Crimes and Misdemeanors

August 22, 2012

Just what kind of contract does Woody Allen have, anyway? The Woodman, one of our most talented and thoughtful directors, seems to be able to do exactly as he pleases–without regard to box-office viability–even though he hasn’t had a big commercial hit in years.

And Allen’s films seem to get smaller, more intimate, as he goes on. September and Another Woman were chamber dramas, while his hilarious segment in New York Stories was, of course, just a short. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen shows no sign of raising his sights. The issues are large in terms of ethics and philosophy, small in terms of story.

The film follows two stories, linked only intermittently. The larger of the two is about an ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) whose lover (Anjelica Huston) is threatening to expose their affair to his wife (Claire Bloom). The lover becomes crazy enough that the doctor considers having her done away with.

The other story is about a documentary filmmaker (Allen) who gets hired to shoot a self-serving portrait of his big shot brother-in-law (Alan Alda), an unctuous TV mogul. The film doesn’t turn out so well—Allen cuts in shots of Mussolini during Alda’s speeches—but Allen does meet an attractive producer (Mia Farrow) during filming.

This side of Crimes and Misdemeanors contains the film’s laughs, which are prime Allen (he remembers to the day when his wife stopped having sex with him; it was April 20, Hitler’s birthday). As they weave together, the two different stories examine the various moral choices people make, from the major to the minor.

It is all interesting enough, and many of the funny moments are superb. I can’t quite shake the feeling that Allen is repeating himself in many of the movie’s situations; the courtship of the Mia Farrow character is familiar enough to be stock. And there are conversations that continue the overdone tendencies of his last few films, in which characters spell things out in labored theoretical terms. Does Allen know people who talk like this, or do these discussions take place in his head?

Still, there is Allen’s scrupulous visual sense (with help from cinematographer Sven Nykvist), and a lovely unforced performance by Martin Landau, fresh from his supporting Oscar nomination for Tucker. Landau nicely captures the turmoil of a man living in two worlds, trying to figure out the difference between a crime and a sin.

First published in the Herald, October 13, 1989

Always meant to watch this movie again, but haven’t had a chance in the last 23 years. 23 years? Jesus. In any case, it’s highly regarded by many Allen fans, and it’s one of the films to bring his streak of misogyny to the surface.

Mississippi Burning

August 21, 2012

Mississippi Burning is a big, ungainly picture that crashes into a mess of important and powerful issues. Waving his broad brush again is film director Alan Parker, the maker of Angel Heart and Midnight Express, who brings a heavy hand to all his movies.

This time Parker is telling a story based loosely on fact, of an FBI investigation of the disappearance of two white civil-rights workers in a small town in Mississippi in 1964. (They were murdered by the townspeople, as a prologue shows.) The story unfolds from the point of view of two mismatched FBI men on the case.

Thus it is yet another treatment of racial injustice in which the main characters are white, not black. However, this doesn’t mean the movie’s an automatic sell-out. More troubling is that Chris Gerolmo’s screenplay uses the FBI agents as representatives of opposing viewpoints, and makes a buddy story out of it.

Gene Hackman plays a Southern-born agent who believes in sliding gently into the investigation, not rocking the boat, and using underhanded tactics if it means getting to the truth. Willem Dafoe, last seen essaying the title role in The Last Temptation of Christ, plays Hackman’s opposite number. He’s a Kennedy liberal, straining to change the world, and doing it all according to bureau policy. Like the army of FBI men who swarm over the small town, he’s always seen in his narrow black tie and suit.

These two carry on a somewhat predictably testy relationship. The movie never quite seems to know how to view them; at first the gung-ho Dafoe is as much a subject of derision as the local bigots. And the movie encourages us to root for Hackman’s outside-the-law methods, because the end apparently justifies the means.

Mississippi Burning is important, and potentially potent, material. But Parker reduces much of the conflict to cartoon proportions; all of the townspeople, including the sheriff (Gailard Sartain, a tobacco-chewing veteran of the Ernest movies) and deputy (Brad Dourif), look like the moronic results of heavy inbreeding. The one multi-dimensional character is the mayor, played by Lee Ermey, Kubrick’s hysterical drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket.

