Tequila Sunrise

November 7, 2019

tequilasunriseWhen Robert Towne settles down to make a movie, it should be big news. Towne is one of the legitimate talents in Hollywood, a brilliant writer (he wrote Chinatown, Shampoo and The Last Detail) who has been a “script doctor” on many of the better movies released during the last couple of decades, usually without screen credit.

Towne’s career as a director extends only as far as his 1982 film, Personal Best, a terrific movie about track athletes, which had a nifty lived-in quality and a disarmingly accurate way of depicting the way real people act and talk. However, that movie didn’t do very well, and it’s taken Towne this long to direct another one.

His new film is called Tequila Sunrise, and it may well get him the commercial success he needs; but it isn’t his best work, by far.

Tequila Sunrise is a sun­bleached morality play, set in Los Angeles. A cop (Kurt Russell) discovers himself once again on the trail of an old friend, a drug dealer (Mel Gibson). Russell’s always avoided busting his pal before, because of the unspoken code that places friendship above everything else.

Gibson claims he’s retired now. So what is he hatching by frequenting a particular Italian restaurant? When Russell investigates, he discovers that it has more to do with the beautiful woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) who runs the place than with any potential cocaine trafficking.

These three slip into a menage a trois that is cloaked in murky motives. Does Russell romance Pfeiffer just to get at Gibson? Is Gibson attracted by Pfeiffer for some reason other than the obvious?

Just as the movie gets this interesting trio together, it launches off into a plot involving a sting operation to nab a mysterious big-time drug lord known only as Carlos. This plot becomes more impenetrable as it goes on, and the movie feels as though it’s missing some important scenes. Business with Gibson’s son and ex-wife (Ann Magnuson) seems unfinished; there’s a bit too much shorthand going on.

But even if there were more of the movie on a cutting-room floor somewhere, it might not help. Towne has taken a deliberately stylized, old-fashioned approach to this material, which sometimes becomes downright corny. Conrad Hall’s photography certainly captures the hot LA glow, the Malibu beachfront homes and ritzy restaurants, and individual scenes sparkle with Towne’s crisp dialogue.

Towne has also written quirky character roles for supporting actors such as Raul Julia, J.T. Walsh and Arliss Howard. The three principals are fine. Gibson is straightforward, and unapologetic about playing an ex-dope dealer sympathetically; Pfeiffer is sharp and bright, keeping the men tottering off­ balance; Russell gets away with the best role and the best lines.

All of the film’s attributes are laudable in and of themselves. But somehow these elements, like the ingredients in a tequila sunrise, just don’t mix.

First published in the Herald, December 1, 1988

Because, you see, the ingredients in a tequila sunrise stay at their separate levels, which is what makes the drink look like a sunrise made out of tequila. I mean, the metaphor was just sitting there, how could I resist? (Can there be a more Southern California title?) I’ll bet this movie is more fun seen today, without the high expectations I had for a Robert Towne film in 1988. The one thing about it that has stuck in my head is the way Gibson’s character goes to the same restaurant every night; that seems like a classic detective-story kind of thing. Life goals.


Hairspray

November 5, 2019

hairsprayThe man William Burroughs called “The Pope of Trash” is at it again. Yes, John Waters, sleazemaster general, low-budget filmmaker, and Baltimore’s ambassador to the world, has made another movie.

The title, Hairspray, would seem to place the new film safely within Waters’ existing lexicon: his movies include Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Polyester.

But this time out, Waters has sweetened his tone and softened his approach. Hairspray has a full quotient of Waters’ trademark glitz ‘n kitsch, but there’s a nostalgic undertone that warms the movie. It’s set in the Baltimore of 1962, when the resident teenyboppers are frugging to the beat of a local American Bandstand knockoff called The Corny Collins Show, a dance party that brings dozens of pubescent kids to brief regional TV stardom. One girl in particular, Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake), dreams of becoming a regular on the show.

