Angelo My Love

February 12, 2013

angelomyloveHe’s not much taller than a fire hydrant. His pint-sized tuxedo looks absurdly grown-up, and he has a liking for older women—women of 12 or 13. He can’t read or write, and he has no interest in learning to do so. He’s our hero, this 10-year-old gypsy Angelo, and he’s got important things to do.

The most important thing he has to do in Angelo My Love is retrieve a ring that was stolen from his family. Angelo will inherit the heirloom when he turns 15, but it’s been pilfered by a man named Patalay (Steve Tsigonoff), who is a member of a different group of gypsies.

This search for the ring is the main plot of Angelo My Love, but the plot is really almost an excuse to look at the fascinating gypsy subculture. The film takes time to present such events as the bartering process over a bride-to-be, the candlelit Feast of St. Anne, and a noisy gypsy trial, presided over by the elders, that takes place in the back room of a neighborhood bar.

Through it all struts Angelo, a vain littler charmer who speaks with the brash authority of someone three times his age. His more even-tempered older brother Michael accompanies Angelo, and is accustomed to the tiny spitfire’s tricks. Together, they’re a great Mutt and Jeff detective team, looking for the family ring through the gritty streets and alleys of New York.

The people in Angelo My Love are just people—not professional actors. Writer-director Robert Duvall, one of America’s best actors, became intrigued by the gypsies when he encountered Angelo Evans on the street one day. Duvall built a movie around this natural performer, and although it’s a fictional story, he’s filmed gypsy life with a documentary-like feel for reality—the actors even keep their real-life names.

Duvall has captured the texture of the lives remarkably well. He’s rejected anything that smacks of condescension or romanticizing of these unusual people.

As in his own performances, Duvall the director looks for the truest way of presenting situations and emotions. The actors may be amateurs, but there isn’t a false note struck by any of the cast members. That’s no mean feat in any movie, but it’s particularly impressive in a film that relies on its actors to improvise many of their scenes.

And Angelo is the most impressive of all—the scene in which he puts the moves on a sawed-off country-western girl singer is classic; Angelo gives her a soulful look as she croons a song especially for him—but he’s not so lost in love that he can’t take a moment to sneak a peek at his own immaculately groomed self in a convenient mirror.

In an early scene, Angelo actually attends school-for a few minutes—and is asked to read out loud from a book. He has to make up his own story, since he has no idea what those funny black marks are on the page. The teacher gets suspicious, but Angelo claims he can’t read without his glasses. “Are you near-sighted or far-sighted?” asks the teacher. “I’m every-sighted,” replies Angelo. Whether scripted or improvised, what a lovely and accurate way of putting it.

First published in the Herald, November 22, 1983

The movie made a nice impression in the pre-Sundance era, but is almost completely off the radar now. With this and The Apostle, Duvall the director really deserves status as a kind of American original, having made some films that are not like anything else


The Osterman Weekend

January 16, 2013

ostermanweekendThe Osterman Weekend is a competent, professional double-cross movie. That sentence can stand as a lukewarm recommendation of the film, but it’s really sigh of disappointment.

The disappointment stems from the fact that The Osterman Weekend was directed by Sam Peckinpah, who, after studio battles and illness, hadn’t made a movie in five years. Peckinpah, despite the conventional wisdom of cocktail-party cognoscenti, is one of the best stylists of his generation of filmmakers, and the possibilities for this adaptation of the Robert Ludlum novel seemed promising.

Rutger Hauer plays a Mike Wallace-type TV interviewer who, faced with evidence that his three closest friends (Craig T. Nelson, Dennis Hopper, and Chris Sarandon) may be Soviet agents, helps an American government agency spy on the group during an annual weekend get-together at Hauer’s place.

Every room in his house has been wired for videotaping by the strange government man (John Hurt) running the show, and Hauer feels the pressure of being caught between lying to his friends and lying to the camera. It isn’t long before the old college buddies start to guess that Hauer suspects something—especially with the kind of tricks that Hurt and his high-tech cohorts have cooked up for the weekend.

