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.


Under Fire

October 15, 2012

Under Fire is that rarity: a major Hollywood release that is both a politically oriented film without self-righteousness, and a well-crafted entertainment that delivers the dramatic goods.

It travels to the dark heart of 1979 Nicaragua, where the rebellion that’s been smoldering for 50 years is about to topple the Somoza regime. We see the civil war through the eyes of some American journalists, who provide a very human reference point as we witness the various subterfuges and brutalities of the bloody war.

As Bogart said in Casablanca, “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” It’s still the same old story in Under Fire. The romantic triangle is set against the backdrop of international conflict has always been good raw material for an exciting narrative, and Under Fire uses this device to draw us into its politically volatile story.

The triangle consists of Russell (Nick Nolte), a prize-winning photographer who arrives in Nicaragua and fulfills an old passion for Claire (Joanna Cassidy), a reporter who happens to be the longtime lover of one of Russell’s best friends and colleagues, Alex (Gene Hackman), who has just been offered a tempting network anchor post—a job that would take him off the road, and away from Claire.

Actually, the triangle is resolved fairly quickly. Alex heads off to New York, and Russell and Claire get involved with—well, with each other, of course. They also get involved with the growing mystery of the never-photographed rebel leader Rafael, whom the Somoza government claims is dead, but whose body—dead or otherwise—has not been seen.

As Russell and Claire get closer to finding Rafael, they are forced to question their code of journalistic ethics, and their responsibilities as human beings in the face of war’s horrors. Luckily, Under Fire does not present these heavy-duty moral quandaries as dry theorems. They’re part of an adventure movie, and the filmmakers don’t lose sight of that.

It’s as an action film that Under Fire works best. Director Roger Spottiswoode has given the film a lean, hard edge (aided by his great cinematographer, John Alcott, who shot Barry Lyndon).

Star power also keeps Under Fire burning. Nolte can apparently carry any movie on his hulking shoulders, and Cassidy is a real find; she brings a vibrant intelligence to this, her first leading film role.

Gene Hackman is too precious a commodity to have been missing from the screen for so long. Here, he perfectly captures the underlying torment of a man whose professional and personal worlds are in chaos. When he’s offscreen, the movie really suffers for it.

While Under Fire may not answer its ethical questions with much profundity, the film does tell a complicated story using good moviemaking sense. With its fast, jungle-fever momentum, it eventually packs quite a wallop.

First published in the Herald, October 20, 1983

Interesting movie, not much remembered. This film review ran with The Right Stuff as my first pieces for the Herald, a gig that has lasted through now (October 2012) and continues. How did that happen?


Blue Thunder

October 12, 2012

Blue Thunder the movie is not quite as sleek and sophisticated as Blue Thunder the ultra-helicopter, but it’s a well-organized hunk of action movie, with the requisite spectacular stunts, a healthy dose of creeping paranoia, and a passel of crooked government bad guys. It’s a film consisting entirely of surfaces—shiny glass, blue metal, white skies—but they’re hard, fast surfaces, and just flashy enough to keep your attention. Passing in front of and between these cool surfaces are some good actors: Roy Scheider as an ace LAPD chopper pilot who gets to test-fly the new supercopter; Daniel Stern (the tall guy in Diner) as his green partner, who is along for the ride when Scheider starts to get wise to some very unusual idiosyncrasies of Blue Thunder; Candy Clark as Scheider’s patient woman friend; Warren Oates heading the police air division (the film is dedicated to the late actor); and Malcolm McDowell as Scheider’s irredeemably loathsome nemesis.

Director John Badham has taken great pains to make sure we know what’s going on, and he also takes care to set up a number of maneuvers that are going to become relevant in the final cat-and-mouse sequence (i.e., Scheider’s proficiency at slaloming around obstacles, and Clark’s skillfully exuberant driving). He’s aided by John Alonzo’s sharp cinematography; as a matter of fact, Blue Thunder is so thoroughly okay that almost nothing leaps out as being particularly praiseworthy.

