Spring Break

February 18, 2013

Another brief hiatus as the author finds himself at sea. We’ll resume the Eighties march the week of March 4.

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Willow

February 15, 2013

willowThe advance buzz on George Lucas’s Willow has been that the film is “soft”; not quite strong enough, for instance, to open opposite Rambo III and Crocodile Dundee II (a pair of blockbusters that bow next Wednesday). The industry word was the Lucas’s “Star Wars with midgets” was shaping up as a possible summer stiff.

Some of this, I think, is wishful thinking from those envious of Lucas’s incredible success. The creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones doesn’t play by Hollywood’s rules, and he’s taken considerable blame for supposedly lowering the collective IQ of the movie-going public by dishing up his magical fantasies.

Willow, it turns out, is neither Lucas’s magnum opus nor his giant stumble. It’s simply an entertaining movie, heavily formulaic but a good bit of fun. Lucas, who takes executive producer and story credit, has fashioned a straightforward fantasia that borrows from himself and others. This is not, regrettably, a major step forward for him, but neither is it a sin.

The major inspirational sources are the sword-and-sorcery genre, a la Lord of the Rings, and the Japanese samurai movie. The world of Willow is full of evil queens, talking animals, magical dwarfs, and big two-headed monsters that live in moats. The matter at hand is a baby, an infant princess prophesied to save her kingdom, who needs to be transported away from the evil queen and toward safety.

By a complicated set of reasons, the job falls to a farmer named Willow (Warwick Davis), one of the little people who live in a peaceful country. In getting the child away from Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh), Willow naturally goes through much adventure, aided along the way by an irresponsible warrior (Val Kilmer), a sorceress who looks like a squirrel, and two rowdy Lilliputian creatures called Brownies, who inexplicably (but amusingly) speak with French accents.

The movie is full of the expected high-throttle sequences, including a rather nifty sled chase in the snow, a full-tilt carriage ride, and two (count ’em) castle stormings. (It is also marked by occasionally awe-inspiring special effects, produced by Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic.) To all of this, director Ron Howard brings his customary good humor; he’s surely responsible for many of the throwaway sight gags and sardonic line readings.

Some things seem compromised by their familiarity. Lucas uses what has worked for him in the past, and some sequences correspond exactly to their counterparts in other Lucas films. As do the heroes: Willow is a shorter version of good Luke Skywalker, the pretty princess (Joanne Whalley) is a Princess Leia on the wrong side, and Val Kilmer’s wise-cracking warrior is out of the Han Solo mold.

Kilmer has also clearly fashioned his performance—hair, movements, expressions—on Toshiro Mifune, one of the world’s greatest action stars. And the final battle, fought in a driving rain, invites comparison to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (Lucas is a longtime Kurosawa admirer), though Willow suffers by the measurement.

The question is, does Lucas keep making the same movie because he’s obsessed by similar stories, or because he wants to mine a profitable formula? Either way, and as enjoyable as Willow is, this particular Lucas method seems to have run its course.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

Haven’t seen it since, but this all sounds about right. How innocently promising the career of Val Kilmer seemed at the time—and Ron Howard’s too, come to think of it.


La Balance

February 14, 2013

balanceThe French seem to love American police thrillers almost as much as Americans do, and they regularly make movies that imitate the hard-hitting American style.

The gritty, roughhouse French thriller La Balance, however, does not really have to imitate an American style—because the writer-director is himself an American. He’s an expatriate named Bob Swaim, and his movie is lively, violent, and something of a mess.

The first part of the film is seen mainly from the viewpoint of the cops—especially the police captain (Richard Berry) who wants to sting the city’s underworld kingpin (Maurice Ronet). To do that, he’s got to find some informers who will help set the crime czar up for a fall.

He finds a prostitute (Nathalie Baye) and her pimp (Philippe Leotard) and bullies them into setting up the sting. Soon, our sympathies are with Baye and Leotard; the twist here is that the genuinely love each other, and are blackmailed into helping the police.

There is still a tattered honor about these unlikely heroes, which is a far cry from the belligerent, amoral police. Even the jaded captain is impressed—and although he reneges on initial promises to the couple, he may be stating to like them.

