Review: The Lord of the Rings (Part One)

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

Looking at the photograph of Saul Zaentz and Ralph Bakshi in the October issue of Millimeter, I am struck by how much these men, after more than two years’ involvement with The Lord of the Rings, look like two hobbits themselves. It works: Bakshi’s Frodo to Zaentz’s Bilbo … but this Ring they’ve got hold of may prove just as ambiguous in its anticipated effects as the one in this two-hour first-of-two animated films, or the one in Tolkien’s celebrated fantasy series. Although Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings has a presold audience, it is an audience that will be hard to please. One thing that is almost sure to disappoint both the skeptic and the rabid fan of the film is the indefinite feeling that accompanies the end of this first part, and the knowledge that one must wait another year or two to make up one’s mind fully. Unlike Lester’s The Three Musketeers, Bakshi’s Part One is not of a piece, but ends on a deliberately to-be-continued note which makes one wish he had opted for either a four-hour feature with intermission or a two-night, two-feature extravaganza all at once, if only to achieve the kind of unity that both cinema and myth demand.

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These Are the Damned and Blu-“Rings” Times Two – DVDs of the Week

The British film studio Hammer is legendary among horror fans for their lurid and lusty Technicolor revisions of the classic monster movies of the thirties, but they came the horror revival through a general focus on genre films, notably (but not limited to) thrillers, mysteries and science-fiction films. The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films (Sony) gathers six black-and-white thrillers made between 1958 and 1963, all distributed in the U.S. by (and some co-produced by) Columbia.

These Are the Damned

These Are the Damned (1963), Hammer’s answer to Village of the Damned, is the highest-profile film of the set, and the most anticipated. It’s a rare auteur piece (directed by American expatriate-turned-continental class act Joseph Losey), a long sought after science fiction item (Losey’s only true genre film outside of noir and crime cinema) and a Hammer rarity that was cut for American distribution and has been restored for its home video debut. And it’s a strange collision of exploitation elements, visual elegance and emotional coolness, a fascinating oddity with strange angles that don’t all fit but certainly add intriguing elements.

It begins as a different kind of genre film: in a cute little seaside vacation town in Britain, Teddy Boys on motorcycles led by the almost simian-looking King (Oliver Reed, with a dark glower and hulking menace) send out a gorgeous young bird (Shirley Anne Field) to attract the interest of an older American tourist (Macdonald Carey). Then they jump the gent for his cash, beating him brutally and dancing away while whistling their theme song (“Black Leather,” a weird quasi-rock chant that doesn’t sound like anything these chaps would adopt but does include almost nihilistic lyrics with nursery rhyme simplicity: “Black leather, black leather / Smash smash smash / Black leather, black leather / Crash crash crash”). “The age of senseless violence has caught up with us, too,” explains Bernard (Alexander Knox), a local authority figure who run a secret project nearby and has his own younger woman (Viveca Lindfors), an eccentric artist who sculpts eerie-looking statues in a small vacation home known as “The Birdhouse” perched, as it turns out, over the heart of the project. It’s all strangely complicated and almost arbitrary the way Carey’s ugly American Simon Wells sweeps Field’s frustrated sweater girl Joan out of King’s clutches, down the bluff from The Birdhouse and into a secret cave system where a small group of children of the atom are raised without human contact beyond video communications.

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Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

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

Let’s get the suspense out of the way first. I’ve been taken over: I came to the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a purist’s proper disdain for anyone who presumes to redo a classic movie, but as I sat brooding in the darkness, Phil Kaufman’s 1978 version put out its tendrils and pretty soon everything seemed just fine and why should I go around getting upset over little things? Not that the new Invasion is going to displace the old for me. No way. I think the Don Siegel version is the better movie—more seamlessly, “artlessly” accomplished than the present model, and the more inspired work. But after a tacky special-effects opening (where Siegel needed nothing but a subjective descent through roiling clouds), Kaufman’s version persuasively asserts its right to life as an imaginative reflection of our time, just as Siegel’s insidious “sleeper” stands as a quintessential Fifties experience. The makers of the ’56 film were reeling under the twin impacts of Dwight Eisenhower and Joe McCarthy. Their movie played on both the cozy lure of middle-class conformity and the nagging suspicion that that bastard in the next yard or at the next desk or in the next writing cubicle at the studio—indeed, all those bastards—had in mind to do you dirt in a manner you hadn’t quite figured out yet. Jack Finney’s story about pod-grown organisms usurping the identities of everyone in a small California town and reducing them to all-alike, emotionless neuters yielded a powerful metaphor for a more mundane loss of humanity. Cold War buffs were perfectly free to read in a paranoid allegory of Communist takeover: they were said to be everywhere, and wouldn’t they look like any normal, healthy, right-thinking Amurkan, same as you or me, and I’m not so sure about you…?

