One Crazy Summer

February 26, 2021

A madly coiffured punk leaps into the sea; when he emerges, three fish are impaled on the pink spikes of his hair.

A man hands his high-flying kite to a child on the beach; immediately the tot is lifted up and carried away. “Sorry,” says the man.

Two taunting little girls make ugly faces. “You better stop doing that,” they’re told, “or somebody is going to startle you and your faces will stay that way.” Somebody does. The faces stay.

These outrageous sight gags are indicative of the bizarre comedy of One Crazy Summer, the new film from writer-director Savage Steve Holland, who displayed similarly surrealistic tendencies in his debut feature, Better Off Dead.

Savage Steve has teamed again with the star of Better Off Dead, John Cusack (who was so good in The Sure Thing). This time Cusack plays an aspiring cartoonist, just graduated form high school, who spends the summer at a friend’s house on Nantucket. (Animated sequences, Cusack’s reaction to his wild summer, punctuate the film.)

Naturally, a lot of screwy things happen. Cusack befriends a folk singer (Demi Moore, lately impressive in About Last Night…) who stands to inherit a house on the island – except that the inheritance is jeopardized by the bad guys, who want to take the house and construct a sprawling, environmentally offensive condo village on the property.

Cusack and his pals can’t let that happen, and somehow it transpires that an annual boat race will let them win the house back for Moore. It’s all too convenient and completely unbelievable, but Savage Steve doesn’t seem to care.

Believability ranks low on Holland’s list of cinematic necessities. He comes from the world of animation, where physical improbabilities are the norm. Holland tries to apply cartoon logic to his live performers, and this has the strange effect of cutting a scene dead. When Cusack and Moore have a tender scene on the beach, Holland caps it by revealing that Cusack has become stuck to his kneecaps in the sand.

In and of itself, that’s not a bad joke, but according to the scene we’ve just watched, it’s physically impossible. That breaks an audience’s involvement with the characters.

Despite the stop-and-go nature of the comedy, I found myself liking this film. While the gags frequently fall flat, there’s an off-kilter likability that prevails.

Cusack has a good reactive deadpan, used well here, since most of the other actors are whooping it up. One of them is the deranged stand-up comedian, Bobcat Goldthwait, who screams and contorts and dresses up in a Godzilla suit. This allows him one poetic moment, when he tramples the small-scale model of the proposed condo village, and lives out a scene from every Japanese horror movie of the last few decades.

First published in The Herald, August 1986

Holland has maintained a long career, mostly in television. I guess I must have liked this a little better than Better Off Dead, but overall it apparently isn’t my kind of thing. The cast includes Curtis Armstrong, Joel Murray, Tom Villard, Joe Flaherty, and Jeremy Piven, in his first year of movie acting. I have to say, the joke about the sand sounds like an homage to Un Chien Andalou. All that ingenuity and effort to create the gags, and yet the title is leaden. The poster for this film, with a devilish sun, was really odd. It just occurred to me that Goldthwait’s film God Bless America stars Joel Murray, so maybe One Crazy Summer spawned something good. Also, this is the movie where Cusack’s character is named Hoops McCann, after the Steely Dan song “Glamour Profession.”

Oh God! You Devil

February 25, 2021

It was fun to see George Burns playing God (back in the original Oh God!), puttering around in his funny hats and tennis shoes. The beautiful bit of casting worked because of the very incongruity of Burns as the Almighty. It may have been a one-joke situation, but the joke was a good one.

Oh God! You Devil is the terrible title of the third installment of the God chronicles. Even for His creators – for the writers and directors of these films – the joke was starting to get a bit thin.

So here’s the new gimmick: This time, George Burns essays a double role. He’s both God and the devil, and the two do battle over the soul of a poor unfortunate here on Earth.

