Good Morning, Vietnam

March 26, 2013

goodmorningvietnamThe hero of Good Morning, Vietnam, Armed Forces Radio disc jockey Adrian Cronauer, first sets down in the bustling metropolis of Saigon in 1965. He takes one look around the hot, dusty city and exclaims, “I feel like a fox in a chicken coop!”

The Vietnam “police action” is just about to escalate, and Cronauer is just about to fire the morale of the American troops, and exasperate his military superiors, with his manic on-the-air patter and his scorching musical selections. Mantovani and Lawrence Welk are out; James Brown is very, very in.

So Cronauer truly is a fox in a chicken coop. But that analogy also applies to the actor who plays Cronauer, Robin Williams. Williams, of course, is the hyperactive human comedy synthesizer, a guy who can take any combination of unrelated ideas and build a 15-minute routine around them.

Playing this free-form disc jockey gives Williams the long leash he has always craved in movies. And director Barry Levinson, who has encouraged spirited improvisation in his other films (especially Diner and Tin Men), allows Williams the showcase.

William’s ozone-level raps range from the ominous visual comparison of Ho Chi Minh and Colonel Sanders (“The same person? You be the judge!”) to an ear-splitting impression of Ethel Merman jamming Soviet radar, which might segue into a variation on a Roger Miller song: “Da Nang me, Da Nang me, they oughta take a rope and hang me….”

The on-air routines are brilliant, and often to the thematic point. But at some stage, Good Morning, Vietnam has to build a movie to support this material. Naturally enough, Levinson and screenwriter Mitch Markowitz (who based the script very loosely on the real Cronauer’s experiences) play off the comedy of the radio show with the country’s increasing sense of chaos and despair.

Cronauer’s friendships with a beautiful Vietnamese woman (Chintara Sukapatana) and her brother (Tung Thanh Tran) grow shaky as the city begins to rumble. After he sees a terrorist bomb destroy a popular hangout for soldiers, Cronauer’s efforts to get the story on the air are squelched by Army brass, who prefer to keep the news positive.

Back at the radio station, the ensemble work is excellent—Williams isn’t the whole show—with deft performances by Forest Whitaker, Richard Portnow, and Richard Edson. And Levinson shrewdly uses two humorless officers (Bruno Kirby and J.T. Walsh) as unbendable foils for Cronauer’s wildness.

While much of the movie, comedic and otherwise, is affecting, the center somehow keeps slipping away. The film is really a collection of sketches, without a powerful unifying idea; Cronauer’s habit of getting into skirmishes isn’t a strong enough narrative device to do justice to the subject matter. Good Morning, Vietnam is never as penetrating as it clearly intends to be.

First published in the Herald, December 1987

Even at the time, people were talking about how the movies had finally found a role that tapped the peculiar talent of Robin Williams; the curious thing is, how infrequently the movies found similar sorts of things in which he could really cut loose. Despite his unfettered presence, the film is not really very good.


La Bamba

March 25, 2013

labambaRichie Valens was the other great rocker who went down in a plane crash with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper near Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959, “the day the music died.” The Buddy Holly story has already been well immortalized on film; now, with La Bamba, it is Valens’ turn.

Valens is hardly as familiar a figure as Holly, of course, and he notched only three hits and 17 birthdays before his death. But La Bamba provides ample evidence of why he is worth celebrating.

The film is the work of writer-director Luis Valdez, whose previous film experience includes the interestingly disastrous Zoot Suit. Valdez has made a carefully balanced movie. It’s a very traditional film biography, and unafraid of the clichés of the form. But it’s also an uninsistent description of the Hispanic experience, a topic Valdez explores without ever losing the solidly entertaining main thread of the film.

The crucial way Valdez does this is by making La Bamba the story of two brothers. Richie (Lou Diamond Phillips) is the nice good-humored boy who becomes a star; Bob (Esai Morales, of Bad Boys) is violently insecure, more volcanic and ill-adjusted. Valdez allows these two to represent twin sides of a single personality—Richie yearning to tap into the American success story, Bob retreating to Mexico to seek the wisdom of the old ways.