Parker’s cartoon approach trivializes the significant issues here; although, in spite of this, Mississippi Burning does splatter some of its dramatic targets. It’s an obvious film, but the sheer weight of Hackman’s humanity keeps it in touch with some kind of reality, and his relationship with the deputy’s wife (good performance by Frances McDormand) creates the film’s most complex element.

The movie already won over the National Board of Review, which named it the best picture of 1988, and it’s expected to be nominated for some Oscars. All of which goes to proves that if you bang people over the head with something, you will get their attention.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

A lot of people seemed to fall for the movie, which is still puzzling (it has a high rating on IMDb even today). It got seven Oscar nominations, winning for Peter Biziou’s cinematography.

The Accidental Tourist

August 20, 2012

The protagonist of Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist is Macon Leary, a travel writer. Macon is leery of most of life’s experiences, including, oddly enough, travel. But this makes him the perfect person to write his businessman’s guides to different cities; Macon describes how to travel so that you never feel you’ve gone anywhere.

Where do you find a meal in London that will taste like a meal in Cleveland? Where are the American hotels in Paris? Macon finds ways for travelers to cocoon themselves away from any experience of strangeness. And always pack lightly: “In travel, as in life,” he advises, “less is definitely more.”

Macon’s cocooned life is shattered by his son’s death and his wife’s departure. Tyler’s novel, and the film adapted by director Lawrence (The Big Chill) Kasdan, describes Macon’s struggle with his lifelong tendency toward self-insulation.

He is an intriguing character, and perhaps only William Hurt could play this role; this is one of those rare movies in which the hero’s purpose is not to act but to think. Hurt can convey this, although his passive presence at the center of a film begins to make the movie seem washed-out and bland.

There isn’t a lot of story to speak of. When Macon’s wife (Kathleen Turner) leaves him after accusing him of leading a muffled existence (“I’m not muffled,” he says, “I endure. I’m holding steady”), he continues writing, tending to his increasingly contrary dog, and watching the Home Shopping Network during long afternoons. Then he meets a kooky dog-trainer (frizzy, frazzled Geena Davis) who tries to scratch away at his barrier.

The film also spends considerable time with Macon’s family, to whom he retreats. His siblings are just as controlled and eccentric as he (and they are amusingly played by Amy Wright, David Ogden Stiers, and Ed Begley, Jr.).

Kasdan, who also directed Hurt and Turner in Body Heat, has made a literate and thoughtful film. He and co-screenwriter Frank Galanti are faithful to the novel, even retraining much of the book’s dialogue. But they haven’t quite fashioned a living, breathing movie out of it. The film is sketchy and controlled; in its own way, it’s as overarranged and self-conscious as its unhappy hero.

The film does becomes animated by Geena Davis’s presence. She’s the character who’s supposed to put Macon in touch with the lifeforce, and Davis (a tall, adorable actress who was so good opposite her husband Jeff Goldblum in The Fly) is fine at catching the character’s bubbliness and also her underlying layer of grit. Kathleen Turner, on the other hand, is relegated to a supporting role (she disappears from the film for a solid hour), and there isn’t much she can do to explain the wife’s uneven behavior.

Much of the peripheral business is nicely done, such as Macon’s publisher (Bill Pullman), a disappointed yuppie who becomes attracted to Macon’s sister, despite or because of the fact that she’s the kind of person who alphabetizes food on kitchen shelves. This film’s pleasures are real, though I think it fundamentally misses the mark. The New York Film Critics disagreed; they named The Accidental Tourist best picture of the year.

First published in the Herald, January 5, 1989

Nobody talks much about the movie these days. I think I’ll stand by the review, although the movie is not a stiff, by any means…just a little too exactly-everything-you’d-expect. Geena Davis won an Oscar for her performance.

In Country

August 17, 2012

The central character of In Country is Samantha (played by Emily Lloyd), a restless teenager who’s bursting at the seams in her small Kentucky hometown. She lives with her uncle Emmett (Bruce Willis), a Vietnam vet who has withdrawn from society.

