October 28, 2021

Bill Murray, along with his fellow ghostbusters (Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, who also wrote the script) has been prowling the corridors of a swank hotel in search of a green spirit. Unfortunately, Murray finds it. We cut away before the ghost engulfs him, then follow Ayrkroyd as he runs to Murray’s aid. Murray, prone, is covered with goo. “He slimed me,” says Murray, as Aykroyd gives comfort. A moment later, Murray, still supine, rolls his head back, looks heavenward, and lets loose with an oddly satisfied sigh, “I feel sooo funky.”

I don’t know what this line means. I’m not sure I want to know. But I know that it made me laugh all through the next few scenes in Ghostbusters. There is something divine about Bill Murray, and I mean that adjective in the truest sense. Murray’s screen persona walks among men, but he is apart from them. He can’t really be called courageous, yet he faces danger, authority, and sexual aggression without the slightest trace of fear. As Newsweek‘s David Ansen put it, “His response stays the same, whether he is confronted by a green demon or an ordinary man in the street: nothing fazes his lunatic disengagement from reality.” We cannot imagine a life for Murray outside the running time of his films; he’s unreal, he couldn’t survive in the world of the flesh.

Murray is not yet on the same plane as the great Groucho Marx, but I thought about Groucho while watching Ghostbusters. Like Groucho, Murray’s anarchic insouciance is a liberating force; he gives gleeful life to all the comebacks that we would like to be able to make to authority figures and incompetents. Part of Murray’s popularity must stem from the fact that his humor is rarely laced with malice; rather, he floats his words on a breeze of laid-back cheer. This is, of course, the opposite of Groucho’s rapid patter. But Murray has a scene with Sigourney Weaver – who is both beautiful and funny in Ghostbusters – after she’s been possessed by the spirit of a ghost who’s been haunting her apartment refrigerator, during which the two of them achieve a comic dialogue the likes of which has not been seen (or heard) since Groucho parted ways with Margaret Dumont.

Weaver is writhing in heat on her bed (she is about to levitate above the bed, which prompts Murray to later remark, “I like her because she sleeps above her covers – four feet above her covers” – but still, no big deal), and she entices Murray hither. He’ll have none of it. The scene he sees before him is too fraught with possibilities for one-liners, and he is drunk on comic opportunity. It’s impossible to imagine Murray and Weaver actually bedding down after the movie ends just as it was impossible to imagine what Groucho might do if he actually convinced one of the objects of his desire to join him between the sheets full of cracker crumbs.

So what about the movie itself? Well, Ivan Reitman continues to be the worst comedy director at work today, but he seems to be Bill Murray’s guide, what with Meatballs and Stripes and all. And presumably he provides the improvisational atmosphere in which Murray thrives. Aykroyd and Ramis maintain second-banana status; there is also an inexplicable fourth ghostbuster, Ernie Hudson, who seems to be there to get the black vote.

And Rick Moranis is so good as Weaver’s geeky neighbor that it makes up for Streets of Fire. Well, almost. With these people hanging about, plus the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man, Ghostbusters can’t miss being agreeable. As for Murray, he won’t have Reitman to fall back on for his next movie. He plays the seeker-of-the-infinite in The Razor’s Edge. It’s unfair, but you can’t help imagining him experiencing his moment of oneness with the Absolute, putting his head back against a tree trunk, watching the sun rise, and whispering softly, “I feel sooo funky….”

First published in The Informer, May/June 1984

At this point in my budding career I was writing reviews in a daily newspaper, The Herald, and also editing the Seattle Film Society’s newsletter, The Informer; I rarely wrote two reviews of the same movie (something I did a lot of when I later wrote for The Herald and at the same time), but I guess Ghostbusters was one of them. I posted the other review almost ten years ago – man, time flies. I suppose I would watch it again someday, but only for Murray.

This Is Spinal Tap

October 27, 2021

One of the funnier moments in recent movie memory occurs halfway through This Is Spinal Tap, when the fictitious British rock band finally gets copies of their long-delayed new album, Smell the Glove. The cover was supposed to be adorned with a multifariously sexist image, but the record company balked, so the new album has simply an all-black cover – no name, no title, no nothing. Lead guitarist Nigel (Christopher Guest) looks at the album, and starts to wax poetic about the nature of its blackness. “It’s like, it’s asking the question, how much blacker can black be,” he suggests, in perfect Liverpudlian haze. “And the answer is … none.”

