Fire with Fire

March 31, 2020

firewithfireThe romance in Fire with Fire springs from a fundamentally laughable situation; namely, that a girl in a Catholic boarding school out in the hinterlands would fall in love with a boy in an honor detention camp, a relaxed prison that just happens to be located a few miles from the girls’ school.

Like many fundamentally laughable situations, this one reportedly is based on a true story. Oh well. That doesn’t make it any better, especially with the fictional finale the screenwriters have dreamed up.

Joe (Craig Sheffer) is running through the woods one day when he spots Lisa (Virginia Madsen) floating in a forest pool. She looks like a saint undergoing some religious ecstasy. He doesn’t know it, but she’s photographing herself in this position.

It’s love at first sight. But they don’t actually meet until Lisa engineers a school dance for the boys from the camp. Then the Romeo and Juliet business goes into full gear, and these two sense they are destined for something or other. As it happens, a few nights later they’re caught trysting in a crypt at the forest cemetery, and an escape into the woods (filmed in British Columbia) is necessary.

Most of this is goofy, as you can probably guess. In sheer terms of plot, it’s one unlikely event after another. My favorite plausibility-stretcher is the characterization of the prisoners; they come off like a bunch of happy-go-lucky fellows, out for a weekend camping trip. They don’t even use nasty language.

As unsatisfying as the script is, there’s a surprising degree of commitment on the part of director Duncan Gibbins, whose first feature this is. Gibbins plays everything as though it all actually mattered somehow. This provokes some unintentional laughter, but it’s an honest way to make movies. This attitude is particularly surprising when you consider that Gibbins comes out of the glib world of music videos (he made Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues”).

At least one thing makes Fire with Fire palatable: the drop-dead gorgeous Virginia Madsen (Creator), whose angelic appearance is utterly beguiling. Aside from being a fine actress, she certainly provides a convincing argument for this whole love-at-first-sight business.

First published in the Herald, May 10, 1986

Gibbins was big in music videos; he worked with Wham! and Eurythmics, too. This is weird, but he died in 1993 during wildfires in Southern California; according to Wikipedia he was trying to rescue a cat from a burning house and sustained lethal burns. His other features were Eve of Destruction and A Case for Murder. The painting Madsen’s character is trying to re-create is Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite corker, Ophelia. This movie came during Craig Sheffer’s run as the New Thing, which included That Was Then … This Is Now, and Some Kind of Wonderful. I didn’t mention the nuns, but they are a formidable group: Kate Reid, Jean Smart, and Detour star Ann Savage, who could absolutely put the fear of God into anybody. I really think I’d give this another shot, laughable or not.


Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins

March 30, 2020

remowilliamsClearly, we are to assume from the title of Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins . . . that this film is the first installment in what, if box-office receipts merit, will be a continuing series. It’s got the usual tendencies for such a series: action, humor, a clearly defined distinction between good and evil.

What Remo Williams lacks is any kind of adroitness at presenting these elements. And, more seriously, it doesn’t have the gumption to create a hero of its own; rather, this fellow Remo Williams is fashioned out of bits and pieces from various other movies.

There’s a large debt to Hitchcock, especially Saboteur and North by Northwest, and the Indiana Jones movies also have been an inspiration. But the most prominent bloodline of the film comes from James Bond – the director (Guy Hamiton) and scriptwriter (Christopher Wood) are both veterans of Bond films.

So 007 is the formula for this film – which means you can count on a series of splashy stunts and a hero who wisecracks more often than he uses a gun.

Remo Williams (the excellent  Fred Ward, from The Right Stuff) fulfills those requirements, but he’s entirely more down to earth than Bond. Williams is a former cop, without dapper clothes or good manners, who’s been recruited by a super-secret government agency.

He’s been recruited against his will, which is probably the only way this agency gets its employees. You see, their business is eliminating the bad guys, by whatever means necessary (including “extreme prejudice,” as they say), and they are answerable only to the president.

