Top Secret!

March 17, 2020

topsecretAt one point in Top Secret! the rock-singer hero bursts out into a little ditty called “How Silly Can You Get?” The remainder of the film may be considered an answer to this question. That answer: Very silly indeed.

Top Secret! presents an un­blushing cavalcade of corny jokes, outrageous sight gags and painful puns. That said, it should come as no surprise that the film is the work of the people responsible for Airplane!, that jumbo jet of foolishness from a few summers back. They also did the late, lamented TV show, Police Squad.

“They” are Jim Abraham, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, and they’ve come up with a fit topic for their brand of parody: World War II movies. Now, Top Secret! is set in the present, and the plot involves some nonsense with an American rock ‘n’ roller (Val Kilmer) whose songs about skeet shooting while surfing have put him on the cover of every major magazine. He’s been sent as a good-will ambassador to East Germany, where he becomes mired in intrigue.

That’s just an excuse to unreel some hilarious send ups of every reliable cliché from the WWII genre. The East Germans look suspiciously like movie Nazis, and there are members of the French Resistance who are lurking quite unaccountably behind modern German lines.

Almost anything is fair game as a target for the machine-gun jokery. Midgets, East German women athletes, the Ford Motor Company – no one is immune. But the real subject of the parody is the cinema. Movie convention and style are wittily and lovingly lampooned.

Not that the humor can be termed sophisticated. But there is good sense behind the jokes, and in the rhythm and the timing of the film. There’s also a sense of friendliness. These guys may perpetrate some outlandishly dumb gags, but they’re not dumb themselves. They know what they’re doing.

War movies and Casablanca are the main source of inspiration, but the scatter shot unloaded by Top Secret! also hits such diverse films as The Blue Lagoon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Wizard of Oz. For good measure, there’s a slap at break dancing, as our hero starts spinning around the floor and bores a hole through to the basement.

What more to say after you’ve considered guest star Omar Sharif, who gets turned into a compacted car; guest star Peter Cushing, who plays his entire role backwards in the space of a single shot; or the most, uh, unusual version of the Nutcracker ballet ever? Not much, because to repeat the jokes is to ruin the movie. Better to keep them top secret.

First published in the Herald, June 23, 1984

Watched this again in the last year and yes, it holds up, gleefully. It was Kilmer’s first film, followed by Martha Coolidge’s fine Real Genius. At the time it was considered something of a box-office disappointment, if I’m remembering right, but it seems to be pretty beloved today. ZAZ came to a University of Washington screenwriting course when Airplane! was in first release, and proved how smart they were about building gags and tying them together.

Irreconcilable Differences

February 12, 2020

irreconcilable diffIrreconcilable Differences is an odd film, and I mean that as a compliment. The ad campaign suggests a screwball comedy. The presence of Ryan O’Neal and Shelley Long – primarily comedic stars – reinforces this.

But when you sit down in front of this movie, you quickly see that we’re not in sitcomland. Irreconcilable Differences is most reminiscent of Terms of Endearment in its efforts to blend comedy with meaningful drama. It doesn’t always work, but it’s an interesting try.

It begins with a little girl (Drew Barrymore) suing her parents (O’Neal and Long) for a divorce, since nobody gets along anymore. The film is then taken up with the way these people got to this point, and is seen in lengthy flashbacks.

It’s the story of a rocky love affair, beginning on a rainy Indiana road where O’Neal, a film teacher bound for Hollywood, is hitchhiking. Long, a flibbertigibbet on her way to marry a domineering sweetheart, gives him a ride. Love at (almost) first sight, of course, and they move to Los Angeles, get married, and have their daughter.

Then O’Neal gets a shot at directing a film. The two of them collaborate on the screenplay, but when the film is a smash, he gets the credit (and the enlarged noggin that goes with it).

For his next film, he discovers a waitress (Sharon Stone) to play the lead – and he falls in love with her. He and Long separate.

His next starring vehicle for his new protegee shall be nothing less than a musical remake of Gone With the Wind. Since no one in Hollywood is foolish enough to back him, he sinks his own money into the project. It becomes the biggest stinker in film history.

Long rebounds from months of depression and extra pounds with a nasty autobiographical book, He Said It Was Going to Be Forever. Her star rises just as quickly as O’Neal’s plummets. In the midst of all this the daughter spends most of her time with the Mexican maid – with whom she truly feels cared for.

There are very funny sequences here, and some genuinely tender moments. The chronicle of the first days the couple know each other is lovingly detailed, and the Gone With the Wind bit is hilarious.

These filmmaking scenes are a somewhat cruel fictionalization of the career of Peter Bogdanovich, a critic­ turned-director whose life greatly resembles that of Ryan O’Neal’s character (ironic, since O’Neal has done some of his best work, including What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon, for Bogdanovich). Bogdanovich also ruined his career (at least for a while) by trying to make a star out of his discovery, Cybill Shepherd.

Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers (they wrote Private Benjamin) do not do enough things well enough to make the film work all the time. But the fact that they try to do so many things, and do them with sensitivity, is reason enough to be impressed. The ending, accompanied by Frank Sinatra’s “You and Me (We Wanted It All),” is admirably restrained. It’s not exactly a happy ending, but it certainly is an honest one – and I find it very easy to reconcile myself to that.

First published in the Herald, September 1984

Well that’s weird, because where this movie seemed to meanly borrow from Bogdanovich’s life story at the time, in retrospect it seemed to predict the way Nancy Meyers’ career would eventually outpace her husband’s. Maybe Bogdanovich got some satisfaction from that.

George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey

February 7, 2020

georgestevens2Documentaries about artists are not unusual; it is one of the mot exalted (and most effective) ways we can pay tribute to the creators around us. But how often has a son paid tribute to an artist father – in the very medium in which the father distinguished himself?

This has happened in lovely fashion in George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey, a tribute by George Stevens Jr. to his director-producer father. Stevens Jr. has already carved out an important place for himself as a custodian of film history; he was one of the founders of the American Film Institute, the organization devoted to saving and preserving old films, which also honors the giants of the industry with its annual Life Achievement Award. But his new film about his father should stand as his most honorable – and warmest – accomplishment.

A Filmmaker’s Journey takes us through the career of George Stevens via generous film clips, interviews with contemporaries (among them Katharine Hepburn, Joel McCrea, Frank Capra), and old impromptu footage by (and with) Stevens.

Stevens, who died in 1975, was one of the most respected directors of his day. He cut his teeth as a cameraman and gag writer for the Hal Roach studios, where he worked on many Laurel and Hardy comedies. By the mid-1930s , he was directing his own features, and his films of that time – Alice Adams, Swing Time, Woman of the Year, The More the Merrier  – established him as one of the most intelligent people in films.

There’s some extraordinary footage, shot with color 16mm film, taken by Stevens during production of Gunga Din. Anyone who loves that film (merely one of the most enjoyable movies ever made) will delight in the off-the-cuff shots seen here – although it’s strange to see costumes, sets and actors from that black-and-white classic in color.

It’s also strange, but in a much more somber way, to see Stevens’ color footage of his wartime experience (the only color footage of the European war, according to the film). Stevens, like a number of his Hollywood compatriots, enlisted and served as a filmmaker in a special Army unit. He captured some exhilarating shots – the liberation of Paris – and also much disturbing footage, including the discovery of the concentration camps. The documentary makes a persuasive case that Stevens’ outlook darkened considerably during the war; he made no more comedies, but did turn out such serious classics as A Place in the Sun, Shane, and Giant.

A Filmmaker’s Journey is a valuable contribution to film history, and it should improve Stevens’ flagging critical reputation, which has been in decline since the 1960s.

But the film may be most fascinating as familial tribute. Throughout, especially in the clips, there is an emphasis on embraces and partings; and the end is taken from the last sequence of Shane, where the little boy calls the surrogate father to come back.

The emphasis is clear, and quite moving. You come away knowing that this Filmmaker’s Journey has been not merely a journey of the famous father’s, but of the son’s as well.

First published in the Herald, October 13, 1985

A great movie-history documentary, and moving for the reasons described. Has Stevens’ reputation rebounded? This is the film with Warren Beatty’s unforgettable story about how the sound of pistol shots from Shane inspired him to do the same effect with Bonnie and Clyde, an effect ruined by a meddling projectionist.


February 6, 2020

recklessSomewhere in one of those Pennsylvania mining towns is a teenager who just wants to settle down and live a quiet, peaceful life in his/her birthplace.

But you won’t find that character on the movie screen, at least not for a while. Small-town angst is very hot right now, and Reckless is the latest film in which a teen is compelled to bust out of the polluted home environment.

Unlike Flashdance or All the Right Moves, this hero (Aidan Quinn) doesn’t have a talent he can parlay into a ticket out. He’s a rebel without a pause, who snarls at the wholesome, clean-cut kids. You know the cliché: He ain’t bad. He’s just misunderstood.

So this guy falls for a cheerleader/queen-of-the-prom (Daryl Hannah), who is supposed to be going steady with the school’s quarterback. Then she falls for our rebel hero – but you are ahead of me already, probably.

There isn’t a new wrinkle in all of Reckless, which is a disservice to the two stars, who aren’t bad. Daryl Hannah was the replicant who tried to kill Harrison Ford with her thighs in Blade Runner, and she’s got a very sexy quality on screen.

