The Mosquito Coast

October 25, 2019

mosquito coastEarly on in The Mosquito Coast, someone refers to Allie Fox, a brilliant, intense and slightly off­-center inventor, as a Dr. Frankenstein who creates mechanical monsters. Specifically, Fox makes refrigeration devices, machines for making ice.

But, as The Mosquito Coast makes clear as it goes along, Fox will create a real Frankenstein monster in the course of the film: himself. This is the story of a man’s descent into tyranny and madness; it is a dark character study, and, in some ways, a monster movie.

It’s the latest from the Witness team of Harrison Ford (who plays Fox) and director Peter Weir. Paul Schrader, a filmmaker drawn to monomaniacal figures (Taxi Driver, Mishima) adapted the screenplay from the novel by Paul Theroux.

Theroux’s story is narrated by Fox’s son, an adolescent boy (River Phoenix, of Stand by Me), who tells of the most traumatic adventure in his family’s life. Frustrated with a lack of success among the American philistines, Allie Fox decides to cart his family to the jungle, a Central American nowhere called the Mosquito Coast.

Once there, Fox buys an entire town, which turns out to be a cluster of shacks, miles upriver from civilization, which the jungle threatens to overtake. He, his wife (Helen Mirren), and their two sons and two daughters begin to clean up, and – with the aid of natives – bring a semblance of civilization to the spot.

Fox’s greatest achievement, however, will be building a giant refrigerator – to bring ice to people who have never seen such a thing. This is his obsession.

The second half of the film brings a series of disasters, and the comic tone of Fox’s eccentricity gives way to real madness, including telling his children they cannot go back to the United States because nuclear bombs have been dropped there.

This role is obviously Harrison Ford’s chanciest performance. He looks right for it – his hair longish and pulled back, his eyes squinting behind metal-rimmed glasses. And Ford’s acting is good, but at the same time he seems fundamentally miscast. The epic rage and megalomania of the role don’t come naturally to him, and when his character really wigs out, it seems forced. (Jack Nicholson was reportedly an early choice, which sounds appropriate, and this character does resemble Nicholson’s mad family man from The Shining.)

There’s a clunky quality to the plot, which moves and lingers at unexpected locales, and the intrusion of three banditos at a crucial point smells like a contrivance.

This film has been taking a critical hammering since it opened in New York and Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, and probably it belongs in the “ambitious failure” category. But those are the best kind of failures to have, and some of Weir’s dreamy images (photographed by John Seale, who also shot Witness) will stay with you. An isolated spit where Fox vows to make a final stand looks like a surreal end of the world, and the river journey that ends the film has some beauty.

Hanging over Weir’s work is the ghost of German director Werner Herzog, who made two films about white men who go to the South American jungles on an insane quest and go mad (Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo). The Mosquito Coast is uncannily reminiscent of those films at times, and one wonders whether Herzog might have made a more inspired, visionary, wacko film out of this story. But then, he already did.

First published in the Herald, December 1986

I see there’s going to be a long-form TV adaptation of the book, featuring Justin Theroux, the nephew of Paul. So its time has come, perhaps. Whatever you think of the movie, it’s interesting that it exists at all, given the subject matter; presumably, without Harrison Ford’s clout, this project would’ve ended up in the dustbin that holds all those other interesting but far too risky ideas. Andre Gregory and Martha Plimpton are in the film, and so is Jason Alexander. And Butterfly McQueen? Wow. My memory tells me that River Phoenix carries the movie; at this point it was clear that he was an unusual kid, more than capable of holding the center of a big film.


Mrs. Soffel/Witness

October 16, 2019

mrssoffelIt should come as no surprise that leading foreign directors inevitably gravitate toward America; there’s still no better place to make movies if you want the most sophisticated technicians and equipment, not to mention actors.

The exciting boom in Australian filmmaking in the late 1970s has produced a bushelful of interesting directors, many of whom are working in America now: Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies), Fred Schepisi (Iceman) and George Miller (Twilight Zone) have lost none of their talent in the transoceanic crossing.

The latest immigrants are Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Year of Living Dangerously) and Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career). They’ve both managed to retain their idiosyncrasies, while adapting well to a clean, forceful style suited to American moviemaking.

Armstrong’s Mrs. Soffel is the more problematic of the two. It’s based on the true story of convicted murderers (brothers played by Mel Gibson and Matthew Modine) who were sprung from their Pittsburgh prison in 1901 with the help of the warden ‘s wife (Diane Keaton), who had fallen in love with the Gibson character.

Intriguing situation. It offers the irresistible spectacle of l’amour fou and the perplexing filmmaking problem of dramatizing action that takes place primarily within prison walls. The growth of the love – which begins with Keaton trying to convert the brothers to Christianity and Gibson trying to take advantage of her position – is well drawn.

Even better is the sequence of flight, after the breakout, which begins with the fugitives sliding gleefully on the icy Pittsburgh streets, and ends with their getaway sleigh being pursued across snowy farms near the Canadian border.

