The Spandex Loincloth
Film reviews from the Burlington Free Press, 1984-1989
This is a small selection from the 500-odd reviews I wrote, often late at night in the middle of a ninety-hour work week, often despairing that I’d even be able to remember where to put the period, let alone knowing where I’d find an intelligent idea or a lead worth reading.
Looking at them now, twenty years later, I’m amazed (and aghast) how many of the poisonous issues of the Eighties have returned to trouble us, like worthless slasher flicks turning up time and again on cable. I’m also struck by the nonchalance with which I interpreted the reviewer’s job.
The simple fact was that nobody seemed to be reading what I wrote–certainly, I never got any mail making intelligent observations either pro or con my writing–so I decided I would write whatever I wanted, and be as faithful as possible to my reaction to the film. In some respects this was a wonderful chance to experiment and develop my writing, though of course it was also an open invitation to perpetual self-indulgence.
Either way, something must have worked, because these reviews gained such notoriety that fully ten years after I stopped writing them, and long after I’d moved on from the Free Press, people would stop me on the street and say “I never see you in the paper these days.”
As is often the case with collections of reviews, I’ve included more attack reviews than raves, simply because they’re more interesting: when I liked a film, I saw it as my job to become transparent and let the reader see the film through me; when a film was ghastly, I tried to be more entertaining than the film (often not a hard task) so that at least something halfway worthwhile would come out of the film’s intrusion into the world.
A word about selection: although this mini-anthology contains many of my favorite reviews, a lot have been lost (just as well, probably) because they were originally written on an IBM PCJr or a Jurassic Mac, and if I try to open the file these days all the lights in the house go out and the air is filled with the smell of burned polymers. For now I’ll just toss these survivors down on the page like a clumsily-made salad, and let the croutons fall where they may.
Desperately Seeking Susan is such a well-made film it has won four awards not usually considered at Oscar time: Best Wardrobe, Best Extras, Best Use Of A Narcissistic Pop Star Trying Her Hand At Acting and Most Restraint In Not Making A Film To Be Sold As An Album.
It opens in a beauty parlor in Fort Lee, N.J., and at once you know director Susan Seidelman has her fingers on all the right pulses, like an octopus learning acupuncture. Bored housewife Roberta Glass (Rosanna Arquette) lives a life of canapes and dentist-guest parties, married to hot-tub mogul Gary (Mark Blum), whose license plate is TUB N SPA. This is WPIX country captured perfectly, right down to the faint burp of the automatic-drip coffee pot next to the microwave.
Reading the personals every day, Roberta has been following a series of ads headed “Desperately Seeking Susan” and signed “Jim,” by means of which these phantom lovers have been pursuing each other through the heart of America. Yearning for romance, excitement and water that doesn’t have either chlorine or Gary in it, she goes to Manhattan’s Battery Park where the latest ad suggests she may catch a glimpse of Jim and/or Susan.
Susan is, of course, Madonna, corset queen of today’s bubble- gum video parade, who strolls through life stealing cutlery, carrying her entire wardrobe (apparently lifted from a fake Victorian spiritualist) in a drum-case and otherwise looking startling, cool and the embodiment of freedom. Jim is a punk/New Wave musician. Mais naturellement.
By a series of mischances, the likes of which tend to strike anyone who wears a minidress apparently made of sequined bottle-green chain mail, Roberta loses her memory, takes on Susan’s identity, finds herself on possession of a priceless Nefertiti earring and is pursued by a killer who looks like Andy Warhol. She also finds Aiden Quinn as Des, a down-on-his-luck underground movie projectionist who is handsome, cool, sensitive and doesn’t care if she seems to have several identities. (Men, take note: this film is written and directed by women, so this is clearly what is in demand these days. Go home and cut the sleeves off your T-shirts.)
Apart from being the obligatory Window on Contemporary Culture, Desperately Seeking Susan is just hilariously funny, mostly through acute observation and satire. Roberta makes dinner in front of the television, her gestures mimicking Julia Child’s. We barely notice that the newspaper runs a lottery called LOOTO. A black male boutique owner has hair just like Tina Turner’s. Madonna makes eating a Cheeto an exquisite act of sexual narcissism.
All the details are thought out with the same meticulous, demented imagination Alex Cox displayed in Repo Man. The background characters not only look right but are an in-crowd’s who’s who: Richard Edson (Stranger Than Paradise) gets a cameo, as does Anne Carlisle (Liquid Sky), Richard Hell of the Voidoids and Rockets Redglare, the bodyguard of the late Sid Vicious.
But the best thing about Desperately Seeking Susan is its title, which follows in the tradition of The Year Of Living Dangerously by coining a phrase that can be used, inverted, wittily twisted and otherwise belabored by hack headline-writers from now until July. I may even use it myself.
What stoics we reviewers are. Faced by the appalling facts that (a) the only new film in town was Hardbodies II and (b) I had a raging backache, I nevertheless gritted my teeth, injected myself with pure cortisone and headed off down Shelburne Road.
H II is an educational comedy in the classical vein, i.e. it is set in Greece. An inept film crew led by a goatish producer called Slocum go to Homer’s wine-dark Aegean (i) to make a film and (ii) to stare at the bared breasts of would-be starlets.
The stars are to be iii beardless youths called Sean, Rags and Scotty, the last of which has his fiancee Morgan with him, in the same sense that a dog has ticks. Scotty falls for a simple local peasant girl called Cleopatra (wasn’t that Egypt?) and persuades Slocum to hire her as the female lead.
The film-within-a-film is about ii travellers (Scotty and Rags) who accidentally pick up the suitcase of a billionaire playboy (Sean), run off with the drachmas and take his place on a Semester At Sea cruise. Scotty spots a beautiful nymph (Cleo) in the captivity of a sinister Aristotle Onassis figure (Slocum) and determines to liberate her from Ari and himself from the petulant Morgan, who smears her face with avocado.
At this point my back forced me to leave and seek an ice pack, so I can’t pass judgement on the film’s merits. Instead I leave you with a suitably educational quiz, in which I invite you to guess how the film would have ended, choosing one or all of the following neo-classical possibilities:
(i) Slocum, devastated by the discovery that he has slept with his own director, blinds himself. Only his script girl Cookie will remain at his side to lead him, eyeless in Gaza, between the ranges of bared breasts.
(ii) Cleo, after hanging around on the set so long eating nachos she is declared The Face That Lunched A Thousand Chips, is abducted by Sean. Scotty gathers a fleet of motorboats and water-skis after her, besieging Sean’s hotel room for nearly xi years, finally breaking in by hiding in a wooden room service trolley.
(iii) Rags sets off for home but doesn’t arrive until x or more years later. He tells his girlfriend he and his companions were captured by a one-eyed giant, turned into swine by an enchantress, grabbed at by an octopus living over a whirlpool, and generally blown hither and yon by the winds, which he had been keeping in a bag. A windbag, he will add (foolishly), giggling. She will slug him with a mostly-empty bottle and go back to her weaving.
Hand in your answers when the newspaper docks.
The British love animals, and they also love films in which very small crimes are committed. Turtle Diary is a combination of both–an understated, delightful film in which three lonely people plan to steal a trio of sea turtles from London Zoo and set them free in the ocean.
Glenda Jackson plays a sort of suburban Beatrix Potter, an author and illustrator of children’s books who pushes aquarium supplies home in a pram and keeps a water-beetle as a pet. Ben Kingsley plays a divorced man who has found a nice little corner in a nice little bookshop and kept out of trouble. She lives alone; he lives in a rooming-house of people who have withdrawn into their shells, including a Russian who whistles out of tune and refuses to clean the stove or the bath after him. Jackson and Kingsley meet at the aquarium at the zoo, where they discover that a sympathetic keeper (Michael Gambon) will help them spring the turtles.
From the first shot it’s clear why they are drawn to these odd, ugly creatures. Director John Irvin shoots through the turtles’ tank so we catch glimpses of Kingsley and Jackson in the murky light of the aquarium building. This is their half-lit world of stifled ambitions and submerged desires, and the story is as much about their escape from their shells as the liberation of the turtles.
After a while some of the characters, Jackson’s in particular, begin to look like turtles in their stiff postures and uneasy neck-stretchings. In a brilliantly conceived dream, Jackson imagines turtles swimming free in the ocean, and herself swimming with them–and then a shark appears. In one sense the shark represents the dangers she is undertaking for the first time in her life; in another it represents sex. Some deep waters are stirred in this tiny adventure.
At first the film seems to verge on the pretentious. Harold Pinter’s nervous dialogue seems too stagey in its representation of the fragments in which people speak when they’re hiding from themselves. But like the characters, the dialogue breaks out of this stilted awkwardness into the closest Pinter ever gets to high-spirited comedy. The film’s touch is never as light as the classic Ealing crime comedies, but it is attempting more. Loneliness isn’t a temporary social problem in Turtle Diary, it’s a genuine horror. Eleanor Bron, playing the most isolated inhabitant of the boarding-house, is given the most striking non sequitur.
