The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking

December 16, 2021

As the chorus sings under the opening credits and repeats throughout the film, “Pippi Longstocking is coming into your town.” This threat is fulfilled in The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, the latest cinematic spinoff of Astrid Lindgren’s popular children’s books.

Pippi, the freckle-faced, red-haired bundle of mischief, begins the movie by falling off her father’s boat into a typhoon. She and her horse and monkey drift to a seaside town, where they set up shop in her father’s abandoned house while waiting for the old man to show up.

The townspeople, including the next-door neighbors, take one look at this carrot-headed pixie and decide that she is having a subversive effect on the local children. Which, actually, she is; she’s fond of all-night pancake parties and civic disturbances that involve the willful destruction of gallons of ice cream.

The parents quickly see that their children are having too much fun, and predictably move to nip this tendency in the bud. In particular, the headmistress of the orphanage sees Pippi as an immediate enrollee.

It’s kind of a strange movie. Kids may enjoy the whole anti-establishment angle of Pippi’s various hijinks, such as her rebellious approach to the educational system: Pippi can’t understand why teachers would ask questions of students, when the teachers already know the answers.

And yet, the film, which is scripted and directed by Ken Annakin, is so bland in almost every way that it’s difficult to know what kids would find attractive in it. (I have no familiarity with the Pippi books – they were unequivocally a girl thing when I was a kid – and so can offer no point of comparison.)

Another problem is the casting of newcomer Tami Erin as Pippi. I’m sure she’s a nice girl, but she’s got “zero charisma,” as the kids in E.T. would say.

There’s an idea. Instead of spending 25 bucks to take a few little ones to see this moribund movie, save your money and buy a copy of E.T. when it comes out on video this fall. Then you’ll have something as a permanent part of the library, and it’ll be a truly enchanting fantasy, instead of a half-baked one.

First published in The Herald, August 2, 1988

Tami Erin’s subsequent movie career was not extensive, although IMDb duly notes that she released a sex tape in 2013. This was getting toward the end for Annakin, who has a number of interesting British films to his credit, and a boatload I haven’t seen.

Baby It’s You

October 20, 2021

For one thing, the noses: Her is graceful, a delicate thing that flares up and away from her full lips. His is inelegant, a flattened King-size that retains some Roman nobility while staying ready for a fight. There is nothing particularly complementary about these noses, nor about the people behind them, but they can’t seem to stay away from each other. It could be the old opposites attracting; then again, it could be nothing more than being the same place at the same time (in this case, the place is high school, Trenton, New Jersey, and the time is the mid-Sixties) and sharing a restless feeling. Whatever it is, they’ve got it, and it’s the kind of thing they won’t lose even when they want to.

She is Jill Rosen, a Jewish princess with the acting bug; he is Albert Capadilupo – just call him “Sheik” – an Italian stallion who fancies himself the next Frank Sinatra. They are the main characters in Baby It’s You, the new film by John Sayles, and we see their rocky relationship from the end of the their greaser high-school days to the beginning of their disoriented (and separate) college-age careers. That’s a pretty traumatic shift; the high school environment is sheltered and oppressive, having not changed since 1962, by the looks of things, although it must be ’66 or so. When the characters leave Trenton for the real world, they are suddenly swimming in hippiedom. That’s kind of an unrealistic leap, but Sayles seems more interested in showing the dramatic change of moving into any new environment than he is in documenting the history of psychedelia’s creep into national consciousness – in short, to make a movie about Any Time rather than a nostalgic time capsule.

Sayles indicates as much by his use of the anachronistic music that sometimes accompanies Sheik. A few of Bruce Springsteen’s streetkid songs underscore some of Sheik’s most intense moments, and serve as a shorthand for his character. (The Springsteen songs also remind us of our own vantage point, and perhaps that, with all the changes in popular culture through time, attitudes and experiences remain pretty much the same.) In fact, sometimes the music provides a large part of the understanding we have for these people; the reason for Jill’s love (or whatever) for Sheik remains a bit obscure (to me, anyway). Aside from his general hunkiness, he is not gifted with an overload of redeeming qualities – and yet, he is exciting, and unpredictable, and that danger attracts Jill. Sayles establishes this during one of the couple’s first encounters, a frenzied, rave-up car ride that Jill takes in Sheik’s car, cut to the scorching strains of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” It’s a giddy dangerousness, the kind that is so seductive. Maybe Sheik’s charms aren’t so elusive after all.

