Kill Me Again

January 27, 2022

Love that title. And the rest of the movie isn’t bad either: Kill Me Again plunks itself down squarely in the delicious film noir tradition of the 1940s, in which men and women played out their emotional problems using guns, cigarettes, and blackmail.

In the dusty setting of modern Reno, private eye Jack Andrews (Val Kilmer) thinks he’s got problems; he’s in hock, his business is collapsing, and loan sharks are beginning to break his fingers. But this is nothing. One day, trouble walks into his office: Fay Forrester (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer), a big-eyed brunette dressed all in white, who sashays out of the shadows toting a briefcase full of crisp one-hundred dollar bills. Trouble.

Jack really ought to know better, especially when Fay bats those big brown saucers at him and says, “I want you to kill me.” In her elaborate scheme, she’ll fake her own death and make off with the money (which she stole from some unforgiving mob folks, and from her nasty ex-boyfriend); all Jack has to do to earn his fee is help with the fakery. Simple.

Except that murder, even when faked, is never simple. And that’s what the rest of Kill Me Again spells out, in entertaining terms. Director John Dahl, who wrote the script with producer David Warfield, borrows just enough from those classic ’40s films without getting slavish about it. If you’ve seen those movies, you may be ahead of the twists and turns here, but that doesn’t make them any less fun.

Nice feeling for the desolation of Nevada spaces, plus some weird black comedy in the scene in which Jack and Fay arrange her “death.” The lead actors – married in real life – are ever so slightly offbeat. Whalley-Kilmer, the English actress last seen in Scandal, knows how to turn on the seductive charm with dizzying amorality.

Val Kilmer continues his progress as a light leading man of the Jeff Bridges variety. (He did the enjoyable Toshiro Mifune imitation as the hero of Willow.) Here, he doesn’t appear to be doing much, but he expertly conveys the nice-guy denseness of this private eye. Next up: Kilmer plays Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s film about The Doors. Sounds like more trouble.

First published in The Herald, May 5, 1990

Kilmer turned out to be more than slightly offbeat, I guess, an image verified by 2021’s documentary portrait. This is a good movie. Michael Madsen plays the ex. Dahl has had a very busy career in TV, where for all I know (which is not very much) he has done a fine job. Wish he made more movies, though. Of course Red Rock West and The Last Seduction are prime neo-noir, but I also really liked his war picture, The Great Raid, about an Allied mission to liberate a brutal Japanese POW camp. Also, You Kill Me has interesting noir shadings, and oddball performances from Ben Kingsley and Tea Leoni. Did I mention I wished this guy made more movies?


A Killing Affair

January 26, 2022

A Killing Affair is one of those rare movies that, in their failure, avoid being interesting or noble or even laughable. It’s just plain bad.

Deep in the woods of the Appalachians in 1943, a man is killed. His wife, unaware of her husband’s sudden departure, sends her two children off to town and returns to her isolated house. First, she discovers the dead husband, hanging around in the smokehouse. Then, she discovers a strange man, obviously the killer, hanging around inside the house.

During the next couple of days, the wife and killer threaten each other, fight, bury the husband’s corpse, make love. In the course of this, a great deal of backwoods hooey is unearthed.

This movie is chockful of crude caricaturing. The mean husband, a philanderer, a cruel boss, and a man who kicks his children’s guitar, does everything but twirl his oily mustache (he’d do it if he had one).

There are scenes that suggest that writer-director David Saperstein might be attempting some irony, such as the moment when the wife turns to the stranger during the backyard burial and says, “I’m sorry about your family” (in a long flashback sequence that brings the movie to a grinding halt, the stranger has described the ax murders of his wife and children). Picking up on that, the stranger looks at the wife after they have made love and sighs, “You do help mah grievin’.”

Unfortunately, the rest of the film is rendered in a hushed, straight-faced delivery, so the humor appears unintentional. Elsewhere, Saperstein displays his light touch by throwing in huge close-ups of important plot gimmicks, in case you missed that knife being secreted behind the bedpost.

The worst thing about Saperstein’s uncertainty with the material is that he leaves some decent actors adrift. Among the lost of Bill Smitrovich, a good character actor stuck doing the Snidely Whiplash routine as the husband, and primo sleaze John Glover, who plays the wife’s brother, a country preacher.

