The Quiet Earth

March 27, 2020

quietearthSome months ago, little New Zealand attracted the world’s attention when it quixotically declared itself a nuclear-free zone in response to nuclear tests in the South Pacific. The country’s declaration seems relevant to the newest film to come out of New Zealand, which, although it doesn’t actually name nuclear weapons as the source of the apocalypse it portrays, is obviously an analogical version of life after a nuclear war.

The Quiet Earth is the work of the leading filmmakers in New Zealand: director Geoff Murphy, whose Utu was one of the most intriguing movies of the past year, and actor/co-screenwriter Bruno Lawrence, who gave brilliant performances in Utu and Smash Palace.

For The Quiet Earth, they’ve adapted a science-­fiction novel by Craig Harrison. It’s one of those end-of-the-world things, in which a survivor searches for the reasons for the catastrophe, and for other survivors.

In this case, the survivor, played by Lawrence, may have had something to do with the apocalyptic disaster. He’s a research scientist who’s been working on a top­-secret project called Operation Flashlight, which was supposed to construct an energy grid that would circle the earth. This would allow high-flying planes to refuel without landing.

One sunny morning, Lawrence wakes up, vaguely aware of a slight atmospheric zap. When he goes out, he discovers that at 6:12 that morning, Operation Flashlight was launched. The grid was constructed, but there was a little side effect: every animal on Earth was vaporized. Lawrence finds everything empty: lights are on, engines are running, tables are set – but the people are gone.

He has no idea why he’s still around, but he guiltily guesses it might be some sort of retribution for his part in the destruction. “I’ve been condemned to live,” he mutters.

Lawrence fights off the madness that might come from such solitude. He paints billboards that say, “Am I the only person left on Earth? Please contact me at …. ” He sends out radio messages. He takes comfort in the godlike freedom he has: living in the best houses, drinking the finest champagne, wearing snazzy clothes.

He will, well into the film, meet other survivors; a hip young girl (Alison Routledge) and a Maori – one of the native New Zealanders, comparable to the Indians of the United States – played by Peter Smith.

Obviously, these people each “represent” something, but Murphy doesn’t let them become symbols at the expense of the characters. And he imbues the film with the same kind of weird, sidelong humor that sparked Utu.

Some of the visuals are unforgettable: a huge, shimmering orange sun rising into a red sky in the film’s opening shot; Lawrence playing the saxophone down a deserted, rainy street at night; the final, enigmatic image, where Lawrence strides toward something impossible but nevertheless visible.

This ending is inexplicable. Lawrence has spouted some gobbledygook about the space-time continuum being disrupted, and that may provide a clue. Or not. The ending is curious, but it certainly is beautiful, and it’ll rattle around in your mind for a long time after.

First published in the Herald, November 15, 1985

I just re-watched this one, having carried fond memories of it for years. It’s still effective. This review is probably spoiler-heavy by 2020 standards, although there isn’t much that would be surprising to anybody who likes Last Man on Earth movies. And what an ending! I don’t know why I said the ending was inexplicable, as the film does prepare a couple of distinct possibilities, which fit neatly into the imagery we see. The music, by John Charles, has a big effect on the final sequence as well; it’s a big orchestral piece with distinctly sci-fi moodiness. Lawrence was always an interesting actor, with his boxer’s face and odd sense of vulnerability; Smash Palace is an amazing showcase for him. Funny how times change; I felt the need to explain “Maori,” which I wouldn’t do today.

Plain Clothes

March 26, 2020

plainclothesA teacher staggers into a high­ school classroom, glassy-eyed and mumbling. Nothing too unusual about that, you think, until he falls to his knees, mutters the cryptic phrase “Easy grader,” then falls dead, a knife in his back. The students seize the opportunity for an impromptu recess.

This nutty opening sets the tone for Plain Clothes, which uses a recently popular movie plot – adult returns to high school posing as a student – and finds new, funny material in it. In this instance, the adult is a Seattle cop named Nick Dunbar (Arliss Howard, Cowboy from Full Metal Jacket) whose teen-age brother is accused of the murder; Nick returns to school under the alias Nick Springsteen. “Any relation?” people keep asking him. “Distant,” he says mysteriously.

