A Killing Affair

January 26, 2022

A Killing Affair is one of those rare movies that, in their failure, avoid being interesting or noble or even laughable. It’s just plain bad.

Deep in the woods of the Appalachians in 1943, a man is killed. His wife, unaware of her husband’s sudden departure, sends her two children off to town and returns to her isolated house. First, she discovers the dead husband, hanging around in the smokehouse. Then, she discovers a strange man, obviously the killer, hanging around inside the house.

During the next couple of days, the wife and killer threaten each other, fight, bury the husband’s corpse, make love. In the course of this, a great deal of backwoods hooey is unearthed.

This movie is chockful of crude caricaturing. The mean husband, a philanderer, a cruel boss, and a man who kicks his children’s guitar, does everything but twirl his oily mustache (he’d do it if he had one).

There are scenes that suggest that writer-director David Saperstein might be attempting some irony, such as the moment when the wife turns to the stranger during the backyard burial and says, “I’m sorry about your family” (in a long flashback sequence that brings the movie to a grinding halt, the stranger has described the ax murders of his wife and children). Picking up on that, the stranger looks at the wife after they have made love and sighs, “You do help mah grievin’.”

Unfortunately, the rest of the film is rendered in a hushed, straight-faced delivery, so the humor appears unintentional. Elsewhere, Saperstein displays his light touch by throwing in huge close-ups of important plot gimmicks, in case you missed that knife being secreted behind the bedpost.

The worst thing about Saperstein’s uncertainty with the material is that he leaves some decent actors adrift. Among the lost of Bill Smitrovich, a good character actor stuck doing the Snidely Whiplash routine as the husband, and primo sleaze John Glover, who plays the wife’s brother, a country preacher.

Worse off are Peter Weller, as the killer, and Kathy Baker, as the wife. Weller, who played Robocop, at least tries to fashion a performance here, even if it is all googly eyes and mannered drawl. Kathy Baker, a respected stage actress who won well-deserved raves for her prostitute in last year’s Street Smart, is actively bad. Baker has interesting screen presence – from one angle she’s homely, from one angle she’s beautiful – but she doesn’t seem to have any clue about what’s going on in this movie.

I don’t blame her. Bad actors can give bad performances on their own, but good actors give bad performances because a director isn’t doing his job. In A Killing Affair, blame the director.

First published in The Herald, July 29, 1988

Saperstein wrote Cocoon. This was actually Kathy Baker’s second film, with an official release date of 1985.


Invasion U.S.A./Commando

November 4, 2021

The formula seems to be intact, at least for these two action pics: A guy who just wants to be left alone is drawn out of comfy retirement to fight one last fight. (Schwarzenegger is with his little daughter, carrying logs on his shoulders in the desert of Southern California; Norris wrassles alligators at his everglades retreat.) Both retired heroes are drawn out into battle because an old nemesis has gone power-mad and wants to rule the world (more or less). And both films share, of course, the indestructibility of their protagonists and the uncanny willingness on the part of the thousands of extras to step in front of a red-hot machine gun. Oddly enough, they also share a tendency toward flipness; both heroes like to make funny cracks about the dude they’ve just wasted, a la James Bond (some bon mots in Commando are actually stolen from early Bond films, if I’m not mistaken). But the tone, especially in Commando, is less Bond-droll than a kind of hip nihilism, very much along the lines of Schwarzenegger’s big hit from last year, The Terminator.

Similarities noted, it must be said that the two films offer differing degrees of pleasure. Invasion U.S.A., helmed by Norris vet Joseph Zito and co-written by Chuck Norris himself, is a typically tawdry-looking Chuck movie. The villains perform atrocities, Chuck gets mad, mows villains down. Nothing too interesting about it, except that the atrocities are a little more far-out than usual: a suburban neighborhood prepares for Christmas, and a little kid runs out on the lawn to put the star on the top of the Christmas tree. She manages to get inside the house before the vans parked out front (bought and paid for with rubles, no doubt) deposit their payload on the front porch, torching the whole neighborhood. That’s a little kinky, but there are no scenes in which Chuck is forced to bite the head off a live rat (as in the unforgettable scene in Missing in Action 2), and Chuck’s masochism level is relatively low, although he does have to wear the same ugly blue shirt all the way through.

