Crossing Delancey

January 20, 2020

crossingdelanceyCrossing Delancey is a movie to curl up next to. Utterly contemporary in many ways, it nevertheles incorporates the manners and morals of an old­-fashioned romantic comedy.

It’s set in Manhattan, where a bookseller, Isabelle (Amy Irving), who works in “New York’s last real bookstore,” is leading an ordinary, and solitary, life. Izzy, as she is known to all, is sophisticated, literate, and in thrall to the writers who frequent the store. But she’s also loyal to her grandmother, her “Bubbie” (Reizl Bozyk), who lives among the traditions of the Lower East Side. Bubbie and the local matchmaker (Sylvia Miles) decide it’s time to end Izzy’s singlehood and make a match.

Izzy, of course, recoils at the archaic custom, insisting that “this is not the way I live. This is a hundred years ago!” And an arranged meeting between and a man who owns a pickle stand (Peter Riegert) goes apparently nowhere.

But that’s where Crossing Delancey begins to shine. The pickle man turns out to be a complex and subtle person, while Izzy’s crush on a famous writer (Jeroen Krabbe) cools as she gets to know him. Izzy comes to understand this both through her own investigation, and through the delightful plotting of her Bubbie.

Crossing Delancey is directed by Joan Micklin Silver, and it’s a film that finally fulfills the promise of her Chilly Scenes of Winter, which came out almost decade ago. (And it’s reminiscent of her Hester Street, which also examined traditional Jewish customs.) Silver is wonderful at etching characters, finding the way they talk, the way they stand. She can capture the romantic aches of modem folk better than anyone this side of Woody Allen.

The script is by Susan Sandler, based on her own play. It’s full of rich nuances of speech, particularly for Bubbie, who is partially based on Sandler’s own grandmother. Even Sandler’s minor characters are generously treated: The roguish writer is endearing even at his most fatuous, while a childish married man (John Bedford Lloyd) who occasionally sleeps with Izzy acts like a gentleman when he finally meets the pickle man.

Silver gets splendid performances. The film is a showcase for Amy Irving, and Peter Riegert (he was the American businessman in Local Hero) is just wonderful, investing his pickle man with dignity and self-possession.

This is one of those movies in which a certain enchantment seems to hang over all. When, on her birthday, a lonely Izzy stops for a hot dog at a little frankfurter place, a woman strides in and sings “Some Enchanted Evening” a cappella. This movie describes a world in which this sort of thing can happen. It’s a very nice place to visit.

First published in the Herald, September 1988

Yup, lovely movie. Silver should have had a more prominent career. This movie does that thing that I particularly like, which is to allow the not-nice characters their moments of grace.

Summer Heat

January 16, 2020

summerheatTerrence Malick’s Days of Heaven was one of the singular American films of the 1970s. It was poetic, photographically lush, yet it told a story that is as old as the land: a classic triangle of love, lust and death.

One of his assistants on that movie was a UCLA film school graduate named Michie Gleason. She is now a writer-director in her own right, and has made a film that shares a very similar subject with Malick’s Llke Days of Heaven, Summer Heat is a stark tale set in the heartland, a triangle that ends in death.

But Days of Heaven safely retains its singular status. Aside from the resemblance in plot, Summer Heat can’t compare with the earlier film; fact is, it’s barely competent in its own terms.

Gleason adapted the movie from Louise Shivers’ novel, Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail. In this story, set in North Carolina in 1937, the angles of the triangle are embodied by Roxy (Lori Singer), a lanky farmwife, her dullard farmer husband Aaron (Anthony Edwards), and a chiseled drifter (Bruce Abbott) who blows into town, lands a job as Aaron’s farmhand, and quickly slides into Roxy’s bed. As befits the Tobacco Row setting, there is much dust kicked around by bare feet on wooden floors, mandolins picked at night by the fire, and heavy heartland-America music swelling on the soundtrack. In short, all the usual cliches of the genre.

Nothing seems original here. Gleason goes neither for stylization (as Malick did in his film) nor realism – there’s no earthy, believable life. So the movie hangs in between, unsure of its approach. There’s a facile feminist message near the end, but it’s a cheap way to tie things up.

Lacking a distinct vision, Gleason might have let the actors make it interesting, but she barely allows them to perk. Lori Singer, of Footloose, is still a largely impassive  screen presence, although she looks convincingly wan, continually boxed within window frames as she is.

Anthony Edwards, the funny sidekick from Top Gun, barely registers in this somber role. Bruce Abbott looks his part, but isn’t required to do much more than smolder. All three of them remain children of the 1980s; you never quite buy the period. And the movie has no resonance, despite its grim subject, partly because these actors are so young. Their faces don’t register any past experiences.

