Smooth Talk

November 13, 2012

Smooth Talk is an interesting example of the process of adapting a short story into a film. The Joyce Carol Oates story on which it is based—”Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”—spends a few pages summarizing a young girl’s world, then shifts into a hypnotic encounter between the girl and a tough suitor, which takes up the bulk of the story.

The film adaptation spends its first hour detailing that young girl’s world, taking off from the sketchy Oates descriptions and making the world real. Connie (Laura Dern), 15, is passing quickly through the early stirrings of sexual excitement.

She and her girlfriends spend their time at the mall, watching boys, then take the brave step of visiting the local burger hang-out, where all the older kids cruise.

We also see Connie’s home life, in which her mother (Mary Kay Place) unfairly compares the dreamy Connie with her older, steadier sister (Elizabeth Berridge). Father (Levon Helm), a likable guy, doesn’t meddle much in the family’s problems.

All of this is beautifully realized. Tom Cole’s script is sharp in detail: Connie and her friend sitting at the counter of the burger joint, nervously wondering, “Is there, like, a system?” to talking to the boys; the moment when Connie halts a necking session by confusedly blurting out, “Stop it! I’m not used to being so excited!”

The dynamics of the family life are recognizable but free of cliché. The abrasiveness of the relationships is subtly drawn, as civil conversations repeatedly turn sour; it’s as though the family just could not stand being friendly.

The direction, by Joyce Chopra, heretofore a documentary filmmaker, is sensitive and knowing, and she’s gotten a performance from Laura Dern (who previously played the blind girl in Mask) that is every inch the gawky, impulsive, still-adolescent girl.

After this extremely realistic first hour, the film jumps back into the Oates short story. A man named Arnold Friend (Treat Williams) shows up at Connie’s front door when she is left alone at home one afternoon, and persuasively invites her to come out and take a ride in his big gold Pontiac convertible. It is a spellbinding dialogue, which lasts for a half-hour.

The jarring thing is, despite Williams’ wonderfully Brandoesque reading of the role (it’s the best he’s been in a while), this character exists so wholly as a symbol of Connie’s rite of passage, rather than a flesh-and-blood character, that it throws the film somewhat out of whack. It’s fine in the short story, because Oates’s tale is a symbolic exercise anyway; but the film, which has created such a realistic world, demands more than that.

Are we to believe that the encounter is just another of Connie’s “trashy daydreams” (as her mother calls them)? Perhaps. As such, the sequence makes more sense, as the kind of thing a teenager might imagine during a long, solitary spell, when left alone in the house on a stifling hot summer’s day.

In any case, while it gives the film a division of style, the final sequence does not diminish the value of what has come before. Smooth Talk, which was produced under the “American Playhouse” banner (which means, presumably, it will show up on PBS someday), is a memorable work; and in its principal contributors—scriptwriter Cole, director Chopra, and actress Dern—it reveals a trio of keenly observational talents who promise much.

First published in the Herald, November 1985

Chopra did a lot of work in television after this (and continues to do so as a septuagenarian); Cole was a playwright, and her husband. Laura Dern’s next movie was Blue Velvet, and she’s become a monumental American actress since then. But maybe she already was, with Smooth Talk.



October 26, 2012

Based loosely on an H.P. Lovecraft tale, Re-Animator brings us another variation on the Frankensteinian desire to bring the dead back to life.

This time it’s set in a New England hospital, where an intense young intern, Herbert (Jeffrey Combs), arrives bearing a strange new potion. He’s fresh from studying with a disturbed genius in Switzerland, and he believes his serum can re-animate dead tissue.

He moves in with a fellow student, David (Bruce Abbott), and promptly “borrows” his friend’s cat for an experiment. The dead cat is injected with the serum, but the dosage is too high; the crazy kitty starts bouncing off the walls and screeching its lungs out.

This gets David’s attention: he’s initially horrified but then fascinated by the process. But when he tells the dean of the medical school (whose daughter he is dating) about it, he gets himself expelled.

Hoping for a dramatic demonstration of the re-animation process, the two lads sneak into the hospital morgue and inject a corpse. It—he—springs into life, unwieldy and insane. Unfortunately, the dean picks that moment to walk in on the experiment, and the re-animated corpse kills him.

