January 15, 2020

suspectLike many movie packages, Suspect appears stuffed with possibilities; it’s got two attractive stars, a strong supporting cast, the aura of Hitchcock­ian thrills and romance, and a director who’s been known to make some nondescript but entertaining films (Peter Yates, of Eyewitness and Breaking Away). Unfortunately, it also has a script that, in terms of invention, merely rounds up the usual suspects.

The idea is that a public defender (Cher) takes on the defense of a deaf-mute transient (Liam Neeson) in a murder trial. Nobody particularly cares about the case, since victim and suspect are equally insignificant. The judge (John Mahoney) wants to get the trial over quickly, so he can accept a higher appointment; the prosecutor (Joe Mantegna) wants to fatten his political resume.

But there’s more here than meets the eye, as if you couldn’t guess. The first person to catch errant clues is a juror (Dennis Quaid), a high-powered Washington lobbyist who’s been roped into jury duty. He starts seeing discrepancies in the evidence. But he can’t pull a Perry Mason and thunder from the jury box, so he contacts the defender on the sly, and together they compile some tantalizing evidence.

The fact that such attorney­-juror interaction is highly unethical adds an extra layer of suspense, which Yates exploits in the movie’s best scene, a wordless sequence when the judge enters a law library where Cher and Quaid are doing research – if he sees them together, it’ll blow everything sky-high.

Elsewhere, Yates relies on standard tricks. Dark hallways, hands entering frames with heavy music cues, all designed to jolt you out of your seat. Some of it actually works.

But not much of it feels that good, at least to these jaded senses. The ethical touch-and-go seems borrowed from the success of Jagged Edge, and the remarks about the inadequacies of the justice system are tired. Cher the defender talks about her spiritual dissatisfaction, but that’s about all the evidence we have of it; otherwise, the actress is on her own in filling out the character (which she does rather well, in fact).

Quaid’s lobbyist is even more underconceived; he remains a blank. We don’t really know the connection between his amoral political activities and his jury­-bound bloodhound routine.

The movie even fails to bring these two together for prurient interest, I’m sorry to say. (Obviously, the prurient interests need a better lobbyist.) Somehow it’s OK to tamper with a juror, but no slow dancing ’til the trial is over.

I enjoyed watching John Mahoney and Philip Bosco as two cagey politicos. Joe Mantegna, currently on view in House of Games, is disappointing as the prosecutor. He’s occupying the same position George C. Scott had in Anatomy of a Murder – a hotshot young stage actor who comes in for a juicy featured part (prosecutors are reliably nasty roles). But Mantegna plays it low-key, when the role calls for him to show off a little.

Suspect has large patches that are enjoyable. But its fundamental weakness is that it doesn’t quite play fair; if you’re going to mount a whodunit, play by the rules.

First published in the Herald, October 22, 1987

Another one from that legal-thriller craze of the era. The movie did well, despite its reluctance to put Cher and Dennis Quaid in the clinches (I guess; or do they get together eventually?). The long-careered Eric Roth wrote the script.

The Bounty

November 15, 2019

bountyThe Bounty is the kind of production that falls into the “tradition of quality” school of filmmaking. Like other products of that school (Lawrence of Arabia, for example, or Doctor Zhivago) The Bounty is big, expensive, serious, ambitious, wonderful to look at – and also strangely incomplete. There’s a tendency, when making a spectacle like this, to lose the human beings in the grand pattern of the story. I think that’s what happens in The Bounty, so that at the end there’s just a trace of pointlessness about the whole movie.

I didn’t invoke Lawrence and Zhivago by accident. David Lean, who directed those award-winners and was much in the forefront of quality film making in the 1950s and ’60s, was long involved with The Bounty. Lean’s long- time collaborator, playwright Robert Bolt, wrote the literate script.

At some point, Lean jumped ship (so did his Fletcher Christian – Christopher Reeve), and was replaced by Roger Donaldson, a New Zealander with just two features to his credit. Donaldson’s Smash Palace was impressive enough to give hope that he’d invest plenty of intensity in The Bounty.

That hope has not been sorely let down. The Bounty is fairly riveting in unspooling its tale, the facts of which are well-known. It’s told as a flashback during the trial of Lt. William Bligh (Anthony Hopkins). We see that it’s friendship that sparks Bligh to pick young Fletcher Christian (Mel Gibson) as mate for the arduous, globe­ spanning voyage, a voyage that seeks to transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to Jamaica, where the food will be used as a staple for slaves.

