Cry Freedom

November 30, 2012

At the end of Cry Freedom, there is a roll call of the political prisoners who have died in captivity in South Africa in recent years. The list gives names, dates of death, and the scandalously bogus “causes of death” that have been supplied by official government sources. This list, and the obvious contempt with which the filmmakers view the official explanations, is a gesture of healthy political activism.

If only the two and a half hours of movie that preceded it were informed with an equally angry passion. Cry Freedom, the story of anti-apartheid leader Steven Biko and journalist Donald Woods, is directed and produced by Sir Richard Attenborough, who copped a few Oscars in 1982 for the similarly large-scale message movie Gandhi. Attenborough seems to be a committed and serious man, and it’s nice that Gandhi exists; but, aside from a few effective scenes and a superb performance by Ben Kingsley, Gandhi is an oversized, galumphing elephant of a movie.

Cry Freedom is plagued by the same sorts of bulky, obtrusive storytelling problems. (Attenborough avoided this weakness in his interim movie, A Chorus Line, which didn’t have a story to tell.)

The film is in two distinct parts. In Part 1, newspaper editor Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) has his consciousness raised by Biko (Denzel Washington), whose speeches and actions dominate the early going.

In Part 2, Woods spreads Biko’s message of racial equality, whereupon Woods and his wife (Penelope Wilton) and children are harassed by South African officials and plot a complicated escape. This section is essentially a suspense movie, and as such it’s acceptably tense.

But what happened to Biko? Oh, he died. In a South African prison, in suspicious circumstances. Biko’s death, an hour into the movie, marks the story’s peculiar shift, a shift that earned Attenborough and screenwriter John Briley a thorough roasting when the film opened in larger cities a few months ago. Attenborough was accused of selling Biko out, of falling back too easily on the dramatically charged story of the white family escaping, when the true heroism lies with Biko and the blacks who continue to suffer under apartheid.

Attenborough has explained that he didn’t want to make an unaccessible political tract. Rather, he sought a work of entertainment that would be seen by a wide audience, the better to alert people to the problem of apartheid. I take Sir Richard’s point, and frankly some of the criticism of this film was a bit holier-than-thou. But it would be easier to support Attenborough’s theory of drama if his film were good.

It isn’t. Cry Freedom relies on the crustiest clichés of second-rate melodrama to score its (entirely laudable) points. When Biko first appears on screen, he is momentarily obscured by a flash of bright light, a technique reminiscent of those old biblical movies in which Christ’s face is never shown. If a fat and corrupt police official says, “We’re not the monsters we’re always made out to be,” you can be sure that the moment will be followed by a cut to a group of sunglassed henchmen threatening Woods’ family.

This is a true story (based on Woods’ books Biko and Asking for Trouble), and these criticisms are not meant to suggest that these reprehensible events did not happen, merely that Attenborough weakens his case with cardboard effects (and lessens the impact of a quietly good performance by Denzel Washington, of TV’s “St. Elsewhere,” as Biko). In rendering the situation with cheap theatrics in this heavy, gumbooted way, Attenborough undercuts the tragedy he has chosen to describe.

First published in the Herald, January 1988 (?)

Not an artistic success, but then Attenborough had the aims of the activist, not the artist. And who’s to say his widely-seen movie wasn’t successful at that purpose.

Alien Nation

November 29, 2012

Question: Which nation was not invited to the just-completed Olympic Games?

Answer: Alien Nation.

That’s the joke of a recent coming-attractions trailer for the new sci-fi thriller, which suggests the sense of humor this movie has about itself. The film isn’t as clever as the trailer.

But Alien Nation does present an intriguing new future. It’s set a few years from now, after a lost space ship has unloaded its passengers in Los Angeles. The humanoid creatures, known as “newcomers” (but unofficially called “slags”), have in many ways assimilated themselves into society; they’ve learned English, gotten jobs.

But most of them live in the ghetto, and are discriminated against. “Slag town” is a hotbed of violence; cop James Caan, a slag-basher to begin with, loses his partner in a dispute among the newcomers.

Caan is assigned a new partner, and of course it’s the first newcomer (Mandy Patinkin) in the L.A. detective force. With their testy relationship, the film slides into the buddy-cop movie formula, and delivers the expected banter and eventual grudging friendship. There’s nothing new about this angle of the movie, although both actors are watchable (the resourceful Patinkin is encased in the newcomers’ makeup, which includes a distended skull flecked with giraffe-like spots).

The underlying theme of Alien Nation is bigotry; like much science fiction, it deals with a social issue, in this case racial discrimination, in an oblique way. The rest of the plot revolves around drugs, a blue goo that drives the newcomers crazy. (Maybe the aliens belonged at the Olympics after all.) But the best thing about Rockne O’Bannon’s original screenplay is the newcomer culture that it describes.

