Desert Bloom

February 20, 2020

desertbloomIf Desert Bloom were not quite so sure of its own importance, it might be a great movie. It’s still a good one, though, and well worth recommending even with its problems.

At its heart, it is a family drama, filtered through the nearsighted eyes of a 13-year-old girl, Rose (Annabeth Gish), who struggles through the winter of 1950-’51 in Las Vegas with her eternally perky mother (JoBeth Williams), two sisters, stepfather (Jon Voight), and beloved aunt (Ellen Barkin), who is visiting to secure a Nevada divorce, and maybe to secure a high-rolling sugar daddy.

Most of the struggles spring from the instability of the stepfather, a disturbed alcoholic veteran, whose erratic and sometimes violent behavior becomes worse as he tries to figure out what the government is doing in the wasteland north of town.

What they’re doing out there is setting up a bombing range where atomic weapons will be detonated. This proximity provides the domestic drama with a suitably humbling perspective, as the characters conduct their fragile human business with a cloud over their heads – in this case, a cloud shaped like a mushroom.

It also provides writer-director Eugene Corr many opportunities for gallows irony. Townspeople trill ecstatically about the fun of being part of history; Voight changes the name of his desert service station to “Atomic Gas”; Williams rouses the kids out of bed on the morning of the first blast with a cheery, “Rise and shine, it’s A-bomb time.”

Some of this humor seems uncomfortably patronizing to the characters in the film. Corr’s point may be that the government was not sufficiently informing the populace of the dangers involved, but his tone sometimes smacks of hindsight superiority.

This is all the more bothersome because so much of the film is beautifully written and acted, especially by Gish, Barkin, Jay Underwood (as Gish’s first love interest) and Allen Garfield, as a neighbor fearful of the bomb’s effects. Garfield immediately taps the audience’s identification, as he often does, in part because Voight’s character is so difficult and unsympathetic.

Voight’s performance dominates the film. The depth of his earnestness is astonishing, yet busy mannerisms crowd his character. He gets a few incredible moments, such as his pronouncement, after a spell in a detox hospital, that “From now on, I’m gonna be more easy-going,” while the cords in his neck stand out as tight as new rope, but he works so hard at being an actor that it detracts from the plight of his pathetic character. Gish’s unfussy raw talent is ultimately more moving.

Her scenes of growing up are lovely: the fun of schmoozing with the members of the Pink Pinky club, who paint only one fingernail with polish; the excitement of her first date, and the resulting terror of a falsie floating away across a swimming pool; the thrill of being fitted with a new dress by her racy aunt; the sadness after her Christmas gift is stonily unappreciated by her stepfather.

Desert Bloom, which premiered here earlier this year at the Seattle International Film Festival, was developed by Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, which helps projects get off the ground that wouldn’t usually have much of a chance. However problematical the film may be, it’s a strong effort, and Redford’s group is to be commended for allowing the film to flower.

First published in the Herald, August 17, 1986

I still remember the mood of this film – which says something about it – and that Voight’s performance is sometimes scary in its intensity. This was Annabeth Gish’s first film. Sundance, as you could see, was still pretty new.

The Milagro Beanfield War

January 18, 2013

milagrobFor the better part of a decade, Robert Redford has been working on bringing John Nichols’ novel The Milagro Beanfield War to the screen. Not as an acting job, but as the second installment of Redford’s directorial career, a career that began with an Oscar in 1980 for Ordinary People.

Redford’s main problem was finding a workable screenplay in Nichols’ largish novel (eventually David Ward, who wrote Redford’s The Sting, conquered the scripting job). Then the shooting itself was dogged by unpredictable weather at the New Mexico locations and by Redford’s own lackadaisical approach to matters of scheduling.

Having lavished all this attention on the property (not to mention a healthy chunk of change), Redford has made a surprisingly lightweight film. It’s not that Milagro is a bad movie, exactly, but it certainly is slim.

The storyline is extremely simple. A small New Mexico town is threatened by the proposed development of a resort community. One farmer (Chick Vennera) diverts the developer’s water to feed his own modest beanfield. The fatcat (Richard Bradford) has a dilemma; if he arrests the farmer, he risks poisonous publicity. But he can’t let the villagers get the upper hand.

That’s all there is; it taps into the oldest strain of little guy vs. the unfeeling system, this time set in the beguiling Chicano community and culture. To Redford’s credit, he does take pains to paint the stock characters in more complex colors. But most of them come out looking like stock characters.

There’s the weary sheriff (Ruben Blades) caught between the warring factions; the feisty businesswoman (Sonia Braga) who tries to organize the town against the money men, with some amusingly mixed results; the jaded ex-activist lawyer (John Heard) whom she tries to rejuvenate for the cause; the gangly graduate student (Daniel Stern) who falls in love with the people he’s observing; the easygoing mayor (Tex-Mex singer Freddy Fender).

