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.

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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.


Shoah

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.


Just One of the Guys

December 18, 2012

justoneofguysJust One of the Guys is an unsurprisingly limp teen romp that lifts the Tootsie formula and transfers it to high school. This time, the gender-switching involves a girl (Joyce Hyser) who wants desperately to be a journalist. We know she’s serious, because there’s a picture of Hemingway up there on her wall, next to Billy Idol.

A local newspaper annually offers an internship to a prize-winning high-schooler. Our girl’s story about hot-lunch nutrition doesn’t make the final cut, and her disappointment leads her to suspect that the decision-making was a sexist frame-up.

So—and you’ll need considerable willpower to swallow this—she enrolls (how? I ask you) at a rival high school as a boy, and enters the same journalism contest there. The hypothetical laughs ensue when this “boy” becomes attracted to another boy at the school—and becomes the object of desire for a healthy (but eventually confused) girl.

So, the basic laugh-getting situations are stolen outright from Tootsie. The big problem is, a good sex farce is supposed to be funny, and Just One of the Guys is absolutely deadly dull.

Everything is by rote. It’s one of those films in which juicy predicaments are set up—Hyser’s introduction to her new all-boy gym class, for instance—and then left quite undeveloped. Evidently, the situation is supposed to be funny enough in itself. Forget about any attempt at comic invention.

The characters are the usual parade of jocks, geeks, princesses, and trollops. The only intermittently funny stereotypes are two incredibly dorky losers who like to imagine they’re from another planet, and thus communicate with each other in metallic barks and blips. But even this idea is stolen from Sixteen Candles, where it was funnier.

The single well-written character is Hyser’s 15-year-old brother, who craves his first sexual encounter with ferocious single-mindedness. (Presumably, the writers felt some deep kinship with this character.) Unfortunately, the kid is so unimaginatively played by Billy Jacoby that all the comic force dribbles out of him.

Just One of the Guys is the debut feature film of director Lisa Gottlieb, whose short film Murder in the Mist attracted some attention a few years ago. Sad to say, Gottlieb proves here a rather depressing equality-of-the-sexes argument: It’s clear now that a woman can make a teen comedy that’s just as mindless and stupid as anything a man could make.

First published in the Herald, April 1985

The movie played endlessly on pay-cable for years thereafter, for reasons that will not be mysterious to anyone who’s seen it. I watched it again during that period, actually, and I think it’s better made than I gave it credit for—at least the skeleton of a screwball comedy is visible here, and Joyce Hyser has something. Billy Jacoby was the brother of Scott Jacoby, adolescent star of TV-movies in the early 1970s (Billy has been known as Billy Jayne since this time). Early outing for Sherilyn Fenn, too.


That’s Dancing!

December 13, 2012

thatsdancingThat’s Dancing! isn’t much of a movie—but then it doesn’t have to be. It provides plenty of entertainment by helping itself to large portions of other movies, many of which are very good indeed.

It’s the approach taken by the That’s Entertainment! movies (they’ve even kept the exclamation point), but in this case the musical numbers consist only of dancing—no extraneous material. The dance numbers from the history of the movies are introduced and narrated by Mikhail Baryshnikov, Ray Bolger, Liza Minnelli, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Gene Kelly. Kelly also served as executive producer.

Kelly and Jack Haley, Jr. (who also was responsible for the That’s Entertainment! films), start the film—after a gratingly splashy opening number—with a chronological history of dance in film. Early nickel flickers and silent extravaganzas are glimpsed.

Then that mad choreographer-director, Busby Berkeley, is showcased, with wild clips from some of Berkeley’s 1930s Warner Bros. musicals. Some of this stuff, which really makes you wonder what kind of medication Berkeley was taking, is reason enough to stay up for late-night TV and catch these films in their entirety.

Fred Astaire is duly honored, of course, including his solo to the ironic strains of “I Won’t Dance.” We also get to see a dance from The Wizard of Oz that was trimmed from the final release version.

