April 13, 2022

Vampire comedies are all the rage, it seems, although only last summer’s Fright Night was a worthy entry in the subgenre (Love at First Bite and Once Bitten are among the more debased representatives). Now comes Vamp, which attempts a more stylish tack than most, but suffers from a thinning familiarity.

Coupla guys at a boondocks college need to drive into town one night to procure a stripper for a frat party. They borrow a car from a rich kid (who insists on tagging along). Nothing unusual there, except these guys stumble into the wrong place at the wrong time: the After Dark club, after dark.

The joint, it turns out, is crawling with vampires, and the queen of ’em all is a supple dancer (Grace Jones) who wears a wire bikini over leopardskin body paint. When she asks what the boys in the back room will have, they naturally answer: her.

She has a surprise for them; she loves the hemoglobin of college guys. After she drains the essence out of one of the kids, the hero (Chris Makepeace) just wants to get out of the place, while the third-wheel rich kid (Gedde Watanabe of Gung Ho in another amusing performance) is busy ogling the girls on the runway.

This film has some silly zip in its early reels, considerably buoyed by the zombified dance routine by Grace Jones, who wears (with the aforementioned costume) red geisha hair and blue contact lenses. It’s just hubba-hubba enough to nudge the boundaries of the R rating.

Director/co-screenwriter Richard Wenk clearly wants Vamp to have some visual style, so he tries to inject some by flooding the dark milieu with green and purple lights. Unfortunately, an armful of filters and gels do not a visual style make.

Most of the gags are tired, too. By now the jokes about stakes in the heart have been heard; and Wenk can’t marry the goofy stuff to the scary vampirization of some of his main characters.

He clearly intended a black comedy, though; in fact his model seems to have been not Love at First Bite but After Hours, Martin Scorsese’s nightmare comedy about a one-nighter gone bad. Wenk achieves a comic-horror balance once in a while. When Sandy Baron, as the club owner, wistfully muses about opening a vampire lounge in Las Vegas, it’s a good freaky moment.

Then there’s Grace Jones, who isn’t really in the movie much (although she’s been emphasized in the film’s ad campaign). She’s otherworldly enough to carry this sort of thing off, and the movie wimps out a bit when she’s not around. Wenk could have learned something about visual style from her; a smooth, hard enigma, she seems to exist – even in appearances “as herself” on talk shows – purely as an exotic figure of style.

First published in The Herald, July 25, 1986

Always nice to have a Sandy Baron reference. Also in the movie: Dedee Pfeiffer, Francie Swift, and Billy Drago. (“Dedee, meet Gedde. Gedde, Dedee.”) As for Wenk, since his screenplay 16 Blocks was filmed in 2006, he’s gotten a lot of writing work on action pictures. The trivia on IMDb claims Grace Jones’ stripper chair involved creative input from Dolph Lundgren and Keith Haring.


August 18, 2021

Early in the new French film Therese, the youthful title character takes a pin and pricks the tip of her finger. With her blood, she writes Jesus’s name on a crisp piece of paper.

This image of religious devotion occurs even before Therese has entered the strict Carmelite convent where she will spend the rest of her life. In this image we may see the film’s tendency to translate her soaring spiritual fervor into tactile, even bloody, life – a kind of transubstantiation on film.

This is the story of Therese of Lisieux, a saint who lived a simple life in the late 19th century and who left a widely read diary (perhaps she is beginning it in that early image) after her death at age 24. Anyone expecting a bioflick full of hoked-up reverence along the lines of Song of Bernadette is in for a surprise; Therese is at once arty and simple, stark and witty, and not quite like any film you’ve seen.

Director Alain Cavalier’s method is to present flashes of Therese’s life, in brief, intense tableaux, all photographed in front of the sort of neutral gray backdrop of a photography studio. This lends a weird, even convent-like intensity to each scene; like Therese’s love of God, there is nothing cluttering the clarity of the central purpose.

In Catherine Mouchet’s extraordinarily direct, open performance, Therese exists to love Jesus. She exudes her love for her “husband” (the nuns are considered married to Christ) with a fierce single-mindedness and a feverishness that borders on the pagan. But it is not the film’s purpose to expose the perversity of saintliness – it’s as far form Ken Russell’s mad The Devils as it is from Bernadette.

The starkness of the setting also emphasizes the darts of physicality and goofiness. This is an unexpectedly funny film; among all the holiness, two nuns can still chuckle while observing that, “We’re nuts for a guy who’s been dead 2,000 years.”

But the wit is not blasphemous; when the nuns drape their heads with their habits to shield their faces during a delivery man’s arrival from the outside world, Cavalier shoots it so that we appreciate both the absurdity and the dignity of the action.

