The Lighthorsemen

June 30, 2020

lighthorsemenThe Australians make good horse movies. And why not? As  in America, the horse was an essential element in exploring and settling a huge continent; it’s part of the national folklore, and the Australians, like the Americans, enjoy celebrating the horse in film.

Aside from the Man From Snowy River films, one of the better Australian horse movies was Phar Lap, the true story of a champion race horse. Now that film’s director, Simon Wincer, has chosen another true story to tell, and this time it’s an excuse to get dozens of thundering hoofbeats into the act.

Oh, there are some people in it too. (Though Wincer is rather less good with men than with horses.) The Lighthorsemen is based on the events leading up to a battle in Palestine in 1917, when the British were fighting the Turks for control of the crucial town of Beersheba. When the town refused to fall to the British forces, the battle culminated, as does the film, in an incredible dash, by an elite group of Australian cavalry called the Lighthorsemen, straight into enemy fire across four miles of unprotected desert.

In many ways the entire film exists for this final gallop. The 90 minutes leading up to it consist of conventional war-movie action, specifically about four proud Lighthorsemen and the green recruit (Peter Phelps) they, break in. The new guy has to wrestle with the strict code of the tightly knit horsemen, as well as his unexpected inability to shoot the enemy. He also gets a romantic idyll, in the form of the nurse (Sigrid Thornton) who tends him at the Army hospital.

The most interesting part of the movie before the finale is a side plot about a British intelligence man (Anthony Andrews) who must concoct a ruse to divert the Turks from the impending attack. It’s a clever episode, and Andrews (the star of Brideshead Revisited) gives a sly performance.

The movie as a whole is a simple­minded affair, old-fashioned in the manner of Phar Lap. The final charge is stupendous action filmmaking, as a company of horses gallop at full steam across the plain, directly Into the teeth of enemy fire. The men whoop and holler and brandish their sabers; and the horses wind up stealing the show anyway.

First published in The Herald, May 8, 1988

A sad postscript to this film is that actor Jon Blake, who plays Scotty, was injured in a car accident at the end of shooting in 1986, which left him with permanent and catastrophic brain damage. He was coming on as “the next Mel Gibson,” and his family was awarded a large settlement based on the potential of his future earnings. He died in 2011. 

Yes, I’m posting two Simon Wincer horse movies in a row. This movie was shot by Dean Semler, who had done The Road Warrior and would win an Oscar for Dances with Wolves. He would also return to horses – how to these things happen? – as the DP on Appaloosa and Secretariat. Lately he’s been working for Adam Sandler’s factory. The life of a cinematographer is funny.

Phar Lap

June 29, 2020

pharlapFirst things first: For those who don’t know what a Phar Lap is (I didn’t), an explanation is in order. Phar Lap was the great Australian racehorse who trounced his competition in the years 1928-31. When he was brought to America in 1932, Phar Lap won his first race, then died – foul play was hinted. Phar Lap is the story of those years, from the purchase of the horse – a skinny colt with good blood­ lines, he cost about $800 – to his final trip to America.

The true story has all the elements for a good movie: the early, dispiriting years, followed by success because of faith and plenty of elaborate behind-the-scenes machinations (Phar Lap became so unbeatable that he was once the subject of an assassination attempt from a speeding car). Still, one may be forgiven for suspecting that the film takes its inspiration from racetrack movies as much as from historical record.

The characters include the clean-faced stableboy (Tom Burlinson) who really loves the horse the most; his sweet girlfriend (Georgia Carr); the miserly American owner (Ron Leibman); his classy, sympathetic wife (Judy Morris); and the tough trainer (Martin Vaughan) given to saying things like, “Don’t tell me I’m training that horse too hard – I think I know a thing or two about horses,” etc.

The pleasantly surprising thing about Phar Lap is that only the stableboy and his girl come off as horse-yarn stereotypes. The owner and the trainer turn out to be more complicated. The owner may be something of an uncouth lout, but he has his moments of grace.

