses. The Americans have contempt for their South Vietnamese allies, and the contempt is reciprocal. The only oasis is a church where the cops meet a nun (Amanda Pays) who helps them on the trail of the killer.

In whodunit terms, Off Limits is a bit clumsy. You can see the real culprit coming from way down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and when the explanation does arrive, it renders the movie’s most memorable scene inexplicable.

That scene has the cops confronting their prime suspect, a crazed officer (Scott Glenn) who nearly tops Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now for scary insanity. Glenn takes them up in a helicopter and begins to heave Viet Cong out the door, as a prelude to his own reckless action. It’s a startling scene.

The movie has a few of them. Even when it seems to be falling apart, Off Limits does have some brutal power, and it’s gritty enough to make you want to take a shower after watching it.

What it lacks is chemistry. Dafoe, who was so memorable as the Christ-like sergeant in Platoon, has a withdrawn, pinched quality, and it doesn’t mesh with Hines’ more open style. Fred Ward is just right as their superior, who can’t believe these guys are expending this much energy on a case involving murdered prostitutes, a case that nobody cares about anyway. He can’t see that’s exactly why they’re doing it.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

The generic title didn’t help, either. And by the way: Amanda Pays—least likely movie nun ever? Still, the whole thing sounds just intriguing enough to take another look sometime.


The Osterman Weekend

January 16, 2013

ostermanweekendThe Osterman Weekend is a competent, professional double-cross movie. That sentence can stand as a lukewarm recommendation of the film, but it’s really sigh of disappointment.

The disappointment stems from the fact that The Osterman Weekend was directed by Sam Peckinpah, who, after studio battles and illness, hadn’t made a movie in five years. Peckinpah, despite the conventional wisdom of cocktail-party cognoscenti, is one of the best stylists of his generation of filmmakers, and the possibilities for this adaptation of the Robert Ludlum novel seemed promising.

Rutger Hauer plays a Mike Wallace-type TV interviewer who, faced with evidence that his three closest friends (Craig T. Nelson, Dennis Hopper, and Chris Sarandon) may be Soviet agents, helps an American government agency spy on the group during an annual weekend get-together at Hauer’s place.

Every room in his house has been wired for videotaping by the strange government man (John Hurt) running the show, and Hauer feels the pressure of being caught between lying to his friends and lying to the camera. It isn’t long before the old college buddies start to guess that Hauer suspects something—especially with the kind of tricks that Hurt and his high-tech cohorts have cooked up for the weekend.

To tell any more would be unfair. The various twists and turns of the story are complicated, but Peckinpah and company have laid them out so that the viewer won’t get completely lost in the plot forest.

For all its professionalism, the film lacks a sharpness—that bite that Peckinpah gets into his movies, that cutting edge that does not necessarily have anything to do with the director’s much-publicized onscreen violence. There are taut sequences in The Osterman Weekend, but Peckinpah, at his greatest, uses action to reveal character, and that quality is sorely missed here.

When Hauer’s wife and son are kidnapped at the airport, it’s the occasion for a nicely-mounted chase, but that’s all. It turns out that this snatch is just another game staged for Hauer’s benefit; but we won’t fully understand that until much later.

Hauer, the Dutch star of Soldier of Orange and Blade Runner, seems a bit dislocated as the main character, but the supporting cast is odd and flavorful, and Meg Foster’s performance as Hauer’s wife helps turn her character into the most admirable person in the film.

Rumor has it that The Osterman Weekend was taken out of Peckinpah’s hands and recut for distribution; if that’s true, it might help explain the movie’s peculiar thinness. In particular, it would have been fascinating to have devoted more screen time to the John Hurt character—an agency man with a mission, a killer with a tortured soul.

As it stands, The Osterman Weekend is not the comeback vehicle for Sam Peckinpah’s cinematic gifts. And somehow, one of the most disappointing things about it is that it’s not a mad, extravagant failure. It’s just standard.

First published in the Herald, October 1983

I haven’t watched this since it came out and I’m nurturing the idea that it might be much, much better than it seemed to be then. Which I guess is one reason never to watch it again. Peckinpah died without completing another feature, so that adds to the letdown around this misbegotten title.


Just Between Friends

January 15, 2013

justbetweenfriendsJust Between Friends seeks to be this year’s Terms of Endearment—last year it was Twice in a Lifetime, you’ll remember—with a similar mix of ordinary people facing up to both ordinary and extraordinary situations.

It’s certainly got the right pedigree. Just Between Friends was written and directed by Allan Burns, who, like Oscar-winner James L. Brooks of Terms, was a staff writer on the old “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Burns clearly hopes to strike gold in the same mine.

But Just Between Friends is a strangely flat movie, lazily paced and without many distinguishing characteristics. You can sense Burns trying to wrench it into something more interesting, by throwing in an unexpected death here, a surprise pregnancy there, but the concoction refuses to jell.

It’s about a woman (Mary Tyler Moore, in a tailor-made role) whose neat, ordered life is brightened by a friend she meets at aerobics class (Christine Lahti). What Moore doesn’t know is that her seismologist husband (Ted Danson, of “Cheers”) is having an affair with Lahti.

When Moore invites her new friend over to have dinner, predictable hysteria ensues, as Lahti and Danson uncomfortably discover their mutual acquaintance.

Lahti decides to call off the affair, Danson isn’t sure, Moore stays in the dark—until, that is, the day she looks through her husband’s office and discovers a dime-store photo of Danson and Lahti together.

