Encounter at Raven’s Gate

July 2, 2020

encounterraven'sgateEncounter at  Raven’s Gate begins just the way science fiction movies are supposed to begin. In lonely Australian farm country, a burned circle is found in a hayfield. Some sheep  die of dehydration, though water is nearby. Dead birds rain down from the night sky.

Cool. Obviously, something bizarre is about to be revealed. Don’t expect an explanation, however; the answer isn’t spelled out, although the movie suggests it may have something to do with visitors from outer space. No, this film is more interested in creating a mood, a sinister atmosphere.

The atmosphere swirls around a farmer (Ritchie Singer), his bored wife (Celine Griffin) and his ne’er­-do-well younger brother, Eddie (Steven Vidler). Eddie has just been bounced out of jail and works at his brother’s place as part of his probation.

While the movie tantalizes with hints of the supernatural, it also unfolds some pretty odd doings among its supposedly normal characters. For instance, Eddie’s barmaid girlfriend is being romanced by a frustrated policeman, an increasingly demented opera lover who seems to have wandered out of Blue Velvet.

The other film that comes to mind while watching Raven’s Gate is The Last Wave, an Australian film of the 1970s that also traded in dark, biblical warnings. The difference is, Last Wave director Peter Weir was masterful in subtly building a sense of dread. Raven’s Gate director Rolf de Heer (who wrote the script with producer Marc Rosenberg) throws rounder punches.

But make no mistake, this movie has some spooky stuff. The camera has a disembodied, fluid presence, which gives even the simplest scene a disconcerting feeling. And now and then some character will simply lose it completely, as when a man turns to a corpse that he’s just placed in the passenger seat of his car and says, reaching for the seat belt, “Now, we’ve got to buckle up.” Creepy – and worth a look, for fans of the genre.

First published in The Herald, February 1, 1990

The film was originally released in Australia as Incident at Raven’s Gate. Rolf de Heer has of course gone on to an extensive career, including high points such as Bad Boy Bubby (you haven’t seen this? oh boy), The Tracker, and Ten Canoes. This one I’d like to see again – despite my measured reaction, it sounds like my kind of thing.


The Quiet Earth

March 27, 2020

quietearthSome months ago, little New Zealand attracted the world’s attention when it quixotically declared itself a nuclear-free zone in response to nuclear tests in the South Pacific. The country’s declaration seems relevant to the newest film to come out of New Zealand, which, although it doesn’t actually name nuclear weapons as the source of the apocalypse it portrays, is obviously an analogical version of life after a nuclear war.

The Quiet Earth is the work of the leading filmmakers in New Zealand: director Geoff Murphy, whose Utu was one of the most intriguing movies of the past year, and actor/co-screenwriter Bruno Lawrence, who gave brilliant performances in Utu and Smash Palace.

For The Quiet Earth, they’ve adapted a science-­fiction novel by Craig Harrison. It’s one of those end-of-the-world things, in which a survivor searches for the reasons for the catastrophe, and for other survivors.

In this case, the survivor, played by Lawrence, may have had something to do with the apocalyptic disaster. He’s a research scientist who’s been working on a top­-secret project called Operation Flashlight, which was supposed to construct an energy grid that would circle the earth. This would allow high-flying planes to refuel without landing.

One sunny morning, Lawrence wakes up, vaguely aware of a slight atmospheric zap. When he goes out, he discovers that at 6:12 that morning, Operation Flashlight was launched. The grid was constructed, but there was a little side effect: every animal on Earth was vaporized. Lawrence finds everything empty: lights are on, engines are running, tables are set – but the people are gone.

He has no idea why he’s still around, but he guiltily guesses it might be some sort of retribution for his part in the destruction. “I’ve been condemned to live,” he mutters.

Lawrence fights off the madness that might come from such solitude. He paints billboards that say, “Am I the only person left on Earth? Please contact me at …. ” He sends out radio messages. He takes comfort in the godlike freedom he has: living in the best houses, drinking the finest champagne, wearing snazzy clothes.

