Year of the Jellyfish

December 21, 2021

For a while, especially in the late 1950s-early 1960s, when the regulations on nudity in films began to go lax, you could count on the French to release movies that wrapped some socially redeeming storyline around a series of teasing nude scenes.

Often these were vehicles for the reigning sex kitten of the day, such as Brigitte Bardot or Romy Schneider. The filmmakers might very well claim that these movies had important things to say. Well, maybe. Not many audiences cared about that.

The French are still up to it. Of course, we’re all jaded now and there are few barriers that have not been crossed in some movie, somewhere. Which makes the appearance of a movie like Year of the Jellyfish almost a nostalgic event. Probably its writer-director, Christopher Frank, would say that he has some high-minded ambitions. Fine. But frankly, the main attraction and raison d’etre here is the abundance of naked female flesh.

This year’s sex kitten is Valerie Kaprisky (though she may get healthy competition from Beatrice Dalle, of Betty Blue). Kaprisky was similarly sexy and kittenish in the unfairly overlooked Richard Gere version of Breathless a few years ago. This story just happens to be set on the French Riviera, where it seems very few of the sunbathers bother to wear much fabric, if any at all. This means there are many opportunities, all utterly essential to the story, of course, for Kaprisky to doff her duds and slither across the beach.

This exposure occurs during a vacation that Kaprisky is enjoying with her mother (Caroline Cellier). They meet a mysteriously moral pimp (Bernard Giraudeau), who turns out to be the one man who doesn’t fall under Kaprisky’s charms; we watch her ruin the lives of some other hapless saps with her minxlike ways.

There are only two problems with any of this. The first is that Year of the Jellyfish would be a bad, confused movie with or without skin. The second is that Valerie Kaprisky (though she has nice skin) is a thoroughly uninspiring actress. She’s just not interesting enough to convince us that she has it in her to do these terrible things to men. Caroline Cellier easily outclasses and outacts her; she’s a lot sexier, for that matter.

None of which will keep Year of the Jellyfish from making money, since a show of flesh will generally guarantee box-office interest. This sun-soaked, shameless throwback just proves the durability of that truism.

First published in The Herald, July 12, 1987

Not exactly a hep review, but you can’t always be cutting-edge with the comedy. Director Frank died of a heart attack in 1993, age 50, according to IMDb. Kaprisky didn’t have a lot of high-profile pictures after this, but the U.S. Breathless is a memorable picture.


A Year of the Quiet Sun

November 9, 2021

Krzysztof Zanussi’s A Year of the Quiet Sun sneaks up on you with all the pantherish grace of its title; there’s no fuss, no hurry in Zanussi’s muted telling of this odd, halting love story. It all seems as offhand as the accidental meeting of the two main characters. Scott Wilson, an American soldier, hears the call of nature as he drives through a barren country landscape, and so stops his jeep and strides over to an abandoned car, where he can conveniently take a leak against the fender. As he discovers mid-pee, the car is not abandoned at all, but inhabited by a woman (Maja Komorowska) who is sitting quietly, painting a sunburst.

This meeting grows into a friendship that defies a formidable language barrier (she is Polish) as well as the subtle sense that these two people don’t have all that much in common, except their loneliness and, possibly, some dormant hope of happiness. Since words are insufficient for communication, Zanussi uses a variety of images to suggest feelings and moods. He does wonders with the interior of Komorowska’s apartment, small and shabby but lit with intimacy. And other images stick in the mind, such as the cookies that Komorowska offers her strange new gentleman caller – which will later be knocked to the floor by the thugs who break into the apartment – and the eerie scene in which onlookers peering into the graves of soldiers suddenly, horrifyingly, lose their balance and fall in among the corpses.

Above all, there is the body language and iconography of Wilson and Komorowska. Scott Wilson, who attended screenings of the film at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year, appeared surprisingly (to me, at least) sleek and trim in person. On the screen, his face has a majestically broken-down, fallen look; he has the crumbling features of a Roman bust, weathered by disappointment (which is why he was perfect for the small role of an old-guard pilot in The Right Stuff). When Wilson tells Komorowska that she is his last chance, that he wants to retreat to a farm somewhere with her, you believe him – because he looks like he’s gone through it all. And there may not be another actress in the world who has a face as expressive and lived-in as Maja Komorowska; we easily understand Wilson’s feelings for her.

