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.

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Half Moon Street

October 10, 2012

The bare bones of the plot of Half Moon Street suggest a promising, if convoluted, spy thriller. It’s based on Paul Theroux’ novel Doctor Slaughter and begins with a youngish American (Sigourney Weaver) landing a job in London with an Arab affairs bureau.

She’s hobnobbing with some high mucky-mucks, but she’s making almost no money. Then an anonymous videophile sends her a tape espousing the advantages of prostitution.

Why? She hasn’t got a clue. But it makes a practical impression on her, and before long she joins the ranks of a high-class escort agency.

She finds this unusual double career acceptable. One night, she is the companion of a bona fide Lord (Michael Caine), who is one of Her Majesty’s most important politicians. They hit it off and keep seeing each other; at the same time, he’s working on a delicate Middle Eastern peace treaty.

The threads that will tie up the plot may already be apparent; be assured that Weaver’s Arab associates and Caine’s peace efforts are going to intersect somehow. It’s a typically convoluted process—you know how these spies love to be complicated.

On paper, all this sounds like the makings of a nifty little espionage piece. But it doesn’t work out that way on film. Half Moon Street steps off on the wrong foot almost from the first moment.

A lot of clunky exposition gets shoved at us in the opening scenes. But there is a more serious and sustained problem, too: a graceless lack of style. Director Bob Swaim flounders in search of some kind of fluency. The actors are inexpressive, the camera always seems to be in an uncomfortable place, and much of the dialogue is delivered in a dead-voiced monotone (a lot of the hollow-sounding dialogue sounds as though it were post-synchronized).

In fact, the film sounds and moves like one of those uncertain efforts that result when foreign directors make their first English-language films. This is ironic, since Swaim is an American who made some successful movies in France (notably La Balance, a hard-driving cop flick). Evidently Swaim flourished in French, but twisted his mother tongue.

The film is saved from being a disaster by the innate perverseness of the basic idea (when Caine spots Weaver at a party, he has to ask her what hat she’s wearing that evening: Is she a diplomat or a hooker?), the sturdy professionalism of Caine, and the watchability of Weaver.

She has lately carved a spot for herself as one of the glorious women of the current cinema—and yet, something is wrong here. Either Swaim wanted her character to come off as hollow, or she and he missed connections somewhere; either way, her performance does not begin to work until she wins you over by sheer presence (she’s onscreen most of the time—Caine is assigned a supporting role).

Swaim even commits the incredible feat of making Weaver’s frequent nude scenes curiously non-erotic. And if that’s intentional, I think it goes without saying that the guy needs to have his head examined.

First published in the Herald, September 1986

There is great variability in Weaver’s performances over the years; she can be smashing, and she can be toneless, her vocal limitations being a particular challenge. Swaim did Masquerade after this and then went back to French cinema.


Ghostbusters

November 11, 2011

Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd are a study in contrasting comedic styles. Murray is loose, anarchic, and insouciant; Aykroyd is precise, focused, and clean-cut. These traits define their big-screen presences: Aykroyd, while clearly a gifted comedian, looks prissy and out-of-place in movies. His mimicry and parody are well suited to TV, but in movies, to a certain extent, you’ve got to be yourself. And there just doesn’t seem to be that much there.

Murray, however, moves across the screen as though he owns it. He appears absolutely at ease and in control. Improvising wildly, he can make you laugh during movies that barely deserve to be released (to wit—although that seems an inappropriate word—Meatballs and Stripes, two low-budget box-office champs).

Murray and Aykroyd have teamed up for Ghostbusters, which Aykroyd started writing as a vehicle for himself and John Belushi a few years ago. Murray has stepped into the Belushi role, and he dominates the film; Aykroyd remains pretty much in the background throughout. Given their respective film personalities, this is just as it should be. Murray infuses the movie with as much of his anarchic spirit as possible.

They play a couple of parapsychologists (you know, people who study weird things) who, with fellow scientist Harold Ramis, set up shop for themselves after getting kicked out of their university research positions. They agree to track down any supernatural phenomena that may be bothering people.