He will, well into the film, meet other survivors; a hip young girl (Alison Routledge) and a Maori – one of the native New Zealanders, comparable to the Indians of the United States – played by Peter Smith.

Obviously, these people each “represent” something, but Murphy doesn’t let them become symbols at the expense of the characters. And he imbues the film with the same kind of weird, sidelong humor that sparked Utu.

Some of the visuals are unforgettable: a huge, shimmering orange sun rising into a red sky in the film’s opening shot; Lawrence playing the saxophone down a deserted, rainy street at night; the final, enigmatic image, where Lawrence strides toward something impossible but nevertheless visible.

This ending is inexplicable. Lawrence has spouted some gobbledygook about the space-time continuum being disrupted, and that may provide a clue. Or not. The ending is curious, but it certainly is beautiful, and it’ll rattle around in your mind for a long time after.

First published in the Herald, November 15, 1985

I just re-watched this one, having carried fond memories of it for years. It’s still effective. This review is probably spoiler-heavy by 2020 standards, although there isn’t much that would be surprising to anybody who likes Last Man on Earth movies. And what an ending! I don’t know why I said the ending was inexplicable, as the film does prepare a couple of distinct possibilities, which fit neatly into the imagery we see. The music, by John Charles, has a big effect on the final sequence as well; it’s a big orchestral piece with distinctly sci-fi moodiness. Lawrence was always an interesting actor, with his boxer’s face and odd sense of vulnerability; Smash Palace is an amazing showcase for him. Funny how times change; I felt the need to explain “Maori,” which I wouldn’t do today.


Warning Sign

March 12, 2020

warningsignHollywood’s “product glut” continues to spew forth films that, in many cases, might better have been left in some studio vault somewhere. Warning Sign, which is getting a perfunctory release from 20th Century Fox, is an exception. It’s a perfectly competent, often suspenseful piece that deserves better treatment.

Much of the suspense is built right into the basic situation. A chemical spill at a genetic-engineering laboratory kicks off a warning sign, at which point the security officer (Kathleen Quinlan), according to her instructions, promptly shuts the building, and everyone inside, off from the outside world.

This brings concern from her husband, the county sheriff (Sam Waterston), who waits nervously outside the building; it also brings a government big shot (Yaphet Kotto) who coolly tells Waterston that the genetic-engineering experiments weren’t exactly about building better strain of corn, after all. The spill released a toxic substance that was designed for use against the enemy in warfare. It turns people belligerent and finally insane – and that’s exactly what’s happening to the people trapped inside the lab.

Warning Sign divides itself between the efforts of the outsiders to get into the lab, and the scientists inside, who are growing phosphorescent sores on their faces and nattering on in lunatic fashion. This brings concern from her husband, the county sheriff (Sam Waterston), who waits nervously outside the building; it also brings a government big shot (Yaphet Kotto) who coolly tells Waterston that the genetic-engineering experiments weren’t exactly about building a better strain of corn, after all. The spill released a toxic substance that was designed for use against the enemy in warfare. It turns people belligerent and finally insane – and that’s exactly what’s happening to the people trapped inside the lab.

Quinlan is the only sane person inside, so it’s up to her to find a way to fight off the crazies and try to concoct some kind of antidote.

The film is the creation of Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, a writing-directing team whose credits include Dragonslayer, a nifty medieval movie that, released about a year before such period films became popular, sank with barely a trace (Robbins also directed a recent installment of Amazing Stories, about the magnetic kid).

Barwood and Robbins don’t have very good luck, it seems. Although Warning Sign is a well-made film, it’s being used strictly as filler. The film, while no masterpiece (much of it is admittedly juvenile, and the sci-fi/horror aspects threaten to take over for a while), deserves better. It may not rise above the level of an extended Mission: Impossible episode, but there’s something to be said for well-handled suspense – especially when you consider the quality of the competition.