The newcomers, for instance, have no interest in booze. But sour milk—a coupla belts of that stuff, and they’re blotto. Also, they can’t touch sea water, or they disintegrate. But they can breathe methane and not be affected, which is why they get jobs at refineries. And in their language, the name of James Caan’s character means “excrement cranium,” or… well, you can translate that one.

First published in the Herald, October 13, 1988

It became a TV series for a while, and O’Bannon went on to create Farscape for TV.


November 28, 2012

Remember Fantastic Voyage? It’s the semi-legendary ’60s film in which a seacraft was miniaturized and injected into the bloodstream of a human being. The movie featured that immortal scene in which Raquel Welch strayed outside the capsule and was attacked by phagocytes. At which point her lucky crewmates got to peel the sticky things from her skin-tight bodysuit.

See? You do remember. That poker-faced film became a camp classic almost immediately; now Innerspace comes along to play the premise for out-and-out laughs.

The basic concept is, shall we way, in a similar vein. This time the capsule contains only one man, a daredevil pilot (Dennis Quaid). The miniaturization experiment is supposed to put him inside the body of a rabbit. Instead, he’s injected via hypodermic needle into the body of a part-time grocery store clerk and full-time nerd (Martin Short).

How this happens is, well, complicated. There’s a scheme that involves a madman (Kevin McCarthy) who wants the secret of miniaturization so he can—dare we say it?—rule the world. Eventually, he’ll mainline his own quasi-bionic hit man (Vernon Wells) into Short’s bloodstream to do battle with the little Quaid.

Like Fantastic Voyage, there’s a time limit on Quaid’s tenancy, which lends some suspense. Also a lot of imaginative human interiors. Quaid’s journey is realized by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic special effects company; they create some neat internal landscapes, such as Short’s ulcerous stomach and his rushing red blood cells (which look suspiciously like cherry Fruit Loops).

Unlike Fantastic Voyage, the emphasis is on the comedy, and the slapstick opportunities for the gifted Martin Short, who used to do hilarious work on “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live.” His high point is a frug in the manner of Ed Grimley (his pointy-haired “SNL” character) while Quaid plays tunes inside his body.

Since Quaid can talk to Short from inside, Short gets to do some amusing monologues, particularly one in a public men’s room. But somehow this idea seems warmed-over from All of Me, in which Steve Martin conducted a conversation with the internalized Lily Tomlin.

In fact, much of the film has a warmed-over quality. You’d think the best director for this kind of comedy-action blend would be Joe Dante, who lit the anarchic fire under Gremlins. But here Dante can’t get the overall machinery cooking, and I miss his usual feel for off-the-wall details.

The most interesting possibility is proposed when Quaid’s girlfriend, a reporter (Meg Ryan), gets swept into the intrigue, and becomes attracted to Short. Ordinarily, I’d think Dante would want to explore this unlikely threesome, but she goes back to Quaid and the movie drops it.

Innerspace delivers some good bits. Dante still has a fun touch with supporting players; he slips Henry Gibson in, and hands a juicy scene to Kathleen Freeman, who also stops the show with a similar single-scene tirade in the new Dragnet. But Dante seems underinspired, and the movie can’t run only on the rubbery legs of Martin Short.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

A fun movie, but something didn’t quite come to life. I never watched it again, but I have recently re-watched Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage, which deserves better than to be relegated to the camp classic category, although there is some of that there. It’s a well-made picture, and very imaginative. I may have been overly influenced by childhood memories of the Mad magazine parody, Fantasteeccch Voyage.

Appointment with Death

November 27, 2012

Did you know that Peter Ustinov was slated to play the Inspector Clouseau role in the original Pink Panther movie, and that Peter Sellers got the role only after Ustinov dropped out? It’s true. Ustinov, who has probably kicked himself a few times over that one, seems to be making up for it by appearing with some regularity as Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s famed detective.

Ustinov is even using Clouseaulike vocal mannerisms. When, in the new Appointment with Death, Poirot is welcomed to 1929 Palestine by an old Army friend (John Gielgud), Gielgud asks, “What brought you out here, old chap?” To which Poirot replies, in best fractured accent, “Oh, I don’t kneeoow—a neeose for muerdeur, perhaps?”

As always, Poirot’s nose is busy, sniffing through a cluster of possible culprits. Actually, it takes this movie more than half its running time to get to the murder; the first half is taken up with a vacation cruise to and sightseeing in Palestine, as we get to know the soon-to-be suspects. The latter part of the film, needless to say, clicks into Poirot’s method of detection: questioning the suspects (and, as he bellows rather paganly, “everybody’s a soospect!”), then gathering them together into a large room and explaining it all to us.

