April 6, 2020

relentlessArriving home in L.A., an ordinary guy listens to the message on his answering machine. “I called to see if you were home,” the calm voice says. “I have to kill you tonight.”

Sooner than you can say “Sorry, wrong number,” the ordinary guy has indeed been killed and the plot of Relentless has been set in motion. It’s a basic city-held-in-­the-grip-of-a-serial-killer movie, with Brat Packer Judd Nelson as the mad murderer. The creepy phone message is just about the last interesting touch in the movie, which quickly deploys itself in search of any kind of unpleasantness it can find.

Mostly it goes in the direction of buddy-cop formula. The two cops on the mad killer case are, of course, enjoying their first week as partners. And, wouldn’t you know it, they are exact opposites. One is an LA veteran (Robert Loggia), who’s gotten soft from all the sunshine and tofu; when he checks out a murder scene, he’s busy sizing up the layout. (Stepping over a body, he wonders, “What do these condos go for?”)

His new younger partner (Leo Rossi) is recently moved from New York, where they do this with a bit more zeal. His laid­ back wife (Meg Foster, wasted as usual) coaxes him into being more agreeable, by urging him to take out his hostility by talking nasty to plants, but the serial killer sends him into full Bronx throttle.

Much of the film is taken up with the leaden banter between tile two cops. Loggia and Rossi are good character actors, but director William Lustig, who recently weighed in with Maniac Cop, appears to have no touch with the lighter material.

As for the heavier material, well, it takes care of itself. Judd Nelson walks around looking a bit like Conrad Veidt in the silent classic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, his eyes buggy, his cheeks sallow, his arms held out from his sides. He also runs around the edges of building roofs.

Flashbacks reveal that the problems are the fault of his father, a brutal policeman who tormented his son. Rossi tries to unravel this psychological tangle by consulting a police psychiatrist. The doctor offers a refreshing opinion on the profile of the killer: “Maybe he’s just crazy.” The way Nelson plays the guy, that’s good enough.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

I know Lustig has a following, but obviously I was not into this one. I am intrigued by one sentence here: “He also runs around the edges of building roofs.” It must have been distinctive, or absurd, enough for me to mention it. But is it one of Judd Nelson’s signature things here? The film was written by Phil Alden Robinson, who used a pseudonym, presumably because Field of Dreams was already in theaters at this point.

Rude Awakening

April 2, 2020

rudeawakeningFor a movie with such a ridiculous premise, Rude Awakening has a surprising amount of sweetness.

It’s about two FBI-dodging hippies (Eric Roberts and Cheech Marin) who have hidden away in the Central American jungles for 20 years, and return to America 1989 to find that things didn’t turn out the way they expected.

All right, it sounds stupid. And, for the most part, it is, although the film is not the situation comedy it may sound. Actually, Rude Awakening takes some pains to treat its subject with thoughtfulness. Of course, the thoughtfulness is interspersed with marijuana jokes, so nothing ever quite works as it should.

The two hippies return to New York City to find that their two best friends have become straight-arrow members of the Establishment. One is a high­ strung businesswoman (Julie Hagerty); she’s horrified when they arrive on the rug of her sterile condo: “You still look like dirty, smelly hippies,” she says. “You look great, too,” they reply.

The other old friend (Robert Carradine) has cornered the market in tanning salons. The revolution, except in ultraviolet rays, got lost somewhere along the way. But it probably goes without saying that the reappearance of the two old comrades-in-arms does a lot to rekindle these ex-radicals’ former beliefs.

There’s plenty of silly nonsense, obviously. The idea that the committed hippies of the 1960s have turned into the soulless yuppies of the 1980s is a familiar one, but there’s comic mileage left in the cliché.

The movie’s funniest scene involves an uptight ultra-yuppie couple (brilliantly played by Buck Henry and Andrea Martin) invading Carradine’s home and coming face to face with the long-hairs, who are busy smoking weed and calling for revolution. Henry and Martin deliver such devastating comic caricatures that the proceedings spring to consistent life for the longest stretch in the movie.