Planted throughout this stimulating conflict are the hallmarks of the movie biography: Richie’s mom (Rosana DeSoto) pays for a live performance at a small local hall; Richie is spotted by a talent agent (Joe Pantoliano) who suggests a name change from Valenzuela; lovestruck Richie writes “Donna,” a hit single, for his white high-school girlfriend. Along the way, Valdez beautifully re-creates the humid milieu of Richie’s youth in the California fruit-picking world.

Valdez makes up for the occasional syrupy patch with some exhilarating music. There’s a marvelous scene when Bob takes Richie to a Mexican bordello for a rite of passage; Richie becomes more interested in the house band as it performs an old Mexican folk song, “La Bamba.” His subsequent, sizzling rock ‘n’ roll reworking of that song embodies the movie’s theme: that traditional Mexican ways may be incorporated into new American forms, without denying either. It helps, of course, that Valens’ recording of “La Bamba” is one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs ever laid down.

His music is re-created here by the brilliant Los Lobos, who also appear as the bordello band. There are other clever cameos: Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats plays Eddie Cochran, and Marshall Crenshaw appears as Buddy Holly.

La Bamba was a bit hit at the opening night of the recent Seattle International Film Festival, and Columbia Pictures is clearly counting on the strong word-of-mouth the movie has already generated to carry it past the lack of stars or high concept. It should work, and La Bamba could be this summer’s little movie that goes all the way.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

Fun movie. In retrospect, I assume Luis Valdez’ approach here was to deliver something that wasn’t commonplace in mainstream American films—a straight-ahead portrait of a Hispanic community—by putting it into a very conventional container. Which worked very nicely. Neither Phillips nor Morales quite took off the way one might have thought, although they’re both hard-working actors, with a few eccentric detours along the way. I just watched Esai Morales in Atlas Shrugged Part II, and you want to talk about an actor flashing his professionalism under absurd circumstances, you got it right there.


Beyond Therapy

March 21, 2013

beyondtherapyIf any American director owned the 1970s, it was Robert Altman. Even Woody Allen’s emerging movie work did not have a comparable impact. Altman charted the rudderless course of an anxious time with films that were by turns hip, revisionist, down-to-earth, and arty.

His prolific output peaked with Nashville in 1975, a film that seems more and more worthy of being put in a time capsule, so future generations can figure out what the decade was all about. By 1980, Altman seemed to run out of gas, and lately he’s been turning out adaptations of plays (Fool for Love most recently) that are often fascinating but also marginal. He’s withdrawn from the front lines.

Beyond Therapy continues the series of stage adaptations (Altman and Christopher Durang wrote the script, from Durang’s play). It is an ensemble farce that satirizes the practitioners of psychobabble and their patients. It is also a puzzling and unsatisfying film.

As it opens, Bruce (Jeff Goldblum) meets Prudence (Julie Hagerty) in a French restaurant. They have been brought together by a personals ad. Imagine Prudence’s surprise, then, when Bruce casually mentions his male lover, Bob.

As it happens, Bruce claims to be bisexual, but is looking for marriage with a woman. Naturally, this causes consternation not only to Prudence, but also to Bob (Christopher Guest), who shares an apartment with Bruce.

All of these people talk about their problems with two wacko therapists (Tom Conti and Glenda Jackson) who have adjoining offices. So do a bunch of peripheral characters.

It’s structured something like a classic French farce, but it’s overlaid with a patina of pure put-on. These people are not characters, they’re caricatures, and they behave in inexplicable and irritating ways. No level of sympathy is approached, and you can’t even admire the film on the level of stylization.

Only one scene begins to have life: when Bruce brings Prudence home to his apartment, where Bob is getting very peevish. The strained attempts at civility give the movie its only potent laughs. Christopher Guest, who used to do a similarly swishy character on “Saturday Night Lives,” is actually the only cast member who clicks with the material.

