Prick Up Your Ears

September 30, 2020

The facts of Joe Orton’s life are short but hardly sweet: a rough English working-class background, years of sexual promiscuity, sudden fame as a playwright, and violent death in 1967 at the hands of his longtime lover, Kenneth Halliwell, at the age of 34.

This provocative life has spawned a film, Prick Up Your Ears, that is entirely entertaining, cutting, and irreverent. Orton’s death may be a tragic and awful fact; but the film’s explication of the steps leading to it has the kind of biting wit that the writer himself might have savored.

The film is based on John Lahr’s biography, and Lahr is also a character in the film (played by Wallace Shawn) who leads us into a recounting of Orton’s life. Screenwriter Alan Bennett, one of Britain’s best, has structured the movie as a series of building blocks that are piled in non-chronological order, so that we skip around throughout Orton’s life.

This produces a portrait along the lines of the clipped ­photo collages that the frustrated actor/writer/artist Halliwell pastes all over the walls of the flat the two men share. The film draws their touchy friendship carefully: At first Orton is student to the smart, worldly Halliwell, but at the end, Orton is the rich and famous one who won’t take Halliwell to an important awards ceremony (Loot was named best play of 1966).

The director, Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette), finds the universality in this. The movie is at least partly about what happens to a relationship when one partner abruptly pulls ahead of the other; thus Halliwell suddenly becomes the long-suffering, unfulfilled wife.

Frears directs with complete confidence; the movie jumps and glides from one sharply realized situation to another. He’s superb at fashioning individual scenes, such as the one in which a spat between the boys is interrupted by a phone call from Paul McCartney (Orton wrote a never-produced script that was to be a movie for The Beatles), which produces much dithering in preparation for an imminent visit from the mop-top.

And Frears knows how to let dialogue gather subtle meanings. Orton’s awards speech includes the rakish line, “I’ve got away with it so far,” which may produce shiver in the audience; we already know he’ll be dead within a few months.

Vanessa Redgrave plays Orton’s agent and Julie Walters contributes a zany cameo as Orton’s unlamented mother. But the film rests with the two excellent performances of Gary Oldman as Orton and Alfred Molina as Halliwell.

Molina, who previously appeared as the bearlike Russian in Letter to Brezhnev, is adept at suggesting the hurt beneath Halliwell’s sardonicism. In fact, it’s a much more sympathetic role than Orton, who remains a cool figure.

Oldman brilliantly captures the sense of Orton as an amoralist who always seems detached, even during his own experiences. It’s the opposite of Oldman’s performance as Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy where he was an entirely reactive animal with little self-awareness. Oldman – the kind of actor whose face you have trouble remembering after you’ve left the theater – has an interesting career in front of him. Even if he keeps playing real-life characters who get killed off in the last reel.

First published in The Herald, June 14, 1987

Good movie, another notch in Oldman’s belt as brilliant-young-next-Olivier. Would like to read that Beatles script sometime – surely it’s out there.


Steel Magnolias

September 29, 2020

You might as well surrender now: Steel Magnolias will be playing well into 1990, and audiences will probably be repeating its eminently quotable dialogue even longer than that. Not without reason; while it’s no great cinematic advancement, this is a shrewd and enjoyable movie, a pleasantly wrapped package just in time for Christmas.

It’s based on a popular off-Broadway play by Robert Harling, who also adapted the screenplay. Harling chronicles the lives of a group of women in a small Southem town, who hang together during a spell of ups and downs.

The heart of the story is in the mother-daughter relationship between a young bride (Julia Roberts, the beauty from Mystic Pizza) and her protective mom (Sally Field). Roberts, a diabetic, desperately wants to have a child, despite the fact that it may endanger her health, and she becomes pregnant over her mother’s objections.

The support group of friends includes the town hairdresser (Dolly Parton) for whom every rinse ‘n’ curl is the pretext for a confab; her newest employee (Daryl Hannah), a woman with a checkered past who finds Jesus, much to everybody’s exasperation; a tart-tongued widow (Olympia Dukakis); and the town crank (Shirley MacLaine, in scruffy makeup and baggy clothes), who rightly observes, “The only reason people are nice to me is that I have more money than God.”

