Under Fire

October 15, 2012

Under Fire is that rarity: a major Hollywood release that is both a politically oriented film without self-righteousness, and a well-crafted entertainment that delivers the dramatic goods.

It travels to the dark heart of 1979 Nicaragua, where the rebellion that’s been smoldering for 50 years is about to topple the Somoza regime. We see the civil war through the eyes of some American journalists, who provide a very human reference point as we witness the various subterfuges and brutalities of the bloody war.

As Bogart said in Casablanca, “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” It’s still the same old story in Under Fire. The romantic triangle is set against the backdrop of international conflict has always been good raw material for an exciting narrative, and Under Fire uses this device to draw us into its politically volatile story.

The triangle consists of Russell (Nick Nolte), a prize-winning photographer who arrives in Nicaragua and fulfills an old passion for Claire (Joanna Cassidy), a reporter who happens to be the longtime lover of one of Russell’s best friends and colleagues, Alex (Gene Hackman), who has just been offered a tempting network anchor post—a job that would take him off the road, and away from Claire.

Actually, the triangle is resolved fairly quickly. Alex heads off to New York, and Russell and Claire get involved with—well, with each other, of course. They also get involved with the growing mystery of the never-photographed rebel leader Rafael, whom the Somoza government claims is dead, but whose body—dead or otherwise—has not been seen.

As Russell and Claire get closer to finding Rafael, they are forced to question their code of journalistic ethics, and their responsibilities as human beings in the face of war’s horrors. Luckily, Under Fire does not present these heavy-duty moral quandaries as dry theorems. They’re part of an adventure movie, and the filmmakers don’t lose sight of that.

It’s as an action film that Under Fire works best. Director Roger Spottiswoode has given the film a lean, hard edge (aided by his great cinematographer, John Alcott, who shot Barry Lyndon).

Star power also keeps Under Fire burning. Nolte can apparently carry any movie on his hulking shoulders, and Cassidy is a real find; she brings a vibrant intelligence to this, her first leading film role.

Gene Hackman is too precious a commodity to have been missing from the screen for so long. Here, he perfectly captures the underlying torment of a man whose professional and personal worlds are in chaos. When he’s offscreen, the movie really suffers for it.

While Under Fire may not answer its ethical questions with much profundity, the film does tell a complicated story using good moviemaking sense. With its fast, jungle-fever momentum, it eventually packs quite a wallop.

First published in the Herald, October 20, 1983

Interesting movie, not much remembered. This film review ran with The Right Stuff as my first pieces for the Herald, a gig that has lasted through now (October 2012) and continues. How did that happen?


Three Fugitives

August 15, 2012

Touchstone had the lucrative notion of remaking a popular French comedy into Three Men and a Baby, thereby producing one of the boffo hits of recent years. Now they’ve selected another French comedy, Les Fugitifs, and decided to Americanize it.

This time they brought in the original writer-director, Francis Veber, to do the makeover. Veber’s films, hugely popular in France, have been getting remade by American moviemakers for years; for instance, his hilarious The Tall Blonde Man with One Black Shoe was rather mysteriously (and, as it turned out, regrettably) transformed into The Man with One Red Shoe. This time, Veber himself is accountable.

I haven’t seen Les Fugitifs, but I have seen Veber’s two other comedies starring the amusingly mismatched pair of hulking Gerard Depardieu and mousy Pierre Richard, Les Comperes and La Chevre. Those movies are predictable but delightful comedies, typically French in their regard for classic slapstick.

In Three Fugitives, the remake of Les Fugitifs, Veber has kept his method constant. This time out, Nick Nolte plays the hulk, and Martin Short plays the mouse. They are certainly enjoyable actors to watch, and the discrepancy in their sizes is automatically funny. But Veber hasn’t made the translation all that smoothly; working secondhand, Veber almost appears to lose interest in all but the physical humor.

Two sequences summon up some laughs. The opening has Nolte paroled from a Washington state prison; a veteran bank robber, he is chauffeured to a Tacoma bank by two cops (James Earl Jones, Alan Ruck) who can’t believe he’ll go legit. (Tacoma provides a sunny backdrop, mixed in with a few jarring Seattle cityscapes.) Inside the bank, Nolte is unfortunately taken hostage by an inept hold-up man, played by Short. The police, of course, think Nolte is up to his old tricks, so both men must go on the lam for the remainder of the movie.

In the other good routine, Short dresses up in women’s clothes to pass as Nolte’s wife. It’s an old shtick, but Short is awfully good at it (he checks his wig in the mirror and expertly judges, “It’s a little too bouffant, isn’t it?”). Other than that, this film is merely amiable, although the late Kenneth McMillan has a funny, dreamy quality as a dotty veterinarian. When Veber drags in Short’s mute daughter (Sarah Rowland Doroff), he tips the scales away from comedy and toward the kind of sentimentality that probably plays better with subtitles.

