Beethoven’s Nephew

June 11, 2020

beethovensnephewIf you’re thinking about attending Beethoven‘s Nephew with an eye toward historical edification of the “Great Lives” sort, think again. The first clue that this film isn’t a garden­variety bioography – or even Amadeus-style speculation – is that the director is the outer-limits trashmeister, Paul Morrissey.

Morrissey’s name has never been too high-profile, because for much of his career he was hidden behind Andy Warhol. Warhol’s avant-garde flirtations with film in the 1960s, many of which are quite fascinating, even important, were essentially taken over by Morrissey by the end of the decade. Morrissey gave structure to Warhol’s deadpan approach in such films as Flesh and Trash.

Morrissey has gone his own odd way since leaving the Warhol fold, making low-budget movies that receive limited distribution. But some of his work is still quite spirited, and he maintains an I’ll-try-anything approach to filmmaking (his next movie will star, of all unlikely people, Ernest Borgnine).

Beethoven’s Nephew is not one of Morrissey’s livelier efforts. In fact, it’s a dull dead end, full of ratty period  trappings and Teutonic tantrums. The movie suggests an unnatural affection that Beethoven might have had for his nephew, Karl, of whom the composer was guardian for the last 12 years of Beethoven’s life.

Morrissey never comes out and says it, but I assume we’re supposed to think that Beethoven’s unhappiness about caring for the nephew springs from some unfulfilled lust for the boy. Beethoven sulks around like a rejected suitor, grumbling about his “malignant and odious” feelings, and continually interrupts Karl’s attempts at lovemaking with the opposite sex.

The worst thing about the movie is the staid style in which Morrissey tells the story – it could use a dose of the old trashiness. The one enthralling sequence, when Beethoven’s deafness causes his conducting to go haywire, relies on the Ode to Joy for much of its power.

The two lead actors seem to be playing in different movies. Wolfgang Reichmann plays Beethoven out of the thunder-and-bluster school, with plenty of ham to go. Dietmar Prinz, as Karl, is from a long line of pimply­ faced, catatonic Morrissey leading men, a direct descendant of the zombied-out Joe Dallesandro from Warhol days. Their inability to connect typifies the movie’s problems.

First published in The Herald, June 1988

The fact that the actors seem to be appearing in different movies sounds pretty interesting, and perhaps intentional on Morrissey’s part. Oh well. I didn’t even mention two significant co-stars here, Jane Birkin and Nathalie Baye, so I must have really been having a bad day.



April 17, 2020

rooftopsRooftops is the usual movie compilation of street scenes, gang wars, and turf violence. The only unusual thing about the movie is that it was directed by Robert Wise, a veteran filmmaker who should’ve known better.

Presumably Wise was tapped for the job because of West Side Story, which he won an Oscar for directing (actually co­directing, with Jerome Robbins). Wise has also made some snappy, realistic street dramas, including the tough boxing movies The Set-Up and Somebody Up There Likes Me, before his films began to grow more sluggish and elephantine (The Sound of Music, Star Trek The Motion Picture).

Rooftops has some small similarity to West Side Story. The main characters are young and forgotten by the rest of the world. They also break into dance every now and then, though not in the exalted manner of West Side Story. The movie has us believe that these toughs perform something called the “challenge dance”; instead of using their fists, they shimmy around each other until one opponent backs down. Hmm.

The main character is a loner known only as T (Jason Gedrick, recently quite good in Promised Land), who lives, like many others in the neighborhood, on the rooftop of an abandoned building. He sleeps in the water tower on top, which he’s decorated with found furniture. As he says after the bad guys have destroyed his home, “It was just a busted-up water tower, you know, but I made it mine.” (Terence Brennan’s script is not strong on memorable dialogue.)

Like most of the other rooftop dwellers, T appears to be a dance and fitness enthusiast. These kids may be poor and homeless, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of opportunity ­for aerobic activity. The main gathering place is a vacant lot full of music and swaying bodies, where T meets a cute young thing named Elana (Troy Beyer). Elana claims to be a waitress, but she’s actually working the streets on behalf of the movie’s chief sleazeball, Lobo (Eddie Velez).

Lobo is responsible for bad things happening, and it’s T who must eventually swat him down. There’s also a young Hispanic Mickey Rooney role taken by Alexi Cruz, as a chirpy graffiti artist named Squeak.

Wise brings a whiff of West Side Story to the dance between T and Elana, as they try to sneak a kiss in a nightclub when the power goes off. But West Side Story was stylized and intentionally artificial, while Rooftops is gritty and supposedly realistic. As is often the case in movies, stylization wins.