Until that time, however, Mrs. Soffel remains strangely uncompelling, despite the passion of the actors. It’s the kind of movie that seems more impressive as you re­member it than when it is actually playing.

witnessWith Witness, you know right off the bat you’re in mysterious Peter Weir country. The sense of unidentifiable strangeness that Weir can convey so well is present in the early scenes in a Pennsylvania Amish community, which has not updated itself in a century.

During a journey outside the community with his widowed mother, a little Amish boy (Lukas Haas) witnesses the murder of a policeman in a Philadelphia train station men’s room. In the course of the investigation, the cop in charge (Harrison Ford, cannily and humorously used), finds a bigger conspiracy than he had imagined, and it’s necessary for him to flee with the boy and mother (Kelly McGillis) back to that insulated Amish community.

Weir loves to examine the clash of cultures, and this situation gives him plenty of opportunity. It also gives him the chance to develop a lovely, tentative love affair between the cop and the Amish widow. There’s a beautiful scene when Ford fixes his car radio (his car is the only one around, since the Amish still use ­horse-drawn carriages) and he and McGillis do a romantic little dance to “Wonderful World,” a song she’s probably never heard.

The Amish community is nowhere more wonderfully drawn than in the character of McGillis’s other hopeful suitor, played beautifully (and close to silently) by ballet star Alexander Godunov. He loves her, but he sees that she likes Ford; as a believer in nonviolence, and apparently genuinely respectful of this other passion, he does not interfere with the newcomer. He even starts to like him a little.

Weir has achieved something very impressive here: Witness succeeds as a commercially viable suspense movie, without ever compromising itself as a lyrical examination of different people and cultures. You don’t see that too often, and it’s something to take heart in.

First published in the Herald, February 14, 1985

It is entirely possible that I would like Mrs. Soffel today more than Witness, but at the time there was no question the latter film caught the 80s moment much more than Mrs. Soffel did. Witness has people in it I didn’t mention, such as Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, and Patti LuPone. It also provided a memorably amusing moment at the Oscars when one of the writers made the comment about his career having just peaked.


Blade Runner

August 3, 2012

I don’t think I’ll ever quite get over my sense of disappointment upon walking out of the first screening of Blade Runner at the Cinerama theater in 1982. Expectations were high, of course, so maybe disappointment was understandable.

But a second viewing confirmed my feeling, and even a decade’s worth of growing cult appreciation hasn’t changed my mind. Among other things, I thought the movie was a comedown from a rather brilliant science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.

To be fair, the Blade Runner released in 1982 was a compromised film. Over the objections of director Ridley Scott and star Harrison Ford, voiceover narration was added to the movie, as well as an absurd happy ending. Those were two of the worst elements of the film. In fact, Ford spoke the narration so poorly that I always wondered whether he was deliberately tanking it.

Now the film has been recut by Scott, who has subsequently made Thelma & Louise and Black Rain and the upcoming 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Scott persuaded Warner Bros. to let him yank the narration and lop off the happy ending, as well as perform some minor tinkering. (I believe there’s a brief dream shot of a white unicorn that’s been reinstated.)

It’s a better movie. The cutting of the stupid narration makes the film seem denser and more disorienting, which was probably why the studio wanted it inserted. And the nicely ambiguous ending is a huge improvement over the tacked-on finish of the 1982 release.

Scott shows a certain grand disdain for ordinary storytelling in Blade Runner. In simplest terms, the movie is about a hired gun (Ford) who goes out to exterminate some replicants—that is, humanoid robots—who are running loose. The replicants are trying to get to the head (Joe Turkel) of the megacompany that built them, to discover how they can extend their intentionally short life spans.

The replicants are beautifully played by Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, Brion James, and nonrenegade Sean Young. The movie teases around some basic ideas about what it is to be human, especially in Hauer’s climactic speech about the false “memories” he’s been programmed with, and how they are doomed to inevitably vanish—”like tears in the rain.”

Even in this fine new version, Blade Runner still doesn’t strike me as a masterpiece. There’s much to admire about the film’s eye-popping production design; its vision of Los Angeles circa 2019 has never been topped. And Scott’s druggy, slowed-down pacing is fascinating.

But the profound ideas that Scott is clearly searching for remain mostly untouched. Because the film aims high, it is glaringly obvious when it fails to reach. But what an intoxicating attempt.

First published in the Herald, September 18, 1992

I didn’t review Blade Runner the first time around, so it seems legit to reprint this ’92 reappraisal, even if this isn’t much as a piece of writing. See, I really don’t dislike the movie!


Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

November 24, 2011

Dr. Jones and Dr. Jones: Ford and Connery

In 1981, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas combined their already successful talents and invented a hero to match their memories of the great breakneck cliffhangers of the 1940s. His name was Indiana Jones (played so memorably by Harrison Ford), and the film was Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Ah, you’ve heard of it. This mammoth hit was followed by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, another smash. Now Lucas (as producer) and Spielberg (as director) have brought their hero back for a final go-round, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

As usual, the movie is constructed around a series of hair-raising stunts and chases. In this case, there’s a twist at the start: The curtain-raiser features not the mature Dr. Jones but an adolescent Indy (River Phoenix), a Boy Scout who stumbles across some tomb robbers and leads them on a merry chase when he snatches the artifact they’ve dug up (“This belongs in a museum!” shouts the serious lad).

