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Alamo Bay
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by Jack Sommersby

"Another Malle Misfire"
2 stars

Brutalized by bad reviews and racking up an unimpressive box-office tally, it's not likely to be reconsidered as "underappreciated."

The Louis Malle-directed Alamo Bay portends to take on a serious subject yet winds up treating it quite unseriously, thus rendering it a second-rate array of platitudes that digs as deep as your everyday paper cut. As we’re informed at the beginning, the movie is a dramatization of events that occurred in the coastal Texas area of Port Alamo in the years 1980-1981, when hordes of Vietnamese refugees took to shrimp fishing and irked the ire of the white citizens whose families had laid unofficial claim to these waters for generations; the Vietnamese have banded together, living in shanties and eking out a living through a strenuous work ethic, renting boats from a white businessman who sees nothing wrong with doing business with them. The whites, some of whom fought in the Vietnam War and take exception to people who they viewed as their enemies competing with them in an industry that’s seeing a drastic decrease in seafood value, are painted as one-dimensional xenophobes while the Vietnamese are faultless do-gooders -- they’re simply looking to feed their families, same as the whites; and as one of them explains to the whites in a town-hall meeting, none of them (contrary to their opponents’ beliefs) are on welfare or food stamps. The whites’ is a tight-knit community resistant to change, so it’s not all too surprising that the Vietnamese are unfairly treated like shoplifters in the local grocery store and forbidden by the owner of the town’s only bar to drink there (“This is an American bar,” they’re told, even though their money is as green as everyone else’s). The movie’s anti-hero is Shang (Ed Harris), a financially and sexually frustrated man who’s in danger of losing his boat to the bank; he hasn’t made a dent in his first loan, is turned down for another, and takes out his hostility on his equally-miserable wife, who he coarsely accuses of having purposely gotten pregnant with their three pre-teen children. He’s a man on the edge looking to blame anyone else for his troubles, with his only solace carrying on a torrid affair with Glory (Amy Madigan), the daughter of the pro-Vietnamese businessman; they were high-school sweethearts, and the unmarried Glory is still susceptible to his animal magnetism -- she knows there’s no viable future with this man but is too swept up even at her age to resist him. The racial conflict is intensified with the arrival of a high-level Klansman, who vows support from his armed-to-the-teeth followers in coercing the Vietnamese to pack up and leave, while Glory, a decent-hearted woman who left Port Alamo to live a suburban life but came back to take care of her father, is repulsed by the racism and sides with the Vietnamese, particularly Dinh (Ho Nguyen), a twenty-year-old newcomer who dreams of having his own boat one day.

For the first thirty minutes are so, Alamo Bay etches a convincing working-class milieu with a sharp sense of lived-in dailiness similar to that of another left-wing, blue-collar southern tale, Norma Rae, but it lacks the dramatic underpinnings of that Oscar-nominated movie despite some occasionally indelible dialogue (“These biscuits are old enough to vote”) and tactile atmosphere (you can practically count the beads of sweat on the actors’ foreheads). Mind you, Harris and Madigan both do their jobs superlatively (Madigan, especially, is both sexy and commanding), but their characterizations are no more than mediocre because of the overly sententious screenplay by Alice Arlen, who wrote the also-based-on-true-events Silkwood, which also had a strong heroine but was far more nuanced and layered. Eventually, Shang is reduced to a typical movie villain, and the trite conclusion is a typical shoot-’em-up action sequence that would’ve been better suited to a Dirty Harry sequel -- it’s as if a drunken projectionist had mixed up the reels. Rather than organically linking character with incident, Alamo Bay settles for the obvious more often than not and superficially resolves its conflicts, thus dissolving the weight of the arguments it introduces. And matters aren’t helped by the overrated Malle, a Frenchman who made some good documentaries and one near-masterpiece with the well-received Lacombe, Lucien (with the chief virtue the script, not the direction), but whose three American efforts, Pretty Baby, Atlantic City and Crackers, were classic studies in factitiousness -- there wasn’t an ounce of subtlety or genuine insight to be found, just crass sensationalism smothering any semblances of coherence. Here, his compositions are bland, especially during the listless opening credits where Dinh hitchhikes into town (a moviemaker has one chance to pull us in at the onset, and Malle blows it), and the lighting he’s ordered up from cinematographer Curtis Clark is routine and undistinguished. Suffice to say, Malle isn’t the first director one goes to for an expressive visual interpretation, and because Alamo Bay is so contextually vapid its flaws are made even more apparent. Malle isn’t completely incompetent, though. There’s a fine post-coital dialogue scene between Shang and Glory in bed that shows just enough nudity to be reasonably erotic, though most of the credit should probably go to Harris and Madigan who have as good a chemistry here as they did as lovers in Places from the Heart from just one year prior. And when the ineffective town sheriff tells a couple of attractive Vietnamese girls to go on home after school so as not to rile up the white boys who’ve been harassing them, Malle holds the last shot just long enough so we see the sheriff’s lustful look as they walk away, at underage girls of a race the whites aver are repulsive and don't take baths. These are the rare moments of subtlety amid a plethora of easy-way-out contrivances.

The DVD is properly letterboxed but totally bereft of special features.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=28382&reviewer=327
originally posted: 01/17/15 02:04:12
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USA
  03-Apr-1985 (R)

UK
  N/A

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Louis Malle

Written by
  Alice Arlen

Cast
  Amy Madigan
  Ed Harris
  Ho Nguyen
  Donald Moffat
  Truyen V. Tran



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