Encounter at Raven’s Gate

July 2, 2020

encounterraven'sgateEncounter at  Raven’s Gate begins just the way science fiction movies are supposed to begin. In lonely Australian farm country, a burned circle is found in a hayfield. Some sheep  die of dehydration, though water is nearby. Dead birds rain down from the night sky.

Cool. Obviously, something bizarre is about to be revealed. Don’t expect an explanation, however; the answer isn’t spelled out, although the movie suggests it may have something to do with visitors from outer space. No, this film is more interested in creating a mood, a sinister atmosphere.

The atmosphere swirls around a farmer (Ritchie Singer), his bored wife (Celine Griffin) and his ne’er­-do-well younger brother, Eddie (Steven Vidler). Eddie has just been bounced out of jail and works at his brother’s place as part of his probation.

While the movie tantalizes with hints of the supernatural, it also unfolds some pretty odd doings among its supposedly normal characters. For instance, Eddie’s barmaid girlfriend is being romanced by a frustrated policeman, an increasingly demented opera lover who seems to have wandered out of Blue Velvet.

The other film that comes to mind while watching Raven’s Gate is The Last Wave, an Australian film of the 1970s that also traded in dark, biblical warnings. The difference is, Last Wave director Peter Weir was masterful in subtly building a sense of dread. Raven’s Gate director Rolf de Heer (who wrote the script with producer Marc Rosenberg) throws rounder punches.

But make no mistake, this movie has some spooky stuff. The camera has a disembodied, fluid presence, which gives even the simplest scene a disconcerting feeling. And now and then some character will simply lose it completely, as when a man turns to a corpse that he’s just placed in the passenger seat of his car and says, reaching for the seat belt, “Now, we’ve got to buckle up.” Creepy – and worth a look, for fans of the genre.

First published in The Herald, February 1, 1990

The film was originally released in Australia as Incident at Raven’s Gate. Rolf de Heer has of course gone on to an extensive career, including high points such as Bad Boy Bubby (you haven’t seen this? oh boy), The Tracker, and Ten Canoes. This one I’d like to see again – despite my measured reaction, it sounds like my kind of thing.

The Serpent and the Rainbow

June 24, 2020

serpentandrainbowAt one point in The Serpent and the Rainbow, a business executive asks anthropologist/adventurer Dennis Alan, “What do you know about zombification?”

Alan allows himself a sidelong glance before he answers, “Only what I see on the late show.” The Serpent and the Rainbow is the story of Alan’s discovery of the voodoo religion and zombies, and in many ways the film seems determined to strip the Hollywood exaggerations from the mystery of voodoo.

Unfortunately, the movie falls prey to plenty of the usual clichés, without being as entertaining or well­ crafted as some of those late-show items.

Alan (Bill Pullman, the dumb guy from Ruthless People) ventures down to Haiti in hope of finding the formula by which people are turned into zombies – that is, the powder that brings them to a near-death state, after which they are buried, exhumed, and forced to work at menial jobs while drugged. The drug­-company exec who finances the trip looks forward to marketing an anaesthetic called “Zombinal.”

But our hero has his hands full, with the lovely Haitian doctor (Cathy Tyson, from Mona Lisa) who serves as his guide; the brutal politico (Zakes Mokae) who has the deadly Tonton Macoute at his bidding; and the slippery shaman (Brent Jennings) who is preparing a sample of the zombie powder. Meanwhile, Baby Doc Duvalier’s regime is beginning to topple.

A lot of activity, this. Too much, in fact, for the movie to sort through and make sense of. The director, Wes Craven, is one of moviedom’s darker figures, a former philosophy professor who now and then cranks out an honest-to-goodness screamfest (A Nightmare on Elm Street). Craven would seem to be the perfect choice for the needed balance of religious mystery, action and flat-out horror.

But the movie, which has be very loosely taken from Wade Davis nonfiction book, clumps from scene to scene without much logical locomotion. Alan’s narration has to fill in the gaps, and even with that his actions don’t seem to follow any pattern; the storytelling is curiously disjointed.

Craven’s best touches are the nightmarish dreams that Alan experiences, which often have false endings and surreal moments. But even this technique is held over from Elm Street, and doesn’t truly engage the heady complexities of voodoo.

