June 25, 2020

cousinsIn 1976 Cousin, Cousine was a bona fide arthouse hit; it made a nice pile of money in the States, and not only did it garner an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Language film, it even got nominated for best screenplay and best actress.

For some reason, it has taken Hollywood 13 years to remake it. These days, the turnaround time is a lot quicker, as evidenced by such rapid transformations of Gallic originals as Three Men and a Baby and Three Fugitives. But Cousin, Cousine is a more delicate property than either of these and, to be fair, a more thoughtful approach has been taken with the remake.

The film is called Cousins, adapted by playwright Stephen Metcalfe and directed by Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys). One thing that can be said for the remake is that it handles the story with care. What can’t be said for the remake is that it discovers a fresh American feeling for the tale.

The movie takes two married couples, plus their families, and mixes them together. Larry (Ted Danson) is a dance instructor with a short attention span; “When it looks like I might be successful,” he explains, “I move on.” He’s married to Tish (Sean Young), whose flightiness seems to suit him.

When Larry and Tish attend his uncle’s wedding, Tish winds up in a dalliance with a car salesman, Tom (William Petersen). Larry spends a quiet moment with Tom’s wife, Maria (Isabella Rossellini). Before long, there are two new couples on the scene.

The romantic interplay in this foursome is the film’s main subject, but there’s also time given over to Maria’s mother (Norma Aleandro), Larry’s crusty father (Lloyd Bridges), and Larry’s teen-age son (Keith Coogan).

In fact, as it turns out, there’s not enough time left to go around. The movie wastes two good actors, Sean Young and William Petersen. Their characters are stick figures and given short shrift.

It’s a movie with a split personality; some sequences are made with sensitivity, others remind you that Joel Schumacher is the guy who directed the insufferable St. Elmo’s Fire. A few keen observations flit by, and then a corny homily comes crashing down (of Larry: “He’s a failure at everything except life”).

Cousins is at its best with the affair between Larry and Maria. Hesitant at first, they swear to be just friends, but a night at a lakeside resort (filmed in British Columbia) changes that status; it’s the movie’s most romantic scene.

Still, one of the film’s weaknesses is Danson’s performance. Sorry, Cheers fans, but this actor seems more suited to television than movies. On the big screen, his heavy brow and set-too-close eyes have the effect of closing him off; he’s blank, he doesn’t radiate light.

Isabella Rossellini, on the other hand, radiates all over the place. She is the best reason to see Cousins, giving a wonderful performance in which every moment seems invented on the spot. The movie glows when, having spent a day with her illicit lover, she walks into her husband’s car showroom and strides up to the camera, absolutely beaming, and says, “Hi!” Simple things matter in a movie like this.

First published in The Herald, February 1989

At this point Rossellini should have had her pick of Hollywood parts, even if this film didn’t do particularly well; but (although her career has of course been rewarding), things didn’t take off the way they should have. Or maybe she didn’t want that. Anyway, see her in this movie. The film’s director, Joel Schumacher, died a couple of days ago, and is enjoying a series of appreciations, a tendency that really ought to be nipped in the bud. (I get it, you grew up watching The Lost Boys in heavy rotation on cable and it spoke to you, but let’s not get carried away.) I did enjoy a couple of his films toward the end (including the entertainingly trashy Trespass), and that Vulture intervew he gave in 2019 was a better movie than most of his movies.


A Chorus of Disapproval

June 18, 2020

chorusdisapproval If it was directed with anything like sensitivity or savvy, A Chorus of Disapproval might be one of the low-key charmers of the year. It is not, but it’s still a painless and sometimes winning film.

Based on a play by Alan Ayckbourn, A Chorus of Disapproval draws profitably from its setting: an amateur theatrical troupe in the picturesque English seaside town of Scarborough. We are taken into this world by Guy (Jeremy Irons), who has just been transferred to the town by his company; the relocation follows the recent death of his wife.

On a whim, Guy enlists in the little theater group. They are in the midst of rehearsals for The Beggar’s Opera and yes, there may be a small part in it for Guy. “It’s not a vast part,” explains Dafydd, the troupe’s director/manager/tyrant and eccentric Welshman, describing the one-line role.

This director is the film’s plummiest part; he is played by Anthony Hopkins, who makes a delicious comic feast of it. Hard­-bitten, self-dramatizing, his round head pitched forward and his left eye squinting madly as though peering through the fog of other peoples’ inadequacies, Hopkins blusters through the role with ferocity and dry wit. (Dafydd learns of the death of Guy’s wife and softly asks, “Was it an accident?” When Guy replies in the negative, Dafydd can’t resist: “Deliberate, then?”)

