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.

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Winter People

June 1, 2012

Winter People is a sincere and almost total misfire. A curiosity, it doesn’t quite fit any single genre—which, generally speaking, is not a bad thing—but Winter People is just too weird and clunky to create its own niche.

The film is set in the 1930s. In the opening scenes, a gentle, widowed clockmaker (Kurt Russell) and his young daughter pull up stakes to search for better job opportunities for him. They get as far as a country hollow, where his car breaks down and he seeks shelter from a woman (Kelly McGillis) who lives alone in a small house in the backwoods.

This woman has a baby but no husband, a scandalous state of affairs that has led to her exile from the rest of her family, although she is still on speaking terms with her father (Lloyd Bridges) and her brothers. Russell, of course, ends up staying in the small community and building a clock tower for the town.

In doing so, he gets dragged into one of those classic backwoods family fights, because McGillis’s family is a-feudin’ with some ornery folk across the river. (They have long hair and beards, so we spot them for villains right away.) This brings about the movie’s main confrontations, although they turn out to be not quite as violent as you might expect.

It’s a very handsome film, with director Ted Kotcheff getting a nice feel for the woods and the small town. Kotcheff, unfortunately, is a colorless director, and he doesn’t shape or pace the material at all; some scenes seem to go on endlessly (and dourly—not a lot of humor here).

But even a better director might not have been able to conquer some of the thumping dialogue of Carol Sobieski’s script. For instance, McGillis is forced to say to her old flame, the hairy brute who is the father of her child, “I beat my head on the barn door once for you.” No wonder she seems so confused.

Winter People groans slowly along, losing steam as it goes. Both Russell and McGillis, two watchable actors, are in deliberately low gear, and the movie gets stolen by Lloyd Bridges, Don Michael Paul (as McGillis’s garrulous youngest brother), and a large bear that is sacrificed by a point-blank gunshot to the head. All are equally hammy.

First published in the Herald, April 13, 1989

Sobieski wrote a lot in a foreshortened life (she died a year after this film was released), including co-credit on a favorite TV-movie from my childhood, The Neon Ceiling. Kotcheff does everything. Among his many stops was Weekend at Bernie’s, which I believe gets more hits than any other movie on this site.


The Best of Times

July 29, 2011

Ever since 9:22 p.m., November 15, 1972, there has been an overriding reality in the life of an otherwise ordinary man from the small town of Taft, California. It was at that very moment, 13 years ago, that Jack (Robin Williams) dropped a last-second pass that would have given the Taft Rockets their first-ever victory over the hated Bakersfield Tigers.

Instead, Jack muffed the catch, Bakersfield won the high school rivalry again, and Jack was doomed to a life as The Man Who Dropped the Ball.

This is the situation for the protagonist of The Best of Times, a spunky, endearing slice-of-life comedy. As the film begins, Jack is recounting a brief history of the town of Taft, which has never seemed to win at anything. In a way, he’s like the town itself—small, unassuming, bloody but not bowed.

Jack gets it into his head that he can remove the nagging memory of that dropped ball—extricate himself from “the bowels of hell,” as he puts it—by replaying the game; that is, gathering all the now-paunchy players from the two squads and going through it all again.

But he’ll need the help of the greatest high school quarterback in the history of Taft: Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell). Reno resists, but a terrorist attack by a man dressed in a tiger suit—everyone thinks it’s a Bakersfield bad buy, but it’s actually Jack, trying to whip up enthusiasm for the game—changes Reno’s mind, and the preparations for the battle begin.

These are amusing; but at least as important to the heart of the film are the marital tribulations of Jack and Reno. Jack’s wife (Holly Palance) has thrown him out of the house because of his insistence on the replayed game. And long-standing problems have driven Reno’s wife (Pamela Reed) to temporary residence at the Top Hat motel.

A sequence with the two couples coming together for a reconciliation dinner is the comic centerpiece. The wives swig wine from the bottle in anticipation, the husbands try to bolster themselves with a game plan (“Be bland, but strong—careful, but with a touch of reckless”).

The women have deliberately scheduled the dinner for a Monday night, with the attendant televised football game; the dinner is a test to see whether the boys can resist the temptation. If that that setup seems a bit familiar, the results are funny nevertheless.

It all builds up to a conclusion that is also familiar and predictable: Every person who watches this movie knows that the big rematch will come down to a single play in which Jack will either redeem himself or become the goat of all time.

