Burke and Wills

July 6, 2020

burkeandwillsThere is a built-in irresistibility about the stories of explorers, especially that particular brand of hero and madman who “goes where no man has  gone before” strictly for the sake of getting there first.

So many of these treks, whether to the top of a mountain or a polar end point, were staged not such much for king, country and the general good of mankind but rather the specific obsession of being first. That’s what makes these tales so fascinating.

Burke and Wills tells one of these tales, and a very  good one, too. It’s the story of an ill-fated dash across the continent of Australia – the first time the interior was crossed by white men – called the Victoria Exploring Expedition of 1860. Burke (Jack Thomson) was the Irish leader of the expedition; Wills (Nigel Havers) was the upper-class English scientist.

They and their party marched from Melbourne in the south to the ocean in the north, across a continent of parched nothingness. With a small group, Burke and Wills made it across. But getting back to Melbourne proved an insurmountable task.

The story is told as a stately Lawrence of Australia. The focus, rightly enough, is on the crossing, though we return frequently to life back in Melbourne, where Burke’s fiancee (Greta Scacchi) gazes longingly at mementos of her roughneck explorer, while the financial backers of the enterprise (rather easily caricatured) gradually lose interest in their far-flung adventurers.

At first the explorers are flush with the thrill of the journey, pausing to play a cricket match on a sandy riverbed at their base camp halfway across the continent. They end with a grim death march, struggling to maintain the last vestiges of civilized behavior.

The final blow comes when Burke’s nearly dead troupe returns to that base camp after a four-month march, only to find that the remainder of the party has given up hope and headed back to Melbourne just a few hours earlier. This incredible coincidence can only be justified by history: It really happened that way.

The director, Graeme Clifford, was born in Australia (although he has spent most of his career elsewhere), and has apparently always loved the story. His approach is sometimes overwrought, but he does capture the broad, brown vistas of the outback, and some of the madness of the trekkers.

Clifford could have pruned Michael Thomas’s script a bit. The cutaways to Melbourne life become redundant; worse is his tendency to overwrite dialogue. Larger-than-life Irish characters are always in danger of becoming overripe, and Thomas stumbles with some of Burke’s more inspirational moments – and his love scene: “You’re a foolish, empty­headed little creature … but I must have you!”

The major strength of Burke and Wills is the engrossing true story itself, rendered with all the foolishness and heroism of the mission. There are hints of Burke’s intense motivation to cross the land first, but in the end it springs from the same need as the film’s aborigines to leave their painted handprints on cave walls: the fundamental urge to say, “I was here.” That may be the noblest motivation of all.

First published in The Herald, April 24, 1987

Yes, I do like movies like this. Graeme Clifford came up as an editor before his feature directing bow with Frances; he also did Gleaming the Cube before veering off into TV movies. Jack Thompson is of course a giant of Aussie film, and Greta Scacchi had already made Heat and Dust for Merchant Ivory, thus putting her on the map.

Cease Fire

June 22, 2020

ceasefireCease Fire is a completely ear­nest and honorable attempt to illuminate one man’s readjustment to life after the Vietnam War. Problem is the story is so familiar by this time, and the film itself is so dully realized, it’s a little hard to be as involved as we should be.

The Vietnam vet is played by Don Johnson, who made the movie just before he launched himself into superstardom with Miami Vice (the film shares the TV show’s location). He’s very good here as the tormented soul who can’t make peace with society, even though the war is almost 15 years behind him.

He has a wife (Lisa Blount) and two kids, but he’s just lost his job, and he has nightmares about the war that keep his nerves jangled. As the film begins, he meets another vet (Robert F. Lyons) who’s in pretty much the same boat as Johnson – but who’s a little more desperate about it.

They try to talk the war away, but their recollections only seem to intensify the bad memories. As Johnson’s behavior gets more erratic (he becomes physically threatening toward his family and freaks out when a potential employer gives some stupid opinions about vets), his wife suggests that group therapy might be in order – but Johnson is so tightly wound, it doesn’t seem to do him any good.