First published in the Herald, March 1989

Ten years passed between Star Trek and this film for Wise; he’d complete only one TV-movie before hanging it up. At least this one was more spirited than the Macy’s parade balloon that was the ’79 Trek.


November 5, 2019

hairsprayThe man William Burroughs called “The Pope of Trash” is at it again. Yes, John Waters, sleazemaster general, low-budget filmmaker, and Baltimore’s ambassador to the world, has made another movie.

The title, Hairspray, would seem to place the new film safely within Waters’ existing lexicon: his movies include Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Polyester.

But this time out, Waters has sweetened his tone and softened his approach. Hairspray has a full quotient of Waters’ trademark glitz ‘n kitsch, but there’s a nostalgic undertone that warms the movie. It’s set in the Baltimore of 1962, when the resident teenyboppers are frugging to the beat of a local American Bandstand knockoff called The Corny Collins Show, a dance party that brings dozens of pubescent kids to brief regional TV stardom. One girl in particular, Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake), dreams of becoming a regular on the show.

Not only does Tracy garner a spot on the dance floor, she quickly becomes the new star, even threatening the front-runner status of the witchy Amber (Colleen Fitzpatrick) for the coveted “Miss Auto Show 1963” title.

Improbably, Waters welds this goofy little story with a subplot of racial integration. No kidding: Much of the movie is about the kids’ efforts to incorporate black teens as regulars on the show, and not just relegate them to the “Negro Day” on the last Thursday of every month.

It’s an appealing setting for a movie, but don’t get the idea that Waters has gone completely straight on us. He’ll still stop the show for the occasional gross-out (such as the aurally graphic popping of a pimple), and his cast list alone is fairly head-spinning.

For instance, Tracy’s parents are played by the unlikely duo of Jerry Stiller and longtime Waters collaborator Divine. Divine, the corpulent transvestite, also plays the male role of the intolerant TV station manager.

And Amber’s uptight parents, whose house bulges with the ’60s iconography of lava lamps and those paintings of kids with big eyes, are played by Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry (she proudly reminds her daughter that she was once “Miss Soft Crab of 1945”). Some of this doesn’t work as well as it might sound. For instance. the idea of Sonny Bono as the sleazy owner of an amusement park is funny; in truth, it doesn’t really click in the movie. (Sonny is, after all, still Sonny.)

And the roughness of Waters’ directorial style continues. He still doesn’t always know what to do with the camera, and some of the performances are out of sync (his own cameo, as a crazed psychiatrist, is just fine).

But the sloppy patches are finally outpointed by the movie’s sheer likability. The music’s great, the dancing is generous, the hair-dos are towering and fearsome, the dialogue is dizzily campy (school principal to Tracy: “You’re on a one-way ticket to reform school!”).

A high point is the visit to a beatnik parlor, where an artist (the Cars’ Ric Ocasek) and his beat chick (Pia Zadora!) are digging reefer. Eventually Hairspray becomes just too wackily imaginative to resist.

First published in the Herald, February 28, 1988

Who could’ve known the movie would eventually turn into a pop-culture phenom and a Broadway hit? Probably somebody. I don’t recall what my problem was with Sonny Bono in this film, but I said it, so I’ll stand by it, although one should really not question Waters in these matters. 

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?


October 8, 2019

crossroadsDirector Walter Hill has been wavering between gritty, realistic films (The Long Riders, 48 HRS.) and outlandish forays into pure stylization (the urban-punk musical-western Streets of Fire). Of course, Hill’s gritty movies are stylized in their own way, and he’s at his best when working with strong storytelling rather than simple metaphor (as in the Vietnam-microcosm mess, Southern Comfort).

In his latest project, Crossroads, Hill indulges both sides of his personality. For the first hour and more of its running time, it’s a wonderfully rendered yarn, a typically American kind of journey told in nifty, authentic language. For its denouement, however, Hill suddenly heads into la-la land, and pulls a bizarre shift into the supernatural.

The plot springs from a terrific idea. A guitar prodigy (Ralph Macchio of The Karate Kid) from Long Island is classically trained but has his heart in the blues. He’ll do anything to track down a mythical lost blues song by Robert Johnson, the great bluesman who was murdered before his 21st birthday after recording an output – 29 songs – that changed the way American music sounded.