Williams is kidnapped and given a new identity. His superiors (Wilford Brimley and J.A. Preston) tell him that “You’re going to be the 11th Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not get away with it.'” They enlist him in some superhero training courses given by a mysterious chap named Chiun (Joel Grey, under a lot of convincing Asian makeup).

At this point, Remo Williams reaches for a different source of inspiration: the white-guy-getting-wisdom-from-an-Oriental-master plot, which recently proved sure-fire in “The Karate Kid.” Chiun imparts a lot of wise sayings to Remo; the gag here is that he’s also sort of cranky, and sometimes comes on like Johnny Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent, telling Remo that “You move like a pregnant yak.”

He also tells Remo that “Professional assassination is the highest form of public service,” which the film seems to endorse, rather queasily.

Chiun teaches Remo how to dodge bullets and walk on water; most importantly, he teaches him how to keep his balance. This is crucial because the film comes up with every way it can think of to make Remo fall from on high: He walks along a building ledge, dangles from a Ferris wheel, has a big fight scene on the Statue of Liberty, and is carried along a tramway holding on to a tree.

This is in the course of training, and as part of his first assignment: wiping out a sleazy military contractor (Charles Cioffi).

Despite the attempts at humor, and a lot of reasons this bad guy should be eliminated, the film doesn’t quite come to grips with the fact that its hero is a professional killer. But then again, it probably doesn’t want to.

First published in the Herald, October 18, 1985

Okay, so first off, I totally get it that 35 years after this movie was made, viewers will likely find Joel Grey’s Asian make-up not only unconvincing but simply not the kind of thing you do. So I acknowledge that. It was a sequel-happy era, but even by the standards of 1985, tagging your movie with The Adventure Begins seems presumptuous. When it comes to would-be 80s franchises, I’ll take Action Jackson, thank you. Because my memories of this film, such as they are, are almost entirely of something lighter-than-air, I was surprised to be reminded that it’s from the “fun assassin” subgenre, which is a pretty tricky tone to bring off. 


The Quiet Earth

March 27, 2020

quietearthSome months ago, little New Zealand attracted the world’s attention when it quixotically declared itself a nuclear-free zone in response to nuclear tests in the South Pacific. The country’s declaration seems relevant to the newest film to come out of New Zealand, which, although it doesn’t actually name nuclear weapons as the source of the apocalypse it portrays, is obviously an analogical version of life after a nuclear war.

The Quiet Earth is the work of the leading filmmakers in New Zealand: director Geoff Murphy, whose Utu was one of the most intriguing movies of the past year, and actor/co-screenwriter Bruno Lawrence, who gave brilliant performances in Utu and Smash Palace.

For The Quiet Earth, they’ve adapted a science-­fiction novel by Craig Harrison. It’s one of those end-of-the-world things, in which a survivor searches for the reasons for the catastrophe, and for other survivors.

In this case, the survivor, played by Lawrence, may have had something to do with the apocalyptic disaster. He’s a research scientist who’s been working on a top­-secret project called Operation Flashlight, which was supposed to construct an energy grid that would circle the earth. This would allow high-flying planes to refuel without landing.

One sunny morning, Lawrence wakes up, vaguely aware of a slight atmospheric zap. When he goes out, he discovers that at 6:12 that morning, Operation Flashlight was launched. The grid was constructed, but there was a little side effect: every animal on Earth was vaporized. Lawrence finds everything empty: lights are on, engines are running, tables are set – but the people are gone.

He has no idea why he’s still around, but he guiltily guesses it might be some sort of retribution for his part in the destruction. “I’ve been condemned to live,” he mutters.

Lawrence fights off the madness that might come from such solitude. He paints billboards that say, “Am I the only person left on Earth? Please contact me at …. ” He sends out radio messages. He takes comfort in the godlike freedom he has: living in the best houses, drinking the finest champagne, wearing snazzy clothes.

