Uncle Buck

May 27, 2021

When comic John Candy and director John Hughes got together for Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the result was one of the funniest films of the last couple of years. Hughes seemed to understand Candy’s comedic strengths, on ample display in other films and on SCTV, and the giant actor was in his element. (Having Steve Martin as a straight man probably helped.)

Hughes subsequently wrote another film for Candy, The Great Outdoors, but he didn’t direct it and the movie was flat. Uncle Buck is Hughes’ tailor-made gift to Candy, yet this film still doesn’t do justice to the big man’s talents. It’s a collection of bathroom jokes and stilted sentiment.

Candy plays a 40-year-old bachelor who never managed to grow up or settle down. His girlfriend (Amy Madigan) wants to get married, but Buck is skittish. Then his brother asks him to look after the brother’s three children during a family crisis, and Buck is suddenly house-sitting the younger generation.

This premise would seem to hold comic opportunities, but aside from the occasional one-liner (Buck assures his sister-in-law that the family dog is getting enough water; he’s been leaving the toilet seats up), the humor is lame. Buck’s crudeness is supposed to upset the children, but Hughes is too interested in the sentimental side of the story to really let Buck get outrageous. So the character remains big and bland.

Buck’s main problem is his dreadful 15-year-old niece (Jean Kelly), who hates the fact that he has a monogrammed bowling ball and makes his living at the racetrack. Hughes lets her be just mean enough to inspire the audience’s hissing, then does an about-face toward the end and draws her back into the fold. It’s by the numbers.

And so, as with most reviews of John Candy films, this one will end by asking the question: Who will make a good movie with this man?

First published in The Herald, August 19, 1989

I call the movie a gift for Candy, but according to IMDb, the role was offered (or at least considered for) a bunch of different people. I guess the toilet joke was … one of the good ones? The kids in the film were Macaulay Culkin, one year shy of Home Alone, and Gaby Hoffman. Laurie Metcalf is in the cast, too. As you can see, I was bummed by this movie, because Hughes had made some funny things and Candy, as anybody who loved SCTV knew, was a glorious talent.


May 26, 2021

Troupers is a documentary chronicle of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, but that brief description may be misleading.

First, the San Francisco Mime Troupe is not a mime troupe in the sense that the players are dressed in white-face, never speak, and strike precious poses. It’s a full-fledged drama company – all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing – which means the film is a lot more varied than the title might suggest.

Also, the label “documentary” is a kiss-of-death word for many people; but, as we are reminded each time a crackerjack documentary comes along, there’s no need for a nonfiction film to be dull or dry.

Troupers, for example, is neither, although it has a few problems, especially in its unabashed admiration for the Troupe. Director-producers Glenn Silber and Claudia Vianello don’t probe much for ambiguities.

But then, the movie is supposed to celebrate, and that it does. The Mime Troupe began in the 1960s as a raucous, free-swinging drama company, putting on free plays in the park that invariably delivered a blatant political message – usually opposing the Vietnam War.

Early black-and-white footage shows the company being arrested, ostensibly for the use of obscene language. Bill Graham, the concert promoter who got his youthful start as business manager for the Troupe, remembers how thrilled he was at the time of the arrests, because the thought of being arrested for something you believed in made the Troupe feel that they were doing something important.

It also got the Troupe a lot of free publicity, which Graham admits was welcome. There’s an old clip of Bob Dylan referring to a concert for the Troupe, to raise funds for legal fees; Graham suggests that this concert was a precursor to the whole hippie movement that would flower in San Francisco during the decade.

According to Troupers, the group was an integral part of the social revolution of the ’60s. The members of that scene, now graying and balding, look back on their rock-the-boat accomplishments with pride.

Troupers doesn’t only deal with the past; it brings the company – collectively owned by the participants – up to date by covering a tour made in 1984. The players mounted a musical called “Steel Town,” a socially conscious piece about unemployment, which they brought to the real steel towns of the Midwest. Consider the notion of a flaky, leftist San Francisco drama group touring small factory towns of the nation’s heartland, and you’ll get a sense of the Mime Troupe’s fearless commitment to their beliefs. You’ve got to give them that much. They put their money where their collective mouth is.

