Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: A Soldier’s Story (dir by Norman Jewison)


Set during World War II, 1984’s A Soldier’s Story opens with a murder.

On a rural road outside of a segregated army base in Louisiana, someone has gunned down Sergeant Vernon Walters (Adolph Caesar).  At the time, Walters was staggering back to the base after a night of heavy drinking.  Both the local authorities and Watlers’s fellow soldiers assume that the murder was the work of the Ku Klux Klan.  Captain Richard Davenport (Howard Rollins) isn’t so sure.

Captain Davenport is the officer who has been assigned to investigate the murder.  From the minute that he arrives at the base, the soldiers stare at him.  As Cpl. Ellis (Robert Townsend) explains it, the enlisted men are shocked because they’ve never seen a black officer before.  Some of the soldiers admire Davenport while other view him with suspicion, wondering what Davenport must have done or who he must have sold out to earn his commission.

Meanwhile, the other officers (who are all white) view Davenport with a combination of condescension and hostility.  Col. Nivens (Trey Wilson) only allows Davenport three days to wrap up his investigation and assigns the polite but skeptical Capt. Taylor (Dennis Lipscomb) to work with him.  Taylor suspects that Walters may have been murdered by the openly racist Lt. Byrd (Wings Hauser!).  Davenport, however, isn’t so sure.  Even though the official story is that Walters was a tough but fair sergeant who was respected by his company, Davenport suspects that one of them may have killed him.

Davenport and Taylor start to interview the soldiers who actually had to deal with Walters on a daily basis.  Through the use of flashbacks, Walters is revealed to be a far more complex man than anyone knew.  We see that Walters was a man who was bitterly aware of the fact that, even after a lifetime of military service, he was destined to always be treated as a second-class citizen by the nation that he served.  Unable to strike out at the men who the army and society had placed over him, Walters instead struck at the men serving underneath him.  While the man in Walters’s company wait for word on whether or not they’ll be allowed to serve overseas, Davenport tries to determine if one or more of them is a murderer.

A Soldier’s Story was adapted from a play but director Norman Jewison is careful to prevent the material from becoming stagey.  Effortlessly transitioning from the film’s present to flashbacks of the events that led to Walters’s murder, Jewison crafts both an incendiary look at race relations and a compelling murder mystery.  He’s helped by a strong cast of predominately African-American actors.  In one of his earliest roles, Denzel Washington plays Pfc. Peterson with a smoldering intensity.  David Alan Grier and Robert Townsend, two actors known for their comedic skills, impress in dramatic roles.  Seen primarily in flashbacks, Adolph Caesar turns Walters into a complex monster.

And yet, with all the talent on display, it is Howard Rollins who ultimately steals the movie.  As  a character, Captain Davenport has the potential to be a rather thankless role.  He spends most of the movie listening to other people talk and, because of his status as both an officer and a black man in the rural south, he’s rarely allowed to show much anger or, for that matter, any other emotion.  However, Rollins gives a performance of such quiet intelligence that Davenport becomes the most interesting character in the movie.  He’s the ultimate outsider.  Because of his higher rank and his role as an investigator, he can’t fraternize with the enlisted men but, as an African-American, he’s still expected to remain separate from and differential to his fellow officers.  As the only black officer on a segregated base, Davenport is assigned to stay in an empty barrack.  One of the best scenes in the film is Davenport standing alone and surveying the stark layout of his temporary quarters.  The expression on his face tells you everything you need to know.

(Towards the end of the film, when Davenport finally gets a chance to drop his rigid facade and, if just for one line, be himself, you want to cheer for him.)

A Soldier’s Story was nominated for best picture but it lost to another theatrical adaptation, Milos Forman’s Amadeus.

 

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #77: Quicksilver (dir by Thomas Michael Donnelly)


QuicksilverWho doesn’t love Kevin Bacon?

Seriously, I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t have a positive reaction to seeing Kevin Bacon on screen.  He may not be a star in the way that Bradley Cooper or Bollywood sensation Shah Rukh Kahn are stars but still, he is one of those actors that everyone just seems to instinctively like.

I think, to a large extent, that is because, despite the fact that he’s been around and acting forever, Kevin Bacon himself still comes across as being a normal, blue-collar sorta guy.  Whenever you see him being interviewed, you get the feeling that Kevin Bacon basically shows up, does his job to the best of his ability, and, as opposed to many other actors, he doesn’t take himself or his movies too seriously.  He’s justifiably proud of the good films that he’s appeared in and he’s never had any problem admitting that he’s been in a lot of bad films as well.

