Full Moon Over Paris

January 6, 2020

fullmoonparisTwo decades after the French New Wave sent the film world spinning, director Eric Rohmer continues to be one of the leading lights of the world cinema. His erudite films consist primarily of people having witty conversations, through which they discover things about themselves. Or just as likely, fail to discover things about themselves.

That approach explains a line in Night Moves when Gene Hackman sighs, “Yeah, I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kinda like watchin’ paint dry.” Ah, but there are many coats of paint in a Rohmer movie, and peeling off each one is part of the reward.

Full Moon in Paris is Rohmer’s latest entry in a series he calls “Comedies and Proverbs.” (His most recent movies – both lovely – were Le Beau Mariage and Pauline at the Beach.) The proverb that begins this movie is: “He who has two women loses his soul. He who has two houses loses his mind.”

This is a story about a woman (Pascale Ogier) who refuses to heed the advice of the proverb. She shares a suburban home with her lover (Tcheky Karyo), but he’s a stick-in-the-mud who doesn’t like to go out. She does, so she decides to keep a Paris apartment as well as the home. When in Paris, she hobnobs with her intellectual (and platonic) friend, a married man (Fabrice Luchini); they attend parties and happily dance the night away.

By all rights, she feels – without a hint of duplicity or ill will – that she should be able to have things both ways. But her Paris evenings turn out to be a little lonelier than she anticipated, and her suburban lover may not be as sure a thing as she thought.

Out of this slim concept, Rohmer spins his conversations. His people rarely say what they mean, and they rarely do what they say, but they all mean well – and they all head, however haltingly, toward some gently moral conclusion.

It’s a wry, amusing movie, even though Rohmer disdains flashiness and bellylaughs (unlike many lesser French comedies). The low-key nature of his comedy of observation probably explains the fact that Full Moon Over Paris has been booked for just a week ‘s run at the Harvard Exit, rather than an open-ended engagement.

There is an element to this Rohmer production that adds an eerie melancholy. It surrounds Pascale Ogier, the 24-year-old daughter of veteran French actress Bulle Ogier. She’s a typically offbeat-looking Rohmer heroine, and she gives a wonderful performance in the first of what should have been many leading roles for her.

Sadly, she died shortly after the film’s initial release. She had been attending a party in Paris and went to sleep at a friend’s apartment – perhaps she was very like the character she plays – where she died of undetermined causes. Her promise as an actress fills the screen, and the knowledge of her tragic death lends the movie, as wise and delightful as it already is, an extra layer of moodiness. She was awarded the Venice Film Festival Best Actress award for this film a few weeks before her death.

First published in the Herald, 1985

IMDb says Pascal Ogier died of a drug overdose, the day before her 26th birthday. That poignancy aside, I remember feeling this was a minor Rohmer. But the movie sounds great in description, and I should watch it again, given my high regard for this (in recent years apparently disprized) filmmaker.

 

 


Against All Odds

December 19, 2019

againstalloddsAgainst All Odds is another of those sweaty, hot­ looking movies that builds up a great sense of atmosphere. It may be that the director was too busy whipping up this atmosphere to notice that the movie was coming unglued, because Against All Odds is a rambling piece of work that succeeds neither as a love story nor as a thriller. It bears scant resemblance to the 1947 film on which it is based, Out of the Past, directed by Jacques Tourneur. That film was a lean, hard story about a guy with a past, a shady deal and a bad girl. It hurtled toward the hero’s eventual doom with efficiency and terseness.

Against All Odds meanders through a more complicated scenario. The story may be more ambitious, but it’s also more confused. And the film is so awkwardly shaped that it seems to come to a full halt a few times.

This washed-up Los Angeles football player (Jeff Bridges), at loose ends, agrees to go to Mexico to find the girlfriend of a sleazy bookie (sleazy James Woods) who is also the daughter of the football team’s wealthy owner (Jane Greer, who played the lead in Out of the Past opposite Robert Mitchum).

Woods has evidence incriminating Bridges in a fixed game, and Bridges is more or less blackmailed into looking for the girl, who stabbed Woods before she ran away. When Bridges finds the girl (Rachel Ward) on a Caribbean island, he quite naturally falls for her himself. Their island idyll is cut short when they realize that Woods will not give up looking for her.

