A Week’s Vacation

September 30, 2021

When Nathalie Baye smiles, the movie screen seems to flicker just a little more brightly. She smiles a lot in A Week’s Vacation, which may be a bit surprising, as in it she plays a schoolteacher who is delicately walking the edge of a nervous breakdown. But as depressing as some of the situations in the movie are, there is often something to smile at: a child makes a joke, a restaurateur shares a warm reminiscence, an overhead conversation at a café prompts a giggling attack. Sort of the way life itself works. And A Week’s Vacation, directed by Bertrand Tavernier, seems to me to have come very close to capturing the rhythm of this woman’s life curing the course of a week off from teaching.

The narrative moves languidly through space – and sometimes through time – as she examines her fear of old age and of being childless, her ambivalence toward her students, and her relationships with her boyfriend and parents. The movie is full of intelligent talk, none of it forced on the viewer as a solution; there’s also a fine sense of privileged moments being caught. A scene where the heroine gets some heartfelt, caring advice from a near stranger (Philippe Noiret, in a superbly cast cameo) while they’re standing out in a rain-washed street, probably never to see each other again, is just the kind of intimate counsel that strangers are something better equipped to give than friends. A very special touch in a movie of special touches.

First published in The Informer, May 1982

I was very fond of Nathalie Baye during this period; she had just done a few for Truffaut, and Godard’s Every Man for Himself, and The Return of Martin Guerre. One of Tavernier’s lesser-known titles, this one sounds a little like his Rohmer film, but I don’t remember it well enough to know if that’s true.

Eating Raoul

September 28, 2021

It’s a little unfair to tell too much about Eating Raoul, since most of the delicious plot twists should be discovered while watching the film. By means of introduction, let’s just say that it’s about a couple struggling to make ends meet: Paul Bland (Paul Bartel) is a wine collector who works odd jobs, and his wife Mary (Mary Woronov) is a nurse whom the patients find irresistible. Their dream is to establish their very own Country Kitchen, but it’s difficult for two simple, honest people to raise a little money in this world. Paul tries to sell some wine and gets ripped off; Mary’s sexy pitch for a bank loan gets the manager (Buck Henry) a bit too overheated. Time is running out and they need lots of bread fast; what to do?

Maybe it’s when the drunk drowns in their toilet (or does he?) that the seeds of the answer to that dilemma begin to take root. The rest of the movie is the flowering of the Blands’ solution, and in the tradition of really black comedy, a very fine solution it is. Director Bartel has given us some very quirky, interesting pictures before (Private Parts and Death Race 2000), and Eating Raoul, with is pronounced offbeatness, is a characteristic entry in the Bartel canon. It’s a bit constrained by a low budget (still, the quality of the photography is quite clean), but  delightfully warped imagination comes through, and mostly it’s very amusing. There are some classic bits, especially the abrupt end of a hot-tub party, and there’s a chase scene to the tune of a Spanish-language version of “Devil with the Blue Dress On” that is somehow indescribably hilarious. I guess the sweetest moment, though, is the ending; maybe a couple of people, by their gumption and can-do spirit, can make good in these troubled times. In a way, a stirring message. Eat hearty.

First published in The Informer, May 1982

It had a strong run in Seattle, and was an early indie success, though it doesn’t really seem to be remembered as such. Bartel’s subsequent directing career was disappointing, although he did try to get an Eating Raoul sequel made. He died at age 61. Woronov, once a denizen of Andy Warhol’s Factory, is, thankfully, still very much with us. I was young when I wrote this review, so forgive the flabby sentences.

Personal Best

September 23, 2021

I consider myself lucky. A couple of months back, I pretty much just happened to show up at the Guild 45th one night for a sneak preview of a movie that, judging by the newspaper advertisement, featured Mariel Hemingway in a running outfit. That was all I knew. I think it’s a great way to experience any movie – just off the street like that, without preconceptions or expectations. I’m saying this because I think that by the time this movie – Personal Best – opens (which, I understand, will be before this newsletter appears), it will probably be impossible not to pretty much know its subject matter. So I must tell you that watching Personal Best that first time, as it sidled up to its broach its delicate subject, was rather exciting. It’s not a lesser movie if you know what’s going to happen, but you lose just that shading of the movie-watching experience. If you don’t know about Personal Best, don’t read any more anywhere – just go!