Gleason does avoid having her cast assume heavy Southern accents, a tendency that usually makes the soundtracks of films such as this sound like a really painful high-school production of Tennessee Williams. Curiously, this bit of good taste has the effect of making Summer Heat even duller than it already is.

First published in the Herald, 1987

This one has slipped through the cracks. Kathy Bates was in it, too, three years  before Misery.  It’s narrated by Dorothy McGuire, which is sort of interesting (A Summer Place shout-out?), and shot by Eliot Davis. The IMDb comments say there’s a song by Kim Carnes, too.


Last Resort

December 20, 2019

lastresortLast Resort is based on a familiar comic idea: the nightmare vacation. In this case, a tired businessman (Charles Grodin) takes his family to a resort called Club Sand on a Grenada-like island in the Caribbean, where a civil war seems to be taking place

But that’s the least of the problems. When they arrive on the island after a hair-raising plane ride, the family can’t understand why the beach is surrounded by barbed wire and soldiers. And the resort’s cabins are in various states of disintegration which, since the walls are apparently made of plywood, is a serious situation.

The staff is a multinational band of sex-crazed kids (they teach the vacationers the traditional island game called “Show Us Your Breasts”). Both Grodin’s teenage children are seduced by the locals, and his pre-pubescent son is carted off to a mini-camp where the director is into Nazi power games.

All of which would seem to leave a lot of room for comedy. But the low-budget Last Resort is awfully low on laughs, even though it sets up a few good situations and Grodin goes through his usual (often amusing) shtick.

Robin Pearson Rose is funny as Grodin’s wife, who eats psychedelic mushrooms and thinks she’s a horse. And Jon Lovitz, a regular on Saturday Night Live (he’s the guy who lies, hilariously) plays a bartender who can’t get his language straight, prompting a couple of precious moments.

But most of the film, and Zane Buzby’s direction, caters to Grodin’s method of slow-burn reaction, during which a series of outrageous atrocities happen to him while he keeps a steady deadpan. I like Grodin, although his comic style tends to make you smile dryly rather than laugh out loud. The film, by following his lead, is fitfully amusing without ever breaking out.

That, in itself, is OK. But Buzby’s direction, and the script by Steve Zacharias and Jeff Buhai (Revenge of the Nerds) doesn’t take time to give the characters much background. And a number of plot points, such as the fling Grodin’s oldest son has with a local entertainer, are never resolved.

The whole idea of the island’s revolution might have been made more central, which could have made the film an even blacker comedy. It’s a subject for some fiendishly clever filmmaker to exploit, given the Central American situation. As it is, the idea is set up early but not used until the end, when the revolution provides a convenient climax but not much else.

The perverse use of the civil war might have made Last Resort and original comedy. Instead, it satisfies itself with a familiar situation, where the gags are as isolated as the island itself.

First published in the Herald, April 17, 1986

A review written in haste, it would seem. Zane Buzby acts in the film as well, and is notable for her performance as the droning waitress taking Jerry Lewis’s order in Lewis’s Cracking Up. The cast includes a bunch of people soon to become better known, including Phil Hartman, Megan Mullally, and Mario Van Peebles.

A Dry White Season

December 16, 2019

drywhiteseasonIn the opening shots of A Dry White Season, two little boys wrestle happily on a bright green lawn. One boy is white, the other is black. This may seem like an ordinary enough image, but the fact that the boys live in South Africa immediately charges the scene with bitterness.

A Dry White Season is a thoughtful, well-intentioned movie, and strong enough in its ultimate impact. I must say that, to these eyes, it never gets much more complex than that simple opening image; it’s a movie full of feeling and anger, but its characters are broad and obvious. The villains are evil, the complacent whites are shallow, the oppressed blacks are justifiably outraged and righteous.

All of which, in terms of the reality of the situation, sounds correct and appropriate. In terms of drama, it does not provide a particularly interesting story.                           ·

Like Richard Attenborough’s roundly criticized film of South Africa, Cry Freedom, the film centers on a middle-class white who becomes radicalized when the brutal apartheid system butts against his own life. Here the protagonist is a comfortable teacher (played by Donald Sutherland) whose gardener (Winston Ntshona) mysteriously dies while in prison on trumped-up charges. Sutherland’s attempts to find the truth result in his alienating his wife (Janet Suzman) and losing his job.

Susan Sarandon turns up in a peripheral role as a journalist helping Sutherland gather evidence on the police brutality; Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot) plays the deadly police chief. Zakes Mokae, a South African­ actor now living in the United States, gives perhaps the film’s most intriguingly-shaded performance, as a taxi driver and anti-apartheid activist who alway seems to know more than he lets on.