First published in the Herald, February 2, 1989

Veber’s abilities are somewhat mysterious; I’ve seen some of his movies before they opened and thought, “Wow, he’s really lost it,” only to see those films turn into wild successes. I need not add that in the annals of films shot in Tacoma, this one stands plenty tall.


Down and Out in Beverly Hills

June 26, 2012

During the credits sequence of Down and Out in Beverly Hills, you feel the tingle of something clicking: A bedraggled bum pushes a grocery cart full of junk down a Los Angeles street in the early morning light, as the soundtrack plays one of the most striking songs of recent years, the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.”

The images are sharp and pointed, the music pulls it together, and there’s a crackling sense of direction. Unfortunately, once the music stops and the film proper starts, this tingly feeling dissolves all too rapidly.

What we have here is vintage Paul Mazursky social satire, Beverly Hills variety, as we are introduced to an archetypal ’80s family. Husband (Richard Dreyfuss) is a fatcat in the wire-hanger biz, whose non-existent sexual relationship with his wife is replaced by midnight liaisons with the maid. Wife (Bette Midler) is a shrieky kook who tries every form of meditation, fire-walking, and wacko religion available in California—and that’s saying a lot.

Their son faces every family event with a video camera attached to his head, as he worries about his sexual orientation; the daughter escapes the madness by jetting off to her Ivy League school. They have a Rolls-Royce, a swimming pool, and a psychologist for their dog; they’re wildly unhappy, needless to say.

Mazursky hits his targets—he’s been drawing this sort of satire since Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice—but with surprising obviousness. A satirist, above all else, must be a part of his times, and Mazursky seems to be making the same jokes that were new and effective in the late ’60s.

He takes this ripe family and throws in a loose cog: that bum (Nick Nolte) from the credits, a dropout from society who represents everything they’re not. Nolte, having lost his dog, decides to end it all by throwing himself into Dreyfuss’s pool. Saved, he moves into the household, thereby changing the lives of all present.

After he gets cleaned up, Nolte takes Dreyfuss down to Venice Beach, where they drink cheap wine, eat garbage, and sleep under the stars. Naturally, Dreyfuss sees this as an utterly energizing experience.

Then Nolte teaches the heretofore horrified Midler about the secrets of Balinese massage, which works as a prelude to a cosmic sexual encounter.

Some of this is predictable, some is not. But even when Mazursky’s touch is heavy, the players are very good. No one but Nolte could play the hulking bum this well, and Midler is born to the part (although Mazursky might have encouraged her to be even a bit more outrageous).

Dreyfuss, who hasn’t scored a hit in a long time, is very good in a less showy role. The longer the film goes on the more you realize his character is really at the center of the story.

There’s also nice work by Tracy Nelson (Rick Nelson’s daughter) as the daughter, and Little Richard is amusing as a flamboyant (what else?) neighbor, whose Rolls-Royce is an exact duplicate of Dreyfuss’s car.

The film is a loose remake of a 1932 French film by Jean Renoir called Boudu Saved from Drowning. In that film, the bum, played by Michel Simon, was even more of an uncontrollable force of nature than here—indeed, the earlier film was much more uncompromising in its satire. All of which proves that, to the industry’s discredit, movies are often less daring now than they were 50 years ago.

First published in the Herald, January 31, 1986

“No one but Nolte could play the hulking bum this well,” but of course Michel Simon did it, too. Nobody but the two of them. I remember a look Nolte has at the end of this movie that achieved the same flash of existential shock that “Once in a Lifetime” provides, and thinking how good he was, and is.


Grace Quigley

April 3, 2012

Some movies have such a tumultuous production history that the actual film itself, when finally released, seems an afterthought. Grace Quigley, as Katharine Hepburn’s latest film is finally titled, is one of those movies.

The original title of the film was The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley, and that’s how the film was known all through shooting—which took place a good two years ago. But the production, a pet project of Hepburn’s, ran into trouble almost immediately.

For one thing, the subject matter was a little dicey. Hepburn plays an aged Manhattanite who goes into the mercy killing business, with a little help from Nick Nolte, a professional hit man. Naturally, it’s a comedy.

Hepburn and Nolte plan to remove a number of elderly people who are eager to shuffle off this mortal coil. These victims are perfectly willing—in fact, they conduct business in a professional manner, even paying Nolte an agreed-upon sum for the privilege of being rubbed out by him.

Now, the euthanasia comedy is a fairly narrow genre. There haven’t been too many successful entries, and the Cannon Group, which bankrolled the film, got understandably nervous about this oddball project.

