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.

Deadtime Stories and Starship

January 29, 2013

starshipThe two cheesy exploitation movies that hit the area last weekend are a real study in contrasts. Deadtime Stories is low-budget and silly, and just marginally watchable. Starship, while boasting a superior budget, is as dull as dried clay.

Deadtime Stories takes the time-honored omnibus route, presenting three scary stories. The first, about a pair of medieval witches and their unwilling servant boy, seems left over from some other movie—it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the film.

The other two stories are modern updates of fairy tales. “Little Red Riding Hood” is here a nubile teen in a scarlet jogging outfit who runs afoul of a werewolf. The third story is a variation on “Goldilocks,” wherein the three bears are humans, escaped lunatics who find Goldi living in their abandoned house.

Goldi herself is a statuesque vixen blessed with a telekinetic power a la Carrie, which allows her to terminate her long line of suitors. She gets along very well with the bear family, and they even live happily ever after.

Under the clumsy hand of director Jeffrey Delman, this is all done tongue-in-cheek, as is the framing story of an insomniac boy having the tales told him by a babysitting uncle. It’s very clear that most of the budget went for special effects, with little left over for such niceties as professional actors.

Still, Deadtime Stories is comprehensible. Not so Starship, a completely incoherent space thing, directed and co-written by Roger Christian (a name to be shunned in the future). The ads promise, “The adventure of a million lifetimes”; actually, it only seems that long.

I honestly can’t tell you what the film was about, except it had something to do with some people trying to get off a planet that was being taken over by robots. Not a whit of humor, or even intelligible action.

First published in the Herald, April 1987 (?)

IMDb says that Jeffrey Delman is related to Bernard Herrmann; also, Deadtime‘s cast included Melissa Leo in one of her first movie roles. It opened at the Coliseum in Seattle. Roger Christian did design stuff for Star Wars and Alien, which would explain his move to sci-fi directing; he eventually did Battlefield Earth, which is a lot more fun than Starship. The movie apparently opened in Australia in ’84, but knocked around and was re-cut before playing the U.S. sometime later.

Just Between Friends

January 15, 2013

justbetweenfriendsJust Between Friends seeks to be this year’s Terms of Endearment—last year it was Twice in a Lifetime, you’ll remember—with a similar mix of ordinary people facing up to both ordinary and extraordinary situations.

It’s certainly got the right pedigree. Just Between Friends was written and directed by Allan Burns, who, like Oscar-winner James L. Brooks of Terms, was a staff writer on the old “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Burns clearly hopes to strike gold in the same mine.

But Just Between Friends is a strangely flat movie, lazily paced and without many distinguishing characteristics. You can sense Burns trying to wrench it into something more interesting, by throwing in an unexpected death here, a surprise pregnancy there, but the concoction refuses to jell.

It’s about a woman (Mary Tyler Moore, in a tailor-made role) whose neat, ordered life is brightened by a friend she meets at aerobics class (Christine Lahti). What Moore doesn’t know is that her seismologist husband (Ted Danson, of “Cheers”) is having an affair with Lahti.

When Moore invites her new friend over to have dinner, predictable hysteria ensues, as Lahti and Danson uncomfortably discover their mutual acquaintance.

Lahti decides to call off the affair, Danson isn’t sure, Moore stays in the dark—until, that is, the day she looks through her husband’s office and discovers a dime-store photo of Danson and Lahti together.

The film gets more serious as it goes along, although Burns has the good sense to insert a comic scene now and again. And his situation is valid enough, but his languid pace and utterly dull visual scheme damage the impact of the story.

The film was pretty clearly commissioned for Mary Tyler Moore, and Burns knows how to write funny “Mary” scenes, including a reference to her character’s past as a dancer, when she was a dancing peanut in a TV commercial (part of Moore’s actual dues-paying, if I remember correctly).

Moore’s only problem, as it was in Ordinary People, is that she tends to treat her big dramatic moments as—well, big dramatic moments. She loses her subtlety when called upon to emote.

