A Chorus Line

September 21, 2011

It’s been a long haul, the better part of a decade, in fact, but A Chorus Line, the forever-running Broadway smash, has finally taken a cinematic form.

Word is that Columbia Pictures had sunk more than 10 million bucks into the thing before a single actor had been hired or a single frame of film exposed. The money went to buying the screen rights and to various abortive screenplay attempts.

Apparently it took affable Richard Attenborough, fresh off winning an Oscar for Gandhi, to whip the project into shape. Now, Sir Richard isn’t the first person you’d think of for A Chorus Line—Bob Fosse he ain’t—but, as it turns out, Attenborough’s unadventurous, no-nonsense approach makes for a serviceable adaptation.

The play, which was conceived, choreographed, and directed by Michael Bennett, put a bunch of dancers through a grueling audition, during which they not only had to dance and sing but reveal their most private thoughts and fears. They performed at the whim of an unseen director, whose voice could be heard barking orders.

Attenborough has changed very little, except to make the relationship between the director (Michael Douglas) and one of the dancers (Alyson Reed) more explicit. They’re ex-lovers, and Attenborough uses the friction between them as a thread of plot, something, presumably, he thought the audience needed to hold on to.

That’s all there is—the dancers reveal some anxieties and sing some songs. A few of the songs (by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban) are okay, and the dancers (choreography by Jeffrey Hornaday) are quite energetic.

As a diverting holiday entertainment, this is fine. As a movie, it’s not much to crow about. There was a special charge about seeing the spectacular dances performed live, especially the nifty precision numbers. But it’s less enthralling, less room-filling, in a movie house, particularly when the film fails to make the action meaningful.

And it’s a little hard to remember now why they play won a ton of Tony awards, or why—is this possible?—it copped the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The film has a weakness in Douglas; he doesn’t suggest the sort of brilliant mad creator who could get away with his dictatorial behavior. Mikhail Baryshnikov was once mentioned as a possibility for the part, and that would have brought some fire to it.

Douglas is the only big name in the cast; most of the dancers are unknowns. A few distinguish themselves: Vicki Frederick has the right look for her brassy role and does well with “At the Ballet”; Yamil Borges does a nice job with “Nothing”; and Gregg Burge dances up a storm in “Surprise, Surprise” (one of the two new songs written for the film).

One more thing. Attenborough has “opened up” the play a bit by including brief flashbacks, and a couple of scenes on the street. This backfires—it breaks the tension of being inside the theater—but Attenborough also commits a cultural faux pas. In one of the street scenes, a character slips and falls while hailing a taxi, whereupon the cabbie actually politely inquires whether the woman is all right. Clearly, Attenborough, an Englishman, is out of touch with this particular reality, or he never would have permitted a New York cab driver to engage in such uncharacteristic behavior.

First published in the Herald, December 1985

I sound somewhat too generous to the film. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but the Broadway show I knew pretty well, and it is an inspired idea for a musical, quite exciting within the walls of a theater. The problem with a movie version of A Chorus Line is that there should never be a movie version of A Chorus Line, unless you just hand it over the Jacques Rivette and let him explore it for three hours or so. The material must take place in real time, in an actual theater; that’s the point. Apologies to Marvin Hamlisch; the songs are better than okay.


Dirty Dancing

September 20, 2011

Most of Dirty Dancing is a pretty bad coming-of-age movie about a girl (Jennifer Grey) who undergoes some major rites of passage during a summer spent with her family at a Catskills-like resort. This much of the movie is labored and familiar.

The film goes completely out of whack by including liberal doses of really wild dancing scenes (choreographed by Kenny Ortega). Teen-age Grey falls in with the resort’s entertainers, led by a chap (Patrick Swayze) who has definitely, shall we say, waltzed across the floor a few times. Thus the film is punctuated by repeated scenes of crazily lascivious dancing, the kind that Grey’s parents are always warning her about (the film is set in the 1960s).

I suppose these dancing scenes are no less ridiculous than the rest of the movie, but at least some of the dancing’s exhilarating. Patrick Swayze, who has had tough-guy roles in such films as Red Dawn, actually is a former ballet dancer, so he needs no stunt doubles for the dance sequences. He seems to take the rest of the movie a bit too seriously, however; he glowers meaningfully through much of the film.

