Thanksgiving Pause

November 26, 2020

It’s a holiday in the USA and there’s a Horton home-moving going on over the next couple of weeks, so we pause briefly in posting 80s reviews on this site. Back in December.


Communion

November 25, 2020

In Communion, screenwriter Whitley Strieber (adapting his own best-selling book) tells a story of a man who has an unsettling experience and slowly becomes convinced that he has been visited by extraterrestrials. What gives Strieber’s tale an extra layer of creepiness is that he claims the story is true; and furthermore, that it happened to him.

As the film begins, Strieber (played by Christopher Walken) is suffering from writer’s block and happy to get away with his wife (Lindsay Crouse) and son for a weekend retreat at the family cabin in an isolated woods. But that night, something happens – something that the family only dimly remembers as bright, blinding lights outside their windows. They shrug it off, but something nags at Strieber over the next weeks.

As time passes, and after another cabin trip with more mysterious lights, Strieber seeks the help of a psychiatrist. Through hypnosis, he relives a bizarre experience that suggests he was seized and tampered with by little wrinkled blue creatures and willow white Close Encounters beings.

The film, directed by Philippe Mora, works into this realization gradually. There are some truly unnerving sequences, smartly playing off an audience’s fears of waking up in an isolated house and hearing something that doesn’t sound quite right, or of glimpsing something half-seen behind a door. Mora has Walken and Crouse play a lot of their scenes in an improvisational manner, which adds to the reality of the situation.

Part of the reason the film is as successful as it is has to do with Walken’s performance. Walken creates a guy who is brilliant and neurotic, always edgy. I don’t know how intentional this was, but Walken even conveys the possibility that Strieber is just plain loopy, and was so even before the alleged close encounters.

The film’s problems include the lack of a satisfactory ending (because it’s supposed to be true, the ending hasn’t really been written yet). And bringing little blue aliens to vivid life is probably easier on the page than it is in a movie; a reader can use his imagination, but a movie must show the creatures, which end up looking like something out of a ’50s sci-fi movie.

Despite that, most of the film is effective. If you are impressionable at all about this sort of thing, you may think twice before that next weekend trip.

First published in The Herald, September 17, 1989

The filmography of Philippe Mora is an interesting place, and I don’t pretend to understand it. Howling III speaks for itself, though. The movie’s theme music is composed by Eric Clapton, evidently an old friend of the director. Frances Sternhagen, who had a fun run in the 1980s, co-stars.


A Month in the Country

November 24, 2020

It is the summer of 1919, and a young Londoner named Tom Birkin is trying to throw off the nightmares and the vocal stutter that are his haunted legacy from the Great War. He’s jittery, and recently separated from his wife, but he does have a job for the summer. He’ll be restoring a medieval painting in a small church in a village in Yorkshire.

Birkin, played with careful introspection by Colin Firth, is a character much in need of spiritual rehabilitation, and A Month in the Country provides redemption. But it does so in ways that are subtle and unpredictable, and the movie is without an ounce of fat or a kernel of corn.

The elaborate, Bosch-like religious painting is hidden by a layer of whitewash, and the local vicar (Patrick Malahide) would just as soon keep it that way. “It will distract” from the process of saving souls, he worries. Nevertheless, Birkin is soon at work, sleeping in the belfry at night and delicately brushing away a couple of centuries’ worth of dirt and paint during the day.

It is the film’s understated theme that the more Birkin uncovers the beautiful artwork, the more he uncovers about himself. At the same time, he begins to know the people around him, especially a fellow veteran, Moon (Kenneth Branagh), who is excavating an old basilica on church property. And Birkin is captivated by the reverend’s young wife, Alice (Natasha Richardson), who seems to respond to his interest.

With all the contrary people he meets, Birkin learns there is always something below the surface. The vicar protects a well of frustration with his icy demeanor, Alice suppresses a depth of passion, and Moon adopts a hearty cheeriness to hide his war-related troubles.

