Imagine: John Lennon

November 24, 2021

Since John Lennon’s death, Yoko Ono has been a very deliberate caretaker of the man’s considerable legacy. Through a series of albums, books, a TV-movie, and even a recent star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Yoko has kept Lennon’s presence felt.

One thing she couldn’t control was the wholly unauthorized biography of Lennon written by Albert Goldman, published a few weeks ago. Goldman, who trashed Elvis Presley in a notorious book earlier this decade, spent more than five years writing his Lives of John Lennon. I haven’t read the book, but Goldman seems to have unearthed many nasty bits, some of which have been denied by the people involved (and many of which had been admitted by Lennon all along).

But the resourceful Yoko has come up with a reply to Goldman, in the form of a feature film. (Everyone denies that the film is a response to Goldman’s book, but the timing is too perfect.) Yoko went to producer David Wolper and director Andrew Solt and turned over more than 100 hours of audio tapes, video, and film, all from John and Yoko’s private collection.

The movie that Wolper and Solt made from the footage (and other available materials) is Imagine: John Lennon. It’s a largely predictable, but unavoidably fascinating film.

Lennon was part of one of the century’s most amazing cultural phenomena, but even if The Beatles had never happened, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Lennon would have been a remarkable man. This film does not attempt to float a halo over his head, although it is highly laudatory. By revealing him in moments of anger, pettiness, and foolishness, the film simply acknowledges Lennon’s complexity; he was a man much greater than the sum of his parts.

There is a healthy does of music, both Beatle and solo, and there are interviews with ex-wife Cynthia and Yoko, and sons Julian and Sean. But the major attraction of the film is the home-movie quality of the newly-seen footage.

Much of it is offhand, showing Lennon noodling around with songs that would eventually become familiar. There are revealing moments of Lennon’s petulance, such as a conversation between John and George Harrison in which they derisively speak of Paul McCartney as “Beatle Ed” before cutting Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?”—a caustic jibe at Paul.

During John and Yoko’s famous bed-in for peace, they are visited by cartoonist Al Capp, who had become a raving reactionary late in life. Capp assails the couple, and openly insults Yoko in racist terms. John really must’ve been into peace, because he would have been perfectly justified in slugging Capp.

And there are eerie passages. At one point John reads a letter from a fan who had consulted a Ouija board and deduced that Lennon would be assassinated. In the movie’s oddest sequence, Lennon talks to a flaky chap who’d been shadowing the star’s estate, and who felt that John was speaking to him through the music. Lennon compassionately brings this poor soul down to earth, then invites him in to breakfast.

Imagine is consistently intriguing (though, as George Harrison said of it, there’s a bit too much Beatles stuff, buoyant as that is). It is not a lofty or great documentary, but there’s enough of value to whet one’s appetite for the other 99 hours.

First published in The Herald, October 1988

We are on the verge of Peter Jackson’s multi-hour revamp of the Let It Be footage, so this seemed worth digging out. “Beatle Ed”—very funny.

Immediate Family

November 23, 2021

Immediate Family is an expert piece of moviemaking, the kind of two-hankie drama that Hollywood might have turned out as a vehicle for Joan Crawford in the 1940s, but fashioned with knowing, modern hands.

Barbara Benedek’s original screenplay (she was one of the writers on The Big Chill) is about parenthood, or, more precisely, the desire for parenthood.

Glenn Close and James Woods play an upper-middle-class Seattle couple (Vancouver, British Columbia, once again stands in for the Jet City) who cannot have children. After frustrations with fertility pills, they decide to go the adoption route, in which the pregnant mother and would-be adoptive parents meet before birth, for each others’ approval.

Our couple draws a teenage unwed mother-to-be (Mary Stuart Masterson) from a small town in Ohio. She’s given to wearing mauve buckskin jackets and listening to heavy metal, but Close and Woods are happy to take her, and await the few days left before delivery. Masterson’s leather-clad boyfriend (Kevin Dillion) arrives for a day to check out the old people and grunt his approval.

When the baby is born, with Close and Woods on hand and ready to take over, the young mother begins to be gnawed by second thoughts. And the film takes a very effective turn toward melodrama.

