Crocodile Dundee

July 3, 2020

crocodiledundeeThe fact that Crocodile Dundee broke all box-office records in Australia – even topping E.T. – did not automatically qualify it for American distribution. Often, something that is wildly popular in its native country just never quite translates into other markets, particularly the persnickety United States. Look how long it took soccer, ABBA, and Julio Iglesias to break in.

Paramount Pictures, however, obviously believes that Dundee has a real shot in the U.S.; they’ve backed the film with a strong ad campaign and a publicity blitz for its star, Paul Hogan.

You know Hogan, even if you don’t know the name. He’s the chap in the very successful Australian tourism commercials who urges us to say “g’day” and visit the America’s Cup Down Under. Well, it seems he’s just about the most popular personality in Australia, with his own highly rated TV show. Dundee (which he co-wrote), is his first film. Hogan’s regular TV director, Peter Faiman, also directed the film.

Now that “Dundee” is here, it’s plain to see why Paramount has faith in Hogan and the film. It’s an entirely pleasant escapade, very smartly done, and Hogan is as smooth as the crocodile-leather vest he wears.

He plays an adventurer who owns a safari park in backwoods Australia. An American reporter (Linda Kozlowski) hears about his Tarzanesque experiences with crocodiles, and she seeks him out, hoping to get a good story by accompanying him into the wild.

This trek is the first half of the movie, with Hogan in his element: killing snakes, wrestling crocs, dancing with aborigines. And, needless to say, becoming just a bit barmy about the comely reporter.

She has a brainstorm, and drags Hogan back to New York City with her, so he can see how the other 99 percent lives. This brings the film into familiar stranger-in-a-strange-land territory, which has become a subgenre as crowded as Manhattan’s streets. But Dundee still manages to scare up some honest laughs out of Hogan’s encounters with hot dogs, subways, and culture shock (he good-naturedly asks a black chauffeur what tribe he’s from).

The humor is as easy and laid-back as Hogan’s persona, and is not above the occasional unabashed joke. Example: The reporter holds her camera up to take a picture of Hogan’s aborigine friend in the outback. The aborigine tells her not to take the picture. “Oh,” she says, full of mildly patronizing wonder of primitive cultures, “you think it will steal your soul.” “No,” he says, “you’ve got the lens cap on.”

If you think that’s funny, then much of the corny, easy humor of Crocodile Dundee is for you. In any case, it’s hard not to like Paul Hogan, who stands to build himself quite a following hereabouts. Could he be the next Julio Iglesias?

First published in The Herald, October 1, 1986

I know what you’re thinking: Nobody says “comely” anymore. And also, I feel certain this film has not aged well, especially some of these very dodgy jokes. Googling around I see that there’s some awful stuff around transgender and gay characters, the defense of which would undoubtedly suggest that at least part of the joke is on Hogan’s character – but probably not enough. Can’t deny the brilliant marketing scheme, which turned Dundee into a huge stateside hit, a crafty bet on Paramount’s part. 

 


The Fringe Dwellers

July 1, 2020

fringedwellersThe Fringe Dwellers, reportedly, is a movie that Aussie director Bruce Beresford has wanted to make for a long time, ever since reading the 1961 novel by Australian author Nene Gare. He had to wait for years, but having since conquered Hollywood – or, at least, having made a name for himself – with Tender Mercies and Crimes of the Heart, Beresford could pack his clout under his arm and return to Australia to get the job done.

That The Fringe Dwellers was a tough sell is not surprising. It’s about the shapeless lives of aborigines living on society’s fringes, figuratively and literally. In particular, it’s about one extended family attempting to move up a notch in the social ladder, seen through the eyes of the teen-age daughter who is the prime instigator of the upward mobility.

This girl, played in an impressive debut by Kristina Nehm, is ambitious and caustic. There’s a wonderful shot of her standing at twilight, looking wanly at the prefabricated suburban house that might be hers, if only her family would rouse themselves into it. The family’s move from their fringe shack to this new home is the main narrative thread, upon which incidents from the lives of these people are played out.