This sixsome travels through some sure-fire dramatic territory, including a wedding, childbirth, and the death of one of the major characters. The script is full of zingers, doled out evenly; but Dukakis sums it up when she sighs, “If you can’t say anything nice about anybody, come sit by me.”

The movie revels in the joys of gossip. And these six actresses revel in the juicy roles they have. The script’s crackerbarrel gems have encouraged the ladies to deliver broad, Southern-fried performances, and they are pretty much a delight. These are pros who know how to put this sort of thing over. The exception to this florid playing is Sally Field; she’s giving a quietly intense performance, grounded in reality and a certain gravity. It’s her best, most mature work.

The men? They don’t count much. Tom Skerritt is amiable as Field’s husband. The most intriguing casting proposes that that delightful force of nature, Dolly Parton, would somehow be married to gloomy playwright Sam Shepard. That’s interesting, but the film only touches on the possibilities (the pairing calls for a whole movie itself, but one with considerably more depth than Steel Magnolias bothers with).

It’s all directed by Herbert Ross with his usual vanilla touch: smooth and bland. Occasionally, especially with Field’s character, the film cuts a bit deeper, but this is basically an exercise in fun. Look for Field and MacLaine – at least – to figure in next year’s Oscar nominations, and for Steel Magnolias to ring up some serious money before this season passes.

First published in The Herald, November 19, 1989

I’m usually better at Oscar predictions; it should have been easy to see that Julia Roberts would get the film’s sole nomination. The movie was big and beloved. I continue to be intrigued by the Parton-Shepard pairing, and wish Jonathan Demme had made a serious-funny movie out of that.


Maria’s Lovers

September 28, 2020

Maria’s Lovers is a weird jumble of a movie, with odds and ends sticking out every which way. Some of it is interesting, some of it is terrible, and all of it is great to look at.

I assume it’s great to look at because of the stunning pictorial eye of Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky, whose main claim to fame is the Russian epic, Siberiade. This is Konchalovsky’s first American effort and he and his cinematographer, Juan Ruiz Anchia, capture sharp landscapes and dark, moody interiors. Visually, the film is always attention-getting.

However, once you get past the surface, there are problems. Like the story, for instance, which leans so heavily on symbolism that it never establishes an independent life of its own. It’s a movie full of ideas that don’t quite take flight.

It begins with clips from John Huston’s World War II documentary, Let There Be Light, in which psychologically disturbed Army veterans are interviewed. Spliced in is a clip of the protagonist of Maria’s Lovers, Ivan (John Savage). The next thing we see is his return to his small home town where he greets his father (Robert Mitchum), a good-time gal (Anita Morris) and his childhood sweetheart (Nastassja Kinski), who has taken up with an officer (Vincent Spano).

Savage survived a horrible prisoner-of-war ordeal by concentrating his thoughts on Kinski and fantasizing about her. When he wins her back, however, he discovers a funny thing: He cannot respond sexually to her. Their relationship starts to collapse, just as a traveling minstrel (Keith Carradine, playing a guy named Clarence Butts, “no ifs, ands, ors”) arrives on the scene to declare his love – or at least his lust – for Kinski.

Much of the action revolves around the various beds in the film, and there’s a good bit of angst-ridden heavy breathing. And, for people who like their symbolism bald, there’s this chair on top of a hill that’s supposed to represent the innocent love of Kinski and Savage. There’s also a meaningful rat that scurries through Savage’s dreams. (This actor was tormented by rats in The Deer Hunter, too.)

However, once he eats the rat, he’s cured. I think.

That’s pretty strange. Stranger still is the way the movie picks up and leaves off its characters. Robert Mitchum seems on his way to giving a very intriguing performance when he basically disappears from the movie. And there are some characters who enter near the end of the film, played by good people such as Bud Cort and Tracy Nelson, whose purpose is enigmatic.

