Iceman

November 5, 2012

So much of Iceman is so good that you almost knock yourself out wishing it were better. Really, it’s amazing the film is as involving as it is, given a shaky, undernourished screenplay and the claustrophobic nature of the story.

The movie hurtles through its first minutes, as a form is found in the ice and brought back to an arctic research station to be thawed. When the doctors and scientists of the station prepare to examine the body—it’s a human shape—they are astonished to discover faint life signs. When they bring the terrified iceman to consciousness, they face a new problem: what do they do with him now?

Australian director Fred Schepisi throws you right into the fray in these early scenes, and this fast-moving approach does two things: It gets you involved very quickly, and it doesn’t give you a chance to think about the admittedly wild premise.

Once the iceman (played by John Lone) is up and around, it’s time for the old science vs. humanity argument. Some of the scientists want to test and probe the iceman, so they can assemble clues and find out what gave his cells the capacity to regenerate after so many years in limbo.

One anthropologist, Stanley Shephard (Timothy Hutton), wants to place the iceman in a sympathetic environment and try to get to know him. Shephard thinks that if they learn what’s inside the iceman’s mind, rather than simply sampling his body, they’ll get an even better idea of what kept the 40,000-year-old man alive.

They install the iceman in a Vivarium, an artificial habitat that resembles the outside. Shephard lets the iceman adapt, and then goes into the Vivarium to try to make some sort of contact. His dealings with the iceman form the core of the movie, as they exchange words, share food, and even a duet on a Neil Young song.

Much of this is smartly done, but the conflicts between Shephard and the other doctors seem trumped-up, and aren’t really all that interesting. We never get to know exactly who’s pulling the strings (or threatening to pull the plug), and most of the scientists don’t seem like real people with histories. They just exist as characters who disagree with each other.

There are script problems, but the film is visually powerful. Just the sheer physical presence of the Vivarium, which exists under the arctic ice in a huge warehouse, is fabulous.

And Schepisi, who directed The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Barbarosa, has a terrific eye. In the landscape footage of the tundra (filmed in Canada), Schepisi has found some breathtaking vistas, and he has a knack for putting the camera in just the right spot. In the final sequence, as two people trek across the snow, there’s poetry in the shapes he finds in hills and drifts of ice.

On this particular project, Schepisi’s reach exceeds his grasp—something like the iceman, who, looking up at a helicopter flying over the Vivarium, reaches up to it, thinking it’s his god coming to take him to heaven. Iceman doesn’t quite cut it, but moments like that make it an intriguing disappointment.

First published in the Herald, April 13, 1984

The ice fields turn out to be not so far from the mystical Outback, as far as Schepisi is concerned. I recall Pauline Kael going ape over this movie, although it seems to have had no real life since then (it would be interesting to know more about what got changed in it, as online sources suggest Schepisi had a falling-out with producers and various stuff, including the ending, got tinkered with). Lone came out of nowhere (by way of Peking Opera) for this. The movie was one of the string of very curious choices made by Timothy Hutton in the years after his Oscar.

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Plenty

April 24, 2012

After the kind of moronic cinematic summer we’ve just suffered through, almost anything halfway intelligent ought to be greeted with boundless gratitude.

And Plenty, the first film of a fall season highlighting seriousness (it’s the time Hollywood likes to roll out its potential Oscar nominees), is so ambitious and thoughtful, one is tempted to applaud it without objection.

That reaction may not be appropriate, because I suspect Plenty has some problems. But overall, it’s a bracing tonic for any moviegoer interested in something other than the travails of a pimply-faced teenager’s introduction to sex.

Plenty is adapted by British playwright David Hare from his hit play. It chronicles about 15 years in the life of an Englishwoman (Meryl Streep), from her war service as a spy in occupied France, through her unsatisfying existence in postwar London, an unhappy marriage to a diplomat (Charles Dance), and her increasing disability and mental illness.

The film is elliptical in development; there’s no indication of the jumps in time, except for what we catch through a news report or dialogue references. And there’s no attempt to glamorize its complex main character—she’s hardly a heroine in the traditional mold.

She spends her life trying to find meaning through a series of incidents: a handful of uninteresting jobs, a weekends-only affair with the diplomat, a purely sexual attempt to have a child without marriage (assisted by a lower-class acquaintance, well played by rock star Sting).

As she goes on, she shows a growing tendency to lose control—to indulge in behavior that simply won’t stay within the bounds of British decorum.

She seems to be searching for a heightened form of living that she knew only during the idealistic war years—and especially an intense one-night encounter with an English paratrooper (Sam Neill) behind enemy lines.

Hare has a playwright’s bent for overstating his thesis; but the vibrancy of the character he and Streep have created (the role was played on stage by Kate Nelligan) outweighs the occasional obviousness.

And although Australian Fred Schepisi would seem to be the last sort of director for this kind of material (he did Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Barbarosa—both Westerns, of a kind), he turns out to be a superb choice.

Schepisi and cameraman Ian Baker have created a powerful visual scheme; in their widescreen frames, the characters are often seen as helplessly dwarfed by landscape, or separated and isolated by architecture. These images say as much as Hare’s words about the sterility and tragedy of these stunted lives.

Schepisi gets good work from a diverse cast. Tracey Ullman, another English rock star, gives her character a warmth that Streep’s character cannot approach.

And John Gielgud is outstanding as a diplomat whose traditional Britain he sees crumbling. Gielgud gets most of the good lines, and you can’t blame Hare for that—who could resist, when Gielgud can toss out drollness that puts most “comic” actors to shame.

Plenty is an odd film, with strange rhythms unlike any other movie (excepting possibly Hare’s equally bizarre Wetherby, which hasn’t opened here yet). I suppose a lot of people won’t like it—it’s hard to get a handle on.

But by the time its luminous final scene came on, it certainly had a handle on me. For anyone who thinks movies can be something more than a colorful accompaniment to popcorn-eating, it must be seen.

First published in the Herald, September 1985

You don’t hear much talk about Schepisi (pronounced skep-see, if you do talk about him) these days, but he displayed a very distinctive eye and sensibility back then; The Devil’s Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith were stunning entries in the Australian New Wave, and his first decade in Hollywood produced some fine results. A turn toward comedy in the last 20 years has resulted in very peculiar choices, and not very many funny movies (although he lent a nice touch to the HBO adaptation of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls). As for Tracey Ullmann, as far as I knew she was a rock singer then, and not primarily famed as a comedian, so lay off.