Who’s Harry Crumb?

February 24, 2022

John Candy, a mountain of comedy, still hasn’t found a worthwhile movie that he can carry on his own. Candy was brilliant as one of the cast members of SCTV, and he’s provided tasty movie moments as a supporting player (Splash) and as a co-star (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles).

But his first real starring vehicle, Summer Rental, was short on inspiration. Candy is listed as the executive producer of his new starring film, Who’s Harry Crumb?, so he must’ve seen an opportunity to finally do it right. But, though Candy plays the lead role and dominates the movie, the film still doesn’t use his talents to their potential.

He’s playing an inept private detective, called in to solve the kidnapping of a beautiful girl. This gives Candy the excuse to adopt different guises as he tries to ferret out the solution to the crime; he impersonates an Indian, a jockey (that’s a stretch, in more ways than one), and a Hungarian quality-control inspector.

Nothing wrong with having Candy pad around in costumes. But there’s little here that approaches his hilarious work on SCTV, where he was unstoppably funny. (Who could forget his turn as the rotund drag queen Divine, starring as Tinkerbell in a production of Peter Pan?) Even with a former SCTV writer, Paul Flaherty, as the director of this film, Who’s Harry Crumb? can’t find a rhythm for the funny stuff.

For that matter, even Candy can’t quite find the character. Crumb is an imbecilic investigator, but he also has to retain a certain amount of audience sympathy. He’s such a geek that this is difficult to achieve, but it helps that he is surrounded by even less sympathetic characters, especially his devious boss (Jeffrey Jones), the missing girl’s sluttish stepmother (Annie Potts, from TV’s Designing Women), and the stepmother’s goony boyfriend, a tennis pro (Tim Thomerson). Their presence almost makes Harry Crumb appealing.

First published in The Herald, February 1989

It gives me no pleasure to post another reminder of Candy’s disappointing film career. Flaherty (brother of SCTV’s Joe, better known as Guy Caballero and Count Floyd) has a variety of writing and directing credits until 2008. He directed Clifford, the one with Martin Short as a child.


A World Apart

February 23, 2022

In the early scenes of A World Apart, a 13-year-old girl in Johannesburg in 1963 witnesses a black man run over on the street, and the uncaring reaction of the white passers-by. To smooth over the distress, her mother offers to buy her a new hairdo.

By the time the movie is over, such a benign response is impossible. The little girl (played by newcomer Jodhi May) is the daughter of a liberal journalist (Barbara Hershey) who opposes apartheid, but prefers to keep her activism away from her three daughters. When the mother is thrown into jail, under the pernicious 90-day detention act (under which a person might be held in prison for 90 days without being formally charged), the daughter becomes slowly radicalized, despite having been kept in the dark for most of her life.

A World Apart follows Richard Attenborough’s well-intentioned Cry Freedom as a mass-market condemnation of apartheid, and like that unsuccessful film it tells its story through the eyes of the white people who opposed the system, not the blacks. But A World Apart eschews the grand-gesture theatrics of Attenborough’s film and opts for the intensely personal story of the young girl.

She’s wonderfully drawn and acted. There’s no attempt to endow her with any special brilliance. She’s simply a gawky, giggly adolescent. When she tags along when her mother covers a strike, one of the black workers asks her, “You come to march with us?” She looks up innocently and says, “I can’t, I have to go to school.”

The girl knows that something is wrong when her father (Jeroen Krabbe), also an activist, leaves in the middle of the night and soon the other girls at school are whispering about her.

What makes all of this so effective is the authenticity of the story. Shawn Slovo, the screenwriter, was in fact a little girl in South Africa whose parents were arrested. Her mother, Ruth First, upon whom the Barbara Hershey character is based, was harassed by the authorities and eventually assassinated in 1983.

Slovo’s script, then, is clearly the real thing. Not just in the errant details of time and place (such as the inane cheerfulness of Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again,” a hit at the time), but in the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship. The girl, naturally enough, thinks of herself first, and wonders why the mother has time for causes but not for her daughters. The mother herself is troubled by this, and her jail interrogator (David Suchet) taunts her by saying that her “Joan of Arc thing” is “just an excuse for being a terrible mother.”

A World Apart is directed by Chris Menges, the British cinematographer who has photographed some of the best-looking movies of recent years (he won Oscars for The Killing Fields and The Mission). This is Menges’ first feature job as director, and while the film is effective in its way, there is a certain stiffness and awkwardness about Menges’ work that doesn’t quite make the material sing in the way that it should.

A World Apart won the Special Grand Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and also won there for best actress, a prize shared by Barbara Hershey, Jodhi May, and Linda Mvusi, who plays the family housekeeper.