“Cup of tea?” the landlady offers as Bron comes in one evening. Bron looks startled.
“No, thanks,” she says hastily. “I’ve got to go to Leeds to see my mother in the morning.”
Like many of Pinter’s best lines, this is only nonsense because it makes too much sense, in too many senses. Tea is too strong for her–it’s too late in the evening–she’s afraid of not sleeping–she’s afraid of people’s kindnesses–she wants to escape–her mother is dying. Bron, who appeared in Help, is now playing Eleanor Rigby.
Turtle Diary is a very funny film that, like the champagne that turns up at the end with surprising frequency, is about people bubbling over. But this effervescence comes late in life, it doesn’t come to everyone, and even those who are saved have endured the hell of being trapped underwater in a confined space in semi-darkness, wanting nothing more than to escape the unfeeling gaze of people staring in.
The Spandex Loincloth
When I was a boy and was dragged to church every Sunday, the dullest and least comprehensible reading was the one from the Old Testament Book of Begats.
“And Jehosophat begat Geronimo, and Geronimo begat Tempeh,” droned the vicar, his mouth opening and closing like a sanctimonious oyster, “and Tempeh begat Saltash, and Hashish, and Hazamarazamatazz…”
The arch-begetter of them all was David, who when he wasn’t slaying Goliath was busy begetting with Bathsheba, Beersheba, the Queen of Sheba and all stations to King Solomon’s Mines.
All this was deemed to be so confusing by those on high in Paramount that the press kit for King David features a glossy genealogy poster, with Richard Gere the unlikely centerpiece and a dozen other Hapshashes and Tempehs springing off from him in the profusion of bigamous relationships the Christmas carols euphemistically call “David’s line.” The poster is a dead giveaway that the characters in the film will be confusing. It’s also a strong hint that the film will be utter drivel: the last production to wield a genealogy was Dune.
— Israel, 1,000 years B.C. (AP) The prophet Samuel strides in and beheads the captive King of the Trilobites.
“The Lord your God is a jealous God,” he snaps, to remind us that mercy, the New Testament and turning the other cheek are still a thousand years away. Saul looks crushed. He was only trying to be nice. Samuel strides off to find a better king among the sons of Jesse. Abinadab gets passed over and disappears back into the mass of polysyllabic Biblical mediocrities. Now, David–there’s a name. Samuel anoints the young lad, and oil drips off his ear.
Enter the Goliath confrontation situation. The Israelites stand around looking skinny and sheepish–sheepskinny, in fact. David steps forward. Goliath is prodded awake. Will director Bruce Beresford (who in the more recent past made Breaker Morant and Tender Mercies) make Goliath the authentic six cubits and a span (call it twelve feet) or just, say, your average Philistine linebacker? Beresford goes for contemporary linebacker realism, and the Big G is felled.
“He has given us back our pride,” says Saul’s press secretary. Young David the singer and slinger goes away to the wars and comes back as Richard Gere, surely one of the worst misfortunes to strike anyone passing through puberty.
Relentlessly seizing any memorable line from the period, the cast starts chanting “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” Later we will get “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and “My son, my son, Absalom, my son!” in a recitation of The Bible’s Greatest Hits, curiously mixed with such less memorable lines as “We’ve been herded out of every cesspit and rathole in the Promised Land” and “My master wants to see a quiche,” neither of which made it into the King James version but were presumably discovered subsequently in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
We see all of Bathsheba, a lot of Saul and hardly any of Jonathan. Immediately after Saul and Jonathan die (nastily) we see almost all of Gere, dancing down the street dressed only in a loincloth in a scene that will be remembered as one of the great misjudgments in film history. The audience gaped. The women on the screen stared. With good reason. How did he get such a snug fit in an era before elasticized cotton? The Jockey loincloth was born.
In a flash David grows old, is pronounced a great king, and dies, telling Solomon not to listen to the prophets. In a flash it becomes clear that Beresford was trying to make a film about a man trying to measure up to God–a film that was presumably left on the cutting-room floor after this one was edited with the jawbone of an ass.
Wailing, Gnashing of Teeth
When not one but two films with the suffix IV come to town you know very well the boulevards of Hollywood are echoing with the dull sounds of dead horses being flogged.
The Jaws saga has been through such splashings and lashings I’d lost track of who was alive, who had been eaten and who was in 3-D, and the opening of The Revenge left me no wiser. The Brody Bunch, headed by Lorraine Gary, is now being plagued unto the third generation by yet another Great White: the original shark must have had as many relatives as the Brodies.
One of the middle Brody generation, a cop like his father, is devoured in time-honored fashion in Amity harbor. “It waited all this time and it came for him,” moans Grandma Brody. She is convinced that the monster will track them down one by one, and decides to flee Amity. Smart move, you say. Try Switzerland. But no: she moves to the Bahamas, where the locations shots are expensive, witty Michael Caine flies the local charter plane, and there are other Brodies to be eaten, notably Michael (Lance Guest), a marine biologist, and his wife and daughter. One hopes in vain for the Bermuda Triangle to put in an appearance, preferably played by Rick Moranis.
Amid a welter of family scenes sugary enough to make half a dozen rows of four-inch saw-edged teeth ache, the expected stalking, wailing and gnashing of teeth takes place. We see far too much of the shark; but then we also see far too much of the Brodies. Hard to tell which is more mechanical. Michael Caine swims effortlessly through the stagnant waters of the script, a helpless check for several hundred thousand dollars gripped tightly between his teeth.
Superman IV isn’t as bad as Jaws IV, largely because as Lex Luthor reappears time after time it becomes increasingly clear that Gene Hackman can do a darn sight more than flex in the middle and rear up out of a tank, baring his teeth.
He can chuckle engagingly, for example, and assemble the usual pleasantly nutty band of fellow-villains; in this instance a nephew named Lennie (Jon Cryer), whom he affectionately refers to as “the Dutch Elm Disease in my family tree,” and a Viking-looking super-foe with nuclear fingernails (Mark Pillow). Only a ghastly super-conspiracy of a monstrous plot and a mutated script can prevent this gang from amusing the whole of America.
And sure enough… After an hour of clashing plot elements, in which massive stars such as Mariel Hemingway and Sam Wanamaker and old friends like Perry White and Jimmy Olsen are tossed aside like tenpins, it becomes horribly apparent that someone is trying to make a Statement Movie in which our Viking is no less than a metaphor for the nuclear threat that hangs over all of us. Thrusting aside anything that threatens to become entertaining, Superman goes on a crusade to rid the world of nuclear missiles: he catches them as they are launched, tucks them in a large string bag and hurls them into the sun. “What about the 99 percent of missiles in underground silos?” we ask, but by now the story is being held hostage by a pair of mutant half-brother subplots in which the Daily Planet is taken over by a Rupert Murdoch clone (Wanamaker) whose daughter (Hemingway) develops a crush on Clark Kent.
Alas, the problem with the Superman series is that the good guy is as monotonous and inflexible as the bad fish in the Jaws series. Only James Bond can survive this number of sequels, and then only by feeding Roger Moore (speaking of monotonous and inflexible) to the sharks.
Although some pretty gruesome things happen to the characters in Brian De Palma flicks, even more horrifying things happen to people who go to see them. Your average member of the public has a choice in the matter. Your reviewer does not. He found himself watching Body Double. How had this happened? He thought he had led a clean life.
On the screen, an out-of work young horror movie actor stared through a telescope in disbelief as the beautiful young woman in the neighboring house danced half naked. In reality, though, she was actually someone else. So was her husband. Reality was being given a tough time. Meanwhile, in the auditorium, your reviewer was staring in equal disbelief. How do people come up with plots like this? He imagined an infinite number of monkeys and an infinite number of storyboards.
The actor, it transpired, suffered from claustrophobia and was unable to act. Act. Clear enough? He was a helpless observer of life. Your reviewer was equally powerless. Would he lose his job if he sprinted upstairs to the projection booth and hit Fast Forward? The actor was absolutely right about being unable to act. He was a product of the Star Trek School of Acting. Art was imitating Art. The reviewer was a helpless observer of idiots.
On screen, a lunatic in a mask Black-and-Deckered a mysterious woman to death with a giant electric drill. The reviewer, realising his situation, was paralyzed by an attack of claustrophobia. He was trapped in a dark cinema with a high-gloss slasher movie! Even worse, the audience had already worked out the identity of loony was, the identity of the woman and the gauge of the drill bit, and were hooting with laughter! The reviewer clawed desperately at his collar.
