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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Review: Fame

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

Whether Fame will tally up as a hit of this flabby movie summer is not clear at this moment, but the film is having some kind of success. In Seattle the picture opened soft and swiftly built, through word-of-mouth, to better-than-average b.o. Moreover, a portion of every audience can be relied upon to burst into applause after the concluding “I Sing the Body Electric” number, in which all (save one) of the featured students in one graduating class of the New York High School of the Performing Arts step forward, rise into frame, are cut to or panned to for their consummate, energy-into-organicity moment in the limelight. It should be what the whole film has been building toward: the culmination of its hither-and-yon camerawork and cutting, the certification of the purposiveness of its dynamics, the triumphant affirmation of the glory of the individual as part and parcel of a surging communal celebration. And excuse me but I’m going to fwow up because, beautiful as these notions may sound, they are not fulfilled by the conclusion, or legitimately anticipated by any element, of Fame. Keep Reading

Review: Honeysuckle Rose

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

Honeysuckle Rose is apparently so sure of its audience that it isn’t the least concerned about having a good story to tell. The film, of course, is a vehicle for Willie Nelson, but regardless of whether you’re one of this popular singer’s fans, you can’t help feeling that the whole thing was written (if that’s not too strong a word) during someone’s lunch hour. Nelson is supposed to be a Willie-like country western singer named Buck Bonham. The role calls for him to sing a lot; the rest of the time he has to try to look like “real people” while the scenario does a quick rehash of Formula A2 (professional entertainer’s love of his job puts strain on his marriage) and Formula B4 (the hero falls in love with his best friend’s something-or-other). Willie can’t act, so the movie lets him sing his way out of these troubles. The wife is played by Dyan Cannon. The best friend is played by Slim Pickens. The something-or-other (best friend’s daughter in this case) is played by Amy Irving. All three do nice enough work, but not so nice that Honeysuckle Rose can cover up for the deficiencies of its star. Irving does the best acting in the film—chiefly because her character gets two or three things to feel bad about after having spent half the picture in a Willie-thrall. Pickens gets to dabble in guitar a little (wasn’t he a singing cowboy on the radio before he got into movies?). Cannon bounces around like a Public Service Message for physical fitness. You keep wondering why she doesn’t just punch Willie out and go off and take up with a gymnast or a Dallas Cowboy. But as the neglected but faithful wife she opts instead for New Age assertiveness and pragmatic restraint in the movie’s big emotional scenes.

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Review: Carny

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

Three people warned me off Carny before I went to see it. I went anyway, partly to see Gary Busey and partly because I had a feeling about it. I can’t articulate that feeling any more now that I’ve seen the film than I could before I went to it; but I’m glad I saw it. Not that it’s a really terrific movie—not by a long shot. In fact, it’s easier to list the reasons I didn’t have for liking Carny than the ones I had. Originality, for example: the film is strictly Nashville meets Freaks on Nightmare Alley (but Robertson and Kaylor draw from good sources). Technically, the film is uninventive, and often downright poor (for example, the transparent and awful stunt work in the shot where Elisha Cook is supposed to be run down by a car). The film suffers from uncertain and inappropriately slow pacing, too, brought on mostly by indecision as to which particular subplot should become the main plot, or whether any of them should. Well, it’s the freedom of the documentary filmmaker not to be limited by having to tell a story, and Carny is just the sort of film one might expect a documentary director to make on his first sortie into fictional narrative cinema. Wisely, Kaylor doesn’t abuse his freedom from plot by leaving his film formless. Instead he builds it around character. And—again, as might be expected of a documentarist—in this film, character is inseparable from performance.

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Review: McVicar

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

McVicar isn’t a bad film, but it emphatically fails to be the brilliant one it could have been. Director and co-writer Tom Clegg not only hasn’t solved the problems inherent in the material, he hasn’t faced them; maybe he didn’t notice they were there. The story is that of John McVicar, criminal, jailed in the mid-Sixties for armed robbery, who escaped twice from jail, committed more robberies whilst out, and ended up, in 1970, recaptured and facing a 26-year sentence. This time McVicar devoted his term inside to changing his life. He enrolled as an external student and gained a first-class degree from London University – a dazzling achievement in the circumstances and a central fact, surely, in his story. Yet Clegg, instead of exploring the contradictions and hidden brilliance of the man, ignores this side of him, ignores the crucial last stretch (which led the real-life McVicar to get earliest possible parole in 1978), and bungs in the relevant information only at the very last moment as a closing caption. McVicar becomes just another crime movie, one which ends at the point where it should have become really interesting. Not only that: Clegg adds at the outset another caption suggesting that his film has been heavily fictionalised, as if he had no faith in the intriguing story.

