The Wizard of Loneliness

February 8, 2022

Wendell Oler, the 12-year-old hero of The Wizard of Loneliness, is full of “cantankerous California blood,” according to his grandfather. Little Wendell, who is intelligent and morbid as well as cantankerous, is staying with his grandparents’ family in Vermont because his mother is dead and his father is off fighting World War II.

The title refers to Wendell’s visions of himself. He’s enveloped himself in a shield of his own smarts, and he fancies that he has magical powers that will protect him from other people. But when the lonely wizard moves to Vermont, he discovers a group of people who help bring him out of his protective shell.

At first, he’s an exasperating child, the kind who walks into a group of adult authority figures and announces, “I am in no mood to talk to anybody!”

But his sympathetic, seen-everything grandparents (nicely played by John Randolph and Anne Pitoniak) can put up with him for as long as it takes. Meanwhile, their own grown children, a son (Lance Guest) and daughter (Lea Thompson) regard Wendell with bemusement. All live in a big New England house, with the daughter’s little son.

This little boy (played by newcomer Jeremiah Warner), a “red-headed baboon,” in Wendell’s estimation, becomes Wendell’s first worshiper, even going so far as to repeat Wendell’s swear words over the breakfast table.

The Wizard of Loneliness is based on a novel by John Nichols, whose book The Milagro Beanfield War was also made into a film this year. The script, written by Nancy Larson and Jenny Bowen, has a nice, if predictable, small-town quality, but the crucial plot-point has a contrived air about it; it concerns a shellshocked vet (Dylan Baker) who’s played an important role in the lives of this family. He returns to town surreptitiously and brings about the movie’s violent conclusion.

The more the movie follows this route, the less relevant it seems. Wendell’s inward struggle is much more interesting, especially as acted by Lukas Haas, who has become one of the busiest child actors of the time (the title character in Witness, he was recently seen in Lady in White). Haas has both the wide-eyed childishness and the presumptuous intelligence to bring off the role.

Jenny Bowen, who directed Street Music a few years ago, is better at evoking the time and place than the story really deserves; there’s a giddy July 4th sequence involving a skunk and the disposal thereof that is quite wonderful.

She’s adept at finding the revealing moments of character, such as the scene in which Wendell glimpses his aunt after she’s received the news of her husband’s death: He sees her standing in a doorway, the light shining through her nightgown, and we understand for the first time that Wendell is in love with her – the wizard has found his heart.

First published in The Herald, September 1, 1988

Jenny Bowen’s Street Music caused some stir on the pre-indie circuit circa 1982 or so, and had an especially warm reception from a couple of Seattle newspaper critics. Because of this, Bowen came to town, and because of that, I did my first-ever interview with a filmmaker. I’ve done a few hundred since then, but yet, Jenny Bowen was the first. That was for a short-lived magazine called Seattle Voice; I wrote a couple of things for them. Bowen’s film career ended in 1998, and she founded an international organization to help orphaned and abandoned children.

Look Who’s Talking

January 20, 2022

Look Who’s Talking is one of those movies that play much funnier in their coming-attractions trailers than in full-length form. After all, the trailer has all the good lines, without the dull stuff in between.

If you’ve seen the trailer, or a TV commercial, you’ve probably already got the concept; the film is a twist on the traditional romantic comedy. Kirstie Alley (from Cheers) plays an unwed mom who’s looking around for a suitable father for the newborn; taxi driver John Travolta, a stranger who helped deliver the kid, is a willing candidate, but Kirstie can’t see him as a proper dad.

Twist: Throughout the film, we can hear the thoughts and irreverent comments of the baby, via voiceover. He’s an impudent little twerp, given to reflections on his grandmother’s obvious insanity as she makes goo-goo eyes at him (“Oh yeah. She’s gone”), or helplessly registering his displeasure at his mother’s taste in his wardrobe: “No, don’t make me wear clothes with animals on ’em!”

This voiceover is provided by Bruce Willis, who gives the appropriately jive spin to the baby’s sassy dialogue. Writer-director Amy Heckerling, who also directed Fast Times at Ridgemont High, has obviously come up with an attractive concept and a clever way of putting it over.

But, despite this hook and a veteran cast that includes Oscar-winner Olympia Dukakis (Cher’s mother in Moonstruck) as the grandmother, and George Segal as the baby’s inconsiderate (and married) father, there isn’t much to Look Who’s Talking beyond the baby-talk gimmick. When it comes right down to it, the rest of the film is strung together from bits of situation comedies, with nothing much going on except lame excuses to keep Alley and Travolta apart until the final reel.

That’s not enough. Since Three Men and a Baby, kid jokes may be the most sure-fire thing in movies, but they need some support and, like babies, periodic changing.

First published in The Herald, October 1989

Something of a return to visibility for Travolta, although a mixed blessing. Heckerling also directed this film’s sequel, and then came back with Clueless, so at least she got something out of this unpleasantness, beyond what I assume was lots of money. Top-heavy with Scientologists, this one, for sure.

