Link/Trick or Treat

November 1, 2019

link2Just in time for Halloween, here are two decently produced horror films, both of which go disappointingly awry from unusual premises.

Link attempts a Stephen King-ish story about some apes getting the better of their master, a scientist (Terence Stamp), at his lonely Cornwall mansion. Actually, it’s just one ape who goes bad, an orangutan named Link who’s been trained to outsmart humans. All too well, as it turns out.

Link gets the upper paw, dispenses with the professor, starts threatening the young house­keeper (Elisabeth Shue) who can’t seem to figure out a way to get out of the house.

The director here is the Australian Richard Franklin, who has made some good chillers (Road Games, Psycho II). And Franklin actually directs the film well – he mounts a few exciting sequences. But the basic idea finally seems so silly that even Franklin’s efforts can’t jerk the movie onto a higher evolutionary plane.

trickortreatTrick or Treat is even more disappointing. It springs from a potentially funny-scary Idea that a demonic rock ‘n’ roller might be raised from the dead by a coded backward message on one of his albums.

A teen-age misfit (Marc Price) is stunned when his hero, heavy metal monster Sammi Curr (Tony Fields), dies suddenly. A sympathetic DJ (Gene Simmons) gives the kid the acetate recording of Curr’s last, yet-to-be-released album: Songs in the Key of Death.

When played backward, the secret messages on the album form an incantation that brings Curr back. He’s as surly as ever, but now he has supernatural powers. When his music is played, it melts the ears of kids who listen to it. He must be stopped, and only our hero can do it.

The excesses and self-importance of heavy metal deserve satirizing, and so do the bluenose attitudes of those who would ban the music. Trick or Treat does some of both but blows most of the good opportunities. The script is all over the place, and doesn’t know what it wants to do. Charles Martin Smith directed the film; he’s the actor who played the nerd In American Graffiti and the lead in Never Cry Wolf. He gets off a few funny ideas – the villaincan reach into a TV set and yank out the person onscreen – but most of the movie is as thick and tortuous as Sammi Curr’s music.

First published in the Herald, October 1986

Charles Martin Smith continues to direct; his 1992 film Fifty-Fifty is an unusual picture that has some old-movie zest to it. Other than that, does anybody remember this film? Link has enjoyed some cult approval, I think, especially with that good cast (and Jerry Goldsmith did the music). Franklin had previously done the creditable Psycho II, and went on to make F/X 2, whereupon he went back to mostly Australian work.

The Mosquito Coast

October 25, 2019

mosquito coastEarly on in The Mosquito Coast, someone refers to Allie Fox, a brilliant, intense and slightly off­-center inventor, as a Dr. Frankenstein who creates mechanical monsters. Specifically, Fox makes refrigeration devices, machines for making ice.

But, as The Mosquito Coast makes clear as it goes along, Fox will create a real Frankenstein monster in the course of the film: himself. This is the story of a man’s descent into tyranny and madness; it is a dark character study, and, in some ways, a monster movie.

It’s the latest from the Witness team of Harrison Ford (who plays Fox) and director Peter Weir. Paul Schrader, a filmmaker drawn to monomaniacal figures (Taxi Driver, Mishima) adapted the screenplay from the novel by Paul Theroux.

Theroux’s story is narrated by Fox’s son, an adolescent boy (River Phoenix, of Stand by Me), who tells of the most traumatic adventure in his family’s life. Frustrated with a lack of success among the American philistines, Allie Fox decides to cart his family to the jungle, a Central American nowhere called the Mosquito Coast.

Once there, Fox buys an entire town, which turns out to be a cluster of shacks, miles upriver from civilization, which the jungle threatens to overtake. He, his wife (Helen Mirren), and their two sons and two daughters begin to clean up, and – with the aid of natives – bring a semblance of civilization to the spot.

Fox’s greatest achievement, however, will be building a giant refrigerator – to bring ice to people who have never seen such a thing. This is his obsession.