Emmett’s no wild-eyed crazy; he’s just “mentally alienated,” according to his saucy niece. In the course of the movie, she comes to understand a bit more about his memories when she finds letters from her own father, who was killed in Vietnam before she was even born.

This is the core of the story, but the film also ranges over Samantha’s strained relationship with her mother (Joan Allen), who lives in another part of the state, her ho-hum feelings about her boyfriend (Kevin Anderson), whose neck is slightly red, and her concern over her best friend, who may be pregnant.

There’s nothing wrong with the film being rangy, but director Norman Jewison isn’t capable of covering that much ground. He’s barely able to make the uncle-niece relationship convincing, and it should be the heart of the movie, as Emmett is the surrogate for Samantha’s lost father. But Jewison’s notion of how to make this compelling is to stage a family argument during a thunderstorm, with loud cracks punctuating the conversation.

In his previous film, Moonstruck, Jewison had a delightful screenplay and he served it adequately. Here, the script (based on a book by Bobbi Ann Mason) has real possibilities, and some wonderful characters; Emmett’s vet buddies, for instance, are refreshingly free from caricature, and a doctor who sometimes provides companionship for Emmett is a funny character (and well played by Judith Ivey). But Jewison doesn’t have enough time to give to these people, and they get lost.

The story’s raggedness comes together in the finale at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., that once-maligned black slab that has become such a potent emotional touchstone. The tear-jerking ending, undeniably effective, felt manipulative to me. The memorial is such a powerful symbol, but is it supposed to cure all the characters’ problems?

Bruce Willis sheds his slick “Moonlighting” persona for the image-changing role of Emmett, and he plays the haunted vet with admirable restraint. Still there’s very little character for him to play, and Willis isn’t yet actor enough to suggest the unspoken subtleties of such a man. Emily Lloyd, who made a smashing debut in the English film Wish You Were Here, is an amazing raw talent whose emotions riot over hers expressive face. Like Willis, she doesn’t have enough to build a character with, and the film stays on a superficial level, with a walloping gut-punch at the end.

First published in the Herald, September 29, 1989

Don’t get me wrong, I liked Willis in “Moonlighting.” This was stretching too hard to be a change of pace, so he ended up looking a little forced, but it was an early indication of his future willingness to take different kinds of roles in different kinds of projects. Emily Lloyd has had her share of life problems, apparently, a real shame for anybody with a memory of Wish You Were Here.

Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects

August 16, 2012

The new Charles Bronson movie is called Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects, and the title is only the first weird thing about it. This incredible movie posits Bronson as a Los Angeles cop who works in the vice squad, a job that depresses him but that provides the film with plenty of opportunities for sleaze.

In the opening sequence, he busts in on a man with an underage prostitute in a hotel room. Bronson grabs a sexual device and makes the man take his point, so to speak. (Bronson’s first line of the next scene is, “I don’t think I can eat tonight.” Sheesh.)

And this is just the beginning. In a parallel story, a Japanese businessman (James Pax) brings his family to the United States, where he molests Bronson’s adolescent daughter on a bus. Bronson’s rage goes out toward all Asian people; meanwhile, his wife (Peggy Lipton, once of TV’s “Mod Squad”) suggests that his concern over his daughter may be unnaturally intense.

Then, coincidentally, the Japanese businessman’s daughter is kidnapped by the same child-prostitution ring that Bronson has been investigating. Bronson doesn’t know if he can work the case—”Could you replace me with someone more sympathetic to the Oriental community?” he asks his superior—but he digs in anyway.

Wacky incidents in Bronson’s investigation include dangling a suspect from a hotel balcony by his feet (the man slips out of his boots and to his death below, an accident that is never referred to again); and a sequence in which Bronson forces the scummiest pimp (Juan Fernandez) to swallow a $25,000 Tiffany watch. In one gulp. On the less colorful side, Bronson also smears a guy with hot dogs and mustard at a football game.

Some of this falls into the so-bad-it’s-unintentionally-funny category, but quite a bit of the film is creepy and ugly.

