Welcome Home

March 9, 2022

Welcome Home is a film so without irony, so without hipness, that it could be mistaken for a soap opera from the 1950s. Except for its subject matter, that is, which tells of a soldier in Vietnam who was lost behind lines in 1971 and presumed dead.

The soldier (Kris Kristofferson) emerges in Thailand 17 years later. He has spent his time in prison camps and later in hiding in Cambodia, where he married and had two children. The sore point: He also has a wife back in Vermont, who thinks he has been dead all these years.

The movie’s main matter is bringing Kristofferson back to the United States and letting the dramatic chips fall where they may when he reappears. His father (Brian Keith) gets over the shock readily and happily, but the wife (JoBeth Williams) is, understandably, shakier. She’s remarried (to Sam Waterston), for one thing; then there’s a son, now 17, whom Kristofferson knows nothing about.

The revelation of the son is entirely predictable, and a lot of the hubbub surrounding the wife-with-two-husbands business seems hyped up. The film also lays on a side plot about a military coverup of Kristofferson’s re-emergence that seems to exist purely to have something else going on.

With all of that, Welcome Home should be a bad movie. It may very well be a bad movie. I must say that I found it so completely unaware of its own implausibilities, so unashamed of its melodrama, that it was effective, even moving, on its own terms. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

Williams and Waterston are capable as always, Brian Keith is better than he’s been in years, and Kristofferson – well, he’s nobody’s idea of a master thespian, but if you want to communicate the immediate sense of a scorched soul, he’s the man. The script, by Maggie Kleinman, often skirts around the sizable clumsiness of some scenes with economical, stripped-down dialogue.

Welcome Home is the last film from Franklin J. Schaffner, a generally solid craftsman who enjoyed a brief time in the upper echelon of American directors (he won the Best Director Oscar for Patton). Schaffner, who died earlier this year, won’t be remembered as one of the greats, but he made some entertaining movies and he always showed a strong sympathy for the outsider. As a sendoff, Welcome Home is nothing to be ashamed of.

First published in The Herald, September 1989

For Schaffner, better to go out with this than Yes, Giorgio or Sphinx, I suppose. It was also Trey Wilson’s last film. I remember nothing about the movie, sorry. Henry Mancini did the music.


He Said, She Said*

September 16, 2021

If such a thing as a sleeper still exists in the world of huge-budgeted Hollywood, He Said, She Said might just qualify. It’s a frequently charming romance that takes off from a gimmicky premise: The love story is told from two viewpoints. His and hers movies, you might say.

The romance in question takes place between two newspaper columnists, Dan (Kevin Bacon) and Lorie (Elizabeth Perkins). They write opposing editorial pieces that take different sides of a particular issue; they’re sort of the Siskel and Ebert of the op-ed page. Despite their political differences – he comes from a goofy old conservative family and is always quoting his Uncle Olav, her parents discuss methods of contraception at the dinner table – they fall for each other. After a while, their point-counterpoint routine gets a regular spot on the local news.

The film begins with the two of them in a crisis. Lorie gets so fed up with Dan that she plunks him in the head with a coffee cup – the heavy kind, the kind that creates a noticeable DING when brought into contact with someone’s forehead. This happens during a broadcast, which makes the ratings soar. (See, they really are like Siskel and Ebert.)

The courtship is then recounted in flashback, first from the male perspective, as we see Dan’s version. The second half of the movie puts the female spin on the story. The most intriguing part of this gimmick is that the male parts of the film are directed by a man, Ken Kwapis (Vibes); the female stuff is directed by Marisa Silver (Old Enough). The two moviemakers are engaged to be married.

Actually, the gimmick becomes something more than just a gimmick. There are distinct dynamics to the two sections of the movie. Seeing the same scene from (literally) different angles pays off in some amusing ways.

The man’s stuff is straightforward and funny, full of goofy/dumb male things, such as Dan’s theory of commitment, which he somehow gleaned from the example of the Wolfman, one of his idols.

The woman’s stuff is a bit more delicately shaded, and draws a more complex performance from Elizabeth Perkins (who shines throughout and continues to be one of our most appealing actresses).

