Desert Hearts

October 21, 2019

desertheartsIt’s the late 1950s, and when Vivian (Helen Shaver), an English professor from Columbia University, arrives in Reno to end her marriage, she must stay at least six weeks to establish residency and get the Nevada divorce.

Forty-two days; the magic number. In the course of these 42 days, which she spends on a boarding ranch outside town, Vivian – cool, blond, vaguely skeletal – will learn a lot about herself and the world around her.

It is the backbone of Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts that this enlightenment wili include an affair with Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), a casino worker, who is the adopted daughter of the ranch owner (Audra Lindley). Cay is an admitted lesbian; she’s at peace with that part of her life, it’s the rest that she sometimes has trouble with. Vivian, on the other hand, seems frozen by her decision to leave her marriage, and she cringes initially at Cay’s interest.

The study in contrasts between the two women is pretty obvious, and frankly stays that way throughout the film. It’s dictated early on, just through casting and costuming: Vivian’s trapped in her padded-shoulder gray suits, Cay’s a dark-haired rambler in shorts and cowboy boots. But director Deitch and her actresses have found some healthy means of fleshing out this simple love story. Most obviously, there’s a shrewd use of humor; Deitch and scriptwriter Natalie Cooper (who adapted a novel by Jane Rule) keeps things lively and offbeat. The laughs are not mean-spirited, but good-natured.

It would have been easy for the film to be a flag­-waving anthem (and it may still be perceived that way, as evidenced by the reaction to the film last week at the Seattle International Film Festival). But it’s more complex than that; none of the characters is idealized out of existence, and there are no white hats and black hats distributed along gender lines.

Deitch treats all her characters with generosity. And she’s paid a lot of attention to texture. The details have an authentic feel: the Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash songs, the walks through sagebrush, the steaminess of the hotel room in which Vivian and Cay finally consummate things during a hot Nevda afternoon. The latter is a provocative scene, naturally enough. On the whole, however, Desert Hearts is much more conventional than it might sound. The love story itself may be unconventional, but the narrative style is quite traditional. Far from being some kind of ideological compromise, this turns out to be one of the film’s strengths.

It doesn’t get the movie past the obviousness of the dynamics of the central relationship; this would have to be an even more daring film to do that. But it does provide a solid springboard for some good storytelling, of which Desert Hearts has quite bit.

First published in the Herald, 1986

This film has just recently been enjoying some re-appreciation as a pioneering work of lesbian subject matter, which it rightly deserves. Deitch has made a lot of TV since the film established her talent, but not many features. Charbonneau had a little moment where it seemed as though she might catch on (Michael Mann was especially interested, casting her in Manhunter and his TV opus Crime Story), but she never broke through to stardom, unfortunately. Shaver has acted a lot and also directed many TV shows.



Mrs. Soffel/Witness

October 16, 2019

mrssoffelIt should come as no surprise that leading foreign directors inevitably gravitate toward America; there’s still no better place to make movies if you want the most sophisticated technicians and equipment, not to mention actors.

The exciting boom in Australian filmmaking in the late 1970s has produced a bushelful of interesting directors, many of whom are working in America now: Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies), Fred Schepisi (Iceman) and George Miller (Twilight Zone) have lost none of their talent in the transoceanic crossing.

The latest immigrants are Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Year of Living Dangerously) and Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career). They’ve both managed to retain their idiosyncrasies, while adapting well to a clean, forceful style suited to American moviemaking.

Armstrong’s Mrs. Soffel is the more problematic of the two. It’s based on the true story of convicted murderers (brothers played by Mel Gibson and Matthew Modine) who were sprung from their Pittsburgh prison in 1901 with the help of the warden ‘s wife (Diane Keaton), who had fallen in love with the Gibson character.

Intriguing situation. It offers the irresistible spectacle of l’amour fou and the perplexing filmmaking problem of dramatizing action that takes place primarily within prison walls. The growth of the love – which begins with Keaton trying to convert the brothers to Christianity and Gibson trying to take advantage of her position – is well drawn.

Even better is the sequence of flight, after the breakout, which begins with the fugitives sliding gleefully on the icy Pittsburgh streets, and ends with their getaway sleigh being pursued across snowy farms near the Canadian border.

