A Soldier’s Story

November 12, 2012

It was reasonable to expect that A Soldier’s Story might be a hot, juicy melodrama on the order of In the Heat of the Night, the 1967 best picture Oscar winner. After all, it shares that film’s director, Norman Jewison, as well as a sweltering Southern setting and a touchy, racially-oriented story.

Now, In the Heat of the Night, like many best-picture winners, was never really a great movie to begin with. Lots of these films win because of important or chancy “content” rather than their aesthetic value, and today Heat—buoyed by good star turns by Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger—looks like an overheated, if enjoyable, example of the concerned cinema of the 1960s.

Director-producer Jewison, who has also made Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, and …And Justice for All, has solidly ambitious credentials, although critical respectability has eluded him. It’s typical of him to take on the adaptation of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize hit, A Soldier’s Play, which is the story of murder among the soldiers of a black unit stationed in the South in 1944.

Unfortunately, this tale is not nearly as shamelessly engrossing as In the Heat of the Night. It’s a disappointingly stodgy and predictable film, with its appeal stemming from Fuller’s intelligent screenplay, a groovy score by Herbie Hancock, and a solid gallery of supporting performers.

On a drunken ramble home from the local watering hole, a tough sergeant (Adolph Caesar) is murdered in the night. The black company suspects the Ku Klux Klan. The white company heads want to suppress any investigation of the shooting, which leads credence to the KKK suggestion.

It’s supposedly a tinderbox (though we don’t get much sense of that). Capt. Richard Davenport (Howard Rollins, Jr.) is dropped into the middle of this, as the officer in charge of the investigation. A natty black lawyer from Washington, D.C., his presence disquiets the other officers—who think he will ruin whatever chance there is of finding the killer—and astonishes the men, most of whom have never seen a black officer before.

Davenport questions the men, and we discover the character of the sergeant through flashbacks. He is by far the most fascinating person in the film: a short, wiry tough guy who is obsessive on the subject of his race. He hates black men who, consciously or not, propagate a shuffling, stupid racial image.

The object of his attention is a private named C.J. Memphis (Larry Riley), a gifted athlete and singer who is not blessed with much intelligence. Rather, he is an update of Melville’s Billy Budd: a perfect innocent, and perfectly unself-conscious of it. The sergeant loathes his simple, passive lifestyle, and after hounding him for weeks, indirectly causes C.J.’s death.

During the investigation, we see many possible suspects for the sergeant’s murder. As a whodunit, however, the film is uncompelling, and the culprit easy to guess.

Another drawback is Rollins, who played the central figure in Ragtime a couple of years ago. He’s not quite up to the demands of this role, in which he is required to appear as sharp as the crease in his standard-issue trousers. But the supporting players—especially Denzel Washington, Art Evans, and the very natural Riley—are great, and Caesar, as the growling sergeant, is just terrific. It comes as no surprise that he has played the role in more the 600 performances onstage.

First published in the Herald, September 30, 1984

Thought of this film because Denzel Washington is currently riding high with an authoritative performance in Flight. Howard Rollins later played the Poitier role in the TV series “In the Heat of the Night”; he died young, as did Adolph Caesar.

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Iceman

November 5, 2012

So much of Iceman is so good that you almost knock yourself out wishing it were better. Really, it’s amazing the film is as involving as it is, given a shaky, undernourished screenplay and the claustrophobic nature of the story.

The movie hurtles through its first minutes, as a form is found in the ice and brought back to an arctic research station to be thawed. When the doctors and scientists of the station prepare to examine the body—it’s a human shape—they are astonished to discover faint life signs. When they bring the terrified iceman to consciousness, they face a new problem: what do they do with him now?

Australian director Fred Schepisi throws you right into the fray in these early scenes, and this fast-moving approach does two things: It gets you involved very quickly, and it doesn’t give you a chance to think about the admittedly wild premise.

Once the iceman (played by John Lone) is up and around, it’s time for the old science vs. humanity argument. Some of the scientists want to test and probe the iceman, so they can assemble clues and find out what gave his cells the capacity to regenerate after so many years in limbo.

