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


Miss Mary

June 10, 2020

missmaryThe previous film by the Argentine filmmaker Maria Luisa Bemberg was Camila, which used a highly charged personal story to illuminate a certain period in Argentine political history. If Miss Mary is any indication, this is Bemberg’s standard working method. This new film takes a very similar strategy.

This time the period is 1930 to 1945, when Argentina was under harsh conservative rule: Miss Mary shows life among the blissfully unaware – or at least unconcerned – upper class. A wealthy Buenos Aires family hires an English governess (Julie Christie) to raise their two young daughters in the English tradition of gentility.

The action of the film stays within the well-tended grounds of the estate. News of political unrest trickles in, barely disrupting the isolated family. After a while, they begin to wonder whether their isolation is spawning some unhealthy side effects – like the slightly dotty mother who plays the same piano piece over and over. The eldest daughter, who becomes a kleptomaniac, asks the governess, “Is my family mad? Do we have too much money?”

The son (Donald Mcintyre) has other worries. He’s mooning over the governess, Miss Mary, and she’s feeling the tug of earthy sexuality against her prim background.

Julie Christie, at this point in her career, is exactly right for this repressed role. She beautifully captures the Victorian air, the clipped reaction to any social error, the dazed superiority of a colonist. But Christie can also make you believe that such a woman might lose control one night, when the son comes to her room covered with rain and dirt, and let her upper crust crumble.

Bemberg is still a mysterious filmmaker. Much of this movie drifts along without much apparent compulsion, but it does drift to its own scheme. The flashbacks are confusing because Bemberg doesn’t cue them in any traditional sense.

Once you find the rhythm, the movie pays off. The spectacle of personal passion erupting against a rigid society isn’t quite as striking as it was in Camila, and as with that earlier film there’s a distinct sense that this film’s issues (especially the grasp of the political climate) will mean a lot more to Argentineans than to Americans. The nice work by Julie Christie keeps Miss Mary from getting too dry or simplistic, to the point that the film is almost unthinkable without her.

First published in The Herald, May 21, 1987

This film sounds like an ancestor of Lucrecia Martel’s La Cienaga, although I recall it having a much more accessible style. I’ll have to dig up my review of Camila, which I thought I’d already posted. Bemberg began making films in 1973 and died in 1995, age 73, after a rich and very intriguing life.


The Girl in the Picture/Malcolm

June 8, 2020

girlinpictureThe first spoken word of the new film The Girl in the Picture should trigger a pleasurable spark of recognition for fans of Gregory’s Girl. It’s a simple “Great,” but with a trademark Scottish lilt – it’s more of a “Grrreat,” actually – that could only belong to John Gordon-Sinclair.

Gordon-Sinclair, the gangly, scowling duck who starred in Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl as a teenager, is back as an adult. Well, sort of an adult. He plays a young photographer who splits up with his live-in girlfriend (Irina Brook, the daughter of director Peter Brook and an absolute knockout), convinced that they’re wrong for each other, only to realize later that he’s lonely and unhappy.

Gordon-Sinclair, whose performance in Gregory’s Girl was one of the funniest natural performances in recent memory, ought to be able to wring comic mileage out of this apparently miserable situation. For the most part, he does. Unfortunately, first-time director Cary Parker lets down his star much too often.

Parker, who is American, shoves a disconcerting number of lame one-liners into the dead spaces in the plot. He even borrows some of Forsyth’s patented humor, including some business about “It’s a scientific fact!” borrowed straight from Gregory’s Girl.

More serious than this, Parker doesn’t give us much sense of what brings the main couple together, or what breaks them apart. He tries to match their love affair against two lesser, parallel stories, but the main effect of this is to drain off attention from Gordon-Sinclair and Brook. Then their possible reconciliation lacks much sense of urgency.

Parker does have a feeling for dramatic balance – the film begins and ends in two ironically Edenic settings – and the movie gets more intriguing as it goes along, as Parker stops trying so hard to be funny. (Parker does capture a classic moment when Gordon-Sinclair is trying to get rid of an overnight guest: He writhes on the bed, moaning, “I think I’m having an out-of-body experience here.”)

malcolmIn a similarly whimsical vein, the Australian Malcolm tries too hard altogether. The title character (Colin Friels) is a moony mechanical genius with the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old. He plays with his gadgets in his house until reality steps in. Having lost his job, he must rent out rooms to make money.

His boarders are an ex-con (John Hargreaves) and a woman (Lindy Davies) who would be called a moll if people still used that word. They’re ripe, of course, to teach this boy about the ways of the world, specifically the ways in which Malcolm’s mobile robots might be used to – oh, rob banks, for instance.

This stuff, directed by Nadia Tass from David Parker’s script, is relatively painless, and intermittently amusing. Ultimately, though, it scores far too high on the cute scale to be really effective. To say nothing of grrreat.

