Ratboy/Firewalker/Eye of the Tiger

April 3, 2020

ratboyOffbeat barely begins to describe the new film Ratboy, which is about a little boy, apparently half-rat, who is exploited and abused by the greed of others.

It’s an entirely unexpected Hollywood production – how, you  wonder, did this film get made? Well, part of the reason is surely that Sandra Locke, the star and first-time director, is the longtime co-star and consort of Clint Eastwood, whose Malpaso Productions produced the movie.

It’s still surprising that such a clearly non-blockbuster little moral fable could find the light of day. But Locke’s achievement is not merely in production. Her direction consistently brings a human touch, and often finds the humor of the often pathetic situations.

She plays a greedy loser who happens to acquire the ratboy (S. L. Baird, makeup by Rick Baker) and decides to give him a big media buildup: press conferences, Hollywood parties, a shot on the Merv Griffin show. The whole progression of the story has strong affinities to King Kong, as well as the obvious Beauty and the Beast angle.

The script by Rob Thompson (a writer originally from Seattle) is sharp and funny. The only fault with the movie is that it makes its points very early on and never deepens them; as nice and as well-produced as this story is, it exists almost wholly on a simple surface level. Locke’s story­ telling is able, but it is without real mystery that the subject matter requires.

*

JN2017-01986There’s certainly no mystery about the cloddish action movies that turned up over the weekend. Firewalker brings us the first outright Chuck Norris comedy, a thought that ought to fill all sensible people with trepidation. Some, of course, would argue that man of Norris’ straight-faced shoot-em-ups had a goodly portion of laughs, albeit unintentional.

Firewalker isn’t unendurable, it just isn’t very good. Norris is teamed with Lou Gossett; they’re a couple of adventurers who go treasure-hunting with a woman (Melody Anderson) who knows the location of a secret Central American cache of gold.

The usual Indiana Jones gunplay and horseplay ensues, with Norris about as leaden to the task as you’d expect. The direction of J. Lee Thompson (Guns of Navarone) matches Norris’ comedic touch.

*

eyeoftigerEye of the Tiger, at least, plays it honest. This is a straight-ahead revenge melodrama, very much of the Walking Tall school. The star is Gary Busey, whose career has been spinning out of control since The Buddy Holly Story. Busey recently lost a lot of weight and has found his edge again; here he plays an ex-con trying to go straight in his small hometown. Problem is, a gang of bikers have taken control during his prison stay, and Busey makes the mistake of crossing them.

A bunch of plot leads to the overblown and predictable showdown between Busey and his biker nemesis (William Smith) as well as the corrupt sheriff (Seymour Cassel). Under Richard C. Sarafian’s direction, it’s all dumb and plodding. The sole redeeming factor is Busey, who contributes some urgency. It’s good to have this electric actor back.

First published in the Herald, November 26, 1986

A triple! And what a batch for the holiday season. Ratboy didn’t led to a few other directing gigs for Locke, and a few lawsuits, too. Screenwriter Rob Thompson (whose breakthrough was the script for Hearts of the West) went on to produced and direct for shows such as Northern Exposure and Monk. The star of the film was former Mouseketeer and H. R. Pufnstuf performer Sharon Baird, a curious choice. For Firewalker director J. Lee Thompson, Firewalker came in the midst of doing a bunch of Charles Bronson pictures, and came from Cannon Films. I am sure Eye of the Tiger has its fans, because, I mean, look at it. Richard C. Sarafian was Robert Altman’s brother-in-law, and did Vanishing Point and lots of 60s TV.


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). 


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.


Entre Nous

January 28, 2020

entrenousHelene – or Lena, as she is more often called – is herded into a concentration camp during the Second World War. She endures the dehumanizing experience, until one day during lunch she finds a note in her bread. The man serving beans on the chow line put it there, and his note says that he’s getting released the next day. If he has a wife, she can be released, too; would Lena like to be that wife? She looks across the compound at him. He doesn’t look so bad. Any method out should be seized. She nods.

So begins the odyssey of the central character in Diane Kurys’ new film, Entre Nous. Lena (Isabelle Huppert) goes ahead with the marriage, and walks out into a strange world with a stranger by her side. She grows accustomed to his face, and the marriage holds, as the couple escapes into Italy and then settles in Lyon after the war, where they have two children and a comfortable living.

During this early section Of Entre Nous, we have also seen episodes from the life of Madeleine (Miou-Miou ), a woman whose husband was shot and killed in the streets while in her arms.

When the film jumps to 1952, Lena is a normal housewife, and Madeleine, married again to a shiftless actor, has a young, terminally shy son. The two women bump into each other at a school recital and strike up a friendship. It’s the kind of friendship in which both people know immediately, instinctively, that some special bond has been made.

Their lives soon become dominated by this friendship, and they realize that the men to whom they’re married are becoming less and less crucial. Lena, especially, seems aware of the possibilities within her capable self, for the first time.

If this all sounds like feminist-tract fodder, it’s not intended to. Entre Nous could have been another essay on Woman Oppressed in Man’s World, but it turns out to be nothing of the kind. The people in this film are neither good nor bad. The men are not monsters, and the women are not simplistic. They’re just struggling to find out what their lives mean – or what they should mean.

Kurys is a director with a keen feeling for the details of absolutely average bourgeois life. The rhythm of the movie may appear peculiar: the arresting images of war at the opening give way to gently unfolding observations of family life. But this deliberate storytelling makes Lena’s gradual awakening believable, and it conveys the sense of this woman just drifting – without maliciousness or premeditation – away from her husband.

You can’t always tell in what direction the film is headed from scene to scene, and yet you sense there is a method to it all. The final scene of Entre Nous justifies Kurys’ method; it’s a superb summing-up, as the characters find themselves balanced in a situation fraught with both liberation and heartbreak. It’s tough to make a movie finish on an unresolved note that is nevertheless exactly accurate; and even more difficult to make it emotionally satisfying and stylistically appropriate. Kurys and her gifted cast have done just that, in not just the final scene but all of Entre Nous.

First published in the Herald, March 16, 1984

This movie was a strong arthouse hit at the time. I like Kurys’ early films, and I have no idea what her recent work has been like. The cast includes Guy Marchand, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Patrick Bauchau, and Christine Pascal. I think I know what I was going for in reassuring the reader that this wasn’t one of them women’s lib pictures, but it isn’t exactly eloquently expressed.


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 modern 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.