Agnes of God

June 3, 2020

agnesofgodProducer-director Norman Jewison is getting to be an expert on adapting hit Broadway shows into movies. Back in the 1970s, he made two religious musicals, Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Now, on the heels of last year’s A Soldier’s Story, Jewison is dipping into religion again. Agnes of God is adapted from John Pielmeier’s Tony award-winning play about the investigation surrounding a young nun and the murder of her baby.

Pielmeier’s play tackles such issues as faith in a godless world, the secular community vs. the religious community, and the state of mother-daughter relationships in a modern world. Jewison, being no dummy, manages to couch these heavy themes within the framework of a detective story, as a court psychiatrist (Jane Fonda) conducts a step-by-step investigation of the crime. Jewison used much the same structure in A Soldier’s Story.

Jewison is basically up to his old tricks – he unloads a big revelation every 15 minutes to keep us interested, and the characters come dangerously close to being card­board figures who represent ideas. Fonda is modern faithlessness; the mother superior (Anne Bancroft) of the convent where the murder took place is nostalgia for past beliefs; and the accused nun (Meg Tilly) is innocence and true faith.

But this is a more enjoyable movie than A Soldier’s Story, and I think it’s because Jewison got genuinely excited about the subject matter. He seems to think he’s making an Ingmar Bergman movie – all this stuff about sexual hysteria in a convent, the crises in faith, are reminiscent of Bergman at his enigmatic best. Jewison even hired Bergman’s longtime collaborator, cinematographer Sven Nykvist, to photograph the film.

Nykvist was a shrewd choice – he captures a stark look in the convent and the surrounding landscape (shot in Ontario) that seems to echo the spiritual hollowness of most of the people in the film.

The other thing that makes Agnes of God passably interesting is the creepily intense performance by Meg Tilly. Her character was apparently unaware that she was pregnant (and her roomy nun’s robes hid it from the other nuns), and when Fonda questions her about the pregnancy, Tilly professes no knowledge of how babies are conceived or born. In fact, she states simply that she doesn’t believe in the dead baby at all, since she doesn’t remember seeing it. Tilly’s angelic face and babylike voice are perfect for the role, and her absolutely unblinking faith is very convincing; as we later find out, it is the product of a tormented childhood.

By the time the last few dramatic scenes roll around, Tilly has really gotten under your skin, and the film becomes much more effective than in the early scenes. Also, Jewison seems intrigued by Pielmeier’s ambiguous solution to the mystery, and presents it in persuasive fashion.

Which is not to say that the film, overall, is not a bunch of high-minded hooey. It is, but credit Tilly and Jewison for making the ending effectively spooky.

First published in The Herald, September 26, 1985

In the Heat of the Night was a murder mystery too, so Jewison was true to his groove. Pielmeier has done a lot of TV movies, including Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story. Bancroft and Tilly were both Oscar-nominated for this, as was composer Georges Delerue. This film was in Meg Tilly’s first rush of stardom, and well before her withdrawal from acting.


The Girl in a Swing

May 14, 2020

girlinswingThe Girl in a Swing is a weird little movie that has the flavor of a low-budget thriller with some class-A touches thrown in. It also has some nice European atmosphere plus some of the incoherence that often attaches itself to international co­productions (in this case, mostly Danish-English, based on a novel by Richard Adams, the author of Watership Down).

The class-A touches come primarily from the cast Meg Tilly plays a dark mystery woman who walks into the life of an English ceramics merchant. He’s played by a good British actor, Rupert Frazer (Empire of the Sun). The merchant is uptight and loveless; the woman, a German, is sultry and sensuous. (They both have a lot of facial moles.) They meet in Copenhagen and quickly move to London, where they marry.

He is happy, but she is haunted by something. Her secret, which the movie takes two hours to tease out, is so obvious from the beginning that the spookiness of the situation is rather undercut. There are so many dark allusions to what happened that the film is quickly spinning its wheels.

The director, Gorden Hessler, has made some messily enjoyable horror movies (Scream and Scream Again), and he does manage to work up some creepy  moments. For instance, just after the loving couple decides to marry, they walk by a pigeon that has broken its wing and is writhing on the ground. Tilly picks up the bird and deftly breaks its neck.