Not only does Tracy garner a spot on the dance floor, she quickly becomes the new star, even threatening the front-runner status of the witchy Amber (Colleen Fitzpatrick) for the coveted “Miss Auto Show 1963” title.

Improbably, Waters welds this goofy little story with a subplot of racial integration. No kidding: Much of the movie is about the kids’ efforts to incorporate black teens as regulars on the show, and not just relegate them to the “Negro Day” on the last Thursday of every month.

It’s an appealing setting for a movie, but don’t get the idea that Waters has gone completely straight on us. He’ll still stop the show for the occasional gross-out (such as the aurally graphic popping of a pimple), and his cast list alone is fairly head-spinning.

For instance, Tracy’s parents are played by the unlikely duo of Jerry Stiller and longtime Waters collaborator Divine. Divine, the corpulent transvestite, also plays the male role of the intolerant TV station manager.

And Amber’s uptight parents, whose house bulges with the ’60s iconography of lava lamps and those paintings of kids with big eyes, are played by Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry (she proudly reminds her daughter that she was once “Miss Soft Crab of 1945”). Some of this doesn’t work as well as it might sound. For instance. the idea of Sonny Bono as the sleazy owner of an amusement park is funny; in truth, it doesn’t really click in the movie. (Sonny is, after all, still Sonny.)

And the roughness of Waters’ directorial style continues. He still doesn’t always know what to do with the camera, and some of the performances are out of sync (his own cameo, as a crazed psychiatrist, is just fine).

But the sloppy patches are finally outpointed by the movie’s sheer likability. The music’s great, the dancing is generous, the hair-dos are towering and fearsome, the dialogue is dizzily campy (school principal to Tracy: “You’re on a one-way ticket to reform school!”).

A high point is the visit to a beatnik parlor, where an artist (the Cars’ Ric Ocasek) and his beat chick (Pia Zadora!) are digging reefer. Eventually Hairspray becomes just too wackily imaginative to resist.

First published in the Herald, February 28, 1988

Who could’ve known the movie would eventually turn into a pop-culture phenom and a Broadway hit? Probably somebody. I don’t recall what my problem was with Sonny Bono in this film, but I said it, so I’ll stand by it, although one should really not question Waters in these matters. 


The House on Carroll Street

November 4, 2019

housecarrollstreetThe opening scene of The House on Carroll Street is a wonderfully rich re-creation of a Senate hearing room, circa 1951. The mahogany tables, the clustered microphones, the angularity of the costumes and attitudes, all evoke the McCarthy era and its sense of reckless interrogation.

On the witness stand is a young woman (Kelly McGillis) who’s some sort of left-­leaning activist. Questioning her, and coolly impugning her character, is an oily Senate counsel, played by Mandy Patinkin as a synthesis of Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn. The most chilling touch comes at the end of the scene when, having destroyed the woman’s career, the panel breaks into a warm round of “Happy Birthday” for the committee chairman.

Adding a layer of reality (and payback) to the early going is the fact that The House on Carroll Street was written by Walter Bernstein, a Hollywood screenwriter who was himself blacklisted in the 1950s for the flimsiest of reasons. Bernstein previously examined the era in The Front.

After the galvanizing opening, Bernstein and director Peter Yates veer off from the blacklisting angle. Instead, their heroine stumbles upon a conspiracy to bring some unwanted foreigners into the country, and uncovers the plot with the aid of the sympathetic FBI man (Jeff Daniels) who’s been watching her.

In other words, the film turns into a rather conventional romantic thriller. As such, It provides a couple of satisfactory sequences, especially a long chase scene in Greenwich Village that travels from a bookstore to a theater, plus the knockout finale in the rafters of Grund Central Station. But the material that links these sequences is muddled; the movie feels as though it’s missing a reel somewhere. The romance between McGillis and Daniels has a perfunctory air about it, which isn’t helped by the awkwardly old-school dialogue (“We’re oil and water,” she tells him). 