Guy’s role in the play gradually expands, and so does his social life. First he finds himself irresistibly drawn to Dafydd’s wife (Prunella Scales), and they carry on a clandestine affair, or as clandestine as an affair can be in such a small town, which is not very. An affair with another married woman (Jenny Seagrove) begins during a misunderstanding at a wife-swapping party.

The movie is full of amusing episodes, which never seem to cohere: Director Michael Winner, who began his career making “Swinging London” comedies in the 1960s and then slipped into the Death Wish series (and other Charles Bronson crunchfests), doesn’t display any comic know-how. He breaks up perfectly good scenes with busy camera angles and intrusive editing.

More damaging, it’s difficult to know exactly what the movie is about. Guy’s character is so erratic – innocent and melancholy one scene, goofy the next – that the point of it all is elusive. And Winner always seems willing to go for the cheap laugh, which coarsens the film. Nevertheless, at least because of Hopkins’ performance, this movie calls for more approval than disapproval.

First published in The Herald, October 6, 1989

Sounds worth a look, despite its reputation, and I have a soft spot for stories about small-town theatre. Good British cast, with an especially notable turn from Prunella Scales, who was of course John Cleese’s wife in Fawlty Towers. Jenny Seagrove has had a long and varied career, but let’s just remember that she was Marina in Local Hero.


Bye Bye Blues

June 17, 2020

byebyebluesBye Bye Blues is one of those movies tailor­-made to be a sleeper hit, as indeed it was at the recent Seattle International Film Festival.

It’s indendentIy made, serious about its intentions, rich in period detail and tells the story of a woman finding herself during an enforced separation from her husband.

Which is to say; for my tastes at least, there’s something a bit goody­-goody about the whole thing, something just too cozy and politically correct about it all. I lodge this gripe, the better to note that Bye Bye Blues really is a good movie with a lot going in its favor. But it does tend to evaporate when it’s over.

This Canadian production opens in India, 1941, where a Canadian military officer (Michael Ontkean, immortal now as sheriff Harry S. Truman in TV’s Twin Peaks) receives orders to ship out to the war zone, thus sending his wife Daisy (Rebecca Jenkins) and their child home to Alberta.

After settling into small-town life, Daisy is terrified by the news that her husband’s squadron has been taken captive by the Japanese. Over the following years, without ever knowing whether he’s alive or dead, she must carve out her own life and support her children. This leads her to join a local swing band as pianist and singer, which puts her in the proximity of a romantic horn player (Luke Reilly).

It also takes her away from her children, when the band gains enough popularity to warrant touring. It is intriguing that writer-director Anne Wheeler has based this movie on fictionalized memories of her own mother’s career during World War II, and yet the element of the film that gets short shrift is the effect of the mother’s absence on her children. There’s something missing here. Daisy’s blossoming may be laudable, but at what cost?

The film tends to poke along, but Wheeler has a good eye for backcountry landscapes and 1940s design, and Jenkins gives a spunky performance (the festival audience voted her the best actress award). In other words: a sleeper.

First published in The Herald, June (?) 1990

Embraced by the SIFF audience, which I guess rubbed me the wrong way. Funny that this movie isn’t better known – but maybe it is? Wheeler has stayed in the Canadian directing world for years, and Jenkins’ work includes Bob Roberts and Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell

Farewell to the King

June 12, 2020

farwelltothekingIn a cameo appearance in the new film Farewell to the King, Gen. Douglas MacArthur pops up to suggest that “History is written by unusual men.” The movie seeks to tell the story of one unusual man, a man who would be king.

It’s intended as a sword-rattling boys’ adventure, adapted by director John Milius from a novel by Pierre Schoendoerffer. Milius loves the epic sweep of this type of story; he also made The Wind and the Lion, and he wrote Apocalypse Now. Clearly Farewell to the King is his Bridge on the River Kwai, and he splashes the screen with broad, ambitious strokes.

The movie follows a young British officer (Nigel Havers, recently seen as the doctor in Empire of the Sun) into the Borneo jungle in 1945. The Japanese are still present, but the Allies have turned the tide and are about to, as Havers puts it, “recapture – er, liberate the island.” Deep in the jungle, Havers and his companion (Frank McRae) stumble across a remarkable man.