So, a lot of Maria’s Lovers comes off as stilted. But even at its worst, it’s often perversely fascinating to watch. The culture mix that gives the film its patchwork personality is the same mix that provides its interest. But that kind of sympathy for the film probably will be felt by a minority of viewers.

First published in The Herald, February 27, 1985

That last sentence – it is a sentence, isn’t it? – is a puzzle I can’t excuse. I don’t remember much about the film, but I recall reading that Konchalovsky had to show John Savage how to express the proper amount of ardor in a scene with Nastassja Kinski. The cast also includes John Goodman and Karen Young. Konchalovsky must have had an interesting life – brother of Nikita Mikhalkov, classmate and collaborator to Tarkovsky, director of Runaway Train and (oh yeah) Tango & Cash, married five times. He’s still working. This movie was produced by Cannon Films.


Au revoir, les enfants

September 23, 2020

In 1944, the 11-year-old Louis Malle was at a Catholic boarding school in the French countryside. It was a year that would change his life. A new student arrived at the school, a brilliant, exotic boy, with whom Malle struck up a prickly friendship. Some months later, the new boy was taken away by German soldiers during a search for hidden Jewish children.

Malle has said of this experience, “I should have made it the subject of my first film.” Many artists do begin their careers with a remembrance of a decisive adolescent experience. Instead, Malle kept this memory buried in his heart for more than 40 years. Thus, Au revoir, les enfants, doesn’t have the anger or fire of a young filmmaker. It has, instead, the wisdom and melancholy of a lifetime’s reflection.

Malle’s story is told in fictional terms, but it retains that unmistakable quality of truth. His own self-portrait, Julien Quentin, is a bratty, spoiled child, a handful. When he tells one of the priests that he is thinking of joining the priesthood, the father gently suggests that, “I don’t think you’re quite suited to it.”

One winter’s day, the new boy, Jean Bonnet, arrives. A superb student, Bonnet is reserved and mysterious. By observing such clues as the candles under Bonnet’s pillow and the different name in some of his schoolbooks, Julien realizes that Bonnet has something to hide, and is in danger.

One of the things I like so much about this movie is that the friendship that develops between these two kids isn’t conventional or sappy. At first, they don’t even like each other, and they only come to a guarded closeness by sharing a few experiences: staying in the school building during the unnerving stillness of an air raid, getting lost in the forest during a war game, reading the spicy sections of The Arabian Nights.

The two actors who play these boys must be added to the recent list of wonderful juvenile performers: Gaspard Manesse, who plays Julien, and Raphael Fejto, who plays Jean. With that naturalism that seems to come so effortlessly to children, these two actors perfectly portray the confusion of their age, amid the unfair cruelty of their times.

In summoning up their experiences, these exact childhood memories, Malle has made perhaps his best film. After his success in the French New Wave years, Malle came to America to make movies (and to marry Candice Bergen). He’s blown hot and cold over these years: With excellent screenplays to work with, he made a couple of the better American films of the time, Atlantic City and My Dinner With Andre, but he followed up with the flops Alamo Bay and Crackers. The return to his homeland seems to have done wonders.

In some ways, Au Revoir, les enfants remains a small film. Malle never reaches for any sort of artificially heightened statements, or fervent anti-war attitudes. His feelings and themes simply emerge from the characters and their situation, which makes the final, tragic moments so soul-shaking.

First published in The Herald, February 1988

Neither of the two leads did much acting after this film. Malle got an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, and the movie was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film; the latter category had a surprise winner, Babette’s Feast, which is hard to argue with.


Fool for Love

September 22, 2020

The American landscape of Sam Shepard’s plays finds perhaps its purest expression in Fool for Love, which is set entirely in a dingy motel room located on the fiery edge of the Mojave Desert.

The film version, directed by Robert Altman, expands the action to include the whole rundown motel grounds (and a few flashbacks), but it’s still essentially Shepard turf: a small, stifling hothouse off the highway to nowhere.

