A World Apart

February 23, 2022

In the early scenes of A World Apart, a 13-year-old girl in Johannesburg in 1963 witnesses a black man run over on the street, and the uncaring reaction of the white passers-by. To smooth over the distress, her mother offers to buy her a new hairdo.

By the time the movie is over, such a benign response is impossible. The little girl (played by newcomer Jodhi May) is the daughter of a liberal journalist (Barbara Hershey) who opposes apartheid, but prefers to keep her activism away from her three daughters. When the mother is thrown into jail, under the pernicious 90-day detention act (under which a person might be held in prison for 90 days without being formally charged), the daughter becomes slowly radicalized, despite having been kept in the dark for most of her life.

A World Apart follows Richard Attenborough’s well-intentioned Cry Freedom as a mass-market condemnation of apartheid, and like that unsuccessful film it tells its story through the eyes of the white people who opposed the system, not the blacks. But A World Apart eschews the grand-gesture theatrics of Attenborough’s film and opts for the intensely personal story of the young girl.

She’s wonderfully drawn and acted. There’s no attempt to endow her with any special brilliance. She’s simply a gawky, giggly adolescent. When she tags along when her mother covers a strike, one of the black workers asks her, “You come to march with us?” She looks up innocently and says, “I can’t, I have to go to school.”

The girl knows that something is wrong when her father (Jeroen Krabbe), also an activist, leaves in the middle of the night and soon the other girls at school are whispering about her.

What makes all of this so effective is the authenticity of the story. Shawn Slovo, the screenwriter, was in fact a little girl in South Africa whose parents were arrested. Her mother, Ruth First, upon whom the Barbara Hershey character is based, was harassed by the authorities and eventually assassinated in 1983.

Slovo’s script, then, is clearly the real thing. Not just in the errant details of time and place (such as the inane cheerfulness of Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again,” a hit at the time), but in the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship. The girl, naturally enough, thinks of herself first, and wonders why the mother has time for causes but not for her daughters. The mother herself is troubled by this, and her jail interrogator (David Suchet) taunts her by saying that her “Joan of Arc thing” is “just an excuse for being a terrible mother.”

A World Apart is directed by Chris Menges, the British cinematographer who has photographed some of the best-looking movies of recent years (he won Oscars for The Killing Fields and The Mission). This is Menges’ first feature job as director, and while the film is effective in its way, there is a certain stiffness and awkwardness about Menges’ work that doesn’t quite make the material sing in the way that it should.

A World Apart won the Special Grand Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and also won there for best actress, a prize shared by Barbara Hershey, Jodhi May, and Linda Mvusi, who plays the family housekeeper.

First published in The Herald, July 15, 1988

Mvusi’s sole screen credit; is she the only person to win an acting award at Cannes for her only film? Jodhi May appeared in The Last of the Mohicans a couple of years after this, and has gone on to a busy career. Hans Zimmer did the music. Menges directed a few more movies and then went back to being a cinematographer, a job at which he is superb.


Without a Clue

February 15, 2022

Over the years, there have been many twists on the classic Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. But Without a Clue may posit the boldest theory yet about the famed criminologist. Sherlock Holmes, it seems, was a babbling idiot.

You see, it was Dr. John Watson who was the real mastermind. But when Watson began to sell his stories, to burgeoning popularity, he needed to invent a charismatic figurehead to be his fictional detective. So he rustled up an unemployed actor to play the role, and this dolt has been taking the credit for Holmes’ elementary deductions ever since. But, as the bogus Holmes himself admits, “I couldn’t detect horse manure if I stepped in it.” The game is afoot, indeed.

This is the conceit behind Without a Clue, and it’s an acceptable enough excuse for a movie. In particular, it affords the opportunity for two Oscar-winning actors to have some fun with the famous roles.

Michael Caine plays Holmes, a lustful fake who’d prefer to have a nip in the bar while Watson sleuths out the clues. Ben Kingsley plays Dr. Watson, who’s become plenty frustrated by the attention Holmes is always getting for the work Watson has done.

In fact, as the film begins, Watson is kicking Holmes out into the street. The doctor has decided that he’s going to take all the credit from now on, and call himself, let’s see, “The Crime Doctor.” Yes, that’s it. Only problem is, nobody wants the Crime Doctor. When a dastardly counterfeiting ring is discovered, and Scotland Yard is baffled, and the demon at the back of it all is rumored to be Professor Moriarty – well, only Holmes could take the case.