That last word, delivered at the end of a superbly timed pause during which the speaker struggles through a graveyard of dead brain cells in an impossible attempt to remember the beginning of his sentence, it typical of the film’s feel for delicious non sequitur. Reportedly, much of the film came out of improvisation, and bearing that in mind, it’s remarkable that the movie is as cohesive and on-target as it is. In case you haven’t heard, This Is Spinal Tap is a pseudo-documentary about a rock group called Spinal Tap, a band that has ridden the various fads from psychedelia through heavy metal, and which now appears to be on its last tour.

The idea for the movie came from Rob Reiner, who directed the film, co-wrote it with the actors, and appears as Martin DiBerge, filmmaker (DeBerge’s hilariously earnest introduction to the film is wonderful; as a matter of fact, Reiner’s reaction shots of himself throughout the movie, absolutely deadpan as the band members proffer their weirdnesses, is a canny comic device.) Reiner, like the rest of us, probably sat through one too many grainy, pretentious, amateurish documentaries about some sleazy rock ‘n rollers who paid for a vanity project on themselves and then lost interest halfway through. He’s clearly a student of the subgenre, because all the stylistic signatures are in evidence: hit-and-miss focus, wandering camera, labyrinthian language (the kind that surrounds “real people” when they try to sound articulate for the camera). Much of the credit for that language goes to the actors, especially to Michael McKean and Christopher Guest, who are sort of the Lennon and McCartney of Spinal Tap (although their bassist, Derek Smalls – played by Harry Shearer – claims they’re really like Shelley and Byron). They may have had their differences before, but the band’s already fragile biorhythms are seriously disrupted when McKean’s girlfriend pops up during mid-tour, as the band finds itself getting canceled out of gigs in small clubs.

Exerting a Yokoesque hold on McKean, she suggests that the way to rekindle their sagging fortunes is to dress the group as animals while onstage. Somehow this leads to a Stonehenge motif, which appears in the act as an 18-inch shrine that descends from the rafters so that a pair of uncoordinated leprechauns can skip around (I guarantee you will have tears in your eyes during this). So much of This Is Spinal Tap is bullseye stuff that it becomes almost too good; the parody captures sleaziness and pretentiousness and vacuousness so exactly that it comes close to being gruesome to watch. This movie gets to be terribly, horribly good.

First published in The Informer, April 1984

I hope that if anybody reads these things, part of the appeal is seeing what it’s like to watch future classics utterly cold – at the time, one did not know how completely a movie like this would enter the popular consciousness. Anyway, this is what that initial snap of discovery was like. I like Yoko, by the way, and meant the phrase “Yokoesque” only in the sense of how this character operates in the world of the mockrockumentary. Don’t know what else to say about it, but I did see Spinal Tap perform live once, after walking past the Paramount Theater in Seattle one night, seeing they were playing right then, and buying a ticket. Which was fun.

Losin’ It

October 26, 2021

Dear Penthouse,

I never thought that I, a shy and moderately winsome high school boy, would be writing you, but I guess that just show you how wacky life can get. Little did I know when I set out with my three buddies on that fateful weekend trip to Tijuana that we would find ourselves knee-deep in prostitutes, border police, fireworks, angry Marines, and Spanish flies, and all before the first 24 hours had passed. It was all in this movie, Losin’ It, and man, did we ever – I don’t think I have to explain what I mean to you hep cats.

Anyway, Tom Cruise – that guy in Risky Business – he played me, and my best friend, a really weird looking kid, was played by Jackie Earle Haley, who was that short one in Breaking Away. So we took his ’57 Chevy down to TJ to get a tuck ‘n roll (whatever that is). But before we even got there, we stopped at this grocery store to rip off some Fritos and stuff and picked up this woman (Shelley Long) who was really cute and funny and wanted to get a divorce and so she went to Tijuana with us.