The uncovering of the plot is the excuse for some utterly pixilated comedy, a mix of rapid-fire offbeat verbal exchanges and daffy character pieces. Nick meets a gallery of suspects, including the sawdust­ covered shop teacher (George Wendt) with the obligatory missing fingers; the semi-hysterical administrator (Diane Ladd) who uses the cast on her arm for different kinds of emphasis; the crazed principal (Robert Stack) whose public address system is his lifeline, and possibly his only connection, to the world.

This movie is stuffed with black­ humored details and bizarre moments (a police SWAT team descends upon a suspect holed up in a kiddie park of elf houses). The sound­ track is full of offscreen asides that recall the layered, did-I-just-hear-­what-I-thought-I-heard gags of a Richard Lester movie. Even the romance is off-kilter, as Nick the student finds himself lusting after a teacher (Suzy Amis).

Up until the time when it has to start paying attention to the matter of sewing up its plot (which doesn’t make much sense, and doesn’t really need to), Plain Clothes establishes the dizziest comic atmosphere of any movie so far this year. Much credit for this goes to director Martha Coolidge, who made the entire film in Seattle and returned recently for some interviews.

While here, she talked about comedy, the form she has found herself in despite her background as a maker of substantial documentaries.

“You have to take comedy seriously,” she says. “It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it’s true. One of the effects of TV is to dilute certain kinds of comedy. TV skits have invaded movie comedy; you can have one great scene, and that’s it. The great comedies in the world have great characters.”

Coolidge’s features, Valley Girl and Real Genius, were notable throwbacks to a more traditional kind of screwball comedy. Valley Girl, for example, may have begun life as a teen exploitation pie, but Coolidge drew out all the hot, Romeo and Juliet romance of the situation, eschewing the usual titillation of the genre. In movies, she said,”Romance and sex are more powerful the more withheld they are.”

Of casting the serious actor Arliss Howard in Plain Clothes, she says, “I always thought of this as Steve McQueen Goes to High School.” She says she wanted the contrast of the crazy things happening to the non-comedic lead, and admits, “I don’t think anybody would have thought of putting Arliss in a comedy except me.”

Her next film will probably be another comedy, but she’s also been working on a military action movie and a TV pilot full of “male bonding and humor. I’m offered a lot of women’s pictures,” she says. “Directors get typecast. A big hit would be very helpful.”

Regardless of how Plain Clothes performs at the box-office, Coolidge is a hot property.

First published in the Herald, April 15, 1988

I interviewed Coolidge a couple of times over the years; the more substantive one came for a Film Comment story about Rambling Rose, her terrific (and weirdly undersung) 1991 film. A smart filmmaker who deserved the “big hit” that might have given her more opportunities (still, an admirable collection of films). 

Top Secret!

March 17, 2020

topsecretAt one point in Top Secret! the rock-singer hero bursts out into a little ditty called “How Silly Can You Get?” The remainder of the film may be considered an answer to this question. That answer: Very silly indeed.

Top Secret! presents an un­blushing cavalcade of corny jokes, outrageous sight gags and painful puns. That said, it should come as no surprise that the film is the work of the people responsible for Airplane!, that jumbo jet of foolishness from a few summers back. They also did the late, lamented TV show, Police Squad.

“They” are Jim Abraham, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, and they’ve come up with a fit topic for their brand of parody: World War II movies. Now, Top Secret! is set in the present, and the plot involves some nonsense with an American rock ‘n’ roller (Val Kilmer) whose songs about skeet shooting while surfing have put him on the cover of every major magazine. He’s been sent as a good-will ambassador to East Germany, where he becomes mired in intrigue.

That’s just an excuse to unreel some hilarious send ups of every reliable cliché from the WWII genre. The East Germans look suspiciously like movie Nazis, and there are members of the French Resistance who are lurking quite unaccountably behind modern German lines.

Almost anything is fair game as a target for the machine-gun jokery. Midgets, East German women athletes, the Ford Motor Company – no one is immune. But the real subject of the parody is the cinema. Movie convention and style are wittily and lovingly lampooned.

Not that the humor can be termed sophisticated. But there is good sense behind the jokes, and in the rhythm and the timing of the film. There’s also a sense of friendliness. These guys may perpetrate some outlandishly dumb gags, but they’re not dumb themselves. They know what they’re doing.