One anthropologist, Stanley Shephard (Timothy Hutton), wants to place the iceman in a sympathetic environment and try to get to know him. Shephard thinks that if they learn what’s inside the iceman’s mind, rather than simply sampling his body, they’ll get an even better idea of what kept the 40,000-year-old man alive.

They install the iceman in a Vivarium, an artificial habitat that resembles the outside. Shephard lets the iceman adapt, and then goes into the Vivarium to try to make some sort of contact. His dealings with the iceman form the core of the movie, as they exchange words, share food, and even a duet on a Neil Young song.

Much of this is smartly done, but the conflicts between Shephard and the other doctors seem trumped-up, and aren’t really all that interesting. We never get to know exactly who’s pulling the strings (or threatening to pull the plug), and most of the scientists don’t seem like real people with histories. They just exist as characters who disagree with each other.

There are script problems, but the film is visually powerful. Just the sheer physical presence of the Vivarium, which exists under the arctic ice in a huge warehouse, is fabulous.

And Schepisi, who directed The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Barbarosa, has a terrific eye. In the landscape footage of the tundra (filmed in Canada), Schepisi has found some breathtaking vistas, and he has a knack for putting the camera in just the right spot. In the final sequence, as two people trek across the snow, there’s poetry in the shapes he finds in hills and drifts of ice.

On this particular project, Schepisi’s reach exceeds his grasp—something like the iceman, who, looking up at a helicopter flying over the Vivarium, reaches up to it, thinking it’s his god coming to take him to heaven. Iceman doesn’t quite cut it, but moments like that make it an intriguing disappointment.

First published in the Herald, April 13, 1984

The ice fields turn out to be not so far from the mystical Outback, as far as Schepisi is concerned. I recall Pauline Kael going ape over this movie, although it seems to have had no real life since then (it would be interesting to know more about what got changed in it, as online sources suggest Schepisi had a falling-out with producers and various stuff, including the ending, got tinkered with). Lone came out of nowhere (by way of Peking Opera) for this. The movie was one of the string of very curious choices made by Timothy Hutton in the years after his Oscar.


The Lift/Frankenweenie

November 1, 2012

Thanks to the ingenuity of horror-film makers, the face of evil has inhabited nearly every form known to man. We’ve had all kinds of killer animals—from sharks to spiders to giant rabbits (really—doesn’t anyone remember The Night of the Lepus?).

We’ve also seen machines go mad—haunted houses are full of them, and there’s Christine, the killer car, and, since 2001, a slew of demonic computers. Even the lowest forms of existence have found themselves endowed with diabolical intent. Think of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and you see this thing has gone about as far as it can go.

But not quite. Along comes a Dutch film called The Lift and you realize there are a few curves left in the format. The terrorizer in question is an elevator in a high-rise office building.

Apparently the elevator’s control system, ruled by microchips, has taken on a life and consciousness of its own. It starts playing mean tricks on some of its bewildered occupants—luring a blind man to step into an open shaft, asphyxiating a group of late-night carousers. One poor soul, innocently sticking his head into the shaft one day, is surprised by the elevator, which comes streaking down from above, murder on its mind—or at least on its microchips.

The hero of this tale is the elevator engineer (Huub Stapel), who tries to find out the source of the foul-up—but encounters mysterious opposition from his bosses.

It’s a rather silly story, redeemed by writer-director Dick Maas’s sense of humor about the whole thing. He makes sure the film has an absurd tone, even when the elevator is up to its mayhem.

Playing with The Lift—and overshadowing it for originality—is a 25-minute short called Frankenweenie, a lovely version of Frankenstein set in modern suburbia. It’s about a little boy (Barrett Oliver) whose dog, Sparky, is run over by a car. The kid’s determined not to lose Sparky, however, and improvises an electrical system in the attic of his house (the parents are played by Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern). He harnesses lightning with the TV antenna in an attempt to revive Sparky—a hilarious updating of the similar scene in Frankenstein.

It’s a funny little vignette, affectionately directed by Tim Burton. The black-and-white photography harks back to the original Universal horror classics of the 1930s, but the tone is hip.

Burton made the film for Walt Disney studios, which also produced his animated short Vincent, about a little boy who wants to be Vincent Price, a couple of years ago. In producing such odd shorts, Disney is to be commended. Once upon a time, they were at the vanguard of innovative short-subject production.

