Blind Fury

February 13, 2020

blindfury“Well, well,” says the bad guy, “if it ain’t the walkin’ chop-o-matic.” That’s about the extent of the wit in Blind Fury, a new film about a very talented swordsman.

The walking chop-o-matic is a guy named Nick (what else?), who lost his eyesight in a mortar attack in Vietnam. Taken in by some mystically-oriented villagers, Nick was taught how to “see” despite his blindness, and how to handle a major­-league sword. When the story picks up in the present day, Nick is searching for an old Army buddy who is in trouble.

Nick takes his buddy’s son under his wing, and they go on a cross-country search for the father. They’re followed by thugs the entire time, but Nick – who can split a dragonfly in two just by listening for the buzz – is up to the challenge.

The movie is an excuse to mount enough fights to satisfy the crowd that supports kung fu movies, and to let Nick, played by Dutch star Rutger Hauer, show off some fancy swordsmanship. Martial-arts superstar Sho Kosugi makes a cameo appearance, and the movie also throws in ex­ prizefighter Randall “Tex” Cobb, who does his usual brawly schtick.

By now you’re probably wondering: A blind swordsman? What will they think of next? Well, actually, they didn’t even think of it this time; Blind Fury is based on a popular series of Japanese films about a blind samurai. This film doesn’t wear its cross-cultural pollination very well, as it veers between zen absurdity and redneck head-stompin’. Even the jokes seem like an awkward translation, except for two diverting low-life henchmen, who are so stupid they wind up knocking each other off.

Overall it’s pretty routine. I expected more from the director, Philip Noyce, an Australian who has displayed a thoughtful touch elsewhere (his previous film was the snappy Dead Calm). He doesn’t belong here.

First published in the Herald, March 17, 1990

I have to believe this review was cut for space, because it seems short, and I didn’t say anything about Rutger Hauer. The cast includes Terry O’Quinn, Lisa Blount, and Meg Foster. Someday ask me about the time I shared a 90-minute car ride with Philip Noyce from the Gdansk airport to a film festival in Bydgoszcz, without exchanging a word of conversation.

 


Chances Are

December 18, 2019

chancesareA real old-fashioned movie-movie, Chances Are is a welcome addition to the dismal Hollywood scene. It’s not a great film, but it is refreshing to see a traditional comedy format being smartly reworked by people who seem to care about the material.

A prologue, set in Washington, in 1963, shows the marriage of a young couple, their gushy happiness, and then the early death of the husband. But the husband doesn’t take his death lying down; in heaven (the customary version, with dry ice and jazz music) he demands that his spirit be reincarnated as soon as possible, so he can find his wife again. He’s promptly deposited into a newborn baby.

Jump ahead to the present day. The widow, Corrine (Cybill Shepherd), has been constant; never been with another man, despite the faithful and gentlemanly love of her best friend, Philip (Ryan O’Neal), who quite naturally pines for her.

Meanwhile, that same baby boy into whose mortal coil the dead husband’s spirit has shuffled, is now a young man: Alex (Robert Downey Jr.), a bright-eyed journalism student, who is brought to Corrine’s doorstep through a series of clever coincidences.

Alex doesn’t remember his past life – not yet – but he does know there’s something awfully familiar about Corrine’s house. Why, for instance, is he so sure the corn-holders are in the second drawer on the left?

One of the movie’s funniest sequences has Alex suddenly remembering who he was, and becoming very nervous about his attraction to this older woman, to say nothing of his ambivalent feelings about her – and his – college-age daughter (Mary Stuart Masterson).

Obviously, there are elements of such reincarnation classics as Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Heaven can Wait, and Made in Heaven. Director Emile Ardolino, in his first outing since the megahit Dirty Dancing, attempts to conjure some of the magical qualities of those films, and largely succeeds.

