Good Morning, Vietnam

March 26, 2013

goodmorningvietnamThe 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.


Gardens of Stone

February 13, 2013

gardensofstoneFrancis Coppola has looked at the Vietnam War before. A decade ago, hot off the success of the Godfather films, he poured everything he had into Apocalypse Now, a broad, out-of-control movie that played up the insanity of Vietnam through a plot borrowed from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

It was all darkness: The war was a rudderless ship, and the military people in charge were psychopaths. (Remember “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”?)

Now Coppola has made another Vietnam movie, based on a novel by Nicholas Profitt, and the contrast is fascinating. Gardens of Stone, produced with the enthusiastic cooperation of the U.S. military, shows the home front in 1968, among some soldiers and friends at Arlington National Cemetery. This time the conflict isn’t the simple war-is-madness of Apocalypse Now. This is a much more mature, and much more ambivalent movie.

The central figure is Clell Hazard (James Caan, in a terrific comeback performance), a combat veteran who’s been put out to pasture as a member of the Old Guard. His main responsibility at Arlington is teaching soldiers how to bury other soldiers, but he burns to be doing something more useful.

A young gung-ho soldier (D.B. Sweeney) becomes Hazard’s surrogate son at Arlington. He wants to be an officer and go where the fighting is. Hazard’s response is basically the film’s standpoint: This war is different, probably a mistake; but a soldier must serve, and should be where he can do the most good. The movie tracks the year of the boy’s tutelage under Hazard and another Old Guard sergeant (James Earl Jones, in a scene-stealing role), until the kid is shipped off.

Some of the ambivalence of the time is reflected in Hazard’s relationship with a Washington Post reporter (Anjelica Huston) who thinks the war is “genocide” but who falls in love with the Army man anyway.

I’m not sure Coppola feels completely comfortable with the old-fashioned straightforwardness of this story, especially toward the end, but he bravely faces it head on. It’s a very entertaining film, with lots of inside military stuff. There’s an emphasis on the military as a family, and Hazard refers to the war as a “family business”—which reverberates intriguingly with the family business of Coppola’s Godfather.

And it’s a good-looking film, both in terms of the people onscreen and the physical production. Jordan Cronenweth’s photography is excellent as usual, and production designer Dean Tavoularis, who has worked with Coppola many times, gets a late-’60s look that is discreet but evocative. Hazard’s slightly dumpy apartment, for example, is an uncannily authentic space.

These details are memorable, and that’s proper. The big issues of the war won’t get settled here, and the film is at its best when it stays away from them (one of the only cheap-shot moments comes at the expense of a caricature peacenik, played by counterculture promoter Bill Graham). The movie succeeds because of its attention to the frailties of people, caught in a terrible situation.

First published in the Herald, May 1987

History has not remembered this movie, and to be honest, neither really have I. But it did, at least, feel rooted in something. Coppola’s son had died just before filming, and the film has a gravity that distinguishes it in the director’s work.


Off Limits

January 17, 2013

offlimitsNow that we’ve gotten the definitive films about Vietnam out of the way—movies that deal with the Vietnam War itself as a phenomenon, such as The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket—it’s time for the genre film to move in. Thus in Good Morning, Vietnam, we see the sketch comedy set in Saigon; in Off Limits, it’s the formula cop movie.

The cops are McGriff (Willem Dafoe) and Perkins (Gregory Hines); according to the formula, one is white, one is black. They’re patrolling the seediest streets of Saigon in 1968, as part of a special Army investigation unit, when they detect a pattern in a series of prostitute killings.

As it turns out, the suspect list includes some high-ranking officers in the American services, which means that McGriff and Perkins had best chill the investigation or risk losing their jobs, or worse. Naturally, they continue, trying to find both the killer and “some (bleeping) meaning” to concentrate on in the madness around them.

Director and co-screenwriter Christopher Crowe creates a hellish environment for his violent heroes, all dirty rooms and bloody corpses. The Americans have contempt for their South Vietnamese allies, and the contempt is reciprocal. The only oasis is a church where the cops meet a nun (Amanda Pays) who helps them on the trail of the killer.