First published in the Herald, June 17, 1985

Supposedly Disney fired Burton because his movie was so macabre, so maybe they weren’t to be that commended. The Lift opened at the Egyptian theater and became a local hit. As a reviewer, I hadn’t hit my stride yet, if stride there be.


Until September

September 25, 2012

An American woman stranded in Paris. A handsome Frenchman whose wife is away for the month. An accidental meeting. A budding affair. The lights of Paris, the wine, the music….

But, mon ami, we have seen all this before, non? Well, oui, dozens of times. Still, Until September has the courage of its clichés—problem is, it just tries to run right over them, rather than trying to find a way around them.

Karen Allen, of Raiders of the Lost Ark, plays the American divorcee who misses her plane in Paris. She drops into a friend’s pad, but the friend is on vacation for the month of August, as most Parisians are.

Living next door is a gorgeous banker (Thierry Lhermitte, of My Best Friend’s Girl) who is alone and fair game: his wife is out of town and his mistress has left him. He is more than willing to help our heroine find the best restaurant and the coziest bed in town. She resists the latter for a while, but comes around finally. Which leads to the exposure of much bare skin, and a splendid time by both.

But those nagging questions about his wife and children, visiting relatives until September, are bound to crop up in stories such as this. Otherwise things would be disgustingly blissful, and there’s nothing dramatic about that. So they bicker, but it’s all set against the Eiffel Tower and the Seine River (and set to John Barry’s rather nice romantic music).

It’s a pretty sappy movie, but a somewhat likable one. Actually, Until September is leavened with a sprightly sense of humor about itself. Until the Serious Questions start getting raised in the last third of the movie, there’s some fun to be had.

Karen Allen is obviously enjoying herself as the spunky Yank. And Lhermitte displays a smooth comic style, including  physical comedy, which he gets to do in the film’s final sequence: a chase through an airport. Don’t romance movies always end in airports?

The director, Richard Marquand, most recently helmed the final installment of the Star Wars series, Return of the Jedi. It’s understandable that he would want to make a small film after that gargantuan job, and Until September is certainly modest in its ambitions.

Marquand’s Eye of the Needle, made a couple of years earlier, marked him as a director to watch. In that sense, Until September is a disappointment, because it certainly isn’t a director’s film. I assume that most of the film’s naïve twists and turns are the work of the first-time scenarist, Janice Lee Graham.

At its heart, Until September is really a Harlequin Romance, dressed up in summer clothes and—through Allen’s occasional speeches about being a big girl and putting Lhermitte in his chauvinistic place—given a superficial women’s lib slant.

That summing-up will either be a recommendation or a dismissal, depending on your susceptibility to such things. But if you’re the kind of person who leafs through those trashy novels while standing in line at the check-out stand—just to kill time, of course—you may find yourself lured into the world of Until September.

First published in the Herald, September 1984

Nothing too special here, either as a movie or review. It’s a shame about Richard Marquand, who did Brit-TV work and a fine job on Eye of the Needle; he completed two more films, Jagged Edge and Hearts of Fire, before dying at age 49 (of a stroke, according to IMDb).


The Cotton Club

July 27, 2012

A few years ago, Robert Evans, the producer of films such as The Godfather and Chinatown, needed a script rewrite for a project about new York’s famous Cotton Club, a place where white audiences paid top dollar to see black entertainment during the height of the Jazz Age.

Evans had worked with larger-than-life director Francis Coppola on The Godfather, and he called Coppola to get some suggestions for a good script doctor. Coppola, ever alert (and coming off a string of commercial disasters), quickly suggested himself. Thus commenced a series of events that probably made Evans wish he’d never heard of Coppola or the Cotton Club.

Before long, Coppola had thrown out the original screenplay (the film’s “story” credit goes to Mario Puzo) and written a completely new script with Pulitzer Prize-winner William Kennedy. Then Coppola assumed the mantle of director, and the production of the film itself was beset by rising costs and constant script rewrites.

And somewhere in the midst of this Robert Evans went bye-bye. The lawsuits are now flying, but it’s hard to imagine they will have any effect on what is already an incredibly expensive movie (something between $40 and $50 million, at last count).

