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Review: Fame

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Whether Fame will tally up as a hit of this flabby movie summer is not clear at this moment, but the film is having some kind of success. In Seattle the picture opened soft and swiftly built, through word-of-mouth, to better-than-average b.o. Moreover, a portion of every audience can be relied upon to burst into applause after the concluding “I Sing the Body Electric” number, in which all (save one) of the featured students in one graduating class of the New York High School of the Performing Arts step forward, rise into frame, are cut to or panned to for their consummate, energy-into-organicity moment in the limelight. It should be what the whole film has been building toward: the culmination of its hither-and-yon camerawork and cutting, the certification of the purposiveness of its dynamics, the triumphant affirmation of the glory of the individual as part and parcel of a surging communal celebration. And excuse me but I’m going to fwow up because, beautiful as these notions may sound, they are not fulfilled by the conclusion, or legitimately anticipated by any element, of Fame. Keep Reading

Review: Honeysuckle Rose

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Honeysuckle Rose is apparently so sure of its audience that it isn’t the least concerned about having a good story to tell. The film, of course, is a vehicle for Willie Nelson, but regardless of whether you’re one of this popular singer’s fans, you can’t help feeling that the whole thing was written (if that’s not too strong a word) during someone’s lunch hour. Nelson is supposed to be a Willie-like country western singer named Buck Bonham. The role calls for him to sing a lot; the rest of the time he has to try to look like “real people” while the scenario does a quick rehash of Formula A2 (professional entertainer’s love of his job puts strain on his marriage) and Formula B4 (the hero falls in love with his best friend’s something-or-other). Willie can’t act, so the movie lets him sing his way out of these troubles. The wife is played by Dyan Cannon. The best friend is played by Slim Pickens. The something-or-other (best friend’s daughter in this case) is played by Amy Irving. All three do nice enough work, but not so nice that Honeysuckle Rose can cover up for the deficiencies of its star. Irving does the best acting in the film—chiefly because her character gets two or three things to feel bad about after having spent half the picture in a Willie-thrall. Pickens gets to dabble in guitar a little (wasn’t he a singing cowboy on the radio before he got into movies?). Cannon bounces around like a Public Service Message for physical fitness. You keep wondering why she doesn’t just punch Willie out and go off and take up with a gymnast or a Dallas Cowboy. But as the neglected but faithful wife she opts instead for New Age assertiveness and pragmatic restraint in the movie’s big emotional scenes.

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Review: Carny

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Three people warned me off Carny before I went to see it. I went anyway, partly to see Gary Busey and partly because I had a feeling about it. I can’t articulate that feeling any more now that I’ve seen the film than I could before I went to it; but I’m glad I saw it. Not that it’s a really terrific movie—not by a long shot. In fact, it’s easier to list the reasons I didn’t have for liking Carny than the ones I had. Originality, for example: the film is strictly Nashville meets Freaks on Nightmare Alley (but Robertson and Kaylor draw from good sources). Technically, the film is uninventive, and often downright poor (for example, the transparent and awful stunt work in the shot where Elisha Cook is supposed to be run down by a car). The film suffers from uncertain and inappropriately slow pacing, too, brought on mostly by indecision as to which particular subplot should become the main plot, or whether any of them should. Well, it’s the freedom of the documentary filmmaker not to be limited by having to tell a story, and Carny is just the sort of film one might expect a documentary director to make on his first sortie into fictional narrative cinema. Wisely, Kaylor doesn’t abuse his freedom from plot by leaving his film formless. Instead he builds it around character. And—again, as might be expected of a documentarist—in this film, character is inseparable from performance.