In fact, it was Kevin Bacon’s openness about his bad films that led to me discovering 1986’s Quicksilver.  This is the film that, in a 2008 interview, Kevin Bacon referred to as being “the absolute lowest point of my career.”  (Consider, for a minute, that this is being said by the same Kevin Bacon who had an arrow shoved through his throat in the original Friday the 13th and that will give you some clue of how much disdain Kevin seems to have for Quicksilver.)

Naturally, having read that, I knew that I simply had to see Quicksilver.  I’ll admit right now that I was hoping to discover that it was some sort of loss and unappreciated classic.  I wanted this to be the review where I defended the unacknowledged brilliance of Quicksilver.  I wanted to say, “Don’t be so hard on yourself, Kevin!  Give Quicksilver another chance!”

But no.

Quicksilver doesn’t quite suck but it definitely comes close.

At the same time, it is interesting as a classic example of what happens when a filmmaker tries to assign some sort of deeper meaning to or find inherent nobility in an activity or job that really isn’t that interesting.  Often times, this will happen with sports movies.  A director or producer will make the mistake of thinking that just because he’s obsessed with beach volleyball that means that there’s a huge audience out there just waiting for someone to make the ultimate beach volleyball film.  Or, you’ll get a film like 1999’s Just The Ticket, where Andy Garcia is described as being the “world’s greatest ticket scalper” and the audience is supposed to be impressed.

In the case of Quicksilver, it’s all about being a bicycle messenger.  I’m assuming that, one day, director Thomas Michael Donnelly was stuck in traffic and he happened to see a bike messenger rushing down the street, whizzing past all of the stalled commuters.  And Donnelly probably thought, “I wish I was that guy right now!”  Every day after that, whenever Donnelly was stuck in traffic, he thought back to that bike messenger and slowly he grew obsessed.  All of his friends and his family got sick of listening to him talk about how much he envied the freedom of that bike messenger.  Finally, a little light bulb turned on over Donnelly’s head and he said, “I’ve got to make a movie out of this!”

And then the bulb burned out but nobody noticed.

Quicksilver-photo_625px_8col

Kevin Bacon plays Jack Casey.  When we first meet Jack, he’s a successful stock broker and he’s got a really bad, porn-appropriate mustache.  One day, he’s sitting in the back of a cab and he goads his driver into getting into a race with a bike messenger.  The messenger beats the cab.  Jack is amazed!

And then, perhaps the very same day (the film is so poorly edited that it’s hard to tell), Jack not only loses all of his money but all of his parents’ money as well.  Since poor men couldn’t afford facial hair in the 1980s, he shaves off his mustache.  Desperately needing work, Jack applies to be a  — you guessed it! — bicycle messenger.

The rest of the film is basically Jack delivering messages and talking about how he’s free now to live the life that he’s always wanted to live.  And the thing is, you like Jack because he’s being played by Kevin Bacon.  I mean, Kevin Bacon is so inherently likable that audiences even liked him when he was trying to kill Professor X and Magneto in X-Men: First Class.  But, at the same time, you listen to Jack go on and on about how much better his life is now and you just want to say, “Who are you kidding?”

Needless to say, Jack has a group of quirky coworkers.  Of course, by quirky, I mean that they are all quirky in a very predictable Hollywood sort of way.  For instance, there’s the crusty old veteran and the goofy fat guy and the hard-working Mexican guy who wants to start his own business in America and the cocky black guy who is mostly notable for being played by Laurence Fisburne.  One thing they all have in common is that they all love and damn near worship Jack, who has quite the common touch despite having formerly been a super rich stock broker with a bad mustache.

Anyway, Terri (Jami Gertz) also wants to become a bicycle messenger but she’s being used to deliver drugs by Gypsy (Rudy Ramos).  She and Jack fall in love and, along with helping out his quirky coworkers and finding a way to make back his fortune, Jack also has to deal with Gypsy.  It’s all very dramatic (though the drug dealer subplot feels as if it was awkwardly inserted into the film at the last moment) but mostly, the plot is just an excuse for scenes like the one below:

Quicksilver is … well, it’s not particularly good.  It has a few good bike weaving in and out of traffic scenes but it’s definitely no Premium Rush.  But it is kinda fun, in a “Oh my God, look at the 1980s” sorta way.  And, for what it’s worth, it’s a film that proves that Kevin Bacon can be likable in almost anything.