And the trainer is torn between his pride – in developing Phar Lap at a time when nobody else had faith in the horse – and his need for money. To pay off his dreams of a horse-training empire, he must work Phar Lap – who becomes a reliable winner – until the gelding is in danger of burning out.

That the characters are something other than black-and-white is probably the work of playwright David Williamson, the screenwriter of Gallipoli, The Club, and The Year of Living Dangerously. Williamson’s intelligent script provides some villains, though, in the form of an Australian Racing Club which insists that Phar Lap carry extra weight to make the races closer.

Director Simon Wincer doesn’t instill much snap into the proceedings. It’s more of a handsome film than an exciting one. Cinematographer Russell Boyd, who shot Tender Mercies, has managed some impressive period photography.

Unfortunately, the film (the most expensive ever made in Australia) comes at a point of over-saturation in the genre of come-from-behind movies. I’ve just about had it with slow-motion replays of races won at the finish line, with reaction shots of spectators brushing away tears, all scored to a ripoff of the music from Chariots of Fire. Phar Lap doesn’t do any of this too badly, but we’ve seen this kind of thing one too many times.

First published in The Herald, April 1984

Wincer has had a long career (his last work was 2011’s The Cup, a horse-racing movie), with the notable miniseries Lonesome Dove included. Burlinson had been in The Man from Snowy River the year before this film came out; Judy Morris’s long acting career also includes writing the screenplays for Babe – Pig in the City and Happy Feet. Also in the cast is Gia Carides, who went on to a long career. This is the first day in a week of Australian films on this website, and there will be more horses.



June 26, 2020

crackersThere are some movies that exist better on paper, or in somebody’s imagination, than they do on celluloid. For instance, how could a caper comedy with a script by Jeffrey Fiskin, who wrote one of the best screenplays of recent years (for Cutters Way, aka Cutter and Bone, 1981) and directed by Louis Malle, the French director hot from back-to-back successes in 1981, Atlantic City and My Dinner With Andre, possibly fail to be of interest?

I don’t know. Maybe Malle and Fiskin know. But none of the reasons they might give could change the fact that their new movie, Crackers, is a dud.

It’s a remake of Mario Monicelli’s 1956 Italian comedy, Big Deal on Madonna Street. The story, as transplanted to San Francisco’s flavorful Mission District, follows the efforts of a bunch of stumblebums to rob the safe of the pawnbroker whose shop they use as a hang-out.

The caper form – the classic of which is, perhaps, John Huston’s 1950 The Asphalt Jungle – very naturally lends itself to the cinema. The process of watching intricate plans made  and then seeing how they all come together (and, usually, fall apart) during the heist itself, is an irresisitible structure.

In fact, you have to try hard to make the genre uninteresting. Crackers works up some suspense during its big heist sequence, but there is a flatness to the enterprise that keeps things oddly subdued.

There are some nice comic touches, mostly due to behavioral idiosyncrasies captured by the actors. Wallace Shawn, who would have been an eloquent silent screen comedian, is the best thing about the movie. He plays a strange little guy named Turtle, whose main function in life is to devour anything put in front of him.

Sean Penn is also fine. He’s an actor who seems to completely alter his physical appearance for each role he plays (his most noticeable previous turns were in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Bad Boys). Here, he plays a well-meaning, not particularly bright Southern boy who yearns for rockabilly stardom. He also yearns for the kid sister of his best friend, a small-time hustler (Trinidad Silva), who happens to be very protective of his sister.

Penn has the look and sound of his character down perfectly and, true to form, his gangly, squinting musician is a total turnaround from the bulldog-tough hoodlum he played in Bad Boys. Unfortunately, the movie barely exists to support him. It’s such a limp, uninspired affair that you’re hard pressed to figure out what Malle and Fiskin might have had in mind, or what attracted them to the project in the first place. Let’s hope they put this one behind them and get cracking on their next movies.

