Warning Sign

March 12, 2020

warningsignHollywood’s “product glut” continues to spew forth films that, in many cases, might better have been left in some studio vault somewhere. Warning Sign, which is getting a perfunctory release from 20th Century Fox, is an exception. It’s a perfectly competent, often suspenseful piece that deserves better treatment.

Much of the suspense is built right into the basic situation. A chemical spill at a genetic-engineering laboratory kicks off a warning sign, at which point the security officer (Kathleen Quinlan), according to her instructions, promptly shuts the building, and everyone inside, off from the outside world.

This brings concern from her husband, the county sheriff (Sam Waterston), who waits nervously outside the building; it also brings a government big shot (Yaphet Kotto) who coolly tells Waterston that the genetic-engineering experiments weren’t exactly about building better strain of corn, after all. The spill released a toxic substance that was designed for use against the enemy in warfare. It turns people belligerent and finally insane – and that’s exactly what’s happening to the people trapped inside the lab.

Warning Sign divides itself between the efforts of the outsiders to get into the lab, and the scientists inside, who are growing phosphorescent sores on their faces and nattering on in lunatic fashion. This brings concern from her husband, the county sheriff (Sam Waterston), who waits nervously outside the building; it also brings a government big shot (Yaphet Kotto) who coolly tells Waterston that the genetic-engineering experiments weren’t exactly about building a better strain of corn, after all. The spill released a toxic substance that was designed for use against the enemy in warfare. It turns people belligerent and finally insane – and that’s exactly what’s happening to the people trapped inside the lab.

Quinlan is the only sane person inside, so it’s up to her to find a way to fight off the crazies and try to concoct some kind of antidote.

The film is the creation of Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, a writing-directing team whose credits include Dragonslayer, a nifty medieval movie that, released about a year before such period films became popular, sank with barely a trace (Robbins also directed a recent installment of Amazing Stories, about the magnetic kid).

Barwood and Robbins don’t have very good luck, it seems. Although Warning Sign is a well-made film, it’s being used strictly as filler. The film, while no masterpiece (much of it is admittedly juvenile, and the sci-fi/horror aspects threaten to take over for a while), deserves better. It may not rise above the level of an extended Mission: Impossible episode, but there’s something to be said for well-handled suspense – especially when you consider the quality of the competition.

First published in the Herald, August 1985

Barwood and Robbins were being pushed forward as Spielberg proteges at the time (they wrote The Sugarland Express), not without reason – my affection for Dragonslayer is well known on this site. Their big shot after Warning Sign was *batteries not included, which failed to set the world on fire. Robbins has more recently written with Guillermo del Toro. This movie sounds good, although I don’t remember it, and the credits have some classy names: Dean Cundey shot it, Henry Bumstead designed it. I am posting this as the world is in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it seemed apt.


The Killing Fields

December 2, 2019

killingfieldsThere is a tremendous movie in the middle of The Killing Fields. It lasts for about 90 minutes or so, and during that time you can’t take your eyes off the screen.

This section begins with a group of international journalists being captured by the hostile Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in 1975. When the reporters are rounded up and held at gunpoint, with their extermination apparently imminent, one of them, Dith Pran (played by Dr. Haing S. Ngor), the only Cambodian in the group, starts doing some fast talking to the captors. After an exhausting session, Pran manages to save their necks, and the journalists are moved to the neutral zone of Phnom Penh’s French Embassy, where they wait for deportation.

There, the Westerners must do for Pran what he did for them, because anyone with a Cambodian passport will be detained in the country (and be subject to almost certain execution). Thus follow some frantic efforts to construct a false passport for Pran.

These sequences are riveting, and brilliantly filmed (in Thailand) by first-time director Roland Joffe and cinematographer Chris Menges (whose most recent credit – about as far from The Killing Fields as you can get – was Comfort and Joy). The sequence during which Pran’s family leaves Phnom Penh, staged in a whirl of helicopter blades and con­fusion, is stunning in its grasp of what makes for compelling cinema.

The film, which is based on the true story recounted by New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, has many such vivid scenes, although it has some problems, too. It begins with Schanberg (Sam Waterston) arriving in Cambodia in 1973, just as that country was being introduced to the bombings during the Vietnam War.

Schanberg is an abrasive, self­ righteous journalist who strikes up a friendship with Pran. The movie, while dealing with the issues of deception and inhumanity in Cambodia, is really more about the developing comradeship between these two unlikely friends.