A Dry White Season is the second film from director Euzhan Palcy, who made an impressive debut with Sugar Cane Alley a few years ago. Paley, who adapted the novel by South African writer Andre Brink, is clearly impassioned about her subject. Through sheer forcefulness, she keeps the movie compelling despite its sketchiness.

The most memorable element of A Dry White Season may be Palcy’s great casting coup. Marlon Brando, who hasn’t made a movie since 1980’s The Formula, and professes to be sick of the business, rolls into the film at about the halfway mark and plays a wily lawyer who conducts a bravura courtroom sequence.

Brando, who did the role for free, is one of our great actors. He is also not dumb: This part is about as juicy as they come. Huge, white-haired, sporting a florid British accent and a mountain of charm, Brando effortlessly seizes the movie and twirls it around his fleshy finger.

Granted, it probably throws the film off balance, but how exhilarating to see the great man at work. Too bad he no longer seems interested in exercising his gift.

First published in the Herald, September 1989

Palcy has been getting re-appreciated lately, which seems overdue. I’d like to watch this movie again, both for Brando and for the possibility that my mixed response had more to do with my own ideas about how stories should be about gray areas rather than good vs. evil fables. But hell, apartheid was about evil incarnate, so fair play.

Johnny Dangerously/The Flamingo Kid

December 9, 2019

johnny dangerouslyTwo offbeat comedies are being released on the same day, just in time for the Christmas movie rush – and you can see why. The studio is hoping they’ll benefit from the general holiday upsurge in movie attendance, and help swell the fortunes of two somewhat hard­-to-sell items.

Johnny Dangerously features the star of Mr. Mom (Michael Keaton) and the director of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling), but its guiding spirit (although he had no actual involvement in the film) is Mel Brooks. This is a movie send-up a la Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, in which genre conventions are teased.

The Warner Bros. crime pictures of the 1930s are the raw material, and Johnny Dangerously is very much in the mold: Keaton is the street kid who stumbles his way into the syndicate; Griffin Dunne (last seen as a decomposing corpse in An American Werewolf in London) is his brother, who grows up on the right side of the tracks, no thanks to their salty mom (Maureen Stapleton).

Johnny becomes the kingpin of crime (with accompanying songbird/moll, Marilu Henner), while his brother is the crusading district attorney, who sends him to the chair. Everybody speaks in delicious James Cagney phrases: “Yeah – I like da sounda dat,” or “Who’s da nightingale? She sure sings good.” The writers have watched a lot of movies.

It’s also got its share of anachronistic humor, in the Mel Brooks tradition. Prison inmates eat quiche and sushi. Johnny break­-dances in 1930 (“Gee Johnny, I never seen that kinda dancin’ before”). A fat mobster insists he is about to start the Cambridge diet.

The jokes are like the machine guns that rattle away: More miss than hit. When in doubt, go for the human anatomy jokes – and this film, in a brief self-help newsreel that Keaton shows his brother, dwells on certain body parts that have rarely been dwelled on in legit films be­fore. Enough said on that.

What darn near carries the whole thing is the jaunty perfomance by Michael Keaton, who is confident throughout. He seems to have been born to live in a Warner Bros. film, and his movements recall Cagney in their cocky grace.

flamingokidThe Flamingo Kid is a more conventional film, but it’s also something of a special case among comedies – which is to say, it doesn’t rely on gross-out jokes in place of humor. As a modest growing-up piece, set in 1963, it’s a nice try, but it doesn’t really have anything new to say, and it runs out of gas long before it’s over.

Matt Dillon plays a Brooklyn kid who wangles a job at a swank Long Island country club where he meets a girl (Janet Jones), with whom he gets hot and bothered, and a gin player (Richard Crenna) who takes him under his wing to teach him the cutthroat nuances of gin rummy and life in general.

There are some nicely observed family dynamics (Dillon’s dad, Hector Elizondo, doesn’t like the capitalist pig Crenna putting ideas in his son’s head), but the film is finally about too many things: the girl, the game, the mentor, the family, the gang. It doesn’t spend much time on any of them, and director Garry Marshall (creator of TV’s Happy Days) can’t decide which element he wants to emphasize.

Dillon is better than he has been (he’s a little sunnier than usual) but there’s just not much to go on here. I doubt if even a Christmas bonus is going to help the Kid much.

First published in the Herald, December 22, 1984

I didn’t mention Joe Piscopo in my JD review, so apparently the then-popular SNL star did not make a big impression. I remember it as a really terrible movie. The Flamingo Kid, however, I remember more fondly than my review would suggest – a nice laid-back Florida feel to this film, I think, less constructed as a joke machine than many of Garry Marshall’s pictures.

Desert Hearts

October 21, 2019

desertheartsIt’s the late 1950s, and when Vivian (Helen Shaver), an English professor from Columbia University, arrives in Reno to end her marriage, she must stay at least six weeks to establish residency and get the Nevada divorce.