Then there is the matter of the ending of A Year of the Quiet Sun. I wouldn’t dream of giving it away, but it is the sort of ending that can take an audience’s breath away (even while Zanussi has carefully prepared us for it), and it brings the whole movie into sudden focus. All along, Zanussi has been sneaking up on us – and in the final few seconds of his movie, he pounces.

First published in The Informer, October 1985

Thirty years after writing this, I met Zanussi at a reception for one of his films at the Edinburgh Filmhouse. So you see what happens when you stick around long enough. They were showing his great film Camouflage, and I got to tell him how much I loved the ending to that.


Ghostbusters

October 28, 2021

Bill Murray, along with his fellow ghostbusters (Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, who also wrote the script) has been prowling the corridors of a swank hotel in search of a green spirit. Unfortunately, Murray finds it. We cut away before the ghost engulfs him, then follow Ayrkroyd as he runs to Murray’s aid. Murray, prone, is covered with goo. “He slimed me,” says Murray, as Aykroyd gives comfort. A moment later, Murray, still supine, rolls his head back, looks heavenward, and lets loose with an oddly satisfied sigh, “I feel sooo funky.”

I don’t know what this line means. I’m not sure I want to know. But I know that it made me laugh all through the next few scenes in Ghostbusters. There is something divine about Bill Murray, and I mean that adjective in the truest sense. Murray’s screen persona walks among men, but he is apart from them. He can’t really be called courageous, yet he faces danger, authority, and sexual aggression without the slightest trace of fear. As Newsweek‘s David Ansen put it, “His response stays the same, whether he is confronted by a green demon or an ordinary man in the street: nothing fazes his lunatic disengagement from reality.” We cannot imagine a life for Murray outside the running time of his films; he’s unreal, he couldn’t survive in the world of the flesh.

Murray is not yet on the same plane as the great Groucho Marx, but I thought about Groucho while watching Ghostbusters. Like Groucho, Murray’s anarchic insouciance is a liberating force; he gives gleeful life to all the comebacks that we would like to be able to make to authority figures and incompetents. Part of Murray’s popularity must stem from the fact that his humor is rarely laced with malice; rather, he floats his words on a breeze of laid-back cheer. This is, of course, the opposite of Groucho’s rapid patter. But Murray has a scene with Sigourney Weaver – who is both beautiful and funny in Ghostbusters – after she’s been possessed by the spirit of a ghost who’s been haunting her apartment refrigerator, during which the two of them achieve a comic dialogue the likes of which has not been seen (or heard) since Groucho parted ways with Margaret Dumont.

Weaver is writhing in heat on her bed (she is about to levitate above the bed, which prompts Murray to later remark, “I like her because she sleeps above her covers – four feet above her covers” – but still, no big deal), and she entices Murray hither. He’ll have none of it. The scene he sees before him is too fraught with possibilities for one-liners, and he is drunk on comic opportunity. It’s impossible to imagine Murray and Weaver actually bedding down after the movie ends just as it was impossible to imagine what Groucho might do if he actually convinced one of the objects of his desire to join him between the sheets full of cracker crumbs.

So what about the movie itself? Well, Ivan Reitman continues to be the worst comedy director at work today, but he seems to be Bill Murray’s guide, what with Meatballs and Stripes and all. And presumably he provides the improvisational atmosphere in which Murray thrives. Aykroyd and Ramis maintain second-banana status; there is also an inexplicable fourth ghostbuster, Ernie Hudson, who seems to be there to get the black vote.

And Rick Moranis is so good as Weaver’s geeky neighbor that it makes up for Streets of Fire. Well, almost. With these people hanging about, plus the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man, Ghostbusters can’t miss being agreeable. As for Murray, he won’t have Reitman to fall back on for his next movie. He plays the seeker-of-the-infinite in The Razor’s Edge. It’s unfair, but you can’t help imagining him experiencing his moment of oneness with the Absolute, putting his head back against a tree trunk, watching the sun rise, and whispering softly, “I feel sooo funky….”

