Positive I.D.

April 1, 2020

positiveidWhen you’re an independent filmmaker out to make a name for yourself, it behooves you to remember a couple of things. The first is to make the best movie you can with the (probably scarce) resources you have.

The second is to make the film not merely an honorable piece of work, but also one in which you get a chance to display certain skills that may be deemed attractive in the marketplace: action, thrills, a love scene, a car chase. Projects as disparate as The Return of the Secaucus Seven and Blood Simple have been savvy enough to serve both as good movies and as audition pieces for bigger things.

Positive I.D. is not in the imaginative league of those two films, but it’s a diverting little movie and it’s a clever audition piece. It chafes under its low budget from time to time, but its carefully unfolding mystery is enough to sustain the level of intrigue.

The movie plays a delicate game. Information comes to us only in drips and shreds; as the film opens, we watch a Fort Worth couple suffer through some domestic tension. The wife (Stephanie Rasco), it turns out, is battling to recover from a rape and the well­ publicized trial of the attacker, a gangland figure who has been given a ridiculously paltry sentence. The husband (John Davies) desperately tries to keep a smiley face plastered over every situation, but it doesn’t stick.

The woman becomes fascinated with the idea that an alternate identity might be assumed by using someone else’s birth certificate. Soon she’s taking over a dead woman’s name, buying a wig and false eyelashes, and establishing an entirely different existence in her spare time.

At first, this seems to be merely a neurotic game. Then we begin to sense that the woman has a purpose in mind, one which will eventually lead to an act of violence.

The writer-director-producer, Andy Anderson, is content to let this snaky narrative slither along at its own pace, which is the suitably unsettling way to do it. But he also knows when to show off, as when he wickedly creates the illusion that the wife has been suddenly caught at her ruse and arrested; in fact, she’s just getting her mug shot taken for her fake driver’s license.

Positive I.D. doesn’t have all of its wrinkles worked out, but it is a quirky example of American ingenuity, low-budget variety. And a good audition for bigger things.

First published in the Herald, October 23, 1987

Universal picked it up for distribution, maybe sensing another Blood Simple Texas indie noir in the air. Didn’t work out that way. Director Anderson was a longtime professor of film at U of Texas Arlington, and made a couple of other features; he died in 2017. I have to say, the plot sounds intriguing. At the very least, it deserves a footnote in the annals of regional moviemaking. Bonus: in his review, Michael Wilmington used the phrase “it suggests a kind of Forth Worth Belle de Jour,” so that’s worth something.

White Mischief

March 13, 2020

whitemischiefIt is Kenya, during World War II, and the wealthy British landowners are playing the games of the idle rich. The winds of war barely touch them, and they can indulge in unusually decadent behavior, including a good deal of sexual ’round-the-rosie.

The center of this group – of this film, White Mischief – is handsome Lord Errol (Charles Dance, from The Jewel in the Crown), a blithe spirit who seems to have laid claim to most of the women in colonial East Africa. But Errol becomes fascinated even more than usual with a beautiful new arrival (Greta Scacchi); she is gorgeous, playful, and he even sees in her a kindred promiscuous spirit.

There is a slight problem. She has a husband (Joss Ackland), a rich ranch-owner who is many years her senior. (But age was not a deterrent: “I like older men,” she says. “They have more money.”) Still, the mutual lust is not to be denied, and the two young lovers begin taking moonlit swims and lounging under mosquito nets together. The uncovering of this not­ very-discreet affair drives the husband to an act of violence that reverberates throughout the second half of the film. White Mischief is apparently based on a true incident, although some of it is conjecture. As directed by Michael Radford, the story becomes an excuse for some sweaty melodrama and a good dose of social criticism.

The melodrama comes courtesy of the characters’ utter cravenness, which would not be out of place in a nighttime soap opera. Ah, these rich are very different indeed – cuddling snakes, holding transvestite parties, swapping wives. The social comment, of course, comes from the same source. The implication is that the depravity of these white settlers is an outgrowth of the fact that they don’t belong in Africa in the first place.

Radford is an intriguing director; I liked his previous films, Another Time, Another Place, and 1984. He’s attempting a strange mix of moods here, and White Mischief is one of those movies that never quite gets all its gears working at once. Even when it’s not working, though, it’s almost always … well, interesting.

At the very least, Radford serves up a seductive-looking film, with many casually stunning views of the African landscape. And he uses a batch of watchable actors, including Sarah Miles (back into decadence after her fling with respectability in Hope and Glory), Geraldine Chaplin, John Hurt, and Trevor Howard.

Howard, in one of his final roles, is the embodiment of British misplacement. He sits, old and decrepit, on his African farm, taking potshots at beautiful tropical fruit as a servant sidesteps the bullets.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

Roger Deakins, whose first feature films were with Radford, was the cinematographer. Hugh Grant is somewhere in the cast, although I don’t remember him. Radford’s next film was Il Postino, a substantial success story that did not deliver him to the A-list somehow.