Forty-two days; the magic number. In the course of these 42 days, which she spends on a boarding ranch outside town, Vivian – cool, blond, vaguely skeletal – will learn a lot about herself and the world around her.

It is the backbone of Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts that this enlightenment wili include an affair with Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), a casino worker, who is the adopted daughter of the ranch owner (Audra Lindley). Cay is an admitted lesbian; she’s at peace with that part of her life, it’s the rest that she sometimes has trouble with. Vivian, on the other hand, seems frozen by her decision to leave her marriage, and she cringes initially at Cay’s interest.

The study in contrasts between the two women is pretty obvious, and frankly stays that way throughout the film. It’s dictated early on, just through casting and costuming: Vivian’s trapped in her padded-shoulder gray suits, Cay’s a dark-haired rambler in shorts and cowboy boots. But director Deitch and her actresses have found some healthy means of fleshing out this simple love story. Most obviously, there’s a shrewd use of humor; Deitch and scriptwriter Natalie Cooper (who adapted a novel by Jane Rule) keeps things lively and offbeat. The laughs are not mean-spirited, but good-natured.

It would have been easy for the film to be a flag­-waving anthem (and it may still be perceived that way, as evidenced by the reaction to the film last week at the Seattle International Film Festival). But it’s more complex than that; none of the characters is idealized out of existence, and there are no white hats and black hats distributed along gender lines.

Deitch treats all her characters with generosity. And she’s paid a lot of attention to texture. The details have an authentic feel: the Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash songs, the walks through sagebrush, the steaminess of the hotel room in which Vivian and Cay finally consummate things during a hot Nevda afternoon. The latter is a provocative scene, naturally enough. On the whole, however, Desert Hearts is much more conventional than it might sound. The love story itself may be unconventional, but the narrative style is quite traditional. Far from being some kind of ideological compromise, this turns out to be one of the film’s strengths.

It doesn’t get the movie past the obviousness of the dynamics of the central relationship; this would have to be an even more daring film to do that. But it does provide a solid springboard for some good storytelling, of which Desert Hearts has quite bit.

First published in the Herald, 1986

This film has just recently been enjoying some re-appreciation as a pioneering work of lesbian subject matter, which it rightly deserves. Deitch has made a lot of TV since the film established her talent, but not many features. Charbonneau had a little moment where it seemed as though she might catch on (Michael Mann was especially interested, casting her in Manhunter and his TV opus Crime Story), but she never broke through to stardom, unfortunately. Shaver has acted a lot and also directed many TV shows.


The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years

October 17, 2019

declinewesterncivPenelope Spheeris is a quirky and talented director whose films include The Boys Next Door and Suburbia. Her feature filmmaking career really started with a 1979 documentary called The Decline of Western Civilization.

Aside from being a potent look at punk music and something of an almost-underground classic, that film set Spheeris up for a sequel that would have an even funnier title. That sequel is here, and it is called The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years.

Needless to say, the ore of the title is mined from the term “heavy metal,” the head-banging, hard­rocking music that stakes out rock’s noisiest territory and frightens the bejeepers out of parents everywhere. As in her earlier movie, Spheeris mixes performance footage and interviews.

She talks to some of the heavyweights in the metal world, such as Alice Cooper, Steve Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS, and Ozzy Osbourne. But she also pays attention to some of the up-and-­coming young metal groups in the Los Angeles scene.

Spheeris is a savvy filmmaker, and the result is a lively and wittily made slice of hard-rock life. Her visual sense is strong, both in the busy movement of the film and in the interview set-ups (Gene Simmons comments from the showroom of a lingerie store, while Alice Cooper speaks lucidly as he perches next to one of the blood-spattered mannequins from his stage show).

One attraction of the movie is, obviously, the fact that its characters look like refugees from This is Spinal Tap, but without intending to be funny. There are any number of hilariously boneheaded sentiments, among them the beer-soaked members of the group Odin opining that they expect to be remembered for generations.

But Spheeris clearly likes music and young people and rebelliousness too much to ridicule the scene. Some of the people in the movie are quite endearing, including a straightened­-out Ozzy Osbourne (who no longer bites off the heads of doves, but is shown preparing a suburban plate of bacon and eggs). Some of the more disturbing aspects of the music are also on display, such as the rampant contempt for women and the abuse of drugs.

Decline obviously has a limited audience, but it’s a very well-made movie. Remember, as someone in the film says: “If your parents don’t like it, it’s good.” They surely won’t.

First published in the Herald, 1988

Spheeris is one of those filmmakers – you wonder what kind of projects she didn’t get to make along the way, and what those might have been like. Odd career. I interviewed her once, I think for The Boys Next Door, and she was a cool character. Now where might that interview be?