The Jewel of the Nile

November 25, 2011

“How much romance can one woman take?” asks the romance novelist Joan Wilder, at the opening of The Jewel of the Nile. Joan (Kathleen Turner), you will remember, was the frumpy writer swept into the swashbuckling adventure of Romancing the Stone, a tale that might have sprung from the purply pages she regularly churns out.

As Jewel begins, she’s in the South of France, having spent six months cruising the world and finding romance with he-man adventurer Jack Colton (Michael Douglas). But with all this romancing going on, she can’t find the time to finish her latest book, and her fling with Jack has gone a trifle stale.

So, when she is approached by a bigshot Arab prince and asked to write his biography, she jumps at the chance, and abandons Jack for the prince’s palace. You win no prizes for guessing that the prince is not as he seems, and that something is rotten in the sheikdom—nor that Jack will soon be on his way to rescue Joan from this fine mess.

That’s the basic skeleton of the story; it’s fleshed out with some amusing incidents along the way, including an escape in an F-16 fighter jet (neither Jack nor Joan know how to fly it) and a tribal wrestling match between Jack and a refrigerator-sized tribesman who wants to marry Joan.

While some of these incidents are cute, the film as a whole lacks the fizz of Romancing the Stone. There’s a basic problem in structure: In Romancing, the transformation of Joan from dowdy novelist to stylish heroine was the real story, despite all the swashbuckling. In Jewel, there’s no such development, and the narrative seems oddly flat.

The dry North African setting gets dull after a while, as does the sheik and his plan to take over the area. Also, the character of Joan is not as much fun as before—she seems dimmer, and has lost pluck.

Some of this flatness, I suspect, is due to the absence of Diane Thomas among the screenwriters. She wrote Romancing as an original screenplay (her first), but others get the credit for this film. (The film is dedicated to Thomas, who was killed in a car accident a few weeks ago.)

Lewis Teague’s direction is evocative; he comes from B-movies (Alligator and The Lady in Red both showed promise), and this is his shot at the big time. He choreographs the action well, especially the obligatory fight-on-top-of-a-train, which ends with a nice comic payoff.

He’s also gotten a better performance from Michael Douglas, and a funnier performance from Danny DeVito, who repeats his role as a sawed-off scoundrel. DeVito has more one-liners than in Romancing, and he spits them out with unclean glee (surveying a wild Bedouin celebration dance, he nudges Jack and growls, “Looka this, Colton—no sheep is safe tonight”).

But, as occasionally pleasant as the film is, I was left cold after it was over. By the time of the big climax, I was already a bit bored. Not only are the characters cardboard and the locale dull, the jewel of the Nile turns out not to be a jewel at all. Whatever happened to truth in advertising?

First published in the Herald, December 15, 1985

Well, not a great review, although I suppose the point about the absence of actual character development goes to something about the movie’s failure to click. Not much to work with, anyway; the movie has the feel of a rushed, not-thought-out cash-in. My review of Romancing the Stone is here.

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Fatal Attraction

September 23, 2011

Paramount Pictures, via a heavy advertising campaign, is clearly positioning Fatal Attraction as the big thriller of the season. Its confidence is probably well-placed, since this movie is as slick and manipulative as they come, which is to say, it’s also often distastefully effective.

It’s from director Adrian Lyne, and Fatal Attraction displays the same sort of superficiality and gloss as his Flashdance and 9 ½ Weeks. Unlike those films, here Lyne at least has subject matter that is innately compelling.

The story is an utterly simple littler shocker. Married man has a one-night stand with a woman; woman turns out to be crazy and hounds the man and his family; man and family must defend themselves. It’s the kind of devilishly relentless plot that might have burbled up out of the nightmare novels of Cornell Woolrich or Jim Thompson.

However, Lyne dresses things up a bit. The man (Michael Douglas) is a high-priced Manhattan lawyer; the woman (Glenn Close) works for a publishing company he represents. They meet at a party and spend a torrid weekend together while his wife (Anne Archer) and daughter are away. When Douglas tries to break off the affair, Close insists on pursuing it, and she starts calling his office, sending him mad taped messages, and finally showing up in his living room.