Hessler also throws in plenty of sex, which is not a bad way to pass the time when there isn’t much going on in the story. Tilly is regularly luring her icy husband into some nook or cranny available for trysting. Hessler isn’t quite so adept with actors, and much of the film is overwrought. The film hints that Tilly may be guilty of murder, and her German accent is one of the prime victims.

The Girl in a Swing will probably look better on video, preferably watched in a dark house late at night. You shouldn’t have to wait long.

First published in The Herald, October 8, 1989

It certainly sounds like it’s worth a look. Hessler also directed Cry of the Banshee, The Oblong Box, and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. The Meg Tilly moment was still going on, but this film’s non-impact and the big flop of Valmont did not advance things for her.


Masquerade

October 14, 2019

masqueradeThe first 45 minutes or so of Masquerade fairly tingle with old-fashioned movie excitement, an excitement all too rare these days. Sex, greed, murder, and money; in other words, a lot of fun.

It’s one of those film noir set­ups in which a group of mysterious people come together, and their various motivations remain teasingly hidden and shifting. At the center of the plot is a young heiress (Meg Tilly), who has become a multimillionaire upon the death of her mother.

Unfortunately, she’s got a sleazy, alcoholic stepfather (John Glover) who won’t budge on claiming his half of everything in the inheritance, including the palatial summer home in the Hamptons, where they are now. Up for yachting season is a young captain (Rob Lowe) who begins romancing the shy, vulnerable heiress. He’s also sleeping with the wife (Kim Cattrall) of the man who owns his boat, but that’s a minor matter.

Throughout the opening sequences, Masquerade evokes its title by conveying the subtle sense that at least some of these people are not what they seem. Is Lowe for real? If he is, why does he seem so callow? And what about the amiable local cop (Doug Savant) who appears to harbor some deep feeling for Tilly?

Once we’re into it, the movie begins to drop its sizable bombshells, a series of twists that change the way we see the characters. The first couple of these are whoppers, although the film probably has one too many fiendish surprises for its own good. In fact, it begins to run out of steam by its last half-hour, and Dick Wolf’s original screenplay starts to out-clever itself.

I still enjoyed it. It’s a good vehicle for director Bob Swaim, an American who made films in France for a few years (La Balance was a crackerjack cop movie); his most recent film was Half Moon Street. A sense of place is so important in a movie like this, and Swaim gets a summery feeling for the elegant location.

Some of it’s a bit slick, and too often Rob Lowe appears to be posing for one of those Calvin Klein underwear ads. (The bedrooms in this movie are an important field of, um, action.) However, Swaim uses Lowe in a smart way. Since Lowe is an almost completely inadequate actor, Swaim is able to exploit his lack of expression and make it look like dark mysteriousness, exactly what this character should embody. Neat trick; I wonder if Lowe knew about it?

First published in the Herald, March 1988

Noirish score by John Barry, too. I wonder if this holds up? There was a little flurry of neo-noir for the young folk going on around this time (the Rob Lowe-James Spader Bad Influence, for instance), so maybe something was in the air. I was hard on Mr. Lowe here, but I think we can agree he got better. Swaim went back to France; Dick Wolf gave birth to the monumental Law & Order universe.

 


The Big Chill

December 19, 2011

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older?” asked the Beach Boys, in words that seem to sum up the great yearning of rock ‘n roll music. How great to be different from adults, but wouldn’t it be nice to get some of the privileges. How great to get the fringe benefits without the side effects. Man, that’d be the day. For many people, this day of freedom with limited responsibilities really happens—some of us call it college, although it can assume other guises. The sun is out, dreams take flight, and companionship is constant and crucial—at least, that’s the way it takes shape through the filter of memory. Two things are certain about the endless summer: 1) It will end, and 2) It will be romanticized.

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” pops up in the course of Lawrence (Body Heat) Kasdan’s new movie, The Big Chill, and it’s a pretty appropriate choice. The Big Chill is about a group of people, a decade or so past their college chumminess, who reunite for a weekend. They’ve been drawn together by the suicide—and subsequent funeral—of one of the old gang. His suicide haunts their rosy memories, as does the fact that none of them has lived up to the uncompromising ideals of the good old days. Many-tentacled adulthood has grasped them all, and the weekend looms as a chance to recapture some of the old warmth. Is the fire still there? God only knows. But few moviegoers will be able to resist that delicious feeling of settling back and awaiting the various sexual, emotional, chemical, geographical combinations that tend to erupt on such an occasion.

