The Bounty

November 15, 2019

bountyThe Bounty is the kind of production that falls into the “tradition of quality” school of filmmaking. Like other products of that school (Lawrence of Arabia, for example, or Doctor Zhivago) The Bounty is big, expensive, serious, ambitious, wonderful to look at – and also strangely incomplete. There’s a tendency, when making a spectacle like this, to lose the human beings in the grand pattern of the story. I think that’s what happens in The Bounty, so that at the end there’s just a trace of pointlessness about the whole movie.

I didn’t invoke Lawrence and Zhivago by accident. David Lean, who directed those award-winners and was much in the forefront of quality film making in the 1950s and ’60s, was long involved with The Bounty. Lean’s long- time collaborator, playwright Robert Bolt, wrote the literate script.

At some point, Lean jumped ship (so did his Fletcher Christian – Christopher Reeve), and was replaced by Roger Donaldson, a New Zealander with just two features to his credit. Donaldson’s Smash Palace was impressive enough to give hope that he’d invest plenty of intensity in The Bounty.

That hope has not been sorely let down. The Bounty is fairly riveting in unspooling its tale, the facts of which are well-known. It’s told as a flashback during the trial of Lt. William Bligh (Anthony Hopkins). We see that it’s friendship that sparks Bligh to pick young Fletcher Christian (Mel Gibson) as mate for the arduous, globe­ spanning voyage, a voyage that seeks to transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to Jamaica, where the food will be used as a staple for slaves.

In case you’ve forgotten (or don’t remember the previous film versions of Mutiny on the Bounty – Clark Gable and Charles Laughton in 1935, Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard in 1962), the tyrannical Bligh terrorizes the Bounty crew. When they finally limp into Tahiti, and sample the pagan pleasures there, the young sailots find it a not unthinkable alternative to returning to England.

After they leave the island, Christian leads a mostly unplanned mutiny, and Bligh set adrift with loyal seamen. Christian and his men are doomed to wander in search of a hospitable resting place.

In this version, the story itself maintains its fascination. Bligh has been slightly humanized, and Christian steered closer to the edge of insanity. There’s been an attempt to make their relationship more complex, but the tension of the story still springs from the basic excitement of their showdowns.

Any version of the mutiny on the Boumty rises and falls with its lead actors. Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson are fine and believable, though rarely more than that. The supporting players – especially the rowdy, unkempt crew – are unusually well-cast. Of special note is Wi Kuki Kaa, who plays the Tahitian king with understated dignity.

Donaldson and his cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson have made the film exceptionally handsome. The contrast between the rigidity of British systems and the looseness of Tahitian paradise is visualized by Donaldson in the cool blues and polished hardwood of the British sections, compared with the warm, lush greens and yellows of the island. The eerie credit sequence, composed of shots of Tahiti, gives a sense of the spell that the island will cast (Vangelis’ evocative music helps, too).

There is much to admire here. In fact, I’m not so sure I didn’t underestimate the film on first viewing. It still seems oddly unmoving, and a little too stately, but it’s been staying with me in the days since I’ve seen it. The lure of the promise of paradise and the overthrow of tyranny is a powerful one. I’m looking forward to another trip aboard The Bounty.

First published in the Herald, May 1984

Still a movie that’s easy to watch for a while if it goes by on TV, to the extent that movies still “go by” on TV. The sailor cast included Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson, Dexter Fletcher, and Phil Davis, among others, so yes, it was pretty good. A bio of David Lean reveals just how long he spent working on the screenplay, or possibly just hanging out in the South Seas while dreaming about the trade winds and breadfruit. Finally, Gibson’s fervenet reading of the line “I am in hell, sir!” has been bandied about through the years by a select group of people in the know.

 


The Last Starfighter

November 14, 2019

laststarfighterThis is one marvelous idea for a movie: A kid who lives in a trailer park just outside of Nowheresville, U.S.A., is a champion at the community’s one and only video game. Un­beknownst to him, when he breaks the game record, a signal is loosed that travels across the galaxy, to a planet that needs rocket pilots – or “star­ fighters.”

The lad is promptly picked up by his interstellar recruiter and whisked away to another world, where bad aliens are threatening the defense system of good aliens.

Since he’s already a master of the control board, he just needs to be plunked down at the helm of a rocket ship and he’s on his way to save the universe. Maybe.

When the other recruits are wiped out, he becomes The Last Starfighter, which is also the name of the movie. It’s a friendly, good-hearted film that’s rather too slim to support itself. It also provides a good portion of inoffensive fun along the way.