First published in The Herald, 1986

Not sure when this review ran, but the movie played Sundance in ’86 (that’s what IMDb says, although I think the festival may still have been called the U.S. Film Festival at that point). Co-director Silber had been nominated twice for documentary Oscars, for The War at Home and El Salvador: Another Vietnam. Peter Coyote is in this movie; he was a member of the Troupe during his youthful hippie days.

Tango Bar

May 25, 2021

By ordinary standards, Tango Bar is barely a movie at all, more a compendium of great moments in the history of tango dancing.

But somehow this film blends a fictional story with its documentary aspects to create a highly entertaining movie; it was clearly an audience favorite at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.

The fictional story takes place entirely in a tango bar in Buenos Aires, where a pianist (Raul Julia, from Kiss of the Spider Woman) awaits the return of his former accordionist partner (Ruben Juarez). They made a popular team as entertainers more than a decade ago. But during the political upheavals of recent Argentinian history, the accordionist left for safer pastures, while Julia stayed behind, with the other man’s wife (Valeria Lynch), a singer.

The film is made up of snippets from their old show, in which they tell the crowd the history of tango. For the movie audience, this lecture is illustrated with some sensational dancing by pairs and groups, choreographed and performed by some of the best talents in tango today.

It’s also illustrated with film clips of the tango, Hollywood-style. These delightful moments include familiar numbers from Astaire-Rogers and Gene Kelly, as well as rarer items. A glimpse of Rudolph Valentino throwing, literally, his partners around the dance floor is enough to explain his electric appeal.

The movie describes the tango craze in the early part of this century, when Europe and America discovered the sexy dance and brought it into the most civilized parlors. And there’s some witty explanation of the tango mystique, as the two “tango men” field questions from their nightclub audience.

When, in the end, the men are reunited and they sing a tango that reflects the new freedom in Argentina, it is a surprisingly emotional moment. Tango Bar appears not to have much of a story, then you realize it has been the story of tango all along.

First published in The Herald, June 1, 1989

SIFF success could get a movie a Seattle run in those days, for sure. I just looked at the only other review linked to IMDb, a piece from the Washington Post by Rita Kempley, and boy, she lays into it: “they are reprising their extremely tedious act before wildly appreciative, easily amused, glassy-eyed Stepford audiences….these Latin lovers are grouchos, not gauchos, and hold the salsa.” It’s also “Terribly directed by Puerto Rico’s Marcos Zurinaga.” Ouch. Ruben Juarez was a successful singer and player of the bandoneon (I probably hadn’t heard of that instrument at my tender age; accordion was pretty close). This is his only big-screen credit.


May 20, 2021

Hoosiers has its factual roots in a heroic basketball season. Tiny Milan High School won the 1954 Indiana basketball championship against incredible odds, capturing the imagination of roundball fans everywhere.

It’s one of those marvelous miracles that sometimes happen in sports, and it’s a natural story for a movie. Who better to give it filmic (and fictionalized) life than a pair of native Indianans: screenwriter Angelo Pizzo and director David Anspaugh. Perhaps they can best understand the hysteria with which Hoosiers assess their favorite sport.

In fact, that’s what Hoosiers does best. The feeling of a heavy autumn descending over a small town, and of a populace fiercely devoted to the only game around, is colorfully painted. It’s the sort of place where a school minister’s invocation is, “Lord, bless these boys and the season before them.” There may actually be too many shots of corn waving in the wind and pumpkins ripening.

The bucolic setting is invaded by an outsider: a new coach (Gene Hackman, exemplary as usual), brought in as a favor to the principal of Hickory High. Hackman’s a former big-college coach, who left the game years before in a player-slapping incident. This is his final shot at basketball.

He’s as ripe for redemption as the pumpkins are for carving. And he’s not the only one: There’s also a former local star, now a grown-up town drunk (Dennis Hopper). Hackman, determined to drag this souse into glory with him, makes Hopper the assistant coach on the team.

This is the role for which Dennis Hopper is nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and no wonder. Even his first scene, a continuous take as he stumbles into a diner, begs change, and is hustled out by his embarrassed son, has Academy Award nomination written all over it. Which is not to denigrate Hopper’s performance; he’s fine, and in a long tradition of Oscar-nominated drunks.

The season begins with a wobble, and the townsfolk want Hackman to pack his bags. But he wins over the participation of the school phenomenon (Maris Valainis), a boy with a deadly jump shot, who hasn’t played since the previous coach died. With this kid on board, the team is off and running.