That brings us up against the fact that we’ve seen this kind of movie before—recently and beautifully in John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus Seven, which also presented a weekend of ex-radicals discovering a sheepish mellowness as well as certain ties that bind. Some people may be bothered by similarities between the two films. Frankly, I found it easy to look at the first five minutes of The Big Chill and say, “Oh, it’s going to be something like Secaucus Seven. Okay. Let’s go.” It was very easy, and Kasdan and his co-screenwriter Barbara Benedek have their own path to chart across this tried-and-true territory.

The on-screen people Kasdan has gathered together to make this weekend interesting are some of the most exciting young actors around right now. Kevin Kline and Glenn Close host the reunion in their fine old Southern mansion; their marriage, made comfortable by the profits from their burgeoning shoe company (and despite Close’s past affair with the dear departed) seems to be going all right. Maybe that’s what’s bugging them. Mary Kay Place plays an executive who is sick of men but desirous of a child, a situation that is, shall we say, pregnant with possibilities. Tom Berenger plays the pretty star of one of those beefcake private-eye TV shoes; he may not be as savagely bright as the rest of the gang, but he’s very well-meaning (that’s a good piece of casting; Berenger has been a male-model type for a while now, and you can almost sense his excitement at being in something good. The fact that he’s not as sharp an actor as Glenn Close or William Hurt simply serves his character). Hurt plays a seriously burned-out (and impotent) Vietnam vet whose drug-dealing has turned into something more than a sideline. Jeff Goldblum is the former crusading college-newspaper reporter who now spends his time rationalizing his job at People magazine. JoBeth Williams wanted to be a writer, but finds herself deeply into housewifery these days; she is looking for something—specifically a long-delayed something with Berenger—to happen, and it’s now or never.

That’s a terrific bunch, and there’s not an off-key performance in the lot. Two others, outsiders, figure into the proceedings: Williams’ unbearably straight-arrow husband is played by Don Galloway (yes, of TV’s “Ironside”—another fine casting stroke), and the air-headed young girlfriend of the deceased is played by Meg Tilly. In a bad movie, Tilly’s character might be meant to represent the purity of the instinctual nature as opposed to the overly analytical attitudes of the main group of friends. In The Big Chill, she’s something less—and more—than that. Her silliness plays against that sort of symbolic interpretation, and her fascination with the morbid Hurt leads the film towards a sense of revitalization. Kasdan seems interested in facing clichés and lashing back at them, and her character is no exception.

There’s a delight in turning things on their head here that springs less from cruelty than honesty. Some of the heated dialogue exchanges are choice, particularly when a character will spout something sensible and platitudinous—the kind of thing that usually passes for wisdom—whereupon someone else may pause a beat before saying, “That is such a crock of shit, I can’t believe it.” (JoBeth Williams’ unexpectedly fiery reaction to Berenger’s gentlemanly thanks-but-no-thanks retreat from her sexual gambit is the greatest of these moments.)

The Big Chill is full of good dialogue, but some of the things I’ll remember most about it have nothing to do with words: the look on JoBeth Williams’ face when she turns to look out her car window (and toward the camera) as a way of taking her mind—or, at least her eyes—off her husband as they drive away from the funeral; the lovely group dynamic as an after-dinner clean-up is transformed into a dance; the camera movement that captures the moment Glenn Close gets an idea about Mary Kay Place’s desire for a partner in progeny.

These people speak with grown-up mouths and move with grown-up bodies, but we get the idea they’re more confused than they were in college. They could sing, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older,” for years, and still wonder when the state of adulthood will really happen. The Big Chill gives a benevolent blessing to this state of mind. “The good old days” may well be a crock of shit, but it matters, as we learn by the end of this weekend, that some of that time remains alive, even after the big chill.

First published in The Informer, September 1983

This is one of those reviews where I have to chuckle about the worldly wisdom being doled out by a 24-year-old writer. But fine, that’s in the spirit of the movie, I guess. I haven’t seen the picture since it came out, but I infer that to the generation that was just coming up, The Big Chill is the epitome of Squaresville, which I guess I understand. By the way, I have always wondered exactly where the title came from; Kasdan has explained it as a reference to the cooling of youthful fires, which is clear, but it sounds like a quote from something. A couple of years after seeing the movie, I came across the phrase “big chill” in a Kerouac novel, I think The Subterraneans, and wondered whether it could be a source, but who the hell knows.