In case you’ve forgotten (or don’t remember the previous film versions of Mutiny on the Bounty – Clark Gable and Charles Laughton in 1935, Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard in 1962), the tyrannical Bligh terrorizes the Bounty crew. When they finally limp into Tahiti, and sample the pagan pleasures there, the young sailots find it a not unthinkable alternative to returning to England.

After they leave the island, Christian leads a mostly unplanned mutiny, and Bligh set adrift with loyal seamen. Christian and his men are doomed to wander in search of a hospitable resting place.

In this version, the story itself maintains its fascination. Bligh has been slightly humanized, and Christian steered closer to the edge of insanity. There’s been an attempt to make their relationship more complex, but the tension of the story still springs from the basic excitement of their showdowns.

Any version of the mutiny on the Boumty rises and falls with its lead actors. Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson are fine and believable, though rarely more than that. The supporting players – especially the rowdy, unkempt crew – are unusually well-cast. Of special note is Wi Kuki Kaa, who plays the Tahitian king with understated dignity.

Donaldson and his cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson have made the film exceptionally handsome. The contrast between the rigidity of British systems and the looseness of Tahitian paradise is visualized by Donaldson in the cool blues and polished hardwood of the British sections, compared with the warm, lush greens and yellows of the island. The eerie credit sequence, composed of shots of Tahiti, gives a sense of the spell that the island will cast (Vangelis’ evocative music helps, too).

There is much to admire here. In fact, I’m not so sure I didn’t underestimate the film on first viewing. It still seems oddly unmoving, and a little too stately, but it’s been staying with me in the days since I’ve seen it. The lure of the promise of paradise and the overthrow of tyranny is a powerful one. I’m looking forward to another trip aboard The Bounty.

First published in the Herald, May 1984

Still a movie that’s easy to watch for a while if it goes by on TV, to the extent that movies still “go by” on TV. The sailor cast included Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson, Dexter Fletcher, and Phil Davis, among others, so yes, it was pretty good. A bio of David Lean reveals just how long he spent working on the screenplay, or possibly just hanging out in the South Seas while dreaming about the trade winds and breadfruit. Finally, Gibson’s fervenet reading of the line “I am in hell, sir!” has been bandied about through the years by a select group of people in the know.


The Good Mother

March 12, 2013

goodmotherThe Good Mother, a film adapted from the novel by Sue Miller, takes its time about springing its main plot point. First we learn some history about the protagonist, Anna (Diane Keaton), recently divorced, who lives in Boston with her young daughter.

Early in the film, she meets a sculptor (Liam Neeson) with whom she has a torrid, and very satisfying, affair. The movie is a good 50 minutes old before the revelation that changes everything, a revelation that centers on child molestation, or at least the appearance of impropriety.

The movie delves into Anna’s family history, recounting her hero worship of her rebellious aunt, and the still-formidable presence of her wealthy grandparents (Ralph Bellamy and Teresa Wright).

Anna was supposed to be the pianist in the family, but she never quite had the passion for it, a lingering failure. And the film sketches Anna’s current confusions, her will to independence that wars with her reliance on the grandparents for money, and her meaningless job. The crucial thing she has is her child, and raising her daughter is the source of her passion; it’s the one thing in her life she does well.

All of this is sensitively directed by Leonard Nimoy, who continues to move farther away from the pointed ears of Mr. Spock. Nimoy’s good with actors and he stages individual scenes well, such as the first lovemaking between Keaton and Neeson, which takes place in an artist’s loft full of weird sculptures, casting strange shadows.

On some level, I’m not quite sure what the movie is about, or thinks it’s about. For instance, Keaton’s character describes herself as having “always been frigid,” until she meets the romantic sculptor, with whom she has great sex. Just when she reaches this point, she gets slapped down, and loses the most important thing in her life. The film does not denounce or endorse this theme and you wonder to what extent it is intended.

A lot of what the movie is about, however, seems to be in Diane Keaton’s performance, and I think that is where it succeeds most. Keaton is often accused of mannerism and ditheriness, and she is sometimes guilty. In The Good Mother, she’s still every inch Keaton; Nimoy has given her free rein. So her performance is full of her customary half-sentences, dotty gesticulations, and quicksilver changes of facial expression.

But it seems to be that these Keatonisms are to the point, for this character. She is supposed to be a woman very much in the process of finding herself, and under those circumstances, the performance is all too apt, and frequently poignant.

First published in the Herald, November 1988

One of those How Did This Get Made? movies, made during Nimoy’s unexpected success as a director. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone refer to this film.


