May 22, 2012

Betrayed is constructed like a nightmare; the farther into it we go, the more distorted and surrealistic the images become.

That’s also the experience of the protagonist, a young FBI agent (Debra Winger) who’s investigating the murder of a colorful Chicago talk-show host.

When she travels undercover into a farming community in Nebraska, she’s immediately taken by the wholesomeness of the environment, the Norman Rockwell appearance of waving wheatfields and cherry pies cooling on the window sill. She’s also taken by the presence of a widower farmer (Tom Berenger), whose strength and sense of family seem to fill in the spaces of her own empty existence. But the longer she stays on the case, and the more personally involved she becomes, the more ugliness she uncovers.

At this point, the reviewer becomes honor-bound not to reveal too much of the film’s plot. When I saw Betrayed at an early screening, I didn’t know anything about it, and the surprises of the story came as real shocks. (I’ve already given away the fact that Winger plays an FBI agent, which isn’t clear in the film until 15 minutes have gone by.)

Suffice it to say that the particular rock that gets overturned in Betrayed reveals an organization of white supremacists, who seek to overthrow the government and install an all-white society.

When Winger infiltrates this group, she sees the duality of their existence: On the outside, they’re a warm group of homey family folks, who on camping trips just happen to take target practice with automatic weapons and burn crosses in meadows on cool summer evenings.

Joe (Jagged Edge) Eszterhas’s original screenplay examines this milieu with some admirable attempts at treating not just the political issues but also the personal trauma within Winger’s character. She’s appalled at the activities of the group, which include hunting down black men in the forest (where she is encouraged to participate), but she’s also feeling abused by the FBI; her boss (John Heard), who is also an ex-boyfriend, seems to be pushing her back into the field with insensitive fervor.

The natural director for this sort of piece is Costa-Gavras, who cornered the market on the political thriller with Z and State of Siege. As in those films, Costa-Gavras builds a spider web of fear surrounding his characters. But, also like his Missing of a few years ago, Costa-Gavras stays somewhat on the surface of events; as good as this movie is, it lacks a kind of lived-in quality, an authenticity of place and time.

It undoubtedly will stir up some potent emotions. Debra Winger wondered in an interview in “American Film” magazine whether the racist sentiments spoken by some of the character might be received approvingly by some.

Betrayed does have some very disturbing moments, none creepier than a scene in which two small children, being tucked into bed at night, begin spouting repulsive racist attitudes with which their parents have brainwashed them. That’s when this film really makes the skin crawl.

First published in the Herald, August 25, 1988

Debra Winger’s film credits are so few and far between that you can’t help wondering about the films she decided to do. Why this one? Heavy subject matter? Director? As for Eszterhas, he was a few years shy of launching Basic Instinct and making a famous name for himself.


An Officer and a Gentleman

March 9, 2012

In the first scene of An Officer and a Gentleman, Richard Gere is up to all of his mannered tricks: he twitches, he mumbles, he wearily stares off into space. The signals are discouraging; it’s not going to be another one of those performances, is it? Amazingly, about the time Gere gets his hair cropped—his character has entered military school, training to be an officer and a jet pilot—he seems to relax, probably because he starts playing against some pretty interesting people (namely David Keith, Debra Winger, and Louis Gossett, Jr.).

I don’t know if director Taylor Hackford or Gere was aware of this softening and deepening of the actor’s style, but it turns out to be very appropriate to the character’s story: Gere plays a distant, private man who enlists in the officers’ training program as a way to hoist himself above an unhappy life; in the thirteen-week-long process of earning his wings, he discovers—as much to his surprise as anyone else’s—that he can allow himself to be a human being.

This sounds like pretty basic stuff, and I guess it is, but a good deal of it is very entertaining. Gere’s duels with his hardboiled drill instructor are superb; there is the sense that he is battling against the dark demons in himself that tempt him to quite the grueling training and backslide into the rootless existence that came before. Louis Gossett’s fine, cunning performance as the D.I. has a lot to do with this, even if the movie occasionally skirts sentimentalizing his character.

Off the base, Gere spends his time with a woman who has her sights set on becoming an officer’s wife. Debra Winger triumphs over the script’s condescension toward her character; she isn’t just slumming, and it rings true. This goes for David Keith, too, as Gere’s grinning Okie buddy; the tragic-best-friend bit can get pretty sticky if an actor doesn’t believe it, and Keith throws himself into it with his whole heart. We can believe that Winger and Keith are capable of thawing out the cool, isolated Gere.