And so Watson retrieves his stooge from the local pub and they go off on another adventure. The tale, as concocted by screenwriters Gary Murphy and Larry Strawther, isn’t much; the main purpose is to tweak much of the Holmesiana with which we are familiar. (The great man doesn’t really play the violin; he merely mimes along to a record player.)

A general atmosphere of silliness pervades. Whenever there’s a chance to have Holmes peer through a keyhole into a woman’s bedchamber, he’ll take it. Director Thom Eberhardt isn’t too concerned with going much beyond this level, though he eventually kindles some warm feeling between his two protagonists.

Kingsley spends much of the film, when he isn’t throwing darts at pictures of Holmes, doing a slow burn, which he executes quite amusingly. Caine, who is in the midst of a career resurgence, has a ball. Who wouldn’t relish the chance to play the smartest man who ever lived as a total buffoon?

First published in The Herald, October 1988

Eberhardt also directed Night of the Comet, but trailed away badly after this with Gross Anatomy and the dismal Captain Ron. The cast includes Paul Freeman as Moriarty, Lysette Anthony, Jeffrey Jones, Nigel Davenport, and Peter Cook. I remember nothing from this film, but I have to say – it does sound like a reasonably funny idea. Henry Mancini did the music.


We Think the World of You

February 9, 2022

We Think the World of You is an utterly quirky, completely ingratiating little British movie about a man and a dog. To be fair, it’s about a lot of other things as well, but somehow the dog, a splendid German Shepherd named Evie, keeps grabbing center stage.

Based on a novel by Joseph R. Ackerley, the film is a character study of a genteel and cultured homosexual named Frank (Alan Bates) in London in the 1950s. Frank has had an affair with a raggedy young sailor, Johnny (Gary Oldman, who played Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy). At the beginning of the film, Johnny lands a one-year jail term for a minor offense.

Johnny leaves behind a pregnant wife (Frances Barber), a couple of kids, and his no-guff, lower-class parents. Frank befriends them all.

Frank’s finery is out of place in their slummy neighborhood, but he regularly visits Johnny’s parents anyway, a babbling mother (Liz Smith) and a broken-down stepfather (Max Wall). These two care for a perfectly horrid baby, Johnny’s infant son. They also care for Evie, Johnny’s dog. This is where the film begins to curve in unexpected ways.

Frank, who feels hurt that Johnny won’t let him visit in prison, transfers his anxieties and affection to the dog. He claims not to be an animal lover, but he pities the hound, cooped up (like Johnny) in a cramped courtyard.

Evie becomes a bone of contention in the family. Frank fears the dog will shrivel from neglect; the others don’t appreciate Frank’s attention. You soon get the idea that when they argue about Evie, they’re really arguing about their other problems and worries.

I should mention at this point that this movie is a comedy. Perhaps not of the thigh-slapping variety, but a droll comedy nonetheless.

Aside from Colin Gregg’s careful, well-judged direction, a lot of the humor comes from the work of Alan Bates, who gives his best performance of the decade (along with his role as the forlorn spy in An Englishman Abroad). Bates’s fastidious, civilized Frank is wonderfully perplexed by the dog, but he soon gives himself over to long, spirited walks by the riverside with Evie. He even lets her take over the armchair in his tidy flat.

No review of the film would be complete without kudos for the dog. Evie, we are told, is played by an Alsatian named Betsy. Magnificent creature. The look on her face as she sits by the fire in Frank’s apartment communicates an almost human contentment: a great actor’s moment.

First published in The Herald, February 9, 1989

Haven’t seen this film since, but it sounds like a good re-visit. Director Gregg stuck to UK TV after this. Alan Bates was only in his mid-fifties here, but his future film and TV career, though busy enough, is surprisingly minor, save for choice things like Claudius in the Branagh Hamlet and a turn in Gosford Park; I assume he continued to work on stage.


The Wizard of Loneliness

February 8, 2022

Wendell Oler, the 12-year-old hero of The Wizard of Loneliness, is full of “cantankerous California blood,” according to his grandfather. Little Wendell, who is intelligent and morbid as well as cantankerous, is staying with his grandparents’ family in Vermont because his mother is dead and his father is off fighting World War II.

The title refers to Wendell’s visions of himself. He’s enveloped himself in a shield of his own smarts, and he fancies that he has magical powers that will protect him from other people. But when the lonely wizard moves to Vermont, he discovers a group of people who help bring him out of his protective shell.

