May 29, 2020

siestaWhen David Lynch’s ultrabizarro Blue Velvet was not only a critical but even a modest commercial success in 1986, it prompted speculation that the studio system might just be willing to gamble on small, quirky, idiosyncratic films.

We’ve seen some fruit of that in such oddball items as Raising Arizona and David Byrne’s True Stories. But nothing quite as strange as Mary Lambert’s first film, Siesta.

It’s based on a novel by Patrice Chaplin, and it’s a sure­-enough American art film. A woman (Ellen Barkin) in a red dress wakes up in a field next to an airport. She walks to a stream, strips and rinses her blood-stained dress, and tries to remember the events of the last few days that have led her to this place.

She gradually remembers: A few days before her airport awakening, she was in the United States with her husband (Martin Sheen) planning a stunt in which she would drop from a plane into a volcano on July 4th; it seems she is a daredevil, a kind of female Evel Knievel called “Claire on a Dare.”

But then she abruptly flew to Spain to see an old lover (Gabriel Byrne), the man who originally taught her the art of the trapeze. He has married a woman (Isabella Rossellini, a talisman from Blue Velvet) from Madrid. Somehow this reunion has caused the violence that resulted in Barkin’s blood-spattered dress.

As Barkin tries to remember these events, she’s hanging out with a tiresome batch of swingers, including an artist (Julian Sands), an English party girl (Jodie Foster, the movie’s only sharp performer), and a gross, omnipresent cabdriver (Alexi Sayle).

Director Lambert is a veteran of music videos (including Madonna’s clever “Material Girl”), and she renders images in pop-shallow bites. The locations are photographed in the bleached light of arthouse self-importance; and the dialogue is constructed and delivered with ponderousness, as when Byrne tells Barkin: “I taught you to fly. You chose to fall.”

But wait: Wasn’t Blue Velvet also self-consciously wacky and avant-garde? Yes, but Blue Velvet was the lucid and commanding work of a true and rare visionary. That’s a far cry from the facile pretensions of Siesta, in which a character’s “How do you do?” is answered with, “I don’t.” Siesta certainly doesn’t.

First published in The Herald, November 1987

I should watch this again, I think. I liked Lambert’s Pet Sematary, mostly, and I remember at least liking the arty tendencies here. There were so many music-video directors breaking into features at this point that it was tempting to dismiss the whole movement. Barkin was coming off The Big Easy and having a moment, well-deserved. She and Byrne married the year after this was released.

Shoot to Kill

May 28, 2020

shoottokillIt’s hard to believe Sidney Poitier hasn’t had a film role in more than 10 years. But consider the pressures on this actor: He was, after all, the standard-bearer, the first black actor to be a full-fledged leading man in Hollywood (and the first black Oscar­ winning best actor, for Lilies of the Field in 1963).

During the ’50s and ’60s, Poitier’s acting choices were limited by the awesome responsibility of his status as barrier-breaker. Like Jackie Robinson, he couldn’t afford to do anything untoward lest it reflect badly not just on himself but on his race. That’s an unfair burden, but someone had to be the first. And it was Poitier. And so he was over-­idealized, made a goody-goody, robbed of much of his onscreen sexual power.

By the time the ’70s rolled around, and everyone was supposedly hipped, Poitier was out. People made fun of his straight-arrow image, and vague intimations of Uncle Tom-ism followed him. He seemed to become more interested in directing than acting anyway, and he went behind the camera.

As a director, Poitier labored hard, but he made some pretty bad movies (Stir Crazy, Hanky Panky). Now he’s come back to the screen, with two movies shot last year: Little Nikita and Shoot to Kill.

Shoot to Kill arrives first, and it’s not a bad comeback vehicle, even if it is an utterly standard action movie. Poitier plays a San Francisco cop who follows a killer up to the Washington forests, where he has to depend on a combative mountain­-man tracker (Tom Berenger, of Platoon) to lead him to the quarry. Meanwhile, the killer’s making a beeline for the Canadian border, with Berenger’s mountain-woman girlfriend (Kirstie Alley) as a hostage-guide.

The pursuit takes the two men through snow, over gorge, up sheer rock. Thus Poitier’s citified ways are played off the rugged setting to produce some fish-out-of-water comedy. It’s formula material, sort of a comedic Deliverance played as a buddy picture.

Too bad; the opening 15-minute sequence promises better. It’s a taut, grabby set piece in which the madman commits the crime that begins the manhunt. Poitier is superb in these early scenes, and the film’s edginess makes you regret the eventual lightening of tone.