But Bridges finds out that Ward plays a mean game, too; she leaves him standing on top of a Mayan temple with blood on his hands. At this point, the film switches back to Los Angeles, and you start to get almost as confused as Bridges’ character must be.

The love story gets woven into a bigger scam that involves Greer’s development of a Los Angeles hill into condominiums, and the devious and dangerous ways this is done. But by this time, so many crosses have been doubled that it’s hard to keep up with the complications.

Director Taylor Hackford – who scored such a big hit with 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman – has paced the film to an inappropriately lazy beat. A fast car chase toward the beginning of the movie and some nice suspense in an office building toward the end are taut sequences, but there’s too much slack in between, and many things don’t make whole lot of sense. For instance, Woods’ henchman (Dorian Harewood) hangs around in a lot of scenes, but ultimately doesn’t seem to be there for any reason.

And the film is almost humorless – a disappointment when you’ve got a very witty actor, Jeff Bridges, in the lead, as well as some supporting players with solid comic credentials (Alex Karras, Saul Rubinek, and Swoosie Kurtz especially; only Kurtz gets to supply some much-­needed comic relief).

The acting of former model Rachel Ward seems to be improving. She’s a whole lot less wooden here than she was in TV’s The Thorn Birds, certainly, and she throws herself into the love scenes with gusto. She’s so gorgeous that the relative merit of her technical skills stops mattering after a short while.

First published in the Herald, March 3, 1984

A lot of plot revealed here. Maybe I didn’t know what else to say about this blah remake. And yet no mention of the impossible-to-escape Phil Collins title song (the film’s only Oscar nomination). My description of Out of the Past sounds odd now, as that movie strikes me as voluptuous rather than lean or terse, but maybe I was trying to make a point. Richard Widmark’s in this movie, too.


Firestarter

December 12, 2019

firestarterOverheard while walking out of the theater after Firestarter: “Let that be a lesson to you: never volunteer for scientific experiments.” Words of wisdom. But if people, real or fictional, ever heeded  that lesson, we’d be robbed of a lot of science fiction/horror stories.

In Firestarter, the latest film adaptation of a Stephen King tale, a scientific experiment with hallucinogenic drugs alters the minds of David Keith and Heather Locklear, who develop certain telekinetic powers. Their eventual offspring (Drew Barrymore) is even more gifted: She can start fires just by concentrating.

This makes the little girl a target of interest for the fiendish government agency (called The Shop) that started the whole experiment in the first place. One doctor (Freddie Jones) wants to expunge the kid’s talent before she passes through adolescence and develops nuclear capabilities. Naturally, he’s not long for the world.

The Shop would rather exploit her abilities. The head honcho (Martin Sheen) sends his most fearsome hit man, a psycho named Rainbird (George C. Scott), out to bring back the girl and her father (mother having been killed in a flashback).

Some of this gets a bit murky. We don’t really know what kind of powers Keith has, for instance, or why, if he can control people, he doesn’t just manipulate an effective solution. And, when Barrymore is eventually imprisoned, it should occur to her that she could burn her way out. Evidently it doesn’t.

Plot holes such as these don’t stop the movie from being a fairly good, professional job. Director Mark L. Lester doesn’t have a very clean visual style, but at least he doesn’t let the film become a guts ‘n gore epic. And the star-heavy cast, presumably bankrolled by the inexhaustible executive producer Dino De Lau rentiis, makes it watchable.

Oscar-winners Art Carney and Louise Fletcher have the kind of supporting roles that could have been played by almost any actors. Scott, however, makes the most of Rainbird, who insinuates himself into a friendship with the child, then reveals his despicability in the climactic scene. As he stalks Barrymore through a stable, toting a pistol and wearing an eye patch, he looks like a deranged version of John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn – truly a child’s dream turned into a nightmare.

Someone had the canny idea to cast cherubic Drew Barrymore – the little sister from E.T. – as the tiny heroine. Her naturally likable presence plays well against the reality of her terrifying power. Every few minutes, she gets to burn something to the ground, which she does with deadpan intensity.

All through the film, we’ve been made aware that all the girl wants to do is live a normal life. At the end, after The Shop gets its just reward, our heroine doesn’t quite fade into the general populace. Instead, she finds herself at the front door of the New York Times, ready to reveal all. Good grief. Out of the frying pan . . . .