And this movie has romance to burn: tuxedos and evening gowns, a waltz to the sounds of a carousel, the Johnny Mathis theme song. The presence of Shepherd and O’Neal evokes a certain bygone style of Hollywood glamour, while the nimble performance of Robert Downey Jr., in his best role since The PickUp Artist, keeps the film lively. For the first time, Downey seems like a real leading man, charming and disciplined; his reactions as he twirls an enormous society matron around the dance floor at a fund-raising ball are evidence of some impeccable comic instincts.

The screenplay is by the sister team of Randy and Perry Howze, who also wrote Mystic Pizza. Aside from a disposable subplot about a corrupt judge it’s a nice piece of work; everything that gets set up in the deliberate, unhurried prologue has a payoff somewhere down the line. That sort of care brings the most satisfying results.

First published in the Herald, March 1989

It seems to have slipped off the radar, and I don’t think it was a big hit at the time. If I’m remembering right, I interviewed Ardolino for this film, and he clearly had a feel for movies, especially classic comedies. He died in 1993 from AIDS complications. Downey is terrific in this film, but so is Ryan O’Neal, displaying the gentler side of his screen persona. So the Howze sisters wrote three movies, and this is their final IMDb credit; what happened to them?


A Dry White Season

December 16, 2019

drywhiteseasonIn the opening shots of A Dry White Season, two little boys wrestle happily on a bright green lawn. One boy is white, the other is black. This may seem like an ordinary enough image, but the fact that the boys live in South Africa immediately charges the scene with bitterness.

A Dry White Season is a thoughtful, well-intentioned movie, and strong enough in its ultimate impact. I must say that, to these eyes, it never gets much more complex than that simple opening image; it’s a movie full of feeling and anger, but its characters are broad and obvious. The villains are evil, the complacent whites are shallow, the oppressed blacks are justifiably outraged and righteous.

All of which, in terms of the reality of the situation, sounds correct and appropriate. In terms of drama, it does not provide a particularly interesting story.                           ·

Like Richard Attenborough’s roundly criticized film of South Africa, Cry Freedom, the film centers on a middle-class white who becomes radicalized when the brutal apartheid system butts against his own life. Here the protagonist is a comfortable teacher (played by Donald Sutherland) whose gardener (Winston Ntshona) mysteriously dies while in prison on trumped-up charges. Sutherland’s attempts to find the truth result in his alienating his wife (Janet Suzman) and losing his job.

Susan Sarandon turns up in a peripheral role as a journalist helping Sutherland gather evidence on the police brutality; Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot) plays the deadly police chief. Zakes Mokae, a South African­ actor now living in the United States, gives perhaps the film’s most intriguingly-shaded performance, as a taxi driver and anti-apartheid activist who alway seems to know more than he lets on.

A Dry White Season is the second film from director Euzhan Palcy, who made an impressive debut with Sugar Cane Alley a few years ago. Paley, who adapted the novel by South African writer Andre Brink, is clearly impassioned about her subject. Through sheer forcefulness, she keeps the movie compelling despite its sketchiness.

The most memorable element of A Dry White Season may be Palcy’s great casting coup. Marlon Brando, who hasn’t made a movie since 1980’s The Formula, and professes to be sick of the business, rolls into the film at about the halfway mark and plays a wily lawyer who conducts a bravura courtroom sequence.

Brando, who did the role for free, is one of our great actors. He is also not dumb: This part is about as juicy as they come. Huge, white-haired, sporting a florid British accent and a mountain of charm, Brando effortlessly seizes the movie and twirls it around his fleshy finger.

Granted, it probably throws the film off balance, but how exhilarating to see the great man at work. Too bad he no longer seems interested in exercising his gift.

First published in the Herald, September 1989

Palcy has been getting re-appreciated lately, which seems overdue. I’d like to watch this movie again, both for Brando and for the possibility that my mixed response had more to do with my own ideas about how stories should be about gray areas rather than good vs. evil fables. But hell, apartheid was about evil incarnate, so fair play.


