Turk 182!

January 2, 2013

turk182Turk 182! is one of those inscrutable titles that film studios hope will prove intriguing enough to lure the ticket-buying public. That’s what they think, anyway.

The movie behind the title turns out to be an ordinary entry in the reliably popular (and populist) little-guy-against-the-system genre. These plots usually spring out of some injustice that our hero needs to make right, which gives the filmmakers the chance to whip up some Pavlovian rage and send the audience into a good heavy-lathered sweat.

Well…Turk 1982! doesn’t perceptibly raise the perspiration level. It punches the right buttons in getting its anti-Establishment points across, but the proceedings are too automatic to lift it above the level of a programmer.

The injustice here centers on an off-duty New York firefighter (Robert Urich) who, while having a beer, sees a fire taking place across the street. He rushes over, fights his way through the blaze to save a little girl’s life, then accidentally falls through a window and racks himself up pretty seriously.

Cut to six months later: The fireman’s physical wounds have healed, but he’s off the force and ineligible for his pension benefits because he was under the influence while performing the rescue mission. Enter his shiftless younger brother (Timothy Hutton), who revs himself up with righteous anger and takes the case to city hall.

When the slimy mayor (Robert Culp) won’t listen to him, Hutton papers the walls of the mayor’s office with his brother’s benefit-rejection letters. Then he figures if he goes on a spree of graffiti-perpetrating, he might just get the attention of the powers-that-be.

He aims his barbs at the mayor, to embarrass him into examining his brother’s case. He plants a mysterious signature (Turk 182) on highly visible landmarks—a graffiti-proof subway car that the mayor is dedicating personally; on the posterior of the city’s mounted police; on the huge scoreboard at a Giants game, where the mayor hopes to pick up a campaign boost and gets booted instead.

The unknown Turk 182 becomes a local hero, and the mayor sends some cops (Peter Boyle and Darren McGavin) out to track him down.

It’s not a bad idea, but let’s face it, it’s not particularly great either. The execution of this idea, under the loose (and sometimes agreeably funky) direction of Bob (Porky’s) Clark, is similarly wishy-washy. There’s the perfunctory love interest (Kim Cattrall) for our sensitive hero, and the perfunctory tender scenes of brudderly love, etc.

Hutton is okay; he clearly enjoys playing rebellious roles, and he’s effective in them. One note to the filmmakers: in Hutton’s last scene, when he is supposed to be triumphant, his face is bathed in stark lighting from below. Such is the topography of Hutton’s face that this lighting emphasizes his resemblance to a weasel, which is probably not the effect the filmmakers wanted to get for this outlaw hero in his ultimate victory.

First published in the Herald, February 1985

This was maybe the most mystifying of the mystifying run of movies Hutton made after winning an Oscar for Ordinary People and presumably having some heat in Hollywood (see also Iceman and The Falcon and the Snowman). It is very much of the Eighties, even if the basic idea seems like a Seventies stick-it-to-the-man leftover.


November 5, 2012

So much of Iceman is so good that you almost knock yourself out wishing it were better. Really, it’s amazing the film is as involving as it is, given a shaky, undernourished screenplay and the claustrophobic nature of the story.

The movie hurtles through its first minutes, as a form is found in the ice and brought back to an arctic research station to be thawed. When the doctors and scientists of the station prepare to examine the body—it’s a human shape—they are astonished to discover faint life signs. When they bring the terrified iceman to consciousness, they face a new problem: what do they do with him now?

Australian director Fred Schepisi throws you right into the fray in these early scenes, and this fast-moving approach does two things: It gets you involved very quickly, and it doesn’t give you a chance to think about the admittedly wild premise.

Once the iceman (played by John Lone) is up and around, it’s time for the old science vs. humanity argument. Some of the scientists want to test and probe the iceman, so they can assemble clues and find out what gave his cells the capacity to regenerate after so many years in limbo.

One anthropologist, Stanley Shephard (Timothy Hutton), wants to place the iceman in a sympathetic environment and try to get to know him. Shephard thinks that if they learn what’s inside the iceman’s mind, rather than simply sampling his body, they’ll get an even better idea of what kept the 40,000-year-old man alive.

They install the iceman in a Vivarium, an artificial habitat that resembles the outside. Shephard lets the iceman adapt, and then goes into the Vivarium to try to make some sort of contact. His dealings with the iceman form the core of the movie, as they exchange words, share food, and even a duet on a Neil Young song.

Much of this is smartly done, but the conflicts between Shephard and the other doctors seem trumped-up, and aren’t really all that interesting. We never get to know exactly who’s pulling the strings (or threatening to pull the plug), and most of the scientists don’t seem like real people with histories. They just exist as characters who disagree with each other.

