Jacknife

December 2, 2021

Regardless of the film, Robert De Niro can be counted on to provide some remarkable moments. In Jacknife, De Niro shows again how simplicity can be the key to the highest form of film acting. His character is a likable lower-class guy in bushy beard and sloppy clothes; the mechanic’s grease is always under his fingernails.

In one scene, he takes his new girlfriend out to a fancy restaurant. She asks him whether he’s been there before; of course, he says – well, he’s passed it a couple of times, anyway. Then the waitress comes by and asks if the couple might enjoy cocktails before dining. “Cocktails?” wonders De Niro. “Something elegant?” suggests the waitress. De Niro considers this for a moment and nods, “Elegant is good.” The look on De Niro’s face, his confusion and helplessness, is a wonderful, precise sketch of the character’s place in the world. (He orders “a couple of Buds.”)

In general, Jacknife presents a bounty of such opportunities for its three main actors. The screenplay, by Stephen Metcalfe (adapted from his play, Strange Snow) is somewhat short on narrative continuity, but it does have this trio of strong roles.

De Niro plays a guy who’s been just hanging on in the two decades since the war; his aggressive cheeriness is clearly his way of keeping the world in balance. He goes to visit an old war buddy (Ed Harris) who is in much worse shape; Harris, a truck driver, is grumpy and alcoholic. He shares a house with his sister (Kathy Baker), who tends to and worries about him. She accuses him of dating “women whose idea of contributing to a conversation is to snap their gum.”

Harris wants no part of De Niro’s friendly overtures. Both are haunted by the young man who didn’t come back from Vietnam. De Niro, however, gets on well with the sister, a plain schoolteacher, who couldn’t be less like him.

De Niro is quite good. After a period of minimalist performances, he seems looser, airier in his recent work (including last year’s Midnight Run). Harris, the scrupulously fine actor from Places in the Heart, is very good at putting off the histrionics until they’re absolutely needed.

Kathy Baker, recently seen in Clean and Sober, is usually described in magazine articles as “not conventionally pretty.” That’s true, but she’s beautiful in ways that pretty actresses don’t always know anything about, and she’s turning into one of our most sympathetic movie presences. All of these performances owe a lot to the sensitive direction of England’s David Jones (Betrayal), a deft hand with actors. Jones can’t quite make the script seem more than it is, but he certainly gets the most out of it.

First published in The Herald, March 10, 1989

Does this movie have any sort of profile at all? You’d think it would, with the cast. I was getting pretty tired of De Niro’s minimalist phase by this point, but he wasn’t through with it yet. Jones had a curious movie career; he came out of theater and British TV, made the two features mentioned here as well as the charming 84 Charing Cross Road, and then – save for a Harold Pinter-scripted version of The Trial with Kyle MacLachlan as Josef K., and 1999’s The Confession, with Ben Kingsley – went into American TV.


The Iron Triangle

November 18, 2021

There’s one original angle in The Iron Triangle, and it’s probably worth noting. This is another Vietnam movie, and a low-budget one at that, but the angle is that it tells a good deal of its story from the point of view of a North Vietnamese soldier. The enemy here is not just a target in the jungle at night, but a human presence.

The credits claim that the script is based on the confiscated diaries of a Viet Cong soldier. As the film portrays its Viet Cong characters, it comes to the unsurprising conclusion that a soldier is a soldier, and that the enemy side was as rife with the same kinds of fears, hopes, and bitterness as our side was.

This idea of showing war from the other side is a bit old, although it is new for Vietnam movies. And it’s the only intriguing thing about The Iron Triangle, which otherwise tells a hackneyed story.

At first, director/co-writer Eric Weston spins the tale from two perspectives. One thread follows a U.S. Army captain (Beau Bridges) leading his platoon through treacherous territory. The other thread follows a young V.C. soldier (newcomer Liem Whatley, a native of Vietnam), an ambivalent sniper. His superior is played by Haing S. Ngor, the Cambodian refugee who won the Supporting Actor Oscar for The Killing Fields.

Eventually Bridges is captured by the young Viet Cong soldier during an attack, and taken as a tense prisoner across the jungle. That’s where they learn about the other’s humanity.

