White Nights

March 19, 2020

whitenightsThe idea unspooled in the first 15 minutes of White Nights is so intriguing, you wonder how it hasn’t gotten on film before: A Russian dancer, long ago defected to the West, is aboard a passenger plane that develops engine trouble and must make an emergency landing in, of all places, the good old Soviet Union. The Soviets seize the dancer, telling the world he’s in a coma, and start “persuading” him to remain in Russia and dance for them.

The rest of the movie is about the dancer’s efforts to get out of the place. It’s a swell set-up, and the people behind White Nights have the perfect embodiment of their hero in Mikhail Baryshnikov, himself a famous defector and among the greatest ballet dancers ever.

To help this dancer decide to remain in Russia, the KGB (or whoever they are) enlist the aid of another expatriate, this time an American tap dancer (Gregory Hines) who came to Russia to escape prejudice at home. His star has slipped, however, and he’s now staging Porgy and Bess just outside of a salt mine (really) in Siberia. He’s none too happy about his new assignment – which seems to be escorting Baryshnikov to Leningrad and getting him into shape.

With all the possibilities in this plot, director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman) has made a bewilderingly slow and dingy film, except for the plane crash and the climax. The narrative action seems weighed down by the washed-out atmosphere (which tells us that not only is the Soviet Union a place where freedom is throttled, it’s also always overcast there).

Scenes go on too long, and the film’s themes are stated repeatedly. For all this, White Nights does crackle fitfully. The cast, for the most part, is marvelous; Isabella Rossellini, the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, is not exactly an actress, but she hits the right notes as Hines’ Russian wife.

And Jerzy Skolimowski, himself one of the finest directors in world cinema (Deep End, Moonlighting), coolly plays the sinister head of a Soviet agency. Skolimowski, a Pole and another expatriate, knows a thing or two about Soviet repression, and he plays the villain with obvious relish.

But Hines and, especially, Baryshnikov carry the film. You expect the dancing to be good, and it’s astonishing. Twyla Tharp did most of the choreography, although Hines improvised his own soaring tap number.

But both men are compelling screen presences, whether dancing or just hanging around. Baryshnikov got a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Turning Point seven years ago, but he’s come along way since then. He’s much more at ease, and despite a still-thick Russian accent, he conveys range and humor.

The film’s high point comes mid­way, when Hines is trying to get Baryshnikov to limber up in a Leningrad studio and Baryshnikov is tantalizing Hines with new music from the West. Hines bets Baryshnikov 11 rubles that the latter can’t do 11 pirouettes, and the scene turns into a duel of amusing one-upmanship, with a sense of life that the film doesn’t quite find anywhere else.

First published in the Herald, December 1985

Being a former ballet dancer myself (I’ll bet you didn’t know that), I took great interest in this film at the time. I saw Baryshnikov on stage once, an electrifying experience, and I saw Gregory Hines once too, but not dancing – he was demolishing a platter of chicken wings at the Cafe Carlyle during a set by Bobby Short. (I realize this opening makes me sound much more interesting than I am.) The cast includes Helen Mirren, Geraldine Page, and John Glover. Rossellini was just at the beginning of her real Hollywood run, so I hope I can be forgiven for slighting her skills; I think what I really meant was that she had a freshness that almost didn’t look like acting. Hard to believe she followed this with Blue Velvet, just a year later – these films seem so distant.

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.

The Cotton Club

July 27, 2012

A few years ago, Robert Evans, the producer of films such as The Godfather and Chinatown, needed a script rewrite for a project about new York’s famous Cotton Club, a place where white audiences paid top dollar to see black entertainment during the height of the Jazz Age.

Evans had worked with larger-than-life director Francis Coppola on The Godfather, and he called Coppola to get some suggestions for a good script doctor. Coppola, ever alert (and coming off a string of commercial disasters), quickly suggested himself. Thus commenced a series of events that probably made Evans wish he’d never heard of Coppola or the Cotton Club.

Before long, Coppola had thrown out the original screenplay (the film’s “story” credit goes to Mario Puzo) and written a completely new script with Pulitzer Prize-winner William Kennedy. Then Coppola assumed the mantle of director, and the production of the film itself was beset by rising costs and constant script rewrites.

And somewhere in the midst of this Robert Evans went bye-bye. The lawsuits are now flying, but it’s hard to imagine they will have any effect on what is already an incredibly expensive movie (something between $40 and $50 million, at last count).

Coppola seems to be attracted by this kind of guerrilla moviemaking, but whether or not it agrees with him is another matter. The films he produced while he played at being the mogul of his own hectic studio were almost wholly uninvolving.

With The Cotton Club, he’s gotten himself interesting again. This film, which whips up a blend of gangsterism and musical comedy, clips along at a confident pace and has enough flavorful characters to fill a speakeasy.

Richard Gere plays a cornet player (and Gere plays his own horn solos, by golly) whose trajectory through the Jazz Age—in the film, from the late ’20s through the early ’30s—places him in close contact with such figures as gangster Dutch Schultz (rivetingly played by unctuous James Remar), the Dutchman’s moll (Diane Lane), and the men who run the Cotton Club (Bob The Long Goodbye Hoskins and Fred “The Munsters” Gwynne, who make a great comedy team).

Gere’s brother (Nicolas Cage, Coppola’s cousin) is a hothead swept into the violent world around the Cotton Club, with bloody results. This story of the brothers is paralleled by a pair of dancing brothers (Gregory and Maurice Hines) who work their way up through the Cotton Club to different levels of stardom.

The film is obviously chock-full; unfortunately, as enjoyable as much of this is, Coppola has a tendency to rush past the building blocks of characterization. He has atmosphere (kudos to designer Richard Sylbert) and rat-a-tat action down pat, but once the smoke clears, I was left with the nagging feeling that the sound and fury didn’t amount to too much.

The scope of the film calls for the three-hour Godfather sprawl, and Cotton Club clocks in at barely over two. Characters meet, split, and kiss and make up with not much validation for their behavior. Coppola asks you to take a lot for granted.

I wish the extra hour might have had more song-and-dance in it, too; although the film is full of terrific music, few numbers are presented in their entirety (Coppola enjoys cutting routines in pieces rather than letting them develop on their own). Still, Lonette McKee’s “Ill Wind” is a stand-out, and the brothers Hines tread the boards with grace.

Coppola likes to describe himself as a ringmaster/magician of chaos. He may not quite prove that the hand is quicker than the eye in The Cotton Club, but at least he keeps all three rings of the circus busy at once.

First published in the Herald, December 15, 1984

As anybody who’s ever seen this movie knows, you can forget about Gere and Lane: Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne are where the action is.