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Review: The Big Red One

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

Trying to flag down a notion of just how “pure cinema”—Hitchcock’s term—works is tricky. The implication is that there is a level on which film operates which is undetectable by those who are unwilling or untrained. Sounds kinda elitist, I’m sure, but this is probably why many people miss the glories of Halloween and The American Friend to settle for the satisfying conventionality of Brubaker‘s good intentions. All that’s really necessary for appreciating “pure cinema” is a pair of open eyes: when a filmmaker is fluent enough with the language of the cinema, then the bodies, images, sounds will accumulate, interweave, and a lasting impression will be registered through those open, willing eyes. To watch Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac or Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain is to feel utterly in the hands of a master: every color, aperture, strand of dialogue, camera movement can be apprehended to be part of the bigger fabric of the movie, each cinematic event reflecting on another. Bresson’s Pickpocket is an example of pure cinema which employs a series of dispassionate images that, piled on top of each other as they have been by the end of the film, produce a startlingly moving fadeout.

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Review: Violette et Francois

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

Jacques Rouffio has managed this cautionary account of the non-paying aspects of petty crime very slickly indeed. Violette (Isabelle Adjani) and François (Jacques Dutronc) are two highly irresponsible, lazy, unthinking, shallow and immoral young people, but following their adventures doesn’t overdistance us from them. It’s not that we like them: for all the charm of Adjani and Dutronc, their sheer silliness is, from the outset, mildly repellent, and Rouffio doesn’t cheat to win our sympathy. But they are convincing, they’re like people we all know sometime or other, maybe even like (hush!) ourselves now and then, and Rouffio never ever gets self-righteous about their outrageous and generally deplorable conduct. Which in turn means that he never gets patronising, and this in turn has the useful effect of preventing us from getting too far removed. We don’t feel that we could be doing something more useful than spending a hundred minutes watching these unpleasant wretches, and thus we don’t feel that maybe Rouffio could be doing something more useful than making a film about them, either. Further, his technique is very assured, the film is good-looking, and there are some invigorating presences in the supporting cast: it’s really nice to see Serge Reggiani again, and there’s a particularly good cameo by Lea Massari (ageing gracefully). Thus, Violette et Francois is an entertaining movie, and a moving one, too, with considerable moral shrewdness.

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Review: Tom Horn

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

There are so many bad signs on Tom Horn going in, and so many holes to overleap while watching it, the marvel is that it lingers in the mind as a rather ingratiating picture. Right away one distrusts a movie with a director-for-hire from TV and a superstar for executive producer, especially when that superstar has been having a tetchy time of it, professionally and personally, the last few years. The cowriting credit for Tom McGuane both arouses hopeful interest (funky Montana flavor) and prepares one to expect another exercise in slewfooted, brokenbacked narrative (on the evidence of 92 in the Shade, The Missouri Breaks and – oh, let’s give him the delightful Rancho Deluxe). It is hard to guess which way Tom Horn is going to jump next, and the uncertainty is not attributable to spunky, uncontainable vitality: McQueen & co. just appear to have changed their minds from one act to the next, as to just what sort of movie they wanted Tom Horn to be and, for that matter, what sort of movie- or Western-hero they wanted Tom Horn to be.

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Review: The Hunter

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

It’s a neat idea for Steve McQueen, who started his career playing a bounty hunter on TV, to confront his own image by playing an aging contemporary bounty hunter in a sort of “Bullitt Grows Old” adventure film—especially when the actor himself is surrounded by rumors that he is dying, rumors which he himself denies, though the denial loses impact coming from a hospital bed. Surrounded by the most depressing aspects of a world he considers a “garbage can,” yet reminded at every turn of the impending birth of his first child (reminded especially by the children who, as victims, near-victims, or onlookers, haunt the corners of nearly every episode in the film), the based-on-true-life character of Ralph “Papa” Thorson emerges as a likeable and sympathetic figure, never the hardboiled skip-tracer one expects. And though his cynical view of the world is given ample airing, and considerable justification, it’s the joyous view of life that wins the day: tragedy always turns to comedy, disaster is always averted, and the birth of the child freezes for the end title.