The physical setting of the collapsing motel (created by production designer Stephen Altman and cinematographer Pierre Mignot) is crucial, because it perfectly epitomizes the dead-end emotional world of Shepard’s characters. The people of Fool for Love are locked into inexorable patterns they’d like to escape but are destined to recycle.

May (Kim Basinger) is discovered at the motel by Eddie (Shepard); she’s been hiding out there since abandoning him when he dallied with a rich woman while doing some cowboy stunt-riding in Hollywood. Eddie confronts her to try to rekindle their relationship.

It’s a relationship that has clearly existed for a long time. Eddie tells May, “We’ll always be connected – that happened a long time ago,” a statement we won’t fully understand until late in the film. Their demonic attraction is captured in the moment when May calls Eddie over for a big kiss, then knees him hard in the groin.

They know all of each other’s moves, and the bickering brutalizing and bullying they do during the film has a ritualized quality. There’s no way they can stay together, but in some mysterious way, they belong to each other. (The songs on the soundtrack, written and sung by Shepard’s sister, Sandy Rogers, superbly catch this mystery.)

There is an old man who hangs around the motel and plays an important role later; he’s invested with the sorry depth that only Harry Dean Stanton can convey. Stanton looks as though he can hardly bear living, having survived all the things he’s seen in the world. Late in the film arrives May’s square date for the evening (perfectly played by Randy Quaid, late of Saturday Night Live), who watches in astonishment as the final scenes of the drama play out.

Shepard, through his writing (he expanded the screenplay himself) and his remarkably offbeat acting, obviously knows these characters all too well. His performance is exactly the opposite of a big, intense, stagey interpretation; he plays Eddie with small, furtive touches of violence and crazy humor.

Kim Basinger is his equal, and her performance works on two levels: in the volatility of May’s edgy, naked emotionalism, and in the relish of Basinger’s big shot at dramatic credibility (she’s an ex-model and former James Bond girl). She succeeds at both.

Altman’s direction is at first odd: He eschews the seemingly natural long-take approach (turn the cameras on and let the actors tear the place up) in favor of a more fragmented visual scheme. This approach scatters some of the play’s dynamics.

But Altman does catch the script’s perverse flashes of humor. In the production notes, he concludes his analysis of the play by saying, “It’s funny as hell, because that’s probably where it takes place.” He’s got that, and a lot of other things about Fool for Love, right.

First published in The Herald, March 13, 1986

I recall hearing that Altman was very focused on the idea of having the writer of a movie also play the main role, as a kind of experiment. They did not get along, in the event. Jessica Lange was going to play May, but got pregnant before shooting. I had forgotten Randy Quaid was SNL-involved. Huh.


Cloak & Dagger

September 21, 2020

Cloak & Dagger reworks the Boy Who Cried Wolf story, but with a modern-day computer angle. In this case, little Davey Osborn is a video­ game buff; his favorite is one calied Cloak & Dagger. When he plays, he invents a fantasy world, including the spy hero of C&D, Captain Jack Flack. 

Davey’s imagination doesn’t turn off when he leaves the keyboard, however. He’s liable to consult Jack Flack about the intricate methods of retrieving a pack of Twinkies from the local junk-food outlet.

One day, while prowling around an office building with his companion in espionage (an 8-year-old girl named Kim), Davey walks smack dab into the middle of intrigue, murder and a secret super-valuable message encoded on a video cassette handed to him by a dying man falling down a stairwell.

Whew. Heady stuff for a little guy not yet out of grade school. Davey hightails it to the authorities and to his father, but nobody believes him. The spies, of course, will do anything to get that casette back.

We’ve got the makings of a good story here. It’s based, very loosely, on a crackerjack 1949 thriller called The Window, although not much is borrowed from that film. (This new film is no relation to the 1946 Gary Cooper movie titled Cloak and Dagger.)