This rambling story structure – a bit like the ramshackle homes in which the aborigines live – allows for some flavorful episodes. The girl’s early, almost offhand romance; the father’s disastrous gambling with the rent money (the latter an unfamiliar concept); the occasional foray into otherworldliness by one of the older, tribal aborigines; the mother’s visit for afternoon tea at her white neighbor’s house, where she eats all the scones (“Because they were there”) and keeps the cloth napkin the hostess hands her.

It’s all reasonably well-formed, but Beresford doesn’t quite find the key to making the film very compelling. He clearly identifies with these characters, possibly because he makes movies with the same kind of shrugging, no-­sweat amiability with which they lead their lives. This combination, however, makes for some pretty listless storytelling.

And, as charming as much of the film is, there are whiffs of condescension when it comes to the portrayal of the simple-but-happy aborigines. The mother (Justine Saunders) complains, “All this education just makes you want things.” Sometimes the movie seems allied with her view, while the proud, angry daughter comes off as unsympathetic. Maybe Beresford meant to be ambiguous; but the movie isn’t strong or sharp enough to support both points of view.

First published in The Herald, March 7, 1987

Reading this now, having not seen the film since ’87, I worry that the condescending whiffs might seem more glaring today. There’s a note in the Wikipedia page for this film that says Aboriginal activists walked out on the screening at Cannes, but without details. It was shot by Donald McAlpine, yet another talented Aussie DP. Despite my opening paragraph, this film was actually made before Crimes of the Heart.

 


Miss Mary

June 10, 2020

missmaryThe previous film by the Argentine filmmaker Maria Luisa Bemberg was Camila, which used a highly charged personal story to illuminate a certain period in Argentine political history. If Miss Mary is any indication, this is Bemberg’s standard working method. This new film takes a very similar strategy.

This time the period is 1930 to 1945, when Argentina was under harsh conservative rule: Miss Mary shows life among the blissfully unaware – or at least unconcerned – upper class. A wealthy Buenos Aires family hires an English governess (Julie Christie) to raise their two young daughters in the English tradition of gentility.

The action of the film stays within the well-tended grounds of the estate. News of political unrest trickles in, barely disrupting the isolated family. After a while, they begin to wonder whether their isolation is spawning some unhealthy side effects – like the slightly dotty mother who plays the same piano piece over and over. The eldest daughter, who becomes a kleptomaniac, asks the governess, “Is my family mad? Do we have too much money?”

The son (Donald Mcintyre) has other worries. He’s mooning over the governess, Miss Mary, and she’s feeling the tug of earthy sexuality against her prim background.

Julie Christie, at this point in her career, is exactly right for this repressed role. She beautifully captures the Victorian air, the clipped reaction to any social error, the dazed superiority of a colonist. But Christie can also make you believe that such a woman might lose control one night, when the son comes to her room covered with rain and dirt, and let her upper crust crumble.

Bemberg is still a mysterious filmmaker. Much of this movie drifts along without much apparent compulsion, but it does drift to its own scheme. The flashbacks are confusing because Bemberg doesn’t cue them in any traditional sense.

Once you find the rhythm, the movie pays off. The spectacle of personal passion erupting against a rigid society isn’t quite as striking as it was in Camila, and as with that earlier film there’s a distinct sense that this film’s issues (especially the grasp of the political climate) will mean a lot more to Argentineans than to Americans. The nice work by Julie Christie keeps Miss Mary from getting too dry or simplistic, to the point that the film is almost unthinkable without her.

First published in The Herald, May 21, 1987

This film sounds like an ancestor of Lucrecia Martel’s La Cienaga, although I recall it having a much more accessible style. I’ll have to dig up my review of Camila, which I thought I’d already posted. Bemberg began making films in 1973 and died in 1995, age 73, after a rich and very intriguing life.


Brighton Beach Memoirs

June 9, 2020

brightonbeachIt is perhaps an index to the current crisis in American playwrighting that Neil Simon is taken seriously at all. Simon’s clockwork comedies come complete with show-stopping punchlines and rim shots, and are as mechanical and soulless as  drama gets.