This story, sad to say, has an over­familiar ring to it. The problem of the readjusting veteran is an import­ant subject, yet the idea has been worked so often in movies and TV that it needs a fresh approach, and Cease Fire doesn’t give it that.

Many plot points are telegraphed from miles away – especially that the instability of Lyons’ character is going to result in self-destruction. And Blount, who played David Keith’s girlfriend in An Officer and a Gentleman, has a thankless task with the unflattering role of the wife. Cease Fire is the pet project of George Fernandez, himself a Vietnam vet and the author of the Vietnam Trilogy, a stage play from which Cease Fire has been adapted. Fernandez also served as executive producer and got a former classmate from the University of Miami film school, David Nutter, to direct.

They’ve certainly got nothing to be ashamed of, but – and this is a good reminder for anyone who thinks that socially-conscious subject matter excuses dull filmmaking – it only hurts their own cause when the movie itself falls into banal conclusions and formulaic traps. Rather than being excited into empathy, audiences will more likely leave the theater numbed by a familiar experience.

First published in The Herald, October 1985

Turns out director Nutter went on to have a robust career in television, including three Emmys; he’s been on Games of Thrones, ER, The X-Files, all kinds of things. You never know. IMDb says that Johnson gave an interview in which he said he did not remember making the film. I can believe that.

Beethoven’s Nephew

June 11, 2020

beethovensnephewIf you’re thinking about attending Beethoven‘s Nephew with an eye toward historical edification of the “Great Lives” sort, think again. The first clue that this film isn’t a garden­variety bioography – or even Amadeus-style speculation – is that the director is the outer-limits trashmeister, Paul Morrissey.

Morrissey’s name has never been too high-profile, because for much of his career he was hidden behind Andy Warhol. Warhol’s avant-garde flirtations with film in the 1960s, many of which are quite fascinating, even important, were essentially taken over by Morrissey by the end of the decade. Morrissey gave structure to Warhol’s deadpan approach in such films as Flesh and Trash.

Morrissey has gone his own odd way since leaving the Warhol fold, making low-budget movies that receive limited distribution. But some of his work is still quite spirited, and he maintains an I’ll-try-anything approach to filmmaking (his next movie will star, of all unlikely people, Ernest Borgnine).

Beethoven’s Nephew is not one of Morrissey’s livelier efforts. In fact, it’s a dull dead end, full of ratty period  trappings and Teutonic tantrums. The movie suggests an unnatural affection that Beethoven might have had for his nephew, Karl, of whom the composer was guardian for the last 12 years of Beethoven’s life.

Morrissey never comes out and says it, but I assume we’re supposed to think that Beethoven’s unhappiness about caring for the nephew springs from some unfulfilled lust for the boy. Beethoven sulks around like a rejected suitor, grumbling about his “malignant and odious” feelings, and continually interrupts Karl’s attempts at lovemaking with the opposite sex.

The worst thing about the movie is the staid style in which Morrissey tells the story – it could use a dose of the old trashiness. The one enthralling sequence, when Beethoven’s deafness causes his conducting to go haywire, relies on the Ode to Joy for much of its power.

The two lead actors seem to be playing in different movies. Wolfgang Reichmann plays Beethoven out of the thunder-and-bluster school, with plenty of ham to go. Dietmar Prinz, as Karl, is from a long line of pimply­ faced, catatonic Morrissey leading men, a direct descendant of the zombied-out Joe Dallesandro from Warhol days. Their inability to connect typifies the movie’s problems.

First published in The Herald, June 1988

The fact that the actors seem to be appearing in different movies sounds pretty interesting, and perhaps intentional on Morrissey’s part. Oh well. I didn’t even mention two significant co-stars here, Jane Birkin and Nathalie Baye, so I must have really been having a bad day.


Agnes of God

June 3, 2020

agnesofgodProducer-director Norman Jewison is getting to be an expert on adapting hit Broadway shows into movies. Back in the 1970s, he made two religious musicals, Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Now, on the heels of last year’s A Soldier’s Story, Jewison is dipping into religion again. Agnes of God is adapted from John Pielmeier’s Tony award-winning play about the investigation surrounding a young nun and the murder of her baby.