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Review: Making “The Shining”

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

Time flies. The six-year-old brat in quest of an intergalactic bushbaby in 2001 is now all grown up and directing her own documentary film about what is only the third movie her father has directed since that 1968 masterwork. Televised by the BBC at a length of 35 minutes on October 4, 1980, just two days after The Shining‘s London opening, this documentary is utterly intriguing without being terribly substantial.

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Review: The Shining

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

Stephen King’s The Shining is basically a novel of character: Isolated with his family for a winter at a snowed-in resort hotel, Jack Torrance faces the collapse of his own mind from an overload of alcoholism, suppressed violence, writer’s block, and personal failure. His son’s clairvoyance—the titular “shine”—is the mechanism whereby the boy is able to save himself and his mother, though not, alas, his father. Well, characterization and warmth have never been the hallmark of Stanley Kubrick’s work, so it’s no wonder that his film of The Shining is ultimately more Kubrick than King. No satisfactory relationship is ever established between the boy’s “shining” and the rest of the plot; and Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), far from fighting against a gradual crumbling of his reason, seems prone to it from the outset. The fatalism of the film’s approach to Jack—underscored by Kubrick’s relentless use of Wendy Carlos’s synthesizer variations on the Dies Irae—serves perfectly the Swiftian misanthropy of the creator of Dr. Strangelove, Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon. Kubrick’s view of man is as characteristically 18th-century as his devotion to stylistic formalism. No romantic Roderick Usher disintegration for Kubrick’s Jack Torrance: it’s strictly “Orders from the House.” Milieu, not character, is the basis of the madness and of the film itself. The Shining might be (like The Omen, The Exorcist, and their host of imitators) a “Devil made me do it” movie, where lack of responsibility for one’s actions is “explained” by supernatural intervention; but Kubrick is more concrete about the identity of his Devil.

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Review: The Blue Lagoon

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

I’ve never read Henry De Vere Stacpoole’s 1903 novel and I must have passed up the 1948 British film version, with Jean Simmons and Donald Houston in the featured roles, 20 times on television; for that matter, until Showtime delivers me from this specific ignorance within the next month or so, I remain one of the 42 people under, well, 42 in the Continental United States who have never seen Randal Kleiser’s Grease. Hence I am not in a position to speak of childhood classics, arthouse faves, or directorial careers betrayed. I can only say that the new movie version of The Blue Lagoon is about as dead-in-the-water an experience as you’re likely to encounter this summer season. Nestor Almendros having demonstrated that he can photograph something as putatively uncinematic as a conversation and have it come out looking ravishing, I experienced nothing like a shock of discovery upon seeing him do the same for tropical sunsets, jungle, and beach. Basil Poledouris likewise demonstrated the affinity of his musical extravaganzas to sunstruck water in Milius’s Big Wednesday; but there his music operated in the service of a directorial passion that fairly engulfed the screen (even if it never managed to serve up enough narrative substance), whereas in the context of The Blue Lagoon passion would be not so much a dirty word as just inappropriate and a trifle bewildering.

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Review: The Black Stallion

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

The Black Stallion is more pretty than beautiful, more contrived than inspired. In reporting on the San Francisco Film Festival last fall, I wrote: “The Black Stallion, directed by Carroll Ballard for Francis Coppola’s Omni Zoetrope, was clearly a success with its ‘hometown’ audience. It’s an adaptation of the famous children’s story, and it seems designed for annual ‘prestige’ showings for the family market. It has its moments of visual beauty, but a little more poetic daring and a little less in the way of safe artiness might have made this one something more than an expertly conceived business proposition.” After a second viewing of the film recently, I still find myself feeling that way. The whole thing has an “innocent” charm about it, and there are some stunning shots. It’s pretty and nice in ways that are merely pretty nice. The story seems better suited to the format of the full-length animated cartoon, and the flashy photography draws heavily on the kinetics of the TV commercial and the imagery of travel ads. There is an obvious element of fantasy to this tale of a boy saved from a shipwreck by a wondrous black stallion which becomes the boy’s constant companion and which said boy rides to victory in a big challenge race against two top thoroughbreds.

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