Until that time, however, Mrs. Soffel remains strangely uncompelling, despite the passion of the actors. It’s the kind of movie that seems more impressive as you re­member it than when it is actually playing.

witnessWith Witness, you know right off the bat you’re in mysterious Peter Weir country. The sense of unidentifiable strangeness that Weir can convey so well is present in the early scenes in a Pennsylvania Amish community, which has not updated itself in a century.

During a journey outside the community with his widowed mother, a little Amish boy (Lukas Haas) witnesses the murder of a policeman in a Philadelphia train station men’s room. In the course of the investigation, the cop in charge (Harrison Ford, cannily and humorously used), finds a bigger conspiracy than he had imagined, and it’s necessary for him to flee with the boy and mother (Kelly McGillis) back to that insulated Amish community.

Weir loves to examine the clash of cultures, and this situation gives him plenty of opportunity. It also gives him the chance to develop a lovely, tentative love affair between the cop and the Amish widow. There’s a beautiful scene when Ford fixes his car radio (his car is the only one around, since the Amish still use ­horse-drawn carriages) and he and McGillis do a romantic little dance to “Wonderful World,” a song she’s probably never heard.

The Amish community is nowhere more wonderfully drawn than in the character of McGillis’s other hopeful suitor, played beautifully (and close to silently) by ballet star Alexander Godunov. He loves her, but he sees that she likes Ford; as a believer in nonviolence, and apparently genuinely respectful of this other passion, he does not interfere with the newcomer. He even starts to like him a little.

Weir has achieved something very impressive here: Witness succeeds as a commercially viable suspense movie, without ever compromising itself as a lyrical examination of different people and cultures. You don’t see that too often, and it’s something to take heart in.

First published in the Herald, February 14, 1985

It is entirely possible that I would like Mrs. Soffel today more than Witness, but at the time there was no question the latter film caught the 80s moment much more than Mrs. Soffel did. Witness has people in it I didn’t mention, such as Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, and Patti LuPone. It also provided a memorably amusing moment at the Oscars when one of the writers made the comment about his career having just peaked.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

October 15, 2019

mishimaWhen one character in Yukio Mishima’s story Runaway Horses tells the fanatical hero that there is no such thing as purity, the hero replies, “Purity is possible if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood.”

The scene, recreated in Paul Schrader’s strange film biography of Mishima, captures the essence of Mishima’s life and death. The writer, who disemboweled himself in a ritualistic suicide in 1970, found that words were not enough – he tried to make his life a part of his art, by merging his intellectual powers with bloody  action. In his final act, at least, he succeeded.

Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, which he co-wrote with his brother Leonard Schrader, is not really much of a biography. We don’t learn a lot about the facts of Mishima’s life. What Schrader is really interested in is the issue of art and action, and how the artist can affect the world, or how he can’t, through the act of creating.

The film is divided into four distinct sections, all of which contain scenes from Mishima’s life (shot in black-and-white) and scenes from the day of the suicide. The first three sections each contain one of Mishima’s stories, dramatized in bold, stylized colors.

Fragments from Mishima’s actual biography – his childhood, his mid-life obsession with bodybuilding, his increasing devotion to the traditional samurai ethic and emperor worship – echo the scenes from his novels. Obviously, Schrader wants the fiction to rebound off the real life, and for the most part, it does. Sometimes Schrader’s points are too bluntly drawn; he’s not known for his light touch.

But the individual stories, designed by art director Eiko Ishioka, are strikingly mounted and eerily colored. John Bailey – who also worked with Schrader on American Gigolo and Cat People – photographed, and catches some haunting images. There’s one scene of a man running toward his death, with muted green grass and blazing red bushes, that doesn’t quite look like anything you’ve ever seen.

The mesmerizing music, by Philip Glass, doesn’t try to ape Japanese forms, but it’s odd-enough sounding to fit almost any culture or period. In fact, Schrader may be guilty of relying a bit too much on the music for dramatic effect.

Mishima is played with authentic obsession by Ken Ogata. And Schrader knows something about obsession. This is, after all, the guy who wrote Taxi Driver. Even with Schrader’s sometimes heavy touch, that identification gives Mishima its propulsion.

You’ve got to admit that the sheer fact of its existence is impressive. Who in their right mind is going to subsidize an American film about a Japanese writer with an all-Japanese cast (speaking Japanese, except for the narration in the English version, which is spoken by Roy Scheider) – especially when the hero commits suicide in the end?

