May 31, 2012

Almost everybody knows the story of Robinson Crusoe. Perhaps this is why screenwriter Walon Green and director Caleb Deschanel decided to monkey around with the classic novel by Daniel Defoe. (I don’t think Defoe’s name is mentioned anywhere in the credits.)

Crusoe is, therefore, only one version of the Robinson Crusoe story. For a more traditional (but subtly perverse) telling, see Luis Bunuel’s Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Walon Green, who also wrote the superb screenplay of The Wild Bunch with Sam Peckinpah, has made this Crusoe an American, not an Englishman.

So the movie begins in Virginia in 1808, where Crusoe (Aidan Quinn) is a ruthless slave trader. In his greed, he decides to charter one more ship to travel to Africa before the weather goes bad. But, as we all know, the ship never makes the continent. Crusoe is dumped, the only survivor, on a lonely island.

Here he practices his familiar survival techniques. And he eventually discovers the tribe of cannibals who frequent the spot. But in this version, there is no footprint in the sand, nor a loyal and obedient Man Friday. Crusoe trips across a native (Ade Sapara) all right, but this native is not inclined to Fridayesque submission.

Instead, Crusoe and the native hammer out a peaceful co-existence on the island. The movie has a wonderful scene in which Crusoe tries to teach his companion English. You know the scene from countless movies; the patient white man painstakingly points to dinner and says “meat,” while the savage scratches his head until he finally gets it. Except that in Crusoe, this traditional scene is turned on its head, as the native answers Crusoe with his own word for meat. If the native can learn English, why can’t Crusoe learn his language?

This is clearly a revisionist take on the story, and for the most part it is unforced and entertaining (and better than Man Friday, a 1976 movie that also turned the tables on Crusoe). Crusoe is a bit brief, clocking in at a little more than 90 minutes, and there’s some sense that the story has been skimmed.

Caleb Descanel has been a cinematographer on some visually gorgeous movies, notably another film set on an island, The Black Stallion. As a director, he emphasizes surfaces and simple ideas. And pretty pictures. Crusoe was filmed in the Seychelle Islands, a spot so breathtaking that you may wonder why Crusoe would want to leave.

Deschanel gets a peculiar performance from Aidan Quinn. Quinn is not well known, but he is one of America’s best actors (he was in The Mission and the recent TV version of All My Sons), and he’s quite offbeat here. When he hoists a glass of rum in the wrecked hull of the ship, his expression and his toast—”To me!”—suggest a crazy, inspired self-absorption.

First published in the Herald, April 6, 1989

It came and went, and seems to be forgotten now. It will make you want to go to the Seychelles, which I don’t think was the point of the exercise.

Candy Mountain

May 30, 2012

“The road is gonna eat you up, man,” says the minor rock star to the slicked-back kid. That line in Candy Mountain is typical of the film’s self-conscious obsession with the road as a myth and symbol in American life and culture. This is a film that means to be something like the ultimate road movie.

And it should be, given the credentials of its creators. The writer, Rudy Wurlitzer, has practically made his career on the road, from the early hippie movie Glen and Randa to Two-Lane Blacktop. He shares the co-directing credit on Candy Mountain with Robert Frank, the renowned photographer and underground filmmaker. Frank’s most famous work may be a collection of photographs called The Americans, which captured life along the American highway. Frank also made a dizzy short movie in 1959 called Pull My Daisy, which was written by Jack Kerouac.

The restless spirit of Kerouac looms over Candy Mountain, too. It’s about a footloose musician named Julius (Kevin J. O’Connor, who played the beatnik poet in Peggy Sue Got Married), who’s trying to hustle his way into the big time. When he hears that a rock star will pay big bucks to locate a reclusive guitar maker—supposedly the Willie Mays of the instrument—Julius claims to know the man, Elmore Silk, and offers to find him and bring back the guitars.

The rest of the movie is his quest, which takes him through a series of misadventures. Each successive address for Silk leads Julius to another eccentric, and he goes farther north, up into Canada, until he runs out of continent.