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Review: McVicar

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

McVicar isn’t a bad film, but it emphatically fails to be the brilliant one it could have been. Director and co-writer Tom Clegg not only hasn’t solved the problems inherent in the material, he hasn’t faced them; maybe he didn’t notice they were there. The story is that of John McVicar, criminal, jailed in the mid-Sixties for armed robbery, who escaped twice from jail, committed more robberies whilst out, and ended up, in 1970, recaptured and facing a 26-year sentence. This time McVicar devoted his term inside to changing his life. He enrolled as an external student and gained a first-class degree from London University – a dazzling achievement in the circumstances and a central fact, surely, in his story. Yet Clegg, instead of exploring the contradictions and hidden brilliance of the man, ignores this side of him, ignores the crucial last stretch (which led the real-life McVicar to get earliest possible parole in 1978), and bungs in the relevant information only at the very last moment as a closing caption. McVicar becomes just another crime movie, one which ends at the point where it should have become really interesting. Not only that: Clegg adds at the outset another caption suggesting that his film has been heavily fictionalised, as if he had no faith in the intriguing story.

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Review: The Big Red One

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Trying to flag down a notion of just how “pure cinema”—Hitchcock’s term—works is tricky. The implication is that there is a level on which film operates which is undetectable by those who are unwilling or untrained. Sounds kinda elitist, I’m sure, but this is probably why many people miss the glories of Halloween and The American Friend to settle for the satisfying conventionality of Brubaker‘s good intentions. All that’s really necessary for appreciating “pure cinema” is a pair of open eyes: when a filmmaker is fluent enough with the language of the cinema, then the bodies, images, sounds will accumulate, interweave, and a lasting impression will be registered through those open, willing eyes. To watch Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac or Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain is to feel utterly in the hands of a master: every color, aperture, strand of dialogue, camera movement can be apprehended to be part of the bigger fabric of the movie, each cinematic event reflecting on another. Bresson’s Pickpocket is an example of pure cinema which employs a series of dispassionate images that, piled on top of each other as they have been by the end of the film, produce a startlingly moving fadeout.

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Review: Violette et Francois

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Jacques Rouffio has managed this cautionary account of the non-paying aspects of petty crime very slickly indeed. Violette (Isabelle Adjani) and François (Jacques Dutronc) are two highly irresponsible, lazy, unthinking, shallow and immoral young people, but following their adventures doesn’t overdistance us from them. It’s not that we like them: for all the charm of Adjani and Dutronc, their sheer silliness is, from the outset, mildly repellent, and Rouffio doesn’t cheat to win our sympathy. But they are convincing, they’re like people we all know sometime or other, maybe even like (hush!) ourselves now and then, and Rouffio never ever gets self-righteous about their outrageous and generally deplorable conduct. Which in turn means that he never gets patronising, and this in turn has the useful effect of preventing us from getting too far removed. We don’t feel that we could be doing something more useful than spending a hundred minutes watching these unpleasant wretches, and thus we don’t feel that maybe Rouffio could be doing something more useful than making a film about them, either. Further, his technique is very assured, the film is good-looking, and there are some invigorating presences in the supporting cast: it’s really nice to see Serge Reggiani again, and there’s a particularly good cameo by Lea Massari (ageing gracefully). Thus, Violette et Francois is an entertaining movie, and a moving one, too, with considerable moral shrewdness.

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Review: Tom Horn

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

There are so many bad signs on Tom Horn going in, and so many holes to overleap while watching it, the marvel is that it lingers in the mind as a rather ingratiating picture. Right away one distrusts a movie with a director-for-hire from TV and a superstar for executive producer, especially when that superstar has been having a tetchy time of it, professionally and personally, the last few years. The cowriting credit for Tom McGuane both arouses hopeful interest (funky Montana flavor) and prepares one to expect another exercise in slewfooted, brokenbacked narrative (on the evidence of 92 in the Shade, The Missouri Breaks and – oh, let’s give him the delightful Rancho Deluxe). It is hard to guess which way Tom Horn is going to jump next, and the uncertainty is not attributable to spunky, uncontainable vitality: McQueen & co. just appear to have changed their minds from one act to the next, as to just what sort of movie they wanted Tom Horn to be and, for that matter, what sort of movie- or Western-hero they wanted Tom Horn to be.