First published in The Herald, July 15, 1988

Mvusi’s sole screen credit; is she the only person to win an acting award at Cannes for her only film? Jodhi May appeared in The Last of the Mohicans a couple of years after this, and has gone on to a busy career. Hans Zimmer did the music. Menges directed a few more movies and then went back to being a cinematographer, a job at which he is superb.


Wired

February 22, 2022

John Belushi, according to the new film Wired, was either the comedy genius of his time or “Just another fat junkie who went belly-up.” Both opinions are rendered, but substantial evidence is provided only for the latter.

Probably that’s because it’s easy to show wanton self-destruction, not so easy to suggest the talent that lay beyond that. In a film biography of a singer, the songs can always be dubbed in and mouthed by an actor. For a film about a comedian, the actor must capture the charm, timing, style of the comic. Thus Michael Chiklis, who plays Belushi, has an incredibly difficult task, especially since the subject is so fresh in our memories.

Wired can’t get past that central problem.

It’s based on the book by Bob Woodward, a book that was a bestseller and an object of scorn for Belushi’s friends, as it depicted the unpleasant and drug-ridden last years of the shooting star. Announcement of a movie version, inevitably, brought even more nasty feelings; during filming a year ago Dan Aykroyd declared that he had witches working to hex the project.

As it turns out, the film version is a good deal more interested in encouraging pity for Belushi than in damning him. (It’s not interested in naming names; many have been left out.) But it’s a weird item in any event, a sometimes audacious mix of A Christmas Carol (without the happy ending), Hollywood critique, and anti-drug statement.

Belushi dies at the beginning of the movie, then leaves the morgue and is picked up by a Puerto Rican taxi driver (Ray Sharkey) – actually his guardian angel – who takes him on a “ride through your life.” They go on a non-chronological journey through high and low points in Belushi’s years of success, ending up in the bungalow at L.A.’s Chateau Marmont where Belushi died in 1982.

There are some offbeat ideas here, in the way Belushi’s morgue sheet becomes a toga like the one he wore in Animal House, or the Japanese coroner who mutates into Belushi’s samurai character.

The comedy sequences are mostly drawn from Saturday Night Live sketches, which appear unconnected to anything else in the film. And there are a few songs by the Blue Brothers, Belushi and Aykroyd’s soul-singing team. The songs are pointless, the sketches, inept. Chiklis looks uncannily like Belushi (and he ably mimes the gruff voice and roving eyebrows), but he has no comic touch. Gary Groomes plays Aykroyd in an effective impersonation.

Bob Woodward is himself a character in the movie (played by J.T. Walsh); he even turns up in a strange fantasy sequences, at Belushi’s death bed. Director Larry Peerce and screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch seem to view Woodward’s investigating as something less than admirable. When Belushi’s corpse spots Woodward talking to his friends, the angel says, “He’s gonna do for you what he did for Nixon.” There may be an interesting movie on the loose in here somewhere, but it doesn’t quite make itself heard.

First published in The Herald, August 25, 1989

This is the final theatrical film in the curious career of Larry Peerce, who worked mostly in TV after his initial success in the 60s. And it’s the first theatrical film for Chiklis, who has done well for himself since; evidently the witch’s hex did not affect him. The picture flopped.


Without a Clue

February 15, 2022

Over the years, there have been many twists on the classic Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. But Without a Clue may posit the boldest theory yet about the famed criminologist. Sherlock Holmes, it seems, was a babbling idiot.

You see, it was Dr. John Watson who was the real mastermind. But when Watson began to sell his stories, to burgeoning popularity, he needed to invent a charismatic figurehead to be his fictional detective. So he rustled up an unemployed actor to play the role, and this dolt has been taking the credit for Holmes’ elementary deductions ever since. But, as the bogus Holmes himself admits, “I couldn’t detect horse manure if I stepped in it.” The game is afoot, indeed.

This is the conceit behind Without a Clue, and it’s an acceptable enough excuse for a movie. In particular, it affords the opportunity for two Oscar-winning actors to have some fun with the famous roles.

Michael Caine plays Holmes, a lustful fake who’d prefer to have a nip in the bar while Watson sleuths out the clues. Ben Kingsley plays Dr. Watson, who’s become plenty frustrated by the attention Holmes is always getting for the work Watson has done.

In fact, as the film begins, Watson is kicking Holmes out into the street. The doctor has decided that he’s going to take all the credit from now on, and call himself, let’s see, “The Crime Doctor.” Yes, that’s it. Only problem is, nobody wants the Crime Doctor. When a dastardly counterfeiting ring is discovered, and Scotland Yard is baffled, and the demon at the back of it all is rumored to be Professor Moriarty – well, only Holmes could take the case.

And so Watson retrieves his stooge from the local pub and they go off on another adventure. The tale, as concocted by screenwriters Gary Murphy and Larry Strawther, isn’t much; the main purpose is to tweak much of the Holmesiana with which we are familiar. (The great man doesn’t really play the violin; he merely mimes along to a record player.)