The film is dotted with musicians playing small roles: David Johanson (also known these days as Buster Poindexter) as the star who wants to buy up the guitars, Tom Waits as Elmore’s middle-class brother, Joe Strummer as a punk, Dr. John as Elmore’s cranky son-in-law, Leon Redbone as one-half of a peculiar Canadian family who enjoy imprisoning passers-by.

Everywhere Julius sees the pull of the road on ordinary people, until he runs into Elmore himself (Harris Yulin), who doesn’t seem to be running anymore.

Sometimes Candy Mountain states too much, but it’s a beguiling film. O’Connor easily makes his anti-hero fundamentally likable, and Frank’s photographic eye catches the subtle gradations in light and color as Julius moves from the fall colors of New York state to the mists and fogs of Canada.

You might think that a movie directed by a still photographer would have a static, composed quality, but Frank goes the opposite way, to a raw, gritty sense of life. Life may not be a candy mountain, but Candy Mountain finds some unexpectedly sweet moments.

First published in the Herald, August 25, 1988

I will confess it’s the kind of movie I’m a sucker for. This was before O’Connor became very unusual looking, and his interesting road led to playing Igor in Van Helsing and the man who informs There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview he has a brother.


May 29, 2012

A drunk, our hero, shuffles into a dive in the seediest part of Los Angeles. He sees a woman at the bar who looks about as broken-down as himself. He sidles over next to her and orders a beer. Her conversation starter: “I can’t stand people, I hate them. Don’t you?” He replies thoughtfully, “No…but I seem to feel better when they’re not around.”

Somehow this exchange sets the tone for their friendship, which is the main focus of Barfly, a weirdly wonderful new film written by Charles Bukowski and directed by Barbet Schroeder.

Fans of Bukowski’s lowlife writings will recognize his alter ego, Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke), a down-and-outer who spends his days and nights drinking steadily, getting into fights, and scribbling down stories on stray pieces of paper. He’s actually reasonably content with this existence, until he meets Wanda (Faye Dunaway), the woman at the bar.

She, as much a drunk as he, rouses a few relatively noble instincts: Henry even takes a shot at getting a job. Meanwhile, Henry’s being pursued by a literary agent (Alice Krige) who wants to buy some of his stories.

Bukowski’s screenplay, and French director Schroeder’s light touch with it, consistently finds the humor and poetry of these gutter-level lives. Bukowski doesn’t sentimentalize or apologize for anything; he also doesn’t spare us any of the grunts or groans or other bodily functions that occur in such a lifestyle. Frequently a line of dialogue will soar too poetically, as with Henry’s observation that Wanda looks like “some kinda distressed goddess,” but this becomes part of the weave of the fabric.

Schroeder and cinematographer Robby Müller manage a visual delicacy, too; in the way the afternoon light spills into the bar when the door is opened, or the cool night that surrounds Henry when he bends down to a fire hydrant to wash his face after a fight.

Faye Dunaway takes on her uncharacteristically disheveled role and comes out with her best performance in years. There’s also nice supporting work by J.C. Quinn and Frank Stallone (yes, Sylvester’s songwriter brother) as the good and bad bartenders at the Golden Horn, Henry’s hangout.

And Mickey Rourke…well, Mickey Rourke has got to be seen in this one. We know about Rourke’s penchant for roles that are grungy and unkempt, as evidenced lately in Angel Heart and A Prayer for the Dying. But Rourke gets something completely new here, a wholecloth performance of rolling gait, bruised knuckles, and lilting speech. His line delivery is a singsong that plays devilish tricks on your expectations of how dialogue should be read, and also suggests a background of hurt and humor for his character. You may love or hate this performance, but either way it’s a remarkable piece of acting.

First published in the Herald, October 1987

I feel pretty good about this review. There must be some kind of story about how Faye Dunaway got into this unlikely project, and I do not know what that is. Man, you see Rourke’s inventive work here and wonder what might have been.


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.