Aidan Quinn is getting a build-up as the new James Dean, although he looks more like Bruce Springsteen. Quinn does have a magnetic presence: you can see why director Martin Scorsese picked him to play Jesus in Scorsese’s now-postponed film project, The Last Temptation of Christ, over such heavyweights as Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken.

But the material is so uninspired that we’ll have to withhold prognosis on Quinn’s career for the moment. Chalk it up as a promising debut.

First published in the Herald, February 4, 1984

Directed by James Foley, written by Chris Columbus – not perhaps the first director-writer combo that comes to mind, but hey, whatever works. This makes me recall the time I intereviewed Foley for (I think) his film Fear; we sat down in the lobby of Seattle’s Seven Gables, a cozy arthouse theater, and he enthusiastically said he was in the mood for a beer, sending the publicist across the street to bring us a couple of bottles of Rainer, which we drank during the interview. It was 9 a.m. (He’d said something fond about Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” and its line about getting a beer buzz in the morning.) Good interview, and an interesting director. Speaking of degrees of separation, I sat next to Aidan Quinn at a Seattle International Film Festival awards breakfast one time – many years after this movie – and he was a heckuva nice guy. Anyway, this movie is probably better than I gave it credit for, but I haven’t gone back to check. 

Garbo Talks

February 5, 2020

garbo talks - cinema one sheet movie poster (1).jpg

Garbo Talks is your basic New York Jewish comedy, just this side of the average Neil Simon picture. It’s got the usual heartwarming predicaments and the funny nebbish hero and the eccentric overbearing Mama.

Problem is, it’s not terribly amusing. The plotting is so formulaic and the outcome so expected that the film just plods along in a bland, inoffensive way.

Ron Silver, a bearded New York actor who has scored some very funny supporting roles, usually playing sleazy agents (he was the tennis­-playing studio boss in Best Friends), has his first lead role here. (He shaved off his beard for it, too.) Silver plays a milquetoast accountant with a wife(Carrie Fisher) who wants to move to California, and a mother (Anne Bancroft) who regularly gets herself thrown into jail for supporting activist causes.

The story slips into gear when Bancroft comes down with a bad case of Hollywood terminal disease, and decides she has a last wish. She’s adored Greta Garbo all her life. So she wants to meet the ultra-reclusive movie star, who keeps an Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan, before she dies.

Silver is inspired to throw off his cloak of nerdiness once and for all. Finding Garbo and somehow convincing her to meet his mom – becomes his great personal test.

It also becomes the basis for the film’s slapstick. Silver goes through a series of humiliating schemes to get close to the star. He takes an afternoon job as a delivery boy for a food store so he can take veggies up to her apartment. Doesn’t quite work – he gets discovered at the kitchen entrance and booted out.

He also encounters a gallery of Big Apple weirdos: a broken-down photographer (Howard Da Silva) wbo once took pictures of Garbo from 50 feet; an aging character actress (Hermione Gingold) who used to play opposite Garbo; a traveler (Tony-­winning playwright Harvey Fierstein) to Fire Island, who lends Silver a pair of fuschia sweat pants after an accident with a friendly dog.

These are stock types, and there’s not much new in the playing out of the various wild cards. Silver does OK, in a part that would have been played by Elliott Gould or Richard Benjamin 15 years ago.

The director, Sidney Lumet, is as much to blame as anyone for the flatness of the proceedings. Lumet has a fairly high profile among Establishment critics – his movies (Network, The Verdict, Daniel, among many others) often get Oscar nominations, because he loves tackling the serious topics.

But every once in a while he gets it into his head that he wants to make a comedy. Anybody out there remember Just Tell Me What You Want? Didn’t think so. He doesn’t have a lively comic sense, and without a nimble telling, the light touch that the film needs seems as heavy as Greta Garbo’s sultry eyelids.

First published in the Herald, October 1984

That’s right – those Establishment critics, man. But this wasn’t one of Lumet’s bright spots, so there. Sort of interesting to recall a time when there were not only too many Neil Simon movies out there, but too many sub-Simon efforts. This I do not miss. (Also: a “food store”?)

Falling in Love

January 30, 2020

fallinginloveThere is no good reason Falling in Love needs to be as thin and tiresome as it is. But a combination of forces has doomed it to a pallid and maddeningly uncompelling existence.

The plot itself, while slim, is not necessarily a washout. As the advance publicity suggested, it’s like a story out of John Cheever – or even more like one of Eric Rohmer’s movies about people who meet, fall in love, then worry themselves sick about the consequences. This love story springs up on the commuter trains rolling into New York City: Molly (Meryl Streep) is going into town to visit her sick father; Frank (Robert De Niro) works at a construction site in town (he’s a building engineer), and happens to be without a car for a few days.

They bump into each other, literally, and for the next 20 minutes or so we see scenes of them doing a tentative mating dance around each other – both are married, but they have a way of winding up on the same train, accidentally on purpose.