The thing that holds what there is of the movie together is Jennifer Grey (daughter of Joel Grey), who was funny as the hapless littler sister in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. She has a likably “normal” screen presence, unaffected and smart, and she tries endearingly hard in the dancing scenes.

The other actors are at sea, because the film, directed by Emile Ardolino, doesn’t really know what it’s doing. Jerry Orbach plays Grey’s father, a doctor who expects his little girl to be a princess at all times. Cynthia Rhodes, another ex-dancer (she was one of the unfortunates stranded in the Travolta-Stallone travesty, Staying Alive), has to simper as an entertainer who undergoes the obligatory pregnancy and back-alley abortion.

That’s typical of the cliché plot twists in Eleanor Bergstein’s script. What isn’t typical in Dirty Dancing is the sometimes genuinely giddy back-and-forth between the outrageous dance scenes and the regular dramatic stuff. The audience that saw the film at the latest Seattle International Film Festival had no idea what to do with the movie, but they seemed to enjoy it. Which was an understandable reaction.

First published in the Herald, August 1987

It became a phenomenon, for some justifiable reasons. A lot of the film’s nuttiness and zest can be ascribed to Emile Ardolino, who came out of TV and especially dance documentaries; he subsequently directed Chances Are, a very nice comedy that had some similarly happy qualities, and had another hit in Sister Act. I interviewed him at the time of Chances Are and the guy was a mensch. He died at the age of 50, from AIDS-related causes.

Do the Right Thing

September 19, 2011

With each of his films, Spike Lee has upped the ante. His low-budget debut, She’s Gotta Have It, was a clever and catchy take on male-female relations. His second movie, School Daze, was a lively view of life at a black university, no holds barred.

In Lee’s third and latest film, Do the Right Thing, the stakes are higher. Lee, who wrote, directed and produced this movie, and also plays one of the main roles, looks at a single hot summer’s day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Echoes of Howard Beach and other ugly racial incidents are present in the film’s violent climax, but Lee has imagined his own complete, original world here. The action centers on Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, where Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons (John Turturro, Richard Edson) serve up the best slices in the neighborhood.

Lee plays Mookie, the pizza delivery man, whose rounds take him on visits to various local characters, including a lengthy stop with his girlfriend (Rosie Perez).

As the sweltering day progresses, there are hints of racial tension, from the innocence of a dispute about whether Dwight Gooden or Roger Clemens is the best pitcher in baseball, to the hostility and fear of Sal’s sons. Then Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) notices that there are no photos of black people on Sal’s wall, only Italian-American celebrities, despite the fact that virtually all of Sal’s customers are black. Sal figures it’s his place, he can do what he wants.

This minor disagreement eventually turns into a violent scene, and the community briefly goes aflame. Lee is playing with the way volatile elements can suddenly converge, and he does a good job of catching the crackle of the community’s long fuse. He also has made a movie full of funny moments, especially the rhythms of a trio of sidewalk-sitters who comment on the action.

But Lee is also playing with fire here, and it’s not quite clear he knows what he’s doing. He shows different sides to the main characters, as though to give each his say, but in the process the movie doesn’t seem to have a point of view. The issues Lee serves up deserve a deeper treatment.

First published in the Herald, June 29, 1989

As the movie went on to win acclaim, I became less impressed by its undeniably funny comic sequences and more disenchanted with the overall picture; there were some exchanges that might’ve passed muster on an average episode of “All in the Family” in 1971, but were embarrassingly clumsy in 1989. Many people find it an important and significant film.

The Last Emperor

September 16, 2011

In The Last Emperor, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci has found one of the remarkable true stories of the 20th century, yet it is one that may not be familiar to Western audiences. It is the life of Pu Yi, the final imperial ruler of China.

At the age of 3, in 1908, Pu Yi was declared the Lord of Ten Thousand Years and the Son of Heaven. He was ensconced in the lavish Forbidden City in Peking, a walled group of palaces where he was pampered by an army of women and eunuchs. Like the emperors before him, he would rule China absolutely.

Except that the China outside the Forbidden City was changing. The 20th century overwhelmed Pu Yi; first the war lords reduced his power, then the Japanese came and installed him as a puppet ruler of Manchuria. After the war he was arrested by the Red Army, which imprisoned him and “re-educated” him. Eventually freed, he survived until 1967, when he died a simple gardener.