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Review: The Hunter

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

It’s a neat idea for Steve McQueen, who started his career playing a bounty hunter on TV, to confront his own image by playing an aging contemporary bounty hunter in a sort of “Bullitt Grows Old” adventure film—especially when the actor himself is surrounded by rumors that he is dying, rumors which he himself denies, though the denial loses impact coming from a hospital bed. Surrounded by the most depressing aspects of a world he considers a “garbage can,” yet reminded at every turn of the impending birth of his first child (reminded especially by the children who, as victims, near-victims, or onlookers, haunt the corners of nearly every episode in the film), the based-on-true-life character of Ralph “Papa” Thorson emerges as a likeable and sympathetic figure, never the hardboiled skip-tracer one expects. And though his cynical view of the world is given ample airing, and considerable justification, it’s the joyous view of life that wins the day: tragedy always turns to comedy, disaster is always averted, and the birth of the child freezes for the end title.

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Review: Making “The Shining”

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Time flies. The six-year-old brat in quest of an intergalactic bushbaby in 2001 is now all grown up and directing her own documentary film about what is only the third movie her father has directed since that 1968 masterwork. Televised by the BBC at a length of 35 minutes on October 4, 1980, just two days after The Shining‘s London opening, this documentary is utterly intriguing without being terribly substantial.

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Review: The Shining

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Stephen King’s The Shining is basically a novel of character: Isolated with his family for a winter at a snowed-in resort hotel, Jack Torrance faces the collapse of his own mind from an overload of alcoholism, suppressed violence, writer’s block, and personal failure. His son’s clairvoyance—the titular “shine”—is the mechanism whereby the boy is able to save himself and his mother, though not, alas, his father. Well, characterization and warmth have never been the hallmark of Stanley Kubrick’s work, so it’s no wonder that his film of The Shining is ultimately more Kubrick than King. No satisfactory relationship is ever established between the boy’s “shining” and the rest of the plot; and Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), far from fighting against a gradual crumbling of his reason, seems prone to it from the outset. The fatalism of the film’s approach to Jack—underscored by Kubrick’s relentless use of Wendy Carlos’s synthesizer variations on the Dies Irae—serves perfectly the Swiftian misanthropy of the creator of Dr. Strangelove, Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon. Kubrick’s view of man is as characteristically 18th-century as his devotion to stylistic formalism. No romantic Roderick Usher disintegration for Kubrick’s Jack Torrance: it’s strictly “Orders from the House.” Milieu, not character, is the basis of the madness and of the film itself. The Shining might be (like The Omen, The Exorcist, and their host of imitators) a “Devil made me do it” movie, where lack of responsibility for one’s actions is “explained” by supernatural intervention; but Kubrick is more concrete about the identity of his Devil.

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Review: The Blue Lagoon

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

I’ve never read Henry De Vere Stacpoole’s 1903 novel and I must have passed up the 1948 British film version, with Jean Simmons and Donald Houston in the featured roles, 20 times on television; for that matter, until Showtime delivers me from this specific ignorance within the next month or so, I remain one of the 42 people under, well, 42 in the Continental United States who have never seen Randal Kleiser’s Grease. Hence I am not in a position to speak of childhood classics, arthouse faves, or directorial careers betrayed. I can only say that the new movie version of The Blue Lagoon is about as dead-in-the-water an experience as you’re likely to encounter this summer season. Nestor Almendros having demonstrated that he can photograph something as putatively uncinematic as a conversation and have it come out looking ravishing, I experienced nothing like a shock of discovery upon seeing him do the same for tropical sunsets, jungle, and beach. Basil Poledouris likewise demonstrated the affinity of his musical extravaganzas to sunstruck water in Milius’s Big Wednesday; but there his music operated in the service of a directorial passion that fairly engulfed the screen (even if it never managed to serve up enough narrative substance), whereas in the context of The Blue Lagoon passion would be not so much a dirty word as just inappropriate and a trifle bewildering.

