Plain Clothes

March 26, 2020

plainclothesA teacher staggers into a high­ school classroom, glassy-eyed and mumbling. Nothing too unusual about that, you think, until he falls to his knees, mutters the cryptic phrase “Easy grader,” then falls dead, a knife in his back. The students seize the opportunity for an impromptu recess.

This nutty opening sets the tone for Plain Clothes, which uses a recently popular movie plot – adult returns to high school posing as a student – and finds new, funny material in it. In this instance, the adult is a Seattle cop named Nick Dunbar (Arliss Howard, Cowboy from Full Metal Jacket) whose teen-age brother is accused of the murder; Nick returns to school under the alias Nick Springsteen. “Any relation?” people keep asking him. “Distant,” he says mysteriously.

The uncovering of the plot is the excuse for some utterly pixilated comedy, a mix of rapid-fire offbeat verbal exchanges and daffy character pieces. Nick meets a gallery of suspects, including the sawdust­ covered shop teacher (George Wendt) with the obligatory missing fingers; the semi-hysterical administrator (Diane Ladd) who uses the cast on her arm for different kinds of emphasis; the crazed principal (Robert Stack) whose public address system is his lifeline, and possibly his only connection, to the world.

This movie is stuffed with black­ humored details and bizarre moments (a police SWAT team descends upon a suspect holed up in a kiddie park of elf houses). The sound­ track is full of offscreen asides that recall the layered, did-I-just-hear-­what-I-thought-I-heard gags of a Richard Lester movie. Even the romance is off-kilter, as Nick the student finds himself lusting after a teacher (Suzy Amis).

Up until the time when it has to start paying attention to the matter of sewing up its plot (which doesn’t make much sense, and doesn’t really need to), Plain Clothes establishes the dizziest comic atmosphere of any movie so far this year. Much credit for this goes to director Martha Coolidge, who made the entire film in Seattle and returned recently for some interviews.

While here, she talked about comedy, the form she has found herself in despite her background as a maker of substantial documentaries.

“You have to take comedy seriously,” she says. “It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it’s true. One of the effects of TV is to dilute certain kinds of comedy. TV skits have invaded movie comedy; you can have one great scene, and that’s it. The great comedies in the world have great characters.”

Coolidge’s features, Valley Girl and Real Genius, were notable throwbacks to a more traditional kind of screwball comedy. Valley Girl, for example, may have begun life as a teen exploitation pie, but Coolidge drew out all the hot, Romeo and Juliet romance of the situation, eschewing the usual titillation of the genre. In movies, she said,”Romance and sex are more powerful the more withheld they are.”

Of casting the serious actor Arliss Howard in Plain Clothes, she says, “I always thought of this as Steve McQueen Goes to High School.” She says she wanted the contrast of the crazy things happening to the non-comedic lead, and admits, “I don’t think anybody would have thought of putting Arliss in a comedy except me.”

Her next film will probably be another comedy, but she’s also been working on a military action movie and a TV pilot full of “male bonding and humor. I’m offered a lot of women’s pictures,” she says. “Directors get typecast. A big hit would be very helpful.”

Regardless of how Plain Clothes performs at the box-office, Coolidge is a hot property.

First published in the Herald, April 15, 1988

I interviewed Coolidge a couple of times over the years; the more substantive one came for a Film Comment story about Rambling Rose, her terrific (and weirdly undersung) 1991 film. A smart filmmaker who deserved the “big hit” that might have given her more opportunities (still, an admirable collection of films). 

The Rescue

March 24, 2020

rescue1Even though it’s only a silly action flick, The Rescue feels seriously out of date. If this thing had been released at the height of the 1984 flag-waving frenzy, when fantasy movies about hostage rescues were all the rage, then it might have had a chance.

But Chuck Norris no longer searches for the missing in action, and even Rambo has taken a header this summer. The Rescue is some sort of mid-’80s relic.

And a particularly ludicrously conceived one at that. When a crack American task force is captured on a secret mission off the coast of North Korea, the U.S. government chills a plan to go in and rescue them. As usual in these movies, the government is lily-livered and ineffective. (The unnamed president, we are assured, “would be in there in a minute” if it were up to him, but his hands are tied.)

While the American soldiers are languishing in a prison camp, their children – yes, their children – decide that it’s time to take matters into their own hands. So five spunky offspring steal the secret plans of the North Korean camp. And then they move in.

Audiences have been giggling for months now at this premise, as presented by coming-attractions trailers. (The idea is an echo of Iron Eagle, in which a teen stole a jet to nab his imprisoned father from a Middle Eastern hostage camp.) In full-length form, the concept isn’t much less ridiculous, especially in such moments as the kids putting aside the enormity of invading a hostile Communist country and inviting certain death in order to decide whether they should let a girl go along.