February 18, 2011

I think most of us agree that the Rolling Stones’ classic “Satisfaction” has been waiting for the definitive interpreter, the inspired reader, the all-new rendition. Who else to give this new reading of the song but …Justine Bateman, of course.

Just kidding. Mick Jagger’s immortal intonation is quite safe from this feeble imitation. But as another song puts it, the girl can’t help it. Bateman, the star of “Family Ties,” wanted to make a movie, and this one happens to be about a girl group, so she sings, all right? The fact that she really has no singing voice did not stop this trouper, just as it has not stopped many actors in the past.

The plot of Satisfaction hangs on the threadiest of threads. It’s a summer movie about a gang of girls, just graduating from high school, who take a summer gig at a beachside bar before they must scatter for college.

Believe it or not, in the course of the summer they all learn a lot about love and life. (Though they never learn why a bunch of 17-year-olds can perform in a bar.) Bateman falls in heavy like with the bar’s owner, a former rock star (Liam Neeson, who had the title role in Suspect).

He’s now burned out, but obviously available for rekindling, and you can bet that before the film is over he’ll write a song under the fresh inspiration of his new muse. The song selection overall is a bit unlikely; the girls seem to know everything from “Iko Iko” to Elvis Costello’s “Mystery Dance.”

Screenwriter Charles Purpura and director Joan Freeman work mainly in shorthand, which may be the best way. Justine Bateman is pretty and toothy and can’t be faulted for this thing, particularly since it takes a certain grand kind of guts to perform a cappella with a voice like hers. And it could have been worse: At least they didn’t ask her to sing “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” or “Dock of the Bay.”

First published in the Herald, February 19, 1988

At the time, honestly, it seemed as though Justine Bateman could possibly turn into some sort of movie star—and if not her, then bandmate Trini Alvarado, also an appealing performer, had a shot to break out. And oh yes, there was Julia Roberts in there too. She and Neeson came out of this pretty well.

Next of Kin

December 9, 2010

Kinfolk: Bill Paxton, Patrick Swayze, Liam Neeson

Patrick Swayze has been riding the unexpected success of Dirty Dancing for two years now, which is more than can be said for the studio that produced the film (Vestron Pictures went belly-up some months ago). A follow-up, Road House, was a modern Western that horrified critics and didn’t charm Swayze’s female fans; it faded quietly from screens earlier this summer. (I still count it as one of the year’s guiltier pleasures.)

The new one, Next of Kin, is another action movie, toned down a bit, but unlikely to provide another hit. Swayze puts on an accent for this outing: He’s a good ol’ boy from Kentucky, transplanted to Chicago and working as a cop. When his little brother is killed, apparently by members of the Mafia, Swayze has to mollify his enraged kinfolk and settle the score with the mob.

This isn’t easy, for as Swayze learns when his visits home, all of his relatives are sitting around holding their Bibles, pronouncing in low tones that passage about an eye for an eye. In particular, he has to stop his brother (Irish actor Liam Neeson, who really had to put on an accent) from going to Chicago with a sawed-off shotgun and laying waste to people.

Which, in fact, is what his brother does. There is a side plot amongst the bad guys, in which the trigger man (Adam Baldwin) is setting up the son (Ben Stiller) of the Mafia don. These threads come together in a big shoot-out, featuring not only guns but also bows and arrows, in a Windy City cemetery.

Director John Irvin seems frustrated about how to make the material work. He labors over some lighthearted, loving moments between Swayze and his wife (Helen Hunt), but these fall flat. (She is a concert violinist, although Swayze persists in calling the instrument a fiddle.) Then there’s some peculiar low comedy surrounding a couple of the mob henchmen, which suggests that a life of crime is often a barrel of laughs.

Otherwise, characters say the usual things: “When you set up my brother, you forgot to kill me.” Things like that. Swayze delivers these lines with his customary denseness; he always seems to be a step behind everybody else in the movie. Perhaps that’s the secret of his appeal.

Originally published in the Herald on October 27, 1989. 

Next of Kin is one of those 80s pictures that vanished from sight and mind very quickly. And yet: Neeson, Helen Hunt, and Ben Stiller as a mob boss’s son? I have no memory of that whatsoever. Maybe I’m a little hard on Swayze here; he had a real niceness on screen; the curious thing was how he floundered to find fitting vehicles after hitting the Dirty Dancing gusher. Still, there’s Point Break and the deranged Road House and To Wong Foo—the latter a very precise comic performance.