February 8, 2013

repentanceAs glasnost settles in, the various kinds of Soviet openness will include a freeing-up of the national cinema, which has been a landscape of clumsy epics and squelched talents since the glory days of Russian filmmaking in the 1920s.

At least, a freeing-up is promised. We’ll see.

Anyway, the Gorbachev era has already brought some interesting titles into the open; movies that had been made, but were officially languishing on the shelf, for whatever reasons. Repentance (completed in 1984) is the latest find, and the one that has had the most publicity.

A good deal of the publicity likely comes from the allegorical nature of the movie, which takes a harsh view of Soviet history, albeit in a disguised way.

As the film opens, a famous man, Varlam Aravidze, has died. But when he is buried, his body keeps popping back up in the front yard of his middle-aged son. When the grave-robber is caught, it turns out to be a woman, who vows she will never allow Varlam’s body to rest in peace. At her trial, she tells her story.

As a child, she witnessed Varlam’s brutal reign over the town where she and her parents lived. Varlam was a pompous psychopath, a mayor who instituted official forms of terror and arranged the death of the girl’s father, an artist.

As delivered in the grand performance of Avtandil Makharadze, Varlam is a stupefying tyrant; with his tiny Hitler mustache and his well-fed form, he can be a comic figure at times, bursting into opera and making speeches declaring that “four out of every three persons are enemies.” But the actor never loses the terrible cruelty of the man, or the petty meanness.

The film’s director, Tengiz Abuladze, has said that Repentance is not merely an allegory of the Stalinist era, although that is surely the crucial point of comparison. That’s the way Russian audiences have responded to it; the movie has been an enormous hit in the Soviet Union.

Noting the film’s importance, it would be splendid to report that it’s a masterpiece, but I don’t think it is. Repentance has the lumbering nature of many Soviet movies, which tend to take 10 minutes to do what an American director can toss off with a reaction shot. But Makharadze’s strange performance, and Abuladze’s formal use of recurring motifs—flowers, churches—goes a long way toward making Repentance an intriguing experience, even if it may always mean more to Russian audiences than to others.

First published in the Herald, April 24, 1988

Abuladze was a Georgian filmmaker with a career dating back to 1953; the leading man played Stalin, his fellow Georgian, in the 2005 Daniel Craig picture Archangel. This movie sounds like it would look pretty interesting from 30 years’ distance.


Deadtime Stories and Starship

January 29, 2013

starshipThe two cheesy exploitation movies that hit the area last weekend are a real study in contrasts. Deadtime Stories is low-budget and silly, and just marginally watchable. Starship, while boasting a superior budget, is as dull as dried clay.

Deadtime Stories takes the time-honored omnibus route, presenting three scary stories. The first, about a pair of medieval witches and their unwilling servant boy, seems left over from some other movie—it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the film.

The other two stories are modern updates of fairy tales. “Little Red Riding Hood” is here a nubile teen in a scarlet jogging outfit who runs afoul of a werewolf. The third story is a variation on “Goldilocks,” wherein the three bears are humans, escaped lunatics who find Goldi living in their abandoned house.

Goldi herself is a statuesque vixen blessed with a telekinetic power a la Carrie, which allows her to terminate her long line of suitors. She gets along very well with the bear family, and they even live happily ever after.

Under the clumsy hand of director Jeffrey Delman, this is all done tongue-in-cheek, as is the framing story of an insomniac boy having the tales told him by a babysitting uncle. It’s very clear that most of the budget went for special effects, with little left over for such niceties as professional actors.

Still, Deadtime Stories is comprehensible. Not so Starship, a completely incoherent space thing, directed and co-written by Roger Christian (a name to be shunned in the future). The ads promise, “The adventure of a million lifetimes”; actually, it only seems that long.

I honestly can’t tell you what the film was about, except it had something to do with some people trying to get off a planet that was being taken over by robots. Not a whit of humor, or even intelligible action.

First published in the Herald, April 1987 (?)

IMDb says that Jeffrey Delman is related to Bernard Herrmann; also, Deadtime‘s cast included Melissa Leo in one of her first movie roles. It opened at the Coliseum in Seattle. Roger Christian did design stuff for Star Wars and Alien, which would explain his move to sci-fi directing; he eventually did Battlefield Earth, which is a lot more fun than Starship. The movie apparently opened in Australia in ’84, but knocked around and was re-cut before playing the U.S. sometime later.

