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Film Reviews

Review: The Great Train Robbery

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

It’s fairly hard, and also somewhat presumptuous and pointless, to try and get a fix on the directing career of the prolific writer Michael Crichton after only three films. Westworld would seem as different from Coma as Coma is from The Great Train Robbery (called The First Great Train Robbery in Britain, where it was made), which is a jolly period caper romp set in 1855. If all three films can be boiled down to a common core, it’s simply that Crichton believes people are better than machines, and have to be, because if they’re not, then machines are what they will themselves become.

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Review: Diary of Forbidden Dreams (aka What?)

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

What’s being called Diary of Forbidden Dreams or simply Forbidden Dreams in its current run is actually Roman Polanski’s 1972 opus What?, being released in the U.S. for the first time to cash in on the director’s recent notoriety. Like Dance of the Vampires, which he made five years earlier and which also suffered a ridiculously obvious retitling for its American release, What? looks like a film on which the director emphatically did not have final cut. The English-language version, at least—dubbed by predominantly British voices and edited by people with British names—looks like less than what Polanski must have intended. Still, judging from the evidence (which is all one can do), it’s hard to believe there was much good in the film to begin with.

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Review: The Muppet Movie

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

The Muppet Movie is dedicated “to the memory and magic of Edgar Bergen,” who died shortly after doing his cameo role in the film. In that scene, Bergen and Charlie McCarthy are seen in the audience as fans attending a puppet show at a county fair—a puppet show within a puppet show within a puppet show, as well as an all-important nod to the immense influence of Bergen on the field of ventriloquism and puppetry. That kind of layered telescoping is typical of the film, which opens as the Muppets arrive at World Wide Studios to attend a screening of their new film. In a hall-of-mirrors effect (neatly reflected in a shot of hundreds of Kermits singing before a dressing-room mirror late in the film), what really happens is that we watch a movie in which the Muppets watch a movie about how the Muppets came to Hollywood to make the movie that they—and we—are watching. It’s not an original conceit but it is splendidly sustained, and frequently mind-boggling. When Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, and Camille Chicken arrive at the aforementioned county fair, we see a couple shots in which real chickens are prominent, and we fear momentarily that Camille may be in danger. As it turns out, she never is. In the same way, Doc Hopper (Charles Durning) is pursuing Kermit only to persuade the frog to be his publicist, not to cut off our hero’s legs for his chain of frog-legs restaurants. Kermit’s resistance to Hopper’s overtures is not a matter of life and death, but of principle: for no amount of money will he aid Hopper and betray his brother frogs. Thus even the darker entanglements of the film are lightweight. Kermit’s impassioned speech about frogs on tiny crutches calls to mind the famous Gahan Wilson cartoon of a legless frog begging in front of a restaurant advertising frog’s legs.

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Review: The Seduction of Joe Tynan

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Alan Alda is an unimpeachably right guy. He’s attractive, intelligent, multifariously talented, and probably good for the ecology. He is a model of sociopolitical conscientiousness, and a 100-percent masculine romantic icon without a touch of male-chauvinist-piggery. No matter how often or deservedly his talents (acting, writing, directing) are recognized, he manages to maintain a becoming modesty at the same time he displays an unabashed joy in winning (turning a cartwheel on the way to claim his Emmy for a recent M*A*S*H script). I’ll let go of the other shoe as soon as I insist that I like and admire him, too. And until The Seduction of Joe Tynan I tended to assume that it was base envy or some other character flaw of mine that led me to find Alan Alda just a tad smarmy. The physiognomy is part of it, ready to turn rat-faced if the sweetness ever left the smile and the warmth and intelligence deserted the eyes. It’s in the voice, too, a subterranean whine ever so faintly compromising the moral-ethical rectitude. Whether this hint of imperfection has any deeper locus I shall not speculate here, lest the lynch mobs begin forming in earnest. And look, I’m talking about just the merest tincture here, the shadow of a shadow.

