Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins

March 30, 2020

remowilliamsClearly, we are to assume from the title of Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins . . . that this film is the first installment in what, if box-office receipts merit, will be a continuing series. It’s got the usual tendencies for such a series: action, humor, a clearly defined distinction between good and evil.

What Remo Williams lacks is any kind of adroitness at presenting these elements. And, more seriously, it doesn’t have the gumption to create a hero of its own; rather, this fellow Remo Williams is fashioned out of bits and pieces from various other movies.

There’s a large debt to Hitchcock, especially Saboteur and North by Northwest, and the Indiana Jones movies also have been an inspiration. But the most prominent bloodline of the film comes from James Bond – the director (Guy Hamiton) and scriptwriter (Christopher Wood) are both veterans of Bond films.

So 007 is the formula for this film – which means you can count on a series of splashy stunts and a hero who wisecracks more often than he uses a gun.

Remo Williams (the excellent  Fred Ward, from The Right Stuff) fulfills those requirements, but he’s entirely more down to earth than Bond. Williams is a former cop, without dapper clothes or good manners, who’s been recruited by a super-secret government agency.

He’s been recruited against his will, which is probably the only way this agency gets its employees. You see, their business is eliminating the bad guys, by whatever means necessary (including “extreme prejudice,” as they say), and they are answerable only to the president.

Williams is kidnapped and given a new identity. His superiors (Wilford Brimley and J.A. Preston) tell him that “You’re going to be the 11th Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not get away with it.'” They enlist him in some superhero training courses given by a mysterious chap named Chiun (Joel Grey, under a lot of convincing Asian makeup).

At this point, Remo Williams reaches for a different source of inspiration: the white-guy-getting-wisdom-from-an-Oriental-master plot, which recently proved sure-fire in “The Karate Kid.” Chiun imparts a lot of wise sayings to Remo; the gag here is that he’s also sort of cranky, and sometimes comes on like Johnny Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent, telling Remo that “You move like a pregnant yak.”

He also tells Remo that “Professional assassination is the highest form of public service,” which the film seems to endorse, rather queasily.

Chiun teaches Remo how to dodge bullets and walk on water; most importantly, he teaches him how to keep his balance. This is crucial because the film comes up with every way it can think of to make Remo fall from on high: He walks along a building ledge, dangles from a Ferris wheel, has a big fight scene on the Statue of Liberty, and is carried along a tramway holding on to a tree.

This is in the course of training, and as part of his first assignment: wiping out a sleazy military contractor (Charles Cioffi).

Despite the attempts at humor, and a lot of reasons this bad guy should be eliminated, the film doesn’t quite come to grips with the fact that its hero is a professional killer. But then again, it probably doesn’t want to.

First published in the Herald, October 18, 1985

Okay, so first off, I totally get it that 35 years after this movie was made, viewers will likely find Joel Grey’s Asian make-up not only unconvincing but simply not the kind of thing you do. So I acknowledge that. It was a sequel-happy era, but even by the standards of 1985, tagging your movie with The Adventure Begins seems presumptuous. When it comes to would-be 80s franchises, I’ll take Action Jackson, thank you. Because my memories of this film, such as they are, are almost entirely of something lighter-than-air, I was surprised to be reminded that it’s from the “fun assassin” subgenre, which is a pretty tricky tone to bring off. 

The Quiet Earth

March 27, 2020

quietearthSome months ago, little New Zealand attracted the world’s attention when it quixotically declared itself a nuclear-free zone in response to nuclear tests in the South Pacific. The country’s declaration seems relevant to the newest film to come out of New Zealand, which, although it doesn’t actually name nuclear weapons as the source of the apocalypse it portrays, is obviously an analogical version of life after a nuclear war.

The Quiet Earth is the work of the leading filmmakers in New Zealand: director Geoff Murphy, whose Utu was one of the most intriguing movies of the past year, and actor/co-screenwriter Bruno Lawrence, who gave brilliant performances in Utu and Smash Palace.

For The Quiet Earth, they’ve adapted a science-­fiction novel by Craig Harrison. It’s one of those end-of-the-world things, in which a survivor searches for the reasons for the catastrophe, and for other survivors.

In this case, the survivor, played by Lawrence, may have had something to do with the apocalyptic disaster. He’s a research scientist who’s been working on a top­-secret project called Operation Flashlight, which was supposed to construct an energy grid that would circle the earth. This would allow high-flying planes to refuel without landing.

