Burke and Wills

July 6, 2020

burkeandwillsThere is a built-in irresistibility about the stories of explorers, especially that particular brand of hero and madman who “goes where no man has  gone before” strictly for the sake of getting there first.

So many of these treks, whether to the top of a mountain or a polar end point, were staged not such much for king, country and the general good of mankind but rather the specific obsession of being first. That’s what makes these tales so fascinating.

Burke and Wills tells one of these tales, and a very  good one, too. It’s the story of an ill-fated dash across the continent of Australia – the first time the interior was crossed by white men – called the Victoria Exploring Expedition of 1860. Burke (Jack Thomson) was the Irish leader of the expedition; Wills (Nigel Havers) was the upper-class English scientist.

They and their party marched from Melbourne in the south to the ocean in the north, across a continent of parched nothingness. With a small group, Burke and Wills made it across. But getting back to Melbourne proved an insurmountable task.

The story is told as a stately Lawrence of Australia. The focus, rightly enough, is on the crossing, though we return frequently to life back in Melbourne, where Burke’s fiancee (Greta Scacchi) gazes longingly at mementos of her roughneck explorer, while the financial backers of the enterprise (rather easily caricatured) gradually lose interest in their far-flung adventurers.

At first the explorers are flush with the thrill of the journey, pausing to play a cricket match on a sandy riverbed at their base camp halfway across the continent. They end with a grim death march, struggling to maintain the last vestiges of civilized behavior.

The final blow comes when Burke’s nearly dead troupe returns to that base camp after a four-month march, only to find that the remainder of the party has given up hope and headed back to Melbourne just a few hours earlier. This incredible coincidence can only be justified by history: It really happened that way.

The director, Graeme Clifford, was born in Australia (although he has spent most of his career elsewhere), and has apparently always loved the story. His approach is sometimes overwrought, but he does capture the broad, brown vistas of the outback, and some of the madness of the trekkers.

Clifford could have pruned Michael Thomas’s script a bit. The cutaways to Melbourne life become redundant; worse is his tendency to overwrite dialogue. Larger-than-life Irish characters are always in danger of becoming overripe, and Thomas stumbles with some of Burke’s more inspirational moments – and his love scene: “You’re a foolish, empty­headed little creature … but I must have you!”

The major strength of Burke and Wills is the engrossing true story itself, rendered with all the foolishness and heroism of the mission. There are hints of Burke’s intense motivation to cross the land first, but in the end it springs from the same need as the film’s aborigines to leave their painted handprints on cave walls: the fundamental urge to say, “I was here.” That may be the noblest motivation of all.

First published in The Herald, April 24, 1987

Yes, I do like movies like this. Graeme Clifford came up as an editor before his feature directing bow with Frances; he also did Gleaming the Cube before veering off into TV movies. Jack Thompson is of course a giant of Aussie film, and Greta Scacchi had already made Heat and Dust for Merchant Ivory, thus putting her on the map.

Blind Date

June 23, 2020

blinddateEarly in Blind Date the two people who are about to embark on the titular event are meeting in her apartment. They haven’t seen each other yet, and the man has been told the woman has a lot of personality, so naturally he expects the worst. And just at the moment she’s about to emerge from the bathroom, the lights go out.

In the darkness, she wryly notes, “This really is a blind date.” He finds a match, lights it, and she walks into the light – a total knockout.

That’s a nice moment of enchantment. It’s also just about the last quiet moment they will share on this nightmarishly bad date.

He (Bruce Willis) is a gung-ho account executive, who needs a date for the evening because a very important client is having dinner with his firm’s executives. She (Kim Basinger) has been set up with Willis through a mutual friend.

There’s just one little thing – the hitch in Dale Launer’s screenplay. Basinger shouldn’t be allowed to touch a drop of alcohol, because she goes nuts if she indulges. It follows that the champagne is opened before long, the snooty dinner is a raucous catastrophe, and Willis loses his job.

That, as it turns out, is just the beginning, as the date broadens into a wild night and beyond, ending with the time-worn finale of an unhappy bride being rescued from the altar, which goes back at least as far as It Happened One Night and The Philadelphia Story.