But, as our heroes have proven, death is not necessarily forever, and …well, you get the picture.

Lots of things get re-animated after this, including a nutty professor who’s been lusting after David’s girlfriend Meg (Barbara Crampton). This professor had discovered Herbert’s secret formula, so the young genius decapitated him; but then, in a gory sequence, his parts are re-animated with such skill that he walks around, escapes from the lab, and even manages to kidnap Meg.

The professor’s corpse then brings her back to the laboratory—stay with me here—and when Herbert finds them there, it sets him up for one of the funniest lines of dialogue heard all year: “So, professor—you discover the secret of life and death, and here you are trysting with a bubble-headed co-ed?”

I hope these descriptions impart some of the flavor of the film. Its subject matter is thoroughly gross and repulsive, and it’s made with a considerable amount of wit and skill. It’s not a comedy, although there are some sly bits thrown in, straight-faced.

Nope, this one just wants to make audiences jump, and that they do—when they’re not groaning from the explicit examinations of autopsies and decaying corpses, that is. Bleccch.

Stuart Gordon, who also worked on the screenplay, directed with a healthy sense of what will make an audience squirm. He shouldn’t be pardoned for the rip-off of Bernard Herrmann’s music from Psycho, though; it’s blatant.

But then, it’s a blatant film—it doesn’t hold much back. If you’re queasy about such things, don’t go. You won’t last.

First published in the Herald, December 10, 1985

The giddy high points of Re-Animator were a true breath of fresh air back then, especially in a horror field that had grown dismal with slashing. The movie seems to loom over everything Stuart Gordon and the actors have done since, and I guess there are worse things in life.

The Color Purple

October 19, 2012

The Color Purple opens with a shot of a beautiful field of lavender flowers; then the camera tilts up to show two young girls playing and singing in the field. After 2 ½ hours of movie, and 30 years in the lives of its characters, this shot will have its emotional payoff in a final scene set in the very same field, among the very same flowers.

That’s getting a little ahead of things, but it’s indicative of the balance and classical construction that fills this movie. With this film, Steven Spielberg sheds the stigma of being a kiddie director—one which he didn’t really deserve anyway—and puts his hands on the best director Oscar that’s eluded him for years.

That’s right, you can send the statuette to Steve’s house now, and save everybody a lot of trouble. At this admittedly early date, it’s hard to imagine The Color Purple in anything but a sweep of the year’s awards—for a few of the actors, for Allen Daviau’s cinematography, and for Quincy Jones’ music.

Jones is also the film’s executive producer, and the man who secured the rights to Alice Walker’s novel in the first place. He also hired Spielberg, which was a brilliant stroke; few other directors could discover such a sense of life within the melodramatic and painful events of the story.

The story spans 30 years. We first meet Celie as a 14-year-old girl about to give birth to her second child—both products of her father’s rapes. He gets rid of the children, and he soon gets rid of Celie, by marrying her off to a local widower farmer, known to her only as Mister.

It’s a violent union. He beats her, and throws her younger sister out of the house. Over the years, Celie grows accustomed to this treatment, and even to the fact that Mister’s mistress, Shug, moves into the house with them. Shug, a juke-joint singer, turns out to be a friend to Celie—after her sister, the only friend Celie has known.

Other characters weave in and out: Harpo, Mister’s oldest son, and his boisterous wife, Sophia; Mister’s father, a mean and crotchety old man; Squeak, who vies with Sophia for Harpo’s attentions.

Spielberg’s treatment of the story at times recalls the silent rural dramas of D.W. Griffith; he uses motifs, such as the reading of letters, the singing of songs, the framing of characters in windowpanes, to trace the spiritual growth of the heroine. Celie’s habit of covering her smile with her hand, which began with her father’s opinion that she was ugly, is used in such a way that when Celie finally learns to smile with a big toothy grin, it fairly lights up the screen.

Much of that power also comes from the interestingly understated performance by comedian Whoopi Goldberg, making her film debut as Celie. Goldberg lets her eyes do much of her talking—watch especially a scene in which Shug sings a special blues song for the heretofore-ignored Celie, and the heart-melting look in Celie’s surprised, embarrassed, touched eyes.