But then, part of the point of the movie is that the motivations of real people are frequently mysterious; and Sayles, in his movie career thus far, seems far more intrigued by ordinary people and problems than in contrivance or glitz. That’s a tricky business, and Baby It’s You carries the added burden of being set in a period that seems ready to perish from cinematic overuse. However, Sayles has a bonus, too: Baby It’s You marks his first use of real Hollywood actors, cinematographers, etc. Thus the film has a sharper look than Sayles’, first, homegrown films, Return of the Secaucus Seven and Lianna; and the film benefits hugely from the assured performances of Vince Spano as Sheik, and, especially, the remarkable Rosanna Arquette as Jill. They give their ordinary people something special, and their combined presence illuminates Sayles’ examination of the process by which two individuals can become something more than strangers in the night.

First published in The Informer, March 1983

Arquette was coming off The Executioner’s Song, so my enthusiasm came from that, with good reason. The cast also included small roles for Matthew Modine, Tracy Pollan, and Robert Downey, Jr. As I write this, John Sayles has not directed a film since the (very sharp) Go for Sisters in 2013, which is a tragic waste.

It Takes Two

March 11, 2021

For a few minutes, It Takes Two actually shapes up as a reasonably cogent little film, even if it is grooved firmly in the track of the lame-brained teen movie. It’s about a 20-year-old- guy (George Newbern) from a small Texas town, who is about to slide into a marriage that’s practically been predestined.

He’s known the bride-to-be (Leslie Hope) since they were both children, and she has the next 50 years or so plotted out pretty carefully, including a job for him in her father’s flourishing manure company. His feet are getting slightly chilled, however, and he sees his trip to the big city (Dallas) to buy a new car as a welcome last-minute diversion.

Once there, needless to say, the bottom drops out of his careful plan not to be bamboozled by a high-pressure salesman. This happens because the salesman is a saleswomen (Kimberly Foster) who takes him for a ride, in a number of ways. Now, how you gonna keep him down on the farm?

Unfortunately, the hero isn’t the only thing in the movie that goes haywire. Also going on the fritz is the screenplay by Richard Christian Matheson and Thomas Szollosi, which runs out of inspiration almost immediately upon entering the city.

The fancy-car stuff gets boring rather quickly for those of us who aren’t Road and Track subscribers. There simply isn’t enough that happens to the hero to make for an epic pre-nuptial blowout; getting a bad case of indigestion from too many burritos, which prompts a surreal dream of the fiancée disappearing in stomach acid, isn’t much a turning point. It’s just so much gas.

The lack of invention dictates the movie’s running time, just under 80 minutes. The director, David Beaird, sometimes signals that there is more here than the usual feebleheaded teen comedy, as in the nicely mounted balcony scene in which the groom tries to confess his trepidations to the bride (Beaird also tries to layer in references to The Wizard of Oz, but they don’t quite come off). Somebody meant well, but a miss is still a miss.

First published in The Herald, July 17, 1988

From the director of My Chauffeur. Carter Burwell did the music, in between Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing. Newbern and Leslie Hope went on to long careers, and the film has an early performance by John Hawkes, as Thief #2.

One Crazy Summer

February 26, 2021

A madly coiffured punk leaps into the sea; when he emerges, three fish are impaled on the pink spikes of his hair.

A man hands his high-flying kite to a child on the beach; immediately the tot is lifted up and carried away. “Sorry,” says the man.

Two taunting little girls make ugly faces. “You better stop doing that,” they’re told, “or somebody is going to startle you and your faces will stay that way.” Somebody does. The faces stay.