Bertolucci, who wrote the script with Mark Peploe, sees the awesome possibilities of this strange life, and he has mounted this film with all the grandeur of a David Lean super-production. Filmed entirely in China, including the Forbidden City itself, The Last Emperor features an eye-popping array of magnificent locations and costumes (photographed by the great Vittorio Storaro). Some scenes required thousands of extras, all dressed in rich period clothing.

While Bertolucci satisfies the epic requirements of such as story, his finest moments come in the human details. Bertolucci has always followed the individual journey within overpowering socio-cultural events (Last Tango in Paris, 1900), and here he peels away the ornate exteriors to find a peculiar person. To borrow the title of another Bertolucci film, it is the tragedy of a ridiculous man.

Pu Yi (played as an adult by John Lone, the excellent actor from Iceman) is not himself an epic character, one of history’s great men. He is not even all that likable. Rather, he is made pathetic and tragic by the events that happen to him. Throughout his life, Pu Yi goes complacently along with whatever is happening at the moment. He enjoys servants slaving for him, accepts having both a wife (Joan Chen) and an official concubine (Ying Ruocheng), and is willing to aid the Japanese so he can return to power.

Thus it is moving when, at a Communist parade at the end of the film, Pu Yi finally extends a sympathetic hand to someone who had been fair with him. When he does, a Maoist marcher angrily tells the Lord of Ten Thousand Years to “Get with us or —- off!” This time Pu Yi pulls back, choosing to (literally) tend his own garden. In the final scenes he seems to have found some small measure of self-knowledge.

With a passive hero, Bertolucci smartly allows other characters to energize different sections of the film, such as Pu Yi’s English tutor (Peter O’Toole) and the two women in his life. Still, some sections in the middle of the movie flag a bit, although the device of telling most of the film as a flashback from the Communist prison (where Pu Yi still has his shoes tied by a servant) gives the early scenes a layer of poignance—we already know the sad downfall of this poor pawn of history. The remainder of the film wrestles with the unexpectedly touching question: What do emperors do when there are no more emperors?

First published in the Herald, December 1987

I always felt a little more respect than passion for this movie, until I saw it a few years ago in a super-long version, when it looked completely rich and sensual and mesmerizing. Even working on an epic scale, Bertolucci is still Bertolucci, with all his peculiarities. The movie won nine Oscars and led Bertolucci to make his classic acceptance speech remake about Hollywood being “the big nipple.” Bertolucci is still Bertolucci, etc.

Driving Miss Daisy

September 15, 2011

As a play, Driving Miss Daisy won a Pulitzer Prize and rave reviews. As a film, Driving Miss Daisy already has won the best picture citation from the National Board of Review, as well as its best-actor prize. It appears to be a shoo-in to rustle up a few Oscar nominations this spring.

At the risk of sounding Grinch-like, I suggest that all of this raises a question: Why?

I don’t know what form the original play took, but the film of Driving Miss Daisy is a likable and extremely modest little concoction that comes off as just the teeniest bit self-congratulatory.

Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy) is your typical strong-willed Southern lady, vinegary and plain-speaking. She is too old to drive, and when her wealthy son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd, in a deftly handled career sidestep) suggests she take on a chauffeur, she has a predictable response to the idea. She loathes it.

So Boolie goes ahead and hires a driver anyway. He is Hoke (Morgan Freeman) a 60ish black man with old-school manners and a natural inclination to chat. Alfred Uhry’s screenplay, which he adapted from his play, takes the relationship between these two from their meeting in 1948 through more than 25 years of front-seat, back-seat conversations.

It is, you will notice, the period of civil rights advances, and the ensuing friendship between the black man and the white Jewish woman is reflective of the times. This is achieved in mostly understated ways.

The most poignant scene in the film comes when, in the early 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Atlanta. Miss Daisy is interested in going, but she can’t quite bring herself to ask Hoke if he would like to join her. When she does ask him, as Hoke is driving her to the speech, he refuses. She could have asked him earlier. He sits outside alone, listening to the speech on the car radio, while she is inside the auditorium.

Driving Miss Daisy is directed by Bruce Beresford, the Australian filmmaker whose career has traveled, somewhat alarmingly, from Breaker Morant to Her Alibi. Beresford brings his customary nondescript touch to the proceedings. The finest parts of the film are the last few scenes, of Miss Daisy and Hoke in very old age. But everything that has come before seems slight.

