Jack’s Back

November 6, 2012

There are some halfway decent ideas on the loose in Jack’s Back, including the basic premise: that a modern-day killer would replicate the foul deeds of Jack the Ripper, 100 years to the day after the Ripper’s crimes. Thus Los Angeles becomes full of dread, waiting for the scheduled murders to take place.

Another good idea is that the movie very carefully sets up its hero, a medical student (James Spader), as a nice, kind, thoughtful fellow, and then lets him drop completely out of the film. His place is taken by a tough-guy twin brother (also played by Spader)—a bad seed who proceeds to track down the killer on his own.

Spader is a good actor (he usually plays creeps, such as the dope dealer in Less Than Zero), and he’s a large part of what make Jack’s Back watchable. Spader opts for a low-key intensity, which means when he’s at his angriest you can barely hear the words he speaks. It’s a useful role for an actor who is bound to break through at some point.

Elsewhere, the film blows hot and cold. Writer-director Rowdy Herrington, whose name almost rhymes with “red herring,” throws a couple of effective false curves into this whodunit. In fact, there are just enough obvious suspects to distract our attention from the logic lapses in the story’s structure.

Herrington isn’t exactly a great stylist, but the film bumps along at its own speed, and there are two or three genuinely scary moments, especially the long scene at a medical clinic where a murder takes place that shifts the film’s emphasis. Besides, Herrington had the good sense to cast Cynthia Gibb, one of the more intelligent of the young actresses, and to let Spader fashion a quirky performance that lingers after the rest of the film is forgotten.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

I guess sex, lies, and videotape debuted at Cannes a year later, so Spader’s breakthrough didn’t take much longer. This movie isn’t high on my list of things to re-visit, but it does sit well enough in that odd collection of late-Eighties nourish titles that aren’t great but do make a decent stab (you should pardon the phrase) at atmosphere.

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The Rachel Papers

August 13, 2012

We have a new English film about a young man plotting to get a girl while, Alfie-style, he’s receiving a moral education. No, this isn’t Getting It Right. That film came out at least three months ago. This is another English film about a young man plotting, etc. This one’s called The Rachel Papers.

Based on a 1973 novel by Martin Amis, The Rachel Papers has a 19-year-old hero, a cocky Londoner named Charles, who taps all of his romantic knowledge into a computer, where his reservoir of facts and, ah, figures will help him in his love life. Except that his life doesn’t have much love in it; plenty of action, but not much love.

Then he meets Rachel, a knockout who seems to him the ultimate conquest. So Charles the Conqueror sets out to win her, using all of his data base methods. In this, writer-director Damian Harris (the son of actor Richard Harris), works a conventional line. Charles, like Alfie, regularly turns from a scene to address the audience in conspiratorial tones.

Much of this works. The most amusing sequence comes after Charles gets the girl, and she spends a couple of weeks at his place. Protracted proximity brings sexual bliss, but also a strong dose of reality. There’s a funny moment when Rachel sits in Charles’ bedroom, singing tunelessly to a song on the radio, and Charles slowly looks up from his book to register his irritation. She’s human after all.

The film’s problem, at least in terms of finding a sympathetic audience, is that we’re enlisted in Charles’ cause all the way through the film, particularly through his direct entreaties to the audience. But he’s a swine. He receives his comeuppance near the end and learns his lesson, but some may have a hard time sympathizing with him until then. Especially women. The Rachel Papers takes a decidedly male point of view.

Ione Skye, who also played the object of desire in the wonderful Say Anything…, is Rachel, and James Spader, currently in sensational form in sex, lies, and videotape, takes a supporting role as her unctuous boyfriend. The film is carried by Dexter Fletcher, who brings a certain reptilian energy to Charles. He’s also a dead ringer for the young Mick Jagger. If anyone’s preparing the Rolling Stones story, your lead actor is right here.

First published in the Herald, September 29, 1989

I haven’t read the Amis novel, but the movie feels like the same thing as usual. Dexter Fletcher’s been busy since this movie, mostly as a character actor. Getting It Right, by the way, was a film by Randal Kleiser.