First published in the Herald, August 1985

Barwood and Robbins were being pushed forward as Spielberg proteges at the time (they wrote The Sugarland Express), not without reason – my affection for Dragonslayer is well known on this site. Their big shot after Warning Sign was *batteries not included, which failed to set the world on fire. Robbins has more recently written with Guillermo del Toro. This movie sounds good, although I don’t remember it, and the credits have some classy names: Dean Cundey shot it, Henry Bumstead designed it. I am posting this as the world is in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it seemed apt.


The Manhattan Project

February 14, 2020

manhattanprojectMarshall Brickman collaborated on the witty screenplays of Woody Allen’s best  1970s  films: Sleeper, Manhattan, and Annie Hall. The latter won Brickman an Oscar.

Since parting company with Allen, Brickman has been trying to get his own directorial career off the ground. He made two small, neurotic movies, Simon and Lovesick, both fitfully interesting, both commercially unsuccessful.

Brickman seems to have wised up a bit, at least in terms of that ever­ present bottom line. With The Manhattan Project, he’s harnessed his customarily amusing dialogue to a plot that fits neatly in the teen-science genre that gained currency – lots of cold, hard currency – with WarGames.

You know how, every few years, some teenager somewhere proudly announces that he’s unlocked the secrets of the atom, and by the way has a Tinker Toy A-bomb sitting in the basement of his parents’ house? That’s Brickman’s jumping-off point here.

Brickman’s protagonist (appealingly played by Christopher Collet) also has an edge of Oedipal fervor in making his homemade bomb. See, his single mother (Jill Eikenberry) is being courted by a new scientist (John Lithgow) in town. The scientist is working on a hot new substance that could make the H-bomb look like a Molotov cocktail – but nobody knows that, yet.

Anyway, Lithgow takes Collet on a tour of the bomb factory, without revealing the true nature of the experiments. Collet, a science whiz, sniffs out the truth, and decides he’ll bring a little attention to the hush-hush proceedings by pilfering some of Lithgow’s mysterious new liquid, which looks like Dippity-Do with iron shavings, and building his own bomb.

With the help of his girlfriend (Cynthia Nixon), Collet gets the stuff, builds the bomb, and carts it to a New York science fair, but just then Lithgow gets wind of it, and the FBI and most of the armed forces are called in to collar Collet at any cost.

This plot feels vaguely recycled, and Brickman has some trouble justifying the motivations of his characters. Most of the time, they’re acting in a manner that suits the plot, rather than anything resembling human behavior. This sometimes makes the characters seem dumb. When Collet is being chased by everybody, you wonder why he doesn’t just blow the whistle on the whole shebang by calling up the New York Times.

But Brickman makes up for a lot of this with his frequently hilarious dialogue (and the skill of his actors in delivering it). There’s a good laugh in almost every scene.

And he ends the film with a fine suspense sequence, as Collet brings his live bomb into the lab, and he and Lithgow must disarm it. Once again, a bunch of things about this sequence don’t make logical sense, but it’s easy to be caught up in the breathlessness of fighting the clock. It also gives Lithgow a chance to show off a little.­ Brickman loads the scene with nervous-funny lines, which Lithgow does just splendidly.

While The Manhattan Project doesn’t seem like an entirely personal project for Brickman, it’s certainly an entertaining summer movie (and it gives him the opportunity to slip in some pointed observations on the subject of nuclear research and production). It should do well, which ought to free Brickman to do the sorts of films that are perhaps closer to his bone.

First published in the Herald, June 1986

Yes, well, except for a 2001 TV movie, this was the end of Brickman’s feature-film directing career, so my clairvoyant skills are nil here. Whole lotta plot synopsis in this review, too. I have no idea whether teens still make atom bombs in their basements, but apparently I thought so at the time.