First published in The Herald, February 1984

The cast is led by Donald Sutherland and Jack Warden, so I’m not sure why I didn’t mention them here, unless something got cut out of the review. The cast is unusual, with Christine Baranski, Charlayne Woodard, Irwin Corey (yes, the professor himself), and Larry Riley, who went on to become a regular on Knots Landing and died of AIDS in 1992. And yet, the movie is as flat as a pancake. I remember Penn being very interesting to watch – lanky and goofy, with his mouth hanging open. Based on the way he held himself, you’d swear he was as tall as Sutherland. Monicelli’s original film was also remade as Welcome to Collinwood, by future Marvel boys Anthony and Joe Russo. It is also a dud.



June 25, 2020

cousinsIn 1976 Cousin, Cousine was a bona fide arthouse hit; it made a nice pile of money in the States, and not only did it garner an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Language film, it even got nominated for best screenplay and best actress.

For some reason, it has taken Hollywood 13 years to remake it. These days, the turnaround time is a lot quicker, as evidenced by such rapid transformations of Gallic originals as Three Men and a Baby and Three Fugitives. But Cousin, Cousine is a more delicate property than either of these and, to be fair, a more thoughtful approach has been taken with the remake.

The film is called Cousins, adapted by playwright Stephen Metcalfe and directed by Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys). One thing that can be said for the remake is that it handles the story with care. What can’t be said for the remake is that it discovers a fresh American feeling for the tale.

The movie takes two married couples, plus their families, and mixes them together. Larry (Ted Danson) is a dance instructor with a short attention span; “When it looks like I might be successful,” he explains, “I move on.” He’s married to Tish (Sean Young), whose flightiness seems to suit him.

When Larry and Tish attend his uncle’s wedding, Tish winds up in a dalliance with a car salesman, Tom (William Petersen). Larry spends a quiet moment with Tom’s wife, Maria (Isabella Rossellini). Before long, there are two new couples on the scene.

The romantic interplay in this foursome is the film’s main subject, but there’s also time given over to Maria’s mother (Norma Aleandro), Larry’s crusty father (Lloyd Bridges), and Larry’s teen-age son (Keith Coogan).

In fact, as it turns out, there’s not enough time left to go around. The movie wastes two good actors, Sean Young and William Petersen. Their characters are stick figures and given short shrift.

It’s a movie with a split personality; some sequences are made with sensitivity, others remind you that Joel Schumacher is the guy who directed the insufferable St. Elmo’s Fire. A few keen observations flit by, and then a corny homily comes crashing down (of Larry: “He’s a failure at everything except life”).

Cousins is at its best with the affair between Larry and Maria. Hesitant at first, they swear to be just friends, but a night at a lakeside resort (filmed in British Columbia) changes that status; it’s the movie’s most romantic scene.

Still, one of the film’s weaknesses is Danson’s performance. Sorry, Cheers fans, but this actor seems more suited to television than movies. On the big screen, his heavy brow and set-too-close eyes have the effect of closing him off; he’s blank, he doesn’t radiate light.

Isabella Rossellini, on the other hand, radiates all over the place. She is the best reason to see Cousins, giving a wonderful performance in which every moment seems invented on the spot. The movie glows when, having spent a day with her illicit lover, she walks into her husband’s car showroom and strides up to the camera, absolutely beaming, and says, “Hi!” Simple things matter in a movie like this.

First published in The Herald, February 1989

At this point Rossellini should have had her pick of Hollywood parts, even if this film didn’t do particularly well; but (although her career has of course been rewarding), things didn’t take off the way they should have. Or maybe she didn’t want that. Anyway, see her in this movie. The film’s director, Joel Schumacher, died a couple of days ago, and is enjoying a series of appreciations, a tendency that really ought to be nipped in the bud. (I get it, you grew up watching The Lost Boys in heavy rotation on cable and it spoke to you, but let’s not get carried away.) I did enjoy a couple of his films toward the end (including the entertainingly trashy Trespass), and that Vulture intervew he gave in 2019 was a better movie than most of his movies.