Pielmeier’s play tackles such issues as faith in a godless world, the secular community vs. the religious community, and the state of mother-daughter relationships in a modern world. Jewison, being no dummy, manages to couch these heavy themes within the framework of a detective story, as a court psychiatrist (Jane Fonda) conducts a step-by-step investigation of the crime. Jewison used much the same structure in A Soldier’s Story.

Jewison is basically up to his old tricks – he unloads a big revelation every 15 minutes to keep us interested, and the characters come dangerously close to being card­board figures who represent ideas. Fonda is modern faithlessness; the mother superior (Anne Bancroft) of the convent where the murder took place is nostalgia for past beliefs; and the accused nun (Meg Tilly) is innocence and true faith.

But this is a more enjoyable movie than A Soldier’s Story, and I think it’s because Jewison got genuinely excited about the subject matter. He seems to think he’s making an Ingmar Bergman movie – all this stuff about sexual hysteria in a convent, the crises in faith, are reminiscent of Bergman at his enigmatic best. Jewison even hired Bergman’s longtime collaborator, cinematographer Sven Nykvist, to photograph the film.

Nykvist was a shrewd choice – he captures a stark look in the convent and the surrounding landscape (shot in Ontario) that seems to echo the spiritual hollowness of most of the people in the film.

The other thing that makes Agnes of God passably interesting is the creepily intense performance by Meg Tilly. Her character was apparently unaware that she was pregnant (and her roomy nun’s robes hid it from the other nuns), and when Fonda questions her about the pregnancy, Tilly professes no knowledge of how babies are conceived or born. In fact, she states simply that she doesn’t believe in the dead baby at all, since she doesn’t remember seeing it. Tilly’s angelic face and babylike voice are perfect for the role, and her absolutely unblinking faith is very convincing; as we later find out, it is the product of a tormented childhood.

By the time the last few dramatic scenes roll around, Tilly has really gotten under your skin, and the film becomes much more effective than in the early scenes. Also, Jewison seems intrigued by Pielmeier’s ambiguous solution to the mystery, and presents it in persuasive fashion.

Which is not to say that the film, overall, is not a bunch of high-minded hooey. It is, but credit Tilly and Jewison for making the ending effectively spooky.

First published in The Herald, September 26, 1985

In the Heat of the Night was a murder mystery too, so Jewison was true to his groove. Pielmeier has done a lot of TV movies, including Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story. Bancroft and Tilly were both Oscar-nominated for this, as was composer Georges Delerue. This film was in Meg Tilly’s first rush of stardom, and well before her withdrawal from acting.

Jagged Edge

June 2, 2020

jaggededgeAs a long-standing sucker for Perry Mason-brand courtroom hijinks, I can recommend Jagged Edge without hesitation to those with similar predilections. Better than half the movie takes place in a courtroom, and these scenes are full of juicy surprise witnesses and unexpected testimony – just the way Perry Mason would have wanted it.

The scenes outside the courtroom don’t always work as well, but Jagged Edge is just devious enough to make a pretty good case for itself.

After a misleadingly sensationalistic opening scene, in which a San Francisco society woman is kinkily murdered with a serrated hunting knife, the film settles down into whodunit territory – specifically, is the woman’s husband (Jeff Bridges) the guilty party? That’s what the district attorney (Peter Coyote, late of Heartbreakers) believes; he’s arrested the guy.

There’s cause enough for suspicion: The dead woman was rumored to be seeking a divorce from Bridges, and he was a nobody who married into her money (and into his job at her family’s newspaper).

Bridges’ defense attorney (Glenn Close), who bears a grudge against the district attorney, is determined to free her client, with the help of a crusty investigator (Robert Loggia, sinking his teeth into the kind of tasty role that has been known to attract Oscar attention). But as Close gets more involved with the case, she is deeply drawn to the charming Bridges, to the point where a romantic conflagration is inevitable.

But she still isn’t quite sure he’s innocent. In this aspect, the film begs comparison to Otto Preminger’s 1959 movie Anatomy of a Murder, in which the audience could never be certain about the lead character’s guilt. As with that film (in which Ben Gazzara played the suspect), the suspense relies on the actor’s talent for ambiguity.