They had director Anthony Harvey (who, once upon a time, directed Hepburn in The Lion in Winter) reshoot the film’s ending, so that now Hepburn and Nolte seem to realize the error of their ways and everything ends happily.

And Cannon changed the title from the Ultimate Solution, with its vaguely fascist overtones, to just plain Grace Quigley.

Given the evidence of the final product, it’s hard to believe the film was either harmed or improved by the changes. It’s a weird duck, without much faith in its black humor and without much flair for delivering that humor.

There’s an attempt to make the victims’ desire for deliverance understandable and even sympathetic, as when Hepburn’s neighbor (William Duell) tries to talk a reluctant Nolte into killing him.

“My family wanted to send me to a little furnished room where I’d die in front of a TV set. That’s too slow,” he tells Nolte.

Such moments give the film an uneasy mix of pathos and gallows humor. Much of it doesn’t work, and there’s a particularly incoherent subplot involving Nolte’s psychologist (Chip Zien, who deserves his name).

But Grace Quigley is, to be fair, not as awful as one might expect from its troubled history. Nolte does his usual pro job, and Hepburn dodders with the naivete of someone who innocently wants to do good.

But their efforts are finally undercut by Harvey’s uninspired direction and A. Martin Zweiback’s uneven, shapeless script. And, of course, by a solution that ties things up in a neat bundle, without ultimately resolving anything.

First published in the Herald, September 19, 1985

Chip Zien has had a healthy career since this cheap shot at his name. I interviewed Shirley Knight on stage once, and she talked about how Anthony Harvey had been hired to direct her 1967 film Dutchman, his directing debut, based on his skills as a technician (he’d edited Dr. Strangelove); according to Knight, he had no idea how to direct actors, so she and Al Freeman directed their performances while Harvey took care of setting up shots. The movie won attention for its acting, and Harvey got hired for The Lion in Winter because the production was looking for a good actors’ director. Go figure.


New York Stories

February 8, 2012

New York Stories is a wonderful idea for a film, and it’s two-thirds of a wonderful film. For this omnibus, three of America’s leading directors have each created a mini-movie, with no constraints except that each segment be set in Manhattan.

The three directors are Woody Allen, whose entire movie-making career has been New York stories; Martin Scorsese, who probably relished the thought of making a relatively minor film after The Last Temptation of Christ; and the godfather himself, Francis Coppola. Each has made a 40-minute film.

Coppola’s segment, “Life without Zoe,” is the middle piece. It concerns the world of a pampered 12-year-old girl who lives in the Sherry Netherland Hotel, because her parents are always gone. It is an utterly slight diversion, and not up to the standards of the other two entries.

Scorsese’s segment, “Life Lessons,” written by his Color of Money collaborator, Richard Price, leads off. It’s about a famous painter (Nick Nolte) who wants to keep his hold on his desirable assistant (Rosanna Arquette), an aspiring artist. They’ve recently broken up, and he tries every plea and manipulation he can think of, from the avuncular (“Baby, I’m your ally against horse dung and fraud”) to the direct (“I just had the sudden desire to kiss your foot. It’s nothing personal”).

Scorsese’s camera dances around this tale in the same way Nolte’s brush glides over the abstract canvases. This dynamism suggests the raging vanity and ego of the painter, who is given superb life by Nolte; in capturing this shambling, self-obsessed man, Nolte gives a performance unlike anything he’s done before.

The artist creates his paintings while he blasts music in his loft. There’s an incredible sequence as Nolte attacks the canvas while listening to a live version of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” and Arquette watches in awe. Scorsese is having a field day with this, and it’s exhilarating.

The closer is Woody Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks,” which is basically like one of Allen’s short pieces for the New Yorker magazine done on film. Woody plays a successful attorney who is tormented by his mother (played by Mae Questel, the original voice of Betty Boop); she constantly upbraids him about his clothes, his eating habits, his incipient baldness. And she doesn’t care much for his girlfriend (Mia Farrow).

Then one day he takes her to a magic show, where she is plucked from the audience, placed in a Chinese box, and made to disappear. And she does disappear. Altogether. Even the magician is puzzled, but helpfully offers a pair of free tickets to a future show if she doesn’t turn up.

Actually, she does turn up, in a way that grabs the attention of the entire city, and embarrasses Woody to the bone. It’s a hilarious development, and Allen, as actor and director, keeps up just the right tone of mortification. And he even finds an excuse for the cameo without which New York Stories would not be complete: an appearance by mayor Ed Koch.

First published in the Herald, March 9, 1989

I’d have to see it again to work out the argument, but I have this feeling that something changed for both Scorsese and Nick Nolte after “Life Lessons,” a piece rarely mentioned in either man’s work. They both seemed freer, somehow, especially Nolte, who went into a mighty phase after this.


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