White Nights

March 19, 2020

whitenightsThe idea unspooled in the first 15 minutes of White Nights is so intriguing, you wonder how it hasn’t gotten on film before: A Russian dancer, long ago defected to the West, is aboard a passenger plane that develops engine trouble and must make an emergency landing in, of all places, the good old Soviet Union. The Soviets seize the dancer, telling the world he’s in a coma, and start “persuading” him to remain in Russia and dance for them.

The rest of the movie is about the dancer’s efforts to get out of the place. It’s a swell set-up, and the people behind White Nights have the perfect embodiment of their hero in Mikhail Baryshnikov, himself a famous defector and among the greatest ballet dancers ever.

To help this dancer decide to remain in Russia, the KGB (or whoever they are) enlist the aid of another expatriate, this time an American tap dancer (Gregory Hines) who came to Russia to escape prejudice at home. His star has slipped, however, and he’s now staging Porgy and Bess just outside of a salt mine (really) in Siberia. He’s none too happy about his new assignment – which seems to be escorting Baryshnikov to Leningrad and getting him into shape.

With all the possibilities in this plot, director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman) has made a bewilderingly slow and dingy film, except for the plane crash and the climax. The narrative action seems weighed down by the washed-out atmosphere (which tells us that not only is the Soviet Union a place where freedom is throttled, it’s also always overcast there).

Scenes go on too long, and the film’s themes are stated repeatedly. For all this, White Nights does crackle fitfully. The cast, for the most part, is marvelous; Isabella Rossellini, the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, is not exactly an actress, but she hits the right notes as Hines’ Russian wife.

And Jerzy Skolimowski, himself one of the finest directors in world cinema (Deep End, Moonlighting), coolly plays the sinister head of a Soviet agency. Skolimowski, a Pole and another expatriate, knows a thing or two about Soviet repression, and he plays the villain with obvious relish.

But Hines and, especially, Baryshnikov carry the film. You expect the dancing to be good, and it’s astonishing. Twyla Tharp did most of the choreography, although Hines improvised his own soaring tap number.

But both men are compelling screen presences, whether dancing or just hanging around. Baryshnikov got a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Turning Point seven years ago, but he’s come along way since then. He’s much more at ease, and despite a still-thick Russian accent, he conveys range and humor.

The film’s high point comes mid­way, when Hines is trying to get Baryshnikov to limber up in a Leningrad studio and Baryshnikov is tantalizing Hines with new music from the West. Hines bets Baryshnikov 11 rubles that the latter can’t do 11 pirouettes, and the scene turns into a duel of amusing one-upmanship, with a sense of life that the film doesn’t quite find anywhere else.

First published in the Herald, December 1985

Being a former ballet dancer myself (I’ll bet you didn’t know that), I took great interest in this film at the time. I saw Baryshnikov on stage once, an electrifying experience, and I saw Gregory Hines once too, but not dancing – he was demolishing a platter of chicken wings at the Cafe Carlyle during a set by Bobby Short. (I realize this opening makes me sound much more interesting than I am.) The cast includes Helen Mirren, Geraldine Page, and John Glover. Rossellini was just at the beginning of her real Hollywood run, so I hope I can be forgiven for slighting her skills; I think what I really meant was that she had a freshness that almost didn’t look like acting. Hard to believe she followed this with Blue Velvet, just a year later – these films seem so distant.


March 16, 2020

tightropeAlthough the ad campaign makes it look like Dirty Harry in New Orleans, this new Clint Eastwood cop movie is a good deal more interesting than the standard Harry shoot-’em-up. It’s called Tightrope, and it’s about a detective, investigating a seamy series of prostitute murders; who comes to feel weirdly responsible for the killings.

This cop is no icon of law and order. He’s an unhappily divorced man, with two daughters, whose investigation into the prostitution scene provides more temptations than he can resist. He even tries a few kinky sexual peculiarities that are part of the killer’s modus operandi.

The movie briefly flirts with the idea that Eastwood may be the murderer himself, but that’s quickly disposed of. However, the killer clearly has it in for Eastwood – and not just because he’s the detective in charge of the case.

As a cop movie, Tightrope works well, although it lacks the frequent gun play that has made some of Clint’s earlier pictures bang so loudly at the box office. That may disappoint some of his hard-core fans, but it’s clear his interest lies in the character.

The theme – as one character states a bit obviously at one point – is that each person has darkness in him, and keeping that darkness in balance with everyday life is a tightrope that we all walk. The murder investigation threatens to unbalance Eastwood’s character, a man already troubled by his divorce and the bizarre people he associates with as a cop.