Still, they are wildly popular. And just days ago, someone – was it Time magazine? – called his new play, Broadway Bound, the best American play of the decade.

I haven’t seen the new play, of course. I know it only as the third leg of his continuing autobiographical series. It may well be a masterpiece.

In that case, it bears no relation to Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first play in the series, which is now adapted (by Simon) as a movie. Brighton Beach, a portrait of the artist as a young nerd, follows an adolescent would-be writer growing up in Brooklyn in the late 1930s. Simon’s own family, fictionalized, is depicted.

When the play opened a few years ago (followed by Biloxi Blues and now Broadway), critics announced that Simon was going back to his roots for the deepest work of his career.

Maybe he did. But the movie of Brighton Beach Memoirs is still a shuck. It’s just a batch of gags strung together, placed in the mouths of stereotypical characters.

The Neil Simon character, called Eugene (Jonathan Silverman, in the role that Matthew Broderick played onstage), is obsessively interested in sex. Baseball too, but to a lesser extent. He leafs through National Geographic and fantasizes about his svelte cousin taking a shower.

His family struggles through some predictable crises, which all get handily resolved. Gene Saks, who also directed the stage plays, lets the material play out in its jokey fashion. I don’t know who was responsible for casting Blythe Danner and Judith Ivey as, respectively, Simon’s mother and widowed aunt. Their white-bread looks in roles heavily shaded for Jewishness just adds to the artificiality of the affair. Bob Dishy, as the exhausted father, fares rather better.

Sure, a few of Simon’s lines are funny. If you throw enough at the wall, some of it is going to stick. He even resorts to that most cherished of vaudeville shticks, the spit take.

Brighton Beach Memoirs may be followed to the screen by its sequels. In which case, be prepared for a torrent of Simon Sez.

First published in The Herald, December 25, 1986

You understand, I love a good spit take. At this point I think I was suffering from Simon exhaustion, and didn’t have much patience for this kind of ancient comedy. The next installment in the trilogy, Biloxi Blues, got a considerable upgrade, with Matthew Broderick and Mike Nichols signing on. The third chapter, Broadway Bound, had Corey Parker as Eugene and Jonathan Silverman as his brother. (Ask me sometime about hanging out with Neil Simon’s brother, Danny, when he came to give a comedy-writing seminar in Seattle in the ’80s.)


The Girl in the Picture/Malcolm

June 8, 2020

girlinpictureThe first spoken word of the new film The Girl in the Picture should trigger a pleasurable spark of recognition for fans of Gregory’s Girl. It’s a simple “Great,” but with a trademark Scottish lilt – it’s more of a “Grrreat,” actually – that could only belong to John Gordon-Sinclair.

Gordon-Sinclair, the gangly, scowling duck who starred in Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl as a teenager, is back as an adult. Well, sort of an adult. He plays a young photographer who splits up with his live-in girlfriend (Irina Brook, the daughter of director Peter Brook and an absolute knockout), convinced that they’re wrong for each other, only to realize later that he’s lonely and unhappy.

Gordon-Sinclair, whose performance in Gregory’s Girl was one of the funniest natural performances in recent memory, ought to be able to wring comic mileage out of this apparently miserable situation. For the most part, he does. Unfortunately, first-time director Cary Parker lets down his star much too often.

Parker, who is American, shoves a disconcerting number of lame one-liners into the dead spaces in the plot. He even borrows some of Forsyth’s patented humor, including some business about “It’s a scientific fact!” borrowed straight from Gregory’s Girl.

More serious than this, Parker doesn’t give us much sense of what brings the main couple together, or what breaks them apart. He tries to match their love affair against two lesser, parallel stories, but the main effect of this is to drain off attention from Gordon-Sinclair and Brook. Then their possible reconciliation lacks much sense of urgency.