Eventually her madness leads to a violent series of conclusions, and Lyne orchestrates the thriller aspects of the movie with some sledgehammer success. He’s still a terribly obvious filmmaker: Are there many directors gauche enough to cut away from a lovemaking scene to a percolating pot of coffee?

Amid the sound and fury, the three main actors are working hard. Anne Archer is one of those people about whom film critics keep wondering—Gee, when is this smart/sexy/funny actress going to get in a good movie? In Fatal Attraction, she suffers a lot, but she does get a few licks in.

Douglas trades on his sagging jowls and hollowing eyes to suggest this man’s moral shiftiness, and he’s pretty good casting. Douglas is about 10 times more interesting when he’s playing weak characters than when he’s playing good guys—a fact he seems finally to be realizing.

Then there’s Glenn Close, who, since The World According to Garp and The Big Chill, has been working to change her image: No more Ms. Nice Guy. She’s certainly not nice here. Most good actors are susceptible to psycho roles, because they’re so darn much fun to play, and Close is probably as good in this role as anyone, quite chilling at times. But finally there’s nothing to this part, regardless of its showiness; the woman’s crazy and she scares people. Neither the movie nor Close can give the character any more meaning than that.

Lyne seems to be mining a number of different subtexts, including fear of women, fear of the city, and (so help me) fear of telephones. But the main undercurrent is probably fear of AIDS. While the disease is never mentioned, the movie is after all about the horror of a casual sexual encounter that produces a lingering, fatal aftermath. In its grim way, Fatal Attraction is a hysterical, anxiety-streaked recruiting poster for fidelity.

First published in the Herald, September 18, 1987

The picture was a smash, confirming Douglas’s big run of significant parts and changing up Close’s image, at least for a while. (Great headline from the National Enquirer or equivalent rag: “The Most Hated Woman in America!” next to a photo of dear Glenn Close.) The movie’s a real scare show, very Old Testament, seemingly designed to shock the rubes into toeing the line. And speaking of Lyne, he hasn’t had a feature out since 2002’s Unfaithful, an attempt to capture the old magic.


A Chorus Line

September 21, 2011

It’s been a long haul, the better part of a decade, in fact, but A Chorus Line, the forever-running Broadway smash, has finally taken a cinematic form.

Word is that Columbia Pictures had sunk more than 10 million bucks into the thing before a single actor had been hired or a single frame of film exposed. The money went to buying the screen rights and to various abortive screenplay attempts.

Apparently it took affable Richard Attenborough, fresh off winning an Oscar for Gandhi, to whip the project into shape. Now, Sir Richard isn’t the first person you’d think of for A Chorus Line—Bob Fosse he ain’t—but, as it turns out, Attenborough’s unadventurous, no-nonsense approach makes for a serviceable adaptation.

The play, which was conceived, choreographed, and directed by Michael Bennett, put a bunch of dancers through a grueling audition, during which they not only had to dance and sing but reveal their most private thoughts and fears. They performed at the whim of an unseen director, whose voice could be heard barking orders.

Attenborough has changed very little, except to make the relationship between the director (Michael Douglas) and one of the dancers (Alyson Reed) more explicit. They’re ex-lovers, and Attenborough uses the friction between them as a thread of plot, something, presumably, he thought the audience needed to hold on to.

That’s all there is—the dancers reveal some anxieties and sing some songs. A few of the songs (by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban) are okay, and the dancers (choreography by Jeffrey Hornaday) are quite energetic.

As a diverting holiday entertainment, this is fine. As a movie, it’s not much to crow about. There was a special charge about seeing the spectacular dances performed live, especially the nifty precision numbers. But it’s less enthralling, less room-filling, in a movie house, particularly when the film fails to make the action meaningful.

And it’s a little hard to remember now why they play won a ton of Tony awards, or why—is this possible?—it copped the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The film has a weakness in Douglas; he doesn’t suggest the sort of brilliant mad creator who could get away with his dictatorial behavior. Mikhail Baryshnikov was once mentioned as a possibility for the part, and that would have brought some fire to it.