Director Jonathan Kaplan does a wonderful job disguising the fact that not a great deal actually happens in the film. (Virtually the same story was told over a few episodes of L.A. Law last year.) It’s about intimate scenes and quiet moments of humanity, a shared appreciation of a favorite song or the view of a plum tree from a baby’s bedroom.

Kaplan, who started his career with trucker movies (they were good trucker movies), has really come on. He has an unerring camera sense, and he really seems to have a touch with actresses. He also directed Bonnie Bedelia in Heart Like a Wheel and Jodie Foster in her Oscar-winning turn in The Accused. Glenn Close and Mary Stuart Masterson are both excellent here.

Masterson cements her claim to being the best of the young actresses. Like Foster in The Accused, she plays a blue-collar role without condescending to the character. Her first phone call to Close, full of embarrassment and youth, is a classic little scene. This is exemplary work.

First published in The Herald, October 1989

Some big boosting here of Kaplan and Masterson, for which I do not apologize. From today (2021), I cannot picture Close and Woods as a couple, but that’s not fair. Maybe it seemed credible at the time? Benedek wrote the 1995 Sabrina remake and has no IMDb credits since.

The Iron Triangle

November 18, 2021

There’s one original angle in The Iron Triangle, and it’s probably worth noting. This is another Vietnam movie, and a low-budget one at that, but the angle is that it tells a good deal of its story from the point of view of a North Vietnamese soldier. The enemy here is not just a target in the jungle at night, but a human presence.

The credits claim that the script is based on the confiscated diaries of a Viet Cong soldier. As the film portrays its Viet Cong characters, it comes to the unsurprising conclusion that a soldier is a soldier, and that the enemy side was as rife with the same kinds of fears, hopes, and bitterness as our side was.

This idea of showing war from the other side is a bit old, although it is new for Vietnam movies. And it’s the only intriguing thing about The Iron Triangle, which otherwise tells a hackneyed story.

At first, director/co-writer Eric Weston spins the tale from two perspectives. One thread follows a U.S. Army captain (Beau Bridges) leading his platoon through treacherous territory. The other thread follows a young V.C. soldier (newcomer Liem Whatley, a native of Vietnam), an ambivalent sniper. His superior is played by Haing S. Ngor, the Cambodian refugee who won the Supporting Actor Oscar for The Killing Fields.

Eventually Bridges is captured by the young Viet Cong soldier during an attack, and taken as a tense prisoner across the jungle. That’s where they learn about the other’s humanity.

Well, fine. But the film regularly dips into the library of war-movie clichés. You have to groan when Bridges’ narration announces that, “There are some sights in war that you always remember. A beautiful woman is one of them.” Also, the music emulates Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” used so eloquently in Platoon, and the jungle stuff (the film was shot in Sri Lanka, not far from the location of The Bridge of the River Kwai) is too familiar.

With all the brotherhood being espoused, it is peculiar that The Iron Triangle chooses the South Vietnamese as its villains. A South Vietnamese officer who brutally executes prisoners is the cruelest character in the movie, and a radio propaganda hostess is the standard dragon-lady type until she is abruptly dispatched. The film has good intentions, but some odd effects.

First published in The Herald, February 9, 1989

I do not recall the film, but I failed to mention in my rather uninspired review that it co-stars Johnny Hallyday, the great French rock ‘n roll star. Weston is also the director of Evilspeak.

Journey to Spirit Island

November 17, 2021

In Journey to Spirit Island, we see the traditional kids’ adventure movie played out once again – but this time, with a particularly exotic backdrop, and from an untraditional point of view. The film is set in Washington’s San Juan Islands, and the main characters are the small band of Native Americans who live there.

It seems that one young tribesman has a scheme to lease part of Spirit Island to some white developers, who want to build a convention resort there. The island, however, is an ancient Indian burial ground, a sacred place meant to be undisturbed.

Enter a spunky adolescent Indian girl (played by an actress named Bettina), who feels a mysterious pull toward the island. She and her little brother go canoeing one weekend with a couple of young friends visiting from Chicago. After they have an accident, they’re washed up on Spirit Island, where they stumble across the greedy developers making mischief.

