The Unbelievable Truth

April 14, 2022

For a movie that was filmed in 11 days on a shoestring budget by a first-time director in Long Island, The Unbelievable Truth is an entirely decent piece of work. Actually, it looks good by anybody’s budget.

This movie is part of an inspiring trend among young American independent filmmakers, who aren’t waiting for Hollywood to call. They’re making movies for themselves. Hal Hartley, the writer-director of The Unbelievable Truth, made his film for around $20,000 (small beer by Hollywood standards), but it turned out just fine, and the movie is all his.

The story, and Hartley’s style, embody some drop-dead hip attitudes. We meet a teenager (Adrienne Shelly) preoccupied with anxiety about a coming nuclear war. As she is trying to decide between college and a modeling career (both irrelevant, because the world won’t exist six months from now), a stranger comes into her life.

But he (Robert Burke) is no stranger to the town. He has been in prison for years, rumored to have killed a man. He goes to work in an auto garage owned by the girl’s excitable father (Christopher Cooke). Mysteriously, like a character out of Twin Peaks, she steals the stranger’s wrench and carries it around in her purse.

The film is full of absurdist tangents. A sample exchange of dialogue occurs between the girl and the daughter (Julia McNeal) of the man murdered years before:

“He seems like a nice man.”

“You think so? Even though he killed your father and your sister?”

“People make mistakes.”

For my taste, the film’s unceasing archness becomes monotonous, as though it were overly pleased by its own cleverness. Hartley doesn’t seem to have the sneaky depth of feeling that characterizes the films of Jim Jarmusch (Mystery Train), who works in a similar style.

Still, Hartley has made a great-looking movie, he’s put together a few fine running gags, and his eye for actors is excellent. Burke is a hunk in the making, while Shelly and McNair have beautiful, haunting faces. This director will be heard from again.

First published in The Herald, August 3, 1990

This was the first of Hartley’s indie successes. I guess I wish his career had been more consistent, but he’s certainly gone his own way, and I was moved by some of the action in Ned Rifle (2014), the most recent title of his I’ve seen. I don’t know what happened to Julia McNeal, but the cast also included Edie Falco, Matt Malloy, and Kelly Reichardt. I remember interviewing Hartley once at the University Bar & Grill on “The Ave” in Seattle, and he really liked my sunglasses; I had actually spent some money on them, which is unlike me, and I lost them soon after.


Valmont

April 12, 2022

Over the years, there have been many examples of different film versions of the same story. For instance, Frankenstein is remade regularly, and did you know that The Maltese Falcon had been filmed twice before its classic 1941 version hit the screen?

But rarely has a novel been adapted twice, with major productions, in such proximity to each other as Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the 1781 novel by Choderlos de Laclos, which was filmed last year as Dangerous Liaisons, starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer.

While Dangerous Liaisons was being filmed, so was Valmont, a version of the same story, adapted by Jean-Claude Carriere and directed by Milos Forman. Forman, the man who made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, is notorious for his painstaking approach to filmmaking. Valmont has been in production for years, and he could hardly have been thrilled when Dangerous Liaisons, released last Christmas, did nicely at the box office and was honored with a batch of Oscar nominations.

But it is always interesting to see how two different directors will treat the same story. Liaisons director Stephen Frears found a cool, brisk style with which to chart the devious doings of the sexually adventurous aristocrats. Forman is more deliberate, opulent, and romantic. The emotional life of these characters is closer to the surface.

Valmont (Colin Firth, of Apartment Zero) is a well-traveled seducer. But the purity of the married Madame de Tourvel (Meg Tilly) has him stymied. He cannot seem to break her down. And, in the process, his heart may be moving a bit.

“Can a man change?” he asks his confidante and soulmate, the widow Madame de Merteuil (Annette Bening). “Yes, for the worse,” she tells him, a typically terrible response. Madame de Merteuil is the hard diamond that keeps Valmont ticking. Her wicked plots trap everyone in her web. To strike back at her lover (Jeffrey Jones), a nobleman who plans to marry an adolescent virgin (Fairuza Balk), Merteuil enlists Valmont in a scheme to deflower the girl. Meanwhile, she bets him her own favors that he can’t bed down with the angelic de Tourvel.

Fans of Dangerous Liaisons will recognize the characters, but Valmont is different in detail and motivations. Forman’s film is more expensively lush and has more warmth, although I think the film takes an odd turn in its last act, and has at its core too great an enigma surrounding the character of Madame de Merteuil.