Well, fine. But the film regularly dips into the library of war-movie clichés. You have to groan when Bridges’ narration announces that, “There are some sights in war that you always remember. A beautiful woman is one of them.” Also, the music emulates Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” used so eloquently in Platoon, and the jungle stuff (the film was shot in Sri Lanka, not far from the location of The Bridge of the River Kwai) is too familiar.

With all the brotherhood being espoused, it is peculiar that The Iron Triangle chooses the South Vietnamese as its villains. A South Vietnamese officer who brutally executes prisoners is the cruelest character in the movie, and a radio propaganda hostess is the standard dragon-lady type until she is abruptly dispatched. The film has good intentions, but some odd effects.

First published in The Herald, February 9, 1989

I do not recall the film, but I failed to mention in my rather uninspired review that it co-stars Johnny Hallyday, the great French rock ‘n roll star. Weston is also the director of Evilspeak.


Walker

April 13, 2021

A charismatic American adventurer is on trial, accused of administering his own foreign policy. Instead of backing down, though, he faces his accuser and speaks of the necessity for vigorous intervention. Indeed, he speaks of manifest destiny and declares that, “It is the fate of America to go ahead.”

No, it’s not Oliver North, 1987. Rather, this is an early scene from Walker, a film that tells a true story from the 1850s, when American William Walker went to Nicaragua and bloodily declared himself president. But the parallels between now and then are too ripe not to be acknowledged, and Walker deliriously leaps on them.

But then, the word “delirious” is almost synonymous with the name Alex Cox, the abundantly talented director of Repo Man and Sid and Nancy. Cox takes Rudy Wurlitzer’s script, which follows Walker’s violent rise and his eventual downfall, and turns it into an insane, out-of-control movie that reflects the madness of Walker himself. This movie resembles a spaghetti Western directed with all the bomb-throwing revolutionary fervor of Jean-Luc Godard.

Cox frequently punctures the traditions of period storytelling. Now and then a mercenary will brandish a semiautomatic pistol, or a modern helicopter will fly by; at one point Walker picks up a copy of Time magazine with his picture on the cover, and beams madly, “Didja see this?”

In other words, Cox goes too far; by any conventional standards, he’s heavy-handed. And yet these gleeful anachronisms are in tune with the film’s other excesses, like the exaggeratedly violent shoot-outs that help Walker’s band of men conquer Nicaragua, or the oversized villainy of Cornelius Vanderbilt – in this film a craven capitalist pig if ever there was one – who funds Walker’s trip south.

The funny thing is, all of this wildness conveys an absolutely compelling vision of an out-of-control situation. It’s an inflammable movie, which is just what it should be.

It’s all the more amazing that, in between the jokes and the anachronisms, Walker contains some powerful movie making. For all his florid touches, Cox is capable of great subtlety, such as the early scene when Walker agrees to give up adventuring and stay at home with his fiancée. As they embrace, the lifts his head to listen to the people outside in the street, chanting his name, which his fiancée cannot hear because she is deaf.

And the finale is the burning of Grenada, an astonishing, bravura piece of filmmaking, even if Cox insists on undercutting it with his absurdist sense of humor.

Ed Harris, the superb actor from The Right Stuff and Sweet Dreams, plays Walker with considerable courage, and a willingness to look foolish; his Walker is an idealogue, madman, weasel. Almost everyone else in the movie is ragged and bedraggled, but there is good work by Sy Richardson, as Walker’s sympathetic aide; last year’s Oscar winner Marlee Matlin as the fiancée; and Peter Boyle as Vanderbilt. The inventive, haunting music score is by ex-Clash member Joe Strummer.

The story of William Walker is a remarkable one. Maybe in the future it will be told in rational terms. In the meantime, Alex Cox’s unbalanced, bizarre, and inspired version will have to do.

“History does not smile on pedants,” Walker says, and there’s nothing pedantic about this movie. Perhaps, someday, we can induce Cox to tackle the Oliver North story.

