The Land Before Time/Oliver and Company

April 30, 2021

The fact that Oliver and Company and The Land Before Time opened on precisely the same day represents a real clash of the titans. In the world of animation, that is.

Oliver and Company is the latest offering from the recharged Disney animation folks and Disney, after all, is supposed to set the standard.

But Land Before Time comes from former Disney animator Don Bluth, whose An American Tail was one of the big cartoon hits of this decade. (Land Before Time also carries the considerable backing of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas as executive producers.)

The surprise here is that Bluth has managed to out-Disney Disney. Land Before Time is really a homage to the classic Disney animation, to the soft, luscious visual style of Fantasia and Bambi. It’s about the adventures of a group of baby dinosaurs who trek across a continent in search of a fabled land of milk and honey.

It’s a slight story, not so much written as cribbed together, but the visuals are so lush and the baby dinos so adorable that it all works very neatly. The film doles out the expected behavioral lessons in an unforced and charming way, with the little characters clearly and winningly delineated.

Oliver and Company, by contrast, catches the Disney animators in an upbeat and modern mode. The story is loosely based on Dickens, but Oliver Twist is merely a jumping-off point.

Oliver is a stray kitten lost in the streets of contemporary New York City. He’s taken in by “New York’s coolest quadruped,” a hip hound, Dodger (whose voice is provided by Billy Joel).

In this version, Fagin is a homeless rogue who, somewhat disconcertingly, speaks in the voice of Dom DeLuise. Fagin has a bevy of dogs working for him, an entertaining batch of canines who furnish the movie’s best moments. (A peppery chihuahua is given voice by Cheech Marin, who has fun.)

Oliver also falls in with a rich little girl who needs a friend. The little girl’s other pet is a pampered, blue-haired poodle named Georgette – vocal by Bette Midler, who knows what to do with such an opportunity.

Oliver, directed by George Scribner, is a spirited outing. There are some interesting angles and effects in it, and a dramatic chase on subway tracks that is quite good. At the very least, it continues the upswing in energy at the Disney studio, which became sluggish and something of a dinosaur itself by the 1970s.

It seeks to be light and jazzy, and it succeeds at that, but the movie’s fundamentally soulless. Even the quality of the animation is a bit off; the jaggedness of the drawing is nowhere near as lovely to watch as the round shapes and subtle colors of Land Before Time. In the battle of the cartoon giants, Bluth and company came out on top this time.

First published in The Herald, November 24, 1986

Big Thanksgiving showdown here. Just checking out the stills from Oliver, the film really looks like a relic of Disney’s past; The Little Mermaid would bow in ’89 and change everything. Bluth returned in ’89, too, with the so-so All Dogs Go to Heaven.


One Woman or Two

April 29, 2021

One Woman or Two is something of a French update on Bringing Up Baby, the classic comedy by Howard Hawks. In that 1938 film, Cary Grant played a strait-laced paleontologist who had the pins knocked out from under him by a freewheeling Katharine Hepburn.

In One Woman or Two, Gerard Depardieu plays the paleontologist, Sigourney Weaver plays the spirit of anarchy. But there all resemblance to the earlier film ends; One Woman or Two is a mess, and not a very funny one.

As the film opens, Depardieu is out on a dig in the French countryside, where he discovers the partial skeleton of a 2-million-year-old human. “The First Frenchwoman,” as he excitedly puts it.

Rushing to Paris to examine the skeleton is a philanthropist moneybags (played by sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer), who will fund further archaeological work if the discovery is important enough. But instead of picking her up at the airport, Depardieu erroneously latches on to another woman (Weaver), who goes along with the masquerade because she’s avoiding a crazy ex-lover.

Well, it’s all very complicated. And ridiculous: We’re mean to believe that Weaver, an ex-model who represents a perfume company, wants to use the 2-million-year-old woman for an expensive ad campaign. And that she would go along with the pretense just to avoid her ex. And that she would have dated this creep for five years, as she is supposed to have done.

The movie’s many lapses in plausibility aren’t smoothed over by any sort of vim or vigor. Daniel Vigne, the director/co-writer, who previously teamed with Depardieu on The Return of Martin Guerre, doesn’t display much comedic sense. Some of the physical ideas are funny: pairing off the shapelessness of Depardieu with the statuesque Weaver, and then throwing in sawed-off Dr. Ruth, has some possibilities. But the slapstick business falls flat in the general disorganization. There aren’t even any romantic sparks between the lead actors until the final clinch of the movie.