These outrageous sight gags are indicative of the bizarre comedy of One Crazy Summer, the new film from writer-director Savage Steve Holland, who displayed similarly surrealistic tendencies in his debut feature, Better Off Dead.

Savage Steve has teamed again with the star of Better Off Dead, John Cusack (who was so good in The Sure Thing). This time Cusack plays an aspiring cartoonist, just graduated form high school, who spends the summer at a friend’s house on Nantucket. (Animated sequences, Cusack’s reaction to his wild summer, punctuate the film.)

Naturally, a lot of screwy things happen. Cusack befriends a folk singer (Demi Moore, lately impressive in About Last Night…) who stands to inherit a house on the island – except that the inheritance is jeopardized by the bad guys, who want to take the house and construct a sprawling, environmentally offensive condo village on the property.

Cusack and his pals can’t let that happen, and somehow it transpires that an annual boat race will let them win the house back for Moore. It’s all too convenient and completely unbelievable, but Savage Steve doesn’t seem to care.

Believability ranks low on Holland’s list of cinematic necessities. He comes from the world of animation, where physical improbabilities are the norm. Holland tries to apply cartoon logic to his live performers, and this has the strange effect of cutting a scene dead. When Cusack and Moore have a tender scene on the beach, Holland caps it by revealing that Cusack has become stuck to his kneecaps in the sand.

In and of itself, that’s not a bad joke, but according to the scene we’ve just watched, it’s physically impossible. That breaks an audience’s involvement with the characters.

Despite the stop-and-go nature of the comedy, I found myself liking this film. While the gags frequently fall flat, there’s an off-kilter likability that prevails.

Cusack has a good reactive deadpan, used well here, since most of the other actors are whooping it up. One of them is the deranged stand-up comedian, Bobcat Goldthwait, who screams and contorts and dresses up in a Godzilla suit. This allows him one poetic moment, when he tramples the small-scale model of the proposed condo village, and lives out a scene from every Japanese horror movie of the last few decades.

First published in The Herald, August 1986

Holland has maintained a long career, mostly in television. I guess I must have liked this a little better than Better Off Dead, but overall it apparently isn’t my kind of thing. The cast includes Curtis Armstrong, Joel Murray, Tom Villard, Joe Flaherty, and Jeremy Piven, in his first year of movie acting. I have to say, the joke about the sand sounds like an homage to Un Chien Andalou. All that ingenuity and effort to create the gags, and yet the title is leaden. The poster for this film, with a devilish sun, was really odd. It just occurred to me that Goldthwait’s film God Bless America stars Joel Murray, so maybe One Crazy Summer spawned something good. Also, this is the movie where Cusack’s character is named Hoops McCann, after the Steely Dan song “Glamour Profession.”

Joy of Sex

August 24, 2020

The question is: How did they make a movie out of The Joy of Sex? They didn’t. They made yet another teen exploitation comedy, all about the usual problem of losing one’s virginity. This one takes place at Richard Nixon High School and involves a girl (Michelle Meyrink) and a guy (Cameron Dye) who set out to accomplish this goal.

The birth of this film was difficult. For years people worked on screenplays that might fit the exploitable title, but nothing worked.

When the current film finally came together, it was known as National Lampoon’s Joy of Sex until a couple of months ago, when the Lampoon requested that its name be taken off the project.

That’s just as well. This Joy of Sex doesn’t really have the proper quotient of gross-outs to merit the Lampoon moniker. It has a lot of stupid, tasteless jokes, but it also has a few genuinely funny ideas – and a buoyant spirit, too.

It was directed by Martha Coolidge, the director of Valley Girl, the charming sleeper of 1983. Coolidge is an intelligent person, and that makes her, in a way, the wrong choice to film this kind of movie; she doesn’t quite deliver the down-and­ dirty goods. (It’s almost nudity-free, for example – practically a sin in this genre.)