Little Dorrit

January 13, 2022

In the days before the 30-hour miniseries, moviemakers who sought to adapt a lengthy novel were faced with an obvious problem. Charles Dickens, for instance, was a particular hurdle; how does one boil down the teeming, sprawling brilliance of David Copperfield or Pickwick Papers into a two-hour movie?

Somehow it was done, in innumerable adaptations. And, except for the occasional long-form made-for-TV opus, such as the BBC’s recent Bleak House, that’s how it always has been done. Until now.

Little Dorrit runs six and a half hours. Adapted and directed from Dickens by Christine Edzard on a shoestring budget, the film is in two distinct parts, of more than three hours each.

The most intriguing thing about Edzard’s approach is that she tells the story not just in two different ways. Part I, called Nobody’s Fault, covers virtually the entire novel, as it would have been seen through the eyes of one major character, Arthur Clennam.

As the film opens, he returns to England after 20 years abroad. Clennam finds a passion for Amy, the daughter of William Dorrit, who is a resident of the Marshalsea, London’s debtor prison. Clennam begins his own business and endeavors to get Dorrit released from the prison.

The second film, Little Dorrit’s Story, covers the same time from Amy’s point of view. She is born within the walls of the prison and raised there, though it is she who cares for her father and two older siblings. Both films end in the maelstrom surrounding the collapse of the mighty financier, the great Merdle.

The novel is one of Dickens’ greatest, and the characters provide a banquet for actors. Alec Guinness, who made his first major film appearances in David Lean’s versions of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist in the 1940s, plays William Dorrit, the grandiloquent debtor who behaves like a Duke despite his insolvency. Guinness has his great moments, though at the risk of sounding a blasphemous note, I found his performance almost too theatrically florid, even though it is in his character’s nature.

First published in The Herald, October 1988

I’d like to know what I said in the rest of this review, which has been cut off, especially because the film has fallen off the map (it snagged a Screenplay Oscar nomination at the time). Presumably I was about to say more about the cast, which includes Derek Jacobi as Clennam, Joan Greenwood in her final film, and a loooong line of British actors – Miriam Margolyes, if I’m remembering right, has a standout part. Little Dorrit is played by Sarah Pickering, whose only film role this was. My review doesn’t reach a particularly excited pitch (do they ever, really?), but I remember liking the film a lot, and it made my Top Ten list for 1988 – I guess I’m wrong, though, because apparently it came out in the UK in 1987.

Soldier Girls

September 22, 2021

When he made Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick found that actual quotes from military personnel were much funnier and more absurd than anything he could have possibly made up himself; so he often stuck the verbatim dialogue in the mouths of his characters. It’s either comforting or disturbing that things haven’t changed much in almost twenty years; according to a very funny (and sometimes harrowing, and touching) new documentary called Soldier Girls, the Army is still the place to be for such incredible doubletalk as a sergeant’s argument with a young woman who shows reluctance on the firing range: “This gun isn’t going to hurt you! This gun never hurt anybody!”

The movie – directed by Nicholas Broomfield and Joan Churchill – follows a handful of girls going through basic training and watches their responses to the weird other world of Army life (the issue of whether or not their responses are altered by the presence of a camera is very valid – though mostly people behave, sometimes, amazingly, as though they were quite unobserved). It is, among other things, an irresistibly quotable film; one of the most bizarre scenes involves a lecture on the proper reaction to a nuclear attack: When you see the bright light of a nuclear explosion, immediately turn away. Sound advice, I’d say, but don’t turn away from Soldier Girls, which is opening soon at the Harvard Exit. Just remember, you can use your canteen to wash off the radioactive dust.

First published in The Informer, March 1983

This was in the early phases of the careers of Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill, married but now divorced. He has since been a sometimes controversial figure, a sort of documentary Oliver Stone, and puts himself in his movies, which include Kurt & Courtney and Spalding Gray’s Monster in a Box. The serial killer Aileen Wuornos looms in their history, too.

True Love

August 12, 2021

True Love is going on between Donna and Michael, two young kids from the Bronx who are engaged to be married. At least, they think it’s true love. But, this film suggests, how can you ever be sure?

This movie is about the cold feet and butterflies that begin to manifest themselves in the days before the wedding, and about the different methods women and men use to cope with the jitters. Or perhaps that should read “girls and boys,” for Donna and Michael display conspicuously less than wise maturity.

They still use Donna’s baby-sitting jobs as excuses for heavy-petting sessions on the couch, although even these are interrupted by surprise appearances from Michael’s buddies, who want to go out and get tanked. And the closer they get to the wedding, the more Donna and Michael seem to be at odds. After all, Donna has selected “rainbow colors” for the wedding party, so she considers the caterer’s idea of blue mashed potatoes an interesting one. It makes Michael want to throw up.

Donna gets peeved when Michael doesn’t want to see her the night of his bachelor party (she’s probably lucky, because the guys end up scarfing down White Castle burgers on a Jersey boardwalk). Michael gets peeved when Donna wants wimpy gray tuxedos for the wedding. Are these two still going to be on speaking terms when they exchange vows?