He will, well into the film, meet other survivors; a hip young girl (Alison Routledge) and a Maori – one of the native New Zealanders, comparable to the Indians of the United States – played by Peter Smith.

Obviously, these people each “represent” something, but Murphy doesn’t let them become symbols at the expense of the characters. And he imbues the film with the same kind of weird, sidelong humor that sparked Utu.

Some of the visuals are unforgettable: a huge, shimmering orange sun rising into a red sky in the film’s opening shot; Lawrence playing the saxophone down a deserted, rainy street at night; the final, enigmatic image, where Lawrence strides toward something impossible but nevertheless visible.

This ending is inexplicable. Lawrence has spouted some gobbledygook about the space-time continuum being disrupted, and that may provide a clue. Or not. The ending is curious, but it certainly is beautiful, and it’ll rattle around in your mind for a long time after.

First published in the Herald, November 15, 1985

I just re-watched this one, having carried fond memories of it for years. It’s still effective. This review is probably spoiler-heavy by 2020 standards, although there isn’t much that would be surprising to anybody who likes Last Man on Earth movies. And what an ending! I don’t know why I said the ending was inexplicable, as the film does prepare a couple of distinct possibilities, which fit neatly into the imagery we see. The music, by John Charles, has a big effect on the final sequence as well; it’s a big orchestral piece with distinctly sci-fi moodiness. Lawrence was always an interesting actor, with his boxer’s face and odd sense of vulnerability; Smash Palace is an amazing showcase for him. Funny how times change; I felt the need to explain “Maori,” which I wouldn’t do today.


Plain Clothes

March 26, 2020

plainclothesA teacher staggers into a high­ school classroom, glassy-eyed and mumbling. Nothing too unusual about that, you think, until he falls to his knees, mutters the cryptic phrase “Easy grader,” then falls dead, a knife in his back. The students seize the opportunity for an impromptu recess.

This nutty opening sets the tone for Plain Clothes, which uses a recently popular movie plot – adult returns to high school posing as a student – and finds new, funny material in it. In this instance, the adult is a Seattle cop named Nick Dunbar (Arliss Howard, Cowboy from Full Metal Jacket) whose teen-age brother is accused of the murder; Nick returns to school under the alias Nick Springsteen. “Any relation?” people keep asking him. “Distant,” he says mysteriously.

The uncovering of the plot is the excuse for some utterly pixilated comedy, a mix of rapid-fire offbeat verbal exchanges and daffy character pieces. Nick meets a gallery of suspects, including the sawdust­ covered shop teacher (George Wendt) with the obligatory missing fingers; the semi-hysterical administrator (Diane Ladd) who uses the cast on her arm for different kinds of emphasis; the crazed principal (Robert Stack) whose public address system is his lifeline, and possibly his only connection, to the world.

This movie is stuffed with black­ humored details and bizarre moments (a police SWAT team descends upon a suspect holed up in a kiddie park of elf houses). The sound­ track is full of offscreen asides that recall the layered, did-I-just-hear-­what-I-thought-I-heard gags of a Richard Lester movie. Even the romance is off-kilter, as Nick the student finds himself lusting after a teacher (Suzy Amis).

Up until the time when it has to start paying attention to the matter of sewing up its plot (which doesn’t make much sense, and doesn’t really need to), Plain Clothes establishes the dizziest comic atmosphere of any movie so far this year. Much credit for this goes to director Martha Coolidge, who made the entire film in Seattle and returned recently for some interviews.

While here, she talked about comedy, the form she has found herself in despite her background as a maker of substantial documentaries.

“You have to take comedy seriously,” she says. “It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it’s true. One of the effects of TV is to dilute certain kinds of comedy. TV skits have invaded movie comedy; you can have one great scene, and that’s it. The great comedies in the world have great characters.”

Coolidge’s features, Valley Girl and Real Genius, were notable throwbacks to a more traditional kind of screwball comedy. Valley Girl, for example, may have begun life as a teen exploitation pie, but Coolidge drew out all the hot, Romeo and Juliet romance of the situation, eschewing the usual titillation of the genre. In movies, she said,”Romance and sex are more powerful the more withheld they are.”

