A Midnight Clear (1992, directed by Keith Gordon)


In December of 1944, with the world at war and Christmas approaching, a small U.S. Army Intelligence squad is sent to a deserted chateau near the German lines.  The squad, which was decimated during the Battle of the Bulge, is made up of six young soldiers who all have genius IQs.  They’ve been hardened by war but they’re still young enough to have some hope for the future.  Leading them is “Mother” Wilkinson (Gary Sinise), an officer who cares about his men but who has been mentally struggling with not only the war but also with the recent death of a child back home.

At first, the chateau seems like a perfect sanctuary, a place to wait for the war to end.  But then the Americans discover that there is a regiment of German soldiers nearby.  The Germans are just as young as the Americans and when the two groups meet each other, they don’t fire their guns but instead have a snowball fight.  The Germans say that they know the war is about to end and that they want to surrender before the Russians arrive.  However, the Germans are worried about their families back home and what will happen when word gets back that they’ve surrendered.  They request a staged fight so that it will appear that they were captured in combat.  Almost everyone is down with the plan but it turns out that it’s not easy to fake a war in the middle of a real one.

Based on a novel by William Wharton, A Midnight Clear is one of the best Christmas films that hardly anyone seems to have heard of.  It’s a war film that is more concerned with the men who fight the wars than with the battles. Along with Sinise, the ensemble cast includes Ethan Hawke, Peter Berg, Kevin Dillon, Ayre Gross, Frank Whaley, and John C. McGinley and all of them make an impression, bringing their characters to life.  By the end of the movie, you feel like you know each member of the squad and their individual fates hit you hard.  Some of them make it to the next Christmas and tragically, some of them don’t.  The film starts out almost gently and all of the soldiers are so intent on just letting the war end while they hide out at the chateau that you find yourself believing that it could actually happen.  When reality intrudes, it’s tragic and poignant.  Intelligently directed by Keith Gordon (making his directorial debut), A Midnight Clear is an unforgettable anti-war story that has an amazing final shot.  A Midnight Clear makes an impression on Christmas and every other day.

Tequila Sunrise (1988, directed by Robert Towne)


Mac (Mel Gibson) and Nick (Kurt Russell) are old friends who are on opposite sides of the law.  Mac was once a legendary drug dealer though he says that he’s now retired.  Nick is a narcotics detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.  Early on, Nick warns Mac that, if he is dealing again, he’s going to have to arrest him.  Mac says that he has no interest in getting back into the business but no one believes him.

Mac is actually more interested in Jo Ann Valleneri, who owns his favorite restaurant.  Since Jo Ann is played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who can blame him?.  After tracks Mac to the restaurant, he becomes attracted to Jo Ann too and again, it’s impossible to blame him.  Soon, Jo Ann and Nick are a couple but is Nick just using her to find out about Mac’s relationship with a mysterious drug lord named Carlos?  And when Mac moves in and starts his own relationship with Jo Ann, does he really love her or is he using her to throw Nick off of his trail?

Tequila Sunrise should be a great film but instead, it’s only a good one.  It has all the elements of greatness — Michelle Pfeiffer at her sultriest, Kurt Russell at his coolest, and Mel Gibson before he lost his mind.  It also has a good supporting cast, including Raul Julia, J.T. Walsh, and Arliss Howard.  Ultimately, it doesn’t really come together because the film’s director and screenwriter, Robert Towne, doesn’t seem to be sure what type of story he wants to tell.  Tequila Sunrise could have either been a great crime thriller or a steamy love story but, by trying to be both, it gets bogged down in its own convoluted plot.  That probably won’t matter to most viewers, though.  Not when Russell, Gibson, and Pfeiffer are all on screen together at the same time.  Tequila Sunrise tries to be many things but it works best as a celebration of movie star charisma.

One final note: The film looks great.  Visually, this is one of the ultimate California films.  Cinematographer Conrad Hall received an Oscar nomination for his work on this film and it was more than deserved.

A Movie A Day #113: Mother Night (1996, directed by Keith Gordon)


Four years after she played the mysterious (and dead) Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, Sheryl Lee starred as another mysterious (and possibly dead) woman in Mother Night.

Lee is cast as Helga Noth, the German wife of American expatriate Harold W. Campbell (Nick Nolte).  Harold is a playwright, living in Berlin and doing propaganda broadcasts for the Nazis.  Working with Frank Wirtanen (John Goodman), a military intelligence officer, Campbell has developed a series of verbal tics that are meant to secretly deliver information to the Allied Forces.  It is never clear whether Harold’s information serves any real purpose just as it is left ambiguous as to whether Harold believes any of the anti-Semitic propaganda that he broadcasts over the airwaves.  Working as both a propagandist and a double agent, Harold serves both the Allies and the Axis.

In the final days of the war, Helga is reportedly killed on the Eastern Front and Harold is captured by the Americans.  Frank arranges for Harold to be quietly sent to New York City but tells him that the government will never admit that they used him as a double agent.

Harold spends the next fifteen years living an isolated life in New York.  His only friend is an elderly painter, Kraft (Alan Arkin), with whom he plays chess.  Eventually, Harold opens up to the painter and talks about his past.  Kraft, for his own shady reasons, reveals Harold’s identity to a group of neo-Nazis.  Though Harold initially wants nothing to do with them, this changes when they reveal that they have Helga.

Or do they?  Almost no one in Mother Night is who they claim or what they seem to be, especially not Harold.

Based on a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night suffers from the same uneven quality that seems to afflict most films based on Vonnegut’s work.  It is easy to go overboard when it comes to bringing Vonnegut’s unique mix of drama and satire to the screen and Mother Night does that in a few scenes, especially once Harold reaches New York.  It is still an intriguing and thought-provoking film, though.  Nick Nolte gives one of his best performances as Harold and Sheryl Lee does a good job in a difficult role.

The pinnacle of Vonnegut films remains George Roy Hill’s version of Slaughterhouse-Five but Mother Night is still superior to something like Alan Rudolph’s adaptation of Breakfast of Champions.