In whodunit terms, Off Limits is a bit clumsy. You can see the real culprit coming from way down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and when the explanation does arrive, it renders the movie’s most memorable scene inexplicable.

That scene has the cops confronting their prime suspect, a crazed officer (Scott Glenn) who nearly tops Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now for scary insanity. Glenn takes them up in a helicopter and begins to heave Viet Cong out the door, as a prelude to his own reckless action. It’s a startling scene.

The movie has a few of them. Even when it seems to be falling apart, Off Limits does have some brutal power, and it’s gritty enough to make you want to take a shower after watching it.

What it lacks is chemistry. Dafoe, who was so memorable as the Christ-like sergeant in Platoon, has a withdrawn, pinched quality, and it doesn’t mesh with Hines’ more open style. Fred Ward is just right as their superior, who can’t believe these guys are expending this much energy on a case involving murdered prostitutes, a case that nobody cares about anyway. He can’t see that’s exactly why they’re doing it.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

The generic title didn’t help, either. And by the way: Amanda Pays—least likely movie nun ever? Still, the whole thing sounds just intriguing enough to take another look sometime.


Red Dawn

November 16, 2012

Red Dawn is a trashy, silly movie that seeks to whip up a little bloodlust in all of us. It proposes that the Soviet Union has invaded the United States, and concentrates on the efforts of a small group of renegades in the Colorado mountains to overthrow the invaders.

The group consists of a bunch of teenagers who fled to the hills the morning of the attack. Their hometown of Calumet becomes a village controlled by the Russkies, where insurgents are rounded up in the local drive-in movie theater and “re-educated.” From their mountain command post, the teens develop guerrilla skills and strike back.

This sounds like nutty stuff, and it is, but the first few minutes of the film are promising. We see the high-schoolers going to classes, everything normal, except maybe for the sound of distant planes. Then we casually notice that some paratroopers have landed, and then—suddenly—it’s on, folks, World War III, the big one.

It’s an exciting sequence, with battle action aplenty as the kids jump in a pickup truck and speed away. The movie quickly degenerates into a collection of different methods of blowing up those Commie rats, with not much time out for the felicities of characterization.

Red Dawn is the work of John Milius, a renegade figure in Hollywood. He’s a film-student pal of many of the young directors (he co-wrote Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), and he showed some interesting directorial moves in his debut film, The Wind and the Lion. (He showed little of anything, though, in his most recent movie, Conan the Barbarian.)

Milius is notorious for his conservative politics, his reverence for guns, and his predilection for hard action. All of these concerns are well served in Red Dawn, almost to the point of hysteria.

The Milius philosophy may be presented most clearly in the moment when the guerillas decide to execute one of their own guys (he betrayed their location). Faced with the prospect of shooting down a former comrade in cold blood, someone points out that if they do this, “What’s the difference between us and them?” The hero turns a beady eye to this. “Because,” he says, cocking the gun and aiming it, “we live here.”

Milius serves notice every now and then that he’s not unaware of the ambiguities of this sort of statement, but still the movie works best as a rave-up revenge piece.

The most recognizable of the guerillas are Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell, who seem to have some sort of tandem acting agreement, since they were together in The Outsiders and Grandview, U.S.A., too. The rest of the Wolverines—they take their name from the high-school sports mascot—consist of stock types from war movies, although there are a couple of pleasantly hard-nosed girls (Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey), given to the Wolverines for protection by their uncle (Ben Johnson).

By the way, Red Dawn is the first film released with the new PG-13 rating, which suggests more stringent parental watchfulness over their sub-teen children. The new rating went into effect after the hue and cry over the comic-strip violence in Indiana Jones and Gremlins. Unfortunately for the huers and criers, the system seems to be backfiring already: Red Dawn might previously have gotten an R rating for its violence, but now it fits right into the PG-13 category—after all, it’s got no sex or foul language in it. And so the war goes on.

First published in the Herald, August 13, 1984

I forgot about the PG-13 milestone. Nice to see that the system was already completely flawed. This movie looks pretty accomplished next to the remake, which opens a few days from when I type this.


