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In 1974, the world was a rosy place for Polish émigré director Roman Polanski. He’d just made Chinatown, merely one of the best movies of the decade (and a box-office hit to boot), and every studio in Hollywood was eager to finance his next project. He decided to mount a comedy-adventure called Pirates.
Jump to 1986. Polanski is continuing his exile from America, begun with his flight from a rape charge in 1977. He’s made only two films since Chinatown—The Tenant and Tess.
But some things stay the same; after 12 years of intermittent work, Pirates has finally arrived. You might think that such a long-cherished project would take the form of an ambitious work. But Pirates is more like an extended lark.
It’s a lavish period piece, set in the heyday of Caribbean piracy, all about the efforts of Captain Red (Walter Matthau) to acquire a priceless golden throne, which currently rests in the cargo hold of a Spanish galleon. Captain Red and his dutiful French sidekick, Frog (Cris Campion), first seen floating mid-ocean on a raft, are picked up by the galleon and given sundry work. But not for long.
They soon incite their fellow sailors to mutiny, taking the ship’s nasty leader (Damien Thomas) and his beautiful fiancée (Charlotte Lewis) hostage, and leading them to an outrageous pirates’ island, where the area’s buccaneers hold their conventions and cut out a hostage tongue or two.
There are some difficulties in securing the throne, which make up the last half of the film. The yarn itself is basic stuff; the colorful characters, the hinted love between Frog and the fiancée, the triumph of bad over evil.
It is certainly a frequently funny movie, although it’s not a parody of the genre (as some early reports suggested).
Walter Matthau, a peculiar choice for a swashbuckler (the role was originally written for Jack Nicholson), is actually very good. Matthau’s Cockney accent, pegleg, and matted mass of hair and beard create a full-blown impersonation of the crafty pirate. Unfortunately, the supporting cast is largely dull.
The best supporting performance is given by a dead rat, which Red and Frog are sentenced to eat as punishment. This bizarre, quite uproarious episode is exactly what the film needs more of.
Physically, it’s a superb production; the elaborate reproduction of the galleon (designed by Pierre Guffroy) is one of the most gorgeous boats in any movie. But despite some great sequences, a weird sense of irrelevance sets in about halfway through the movie. The level of inspiration decreases, and it’s tough to figure out why Polanski would nurture this idea for 12 years.
In its structure, and in many of its episodes, Pirates is perfectly in sync with Polanski’s absurdist view of the world as a place where greed and ambition are equally meaningless. But in itself, that is not quite enough to validate this entry in the career of a great director.
First published in the Herald, July 1986
This review is more positive than I remember the movie. Even imagining Nicholson in the role, it’s hard to see the film actually succeeding at whatever the hell Polanski meant it to be (some kind of cousin to Fearless Vampire Killers?).
The hero of Good Morning, Vietnam, Armed Forces Radio disc jockey Adrian Cronauer, first sets down in the bustling metropolis of Saigon in 1965. He takes one look around the hot, dusty city and exclaims, “I feel like a fox in a chicken coop!”
The Vietnam “police action” is just about to escalate, and Cronauer is just about to fire the morale of the American troops, and exasperate his military superiors, with his manic on-the-air patter and his scorching musical selections. Mantovani and Lawrence Welk are out; James Brown is very, very in.
So Cronauer truly is a fox in a chicken coop. But that analogy also applies to the actor who plays Cronauer, Robin Williams. Williams, of course, is the hyperactive human comedy synthesizer, a guy who can take any combination of unrelated ideas and build a 15-minute routine around them.
Playing this free-form disc jockey gives Williams the long leash he has always craved in movies. And director Barry Levinson, who has encouraged spirited improvisation in his other films (especially Diner and Tin Men), allows Williams the showcase.
William’s ozone-level raps range from the ominous visual comparison of Ho Chi Minh and Colonel Sanders (“The same person? You be the judge!”) to an ear-splitting impression of Ethel Merman jamming Soviet radar, which might segue into a variation on a Roger Miller song: “Da Nang me, Da Nang me, they oughta take a rope and hang me….”
The on-air routines are brilliant, and often to the thematic point. But at some stage, Good Morning, Vietnam has to build a movie to support this material. Naturally enough, Levinson and screenwriter Mitch Markowitz (who based the script very loosely on the real Cronauer’s experiences) play off the comedy of the radio show with the country’s increasing sense of chaos and despair.