Lahti, who was nominated for an Oscar for Swing Shift, provides some welcome bite. Just as she stole Swing Shift from Goldie Hawn, so does she grab our attention here. Her performance is more offbeat than Moore’s.

Danson, a likable, light leading man, is oddly unfocused, as though he wished he were getting some direction. Sam Waterston is steady as Danson’s best friend, who harbors a not-particularly-secret affection for Moore.

It’s a perfectly honorable try. There’s nothing cheap about the film’s emotion-tugging. The actors try valiantly to breathe some life into the proceedings, but ultimately the company can’t life the film above the level of a better-than-average TV movie.

First published in the Herald, April 13, 1986

I was flicking across channels the other night and came upon the sight of Mary Tyler Moore saying “fuck,” which is, I think we can agree, something that stops you in your tracks. I sat there thinking What the hell is this? and finally figured out that it must be Just Between Friends, a movie I had forgotten all about, for reasons that should be evident from the tone of the review.

The Little Mermaid

January 9, 2013

littlemermaidThe Little Mermaid is No. 28 in one of the movies’ great traditions: It is a full-length animated feature from Walt Disney studios. And, like many of the films Uncle Walt supervised, it is based on a classic fairy tale.

It’s a loose adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson story (one that ends rather more happily in the Disney version). ‘Tis the tale of a mermaid, Ariel (voice by Jodi Benson), who falls in love with a prince and dreams of joining him in the world above the sea. To do this, she would have to sprout legs, which involves driving a hard bargain with a dreadful sea witch, an octopus called Ursula (Pat Carroll). Ariel also runs the risk of displeasing her father, a ruler named Triton (Kenneth Mars).

As is the Disney wont, there are some cute characters who play off the heroine (and who, to speak more cynically, make themselves very available for mass merchandising). Flounder (Jason Marin) is, as you might guess, a fishy friend; Scuttle (Buddy Hackett) a frequently confused seagull; and Sebastian (Samuel Wright), the Jiminy Cricket of the movie, a musically inclined crab.

After an opening reel in which it appears the movie might drown in cuteness, The Little Mermaid begins to swim in its own high spirits. The vernacular is modern and the songs (by Alan Menken and producer Howard Ashman, the team who created the musical Little Shop of Horrors) are fun, particularly the two Jamaican-flavored numbers sung by Sebastian. There’s also a funny patter song by a French chef (at the prince’s castle) who warbles on about the joys of cooking—horrors!—seafood.

But, as is so often true, the movie is stolen by the villain. The great purple-and-black octopus Ursula is the Disney animators’ triumph, a rolling mass of tentacles, each of which seems to have its own life. She taunts the goody-two-shoes Ariel with her devilish bargain; later, when she takes the form of an above-water maiden, she surreptitiously kicks the prince’s dog. Hissing is allowed.

Ariel is a bit of a drip, as is often the case in these Disney films; she’s perfect-looking, and her waving hair tends to overwhelm any sign of personality, aside from a certain spunkiness. (In case you’re wondering, the mermaids wear what appear to be little sea-shell brassieres, a Disney tradition of modesty that goes back at least as far as the nymphs in Fantasia.)

The film is directed and written by John Musker and Ron Clements, who also created Disney’s enjoyable The Great Mouse Detective. Their assured work, which manages to be both respectful of tradition and just a bit hip, plus the top-notch achievements of the younger animators, bodes well for the future of Disney’s most cherished legacy.

First published in the Herald, November 17, 1989

Well, yes, it’s an understatement to say that it worked out well for Disney after that, animation-wise. In that sense, the turning point that The Little Mermaid represents makes it one of the more significant movies of its era—this was the moment Disney went from being a moribund dinosaur to a giant player again. This is also a chance to remember how important Howard Ashman was to Disney’s turnaround; by most accounts he had a lot to do with making The Little Mermaid a smart movie.