Other than that, Rude Awakening has a tendency to get stuck in its own dewy-­eyedness (and it founders on Eric Roberts’ inability to play a simple leading-man role). But it could have been worse, and in a month in which we’ve been repeatedly told how meaningless Woodstock was, the film’s flower-power charm is even refreshing.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

People must have been marking the Woodstock anniversary that year, and this was a period when conservative pundits were fond of insisting that the Sixties were responsible for all our contemporary problems. So that’s what the last paragraph is about. In the review I keep talking about how ridiculous this movie is, but then acknowledging that it’s actually pretty good, so I don’t know why I was embarrassed about it. Co-director Robert Greenwalt previously did the fun Secret Admirer and went on to success in TV, including the Buffy the Vampire Slayer world. Co-director Aaron Russo later ran for office as a libertarian and made a documentary about the evils of the IRS, or something like that. So I’m not sure what’s going on there.

Physical Evidence

March 25, 2020

physicalevidenceAt a point late in Physical Evidence, public defender Theresa Russell turns to client Burt Reynolds and mutters the hokiest line in a movie full of hokey lines: “How did I ever get mixed up with you?”

Well she might ask. Russell is an actress whose career has been on a steady upward curve, mixing commercial movies (Black Widow) with her husband Nicolas Roeg’s more stylishly esoteric films (lnsignjficance, Track 29). With Physical Evidence, a project that would appear to have a measure of box-office success built into it, Russell steps straight into an unequivocal clunker.

It would be easy to blame this stinker on Burt Reynolds, the once-bright star who’s been jinxed for the last few years. Reynolds’ bad luck seems to be rubbing off on everything be touches. It’s been so terrible lately that he’s even gone back to television to try to revive his career.

However, Reynolds turns out to be the best thing about Physical Evidence. He plays a short-fused Boston cop who’s suspected in the murder of a sleazeball. Russell is the defense attorney who doesn’t quite know whether she should believe him. Does this sound at all like Jagged Edge or Suspect? It should, but only to the extent that this thing almost makes those movies look good.

The case, such as it is, dribbles along in its way to an entirely expected conclusion. Michael Crichton, who directed, is a kind of jack-of-all-trades who occasionally comes up with a dumbly entertaining movie (as with the loopy Tom Selleck sc-fi film Runaway). But Crichton can manage only a morbidly amusing prologue here in which a would-be suicide is distracted by a corpse just before he’s about to jump from a bridge. (The suicide has tied a sign around his neck that says, “Sorry Now?”) But the film is mostly humorless, and exceedingly drab-­looking; Crichton’s idea for a scene topper is to have Theresa Russell flip the bird to the prosecutor (Ned Beatty).

So there is Burt Reynolds, who appears to be attempting an interesting characterization in his first few scenes. He’s got the look and the movements down. His cop is a weary professional, a man of violence whose hair is showing gray and whose stomach is going to fat. Reynolds has a real bead on the guy, but then the movie seems to lose interest in him, and the formula takes over. Nice try, Burt, but the jury is still out.

First published in the Herald, January 28, 1989

Izzat a socko title or what? Physical Evidence is what it’s called, all sexed up and ready to fit into the 80s run of legal thrillers. Crichton did not direct a feature again, but returned successfully to his day job. For the record, Henry Mancini did the music and John Alonzo shot this one.

The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus

March 23, 2020

reincarnationgoldenlotusMovies from Hong Kong have been exciting film festival audiences for the last few years. These films tend to be breathless joy rides through weird mythical/supernatural territory. The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus is no exception; it’s a typically wild outing.

Golden Lotus is even getting off the festival circuit (it was shown at the recent Seattle International Film Festival) and opening for a regular theatrical run. It’s slightly less insane than many of the Hong Kong movies, and even has a feminist undercurrent, courtesy of director Clara Law, a Hong Kong filmmaker by way of the National Film School in London.

It opens with a beautiful woman in ancient China, Golden Lotus (Joi Wong), carrying her severed head to the Gates of Hell, her life having just ended via decapitation. Then the story skips ahead to the 20th century, where Golden Lotus has been reincarnated as a young woman whose beauty keeps inspiring bad things to happen to her. (These sorts of century-leaps are not uncommon in Hong Kong films.)

Eventually she marries a dimwitted fellow who wears ugly floral sport coats, whose chauffeur happens to be the very man who brutally betrayed Golden Lotus years before.

Also, she meets a seductive fashion designer (played by an actor with an incredible name, Sin Lap Man), who engages her in some kinky sex.

The whole thing turns around until she finds herself with a centuries-old case of deja vu. The events that led to her beheading are repeating themselves in modern terms.