First published in the Herald, May 1984

I never saw it again, and don’t have much recollection of it. You’d think the George C. Scott stuff would be memorable, but I honestly had no memory that he was in this movie until just now. To say nothing of Heather Locklear, of whom we will say nothing.


The Bostonians

December 11, 2019

bostoniansFor cinematic adapters, the novels of Henry James are among the toughest nuts to crack. The long­time moviemaking team of Merchant-Ivory (consisting of director James Ivory, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and producer Ismail Merchant) apparently wants to keep trying.

They made a version of The Europeans, with Lee Remick and Lisa Eichhorn, a few years ago. That film disppeared quickly, but they’re at it again, this time with a cast guaranteed to provide a higher profile.

The Bostonians stars Christopher Reeve and Vanessa Redgrave in James’ tale of the struggles of suffragettes in New England in the 1870s. Redgrave is an intense suffrage leader; Reeve is her distant cousin, a lawyer from Mississippi whose views on men and women are only a few hundred years behind the times.

Between them comes Verena (Madeleine Potter), a girl with a mesmerizing stage presence, who makes speeches on the women’s movement. Redgrave takes her in and grooms her to be the figurehead of the suffrage movement. Reeve simply falls in love with her, and pursues her in a gentlemanly fashion during the next couple of years. He offers her a choice: the cause or marriage. Not both.

Without the visual equivalent of James’ elegant, biting prose, that question can get pretty thin when stretched over two hours – and it does. The Bostonians is a stately, stuffy, respectful adaptation; Ivory and company have basically transcribed a number of scenes from the book and filmed them. They certainly haven’t found a fresh, purely cinematic approach. Perhaps its most glaring fault is the absence of Jamesian wit.

If the film as a whole strikes me as a misfire, I still found much of it engrossing. The locations and the actors are watchable enough. Reeve, for the first time outside Superman, is actually pretty good – the Southern accent is unfaltering, and he physically embodies the kind of traditional backward-looking gentleman of the times. Redgrave has less to do, in part because the film has shifted the emphasis toward Reeve’s character.

Wallace Shawn hustles through as a conniving reporter who would like to harness Verena’s gift as a moneymaking commodity; Nancy Marchand does a clever turn as the matriarch of a family whose son is smitten with Verena; and Linda Hunt (the tiny actress who won an Academy Award last year for The Year of Living Dangerously) is a superb choice to play an independent-minded doctor who regards both the suffragettes and Reeve with equal amusement.

One quibble: Newcomer Madeleine Potter seems slightly miscast as Verena. She gives a good performance, but there is something soft about her – an unconvincing element when she is meant to be a riveting and inspirational speaker. Verena’s talent never quite gets across the screen, and Reeve’s enchantment with her is thus a bit puzzling.

First published in the Herald, October 1984

The Merchant Ivory team would make another James adaptation, The Golden Bowl, which was the stiffest of the bunch. This review is fairly humdrum but I think I’m right about the movie; still, I’d give it another look after all these years. This came during the period when Reeve was deliberately steering as far away as possible from Superman, an admirable instinct that helped ground his career after a few years.


Flashpoint

December 10, 2019

flashpointFlashpoint is exactly the sort of nothing movie that gets thrown away in the post-blockbuster lull at the end of summer. It has almost no discernible box office potential, but it’s by no means a bad little film.

If it follows the usual life-span for a movie like this, it’ll probably last a couple of weeks in first-run houses, then fade quietly away. It’s likely few people will notice.

There is an intriguing idea at the heart of Flashpoint, and it’s the kind of gimmick that might have made a competent suspenser. But the film flops around from one thing to another, and never narrows down to the element on which it should concentrate.

It’s about a couple of Texas border policemen, one laid-back (Kris Kristofferson), one young and fiery (Treat Williams). The mainspring for the most interesting of their adventures is their discovery of a long-buried jeep with a surprise in the glove compartment: $800,000. They get set to go to Mexico with the cash, but questions nag. They’re determined to find out where the money came from, and then go down to Mexico with it.

As their search progresses  there’s evidence that the money – and the dead jeep driver – may have been connected with a certain famous political assassination. If this thread had been focused on, Flashpoint might have been one of those shamelessly fun “What If” movies. But all kinds of things are dragged in: an airplane drug bust, the computerization of the border patrol, a mysterious old man who lives at the edge of the desert.