The Pope of Greenwich Village

January 21, 2013

popeofgThe opening-credits sequence of The Pope of Greenwich Village promises much: As Frank Sinatra’s voice caresses the air with “The Summer Wind,” we see a man meticulously preparing himself for an evening out. He slips on an expensive jacket, natty tie, classy accessories. He walks out into the evening with smooth self-assurance.

The upshot of this is that the guy, Charlie, is a maitre d’ at a fancy restaurant. Still, he knows what he’s about, and he’s got great dreams. He and his girlfriend, Diane, plan to break out of their home in Little Italy and own a restaurant in the country someday.

Charlie’s got a problem, however. The problem is he’s bound by blood to a perpetual loser named Paulie, his third cousin. Paulie, working as a waiter at Charlie’s restaurant, promptly gets them both fired when he won’t stop stealing money.

Out on the street, Paulie comes up with a new scheme. He buys a share of a racehorse—he’s heard the horse is the offspring of a champion, by means of “artificial inspiration”—and then plans a burglary to have enough money to bet big when the horse comes in a winner. Paulie drags a reluctant, unemployed Charlie into the plot, without telling him that the payroll they’re going to take belongs to the local underworld kingpin.

It’s one of those movies in which the characters keep getting deeper and deeper into trouble. The Pope isn’t a depressing movie because of this, however. The only depressing thing is that so little has been done with a potentially rich subject.

Vincent Patrick, whose maiden screenplay this is (he adapted his same-named novel), has things going in all directions. Charlie’s concern for his helpless, no-good cousin is touching, but his gruff devotion isn’t really given enough background to make it comprehensible. It becomes tough to believe that the family connection is enough. And Diane’s character is never successfully integrated into the story; after a while she just disappears.

Director Stuart Rosenberg, who might have brought the film’s tangential elements together, just contributes to the mess. He doesn’t seem to be equipped to impose any overriding sensibility that might have brought things into focus.

If the film is a rather enjoyable mess, it’s because of the cast. Daryl Hannah is appealing as Diane, and there are well-turned supporting bits by Kenneth McMillan, as a thief who helps Charlie and Paulie; Burt Young, as the gangland chief; and Tony Musante, as one of Young’s henchmen, who has tears in his eyes as he tells his old friend Paulie he’ll have to maim him.

Eric Roberts—most recently the psycho husband in Star 80—manages to be both studied and overwrought as Paulie. Oddly enough, that’s appropriate for this character, but Roberts would benefit from watching his co-star, Mickey Rourke, for a lesson in natural screen acting.

Rourke, the hairdresser of Diner and the motorcycle boy in Coppola’s Rumble Fish, is short, not conventionally handsome, and speaks softly most of the time. But he’s got the kind of screen presence that inspires immediate audience sympathy, and when he’s on screen in The Pope, the film blows through with the ease and pleasant feeling of the summer wind.

First published in the Herald, June 26, 1984

Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke: what a set it must have been. IMDb says this movie was prepared and steered through pre-production by Michael Cimino, which conjures up a wilder project.


January 1, 2013

metropolis_6Metropolis first became a gleam in Fritz Lang’s eye when the great German director visited New York City in the mid-1920s and was dazzled by the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

Lang spent the next two years—and a whole sackful of his studio’s money—creating a futuristic movie about workers struggling against inhuman overdeveloped “progress” in the year 2028.

Audiences were even more dazzled by Lang’s majestic vision. When it came time to export the three-hour film, however, somebody decided that overseas viewers would benefit from a shorter version. These original exporters thought it best to cut out a character named Hel, for instance, because they feared American audiences would misunderstand the name. Hel just happened to be the mother of one of the main characters, but never mind about that.

So English-speaking audiences have never seen the full-length film—and they never will. Too many pieces are lost for good.

But the film has been restored to as full a length as possible by extremely surprising hands—those of disco maestro Giorgio Moroder, he of Flashdance and American Gigolo. It seems Moroder got the idea to give Metropolis a vibed-up soundtrack, but he got sidetracked. He started hunting down bits of the movie that had fallen out along the way.