First published in The Informer, May/June 1984

At this point in my budding career I was writing reviews in a daily newspaper, The Herald, and also editing the Seattle Film Society’s newsletter, The Informer; I rarely wrote two reviews of the same movie (something I did a lot of when I later wrote for The Herald and Film.com at the same time), but I guess Ghostbusters was one of them. I posted the other review almost ten years ago – man, time flies. I suppose I would watch it again someday, but only for Murray.


This Is Spinal Tap

October 27, 2021

One of the funnier moments in recent movie memory occurs halfway through This Is Spinal Tap, when the fictitious British rock band finally gets copies of their long-delayed new album, Smell the Glove. The cover was supposed to be adorned with a multifariously sexist image, but the record company balked, so the new album has simply an all-black cover – no name, no title, no nothing. Lead guitarist Nigel (Christopher Guest) looks at the album, and starts to wax poetic about the nature of its blackness. “It’s like, it’s asking the question, how much blacker can black be,” he suggests, in perfect Liverpudlian haze. “And the answer is … none.”

That last word, delivered at the end of a superbly timed pause during which the speaker struggles through a graveyard of dead brain cells in an impossible attempt to remember the beginning of his sentence, it typical of the film’s feel for delicious non sequitur. Reportedly, much of the film came out of improvisation, and bearing that in mind, it’s remarkable that the movie is as cohesive and on-target as it is. In case you haven’t heard, This Is Spinal Tap is a pseudo-documentary about a rock group called Spinal Tap, a band that has ridden the various fads from psychedelia through heavy metal, and which now appears to be on its last tour.

The idea for the movie came from Rob Reiner, who directed the film, co-wrote it with the actors, and appears as Martin DiBerge, filmmaker (DeBerge’s hilariously earnest introduction to the film is wonderful; as a matter of fact, Reiner’s reaction shots of himself throughout the movie, absolutely deadpan as the band members proffer their weirdnesses, is a canny comic device.) Reiner, like the rest of us, probably sat through one too many grainy, pretentious, amateurish documentaries about some sleazy rock ‘n rollers who paid for a vanity project on themselves and then lost interest halfway through. He’s clearly a student of the subgenre, because all the stylistic signatures are in evidence: hit-and-miss focus, wandering camera, labyrinthian language (the kind that surrounds “real people” when they try to sound articulate for the camera). Much of the credit for that language goes to the actors, especially to Michael McKean and Christopher Guest, who are sort of the Lennon and McCartney of Spinal Tap (although their bassist, Derek Smalls – played by Harry Shearer – claims they’re really like Shelley and Byron). They may have had their differences before, but the band’s already fragile biorhythms are seriously disrupted when McKean’s girlfriend pops up during mid-tour, as the band finds itself getting canceled out of gigs in small clubs.

Exerting a Yokoesque hold on McKean, she suggests that the way to rekindle their sagging fortunes is to dress the group as animals while onstage. Somehow this leads to a Stonehenge motif, which appears in the act as an 18-inch shrine that descends from the rafters so that a pair of uncoordinated leprechauns can skip around (I guarantee you will have tears in your eyes during this). So much of This Is Spinal Tap is bullseye stuff that it becomes almost too good; the parody captures sleaziness and pretentiousness and vacuousness so exactly that it comes close to being gruesome to watch. This movie gets to be terribly, horribly good.

First published in The Informer, April 1984

I hope that if anybody reads these things, part of the appeal is seeing what it’s like to watch future classics utterly cold – at the time, one did not know how completely a movie like this would enter the popular consciousness. Anyway, this is what that initial snap of discovery was like. I like Yoko, by the way, and meant the phrase “Yokoesque” only in the sense of how this character operates in the world of the mockrockumentary. Don’t know what else to say about it, but I did see Spinal Tap perform live once, after walking past the Paramount Theater in Seattle one night, seeing they were playing right then, and buying a ticket. Which was fun.


Kaos

September 8, 2021

The oddest filmmaking method in the world may be that practiced by Italy’s Taviani brothers. The siblings, Paolo and Vittorio, write the screenplay together – then, when they’re on the set, they take turns directing: Paolo directs the scenes Vittorio wrote, Vittorio directs the scenes Paolo wrote.

