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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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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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