The Milagro Beanfield War

January 18, 2013

milagrobFor the better part of a decade, Robert Redford has been working on bringing John Nichols’ novel The Milagro Beanfield War to the screen. Not as an acting job, but as the second installment of Redford’s directorial career, a career that began with an Oscar in 1980 for Ordinary People.

Redford’s main problem was finding a workable screenplay in Nichols’ largish novel (eventually David Ward, who wrote Redford’s The Sting, conquered the scripting job). Then the shooting itself was dogged by unpredictable weather at the New Mexico locations and by Redford’s own lackadaisical approach to matters of scheduling.

Having lavished all this attention on the property (not to mention a healthy chunk of change), Redford has made a surprisingly lightweight film. It’s not that Milagro is a bad movie, exactly, but it certainly is slim.

The storyline is extremely simple. A small New Mexico town is threatened by the proposed development of a resort community. One farmer (Chick Vennera) diverts the developer’s water to feed his own modest beanfield. The fatcat (Richard Bradford) has a dilemma; if he arrests the farmer, he risks poisonous publicity. But he can’t let the villagers get the upper hand.

That’s all there is; it taps into the oldest strain of little guy vs. the unfeeling system, this time set in the beguiling Chicano community and culture. To Redford’s credit, he does take pains to paint the stock characters in more complex colors. But most of them come out looking like stock characters.

There’s the weary sheriff (Ruben Blades) caught between the warring factions; the feisty businesswoman (Sonia Braga) who tries to organize the town against the money men, with some amusingly mixed results; the jaded ex-activist lawyer (John Heard) whom she tries to rejuvenate for the cause; the gangly graduate student (Daniel Stern) who falls in love with the people he’s observing; the easygoing mayor (Tex-Mex singer Freddy Fender).

Presiding over it all is an ancient (Carlos Riquelme, a popular Mexican star) who discusses everything with his pig and with the angel (Roberto Carricart) who passes by now and then. Riquelme is the film’s touchstone, a mischievous presence evidently close to Redford’s heart, and he sets the movie’s whimsical tone.

The ensemble is attractive, relaxed, and the film is easy on the eyes and mind. Thus one inclines to excuse the slapdash nature of the storytelling, the vague sense that we’re missing some crucial connective tissue.

Not quite so easy to excuse is the literal-minded prettiness of Robbie Greenberg’s cinematography (of the oh-look-there’s-a-rainbow variety), or the coziness of the film’s finale, which presents an awfully neat (and naïve) way out. It’s a bit difficult to believe some of the last-minute changes of heart, and I for one couldn’t shake the nagging sense that Redford didn’t quite believe them either. It’s hard to dislike The Milagro Beanfield War, but it’s also hard to champion it.

First published in the Herald, March 31, 1988

I don’t know what I meant by Redford’s approach to scheduling; must have been something I read in Premiere. But then not much about this movie sticks in the mind, beyond the agreeable cast.


October 14, 2011

The last days of November traditionally are a dumping ground for films that the studios have written off as lost causes. These films are either bad or uncommercial (or both). Thus they are plugged into empty movie theaters, with minimal advertising bother, to mark time before the biggies are let loose.

This last weekend brought us a pair of films that fall neatly into the dumping-ground category. Coincidentally, they share a classic theme of outraged science-fiction movies: the government experiment that goes horribly awry.

In Impulse, an absolutely typical American small town is seized by a mysterious force that causes the residents to alter their behavior. In C.H.U.D., New York City is besieged by toxic-waste monsters in the sewers. If the locales (and the production values) are different, the dynamic is similar: post-Watergate paranoia, fueled by a fundamental mistrust of the government.

The director of Impulse, Graham Baker, says he wanted to pose the question: “What is wrong with this Norman Rockwell picture?” Just after a slight earthquake, the people of the little hamlet of Sutcliffe begin acting up. Kindly old codgers start cussing each other out on the street. A woman enraged by a minor traffic violation rams her car repeatedly into the offending vehicle. The sheriff guns down a little kid for ripping off parking meters.

These weird events are seen by a young couple (Meg Tilly and Tim Matheson) making an unscheduled visit. They’ve been brought to Sutcliffe—it’s Tilly’s hometown—when her mother, while making a venomous and obscene phone call to her daughter, shoots herself.

Matheson, a doctor, suspects a communal neutralization of the human brain’s censor—the thing that keeps us from swearing at inappropriate times or indulging in whatever form of behavior happens to occur to us at any given moment. The censor keeps us reasonable—with it gone, the town goes on an uninhibited spree.

This is Invasion of the Body Snatchers country. Impulse creates horror by unleashing the dark forces into a recognizably decent, upstanding community. The small town, the symbol of thumbs-up American goodness, becomes suddenly perverted. It’s a Norman Rockwell painting, all right, but retouched by Edvard Munch.

Impulse manages to get a few genuinely disturbing scenes on screen before its lame, blame-it-on-the-government ending. The film is also hampered by the less-than-compelling performances by Tilly and Matheson.

But Impulse has quite a bit going for it, including the subversive suggestion—particularly within Tilly’s odd family—that the town already carried the seeds of sickness within itself, long before an outward accident happened to kick it off.

I must confess to a built-in predisposition toward any film whose acronymic title stands for “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers.” This C.H.U.D. is a cheap-looking horror flick with two excellent actors in on board: John Heard, the hero of Chilly Scenes of Winter and Cat People, playing a photographer involved with the street people who live in the subways and sewers of the Big Apple; and Daniel Stern, the tall goof from Breaking Away and Diner, who has a wild role as a soup-kitchen employee convinced that something funny is going on underground.

He’s right. Gruesome monsters are gobbling up bag ladies at an alarming rate, and the government is covering up. The trail of clues leads to a huge toxic waste dump directly below the beating heart of Manhattan.

C.H.U.D. takes on the issues of toxic waste, street people, and stonewalling, which is more than you can say for a lot of movies these days. Unfortunately, director Douglas Cheek hasn’t got the right stuff to put this together in any sensible way, and the film barely works as a scare show.

Stern, however, makes the most of his scrungy anti-Establishment role. His performance makes you confident that, in some small way, the spirit of the 1960s lives on. And so, obviously, does the spirit of formula science-fiction filmmaking. We can be thankful for both.

First published in the Herald, December 6, 1984

Well, they’ll always be linked in my mind, anyway. Impulse screenwriter “Bart Davis” is actually Nicholas Kazan, and one infers that the pseudonym is a form of protest; the movie’s got a headed-off-at-the-pass quality that suggests it might have been something pretty interesting at some stage. The weird thing (okay, another weird thing) is that although Impulse is the classier, bigger-budgeted effort, C.H.U.D. actually opened at a downtown Seattle theater, the Music Box, while Impulse was relegated to the Aurora Cinema. And that’s some relegating.