Does this sound confusing? It isn’t really, because the movie shoots along quickly enough to cover any murky plot points. Hollywood ought to sign the director up to make Gremlins 3.

First published in the Herald, summer 1990

This review reads as slightly drunk, I’m afraid, and it looks like another piece that might have been shortened for length. The name listed in (I assume) the film’s contemporary publicity as Joi Wong refers to the actress Joey Wang, star of A Chinese Ghost Story; and, although I know it sounds juvenile, I stand by my awe regarding the name Sin Lap Man. Clara Law (and filmmaking partner Eddie Fong) has been working since this film, but I’m sorry to say I know little of her work.

Fat Man and Little Boy

March 3, 2020

fatmanFrom 1943 to 1945, one of the extraordinary stories of this century was playing itself out in the scrub desert of New Mexico; in a hastily assembled and isolated complex at Los Alamos, a group of the country’s greatest scientists were building a bomb. Or, to put it more precisely, the bomb.

The breakneck development of the atomic bomb in those months is a thrilling story of science and morality. It has been dramatized before, notably for television in Oppenheimer and Day One. Fat Man and Little Boy now joins the list.

Like previous treatments, the new film focuses on the incredible intellectual detective work that went into the creation of the bomb, as well as the ethical agony of Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant scientist who headed the project. The problem for Oppenheimer and the other scientists was that they were breaking exciting new ground, but they were also opening a Pandora’s Box that could never be closed again, and they knew it.

The script, by director Roland Joffe and Bruce Robinson, makes central the testy relationship between Oppenheimer (played by Dwight Schultz) and Gen. Leslie Groves (Paul Newman), the no­-nonsense Army man who was responsible for riding herd over the staggeringly expensive project. The movie is at its best when it pits these two crafty talkers against each other, despite the fact that they’re on the same side.

Oddly, the film veers away from this interesting pairing. Much of the middle section concerns a young scientist (John Cusack) who’s keeping a diary of the experience and also keeping time with a nurse (Laura Dern). There’s nothing wrong with this material – I assume much of it is fictionalized – but why is it so prominent? Were the filmmakers worried that two personalities as thorny as Oppenheimer and Groves couldn’t hold an audience’s sympathy, or interest?

As a director, Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields, The Mission) is better known for his facility with broad, sweeping sequences than for his storytelling ability. That holds true here. For the first hour of Fat Man, Joffe establishes almost no rhythm at all; the action is choppy. The two women in Oppenheimer’s life, his wife (Bonnie Bedelia) and mistress (Natasha Richardson), appear as extended footnotes. It almost feels like a three-hour movie cut down to two hours.

A lot of the later material works better, in part because of the inherent suspense surrounding the first bomb test. Joffe gets some good individual scenes; the morning darkness of the first blast, where the countdown to detonation is accompanied by an accidental radio pick-up of The Nutcracker Suite, is terrific.

At one point, Groves and Oppenheimer take in a ballet performance of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the significance of which, man toying with magical properties that are quickly beyond his control, seems obvious. But that same principle describes the film. This movie is also playing with something powerful, but can’t quite come to grips with it.

First published in the Herald, October 20, 1989

I still remember the Nutcracker Suite sequence. Other than that, I remember meaning to devote more time in this review to the curious casting imbalance: “Who’ve you got for Groves?” “Paul Newman, isn’t that great?” “Yeah, so who’s playing Oppenheimer?” “Oh, the guy from The A-Team.” Nothing against Dwight Schultz, a good actor (lately doing almost exclusively voice work and, according to Wikipedia, conservative radio). Just interesting. The supporting cast is interesting even beyond those mentioned here. Music by Ennio Morricone, photography by Vilmos Zgismond.

Blind Fury

February 13, 2020

blindfury“Well, well,” says the bad guy, “if it ain’t the walkin’ chop-o-matic.” That’s about the extent of the wit in Blind Fury, a new film about a very talented swordsman.

The walking chop-o-matic is a guy named Nick (what else?), who lost his eyesight in a mortar attack in Vietnam. Taken in by some mystically-oriented villagers, Nick was taught how to “see” despite his blindness, and how to handle a major­-league sword. When the story picks up in the present day, Nick is searching for an old Army buddy who is in trouble.

Nick takes his buddy’s son under his wing, and they go on a cross-country search for the father. They’re followed by thugs the entire time, but Nick – who can split a dragonfly in two just by listening for the buzz – is up to the challenge.