Schrader got some help from his friends George Lucas and Francis Coppola, who are credited as executive producers. Even with their names above the title, the film will have tough time enticing audiences. But, if it’s sometimes fuzzy-headed, it’s also very compelling. After the movie, you may find yourself, as I did, intrigued enough to check out a novel by Mishima, which suggests that the film has accomplished at least part of its mission.

First published in the Herald, September 1985

My enthusiasm for the film is stronger now, in my memory, than in this review. At the very least the movie is an amazing objet d’art, thanks to the people mentioned. Almost 35 years later, Schrader’s career, even with some rough patches, is impressive.

The Good Father

March 11, 2013

220px-GoodfatherposterIn the opening scene of The Good Father, we see the title character, played by Anthony Hopkins, pushing his young son on a swing. The camera stays on the father’s face and upper body, as the boy arcs in and out of the picture. The man is lost in thought; gradually his pushes become harder, unconsciously violent, until the son lets out a frightened squawk. The man recovers and eases up.

This is a brilliant way to begin the film, for it represents with perfect economy this man’s rage. And it also signals that we are going to see a major performance from Hopkins, the Welsh-born actor (lately in 84 Charing Cross Road) whom the English press has touted as “the next Olivier” for two decades.

Hopkins plays a recently separated Londoner who sees his son only for short spells and whose failed marriage has turned him against women and feminism. Throughout the film, Hopkins lets his rage fly out in red-hot bursts, full of self-hatred and bitterness.

His seething finds a coolly nasty outlet, which takes up the major part of the film. A friend (Jim Broadbent), an oafish and homely teacher who is also separated, tells Hopkins that his own wife has decided to take their children to Australia with her lesbian lover. This sets Hopkins in cruel motion.

Hopkins becomes obsessed with his friend’s case: He pressures Broadbent into legal action against the wife, offers to pay the expenses, and helps gather the dirt that can be used against the woman in a custody hearing at court. He’s working through his own problems with this similar case, but he disregards the damage he may be doing to these people.

Christopher Hampton’s screenplay, from the novel by Peter Prince, touches on a number of themes, including the post-feminist hangover. Most important, it suggests that Hopkins’ anger is not exactly evil. When Hopkins asks his new young girlfriend (Joanne Whalley) why she doesn’t get excited about anything, compared with his combative college days in the ’60s, Hampton hints that rage may be preferable to nothingness.

In some ways, the legal action may dominate the movie too much; I actually preferred some of the opening scenes of Hopkins’ unfocused diatribes. The director, Mike Newell (Dance with a Stranger), doesn’t do much to shape the material, and he turns the legal folk into caricatures, aided by Simon Callow’s gleefully hammy performance as a barrister. This provides someone to hiss, which is at odds with the script’s even-handed approach.

But Newell gets fascinating work from Hopkins. Hopkins has always seemed hemmed in by movies, as though his histrionic tendencies were best served by live theater, where actors may expand. Here, that harnassed quality is crucial to his performance. He plays a man who does bad things without himself being bad. That’s difficult enough to capture, but Hopkins even gives him a measure of sympathy. Under the circumstances, that’s amazing.

First published in the Herald, February 1987

Some interesting people mixed into this, but not much recognition for it all these years later. Obviously, at this pre-Silence of the Lambs point Hopkins was still not established enough to presume the reader would know him.

Turk 182!

January 2, 2013

turk182Turk 182! is one of those inscrutable titles that film studios hope will prove intriguing enough to lure the ticket-buying public. That’s what they think, anyway.

The movie behind the title turns out to be an ordinary entry in the reliably popular (and populist) little-guy-against-the-system genre. These plots usually spring out of some injustice that our hero needs to make right, which gives the filmmakers the chance to whip up some Pavlovian rage and send the audience into a good heavy-lathered sweat.

Well…Turk 1982! doesn’t perceptibly raise the perspiration level. It punches the right buttons in getting its anti-Establishment points across, but the proceedings are too automatic to lift it above the level of a programmer.

The injustice here centers on an off-duty New York firefighter (Robert Urich) who, while having a beer, sees a fire taking place across the street. He rushes over, fights his way through the blaze to save a little girl’s life, then accidentally falls through a window and racks himself up pretty seriously.

