Rain Man

July 13, 2012

At a half-dozen or so moments, Rain Man comes within hailing distance of being a great film. It fails, but it is still the most intriguing big-studio movie being released this Christmas.

The film only got made because of the persistence of the two stars, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. A bunch of big-name directors were involved with the script from time to time, including Steven Spielberg, but the movie had trouble getting made. And after months of delays, the writers’ strike nearly put the script out of business permanently.

It’s easy to understand why the two actors felt so strongly about the story. At its heart, Rain Man has a wonderful idea. Cruise plays Charlie Babbitt, a slick Los Angeles wheeler-dealer whose latest scam is unloading Italian cars. When he hears that his father has died in Cincinnati, it isn’t much of blow; he hadn’t spoken with the old man in years.

But it is a blow when he learns that the father’s $3 million estate has been inherited by someone else, an older brother, Raymond (Hoffman), whose existence was unknown to Charlie. Raymond is autistic, and has lived in an institution for many years. Charlie quickly gets Raymond out and hustles him back to L.A., the better to get his share of the money.

It is a fascinating story, and the film unfolds, somewhat messily, as a road movie (Raymond refuses to fly) as the brothers travel west in their father’s Buick Roadmaster. It turns out that Raymond is an autistic savant, unable to function in the world, his life organized around rituals (Orange Crush at every meal, watching “The People’s Court” every day at the same time), but with a genius for numbers. His memory is so exact that a trip to the blackjack tables in Vegas produces a tidy return.

Barry Levinson (Diner and Tin Men) is the director, and he creates some beautiful sequences, such as Raymond’s turn at the wheel of the car in a casino driveway, or his “date” with Charlie’s Italian girlfriend (Valeria Golino), which consists of a kiss Raymond describes as “wet.” Unfortunately, Levinson puts the “rain man” material, which relates to the brothers’ childhood, on the back burner. It seems more important than that.

Oddly enough, I think Rain Man falters because of the two lead actors. Hoffman gives a precise, technically brilliant performance, but I always had the feeling I was watching Dustin Hoffman give a brilliant performance, instead of just watching Raymond. Cruise, who tries manfully, is a bit out of his depth here. It’s tantalizing to imagine someone like James Woods in a role like this.

Both men seem to improve as the movie goes along, and the film’s flaws largely recede. This is simply one of those movies that, from its opening minutes, let you know that something special is going on. There are precious few of those around, so Rain Man qualifies as recommended viewing.

First published in the Herald, December 1988

The movie went onto the list of Squaresville Oscar winners when it got best picture that year, and my reservations are intact, but it is cinematically defensible, I think. At least it deserves better than to be lumped in with the Out of Africas of the world.

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Out of Africa

April 13, 2012

Out of Africa is a chronicle of the early womanhood of Danish author Karen von Blixen, based on her writings (under the name Isak Dinesen) and on biographies about her. The film traces the years approximately surrounding World War I, a period in von Blixen’s life during which she lived in Africa.

What a story it is, full of adventure, exotica, disaster, and romance. But what a frustratingly pedantic film version, with few flights of poetry.

On a sheer storytelling level, the film gets off to a good start. We see a glimpse of Karen (Meryl Streep) in 1913 Denmark, proposing marriage to a casual friend, the Baron von Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer). They’re not in love, but she wants his title, and he wants her family’s money, so they agree to the match.

Soon after, she joins him in Africa, where they establish a coffee plantation. Their idyll, during which she surprises many with her pre-women’s lib gumption, is broken when she contracts syphilis, a side effect of the Baron’s philandering. She goes to Denmark for a cure, and on her return to Africa, the marriage exists in name only.

That clears the way for her friendship with Denys (Robert Redford), a hunter who encourages her uncanny skill for telling stories. Soon he’s keeping residence at her house, for the few days when he returns between safaris.

This love story takes up the last 90 minutes of the movie—and as I examine the thumbnail synopsis above, it is difficult to believe that this film actually takes more than two-and-a-half hours to tell its story. But it does.

The problem is that, after the promising opening, director Sydney Pollack (Tootsie) falls prey to the curse of the Big Movie Syndrome, in which ideas and events must be drawn out and overemphasized, so that the people who vote for the Oscars will be sure to notice. He pads the carefully constructed screenplay by Kurt Luedtke with countless shots of breathtaking plains and hills.

Most of this travelogue stuff is impressive indeed, thanks to the beauty of the continent and David Watkin’s handsome cinematography. The high point of this is a lovely sequence wherein Denys pilots his new plane for Karen, and they fly over an ocean beach, scattering thousands of pink flamingos.