Directed by Pat O’Connor (who made the morose Cal) and written by playwright Simon Gray (from a novel by J. L. Carr), A Month in the Country captures the sleepiness of the weather, the people, the countryside. Its message of healing is delivered with considerable discretion. Like Moon and Alice when they say their goodbyes to Birkin, the film is almost embarrassed about showing emotion. Much of the intensity comes from the obliqueness of the feeling.

It’s a small, drowsy movie, but very satisfying. Its humility is as winning as Birkin’s, when he modestly describes his job at the church: “I’m not an artist. I’m just a laborer who cleans up after artists.” The movie performs its own labor gracefully.

First published in The Herald, circa February 1988

O’Connor went on to make some pretty bad movies, and also married Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. This surely would have been the first time I saw Kenneth Branagh in anything, and a year later he would roll into town with Henry V (literally; he traveled to Seattle to promote the picture). I haven’t seen the film since it came out, but it leaves a pleasant vibe behind, and I associate it with another fondly-remembered bucolic British film of the same moment, A Summer Story, with Imogen Stubbs and James Wilby.


My Chauffeur

November 23, 2020

My Chauffeur is a shapeless, out-of-control mess that unaccountably garnered some good notices (and good business) earlier this year. This may be due to the film’s superiority to the usual exploitation fare, and because writer-director David Beaird tips his hat to a few classic screwball comedies form the past.

But, if Beaird lets us know he’s seen some great comedies, he doesn’t give much evidence of having learned any lessons from them.

The story has screwball elements. A dishwasher (Deborah Foreman, who essayed the titular role in Valley Girl) receives a mysterious employment summons from the millionaire owner (E.G. Marshall) of a limousine service. She reports for duty as a driver and sends the other drivers, an all-male enclave of suit-and-tie fuddy-duddies, into extended dithers when she breezes into the place, popping her gum and shaking her tailfeathers.

Her employment seems to be an excuse to have her meet Marshall’s son (Sam Jones), a joyless workaholic who runs Dad’s companies. She’s driving him to Northern California when they blow a gasket and must trek across the desert, accompanied by much chauvinist-feminist banter. After that, they fall madly into bed with each other.

The comic relief comes from Foreman’s other driving jobs, such as the punk musician named Catfight who tackles an overweight woman in a city park because she’s wearing blue, and a nutty sheik who wants a night out on the town.

The episode with the sheik is an excuse to get the hot Broadway magician-comedians Penn & Teller into the film. The sheik (played by Teller – I think) remains silent throughout, as a fast-talking hustler (that would be Penn, then) strips him of his money and provides the good times.

They pick up some party girls and everyone climbs into the back of the limo, which prompts Penn’s immortal line: “Ladies, it’s time for a little gratuitous nudity. You supply the nudity, Abdul supplies the gratuities.”

That, I’m afraid, is the funniest line in the movie, as the rest of the characters bounce helter-skelter among the disconnected scenes.

Particularly unfunny is Foreman’s performance. She’s been encouraged to mug outrageously, as though trying to lift the film up to her own level of energy (in the way that Bill Murray’s fooling can sometimes transform bad movies).

First published in The Herald, March 5, 1986

Looks like a paragraph or two got lopped off the end of this review. I wonder whether I talked about the (if I’m remembering correctly) weird twist ending. Beaird also directed Scorchers. I don’t recall what the positive reviews were all about. Sam Jones was billed without his middle initial here (J.), an important part of the ineffability of being the star of Flash Gordon, I would think.


Death Wish 3/To Live and Die in L.A.

November 20, 2020

Foreigners who know the United States only from its movies must have some funny ideas about us. Take, for instance, some vacation-minded European catching a double-bill of two films that opened on the same day here: To Live and Die in L.A. and Death Wish 3. Any travel plans would be canceled in a second; the Middle East would look like a festive getaway compared to the United States portrayed in these movies.

Both films create worlds that are unrelentingly hellish – a by-now-familiar urban wasteland where punks commit whatever heinous acts strike their fancy, and decent folks don’t have a chance. There’s no other reality in these films; no goodness or tenderness, just squalor, hopelessness, and filth.