Cavalier’s dead-calm approach allows Therese’s spirit to shine through, immensely aided by Mouchet’s performance (her first movie). At first, you think her giggly, dimpled presence is hardly the stuff of sainthood; actually, she resembles a Gallic Gidget. But then most saints probably started out looking more like fleshly human beings than the idealized, emaciated figures we see on holy cards, and that’s one of the things Therese seems bent on reminding us about.

First published in The Herald, February 1987

It opened at the Market Theatre in Seattle. Catherine Mouchet, whose name is disturbingly close to Bresson’s secular saint Mouchette, continued on to a steady career. Cavalier turns 90 next month.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

July 15, 2021

No one will accuse the makers of the Star Trek movies of originality. After 20 years of success with the starship Enterprise (in what was supposed to be a five-year mission), the Trek people know what pleases. Their latest film, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, sticks closely to the elements that have worked before.

That duly noted, it is a pleasure to announce that IV is a thoroughly enjoyable outing: cleverly entertaining, reassuringly familiar, and still packing a resolutely humanist message.

When we last saw our trekkers, they were left on the planet Vulcan, having been reunited with the once-dead Spock (Leonard Nimoy). As IV opens, the crew is stuck with a broken-down Klingon vessel – the Enterprise having gotten charred beyond recognition in III – and Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is wanted for intergalactic violations.

A skeleton crew dresses up the Klingon ship and heads back to face the music on Earth. They are, of course: Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Mr. Scott (James Doohan), Sulu (George Takei), Chekov (Walter Keonig), and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols).

As they approach Earth, they see that the planet is getting its ions zapped by a weird space probe. It seems the probe is attempting to communicate with a long-extinct Earth species: the humpback whale.

Huh? There’s more: The only way to communicate with the probe, and call it off, is to grab a real whale and bring it to Earth – and the only whales are way back in the primitive 20th century. Faster than Kirk can say, “Spock, start your computations for time warp,” the gang is embarking on that most beloved of science fiction concepts: time travel.

Thus we find ourselves in the San Francisco of now, where the crew desperately tries to beam up a couple of likely whales, with the help of a biologist (Catherine Hicks) who must suspend even more disbelief than the rest of us.

This is a kooky premise, to be sure, yet the environmental stuff is perfectly in line with the series’ old message-heavy thrust. Luckily, the movie is so niftily made, you don’t feel you’re sitting at a Greenpeace lecture (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

I would guess the environmental orientation of the film came from Leonard Nimoy, who directed this installment (as he did III) and also worked on the script. Nimoy’s direction is brighter here than in the previous film, and in fact much of the movie plays as comedy.

Most of the funny lines sound suspiciously like the work of Nicholas Meyer, a good filmmaker in his own right. Meyer, who directed Star Trek II, also did some doctoring on this screenplay, and his sprightly touch is evident.

There are some wonderful moments, especially for the Trekkies out there. Each cast member, even the aging, paunching underlings of the crew, has his turn in the spotlight, and all fulfill their usual expectations. Much fun is had with culture shock, as with McCoy’s disgust at Dark Ages medical procedures in a hospital sequence, and Spock’s offhand reference to the literary greats Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins as “the giants” of our time.

It is, quite simply, a well-crafted, neatly trimmed entertainment. Not much more need be said of it, except that Star Trek V may confidently be predicted beaming into your galaxy sometime in the next two years.

First published in The Herald, November 28, 1986

I know this will sound terrible to some people, but I have rarely re-visited Star Trek properties over the years, although I will watch an episode of the original show any time one pops on. This one, though, I think I actually went back to see in the theater, such was the pleasure of the voyage. (This, despite my famed allergy to Catherine Hicks.) I had forgotten that Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s plays a small role. John Schuck is in the cast, and his wife married Leonard Nimoy not long after this film. I don’t know the details.

Tango Bar

May 25, 2021

By ordinary standards, Tango Bar is barely a movie at all, more a compendium of great moments in the history of tango dancing.

But somehow this film blends a fictional story with its documentary aspects to create a highly entertaining movie; it was clearly an audience favorite at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.

The fictional story takes place entirely in a tango bar in Buenos Aires, where a pianist (Raul Julia, from Kiss of the Spider Woman) awaits the return of his former accordionist partner (Ruben Juarez). They made a popular team as entertainers more than a decade ago. But during the political upheavals of recent Argentinian history, the accordionist left for safer pastures, while Julia stayed behind, with the other man’s wife (Valeria Lynch), a singer.

