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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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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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