Impulse/C.H.U.D.

October 14, 2011

The last days of November traditionally are a dumping ground for films that the studios have written off as lost causes. These films are either bad or uncommercial (or both). Thus they are plugged into empty movie theaters, with minimal advertising bother, to mark time before the biggies are let loose.

This last weekend brought us a pair of films that fall neatly into the dumping-ground category. Coincidentally, they share a classic theme of outraged science-fiction movies: the government experiment that goes horribly awry.

In Impulse, an absolutely typical American small town is seized by a mysterious force that causes the residents to alter their behavior. In C.H.U.D., New York City is besieged by toxic-waste monsters in the sewers. If the locales (and the production values) are different, the dynamic is similar: post-Watergate paranoia, fueled by a fundamental mistrust of the government.

The director of Impulse, Graham Baker, says he wanted to pose the question: “What is wrong with this Norman Rockwell picture?” Just after a slight earthquake, the people of the little hamlet of Sutcliffe begin acting up. Kindly old codgers start cussing each other out on the street. A woman enraged by a minor traffic violation rams her car repeatedly into the offending vehicle. The sheriff guns down a little kid for ripping off parking meters.

These weird events are seen by a young couple (Meg Tilly and Tim Matheson) making an unscheduled visit. They’ve been brought to Sutcliffe—it’s Tilly’s hometown—when her mother, while making a venomous and obscene phone call to her daughter, shoots herself.

Matheson, a doctor, suspects a communal neutralization of the human brain’s censor—the thing that keeps us from swearing at inappropriate times or indulging in whatever form of behavior happens to occur to us at any given moment. The censor keeps us reasonable—with it gone, the town goes on an uninhibited spree.

This is Invasion of the Body Snatchers country. Impulse creates horror by unleashing the dark forces into a recognizably decent, upstanding community. The small town, the symbol of thumbs-up American goodness, becomes suddenly perverted. It’s a Norman Rockwell painting, all right, but retouched by Edvard Munch.

Impulse manages to get a few genuinely disturbing scenes on screen before its lame, blame-it-on-the-government ending. The film is also hampered by the less-than-compelling performances by Tilly and Matheson.

But Impulse has quite a bit going for it, including the subversive suggestion—particularly within Tilly’s odd family—that the town already carried the seeds of sickness within itself, long before an outward accident happened to kick it off.

I must confess to a built-in predisposition toward any film whose acronymic title stands for “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers.” This C.H.U.D. is a cheap-looking horror flick with two excellent actors in on board: John Heard, the hero of Chilly Scenes of Winter and Cat People, playing a photographer involved with the street people who live in the subways and sewers of the Big Apple; and Daniel Stern, the tall goof from Breaking Away and Diner, who has a wild role as a soup-kitchen employee convinced that something funny is going on underground.

He’s right. Gruesome monsters are gobbling up bag ladies at an alarming rate, and the government is covering up. The trail of clues leads to a huge toxic waste dump directly below the beating heart of Manhattan.

C.H.U.D. takes on the issues of toxic waste, street people, and stonewalling, which is more than you can say for a lot of movies these days. Unfortunately, director Douglas Cheek hasn’t got the right stuff to put this together in any sensible way, and the film barely works as a scare show.

Stern, however, makes the most of his scrungy anti-Establishment role. His performance makes you confident that, in some small way, the spirit of the 1960s lives on. And so, obviously, does the spirit of formula science-fiction filmmaking. We can be thankful for both.

First published in the Herald, December 6, 1984

Well, they’ll always be linked in my mind, anyway. Impulse screenwriter “Bart Davis” is actually Nicholas Kazan, and one infers that the pseudonym is a form of protest; the movie’s got a headed-off-at-the-pass quality that suggests it might have been something pretty interesting at some stage. The weird thing (okay, another weird thing) is that although Impulse is the classier, bigger-budgeted effort, C.H.U.D. actually opened at a downtown Seattle theater, the Music Box, while Impulse was relegated to the Aurora Cinema. And that’s some relegating.