Worse off are Peter Weller, as the killer, and Kathy Baker, as the wife. Weller, who played Robocop, at least tries to fashion a performance here, even if it is all googly eyes and mannered drawl. Kathy Baker, a respected stage actress who won well-deserved raves for her prostitute in last year’s Street Smart, is actively bad. Baker has interesting screen presence – from one angle she’s homely, from one angle she’s beautiful – but she doesn’t seem to have any clue about what’s going on in this movie.

I don’t blame her. Bad actors can give bad performances on their own, but good actors give bad performances because a director isn’t doing his job. In A Killing Affair, blame the director.

First published in The Herald, July 29, 1988

Saperstein wrote Cocoon. This was actually Kathy Baker’s second film, with an official release date of 1985.


Last Exit to Brooklyn

January 25, 2022

The book Last Exit to Brooklyn is something of an underground classic, a collection of loosely connected short stories by Hubert Selby, Jr. When it was published in 1964, it became the subject of some drawn-out obscenity trials, both here and in England.

The new film made from the book will not cause any obscenity hearings. You have to be pretty explicit today to raise that sort of fuss. But the movie suggests why Last Exit to Brooklyn disturbed people. It isn’t just that the book and film present shocking material; it’s also that the material is so very discouraging and depressing.

The film was shot in the grimy Brooklyn neighborhoods that Selby used as inspiration. There are three separate stories going on, which bump into each other occasionally. The most compelling follows a union organizer (Stephen Lang), unhappily married and prone to drink, who gets involved in an equally unhappy homosexual relationship.

Then there is the story of a hooker named Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who works for her pimp Vinnie (Peter Dobson) until she meets a nice young soldier. But her story ends horribly, too, as she gets involved in a brutal sex scene with dozens of soldiers.

There’s also a no-nonsense union leader (Jerry Orbach), a burly striker (Burt Young), and his chubby daughter (Ricki Lake), who is about to have a baby out of wedlock. This is not a happy group.

Last Exit to Brooklyn is an overwhelmingly depressing film. Somehow, the actors – Lang and Leigh are particularly good – keep it watchable. Director Uli Edel, who made a similarly horrifying German film a few years ago called Christiane F., puts a lot of care, indeed passion, into the locations and their authenticity. The characters and their terrible situations recall the hard-drinking, disillusioned, blue-collar people from John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. books: Sad, but with the ring of truth.

First published in The Herald, May 1990

I must’ve been reading Dos Passos at that time. The stories in Selby’s book remain shocking, and there’s plenty that was left out of the movie – I don’t think anybody could actually make a film out of what he wrote. Christiane F. is the movie that featured a stunning use of Bowie’s German-language version of “Heroes,” by the way. We should note here the existence of Seattle’s fantastic (and for many years lonely) beacon of coffeehouse culture, The Last Exit on Brooklyn (1967-1993), which was situated on Brooklyn Avenue in the University District. There will never be another place like it.


Look Who’s Talking

January 20, 2022

Look Who’s Talking is one of those movies that play much funnier in their coming-attractions trailers than in full-length form. After all, the trailer has all the good lines, without the dull stuff in between.

If you’ve seen the trailer, or a TV commercial, you’ve probably already got the concept; the film is a twist on the traditional romantic comedy. Kirstie Alley (from Cheers) plays an unwed mom who’s looking around for a suitable father for the newborn; taxi driver John Travolta, a stranger who helped deliver the kid, is a willing candidate, but Kirstie can’t see him as a proper dad.

Twist: Throughout the film, we can hear the thoughts and irreverent comments of the baby, via voiceover. He’s an impudent little twerp, given to reflections on his grandmother’s obvious insanity as she makes goo-goo eyes at him (“Oh yeah. She’s gone”), or helplessly registering his displeasure at his mother’s taste in his wardrobe: “No, don’t make me wear clothes with animals on ’em!”

This voiceover is provided by Bruce Willis, who gives the appropriately jive spin to the baby’s sassy dialogue. Writer-director Amy Heckerling, who also directed Fast Times at Ridgemont High, has obviously come up with an attractive concept and a clever way of putting it over.