TJ is this really boss place. It looks like this movie I saw once called Touch of Evil, except that there are more people now. Also color. So anyway, we weren’t in town more than five minutes when this mean Mexican policeman (Henry Darrow) started hassling us. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. That night we went to a bar where some women took us upstairs. We gave them ten dollars (I think the peso has been devalued or something) in the hopes that we would soon be “losin’ it.” But I got spooked or I don’t know what, but I couldn’t go through with it. (The lady I got was like 30, at least.) So I cut out of there and felt really blue. But then I ran into Shelley Long, who had just filed her divorce papers. So then I felt better, ’cause I really liked her. She must have thought I was moderately winsome, because we wound up going to a motel, and she showed me the ropes, if you catch my drift. So you see, this story has a happy ending, because I really did wind up “losin’ it” after all.

But poor Jackie Earle Haley and his little brother Wimp got into trouble when they bought some Spanish flies (they really exist! I’m not kidding!), and tried to slip one to a comely Mexican lass. Man, when her brother found out, he was unhappy. But the worst thing was, our other buddy got himself arrested when he got into a fight while he was hanging around the Blue Fox, waiting to see the donkey – and the arresting officer was that mean cop, who said he’d throw our buddy in the clink if we didn’t hand over the ’57 Chevy with the new tuck ‘n roll. Whoa! We got away okay, though – we threw some illegal fireworks into his police car, and junk like that – and even though Shelley Long went back to her husband (and, eventually, to an Emmy nomination for Cheers), I chalked it up as an eventful, successful weekend; like my Psych teacher would say, it was a learning experience.

But what I really want to know, and what we never found out from Losin’ It, is this: What is this donkey thing at the Blue Fox? I know it must be something really crazy, but what? I know there’s a movie called The Blue Fox, ’cause I read the ad in the P-I, and they even mentioned the donkey, but they didn’t say what it was! So is it real, or is it like the way you never find out what’s behind the Green Door? Please, if any of your readers know, let them tell me. If I don’t find out soon, I’m really gonna be losin’ it!

Anxiously yours,

Borderline Bob

First published in The Informer, September 1983

Concept review. What can I say? In those days the “Letter to Penthouse” parody was reliable comedy gold. Funny thing is, the movie has some impressive credits; it was directed by L.A. Confidential maker Curtis Hanson, written by B.W.L. Norton, shot by Gil Taylor. I haven’t re-visited the film (some day, surely), but I remember it as not a bad movie, but just smutty. This must have been shot before Risky Business and thus is Cruise’s first lead role. For those of you outside the Pacific Northwest, the P-I was the second daily newspaper in Seattle, and if I’m remembering correctly, the joke here was that they printed the ads for X-rated movies, which the Seattle Times most assuredly did not do.

Heart Like a Wheel

October 21, 2021

The modest new film Heart Like a Wheel is one of the most likable movies of the year, and its modesty is one of the most likable things about it. There’s nothing flashy or extraneous about director Jonathan Kaplan’s handling of the life story of tradition-breaking drag racer Shirley Muldowney (after a screenplay by Ken Friedman). In steering clear of excess and phoniness, Kaplan captures a sharp sense of life-as-lived as opposed to life-gassed-up-for-movie-cameras – without getting goody-goody about it. He does this by providing a strong structure for the story, and rooting the decisions and emotions of the characters in smart filmmaking technique.

The relationship between Muldowney and rival/crew chief/lover Connie Kalitta is framed by similar sequences: the camera moves around them, describing an arc, as Shirley and Connie exchange glances (and Kaplan cuts between the two of them) after Connie has made an honest offer of help (and sometime after he has made his randy intentions explicit). At the end of their love affair – though that is happily not the end of their relationship – Kaplan repeats this camera movement, but it goes the opposite direction, and suddenly we know, after all the ups and downs of the affair: well, yes, it’s over now, of course. Nothing ultra-dramatic here (even if the rocky relationship has its share of dramatic high points); just the purely cinematic rendering of the shape of peoples’ lives. That’s good moviemaking, and Kaplan has some good movies ahead of him.