It begins with some wonderfully low-key exposition in this trailer park, which turns out to be the proper setting for the stuck-in-low-gear characters: they’re portable people who never go anywhere. All except Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), who dreams of going away to college and making something great of himself – and taking his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) along with him.

Shades of It’s a Wonderful Life, in which the hero is also trapped in a small town. When Alex’s college loan doesn’t come through, things look bad for his escape.

To blow off a little steam, he has a go at the “Starfighter” video game, and breaks the record. This precipitates a visit from the alien emissary (Robert Preston, doing perhaps a bit too much Robert Preston).

Oddly enough, for all of the perfectly adequate special effects on display once we get into outer space, the small-town sequences are the most memorable. I found myself wanting to stay with the run-down rural landscape more than the high-tech other world. Happily, there is cross-cutting between the two arenas, since a robot double of Alex has been left in his place so no one will notice his absence (this leads to some amusing shtick when Maggie becomes overly affectionate and almost corrodes Alex II’s inner workings).

The big disappointment is in the blah nature of the space-age stuff. Director Nick Castle, who has a friendly feeling for his characters, seems to be working from an under­ nourished script.

One influence on The Last Star­ fighter – without having any actual involvement in it – is that of John (Halloween) Carpenter, who went to film school and wrote the screenplay of Escape From New York with Castle. Lance Guest played in Carpenter’s Halloween II, and Dan O’Herlihy, who plays a humanoid who resembles a lizard in The Last Starfighter, had a juicy role in Halloween III. Here, he plays it overly cuddly – too cuddly for a 6-foot iguana, in my opinion.

Castle, however, seems to have his own distinctive style. I’d like to see him tackle something less fantastic next time. Maybe The Last Starfighter never quite blasts off because Castle’s talents are more down­-to-earth.

First published in the Herald, July 1984

At the time I had my eye on Castle as a guy who might be an interesting auteur-in-the-making, and I enjoyed interviewing him on his next picture, The Boy Who Could Fly. Mary Catherine Stewart was having her 80s moment at this point (I interviewed her, too, for Mischief), and Lance Guest is still working. I am going to guess this movie has a following.


The Lonely Guy

November 13, 2019

lonelyguyI always root for Steve Martin. I find his particular brand of dumbhead humor rather sanity-soothing, and I would like to see him make a good movie someday.

At least he makes unusual movies: Dead Men Dont Wear Plaid incorporated clips from old private-eye films within its storyline, and the notorious Pennies From Heaven, a musical about despair, was certainly one of the oddest films of the last decade.

The failure of last year’s The Man With Two Brains – is that a great title or what? – suggested that his audience preferred a Steve Martin comedy with as few brains as possible. The Lonely Guy is an attempt to hit a middle ground: the plot is relatively normal – almost anyone could have taken the lead role. It’s about a greeting-card writer (really a would-be novelist, naturally) whose girlfriend kicks him out of their apartment. His attempts to lick loneliness in New York City become the center of the film.

If the story is normal, the treatment is offbeat. Martin and company have embroidered the tale with bizarre, almost surrealistic touches, in a slapstick style reminiscent of one of Martin’s idols, Jerry Lewis. When Steve goes to visit the Manhattan Bridge to contemplate ending it all, he doesn’t just bump into another suicide – there are Lonely Guys falling from the rafters at the rate of one every minute.

Absurdist touches such as that threaten to lift the movie above its tired storyline. We’ve seen enough movies about getting in touch with oneself in New York City to last a few lifetimes, but it hasn’t been played as surrealist farce before.

Sad to say, The Lonely Guy doesn’t go far enough. Director Arthur Hiller is too straight-laced to delve in to the wilder possibilities of a project like this, and the screenplay cheats between trying to tell its realistic plot and trying to be wild and crazy.

But some of the park-bench dialogues between Martin and fellow Lonely Guy Charles Grodin have a loose, improvised quality. Their comic material together springs out of their desperation, which gives it a nice edge; in a scene that works pretty neatly, Grodin insists they buy plants to keep them company, and then starts shaking the leaves on his fern to wave “Bye-Bye” to Martin’s fern.

At one point, Martin prepares for his first date with a girl (Judith Ivey) he’s just met after jogging (well, actually he ran for one minute and then sprayed himself with some substance with a name like Insta-Sweat). He can’t get to sleep the night before the date, and he hugs his pillow and starts pitching woo at it. By the time he kisses the thing, the scene has a Chaplinesque wistfulness. It succeeds mainly because of Martin himself, who is getting better as a screen presence just when his audience seems to be leaving him.

