Troop Beverly Hills

August 26, 2021

Troop Beverly Hills is based on a one-sentence concept: that a wealthy and pampered Beverly Hills housewife would become a perfectly awful Girl Scout leader. This premise is also the movie’s sole joke, which means there are 90 minutes’ worth of variations.

They aren’t called the Girl Scouts, actually; it’s the Wilderness Girls. But you get the idea. The whole thing is a vehicle for Shelley Long, who gets to do her prissy ostentatious thing throughout.

For some strange reason, she is suffering through a divorce from her husband, Hollywood’s “Muffler King” (Craig T. Nelson), as she takes over the leadership of the eight-member troop. At first it’s intended to be “just a little mother-daughter bonding thing” with her own child. But soon, she’s flinging herself into the robust outdoor life.

Admittedly, the first overnight campout, in the Hollywood Hills, is swamped by the presence of rain. But Long has the presence of mind to secure a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where the gals sit around the fireplace telling scary stories, like the time Long went to Christophe’s to get a wave in her hair and wound up with a perm. Eeee-yooo.

Eventually the girls get around to earning merit badges (such as gem appreciation, for which they visit Rodeo Drive jewelry stores) and they dive wholeheartedly into the cookie sale.

You might think that some of this material would be ripe for social satire; in the hands of a director like Paul Mazursky, perhaps it would be. But as directed by Jeff Kanew (Revenge of the Nerds), the worship of money and worldly goods is just another way of making these kids outsiders – rich nerds.

The movie actually wants you to start rooting for these spoiled brats. Thus they go up against a mean Wilderness Girls officer (Betty Thomas, from Hill Street Blues) who provides enough villainy to put you on the side of the kids from north of Wilshire. Unfortunately, by the time the film serves up its revenge on her, it’s run out of ways of telling the same joke.

The thing that keeps it almost bearable is Long, who vamps around in some appalling fashion creations by Theodora van Runkle. Long is still appealing in her enthusiasm – she seems to want to be the Lucille Ball of the 1990s – but she’s got to get better scrips and stronger support. And make movies, not vehicles.

First published in The Herald, March 16, 1989

Lots of Hollywood cameos, including Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, together, and Pia Zadora. First film for Carlo Gugino and Tori Spelling. This was during Shelley Long’s string of leading roles post-Cheers, most of which were not up to her particular gifts.


Twister

August 25, 2021

One of the biggest duds I saw at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival was Twister, a self-consciously weird movie about a self-consciously weird family. It’s a film that tries so hard to be wacky that it becomes insufferable almost immediately.

The head of the household is played by Harry Dean Stanton, a wonderful actor in a nearly nonexistent performance. (Good for him.) He presides over a big mansion that, like the house in Giant, sits in the middle of a flat expanse. His daughter (Suzy Amis) is jolted out of her customary ennui because her man (Dylan McDermott) has just shown up on the doorstep. He wants her back. Because he seems almost halfway normal, this is a strange request.

Stanton’s son (Crispin Glover) skulks around the house in red crushed-velvet suits, tossing off tortuous one-liners and generally spooking everybody with his bad haircut. Glover is a strange actor who made a vivid impression with his over-the-top performance in River’s Edge. Here, his strangled-voice shtick runs thin after about 10 minutes.

There is a tornado that blows through and forces these maddening creatures down into the cellar for a while, but to little effect. They’re twisted enough already.

You know something’s wrong when the most intriguing scene in the movie has McDermott setting a tabletop on fire (with his shot of booze) and then anxiously trying to put it out.

In the opening 10 minutes, director-writer Michael Almereyda establishes everything he has to say, and for the remaining 80 minutes repeats himself. Except for a colorful interlude involving a cheesy kiddie show hosted by Stanton’s girlfriend (Lois Chiles), Twister stays in the same rut throughout.

This film hungers after cult-movie status, but I doubt it will achieve even that. All of which goes to show that you can’t plan a cult movie; they just happen. Twister is a midnight movie that doesn’t know the time of day.