Parker does have a feeling for dramatic balance – the film begins and ends in two ironically Edenic settings – and the movie gets more intriguing as it goes along, as Parker stops trying so hard to be funny. (Parker does capture a classic moment when Gordon-Sinclair is trying to get rid of an overnight guest: He writhes on the bed, moaning, “I think I’m having an out-of-body experience here.”)

malcolmIn a similarly whimsical vein, the Australian Malcolm tries too hard altogether. The title character (Colin Friels) is a moony mechanical genius with the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old. He plays with his gadgets in his house until reality steps in. Having lost his job, he must rent out rooms to make money.

His boarders are an ex-con (John Hargreaves) and a woman (Lindy Davies) who would be called a moll if people still used that word. They’re ripe, of course, to teach this boy about the ways of the world, specifically the ways in which Malcolm’s mobile robots might be used to – oh, rob banks, for instance.

This stuff, directed by Nadia Tass from David Parker’s script, is relatively painless, and intermittently amusing. Ultimately, though, it scores far too high on the cute scale to be really effective. To say nothing of grrreat.

First published in The Herald, August 23, 1986

The actor was billed this time with a hyphenated last name, so that’s why John Gordon Sinclair is referred to this way. Irina Brook went into her dad’s line of work and has been a successful director for the stage for 25 years. (She’s got one of the all-time IMDb Trivia one-liners: “At age 18, she moved to New York with then-boyfriend Iggy Pop.”) The film is Cary Parker’s only IMDb credit. By contrast, Malcolm director Tass has worked pretty steadily over the years, including the Hollywood comedy Pure Luck, with Martin Short and Danny Glover, which nobody remembers. This was early in Friels’ career; he was already married to Judy Davis by this time.

 


Lady Jane

May 18, 2020

Lady Jane Movie Poster (1986)Among the many disasters bequeathed to England by Henry VIII was the bollixed-up line of royal succession. Although Henry went through wife after wife in the search for a male heir, his weak son Edward was doomed to die at an early age.

That meant the next in line would be Mary, Henry’s Catholic daughter; but the Protestant royal hierarchy saw that possibility coming, and was not about to let it happen (for financial, more than religious, reasons). So they maneuvered the sick Edward into decreeing that his successor should be a teen-age cousin, Jane, whom the regents felt they could easily manipulate.

They couldn’t, and an incredible nine days after Jane’s succession to the throne, she was toppled by Mary’s followers, who imprisoned and eventually executed the unfortunate girl. It is one of the more pathetic chapters in English royal history.

Lady Jane tells this story, and scriptwriter David Edgar improves the love interest in the form of Jane’s husband, Guilford Dudley. Their marriage was arranged and uncomfortable, but the film shows them eventually falling in love and coming to the throne with youthful idealism and sweeping social reforms.

In some sense, their idealism is romanticized in the manner that 1960s youth movies used to show naivete and simplicity, as though Jane and Guilford were precursors of the flower children.

There are some nice moments – Jane looking around in bewilderment for the new monarch after the official hailing of “Queen Jane” – but, although Jane and Guilford are nicely played by Helena Bonham Carter and Cary Elwes, the best-written scenes go to the supporting players, notably John Wood, Patrick Stewart and Michael Horden.

Carter and Elwes were in Seattle recently to promote the movie, and described how history had been altered a bit for film. “The love story is more a legend that grew up after they died,” Carter says of Jane and Guilford; actually, “they didn’t take to each other very much.”

As the British history books tell it, Jane’s reign was “Not really that significant – just this sort of rather shameful, badly executed coup,” Carter says. “But she’s quite exceptional in her own right, being quite precocious in her beliefs.”

Lady Jane is the first film of hot stage director Trevor Nunn (Nicholas Nickleby), and both actors say they enjoyed the experience. Elwes praises Nunn as having “a very perceptive eye, very keen. He absorbs vast amounts of information He’s an actor’s dream, really.”

That was after a difficult series of auditions for these two more-or-less unknown actors. The fact that Elwes was seized while practicing his lines on an empty floor of London’s Barbicon theater didn’t help: “I’d gone to a forbidden area to rehearse my piece, and before I knew it there were six guys surrounding me.”

