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Review: The Life of Brian

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Ordinarily, nothing would be further from the point about Monty Python’s Life of Brian than the film’s reverence or lack of same toward the Christian faith. But with the film widely condemned, and even cancelled, on the basis of “blasphemy” and “sacrilege,” the issue becomes germane. Personally, I’ve been at a loss to find any such attitudes evident in the film, and have had to conclude that those who condemn it haven’t seen it, or didn’t know what they were looking at when they did. True enough, The Life of Brian inverts the Judaeo-Christian tradition by depicting the Romans as civilized and sophisticated, the Hebrews as hopelessly confused, uneducated, sloppy, and vicious. But the Romans come in for their share of jabs, too, in a series of gags based mainly on speech defects, physical handicaps, and sexual proclivities. This portrayal of the Romans seems broadly influenced by the popular BBC dramatization of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius—and far from being a parenthetical observation, that is precisely the point about The Life of Brian: it isn’t spoofing religion, it’s spoofing a genre.

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Review: The Silent Witness

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The Silent Witness is a 60-minute British documentary about the controversial Shroud of Turin, which contains a full facial and bodily image of a dead man who may or may not have been Jesus Christ. Producer-director David W. Rolfe figures—and rightly so—that few people will be likely to laugh off the whole subject once they’ve been given only a few of the extraordinary facts. He further assumes that there’s a varied audience for the Shroud, and thus his film: empirical, armchair sindonologists (investigators of the Shroud), 700-Clubbers, and subscribers to the Ancient Astronaut/Bigfoot/Elvis-spoke-to-me-from-the-grave axis. Everybody gets equal time in this movie, which is to say you get 20 minutes addressed to your particular camp. The merely curious will walk away stimulated, at the very least.

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Review: When Time Ran Out…

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Going in, Irwin Allen’s latest disaster movie sounds as if it ought to be the ultimate in the genre. Entitled When Time Ran Out…, complete with ellipsis, and based on a novel called The Day the World Ended, the picture starts off with science-fiction-y images of a lone, safety-suited figure picking his way over a steaming grey landscape that surely does suggest a planet in line for burnout. I began to speculate whether a guy like Irwin Allen would bother ripping off a guy like Robert Altman, and have ol’ Paul Newman, from Quintet more recently than Allen’s own The Towering Inferno, materializing out of another bleak futuristic landscape (at least futuristic-in-the-making). But then the solitary stroller turned out not to be Paul at all; and the catastrophe portrayed in When Time Ran Out… proved to be nothing more than your basic Devil at Four o’Clock volcanic trashing of a single tropical island—and maybe only half the island at that.

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Review: Cuba

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Robert Dapes (Sean Connery) is a British mercenary who arrives in Cuba to help train soldiers for Batista’s collapsing regime. When he checks in with the British embassy on his arrival, he is informed by an official (who gingerly supports Batista—until the prevailing winds blow from another direction) that if he gets into trouble he shouldn’t come to them: “You won’t be welcome, chum.” This is an attitude that the central character of Richard Lester’s Cuba runs into repeatedly: he is welcome almost nowhere. When he happens upon his former love Alexandra (Brooke Adams) playing tennis with her husband Juan (Chris Sarandon), she pretends not to recognize Dapes and tells Juan it was “Nobody.” Later, when she does confront Dapes, she can’t even remember his last name (though her husband remembers his face when introduced: “Juan, this is—” “Nobody?”). After they’ve rekindled the relationship and Dapes assumes she cherishes it as much as he does, Alex insists that it’s nothing and finally kisses him off by capsulizing the former affair: “I regard those as lost years. There was nothing—and I include you, Robert—nothing that made them memorable.” Shades of 10.

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Review: Time After Time

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Nicholas Meyer, the popular novelist who contrived the meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud in The Seven Per Cent Solution, and Holmes, Bernard Shaw, and a Jack the Ripper–style murderer in The West End Horror, has followed colleague Michael Crichton into the movie-directing racket; and I must say that I, no admirer of his thin and opportunistic literary conceits, am pleasantly surprised at the likability of his première effort. A lot of this has to do with the charm and wonderfully specific wit of Malcolm McDowell’s performance as Herbert George Wells, and Mary Steenburgen’s as Amy Robbins, one of those liberated modern women H.G. proselytized for—and the most sweetly daft creature to come our cinematic way since Annie Hall; David Warner has also been encouraged to make Jack the Ripper something more than the sort of sallow geek this actor can play in his sleep (and apparently has, every so often). Clearly what Meyer has needed all along was a way to mix actors in with his rather undistinguished language.