The Last Starfighter

November 14, 2019

laststarfighterThis is one marvelous idea for a movie: A kid who lives in a trailer park just outside of Nowheresville, U.S.A., is a champion at the community’s one and only video game. Un­beknownst to him, when he breaks the game record, a signal is loosed that travels across the galaxy, to a planet that needs rocket pilots – or “star­ fighters.”

The lad is promptly picked up by his interstellar recruiter and whisked away to another world, where bad aliens are threatening the defense system of good aliens.

Since he’s already a master of the control board, he just needs to be plunked down at the helm of a rocket ship and he’s on his way to save the universe. Maybe.

When the other recruits are wiped out, he becomes The Last Starfighter, which is also the name of the movie. It’s a friendly, good-hearted film that’s rather too slim to support itself. It also provides a good portion of inoffensive fun along the way.

It begins with some wonderfully low-key exposition in this trailer park, which turns out to be the proper setting for the stuck-in-low-gear characters: they’re portable people who never go anywhere. All except Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), who dreams of going away to college and making something great of himself – and taking his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) along with him.

Shades of It’s a Wonderful Life, in which the hero is also trapped in a small town. When Alex’s college loan doesn’t come through, things look bad for his escape.

To blow off a little steam, he has a go at the “Starfighter” video game, and breaks the record. This precipitates a visit from the alien emissary (Robert Preston, doing perhaps a bit too much Robert Preston).

Oddly enough, for all of the perfectly adequate special effects on display once we get into outer space, the small-town sequences are the most memorable. I found myself wanting to stay with the run-down rural landscape more than the high-tech other world. Happily, there is cross-cutting between the two arenas, since a robot double of Alex has been left in his place so no one will notice his absence (this leads to some amusing shtick when Maggie becomes overly affectionate and almost corrodes Alex II’s inner workings).

The big disappointment is in the blah nature of the space-age stuff. Director Nick Castle, who has a friendly feeling for his characters, seems to be working from an under­ nourished script.

One influence on The Last Star­ fighter – without having any actual involvement in it – is that of John (Halloween) Carpenter, who went to film school and wrote the screenplay of Escape From New York with Castle. Lance Guest played in Carpenter’s Halloween II, and Dan O’Herlihy, who plays a humanoid who resembles a lizard in The Last Starfighter, had a juicy role in Halloween III. Here, he plays it overly cuddly – too cuddly for a 6-foot iguana, in my opinion.

Castle, however, seems to have his own distinctive style. I’d like to see him tackle something less fantastic next time. Maybe The Last Starfighter never quite blasts off because Castle’s talents are more down­-to-earth.

First published in the Herald, July 1984

At the time I had my eye on Castle as a guy who might be an interesting auteur-in-the-making, and I enjoyed interviewing him on his next picture, The Boy Who Could Fly. Mary Catherine Stewart was having her 80s moment at this point (I interviewed her, too, for Mischief), and Lance Guest is still working. I am going to guess this movie has a following.


The Abyss

October 24, 2019

abyssIf you’ve never seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Cocoon, or any other of the contact-with-­friendly-aliens movies of the last decade, then The Abyss may seem like a visionary film, a fabulous mix of action, science fiction, and wonder.

It may seem that way even if you have seen those other movies. But The Abyss, an expert and often evocative piece of action filmmaking, suffers from too much familiarity with these themes of alien awe.

That cavil noted, I hasten to applaud The Abyss as the top action movie of the year thus far. It’s the third movie since January to feature a plot about deep-sea workers trapped with major problems at the bottom of the ocean. But while the memory of Deepstar Six and Leviathan recedes into Z- movie cheesiness, The Abyss comes roaring at you with all the breathless ingenuity that writer-director James Cameron can muster.

That’s quite a bit.

Cameron is the fellow who created Aliens and The Terminator, and he’s an energetic, intelligent talent. The Abyss is his most ambitious effort, in more ways than one.