That’s not a bad angle, and it might have worked, had Burns been allowed to cut loose a little. Instead, most of the screen time is taken up by the mere mortal, a singer-songwriter (Ted Wass) whose marriage is happy but whose career has yet to ignite. Wass, in a weak moment, mumbles something about selling his soul to the devil, and the evil one is on the scene in no time.

This is Burns, dressed in natty red blazers and pink-tinted glasses. He’s also waving around his inevitable cigars. “I love smoke,” he says. Yes.

Burns gets the expected comic mileage out of this, but then we have to watch Wass become a rock star. For what seems like an eternity. Also, the big showdown between God and his fallen angel is put off until the end, so there’s not much Burns-to-Burns banter delivered.

Other than a few cute ideas surrounding the devil, the film is perfunctory and dull. One might have expected more from screenwriter Andrew Bergman, who had a large hand in writing Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles, and who wrote the funny script for The In-Laws a few years ago.

One good touch: As Wass realizes the error of his ways, and searches for God and salvation, he spots a soapbox evangelist, who exhorts him to look for God “in the desert.” Our hero is understandably confused. The desert? Is this some biblical reference? No. Suddenly, he knows where he must go.

Next thing we know, Wass has booked himself a steady gig at Caesar’s Palace, in Las Vegas, in the middle of the desert, of course. Turns out God likes to wander around the slot machines and look at women.

If the movie’s humor were a little loopier, it might have been a little easier to take. As it is, I’m afraid the film is a small-scale purgatory.

First published in The Herald, November 13, 1984

What was I doing with the Las Vegas story there? Trying to stretch out the review? Did I think it was funny? Was something wrong with me? It doesn’t sound funny, is what you may have noticed. I was really much hipper than that, but I guess you’ll have to take my word for it. I left out the name of the director: Paul Bogart, who did a huge amount of TV, the James Garner Marlowe, and Bob Hope’s Cancel My Reservation. Ted Wass’s run on Soap on TV got him a brief fling at movie stardom, which resulted in Curse of the Pink Panther, Sheena, and this movie.

The Assault

February 24, 2021

The crucial, titular event in the new Dutch film The Assault occurs on an ordinary evening in extraordinary times. It is January 1945 in an Amsterdam suburb. The Dutch know the Germans will lose the war, but they need to sit tight and weather the current famine until the occupation ends.

On this night, the Steewijk family goes through the customary routine of supping and rationing. Suddenly the sound of a bullet splits the night. A Nazi collaborator falls dead just outside, in front of a neighbor’s house, shot by the Resistance.

Incredibly, the neighbors rush out and drag the corpse a few feet away – so that is lies in front of the Steenwijks’ house. This simple act will result in the family’s destruction. When the Germans arrive, they make an example of the Steewijks by razing the house and executing the family.

Except, that is, for the youngest son, 12-year-old Anton, who survives and grows to adulthood – an adulthood haunted by the incidents of this single tragic night. We see how the adult Anton is drawn back to the location of the assault, and how he is physically drawn to women who resemble the barely glimpsed Resistance member (Monique van de Ven) with whom he briefly shared a jail cell during that long night.

Director Fons Rademakers, working from the novel by Harry Mulisch, draws Anton’s search as a kind of unconscious detective story. Anton does not know what he is looking for, and for most of his life he even seems unaware that he is looking at all, but the assault remains the dominating event of his existence. He gravitates to it until, in middle age, he stumbles on an explanation for it.

Rademakers’ taut, atmospheric 1945 sequence, which takes up the first 50 minutes or so, is so good it almost puts an unfair burden on the rest of the film. In fact, the adult Anton’s life is laid out in a series of static, utterly humorless, encounters.

There are moments when the film would go quite dry if it weren’t for the sustained charge of the early scenes, and the psychological riddle that springs from them. Aiding immensely are the actors who play Anton: Derek de Lint, as the adult, and (especially) Marc van Uchelen, as the child.

This sustains the movie through its 2 ½ hours, and leads it to an exceptionally powerful ending – an ending that Rademakers treats with just the right mix of emotion, absurdity, and distance.

