Under Fire

October 15, 2012

Under Fire is that rarity: a major Hollywood release that is both a politically oriented film without self-righteousness, and a well-crafted entertainment that delivers the dramatic goods.

It travels to the dark heart of 1979 Nicaragua, where the rebellion that’s been smoldering for 50 years is about to topple the Somoza regime. We see the civil war through the eyes of some American journalists, who provide a very human reference point as we witness the various subterfuges and brutalities of the bloody war.

As Bogart said in Casablanca, “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” It’s still the same old story in Under Fire. The romantic triangle is set against the backdrop of international conflict has always been good raw material for an exciting narrative, and Under Fire uses this device to draw us into its politically volatile story.

The triangle consists of Russell (Nick Nolte), a prize-winning photographer who arrives in Nicaragua and fulfills an old passion for Claire (Joanna Cassidy), a reporter who happens to be the longtime lover of one of Russell’s best friends and colleagues, Alex (Gene Hackman), who has just been offered a tempting network anchor post—a job that would take him off the road, and away from Claire.

Actually, the triangle is resolved fairly quickly. Alex heads off to New York, and Russell and Claire get involved with—well, with each other, of course. They also get involved with the growing mystery of the never-photographed rebel leader Rafael, whom the Somoza government claims is dead, but whose body—dead or otherwise—has not been seen.

As Russell and Claire get closer to finding Rafael, they are forced to question their code of journalistic ethics, and their responsibilities as human beings in the face of war’s horrors. Luckily, Under Fire does not present these heavy-duty moral quandaries as dry theorems. They’re part of an adventure movie, and the filmmakers don’t lose sight of that.

It’s as an action film that Under Fire works best. Director Roger Spottiswoode has given the film a lean, hard edge (aided by his great cinematographer, John Alcott, who shot Barry Lyndon).

Star power also keeps Under Fire burning. Nolte can apparently carry any movie on his hulking shoulders, and Cassidy is a real find; she brings a vibrant intelligence to this, her first leading film role.

Gene Hackman is too precious a commodity to have been missing from the screen for so long. Here, he perfectly captures the underlying torment of a man whose professional and personal worlds are in chaos. When he’s offscreen, the movie really suffers for it.

While Under Fire may not answer its ethical questions with much profundity, the film does tell a complicated story using good moviemaking sense. With its fast, jungle-fever momentum, it eventually packs quite a wallop.

First published in the Herald, October 20, 1983

Interesting movie, not much remembered. This film review ran with The Right Stuff as my first pieces for the Herald, a gig that has lasted through now (October 2012) and continues. How did that happen?

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Blue Thunder

October 12, 2012

Blue Thunder the movie is not quite as sleek and sophisticated as Blue Thunder the ultra-helicopter, but it’s a well-organized hunk of action movie, with the requisite spectacular stunts, a healthy dose of creeping paranoia, and a passel of crooked government bad guys. It’s a film consisting entirely of surfaces—shiny glass, blue metal, white skies—but they’re hard, fast surfaces, and just flashy enough to keep your attention. Passing in front of and between these cool surfaces are some good actors: Roy Scheider as an ace LAPD chopper pilot who gets to test-fly the new supercopter; Daniel Stern (the tall guy in Diner) as his green partner, who is along for the ride when Scheider starts to get wise to some very unusual idiosyncrasies of Blue Thunder; Candy Clark as Scheider’s patient woman friend; Warren Oates heading the police air division (the film is dedicated to the late actor); and Malcolm McDowell as Scheider’s irredeemably loathsome nemesis.

Director John Badham has taken great pains to make sure we know what’s going on, and he also takes care to set up a number of maneuvers that are going to become relevant in the final cat-and-mouse sequence (i.e., Scheider’s proficiency at slaloming around obstacles, and Clark’s skillfully exuberant driving). He’s aided by John Alonzo’s sharp cinematography; as a matter of fact, Blue Thunder is so thoroughly okay that almost nothing leaps out as being particularly praiseworthy.

But there is a weird aspect to it unlike anything I’ve seen in any other slam-bang action movie, and that’s the almost obsessive attention to the safety of innocent bystanders. Everybody who gets in the way of Scheider and his pursuers—and I’m talking about the faceless people on the street now, the kind that get eaten by the dozens in Japanese horror movies—is accounted for by news or police reports; as, “Two helicopters, a police car, and an office building were destroyed, but everybody’s all right.” Scheider even gets caught off his guard because he’s watching one of his attackers parachute to safety in the city streets. This is a new wrinkle in the bust-’em-ups; generally, the extras from central casting who signed on as passers-by also get to double as cannon fodder.