I’m not sure how far we can believe this, but it sounds reasonable, because their films really do seem to be the products of a single, lucid consciousness. Their previous outing, The Night of the Shooting Stars (1981), is looking more and more like one of the strongest films of the decade.

Now they’ve come up with Kaos, which should enhance their reputation even further. It’s a three-hour collection of tales adapted from Luigi Pirandello short stories, all set among the Italian peasantry.

The first story, “The Other Son,” may be the best. It’s a stunning tale of an aging mother who yearns for word from two sons who have gone to American seeking work, while she ignores the grown son who still lives nearby, because he was the product of a rape.

It’s an amazing story, full of haunting details. By the end, when the woman rolls a pumpkin down a dusty road, the image has become charged with horror and bitterness. It’s a staggering moment.

The second segment, “Moonstruck,” is almost as good. It’s both a horror story and a love story. A newlywed wife learns of her husband’s terrible illness when the first full moon of their marriage arrives. He tells her to lock herself in their farmhouse, and ignore his cries outside.

It seems he became moonstruck when left outside one night as a baby, and ever since, has turned animalistic once a month. Having survived this first night, the wife decides on a unique domestic solution: When the next full moon comes, she will invite her former lover to stay with her in the house – merely as a protector, ahem – while the husband howls outside. This suggestive twist may seem to point the tale in the direction of a sex comedy, but the resolution is a surprise.

After these two stories, “The Jar” comes off as relatively trivial, a parable about vanity and proprietorship. Still, it’s nicely done.

“Requiem” is a stately story about an old man’s wish to be buried in his own ground, even though it really belongs to a strict landowner who refuses his peasants a cemetery.

The epilogue, “A Talk with Mother,” has Pirandello arriving at his hometown, where he remembers a story his mother told him about visiting a strange pumice island when she was a girl; the snow-white island, sloping down into the clear blue sea, is one of the movie’s most striking images.

In some poetic way, this memory allows him to say goodbye to his dead mother. It also reminds us about the power of storytelling, which is, after all, what Kaos as been about. Even within the stories themselves, the characters are always telling stories, and this is the ultimate value the Tavianis are celebrating.

First published in The Herald, May 2, 1986

Alas, the brothers’ next film was Good Morning, Babylon, an English-language misfire. I’d like to see this one again, especially that werewolf episode – speaking of which, has there been a more recent adaptation of the Pirandello story? I swear I have seen one, or perhaps the images from Kaos are still very fresh in my mind.


Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

July 6, 2021

Once upon a time, there was Star Trek, a TV series that captivated millions of people and lived a short, enjoyable video life. Then there was Star Trek – The Motion Picture, a big-budget return to the ongoing mission of the starship Enterprise. It was reverential, humorless, and pretty boring.

Then came Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Made with love and playfulness instead of reverence, this sequel recaptured the spirit and fun of the TV series. It also killed off the mystical center of Star Trek: Leonard Nimoy’s Spock sacrificed himself or the good of his fellow men.

But wait just a minute. When last seen, Spock’s body was setting down gently on the surface of a newly-vitalized planet called Genesis. The new sequel takes up right where the previous one left off, and you can guess by the title – Star Trek III: The Search for Spock – that the resilient Vulcan may not be down for the count.

Turns out that Spock left a little of himself back on the ship. As the Enterprise heads back home, Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) notices that “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) isn’t quite himself. Bones walks around muttering things like, “most illogical,” and Kirk soon discovers that Spock put the Vulcan mind-meld on McCoy before he died. That means Spock’s brain (or at least his memory) is within McCoy’s head.

Spock’s father (Mark Lenard, who played the same role in the series) shows up to tell Kirk that Spock’s body must be recovered and returned to Vulcan. There, with McCoy’s help, Spock can be restored.

Fine. Except that Kirk’s bosses at the Federation have declared that Genesis is off limits. We all know that isn’t going to stop Kirk, though, just as we know those crazy Klingons (led by Christopher Lloyd, who is both menacing and funny) will get their just deserts after causing trouble around the forbidden planet.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable movie. All the stars are quite comfortable in the roles; the gang’s all there (as usual, the supporting crew members don’t have a heckuva lot to do).