Coppola seems to be attracted by this kind of guerrilla moviemaking, but whether or not it agrees with him is another matter. The films he produced while he played at being the mogul of his own hectic studio were almost wholly uninvolving.

With The Cotton Club, he’s gotten himself interesting again. This film, which whips up a blend of gangsterism and musical comedy, clips along at a confident pace and has enough flavorful characters to fill a speakeasy.

Richard Gere plays a cornet player (and Gere plays his own horn solos, by golly) whose trajectory through the Jazz Age—in the film, from the late ’20s through the early ’30s—places him in close contact with such figures as gangster Dutch Schultz (rivetingly played by unctuous James Remar), the Dutchman’s moll (Diane Lane), and the men who run the Cotton Club (Bob The Long Goodbye Hoskins and Fred “The Munsters” Gwynne, who make a great comedy team).

Gere’s brother (Nicolas Cage, Coppola’s cousin) is a hothead swept into the violent world around the Cotton Club, with bloody results. This story of the brothers is paralleled by a pair of dancing brothers (Gregory and Maurice Hines) who work their way up through the Cotton Club to different levels of stardom.

The film is obviously chock-full; unfortunately, as enjoyable as much of this is, Coppola has a tendency to rush past the building blocks of characterization. He has atmosphere (kudos to designer Richard Sylbert) and rat-a-tat action down pat, but once the smoke clears, I was left with the nagging feeling that the sound and fury didn’t amount to too much.

The scope of the film calls for the three-hour Godfather sprawl, and Cotton Club clocks in at barely over two. Characters meet, split, and kiss and make up with not much validation for their behavior. Coppola asks you to take a lot for granted.

I wish the extra hour might have had more song-and-dance in it, too; although the film is full of terrific music, few numbers are presented in their entirety (Coppola enjoys cutting routines in pieces rather than letting them develop on their own). Still, Lonette McKee’s “Ill Wind” is a stand-out, and the brothers Hines tread the boards with grace.

Coppola likes to describe himself as a ringmaster/magician of chaos. He may not quite prove that the hand is quicker than the eye in The Cotton Club, but at least he keeps all three rings of the circus busy at once.

First published in the Herald, December 15, 1984

As anybody who’s ever seen this movie knows, you can forget about Gere and Lane: Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne are where the action is.


Swing Shift

July 20, 2012

Have you ever found yourself sitting on the edge of your seat watching a movie—not because the movie is exciting, but because you’re waiting for it to start? Even when you’re still waiting for it to start after it’s been running for an hour or two?

Somehow, if you lean forward, you can have the feeling you’re going to help the film get in gear. I have found, however, that it doesn’t work that way. The actors might be amiable, the situation might be intriguing, the locations might be beautiful. But, lean all you want, the film just won’t click.

I was doing a lot of leaning during Swing Shift. Here’s a movie with a lot to recommend it: watchable onscreen people, a talented young director, and a potentially rich milieu. But something went wrong with Swing Shift. It suffers from a fundamental lack of focus. There’s no clear answer to the question: What is this movie about?

In simple plot terms, it’s about a meek wife (Goldie Hawn) left behind during World War II. Hubby (Ed Harris) is serving in the Pacific, so Goldie takes a job at the local airplane factory, along with her next-door neighbor (Christine Lahti). Also working there is a trumpet player (Kurt Russell) with whom Goldie will have an affair.

What the movie really consists of is a rather shapeless series of episodes in the lives of the three workers. Part of it is about Goldie’s consciousness-raising. Part of it is about the romance. Part of it is about the friendship between the two women. Part of it is about the women gaining respect in the male-dominated workplace.

There is much to enjoy in all of these parts, thanks to the likability of the actors and director Jonathan Demme’s feeling for the material. One of Demme’s strengths, in films such as Handle with Care and Melvin and Howard, is in taking a bittersweet, generous view of humankind by looking at ordinary people in a deceptively loose, no-sweat style.

Swing Shift, although it takes place over four years, should have a leaner, straighter shape than, say, Melvin and Howard. But the movie seems disjointed and fuzzily-conceived.

