Heart Like a Wheel

October 21, 2021

The modest new film Heart Like a Wheel is one of the most likable movies of the year, and its modesty is one of the most likable things about it. There’s nothing flashy or extraneous about director Jonathan Kaplan’s handling of the life story of tradition-breaking drag racer Shirley Muldowney (after a screenplay by Ken Friedman). In steering clear of excess and phoniness, Kaplan captures a sharp sense of life-as-lived as opposed to life-gassed-up-for-movie-cameras – without getting goody-goody about it. He does this by providing a strong structure for the story, and rooting the decisions and emotions of the characters in smart filmmaking technique.

The relationship between Muldowney and rival/crew chief/lover Connie Kalitta is framed by similar sequences: the camera moves around them, describing an arc, as Shirley and Connie exchange glances (and Kaplan cuts between the two of them) after Connie has made an honest offer of help (and sometime after he has made his randy intentions explicit). At the end of their love affair – though that is happily not the end of their relationship – Kaplan repeats this camera movement, but it goes the opposite direction, and suddenly we know, after all the ups and downs of the affair: well, yes, it’s over now, of course. Nothing ultra-dramatic here (even if the rocky relationship has its share of dramatic high points); just the purely cinematic rendering of the shape of peoples’ lives. That’s good moviemaking, and Kaplan has some good movies ahead of him.

The drag racing itself takes a back seat to the human story, and that’s appropriate, but it does lend a flavorful background to the proceedings – I doubt if many of us have any knowledge of the sport outside of those great radio ads for SIR racetrack (it’s always “64 Funny Cars!!” – somehow it’s impossible to race just 32 or jump to 128; 64 has some kind of symbolic, almost religious meaning for devotees of drag racing). Those ads probably account for the first pubic awareness of Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney, as she was always known, dueling head-to-head in grudge matches with “Big Daddy” Don Garlits.

That “Cha Cha” moniker is one of the ways in which the world seems to want to define and categorize Shirley Muldowney; she’s made to feel a Wife, Mother, Lover without being allowed to be Shirley Muldowney. The emergence of Shirley is the story of the film – and her desire to be many things at once, without being classified as any one commodity, is echoed in the film itself, which has proved hard to define (and to advertise). A love story, a woman’s film, a sports film – it wants to be all those things; like Shirley, it resists pigeonholing. The very qualities that make Shirley Muldowney and Heart Like a Wheel honest and uncompromising also make them something of a tough sell. That – for moviewatchers, if not for promoters – is refreshing.

Bonnie Bedelia and Beau Bridges – even the alliteration of the names suggests B-movie, small-scale professionalism – play Muldowney and Kalitta, and they are wonderful to watch. Sometimes you see movies in which two characters are supposed to be in love, and one or the other or both is less than completely sympathetic, and you think: What does she/he possibly see in him/her? The Muldowney/Kalitta relationship is hardly a bed of roses, but Bedelia and Bridges display that screen intangible known as chemistry, and they are never less than believable.

That both actors are Hollywood misfits seems to mysteriously enhance their chemistry, in the way that meta-cinematic facts sometimes do; Bedelia dropped out of acting for a few years to pursue a more normal life in the domestic arena, and Bridges’ career has been somewhat eclipsed by his brother Jeff’s – Beau has seemed more interested in working in small, socially-conscious movies that barely get released than in building a standard Hollywood career. I can’t spell out exactly why this matters, except to say that somehow it gets on screen, whether it’s in Bedelia’s driven toughness as Muldowney or Bridges’ self-assured rambunctiousness as Kalitta. Kaplan supplies the finely-tuned chassis for the film, but it’s Bedelia and Bridges who put the heart in Heart Like a Wheel.

First published in The Informer, August 1983

The movie’s release was engineered in Seattle, and it turned into a sleeper with strong reviews. It picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design, but Bedelia and Bridges were certainly worthy. Also in the cast: Leo Rossi, Anthony Edwards, Hoyt Axton, Dick Miller, Robert Ridgely; Bill McKinney played Garlits.


