The Serpent and the Rainbow

June 24, 2020

serpentandrainbowAt one point in The Serpent and the Rainbow, a business executive asks anthropologist/adventurer Dennis Alan, “What do you know about zombification?”

Alan allows himself a sidelong glance before he answers, “Only what I see on the late show.” The Serpent and the Rainbow is the story of Alan’s discovery of the voodoo religion and zombies, and in many ways the film seems determined to strip the Hollywood exaggerations from the mystery of voodoo.

Unfortunately, the movie falls prey to plenty of the usual clichés, without being as entertaining or well­ crafted as some of those late-show items.

Alan (Bill Pullman, the dumb guy from Ruthless People) ventures down to Haiti in hope of finding the formula by which people are turned into zombies – that is, the powder that brings them to a near-death state, after which they are buried, exhumed, and forced to work at menial jobs while drugged. The drug­-company exec who finances the trip looks forward to marketing an anaesthetic called “Zombinal.”

But our hero has his hands full, with the lovely Haitian doctor (Cathy Tyson, from Mona Lisa) who serves as his guide; the brutal politico (Zakes Mokae) who has the deadly Tonton Macoute at his bidding; and the slippery shaman (Brent Jennings) who is preparing a sample of the zombie powder. Meanwhile, Baby Doc Duvalier’s regime is beginning to topple.

A lot of activity, this. Too much, in fact, for the movie to sort through and make sense of. The director, Wes Craven, is one of moviedom’s darker figures, a former philosophy professor who now and then cranks out an honest-to-goodness screamfest (A Nightmare on Elm Street). Craven would seem to be the perfect choice for the needed balance of religious mystery, action and flat-out horror.

But the movie, which has be very loosely taken from Wade Davis nonfiction book, clumps from scene to scene without much logical locomotion. Alan’s narration has to fill in the gaps, and even with that his actions don’t seem to follow any pattern; the storytelling is curiously disjointed.

Craven’s best touches are the nightmarish dreams that Alan experiences, which often have false endings and surreal moments. But even this technique is held over from Elm Street, and doesn’t truly engage the heady complexities of voodoo.

Far too many missed opportunites here. Those late-show movies may have given a distorted view of voodoo and zombies, but at least they provided some chilling storytelling. I’ll take Val Lewton’s poetic 1942 I Walked with a Zombie over The Serpent and the Rainbow any time.

First published in The Herald, February 9, 1988

I want to like this movie more, given its director and subject matter, but I haven’t revisited it. Pullman was interesting casting at the time, and skewed the movie for me at the time, I recall (as in, I’m supposed to take that guy seriously?). Post-Lost Highway, that might not be such an issue.

The Accidental Tourist

August 20, 2012

The protagonist of Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist is Macon Leary, a travel writer. Macon is leery of most of life’s experiences, including, oddly enough, travel. But this makes him the perfect person to write his businessman’s guides to different cities; Macon describes how to travel so that you never feel you’ve gone anywhere.

Where do you find a meal in London that will taste like a meal in Cleveland? Where are the American hotels in Paris? Macon finds ways for travelers to cocoon themselves away from any experience of strangeness. And always pack lightly: “In travel, as in life,” he advises, “less is definitely more.”

Macon’s cocooned life is shattered by his son’s death and his wife’s departure. Tyler’s novel, and the film adapted by director Lawrence (The Big Chill) Kasdan, describes Macon’s struggle with his lifelong tendency toward self-insulation.

He is an intriguing character, and perhaps only William Hurt could play this role; this is one of those rare movies in which the hero’s purpose is not to act but to think. Hurt can convey this, although his passive presence at the center of a film begins to make the movie seem washed-out and bland.

There isn’t a lot of story to speak of. When Macon’s wife (Kathleen Turner) leaves him after accusing him of leading a muffled existence (“I’m not muffled,” he says, “I endure. I’m holding steady”), he continues writing, tending to his increasingly contrary dog, and watching the Home Shopping Network during long afternoons. Then he meets a kooky dog-trainer (frizzy, frazzled Geena Davis) who tries to scratch away at his barrier.

The film also spends considerable time with Macon’s family, to whom he retreats. His siblings are just as controlled and eccentric as he (and they are amusingly played by Amy Wright, David Ogden Stiers, and Ed Begley, Jr.).