The Assault was the closing night feature for the recent Seattle International Film Festival, and it copped the audience’s awards for Best Picture and Best Director of that festival.

I didn’t vote for it for either award, but it turns out that Cannon Films, the American distributor of the film, was so impressed by the awards that they will distribute the film in its original length, subtitled, rather than in the cut, dubbed version that had been planned. The film’s performance in a few cities will determine whether it will be cut for smaller markets. If that’s the case, I’ll gladly vote for The Assault.

First published in The Herald, September 20, 1986

It won the Best Foreign Language Oscar that year. Rademakers and Monique van de Ven were favorites of the SIFF directors, and Dutch cinema got quite a boost in Seattle. The young actor, Marc van Uchelen, went on to act and direct, until committing suicide at age 42 in 2013.

Maid to Order

February 23, 2021

Maid to Order means to crossbreed It’s a Wonderful Life with Down and Out in Beverly Hills. That’s a pretty strange combination, and it’s a strange, unsuccessful film, although it has a few sweet touches.

The gimmick is this: An irresponsible spoiled brat (Ally Sheedy) lands in jail for possession of cocaine. Her father (Tom Skerritt) idly wishes she’d never been born. Just as in It’s a Wonderful Life, the wish is made true, this time by a fairy godmother (Beverly D’Angelo) who informs the startled Sheedy that she is now persona non grata, with no past.

Sheedy’s family and friends don’t know her, so she must make her own living for the first time. The idea is abhorrent to her: “I didn’t spend six years in junior college to be a maid!” But she jumps at her first opportunity: to be a domestic for a couple of daffy Beverly Hills talent agents (enjoyable overplayed by Valerie Perrine and Dick Shawn). In other words – and this is the film’s “high concept” – she goes from Valley Girl to valet girl.

This setting brings the opportunity for much social satire, most of which focuses on the outrageously tacky outfits that Perrine and Shaw drape over themselves, and the nutty ’80s-babble they spew. And it’s an excuse for Sheedy to be a fish out of water, which is worth a couple of well-worn laughs.

A subplot about a cook (wonderfully warm performance by singer Merry Clayton), who used to be a famous singer, exists to bring the fairy tale to a neat conclusion. And the love interest, Michael Ontkean as the chauffeur, seems extraneous.

Amy Jones is the co-writer and director; her previous features were the satiric Slumber Party Massacre and the arty Love Letters. She brings a few gentle touches to this movie, mostly in terms of mood, but the contrived circumstances of the plot are too much of a strain.

Also, the film cheats on its supposed lesson. Sheedy is supposed to grow up and act responsibly before she can be restored to her old life. This, she accomplishes. But, unlike It’s a Wonderful Life, her past problems – the cocaine bust, for instance – are magically wiped away when she goes back to living her previous life. That’s facing up to your problems?

First published in The Herald, July 30, 1987

Always good to get a bit of stern moralizing in before the end. If that is the end – the review just leaves off there. Amy Holden Jones directed just one more feature film after this, the Halle Berry thriller The Rich Man’s Wife; she wrote Beethoven and Indecent Proposal.


February 22, 2021

Nearly a decade ago, soon after the success of his wonderful debut film The Return of the Secaucus Seven, John Sayles wrote a screenplay based on a historical event known as the “Matewan Massacre,” in which a considerable amount of blood was spilled during a miners’ strike in West Virginia in 1920.

You can see how Hollywood producers looking for the next Star Wars would be wary of such a project, and Sayles had some trouble getting his pet screenplay off the ground. But he kept after it, though his resourcefulness was tested when funding fell through at one point and he scurried to assemble a low-budget film with the available funds (The Brother from Another Planet).

But finally Sayles completed Matewan. It’s still a relatively low-budget production, costing just under $4 million, but Sayles has characteristically gotten more than his money’s worth in production design and cinematography.