This reissue of Metropolis, then, is Moroder’s unique contribution to film history. He’s gotten some of the movie off the shelves of collectors. He’s also given it a rock music score, complete with Pat Benatar, Adam Ant, and Bonnie Tyler.

Now, that rock score, in theory, sounds pretty cringe-worthy. And in fact, some of it stinketh. The songs, which feature lyrics that stupidly comment on the action, are somewhat obtrusive.

But the instrumental music is often quite good, and certainly does not seem outrageously out of place in Lang’s bizarre dream world.

Ultimately, the movie rests and falls on its visuals. It was shot as a silent film, and can thus presumably stand on its own. Does it?

The answer from this reporter: an unqualified, slack-jawed, weak-kneed Yes! Wow! What a movie. The theme, as stated, is basic: “Between the head and the hands, the heart must mediate.” The head is the ruler of Metropolis, Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel), who runs the city from his office high among the skyscrapers.

The hands are the workers, who exist in slavery in horrific quarters deep below the city. The heart comes into play when Frederson’s son (Gustav Frolich) has his consciousness raised by the presence of a good woman (Brigitte Helm), despite the efforts of a mad scientist (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to stop them from leading the workers to the light.

Lang visualizes this simple theme with astounding ingenuity that goes beyond the spectacular production values. But oh those production values: the huge underground city, the transformation of a woman into a robot, and—would you believe 11,000 bald-headed extras constructing the Tower of Babel?

Frolich is something of a wash-out in the lead role, and Abel’s part seems shortened by the original editing. But two of the performers have been immortalized by their roles. Klein-Rogge is the ultimate mad scientist, and Helm is disturbingly weird as both the Lillian Gish-like good girl and as the lusty, utterly crazy robot.

The film has, for years, been called a prediction of the rise of Nazism. It’s interesting to note that Lang, who was sometimes accused of being a dictator on the set, left Germany in the early 1930s after Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels invited Lang to make official party films for the National Socialists. Thea von Harbou, who wrote the humanistic message of Metropolis—and was also Lang’s wife—stayed on and worked for the Third Reich.

Historical considerations aside, Metropolis is a spellbinding movie experience. Even with Moroder’s win-a-few, lose-a-few soundtrack, it puts the current competition to shame.

First published in the Herald, August 30, 1984

An early showing of this version was a benefit for the Seattle Film Society, as I recall. Of course, film history has gone far beyond the running time of Moroder’s cut of the movie, what with reels found in Argentina and all. Whatever your opinion of Moroder, the movie did look really cool on a giant screen again. There were a few zany moments, including one etched in my brain that involves the creation of the robot and Bonnie Tyler bellowing the words, “Here she comes!”

Arthur’s Hallowed Ground

December 14, 2012

arthurshallowedExecutive producer David Puttnam’s “First Love” television series is one of the best-regarded projects on British telly, even as Puttnam’s theatrical films—Chariots of Fire, Local Hero, The Killing Fields, etc.—have rejuvenated a shaky British film industry.

Some of the TV tales, notably Kipperbang and Experience Preferred…But Not Essential, already have been imported stateside.

Now the best of the rest have been gathered for a five-week series at the Crest theater. All of the films, according to the theme of the show, are about an early and deep attraction of the heart—although, as the first entry displays, the attraction isn’t necessarily a little boy falling for a little girl.

Arthur’s Hallowed Ground is about the love of a man for—a cricket field? Yes. As Arthur (Jimmy Jewel) marks his 45th year working as the groundsman for a cricket club, his eminence as the leading fieldkeeper in England is unquestioned. Colleagues consider his field the prettiest patch of turf in Britain.

But the directors of the cricket club are grumbling. Arthur rules his field completely. He won’t take direction, he won’t take advice, and he blanches at the suggestion that his meticulous work may actually be hampering the team’s play. There isn’t any evidence he cares at all for cricket, as a matter of fact; his beautiful field is the important thing.