The film was written and directed by Richard Tuggle, whose only previous credit was for the script of Eastwood’s excellent 1979 Escape from Alcatraz. Tuggle’s visual scheme translates the darkness of the characters into literal darkness: Bruce Surtees’ cinematography is full of shadows and half-seen faces.

Tuggle and Eastwood do pay heed to certain generic conventions, such as nudity and titillating sex, and that should ensure that whatever attention the film might have gotten as an unusual character piece will be lost.

While I was watching Tightrope, I noticed a similarity between it and a 1949 Akira Kurosawa movie called Stray Dog, in which a policeman loses his gun and feels guilty when the thief starts killing people with it. The same sorts of parallels are drawn between killer and cop, although the Tightrope audience probably won’t care too much about that.

Throughout, Eastwood seems to be toying with the nature of his tough-guy persona, and trying to suggest the imbalance that may exist underneath. (His character’s name is Block – a pun on the standard evaluation of Eastwood’s acting style?). His conversations with Genevieve Bujold, playing the director of a rape relief center, show where the film’s interests lie. Bujold’s is the latest in a series of gutsy leading female roles in Eastwood movies – a fact unremarked upon by most critics, who prefer to pigeonhole him in his macho mode.

She says to him, “I’d like to find out what’s underneath the front you put on.” His reply, rather stock: “Maybe you wouldn’t like it.”

She comes back with, “Maybe you’re afraid I would like it.” That catches him off guard. It may be as close to verbalized self-examination as we’ll ever hear from Clint Eastwood. It’s a moment typical of this weird, not wholly successful, but truly intriguing movie.

First published in the Herald, August 24, 1984

Lot of talk at the time about his interesting this film was, especially as an Eastwood project; his inclination toward darkening (in subject matter and visual style) had been forming for a while. Bujold proved a very good foil in this. It was an assumption, or at least rumored, that Eastwood might have been doing as much directing as Richard Tuggle. Tuggle went on to the dismal Out of Bounds with Anthony Michael Hall, and has not directed a feature since.





January 22, 2020

shagWho needs a sequel to Dirty Dancing? Shag is here. The dancing is a bit cleaner in this new movie, but otherwise the vibe is about the same.

It’s summer in South Carolina, 1963, and four teenage girls are out to have a last big weekend. One (Phoebe Cates) is about to be married, two (Annabeth Gish and Page Hannah) are scheduled for college, and the fourth (Bndget Fonda) figures she might try being a movie star. They set off for Myrtle Beach to have themselves a time.

The rest of the movie is the weekend, which, of course, turns out to be tumultuous. Cates is supposed to marry a young dullard (Tyrone Power Jr.) who’s going into his rich father’s tobacco business. As she notes, “He’s already got some ideas on how to improve filter-tips.” But a few minutes alone with a hunky Myrtle Beach stud (Robert Rusler) and her fiance goes up in smoke.

The movie is cleverly constructed around two events. Fonda enters the Miss Sun Queen contest to grab the attention of the judge, a massively pompadoured singing sensation; unfortunately, the prize is won by a trashy little vixen in a Confederate flag bikini.

And Gish and her new beau (Scott Coffey) enter the Shag contest, in which couples dance the Shag, a swingin’ dance. (This movie, like “Dirty Dancing, was choreographed by the spirited Kenny Ortega.)

Shag features the usual components of this sort of thing, with lots of old songs, one really big party, and a decisive deflowering. It doesn’t have anything new to say, but some of the individual scenes are nicely directed by Zelda Barron, who brings a warm touch to the girl talk.

Otherwise, the film veers between American Graffiti and Where the Boys Are. The actors keep it appealing; Gish was one of the pizza girls in Mystic Pizza, and she brings a similar level-headedness to these proceedings. The standout is Bridget Fonda, recently seen in Scandal. She’s very savvy, which is probably natural for someone who grew up in a family acting tradition. Incidentally, her father Peter made his movie debut in 1963 in Tammy and the Doctor, a film the girls of Shag would probably have loved.

First published in the Herald, July 20, 1989

Zelda Barron had a long career doing odd things in film (everything from script girl to a rumored script doctor on Reds to directing Boy George videos). She was also music video director Steve Barron’s mother. I can’t say anything about Shag, but at one time I did have a soft spot for Beach Party movies and the likes of Where the Boys Are, and probably still do. Scott Coffey has been in the David Lynch galaxy since having a “scenes deleted” credit for Wild at Heart; he’s in most of Lynch’s projects since then. Page Hannah married Lou Adler. Fonda hasn’t made a movie in 18 years.

