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.

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.


January 19, 2012

Unicorn, Cruise, Sara

Tom Cruise was the hottest thing in movies in the fall of ’83, on the heels of Risky Business and All the Right Moves. In that position, he could pick and choose the projects he wanted to pursue.

He chose to work with Ridley Scott, the director of such visually elaborate works as Alien, Blade Runner, and the Pepsi commercial with Don Johnson and Glenn Frey.

Well, by my watch it’s now April 1986, and Cruise’s follow-up film finally has arrived. Legend has been finished since at least summer of last year, when its release was originally set, but studio executives must have been perplexed about how to sell it.

You can hardly blame them—it’s not your average teen flick. A prologue coyly informs us that the film takes place when there was no such thing as time. It’s a magical world of fairies and sprites, of people living in the forest among the elves and the animals.

Cruise plays Jack, a hermit nature boy. He loves Lily (Mia Sara), an equally innocent country lass. The sun streams through the trees; all men are brothers; in short, your basic peace is reigning throughout the land.

Then Jack goofs by showing Lily the sacred unicorns who seem to be the source of all this goodness. This is forbidden by the laws of the elves. Worse, they’ve led the henchmen of darkness to the unicorns. These nasty goblins steal one of the unicorn’s horns, thereby plunging the landscape into a freezing world of eternal night.

It’s up to Jack and his elf friends to invade the underworld and rescue Lily, who has fallen into evil clutches, and retrieve the horn. This prompts a showdown with Darkness (Tim Curry), a huge, red, bullish character with big black horns and a nasty chuckle.

You can see that, whereas the art direction is busy and imaginative, the story is as uncluttered as can be. That’s intentional, I assume; Scott and screenwriter William Hjortsberg seem to want to tap into the traditional mythic elements, with the resourceful hero, the fair maiden, the unmitigated evil, and the talismanic unicorn horn.

They fulfill all those elements; but there’s some question, I think, as to whether that makes a good movie. At barely 90 minutes, there’s not much room for anything but story, and I missed knowing more about these characters and their connections with each other.

There’s also a lot of anachronistic dialogue—elves say, “Adios, amigo,” and a goblin tells Darkness, “Hey, can’t you take a little joke?” Technically, since the film claims to be timeless, I guess it’s okay, but it still smells like cheap laughs.

Cruise gropes for his character. Most of the other actors are dominated by Rob Bottin’s amazing makeup (a lot of viewers may watch the film and then wonder where Tim Curry was—that’s how overwhelming his costume is).

As a director, Ridley Scott remains a puzzle. He’s as good at conjuring vivid visual textures as anyone, but his storytelling ability, even with the basic legend of Legend, is variable. We may be better able to judge from his next film, which, if he hurries, could be out before the 1990s.

First published in the Herald, April 23, 1986

There’s another version, which proponents suggest is a better movie. Maybe that’s worth a look, although when push comes to shove, it’s still about unicorns. By the way, “talismanic unicorn horn” is my lost book-length poem from the Beat era, if I’m not mistaken.


May 17, 2011

Cruise, with flair

Have you ever had the experience of knowing what people are going to say before they say it? If you haven’t, go check out Cocktail, the new Tom Cruise movie. You’ll be spouting the dialogue ahead of the characters.

This trick has nothing to do with clairvoyance. It has everything to do with dorky screenwriting, of which Cocktail has an abundance.

The premise takes a young go-getter, played by Cruise, who arrives in New York with a lust for success. Fate, however, has a bitter lesson in store for this young pilgrim, as he can’t get in the door on Wall Street and instead lands a job as a bartender in a singles bar.

His guru is a worldly mixologist (Bryan Brown) who dispenses Cuervo Gold and street wisdom in equal doses, disdaining Cruise’s college career and slapping the bar as he declares, “You couldn’t find a better work-study program than right here.”

Cruise finds false love, bounces down to a bar in Jamaica, finds true love in the form of a vacationing waitress (Elisabeth Shue), loses true love, and get hooked up with the kind of “rich chick” that Brown always advised him to find. But when Cruise and the woman (Lisa Banes) return to New York, he discovers that all he does is fetch her carrot juice in the mornings. And that, my friends, is a handful of dust.

