Firstborn

January 27, 2020

firstbornFirstborn is a skillfully manipulative example of American suburban Gothic, with enough jolts and hollers to get the blood pumping at a satisfyingly high rate.

It has a novel subject for a thriller: a pair of brothers (one in high school, the other grade school) watch with increasing anxiety as their divorced mother falls under the spell of a suspicious-seeming new boyfriend.

You’ve seen this kind of creep before: the buzz-word patter, the smarmy heartiness, the incessant talk of just getting that one big score. All the while living off other people; in this case, the mother, who invites him to move in with the family.

To the older boy, it become clear that the freeloader is not just obnoxious – he’s actually dangerous. He appears to be a dope dealer who has the mother so hopped-up on cocaine she doesn’t realize what she’s doing. The showdown, clearly, is going to be the kid vs. the dark invading monster.

Since so many elements of the film work on such a primal level – the invasion of the home, even the hinted-at Oedipal threat – it really gets to you in a basic way. The preview audience with whom I saw the film was whooping loudly when the first-born son started standing up to the boyfriend. This emotional response is carefully prepared for – almost too much so, as the film takes a while to get untracked.

It’s manipulation, but with an interesting idea. After all, just what are children to make of their single parents’ new friends and lovers? This film exaggerates what must be a common anxiety for children in this situation.

Britisher Michael Apted directs from the point of view of Jake, the older boy (Christopher Collet), and he does a shrewd job of revealing sinister bits of information about the menacing boyfriend – who is played with scary intensity by Peter Weller, lately the hero of Buckaroo Banzai. Weller’s dark, ghoulish face and iridescent blue eyes make for a spooky enemy.

You can see how the mother could fall for him; but you can also see why Jake instinctively distrusts him. When the little boy (Corey Haim) asks Jake how he knows mom’s new friend is no good, Jake can only say, “I just know.” No reasonable explanation – but sometimes you just know.

Teri Garr, who plays the mother, has some trouble getting a handle on her character. Garr, usually cast in comic roles (as in Tootsie and Mr. Mom and many others), is by no means out of her league, but the role itself is poorly written. She has to be very passive, or else she would have booted the bum out of her house much earlier. The explanation – that cocaine has clouded her reason – doesn’t quite work in dramatic terms.

But enough of Firstborn does work in dramatic terms to make it tick. There are weaknesses in Garr’s characterization and some serious deck-stacking, but when it comes to the business of making your blood race, Firstborn is quite satisfactory.

First published in the Herald, October 25, 1984

Mostly forgotten, yes? Robert Downey, Jr., and Sara Jessica Parker are in this movie, and it was Corey Haim’s first film. It seems like some sort of cult status should attend to this thing, given that all the elements are in place.


Critical Condition

November 6, 2019

criticalconditionThe “high concept” of Critical Condition,” the new Richard Pryor film, is that a con man must impersonate a doctor for one wild night in an emergency room. And get away with it.

As a concept, it’s admittedly more believable than Eddie Murphy as the Chosen One in The Golden Child. But not by much. And Critical Condition spends its first 15 minutes laboriously providing some explanation of how such a thing could happen.

Suspend disbelief then, and know that the con man (Pryor, naturally) is unjustly arrested on a police sting and about to be sentenced to prison when he decides to fake insanity. His antic disposition lands him in a hospital psychiatric ward, coincidentally on a night when a hurricane hits New York City and Pryor gets mistaken for a visiting doctor.

Got that? Don”t sweat it. All this confusion is just an excuse to get Pryor in a white jacket and have him take over the hospital. At which point, the movie gets reasonably – or at least coherently – on course.

The script is all over the place, and only two or three situations have any comic sense: Pryor withholding methadone to drug patients to blackmail them into working when the power goes off; running a helicopter into the lobby so the wash from the blades will provide air conditioning; juggling hearts in a transplant-holding laboratory; and delivering a baby, of course.

Pryor is on his own the rest of the time, and it’s the sort of panicky role that suits his talents. Actually, he’s not quite on his own; there are some good character actors giving some support, particularly the deadpan Bob Dishy (lately seen as the father in Brighton Beach Memoirs) as a doctor so obssessed with the threat of malpractice suits that he dares not practice medicine. And Pryor’s leading lady, Rachel Ticotin, is a cool, dreamy dish.

The other players are an odd mixed bag: Ruben Blades, star of Crossover Dreams, is wasted as the orderly who shares Pryor’s secret, while stage star Joe Mantegna spends much of the film tied up and gagged, held hostage by the other folks at the psychiatric ward, including ex-boxer Randall (Tex) Cobb.

The most thankless role goes to Joe Dallesandro, the sleepwalking stud of countless Andy Warhol movies from years ago. He plays an escaped killer or something, a character who is clearly a plot device to provide Pryor with one more blast of cheap heroics.