First published in The Herald, August 23, 1986

The actor was billed this time with a hyphenated last name, so that’s why John Gordon Sinclair is referred to this way. Irina Brook went into her dad’s line of work and has been a successful director for the stage for 25 years. (She’s got one of the all-time IMDb Trivia one-liners: “At age 18, she moved to New York with then-boyfriend Iggy Pop.”) The film is Cary Parker’s only IMDb credit. By contrast, Malcolm director Tass has worked pretty steadily over the years, including the Hollywood comedy Pure Luck, with Martin Short and Danny Glover, which nobody remembers. This was early in Friels’ career; he was already married to Judy Davis by this time.

 


Spellbinder

June 1, 2020

spellbinderGood little horror movies are still a rarity these days, so Spellbinder is recommended for fans of the genre. It’s an intelligent movie that forgoes gore in favor of creating a more generally sinister ambiance.

It’s about a normal, somewhat lonely, Los Angeles lawyer (Timothy Daly), who witnesses a scuffle between a man and a woman in a parking lot and helps the woman (Kelly Preston) to his house. She stays. He’s deliriously happy, but as is the case with many seemingly perfect partners, she has a few troubling idiosyncrasies. The movie teases for a while, and eventually reveals that she is a witch.

She’s an unwilling witch, she says, and the other members of her coven want her back, so they can enlist her in a little human-sacrifice ceremony on the solstice. Our man, with the help of his best friend (Rick Rossovich), must try to protect her.

Screenwriter Tracy Tormé and director Janet Greek borrow a bit: The normalcy of the devil­ worshipers comes from Rosemary’s Baby; the lonely man drawn to an exotic, super­natural woman comes from Cat People. But Spellbinder creates an effective, dreadful atmosphere, with a couple of really dandy scenes, including the surprise epilog.

There’s a nicely shaded party scene when the new girlfriend is introduced around, and everyone loves her except the lawyer’s suspicious secretary. She happens to see the witch take a roast turkey out of the oven with her bare hands, which prompts the secretary to conclude, “That woman is trouble.”

This is director Greek’s first feature film, and Greek seems to bear gifts. She does a particularly good job of letting the story lay itself out in the opening reels, with subtlety and deliberateness. There’s a bit too much going on toward the end, but the film is well-acted and handsome, and it has just the right measure of unhealthiness.

First published in The Herald, September 1988

I realize now that the “without oven mitts” scene is borrowed from the 1963 British sci-fi film Unearthly Stranger, which I saw a couple of years ago. Janet Greek directed the “Weird Al” Yankovic music video, “Ricky,” and a good amount of TV until 1999. Screenwriter Tormé is the son of Mel Tormé, and wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation and created Sliders; he was also a writer on SNL during some rough years. Music by Basil Poledouris. If you’re a genre person, you have to see this.


Siesta

May 29, 2020

siestaWhen David Lynch’s ultrabizarro Blue Velvet was not only a critical but even a modest commercial success in 1986, it prompted speculation that the studio system might just be willing to gamble on small, quirky, idiosyncratic films.

We’ve seen some fruit of that in such oddball items as Raising Arizona and David Byrne’s True Stories. But nothing quite as strange as Mary Lambert’s first film, Siesta.

It’s based on a novel by Patrice Chaplin, and it’s a sure­-enough American art film. A woman (Ellen Barkin) in a red dress wakes up in a field next to an airport. She walks to a stream, strips and rinses her blood-stained dress, and tries to remember the events of the last few days that have led her to this place.

She gradually remembers: A few days before her airport awakening, she was in the United States with her husband (Martin Sheen) planning a stunt in which she would drop from a plane into a volcano on July 4th; it seems she is a daredevil, a kind of female Evel Knievel called “Claire on a Dare.”

But then she abruptly flew to Spain to see an old lover (Gabriel Byrne), the man who originally taught her the art of the trapeze. He has married a woman (Isabella Rossellini, a talisman from Blue Velvet) from Madrid. Somehow this reunion has caused the violence that resulted in Barkin’s blood-spattered dress.

As Barkin tries to remember these events, she’s hanging out with a tiresome batch of swingers, including an artist (Julian Sands), an English party girl (Jodie Foster, the movie’s only sharp performer), and a gross, omnipresent cabdriver (Alexi Sayle).

Director Lambert is a veteran of music videos (including Madonna’s clever “Material Girl”), and she renders images in pop-shallow bites. The locations are photographed in the bleached light of arthouse self-importance; and the dialogue is constructed and delivered with ponderousness, as when Byrne tells Barkin: “I taught you to fly. You chose to fall.”

But wait: Wasn’t Blue Velvet also self-consciously wacky and avant-garde? Yes, but Blue Velvet was the lucid and commanding work of a true and rare visionary. That’s a far cry from the facile pretensions of Siesta, in which a character’s “How do you do?” is answered with, “I don’t.” Siesta certainly doesn’t.

First published in The Herald, November 1987

I should watch this again, I think. I liked Lambert’s Pet Sematary, mostly, and I remember at least liking the arty tendencies here. There were so many music-video directors breaking into features at this point that it was tempting to dismiss the whole movement. Barkin was coming off The Big Easy and having a moment, well-deserved. She and Byrne married the year after this was released.