May 24, 2012

The holiday season will bring many prestige movies; films that compete not merely for immediate box-office receipts but also for honors. These films are released now so that they might win a few year-end critics’ awards, and qualify for next year’s Oscars.

Nuts is such a film. It’s the sort of courtroom drama that allows for large, attention-getting acting, and it carries a potent, serious message. Aside from these credentials, Nuts also happens to be a shrewdly crafted entertainment. That said, it is not, I think, a very good movie.

The matter at hand is a competency hearing to decide whether a defendant (Barbra Streisand) is sane enough to stand trial on a manslaughter charge. She, a high-class prostitute, has killed an abusive client (Leslie Nielsen, in flashbacks). Her wealthy parents (Karl Malden and Maureen Stapleton) prefer that their incorrigible daughter be sent to a nice rest home and wither away there for the rest of her life. They hire a smoothie prosecutor (Robert Webber) to ensure this result.

The defendant is curiously impassive to her fate. Contemptuous and angry, she socks her own attorney and is assigned a new court-appointed lawyer (Richard Dreyfuss).

Dreyfuss doesn’t think she’s crazy. Smart, hurt, strange, but not crazy. But she won’t even help him help her; she’s uncooperative and disruptive during the hearing. At one point in court he shouts, not without some grudging affection, “This is a woman even a father could hate!”

Dreyfuss’s excellent performance caps his comeback year, and will likely get him an Oscar nomination. He remains the good-humored point of audience identification, since the Streisand character is intransigent throughout.

Streisand will probably bag another Oscar nomination; she also produced the movie and wrote the music. She carries forth with the stridency that marks so much of her work. In Nuts, this is actually useful, however, since the defendant is supposed to be insufferable. But the movie tries to have it both ways: She’s officially unpleasant, but she can lob in some adorable zingers when required. Webber’s prosecutor, for instance, is putty in her hands.

I suspect Streisand may see this script, written by Tom Topor, Daryl Ponicsan, and Alvin Sargent from Topor’s play, as analogous to her own experiences. For years after Funny Girl, she was the brassy, kooky actor who annoyed people because she wanted her own way, and made no bones about saying so; then she was the would-be filmmaker who spent years battling the Hollywood gender barrier while making Yentl. It’s probable that the Hollywood system belittled her as “nuts.”

Martin Ritt (Norma Rae) directs with the professionalism of a veteran. He doesn’t need to be told that the courtroom form is automatically compelling, and much of the movie is enjoyable on the gavel-banging level. Ritt’s supporting cast reads like a New York reunion of the Actor’s Studio: Malden, Stapleton, Eli Wallach (as a psychiatrist), and James Whitmore (the judge, crusty as they come).

Nuts hits a number of provocative issues, and every so often seems ready to delve into really interesting territory. To my mind, it stays on the surface of those issues, which is why, despite its attractions, it’s ultimately a failure.

First published in the Herald, November 19, 1987

No Oscar nominations after all for this overlooked movie—I’m not sure whether that means it’s better or worse than I thought. Babs was getting pretty picky about her roles at this time, which made the autobiographical reading more likely to me. But what an old-school cast, and what a bizarre role for Leslie Nielsen just before he slipped into the world of slapstick comedy.


May 23, 2012

Of all the fine filmmakers who came out of the Australian film boom of the last decade, Paul Cox is perhaps the slowest starter. To prove it, he’s still making films Down Under while his fellow directors have long since found lucrative work in Hollywood.

Slow starters have a way of overtaking their competitors, of course, and Cox may yet be remembered as the prickliest and most striking of all Australian filmmakers. His previous films have included a harrowing divorce story, My First Wife, as well as the perversely touching Man of Flowers. His latest, Cactus, is another intriguing drama, full of dreamlike images and dark glimpses of human nature.

Isabelle Huppert plays a woman vacationing in Australia who has a bad car accident. A sliver of glass penetrates her left eye, which is rendered sightless, and the body’s sympathetic defense systems start destroying her unhurt right eye, too. She must have the left eye removed, or she will go completely blind.