But The Lonely Guy is still not a step up for him, and he has yet to make a solid movie. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong about that 20 years from now, when the French hail his films as cinematic masterpieces, and award him the Legion of Honor, as they did last month to – that’s right – Jerry Lewis.

First published in the Herald, January 1984

I remember the film being bland, but it probably deserved better than this equally bland review. I do remember one scene I’ve often thought of since, when Martin goes into a restraurant by himself and pulls out a notepad so the staff will think he’s a food critic. Martin’s first really good movie would come a few months later, All of Me. I don’t know what I’m trying to get at with the Legion of Honor stuff, either; Jerry Lewis certainly deserved one, and them some. And my opening is woefully insufficient to how I really felt about Steve Martin, who was a god to me from the first time I saw him on The Tonight Show sometime in the 70s – it was liberating to discover a comedian who was funny in a new kind of way, a way that owed nothing to the comedians of your parents’ generation. It was as though Shecky Green and all those guys got wiped away overnight.


Enemies, A Love Story

November 12, 2019

enemiesGenerally, writer-director Paul Mazursky likes to work in comedy. After all, he had his start in the business as a stand-up comedian, and his funny films have ranged from good (Down and Out in Beverly Hills) to indifferent (Moon Over Parador). But Mazursky weighs in occasionally with heavier stuff; An Unmarried Woman, for example.

I’ll take the thoughtful Mazursky every time. There’s somthing about getting serious that sets his juices flowing, as his latest movie, Enemies, A Love Story, confirms. This may be Mazursky’s richest film.

It’s based on a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer. The central character is Herman Broder (played with understatement by Ron Silver), a Polish Jew who survived World War II by hiding in the barn of a sympathetic family of farmers. After the war, he marries the family’s daughter, Yadwiga (Margaret Sophie Stein), and they come to New York to settle.

It is 1949, and Herman and Yadwiga live in Brooklyn, where she is essentially his live-in servant He is carrying on an affair with Masha (Lena Olin), a concentration camp survivor, a sexy and slightly unstable woman. Herman is balancing his separate lives when a surprise arrives. His wife.

No, not Yadwiga, but his first wife, Tamara (Anjelica Huston). He thought she had died during the war, but she survived and has arrived in New York. Everything comes together like some classic farce, yet this is not a comedy; this is a film about the mechanics of survival, in war or in life. Many scenes have wonderful humor, but this is a darkly hued tale. Herman is essentially a man who died during the war; his spirit is gone yet he still walks and talks and makes love, like a ghost of himself. Masha tells him, “The truth is, you’re still hiding in that hayloft.” His affairs are not the light pastime of a philanderer, but the only way he seems able to connect with life. His women clearly fascinate him, but he can’t seem to make sense of his situation.

The three women are splendid. Stein is a newcomer who embodies the essence of peasant simplicity. Huston, who has turned into such a fine actress, is both down-to-earth and somehow regal. Lena Olin, who was also a prominent sexual presence in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is unpredictable and mesmerizing. She just won the New York Film Critics’ award for best supporting actress, and it’s difficult to argue.

Mazursky, who does one of his acting cameos in a small but important role, captures a colorful sense of period and place. Enemies has a novelistic texture. Every scene comes alive with a variety of meanings, and nothing is tied off in a simple explanation. That’s probably why this film lingers so suggestively in the mind.

First published in the Herald, January 21, 1990

Maragret Sophie Stein did not make many Hollywood films, but returned to her native Poland and is still working there (aka Malgorzata Zajaczkowska). Of course Lena Olin is also a great actress, but she is a “prominent sexual presence” in Unbearable Lightness, so please forgive me. I wish Mazursky had made more non-comedies, though he did pretty well by those.


Born on the Fourth of July

November 11, 2019

bornonfourth“O where have you been, my blue-eyed son/And where have­ you been, my darling young one?” So begins Bob Dylan’s great protest song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” which is featured poignantly in the new film Born on the Fourth of July.

Born on the Fourth of July, like Dylan’s song, is a great American ballad. But its stanzas have the cadence of bitter disillusionment and its words are written in blood. It is based on the 1976 book by Ron Kovic, who recalled his life growing up in a small town (he really was born on the Fourth of July in 1946), where little boys played war games in the woods, “dreamed that some day we would be men,” and did not notice that the veterans marching in the July 4th parades would flinch when firecrackers went off.

Kovic joined the Marines when he got out of high school, and left for Vietnam as a virgin, in many ways. A bullet caught him and made him a paraplegic, paralyzed from the chest down. When he returned to the United States, he passed through a hellish rehab center, an uncomfortable return to his hometown, a confused flight to Mexico, and involvement in the anti-war movement.

