Never Too Young to Die/Jake Speed/Code Name: Emerald

August 14, 2012

It’s deadhead time at the movies, as early summer releases begin to die and the studios hold back some heavy hitters for the July Fourth weekend. Filling up all those multiplex screens this week is a trio of losers, soon to be forgotten.

Of the three, Never Too Young to Die is the most entertaining, simply because it’s the most outlandish. It’s all about a kid (John Stamos) who gets mixed up in a maniac’s plot to fill Los Angeles’s water supply with radioactive waste.

See, the kid’s father was a secret agent—in fact, he’s played by Goerge Lazenby, who played James Bond once. This tips off the filmmakers’ intentions; this movie is a gadgety, quick-moving teenage 007 movie. As such, it’s a limp outing, although one character actually says, “An entire city held for ransom by a maniac?” as though no one had ever said that before.

But here are the things to enjoy: ex-Prince protégé Vanity, first spotted wearing va-va-voom black lace at a funeral, then incongruously riding a horse across an Ohio farm, and Kiss member Gene Simmons, who plays the mad hermaphrodite villain named Ragnar. Simmons has no shame, a quality that greatly enhances the viewing experience.

As he cackles, rolls his eyes, sticks out his tongue and sings, “It takes a man like me to be a woman like me,” you know you’ve found the film’s reason for being.

In the same vein is Jake Speed, a relentlessly silly adventure flick that crosses the Indiana Jones movies with Romancing the Stone.

Jake is the fictional hero of a series of best-selling books. However, the writing team (Wayne Crawford—who also co-produced and co-wrote the film—and Dennis Christopher) that created him actually likes to live out his cases. So they contact a woman (Karen Kopins) whose sister has been sold into a white slavery ring in Africa, and propose to bring the girl back.

Naturally they take Kopins with them; she becomes nonplussed when she discovers these guys aren’t adventurers, but writers. Jake meets his arch enemy, played with slimy fervor by John Hurt. Hurt’s the kind of villain who keeps a cageful of lions under a trap door in his headquarters, so you know we’re in 007 country again.

Jake Speed is undone by its own spoofiness. Not so Code Name: Emerald, which is as glum as Jake is bubbly.

Emerald is about a soldier (Eric Stoltz, of Mask) captured by the Germans a couple of months before D-Day. It happens that he knows the date and place of the invasion, and if he talks, it could botch everything.

So the Allies send a spy (Ed Harris) whom the Nazis believe to be working for Berlin. He’s go to get to Stoltz and keep him from talking, without raising the suspicions of the German high command (Max von Sydow, Horst Buchholz, Helmut Berger).

The only intriguing thing about his film is why such fine actors would be attracted to such an enervated project. Harris, in particular, is widely thought to be one of our best actors (with good reason), and he has been, in The Right Stuff, Places in the Heart, and Sweet Dreams, at the peak of his powers lately; what’s he doing in this stillborn effort?

First published in the Herald, June 22, 1986

In fairness to the actors in question, the synopsis of Code Name: Emerald sounds like something that might be a serviceable thriller. The movie itself is just dead. Footnote to film history, though; CN:E was the first credit for screenwriter Ron Bass (based on his novel), who has since become a high-priced writing conglomerate. So there is hope after flops.

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Swing Shift

July 20, 2012

Have you ever found yourself sitting on the edge of your seat watching a movie—not because the movie is exciting, but because you’re waiting for it to start? Even when you’re still waiting for it to start after it’s been running for an hour or two?

Somehow, if you lean forward, you can have the feeling you’re going to help the film get in gear. I have found, however, that it doesn’t work that way. The actors might be amiable, the situation might be intriguing, the locations might be beautiful. But, lean all you want, the film just won’t click.

I was doing a lot of leaning during Swing Shift. Here’s a movie with a lot to recommend it: watchable onscreen people, a talented young director, and a potentially rich milieu. But something went wrong with Swing Shift. It suffers from a fundamental lack of focus. There’s no clear answer to the question: What is this movie about?

In simple plot terms, it’s about a meek wife (Goldie Hawn) left behind during World War II. Hubby (Ed Harris) is serving in the Pacific, so Goldie takes a job at the local airplane factory, along with her next-door neighbor (Christine Lahti). Also working there is a trumpet player (Kurt Russell) with whom Goldie will have an affair.

What the movie really consists of is a rather shapeless series of episodes in the lives of the three workers. Part of it is about Goldie’s consciousness-raising. Part of it is about the romance. Part of it is about the friendship between the two women. Part of it is about the women gaining respect in the male-dominated workplace.