Whenever Mandy Patinkin is onscreen, the movie gets a boost – Patinkin, so winning in The Princess Bride, glistens with malice in this film. He sits in a restaurant with McGillis and douses the tablecloth with ketchup as an illustration of – the Communist menace covering the world. Yates’ direction is as ordinary as his work on the similarly unsatisfying Suspect, which also had a couple of suspenseful scenes surrounded by a rickety plot. His – and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’s – best work is simply the evocation of 1951, in the brick houses of Brooklyn and the sharp-creased hats of the FBI men (whose ties come down to the middle of their chests).

It is interesting that a definitive fiction film about the blacklisting era has yet to be made; perhaps still more distance is needed to see the time clearly. Or does Hollywood remain skittish about this period in its history? ln any case, after its opening scene, The House on Carroll Street doesn’t begin to capture the paranoia and shame of those times.

First published in the Herald, March 3, 1988

Yes, a truly dull film that raises but then backs away from the blacklisting angle. Somebody needs to do a powerhouse narrative film on the subject, but this (and the similarly bland Guilty by Suspicion) isn’t it. It sounds like it might almost be worth re-watching for Patinkin, but not really.


The Blob

October 31, 2019

blobThe original 1958 version of The Blob was a typical low-budget sci-fi movie of the period: There was very little to distinguish it aside from its relatively snappy pace and the presence of an intriguing young actor, “Steven” McQueen. In most respects, it was like a hundred other wonderfully goofy monster movies in that golden era of flying saucers and giant insects.

And yet, somehow, you gotta love that blob. So simple. So direct. So gooey.

I suppose there are people who appreciate the blob, and people who don’t. The latter are probably beyond help; for the former, there’s a brand-new version of The Blob, featuring a much higher budget than the original and with state-of-the-art special effects. But still with the same basic idea.

Once again, the blob falls from outer space and attaches itself to the hand of an expendable old coot. Then it begins devouring everything in sight, starting with the coot, until an entire small town in threatened.

The only people who can stop the blob are a motorcycle boy (Kevin Dillon) and a cheerleader (Shawnee Smith), but of course they have a hard time getting anyone to believe them.

The director is Chuck Russell, who displayed an inventive visual sense in his previous film (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3). Russell has a field day concocting ways for the purplish-pink mass of blob to surprise its victims; one person is yanked down a drainpipe, another is squished in a telephone booth, and a romantic teen is unfortunately surprised during a heavy-petting session in lovers’ lane.

Russell includes an update on the original film’s most famous scene, in which the blob slimed its way into a movie theater. In this case, however, the original is not improved upon. One twist in the new version provides an explanation of the blob’s origin. It isn’t just a bit of space glub; actually, the blob is the result of a government germ-warfare test. When the officials hit town, they’re more concerned with capturing the blob than with saving the populace; “This’ll put U.S. defense years ahead of the Russians,” burbles one scientist.

This new Blob is a good little horror movie There’s some comfort in the thought that, despite its one-dimensional personality, the blob is still gooey after all these years.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

Russell went on to direct The Mask and Eraser; he wrote the screenplay with Frank Darabont, then at the beginning of his career. Certainly a movie headlined by Kevin Dillon and Shawnee Smith has some essential 80s cred, am I right? As far as I know this film’s rep is pretty solid with horror mavens—and the ’58 Blob is not exactly a fall-down masterpiece, so there’s not a great deal to resent about a sequel.


Lady in White

October 29, 2019

ladyinwhiteReally good ghost stories are hard to come by these days. Oh, there are plenty of horror films, but the ghost story is a specific genre, with definite rules and traditions. A new film, Lady In White, fulfills so many of these traditions that it’s tempting to applaud it. Too bad it isn’t a better movie.

But at least writer-director Frank Laloggia had the right instincts. Lady in White is old-fashioned and evocative, and it rightly tells its story through the eyes of a child: a 9-year-old boy (Lukas Haas, the kid from Witness), who begins to suspect that all is not well in the quiet little town of Willowpoint Falls.