This more humanitarian method is being employed so that Scheider’s final mission won’t be causing a lot of innocent people’s deaths, a situation that might blur the clearly-defined fact that Scheider is the good guy, as indeed he is (earlier, one of the top brass had said that one civilian dead per ten terrorists was an acceptable ratio, but Roy doesn’t think so). I don’t mind this sort of accounting, but it is strange to see a helicopter crash full speed into a solid cement column and then watch all the crew members hop out. And it’s a different sort of summer blockbuster that you can call violent and considerate.

First published in The Informer, May 1983

A mechanical summer hit, as indicated.


The Keep

October 9, 2012

The Keep is easily the strangest film to be released this Christmas season. It’s something of an arthouse horror movie, and it’s almost sure to get lost in the shuffle of the holidays.

The Keep is an ancient castle—nobody seems to know how long it’s been standing—in the hills of Romania. It must be of some strategic value, because German soldiers occupy the fortress (the film is set in 1941), despite the cryptic warnings of the castle caretaker.

The first evening in the Keep, a couple of soldiers pry loose a stone from the wall—a wall that, as the German colonel (Jurgen Prochnow) observes, seems to have been built to keep something in rather than keep someone out—and let fly a maelstrom of special effects: smoke, wind, and bright light.

What they’re really setting free is a creature who may be absolute evil and possess ultimate power. To flex his muscles a little, he starts ripping German soldiers in half, which quickly gets the attention of the S.S., who send one of their slimiest officers (Gabriel Byrne) over to clear up the situation.

The beast can’t actually leave the grounds of the Keep until someone pure comes long to transport a talisman out of there, thus letting the creature off its chain, as it were.

That pure soul is Dr. Theodore Kuzar (Ian McKellen), a medievalist who actually makes contact with the monster. Kuzar becomes convinced that the creature will help destroy the Nazis, and he agrees to carry the talisman out.

But it’s not going to be easy; a mysterious figure (Scott Glenn) arrives in town, intent on stopping the thing in the Keep. He also takes up with Kuzar’s daughter (Alberta Watson), which complicates things when it comes time for the final showdown.

Writer-director Michael Mann had a fascinating feature-film debut with Thief, which played for a couple of weeks in 1981 and then stole away into the night. It was heavily cryptic and very high-tech, but it got under your skin in a weird way.

The Keep is also tersely written and enigmatically played, and Mann’s visual ingenuity is fun to watch. He likes to fill his frames with smoke and shadow and diffused light.

The only problem is, the story isn’t really propelled by all this stylization, it’s just decorated by it. I’m not knocking Mann for being ambitious, but there really isn’t enough meat to this tale to justify the pyrotechnics.

One aspect of Mann’s visual conception that is completely successful is the set design—the set for the castle is superb, with its huge stone front and catacomb-like hallways. Mann gets some spooky effects just by looking at the building itself.

And the monster is pretty neat. He’s about 8-feet tall, shaped like a man, with glowing red eyes and mouth. His voice sounds a bit like Kirk Douglas crossed with Debra Winger. As if that weren’t enough, sometimes he walks around without any skin on. But he can get away with it—this monster’s home is his castle.

Give Mann and his monster an A for effort, and keep your eye on this director. Someday he’s going to make a movie as solid as the fortress in The Keep—but slightly more inviting, perhaps.

First published in the Herald, December 1983

Well I hope Michael Mann found this encouragement useful! He’s done just fine, to the extent that he has apparently disowned The Keep and doesn’t want people to see it. But I really want to see it again, so something’s going to have to give. I left Tangerine Dream’s score out of this review, which probably reflected my musical tastes (but I do approve of them as soundtrack generators).


The Man with Two Brains

October 4, 2012

Steve Martin is, of course, one of the great men of our time. But the poor guy has not found his place in the cinema, not yet. Other comics are working well in movies not tailored for them as star vehicles: Robin Williams made a respectable Garp and is now acting for Paul Mazursky, and Eddie Murphy has fallen in with zippy young talents like Walter Hill and John Landis.