Cut to six months later: The fireman’s physical wounds have healed, but he’s off the force and ineligible for his pension benefits because he was under the influence while performing the rescue mission. Enter his shiftless younger brother (Timothy Hutton), who revs himself up with righteous anger and takes the case to city hall.

When the slimy mayor (Robert Culp) won’t listen to him, Hutton papers the walls of the mayor’s office with his brother’s benefit-rejection letters. Then he figures if he goes on a spree of graffiti-perpetrating, he might just get the attention of the powers-that-be.

He aims his barbs at the mayor, to embarrass him into examining his brother’s case. He plants a mysterious signature (Turk 182) on highly visible landmarks—a graffiti-proof subway car that the mayor is dedicating personally; on the posterior of the city’s mounted police; on the huge scoreboard at a Giants game, where the mayor hopes to pick up a campaign boost and gets booted instead.

The unknown Turk 182 becomes a local hero, and the mayor sends some cops (Peter Boyle and Darren McGavin) out to track him down.

It’s not a bad idea, but let’s face it, it’s not particularly great either. The execution of this idea, under the loose (and sometimes agreeably funky) direction of Bob (Porky’s) Clark, is similarly wishy-washy. There’s the perfunctory love interest (Kim Cattrall) for our sensitive hero, and the perfunctory tender scenes of brudderly love, etc.

Hutton is okay; he clearly enjoys playing rebellious roles, and he’s effective in them. One note to the filmmakers: in Hutton’s last scene, when he is supposed to be triumphant, his face is bathed in stark lighting from below. Such is the topography of Hutton’s face that this lighting emphasizes his resemblance to a weasel, which is probably not the effect the filmmakers wanted to get for this outlaw hero in his ultimate victory.

First published in the Herald, February 1985

This was maybe the most mystifying of the mystifying run of movies Hutton made after winning an Oscar for Ordinary People and presumably having some heat in Hollywood (see also Iceman and The Falcon and the Snowman). It is very much of the Eighties, even if the basic idea seems like a Seventies stick-it-to-the-man leftover.


December 31, 2012

shoahThe late Simone de Beauvoir, upon seeing Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, remarked that, “Despite all previous knowledge, the ghastly experience remained outside of ourselves. Now, for the first time, we experience it in our heads, hearts, and flesh.”

The ghastly experience is the Holocaust, the systematic destruction of 6 million European Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II. (Shoah is Hebrew for “annihilation.”) The key word in de Beauvoir’s phrase is “flesh.” We may have understood the Holocaust intellectually and emotionally before. But never has it been described as in Shoah, which locates the experience so exactly—in fields, trains, buildings, or flesh.

French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann spent 10 years making Shoah; his film is 9 ½ hours long. The movie contains not a single frame of film ever seen before—not the piles of corpses at concentration camps, not the emaciated survivors, not the speeches by Hitler. It consists entirely of memories—descriptions by camp survivors, Nazi officials, and bystanders.

As these people tell their stories, Lanzmann’s camera often roams across the places where the atrocities happened; especially Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Chelmno—the extermination camps, which existed for the sole purpose of eliminating people, with horrifying efficiency.

Lanzmann sometimes visits the sites with survivors. Here, he reveals his purpose: to construct a film that remembers the Holocaust in concrete detail. He has said, “My aim was to make a topographical, geographic, archaeological work.”

Thus, when he walks through Treblinka (now a brown-green, grassy plain), where thousands of Jews were herded off the trains to the waiting gas chambers, he is inquisitive and exacting: Where were the walls, he asks, where was the ramp? What kind of day was it?

In this way, Lanzmann locks us into the terrible reality of the experience. It is especially hard-hitting because we have just heard the survivors describe the same landscape, in the awful detail of the past.

There are no words to describe the power of these witnesses, except their own. Abraham Bomba survived because of his trade: a barber, he was chosen to cut the victims’ hair immediately before they entered the gas chambers (they were told they were entering a shower for de-lousing). Simon Srebnik was spared because his young singing voice was found pleasing by the Germans; his voice is remembered years later by the local Poles who lived and worked right next to the camps, and who matter-of-factly recall the awful screams that came from inside.