There’s no one better to direct this brand of classical farce than Blake (Victor/Victoria) Edwards, who has danced this sort of fandango before. Edwards loads the film with the kind of slapstick that is absolutely rooted in logic – even when it turns surreal, as with the sudden movement of an entire house that Willis and Basinger are about to enter. (The building is being towed away intact.)

Edwards is a master of the running gag, which here includes the ceremonious ripping of mens’ vest pockets, as well as the persistent presence of a Doberman named Rambo. Edwards also mounts one of his patented hallway scenes, in which a bunch of characters in a series of adjacent rooms keep switching positions, unbeknownst to each other.

The other people involved are Basinger’s insanely jealous ex-boyfriend (John Larroquette of Night Court, a very funny man), plus Larroquette’s parents, William Daniels and Alice Hirson.

Willis, the manic star of Moonlighting, plays against type, cool and reactive here. The showy part is Basinger’s. She’s played some victims lately (9 ½ Weeks, Fool for Love), but she showed a streak of comedy in Edwards’ The Man Who Loved Women and she can still deliver uninhibited humor, and a casual throwaway line.

Much of Blind Date is very funny. I think, unfortunately, there’s also a flagging of that early enchantment. Some of the steam goes out of the movie, and the big climax is oddly lax.

Even with the nagging sense that something is missing in the movie, it’s awfully enjoyable. It’s still a reliable formula for movie comedy: There’s just something deeply satisfying about watching the worst happen to people.

First published in The Herald, March 1987

“A total knockout.” Too bro? I was still a young man, remember. Willis’s first big movie after launching in Moonlighting, and a pretty shrewd choice. Certainly this movie plays better than the next Edwards/Willis picture, the woebegotten Sunset. Apparently Madonna was almost cast in the female lead, which would have made for a rather different kind of movie. Henry Mancini did the music – but of course.


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

Black Widow

June 4, 2020

blackwidowNot since last year’s The Fly has a movie insect been so welcome on the scene: Black Widow is a voluptuous, sinful modern film noir, featuring two of our surest actresses. It’s a seductive mystery, teeming with delicious touches and unexpected colors.

What elusive director Bob Rafelson and his actors have done is transform a reasonably good story – about a federal investigator (Debra Winger) tracking down a woman (Theresa Russell) who marries rich men and kills them – into something entirely richer, more suggestive, than your average mystery movie.

Rafelson, an odd figure who makes movies only every few years (this is just his fourth since Five Easy Pieces in 1970), has come up with his most stylish film to date. The screen shimmers with knockout primary colors and perverse images: a red fan atop a deadly ebony liquor cabinet, the orange spout of a Hawaiian volcano as two characters stand in “the newest place on the planet,” the shiver of expressionism as Theresa Russell strides into a darkened room like Murnau’s Nosferatu. The story takes place mainly in Hawaii and Seattle (many interiors were shot in the old Seattle Post-Intelligencer building), and Rafelson extracts the maximum atmosphere out of each.

In terms of sheer suspense and the nimble unspooling of a complicated plot, Black Widow prohably offers more chewy fun than any film of this genre since Body Heat. My only nag is that the ending, in which justice is served, is actually something of a letdown (that’s how perverse the film is).

Rafelson is interested in more than simple yarn-spinning. As with his previous film, The Postman Always Rings Twice, he uses the film-noir mode as a vehicle for exploring the furtive passions and anxieties of people who are outside the mainstream. He’s intrigued by the dark, strange undercurrents that course through his characters’ lives.

So that, for instance, the murderess played by Russell – a character who ought to be repellent by realistic standards – becomes deeply alluring, both to the audience (well, to me anyway) and to Winger’s investigator. But it’s not black-and-white; her victims (played by Dennis Hopper, Nicol Williamson, and Sami Frey) are all sympathetically portrayed.

There are also surprises for Winger’s character; she is increasingly revealed as an empty figure, whose pursuit of the criminal becomes obsessive: she even strikes up an uneasy friendship with Russell. It’s some of Winger’s most controlled work ever.