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Review: Prophecy

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Prophecy is actually two films, one of which I like. In the first hour or so the creature that’s been terrorizing the Maine woods is posited as both victim and avenger, much in the spirit of the put-upon creatures of Jack Arnold’s monster movies of the Fifties. Prophecy’s creature, an outsized mutant bear whom the local Indians name Katahdin, is triply righteous: it is the victim of industrial man’s incursion into nature, it is a defender of the sacred forest primeval, and it is out to reclaim its stolen young. Its sympathetic position is reinforced by association with the same morally justifiable rage that characterizes the Indians, who assert their land rights and environmental concerns against the encroachment of an expanding timber company. Verne (Robert Foxworth), a public health doctor, on an ecological mission to seek environmental reasons to stop the timber company’s growth, finds himself in the middle of a series of bloody killings for which the timber people hold the Indian activists responsible, while the Indians attribute the slaughter to Katahdin, their avenger. The essential dishonesty of David Seltzer’s script is revealed in several too-pat occurrences that exemplify Seltzer’s tendency to give mere lip service to the metaphors and moral dilemmas of his plot, in favor of getting on to more sensational matters; and it’s here that the film turns sour.

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Review: The Medusa Touch

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

The Medusa Touch has had a most curious history. Richard Burton went into it hot on the heels of Exorcist II and Equus, but it took about a year to follow them into the cinemas, opening in London in June of 1978. Despite lots of names, a big budget and good notices, it then did what every film of above-average interest is likely to do in Britain: it disappeared totally from sight. (The remarks of RTJ in MTN 60-61 suggest the film got oblivion treatment in the U.S., too.) Nearly another year went by and then, blammo!, it was all over the place. Double-billed with an even older Paul Bartel movie, it got saturation bookings all over the country, and was even advertised on TV – very rare in Britain. One hopes that all this adds up to making it a hit at last.

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Review: Death on the Nile

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

In the drawingroom detective story—whether literary or cinematic or both—the central feature of the genre’s art is also its one great failing: the form gives away the content. We know we are witnessing a genre-piece, circumstantial evidence that in “real life” would be insufficient to damn instead tends to exonerate, betokening the red herring. Only persons with airtight alibis may be considered real suspects. Consequently one figures out the who in Death on the Nile fairly easily, while the how must remain for Poirot to reveal to our far weaker gray cells. Director John Guillerman never really plays the revelation of the guilty party for surprise; in fact, his formal, often symmetrical compositions betray his awareness and acceptance of a certain formalism in both the story and its genre that makes the identity of the murderer a foregone necessity: if it were anyone else. the neatness of it all would be quite spoiled. So we feel comfortable with the film’s array of guest suspects, regarding them as traveling companions on the journey toward the how. In contrast to the labored, artificial “nostalgia” of Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (with which Death on the Nile insists upon comparison), Guillermin’s film stresses place—and the movement from one place to another—more than time. While the costumes and production design are done with charm and integrity, they are never so imposing as the Egyptian landscape, which is far better integrated with the goings-on in the film than was the Orient Express’s snowy mountain passage in the Lumet film. Guillermin gives us a sense of movement through that landscape, a feeling of progress—however illusory—by repeated incidental emphasis on modes of transportation: cars, horses, carriages, boats, camels, burros; where Lumet’s stalled train tended to make Murder on the Orient Express bog down altogether in the mire of Geoffrey Unsworth’s thick-as-a-brick photography. And even if the who is a foregone conclusion, Death on the Nile stays filled with the excitement of the puzzle (much like scenarist Shaffer’s Sleuth, or the Anthony Perkins–Stephen Sondheim screenplay The Last of Sheila), where Orient Express never got beyond the turgid objectivity of an impossible but obvious pattern.

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Howling at the Screen: The Wolfman

That Universal’s visually sanguine yet emotionally bloodless revival of their most ferocious and most tragic movie monster is a complete stiff is beyond debate. The real question is how anyone can direct this story, at heart about a man under a curse that transforms him from a moral being into a beastly predator and then transforms him back with the knowledge of his deeds, without even accidentally stumbling into tragedy and pathos and the terrible torment of his ordeal?

Benicio Del Toros Lawrence Talbot, so repressed hes practically gets lost in the gloom
Benicio Del Toro's Lawrence Talbot, so repressed he's practically lost in the gloom

Curt Siodmak’s screenplay for the original 1941 The Wolfman is credited as the source for this Victorian-era retelling (there are elements also taken from the uncredited 1935 Werewolf of London) and, while great liberties are taken with the family history, it’s remains true to the basics and even begins by quoting directly from the source: “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” This (purposely?) clumsy bit of doggerel sounds like some peasant folk legend by way of child’s rhyme but it is as much Hollywood invention as the story itself (while shapeshifters are common through folklore, the specifics of the werewolf legend—the full moon, the silver bullets, only a true love can kill it—were created whole cloth, or rather fur, by Hollywood). It’s both carved into stone and spoken aloud with a heavy gravity, ostensibly an effort to create a sense of foreboding. It merely elicited titters from the preview audience I was with and offered a preview of the pose of ominous mystery and gloomy Gothic drear that smothered any hint of personality, dramatic tension or fun.