War movies and Casablanca are the main source of inspiration, but the scatter shot unloaded by Top Secret! also hits such diverse films as The Blue Lagoon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Wizard of Oz. For good measure, there’s a slap at break dancing, as our hero starts spinning around the floor and bores a hole through to the basement.

What more to say after you’ve considered guest star Omar Sharif, who gets turned into a compacted car; guest star Peter Cushing, who plays his entire role backwards in the space of a single shot; or the most, uh, unusual version of the Nutcracker ballet ever? Not much, because to repeat the jokes is to ruin the movie. Better to keep them top secret.

First published in the Herald, June 23, 1984

Watched this again in the last year and yes, it holds up, gleefully. It was Kilmer’s first film, followed by Martha Coolidge’s fine Real Genius. At the time it was considered something of a box-office disappointment, if I’m remembering right, but it seems to be pretty beloved today. ZAZ came to a University of Washington screenwriting course when Airplane! was in first release, and proved how smart they were about building gags and tying them together.

Pelle the Conqueror

March 10, 2020

pelleThis spring, when the Danish film Babette’s Feast was winning a well-deseved Oscar for foreign language film, another Danish movie was copping the grand prize for best film at the Cannes Film Festival. That film is Pelle the Conqueror, an epic work now playing in the United States.

By the looks of things, Pelle will probably conquer the States, too, and another Danish Oscar is very possible. This is a beautifully paced, intricately textured film from director Bille August, who had a hit a few years ago with an excellent coming-of-age story, Twist and Shout.

Pelle is also about growing up. Pelle, played by newcomer Pelle Hvenegaard, travels with his impoverished father (the great Max Von Sydow) from their native Sweden to Denmark near the beginning of this century; the father fills Pelle’s head with visions of a land where children play all day and brandy is as cheap as water. But Denmark  turns out to be just as cold and bitter as Sweden.

They get jobs on a farm, where the farmhands’ conditions are just above the slavery level. The master is a mean philanderer whose illegitimate children are scattered around the countryside (in particular, a weird, deformed little boy who strikes up a friendship with Pelle); his wife, it is rumored, turns into a werewolf at night Pelle is taunted by other children for being a foreigner, and he slowly realizes that his father is a broken man, kowtowing to the vicious farm foreman. Pelle’s hero is another farmhand, Erik, who dreams of saving enough money to strike out for America.

One of the movie’s best scenes shows Erik’s spirit. When a Christmas Eve dinner on the farm is not the expected pork but the same old herring, Erik shoves his food away, storms into the yard with his accordian, and begins dancing around in the falling snow as he plays Silent Night. He is the film’s most colorful character, and he provides the impetus for Pelle to eventually go his own way in the world.

I assume that a lot of the film’s richness comes from the source novel, by Martin Anderson Nexo. The Pelle books form a series, and evidently August plans to film the whole set. This is, however, a self-contained movie; the open ending recalls Truffaut’s 400 Blows, in which another boy had to strike out on his own.

August is a good director, although he isn’t enough of a stylist to turn this into a really great film (as Truffaut was). But it certainly is a very good one, full of haunting images: a frozen boatload of people washing ashore among the ice floes; a drowned baby glimpsed at the bottom of a river; Von Sydow’s quizzical face as he ponders his son’s question about whether America floats around in the sea or is fixed to the ocean floor.

Pelle the Conqueror is full of these moments, so that the movie is alive and often magical despite the harshness of the characters’ lives. If the subsequent installments maintain this level of quality, we have something to look forward to.

First published in the Herald, December 29, 1988

Max von Sydow died yesterday; he was mighty indeed in this film, which did go on to win the Foreign Language Film Oscar the following year. August’s Twist and Shout is a fondly remembered coming-of-age movie, and his Best Intentions is a superb treatment of Ingmar Bergman’s script. After that, a somewhat odd career.

A Room with a View

March 6, 2020

roomwithviewFor a filmmaking partnership that relies mainly on literary adaptations and India-themed stories (The Europeans, Heat and Dust), the Merchant Ivory group has been remarkably prolific. That in itself is a welcome rebuke to the theory that you’ve got to commercialize your product to stay afloat in the movie biz, even if Merchant Ivory’s output has varied in quality.