First published in The Herald, December 1987

Glad to hear I liked this movie, which I haven’t revisited. The supporting cast is crammed with fun people: Richard Masur, Xander Berkeley, Alfonso Arau, Rene Auberjonois, John Diehl, Richard Edson, Gerrit Graham, Joe Strummer. And of course Ronald Reagan, in newsreel footage. Cox has had a long and winding road since then, but apparently this studio-backed movie trashed his chances for regular Hollywood work.


Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam

November 6, 2020

“It was an experience you could never explain in a million words.”

The sentiment is from a soldier writing a letter from Vietnam, and the indescribable experience of the war.

Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam presents the experience as refracted through the words of the soldiers over there, who poured their hearts and minds into their correspondence home. The film contains no new film footage. The images are archival, and much of the newsreel material comes out of a vast and little-seen NBC library.

The letters, actual ones from a cross-section of service people, are read (entirely offscreen) by a remarkable batch of actors that includes Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Kathleen Turner, Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, Robin Williams, and Eric Roberts. The readings share time on the soundtrack with the music of the era.

Thanks to the heavy examination that Vietnam has undergone in the movies and on television in recent years, some of these songs are getting hackneyed and should be retired from service. “Gimme Shelter” and “For What It’s Worth” are in danger of becoming Vietnam clichés. However, the recent prominence of Dan Quayle and his non-Vietnam experience certainly makes “Fortunate Son” seem more pertinent than ever.

There are a few simple-minded moments, such as Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” accompanying footage of the rainy jungle, which rather misses the figurative implications in the song. But for the most part, the songs create a delicate web with the words and the pictures. The closing song is Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” which Springsteen donated to the film not long after he spurned Chrysler’s $10 million offer to use the tune in car commercials.

The letters are, it almost goes without saying, utterly heartbreaking. The film advances chronologically, so that in the beginning there is a certain youthful joviality to the letters: “P.S. Send Kool-Aid. The water here tastes like shit!” Things darken quickly, and a terrible sense of sadness hangs over the movie.

Some sequences are simultaneously enthralling and gut-wrenching. A soldier describes a Christmas night when the troops sang “Silent Night” as rockets and mortars were fired off in strange celebration: “I believe few people have seen fireworks like this.”

One of the best marriages of words and music comes with Tim Buckley’s wistful “Once I Was”; the song’s haunting refrain, “Will you ever remember me?”, accompanies not more combat footage but a series of shots of the drawn, lost faces of soldiers at Khe Sanh.

In this simple way, Dear America director Bill Couturie manages to paint a vivid picture of the war. It’s not a deep film, but it is a potent and immediate one.

In a literal way, it allows the men and woman who were there to speak for themselves, and the eloquence they summon under impossible conditions is sometimes startling, such as the well-spoken grunt who reports a recent battle and concludes, “I desired greatly to throw down everything and sob.”

This is a documentary that appeared earlier this year on the HBO cable channel. In an unusual move, it’s also now getting a release in selected American cities; the proceeds will be donated to some Vietnam veterans associations.

First published in The Herald, September 1988

So you see these songs were tired even before Forrest Gump came along. The voice cast for this is staggering, and includes Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger from Platoon, and Martin Sheen from Apocalypse Now. Good Dan Quayle zinger here, if I do say so myself. Director Couturie has done lots of documentaries and directed one fiction feature, Ed, the one with Matt LeBlanc and a baseball-playing chimp. I’d forgotten about the Kool-Aid line, which brings back a specific childhood memory of the war, that of soldiers writing exactly this kind of letter asking for Kool-Aid – but the kind with sugar already in the packet. I recall getting a shiver when I saw the film and heard the same request.


Distant Thunder

October 20, 2020

A helpful co-worker tells a Vietnam vet, “Far as I’m concerned, you guys have a right to be nuts.” This is the level of dubious sympathy that the world affords the veterans in Distant Thunder, a heartfelt film about the problems of Vietnam vets who have retreated from society.

They are called “bush vets,” these men who have taken their scars and withdrawn into the forests of the Olympic Peninsula. The film sketches a small community of them, self-sufficient and isolated. As the movie opens, one man ends his despair by walking into a moving train. This shocks Mark Lambert (John Lithgow) into walking out of the forest, and back into civilization.