The plot may strike some as formula—how many movies can we take with a big sporting event as the finale? And yet The Best of Times has a wonderful freshness; it combines humor and heartache in a beguiling combination—in scenes such as Reno’s off-key rendition of “Close to You” at his wife’s motel room door, or the touching entreaty Jack makes to his wife in the gymnasium restroom during a pregame sock-hop.

Director Roger Spottiswoode (Under Fire) has a keen sense of how people talk, and behave; and he’s well-served by his actors. Williams and Russell have nice chemistry, and Palance (currently appearing in the Seattle Rep’s The Real Thing) and Reed (The Right Stuff) are attractively unglamorous.

The Best of Times doesn’t break new ground, and it’s a decidedly self-effacing work. But it’s a tremendously agreeable movie, and very easy to enjoy.

First published in the Herald, January 29, 1986

Lovely movie. I didn’t mention its screenwriter, because like most people I didn’t know who Ron Shelton was; Bull Durham was still a couple of years in the future. But of course Shelton’s spirit is all over this film, in the best ways. As for the director, this seemed like the moment Spottiswoode was going to settle onto the A-list, which didn’t happen although he did get some high-profile jobs, including a Bond picture. He was married to Holly Palance (yes, daughter of Jack), who didn’t really stick with the movie thing. This film just radiates a good feel, and everybody’s doing top-line work; of course, it didn’t do anything at the box office.


Big Trouble in Little China

March 28, 2011

Cattrall, Russell, Pai

Big Trouble in Little China reunites director John Carpenter with Kurt Russell, a collaboration that got off to a flying start with the TV-movie Elvis, in which Russell’s remarkable impersonation of Presley really launched the former Disney child star into a new career.

After Elvis, the two teamed up for Escape from New York and The Thing, a pair of unsatisfying thrillers. Now they’re back together with a much livelier outing; Big Trouble in Little China finds the two of them completely in sync. That’s lucky, because with far-out material such as this, it’s sync or swim.

Russell, who’s been steadily improving in recent years, has never been this loose or comically heroic. He plays a beefy, slightly dim-witted truck driver who delivers a regular load in San Francisco’s Chinatown one night, gets into an all-hours poker game, and somehow is drawn into the disorienting search for a missing girl in Chinatown’s netherworld.

This world is pretty outrageous. Carpenter throws in all sorts of vaulting kung fu action, a Tong war, booby-traps, a mysterious Chinese potion (which prompts an intoxicated Russell, upon drinking it, to good-naturedly observe that he feels, “Kinda—I dunno—kinda invincible”), human sacrifice, and a 2,000-year-old dude who needs the blood of a green-eyed bride to restore him.

As that grocery list might suggest, the tone of Big Trouble is largely comic. Somehow Carpenter avoids making fun of the material—that’s a big booby-trap in itself—so that the tongue-in-cheek tone has the flavor of Raiders of the Lost Ark rather than outright parody.

The kung fu fighting is blown out of proportion, but Carpenter keeps a lot of stuff honest. Near the beginning, there’s a kidnap scene at the airport that quivers with a sense of impending danger and claustrophobia, which the movie’s subsequent jokey tone can’t quite erase.

The goofiness probably keeps it from being anything great or memorable, but it certainly makes for a rowdy fun time. Carpenter and his actors establish an almost immediate audience rapport, sustained by the clever direction and the script. The screenplay bears the stamp of W.D. Richter, who wrote the keen update of Invasion of the Body Snatchers a few years ago.

Richter is credited with “adaptation” among the screenwriters, but it’s a good bet he’s responsible for much of the arch, ’40s-style dialogue. Much of Russell’s delivery, in which he spouts some he-man braggadocio, only to be immediately contradicted by the turn of events, is the ’40s movie adventurer given an appropriate ’80s twist.

Russell is splendid, and Carpenter gets the best work yet from Kim Cattrall, previously wasted in Porky’s and Turk 182!, and Kate Burton, the late Richard’s daughter. Cattrall plays a headstrong lawyer, Burton a naïve reporter—yes, yes, those sound like cliché “types,” but that’s the idea.

So Big Trouble in Little China joins this summer’s weirdly crowded circle of good-summer-entertainment-but-nothing-more films. It may be the most unbelievable, but it never lets that get in the way of the overriding party atmosphere.