The kids involved are played by Kevin Dillon (Matt’s little brother, also on display this weekend in the remake of The Blob), Christina Harnos, Ned Vaughn, Mare Price and Ian Giatti. They are more-or-less serviceable, fulfilling the usual roles the moody one, the square one, the funny one, etc.

Two things can be said for this movie. One is that the locations are spectacular; ace cameraman Russell Boyd makes the mountains of New Zealand double for Korea.

The other thing is that Ferdinand Fairfax (Nate and Hayes) has directed it about as well as anyone could have, given the material. The script, by Jim Thomas and John Thomas, would be a tough assignment for any director with the slightest sense of the real world, but Fairfax actually puts some zip into a couple of sequences, and in the big prison-breakout scene, really works up a lather. But at that point, nothing can bust this film out.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

From this distance, the idea – kids rescuing their SEAL daddies – doesn’t sound especially strange, but then I’ve been worn down by decades of high concept. I note the participation of director Fairfax, whose Nates and Hayes does have some zip, and who went back into British TV after this for a nice long career (he died in 2008). The screenwriters had just come off the success of Predator.

Vice Versa

March 18, 2020

viceversaRemember Like Father Like Son? There’s no reason you should, except that it was released less than six months ago, It was the one about a father and son who exchanged personalities through a mysterious process, and lived the other’s life for a few days.

Personality transference seems to be reaching epidemic proportions in the cinema. It even occurs among screenwriters (the mysterious process of plot transference perhaps), because exactly the same premise has turned up in a new film called Vice Versa.

Here the father (Judge Reinhold) is a successful executive, a gotta-go-I’m-late-for-something type who actually orders Grey Poupon in restaurants. Son (Fred Savage, the kid in The Princess Bride) is a grade-schooler who shuttles between his divorced parents; in a restaurant, he’s likely to loose his pet frog on the unsuspecting patrons. To set the plot in motion, dad travels to Thailand to buy some merchandise, and manages to bring back a germ­-encrusted skull that has some special power.

This object zap’s dad’s brain into the boy, and you know, vice versa. Which means that the adult who walks into his business office has the mind of a 10-year-old. And the child in grade school is ordering limos to pick him up after class.

Vice Versa is using exactly the same sort of fish-out-of-water comedy as Like Father, Like Son. But I’d give the very definite edge to this new film. The script by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais does rely on familiar jokes, but it’s a much better acted and directed movie.

Reinhold has some lovely, goggle-eyed moments as the boy­-in-the-man’s body, and he nicely captures the complicated excitement of being kissed by dad’s girlfriend (Corinne Bohrer). Meanwhile, the adult in Savage’s body has to worry about the possibility of going back to live with his ex-wife, who would now also be his mother: “It’s a Freudian nightmare!”

The film is directed by Brian Gilbert, a Britisher who made the fetching Sharma and Beyond for English TV. He’s got a light touch, given the generic limitations, and draws the father-son relationship well. He even makes the dumb subplot, in which the real owner of the skull (Swoosie Kurtz) tries to regain possession, reasonably watchable. In short, if you absolutely have to make a movie about personality transference, this is the way to make it.

First published in the Herald, March 10, 1988

I love Sharma and Beyond so much that I’ve always kept an eye of Brian Gilbert’s career, which has had interesting entries (a couple of literary biopics, Tom & Viv and Wilde, as well as the Sally Field picture Not Without My Daughter, which gave a running gag to South Park). He hasn’t directed a film since 2005, so maybe that’s that. Clement and La Frenais are British writers (both born 1937) who have a near-unbelievable record of produced stuff, going back to writing for Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in the 1960s and including Across the Universe and The Commitments. Reinhold was having his moment at this time, and so was Corinne Bohrer, who made Dead Solid Perfect the same year.

A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon

March 11, 2020

nightinthelifeAs a struggling 19-year-old writer, William Richert wrote a coming-of-age novel called Arent You Even Gonna Kiss Me Goodbye? That was in 1963.

In the intervening years, Richert has built something of a career for himself as a maverick film director, with the vigorous Winter Kills (still one of the underrated movies of the 1970s) and the more slapdash Success.

But what goes ’round comes ’round, especially when coming-of­-age films are commercially viable. So Richert has adapted his youthful novel into a movie, retitled A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon.

It’s the account of a few fractured hours in the life of 17-year-old Jimmy (River Phoenix), a Chicago kid who wants to be a writer but whose most notable characteristic thus far is his ability to be irresistible to women.