The film is an actor’s vehicle. Morgan Freeman has quickly become the best thing in many movies (he’s in the current Glory), and he slips into Hoke, which he also played on stage, so completely as to disappear. Jessica Tandy, the aged trouper, brings grace and brittleness to her role. It’s a nice match and, if not earth-shaking, a pleasure to watch.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1990

It won Best Picture. Even with the duds in his filmography, Beresford is one of those guys who surely deserve more credit than they get when a movie turns out well, a thought perhaps inspired by the fact that he didn’t get Oscar-nominated here (although the movie won four in total, including Tandy’s). I don’t remember the film inspiring a huge backlash at the time, along the lines of what The Help (a similarly middlebrow look back at the civil rights era) has encountered, although Do the Right Thing was in competition that year and didn’t get nominated for very much, a situation that left Spike Lee, as ever, not amused.


September 14, 2011

Dafoe and Berenger: Platoon's Homeric Gods

In the current issue of American Film magazine, writer-director Oliver Stone describes himself in Vietnam in 1967: “(A) solitary, wide-eyed youth standing under those raggedy Asiatic clouds, looking out at the sea with his fantasies of Lord Jim and Julie Christie, an anonymous infantryman…and I knew that someday, somehow, I would write my story and join the flow of time.”

Almost 20 years later, Stone’s time has come. His new film, Platoon, tells the straightest, truest Vietnam story of any film yet. He served 15 months as an infantryman in the war, was wounded a couple of times, and won the Bronze Star. The movie is about the kinds of men he served with, and covers a year’s service through the eyes of a raw recruit.

From the opening images of Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) arriving in the yellowish haze of Southeast Asia, the film tracks the relentless march of his platoon. Harrowing jungle attacks are alternated with rests at base, until the year is over. In its gritty, riveting action, Platoon is reminiscent of such classic war movies as Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet and Anthony Mann’s Men in War.

Part of Stone’s intent, clearly, is to provide an immediate sense that this is the way it was. In this, he succeeds spectacularly; the movie has the authentic feel that qualifies it as a work of someone who’s been there. (Filming took place in the Philippines.)

But Stone has also provided a mythic backbone to Taylor’s coming-of-age story. It lies in the good vs. evil struggle between two sergeants in the platoon—”Homeric gods,” as Stone has described them. Barnes (Tom Berenger) is brutal and amoral; “Our Ahab” Taylor calls him at one point, when the platoon destroys a My Lai-like village in insane retribution for sabotage, the film’s most horrifying sequence.

The other sergeant, Elias (Willem Dafoe), is poetic, almost divine. Despite the differences between them, however, Stone draws no simple conclusions. Barnes may be a black presence, but he repeatedly proves himself a good soldier who saves the lives of his men.

The entire film sustains this ambiguity. Platoon is no easy anti-war screed; Stone knows the issue is too complex for that. There are no cheap shots here—even the generals, the apparently lily-livered lieutenant and the kill-happy grunts have their moments of self-realization. They are all at sea in this nightmare.

The actors who play them are magnificent. Even the small, fleeting roles are finely etched. Sheen is appropriately dazed as the unformed youth (he is the son of Martin Sheen, who played the lead in Francis Coppola’s Vietnam film Apocalypse Now). Berenger, who played the TV star in The Big Chill, is a limited actor, but he transcends himself as the scarred Barnes, especially in the scene where he confronts the angry soldiers: “You smoke this dope t’escape reality?…I am reality.”

Dafoe, previously stuck with playing villains (as in To Live and Die in L.A.) because of his stark features, is superb as the angelic Elias. He brings an odd mystery to the role, a hinting at past unspoken experiences that give shading to his heroic character.

With all Stone’s capacity for subtlety, he also has a tendency to go too far. This was more evident in last year’s vivid Salvador than here, although it might be said that the narration in Platoon, in the form of Taylor’s letters home, may state too much that has already been shown. But for the most part, the film is a personal triumph. Stone can use it; since winning the best screenplay Oscar in 1977 for Midnight Express (a movie directed by someone else), he’s wandered around the Hollywood fringes. Now, via the circuitous route of his own past, he seems to have finished his odyssey.

