No Mercy

December 10, 2012

nomercyNo Mercy is a derivative action movie that repeats geriatric clichés from almost every detective movie you’ve ever seen.

It begins with the renegade Chicago cop (Richard Gere) who follows a tip on his own, without his gruff-but-lovable chief’s permission. It proceeds to the death of his partner, in the line of duty. Naturally it follows that he must avenge his partner’s death, by looking for the icy blonde (Kim Basinger) with the tattoo on her shoulder.

So he goes to New Orleans, which prompts the fish-out-of-water stuff we loved so much in Witness. He’s actually offered a mint julep, eats crawfish, and walks down Bourbon Street, looking for clues. When he runs into the local police, they tell him—all together, now—to stay out of town, that they don’t need some smart guy from Chicago telling them how to do police work, etc. And somehow he finds the icy blonde.

At which point No Mercy reaches way back to Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and has the hero and heroine handcuffed to each other. This film seems designed to trash all the detective conventions.

It’s the work of scriptwriter James Carabatsos, who is also represented this month with the equally salty Heartbreak Ridge. Carabatsos seems to think that if he dresses his clichés in oddball language, no one will notice they’re clichés. Example: Gere walks into a restaurant full of expensive-looking women and remarks, “Most of these broads still got their price tags hangin’ from their noses.”

Directed Richard Pearce (Heartland) treats all of this as though it were good or something—and through sheer commitment he makes the opening 20 minutes or so fairly gripping. Eventually the script’s bozo contrivances take over, as when Gere and Basinger escape from under a dock teeming with bad guys, or when they drift into the bayou country, then improbably allow their canoe to drift away (after hanging on it it all night long).

Worst of all is the stagnant finale, which takes place in an old hotel and lasts a dull 20 to 25 minutes. It’s cramped, and Pearce can’t make the setting come alive.

Gere is barely adequate. He seems preoccupied with getting on to some other movie, perhaps one with more ambition. Basinger, having a busy year (9 ½ Weeks, Fool for Love), is also not all there. Together, in supposedly steamy love scenes, they only manage to muss each other up.

They both have the movie stolen from them by the villain, a pony-tailed snake who likes to carve people up with a gutting knife. He’s played by Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe (The Fourth Man), who easily outshines the protagonists. Under such circumstances, it’s not all that much to be proud of.

First published in the Herald, December 20, 1986

Dead, dead, dead—an absolute misfire. Interesting that Gere eventually did age into some good performances, including a fine turn in 2012′s Arbitrage.


Batman

July 30, 2012

Since last December, a coming-attractions trailer has provided some sights that often outclassed the movies that followed it. It was the preview for Batman, a new treatment of the great comic-book character (created 50 years ago by Bob Kane), and the trailer was full of tantalizing visions of a slick Batmobile, an incredible Bat-costume, and an outrageous look for Batman’s arch enemy, the Joker.

That the Joker is played by Jack Nicholson and Batman by Michael Keaton helped fuel the anticipation. So did the fact that the movie was directed by the gifted young director of Beetlejuice, Tim Burton. And the news that the budget had climbed to anywhere from $30 to $50 million suggested all the stops had been pulled.

So, how is it? Well…Batman is fun, offers an evening’s worth of thrills, and contains a few shots and moments that are quite flabbergasting. It is also not a very good movie. On some basic level, Batman doesn’t really know what it’s about, and from the first, it fails to find a satisfying groove.

One reassuring aspect becomes clear from the beginning: This Batman has nothing to do with the campy 1960s television series. Bruce Wayne, the millionaire, spends his free time wearing tights and a hard-shell bodysuit and scaling the skyscrapers of Gotham City in search of evildoers. He’s avenging the death of his parents, shot down in the street before his eyes when he was a child, and he’s serious about it.

In the film’s early scenes, a loopy criminal, Jack Napier (Nicholson), is cornered by Batman in a chemical plant. Falling into a vat of toxic material, he is transformed into the Joker, whose hideous face is matched by his hideous jokes (and yet, as he points out, “Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?”).

The Joker takes Gotham on a roller coaster of terror, but Batman is there to counter every move. What’s a criminal genius to do: “Can somebody tell me,” the Joker wonders, resplendent in his purple suit and green hair, “what kind of a world we live in where a guy dressed up as a bat gets all of my press?”

These battles are played off against the rather pallid romance of Bruce Wayne and Vickie Vale (Kim Basinger), a photographer who falls for the troubled millionaire.