Against the objections of Arthur, the board hires an assistant, a teenage black kid named Henry (Vas Blackwood). Arthur does his best to bring the kid in, but he doesn’t want him to touch anything, move anything, or clean anything—and he’d die before he let Henry step onto the sacred patch of turf he keeps most scrupulously tidy (roughly comparable to the pitcher-catcher battery in baseball, I think).

Eventually Henry learns Arthur’s tricks of the trade—how to ignore management requests, how to tend the ground and mix the fertilizer, and how to avoid the dreaded phone in his workshop. (When Henry asks why Arthur doesn’t answer the phone, Arthur sagely tells him, “It’ll only be somebody wantin’ me to do something.”)

The script, by Peter Gibbs, is slight but sweet; it’s the marvelous characterization of Arthur that puts it over. Puttnam has chosen just the right director to bring out Arthur’s best qualities: cinematographer Freddie Young, making his debut as director (80 years old when the film was made).

Young, an Oscar-winning photographer, is famous for his impeccable, sweeping vistas—particularly in collaboration with David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter). As a craftsman, he’s just like the fussy Arthur, and he obviously empathizes strongly with the detail-oriented groundskeeper.

However, despite his renown as a photographer of epics, Young keeps this story intimate, and he gets a wonderful sense of the green field, where much or the film takes place. From the early, golden-hued flashback of young Arthur being captivated by the verdant square, Young keeps the love story understandable, if eccentric.

The next “First Love” films to roll across the lawn at the Crest are: Sharma and Beyond, April 25 to May 1; Forever Young, May 2 to May 8; Those Glory, Glory Days, May 9 to May 15; and Winter Flight, May 16 to May 22. Most of them are the work of writers and directors from whom relatively little has been heard. If Puttnam’s track record is any indication, they’ll be more prominent in the future. This is a good chance to catch them cutting their teeth.

First published in the Herald, April 8, 1986

This is a minor film, but I have thought of it often. I have especially had many opportunities to reflect on Arthur’s response to the phone call, “It’ll only be somebody wantin’ me to do something.” That line of dialogue has kept me company during my lifelong aversion to ringing telephones. Reading this over makes me wonder, does Young hold the record for oldest directorial debut?

Thief of Hearts

December 12, 2012

thiefofhearts2Douglas Day Stewart had the darndest time trying to sell a script he wrote quite a few years back. It was called An Officer and a Gentleman, and the problem seemed to be that the story was just too old-fashioned and hokey for today’s hip audiences to believe.

Of course the film went through the stratosphere when it opened a couple of summers ago, and Stewart was quickly a hot property. But although An Officer and a Gentleman is likable enough, the screenplay was still hokey; what’s good about that film comes from the spirited direction and the magnetic star performances.

Stewart has now made his directorial debut (from his own screenplay), and he’s gone with a cast of virtual nobodies—so this time there’s nobody to bail him out. As a matter of fact, his screenplay is the best thing about Thief of Hearts, so you know the movie is in trouble.

It’s based on an interesting idea: A thief (Steven Bauer) absconds with the diaries of an attractive, upscale interior designer (Barbara Williams). He reads them and becomes obsessed with her written fantasies. He meets her (without tipping his hand), and courts her by miraculously seeming to be her perfect man.

Perhaps Brian De Palma could have made something sinister and kinky out of that situation. Stewart comes up with nothing more than a sexy fashion show, with great-looking people drinking white wine in fancy restaurants, in bathtubs, in sailboats, with witless “comic relief” provided by sidekicks (played by George Wendt and Christine Ebersole).

This movie falls squarely into a filmmaking tradition that descends (and I do mean descends) from the superficial sensibility of Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo. All is surface in these films: The characters seem to be more entranced with their own sleek images than with the other people on the screen. It’s a dispiriting, narcissistic trend.

Two offscreen people have been important in formulating this movement (both Italian, oddly enough): Giorgio Moroder, whose music gave a soulless throb to Gigolo, Cat People, and Flashdance, and Ferdinando Scarfiotti, a “visual consultant” (gee, didn’t these people used to be called art directors?), also an alumnus of American Gigolo.

Moroder is not involved with Thief of Hearts, but Harold Faltenmeyer’s score is an obvious rip-off of electronic Moroder motifs. Scarfiotti serves as visual consultant, and he gives San Francisco a weird, fashion-plate look similar to his New Orleans for Cat People and Miami for Scarface. Maybe he’s intent on making all the major American cities look like alien landscapes.

