Skip to main content

Mr Denby, I'm not ignorant, and I'm not selling my land. And I'm not giving my children over to anyone else to raise.

Places in the Heart
(1984)

(SPOILERS) The one that’s more famous for Sally Field’s Oscar acceptance speech than the film itself. Which is to say, despite its Best Picture Oscar nomination, I suspect few really loved Places in the Heart, they didn’t really love Places in the Heart. It’s a slight, pleasant American period (Great Depression era) picture that contrives to put forward an “It’ll be alright” homespun, righteous quality, despite the horrors going on at its fringes. Which can be affecting when done well (The Shawshank Redemption), but here, it tends to wither in the face of a lack of real backbone.

That’s a tendency with Robert Benton’s films, though, most noteworthy when there’s a strong character at the centre (Kramer vs Kramer, Nobody’s Fool), but too often slightly stolid. Field, as Places in the Heart’s steadfast widow Edna Spalding, resolute that she won’t lose her house and family, and operating as an institution for outsiders or the disenfranchised (Danny Glover’s drifter Moses, John Malkovich’s blind veteran Mr Will), is fine but so wholesome she’d be shoe-in for permanent residence on Walton’s mountain.

Accordingly, there’s much more life to be found in Glover and Malkovich’s supporting roles. They’re very much playing types – thief with a heart of gold, recluse who thaws out when confronted by a family – but succeed in breathing life into the familiar. Pauline Kael caustically suggested “Benton has conceived Mr Will as if blindness purified him and drove out ordinary faults; blackness does the same for Moses”. There’s something in that, but nevertheless, the actors make the parts compelling. Faring less well are the redundant extended family members (Ed Harris, Lindsay Crouse, Amy Madigan, Terry O’Quinn), fine performers all, but given subplots that fail to amount to very much and only mildly stir any interest, if they’re lucky (Crouse and Malkovich were both Academy Award nominated for their efforts).

The main thrust of the plot finds Edna attempting to grow and pick a cotton crop to prevent foreclosure by the bank, in the face of a tornado and assorted naysayers. Naturally, she prevails. Cynicism duly stated, there are nevertheless a couple of curious elements here, for a picture that’s so undilutedly “nice” (how could it be otherwise with Field starring, though Jessica Lange was apparently the first choice). The opening, where Edna’s husband (Ray Baker) is accidentally shot by drunk black boy Wylie (De’voreaux White, later Argyle in Die Hard), subsequently sees vigilante justice enacted; Wylie is tied to a truck and dragged behind it, his body then hanged. Later, Klansmen attempt to lynch Moses. In another film, Edna might have been required to stand up to this, but Benton has her seeing but oblivious – or too focused on her grief – in the first instance, and wisely resisting speechifying in the second (Moses elects to leave the farm, as he knows this will not be the end of it).

Then there’s the symbolic ending, which with the presence of O’Quinn, and the gathering of the living and the dead, in a church, was surely an influence at some point – possibly a very desperate point – on Damon Lindelof. Virtue and essential goodness are eternal and blessing awaits us all, or at least those of us exhibiting such qualities, in the beyond. An appealing sentiment, but still a little odd to find it so blatantly bannered across the final scene. Talking of bannering, the poster was always one that struck me; in combination with the thematically portentous title, it’s far more evocative than the actual picture.

Places in the Heart was evidently a labour of love for Benton, based on his great grandmother’s experiences, whose husband was also shot, and it’s a thoroughly decent, high-minded affair, which is surely why Kael suggested “All it lacks is Lassie”. Did it stand a chance at winning Best Picture? Not with Amadeus and The Killing Fields in the running (against A Passage to India and A Soldier’s Story, possibly more of a shot). As for Field, she was probably as good a winner as any that year, although I suspect, had A Passage to India really been David Lean’s last great hurrah, rather than slightly disappointing, Judy Davis would have been duly recognised.

Out of seven nominations, Places in the Heart won two statuettes, the other being for Benton’s screenplay (his fourth writing nomination out of five, and his second win in that field); it was a year with some curious possibles for scripting (Beverly Hills Cop surely coasted on Murphy’s improv, not the screenplay, while Splash deserved its nod, but still represents something of an outlier). The film is destined to rank as one of those half-remembered nominees, more engaging for revisiting a cast who have gone on to more illustrious things than its somewhat staid storytelling.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983)
(SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. That doesn’t mea…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

You can’t keep the whole world in the dark about what’s going on. Once they know that a five-mile hunk of rock is going to hit the world at 30,000 miles per hour, the people will want to know what the hell we intend to do about it.

Meteor (1979)
(SPOILERS) In which we find Sean Connery – or his agent, whom he got rid of subsequent to this and Cuba – showing how completely out of touch he was by the late 1970s. Hence hitching his cart to the moribund disaster movie genre just as movie entertainment was being rewritten and stolen from under him. He wasn’t alone, of course – pal Michael Caine would appear in both The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure during this period – but Meteor’s lack of commercial appeal was only accentuated by how functional and charmless its star is in it. Some have cited Meteor as the worst movie of his career (Christopher Bray in his book on the actor), but its sin is not one of being outright terrible, rather of being terminally dull.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ (or Zootopia as our American cousins refer to it; the European title change being nothing to do with U2, but down to a Danish zoo, it seems, which still doesn’t explain the German title, though) creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). It’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

So credit’s due to co-directors Byron Howard (Bolt, Tangled) and Rich Moore (of The Simpsons, Futurama, and latterly, the great until it kind of rests on its laurels Wreck-It-Ralph) and Jared Bush (presumably one of the th…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

I can't lie to you about your chances, but... you have my sympathies.

"Predalien" The Alien-Predator-verse ranked
Fox got in there with the shared universe thing long before the current trend. Fortunately for us, once they had their taste of it, they concluded it wasn’t for them. But still, the Predator and Alien franchises are now forever interconnected, and it better justifies a ranking if you have more than six entries on it. So please, enjoy this rundown of the “Predalien”-verse. SPOILERS ensue…
11. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)
An almost wilfully wrongheaded desecration of both series’ legacies that attempts to make up for AVP’s relative prurience by being as transgressive as possible. Chestbursters explode from small children! Predaliens impregnate pregnant mothers! Maternity wards of babies are munched (off-screen admittedly)! It’s as bad taste as possible, and that’s without the aesthetic disconnect of the Predalien itself, the stupidest idea the series has seen (and that includes the newborn), one that was approved/encouraged by ra…

Supposing I help you fix the bishop?

The Avengers 3.20: The Little Wonders
More memorable for Steed (undercover, naturally) planting a smoocher on a surprised Mrs Gale than its plot of Mafia-esque “clergymen” electing their new leader. This isn’t bad, and Macnee’s having a lot of fun as the Vicar of M’boti, but you can’t help feel it should have been a lot more lunatic.

Beardmore: What if he’s a phoney, and doesn’t know Harbottle was playing a double game?
The mob organisation is known as Bibliotek, and Steed is replacing the deceased Reverend Harbottle who, we learn, has been involved with another group led by Sister Johnson (Miss Moneypenny Lois Maxwell, who strikes a very Bond-esque image at one point, blazing away with a machine gun in a nurse’s uniform). She’s posing as the carer of the Bishop (David Bauer), the head of Bibliotek, while attempting to bring about his demise with Dr Beardmore (Tony Steedman of Citizen Smith). Complicating matters in a way that fails to really elicit interest is a German doll containing mi…