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Review: The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover

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

“…[W]e are afflicted with a secret police of a sort which I do not think a democratic republic ought to support. In theory, the FBI is necessary. For the investigation of crime. But in all the years that the FBI has been in existence, the major criminals – the Mafia, the Cosa Nostra – have operated freely and happily … the FBI has not shown much interest in big crime. Its time has been devoted to spying on Americans whose political beliefs did not please the late J. Edgar Hoover, a man who hated Commies, blacks and women in more or less that order.” Thus Gore Vidal (in Matters of Fact and of Fiction); thus, too, Larry Cohen, whose biopic of “America’s top cop” delivers a kick to the bureaucratic teeth with such uninhibited zest that as much exhilaration rubs off on the audience as outraged wrath.

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Review: American Gigolo

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

Here’s the problem: (1) American Gigolo has just garnered a set of bad reviews of a kind that tell much more about reviewers, their blind spots and complacent assumptions, than they do about the movie. One would love to rub their professional faces in it, except that (2) American Gigolo is not a good movie, no matter that it’s a different kind of ungood movie than they suggested. Your basic consumer-reports journalist watches the bad guy open a window high above L.A. just before contemptuously dismissing the hero, and advises his readership that this is a very bad movie because the bad man is so obviously set up to fall to his well-deserved death. Basic c.-r. type has not noticed, save perhaps as a bewildering distraction, that most of the setups and movements in the film have involved people making pilgrimages from one frame-within-a-frame zone to another (against or outside windows, in or adjacent to doorways, against bookshelves, in cars, on beds; moreover, most of the time slashed, crisscrossed, and/or boxed by bold shadows). That another such frame-within-a-frame should figure so prominently, even flout plausibility, at such a crucial juncture in the narrative pilgrimage is—far from being a weakness—essential to the film’s design.

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Review: Quadrophenia

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

The movie starts out with a pretty good indication of what it’s going to be made of: A young man stares out over the golden ocean towards the sun, then turns and walks toward the camera, his silhouette remaining in the streak of sun on the waves. The camera tilts slightly so the sun is in the middle of the frame, and we cut suddenly to the front headlight of a motor scooter, charging forward at the reeling camera and driven by the same young man. Energy: that’s what Quadrophenia is about and what it is made up of. The characters in the story, British kids in the early-to-mid-Sixties, pour their energies into pills, violence, and sex, and into the collective search for self that found its expression in being part of a group—in this case, either of two extremist music factions: the rockers (getting behind Gene Vincent and traditional rock’n’roll) or the mods (The Who and the Kinks). We focus on one denizen of this world, a boy, Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels), who finds a more important family within the mods than he does at home, and who is happiest when popping blues and starting fights. Director Franc Roddam manages to make Jimmy a sympathetic character as we examine his isolation amid the spurious togetherness of the mods, and his search for identity. Yet unlike the James Dean character in Rebel without a Cause (which this film echoes occasionally), Jimmy doesn’t always seem to be aware of his own pathetic state. If he were a little more detached from his situation, we would at least have the feeling that there was a chance he’d break out of it. A shot of Jimmy sitting on his scooter, as we see his face reflected from four different angles in the rearview mirrors surrounding him, sums up his fragmentation: different sides, no center. His parents, who cannot understand (his father asks him “Who do yer think y’are, anyway?”—and Jimmy honestly does not know); the advertising agency for which he works, which manufactures images of phony-pretty reality; and his group, with their desperate/exultant dance after a riot, chanting “We are the mods!” repeatedly—they are all, as Rebel’s Jim had it, “tearing him apart.”

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Review: 10

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

Blake Edwards’s new film is really the oldest story in the world, done up with refreshing wit and literacy and the slightest touch of softcore porn. 10 is a balanced and honest look at romantic love and the sexual world of the artist as a prematurely middle-aged man. As he turns 42, two crucial events befall song composer George Webber: the sweating-out of a brilliant new song, and the torturous collision between youthful sexual fantasy and a more settled midlife adulthood, into which George does not go gentle. George’s sweetheart, Samantha Taylor, is the still point of the film, to which he is continually drawn despite his efforts to pull away toward the self-indulgent freedom of his fantasies. As Samantha, Julie Andrews is at her most controlled and engaging—looking, in fact, pretty and sexy enough for one to resent the film’s reputation as a vehicle for Bo Derek. It’s a tribute, among other things, to Edwards’s wife, and a richly deserved one. And appropriately, there is more than a little Blake Edwards in George Webber. Dudley Moore plays him something like the type of bungling would-be romancer that Peter Sellers used to play in films like Only Two Can Play before he became a permanent Clouseau: a basically intelligent, stylish, graceful sort whose smallest action seems capable of setting off a chain reaction of disasters, mounting to catastrophic proportions. Whether dribbling coffee through a novocaine-frozen jaw, tumbling down a bluff behind his house, driving head-on into a police car, or knocking himself headlong into his own swimming pool, Moore is always up to the task, and his George Webber is sensitively drawn as the constant victim of a comedy of pain.