The film is made up of snippets from their old show, in which they tell the crowd the history of tango. For the movie audience, this lecture is illustrated with some sensational dancing by pairs and groups, choreographed and performed by some of the best talents in tango today.

It’s also illustrated with film clips of the tango, Hollywood-style. These delightful moments include familiar numbers from Astaire-Rogers and Gene Kelly, as well as rarer items. A glimpse of Rudolph Valentino throwing, literally, his partners around the dance floor is enough to explain his electric appeal.

The movie describes the tango craze in the early part of this century, when Europe and America discovered the sexy dance and brought it into the most civilized parlors. And there’s some witty explanation of the tango mystique, as the two “tango men” field questions from their nightclub audience.

When, in the end, the men are reunited and they sing a tango that reflects the new freedom in Argentina, it is a surprisingly emotional moment. Tango Bar appears not to have much of a story, then you realize it has been the story of tango all along.

First published in The Herald, June 1, 1989

SIFF success could get a movie a Seattle run in those days, for sure. I just looked at the only other review linked to IMDb, a piece from the Washington Post by Rita Kempley, and boy, she lays into it: “they are reprising their extremely tedious act before wildly appreciative, easily amused, glassy-eyed Stepford audiences….these Latin lovers are grouchos, not gauchos, and hold the salsa.” It’s also “Terribly directed by Puerto Rico’s Marcos Zurinaga.” Ouch. Ruben Juarez was a successful singer and player of the bandoneon (I probably hadn’t heard of that instrument at my tender age; accordion was pretty close). This is his only big-screen credit.


May 20, 2021

Hoosiers has its factual roots in a heroic basketball season. Tiny Milan High School won the 1954 Indiana basketball championship against incredible odds, capturing the imagination of roundball fans everywhere.

It’s one of those marvelous miracles that sometimes happen in sports, and it’s a natural story for a movie. Who better to give it filmic (and fictionalized) life than a pair of native Indianans: screenwriter Angelo Pizzo and director David Anspaugh. Perhaps they can best understand the hysteria with which Hoosiers assess their favorite sport.

In fact, that’s what Hoosiers does best. The feeling of a heavy autumn descending over a small town, and of a populace fiercely devoted to the only game around, is colorfully painted. It’s the sort of place where a school minister’s invocation is, “Lord, bless these boys and the season before them.” There may actually be too many shots of corn waving in the wind and pumpkins ripening.

The bucolic setting is invaded by an outsider: a new coach (Gene Hackman, exemplary as usual), brought in as a favor to the principal of Hickory High. Hackman’s a former big-college coach, who left the game years before in a player-slapping incident. This is his final shot at basketball.

He’s as ripe for redemption as the pumpkins are for carving. And he’s not the only one: There’s also a former local star, now a grown-up town drunk (Dennis Hopper). Hackman, determined to drag this souse into glory with him, makes Hopper the assistant coach on the team.

This is the role for which Dennis Hopper is nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and no wonder. Even his first scene, a continuous take as he stumbles into a diner, begs change, and is hustled out by his embarrassed son, has Academy Award nomination written all over it. Which is not to denigrate Hopper’s performance; he’s fine, and in a long tradition of Oscar-nominated drunks.

The season begins with a wobble, and the townsfolk want Hackman to pack his bags. But he wins over the participation of the school phenomenon (Maris Valainis), a boy with a deadly jump shot, who hasn’t played since the previous coach died. With this kid on board, the team is off and running.

At which point, better than halfway through, Hoosiers becomes a much less interesting movie. As the victories get more last-second and heart-stopping, the film becomes more mechanical.

The well-observed business of the town and its people falls away, and the victories take center stage. Barbara Hershey, who plays Hackman’s love interest, all but disappears in the last part of the movie.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with corn as high as an elephant’s you-know-what, but Hoosiers gets to be too insistent about it. If there is a short guy on the team who usually acts as waterboy, you can bet he’ll be called upon to make two free-throws in the final moments of a crucial game. And it’s sure that a dried-out Hopper will guide the team to a win when Hackman is tossed from a game.

Hoosiers is still enjoyable – and I look forward to more films from David Anspaugh, who has a nice touch (he’s directed a lot of episodes of Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere on television). But this film fades quickly from memory, and, for all its last-gasp histrionics, doesn’t match the drama of a truly historic sports event.

First published in The Herald, February 1987

Audiences, you know, disagreed with me. Apparently this is one of those beloved movies that was a drag to make; IMDb says that Hackman was a bummer on the set. Of no interest to anyone but me: changing the text here, I’ve put back the capitalization of Best Supporting Actor. At one point in my years at the Herald, an editor told me that I shouldn’t capitalize the categories for the Oscar nominations, and I didn’t, for years. Never knew why. AP Style book? Seemed odd at the time, seems odd now. Anyway, I’m capitalizing them.