For your general public, the horror of the experience ended with the film. Not so for your reviewer. First, he discovered that Body Double was one of the nation’s top-grossing movies. He had thought it was only one of the most-grossing. Talk about money in the blood bank. Second, he had to write about the film under the immense pressure of a rapidly approaching deadline! His claustrophobia returned. He bit frantically at his nails. The deadline came closer and closer. There was no escape. Blood dripped onto the keyboard, and trickled along the space bar.
Bringing Up Baby
Perhaps seven months is too young to start going to movies, after all. “Don’t tell me you brought the baby?” asked the mother behind us, one of forty or so parents with kids, grandchildren or neighbors’ kids in the Nickelodeon for the re-release of Snow White. Well, why not? Zoe has to start somewhere, so why not with Disney?
Actually, she started during the USA Cinemas’ NFL Update-style welcome music. She wriggled. She tried to take her shoe off. She tried to see what was under the seat.
The film started. “Once upon a time…” read the illuminated letters in the storybook. “Once upon a time…” forty mums and dads said to their kids. “Arrrararraaa,” said Zoe, trying to stuff her pacifier in her mother’s mouth.
The film started. Doves flocked around Snow White–always a good sign. The Queen looked like Joan Crawford–always a bad one. The Huntsman looked like a fat James Brolin–an unfortunate one. Snow White, equipped with a tinny little vibrato voice, simpered and blushed at the Prince. Zoe, a girl of the 1980s, spotted a two-year-old boy across the aisle, jumped up and down and bellowed at him. People chuckled. That’s the nice thing about Saturday matinee audiences.
As the plot got under way she settled down and watched with complete equanimity as ghastly faces leered at Snow White fleeing through the midnight forest, and spiky fingers tore at her clothes. The principal story elements seemed lost on her, in fact: as the dwarves chorused their first “Heigh Ho!” she got down on the carpet and scuttled on hands and knees for the exit. I hauled her back by the seat of her shorts. She began a minute examination of the carpet for fragments of discarded popcorn.
Other kids followed her lead. Snow White was still wagging a finger at the dwarves and shaming them into bourgeois domesticity when the parade to the popcorn concession and the bathrooms began. Zoe took my glasses off, but even so I could see what a brilliant piece of animation this is, with an astounding orchestration of as many as thirty figures in each cel, combining in complex and visionary rhythms.
I could also see that we and a dozen other parents should have gone to see the Reader’s Digest half-hour version without the duller songs and lovey-dovey mincing. It was just too much. As the warty Queen leered over the windowsill at Snow White, the poisoned apple growing to fill half the screen in its grinning malevolence, we left.
Whale Flakes Against The Missiles
Star Trek IV is the perfect Californian film–a sci-fi action movie in which no one gets killed, someone gets in touch with his feelings and the whales are saved.
The story opens with our heroes where we left them at the end of Star Trek III–on the planet Vulcan. Kirk, Bones, Sulu, Chekov, the now-tubby Scottie and the still-lissom Uhura are fixing up the Klingon ship, an evil craft that, like the Roger Dean posters of 1971, is part machine and part vulture. Spock, we are unnecessarily reminded, is part human and part Vulcan. He is recovering his memory by playing Three-Handed Universal Trivial Pursuit with the planet’s computers, but his human self is still hidden deep within an inaccessible corner of his being. We can tell this because he talks like George Shultz.
Posing in their multicolored uniforms like a gang of Marvel Comics superheroes, the team decides to return to Earth to turn themselves in for crimes carried out in previous films (stealing the U.S.S. Enterprise, making Ricardo Montalban wear a very bad wig, and so on). Unbeknownst to them, though, a strange craft like a giant oil drum dribbling a volleyball is also heading for Earth, emitting weird sounds that paralyse the electrical systems of entire planets. (This, by the way, is not as fanciful as it sounds. Many heavy metal bands can already achieve this effect.)
Kirk et al arrive at Earth just as the oil drum has whipped the oceans into a fury and is causing constant rain over the entire planet, to the terror of the entire population (except the English, presumably, who would barely notice). The weird sounds, it transpires, are messages being sent to humpback whales–which, unfortunately, were killed off by the year 2000. Unless someone can fetch a whale to call the oildrum off, the Earth is doomed. Our heroes must pull the old slingshot-back-through-time-using-the-sun’s-gravity trick and bring a pair of whales back to the 23rd century. For the first time Kirk, who is used to playing God, must play Noah.
In its own stiff way Star Trek IV is very funny. Back in 1986, Chekov is dispatched to steal a few photons from a fission reactor, and wanders around asking cops where the nuclear wessels are docked. The Klingon ship, invisible because of its fiendish cloaking device, lands in Golden Gate Park. “Everybody remember where we parked,” snaps Kirk. On the streets of San Francisco Spock, who looks like a Hare Krishna devotee coming home from an aerobics class, fits right in. The comic editing is clean and clever; Leonard Nimoy’s direction is surprisingly adroit.
Beyond the crew, of course, things are a little thin. Catherine Hicks wins no credibility awards as a whale flake who is tough and resourceful one minute and dippy the next — but this is, after all, comic book stuff. We have come to see our old friends, not Shakespeare; and it’s noticeable that as soon as Catherine appears in a chic Federation uniform, back in the 23rd century, she fits right in.
The Road To Richard Gere
The latest homage movie is Ishtar, described by those in the studio’s pay as a tribute to The Road To Morocco — an unfortunate comparison, as it leads to the conclusion that not only was Bing Crosby a better singer than Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman combined, but Bob Hope was a better actor.
Dustin Hoffman plays Chuck a.k.a. Hawk, a failed songwriter of no fixed personality. Beatty plays his fellow writer/performer Lyle, a one-man Larry, Darryl and Darryl from Texas; the joke is that he–Warren Beatty! The very thought!–is unattractive to women. He wrinkles his brow in constant perplexity, and it suddenly occurs to us whose acting talent Richard Gere has been aspiring to imitate all these years. Tess Harper and Carol Kane appear early on but, sniffing disaster and humiliation, vanish before the plot, like an addled egg, has finally been hatched.
Our two crooners, it seems, have been dispatched by their agent to Morocco because their agent is an agent! (We are left to recognise this joke ourselves–a welcome relief when Elaine May’s other jokes are tracking us down in the darkness and belaboring us about the head and shoulders.) One is contacted by the CIA, the other by the rebel undergound, in the person of Isabelle Adjani, whom writer/director May tells to flash a breast to prove she is a woman rather than the average gay Arab. (So much for the benefits to women actors of working with a woman director.) Each is recruited to find a map that is the key to political stability or instability in the Middle East. Who will win? Who will care? What is on television?
May’s idea of directing is to choose the dullest fifty square yards of desert, park her actors in it, set the camera rolling while she has a cigarette and call “Cut!” when she’s finished. The stylized sparkle of the Road films is replaced by a bumbling silliness laid on like asphalt. May also co-wrote (with Paul Williams) the deliberately awful songs that the crooners sing deliberately badly, a form of humor that wears as well as a polythene suit.
A final word on racism. Of course the film insults and demeans Arabs. Virtually every film in which Arabs appear insults Arabs. But why the fuss over this particular release? It’s less noxious than Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I privately refer to as Bwana With Whip Narrows Eyes And Destroys Minorities And Inanimate Objects While Bimbo In Torn Dress Stumbles In His Wake (a clumsy title, I admit: Bwana With Whip would probably suffice). Raiders , though, was good clean fun, or so we are told; it was a homage to Hollywood’s Golden Days. The only thing more readily forgiven than the sins of one’s youth is the sins of the films of one’s youth.
Back to Back to Back
Back to the Future II is one of those linguistic conundrums that philosophers love to fool with in the bath. Doesn’t the notion of Twoness imply the notion of Backness? In that case, doesn’t it mean Back to Back to the Future? Back to back Backs, in other words? In which case, do two backs cancel each other out, like minuses, or amplify each other, like radiowaves? Or are they like running backs, in which case the first merely clears the way for the second?
No, clearly we have an ambiguity of Backness here. After all, did Back to the Future mean that Michael J. Fox started out by leaping into the distant future (past the future, as it were) and came back (i.e. back in time) to merely the near future? No. It meant that he went back to the past and went back (i.e. returned) to the present, which by then (1958) was the future. (These temporal pirouettes explain why in real life Fox appears to age for a while, then suddenly get younger again. It’s either that or hormone injections.)
In either case, Back to the Future II turns out to be a kind of shorthand: the complete title is in fact On to the Future, Back to the Present Past Which Is In Actual Fact A Different Present, Back (On) to the Future (Again), Back to the Present, Back to the Past (whew! quite a straightforward phrase, at last) and Finally A Foreshadowing of a Future Trip Back Back to a Paster Past. At this rate, Back to the Future III (already in production) promises to be one of the great elliptical statements of all time: when fall semester 1990 starts, freshmen logic students will find themselves being asked not “If A, therefore B?” but “Which of the three backs?” as if they were trying to defend against the wishbone.
