Uncommon Valor

October 16, 2012

Uncommon Valor joins the list of movies that work primarily on formula rather than inspiration. This time, it’s the impossible-military-mission routine, updated from countless World War II escape or spy movies, and set in the rice paddies of Laos.

Gene Hackman plays an Army colonel whose son is still listed as missing in action 10 years after American soldiers came home from Vietnam. When he identifies a prison camp in Laos that has some Americans in it, he takes his evidence to his son’s old Army buddies, and recruits them for a wholly unauthorized mission to storm the camp and retrieve the prisoners.

Actually, the mission is authorized by the money put up by an oil tycoon (Robert Stack) who also has a son missing. Once Hackman gathers his men together, he puts them through the paces in a mock battlefield constructed with Stack’s money. Next destination: Southeast Asia.

With this kind of movie—think of The Dirty Dozen—you need strong personalities among the fighting men. The group dynamic is the element that really carries the movie, and the challenge is to work with stereotypes and make them something more.

The men of the fighting unit in Uncommon Valor never become anything more than cardboard cutouts. At some point in the production, it must have been decreed that the emphasis would be more on action than character.

So, you get to see a lot of things blow up in this movie. You even get to see some things blow up twice, since the men demolish their phony camp first, and then repeat the job—with a few last-minute variations—on the real thing.

All that noise and fire seemed to satisfy the preview audience that watched the film, but it doesn’t leave you with much to remember, or a reason to care about whether the mission is successful or not.

The lack of depth in the characterizations is not really the fault of the actors. In fact, they’re a pretty good lot. Fred Ward is suitably hard and tough as the claustrophobic master of stealth; Reb Brown gives a funny slant to his surfer who just loves to make bombs go off; and heavyweight boxer Randall “Tex” Cobb does just fine as the slightly loony, mountain-size biker.

They’re simply not given enough to work with. If somebody told me that a half-hour had been cut out of this film before its release, I’d believe it; Uncommon Valor has that kind of by-the-numbers approach to a certain formula.

Ted Kotcheff directed it; he was probably chosen on the strength of having guided Sylvester Stallone through the non-stop jungle hunt in First Blood. Here, as with that movie, Kotcheff seems to know how to push all the right buttons to get the right effects, and that’s not a bad thing in itself. But you don’t get the impression that he ever wonders why he’s pushing the buttons. That makes Uncommon Valor resolutely common.

First published in the Herald, December 1983

Not much of a review, but the movie was an indication of the subgenre of return-to-Vietnam pictures that proved popular at the time. Patrick Swayze was also in there.


Under Fire

October 15, 2012

Under Fire is that rarity: a major Hollywood release that is both a politically oriented film without self-righteousness, and a well-crafted entertainment that delivers the dramatic goods.

It travels to the dark heart of 1979 Nicaragua, where the rebellion that’s been smoldering for 50 years is about to topple the Somoza regime. We see the civil war through the eyes of some American journalists, who provide a very human reference point as we witness the various subterfuges and brutalities of the bloody war.

As Bogart said in Casablanca, “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” It’s still the same old story in Under Fire. The romantic triangle is set against the backdrop of international conflict has always been good raw material for an exciting narrative, and Under Fire uses this device to draw us into its politically volatile story.

The triangle consists of Russell (Nick Nolte), a prize-winning photographer who arrives in Nicaragua and fulfills an old passion for Claire (Joanna Cassidy), a reporter who happens to be the longtime lover of one of Russell’s best friends and colleagues, Alex (Gene Hackman), who has just been offered a tempting network anchor post—a job that would take him off the road, and away from Claire.

Actually, the triangle is resolved fairly quickly. Alex heads off to New York, and Russell and Claire get involved with—well, with each other, of course. They also get involved with the growing mystery of the never-photographed rebel leader Rafael, whom the Somoza government claims is dead, but whose body—dead or otherwise—has not been seen.

As Russell and Claire get closer to finding Rafael, they are forced to question their code of journalistic ethics, and their responsibilities as human beings in the face of war’s horrors. Luckily, Under Fire does not present these heavy-duty moral quandaries as dry theorems. They’re part of an adventure movie, and the filmmakers don’t lose sight of that.

It’s as an action film that Under Fire works best. Director Roger Spottiswoode has given the film a lean, hard edge (aided by his great cinematographer, John Alcott, who shot Barry Lyndon).

Star power also keeps Under Fire burning. Nolte can apparently carry any movie on his hulking shoulders, and Cassidy is a real find; she brings a vibrant intelligence to this, her first leading film role.