It happens to be a good season for ghosts, so the boys are busy capturing the troubled spirits. When a musician (Sigourney Weaver) sees a demon of some kind in her refrigerator, she goes to the ghostbusters—but this is one ghost they can’t find. Murray, however, finds himself liking Weaver a lot (you can’t blame him, either).

It turns out Weaver’s apartment is the key to some crazy scheme that could bring about the end of the world. Well. Best not to go into that. Basically, the movie would like to provide a few good scares, a lot of laughs, and some special effects.

Scary it isn’t. And some of the special effects are good, but most are just okay. Funny is what the film needs to be, especially a heavily promoted (and very expensive: somewhere around $30 million) summer release.

On that score, Ghostbusters is a draw. The performers have some nice moments. But the producer-director, Ivan Reitman (he directed—yes—Meatballs and Stripes), has one of the feeblest senses of comedy I’ve ever seen. He has no instinct for basic moviemaking, for that matter; there’s no rhythm, no structure to the scenes. Bit after bit will build to a funny conclusion that doesn’t conclude. Ghostbusters is better than his previous efforts, but it’s still seriously hampered.

In the past, Reitman’s directorial successes (he produced Animal House, but that was directed by John Landis, who does understand comedy) have been carried on Bill Murray’s shoulders. Murray and company may carry Ghostbusters along too, at least for a while.

Murray himself may need either a strong director to harness his improvisatory talent, or maybe no director at all. His next film will sidestep comedic considerations: in his first serious role, he plays the spiritually minded central character of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. That’s the kind of bizarre casting that could lead to disaster or triumph, but probably nothing in between. If nothing else, you’ve got to admire Murray’s fondness for extremes.

First published in the Herald, June 9, 1984

Apparently I didn’t quite anticipate what a blockbuster this would become. But it is pretty blah overall, except for Murray, who summons up some classic moments. For the results of the Razor’s Edge experiment, see here.


Gorillas in the Mist

March 18, 2011

In the opening scene of Gorillas in the Mist, we see a young Dian Fossey attending a lecture by the great scientist Louis Leakey.

Leakey sums up his interest in tracing man’s lineage through the apes by saying, “I want to know who I am and what it was that made me that way.”

We may assume Fossey went to Africa to investigate that premise and, in the 18 years she spent there, must have made both an anthropological expedition and a voyage of self-discovery in her study of mountain gorillas.

The film of her story can only hint at the connection she made with the gorillas, although it presents a watchable treatment of her work. Fossey, played by Sigourney Weaver (who does fine, uninhibited work in the most demanding role of her career), is seen as a stubborn and self-possessed woman who cared immediately and deeply for the endangered animals she found on a mountainside in Rwanda.

The more she observed her groups of gorillas, the more distinct their personalities became, to the point where she gave them names and recognized their regular habits—all of which she recounted in some landmark “National Geographic” articles and in her book, Gorillas in the Mist.

Equally importantly, she fought against poachers who were killing the apes. She’s given credit for single-handedly saving the mountain gorilla population. It’s her war with poachers that is generally believed to be behind her murder under mysterious circumstances in 1985.

The movie, to its credit, shows Fossey not as a white goddess, but as an increasingly autocratic and, toward the end, somewhat crazed zealot. Sigourney Weaver is good at catching the slightly mad dreaminess in Fossey’s gaze, even at the film’s beginning.

There’s also a romance with a “Geographic” photographer (Bryan Brown), skirmishes with a sleazy zoo contractor and a warm friendship with her tracker (a wonderfully gentle performance by a non-actor, John Omirah Miluwi).

The director, Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter), working from a screenplay by Anna Hamilton Phelan, does nicely by the lush locations and the presence of the gorillas. (Many of the apes are real while others are the creations of Oscar-winning makeup man Rick Baker.)

But Apted doesn’t quite find the key to unlocking this story; except for the touching relationship between Fossey and her favorite gorilla, Digit, the movie is superficial, providing some interesting information but little compelling drama.

There’s no question Fossey found herself when she went into Africa; but this film can’t find out who she was or what made her that way.