Douglas is the only big name in the cast; most of the dancers are unknowns. A few distinguish themselves: Vicki Frederick has the right look for her brassy role and does well with “At the Ballet”; Yamil Borges does a nice job with “Nothing”; and Gregg Burge dances up a storm in “Surprise, Surprise” (one of the two new songs written for the film).

One more thing. Attenborough has “opened up” the play a bit by including brief flashbacks, and a couple of scenes on the street. This backfires—it breaks the tension of being inside the theater—but Attenborough also commits a cultural faux pas. In one of the street scenes, a character slips and falls while hailing a taxi, whereupon the cabbie actually politely inquires whether the woman is all right. Clearly, Attenborough, an Englishman, is out of touch with this particular reality, or he never would have permitted a New York cab driver to engage in such uncharacteristic behavior.

First published in the Herald, December 1985

I sound somewhat too generous to the film. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but the Broadway show I knew pretty well, and it is an inspired idea for a musical, quite exciting within the walls of a theater. The problem with a movie version of A Chorus Line is that there should never be a movie version of A Chorus Line, unless you just hand it over the Jacques Rivette and let him explore it for three hours or so. The material must take place in real time, in an actual theater; that’s the point. Apologies to Marvin Hamlisch; the songs are better than okay.


Romancing the Stone

September 7, 2011

One of the funnier moments in Romancing the Stone occurs at the climax, when small-time adventurer Jack Colton (Michael Douglas) turns to romance novelist Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner), with whom he has shared an incredible adventure in South America over the last few days, and says to her, “Go to the American Embassy—tell them everything, tell them the truth.”

Now, this is funny, because if she told them the truth, they’d throw her into the loony bin. The adventure that makes up Romancing the Stone is so wildly implausible that you might not believe it, either; but the film is made with such zest and humor you might find yourself wanting to believe in it in spite of itself.

The basic set-up is irresistible: the author of a series of those happily-ever-after romances (Turner is charmingly wide-eyed here, a world away from her femme fatale in Body Heat) finds herself involved in exactly the kind of plot she routinely puts her heroines through. When her sister is kidnapped in Colombia, the kidnappers demand that mild-mannered Joan Wilder bring a treasure map (yes, a treasure map—it’s that kind of movie) to their hacienda or they’ll do nasty things to sis.

I’m not too sure how the sister got involved with the map (it will lead to a fist-sized, heart-shaped emerald stashed deep in a Colombian cave), but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that our heroine travels to Colombia and immediately becomes the target for those who want the map: the kidnappers (Danny DeVito and Zack Norman) and the crooked federales (led by Manuel Ojeda).

She teams up with scrappy, down-on-his-luck wanderer Colton, and a comic/romantic alliance is born in a rainstorm deep in the Colombian jungle. These two go forth into a maze of gaping precipices, rickety bridges, raging rivers, and hungry alligators, all blocking the road to the emerald—and most of the time, they’re being chased by the bad guys.

This wild ride is presented lickety-split fashion, much in the manner of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Rip-offs of Raiders are still being cranked out (Spielberg’s sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, will appear in a couple of months), but Romancing the Stone is probably the best of the lot. This shouldn’t be surprising, because the director of Stone, Robert Zemeckis, is a Spielberg protégé. He co-wrote Spielberg’s only bomb, 1941, and he directed two films under Spielberg’s aegis, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars.

Zemeckis may have learned rapid-fire pacing from Spielberg, but he didn’t quite catch Spielberg’s talent for characterization. Romancing the Stone gets a little mechanized in its contrivances. For instance, in the best adventures of this kind, the sense of danger is very real, and genuinely frightening. Zemeckis and first-time screenwriter Diane Thomas try to give the evil federale a foreboding presence, but the film leans so far toward fun and games that the danger isn’t well established. The absence of a convincing threat makes the film less memorable, and is one of the elements that give Romancing the Stone its almost-but-not-quite quality.