An Officer and a Gentleman is the kind of movie in which the unsuccessful sequences tend to be forgotten, while a few keenly realized scenes linger fondly in the mind. There’s a nice moment after Gere has had a first dinner with Winger’s family, and the couple reels out of the parental house, staggering from the amusingly frigid and uncomfortable reception they’ve had. As they are parting, Winger brings up the previously-hinted-at subject of marriage rather bluntly. Gere stiffens, by reflex; Winger senses his iciness, and her desperation rises to the surface. There’s an exact feel for a decision and an event not quite happening here—it will have to wait for a while, until Gere finishes his training and becomes an officer. And, importantly, a gentleman.

First published in The Informer, August 1982

An early review from the Seattle Film Society’s monthly newsletter. The movie was shot in Port Townsend, Washington, where locals still recall the colorful behavior of the participants (I got to do the onstage interview with Winger when she returned to Port Townsend for a film festival appearance , but I’m not sure AOAAG was her primary interest). The movie turned into a steamroller, with the ending and the song and all, but the review was written in relative innocence of that.

Mike’s Murder

February 10, 2012

Mike’s Murder was the title of a film that writer-director James Bridges (of The China Syndrome and The Paper Chase) shot sometime in 1982, starring the actress he had lifted to national prominence via her performance in Urban Cowboy: Debra Winger.

Mike’s Murder is also the title of a film that is finally being released in a few test markets around the country. It’s written and directed by James Bridges. It stars Debra Winger. But according to Hollywood whispers (and some published fact), this Mike’s Murder is far from the same film that Bridges and Winger conceived a few years ago.

Evidently, Bridges’ first version was a disjointed, stylized tale of a murder and drugs in Los Angeles. Its narrative was nonlinear; events skipped back and forth in time.

This was odd enough in itself, because Bridges has always been a pretty conventional director—sometimes irritatingly so.

There were also rumors that the subject matter of the film made some Hollywood people nervous. The source of this anxiety can be summed up in one word: cocaine. We’re always hearing that coke use is rampant in the movie and TV business, and it’s a subject that the industry would just like everybody to shut up about. Mike’s Murder is about petty cocaine dealers; might Bridges have been pursuing some allegory about drugs and their soul-stealing effect on the movie folk?

Maybe. We can’t know now, because this Mike’s Murder is a jumble of half-ideas, some of which may not have been so good in the first place. Bridges re-edited the film so that it moves in linear fashion, and some reports suggested that he had reshot new scenes. He also replaced Joe Jackson’s music (some songs remain) with a more traditional John Barry score.

The plot is slight: Betty (Winger), who works in a bank, runs into an old lover, Mike (Mark Keyloun), who has fallen onto hard times as a drug dealer. The old attraction is still there, though, and they arrange a date to meet.

He never makes the date—he’s murdered when he and his partner (Darrell Larson—a striking performance) try to double cross their rich clients. Betty then tries to find some kind of reason for Mike’s death.

The film moves in fits and starts—the re-editing process has apparently played havoc with whatever rhythms Brides was trying to achieve. It’s halfway over before it seems to get started, and even then never quite decides what it’s going to be. The final 20 minutes or so are particularly distasteful, as one character—who seemed rather interesting—terrorizes Betty in her house. The bigger fish get away, and the mystery remains unsolved.

Bridges, using lots of video screens and phone conversations, does get a sense of the disjointed, emotionally dead world of Hollywood. His cinematographer, Reynaldo (Risky Business) Villalobos, really captures the smoky texture of the city.

As for Winger, who is, apparently, responsible for the current test engagements, she is still one of the most exciting actresses in film. But her irrepressible emotionalism is almost getting to be stock. She has a wonderfully expressive face and voice, but she’s overusing her gallery of effects—a good director will turn her energy inward a little more (the better to save it for when it really counts). It would also be nice to see her tackle a brassier character—a la her hooker in the immediately forgotten Cannery Row—than the string of passive women she’s played of late.

First published in the Herald, September 25, 1984

Kind of a weird review; speculation about the cocaine angle, me giving questionable advice to Debra Winger. I interviewed Winger onstage once and found her bright and honest and personable, even while sitting around the green room for a rather long time beforehand. I admit I’m curious about what this movie might have been, even if the prospect of a James Bridges masterpiece seems a little far-fetched.

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.