Counseling them on should-they­-or-shouldn’t-they are two pals: Frank’s buddy (Harvey Keitel, who also played opposite De Niro in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver), who is undergoing a divorce, and Molly’s friend (Dianne Wiest ), who enjoys no-strings relationships with men.

Throughout this section, when the principals get to know each other, the film works just fine. The situation has charm, and God knows De Niro and Streep have enough presence to hold your attention.

But when things get serious and some commitments need to be made, this movie turns into a real drag. De Niro, as a family man with two sons, plays it cool, and suggests quiet anguish. Streep suffers a lot, and loses whatever spark of life that made her interesting in the first place. Both get many close-ups from the director, Ulu Grosbard (a Broadway vet who directed De Niro in True Confessions a couple of years ago ).

They both look very good in these close-ups. But there isn’t much of a movie going on around them – just a series a very civilized and eventually rather dull episodes.

This is something of a family production: Many of the principal creators had worked together before. It got started because De Niro and Streep, who were both in The Deer Hunter, wanted to do another movie together. In a way, they’re an odd combination. Both are devoted to the theater, and to styles of acting that have much to do with what might be called “Post-Method.” They might be too much alike – in terms of overly wrought acting technique – to make sparks fly.

Scriptwriter Michael Cristofer had acted with Streep on Broadway (around the time he copped a Pulitzer for writing the play The Shadow Box); David Clennon, who plays Streep’s doctor husband, acted in that same production; and Grosbard and Keitel were longtime friends.

It’s a New York production – it’s almost a New Yorker short story – with just the trace of snobbishness that implies. None of those vulgar Hollywood folk sticking their noses in here. Thing is, maybe they should have had those movie people there – because after about an hour of this enervated and tasteful production you start wishing somebody would do something really vulgar.

First published in the Herald, November 1984

Both brilliant actors, but the energy that goes on between them (combined with the film’s dreary sense of mood and place) generates zilch. And does the title itself make anybody else cringe? It’s just not happening here, nothing, nada.



January 27, 2020

firstbornFirstborn is a skillfully manipulative example of American suburban Gothic, with enough jolts and hollers to get the blood pumping at a satisfyingly high rate.

It has a novel subject for a thriller: a pair of brothers (one in high school, the other grade school) watch with increasing anxiety as their divorced mother falls under the spell of a suspicious-seeming new boyfriend.

You’ve seen this kind of creep before: the buzz-word patter, the smarmy heartiness, the incessant talk of just getting that one big score. All the while living off other people; in this case, the mother, who invites him to move in with the family.

To the older boy, it become clear that the freeloader is not just obnoxious – he’s actually dangerous. He appears to be a dope dealer who has the mother so hopped-up on cocaine she doesn’t realize what she’s doing. The showdown, clearly, is going to be the kid vs. the dark invading monster.

Since so many elements of the film work on such a primal level – the invasion of the home, even the hinted-at Oedipal threat – it really gets to you in a basic way. The preview audience with whom I saw the film was whooping loudly when the first-born son started standing up to the boyfriend. This emotional response is carefully prepared for – almost too much so, as the film takes a while to get untracked.

It’s manipulation, but with an interesting idea. After all, just what are children to make of their single parents’ new friends and lovers? This film exaggerates what must be a common anxiety for children in this situation.

Britisher Michael Apted directs from the point of view of Jake, the older boy (Christopher Collet), and he does a shrewd job of revealing sinister bits of information about the menacing boyfriend – who is played with scary intensity by Peter Weller, lately the hero of Buckaroo Banzai. Weller’s dark, ghoulish face and iridescent blue eyes make for a spooky enemy.

You can see how the mother could fall for him; but you can also see why Jake instinctively distrusts him. When the little boy (Corey Haim) asks Jake how he knows mom’s new friend is no good, Jake can only say, “I just know.” No reasonable explanation – but sometimes you just know.

Teri Garr, who plays the mother, has some trouble getting a handle on her character. Garr, usually cast in comic roles (as in Tootsie and Mr. Mom and many others), is by no means out of her league, but the role itself is poorly written. She has to be very passive, or else she would have booted the bum out of her house much earlier. The explanation – that cocaine has clouded her reason – doesn’t quite work in dramatic terms.

But enough of Firstborn does work in dramatic terms to make it tick. There are weaknesses in Garr’s characterization and some serious deck-stacking, but when it comes to the business of making your blood race, Firstborn is quite satisfactory.

First published in the Herald, October 25, 1984

Mostly forgotten, yes? Robert Downey, Jr., and Sara Jessica Parker are in this movie, and it was Corey Haim’s first film. It seems like some sort of cult status should attend to this thing, given that all the elements are in place.