Baby It’s You

October 20, 2021

For one thing, the noses: Her is graceful, a delicate thing that flares up and away from her full lips. His is inelegant, a flattened King-size that retains some Roman nobility while staying ready for a fight. There is nothing particularly complementary about these noses, nor about the people behind them, but they can’t seem to stay away from each other. It could be the old opposites attracting; then again, it could be nothing more than being the same place at the same time (in this case, the place is high school, Trenton, New Jersey, and the time is the mid-Sixties) and sharing a restless feeling. Whatever it is, they’ve got it, and it’s the kind of thing they won’t lose even when they want to.

She is Jill Rosen, a Jewish princess with the acting bug; he is Albert Capadilupo – just call him “Sheik” – an Italian stallion who fancies himself the next Frank Sinatra. They are the main characters in Baby It’s You, the new film by John Sayles, and we see their rocky relationship from the end of the their greaser high-school days to the beginning of their disoriented (and separate) college-age careers. That’s a pretty traumatic shift; the high school environment is sheltered and oppressive, having not changed since 1962, by the looks of things, although it must be ’66 or so. When the characters leave Trenton for the real world, they are suddenly swimming in hippiedom. That’s kind of an unrealistic leap, but Sayles seems more interested in showing the dramatic change of moving into any new environment than he is in documenting the history of psychedelia’s creep into national consciousness – in short, to make a movie about Any Time rather than a nostalgic time capsule.

Sayles indicates as much by his use of the anachronistic music that sometimes accompanies Sheik. A few of Bruce Springsteen’s streetkid songs underscore some of Sheik’s most intense moments, and serve as a shorthand for his character. (The Springsteen songs also remind us of our own vantage point, and perhaps that, with all the changes in popular culture through time, attitudes and experiences remain pretty much the same.) In fact, sometimes the music provides a large part of the understanding we have for these people; the reason for Jill’s love (or whatever) for Sheik remains a bit obscure (to me, anyway). Aside from his general hunkiness, he is not gifted with an overload of redeeming qualities – and yet, he is exciting, and unpredictable, and that danger attracts Jill. Sayles establishes this during one of the couple’s first encounters, a frenzied, rave-up car ride that Jill takes in Sheik’s car, cut to the scorching strains of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” It’s a giddy dangerousness, the kind that is so seductive. Maybe Sheik’s charms aren’t so elusive after all.

But then, part of the point of the movie is that the motivations of real people are frequently mysterious; and Sayles, in his movie career thus far, seems far more intrigued by ordinary people and problems than in contrivance or glitz. That’s a tricky business, and Baby It’s You carries the added burden of being set in a period that seems ready to perish from cinematic overuse. However, Sayles has a bonus, too: Baby It’s You marks his first use of real Hollywood actors, cinematographers, etc. Thus the film has a sharper look than Sayles’, first, homegrown films, Return of the Secaucus Seven and Lianna; and the film benefits hugely from the assured performances of Vince Spano as Sheik, and, especially, the remarkable Rosanna Arquette as Jill. They give their ordinary people something special, and their combined presence illuminates Sayles’ examination of the process by which two individuals can become something more than strangers in the night.

First published in The Informer, March 1983

Arquette was coming off The Executioner’s Song, so my enthusiasm came from that, with good reason. The cast also included small roles for Matthew Modine, Tracy Pollan, and Robert Downey, Jr. As I write this, John Sayles has not directed a film since the (very sharp) Go for Sisters in 2013, which is a tragic waste.


My Other Husband

September 14, 2021

My Other Husband is a French comedy that has finally arrived on these shores a couple of years after its release in France.

It’s easy to understand this lack of urgency. My Other Husband is certainly acceptable as a typically bouncy Gallic frolic, but it has few distinguishing features. The title carries most of the information you need to predict the various marital misunderstandings contained herein.

As the film begins, we see Alice (Miou-Miou) listening to the romantic problems of her friends. These problems are complicated, but her own issues are double whatever they can come up with; she’s got two husbands.

Huband No. 1 (Roger Hanin) lives with her in Paris with their 10-year-old son. The husband is an airline pilot so he’s away a lot.

When he’s away, Alice goes to stay with Husband No. 2 (Eddy Mitchell) in Trouville, a small seaside town. No. 2 is a teacher, and they have two children.