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Review: The Wanderers

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

One of the most affecting moments in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the swamping of the soundtrack with an amplified-bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace” as the remaining human searched the night world for a means of escape. The cargo ship whose radio is the source of the music turns out to be loading up with pods, and as the hero sees this and the door is shut on his hopes of a getaway, the radio dial is turned from “Grace” to a newscaster’s flat voice. This scene is dramatically different from the counterpart sequence in Don Siegel’s original Body Snatchers: there the hero heard some Spanish singing, had his hopes raised that he was among feeling humans again, excitedly climbed over a hill to meet them—and discovered simultaneously that these are pod people and that that’s only a radio, not a woman singing, as the station is abruptly changed. The difference between the two versions is that Kaufman does not pretend that the music is anything but artificial, while Siegel surehandedly goes after the shock we feel when the station is switched; Kaufman seems interested in the mythic proportions of the music itself (the lyrics of the hymn, not sung but surely known by 75 percent of the audience, comment suggestively on the organized, sheeplike groups of pods: “I once was lost, but now I’m found—was blind, but now I see”), especially as they are set against the tiny visual representation of the hero. All of which finally comes around to the observation that this guy Kaufman can put music and images together real well, and that his latest film, The Wanderers, displays this talent for much of its running time.

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Out of the Past: Skidoo

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

Otto Preminger’s stabs at comedy are few, and none got more lethal notices than this one. The public stayed away and even Preminger’s customary apologists avoided it. Gerald Pratley’s book on the director doesn’t actually make much of a case for it, just hints that the film is, you know, not really all that, well, bad, not really. The only person I know of who’ll concede that the film generates a certain amount of interest is Jonathan Rosenbaum, a critic who, for all his insight and scholarship, has not infrequently sent me clambering up the nearest wall. So when I saw the film recently, it was a surprise when it turned out to be an enjoyable curiosity.

It’s not exactly hilarious, I grant you; it fascinates rather than convulses. The screenwriter of record is Doran William Cannon, later of the even more bizarre, but absolutely splendid, Brewster McCloud. That film was, we have since learned, rewritten top-to-tail by the uncredited Brian McKay and, according to Pratley, this one had some last-minute rewrites from Elliot Baker, author of the highly enjoyable novel A Fine Madness and a few less enjoyable films. Cannon doesn’t seem to have much luck. The only other movie I know him to have worked on is one I haven’t seen, an odd-sounding 1973 item called Hex, from a story by Cannon and Vernon Zimmerman (director of The Unholy Rollers). It could be, quite simply, that Cannon is a terrible writer who occasionally has grabby ideas. Certainly Skidoo is far more intriguing on a level of mise-en-scene than on levels of dialogue, jokes or plot. But Preminger’s direction is pretty interesting and also uncharacteristically flamboyant. As a result, I prefer this weirdo movie, for all its clear faults, to other, generally more-discussed Preminger efforts; amongst his critical flops, it’s less interesting than the excellent Saint Joan, but ahead of The Human Factor or Hurry Sundown or The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell. I also prefer it to at least one of his critical successes, the initially absorbing but finally very disappointing Bunny Lake Is Missing.

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Review: Halloween

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

A thing that bugs me about the vast majority of contemporary films is, they rarely give the feeling anyone cared much about framing them. The movement away from studio (i.e., factory) filmmaking has had a lot to do with this. Advancements in film speed, equipment mobility, and other such factors that ought to have been unqualifiedly liberating have had the counterproductive effect of encouraging slovenliness rather than responsible flexibility. A movie can get made anywhere now, one place is as good (i.e., workable) as another—and somehow that extends to frame-space as a “place” too. Throw in careless labwork (we waved byebye to real Technicolor several years ago) and you’ve got smeary colors and big, fuzzy grain to help reduce definition, and definitiveness of vision. It’s hard to maintain faith that a given movie had to look the way it does, because it could just as well have looked, well, a little different.

People won’t be talking about this as they leave their naborhood moviehouse, but one reason John Carpenter’s Halloween is so successful a marrow-freezer is that Carpenter appears to have set out to reinstate scrupulous, meaningful framing all by himself. In fact, except for its shamelessly (and irresistibly) zingy music score (by the director), Halloween achieves its considerable power almost entirely through visual means. There’s not a lot of scenario—make that screenplay—to deal with; indeed, the least satisfying thing about Halloween is its attempt to arrive at some scriptoral accounting for its ultraweird dispenser of mayhem, an Omen-era, cosmic-evil reading—”He” really can’t be stopped—that rings too familiar. At the same time, the nonending ending Halloweenreaches has a validity missing from more flagrantly copout conclusions where the filmmakers more or less simultaneously ran out of running time and ideas of what to do next. For Carpenter’s direction has undercut the idea of a world with any secure breathing-room, let alone a sanctum for salvation.

