The Rescue

March 24, 2020

rescue1Even though it’s only a silly action flick, The Rescue feels seriously out of date. If this thing had been released at the height of the 1984 flag-waving frenzy, when fantasy movies about hostage rescues were all the rage, then it might have had a chance.

But Chuck Norris no longer searches for the missing in action, and even Rambo has taken a header this summer. The Rescue is some sort of mid-’80s relic.

And a particularly ludicrously conceived one at that. When a crack American task force is captured on a secret mission off the coast of North Korea, the U.S. government chills a plan to go in and rescue them. As usual in these movies, the government is lily-livered and ineffective. (The unnamed president, we are assured, “would be in there in a minute” if it were up to him, but his hands are tied.)

While the American soldiers are languishing in a prison camp, their children – yes, their children – decide that it’s time to take matters into their own hands. So five spunky offspring steal the secret plans of the North Korean camp. And then they move in.

Audiences have been giggling for months now at this premise, as presented by coming-attractions trailers. (The idea is an echo of Iron Eagle, in which a teen stole a jet to nab his imprisoned father from a Middle Eastern hostage camp.) In full-length form, the concept isn’t much less ridiculous, especially in such moments as the kids putting aside the enormity of invading a hostile Communist country and inviting certain death in order to decide whether they should let a girl go along.

The kids involved are played by Kevin Dillon (Matt’s little brother, also on display this weekend in the remake of The Blob), Christina Harnos, Ned Vaughn, Mare Price and Ian Giatti. They are more-or-less serviceable, fulfilling the usual roles the moody one, the square one, the funny one, etc.

Two things can be said for this movie. One is that the locations are spectacular; ace cameraman Russell Boyd makes the mountains of New Zealand double for Korea.

The other thing is that Ferdinand Fairfax (Nate and Hayes) has directed it about as well as anyone could have, given the material. The script, by Jim Thomas and John Thomas, would be a tough assignment for any director with the slightest sense of the real world, but Fairfax actually puts some zip into a couple of sequences, and in the big prison-breakout scene, really works up a lather. But at that point, nothing can bust this film out.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

From this distance, the idea – kids rescuing their SEAL daddies – doesn’t sound especially strange, but then I’ve been worn down by decades of high concept. I note the participation of director Fairfax, whose Nates and Hayes does have some zip, and who went back into British TV after this for a nice long career (he died in 2008). The screenwriters had just come off the success of Predator.


The Killing Fields

December 2, 2019

killingfieldsThere is a tremendous movie in the middle of The Killing Fields. It lasts for about 90 minutes or so, and during that time you can’t take your eyes off the screen.

This section begins with a group of international journalists being captured by the hostile Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in 1975. When the reporters are rounded up and held at gunpoint, with their extermination apparently imminent, one of them, Dith Pran (played by Dr. Haing S. Ngor), the only Cambodian in the group, starts doing some fast talking to the captors. After an exhausting session, Pran manages to save their necks, and the journalists are moved to the neutral zone of Phnom Penh’s French Embassy, where they wait for deportation.

There, the Westerners must do for Pran what he did for them, because anyone with a Cambodian passport will be detained in the country (and be subject to almost certain execution). Thus follow some frantic efforts to construct a false passport for Pran.

These sequences are riveting, and brilliantly filmed (in Thailand) by first-time director Roland Joffe and cinematographer Chris Menges (whose most recent credit – about as far from The Killing Fields as you can get – was Comfort and Joy). The sequence during which Pran’s family leaves Phnom Penh, staged in a whirl of helicopter blades and con­fusion, is stunning in its grasp of what makes for compelling cinema.

The film, which is based on the true story recounted by New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, has many such vivid scenes, although it has some problems, too. It begins with Schanberg (Sam Waterston) arriving in Cambodia in 1973, just as that country was being introduced to the bombings during the Vietnam War.

Schanberg is an abrasive, self­ righteous journalist who strikes up a friendship with Pran. The movie, while dealing with the issues of deception and inhumanity in Cambodia, is really more about the developing comradeship between these two unlikely friends.

As such, it works well enough, although the film details Pran’s life better than Schanberg’s. It’s interesting that a big-budget film would have the courage to devote much of its running time – especially in the final 45 minutes – to this nonactor playing essentially wordless scenes, during Pran’s internment in a hellish Cambodian prison camp.