It all happened innocently enough. Well, more or less: Alice ran out on No. 1 shortly after the birth of their son. A few years later, she met No. 2 and settled down with him, never intending to see No. 1 again.

But, Paris being what it is, she runs into No. 1 on the street by accident, and soon falls back in love with him, and with her little boy. Thus begins her commuter lifestyle, as she explains to both men that her work requires her to live in two different areas. When the film begins, this has been going on for a year and a half.

There are some chuckles in this; director Georges Lautner has a touch for peripheral throwaways, such as an odd scene with a man who stops to help Alice and her friends with a flat tire, or a weird episode between one of Alice’s girlfriends, who works at a saltwater cure center, and a patient who is aroused by dousing from a water hose (“I can’t get over your fern-like fragrance,” he rhapsodizes).

But most of the film is decidedly minor, and the resolution is especially pat and disappointing.

My Other Husband kicks off an eight-week series of local premieres – which, for one reason or another, have not yet had a regular run – each of which will play for a week at the Crest theater.

The next two films are both American offerings. Secret Honor, directed by Robert Altman, plays from Jan. 31 through Feb. 6. It’s a remarkable little movie, based on a one-man stage play, that theorizes about the possible reasons for Richard Nixon’s behavior; Philip Baker Hall’s bravura performance as Nixon is a must-see.

Key Exchange, which plays from Feb. 7 through Feb. 13, is an engaging New York romantic comedy, also adapted from a stage play, that’s probably a bit too low-key for a big release. It stars Brooke Adams, Ben Masters, and Daniel Stern.

These will be followed by a sampling of international cinema: Peril (France), Feb. 14 through Feb. 20; Beyond Obsession (Italy), Feb. 21 through Feb. 27; Secret Places (Great Britain), Feb. 28 through March 6; Holy Innocents (Spain), March 7 through March 13; and Wartime Romance (U.S.S.R.), March 14 through March 20. Some of these have won international awards, and there are bound to be undiscovered goodies in there.

First published in The Herald, January 26, 1986

Well, good for the Crest, then part of the Seven Gables chain (later absorbed by Landmark) for programming the series. As far as I know, I’ve never seen any other Lautner films; other contributors here include Phillipe Sarde (music), Henri Decae (cinematography), Jean-Loup Dabadie (screenplay), all mainstays of French cinema.


My Best Friend’s Girl

September 1, 2021

The ingredients of My Best Friend’s Girl are those of the standard, frothy French comedy. There’s a soft-eyed, handsome romantic (Thierry Lhermitte) who gets lovesick over every woman he brings home. There’s his latest girl (Isabelle Huppert), who is rather more mysterious than most of his women. And there’s his chunky best friend (Coluche), who disapproves of the new girl, and then rapidly falls in love with her himself.

French film farce often bears a resemblance to certain types of French pastry: It’s light, it’s enjoyable, and it’s instantly forgettable. Credit director Bertrand Blier (Get Out Your Handkerchiefs) with making this particular Gallic situation comedy into something more rib-sticking.

Blier’s people are funny creatures, but they aren’t comic caricatures. Huppert’s close-to-the-vest performance never lets you know exactly what it is she wants; after a while it becomes clear that everything she says has some truth in it, if not the whole truth. The film accepts this, and neither applauds nor condemns her.

Big decisions are hard won. When Coluche is ready to tell his best buddy everything, he pleads with Huppert to assure him he’s not throwing away a 10-year friendship for a fling that isn’t going to work. She remains noncommittal; he’ll have to take the risk and earn this relationship. It doesn’t come with guarantees.

The humor is not so much har-har as it is gently amusing, as it’s tinged with the bittersweet reality of the situation. The heated menage a trois is played out in the chilly setting of a ski resort in the Alps, where Lhermitte owns a ski-supply store and Coluche is a disc jockey in a nightclub.

Blier’s impeccable sense of framing and timing, and above all his feeling for misfit characters, keep his movies interesting. My Best Friend’s Girl is not as ambitious as his previous films, but it’s an eminently likable addition to his work.

First published in The Herald, May 1984

These days Blier seems little remembered in the States, but he had a fascinating run. Coluche died in 1986 in a motorcycle accident. IMDb says the music is by J.J. Cale.