I’m not sure if we can credit this change in depth to something intrinsically female, or simply to the fact that Marisa Silver is a more interesting director than her counterpart. The whole movie, incidentally, looks good. Steven Burum’s cinematography has a level of care that you don’t see in many Hollywood comedies these days.

Brian Hohlfeld’s screenplay is light on anything like real insight, but it’s funny enough. If you go to this film not expecting much more than decent entertainment with a couple of ingratiating star performances, chances are you won’t be disappointed. That’s what he said, anyway.

First published in The Herald, February 1991

So help me, I though this was an ’80s film, until I typed the whole thing up and then checked the release date. Dammit. Let me sneak this one in and put an asterisk by it. Sharon Stone and Nathan Lane are in it – oh, what a lead couple they might have been with the same premise.


Tremors*

July 22, 2021

Funny things keep happening in the desert around tiny Perfection, Nev. Funny and peculiar. Some sheep got tore up pretty good. Something killed an old guy and left his head buried in the dirt. And a rockslide just shut off the only road out of the valley, just as good ol’ boys Val and Earl were on their way out.

Now, Val and Earl aren’t exactly what you’d call brain surgeons. But they’re no dummies, either. Earl takes on look at the destruction and ponders, “Is there some higher force at work here?”

That’s as metaphysical as this movie, Tremors, gets. And actually, it turns out there is a lower force at work here. This is a monster movie. And the monsters are underground: big, smelly, fast, humorless, sight-impaired, human-eating worms.

These worms move under the ground, sensing edible-human vibrations, then attack. They look something like the sandworms from Dune, except they sprout little drooling miniworms from their mouths.

Screenwriters S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock and director Ron Underwood cooked up Tremors in the spirit of classic 1950s monster movies, which usually take off from an unfortunate nuclear accident that cause ordinary rodents and insects to swell to 20 times their normal size. Tremors doesn’t supply an explanation for its big worms, but it does provide a passel of amusing moments and lively escapes.

The filmmakers aren’t out to spoof those monster movies, but to catch their spirit and keep things light. It works pretty well, and a semi-respectable cast keeps it moving: Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward are the aforementioned buddies; Finn Carter is a seismologist who, in the best tradition of these movies, has to run around in her skivvies for a while; Michael Gross and country singer Reba McIntire are survivalists who finally have something to do with all the crazy stuff they stored up for World War III, which allows them to blast one of the worms with an elephant gun. All in all, an acceptable dose of B-movie energy.

First published in The Herald, January 1990

*You know, I typed this review up before realizing that it actually opened in January 1990 and not the 1980s. Having gone to that effort, I’m keeping it here. Sorry about the slip. Shot in ’89, meant to be released in ’89 – okay, you get the idea. Anyway, it spawned a bunch of spin-offs.


Street Smart/The Gate

July 8, 2021

After receiving lukewarm reviews during its opening back East a few weeks ago, Street Smart is getting an equally lukewarm national release by Cannon Films. Actually, it’s a good deal more interesting than your average movie fare, although it’s not too difficult to understand why Cannon is shying away from the film.

For one thing, the hero (Christopher Reeve) is a weasely reporter who invents an important story, lies to a courtroom, and cheats on his devoted girlfriend. Not the most attractive figure, yet the film makes something interesting out of this guy.

His story chronicles a day in the life of a New York pimp. It makes the cover of an important magazine, wins great applause, and earns Reeve a television contract with a local station. The twist is that everyone assumes the story is based on a certain notorious pimp (Morgan Freeman) who is currently up on murder charges. Soon the lawyers are ordering Reeve to hand over his non-existent notes and other evidence that might be relevant to the case, while the violent Freeman hatches a plot that draws Reeve even deeper into an ethical swamp.

Street Smart takes some chances by exploring the tarnished hero’s fall. Reeve haunts the low-life streets long after his story is published, and gets romantically involved with a prostitute (very well played by Kathy Baker), to the consternation of his girlfriend (Mimi Rogers).

Most of this stays on the intriguing level, because director Jerry Schatzberg (Scarecrow) doesn’t take the Reeve character to the limit. Reeve is good at portraying the necessary moral shiftiness, but he can’t quite embody or explain the real darkness that must be somewhere in this character.

