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.


Gandhi

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.


Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

October 12, 2021

Spock and McCoy are worried about Kirk. He’s moping around, he’s depressed on his birthday, he’s constantly talking about getting old. Spock advises Kirk to regain his active command, rather than continue his work as a desk jockey. Bones tells Jim, over a bottle of Romulan Ale, to get his act together. But nothing stirs now-Admiral Kirk out of the dumps – until, during a routine in-space inspection of the Enterprise, a curious call comes in from Kirk’s old flame. The resulting diversion leads to a confrontation with his old nemesis, Khan, in what, as many reviewers have pointed out derogatorily, is little more than a basic TV plot from the old TV show. That may be so, but Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan sure is an enjoyable episode in the ongoing mission of the starship.

It’s about ten times better than the stuffy first movie, with the cast looking very relaxed; William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForrest Kelley are back in their old rhythms; there’s a cute new Vulcan crew member called Mr. Saavik (Kirstie Alley); and Ricardo Montalban is mercilessly hammy as the evil Khan. Actually, he’s not really the superior intellect he pretends to be, and it’s too bad there are no face-to-face showdowns between him and Kirk, but with a wig (and a fake chest?*) like the one he’s wearing, it’s tough to complain.

Director Nicholas Meyer (Time After Time) allows the humor to develop in the same vein as the series (funniest line: the second time somebody asks about the length of a crewman’s hair), and he fearlessly pursues and exploits every kernel of corn available. There are many, because the spirit of Star Trek is still that old humanistic message; the resourceful Kirk still believes there are no no-win situations. I’m afraid I was believing it too; and when a black box is jettisoned out of the Enterprise to seed a new planet to the strains of “Amazing Grace” – well, I got a little misty-eyed. Temporary suspension of critical faculties brought on by weightlessness? Too much Romulan Ale? Dunno. Maybe I’m just getting old, too.

*I have been assured that the well-preserved chest on display here does indeed belong to Mr. Montalban. I had suspected that he might have constructed a falsie out of that rich Corinthian leather you hear so much about, but I am glad to be corrected.

First published in The Informer, June 1982

I was 23 when I wrote this, so I guess I was getting old. Fun movie, and even at the time everybody knew that the Star Trek ship had righted itself, having come close to extinction with the ponderousness of the first movie – excuse me, motion picture. In retrospect, many universes were hanging in the balance with this one.


Swamp Thing

October 7, 2021

Swamp Thing is long gone, of course; I assume the audience that didn’t come to it was made up mostly of kids too young to be familiar with the comic, and of older folks who wouldn’t be caught dead at something called Swamp Thing. Personally, I look back on Swamp Thing with fondness. It didn’t turn out to be as much sheer fun as I had expected, but it did have an ingratiating love for its disreputable subject.

Adrienne Barbeau plays a scientist who joins a research group deep in the bayou; she meets a handsome project leader and a case of the mutual hots springs up. They’re working on a potion that will regenerate life in plants, or animals, or something like that, and it seems they have a pretty explosive juice that’ll do just that when – the bad guys show up. Led by Louis Jourdan (who gets to do some delectable eye-rolling), they have it in mind to use the stuff for their own evil ends. Adrienne’s beau grabs the only existing sample, is shot running out of the lab, and explodes into a ball of flame before he plunges into the swamp. As Adrienne is chased through the swamp during the next few days, she is repeatedly saved from the clutches of the villains by this … what else can we call it but – this “Swamp Thing.”

Director-writer Wes Craven’s work is highly regarded in some critical circles, but this is my first Craven film, so I can’t shed much auteurist light on Swamp Thing. The story is well told, but some of the dialogue – particularly in the expository first twenty minutes or so – is incredibly banal, especially the light-hearted humor. Lines like “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps,” are delivered straightforwardly, without irony, suggesting that a? Craven has a pretty square sensibility, and actually thinks these lines are funny, or b) Craven is dutifully re-creating the kind of dialogue found in comic-book adventures. I hope it’s b) but I’m not sure. There are some funny things, like Jourdan’s hubristic speeches and the tacky makeup/costume he puts on near the end, when he drinks the elixir that transforms him into a hairy-backed, bearlike thing that is vanquished by our muddy hero in a bayou knockdown drag-out.

As for Swamp Thing himself, I expected him to look a little messier, with maybe more swamp paraphernalia hanging from him. But his heart is in the right place, even if the rest of him isn’t always. And I guess you could say the same thing about the movie.

First published in The Informer, May 1982

I had forgotten this was my first Wes Craven film – huh. Not sure when I caught up with the previous pictures, but I just read that this movie’s flop had Craven wondering whether his career was over. Louis Jourdan’s next movie was as a James Bond villain (Octopussy), so somebody noticed what he was up to here. Ray Wise played the scientist, and Dick Durock was S. Thing, a role he reprised in the sequel. Also: Adrienne’s beau? I never know if anybody notices this stuff. My “What else can we call it but –” riff was inspired by Mad magazine’s brilliant “Heap” satire, by Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder, which was reprinted in one of the Mad books I gobbled up as a kid.


Cat People

October 6, 2021

Flashy transition: Paul (Malcolm McDowell), a guy who we know turns into a panther when aroused, is flirting with a blond babe who’s wandering through a cemetery. He asks her, holding up his camera, to say, “Cheese,” and she does. Cut from Paul holding camera to eye, to: Oliver (John Heard) holding camera to eye and snapping a picture of Paul’s sister Irena (Nastassia Kinski) in a shack somewhere on the edge of the bayou. Now, there’s a pretty sinister suggestion being made with that transition, and a director who cuts like that better know what he’s doing.

