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.

 


Tequila Sunrise

November 7, 2019

tequilasunriseWhen Robert Towne settles down to make a movie, it should be big news. Towne is one of the legitimate talents in Hollywood, a brilliant writer (he wrote Chinatown, Shampoo and The Last Detail) who has been a “script doctor” on many of the better movies released during the last couple of decades, usually without screen credit.

Towne’s career as a director extends only as far as his 1982 film, Personal Best, a terrific movie about track athletes, which had a nifty lived-in quality and a disarmingly accurate way of depicting the way real people act and talk. However, that movie didn’t do very well, and it’s taken Towne this long to direct another one.

His new film is called Tequila Sunrise, and it may well get him the commercial success he needs; but it isn’t his best work, by far.

Tequila Sunrise is a sun­bleached morality play, set in Los Angeles. A cop (Kurt Russell) discovers himself once again on the trail of an old friend, a drug dealer (Mel Gibson). Russell’s always avoided busting his pal before, because of the unspoken code that places friendship above everything else.

Gibson claims he’s retired now. So what is he hatching by frequenting a particular Italian restaurant? When Russell investigates, he discovers that it has more to do with the beautiful woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) who runs the place than with any potential cocaine trafficking.

These three slip into a menage a trois that is cloaked in murky motives. Does Russell romance Pfeiffer just to get at Gibson? Is Gibson attracted by Pfeiffer for some reason other than the obvious?

Just as the movie gets this interesting trio together, it launches off into a plot involving a sting operation to nab a mysterious big-time drug lord known only as Carlos. This plot becomes more impenetrable as it goes on, and the movie feels as though it’s missing some important scenes. Business with Gibson’s son and ex-wife (Ann Magnuson) seems unfinished; there’s a bit too much shorthand going on.

But even if there were more of the movie on a cutting-room floor somewhere, it might not help. Towne has taken a deliberately stylized, old-fashioned approach to this material, which sometimes becomes downright corny. Conrad Hall’s photography certainly captures the hot LA glow, the Malibu beachfront homes and ritzy restaurants, and individual scenes sparkle with Towne’s crisp dialogue.

Towne has also written quirky character roles for supporting actors such as Raul Julia, J.T. Walsh and Arliss Howard. The three principals are fine. Gibson is straightforward, and unapologetic about playing an ex-dope dealer sympathetically; Pfeiffer is sharp and bright, keeping the men tottering off­ balance; Russell gets away with the best role and the best lines.

All of the film’s attributes are laudable in and of themselves. But somehow these elements, like the ingredients in a tequila sunrise, just don’t mix.

First published in the Herald, December 1, 1988

Because, you see, the ingredients in a tequila sunrise stay at their separate levels, which is what makes the drink look like a sunrise made out of tequila. I mean, the metaphor was just sitting there, how could I resist? (Can there be a more Southern California title?) I’ll bet this movie is more fun seen today, without the high expectations I had for a Robert Towne film in 1988. The one thing about it that has stuck in my head is the way Gibson’s character goes to the same restaurant every night; that seems like a classic detective-story kind of thing. Life goals.


Mrs. Soffel/Witness

October 16, 2019

mrssoffelIt should come as no surprise that leading foreign directors inevitably gravitate toward America; there’s still no better place to make movies if you want the most sophisticated technicians and equipment, not to mention actors.

The exciting boom in Australian filmmaking in the late 1970s has produced a bushelful of interesting directors, many of whom are working in America now: Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies), Fred Schepisi (Iceman) and George Miller (Twilight Zone) have lost none of their talent in the transoceanic crossing.

The latest immigrants are Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Year of Living Dangerously) and Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career). They’ve both managed to retain their idiosyncrasies, while adapting well to a clean, forceful style suited to American moviemaking.

Armstrong’s Mrs. Soffel is the more problematic of the two. It’s based on the true story of convicted murderers (brothers played by Mel Gibson and Matthew Modine) who were sprung from their Pittsburgh prison in 1901 with the help of the warden ‘s wife (Diane Keaton), who had fallen in love with the Gibson character.

Intriguing situation. It offers the irresistible spectacle of l’amour fou and the perplexing filmmaking problem of dramatizing action that takes place primarily within prison walls. The growth of the love – which begins with Keaton trying to convert the brothers to Christianity and Gibson trying to take advantage of her position – is well drawn.

Even better is the sequence of flight, after the breakout, which begins with the fugitives sliding gleefully on the icy Pittsburgh streets, and ends with their getaway sleigh being pursued across snowy farms near the Canadian border.