One sunny morning, Lawrence wakes up, vaguely aware of a slight atmospheric zap. When he goes out, he discovers that at 6:12 that morning, Operation Flashlight was launched. The grid was constructed, but there was a little side effect: every animal on Earth was vaporized. Lawrence finds everything empty: lights are on, engines are running, tables are set – but the people are gone.

He has no idea why he’s still around, but he guiltily guesses it might be some sort of retribution for his part in the destruction. “I’ve been condemned to live,” he mutters.

Lawrence fights off the madness that might come from such solitude. He paints billboards that say, “Am I the only person left on Earth? Please contact me at …. ” He sends out radio messages. He takes comfort in the godlike freedom he has: living in the best houses, drinking the finest champagne, wearing snazzy clothes.

He will, well into the film, meet other survivors; a hip young girl (Alison Routledge) and a Maori – one of the native New Zealanders, comparable to the Indians of the United States – played by Peter Smith.

Obviously, these people each “represent” something, but Murphy doesn’t let them become symbols at the expense of the characters. And he imbues the film with the same kind of weird, sidelong humor that sparked Utu.

Some of the visuals are unforgettable: a huge, shimmering orange sun rising into a red sky in the film’s opening shot; Lawrence playing the saxophone down a deserted, rainy street at night; the final, enigmatic image, where Lawrence strides toward something impossible but nevertheless visible.

This ending is inexplicable. Lawrence has spouted some gobbledygook about the space-time continuum being disrupted, and that may provide a clue. Or not. The ending is curious, but it certainly is beautiful, and it’ll rattle around in your mind for a long time after.

First published in the Herald, November 15, 1985

I just re-watched this one, having carried fond memories of it for years. It’s still effective. This review is probably spoiler-heavy by 2020 standards, although there isn’t much that would be surprising to anybody who likes Last Man on Earth movies. And what an ending! I don’t know why I said the ending was inexplicable, as the film does prepare a couple of distinct possibilities, which fit neatly into the imagery we see. The music, by John Charles, has a big effect on the final sequence as well; it’s a big orchestral piece with distinctly sci-fi moodiness. Lawrence was always an interesting actor, with his boxer’s face and odd sense of vulnerability; Smash Palace is an amazing showcase for him. Funny how times change; I felt the need to explain “Maori,” which I wouldn’t do today.

Movers and Shakers

March 20, 2020

moversshakersCharles Grodin is one of the more appealing marginal figures in Hollywood films of the last decade. His bland deadpan can be a valuable comic weapon in almost any situation.

Even when the film is a stinker – as with the remake of King Kong or the Farrah Fawcett vehicle Sunburn – Grodin gives a subtle, droll touch to whatever he’s doing.

But Grodin has been getting fewer leading roles lately; he’s appeared in effective comic relief in The Lonely Guy and The Woman Red, but those were in service to a wilder leading actor. With Movers and Shakers, Grodin has corrected that situation – and he did it himself, by writing and co-producing the film.

It’s a Hollywood satire with emphasis on the insanity of flaky filmmaking procedures. When a studio executive (Walter Matthau) makes a deathbed promise to a fellow producer (Vincent Gardenia) to make a movie based on a sex manual called Love in Sex, he calls in an unhapppy playwright (Grodin) to write the script. That begins a series of endless meetings, wherein studio flunkies sit around offices, drinking juice and tossing around inane ideas for Love in Sex.

The process drags on for months – and Grodin becomes increasingly panicky about the fact that, in all the meetings, no one has ever said a word detailing what the movie is going to be about.

Even the director they hire (Bill Macy) doesn’t care much about plot. He’s more interested in capturing an atmosphere, and so he runs dozens of film clips from old romantic movies, avowedly searching for the key to the project (but more likely delaying the inevitable decision).

Macy also encourages the filmmaking team (which somehow now includes his girlfriend, played by Gilda Radner) to visit the mansion of an aging romantic star (a Fernando Lamas-like cameo by Steve Martin), who babbles on in accented senility about his past exploits.

Grodin clearly knows whereof he speaks with this material – it’s all exact and funny. If this is satire, however, it is far from barbed. Grodin’s humor is so low-key it’s sometimes barely detectable.

