Review: Ordinary People

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

Robert Redford, who is known to exercise a good deal of personal control over the films in which he is involved, has shown a near-manic fixation in recent years with embracing the sociopolitically correct position. In the excellent All the President’s Men as well as such middling efforts as Three Days of the Condor and The Electric Horseman and a downright cheat like Brubaker, the bad guys are shallow, unfeeling, and simply wrong, while the good guys enjoy at least a modicum of emotional depth and sail through the film on the wings of moral rectitude with rarely a serious contradiction or dilemma to confront. There is nothing wrong with simplistic character delineation in film: primitives like Fuller and Leone thrive on it. But Redford passes his work off as serious social realism and congratulates himself for taking a courageous position, while actually keeping the social activist side of his films thoroughly safe.

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Review: The Island

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

By heroic effort—and a curious failure to look very closely at the knife-holding hand breaking out of the Peter Benchley sea in the ad art—I managed not to know the dread secret of a certain sector of the Caribbean where small boats and their passengers and crews have been disappearing in recent years. Hence I was able to find the first half-hour or so of the latest Zanuck–Brown–Benchley sea meller agreeably titillating, especially since the hand of director Michael Ritchie was detectable in the satirical handling of the first boatload of victims, a party of American medicos chirping merrily in the tropic night about fees, patients, and their own overripeness. The Ritchie of Smile, The Candidate et al. also came through during a visit, by weekly-newsmag investigator Michael Caine and his slightly resentful child-of-divorce Jeffrey Frank, to a Miami gun shop where a goodly swarm of tourists and locals banged their rocks off on the shooting range out back; and there was an amusing interlude with a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-passenger’s-pants pilot whom Caine had engaged to fly him into the mystery zone, and who effectively crashlanded Caine and son there. And when this potty old Somerset Maugham doctor started waving petulance and disagreeable odors and flaky innuendo in Caine’s direction, well, that was sinister in an amusingly-off key. But within about five minutes of Caine and son’s abduction, from a rented motorboat, by savage zanies who turn out to be descendants of Caribbean buccaneers from Teach’s time, good faith began to run thin. Keep Reading

Review: Bronco Billy

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

Clint Eastwood’s seventh excursion as director takes a stab at the territory of rustic fun, presumably as a follow-up to James Fargo’s Eastwood-starred Every Which Way But Loose. The problem is that the screenplay for Bronco Billy, which details the adventures of a modern-day cowboy and his tatterdemalion crew of helpmates in a threadbare touring Wild West show, is a ramshackle thing: poorly plotted, sloppily constructed, and teetering off into confusion halfway through – something from which the film doesn’t recover till the very end. That the movie nonetheless affords a moderate amount of entertainment, and seems in the memory to have given pleasure even though one might not recall the storyline, is due to the direction and the performers. It’s a perilous thing for any film to depend on sheer niceness to carry it through, but Bronco Billy just about manages it.

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Review: Bronco Billy

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

For his summer 1980 film, Clint Eastwood has chosen a sentimental, often corny script that layers screwball comedy conventions over the meanderings of a band of misfits who make a lifestyle, if not a living, out of being what they want rather than what they are. The script is the film’s greatest weakness, with its labored exposition, unmotivated dialogue, repetition without variation, insistent moralism, and tired rehashings of the bored-rich-girl-who-needs-a-good-screwing and living-sanely-in-an-insane-world clichés. But Bronco Billy’s aggressive sincerity overcomes the script’s problems. The notion of a band of drifters and dreamers, recalling Eastwood’s own The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Christmas 1978’s James Fargo–directed Eastwood hit Every Which Way But Loose, again provides an excuse for impromptu zaniness while pushing many of the same thematic buttons: menacing lawmen; the emptiness of wealth; the pre-eminence of the independent, self-motivated American; barroom brawls and good ol’ boys; the celebration of old-time chivalry (Bronco Billy as a Lone Ranger without a mask) and of strong women who deserve their men—in short, the reaffirmation of the same values upheld in country music and in the classic Western movie.