This sequence is a delight, as young Indy prances about on a speeding circus train; we learn how he came to fear snakes, adopt the Stetson, and even how he acquired the scar that graces Harrison Ford’s chin. It’s a wonderful sequence, and gets the film off to a rousing start.

It also introduces the idea of Indy as someone’s son, which is taken up in more detail as we skip ahead to 1938. Dr. Jones, it seems, is the son of another Dr. Jones (Sean Connery), himself a great expert on ancient artifacts, and a somewhat distant father. But the elder Jones is in trouble. He has been searching for the Holy Grail, the most famous artifact in history, and he has vanished. Indy suspects some competing crusaders, such as the Nazis, may have kidnapped Dad when the location of the Grail was deduced.

So the adventure of The Last Crusade is twofold: find the father, and find the Grail. The quest leads from the canals of Venice to an Austrian castle to the belly of a zeppelin to a mythical Middle Eastern country. For the details, you’ll have to see the movie. I’m not about to spoil the fun.

In the most basic way, The Last Crusade delivers the goods, and a lot of it is exhilaratingly mounted by Spielberg (the script is credited to Jeffrey Boam). The production is lavish, Connery is just what one would hope, and there’s effective supporting work from Denholm Elliott and a newcomer named Alison Doody; she’s Indy’s girl.

That said, the film still has an air of redundancy. The format is essentially unchanged from the previous films, and Spielberg and Lucas seem wary of breaking out of the thrill-a-minute rhythm. I’m surprised Spielberg hasn’t wrought more emotion out of the father-son relationship; it’s supposed to be a reconciliation, but it simply doesn’t pay off effectively.

And I wonder whether Spielberg’s heart is in the boys’ adventure genre any more. He abandoned Rain Man in order to fulfill his Indy agreement with Lucas, and Spielberg has described The Last Crusade as his final film for the youth market. I suspect he has already moved on.

First published in the Herald, May 1989

So Spielberg didn’t entirely abandon the youth market, and it wasn’t even the last Indiana Jones movie. I recall Spielberg saying that the original conception was about a very shy, bookish father who was transformed by the adventure; but when they cast Connery, that idea became impossible, and the theme of the movie changed. But that original idea sounds better.


Frantic

July 20, 2011

Sur les toits de Paris: Frantic

One of the things Roman Polanski is so good at (and, as one of the world’s finest film artists, Polanski is good at a lot of things) is capturing the look and feel of a certain locale. Especially cities: the London of Repulsion, the New York of Rosemary’s Baby, and especially the Los Angeles of Chinatown.

This is all the more remarkable since so much of Polanski’s work takes place in claustrophobic interiors. Now, Polanski tackles Paris, which has been his home base since he fled the United States on that nasty morals charge more than a decade ago.

The film is Frantic, and it’s an exercise in the Hitchcockian form, co-written by Polanski and Gerard Brach. A visiting American doctor (Harrison Ford) loses his wife (Betty Buckley) in the first hour of their stay and Ford is forced to scour the city to find out why this happened and how to get her back. “Cherchez la femme” is the phrase of the day.

Polanski is our greatest purveyor of anxiety and dread, and this effective setup allows him to draw out all the disoriented helplessness of Ford’s situation (the film’s first line, and overriding theme, is, “Do you know where you are?”). Naturally, Ford speaks no French, and just as naturally police and American Embassy officials are no help. Polanski takes delight in throwing the poor chap to the werewolves of Parisian nightlife.

As Ford pieces some clues together, he’s drawn to the nightclubs and especially to a girl (Emmanuelle Seigner) who holds the key to his wife’s disappearance. Seigner is another of Polanski’s lovely young protégées (like Nastassja Kinski and others); she’s even poutier than usual, but she fulfills her role capably.

Although Frantic is adequate in expressing the increasing mania of the husband, it’s not really an actors’ movie. This is a director’s film, and Polanski has some terrific moments, such as Ford’s crawl across an apartment roof (unexpectedly played for laughs), as well as two separate hostage exchanges, nail-biters both. And the opening scene, when the doctor and his wife settle into their swanky hotel, is eerily deliberate, as Polanski establishes the normalcy just waiting to be broken apart.

Time and again, Polanski displays his characteristic scrupulousness. Each camera placement draws the maximum possible effect, nowhere better demonstrated than the moment the lady vanishes; the camera is in the shower with Ford looking out while the water drowns out the woman’s words and she disappears.

For all that is good about Frantic, I have to admit it’s a disappointment overall. It doesn’t go far enough; there’s something minor and bland about it, and the central character lacks the sort of depth and ambiguity that have marked Polanski’s characters in the past. It is, nevertheless, an advance over Polanski’s previous film, the misbegotten Pirates.

First published in the Herald, February 25, 1988

Well, it seems there might have been another sentence there at the end, but what happened to it I don’t know. This film really has not stayed in my mind in a significant way; even the oddball Bitter Moon left more of an impression on me. But the opening hotel sequence is a great Polanski set-piece: “nothing” happens, and you feel utterly creeped out by all of it. He married Mme. Seigner, of course.