But she is responsible for the tone of some of the sly, deadpan humor. The situations are stock – like the monkey business in the sex-education class – but Coolidge injects some life in the proceedings by casting Joanne Baron as the repressed teacher who looks starched and proper while hissing lasciviously about the sex life of “The fascinating flatworm!”

And Coolidge has selected some attractive actors. Colleen Camp does funny work as an overdeveloped newcomer to Nixon. There are many oddballs among the supporting cast, and they keep the film watchable even when the material lets them down.

Many of the actors were also in Valley Girl, including the leads. Michelle Meyrink is fetching as the heroine who finds a mole and (naturally) believes it is cancer. Thinking she only has a few weeks to live, she sets out to discover what sex is all about. After a number of failures, she’s discouraged: “I’m trying to be an easy lay,” she sighs. “Doesn’t that count anymore?”

Cameron Dye doesn’t register as strongly as the boy, but the film does shift subtly toward the girl’s story, which manages to touch lightly on the issue of a pregnant girl getting kicked out of Nixon High.

There’s also a subplot about an undercover narc among the kids. Like most films of this kind, Joy of Sex makes no bones about the sexual activity and drug use rampant among high-schoolers. It treats them as matters of fact.

Finally, Coolidge can’t make a silk purse out of this sow’s ear. The film is weighed down by the conventions of exploitation films. But there’s enough offbeat and/or funny stuff in Joy of Sex to make me. look forward to a film in which Coo­lidge works from decent material.

First published in The Herald, August 8, 1984

Yes, big fan of Coolidge here (Valley Girl is a dream), but this doesn’t do it – not that I’ve seen the movie since ’84 (I did a career-appreciation piece on Coolidge for Film Comment in the early 90s and I’m pretty sure I skipped a re-watch on this one). Meyrink was also in The Outsiders and Real Genius and dropped out of movies shortly thereafter.

Big Shots

August 11, 2020

bigshotsTake one white kid from the suburbs, add one black kid from the streets. Put ’em together and you’ve got a concept, which is just about all it takes to get a movie made these days.

Luckily, and somewhat surprisingly, Big Shots has something going for it above and beyond its cute culture-clash concept. On a relatively low level, there’s some ingenuity at work here, and some economical filmmaking.

The movie’s divided into halves. In the first section, the white suburban tyke (Ricky Busker) gets lost in the middle of Chicago, far from his cozy suburban home. He’s mugged, and the bad guys steal a watch the kid got from his dead father.

So the inner-city black kid (Darius McCrary) enters the scene. The two new pint-sized pals hatch a plan to get the watch back from a craven pawnbroker (Robert Prosky).

This is an entertaining episode, although there’s really no compelling reason for Busker not to simply call up his mom, have her trundle the station wagon into the city, and quickly resolve the situation. Instead, the two youngsters steal a Mercedes and lord it around town. Granted, it’s necessary to sit on a pillow to reach the steering wheel.

Complication: The stolen car is owned by two hit men (broadly played by Robert Joy and Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski). They’ve stashed a corpse in the trunk, so they’re understandably anxious to get the car back.

This little problem is carried over into the second half of the film, which follows our sawed-off heroes as they hop into the Mercedes and drive south to search for McCrary’s father, who was last seen in Louisiana. At this point, the movie begins to loosely resemble a jive-talking update of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, though a $60,000 Mercedes is a far cry from Huck’s raft.

This unpretentious little movie boats a few top-line credits. The director, Robert Mandel, has made some enjoyable films in recent years (including F/X), and he keeps this one zipping right along, aided by Miroslav Ondricek’s cinematography, which is probably better than the movie really deserves. Ivan Reitman, the director of Ghostbusters and Legal Eagles, is executive producer.

The two kids are non-excruciating, although Ricky Busker is perhaps even more of a vanilla malted than the movie intends. Mandel wrings some laughs out of their size, particularly when they’re leading the cops on a car chase (having stolen a police vehicle) or strutting around incongruously in dark glasses and hats.