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Dragons and Tigers at VIFF 2009

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Seattle boasts the biggest film festival in the United States, in terms of both audiences and films shown. But Seattle filmgoers are also lucky enough to be within easy driving distance to the Vancouver International Film Festival, one of the five biggest festivals in North America. Coming on the heels of Toronto, it boasts a sampling of highlights from Toronto and Venice as well as a spotlight on Canadian cinema, an annual spotlight on French Cinema and the Dragons and Tigers series, one of the best collections of new Asian cinema in North America with a special focus on young talents and new filmmakers.

Thirty features and documentaries were screened in the “Dragons and Tigers” sidebar, with eight of those films in competition for the “Award for Young Cinema.” The competition can be a mixed bag, but it almost always offers promising talent and fresh filmmaking ideas that otherwise would be unseen on North American screens and it’s my priority every fest. Most of the films are scheduled for the first week, which due to unusual conflicts (yes, there are some things more important than movies) I missed this year. But I did catch up on a few re-screenings including the winner of the Dragons and Tigers competition.

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Review: The Great Santini

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

Orion’s The Great Santini has been sitting on the shelf for about a year now and seems unlikely to move off it unless pay-TV pops for it.* The second (surely there can’t be more?) directorial effort of screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea was the first), the film seems unsalable in the present Hollywood scheme of things. It is, for one thing, a small movie, without the sort of topical hook that might lend it the opportunistic urgency to make a distribution and publicity push worthwhile. It is also a hopeless mess. Its central showpiece and only detectable raison-d’être is Robert Duvall’s tour-de-force characterization of Marine super–fighter-pilot and congenital bad-/hardass “Bull” Meechum—an extension (whether or not it was so intended) of Duvall’s Col. Kilgore (Apocalypse Now). The film gets underway in Spain, 1962, with a demonstration of Meechum’s superior aerial tactical skills, then a demonstration of his hellraising skills at a party jointly celebrating his air team’s besting of their Navy rivals and his own transfer home to assume his first squadron command—and incidentally rejoin his devout Southern Catholic wife (Blythe Danner) and four offspring. Bawling mock-serious—but also deadly-serious—orders at the familial troops, he packs them up at 0300 hours to drive to Beaufort (that’s bewfert), S.C., and settle into his new billet. The rest of the movie enlarges on the dynamics of life in a Marine household, with especial attention being paid to the relationship of Meechum—self-styled The Great Santini—and his 18-year-old son (Michael O’Keefe). Son resents the hell out of Dad, and drops an occasional hint that he may not sign on for an obligatory four-year tour after he’s completed college (he’s currently a high-school senior); but their relationship is also fiercely loving—as, indeed, virtually all Meechum’s relationships appear to be, one way or the other.

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Review: Rough Cut

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

A gas burner fills a huge balloon with hot air, sending it adrift above a palatial estate, whose lawn mills with partying rich folk: a suitable image to begin Rough Cut, a lightweight entertainment that insists on consorting with only the richest tastes. Don Siegel is poaching on Blake Edwards territory here, and we don’t need Burt Reynolds imitating Cary Grant, or David Niven imitating himself, to remind us that the line that links To Catch a Thief with Rough Cut cuts straight through The Pink Panther. Counterpointing the Big Caper—which really doesn’t get underway until past midfilm—is the burgeoning love of Reynolds’s Jack Rhodes (even the name implies a kinship with Hitchcock—Grant’s John Robie) for rich kleptomaniac Gillian Bromley (Lesley-Anne Down). The film is at pains to make her as icy and unpredictable as her Grace Kelly/Claudia Cardinale counterparts, but the effort is strained by a script bankrupt for new ideas. Gillian says, “I steal things … because it’s exciting and dangerous,” and Jack proceeds to assure her that it’s “to fill a void in your life.” They don’t imply that she’s sexually unfulfilled, they just say so; and the sex motif is carried through with a string of double entendres that are hopelessly lame, not because they aren’t appropriate to the characters and the situation, but simply because they are so old and unfunny. A line like “I have to go now, something just came up” no longer draws snickers or even hohums, but dumbfound amazement that someone would still think it clever. The plot itself so slavishly follows genre formula that the “surprise” ending is tipped off well in advance, even though its justification is confined to a single comment on the part of … well, the operative character.

