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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

Review: Bronco Billy

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

Clint Eastwood’s seventh excursion as director takes a stab at the territory of rustic fun, presumably as a follow-up to James Fargo’s Eastwood-starred Every Which Way But Loose. The problem is that the screenplay for Bronco Billy, which details the adventures of a modern-day cowboy and his tatterdemalion crew of helpmates in a threadbare touring Wild West show, is a ramshackle thing: poorly plotted, sloppily constructed, and teetering off into confusion halfway through – something from which the film doesn’t recover till the very end. That the movie nonetheless affords a moderate amount of entertainment, and seems in the memory to have given pleasure even though one might not recall the storyline, is due to the direction and the performers. It’s a perilous thing for any film to depend on sheer niceness to carry it through, but Bronco Billy just about manages it.

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Review: Bronco Billy

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

For his summer 1980 film, Clint Eastwood has chosen a sentimental, often corny script that layers screwball comedy conventions over the meanderings of a band of misfits who make a lifestyle, if not a living, out of being what they want rather than what they are. The script is the film’s greatest weakness, with its labored exposition, unmotivated dialogue, repetition without variation, insistent moralism, and tired rehashings of the bored-rich-girl-who-needs-a-good-screwing and living-sanely-in-an-insane-world clichés. But Bronco Billy’s aggressive sincerity overcomes the script’s problems. The notion of a band of drifters and dreamers, recalling Eastwood’s own The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Christmas 1978’s James Fargo–directed Eastwood hit Every Which Way But Loose, again provides an excuse for impromptu zaniness while pushing many of the same thematic buttons: menacing lawmen; the emptiness of wealth; the pre-eminence of the independent, self-motivated American; barroom brawls and good ol’ boys; the celebration of old-time chivalry (Bronco Billy as a Lone Ranger without a mask) and of strong women who deserve their men—in short, the reaffirmation of the same values upheld in country music and in the classic Western movie.

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Review: The Sea Wolves

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

Time was when people talked (pretty foolishly) about Andrew V. McLaglen as heir to the mantle of John Ford, and the name of Howard Hawks has been known to surface as a reference point, too. The Sea Wolves, however, demonstrates an affinity with the world of British hackdom, with J. Lee Thompson and Terence Young at their ropiest. Remove from the film a dash of sex and one naughty cussword (“shit”, exclaimed twice) and you have a movie that could have been made 30 years ago. A successor to action-packed yawn-provokers such as Young’s The Red Beret (American title: Paratrooper) or Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone, it finds room for more cliches than any war film since Where Eagles Dare; but unlike that film, it lacks any sense of redeeming self-mockery. Its gall stimulates first a sort of glazed disbelief, then a kind of punch-drunk regression to the cinemagoing attitudes of one’s childhood, so that the sheer ineptitude of the film on all kinds of levels becomes almost soothing. Certainly it hands us a large number of unintended laughs, though one has to wait until the end credits for the richest, when card after card iterates desperately that what we’ve just seen was a true story, when no child over ten will believe that a single frame of it. Just to rub it in, three of the actors get their photos juxtaposed with those of the  dissimilar real-life people they portray.

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Review: ffOLKES

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

Eccentric heroes, and movies featuring eccentric heroes, must have the courage of that eccentricity in order to persuade audiences to accept and honor it. Roger Excalibur ffolkes is nothing if not an eccentric — so why do the wetsuits on his underwater demolition team read FFOLKES FFUSILIERS instead of (obviously!) ffOLKES ffUSILIERS? Really, my dear chap, it won’t do. Except, all right, let it go this time; for ffolkes is an engaging-enough high-adventure item in its bumptious, low-grade way. The storyline is blithely silly: A squad of piratical types masquerade as journalists in order to get aboard a supply ship that services Her Majesty’s North Sea oil derricks; they mine the ship and two of the billion-dollar rigs, then threaten to blow everything up if the Government doesn’t come across with an empire’s ransom. Can our boozing, woman-hating, cat-loving, rug-tatting hero save all the innocent souls at sea and trounce the blackguards before zero hour? Forget we asked. Keep Reading

Review: Dites-lui que je l’aime (This Sweet Sickness)

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

MTN 55’s Tracking Shot noted: “Is that the best way? Novelist Patricia Highsmith saw her Strangers on a Train become a film classic under the direction of Alfred Hitchcock, but she rejected Hitch’s offer to direct her This Sweet Sickness. Claude Miller inherits the job.” Aha, but wait. There is a Hitch connection, for this novel was turned into an early episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Compressed into 45 minutes or so and renamed Annabel, it was, as I recall, adapted by Robert Bloch, had Dean Stockwell in the lead and was directed by Paul Henreid. As scripted by Bloch, it was a brisk tale of sexual obsession neatly rounded off by gore and girl-menacing, and it couldn’t be more different from this largely quiet and restrained French version. Where Stockwell’s central character was straightforwardly a nutter about whose eventual apprehension one could feel relief uncomplicated by much affection, the central figure in this movie, played most powerfully and sympathetically (for most of the way) by Gerard Depardieu is an unhappy fellow desperate for perfect love in a prosaic world, and his descent into madness is thus more chilling.

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Review: Friday the 13th / Prom Night

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

You don’t review movies like these, you step on them. One could probably trace the existence of several dozen Halloween ripoffs jockeying for a starting spot sometime during the 1980 drive-in season—some of them aiming not only to be take-the-money-and-run successes at the box office, but also to announce the availability of one more sharply talented John Carpenter type on the Hollywood scene. There is the rub, of course: we don’t need John Carpenter types when we have John Carpenter. And these are Carpenter types in emulation only: when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, do-you-know-what-a-camera-is-for?, do-you-stand-deliciously-in-awe-of-images-in-motion? level where the auteur of Halloween has proved himself, most of these yoyos show their true colors the instant we have something to look at onscreen. To say that Friday the 13th and Prom Night bear structural or technical similarities to Halloween is like saying Hitchcock and William Castle both made movies about homicidal maniacs (Psycho vs. Homicidal). Cunningham, Lynch, & respective companies seem oblivious to the notion that a film should generate a rich interior logic of its own and sustain it. The subjective camera identified with the killer in Halloween—subjective in its moment-to-moment sense of form and framespace as well as in those instances when we are (maybe) looking through the eyes of an assassin—is corrupted in these films into a blunt instrument that works only if the audience is willing to let it, indeed, to do all the work themselves: there’s a killer loose, you know, so let’s all guess whom, when, and how he’s going to strike; we guarantee a minimum of one gory demise every ten minutes once the real action gets underway.

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Review: En Och En (One and One)

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

How, one wonders, did the three directors of this odd seriocomic romance-tragedy divide up the responsibilities? Did Josephson direct Thulin’s solo scenes and Thulin Josephson’s, with Nykvist handling all the scenes they’re in together (the majority)? Or was it a case of everyone mucking in, the two stars handling the histrionics and the cameraman running the technicalities? Whatever the truth, it’s a film without an auteur, though there’s lots of “authorship” on display; and it spoils the movie. Parts of it are terribly moving, and most of it is true enough to the awkward corners of most of our lives to make the film’s quality of unease all-pervading. But, damnably, it fails narrowly just where it’s absolutely vital that it should succeed – with the result that the ending, which should be heartbreaking, gives one a sense, admittedly a guilty sense, of relief.

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