Less Than Zero

December 6, 2011

If you’ve gone to the movies in recent months, you may have noticed a series of anti-drug public service announcements that have been tacked onto a few major-studio releases.

These announcements come on just before the film starts, and feature a Hollywood star—Clint Eastwood, James Woods, etc.—briefly warning moviegoers about the dangers of crack cocaine.

Less Than Zero also carries one of these spots, featuring Rae Dawn Chong. Rarely has the anti-drug message seemed more redundant: Less Than Zero gives us better than 90 minutes of college-aged kids relentlessly self-destructing, primarily with cocaine. If anyone misses the point, they’re missing the movie.

Less Than Zero is based on the recent novel by Bret Easton Ellis. Ellis took a bit of flak because some critics thought he was endorsing the decadent lifestyle of his dead-end kids. The movie, adapted by Harley Peyton and directed by Marek Kanievska, is at some pains to disapprove of its characters’ emptiness. There’s nothing attractive about these people; they’re a real drag.

The main action whirls around three friends from high school, now older and in more trouble, during a Christmas vacation. Andrew McCarthy plays a college boy, home in Los Angeles for the holidays; Jami Gertz is his former girlfriend; she’s now taken up with Robert Downey, Jr., the other side of the triangle. All come from wealthy Beverly Hills families, and all seem utterly lost.

The most immediate problem is Downey’s reckless drug habit, which has gotten him $50,000 into debt with a classmate/dealer (James Spader). McCarthy and Gertz aim to save him before the downward spiral is complete.

The movie is correct, I suppose, in steadfastly portraying these lives as unpleasant. But this method gives little hint of why people would behave this way; there must be something, even superficially, attractive about their rounds of parties, sex, and altered states of consciousness, just as there is inevitably the hangover.

Every now and then Kanievska gives us an image that suggests the tenor of this existence; when McCarthy returns home to his parents’ ludicrously lavish home, there’s a close-up of his hand dipping into a dish of red and green jellybeans, and somehow we sense the awful hollowness of this degree of wealth. However, there’s not enough to explain the basic unhappiness of these kids.

Kanievska, who made Another Country with some style, can’t really make style count for much in this film. There are a number of grabby, pretty compositions that suggest loneliness: Downey shivering on a rock at the seaside, or flopped on a lounge chair with all of Los Angeles spread out below. But after a while it’s just poster art.

The movie would click more often if it were more compellingly played. Gertz is pretty but doesn’t exude the kind of intelligence that’s called for, and McCarthy’s sensitivity thing is getting rather well-worn. Only Downey, lately seen as The Pick-Up Artist, connects; his hyperactive junkie, at least, has a measure of depth to his despair. The film, for all the appalling behavior it contains, needs to sink to his level more often.

First published in the Herald, November 8, 1987

Well it had Downey and Spader, anyway. The movie was a single-note stiff, and as for the anti-drug previews, I can’t remember them at all. I’m not sure the use of Rae Dawn Chong in a Just Say No ad balances the scales for all those Cheech & Chong movies, but you can see where they were going with that.


Mannequin

September 5, 2011

With Mannequin, we have the latest variation of the Pygmalion theme; a guy gives life to an inanimate model, which in turn teaches him to be a human being.

It is to be hoped that the age-old story will never again be played out in terms as degraded as these.

The sappy premise is that a struggling young sculptor (Andrew McCarthy) creates a lovingly contoured plastic woman during his brief employment at a mannequin factory. Later, he sees this mannequin, for which he has developed an unnatural yen, in the window of a department store, and he lands a job there.

One night, while talking to his segmented pal after closing time, she comes to life (and is played by Kim Cattrall). She explains that she is the latest incarnation of an Egyptian princess who has enjoyed a series of lives through the centuries. Pygmalion enters the world of Shirley MacLaine.

It turns out she can only come alive when alone in the presence of our hero. She doesn’t offer any explanation; besides, the film would be over if they could go home happily together.

And the movie is full of such nonsensical loopholes. Michael Gottlieb is the director, and he seems to have no shred of style; every composition looks clumsy, every gag shot is held a beat too long.