The only girl he can’t conquer is Lisa (Meredith Salenger, nicely grown up from The Journey of Natty Gann); she’s from the wealthy side of town, and isn’t quite willing to go all the way with our heavy-breathing young hero.

She’s going to college in Hawaii, while he means to please his belligerent father (Paul Koslo) and attend a local school. For about 24 busy hours, he convinces himself he’ll throw everything over to fly to Hawaii and be a beach bum. Now if he can only scrape together the cash.

Along the way, there’s a fling with his steady on the side (lone Skye), plus an erotic session with a neighbor (Ann Magnuson, of Making Mr. Right). Not to mention pressures from his folks, with whom he doesn’t get along (he’s written a poem called, “Heredity, Take Your Hands Off Me”).

Richert’s previous films have shared a beguiling rambunctiousness, marked by an inattention to the niceties of logic and structure. That sloppiness isn’t so beguiling in Jimmy Reardon, which never gets on track, although it has some fine moments.

For the first time, River Phoenix is required to carry a picture (he was the sensitive friend in Stand By Me and the son in The Mosquito Coast). Small-mouthed and pug-nosed, Phoenix has the kind of energy that can’t be taught in acting class, and the camera likes him.

But in this movie he barely looks 14, and it’s odd to see him cavorting as a stud poet. Better things are probably ahead for everyone concerned with this film.

First published in the Herald, March 1, 1988

I guess this version was not Reichert’s cut of the film, which must account for something. The distinctiveness of Winter Kills and Success (also known as The American Success Company, written by Larry Cohen) makes it disappointing Richert didn’t have more completed projects. He is memorable, of course, as the Falstaffian Bob Pigeon in My Own Private Idaho, opposite Phoenix.

The Bear

February 25, 2020

bearThis may be the first movie in which animals are billed above humans in the opening credits. But that’s entirely appropriate. The stars of The Bear are two grizzlies, one little and one huge, while the human characters are definitely supporting actors.

The idea for The Bear originated about seven years ago, when French director Jean-Jacques Annaud came up with a very simple synopsis, which he gave to writer Gerard Brach: “A big solitary bear. An orphan bear cub. Two hunters in the forest. The animals’ point of view.” With a bit of fleshing out, that’s the movie he eventually made. As the film opens, a mother bear is rooting for honey when she is killed by a rock slide; her orphaned cub strikes out on his own. Meanwhile, an enormous male grizzly is shot and wounded by two hunters, who pursue. The little bear hooks up with the healing giant and follows him around like, well, like a bear cub. After some wildlife adventures, the two bears finally come face to face with the hunters and the drama plays itself out.

Annaud had made that fascinating epic about cave men, Quest for Fire, so he knew something about mounting an outdoor spectacular. But The Bear took a long time to develop, with years devoted to the selection and training of bears and a lengthy,  painstaking shooting process. Most of it was filmed in the Austrian Alps.

Annaud and the bears create some amazing moments. The bears are treated as actors, and they express emotions, or seem to, with remarkable dexterity. The little cub actually convinces you of his maturation. The movie’s like a live-action Bambi, except, of course, that bears are much cooler than deer.

How did they do all this? Apparently with good trainers, some puppets and dummies, a jot of patience, perhaps some luck. Annaud has reported waiting an entire day for a bear to yawn.

In one sequence, the cub is chased by a mountain lion, out onto a tree limb that overhangs a rushing river. The branch breaks, and the bear is taken for a ride down the stream, as the cougar follows along on the bank. It sounds natural, but how are animals “directed” in such a scene? They certainly give great performances.

One thing: The Bear was not made as a children’s movie. There is nothing sanitized about it. When bears and dogs and deer are wounded, by man or by each other, they bleed and sometimes die. (All simulated, as the film goes to pains to point out.)

All of this comes from Annaud’s rigorous devotion to the bears. He’s so aligned with the bears’ point of view that he even shows their dreams; dreams of honey, and slippery frogs, and loss. What else would bears dream about?

First published in the Herald, October 28, 1989

Bart the Bear starred, in one of his biggest performances. All of this is past, of course, as the new Call of the Wild movie shows the efficiency of simply computer-generating a dog to be the star. 

Bat 21

February 19, 2020

bat21Variety, the show-business bible, just reported that the busiest leading man over the last five years was none other than Gene Hackman (in a somewhat dubious tie with Steve Guttenberg).

Sure enough, Hackman seems to be turning nothing down; if he is no longer exactly bankable, he’s nevertheless an actor coveted by all the good directors. Bat 21 is the kind of movie an actor such as Hackman can gamble on. Hackman doesn’t have to worry about whether every film he makes is a box office bit, so he can afford to take a flier on a more difficult-to­-categorize film. He may well have been attracted to this film through the sheer technical challenge of playing the role.