Presiding over it all is an ancient (Carlos Riquelme, a popular Mexican star) who discusses everything with his pig and with the angel (Roberto Carricart) who passes by now and then. Riquelme is the film’s touchstone, a mischievous presence evidently close to Redford’s heart, and he sets the movie’s whimsical tone.

The ensemble is attractive, relaxed, and the film is easy on the eyes and mind. Thus one inclines to excuse the slapdash nature of the storytelling, the vague sense that we’re missing some crucial connective tissue.

Not quite so easy to excuse is the literal-minded prettiness of Robbie Greenberg’s cinematography (of the oh-look-there’s-a-rainbow variety), or the coziness of the film’s finale, which presents an awfully neat (and naïve) way out. It’s a bit difficult to believe some of the last-minute changes of heart, and I for one couldn’t shake the nagging sense that Redford didn’t quite believe them either. It’s hard to dislike The Milagro Beanfield War, but it’s also hard to champion it.

First published in the Herald, March 31, 1988

I don’t know what I meant by Redford’s approach to scheduling; must have been something I read in Premiere. But then not much about this movie sticks in the mind, beyond the agreeable cast.

Out of Africa

April 13, 2012

Out of Africa is a chronicle of the early womanhood of Danish author Karen von Blixen, based on her writings (under the name Isak Dinesen) and on biographies about her. The film traces the years approximately surrounding World War I, a period in von Blixen’s life during which she lived in Africa.

What a story it is, full of adventure, exotica, disaster, and romance. But what a frustratingly pedantic film version, with few flights of poetry.

On a sheer storytelling level, the film gets off to a good start. We see a glimpse of Karen (Meryl Streep) in 1913 Denmark, proposing marriage to a casual friend, the Baron von Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer). They’re not in love, but she wants his title, and he wants her family’s money, so they agree to the match.

Soon after, she joins him in Africa, where they establish a coffee plantation. Their idyll, during which she surprises many with her pre-women’s lib gumption, is broken when she contracts syphilis, a side effect of the Baron’s philandering. She goes to Denmark for a cure, and on her return to Africa, the marriage exists in name only.

That clears the way for her friendship with Denys (Robert Redford), a hunter who encourages her uncanny skill for telling stories. Soon he’s keeping residence at her house, for the few days when he returns between safaris.

This love story takes up the last 90 minutes of the movie—and as I examine the thumbnail synopsis above, it is difficult to believe that this film actually takes more than two-and-a-half hours to tell its story. But it does.

The problem is that, after the promising opening, director Sydney Pollack (Tootsie) falls prey to the curse of the Big Movie Syndrome, in which ideas and events must be drawn out and overemphasized, so that the people who vote for the Oscars will be sure to notice. He pads the carefully constructed screenplay by Kurt Luedtke with countless shots of breathtaking plains and hills.

Most of this travelogue stuff is impressive indeed, thanks to the beauty of the continent and David Watkin’s handsome cinematography. The high point of this is a lovely sequence wherein Denys pilots his new plane for Karen, and they fly over an ocean beach, scattering thousands of pink flamingos.

But Pollack overdoes things. He doesn’t just put Karen in peril of a lion attack once—he does it three separate times. And he can’t integrate the importance of the war or the issue of native freedom in any sensible way.

Even more troubling, he hasn’t gotten his actors up to snuff. Redford, in what is essentially a supporting role, appears uneasy and distant. Streep is technically very impressive, but she doesn’t have the depth to reach the nitty-gritty of what must have been an amazingly gutsy woman. Together, they fail to strike sparks—both are inward-directed actors.

This all makes Out of Africa sound worse than it actually is; it’s not an inept film, and there’s a lot to look at and enjoy. But, given the material and the credentials of the filmmakers, it certainly is a disappointment.

First published in the Herald, December 19, 1985

Perhaps you heard this went on to win the best picture Oscar? I would watch it again, as a big fan of Dinesen and a big fan of Africa on film. But I mean I thought some things needed to be said, right? And though Meryl Streep hardly lacks depth, I did think she missed a level, even if she’s still very good in the picture. Brandauer’s great, by the way, slinking off with the movie under his arm.

The Natural

September 9, 2011

The table is so full of starpower it fairly trembles. There sits America’s star, Robert Redford, looking superb in a film that shrouds his character within the cloak of the Great American Myth; a cloak that inevitably surrounds the actor himself. Across from Redford is Robert Duvall, the actor’s actor who is riding a crest of respect (including the Oscar, of course) and a surge of activity. It is well within Duvall’s powers to command any scene in which he appears, especially with a juicy role like sportswriter Max Mercy, but his performance in The Natural is typically considerate of his fellow actors. Between the two heavyweights sits Kim Basinger, a hot starlet who shot from being a James Bond girl (Never Say Never Again) to being the funniest thing in a Blake Edwards movie (The Man Who Loved Women) to this key role in the company of legends and near-legends.