The drag racing itself takes a back seat to the human story, and that’s appropriate, but it does lend a flavorful background to the proceedings – I doubt if many of us have any knowledge of the sport outside of those great radio ads for SIR racetrack (it’s always “64 Funny Cars!!” – somehow it’s impossible to race just 32 or jump to 128; 64 has some kind of symbolic, almost religious meaning for devotees of drag racing). Those ads probably account for the first pubic awareness of Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney, as she was always known, dueling head-to-head in grudge matches with “Big Daddy” Don Garlits.

That “Cha Cha” moniker is one of the ways in which the world seems to want to define and categorize Shirley Muldowney; she’s made to feel a Wife, Mother, Lover without being allowed to be Shirley Muldowney. The emergence of Shirley is the story of the film – and her desire to be many things at once, without being classified as any one commodity, is echoed in the film itself, which has proved hard to define (and to advertise). A love story, a woman’s film, a sports film – it wants to be all those things; like Shirley, it resists pigeonholing. The very qualities that make Shirley Muldowney and Heart Like a Wheel honest and uncompromising also make them something of a tough sell. That – for moviewatchers, if not for promoters – is refreshing.

Bonnie Bedelia and Beau Bridges – even the alliteration of the names suggests B-movie, small-scale professionalism – play Muldowney and Kalitta, and they are wonderful to watch. Sometimes you see movies in which two characters are supposed to be in love, and one or the other or both is less than completely sympathetic, and you think: What does she/he possibly see in him/her? The Muldowney/Kalitta relationship is hardly a bed of roses, but Bedelia and Bridges display that screen intangible known as chemistry, and they are never less than believable.

That both actors are Hollywood misfits seems to mysteriously enhance their chemistry, in the way that meta-cinematic facts sometimes do; Bedelia dropped out of acting for a few years to pursue a more normal life in the domestic arena, and Bridges’ career has been somewhat eclipsed by his brother Jeff’s – Beau has seemed more interested in working in small, socially-conscious movies that barely get released than in building a standard Hollywood career. I can’t spell out exactly why this matters, except to say that somehow it gets on screen, whether it’s in Bedelia’s driven toughness as Muldowney or Bridges’ self-assured rambunctiousness as Kalitta. Kaplan supplies the finely-tuned chassis for the film, but it’s Bedelia and Bridges who put the heart in Heart Like a Wheel.

First published in The Informer, August 1983

The movie’s release was engineered in Seattle, and it turned into a sleeper with strong reviews. It picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design, but Bedelia and Bridges were certainly worthy. Also in the cast: Leo Rossi, Anthony Edwards, Hoyt Axton, Dick Miller, Robert Ridgely; Bill McKinney played Garlits.

Baby It’s You

October 20, 2021

For one thing, the noses: Her is graceful, a delicate thing that flares up and away from her full lips. His is inelegant, a flattened King-size that retains some Roman nobility while staying ready for a fight. There is nothing particularly complementary about these noses, nor about the people behind them, but they can’t seem to stay away from each other. It could be the old opposites attracting; then again, it could be nothing more than being the same place at the same time (in this case, the place is high school, Trenton, New Jersey, and the time is the mid-Sixties) and sharing a restless feeling. Whatever it is, they’ve got it, and it’s the kind of thing they won’t lose even when they want to.

She is Jill Rosen, a Jewish princess with the acting bug; he is Albert Capadilupo – just call him “Sheik” – an Italian stallion who fancies himself the next Frank Sinatra. They are the main characters in Baby It’s You, the new film by John Sayles, and we see their rocky relationship from the end of the their greaser high-school days to the beginning of their disoriented (and separate) college-age careers. That’s a pretty traumatic shift; the high school environment is sheltered and oppressive, having not changed since 1962, by the looks of things, although it must be ’66 or so. When the characters leave Trenton for the real world, they are suddenly swimming in hippiedom. That’s kind of an unrealistic leap, but Sayles seems more interested in showing the dramatic change of moving into any new environment than he is in documenting the history of psychedelia’s creep into national consciousness – in short, to make a movie about Any Time rather than a nostalgic time capsule.