Oliver Stone wanted to make a film of Kovic’s story as early as 1978, but a version starring Al Pacino was canceled just before shooting was to begin. Stone, then a writer trying to get his directing career off the ground, swore to Kovic he would get the film made if he ever had the clout.

Now, after Platoon and Wall Street, Stone has the clout. And Born on the Fourth of July has everywhere in it a similar sense of commitment, particularly in its lead performance. Tom Cruise plays the blue-eyed son, Kovic, from gung-ho high school student to political activist.

Cruise is amazing in this film. I don’t know the last time I was this surprised by a performance. Except for his slick turn in The Color of Money, Cruise never resembled much of an actor. Here he seems to be working from some deep, heretofore untapped reserve of feeling, culminating in a bitter scene in his parents’ house, after he has been hauled home from a beer-fueled bar fight. The degree of despair in the scene is terrifying.

The rest of the huge cast is satisfactory, and Stone has thrown in some vivid cameos: Eerily, his Platoon sergeants, Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe, turn up in intriguing small roles, and the late Abbie Hoffman appears briefly as a campus rabble-rouser during Kovic’s days of radicalization.

Stone directs the film with his customary white-hot fervor, treating each new episode as another passage through hell. Stone is frequently guilty of overstatement, he leans on period songs for knee-jerk reactions, and he’s guilty of using caricatures to make a point (why does he have to have Kovic’s brother sing “The Times They Are A-Changing” on the eve of Kovic’s departure for Vietnam?).

But there are certain things Oliver Stone does better than anybody, especially when it comes to capturing a sense of helplessness and chaos. Amid the fury, the film has many moving small moments, as when Kovic, in his parents’ all-American back yard, quietly tells a fellow vet, ”I’d give up all my values to be whole again,” or his tears when he goes to bed with a Mexican prostitute.

If the movie is imperfect, it is because Stone and Kovic (who wrote the script together) have rage, passion, and a story to tell. It is a story of victory, though Kovic’s triumph is not that he wrote a book or spoke at the 1976 Democratic Convention, but that he has attempted to understand his life. That is worth a lot.

First published in the Herald, January 7, 1990

Stone has wandered so far away from popular success and critical respectability that he seems to be rarely considered at all these days. For all his failings, I still appreciate his free-swinging, sometimes reckless style – you have to have these kinds of filmmakers around. Cruise is excellent in the part, better, certainly, than Pacino would have been; watching the all-American boy becomes radicalized is a spectacle that outpoints Stone’s lack of subtlety.


Tucker: The Man and His Dream

November 8, 2019

tuckerIn Tucker: The Man and His Dream, director Francis Ford Coppola (yes, his middle name is back for this movie) has not merely undertaken to tell the true story of an American original. What Coppola is really up to here is telling a story about himself.

The real Preston Tucker was a hustler, showman and inventor who created a dream car in 1946 that is still revered by auto aficionados. The Tucker Torpedo was “Tomorrow’s Car Today,” with sleek space-age lines, an engine in the back, and a third headlight in the middle of the front end. But only 50 Tuckers were built before their creator was run out of business by the powerful Detroit automakers who weren’t ready for Tucker’s innovations.

In adapting this story, Coppola has clearly identified with the main character. When Coppola shot to directorial stardom in the early 1970s with the Godfather films, he had his own dream: to build a studio and make movies that no one else would make. It took only a few years for Coppola’s Zoetrope studio to founder and crash, a victim of an uncongenial marketplace and its leader’s excesses.

So in telling Tucker’s story, Coppola is really telling his own tale of a dream that failed. And it is fitting that Coppola brings as much cinematic dexterity to this film as Tucker brought to his car.

Coppola begins the film with a mock newsreel that breathlessly wings us through Tucker’s history up to 1946. The early scenes, establishing the savvy character of the man (another fine performance by Jeff Bridges), his beehive of a family life, and his early plans for the new car, have great crackle.

But the breezy shorthand that Coppola uses may also be the movie’s main problem. By the time Tucker has reached the climactic courtroom sequence, in which he defends his money-raising practices, I found myself wondering whether some crucial scenes had been left on the cutting­ room floor.

Coppola seems to be attempting a variation on Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with Tucker as the little guy who loses but wins. (Lloyd Bridges, who plays the powerful “Senator from Detroit,” is made up to look exactly like Claude Rains’ corrupt senator in Mr. Smith.) Yet the emotional punch of the finale, in which the 50 finished Tucker Torpedos line up outside the courthouse, is ineffective. It’s as though Coppola himself doesn’t quite believe in his own heartstring-tugging.