A general atmosphere of silliness pervades. Whenever there’s a chance to have Holmes peer through a keyhole into a woman’s bedchamber, he’ll take it. Director Thom Eberhardt isn’t too concerned with going much beyond this level, though he eventually kindles some warm feeling between his two protagonists.

Kingsley spends much of the film, when he isn’t throwing darts at pictures of Holmes, doing a slow burn, which he executes quite amusingly. Caine, who is in the midst of a career resurgence, has a ball. Who wouldn’t relish the chance to play the smartest man who ever lived as a total buffoon?

First published in The Herald, October 1988

Eberhardt also directed Night of the Comet, but trailed away badly after this with Gross Anatomy and the dismal Captain Ron. The cast includes Paul Freeman as Moriarty, Lysette Anthony, Jeffrey Jones, Nigel Davenport, and Peter Cook. I remember nothing from this film, but I have to say – it does sound like a reasonably funny idea. Henry Mancini did the music.


Tap

February 10, 2022

The right people made Tap, the new movie musical. A project like this, in the wrong hands, might have been a blown opportunity to capture the essence of one of America’s cultural treasures.

But they got it right.

Tap features the only contemporary star who could handle a role such as this, the terrific dancer (and lately actor) Gregory Hines, who teams with some of the legends of tap dancing. And the man who wrote and directed the movie is Nick Castle, the son of a Hollywood choreographer (also named Nick Castle) who worked with the greats back in the glory days.

The plot of the movie isn’t anything much. It plays a bit like one of those John Garfield movies from the 1940s in which the hero agonizes over whether to choose the violin or his life of crime. Hines plays a petty criminal who gets out of a spell in Sing Sing and begins slipping back into bad habits. He used to be a talented tap dancer, but he’s left all that behind. Or has he?

Don’t you believe it. With the help of an ex-girlfriend (Suzzanne Douglas) and the formidable old-timers down at the dance studio, Hines feels the old steps coming back. He’s being hassled by a former partner in crime (Joe Morton), who wants Hines’ legwork to be of the second-story variety.

But don’t pay much mind to the plot. The film is alive with splendid dance numbers (the choreography is by another Hollywood legend, Henry LeTang), that range from a spontaneous group session on a crowded, noisy city street to Hines’ solo improvisations. Hines is such a marvelous dancer that he blows away the story’s more formulaic aspects. When this guy dances, everything snaps into focus.

The sweetest element of the film is the collection of old-timers from the pantheon of tap dance. They included Sandman Sims, Bunny Briggs, Harold Nicholas (of the incredible Nicholas Brothers, who used to tumble into Hollywood musicals and steal the show with their specialty dances), and the grand old man himself, Sammy Davis, Jr. Davis, clearly having the time of his life, plays Hines’ mentor, a wizened dandy with a cane and a colorful scarf around his noggin.

The film’s high point comes early, when the old pros issue a tap challenge to Hines in a dusty studio. The guys take turns out-tapping each other, and it’s as though a time capsule had been opened. These veterans perform with the silky assurance of people who know they are masters. And maybe with melancholy, too; had then been white, some of these fellows might have been major stars in their heyday.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone not enjoying Tap on some level. Like the classic musicals it aspires to, it has silly, simple passages, redeemed by bursts of exuberance. But before audiences can go to a movie, they have to go to the theaters. Is anyone intrigued by tap dance anymore? It’ll be interesting to find out.

First published in The Herald, February 9, 1989

Savion Glover, still a teen but already a Broadway star, is also in the film. Does anybody remember this movie? I can understand its fringe appeal, but it’s got glorious people in it. I interviewed Nick Castle for The Boy Who Could Fly, and thought his director career would maybe be bigger than it was (you will recall that he played “The Shape” in the original Halloween for his buddy John Carpenter). Suzzanne Douglas did a great deal of stage work as well as a co-starring role in Robert Townsend’s TV show Parent ‘Hood; she died in 2021.


We Think the World of You

February 9, 2022

We Think the World of You is an utterly quirky, completely ingratiating little British movie about a man and a dog. To be fair, it’s about a lot of other things as well, but somehow the dog, a splendid German Shepherd named Evie, keeps grabbing center stage.

Based on a novel by Joseph R. Ackerley, the film is a character study of a genteel and cultured homosexual named Frank (Alan Bates) in London in the 1950s. Frank has had an affair with a raggedy young sailor, Johnny (Gary Oldman, who played Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy). At the beginning of the film, Johnny lands a one-year jail term for a minor offense.

Johnny leaves behind a pregnant wife (Frances Barber), a couple of kids, and his no-guff, lower-class parents. Frank befriends them all.