Although a lot of The Killing Fields hits home with force, I was left with a vague feeling of disappointment. Director Joffe, who during the lengthy (and sometimes shapeless) exposition sequences shows a gift for throwaway shock effects, also has a tendency to overstate his case.

This ranges from a few too many shots of burned and mangled victims’ bodies to the use of a popular song (I won ‘t tell which one) over the final scene. Some people will watch that final scene and think it exactly right; I found it overdone. Sometimes restraint is the highest eloquence.

This is the latest of British Producer David Puttnam’s string of important films, many of which were done by novice (or near-novice) directors. He’s done Midnight Express, Local Hero, and Chariots of Fire, and he’s very definitely turned into a one-man industry to watch.

Also very watchable is John Malkovich, the blind man in Places in the Heart, who really lights up the screen as Schanberg’s photographer buddy. Malkovich ought to bag a supporting actor Oscar nomination this spring – the only question is, for which movie?

But The Killing Fields belongs to Dr. Haing S. Ngor. He doesn’t exactly give off sparks, but Ngor, with his quiet, natural screen presence, has the audience’s unconditional sympathy throughout. He communicates true but not icky good-heartedness, and his heart is the pulsing center of the film.

First published in the Herald, January 17, 1985

Haing S. Ngor won the Oscar, and the film found great critical success. Joffe did The Mission and some other serious films, and is still working, although his disastrous 1995 version of The Scarlet Letter seemed to take his career from its high platform. 

 

 


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.


Good Morning, Vietnam

March 26, 2013

goodmorningvietnamThe hero of Good Morning, Vietnam, Armed Forces Radio disc jockey Adrian Cronauer, first sets down in the bustling metropolis of Saigon in 1965. He takes one look around the hot, dusty city and exclaims, “I feel like a fox in a chicken coop!”

The Vietnam “police action” is just about to escalate, and Cronauer is just about to fire the morale of the American troops, and exasperate his military superiors, with his manic on-the-air patter and his scorching musical selections. Mantovani and Lawrence Welk are out; James Brown is very, very in.

So Cronauer truly is a fox in a chicken coop. But that analogy also applies to the actor who plays Cronauer, Robin Williams. Williams, of course, is the hyperactive human comedy synthesizer, a guy who can take any combination of unrelated ideas and build a 15-minute routine around them.

Playing this free-form disc jockey gives Williams the long leash he has always craved in movies. And director Barry Levinson, who has encouraged spirited improvisation in his other films (especially Diner and Tin Men), allows Williams the showcase.

William’s ozone-level raps range from the ominous visual comparison of Ho Chi Minh and Colonel Sanders (“The same person? You be the judge!”) to an ear-splitting impression of Ethel Merman jamming Soviet radar, which might segue into a variation on a Roger Miller song: “Da Nang me, Da Nang me, they oughta take a rope and hang me….”

The on-air routines are brilliant, and often to the thematic point. But at some stage, Good Morning, Vietnam has to build a movie to support this material. Naturally enough, Levinson and screenwriter Mitch Markowitz (who based the script very loosely on the real Cronauer’s experiences) play off the comedy of the radio show with the country’s increasing sense of chaos and despair.

Cronauer’s friendships with a beautiful Vietnamese woman (Chintara Sukapatana) and her brother (Tung Thanh Tran) grow shaky as the city begins to rumble. After he sees a terrorist bomb destroy a popular hangout for soldiers, Cronauer’s efforts to get the story on the air are squelched by Army brass, who prefer to keep the news positive.

Back at the radio station, the ensemble work is excellent—Williams isn’t the whole show—with deft performances by Forest Whitaker, Richard Portnow, and Richard Edson. And Levinson shrewdly uses two humorless officers (Bruno Kirby and J.T. Walsh) as unbendable foils for Cronauer’s wildness.

While much of the movie, comedic and otherwise, is affecting, the center somehow keeps slipping away. The film is really a collection of sketches, without a powerful unifying idea; Cronauer’s habit of getting into skirmishes isn’t a strong enough narrative device to do justice to the subject matter. Good Morning, Vietnam is never as penetrating as it clearly intends to be.

