Dangerous Liaisons

September 26, 2012

Dangerous Liaisons is the slightly more pronounceable title given to the movie version of the Broadway hit, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Christopher Hampton. In any language, the movie is witchy fun, though overall it’s a bit underwhelming.

Hampton’s play was drawn from the 1782 French novel by Choderlos de Laclos, in which a pair of cold-blooded aristocrats play a sort of sexual parlor game with other peoples’ lives, only to trigger their own comeuppances. The central character seems to be the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich), a “conspicuously charming” seducer; but he is in fact manipulated by the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close), a waspish widow.

They wager that Valmont will seduce the most virtuous woman in France and also deflower a young bride-to-be (Uma Thurman), all during a summer stay at a lavish estate. Valmont is successful, of course, but he finds himself uncharacteristically moved by the innocent Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer).

The web that Hampton and director Stephen Frears are spinning here is designed to catch their amoral characters, and it is, for the most part, elegantly managed. The script is laced with sharp, pointed insults and double entendres; when Valmont flatters himself over seducing the young virgin, the Marquise derides the conquest as “insultingly simple. One does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat.” You can’t help thinking that the whole thing plays like “Dynasty” in powdered wigs.

Through all of this, as enjoyable as it often is, I had a sense that it wasn’t quite coming off. Frears, who is better known for his looks at English blue-collar life (My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid), is a fine director and he handles the change in scenery adeptly. Like Amadeus, the movie features American actors, without pretentious posturing or the traditional stuffy approach to such material. (Frears told Premiere magazine, “It’s a film like all my others; about sex, power, money…I enjoy playing off the modern sentiments against the facny dress. Of course, scholars of French literature will undoubtedly be appalled.”)

Some of my reservations have to do with the cast. The smaller roles are fine: Swoosie Kurtz as an anxious mother, Thurman as the young virgin, Keanu Reeves as her doe-eyed suitor. But Close and Malkovich dominate. Close, who carries over a certain Fatal Attraction vibe to the role, is small-eyed and crafty, and suitably wicked.

Malkovich (the black marketer in Empire of the Sun) is such an odd actor, and this is an odd part for him. Malkovich is not a conventionally attractive guy, and the Casanova role seems an awkward fit. He remains a cold figure, although what happens to him at the end of the film clarifies the character. It’s something of a stumbling block for the movie, and it’s one of the reasons I doubt Dangerous Liaisons will seduce its way to being a hit.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

It was enough of a hit, and won three Oscars, and probably should have won one for Glenn Close. Malkovich’s lizard-like qualities threw me, but it’s a casting inspiration, no doubt about it. The competing DL movie, Milos Forman’s Valmont, had to wait for this one to get out of the way, and then quietly died when it opened a year later. Too bad it wasn’t made in the era of the instant reboot.

Making Mr. Right

April 18, 2012

Making Mr. Right carries all the funky earmarks of a New Wave comedy; it’s full of bright Miami colors, hip turns of phrase, and wacky fashion. Just what you would expect, in fact, from the director of Desperately Seeking Susan, Susan Seidelman.

Seidelman revels in trash chic. But for all her ’80s credentials, Seidelman has now filmed a pair of stories that recall nothing so much as the screwball comedies of the 1930s. Making Mr. Right is like a classical old structure jammed to the rafters with rubber chickens and X-Ray specs.

It’s all about the perfect man: Ulysses, an android created for long-term space flight. He performs human functions, and (this is a plus) he lacks the feelings that would create loneliness on a long voyage.

The only thing Ulysses needs is public relations; the flimsy plot excuse is that this will make him attractive to members of Congress who can fund the project. So his creators hire a public-relations expert (Ann Magnuson) to make the android cuddly.

This leads to the predictable conclusion that Ulysses begins to develop feelings for this human woman, thus short-circuiting his supposed heartlessness.

There are a bunch of nutty sidebars to this, including the woman’s erstwhile boyfriend, a politician (Ben Masters), and her oversexed girlfriend (Glenn Headley, in a very funny performance) who introduces Ulysses to the joys of uncomplicated sex. Except that sex becomes complicated for Ulysses, because it makes his systems overload and his head rotate.

And of course there’s a lot of fish-out-of water stuff with Ulysses’ discovery of the outside world (he’s been cooped up in a research lab). His rovings through a modern mall provide the most amusing adventures.

John Malkovich, who plays both Ulysses and the android’s egghead inventor, is a gifted actor. He isn’t a conventional leading man, but he is inventive; in the early scenes of Ulysses’ education, he uncannily recreates the look and movements of an infant. All the performances are good, notably Ann Magnuson, who has just the right combination of smarts and adorability.