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Review: Time After Time

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The time-travel premise of Time after Time is coyly signified by the use of the old Warner Brothers logo music of the Forties over the opening of the film; but in this self-billed “ingenious entertainment,” most of the ingenuity lies in the conception, very little in the realization. Nicholas Meyer’s direction, predictably, lies along literary rather than cinematic lines; the production design and photography are surprisingly uninventive for a film of such fantastic possibilities; and the special effects are downright flaccid. The montage depicting H.G. Wells’s journey through time—in pursuit of Jack the Ripper, who has preceded him into the Seventies by borrowing Wells’s time machine)—is a warmed-over 2001 lightshow, with the time traveler hearing, selectively, important voices of the 20th century, but seeing nothing at all: a pale contrast to the almost unbearably exciting time trip in the George Pal The Time Machine. The technological doubletalk about the key to the machine and its drive element is unclear, as is the reason why the machine, after being used by Jack, returns to its location a few seconds later, not to the original time at which it was borrowed—but it is so obviously there just to set up the gimmick to be used in the climax that one can predict the ending barely five minutes into the film.

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Review: Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Russ Meyer’s Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens is a rowdy, funky, and occasionally obnoxious comedy which just happens to be one of the livelier entertainments of 1979. Meyer, of course, has long been known as an uncommonly talented filmmaker on the burlesque-house side of the industry, and—at the very least—his latest effort seems likely to more than satisfy his fans. The oversized female breasts, the nonstop libidinal overdrive, and the cartoonish sexual antics are all here in abundance. But there’s also a chance that word may get around about Beyond the Valley‘s generally happy mixture of sex, satire, and film art—in which case, some people may begin suggesting that this middle-American Rabelais’s new film is his masterpiece. The thing has a plot, but to summarize it would be to miss the point. It’s rather like what you would expect if a Henry Miller character had rewritten Our Town for serialization in Playboy or Penthouse. Better yet, and perhaps also worse, a Meyer press release describes the film thusly: “…an all out assault on today’s sexual mores and more—an end around attack against women’s lib—blasting through the male machismo syndrome—blasting the crap out of convictions, hang-ups, obsessions—the whole bag—sexually aggressive females, willing klutzy men, petroleum jelly, gingham and gossamer, tax-sheltered religion, black socks, bedroom prowess, bunko artists, big breast fixation, rear window red necks, therapeutic cuckolding, the sixty mile an hour zinger, born again immersion,” etc., etc.

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Review: The Runner Stumbles

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Though The Runner Stumbles fails to grasp what it reaches for, it offers some surprisingly telling moments in its humble look at the crisis of faith versus self-interest. The weight of the film is on the shoulders of Dick Van Dyke as a maverick priest exiled to a tiny rural parish, where his intellectual companionship with a young nun sent to teach in the parish school gradually stirs other feelings as well. Van Dyke’s uneven performance, often brilliant, just as often abysmally ragged, creates many of the problems in the film. Father Rivard says several times, for example, that Sister Rita’s presence renewed his faith and enthusiasm; but we never see this. In fact, it seems as if her appearance in Solona—a place where good people keep getting “stuck,” much as in John C. Fogarty’s Lodi—only intensifies his brooding by causing another problem for him to deal with, her sweetness-and-light approach proving insufficient to draw him off the darker side of human experience.

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Review: The Black Marble

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The second of his books that he has personally seen to the screen, Joseph Wambaugh’s The Black Marble might have been a better movie if Wambaugh & co. had not so assiduously aimed for a PG rating, and included more of the novel’s amusing raunch, verbal and sexual. The Wambaugh cop’s-instinct for the earthy and profane supplies a good deal of his writing’s sharpness; certainly his sense of characterization is not especially deep, and his inveterate inclination to sermonize about the policeman’s professional and personal lot in society could make for overbearing selfrighteousness without the piss-and-vinegar zest of his cops’ language and behavioral style. Some of this gets into the movie version of The Black Marble (which is faithful to the book in all essentials), but not nearly enough of it; and what there is tends to be robbed of its bracing pungency by Harold Becker’s direction. Only John Hancock as Clarence, the canny, sardonic black sergeant who really runs the Hollywood burglary division, credibly gets into the mode; the other actors are fairly popeyed with the effort to be street-funny folks.

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Review: The Onion Field

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it is almost always less interesting. The challenge facing Wambaugh in bringing his novelized “true story” to the screen was to preserve the interest and intensity that the actual events held for those who participated in them—to try to make the headline story as immediate for the viewer as for the subject. All of Wambaugh’s police bestsellers are based on fact to one extent or another; and the story goes that Wambaugh, fed up with the inadequacy of the film versions of his other books (The New Centurions, The Blue Knight, The Choirboys), decided to appoint his own producer and director, and write his own screenplay the way he wanted it done. Though the cops come off as saintly and the criminal element as irredeemable—unlike the more ambiguous characterization of the earlier Wambaugh-based films—The Onion Field is a qualified success, and probably actually is the best Wambaugh movie yet.