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Review: The Sea Wolves

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

Time was when people talked (pretty foolishly) about Andrew V. McLaglen as heir to the mantle of John Ford, and the name of Howard Hawks has been known to surface as a reference point, too. The Sea Wolves, however, demonstrates an affinity with the world of British hackdom, with J. Lee Thompson and Terence Young at their ropiest. Remove from the film a dash of sex and one naughty cussword (“shit”, exclaimed twice) and you have a movie that could have been made 30 years ago. A successor to action-packed yawn-provokers such as Young’s The Red Beret (American title: Paratrooper) or Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone, it finds room for more cliches than any war film since Where Eagles Dare; but unlike that film, it lacks any sense of redeeming self-mockery. Its gall stimulates first a sort of glazed disbelief, then a kind of punch-drunk regression to the cinemagoing attitudes of one’s childhood, so that the sheer ineptitude of the film on all kinds of levels becomes almost soothing. Certainly it hands us a large number of unintended laughs, though one has to wait until the end credits for the richest, when card after card iterates desperately that what we’ve just seen was a true story, when no child over ten will believe that a single frame of it. Just to rub it in, three of the actors get their photos juxtaposed with those of the  dissimilar real-life people they portray.

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Review: ffOLKES

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

Eccentric heroes, and movies featuring eccentric heroes, must have the courage of that eccentricity in order to persuade audiences to accept and honor it. Roger Excalibur ffolkes is nothing if not an eccentric — so why do the wetsuits on his underwater demolition team read FFOLKES FFUSILIERS instead of (obviously!) ffOLKES ffUSILIERS? Really, my dear chap, it won’t do. Except, all right, let it go this time; for ffolkes is an engaging-enough high-adventure item in its bumptious, low-grade way. The storyline is blithely silly: A squad of piratical types masquerade as journalists in order to get aboard a supply ship that services Her Majesty’s North Sea oil derricks; they mine the ship and two of the billion-dollar rigs, then threaten to blow everything up if the Government doesn’t come across with an empire’s ransom. Can our boozing, woman-hating, cat-loving, rug-tatting hero save all the innocent souls at sea and trounce the blackguards before zero hour? Forget we asked. Keep Reading

Review: Dites-lui que je l’aime (This Sweet Sickness)

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

MTN 55’s Tracking Shot noted: “Is that the best way? Novelist Patricia Highsmith saw her Strangers on a Train become a film classic under the direction of Alfred Hitchcock, but she rejected Hitch’s offer to direct her This Sweet Sickness. Claude Miller inherits the job.” Aha, but wait. There is a Hitch connection, for this novel was turned into an early episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Compressed into 45 minutes or so and renamed Annabel, it was, as I recall, adapted by Robert Bloch, had Dean Stockwell in the lead and was directed by Paul Henreid. As scripted by Bloch, it was a brisk tale of sexual obsession neatly rounded off by gore and girl-menacing, and it couldn’t be more different from this largely quiet and restrained French version. Where Stockwell’s central character was straightforwardly a nutter about whose eventual apprehension one could feel relief uncomplicated by much affection, the central figure in this movie, played most powerfully and sympathetically (for most of the way) by Gerard Depardieu is an unhappy fellow desperate for perfect love in a prosaic world, and his descent into madness is thus more chilling.

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Review: Friday the 13th / Prom Night

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

You don’t review movies like these, you step on them. One could probably trace the existence of several dozen Halloween ripoffs jockeying for a starting spot sometime during the 1980 drive-in season—some of them aiming not only to be take-the-money-and-run successes at the box office, but also to announce the availability of one more sharply talented John Carpenter type on the Hollywood scene. There is the rub, of course: we don’t need John Carpenter types when we have John Carpenter. And these are Carpenter types in emulation only: when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, do-you-know-what-a-camera-is-for?, do-you-stand-deliciously-in-awe-of-images-in-motion? level where the auteur of Halloween has proved himself, most of these yoyos show their true colors the instant we have something to look at onscreen. To say that Friday the 13th and Prom Night bear structural or technical similarities to Halloween is like saying Hitchcock and William Castle both made movies about homicidal maniacs (Psycho vs. Homicidal). Cunningham, Lynch, & respective companies seem oblivious to the notion that a film should generate a rich interior logic of its own and sustain it. The subjective camera identified with the killer in Halloween—subjective in its moment-to-moment sense of form and framespace as well as in those instances when we are (maybe) looking through the eyes of an assassin—is corrupted in these films into a blunt instrument that works only if the audience is willing to let it, indeed, to do all the work themselves: there’s a killer loose, you know, so let’s all guess whom, when, and how he’s going to strike; we guarantee a minimum of one gory demise every ten minutes once the real action gets underway.

