My Little Girl

May 5, 2020

mylittlegirlMary Stuart Masterson is one of the brightest of today’s young stars, as she has proved in gutsy supporting turns in At Close Range and Gardens of Stone and in an emotionally complex performance in the otherwise lightweight Some Kind of Wonderful. In My Little Girl, she finally gets to carry a movie as the central character.

My Little Girl isn’t quite worthy of her, and in fact it allows her little opportunity to showcase her talents. She plays Franny, the 16-year-old daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia family; tennis, golf, and deciding whether to wear blue jeans or casual whites while yachting are the big issues of her life.

But this summer she’s volunteering at a shelter for girls, children who have been abandoned or whose parents are in jail. This may seem like a radical change, but Franny’s comfortable life has made her a bit uncomfortable. Besides, ever since she read The Grapes of Wrath, she’s been curious about the unseen world of the have-nots.

Soon she’s getting wrapped up in the problems of the girls, and volunteering full time. “But dear,” asks her mother back at the mansion, “what about your tennis lessons?” The mother and father, played by Pamela Payton-Wright and Peter Michael Goetz, are lampooned rather broadly.

Much of the film is taken up with Franny’s attempt to reach a rebellious girl (Traci Lin) who’s just itching to get back out on the streets and ruin her life. Franny’s other charges are two unresponsive sisters (Erika Alexander, Naeemah Wilmore) whose mother has committed a crime.

The film is scrupulously well­-meaning, and is clearly made from the heart by writer­ director Connie Kaiserman, whose first film this is. Overall, she’s gotten effective work from the actors, and there are some fine supporting roles for James Earl Jones, as the home’s put­ upon boss; the late Geraldine Page, as Franny’s grandmother; and Peter Gallagher, as Lin’s shady boyfriend, who takes Franny on a creepy joyride to an airport runway.

Kaiserman draws some of the characters in stereotypes, despite the competent acting. Just like the kids at the shelter, drawing mustaches and horns on pictures of their parents, so Kaiserman has drawn the parents here in caricatured terms. And when the movie lurches into melodrama near the end, with a prison break, it loses the well-tuned ease of the scenes at the shelter.

In other words, it’s not difficult to see why the movie sat on the shelf for a while before getting a small release. My Little Girl is kept honest by Masterson’s non-fussy performance, however, which prevents the action around her from tipping completely into cliche.

First published in the Herald, April 7, 1988

Not a notable review on my part, but I wanted to include this film for a few reasons. It was the only directing credit for Kaiserman, who is an associate producer on five Merchant Ivory films (and this one was produced by Ismail Merchant). That might explain the level of talent collected here, which includes the heavyweight cast, composer Richard Robbins, and cinematographer Pierre Lhomme. This was the first movie for Erika Alexander, as well as an ambitious striver named Jennifer Lopez. As for Masterson, she has had a long career, if not quite the one she seemed destined for around this time.

Field of Dreams

October 11, 2019

fieldofdreamsField of Dreams is based on a baseball novel called Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella. (The marketing honcho who came up with the limp new title should be smacked.) The book begins with an Iowa farmer who hears a voice whispering the words, “If you build it, he will come.”

Somehow the farmer takes this to mean that if he builds a baseball diamond in his cornfield, the ghost of the great player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson will appear there. And so the diamond is built, Jackson appears, and the farmer goes on a magical odyssey that includes kidnapping writer J.D. Salinger and taking him to a Red Sox game.

As you can guess, such a book requires a delicate balancing act. It is the sort of balancing act that might be easier achieved in a novel than in a movie, since the phantoms of Kinsella’s fantasy become much more real when seen on the screen. That’s one of the problems of the film version, written for the screen and directed by Phil Alden Robinson.

Robinson’s other problem is that he has a tendency to state, rather than show, his themes. And he’s made the characters into survivors from the 1960s, thirtysomething folks who still (loudly) carry the dreams that shaped them, a point he hammers home incessantly.

Yet, for its occasional clumsiness, “Field of Dreams” exerts a lyrical pull. The corn runs as high as an elephant’s eye, but a lot of it is irresistible. Farmer Ray (Kevin Costner) quickly builds his baseball field, to the remarkable approval of his wife (Amy Madigan) and young daughter. He’s afraid of becoming like his father, who never did a spontaneous thing in his life; so Ray listens to his voices. After playing catch with “Shoeless” Joe (and other ghostly members of the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” team) for a while, Ray goes off on his quest to find the famous writer.