Over the Top
I once watched a world arm-wrestling championship on television. Two trainee sumo wrestlers sat opposite each other with their elbows in salad bowls. The referee checked that their grip was legal, and neither was concealing a small ballistic missile in his palm. He blew his whistle. Bam! The match was over before the pea stopped rattling.
The longest heat in the tournament lasted 1.6 seconds, if I remember correctly. In Over the Top, Sylvester Stallone and the Golan-Globus twins attempt valiantly to make that 1.6 seconds plus a box of chocolate raisins seem like an evening on the town and $6 well spent. Their next project will be to help General Dynamics get the Pentagon to spend $576 on a teabag.
Stallone plays a trucker named Hawk. Hawk, Cobra, Rambo, Rocky: Stallone has given America names we can pronounce. First we see him with stubble. Then we see him clean-shaven. Is there no end to this man’s versatility?
Shanghai Surprise is the first — and with any luck the only — example of the film made solely because the two leads have just got married. (Actually, there was another: shooting was completed on a film in which Prince Andrew played a one-legged sea-captain and Sarah Ferguson a card-sharping nun on a quest for the fabulous treasure of the Rajah of Verandah, but production halted when every major European photo-magazine claimed it owned the finished product.)
It’s also one of the silliest films ever made, apparently written on the plane to Hong Kong, directed by one of the perennial middle-of-the-road no-hopers who don’t make the cut in Fame and hopelessly burdened by the presence of Madonna, who gives the appalling performance Rosanna Arquette was probably hoping for after the bubble-gum-head stole the limelight in Desperately Seeking Susan.
Which is not to say she’s dull, however. Just as the Eskimos have an entire vocabulary for different kinds of snow, Madonna has an entire wardrobe of pouts. In this one movie alone she displays the moue; the demi-moue; the retrousse; the sneer (all three varieties: sulky, sultry and sarcastic); the semi-sneer, both dexter and sinister; the Elvis Curl; the trout pout, the lout pout and the out-and-out snout pout. A crash-course with her own personal drama coach also added the disdainful sniff, but only when shooting was already underway.
I have no intention of taking the plot seriously enough to describe it, but its highlights (a word I use loosely) include Sean Penn both with and without stubble; three cases of day-glo soft porn neckties; a pseudo-policeman with porcelain paws; a scurrying Chinaman carrying what is either a 150-lb dressed lobster or an enormous Reebok; and the least-convincing faked sexual ecstasy ever captured on celluloid, Debbie Does Dallas notwithstanding.
Those of you unfortunate enough to see King Solomon’s Mines, in which the best performance was turned in by a carrot, will have a good idea of what to expect in Shanghai Surprise, where once again badly-acted racist slapstick is passed off with a laugh as Americans having fun abroad. But Shanghai Surprise does raise one pressing question for People people: when Sean Penn, actually a talented actor, sees this film, will he raise his sights and start punching cameramen? Enquiring minds want to know.
We must be in a dry spell when the only new film in town this week is Kickboxer. All the same, I was thinking of seeing this item as I haven’t seen a martial arts flick since American Ninja, until I mentioned it to the guys on my soccer team. Instantly I got a complete run-down on Van Damme’s earlier works, including an anatomically detailed criticism explaining that the man’s reputation is based solely on his ability to kick out sideways in both directions simultaneously, a kind of power split.
At this point I realised I was completely irrelevant. The people who may or may not see Kickboxer already know far more about the subject than I could tell them; contrariwise, anyone who might value my perspectives probably wouldn’t be interested in kickboxing anyway. A perfect mismatch. American culture in a power split.
It struck me this week that, unlike previous years (when applicants have lined up three abreast) 1988 has yet to send Burlington a Truly Abysmal Movie.
With this in mind, and confident that the pre-Christmas period could bring out Hollywood’s flambuoyant worst, I went to see Iron Eagle II — the sequel to a film I didn’t see but my trusty Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies Guide (1987) describes as “Not boring, just stupid.”
I.E.II may not be the year’s Truly Abysmal Movie, but it’ll do nicely until the real thing comes along. Lou Gossett Jr. returns from I.E.I., either because he’s determined to disprove rumors that he is really Gordon on Sesame Street, or because he found Sidney J. Furie latest script in the mail and failed to notice it was addressed to “Resident.”
In a plot that has been endlessly recycled since The Dirty Dozen he beats another bunch of no-hopers into shape to fly an impossible mission. The profound ideological mind-boggler here is that half of them are Russian. A small but nasty Middle Eastern nation has developed a nuclear Capability (a kind of missile), and the white hats and the red hats must team up to destroy its sandy silo before the sun-crazed Muslims do something really disastrous, like beating one of the big two at volleyball.
From the outset, there are credibility problems. Residents of Winooski living under the Air National Guard flight path will observe that the Russians fly not MiG-29’s but F-4 Phantoms, memorable as the world’s noisiest small aircraft. No wonder the Russian pilots speak English to each other: brain-damaged by the noise, they fail to realize they’re speaking a foreign language.
All the same, Gossett makes a speech that makes so little sense it must have been accidentally dropped in from a different movie (I.E. III, perhaps), everyone shapes up into a Detente Death Squad and the female Russian pilot falls for the American flier with the currently fashionable vacuous preppy good looks, the kind that go with the bumper sticker that reads “They Could Send Me To College, But They Couldn’t Make Me Think.”
But the final stomping, taken barrel-roll-for-barrel-roll from Star Wars, is just a hair unsatisfying. With Russia and the U.S. on the same side, where is the enemy that can frighten them? One longs for the good old threats. The mighty Libya. The terrifying Grenada. All we have left is exciting aircraft, the real heroes of this film. I.E.II‘s best moment is a belly-landing by a C-130. That must have hurt.
The Magic Toyshop
Leaving Chittenden County often makes me feel as if I’m re-entering the real world. Towns and cities elsewhere in Vermont seem to have more substance, more history, more identity, more weather–I mention the last because when I drove to Montpelier last week to preview The Magic Toyshop it snowed, of course–and to be less prone to fads, less vulnerable to realtors, less superficially cosmopolitan.
This impression was echoed in the world of cinema when it was clear within the first five minutes of The Magic Toyshop that this was a film with an emotional complexity very rarely seen in the kinetic shoot-em-ups we see in our nicely-carpeted commercial cinemas with the corporate logos on the soda cups. (Of course, the same could be said of most films at the Savoy. The Vermont Council on the Arts, celebrating its 25th anniversary, has been seeking nominations for organizations that have made outstanding contributions to the arts in Vermont; the Savoy has my vote and anyone else’s I can buy.)
The Magic Toyshop, based on Angela Carter’s novel, is a film about the usual stuff: imagination, destiny, family mythology, sex, power and adolescence. Just for starters, in the opening scene a sinister puppeteer, whose stage is headed by the title “Flower’s Marionette Microcosm” in florid Victorian circus-lettering, roughly commands his fiddler to start playing a waltz. The curtain opens. A disconcertingly lifelike full-size puppet bows and begins to dance. Dissolve to the bedroom of fifteen-year-old Melanie, who dances dreamily for a few moments, then stops and examines her naked adolescent body. What’s this? Are we seeing some kind of sorcery? Or is this a metaphor for the way in which our family molds our dreams (for the puppeteer, we later discover, is Melanie’s uncle Philip)? Or is Carter suggesting that reality here is created by illusion?
Almost at once, Melanie’s parents are killed in a plane crash–an accident eerily foreshadowed, as they say, when she tries on her mother’s wedding dress and gets blood on it from a cut. She, her younger brother Jonathan and sister Victoria are brutally flung, as the press kit says, into the sinister gloom of her mysterious uncle’s toyshop in a seedy London suburb. Uncle Philip, we discover, can make a block of wood grow leaves and delights in enacting on his stage uneasily erotic dramas from mythology. He is a puppeteer on the human scale in every sense: he manipulates not only the newly-arrived children but their older Irish cousins Margaret (who is dumb), Finn (a teenager who calls himself “the sorcerer’s apprentice”) and Francie. The ensuing drama is the Oedipal struggle by Finn and Melanie to overthrow Philip’s influence–to cut the strings, to shape their destinies by their own rather than someone else’s imagination.
I can’t say enough about this extraordinary film. The music, sets and lighting–usually thought of as theatrical entities–are outstanding, Caroline Milmoe is both naive and thoughtful as Melanie; the cast and direction (by David Wheatley) are faultless. Most striking of all, though, is the way in which when we’re least expecting it one or more of the toys will start moving, or the painting of the bull-terrier on the wall will turn and wink. It’s as if another world is observing our own, pressing in on us, constantly threatening to break through our eggshell boundaries.
At last, the film the public has been clamoring for: a film in which Christopher Lloyd gets spanked by Sandra Bernhard (wearing rubber gloves) to the sounds of steam locomotives. A film in which Theresa Russell looks plump and matronly. A film that is part Harold Pinter, part Sam Shepard and part Glenn Miller.