This thing was directed by Michael Apted. whose tastes continue to range far and wide (he directed the fascinating documentary 28 Up, and Coal Miner’s Daughter). Apted gives the film some sense of forward motion, although that doesn’t necessarily translate into laughs. Pryor alone is able to translate only a few.

First published in the Herald, January 20, 1987

This review seems to end abruptly, as though I were about to cite some Pryor jokes. So it might’ve been cut. This was the film that came after Pryor’s Jo Jo Dancer project, and it would’ve been great if he could have knocked one out of the park at that point, but this was not that. I do want to hear more about this helicopter in the lobby, a sight gag that has vanished from my memory. Interesting cast, though; “stage star” Joe Mantegna had already done a bunch of movies, and this was the same year as House of Games. Things only got worse for Pryor from this point on, career-wise.


Kipperbang

October 7, 2019

kipperbangKipperbang is the latest in a series of charmingly low-key films – produced under the umbrella called “First Love” – by David Puttnam, the busy British producer who walked off with an Oscar a couple of years ago for Chariots of Fire. Puttnam’s series concentrates on that moment in adolescence when the problems of the outside world pale beside the mountainous dilemma of the first crush.

Other films in the series include Experience Preferred – But Not Essential, and Secrets. For Kipperbang, Puttnam called on director Michael Apted, with whom he had worked on the rock movie Stardust in 1974. Apted, who did the lovely Coal Miner’s Daughter and then the muddled Continental Divide and Gorky Park for Hollywood, may have been grateful to get back to the vignette-like scale of Kipperbang.

Anyway, he’s certainly done a very nice job. It’s set in 1948, and concerns a likable 14-year-old lad named Alan Duckworth (known, of course, as Quack Quack). Alan isn’t a bad sort, but he’s not exactly on a lucky streak. To give you an idea of his impact on his peers, when the girls in his grade vote for the “dishiest” – read “most awesome” in today’s vernacular – boy in class, Alan doesn’t suffer the humiliation of pulling a low vote – he isn’t even nominated. The girls forgot about him.

He is bewitched by a classmate named Ann. When he lies in bed at night – or anytime – he bargains with God for just one single kiss from those pouty lips. One kiss, and Alan figures he will have led a happy life. One kiss. That’s not so much, is it?

Of course, it’s never going to happen. How could it? Ann’s got eyes only for Geoffrey, the dishiest boy in class. But never underestimate the mysterious ways of divine providence. A teacher (who is involved in the film’s main subplot, wherein she may be pregnant by the school’s groundsman, who is also Alan’s hero), weary of Alan’s daydreaming, sticks him in the school play.

The other two thespians are Ann and Geoffrey. And when Alan gets to the last page of the play, he discovers – oh ecstasy of ecstasies – that his character actually kisses Ann as the play ends!

Apted directs this wisp of a tale with proper affection for the characters. There’s lots of quirky behavioral business, especially with the class nerds and their polysyllabic nonsense.

And Apted does a wonderful job with the moment onstage when the kiss is called for (in rehearsal, the kiss keeps getting nixed by circumstance). Alan, all a-quiver (and his stage moustache all akimbo), approaches Ann with the life-and-death resolve he knows he needs. It’s the best suspense sequence of the year – Steven Spielberg notwithstanding.

First published in the Herald, June 16, 1984

According to my memory, a really wonderful movie, one of Apted’s best. The little short blurb next to my review had the actors’ names in it, but let’s give them their due: John Albasiny played Quack Quack and hasn’t amassed a great many credits; Abigail Cruttenden played Ann, and has many jobs on her resumé, including being married to Sean Bean for a while. Maurice Dee, who played Geoffrey, also did not stick in movies and TV. One of the biggest adult roles went to the great Alison Steadman, another to the prolific Garry Cooper. The screenwriter was Jack Rosenthal, who wrote a huge amount of British television and also – how do these things happen? – the Barbra Streisand picture Yentl. The film’s British title is P’tang Yang Kipperbang, for the piece of kid doggerel some of the characters say. Puttnam’s “First Love” series made a nice little impression at the arthouse; I reviewed most of them, including Sharma and Beyond, Arthur’s Hallowed Ground, Those Glory, Glory Days, and Winter Flight.


Bring on the Night

October 8, 2012

Bring on the Night is, in almost every way, your typical rock documentary. It traces the evolution of a project from beginning to fruition, with heavy emphasis on musical numbers, interspersed with interviews and behind-the-scenes hijinks.

Now, if you’ve seen a few “rockumentaries,” you know that the form itself is intrinsically stupid. The things are usually vanity productions designed to indulge the whims of the stars, who often babble on about their philosophies during the all-too-lengthy breaks between songs.

Bring on the Night falls into most of those traps, but redeems itself in other ways. The good thing is, it’s about Sting, who happens to be one of the most intelligent and thoughtful rock musicians.