Schatzberg gets an edginess to many of the street scenes, and every scene that Baker is in has a heartfelt authenticity. This movie is almost a sleeper; file it away for future video rental.

There’s not much need to file the weekend’s other opening, The Gate. It’s a clean-cut horror movie, about a horrible hole that opens up in a suburban backyard while mom and dad are away for a couple of days. The kids do battle with the demons that come up out of this thing.

It’s mostly an excuse for a lot of pretty good special effects. The demons consist of a great many whitish gnomes and homunculi, plus one big poobah demon who could, but for some reason doesn’t, kill the diminutive hero (Stephen Dorff).

There’s some attempt by director Tibor Takacs to suggest the complacency of America’s backyards, and the shady secrets they might conceal. But that angle was much better essayed in the recent The Stepfather, and The Gate can’t match the chilliness of that film.

First published in The Herald, May 1987

Street Smart launched Morgan Freeman into a new realm, that’s for sure. The Gate was Dorff’s first feature film; its director has had an interesting career, and writer Michael Nankin has gone on to a profitable run, mostly in TV.


’68

March 22, 2021

By titling his movie ’68, writer-director Steven Kovacs sets up some hefty expectations. After all, everybody’s favorite watershed year is fraught with associations, memories, reverberations; surely a film that sought to survey that year would be lofty in ambition and scope.

Instead, Kovacs’ film is a familiar coming-of-age story that happens to be set in 1968. Kovacs is eager to align the development of his main character with the chronology of the year, but the comparisons seem too easily drawn.

The hero (Eric Larson) is a college student who treads, somewhat ambivalently, through the waters of radicalization. After he gets expelled from Berkeley, he finds work in a biker shop (the redneck owner is played by Neil Young) and finds inspiration in the presidential campaign of Robert Kennedy.

Meanwhile, his father, a restaurateur who immigrated form Hungary during the 1956 uprising, is struggling to establish his San Francisco eatery, and trying to come to terms with his sons (the younger son has just discovered his homosexuality). This narrative mixture provides some ordinary family drama, with the usual breaks and reconciliations.

As the family drama unfolds, the counterculture roadsigns are popping up like pot at a peace rally. The musical soundtrack features most of the selections you might expect: Hendrix, Joplin, Jefferson Airplane all make obvious appearances, all triggering some unearned shortcuts to mood and atmosphere.

For someone who presumably lived some of the story he tells (and definitely lived through the era), Kovacs is remarkably unimaginative in his use of music, which could have been culled from the dullest list of official ’60s classics (don’t get me wrong, the music’s great, but it’s been overexploited in this context). The one exception is the film’s funny last scene, in which music provides the method for a couple of misfits to be assimilated into the American system.

As his characters go through their paces, Kovacs runs through the central news events of the day: the assassinations, LBJ’s “I shall not seek and will not accept” speech, the violent Democratic convention. This is a facile method to draw parallels between the world and the hero’s life, and it’s a shameless way to provoke emotions for an otherwise standard story. For what it’s worth, the definitive movie treatment of 1968 is yet to be made.

First published in The Herald, February 1988

Kovacs, sez IMDb, is a professor in the cinema department at San Francisco State. Here’s one of those cinematic mysteries: The cinematographer on this film is Daniel Lacambre. He is the credited director of photography on Eric Rohmer’s Suzanne’s Career (that’s one of the Moral Tales, folks, even at an hour long), was the camera operator on Magical Mystery Tour (what??), got into the Roger Corman world, shooting The Wild Racers and Stephanie Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire, plus Macon County Line, The Woman in Red, and Battle Beyond the Stars. After ’68, he has no DP credits listed, although he directed a film, The Secret of Sarah Tombelaine, in 1991. How can this be explained?


I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing

March 10, 2021

Polly (Sheila McCarthy) is a 31-year-old secretary who has been described by her own temporary agency as “organizationally impaired.” Her life is about as messy as her work habits; her small apartment is agreeably frowzy, and strewn with the candid photographs she takes in her spare time.