Of course, some will complain that Big Shots rewards criminal behavior and encourages kids to steal car, hold up pawnshops, etc. These big shots also walk into a bar and order milk. With a straw. What’s happening to the youth of today?

First published in The Herald, October 1987

I left out the mightiest name of all: Joe Eszterhas, who wrote a screenplay and collected a record payout for it. (This was after Flashdance, but before Basic Instinct.) Of the two kids in the film, McCrary has had a healthy career, including time as a regular on TV’s Family Matters; co-star Busker has no other screen credits. Paul Winfield, Beah Richards, and Joe Seneca are also in the cast. Let us also note that Jerzy Skolimowski has made some interesting acting choices over the years.

Old Enough

August 3, 2020

oldenoughOld Enough, now having its American premiere engagement at the Varsity theater, is like an expert, evocative novella. It’s a little slice of life about that summer when you realized, with a little help from your friends, that you weren’t just a kid anymore.

In this case, it’s the story of Lonnie (Sarah Boyd), an 11-year-old who lives with her upper-class, rather vacuous parents in Manhattan. One summer day she meets Karen (Rainbow Harvest, presumably born in the days of Woodstock, when parents gave children such names), who lives in the Italian neighborhood a few blocks away.

Karen is slightly older than Lonnie, and substantially more worldly-wise. As their friendship blossoms, Karen teaches Lonnie about the joys of petty shoplifting and heavy make-up. For Lonnie, it’s a welcome release from the sterile world of her parents. And Lonnie also gets to see Karen’s hunky brother (Neill Barry), who dares to plant her with her first smooch.

Yes, it’s another coming-of-age movie, but one with a fresh feeling. There is authenticity everywhere in this film, from the way people speak to the cruelty that sometimes occurs between best friends. It moves at its own leisurely pace, and finds amusement in such sidebars as the customs of Catholicism, to which Lonnie is ex­posed for the first time.

Karen’s parents – a volatile contrast to Lonnie’s hipster folks – run a tenement building, and their new boarder (Roxanne Hart) is a mad creature who wears skin-tight leopard-skin pants and who, when she walks, sways like a tall building in a high wind. Besides being an exotic subject for contemplation, she provides a plot complication when she proves irresistible to Karen’s brother.                             ·

It’s remarkable that this film is the work of a 24-year-old writer-director, Marisa Silver. She may have gotten an unfair advantage in talent by virtue of her genes: She’s the daughter of Joan Micklin Silver, the witty director of Between the Lines and Head Over Heels.

If Silver the younger shares with her mother a talent for dialogue and characters that ring uncannily true, she also has a keen eye for detail, the kind of detail that gives life to this sort of film. The distinctions between certain shades of nail polish, the pros and cons of certain board games – these things are given equal time and care. After all, they’re often the things that people remember from childhood summers – the little quirks as well as the big events.

It’s a fairly low-budget affair, but Old Enough is distinguished by the cinematography of Michael Ballhaus, the German ace who worked for R.W. Fassbinder. And there certainly isn’t a false note in the performances. A pro like Danny Aiello, playing Karen’s father, is good at getting subtleties into a character who doesn’t get all that much screen time.

But it’s the two girls, both newcomers, who really shine. Rainbow Harvest captures Karen’s fierce (and sometimes unreasonable) pride as well as her lip-biting insecurity. Sarah Boyd is an excepionally unpretentious actress, not pretty in the conventional sense, but with an expressive face that speaks volumes. If there’s any justice in the world, you’ll be hearing more from them.

First published in The Herald, summer 1984

Both actresses dropped out of acting; Boyd became a successful editor and director, and Harvest appears to have left the business of show. Marisa Silver directed three more features and then switched to literary fiction. The cast also includes Alyssa Milano and Josh Hamilton; another co-star, Susan Kingsley, who plays Aiello’s wife, died in a car accident shortly before the film was released. This was from the era when Seattle was a frequent testing ground for independent movies. This was a year before Ballhaus joined forces with Martin Scorsese.