Commando is a lot more fun. Arnold Schwarzenegger is actually better in his Terminator role, because there his voice could sound dead and metallic and be suited to the character. He sounds more Teutonically incongruous than ever in Commando, but that’s all right. The forward motion of the film itself is the main thing, and it trips along pretty well. Its inferiority to The Terminator stems from the lack of an identifiable directorial personality; colorless Mark L. Lester handled the reins on Commando, and the gap between the flip, funny dialogue and the ordinary visualization suggests that he might not have had that much to do with what is good about the picture. (An example of the absence of overriding directorial presence: in some early, execrable lines of dialogue, Schwarzenegger trades quips with his daughter on the subject of Boy George; this seems to establish him as something of an old fogey. But late in the film, he exhorts his main foe – played by Vernon Wells, the fearsome Wez of The Road Warrior – to join in a fight to the death, and whispers, “Let’s party.” Since the character has not changed at all in the day that has passed since the first dialogue exchange, and this last phrase is quite irreconcilable with his earlier behavior – although it sounds great in the TV commercials for the movie – you get a feeling the director did not have a terribly strong idea or notion of what the character was about).

All of which, perhaps, is taking too seriously a film whose major concern is to rub its hero’s chest with grease and have him cream the bad guys – except that James Cameron was able to take the same concern and carry it off with a lot of style in The Terminator. The attitudinal holdovers from that film that crop up in Commando might very well be attributable to Schwarzenegger himself – which conjures up big-bicepped visions of a future auteur fashioning his own odd, sardonic, and by all means muscular mise en scene.

First published in The Informer, October 1985

This was a case of double-dipping, as I’d reviewed Invasion and Commando for The Herald, but I guess I needed something for the cover of The Informer, and Arnold was it. Lester spiraled into lower-budgeted titles, but has a robust career as a producer, so good for him. I forget that Arnold’s character in Commando was called John Matrix. Man, we had some dumb fuckin’ movies back then.


Summer Rental

November 3, 2021

Gad! When you imagine the comic possibilities of a film that places the outrageously talented John Candy in a catastrophe-laden Day at the Beach scenario (the likes of which have been popular since the early days of silent comedy) and the end result is Summer Rental – well, you can be forgiven for being plenty ticked off. Not that Summer Rental is that bad a movie. It’s not reprehensible, really, just disappointing in its tameness.

Candy plays an Atlanta man who lugs his family off for a beachside holiday, and the whole thing seems more inspired by National Lampoon’s Vacation than by anyone’s imaginative rendering of amusing real-life experiences. Tacked on to Candy’s fumbling escapades is a stupidly conceived plot wherein Candy takes revenge on an arrogant yachtsman (Richard Crenna) in a climactic race, with the help of a crotchety sea salt (Rip Torn). It is, by conservative estimate, the 527th film since the released of Rocky that ends in a sporting event with the protagonist victorious – enough already!

It’s also time to note that, after having had ample opportunity to prove himself as a director, Carl Reiner might gently but firmly be counseled to assume a producer’s role instead. Reiner’s string of comedies with Steve Martin got increasingly better (and funnier) but the blandness of Summer Rental suggests that the success may have had more to do with Martin’s own sharpening comic instincts than Reiner’s growth as an auteur. Gags here are allowed to slip away too lazily, and the lurch into the yacht race plot is quite jarring. There’s also a weirdly underdeveloped subplot with Candy’s wife and the marvelous John Larroquette (from Choose Me and Night Court) that hints at possible adultery but must’ve ended up on a cutting-room floor somewhere.

But Reiner’s greatest problem is his failure to bring out all that is Candy. The casting itself – as the harassed, short-fuse father – is fine, since it ought to afford Candy many opportunities for meanness and spite. But the happy ending, and the movement toward it, impose a conventional tone to the film, and Candy is required to espouse ordinary sentiments. Candy can do that – he was certainly good in the more tender moments in Splash – but he’s at his glorious best when nettled, obsequious, sleazy, or just plain rotten. Summer Rental might have been a lot better if it had been a little nastier.

First published in The Informer, September 1985

Big champion of John Candy back then, for good reason – anything he did on film would have to be measured by the standard of SCTV, which is why almost all of his film work fell short. Maybe I was a little hard on Reiner here, but the film really is inexplicably bad.


Salvation!/Shadey

July 13, 2021

A pair of intentionally eccentric movies hit the arthouse circuit this week, but neither of them has the right stuff to make sense of its own weirdness.

The release of Salvation! coincides with the continuing PTL drama. It’s about a charismatic TV evangelist (cunningly played by Stephen McHattie) whose plush life is invaded by a trio of crazy fans. During one wild night at his beach house, he’s seduced by an 18-year-old girl (Dominique Davalos), then threatened with blackmail and almost murdered by her greaseball partner (Viggo Mortensen).

When this night is over, it somehow transpires that Mortensen’s wife (played by the lead singer of X, Exene Cervenka), a true believer, is made the co-host of McHattie’s TV show. Their fortunes soar, T-shirt sales take off, and the whole thing ends with a music video.