The movie is an excuse to mount enough fights to satisfy the crowd that supports kung fu movies, and to let Nick, played by Dutch star Rutger Hauer, show off some fancy swordsmanship. Martial-arts superstar Sho Kosugi makes a cameo appearance, and the movie also throws in ex­ prizefighter Randall “Tex” Cobb, who does his usual brawly schtick.

By now you’re probably wondering: A blind swordsman? What will they think of next? Well, actually, they didn’t even think of it this time; Blind Fury is based on a popular series of Japanese films about a blind samurai. This film doesn’t wear its cross-cultural pollination very well, as it veers between zen absurdity and redneck head-stompin’. Even the jokes seem like an awkward translation, except for two diverting low-life henchmen, who are so stupid they wind up knocking each other off.

Overall it’s pretty routine. I expected more from the director, Philip Noyce, an Australian who has displayed a thoughtful touch elsewhere (his previous film was the snappy Dead Calm). He doesn’t belong here.

First published in the Herald, March 17, 1990

I have to believe this review was cut for space, because it seems short, and I didn’t say anything about Rutger Hauer. The cast includes Terry O’Quinn, Lisa Blount, and Meg Foster. Someday ask me about the time I shared a 90-minute car ride with Philip Noyce from the Gdansk airport to a film festival in Bydgoszcz, without exchanging a word of conversation.


Chances Are

December 18, 2019

chancesareA real old-fashioned movie-movie, Chances Are is a welcome addition to the dismal Hollywood scene. It’s not a great film, but it is refreshing to see a traditional comedy format being smartly reworked by people who seem to care about the material.

A prologue, set in Washington, in 1963, shows the marriage of a young couple, their gushy happiness, and then the early death of the husband. But the husband doesn’t take his death lying down; in heaven (the customary version, with dry ice and jazz music) he demands that his spirit be reincarnated as soon as possible, so he can find his wife again. He’s promptly deposited into a newborn baby.

Jump ahead to the present day. The widow, Corrine (Cybill Shepherd), has been constant; never been with another man, despite the faithful and gentlemanly love of her best friend, Philip (Ryan O’Neal), who quite naturally pines for her.

Meanwhile, that same baby boy into whose mortal coil the dead husband’s spirit has shuffled, is now a young man: Alex (Robert Downey Jr.), a bright-eyed journalism student, who is brought to Corrine’s doorstep through a series of clever coincidences.

Alex doesn’t remember his past life – not yet – but he does know there’s something awfully familiar about Corrine’s house. Why, for instance, is he so sure the corn-holders are in the second drawer on the left?

One of the movie’s funniest sequences has Alex suddenly remembering who he was, and becoming very nervous about his attraction to this older woman, to say nothing of his ambivalent feelings about her – and his – college-age daughter (Mary Stuart Masterson).

Obviously, there are elements of such reincarnation classics as Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Heaven can Wait, and Made in Heaven. Director Emile Ardolino, in his first outing since the megahit Dirty Dancing, attempts to conjure some of the magical qualities of those films, and largely succeeds.

And this movie has romance to burn: tuxedos and evening gowns, a waltz to the sounds of a carousel, the Johnny Mathis theme song. The presence of Shepherd and O’Neal evokes a certain bygone style of Hollywood glamour, while the nimble performance of Robert Downey Jr., in his best role since The PickUp Artist, keeps the film lively. For the first time, Downey seems like a real leading man, charming and disciplined; his reactions as he twirls an enormous society matron around the dance floor at a fund-raising ball are evidence of some impeccable comic instincts.

The screenplay is by the sister team of Randy and Perry Howze, who also wrote Mystic Pizza. Aside from a disposable subplot about a corrupt judge it’s a nice piece of work; everything that gets set up in the deliberate, unhurried prologue has a payoff somewhere down the line. That sort of care brings the most satisfying results.

First published in the Herald, March 1989

It seems to have slipped off the radar, and I don’t think it was a big hit at the time. If I’m remembering right, I interviewed Ardolino for this film, and he clearly had a feel for movies, especially classic comedies. He died in 1993 from AIDS complications. Downey is terrific in this film, but so is Ryan O’Neal, displaying the gentler side of his screen persona. So the Howze sisters wrote three movies, and this is their final IMDb credit; what happened to them?