Nothing wrong with that, although subtle humor is not very fashionable (or profitable) these days. But Grodin’s authorial mildness also gives a nondescript feeling to the proceedings. There’s nothing really memorable here; unlike, for instance, the slashing satire of Blake Edwards’ S.O.B., which also took on the Hollywood community, but with a sharper edge. So Grodin’s nice-guy qualities – they come through in his acting, and even in his appearances on talk shows – keep Movers and Shakers rather too soft for its own good.

The film does provide one cinematic footnote: It was directed by William Asher, the man who gave us many of the Beach Party movies from the 1960s. And, sure enough, the scenes of the beaches of Los Angeles in Movers and Shakers are among the most effective in the film. Really.

First published in the Herald, September 24, 1985

And I am a fan of the Beach Party movies. So in reading about this film’s genesis, it sounds as though it might be a precursor to Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation. Grodin was hired in the 1970s to adapt The Joy of Sex into a movie, and came up with this meta-screenplay, which was rejected for that project (or did he write this separate screenplay about that process? It’s a little unclear to me). It has certainly slipped out of the cinematic memory, but sounds like it might have some reasonably good Grodinesque deadpan in it.

White Nights

March 19, 2020

whitenightsThe idea unspooled in the first 15 minutes of White Nights is so intriguing, you wonder how it hasn’t gotten on film before: A Russian dancer, long ago defected to the West, is aboard a passenger plane that develops engine trouble and must make an emergency landing in, of all places, the good old Soviet Union. The Soviets seize the dancer, telling the world he’s in a coma, and start “persuading” him to remain in Russia and dance for them.

The rest of the movie is about the dancer’s efforts to get out of the place. It’s a swell set-up, and the people behind White Nights have the perfect embodiment of their hero in Mikhail Baryshnikov, himself a famous defector and among the greatest ballet dancers ever.

To help this dancer decide to remain in Russia, the KGB (or whoever they are) enlist the aid of another expatriate, this time an American tap dancer (Gregory Hines) who came to Russia to escape prejudice at home. His star has slipped, however, and he’s now staging Porgy and Bess just outside of a salt mine (really) in Siberia. He’s none too happy about his new assignment – which seems to be escorting Baryshnikov to Leningrad and getting him into shape.

With all the possibilities in this plot, director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman) has made a bewilderingly slow and dingy film, except for the plane crash and the climax. The narrative action seems weighed down by the washed-out atmosphere (which tells us that not only is the Soviet Union a place where freedom is throttled, it’s also always overcast there).

Scenes go on too long, and the film’s themes are stated repeatedly. For all this, White Nights does crackle fitfully. The cast, for the most part, is marvelous; Isabella Rossellini, the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, is not exactly an actress, but she hits the right notes as Hines’ Russian wife.

And Jerzy Skolimowski, himself one of the finest directors in world cinema (Deep End, Moonlighting), coolly plays the sinister head of a Soviet agency. Skolimowski, a Pole and another expatriate, knows a thing or two about Soviet repression, and he plays the villain with obvious relish.

But Hines and, especially, Baryshnikov carry the film. You expect the dancing to be good, and it’s astonishing. Twyla Tharp did most of the choreography, although Hines improvised his own soaring tap number.

But both men are compelling screen presences, whether dancing or just hanging around. Baryshnikov got a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Turning Point seven years ago, but he’s come along way since then. He’s much more at ease, and despite a still-thick Russian accent, he conveys range and humor.

The film’s high point comes mid­way, when Hines is trying to get Baryshnikov to limber up in a Leningrad studio and Baryshnikov is tantalizing Hines with new music from the West. Hines bets Baryshnikov 11 rubles that the latter can’t do 11 pirouettes, and the scene turns into a duel of amusing one-upmanship, with a sense of life that the film doesn’t quite find anywhere else.

First published in the Herald, December 1985

Being a former ballet dancer myself (I’ll bet you didn’t know that), I took great interest in this film at the time. I saw Baryshnikov on stage once, an electrifying experience, and I saw Gregory Hines once too, but not dancing – he was demolishing a platter of chicken wings at the Cafe Carlyle during a set by Bobby Short. (I realize this opening makes me sound much more interesting than I am.) The cast includes Helen Mirren, Geraldine Page, and John Glover. Rossellini was just at the beginning of her real Hollywood run, so I hope I can be forgiven for slighting her skills; I think what I really meant was that she had a freshness that almost didn’t look like acting. Hard to believe she followed this with Blue Velvet, just a year later – these films seem so distant.