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The Man Behind Walter Bishop: “Fringe” star John Noble interviewed

Australian thespian John Noble was best know to American audiences as King Denethor in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films before he became Walter Bishop in Fringe. The character is a tortured genius who spent 17 years in a mental facility, treated with heavy doses of pharmaceuticals and receiving no visitors, until he was released into the custody of FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and Walter’s estranged son, Peter (Joshua Jackson), whose resentments smooth out to affection over the course the show. On the one hand, Walter is an entertaining eccentric with limited social skills and a childlike delight in the smallest things. On the other, he’s a broken soul whose earlier experiments sacrificed people in the name of science and now, as he rediscovers his humanity in the social world, has to face the human cost of his actions. His compassion and responsibility is returning and it’s painful.

John Noble as Walter Bishop on "Fringe"
John Noble as Walter Bishop on "Fringe"

Noble’s resonant voice takes on a continental quality for the role, vaguely but indistinctly American. “When I first approached the character, I was looking for something that was unique,” he explained about the accent. “We could have done standard American, but looking for something a bit more Trans-Atlantic, because my experience with academics, they do have a slightly different way of talking. They mix with people from all over the world. So I guess what I settled on was something which could have been like a Boston accent but with English adaptations, and that was the Trans-Atlantic one.” When he drops character, however, his Australian heritage comes through loud and clear.

The road to this interview was unusually complicated. His tentative availability during an abbreviated set visit was scotched due to production shifts. A scheduled conference call became an exercise in frustration when I couldn’t get a question through, thanks to a connection glitch. Finally a direct phone interview was arranged via a temperamental cell phone, and despite the drop-outs and fuzz I was able to get in a questions in a brief ten minute discussion. The following interview, conducted by phone on March 29, features our discussion plus a few comments from the earlier conference call.

Spoiler alert: The conversation reveals elements of the episode “Peter” (which aired Thursday, April 1). The rest of the season is discussed in more vague terms.

Fringe is about a lot of things, but the most interesting story to me is the human story of Walter Bishop rediscovering his conscience and his humanity as he reconnects with his son and starts to care for the people he works with, and starts to see the damage of his experiments on the people that he loves and on people he’s just now meeting.

The retreat into insanity was a defense mechanism based on the theory you’re taking, which I do agree with. He became aware that he effected basically the whole stability of society. So whether he retreated into society to survive that or it’s a defense mechanism, which is also possible, I think it’s a very good point. However, coming out of it, he’s having to face all that again and it’s tragic. It’s bloody awful, isn’t it.

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Review: Death on the Nile

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

If your friendly neighbourhood TV station or film society is tonight showing an uncut print of  Clair’s And Then There Were None or Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, you need not miss such delights in favour of Death on the Nile. But if not, you could do worse than attend. Made by the same producers as Sidney Lumet’s  1974 Murder on the Orient Express, it has, however, a different screenwriter, a different director and a different Hercule Poirot; and the difference shows. Although Jack Cardiff – who seems finally to have realized that it’s better to be a good cameraman than a bad director – gives us plenty of tourist-spot imagery up and down the banks of the Nile, with romance at the Sphinx, romantic torment at Abu Simbel and derring-do elsewhere, the film as a whole doesn’t slam gloss into the viewer’s eye the way Orient Express did, and if the starpower on display is of a marginally lower voltage than previously, the leading lights certainly give off enough energy to keep us all bright. Above all, Peter Ustinov as Hercule P. floats along in the Agatha Christie mystery soup quite serenely, whereas Albert Finney, padded and beeswaxed to the nines, felt obliged to attack the material with a funambulistic gusto.