The world of La Balance is a world of betrayal, on various levels: in love, in crime, in business. Swaim conjures a convincingly ratty Paris underworld in which to set this tale of shifting loyalties, and the ugly cinematography adds to this.

The film has a lot of ideas floating around, and most of them don’t quite come together. The air of confusion may be appropriate for the sense of moral ambiguity that Swaim clearly wants to communicate, but it makes a cop thriller considerably less streamlined.

But the story works well enough, in large part thanks to an appealing cast: Baye is fine as the prostitute, and Berry does well in the tough part of the unshaven, world-weary detective. There’s probably no actor around who looks less like his name than Philippe Leotard; his boxer’s face gives him a streetwise authenticity, but he also carries an odd nobility.

And La Balance itself has an authenticity, possibly due to the Gallic setting being filtered through an American mind, and seen afresh. Whatever the reason, it turns out to be a truly French French Connection.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1984

Swaim got a Hollywood stint out of this, doing the awkward Half Moon Street and the better Masquerade. This was a good period for Nathalie Baye, a delicate-looking actress with a distinct gravity.


Gardens of Stone

February 13, 2013

gardensofstoneFrancis Coppola has looked at the Vietnam War before. A decade ago, hot off the success of the Godfather films, he poured everything he had into Apocalypse Now, a broad, out-of-control movie that played up the insanity of Vietnam through a plot borrowed from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

It was all darkness: The war was a rudderless ship, and the military people in charge were psychopaths. (Remember “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”?)

Now Coppola has made another Vietnam movie, based on a novel by Nicholas Profitt, and the contrast is fascinating. Gardens of Stone, produced with the enthusiastic cooperation of the U.S. military, shows the home front in 1968, among some soldiers and friends at Arlington National Cemetery. This time the conflict isn’t the simple war-is-madness of Apocalypse Now. This is a much more mature, and much more ambivalent movie.

The central figure is Clell Hazard (James Caan, in a terrific comeback performance), a combat veteran who’s been put out to pasture as a member of the Old Guard. His main responsibility at Arlington is teaching soldiers how to bury other soldiers, but he burns to be doing something more useful.

A young gung-ho soldier (D.B. Sweeney) becomes Hazard’s surrogate son at Arlington. He wants to be an officer and go where the fighting is. Hazard’s response is basically the film’s standpoint: This war is different, probably a mistake; but a soldier must serve, and should be where he can do the most good. The movie tracks the year of the boy’s tutelage under Hazard and another Old Guard sergeant (James Earl Jones, in a scene-stealing role), until the kid is shipped off.

Some of the ambivalence of the time is reflected in Hazard’s relationship with a Washington Post reporter (Anjelica Huston) who thinks the war is “genocide” but who falls in love with the Army man anyway.

I’m not sure Coppola feels completely comfortable with the old-fashioned straightforwardness of this story, especially toward the end, but he bravely faces it head on. It’s a very entertaining film, with lots of inside military stuff. There’s an emphasis on the military as a family, and Hazard refers to the war as a “family business”—which reverberates intriguingly with the family business of Coppola’s Godfather.

And it’s a good-looking film, both in terms of the people onscreen and the physical production. Jordan Cronenweth’s photography is excellent as usual, and production designer Dean Tavoularis, who has worked with Coppola many times, gets a late-’60s look that is discreet but evocative. Hazard’s slightly dumpy apartment, for example, is an uncannily authentic space.

These details are memorable, and that’s proper. The big issues of the war won’t get settled here, and the film is at its best when it stays away from them (one of the only cheap-shot moments comes at the expense of a caricature peacenik, played by counterculture promoter Bill Graham). The movie succeeds because of its attention to the frailties of people, caught in a terrible situation.

First published in the Herald, May 1987

History has not remembered this movie, and to be honest, neither really have I. But it did, at least, feel rooted in something. Coppola’s son had died just before filming, and the film has a gravity that distinguishes it in the director’s work.