All the performers are good—Danny Glover as Mister, and Margaret Avery as Shug, especially—and I can’t think of a single wrong or awkward note in the film.

Early in her life, Celie consoles herself from the ravages of living by saying, “This life be over soon. Heaven lasts always.” It is Walker’s contention, and Spielberg’s, that that is not enough. Eventually Celie realizes that there must be something more to existence than just existing. That realization is her triumph. That film’s triumph is in making us believe it, too.

First published in the Herald, December 22, 1985

Yeah, funny story about those sure-fire Oscars. The movie got 11 nominations and no wins, and Spielberg was not nominated. (Out of Africa was the big winner.) I think Spielberg’s command of film language actually worked against him here, and the movie might have puzzled people looking for a different kind of approach.

Bring on the Night

October 8, 2012

Bring on the Night is, in almost every way, your typical rock documentary. It traces the evolution of a project from beginning to fruition, with heavy emphasis on musical numbers, interspersed with interviews and behind-the-scenes hijinks.

Now, if you’ve seen a few “rockumentaries,” you know that the form itself is intrinsically stupid. The things are usually vanity productions designed to indulge the whims of the stars, who often babble on about their philosophies during the all-too-lengthy breaks between songs.

Bring on the Night falls into most of those traps, but redeems itself in other ways. The good thing is, it’s about Sting, who happens to be one of the most intelligent and thoughtful rock musicians.

The bad thing is, it’s about Sting, who also happens to be one of the most pretentious and least fun-loving rock musicians.

The project here is the new band that Der Stingle assembled for his current “Dreams of the Blue Turtles” album, and some touring he did with the band. The film, Sting explains at a press conference near the beginning, wants to show the creation of a band—unlike other rockumentaries, which sometimes catch bands at their bitter end (as with the Beatles and Let It Be).

The dichotomy between Sting’s intelligence and his pretentiousness makes this process interesting to watch. The musicians Sting has gathered together (in a chateau near Paris) seem deliberately chosen to represent something he’s not—he’s British, they’re American; he’s rock, they’re jazz; he’s white, they’re black.

These jazz musicians are a fun bunch, no question about it, while Sting seems to be straining to join in their groove. But at least he is trying, even so far as joining in on a chorus of “Meet the Flintstones” as kicked off by saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

The outgoing (and supremely talented) Marsalis presents quite a contrast with the rather aloof Sting. While Sting goes on, somewhat pompously, about his search for a new sound, Marsalis describes how he switched from the clarinet to the saxophone because you could get girls with a sax. Marsalis is no less serious a musician, of course, but he seems to have a healthier sense of humor.

Director Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Kipperbang) shows us the birth of the album, in rehearsal sessions at the chateau, and the culmination of the project, in some live gigs in Paris. We also see another kind of birth: a human one, as Sting’s girlfriend Trudie Styler delivers a baby boy on camera.

It’s the music (not the medicine) that sustains the film. The songs take over near the end, and all the forced backstage stuff fades away. Sting is a talented songwriter, and his work is his vindication. The concert’s final song, “Message in a Bottle,” could be a description of the movie itself—a message sense out in the hope that someone will listen. Well, message received—but Sting, next time just sing the songs, don’t talk about them, okay?

First published in the Herald, November 7, 1985

There were quite a few of these back then. And just a year after This Is Spinal Tap, too.

Never Too Young to Die/Jake Speed/Code Name: Emerald

August 14, 2012

It’s deadhead time at the movies, as early summer releases begin to die and the studios hold back some heavy hitters for the July Fourth weekend. Filling up all those multiplex screens this week is a trio of losers, soon to be forgotten.

Of the three, Never Too Young to Die is the most entertaining, simply because it’s the most outlandish. It’s all about a kid (John Stamos) who gets mixed up in a maniac’s plot to fill Los Angeles’s water supply with radioactive waste.

See, the kid’s father was a secret agent—in fact, he’s played by Goerge Lazenby, who played James Bond once. This tips off the filmmakers’ intentions; this movie is a gadgety, quick-moving teenage 007 movie. As such, it’s a limp outing, although one character actually says, “An entire city held for ransom by a maniac?” as though no one had ever said that before.