We’re talking serious ambiguity here. Multiguity, even. A man appears at a bridge. Or is he a mannequin? Is he Theresa’s long-lost son, torn from her teenage arms lo these 20 years ago? Or merely a projection of her unconscious, which desperately needs to feel adult so she can kick the bejasus out of her husband Lloyd, who wants nothing more from marriage than his multi-level model train layout? Or even more merely, to quote the television in Theresa’s living room (which may be giving us a running commentary on the action or may actually be causing it), a projection of a parallel universe? In a parallel theater, Rambo, puzzled, waits for a few monosyllables to give him a clue.
The clue is that this is the work of one Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell To Earth), a director never satisfied with one line of narrative when skilful fragmentation editing can make it seem like eight. It’s also the work of screenwriter Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective, Pennies From Heaven), though it must be said that the cumulative effect of having these two Brits in charge is that neither notices that Russell and Lloyd put on hysterically erratic regional accents that from scene to scene follow the entire geography of a Glenn Miller tour, from Chattanooga to Kalamazoo to Pennsylvania 65000.
Track 29 is not deep, but it’s never dull, and is highly recommended for people who like endings that could mean any of four different things. Above all, it’s that long-awaited amalgamation of Diary of a Mad Housewife and Closely Observed Trains: the story of a woman driven loony by a model railway evangelist.
When the Mallett’s Bay Ballroom was in its prime, Colchester was Burlington’s lakeside resort rather than one of its bedroom communities. In one weird way that status has returned; for now that the drive-ins in South Burlington and Winooski have closed, those of us who like to see our films on a seriously big screen while nibbling on hot dogs, mosquitoes and our honey’s shoulder must drive out to Colchester again, to either the Mallett’s Bay or the Sunset Drive-In.
Purely in the interests of keeping this column’s readers informed, I first set off to the Malletts Bay to see Wanda Whips Wall Street–which, despite its title, included neither stocks nor bondage but rather a tame tale of corporate shenannigans by Wanda Brandt, Executive Co-ordinator of Human Services at Tyler Corp. She and her secretary plot to take over Tyler by rendering its key executives various human services in return for parcels of stock. As usual in soft-core flicks, the men were all dopes and the narrative had a bizarre schizophrenia: for considerable stretches it looked like any ordinary bad film (enlivened only by Ms. Samantha Fox, who has a fascinating nose and a wonderful chuckle); then in a blink of a set-change entirely plot-gratuitous sex scenes burst, as it were, on the screen and everyone engaged in acts of remarkable phallocentrism and even more remarkable lack of imagination.
Nevertheless, any connoisseur will tell you that a drive-in is more notable the older its concessions-ads are; and in this respect the Mallett’s Bay takes the biscuit. “Here’s a new taste treat,” gushed the voice. “The corn dog.” They even seem to predate the fine skill of advertising copywriting. “Potato chips are extra good. Have some.” And then, as we see a fairly anonymous soft-drink cup being filled from an anonymous dispenser, the single word: “Coke.”
The concessions were the main attraction at the Sunset, though something must also be said for any theater where you can park in one spot and see three movies simultaneously. Of course, this doesn’t make for very professional reviewing standards, especially as to keep up with the sound tracks I had to dash around the AM dial (discovering in the process that Weekend at Bernie’s is immeasurably funnier if narrated by Phil Rizzuto as if it were a Yankees vs Twins game). All I can tell you is that Karate Kid III has tested a Young Einsteinian concept–to wit, that the further backwards in time a film goes, the further your money stretches–and appears almost identical to the first of the trilogy. (Though this may also simply demonstrate that if a hundred monkeys were given typewriters in a hundred parallel universes, the same films would always turn up at the drive-ins.)
And of the featured flick Another Chance, enjoying its Burlington premiere at the Sunset, I only wish to point out that one of its lead actresses is called Vanessa Angel, the credits thank not one but two White German Shepherd training organizations and the money was largely arranged by “Womanizers Anonymous Productions.” Nuff said.
Nimbus III, the Planet of Galactic Peace. A bald, toothless man, or possibly a tortoise recently ejected from its shell, pokes around on the scabby desert. Sinister music. Out of the smoke canisters comes…Leo Buscaglia! He lovingly embraces the tortoise, and, in the twinkling of a species, turns him into a guerrilla! This is troubling stuff. Who are the guys in the white space helmets? If we can’t trust Leo, whom can we trust?
Moments and an emergency shore-leave recall by Star Fleet later, we’re on board the newly rebuilt Enterprise, whose electrics are in what might be called Max Headroom condition. Phew. Safer ground here. We can relax in the knowledge that Scotty will spend the whole film tinkering with the matter/anti-matter drive and reversing the polarity of his sonic screwdriver. Or is that Doctor Who? In any event, there is what the network news boys used to call a hostage crisis situation on Nimbus III, and our old space friends must rescue three species of ambassadors from Leo and the guerrilla tortoises.
But wait! Leo has some dirty Californian tricks up his sleeve. In the twinkling of a photon torpedo he has taken over the minds of all the crew except Kirk (too trusty), McCoy (too crusty), Scotty (too rusty) and Spock (the old Vulcan Mind Shield, presumably) by the extraordinarily underhand method of relieving them of their anxieties. Free of charge! No prescription drugs! This is getting disturbing and morally complex again.
In the twinkling of a transporter beam, all becomes clear. Leo, like Oral Roberts, has apparently been called by God. To find Him the Enterprise (pursued by an invisible Klingon warship) must boldly plunge into the center of the Galaxy, which is protected by an impenetrable force barrier apparently composed of cigarette smoke. Will they find Him? Or (as the feminists hope) Her? Or (as the Hindus hope) Them? Or (as the Buddhists hope) nothing at all?
The original television series was remarkable for its ability to leap Big Ideas in a single bound and fall flat on its face. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, I’m pleased to report, is much closer in spirit to this ambitious intellectual klutziness than the cerebral and frequently anticlimactic Next Generation series. (The original TV series, you may recall, used to run into God simulacra every seventh star-day, routinely phasering Them into eternity.) As always we end up taking the Enterprise out of orbit, Mr. Chekov, with fewer than one-tenth of our questions answered but with the Universe safe in the chuckling by-play between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy–and I think that’s how it should be.
Directed and partly written by William Shatner, who is a very funny man, Star Trek V is remarkably free of Industrial Light and Magic space-scapes and the E.S.T. soppiness of the Nimoy episodes, and for the first time in the film series we get the sense that at the heart of all this hokey space stuff is warmth, a lot of humor and (overtly male) friendship. At one point Spock, on a camping trip (of all things), creates a computer-generated marshmallow–only he calls it a marshmelon, not knowing anything about this camping stuff except what he remembers from the computer archives. Return of the Jedi was a computer-generated marshmallow. E.T. was a computer-generated marshmallow. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a computer-generated marshmelon.
What a wart on the face of cinema Brian DePalma is. A master of the art of slaughtering content and feeding it to technique (his motto: “Never a death without a close-up”) he has created yet another film whose characters and story have no chance against the twin barrels of his sense of humor and his sense of style. Scientists are divided as to which is the more toxic.
Fans of the Untouchables television series could undergo no greater pain than to watch this film. Stone-jawed Robert Stack has been replaced as Elliot Ness by callow Kevin Costner. Stack could frown simply by closing his mouth; Costner needs help from Sean Connery, who over the years has developed one of the great manly frowns of contemporary cinema. Connery, playing the last honest cop in Chicago, does his considerable best to camouflage the fact that this is a tale told by an idiot; his absurdly over-directed death unfortunately shows that the whole thing signifies nothing. As Al Capone, Robert De Niro does little other than hold press conferences. This is a director’s movie, and no one is allowed to forget it.
Especially the audience, who might otherwise be tempted to get involved in the epic story or the characters. People die by bullet and baseball bat, their blood filmed in such detail we can count the chromosomes. The script, ostensibly by David Mamet, consists of a string of banalities punctuated by people telling other people things they already know, plus a surprising amount of humor, mostly at the expense of the characters.
The Untouchables isn’t the worst film of the year, or even of the month; it’s just infuriating to see two excellent actors and one of the great American stories reduced to yet another adolescent exercise in the voyeurism of stylized violence.
Crushing. Into Rubble.
In a week of silly movies, Godzilla 1985 easily flattens its opposition, lumbering so far beyond the bounds of normal silliness that I nominate it without hesitation for that Mount Fuji of recognition for memorable awfulness in film, a Golden Turkey Award.
The film gets five points towards its award straight away by purporting to be a serious film about Big Issues. “When mankind falls into conflict with Nature,” the overdubbing actor says, desperately trying to talk English in short Japanese mouth-movements, “monsters are born.”
