Winter People

June 1, 2012

Winter People is a sincere and almost total misfire. A curiosity, it doesn’t quite fit any single genre—which, generally speaking, is not a bad thing—but Winter People is just too weird and clunky to create its own niche.

The film is set in the 1930s. In the opening scenes, a gentle, widowed clockmaker (Kurt Russell) and his young daughter pull up stakes to search for better job opportunities for him. They get as far as a country hollow, where his car breaks down and he seeks shelter from a woman (Kelly McGillis) who lives alone in a small house in the backwoods.

This woman has a baby but no husband, a scandalous state of affairs that has led to her exile from the rest of her family, although she is still on speaking terms with her father (Lloyd Bridges) and her brothers. Russell, of course, ends up staying in the small community and building a clock tower for the town.

In doing so, he gets dragged into one of those classic backwoods family fights, because McGillis’s family is a-feudin’ with some ornery folk across the river. (They have long hair and beards, so we spot them for villains right away.) This brings about the movie’s main confrontations, although they turn out to be not quite as violent as you might expect.

It’s a very handsome film, with director Ted Kotcheff getting a nice feel for the woods and the small town. Kotcheff, unfortunately, is a colorless director, and he doesn’t shape or pace the material at all; some scenes seem to go on endlessly (and dourly—not a lot of humor here).

But even a better director might not have been able to conquer some of the thumping dialogue of Carol Sobieski’s script. For instance, McGillis is forced to say to her old flame, the hairy brute who is the father of her child, “I beat my head on the barn door once for you.” No wonder she seems so confused.

Winter People groans slowly along, losing steam as it goes. Both Russell and McGillis, two watchable actors, are in deliberately low gear, and the movie gets stolen by Lloyd Bridges, Don Michael Paul (as McGillis’s garrulous youngest brother), and a large bear that is sacrificed by a point-blank gunshot to the head. All are equally hammy.

First published in the Herald, April 13, 1989

Sobieski wrote a lot in a foreshortened life (she died a year after this film was released), including co-credit on a favorite TV-movie from my childhood, The Neon Ceiling. Kotcheff does everything. Among his many stops was Weekend at Bernie’s, which I believe gets more hits than any other movie on this site.

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Top Gun

August 17, 2011

Cruise and the flag: the future of movies

Top Gun has all the earmarks of a summer blockbuster. It has glitz, it has stars, it has high technology, it has the new patriotism (or is that the old xenophobia?). Every little element seems calculated to produce a true-blue audience-pleaser.

Doubtless it will please audiences. But there may be too many earmarks. Somewhere within the yards of shiny jet fighters and the approximately 1,095 close-ups of sweat-drenched faces, somebody forgot to make a movie—a movie, at any rate, with anything like a sense of recognizable life.

The brainchild of those packaging wizards, Paramount producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop), Top Gun is the story of a Navy pilot (Tom Cruise) who enters an elite flying program called Top Gun. He’s obsessed with being the best there is and he’s willing to break the rules to do it.

At the program, he attracts the rivalry of a fellow hotshot (Val Kilmer), the fatherly interest of the school’s commanding officer (Tom Skerritt), and the non-fatherly interest of a knockout instructor (Kelly McGillis, late of Witness).

Most of these relationships are programmed to fulfill their particular niche in the story, as is Cruise’s friendship with his goofily likable Radar Intercept Officer (Anthony Edwards)—that’s the guy who sits behind him in the F-14. Edwards serves much the same—no, make that exactly the same—function that the David Keith character served for Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman.

In fact, the screenplay for that film might have served as the blueprint for Top Gun, so familiar are the new film’s plot turns. The big difference is in directorial style. Where An Officer and a Gentleman was straightforward and traditional, Top Gun is full of diffused light, screeching Dolby, and high-powered techno-sheen.

This comes courtesy of British director Tony Scott, whose first film, The Hunger, also was marked by irritating visual tics. Scott is undeniably nervy with the aerial battles, which include a couple of encounters with Soviet MiGs.

But he can’t shoot a simple scene of people talking without turning it into a battle of close-ups. This insistent style becomes oppressive, and shuts down whatever life the actors might have provided. I can think of only one scene, when Cruise and McGillis share a dinner and listen to Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay,” when the human element enters. When Scott labors to inject some humanity, as when Edwards (who displays some nice comic flair) and Cruise jam on “Great Balls of Fire,” it’s forced.

Having said all this, I have to admit that there are sequences in Top Gun that are entertaining. Most of the dogfight stuff is engrossing, even through there’s a consistent problem with knowing who’s who in the sky.

But Top Gun really reminded me of Short Circuit, last week’s supposed early summer blockbuster. Both seem wholly derivative of past successes, and overwhelmingly mechanical in their appeal. If they are any indication of the ’86 summer season, we are in for a long dry spell.

First published in the Herald, May 1986

As it turned out, the Year in Film 1986 was indeed not one for the ages. This film, of course, did all right; apparently I didn’t quite see the phenomenon coming, and it’s absolutely in the running for the representative film of the decade. I actually think it’s a very significant title in terms of influence, at least as much as Star Wars. The shadow of Top Gun is still in play, as Bruckheimer and Tony Scott continue to make pictures and Michael Bay and his ilk are directly descended from this movie, but the movie lives in our culture in ways that go far beyond the multiplex; the gross mindset on display here has gone everywhere, and may even have determined a few elections along the way. Right, Maverick?