Kasdan, who also directed Hurt and Turner in Body Heat, has made a literate and thoughtful film. He and co-screenwriter Frank Galanti are faithful to the novel, even retraining much of the book’s dialogue. But they haven’t quite fashioned a living, breathing movie out of it. The film is sketchy and controlled; in its own way, it’s as overarranged and self-conscious as its unhappy hero.

The film does becomes animated by Geena Davis’s presence. She’s the character who’s supposed to put Macon in touch with the lifeforce, and Davis (a tall, adorable actress who was so good opposite her husband Jeff Goldblum in The Fly) is fine at catching the character’s bubbliness and also her underlying layer of grit. Kathleen Turner, on the other hand, is relegated to a supporting role (she disappears from the film for a solid hour), and there isn’t much she can do to explain the wife’s uneven behavior.

Much of the peripheral business is nicely done, such as Macon’s publisher (Bill Pullman), a disappointed yuppie who becomes attracted to Macon’s sister, despite or because of the fact that she’s the kind of person who alphabetizes food on kitchen shelves. This film’s pleasures are real, though I think it fundamentally misses the mark. The New York Film Critics disagreed; they named The Accidental Tourist best picture of the year.

First published in the Herald, January 5, 1989

Nobody talks much about the movie these days. I think I’ll stand by the review, although the movie is not a stiff, by any means…just a little too exactly-everything-you’d-expect. Geena Davis won an Oscar for her performance.


October 6, 2011

Mel Brooks found his winning movie formula in the 1970s. He settled on a target, took parodic aim, then filled the screen with as many gags as he could muster.

With Spaceballs, Brooks has the target: space epics a la Stars Wars. Unfortunately his aim is off, by about five years. And, most importantly, the gags aren’t mustering. Mustered?

Brooks probably figured that what worked with the western (Blazing Saddles), the horror film (Young Frankenstein), and the Hitchcock movie (High Anxiety) could work in space—and provide him a safe return to directing after the disappointing History of the World, Part I, which he made six years ago.

But Spaceballs reveals Brooks to be disturbingly out of touch with funny business, and I’d be very surprised to see this film do big box-office. It’s full of painful puns and far too many of those pauses that follow punch lines—the pauses that are supposed to be covered by laughter but which, I suspect, will be greeted with silence.

Brooks directs, produces, co-scripts, and plays two roles. The plot shakily orbits around a space adventurer (Bill Pullman) and his assistant (John Candy), who is half-man, half-dog (“I’m my own best friend,” he explains, in one of the film’s better lines). They assist a runaway princess (Daphne Zuniga) and her robot (voice of Joan Rivers), while an evil general in oversize headgear (Rick Moranis) plots something evil.

Brooks appears as the nasty president of one planet, who wants to steal the air supply of another; and as Yogurt, a shrunken and inexplicably Jewish wise man, built along the lines of George Lucas’s Yoda.

To avoid overkill, I will illustrate the film’s humor with one representative example. Pullman and Candy decide to jam the radar of the evil ship. In the next shot, we see an enormous jar of raspberry jam smash against the radar receiver of the enemy vessel. Jamming the radar, see.

That’s a median joke. At least half the gags are worse. Funniest, oddly enough, is the irrelevant ethnic humor. Zuniga, who comes from the planet Druidia and whines about her designer luggage, is described as a “typical Druish princess.” (I know, I groaned too.) And Yogurt’s inspirational phrase is the catchy, “May the Schwartz be with you.”

Mel Brooks is a funny person. But something’s gone out of his moviemaking. He needs better writing collaborators, for one thing: his former partners have included Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, and ace comedy writer Andrew Bergman. Spaceballs credit is shared with Thomas Meehan and Ronny Graham, and they don’t have the wicked sensibilities necessary.

On the other hand, maybe Brooks has simply lost interest. For most of the last decade, he’s spent his time executive-producing interesting movies such as The Elephant Man, Frances, and 84 Charing Cross Road. He’s obviously lavished a good deal of care on them; whereas Spaceballs seems tired and perfunctory, as though Brooks half-heartedly felt he had to keep his comedic hand in. To put it bluntly, the Schwartz is no longer with him.

First published in the Herald, June 26, 1987

And yet people quote lines from this movie and remember some of its gags fondly, an aftermath I find surprising. It’s not just that the jokes seemed unusually lame, but that the movie should’ve come out in 1980 to have any sort of oomph at all.