Forman’s tendency to cast lesser-known actors works nicely. Firth makes a more dashing Valmont than John Malkovich, although Malkovich’s performance seemed more charged and daring. But that may be because Valmont is almost a secondary character here; Madame de Merteuil is the central figure, and newcomer Annette Bening makes the most of the role. Bening, oval-faced and even-voiced, takes command of every scene she is in. We will be seeing more of her.

First published in The Herald, January 14, 1990

I would like to see this again. It certainly has a bunch of good people at an interesting moment. Bening’s next film was The Grifters. Firth and Tilly began a relationship on this movie that included having a child together. Strange to think that this was Forman’s follow-up to Amadeus, and he only made three features after.


When Harry Met Sally …

March 10, 2022

When Harry meets Sally, they are college students thrown together while sharing a ride from Chicago to New York. Both are moving to the Big Apple, but Harry is skeptical about being friends. He insists that men and woman cannot maintain platonic friendships. Inevitably, he says, “the sex parts” get in the way. Why bother?

Nevertheless, as we see in Rob Reiner’s new film, When Harry Met Sally…, a platonic friendship is possible between these two. At least, it’s possible until the sex parts get in the way. Maybe Harry was right after all.

Reiner’s story, which he developed with writer Nora Ephron, carries these characters over more than 10 years, during which they lose track of each other, find significant relationships with others (which ultimately fail), and settle into a comfortable best-friend groove. They call each other from bed when Casablanca comes on late-night television, and debate whether Ingrid Bergman should’ve stayed with Humphrey Bogart, but that’s the closest they come to sharing a bed until an impromptu hugging session turns serious.

This is a funny movie with a big laugh every three or four minutes, but it doesn’t go quite as deep as Reiner clearly intends. And Reiner has difficulty escaping the long shadow cast by Woody Allen’s movies, especially Annie Hall. Reiner’s vision of Manhattan is quite loving – two friends discussing important stuff at a hot dog stand on the corner, lovers walking through Central Park – but we’ve seen these things before, and better, in Allen’s films.

Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan play Harry and Sally; their good friends, who naturally find happiness with each other long before Harry and Sally do, are played by Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher. Ryan is still maturing as an actress, but she has a couple of confidently managed showstoppers, including a scene in a crowded deli in which she demonstrates the technique of faking an orgasm. (The house is almost guaranteed to be brought down each time this scene plays.)

Crystal, better known as a comedian than an actor, seems a curious, superficial choice at first, but he eventually settles in. With his unerring sense of where to aim a one-liner, he’s obviously what Reiner wants in the role.

When Harry Met Sally … is above all a vehicle for Rob Reiner’s blend of sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and Borscht-belt comic instincts (the latter honed, no doubt, at the knee of his father Carl who wrote for Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar and created “The Dick Van Dyke Show”). After he capably directed other peoples’ stories in Stand by Me and The Sure Thing, you have the feeling Reiner is telling his own story this time. It’s a nice one.

First published in The Herald, July 13, 1989

For a movie that seems to have taken a secure place as a modern comedy classic (“modern” even though over 30 years old now), it’s a little surprising that it got only one Oscar nomination, for Ephron’s screenplay. It’s a well-jiggered piece, with many funny moments, but I will say that its central premise, that a man and woman cannot be friends, seems very un-modern, and more suited to a 1950s Doris Day picture – but then I find a lot of Ephron’s attitude and humor to be retrograde, despite her comic gifts.


A World Apart

February 23, 2022

In the early scenes of A World Apart, a 13-year-old girl in Johannesburg in 1963 witnesses a black man run over on the street, and the uncaring reaction of the white passers-by. To smooth over the distress, her mother offers to buy her a new hairdo.

By the time the movie is over, such a benign response is impossible. The little girl (played by newcomer Jodhi May) is the daughter of a liberal journalist (Barbara Hershey) who opposes apartheid, but prefers to keep her activism away from her three daughters. When the mother is thrown into jail, under the pernicious 90-day detention act (under which a person might be held in prison for 90 days without being formally charged), the daughter becomes slowly radicalized, despite having been kept in the dark for most of her life.

A World Apart follows Richard Attenborough’s well-intentioned Cry Freedom as a mass-market condemnation of apartheid, and like that unsuccessful film it tells its story through the eyes of the white people who opposed the system, not the blacks. But A World Apart eschews the grand-gesture theatrics of Attenborough’s film and opts for the intensely personal story of the young girl.

She’s wonderfully drawn and acted. There’s no attempt to endow her with any special brilliance. She’s simply a gawky, giggly adolescent. When she tags along when her mother covers a strike, one of the black workers asks her, “You come to march with us?” She looks up innocently and says, “I can’t, I have to go to school.”