To tell any more would be unfair. The various twists and turns of the story are complicated, but Peckinpah and company have laid them out so that the viewer won’t get completely lost in the plot forest.

For all its professionalism, the film lacks a sharpness—that bite that Peckinpah gets into his movies, that cutting edge that does not necessarily have anything to do with the director’s much-publicized onscreen violence. There are taut sequences in The Osterman Weekend, but Peckinpah, at his greatest, uses action to reveal character, and that quality is sorely missed here.

When Hauer’s wife and son are kidnapped at the airport, it’s the occasion for a nicely-mounted chase, but that’s all. It turns out that this snatch is just another game staged for Hauer’s benefit; but we won’t fully understand that until much later.

Hauer, the Dutch star of Soldier of Orange and Blade Runner, seems a bit dislocated as the main character, but the supporting cast is odd and flavorful, and Meg Foster’s performance as Hauer’s wife helps turn her character into the most admirable person in the film.

Rumor has it that The Osterman Weekend was taken out of Peckinpah’s hands and recut for distribution; if that’s true, it might help explain the movie’s peculiar thinness. In particular, it would have been fascinating to have devoted more screen time to the John Hurt character—an agency man with a mission, a killer with a tortured soul.

As it stands, The Osterman Weekend is not the comeback vehicle for Sam Peckinpah’s cinematic gifts. And somehow, one of the most disappointing things about it is that it’s not a mad, extravagant failure. It’s just standard.

First published in the Herald, October 1983

I haven’t watched this since it came out and I’m nurturing the idea that it might be much, much better than it seemed to be then. Which I guess is one reason never to watch it again. Peckinpah died without completing another feature, so that adds to the letdown around this misbegotten title.


Those Glory, Glory Days

December 17, 2012

gloryglorydaysThe glorious event referred to in the title of Those Glory, Glory Days is the victory of the 1961 Tottenham soccer team in the football Final Cup—the first time a soccer team had won the English “double” in this century. (I’m not exactly sure what the “double” is, but it seems to be something very, very big.)

This victory is the central event in the lives of four schoolgirls, who form an exclusive club to follow and worship the ups and downs of the Tottenham Spurs. The season is remembered in flashback by Julia, who in adulthood is a journalist covering her old favorite team.

In the flashback, the young Julia (Zoe Nathenson) gains entry in the secret club when she reveals her football fanaticism in class one day. When the teacher asks her name, Julia claims her name is Danny. “I’ve taken a pseudonym,” she blithely announces, in honor of her all-time favorite Tottenham player, Danny Blanchflower.

This foolish act impresses the other club members (Sara Sugarman, Liz Campion, and Cathy Murphy), and they take Julia/Danny to the football stadium, where the initiate her in a ceremony that includes strapping on a Spurs kneepad and invoking a “God playing football, in a Spurs shirt.”

They follow the team’s successes throughout the season, climaxing in some frenzied attempts to get tickets for the Cup Final game, which has Julia spending a reverential night in the deserted team headquarters.

At the same time, the film charts the marital woes of Julia’s parents, who seems as oblivious to their child’s enthusiasm for sports as she is of their problems.

This little tale is an autobiographical screenplay by Julie Welch, who really is a sportswriter for a London newspaper. Welch went through soccer mania as a child, and she actually bumped into her childhood idol, Blanchflower, many years later (an encounter that forms the framing device for the film).

Welch’s script is directed by Philip Saville, who captures a number of lovely moments, notably the stadium initiation and Julia’s frantic rounding-up of her pals when she thinks she really has got tickets for the Cup Final.

Saville doesn’t quite tease out all the possibilities in the situation. Julia’s night in the team headquarters, full of awards and photos, is not quite the marvelous epiphany it should be, for instance.

But he gets most things right, and he’s certainly done well by his leading lady, Zoe Nathenson. She gives a lively performance as Julia, with her hair all askew and her ungainly eyeglasses held fast with scotch tape. The performance has the kind of clarity that only some child actors seems to be able to give, and it gives the film its steady forward motion.