At which point, better than halfway through, Hoosiers becomes a much less interesting movie. As the victories get more last-second and heart-stopping, the film becomes more mechanical.

The well-observed business of the town and its people falls away, and the victories take center stage. Barbara Hershey, who plays Hackman’s love interest, all but disappears in the last part of the movie.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with corn as high as an elephant’s you-know-what, but Hoosiers gets to be too insistent about it. If there is a short guy on the team who usually acts as waterboy, you can bet he’ll be called upon to make two free-throws in the final moments of a crucial game. And it’s sure that a dried-out Hopper will guide the team to a win when Hackman is tossed from a game.

Hoosiers is still enjoyable – and I look forward to more films from David Anspaugh, who has a nice touch (he’s directed a lot of episodes of Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere on television). But this film fades quickly from memory, and, for all its last-gasp histrionics, doesn’t match the drama of a truly historic sports event.

First published in The Herald, February 1987

Audiences, you know, disagreed with me. Apparently this is one of those beloved movies that was a drag to make; IMDb says that Hackman was a bummer on the set. Of no interest to anyone but me: changing the text here, I’ve put back the capitalization of Best Supporting Actor. At one point in my years at the Herald, an editor told me that I shouldn’t capitalize the categories for the Oscar nominations, and I didn’t, for years. Never knew why. AP Style book? Seemed odd at the time, seems odd now. Anyway, I’m capitalizing them.


May 19, 2021

Diane Keaton wanted to make a film about what happens after we die. So she gathered a group of people together, interviewed them with questions such as, “Are you afraid to die?”, “Is there love in heaven?”, and “How do you get to hell?”

She intercut their responses with a lot of interesting and pretty “heaven” sequences from old movies. Keaton has a fine eye for such images, as she proved in her lovely picture book of old Hollywood publicity photos, Still Life.

Given all that, why does Heaven, the feature-length documentary that Keaton directed, come off as such a largely unpleasant experience?

Primarily it’s because Keaton insists on manipulating the interviews, both before filming (most of the people chosen are religious/social fringies) and after (she cuts the interviews so they appear jumpy and jagged, and the people foolish).

This seems to spring from the sort of geek-show mentality that David Byrne displayed in surveying American attitudes in his True Stories; that is, condescending to its subject. Keaton has denied this, but her choice of grotesque camera angles and close-ups does create a world of freakdom.

Eventually, some of these characters assert themselves, through the film’s process of returning to them. In and of themselves, the responses are quite intriguing; many people believe in the fleecy movie heaven, epitomized by a bunch of people standing around on the tops of clouds. One guy suggests that the whiteness extends to the food; everyone in heaven eats marshmallows.

One man thinks heaven is “like a bride preparing for a wedding”; another calls it simply “relief from tired tootsies,” referring, I presume, to his feet.

One spaced-out woman reveals that Jesus has returned to Earth already, is living in a Pakistani community in England, and is just waiting for the media to come to him, “and have a press conference with the entire world.”

The movie clips are oddly chosen; the most vivid shots are of horrible suffering and death. The absolutely sadistic recreations of hell in religious films will be recognizable to anyone who went to religious grade school. The opening clip, of ’50s-era heads floating against a starry sky, is an authentic piece of spooky camp.

I’m not sure what there is to learn from this film, except that a lot of people have goofy ideas about eternity—and that according to many, those who have different ideas are going to hell, probably. Keaton’s hip approach can’t illuminate those people, so they remain simply weird.

First published in The Herald, May 8, 1987

The film seems oddly unremembered today, considering its director, unless I was right about it. Surprised I didn’t tie the review together by bringing back David Byrne to cite his “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” The whole thing, if I am remembering correctly, took the wrong lessons from Errol Morris’s films, and exaggerated them. Howard Shore did the music, Frederick Elmes the cinematography. Yes, I went to a religious grade school.


May 18, 2021

Hotshot is pretty obviously an excuse to provide work for soccer great Pele, by stringing together some rah-rah soccer sequences and a few nice shots of Brazil. As such, it’s predictable and formulaic, but pretty palatable for all that.

Pele, the retired greatest soccer player ever, plays the retired greatest soccer player ever. Listen, until he’s up to A Long Day’s Journey into Night, why not? This character is living alone in a secluded house on the coast of Brazil, but his quiet life is interrupted by a brash young American (Jim Youngs) who seeks the wisdom of the master.