May 18, 2021

Hotshot is pretty obviously an excuse to provide work for soccer great Pele, by stringing together some rah-rah soccer sequences and a few nice shots of Brazil. As such, it’s predictable and formulaic, but pretty palatable for all that.

Pele, the retired greatest soccer player ever, plays the retired greatest soccer player ever. Listen, until he’s up to A Long Day’s Journey into Night, why not? This character is living alone in a secluded house on the coast of Brazil, but his quiet life is interrupted by a brash young American (Jim Youngs) who seeks the wisdom of the master.

We find out in flashback that Youngs has just made a professional New York team, only to be suspended for two months because of personality problems. Translation: He’s a jerk, and the coach and his teammates are tired of him.

Youngs asks Pele for help. But the great one has sworn off soccer, forever. This lack of interest, of course, has simply been added by a screenwriter to add “conflict.” Before long, Pele is flashbacking to his glory days, where we see classic shots of Pele – oops, I mean his character, heh heh – making magic with the round ball. Naturally, at the end of the two months’ training, Youngs has matured and is ready to return to New York in full bloom.

Some of the plot conceits here are classic. Make that ancient: Youngs’ parents are rich so he must deny them and make it on his own; his best buddy on the team is paralyzed on the field and inspires a Gipperesque finale; and another teammate is closing out a brilliant career.

There’s no doubt about where any of this is going, but somehow director Rick King and his cast make it all reasonably easy to take. Youngs, who resembles a younger, less tortured Christopher Walken, is an acceptable screen presence, and Pele has no problems.

Most of his acting involves bouncing a ball off his feet or head, and this he does very well. He also gets to re-create one of his most famous shots: the flip-over-and-kick-the-ball-into-the-goal-while-you’re-on-your-back-in-midair shot. Darned if it isn’t still impressive, even allowing for rehearsals and retakes.

First published in The Herald, January 1987

Director King also made Prayer for the Rollerboys and did the original story for Point Break. Jim Youngs is the younger brother of John Savage; he’d been in The Wanderers and Footloose, and of course a key role in the immortal Out of Control. The cast includes Penelope Ann Miller in her first bigscreen part, Rutanya Alda, and Mario Van Peebles.

Scene of the Crime

April 22, 2021

The new French thriller Scene of the Crime would have made a good vehicle for Alfred Hitchcock. It has a lot of Hitch’s key concerns: the availability of violence in subdued settings, the suddenness of murder, the strait-laced blond heroine who smolders with passion.

The film’s director, André Téchiné, acknowledges his debt to Hitchcock without being slavish about it. Téchiné finds his own deliberate storytelling method, cool and elegant. And he effectively tells much of the story through the eyes of a restless adolescent boy (Nicholas Giraudi).

The kid stumbles across a couple of escaped convicts near his remote country home. One of the cons tries to strangle the boy, but the other escapee (Wadeck Stanczak) kills his partner to save the kid. The boy keeps quiet, although he describes the events to his mother (Catherine Deneuve) as a dream he had.

The escapee turns up at the nightclub where Deneuve works. She gets to know him, is drawn to his sadness and rootlessness, and gradually begins to recognize him from her son’s description of the dream.

Téchiné has some twists to throw in, but the main fascination is in watching the staid country woman quicken to the thought of danger and excitement. She recognizes the risks involved in her attraction to this prisoner, but she refuses to avoid them.

Deneuve is superb at this; for such great filmmakers as Luis Bunuel and Francois Truffaut, her masklike face and chilly blond beauty have served as a counterpoint to a powerful submerged emotion, and Téchiné draws this quality out beautifully. (Hitchcock would have loved working with Deneuve.) Slightly and agreeably thickened around the middle, Deneuve has aged just enough to suggest the years of placid country existence, and the need to break from it.

When she and the prisoner finally get together in their one night of passion, Téchiné plays it in the middle of a howling rainstorm, an appropriately explosive setting. Scene of the Crime is full of such telling details: the drop of a knife into the water, the stillness of the lake below Deneuve’s nightclub, the look of fear and trust in Deneuve’s eyes when the prisoner clamps his hand over her mouth to silence her.

Téchiné has another film coming, Rendezvous, which just played in the Seattle International Film Festival. The French cinema needs some shaking up; perhaps Téchiné will be a driving force.

First published in The Herald, May 31, 1987

Téchiné had been involved in film for over 20 years at this point, and he would be a force to come, generally coming through with something insinuating and strange, occasionally bagging a masterpiece. Danielle Darrieux is also in the film.