Martin has shown some adventurousness: any actor taking the role he took in that curiosity called Pennies from Heaven cannot be called cowardly. Stupid, maybe, but not cowardly. The Jerk was spottily funny, and only because of Martin’s ability to sustain his goon persona; Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, while affectionate and mostly likable, became almost oppressive toward the end—you worried so about how they were going to get in and out of all those film clips and still tie up the loose ends, it got nerve-wracking.

The Man with Two Brains is a return to a more straightforward narrative form—that’s assuming your idea of a straightforward narrative goes something like this: conniving woman (Kathleen Turner, from Body Heat) throws herself in front of a car driven by a rich brain surgeon (Steve) as a means of snaring him. He saves her life by using his innovative “Screw-Top” technique of brain repair; but when he sews her skull back into place, he sows the seeds of his unhappiness.

He starts to fall for her even before she’s conscious, which, as it turns out, is when she’s at her sweetest. The doctor soon learns that physical beauty is only as deep as the first epidermal layer, and that true meaningfulness springs form a meeting of minds. Soon after, he goes to Vienna and meets a very nice mind, and for a while he is truly the man with two brains. Lubitsch it’s not, but Steve’s latest romp, despite trying to tie up too many loose ends in its second half, is pretty darned funny.

First published in The Informer, May 1983

This doesn’t quite convey how much of a Steve Martin fan I was back then; his TV appearances and record albums set such a high standard that his early movie stuff seemed disappointing (although many people seem to love The Jerk, especially if they caught it at a young age).


Confidentially Yours

August 28, 2012

Francois Truffaut’s Confidentially Yours would like to be a good bottle of champagne: giddy, nutty and dry. But Truffaut may have left the cork out of the bottle too long.

He’s been devoting his time to dark, serious movies lately—such as the little-seen The Green Room and The Woman Next Door—and perhaps he’s forgotten how to create his special kind of magic.

Not that Truffaut has ever been merely bubbly; but even in primarily dramatic movies such as Jules and Jim and Day for Night, he conveys a wonderful sense of the joys of life and the movies, although those joys sometimes turn out to be fleeting.

Confidentially Yours self-consciously tries to recapture some of the magic; it’s a knockabout whodunit, with lots of clever twists and turns and a pair of engaging performances from Fanny Ardant and Jean-Louis Trintignant.

It’s being pushed as a kind of homage to the American film noir genre that Truffaut loved so much when he was a young film critic. Actually, this movie doesn’t bear much resemblance to the feverish fatalism of film noir; it’s much more of a lark. And Truffaut has always been too loose-limbed a director to really recreate an American style, which he tries to do periodically. He’s much more successful on his own idiosyncratic turf.

Anyway, Trintignant plays a businessman who is accused of murder. The evidence is persuasive: First his wife’s lover is found shot to death; then just a few hours later, Trintignant’s wife is herself the victim of the killer.

We can’t be absolutely sure that Trintignant is not guilty; that’s part of the tease. So the focus shifts to his feisty secretary (Ardant), who determinedly sets out to find the murderer herself—while the boss hides out in the rear of his realty office.

Misadventures ensue as Ardant somehow bumbles her way to the solution. Confidentially Yours is something of a showcase for the leggy Ardant, who is Truffaut’s current discovery. She gets to go undercover, crack wise, and generally handle herself as a Rosalind Russell-style girl Friday, whose combative relationship with her boss may be hiding more affectionate feelings.

She proves more resourceful than the local police—who aren’t amused when she keeps turning up at the scenes of murders.

If the police are not amused, the viewer may be, as Truffaut alternates the detective work with whimsical interludes. It’s all sort of cute and predictable, and it’s enjoyable as a cat-and-mouse exercise, if a rather flat one.

But Truffaut seems to be trying a bit too hard to make up for his recent moody work; as though he were nudging the audience and saying, “See? I can still be charming.” There were times when I had the feeling we were being clobbered over the head with light-heartedness. And that isn’t a good feeling.

First published in the Herald, January 26, 1984

Truffaut did not survive the year, and this was his last film, although nobody knew that at the time. I have never watched it again. If it’s not one of his best films—and his best films are among the best anybody ever made—at least it stands as a tribute to a woman, and a tribute to movies, which are two things Truffaut knew something about. I think I know what I mean by “loose-limbed” style, even if I don’t express it particularly well in the space of a newspaper review. Truffaut was rigorous, but even when he would do a Hitchcock or a science-fiction picture (or a film noir, as in Mississippi Mermaid), the results didn’t really resemble the work of his models, but they did look like Truffaut movies.