But here are the things to enjoy: ex-Prince protégé Vanity, first spotted wearing va-va-voom black lace at a funeral, then incongruously riding a horse across an Ohio farm, and Kiss member Gene Simmons, who plays the mad hermaphrodite villain named Ragnar. Simmons has no shame, a quality that greatly enhances the viewing experience.

As he cackles, rolls his eyes, sticks out his tongue and sings, “It takes a man like me to be a woman like me,” you know you’ve found the film’s reason for being.

In the same vein is Jake Speed, a relentlessly silly adventure flick that crosses the Indiana Jones movies with Romancing the Stone.

Jake is the fictional hero of a series of best-selling books. However, the writing team (Wayne Crawford—who also co-produced and co-wrote the film—and Dennis Christopher) that created him actually likes to live out his cases. So they contact a woman (Karen Kopins) whose sister has been sold into a white slavery ring in Africa, and propose to bring the girl back.

Naturally they take Kopins with them; she becomes nonplussed when she discovers these guys aren’t adventurers, but writers. Jake meets his arch enemy, played with slimy fervor by John Hurt. Hurt’s the kind of villain who keeps a cageful of lions under a trap door in his headquarters, so you know we’re in 007 country again.

Jake Speed is undone by its own spoofiness. Not so Code Name: Emerald, which is as glum as Jake is bubbly.

Emerald is about a soldier (Eric Stoltz, of Mask) captured by the Germans a couple of months before D-Day. It happens that he knows the date and place of the invasion, and if he talks, it could botch everything.

So the Allies send a spy (Ed Harris) whom the Nazis believe to be working for Berlin. He’s go to get to Stoltz and keep him from talking, without raising the suspicions of the German high command (Max von Sydow, Horst Buchholz, Helmut Berger).

The only intriguing thing about his film is why such fine actors would be attracted to such an enervated project. Harris, in particular, is widely thought to be one of our best actors (with good reason), and he has been, in The Right Stuff, Places in the Heart, and Sweet Dreams, at the peak of his powers lately; what’s he doing in this stillborn effort?

First published in the Herald, June 22, 1986

In fairness to the actors in question, the synopsis of Code Name: Emerald sounds like something that might be a serviceable thriller. The movie itself is just dead. Footnote to film history, though; CN:E was the first credit for screenwriter Ron Bass (based on his novel), who has since become a high-priced writing conglomerate. So there is hope after flops.

Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence

July 25, 2012

Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence is the kind of movie you visit without high expectations for cinematic subtlety—what the heck, just a good, juicy cat-and-mouse whodunit will do.

After all, the formula has worked well before. Murder on the Orient Express took a gallery of stars and set them up as bowling pins for Christie’s sleuth, Hercule Poirot. Ditto for Death on the Nile. But as the Christie adaptations continue, the stars get less stellar and the screenplays less inspired.

The form hits its nadir with Ordeal by Innocence, which is being quietly released (read: it’s getting dumped) after having sat on the shelf for a year or so. Not only is it incoherent and cheap-looking, it doesn’t even have Poirot.

This time the sleuth, a Dr. Calgary (Donald Sutherland), is an amateur to the practice of criminal detection. He’s a scientist, drawn into a murder in which he was peripherally involved.

This idea is a good one. Seems Calgary gave a ride to a hitchhiker who left a notebook (with return address) in Calgary’s car. But Calgary was off on an expedition to the Antarctic, where he spent the next two years.

After his stint southward, Calgary dutifully returns the notebook to the address. But it seems the owner is dead—he was hanged for the murder of his mother, which occurred the very night, and at the very time, Calgary had given him a ride.

This means the man did not kill his mother, and Calgary was his only alibi. The scientist sets out to determine the real killer, much to the dismay of the surviving suspects; they all believe the world is a better place without the hanged man, who was a cad.

It’s a good setup, but the narrative goes willy-nilly almost immediately, half-heartedly distributing red herrings. Sutherland does a professional job as the investigator, but the rest of the cast is colorless, and their roles have no meat.

Some of these actors are plain boring (Christopher Plummer, Sarah Miles), some are wasted (Diana Quick, Phoebe Nicholls, both of “Brideshead Revisited”). None of them has anything to do but act British and unperturbed, a deadly dull combination.