With their newest film, the group – director James Ivory, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and producer Ismail Merchant – has assembled its most enjoyable and accessible film in years. A Room with a View, an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel, is shaping up as the kind of arthouse hit that such producers dream about. It’s more enjoyable, and more modest, than David Lean’s film of Forster’s A Passage to India.

The story of the heroine of A Room with a View is summarized by another character, a novelist who wants to write a book about her: “A young English girl transfigured by Italy.” Though most of the story is set in England, it is the passage to Italy at the beginning of the film that changes the life of Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), who is chaperoned in Milan by her hapless escort, Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith).

While there, they meet Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliot) and his son George (Julian Sands), the latter a handsome fellow who may be too free-spirited for Miss Bartlett’s tastes. When George plants an impulsive kiss on Lucy’s lips, the ladies promptly flee back to England – Miss Bartlett mortified, Lucy rather intrigued.

Back in England, Lucy is courted by the monied Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis), a goony young aristocrat who sees Lucy as another possession and has an abstract view of her: “Did you know you were a Leonardo, smiling at things beyond our ken?” he rhapsodizes.

She agrees to marriage; but the arrival of George throws everyone into a tizzy, especially Lucy, who must choose between the safe life with Cecil and the romantic life with George.

Ivory and Jhabvala have thankfully freed the film from the kind of literary-adaptation stuffiness that harmed their film of The Bostonians. It’s very much a comedy of manners throughout, even turning into slapstick with the arrival of Cecil (who is rather unmercifully lampooned, especially his tea-time swatting of an insistent bee).

The film thus rolls merrily along, easily carried by Bonham Carter (Lady Jane), whose untrained naturalism is appropriately contrasted with the skillful technique of Maggie Smith and the other experienced actors. Sands doesn’t quite suggest the mystery and romance that George should represent, but his big scene, the kiss in the middle of a knee-deep, waving field of barley, carries the day anyway.

Ivory may not be a poetic director, or one who pursues the possibilities of the medium, but there’s something to be said for solid storytelling, and for his success in sustaining the comic tone. The view here is well worth observing.

First published in the Herald, April 2, 1986

I suspect the only reason I wrote about Bonham Carter’s lack of experience is that I had already interviewed her for Lady Jane, and knew she hadn’t gone the acting school route. This is a delightful movie, and Exhibit A for anyone making the case that Merchant Ivory were not as stuffy as their reputation might suggest.


March 5, 2020

roxanneIn Roxanne, Steve Martin takes yet another gamble in a career that has featured some curious and daring choices (including the wildly downbeat Pennies From Heaven and the experimental Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid). This time he’s adapted Cyrano de Bergerac for modern times.

Now, just imagine the studio heads listening to this idea: A classical play. About a guy with a freakish long nose. Chivalry and romance and unrequited love: Riiiiight, Steve.

Well, Martin pulls it off, which is more than you can say for his formidable rubber honker, which remains firmly in the middle of his face throughout this film. His screenplay casts Cyrano, called Charlie, as a firefighter in a contemporary Northwest town; Charlie’s 6-inch nose does not stop him from being a witty, romantically inclined fellow.

Roxanne (Daryl Hannah) is an astronomer, who moves to the town to work on some experiments during the summer. Charlie is, as they used to say, smitten, but Roxanne has eyes for a hunky new firefighter (Rick Rossovich). And so it follows that Charlie, his heart aching, helps his inarticulate friend woo the fair Roxanne.

Roxanne is a genuine romantic comedy, a species that some of us thought had disappeared from the big screen altogether. Martin’s true romantic impulses show through; this is an amusing movie, but its heart is unashamedly in its throat.

It would have been hard to predict that the Australian director Fred Schepisi would be such a good director of this material; after all, this is the man who made the intense Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Plenty. But Schepisi’s elegant widescreen images give rich and quirky support to the comedy.

He beautifully captures the look and feel of this small town. Roxanne was filmed in Nelson, British Columbia, where the streets slope oddly against the gorgeous forest backdrop. Schepisi gets a marvelous sense of the places these people inhabit – the firehouse, a bar, a cafe owned by Charlie’s pal (Shelley Duvall) – and he lets the characters establish a reality and depth that not many comedies bother with.

The film comes up a bit short in Roxanne’s character, which is underwritten. Schepisi depends upon Daryl Hannah’s charms to carry the role. Which is not a terrible sin, come to think of it.