Cronauer’s friendships with a beautiful Vietnamese woman (Chintara Sukapatana) and her brother (Tung Thanh Tran) grow shaky as the city begins to rumble. After he sees a terrorist bomb destroy a popular hangout for soldiers, Cronauer’s efforts to get the story on the air are squelched by Army brass, who prefer to keep the news positive.
Back at the radio station, the ensemble work is excellent—Williams isn’t the whole show—with deft performances by Forest Whitaker, Richard Portnow, and Richard Edson. And Levinson shrewdly uses two humorless officers (Bruno Kirby and J.T. Walsh) as unbendable foils for Cronauer’s wildness.
While much of the movie, comedic and otherwise, is affecting, the center somehow keeps slipping away. The film is really a collection of sketches, without a powerful unifying idea; Cronauer’s habit of getting into skirmishes isn’t a strong enough narrative device to do justice to the subject matter. Good Morning, Vietnam is never as penetrating as it clearly intends to be.
First published in the Herald, December 1987
Even at the time, people were talking about how the movies had finally found a role that tapped the peculiar talent of Robin Williams; the curious thing is, how infrequently the movies found similar sorts of things in which he could really cut loose. Despite his unfettered presence, the film is not really very good.
Richie Valens was the other great rocker who went down in a plane crash with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper near Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959, “the day the music died.” The Buddy Holly story has already been well immortalized on film; now, with La Bamba, it is Valens’ turn.
Valens is hardly as familiar a figure as Holly, of course, and he notched only three hits and 17 birthdays before his death. But La Bamba provides ample evidence of why he is worth celebrating.
The film is the work of writer-director Luis Valdez, whose previous film experience includes the interestingly disastrous Zoot Suit. Valdez has made a carefully balanced movie. It’s a very traditional film biography, and unafraid of the clichés of the form. But it’s also an uninsistent description of the Hispanic experience, a topic Valdez explores without ever losing the solidly entertaining main thread of the film.
The crucial way Valdez does this is by making La Bamba the story of two brothers. Richie (Lou Diamond Phillips) is the nice good-humored boy who becomes a star; Bob (Esai Morales, of Bad Boys) is violently insecure, more volcanic and ill-adjusted. Valdez allows these two to represent twin sides of a single personality—Richie yearning to tap into the American success story, Bob retreating to Mexico to seek the wisdom of the old ways.
Planted throughout this stimulating conflict are the hallmarks of the movie biography: Richie’s mom (Rosana DeSoto) pays for a live performance at a small local hall; Richie is spotted by a talent agent (Joe Pantoliano) who suggests a name change from Valenzuela; lovestruck Richie writes “Donna,” a hit single, for his white high-school girlfriend. Along the way, Valdez beautifully re-creates the humid milieu of Richie’s youth in the California fruit-picking world.
Valdez makes up for the occasional syrupy patch with some exhilarating music. There’s a marvelous scene when Bob takes Richie to a Mexican bordello for a rite of passage; Richie becomes more interested in the house band as it performs an old Mexican folk song, “La Bamba.” His subsequent, sizzling rock ‘n’ roll reworking of that song embodies the movie’s theme: that traditional Mexican ways may be incorporated into new American forms, without denying either. It helps, of course, that Valens’ recording of “La Bamba” is one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs ever laid down.
His music is re-created here by the brilliant Los Lobos, who also appear as the bordello band. There are other clever cameos: Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats plays Eddie Cochran, and Marshall Crenshaw appears as Buddy Holly.
La Bamba was a bit hit at the opening night of the recent Seattle International Film Festival, and Columbia Pictures is clearly counting on the strong word-of-mouth the movie has already generated to carry it past the lack of stars or high concept. It should work, and La Bamba could be this summer’s little movie that goes all the way.
First published in the Herald, July 1987
Fun movie. In retrospect, I assume Luis Valdez’ approach here was to deliver something that wasn’t commonplace in mainstream American films—a straight-ahead portrait of a Hispanic community—by putting it into a very conventional container. Which worked very nicely. Neither Phillips nor Morales quite took off the way one might have thought, although they’re both hard-working actors, with a few eccentric detours along the way. I just watched Esai Morales in Atlas Shrugged Part II, and you want to talk about an actor flashing his professionalism under absurd circumstances, you got it right there.