Okay. Personal Best, directed, written, and produced by Robert Towne, has a plot structure that doesn’t seem to unusual – two athletes fall into an intimate relationship that is strained when they wind up competing against each other. This time around, they both happen to be women, and I suppose that’s why Personal Best may be controversial. But anyone who stays away from this one is going to be missing a very special film. Towne, in his first directorial effort, has imbued the film with a depth of character and a richness of atmosphere that ring remarkably true down to the last detail.

Early on, we see a TV commercial for Clairol with the ad line: “This I do for me.” And indeed, it’s a movie about personal growth and self-discovery that generously acknowledges how much other people matter on the bumpy road to physical and emotional maturity. Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) is a naturally gifted, ill-trained hurdler; her odyssey toward her “personal best” is shaped by her overbearing parents, a deceptively tough-talking coach (Scott Glenn), her supportive, funkily-sketched track-and-field teammates, a Gold Medal-winning water polo player (Kenny Moore), and particularly her roomie, the more experienced – but equally vulnerable – Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly). It’s a movie full of people needing people. Towne seems to believe that a personal best is far more important than beating others in competition; at the same time, even a significant personal best – something that one must draw from within – would be nearly impossible (and probably worthless) without the stimulating contributions of others.

What makes Personal Best so exhilarating and memorable is Towne’s uncanny knack for creating authentically live-in spaces and scenes. A summer night sprawled in front of the tube with a few empty brews around becomes absolutely the right prelude for a first kiss. A party that throbs with pop music and petty jealousies is so on-target it’ll have you checking to see if you recognize anybody there. Some of Towne’s success in establishing the almost palpable atmosphere lies in the selection of popular songs (they really root the movie in the period from ’76 to about ’80) that almost – but never really obviously – provide a commentary on the main relationship: “You Make Lovin’ Fun,” “What a Fool Believes,” “It’s Over.” But more than that, the performances of his actors reveal a direction Towne seems interested in; Hemingway, Glenn, and Moore don’t really seem to be engaging in any kind of acting we’ve seen before, speaking their lines as though every word was a bit of a surprise. And from an Olympic-class hurdler named Patrice Donnelly, Towne gets a performance of such astonishing spiritual beauty that it’s hard to believe Personal Best wouldn’t be a completely different movie without her. (It’s probably unfair to comment on a sneak preview that doesn’t pretend to be a final cut, but one of Donnelly’s best scenes, a breathtaking emotional breakdown towards the end of the film, has been cut from the final release version.)

All the athletes are seen preparing for the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and the knowledge that the USA didn’t send a team that year hangs over Personal Best like the Pearl Harbor of From Here to Eternity. But it isn’t used in a terribly ironic way; instead, that historic fact reinforces the film’s most deeply-felt belief about the importance of individual achievement. At the last track meet for the would-be Medal winners, a sportscaster glumly describes the qualifying athletes as “all dressed up … and no place to go.” It is testimony to the emotional power and enchanting rhythms of Personal Best that we immediately realize just how very wrong that pronouncement is.

First published The Informer, March 1982

This is a youthful piece of writing, by someone at loose ends in the immediate aftermath of college, weirdly moved by nostalgia for my college years (76 to 80, the film’s exactly time span). You should have things to champion at that moment, and this was one of mine. Still, no apologies for loving the movie. I have a memory that Towne was at the Guild 45th preview (the Guild is a venerable Seattle arthouse), and that Warren Beatty was also there. Donnelly competed in the 1976 Olympics; here she gives the performance of the year. She did a few more acting jobs, including American Anthem, and served as an advisor on Without Limits, Towne’s movie about the runner Steve Prefontaine.

Soldier Girls

September 22, 2021

When he made Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick found that actual quotes from military personnel were much funnier and more absurd than anything he could have possibly made up himself; so he often stuck the verbatim dialogue in the mouths of his characters. It’s either comforting or disturbing that things haven’t changed much in almost twenty years; according to a very funny (and sometimes harrowing, and touching) new documentary called Soldier Girls, the Army is still the place to be for such incredible doubletalk as a sergeant’s argument with a young woman who shows reluctance on the firing range: “This gun isn’t going to hurt you! This gun never hurt anybody!”

