Off Limits

January 17, 2013

offlimitsNow that we’ve gotten the definitive films about Vietnam out of the way—movies that deal with the Vietnam War itself as a phenomenon, such as The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket—it’s time for the genre film to move in. Thus in Good Morning, Vietnam, we see the sketch comedy set in Saigon; in Off Limits, it’s the formula cop movie.

The cops are McGriff (Willem Dafoe) and Perkins (Gregory Hines); according to the formula, one is white, one is black. They’re patrolling the seediest streets of Saigon in 1968, as part of a special Army investigation unit, when they detect a pattern in a series of prostitute killings.

As it turns out, the suspect list includes some high-ranking officers in the American services, which means that McGriff and Perkins had best chill the investigation or risk losing their jobs, or worse. Naturally, they continue, trying to find both the killer and “some (bleeping) meaning” to concentrate on in the madness around them.

Director and co-screenwriter Christopher Crowe creates a hellish environment for his violent heroes, all dirty rooms and bloody corpses. The Americans have contempt for their South Vietnamese allies, and the contempt is reciprocal. The only oasis is a church where the cops meet a nun (Amanda Pays) who helps them on the trail of the killer.

In whodunit terms, Off Limits is a bit clumsy. You can see the real culprit coming from way down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and when the explanation does arrive, it renders the movie’s most memorable scene inexplicable.

That scene has the cops confronting their prime suspect, a crazed officer (Scott Glenn) who nearly tops Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now for scary insanity. Glenn takes them up in a helicopter and begins to heave Viet Cong out the door, as a prelude to his own reckless action. It’s a startling scene.

The movie has a few of them. Even when it seems to be falling apart, Off Limits does have some brutal power, and it’s gritty enough to make you want to take a shower after watching it.

What it lacks is chemistry. Dafoe, who was so memorable as the Christ-like sergeant in Platoon, has a withdrawn, pinched quality, and it doesn’t mesh with Hines’ more open style. Fred Ward is just right as their superior, who can’t believe these guys are expending this much energy on a case involving murdered prostitutes, a case that nobody cares about anyway. He can’t see that’s exactly why they’re doing it.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

The generic title didn’t help, either. And by the way: Amanda Pays—least likely movie nun ever? Still, the whole thing sounds just intriguing enough to take another look sometime.


Secret Admirer

May 8, 2012

The plot of Secret Admirer is much too complicated to synopsize—and that should be a fundamental recommendation. When a film that appears to be another teen sex comedy is too complicated to describe, it usually suggests something out of the ordinary.

Basically, the movie’s about the myriad repercussions of an anonymous love letter. The letter is intended for Michael (C. Thomas Howell), a graduating high-school senior. But the letter goes astray, and falls into the hands of most of the people surrounding Michael, including his parents (Cliff De Young and Dee Wallace Stone), his dream girl (Kelly Preston), and her parents (Fred Ward and Leigh Taylor-Young).

A few more letters get written, and that botches up everything, because as these letters get traded around, the reader usually assumes himself to be the target—when in fact, it’s only gotten into his hands by chance. If that’s not clear, let’s just say that before long everyone in the movie suspects at least one other person of being the “secret admirer” who sent the thing. They’re almost always wrong.

It’s the stuff of classic farce, reshaped to fit quite neatly into the mode of the current coming-of-age comedy. Secret Admirer is unusually well-played for that genre; some of the actors are recognizable from other teen films. Howell, of The Outsiders and Grandview, U.S.A., makes a fine hero, just a bit on the dense side. Lori Laughlin is just right as the “nice” girl who steadfastly stands by him.

The object of his desire is played by Kelly Preston, who played a similar blond bombshell in Mischief. Her character is ripest for satire, and she’s got the pitch of the babbling, fashion-conscious debutante down to a T. And the parents, who are swept into their own whirl of sexual confusion by the stray letters, couldn’t be better—the actors communicate the illicit, spicy thrill of potential adultery invading their world of PTA meetings and bridge parties. Fred Ward is a standout as Preston’s father, the excitable cop.