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Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Remaking a Hitchcock classic would appear to be prime foolishness (unless you’re Hitchcock himself), and remaking one a second time seems like evidence of a death-wish. However, the makers of this new version of The Thirty-Nine Steps do have a get-out clause of sorts: Hitchcock used almost none of John Buchan’s novel, and updated it from 1914 to the then-contemporary mid-Thirties. Ralph Thomas, for his vomitworthy 1959 version, pinched almost everything wholesale from the 1935 marvel (except such intangibles as wit, pace, charm, eroticism, ingenuity and suspense) and reduced the whole enterprise to a faded Xerox of the earlier film. Don Sharp and his team have made a great show of “going back to the original”, and the design department has gorged itself on Edwardian costumes, period automobiles, monocles, the whole eve-of-World-War-I razzmatazz. So it should look like a brand-new film, right?

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Review: Watership Down

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Establishing a mythology of creation and existence based upon the centrality of rabbits in the frame of things, Watership Down endows itself with a mythic sense that takes a familiar shape. It divides roughly into three parts: the first of these deals with the journey of a group of rabbits from an old, doomed warren to a new place of settlement; the second with their quest to secure females with whom to populate the place (a sort of Rape of the Sabine Bunnies); and the third with the final battle in defense of the new warren, a baptism of blood that seems to officially open the new world. Placing this leporine Aeneid in a genuinely cosmic context are the appearance of a creator, named Frith, and a “Black Rabbit” of death, a sort of grim leaper.

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Out of the Past: The Illustrated Man

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Before anything happens in The Illustrated Man, a voice (Claire Bloom’s) warns us that those who try to see beyond their own times find themselves facing problems that cannot be explained in present-day terms. This gets reprised at the very end of the movie, by which time just about nothing actually has been explained. The Illustrated Man is a very odd movie indeed, and here and there a thoroughly frustrating one. I can’t decide how much of the obfuscation is genuine poetic mystery and how much a sheer cop-out on the part of screenwriter-producer Howard Kreitsek (not very active since this 1969 movie) and director Jack Smight. But the film, for all its many faults, stays with me and I fancy its inner workings are worth teasing out.

Time is of the essence. When and where are we? Ms. Bloom’s opening voiceover accompanies an image of a tranquil countryside lake. We hold on this and at long last the old Warner-Seven Arts logo inscribes itself on the screen. An old-fashioned automobile parks a naive-looking youth (Robert Drivas) by the lake and moves on; we never see its driver again. Willie, the youth, is soon joined by a surly fellow carrying a bag with a dog in it. The stranger, Carl (Rod Steiger), middle-aged, needing a shave, broken-nosed, seems to come from nowhere and is plainly needing funds. “You hoboing?” he asks Willie. The 1930s? Of course. But what’s a Depression bum doing with a Pekinese, of all dogs? And why is it cooped up in a bag all the while? “He likes it hot,” snarls Carl: “Like me!” He kids us not. Though the midday sun blazes and the sweat pours off Willie, Carl is begloved and booted, and covered in an enormous coat. Why? This question, at least, gets an answer, and swiftly.

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The Way You Don’t Die: The Hurt Locker

[expanded from a review originally published on seanax.com, July 2009]

“Tell me something. What’s the best way to disarm one of these things?”

“The way you don’t die, sir.”

Jeremy Renner scans the terrain
Jeremy Renner scans the terrain

Set in the current Iraq war, after the proclamation of “Mission Accomplished” and the transformation of a battlefield army into an occupation force, The Hurt Locker follows the finals days in the rotation of a bomb disposal unit (the days count down with each mission) as it gets new cowboy team leader, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a maverick who steps up to a bomb like a gunfighter in an old west showdown, tough and swaggering and on his own terms.

James doesn’t follow the rules. Every bomb is a challenge he refuses to back down from, even when the intelligence expert on the three-man team, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), counsels him that he’s vulnerable to snipers. James simply tosses the headset and assumes his teammates will watch his back, scanning the windows and the roofs for any potential gunman, which in a busy urban street surrounded by apartment buildings and open roofs can be myriad.