Polly is the heroine of I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, a new Canadian film that delves into her infectiously daffy world. (It’s also, with Eat the Peach, the second movie in recent months to take its title from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” signaling a cinematic trend that I have yet to decode.)

Polly tells the story directly to us, at times narrating to a video camera in her apartment. Somehow, this scatterbrain gets a job as a secretary to the curator (Paule Baillargeon) of a small Toronto art gallery. Polly’s bowled over by the curators’ sophistication, the French accent in particular, and she’s soon harboring some major heroine-worship.

Polly, in her bumbling way, is responsible for bringing the curator’s own art to public view, where it is enthusiastically received. But this act leads to disillusionment: When Polly anonymously sends the curator a batch of her photographs, her boss dismisses them as “trite made flesh.”

First-time writer-director Patricia Rozema taps completely into Polly’s persona. The simple story is filtered through the quirkiness of Polly’s mind, which includes room for fantasy trips. Polly envisions herself as a superhero, scaling the walls of skyscrapers and flying over the city, or conducting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for a nonexistent orchestra.

And Rozema knows how to find the comedic nudge for otherwise straightforward scenes. For instance, there’s a memorable sequence in a Japanese restaurant, the point of which is for the curator to invite Polly to stay on as a permanent secretary. But Polly is of course utterly at a loss in this strange place. She tries out various floor-sitting positions before her boss arrives, and then blithely orders something from the menu at random. It turns out to be raw octopus.

Which opens up a whole range of physical comedy for Sheila McCarthy, who finds many funny things to do in the course of attempting to eat the slimy thing. McCarthy is red-headed, birdlike, and big-eyed – a natural face for comedy – but with reserves of pathos, the quality she draws out when she puts a chipper front on her own sense of failure (“I guess I’m just a gal on the go,” she tells her video camera, with considerable doubtfulness). Mermaids is the first major film role for this actress, and from here on out she will truly be a gal on the go.

First published in The Herald, October 2, 1987

McCarthy has indeed had a nice robust career, although it seemed as though she might have been headed for even bigger things (a role in Die Hard 2 notwithstanding). Rozema has also kept busy, including TV work, an enjoyable Mansfield Park with an insistent political edge, and Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl.


Amsterdamned

March 4, 2021

The previous offering by the Dutch filmmaker Dick Maas was a strange little horror movie called The Lift, about an elevator that went berserk and started killing people. It was a wild movie, full of left-field humor and inventive shocks.

Ditto for Maas’s new film, the drolly titled Amsterdamned. In this one, an Amsterdam policeman (Huub Stapel) must track down an amphibious sicko who prowls through the canals of the city and slices up people who get too close to the water. The movie veers between the heart-thumping suspense of a Jaws and the queasily unpleasant grossness of a slasher movie.

But at least there’s never a dull moment. The cop is an irreverent presence; when his partner asks him about a witness’s description of the killer – “What could it mean, a monster with big black claws?” – our hero replies, “I dunno. Does your mother-in-law have an alibi?” (Apparently mother-in-law jokes know no international boundaries.)

He’s also making time with an attractive diver (Monique van de Ven), who’s helping him find the underwater maniac. But a lot of the movie’s buildup simply prepares the way for a couple of terrific chase scenes that use the unique layout of Amsterdam.

The first is a good motorcycle chase, in which the quarry winds up hanging from the lip of a drawbridge. Cool.

The second chase takes place on the canals, as two speedboats thread their way through the low bridges and around hairpin corners. It’s a wonderful action sequence, rife with tight spots and black humor. At one point, the cop actually falls out the back of his otherwise-unoccupied boat, and hangs on by a rope while he hopes the thing doesn’t abruptly change course.

In all of this, Maas’s film is somewhat patchwork and offhand. Amsterdamned almost looks as much like an audition for a big Hollywood action movie as anything else. On those terms, I’d say Maas puts his best foot forward. Sign this guy up for the next James Bond movie, and put some juice back into the series.

First published by The Herald, November 1988

It opened in Seattle at the Market Theater, a Vestron Pictures release! Maas didn’t get his 007 shot, although he remade The Lift in 2001 with two Lynchian lead actors, Naomi Watts and James Marshall. Apparently that one had its release killed by September 11, 2001.