The second half of the film brings a series of disasters, and the comic tone of Fox’s eccentricity gives way to real madness, including telling his children they cannot go back to the United States because nuclear bombs have been dropped there.

This role is obviously Harrison Ford’s chanciest performance. He looks right for it – his hair longish and pulled back, his eyes squinting behind metal-rimmed glasses. And Ford’s acting is good, but at the same time he seems fundamentally miscast. The epic rage and megalomania of the role don’t come naturally to him, and when his character really wigs out, it seems forced. (Jack Nicholson was reportedly an early choice, which sounds appropriate, and this character does resemble Nicholson’s mad family man from The Shining.)

There’s a clunky quality to the plot, which moves and lingers at unexpected locales, and the intrusion of three banditos at a crucial point smells like a contrivance.

This film has been taking a critical hammering since it opened in New York and Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, and probably it belongs in the “ambitious failure” category. But those are the best kind of failures to have, and some of Weir’s dreamy images (photographed by John Seale, who also shot Witness) will stay with you. An isolated spit where Fox vows to make a final stand looks like a surreal end of the world, and the river journey that ends the film has some beauty.

Hanging over Weir’s work is the ghost of German director Werner Herzog, who made two films about white men who go to the South American jungles on an insane quest and go mad (Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo). The Mosquito Coast is uncannily reminiscent of those films at times, and one wonders whether Herzog might have made a more inspired, visionary, wacko film out of this story. But then, he already did.

First published in the Herald, December 1986

I see there’s going to be a long-form TV adaptation of the book, featuring Justin Theroux, the nephew of Paul. So its time has come, perhaps. Whatever you think of the movie, it’s interesting that it exists at all, given the subject matter; presumably, without Harrison Ford’s clout, this project would’ve ended up in the dustbin that holds all those other interesting but far too risky ideas. Andre Gregory and Martha Plimpton are in the film, and so is Jason Alexander. And Butterfly McQueen? Wow. My memory tells me that River Phoenix carries the movie; at this point it was clear that he was an unusual kid, more than capable of holding the center of a big film.


October 8, 2019

crossroadsDirector Walter Hill has been wavering between gritty, realistic films (The Long Riders, 48 HRS.) and outlandish forays into pure stylization (the urban-punk musical-western Streets of Fire). Of course, Hill’s gritty movies are stylized in their own way, and he’s at his best when working with strong storytelling rather than simple metaphor (as in the Vietnam-microcosm mess, Southern Comfort).

In his latest project, Crossroads, Hill indulges both sides of his personality. For the first hour and more of its running time, it’s a wonderfully rendered yarn, a typically American kind of journey told in nifty, authentic language. For its denouement, however, Hill suddenly heads into la-la land, and pulls a bizarre shift into the supernatural.

The plot springs from a terrific idea. A guitar prodigy (Ralph Macchio of The Karate Kid) from Long Island is classically trained but has his heart in the blues. He’ll do anything to track down a mythical lost blues song by Robert Johnson, the great bluesman who was murdered before his 21st birthday after recording an output – 29 songs – that changed the way American music sounded.

Macchio has tracked down a harmonica player (Joe Seneca) who was present for Johnson’s recording sessions. But the bluesman won’t give Macchio the lost song unless Macchio breaks him out of his New York nursing home and takes him back to Mississippi.

They break out, head south and Seneca starts teaching the young greenhorn some ot the rules of the road. He claims the kid is technically gifted but utterly without a sense of the blues, so he needs to throw a few hellhounds on his trail.

The kid gets an education fast. They’re dumped onto Highway 61 without any money, thrown into a mugging at a motel and arrested for sleeping in a barn. Macchio also hooks up with a tough-as-nails hitchhiker (Jami Gertz) and he learns the essential blues lesson about unrequited love.

All of this provides great pleasure. The similarity with The Karate Kid, in which Macchio also learned  wisdom from an old-timer, is unfortunate, but Crossroads creates its own distinct world; Ry Cooder’s music enhances this immeasurably, although I wish there were even more music in the film.