The movie – directed by Nicholas Broomfield and Joan Churchill – follows a handful of girls going through basic training and watches their responses to the weird other world of Army life (the issue of whether or not their responses are altered by the presence of a camera is very valid – though mostly people behave, sometimes, amazingly, as though they were quite unobserved). It is, among other things, an irresistibly quotable film; one of the most bizarre scenes involves a lecture on the proper reaction to a nuclear attack: When you see the bright light of a nuclear explosion, immediately turn away. Sound advice, I’d say, but don’t turn away from Soldier Girls, which is opening soon at the Harvard Exit. Just remember, you can use your canteen to wash off the radioactive dust.

First published in The Informer, March 1983

This was in the early phases of the careers of Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill, married but now divorced. He has since been a sometimes controversial figure, a sort of documentary Oliver Stone, and puts himself in his movies, which include Kurt & Courtney and Spalding Gray’s Monster in a Box. The serial killer Aileen Wuornos looms in their history, too.


September 21, 2021

A likable young couple is walking down the street of a modern-day city in broad daylight – the streets happen to be full of martial-law soldiers, but these two friends are Americans, and even in South America you assume that represents some kind of security. The young man breaks off to go grab a newspaper and ambles across a sunlit plaza. When he turns to rejoin his friend, he – and we – shockingly discover that she is being led away by a soldier who is pointing a machine gun in her back. This scene, early in Missing, superbly captures the way director Costa-Gavras & co. have captured that sense of instability that can erupt into violence at any time.

The absolute terror of sudden, senseless death informs every moment of Missing: the not-so-distant sound of gunfire keeps punctuating even the most civilized of dialogues. The story is about the search for an American who vanishes in an unnamed South American country (though we know that it is Chile during the 1973 coup – and the events in the film are true, according to its introduction). Sissy Spacek plays the man’s wife, and Jack Lemmon plays the father; they have a rather conventional clash of attitudes and styles that deepens into a more interestingly grudging acceptance as the search continues (though I wish Lemmon hadn’t been made to actually voice his eventual admiration for Spacek – the way he looks at her with his beleaguered eyes and posture say volumes more).

Costa-Gavras puts these people on a hellish journey towards some kind of answer, and they are understandably embittered by the frustration of the apparently deliberate withholding of the answer. But at the end, Lemmon’s character utters a line – the film’s last, of dialogue – that is more defiant than bitter, but simultaneously manages to be neither mere flag-waving nor a set-up for a cruel irony. It partakes of the ambiguousness that makes much of Missing so satisfying, and so unsettling.

First published in The Informer, March 1982

It won the Palm d’or that year, and the Oscar for adapted screenplay. Vangelis did the music, including a plaintive main theme. In retrospect, the film looks like one of the last of the 1970s, when a major studio would back a politically potent movie (complete with criticism of the USofA) all the way. This review, by the way, ran in the first expanded issue of The Informer, the monthly newsletter of the Seattle Film Society; I began editing it a couple of years earlier and in March 1982 made it more of a journal-looking thing (my TV review from that issue was about the debut of Late Night with David Letterman). I’ll run some other stuff from that issue.

He Said, She Said*

September 16, 2021

If such a thing as a sleeper still exists in the world of huge-budgeted Hollywood, He Said, She Said might just qualify. It’s a frequently charming romance that takes off from a gimmicky premise: The love story is told from two viewpoints. His and hers movies, you might say.

The romance in question takes place between two newspaper columnists, Dan (Kevin Bacon) and Lorie (Elizabeth Perkins). They write opposing editorial pieces that take different sides of a particular issue; they’re sort of the Siskel and Ebert of the op-ed page. Despite their political differences – he comes from a goofy old conservative family and is always quoting his Uncle Olav, her parents discuss methods of contraception at the dinner table – they fall for each other. After a while, their point-counterpoint routine gets a regular spot on the local news.

The film begins with the two of them in a crisis. Lorie gets so fed up with Dan that she plunks him in the head with a coffee cup – the heavy kind, the kind that creates a noticeable DING when brought into contact with someone’s forehead. This happens during a broadcast, which makes the ratings soar. (See, they really are like Siskel and Ebert.)

