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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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The Devil in the Details: “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”

A rickety wedge of a gypsy wagon with walls a couple of stories high wobbles through modern London streets, pulled by a couple of tired horses and carrying a tired old souse playing out the role of the carny showman on pure instinct. These traveling players could have ridden right out of the medieval era on the cobblestone streets that have brought them to the waterfront pub where a rowdy bloke decides to have a little fun with these threadbare dandies, especially the succulent young moonfaced beauty (Lily Cole) he chases through the stage mirror that, like Alice before him, takes him into another world, but this is one dreamscape he’s not prepared to handle. Though it’s not exactly explained, the Imaginarium apparently offers those who step through the mylar gates visions of their own dreams, desires and creative will, but only those who do so with open minds and hearts. This bloke, barreling through with no good on his mind, isn’t coming back. “Gone,” sighs Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) with a weary resignation. “Will we miss him? I don’t think so.”

Step right up to the Imaginarium
Step right up to the Imaginarium

You can see Plummer’s Dr. Parnassus as an alter-ego for writer/director Terry Gilliam, a steampunk fantasist trying to jump-start the imaginations of a modern world with his own little theatrical spectacles cobbled together from age-old theatrical conventions and a magical device called The Imaginarium, which quite literally is a door into the imagination. (The Imaginarium is also Gilliam’s first embrace of CGI as a primary tool for creating images onscreen; like any tool, both are only as good as the mind behind it, or inside it, as the case may be.) His motivations are never fully explained, nor are his wagers with the dapper Mr. Nick (Tom Waits, with a pencil mustache and a wicked smile), the devil to his Doctor Faustus. Plummer brings a mix of dignity and degradation to Parnassus, a man whose pride and hubris has been brought low after centuries of immortality. He’s an impotent God who has given up on everything except his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), which only exacerbates his self-pity. Her soul was wagered to the devil long ago and it comes due on her sixteenth birthday, just days away. So Mr. Nick offers him another wager, and Parnassus plays for the soul of his daughter.

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“Everything happens at its appointed time” – Picnic at Hanging Rock

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

This is the second feature film from director Peter Weir, the first being the uneven but fitfully brilliant The Cars That Ate Paris in 1973. Though that movie was too scrappy to make Weir seem more than extremely promising, Picnic at Hanging Rock is something else: an absolute beauty, a movie entirely worthy of cult-classic status at the very least, and a major step forward for its director and, as far as I am able to tell from my very limited experience of it, for the Australian cinema.

That so delicate and subtle a movie could be made at all in Australia, a land much associated with crass behaviour and cultural gaucherie, may surprise some. It’s not, after all, a film made there by outsiders, like Walkabout. That so beautiful-looking and technically fastidious a film could emerge from Australia certainly surprised me: all the (few) other indigenous Antipodean movies that I’ve seen, including The Cars That Ate Paris, were very rough-edged, tending towards muddy colour and threshing-machine cutting, the hallmarks of cheapo filmmaking. Picnic at Hanging Rock is gorgeous, richly textured, full of pellucid colours and images that tremble between tableau and hallucination. It draws us into its web of mysteries, not urgently, not insistently, but seductively.

picnicwoods
"Picnic at Hanging Rock" draws us into its web of mysteries, not urgently, not insistently, but seductively.

It draws us, in fact, the way that Hanging Rock, the “geological miracle” that is literally as well as figuratively at the film’s centre, draws its own victims (if that’s the word for them) to … what? where? Once we are into this film, we are also into another world, where we in the audience tread only on the outskirts. Certain of the film’s inhabitants – a trio of schoolgirls and the most senior of their teachers, all visitors to the rock on the dazzlingly bright St. Valentine’s Day of 1900 – penetrate the very core of this other world. Others stay on the periphery but seem to become more aware of it, more knowing of its secrets, than we ever do. Unarguably, no one in the film who comes into contact with Hanging Rock is unchanged by it – not the fat girl who can’t keep up with her three friends and so returns to the rest of the party, at the Rock’s base, screaming and bleeding without knowing why; not the French assistante who muses that the leader of the Rock-climbing expedition has “the face of a Botticelli angel” immediately before losing sight of her forever; not the young Englishman who ventures onto the Rock in search of the missing and himself faces the unacknowledgeable. (He, incidentally, is played by Dominic Guard, the go-between of The Go-Between, now on the brink of adulthood and as baffled here by children as he was in the earlier film by adults.)