But, despite this hook and a veteran cast that includes Oscar-winner Olympia Dukakis (Cher’s mother in Moonstruck) as the grandmother, and George Segal as the baby’s inconsiderate (and married) father, there isn’t much to Look Who’s Talking beyond the baby-talk gimmick. When it comes right down to it, the rest of the film is strung together from bits of situation comedies, with nothing much going on except lame excuses to keep Alley and Travolta apart until the final reel.

That’s not enough. Since Three Men and a Baby, kid jokes may be the most sure-fire thing in movies, but they need some support and, like babies, periodic changing.

First published in The Herald, October 1989

Something of a return to visibility for Travolta, although a mixed blessing. Heckerling also directed this film’s sequel, and then came back with Clueless, so at least she got something out of this unpleasantness, beyond what I assume was lots of money. Top-heavy with Scientologists, this one, for sure.


La Lectrice

January 19, 2022

Anybody wondering what happened to foreign films this summer? They seem to be in hiding. With the battle of the titans going on at the box office – Batman and the horde of sequels – foreign films have barely been a presence since May.

But here’s one. And it’s a goodie: La Lectrice, a new film from a consistently intriguing French director, Michel Deville. The translation of the title is The Reader, and the movie begins with a woman reading a book out loud to her husband in bed. The book is called La Lectrice, and it begins with a woman reading out loud to her husband in bed … hmmm.

The heroine of the book, Marie, looks exactly like the bed-reader (and both are played by Miou-Miou). The movie proceeds to follow the adventures of Marie, who decides to use her beautiful voice to make some money by reading aloud to people.

This leads her to a variety of peculiar characters. She reads Marx to a 100-year-old blind woman (Maria Casares), whose eccentric housekeeper is troubled by, she says, spiders living in her head. Marie reads Maupassant to an adolescent boy in a wheelchair, but he’s more interested in the way her skirt hikes up above her knees than in the stylistic nuances of the text.

There is a lonely businessman (Patrick Chenais) who immediately falls in lust with her when she begins to read, and an elderly judge who requests a reading from the Marquis de Sade. Marie is happy to oblige them all; she brings the same mysterious, unflappable ease to each of these strange situations. When the businessman announces that they must go to bed together, she’s all for it, as long as they can read in bed.

Any way you look at it, and there are probably many different ways, La Lectrice is an odd film.  But it’s brightened by the presence of Miou-Miou, who starred in one of this decade’s big arthouse hits, Entre Nous. With Miou-Miou, there’s always a sense of something going on behind her eyes, something smart and playful. She fits in perfectly with Deville’s clever scheme, in which reality and fiction weave together in a sharp and sexy whole.

First published in The Herald, July 16, 1988

I’m not sure I saw another Deville film after this, although I could be wrong. Good role for Miou-Miou. Casares had made her debut in Children of Paradise. The cast also includes André Wilms and Maria de Medeiros.


Lost Angels

January 18, 2022

Lost Angels is reminiscent of the 1955 classic of troubled teens, Rebel Without a Cause, in a variety of ways. It portrays a world in which kids are violent and misunderstood. Most importantly, it holds that adults are largely to blame for the sorry state of young people.

In Rebel, the parents of the James Dean character were distant, cold, and unable to hear the cries for help. In Lost Angels, there’s a whole new way to deal with the problem child. He’s simply shipped off to an adolescent mental hospital, a nice limbo between prison and reform school.

The film, written by Michael Weller and directed by Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire), sides with the teenager, a troubled kid named Tim Doolan (Adam Horovitz, better known as “Ad-Rock” of the bratty Beastie Boys), and strongly indicts his divorced parents, who would rather sweep Tim under the rug. Some of this is a bit simple, and the characterizations of the parents and the doctors at the hospital approach caricature.

But the movie is compelling. If some of the hospital scenes have the feel of a teen take on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, there is a decidedly original relationship drawn between Tim and his doctor, played by Donald Sutherland. The doctor is angry at the circumstances of the patients (new insurance laws provide less funding for the kids, therefore they must be “cured” more quickly and discharged whether they’re okay or not), and the doc carries his own problems with him, including life as a recovering alcoholic.