Uncommon Valor

October 16, 2012

Uncommon Valor joins the list of movies that work primarily on formula rather than inspiration. This time, it’s the impossible-military-mission routine, updated from countless World War II escape or spy movies, and set in the rice paddies of Laos.

Gene Hackman plays an Army colonel whose son is still listed as missing in action 10 years after American soldiers came home from Vietnam. When he identifies a prison camp in Laos that has some Americans in it, he takes his evidence to his son’s old Army buddies, and recruits them for a wholly unauthorized mission to storm the camp and retrieve the prisoners.

Actually, the mission is authorized by the money put up by an oil tycoon (Robert Stack) who also has a son missing. Once Hackman gathers his men together, he puts them through the paces in a mock battlefield constructed with Stack’s money. Next destination: Southeast Asia.

With this kind of movie—think of The Dirty Dozen—you need strong personalities among the fighting men. The group dynamic is the element that really carries the movie, and the challenge is to work with stereotypes and make them something more.

The men of the fighting unit in Uncommon Valor never become anything more than cardboard cutouts. At some point in the production, it must have been decreed that the emphasis would be more on action than character.

So, you get to see a lot of things blow up in this movie. You even get to see some things blow up twice, since the men demolish their phony camp first, and then repeat the job—with a few last-minute variations—on the real thing.

All that noise and fire seemed to satisfy the preview audience that watched the film, but it doesn’t leave you with much to remember, or a reason to care about whether the mission is successful or not.

The lack of depth in the characterizations is not really the fault of the actors. In fact, they’re a pretty good lot. Fred Ward is suitably hard and tough as the claustrophobic master of stealth; Reb Brown gives a funny slant to his surfer who just loves to make bombs go off; and heavyweight boxer Randall “Tex” Cobb does just fine as the slightly loony, mountain-size biker.

They’re simply not given enough to work with. If somebody told me that a half-hour had been cut out of this film before its release, I’d believe it; Uncommon Valor has that kind of by-the-numbers approach to a certain formula.

Ted Kotcheff directed it; he was probably chosen on the strength of having guided Sylvester Stallone through the non-stop jungle hunt in First Blood. Here, as with that movie, Kotcheff seems to know how to push all the right buttons to get the right effects, and that’s not a bad thing in itself. But you don’t get the impression that he ever wonders why he’s pushing the buttons. That makes Uncommon Valor resolutely common.

First published in the Herald, December 1983

Not much of a review, but the movie was an indication of the subgenre of return-to-Vietnam pictures that proved popular at the time. Patrick Swayze was also in there.


In Country

August 17, 2012

The central character of In Country is Samantha (played by Emily Lloyd), a restless teenager who’s bursting at the seams in her small Kentucky hometown. She lives with her uncle Emmett (Bruce Willis), a Vietnam vet who has withdrawn from society.

Emmett’s no wild-eyed crazy; he’s just “mentally alienated,” according to his saucy niece. In the course of the movie, she comes to understand a bit more about his memories when she finds letters from her own father, who was killed in Vietnam before she was even born.

This is the core of the story, but the film also ranges over Samantha’s strained relationship with her mother (Joan Allen), who lives in another part of the state, her ho-hum feelings about her boyfriend (Kevin Anderson), whose neck is slightly red, and her concern over her best friend, who may be pregnant.

There’s nothing wrong with the film being rangy, but director Norman Jewison isn’t capable of covering that much ground. He’s barely able to make the uncle-niece relationship convincing, and it should be the heart of the movie, as Emmett is the surrogate for Samantha’s lost father. But Jewison’s notion of how to make this compelling is to stage a family argument during a thunderstorm, with loud cracks punctuating the conversation.

In his previous film, Moonstruck, Jewison had a delightful screenplay and he served it adequately. Here, the script (based on a book by Bobbi Ann Mason) has real possibilities, and some wonderful characters; Emmett’s vet buddies, for instance, are refreshingly free from caricature, and a doctor who sometimes provides companionship for Emmett is a funny character (and well played by Judith Ivey). But Jewison doesn’t have enough time to give to these people, and they get lost.

