A primitive filmmaker who can usually be counted on for moments of genius, Mel Brooks runs true to form in a comedy about a greedy billionaire (played by Brooks) who bets another tycoon that he can spend a month with the Los Angeles homeless without any of his usual resources and survive. The movie takes a while to hit its stride, and its conclusion is fairly slapdash, but somewhere in between are some of the funniest bits of low slapstick Brooks has ever come up with, and an overall uncloying sweetness helps to save much of the rest. Coscripted by Rudy De Luca, Steve Haberman, and Ron Clark; with Lesley Ann Warren (in an unconventional turn as a bag lady), Jeffrey Tambor, Stuart Pankin, Howard Morris, and De Luca, who’s especially funny. (Esquire, Old Orchard, Pipers Alley, Norridge, Ford City, Harlem-Cermak, Lincoln Village)
Festooned with European prizes and an Academy Award nomination, this solid, well-acted humanist period drama–adapted by director Gianni Amelio and Vincenzo Cerami from a novel by Leonardo Sciascia–makes its points quietly but firmly. In Palermo, Sicily, in 1937, an accountant (Ennio Fantastichini) for the Fascist Confederation of Professionals and Artists, who was recently fired for embezzlement, cold-bloodedly murders his former boss, the accountant who replaced him, and his wife (after raping her). He makes no effort to resist arrest or defend himself and expects to be executed by a firing squad. But one of the judges (Gian Maria Volonte), a pensive widower opposed to the death penalty, insists on drawing out the trial and finding a way to save the killer, despite the opposition of the chief magistrate and all the other judges but one, a farmer (Renato Carpentieri). There are few fireworks in this courtroom drama, but the film acquires a genuine sense of mass and moral weight as it develops (1990). (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, July 19 through 25)
This book review appeared in the July 7, 1991 issue of Newsday. –J.R.
BRANDO: A Life in Our Times, by Richard Schickel. Atheneum, 271 pp., $21.95
“Of the many illusions celebrity foists upon us the illusion of coherence, the senses that these are privileged people in the world who somehow know what they are doing in ways that we do not, is the largest, and possibly the most dangerous. But Marlon Brando has kept faith with his incoherence.”
Arriving at this judgment toward the end of a head-scratching appraisal of the logic and meaning of Marlon Brando’s career, critic Richard Schickel seems to be breathing a sigh of relief, and some readers may feel like joining him. It’s an honorable and instructive admission of defeat, and while one may disagree by finding some coherence where Schickel does not — I happen to relish Brando’s modest and earthy performance in The Freshman as a refreshing autocritique of his posturing role in The Godfather (which Schickel considers his last “real” performance) — it’s still a premise that one can hang an exploratory book on.
Informing his critical biography with a personal, generational statement about what Brando has meant to him, as someone who entered adolescence in the mid-40s, Schickel’s study tends to get better as it proceeds, at least in the sense that it gradually abandons any pretense of coming up with a skeleton key to unlock all the mysteries irt probes. Before it reaches this plateau of enlightenment, many theories are brought forth, ranging from the psychological (the consequence of Brando having alcoholic parents) to the aesthetic (the deleterious effects of CinemaScope on Brando’s career during the 50s). Most of these have some validity, but none can fully account for the dismaying dips, rises and detours that Brando’s acting career has taken from the 40s to the present.
One major roadblack along the way is a resistance on Schickel’s part to taking Brando’s political interests seriously. Dubious about the power of the 60s to radicalize anything but sex for his generation (”The idea that the middle-class Sixties college kids…were serious revolutionaries was preposterous”), Schickel can only balk at Barndo’s rejection of his 1973 Oscar for Last Tango in Paris, and his use of that occasion to make an impassioned plea for the American Indian Movement (which he helped to found), followed by three years of related political activity.
“Perhaps as a result of his recent professional successes, perhaps because of the economic security it provided him, perhaps because he felt a need to justifyb his Oscar-night gesture, he took positions that were much more overtly radical than they had been in the past,” Schickel speculates, sidestepping the possible explanation that the plight of American Indians might have had something to do with Brando’s behavior. Faced elsewhere with the possibility (raised by Brando) that Gillo Pontecorvo, the Marxist director of Burn!, may have been hypocritically “exploiting and mistreating his native cast,” Schickel finds this notion not distressing but “delicious,” perhaps because it only confirms his scorn for the project.
This isn’t to say that Schickel necessarily dislikes political messages; he praises the anti-Stalinism of Viva Zapata! and singles out the more politically ambiguous On the Waterfront as his favorite, even though he admits that by the end of the latter “one really didn’t give a damn what the film was saying” (a point he later repeats about The Young Lions). The problem, rather, is that Schickel has more respect for the film industry and the acting profession than Brando does, and can’t understand why the actor has conducted his career accordingly.