Stewart uses these stylish production values to little end: He has no flair with the camera, and his actors are uncompelling. Bauer, who made a solid debut in De Palma’s Scarface, can’t quite forget how handsome he is. Barbara Williams actually has the central role—the movie is really about her marriage, with the dalliance with the black-clad thief a temptation—and she has an attractive, if damagingly low-key, personality.

John Getz is okay in an utterly thankless wimpy husband role (he’s the author of children’s books, for cryin’ out loud), and David Caruso, the red-headed scaredy-cat from An Officer, is effectively nervy as Bauer’s punked-out partner in crime.

I didn’t really hate this film while I was watching it. It’s not boring, and it’s pretty to look at. But you know, at the climax of a film, whether or not it’s hooked you. This made up my mind about just how bad this movie was: At the juicy end of Thief of Hearts, I just didn’t care two figs what happened to any of these people.

First published in the Herald, October 24, 1984

The movie didn’t do well, and didn’t launch its leads into top stardom. Barbara Williams, who has an interesting face, is married to Tom Hayden; Bauer was married to Melanie Griffith in the 80s.

Red Dawn

November 16, 2012

Red Dawn is a trashy, silly movie that seeks to whip up a little bloodlust in all of us. It proposes that the Soviet Union has invaded the United States, and concentrates on the efforts of a small group of renegades in the Colorado mountains to overthrow the invaders.

The group consists of a bunch of teenagers who fled to the hills the morning of the attack. Their hometown of Calumet becomes a village controlled by the Russkies, where insurgents are rounded up in the local drive-in movie theater and “re-educated.” From their mountain command post, the teens develop guerrilla skills and strike back.

This sounds like nutty stuff, and it is, but the first few minutes of the film are promising. We see the high-schoolers going to classes, everything normal, except maybe for the sound of distant planes. Then we casually notice that some paratroopers have landed, and then—suddenly—it’s on, folks, World War III, the big one.

It’s an exciting sequence, with battle action aplenty as the kids jump in a pickup truck and speed away. The movie quickly degenerates into a collection of different methods of blowing up those Commie rats, with not much time out for the felicities of characterization.

Red Dawn is the work of John Milius, a renegade figure in Hollywood. He’s a film-student pal of many of the young directors (he co-wrote Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), and he showed some interesting directorial moves in his debut film, The Wind and the Lion. (He showed little of anything, though, in his most recent movie, Conan the Barbarian.)

Milius is notorious for his conservative politics, his reverence for guns, and his predilection for hard action. All of these concerns are well served in Red Dawn, almost to the point of hysteria.

The Milius philosophy may be presented most clearly in the moment when the guerillas decide to execute one of their own guys (he betrayed their location). Faced with the prospect of shooting down a former comrade in cold blood, someone points out that if they do this, “What’s the difference between us and them?” The hero turns a beady eye to this. “Because,” he says, cocking the gun and aiming it, “we live here.”

Milius serves notice every now and then that he’s not unaware of the ambiguities of this sort of statement, but still the movie works best as a rave-up revenge piece.

The most recognizable of the guerillas are Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell, who seem to have some sort of tandem acting agreement, since they were together in The Outsiders and Grandview, U.S.A., too. The rest of the Wolverines—they take their name from the high-school sports mascot—consist of stock types from war movies, although there are a couple of pleasantly hard-nosed girls (Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey), given to the Wolverines for protection by their uncle (Ben Johnson).

By the way, Red Dawn is the first film released with the new PG-13 rating, which suggests more stringent parental watchfulness over their sub-teen children. The new rating went into effect after the hue and cry over the comic-strip violence in Indiana Jones and Gremlins. Unfortunately for the huers and criers, the system seems to be backfiring already: Red Dawn might previously have gotten an R rating for its violence, but now it fits right into the PG-13 category—after all, it’s got no sex or foul language in it. And so the war goes on.

First published in the Herald, August 13, 1984

I forgot about the PG-13 milestone. Nice to see that the system was already completely flawed. This movie looks pretty accomplished next to the remake, which opens a few days from when I type this.