She’s Out of Control

December 20, 2010

On a recent “Siskel & Ebert,” Gene and Roger stopped their Punch ‘n’ Judy routine long enough to give special attention to a new film called She’s Out of Control. Siskel (the bald guy) said that during the screening of this movie, he actually considered quitting his job as a film critic. It was that bad.

Ebert (the big guy) noted that the moviemakers had robbed him of two hours of his life. “They did us a wrong that can never be righted,” he said to the camera. Siskel summed things up by describing the film as “one of the worst experiences of our professional lives.”

Wow. Can a movie be that bad? Oh, sure. She’s Out of Control is not appreciably worse than a dozen other movies released in the last 12 months, but it’s bad. Ordinarily, I would expect a movie like this to land directly in the bargain bin at the video store, but actually releasing it in theaters provides some advertising, free reviews (on the premise that there is no bad publicity), and brings its star out on the interview circuit.

The star is one-note Tony Danza, who plays a radio executive whose plain-Jane daughter (Ami Dolenz, daughter of Monkee Mickey Dolenz) suddenly blossoms into a hot babe. She is all of 15 years old, so Danza is distressed by the attention of a stream of pimply young suitors.

The movie, which means to be a comedy, comes close to suggesting that there’s something creepy about Danza’s own close-eyed attention to his daughter. In one beach scene he watches her emerge from the surf as her body jiggles and jumps, all in leering slow motion. Then he attacks the men who are, as he is, watching her. Weird.

In Danza’s frenzy to control the situation, he sees a psychiatrist (Wallace Shawn) who has written a step-by-step self-help book for fathers in exactly this situation. Meanwhile, Danza proposes to his girlfriend (screechy Catherine Hicks) thinking it might bring his daughter back.

Just about everything flops.

Tony Danza is a TV star who ought to know his limits by now. And Siskel and Ebert are still in their jobs, no thanks to this movie.

First published in the Herald, April 29, 1989

The thing I remember about this disaster is that it was part of a package of films released around this time by Weintraub Entertainment Group, a distributor bearing the name of longtime showbiz player Jerry Weintraub. (I think they’d picked up Luc Besson’s Big Blue for stateside release, too.) And the publicist for the movie got me to show up at the Sorrento Hotel lounge and sit with a Weintraub representative as he pitched their exciting new slate. This is one of the reasons I never, ever do that kind of thing. It was the sort of non-event that had me thinking the sorts of existentially urgent thoughts that gripped Gene Siskel while he was watching this movie: why am I here? How can I get out of this? What do I need to change in my life to have this never happen again?

Looking at how short this review is and how dangling the sentence “Just about everything flops” is, I wonder whether this review was shortened by an editor. I don’t think there was much else to say. Today, seeing Catherine Hicks’s name again gives me a chill, and looking through the credits of the film, I see it did have Matthew Perry in a supporting role pre-“Friends,” which makes me halfway curious to see what he did. But that’ll never happen.

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Without a Trace

November 19, 2012

America is discovering Kate Nelligan, if the advertisements and reviews for Without a Trace are to be taken as any indication. This lovely actress hinted at effortlessly limitless range in Dracula, Eye of the Needle, and the TV-flick Victims, but she hasn’t quite broken out into the consciousness of the general public—no People magazine covers, no jobs as “Saturday Night Live” host, things like that. It looks as though Without a Trace will change that, because she’s the whole show here. As the mother looking for her missing six-year-old son, Nelligan is called upon to traverse the proverbial gamut of emotions; she does so admirably, sometimes within a single shot.

Not that in performing a showy role like this she has necessarily given her best performance, but it’s the sort of thing that makes people sit up and take notice at Oscar time. Nelligan is superb at hitting the right note at the right time; when called upon for quivering emotionalism, many actors go too far, and go sloppily, but Nelligan keeps control—completely in character—of her expressions and line readings. When occasionally she does let a word slip out of her carefully modulated vocal patterns, it’s like a tea-kettle spout blowing open for a second, only to close and simmer again—a startling, quick-flash glimpse at the seething struggle within her.

