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Review: American Hot Wax / FM

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

For a while there it seemed as if the post-mortems on the summer’s rock-oriented pictures like American Hot Wax and FM were being written before the films’ release, let alone box-office decease. But even if the backers will get to file their tax writeoffs, it’s almost certain that many more patrons got to see these films as second features to Saturday Night Fever and Grease as the big winners moved out to the nabes. Co-features don’t earn their parent companies more than token rentals that way; but if they didn’t make money, at least one of these pictures went on to make a few friends.

American Hot Wax celebrates the last few days of Brooklyn disc jockey Alan Freed’s reign as the king of rock’n’roll and the onset of his martyrdom as r&r’s patron saint. It boasts a solid stellar performance by Tim McIntire (previously seen as the least lovable of Robert Aldrich’s Choirboys), and if he doesn’t manage to save the film, he gives it a much-needed center of gravity. More than that, he strikes such a satisfying behavioral tone that, like the platter-playing paterfamilias himself, he tends to validate the enthusiasm for the music he sponsors and win our indulgence of his co-players’ excesses and director Floyd Mutrux’s miscalculations. William A. Fraker contributes his usual admirably controlled camerawork—a nice blend of impressionism and ersatz naturalism that evokes Freed’s not-at-all-glamorous milieu with quiet persuasiveness—but too many of McIntire’s fellow performers skittering through the multi-planar compositions fail to convince us they represent a gregarious humanity doing their thing: they’re just a bunch of actors trying on period poses. Still, thanks to McIntire/Freed’s heroic presence, they are at least carelessly acceptable as denizens of a formative rock culture passionately pledged to keep a faith whose scriptures are being written right on the spot.

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DVDs of the Month: The African Queen and Bigger Than Life

One of the most beloved and cherished Hollywood adventures ever made and long the top of every list of DVD requests, The African Queen (Paramount) makes its much anticipated debut on DVD and Blu-ray simultaneously. It was worth the wait: this is a stunning presentation, but more on that later.

Down the river with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart
Down the river with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart

The pedigree is impeccable: Sam Spiegel, a headstrong independent producer, bought the rights to C.S. Forester’s novel (it had been kicking around Hollywood for ten years) and John Huston, arguably the greatest Hollywood writer/director of literary adaptations, brought on James Agee (the most celebrated film critic of his age) as his screenwriting partner. The fears that audiences wouldn’t be interested in a romance between a pair of middle-aged characters was allayed when Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn were cast (and in hindsight, they seem like the ONLY actors for these parts). Bogart plays Charlie Allnut, the hard-drinking captain of a sputtering steam-powered boat that gives the film its title, and Katharine Hepburn is Rose Sayer, a spirited missionary spinster who came to German East Africa with her brother (Robert Morley) and, in September 1914 (the early days of World War I), watches German soldiers march off the local natives and burn down their huts, breaking her brother’s spirit (fatally, it turns out) in the process.

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Review: Bloodline

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

There are certain questions that tend to come up in the dark nights of the critical soul, like ferinstance: How, in a just universe, can there be a greater resemblance between the basest, most incompetent shlock and art of a very high and rarified degree, than between. say, middling-respectable shlock and moderately successful art? It’s as though the snake of aesthetic value had swallowed its tail and brought polar extremes into a condition of adjacency. The Kit Parker Films catalog carries my appalled reaction to a grade-Z horror property named Scared to Death (Christy Cabanne, 1946, with Bela Lugosi in Natural Color), which includes a discussion of the resemblance between the budgetary-imaginative limitations of this level of cinematic creation and the sorts of narrative shorthand and lacunae-leaping one encounters in avowedly surrealist artworks. If anyone wants to take the discussion further, he might well pick up on Bloodline, a multimillion-dollar dog of summer that outdoes in ineptitude any Z-movie you care to name—that is, in fact, so astoundingly poor that one almost needs a new theory of cinema to cope with it.

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Review: Hardcore

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

Paul Schrader’s concept for Hardcore strikes me as a great idea for a movie. But he has overwritten it so shamelessly and directed it so hamhandedly that the result is a shambles. Much of Hardcore is handled so ineptly I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Long before the moment (which should have been a shattering one) when religious conservative businessman Jake VanDorn finally discovers his runaway daughter after a nightmarish search through the underworld of the pornography industry, only to learn that his little girl enjoys the decadent world she’s run away to, we know what’s coming and it arrives with little more than a hohum. After going through what Schrader surely views as a hell—like the hell of New York in Taxi Driver or the hell of guilt and truth in Obsession—the two speak to each other in platitudes, with flabby, cliché explications of character. Schrader’s problems in building to and sustaining a climax are most evident in the one scene that is still a tooth-grinder. But the what-are-we-going-to-see? frisson when the projector starts running for three $100-a-seat customers in a whorehouse back room quickly fades when the viewing of the “snuff” film—a Sadean assertion that pain and death are the ultimate pornography—is a short, fake, flaccid emotional experience, not the searing climax it should have been.