Lamest of all are the totally unecessary love interests for Kristofferson and Williams, played – rather well – by Tess Harper and Jean Smart. They exist early on to establish the playful, good-ole-boy nature of the two men. After that, there’s not that much they can contribute to the story; in fact, they just get in the way of the potentially fruitful central plot.

But even given the aimlessness of some of the plot turns, the film is hardly a chore to watch. The director, William Tannen, making his first feature here after a career of directing award-winning commercials, consistently goes for pretty desert compositions, framing people against mesas and sagebrush. And he keeps things moving along – the film clocks in at just over 90 minutes.

Maybe he rushes too much. At the end, when we supposedly find out what the big secret was with the $800,000, it’s still not quite clear just how some of the people in the film were involved with it – or why everything’s hitting the fan at this particular moment.

The big revelation seems anti-climactic, since you’ve already figured it out if you’ve really been watching the movie and picking up clues. Possibly the filmmakers should have spilled their secret earlier gotten it out of the way, then gone more for suspense than mystery.

But these things didn’t happen. Speculating about them is just another “What If” game, like the movie: interesting, but ultimately irrelevant.

First published in the Herald, August 1984

Director Bill Tannen has had a long career, and his IMBd page notes his creation of the “Girl Watcher” ad campaign for Diet Pepsi; he later made a scattering of feature films, including Hero and the Terror, with Chuck Norris. I remember Flashpoint as a true oddity, a real How Did This Get Made? sort of experience – not bad, but strange. The cast includes Rip Torn, Miguel Ferrer, and Roberts Blossom; the music is by Tangerine Dream.

 


Johnny Dangerously/The Flamingo Kid

December 9, 2019

johnny dangerouslyTwo offbeat comedies are being released on the same day, just in time for the Christmas movie rush – and you can see why. The studio is hoping they’ll benefit from the general holiday upsurge in movie attendance, and help swell the fortunes of two somewhat hard­-to-sell items.

Johnny Dangerously features the star of Mr. Mom (Michael Keaton) and the director of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling), but its guiding spirit (although he had no actual involvement in the film) is Mel Brooks. This is a movie send-up a la Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, in which genre conventions are teased.

The Warner Bros. crime pictures of the 1930s are the raw material, and Johnny Dangerously is very much in the mold: Keaton is the street kid who stumbles his way into the syndicate; Griffin Dunne (last seen as a decomposing corpse in An American Werewolf in London) is his brother, who grows up on the right side of the tracks, no thanks to their salty mom (Maureen Stapleton).

Johnny becomes the kingpin of crime (with accompanying songbird/moll, Marilu Henner), while his brother is the crusading district attorney, who sends him to the chair. Everybody speaks in delicious James Cagney phrases: “Yeah – I like da sounda dat,” or “Who’s da nightingale? She sure sings good.” The writers have watched a lot of movies.

It’s also got its share of anachronistic humor, in the Mel Brooks tradition. Prison inmates eat quiche and sushi. Johnny break­-dances in 1930 (“Gee Johnny, I never seen that kinda dancin’ before”). A fat mobster insists he is about to start the Cambridge diet.

The jokes are like the machine guns that rattle away: More miss than hit. When in doubt, go for the human anatomy jokes – and this film, in a brief self-help newsreel that Keaton shows his brother, dwells on certain body parts that have rarely been dwelled on in legit films be­fore. Enough said on that.

What darn near carries the whole thing is the jaunty perfomance by Michael Keaton, who is confident throughout. He seems to have been born to live in a Warner Bros. film, and his movements recall Cagney in their cocky grace.

flamingokidThe Flamingo Kid is a more conventional film, but it’s also something of a special case among comedies – which is to say, it doesn’t rely on gross-out jokes in place of humor. As a modest growing-up piece, set in 1963, it’s a nice try, but it doesn’t really have anything new to say, and it runs out of gas long before it’s over.

Matt Dillon plays a Brooklyn kid who wangles a job at a swank Long Island country club where he meets a girl (Janet Jones), with whom he gets hot and bothered, and a gin player (Richard Crenna) who takes him under his wing to teach him the cutthroat nuances of gin rummy and life in general.