Pelle the Conqueror

March 10, 2020

pelleThis spring, when the Danish film Babette’s Feast was winning a well-deseved Oscar for foreign language film, another Danish movie was copping the grand prize for best film at the Cannes Film Festival. That film is Pelle the Conqueror, an epic work now playing in the United States.

By the looks of things, Pelle will probably conquer the States, too, and another Danish Oscar is very possible. This is a beautifully paced, intricately textured film from director Bille August, who had a hit a few years ago with an excellent coming-of-age story, Twist and Shout.

Pelle is also about growing up. Pelle, played by newcomer Pelle Hvenegaard, travels with his impoverished father (the great Max Von Sydow) from their native Sweden to Denmark near the beginning of this century; the father fills Pelle’s head with visions of a land where children play all day and brandy is as cheap as water. But Denmark  turns out to be just as cold and bitter as Sweden.

They get jobs on a farm, where the farmhands’ conditions are just above the slavery level. The master is a mean philanderer whose illegitimate children are scattered around the countryside (in particular, a weird, deformed little boy who strikes up a friendship with Pelle); his wife, it is rumored, turns into a werewolf at night Pelle is taunted by other children for being a foreigner, and he slowly realizes that his father is a broken man, kowtowing to the vicious farm foreman. Pelle’s hero is another farmhand, Erik, who dreams of saving enough money to strike out for America.

One of the movie’s best scenes shows Erik’s spirit. When a Christmas Eve dinner on the farm is not the expected pork but the same old herring, Erik shoves his food away, storms into the yard with his accordian, and begins dancing around in the falling snow as he plays Silent Night. He is the film’s most colorful character, and he provides the impetus for Pelle to eventually go his own way in the world.

I assume that a lot of the film’s richness comes from the source novel, by Martin Anderson Nexo. The Pelle books form a series, and evidently August plans to film the whole set. This is, however, a self-contained movie; the open ending recalls Truffaut’s 400 Blows, in which another boy had to strike out on his own.

August is a good director, although he isn’t enough of a stylist to turn this into a really great film (as Truffaut was). But it certainly is a very good one, full of haunting images: a frozen boatload of people washing ashore among the ice floes; a drowned baby glimpsed at the bottom of a river; Von Sydow’s quizzical face as he ponders his son’s question about whether America floats around in the sea or is fixed to the ocean floor.

Pelle the Conqueror is full of these moments, so that the movie is alive and often magical despite the harshness of the characters’ lives. If the subsequent installments maintain this level of quality, we have something to look forward to.

First published in the Herald, December 29, 1988

Max von Sydow died yesterday; he was mighty indeed in this film, which did go on to win the Foreign Language Film Oscar the following year. August’s Twist and Shout is a fondly remembered coming-of-age movie, and his Best Intentions is a superb treatment of Ingmar Bergman’s script. After that, a somewhat odd career.


March 5, 2020

roxanneIn Roxanne, Steve Martin takes yet another gamble in a career that has featured some curious and daring choices (including the wildly downbeat Pennies From Heaven and the experimental Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid). This time he’s adapted Cyrano de Bergerac for modern times.

Now, just imagine the studio heads listening to this idea: A classical play. About a guy with a freakish long nose. Chivalry and romance and unrequited love: Riiiiight, Steve.

Well, Martin pulls it off, which is more than you can say for his formidable rubber honker, which remains firmly in the middle of his face throughout this film. His screenplay casts Cyrano, called Charlie, as a firefighter in a contemporary Northwest town; Charlie’s 6-inch nose does not stop him from being a witty, romantically inclined fellow.

Roxanne (Daryl Hannah) is an astronomer, who moves to the town to work on some experiments during the summer. Charlie is, as they used to say, smitten, but Roxanne has eyes for a hunky new firefighter (Rick Rossovich). And so it follows that Charlie, his heart aching, helps his inarticulate friend woo the fair Roxanne.

Roxanne is a genuine romantic comedy, a species that some of us thought had disappeared from the big screen altogether. Martin’s true romantic impulses show through; this is an amusing movie, but its heart is unashamedly in its throat.

It would have been hard to predict that the Australian director Fred Schepisi would be such a good director of this material; after all, this is the man who made the intense Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Plenty. But Schepisi’s elegant widescreen images give rich and quirky support to the comedy.

He beautifully captures the look and feel of this small town. Roxanne was filmed in Nelson, British Columbia, where the streets slope oddly against the gorgeous forest backdrop. Schepisi gets a marvelous sense of the places these people inhabit – the firehouse, a bar, a cafe owned by Charlie’s pal (Shelley Duvall) – and he lets the characters establish a reality and depth that not many comedies bother with.