Gene Hackman is too precious a commodity to have been missing from the screen for so long. Here, he perfectly captures the underlying torment of a man whose professional and personal worlds are in chaos. When he’s offscreen, the movie really suffers for it.

While Under Fire may not answer its ethical questions with much profundity, the film does tell a complicated story using good moviemaking sense. With its fast, jungle-fever momentum, it eventually packs quite a wallop.

First published in the Herald, October 20, 1983

Interesting movie, not much remembered. This film review ran with The Right Stuff as my first pieces for the Herald, a gig that has lasted through now (October 2012) and continues. How did that happen?


August 27, 2012

Power is one of those behind-the-scenes peeks at the wheeling and dealing of political campaigns, always a ripe subject for movies (after all, so little madness needs to be invented). As it happens, Power is not an unusually distinguished essay on the cutthroat gamesmanship that we all know and love, but it’s certainly enjoyable enough.

The main player in this drama is Peter St. John (Richard Gere), a high-stakes public relations wizard with an 85 percent success rate with political candidates. He is introduced to us in a series of glimpses at his various projects.

First, he’s attending the speech of a South American candidate/client, whose rally is suddenly interrupted by a terrorist bomb. When the candidate gets a little blood on his shirt, St. John rushes over with his camera crew, fairly exultant with the public relations possibilities. He excitedly tells the candidate to wear the blood-stained shirt at every subsequent public appearance.

Next, St. John is off to New Mexico, where he oversees the candidacy of a Senate hopeful (Fritz Weaver), then to Seattle for a meeting with the incumbent governor (Michael Learned, once the mother on “The Waltons”). She needs special help in smoothing over her recent divorce, and its impact on the fall campaign.

But St. John’s most pressing public relations gig is the Ohio Senate race. The incumbent (E.G. Marshall), an old friend, pulls out of the running, abruptly. St. John is pursued by a mysterious power broker (Denzel Washington of “St. Elsewhere”) to back another Ohio candidate, one whose resources are vast, but whose intentions are suspect.

St. John’s main business is image-bending. As he tells the hopeless Weaver (a rich city boy whom St. John puts in a cowboy suit before a herd of cattle), “We’ve got to align perception with reality.”

In other words, quit worrying about the issues and concentrate on the makeup and the hair. St. John creates the kind of devious TV commercials and publicity ploys with which we’ve become all too familiar over the years.

But strange things are happening: St. John’s rooms are bugged, his plane is searched, and his ex-wife (Julie Christie), a reporter, is finding some fishy finances connected with Marshall’s wife (Beatrice Straight).

It all sounds complicated, and it is, but it’s enjoyably mounted. Sidney Lumet (and his fine photographer, Andrej Bartkowiak) can orchestrate this sort of intricate setup with clarity, if little subtlety (The Verdict and Prince of the City are other examples). And he recognizes the satire of much of David Himmelstein’s script.

Gere is well-cast as the shallow media hypester, although he does less well with the character’s moral awakening. Gene Hackman does some tasty work as Gere’s friend/competitor. Kate Capshaw is attractive decoration as Gere’s assistant.

An irony surrounds the film that may or may not be apparent to the people who made it. Power is being marketed in just the way Peter St. John might market a film that was a hard sell. It’s a teasing, uninformative ad campaign that doesn’t really tell you what the movie’s about, but merely suggests something sexy and glittering along the lines of “Dallas” or “Dynasty.” (You know: “Power—the ultimate aphrodisiac.” That sort of thing.)

It’s the kind of aggressive slickery that, by rights, ought to make Lumet, Himmelstein, and co., just a bit queasy.

First published in the Herald, January 1986

It didn’t land like Network, that’s for sure. The political stuff looks like child’s play from a perspective 25 years on, and sort of looked like child’s play then. Karl Rove, where were you in ’86?

Mississippi Burning

August 21, 2012

Mississippi Burning is a big, ungainly picture that crashes into a mess of important and powerful issues. Waving his broad brush again is film director Alan Parker, the maker of Angel Heart and Midnight Express, who brings a heavy hand to all his movies.

This time Parker is telling a story based loosely on fact, of an FBI investigation of the disappearance of two white civil-rights workers in a small town in Mississippi in 1964. (They were murdered by the townspeople, as a prologue shows.) The story unfolds from the point of view of two mismatched FBI men on the case.

Thus it is yet another treatment of racial injustice in which the main characters are white, not black. However, this doesn’t mean the movie’s an automatic sell-out. More troubling is that Chris Gerolmo’s screenplay uses the FBI agents as representatives of opposing viewpoints, and makes a buddy story out of it.