If any American director owned the 1970s, it was Robert Altman. Even Woody Allen’s emerging movie work did not have a comparable impact. Altman charted the rudderless course of an anxious time with films that were by turns hip, revisionist, down-to-earth, and arty.
His prolific output peaked with Nashville in 1975, a film that seems more and more worthy of being put in a time capsule, so future generations can figure out what the decade was all about. By 1980, Altman seemed to run out of gas, and lately he’s been turning out adaptations of plays (Fool for Love most recently) that are often fascinating but also marginal. He’s withdrawn from the front lines.
Beyond Therapy continues the series of stage adaptations (Altman and Christopher Durang wrote the script, from Durang’s play). It is an ensemble farce that satirizes the practitioners of psychobabble and their patients. It is also a puzzling and unsatisfying film.
As it opens, Bruce (Jeff Goldblum) meets Prudence (Julie Hagerty) in a French restaurant. They have been brought together by a personals ad. Imagine Prudence’s surprise, then, when Bruce casually mentions his male lover, Bob.
As it happens, Bruce claims to be bisexual, but is looking for marriage with a woman. Naturally, this causes consternation not only to Prudence, but also to Bob (Christopher Guest), who shares an apartment with Bruce.
All of these people talk about their problems with two wacko therapists (Tom Conti and Glenda Jackson) who have adjoining offices. So do a bunch of peripheral characters.
It’s structured something like a classic French farce, but it’s overlaid with a patina of pure put-on. These people are not characters, they’re caricatures, and they behave in inexplicable and irritating ways. No level of sympathy is approached, and you can’t even admire the film on the level of stylization.
Only one scene begins to have life: when Bruce brings Prudence home to his apartment, where Bob is getting very peevish. The strained attempts at civility give the movie its only potent laughs. Christopher Guest, who used to do a similarly swishy character on “Saturday Night Lives,” is actually the only cast member who clicks with the material.
The movie still looks like an Altman film, with the restless visual movement that recalls his ’70s films. But he appears to take Beyond Therapy strictly as a hollow joke—even the setting is a gag; supposedly New York, it’s very obviously filmed in Paris—but comedy is at its best when the stakes are very serious. That’s something you’d think would be remembered by the director who invested the original film of M*A*S*H with so much blood and cruelty.
First published in the Herald, April 1987
Is this Altman’s worst movie? I vote yes, but I don’t want to sit through it again to confirm. He was indeed in the midst of his string of play adaptations, but “Tanner ’88″ was lurking just around the corner, and the return to first-rate moviemaking.
Finally. After weeks of controversy, most of it generated by people who hadn’t seen the movie, The Last Temptation of Christ has opened. People who like to think for themselves can now make up their own minds.
The controversy surrounding this tale of Christ has sparked picket lines and shouting matches. Church leader Donald Wildmon and Last Temptation director Martin Scorsese debated on “Nightline.” A band of fundamentalists offered Universal Pictures $10 million to buy the movie and destroy it. And protests at the house of Universal president Lew Wasserman took on an ugly anti-Semitic tone.
All of which brings to mind the line from Hannah and Her Sisters: “If Jesus came to Earth today and saw what was being done in his name, he would never stop throwing up.” So much fuss and nonsense over such an entirely well-intentioned enterprise.
The Last Temptation of Christ is a long-cherished project for Scorsese who, along with screenwriter Paul Schrader, has adapted the speculative novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. It is a thoughtful, serious film about the struggle between flesh and spirit, and emphasizes the human anguish and dimensions of Jesus (it does not, contrary to rumor, deny the notion of Jesus’ divinity).
The opening and closing sections of the film are the most intriguing. In the first reel, we find Jesus as a carpenter who hears voices and is disturbed by his Chosen status. The middle, more familiar section of the film shows the Jesus of the Gospels, accepting his role as Messiah, enduring the temptations in the desert, gathering his disciples, and performing miracles.