As such, it works well enough, although the film details Pran’s life better than Schanberg’s. It’s interesting that a big-budget film would have the courage to devote much of its running time – especially in the final 45 minutes – to this nonactor playing essentially wordless scenes, during Pran’s internment in a hellish Cambodian prison camp.

Although a lot of The Killing Fields hits home with force, I was left with a vague feeling of disappointment. Director Joffe, who during the lengthy (and sometimes shapeless) exposition sequences shows a gift for throwaway shock effects, also has a tendency to overstate his case.

This ranges from a few too many shots of burned and mangled victims’ bodies to the use of a popular song (I won ‘t tell which one) over the final scene. Some people will watch that final scene and think it exactly right; I found it overdone. Sometimes restraint is the highest eloquence.

This is the latest of British Producer David Puttnam’s string of important films, many of which were done by novice (or near-novice) directors. He’s done Midnight Express, Local Hero, and Chariots of Fire, and he’s very definitely turned into a one-man industry to watch.

Also very watchable is John Malkovich, the blind man in Places in the Heart, who really lights up the screen as Schanberg’s photographer buddy. Malkovich ought to bag a supporting actor Oscar nomination this spring – the only question is, for which movie?

But The Killing Fields belongs to Dr. Haing S. Ngor. He doesn’t exactly give off sparks, but Ngor, with his quiet, natural screen presence, has the audience’s unconditional sympathy throughout. He communicates true but not icky good-heartedness, and his heart is the pulsing center of the film.

First published in the Herald, January 17, 1985

Haing S. Ngor won the Oscar, and the film found great critical success. Joffe did The Mission and some other serious films, and is still working, although his disastrous 1995 version of The Scarlet Letter seemed to take his career from its high platform. 

 

 


Just Between Friends

January 15, 2013

justbetweenfriendsJust Between Friends seeks to be this year’s Terms of Endearment—last year it was Twice in a Lifetime, you’ll remember—with a similar mix of ordinary people facing up to both ordinary and extraordinary situations.

It’s certainly got the right pedigree. Just Between Friends was written and directed by Allan Burns, who, like Oscar-winner James L. Brooks of Terms, was a staff writer on the old “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Burns clearly hopes to strike gold in the same mine.

But Just Between Friends is a strangely flat movie, lazily paced and without many distinguishing characteristics. You can sense Burns trying to wrench it into something more interesting, by throwing in an unexpected death here, a surprise pregnancy there, but the concoction refuses to jell.

It’s about a woman (Mary Tyler Moore, in a tailor-made role) whose neat, ordered life is brightened by a friend she meets at aerobics class (Christine Lahti). What Moore doesn’t know is that her seismologist husband (Ted Danson, of “Cheers”) is having an affair with Lahti.

When Moore invites her new friend over to have dinner, predictable hysteria ensues, as Lahti and Danson uncomfortably discover their mutual acquaintance.

Lahti decides to call off the affair, Danson isn’t sure, Moore stays in the dark—until, that is, the day she looks through her husband’s office and discovers a dime-store photo of Danson and Lahti together.

The film gets more serious as it goes along, although Burns has the good sense to insert a comic scene now and again. And his situation is valid enough, but his languid pace and utterly dull visual scheme damage the impact of the story.

The film was pretty clearly commissioned for Mary Tyler Moore, and Burns knows how to write funny “Mary” scenes, including a reference to her character’s past as a dancer, when she was a dancing peanut in a TV commercial (part of Moore’s actual dues-paying, if I remember correctly).

Moore’s only problem, as it was in Ordinary People, is that she tends to treat her big dramatic moments as—well, big dramatic moments. She loses her subtlety when called upon to emote.

Lahti, who was nominated for an Oscar for Swing Shift, provides some welcome bite. Just as she stole Swing Shift from Goldie Hawn, so does she grab our attention here. Her performance is more offbeat than Moore’s.

Danson, a likable, light leading man, is oddly unfocused, as though he wished he were getting some direction. Sam Waterston is steady as Danson’s best friend, who harbors a not-particularly-secret affection for Moore.

It’s a perfectly honorable try. There’s nothing cheap about the film’s emotion-tugging. The actors try valiantly to breathe some life into the proceedings, but ultimately the company can’t life the film above the level of a better-than-average TV movie.

First published in the Herald, April 13, 1986

I was flicking across channels the other night and came upon the sight of Mary Tyler Moore saying “fuck,” which is, I think we can agree, something that stops you in your tracks. I sat there thinking What the hell is this? and finally figured out that it must be Just Between Friends, a movie I had forgotten all about, for reasons that should be evident from the tone of the review.