First published in The Herald, June 1989

Well jeez, I feel kinda bad about how downbeat I am here, having come to like Almereyda’s work in recent years (Experimenter and Marjorie Prime are terrific). It never really did garner a cult reputation, except by default. The cast also has Jenny Wright, Charlayne Woodard, and William S. Burroughs, and Tim Robbins is in there somewhere. SIFF co-founder Dan Ireland was a producer on it (this was Vestron Pictures), and Hans Zimmer did the music.


True Believer

August 19, 2021

The pleasures of True Believer are familiar, as it trades in the sure-fire arena of the courtroom. But they are pleasures nonetheless, and the film is chewy and entertaining.

The set-up is schematic; a burned-out ’60s relic, played by James Woods, has been practicing law from his Greenwich Village office for years. A man of passion, he used to take all the politically correct cases, but for too long he’s been lazily freeing sleazy drug dealers on obscure technical points. In other words, this is a character ready to be rehabilitated. Spiritually speaking.

Enter a young, eager-beaver law school graduate (Robert Downey, Jr.) who parks his yuppie self in Woods’ funky office and sets about revitalizing the man. Downey wants to know what happened to the practice of defending innocent have-nots instead of guilty dopers. Woods is cynical now; he warns Downey, “Know this going in: Everybody’s guilty. Everybody.”

But some may be less guilty than others. When a murder case comes along, it proves just the ticket for refueling Woods’ interest in the world. The plot hinges on his efforts to retry a seven-year-old case, a gang-related shooting in Chinatown, for which the wrong man was found guilty. When Woods gazes up at the prison that holds his client, he mutters, “He’s been in prison too long,” and we know he’s talking about himself as well.

As a story, Wesley Strick’s script hangs together much more coherently than such recent courtroom exercises as Jagged Edge and Suspect. In fact, the way the story evolves into something much bigger than it first appears is deftly managed.

A lot of it goes according to formula, and Downey’s role, though he gives it charm, is basically window dressing. Ditto the helpful private eye played by Margaret Colin. But a couple of things keep True Believer compelling.

It’s well-directed by Joseph Ruben, who made 1987’s chilling The Stepfather. Ruben keeps things moving and finds humor in odd moments. He even achieves a moral balance more complex than the usual black-and-white conclusion to these things (the bad guys had some pretty defensible reasons for doing what they did).

Foremost, it’s another nice outing for James Woods, graying and pony-tailed here. The role allows Woods to flash his eyes and spout off (both in court and out of it) with some regularity, and this is an actor who enjoys giving speeches. He also has a great unguarded moment early on when he emerges from his office, puzzled, in a creamy cloud of pot smoke.

First published in The Herald, February 16, 1989

Strick’s first produced screenplay. Had high hopes for Ruben at this point, although he seemed to move into big-budget hell with Sleeping with the Enemy and The Good Son. And yes, Woods was still defensible back then.


Therese

August 18, 2021

Early in the new French film Therese, the youthful title character takes a pin and pricks the tip of her finger. With her blood, she writes Jesus’s name on a crisp piece of paper.

This image of religious devotion occurs even before Therese has entered the strict Carmelite convent where she will spend the rest of her life. In this image we may see the film’s tendency to translate her soaring spiritual fervor into tactile, even bloody, life – a kind of transubstantiation on film.

This is the story of Therese of Lisieux, a saint who lived a simple life in the late 19th century and who left a widely read diary (perhaps she is beginning it in that early image) after her death at age 24. Anyone expecting a bioflick full of hoked-up reverence along the lines of Song of Bernadette is in for a surprise; Therese is at once arty and simple, stark and witty, and not quite like any film you’ve seen.

Director Alain Cavalier’s method is to present flashes of Therese’s life, in brief, intense tableaux, all photographed in front of the sort of neutral gray backdrop of a photography studio. This lends a weird, even convent-like intensity to each scene; like Therese’s love of God, there is nothing cluttering the clarity of the central purpose.

