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.


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.


The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

January 28, 2013

cookthethiefPeter Greenaway, the exceedingly provocative English director of The Draughtsman’s Contract and A Zed and Two Naughts, has said of his new film that “I wanted to engage in some of the excitements of unrestricted license.”

Mm-hmm. That is an elegant way of saying that Greenaway has tipped over a number of taboos in his new movie, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. It’s a film that happily seeks to offend and outrage.

And, oh, it succeeds. But Greenaway is such a witty and imaginative filmmaker that he makes his outrageousness watchable. At the very least, this film is visually stunning, even when it is at its most grotesque, which might be any of a number of moments.

The title provides the basic situation. A gangster (Michael Gambon) comes every night to the lavish restaurant he owns. He has no taste whatsoever, for food or anything else, but he likes to parade around with his entourage. His wife (Helen Mirren) is at his side, apparently for the sole purpose of giving him someone to abuse.

Across the restaurant sits a lone diner (Alan Howard), who spots the unhappy wife and sneaks off for the first of a series of trysts with her, in the hidden corners of the restaurant. The head chef (Richard Bohringer) watches all this with a steady, unflappable gaze.

The film is about the wife and her lover’s attempts to come together, while the gangster tries to figure out what is afoot (Gambon, the brilliant British actor who starred in the BBC’s “Singing Detective,” must have 85 percent of the film’s dialogue, and he thunders magnificently).

But the plot does not describe Greenaway’s gallery of effects. His films are not meant to be realistic; they are theatrical, melodramatic. Costume and set design and music are main characters, and they tend to dominate the puny human concerns.

As far as the taboos are concerned, the film pays disgusting detail to torture, scatological excesses, regurgitative functions, and finally cannibalism, in a climactic scene that will probably send people either screaming or chuckling from the theater. Like him or loathe him, Greenaway completely creates his own world, and it’s like nothing else in the movies.

Incidentally, this film grossed out the MPAA ratings board to such an extent that it received an X rating. Unfortunately, the X has come to be associated with hardcore porn (which this film is not, although it contains much nudity), and some newspapers and TV stations won’t accept ads for X-rated films, regardless of content. In Seattle, the movie is being released without a rating. These sorts of problems suggest that it’s time to rethink the current ratings system.

First published in the Herald, April 8, 1990

Caused some excitement at the time, that’s for sure, and Greenaway was really on a roll at that moment. I wonder whether I’d like it as much now.


2010

June 6, 2012

Every now and then you hear rumors that some bonehead movie producer plans to make a sequel to Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz, and you think to yourself, “How on earth could anyone get such a stupid idea?” Well, somebody got the idea to make a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even worse, they actually followed through on this stupid idea.

The result, 2010, is a ridiculous addendum to one of the great visionary works of the cinema. It takes up pretty much where 2001 left off, with stills from the first film to remind us of what happened to the first Jupiter mission, which was examining a large, inexplicable black monolith. (This introduction doesn’t make mention of any huge Star Child floating around.)

2010 has Russian and American astronauts cooperating to find out what went wrong with that mission by traveling to Jupiter and boarding the abandoned spaceship. The recognizable crew members for the new flight are Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, Helen Mirren, and Bob Balaban (the translator in Close Encounters).

Oh yes, there are a couple of members of the old crew still around. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), who underwent the series of inscrutable episodes at the end of 2001, still exists in some form near that monolith. And HAL 9000, the computer that flipped out so memorably before being dismantled, is resurrected.

The voice of HAL is Douglas Rain, the same actor who gave such unforgettable life to the computer in the 1968 film. Almost the only truly eerie moments in 2010 belong to HAL, because Rain’s voice is in subtly sinister character.

The rest of the film is hooey, with the imminent nuclear war on earth an obvious set-up for the unsurprising, upbeat ending. Writer-director-producer-cinematographer Peter Hyams (he did Capricorn One and Outland) throws in a couple of suspense pieces early on (a dull orbit entry and Lithgow’s shaky spacewalk) to distract us from the main objective, which is finding out what in tarnation that big black thing is.

Hyams gets the look of the film okay, but for all the technical progress of the last few years, it still doesn’t equal 2001. And he certainly can’t equal the earlier film’s stylistic breakthroughs; all he does is overlay his own optimistic view on things.

Stanley Kubrick would probably be disgusted by that. It was Kubrick’s chilly genius behind 2001, of course, and he is nowhere to be seen in this film—except as briefly glimpsed on the cover of Time magazine. Arthur C. Clarke, whose story “The Sentinel” inspired 2001, also wrote the sequel as a novel, and apparently had input on Hyams’ screenplay.

In a way, I’m almost relieved 2010 turned out to be as negligible as it is. Sometimes an ambitious or outrageous sequel can, in weird ways, tarnish the memory of an unimpeachable original. There’s going to be no problem about that with 2010. We can all just forget it.

First published in the Herald, December 7, 1984

Mostly I just remember being annoyed by the effrontery of the movie—the nerve of these people. Along with Rain’s vocal performance hitting the expected moments, there was a shiver conjured up by Keir Dullea’s presence, in part because he looked freakily like the guy from 2001—Dullea hadn’t aged much, and he didn’t have that many subsequent movie reference points to alter the image of Dave Bowman.