Macchio has tracked down a harmonica player (Joe Seneca) who was present for Johnson’s recording sessions. But the bluesman won’t give Macchio the lost song unless Macchio breaks him out of his New York nursing home and takes him back to Mississippi.

They break out, head south and Seneca starts teaching the young greenhorn some ot the rules of the road. He claims the kid is technically gifted but utterly without a sense of the blues, so he needs to throw a few hellhounds on his trail.

The kid gets an education fast. They’re dumped onto Highway 61 without any money, thrown into a mugging at a motel and arrested for sleeping in a barn. Macchio also hooks up with a tough-as-nails hitchhiker (Jami Gertz) and he learns the essential blues lesson about unrequited love.

All of this provides great pleasure. The similarity with The Karate Kid, in which Macchio also learned  wisdom from an old-timer, is unfortunate, but Crossroads creates its own distinct world; Ry Cooder’s music enhances this immeasurably, although I wish there were even more music in the film.

When the travelers reach Mississippi, and a crossroads at which Johnson and Seneca supposedly sold their souls to the Devil for a taste of blues success, the film starts to hint that this supernatural contract is real, and the finale is an update of The Devil and Daniel Webster, with Macchio trying to pick and strum his way out of Seneca’s contract.

Hill’s films are usually about myth-making, so in a way this conclusion is appropriate. But it’s also just plain weird, coming after the down-to-earth realism that has gone before. And the hokiness of the climactic get-down session is sometimes laughable.

The sequence probably wouldn’t seem so bad if the film hadn’t begun so promisingly. As it stands, it is a strange, seemingly misguided ending to a promising, still largely enjoyable film.

First published in the Herald, March 13, 1986

Huh. Well, I was really thinking a lot about Americana around this time, and I may have really wanted a movie like this to work. It all sounds pretty painful from this distance, and I haven’t watched it since. Screenwriter John Fusco subsequently wrote the Young Guns movies and Hidalgo. The movie’s also got Joe Morton, Harry Carey Jr., and Steve Vai. The actor Robert Judd, who plays Scratch (and died in ’86), has exactly one other movie credit: in the incredibly nasty exploitation picture Fight for Your Life (1977).

Back to the Beach

October 1, 2019

backtobeachWe are riding the crest of another wave of retro-fashion/music/style—or is it just another ripple in the never-ending tide of nostalgia? “La Bamba” is back on the charts, Newsweek puts Elvis Presley on its cover and declares surfing clothes the hip new look, and Stanley Kubrick makes the sublimely ridiculous “Surfin’ Bird” a showstopper in his new movie.

All right, so it’s silly. But it beats facing reality.

With that in mind, consider Back to the Beach, a perfectly timed ode to the stupefying Beach Party movies of the early 1960s. If drinks in coconut shells with little umbrellas are your thing, and the sound of the words “Surf’s Up!” sends a thrill down your spine, we’ve got a movie for you.

Back to the Beach finds the now-married Big Kahuna (Frankie Avalon) and Annette (Annette Funicello) in something of a mid-life crisis. They’ve lived in Ohio since the ’60s, when Frankie swore off surfing after a disastrous encounter with a legendary wave called the Humuonga Cowabunga from Down Undah. Frankie sells cars, while Annette fixes her two kids endless sandwiches with Skippy peanut butter (there are mucho Pirandellian in-jokes in this film).

So they take a vacation with their punked-out son (Demian Slade) and land in Los Angeles. Their college-age daughter (Lori Laughlin) is living with a surfer (Tommy Hinkley), which sets Kahuna’s helmet-shaped hair on end. Romantic misunderstandings occur all ’round. The solution, as it always was in the original films, is for the guys to make the gals jealous, and the gals to make the guys jealous.

This is how it always worked.

So Frankie spends time down at Daddy-O’s with Connie Stevens. Annette flirts with a hunk named Troy (John Calvin) who states his romantic philosophy thusly: “I dig chicks. Chicks dig me digging them. Dig?”

And there’s a happy ending. The fun of all this comes from the loopy affection this film has for those old movies. All the old conventions are kidded, including the corny back-projection shots of Frankie perched in front of a huge wave, and the crazy beachwide dance numbers (here Annette teaches a thousand people to do “The Jamaican Ska”).

Plus, characters say things to Frankie and Annette that you’ve always wanted to say. When Annette hits the sand after hanging ten, Troy marvels, “After all that surfing, her hair’s perfectly dry!” And it is arguably one of the great moments in cinema history when an awed surfer observes that Frankie was once the king of the beach: “Which is extra cool, ‘cuz you look like an Italian loan shark.”