Here, when Bridges shows Close the room where he found his wife’s body, he’s got to show sorrow and pain – but he’s also got to leave his performance open enough so that we’re teased about whether his grief is genuine or whipped up for her benefit. Bridges does a splendid job with this, although his ambiguity tend to work against the film’s dynamics; there’s a strange dead space at the center of the film, which Glenn Close, a fine but cool actress, can’t seem to fill.

Director Richard Marquand is on similar ground here as in his Eye of the Needle (and, for that matter, his best-forgotten Until September), in which love appears in difficult and dangerous circumstances. He does a workman like job at telling this tale, but the suggestive atmosphere of Eye of the Needle is beginning to look like a one-shot success.

And he doesn’t do a particularly smooth job of covering up some of the film’s distressingly sizable holes, which suggest that the San Francisco police are the biggest bunch of dunderheads for not finding the evidence that Close and Loggia uncover. Marquand probably feels that most of these plot points aren’t going to bother us until we think about them later – and he’s probably right.

It’s sheer force of persuasion, then, that carries Jagged Edge along, despite its faults. Sticklers may cavil, but – at least for the two hours it took to watch the movie – I was persuaded.

First published in The Herald, October 1985

I neglected to mention that Marquand had another notable directing credit, a little thing called Return of the Jedi. He made one more movie, the Bob Dylan picture Hearts on Fire, and then died in 1987 at age 49. As predicted, Loggia did indeed bag an Oscar nomination for his role here. The film was written by Joe Eszterhas, his third credit in a brawny career. It was a big hit, and spawned lots of courtroom-heavy imitators. Also, I want to note that you could refer to Perry Mason in a 1985 review and assume that your readers would get the reference – and not feel like a graybeard.


May 21, 2020

mischiefThere’s nothing new about the situations essayed in Michief: You have your basic high-school high jinks, 1950s vintage, in a small Ohio town.

You have the class virgin. You have the class beauty. You have the perfect couple. And, just when everything seems hunky-dory, you get the class outsider – the kid from the big city who wheels in on a motorcycle.

Nothing fresh there, but the makers of Mischief have taken those elements and fashioned something – well, if not exactly world-beating, then at least rather nice. They’ve succeeded in this despite a screenplay that seems terribly undernourished in inspiration.

That’s funny, because screenwriter Noel Black (he’s also executive producer) directed a very interesting movie called Pretty Poison once upon a time. But Black’s script, which recalls his days as an Ohio youth, resorts to some disappointingly standard adolescent crises.

This is salvaged somewhat by director Mel Damski (he used to direct for Lou Grant), who has a feeling for the atmosphere of the small town – in this case, Nelsonville, Ohio. He also captures a few moments that have truth about them: a guy playing a solitary game of basketball on a slow spring day, or a very evocative malt-shop dance, with some swaying bodies seen from outside a window through the rain, that hits absolutely the right note.

The main attraction of Mischief is its cast of up-and-comers. Doug McKeon, the kid from On Golden Pond, is likable as the youth desperate for deflowering; Catherine Mary Stewart, who cut a very fine figure indeed in Night of the Comet, is half of the perfect couple (the other half, a bully preppy, is played with precision by D. W. Brown); Kelly Preston is very believable as McKeon’s object of desire; and Chris Nash makes an impressive debut as the bike-riding loner.

Stewart, Preston, and Nash were in town recently to promote the film, and they were enthusiastic about the project, which had been a long time in being realized. It had gone through various directors and name changes (Heart and Soul, one of the many ‘50s tunes that dot the soundtrack, was the original title). Nash insists that he must have been involved in the project “for like eight years” before it came time to actually shoot the film.

Once on location, however, things were just swell among the cast members, who rave about the good spirits (and occasional under-water kung-fu bouts) in Nelsonville. In fact, the town barely needed refurbishing to give it that ‘50s look: “It almost looked too precious” at first, says Stewart, “they just made it a little more colorful.” Nash paid it the ultimate movie person’s compliment: When they first got to town, “It looked just like the backlot of 20th Century Fox.” An odd observation, perhaps, until you remember that what we know of small-town values and feelings has come in large part from the movies.