It’s a charming little movie. But Seidelman’s heart doesn’t quite seem in the machinations of the screwball plot. She can’t quite resolve the split: Her attitude is Andy Warhol, but her story is Frank Capra. For instance, a wedding scene puts all the principals together, and begs for comic collisions. Seidelman gets the tacky look right, but the scene barely touches the possibilities.

She’s better at catching little offbeat details: a wedding picture taken in front of a painted seaside backdrop, which is perched in front of a real seaside; Magnuson shaving in the car on the way to work—her legs and underarms, that is; and poor lovestruck Ulysses getting a dreamy look in his undreaming eyes as he sighs, “I guess I’m just not interested in space travel anymore.”

First published in the Herald, April 12, 1987

By “New Wave,” of course, I refer to the cultural movement of the 1980s, not a cinematic cycle from France or any such place. I’m too far away from the movie to know whether I was right about Seidelman being closer to the downtown hipster world than the spirit of screwball, but I will say that her 2005 film Boynton Beach Club was a warm and generous comedy about the sex lives of older people that didn’t condescend to its subject.

Places in the Heart

February 14, 2012

In 1964, Robert Benton left his position as contributing editor with Esquire magazine when he and his fellow editor finished writing a screenplay. It was the true (sort of) story of outlaws who cut a bloody swath across Texas—named Bonnie and Clyde—and when it was produced a couple of years later, it changed the way movies looked.

While not as revolutionary as, say, 2001, Bonnie and Clyde nevertheless brought a new kind of frankness to the American screen. It embraced controversy in its treatment of sex and violence, and its ambivalent attitude toward its criminal heroes. Its hip manner and stylized look (directed by Arthur Penn) carried the nervy techniques of the then-recent French New Wave of filmmaking (Benton and David Newman got the script to Francois Truffaut as director, although he passed) into mainstream commercial cinema.

Two decades have gone by, and Benton is now a director himself (with two Oscars under his belt, for Kramer vs. Kramer). And he’s back in Texas—in his home town of Waxahachie, in fact—with his new film, Places in the Heart.

What a different Texas this is from Bonnie and Clyde. In that film, the amoral heroes were glamorous. In Places in the Heart, set in 1935, there is no glamour. Just work, and fleeting pleasure, and hard times. Benton’s outlook now is gentler and wiser, but he’s not lost his bite. Some moments in Places in the Heart are shocking enough to make you jump.

It surveys the interconnected lives of a group of people struggling through an autumn season. Sally Field plays a recently widowed woman who tries to plant some cotton on her land to make enough money to pay off her bank loan, so she won’t lose her house.

Assisting her are her two children (Yankton Hatten and Gennie James) and a pair of misfits: a black drifter (Danny Glover) who knows cotton, and a surly blind man (John Malkovich) who rents her extra room.

The other main plot line involves Field’s sister (Lindsay Crouse), whose husband (Ed Harris) is having an affair (with Amy Madigan, who married Harris during the film’s shooting).

Some of the material here is well-worn: the threatened bank foreclosure, the widow on her own, the forces of nature bearing down on the characters. I’m not sure Benton overcomes the fact that rural drama of this kind—especially after last year’s Tender Mercies and Cross Creek—has a certain over-familiar feel.

But, finally, he does things his own way, and a fine way it is. The film is full of beautiful and terrible moments that linger on and cast a spell. A boy with a gun by the railroad tracks; a woman hiding from a tornado in a parked car; a car full of musicians, riding back from a dance, still crooning “Cotton-Eyed Joe” as they drive into the dawn.

The final sequence of Places in the Heart is the most remarkable, most moving bit of film I’ve seen this year. It underlines the extraordinary generosity of spirit that is behind this movie.

Earlier, we’ve heard the blind man listen to a talking book (an album of Trent’s Last Case) that begins with the words, “Between what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely?” Certainly, watching the film, you start feeling that every moment matters in some way. Thus the lives of the characters come to seem precious. This makes the final sequence—in which the lives are tied together—powerful indeed.

First published in the Herald, September 1984

It won Oscars for Sally Field (this was the “You like me” acceptance speech) and Benton’s screenplay. It’s a strong movie with many wonderful moments, if maybe not a great movie—but whew, that final shot lifts it all up. I got to interview Benton a few years later (and then three more times, I think), and of course asked him about it. He says the final shot was technically very difficult to get, and he was ready to give up and divide it into separate shots, but went with one last attempt and got it. Which makes all the difference.


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