Salvation! is an instant cult film geared for the art-camp crowd. It scores some funny moments, even though its targets, especially the phoney-baloney televangelists, are easy to hit. It’s also ragged and casual, and it lurches into MTV territory whenever things slow down.

Beth B is the director/co-writer. She and Scott B used to make underground movies during the 1970s, which made them the darlings of the New York experimental scene. Scott seems to have dropped out of sight, gone to that place where the rest of their last names went, I guess. Salvation! is a good deal better than their dreadfully artsy 1983 film Vortex, but Beth still has more hipness than moviemaking savvy.

Shadey is a British film with a lot of clever ideas. Clever, in fact, to the point of unpleasantness.

The basic idea here springs from a man (Antony Sher) who has a talent for turning his thoughts, or the things he sees, into movies. The British government would like to use this gift in their espionage war against the Soviets. Sher, on the other hand, would like to be turned into a woman.

This is just the seed. There are all too many wacky twists that follow, and also a number of good actors (Patrick Macnee, Billie Whitelaw, Katherine Helmond) strewn about the premises.

Snoo Wilson’s screenplay might contain some possibilities, but they are bungled by director Philip Saville, who can’t make sense of them. We know that many of the absurd things in the film are supposed to be pointed and funny, but Saville doesn’t provide lucid context and build-up for them. Which means that the only reasonable response to most of the movie is: “Huh?”

First published in The Herald, May (?) 1987

As I write this, Beth B has a new film out, a documentary about Lydia Lunch, and is enjoying some re-appraising. I am sorry that this does not fit into that (but would give it another look, for sure). Anyway, Mortensen and Cervenka met on this film, and were married for ten years. Davalos is the daughter of Richard Davalos, the good brother in East of Eden. The PTL scandal was the story about Jim and Tammy Bakker. Shadey put me off, but it’s a rare example of a lead role in film for Sher, who has had a large stage career. Roger Deakins shot it.


Troupers

May 26, 2021

Troupers is a documentary chronicle of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, but that brief description may be misleading.

First, the San Francisco Mime Troupe is not a mime troupe in the sense that the players are dressed in white-face, never speak, and strike precious poses. It’s a full-fledged drama company – all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing – which means the film is a lot more varied than the title might suggest.

Also, the label “documentary” is a kiss-of-death word for many people; but, as we are reminded each time a crackerjack documentary comes along, there’s no need for a nonfiction film to be dull or dry.

Troupers, for example, is neither, although it has a few problems, especially in its unabashed admiration for the Troupe. Director-producers Glenn Silber and Claudia Vianello don’t probe much for ambiguities.

But then, the movie is supposed to celebrate, and that it does. The Mime Troupe began in the 1960s as a raucous, free-swinging drama company, putting on free plays in the park that invariably delivered a blatant political message – usually opposing the Vietnam War.

Early black-and-white footage shows the company being arrested, ostensibly for the use of obscene language. Bill Graham, the concert promoter who got his youthful start as business manager for the Troupe, remembers how thrilled he was at the time of the arrests, because the thought of being arrested for something you believed in made the Troupe feel that they were doing something important.

It also got the Troupe a lot of free publicity, which Graham admits was welcome. There’s an old clip of Bob Dylan referring to a concert for the Troupe, to raise funds for legal fees; Graham suggests that this concert was a precursor to the whole hippie movement that would flower in San Francisco during the decade.

According to Troupers, the group was an integral part of the social revolution of the ’60s. The members of that scene, now graying and balding, look back on their rock-the-boat accomplishments with pride.

Troupers doesn’t only deal with the past; it brings the company – collectively owned by the participants – up to date by covering a tour made in 1984. The players mounted a musical called “Steel Town,” a socially conscious piece about unemployment, which they brought to the real steel towns of the Midwest. Consider the notion of a flaky, leftist San Francisco drama group touring small factory towns of the nation’s heartland, and you’ll get a sense of the Mime Troupe’s fearless commitment to their beliefs. You’ve got to give them that much. They put their money where their collective mouth is.

First published in The Herald, 1986

Not sure when this review ran, but the movie played Sundance in ’86 (that’s what IMDb says, although I think the festival may still have been called the U.S. Film Festival at that point). Co-director Silber had been nominated twice for documentary Oscars, for The War at Home and El Salvador: Another Vietnam. Peter Coyote is in this movie; he was a member of the Troupe during his youthful hippie days.


Tracks in the Snow

May 4, 2021

That The Assault won this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film came as little surprise to locals. It may have bombed in New York, but the Dutch film was voted best picture at last year’s Seattle International Film Festival and had its national opening here. In fact, we’ve seen an inordinate number of Dutch films hereabouts, largely due to the enthusiasm of the festival folks.