First published in the Herald, September 23, 1988

Rick Baker again, inescapable under these circumstances (he’s now won Oscars in four consecutive decades, did your realize?). If Sigourney Weaver was going to win an Oscar, this was the year that might’ve done it; she was nominated for best actress for this performance, and for supporting actress for Working Girl. Jodie Foster won best actress for The Accused, and Geena Davis won supporting for The Accidental Tourist. As for the monkey aspect, I couldn’t find my review of Link, so that’ll have to wait.


Aliens

February 4, 2011

It’s difficult to understand why 20th Century Fox would have waited seven years to unleash a sequel to one of the most popular movies of the last decade, especially when the movie, 1979’s Alien, is such an uncomplicated piece of storytelling.

After all, the plot was just a haunted house in space—something bad was loose, tracking down the members of a spaceship. None too original to begin with, it’s been ripped off countless times since.

Whatever the reasons for the delay, the sequel proves that some things are worth the wait. Aliens—that’s right, some free-thinker resisted the near-inevitable Roman numerals—is just a dandy joy ride, full of movie-making savvy, confirming the promising talent of director-writer James Cameron. Actually, I think it’s a better movie than the original.

If you cast your memory back to the first film, you’ll recall that Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the sole human survivor of the alien presence, had just extinguished the creature and settled down into suspended animation, along with her wayward cat.

As Aliens opens, we learn that Ripley has been floating asleep through space for 57 years. She’s picked up by interstellar sanitation engineers and taken to a space station, where no one believes her story.

But when disturbing reports come back from the planet (since colonized) where she first found the bad eggs, a military reconnaissance mission is sent, and she goes along as adviser. Not surprisingly, the aliens—there were a lot of eggs down there, remember?—are running amuck. In fact, they’ve left their muck everywhere, on the ceilings, the walls, the floors.

At this point, Aliens could have gotten away with a simple game of alien-and-mouse, and probably satisfied its audience. But Cameron has a bunch of imaginative touches in his bag of tricks, the first of which is the discovery of a lone survivor, a little girl with plenty of smarts.

Ridley (Blade Runner) Scott, an ambitious director, made the first Alien a high-toned, high-tech exercise in terror. It looked fabulous, but with the exception of the fine cast, it always struck me as mechanical and overblown.

James Cameron, whose first film was The Terminator, is kinetic and grimy where Scott was mythic and neat. Cameron may be less highfalutin’, but he’s got oodles of sheer film sense. Although Aliens is about 2 ½ hours long, it flies by; and Cameron’s structure is so sound that the film keeps topping itself without getting repetitious.

He’s also woven in an allegory for, of all things, the Vietnam War, as well as an eventually touching mother-daughter theme among both the humans and the aliens.

Weaver returns, gutsy as ever. Paul Reiser, the stand-up comedian who appeared in Diner, plays the clammy mission administrator, who wants to retrieve an alien alive for study. He brings down the house when, after the crew has escaped from a hair-raising alien attack and voted to nuke the thing out of existence, he coolly observes that, “This is an emotional moment for all of us, okay, but let’s not make snap judgments!”

Michael Biehn, who played the normal guy (the one who wasn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger) in The Terminator, is quietly good as a Marine corporal abruptly put in charge, and Lance Henriksen gives a twist to the untrustworthy-android role.

The special effects are just spiffy, with the aliens modeled after the disgusting original design of H.R. Giger. But good special effects are the norm these days. It’s those other effects—storytelling, atmosphere, pacing, structure—that are in such short supply. James Cameron and his crew provide those in abundance.

First published in the Herald, July 1986

The Terminator was not Cameron’s first movie; I think I would have been aware of that in ’86, but who knows how these things fall through the cracks. Seeing Aliens was an exciting event, even on the small screen of the tiny preview room where it screened. It is interesting how Cameron has passed from being kind of a hip new talent to hopeless squaredom, at least by conventional wisdom. The colossal upcoming extension of Avatar fills me with a mixture of boredom and dread—and I liked Avatar, for the most part, which at least served as a justification for the idea of imagining an entire world in 3-D. In the meantime, the Cameron-produced Sanctum opens this weekend, a movie with a distinct air of King of the Worldness about it.