Angelo My Love

February 12, 2013

angelomyloveHe’s not much taller than a fire hydrant. His pint-sized tuxedo looks absurdly grown-up, and he has a liking for older women—women of 12 or 13. He can’t read or write, and he has no interest in learning to do so. He’s our hero, this 10-year-old gypsy Angelo, and he’s got important things to do.

The most important thing he has to do in Angelo My Love is retrieve a ring that was stolen from his family. Angelo will inherit the heirloom when he turns 15, but it’s been pilfered by a man named Patalay (Steve Tsigonoff), who is a member of a different group of gypsies.

This search for the ring is the main plot of Angelo My Love, but the plot is really almost an excuse to look at the fascinating gypsy subculture. The film takes time to present such events as the bartering process over a bride-to-be, the candlelit Feast of St. Anne, and a noisy gypsy trial, presided over by the elders, that takes place in the back room of a neighborhood bar.

Through it all struts Angelo, a vain littler charmer who speaks with the brash authority of someone three times his age. His more even-tempered older brother Michael accompanies Angelo, and is accustomed to the tiny spitfire’s tricks. Together, they’re a great Mutt and Jeff detective team, looking for the family ring through the gritty streets and alleys of New York.

The people in Angelo My Love are just people—not professional actors. Writer-director Robert Duvall, one of America’s best actors, became intrigued by the gypsies when he encountered Angelo Evans on the street one day. Duvall built a movie around this natural performer, and although it’s a fictional story, he’s filmed gypsy life with a documentary-like feel for reality—the actors even keep their real-life names.

Duvall has captured the texture of the lives remarkably well. He’s rejected anything that smacks of condescension or romanticizing of these unusual people.

As in his own performances, Duvall the director looks for the truest way of presenting situations and emotions. The actors may be amateurs, but there isn’t a false note struck by any of the cast members. That’s no mean feat in any movie, but it’s particularly impressive in a film that relies on its actors to improvise many of their scenes.

And Angelo is the most impressive of all—the scene in which he puts the moves on a sawed-off country-western girl singer is classic; Angelo gives her a soulful look as she croons a song especially for him—but he’s not so lost in love that he can’t take a moment to sneak a peek at his own immaculately groomed self in a convenient mirror.

In an early scene, Angelo actually attends school-for a few minutes—and is asked to read out loud from a book. He has to make up his own story, since he has no idea what those funny black marks are on the page. The teacher gets suspicious, but Angelo claims he can’t read without his glasses. “Are you near-sighted or far-sighted?” asks the teacher. “I’m every-sighted,” replies Angelo. Whether scripted or improvised, what a lovely and accurate way of putting it.

First published in the Herald, November 22, 1983

The movie made a nice impression in the pre-Sundance era, but is almost completely off the radar now. With this and The Apostle, Duvall the director really deserves status as a kind of American original, having made some films that are not like anything else


The Bedroom Window

February 11, 2013

bedroomwindowI’m sitting there watching The Bedroom Window, and distracted enough to play a movie mind game: Who are the two actors, in all of world cinema, least likely to show up in the same film frame?

My nominations: Steve Guttenberg, lightweight star of the Police Academy movies and Cocoon, and Isabelle Huppert, the sultry actress who has graced scores of French films, including Violette and Sincerely Charlotte. Two such divergent styles are inconceivable together; Guttenberg’s shallow knockabout play couldn’t possibly strike sparks against Huppert’s flinty Gallic edge.

These two share centerstage in The Bedroom Window, and, in fact, their chemistry is non-existent. Their inability to interact turns out to be characteristic of the film as a whole. While it’s based on a good thriller idea, the movie flounces around desperately in search of a style.

The writer-director, Curtis Hanson, knows he has a pretty good setup, and he wrings a certain amount of juice from it. But he can’t find his own consistent voice, so he reaches for a variety of quotes from the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitch might have liked this basic situation: A guy (Guttenberg) is messing around with his boss’s wife (Huppert) at Guttenberg’s apartment one night after a party. She hears a noise in the middle of the night, goes to the window, and sees a woman (Elizabeth McGovern) being attacked on the street. She also gets a clear view of the attacker, a pale, red-headed fellow who looks a little like Howdy Doody—who immediately sprints away when he know he’s been spotted. Guttenberg, arriving at the window too late, doesn’t see the man.