Sure enough, when the Russians start some atomic monkey business (what Maxwell Smart used to call “the old
raise-the-oceans’-temperature-and-destroy-Western-civilization ploy, eh?”), the Big G arises from the ocean bed and trudges once more towards Tokyo Bay, the Big Issue personified as Big Metaphor.
“He is a living nuclear weapon,” pronounces the wise old Japanese bio-scientist. “Destined to walk the earth forever. Indestructible. A victim of the nuclear age.”
Suddenly, in a staggering, almost Godzillan leap across cultures, the monster changes from an atomic Ahasuerus (a wet Wandering Jew, as it were) to a saurian Christ-figure.
“That strangely innocent and tragic monster,” Raymond Burr calls him in an epilogue that unfortunately had the audience rolling in the aisles as the poor lizard fried before our eyes. If the new hi-tech Godzilla hadn’t been ready by the shooting date, in fact, the Japanese could just have painted scales on Burr, who with his gargantuan bulk and the leathery bags under his eyes is looking more and more like the Big G each year. He even talks like Godzilla, crushing innocent sentences into syntactical rubble.
“He’s looking for something. Searching. If only we could figure out what it is. Before it’s too late.”
If they never do figure out what it is, that’s partly because everything Burr says is irrelevant–for the simple if startling reason that he’s in a different movie. The American segments were shot later and grafted on, like some monstrosity of zoological engineering–a snow leopard with the feet of a duck, perhaps. The Americans and the Japanese in the cast never appear in the same frame, and the Yanks spend most of their time standing in a phalanx headed ponderously by Burr, staring with grave concern (or possibly severe hemorrhoids) at a video screen on which G is treading Toyotas and Nissans like grapes.
Even more amusingly, the Japanese Prime Ministerlooks exactly like Leo G. Carroll. But the biscuit is taken by the heroine, whose name, given the westernism of the production, is probably Debbie. Like all Godzilla heroines she is constantly sent sprawling by tiny crumbs of rubble and lies there squealing to be rescued as the monster’s refrigerator-sized toenails descend towards her. But her iconic perfection is that she while is supposed to be a brilliant computer programmer and the top student of our wise old scientist, she nevertheless kneels to serve the young Japanese hero his tea when he visits their lab.
Oh perfect mutation of the ancient and modern. Oh Godzilla, you tragic and strangely Japanese monster.
Russian for Sixties
Understated, slow to unfold, yes–but what a fascinating film Little Vera is, and not just because, rah, rah, the Iron Curtain has gone up and this film has stepped boldly on to the international stage.
A list a the dramatis personae makes it sound gloomy: in a provincial industrial city-port, the irrepressible 18-year-old, her hair tinted like Tina Turner’s, in her last summer before going off to college to train as a telephone operator; her alcoholic truck-driver father (“Remember when you were little,” he slurs to her in a devastating reversal, “you used to put me to bed ?”) who calls her slut and whore; her thick-bodied mother who has learned that it is best never to know what is going on, especially if it’s happening right under her own nose (a trait the Chinese are now being schooled in, a compulsory core curriculum of totalitarianism); the pompous failure of a hypocritical brother whose own marriage has run aground off in distant Moscow but who lectures Vera and prescribes anti-depressants, the word being the same in Russian, self-deception and dependency being the same the world over.
Bit by bit it all starts crying out to be noticed, this story so reminiscent of the West twenty years ago (“She’s leaving home. Bye-bye.”) yet with resonances that build into an insistent background growl. From one perspective, shot after purely incidental shot of the diesel shunting outside their apartment, lard-thighed women bathing in the river off broken concrete blocks, attest to the failure of the Stalinist industrial miracle. From another, it’s a woman’s perspective on the Gorbachev Eighties (Russian for the Sixties), and Vera’s hair, though still tinted, loses its buoyancy and lustre as the film goes on. From another, we see a remarkable archetypical battle as Vera’s arrogant slovenly fiance threatens to take over the family’s apartment, displacing the father as the potent male. From a historical perspective we can’t help reading an allegory of postwar Russia, a story of deliberate blindness, hard work, hopelessness and impotence: the only time we see Vera and her father embrace they are sheltering from the rain under the rusting hulk of a World War II submarine.
How is all this encompassed? How is it in any way entertaining, even consistently funny, in a quiet, complex way? Mostly through Natalya Negoda’s good humor and energy, her infectious (if obviously misguided) passion. But also by exactly what they teach you not to do in editing school: in a remarkable number of shots, the camera has a habit of wandering off its subject like a student strolling around thoughtfully with his hands in his pockets, just becoming aware of the world though not knowing what to make of it, peering disrespectfully out of windows while someone is talking, taking in whole rooms and landscapes rather than being hauled off after the plot by the scruff of his neck, then cutting off to another scene just when you’re least expecting it.
After Greed, What?
Hunk is the first post-Reagan movie. It’s the first movie I’ve seen this decade in which a teenager gives up the chance of money, fame, success with women and a great body in favor of his conscience and — one hesitates even to use the phrase nowadays — his immortal soul.
Though none of the cast is worth mentioning, the lighting is poor, it was edited with a roto-tiller, its one-liners were written by a committee of stoned sophomores on a long bus trip and even the beach on which the yuppies disport themselves has the color and consistency of finely-ground gravel, Hunk is interesting simply in that someone should have thought to make it, and should have assumed that other someones might enjoy it.
It’s a morality tale of narcissism and greed. A computer nerd renting a cabin on a yuppie beach sells his soul to the Devil (who is represented in very Eighties fashion by a kind of semi-autonomous entrepreneur) to be (for a trial period) Hunk Golden, the man of his own dreams, who comes equipped with pectorals to die for and self-cleaning cavity-proof dentition. He is a hit on the beach, of course, but rapidly discovers that yuppies go to hell when they die, and his fate is to become the George Peppard of the Devil’s A-Team, spreading evil and destruction throughout the centuries.
Someone involved in this project has intuited that while beefcake is old, hunkdom is an Eighties invention. The desire to accumulate muscle is rightly portrayed as a form of greed, an offspring of like-minded desires to acquire BMW convertibles, designer jams and members of the opposite sex. Johnny Weissmuller was beefcake; the hunk calendar models of this decade don’t rescue pygmies from crocodiles, though; they apply the right aftershave, grin briefly at themselves in a mirror and dash off with the Wall Street Journal in hand.
It’s no coincidence that Hunk includes an acceptable parody of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. (Americans will be relieved to hear, by the way, that Robin Leach’s accent grates as vilely on British ears as it does on theirs.) After all, Hunk is Leach’s story: a tale of a nameless little no-account who by selling his soul to television gets to disport among the greedy.
Back at the Greed
After all my pronouncements about the arrival of the post-Reagan movie, no film could be less current than The Secret of My Success, a 1950s film with a deafening 1980s soundtrack, a film so dedicated to the 1981 dreams of the new Reagan cabinet I expected to see a cameo by David Stockman as the Voice of God.
In yet another witless script by Jack Epps, Jr., Hollywood’s answer to the organ-grinder’s monkey, Michael J. Fox is asked to embody both the young, ambitious M.B.A. and the farm boy from Kansas alone in the big city, arguing with all the passion of youth that the answer to economic stagnation (and the threat of a hostile takeover) is to expand boldly in the Midwest. People actually listen to him because (a) naive ambition was big in 1981 and (b) when his uncle (the company president) gives him a job in the mail room, he carries out enough industrial espionage by reading inter-office memos that he knows more about the company than the execs do.
As the love interest in the executive suite, athletic, spunky Helen Slater is the victim of what must have felt like a nightmare of miscasting: she starts out like a cut-rate Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound and, under MJF’s influence, dwindles into a cut-rate Kristi McNichol in a $2,000 prom dress. Even more painful, the film’s attitudes towards women are utterly faithful to the Dale Carnegie Fifties: intelligence confuses a woman; success with women is mostly a question of salesmanship; all women associated with business are either subordinates, angels to be adored, or the boss’ wife (Margaret Whitton as a cut-rate Bette Midler), a frustrated frump who represents the quick but dangerous road to the top.
The only actor to emerge with any credit is Fred Gwynne, who plays the would-be hostile take-overer very effectively by saying as little as possible and looking like a Munster. He has sailed through the decades unchanged and unchanging. The film doesn’t deserve him: it should be towed out to sea and sunk by naval gunfire.
This Is What the Eighties Were Like On Film
Die Hard will appeal to Bruce Willis fans and hardcore followers of the bonehead action movie genre. Anyone else may be mildly thrilled, but is more likely to be distracted by the preposterometer, which starts ringing quietly as the film opens and gets steadily louder as the preposterousnesses gather, like hippos at a waterhole, until the last few seconds, when in a deafening crescendo of preposterosity, the meter falls off the wall.