Silkwood

March 19, 2021

Karen Silkwood died in a car wreck in 1974 on her way to meet with a New York Times reporter after discovering shoddy conditions in the nuclear factory in which she worked. Silkwood may have had documentation that would have proven a cover-up of the dangerously inadequate workplace. She definitely had traces of tranquilizers and alcohol in her system. It has been suggested that foul play may have been involved in her death, but to this day, the mysterious questions surrounding her fatal crash remain unsolved.

Those facts are on file, and Silkwood does nothing to alter them. Nor does it suggest an answer to the mystery surrounding Silkwood’s death. What this movie does is provide a vivid and moving story of human being caught in the middle of something much bigger than herself. By avoiding the political soapbox in favor of the personal story, Silkwood is extremely effective in bringing us deeply into the lives of its characters. Sometimes there’s a temptation to give real-life martyrs a halo for good behavior. The people of Silkwood remain steadfastly down-to-earth – even ordinary.

Karen (Meryl Streep) works in a plutonium plant in Oklahoma, as do her roommates: her lover Drew (Kurt Russell) and best friend Dolly (Cher). They’re normal people – not terribly gifted or bright, but good to be around, and good to observe, as the film uncondescendingly does. The only really unusual aspect of their lives is their workplace.

Most people know what it’s like to work at an average 9-to-5 job: you punch the clock, work hard, tell jokes, gossip about your fellow workers. That’s just the way director Mike Nichols presents the plutonium workers in Silkwood. The work is run-of-the-mill.

The chilling difference becomes apparent when somebody messes up. In most jobs, when you foul up, you get scolded, and you go back to work.

Nichols and company have brilliantly captured the sense of the extraordinary – these people are working in and around radiation, for God’s sakes – made ordinary by repetition. It’s a way to make ends meet, after all.

The grungy, funky lifestyle of the three main characters fits in perfectly against this matter-of-fact backdrop. They work most of the time; but when they’re at home, they laze around, inhale beer and cigarettes, make love. Much of our involvement with them springs out of the film’s healthy sense of humor, which is nicely balanced throughout.

Typical of this is the treatment of Dolly’s lesbianism, which is revealed in a scene in which her beautician friend (Diana Scarwid) moves in with her. Drew and Karen gamely try to be free-thinking about this – “I say that as long as they’re happy, they’re fine,” he says, and Karen chimes in with, “Well, that’s what I say” – and you can see from the looks on their faces that they’re both completely bewildered. The scene is both funny and tender.

Silkwood becomes gripping as our heroine starts to awaken to the dangerous and illegal practices at the plant. She joins a union committee and tries to help organize the workers. At the same time, she is transferred and subtly discredited at work – and finally contaminated, just before she prepares to gather the evidence that would prove that safety reports were being doctored.

There’s a lot of movie here, and it is very well done – perhaps most satisfyingly on the basic level of a good story well told. All the acting is fine; Streep does her customarily superb work, and Russell is appropriately hunky. In fact, the production is marked by a level of commitment rarely found these days. We’re only halfway through the Christmas movie season, but right now, Silkwood is the one to see.

First published in The Herald, December 1983

Not a very good review for a good movie, and I’m not sure what my workplace obsession is about, except that I was actually working a 9-to-5 job (really 8-to-5) at the time, along with writing movie reviews. How did I not talk more about Cher?


To Be or Not to Be

February 12, 2021

The real To Be or Not to Be is a 1942 black comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch, starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. It’s about a troupe of Polish actors in 1941 Warsaw who become reluctantly but heroically involved in a spy plot when the Nazis threaten to destroy the Polish underground.

That doesn’t sound like an especially hilarious plot, and empty-headed whimsy it’s not. But it’s really funny, all the more so for being exciting and touching and bold. It’s astonishing that the film was made in 1942 because it’s such a strange mixture of farce and horror.

It did seem controversial at the time, but now the movie is an established classic. And that means it’s ripe for the remake treatment. A remake of To Be or Not to Be would have demanded a delicate balance of moods, a discreet but daring sensibility, the ability to orchestrate humor and emotion with a gentle hand.