The film comes up a bit short in Roxanne’s character, which is underwritten. Schepisi depends upon Daryl Hannah’s charms to carry the role. Which is not a terrible sin, come to think of it.

But this is really Steve Martin’s finest hour. His script and his performance are full of wacky little asides, offbeat moments. There’s an incredible show-stopping scene that has him reciting 20 comic put-downs of his large schnozz to a full audience at the bar. Not all 20 jokes are funny, but the audacity of the scene is remarkable.

It’s a deft physical performance. From the opening scene, in which Cyrano’s rapiers are replaced by dueling tennis rackets, Martin’s movements are precise and graceful. The look on his face when he thinks Roxanne is about to ask him out, his pixilated ecstasy when he hears the mayor (Fred Willard) has chosen a cow for a town mascot, his catlike walk down main street when sniffing an incipient fire – this is wonderful work. And this work animates a lovely movie.

First published in the Herald, June 18, 1987

Not sure whether it’s Martin’s finest hour or not, but a nice film nonetheless, even if this review reads a little forced. I’ve always wanted to visit the town of Nelson, which looks utterly charming on screen. Schepisi’s career, after a certain point, is truly baffling, although he clearly is a gifted filmmaker; Pauline Kael got pretty feverish about him during this period, and (if I’m remembering right) was all in for Iceman and Roxanne.

Raising Arizona

March 4, 2020

raisingarizonaA few months ago singer­-songwriter David Byrne of Talking Heads made a movie all about the loopiest American customs and people. It was True Stories, and while Byrne flashed an interesting visual style, the movie was so slow and smug that it really didn’t score its points.

Byrne might learn something from Raising Arizona. This mad new film shares some of the same subjects as True Stories, including the caricatured characters, rural setting, and an arch camera sense. But from the first few seconds of Raising Arizona – even from the title – you know this film sprints to its own demented drummer.

But how could it not? This is the second film from the incorrigibly clever Coen brothers, Joel (the director) and Ethan (the producer – they collaborate on the scripts). Their maiden film, Blood Simple, was merely one of the most outrageous movies of the decade. It wrung insane gallows humor out of a convoluted film noir story.

Raising Arizona is a flat-out comedy. And it moves at a flat-out pace; in the first 10 minutes or so, we’re swept through an eccentric narration about a lowlife armed robber (Nicolas Cage), his repeated jail terms, and his whirlwind romance with the police officer (Holly Hunter) who snaps his picture during booking procedures. They are married and move to a shack “in the Tempe suburbs” – a cactus-strewn wasteland – and enjoy their salad days while contemplating an expanded family unit.

But one day the wife returns from a doctor’s appointment and announces, sadly, “Ah’m barren.” They can’t adopt because of the husband’s prison record. They’re disconsolate, until they read about a local couple who have just had quintuplets. Perhaps one of the toddlers might be spared….

That’s the first 10 minutes. After they kidnap one of the babies, are paid a visit by two of Cage’s imbecilic prison buddies (John Goodman, the bachelor from True Stories, and William Forsyth), and encounter a monolithic bounty hunter (Randall “Tex” Cobb) who must be on the loose from a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western, things start to heat up.

It’s all basically silly and satiric, but the Coen brothers know how to have fun. The whole opening sequence has the comic self-assurance of a Preston Sturges movie, which also means it counts on the intelligence of the audience to keep up with it. And in the middle of the movie they let fly with one of the funniest car chases ever put on film, as a routine stop for diapers becomes a crazy confusion of cars, guard dogs, and Cage running through the streets with a pair of nylons over his head.

The Coens also find time for the daft aside. After the two escaped cons kidnap the baby themselves, they stop for supplies. One picks up a bag of balloons, and asks the cashier, “Hey, do these balloons blow up in funny shapes?” The old coot behind the counter says, “Nope.” Beat. “Not unless you think round is funny.” There’s certainly nothing round about this movie.

First published in the Herald, April 1987

Hey, how’d it take so long for me to post my review of Raising Arizona? I would hope that even the great David Byrne would give the Coens the advantage on my comparison. Watching this movie for the first time a week before it opened – I recall it was at the tiny, uninspiring Northwest Preview Room – I remember wondering, during the opening extended sequence, about why more movies couldn’t be like this. Repeated viewings have not dimmed the pleasure, even if the late-reels departure into surrealism signaled a direction that the Coens would mine with much better success later in their careers.

Beverly Hills Cop II

February 28, 2020

Beverly-hills-cop-twoThe sequel to the monster hit Beverly Hills Cop didn’t have to be great to make a tidy piece of money. If ever a bonanza were guaranteed, this is it.