The girl knows that something is wrong when her father (Jeroen Krabbe), also an activist, leaves in the middle of the night and soon the other girls at school are whispering about her.

What makes all of this so effective is the authenticity of the story. Shawn Slovo, the screenwriter, was in fact a little girl in South Africa whose parents were arrested. Her mother, Ruth First, upon whom the Barbara Hershey character is based, was harassed by the authorities and eventually assassinated in 1983.

Slovo’s script, then, is clearly the real thing. Not just in the errant details of time and place (such as the inane cheerfulness of Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again,” a hit at the time), but in the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship. The girl, naturally enough, thinks of herself first, and wonders why the mother has time for causes but not for her daughters. The mother herself is troubled by this, and her jail interrogator (David Suchet) taunts her by saying that her “Joan of Arc thing” is “just an excuse for being a terrible mother.”

A World Apart is directed by Chris Menges, the British cinematographer who has photographed some of the best-looking movies of recent years (he won Oscars for The Killing Fields and The Mission). This is Menges’ first feature job as director, and while the film is effective in its way, there is a certain stiffness and awkwardness about Menges’ work that doesn’t quite make the material sing in the way that it should.

A World Apart won the Special Grand Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and also won there for best actress, a prize shared by Barbara Hershey, Jodhi May, and Linda Mvusi, who plays the family housekeeper.

First published in The Herald, July 15, 1988

Mvusi’s sole screen credit; is she the only person to win an acting award at Cannes for her only film? Jodhi May appeared in The Last of the Mohicans a couple of years after this, and has gone on to a busy career. Hans Zimmer did the music. Menges directed a few more movies and then went back to being a cinematographer, a job at which he is superb.


We Think the World of You

February 9, 2022

We Think the World of You is an utterly quirky, completely ingratiating little British movie about a man and a dog. To be fair, it’s about a lot of other things as well, but somehow the dog, a splendid German Shepherd named Evie, keeps grabbing center stage.

Based on a novel by Joseph R. Ackerley, the film is a character study of a genteel and cultured homosexual named Frank (Alan Bates) in London in the 1950s. Frank has had an affair with a raggedy young sailor, Johnny (Gary Oldman, who played Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy). At the beginning of the film, Johnny lands a one-year jail term for a minor offense.

Johnny leaves behind a pregnant wife (Frances Barber), a couple of kids, and his no-guff, lower-class parents. Frank befriends them all.

Frank’s finery is out of place in their slummy neighborhood, but he regularly visits Johnny’s parents anyway, a babbling mother (Liz Smith) and a broken-down stepfather (Max Wall). These two care for a perfectly horrid baby, Johnny’s infant son. They also care for Evie, Johnny’s dog. This is where the film begins to curve in unexpected ways.

Frank, who feels hurt that Johnny won’t let him visit in prison, transfers his anxieties and affection to the dog. He claims not to be an animal lover, but he pities the hound, cooped up (like Johnny) in a cramped courtyard.

Evie becomes a bone of contention in the family. Frank fears the dog will shrivel from neglect; the others don’t appreciate Frank’s attention. You soon get the idea that when they argue about Evie, they’re really arguing about their other problems and worries.

I should mention at this point that this movie is a comedy. Perhaps not of the thigh-slapping variety, but a droll comedy nonetheless.

Aside from Colin Gregg’s careful, well-judged direction, a lot of the humor comes from the work of Alan Bates, who gives his best performance of the decade (along with his role as the forlorn spy in An Englishman Abroad). Bates’s fastidious, civilized Frank is wonderfully perplexed by the dog, but he soon gives himself over to long, spirited walks by the riverside with Evie. He even lets her take over the armchair in his tidy flat.

No review of the film would be complete without kudos for the dog. Evie, we are told, is played by an Alsatian named Betsy. Magnificent creature. The look on her face as she sits by the fire in Frank’s apartment communicates an almost human contentment: a great actor’s moment.

First published in The Herald, February 9, 1989

Haven’t seen this film since, but it sounds like a good re-visit. Director Gregg stuck to UK TV after this. Alan Bates was only in his mid-fifties here, but his future film and TV career, though busy enough, is surprisingly minor, save for choice things like Claudius in the Branagh Hamlet and a turn in Gosford Park; I assume he continued to work on stage.


Withnail & I

February 3, 2022

It’s 1969, a decade is collapsing, and two would-be actors wake up in their seedy London apartment. Debauched and shaky, they are suffering from the accumulated hangover of that overextended decade. One of them surveys their wasted room and bedraggled selves, and announces, “We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell.”