Until that time, however, Mrs. Soffel remains strangely uncompelling, despite the passion of the actors. It’s the kind of movie that seems more impressive as you re­member it than when it is actually playing.

witnessWith Witness, you know right off the bat you’re in mysterious Peter Weir country. The sense of unidentifiable strangeness that Weir can convey so well is present in the early scenes in a Pennsylvania Amish community, which has not updated itself in a century.

During a journey outside the community with his widowed mother, a little Amish boy (Lukas Haas) witnesses the murder of a policeman in a Philadelphia train station men’s room. In the course of the investigation, the cop in charge (Harrison Ford, cannily and humorously used), finds a bigger conspiracy than he had imagined, and it’s necessary for him to flee with the boy and mother (Kelly McGillis) back to that insulated Amish community.

Weir loves to examine the clash of cultures, and this situation gives him plenty of opportunity. It also gives him the chance to develop a lovely, tentative love affair between the cop and the Amish widow. There’s a beautiful scene when Ford fixes his car radio (his car is the only one around, since the Amish still use ­horse-drawn carriages) and he and McGillis do a romantic little dance to “Wonderful World,” a song she’s probably never heard.

The Amish community is nowhere more wonderfully drawn than in the character of McGillis’s other hopeful suitor, played beautifully (and close to silently) by ballet star Alexander Godunov. He loves her, but he sees that she likes Ford; as a believer in nonviolence, and apparently genuinely respectful of this other passion, he does not interfere with the newcomer. He even starts to like him a little.

Weir has achieved something very impressive here: Witness succeeds as a commercially viable suspense movie, without ever compromising itself as a lyrical examination of different people and cultures. You don’t see that too often, and it’s something to take heart in.

First published in the Herald, February 14, 1985

It is entirely possible that I would like Mrs. Soffel today more than Witness, but at the time there was no question the latter film caught the 80s moment much more than Mrs. Soffel did. Witness has people in it I didn’t mention, such as Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, and Patti LuPone. It also provided a memorably amusing moment at the Oscars when one of the writers made the comment about his career having just peaked.


The Year of Living Dangerously

November 9, 2012

There’s this passage in the dialogue of The Year of Living Dangerously that can be turned back on the film itself so ironically that few reviewers—including this one—will be able to resist quoting it. Radio correspondent Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) is taken to task by his photographer/travel guide/guru, Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), about an overly melodramatic news report the green journalist has made concerning the terrible conditions in current (1965) Jarkarta, Indonesia, a place that is sinking into poverty as it teeters on the edge of civil war. Guy’s piece was overblown, says Billy; Guy hammered points home and repeated himself, instead of letting the facts speak for themselves.

That happens to be an on-target assessment of the trouble with YOLD—things that would be better left for the viewer to discover on his own are carefully explained in the dialogue, and sometimes more than once. This practice is particularly discouraging with regard to the character of Billy, the mystically-inclined mulatto dwarf (and it’s especially frustrating because it mars a fascinating performance by Linda Hunt, a screen natural).

Billy’s observations—noted in a kind of diary, on which we eavesdrop—get flakier and more pretentious as the movie goes along, spelling out plot points as well as character motivations. Maybe director Peter Weir thinks this relieves him of some of his story-telling duties; and perhaps that explains why this narrative is so uncompelling. Weir goes for atmosphere instead, and the story starts going astray—at its own languid pace.

Even the love story, between Hamilton and gorgeous British Embassy attaché Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver) gets lost in the woozy ambience, although there’s a good sequence when Jill decides to give in to Guy’s suggestions of romance, and she walks down a street in the warm Jakarta rain; she’s soaked to the bone when she confronts Guy in the hallways outside his office, and it gives a special weirdness to the love scene that transpires. That kind of special weirdness has been a trademark of Peter Weir’s films in the past; The Year of Living Dangerously has a disappointing shortage of such strategies, which I guess has a lot to do with why it’s not my favorite Year.

First published in The Informer, February 1983

I did see this film again a few years ago, after reading the novel on which it’s based, and liked the movie very much. I think Weir’s ability to create his mysterious evocation of place and space was the deciding factor in my positive re-acquaintance with the film, although there’s a lot to be said for the human presence of Linda Hunt, and also Gibson-Weaver, a handsome duo. I still remember David Ansen writing in Newsweek (a writer I often felt in tune with back then) about the movie-movie gratification of the two stars finally getting into the clinches and laying some serious osculation on each other. He didn’t put it like that.