Far too many missed opportunites here. Those late-show movies may have given a distorted view of voodoo and zombies, but at least they provided some chilling storytelling. I’ll take Val Lewton’s poetic 1942 I Walked with a Zombie over The Serpent and the Rainbow any time.

First published in The Herald, February 9, 1988

I want to like this movie more, given its director and subject matter, but I haven’t revisited it. Pullman was interesting casting at the time, and skewed the movie for me at the time, I recall (as in, I’m supposed to take that guy seriously?). Post-Lost Highway, that might not be such an issue.

Clean and Sober

June 16, 2020

cleanandsoberLong, uneven, and perhaps oversimplified, Clean and Sober is nevertheless a strong and affecting movie, the kind that gives you the sense that, when the end credits roll, you’ve been through some kind of real journey.

The journey here is the sobering-up of a high-voltage real-estate broker, played by Michael Keaton. He begins the movie in deep trouble: He’s embezzled money from his company (and lost most of it in the stock market), his date is lying immobile from a cocaine-induced heart attack in his bed, and he’s addicted to coke and alcohol. But when he checks himself into a detox program, it isn’t to conquer, or even admit, his addiction; it’s to hide from the police while he thinks of a solution.

The film details his progress through the program and his eventual re-entry into the real world. He comes perilously close to blowing everything a couple of times, but hangs on with the help of an unsentimental counselor (Morgan Freeman), a milkshake-swigging Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor (M. Emmett Walsh), and especially a fellow addict (beautifully played by Kathy Baker).

In the final section of the film, he attempts to get Baker, a blue-collar worker with a blue vocabulary, out of her self-destructive relationship with a lout. This is the part of Tod Carroll’s screenplay that seems to bog down a bit and become excessively talky, but Baker (recently seen in the unintentional silliness of A Killing Affair) is so strong she carries the day.

Clean and Sober is reminiscent of such classic “getting straight” movies as The Lost Weekend and The Days of Wine and Roses, but with drugs added to the alcoholic mix. As in those films, the leading man has not been known for his dramatic acting (Ray Milland was a suave light leading man before he won the Oscar for Lost Weekend, and Jack Lemmon had a lightweight pedigree in film until Days).

Keaton’s performance is both superficial and authentic. He doesn’t bring anything new to the role, but the same manic energy he has in all his performances suggests the suicidal overdrive of this character. There’s a brilliant scene in which, desperate for cash, he calls his parents and asks them if he might have the money they were planning to leave him in their will.

First published in The Herald, August 1988

Another review cut off! Maybe in my final paragraph I predicted a Keaton run at – you know – Oscar gold, who knows. It seems more likely I would at least mention the film’s director, Glenn Gordon Caron, his first big-screen directing credit after creating the TV series Moonlighting, a show I liked a lot in its heyday. Kathy Baker was fantastic in her early appearances, and of course still is. This still feels like one of those “I’m a real actor” choices on Keaton’s part, during his first flush of stardom; but fair enough, he justifies it.



June 1, 2020

spellbinderGood little horror movies are still a rarity these days, so Spellbinder is recommended for fans of the genre. It’s an intelligent movie that forgoes gore in favor of creating a more generally sinister ambiance.

It’s about a normal, somewhat lonely, Los Angeles lawyer (Timothy Daly), who witnesses a scuffle between a man and a woman in a parking lot and helps the woman (Kelly Preston) to his house. She stays. He’s deliriously happy, but as is the case with many seemingly perfect partners, she has a few troubling idiosyncrasies. The movie teases for a while, and eventually reveals that she is a witch.

She’s an unwilling witch, she says, and the other members of her coven want her back, so they can enlist her in a little human-sacrifice ceremony on the solstice. Our man, with the help of his best friend (Rick Rossovich), must try to protect her.

Screenwriter Tracy Tormé and director Janet Greek borrow a bit: The normalcy of the devil­ worshipers comes from Rosemary’s Baby; the lonely man drawn to an exotic, super­natural woman comes from Cat People. But Spellbinder creates an effective, dreadful atmosphere, with a couple of really dandy scenes, including the surprise epilog.