The film then traces his struggle to fit himself back in, especially his attempt to re-establish contact with his son (Ralph Macchio), whom he has not seen in many years. With the help of a kind stranger (Kerrie Keane), Lambert gets a job with the logging company and appears to be on his way back.

But the trauma of actually confronting his son drives him into the woods again, and the last act of the movie is set there. Thanks to a tortured vet on the loose, this means the last act can be dominated by a violently dramatic situation; Lambert must protect his son from harm. It’s dramatic, but it’s contrived.

That’s too bad, and it’s also too bad the film has the uninspired direction of Rick Rosenthal (Bad Boys), who brings a pedestrian approach to the material. No question, this is a subject fraught with possibilities, and Lithgow is actor enough to create a compelling character; his vet is a husky-voiced relic with shadows in his eyes.

Rosenthal distracts our attention with the other bush vets, who are more disturbed than Lambert. Denis Arndt, an accomplished Northwest stage actor who is himself a Vietnam veteran, plays the most florid of the men, and Arndt’s crazy energy is often riveting. He barks out dislocated laughter, and he serves up meals of Twinkies and Skittles.

Arndt, skipping madly through a campfire, even steals the film’s big revelation scene, in which Lambert tells a war story, the tale that haunts him the most. Even this is something of a familiar horror story; the movie never quite comes up with anything new. (By the way, it was shot in British Columbia, not Washington. The lure of the Canadian dollar remains irresistible.)

Clearly, Distant Thunder means well, and there is an anchor here in Lithgow’s performance. But the movie has the unintentional effect of emphasizing the craziness of the bush vets, regardless of the humanity of Lithgow’s character. Despite its obvious intention of deepening understanding, it might have the effect of making these men seem just that much more bizarre, and pushing them further into their green forest ghetto.

First published in The Herald, November 1988

The cast also includes Janet Margolin, Jamey Sheridan, and Tom Bower; music by Maurice Jarre. Arndt was very well-known in Seattle live-theater circles, and I saw him onstage at least a half-dozen times over the years (including, if I’m remembering right, as Iago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland). This movie seems to have jump-started his screen career, where he has many credits, mostly in TV. Another live-theater bell rung here: the subject matter is reminiscent of Lanford Wilson’s play Redwood Curtain, which I happened to see in a pre-Broadway run in Seattle, with an unforgettable performance by David Morse as a troubled vet living in the forest.


Birdy

July 23, 2020

birdyBirdy is one of those nagging movies that can’t quite let you go. It nags you while you watch it, because it’s got a rather inflated sense of self-importance. But it also nags you after it’s over – this time because for all its faults, it’s got little things that stay with you.

Based on William Wharton’s 1979 novel, the film tells a highly eccentric tale of a friendship between two South Philly boys during the Vietnam years. Al (Nicolas Cage) is a normal goofball, but Birdy (Matthew Modine) is a special case. His escape from the hard reality is in the world of birds: He thinks about them, owns them, imitates them. As his sanity gets shakier – and especially as he’s rocked by Vietnam combat expeience – he gets closer and closer to transforming himself into a bird (or at least as close as humanly possible).

When the film opens, Al is visiting Birdy in an Army mental hospital, and we discover the story of their friendship through a series of flashbacks. The film employs a shrewd mix of comedy and drama in etching Birdy’s growing disassociation from reality; his 100-foot fall from a gas tower to a sand pit is lightened by the fact that he and Al are dressed in absurd pigeon suits at the time.

In fact, the difference between Al and Birdy comes out when Birdy tries to explain the necessity for the pigeon suits, which they will wear when catching pigeons to train for carrying messages. “When you put on the suit,” Birdy explains, “the pigeons’ll think you’re one of them.” Al adopts his best are-you-outta-your-mind look and says, “I don’t want the pigeons to think I’m one of ’em.” (Neither seems bothered by the fact that no bird in his right mind would mistake them for a member of the same species.) One’s the romantic dreamer and the other the sardonic realist.