Of course, there is one “hero”: Charles Bronson, the gun-toting vigilante in Death Wish 3 (directed by Michael Winner, who also made the first two installments). As usual, the character’s philosophy is succinctly expressed: “With cockroaches, you’ve got to kill them all; otherwise, what’s the point?” (He’s speaking metaphorically, you understand; the cockroaches are intended to represent the denizens of a certain section of New York City.)

When Bronson returns to his old haunts in response to a friend’s call for help, he’s picked up by a cop (Ed Lauter) who recognizes Bronson from the good old days of vigilante justice. Lauter releases Bronson, admitting that Bronson can probably do more good than the police, hamstrung as they are by all those technicalities about fair trials and citizens’ rights.

This means Bronson can go directly into the streets and zotz as many scumbags as he can. He does this for 90 minutes or so, then the movie is over.

To Live and Die in L.A. is a more ambitious effort, and certainly a more interesting one It’s a cop movie with a Miami Vice/MTV feel to it, with lots of neat photography, jumpy editing, and mucho violence.

The plot – about some Secret Service agents (William L. Petersen, John Pankow) going after a ruthless counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe) – is basic shoot-’em-up material. What gives the film its distinctiveness is the moral wasteland it creates. There’s nothing good or remotely noble here, not even a Bronsonesque thirst for vengeance (one of the cops is avowedly looking to avenge the murder of his old partner, but it soon becomes clear he’s in it as much for the kicks).

These agents break the law with casual indifference, they abuse their informers, and eventually they manage to get a fellow agent killed. The movie doesn’t outwardly condone this behavior, but the fast-paced lifestyle does appear attractive, thanks to the snazzy depiction of it (special credit to Robby Muller’s photography and Wang Chung’s music).

Director William Friedkin has created this kind of hellish universe before, in The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer, and Cruising. He gives you his own black view of Los Angeles, which in his hands looks a lot like the urban jungle of Death Wish 3.

Friedkin’s vision is certainly unpleasant, although the movie does grab you now and then. He has a couple of surprises up his sleeve, and there’s a spectacular chase that attempts to outdo the set-piece from The French Connection. But be warned: It’s the sort of film that, despite the superficial treats to be had along the way, ultimately leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

First published in The Herald, November 6, 1985

I know what you’re thinking: Why was I worried about foreigners, when the effect of a movie like Death Wish 3 was obviously more profound on Americans? The U.S. is going through something right now that was surely helped, at least a little, by the attractions of the 80s vigilante picture. Anyway, I realize the Friedkin film has lots of fans, and maybe I would be one of them if I sat down and watched it again. Death Wish 3‘s cast include Marina Sirtis and Alex Winter, both of whom have talked about how much they disliked the experience.


Hanussen

November 19, 2020
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Hanussen marks the completion of a film trilogy, the creation of Hungarian writer-director Istvan Szabo and Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer. Their efforts have been uncommonly successful: The first installment, Mephisto, won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1981; Colonel Redl was nominated in the same category in 1985. Hanussen also picked up a nomination in this year’s category.

Hanussen, like its predecessors, concerns itself with the collapse of democracy in Europe in the early part of this century. It is also taken loosely from fact, basing its central character on an actual clairvoyant who enjoyed a vogue in Berlin during the 1920s and early 1930s.

Brandauer plays this character, who develops his mental powers after suffering a head wound in battle in World War I. Under the care of a psychoanalyst (Erland Josephson), he learns about hypnosis and eventually about his ability to predict the future.

His name’s Schneider, but he changes it to Erik Jan Hanussen, which becomes his stage name. Hanussen displays his powers through Central Europe, then settles in Berlin, the capital of decadence. While he insists on his lack of political interest, Hanussen is showing that people can be manipulated into almost anything – a trick also being practiced by another rising star in Germany, Adolf Hitler.

When Hanussen reluctantly but correctly predicts that Hitler will win the German chancellorship, he thrusts himself into the political scene. Despite his avowed neutrality, he cannot seem to escape Hitler’s shadow, a fate he shares with the rest of Europe.