True Love is a low-budget production, but it’s rich in observation and nice ethnic (i.e., Italian-American) detail. And the large cast of unknowns performs with freshness and devotion. Annabella Sciorra (currently in Internal Affairs) and Ron Eldard are very appealing as the leads.

Director Nancy Savoca and co-producer Richard Guay wrote the script together, and they raised production funds through basic grassroots methods. Good for them. Last year, True Love won the Grand Prize at the United States Film Festival.

First published in The Herald, January 23, 1990

A pretty famous indie for its time. Savoca and Guay followed with Dogfight and Household Saints.


July 13, 2021

A pair of intentionally eccentric movies hit the arthouse circuit this week, but neither of them has the right stuff to make sense of its own weirdness.

The release of Salvation! coincides with the continuing PTL drama. It’s about a charismatic TV evangelist (cunningly played by Stephen McHattie) whose plush life is invaded by a trio of crazy fans. During one wild night at his beach house, he’s seduced by an 18-year-old girl (Dominique Davalos), then threatened with blackmail and almost murdered by her greaseball partner (Viggo Mortensen).

When this night is over, it somehow transpires that Mortensen’s wife (played by the lead singer of X, Exene Cervenka), a true believer, is made the co-host of McHattie’s TV show. Their fortunes soar, T-shirt sales take off, and the whole thing ends with a music video.

Salvation! is an instant cult film geared for the art-camp crowd. It scores some funny moments, even though its targets, especially the phoney-baloney televangelists, are easy to hit. It’s also ragged and casual, and it lurches into MTV territory whenever things slow down.

Beth B is the director/co-writer. She and Scott B used to make underground movies during the 1970s, which made them the darlings of the New York experimental scene. Scott seems to have dropped out of sight, gone to that place where the rest of their last names went, I guess. Salvation! is a good deal better than their dreadfully artsy 1983 film Vortex, but Beth still has more hipness than moviemaking savvy.

Shadey is a British film with a lot of clever ideas. Clever, in fact, to the point of unpleasantness.

The basic idea here springs from a man (Antony Sher) who has a talent for turning his thoughts, or the things he sees, into movies. The British government would like to use this gift in their espionage war against the Soviets. Sher, on the other hand, would like to be turned into a woman.

This is just the seed. There are all too many wacky twists that follow, and also a number of good actors (Patrick Macnee, Billie Whitelaw, Katherine Helmond) strewn about the premises.

Snoo Wilson’s screenplay might contain some possibilities, but they are bungled by director Philip Saville, who can’t make sense of them. We know that many of the absurd things in the film are supposed to be pointed and funny, but Saville doesn’t provide lucid context and build-up for them. Which means that the only reasonable response to most of the movie is: “Huh?”

First published in The Herald, May (?) 1987

As I write this, Beth B has a new film out, a documentary about Lydia Lunch, and is enjoying some re-appraising. I am sorry that this does not fit into that (but would give it another look, for sure). Anyway, Mortensen and Cervenka met on this film, and were married for ten years. Davalos is the daughter of Richard Davalos, the good brother in East of Eden. The PTL scandal was the story about Jim and Tammy Bakker. Shadey put me off, but it’s a rare example of a lead role in film for Sher, who has had a large stage career. Roger Deakins shot it.

Starlight Hotel/A Winter Tan

June 24, 2021

Starlight Hotel is an undeniably nice movie from New Zealand, a picturesque tale of two mates traveling across Kiwiland. The travelers are a 12-year-old girl (Greer Robson), who’s run away from her uncle and aunt in search of her father, and a young man (Peter Phelps) on the lam because of a mix-up about a scuffle he was involved in.

Somehow these two fall into each other’s company; the girl is first dressed as a boy, but it isn’t long before her traveling companion realizes he’s stuck with “a bloody Sheila.” It is a standard road relationship, seemingly inspired by Paper Moon, in which the man acts grouchy and gruff, and the kid pulls a long face when he threatens to leave her behind.

The most laudable aspect of the movie is the re-creation of 1930s New Zealand. Director Sam Pillsbury takes a scenic tour, as our protagonists tramp through waving fields of wheat, into rundown towns, across hobo camps. It’s a pretty movie to look at, and easy to take, but it also evaporates quickly.

A Winter Tan is a more corrosive cup of hemlock. It’s based on the book Give Sorrow Words: Maryse Holder’s Letter from Mexico, a chronicle of the writer’s self-destruction while trying to find herself. Watching this movie is a genuinely disagreeable experience, as this thoroughly unpleasant person engages in utterly repellant behavior, and then tells us all about it.

A Canadian film, its writing and directing credits are collaborative, and it’s just the kind of pretentious and undefined movie that can result when no one’s in charge.

One of the co-directors is Jackie Burroughs, who also plays the main character. Burroughs is nothing if not brave, in making herself appear intentionally horrifying, with her hair bleached, her figure scrawny, and her voice raspy. (I trust it was intentional.) It’s an appallingly bravura performance, and one that I would never want to sit through again.

First published in The Herald, February 11, 1989

I saw A Winter Tan in Vancouver during a vacation, and it put a damper on things. The director of Starlight Hotel also did Free Willy 3 and some American TV, but notably wrote The Quiet Earth.