That the film is often obvious and aggravating in its presentation of its themes and ideas seems primarily the fault of director Alan Parker. Parker, the British director of Midnight Express and Shoot the Moon, has demonstrated before his tendency for high-pitched stylization – lots of sunlight streaming through smoke-clouded rooms – and heavy-handedness. There’s not too much about Birdy that’s subtle, particularly in the characterizations of the supporting players.

But the two lead actors – that’s a different story. I don’t know if it’s Parker’s work, the intrinsic fable-like quality of the story itself, or just the sheer talent of the actors, but Cage and Modine are a fascinating couple.

Modine registered his likability in Vision Quest and Mrs. Soffel earlier this year, and his wide-eyed, dreamy performance in Birdy really makes him an actor to watch. He gives his character’s intention to fly an eerie determination.

Cage doesn’t have Modine’s range yet, but he’s got his own funky charm. And, as proven by Valley Girl, Racing With the Moon, and The Cotton Club (the latter for his uncle, Francis Coppola), the camera seems naturally drawn to his energy.

The film is often grating. But the chemistry between these two actors makes much of this offbeat enterprise weirdly memorable.

First published in The Herald, May 12, 1985

Maybe hindsight makes this clearer, but surely the two actors should have switched roles? Also, thinking about the fact that Modine went to work for Kubrick shortly after this film, consider the possibility that Nicolas Cage might have been cast in Full Metal Jacket instead. That would have been an interesting movie. (But then maybe we don’t get Cage in Raising Arizona or Moonstruck, both released in ’87, so that’s no good.) This is not exactly a great review, but perhaps a useful snapshot of where these actors were then. Bruno Kirby and John Harkins were also in it, and there’s an early role for Karen Young. Peter Gabriel did the music.

 


Cease Fire

June 22, 2020

ceasefireCease Fire is a completely ear­nest and honorable attempt to illuminate one man’s readjustment to life after the Vietnam War. Problem is the story is so familiar by this time, and the film itself is so dully realized, it’s a little hard to be as involved as we should be.

The Vietnam vet is played by Don Johnson, who made the movie just before he launched himself into superstardom with Miami Vice (the film shares the TV show’s location). He’s very good here as the tormented soul who can’t make peace with society, even though the war is almost 15 years behind him.

He has a wife (Lisa Blount) and two kids, but he’s just lost his job, and he has nightmares about the war that keep his nerves jangled. As the film begins, he meets another vet (Robert F. Lyons) who’s in pretty much the same boat as Johnson – but who’s a little more desperate about it.

They try to talk the war away, but their recollections only seem to intensify the bad memories. As Johnson’s behavior gets more erratic (he becomes physically threatening toward his family and freaks out when a potential employer gives some stupid opinions about vets), his wife suggests that group therapy might be in order – but Johnson is so tightly wound, it doesn’t seem to do him any good.

This story, sad to say, has an over­familiar ring to it. The problem of the readjusting veteran is an import­ant subject, yet the idea has been worked so often in movies and TV that it needs a fresh approach, and Cease Fire doesn’t give it that.

Many plot points are telegraphed from miles away – especially that the instability of Lyons’ character is going to result in self-destruction. And Blount, who played David Keith’s girlfriend in An Officer and a Gentleman, has a thankless task with the unflattering role of the wife. Cease Fire is the pet project of George Fernandez, himself a Vietnam vet and the author of the Vietnam Trilogy, a stage play from which Cease Fire has been adapted. Fernandez also served as executive producer and got a former classmate from the University of Miami film school, David Nutter, to direct.

They’ve certainly got nothing to be ashamed of, but – and this is a good reminder for anyone who thinks that socially-conscious subject matter excuses dull filmmaking – it only hurts their own cause when the movie itself falls into banal conclusions and formulaic traps. Rather than being excited into empathy, audiences will more likely leave the theater numbed by a familiar experience.

First published in The Herald, October 1985

Turns out director Nutter went on to have a robust career in television, including three Emmys; he’s been on Games of Thrones, ER, The X-Files, all kinds of things. You never know. IMDb says that Johnson gave an interview in which he said he did not remember making the film. I can believe that.