Burton achieves some dazzling angles on Gotham City, a weird, overgrown metropolis, and he catches the menace in the dark clouds than glower over the church tower that serves as the setting for the final showdown of the adversaries.

A triumph of design, the film can’t seem to tell a story. It took 10 years for the project to pass through various scripts and directors before this version hit the screen, and no one found a coherent tale to tell. Scenes feel isolated, unconnected; a scene in which the Joker parties down in an art museum is weird and funny, but what does it have to do with anything else in the movie?

Burton cast Michael Keaton as Batman because he thought an everyman was needed (the theory: if Bruce Wayne were a superman to begin with, why would he dress up like a bat?). Keaton is not bad, but the conception of the role renders him nearly catatonic—an eccentric who simply doesn’t hold down a 9-to-5 job.

This leaves the field open for Nicholson, who is not about to miss this opportunity. Of course Nicholson attacks the role with demonic fury; he twists out the Joker’s punchlines with heroic energy. When Batman flags, just watch Jack: he’ll pump in the laughing gas.

First published in the Herald, June 22, 1989

Yeah: shrug. I remember that summer, hearing people quoting lines from the movie to each other, and thinking that a new generation (I was 30) was taking over the watching and processing of movies, somehow. The word “fanboy” wasn’t in use, as far as I know (and I wouldn’t have known then whether it was), but this movie, and the increasingly complicated arguments about its authenticity and faithfulness to the spirit of the meaning of Batman, was a turning point that has led us to movies today.


Nadine

May 25, 2012

Perhaps the gifted writer-director Robert Benton needs a cooling-off period between his big movies. His multi-Oscar-winner Kramer vs. Kramer was followed by the chilly, compact thriller Still of the Night. Then came more big Oscar attention with Places in the Heart.

Now Benton’s playing it small again. Nadine is a stubbornly modest little movie, turning on the merest wisp of a plot and not even stretching out to a full 90 minutes. On its own terms, it’s charming, though frankly I expect more from Benton. This is a little like a major novelist tossing off a novella for his own amusement.

Benton again explores the Texas that has served him so well in the past (in Places and the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde). The time is the 1950s, and the setting is Austin, where Nadine (Kim Basinger, continuing the comic vein of Blind Date) accidentally stumbles over the murder of a greasy photographer (Jerry Stiller).

He’d taken some, uh, “art studies” of her, promising that they would come to the attention of Hugh Hefner. Corpse or not, she wants the pictures back, and she enlists her estranged husband (Jeff Bridges) to help; all of which plops them smack dab in the middle of the land-grabbing scheme of a local crime boss (played by Rip Torn and a 10-gallon hat).

Naturally, it also puts them back in each other’s company, and Benton is sharp when it comes to observing that two people who have been together for a long time have a tendency to keep a flame going for each other. It’s the old situation of ex-lovers who constantly declaim how much they can’t stand each other, while helplessly falling in love again.

Basinger and Bridges are easy to watch, and have considerable fun spewing Benton’s Southern-flavored dialogue. The small scenes are the best: Basinger and Bridges drinking milk on their first night back together; Bridges killing time in his tavern, the Bluebonnet Bar, a deserted and hopeless joint on the edge of town.

It’s a resolutely modest film, and sometimes the framework of the movie barely supports its characters.

I was disappointed. But Basinger and Bridges work up enough charm to justify Torn’s description of them: “Yer livin’ testimony to the fact that it’s better to be lucky than smart.”

First published in the Herald, August 6, 1987

I have a lot of admiration for Benton’s vibe, which is why it is a particular bummer when his movies underwhelm. This film isn’t quite at the “What were you thinking?” level, and maybe it’s aged well. But it is very modest.


The Natural

September 9, 2011

The table is so full of starpower it fairly trembles. There sits America’s tar, Robert Redford, looking superb in a film that shrouds his character within the cloak of the Great American Myth; a cloak that inevitably surrounds the actor himself. Across from Redford is Robert Duvall, the actor’s actor who is riding a crest of respect (including the Oscar, of course) and a surge of activity. It is well within Duvall’s powers to command any scene in which he appears, especially with a juicy role like sportswriter Max Mercy, but his performance in The Natural is typically considerate of his fellow actors. Between the two heavyweights sits Kim Basinger, a hot starlet who shot from being a James Bond girl (Never Say Never Again) to being the funniest thing in a Blake Edwards movie (The Man Who Loved Women) to this key role in the company of legends and near-legends.