It’s an extension of the Scarecrow’s “If I Only Had a Brain” dance, and it’s perfectly delightful—nothing great, mind you, but with Ray Bolger bouncing between rubbery fence posts and flying over the corn fields, it certainly qualifies as a wonderful almost-lost nugget of Hollywood history.

A section on classical ballet in movies follows, and this is the point at which That’s Dancing! goes astray. A bit too much time is spent paying tribute to classical greats, many of whom had little to do with dance in movies.

This is also the point at which the film abandons its chronological movement, becoming instead a tribute to the key stars of the genre. Thus the movie seems directionless, although it’s hard to care much when the clips are this good.

There’s a sensational duet of one-upmanship by the Nicholas Brothers, from Down Argentine Way; a hilarious bit from It’s Always Fair Weather with Kelly, Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd hoofing it up with the handicap of a garbage can lid attached to each foot; and the sizzling “Cool” from West Side Story.

The narrators take pains to tell us who the principal dancers are, and even the directors and choreographers. For some reason, and this is unfortunately common in compilation films such as this, there is no written identification of each clip. It’s always nice when a title is flashed at the bottom of the screen when a scene comes on, but maybe they thought it would be too complicated for the audience. Hmm.

First published in the Herald, January 19, 1985

Yes, for some reason this one didn’t catch the giddy magic of the first couple of compilation films under this banner. In the 1970s the first two That’s Entertainment! movies were big box-office hits; but they’re all museum stuff now.


Dreamchild

November 26, 2012

The year is 1932, and an 80-year-old woman named Alice Hargreaves is sailing from England for America. This woman, who appears ordinary, is not so at all; for she is the Alice, the Alice who long ago became the central figure for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

This is how we first meet her in Dreamchild. As she prepares to receive an honor from Columbia University, marking the centenary of Carroll’s birth, she reflects upon a languid summer, decades earlier. As a 10-year-old girl, she was the sounding board for the Rev. Charles Dodgson (Carroll’s real name) and his intricate, playful fantasies.

The film jumps between 1932, that childhood remembrance, and a few scenes from Carroll’s work, which come to life complete with the Mad Hatter, March Hare, Mock Turtle, and Gryphon.

The central idea of Dennis Potter’s script is that Dodgson’s repressed sexual appetite was the springboard for his literary flights of fancy. As the film progresses, Potter and director Gavin Millar suggest that Dodgson, a shy stutterer, had an indecent love for little Alice, and that—being a wholly decent man—he sublimated his passion, which ultimately found its voice in his writing.

This idea is delicately forwarded throughout the film, mostly in looks and glances. We’re never quite sure whether Dodgson is a sicko with a Lolita complex or whether he innocently likes children.

There’s a hint that the elderly Alice is thinking about all this, and perhaps understanding the implications of Dodgson’s attentions, for the first time. Maybe this explains why, when we first see her, she is hard-edged and cranky; like a woman trying to hide a secret from herself.

The appearances by Carroll’s characters—as splendidly created by Jim Henson’s puppet crew after the original John Tenniel drawings—may be considered chorus-like presences, helping this Alice, like the fictional one, on her roundabout way to finding out the truth.

Potter has explored his themes before; the coexistence of reality and artifice in Pennies from Heaven, and sexual repression in Brimstone and Treacle. But he brings things together here in a way that never seems schematic or boring.

And his cause is helped by three wonderful performances: Coral Browne, stiff but perhaps still vulnerable as the older Alice; Ian Holm, as the loving but controlled Dodgson; and Amelia Shankley, a fresh and spontaneous presence in her film debut, as little Alice.

The romantic subplot between Alice’s nurse (Nicola Cowper) and an American newspaperman (Peter Gallagher) may not quite be strong enough to fit into this puzzle; and it would have been terrific to have seen some more of Carroll’s creatures given life. But there is much that is special about Dreamchild, and it makes an intriguing companion piece to Carroll’s enduring work.

First published in the Herald, December 19, 1985

A brilliant idea for a Dennis Potter project, and a film I’d like to see again. I recall that, while Jim Henson’s puppets are always superb, the creatures here are particularly haunting, not just in their design but in their presence, somehow.