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Review: Windows

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

When Richard Fleischer visited the Seattle Film Society last spring, he bridled at the suggestion that Sven Nykvist, rather than he, had been responsible for the frame compositions in The Last Run: “That’s something a lot of people don’t understand.” Certainly no theory of film directing I ever entertained left room for the supposed metteur-en-scène to farm out that particular responsibility to the cameraman; yet it is a fact that there is a Wyler-like look to Ball of Fire (to grab the first Pantheon-class example that springs to mind) that is to be found in no other film by Howard Hawks, and the Wylerian on the premises was almost certifiably cinematographer Gregg Toland. In the lower reaches of film authorship it is not at all difficult to follow the visual spoor of, say, James Wong Howe as he labors for some mightily undistinguished directors (the best “films of Sam Wood” tend to have been shot by Howe and/or production-designed by William Cameron Menzies). And in the wretched The Drowning Pool of Stuart Rosenberg, a recurrence of insinuatingly asymmetrical widescreen compositions and lustrously dim tonal patterns flashes GORDON WILLIS, GORDON WILLIS like a neon sign.

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Review: The Rose

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

“You know, I’m so tired of the road,” sighs Bette Midler into a telephone near the end of the film. There’s a hesitation in her voice on the word ‘road’ as if she were going to say, “I’m so tired of The Rose” instead. This would not be unusual since the Rose consistently refers to herself in the third person. The film concerns her attempts to slip out from under that suffocating title, and the most intriguing tension within The Rose is that while wanting to make this escape the Rose nevertheless takes refuge behind her misleadingly flowery appellation whenever necessary. She has the ability to snap to brash, acid-tongued life, even from the depths of depression, when she is confronted by an audience: pursuing her sulking lover (Frederic Forrest) through a men’s steambath while keeping up an entertaining banter for the boys; being easily coaxed onstage at clubs she entered as a spectator; and finally, hopelessly drugged at her last concert appearance. This idea of the Rose being more at home while performing than at any other time is underscored by the way director Mark Rydell has filmed an early concert number. “When a Man Loves a Woman,” an exhausting ballad, is shot almost entirely in one long take—and the interesting thing about this song is that the closer we get to the Rose, the more we realize that she is making love with the microphone, her lips trailing over it, with a greater intimacy than we see in her contact with humans.

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Review: The Life of Brian

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Ordinarily, nothing would be further from the point about Monty Python’s Life of Brian than the film’s reverence or lack of same toward the Christian faith. But with the film widely condemned, and even cancelled, on the basis of “blasphemy” and “sacrilege,” the issue becomes germane. Personally, I’ve been at a loss to find any such attitudes evident in the film, and have had to conclude that those who condemn it haven’t seen it, or didn’t know what they were looking at when they did. True enough, The Life of Brian inverts the Judaeo-Christian tradition by depicting the Romans as civilized and sophisticated, the Hebrews as hopelessly confused, uneducated, sloppy, and vicious. But the Romans come in for their share of jabs, too, in a series of gags based mainly on speech defects, physical handicaps, and sexual proclivities. This portrayal of the Romans seems broadly influenced by the popular BBC dramatization of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius—and far from being a parenthetical observation, that is precisely the point about The Life of Brian: it isn’t spoofing religion, it’s spoofing a genre.