Most of these Dutch films have shared some basic characteristics; the emphasis tends to be on strong storytelling, with little hifalutin’ style-for-style’s-sake (excepting the occasional high-octane entry from Fourth Man director Paul Verhoeven). The result has been a string of solid efforts, marked by just a hint of timidity.

Tracks in the Snow is an absolutely exemplary Dutch film. Here the virtues of storytelling are very much to the fore, and the story is a good one.

It’s a tale of two brothers, both middle-aged as the story begins. Hein (Bram van der Vlugt) is a well-to-do stockbroker who has inherited the family business from his retired father. The older brother, Simon (Gerard Thoolen) has been disinherited because of his flamboyant homosexuality and his choice of profession: the disreputable life of the theater. The brothers are quite estranged.

Then a telegram arrives that summons them both to their father’s deathbed. Just as they get there, the father dies, having left instructions: The brothers are to bury the deceased in a remote village in the snowy north.

This journey, which the brothers undertake with the help of a half-witted guide (Melle van Essen), forms the main body of the movie. The only way to reach their goal is by sleigh ride, lugging supplies and the coffin across miles of frozen landscape. This arduous trek exposes both men, particularly Hein, who carries a dark family secret that becomes revealed bit by bit during the trip.

The natural elements – the cold, the howling wind (not to mention the howling wolves) – play strongly with the emotional battle between the siblings. The director, Orlow Seunke, carries out this struggle in straightforward, lucid style.

He achieves many haunting moments, especially as the journey nears its end. In particular, the lugging of the casket across a rickety bridge pitched over an icy river lends a sense of strangeness and irony to the film’s ending. It’s the climactic example of exhausting effort put to a meaningless purpose, a theme that runs throughout the film. This is a very good piece of work.

First published in The Herald, April 11, 1987

And now you know a little more about Seattle’s role in breaking the Dutch New Wave. Thoolen appeared in A Zed and Two Noughts the same year this came out; he died in 1996 from AIDS. Van der Vlugt has had a long career in Dutch film.


One Woman or Two

April 29, 2021

One Woman or Two is something of a French update on Bringing Up Baby, the classic comedy by Howard Hawks. In that 1938 film, Cary Grant played a strait-laced paleontologist who had the pins knocked out from under him by a freewheeling Katharine Hepburn.

In One Woman or Two, Gerard Depardieu plays the paleontologist, Sigourney Weaver plays the spirit of anarchy. But there all resemblance to the earlier film ends; One Woman or Two is a mess, and not a very funny one.

As the film opens, Depardieu is out on a dig in the French countryside, where he discovers the partial skeleton of a 2-million-year-old human. “The First Frenchwoman,” as he excitedly puts it.

Rushing to Paris to examine the skeleton is a philanthropist moneybags (played by sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer), who will fund further archaeological work if the discovery is important enough. But instead of picking her up at the airport, Depardieu erroneously latches on to another woman (Weaver), who goes along with the masquerade because she’s avoiding a crazy ex-lover.

Well, it’s all very complicated. And ridiculous: We’re mean to believe that Weaver, an ex-model who represents a perfume company, wants to use the 2-million-year-old woman for an expensive ad campaign. And that she would go along with the pretense just to avoid her ex. And that she would have dated this creep for five years, as she is supposed to have done.

The movie’s many lapses in plausibility aren’t smoothed over by any sort of vim or vigor. Daniel Vigne, the director/co-writer, who previously teamed with Depardieu on The Return of Martin Guerre, doesn’t display much comedic sense. Some of the physical ideas are funny: pairing off the shapelessness of Depardieu with the statuesque Weaver, and then throwing in sawed-off Dr. Ruth, has some possibilities. But the slapstick business falls flat in the general disorganization. There aren’t even any romantic sparks between the lead actors until the final clinch of the movie.

But forget about Depardieu and Weaver. Of course the question America is asking is: What about Dr. Ruth’s movie debut? The diminutive Westheimer acquits herself adequately, it must be reported, although not much is required of her. She appears to have been chosen in part because of her resemblance to the clay figure that Depardieu shapes as an approximation of his skeleton. (An unfortunate resemblance it is, too.) But the protection-minded sex guru inhabits the role with ease, and even gets through the whole film without warning anyone to use contraceptives.

First published in The Herald, February 1987

Vigne mostly directed in French television after this. I checked to see where this movie fell in Depardieu’s busy career, and it came just after Maurice Pialat’s Police and Bertrand Blier’s Menage, two chancy films from risk-taking auteurs. So, in case we have forgotten because of the man’s erratic behavior of late, he was on a roll. (For Weaver, it came between Ghostbusters and Aliens, so ditto.) The Dr. Ruth movie phenomenon did not really take off.