From there, it’s solid Hardy Boys territory, with the gorgeous San Juan locations providing an effectively enticing background. Journey to Spirit Island is not without its amateurish moments, but it delivers the goods in terms of a kid adventure. The four youths become caught in a storm, find creepy old skeletons and gravesites, and get trapped in a cave.

This film was made on a shoestring budget and completely locally by director Laszlo Pal, who displays a nice touch with the cultural complexities of the story, particularly the heroine’s confusion about Indian ways, which she feels in her bones.

The high-level name associated with the movie is that of Vilmos Zsigmond, a brilliant cinematographer who virtually invented the “look” of American movies in the 1970s, especially in his collaborations with Robert Altman (he won an Oscar for photographing Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Zsigmond makes this film look like a much more expensive production, and even works in some surrealistic photographic effects – recalling some of his work on Deliverance, another movie about four people on a life-changing canoe adventure.

First published in The Herald, 1988

Laszlo Pal has had connections to the Pacific Northwest for many years, and is renowned as an outdoor documentary filmmaker. The actress called Bettina has also been billed as Bettina Bush. The movie later had success as a Disney TV offering, which is why it is sometimes dated as a 1992 film, I guess. Pal won a Best Director daytime Emmy after it was broadcast. In Zsigmond’s filmography, it lands between The Witches of Eastwick and Fat Man and Little Boy; presumably he cut his fee. The Deliverance reference is cheeky here. Just keeping myself interested, I guess.

Jesus of Montreal

November 16, 2021

Jesus of Montreal was one of the most highly touted movies of this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, and it showed up in a plum slot: Saturday night of closing weekend. With all that going for it, Jesus looked like the front-runner for the best film prize in the whimsically named Golden Space Needle Awards, voted by the festival audience.

But hold that needle. The surprise winner turned out to be Pump Up the Volume, an enthusiastically received American teen movie. Jesus of Montreal had to settle for second place. I didn’t see Pump Up the Volume, but I couldn’t help liking the choice, if only because it denied a top prize to Jesus, a film I found pretentious and silly.

Jesus of Montreal comes from Quebec filmmaker Denys Arcand, and it has been one of the best-received Canadian films ever made. It is an allegory, both straight and humorous, about a troupe of actors who perform a Passion Play at a Montreal church, and the way the offstage activities of the actor playing Jesus mirror the events of the gospel according to St. Mark. Instead of throwing the money lenders out of the church, the actor (played by washed-out Lothaire Bluteau) chases some obnoxious producers out of a theater.

Like Arcand’s previous film, The Decline of the American Empire, this movie is an entertaining mess. Individual scenes are fun to watch, and the outdoor performance of the Passion Play, which aims at some of the realistic feeling of Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, is vivid.

The movie has a few remarkable moments, such as the policeman who interrupts a show by tapping the bloodied, crucified Jesus politely on the knee and informing him that he will have to shut down the performance. But the film is overly impressed by its own ambitiousness The religious allegory is obvious, and the best passages in the movie are its comic jibes at the nature of show business.

This is a movie with ideas rambling around in it, which is better than a movie with no ideas at all. But Arcand is not quite director enough to pull all of his ideas together. Despite the controversy surrounding it, Last Temptation is a more exalted and coherent look at Jesus for our times.

First published in The Herald, June 15, 1990

The film is well liked, as far as I know, and is certainly a classic of Canadian content. Maybe I’d have liked it more if it hadn’t been such a perfect SIFF film. But Pump Up the Volume is good, too. Arcand is still going strong, or he was when Fall of the American Empire was released in 2018. I also reviewed Decline back in the 80s, and I review a couple of his other titles here.

I’m Gonna Git You Sucka

November 11, 2021

A question. “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?” The correct response, of course, is “Shaft.”

If that question was too esoteric for you, you may be beyond the humor of I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, a new movie that spoofs the wave of “blaxploitation” movies popular in the early 1970s. Sucka is written and directed by Kennen Ivory Wayans, who co-wrote and acted in Robert Townsend’s low-budget hit Hollywood Shuffle.