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Review: Firepower

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

Having ripped off just about every other kind of commercial movie, Michael Winner has inevitably turned his attention to the Bond-style action thriller. Since the Bond films have been ripping themselves off for the past dozen or so years, the pilferings involved in Firepower don’t seem too outrageous. It’s not a good movie by any stretch of goodwill, but it’s not as unutterably crummy as, say, The Man with the Golden Gun either. At least Winner has some decent leads – not that they have a hell of a lot worth doing. I have been infatuated with Sophia Loren most of my life, and hope  always to be,  so I am pleased to report that, at 45, she still looks fabulous; but cast as a routinely enigmatic widow out to avenge (or is she?) the slaughter of her chemist husband by the world’s richest crook, she has no chance to display any acting ability. James Coburn is cast principally, one supposes, because he was a Bond surrogate in the Flint films; here he’s a sort of bounty hunter with a fondness for flora and fauna (cf. Robert Mitchum in The Yakuza) and, you guessed it, his own peculiar code of honour. The flowers-buff bit is just about the only characterisation the script attempts. There’s a token black buddy (O.J. Simpson), as per Dr. No and Live And Let Die, plus the suave millionaire villain tossing off hopefully aphoristic witticisms (any of the Bonds, although the character is also a Howard Hughes-type recluse, like an heroic character in Diamonds Are Forever). This chap has a sadistic aide – don’t they all? There are gadgets galore, a helicopter explodes in mid-air (v. From Russia with Love), people catch fire and so does the sea at one point (FRWL again). The film also comes equipped with casino and the standard exotic sun-drenched backdrops, in this instance Antigua and Curaçao.

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Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

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

Scribbling a few notes in 1975 after seeing Phil Kaufman’s The White Dawn, I wrote: “Culture conflict is a key element in Kaufman’s work. The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid deals with the incursion of a group of relative primitives into the bustling world of a growing industrial civilization. The tension created between the seemingly incongruous occurrence of a baseball game in a Western and the primitive, disorganized conduct of the game itself echoes the tension of the film as a whole: The organized constructs of society are taking shape, but not yet rigid; the violent, free-for-all way of life of the Wild West is dying, but not easily. The manic fantasy world of the legendary James-Younger gang of outlaws is brought dangerously close to our own world when someone says of the baseball game, ‘It’s the new national pastime,’ and Cole Younger replies, ‘Our only national pastime is shooting—and it always will be.’ Primitive violence and low humor are juxtaposed with the steam engine and bicycle world of pre-contemporary Main Street, U.S.A. The White Dawn, a quieter, more controlled film, deals with the incursion of representatives of ‘civilized society’ into a world of primitives. The remarkable range of responses among the film’s characters reflects something of the depth and complexity of national, cultural, and racial conflicts. Where the outlaws of Northfield staged a raid on a new way of life, whose coming meant their own obsolescence, the three castaways of The White Dawn found themselves confronting a new physical world: out of place rather than out of time. In the debacle that finally befalls them, The White Dawn takes an essentially cynical viewpoint: Against the optimistic observation that most human beings are adaptable, and will in time adjust to cultural differences, opting for compromise or harmonious coexistence, is set the stark portrayal of the strength of the bigoted few who, out of fear or simple stubbornness, will ultimately prevail: people of whatever society are ultimately led by the worst among them.”

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Review: The China Syndrome

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

The China Syndrome didn’t have to be about nuclear power. A serviceable suspense thriller about a few people’s public responsibility—or lack thereof—could be built on any number of contemporary issues. Nuclear power works so spectacularly well here, however, because of its enormity of risk. Proponents of nuclear power like to dramatize its safety by comparing it with other forms of energy, in which far fewer precautions are taken and to which—so far—more people have succumbed than to nuclear accidents. But that’s like comparing the airplane with the car: everyone knows flying is safer than driving, but if an accident does occur the extent and the likelihood of damage and death are much greater in the air than on the highway. Much of The China Syndrome is built upon the rhetoric of pro-nuclear assertions of safety, which have made the term “safe” so ambiguous as to be meaningless. If an accident actually occurs, it doesn’t matter how great the odds were against it. The film suggests that those oft-repeated declarations of nuclear safety rest not upon the actual fact of safety but upon having said and heard the declarations so many times. Even the plant operators feel safe, and utter the same platitudes as the corporate executives and their public spokesmen, as if saying it often enough makes it so.

