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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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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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