Lethal Weapon 2

March 19, 2012

While I was watching Lethal Weapon 2, I kind of enjoyed it. By the time I walked to my car afterward, it was already turning sour. And by the time I was home, I was actively disliking it. It’s one of those.

Like its predecessor, Lethal Weapon 2 is hard, fast, and dangerous, a slick Hollywood entertainment made by pros who know how to get the job done. The film’s two hours pass by quickly, what with all the car chases, machine-gunnings, ship-burnings, and house-demolishings. (There’s also a bomb attached to a toilet seat.) Yes, Lethal Weapon 2 is full of action, enough for five such movies.

Sandwiched in between the explosions are glimpses of the friendship of the two cops we met in the first Lethal Weapon: Riggs (Mel Gibson), the crazy, hair-trigger chap, and Murtaugh (Danny Glover), the calm family man. Some of their banter is fun to listen to (there’s an amusing thing early on involving Murtaugh’s daughter and her appearance in a TV condom commercial), but most of their wisecracks are drowned out by the sound of flying bullets.

Director Richard Donner, a once decent talent whose recent work has included the tired Scrooged, also directed the first Lethal Weapon. As though to keep things interesting, he has added a current affairs spin to the bad guys: They’re South African emissaries, blond sleazeballs with funny accents who can’t be arrested because of diplomatic immunity.

Donner also throws in a mob witness (Joe Pesci), who’s supposed to be guarded by Murtaugh and Riggs. This guy doesn’t have a whole lot to do except add pepper to the dialogue between our heroes (and Pesci has one hilarious rap on the importance of avoiding drive-through windows at fast-good restaurants). Other than that, he’s from a different movie.

But then this film feels like several different movies all mixed together. One has a James Bond-size villain (Joss Ackland), one provides a bit of squeeze (Patsy Kensit) for Riggs, one provides a fitting anti-apartheid message, another gives motivation for Riggs’ explosion of violence at the end.

It’s entertaining, but in a mechanical, cynically constructed way. Here’s hoping this sequel really is lethal.

First published in the Herald, July 9, 1989

It wasn’t the end, of course. I suppose this one must be better than the sequels that followed, although I would never want to go back and find out.


Lethal Weapon

August 26, 2011

Lethal Weapon is Hollywood filmmaking at its most muscular. Also, unfortunately, at its least original.

The latter stems from the buddy-cop formula that has proven popular, especially lately. It’s a predictable mismatch: The 50-year-old veteran (Danny Glover) draws duty with a young pistol (Mel Gibson) who’s had suicidal tendencies since the death of his wife.

Gibson’s a hotshot, given to recklessness on duty (in these movies, this is almost always qualified by someone saying, “But hey, he’s a good cop”). When he confronts a guy threatening to commit suicide by jumping off a rooftop, Gibson claps the cuffs on the bewildered man and takes the jump—onto the huge air cushion in the street below. Glover, a family man, goes by the book and doesn’t like to unholster his gun. The last thing he wants is a livewire beside him.

Got the picture? You and a million other screenwriters.

The only new wrinkle is Gibson’s self-destructiveness, but the film generally backs away from this, and keeps to a jokey style even as bodies are dropping up, down, and sideways. (The plot is something about murderous ex-CIA men importing heroin from Southeast Asia.)

The effective, and frequently enjoyable, muscularity comes from the chemistry between Glover and Gibson, plus director Richard Donner’s aggressive feel for action. You can be perfectly aware from scene to scene that the thing doesn’t make any sense, but Donner’s energetic forward motion carries it from one charged situation to the next. (He tried the same tack in The Goonies, but that film was just too unpleasant to begin with.)

He’s loaded the movie with detestable villains—notably a trimmed-down, platinum-haired Gary Busey—and some incredible hardware. Naturally, the villains and the hardware come together in an extended bloodletting climax, and they all get blown up good. In fact, Lethal Weapon may set some sort of record for the phenomenon of wasting every single villain by the time it’s over.

All of these things, assembled and weighed like a fine machine, make for an effective package. It’s sure to be a hit, and there’s already industry talk of a sequel. But there’s also something cold about its slickness, as though it were just a bit too well-oiled for its own good.

First published in the Herald, March 5, 1987

Yes, the buddy-cop movie was already worn out by the time the first Lethal Weapon movie opened. And indeed it was a big hit—there was no missing its appeal—and it launched not only one of the signature franchises of the time but dozens of knock-offs. I have never revisited any of the LW pictures, and I’m all right with that.