The movie changes J.D. Salinger into a fictional writer (played with gusto by James Earl Jones), who is going to lead Ray to a small town in Minnesota and the eventual revelation of what this has all been about.

The fantasy elements are difficult to capture. But the cumulative effect of all the whimsy is quite persuasive, and it helps that Robinson catches both the romance of baseball mythology and the mid-American beauty of the farmland. “Is this heaven?” asks the confused ballplayer. “No,” says Ray, “It’s Iowa.”

There is flavorful supporting work from Ray Liotta, as “Shoeless” Joe (Liotta, short­legged and dark, even looks like a baseball player from the 1920s), Timothy Busfield (from TV’s thirtysomething) as Ray’s skeptical brother-in-law, and Burt Lancaster, who does one of those bigger-than-life cameos that reminds you that there really were movie stars once.

Kevin Costner was last seen as a more down-to-earth baseball player in Bull Durham, and he underplays all the dewy myth-making going on here. Costner brings an unadorned reality to his simple character, a man who found a diamond in a cornfield.

First published in the Herald, April 20, 1989

It would seem from this review that I didn’t anticipate the movie becoming instantly beloved. But at least I picked up on a couple of lines that would turn into catchphrases, including the “No, it’s Iowa” bit. Phil Alden Robinson has had a wandering career since the success of this film, which is curious for someone who obviously found the popular pulse for a moment there. I would have to watch this movie again to see whether it’s any good, but I’m not feeling the pull. Meanwhile, the real-life cornfield used for filming has become a place of pilgrimage and, occasionally, baseball games.

Gardens of Stone

February 13, 2013

gardensofstoneFrancis Coppola has looked at the Vietnam War before. A decade ago, hot off the success of the Godfather films, he poured everything he had into Apocalypse Now, a broad, out-of-control movie that played up the insanity of Vietnam through a plot borrowed from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

It was all darkness: The war was a rudderless ship, and the military people in charge were psychopaths. (Remember “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”?)

Now Coppola has made another Vietnam movie, based on a novel by Nicholas Profitt, and the contrast is fascinating. Gardens of Stone, produced with the enthusiastic cooperation of the U.S. military, shows the home front in 1968, among some soldiers and friends at Arlington National Cemetery. This time the conflict isn’t the simple war-is-madness of Apocalypse Now. This is a much more mature, and much more ambivalent movie.

The central figure is Clell Hazard (James Caan, in a terrific comeback performance), a combat veteran who’s been put out to pasture as a member of the Old Guard. His main responsibility at Arlington is teaching soldiers how to bury other soldiers, but he burns to be doing something more useful.

A young gung-ho soldier (D.B. Sweeney) becomes Hazard’s surrogate son at Arlington. He wants to be an officer and go where the fighting is. Hazard’s response is basically the film’s standpoint: This war is different, probably a mistake; but a soldier must serve, and should be where he can do the most good. The movie tracks the year of the boy’s tutelage under Hazard and another Old Guard sergeant (James Earl Jones, in a scene-stealing role), until the kid is shipped off.

Some of the ambivalence of the time is reflected in Hazard’s relationship with a Washington Post reporter (Anjelica Huston) who thinks the war is “genocide” but who falls in love with the Army man anyway.

I’m not sure Coppola feels completely comfortable with the old-fashioned straightforwardness of this story, especially toward the end, but he bravely faces it head on. It’s a very entertaining film, with lots of inside military stuff. There’s an emphasis on the military as a family, and Hazard refers to the war as a “family business”—which reverberates intriguingly with the family business of Coppola’s Godfather.

And it’s a good-looking film, both in terms of the people onscreen and the physical production. Jordan Cronenweth’s photography is excellent as usual, and production designer Dean Tavoularis, who has worked with Coppola many times, gets a late-’60s look that is discreet but evocative. Hazard’s slightly dumpy apartment, for example, is an uncannily authentic space.

These details are memorable, and that’s proper. The big issues of the war won’t get settled here, and the film is at its best when it stays away from them (one of the only cheap-shot moments comes at the expense of a caricature peacenik, played by counterculture promoter Bill Graham). The movie succeeds because of its attention to the frailties of people, caught in a terrible situation.

First published in the Herald, May 1987

History has not remembered this movie, and to be honest, neither really have I. But it did, at least, feel rooted in something. Coppola’s son had died just before filming, and the film has a gravity that distinguishes it in the director’s work.