She stalls her decision. During this time, she meets a blind man (Robert Menzies) and falls in love with him, although she has a husband in France.

The film’s conventional plausibility is taxed by Huppert’s decision. It’s hard to imagine anyone toying with the idea of losing her sight rather than having an eye removed. But if you buy the premise, the film yields rewards.

Cox and Huppert make the sweltering atmosphere of this Eden fairly mesmerizing. Huppert is staying with friends who live in a house just on the edge of civilization, with tangled jungle all around; the conversations are punctuated with exotic bird cries.

There are many haunting moments, such as Menzies’ single memory of vision: Blind from birth, he struck his head in a fall when he was a child, and swears he was able to see for a few seconds after. (Cox illustrates the moment with a montage of grainy 8 mm. film.) The idea of different kinds of sight is played with throughout the film; Huppert, her vision failing, says, “The accident has helped me see.”

Cactus is more difficult and obscure than Cox’s other films so far, but it’s much more interesting than most other movies around. When it comes right down to it, this fellow doesn’t make movies quite like anyone else, and that’s an increasingly rare kind of praise.

First published in the Herald, April 1987

Cox has kept busy, but it’s been hard to see his films. I can still hear the bird sounds in this movie, amplified (as Roger Ebert pointed out) as though to emphasize the keen hearing of the sightless.


May 22, 2012

Betrayed is constructed like a nightmare; the farther into it we go, the more distorted and surrealistic the images become.

That’s also the experience of the protagonist, a young FBI agent (Debra Winger) who’s investigating the murder of a colorful Chicago talk-show host.

When she travels undercover into a farming community in Nebraska, she’s immediately taken by the wholesomeness of the environment, the Norman Rockwell appearance of waving wheatfields and cherry pies cooling on the window sill. She’s also taken by the presence of a widower farmer (Tom Berenger), whose strength and sense of family seem to fill in the spaces of her own empty existence. But the longer she stays on the case, and the more personally involved she becomes, the more ugliness she uncovers.

At this point, the reviewer becomes honor-bound not to reveal too much of the film’s plot. When I saw Betrayed at an early screening, I didn’t know anything about it, and the surprises of the story came as real shocks. (I’ve already given away the fact that Winger plays an FBI agent, which isn’t clear in the film until 15 minutes have gone by.)

Suffice it to say that the particular rock that gets overturned in Betrayed reveals an organization of white supremacists, who seek to overthrow the government and install an all-white society.

When Winger infiltrates this group, she sees the duality of their existence: On the outside, they’re a warm group of homey family folks, who on camping trips just happen to take target practice with automatic weapons and burn crosses in meadows on cool summer evenings.

Joe (Jagged Edge) Eszterhas’s original screenplay examines this milieu with some admirable attempts at treating not just the political issues but also the personal trauma within Winger’s character. She’s appalled at the activities of the group, which include hunting down black men in the forest (where she is encouraged to participate), but she’s also feeling abused by the FBI; her boss (John Heard), who is also an ex-boyfriend, seems to be pushing her back into the field with insensitive fervor.

The natural director for this sort of piece is Costa-Gavras, who cornered the market on the political thriller with Z and State of Siege. As in those films, Costa-Gavras builds a spider web of fear surrounding his characters. But, also like his Missing of a few years ago, Costa-Gavras stays somewhat on the surface of events; as good as this movie is, it lacks a kind of lived-in quality, an authenticity of place and time.

It undoubtedly will stir up some potent emotions. Debra Winger wondered in an interview in “American Film” magazine whether the racist sentiments spoken by some of the characters might be received approvingly by some.

Betrayed does have some very disturbing moments, none creepier than a scene in which two small children, being tucked into bed at night, begin spouting repulsive racist attitudes with which their parents have brainwashed them. That’s when this film really makes the skin crawl.

First published in the Herald, August 25, 1988

Debra Winger’s film credits are so few and far between that you can’t help wondering about the films she decided to do. Why this one? Heavy subject matter? Director? As for Eszterhas, he was a few years shy of launching Basic Instinct and making a famous name for himself.