He’s drawn into a mystery when two bratty pals lock him up in a school coat closet at Halloween time. It’s the very same room where, 10 years before, a little girl was murdered … yipes! This night, of all nights, a man breaks into the room, discovers Haas there, and tries to kill the boy.

This leads the kid into a mystery that involves the strange murders of a handful of children over the years, and ends up at the spooky old house at the edge of town and an encounter with the ghostly lady in white, “a mysterious, long-robed woman who roams the cliffs at night.”

The script is full of creepy incidents, although it telegraphs the identity of the child-killer fairly early on. There are no surprises, but there is a lot of affection for the expected twists and turns of the classic ghost story, along the lines of a familiar old tale told ’round a campfire.

Laloggia seems to be attempting to capture the autumnal chill of Ray Bradbury’s small-town horror stories. Unfortunately, Lady in White has a low-budget look that sometimes undercuts the director’s more expressive moments. And not all the actors are up to snuff, although Haas provides an effective hero. (Alex Rocco plays his widowed father, Len Cariou the father’s best friend, and Katherine Helmond plays the weird old woman who lives in the dilapidated shack by the cliffs.)

Lady in White has its problems, but it does get closer to raising occasional gooseflesh than the disappointing adaptation of Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes a few years back, which covered similar territory. It’s an honest, well-meaning try, and endearing even when it’s at its clumsiest.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

I’m not sure where Mr. Laloggia went, but he posts on Twitter every now and again. The film has a following, for sure. At the time it was a welcome break from the dismal run of slasher films that had dominated the earlier part of the decade.


Cocoon: The Return

October 23, 2019

cocoon2Once the financial take reached a certain level, there was no avoiding a sequel to Cocoon.

Only problem was, most of the main characters in that film – residents of a Florida retirement home – were whisked away at the end to a planet where they wouldn’t age or sicken or die. So where would the sequel pick up?

Cocoon: The Return, answers this burning question by bringing the far-flung travelers back, quite literally, down to earth. They return looking none the worse for space travel, but with slightly better tans and wearing golfing clothes: Wilford Brimley and Maureen Stapleton, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, and Don Ameche and Gwen Verdon, all returning from the first Cocoon (Ameche won the best supporting actor Oscar last time out).

The excuse for bringing them back home is that the aliens must retrieve the cocoons they left in the ocean. So, the earthlings tag along and get a few days R&R on the beach, and make contact with some old friends, including Jack Gilford, as the crotchety widower they left behind.

The alien expedition is led by Tahnee Welch (Raquel’s daughter), who finds her old friend (Steve Guttenberg) now hawking cheap souvenirs and running a crummy tourist boat. Guttenberg, who provides some of the movie’s most amusingly laid-back moments, naturally helps the extraterrestrials get their pods off the ocean floor. But he does lay down the law; this time, he insists, “You cannot steal any old people.”

The script, by Stephen McPherson, invents a lame side-plot, wherein one of the cocoons is seized by an oceanographic institute. This is basically a ruse to stir up a little fake suspense at the end and introduce a new character, a sympathetic scientist (Courteney Cox). The other new character is a brassy motel owner (Broadway veteran Elaine Stritch, last seen in Woody Allen’s September), who meets the dour Gilford and perks him up a bit.

The sequel recycles a lot of the devices of the first film. Every opportunity is taken to display the spryness of the oldsters, from a romp in the surf to a pick-up game of basketball. There are a couple of unexpected medical twists, and the main bone of cotention seems to be the homesickness that quickly infects the visitors.

None of this is compelling or new, but, under Daniel Petrie’s sure direction, it all goes down pretty easily. Petrie even manages to loosen up the heretofore wooden Tahnee Welch, who has a funny scene in which she gets drunk on Earth food and begins flinging her dinner around. The other actors, needless to say, are pros who don’t need to be told how to deliver the goods.