In Catherine Mouchet’s extraordinarily direct, open performance, Therese exists to love Jesus. She exudes her love for her “husband” (the nuns are considered married to Christ) with a fierce single-mindedness and a feverishness that borders on the pagan. But it is not the film’s purpose to expose the perversity of saintliness – it’s as far form Ken Russell’s mad The Devils as it is from Bernadette.

The starkness of the setting also emphasizes the darts of physicality and goofiness. This is an unexpectedly funny film; among all the holiness, two nuns can still chuckle while observing that, “We’re nuts for a guy who’s been dead 2,000 years.”

But the wit is not blasphemous; when the nuns drape their heads with their habits to shield their faces during a delivery man’s arrival from the outside world, Cavalier shoots it so that we appreciate both the absurdity and the dignity of the action.

Cavalier’s dead-calm approach allows Therese’s spirit to shine through, immensely aided by Mouchet’s performance (her first movie). At first, you think her giggly, dimpled presence is hardly the stuff of sainthood; actually, she resembles a Gallic Gidget. But then most saints probably started out looking more like fleshly human beings than the idealized, emaciated figures we see on holy cards, and that’s one of the things Therese seems bent on reminding us about.

First published in The Herald, February 1987

It opened at the Market Theatre in Seattle. Catherine Mouchet, whose name is disturbingly close to Bresson’s secular saint Mouchette, continued on to a steady career. Cavalier turns 90 next month.


Tapeheads

August 17, 2021

I’m happy to announce that I could detect no trace of socially redeeming value in Tapeheads, a rude, noisy movie destined for the midnight-movie circuit. But that doesn’t mean it’s all bad.

In fact, I found quite a bit to enjoy here, in the Repo Man vein. Tapeheads follows two video entrepreneurs who rise to the top: Ivan (John Cusack) is a slick-backed fast-talker with his eye on the main chance; best pal Josh (Tim Robbins) is the more distractedly creative of the two. They call themselves the Video Aces.

When they decide to conquer the video world, they know they’re going to have to start at the bottom. And the bottom is filming living wills and funerals for families, and composing a rap-music commercial for a fast-food chicken restaurant.

Ivan and Josh think they’ve got their big break when they get a gig filming the metal group the Blender Children. Unfortunately, they are kicked off the set. Fortunately, the Blender Children are killed when their studio is hit by a falling chunk of Skylab, which makes our heroes’ footage extremely valuable. Unfortunately, when the video is broadcast on national TV, some footage of a funeral is erroneously inserted over the music. Fortunately, this is considered a visionary work in the music-video world and Ivan and Josh become the hottest producers in the business.

This turn of events gives some sense of the movie’s gleeful taste for the bizarre. But it does not even include the politician (Clu Gulager) who enjoys the company of sheep, a video record of which falls into the hands of the Aces. Nor does it include the Aces’ attempt to resurrect the career of the Swanky Modes, two soul singers who have fallen on hard times (they are played by a couple of R&B classics, Junior Walker and Sam Moore). Nor does it include the roster of oddballs who flit by in cameos: Soul Train host Don Cornelius, Connie Stevens, Doug McClure, “Weird” Al Yankovic, Ted Nugent, Lyle Alzado, Jello Biafra – even Mary Crosby, Bing’s daughter.

Obviously, director Bill Fishman and producer Peter McCarthy (who wrote the script together) have gathered together as much of the flotsam and jetsam of pop culture as they can and dumped it all into their movie. So the film’s effectiveness is predictably slapshot.

The executive producer of Tapeheads is Michael Nesmith. He’s an appropriate choice, because aside from being former Monkee and the producer of Repo Man, Nesmith was a pioneer in putting music and film together before MTV was a blip on the horizon.

Cusack and Robbins help keep the madness watchable (both are coming off splendid performances in baseball movies; Cusack was the sensitive Buck Weaver in Eight Men Out), Robbins was the wild young pitcher Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham). Despite them, Tapeheads is less of a night out at the movies than an eventual pick from the cult section at your local video store, where it should be a few weeks from now.