Take Lahti’s boyfriend (Fred Ward), for instance. The character drifts in and out of the movie, but we haven’t really gotten to know him enough to care about his enigmatic leave-takings.

For that matter, Goldie’s entry into self-awareness is achieved somewhat abruptly. We see a montage of her beginning to hold her own at the factory, and suddenly she’s working her way up the managerial ladder. Some of the jumps in narrative make you suspect that perhaps a portion of the film ended up on the cutting-room floor. Maybe it’s part of the explanation for the film’s odd shape.

The much-publicized behind-the-scenes romance between Hawn and Russell doesn’t really spice up the love scenes, although both players are in good form. It’s Christine Lahti who really walks away with the movie, as the smart, sexy, sympathetic best friend. A combination of intelligence and high cheekbones, Lahti seems very much due for a starring vehicle of her own.

First published in the Herald, April 1984

There seems to be some debate about whether Demme’s original cut (he was involved in the re-shoots, too) survives and is watchable. But the release version certainly goes flat.


Comfort and Joy

July 6, 2012

A writer-director named Bill Forsyth has been carving out a special niche for himself in world cinema. Over the last five years, the Scotsman has been delighting audiences with such wonderful pieces of skewed whimsy as That Sinking Feeling, Gregory’s Girl, and Local Hero.

These films share Forsyth’s absolutely dry sense of humor, as well as his feeling for low-key ensemble acting. Miraculously, without ever seeming drippy or cute (and without ever tooting their own horn about it), they manage to make you feel exceptionally good.

His newest film, Comfort and Joy, carries on this tradition, I’m glad to say. Forsyth, working in his native Glasgow, has this time decided to show us how funny a series of personal disasters can be.

The disasters happen to Alan Bird (Bill Paterson), a disc jockey known to one and all as “Dickie” Bird. It’s Christmas week, but let heaven and nature not sing. Out of a clear blue sky, Dickie’s girlfriend leaves him, taking with her everything in their apartment. A friend visits and insists that this represents a new chance for Dickie to define himself.

Dickie’s not so sure. Frankly, he feels utterly at sea—until one night, he witnesses something that galvanizes him. When he spots a pretty girl (Clare Grogan) in an ice cream truck, he follows the truck until it stops, whereupon he buys a cone and saunters away. Suddenly, the truck is attacked by hooded vandals who bash out the windows. One of them pauses long enough to ask Dickie for his autograph.

It’s the beginning of an adventure in espionage. It turns out rival ice cream companies are warring. The Mr. McCool people control the city, and the upstart Mr. Bunny organization is cutting in. Dickie becomes a liaison between the two factions, risking life and limb—well, maybe only limb—to find a solution.

Meanwhile, he’s communicating strange coded messages during his morning radio show: “Mr. Bunny, meet me tonight at the usual place—it’s urgent.” People are starting to wonder about good old Dickie.

You can sense that Forsyth and his marvelous group of actors are working with the merest wisps of plot. What they capture so beautifully are the details that make up the lives of these characters—ways of talking, of eating, of exchanging concern. Absurd elements always find their way into Forsyth’s movies, but he keeps them from being stupid by never violating the dramatic underpinnings of his situations.

For instance, this Dickie Bird fellow has an enjoyably madcap time of it, but Forsyth doesn’t let his loneliness be forgotten—much of Bird’s spirit at this time comes from his desire to fill up empty hours with something alive and risky.

Forsyth has said the film was partially inspired by the music of Mark Knopfler, the leader of the rock bad Dire Straits, who composed the evocative score for Comfort and Joy (as he did with Local Hero).

Although the title seems to be ironic at the beginning of the film—when even the birds are mistreating Bird by bombing his car—at the end we see that a lot of people have found comfort and joy along the way. And the title is also a perfect description of the film’s effect on an audience. It’s not a blockbuster, it won’t win Oscars, but Comfort and Joy is going to make you feel just fine.

First published in the Herald, October 1984

Perhaps you sense that I love Bill Forsyth’s films. I remember being underwhelmed at first about this one—what, you mean it isn’t at the level of Local Hero?—but it’s a lovely picture anyway. The (mostly) absence of Forsyth from the world cinema stage is one of the great losses in movies of the last 30 years.