The final portion of the film is a fantasia during the crucifixion, as Satan leads Jesus on a tour of what his life might be if he chooses to live only as a man—complete with marriage, children, and a sexual life. There is no explicit precedent for this in the Gospels, but it’s a legitimate extension of the idea of temptation, and it actually heightens the concept of the sacrifice of Jesus; if there weren’t any temptation, it wouldn’t be a sacrifice.
The Last Temptation runs on for two hours and 40 minutes. It’s a stark-looking movie (Scorsese made the film on the amazingly small budget of $6.5 million, in Morocco) and Scorsese aims for none of the grandiose effects that we know and love from Cecil B. DeMille biblical pictures. The actors speak in everyday American accents, the dialogue itself is without the usual King James poetry.
Much of it is engrossing. The theological debate within the film becomes a bit murky and inarticulate at times; the film never seems to find the specific argument it wants to put forward, but perhaps that was the intention.
A lot of the debate is between Jesus, played by Willem Dafoe (the Christlike sergeant in Platoon) and Judas (played by Scorsese favorite Harvey Keitel). In this version, Jesus virtually orders Judas to betray him, and noting Judas’s anguish, says that “God gave me the easier job.”
Mary Magdalene is played with considerable sensuality by a tattooed Barbara Hershey; Andre Gregory is arresting as John the Baptist; Harry Dean Stanton does a touching cameo as Saul, later Paul; and David Bowie is a patrician Pontius Pilate.
Scorsese says he has been wanting to film this story for the better part of two decades, but it seems to me in many ways he’s been making it all along. There is tortured Christian allegory in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, and those films actually deal with faith and redemption in more alive, forceful terms than this new film. It isn’t Scorsese’s best movie, but The Last Temptation isn’t glib blasphemy, either.
First published in the Herald, August 1988
We certainly haven’t gotten any more enlightened since then; you can imagine what would happen to this movie is someone tried to make it now. I think I’d like it more today myself, but I haven’t watched it stem-to-stern in a while (saw the parts with Harry Dean Stanton a couple of years ago and was really stirred). The casting of Keitel is one of those strokes that at first seems puzzling, and eventually feels inspired.
But it would be too bad if geography were the only reason for seeing this film. It’s quite lovely in its own, unassuming right.
A Great Wall comes from director Peter Wang and producer Shirley Sun (who also collaborated on the script). The story is simple enough: A Chinese-American family decides they will finally make that long-promised trip back to the homeland, and stay with the relatives in Peking. The collision of cultures that follows forms the basis of the film’s low-key observational humor.
Contradictions abound. Leo (played by Wang himself), the father of the Chinese-American family, finds Peking so Westernized and skycrapered as to be almost unrecognizable as the city of his youth. But behind the steel buildings are customs and habits that he has forgotten about, which are distinctly Chinese.
Thus, Leo will surrender his yuppie jogging routine for a more intense program of silent—well, near-silent—calisthenics, as demonstrated by his brother-in-law. And his incorrigibly All-American son (Kelvin Han Yee) takes some tips on ping pong, in a game that recalls the Nixon-era China-America thaw, during which the simple game of ping pong seemed an important turning point.
Wang’s main concern, about the importance of cultural identity in a world that’s becoming increasingly homogenized, is all the better suggested because he refuses to beat his breast about any of this. The story unfolds in terms that are primarily humorous, but the culture shock he portrays doesn’t descend to the level of cute East-meets-West comparisons. It’s got subtle bite.
And Wang won’t go in for tired characterizations—the Chinese people are not all-knowing and wise, the Americans are not all vulgarians. Wang knows better than that.
It’s a splendidly structured script, and Wang himself is a relaxed and natural performer (as he previously proved in Ah Ying). As a director, he seems reluctant to assert himself, and the film rarely slips into really memorable working motion.
But there is a lot to like. Even if Wang had just achieved this single image, he would have gotten planet: the family playing touch football on the spine of the serpentine Great Wall. That scene is surprising and natural, bold and common, crude and elevated. That’s a heady mix, and difficult to capture.
First published in the Herald, May 1986
IMDb insists this movie is called The Great Wall Is a Great Wall, picking up on the classic Nixon line, even as it notes that A Great Wall is the “original title.” Whatever dude. A fairly nice film that did pretty well in Seattle, as did the aforementioned Ah Ying, directed by Allen Fong. Wang’s last credit dates from 1989.