But Pollack overdoes things. He doesn’t just put Karen in peril of a lion attack once—he does it three separate times. And he can’t integrate the importance of the war or the issue of native freedom in any sensible way.

Even more troubling, he hasn’t gotten his actors up to snuff. Redford, in what is essentially a supporting role, appears uneasy and distant. Streep is technically very impressive, but she doesn’t have the depth to reach the nitty-gritty of what must have been an amazingly gutsy woman. Together, they fail to strike sparks—both are inward-directed actors.

This all makes Out of Africa sound worse than it actually is; it’s not an inept film, and there’s a lot to look at and enjoy. But, given the material and the credentials of the filmmakers, it certainly is a disappointment.

First published in the Herald, December 19, 1985

Perhaps you heard this went on to win the best picture Oscar? I would watch it again, as a big fan of Dinesen and a big fan of Africa on film. But I mean I thought some things needed to be said, right? And though Meryl Streep hardly lacks depth, I did think she missed a level, even if she’s still very good in the picture. Brandauer’s great, by the way, slinking off with the movie under his arm.


The Last Emperor

September 16, 2011

In The Last Emperor, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci has found one of the remarkable true stories of the 20th century, yet it is one that may not be familiar to Western audiences. It is the life of Pu Yi, the final imperial ruler of China.

At the age of 3, in 1908, Pu Yi was declared the Lord of Ten Thousand Years and the Son of Heaven. He was ensconced in the lavish Forbidden City in Peking, a walled group of palaces where he was pampered by an army of women and eunuchs. Like the emperors before him, he would rule China absolutely.

Except that the China outside the Forbidden City was changing. The 20th century overwhelmed Pu Yi; first the war lords reduced his power, then the Japanese came and installed him as a puppet ruler of Manchuria. After the war he was arrested by the Red Army, which imprisoned him and “re-educated” him. Eventually freed, he survived until 1967, when he died a simple gardener.

Bertolucci, who wrote the script with Mark Peploe, sees the awesome possibilities of this strange life, and he has mounted this film with all the grandeur of a David Lean super-production. Filmed entirely in China, including the Forbidden City itself, The Last Emperor features an eye-popping array of magnificent locations and costumes (photographed by the great Vittorio Storaro). Some scenes required thousands of extras, all dressed in rich period clothing.

While Bertolucci satisfies the epic requirements of such as story, his finest moments come in the human details. Bertolucci has always followed the individual journey within overpowering socio-cultural events (Last Tango in Paris, 1900), and here he peels away the ornate exteriors to find a peculiar person. To borrow the title of another Bertolucci film, it is the tragedy of a ridiculous man.

Pu Yi (played as an adult by John Lone, the excellent actor from Iceman) is not himself an epic character, one of history’s great men. He is not even all that likable. Rather, he is made pathetic and tragic by the events that happen to him. Throughout his life, Pu Yi goes complacently along with whatever is happening at the moment. He enjoys servants slaving for him, accepts having both a wife (Joan Chen) and an official concubine (Ying Ruocheng), and is willing to aid the Japanese so he can return to power.

Thus it is moving when, at a Communist parade at the end of the film, Pu Yi finally extends a sympathetic hand to someone who had been fair with him. When he does, a Maoist marcher angrily tells the Lord of Ten Thousand Years to “Get with us or —- off!” This time Pu Yi pulls back, choosing to (literally) tend his own garden. In the final scenes he seems to have found some small measure of self-knowledge.

With a passive hero, Bertolucci smartly allows other characters to energize different sections of the film, such as Pu Yi’s English tutor (Peter O’Toole) and the two women in his life. Still, some sections in the middle of the movie flag a bit, although the device of telling most of the film as a flashback from the Communist prison (where Pu Yi still has his shoes tied by a servant) gives the early scenes a layer of poignance—we already know the sad downfall of this poor pawn of history. The remainder of the film wrestles with the unexpectedly touching question: What do emperors do when there are no more emperors?

First published in the Herald, December 1987

I always felt a little more respect than passion for this movie, until I saw it a few years ago in a super-long version, when it looked completely rich and sensual and mesmerizing. Even working on an epic scale, Bertolucci is still Bertolucci, with all his peculiarities. The movie won nine Oscars and led Bertolucci to make his classic acceptance speech remake about Hollywood being “the big nipple.” Bertolucci is still Bertolucci, etc.


Driving Miss Daisy

September 15, 2011

As a play, Driving Miss Daisy won a Pulitzer Prize and rave reviews. As a film, Driving Miss Daisy already has won the best picture citation from the National Board of Review, as well as its best-actor prize. It appears to be a shoo-in to rustle up a few Oscar nominations this spring.