Enemies, A Love Story

November 12, 2019

enemiesGenerally, writer-director Paul Mazursky likes to work in comedy. After all, he had his start in the business as a stand-up comedian, and his funny films have ranged from good (Down and Out in Beverly Hills) to indifferent (Moon Over Parador). But Mazursky weighs in occasionally with heavier stuff; An Unmarried Woman, for example.

I’ll take the thoughtful Mazursky every time. There’s somthing about getting serious that sets his juices flowing, as his latest movie, Enemies, A Love Story, confirms. This may be Mazursky’s richest film.

It’s based on a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer. The central character is Herman Broder (played with understatement by Ron Silver), a Polish Jew who survived World War II by hiding in the barn of a sympathetic family of farmers. After the war, he marries the family’s daughter, Yadwiga (Margaret Sophie Stein), and they come to New York to settle.

It is 1949, and Herman and Yadwiga live in Brooklyn, where she is essentially his live-in servant He is carrying on an affair with Masha (Lena Olin), a concentration camp survivor, a sexy and slightly unstable woman. Herman is balancing his separate lives when a surprise arrives. His wife.

No, not Yadwiga, but his first wife, Tamara (Anjelica Huston). He thought she had died during the war, but she survived and has arrived in New York. Everything comes together like some classic farce, yet this is not a comedy; this is a film about the mechanics of survival, in war or in life. Many scenes have wonderful humor, but this is a darkly hued tale. Herman is essentially a man who died during the war; his spirit is gone yet he still walks and talks and makes love, like a ghost of himself. Masha tells him, “The truth is, you’re still hiding in that hayloft.” His affairs are not the light pastime of a philanderer, but the only way he seems able to connect with life. His women clearly fascinate him, but he can’t seem to make sense of his situation.

The three women are splendid. Stein is a newcomer who embodies the essence of peasant simplicity. Huston, who has turned into such a fine actress, is both down-to-earth and somehow regal. Lena Olin, who was also a prominent sexual presence in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is unpredictable and mesmerizing. She just won the New York Film Critics’ award for best supporting actress, and it’s difficult to argue.

Mazursky, who does one of his acting cameos in a small but important role, captures a colorful sense of period and place. Enemies has a novelistic texture. Every scene comes alive with a variety of meanings, and nothing is tied off in a simple explanation. That’s probably why this film lingers so suggestively in the mind.

First published in the Herald, January 21, 1990

Maragret Sophie Stein did not make many Hollywood films, but returned to her native Poland and is still working there (aka Malgorzata Zajaczkowska). Of course Lena Olin is also a great actress, but she is a “prominent sexual presence” in Unbearable Lightness, so please forgive me. I wish Mazursky had made more non-comedies, though he did pretty well by those.


Born on the Fourth of July

November 11, 2019

bornonfourth“O where have you been, my blue-eyed son/And where have­ you been, my darling young one?” So begins Bob Dylan’s great protest song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” which is featured poignantly in the new film Born on the Fourth of July.

Born on the Fourth of July, like Dylan’s song, is a great American ballad. But its stanzas have the cadence of bitter disillusionment and its words are written in blood. It is based on the 1976 book by Ron Kovic, who recalled his life growing up in a small town (he really was born on the Fourth of July in 1946), where little boys played war games in the woods, “dreamed that some day we would be men,” and did not notice that the veterans marching in the July 4th parades would flinch when firecrackers went off.

Kovic joined the Marines when he got out of high school, and left for Vietnam as a virgin, in many ways. A bullet caught him and made him a paraplegic, paralyzed from the chest down. When he returned to the United States, he passed through a hellish rehab center, an uncomfortable return to his hometown, a confused flight to Mexico, and involvement in the anti-war movement.

Oliver Stone wanted to make a film of Kovic’s story as early as 1978, but a version starring Al Pacino was canceled just before shooting was to begin. Stone, then a writer trying to get his directing career off the ground, swore to Kovic he would get the film made if he ever had the clout.