Russell is a powerful actress who generally works for her husband, Nicolas Roeg, which means that lately she hasn’t been seen much (Bad Timing, Insignificance). I hope this role places her in the forefront of American actresses: that’s where she belongs. She moves through the film with delectable dangerousness, a ripe candy apple full of poison.

First published in The Herald, February 1987

Until going through these 80s reviews, I did not realize my Theresa Russell drum-beating was quite so strident. But there it is. There was something luscious and mysterious about the film; I wonder if that quality survives today? David Mamet turns up as an actor (he might have been shooting House of Games in Seattle at the time?), and the cast also has Diane Ladd, James Hong, Terry O’Quinn, and Mary Woronov. Conrad Hall shot it.


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.

The ‘Burbs

May 20, 2020

burbsI began enjoying The ‘Burbs even before the movie began. From the famous Universal Pictures logo, the Earth spinning in space, the camera abruptly moves toward the globe, swoops through the atmosphere, and glides down toward a small suburban street in Anytown, Ohio.

This kind of playful visual joke is typical of director Joe Dante, who continually recreates the world as his own version of a Road Runner cartoon. Dante, a film freak whose funhouse movies include Gremlins and Innerspace, can generally be counted on to provide a good time. The ‘Burbs is certainly that.

Tom Hanks, fresh from his double-barreled success last year with Big and Punchline, plays a mild-mannered chap who lives with his wife (Carrie Fisher) and son in a quiet suburban home. Hanks is taking a week off from work, but he isn’t going anywhere; he insists he just wants to bang around the house and putter.

But you know what they say about idle hands. Hanks’ attention is caught by the new next-door neighbors. Nobody ever sees the Klopeks around, but their house has been emitting weird noises at night. Someone suggests they’re “nocturnal feeders.” As Hanks’ gung-ho neighbor (Bruce Dern) puts it, “In Southeast Asia, we’d call this kind of thing bad karma.”

Then, another neighbor vanishes, leaving behind only a toupee. Suddenly, Hanks and friends are convinced that the missing man: was made victim in a human sacrifice, and that the Klopeks are probably devil worshipers, and possibly worse. “Great,” Hanks’ wife says, “a week in Jonestown.”

So Hanks, Dern, and another nosy neighbor (Rick Ducommun) determine to find the truth about the Klopeks. (Like Ozzie Nelson, no one ever seems to work for a living here.) This they do, in an escalating series of mishaps.

Dante shot the film on the Universal backlot (same placid street as the Beaver Cleaver and Munsters houses), and he whips everything up with his customary glee. The colors are as bright as golf clothes, the music is constant and oversized, the ensemble cast is littered with oddballs (Gale Gordon from I Love Lucy, B-movie icon Dick Miller, and, as the Klopek brothers, Henry Gibson and New York conceptual comic Brother Theodore).

One night Hanks has a bad dream, and he envisions himself trapped in perhaps the ultimate suburban nightmare: He’s been strapped to a huge backyard barbecue, the coals glowing red beneath him. It’s a sight as wild as anything in Ken Russell’s mad imagining. But much more cheerful.

Rick Ducommun, who plays Tom Hanks’ sidekick in the film, passed through town recently to promote the movie. He’s a stand­ up comic who regularly worked Seattle clubs during a stay here from 1982 to 1985. If you saw him then, you might not recognize him now; he’s lost more than 200 pounds in the last two years (at his biggest, he says, “They weighed me on a freight scale and it was like ringin’ the bell at the fair … DING!”).

For a virtually unknown actor, Ducommun’s sizable role as the local busybody represents a plum. “I figured, I stand a better chance of winnin’ the lottery than bagging this role,” he muses. “It’s a huge picture and who am I? Universal and Imagine [Ron Howard’s production company] did not want me. I’m sure they would much rather have gotten John Candy, or someone anybody had heard of. But they were all very gracious after the movie started.”