In fact, Matewan is one of the most physically beautiful movies of the year. Filming in the West Virginia backwoods, Sayles and cinematographer Haskell Wexler find a gorgeous photographic byplay in the trees, the earth, and especially the one-street town. And yet, due to the often bitter nature of the subject matter, the film is never merely “pretty.”

The town of Matewan in 1920 is under the thumb of the mining company, which has brought in immigrant and black labor to drive down wages. When local miners squawk, or threaten to strike, the coal company merely imports more cheap workers.

A union organizer (Chris Cooper) arrives in town to bring the workers together. The company responds by sending two goons (Kevin Tighe, Gordon Clapp) to settle things down, by force if necessary. Meanwhile, the independent-minded police chief (David Strathairn) and mayor (Josh Mostel) are trying to hold the lid on this pressure cooker.

Eventually, all three groups of workers – the locals, immigrants, and blacks – join in a strike. The company’s hard-line reaction leads to a showdown on the town’s main street, one sunny, bloody day.

That showdown may sound a bit like the climax of a traditional Western, and Sayles invokes that form more than once. And Matewan is also like many Westerns in one crucial, compromising way: The characters in this drama are drawn in black-and-white terms. The company men are wholly contemptible thugs. The union men, despite their differences, are never less than right.

The simplicity of this design keeps the movie from achieving real greatness. As it is, Sayles has still woven some fascinating episodes into a rich whole. Entire sequences stand out, such as the thrilling section in which Cooper is falsely fingered as a company spy, which almost leads to him being killed by a fellow striker (James Earl Jones, the only star in the cast).

Sayles, who works outside of the studio system, continues to be one of the brightest hopes for the future of the American cinema. Or, if that sounds too hifalutin’, he simply makes intelligent and ambitious movies like nobody else. Another long-cherished project, his screenplay about the 1919 Chicago Black Sox baseball scandal, is scheduled to be filmed later this year. That story, which contains more moral ambiguity than Matewan, could confirm his place at the head of the American class.

First published in The Herald, September 27, 1987

I’m not sure why I was looking for ambiguity here; as the words of the union song have it, “Which side are you on?” seems simple enough as an approach to union-busting thugs. This is an excellent film, clearly an important one for Sayles, and of course it introduced Chris Cooper to the movies. Mary McDonnell and Will Oldham are also in the cast. Wexler’s photography should be a basic text for how to make a low-budget film look gorgeous.

Made in Heaven

February 19, 2021

Probably only Alan Rudolph, the director of Choose Me and Trouble in Mind, could have come up with the quirky vision of heaven that he has created in his new film, Made in Heaven. Instead of the customary sanitized billows of clouds, Rudolph’s heaven is a place where all your most romantic ideas seem to have flowered.

Heaven is where you can spend all your time painting, while the Paris cityscape stretches out through your window; where all the streets are cobblestoned; where a bench next to a lakeside rises up over the water during a lovers’ conversation. This is, quite simply, the way Heaven really should be, a place where God is a sympathetic, slightly ornery red-haired man named Emmett.

This heaven is where Mike (Timothy Hutton) ends up after his young death in the 1950s. In Heaven, Mike meets another soul, Annie (Kelly McGillis), with whom he falls in love.

Fine. But according to the screenplay by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon (the obviously talented writers of Stand by Me), souls are constantly being recycled. So Annie must leave Heaven to enter the body of a baby being born on Earth, in the 1950s, and Mike begs Emmett for the chance to be born on Earth, too, and somehow find his true love. Emmett agrees, but Mike only has 30 years to locate the reborn Annie.

And so the film leaves Heaven for a tumultuous time on Earth. Mike and Annie are new people, with no conscious memory of their past lives, and they find vastly different paths to take; she as a successful toymaker and unhappy wife of a director of TV commercials, he as an illegitimate poor child who grows up to be a drifter, crisscrossing the country in search of a something he just can’t remember.