He’s left his actors at sea. McCarthy, the Brat Pack member usually called upon to be the sensitive type (as in St. Elmo’s Fire), would appear to be good casting as the lonely artist, but he’s too interior-directed to bring off the later comedic scenes, and he doesn’t yet have the star quality to carry the movie on his own.

Cattrall is energetic and well sculpted, but she really has no character to play. The rest of the film is littered with stock types, including the crusty but lovable department-store owner, the swishy window dresser, the malevolent security guard, and the oily store manager. Only the latter is interesting, mainly because the actor, James Spader, is obviously off doing his own outrageous thing, a kind of super-unctuous William F. Buckley (if that’s not redundant). Spader goes too far, but at least he’s trying.

You can sense from the first five minutes that Mannequin is awkwardly assembled and stiff. Sure enough, it never does come to life. In other words, it’s one of those movies too well titled.

First published in the Herald, February 1987

Did not care for this movie. Really did not care for it. But it was a box-office hit, which tells you all kinds of things about timing and certain actors cresting at the right moment and perhaps the durability of archetypal storylines, although I really don’t want to think too hard about it. It was easy to notice Spader, who’d already made an impression in things like Tuff Turf and Pretty in Pink, and was about to break through. I have a terrible feeling there was a Starship song associated with this movie.


sex, lies, and videotape

May 16, 2011

The most highly touted arthouse movie of the year is sex, lies, and videotape, the low-budget debut effort of a 26-year-old writer-director named Steven Soderbergh. Advance word on the film has been high since its first festival in January, which was followed by two important prizes at the Cannes Film Festival this spring: best actor (for James Spader) and the best picture award.

Such praise sets the table for a letdown, but sex, lies, and videotape turns out to be a mightily intriguing film, true to its own odd nature and utterly mesmerizing. Soderbergh’s story, set in Baton Rouge, begins when a black-clad wanderer named Graham (Spader) rolls into town to visit an old college friend, John (Peter Gallagher).

These two have gone different ways since college. John is now in the suspenders-and-racquetball league, a yuppie climber married to Ann, a beautiful but unhappy woman (Andie MacDowell). Ann is a cool, repressed Southern belle, with a tendency to disavow problems; when her analyst asks how her relationship with her husband is going, she airily replies, “Fine, except I’m kinda going through this thing where I don’t want him to touch me.”

Meantime, John is carrying on with Ann’s sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), who is decidedly unrepressed. When Graham arrives, he develops an instant rapport with Ann, but that disappears when she discovers his vocation: He videotapes women who describe their sex lives for his camera.

But if this is the only way Graham can enjoy sex, he is no more unhealthy than the other principals, none of whom is connecting with anyone else. Soderbergh’s own camera is much like Graham’s; he tends to shoot characters in isolation, each is his own separate space. People don’t so much communicate as they watch each other talk.

This creates a hypnotic effect, an eerie, arid dance of anxiety. Soderbergh stumbles only with the character of John, who is something of an easy caricature. The other characters are niftily drawn, and superbly acted. Andie MacDowell, heretofore best known as a ubiquitous model (she was also Jane in Greystoke, the Legend of Tarzan), consistently discovers a fresh way to read a line or wrinkle her nose.

Laura San Giacomo finds a full-throated, lusty swagger for her sexy character. And James Spader demonstrates why he won the Cannes prize, with a mysterious, quietly smoldering performance; he’s always holding back something, as though his character knows enough about cameras to hide from them. Spader’s been stuck with mostly geeky supporting roles in recent years, but he always brought intensity to them. In sex, lies, and videotape, he finally gets to shine.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

That young lad Soderbergh is now making noise about his upcoming retirement, so either it’s been a long time since this movie came out or directing careers are getting shorter. Years ago I interviewed Soderbergh onstage once for a Seattle International Film Festival event, which seemed to go fairly well, although the most interesting part for me was talking to him backstage beforehand and comparing notes on early experiences reading Mad magazine movie parodies. In his book interview with Richard Lester (fascinating book) Soderbergh indicates his dislike of critics in fairly strong terms, so whatever. I wonder what this movie looks like now; in memory, it seems as much a part of its time as the John Hughes films, albeit with a greater degree of maturity and ambition.