First published in the Herald, May 8, 1986

Another of the “First Love” series produced by David Puttnam. I like soccer, although I betray my ignorance of the leagues and seasons and all that, which is mystifying.


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 Lift/Frankenweenie

November 1, 2012

Thanks to the ingenuity of horror-film makers, the face of evil has inhabited nearly every form known to man. We’ve had all kinds of killer animals—from sharks to spiders to giant rabbits (really—doesn’t anyone remember The Night of the Lepus?).

We’ve also seen machines go mad—haunted houses are full of them, and there’s Christine, the killer car, and, since 2001, a slew of demonic computers. Even the lowest forms of existence have found themselves endowed with diabolical intent. Think of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and you see this thing has gone about as far as it can go.

But not quite. Along comes a Dutch film called The Lift and you realize there are a few curves left in the format. The terrorizer in question is an elevator in a high-rise office building.

Apparently the elevator’s control system, ruled by microchips, has taken on a life and consciousness of its own. It starts playing mean tricks on some of its bewildered occupants—luring a blind man to step into an open shaft, asphyxiating a group of late-night carousers. One poor soul, innocently sticking his head into the shaft one day, is surprised by the elevator, which comes streaking down from above, murder on its mind—or at least on its microchips.

The hero of this tale is the elevator engineer (Huub Stapel), who tries to find out the source of the foul-up—but encounters mysterious opposition from his bosses.

It’s a rather silly story, redeemed by writer-director Dick Maas’s sense of humor about the whole thing. He makes sure the film has an absurd tone, even when the elevator is up to its mayhem.

Playing with The Lift—and overshadowing it for originality—is a 25-minute short called Frankenweenie, a lovely version of Frankenstein set in modern suburbia. It’s about a little boy (Barrett Oliver) whose dog, Sparky, is run over by a car. The kid’s determined not to lose Sparky, however, and improvises an electrical system in the attic of his house (the parents are played by Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern). He harnesses lightning with the TV antenna in an attempt to revive Sparky—a hilarious updating of the similar scene in Frankenstein.

It’s a funny little vignette, affectionately directed by Tim Burton. The black-and-white photography harks back to the original Universal horror classics of the 1930s, but the tone is hip.

Burton made the film for Walt Disney studios, which also produced his animated short Vincent, about a little boy who wants to be Vincent Price, a couple of years ago. In producing such odd shorts, Disney is to be commended. Once upon a time, they were at the vanguard of innovative short-subject production.

First published in the Herald, June 17, 1985

Supposedly Disney fired Burton because his movie was so macabre, so maybe they weren’t to be that commended. The Lift opened at the Egyptian theater and became a local hit. As a reviewer, I hadn’t hit my stride yet, if stride there be.


Christine

October 30, 2012

Boy meets car, boy loses car, boy gets car back. Hmm, Christine is a different kind of love story—in this case, the object of an adolescent boy’s affection is his red 1958 Plymouth Fury.

Well, maybe that’s not so weird. The kid’s pretty lonely, and the car is the only thing on which he can lavish his attention. Its name—her name—is Christine.

Christine is a horror movie as well as a love story, however, and the terror twist here is that the car is possessed by the devil. Actually, we don’t ever find out exactly what the car has that makes it so mean, but whatever it is, it likes rock ‘n roll and murder.

Christine’s previous owner was haunted by a history of violent death in the family—and they all died, over the years, in the malevolent car. When 17-year-old Arnie (Keith Gordon) buys Christine as a broken-down pile of junk, he doesn’t care about the history of the car—he just knows that he has some mysterious connection to it.

He fixes up Christine so that she’s all shiny, and in the process, he starts to change himself. The whimpering nerd is banished, and a veritable Mr. Hyde emerges. It isn’t long before Arnie, in his new swaggering persona, is dating the prettiest girl at Rockbridge High—and taking her to the drive-in, courtesy Christine.