The film itself goes flat at times, but the story is interesting, and with Nelligan at its center, it can’t go wrong for too very long. In one of her most disturbing scenes, she lashes out at a friend who advises her to give up searching for the long-lost child; the friend fears that the search may be pushing the mother toward something close to madness. The unsettling thing about Nelligan’s acid response to this suggestion is that she strikes back with a sneer. It’s one of those actor’s decisions that are exactly right; Nelligan gets to the heart of this character by understanding that obsession wears on its face not a grimace, but a smile.

First published in The Informer, February 1983

The Kate Nelligan-becomes-a-star thing did not happen, although she continued having a sterling stage career. Maybe she was too smart for Hollywood? That’s the way she comes across at times, anyway. Otherwise, I remember this movie as being straight melodrama. It was the only feature directed by Stanley R. Jaffe, longtime Hollywood honcho.


The Accidental Tourist

August 20, 2012

The protagonist of Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist is Macon Leary, a travel writer. Macon is leery of most of life’s experiences, including, oddly enough, travel. But this makes him the perfect person to write his businessman’s guides to different cities; Macon describes how to travel so that you never feel you’ve gone anywhere.

Where do you find a meal in London that will taste like a meal in Cleveland? Where are the American hotels in Paris? Macon finds ways for travelers to cocoon themselves away from any experience of strangeness. And always pack lightly: “In travel, as in life,” he advises, “less is definitely more.”

Macon’s cocooned life is shattered by his son’s death and his wife’s departure. Tyler’s novel, and the film adapted by director Lawrence (The Big Chill) Kasdan, describes Macon’s struggle with his lifelong tendency toward self-insulation.

He is an intriguing character, and perhaps only William Hurt could play this role; this is one of those rare movies in which the hero’s purpose is not to act but to think. Hurt can convey this, although his passive presence at the center of a film begins to make the movie seem washed-out and bland.

There isn’t a lot of story to speak of. When Macon’s wife (Kathleen Turner) leaves him after accusing him of leading a muffled existence (“I’m not muffled,” he says, “I endure. I’m holding steady”), he continues writing, tending to his increasingly contrary dog, and watching the Home Shopping Network during long afternoons. Then he meets a kooky dog-trainer (frizzy, frazzled Geena Davis) who tries to scratch away at his barrier.

The film also spends considerable time with Macon’s family, to whom he retreats. His siblings are just as controlled and eccentric as he (and they are amusingly played by Amy Wright, David Ogden Stiers, and Ed Begley, Jr.).

Kasdan, who also directed Hurt and Turner in Body Heat, has made a literate and thoughtful film. He and co-screenwriter Frank Galanti are faithful to the novel, even retraining much of the book’s dialogue. But they haven’t quite fashioned a living, breathing movie out of it. The film is sketchy and controlled; in its own way, it’s as overarranged and self-conscious as its unhappy hero.

The film does becomes animated by Geena Davis’s presence. She’s the character who’s supposed to put Macon in touch with the lifeforce, and Davis (a tall, adorable actress who was so good opposite her husband Jeff Goldblum in The Fly) is fine at catching the character’s bubbliness and also her underlying layer of grit. Kathleen Turner, on the other hand, is relegated to a supporting role (she disappears from the film for a solid hour), and there isn’t much she can do to explain the wife’s uneven behavior.

Much of the peripheral business is nicely done, such as Macon’s publisher (Bill Pullman), a disappointed yuppie who becomes attracted to Macon’s sister, despite or because of the fact that she’s the kind of person who alphabetizes food on kitchen shelves. This film’s pleasures are real, though I think it fundamentally misses the mark. The New York Film Critics disagreed; they named The Accidental Tourist best picture of the year.

First published in the Herald, January 5, 1989

Nobody talks much about the movie these days. I think I’ll stand by the review, although the movie is not a stiff, by any means…just a little too exactly-everything-you’d-expect. Geena Davis won an Oscar for her performance.