Most of the movie takes place underwater, at an oil-drilling station on the sea floor. When an American nuclear sub crashes nearby, the military asks the rig to help investigate. The boss (Ed Harris) isn’t thrilled, particularly when his estranged wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who designed the sea station, comes down to supervise. He’s also suspicious of the grim Navy divers (led by Michael Biehn) who seem to have their own agenda.

The journey into the wrecked submarine, an unnerving graveyard of floating refuse and snow-white corpses, is just the beginning of the fun. The film’s full of crackling suspense in an old-fashioned movie way; at almost 2 1/2  hours, the forward motion never flags.

But Cameron is up to more than just adventure. The film is about two things: the exploration of non-terrestrial life (“something not us”), and the exploration of a foundering relationship. The Abyss is like a cross between Close Encounters and Scenes From a Marriage. The marriage of Harris and Mastrantonio is shown in broad but deeply felt strokes (and is well played by those two good actors).

Cameron and his own wife, Abyss producer Gale Ann Hurd, were breaking up during the shooting of this film. That must have made for an interesting production. Their marriage was not the only thing that became strained during the grueling, already notorious filming process. Conditions were so horrible that Ed Harris vowed never to talk about the movie at all. The complicated underwater scenes were shot inside a huge abandoned nuclear reactor in South Carolina, and the logistics were a practical nightmare.

Very little of this hardship comes across on screen; the film’s a technical marvel. Technical but human – Cameron knows just how to play off the big special effects with the personal story. It makes you wonder whether the supernatural elements that creep into the film were necessary at all. Despite the nature of his films, Cameron’s touch is for people, not aliens.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

I wasn’t comparing The Abyss to Cocoon, but I do remember thinking that (in terms of subject matter) The Abyss had just missed being ahead of the curve. So that’s what that comment is about. I realize there might be some debate about my last line, since Cameron is not exactly lauded for his treatment of characters, but on the other hand, Titanic wasn’t entirely a smash because of special effects – at the very least, Cameron has a touch for archetypes. 


Deadtime Stories and Starship

January 29, 2013

starshipThe two cheesy exploitation movies that hit the area last weekend are a real study in contrasts. Deadtime Stories is low-budget and silly, and just marginally watchable. Starship, while boasting a superior budget, is as dull as dried clay.

Deadtime Stories takes the time-honored omnibus route, presenting three scary stories. The first, about a pair of medieval witches and their unwilling servant boy, seems left over from some other movie—it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the film.

The other two stories are modern updates of fairy tales. “Little Red Riding Hood” is here a nubile teen in a scarlet jogging outfit who runs afoul of a werewolf. The third story is a variation on “Goldilocks,” wherein the three bears are humans, escaped lunatics who find Goldi living in their abandoned house.

Goldi herself is a statuesque vixen blessed with a telekinetic power a la Carrie, which allows her to terminate her long line of suitors. She gets along very well with the bear family, and they even live happily ever after.

Under the clumsy hand of director Jeffrey Delman, this is all done tongue-in-cheek, as is the framing story of an insomniac boy having the tales told him by a babysitting uncle. It’s very clear that most of the budget went for special effects, with little left over for such niceties as professional actors.

Still, Deadtime Stories is comprehensible. Not so Starship, a completely incoherent space thing, directed and co-written by Roger Christian (a name to be shunned in the future). The ads promise, “The adventure of a million lifetimes”; actually, it only seems that long.

I honestly can’t tell you what the film was about, except it had something to do with some people trying to get off a planet that was being taken over by robots. Not a whit of humor, or even intelligible action.

First published in the Herald, April 1987 (?)

IMDb says that Jeffrey Delman is related to Bernard Herrmann; also, Deadtime‘s cast included Melissa Leo in one of her first movie roles. It opened at the Coliseum in Seattle. Roger Christian did design stuff for Star Wars and Alien, which would explain his move to sci-fi directing; he eventually did Battlefield Earth, which is a lot more fun than Starship. The movie apparently opened in Australia in ’84, but knocked around and was re-cut before playing the U.S. sometime later.