There are script problems, but the film is visually powerful. Just the sheer physical presence of the Vivarium, which exists under the arctic ice in a huge warehouse, is fabulous.

And Schepisi, who directed The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Barbarosa, has a terrific eye. In the landscape footage of the tundra (filmed in Canada), Schepisi has found some breathtaking vistas, and he has a knack for putting the camera in just the right spot. In the final sequence, as two people trek across the snow, there’s poetry in the shapes he finds in hills and drifts of ice.

On this particular project, Schepisi’s reach exceeds his grasp—something like the iceman, who, looking up at a helicopter flying over the Vivarium, reaches up to it, thinking it’s his god coming to take him to heaven. Iceman doesn’t quite cut it, but moments like that make it an intriguing disappointment.

First published in the Herald, April 13, 1984

The ice fields turn out to be not so far from the mystical Outback, as far as Schepisi is concerned. I recall Pauline Kael going ape over this movie, although it seems to have had no real life since then (it would be interesting to know more about what got changed in it, as online sources suggest Schepisi had a falling-out with producers and various stuff, including the ending, got tinkered with). Lone came out of nowhere (by way of Peking Opera) for this. The movie was one of the string of very curious choices made by Timothy Hutton in the years after his Oscar.

The Falcon and the Snowman

December 26, 2011

Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn are the cream of Hollywood’s hot young actors. They didn’t get there through cuteness or pandering or doing the right talk shows; they got there because they’re very good at what they do.

They’re dedicated actors who seem to deliberately eschew the more commercially sensible movies they could make in favor of difficult, challenging projects. Hutton, who took home the best supporting actor Oscar for Ordinary People, has had a couple of box-office duds in a row, Daniel and Iceman, both of which were interesting.

Penn, who enjoys looking completely different from one role to the next, scored in Fast Times in Ridgemont High, delved into the harsh prison world of Bad Boys, then appeared as a more-or-less normal human being in Racing with the Moon.

They became friends on the set of Taps and decided to make a movie together. In The Falcon and the Snowman, they’ve picked out what must be their most commercially risky work yet: it’s the true story of two Americans, Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee, played by Hutton and Penn respectively. The two sold government secrets to the Soviets (Boyce was captured a couple of years ago near Port Angeles). Hutton and Penn obviously are not worried about appearing unattractive to their audience.

Boyce and Lee are childhood chums (they were altar boys together), sons of wealthy Los Angeles families. Boyce, who owns a falcon (thus his code name), leaves the seminary at the film’s beginning and takes a job where he is exposed to state secrets; Lee is a two-bit drug dealer (and soon-to-be-addict) who spends a lot of time in Mexico.

Boyce gets it into his head that the best way to register disapproval against the immoral behavior of the CIA is to sell information to the Soviets. He enlists Lee as the bagman for the process, and Lee establishes a relationship with the Russian Embassy in Mexico City; he brings them documents and film, they give him money.

This set-up effectively provides suspense, with the amateurish spy efforts of Boyce and Lee rubbing up against the efficient espionage systems of the world’s great superpowers.

While that situation makes the film sufficiently watchable, there are many problems. It’s always hard to cozy up to a film with traitors as its main characters, even though Hutton and Penn are interesting actors. Hutton plays it straight and suggests plenty of anguish (but not a lot of motivation) for his misdeeds; Penn is pretty off-the-wall, with a characterization that resembles, physically and behaviorally, Robert De Niro’s uncouth lout in The Kind of Comedy (when the Russian agents tensely inform him that he’s been transferred to a less conspicuous Mexico City hotel, Penn looks at them blankly and says, “Does it have a swimming pool?”).

Although it gets off to an intriguing start, I liked the film less and less as it went on. British director John Schlesinger, who has long been one of the more overrated figures in world cinema, loves to satirize America (Midnight Cowboy, The Day of the Locust), and he’s up to it again here. In the process, he provides trivializing portraits of the boys’ parents, whose main sin seems to be that they are wealthy.

He also establishes a potentially fascinating environment in Hutton’s top-security job, then lets it dribble away—and let’s not even mention Hutton’s girlfriend (Lori Singer, of Footloose), mere window dressing.

It’s ironic that Schlesinger should blow it so badly, since he’s just come off his most highly regarded work in years: the BBC production An Englishman Abroad, a charming tale in which Alan Bates plays the real-life figure of—yes—a spy who deals secrets to the Soviet Union.

First published in the Herald, January 1985

I don’t sound keen on it here, but I have thought of certain scenes from this movie once in a while, and it has a curiosity value somehow. Hutton and Penn hitting golf balls into the ocean—boys of privilege playing games with things they don’t understand. An Englishman Abroad, though, is wonderful. Weirdly, Penn later (years later) hired the real Daulton Lee to serve as his assistant, after Lee was released from prison.