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Review: En Och En (One and One)

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

How, one wonders, did the three directors of this odd seriocomic romance-tragedy divide up the responsibilities? Did Josephson direct Thulin’s solo scenes and Thulin Josephson’s, with Nykvist handling all the scenes they’re in together (the majority)? Or was it a case of everyone mucking in, the two stars handling the histrionics and the cameraman running the technicalities? Whatever the truth, it’s a film without an auteur, though there’s lots of “authorship” on display; and it spoils the movie. Parts of it are terribly moving, and most of it is true enough to the awkward corners of most of our lives to make the film’s quality of unease all-pervading. But, damnably, it fails narrowly just where it’s absolutely vital that it should succeed – with the result that the ending, which should be heartbreaking, gives one a sense, admittedly a guilty sense, of relief.

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Review: Best Boy

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

The line between cool observation and active participation in a documentary film is a flimsy and untenable one. How can anything remain truly documentary with a camera whirring away as an extra guest keeping its unblinking eye focused on the people it considers? If the project is of the “Loud Family” sort, the people cannot even ask the camera to leave the room for a moment, because everything must be captured “as it actually occurred.” What is irritating about some documentaries is the pretension that whatever is observed really would have happened just as it appears before the camera—even if that camera hadn’t been there. I don’t believe that, having probably seen too many nervous smiles and stiff movements (and many an overacted moment) in everything from documentary features to National Geographic specials. But when a filmmaker recognizes and acknowledges the degree of responsibility he takes on when he plunks a camera down in the middle of people’s lives—well, some very intriguing things can happen.

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Review: L’Amour viole

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

The Seattle exhibitor that gave a one-week run to Yannick Bellon’s film about a rape victim and the emotional and sociopolitical aftermath of the crime advertised the picture under its French title, L’Amour violé, admirably seeking to avoid the sensationalistic come-on of the U.S. distributor’s banner translation, Rape of Love. As it happened, local reviewers right down the line restored the U.S. title in their articles and indeed in their headlines, and went on to bracket any discussion of the film’s merits within their own various editorials on rape as a social issue. Myself, I felt little inclination to go see some female director’s tract movie on the rape question, and almost let the film get away from me. Almost but, happily, not quite. For L’Amour violé provided to be no tract, feminist or otherwise; even better, it turned out to be a damn good film in the ways that count with every movie, whether freighted with social import or not. And I found that the exhibitor (Seven Gables Theatres) was not only discreet but also precise in hewing to L’Amour violé as the title: “rape of love” ever so slightly distorts the emphasis of “love raped” and steers us away from the delicacy of Bellon’s subject and concerns.

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Review: Used Cars

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

Is there a cure for Southern California? Oh, I don’t mean the smog, the materialism, “the City of the One-Night Stands,” any of that stuff—don’t bother me none. What’s getting to bother me in a big way is the barrenness of cinematic output from those children of Sunny Cal who seem to be running hog wild on the movie scene these days. We could argue about when it started. I couldn’t get too bent out of shape if somebody wanted to insist that Big Wednesday was A Bad Sign a couple of summers ago, even if I found that particular exercise in oafish metaphysics rather endearing; it surely did tend to crawl up its own nether orifice, striking monumental poses (and that’s a difficult position to strike monumental poses in) over a landscape of aspiration and endeavor so specialized as to have nothing but abstract meaning for any non-Californians—and maybe just nonsurfers—in the audience. And now Milius, for whose directorial career I continue to have high hopes, appears to prefer the role of ursine Godfather to all the up-and-coming—or at least oncoming—cinéastes south and Right of Zoetrope. First he exec-produced 1941 for Spielberg, and contributed to its story base along with Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, whose I Wanna Hold Your Hand Spielberg himself had exec-produced. Now he and Spielberg have exec-produced Zemeckis–Gale’s Used Cars, which by its very title sounds like a godawfully appropriate sequel to last Christmastime’s multimillion-dollar wrecking-derby-masquerading-as-a-hohoho-comedy. And in some important and increasingly distressing ways, it is.