Sayles indicates as much by his use of the anachronistic music that sometimes accompanies Sheik. A few of Bruce Springsteen’s streetkid songs underscore some of Sheik’s most intense moments, and serve as a shorthand for his character. (The Springsteen songs also remind us of our own vantage point, and perhaps that, with all the changes in popular culture through time, attitudes and experiences remain pretty much the same.) In fact, sometimes the music provides a large part of the understanding we have for these people; the reason for Jill’s love (or whatever) for Sheik remains a bit obscure (to me, anyway). Aside from his general hunkiness, he is not gifted with an overload of redeeming qualities – and yet, he is exciting, and unpredictable, and that danger attracts Jill. Sayles establishes this during one of the couple’s first encounters, a frenzied, rave-up car ride that Jill takes in Sheik’s car, cut to the scorching strains of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” It’s a giddy dangerousness, the kind that is so seductive. Maybe Sheik’s charms aren’t so elusive after all.

But then, part of the point of the movie is that the motivations of real people are frequently mysterious; and Sayles, in his movie career thus far, seems far more intrigued by ordinary people and problems than in contrivance or glitz. That’s a tricky business, and Baby It’s You carries the added burden of being set in a period that seems ready to perish from cinematic overuse. However, Sayles has a bonus, too: Baby It’s You marks his first use of real Hollywood actors, cinematographers, etc. Thus the film has a sharper look than Sayles’, first, homegrown films, Return of the Secaucus Seven and Lianna; and the film benefits hugely from the assured performances of Vince Spano as Sheik, and, especially, the remarkable Rosanna Arquette as Jill. They give their ordinary people something special, and their combined presence illuminates Sayles’ examination of the process by which two individuals can become something more than strangers in the night.

First published in The Informer, March 1983

Arquette was coming off The Executioner’s Song, so my enthusiasm came from that, with good reason. The cast also included small roles for Matthew Modine, Tracy Pollan, and Robert Downey, Jr. As I write this, John Sayles has not directed a film since the (very sharp) Go for Sisters in 2013, which is a tragic waste.


October 19, 2021

I was waiting for 48 HRS. to start when a bunch of yahoos filled the row behind me. Since I’d already finished reading my copy of the Christmas edition of FUN magazine, I had little else to do than listen in on the lively conversation going on back there. They were talking about movies, and much to my surprise, a couple of the guys were very interested in seeing Gandhi. After a bit, a new voice entered their talk: “Oh, Gandhi, yeah, I wanna see that. Is that like based on a true story, or what?”

I stopped listening at that point. We all owe Richard Attenborough thanks for getting Gandhi made; even if it had been a bad film, at least it would have established that this person Gandhi did exist, and that he mattered. As a matter of fact, Attenborough has not made a bad film; at the very least, he has made an honorable one. These observations I jot down now are based on only a couple of hours’ worth of decompression from a very full 3 hour and 10 minute film, so there’s no carving in stone going on; instead, some impressions:

– Something on which I daresay everyone will agree is the rightness of casting the half-Indian, mostly-unknown actor Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. Not only is Kingsley a good actor with commanding screen presence, but his physical resemblance to – and meticulous re-creation of – the Mahatma is quite flabbergasting.

– Richard Attenborough is not exactly a great visual stylist, but he had the good sense to pick two good cameramen (Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor) who have brought Gandhi’s India to impressive life. There’s a scene near the beginning that has a procession attended by more people than you’ve probably ever seen on a movie screen at one time – hundreds of thousands, anyway – and Attenborough scans the crowd only once before he cuts in to closer shots. Now, that’s restraint. How many times, and from how many different angles, would David Lean have shot the crowd?

– The screenplay, by John Briley, is unusually intelligent, and shrewdly constructed; the rhythms of Gandhi’s triumphs are spaced so that audience involvement should never flag. Briley wrote the script of The Medusa Touch, a Richard Burton horror flick, a few years back; when the Film Society tried to alert people to its worth in an encore showing, nobody came.

– Attenborough struggles with action scenes. During the slaughter of Indians by British forces, you can see him searching for a way to make it play; the whip-pans he uses are not particularly effective, but the scene is powerful despite the cinematic messiness. Attenborough is at his best when keeping things simple and straightforward.