At first, he’s an exasperating child, the kind who walks into a group of adult authority figures and announces, “I am in no mood to talk to anybody!”

But his sympathetic, seen-everything grandparents (nicely played by John Randolph and Anne Pitoniak) can put up with him for as long as it takes. Meanwhile, their own grown children, a son (Lance Guest) and daughter (Lea Thompson) regard Wendell with bemusement. All live in a big New England house, with the daughter’s little son.

This little boy (played by newcomer Jeremiah Warner), a “red-headed baboon,” in Wendell’s estimation, becomes Wendell’s first worshiper, even going so far as to repeat Wendell’s swear words over the breakfast table.

The Wizard of Loneliness is based on a novel by John Nichols, whose book The Milagro Beanfield War was also made into a film this year. The script, written by Nancy Larson and Jenny Bowen, has a nice, if predictable, small-town quality, but the crucial plot-point has a contrived air about it; it concerns a shellshocked vet (Dylan Baker) who’s played an important role in the lives of this family. He returns to town surreptitiously and brings about the movie’s violent conclusion.

The more the movie follows this route, the less relevant it seems. Wendell’s inward struggle is much more interesting, especially as acted by Lukas Haas, who has become one of the busiest child actors of the time (the title character in Witness, he was recently seen in Lady in White). Haas has both the wide-eyed childishness and the presumptuous intelligence to bring off the role.

Jenny Bowen, who directed Street Music a few years ago, is better at evoking the time and place than the story really deserves; there’s a giddy July 4th sequence involving a skunk and the disposal thereof that is quite wonderful.

She’s adept at finding the revealing moments of character, such as the scene in which Wendell glimpses his aunt after she’s received the news of her husband’s death: He sees her standing in a doorway, the light shining through her nightgown, and we understand for the first time that Wendell is in love with her – the wizard has found his heart.

First published in The Herald, September 1, 1988

Jenny Bowen’s Street Music caused some stir on the pre-indie circuit circa 1982 or so, and had an especially warm reception from a couple of Seattle newspaper critics. Because of this, Bowen came to town, and because of that, I did my first-ever interview with a filmmaker. I’ve done a few hundred since then, but yet, Jenny Bowen was the first. That was for a short-lived magazine called Seattle Voice; I wrote a couple of things for them. Bowen’s film career ended in 1998, and she founded an international organization to help orphaned and abandoned children.


The Wash

February 2, 2022

In recent years, a new group of filmmakers have made movies that describe life within Japanese-American communities. These filmmakers include Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing, Dim Sum), Steven Okazaki (Living on Tokyo Time), Peter Wang, and Michael Toshiyuki Uno, the latter until now a documentary director.

Uno has made his first feature, The Wash, and it’s my favorite film of the bunch. Written by Philip Kan Gotanda (whose play Yankee Dawg You Die is playing in Seattle), The Wash is a fresh and lyrical piece that explores a familiar family crisis within a rich ethnic context (it’s set in San Jose’s Japantown).

As the film opens, the family situation is in flux. In her late middle age, a wife, Masi (Nobu McCarthy) has left her husband (Mako). She has grown weary of his domineering behavior, and understandably so; the grouchy old man has a manner as snowy as his hair. She still does his laundry, however, which keeps the tenuous connection alive.

But both have new interests. Masi has begun to date a widower (Sab Shimono) who, while nice, considers it his duty to teach her the finer points of cleaning fish. Meanwhile, in his own brusque way, Nobu has struck up a friendship with a waitress (Shizuko Hoshi) who gives him free food down at the diner. A friend warns her, however: “He only wants you for one thing – your tempura!”

The couple has two grown daughters, who respond differently to the breakup. Judy (Marion Yue), who has been ostracized by her father for marrying a black man, thinks it’s the best thing her mom could do. But Marsha (Patti Yasutake), a less rebellious daughter, is busily trying to shore things up in her parents’ marriage.

When she invites them for a peace-making dinner, her plotting almost works. The couple begin to reminisce about their youthful romance, which took place in a Relocation Camp during World War II (“You were the best dancer in all the Relocation Camps,” muses Nobu). However, the planned reconciliation goes awry over a characteristic marital dispute about how much sugar and milk go in Nobu’s coffee.

The Wash is full of small, beautifully crafted scenes like that. Gotanda’s dialogue is always modern and to the point, and the scenes unfold in a logical, unhurried progression. Plus, the film gives meaty roles to some actors who rarely get to shine in Hollywood movies.