Lyndall Hobbs, an Australian-born filmmaker who has made some music videos, directed this movie, and she’s found just the right slaphappy tone. The whole thing’s keyed in day-glo colors and tiki architecture, and the action never flags.

Also, there are a bunch of goofy cameos: Bob Denver and Alan Hale, Jr., from Gilligan’s Island, much of the cast of Leave It to Beaver, Don Adams, Edd “Kooky” Byrnes, and Pee-wee Herman, who performs “Surfin’ Bird” (don’t tell Stanley Kubrick).

Back to the Beach also contains: a pajama party, Frankie swearing, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dick Dale doing “Pipeline,” and Annette in a pink polka-dot one-piece, which testifies to the fact that she still has—let’s be the teeniest bit blunt about it—a really amazing body. All that’s missing is Erich von Zipper. For aficionados, this film is a must-see.

First published in the Herald, August 8, 1987.

A fond memory, this one. And so much has changed in the world! Annette is gone, Stevie Ray is gone, Pee-wee’s career veered off course, and Lori Laughlin faces jail time. Hobbs did a few TV episodes and according to Wikipedia is now a designer; she was Al Pacino’s life partner for a while. None of this makes the slightest bit of sense. And oh hey, this site is also back, after a brief six-year break. As Ethan Hawke once said, time is a lie. So we’ll just resume as though nothing else happened, shall we?

La Bamba

March 25, 2013

labambaRichie Valens was the other great rocker who went down in a plane crash with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper near Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959, “the day the music died.” The Buddy Holly story has already been well immortalized on film; now, with La Bamba, it is Valens’ turn.

Valens is hardly as familiar a figure as Holly, of course, and he notched only three hits and 17 birthdays before his death. But La Bamba provides ample evidence of why he is worth celebrating.

The film is the work of writer-director Luis Valdez, whose previous film experience includes the interestingly disastrous Zoot Suit. Valdez has made a carefully balanced movie. It’s a very traditional film biography, and unafraid of the clichés of the form. But it’s also an uninsistent description of the Hispanic experience, a topic Valdez explores without ever losing the solidly entertaining main thread of the film.

The crucial way Valdez does this is by making La Bamba the story of two brothers. Richie (Lou Diamond Phillips) is the nice good-humored boy who becomes a star; Bob (Esai Morales, of Bad Boys) is violently insecure, more volcanic and ill-adjusted. Valdez allows these two to represent twin sides of a single personality—Richie yearning to tap into the American success story, Bob retreating to Mexico to seek the wisdom of the old ways.

Planted throughout this stimulating conflict are the hallmarks of the movie biography: Richie’s mom (Rosana DeSoto) pays for a live performance at a small local hall; Richie is spotted by a talent agent (Joe Pantoliano) who suggests a name change from Valenzuela; lovestruck Richie writes “Donna,” a hit single, for his white high-school girlfriend. Along the way, Valdez beautifully re-creates the humid milieu of Richie’s youth in the California fruit-picking world.

Valdez makes up for the occasional syrupy patch with some exhilarating music. There’s a marvelous scene when Bob takes Richie to a Mexican bordello for a rite of passage; Richie becomes more interested in the house band as it performs an old Mexican folk song, “La Bamba.” His subsequent, sizzling rock ‘n’ roll reworking of that song embodies the movie’s theme: that traditional Mexican ways may be incorporated into new American forms, without denying either. It helps, of course, that Valens’ recording of “La Bamba” is one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs ever laid down.

His music is re-created here by the brilliant Los Lobos, who also appear as the bordello band. There are other clever cameos: Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats plays Eddie Cochran, and Marshall Crenshaw appears as Buddy Holly.

La Bamba was a bit hit at the opening night of the recent Seattle International Film Festival, and Columbia Pictures is clearly counting on the strong word-of-mouth the movie has already generated to carry it past the lack of stars or high concept. It should work, and La Bamba could be this summer’s little movie that goes all the way.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

Fun movie. In retrospect, I assume Luis Valdez’ approach here was to deliver something that wasn’t commonplace in mainstream American films—a straight-ahead portrait of a Hispanic community—by putting it into a very conventional container. Which worked very nicely. Neither Phillips nor Morales quite took off the way one might have thought, although they’re both hard-working actors, with a few eccentric detours along the way. I just watched Esai Morales in Atlas Shrugged Part II, and you want to talk about an actor flashing his professionalism under absurd circumstances, you got it right there.