Cocktail is a morality play, dressed in flashy colors and fronted by Hollywood’s premiere boy-hunk. Like Wall Street, it delivers a familiar lesson in the value of personal happiness over material wealth, a lesson that seems to be making a return in the late 1980s.

It is a mostly vacuous two hours, with screenwriter Heywood Gould providing his characters with some by-the-numbers dialogue. Cruise to his sugar mommy: “I tried to sell out to you, but I couldn’t close the deal.” Cruise to Brown’s sexy wife: “I can’t make it with my best friend’s lady!”

That Cocktail is occasionally dumbly enjoyable has to do with the cast and with director Roger Donaldson’s instincts. Donaldson directed last year’s No Way Out, but he can’t come up with a companion piece to that film’s steamy limousine scene. Here, a scene with sex under a waterfall is just your basic sex-under-a-waterfall scene.

Cruise isn’t exactly an actor yet, but at least he seems to want to be an actor, which is something. Bryan Brown, the Australian actor who starred in Tai Pan, brings some underpinnings to his role. And Elisabeth Shue, of Adventures in Babysitting, is always nice to watch—I am probably in the minority on this, but I think she’s prettier than Tom Cruise.

First published in the Herald, July 1988

Sadly, perhaps the last time I used the word “mixologist” in a review. This is a really terrible film, and Roger Donaldson’s participation is mystifying. In its own way, this is as representative of the 1980s as any film out there, and Cruise’s dedication to studying and perfecting the art of “flair bartending,” which he seemed to do with as much commitment as his research for, say, Born on the Fourth of July, is somehow depressing. I could expand on this, but I think I’ll go fix a drink.

All the Right Moves

April 13, 2011

In the first shot of All the Right Moves, we see a smoking factory sitting in the middle of a small mining town. A young man and an older character actor walk out of the factory, carrying their standard-issue lunch pails and hardhats, and wearily making their way home.

I’m not clairvoyant, but it was at this moment—30 seconds or so into the film—that I leaned back and said to myself: “Uh huh. It’s going to be the one about the kid who has to win the sports scholarship so he won’t get trapped in this suffocating existence the way his father and brother did.”

It’s unfair to pigeonhole any movie based on the first few moments. Good movies can always surprise you.

But dog my cats if All the Right Moves didn’t go exactly where I thought it was going. What I couldn’t predict was how lame it would be about getting there.

Tom Cruise, who was so good as the enterprising innocent in Risky Business, appears as the football-playing hero who learns the true meaning of teamwork, loyalty and whatever else it is that kids learn the true meaning of in stories like this. He wants to wangle a football scholarship at a major college so he can become an engineer and enter the mining business with a whiter collar than his father and brother.

But Cruise derails his plans when he cusses out the coach after his team loses the Big Game—thanks to a coaching error. Not only that, but he gets drunk with some of the town’s rowdy alumni and throws garbage all over the coach’s house. Wrong move.

Pretty soon the coach has him blackballed from all the right colleges. It looks as though Cruise is going to get stuck in the small town.

But wait. Our hero’s steady date, a slip of a girl played by Lea Thompson, has other ideas. She has an excruciatingly dopey heart-to-heart with the coach’s wife, and the tide starts to turn. Now it’s up to Cruise to show a little decency.

But that’s enough synopsizing: you get the picture. The best thing about All the Right Moves is Craig T. Nelson’s performance as the coach. Nelson, who played the father in Poltergeist, has a bizarre off-center delivery that makes everything he does fun to watch.

The worst thing about the movie is that it bodes ill for the directing career of Michael Chapman, the excellent cinematographer (Raging Bull, Personal Best), whose first directing job this is.

A word about a disturbing trend in recent cinema: This is the second film this year in which a spunky kid pursues a goal that will allow him/her to break out of a Pennsylvania mining environment. The first, of course, was that phenomenon—one does not actually want to refer to it as a movie—known as Flashdance, a word that will live in infamy.

All the Right Moves should not have the same bewildering success; still, it’s time to nip this thing in the bud. We’ve got to put an end to the trend, and soon. It’ll be a tough job, but then it’s a chore just to sit there and watch these movies. Besides, maybe we’ll learn the true meaning of teamwork.