There are the remembrances of Nazi officials (filmed by Lanzmann with a concealed camera in his briefcase), who are bland and unremorseful. In a weird way, some of the most appalling moments in the film come with historian Raul Hilberg’s recounting of the methods of transporting the doomed: on regular German railroads through the bureaucratic channels of the travel department.

The Jews’ confiscated goods were used to pay for their passage to the camps; it was the “self-financing principle,” as Hilberg notes, and they received half-fare prices on the way to their death—the group rate. Rarely has the term “banality of evil” been give such exact incarnation.

From this description, and despite the many examples of courage, it is obvious that Shoah is not an easy film to watch. While previewing it, I sometimes had to look away from the screen, during those unspeakably inhuman passages when you can feel a part of your soul wither. But looking away from the subject is exactly what Lanzmann is trying to fight. He says that if we look away, we forget; and the existence of Shoah makes sure we will not forget.

First published in the Herald, May 1, 1986

The press screening of this movie was like no other: A TV set up in the very old-school lobby of the Harvard Exit theater, and a handful of us sitting there in the afternoon (it must have been two consecutive days—I don’t think they’d do the thing in a single sitting). The film is a remarkable experience, and the longer it goes on the more you realize the brilliance of Lanzmann’s decision to not use archival footage.

The Journey of Natty Gann

December 19, 2012

journeyofnattyThe folks at Walt Disney Pictures have their fingers crossed: They’re banking on The Journey of Natty Gann to pull the studio out of a costly and humiliating slump.

The last Disney-produced feature to draw decent crowds was Splash; since then, it’s been a series of disasters: Baby… Secret of the Lost Legend, Return to Oz, The Black Cauldron. Those three were all expensive failures.

Natty Gann is a throwback to an old-fashioned adventure tale, featuring a youngster encountering danger, action, and friendship in the course of an extended escapade. It’s also a literal throwback—set in the past, in the depressed 1930s, against a backdrop of out-of-work drifters and disintegrating towns and cities.

A father-daughter team (Ray Wise and Meredith Salenger) are living a frugal life in Chicago when the father suddenly gets a job offer at a lumber mill near Seattle. He has to leave town immediately, and can’t find the daughter, Natty, so he leaves her in care of the landlady (Lainie Kazan) with a promise to send the girl along in a couple of weeks.

The landlady proves less than reliable, and when she makes plans to have the kid carted off to an orphanage, our heroine escapes her clutches by tying some old bedsheets and crawling out the window. Nice touch—what could be more reminiscent of a traditional adventure movie than the old bedsheets-out-the-window trick?

The girl starts hopping freights on her way west, and this accounts for most of the running time of the movie (as well it should); it’s all about the people and places she encounters on the road.

She gets caught in a train wreck, a reform school for orphans, and a cattle-rustling ring. Through it all she is accompanied by her trusty companion, a wolf she befriended (in this, the film gets perhaps a little too Disney).

If the outcome of this journey is never in doubt, it is nevertheless a pleasantly rendered quest. Jeremy Kagan’s direction is heavy on plush landscapes (shot in Canada), and the movie tends to be more pictorial than anything else.

Perhaps it tries to cover too much ground, because few of the experiences that Natty has linger in the mind. Even her most important encounter, with an experienced drifter (John Cusack), is too short on dramatic incident.

The time for that development might well have come out of the final 20 minutes, which are a drawn-out account of the girls’ discovery of her father once she hits Seattle. Jeanne Rosenberg’s screenplay comes close to shamelessness here, as the build-up to the reunion is milked for all it’s worth.

Fifteen-year-old Meredith Salenger, in her first movie role, gives Natty convincing life, and gives every evidence of being a tough little cookie. The film itself is a little softer than its heroine, but it doesn’t go mushy on you.

It ought to raise Disney’s respectability, but Natty Gann is not quite big enough and not quite good enough to break Disney out of its slump single-handed. An “A” for effort, but don’t look for it to be—if you’ll pardon the expression—a runaway hit.

First published in the Herald, October 9, 1985

Not too enthusiastic, although if this movie ever pops into my head, it usually generates a fond feeling. Probably because it has something to do with trains. Rosenberg scripted The Black Stallion not long before this. Jeremy Kagan is sometimes billed as Jeremy Paul Kagan, apparently at random. Unless there are two Kagans, like a whole Paul Thomas Anderson/Paul W.S. Anderson kind of thing.