Sammy and Rosie Get Laid

January 13, 2020

sammyandrosieIn My Beautiful Laundrette, director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi took a cook’s tour through the underside of a teeming, stewing London. In their follow-up collaboration, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Frears and Kureishi are back in the same milieu, but this time they’ve turned up the heat.

As the film begins, a former Pakistani cabinet minister named Rafi (Shashi Kapoor, India’s most popular actor) is returning to London, and he muses, “Before I die, I must know my beloved London again.” But his elegant city is transformed into a vision of hell: Buildings are burning, crowds are rioting, the streets are full of blood and broken glass.

Though the city may seethe, the people who live there go on with their own problems. Rafi stays with his son Sammy (Ayub Khan Din) and Sammy’s wife Rosie (Frances Barber). Rosie is something of a militant; she doesn’t believe in “getting the dinner on, or sexual fidelity.” Sammy’s lazier. He gives lip service to Rosie’s notion that all the unrest is “an affirmation of the human spirit,” but  quickly reverts to capitalist horror when the rioters overturn his own new car.

Sammy has an American mistress (Wendy Gazelle) with an interesting tattoo (the explanation of which is best supplied by the film). Rosie meets an enigmatic but kind-faced drifter (Roland Gift, lead singer of the Fine Young Cannibals) for a torrid encounter in an impromptu Third World conclave under a decaying highway bridge. Rafi hirnself calls upon an old flame (Claire Bloom) now living a respectable life.

If this begins to sound like the stuff of searing social comment, be assured that it certainly is. But the audaciousness of this film lies not merely in its social criticism (or in its I-dare-you-to-censure-me title), but also in its slashing comedic style. Sammy and Rosie Get Laid is a comedy of hysteria, a franctically funny satire in which no one is safe.

For instance. Rafi’s history includes the torture and murder of his political opponents, but this bitter past is absorbed right into the film’s general wild outrage; when Sammy and Rosie prepare a reception for Rafi, the son insists, “We can’t let a bit of torture get in the way of a party.” (This sly acceptance is aided by Kapoor’s wonderful, buttery performance.)

Of course, Margaret Thatcher is lambasted, her words accompanied by shots of the city smoking, seemingly in ruins. But the left is also susceptible to ridicule; Rosie’s shrill  lesbian pals are appalling in their deadly political correctness, and turn out to be just as capable of petty jealousy as anyone.

Kureishi, London-born of a Pakistani father and an English mother, is often strident and didactic in interviews. Which is why it’s such a pleasure to see his screenplays so marvelously multi-sided and daring. Some of Kureishi’s fire is tempered by the generosity of Stephen Frears (Prick Up Your Ears) whose more mature sense of irony makes a nice match with Kureishi’s ferociousness. Together they seem capable of taking London by storm, if they don’t burn it down first.

First published in the Herald, February 18, 1988

Such a fine and original film, with Kapoor making a particularly outrageous character. Opened in Seattle at the Egyptian theater, a good choice. And yes, political correctness was a thing, not yet co-opted by the right wing.

A Fine Mess

December 13, 2019

finemessBlake Edwards must be plenty tired of A Fine Mess by now. First the screenplay bounced around for a few years, searching for the right casting, at one point slated as a Burt Reynolds-Richard Pryor teaming.

Then, after the movie was actually made (with Ted Danson and Howie Mandel), the opening date was delayed twice – originally scheduled as a Christmas ’85 release, then for spring ’86.

Now that it’s really here, we can guess why Edwards stuck by the project so long. He’s the modern master of the kind of comedy, the delicate combination of sophistication and slapstick, that goes back to such great directors as Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges.

As elegant as some of Edwards’ films are (10, Victor/Victoria), he still loves flat-out slapstick (as evidenced by the Pink Panther series). A Fine Mess tips its floppy hat with its title. This is less Lubitsch than Laurel and Hardy. In fact, buried within A Fine Mess is the kernel of Laurel and Hardy’s most famous short, The Music Box, in which the intrepid but hapless duo moved a piano up a steep stairway to a house.            

But that situation is not recreated, it just happens to be part of the plot. To describe how Danson and Mandel get to that point is to risk total incomprehensibility, but I’ll try.