The Saskatchewan native has a couple of other movies due soon: Little Monsters, in which he plays the leader of monsters who hide under beds, and The Experts, a John Travolta comedy that may be released only on video. “I was beat up my whole life for trying to get laughs,” he says. “Someone was always sendin’ me to my room, sendin’ me to detention. Now I’ve discovered they’ll pay me and let me do what I want.” And he shakes his head.

First published in The Herald, February 1989

I watched this again a year ago, for the first time since it came out, and it is a really enjoyable, extremely silly film. It was Ducommun’s great movie moment, in a role so big it seems certain it was meant for John Candy or something. (Plus: Brother Theodore! Henry Gibson! and Dern is really funny in this “Whoa – ’bout a nine on the tension scale, Reub” – moment YouTubed here). In the interview, Ducommon was engaging and hyper, chugging bottled water. He died in 2015.

Back to the Future

May 15, 2020

backtofutureBack to the Future takes a traditional movie form – the time-travel movie – and throws in a completely off-the-wall element: namely, a comedic variation on the Oedipus legend. If you think that’s hard to do, you underestimate the imagination of the film’s writers.

The idea is this: A normal high-school kid (Michael J. Fox, of TV’s Family Ties) is a friend to an eccentric scientist (Christopher Lloyd) who claims to have created a time-travel car out of a rebuilt DeLorean. One night, in a deserted parking lot, Fox finds out the scientist is right. The plutonium­ powered vehicle sends Fox screeching back to 1955.

That’s the very year his parents were his own age. When Fox wanders through town, he is startled to run into his own father (a funny performance by Crispin Glover), and to see that the old man as a young man is the same clumsy wimp he is (was?) in 1985. But when Fox encounters his mother (Lea Thompson) as a lovely young girl, a disturbing realization sets in: His mother is beginning to fall for him.

Calling Dr. Freud . . . . You can see that Back to the Future has some irreverent spunk to it. So amusing is the premise that it’s easy to overlook the movie’s problems, and there are a few. Some of the chronology of Fox’s time in the past could’ve been neater; we’re left with long stretches in which we don’t really know just how he spends his time. And some of the culture-shock jokes are well-worn.

There’s also some goofyfooted exposition. A batch of elements need to be established early so they will pay off later; that’s smart screenplay structure, but the writers here don’t know how to get that across gracefully or naturally – some of the exposition practically has quotation marks around it. And  it’s not particularly well-acted; Lloyd, for instance, can play this sort of wild man role in his sleep, and he doesn’t seem to be roused to the occasion.

Fox has a tendency toward superficiality, although he is bouncy and energetic. He was a sudden replacement for Eric Stoltz (Mask), who was released from the production with a few weeks of shooting already in the can – no one outside the production knows exactly why.

That was the decision of director Robert Zemeckis. He and his screenwriting partner Bob Gale are former film students and protegés of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg produced their I Wanna Hold Your Hand and shot his own 1941 from their screenplay.

With Back to the Future, Zemeckis and Gale have paid Spielberg back for his patience. In its modest way, it’s a cute, zippy little movie that figures to do pretty well in this lackluster summer movie season. Spielberg, as “presenter” of the film, stands to gain something back from the critical drubbing that accompanied The Goonies, another Spielberg presentation.

First published in The Herald, July 4, 1985

So, finally got to this one. I think I hesitated because my Xerox of the review has lost a couple of lines from the bottoms of columns, which I tried to paper over here (without adding anything that will make me look clairvoyant). The ending feels abrupt, too; looks like I lost my last paragraph there. They screened this at the homely old Northwest Preview Room near the Seattle Times building, a baffling location for big films (they did a couple of James Bond pictures and Aliens there, too, and countless others – lousy way to see a huge movie). I think BTTF even screened with some effects still uncompleted. It was obviously going to go through the roof. There’s something basic about the movie I never truly liked, as entertaining as it is; it has something to do with the DeLorean (ooh, how cool, a fucking DeLorean) and Fox’s character – I guess I couldn’t be bothered to use the name Marty McFly for this review – craving a 4×4 as a car. What kind of a jerk kid dreams of owning a 4×4? (Not that I’d ever heard of one before this movie.)