First published in the Herald, December 1987

Even at the time, people were talking about how the movies had finally found a role that tapped the peculiar talent of Robin Williams; the curious thing is, how infrequently the movies found similar sorts of things in which he could really cut loose. Despite his unfettered presence, the film is not really very good.


Gardens of Stone

February 13, 2013

gardensofstoneFrancis Coppola has looked at the Vietnam War before. A decade ago, hot off the success of the Godfather films, he poured everything he had into Apocalypse Now, a broad, out-of-control movie that played up the insanity of Vietnam through a plot borrowed from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

It was all darkness: The war was a rudderless ship, and the military people in charge were psychopaths. (Remember “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”?)

Now Coppola has made another Vietnam movie, based on a novel by Nicholas Profitt, and the contrast is fascinating. Gardens of Stone, produced with the enthusiastic cooperation of the U.S. military, shows the home front in 1968, among some soldiers and friends at Arlington National Cemetery. This time the conflict isn’t the simple war-is-madness of Apocalypse Now. This is a much more mature, and much more ambivalent movie.

The central figure is Clell Hazard (James Caan, in a terrific comeback performance), a combat veteran who’s been put out to pasture as a member of the Old Guard. His main responsibility at Arlington is teaching soldiers how to bury other soldiers, but he burns to be doing something more useful.

A young gung-ho soldier (D.B. Sweeney) becomes Hazard’s surrogate son at Arlington. He wants to be an officer and go where the fighting is. Hazard’s response is basically the film’s standpoint: This war is different, probably a mistake; but a soldier must serve, and should be where he can do the most good. The movie tracks the year of the boy’s tutelage under Hazard and another Old Guard sergeant (James Earl Jones, in a scene-stealing role), until the kid is shipped off.

Some of the ambivalence of the time is reflected in Hazard’s relationship with a Washington Post reporter (Anjelica Huston) who thinks the war is “genocide” but who falls in love with the Army man anyway.

I’m not sure Coppola feels completely comfortable with the old-fashioned straightforwardness of this story, especially toward the end, but he bravely faces it head on. It’s a very entertaining film, with lots of inside military stuff. There’s an emphasis on the military as a family, and Hazard refers to the war as a “family business”—which reverberates intriguingly with the family business of Coppola’s Godfather.

And it’s a good-looking film, both in terms of the people onscreen and the physical production. Jordan Cronenweth’s photography is excellent as usual, and production designer Dean Tavoularis, who has worked with Coppola many times, gets a late-’60s look that is discreet but evocative. Hazard’s slightly dumpy apartment, for example, is an uncannily authentic space.

These details are memorable, and that’s proper. The big issues of the war won’t get settled here, and the film is at its best when it stays away from them (one of the only cheap-shot moments comes at the expense of a caricature peacenik, played by counterculture promoter Bill Graham). The movie succeeds because of its attention to the frailties of people, caught in a terrible situation.

First published in the Herald, May 1987

History has not remembered this movie, and to be honest, neither really have I. But it did, at least, feel rooted in something. Coppola’s son had died just before filming, and the film has a gravity that distinguishes it in the director’s work.


Off Limits

January 17, 2013

offlimitsNow that we’ve gotten the definitive films about Vietnam out of the way—movies that deal with the Vietnam War itself as a phenomenon, such as The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket—it’s time for the genre film to move in. Thus in Good Morning, Vietnam, we see the sketch comedy set in Saigon; in Off Limits, it’s the formula cop movie.

The cops are McGriff (Willem Dafoe) and Perkins (Gregory Hines); according to the formula, one is white, one is black. They’re patrolling the seediest streets of Saigon in 1968, as part of a special Army investigation unit, when they detect a pattern in a series of prostitute killings.

As it turns out, the suspect list includes some high-ranking officers in the American services, which means that McGriff and Perkins had best chill the investigation or risk losing their jobs, or worse. Naturally, they continue, trying to find both the killer and “some (bleeping) meaning” to concentrate on in the madness around them.

Director and co-screenwriter Christopher Crowe creates a hellish environment for his violent heroes, all dirty rooms and bloody corpses. The Americans have contempt for their South Vietnamese allies, and the contempt is reciprocal. The only oasis is a church where the cops meet a nun (Amanda Pays) who helps them on the trail of the killer.