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Review: Moonraker

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

The title song to Moonraker, sung by Shirley Bassey, sets the tone for the latest James Bond film: gentle, inoffensive, almost sweet. This is not the audience-affronting, brassy Bassey of Goldfinger or Diamonds Are Forever; and of John Barry’s score, even the recycled, tried-and-true music from previous Bond films fails to please. The brash, insistent guitar of Monty Norman’s original “James Bond Theme” has been traded down for gentle violin pizzicati, the tempo tripping rather than surging, more cute than clout. Like a turtle drawing in its head, the James Bond format has become systematically less and less daring with the passing years. Not only the actors but even their characters seem progressively aware of participating in a routine: Bond (Roger Moore) isn’t surprised when Drax (Michael Lonsdale), with no provocation, immediately sets about trying to kill him; and Drax himself makes no bones about wanting Bond dead. There’s no detective work, no effort to sidetrack or deceive the investigating agent. What immediately gives Drax away—to Bond and us—as the archvillain is his lavish wealth. It’s become an accepted premise of the Bond film that those who have enough money to buy anything they want will inevitably build private fortresses, equip private armies, and spend their lucre on a quest for world domination.

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Review: The Corn is Green

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

Emlyn Williams’s play The Corn Is Green is nothing if not aptly titled. Williams has always been a minor writer, and when writing about his homeland, Wales, which is also my homeland, he has been particularly unimpressive. He writes for tourists – coy jokes, local colour, stereotypes, and carefully transposed cliches from melodrama. People outside Wales, knowing little or nothing about the place, are inevitably caught by the curiosity value of it all, not realising that what they are really responding to is the familiarity of all this Celtic strangeness. Williams’s cliches are commonplace ones, it’s just that the setting he finds for them seems strange. Viewing a production of The Corn Is Green, the uninformed will ask, Are the Welsh really like that? Answering yes, they can then add: How quaint! And how frightfully sweet! What the play chiefly offers on top of this topographical spice is a thundering leading role for any actress d’un certain age. Miss Moffat, the schoolmarm who discovers a genius amidst the unlettered and uncouth populace of a mining community, is a lady to outgrabe the meanest mome-roth who ever breathed, and Bette Davis did nobly by her in the 1945 movie. No less of a natural for the role is Katharine Hepburn, and I’ll bet she was the prime mover in getting this present made-for-TV movie version of the old warhorse onto the assembly line. Thank God, they roped in George Cukor to direct her. The whole of the enterprise is in the work of these two: had either failed, then surely the whole would have crumbled.

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Review: The Dark

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

The Dark looks for all the world as if it had started life as a detective murder-mystery and was recut and redubbed to cash in on the science fiction vogue. The film’s continuity stresses the methodical work of the police in tracking down a killer, even after we’ve been told both visually and verbally that it’s really an alien creature out there. If The Dark were more sure of itself, it might seem a reworking of the Fifties horror movie convention in which we squirmed and tried to warn the characters in the film that they were onto something far bigger and more dangerous than they thought. But as it is, in reminding us of the variety of unknown things we might have to deal with, the film is excusing not its farfetchedness but its ineptness.

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Review: North Dallas Forty

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

You don’t have to care or even know much about football to enjoy North Dallas Forty. Ted Kotcheff doesn’t seem to know much about football either, but that didn’t stop him from making a film about it. Well, no, not really. North Dallas Forty is barely about football at all, in the sense that sports movies are ordinarily about their sporting subject. It begins on the morning after one game and ends not long after the next contest, the only one we see—and we see it for only the last two minutes of playing time. Based on an awfully good novel by ex–Dallas Cowboy Peter Gent (which I’m grateful to the filmmakers for leading me to read), the movie specifically homes in on the world of pro football as exemplified by the North Dallas Bulls (in the book, the real thing, the Dallas Cowboys). As computer-programmed by the North Dallas coaching and management arms, football becomes a kind of corporate warfare wherein the players are just so much materiel and the game is a business, the business a game.