The movie still looks like an Altman film, with the restless visual movement that recalls his ’70s films. But he appears to take Beyond Therapy strictly as a hollow joke—even the setting is a gag; supposedly New York, it’s very obviously filmed in Paris—but comedy is at its best when the stakes are very serious. That’s something you’d think would be remembered by the director who invested the original film of M*A*S*H with so much blood and cruelty.

First published in the Herald, April 1987

Is this Altman’s worst movie? I vote yes, but I don’t want to sit through it again to confirm. He was indeed in the midst of his string of play adaptations, but “Tanner ’88” was lurking just around the corner, and the return to first-rate moviemaking.


Best Seller

March 15, 2013

bestsellerThe main pleasure of Best Seller comes from watching two of Hollywood’s best actors play off against each other in weird and wonderful ways. James Woods plays a longtime hit man who’s hatching a bizarre plot. Brian Dennehy plays a cop who is also an author, turning his experiences into books a la Joseph Wambaugh. He’s currently suffering from writer’s block and looking for a story to tell.

Woods is about to give him one. He’s murdered a long list of “liabilities” for a stupendously wealthy corporate criminal (Paul Shenar). Now Woods wants to bring down Shenar’s empire, and he knows where all the bodies are buried. He approaches Dennehy with a proposal: Woods will give him the crime story of the century. All Dennehy has to do is get it down right, and maybe humanize Woods in the process.

So the two of them forge a dubious partnership; Dennehy, in particular, doesn’t know whether to believe any of this or not. Now, this story is already eccentric—not your usual cops and robbers. But the screenwriter, Larry Cohen, has even more up his sleeve. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, since Cohen is an original and maverick talent who puts his quirky mark on everything from horror films (It’s Alive) to biographies (The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover).

Although Best Seller contains the requisite guns blasting and cops running down darkened side streets, Cohen and director John Flynn are really fashioning a character study. The hit man and the cop are trapped in this improbable relationship, which keeps getting weirder as Woods becomes more and more insistent on the two of them becoming friends.

The cold-blooded killer turns out to be a guy who just wants some brotherly love. He presents Dennehy with an engraved watch, takes him home to meet his parents, and flashes some jealousy at Dennehy’s publisher (Victoria Tennant).

The film does a sufficient job of fulfilling the thriller plot while embroidering it with these oddball touches, although the big climax is somewhat wanting, I think.

But the two actors make it work. Woods, who was Oscar-nominated last year for Salvador and just won an Emmy for the TV-movie Promise, is simply one of the most exciting actors going. Here he easily slides from cool menace to hurt boyishness.

Dennehy is the monument-sized fellow from Cocoon and FX, and his girth plays well off Woods’ lean shiftiness. Dennehy plays the straight man role, but this actor is so authentic that he gives it considerable presence.

It’s truly a left-field movie, unpredictable and odd. But there are sequences in it that really reach a high, such as the bar scene in which Woods roams through the room, hitting on a woman, provoking a fitstfight, and testing his pain threshold by burning himself with a cigarette. Best Seller certainly goes its own way.

First published in the Herald, September 1987

The filmography of Larry Cohen: a great Hollywood subject in itself. I can’t say I remember this movie well, but from the sound of it, somebody could easily do a remake today and make it work.


Gardens of Stone

February 13, 2013

gardensofstoneFrancis Coppola has looked at the Vietnam War before. A decade ago, hot off the success of the Godfather films, he poured everything he had into Apocalypse Now, a broad, out-of-control movie that played up the insanity of Vietnam through a plot borrowed from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

It was all darkness: The war was a rudderless ship, and the military people in charge were psychopaths. (Remember “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”?)

Now Coppola has made another Vietnam movie, based on a novel by Nicholas Profitt, and the contrast is fascinating. Gardens of Stone, produced with the enthusiastic cooperation of the U.S. military, shows the home front in 1968, among some soldiers and friends at Arlington National Cemetery. This time the conflict isn’t the simple war-is-madness of Apocalypse Now. This is a much more mature, and much more ambivalent movie.