Of casting the serious actor Arliss Howard in Plain Clothes, she says, “I always thought of this as Steve McQueen Goes to High School.” She says she wanted the contrast of the crazy things happening to the non-comedic lead, and admits, “I don’t think anybody would have thought of putting Arliss in a comedy except me.”

Her next film will probably be another comedy, but she’s also been working on a military action movie and a TV pilot full of “male bonding and humor. I’m offered a lot of women’s pictures,” she says. “Directors get typecast. A big hit would be very helpful.”

Regardless of how Plain Clothes performs at the box-office, Coolidge is a hot property.

First published in the Herald, April 15, 1988

I interviewed Coolidge a couple of times over the years; the more substantive one came for a Film Comment story about Rambling Rose, her terrific (and weirdly undersung) 1991 film. A smart filmmaker who deserved the “big hit” that might have given her more opportunities (still, an admirable collection of films). 


Physical Evidence

March 25, 2020

physicalevidenceAt a point late in Physical Evidence, public defender Theresa Russell turns to client Burt Reynolds and mutters the hokiest line in a movie full of hokey lines: “How did I ever get mixed up with you?”

Well she might ask. Russell is an actress whose career has been on a steady upward curve, mixing commercial movies (Black Widow) with her husband Nicolas Roeg’s more stylishly esoteric films (lnsignjficance, Track 29). With Physical Evidence, a project that would appear to have a measure of box-office success built into it, Russell steps straight into an unequivocal clunker.

It would be easy to blame this stinker on Burt Reynolds, the once-bright star who’s been jinxed for the last few years. Reynolds’ bad luck seems to be rubbing off on everything be touches. It’s been so terrible lately that he’s even gone back to television to try to revive his career.

However, Reynolds turns out to be the best thing about Physical Evidence. He plays a short-fused Boston cop who’s suspected in the murder of a sleazeball. Russell is the defense attorney who doesn’t quite know whether she should believe him. Does this sound at all like Jagged Edge or Suspect? It should, but only to the extent that this thing almost makes those movies look good.

The case, such as it is, dribbles along in its way to an entirely expected conclusion. Michael Crichton, who directed, is a kind of jack-of-all-trades who occasionally comes up with a dumbly entertaining movie (as with the loopy Tom Selleck sc-fi film Runaway). But Crichton can manage only a morbidly amusing prologue here in which a would-be suicide is distracted by a corpse just before he’s about to jump from a bridge. (The suicide has tied a sign around his neck that says, “Sorry Now?”) But the film is mostly humorless, and exceedingly drab-­looking; Crichton’s idea for a scene topper is to have Theresa Russell flip the bird to the prosecutor (Ned Beatty).

So there is Burt Reynolds, who appears to be attempting an interesting characterization in his first few scenes. He’s got the look and the movements down. His cop is a weary professional, a man of violence whose hair is showing gray and whose stomach is going to fat. Reynolds has a real bead on the guy, but then the movie seems to lose interest in him, and the formula takes over. Nice try, Burt, but the jury is still out.

First published in the Herald, January 28, 1989

Izzat a socko title or what? Physical Evidence is what it’s called, all sexed up and ready to fit into the 80s run of legal thrillers. Crichton did not direct a feature again, but returned successfully to his day job. For the record, Henry Mancini did the music and John Alonzo shot this one.


The Rescue

March 24, 2020

rescue1Even though it’s only a silly action flick, The Rescue feels seriously out of date. If this thing had been released at the height of the 1984 flag-waving frenzy, when fantasy movies about hostage rescues were all the rage, then it might have had a chance.

But Chuck Norris no longer searches for the missing in action, and even Rambo has taken a header this summer. The Rescue is some sort of mid-’80s relic.