The film is so tawdry is relies on black-and-white flashbacks to fill up time, featuring Faye Dunaway as the murder victim. It’s tempting to speculate these scenes were added at some late point in the editing, since the movie, with flashbacks, barely clocks in at 90 minutes.

One other major gaffe: Incredibly, the guilty party is revealed to the audience about 10 minutes before the principals are all gathered into one room for the traditional denouement. This takes considerable wind out of Sutherland’s sails as he leads up to the big accusation.

Ordeal by Innocence is best forgotten, although it does have one quirky feature. That’s the jazz score by Dave Brubeck, which jumps into the story whenever things get dull. This means there’s a whole lot of music. It’s so stupidly out of place in this chilly British world, you’d wonder what was going through the minds of the people who made this movie—if the feebleness of the rest of the film hadn’t already answered that question.

First published in the Herald, November 4, 1985

Does anyone remember this movie? It seems to have no profile at all. Sutherland was busy at this time, filling the lead role in a strange collection of films.

Murphy’s Romance

July 23, 2012

In the opening scenes of Murphy’s Romance we see Sally Field bring her young son (Corey Haim) to a small Arizona town where they’ve rented a ranch house, and set about fixing the place up. They get out the hammer and nails and paintbrushes, and Field puts out leaflets for her new horse-stabling business.

You think to yourself: Is this going to be another movie in which the indomitable Field establishes herself against all odds in a rural setting, picking up an Oscar nomination in the process?

The answer is no, not really. Oh, there’s a bit of that in Murphy’s Romance, and Field will probably get another Oscar nomination, but the film has other fish to fry, and they are very flavorful ones.

For the most past, it’s a low-key portrait of people just trying to get by—not winning big battles, but just trying to make life work out. As such, it’s an immensely appealing character study.

Field plays Emma Moriarty, a divorcee who may be getting involved with an older widower, Murphy Jones (James Garner), who owns the town drugstore, and who is something of an eccentric. He’s a stubborn old coot who prides himself on the shine on his 1927 car, plays the fiddle at the town dances, and is reportedly working on a chili cookbook. Garner is a natural in the role, the best film work he’s done in many years.

This maybe romance is interrupted, however, by the arrival of Field’s ex-husband, Bobby Jack (Brian Kerwin), a classic ne’er-do-well who moves back in with her, although their relationship remains platonic. He just needs someone to sponge off of for a while.

It’s a measure of the good feeling of Murphy’s Romance that even Bobby Jack, undeniably a weasel, is seen with some measure of sympathy. Director Martin Ritt, who guided Field to an Oscar in Norma Rae, creates a very placid, likable world in this film, and everyone fits into it in some way.

Ritt’s unhurried rhythms allow time for some lovely moments: three people sitting on a town bench, enjoying the stars on a clear night; a bingo game at the Elks club; a quiet kitchen during a big barbecue, as Emma tries to get Murphy to disclose his age.

These moments are sweet, but not icky, largely because of the charisma of the stars. It’s an old-fashioned movie that way. It unabashedly relies on star power to communicate character traits not contained in the screenplay. Luckily, Field and Garner are well up to these demands.

The score was composed by Carole King, who also sings several songs on the soundtrack. These add to the laid-back atmosphere. So does the small town itself – Florence, Ariz, according to the credits – which, by the authentic feel of its main street, looks like a wonderful place to be.

Ritt allows his story to ramble somewhat more than it needs to, and one may question the use of so many romantic sunsets. But quibbles tend to fade away in the light of the pleasant glow that emanates from this movie’s quiet appeal. Murphy’s Romance provides, in an old-fashioned way, a real nice time.

First published in the Herald, January 30, 1986

Well, I wish I’d done a better job of talking about this movie, which really is pretty nice. Martin Ritt, while not giving off a strong movie-movie vibe, was able to hit the ball solidly now and again, and it’s somewhat surprising to see that he worked steadily through his career. Somewhere in there, if I’m remembering it right, is a scene in which Field suggests going to a movie with Garner, whereupon he gets a faraway look in his eyes and says, “I haven’t been to the movies since the Duke died.” Which is just exactly what that fellow, and many like him, would say. I like the line, I like the movie.