He’s My Girl

June 28, 2012

He’s My Girl is just about as bad as you’d think a movie with that title would be. Maybe worse.

At some point, the screenwriter who originally sat down and conceived the thing may have had honorable intentions: Gender-confusion farce is one of the oldest dramatic forms, right? But the script has passed through the mill—there are four different writers credited—and has become pretty degraded in the process. (There’s a lesson, here, somewhere; the more persons handle a screenplay, the less personality it has.)

The basic idea is creaky enough. A small-time rock singer (David Hallyday) and his equally small-time manager (T.K. Carter) hit it big by winning a trip to Los Angeles to meet a dissipated rock star. But, for reasons never quite explained, Hallyday is required to bring his “girlfriend,” not just a pal.

But Carter really, really wants to go. So he adopts a drag costume, which will allow him to pass as a woman and will cause many supposedly amusing complications in L.A.

Don’t make me go into details. The film flops around from one predictable situation to the next, under some appalling directing by Gabrielle Beaumont, though in this case “direction” may be a misleading term, since the movie seems to be utterly out of control.

In a situation like that, you watch the actors for something, anything. Surprisingly enough, the least offensive thing here is Carter’s drag act, which at least has some lowdown exuberance. Hallyday is terrible, stiff and lifeless.

Most embarrassing is David Clennon, a heretofore respectable actor (Meryl Streep’s husband in Falling in Love, for crying out loud—how much more respectable can you get?), who really goes over the top as the music executive who sponsored the contest. Most mysterious is Jennifer Tilly, who plays Hallyday’s waitress girlfriend. I assume she’s Meg Tilly’s sister, but she has her own oddball delivery; 25 years ago they would have called her “kooky.”

First published in the Herald, September 1987

Just another two-hour chunk of time to peel off the lifespan. I don’t remember it. T.K. Carter and David Clennon were in The Thing; Clennon was on the verge of going minimalist with his Hall of Fame performance in thirtysomething; Beaumont directed a huge amount of TV. David Hallyday is the son of French rock star Johnny Hallyday, a real icon in France and a more interesting movie presence than his son.


Plenty

April 24, 2012

After the kind of moronic cinematic summer we’ve just suffered through, almost anything halfway intelligent ought to be greeted with boundless gratitude.

And Plenty, the first film of a fall season highlighting seriousness (it’s the time Hollywood likes to roll out its potential Oscar nominees), is so ambitious and thoughtful, one is tempted to applaud it without objection.

That reaction may not be appropriate, because I suspect Plenty has some problems. But overall, it’s a bracing tonic for any moviegoer interested in something other than the travails of a pimply-faced teenager’s introduction to sex.

Plenty is adapted by British playwright David Hare from his hit play. It chronicles about 15 years in the life of an Englishwoman (Meryl Streep), from her war service as a spy in occupied France, through her unsatisfying existence in postwar London, an unhappy marriage to a diplomat (Charles Dance), and her increasing disability and mental illness.

The film is elliptical in development; there’s no indication of the jumps in time, except for what we catch through a news report or dialogue references. And there’s no attempt to glamorize its complex main character—she’s hardly a heroine in the traditional mold.

She spends her life trying to find meaning through a series of incidents: a handful of uninteresting jobs, a weekends-only affair with the diplomat, a purely sexual attempt to have a child without marriage (assisted by a lower-class acquaintance, well played by rock star Sting).

As she goes on, she shows a growing tendency to lose control—to indulge in behavior that simply won’t stay within the bounds of British decorum.

She seems to be searching for a heightened form of living that she knew only during the idealistic war years—and especially an intense one-night encounter with an English paratrooper (Sam Neill) behind enemy lines.

Hare has a playwright’s bent for overstating his thesis; but the vibrancy of the character he and Streep have created (the role was played on stage by Kate Nelligan) outweighs the occasional obviousness.

And although Australian Fred Schepisi would seem to be the last sort of director for this kind of material (he did Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Barbarosa—both Westerns, of a kind), he turns out to be a superb choice.