Well, Mel Brooks got there first, folks. And a line from the original film – which gets repeated verbatim in the remake – comes to mind. A Gestapo chief makes an equation that refers to the “great” Polish actor, Frederick Bronski. “What he does to Hamlet,” the chief says, “we are doing to Poland.” And what the Nazis did to Poland, Mel Brooks has done to To Be or Not to Be.

The Brooks version sticks pretty close to the original, although there are a few musical numbers stuck in. In one of them, Brooks plays a dancing Hitler, but he did this kind of thing much better in his 1967 film The Producers, which featured Dick Shawn as Der Fuehrer in that unforgettable Broadway production, Springtime for Hitler.

Broks and Anne Bancroft (husband and wife in real life) play Poland’s leading thespians, Frederick and Anna Bronski. They get dragged into a plot to stop a Polish double agent (Jose Ferrer) from exposing members of the underground movement. Complicating matters is a buffoonish Gestapo man, “Concentration Camp” Erhardt (Charles Durning) and his henchman (Christopher Lloyd), who keep falling over each other in their attempts to foil the Bronskis’ ploys.

This kind of black comedy has to be done razor-sharp or it won’t work at all. Here, most the gags aren’t funny, and they’re also very strange. There’s an anger behind Brooks’ jokes about concentration camps and firing squads that is legitimate, but the humor here is so sloppily realized that the movie has a weird, off-balance quality. Some of the jokes don’t merely die, they turn the stomach.

Brooks produced the movie, but he didn’t actually take a writing or directing credit. That’s a change from his usual method of doing everything himself. Maybe he should go back to doing it all, in his own anarchic way. Whatever he decides to be (or not to be) next, I’m putting down money that it’ll be better than this ill-advised project.

First published in The Herald, December 16, 1983

The director was Alan Johnson, a longtime choreographer who worked frequently with Brooks. Yeah, this didn’t work.


Ah Ying

October 22, 2020

Ah Ying is a nice little movie with an unpretentious, friendly atmosphere. This atmosphere must stem in part from the conditions of shooting the film: All but one of the actors are non-professionals, and in most cases the people are basically playing themselves.

This approach is appropriate, because director Allen Fong got his idea for the movie from an actress he auditioned for another film. He based Ah Ying on her life, and she plays the title role in her own story.

She is Hui So-Ying, a plain young woman with a rather plain story. But plainness may have been what attracted Fong to the idea; there’s not much that’s remarkable about this life, or this story, and it provides a useful means of illuminating life in Hong Kong.

The young woman, 22, lives with her family in a tiny two-room apartment. If that doesn’t sound so bad, consider that there are six children, most of them adolescents, sharing these cramped quarters. Ah Ying, who sometimes helps her parents selling fish at a market, has her eye on some kind of escape, although she doesn’t quite know what form that will take.

She stumbles into it when she answers an ad calling for help at the Hong Kong Film Culture Centre. She gets free classes in exchange for work, and she quickly finds an acting class that she responds to.

The charismatic teacher (a nice performance by Peter Wang, who in his real life is a professor of engineering at Virginia’s George Mason University) recognizes her spirit and becomes her guru. He’s also a filmmaker, and his own failure to get his pet project made is counterpoint to the story of Ah Ying’s spiritual awakening.

All of this – the misfit who finds her identity through acting at the encouragement of an attractive older man – may sound pat, and possibly Ah Ying is guilty of that. But most of it is fresh, and all of it is earnest and unaffected.

And if Fong set out to paint a picture of Hong Kong, he succeeded. Details come out in little strokes: the sweaty restaurants, the overcrowding, the preponderance of T-shirts with English sayings on them, the strange sight of apartments built directly at the sides of freeways (in one scene, when his car breaks down, the teacher walks to the side of the freeway and leans in an apartment window to make a phone call).

This teacher-filmmaker, who is based on a deceased director that Fong knew, says at one point, “I want to make a film that reflects our time. If not, no one will ever know we existed.” If that statement also suggests Fong’s ambition, then he’s done a handsome job of realizing it.

First published in The Herald, October 24, 1985

I believe the movie had a nice run in Seattle, and I feel certain that longtime Seattle publicist Nancy Locke had a lot to do with that. Surely a film worth re-discovering?