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Review: Star Trek – The Motion Picture

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Regarding the immense, murky, superintelligent cloud that threatens to destroy the planet Earth, one anonymous spaceperson remarks, “There must be something incredible inside generating it!” I wish the same could be said for the immense Star Trek—The Motion Picture, which disappoints by seeming to have no driving force at its center. The “something incredible” that the Enterprise goes up against during Old Home Week Among the Stars is a living machine wishing to collect all human knowledge and to link up with its Creator. It’s called … well, phonetically, Veejer—so that the cast sounds very silly when addressing this almost godlike entity. I wouldn’t dream of spelling out the explanation of that name, but it almost seems to have been suggested by the title gimmick of Zardoz (the name of an old book called The Wizard of Oz compressed into the futuristic word). It’s clever, anyway, and the whole Veejer episode is pretty engaging, just as the really good episodes of the old Star Trek TV series are.

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Review: Alien

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

As a horror movie, Alien is appropriately concerned with collective nightmares (being chased and caught; the monster is below us, now above us; someone we know is, in fact, not human), and lustfully derivative of the genre’s white-middle-class fears that give rise to the nightmares (loss of order, familiarity, and domination; community goes to hell). But the film has something more, at least in the first half: a developing narrative with an exclusive, integral logic of its own, built on ostensible collisions in logical flow. In other words, in its auspicious beginnings, Alien reminds one of more expressly surreal films. The difference is that Alien has an intentionally simple storyline derived from consistency in character types and motivations, including all nonhumans, machines, distant organizations, and the dead.

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Review: Yanks

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

As the donkey regards the carrot, so John Schlesinger looks on his screenplays: he either follows or swallows them. A follow-my-leader under the deadly misapprehension that he is an auteur, Schlesinger is happiest when partnering writers who share his tendency to scream Look at me, I’m an artist! With a Frederic Raphael (Darling) or a William Goldman (Marathon Man), he’s in show-off’s heaven, and his inability to provide the real impetus, the backbone, the solid core of a movie, the way a real artist would, is snugly disguised amidst a great deal of visual and verbal shouting. The cheesy verbal wisecracks of Darling are fleshed out by Schlesinger’s no less cheesy imagistic ones (e.g., fat ladies wolfing down the eats at an Oxfam bash), just as the greasy, lapel-seizing prose of Marathon Man is aptly pictorialised via such characteristic Schlesinger conceits as the shot of Lord Olivier framed distortingly through a glass tray whilst he slavers hammily at its contents, assorted gems. In both these movies, writer and director are as one in pretentious mediocrity, and each butters up the other. But with Schlesinger’s new film, Yanks, the screenwriters are two gentlemen with reputations for low-key, understated work, who would furthermore seem to have no great keenness for Schlesingerian ego-tripping. Colin Welland (the actor who played the cleric in Straw Dogs, and one of Britain’s best TV playwrights) and Walter Bernstein (The Front) appear only too ready to put their faith in their director and let him be the boss, guiding their scenario where’er he would lead it. And Schlesinger has no idea at all of how to be the leader, with the result that everyone gets swiftly lost.

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Review: Yanks

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Yanks is probably John Schlesinger’s best movie since Sunday Bloody Sunday, and certainly one of the best of his career. But for me that’s not really saying much, since I continue to have serious problems with this director’s approach, a self-congratulatory mock-sensitivity that seems insincere at best and often downright wrong. Here, at least, for the first time in years, Schlesinger has foregone his irritating penchant for unproductive intercuts and flashbacks, opting instead for a straight, period-faithful, romantic storyline about the impact of American soldiers-without-women on a Britain without men. But no matter how polished and relatively controlled he gets, there is always something about Schlesinger’s work that strikes me as shallow and ultimately inconsequential.

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Review: Hollywood’s Wild Angel

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

I’ve never had the opportunity to see Allan Arkush and Joe Dante’s Hollywood Boulevard;on the other hand, I suspect that I saw a fair portion of it in Roger Corman: Hollywood’s Wild Angel,Christian Blackwood’s genial film dossier on Roger Corman, whose New World Pictures released the movie. From what we see, and from what Arkush and Dante gleefully confess to Blackwood’s camera and microphone, Hollywood Boulevardis an outrageous, pell-mell celebration/put-on of low-budget, high-energy exploitation filmmaking. A couple of wild’n’crazy kids with a movie camera rip off every cinematic opportunity in sight to produce a zany compendium of Z-movie sex’n’violence; the surrounding environment and not a few of its inhabitants get trashed in the process, but no big deal. Arkush and Dante, a pair of sweet-faced loons who would not look out of place at a freshman smoker, did the same thing in a slightly less destructive key—for instance, taking pictures of a few honeys firing submachine guns in Griffith Park, and splicing these in with borrowed Philippine footage of soldiers biting the dust—and then they showed the results to Roger Corman who said, Very funny, here’s the money for the lab costs, I’ll buy it. One always hoped things like that happened in Roger Corman’s neighborhood, and among the many pleasures of Blackwood’s 58-minute documentary is that that hope gets confirmed again and again.

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