The story’s raggedness comes together in the finale at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., that once-maligned black slab that has become such a potent emotional touchstone. The tear-jerking ending, undeniably effective, felt manipulative to me. The memorial is such a powerful symbol, but is it supposed to cure all the characters’ problems?

Bruce Willis sheds his slick “Moonlighting” persona for the image-changing role of Emmett, and he plays the haunted vet with admirable restraint. Still there’s very little character for him to play, and Willis isn’t yet actor enough to suggest the unspoken subtleties of such a man. Emily Lloyd, who made a smashing debut in the English film Wish You Were Here, is an amazing raw talent whose emotions riot over hers expressive face. Like Willis, she doesn’t have enough to build a character with, and the film stays on a superficial level, with a walloping gut-punch at the end.

First published in the Herald, September 29, 1989

Don’t get me wrong, I liked Willis in “Moonlighting.” This was stretching too hard to be a change of pace, so he ended up looking a little forced, but it was an early indication of his future willingness to take different kinds of roles in different kinds of projects. Emily Lloyd has had her share of life problems, apparently, a real shame for anybody with a memory of Wish You Were Here.


Iron Eagle

June 19, 2012

It would be tempting to rip into Iron Eagle for its crude manipulation, phony-baloney patriotism, and distasteful xenophobia. But the film itself saves you the trouble; it’s so bad on the level of plain narrative, it cancels itself out.

The situation is this (as anyone who has seen the innumerable TV ads in the past few weeks already knows): An American pilot is shot down in a Middle Eastern country. The U.S. government, its hands tied by protocol and red tape, can do nothing to save him. The flier’s son steals an F-16 and flies to rescue Dad with the help of a veteran pilot.

That’s it. Now, you’d think that such a streamlined plot would be easy to pull off—and as an action film, it might be good, cathartic, mindless fun.

Nope. Director Sidney J. Furie (who co-authored the script with Kevin Elders) pulls a thorough botch-up. Unbelievably, although the father’s capture occurs in the first minute, it takes Furie more than a hour of screen time to get his big rescue mission off the ground.

In the meantime, he presents the long, boring preparation for the mission. The son (Jason Gedrick) must prove himself time and again—first to the bullies who make fun of him for wanting to go to the Air Force Academy (there’s a big showdown at the local A&W), then to the ace pilot (Louis Gossett, Jr.) who’s going to help him with the mission.

There are many pearls of wisdom along the way. When Gedrick thinks his father may suffer through protracted custody like the hostages in Iran, a friend disagrees: “No, this is different—Mr. Peanut was in charge back then.”

As it turns out, however, the current president is just as unable to get Gedrick’s father out as Mr. Peanut was. Someone tells Gedrick sympathetically, “They got too many people to make decisions—takes too long.”

Maybe this guy should go live in the unnamed Middle Eastern country in which a bloodthirsty dictator (David Suchet) makes all the decisions, without consulting anybody. This dictator is, to borrow a phrase, flaky, and he does zany totalitarian antics, such as sentencing Gedrick’s father (Tim Thomerson) to hang in three days.

So Gedrick and Gossett go charging in, and “Gimme Some Lovin’” plays on the soundtrack as they blow dozens of extras away with a Hades bomb, which incinerates everything around.

It’s a mechanical movie that seeks to do for the Middle East what Rambo did for Vietnam. At least Rambo had some sense of forward motion; Iron Eagle is dead in the water until its final third.

Gossett doesn’t come off all that bad, because he’s a pro, although his character is forced to perform a switcheroo; first he’s dead, then he miraculously returns. This emphasizes the indestructibility of our guys, and makes certain the happy ending will be achieved without any true, bothersome sacrifice. It also answers the question: Just how shameless can this movie be?

First published in the Herald, January 1986

It took me a moment to remember why I used the construction, “to borrow a term, flaky,” but it had to be a Reaganism, and it was, in Ronald Reagan’s immortal characterization of Ghadafi with that term. (Reagan’s geopolitical genius resulted in Ghadafi falling from power 25 years later – score another one for the Gipper.) One might not have predicted a long career for Gedrick based on this performance, but in fact he’s done pretty well for himself. And Sidney J. Furie? He just keeps going.


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