Physical Evidence

March 25, 2020

physicalevidenceAt a point late in Physical Evidence, public defender Theresa Russell turns to client Burt Reynolds and mutters the hokiest line in a movie full of hokey lines: “How did I ever get mixed up with you?”

Well she might ask. Russell is an actress whose career has been on a steady upward curve, mixing commercial movies (Black Widow) with her husband Nicolas Roeg’s more stylishly esoteric films (lnsignjficance, Track 29). With Physical Evidence, a project that would appear to have a measure of box-office success built into it, Russell steps straight into an unequivocal clunker.

It would be easy to blame this stinker on Burt Reynolds, the once-bright star who’s been jinxed for the last few years. Reynolds’ bad luck seems to be rubbing off on everything be touches. It’s been so terrible lately that he’s even gone back to television to try to revive his career.

However, Reynolds turns out to be the best thing about Physical Evidence. He plays a short-fused Boston cop who’s suspected in the murder of a sleazeball. Russell is the defense attorney who doesn’t quite know whether she should believe him. Does this sound at all like Jagged Edge or Suspect? It should, but only to the extent that this thing almost makes those movies look good.

The case, such as it is, dribbles along in its way to an entirely expected conclusion. Michael Crichton, who directed, is a kind of jack-of-all-trades who occasionally comes up with a dumbly entertaining movie (as with the loopy Tom Selleck sc-fi film Runaway). But Crichton can manage only a morbidly amusing prologue here in which a would-be suicide is distracted by a corpse just before he’s about to jump from a bridge. (The suicide has tied a sign around his neck that says, “Sorry Now?”) But the film is mostly humorless, and exceedingly drab-­looking; Crichton’s idea for a scene topper is to have Theresa Russell flip the bird to the prosecutor (Ned Beatty).

So there is Burt Reynolds, who appears to be attempting an interesting characterization in his first few scenes. He’s got the look and the movements down. His cop is a weary professional, a man of violence whose hair is showing gray and whose stomach is going to fat. Reynolds has a real bead on the guy, but then the movie seems to lose interest in him, and the formula takes over. Nice try, Burt, but the jury is still out.

First published in the Herald, January 28, 1989

Izzat a socko title or what? Physical Evidence is what it’s called, all sexed up and ready to fit into the 80s run of legal thrillers. Crichton did not direct a feature again, but returned successfully to his day job. For the record, Henry Mancini did the music and John Alonzo shot this one.


February 4, 2020

insignificanceThe film Insignificance is built on the conceit, a favorite of playwrights, that a bunch of famous people find themselves fictionally thrown together for a brief spell. In this case, the main confrontation takes place between Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe.

That’s quite a combo – although, if memory serves, Shelley Winters once revealed that Marilyn privately named Einstein as the man she’d most like to sleep with. Hmmm. Perhaps that’s where the original idea for the play came from. Nicolas Roeg has adapted the play into an entertaining movie, although the film doesn’t have the substance it seems to think it has.

Marilyn (Theresa Russell) pays a call on Einstein (Michael Emil) one night while he’s holed up in a hotel room, in 1955 or so. (Actually, none of the characters is named, although it’s obvious whom they’re mean to represent.) He wants to get some shut-eye, but she wants to discuss the theory of relativity; which she proceeds to explain to him using a sackful of audio-visual aids just purchased at a local toy store.

Later, Marilyn proposes an entirely more fleshly consciousness-raising, which Einstein analytically considers.

It’s not just a two-person show. A bulky ex-ballplayer (Gary Busey), Marilyn’s jealous husband, intrudes on the scene. He’s only loosely based on Monroe’s husband, Joe DiMaggio. And a vicious political thug (Tony Curtis), bearing some resemblance to Joseph McCarthy, badgers Einstein for the latest scientific paper.

The film is properly amusing at first, although it turns more predictable as it veers in to heavy-handedness in the later going. Indeed, the film would be – well, pretty insignificant – were it not for the attractive presence of the actors.

Michael Emil, who usually acts in his brother Henry Jaglom’s films (Always, Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?), has a deadpan, slightly distracted delivery that makes him perfect for Einstein. Yes, the right half of his brain might well be thinking about relativity, while the left half handles the conversational chores.

Busey has some unnerving moments, and Curtis seems energized at being called upon to really act, after years of slipshod work.

And Theresa Russell, who is married to Roeg, may well be the most neglected great actress in the movies. Her films seem to be ignored (Bad Timing, The Razor’s Edge) or not released at all (Eureka), but one of these days she’s going to break through.

I doubt whether Insignificance will trigger that breakthrough; it’s too far from the mainstream, and her performance, while witty, is more of an inspired imitation than the kind of soulful acting she’s delivered in the past. But her moment will come.

First published in the Herald, January 17, 1986

I guess the moment never really came for Theresa Russell, although she had a big chance in Black Widow in ’87, and continued to do interesting work for Roeg and others. I like this kind of movie, where incongruous actors are lumped together in a weird mix. How did Roeg think of Michael Emil? Was he a secret Henry Jaglom fan? One thinks about these things.

Track 29

March 29, 2012

After Track 29, the “Chattanooga Choo Choo” may never sound the same again. The song gives the movie its title (you know—”Track 29/Boy you can give me a shine”), and it’s prominently featured in a sequence in which a doctor gives a rousing revival speech before an audience of railroad enthusiasts, at the same time a truck is crashing through his house, where his wife’s fantasy child is trashing the doctor’s elaborate computer-operated train set.

This thumbnail description doesn’t being to convey the madness of the sequence, so you can imagine what watching it is like. The perpetrators of Track 29 are two of Britain’s most provocative talents: director Nicolas Roeg, the creator of Performance and The Man Who Fell to Earth, and screenwriter Dennis Potter, who previously wrote Pennies from Heaven and Dreamchild.

Roeg and Potter seem to have egged each other on, into the far reaches of the bizarre. Track 29 tells the tale of a bored housewife (Theresa Russell, who is also Roeg’s wife) in a small town in the American South.

Stultified by her marriage to a doctor (Christopher Lloyd) who prefers the company of his train set, she becomes intrigued by the presence of a young Englishman (Gary Oldman, who played Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy).

The drifter says he is her long-lost son who was taken away from her when she was 15 years old and unmarried. She believes him, despite the fact that he appears to be her own age. But then again, it becomes increasingly apparent that the young man exists only in her mind—that he is born out of her frustration and her desire to have a child.

Her husband considers her “totally loco” (no train pun intended); he’s busy spending time with a nurse (Sandra Bernhard) who spanks him while they listen to tape-recorded railroad sounds.

The whole thing plays like something Tennessee Williams might have written after a really, really lost weekend. There is some tired satire of American society, but most of the film examines the peculiar psychosexual unhappiness of the Theresa Russell character. Russell, the star of Black Widow, is a good, daring actress, but there’s never much more than sheer kinkiness at play here, and she has little opportunity to create a performance.

Roeg’s films are getting stranger. They were always odd, but they used to be weird-brilliant, or at least weird-interesting. Now they’re just weird-weird. We have a right to expect more.

First published in the Herald, October 7, 1988

This movie must have some defenders, but I’ve never heard of it crawling up to the level of cult film or anything like that. I stand by everything but the last line of the review; we don’t really have a right to expect anything, and a filmmaker like Roeg can do what he wants. I wish this movie had worked, though.