Now, after Platoon and Wall Street, Stone has the clout. And Born on the Fourth of July has everywhere in it a similar sense of commitment, particularly in its lead performance. Tom Cruise plays the blue-eyed son, Kovic, from gung-ho high school student to political activist.

Cruise is amazing in this film. I don’t know the last time I was this surprised by a performance. Except for his slick turn in The Color of Money, Cruise never resembled much of an actor. Here he seems to be working from some deep, heretofore untapped reserve of feeling, culminating in a bitter scene in his parents’ house, after he has been hauled home from a beer-fueled bar fight. The degree of despair in the scene is terrifying.

The rest of the huge cast is satisfactory, and Stone has thrown in some vivid cameos: Eerily, his Platoon sergeants, Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe, turn up in intriguing small roles, and the late Abbie Hoffman appears briefly as a campus rabble-rouser during Kovic’s days of radicalization.

Stone directs the film with his customary white-hot fervor, treating each new episode as another passage through hell. Stone is frequently guilty of overstatement, he leans on period songs for knee-jerk reactions, and he’s guilty of using caricatures to make a point (why does he have to have Kovic’s brother sing “The Times They Are A-Changing” on the eve of Kovic’s departure for Vietnam?).

But there are certain things Oliver Stone does better than anybody, especially when it comes to capturing a sense of helplessness and chaos. Amid the fury, the film has many moving small moments, as when Kovic, in his parents’ all-American back yard, quietly tells a fellow vet, ”I’d give up all my values to be whole again,” or his tears when he goes to bed with a Mexican prostitute.

If the movie is imperfect, it is because Stone and Kovic (who wrote the script together) have rage, passion, and a story to tell. It is a story of victory, though Kovic’s triumph is not that he wrote a book or spoke at the 1976 Democratic Convention, but that he has attempted to understand his life. That is worth a lot.

First published in the Herald, January 7, 1990

Stone has wandered so far away from popular success and critical respectability that he seems to be rarely considered at all these days. For all his failings, I still appreciate his free-swinging, sometimes reckless style – you have to have these kinds of filmmakers around. Cruise is excellent in the part, better, certainly, than Pacino would have been; watching the all-American boy becomes radicalized is a spectacle that outpoints Stone’s lack of subtlety.


Field of Dreams

October 11, 2019

fieldofdreamsField of Dreams is based on a baseball novel called Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella. (The marketing honcho who came up with the limp new title should be smacked.) The book begins with an Iowa farmer who hears a voice whispering the words, “If you build it, he will come.”

Somehow the farmer takes this to mean that if he builds a baseball diamond in his cornfield, the ghost of the great player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson will appear there. And so the diamond is built, Jackson appears, and the farmer goes on a magical odyssey that includes kidnapping writer J.D. Salinger and taking him to a Red Sox game.

As you can guess, such a book requires a delicate balancing act. It is the sort of balancing act that might be easier achieved in a novel than in a movie, since the phantoms of Kinsella’s fantasy become much more real when seen on the screen. That’s one of the problems of the film version, written for the screen and directed by Phil Alden Robinson.

Robinson’s other problem is that he has a tendency to state, rather than show, his themes. And he’s made the characters into survivors from the 1960s, thirtysomething folks who still (loudly) carry the dreams that shaped them, a point he hammers home incessantly.

Yet, for its occasional clumsiness, “Field of Dreams” exerts a lyrical pull. The corn runs as high as an elephant’s eye, but a lot of it is irresistible. Farmer Ray (Kevin Costner) quickly builds his baseball field, to the remarkable approval of his wife (Amy Madigan) and young daughter. He’s afraid of becoming like his father, who never did a spontaneous thing in his life; so Ray listens to his voices. After playing catch with “Shoeless” Joe (and other ghostly members of the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” team) for a while, Ray goes off on his quest to find the famous writer.