The movie’s true influence comes from Alfred Hitchcock, who so frequently used the situation of the innocent man swept into danger. There are many Hitchcock elements here, including a suspense scene in a national landmark. Hitchcock used Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty, among others; here, it’s the Alamo. There’s a race to head off a ticking bomb, a nicely handled chase across the canals of San Antonio, and a kindly old couple who have the suspicious habit of always being in the right place at the right time.

The director is Australian Richard Franklin, who did time work last year with the unenviable task of making the sequel to Hitchcock’s classic, Psycho. His Psycho II showed respect for the master but a healthy sense of humor, too.

Those attributes show up in Cloak & Dagger, and it’s charming entertainment; but when Franklin invites comparison to Hitchcock, he’s bound to fall short. He does, in a lot of places, most notably in the film’s major theme, which involves the boy and his father establishing a friendship, through the adventure. It’s sweet, but a trifle obvious.

However, Henry Thomas, who was in E.T., carries the film easily. And Dabney Coleman, TV’s delightfully despicable Buffalo Bill, is fine as both the rakish Jack Flack and as Davey’s ineffectual father. In particular, Coleman invests Flack with an off-center, amoral humor that bounces well against the earnest hero.

One of the keys to enjoying the film is the immediate identification with the hero. Let’s face it, every 12-year-old has fantasized about a dangerous adventure like this. That feeling is captured. Despite its eventual shortcomings, Cloak & Dagger should please 12-year-olds of all ages.

First published in The Herald, August 9, 1984

Good of me to assure all those readers who might wonder about this film’s possible relation to an old Fritz Lang picture. Well, it was a different time. I failed to mention that the older couple is played by Jeanette Nolan and John McIntire, the married-in-real-life acting duo who also appeared in Psycho.


Miracles

September 18, 2020

After a few minutes of Miracles, you sit there and think to yourself, “Well, if anything can make this bearable, it’s Tom Conti.” Conti, the agile British stage actor who was so dexterously funny in Reuben, Reuben, has such a sure touch that he should be able to bring life to anything.

Anything but Miracles, anyway, which would require considerable divine intervention to be made remotely enjoyable.

Turns out, when Conti appears in the film, that he has been forced to adopt a flat American accent and play a boor, which he does much too effectively. With that, hope for the film fades, and the remaining 85 minutes supply ample opportunities for squirming.

The plot itself is a workable screwball premise, in which Conti and his ex-wife (Teri Garr) are thrown together by a series of incredible coincidences. They’re kidnapped by a bank robber (Paul Rodriguez) and spirited away in a small plane by the robber’s partner (Christopher Lloyd).

The hijackers then exit the plane, leaving Conti and Garr to land it themselves. Which they do, in Nowhere, Mexico, where they land in a backwater jail.

And on and on. The idea of the movie is that every little action causes an equal reaction, and what goes around comes around – so that, among other things, Conti and Garr will be inevitably drawn together.

That’s an okay idea, but the execution is so bungled it doesn’t matter. The script tries for complexity in the same way that last year’s Secret Admirer did – a film from the same filmmaking team that did Miracles, Jim Kouf and David Greenwalt.

But Greenwald directed Secret Admirer, which was a neat little teen comedy about the complicated relationships around a love letter. Kouf wrote and directed Miracles (Greenwalt was executive producer only), and he mangles every comic opportunity; as a director, he lacks timing, comic attitude, and an adequate eye.

The actors are the worst off in a situation such as this. Audiences may think Conti a completely charmless fellow based on this movie, which is a false conclusion. Garr does her usual thing, which gets pretty whiney under the hysterical circumstances.

Miracles has been sitting on a shelf for at least a year, for obvious reasons. That it is released at all is more a matter of scheduling, of filling up some screens in the pause before the back-to-school autumn releases are out, than of a belated recognition of merit.

First published in The Herald, July 1986

 I think I saw Conti onstage in London the year before this, in a standard-fare farce that he completely owned. He did not become a movie star, but he did a few nice things along the way, and it was pleasant to see him pop up in Paddington 2. This film was shot by Kubrick chap John Alcott.