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Review: The Silent Witness

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The Silent Witness is a 60-minute British documentary about the controversial Shroud of Turin, which contains a full facial and bodily image of a dead man who may or may not have been Jesus Christ. Producer-director David W. Rolfe figures—and rightly so—that few people will be likely to laugh off the whole subject once they’ve been given only a few of the extraordinary facts. He further assumes that there’s a varied audience for the Shroud, and thus his film: empirical, armchair sindonologists (investigators of the Shroud), 700-Clubbers, and subscribers to the Ancient Astronaut/Bigfoot/Elvis-spoke-to-me-from-the-grave axis. Everybody gets equal time in this movie, which is to say you get 20 minutes addressed to your particular camp. The merely curious will walk away stimulated, at the very least.

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Review: When Time Ran Out…

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Going in, Irwin Allen’s latest disaster movie sounds as if it ought to be the ultimate in the genre. Entitled When Time Ran Out…, complete with ellipsis, and based on a novel called The Day the World Ended, the picture starts off with science-fiction-y images of a lone, safety-suited figure picking his way over a steaming grey landscape that surely does suggest a planet in line for burnout. I began to speculate whether a guy like Irwin Allen would bother ripping off a guy like Robert Altman, and have ol’ Paul Newman, from Quintet more recently than Allen’s own The Towering Inferno, materializing out of another bleak futuristic landscape (at least futuristic-in-the-making). But then the solitary stroller turned out not to be Paul at all; and the catastrophe portrayed in When Time Ran Out… proved to be nothing more than your basic Devil at Four o’Clock volcanic trashing of a single tropical island—and maybe only half the island at that.

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Review: Cuba

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Robert Dapes (Sean Connery) is a British mercenary who arrives in Cuba to help train soldiers for Batista’s collapsing regime. When he checks in with the British embassy on his arrival, he is informed by an official (who gingerly supports Batista—until the prevailing winds blow from another direction) that if he gets into trouble he shouldn’t come to them: “You won’t be welcome, chum.” This is an attitude that the central character of Richard Lester’s Cuba runs into repeatedly: he is welcome almost nowhere. When he happens upon his former love Alexandra (Brooke Adams) playing tennis with her husband Juan (Chris Sarandon), she pretends not to recognize Dapes and tells Juan it was “Nobody.” Later, when she does confront Dapes, she can’t even remember his last name (though her husband remembers his face when introduced: “Juan, this is—” “Nobody?”). After they’ve rekindled the relationship and Dapes assumes she cherishes it as much as he does, Alex insists that it’s nothing and finally kisses him off by capsulizing the former affair: “I regard those as lost years. There was nothing—and I include you, Robert—nothing that made them memorable.” Shades of 10.

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Review: Time After Time

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Nicholas Meyer, the popular novelist who contrived the meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud in The Seven Per Cent Solution, and Holmes, Bernard Shaw, and a Jack the Ripper–style murderer in The West End Horror, has followed colleague Michael Crichton into the movie-directing racket; and I must say that I, no admirer of his thin and opportunistic literary conceits, am pleasantly surprised at the likability of his première effort. A lot of this has to do with the charm and wonderfully specific wit of Malcolm McDowell’s performance as Herbert George Wells, and Mary Steenburgen’s as Amy Robbins, one of those liberated modern women H.G. proselytized for—and the most sweetly daft creature to come our cinematic way since Annie Hall; David Warner has also been encouraged to make Jack the Ripper something more than the sort of sallow geek this actor can play in his sleep (and apparently has, every so often). Clearly what Meyer has needed all along was a way to mix actors in with his rather undistinguished language.