They’re sitting at this table in a posh nightclub, where Duvall has brought Redford to meet the local gambling kingpin. This is the fourth person at the table. It’s Darren McGavin.

Now, here’s a guy, a journeyman actor, been in movies off and on for years—actually, done mostly TV for the last decade or more. And it’s an interesting thing, because he’s got to sit amidst the cream of the Hollywood crop, and he’s got to run the scene. Actually, the Redford character controls the scene, in a subtle way, but McGavin’s character has to orchestrate it. Not only that, but McGavin is playing a bigshot, an important man surrounded by underlings—in the exact opposite of his real-life position vis-à-vis the other actors at the table.

I’m thinking about this scene, and about McGavin’s good performance in general, because it’s one of the few things in The Natural that strikes me as being truly intriguing, or weird, or out-of-place. The film is a series of perfect dream images, the effect of which becomes sort of numbing after a while. At first, the interlocking elements of the plot promise something majestic: a boy’s father succumbs under a tree in the backyard; lighting hits the tree; the boy carves a baseball bat out of the cleaved wood, a bat with a lightning bolt carved on it.

The stuff of myths and legends (as Barbara Hershey points out to us, in case we hadn’t noticed); and the sunset scene in which the boy, now grown and on his way to a big-league tryout, whiffs a baseball legend named the Whammer (played with Ruthian magnitude by Joe Don Baker), is a wonderful slice of history-in-the-making. (Is there any doubt the little boy to whom Redford’s Roy Hobbs gives the strikeout ball is the same Nebraska farmboy who steps up to face Hobbs for the last out of the last game of the pennant race sixteen years later?) And I, for one, will always cherish Hobbs’ first at-bat, when he takes his manager’s idle bit of baseball chatter—”Awright Hobbs, tear the cover off the ball”—quite literally.

But the movie starts to have a clockwork feel to it. And there’s very little genuine baseball funkiness here; the closest it gets to that kind of thing is the scene in which the manager (Wilford Brimley) and the coach (Richard Farnsworth) play a laid-back game of “Name That Tune” in the dugout. You would guess that Barry (Diner) Levinson would be a perfect choice to make a baseball movie, but The Natural exists in a carefully-composed ozone layer where the sweat and dirt and grease of Diner are not allowed. Clearly, this is what the filmmakers wanted, and there are many beautifully-realized bits of action (like the business with Brimley and the dugout water fountain). But you wonder if the film might have been more satisfying if it wasn’t trying so hard to be a Great Film.

It’s tempting to envision Levinson as a slave to the awesome talents of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, whose film this seems to be as much of Levinson’s. But remember that the movie was initiated by the producers, who also wrote the screenplay and cooked up the alterations of Bernard Malamud’s novel. And there is the possible influence of Redford, whose Ordinary People featured similarly fastidious production design. The submersion of directorial personality in The Natural, due (perhaps) to the collaboration of many very talented people, is reminiscent of a couple of other big films this year that hark back to the “Tradition of Quality” school of filmmaking. I like Greystoke and The Bounty as well as The Natural, and was variously enchanted and riveted by all of them, but had a similar feeling as the lights came up after each: Is that all? Somehow the emphasis on story and production value seemed to eclipse the men who made the movies. Official classics have a tendency to become—well, official, and the lifeblood can drain out of them quickly. A number of people who have seen The Natural have pointed out the irony of its title. For all of its loveliness, grace, and good intentions, it’s just not natural.

First published in The Informer, May/June 1984

As the late great “Voice of the Mariners” Dave Niehaus used to say, it’s corn-growin’ weather, so the warmth of early September seemed like a good time to print a baseball review. I watched this movie two nights in a row, for a variety of quirky reasons that we need not go into now (but one of them involved the opening night of the Seattle International Film Festival that year). As a person who loves baseball and the Malamud novel, I want it to be a great movie, but I can’t get past the over-dressed myth-making or the serious selling-out of Malamud’s final act. There’s still quite a bit to love, don’t get me wrong, including the locked, ominous close-up of Barbara Hershey as she shifts her gaze from west to east, her focus changing from established star to newcomer as Hobbs strikes out the Whammer by the railroad tracks on a late afternoon. The thing that amazes me is that I didn’t mention Randy Newman’s score in this review, a modern classic later re-purposed to exultant end in Chuck Workman’s montage Precious Images.