The courtship is then recounted in flashback, first from the male perspective, as we see Dan’s version. The second half of the movie puts the female spin on the story. The most intriguing part of this gimmick is that the male parts of the film are directed by a man, Ken Kwapis (Vibes); the female stuff is directed by Marisa Silver (Old Enough). The two moviemakers are engaged to be married.

Actually, the gimmick becomes something more than just a gimmick. There are distinct dynamics to the two sections of the movie. Seeing the same scene from (literally) different angles pays off in some amusing ways.

The man’s stuff is straightforward and funny, full of goofy/dumb male things, such as Dan’s theory of commitment, which he somehow gleaned from the example of the Wolfman, one of his idols.

The woman’s stuff is a bit more delicately shaded, and draws a more complex performance from Elizabeth Perkins (who shines throughout and continues to be one of our most appealing actresses).

I’m not sure if we can credit this change in depth to something intrinsically female, or simply to the fact that Marisa Silver is a more interesting director than her counterpart. The whole movie, incidentally, looks good. Steven Burum’s cinematography has a level of care that you don’t see in many Hollywood comedies these days.

Brian Hohlfeld’s screenplay is light on anything like real insight, but it’s funny enough. If you go to this film not expecting much more than decent entertainment with a couple of ingratiating star performances, chances are you won’t be disappointed. That’s what he said, anyway.

First published in The Herald, February 1991

So help me, I though this was an ’80s film, until I typed the whole thing up and then checked the release date. Dammit. Let me sneak this one in and put an asterisk by it. Sharon Stone and Nathan Lane are in it – oh, what a lead couple they might have been with the same premise.

The Sicilian

September 15, 2021

The Sicilian is the kind of movie they just don’t make anymore: a big, dumb historical pageant with a mélange of international accents and an impenetrable plot. It’s well in the running for big-budget dog of the year.

It is adapted from a novel by Mario Puzo, who is of course closely associated with the success of The Godfather. Evidently someone thought the same magic might rub off here, perhaps because the Sicilian bloodline is similar.

Puzo’s story tells of a great Sicilian peasant leader who rose up in the years after World War II to lead a bandit uprising. According to The Sicilian, he stole from the rich, in order to give the money to the poor. In doing so he went against the total control of the Don, who eventually was able to destroy the upstart.

The movie is so bad we never get much sense of why any of these people are fighting, or what the possible benefits would be. Instead, the thing lurches sluggishly from conversation to conversation, broken up by regular bouts of blood-letting.

After the first few minutes, you realize the movie is going to be deadpan and dull. So there is consolation to be had from the lousy dialogue, which provides some inadvertent howlers. Much of it is the stilted dialogue that European people seem to speak only in historical movies, such as “You have said no to Don Mazzino. Now you will have to leave Sicily,” or “They say he calls himself the Lord of the Mountains.”

My favorite snippet (to be read with a fake Sicilian accent): “You may be a Sicilian duchess, but you are still an American woman, and a match for any Sicilian man. I am at your knees.” If the crawling pace of the film is any indication, the whole movie is at its knees.

Among the actors at a loss here are Joss Ackland, who plays the big-shot Don; Terence Stamp, who sneaks in the movie’s sole measure of wit as a prince; Richard Bauer, overacting enjoyably as a professor; and the excellent European actress Barbara Sukowa, wasted as that American duchess. And a dubbed duchess, at that.

Chrstopher Lambert, the French actor who played Tarzan in Greystoke, is the rebel leader. It is, to say the least, a thankless job, but it is possible to feel pity for Lambert.

It is not so easy to feel pity for Michael Cimino. The mercurial director of The Deer Hunter has had his disasters before; everyone remembers knockin’ on Heaven’s Gate. But at least Heaven’s Gate was the incomprehensible product of passion and vision. The Sicilian is schlock, decorated by pretty shots of a sunny landscape. Cimino should be embarrassed.

First published in The Herald, October 1987

I slammed the film, but this may not have been entirely at Cimino’s feet; his 150-minute cut was rejected. Actually, I’d watch that. Lambert is playing Salvatore Giuliano, whose name is also the title of a 1962 Francesco Rosi film, which you definitely should see. Puzo’s novel was adapted by Steve Shagan and, uncredited, Gore Vidal, who apparently sued for credit. John Turturro is in it.