Mischief can’t quite sustain that brand of backlot, small-town charm, and one too many jokes are stale. It works up some good feeling, but, as with the recent Flamingo Kid, the pleasant company can’t quite disguise the fact that we’ve seen all this sort of thing before.

First published in The Herald, February 1985

You’d think this movie would be a little better known, if only for the saucy presence of Kelly Preston, John Travolta’s wife. I left Jami Gertz and Terry O’Quinn out of the cast list. I remember meeting this trio in the lobby/bar of a Seattle hotel (I can picture it, but can’t actually remember which one), and thinking how these Hollywood people certainly were capable of being attractive.


Back to the Future

May 15, 2020

backtofutureBack to the Future takes a traditional movie form – the time-travel movie – and throws in a completely off-the-wall element: namely, a comedic variation on the Oedipus legend. If you think that’s hard to do, you underestimate the imagination of the film’s writers.

The idea is this: A normal high-school kid (Michael J. Fox, of TV’s Family Ties) is a friend to an eccentric scientist (Christopher Lloyd) who claims to have created a time-travel car out of a rebuilt DeLorean. One night, in a deserted parking lot, Fox finds out the scientist is right. The plutonium­ powered vehicle sends Fox screeching back to 1955.

That’s the very year his parents were his own age. When Fox wanders through town, he is startled to run into his own father (a funny performance by Crispin Glover), and to see that the old man as a young man is the same clumsy wimp he is (was?) in 1985. But when Fox encounters his mother (Lea Thompson) as a lovely young girl, a disturbing realization sets in: His mother is beginning to fall for him.

Calling Dr. Freud . . . . You can see that Back to the Future has some irreverent spunk to it. So amusing is the premise that it’s easy to overlook the movie’s problems, and there are a few. Some of the chronology of Fox’s time in the past could’ve been neater; we’re left with long stretches in which we don’t really know just how he spends his time. And some of the culture-shock jokes are well-worn.

There’s also some goofyfooted exposition. A batch of elements need to be established early so they will pay off later; that’s smart screenplay structure, but the writers here don’t know how to get that across gracefully or naturally – some of the exposition practically has quotation marks around it. And  it’s not particularly well-acted; Lloyd, for instance, can play this sort of wild man role in his sleep, and he doesn’t seem to be roused to the occasion.

Fox has a tendency toward superficiality, although he is bouncy and energetic. He was a sudden replacement for Eric Stoltz (Mask), who was released from the production with a few weeks of shooting already in the can – no one outside the production knows exactly why.

That was the decision of director Robert Zemeckis. He and his screenwriting partner Bob Gale are former film students and protegés of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg produced their I Wanna Hold Your Hand and shot his own 1941 from their screenplay.

With Back to the Future, Zemeckis and Gale have paid Spielberg back for his patience. In its modest way, it’s a cute, zippy little movie that figures to do pretty well in this lackluster summer movie season. Spielberg, as “presenter” of the film, stands to gain something back from the critical drubbing that accompanied The Goonies, another Spielberg presentation.

First published in The Herald, July 4, 1985

So, finally got to this one. I think I hesitated because my Xerox of the review has lost a couple of lines from the bottoms of columns, which I tried to paper over here (without adding anything that will make me look clairvoyant). The ending feels abrupt, too; looks like I lost my last paragraph there. They screened this at the homely old Northwest Preview Room near the Seattle Times building, a baffling location for big films (they did a couple of James Bond pictures and Aliens there, too, and countless others – lousy way to see a huge movie). I think BTTF even screened with some effects still uncompleted. It was obviously going to go through the roof. There’s something basic about the movie I never truly liked, as entertaining as it is; it has something to do with the DeLorean (ooh, how cool, a fucking DeLorean) and Fox’s character – I guess I couldn’t be bothered to use the name Marty McFly for this review – craving a 4×4 as a car. What kind of a jerk kid dreams of owning a 4×4? (Not that I’d ever heard of one before this movie.)