When the travelers reach Mississippi, and a crossroads at which Johnson and Seneca supposedly sold their souls to the Devil for a taste of blues success, the film starts to hint that this supernatural contract is real, and the finale is an update of The Devil and Daniel Webster, with Macchio trying to pick and strum his way out of Seneca’s contract.

Hill’s films are usually about myth-making, so in a way this conclusion is appropriate. But it’s also just plain weird, coming after the down-to-earth realism that has gone before. And the hokiness of the climactic get-down session is sometimes laughable.

The sequence probably wouldn’t seem so bad if the film hadn’t begun so promisingly. As it stands, it is a strange, seemingly misguided ending to a promising, still largely enjoyable film.

First published in the Herald, March 13, 1986

Huh. Well, I was really thinking a lot about Americana around this time, and I may have really wanted a movie like this to work. It all sounds pretty painful from this distance, and I haven’t watched it since. Screenwriter John Fusco subsequently wrote the Young Guns movies and Hidalgo. The movie’s also got Joe Morton, Harry Carey Jr., and Steve Vai. The actor Robert Judd, who plays Scratch (and died in ’86), has exactly one other movie credit: in the incredibly nasty exploitation picture Fight for Your Life (1977).


March 27, 2013

piratesIn 1974, the world was a rosy place for Polish émigré director Roman Polanski. He’d just made Chinatown, merely one of the best movies of the decade (and a box-office hit to boot), and every studio in Hollywood was eager to finance his next project. He decided to mount a comedy-adventure called Pirates.

Jump to 1986. Polanski is continuing his exile from America, begun with his flight from a rape charge in 1977. He’s made only two films since ChinatownThe Tenant and Tess.

But some things stay the same; after 12 years of intermittent work, Pirates has finally arrived. You might think that such a long-cherished project would take the form of an ambitious work. But Pirates is more like an extended lark.

It’s a lavish period piece, set in the heyday of Caribbean piracy, all about the efforts of Captain Red (Walter Matthau) to acquire a priceless golden throne, which currently rests in the cargo hold of a Spanish galleon. Captain Red and his dutiful French sidekick, Frog (Cris Campion), first seen floating mid-ocean on a raft, are picked up by the galleon and given sundry work. But not for long.

They soon incite their fellow sailors to mutiny, taking the ship’s nasty leader (Damien Thomas) and his beautiful fiancée (Charlotte Lewis) hostage, and leading them to an outrageous pirates’ island, where the area’s buccaneers hold their conventions and cut out a hostage tongue or two.

There are some difficulties in securing the throne, which make up the last half of the film. The yarn itself is basic stuff; the colorful characters, the hinted love between Frog and the fiancée, the triumph of bad over evil.

It is certainly a frequently funny movie, although it’s not a parody of the genre (as some early reports suggested).

Walter Matthau, a peculiar choice for a swashbuckler (the role was originally written for Jack Nicholson), is actually very good. Matthau’s Cockney accent, pegleg, and matted mass of hair and beard create a full-blown impersonation of the crafty pirate. Unfortunately, the supporting cast is largely dull.

The best supporting performance is given by a dead rat, which Red and Frog are sentenced to eat as punishment. This bizarre, quite uproarious episode is exactly what the film needs more of.

Physically, it’s a superb production; the elaborate reproduction of the galleon (designed by Pierre Guffroy) is one of the most gorgeous boats in any movie. But despite some great sequences, a weird sense of irrelevance sets in about halfway through the movie. The level of inspiration decreases, and it’s tough to figure out why Polanski would nurture this idea for 12 years.

In its structure, and in many of its episodes, Pirates is perfectly in sync with Polanski’s absurdist view of the world as a place where greed and ambition are equally meaningless. But in itself, that is not quite enough to validate this entry in the career of a great director.

First published in the Herald, July 1986

This review is more positive than I remember the movie. Even imagining Nicholson in the role, it’s hard to see the film actually succeeding at whatever the hell Polanski meant it to be (some kind of cousin to Fearless Vampire Killers?).