The usual suspects include the familiar collection of has-beens and second-raters. These Agatha Christie things have gone downhill since Murder on the Orient Express, a high-class ride (in which Albert Finney played Poirot). Lauren Bacall gives a touch of class as a witchy socialite, but then the drop-off is severe.

David Soul, Carrie Fisher, Piper Laurie, Hayley Mills are among the actors who got trip to the Middle East out of this. They’re going through the motions, which is more than can be said for some of the smaller roles, acted with extreme amateurishness.

The best element in this sluggish whodunit is Jenny Seagrove, who plays a doctor, the most sympathetic member of the traveling company. She’s so intelligent and lovely, she seems to have gotten into the wrong movie.

Michael Winner (Death Wish) directs, with a minimum of commitment. The movie drags and drags, and the characters even make fun of the detective-movie conventions; when Poirot announces that he needs to gather everyone together for one last meeting, someone says, “And we need a really dramatic location, right?” The creators of Airplane! surely need to do a full-scale parody of this formula, and put it well to rest.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

Perhaps not as bad as Ordeal by Innocence, but who would want to find out? I assume Death on the Nile was the most popular of the Ustinov Poirots, and this one was truly cut-rate. By the way, I believe the somewhat geeky “It’s true” in the first paragraph was me channeling an obscure SCTV joke that had lodged itself in my head.


November 26, 2012

The year is 1932, and an 80-year-old woman named Alice Hargreaves is sailing from England for America. This woman, who appears ordinary, is not so at all; for she is the Alice, the Alice who long ago became the central figure for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

This is how we first meet her in Dreamchild. As she prepares to receive an honor from Columbia University, marking the centenary of Carroll’s birth, she reflects upon a languid summer, decades earlier. As a 10-year-old girl, she was the sounding board for the Rev. Charles Dodgson (Carroll’s real name) and his intricate, playful fantasies.

The film jumps between 1932, that childhood remembrance, and a few scenes from Carroll’s work, which come to life complete with the Mad Hatter, March Hare, Mock Turtle, and Gryphon.

The central idea of Dennis Potter’s script is that Dodgson’s repressed sexual appetite was the springboard for his literary flights of fancy. As the film progresses, Potter and director Gavin Millar suggest that Dodgson, a shy stutterer, had an indecent love for little Alice, and that—being a wholly decent man—he sublimated his passion, which ultimately found its voice in his writing.

This idea is delicately forwarded throughout the film, mostly in looks and glances. We’re never quite sure whether Dodgson is a sicko with a Lolita complex or whether he innocently likes children.

There’s a hint that the elderly Alice is thinking about all this, and perhaps understanding the implications of Dodgson’s attentions, for the first time. Maybe this explains why, when we first see her, she is hard-edged and cranky; like a woman trying to hide a secret from herself.

The appearances by Carroll’s characters—as splendidly created by Jim Henson’s puppet crew after the original John Tenniel drawings—may be considered chorus-like presences, helping this Alice, like the fictional one, on her roundabout way to finding out the truth.

Potter has explored his themes before; the coexistence of reality and artifice in Pennies from Heaven, and sexual repression in Brimstone and Treacle. But he brings things together here in a way that never seems schematic or boring.

And his cause is helped by three wonderful performances: Coral Browne, stiff but perhaps still vulnerable as the older Alice; Ian Holm, as the loving but controlled Dodgson; and Amelia Shankley, a fresh and spontaneous presence in her film debut, as little Alice.

The romantic subplot between Alice’s nurse (Nicola Cowper) and an American newspaperman (Peter Gallagher) may not quite be strong enough to fit into this puzzle; and it would have been terrific to have seen some more of Carroll’s creatures given life. But there is much that is special about Dreamchild, and it makes an intriguing companion piece to Carroll’s enduring work.

First published in the Herald, December 19, 1985

A brilliant idea for a Dennis Potter project, and a film I’d like to see again. I recall that, while Jim Henson’s puppets are always superb, the creatures here are particularly haunting, not just in their design but in their presence, somehow.

My Left Foot

November 21, 2012

My Left Foot is one of the best films of the year, a beautiful story about the Irish writer Christy Brown, a man who was born with cerebral palsy that left him unable to control his limbs, save for his left foot.

Brown was born into a huge, poor Irish family in 1932. Because of his physical disability, which also left him unable to speak for years, he was considered (and regularly called) an “idiot” and a “moron.” Eventually he learned how to write and draw with his foot, whereupon he was able to communicate his intelligence, which turned out to be formidable. He wrote an autobiography, My Left Foot, and found fame.

The film, written by Jim Sheridan and Shane Connaughton and directed by first-timer Sheridan, takes an episodic approach to Christy’s life, concentrating on his childhood and young adulthood. Each episode is like a different chapter, telling a lesson of hardship or triumph.