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“And then I just go ahead and write that dialogue” – John Sayles [Part 1]

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

Introduction by Richard T. Jameson

When it comes to new hope for the American cinema, filmcrit types are always in the market. New hope in 1980 took the form of a low-budget festival film with the misunderstandable title Return of the Secaucus 7. It wasn’t a documentary, wasn’t a tribute to sullen or snarling radicals, wasn’t even a where-were-you-in-’72 American Graffitistyle slice of overpacked nostalgia. What it was was this genial, witty, low-key comedy, with just the right touch of rue, about a group of friends getting together for an informal reunion one summer weekend, and trying to get used to the idea of turning 30—and just a wee bit comfortably bourgeois. The screenplay was a beauty, ostensibly laidback and wide-open, yet carefully detailed without letting the pointedness show; the characters expertly drawn, no fuss, and so cleanly individualized (among other things, everyone’s dialogue has a logic and texture all its own) that for the audience and for one another they step right out of any assigned boxes, free to explore a wide range of possibilities. The result was a droll ensemble portrait shot through with the cozy vitality the Sixties used to call natural, without any of the boring unintelligence that so often went along with it.

The Return of the Secaucus 7
“The Return of the Secaucus 7” (that’s John Sayles second from left, hiding behind his cast)

The film marked the directorial debut of John Sayles, himself age 30 and one of the most solidly talented writers of contemporary American fiction. About the time Secaucus 7 went into national release, Sayles accepted an invitation to meet with a scriptwriting class at the University of Washington and share some of his experiences. Virtually all the Hollywood personnel who graciously and generously gave of their time to support this course delivered themselves of frank and cogent remarks about the realities of the film biz at the dawn of the Eighties; but even in this company Sayles was conspicuous for the comprehensiveness and lucidity of his commentary. He talked for better than two hours, first supplying a general commentary on his background in film and the circumstances of Secaucus 7‘s making, then opening the floor for questions. Having never heard so much good sense about films and filmmaking collected in one place before, movietone news requested permission to share it with a larger public; the unassuming writer-director seemed surprised that anyone would think so highly of his off-the-cuff remarks, but he agreed. “We’ll send you a transcript so you can check it out.” He thought about that a moment, then said, “No. If I said it, I’ll stand by it. Just go ahead.” And that, with very little editing and rearranging, is what we did.

I’d always been interested in doing screenwriting, realized that there weren’t too many ways into it. I didn’t want to go out to Los Angeles and start knocking on people’s doors trying to get an agent, so I went a route that isn’t much help to most people, which is that I wrote two novels and got them published. I got a literary agent out of that, and his agency had a deal with a film agency on the West Coat, so they were automatically representing my novels as screen properties. I wrote a query letter to them saying, “I also write screenplays”—which I hadn’t done at that time—”do you want to see one?” They said, “Sure, send one,” so I wrote one and sent it off to them, and they said, “Sure, we’ll represent you.” So I moved out to the West Coast.

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“And then I just go ahead and write that dialogue” – John Sayles [Part 2]

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

Continued from “Part 1” here.

Your characters in Secaucus 7 are very natural; it’s as though you knew them like friends. I’d like to know how you developed your characters, how you chose them, and how you made them come alive.

I don’t really remember writing the picture. I wrote that in two weeks. But I sort of had the idea in my head beforehand. I wrote a few of the parts for actors who I knew I wanted to use. They weren’t those actors, they weren’t playing themselves, but I said, What can I write for David that he would have fun doing? I’d start writing this character. What can I write for Maggie that she would have fun doing? Another character. As the story started to fill out, I wanted to balance certain things, so I’d write another character. And then the trick in the directing was, I wanted to have that great luxury of the screenwriter, to tell them to say what I’d written and not paraphrase it or anything like that. There was no improvisation in the film. Even the charades game was totally scripted. Even the little one-liners and sound effects—not the ums and ers, but everything was scripted.

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“And then I just go ahead and write that dialogue” – John Sayles [Part 3]

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

Continued from “Part 2” here.

How do you feel about writing these low-budget films? Do you see advantages in it, or are you hungry for millions of dollars per budget?

If I had millions of dollars I’d probably make millions of small films. Part of it is what I’m good at. I’m not real interested in being a field-marshal. I recently wrote a thing that isn’t going to get made because of budget reasons, that Steven Spielberg was going to produce. And he’s really good at having a huge project and is really a good organizer, and he’d probably be a good administrator—not a great politician but a good administrator of huge programs, because the things get made and things happen. I’m not interested in that or real good at that. The things that I want to do can be done more cheaply, and might as well be done more cheaply. It goes against my grain to see money that should be going on the screen going up in overhead and the cocaine budget.

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