A Great Wall

March 19, 2013

greatwallThe selling point for A Great Wall has been its unusual pedigree: It’s an American independent feature made mostly in China. At the very least, that ought to provoke some curiosity.

But it would be too bad if geography were the only reason for seeing this film. It’s quite lovely in its own, unassuming right.

A Great Wall comes from director Peter Wang and producer Shirley Sun (who also collaborated on the script). The story is simple enough: A Chinese-American family decides they will finally make that long-promised trip back to the homeland, and stay with the relatives in Peking. The collision of cultures that follows forms the basis of the film’s low-key observational humor.

Contradictions abound. Leo (played by Wang himself), the father of the Chinese-American family, finds Peking so Westernized and skycrapered as to be almost unrecognizable as the city of his youth. But behind the steel buildings are customs and habits that he has forgotten about, which are distinctly Chinese.

Thus, Leo will surrender his yuppie jogging routine for a more intense program of silent—well, near-silent—calisthenics, as demonstrated by his brother-in-law. And his incorrigibly All-American son (Kelvin Han Yee) takes some tips on ping pong, in a game that recalls the Nixon-era China-America thaw, during which the simple game of ping pong seemed an important turning point.

Wang’s main concern, about the importance of cultural identity in a world that’s becoming increasingly homogenized, is all the better suggested because he refuses to beat his breast about any of this. The story unfolds in terms that are primarily humorous, but the culture shock he portrays doesn’t descend to the level of cute East-meets-West comparisons. It’s got subtle bite.

And Wang won’t go in for tired characterizations—the Chinese people are not all-knowing and wise, the Americans are not all vulgarians. Wang knows better than that.

It’s a splendidly structured script, and Wang himself is a relaxed and natural performer (as he previously proved in Ah Ying). As a director, he seems reluctant to assert himself, and the film rarely slips into really memorable working motion.

But there is a lot to like. Even if Wang had just achieved this single image, he would have gotten planet: the family playing touch football on the spine of the serpentine Great Wall. That scene is surprising and natural, bold and common, crude and elevated. That’s a heady mix, and difficult to capture.

First published in the Herald, May 1986

IMDb insists this movie is called The Great Wall Is a Great Wall, picking up on the classic Nixon line, even as it notes that A Great Wall is the “original title.” Whatever dude. A fairly nice film that did pretty well in Seattle, as did the aforementioned Ah Ying, directed by Allen Fong. Wang’s last credit dates from 1989.

The Great Mouse Detective

March 13, 2013

greatmouseWalt Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective is easily the legendary studio’s most satisfying animated feature since—well, who knows how long it’s been? Observers have charted the decline of Disney, and of the animated feature in general, for so long, it’s difficult to remember the last time anyone spoke of a Disney cartoon with real admiration.

After last year’s ambitious (but unsuccessful) The Black Cauldron, Disney desperately needed a hit. They went so far as to test-market the title of their next feature, which throughout its long schedule of production (animated films are years in the making) was known as Basil of Baker Street.

Sorry, Basil, the market researchers say that The Great Mouse Detective is a more appealing title (even if anyone with an ounce of sense knows it isn’t).

Whatever its title, the new Disney shapes up as a much-needed pride-booster for the animation department. It’s lively, scary, and utterly without the kind of cartoon condescension that assumes kiddies will be unable to follow the most rudimentary story.

Actually, the plot of The Great Mouse Detective is pretty rudimentary, but condescension is more a question of attitude, anyway. It’s a Sherlock Holmes story in which Holmes and Watson (called Basil and Dawson) are crime-fighting mice in 1897 London, and archenemy Moriarty is a nasty, effete rat called Professor Ratigan.

This Basil fellow lives in a corner of the building where the actual Holmes lives (we get a brief glimpse of the human counterparts); but there’s no bones made about the fact that our mice heroes are meant to be the rodent version of Conan Doyle’s sleuths. Basil deduces, cries “The game is afoot!”, and plays the violin. (Don’t expect Basil to emulate Holmesian cocaine use, however—this is the Disney version, after all.)

