The Bounty

November 15, 2019

bountyThe Bounty is the kind of production that falls into the “tradition of quality” school of filmmaking. Like other products of that school (Lawrence of Arabia, for example, or Doctor Zhivago) The Bounty is big, expensive, serious, ambitious, wonderful to look at – and also strangely incomplete. There’s a tendency, when making a spectacle like this, to lose the human beings in the grand pattern of the story. I think that’s what happens in The Bounty, so that at the end there’s just a trace of pointlessness about the whole movie.

I didn’t invoke Lawrence and Zhivago by accident. David Lean, who directed those award-winners and was much in the forefront of quality film making in the 1950s and ’60s, was long involved with The Bounty. Lean’s long- time collaborator, playwright Robert Bolt, wrote the literate script.

At some point, Lean jumped ship (so did his Fletcher Christian – Christopher Reeve), and was replaced by Roger Donaldson, a New Zealander with just two features to his credit. Donaldson’s Smash Palace was impressive enough to give hope that he’d invest plenty of intensity in The Bounty.

That hope has not been sorely let down. The Bounty is fairly riveting in unspooling its tale, the facts of which are well-known. It’s told as a flashback during the trial of Lt. William Bligh (Anthony Hopkins). We see that it’s friendship that sparks Bligh to pick young Fletcher Christian (Mel Gibson) as mate for the arduous, globe­ spanning voyage, a voyage that seeks to transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to Jamaica, where the food will be used as a staple for slaves.

In case you’ve forgotten (or don’t remember the previous film versions of Mutiny on the Bounty – Clark Gable and Charles Laughton in 1935, Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard in 1962), the tyrannical Bligh terrorizes the Bounty crew. When they finally limp into Tahiti, and sample the pagan pleasures there, the young sailots find it a not unthinkable alternative to returning to England.

After they leave the island, Christian leads a mostly unplanned mutiny, and Bligh set adrift with loyal seamen. Christian and his men are doomed to wander in search of a hospitable resting place.

In this version, the story itself maintains its fascination. Bligh has been slightly humanized, and Christian steered closer to the edge of insanity. There’s been an attempt to make their relationship more complex, but the tension of the story still springs from the basic excitement of their showdowns.

Any version of the mutiny on the Boumty rises and falls with its lead actors. Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson are fine and believable, though rarely more than that. The supporting players – especially the rowdy, unkempt crew – are unusually well-cast. Of special note is Wi Kuki Kaa, who plays the Tahitian king with understated dignity.

Donaldson and his cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson have made the film exceptionally handsome. The contrast between the rigidity of British systems and the looseness of Tahitian paradise is visualized by Donaldson in the cool blues and polished hardwood of the British sections, compared with the warm, lush greens and yellows of the island. The eerie credit sequence, composed of shots of Tahiti, gives a sense of the spell that the island will cast (Vangelis’ evocative music helps, too).

There is much to admire here. In fact, I’m not so sure I didn’t underestimate the film on first viewing. It still seems oddly unmoving, and a little too stately, but it’s been staying with me in the days since I’ve seen it. The lure of the promise of paradise and the overthrow of tyranny is a powerful one. I’m looking forward to another trip aboard The Bounty.

First published in the Herald, May 1984

Still a movie that’s easy to watch for a while if it goes by on TV, to the extent that movies still “go by” on TV. The sailor cast included Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson, Dexter Fletcher, and Phil Davis, among others, so yes, it was pretty good. A bio of David Lean reveals just how long he spent working on the screenplay, or possibly just hanging out in the South Seas while dreaming about the trade winds and breadfruit. Finally, Gibson’s fervenet reading of the line “I am in hell, sir!” has been bandied about through the years by a select group of people in the know.

 


The Last Starfighter

November 14, 2019

laststarfighterThis is one marvelous idea for a movie: A kid who lives in a trailer park just outside of Nowheresville, U.S.A., is a champion at the community’s one and only video game. Un­beknownst to him, when he breaks the game record, a signal is loosed that travels across the galaxy, to a planet that needs rocket pilots – or “star­ fighters.”

The lad is promptly picked up by his interstellar recruiter and whisked away to another world, where bad aliens are threatening the defense system of good aliens.