In whodunit terms, Off Limits is a bit clumsy. You can see the real culprit coming from way down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and when the explanation does arrive, it renders the movie’s most memorable scene inexplicable.

That scene has the cops confronting their prime suspect, a crazed officer (Scott Glenn) who nearly tops Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now for scary insanity. Glenn takes them up in a helicopter and begins to heave Viet Cong out the door, as a prelude to his own reckless action. It’s a startling scene.

The movie has a few of them. Even when it seems to be falling apart, Off Limits does have some brutal power, and it’s gritty enough to make you want to take a shower after watching it.

What it lacks is chemistry. Dafoe, who was so memorable as the Christ-like sergeant in Platoon, has a withdrawn, pinched quality, and it doesn’t mesh with Hines’ more open style. Fred Ward is just right as their superior, who can’t believe these guys are expending this much energy on a case involving murdered prostitutes, a case that nobody cares about anyway. He can’t see that’s exactly why they’re doing it.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

The generic title didn’t help, either. And by the way: Amanda Pays—least likely movie nun ever? Still, the whole thing sounds just intriguing enough to take another look sometime.


Red Dawn

November 16, 2012

Red Dawn is a trashy, silly movie that seeks to whip up a little bloodlust in all of us. It proposes that the Soviet Union has invaded the United States, and concentrates on the efforts of a small group of renegades in the Colorado mountains to overthrow the invaders.

The group consists of a bunch of teenagers who fled to the hills the morning of the attack. Their hometown of Calumet becomes a village controlled by the Russkies, where insurgents are rounded up in the local drive-in movie theater and “re-educated.” From their mountain command post, the teens develop guerrilla skills and strike back.

This sounds like nutty stuff, and it is, but the first few minutes of the film are promising. We see the high-schoolers going to classes, everything normal, except maybe for the sound of distant planes. Then we casually notice that some paratroopers have landed, and then—suddenly—it’s on, folks, World War III, the big one.

It’s an exciting sequence, with battle action aplenty as the kids jump in a pickup truck and speed away. The movie quickly degenerates into a collection of different methods of blowing up those Commie rats, with not much time out for the felicities of characterization.

Red Dawn is the work of John Milius, a renegade figure in Hollywood. He’s a film-student pal of many of the young directors (he co-wrote Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), and he showed some interesting directorial moves in his debut film, The Wind and the Lion. (He showed little of anything, though, in his most recent movie, Conan the Barbarian.)

Milius is notorious for his conservative politics, his reverence for guns, and his predilection for hard action. All of these concerns are well served in Red Dawn, almost to the point of hysteria.

The Milius philosophy may be presented most clearly in the moment when the guerillas decide to execute one of their own guys (he betrayed their location). Faced with the prospect of shooting down a former comrade in cold blood, someone points out that if they do this, “What’s the difference between us and them?” The hero turns a beady eye to this. “Because,” he says, cocking the gun and aiming it, “we live here.”

Milius serves notice every now and then that he’s not unaware of the ambiguities of this sort of statement, but still the movie works best as a rave-up revenge piece.

The most recognizable of the guerillas are Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell, who seem to have some sort of tandem acting agreement, since they were together in The Outsiders and Grandview, U.S.A., too. The rest of the Wolverines—they take their name from the high-school sports mascot—consist of stock types from war movies, although there are a couple of pleasantly hard-nosed girls (Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey), given to the Wolverines for protection by their uncle (Ben Johnson).

By the way, Red Dawn is the first film released with the new PG-13 rating, which suggests more stringent parental watchfulness over their sub-teen children. The new rating went into effect after the hue and cry over the comic-strip violence in Indiana Jones and Gremlins. Unfortunately for the huers and criers, the system seems to be backfiring already: Red Dawn might previously have gotten an R rating for its violence, but now it fits right into the PG-13 category—after all, it’s got no sex or foul language in it. And so the war goes on.

First published in the Herald, August 13, 1984

I forgot about the PG-13 milestone. Nice to see that the system was already completely flawed. This movie looks pretty accomplished next to the remake, which opens a few days from when I type this.