Professor Ratigan (spoken by Vincent Price, the only big name in the cast) and his icky henchman Fidget (a peg-legged, yellow-eyed bat), kidnap a toymaker for a devious plan involving the upcoming visit from the Queen of Rodentia. The toymaker’s daughter goes to Basil for help, and the rest is elementary.

The story is broken down into a series of set-pieces, including a chase in a toy store, a hearty barroom brawl, a nifty bit in which Ratigan snares Basil and Dawson in a seemingly hopeless trap, and the big finale hanging from the clock of Big Ben.

There are no dead spots, the animation is atmospheric (if hardly revolutionary), and the scary stuff is good and creepy—not watered down.

Before the film is a not-quite-classic Mickey Mouse short, Cleaning Clocks, which shares a few gags with the Big Ben sequence in the feature. It’s oddly comforting to know that, after decades of animated progress, a cartoon character’s head still makes the same CLANNNGGGGG when stuck inside a ringing bell.

First published in the Herald, July 1, 1986

The Little Mermaid deservedly gets credit for turning things around for Disney, but this was the tip-off: a really smart, crackling entertainment from (of all people) the Disney animators. You can tell from the tone of this piece how unlikely that seemed at the time, and what a low point “family films” had reached. Things changed.

Defense of the Realm and Duet for One

February 7, 2013

dfenseofrealmDefense of the Realm has the breeding and the instincts of a classic paranoid thriller, along the lines of a Richard Condon novel or an Alan Pakula film. In many ways it resembles Pakula’s All the President’s Men, for this is also a story of an increasingly nasty government cover-up, unraveled by a relentless newspaper reporter.

This time, however, the reporter (Gabriel Byrne) is no white knight. He’s as sleazy as his Fleet Street counterparts when a juicy political scandal breaks, and every bit as willing to gain information in under-handed ways. Actually, that’s what makes Defense of the Realm interesting, above and beyond its status as a ripping yarn; here, the getting of the story provides the reporter with some measure of redemption.

The scandal involves a teddibly important member of Parliament (Ian Bannen) caught sharing the same call girl as a KGB agent. (Not at the same time—Martin Stellman’s sctript isn’t quite as wild as an actual British political scandal.)

Trapped in the middle is an old-guard reporter (the always-admirable Denholm Elliott), who’s also an old friend of the disgraced man. Elliott hints darkly to Byrne that the whole thing is a frame-up, and that evidence is forthcoming that will implicate even bigger higher-ups.

Within a few hours, Elliott is dead—that happens when you hint darkly in stories such as these—and Byrne is compelled to follow the thing through, aided by a secretary (Greta Scacchi) of the disgraced man.

Even when you can’t figure out precisely what’s going on, and that happened to me with uncomfortable regularity, the film does move forward nimbly. Director David Drury, another discovery of that savior of the British cinema, David Puttnam, has an exceptionally sharp eye and a brooding sense of atmosphere. The crucial thing he doesn’t quite achieve is to make the Byrne and Scacchi characters into fleshy creatures. They remain mostly props in the service of this well-tooled movie.

Duet for One was released in Los Angeles late last year, in hopes of picking up an Academy Award nomination for Julie Andrews. Didn’t work, so Cannon Films seems to be dumping the movie, which is adapted from Tom Kempinski’s stage success.

It’s a bravura role, all right, the sort that usually gets an automatic nomination. Andrews plays a world-famous concert violinist stricken with multiple sclerosis. The film charts her downslide, through retirement, anger, and a suicide attempt, and the toll on the people around her: conductor husband (Alan Bates), psychoanalyst (Max von Sydow), musical protégé (Rupert Everett).

It’s a weird movie. Much of it plays as soap opera, redeemed by some of Andrews’ gutsy moves. Eventually the presence of director Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train) takes over, and a heavy kind of Russian obscurity seeps in.

First published in the Herald, March 14, 1987

Surely Defense of the Realm has a cult following. Drury made a Hollywood misfire (Split Decisions) and then went into the world of British television, where he has thrived.