First published in The Herald, October 1988

Most of Gotanda’s work has been in the theater, which is also how The Wash began. Nobu McCarthy and Sab Shimono had been in the theatrical production; so had George Takei.


La Lectrice

January 19, 2022

Anybody wondering what happened to foreign films this summer? They seem to be in hiding. With the battle of the titans going on at the box office – Batman and the horde of sequels – foreign films have barely been a presence since May.

But here’s one. And it’s a goodie: La Lectrice, a new film from a consistently intriguing French director, Michel Deville. The translation of the title is The Reader, and the movie begins with a woman reading a book out loud to her husband in bed. The book is called La Lectrice, and it begins with a woman reading out loud to her husband in bed … hmmm.

The heroine of the book, Marie, looks exactly like the bed-reader (and both are played by Miou-Miou). The movie proceeds to follow the adventures of Marie, who decides to use her beautiful voice to make some money by reading aloud to people.

This leads her to a variety of peculiar characters. She reads Marx to a 100-year-old blind woman (Maria Casares), whose eccentric housekeeper is troubled by, she says, spiders living in her head. Marie reads Maupassant to an adolescent boy in a wheelchair, but he’s more interested in the way her skirt hikes up above her knees than in the stylistic nuances of the text.

There is a lonely businessman (Patrick Chenais) who immediately falls in lust with her when she begins to read, and an elderly judge who requests a reading from the Marquis de Sade. Marie is happy to oblige them all; she brings the same mysterious, unflappable ease to each of these strange situations. When the businessman announces that they must go to bed together, she’s all for it, as long as they can read in bed.

Any way you look at it, and there are probably many different ways, La Lectrice is an odd film.  But it’s brightened by the presence of Miou-Miou, who starred in one of this decade’s big arthouse hits, Entre Nous. With Miou-Miou, there’s always a sense of something going on behind her eyes, something smart and playful. She fits in perfectly with Deville’s clever scheme, in which reality and fiction weave together in a sharp and sexy whole.

First published in The Herald, July 16, 1988

I’m not sure I saw another Deville film after this, although I could be wrong. Good role for Miou-Miou. Casares had made her debut in Children of Paradise. The cast also includes André Wilms and Maria de Medeiros.


The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking

December 16, 2021

As the chorus sings under the opening credits and repeats throughout the film, “Pippi Longstocking is coming into your town.” This threat is fulfilled in The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, the latest cinematic spinoff of Astrid Lindgren’s popular children’s books.

Pippi, the freckle-faced, red-haired bundle of mischief, begins the movie by falling off her father’s boat into a typhoon. She and her horse and monkey drift to a seaside town, where they set up shop in her father’s abandoned house while waiting for the old man to show up.

The townspeople, including the next-door neighbors, take one look at this carrot-headed pixie and decide that she is having a subversive effect on the local children. Which, actually, she is; she’s fond of all-night pancake parties and civic disturbances that involve the willful destruction of gallons of ice cream.

The parents quickly see that their children are having too much fun, and predictably move to nip this tendency in the bud. In particular, the headmistress of the orphanage sees Pippi as an immediate enrollee.

It’s kind of a strange movie. Kids may enjoy the whole anti-establishment angle of Pippi’s various hijinks, such as her rebellious approach to the educational system: Pippi can’t understand why teachers would ask questions of students, when the teachers already know the answers.

And yet, the film, which is scripted and directed by Ken Annakin, is so bland in almost every way that it’s difficult to know what kids would find attractive in it. (I have no familiarity with the Pippi books – they were unequivocally a girl thing when I was a kid – and so can offer no point of comparison.)

Another problem is the casting of newcomer Tami Erin as Pippi. I’m sure she’s a nice girl, but she’s got “zero charisma,” as the kids in E.T. would say.

There’s an idea. Instead of spending 25 bucks to take a few little ones to see this moribund movie, save your money and buy a copy of E.T. when it comes out on video this fall. Then you’ll have something as a permanent part of the library, and it’ll be a truly enchanting fantasy, instead of a half-baked one.

First published in The Herald, August 2, 1988

Tami Erin’s subsequent movie career was not extensive, although IMDb duly notes that she released a sex tape in 2013. This was getting toward the end for Annakin, who has a number of interesting British films to his credit, and a boatload I haven’t seen.