Schepisi and cameraman Ian Baker have created a powerful visual scheme; in their widescreen frames, the characters are often seen as helplessly dwarfed by landscape, or separated and isolated by architecture. These images say as much as Hare’s words about the sterility and tragedy of these stunted lives.

Schepisi gets good work from a diverse cast. Tracey Ullman, another English rock star, gives her character a warmth that Streep’s character cannot approach.

And John Gielgud is outstanding as a diplomat whose traditional Britain he sees crumbling. Gielgud gets most of the good lines, and you can’t blame Hare for that—who could resist, when Gielgud can toss out drollness that puts most “comic” actors to shame.

Plenty is an odd film, with strange rhythms unlike any other movie (excepting possibly Hare’s equally bizarre Wetherby, which hasn’t opened here yet). I suppose a lot of people won’t like it—it’s hard to get a handle on.

But by the time its luminous final scene came on, it certainly had a handle on me. For anyone who thinks movies can be something more than a colorful accompaniment to popcorn-eating, it must be seen.

First published in the Herald, September 1985

You don’t hear much talk about Schepisi (pronounced skep-see, if you do talk about him) these days, but he displayed a very distinctive eye and sensibility back then; The Devil’s Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith were stunning entries in the Australian New Wave, and his first decade in Hollywood produced some fine results. A turn toward comedy in the last 20 years has resulted in very peculiar choices, and not very many funny movies (although he lent a nice touch to the HBO adaptation of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls). As for Tracey Ullmann, as far as I knew she was a rock singer then, and not primarily famed as a comedian, so lay off.


Missing in Action 2 / Avenging Angel

July 5, 2011

Makers of exploitation movies can be counted on not to miss a trick. They don’t just rip off successful films from the major studios. They’re also smart enough to steal from themselves.

Here are two low-budget films, both sequels to successful 1984 originals. Missing in Action 2 is actually a prequel to Missing in Action, which cleaned up when it was released in November 1984.

November 1984! My, these people work fast. It just proves that sometimes it’s easier to get things done in the world of quickie shoestring productions than in the major studios.

Missing in Action 2: The Beginning, like its predecessor, is a vehicle for martial-arts star Chuck Norris, a stone-faced, Clint Eastwood sort of fellow who doesn’t say much. He does smolder a lot, though, and he can be counted on to blow away a few dozen people (foolish enough to have ticked him off) in the last reel of his movies.

Chuck plays the leader of a group of soldiers being held in a prisoner of war camp in Vietnam at the end of the war. They’re tortured by the camp’s commandant (Soon-Teck Oh) who obsessively demands that Norris sign a war-crimes confession.

Chuck, of course, says no dice. So atrocity follows atrocity, until Chuck finally gets upset and takes his revenge.

The film is a masochist’s delight. Chuck and his men go through bloody heck before the movie’s half over—they’re blown up, burned alive, thrown down waterfalls, covered with worms. At one point Chuck is hanged upside down and a bag containing a live rat is tied around his head. Blecch.

It’s all to work the spectator into an emotional frenzy, and as such, it’s pretty well done—lots of action, fast moving, and absolutely black-and-white values. In movies such as this, there’s no doubt who the heroes and villains are.

Oh, and there’s a cameo appearance—via newsfilm—by Ronald Reagan.

Avenging Angel updates 1984’s Angel by five years. Angel, the high-school honor student/Hollywood hooker, is now a law student, her sordid past having been put behind her. But when her policeman friend (Robert F. Lyons) is killed on Hollywood Boulevard, it’s back to the streets for Angel—this time to find out whodunit.

Angel is played by Betsy Russell, who is threatening to become the new queen of exploitation, with Private School, Out of Control, and now this. She’s a different Angel from the one in the original (when she returns to Hollywood Boulevard, everyone says, “Gee, you look different”).

With the help of a senile cowboy (Rory Calhoun—these are sad days for aging B-movie veterans) and her former landlady (Susan Tyrell), Angel starts her search.