Director Roger Spottiswoode has previously done some tasty work, from the hard Central American drama of Under Fire to the small-­town sweetness of The Best of Times. Here he’s out to do a strictly professional job, and he relies on the soaring British Columbia scenery (photographed by Michael Chapman) and the banter of Poitier and Berenger to carry the day. Despite the film’s thinness, it’s easy to take, and perhaps it signals the beginning of a revitalized career for Poitier. It’s very good to have him back. Now isn’t it time to let him play a real nasty?

First published in The Herald, February 16, 1988

Movie did pretty well, b.o.-wise. Spottiswoode was somebody who interested me at the time; he came out of Sam Peckinpah’s editing room, and Under Fire and The Best of Times are both terrific. He’s done some big films (including one Bond picture, Tomorrow Never Dies) and a lot of variety.


Little Nikita

May 27, 2020

littlenikitaWhat if you woke up one morning and found out your parents were Soviet spies?

No, this isn’t the premise of one of those cautionary 1950s public-service documentaries, narrated by Jack Webb. It’s the plot mainspring for a new film, Little Nikita, in which the red menace rears its head in a sleepy suburb of San Diego.

Seventeen-year-old Jeff (River Phoenix, recently seen in A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon) lives an utterly normal existence: He’s an only child, and his parents own a small horticultural establishment. So he’s considerably nonplused when a strange government man (Sidney Poitier) pops up and begins asking bizarre questions. Questions about Jeff’s parents.

Poitier is an FBI man who’s discovered that Jeff’s parents are “sleepers,” KGB agents who set up shop in America and live normally for years until called into action. Jeff, real name Nikita, is torn between his loyalty to his parents and his desire to know the truth about them.

This is a workable premise, but the movie doesn’t know what to do with it. There are sideplots galore, including a nonsensical story about a renegade Soviet agent named Scuba who is killing the other KGB spies. It’s absurd, except that it serves to make the parents somewhat sympathetic.

And that’s where the movie really cheats, because it quickly becomes clear that the parents have had a change of heart, really do like the United States after all, and have no intention of smuggling out atomic secrets. This means we can get to a happy ending without separating the family. Well. Isn’t that convenient?

The script is credited to four writers, including Oscar-winner Bo Goldman, and they’ve hammered dutifully away, trying to make it all fit. That is probably why the film seems to be going in a half-dozen or so directions, and is marked by ludicrous dead ends such as the invention of an absolutely irrelevant love interest for Poitier.

Richard Benjamin’s directorial promise continues to wane, although his last couple of projects have had serious script problems. But, like The Money Pit (his most recent film), Little Nikita is about as well­-directed as it could be, considering. At least Benjamin gets professional work from Phoenix and Poitier.

Little Nikita was actually filmed before Poitier’s “comeback” movie, Shoot To Kill, but was understandably delayed. With Shoot To Kill nestled among the top five money­makers for the past few weeks, Poitier is probably happy about how that one came out.

First published in The Herald, March 28, 1988

Richard Jenkins and Caroline Kava play River Phoenix’s parents, and Richard Bradford a Soviet spy. Lucy Deakins, from The Boy Who Could Fly, also turns up. Poitier had been off the screen for a decade, so his return really was something to note – too bad it went down this way.


May 26, 2020

paperhousePaperhouse is a fascinating film that takes place primarily inside the mind of a young girl. This would automatically give it unusual status, but the film is a good deal better than merely unusual. It’s genuinely original.

The little girl in question is Anna (Charlotte Burke), who takes ill one day and is confined to bed. In her sketchpad, she has drawn a house on a grassy hill, surrounded by some strange standing stones. In her dreams that night, she seems to visit the site of this invented house.

In her waking state, Anna draws more details into the picture. Then, when she visits the house in her dreams, she finds these touches present and palpable. She adds the figure of a little boy (Elliott Spiers) inside the house, but she has drawn only the upper half of him behind a window, and when she arrives in the dream world, she finds he cannot walk.

Anna gradually becomes convinced that the little boy in her dreams has a counterpart in real life; he’s a sickly patient described to her by her doctor. Anna feels that by her drawings, she has the power to keep him alive or allow him to die.

It’s a weird premise, adapted by screenwriter Matthew Jacobs from Catherine Storrs’ novel Marianne Dreams. The little girl is clearly playing out her own anxieties and worries in her paper dream, including her testy relationship with her mother (Glenne Headly) and her ambivalent feelings about her father (Ben Cross), who is always away on business.