Since he’s already a master of the control board, he just needs to be plunked down at the helm of a rocket ship and he’s on his way to save the universe. Maybe.

When the other recruits are wiped out, he becomes The Last Starfighter, which is also the name of the movie. It’s a friendly, good-hearted film that’s rather too slim to support itself. It also provides a good portion of inoffensive fun along the way.

It begins with some wonderfully low-key exposition in this trailer park, which turns out to be the proper setting for the stuck-in-low-gear characters: they’re portable people who never go anywhere. All except Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), who dreams of going away to college and making something great of himself – and taking his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) along with him.

Shades of It’s a Wonderful Life, in which the hero is also trapped in a small town. When Alex’s college loan doesn’t come through, things look bad for his escape.

To blow off a little steam, he has a go at the “Starfighter” video game, and breaks the record. This precipitates a visit from the alien emissary (Robert Preston, doing perhaps a bit too much Robert Preston).

Oddly enough, for all of the perfectly adequate special effects on display once we get into outer space, the small-town sequences are the most memorable. I found myself wanting to stay with the run-down rural landscape more than the high-tech other world. Happily, there is cross-cutting between the two arenas, since a robot double of Alex has been left in his place so no one will notice his absence (this leads to some amusing shtick when Maggie becomes overly affectionate and almost corrodes Alex II’s inner workings).

The big disappointment is in the blah nature of the space-age stuff. Director Nick Castle, who has a friendly feeling for his characters, seems to be working from an under­ nourished script.

One influence on The Last Star­ fighter – without having any actual involvement in it – is that of John (Halloween) Carpenter, who went to film school and wrote the screenplay of Escape From New York with Castle. Lance Guest played in Carpenter’s Halloween II, and Dan O’Herlihy, who plays a humanoid who resembles a lizard in The Last Starfighter, had a juicy role in Halloween III. Here, he plays it overly cuddly – too cuddly for a 6-foot iguana, in my opinion.

Castle, however, seems to have his own distinctive style. I’d like to see him tackle something less fantastic next time. Maybe The Last Starfighter never quite blasts off because Castle’s talents are more down­-to-earth.

First published in the Herald, July 1984

At the time I had my eye on Castle as a guy who might be an interesting auteur-in-the-making, and I enjoyed interviewing him on his next picture, The Boy Who Could Fly. Mary Catherine Stewart was having her 80s moment at this point (I interviewed her, too, for Mischief), and Lance Guest is still working. I am going to guess this movie has a following.


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.


Hairspray

November 5, 2019

hairsprayThe man William Burroughs called “The Pope of Trash” is at it again. Yes, John Waters, sleazemaster general, low-budget filmmaker, and Baltimore’s ambassador to the world, has made another movie.

The title, Hairspray, would seem to place the new film safely within Waters’ existing lexicon: his movies include Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Polyester.

But this time out, Waters has sweetened his tone and softened his approach. Hairspray has a full quotient of Waters’ trademark glitz ‘n kitsch, but there’s a nostalgic undertone that warms the movie. It’s set in the Baltimore of 1962, when the resident teenyboppers are frugging to the beat of a local American Bandstand knockoff called The Corny Collins Show, a dance party that brings dozens of pubescent kids to brief regional TV stardom. One girl in particular, Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake), dreams of becoming a regular on the show.

Not only does Tracy garner a spot on the dance floor, she quickly becomes the new star, even threatening the front-runner status of the witchy Amber (Colleen Fitzpatrick) for the coveted “Miss Auto Show 1963” title.

Improbably, Waters welds this goofy little story with a subplot of racial integration. No kidding: Much of the movie is about the kids’ efforts to incorporate black teens as regulars on the show, and not just relegate them to the “Negro Day” on the last Thursday of every month.

It’s an appealing setting for a movie, but don’t get the idea that Waters has gone completely straight on us. He’ll still stop the show for the occasional gross-out (such as the aurally graphic popping of a pimple), and his cast list alone is fairly head-spinning.

For instance, Tracy’s parents are played by the unlikely duo of Jerry Stiller and longtime Waters collaborator Divine. Divine, the corpulent transvestite, also plays the male role of the intolerant TV station manager.