The plot is the standard lone-cop-against-twelve-psycho-terrorists-in-a-very-tall-building scenario, with all the requisite machine guns and explosives and falls from a great height. Various journalists, F.B.I. men and police muddy the waters and are killed or punched in the nose, as appropriate; this is a story of the indestructible spirit of the little man, or at least the little man with an assortment of big weapons.
Bruce Willis has the build and pugnacity of an action hero (and the right height for the little man) and he has shed the habit of smirking at the camera, but his ability to engage our feelings is limited by the fact that he can’t actually register fear or panic, just a kind of bemused alarm. Alexander Godunov, who should know better, plays the psycho villain who returns from the dead. Bonnie Bedelia, who should know much better, plays the little woman, tough but not so tough that she can do without her man.
Die Hard hits all the right buttons to be a very successful film (so ethnocentric, for example, it stops a hair short of being openly racist) and theorists of popular culture will argue that it must therefore affirm something vital for the filmgoing public. As it makes some nice points about the way in which large security organizations carry the seeds of their own destruction, I’d like to believe it’s affirming the value of human life. Unfortunately, what it’s mostly affirming is the value of being able to leap off a tall building, smash through a plate-glass window and shoot someone smack between the eyes.
Now that Cambridge, Mass., has passed a smoking ban and shown the world what civic conscience can do, I propose Burlington follows suit. What I have in mind is a Worthless Movie Ordinance.
To be specific, the ban would encompass films in which:
(a) Sylvester Stallone plays someone with a nickname of one or two syllables;
(b) Roger Moore smirks at a girl one-third his age;
(c) a car door opens and a shoe steps out onto the asphalt;
(d) the soundtrack includes the sound of a heart beating;
(e) anyone shouts “Freeze!”
(f) a cop and his new partner have to prove themselves to each other;
(g) the plot is resolved by a gunfight.
Lethal Weapon is no worse than any number of other worthless movies in which a cop with personality problems and his family-man partner track down and shoot evil drug-runners in the hot and dirty city of Los Angeles. Mel Gibson twitches and acts suitably loony, Danny Glover has some nice moments with his family before becoming a homicidal fanatic, men on foot chase down cars and shoot targets hundreds of yards away.
It’s kinetic and may be a certain kind of fun, but it certainly isn’t innocent fun. This kind of drivel perpetuates the unquestioned assumptions that guns are valuable, that violence works against violence and that there is humor in killing. With the television advertising it’s been getting, Lethal Weapon probably represents yet another $10-$15 million spent on unimaginative, socially valueless twaddle. Don’t tell me films are just entertainment. Don’t tell me the money would have been misspent anyway, given the hands it was in.
World A 2, World B 1
Sooner or later every budding science-fiction writer turns out a story in which the protagonist moves from one reality into another without explanation, and just when the reader is convinced world A is real and anything else just a dream/memory/hallucination, the poor old protagonist puts his hand in his pocket and finds solid proof of world B. Then everyone goes Do-de-do-do like the Twilight Zone music and nothing adds up to anything more than a brief thrill.
Now all you need to know about Julia and Julia is that Kathleen Turner is the baffled protagonist, Sting is her aggressive, slightly demonic lover in World A and Gabriel Byrne is her husband, who she thought had been killed in a car crash but instead had turned up in World B. Both worlds coexist in Italy — or at least a series of sensory phenomena reminiscent of Italy — where one of the Julias is a travel agent. Whether she sells tickets to other dimensions is not made clear, although she does sell Sting a ticket to Dubrovnik, although he doesn’t ever go there, which leads us to wonder whether Dubrovnik is all in her mind, or in someone else’s mind, or in World C.
The main difference between Peggy Sue Got Married and Julia and Julia is that in Film A, Kathleen Turner got to enjoy her childhood as an adult, and in Film B she is miserable as an adult with a child. And as an adulterer. Which leads us to the final question: if you are married in one reality and you have a lover in another, are you being unfaithful? Or just having the best of both worlds?
A Pound of Fudge
I hope that in the remaining 50 weeks of the year I don’t have to sit through another ordeal like Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, a would-be epic almost two and a half hours in length. The man has the emotional complexity of a pound of fudge; this marathon is more like a ton of the stuff, dripping thicker and faster onto the film’s promising beginning until both characters and audience are suffocated like flies.
The first 35 minutes, though, are restrained and intriguing. In 1941 some 15,000 British subjects found themselves trapped in China by the invading Japanese. Jamie Graham (Christian Bale) and his family live in Shanghai, a thoroughly colonial city with Anglican churches and mock-Tudor suburban houses. As the boy flies his home-made model glider into an encampment of Japanese troops or the family’s chauffeur pushes through mobs of refugees to take the Grahams to a fancy-dress party, Jamie is thoroughly aware of the tension in the crowds and in the air.
As soon as the shooting starts, Spielberg steps beyond the world he knows best — that of a well-brought-up suburban boy — and at once he is out of his depth in the complex and often nasty realities of war. The bad signs crop up straight away: two American scavengers, who take Jamie in, talk like philosopher-bandits; more and more shots are back-lit or filled with the dusty light of The Color Purple, intended to convey mystery and/or unhappiness, and big-eyed Jamie starts to look like a portrait on black velvet. As the two men and a boy join an internment camp, minor characters flit in now and then, say unlikely things, and flit out. Like a giant spaceship, the whole story takes off, spinning slowly, and leaves the world as we know it.
The odd thing is that Spielberg almost certainly intended this disembodied effect. His belief seems to be that children see things in fascinating and (to us) distorted ways, and to replicate those visions is to show the world more clearly and truly. What he’s forgotten is that children are not sentimental — adults are sentimental about children. His Jamie is no more real than the children in Victorian morality stories. John Boorman’s Hope and Glory covered some of the same ground as Empire but in a far more convincing way because Boorman was actually there and knows what children see and remember–namely, a wonderfully entertaining assortment of incidents and details, whose meaning is barely, if at all, clear to them.
Spielberg’s story, by contrast, unrolls in a series of sweeping emotional generalizations, which at times have a certain grand sense of spectacle (at one point the camera rises about a ridge to show hundreds of coolies and internees working on an airstrip) but are by no means entertaining, largely because they don’t understand or even recognize something as important as character. Apart from Jamie and the scavanger Basie (John Malkovich), there are no characters among Empire ‘s cast of thousands, and even Jamie, whose love of flying and respect for the Japanese lead him to a tricky knot of loyalties, is too complex for Spielberg.
All he can manage is images. This also causes problems as he casts actors who look right rather than act well. Young Bale has a good, alert face, but is weak at extremes of emotion (which is where Spielberg wants him to be all the time). Nigel Havers, as a camp doctor, has a noble and intelligent face but absolutely nothing of the doctor about him. And this belief in emotion through images also most sorely stretches the film’s credibility: after four years of malnourishment in the camp, nobody has cracked or even patchy skin. (Viewers of Channel 38’s outstanding Tenko series, set in a Japanese internment camp for women, will spot this and a dozen other cases of visual fraud.)
Anyone with relatives who were in a Japanese camp will probably be outraged that Spielberg depicts this one as a kind of adventure playground. I was mostly depressed at yet another film maker’s apparent belief that the American public knows nothing, so they can successfully be sold anything. Then, as the second hour dragged on, and John Williams’ score made every third scene a holy event, and everyone started crying to show their feelings, and larger and larger bits made no sense, I started to feel almost hopeful. Surely nobody, no matter how big a sucker for a little boy lost, could possibly fall for this.
Cat, albino, breakdown
Love? Love? And adolescence at the same time? Hormones running around your body like millions of tiny ping-pong balls leaving you bouncing off the walls of your feelings, especially if you love a guy and get pregnant and he leaves you in the middle of a Chinese restaurant on Halloween. And after that the world becomes a small town where everyone thinks you’re, like, the village idiot, and who are they to talk anyway, they’re either 87-year old grannies singing “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” outside the Town Hall or someone’s aunts having barbecues even though the front lawns are all pebbles and the girl getting married is a certifiable albino and your cousin is the only one who might understand you because she’s really cuckoo. She roasted the cat.
And that’s really the whole film, that’s all she wrote, she being Beth Henley, the film being Nobody’s Fool, though it’s not so much a film as a very very very mild nervous breakdown with Rosanna Arquette being you, the one, you know, who FLASHBACK stormed out of the Chinese restaurant and tried to hang herself by the string attaching the party balloons to her neck and ended up just falling twenty feet into a dumpster, and isn’t life just like that anyway? So now BACK TO THE PRESENT she just drifts through life (with a cataleptic mother and a brother like Big Bill the Blimpyburger) looking slightly out of focus, which Rosanna Arquette does better than anyone.