There’s a nicely shaded party scene when the new girlfriend is introduced around, and everyone loves her except the lawyer’s suspicious secretary. She happens to see the witch take a roast turkey out of the oven with her bare hands, which prompts the secretary to conclude, “That woman is trouble.”

This is director Greek’s first feature film, and Greek seems to bear gifts. She does a particularly good job of letting the story lay itself out in the opening reels, with subtlety and deliberateness. There’s a bit too much going on toward the end, but the film is well-acted and handsome, and it has just the right measure of unhealthiness.

First published in The Herald, September 1988

I realize now that the “without oven mitts” scene is borrowed from the 1963 British sci-fi film Unearthly Stranger, which I saw a couple of years ago. Janet Greek directed the “Weird Al” Yankovic music video, “Ricky,” and a good amount of TV until 1999. Screenwriter Tormé is the son of Mel Tormé, and wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation and created Sliders; he was also a writer on SNL during some rough years. Music by Basil Poledouris. If you’re a genre person, you have to see this.

Shoot to Kill

May 28, 2020

shoottokillIt’s hard to believe Sidney Poitier hasn’t had a film role in more than 10 years. But consider the pressures on this actor: He was, after all, the standard-bearer, the first black actor to be a full-fledged leading man in Hollywood (and the first black Oscar­ winning best actor, for Lilies of the Field in 1963).

During the ’50s and ’60s, Poitier’s acting choices were limited by the awesome responsibility of his status as barrier-breaker. Like Jackie Robinson, he couldn’t afford to do anything untoward lest it reflect badly not just on himself but on his race. That’s an unfair burden, but someone had to be the first. And it was Poitier. And so he was over-­idealized, made a goody-goody, robbed of much of his onscreen sexual power.

By the time the ’70s rolled around, and everyone was supposedly hipped, Poitier was out. People made fun of his straight-arrow image, and vague intimations of Uncle Tom-ism followed him. He seemed to become more interested in directing than acting anyway, and he went behind the camera.

As a director, Poitier labored hard, but he made some pretty bad movies (Stir Crazy, Hanky Panky). Now he’s come back to the screen, with two movies shot last year: Little Nikita and Shoot to Kill.

Shoot to Kill arrives first, and it’s not a bad comeback vehicle, even if it is an utterly standard action movie. Poitier plays a San Francisco cop who follows a killer up to the Washington forests, where he has to depend on a combative mountain­-man tracker (Tom Berenger, of Platoon) to lead him to the quarry. Meanwhile, the killer’s making a beeline for the Canadian border, with Berenger’s mountain-woman girlfriend (Kirstie Alley) as a hostage-guide.

The pursuit takes the two men through snow, over gorge, up sheer rock. Thus Poitier’s citified ways are played off the rugged setting to produce some fish-out-of-water comedy. It’s formula material, sort of a comedic Deliverance played as a buddy picture.

Too bad; the opening 15-minute sequence promises better. It’s a taut, grabby set piece in which the madman commits the crime that begins the manhunt. Poitier is superb in these early scenes, and the film’s edginess makes you regret the eventual lightening of tone.

Director Roger Spottiswoode has previously done some tasty work, from the hard Central American drama of Under Fire to the small-­town sweetness of The Best of Times. Here he’s out to do a strictly professional job, and he relies on the soaring British Columbia scenery (photographed by Michael Chapman) and the banter of Poitier and Berenger to carry the day. Despite the film’s thinness, it’s easy to take, and perhaps it signals the beginning of a revitalized career for Poitier. It’s very good to have him back. Now isn’t it time to let him play a real nasty?

First published in The Herald, February 16, 1988

Movie did pretty well, b.o.-wise. Spottiswoode was somebody who interested me at the time; he came out of Sam Peckinpah’s editing room, and Under Fire and The Best of Times are both terrific. He’s done some big films (including one Bond picture, Tomorrow Never Dies) and a lot of variety.


Little Nikita

May 27, 2020

littlenikitaWhat if you woke up one morning and found out your parents were Soviet spies?

No, this isn’t the premise of one of those cautionary 1950s public-service documentaries, narrated by Jack Webb. It’s the plot mainspring for a new film, Little Nikita, in which the red menace rears its head in a sleepy suburb of San Diego.