Danson (who basically plays his Cheers role, which is perfectly okay), a two-bit actor, overhears a horse-racing scam while filming on location at the racetrack. A horse running the next day is to be doped up with a powerful new stimulant – a sure thing.

Danson talks pal Mandel, a roller-skating waiter at a burger drive-in, into putting his savings on the horse. And the horse wins, but the two are spotted and chased by the perpetrators of the fix, a couple of second-rate comic hoods played by Richard Mulligan and Stuart Margolin. They work for an opera-singing underworld Mr. Big (Paul Sorvino).

Somehow, in the process of being chased, Danson and Mandel end up in an auction house, where they inadvertently spend their winnings on a player piano. Mandel romances the auction house curator (Jennifer Edwards), who leads him to a prospective buyer for the piano, a wealthy woman (Maria Conchita Alonso) who is actually …

Well, it gets complicated at that point. Blake Edwards obviously loves the madcap twists and coincidences of the farce, and he turns them nicely. The only problem is, the movie is not all that funny. It’s consistently amusing, in a mild sort of way, but the big payoffs are rare.

Somehow, at the same time that Edwards is expressing his clear love of slapstick, his heart doesn’t seem to be completely in it. A Fine Mess has the air of having been tossed off with Edwards’ left hand while he was writing his next project. In fact, it suggests nothing so much as the possibility that, even during the filming, Edwards was already plenty tired of the whole thing.

First published in the Herald, August 16, 1986

Burt Reynolds and Richard Pryor – it sounds worth a shot, anyway. I remember almost nothing about this film, except that the TV casting suggested a surrender on Edwards’ part.

American Flyers

December 6, 2019

americanflyersOn the synopsis level, American Flyers ought to be one of the corniest movies of the year, and one of the most manipulative. And the film itself may be both of those things, but it’s also a few things more, including entertaining, funny and lively.

It’s the contrived story of two brothers: Marcus (Kevin Costner), doctor and world-class bicyclist, and the much younger David (David Grant), a college student, and himself a bike enthusiast, who lives withhis mother (Janice Rule) in St. Louis. Mother and older son are estranged.

Writer Steve Tesich (who penned the superb screenplays to Breaking Away and The World According to Garp) has decided to bring this family together, and he’s going to do it by involving the brothers in a big bike race –  something called the “Hell of the West” in Colorado – and by throwing a fatal disease at one of them.

With that in mind, you know from the beginning that one of them is going to go on and (probably) win the bike race while the other dies of a weak blood vessel in his brain.

OK, it sounds awful, I know. But Tesich is such a smart writer, and has such a way with true dialogue and situations, he makes it work. Even uncomfortable scenes are shot through with humor, and Tesich has a knack for creating peripheral characters who can steal scenes, such as the superharged  manager of a school health club (John Amos) and his pudgy son, whose athletic ambitions begin and end with bowling.

And John Badham, who whipped up some effective suspense in Saturday Night Fever, Dracula, and WarGames, was a good choice as director. Badham shuffles the story along from the expositional scenes in which the fatal disease is diagnosed, to some amusing bicyling asides, to the big race.

He shoots this punishing race, which takes place in the unearthly Colorado scenery, with a variety of helicopter and ground-level shots. The danger and the thrill of the race are quite effectively rendered, to put it mildly.

The other redeeming feature about American Flyers is the acting, which is very pleasant. Costner, the wild kid in Silverado, is likable, although the movie really belongs to David Grant, who has the better role.

Rae Dawn Chong is Costner’s roommate, but she’s also the ex-wife of his main biking competitor, who happens to be nicknamed “The Cannibal.” This adds more tension to the big race, of  course (Tesich really knows how to pour it on when he wants to).

To throw a little love interest to David Grant, Tesich cooks up a free-spirit hitchhiker (Alexandra Paul), whom Grant meets in a roadside McDonald’s. She only met him because she had to wait for her food order; thus, if she’d taken a Big Mac right away instead of waiting for a Quarter Pounder, they never would have gotten involved. She chalks this up to unalterable Destiny.

The film, as doubtful as its plot might sound, is full of quirky little things like that. It doesn’t have big stars or high concept, but with a little word of mouth, American Flyers could turn into an unexpected hit.

First published in the Herald, October 8, 1985

David Grant became better known as David Marshall Grant, and Kevin Costner became better known. Tesich, such a promising (and already Oscar-winning) talent, died of a heart attack at age 53.


November 18, 2019

A brief break from posting 1980s reviews. But not like the last break, which lasted six years. Two weeks here, max. See you then.