At worst, this leads to some sloppy scholarship. “Search though one may, it is impossible to find any detailed comments about his work [in On the Waterfront] from Brando. This possibly betokens, of all things, satisfaction with it.” (It’s an interesting hypothesis, but only if one ignores Brando’s detailed and fascinating comments about the taxicab scene in Waterfront in Truman Capote’s “The Duke in His Domain” and Brando’s 1979 Playboy interview, neither of which suggests any satisfaction on Brando’s part.)
On the other hand, Schickel does an intriguing job of reading into A Streetcar Named Desire “a symbolic representation of the basic family drama that was crucial in forming [Brando],” and quotes some winning lines from a review by Stephen Sondheim of the underrated Guys and Dolls, taken from “an obscure and sober-sided film journal” that I wish Schickel had bothered to name.
It could be that Brando has never found a project since A Streetcar Named Desire that has been equally worthy of his talents, perhaps because this was the only time he played a full-fledged character whom he detested. Given Schickel’s partiality toward Brando as a sexual outlaw, beyond the pale of ethics, this isn’t a hypothesis that the author seems inclined to entertain, but it suggests a possible alternative route that puts his moral concerns and his gifts as a performer within the same arena. Maybe Schickel and I are both off the mark, but when Brando’s eagerly awaited autobiography appears, we’ll at least have some basis for an answer,
–Newsday, July 7, 1991 (slightly revised, December 2009)
From the Chicago Reader (July 5, 1991). –J.R.
TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by James Cameron
Written by Cameron and William Wisher
With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, Edward Furlong, Earl Boen, and Joe Morton.
As much a remake as a sequel, James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day begins, like The Terminator (1984), with a postnuclear Los Angeles in the year 2029, a world ruled by deadly machines where a few scattered remnants of humanity struggle to survive. Then the film leaps backward in time — not to 1984, when most of The Terminator took place, but to 1997, when the Terminator materializes in virtually the same mythic fashion, crouched naked like a Greek god, before rising and setting about finding the proper attire. This time he enters a bikers’ bar, where he quickly appropriates the clothes, boots, and bike of one tough customer and the shades of another, blithely smashing the skulls of whoever happens to get in his way.
The thrill and beauty of the Terminator, both as a character and as a concept — the ultimate Schwarzenegger role, against which all his other roles must be measured — resides in the excitement of witnessing a brutal, dispassionate machine, a weapon slicing impartially through metal, flesh, or bone en route to its unambiguous goal. In The Terminator this goal was to locate and kill a young woman named Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Sent back in time by the machines that rule 30 years later, the Terminator can change the course of history if he kills Sarah: she’ll never give birth to the man who will otherwise one day lead a rebellion against the machines. Unfortunately for the machines, a human time traveler from 2029, a young guerrilla fighter named Kyle Reese, turned up to save Sarah, also managing to father her savior-to-be son before perishing in an explosion that obliterated most of the Terminator as well.
This time it’s a little different. A resurrected version of the Terminator, now working for the human resistance forces of 2029, returns to the past to protect Sarah’s 12-year-old son John (Edward Furlong), now living with foster parents while Sarah is in a mental ward, diagnosed as schizophrenic because of her statements about the future. The Terminator’s new opponent is not a human but another, even more high-tech, killing machine (Robert Patrick). Sent back in time to destroy John Connor it appropriates the clothes of a cop and turns out to have the talent of replicating any human it comes in contact with. This capacity refers back intertextually not to The Terminator but to Cameron’s The Abyss (1989), where a benign extraterrestrial force, a sort of shimmering, amorphous mass of mercury, forms various human and animal shapes.
Between all three movies exist some interesting moral crossovers. The Terminator (henceforth Schwarzenegger) goes from being a killer-villain in The Terminator to a father-protector in Terminator 2, and the replicator that in The Abyss is a sweet, Spielbergian messenger of peace and love is in Terminator 2 a remorseless killer called T-1000 (henceforth Patrick). Moreover, in Terminator 2 Schwarzenegger is dressed like a Hell’s Angel while Patrick is dressed like a cop. It all fits into a curious sort of mythology that seems split between Greek and Christian elements: Godlike machines ascend to earth from a hellish future to mingle with mortals; both get resurrected on various occasions, and at least one gets (metaphorically) crucified. Neither is especially meek or charitable. “Judgment day” refers to the nuclear war that wipes out three billion people in 1997, shortly after the film’s events unfold; but it’s a judgment day without any apparent deity or judge.
In the broadest terms — and by and large Terminator 2 operates only in the broadest terms, with a minimum of either plot or characters — Cameron orchestrates three basic spectacles: (1) remorseless killing and destruction based on the machines’ plowing through or eliminating anything that stands between them and their goal; (2) automatic resurrection and replenishment of the selfsame machines whenever they become mutilated, perforated, or otherwise damaged; and (3) expedient replication (by Patrick) of various humans, generally victims. All three can be said to reflect the special talents of Cameron: (1) action and violence, (2) regeneration of narrative momentum, and (3) imitation (The Terminator grew out of The Road Warrior and Blade Runner; Cameron’s 1986 Aliens grew out of Alien; The Abyss plundered everything from Disney and De Mille to Spielberg; and Terminator 2 – well, the title speaks for itself). They combine in the most beautifully tailored action sequences I’ve seen this year.