Most of all, Secret Admirer reveals the sharp writing and directing talents of scenarists Jim Kouf and David Greenwalt (Greenwalt also directed), who collaborated on the screenplay for Class. They were in town for the premiere showing of Secret Admirer at the Seattle Film Festival, and proved to be as funny in person as the evidence of the film would suggest.

In the process of fielding questions from the audience, they revealed a crucial casting change: The blond-bombshell part was originally to be played by Julianne Phillips, who has become better known lately as Mrs. Bruce Springsteen. Preston replaced Phillips a few days into shooting, when, as Kouf and Greenwalt tell it, it became obvious that Phillips did not look young enough to fit in with the high-schoolers playing opposite her. In so doing, they dealt away an unforeseen commercial boost; but based on Phillips’ performance in the ditzy TV movie Summer Fantasy, they got the better of it in the long run.

First published in the Herald, June 13, 1985

Greenwalt and Kouf got into television and have flourished there. This was a very nicely-made picture, curiously underrated when people talk about good Eighties comedies, with likability all over the place. Uh…Summer Fantasy?


December 13, 2010

The story of Uforia, which is to say, the story behind Uforia, is yet another tale of studio neglect and little-film-vs.-the-system fighting.

The movie was made in 1980, and has languished in limbo since. It turned up for a single showing at the 1985 Seattle International Film Festival, at a Harry Dean Stanton tribute (which gamely went on when Stanton couldn’t make it). Late last year, Uforia was booked at a single screen in New York City and did surprisingly decent business.

So, the little comedy is traveling around the country, trying to build up steam (much like another unreleasable Stanton movie, Repo Man).

Uforia is so determinedly low-key in its pleasures, it’s not difficult to see why the film was a hard sell. It’s a low-rent fable about a batch of small-timers who band together in a small California desert town and decide to believe in something.

They come to believe in flying saucers, or at least the imminent arrival of same. A check-out girl (Cindy Williams) at the local supermarket is a staunch believer, and she has visions that the aliens—friendly ones—are coming to take a few humans with them. She sees herself as the Noah of the intergalactic Ark.

She has to convince her new beau (Fred Ward) of this, which is no small order. He’s a tequila-swigging drifter who patterns his style after Waylon Jennings and proudly exploits his “God-given right to believe in nothin’.”

He’s hooked up with Brother Bud (Stanton), a sly itinerant preacher who runs “Brother Bud’s Why Not Salvation Crusade” in tents on the outskirts of town. When Williams starts seeing the aliens in her dreams, Brother Bud sees a way of fleecing the believers, and he promptly options the desert hilltop where Williams insists the extraterrestrials are going to land.

For almost all of its running time, Uforia rambles along, allowing these characters breathing room. If their brief descriptions make them sound stereotyped, that isn’t how they play. Even the opportunistic Brother Bud has his moment of grace, as he ponders why some of the people in his bogus healing sessions actually get healed: “Everybody’s got to believe in something, I guess. And I believe I’ll have another drink.”

Writer-director John Binder evokes the good feeling of a Frank Capra comedy, and litters his desert landscape with goofy supporting characters, such as the granola couple who name their child Krishna Jesus (“You don’t think that’s too heavy?”), and the benign tourists who claim to have been mesmerized by aliens.

Binder is splendid at capturing the everyday quality of life. He’s not quite as effective at structuring his story. And he’s painted himself into something of a corner with the flying saucer business; it means his ending has to be fantastic, or disappointing, or both.

It’s Binder’s first directorial effort (he’d worked on the screenplays of Honeysuckle Rose and North Dallas Forty). I don’t know what he’s been doing since 1980—tyring to get the film released, maybe—but I hope he isn’t completely soured on filmmaking. He’s got a gift for making characters, or the recognizably terrestrial variety, come alive, and that’s much too valuable a talent to lie fallow.

First published in the Herald, 1986.

Here’s a mostly forgotten Eighties artifact: it has now passed through initial neglect to brief appreciation to neglect again. I saw it again on cable-TV in the late 1980s and thought it held up really nicely—just a delightful little picture with a strong echo of Melvin and Howard-era Jonathan Demme to it. Whoever John Binder is, he put something rather lovely together with this one.