First published in the Herald, October 1983

A review from my first month at writing for the Herald, and I already sound plenty jaded. But one gets jaded quickly with a movie like All the Right Moves, my friend. The awfulness of the title itself seemed to point the way toward many an Eighties handle: vague and stupid, as fitting for an aerobics film or a martial arts picture. Michael Chapman directed again after this, with Clan of the Cave Bear, so there you go with that (strangely, it was during this time that he went from being one of Hollywood’s absolute top cinematographers—Taxi Driver, Fingers, the Kaufman Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as the two mentioned above—to being a very, very good cinematographer. The movie was a step up the ladder for Cruise, who never looked back.

The Color of Money

March 2, 2011

It’s not quite fair to call The Color of Money a sequel to Robert Rossen’s 1961 film The Hustler. True, the new film picks up the story of the pool-playing shark “Fast” Eddie Felson 25 years later, but The Color of Money presents a completely new, self-contained story, and a fresh style of filmmaking to go with it.

We find Felson (Paul Newman returning to the role) as a hustler again, but now he’s hustling cheap booze—selling it to restaurants, encouraging shady deals, getting by. He still cuts a stylish figure, but he may be just a little bored. He hasn’t played pool in years. And he is a man who is ripe for some sort of redemption.

Enter Vincent (Tom Cruise), a hotshot young pool player, with all the right moves and talent to burn. He’s a bit flaky. He wants to play for the sheer joy of playing, which disturbs the materialistic Felson. “You couldn’t find the big time with a road map, kid,” Felson tells Vince, and the old pro decides to take the young phenom on the circuit, to find some action and prepare for a big cleanup.

Vince comes with a girlfriend, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who has a street-smart appreciation of Felson’s shrewdness. This trio sets out to Felson’s old haunts, and he teaches some hard lessons, such as this choice pearl after Vince lets an old-timer win a game: “That’s the trouble with mercy, kid. It ain’t professional.”

The dialogue is superbly written (by Richard Price, loosely adapting the Walter Tevis novel), and Martin Scorsese’s direction (aided by his brilliant collaborators, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus) hurtles the film along at thrilling speed.

There are directors who feel that the camera is there to watch a story, and not call attention to itself. Scorsese (Raging Bull, After Hours) is not such a director. His camera swoops, races, caroms and falls, and it captures the intense world of the smoky dives in which the story unreels.

Scorsese’s a bit like the pool players; they’ve got their trick shots, why shouldn’t he? There’s a sequence, when Vince is showing off his skills to the nighthawks at a poolroom, Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” is chugging on the soundtrack, and Scorsese’s camera is swirling around it all, that ought to have audiences jumping out of their seats.

This directorial energy is excitingly caught by Newman and Cruise. They have that edge that you sometimes see when actors know they are doing something special (as indeed they are). And the film derives a juicy tension from the fact that their characters’ situation is analogous to their standing as actors: Cruise is the hottest thing going, and Newman is now the old lion. Hollywood has wanted to give Newman an Oscar for a few years now; this performance may do the trick.

Mastrantonio is a revelation as Carmen, and Helen Shaver does nice atmospheric work, just this side of floozydom, as Felson’s sometime sleeping partner.

The Color of Money is the kind of movie that is so inventive and busy, you wonder if it can be sustained. And if the film lets down at any point, it’s in the final 20 minutes or so, when Felson takes an unexpected diversion. This leads to an ending that is thematically satisfying, but slightly less dynamic than the previous two hours of film.

But by that time, Scorsese and company have sheer momentum on their side. There’s more to watch in The Color of Money than any ten current movies combined—and you never get the feeling you’ve been hustled.

First published in the Herald, October 16, 1986

Is The Color of Money considered not quite a full Scorsese movie somehow? It rarely gets mentioned when the people who consider him one of the greatest living directors begin ticking off his signature pictures. But it is very good, and as a star vehicle it’s exemplary. Newman did get his Oscar for the film, a year after an embarrassed Academy awarded him an honorary statue after many misses. Awkward, but earned.