Warning Sign

March 12, 2020

warningsignHollywood’s “product glut” continues to spew forth films that, in many cases, might better have been left in some studio vault somewhere. Warning Sign, which is getting a perfunctory release from 20th Century Fox, is an exception. It’s a perfectly competent, often suspenseful piece that deserves better treatment.

Much of the suspense is built right into the basic situation. A chemical spill at a genetic-engineering laboratory kicks off a warning sign, at which point the security officer (Kathleen Quinlan), according to her instructions, promptly shuts the building, and everyone inside, off from the outside world.

This brings concern from her husband, the county sheriff (Sam Waterston), who waits nervously outside the building; it also brings a government big shot (Yaphet Kotto) who coolly tells Waterston that the genetic-engineering experiments weren’t exactly about building better strain of corn, after all. The spill released a toxic substance that was designed for use against the enemy in warfare. It turns people belligerent and finally insane – and that’s exactly what’s happening to the people trapped inside the lab.

Warning Sign divides itself between the efforts of the outsiders to get into the lab, and the scientists inside, who are growing phosphorescent sores on their faces and nattering on in lunatic fashion. This brings concern from her husband, the county sheriff (Sam Waterston), who waits nervously outside the building; it also brings a government big shot (Yaphet Kotto) who coolly tells Waterston that the genetic-engineering experiments weren’t exactly about building a better strain of corn, after all. The spill released a toxic substance that was designed for use against the enemy in warfare. It turns people belligerent and finally insane – and that’s exactly what’s happening to the people trapped inside the lab.

Quinlan is the only sane person inside, so it’s up to her to find a way to fight off the crazies and try to concoct some kind of antidote.

The film is the creation of Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, a writing-directing team whose credits include Dragonslayer, a nifty medieval movie that, released about a year before such period films became popular, sank with barely a trace (Robbins also directed a recent installment of Amazing Stories, about the magnetic kid).

Barwood and Robbins don’t have very good luck, it seems. Although Warning Sign is a well-made film, it’s being used strictly as filler. The film, while no masterpiece (much of it is admittedly juvenile, and the sci-fi/horror aspects threaten to take over for a while), deserves better. It may not rise above the level of an extended Mission: Impossible episode, but there’s something to be said for well-handled suspense – especially when you consider the quality of the competition.

First published in the Herald, August 1985

Barwood and Robbins were being pushed forward as Spielberg proteges at the time (they wrote The Sugarland Express), not without reason – my affection for Dragonslayer is well known on this site. Their big shot after Warning Sign was *batteries not included, which failed to set the world on fire. Robbins has more recently written with Guillermo del Toro. This movie sounds good, although I don’t remember it, and the credits have some classy names: Dean Cundey shot it, Henry Bumstead designed it. I am posting this as the world is in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it seemed apt.


February 11, 2020

creatorThe last time Czech emigre filmmaker Ivan Passer took camera in hand and made a movie, he came up with what seems like one of the handful of best films of the decade so far: Cutter’s Way, originally titled Cutter and Bone.

Although that film garnered a lot of critical praise, it didn’t do much business. That may explain why it took Passer almost five years to mount his next film, Creator.

This time, Passer leaves the steamy suspense of Cutter’s Way behind. Creator is a comedy, but it’s just the kind of strange comedy you might expect from Passer.

For one thing, Passer is obviously interested in more than just getting laughs. Creator is also a bit of a tearjerker, as it veers to melodrama in its final half-hour (although, thankfully, it never leaves its wit behind).

The story itself (Jeremy Leven adapted his own novel) has Frankensteinian overtones. Peter O’Toole, in radiant, mad glory, plays a genius scientist at a California university. He’s trying to create a clone of his wife, who died 30 years earlier and whose cells he retains in his refrigerator. She represents the last moments of happiness for him.

He is to be assisted in this venture by an unsuspecting graduate student (Vincent Spano, of Baby It’s You) and a wayfaring nymph (Mariel Hemingway) whose ovum he desires. For scientific purposes, that is.

That’s a little off the wall, but Creator must not be confused with the raft of nerdy-genius teen movies that opened this summer. It’s more ambitious than that, as it attempts to compare Spano’s coming of age – he falls for a gorgeous student (Virginia Madsen) – with O’Toole’s growing wisdom about his lost love.