First published in the Herald, January 15, 1987

I haven’t seen the film in a long time, although I recall getting to see it twice before I wrote about it. Stone was never this on-point again, but I continue to have a soft spot for his excessive tendencies—the grandness suggested in the opening quote. When I interviewed him (he did a press tour in Seattle for World Trade Center), he was pleased that I appreciated The Hand, his pre-respectability horror film, which somehow did not surprise me. Platoonis small and big at the same time, a tricky act, passionately achieved.

Terms of Endearment

September 13, 2011

Some people call them warm human dramas, others call them “people” movies. Whatever they’re called, they don’t rely on stunts or special effects to tell their stories. Ordinary People was the title of one such movie, and maybe the promise of no-frills, ordinary drama is part of the appeal.

Terms of Endearment probably wouldn’t have been made without the success of Ordinary People. Human drama may be bankable now, and Terms of Endearment has nothing particularly extraordinary in its subject matter, just the behavior of people in the face of life, love, and death.

The people are a bit unusual—and that’s all to the good. Aurora Greenaway (Shirley MacLaine) is a cool, eccentric widow who keeps a tight rein on her daughter Emma (Debra Singer), even after Emma moves away from home to live in Des Moines with her husband, Flap (Jeff Daniels), a college professor.

Aurora and Emma are amusingly at odds through much of their lives—and we get to see a lot of those lives, since the film’s two hours and 20 minutes cover 30 years or so. Aurora so disapproves of Flap that she boycotts her daughter’s wedding. That’s an act characteristic of their testy relationship.

Emma is as trusting and open as Aurora is careful and tidy. Their lives start to look more similar, however, when they both find new loves: Emma, disenchanted with her ne’er-do-well husband, starts spending afternoons with a shy bank manager (John Lithgow).

Aurora really cuts loose. She takes up with the irresponsible, irresistible former astronaut who lives next door (Jack Nicholson, in a wonderful role). Their scenes together are the most liberating in the film, for both Aurora and the audience.

Terms of Endearment is full of such changes of plot and character. That’s both a strength and a weakness. It’s nice when you can’t predict where a film is going, but too many of the plot devices in Terms of Endearment feel like—well, devices.

This is writer-director James L. Brooks’s first job as director (he’s had extensive work as a television writer—especially with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Taxi,” and he wrote the Burt Reynolds movie, Starting Over). Brooks has written (from Larry McMurtry’s novel) some terrific dialogue here.

One of Brooks’s best scenes has the astronaut telling Aurora that he can’t continue seeing her. He needs greater freedom, etc., etc. Halfway through his spiel, she looks at him, makes a face, and start muttering, “Blah, blah, blah.” She’s angered by his shallowness, and he realizes what a rotten egg he’s being—and eventually slinks away, ashamed. “Blah, blah” may not sound like good dialogue, but at this moment, it is—and Brooks recognized that.

Unfortunately, Brooks doesn’t have the knack for structure that he does for dialogue. The film has a lumpy shape to it, and it’s sluggishly paced. There’s also a melodramatic curve in the last 40 minutes that seems as though it might have worked better in the novel than in the film, where it feels rather contrived.

The strange coincidences of life sometimes feel contrived, too—and maybe Brooks was trying to make that point. But despite the good intentions, flavorful dialogue, and engaging performances, Terms of Endearment comes off just a little too pat. That’s regrettable, because with fewer easy answers, the film might have been much richer, just on its own terms.

First published in the Herald, December 9, 1983

I sort of generally feel, when I see a movie, that I can predict what kind of a reception it is going to get. This is not very difficult to do. Terms of Endearment I did not guess. Before today’s hype machine came along to prepare us all for a movie’s box-office and Oscar chances well before it opens, I saw this film, enjoyed it, wrote a review, and expected it to pass along like the nice crowd-pleaser it was. I didn’t have a clue it would be a smash and sweep the main Oscars in a few months. In fact I don’t know when I’ve been so wrong when it comes to sensing how a movie is going to ride the zeitgeist. Winger and MacLaine are terrific, Nicholson is hilarious, and for almost a year there was no stopping the thing. Brooks had written, along with his great episodic TV work, one of my favorite TV movies, Thursday’s Game, a wistful little should-be cult title with Gene Wilder and Bob Newhart.