Cry Freedom

November 30, 2012

At the end of Cry Freedom, there is a roll call of the political prisoners who have died in captivity in South Africa in recent years. The list gives names, dates of death, and the scandalously bogus “causes of death” that have been supplied by official government sources. This list, and the obvious contempt with which the filmmakers view the official explanations, is a gesture of healthy political activism.

If only the two and a half hours of movie that preceded it were informed with an equally angry passion. Cry Freedom, the story of anti-apartheid leader Steven Biko and journalist Donald Woods, is directed and produced by Sir Richard Attenborough, who copped a few Oscars in 1982 for the similarly large-scale message movie Gandhi. Attenborough seems to be a committed and serious man, and it’s nice that Gandhi exists; but, aside from a few effective scenes and a superb performance by Ben Kingsley, Gandhi is an oversized, galumphing elephant of a movie.

Cry Freedom is plagued by the same sorts of bulky, obtrusive storytelling problems. (Attenborough avoided this weakness in his interim movie, A Chorus Line, which didn’t have a story to tell.)

The film is in two distinct parts. In Part 1, newspaper editor Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) has his consciousness raised by Biko (Denzel Washington), whose speeches and actions dominate the early going.

In Part 2, Woods spreads Biko’s message of racial equality, whereupon Woods and his wife (Penelope Wilton) and children are harassed by South African officials and plot a complicated escape. This section is essentially a suspense movie, and as such it’s acceptably tense.

But what happened to Biko? Oh, he died. In a South African prison, in suspicious circumstances. Biko’s death, an hour into the movie, marks the story’s peculiar shift, a shift that earned Attenborough and screenwriter John Briley a thorough roasting when the film opened in larger cities a few months ago. Attenborough was accused of selling Biko out, of falling back too easily on the dramatically charged story of the white family escaping, when the true heroism lies with Biko and the blacks who continue to suffer under apartheid.

Attenborough has explained that he didn’t want to make an unaccessible political tract. Rather, he sought a work of entertainment that would be seen by a wide audience, the better to alert people to the problem of apartheid. I take Sir Richard’s point, and frankly some of the criticism of this film was a bit holier-than-thou. But it would be easier to support Attenborough’s theory of drama if his film were good.

It isn’t. Cry Freedom relies on the crustiest clichés of second-rate melodrama to score its (entirely laudable) points. When Biko first appears on screen, he is momentarily obscured by a flash of bright light, a technique reminiscent of those old biblical movies in which Christ’s face is never shown. If a fat and corrupt police official says, “We’re not the monsters we’re always made out to be,” you can be sure that the moment will be followed by a cut to a group of sunglassed henchmen threatening Woods’ family.

This is a true story (based on Woods’ books Biko and Asking for Trouble), and these criticisms are not meant to suggest that these reprehensible events did not happen, merely that Attenborough weakens his case with cardboard effects (and lessens the impact of a quietly good performance by Denzel Washington, of TV’s “St. Elsewhere,” as Biko). In rendering the situation with cheap theatrics in this heavy, gumbooted way, Attenborough undercuts the tragedy he has chosen to describe.

First published in the Herald, January 1988 (?)

Not an artistic success, but then Attenborough had the aims of the activist, not the artist. And who’s to say his widely-seen movie wasn’t successful at that purpose.

The January Man

October 1, 2012

Usually when we say someone is “hot” in the movie business, we’re talking about an actor who has put a couple of hits back to back, or perhaps a high-profile director who’s struck gold in some showy way. But this temperature talk rarely describes screenwriters.

Screenwriters have a difficult lot. They don’t really have control over their scripts, they don’t often get the credit they deserve, and their scripts are subject to comment by everyone from the studio executives to the star’s hairdresser husband. Screenwriters, in fact, rarely get hot until they can manage to direct their own work.

But at least one Hollywood screenwriter is hot right now. That’s John Patrick Shanley, who won the Oscar last spring for his finely tuned script to Moonstruck. Shanley, also a successful playwright, has a gift for putting his characters in familiar situations and then turning them askew. No one, apparently, has told him that movie scripts are usually produced out of a cookie-cutter.

His latest, The January Man, is a good example. It isn’t a great movie or anything close, but it’s absolutely stuffed with offbeat takes on regular situations. The plot has to do with an ex-policeman (Kevin Kline) who gets called back onto the force when a serial murderer proves too clever to catch. Kline uses his peculiar deductive powers to ascertain the killer’s next victim, and thereby thwart him; Kline also redeems his own checkered past.

Nothing spectacular there. Yet the film, directed by Pat O’Connor (A Month in the Country), regularly veers off into some eccentric conversation or ulterior motive. Kline plays a character who is, by his own admission, a genius; he goes off into a lengthy diatribe about the killer’s probable mother complex, and he sniffs out a strange connection between the murders and Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl.” But he’s bugged by the betrayal of his ex-girlfriend (Susan Sarandon), who married his brother (Harvey Keitel), the police commissioner.

Meanwhile, the latest murderous attack came dangerously close to the daughter of New York City’s wiggy mayor (Rod Steiger, chewing scenery). The daughter (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, from The Color of Money) is smitten with Kline, however, a fact that doesn’t exactly endear him to Hizzoner.

There are scenes in this movie that aren’t quite like anything else being written in films today. When Kline first meets the mayor’s daughter, they share tea at a café next to the Rockefeller Plaza ice rink. Both people happen to be unusually forthcoming at that moment, and within five minutes they agree to walk to the nearest hotel and go to bed. It’s a dizzying conversation, conceived by Shanley for grown-ups and intelligent people, and beautifully played by Kline and Mastrantonio. Maybe after The January Man they’ll all be hot.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

Well this qualifies as a forgotten film, that’s for sure. Apparently I enjoyed it, but it has pretty much vanished from my memory, and it didn’t seem to make an impression on anybody else.