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Review: Sammie’s Bicycle

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

A young girl with a boy’s name is about to have a birthday party that is, to her, emblematic of the beginnings of womanhood, while two old friends are planning their gift to her, a bicycle. Not only is it not the appropriate gift for a girl about to become a lady but, what’s worse, it’s a boy’s bike. This little storm builds, and at moments threatens heartbreaking consequences; but, as in Shakespearean comedy, impending disaster is headed off by the lightest of devices and the day is won by the creator’s gentle understanding of his characters. Jon Purdy evinces a remarkable grasp of personality in this short film, creating at least four characters more human, believable, and fully realized than the personae of many a film five times as long. Though Sammie is the central figure, there is never any side-taking, and no one is completely right or wrong. We fear as much for the impending disappointment of Sammie with her present as we do for the disappointment we expect Martin and Phinney to feel if Sammie doesn’t like the bike they have lovingly reconditioned for her.

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Review: The In-Laws

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

Arthur Hiller tends to hedge his “serious” film bets by covering them with near-simultaneous releases of comedies. The In-Laws covers Nightwing in much the same way that The Out-of-Towners covered Love Story in 1970. And now, as then, the comedy is the better effort. The strength of The In-Laws lies in Andrew Bergman’s consistently funny dialogue, and in its smooth delivery by Alan Arkin and Peter Falk. The film opens, intriguingly, with the well-planned and audacious robbery of a Treasury Department armored van, in a spectacularly slick operation that caps itself when the crooks, having torched their way into the truck, start dumping pouches of bills and one of them mutters, “Shit, there’s nothing but money in here!” They’re actually after the engraver’s plates, which they soon find, setting off a bizarre misadventure in which mild-mannered dentist Sheldon Kornpett (Arkin) becomes inexplicably and inextricably mixed up. He meets the father (Falk) of his son-in-law-to-be, who tells hilarious dinner-table stories about the horrors of life in the Guatemalan bush country, where tsetse flies the size of eagles carry off small children; this fellow also mumbles something about working for the government, hoodwinking Kornpett into accompanying him on an ostensible mission against fiscal guerrillas hiding out on a Caribbean isle called Tijada. Head of the plot to destroy the world’s currency system is Tijada’s dictator, a General Garcia (Richard Libertini), who has a Z-shaped scar on his face, does Señor Wences imitations with a face painted on his hand, and boasts the world’s foremost gallery of Tijuana velvet paintings.

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Review: The Deer Hunter

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

Terry Curtis Fox, writing in Film Comment, seems to have been the only one to point out the rather obvious fact that The Deer Hunter isn’t really about the Vietnam War. Director Michael Cimino is much more interested in how change comes to the safe, closed world that protects and justifies both the commonest and the most eccentric behavior of its inhabitants. Indeed, how these people face change, and whether or not it really succeeds in taking over their world, are questions the film asks much more readily than the obvious moral and psychological questions about the Vietnam War that shallow reviewers have attributed to the film. The closed community, with whose solidarity and survival Cimino is concerned, is built on the foundation of ethnic pride. In this respect the film is reminiscent of The Godfather in its epic length and pace, and its focus on an ethnic subculture. It is Cimino’s debt to Coppola’s debt to Ford that the structural burden of this parable of a closed society is borne by the recurrence of rituals that lend a sense of continuity to the story as well as to the lives of its characters: drinks at the tavern, the hunting trip, the wedding and reception, the funeral, and that most disturbing ritual of all, Russian roulette.

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Review: Quintet

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

Quintet is one of those things that Robert Altman makes from time to time: an unoriginal, lumberingly obvious, altogether hokey script coupled with a visual and aural atmosphere so overpowering that one wishes to forgive the film its lack of narrative integrity out of respect for what it does to the perception and the nerves. Indeed, a lesser director than Altman would be so forgiven; but remembering the more complete and narratively justified worlds of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Images, Nashville and 3 Women, one is harsher, less willing to settle for a half-realized world this time out. The film’s premise is arresting: the ice-world of McCabe and Mrs. Miller has become a whole future society, and tramping heavily coated through the snow is offered as a metaphor for playing the game of life. Cinematographer Jean Boffety’s lenses give every scene a vignette of foggy soft-focus, making the chill tangible, and stressing the fact that this is another Altman dreamfilm. Unlike 3 Women, however, this dream has been consigned to too many writers for fleshing-out, and Quintet emerges as a visually fascinating film with no more real substance than a snowball, its screenplay a botched mixture of self-congratulatory weirdness, flaccid imitation, labored moralism, and just an occasional moment of really disturbing brilliance.

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