The man is known as “Leroyd,” a corruption of the French phrase for “king.” He is an American soldier who has escaped from the Philippines a few years earlier, and he has gone native with a vengeance. A strong man with a mane of orange hair, he has become king of a few jungle tribes, and he has married one of their honored women (Marilyn Tokuda). He is played, with some magnificence, by Nick Nolte.

The problem at hand is that the serene jungle existence of the tribe is about to be overrun by the warring Japanese and Allies. Leroyd does not want to get involved at all, but the violence of the war forces his hand.

There are a number of interesting elements at play here. Oddly, Milius seems unable to fashion them into a really stirring narrative. Although there’s plenty of nervous creeping through the jungle (atmospherically filmed in Malaysia), the actual story­telling has a tendency to clump, especially as told in two distinct halves, separated by Havers’ brief return to civilization. The skeleton or a great movie is here, but the flesh is weak.

The characters talk a lot about the movie’s themes, such as the elusiveness of freedom. In fact, for an adventure movie, there’s all too much talk, and not enough action. Leroyd can talk all he wants about having duplicated King Arthur’s round table when he describes his peaceful jungle life, but we don’t actually see much evidence of Camelot.

First published in The Herald, March 1989

Milius spoke of the film being badly cut by Orion Pictures, and perhaps that explains some of the problems. It’s a terrific idea for a movie, and Nolte is great, but the movie on screen doesn’t fill out its very grand ideas.


Lean on Me

June 5, 2020

leanonmeLean on Me is based on the life of Joe Clark, the high school principal who took over a seething New Jersey school and whipped it into shape through an unbending belief in discipline. Clark was loved by some and despised by others, all of which made for juicy headlines a couple of years ago. (You may remember the image of Clark on the school steps, brandishing a bullhorn and a baseball bat).

Whatever his methods were, they seemed to get results. And those results have been deemed cause enough for Lean on Me, which tells Clark’s story in some fairly conventional terms.

The format has become familiar by now, the one about the teacher who strides into the chaos and inspires his students through the force of his personality. The format should be familiar, since it’s basically borrowed from countless Westerns.

When we first glimpse Eastside High, we hear the blare of “Welcome to the Jungle,” accompanied by scenes of a whole array of felonies being committed in graffiti-covered hallways. The stakes are clear, and Clark cleans house from the outset. His attention is focused on kicking out the malcontents, demanding absolute discipline, and teaching everybody the school song.

To its credit, the movie suggests that Clark’s unbending policies went too far at times. It suggests, but does not explore – the better to hustle toward the uplifting climax. Lean on Me was, after all, directed by John G. Avildsen, who directed the first Rocky. This means the issues are laid out as simply as possible, and solutions are a bit more handy than they are in real life; for instance, Avildsen shamelessly leans on the cardboard villains, a weak-kneed mayor and a belligerent school board member.

The fact that Lean on Me is based on a true story helps it achieve some effectiveness as an entertainment. And it’s fun to watch Morgan Freeman, who plays Joe Clark. Because of Clark’s apparent penchant for speechifying, Freeman is given the opportunity, every other scene or so, to deliver up a lengthy rave.

If you don’t recognize Freeman’s name, you might soon. He was nominated for an Oscar last year for Street Smart, a film few people saw, and Pauline Kael of The New Yorker magazine mused whether he might be one of the best American actors in the movies.

First published in The Herald, May 2, 1989

I wonder what I said about Freeman? This review appears to have been cut short by an insensitive editor. Kael actually said, “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?”, which stuck me at the time (her Street Smart review) as a fine piece of agitating. I’m surprised I misquoted it, but you didn’t have the internet in those days. Apologies to the late Bill Withers, unmentioned here, whose title song has had renewed currency in recent weeks.



May 25, 2020

gloryGlory recounts the true story of a stirring chapter in American history, that of the 54th Masachusetts volunteer infantry, one of America’s earliest black regiments. Formed in 1863 while the Civil War was ablaze, the unit was trained and led by a 25-year-old white colonel, Robert Gould Shaw.

Shaw’s men might have been used for merely symbolic value, but they insisted on combat duty, and performed heroically in a battle that, as the film duly notes, was ultimately quite futile. It is an intriguing American story, and the film, written by Kevin Jarre and directed by Edward Zwick, tells it with even-handedness and dignity.

Glory shifts between telling of the inner turmoil of Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick) and the development of the volunteers, who include a wry old-timer (Morgan Freeman), a friendly, stuttering Southerner (Jihmi Kennedy) and a fiery ex­-slave (Denzel Washington).

