The Last Temptation of Christ

March 20, 2013

lasttemptationFinally. After weeks of controversy, most of it generated by people who hadn’t seen the movie, The Last Temptation of Christ has opened. People who like to think for themselves can now make up their own minds.

The controversy surrounding this tale of Christ has sparked picket lines and shouting matches. Church leader Donald Wildmon and Last Temptation director Martin Scorsese debated on “Nightline.” A band of fundamentalists offered Universal Pictures $10 million to buy the movie and destroy it. And protests at the house of Universal president Lew Wasserman took on an ugly anti-Semitic tone.

All of which brings to mind the line from Hannah and Her Sisters: “If Jesus came to Earth today and saw what was being done in his name, he would never stop throwing up.” So much fuss and nonsense over such an entirely well-intentioned enterprise.

The Last Temptation of Christ is a long-cherished project for Scorsese who, along with screenwriter Paul Schrader, has adapted the speculative novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. It is a thoughtful, serious film about the struggle between flesh and spirit, and emphasizes the human anguish and dimensions of Jesus (it does not, contrary to rumor, deny the notion of Jesus’ divinity).

The opening and closing sections of the film are the most intriguing. In the first reel, we find Jesus as a carpenter who hears voices and is disturbed by his Chosen status. The middle, more familiar section of the film shows the Jesus of the Gospels, accepting his role as Messiah, enduring the temptations in the desert, gathering his disciples, and performing miracles.

The final portion of the film is a fantasia during the crucifixion, as Satan leads Jesus on a tour of what his life might be if he chooses to live only as a man—complete with marriage, children, and a sexual life. There is no explicit precedent for this in the Gospels, but it’s a legitimate extension of the idea of temptation, and it actually heightens the concept of the sacrifice of Jesus; if there weren’t any temptation, it wouldn’t be a sacrifice.

The Last Temptation runs on for two hours and 40 minutes. It’s a stark-looking movie (Scorsese made the film on the amazingly small budget of $6.5 million, in Morocco) and Scorsese aims for none of the grandiose effects that we know and love from Cecil B. DeMille biblical pictures. The actors speak in everyday American accents, the dialogue itself is without the usual King James poetry.

Much of it is engrossing. The theological debate within the film becomes a bit murky and inarticulate at times; the film never seems to find the specific argument it wants to put forward, but perhaps that was the intention.

A lot of the debate is between Jesus, played by Willem Dafoe (the Christlike sergeant in Platoon) and Judas (played by Scorsese favorite Harvey Keitel). In this version, Jesus virtually orders Judas to betray him, and noting Judas’s anguish, says that “God gave me the easier job.”

Mary Magdalene is played with considerable sensuality by a tattooed Barbara Hershey; Andre Gregory is arresting as John the Baptist; Harry Dean Stanton does a touching cameo as Saul, later Paul; and David Bowie is a patrician Pontius Pilate.

Scorsese says he has been wanting to film this story for the better part of two decades, but it seems to me in many ways he’s been making it all along. There is tortured Christian allegory in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, and those films actually deal with faith and redemption in more alive, forceful terms than this new film. It isn’t Scorsese’s best movie, but The Last Temptation isn’t glib blasphemy, either.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

We certainly haven’t gotten any more enlightened since then; you can imagine what would happen to this movie is someone tried to make it now. I think I’d like it more today myself, but I haven’t watched it stem-to-stern in a while (saw the parts with Harry Dean Stanton a couple of years ago and was really stirred). The casting of Keitel is one of those strokes that at first seems puzzling, and eventually feels inspired.

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The Little Thief

March 18, 2013

littlethiefWhen Francois Truffaut died in 1984 at the tragically young age of 52, he left a hole in the world of the cinema that can never be filled. Happily, he also left a series of masterpieces—Jules and Jim, Day for Night, Two English Girls—that will keep his presence, his large and generous soul, with us always.

As it turns out, he left us with something else: a screenplay, written with collaborator Claude de Givray. The Little Thief is a project Truffaut had wanted to make as early as the mid-1960s, when he proposed it as a female version of his first feature, 1959’s The 400 Blows, which was also about a lost, adolescent rebel.

Now The Little Thief has been realized by some of Truffaut’s friends, including Claude Miller, who was Truffaut’s assistant for years before becoming a director himself. Miller does not have the master’s touch, and The Little Thief can’t technically be counted as a Truffaut movie per se. But Miller captures the spirit of his former mentor enough so that Truffaut’s hand is well evident.