Hanussen is an interesting movie, though it struck me as a bit dramatically undernourished. Once you get the idea of the parallels between Hanussen and Hitler, there’s not quite enough to carry this unusual character along (an exception is Hanussen’s interlude with a beauty-obsessed filmmaker, a character obviously based on Triumph of the Will director Leni Riefenstahl).

Brandauer, the virtuoso whose best-known English-language role has been as Meryl Streep’s husband in Out of Africa, gives another superb performance. Hanussen’s wolf eyes gleam as he uses his gifts to rise in the world, but Brandauer always bring out the more pathetic elements of his character. Brandauer’s fire keeps the film burning.

First published in The Herald, June 20, 1989

It sounds like a great idea for a movie, and Hanussen’s life story is a strange one. It seems odd that after this film, Brandauer’s career did not continue on its upward trajectory – but who can know about these things. I remember Robert Duvall declaring, after seeing Mephisto, that Brandauer was the only other actor alive who scared him, in the sense of having as much talent as Duvall had. They did The Lightship, directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, together, a big disappointment. My review of Colonel Redl is posted, too.


The Money Pit

November 18, 2020

The Money Pit was scheduled as a Christmas release, and then pulled a few weeks before show time. The studios always put on a good front and say that such a switch occurs merely to avoid market saturation. But usually these about-faces signal big trouble.

This time, however, it looks like the studio was telling the truth (the film was produced by Steven Spielberg’s production company). The Money Pit is a perfectly enjoyable and very commercial lark, about one of those universal human disasters with which everybody can sympathize.

In this case, it’s the purchase of a house that turns out to be a horrific, gigantic, monstrous lemon. From the day that our upscale (and unmarried) protagonists (Tom Hanks and Shelley Long) move into their lovely place in the burbs outside New York City, the house does an inexorable slide into disintegration.

They should’ve known. It was sold to them by an eccentric (Maureen Stapleton) with peach-colored hair who had to sell the place because her husband had just been exposed as Hitler’s poolman.

Within hours, the dream house is exacting a terrible punishment upon the new inhabitants. The door falls in, the stairs collapse, and a panicked raccoon leaps out of the dumbwaiter. When Long turns a water valve, the house emits strange, primeval groans and shrieks as the pipes prepare to give way.

Thus begins the process of repairs, and the parade of sleazy gougers who offer to fix the place up. First it is necessary to destroy the house, which they cheerfully do.

Naturally, the eruption of this chaos puts a strain on our central relationship. And so does the lechery of Long’s vain ex-husband (played by ballet star Alexander Godunov), a conductor, who plies Long with wine and song when Hanks is away on business. You see, the relationship is supposed to be like the house – it falls apart, but the foundation is solid, and it all comes together again.

Okay, fine. Unfortunately, David Giler’s script isn’t strong enough to convince us that the break-up is all that serious. Frankly, the characters are pretty one-dimensional, and the split is a transparent device to goose the happy ending.

Luckily, however, Giler’s situation is so fundamentally funny – and Hanks and Long are so good – the comedy plays very nicely. The disintegrating house has been sure-fire movie material since at least the days of Buster Keaton, and it’s still working.

And in Richard Benjamin, The Money Pit has a director who knows how to exploit the comic potential of the situation. He has a sure sense of how to unload the film’s many punch lines, including the ones that tag the couple of Rube Goldberg set-pieces, in which one disaster leads to another.

I miss the quieter, graceful moments from Benjamin, the kind he found in his directing debut, My Favorite Year. But he had the crowd at the preview I attended laughing louder than any audience I’d sat with in months. That’s usually a good indication that the director has laid a solid foundation.

First published in The Herald, March 27, 1986

I’m really digging up some lame-o reviews now, for surely this movie is not good? David Giler has long been associated with the Alien franchise, and he also scripted Myra Breckinridge, The Parallax View, and Southern Comfort. Gordon Willis photographed this movie.