Eventually the movie erupts into some frightening, very disturbing imagery when Anna draws her father into her picture. Paperhouse taps into childhood fantasy and fears in ways that are reminiscent of the 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter, to say nothing of the unnerving, violent stories of the brothers Grimm.

The scenes of Anna’s family life are ordinary enough, but the dream sequences have an unreal, fairytale quality. The director, Bernard Rose, is making his first feature here, and his experience making music videos may account for his keen eye at capturing the surrealistic, highly stylized world of Anna’s dreams. It is one of the most vividly created worlds seen in a movie this year.

First published in The Herald, February 1989

I wish this review were better, because Paperhouse is a remarkable film – but at least I communicated that much. Rose had a hard time getting on track as a filmmaker; his next movie was the disastrous Chicago Joe and the Showgirl, then the classic horror picture Candyman, then the interesting Gary Oldman Beethoven film Immortal Beloved. The people who know this film apppreciate it – you know who you are.


May 25, 2020

gloryGlory recounts the true story of a stirring chapter in American history, that of the 54th Masachusetts volunteer infantry, one of America’s earliest black regiments. Formed in 1863 while the Civil War was ablaze, the unit was trained and led by a 25-year-old white colonel, Robert Gould Shaw.

Shaw’s men might have been used for merely symbolic value, but they insisted on combat duty, and performed heroically in a battle that, as the film duly notes, was ultimately quite futile. It is an intriguing American story, and the film, written by Kevin Jarre and directed by Edward Zwick, tells it with even-handedness and dignity.

Glory shifts between telling of the inner turmoil of Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick) and the development of the volunteers, who include a wry old-timer (Morgan Freeman), a friendly, stuttering Southerner (Jihmi Kennedy) and a fiery ex­-slave (Denzel Washington).

Shaw ought to be an interesting character, and he left lyrical letters that record his state of mind during the war months (some are read during the film). Yet he is the movie’s weak spot, a nebuloµs character who comes off as rather simple.

As an actor, Broderick looks right – he has the drooping eyes and mustache of a Matthew Brady photograph – but he can’t bring his own complexity to the role, and the movie drifts a bit, lacking a center.

Aside from that, and the embarrassing overstatement of James Horner’s music, Glory goes about the job of telling its story. The most remarkable thing about this is that the film makes the prospect of battle seem honorable, even desirable.

Now, it would probably be impossible for a movie to ever again depict war as unambiguously heroic. We’ve all become too jaundiced for that. And Glory duly notes the horror of war, in its opening sequence of Shaw’s disturbing experience at Antietam and in its portrayal of brutal, insane hand-to-hand fighting. But the fact is that black soldiers had something to prove by getting into the fight; much of white America believed that blacks wouid lack the courage to last in battle. The 54th smashed those beliefs.

Director Zwick’s previous feature was About Last Night … and he is one of the creators and guiding forces behind thirtysomething. Glory is therefore an unanticipated career move, and for the most part an admirable and welcome one, if not quite glorious.

First published in The Herald, January 12, 1990

Safe to say the film is considered something of a classic today, and it won three Oscars – for Washington, sound, and Freddie Francis’s cinematography. How naive of me to believe that nobody would make films that depict war as unambiguously heroic, but this was 30 years ago. Happy Memorial Day, anyway.

The Package

May 22, 2020

packageAs far as spy-movie footage goes, ABC-TV’s recent Nightly News “re-creation” of Felix Bloch’s escapades was slightly more convincing than The Package. But both cover familiar ground.

The Package, however, doesn’t pretend to be anything but fiction. It’s about an Army sergeant (Gene Hackman) who’s assigned to escort a troublesome soldier (Tommy Lee Jones) from Europe to the United States. When the “package,” as Jones is called, slips out of Hackman’s grasp, Hackman begins to sense an elaborate plot focusing on an upcoming U.S.-Soviet summit in Chicago.

The film, directed by Andrew (Above the Law) Davis, trots along at a competent pace. It has a few interesting threads that were either never developed or dropped on the cutting-room floor, such as Hackman’s bantering, loving relationship with his ex-wife (Joanna Cassidy). Perhaps the most intriguing of these threads is the pairing of Hackman and his package; Tommy Lee Jones has an offbeat, mysterious playfulness that jibes well with Hackman’s simple, blunt Army lifer. But they spend too little time together.

There’s also an Oliver North figure, played by John Heard, and a standard issue Chicago cop (Dennis Franz) who helps Hackman circum­vent official channels. But the different elements of The Package don’t come together, and its attempt at conjuring a sense of governmental paranoia seems tame compared to reality.