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Review: Time After Time

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The time-travel premise of Time after Time is coyly signified by the use of the old Warner Brothers logo music of the Forties over the opening of the film; but in this self-billed “ingenious entertainment,” most of the ingenuity lies in the conception, very little in the realization. Nicholas Meyer’s direction, predictably, lies along literary rather than cinematic lines; the production design and photography are surprisingly uninventive for a film of such fantastic possibilities; and the special effects are downright flaccid. The montage depicting H.G. Wells’s journey through time—in pursuit of Jack the Ripper, who has preceded him into the Seventies by borrowing Wells’s time machine)—is a warmed-over 2001 lightshow, with the time traveler hearing, selectively, important voices of the 20th century, but seeing nothing at all: a pale contrast to the almost unbearably exciting time trip in the George Pal The Time Machine. The technological doubletalk about the key to the machine and its drive element is unclear, as is the reason why the machine, after being used by Jack, returns to its location a few seconds later, not to the original time at which it was borrowed—but it is so obviously there just to set up the gimmick to be used in the climax that one can predict the ending barely five minutes into the film.

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Review: Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Russ Meyer’s Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens is a rowdy, funky, and occasionally obnoxious comedy which just happens to be one of the livelier entertainments of 1979. Meyer, of course, has long been known as an uncommonly talented filmmaker on the burlesque-house side of the industry, and—at the very least—his latest effort seems likely to more than satisfy his fans. The oversized female breasts, the nonstop libidinal overdrive, and the cartoonish sexual antics are all here in abundance. But there’s also a chance that word may get around about Beyond the Valley‘s generally happy mixture of sex, satire, and film art—in which case, some people may begin suggesting that this middle-American Rabelais’s new film is his masterpiece. The thing has a plot, but to summarize it would be to miss the point. It’s rather like what you would expect if a Henry Miller character had rewritten Our Town for serialization in Playboy or Penthouse. Better yet, and perhaps also worse, a Meyer press release describes the film thusly: “…an all out assault on today’s sexual mores and more—an end around attack against women’s lib—blasting through the male machismo syndrome—blasting the crap out of convictions, hang-ups, obsessions—the whole bag—sexually aggressive females, willing klutzy men, petroleum jelly, gingham and gossamer, tax-sheltered religion, black socks, bedroom prowess, bunko artists, big breast fixation, rear window red necks, therapeutic cuckolding, the sixty mile an hour zinger, born again immersion,” etc., etc.

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Review: The Runner Stumbles

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Though The Runner Stumbles fails to grasp what it reaches for, it offers some surprisingly telling moments in its humble look at the crisis of faith versus self-interest. The weight of the film is on the shoulders of Dick Van Dyke as a maverick priest exiled to a tiny rural parish, where his intellectual companionship with a young nun sent to teach in the parish school gradually stirs other feelings as well. Van Dyke’s uneven performance, often brilliant, just as often abysmally ragged, creates many of the problems in the film. Father Rivard says several times, for example, that Sister Rita’s presence renewed his faith and enthusiasm; but we never see this. In fact, it seems as if her appearance in Solona—a place where good people keep getting “stuck,” much as in John C. Fogarty’s Lodi—only intensifies his brooding by causing another problem for him to deal with, her sweetness-and-light approach proving insufficient to draw him off the darker side of human experience.

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Review: The Black Marble

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The second of his books that he has personally seen to the screen, Joseph Wambaugh’s The Black Marble might have been a better movie if Wambaugh & co. had not so assiduously aimed for a PG rating, and included more of the novel’s amusing raunch, verbal and sexual. The Wambaugh cop’s-instinct for the earthy and profane supplies a good deal of his writing’s sharpness; certainly his sense of characterization is not especially deep, and his inveterate inclination to sermonize about the policeman’s professional and personal lot in society could make for overbearing selfrighteousness without the piss-and-vinegar zest of his cops’ language and behavioral style. Some of this gets into the movie version of The Black Marble (which is faithful to the book in all essentials), but not nearly enough of it; and what there is tends to be robbed of its bracing pungency by Harold Becker’s direction. Only John Hancock as Clarence, the canny, sardonic black sergeant who really runs the Hollywood burglary division, credibly gets into the mode; the other actors are fairly popeyed with the effort to be street-funny folks.

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