O’Toole is firmly in his element here – larger than life, grand, sweeping. He’s trying to imbue Spano with a sense of what he calls “The Big Picture” – a term he never explains, although it seems to be a moral scheme for looking at the world in something other than petty bureaucratic terms.

Passer is very affectionate toward this renegade character and his eccentricities. It’s where the heart of the film lies. If some of the more sentimental aspects of the story ring hollow, Passer gets most of the details right; for instance, we may notice in the first scenes that Spano takes the same bicycle route that O’Toole did minutes earlier, cutting across the same patch of campus grass. As they haven’t met yet, it is a quiet indication of similar personalities.

Passer fills the movie with these little moments that more than make up for the occasional cliché clinker. Even when the movie shifts gears toward the end – and in fact gets downright peculiar – Passer has a way of keeping the behavior and the dialogue offbeat enough to hold your attention.

His cast is up to the challenge, too; everyone gets almost equal time, including the ostensible villian of the piece, O’Toole’s university rival, played with unexpected flair by M*A*S*H veteran David Ogden Stiers. Even this character, who is primarily a pompous ass, is not just a caricature.

“The Big Picture” is both O’Toole’s theory of life and the movie’s attitude. It tries to cover a lot of ground, and doesn’t always succeed, but I got a better feeling from this film than from most recent movies. Now we can just hope that the gifted director doesn’t make us wait five years for his next movie.

First published in the Herald, September 24, 1985

My main memory of this movie is the disappointment I felt about it, given how much I love Cutter’s Way. (Something on that here.) But I was obviously giving it the old auteurist try in this review, and why not? Passer died in early 2020, and a couple of nights ago was left out of the “In Memoriam” montage at the Oscars.



February 4, 2020

insignificanceThe film Insignificance is built on the conceit, a favorite of playwrights, that a bunch of famous people find themselves fictionally thrown together for a brief spell. In this case, the main confrontation takes place between Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe.

That’s quite a combo – although, if memory serves, Shelley Winters once revealed that Marilyn privately named Einstein as the man she’d most like to sleep with. Hmmm. Perhaps that’s where the original idea for the play came from. Nicolas Roeg has adapted the play into an entertaining movie, although the film doesn’t have the substance it seems to think it has.

Marilyn (Theresa Russell) pays a call on Einstein (Michael Emil) one night while he’s holed up in a hotel room, in 1955 or so. (Actually, none of the characters is named, although it’s obvious whom they’re mean to represent.) He wants to get some shut-eye, but she wants to discuss the theory of relativity; which she proceeds to explain to him using a sackful of audio-visual aids just purchased at a local toy store.

Later, Marilyn proposes an entirely more fleshly consciousness-raising, which Einstein analytically considers.

It’s not just a two-person show. A bulky ex-ballplayer (Gary Busey), Marilyn’s jealous husband, intrudes on the scene. He’s only loosely based on Monroe’s husband, Joe DiMaggio. And a vicious political thug (Tony Curtis), bearing some resemblance to Joseph McCarthy, badgers Einstein for the latest scientific paper.

The film is properly amusing at first, although it turns more predictable as it veers in to heavy-handedness in the later going. Indeed, the film would be – well, pretty insignificant – were it not for the attractive presence of the actors.

Michael Emil, who usually acts in his brother Henry Jaglom’s films (Always, Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?), has a deadpan, slightly distracted delivery that makes him perfect for Einstein. Yes, the right half of his brain might well be thinking about relativity, while the left half handles the conversational chores.

Busey has some unnerving moments, and Curtis seems energized at being called upon to really act, after years of slipshod work.

And Theresa Russell, who is married to Roeg, may well be the most neglected great actress in the movies. Her films seem to be ignored (Bad Timing, The Razor’s Edge) or not released at all (Eureka), but one of these days she’s going to break through.

I doubt whether Insignificance will trigger that breakthrough; it’s too far from the mainstream, and her performance, while witty, is more of an inspired imitation than the kind of soulful acting she’s delivered in the past. But her moment will come.

First published in the Herald, January 17, 1986

I guess the moment never really came for Theresa Russell, although she had a big chance in Black Widow in ’87, and continued to do interesting work for Roeg and others. I like this kind of movie, where incongruous actors are lumped together in a weird mix. How did Roeg think of Michael Emil? Was he a secret Henry Jaglom fan? One thinks about these things.