But there is a weird aspect to it unlike anything I’ve seen in any other slam-bang action movie, and that’s the almost obsessive attention to the safety of innocent bystanders. Everybody who gets in the way of Scheider and his pursuers—and I’m talking about the faceless people on the street now, the kind that get eaten by the dozens in Japanese horror movies—is accounted for by news or police reports; as, “Two helicopters, a police car, and an office building were destroyed, but everybody’s all right.” Scheider even gets caught off his guard because he’s watching one of his attackers parachute to safety in the city streets. This is a new wrinkle in the bust-’em-ups; generally, the extras from central casting who signed on as passers-by also get to double as cannon fodder.

This more humanitarian method is being employed so that Scheider’s final mission won’t be causing a lot of innocent people’s deaths, a situation that might blur the clearly-defined fact that Scheider is the good guy, as indeed he is (earlier, one of the top brass had said that one civilian dead per ten terrorists was an acceptable ratio, but Roy doesn’t think so). I don’t mind this sort of accounting, but it is strange to see a helicopter crash full speed into a solid cement column and then watch all the crew members hop out. And it’s a different sort of summer blockbuster that you can call violent and considerate.

First published in The Informer, May 1983

A mechanical summer hit, as indicated.


The Keep

October 9, 2012

The Keep is easily the strangest film to be released this Christmas season. It’s something of an arthouse horror movie, and it’s almost sure to get lost in the shuffle of the holidays.

The Keep is an ancient castle—nobody seems to know how long it’s been standing—in the hills of Romania. It must be of some strategic value, because German soldiers occupy the fortress (the film is set in 1941), despite the cryptic warnings of the castle caretaker.

The first evening in the Keep, a couple of soldiers pry loose a stone from the wall—a wall that, as the German colonel (Jurgen Prochnow) observes, seems to have been built to keep something in rather than keep someone out—and let fly a maelstrom of special effects: smoke, wind, and bright light.

What they’re really setting free is a creature who may be absolute evil and possess ultimate power. To flex his muscles a little, he starts ripping German soldiers in half, which quickly gets the attention of the S.S., who send one of their slimiest officers (Gabriel Byrne) over to clear up the situation.

The beast can’t actually leave the grounds of the Keep until someone pure comes long to transport a talisman out of there, thus letting the creature off its chain, as it were.

That pure soul is Dr. Theodore Kuzar (Ian McKellen), a medievalist who actually makes contact with the monster. Kuzar becomes convinced that the creature will help destroy the Nazis, and he agrees to carry the talisman out.

But it’s not going to be easy; a mysterious figure (Scott Glenn) arrives in town, intent on stopping the thing in the Keep. He also takes up with Kuzar’s daughter (Alberta Watson), which complicates things when it comes time for the final showdown.

Writer-director Michael Mann had a fascinating feature-film debut with Thief, which played for a couple of weeks in 1981 and then stole away into the night. It was heavily cryptic and very high-tech, but it got under your skin in a weird way.

The Keep is also tersely written and enigmatically played, and Mann’s visual ingenuity is fun to watch. He likes to fill his frames with smoke and shadow and diffused light.

The only problem is, the story isn’t really propelled by all this stylization, it’s just decorated by it. I’m not knocking Mann for being ambitious, but there really isn’t enough meat to this tale to justify the pyrotechnics.

One aspect of Mann’s visual conception that is completely successful is the set design—the set for the castle is superb, with its huge stone front and catacomb-like hallways. Mann gets some spooky effects just by looking at the building itself.

And the monster is pretty neat. He’s about 8-feet tall, shaped like a man, with glowing red eyes and mouth. His voice sounds a bit like Kirk Douglas crossed with Debra Winger. As if that weren’t enough, sometimes he walks around without any skin on. But he can get away with it—this monster’s home is his castle.

Give Mann and his monster an A for effort, and keep your eye on this director. Someday he’s going to make a movie as solid as the fortress in The Keep—but slightly more inviting, perhaps.

First published in the Herald, December 1983

Well I hope Michael Mann found this encouragement useful! He’s done just fine, to the extent that he has apparently disowned The Keep and doesn’t want people to see it. But I really want to see it again, so something’s going to have to give. I left Tangerine Dream’s score out of this review, which probably reflected my musical tastes (but I do approve of them as soundtrack generators).