That’s one of the many bitingly funny lines of dialogue in Withnail & I, a wonderfully acerbic English film by writer-director Bruce Robinson. Robinson’s semi-autobiographical screenplay (and his directing debut) takes these two dissipated blokes through a misadventure in the countryside, where they embody the hopes and disillusionment of the time, and finally find their separate directions.

Withnail is the more florid of the two; Marwood is a quieter chap, still in awe of his friend’s flamboyance. Both are notably unsuccessful in landing jobs: Withnail becomes incensed when beaten out for a low-rent cigar commercial.

Their jaunt in the country takes them to the cabin of Withnail’s uncle (Richard Griffiths), who isn’t using the place at the time. They prove to be completely inept at the most rudimentary living skills, such as making a fire, confronting farm animals, or preparing food (a neighbor presents the puckish pair with a live chicken, which presents an utterly perplexing situation: “How do we make it die?” wonders Withnail).

Then the uncle unexpectedly arrives, with romantic designs on Marwood. The prankish Withnail encourages his uncle, which leads to a farcical chase around various rooms of the old house.

Robinson (who wrote The Killing Fields) finds a marvelously black tone for all of this. He never lets the cleverness of his dialogue become an end in itself, but always makes the words serve the character. And there’s just the right dose of rue that creeps in – particularly surrounding Withnail, who revels in his self-dramatic outrageousness but senses the failure of his acting ambitions.

The actors who play Withnail and Marwood, Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann, are not well-known, but they should be hereafter. They are vocally deft, but also physically hilarious. Some of their physical work is highly memorable: McGann in the country kitchen, recoiling from the uncle’s unwanted advances while absurdly trying to remain polite; a hungry Grant bellowing, “I want something’s flesh!” while striding imperiously through a country stream, sighting fish and blasting away point-blank with a shotgun.

First published in The Herald, June 1987

Grant and McGann have rarely been out of work since. It opened at the Ridgemont in Seattle, a good theater for that kind of thing. In the UK this film has lofty status, understandably so. Robinson’s next film was How to Get Ahead in Advertising, a funny/weird movie, but he directed very little after that (George Harrison’s HandMade Films produced both pictures).


The Wash

February 2, 2022

In recent years, a new group of filmmakers have made movies that describe life within Japanese-American communities. These filmmakers include Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing, Dim Sum), Steven Okazaki (Living on Tokyo Time), Peter Wang, and Michael Toshiyuki Uno, the latter until now a documentary director.

Uno has made his first feature, The Wash, and it’s my favorite film of the bunch. Written by Philip Kan Gotanda (whose play Yankee Dawg You Die is playing in Seattle), The Wash is a fresh and lyrical piece that explores a familiar family crisis within a rich ethnic context (it’s set in San Jose’s Japantown).

As the film opens, the family situation is in flux. In her late middle age, a wife, Masi (Nobu McCarthy) has left her husband (Mako). She has grown weary of his domineering behavior, and understandably so; the grouchy old man has a manner as snowy as his hair. She still does his laundry, however, which keeps the tenuous connection alive.

But both have new interests. Masi has begun to date a widower (Sab Shimono) who, while nice, considers it his duty to teach her the finer points of cleaning fish. Meanwhile, in his own brusque way, Nobu has struck up a friendship with a waitress (Shizuko Hoshi) who gives him free food down at the diner. A friend warns her, however: “He only wants you for one thing – your tempura!”

The couple has two grown daughters, who respond differently to the breakup. Judy (Marion Yue), who has been ostracized by her father for marrying a black man, thinks it’s the best thing her mom could do. But Marsha (Patti Yasutake), a less rebellious daughter, is busily trying to shore things up in her parents’ marriage.

When she invites them for a peace-making dinner, her plotting almost works. The couple begin to reminisce about their youthful romance, which took place in a Relocation Camp during World War II (“You were the best dancer in all the Relocation Camps,” muses Nobu). However, the planned reconciliation goes awry over a characteristic marital dispute about how much sugar and milk go in Nobu’s coffee.

The Wash is full of small, beautifully crafted scenes like that. Gotanda’s dialogue is always modern and to the point, and the scenes unfold in a logical, unhurried progression. Plus, the film gives meaty roles to some actors who rarely get to shine in Hollywood movies.

First published in The Herald, October 1988

Most of Gotanda’s work has been in the theater, which is also how The Wash began. Nobu McCarthy and Sab Shimono had been in the theatrical production; so had George Takei.