The pleasures bound up in these three spectacles are a good 85 percent of what makes Terminator 2 worth watching; significantly, they completely depend on the figures of Schwarzenegger and Patrick — high-tech machines, albeit machines designed to look like men. The remaining 15 percent depends on the only two human characters of any extended consequence, Sarah and John, and as sources of spectacle or pleasure this mother and son are paltry by comparison. Cameron works hard at making it otherwise — presenting Sarah as a fanatical and muscular guerrilla fighter and John as a rebellious, mixed-up kid in dire need of a father — but character development is virtually nonexistent, and as long as the battling machines are around, which is almost always, the humans fade into the woodwork. There’s a little bit of contrived human emotion when Sarah vengefully cracks a bone or two belonging to a nasty doctor, but really, this can’t hold a candle to the passionless mayhem routinely carried out by the machines. The question of who’s fighting for the survival of mankind and who’s fighting for the machines turns out to be secondary; as in King Kong vs. Godzilla, it’s the big lugs who matter — suffering humanity is just there for decoration.
Cameron is shrewd enough to be aware of this imbalance — he even has Sarah mordantly remark in her offscreen narration that Schwarzenegger is the best father around for John (”In an insane world, it was the best choice”) — but not shrewd enough to transcend the problem. While he tries to derive some emotional force from the theme of motherhood — a theme that carried considerable weight in Aliens and The Abyss — he doesn’t get very far with it. At a couple of climactic junctures, he even assigns unmotivated human gestures to the dueling machines — a bit of saucy finger-wagging from Patrick, a wisecrack (”I need a vacation”) from Schwarzenegger — that violate whatever status they have as characters for the sake of easy laughs. He also awkwardly strives to wring a few drops of old-fashioned sentiment from the fact that Schwarzenegger doesn’t understand why humans cry, which stretches credibility almost as much. The brutal fact of the matter is that, though Sarah and John do act honorably and ingeniously on occasion, they seem emotionally confused and ineffectual much of the time; and however much Cameron insists on giving his machines faint glimmers of humanity, they command our full respect and loving attention only when they behave like thugs.
Indeed, probably the only time Cameron succeeds in humanizing the action is when he establishes that Schwarzenegger will do anything John tells him to. In fairy-tale terms, this effectively turns Schwarzenegger into a sort of genie like the one serving Sabu in Michael Powell’s The Thief of Bagdad — and forces 12-year-old John to teach himself rudimentary morality via Schwarzenegger in order to harness his own power. “You just can’t go around killing people,” he chides Schwarzenegger at one point, who responds by asking “Why?”
Why, indeed? If Schwarzenegger and Patrick didn’t kill a lot of people and didn’t look like people themselves, we wouldn’t care a fraction as much about what they did. The functions of the two machines as relentless and remorseless killer-destroyers are chiefly what makes them live and thrive on the screen. The principle even operates in small ways: when John needs a quarter to use a pay phone, Schwarzenegger obligingly smashes the bottom of the phone with his fist so that a jackpot of change splatters out.
Terminators are fun because we’d all like to have one of our own. Caught in a traffic jam? If your Terminator is at the wheel, he’ll helpfully plow through any vehicles or motorists who stand in your way. Do you want something you can’t afford? The Terminator will grab it for you, hand it over, and not even ask for a tip. Do you want to mangle a bully who’s pestering you, or maybe wipe out someone who just irritates you slightly?
Better yet, why not go after a ruthless dictator — too bad about the legions of innocent bystanders. The possibilities are clearly endless, and as long as we have amoral machines carrying out the dirty work for us, armed with snazzy war toys and state-of-the-art programming, we can watch them work their wonders with a mixture of admiration, envy, pride, and relief, delighting in the special effects and taking care not to linger too long over any of the resulting wreckage, slow deaths, and corpses. It must be conceded, however, that Cameron’s mise en scene surpasses that of the TV news. Not even Schwarzkopf can hold a candle to Schwarzenegger when it comes to embodying our ultimate hopes and dreams.
Postscript (January 8, 2012, 22 years later): Film critic Noel Vera (Critic After Dark) has just written the following to me on Facebook:
Julie Dash’s first feature (1991), set in the islands along the south Atlantic coast of the U.S. sometime around 1900. A group of black women, carrying on ancient African traditions and beliefs as part of an extended family preparing to migrate north, confront the issue of what to bring with them and what to leave behind. Lyrically distended in its folkloric meditations, with striking use of slow and slurred motion in certain interludes, this doesn’t make much use of drama or narrative, and the musical score and performances occasionally seem at war with the period ambience. But the resources of the beautiful locations are exploited to the utmost, and Dash can be credited with an original, daring, and sincere conception. With Cora Lee Day, Alva Rogers, Adisa Anderson, Kaycee Moore, and Barbara-O. 114 min. (JR)