The bad thing is, it’s about Sting, who also happens to be one of the most pretentious and least fun-loving rock musicians.

The project here is the new band that Der Stingle assembled for his current “Dreams of the Blue Turtles” album, and some touring he did with the band. The film, Sting explains at a press conference near the beginning, wants to show the creation of a band—unlike other rockumentaries, which sometimes catch bands at their bitter end (as with the Beatles and Let It Be).

The dichotomy between Sting’s intelligence and his pretentiousness makes this process interesting to watch. The musicians Sting has gathered together (in a chateau near Paris) seem deliberately chosen to represent something he’s not—he’s British, they’re American; he’s rock, they’re jazz; he’s white, they’re black.

These jazz musicians are a fun bunch, no question about it, while Sting seems to be straining to join in their groove. But at least he is trying, even so far as joining in on a chorus of “Meet the Flintstones” as kicked off by saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

The outgoing (and supremely talented) Marsalis presents quite a contrast with the rather aloof Sting. While Sting goes on, somewhat pompously, about his search for a new sound, Marsalis describes how he switched from the clarinet to the saxophone because you could get girls with a sax. Marsalis is no less serious a musician, of course, but he seems to have a healthier sense of humor.

Director Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Kipperbang) shows us the birth of the album, in rehearsal sessions at the chateau, and the culmination of the project, in some live gigs in Paris. We also see another kind of birth: a human one, as Sting’s girlfriend Trudie Styler delivers a baby boy on camera.

It’s the music (not the medicine) that sustains the film. The songs take over near the end, and all the forced backstage stuff fades away. Sting is a talented songwriter, and his work is his vindication. The concert’s final song, “Message in a Bottle,” could be a description of the movie itself—a message sense out in the hope that someone will listen. Well, message received—but Sting, next time just sing the songs, don’t talk about them, okay?

First published in the Herald, November 7, 1985

There were quite a few of these back then. And just a year after This Is Spinal Tap, too.


Gorky Park

January 17, 2012

During Gorky Park, you should be thinking about the murder mystery: Did the KBG kill those three people in Moscow’s Gorky Park? Or was it that rich American furrier (Lee Marvin)? Will the Russian detective (William Hurt) fall in love with the mystery woman (Joanna Pacula) who may have known the dead people, or will he betray her? And what about the American (Brian Dennehy) who keeps sticking his nose into everybody’s business?

These are things you should be thinking about during Gorky Park. Maybe you’ll be able to, but I wasn’t. Nope, I was thinking about William Hurt’s accent.

For some reason, Hurt has adopted a British accent for this movie. Maybe it’s because most of the other actors are British—even though they’re all supposed to be Russians, anyway—and Hurt isn’t supposed to stand out by comparison.

Hurt is the kind of exciting actor who is always taking chances; he’ll read a line as though nobody had ever said anything like it before—even if it’s a dumb line. When he’s cooking—as in Altered States, Body Heat, or The Big Chill—there’s no one more interesting to watch.

But speaking in this absurd accent seems to have taken up the better part of his artistic concentration for Gorky Park. Now he’s not just trying to give a line a fresh reading, he’s struggling to get the pronunciation right, too. I tell you, it’s distracting.

And the mystery is so convoluted that, if you get distracted, you’ve lost it. That may be part of the point of the film—that the various plots and reasons for the murder are so tied up in knots that they become meaningless.

That’s fine, but director Michael Apted and screenwriter Dennis Potter are not quite up to the challenge of spinning this yarn with the clarity it needs (it’s based on a best-seller by Martin Cruz Smith). Gorky Park lacks focus; it’s missing the thread that would pull together its shadowy elements.

The locations are nice, thought—most of it was shot in Helsinki, Finland—and some of the supporting players seem to be enjoying themselves, especially Ian Bannen as a Soviet prosecutor and Rikki Fulton as the head of the local KGB. Like almost everyone in the film, they’re both completely untrustworthy.

And Lee Marvin is good to have around. He plays the rich fur trader who wants to get some live sables out of Russia so that he can break the Soviet Union’s monopoly on that expensive fur. Somehow this leads him to an involvement with four young people, three of whom wind up in shallow graves, buried by the falling snow at Gorky Park.

The surviving member of the group, played by Pacula, has her hands full—not only is she connected to the ghastly murders, she’s also caught in a sexual tug-of-war between Hurt and Marvin.

Hurt, despite the distractions, has his moments. But I hear his next movie is Kiss of the Spider Woman, now shooting in Brazil. Uh-oh. Let’s hope he plays an American tourist, not a Brazilian generalissimo.

First published in the Herald, December 15, 1983

I can remember watching this again on a drowsy winter afternoon on TV, when it seemed endless and wintry and dull. The cast alone suggests giving it another try, but I think I’ll tackle The Russia House again before that happens.