Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
The year's best film was the year's most intricately-designed puzzle, the story of a woman psychiatrist who tried to follow a con-man into the heart of his con. Lindsay Crouse starred as a therapist who tries to save the life of one of her patients, an addictive gambler, by appealing directly to the man who might be about to have him killed. The man, played by Joe Mantegna, exerts an almost instant fascination over her -- not because of sex appeal, although that is part of it, but because he invites her to be a spotter for him in a high-stakes poker game.
The therapist turns out to be as addictive as her patient, and she is skillfully drawn into a con game by Mantegna and Mike Nussbaum, as two old partners in deception who seem able to communicate telepathically. At first the audience feels superior; we can see what's happening to Crouse, even if she can't. Then we realize we've been trapped right along with her, in a labyrinthine plot where nothing is at it seems.
"House of Games" is the first film directed by the playwright and screenwriter David Mamet, and it is an ideal presentation of his style -- the elegantly simple dialog, clipped, turning back on itself, works with the set decoration and the barren urban landscapes to create a world which has been emptied of all bystanders, and narrowed down to the con and the mark. This is not only a great film, but one of the year's best entertainments.
This is a film to listen to as well as watch. Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin enter so effortlessly into the cadences of Louisiana that the sound track provides an uncanny sense of place. Quaid plays a vice cop who is not above participating in the department's illegal "widows and orphans" fund. Barkin is a local prosecutor. They become friends, survive some scrapes together, fall in love--and then wind up on opposite sides of a case in court.
Directed by Jim McBride, "The Big Easy" is one of the most definitely regional American films ever made; the music on the sound track underlines the specific sense of place, and the Barkin and Quaid characters seem to grow naturally out of the story. Neither the movie's romance nor its thriller aspects seem familiar; McBride and his actors particularly put a new spin on everything, even including the usual clichés about one-night stands. The late Charles Ludlam provides brilliant supporting work as Quaid's lawyer--but then all the supporting work in this movie is offbeat and precise, and so are the leads.
The original screenplay for this movie was written by Charles Bukowski, a Los Angeles cult novelist and poet who based it on his own life-a life spent largely in gutbucket saloons and the more disordered corners of Skid Row. The movie's obviously autobiographical hero is played by Mickey Rourke, in a performance that takes a lot of chances, and wins. And Faye Dunaway is brilliant in a comeback role as Wanda, the desperate blonde whose legs still look good but who will do almost anything for a drink. Rourke and Dunaway spend some days and nights together, trying to find poetry in sadness and sometimes succeeding, and director Barbet Schroeder is wise enough not to impose too much plot on these meandering adventures of two skuzzy but triumphantly human drunks.
Bernardo Bertolucci's grand epic was shot on location in the People's Republic of China, and here again, as in "The Big Easy," the location is one of the main players. Based on the life story of the child emperor Pu Yi, who assumed the Dragon Throne at the age of 3 and was shorn of all real power at 7 (before he was old enough, in any event, to have exercised it), the movie is unique among epics for being about a character who does not act, but is acted upon. Bertolucci shoots inside the Forbidden City to show us a medieval way of life that was eventually swept aside by the Chinese Communists who sent Pu Yi to a reeducation camp before his eventual rehabilitation as a humble Peking gardener. In his life is reflected the central development of 20th century history: How history ceased to be the stories of individuals, and became the stories of societies.
This is a sly, rambunctious comedy about a sprawling Italian-American family that occasionally trusts love, but distrusts almost everything else. Cher is inspired in the central role, as a widow in her late 30s who becomes engaged to a mother's boy (Danny Aiello) and then, when he flies to Sicily to be at his mother's deathbed, falls tumultuously in love with his bitter younger brother (Nicholas Cage). Other players in the family drama include great supporting work by Olympia Dukakis and Vincent Gardenia, as Cher's parents. Norman Jewison directed, and finds enough strangeness and poetry in this slapstick story to produce the year's best comedy.
Joe Orton was the playwright who stood Britain on its ear in the 1960s, with a series of cheeky comedies that thumbed their noses at good taste and convention, and helped usher in a new age of freedom on the London stage. His untidy personal life was less successful, and at the height of his success he was clubbed to death by his lover, who then killed himself. In this intelligent and spirited film by Stephen Frears, based on John Lahr's famous biography of Orton, Gary Oldham and Albert Molina create two of the best performances in any recent film, and Frears successfully illustrates the reckless compulsions and sick jealousy that led to Orton's death.
Woody Allen's movie remembered not only the radio days of the 1940s, but also life as it was lived then, when fantasies were more real because the radio let them happen in your head. He recreates several radio legends--from adventure serials to game shows to treacly morning breakfast programs--and he sees them all through the eyes of a bright young kid from Far Rockaway who is doubtless not unlike young Woody himself. The movie had a Felliniesque ability to spin several stories at the same time -- courtships and adulteries, gangland intrigues and a boy's loss of innocence -- and bring them altogether into a bittersweet, nostalgic New Year's Eve in Times Square.
This was the first film written and directed by James L. Brooks since the wonderful "Terms of Endearment," four years ago, and it is so lovingly crafted we can see he didn't hurry it. The movie is a romantic comedy which also manages to be an expose of TV network news, and a warning that the news and show business are becoming different terms for the same thing. Holly Hunter steals the show as a bright young TV producer who has a long-standing affection for Albert Brooks, one of the network's best reporters, but then feels attraction for William Hurt, as one of the network's less intelligent but sexier anchormen. The joke is that all three of these people would rather make television than love. Time after time, Brooks and his actors are able to find just the right word, the right gesture, to make the characters three-dimensional instead of caricatures.