The central figure is Clell Hazard (James Caan, in a terrific comeback performance), a combat veteran who’s been put out to pasture as a member of the Old Guard. His main responsibility at Arlington is teaching soldiers how to bury other soldiers, but he burns to be doing something more useful.

A young gung-ho soldier (D.B. Sweeney) becomes Hazard’s surrogate son at Arlington. He wants to be an officer and go where the fighting is. Hazard’s response is basically the film’s standpoint: This war is different, probably a mistake; but a soldier must serve, and should be where he can do the most good. The movie tracks the year of the boy’s tutelage under Hazard and another Old Guard sergeant (James Earl Jones, in a scene-stealing role), until the kid is shipped off.

Some of the ambivalence of the time is reflected in Hazard’s relationship with a Washington Post reporter (Anjelica Huston) who thinks the war is “genocide” but who falls in love with the Army man anyway.

I’m not sure Coppola feels completely comfortable with the old-fashioned straightforwardness of this story, especially toward the end, but he bravely faces it head on. It’s a very entertaining film, with lots of inside military stuff. There’s an emphasis on the military as a family, and Hazard refers to the war as a “family business”—which reverberates intriguingly with the family business of Coppola’s Godfather.

And it’s a good-looking film, both in terms of the people onscreen and the physical production. Jordan Cronenweth’s photography is excellent as usual, and production designer Dean Tavoularis, who has worked with Coppola many times, gets a late-’60s look that is discreet but evocative. Hazard’s slightly dumpy apartment, for example, is an uncannily authentic space.

These details are memorable, and that’s proper. The big issues of the war won’t get settled here, and the film is at its best when it stays away from them (one of the only cheap-shot moments comes at the expense of a caricature peacenik, played by counterculture promoter Bill Graham). The movie succeeds because of its attention to the frailties of people, caught in a terrible situation.

First published in the Herald, May 1987

History has not remembered this movie, and to be honest, neither really have I. But it did, at least, feel rooted in something. Coppola’s son had died just before filming, and the film has a gravity that distinguishes it in the director’s work.


The Bedroom Window

February 11, 2013

bedroomwindowI’m sitting there watching The Bedroom Window, and distracted enough to play a movie mind game: Who are the two actors, in all of world cinema, least likely to show up in the same film frame?

My nominations: Steve Guttenberg, lightweight star of the Police Academy movies and Cocoon, and Isabelle Huppert, the sultry actress who has graced scores of French films, including Violette and Sincerely Charlotte. Two such divergent styles are inconceivable together; Guttenberg’s shallow knockabout play couldn’t possibly strike sparks against Huppert’s flinty Gallic edge.

These two share centerstage in The Bedroom Window, and, in fact, their chemistry is non-existent. Their inability to interact turns out to be characteristic of the film as a whole. While it’s based on a good thriller idea, the movie flounces around desperately in search of a style.

The writer-director, Curtis Hanson, knows he has a pretty good setup, and he wrings a certain amount of juice from it. But he can’t find his own consistent voice, so he reaches for a variety of quotes from the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitch might have liked this basic situation: A guy (Guttenberg) is messing around with his boss’s wife (Huppert) at Guttenberg’s apartment one night after a party. She hears a noise in the middle of the night, goes to the window, and sees a woman (Elizabeth McGovern) being attacked on the street. She also gets a clear view of the attacker, a pale, red-headed fellow who looks a little like Howdy Doody—who immediately sprints away when he know he’s been spotted. Guttenberg, arriving at the window too late, doesn’t see the man.

The thug is a suspected murderer, so Guttenberg feels they should go to the police and try to identify the culprit; but Huppert doesn’t want to expose the infidelity, so Guttenberg decides to pretend he was the one who saw the attacker, borrowing Huppert’s description.