First published in The Herald, October 1988

Good title, of course. Director Fishman has done lots of music videos, and got stuck with Car 54, Where Are You?, which seems unfair. Movie had a real New Wave poster. Also: Doug McClure?


True Love

August 12, 2021

True Love is going on between Donna and Michael, two young kids from the Bronx who are engaged to be married. At least, they think it’s true love. But, this film suggests, how can you ever be sure?

This movie is about the cold feet and butterflies that begin to manifest themselves in the days before the wedding, and about the different methods women and men use to cope with the jitters. Or perhaps that should read “girls and boys,” for Donna and Michael display conspicuously less than wise maturity.

They still use Donna’s baby-sitting jobs as excuses for heavy-petting sessions on the couch, although even these are interrupted by surprise appearances from Michael’s buddies, who want to go out and get tanked. And the closer they get to the wedding, the more Donna and Michael seem to be at odds. After all, Donna has selected “rainbow colors” for the wedding party, so she considers the caterer’s idea of blue mashed potatoes an interesting one. It makes Michael want to throw up.

Donna gets peeved when Michael doesn’t want to see her the night of his bachelor party (she’s probably lucky, because the guys end up scarfing down White Castle burgers on a Jersey boardwalk). Michael gets peeved when Donna wants wimpy gray tuxedos for the wedding. Are these two still going to be on speaking terms when they exchange vows?

True Love is a low-budget production, but it’s rich in observation and nice ethnic (i.e., Italian-American) detail. And the large cast of unknowns performs with freshness and devotion. Annabella Sciorra (currently in Internal Affairs) and Ron Eldard are very appealing as the leads.

Director Nancy Savoca and co-producer Richard Guay wrote the script together, and they raised production funds through basic grassroots methods. Good for them. Last year, True Love won the Grand Prize at the United States Film Festival.

First published in The Herald, January 23, 1990

A pretty famous indie for its time. Savoca and Guay followed with Dogfight and Household Saints.


Time of the Gypsies

August 11, 2021

Time of the Gypsies is one of those films that create their own whole, one-of-a-kind world. This is the world of a group of Gypsies of Yugoslavia, who live in a small collection of tumbledown houses and shacks. This world has its own rules, which do not necessarily intersect with the rest of the planet.

For instance, it is understood that the central character in the story, an adolescent boy named Perhan (played by Davor Dujmovic), has the ability to move objects without touching them – he’ll make a fork fly across the room, if he cares to. His grandmother is a healer, but neither of them can help his littler sister, who has a deformed leg.

Enter the fast-talking Ahmed (Bora Todorovic), who has been away in Italy on business. He has made a lot of money somehow, and he swears that if Perhan comes with him, they will take the sister to a hospital and get her leg fixed.

They drop the girl off at a hospital, and Perhan goes to Italy. Once there, he realizes that Ahmed is a Fagin-like figure who runs a ring of young pickpockets and beggars. (Ahmed also sells an occasional infant.) Abruptly, Perhan must learn the streets, if he is to survive.

Eventually the film brings Perhan back to his home village, but not before he has passed through an epic journey out of innocence. And Time of the Gypsies really is an epic, a gritty epic of poverty and chicanery.

That may not make the movie sound terribly appealing, but director Emir Kusturica (who won the 1989 best director award at the Cannes Film Festival for this movie) has a way of seeing that transforms the ordinary into the magical.

He’s great with actors, many of them non-professionals, and he has an eye for the absurd that recalls Buster Keaton: At one point, Perhan’s weird uncle gets so mad that he raises the roof and walls off the foundations of their house, and leaves it dangling above everybody until he gets his way.

Kusturica has a brimming imagination. With this movie and his previous film, the Oscar-nominated When Father Was Away on Business, he has staked his claim as the poet of his particular culture.

First published in The Herald, March 2, 1990

Kusturica’s political statements and stances in the decades since this movie have been dramatic, and I’ll leave it to you to research that. I haven’t seen his movies in a long time, and I wonder whether the spell of this one would seem different now.