But this is really Steve Martin’s finest hour. His script and his performance are full of wacky little asides, offbeat moments. There’s an incredible show-stopping scene that has him reciting 20 comic put-downs of his large schnozz to a full audience at the bar. Not all 20 jokes are funny, but the audacity of the scene is remarkable.

It’s a deft physical performance. From the opening scene, in which Cyrano’s rapiers are replaced by dueling tennis rackets, Martin’s movements are precise and graceful. The look on his face when he thinks Roxanne is about to ask him out, his pixilated ecstasy when he hears the mayor (Fred Willard) has chosen a cow for a town mascot, his catlike walk down main street when sniffing an incipient fire – this is wonderful work. And this work animates a lovely movie.

First published in the Herald, June 18, 1987

Not sure whether it’s Martin’s finest hour or not, but a nice film nonetheless, even if this review reads a little forced. I’ve always wanted to visit the town of Nelson, which looks utterly charming on screen. Schepisi’s career, after a certain point, is truly baffling, although he clearly is a gifted filmmaker; Pauline Kael got pretty feverish about him during this period, and (if I’m remembering right) was all in for Iceman and Roxanne.

Raising Arizona

March 4, 2020

raisingarizonaA few months ago singer­-songwriter David Byrne of Talking Heads made a movie all about the loopiest American customs and people. It was True Stories, and while Byrne flashed an interesting visual style, the movie was so slow and smug that it really didn’t score its points.

Byrne might learn something from Raising Arizona. This mad new film shares some of the same subjects as True Stories, including the caricatured characters, rural setting, and an arch camera sense. But from the first few seconds of Raising Arizona – even from the title – you know this film sprints to its own demented drummer.

But how could it not? This is the second film from the incorrigibly clever Coen brothers, Joel (the director) and Ethan (the producer – they collaborate on the scripts). Their maiden film, Blood Simple, was merely one of the most outrageous movies of the decade. It wrung insane gallows humor out of a convoluted film noir story.

Raising Arizona is a flat-out comedy. And it moves at a flat-out pace; in the first 10 minutes or so, we’re swept through an eccentric narration about a lowlife armed robber (Nicolas Cage), his repeated jail terms, and his whirlwind romance with the police officer (Holly Hunter) who snaps his picture during booking procedures. They are married and move to a shack “in the Tempe suburbs” – a cactus-strewn wasteland – and enjoy their salad days while contemplating an expanded family unit.

But one day the wife returns from a doctor’s appointment and announces, sadly, “Ah’m barren.” They can’t adopt because of the husband’s prison record. They’re disconsolate, until they read about a local couple who have just had quintuplets. Perhaps one of the toddlers might be spared….

That’s the first 10 minutes. After they kidnap one of the babies, are paid a visit by two of Cage’s imbecilic prison buddies (John Goodman, the bachelor from True Stories, and William Forsyth), and encounter a monolithic bounty hunter (Randall “Tex” Cobb) who must be on the loose from a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western, things start to heat up.

It’s all basically silly and satiric, but the Coen brothers know how to have fun. The whole opening sequence has the comic self-assurance of a Preston Sturges movie, which also means it counts on the intelligence of the audience to keep up with it. And in the middle of the movie they let fly with one of the funniest car chases ever put on film, as a routine stop for diapers becomes a crazy confusion of cars, guard dogs, and Cage running through the streets with a pair of nylons over his head.

The Coens also find time for the daft aside. After the two escaped cons kidnap the baby themselves, they stop for supplies. One picks up a bag of balloons, and asks the cashier, “Hey, do these balloons blow up in funny shapes?” The old coot behind the counter says, “Nope.” Beat. “Not unless you think round is funny.” There’s certainly nothing round about this movie.

First published in the Herald, April 1987

Hey, how’d it take so long for me to post my review of Raising Arizona? I would hope that even the great David Byrne would give the Coens the advantage on my comparison. Watching this movie for the first time a week before it opened – I recall it was at the tiny, uninspiring Northwest Preview Room – I remember wondering, during the opening extended sequence, about why more movies couldn’t be like this. Repeated viewings have not dimmed the pleasure, even if the late-reels departure into surrealism signaled a direction that the Coens would mine with much better success later in their careers.