And Amber’s uptight parents, whose house bulges with the ’60s iconography of lava lamps and those paintings of kids with big eyes, are played by Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry (she proudly reminds her daughter that she was once “Miss Soft Crab of 1945”). Some of this doesn’t work as well as it might sound. For instance. the idea of Sonny Bono as the sleazy owner of an amusement park is funny; in truth, it doesn’t really click in the movie. (Sonny is, after all, still Sonny.)

And the roughness of Waters’ directorial style continues. He still doesn’t always know what to do with the camera, and some of the performances are out of sync (his own cameo, as a crazed psychiatrist, is just fine).

But the sloppy patches are finally outpointed by the movie’s sheer likability. The music’s great, the dancing is generous, the hair-dos are towering and fearsome, the dialogue is dizzily campy (school principal to Tracy: “You’re on a one-way ticket to reform school!”).

A high point is the visit to a beatnik parlor, where an artist (the Cars’ Ric Ocasek) and his beat chick (Pia Zadora!) are digging reefer. Eventually Hairspray becomes just too wackily imaginative to resist.

First published in the Herald, February 28, 1988

Who could’ve known the movie would eventually turn into a pop-culture phenom and a Broadway hit? Probably somebody. I don’t recall what my problem was with Sonny Bono in this film, but I said it, so I’ll stand by it, although one should really not question Waters in these matters. 


The Abyss

October 24, 2019

abyssIf you’ve never seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Cocoon, or any other of the contact-with-­friendly-aliens movies of the last decade, then The Abyss may seem like a visionary film, a fabulous mix of action, science fiction, and wonder.

It may seem that way even if you have seen those other movies. But The Abyss, an expert and often evocative piece of action filmmaking, suffers from too much familiarity with these themes of alien awe.

That cavil noted, I hasten to applaud The Abyss as the top action movie of the year thus far. It’s the third movie since January to feature a plot about deep-sea workers trapped with major problems at the bottom of the ocean. But while the memory of Deepstar Six and Leviathan recedes into Z- movie cheesiness, The Abyss comes roaring at you with all the breathless ingenuity that writer-director James Cameron can muster.

That’s quite a bit.

Cameron is the fellow who created Aliens and The Terminator, and he’s an energetic, intelligent talent. The Abyss is his most ambitious effort, in more ways than one.

Most of the movie takes place underwater, at an oil-drilling station on the sea floor. When an American nuclear sub crashes nearby, the military asks the rig to help investigate. The boss (Ed Harris) isn’t thrilled, particularly when his estranged wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who designed the sea station, comes down to supervise. He’s also suspicious of the grim Navy divers (led by Michael Biehn) who seem to have their own agenda.

The journey into the wrecked submarine, an unnerving graveyard of floating refuse and snow-white corpses, is just the beginning of the fun. The film’s full of crackling suspense in an old-fashioned movie way; at almost 2 1/2  hours, the forward motion never flags.

But Cameron is up to more than just adventure. The film is about two things: the exploration of non-terrestrial life (“something not us”), and the exploration of a foundering relationship. The Abyss is like a cross between Close Encounters and Scenes From a Marriage. The marriage of Harris and Mastrantonio is shown in broad but deeply felt strokes (and is well played by those two good actors).

Cameron and his own wife, Abyss producer Gale Ann Hurd, were breaking up during the shooting of this film. That must have made for an interesting production. Their marriage was not the only thing that became strained during the grueling, already notorious filming process. Conditions were so horrible that Ed Harris vowed never to talk about the movie at all. The complicated underwater scenes were shot inside a huge abandoned nuclear reactor in South Carolina, and the logistics were a practical nightmare.

Very little of this hardship comes across on screen; the film’s a technical marvel. Technical but human – Cameron knows just how to play off the big special effects with the personal story. It makes you wonder whether the supernatural elements that creep into the film were necessary at all. Despite the nature of his films, Cameron’s touch is for people, not aliens.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

I wasn’t comparing The Abyss to Cocoon, but I do remember thinking that (in terms of subject matter) The Abyss had just missed being ahead of the curve. So that’s what that comment is about. I realize there might be some debate about my last line, since Cameron is not exactly lauded for his treatment of characters, but on the other hand, Titanic wasn’t entirely a smash because of special effects – at the very least, Cameron has a touch for archetypes. 


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.