Frank’s finery is out of place in their slummy neighborhood, but he regularly visits Johnny’s parents anyway, a babbling mother (Liz Smith) and a broken-down stepfather (Max Wall). These two care for a perfectly horrid baby, Johnny’s infant son. They also care for Evie, Johnny’s dog. This is where the film begins to curve in unexpected ways.

Frank, who feels hurt that Johnny won’t let him visit in prison, transfers his anxieties and affection to the dog. He claims not to be an animal lover, but he pities the hound, cooped up (like Johnny) in a cramped courtyard.

Evie becomes a bone of contention in the family. Frank fears the dog will shrivel from neglect; the others don’t appreciate Frank’s attention. You soon get the idea that when they argue about Evie, they’re really arguing about their other problems and worries.

I should mention at this point that this movie is a comedy. Perhaps not of the thigh-slapping variety, but a droll comedy nonetheless.

Aside from Colin Gregg’s careful, well-judged direction, a lot of the humor comes from the work of Alan Bates, who gives his best performance of the decade (along with his role as the forlorn spy in An Englishman Abroad). Bates’s fastidious, civilized Frank is wonderfully perplexed by the dog, but he soon gives himself over to long, spirited walks by the riverside with Evie. He even lets her take over the armchair in his tidy flat.

No review of the film would be complete without kudos for the dog. Evie, we are told, is played by an Alsatian named Betsy. Magnificent creature. The look on her face as she sits by the fire in Frank’s apartment communicates an almost human contentment: a great actor’s moment.

First published in The Herald, February 9, 1989

Haven’t seen this film since, but it sounds like a good re-visit. Director Gregg stuck to UK TV after this. Alan Bates was only in his mid-fifties here, but his future film and TV career, though busy enough, is surprisingly minor, save for choice things like Claudius in the Branagh Hamlet and a turn in Gosford Park; I assume he continued to work on stage.


The Wizard of Loneliness

February 8, 2022

Wendell Oler, the 12-year-old hero of The Wizard of Loneliness, is full of “cantankerous California blood,” according to his grandfather. Little Wendell, who is intelligent and morbid as well as cantankerous, is staying with his grandparents’ family in Vermont because his mother is dead and his father is off fighting World War II.

The title refers to Wendell’s visions of himself. He’s enveloped himself in a shield of his own smarts, and he fancies that he has magical powers that will protect him from other people. But when the lonely wizard moves to Vermont, he discovers a group of people who help bring him out of his protective shell.

At first, he’s an exasperating child, the kind who walks into a group of adult authority figures and announces, “I am in no mood to talk to anybody!”

But his sympathetic, seen-everything grandparents (nicely played by John Randolph and Anne Pitoniak) can put up with him for as long as it takes. Meanwhile, their own grown children, a son (Lance Guest) and daughter (Lea Thompson) regard Wendell with bemusement. All live in a big New England house, with the daughter’s little son.

This little boy (played by newcomer Jeremiah Warner), a “red-headed baboon,” in Wendell’s estimation, becomes Wendell’s first worshiper, even going so far as to repeat Wendell’s swear words over the breakfast table.

The Wizard of Loneliness is based on a novel by John Nichols, whose book The Milagro Beanfield War was also made into a film this year. The script, written by Nancy Larson and Jenny Bowen, has a nice, if predictable, small-town quality, but the crucial plot-point has a contrived air about it; it concerns a shellshocked vet (Dylan Baker) who’s played an important role in the lives of this family. He returns to town surreptitiously and brings about the movie’s violent conclusion.

The more the movie follows this route, the less relevant it seems. Wendell’s inward struggle is much more interesting, especially as acted by Lukas Haas, who has become one of the busiest child actors of the time (the title character in Witness, he was recently seen in Lady in White). Haas has both the wide-eyed childishness and the presumptuous intelligence to bring off the role.

Jenny Bowen, who directed Street Music a few years ago, is better at evoking the time and place than the story really deserves; there’s a giddy July 4th sequence involving a skunk and the disposal thereof that is quite wonderful.

She’s adept at finding the revealing moments of character, such as the scene in which Wendell glimpses his aunt after she’s received the news of her husband’s death: He sees her standing in a doorway, the light shining through her nightgown, and we understand for the first time that Wendell is in love with her – the wizard has found his heart.

First published in The Herald, September 1, 1988

Jenny Bowen’s Street Music caused some stir on the pre-indie circuit circa 1982 or so, and had an especially warm reception from a couple of Seattle newspaper critics. Because of this, Bowen came to town, and because of that, I did my first-ever interview with a filmmaker. I’ve done a few hundred since then, but yet, Jenny Bowen was the first. That was for a short-lived magazine called Seattle Voice; I wrote a couple of things for them. Bowen’s film career ended in 1998, and she founded an international organization to help orphaned and abandoned children.