At the risk of sounding Grinch-like, I suggest that all of this raises a question: Why?

I don’t know what form the original play took, but the film of Driving Miss Daisy is a likable and extremely modest little concoction that comes off as just the teeniest bit self-congratulatory.

Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy) is your typical strong-willed Southern lady, vinegary and plain-speaking. She is too old to drive, and when her wealthy son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd, in a deftly handled career sidestep) suggests she take on a chauffeur, she has a predictable response to the idea. She loathes it.

So Boolie goes ahead and hires a driver anyway. He is Hoke (Morgan Freeman) a 60ish black man with old-school manners and a natural inclination to chat. Alfred Uhry’s screenplay, which he adapted from his play, takes the relationship between these two from their meeting in 1948 through more than 25 years of front-seat, back-seat conversations.

It is, you will notice, the period of civil rights advances, and the ensuing friendship between the black man and the white Jewish woman is reflective of the times. This is achieved in mostly understated ways.

The most poignant scene in the film comes when, in the early 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Atlanta. Miss Daisy is interested in going, but she can’t quite bring herself to ask Hoke if he would like to join her. When she does ask him, as Hoke is driving her to the speech, he refuses. She could have asked him earlier. He sits outside alone, listening to the speech on the car radio, while she is inside the auditorium.

Driving Miss Daisy is directed by Bruce Beresford, the Australian filmmaker whose career has traveled, somewhat alarmingly, from Breaker Morant to Her Alibi. Beresford brings his customary nondescript touch to the proceedings. The finest parts of the film are the last few scenes, of Miss Daisy and Hoke in very old age. But everything that has come before seems slight.

The film is an actor’s vehicle. Morgan Freeman has quickly become the best thing in many movies (he’s in the current Glory), and he slips into Hoke, which he also played on stage, so completely as to disappear. Jessica Tandy, the aged trouper, brings grace and brittleness to her role. It’s a nice match and, if not earth-shaking, a pleasure to watch.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1990

It won Best Picture. Even with the duds in his filmography, Beresford is one of those guys who surely deserve more credit than they get when a movie turns out well, a thought perhaps inspired by the fact that he didn’t get Oscar-nominated here (although the movie won four in total, including Tandy’s). I don’t remember the film inspiring a huge backlash at the time, along the lines of what The Help (a similarly middlebrow look back at the civil rights era) has encountered, although Do the Right Thing was in competition that year and didn’t get nominated for very much, a situation that left Spike Lee, as ever, not amused.


Platoon

September 14, 2011

Dafoe and Berenger: Platoon's Homeric Gods

In the current issue of American Film magazine, writer-director Oliver Stone describes himself in Vietnam in 1967: “(A) solitary, wide-eyed youth standing under those raggedy Asiatic clouds, looking out at the sea with his fantasies of Lord Jim and Julie Christie, an anonymous infantryman…and I knew that someday, somehow, I would write my story and join the flow of time.”

Almost 20 years later, Stone’s time has come. His new film, Platoon, tells the straightest, truest Vietnam story of any film yet. He served 15 months as an infantryman in the war, was wounded a couple of times, and won the Bronze Star. The movie is about the kinds of men he served with, and covers a year’s service through the eyes of a raw recruit.

From the opening images of Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) arriving in the yellowish haze of Southeast Asia, the film tracks the relentless march of his platoon. Harrowing jungle attacks are alternated with rests at base, until the year is over. In its gritty, riveting action, Platoon is reminiscent of such classic war movies as Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet and Anthony Mann’s Men in War.

Part of Stone’s intent, clearly, is to provide an immediate sense that this is the way it was. In this, he succeeds spectacularly; the movie has the authentic feel that qualifies it as a work of someone who’s been there. (Filming took place in the Philippines.)

But Stone has also provided a mythic backbone to Taylor’s coming-of-age story. It lies in the good vs. evil struggle between two sergeants in the platoon—”Homeric gods,” as Stone has described them. Barnes (Tom Berenger) is brutal and amoral; “Our Ahab” Taylor calls him at one point, when the platoon destroys a My Lai-like village in insane retribution for sabotage, the film’s most horrifying sequence.

The other sergeant, Elias (Willem Dafoe), is poetic, almost divine. Despite the differences between them, however, Stone draws no simple conclusions. Barnes may be a black presence, but he repeatedly proves himself a good soldier who saves the lives of his men.

The entire film sustains this ambiguity. Platoon is no easy anti-war screed; Stone knows the issue is too complex for that. There are no cheap shots here—even the generals, the apparently lily-livered lieutenant and the kill-happy grunts have their moments of self-realization. They are all at sea in this nightmare.