Yes, Sir, that’s my review, that’s my view of adolescence, which in my humble case FLASHBACK was nothing like Rob Lowe and His Quarterback Chin or Ally Sheedy and Her Bushel of Cheerfulness, I really did secretly think I might be assembled slightly wrongly in the neuron department, and everyone else around me was ancient or thick or very very boring. And only love could calm it all down, but even then only if the object of desire also had a fair number of bats twittering in the belfry, as BACK TO THE PRESENT Eric Roberts does, the boy who at thirteen hit his best girl with a metal pipe.
But is it a good film? Will it play in South Burlington, 05403? Hey, what can I say? It’s like this review. It’s like adolescence. It may not make much sense, but it beats the heck out of being normal.
Recon Towards the University
Heartbreak Ridge, the film now being hastily disavowed by Marines and Clint Eastwood fans across the country, is the war film they said couldn’t be made. It’s the story of the bloody carnage on the war-torn island of Grenada, the war fought so that the world could be made safe for students who weren’t bright enough to get into a mainland medical school.
It opens quietly. Too quietly. Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway (Eastwood), a veteran of the bloody Heartbreak Ridge battle in Korea, is assigned to a Marine Recon platoon led by a prune of a major and a damp breadstick of a lieutenant, and ordered to make fighting men out of the usual assortment of drop-outs from the cast of Fame. Gunny tames them in the approved military fashion: he punches out the big ones, calls the little ones faggots, fires live ammunition at all of them and intellectually outmaneuvers them by wearing a different color T-shirt every day.
In his spare time he courts his ex-wife, who is well played by Marsha Mason (despite a certain desperation at the corners of her mouth that show she knows, like the National Security Council, that she’ll be lucky to make it out of this one alive). He has been reading women’s magazines all these lonely years to find out how to meaningfully communicate with a modern woman. She throws a frying pan at his head. This is the high point of the movie.
All too soon, though, the recon band, who by now have risen to be, say, the C-Team, are called into action and the chance to improve the Marines’ record–which after Korea and Vietnam, Gunny calculates, is 0-1-1. The Task Force steams towards unsuspecting Grenada, which is slightly smaller than the flight deck of the aircraft carrier.
“Recon towards the university,” snaps the prune. Just like Korea, eh? Gunny and the C-Team are momentarily pinned down by a withering hail of bullets from three Cuban soldiers, but the old Korea hand shoots all three in the back, wittily converts a bulldozer into a tank to run down a machine-gun nest (another four Cubans dead), and leads his men into the hell-hole they called the University.
Bam! He kicks open a door that could easily have sprained his ankle. The C-Team bursts in, greeted by cheering preppies. Stitch Jones single-handedly takes the girls’ dorm, where one student, terrified by the red menace surrounding her, is taking a shower. The prune jeeps up to where the brave rescued endangered Americans are repairing their make-up.
“We encountered some heavy resistance on the way up,” says Gunny, with the tight-jawed grittiness of one who has made the world safe for students to take showers. But victory is not won yet. The C-Team has to reconnoiter Grenada’s answer to Heartbreak Ridge, a pimple of a hillock that is home to several species of nasty sharp grass and a Cuban armored (well, cardboarded, actually) car! Only feats of astonishing bravery and the enemy’s reluctance to shoot at them win the day for the Marines, who fly home to an unusually good brass band and the kind of massed welcome usually reserved for the winners of a Class A baseball playoff semifinal.
“I guess we’re not 0-1-1 now,” Gunny pronounces with grim satisfaction. I should say not. Like any good team, the Marines have put the shame of Vietnam and the tragedy of Korea behind them, are now at .500 and can’t wait to invade a few more islands and get their record up to, say, 6-1-1–not enough to be regional champions, but at least good for a wild-card spot in World War III.
Fried Eggs from Outer Space
Fans of the Japanese monster movie genre will be delighted to learn that four new (on video) titles will soon be available on video: The X From Outer Space, Monster From A Prehistoric Planet , Godzilla Versus The Smog Monster and Yongary–Monster From The Deep . I haven’t had a chance to preview Yongary, but you can rest safe in the knowledge that this column brings probably the first American reviews of at least two of the other three doubtless-soon-to-be-classics.
By 1967 the Japanese were already making decent cameras, but cinematic special effects were for some reason excluded from the master plan of steady tramping advance (a phrase that springs naturally to mind after you’ve seen no fewer than five monsters approach hysterical Tokyo, undeterred by tanks, rockets, planes, etc.) towards scientific global domination.
The X From Outer Space is so far behind its time in special-effects sophistication that it makes Flash Gordon look like Star Wars. When a Mars mission accidentally brings a spore back to Earth, it hatches into a gigantic angry chicken with linebacker shoulders and a beak that burps photon torpedoes. Even more alarming, though, is Peggy Neal as the token Westerner/female/blonde among the jolly Japanese expedition crew: looking like the Julie Christie model of the Stepford Wives, she wins hands down the Dopiest Space Bimbo award, wresting it from Jane Fonda’s Barbarella with barely a struggle.
More alarming still is the plot, which constantly makes little hyperspatial leaps of logic and continuity, darting back to repeat itself here and there are if the story were happening in about nine parallel universes, all alien to our own. Most alarming of all, though, is the music: whenever the spaceship takes off, whether it be to battle the UFO that looks exactly like a piece of fried dough or to bring the cure that may save the Earth, a ludicrous lounge-lizard bossa nova jumps enthusiastically onto the sound track. It’s as if we’re under attack by a monster early-model Casio. Shriek.
But I recognize that much of the appeal of these monster flicks is their hokiness, like the early Star Trek episodes. By this standard The X (quite possible a pun on “The Eggs”) beats out Monster From A Prehistoric Planet, a relatively conventional saga of a stolen dinosaur chick (yes, this one also looks like an angry chicken, though by 1972 at least these things fly as well as Flash’s Hawkmen) and its avenging parents.
Again the rockets flash, the tanks get trampled, the planes are knuckled out of the sky. (Though as the planes in question are Starfighters, well over 130 of which in real life crashed without any help from monsters, the angry chickens could have just ignored them and left them to crash of their own volition.) Two questions, though: what is the prehistoric planet? And how come the South Sea Islanders (who were happily worshipping the monsters in true South Sea fashion) are so pleased to see the Japanese? In 1972 at least a couple of those islands were still inhabited by Japanese who refused to believe the war was over.
Star of these three flicks is Godzilla Vs The Smog Monster, a truly bizarre item, an allegory of nature’s fight against pollution that by my guess came out just about when Japanese were dying in droves from eating mercury-contaminated tuna.
Despite its title, it busts open every monster-movie convention. For a start, parts of it are–weirdly–animated, almost like an editorial cartoon of what we’re watching. Parts are very deliberate explanations of the science involved, as if the monster were being opposed by Mr. Wizard. Much of the non-action is a repetitious polemic against soot, sludge, slime and the whole bestiary of industrial pollution. The monster itself is actually mineral–thereby giving new meaning to the term “carbon-based life”–and exists in three stages: a killer tadpole, an angry mop head that spits toxic waste, and a flying creature that looks like Blinky from Pac-Man. Instead of crushed freeways and skyscrapers we’re given some pretty ghastly post-Hiroshima corpses, as the flying Pac-man hoses people below with sulphuric acid.
By now, of course, Godzilla has come to signify the patriotic forces of nature that protect Japan, much as he did in Godzilla 1985, and the usual reptilian sumo match takes place. But this 1971 film, with its hilarious depictions of Japanese hippies, is a far cry from The X, or the original 1956 Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Almost all it has in common is the fact that much of the plot completely ignores its own exposition, and the ending seems to take place twice. Twice.
Two To Rent
Cane Toads: An Unnatural History may never reach Burlington cinemas and The Lair of the White Worm has already left, but as films appear on video these days about twenty minutes after they leave the big screen I thought I’d tip you off about these two anyway.
Cane Toads is an Australian documentary about a toad introduced from Hawaii to Queensland in the 1930s to eradicate a grub eating the sugarcane crop. Completely ignoring the grub, the toads multiplied at an incredible rate and now infest half the civilized coastline of Australia.
While some see the amphibian as a menace, and drive wildly across the road to run them over, others keep them as pets, boil them to use their poison as a hallucinogen or propose erecting a toad statue in the way that one might commemorate the Hot Dog or Garlic Capital of the World.
Some of the cinematography is hilarious, hopping around at toad’s-eye level as in a bad sci-fi flick, but as in all great films it’s the people themselves who leave you amazed.
Ken Russell always leaves me amazed. White Worm is, of all things, a modern version of the classic Hammer horror films in their combination of humor, gore and the straight-faced recounting of preposterous stock stories (Dracula, the Mummy et al).
It tells, forked tongue in cheek, a gaspingly, jaw-droppingly preposterous modern fable of snake women, naked virgin human sacrifices, the Concorde and the E-Type Jaguar as phallic/serpent symbols, Scottish snake charmer music, a young man with extraordinary intelligence for a member of the aristocracy and the welcome reappearance of that inspired Monty Python invention, the holy hand grenade.