It’s an unpleasant movie. I’m guessing that at some point, the complicated screenplay (by someone named Harold Nebenzal) may have been a serious look at a policeman who, dehumanized by his job, begins to crack up. Something along the lines of Clint Eastwood’s Tightrope, for instance. But in the hands of Bronson, everything gets trivialized.

This badger-faced, beef-fisted actor can still mix it up, but he does his most convincing acting when he tells his wife that he’d like to call it quits and open up a little saloon somewhere. (Perhaps in Carmel, like Eastwood.) It might not be a bad idea, Chuck, you’re looking tired.

First published in the Herald, February 2, 1989

Nothing against Bronson, but this string of movies was unworthy of the man. And Kinjite was one of the worst—J. Lee Thompson in the director’s chair, again.

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.

Never Too Young to Die/Jake Speed/Code Name: Emerald

August 14, 2012

It’s deadhead time at the movies, as early summer releases begin to die and the studios hold back some heavy hitters for the July Fourth weekend. Filling up all those multiplex screens this week is a trio of losers, soon to be forgotten.

Of the three, Never Too Young to Die is the most entertaining, simply because it’s the most outlandish. It’s all about a kid (John Stamos) who gets mixed up in a maniac’s plot to fill Los Angeles’s water supply with radioactive waste.

See, the kid’s father was a secret agent—in fact, he’s played by Goerge Lazenby, who played James Bond once. This tips off the filmmakers’ intentions; this movie is a gadgety, quick-moving teenage 007 movie. As such, it’s a limp outing, although one character actually says, “An entire city held for ransom by a maniac?” as though no one had ever said that before.

But here are the things to enjoy: ex-Prince protégé Vanity, first spotted wearing va-va-voom black lace at a funeral, then incongruously riding a horse across an Ohio farm, and Kiss member Gene Simmons, who plays the mad hermaphrodite villain named Ragnar. Simmons has no shame, a quality that greatly enhances the viewing experience.

As he cackles, rolls his eyes, sticks out his tongue and sings, “It takes a man like me to be a woman like me,” you know you’ve found the film’s reason for being.

In the same vein is Jake Speed, a relentlessly silly adventure flick that crosses the Indiana Jones movies with Romancing the Stone.

Jake is the fictional hero of a series of best-selling books. However, the writing team (Wayne Crawford—who also co-produced and co-wrote the film—and Dennis Christopher) that created him actually likes to live out his cases. So they contact a woman (Karen Kopins) whose sister has been sold into a white slavery ring in Africa, and propose to bring the girl back.

Naturally they take Kopins with them; she becomes nonplussed when she discovers these guys aren’t adventurers, but writers. Jake meets his arch enemy, played with slimy fervor by John Hurt. Hurt’s the kind of villain who keeps a cageful of lions under a trap door in his headquarters, so you know we’re in 007 country again.

Jake Speed is undone by its own spoofiness. Not so Code Name: Emerald, which is as glum as Jake is bubbly.

Emerald is about a soldier (Eric Stoltz, of Mask) captured by the Germans a couple of months before D-Day. It happens that he knows the date and place of the invasion, and if he talks, it could botch everything.

So the Allies send a spy (Ed Harris) whom the Nazis believe to be working for Berlin. He’s go to get to Stoltz and keep him from talking, without raising the suspicions of the German high command (Max von Sydow, Horst Buchholz, Helmut Berger).

The only intriguing thing about his film is why such fine actors would be attracted to such an enervated project. Harris, in particular, is widely thought to be one of our best actors (with good reason), and he has been, in The Right Stuff, Places in the Heart, and Sweet Dreams, at the peak of his powers lately; what’s he doing in this stillborn effort?

First published in the Herald, June 22, 1986

In fairness to the actors in question, the synopsis of Code Name: Emerald sounds like something that might be a serviceable thriller. The movie itself is just dead. Footnote to film history, though; CN:E was the first credit for screenwriter Ron Bass (based on his novel), who has since become a high-priced writing conglomerate. So there is hope after flops.