The protagonist is a 16-year-old named Janine (Charlotte Gainsbourg, an expressive actress whom Truffaut would have adored), abandoned by her parents, who lives with her poor uncle and aunt in the French countryside of the early 1950s. When we first see Janine, she is swiping a carton of Lucky Strikes from an unlocked car. Janine steals things.

This habit gets her sent away to work as a maid. Janine fails in love, first with an older married man (Didier Bezace), then with a teenage rebel (Simon de la Brasse) who has a motorcycle. Her troubles include a stay in reform school, but she is a survivor.

The movie has many wonderful moments, recalling Truffaut’s romantic sensibility: Janine at a movie theater, falling asleep on the shoulder of a stranger who will become her lover; Janine stealing a volume of Victor Hugo from a bookstore; the biker’s trick of flipping cigarettes in his mouth.

Like the hero of The 400 Blows, Janine eventually ends up at the ocean, which she sees for the first time. “I didn’t expect that color,” she says quietly, gazing at the water, perfectly capturing the adolescent’s mix of wonder and disappointment; a moment evocative of Truffaut at his most characteristic. All in all, a perfectly lovely time at the movies.

First published in the Herald, September 1989

A nice movie, though it seems to have been forgotten. Gainsbourg went on to her international career, as could hardly be avoided from the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, including her place in the realm of Lars von Trier.


The Great Outdoors

March 14, 2013

Great OutdoorsTwo brothers-in-law sit on the deck of a vacation hideaway, gazing out over the serene lake in front of them. One is content to enjoy the trees on the other side, but the other has a different idea: He takes one look at all of that unused space and has a grand vision for a toxic dump for medical refuse.

These two guys aren’t going to get along at all, which is the operating idea behind The Great Outdoors, yet another comedy from the pen of John Hughes. Here Hughes reworks some of the chemistry from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which straight-laced Steve Martin was terrorized by geeky John Candy.

In The Great Outdoors, Candy is back, but this time as the straight man. He plays an ordinary businessman who takes his wife (Stephanie Faracy) and two sons up to the lake cabin for a week of peace. There’s a surprise waiting for him: the crazed, crass brother-in-law (Dan Aykroyd), who’s brought his wife (Annette Bening) and spooky twin daughters up unannounced for the week.

Hughes’ script allows these two to lock horns over most of the familiar outdoorsy situations that are liable to confront the urban adventurer: water-skiing technique, fishing, a battle with a bat (“radar-guided vermin” in Aykroyd’s vernacular), and the ultimate test of camping manhood, the proper way to build a fire.

Howard Deutch directs these almost elderly jokes. He also directed Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful, two other Hughes scripts. Deutch’s main task is to set the two comic actors up and allow them some room, which is does passably. As for the subplot with Candy’s son (Chris Young) romancing a comely local (Lucy Deakins), it is a completely separate sidebar.

Deutch and Hughes have a curious tendency to kill a comic sequence before it’s over. The set-up is there, the joke is delivered, and poof. On to the next gag. You almost get the feeling that these jokes are so well-worn, Deutch and Hughes are content to let the audience complete the missing material.

The Great Outdoors doesn’t approach the inspired high points of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and the final 30 minutes or so of resolution are particularly half-hearted. Candy is perfectly okay as the laid-back family man, and Aykroyd does have a few amusingly grotesque moments, though his performance is something of a rehash of his role in Neighbors, in which he played that nightmarish figure, the friendly next-door neighbor.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

Huh–the review seems to be missing an ending. I forgot Bening was in this thing—it was her first big-screen job. The movie’s really dead in the water, a real dud after the first two Hughes-Deutch successes.


The Good Mother

March 12, 2013

goodmotherThe Good Mother, a film adapted from the novel by Sue Miller, takes its time about springing its main plot point. First we learn some history about the protagonist, Anna (Diane Keaton), recently divorced, who lives in Boston with her young daughter.

Early in the film, she meets a sculptor (Liam Neeson) with whom she has a torrid, and very satisfying, affair. The movie is a good 50 minutes old before the revelation that changes everything, a revelation that centers on child molestation, or at least the appearance of impropriety.

The movie delves into Anna’s family history, recounting her hero worship of her rebellious aunt, and the still-formidable presence of her wealthy grandparents (Ralph Bellamy and Teresa Wright).

Anna was supposed to be the pianist in the family, but she never quite had the passion for it, a lingering failure. And the film sketches Anna’s current confusions, her will to independence that wars with her reliance on the grandparents for money, and her meaningless job. The crucial thing she has is her child, and raising her daughter is the source of her passion; it’s the one thing in her life she does well.