The movie should be a half-hour longer, the better to know Tucker and his wife (Joan Allen), his mechanics (Frederic Forrest, Mako, Elias Koteas), and his financier (Martin Landau). Only Landau, in his first good role in many years, makes an impression. In fact, his insecure banker is the kind of comeback role that bags supporting actor Oscar nominations.

Overall, Tucker is a disappointment, but it contains some dazzling scenes, and it’s great to look at; the period design and fashions are lovingly recreated and embellished, and Joe Jackson’s music is sharp. The high point may be the unveiling of Tucker’s prototype before a hyped audience. What the crowd doesn’t know is that the car is being feverishly jerry-built backstage. Like his hero, Coppola has gotten away with last-minute improvisation before. He will again.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

Landau did get an Oscar nomination, and it was a significant career comeback (the Oscar for Ed Wood would come along in short order). Is there a longer cut of this movie somewhere? Because that might be cool. Coppola tried to make the film as early as the mid-70s, and IMDb says he thought of Burt Reynolds for the lead role, which would have been tasty casting. The timing would’ve been much better, too; the nostalgia boom of the 70s might have supported the film’s period setting. Certainly by 1988 nobody was interested in movies about lost causes. Apparently the corny subtitle was imposed by the studio, one of the many things about Tucker that doesn’t feel quite right.


Tequila Sunrise

November 7, 2019

tequilasunriseWhen Robert Towne settles down to make a movie, it should be big news. Towne is one of the legitimate talents in Hollywood, a brilliant writer (he wrote Chinatown, Shampoo and The Last Detail) who has been a “script doctor” on many of the better movies released during the last couple of decades, usually without screen credit.

Towne’s career as a director extends only as far as his 1982 film, Personal Best, a terrific movie about track athletes, which had a nifty lived-in quality and a disarmingly accurate way of depicting the way real people act and talk. However, that movie didn’t do very well, and it’s taken Towne this long to direct another one.

His new film is called Tequila Sunrise, and it may well get him the commercial success he needs; but it isn’t his best work, by far.

Tequila Sunrise is a sun­bleached morality play, set in Los Angeles. A cop (Kurt Russell) discovers himself once again on the trail of an old friend, a drug dealer (Mel Gibson). Russell’s always avoided busting his pal before, because of the unspoken code that places friendship above everything else.

Gibson claims he’s retired now. So what is he hatching by frequenting a particular Italian restaurant? When Russell investigates, he discovers that it has more to do with the beautiful woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) who runs the place than with any potential cocaine trafficking.

These three slip into a menage a trois that is cloaked in murky motives. Does Russell romance Pfeiffer just to get at Gibson? Is Gibson attracted by Pfeiffer for some reason other than the obvious?

Just as the movie gets this interesting trio together, it launches off into a plot involving a sting operation to nab a mysterious big-time drug lord known only as Carlos. This plot becomes more impenetrable as it goes on, and the movie feels as though it’s missing some important scenes. Business with Gibson’s son and ex-wife (Ann Magnuson) seems unfinished; there’s a bit too much shorthand going on.

But even if there were more of the movie on a cutting-room floor somewhere, it might not help. Towne has taken a deliberately stylized, old-fashioned approach to this material, which sometimes becomes downright corny. Conrad Hall’s photography certainly captures the hot LA glow, the Malibu beachfront homes and ritzy restaurants, and individual scenes sparkle with Towne’s crisp dialogue.

Towne has also written quirky character roles for supporting actors such as Raul Julia, J.T. Walsh and Arliss Howard. The three principals are fine. Gibson is straightforward, and unapologetic about playing an ex-dope dealer sympathetically; Pfeiffer is sharp and bright, keeping the men tottering off­ balance; Russell gets away with the best role and the best lines.

All of the film’s attributes are laudable in and of themselves. But somehow these elements, like the ingredients in a tequila sunrise, just don’t mix.

First published in the Herald, December 1, 1988

Because, you see, the ingredients in a tequila sunrise stay at their separate levels, which is what makes the drink look like a sunrise made out of tequila. I mean, the metaphor was just sitting there, how could I resist? (Can there be a more Southern California title?) I’ll bet this movie is more fun seen today, without the high expectations I had for a Robert Towne film in 1988. The one thing about it that has stuck in my head is the way Gibson’s character goes to the same restaurant every night; that seems like a classic detective-story kind of thing. Life goals.