Carter says, “We got on very well and very immediately” with the high-powered stage actors who appear with them, most of whom had worked with Nunn before. Both Carter and Elwes did able and funny imitations of the ringing tones of Patrick Stewart, the marvelous actor who plays Carter’s father.

The scene of Jane’s execution contains a haunting true detail: Once blindfolded, Jane knelt to put her head on the chopping-block – but her groping hands could not find it. As Carter says, the character is so utterly nonplussed at this moment, you really feel the “completely innocent child, with all the pains and fears,” that this poor queen really was.

First published in The Herald, February 6, 1986

A fun interview. I have a memory of calling the publicist from the concierge desk at the Olympic Hotel in Seattle and saying I was there for Helena Bonham Carter, and the publicist carefully pronounced it Ay-lay-na, which certainly put me in my place, although it is pronounced Helena. It should come as no surprise that young British actors are articulate, funny, and educated. Helena Bonham Carter wore striped leg-warmers, if I am remembering correctly; she was twenty, and had already done A Room with a View. Sorry about referring to her as “Carter” rather than “Bonham Carter”; what did I know. Does anybody remember this movie? Seems like it should have at least a little profile, if only for the period-film fanatics out there. 


My Little Girl

May 5, 2020

mylittlegirlMary Stuart Masterson is one of the brightest of today’s young stars, as she has proved in gutsy supporting turns in At Close Range and Gardens of Stone and in an emotionally complex performance in the otherwise lightweight Some Kind of Wonderful. In My Little Girl, she finally gets to carry a movie as the central character.

My Little Girl isn’t quite worthy of her, and in fact it allows her little opportunity to showcase her talents. She plays Franny, the 16-year-old daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia family; tennis, golf, and deciding whether to wear blue jeans or casual whites while yachting are the big issues of her life.

But this summer she’s volunteering at a shelter for girls, children who have been abandoned or whose parents are in jail. This may seem like a radical change, but Franny’s comfortable life has made her a bit uncomfortable. Besides, ever since she read The Grapes of Wrath, she’s been curious about the unseen world of the have-nots.

Soon she’s getting wrapped up in the problems of the girls, and volunteering full time. “But dear,” asks her mother back at the mansion, “what about your tennis lessons?” The mother and father, played by Pamela Payton-Wright and Peter Michael Goetz, are lampooned rather broadly.

Much of the film is taken up with Franny’s attempt to reach a rebellious girl (Traci Lin) who’s just itching to get back out on the streets and ruin her life. Franny’s other charges are two unresponsive sisters (Erika Alexander, Naeemah Wilmore) whose mother has committed a crime.

The film is scrupulously well­-meaning, and is clearly made from the heart by writer­ director Connie Kaiserman, whose first film this is. Overall, she’s gotten effective work from the actors, and there are some fine supporting roles for James Earl Jones, as the home’s put­ upon boss; the late Geraldine Page, as Franny’s grandmother; and Peter Gallagher, as Lin’s shady boyfriend, who takes Franny on a creepy joyride to an airport runway.

Kaiserman draws some of the characters in stereotypes, despite the competent acting. Just like the kids at the shelter, drawing mustaches and horns on pictures of their parents, so Kaiserman has drawn the parents here in caricatured terms. And when the movie lurches into melodrama near the end, with a prison break, it loses the well-tuned ease of the scenes at the shelter.

In other words, it’s not difficult to see why the movie sat on the shelf for a while before getting a small release. My Little Girl is kept honest by Masterson’s non-fussy performance, however, which prevents the action around her from tipping completely into cliche.

First published in the Herald, April 7, 1988

Not a notable review on my part, but I wanted to include this film for a few reasons. It was the only directing credit for Kaiserman, who is an associate producer on five Merchant Ivory films (and this one was produced by Ismail Merchant). That might explain the level of talent collected here, which includes the heavyweight cast, composer Richard Robbins, and cinematographer Pierre Lhomme. This was the first movie for Erika Alexander, as well as an ambitious striver named Jennifer Lopez. As for Masterson, she has had a long career, if not quite the one she seemed destined for around this time.