And a particularly ludicrously conceived one at that. When a crack American task force is captured on a secret mission off the coast of North Korea, the U.S. government chills a plan to go in and rescue them. As usual in these movies, the government is lily-livered and ineffective. (The unnamed president, we are assured, “would be in there in a minute” if it were up to him, but his hands are tied.)

While the American soldiers are languishing in a prison camp, their children – yes, their children – decide that it’s time to take matters into their own hands. So five spunky offspring steal the secret plans of the North Korean camp. And then they move in.

Audiences have been giggling for months now at this premise, as presented by coming-attractions trailers. (The idea is an echo of Iron Eagle, in which a teen stole a jet to nab his imprisoned father from a Middle Eastern hostage camp.) In full-length form, the concept isn’t much less ridiculous, especially in such moments as the kids putting aside the enormity of invading a hostile Communist country and inviting certain death in order to decide whether they should let a girl go along.

The kids involved are played by Kevin Dillon (Matt’s little brother, also on display this weekend in the remake of The Blob), Christina Harnos, Ned Vaughn, Mare Price and Ian Giatti. They are more-or-less serviceable, fulfilling the usual roles the moody one, the square one, the funny one, etc.

Two things can be said for this movie. One is that the locations are spectacular; ace cameraman Russell Boyd makes the mountains of New Zealand double for Korea.

The other thing is that Ferdinand Fairfax (Nate and Hayes) has directed it about as well as anyone could have, given the material. The script, by Jim Thomas and John Thomas, would be a tough assignment for any director with the slightest sense of the real world, but Fairfax actually puts some zip into a couple of sequences, and in the big prison-breakout scene, really works up a lather. But at that point, nothing can bust this film out.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

From this distance, the idea – kids rescuing their SEAL daddies – doesn’t sound especially strange, but then I’ve been worn down by decades of high concept. I note the participation of director Fairfax, whose Nates and Hayes does have some zip, and who went back into British TV after this for a nice long career (he died in 2008). The screenwriters had just come off the success of Predator.


The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus

March 23, 2020

reincarnationgoldenlotusMovies from Hong Kong have been exciting film festival audiences for the last few years. These films tend to be breathless joy rides through weird mythical/supernatural territory. The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus is no exception; it’s a typically wild outing.

Golden Lotus is even getting off the festival circuit (it was shown at the recent Seattle International Film Festival) and opening for a regular theatrical run. It’s slightly less insane than many of the Hong Kong movies, and even has a feminist undercurrent, courtesy of director Clara Law, a Hong Kong filmmaker by way of the National Film School in London.

It opens with a beautiful woman in ancient China, Golden Lotus (Joi Wong), carrying her severed head to the Gates of Hell, her life having just ended via decapitation. Then the story skips ahead to the 20th century, where Golden Lotus has been reincarnated as a young woman whose beauty keeps inspiring bad things to happen to her. (These sorts of century-leaps are not uncommon in Hong Kong films.)

Eventually she marries a dimwitted fellow who wears ugly floral sport coats, whose chauffeur happens to be the very man who brutally betrayed Golden Lotus years before.

Also, she meets a seductive fashion designer (played by an actor with an incredible name, Sin Lap Man), who engages her in some kinky sex.

The whole thing turns around until she finds herself with a centuries-old case of deja vu. The events that led to her beheading are repeating themselves in modern terms.

Does this sound confusing? It isn’t really, because the movie shoots along quickly enough to cover any murky plot points. Hollywood ought to sign the director up to make Gremlins 3.

First published in the Herald, summer 1990

This review reads as slightly drunk, I’m afraid, and it looks like another piece that might have been shortened for length. The name listed in (I assume) the film’s contemporary publicity as Joi Wong refers to the actress Joey Wang, star of A Chinese Ghost Story; and, although I know it sounds juvenile, I stand by my awe regarding the name Sin Lap Man. Clara Law (and filmmaking partner Eddie Fong) has been working since this film, but I’m sorry to say I know little of her work.