We find out in flashback that Youngs has just made a professional New York team, only to be suspended for two months because of personality problems. Translation: He’s a jerk, and the coach and his teammates are tired of him.

Youngs asks Pele for help. But the great one has sworn off soccer, forever. This lack of interest, of course, has simply been added by a screenwriter to add “conflict.” Before long, Pele is flashbacking to his glory days, where we see classic shots of Pele – oops, I mean his character, heh heh – making magic with the round ball. Naturally, at the end of the two months’ training, Youngs has matured and is ready to return to New York in full bloom.

Some of the plot conceits here are classic. Make that ancient: Youngs’ parents are rich so he must deny them and make it on his own; his best buddy on the team is paralyzed on the field and inspires a Gipperesque finale; and another teammate is closing out a brilliant career.

There’s no doubt about where any of this is going, but somehow director Rick King and his cast make it all reasonably easy to take. Youngs, who resembles a younger, less tortured Christopher Walken, is an acceptable screen presence, and Pele has no problems.

Most of his acting involves bouncing a ball off his feet or head, and this he does very well. He also gets to re-create one of his most famous shots: the flip-over-and-kick-the-ball-into-the-goal-while-you’re-on-your-back-in-midair shot. Darned if it isn’t still impressive, even allowing for rehearsals and retakes.

First published in The Herald, January 1987

Director King also made Prayer for the Rollerboys and did the original story for Point Break. Jim Youngs is the younger brother of John Savage; he’d been in The Wanderers and Footloose, and of course a key role in the immortal Out of Control. The cast includes Penelope Ann Miller in her first bigscreen part, Rutanya Alda, and Mario Van Peebles.

Heartbreak Hotel

May 13, 2021

Yes, Elvis is alive. (Or don’t you read the Enquirer?) The question is: Is he still hot at the box office?

Perhaps Heartbreak Hotel will provide the answer. Oh, Elvis himself isn’t actually in this one; he’s played by David Keith. Keith does well enough, and he’ll have to do until the real Elvis comes out of hiding.

The film is set in 1972 and the premise is that a teenager (Charlie Schlatter) from a small Ohio town kidnaps Elvis Presley after a Cleveland concert and takes him home to cheer up his mom (Tuesday Weld). The kid doesn’t really like Elvis. He thinks The King has turned his back on his rock and roll roots, has sold his soul to Vegas.

Elvis doesn’t cotton none to this kind of talk. He washes the black dye out of his hair, cuts off those porkchop sideburns, and for a couple of days reverts back to the rockin’ rebel he once was.

This movie, written and directed by Spielberg protégé Chris Columbus (with the approval of the Presley estate) is a mostly dopey affair, predictable and contrived. Still, the thought of getting the opportunity to talk Elvis back into his original style of music is an appealing fantasy.

And it’s another fascinating testament to the way a single larger-than-life figure has taken hold of the public’s imagination. The boy from Tupelo who became King has been the subject of a torrent of speculation, souvenirs, paraphernalia, and devotion, to say nothing of his Messianic rise from the dead. (The enduring power of his voice sometimes gets lost in all this.)

He’s been dead only 11 years, but there have already been a brace of filmed versions of his life. John Carpenter’s TV movie, Elvis, has been the most satisfactory so far, with Kurt Russell turning in a precise impersonation of Presley. David Keith, best known as the buddy in An Officer and a Gentleman, is quite good; when he strides down a stairwell singing “Love Me” to Tuesday Weld, he has some uncanny moments. (Weld, that fine actress, did make a movie with the original Elvis, 1961’s Wild in the Country.)

Columbus knows his Elvis and scores some points. Elvis’s toadying coterie of yes-men is wickedly sketched (they call him “E”), the great man’s passion for cheeseburgers is noted, and the show stops for someone to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.”

There’s still one test: What does Elvis think of this movie? You know he’s out there somewhere, renting a movie theater for a private, middle-of-the-night screening. Hope you enjoy it, King, and please come back soon.

First published in The Herald, September 1988

Oh yeah, Charlie Schlatter – this was just after 18 Again!, with George Burns. This was Columbus’s sophomore effort as director, after Adventures in Babysitting; next up was Home Alone. As for the mysterious career of Tuesday Weld, who turned down most of the female leads of the 1960s and 70s, this was yet another curious choice, although you can understand the appeal, in this case.