National Lampoon’s Vacation

August 8, 2012

This Vacation is a pretty tame vehicle for Chevy Chase, with only a few utterly gross and tasteless gags to liven up the general dreariness. One of the best—and most extended—of them has Chevy’s family (en route from Chicago to wonderful WalleyWorld in Los Angeles) dropping in on some severely inbred cousins somewhere in the Midwest. Randy Quaid invests his best grungy slobbiness into the father (Brother? Uncle? Yucch!) of the clan, amid many one-liners about kissin’ cousins (the young actors who play his mutant offspring are truly frightening-looking).

Chase retains his sense of comedic timing, and Beverly D’Angelo, as his wife, has a charming presence. She is, I’m afraid, the victim of two of the most absurdly gratuitous excuses to get the leading lady buck-naked in recent screen memory: the first is a pathetic Psycho shower-scene thing that goes nowhere; the second is her skinny-dipping response to hubby’s late-night rumba with a gorgeous young vixen in the swimming pool of the local No-Tell Motel (a response that makes absolutely no sense based on what has come before). Poor Beverly. Things really must be bad for actresses in Hollywood.

The gorgeous young vixen is played by Christie Brinkley, a model and, for years, Bunsen Burner to American Malehood as the swimsuit girl in Sports Illustrated‘s annual libido issue. Hate to say it, fellas, but the truth must be told. She’s terrible.

First published in The Informer, August 1983

The movie hit people of a certain age just right, and there was that scene of Chase falling asleep at the wheel and just driving along blissfully, which had a certain surrealist commitment. At least I think that was in this one.


Table for Five

July 19, 2012

It’s a well-known fact: everybody likes a good cry. But I think we can assume, based on the evidence of Table for Five, that Jon Voight likes a good cry more than the rest of us. In fact, this man loves a good cry, and he’ll open his ducts at the drop of a plot development. Voight gets through half of Table for Five in pretty good shape, but when the major plot bombshell falls—I’m not telling, but it’s a doozy—he starts doing some serious bawling in every other scene or so.

It gets to be too much, even if Voight is one of the best criers around. He’s playing a golf pro/divorced father who hopes to come back into the lives of his three children by taking them on a cruise to Egypt. Mom (Millie Perkins) gives her okay; her new man (Richard Crenna, in another slice-of-ham performance) is somewhat more skeptical. Voight’s character has a reputation as a loser, and the trip represents a last chance for his family and his self-respect. He quickly screws up, and is preparing to throw in the towel on the whole deal when circumstances force him to try again.

And that’s when Voight starts to get all trembly and quivery—he has to talk to his kids, but every time he tries to squeeze the words out, his face goes into contortions from the strain of holding back the tears, and he holds the words in after all. This goes on through the second half of the film, since the filmmakers—screenwriter David (Six Weeks) Seltzer and director Robert Lieberman—have decided it would be keen to put the audience through the emotional wringer every ten minutes; allowing Voight to be the weepy hesitator just increases the mileage they can get out of the eventual (and, in real-life terms, quite devastating) confrontation Voight must have with the children, and turns the movie into a tearjerking striptease.

The great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond captures some lovely light in the outdoor ocean liner scenes, and the scenery elsewhere is pretty, but…let’s hope he was paid well, enjoyed the traveling, and now wants to get back to work for Altman or Spielberg.

The title Table for Five, incidentally, refers to the dining arrangements that Voight reserves on the ocean liner for himself, his kids (played by three fairly excruciating child actors), and—someone else. The cute Frenchwoman that Voight hopes to get clubby with en voyage? The old widower who is conspicuously lonely? Or the audience itself—might the open chair be an invitation to cozy up to the principals? I doubt it. That would be assuming a level of complexity that the filmmakers don’t otherwise suggest. Either way, it’s an invitation that is awfully easy to resist.

First published in The Informer, March 1983

The “It’s a well-known fact” is, of course, from Gregory’s Girl. Other than that, not too many good memories of this wet movie, and I can’t remember whether Voight’s water works here pre-dates his reaction to the Laurence Olivier Oscar speech or merely repeats a tendency that proves all too facile for the actor’s toolkit.