Shaw ought to be an interesting character, and he left lyrical letters that record his state of mind during the war months (some are read during the film). Yet he is the movie’s weak spot, a nebuloµs character who comes off as rather simple.

As an actor, Broderick looks right – he has the drooping eyes and mustache of a Matthew Brady photograph – but he can’t bring his own complexity to the role, and the movie drifts a bit, lacking a center.

Aside from that, and the embarrassing overstatement of James Horner’s music, Glory goes about the job of telling its story. The most remarkable thing about this is that the film makes the prospect of battle seem honorable, even desirable.

Now, it would probably be impossible for a movie to ever again depict war as unambiguously heroic. We’ve all become too jaundiced for that. And Glory duly notes the horror of war, in its opening sequence of Shaw’s disturbing experience at Antietam and in its portrayal of brutal, insane hand-to-hand fighting. But the fact is that black soldiers had something to prove by getting into the fight; much of white America believed that blacks wouid lack the courage to last in battle. The 54th smashed those beliefs.

Director Zwick’s previous feature was About Last Night … and he is one of the creators and guiding forces behind thirtysomething. Glory is therefore an unanticipated career move, and for the most part an admirable and welcome one, if not quite glorious.

First published in The Herald, January 12, 1990

Safe to say the film is considered something of a classic today, and it won three Oscars – for Washington, sound, and Freddie Francis’s cinematography. How naive of me to believe that nobody would make films that depict war as unambiguously heroic, but this was 30 years ago. Happy Memorial Day, anyway.

The Package

May 22, 2020

packageAs far as spy-movie footage goes, ABC-TV’s recent Nightly News “re-creation” of Felix Bloch’s escapades was slightly more convincing than The Package. But both cover familiar ground.

The Package, however, doesn’t pretend to be anything but fiction. It’s about an Army sergeant (Gene Hackman) who’s assigned to escort a troublesome soldier (Tommy Lee Jones) from Europe to the United States. When the “package,” as Jones is called, slips out of Hackman’s grasp, Hackman begins to sense an elaborate plot focusing on an upcoming U.S.-Soviet summit in Chicago.

The film, directed by Andrew (Above the Law) Davis, trots along at a competent pace. It has a few interesting threads that were either never developed or dropped on the cutting-room floor, such as Hackman’s bantering, loving relationship with his ex-wife (Joanna Cassidy). Perhaps the most intriguing of these threads is the pairing of Hackman and his package; Tommy Lee Jones has an offbeat, mysterious playfulness that jibes well with Hackman’s simple, blunt Army lifer. But they spend too little time together.

There’s also an Oliver North figure, played by John Heard, and a standard issue Chicago cop (Dennis Franz) who helps Hackman circum­vent official channels. But the different elements of The Package don’t come together, and its attempt at conjuring a sense of governmental paranoia seems tame compared to reality.

Hackman contributes a nice character study. He’s one of the few actors who can play simple characters without playing down to them, and that’s exactly what he’s up to here.

Hackman was in Seattle recently (he’s shooting a movie in Vancouver, British Columbia), and he spoke about his acting method. “Usually things that look effortless have a lot of hard work behind them,” he said, referring to his non-showy style. “I don’t take any of it very casually.”

Hackman described his early stirrings toward acting; walking out of a movie in his hometown of Danville, Ohio, he was stunned to catch his reflection in a mirror and not see Errol Flynn.

“I realized then that I was so involved with the character in the theater that I had really transferred myself into that. At that moment, I think I really decided that I would like to do this. I think I could do this.” After a stint in the Marines and some knocking around New York, he did it. Hackman has worked a lot in both leading and supporting roles, in the last couple of years. “I would do almost anything as an actor, if it was offered to me. I like to work. There are people out there who have some kind of parameters about how much work you should do. I don’t know who those people are. Let them talk to my ex-wife’s lawyers.”

First published in The Herald, August 1989

Hackman was working a lot in those days (oh, those lawyers), and I assume the Vancouver movie he was shooting was the Narrow Margin remake. This movie was a stiff, but Andrew Davis’s next two films were Under Siege and The Fugitive (both with Tommy Lee Jones, of course). Jones had Lonesome Dove come out the same year as The Package, and he was about to break through into the meat of his career. I had forgotten the Felix Bloch affair, but it was a spy case that got into the headlines at the time.