The Serpent and the Rainbow

June 24, 2020

serpentandrainbowAt one point in The Serpent and the Rainbow, a business executive asks anthropologist/adventurer Dennis Alan, “What do you know about zombification?”

Alan allows himself a sidelong glance before he answers, “Only what I see on the late show.” The Serpent and the Rainbow is the story of Alan’s discovery of the voodoo religion and zombies, and in many ways the film seems determined to strip the Hollywood exaggerations from the mystery of voodoo.

Unfortunately, the movie falls prey to plenty of the usual clichés, without being as entertaining or well­ crafted as some of those late-show items.

Alan (Bill Pullman, the dumb guy from Ruthless People) ventures down to Haiti in hope of finding the formula by which people are turned into zombies – that is, the powder that brings them to a near-death state, after which they are buried, exhumed, and forced to work at menial jobs while drugged. The drug­-company exec who finances the trip looks forward to marketing an anaesthetic called “Zombinal.”

But our hero has his hands full, with the lovely Haitian doctor (Cathy Tyson, from Mona Lisa) who serves as his guide; the brutal politico (Zakes Mokae) who has the deadly Tonton Macoute at his bidding; and the slippery shaman (Brent Jennings) who is preparing a sample of the zombie powder. Meanwhile, Baby Doc Duvalier’s regime is beginning to topple.

A lot of activity, this. Too much, in fact, for the movie to sort through and make sense of. The director, Wes Craven, is one of moviedom’s darker figures, a former philosophy professor who now and then cranks out an honest-to-goodness screamfest (A Nightmare on Elm Street). Craven would seem to be the perfect choice for the needed balance of religious mystery, action and flat-out horror.

But the movie, which has be very loosely taken from Wade Davis nonfiction book, clumps from scene to scene without much logical locomotion. Alan’s narration has to fill in the gaps, and even with that his actions don’t seem to follow any pattern; the storytelling is curiously disjointed.

Craven’s best touches are the nightmarish dreams that Alan experiences, which often have false endings and surreal moments. But even this technique is held over from Elm Street, and doesn’t truly engage the heady complexities of voodoo.

Far too many missed opportunites here. Those late-show movies may have given a distorted view of voodoo and zombies, but at least they provided some chilling storytelling. I’ll take Val Lewton’s poetic 1942 I Walked with a Zombie over The Serpent and the Rainbow any time.

First published in The Herald, February 9, 1988

I want to like this movie more, given its director and subject matter, but I haven’t revisited it. Pullman was interesting casting at the time, and skewed the movie for me at the time, I recall (as in, I’m supposed to take that guy seriously?). Post-Lost Highway, that might not be such an issue.

Blind Date

June 23, 2020

blinddateEarly in Blind Date the two people who are about to embark on the titular event are meeting in her apartment. They haven’t seen each other yet, and the man has been told the woman has a lot of personality, so naturally he expects the worst. And just at the moment she’s about to emerge from the bathroom, the lights go out.

In the darkness, she wryly notes, “This really is a blind date.” He finds a match, lights it, and she walks into the light – a total knockout.

That’s a nice moment of enchantment. It’s also just about the last quiet moment they will share on this nightmarishly bad date.

He (Bruce Willis) is a gung-ho account executive, who needs a date for the evening because a very important client is having dinner with his firm’s executives. She (Kim Basinger) has been set up with Willis through a mutual friend.

There’s just one little thing – the hitch in Dale Launer’s screenplay. Basinger shouldn’t be allowed to touch a drop of alcohol, because she goes nuts if she indulges. It follows that the champagne is opened before long, the snooty dinner is a raucous catastrophe, and Willis loses his job.

That, as it turns out, is just the beginning, as the date broadens into a wild night and beyond, ending with the time-worn finale of an unhappy bride being rescued from the altar, which goes back at least as far as It Happened One Night and The Philadelphia Story.

There’s no one better to direct this brand of classical farce than Blake (Victor/Victoria) Edwards, who has danced this sort of fandango before. Edwards loads the film with the kind of slapstick that is absolutely rooted in logic – even when it turns surreal, as with the sudden movement of an entire house that Willis and Basinger are about to enter. (The building is being towed away intact.)