They’re sitting at this table in a posh nightclub, where Duvall has brought Redford to meet the local gambling kingpin. This is the fourth person at the table. It’s Darren McGavin.

Now, here’s a guy, a journeyman actor, been in movies off and on for years—actually, done mostly TV for the last decade or more. And it’s an interesting thing, because he’s got to sit amidst the cream of the Hollywood crop, and he’s got to run the scene. Actually, the Redford character controls the scene, in a subtle way, but McGavin’s character has to orchestrate it. Not only that, but McGavin is playing a bigshot, an important man surrounded by underlings—in the exact opposite of his real-life position vis-à-vis the other actors at the table.

I’m thinking about this scene, and about McGavin’s good performance in general, because it’s one of the few things in The Natural that strikes me as being truly intriguing, or weird, or out-of-place. The film is a series of perfect dream images, the effect of which becomes sort of numbing after a while. At first, the interlocking elements of the plot promise something majestic: a boy’s father succumbs under a tree in the backyard; lighting hits the tree; the boy carves a baseball bat out of the cleaved wood, a bat with a lightning bolt carved on it.

The stuff of myths and legends (as Barbara Hershey points out to us, in case we hadn’t noticed); and the sunset scene in which the boy, now grown and on his way to a big-league tryout, whiffs a baseball legend named the Whammer (played with Ruthian magnitude by Joe Don Baker), is a wonderful slice of history-in-the-making. (Is there any doubt the little boy to whom Redford’s Roy Hobbs gives the strikeout ball is the same Nebraska farmboy who steps up to face Hobbs for the last out of the last game of the pennant race sixteen years later?) And I, for one, will always cherish Hobbs’ first at-bat, when he takes his manager’s idle bit of baseball chatter—”Awright Hobbs, tear the cover off the ball”—quite literally.

But the movie starts to have a clockwork feel to it. And there’s very little genuine baseball funkiness here; the closest it gets to that kind of thing is the scene in which the manager (Wilford Brimley) and the coach (Richard Farnsworth) play a laid-back game of “Name That Tune” in the dugout. You would guess that Barry (Diner) Levinson would be a perfect choice to make a baseball movie, but The Natural exists in a carefully-composed ozone layer where the sweat and dirt and grease of Diner are not allowed. Clearly, this is what the filmmakers wanted, and there are many beautifully-realized bits of action (like the business with Brimley and the dugout water fountain). But you wonder if the film might have been more satisfying if it wasn’t trying so hard to be a Great Film.

It’s tempting to envision Levinson as a slave to the awesome talents of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, whose film this seems to be as much of Levinson’s. But remember that the movie was initiated by the producers, who also wrote the screenplay and cooked up the alterations of Bernard Malamud’s novel. And there is the possible influence of Redford, whose Ordinary People featured similarly fastidious production design. The submersion of directorial personality in The Natural, due (perhaps) to the collaboration of many very talented people, is reminiscent of a couple of other big films this year that hark back to the “Tradition of Quality” school of filmmaking. I like Greystoke and The Bounty as well as The Natural, and was variously enchanted and riveted by all of them, but had a similar feeling as the lights came up after each: Is that all? Somehow the emphasis on story and production value seemed to eclipse the men who made the movies. Official classics have a tendency to become—well, official, and the lifeblood can drain out of them quickly. A number of people who have seen The Natural have pointed out the irony of its title. For all of its loveliness, grace, and good intentions, it’s just not natural.

First published in The Informer, May/June 1984

As the late great “Voice of the Mariners” Dave Niehaus used to say, it’s corn-growin’ weather, so the warmth of early September seemed like a good time to print a baseball review. I watched this movie two nights in a row, for a variety of quirky reasons that we need not go into now (but one of them involved the opening night of the Seattle International Film Festival that year). As a person who loves baseball and the Malamud novel, I want it to be a great movie, but I can’t get past the over-dressed myth-making or the serious selling-out of Malamud’s final act. There’s still quite a bit to love, don’t get me wrong, including the locked, ominous close-up of Barbara Hershey as she shifts her gaze from west to east, her focus changing from established star to newcomer as Hobbs strikes out the Whammer by the railroad tracks on a late afternoon. The thing that amazes me is that I didn’t mention Randy Newman’s score in this review, a modern classic later re-purposed to exultant end in Chuck Workman’s montage Precious Images.


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