Gene Hackman plays a Southern-born agent who believes in sliding gently into the investigation, not rocking the boat, and using underhanded tactics if it means getting to the truth. Willem Dafoe, last seen essaying the title role in The Last Temptation of Christ, plays Hackman’s opposite number. He’s a Kennedy liberal, straining to change the world, and doing it all according to bureau policy. Like the army of FBI men who swarm over the small town, he’s always seen in his narrow black tie and suit.

These two carry on a somewhat predictably testy relationship. The movie never quite seems to know how to view them; at first the gung-ho Dafoe is as much a subject of derision as the local bigots. And the movie encourages us to root for Hackman’s outside-the-law methods, because the end apparently justifies the means.

Mississippi Burning is important, and potentially potent, material. But Parker reduces much of the conflict to cartoon proportions; all of the townspeople, including the sheriff (Gailard Sartain, a tobacco-chewing veteran of the Ernest movies) and deputy (Brad Dourif), look like the moronic results of heavy inbreeding. The one multi-dimensional character is the mayor, played by Lee Ermey, Kubrick’s hysterical drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket.

Parker’s cartoon approach trivializes the significant issues here; although, in spite of this, Mississippi Burning does splatter some of its dramatic targets. It’s an obvious film, but the sheer weight of Hackman’s humanity keeps it in touch with some kind of reality, and his relationship with the deputy’s wife (good performance by Frances McDormand) creates the film’s most complex element.

The movie already won over the National Board of Review, which named it the best picture of 1988, and it’s expected to be nominated for some Oscars. All of which goes to proves that if you bang people over the head with something, you will get their attention.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

A lot of people seemed to fall for the movie, which is still puzzling (it has a high rating on IMDb even today). It got seven Oscar nominations, winning for Peter Biziou’s cinematography.

Another Woman

December 7, 2011

Yes, the latest Woody Allen movie is one of his serious outings. No, it’s not as pregnant with (to use on old Allenism) heaviosity as Woody’s previous film, September. In fact, the new one, Another Woman, goes a long way toward erasing the memory of the studied, constricted seriousness of September.

Another Woman is narrated by its main character, a historian, Marion (Gena Rowlands), who is on sabbatical from her teaching position to write a new book. She takes a writing office in downtown Manhattan, which happens to be next door to a psychiatrist’s office. As the walls are thin, she can overhear voices, and one afternoon she begins to listen to the story of a profoundly unhappy woman (Mia Farrow).

This causes Marion to reflect on her own life, which, the more she examines it, turns out to be rife with disappointment. This is a fascinating, and as it turns out, quite beautiful narrative device; at one point Marion actually runs into the unhappy patient and buys her supper, which leads to an important discovery. And, throughout, Marion’s narration on the soundtrack is like her own voice coming from the analyst’s couch, available for us to overhear.

Allen skips around in time, to show us Marion’s life as a promising child, her affair as a college student with a professor (Philip Bosco), a chance encounter with an old friend (Sandy Dennis) who brings up some unpleasant memories, and even into a fantasy sequence in which Marion plays scenes from her life on a stage.

At the center of her ruminations is her affair with a writer (Gene Hackman), which happened just before she entered into marriage with a detached and emotionally arid man (Ian Holm). The Hackman character represents the one great regret of her past, a promise of a life richer than the one she is living now. (He is in only three or four scenes, else Gene Hackman’s superb, heartbreaking performance would be an Oscar winner.)

Except for Hackman, and Holm’s teenage daughter, played by Martha Plimpton, the characters in Another Woman wander through an emotional desert, emphasized by the sameness of Santo Loquasto’s production design; everything is in dry shades of beige and khaki.

The film was photographed by Ingmar Bergman’s cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, and Allen has been accused of borrowing some of his ambitions and themes from Bergman’s films. In the New Republic, Stanley Kauffman actually called it plagiarism. That’s a bit much, but I do think that Another Woman is a bit shy (at less than 90 minutes) on background and detail; Allen asks us to accept a lot of faith. He frequently has his characters tell us his themes, rather than letting them emerge through action and behavior.

But no other American director is making movies quite like Woody Allen’s these days, movies that are deliberately about the way intelligent, thinking people talk and act, about the way they find each other and betray each other and love each other. Another Woman is not his best, but it has moments that are as tender as anything seen this year.

First published in the Herald, November 27, 1988

Another draft of this and Allen might have had an absolute gem instead of a very good picture. There are a handful of Woodys that are flawed but good enough to bear repeat viewing, which provide an opportunity to say: this is why Allen is a good director, and this is how he falls short of the next rung. Another Woman is one of those.