The film gets more serious as it goes along, although Burns has the good sense to insert a comic scene now and again. And his situation is valid enough, but his languid pace and utterly dull visual scheme damage the impact of the story.

The film was pretty clearly commissioned for Mary Tyler Moore, and Burns knows how to write funny “Mary” scenes, including a reference to her character’s past as a dancer, when she was a dancing peanut in a TV commercial (part of Moore’s actual dues-paying, if I remember correctly).

Moore’s only problem, as it was in Ordinary People, is that she tends to treat her big dramatic moments as—well, big dramatic moments. She loses her subtlety when called upon to emote.

Lahti, who was nominated for an Oscar for Swing Shift, provides some welcome bite. Just as she stole Swing Shift from Goldie Hawn, so does she grab our attention here. Her performance is more offbeat than Moore’s.

Danson, a likable, light leading man, is oddly unfocused, as though he wished he were getting some direction. Sam Waterston is steady as Danson’s best friend, who harbors a not-particularly-secret affection for Moore.

It’s a perfectly honorable try. There’s nothing cheap about the film’s emotion-tugging. The actors try valiantly to breathe some life into the proceedings, but ultimately the company can’t life the film above the level of a better-than-average TV movie.

First published in the Herald, April 13, 1986

I was flicking across channels the other night and came upon the sight of Mary Tyler Moore saying “fuck,” which is, I think we can agree, something that stops you in your tracks. I sat there thinking What the hell is this? and finally figured out that it must be Just Between Friends, a movie I had forgotten all about, for reasons that should be evident from the tone of the review.


Harry and the Hendersons

January 11, 2013

harryandthehendersonsFor some reason a full-scale treatment of the legend of Bigfoot has eluded Hollywood, except for quickie horror films and sleazy “In Search Of” pseudo-documentaries. Harry and the Hendersons sets this right; it’s a grade-A production, set in the Northwest, all about one family’s close encounter with the big hairy beast.

I invoke Close Encounters purposely. Harry was produced by Steven Spielberg’s production company, and like his Close Encounters, it describes a supernatural meeting in which the alien presence is benign and friendly.

The Hendersons run into their hirsute friend quite literally—the family station wagon sideswipes a moving mound of fur during an outing in the Cascades. Dad (John Lithgow), a sportsman who runs a Seattle sporting goods store, packs the carcass home, envisioning fame and fortune and the Carson show thanks to the discovery. Mom (Melinda Dillon, also the mother in Close Encounters) and the kids (Margaret Langrick, Joshua Rudoy) just want the smelly beast put in isolation.

Upon returning, they find the sasquatch feeling quite frisky, which results in a very funny sequence of Harry (as the creature is dubbed) making himself at home: raiding the fridge, readjusting the ceilings, solemnly burying Lithgow’s mounted deer heads in the backyard.

Lithgow gets the help of a crusty Bigfootologist (Don Ameche), but also the attention of a crazed hunter (David Suchet) who wants to blow the sasquatch away. After an extended—perhaps overextended—chase sequence, Lithgow must secure the beast’s safety.

The first third and last third of the film are charming and sweet. The middle meanders rather shapelessly, as though unsure of just how to spring the various plot mechanics into motion. Except for this sag, Harry is full of wonderfully cartoonlike sight gags, and a sly sardonic wit that helps defuse some of the overly saccharine moments.

The big triumph is Harry himself, a terrific creation by make-up man Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London) and a 7-foot-2-inch actor named Kevin Peter Hall, who is inside the fur. Both men do outstanding work, and Harry is never less than endearing.

Director/co-writer William Dear (whose previous feature credit was Timerider) and producer Richard Vane were in town recently to promote the film, almost exactly a year after they filmed much of it here (in Seattle, Index, North Bend, and other sasquatch hangouts).

Dear originally hooked up with Spielberg to make a very funny episode of Spielberg’s TV series, “Amazing Stories,” called “Mummy Daddy.” A few days after delivering it, the phone rang; it was Spielberg, asking whether Dear had any ideas for a feature film.

Dear had been nursing the Bigfoot idea for a long time, and he jumped at the chance to do it with Spielberg. “Steven really challenged us to challenge ourselves,” says Dear. “He’s say, ‘Is this just a good gag, or also a good part of the story?'” Once filming started, however, Spielberg left the crew to their own devices. “He never even saw the dailies,” marvels Vane, referring to the in-progress film.

Perhaps the toughest production challenge was casting Harry. Dear always had Rick Baker pegged as the designer, but….”It was very, very important to find the right actor,” says Dear. “A mechanism, like E.T., wouldn’t have worked.” Says Vane, “We interviewed a lot of big people. But they weren’t actors. They were just big.”

Dear likes the basic normalcy of the set-up in Harry. “This is a real-life situation that has a bump in it,” he says. He still seems knocked out that his long-cherished project has actually been realized. “The phone call from Spielberg sounds very easy and very quick, but that’s after 25 years of being a filmmaker. I refer to it as my own ‘Amazing Story.’ It’s been a long time coming.”

First published in the Herald, June 4, 1987

It’s one of the many Seattle-themed titles included in “Celluloid Seattle: A City at the Movies,” now on exhibit at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. And while I haven’t actually watched this movie since it came out, apparently I liked it well enough at the time. Big man Kevin Peter Hall, who also played the title role in the two Predator pictures, died at age 35 in 1991.