There are some nicely observed family dynamics (Dillon’s dad, Hector Elizondo, doesn’t like the capitalist pig Crenna putting ideas in his son’s head), but the film is finally about too many things: the girl, the game, the mentor, the family, the gang. It doesn’t spend much time on any of them, and director Garry Marshall (creator of TV’s Happy Days) can’t decide which element he wants to emphasize.

Dillon is better than he has been (he’s a little sunnier than usual) but there’s just not much to go on here. I doubt if even a Christmas bonus is going to help the Kid much.

First published in the Herald, December 22, 1984

I didn’t mention Joe Piscopo in my JD review, so apparently the then-popular SNL star did not make a big impression. I remember it as a really terrible movie. The Flamingo Kid, however, I remember more fondly than my review would suggest – a nice laid-back Florida feel to this film, I think, less constructed as a joke machine than many of Garry Marshall’s pictures.


The Killing Fields

December 2, 2019

killingfieldsThere is a tremendous movie in the middle of The Killing Fields. It lasts for about 90 minutes or so, and during that time you can’t take your eyes off the screen.

This section begins with a group of international journalists being captured by the hostile Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in 1975. When the reporters are rounded up and held at gunpoint, with their extermination apparently imminent, one of them, Dith Pran (played by Dr. Haing S. Ngor), the only Cambodian in the group, starts doing some fast talking to the captors. After an exhausting session, Pran manages to save their necks, and the journalists are moved to the neutral zone of Phnom Penh’s French Embassy, where they wait for deportation.

There, the Westerners must do for Pran what he did for them, because anyone with a Cambodian passport will be detained in the country (and be subject to almost certain execution). Thus follow some frantic efforts to construct a false passport for Pran.

These sequences are riveting, and brilliantly filmed (in Thailand) by first-time director Roland Joffe and cinematographer Chris Menges (whose most recent credit – about as far from The Killing Fields as you can get – was Comfort and Joy). The sequence during which Pran’s family leaves Phnom Penh, staged in a whirl of helicopter blades and con­fusion, is stunning in its grasp of what makes for compelling cinema.

The film, which is based on the true story recounted by New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, has many such vivid scenes, although it has some problems, too. It begins with Schanberg (Sam Waterston) arriving in Cambodia in 1973, just as that country was being introduced to the bombings during the Vietnam War.

Schanberg is an abrasive, self­ righteous journalist who strikes up a friendship with Pran. The movie, while dealing with the issues of deception and inhumanity in Cambodia, is really more about the developing comradeship between these two unlikely friends.

As such, it works well enough, although the film details Pran’s life better than Schanberg’s. It’s interesting that a big-budget film would have the courage to devote much of its running time – especially in the final 45 minutes – to this nonactor playing essentially wordless scenes, during Pran’s internment in a hellish Cambodian prison camp.

Although a lot of The Killing Fields hits home with force, I was left with a vague feeling of disappointment. Director Joffe, who during the lengthy (and sometimes shapeless) exposition sequences shows a gift for throwaway shock effects, also has a tendency to overstate his case.

This ranges from a few too many shots of burned and mangled victims’ bodies to the use of a popular song (I won ‘t tell which one) over the final scene. Some people will watch that final scene and think it exactly right; I found it overdone. Sometimes restraint is the highest eloquence.

This is the latest of British Producer David Puttnam’s string of important films, many of which were done by novice (or near-novice) directors. He’s done Midnight Express, Local Hero, and Chariots of Fire, and he’s very definitely turned into a one-man industry to watch.

Also very watchable is John Malkovich, the blind man in Places in the Heart, who really lights up the screen as Schanberg’s photographer buddy. Malkovich ought to bag a supporting actor Oscar nomination this spring – the only question is, for which movie?

But The Killing Fields belongs to Dr. Haing S. Ngor. He doesn’t exactly give off sparks, but Ngor, with his quiet, natural screen presence, has the audience’s unconditional sympathy throughout. He communicates true but not icky good-heartedness, and his heart is the pulsing center of the film.

First published in the Herald, January 17, 1985

Haing S. Ngor won the Oscar, and the film found great critical success. Joffe did The Mission and some other serious films, and is still working, although his disastrous 1995 version of The Scarlet Letter seemed to take his career from its high platform.