All of this is sensitively directed by Leonard Nimoy, who continues to move farther away from the pointed ears of Mr. Spock. Nimoy’s good with actors and he stages individual scenes well, such as the first lovemaking between Keaton and Neeson, which takes place in an artist’s loft full of weird sculptures, casting strange shadows.

On some level, I’m not quite sure what the movie is about, or thinks it’s about. For instance, Keaton’s character describes herself as having “always been frigid,” until she meets the romantic sculptor, with whom she has great sex. Just when she reaches this point, she gets slapped down, and loses the most important thing in her life. The film does not denounce or endorse this theme and you wonder to what extent it is intended.

A lot of what the movie is about, however, seems to be in Diane Keaton’s performance, and I think that is where it succeeds most. Keaton is often accused of mannerism and ditheriness, and she is sometimes guilty. In The Good Mother, she’s still every inch Keaton; Nimoy has given her free rein. So her performance is full of her customary half-sentences, dotty gesticulations, and quicksilver changes of facial expression.

But it seems to be that these Keatonisms are to the point, for this character. She is supposed to be a woman very much in the process of finding herself, and under those circumstances, the performance is all too apt, and frequently poignant.

First published in the Herald, November 1988

One of those How Did This Get Made? movies, made during Nimoy’s unexpected success as a director. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone refer to this film.


Willow

February 15, 2013

willowThe advance buzz on George Lucas’s Willow has been that the film is “soft”; not quite strong enough, for instance, to open opposite Rambo III and Crocodile Dundee II (a pair of blockbusters that bow next Wednesday). The industry word was the Lucas’s “Star Wars with midgets” was shaping up as a possible summer stiff.

Some of this, I think, is wishful thinking from those envious of Lucas’s incredible success. The creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones doesn’t play by Hollywood’s rules, and he’s taken considerable blame for supposedly lowering the collective IQ of the movie-going public by dishing up his magical fantasies.

Willow, it turns out, is neither Lucas’s magnum opus nor his giant stumble. It’s simply an entertaining movie, heavily formulaic but a good bit of fun. Lucas, who takes executive producer and story credit, has fashioned a straightforward fantasia that borrows from himself and others. This is not, regrettably, a major step forward for him, but neither is it a sin.

The major inspirational sources are the sword-and-sorcery genre, a la Lord of the Rings, and the Japanese samurai movie. The world of Willow is full of evil queens, talking animals, magical dwarfs, and big two-headed monsters that live in moats. The matter at hand is a baby, an infant princess prophesied to save her kingdom, who needs to be transported away from the evil queen and toward safety.

By a complicated set of reasons, the job falls to a farmer named Willow (Warwick Davis), one of the little people who live in a peaceful country. In getting the child away from Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh), Willow naturally goes through much adventure, aided along the way by an irresponsible warrior (Val Kilmer), a sorceress who looks like a squirrel, and two rowdy Lilliputian creatures called Brownies, who inexplicably (but amusingly) speak with French accents.

The movie is full of the expected high-throttle sequences, including a rather nifty sled chase in the snow, a full-tilt carriage ride, and two (count ’em) castle stormings. (It is also marked by occasionally awe-inspiring special effects, produced by Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic.) To all of this, director Ron Howard brings his customary good humor; he’s surely responsible for many of the throwaway sight gags and sardonic line readings.

Some things seem compromised by their familiarity. Lucas uses what has worked for him in the past, and some sequences correspond exactly to their counterparts in other Lucas films. As do the heroes: Willow is a shorter version of good Luke Skywalker, the pretty princess (Joanne Whalley) is a Princess Leia on the wrong side, and Val Kilmer’s wise-cracking warrior is out of the Han Solo mold.

Kilmer has also clearly fashioned his performance—hair, movements, expressions—on Toshiro Mifune, one of the world’s greatest action stars. And the final battle, fought in a driving rain, invites comparison to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (Lucas is a longtime Kurosawa admirer), though Willow suffers by the measurement.

The question is, does Lucas keep making the same movie because he’s obsessed by similar stories, or because he wants to mine a profitable formula? Either way, and as enjoyable as Willow is, this particular Lucas method seems to have run its course.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

Haven’t seen it since, but this all sounds about right. How innocently promising the career of Val Kilmer seemed at the time—and Ron Howard’s too, come to think of it.


Little Vera

February 4, 2013

littleveraLittle Vera has caused international tremors like no Soviet film in recent memory. Is it the explosive political content? The glasnost-inspired openness? Or could it have something to do with the fact that the leading lady sheds her clothes to a degree unprecedented in a Soviet-made movie?