The actors who play them are magnificent. Even the small, fleeting roles are finely etched. Sheen is appropriately dazed as the unformed youth (he is the son of Martin Sheen, who played the lead in Francis Coppola’s Vietnam film Apocalypse Now). Berenger, who played the TV star in The Big Chill, is a limited actor, but he transcends himself as the scarred Barnes, especially in the scene where he confronts the angry soldiers: “You smoke this dope t’escape reality?…I am reality.”

Dafoe, previously stuck with playing villains (as in To Live and Die in L.A.) because of his stark features, is superb as the angelic Elias. He brings an odd mystery to the role, a hinting at past unspoken experiences that give shading to his heroic character.

With all Stone’s capacity for subtlety, he also has a tendency to go too far. This was more evident in last year’s vivid Salvador than here, although it might be said that the narration in Platoon, in the form of Taylor’s letters home, may state too much that has already been shown. But for the most part, the film is a personal triumph. Stone can use it; since winning the best screenplay Oscar in 1977 for Midnight Express (a movie directed by someone else), he’s wandered around the Hollywood fringes. Now, via the circuitous route of his own past, he seems to have finished his odyssey.

First published in the Herald, January 15, 1987

I haven’t seen the film in a long time, although I recall getting to see it twice before I wrote about it. Stone was never this on-point again, but I continue to have a soft spot for his excessive tendencies—the grandness suggested in the opening quote. When I interviewed him (he did a press tour in Seattle for World Trade Center), he was pleased that I appreciated The Hand, his pre-respectability horror film, which somehow did not surprise me. Platoonis small and big at the same time, a tricky act, passionately achieved.


Terms of Endearment

September 13, 2011

Some people call them warm human dramas, others call them “people” movies. Whatever they’re called, they don’t rely on stunts or special effects to tell their stories. Ordinary People was the title of one such movie, and maybe the promise of no-frills, ordinary drama is part of the appeal.

Terms of Endearment probably wouldn’t have been made without the success of Ordinary People. Human drama may be bankable now, and Terms of Endearment has nothing particularly extraordinary in its subject matter, just the behavior of people in the face of life, love, and death.

The people are a bit unusual—and that’s all to the good. Aurora Greenaway (Shirley MacLaine) is a cool, eccentric widow who keeps a tight rein on her daughter Emma (Debra Singer), even after Emma moves away from home to live in Des Moines with her husband, Flap (Jeff Daniels), a college professor.

Aurora and Emma are amusingly at odds through much of their lives—and we get to see a lot of those lives, since the film’s two hours and 20 minutes cover 30 years or so. Aurora so disapproves of Flap that she boycotts her daughter’s wedding. That’s an act characteristic of their testy relationship.

Emma is as trusting and open as Aurora is careful and tidy. Their lives start to look more similar, however, when they both find new loves: Emma, disenchanted with her ne’er-do-well husband, starts spending afternoons with a shy bank manager (John Lithgow).

Aurora really cuts loose. She takes up with the irresponsible, irresistible former astronaut who lives next door (Jack Nicholson, in a wonderful role). Their scenes together are the most liberating in the film, for both Aurora and the audience.

Terms of Endearment is full of such changes of plot and character. That’s both a strength and a weakness. It’s nice when you can’t predict where a film is going, but too many of the plot devices in Terms of Endearment feel like—well, devices.

This is writer-director James L. Brooks’s first job as director (he’s had extensive work as a television writer—especially with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Taxi,” and he wrote the Burt Reynolds movie, Starting Over). Brooks has written (from Larry McMurtry’s novel) some terrific dialogue here.

One of Brooks’s best scenes has the astronaut telling Aurora that he can’t continue seeing her. He needs greater freedom, etc., etc. Halfway through his spiel, she looks at him, makes a face, and start muttering, “Blah, blah, blah.” She’s angered by his shallowness, and he realizes what a rotten egg he’s being—and eventually slinks away, ashamed. “Blah, blah” may not sound like good dialogue, but at this moment, it is—and Brooks recognized that.

Unfortunately, Brooks doesn’t have the knack for structure that he does for dialogue. The film has a lumpy shape to it, and it’s sluggishly paced. There’s also a melodramatic curve in the last 40 minutes that seems as though it might have worked better in the novel than in the film, where it feels rather contrived.

The strange coincidences of life sometimes feel contrived, too—and maybe Brooks was trying to make that point. But despite the good intentions, flavorful dialogue, and engaging performances, Terms of Endearment comes off just a little too pat. That’s regrettable, because with fewer easy answers, the film might have been much richer, just on its own terms.