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Review: The Changeling

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

Perhaps it’s looking back from the vantage point of a cinematically uninspiring summer that makes The Changeling seem such inoffensive fun. The qualities that The Changeling can boast—a clean, controlled look, a handful of chills, the feeling that the filmmakers are not about to shortchange us even if they’re not going to be particularly inventive—are exactly the qualities missing from the disappointing slew of first runs that turned up during June. ‘ll disclose, too, a reason I was predisposed toward liking The Changeling: I’m in it. When music prof George C. Scott, having relocated in the Great Northwest after his wife and child were killed in an accident, begins his first day as lecturer, well, I’m one of his students. (Dead center, middle aisle, red flannel shirt—can’t miss me.) Anyway, if I were to write a negative review, I had the perfect lead-in: I happened to find myself in the men’s room at the same time as the director, Peter Medak, and—OK, the world may as well know—after he went to the bathroom he didn’t wash his hands. Writing this dump job I could glide into the observation that yeah, that’s the way he makes movies, too, and is The Changeling ever untidy…. Then Medak had to go and ruin my opening by making a slick, effective movie.

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Review: Zulu Dawn

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

It comes as no surprise that Douglas Hickox directed hundreds of commercials before starting on feature films: he has means, but not ends. When it comes to assembling the departments of a large unit into some semblance of professional order, or arranging a succession of individually striking, or at least flashy, images, Hickox knows how to operate. But in the metaphysical areas of film art he is deficient; and he is by no means sure how to tell a tale straight, either. If a script is good, Hickox isn’t bad; but if it’s bad, he’s no good, at least not where it counts. Piling on what he hopes will be taken for virtuoso displays of technique, and cover for a storyline going to hell, is simply no substitute for narrative tightness, logical plot and character development, lucid exposition or a fluid sense of movement; and we haven’t come near the realm of ideas yet. Arresting compositions here and there in Theatre of Blood, or a brisk way with crowds of extras in real, busy places in Brannigan cannot, for a single instant, blind one to the embarrassing fact that Hickox has made a terrible mess of the plots and the people. Set-pieces interest him but whole movies, it would appear, do not.

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Review: My Bodyguard

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

The critical adulation that greeted last year’s Breaking Away was symptomatic, in retrospect, not so much of a need to return to intelligent “little” films as of an acclimatization to the smallness, safety, and literary limitations of the TV movie. Breaking Away’s strong suit wasn’t anything particularly cinematic, but a witty, entertaining script that tended to carry the viewer through a series of artificial crises. The same is true of My Bodyguard. Alan Ormsby’s dialogue—however unlikely in the mouths of 15-year-olds—is nothing if not clever. But Tony Bill, in his directorial debut, always opts for the safety of the TV-approved crisis-and-resolution, and the trite-and-true device. The story of the close relationship between a small, smart rich kid and a slow, gentle giant of a student who becomes his protector against bully extortionists in a Chicago high school unfolds in nothing more inventive and honest than a series of tired-since-the-Sixties montages. First, rich kid pursues giant through unfamiliar streets; second, rich kid and giant seek—and find, in cutesypoo voicelessness—the last part needed to complete the motorcycle giant is working on as a dream project; third, rich kid and giant ride motorbike through a positively idyllic downtown Chicago; and fourth, rich kid loses giant and tries to find him in a nocturnal search through, again, unfamiliar surroundings. Interwoven with this basic device is an irrelevant subplot in which Ruth Gordon typically overdoes her eccentric-old-lady shtick, and the closest we come to a connecting thread between the two is the notion of the old lady as a foil to the gentle giant: old person “afraid not to live” counterbalances young person afraid to face life.

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Review: Coal Miner’s Daughter

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

The very title of this film, and of the Loretta Lynn autobiography on which it is based—in turn, from a song of hers—underlines some of the tensions within the movie: Coal Miner’s Daughter rather than, say, The Loretta Lynn Story implies a reliance on another for purposes of self-identification. It also suggests a nostalgia for one’s roots: a longing for a home is very important in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

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Review: Coal Miner’s Daughter

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

Coal Miner’s Daughter is an American success story in the best biopic tradition, whose virtues lie in John Corso’s superb production design and in several strong performances that gently mix humor and romance with the darker side of human relations. The title of the film pays lip service to the importance of her father, Ted Webb, in the life of country singer Loretta Lynn, but the promise of that kind of psychological insight is never borne out in the film itself. Levon Helm’s strong, sensitive portrayal of the astonishingly young yet prematurely old coal miner Webb keeps him in our memories (particularly his walk, straight and proud, yet stiffened by his trade and growing a little frail) for longer than screentime actually allows him; but the latter part of the film is devoid of any clear link to Ted. The real center of the film is Mooney Lynn (Tommy Lee Jones), who gets us right into the film by betting, in the opening sequence, that he can drive his jeep to the very top of a high, steep slag heap, and, of course, winning: the same way he wins the affections and the hand of young Loretta (Sissy Spacek), and the same way he drives her to the top of quite a different heap—only to find himself confronting the syndrome of the male housewife.

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