The Big Chill

December 19, 2011

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older?” asked the Beach Boys, in words that seem to sum up the great yearning of rock ‘n roll music. How great to be different from adults, but wouldn’t it be nice to get some of the privileges. How great to get the fringe benefits without the side effects. Man, that’d be the day. For many people, this day of freedom with limited responsibilities really happens—some of us call it college, although it can assume other guises. The sun is out, dreams take flight, and companionship is constant and crucial—at least, that’s the way it takes shape through the filter of memory. Two things are certain about the endless summer: 1) It will end, and 2) It will be romanticized.

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” pops up in the course of Lawrence (Body Heat) Kasdan’s new movie, The Big Chill, and it’s a pretty appropriate choice. The Big Chill is about a group of people, a decade or so past their college chumminess, who reunite for a weekend. They’ve been drawn together by the suicide—and subsequent funeral—of one of the old gang. His suicide haunts their rosy memories, as does the fact that none of them has lived up to the uncompromising ideals of the good old days. Many-tentacled adulthood has grasped them all, and the weekend looms as a chance to recapture some of the old warmth. Is the fire still there? God only knows. But few moviegoers will be able to resist that delicious feeling of settling back and awaiting the various sexual, emotional, chemical, geographical combinations that tend to erupt on such an occasion.

That brings us up against the fact that we’ve seen this kind of movie before—recently and beautifully in John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus Seven, which also presented a weekend of ex-radicals discovering a sheepish mellowness as well as certain ties that bind. Some people may be bothered by similarities between the two films. Frankly, I found it easy to look at the first five minutes of The Big Chill and say, “Oh, it’s going to be something like Secaucus Seven. Okay. Let’s go.” It was very easy, and Kasdan and his co-screenwriter Barbara Benedek have their own path to chart across this tried-and-true territory.

The on-screen people Kasdan has gathered together to make this weekend interesting are some of the most exciting young actors around right now. Kevin Kline and Glenn Close host the reunion in their fine old Southern mansion; their marriage, made comfortable by the profits from their burgeoning shoe company (and despite Close’s past affair with the dear departed) seems to be going all right. Maybe that’s what’s bugging them. Mary Kay Place plays an executive who is sick of men but desirous of a child, a situation that is, shall we say, pregnant with possibilities. Tom Berenger plays the pretty star of one of those beefcake private-eye TV shoes; he may not be as savagely bright as the rest of the gang, but he’s very well-meaning (that’s a good piece of casting; Berenger has been a male-model type for a while now, and you can almost sense his excitement at being in something good. The fact that he’s not as sharp an actor as Glenn Close or William Hurt simply serves his character). Hurt plays a seriously burned-out (and impotent) Vietnam vet whose drug-dealing has turned into something more than a sideline. Jeff Goldblum is the former crusading college-newspaper reporter who now spends his time rationalizing his job at People magazine. JoBeth Williams wanted to be a writer, but finds herself deeply into housewifery these days; she is looking for something—specifically a long-delayed something with Berenger—to happen, and it’s now or never.

That’s a terrific bunch, and there’s not an off-key performance in the lot. Two others, outsiders, figure into the proceedings: Williams’ unbearably straight-arrow husband is played by Don Galloway (yes, of TV’s “Ironside”—another fine casting stroke), and the air-headed young girlfriend of the deceased is played by Meg Tilly. In a bad movie, Tilly’s character might be meant to represent the purity of the instinctual nature as opposed to the overly analytical attitudes of the main group of friends. In The Big Chill, she’s something less—and more—than that. Her silliness plays against that sort of symbolic interpretation, and her fascination with the morbid Hurt leads the film towards a sense of revitalization. Kasdan seems interested in facing clichés and lashing back at them, and her character is no exception.

There’s a delight in turning things on their head here that springs less from cruelty than honesty. Some of the heated dialogue exchanges are choice, particularly when a character will spout something sensible and platitudinous—the kind of thing that usually passes for wisdom—whereupon someone else may pause a beat before saying, “That is such a crock of shit, I can’t believe it.” (JoBeth Williams’ unexpectedly fiery reaction to Berenger’s gentlemanly thanks-but-no-thanks retreat from her sexual gambit is the greatest of these moments.)

The Big Chill is full of good dialogue, but some of the things I’ll remember most about it have nothing to do with words: the look on JoBeth Williams’ face when she turns to look out her car window (and toward the camera) as a way of taking her mind—or, at least her eyes—off her husband as they drive away from the funeral; the lovely group dynamic as an after-dinner clean-up is transformed into a dance; the camera movement that captures the moment Glenn Close gets an idea about Mary Kay Place’s desire for a partner in progeny.

These people speak with grown-up mouths and move with grown-up bodies, but we get the idea they’re more confused than they were in college. They could sing, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older,” for years, and still wonder when the state of adulthood will really happen. The Big Chill gives a benevolent blessing to this state of mind. “The good old days” may well be a crock of shit, but it matters, as we learn by the end of this weekend, that some of that time remains alive, even after the big chill.

First published in The Informer, September 1983

This is one of those reviews where I have to chuckle about the worldly wisdom being doled out by a 24-year-old writer. But fine, that’s in the spirit of the movie, I guess. I haven’t seen the picture since it came out, but I infer that to the generation that was just coming up, The Big Chill is the epitome of Squaresville, which I guess I understand. By the way, I have always wondered exactly where the title came from; Kasdan has explained it as a reference to the cooling of youthful fires, which is clear, but it sounds like a quote from something. A couple of years after seeing the movie, I came across the phrase “big chill” in a Kerouac novel, I think The Subterraneans, and wondered whether it could be a source, but who the hell knows.