As it happens, Beverly Hills Cop II isn’t great. But it’s good enough to earn its inevitable megahit status honestly. There’s nothing unexpected here, no daring variation from the successful blueprint, but at least it’s a clever enough outing.

Much of the original cast is retained. Eddie Murphy plays Axel Foley, a Detroit cop who wings West again to aid his pals out in Los Angeles. This time, his policeman friend (Ronny Cox) gets seriously wounded during the investigation of a crime wave called the Alphabet killings. Foley and his cohorts (Judge Reinhold and John Ashton) are curtailed by an unsympathetic chief of police (Allen Garfield), so they decide to track down the bad guys on their own.

The trail leads to a sinister East German (Jurgen Prochnow), a flunkie (Dean Stockwell), and an Amazonian trigger woman (Brigitte Nielsen). It’s not giving anything away to reveal this: The movie’s more interested in the fun of the pursuit than in any mystery about who’s guilty.

And, well, it’s reasonably fun. Murphy gets to do more character business, adopting accents and attitudes, and he’s almost unerring in his comic sense. But, like the first film, there are some good laughs for the supporting players, too – from the bumbling chemistry of Reinhold and Ashton to the schtick of comedians Paul Reiser and Gilbert Gottfried.

As well-greased as the machinery is, and as much moolah as this film will make, it’s not an improvement over the original. Some of the looseness of the first film is drained off by director Tony (Top Gun) Scott’s relentlessly controlled frames. His style isn’t really appropriate to Murphy’s improvisational manner, and Eddie’s anarchy seems contained rather than liberated.

The nicest moments are those that have nothing to do with the plot: Murphy idly musing about the sex life of a turtle, some impromptu harmony on the music from The Dating Game, Reinhold’s curious emulation of Rambo – the latter is an inside joke, I guess, since Sylvester Stallone was at one time slated to play Murphy’s role in the original Cop, and Stallone’s wife, Brigitte Nielsen, is the villain here.

Every time the movie threatens to get too mechanical, Murphy steps in and confidently holds court.

First published in the Herald, May 21, 1987

It looks like another of those reviews that got lopped off for space at the end. But Murphy does hold court, without question. Of course the really controversial part of this review is my complaint about Tony Scott’s relentlessly controlled frames. As much as it amazes me, there are critics who feel that T-Scott is not only an underappreciated auteur but a kind of master, a claim which I will respectfully deny, and if I need to be disrespectful, I will. How this movie in particular gets defended I don’t know, but then I haven’t seen it since the press screening.

Eddie Murphy Raw

February 27, 2020

eddiemurphyrawFilm reviewers are commonly being called to task for giving away the funniest lines of a movie. Often, this is an accurate accusation, and it’s a complaint that’s also sometimes true of TV ads, which pack all of a film’s boffos within 30 seconds.

However, neither reviewers nor TV commercials are going to give away the best lines of Eddie Murphy Raw, the comedian’s new concert film. They can’t. Murphy’s familiar predilection for “blue” material precludes the opportunity to quote him in any context not contained within a brown-­paper bag.

His stand-up routine was taped at New York’s Felt Forum before an appreciative crowd. Murphy begins the show by acknowledging the flak he’s taken for his outrageous material, and recounting a disapproving phone call from a square Bill Cosby. Murphy’s imitations of Cosby and Richard Pryor are among the movie’s best bits.

Murphy quickly settles into the topic that will fill the greater portion of his routine: men and women. Or, more appropriately, boys and girls, since frankly Murphy’s appreciation of human relationships doesn’t seem to have advanced past the high-school level. He’s funny enough in describing sexual foibles, but his perspective is that of a brat; there’s no wisdom in his work.

When Pryor’s at his best in concert, he is scandalous and cutting too, but his cuts go deep. Murphy’s schoolboy pranks stay on the surface. However, past Murphy’s obsessions about alimony and the deceit of women (“All women have a skeleton in their closet – some women have a cemetery”), Murphy is often funny. A lot of this has to do with the fact that he is so physically gifted, his precise timing and range of expressions can make even subpar material amusing.

And too much of the material of “Raw” is mediocre. It’s well-directed by Robert Townsend, the director-comedian who scored such a hit with his low-budget Hollywood Shuffle, and Murphy the performer is in good shape. But the routine lacks the insight and bite of a comic who is really cooking.

The movie opens with a sketch purporting to show a prepubescent Murphy entertaining his family with a batch of off-color gags, most of them concerning various bodily functions. Since Murphy covers some of the same territory in his adult act, it might be suggested that he hasn’t exactly developed very far as an artist. Then again, when jokes about bodily functions have made you millions, it’s difficult to clean up your act.

First published in the Herald, December 1987

Murphy was riding high at the time, of course, although the thinness of the material here suggested the tank might be going dry.