But forget about Depardieu and Weaver. Of course the question America is asking is: What about Dr. Ruth’s movie debut? The diminutive Westheimer acquits herself adequately, it must be reported, although not much is required of her. She appears to have been chosen in part because of her resemblance to the clay figure that Depardieu shapes as an approximation of his skeleton. (An unfortunate resemblance it is, too.) But the protection-minded sex guru inhabits the role with ease, and even gets through the whole film without warning anyone to use contraceptives.

First published in The Herald, February 1987

Vigne mostly directed in French television after this. I checked to see where this movie fell in Depardieu’s busy career, and it came just after Maurice Pialat’s Police and Bertrand Blier’s Menage, two chancy films from risk-taking auteurs. So, in case we have forgotten because of the man’s erratic behavior of late, he was on a roll. (For Weaver, it came between Ghostbusters and Aliens, so ditto.) The Dr. Ruth movie phenomenon did not really take off.


Outrageous Fortune

April 28, 2021

The screenwriter of Outrageous Fortune, first-timer Leslie Dixon, has marveled in print that her script was not watered down through the common Hollywood tradition of rewriting. Amazingly, her finished draft was shot “almost verbatim.”

There may be a lesson here for those legions of screenwriters who complain about how their work has been ruined by other writers or the director. If someone had had the good sense to insist on a major reworking of Dixon’s script, Outrageous Fortune might have been a genuinely memorable movie. As it is, it’s yet another of those films that begins with much promise, only to fly farther out into idiocy.

Dixon spins out some swift, daffy exposition in the early reels. The mainspring of the comedy is the familiar collision of two ill-matched women; one is an uptight would-be actress (Shelley Long), the other a blowsy Brooklyn babe (Bette Midler). The casting alone describes the dynamic of their relationship, since both actresses are working according to type: Long does the prissy, pretentious number she’s perfected on Cheers, and Midler does her usual brass band.

They’re both amusing, as expected, and Dixon’s plot pulls them together via an acting class taught by a great Russian drama teacher (Robert Prosky). It will turn out that they share something else: a lover (Peter Coyote), but he is promptly killed in an explosion, before Long’s eyes.

Or is he? Long and Midler bump into each other at the morgue, examining the corpse. So they discover the truth about Coyote’s infidelity; but they also, upon closer inspection, realize that the body on the slab is not his. (A crucial, ah, portion of his anatomy, having survived the explosion, does not jibe with their recollections of it.)

When they team up to track him down, it’s an excuse for some predictable, if effective, clashes of personality. Unfortunately, it’s also the point at which the film really leaves its hinges. Some foolishness about the KGB and the CIA is introduced, and the simple hunt for Coyote becomes an overblown farce about saving the western United States, or something.

It’s not funny, but what’s worse is that it’s so unnecessary – as though the domestic tribulations of this triangle alone couldn’t hafve sustained a satisfying comedy; the screwball classics of the ’30s and ’40s did all right, and there wasn’t even a CIA to kick around.

Even in the latter stages, some of Dixon’s dialogue has bite, and there’s an intermittently spacey cameo from George Carlin, also cast to type, as a woozy survivor of the ’60s adrift in a small New Mexico town. Director Arthur Hiller treats all of this with the same poker-faced invisibility he has maintained throughout his bland career (Love Story, The In-Laws).

Midler’s shtick is intact. Long ranges a bit, and proves herself to be an utterly uninhibited actress, physically adept and blessed with great timing. Too bad she’s spinning her wheels with flip material.

First published in The Herald, February 2, 1987

I do not know what else to say.


Overboard

April 27, 2021

The screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s might well feature a spoiled heiress escaping from a yacht and falling into the calloused hands of a roughneck. These two were a mismatch, but somehow they got around to finding true love before the fade-out.

So screenwriter Leslie Dixon (Outrageous Fortune) is joining a long tradition with her script for Overboard. In this one, the spoiled heiress (Goldie Hawn) steers her yacht into an Oregon backwater for an “emergency” repair job: She wants her shoe closet rebuilt.

A local carpenter (Kurt Russell), the roughneck, comes aboard, builds her a new closet, and gets stiffed on his fee when he insults her ladyship.  But when the yacht steams out that night, the heiress falls over the side; and when she’s rescued by a garbage scow, it seems she has amnesia. (The biggest case of amnesia here belongs to the filmmakers, who apparently don’t remember how often this hokey device has been used in movies.)