This was the year's best action picture and maybe the best pure action comedy since "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Richard Donner directed the inspired pairing of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as two police partners whose radically different approaches to life make things rather strange when they work with each other. Gibson is depressed and reckless, Glover is a stable family man, and their entire world seems set up to exploit those facts. Police comedies are a dime a dozen. This is the best since "48 Hrs."
I don't know what director Bill Forsyth was trying to do in this movie, and I'm not sure he succeeded, but it will be a long time before I forget his attempt. His story is about two little girls whose mother commits suicide. Their aunt comes to take charge of them, and the aunt, played in another great performance by Christine Lahti, is a dreamy free spirit who may be mad or who may just be inhabited by a little more magic than the rest of us. As Lahti drifts further from reality with one of the girls, the other decides to bail out, and we are left wondering which choice was the right one.
The year's 11th through 20th best films:
11. "Less Than Zero" was a harrowing story of rich Beverly Hills kids in collision with cocaine. Robert L. Downey Jr. played the self-destructive victim with frightening accuracy, and James Spader was chilling as the drug dealer.
12. "No Way Out" was one of the year's best thrillers, starring Kevin Costner as a naval intelligence officer who seems inescapably implicated in a murder with heavy political overtones. Roger Donaldson directed, and Gene Hackman provided a complex and painfully indecisive cabinet secretary.
13. "Good Morning, Vietnam" starred Robin Williams as an irreverent, satirical disk jockey for Armed Forces Radio in the early days of the Vietnam War. Disrespectful of authority, he wins such support in the field that a friendly general gives him protection--until he goes too far.
14. "The Fringe Dwellers" was Bruce Beresford's affecting, little-seen portrait of an aborigine teenager coming to grips with adolescence, racism, and her own stubborn family. Although the movie seems to take place in a world far from our own, the heroine goes through universal experiences and emerges just about as her determined character would suggest she would.
15. "Roxanne" starred Steve Martin and Darryl Hannah in a warm-hearted update of Cyrano. The material would seem almost impossible to rework into a modern setting, but Martin succeeds effortlessly, the result is one of the sunniest and most warm-hearted movies of the year.
16. "Withnail and I," on the other hand, had a heart of flint. The story of two sardonic, poor and starving British actors, circa 1960, it follows them through rejection and failure, through schemes and disappointments, while all the time they hold utter despair at bay with bitter humor.
17. "Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!" was the year's best musical documentary, a rollicking and sometimes revealing record of the attempt by Rolling Stone Keith Richard to stage a 60th birthday concert for Berry, at which the pioneer of rock and roll would at last be accompanied by a well-rehearsed backup band.
18. "Hoosiers" starred Gene Hackman as a small-town Indiana basketball coach trying to combine his school's athletic comeback with his own personal rehabilitation. In overall structure it was a predictable sports movie, but the particulars made it special.
19. "Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring," designed to be seen together, were Claude Berri's ambitious, sweeping epic of French peasants and their land. The punishment for a crime in one generation is visited upon the next, and the next, in a series of cruel acts and poetic reprisals. Yves Montand gave one of the best performances of his life as a man who takes his personal immortality so seriously he is willing to murder to maintain it.
20. "Wall Street" was Oliver Stone's hard-driving, hard-boiled expose of greed on the street, with Michael Douglas as a stock manipulator who takes callow young Charlie Sheen under his wing and teaches him the ropes--including one he will eventually hang by.
The year 1987 saw more different movies open in America than in any other single year in decades. Fueled by the video boom, producers saw a good chance of recouping their investments one way or another, and although much of what they made was trash, there were also more good films last year than usual. Some of the other winners:
"My Sweet Little Village" was Jan Kadar's bittersweet comedy about a village in Czechoslovakia; "Light Of Day" was Paul Schrader's bitter family drama, with great work by Gena Rowlands and Joan Jett; "The Good Father" starred Anthony Hopkins as a divorced man masterminding his friend's battle for child custody; Alan Parker's adventurous "Angel Heart" had another one of those risky Mickey Rourke performances; Barry Levinson's "Tin Men" was a comic saga of aluminum siding salesmen; "Street Smart" contained one of the year's best supporting performances, by Morgan Freeman. "Hollywood Shuffle" was the now-legendary directorial debut of Robert Townsend, who begged, borrowed and dealt to get the right to prove himself with a satirical revue; Susan Seidelman's "Making Mr. Right" had John Malkovich in a dual role as a scientist and his own robot; "Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn" was thoroughly disgusting and yet weirdly funny; Walter Hill's "Extreme Prejudice" centered on strong work by Nick Nolte and as a Texas sheriff; "The Witches of Eastwick" was the wicked comedy with Jack Nicholson as a satanic figure throwing a small town into turmoil; "Wish You Were Here" starred a newcomer, Emily Lloyd, as a definitely rebellious girl trying to grow up in an England that didn't much like her; "Back to the Beach," one of the year's most-overlooked comedies, starred Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in a hilarious satire on the own beach party movies.
Michael Caine was excellent in two British thrillers, "The Whistle Blower" and "The Fourth Protocol." "Tampopo" was the brilliant cross between traditional Japanese values and the spaghetti Western. "The Big Town" had a good Matt Dillon performance as a young gambler. "The Princess Bride" was Rob Reiner's wise and witty sword-and-sorcery comedy. "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," by Stephen Frears, was a bleakly comic look at life today in the underbelly of London. "The Hidden" was a low-budget film about aliens among us, surprisingly effective; John Hughes' "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" starred Steve Martin and John Candy as two opposites forced to share each other's destinies after they're stranded in Kansas at holiday time. "Three Men and a Baby" had that great scene of Tom Selleck and Steve Guttenberg trying to change a diaper. And "Dark Eyes" was the wistful love story starring Marcello Mastroianni as a man who lost both of the best women he ever met.
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