Hackman contributes a nice character study. He’s one of the few actors who can play simple characters without playing down to them, and that’s exactly what he’s up to here.

Hackman was in Seattle recently (he’s shooting a movie in Vancouver, British Columbia), and he spoke about his acting method. “Usually things that look effortless have a lot of hard work behind them,” he said, referring to his non-showy style. “I don’t take any of it very casually.”

Hackman described his early stirrings toward acting; walking out of a movie in his hometown of Danville, Ohio, he was stunned to catch his reflection in a mirror and not see Errol Flynn.

“I realized then that I was so involved with the character in the theater that I had really transferred myself into that. At that moment, I think I really decided that I would like to do this. I think I could do this.” After a stint in the Marines and some knocking around New York, he did it. Hackman has worked a lot in both leading and supporting roles, in the last couple of years. “I would do almost anything as an actor, if it was offered to me. I like to work. There are people out there who have some kind of parameters about how much work you should do. I don’t know who those people are. Let them talk to my ex-wife’s lawyers.”

First published in The Herald, August 1989

Hackman was working a lot in those days (oh, those lawyers), and I assume the Vancouver movie he was shooting was the Narrow Margin remake. This movie was a stiff, but Andrew Davis’s next two films were Under Siege and The Fugitive (both with Tommy Lee Jones, of course). Jones had Lonesome Dove come out the same year as The Package, and he was about to break through into the meat of his career. I had forgotten the Felix Bloch affair, but it was a spy case that got into the headlines at the time.



May 21, 2020

mischiefThere’s nothing new about the situations essayed in Michief: You have your basic high-school high jinks, 1950s vintage, in a small Ohio town.

You have the class virgin. You have the class beauty. You have the perfect couple. And, just when everything seems hunky-dory, you get the class outsider – the kid from the big city who wheels in on a motorcycle.

Nothing fresh there, but the makers of Mischief have taken those elements and fashioned something – well, if not exactly world-beating, then at least rather nice. They’ve succeeded in this despite a screenplay that seems terribly undernourished in inspiration.

That’s funny, because screenwriter Noel Black (he’s also executive producer) directed a very interesting movie called Pretty Poison once upon a time. But Black’s script, which recalls his days as an Ohio youth, resorts to some disappointingly standard adolescent crises.

This is salvaged somewhat by director Mel Damski (he used to direct for Lou Grant), who has a feeling for the atmosphere of the small town – in this case, Nelsonville, Ohio. He also captures a few moments that have truth about them: a guy playing a solitary game of basketball on a slow spring day, or a very evocative malt-shop dance, with some swaying bodies seen from outside a window through the rain, that hits absolutely the right note.

The main attraction of Mischief is its cast of up-and-comers. Doug McKeon, the kid from On Golden Pond, is likable as the youth desperate for deflowering; Catherine Mary Stewart, who cut a very fine figure indeed in Night of the Comet, is half of the perfect couple (the other half, a bully preppy, is played with precision by D. W. Brown); Kelly Preston is very believable as McKeon’s object of desire; and Chris Nash makes an impressive debut as the bike-riding loner.

Stewart, Preston, and Nash were in town recently to promote the film, and they were enthusiastic about the project, which had been a long time in being realized. It had gone through various directors and name changes (Heart and Soul, one of the many ‘50s tunes that dot the soundtrack, was the original title). Nash insists that he must have been involved in the project “for like eight years” before it came time to actually shoot the film.

Once on location, however, things were just swell among the cast members, who rave about the good spirits (and occasional under-water kung-fu bouts) in Nelsonville. In fact, the town barely needed refurbishing to give it that ‘50s look: “It almost looked too precious” at first, says Stewart, “they just made it a little more colorful.” Nash paid it the ultimate movie person’s compliment: When they first got to town, “It looked just like the backlot of 20th Century Fox.” An odd observation, perhaps, until you remember that what we know of small-town values and feelings has come in large part from the movies.

Mischief can’t quite sustain that brand of backlot, small-town charm, and one too many jokes are stale. It works up some good feeling, but, as with the recent Flamingo Kid, the pleasant company can’t quite disguise the fact that we’ve seen all this sort of thing before.

First published in The Herald, February 1985

You’d think this movie would be a little better known, if only for the saucy presence of Kelly Preston, John Travolta’s wife. I left Jami Gertz and Terry O’Quinn out of the cast list. I remember meeting this trio in the lobby/bar of a Seattle hotel (I can picture it, but can’t actually remember which one), and thinking how these Hollywood people certainly were capable of being attractive.