First published in the Herald, March 31, 1984

Give Douglas credit for recognizing that Zemeckis would be a good fit for this, and give them both credit for putting Kathleen Turner in there. Zemeckis immediately went stratosphere-ward with his next movie, Back to the Future, but he needed this box-office hit to get there. Diane Thomas died in a car accident not very long after this movie was released, and before Douglas and Turner made the sequel. I have found no need to re-visit Romancing the Stone, but I bear it some resentment for perpetuating the supposedly jolly trend of high-adventure Raiders imitations, which had already gotten old at this point.


Wall Street

March 7, 2011

Gekko and Fox: Morning in America

In the opening scene of Wall Street, our young hotshot stockbroker hero wheels into his office for another big day. When his secretary asks him how he’s doing, he says, “If I was doin’ any better it’d be a sin.”

That’s about the size of it. In Oliver Stone’s morality play, this hungry kid sins by becoming the Faust of the stock exchange, selling his soul to a devil/madman/genius who controls half the money in New York City (and this the relevant world).

Stone has mapped out the struggle of good and evil before, most impressively in his battle-zone dramas, Platoon and Salvador. This time he’s indoors, but these soldiers still talk about making a killing, and they even wear uniforms—the suspenders and yellow power ties of the Wall Street infantry.

As the film opens, greenhorn Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) has his eye on the imminent main chance, which means he’s trying to land the ultimate high-roller Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) as a client. When he finally blusters his way into Gekko’s office, the great man is sitting among his Cuban cigars and $600,000 paintings taking his own blood pressure. “Whatever you do,” he tells the kid, “don’t upset me.”

Bud manages to make a modest killing by using an inside tip. Gekko rewards him with a visit from a paid companion and a lunch of (appropriately) raw meat. It isn’t long before the rest of Bud’s life is looking up; Gekko’s former mistress (Daryl Hannah) is now installed as a girlfriend, and Bud musters enough for the down payment on a million-dollar Upper East Side condo, complete with appalling modernist design.

At some point Bud begins to get the idea that his illegal procurement of inside information, including dressing up in a janitor’s outfit to sneak into lawyers’ offices, is going to catch up with him. And even that it may be wrong.

Hollywood folks have been wondering whether this bull-market movie might have lost some of its relevancy, in the wake of the big crash. I suspect not. Presumably the same cutthroats are safely in place in the real Wall Street, despite Black Monday; there weren’t that many brokers jumping out of windows. And greed knows no off-season anyway.

Besides, Wall Street would be an enjoyably entertaining movie anytime. Stone occasionally allows large philosophical observations to drift into his characters’ mouths, and the movie’s a bit too long for its flimsy weight. But most of the dialogue, by Stone and Stanley Weiser, is crackling, and spoken by a colorful cast.

Stone can’t quite make anything interesting out of Daryl Hannah’s role, and Gekko’s wife, played by dishy Sean Young, is around much too little. But Douglas is forceful and reptilian in his Mephistopheles role, with a lot of juicy speeches culminating in his declaration that “Greed is right.”

Sheen, who also played the central role in Platoon, is fine as the callow trader. His father, Martin Sheen, plays his father here, the film’s voice of blue-collar reason, who can’t brook his son’s strange insider language and $400 suits.

Stone has made the movie as an ethical lesson, and he tries to demonstrate that all those dollars that have been flying merrily around for years may actually be connected to ordinary peoples’ lives. Actually, I suspect that the thing audiences may remember about this movie is how much fun it is to be in the limo and the Lear jet. That may not be what Stone intended, but it’s certainly the spirit that made Wall Street what it is today.

First published in the Herald, December 1987

That last paragraph turned out to be true, to the point that the real-life buccaneers of the early 21st century made their role model Gekko look like a piker, an idea Stone got some play out of in the Wall Street sequel. Some young actors involved with the film might have drawn some unintended lessons from it too; give Stone credit for spotting the buzzing grandiosity inside Charlie Sheen, which has lately been on such prominent display. The movie’s overstated in the manner of High Stone, a style that manages to seethe with a certain jangly energy even when it makes you want to slap your head. The sequel did not catch the old crazy fire, possibly because fiction had been embarrassed by reality at that point.