36 Fillette

May 6, 2020

36filletteEvery year there has to be at least one controversial French movie. This year, that mantle appears to have fallen on 36 Fillette, an odd little film that examines the familiar territory of a young girl’s coming of age.

Countless French movies have covered the same subject, but 36 Fillette has a number of distinguishing characteristics. One of the most striking is that director-writer Catherine Breillat has made a film in which almost no character is at all likable, including the heroine.

The heroine, Lili (played by 16-year-old Delphine Zentout), is a thoroughly exasperating character. She’s a real pill, 14 years old, smart and spiteful, and her body is becoming womanly beyond her years (the title refers to her dress size). On vacation in Biarritz, with her parents and a much-hated older brother, she meets a 40-year-old hipster (Etienne Chicot) who somewhat lazily goes about seducing the girl, or is it the other way around?

This seduction never quite gets completed, since Lili is mostly teasing and her “old Romeo” is mostly bored and confused. The film shows their encounter as a protracted sex game with much attention to body parts.

Director Breillat dares us to turn all of this off, particularly in a hotel-room scene between the two, which is presented in real time with long, silent pauses. But if Breillat is as taunting as her protagonist, she’s also gifted at finding the authenticity of this situation: the look of the seaside location, Lili airily telling a friend, “If you knew what my love life was…”, the fingerprints on the window through which we glimpse Lili and her older man kissing. These details have the ring of truth.

And the two lead actors are excellent. They go about their jobs so honestly that the movie stays away from Lolita-like titillation. For all that, the acting honors are stolen in an early cameo by Jean-Pierre Leaud.

He plays a famous pianist who has a brief conversation with Lili, in which he advises the hateful girl that the world is like a giant box-spring mattress: You bounce on it, then you land somewhere else. It’s a wonderful scene, and only Leaud could bring this kind of eccentric grace to it. I haven’t seen him in a movie in years, but he made his own debut as a child in Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, and he appeared in movies by virtually all the important French directors of the 1960s. Some of those movies were the most controversial of their years, too.

First published in the Herald, January 26, 1989

Breillat was about to wade into even more controversial territory, of course, with Romance and Fat Girl. I knew nothing of the director at this point, but I remember coming out of the film and thinking this was a geuninely original voice. 

 

 


My Little Girl

May 5, 2020

mylittlegirlMary Stuart Masterson is one of the brightest of today’s young stars, as she has proved in gutsy supporting turns in At Close Range and Gardens of Stone and in an emotionally complex performance in the otherwise lightweight Some Kind of Wonderful. In My Little Girl, she finally gets to carry a movie as the central character.

My Little Girl isn’t quite worthy of her, and in fact it allows her little opportunity to showcase her talents. She plays Franny, the 16-year-old daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia family; tennis, golf, and deciding whether to wear blue jeans or casual whites while yachting are the big issues of her life.

But this summer she’s volunteering at a shelter for girls, children who have been abandoned or whose parents are in jail. This may seem like a radical change, but Franny’s comfortable life has made her a bit uncomfortable. Besides, ever since she read The Grapes of Wrath, she’s been curious about the unseen world of the have-nots.

Soon she’s getting wrapped up in the problems of the girls, and volunteering full time. “But dear,” asks her mother back at the mansion, “what about your tennis lessons?” The mother and father, played by Pamela Payton-Wright and Peter Michael Goetz, are lampooned rather broadly.

Much of the film is taken up with Franny’s attempt to reach a rebellious girl (Traci Lin) who’s just itching to get back out on the streets and ruin her life. Franny’s other charges are two unresponsive sisters (Erika Alexander, Naeemah Wilmore) whose mother has committed a crime.

The film is scrupulously well­-meaning, and is clearly made from the heart by writer­ director Connie Kaiserman, whose first film this is. Overall, she’s gotten effective work from the actors, and there are some fine supporting roles for James Earl Jones, as the home’s put­ upon boss; the late Geraldine Page, as Franny’s grandmother; and Peter Gallagher, as Lin’s shady boyfriend, who takes Franny on a creepy joyride to an airport runway.

Kaiserman draws some of the characters in stereotypes, despite the competent acting. Just like the kids at the shelter, drawing mustaches and horns on pictures of their parents, so Kaiserman has drawn the parents here in caricatured terms. And when the movie lurches into melodrama near the end, with a prison break, it loses the well-tuned ease of the scenes at the shelter.

In other words, it’s not difficult to see why the movie sat on the shelf for a while before getting a small release. My Little Girl is kept honest by Masterson’s non-fussy performance, however, which prevents the action around her from tipping completely into cliche.

First published in the Herald, April 7, 1988

Not a notable review on my part, but I wanted to include this film for a few reasons. It was the only directing credit for Kaiserman, who is an associate producer on five Merchant Ivory films (and this one was produced by Ismail Merchant). That might explain the level of talent collected here, which includes the heavyweight cast, composer Richard Robbins, and cinematographer Pierre Lhomme. This was the first movie for Erika Alexander, as well as an ambitious striver named Jennifer Lopez. As for Masterson, she has had a long career, if not quite the one she seemed destined for around this time.