When her preppie husband (Edward Herrmann) sees that she’s been put in the local hospital, he sails merrily away; frankly, he couldn’t stand her. The carpenter spots the amnesia victim on local TV and sees and angle on getting a little payback: He pretends this woman saved from drowning is his wife. And he brings her home to tend his four motherless sons.

The better part of the film has Goldie coping with the life of a put-upon housewife at Russell’s ramshackle hovel in the Oregon backwoods. There are a lot of attitude-readjustment jokes, many of which are funny because Hawn has lost none of her flair for comic adorability.

This is the first movie Hawn and Russell have made in tandem since they got together on Swing Shift (they are Significant Others in real life). They’re easy to take together, although Russell may be a bit too relaxed in his good-ol’-boy role. The kids are standard-issue movie tykes.

Garry Marshall is the director. In his Nothing in Common and The Flamingo Kid, he had a nice, unforced feeling for place and atmosphere. Overboard is much more nondescript.

And speaking of the script, Dixon’s screenplay fails in ways those old screwball comedies didn’t. Jokes are hit-or-miss, without being developed. And the secondary characters, Hawn’s grotesque mother (Katherine Helmond) and dutiful butler (Roddy McDowall), should be better integrated, not to mention funnier. Overboard manages to be regularly amusing, without ever becoming anything memorable, or do I merely have a case of temporary amnesia?

First published in The Herald, December 20, 1987

I haven’t seen this movie again, but in running across certain scenes, I will acknowledge that at least one of the kids is distinctively hilarious. Otherwise, no strong memory, except that it’s a pretty weird idea for a film. IMDb, and probably many others, points out that the concept is a little bit similar to Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away, so maybe that classes up the joint a bit.


Old Gringo

April 26, 2021

It is very easy to feel a fondness for Old Gringo merely because it is the kind of movie they don’t make anymore: sweeping, romantic, grand. But there are other reasons to feel fond of Old Gringo that have nothing to do with nostalgia. It is a literate, handsome movie, with a sprinkling of near-classic scenes; not quite a success, perhaps, but a fine film.

It is based on a best-selling novel by Carlos Fuentes, Mexico’s leading author. The story takes off from a tantalizing real-life mystery: What happened to Ambrose Bierce, the sardonic American writer who disappeared into the Mexican desert in 1914? Bierce was 71 years old when he wandered away from the world that made him so bitter, and he vanished utterly.

The story of Old Gringo imagines an end for Bierce. But it is told from the viewpoint of a woman, a spinster (Jane Fonda) who journeys to Mexico to serve as the governess for a wealthy family only to find that her employers have been whisked out of their mansion by the revolution. Stuck in the rebels’ camp, she meets Bierce (Gregory Peck) who has come in search of adventure and, probably, his own death.

They meet the dashing young general (Jimmy Smits, from L.A. Law) who has sacked the property. But his feelings are ambivalent. He also grew up on the place, and his link to the hacienda is strong.

Needless to say, an attraction will develop between the spinster and the general, with Bierce weighing in regularly with some elegant dollops of wisdom (wonderfully spoken by Peck, who brings his decades of professionalism and grace to this meaty role).

The film is great to look at; director Luis Puenzo (who made the excellent The Official Story) has an unfailing eye for the epic touch. And for at least the first hour, Old Gringo is rich in character and incident. Puenzo, who also adapted the script with Aida Bortnik, takes time for the slightest of privileged moments, such as Bierce’s show-stopping demonstration of his old wooing technique, or his genteel invitation to bed with the spinster (after all, he points out, how fitting: it would be her first time, and almost certainly his last).

I think the movie begins to crumble in its second half, possibly because the general’s reluctance to act has a murky psychological basis; and the film, at two hours, could even be longer, given the ground it’s trying to cover.

A “woman’s film” crossed with a David Lean epic, Old Gringo fulfills the most important requirement for this kind of thing: It takes the viewer Somewhere Else, a fully imagined and exotic world apart. There’s a lot to be said for that.

First published in The Herald, October 1989

I am surprised to learn that I liked as much of this film as I did, given that it remains a very vague memory. It was Puenzo’s biggest Hollywood shot, and flopped badly. Also one of Peck’s last films. My take: The title should have been The Old Gringo, as the novel translation had it, because without the definite article it just sounds weird.


High Tide

April 23, 2021

When My Brilliant Career was released in 1979, it unleashed two of the distinctive talents in the Australian cinema: Judy Davis, the lead actress, and Gillian Armstrong, the director.