First published in the Herald, December 9, 1983

I sort of generally feel, when I see a movie, that I can predict what kind of a reception it is going to get. This is not very difficult to do. Terms of Endearment I did not guess. Before today’s hype machine came along to prepare us all for a movie’s box-office and Oscar chances well before it opens, I saw this film, enjoyed it, wrote a review, and expected it to pass along like the nice crowd-pleaser it was. I didn’t have a clue it would be a smash and sweep the main Oscars in a few months. In fact I don’t know when I’ve been so wrong when it comes to sensing how a movie is going to ride the zeitgeist. Winger and MacLaine are terrific, Nicholson is hilarious, and for almost a year there was no stopping the thing. Brooks had written, along with his great episodic TV work, one of my favorite TV movies, Thursday’s Game, a wistful little should-be cult title with Gene Wilder and Bob Newhart.


Amadeus

September 12, 2011
Tom Hulce, genius and dork: Amadeus

Amadeus is a big sumptuous version of Peter Shaffer’s hit play about the deadly competition between two composers in Vienna in the late 1700s. One was a hard-working, competent, utterly uninspiring court favorite named Antonio Salieri. His despised rival was a childish, insufferable prodigy who was one of the greatest artists who ever lived: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Near the end of his life, Salieri claimed that he had murdered Mozart (who died at the age of 35). No one will ever know whether this was true or not, but for Shaffer, it was a starting point from which to build his play about the intense hatred that can be generated by the presence of genius.

Salieri is the center of the play, brooding over the injustice of it all: Why would God bless “this creature,” as he calls Mozart, when Salieri is ten times more diligent, prudent, industrious? The accolades Salieri wins during his lifetime leave nothing but a bitter taste. He alone knows the staggering worth of Mozart’s music—even though Mozart is less heralded during his life, and is buried in an unmarked grave.

For the film, which has been substantially reshaped by Shaffer and director Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), the themes are the same, but—although Salieri continues to narrate the story—there is more focus on the Mozart character. In a way, this unbalances the movie. After all, the more you see of an obnoxious character, the more, well, obnoxious he seems.

Also, Forman has attempted to give an approximation of the way music affects us. When Salieri describes the first Mozart piece he ever heard—as we hear it on the soundtrack—there is a real sense of the magic of genius, of the awe we must feel when something beautiful is created from thin air.

Forman repeats this process, with large doses of Mozart operas, throughout the film. Perhaps fewer examples would have sufficed, since the movie is overlong and the second half is full of musical passages. Obviously, the story of composers must be full of music, but Forman may make his point once too often.

Other elements of the admittedly fictionalized biography are Mozart’s down-to-earth wife, his disapproving father (who becomes a ghost in Don Giovanni), and the Emperor Joseph II, a crucial figure played brilliantly by Jeffrey Jones.

The performances are fine. Forman deliberately cast unknowns, because he wanted audiences to see the characters as characters, not as actors. F. Murray Abraham is marvelous as Salieri. He begins the film as an aged man in an asylum, and tells the tale to a confessor.

Mozart and his wife are played by Tom Hulce (Animal House) and Elizabeth Berridge, and I’ll predict their flat American accents are going to come under a lot of fire. This will be unfair. The difference between Abraham’s smooth, masterly performance and Hulce’s rougher-edged work is precisely the difference between the outward appearances of Salieri and Mozart to the court that beheld and misunderstood them. Had Mozart been played by a more perfect actor, it would have been difficult to believe that a man so gifted could also be such a dork. With Hulce, you believe it.

It’s an impeccably mounted production, filmed largely in Prague (Forman is a Czech expatriate) by the excellent cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek. The company even filmed in the same theater in which Mozart conducted the premiere of Don Giovanni in 1787.

Amadeus founders a bit in its second half, but it has so much to recommend it. More than once it communicates the wonder of Mozart’s gift; to capture the feeling that, as Salieri puts it, “God was speaking through this little man…to all the world.”

First published in the Herald, September 20, 1984

There’s just the right amount of music in this movie; I don’t know what I was talking about, and I wouldn’t want to be like Joseph II and his “too many notes.” And I don’t mean to imply that Tom Hulce is a dork. A few years after this Hulce sat in my apartment and talked with me and a friend about working on a screenplay together, a project that came to zilch after a few interesting conversations. Hulce is exactly right in the movie, though, and just what Milos Forman wants him to be. The thing I like most about Amadeus is how it fits right into Forman’s counterculture bent, his spirited mistrust of institutions and The Man and conformity. The movie’s splendid on that score.