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Review: The Black Stallion

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

The Black Stallion is more pretty than beautiful, more contrived than inspired. In reporting on the San Francisco Film Festival last fall, I wrote: “The Black Stallion, directed by Carroll Ballard for Francis Coppola’s Omni Zoetrope, was clearly a success with its ‘hometown’ audience. It’s an adaptation of the famous children’s story, and it seems designed for annual ‘prestige’ showings for the family market. It has its moments of visual beauty, but a little more poetic daring and a little less in the way of safe artiness might have made this one something more than an expertly conceived business proposition.” After a second viewing of the film recently, I still find myself feeling that way. The whole thing has an “innocent” charm about it, and there are some stunning shots. It’s pretty and nice in ways that are merely pretty nice. The story seems better suited to the format of the full-length animated cartoon, and the flashy photography draws heavily on the kinetics of the TV commercial and the imagery of travel ads. There is an obvious element of fantasy to this tale of a boy saved from a shipwreck by a wondrous black stallion which becomes the boy’s constant companion and which said boy rides to victory in a big challenge race against two top thoroughbreds.

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Review: Can’t Stop the Music

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Disbelief. Right in the middle of the “Y.M.C.A.” number, which is right in the middle of Can’t Stop the Music, one feels one’s mouth actually hanging open. Good grief! Is this really happening? Members of a musical group called the Village People (who play streetwise dudes recruited to form an impromptu ensemble of singers/dancers) and Valerie Perrine (their manager) and Bruce Jenner (a tax lawyer with the hots for Perrine) sweep into a real Y.M.C.A. and begin performing all manner of athletic endeavor, all to a disco beat. And its all just awful. I don’t mean just the shots that you might be visualizing now—slowmotion splitscreen guys twirling through the air, a line of men diving sideways into a swimming pool à la Busby Berkeley. Those are there, all right, but we’re also treated to wildly awkward shots, like a group of nude guys horsing around in the showers (yup, you see everything down to their knees), or a whirlpool bath shot of Perrine’s breasts bobbing out of the water. These shots are even repeated during this montage—to Dolby music, mind. What makes them so jarringly out of place (uh—the shots, that is) is the uncertainty and the weirdness in the shifts from candy-flavored lightheartedness to an uncomfortable kind of wishful frankness. The problem with this sequence is the problem with the movie: Are we to view this pursuit of high spirits as sincere, or is the whole thing supposed to be a joke?

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Review: Ordinary People

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Robert Redford, who is known to exercise a good deal of personal control over the films in which he is involved, has shown a near-manic fixation in recent years with embracing the sociopolitically correct position. In the excellent All the President’s Men as well as such middling efforts as Three Days of the Condor and The Electric Horseman and a downright cheat like Brubaker, the bad guys are shallow, unfeeling, and simply wrong, while the good guys enjoy at least a modicum of emotional depth and sail through the film on the wings of moral rectitude with rarely a serious contradiction or dilemma to confront. There is nothing wrong with simplistic character delineation in film: primitives like Fuller and Leone thrive on it. But Redford passes his work off as serious social realism and congratulates himself for taking a courageous position, while actually keeping the social activist side of his films thoroughly safe.

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Review: The Island

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

By heroic effort—and a curious failure to look very closely at the knife-holding hand breaking out of the Peter Benchley sea in the ad art—I managed not to know the dread secret of a certain sector of the Caribbean where small boats and their passengers and crews have been disappearing in recent years. Hence I was able to find the first half-hour or so of the latest Zanuck–Brown–Benchley sea meller agreeably titillating, especially since the hand of director Michael Ritchie was detectable in the satirical handling of the first boatload of victims, a party of American medicos chirping merrily in the tropic night about fees, patients, and their own overripeness. The Ritchie of Smile, The Candidate et al. also came through during a visit, by weekly-newsmag investigator Michael Caine and his slightly resentful child-of-divorce Jeffrey Frank, to a Miami gun shop where a goodly swarm of tourists and locals banged their rocks off on the shooting range out back; and there was an amusing interlude with a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-passenger’s-pants pilot whom Caine had engaged to fly him into the mystery zone, and who effectively crashlanded Caine and son there. And when this potty old Somerset Maugham doctor started waving petulance and disagreeable odors and flaky innuendo in Caine’s direction, well, that was sinister in an amusingly-off key. But within about five minutes of Caine and son’s abduction, from a rented motorboat, by savage zanies who turn out to be descendants of Caribbean buccaneers from Teach’s time, good faith began to run thin. Keep Reading