Seventeen-year-old Jeff (River Phoenix, recently seen in A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon) lives an utterly normal existence: He’s an only child, and his parents own a small horticultural establishment. So he’s considerably nonplused when a strange government man (Sidney Poitier) pops up and begins asking bizarre questions. Questions about Jeff’s parents.

Poitier is an FBI man who’s discovered that Jeff’s parents are “sleepers,” KGB agents who set up shop in America and live normally for years until called into action. Jeff, real name Nikita, is torn between his loyalty to his parents and his desire to know the truth about them.

This is a workable premise, but the movie doesn’t know what to do with it. There are sideplots galore, including a nonsensical story about a renegade Soviet agent named Scuba who is killing the other KGB spies. It’s absurd, except that it serves to make the parents somewhat sympathetic.

And that’s where the movie really cheats, because it quickly becomes clear that the parents have had a change of heart, really do like the United States after all, and have no intention of smuggling out atomic secrets. This means we can get to a happy ending without separating the family. Well. Isn’t that convenient?

The script is credited to four writers, including Oscar-winner Bo Goldman, and they’ve hammered dutifully away, trying to make it all fit. That is probably why the film seems to be going in a half-dozen or so directions, and is marked by ludicrous dead ends such as the invention of an absolutely irrelevant love interest for Poitier.

Richard Benjamin’s directorial promise continues to wane, although his last couple of projects have had serious script problems. But, like The Money Pit (his most recent film), Little Nikita is about as well­-directed as it could be, considering. At least Benjamin gets professional work from Phoenix and Poitier.

Little Nikita was actually filmed before Poitier’s “comeback” movie, Shoot To Kill, but was understandably delayed. With Shoot To Kill nestled among the top five money­makers for the past few weeks, Poitier is probably happy about how that one came out.

First published in The Herald, March 28, 1988

Richard Jenkins and Caroline Kava play River Phoenix’s parents, and Richard Bradford a Soviet spy. Lucy Deakins, from The Boy Who Could Fly, also turns up. Poitier had been off the screen for a decade, so his return really was something to note – too bad it went down this way.


May 26, 2020

paperhousePaperhouse is a fascinating film that takes place primarily inside the mind of a young girl. This would automatically give it unusual status, but the film is a good deal better than merely unusual. It’s genuinely original.

The little girl in question is Anna (Charlotte Burke), who takes ill one day and is confined to bed. In her sketchpad, she has drawn a house on a grassy hill, surrounded by some strange standing stones. In her dreams that night, she seems to visit the site of this invented house.

In her waking state, Anna draws more details into the picture. Then, when she visits the house in her dreams, she finds these touches present and palpable. She adds the figure of a little boy (Elliott Spiers) inside the house, but she has drawn only the upper half of him behind a window, and when she arrives in the dream world, she finds he cannot walk.

Anna gradually becomes convinced that the little boy in her dreams has a counterpart in real life; he’s a sickly patient described to her by her doctor. Anna feels that by her drawings, she has the power to keep him alive or allow him to die.

It’s a weird premise, adapted by screenwriter Matthew Jacobs from Catherine Storrs’ novel Marianne Dreams. The little girl is clearly playing out her own anxieties and worries in her paper dream, including her testy relationship with her mother (Glenne Headly) and her ambivalent feelings about her father (Ben Cross), who is always away on business.

Eventually the movie erupts into some frightening, very disturbing imagery when Anna draws her father into her picture. Paperhouse taps into childhood fantasy and fears in ways that are reminiscent of the 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter, to say nothing of the unnerving, violent stories of the brothers Grimm.

The scenes of Anna’s family life are ordinary enough, but the dream sequences have an unreal, fairytale quality. The director, Bernard Rose, is making his first feature here, and his experience making music videos may account for his keen eye at capturing the surrealistic, highly stylized world of Anna’s dreams. It is one of the most vividly created worlds seen in a movie this year.

First published in The Herald, February 1989

I wish this review were better, because Paperhouse is a remarkable film – but at least I communicated that much. Rose had a hard time getting on track as a filmmaker; his next movie was the disastrous Chicago Joe and the Showgirl, then the classic horror picture Candyman, then the interesting Gary Oldman Beethoven film Immortal Beloved. The people who know this film apppreciate it – you know who you are.