Arnie used to be bothered by bullies. But Christine flexes her chrome and—no more bullies. In fact, Christine may be doing her job a little too thoroughly. The local police are staring to sniff around, wondering why all the creeps who once bugged Arnie are being found with tire tracks on their letterman’s jackets.

This premise, based on Stephen King’s best seller, might have been a lot of fun. But the movie is so straightforward and one-note that it becomes rather boring.

The director, John (Halloween) Carpenter, whose early promise as one of the leading lights of the New Hollywood is dimming rapidly, does not seem to be particularly engaged by the material. He tries to develop the idea of Arnie’s loneliness being answered by this seductive machine, but that really gets skipped over pretty quickly. Not much is allowed to stem the flow of car stunts and chases.

And even the stunts and special effects aren’t unusually impressive. The teen crowd may be disappointed by Carpenter’s customary restraint when it comes to the more graphic elements of gore ‘n guts that have been the bread and butter of so many horror movies lately.

Christine herself, it should be said, is a hot number. Whether cruising down a highway in flames or dramatically reconstructing herself after absorbing a pounding from the local toughs, she’s a formidable machine. But it doesn’t say much for Christine to point out that she has more personality by far than anyone else in the film.

First published in the Herald, December 10, 1983

I would have guessed that sometime in the last 29 years I would have given this movie another look, but apparently I had other priorities. At this moment in Carpenter’s career I was perpetually disappointed, so maybe I’d see the movie with kinder eyes today.


Uncommon Valor

October 16, 2012

Uncommon Valor joins the list of movies that work primarily on formula rather than inspiration. This time, it’s the impossible-military-mission routine, updated from countless World War II escape or spy movies, and set in the rice paddies of Laos.

Gene Hackman plays an Army colonel whose son is still listed as missing in action 10 years after American soldiers came home from Vietnam. When he identifies a prison camp in Laos that has some Americans in it, he takes his evidence to his son’s old Army buddies, and recruits them for a wholly unauthorized mission to storm the camp and retrieve the prisoners.

Actually, the mission is authorized by the money put up by an oil tycoon (Robert Stack) who also has a son missing. Once Hackman gathers his men together, he puts them through the paces in a mock battlefield constructed with Stack’s money. Next destination: Southeast Asia.

With this kind of movie—think of The Dirty Dozen—you need strong personalities among the fighting men. The group dynamic is the element that really carries the movie, and the challenge is to work with stereotypes and make them something more.

The men of the fighting unit in Uncommon Valor never become anything more than cardboard cutouts. At some point in the production, it must have been decreed that the emphasis would be more on action than character.

So, you get to see a lot of things blow up in this movie. You even get to see some things blow up twice, since the men demolish their phony camp first, and then repeat the job—with a few last-minute variations—on the real thing.

All that noise and fire seemed to satisfy the preview audience that watched the film, but it doesn’t leave you with much to remember, or a reason to care about whether the mission is successful or not.

The lack of depth in the characterizations is not really the fault of the actors. In fact, they’re a pretty good lot. Fred Ward is suitably hard and tough as the claustrophobic master of stealth; Reb Brown gives a funny slant to his surfer who just loves to make bombs go off; and heavyweight boxer Randall “Tex” Cobb does just fine as the slightly loony, mountain-size biker.

They’re simply not given enough to work with. If somebody told me that a half-hour had been cut out of this film before its release, I’d believe it; Uncommon Valor has that kind of by-the-numbers approach to a certain formula.

Ted Kotcheff directed it; he was probably chosen on the strength of having guided Sylvester Stallone through the non-stop jungle hunt in First Blood. Here, as with that movie, Kotcheff seems to know how to push all the right buttons to get the right effects, and that’s not a bad thing in itself. But you don’t get the impression that he ever wonders why he’s pushing the buttons. That makes Uncommon Valor resolutely common.

First published in the Herald, December 1983

Not much of a review, but the movie was an indication of the subgenre of return-to-Vietnam pictures that proved popular at the time. Patrick Swayze was also in there.