That said, it’s probably time for the Cocoon movies to head for the retirement home. The sequel comes pretty close to exhausting the possibillities, a condition that is all but admitted by the inclusion of clips from the first film during the closing credits. At the end of this one, we got some people back home, we got some people back in the stars. Now let ’em stay where they are.

First published in the Herald, November 1988

Not much to say, really – has anyone thought about this film since it came out? It sounds like my fabled Guttenberg soft spot was in place here. Daniel Petrie came out of TV’s Golden Age and went back to the small screen after this film; he worked on some duds but also had an interesting moment in 1980-81 with Resurrection and Fort Apache the Bronx. He was the father of the similarly hard-working Donald Petrie and Daniel Petrie Jr.


The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

October 22, 2019

baronmunchausenWhen Terry Gilliam’s Brazil was released a few years ago, I interviewed the filmmaker in the back of a limousine speeding down the freeway to Sea-Tac Airport. I remember only two things from his freewheeling conversation. One was that he said he lived in London because he was “less unhappy” there than anywhere else.

The other was a detailed description of a fantastic effect he hoped to achieve in his next film. He had written a scene in which a horse is cleaved in half – back and front – while its rider remains undisturbed. The two halves of the horse would prance around on their own until some happy conclusion could be reached. Gilliam’s only worry was that there was, as yet, no technical means to achieve this effect.

The concept is a typical Gilliam creation. Gilliam, who started his peculiar career as the sole American member of the Monty Python troupe (he did the bizarre animation on the show) and went on to direct Time Bandits and Brazil, is a man with a strange and unique vision. Weird things pop out of his brain, just as in those cut-out cartoons of men with flip-top heads he used to make for Python.

Gilliam’s latest vision has arrived, in the form of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. His seething visual imagination is quite intact, even if that cleaved horse didn’t make it into the film. Not quite intact is the bankroll of Columbia Pictures, which ponied up the majority of the film’s budget (conservative estimates hover around $40 million).

What Columbia has paid for is a teeming, wild spectacle, not quite coherent and a bit obvious about its aims. A lot of it is eye-popping and a lot of it is stagnant. It’s a failure, finally, but with more good stuff in it than almost any film around.

Gilliam’s film is draped around the shoulders of Baron Munchausen (John Neville), an 18th-century nobleman who became famous as one of history’s great tellers of tall tales. The movie has him appearing in a town besieged by angry Turks, where he interrupts a bogus stage production purporting to portray his exploits. He takes over the stage and begins to tell his own stories, the true ones, of course.

These carry the good Baron from his encounter with a sheik who wants to cut off his bead (the movie’s best sequence, a self-contained dazzler), to the surface of the moon (where the King of the Moon rants endlessly, a tour-de-force cameo by Robin Williams), to the belly of a whale, where the Baron and his companions rest glumly until they realize that a pinch of snuff sometimes comes in handy.

There are incredible visions in the film. Deep inside Mount Etna, where a barbaric god (Oliver Reed) struggles to keep his band of exploited cyclops from going on strike, Venus (Uma Thurman) emerges, Botticelli-like, from a half-shell. The Baron, hoping to get a glimpse behind the Turkish battle lines, grabs hold of a cannonball and rides it casually over the fields.

Amazing stuff. But Gilliam is not the storyteller the Baron is. His film is off rhythm; it lurches in and out of motion. And as witty as much of the film is, Gilliam’s satire is sometimes as subtle as a club. It seems one end of this horse doesn’t really know what the other end is doing. But it’s always interesting to watch.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

In the years since this movie I had forgotten that the bisected horse did not make it into the film; my memory of Gilliam’s story must be so vivid that I thought I’d actually seen the image in the movie. Obviously, there are sentences in this review that apply just as well to Gilliam’s latest (as I write), The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. I suppose they constitute the conventional wisdom about Gilliam at this point, which makes me think I must be missing something. Anyway, his shtick in Don Quixote was at least refreshing for how out-of-step it is compared to the cinema of today, so maybe there’s something to be said for sticking to your own flawed process.