That’s because for 90 percent of Bat 21, Hackman is alone, speaking what lines he has into a walkie-talkie.

He plays an Air Force colonel who has to eject during a mission over Viet Cong territory. Alone, in the jungle, he is located by a spotter pilot called Bird-dog (Danny Glover, of Lethal Weapon), who fixes his position but can’t call in helicopters to pick up Hackman until the area is secured.

So, in the course of three days of waiting, Hackman and Glover establish a friendship over the airwaves. Adding some suspense is an air strike, previously ordered by Hackman, which will obliterate the area in a matter of hours.

Everything about this situation is competently handled, although very little about it seems new. Glover’s commander (played by singer Jerry Reed, who is also the film’s executive producer) is a typical hard-barking military-man, and a gung-ho chopper pilot (David Marshall Grant) is strictly a movie creation.

Director Peter Markle (The Personals) does try to add little quirky touches around the edges, and wisely concentrates on the relationship between Hackman and Glover. Both actors are good, and Hackman is especially fine at portraying his character’s increasing sense of desperation (“You are gonna come and get me, right?” he whispers into the radio).

The movie’s main point, that Hackman discovers the hellishness of war only by being on the ground instead of in the air, comes across as heavy-handed.

Bat 21 (the title refers to Hackman’s code name) is based on a true story. It really happened to Col. Iceal Hambleton, the military expert and golf enthusiast played by Hackman.

There is an odd note sounded at the end of the movie: A postscript tells us that Hambleton now lives happily ever after. Nothing wrong with that, but the postscript says zilch about the tenacious spotter pilot who saved him. This is a peculiar, even insulting, omission, particularly after watching both men share equal time in the film for the previous two hours.

First published in the Herald, October 19, 1988

Not much of a review. I’m not sure where my concern about Hackman’s career came about, but I’m sure he was bankable enough even in 1988. Weird, for me at least, that I remember director Markle’s first film, The Personals, which was an indie in the time before the idea of “indie” had come together. He’s directed a few features and dozens of TV stuff since then. Life is getting long.


Around the World in 80 Ways

January 21, 2020

aroundtheworldThe aggressively zany new Australian film Around the World in 80 Ways begins with the most breathless opening sequence since the insane 10-minute prologue of Raising Arizona. In Around the World, we’re introduced to the narrator, an Aussie tour guide (Philip Quast) who wears a banana headdress, and he provides a whirlwind history of his bizarre family.

Seems the parents have been in decline since dad (Alan Penny) lost the car dealership to their tacky next­ door neighbor; now mom (Diana Davidson) is heading off for a ’round­-the-world vacation, leaving non­-ambulatory dad in a “rest” home. Meanwhile the little brother (Kelly Dingwall) concocts weird noises in his homebuilt sound studio.

The movie rockets along until it splits in two parts. One part follows mom’s trip, to Hawaii, Las Vegas, Rome, and Tokyo. The other part describes a different sort of journey. When dad learns that mom is being accompanied on the trip by the hated next-door neighbor, he insists that his sons arrange for him to follow the gallivanting woman.

The sons, however, decide that this would serve no purpose. So they devise a plan whereby the enfeebled father, who is nearly blind and none too alert, will think he’s on a world tour. In fact, although the boys dress up in Hawaiian garb, play hula music and serve pineapple and mangoes, the traveling party never leaves its back yard. (Airplane rides are taken care of via an elaborate ruse involving the older son’s revamped tour bus.)

So the film cuts back from the real rip to the imagined one. It’s a mad idea for a movie, and it comes from writer-director Stephen MacLean, who wrote Gillian Armstrong’s energetic Starstruck a few years go. MacLean’s got lots of pizazz; he’s like a crazed juggler trying to keep an armload of objects in the air.

Around the World has some funny bits in it, so I suppose MacLean, succeeds some of the time. I enjoyed the fake plane rides, the villain’s migratory hairpiece, and also the mother’s pilgrimages to the two key experiences of Western culture, an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas and the pope in Rome.

But the film has an unpleasant nasty streak; a lot of the humor, after all, is at the expense of one character’s borderline senility. And the relentless frolicking left me with the feeling that the movie was trying too hard, like a party at which everybody is desperately and loudly declaiming what a great time they’re having. Sorry, but it doesn’t quite scan.

First published in the Herald, June 6, 1988

Does anybody outside Australia remember this? Does anybody inside Australia remember this? I confess I did not. MacLean also directed what sounds like an Aussie gay-history documentary and a biopic of Peter Allen, and died at age 56. Starstruck is a fun movie and has a big following Down Under, as I understand it; seems a shame MacLean didn’t do more.