Edwards is a master of the running gag, which here includes the ceremonious ripping of mens’ vest pockets, as well as the persistent presence of a Doberman named Rambo. Edwards also mounts one of his patented hallway scenes, in which a bunch of characters in a series of adjacent rooms keep switching positions, unbeknownst to each other.

The other people involved are Basinger’s insanely jealous ex-boyfriend (John Larroquette of Night Court, a very funny man), plus Larroquette’s parents, William Daniels and Alice Hirson.

Willis, the manic star of Moonlighting, plays against type, cool and reactive here. The showy part is Basinger’s. She’s played some victims lately (9 ½ Weeks, Fool for Love), but she showed a streak of comedy in Edwards’ The Man Who Loved Women and she can still deliver uninhibited humor, and a casual throwaway line.

Much of Blind Date is very funny. I think, unfortunately, there’s also a flagging of that early enchantment. Some of the steam goes out of the movie, and the big climax is oddly lax.

Even with the nagging sense that something is missing in the movie, it’s awfully enjoyable. It’s still a reliable formula for movie comedy: There’s just something deeply satisfying about watching the worst happen to people.

First published in The Herald, March 1987

“A total knockout.” Too bro? I was still a young man, remember. Willis’s first big movie after launching in Moonlighting, and a pretty shrewd choice. Certainly this movie plays better than the next Edwards/Willis picture, the woebegotten Sunset. Apparently Madonna was almost cast in the female lead, which would have made for a rather different kind of movie. Henry Mancini did the music – but of course.


Cease Fire

June 22, 2020

ceasefireCease Fire is a completely ear­nest and honorable attempt to illuminate one man’s readjustment to life after the Vietnam War. Problem is the story is so familiar by this time, and the film itself is so dully realized, it’s a little hard to be as involved as we should be.

The Vietnam vet is played by Don Johnson, who made the movie just before he launched himself into superstardom with Miami Vice (the film shares the TV show’s location). He’s very good here as the tormented soul who can’t make peace with society, even though the war is almost 15 years behind him.

He has a wife (Lisa Blount) and two kids, but he’s just lost his job, and he has nightmares about the war that keep his nerves jangled. As the film begins, he meets another vet (Robert F. Lyons) who’s in pretty much the same boat as Johnson – but who’s a little more desperate about it.

They try to talk the war away, but their recollections only seem to intensify the bad memories. As Johnson’s behavior gets more erratic (he becomes physically threatening toward his family and freaks out when a potential employer gives some stupid opinions about vets), his wife suggests that group therapy might be in order – but Johnson is so tightly wound, it doesn’t seem to do him any good.

This story, sad to say, has an over­familiar ring to it. The problem of the readjusting veteran is an import­ant subject, yet the idea has been worked so often in movies and TV that it needs a fresh approach, and Cease Fire doesn’t give it that.

Many plot points are telegraphed from miles away – especially that the instability of Lyons’ character is going to result in self-destruction. And Blount, who played David Keith’s girlfriend in An Officer and a Gentleman, has a thankless task with the unflattering role of the wife. Cease Fire is the pet project of George Fernandez, himself a Vietnam vet and the author of the Vietnam Trilogy, a stage play from which Cease Fire has been adapted. Fernandez also served as executive producer and got a former classmate from the University of Miami film school, David Nutter, to direct.

They’ve certainly got nothing to be ashamed of, but – and this is a good reminder for anyone who thinks that socially-conscious subject matter excuses dull filmmaking – it only hurts their own cause when the movie itself falls into banal conclusions and formulaic traps. Rather than being excited into empathy, audiences will more likely leave the theater numbed by a familiar experience.

First published in The Herald, October 1985

Turns out director Nutter went on to have a robust career in television, including three Emmys; he’s been on Games of Thrones, ER, The X-Files, all kinds of things. You never know. IMDb says that Johnson gave an interview in which he said he did not remember making the film. I can believe that.