The movie changes J.D. Salinger into a fictional writer (played with gusto by James Earl Jones), who is going to lead Ray to a small town in Minnesota and the eventual revelation of what this has all been about.

The fantasy elements are difficult to capture. But the cumulative effect of all the whimsy is quite persuasive, and it helps that Robinson catches both the romance of baseball mythology and the mid-American beauty of the farmland. “Is this heaven?” asks the confused ballplayer. “No,” says Ray, “It’s Iowa.”

There is flavorful supporting work from Ray Liotta, as “Shoeless” Joe (Liotta, short­legged and dark, even looks like a baseball player from the 1920s), Timothy Busfield (from TV’s thirtysomething) as Ray’s skeptical brother-in-law, and Burt Lancaster, who does one of those bigger-than-life cameos that reminds you that there really were movie stars once.

Kevin Costner was last seen as a more down-to-earth baseball player in Bull Durham, and he underplays all the dewy myth-making going on here. Costner brings an unadorned reality to his simple character, a man who found a diamond in a cornfield.

First published in the Herald, April 20, 1989

It would seem from this review that I didn’t anticipate the movie becoming instantly beloved. But at least I picked up on a couple of lines that would turn into catchphrases, including the “No, it’s Iowa” bit. Phil Alden Robinson has had a wandering career since the success of this film, which is curious for someone who obviously found the popular pulse for a moment there. I would have to watch this movie again to see whether it’s any good, but I’m not feeling the pull. Meanwhile, the real-life cornfield used for filming has become a place of pilgrimage and, occasionally, baseball games.


The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

January 28, 2013

cookthethiefPeter Greenaway, the exceedingly provocative English director of The Draughtsman’s Contract and A Zed and Two Naughts, has said of his new film that “I wanted to engage in some of the excitements of unrestricted license.”

Mm-hmm. That is an elegant way of saying that Greenaway has tipped over a number of taboos in his new movie, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. It’s a film that happily seeks to offend and outrage.

And, oh, it succeeds. But Greenaway is such a witty and imaginative filmmaker that he makes his outrageousness watchable. At the very least, this film is visually stunning, even when it is at its most grotesque, which might be any of a number of moments.

The title provides the basic situation. A gangster (Michael Gambon) comes every night to the lavish restaurant he owns. He has no taste whatsoever, for food or anything else, but he likes to parade around with his entourage. His wife (Helen Mirren) is at his side, apparently for the sole purpose of giving him someone to abuse.

Across the restaurant sits a lone diner (Alan Howard), who spots the unhappy wife and sneaks off for the first of a series of trysts with her, in the hidden corners of the restaurant. The head chef (Richard Bohringer) watches all this with a steady, unflappable gaze.

The film is about the wife and her lover’s attempts to come together, while the gangster tries to figure out what is afoot (Gambon, the brilliant British actor who starred in the BBC’s “Singing Detective,” must have 85 percent of the film’s dialogue, and he thunders magnificently).

But the plot does not describe Greenaway’s gallery of effects. His films are not meant to be realistic; they are theatrical, melodramatic. Costume and set design and music are main characters, and they tend to dominate the puny human concerns.

As far as the taboos are concerned, the film pays disgusting detail to torture, scatological excesses, regurgitative functions, and finally cannibalism, in a climactic scene that will probably send people either screaming or chuckling from the theater. Like him or loathe him, Greenaway completely creates his own world, and it’s like nothing else in the movies.

Incidentally, this film grossed out the MPAA ratings board to such an extent that it received an X rating. Unfortunately, the X has come to be associated with hardcore porn (which this film is not, although it contains much nudity), and some newspapers and TV stations won’t accept ads for X-rated films, regardless of content. In Seattle, the movie is being released without a rating. These sorts of problems suggest that it’s time to rethink the current ratings system.

First published in the Herald, April 8, 1990

Caused some excitement at the time, that’s for sure, and Greenaway was really on a roll at that moment. I wonder whether I’d like it as much now.