It is all of these things, but the nude scenes have helped Little Vera attain an unusually high profile, both here and in the Soviet Union, where it has been a huge commercial success. Soviet films of recent decades have been so dull and academic that the candid Little Vera looks stunning by comparison.

But it would be silly to suggest that the sex scenes, tame by our standards, are the only unusual element here. As the star of the film, Natalya Negoda, recently said, “Soviet audiences were shocked not just because of the nude scenes but because they were given a possibility to observe their own lives.” There is a level of kitchen-sink realism here, an acknowledgment of problems and bitterness that is almost unheard-of in the Soviet cinema.

Negoda plays Vera, a bored, vulgar, lively young woman who lives with her parents in a crushingly industrialized seaport town. The film follows her through her prickly relations with her parents (the father is alcoholic, the mother worn down) and her affair with a young man (Andrei Sokolov).

The movie, especially in its first hour, vividly captures the dead-end nature of this existence. Vera, given stunning life by Negoda (whose appearance in the May issue of Playboy has given new meaning to glasnost), is a livewire trying to set off sparks under unhappy conditions.

The filmmakers are a husband-and-wife team: Vasily Pichul (director) and Maria Khmelik (writer). They bring a great deal of grungy veracity to the situations in the film, although the grittiness becomes a bit overwhelming by the end.

Would the film be receiving as much attention if it had been made in another country? Probably not. But there does seem to be new, important ground being broken here. When Vera and her boyfriend lie together on the beach, he asks her what her goals are. She flashes him a look and says, “We have a common goal: Communism.” It’s meant as a joke. That’s new ground.

First published in the Herald, April 30, 1989

Not that all Russian films were dull, but we’re talking in general here. The movie does seem to have been more of a novelty than a work of cinematic art, but it was necessary at a moment when a giant culture was teetering on the brink. At the time Negoda made many balalaikas ring out, but she has done fewer than a dozen pictures in her career.


The Couch Trip

January 31, 2013

couchtripAmong the myriad inanities of our touchy-feely, psychobabble culture, there are many juicy targets for satirization, perhaps none more deserving than radio pop psychologists. In Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me, there was some subtle play around the radio shrink, Dr. Nancy Love, although that movie had other flavorful fish to fry.

More conventional satire is found in The Couch Trip, the plot of which somehow shoehorns a mental patient and “pathological misfit” (Dan Aykroyd) into the role of Beverly Hills psychiatrist. As with most movie mental patients, Aykroyd is merely a brilliant free spirit, saner than his doctors, etc.

When he impersonates a doctor and breezes into Los Angeles to replace a popular radio shrink, it gives Aykroyd the opportunity to tear into some amusing riffs. His on-the-air free-associating constitutes the film’s funniest moments, as this impromptu healer gives his callers straight talk and profanities instead of the standard audio hand-holding.

It’s healthy satire, but the film doesn’t stay in this vein. Instead, The Couch Trip becomes too interested in following Aykroyd’s attempts to squeeze big money out of the real doctor’s sleazy partners (Richard Romanus and Arye Gross), and trying to squeeze anything that belongs to the doctor’s curvy assistant (Donna Dixon, who’s married to Aykroyd in real life). And the real doctor himself (Charles Grodin) is having a nervous breakdown in London, though he begins to realize that there is something strange about his replacement.

On the story level, The Couch Trip never quite gets in sync. The best parts of the film are the peripheral bits, such as the radio show and the occasional intrusive commercial announcement (Chevy Chase cameos in a condom ad, and there’s a straight-faced plea for the members of a hang-gliding memorial society).

When Walter Matthau first appears, as one of those loonies who hang around airports pushing a cause, it looks as though the movie may strike sparks with his belligerent character (he’s demonstrating about Violence Against Plants and shouting, “Who speaks for horticulture?”). But he softens up quickly and melts into the scene—the joke, a rather tired one, is that in Hollywood the crazies fit right in.

The Couch Trip suffers from the too-many-screenwriters syndrome. Aside from the original novel basis, there are three writers listed, with countless typewriters uncredited. Michael Ritchie, the director, used to be known as a keen satirist back in the days of Smile. The Couch Trip finds him more engaged with his material than he’s been in a while, but there’s too much emphasis on the labored plot and the one-liners, and Aykroyd isn’t strong enough to carry the movie alone.

The movie betrays its desperation when it sinks to reaching for gags about mass hysteria and mass transit. Freud himself found puns an intriguing part of psychoanalysis, but this is going too far.

First published in the Herald, January 1988

The day it opened, the film already seemed to have missed its moment—Matthau and Grodin, at least, should’ve been on to better things by this point. Does it have any boosters?