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Review: Cuba

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

When Hitchcock had to set a spy movie in Switzerland, he decided that the most effective way to exploit the milieu would be to honor an armchair tourist’s idea of the place. Hence, he built his plot and key sequences around those geographical and cultural phenomena most readily identifiable as Swiss: mountains, lakes, the manufacture of chocolate, quaint shrines, a demonstration of yodeling. Richard Lester tries to get away with the same approach to Cuba in 1959. Rum, cigars, sugar cane, the Morro, nightclubs, salsa, the U.S. Navy on more or less residential shore leave, a Latin lover and Latin love for sale: if it’s part of the pop iconography, grab it and play it for all its worth—because there’s not going to be much else to play with. That might do for Switzerland; Batista’s Cuba on the eve of Castro is quite another matter. One doesn’t have to be rabidly political to want a more substantive index of governmental corruption than a scungy police detective taking bribes from everyone in sight, or a self-promoted general (Martin Balsam) keeping fat on the income from Havana’s parking meters (said loot stashed in a strongbox chained to his dotty mother’s TV). Likewise, the proverbial fat sweaty American entrepreneur (Jack Weston) swooping down on every target of acquisitional opportunity, and a couple of bland accountants from an unspecified U.S. agency come to balance the books of the Committee for Anti-Communist Activities, are pretty unimaginative representations of the American presence, and deployed just as unimaginatively. Not that the politically correct side comes off much more flatteringly or interestingly: Fidel is (necessarily, I suppose) only a newsreel image on a video monitor, the Fidelistas are low-comedy, if well-meaning, goons beating about the cane fields, and the most dramatically important rebel is a punk (Danny De La Paz) who just wants a hifalutin excuse to shoot somebody—his sister’s aristocratic despoiler (Chris Sarandon), a British mercenary come too late to do anyone any good (Sean Connery), or any poor schmuck who gets in the line of fire.

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Review: Butch and Sundance: The Early Days

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

There are undeniable similarities between Butch and Sundance: The Early Days and Richard Lester’s reworking of popular mythology, Robin and Marian. The earlier film, written by William (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) Goldman’s brother James, contained several seemingly deliberate takeoffs on Butch and Sundance in the dialogue, misadventures, characterization and relationship of Robin and Little John. In Butch and Sundance: The Early Days we encounter the same kind of buddy-comedy once again, with the two young men (Tom Berenger, William Katt) consistently rejecting heterosexual love in favor of their own interdependence. The departure from Butch Cassidy’s two little sons is much harder for Butch than the farewell to his wife (Jill Eikenberry); and there is a scene in which Butch and Sundance—not Butch and Mary—are treated as the boys’ parents. Butch and Sundance: The Early Days also shares with Robin and Marian an emphasis (generally uncharacteristic of Lester) on landscape to delineate character. Lester and László Kovács create the film’s best moments out of such memorable phenomena as the sand-palace mesas among which Butch first proposes partnership to the Kid (then walks from one edge of a mesa to the other, and asks, silhouetted in longshot, “How do I get outta here?”); the snowdrifts among which the Butch-Sundance relationship becomes cemented in a tradeoff of heroic sacrifices, and behind which they gradually disappear in a visual denial of the heroic stature they sought to achieve by bringing diphtheria serum into an infected area; or the floodwaters that make a creek out of the main street of Butch’s hometown, where Sundance faces the trauma of killing his first human being.

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Review: The Electric Horseman

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Horse comes over the horizon and slants down into the golden valley, right there I figure Sydney Pollack auteur time, whoa up. I mean, if Sydney Pollack can be an auteur, it isn’t worth being one. But he wants it, oh, he can taste it. He cranes, he tracks, he dissolves. (They shoot auteurs, don’t they?) All right, enough funnin’, let’s fess up and concede that after enough films get made and enough thematic and syntactical evidence piles up, there gets to be somebody there you can recognize, and that’s Sydney Pollack. The guy has a style. Whether that style has much to do with style in the richest, most analytical and mystical senses of the word is another question. But a style he has: slick, thin; getting to be rather touching in its naïve pretentiousness; suited to keeping movies moving, and hence giving his films a leg up when it comes down to the competitive question of which movie should I go to, which film in the local triple or sextuple shopping-mall cinema is likeliest to keep me entertained. Entertained, goddam it, not edified, no matter how much the entertainer may strive to be taken for an edifier as well. The Electric Horseman entertains better than almost anything else that’s twinkled onto the scene this Christmas season. The key factors in this—gorgeous, adorable, intelligent, watchably changeable, iconically constant factors—are a couple of stars who would have been stars even when the Hollywood firmament was filled with them. REDFORD : FONDA : ELECTRIC say the ads. Believe them. And this time believe Sydney Pollack, too.

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