Wayans obviously grew up on films such as Shaft and Superfly, and he knows just how to send them up. In the opening scene of Sucka, a young black man named Junebug Spade is found dead on the street in “Any Ghetto, U.S.A.” Cause of death: O.G.’d. That’s Over Gold. He was wearing too many gold chains.

When Junebug’s brother Jack (played by Wayans) returns from the Army, he determines to topple the Mr. Big who’s been flooding the ghetto with cheap gold-plated jewelry. But Jack needs help, and he turns to the black heroes of his youth.

One of the movie’s amusing strokes is its deployment of the same actors who starred in those blaxploitation films. Jim Brown, the ex-football great whose acting career included a couple of these films as the character “Slaughter,” here plays a tough guy who comes out of retirement.

Other cast members include Bernie Casey, Isaac Hayes (who won the 1971 Best Song Oscar for composing “Theme from Shaft“), and Antonio Fargas as a procurer who reminisces over the time he won “Pimp of the Year” honors.

Wayans’ film may be a bit tumble-down, but it’s got enough of these wacky asides to keep it chugging along. There are a few running gags that pay off in funny ways, such as Jack’s childhood trauma involving a family of dwarves. And there’s a willingness to wink at the audience; at a bar, a patron wonders about the atrocious girl singer onstage. “She’s the director’s sister,” explains a waitress, as Wayans rolls his eyes sheepishly. If Mel Brooks had set his sights on blaxploitation movies, the results might have looked something like I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.

First published in The Herald, December 1988

This was the wellspring of the Wayans world, as In Living Color came along a couple of years later. The cast is damned impressive, with Steve James, John Vernon, and Clu Gulager in the mix, plus Jester Hairston, Clarence Williams III, Tony Cox, and a young Chris Rock knocking around. And the great John Witherspoon.

A Year of the Quiet Sun

November 9, 2021

Krzysztof Zanussi’s A Year of the Quiet Sun sneaks up on you with all the pantherish grace of its title; there’s no fuss, no hurry in Zanussi’s muted telling of this odd, halting love story. It all seems as offhand as the accidental meeting of the two main characters. Scott Wilson, an American soldier, hears the call of nature as he drives through a barren country landscape, and so stops his jeep and strides over to an abandoned car, where he can conveniently take a leak against the fender. As he discovers mid-pee, the car is not abandoned at all, but inhabited by a woman (Maja Komorowska) who is sitting quietly, painting a sunburst.

This meeting grows into a friendship that defies a formidable language barrier (she is Polish) as well as the subtle sense that these two people don’t have all that much in common, except their loneliness and, possibly, some dormant hope of happiness. Since words are insufficient for communication, Zanussi uses a variety of images to suggest feelings and moods. He does wonders with the interior of Komorowska’s apartment, small and shabby but lit with intimacy. And other images stick in the mind, such as the cookies that Komorowska offers her strange new gentleman caller – which will later be knocked to the floor by the thugs who break into the apartment – and the eerie scene in which onlookers peering into the graves of soldiers suddenly, horrifyingly, lose their balance and fall in among the corpses.

Above all, there is the body language and iconography of Wilson and Komorowska. Scott Wilson, who attended screenings of the film at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year, appeared surprisingly (to me, at least) sleek and trim in person. On the screen, his face has a majestically broken-down, fallen look; he has the crumbling features of a Roman bust, weathered by disappointment (which is why he was perfect for the small role of an old-guard pilot in The Right Stuff). When Wilson tells Komorowska that she is his last chance, that he wants to retreat to a farm somewhere with her, you believe him – because he looks like he’s gone through it all. And there may not be another actress in the world who has a face as expressive and lived-in as Maja Komorowska; we easily understand Wilson’s feelings for her.

Then there is the matter of the ending of A Year of the Quiet Sun. I wouldn’t dream of giving it away, but it is the sort of ending that can take an audience’s breath away (even while Zanussi has carefully prepared us for it), and it brings the whole movie into sudden focus. All along, Zanussi has been sneaking up on us – and in the final few seconds of his movie, he pounces.

First published in The Informer, October 1985

Thirty years after writing this, I met Zanussi at a reception for one of his films at the Edinburgh Filmhouse. So you see what happens when you stick around long enough. They were showing his great film Camouflage, and I got to tell him how much I loved the ending to that.