Lest this subject matter sound grueling or downbeat, be assured that there is a lot of triumph. Sheridan regularly creates vignettes in which Christy clears another hurdle, or gets the better of some thoughtless adversary. As a child, Christy is played by Hugh O’Conor, whose eyes blaze and whose mouth is twisted; a clenched and angry boy.

Yet even here Sheridan finds rich humor, as when Christy’s brothers must hide a girlie magazine in Christy’s wheelbarrow, which serves as a makeshift wheelchair. Discovering the magazine, Christy’s parents bring a Catholic representative to lecture the boy on sin: “You know you can never get out of hell.” An ironic thing to say to a wordless boy who cannot move his body.

Surely the high point of the movie comes when young Christy, still considered retarded, manages to clutch a piece of chalk between his toes and scrawl the word “Mother” on the floor, at which point his father hefts him onto his shoulders and totes Christy down to the pub, for a manly beer.

As an adult, Christy is played by Daniel Day-Lewis, the increasingly amazing actor who starred in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Day-Lewis captures the ferocity of a busy-minded man who has a limited outlet of expression. In Christy’s unlucky swings at love, Day-Lewis is utterly unsentimental and even wicked (his most hurtful and unrequited love is for a voice teacher, played by Fiona Shaw, who teaches him to recite Hamlet).

Day-Lewis and O’Conor are superb, and you would be hard-pressed to find more exemplary supporting performances than those of Brenda Fricker and the late Ray McAnally, who play Christy’s parents.

The ghost of the great American director John Ford hovers over the film. Ford, an Irish soul, would have approved of this movie’s gruff emotionalism, particularly a pub brawl straight out of The Quiet Man. Christy starts the fight. He also wins it, as the film demonstrates again and again.

First published in the Herald, December 24, 1989

Daniel Day-Lewis is back as I write this, with a rather amazing performance as the 16th president in a film by Steven Spielberg. (Oddly enough, he’ll get Oscar competition from John Hawkes, in The Sessions, as a man who cannot use his body.) My Left Foot is a fine film, and I remember that Hugh O’Conor was the equal of Day-Lewis as the young Christy, a fact the elder actor graciously acknowledged in his Oscar speech.


November 20, 2012

With A Room with a View, the stubbornly highbrow filmmaking team of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory notched the biggest hit of their long association. For their follow-up movie, they might’ve played it safe and solidified their commercial success; instead, they’ve gambled a bit.

Maurice is, like Room, an adaptation of a novel by E.M. Forster, and also recreates a lush time in Edwardian England. But Maurice—pronounced “Morris”—departs from Room by focusing entirely on the story of a homosexual personality. Forster himself was so anxious about the novel’s subject matter that he never published it; the book finally appeared posthumously.

The film, after a hilarious prologue in which an adolescent Maurice is given a sex lecture drawn in the sand by a teacher, takes Maurice (James Wilby) from his university days, where he and a fellow classmate, Clive (Hugh Grant), experiment in illicit love. As they grow older, Clive becomes interested in a political career, and he begins to see the advantage in renouncing his past.

Maurice, however, can’t deny his inclination, though he seeks explanation and advice from various unsympathetic sources. At one point he desperately solicits help from an American hypnotist (deadly funny cameo by Ben Kingsley), who assures Maurice that carrying around a gun might enhance feelings of masculinity. Maurice ends up finding some measure of happiness with a stableboy (Rupert Graves).

At about two-and-a-half hours, Maurice every so occasionally loses its momentum. And it’s certainly not as much sheer fun as A Room with a View, the movie that brought a new sprightliness to Merchant-Ivory films.

However, the movie unfolds like a rich period novel. Any Anglophile who enjoys disappearing into the likes of Brideshead Revisited will find much to savor here.

This time out, Ivory himself wrote the screenplay, in collaboration with Kit Hesketh-Harvey. Ivory’s direction is perhaps his most sensitive ever. Aside from the obvious physical beauty of the period setting, he builds careful visual motifs around certain objects; the recurring use of windows to signal important turning points, for instance.

And Ivory has a superb cast. The leading roles of Maurice and Clive, while perfectly acted by Wilby and Grant, are ever so slightly colorless. I think Ivory realizes this, and so he’s put some very tasty British actors in the supporting roles, including Kingsley, Billie Whitelaw, and the ever-ripe Simon Callow.

Denholm Elliott, fresh from an Oscar nomination for A Room with a View, turns up as Maurice’s elder, who attempts to convince Maurice that all is normal by examining Maurice’s working parts and pronouncing them functional. Maurice insists he has a problem; Elliott chirps back, “Oh, we’ll fix that!” He can’t, but in the end Maurice is the story of a man who comes to terms with something he can’t fix.

First published in the Herald, November 12, 1987

A pretty good example of Merchant Ivory in their mode, if I remember correctly. Grant, Wilby and Graves have represented their generation pretty well since then.