– During the last quarter of Gandhi there is a slight sense of we’ve-been-through-this-before, as we see Gandhi pull of one last miraculous victory. Perhaps this feeling will be wiped away with a second viewing, and perhaps it will be strengthened. But after all, Gandhi does deal with historical truths, and one is obligated to cover the main events. Some of Gandhi‘s nicest moments are not based on facts, but inventions of the filmmakers; at one point, a little boy climbs a tree to catch a glimpse of the little man that everyone is talking about; when he does see the man, the boy smiles instinctively. It is, from the filmmakers’ standpoint, a self-conscious Moment, but no less a Moment for being self-conscious. The boy gets a glimpse of an unlikely dream, and of the birth of a nation. There are people who would have given a lot to be in that tree at that point in history; thanks to Gandhi, we all get a chance.

First published in The Informer, January 1983

Never did sit through this movie a second time, and haven’t missed it. I’m as annoyed as the next person that it beat E.T. for the Best Picture Oscar, and I don’t know anybody who talks about Gandhi anymore, other than as an example of Cinema of Quality squareness. Still, I obviously admired it in the immediate afterglow, and I’m not going to apologize for that. Nice remembrance of the Seattle Film Society’s boosting of The Medusa Touch, which I believe played on a double-bill with The Exorcist II. Oh yes, and there was once something called FUN magazine distributed to Seattle theaters, a kind of glorified ad circular with press kit material printed up as copy (my mention was intended as a bit of drollery). If you want to hear more, let me know.

Brimstone & Treacle

October 14, 2021

The British rock musician Sting has made two impressive, if brief, appearances in film. In Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia, he was a blond biker; in Christopher Petit’s little-seen Radio On, he played a gas station attendant who fancied himself a reincarnation of Eddie Cochran. Sting has also been prominent in a few videos made with his band The Police, which get frequent play on the Music Television cable station. In all these things Der Stingle has shown himself to be a dynamic screen presence, blessed with strong cheekbones and a natural, graceful way of moving.

Now Sting has his first starring role, as a mysterious stranger in Brimstone & Treacle, and from this corner, the prognosis for a potential movie career is … pretty good. He plays a young man who insinuates himself into the home of a numbingly bourgeois couple who live in disintegrating isolation with their invalid daughter. That’s really all that needs to be said about the plot, except to note that the young man is, as the woman of the house points out, “Extremely persuasive.”

Director Richard Loncraine (The Huanting of Julia, The Missionary) has a good eye, but he might have been well-advised to have taken a scissors – or a carving knife? – to the screenplay, which travels from the wittily creepy to the excruciatingly obvious, sometimes within the same sentence. Still, there is much for the actors to play with; the best of the Pinteresque power plays has the father laying down the law of the house and then having his authority eroded by the promise of epicurean delights made by the lodger. In these delicious sequences, Sting’s debut as a leading man is aided immeasurably by the support of two of England’s most solid professionals, Denholm Elliott and Joan Plowright. (Elliott may have the film’s best moment, an eerie shot that looks at him through a window in his office, as he stands transfixed by a desolate world, murmuring a kind of chant to himself: “Drop the bomb … drop the bomb … wipe us all out….”)

Brimstone & Treacle is a diverting movie, but the filmmakers have made one puzzling decision that may have kept it from being more than diverting. At the beginning, the audience is tipped off to the young stranger’s dishonesty; we are allowed to glimpse his calculations. Not that we know why he’s imposing himself on this family, but there is no doubt about his being up to no good. Since we are, to some extent, in on his game, much of the early scenes are robbed of an extra layer of mystery; we need never ask ourselves, Is this for real, or what? That’s too bad. But even with this knowledge, there is, thankfully, plenty to be curious about.

First published in The Informer, December 1982

I don’t remember the film well, but somehow I think this review is probably wrong on a number of points. For one thing, the screenplay I criticize is written by Dennis Potter; I would’ve known only the movie version of Pennies from Heaven at this point. Of course, I was wrong about Sting’s movie career, which he probably wasn’t too interested in anyway – but he was … pretty bad in Dune and The Bride, so it all worked out for the best. Loncraine showed promise at this point, and has worked a lot since. At least I got a shout-out to Radio On in there. And hey, how about the reference to that Music Television station? MTV had only been around for a year or so then.