This entry has been directed by Leonard Nimoy, who does rather well by it. Search for Spock doesn’t have the hipness or spunk that director Nicholas Meyer gave Wrath of Khan, but it’s told clearly. And Nimoy has a good feeling for the Trek brand of pop mysticism.

Once again, this sequel harks back to the traditional themes of the TV show: technology is fine, but human instincts will carry the day; friendship and loyalty may be worth more than sensible behavior; etc. Listen, the TV series’ main attraction was never the scientific gadgetry; it was the cornball excitement of watching Kirk get by on his inexhaustible supply of gut instincts and crazy hunches.

The series always insisted that, for all of his voyages through the stars, man’s greatest achievement was simply the ability to remain human. When someone marvels at the fact that Kirk has lost everything – his command, his ship, and more – in the search for Spock, Kirk replies simply, “I would have lost my soul if I hadn’t tried.” Star Trek may not matter much in the vast scheme of things, but that’s a decent conclusion for a modest, escapist entertainment.

First published in The Herald, June 2, 1984

I mean, I didn’t get it wrong. For movies that have become cultural monuments, it’s funny to think back at the times when you’d just seen it for the first time and had a couple of hours to come up with a review. This piece doesn’t say a whole lot about the movie itself, but I’m all right with the way it ends up.


The Holy Innocents

May 12, 2021

Ever since Jean Renoir satirized the class system in his landmark The Rules of the Game (1939), filmmakers have borrowed Renoir’s central situation for similar ends. Renoir took a French country estate and mixed the gentry with the peasantry, with class-busting results.

Last year’s The Shooting Party took Renoir’s theme and brought it to England. Now, a Spanish film, The Holy Innocents, adopts a similar idea and deposits it at a 1960s-era Spanish estate.

It’s an angry film that takes broad, emotional swipes at the decadent class system under Franco’s rule. The landowners are cruel, idle, wildly out of touch with reality and the earth they own. The peasants are overworked, good, wholly of the soil they tend.

This sort of set-up suggests a political tract; and The Holy Innocents director Mario Camus sometimes falls into pigeonholing, taking easy shots at his villains (just as the villains are always shooting the gamebirds of the estate). More often, happily, Camus attempts a more ambiguous emphasis, one that relies on fundamental storytelling good sense.

The story is told in flashback, and depicts the hardships of a family of servants who are treated like dirt by the masters – especially by Master Ivan (Juan Diego), a deceptively bland-looking fellow who is utterly without moral sense. He uses Paco (Alfredo Landa), the father of the servant family, as a tracker during the numerous bird-hunting outings, as one would use a bird dog (Paco even scurries along the ground on all fours, catching the scent of the fallen birds). In fact, Ivan particularly likes Paco because Paco seems so humble about accepting his degraded place in life.

When Paco breaks a leg during a hunting expedition, Ivan is distraught with the thought that Paco won’t be ready for the big hunt just a few days away. He urges Paco to accompany him, even in a leg cast: “C’mon, where’s that iron will? Give it all you’ve got.” So Paco promptly goes out and accidentally breaks the leg again, apologizing for inconveniencing the master’s shooting.

Paco’s brother-in-law (Francisco Rabal), the other major character, is a feeble-minded, harmless old man who keeps pet birds and good-naturedly exercises his bodily functions wherever he feels like it, sometimes in the middle of the driveway. He precipitates the downfall of the master, following the master’s thoughtless shooting of a favorite pet bird.

Rabal, one of Spain’s best actors for years, and Landa shared the Cannes Film Festival Best Actor prize last year. They give, to say the least, uninhibited performances, and their authenticity goes a long way toward keeping the film grounded in the human situation in hand, and not merely existing as a polemic with an ax, however appropriate, to grind.

First published in The Herald, March 7, 1986

Very breezy of me to chalk this up as an attempt to “do a Rules of the Game” when it is adapted from a 1982 novel by the Spanish literary giant Miguel Delibes. The film was a big hit in Spain. As far as I know, I haven’t seen any other films by Mario Camus, who started out writing with Carlos Saura.