In such a situation, it is inevitable that the deceit will come unraveled. Here, it happens when Guttenberg is confronted by a police lineup. Naturally, he can’t make a positive identification; but afterward, he follows the most suspicious of the suspects on his own, and gathers his own evidence. His weird behavior leads the cops to wonder whether Guttenberg might be involved as more than just a witness.

Not bad, but Hanson has trouble even with the early expositional scenes. The actors are out of sync, the camera often feels misplaced, and the red herrings are feebly scattered. (Hanson’s sole innovative directorial stroke is making Baltimore an atmospheric, scenic setting.)

There’s one scene that really comes alive: the trial in which Guttenberg gives the testimony. He’s grilled by a defense attorney, played by playwright Wallace Shawn (of My Dinner with Andre), who brings so much sauce and wit to his brief role that it only reinforces how lame the film has been thus far. Perhaps this was the sort of offbeat casting Hanson had in mind when he chose his leads, although Guttenberg is out of his depth and Huppert acts as though she has learned her English phonetically. Together, they have all the compatibility of creatures from different species, which is about what the film deserves.

First published in the Herald, January 15, 1987

Hanson, a great cineaste, would get to Bad Influence in 1990, an upgrade in almost every way, and of course go on to do excellent work in L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys. I stand by my assertion here: the Guttenberg-Huppert liaison remains my weirdest screen couple.


Dark Eyes

February 6, 2013

darkeyesEverything about Dark Eyes is blatantly geared toward setting a feast for the exceptional Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni. And, in those limited terms, the movie has provided a feast, as well as the 1987 best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival, plus a likely Oscar nomination in next year’s Academy Awards. In other words, it’s a crown to a career.

Maybe this blatancy is what has caused the crown to rest so uneasily on Mastroianni’s noble head. The movie is so clearly a designed tour de force it unbalances whatever kind of point the film might otherwise have had. There’s even a sequence in a health spa that overtly recalls the same situation in Fellini’s 81/2, the 1963 film that gave Mastroianni perhaps his greatest role.

This is not a criticism of Mastroianni’s performance; he’s splendid. Dark Eyes, which is based on a mélange of Chekov short stories (especially “The Lady with the Dog”), taps exactly into the romantic melancholy that Mastroianni embodies like no one else.

The film begins with the feeling of a classic: During a sea cruise, an idle passenger happens upon another traveler whose faded finery and world-weariness suggest a story waiting to be told. And Mastroianni tells his tale of a long marriage of convenience to a much wealthier woman, marked by much philandering on his part.

But the marriage is interrupted when Mastroianni meets, at the spa, a lovely Russian woman. They soon part, but she seems to have spurred some genuine feelings, and Mastroianni goes to beautifully mad lengths to find her in Russia again, at least until he feels the pull of his customary lack of moral will.

Perhaps only Mastroianni could make this romantic and cowardly man so sympathetic. And the movie sometimes comes alive with the delicacy of Mastroianni’s acting: When he lopes across a garden party at his wife’s lavish estate, and slumps himself, drink in hand, into a lawn chair, we have an entire index of this character’s easy, empty life until now. The romantic high point comes when the Russian girl’s hat is windblown into the spa’s mud pool, and Marcello (resplendent in white suit) walks directly into the black goo to retrieve the chapeau.

These and a number of other nice moments are squandered in the uncomfortable clash between Italian warmth and Russian heaviness. Soviet director Nikita Mikhalkov (A Slave of Love) doesn’t seem able to engage the sweet feelings here; even as you’re admiring the film’s finer touches, you’re aware that they aren’t meshing together very well. Mikhalkov obviously wants to pay tribute to Mastroianni, but he isn’t a supple or expressive enough director to catch the actor’s grace. Dark Eyes clunks when it ought to soar.

First published in the Herald, November 19, 1987

This is one of those reviews where I really, really should’ve established the character’s name and then gone with that. Typing “Mastroianni” that many times is a chore. He did get Oscar-nominated, by the way.