Since that film, each has done very nicely. Davis has become one of the world’s finest actors, recently nabbing a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the central role in David Lean’s superproduction, A Passage to India. And Armstrong has made the coveted jump to Hollywood filmmaking, with Mrs. Soffel, starring Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson.

A new Australian movie, High Tide, brings Armstrong and Davis back together, with results that are deeper, darker, more searching than My Brilliant Career.

The main character of High Tide, Lilli (Davis), is like the headstrong suffragette from My Brilliant Career in a disappointed future life: She’s still strong-willed and peculiar, but now tired, caustic, and alone.

Lilli has spent her brilliant career traveling on the road as a backup singer for a third-rate Elvis impersonator (Frankie J. Holden). He fires her in a seaside town called Eden, where Lilli is stuck for a few days when her car goes on the fritz.

Unknown to Lilli, her adolescent daughter (Claudia Karvan) lives in the town with her grandmother (Jan Adele). Lilli had abandoned the child as an infant many years before. Now, upon meeting the girl again (Lilli is drunk on the floor of a beach changing-room at the time), she has to decide whether to tell the girl who she is, and where to take it after that.

Davis plays the complex and not particularly likable character with a ferociousness that becomes profoundly moving. When she and her new boyfriend (Colin Friels) take a driving trip during her stay, she says, “The best thing in the world, this. Taking off. Going somewhere.” Running away is what she’s done all her life, and Eden is the place where she finally faces up to some longstanding responsibilities.

Armstrong and her topnotch cinematographer Russell Boyd get a good, lonely atmosphere in this little town, where Lilli’s daughter lives in a trailer park overlooking the beach. Most importantly, Armstrong and Davis are on the same uncompromising wavelength with Lilli: They refuse to make her artificially admirable. Armstrong’s camera is frequently in motion, as though Lilli’s restlessness is carrying the movie into new and strange places – taking off, going somewhere.

It’s somewhere pretty special. Although Laura Jones’ screenplay contains some dialogue of the TV-movie variety, High Tide casts up images and ideas that linger. It’s not as cuddly, and it won’t be as popular, as My Brilliant Career, but it is a superior film.

First published in The Herald, February 1988

David and Friels are, as you know, married in real life. Armstrong should have made more features; her last fiction film, 2007’s Death Defying Acts, bypassed me completely.


Scene of the Crime

April 22, 2021

The new French thriller Scene of the Crime would have made a good vehicle for Alfred Hitchcock. It has a lot of Hitch’s key concerns: the availability of violence in subdued settings, the suddenness of murder, the strait-laced blond heroine who smolders with passion.

The film’s director, André Téchiné, acknowledges his debt to Hitchcock without being slavish about it. Téchiné finds his own deliberate storytelling method, cool and elegant. And he effectively tells much of the story through the eyes of a restless adolescent boy (Nicholas Giraudi).

The kid stumbles across a couple of escaped convicts near his remote country home. One of the cons tries to strangle the boy, but the other escapee (Wadeck Stanczak) kills his partner to save the kid. The boy keeps quiet, although he describes the events to his mother (Catherine Deneuve) as a dream he had.

The escapee turns up at the nightclub where Deneuve works. She gets to know him, is drawn to his sadness and rootlessness, and gradually begins to recognize him from her son’s description of the dream.

Téchiné has some twists to throw in, but the main fascination is in watching the staid country woman quicken to the thought of danger and excitement. She recognizes the risks involved in her attraction to this prisoner, but she refuses to avoid them.

Deneuve is superb at this; for such great filmmakers as Luis Bunuel and Francois Truffaut, her masklike face and chilly blond beauty have served as a counterpoint to a powerful submerged emotion, and Téchiné draws this quality out beautifully. (Hitchcock would have loved working with Deneuve.) Slightly and agreeably thickened around the middle, Deneuve has aged just enough to suggest the years of placid country existence, and the need to break from it.

When she and the prisoner finally get together in their one night of passion, Téchiné plays it in the middle of a howling rainstorm, an appropriately explosive setting. Scene of the Crime is full of such telling details: the drop of a knife into the water, the stillness of the lake below Deneuve’s nightclub, the look of fear and trust in Deneuve’s eyes when the prisoner clamps his hand over her mouth to silence her.

Téchiné has another film coming, Rendezvous, which just played in the Seattle International Film Festival. The French cinema needs some shaking up; perhaps Téchiné will be a driving force.

First published in The Herald, May 31, 1987

Téchiné had been involved in film for over 20 years at this point, and he would be a force to come, generally coming through with something insinuating and strange, occasionally bagging a masterpiece. Danielle Darrieux is also in the film.