First published in the Herald, July 6, 1986

Ha ha—”disorienting”—I kill myself. This movie didn’t cause much of a stir at the time, but it has become a cult picture, and for good reason, I think. And I really don’t find The Thing unsatisfying anymore. Will look for my Turk 182! review. By the way, this opened in Seattle at the Oak Tree, Alderwood Mall, and Grand Cinema, if anyone cares.


The Thing

February 16, 2011

A couple of years ago, John Carpenter looked like the most exciting young director in Hollywood. His successes included the sleek suspense film, Assault on Precinct 13; the excellent TV movies, Somebody is Watching Me and Elvis; and the masterly horror films, Halloween and The Fog. Carpenter appeared to be a natural stylist who had a rare understanding of how moving pictures should move.

But it’s been a bad year for Carpenter. Last summer’s Escape from New York was one of those frustrating movies that sets up a great idea in the first few minutes and then lets the story dribble away. Halloween II (which Carpenter co-wrote and co-produced but definitely did not direct), released a few months later, managed to be more offensive than the usual Halloween rip-offs.

Then came word that Carpenter was working on a semi-remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 science-fiction classic, The Thing. This was promising news: Not only does the original Thing seem to be one of Carpenter’s favorite movies (Jamie Lee Curtis watches it on television on that fateful Halloween night), but reportedly Carpenter was planning to stick more closely to the spooky short story (“Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell) that served loosely as the basis for the first version of The Thing.

Unfortunately, this Thing is one of the big disappointments of the year. Somewhere on the way from an Antarctic glacier (where The Thing is set) to the massive special-effects facilities of Hollywood, Carpenter seems to have contracted a case of snow blindness.

He has returned to the short story’s frightening premise: An alien visitor, trapped and frozen in snow for many thousands of years, is thawed out and let loose among a group of research scientists. This extraterrestrial displays the terrifying ability to reproduce itself as any earthly life form—including man. Thus, despite the fact that all the men at the isolated station look, act and sound the same way they did before the creature got loose, there is no way to tell the men from the monsters.

Carpenter seems impressed by this metaphor for our paranoid and suspicious times, but that’s about all; he doesn’t deepen the idea. And he bypasses character development (though some of the men do go through pretty violent changes) even though he has selected a fine troupe of character answers.

Kurt Russell, playing the group’s eventual leader, has a smoldering quality that is interesting and watchable, but he’s such an inner-directed performer that he never illuminates anything around him. This worked perfectly when he played Elvis Presley for Carpenter, but it almost shuts off audience involvement in The Thing. He seems just as closed-off in the beginning of the movie as he does later, when he has good reason to be suspicious.

Instead of developing the characters, Carpenter has concentrated on producing some spectacular (and gory) special effects. For the most part the effects are astonishingly good, but it’s hard to care when we don’t have much interest in the person the Thing is devouring…or becoming. Carpenter also shoots two autopsies—one human, one alien—in revolting close-up.

The Thing is not without some superb touches. The first scene poses a tantalizing mystery: A lone husky dog lopes across the Antarctic wasteland followed by a helicopter that suddenly begins to shoot at the dog for no apparent reason. This sequence is tightly, crisply realized on the bleak terrain (the locations actually were shot in Alaska and British Columbia). And there’s a blackly funny scene later that involves a bunch of men tied to a bench who writhe in helpless horror when one of them begins to transform into the Thing.

Carpenter’s overall conception of how to treat the story is the problem, and flashes of brilliance cannot redeem this fundamental miscalculation. (It should be noted that the press kit for The Thing reports a “tentative” running time of 127 minutes as of two months ago; the film is at least 10 minutes shorter than that. This may have some significance, but we’ll probably never know.) In choosing to emphasize technical wizardry over human conflict, Carpenter sidesteps the most intriguing challenges of the story. He seems to have forgotten—may we hope temporarily?—that man himself can be as fascinating as any thing.

First published in the Seattle Times, June 25, 1982

I understand. This movie has a large and devoted following now. I saw it again sometime after it opened and yes, it was better than my first impression. But this is a completely accurate impression of seeing it at a midnight preview screening a week before it opened, and actually the impression mostly holds up (although I should give Russell more credit for doing exactly what the character requires). I remember being puzzled by a contradiction: Carpenter’s previous films had been impeccably Hawksian , and then when he actually goes and remakes a Howard Hawks picture, it comes out like this. I’ll watch it again, and probably like it more, but I have a feeling I’m going to stick with my general sense of let-down.