It’s pretty abysmal. The tone veers from the heroine’s occasional quivery-lipped determination to a cutesy brand of comedy. What’s missing is any kind of liveliness—even of the rock-bottom brand of Missing in Action 2. Except for the rare unintentional giggle—Angel, pursued by a killer, minces through a parking garage in miniskirt and high heels, and pauses to pull a derringer from her garter—the movie’s a snooze.

First published in the Herald, March 1985

This twofer undoubtedly represents a trip out to the Aurora Village theater, a now-vanished and unlamented multiplex ‘way up north along Highway 99. These movies would open without an advance press screening (duh) and I would drive up either after work on Friday or Saturday for a matinee (because I still worked a real job at this point). MIA 2 truly is a landmark of sadism, and another solid hit for Norris; I assume Avenging Angel did fine, as a couple of sequels followed.


Hannah and Her Sisters

May 26, 2011

Woody Allen seems to love experiments, and he’s got the sort of working situation (nobody tells him what sort of movie he’s required to make) that allows him to indulge his tastes.

It’s a good setup, and Allen has pleased us in recent years with odd baubles such as the pseudo-documentary Zelig, the raucous showbiz Broadway Danny Rose, and last year’s small gem, The Purple Rose of Cairo, none of which reached a very large audience. As lovely as those movies are, a nagging thought stayed with me: When is Woody going to get back to doing the sort of rueful, wise, romantic comedy (Annie Hall and Manhattan) he does best?

Now, such a thought is completely unfair to the Woodman (as Bill Murray used to call him), and if on the arrival of Hannah and Her Sisters we shout “Woody’s back,” it does a disservice to his recent films. Still—Hannah does represent a return to the flavor and feel of Manhattan, and it is his best and most characteristic film since that 1979 masterpiece.

The film centers on three sisters (as did Allen’s Interiors): Hannah (Mia Farrow), the oldest, who seems to have her life in perfect order and control; Lee (Barbara Hershey), whose relationship with a domineering artist (Max Von Sydow) is skidding; and Holly (Dianne Wiest), a would-be actress, would-be singer—would-be almost anything, if she could find her niche and get over her resentment of Hannah’s perfection.

These three get into various romantic entanglements with the three men in the film. Hannah’s husband (Michael Caine) launches an affair with Lee, Hannah’s ex-husband (Allen) has a date with Holly that he likens to the Nuremberg Trials. After Holly’s promising date with an architect (Sam Waterston), her partner in the catering business (Carrie Fisher) snatches him away.

Rounding out the cast are the parents of the sisters, played by Lloyd Noland and Maureen O’Sullivan (she’s Farrow’s mother in real life); and Daniel Stern, in a hilarious cameo as a vacuous rock star who wants to buy some of Von Sydow’s paintings, without vaguely understanding why.

It’s a terrific ensemble, and the action cuts back and forth evenly between the characters (some of whom narrate different sections of the film). Allen himself actually has one of the smaller roles, but he garners a lot of laughs as a man who, despite his lifelong hypochondria, is caught short when he suddenly realizes he may actually be seriously ill. At that point, he embarks on a metaphysical journey that leads him to try Catholicism (his survey of 3-D Jesus postcards is a comic high point) and Hare Krishna.

Allen strikes a lovely balance between hurtful romanticism and rueful humor; the characters are immediately recognizable, with all their human faults and durability. Holly is a particularly sharp figure, and Dianne Wiest—a Broadway actress heretofore relegated to peculiar roles in movies such as Independence Day and Footloose—captures all of Holly’s desperate search for a means of expression.

Gordon Willis has been photographing Allen’s films for years, but Carlo di Palma did the honors this time, and he allows a bit more light into the proceedings. It’s a wonderful thing to behold. Allen very likely has his biggest hit in a long time with Hannah, and it couldn’t come at a better time; for him, or us.

First published in the Herald, February 7, 1986

Kind of disappointed in reading this review again—not that I’m wrong about the movie, but this doesn’t convey the particular glow the film conjures up. A great success for Allen, and yet he went on to more unusual projects, which just kept getting unusualler as the years went on.