Rudolph allows the movie to become an impressionistic portrait of recent times, with an especially keen ear for the way music drops into lives and helps give meaning to an era. But the romance remains of primary importance, and Rudolph remains unabashedly true to his lovers.

With his customary indulgence for eccentricity, Rudolph has populated Made in Heaven with strange and wonderful actors. He’s got members of his stock company popping up in small roles, and he’s got prominent musicians doing cameos: Ric Ocasek as a grease money, Tom Petty as a gambler, Neil Young as a truck driver who helps the hero down the road.

And there are strange, uncredited bits, including Ellen Barkin as a floozy who uses Hutton in a scam. Most notable guest appearance is by Debra Winger (Hutton’s wife), who plays God. It isn’t just a cute stunt, either; Winger creates a complex character. She even establishes that, perhaps in response to all his awesome responsibilities in Heaven and Earth, God is a chain-smoker.

First published in The Herald, November 1987

For Rudolph’s stock company, I must have been referring to folks like John Considine and Dirk Blocker – and Tom Robbins is in here, too. The cast is crammed with good people: Maureen Stapleton, Amanda Plummer, Ann Wedgeworth, Don Murray, David Rasche, James Gammon. My memory is that the movie doesn’t really work, but is pretty fun to watch along the way. This review has too much synopsis going on, but (writing an hour or so after seeing it, no doubt) I seem to be pleasantly in the movie’s mood.

Music Box

February 18, 2021

Music Box takes off from an intriguing concept. The ordinary existence of a family of Hungarian-Americans in Chicago is suddenly blasted apart by the news that the father, a widower who emigrated to America after World War II, is under investigation by the U.S. government. They think he may be a war criminal.

It so happens that the man’s daughter is a lawyer, and she takes up his defense, assuming it a case of mistaken identity. But when the case comes to court and witnesses identify old photographs of the man, and recount stories of incredible atrocities, she begins to wonder: Is it possible that the man who raised her is a monster?

The dramatic possibilities of the situation are obvious, and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas explores most of them. Unfortunately, Eszterhas, who wrote Jagged Edge, also relies on some pretty hoary old courtroom devices to give the show some wallop. I think they tend to trivialize the material: As with Jagged Edge, we’re encouraged to guess at the guilt of the father.

And yet, Music Box survives this. Director Costa-Gavras, an expert a screwing up tension (from Z to last year’s Eszterhas-written Betrayed), guides the proceedings with a grim sense of inevitability, and he uses the traditional courtroom structure shrewdly.

Costa-Gavras finds some images that suggest the ripple of possible evil beneath bland surfaces: There’s something fascinating about the sight of the gray-haired father, in cardigan sweater and Reeboks, standing before his blue-collar home and defending himself against war crimes.

Most of all, the director gets two unsettling performances. Jessica Lange is excellent as the lawyer; with dark hair and her face thin and drawn, Lange looks like a bird of prey, and she projects a fierce kind of loneliness. She has some unpredictable moments, such as a restaurant meeting at which she smilingly slings some mud at the government man (Frederick Forrest) who is investigating her father.

The other good performance is from a performer you probably never heard of, Armin Mueller-Stahl. A distinguished German actor, Mueller-Stahl was superb as the foolish middle-aged man in R. W. Fassbinder’s Lola earlier this decade. Here he is just the right choice for the father, all rumpled kindness. His blue eyes are either warm or icy, depending on how you look at them.

This is a fine start to what should be a healthy career in America.

First published in The Herald, January 19, 1990

The Eszterhas era, in full bloom. The film had an odd postscript when Eszterhas’s father was accused of anti-Semitic activities during the war, and the son cut off contact with him. IMDb reports some casting possibilities: Jane Fonda was originally slated for the lead, and Walter Matthau wanted to play the father – now that would have been interesting. But Mueller-Stahl’s newness to the audience surely helped the film work.