There is much to enjoy in all of these parts, thanks to the likability of the actors and director Jonathan Demme’s feeling for the material. One of Demme’s strengths, in films such as Handle with Care and Melvin and Howard, is in taking a bittersweet, generous view of humankind by looking at ordinary people in a deceptively loose, no-sweat style.

Swing Shift, although it takes place over four years, should have a leaner, straighter shape than, say, Melvin and Howard. But the movie seems disjointed and fuzzily-conceived.

Take Lahti’s boyfriend (Fred Ward), for instance. The character drifts in and out of the movie, but we haven’t really gotten to know him enough to care about his enigmatic leave-takings.

For that matter, Goldie’s entry into self-awareness is achieved somewhat abruptly. We see a montage of her beginning to hold her own at the factory, and suddenly she’s working her way up the managerial ladder. Some of the jumps in narrative make you suspect that perhaps a portion of the film ended up on the cutting-room floor. Maybe it’s part of the explanation for the film’s odd shape.

The much-publicized behind-the-scenes romance between Hawn and Russell doesn’t really spice up the love scenes, although both players are in good form. It’s Christine Lahti who really walks away with the movie, as the smart, sexy, sympathetic best friend. A combination of intelligence and high cheekbones, Lahti seems very much due for a starring vehicle of her own.

First published in the Herald, April 1984

There seems to be some debate about whether Demme’s original cut (he was involved in the re-shoots, too) survives and is watchable. But the release version certainly goes flat.


Places in the Heart

February 14, 2012

In 1964, Robert Benton left his position as contributing editor with Esquire magazine when he and his fellow editor finished writing a screenplay. It was the true (sort of) story of outlaws who cut a bloody swath across Texas—named Bonnie and Clyde—and when it was produced a couple of years later, it changed the way movies looked.

While not as revolutionary as, say, 2001, Bonnie and Clyde nevertheless brought a new kind of frankness to the American screen. It embraced controversy in its treatment of sex and violence, and its ambivalent attitude toward its criminal heroes. Its hip manner and stylized look (directed by Arthur Penn) carried the nervy techniques of the then-recent French New Wave of filmmaking (Benton and David Newman got the script to Francois Truffaut as director, although he passed) into mainstream commercial cinema.

Two decades have gone by, and Benton is now a director himself (with two Oscars under his belt, for Kramer vs. Kramer). And he’s back in Texas—in his home town of Waxahachie, in fact—with his new film, Places in the Heart.

What a different Texas this is from Bonnie and Clyde. In that film, the amoral heroes were glamorous. In Places in the Heart, set in 1935, there is no glamour. Just work, and fleeting pleasure, and hard times. Benton’s outlook now is gentler and wiser, but he’s not lost his bite. Some moments in Places in the Heart are shocking enough to make you jump.

It surveys the interconnected lives of a group of people struggling through an autumn season. Sally Field plays a recently widowed woman who tries to plant some cotton on her land to make enough money to pay off her bank loan, so she won’t lose her house.

Assisting her are her two children (Yankton Hatten and Gennie James) and a pair of misfits: a black drifter (Danny Glover) who knows cotton, and a surly blind man (John Malkovich) who rents her extra room.

The other main plot line involves Field’s sister (Lindsay Crouse), whose husband (Ed Harris) is having an affair (with Amy Madigan, who married Harris during the film’s shooting).

Some of the material here is well-worn: the threatened bank foreclosure, the widow on her own, the forces of nature bearing down on the characters. I’m not sure Benton overcomes the fact that rural drama of this kind—especially after last year’s Tender Mercies and Cross Creek—has a certain over-familiar feel.

But, finally, he does things his own way, and a fine way it is. The film is full of beautiful and terrible moments that linger on and cast a spell. A boy with a gun by the railroad tracks; a woman hiding from a tornado in a parked car; a car full of musicians, riding back from a dance, still crooning “Cotton-Eyed Joe” as they drive into the dawn.

The final sequence of Places in the Heart is the most remarkable, most moving bit of film I’ve seen this year. It underlines the extraordinary generosity of spirit that is behind this movie.

Earlier, we’ve heard the blind man listen to a talking book (an album of Trent’s Last Case) that begins with the words, “Between what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely?” Certainly, watching the film, you start feeling that every moment matters in some way. Thus the lives of the characters come to seem precious. This makes the final sequence—in which the lives are tied together—powerful indeed.

First published in the Herald, September 1984

It won Oscars for Sally Field (this was the “You like me” acceptance speech) and Benton’s screenplay. It’s a strong movie with many wonderful moments, if maybe not a great movie—but whew, that final shot lifts it all up. I got to interview Benton a few years later (and then three more times, I think), and of course asked him about it. He says the final shot was technically very difficult to get, and he was ready to give up and divide it into separate shots, but went with one last attempt and got it. Which makes all the difference.