Let’s check this out then: Paul will have sex with the blonde and then dismember her; this is rather frustrating for him (not to mention how she must feel about it), as he is doomed never to have a satisfactory sexual experience except with his sister. Irena will turn down the sexual advances that Oliver is about to make because she thinks she will turn into a cat and kill him. So both scenes are steeped in sex and the threat of death; what about this connection made between Paul and Oliver? Well, they both want the same woman, and each is working out of his own obsession. Each union, if consummated, would lead to a kind of destruction, though Paul does seem a bit more literally lethal than Oliver. Yeah, I guess it’s okay to have this linking transition, but I wind up asking myself a question I’ve asked a lot about this new version of Cat People: did it have to be so darned obvious?

Obviousness isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but … Paul Schrader knows he’s making an ambitious film here, and he just can’t seem to resist spelling things out for us once in a while. The nifty prologue, which sort of shows how the race of cat people began (one of the best shots in the picture here: a woman tied to a tree, about to be taken by a panther, looks down at the beast as this eerie process night sky slides behind her: thrilling!), ends with a closeup of one of these ancient cat women and slowly dissolves into the face of Irena in a present-day airport. This replacing of one face with another sets up a device that’s used a couple times again in the movie, but is sure seems unnecessary; if we’d simply discovered Nastassia Kinski wandering around an airport in longshot, is there anybody out there who couldn’t have guessed she was a descendant of the feline types?

And Schrader has let some elements that might better have been left in subtext rise to the surface. When a guy cuts from a bust of Beatrice to his leading lady, you’re left with the uncomfortable feeling that the director is trying to make a point. And Schrader has Oliver reading and memorizing Vita Nuova, for croonin’ out loud! (There is a genuine mystery to the scene, however: Does that voice on the tape that Oliver speaks along with belong to Malcolm McDowell?)

For a while now it’s seemed as though, if only Schrader could consume and digest his mythic and literary concerns and sink his teeth into a genre picture, the results could be something exceptional, and would surely outstrip his other movies (he’s the director of Hardcore and American Gigolo, and the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull). Cat People sounded like the project where this would all happen, but Schrader hasn’t integrated his ambitions with his flesh-and-blood story here; sometimes he doesn’t even seem interested in providing basic narrative logic (like: How does a panther get out of his cage at the zoo? Surely the dangerous animal would have been watched. And we don’t know when or how Irena returns from Richmond to New Orleans late in the film; she just sort of reappears). It’s particularly frustrating that Cat People doesn’t come off because much of it is good and some of it is really haunting. Some reverse-action stuff is neat, especially because Malcolm McDowell is so catlike to begin with. Some of the fancy color scheme (designed by Ferdinando Scarfiotti) is terrific, and some of it seems pretty meaningless. Giorgio Moroder’s music is effective, and his theme for the opening ritual is spellbinding (good David Bowie song, too).

Schrader’s best decisions are in casting: McDowell is just right and moves beautifully throughout his rather small part, and Heard and Annette O’Toole are very good, both appearing on the verge of coming into their own as recognizable stars. Ed Begley Jr. makes a nothing part into a funny and special presence, singing “What’s New, Pussycat?” to a man-eating panther. And Nastassia Kinski is a unique screen creature, with her exotic looks and accent(s) giving even the most ordinary dialogue a new and mysterious quality. If Cat People may try to work up a mysteriousness in a facile and often heavy-handed way, there’s no doubt about the authentically strange qualities of Miss Kinski. She’s something else again.

First published in The Informer, May 1982

An odd film, lumpy yet sinuous, ludicrous yet spooky. Also, this was when Nastassja still spelled her first name with an i. I played the Bowie song quite a bit – “Putting Out Fire,” a good one.


Eating Raoul

September 28, 2021

It’s a little unfair to tell too much about Eating Raoul, since most of the delicious plot twists should be discovered while watching the film. By means of introduction, let’s just say that it’s about a couple struggling to make ends meet: Paul Bland (Paul Bartel) is a wine collector who works odd jobs, and his wife Mary (Mary Woronov) is a nurse whom the patients find irresistible. Their dream is to establish their very own Country Kitchen, but it’s difficult for two simple, honest people to raise a little money in this world. Paul tries to sell some wine and gets ripped off; Mary’s sexy pitch for a bank loan gets the manager (Buck Henry) a bit too overheated. Time is running out and they need lots of bread fast; what to do?

Maybe it’s when the drunk drowns in their toilet (or does he?) that the seeds of the answer to that dilemma begin to take root. The rest of the movie is the flowering of the Blands’ solution, and in the tradition of really black comedy, a very fine solution it is. Director Bartel has given us some very quirky, interesting pictures before (Private Parts and Death Race 2000), and Eating Raoul, with is pronounced offbeatness, is a characteristic entry in the Bartel canon. It’s a bit constrained by a low budget (still, the quality of the photography is quite clean), but  delightfully warped imagination comes through, and mostly it’s very amusing. There are some classic bits, especially the abrupt end of a hot-tub party, and there’s a chase scene to the tune of a Spanish-language version of “Devil with the Blue Dress On” that is somehow indescribably hilarious. I guess the sweetest moment, though, is the ending; maybe a couple of people, by their gumption and can-do spirit, can make good in these troubled times. In a way, a stirring message. Eat hearty.

First published in The Informer, May 1982

It had a strong run in Seattle, and was an early indie success, though it doesn’t really seem to be remembered as such. Bartel’s subsequent directing career was disappointing, although he did try to get an Eating Raoul sequel made. He died at age 61. Woronov, once a denizen of Andy Warhol’s Factory, is, thankfully, still very much with us. I was young when I wrote this review, so forgive the flabby sentences.