This unpredictability keeps their interplay fresh. Also offbeat are Tim’s friendships with another lost teen (Amy Locane), and his half-brother (Don Bloomfield), a member of the “Dead at Birth” gang to which Tim also belongs. At first, the gang material – Tim is regularly escaping from the mental hospital and getting into more trouble – seems arbitrary, but eventually it’s revealed as a world where the kid can feel he belongs.

That’s where the movie has its strongest connection to Rebel Without a Cause: the powerful urge to fit in somewhere. Interestingly, Lost Angels suggests that the generation Rebel described, the rebellious teens of the 1950s, have simply repeated the same cycle they were trapped in themselves. The movie’s harshest scene comes when Tim’s mother throws a party instead of picking up her son from the hospital for his eagerly anticipated day of liberty. He slips away and comes to her house, where her friends are gathered around the piano tipsily singing “Mr. Tambourine Man” and looking just as fat and complacent as the parents they rebelled against.

First published in The Herald, May 7, 1989

In that Beastie Boys documentary from a couple of years ago, Horovitz has fun with his Serious Actor fling in this movie – it’s worth a look. I don’t have many good feelings about this movie so I was a little surprised to read that I gave it credit here. Say this about Hugh Hudson, he certainly cashed in his mojo after Chariots of Fire, helming two beefy epics that underperformed: Greystoke, that Robert Towne Tarzan picture, and Revolution, that Al Pacino 1776 flop. Amy Locane was in John Waters’ Cry-Baby, and (as far as I can tell) is currently in prison on a re-sentencing for a 2010 conviction (I’ll let you look it up).


Little Dorrit

January 13, 2022

In the days before the 30-hour miniseries, moviemakers who sought to adapt a lengthy novel were faced with an obvious problem. Charles Dickens, for instance, was a particular hurdle; how does one boil down the teeming, sprawling brilliance of David Copperfield or Pickwick Papers into a two-hour movie?

Somehow it was done, in innumerable adaptations. And, except for the occasional long-form made-for-TV opus, such as the BBC’s recent Bleak House, that’s how it always has been done. Until now.

Little Dorrit runs six and a half hours. Adapted and directed from Dickens by Christine Edzard on a shoestring budget, the film is in two distinct parts, of more than three hours each.

The most intriguing thing about Edzard’s approach is that she tells the story not just in two different ways. Part I, called Nobody’s Fault, covers virtually the entire novel, as it would have been seen through the eyes of one major character, Arthur Clennam.

As the film opens, he returns to England after 20 years abroad. Clennam finds a passion for Amy, the daughter of William Dorrit, who is a resident of the Marshalsea, London’s debtor prison. Clennam begins his own business and endeavors to get Dorrit released from the prison.

The second film, Little Dorrit’s Story, covers the same time from Amy’s point of view. She is born within the walls of the prison and raised there, though it is she who cares for her father and two older siblings. Both films end in the maelstrom surrounding the collapse of the mighty financier, the great Merdle.

The novel is one of Dickens’ greatest, and the characters provide a banquet for actors. Alec Guinness, who made his first major film appearances in David Lean’s versions of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist in the 1940s, plays William Dorrit, the grandiloquent debtor who behaves like a Duke despite his insolvency. Guinness has his great moments, though at the risk of sounding a blasphemous note, I found his performance almost too theatrically florid, even though it is in his character’s nature.

First published in The Herald, October 1988

I’d like to know what I said in the rest of this review, which has been cut off, especially because the film has fallen off the map (it snagged a Screenplay Oscar nomination at the time). Presumably I was about to say more about the cast, which includes Derek Jacobi as Clennam, Joan Greenwood in her final film, and a loooong line of British actors – Miriam Margolyes, if I’m remembering right, has a standout part. Little Dorrit is played by Sarah Pickering, whose only film role this was. My review doesn’t reach a particularly excited pitch (do they ever, really?), but I remember liking the film a lot, and it made my Top Ten list for 1988 – I guess I’m wrong, though, because apparently it came out in the UK in 1987.