The thug is a suspected murderer, so Guttenberg feels they should go to the police and try to identify the culprit; but Huppert doesn’t want to expose the infidelity, so Guttenberg decides to pretend he was the one who saw the attacker, borrowing Huppert’s description.

In such a situation, it is inevitable that the deceit will come unraveled. Here, it happens when Guttenberg is confronted by a police lineup. Naturally, he can’t make a positive identification; but afterward, he follows the most suspicious of the suspects on his own, and gathers his own evidence. His weird behavior leads the cops to wonder whether Guttenberg might be involved as more than just a witness.

Not bad, but Hanson has trouble even with the early expositional scenes. The actors are out of sync, the camera often feels misplaced, and the red herrings are feebly scattered. (Hanson’s sole innovative directorial stroke is making Baltimore an atmospheric, scenic setting.)

There’s one scene that really comes alive: the trial in which Guttenberg gives the testimony. He’s grilled by a defense attorney, played by playwright Wallace Shawn (of My Dinner with Andre), who brings so much sauce and wit to his brief role that it only reinforces how lame the film has been thus far. Perhaps this was the sort of offbeat casting Hanson had in mind when he chose his leads, although Guttenberg is out of his depth and Huppert acts as though she has learned her English phonetically. Together, they have all the compatibility of creatures from different species, which is about what the film deserves.

First published in the Herald, January 15, 1987

Hanson, a great cineaste, would get to Bad Influence in 1990, an upgrade in almost every way, and of course go on to do excellent work in L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys. I stand by my assertion here: the Guttenberg-Huppert liaison remains my weirdest screen couple.


Repentance

February 8, 2013

repentanceAs glasnost settles in, the various kinds of Soviet openness will include a freeing-up of the national cinema, which has been a landscape of clumsy epics and squelched talents since the glory days of Russian filmmaking in the 1920s.

At least, a freeing-up is promised. We’ll see.

Anyway, the Gorbachev era has already brought some interesting titles into the open; movies that had been made, but were officially languishing on the shelf, for whatever reasons. Repentance (completed in 1984) is the latest find, and the one that has had the most publicity.

A good deal of the publicity likely comes from the allegorical nature of the movie, which takes a harsh view of Soviet history, albeit in a disguised way.

As the film opens, a famous man, Varlam Aravidze, has died. But when he is buried, his body keeps popping back up in the front yard of his middle-aged son. When the grave-robber is caught, it turns out to be a woman, who vows she will never allow Varlam’s body to rest in peace. At her trial, she tells her story.

As a child, she witnessed Varlam’s brutal reign over the town where she and her parents lived. Varlam was a pompous psychopath, a mayor who instituted official forms of terror and arranged the death of the girl’s father, an artist.

As delivered in the grand performance of Avtandil Makharadze, Varlam is a stupefying tyrant; with his tiny Hitler mustache and his well-fed form, he can be a comic figure at times, bursting into opera and making speeches declaring that “four out of every three persons are enemies.” But the actor never loses the terrible cruelty of the man, or the petty meanness.

The film’s director, Tengiz Abuladze, has said that Repentance is not merely an allegory of the Stalinist era, although that is surely the crucial point of comparison. That’s the way Russian audiences have responded to it; the movie has been an enormous hit in the Soviet Union.

Noting the film’s importance, it would be splendid to report that it’s a masterpiece, but I don’t think it is. Repentance has the lumbering nature of many Soviet movies, which tend to take 10 minutes to do what an American director can toss off with a reaction shot. But Makharadze’s strange performance, and Abuladze’s formal use of recurring motifs—flowers, churches—goes a long way toward making Repentance an intriguing experience, even if it may always mean more to Russian audiences than to others.

First published in the Herald, April 24, 1988

Abuladze was a Georgian filmmaker with a career dating back to 1953; the leading man played Stalin, his fellow Georgian, in the 2005 Daniel Craig picture Archangel. This movie sounds like it would look pretty interesting from 30 years’ distance.