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Review: American Hot Wax / FM

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

For a while there it seemed as if the post-mortems on the summer’s rock-oriented pictures like American Hot Wax and FM were being written before the films’ release, let alone box-office decease. But even if the backers will get to file their tax writeoffs, it’s almost certain that many more patrons got to see these films as second features to Saturday Night Fever and Grease as the big winners moved out to the nabes. Co-features don’t earn their parent companies more than token rentals that way; but if they didn’t make money, at least one of these pictures went on to make a few friends.

American Hot Wax celebrates the last few days of Brooklyn disc jockey Alan Freed’s reign as the king of rock’n’roll and the onset of his martyrdom as r&r’s patron saint. It boasts a solid stellar performance by Tim McIntire (previously seen as the least lovable of Robert Aldrich’s Choirboys), and if he doesn’t manage to save the film, he gives it a much-needed center of gravity. More than that, he strikes such a satisfying behavioral tone that, like the platter-playing paterfamilias himself, he tends to validate the enthusiasm for the music he sponsors and win our indulgence of his co-players’ excesses and director Floyd Mutrux’s miscalculations. William A. Fraker contributes his usual admirably controlled camerawork—a nice blend of impressionism and ersatz naturalism that evokes Freed’s not-at-all-glamorous milieu with quiet persuasiveness—but too many of McIntire’s fellow performers skittering through the multi-planar compositions fail to convince us they represent a gregarious humanity doing their thing: they’re just a bunch of actors trying on period poses. Still, thanks to McIntire/Freed’s heroic presence, they are at least carelessly acceptable as denizens of a formative rock culture passionately pledged to keep a faith whose scriptures are being written right on the spot.

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“I had to risk not being liked in that scene” – Michael Murphy Interviewed

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

May 9, 1978 New York City

Judith M. Kass: Vincent Canby of The New York Times called your acting in An Unmarried Woman “an exceptionally complex performance as the husband whose emotional problems set in motion the events that make possible the Clayburgh character’s eventual liberation.” I’m specifically interested in the crying scene. Was that intended to get her sympathy or was that Martin’s genuine reaction to the situation?

Michael Murphy: I think that was a very complex scene. There were a lot of things going on there. I think he feels very badly about what he’s doing, but at the same time I think, yes, it is aimed at her. He feels so bad, he wants her to feel as badly for him as he feels for himself. I think her reaction to him when she gets mad is something he doesn’t expect. And so it had a sort of little twist to it. But people take it lots of different ways. I always felt that the scene needed to be sort of self-serving. I don’t mean that he was literally faking it; it was a very emotional moment, but at the same time it had that sort of semi-shallow feeling. I had to risk not being liked in that scene.

And in the whole film, because when he comes back to her and says ‘Take me back”

But there were ways to play that scene. I could have gotten more tearful and it would have been more sympathy-provoking. Paul [Mazursky] and I talked about it a lot. And you have the sense of the guy having kind of a seizure more than a tearful, sad quality.

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DVDs of the Month: The African Queen and Bigger Than Life

One of the most beloved and cherished Hollywood adventures ever made and long the top of every list of DVD requests, The African Queen (Paramount) makes its much anticipated debut on DVD and Blu-ray simultaneously. It was worth the wait: this is a stunning presentation, but more on that later.

Down the river with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart
Down the river with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart

The pedigree is impeccable: Sam Spiegel, a headstrong independent producer, bought the rights to C.S. Forester’s novel (it had been kicking around Hollywood for ten years) and John Huston, arguably the greatest Hollywood writer/director of literary adaptations, brought on James Agee (the most celebrated film critic of his age) as his screenwriting partner. The fears that audiences wouldn’t be interested in a romance between a pair of middle-aged characters was allayed when Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn were cast (and in hindsight, they seem like the ONLY actors for these parts). Bogart plays Charlie Allnut, the hard-drinking captain of a sputtering steam-powered boat that gives the film its title, and Katharine Hepburn is Rose Sayer, a spirited missionary spinster who came to German East Africa with her brother (Robert Morley) and, in September 1914 (the early days of World War I), watches German soldiers march off the local natives and burn down their huts, breaking her brother’s spirit (fatally, it turns out) in the process.

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Review: Bloodline

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

There are certain questions that tend to come up in the dark nights of the critical soul, like ferinstance: How, in a just universe, can there be a greater resemblance between the basest, most incompetent shlock and art of a very high and rarified degree, than between. say, middling-respectable shlock and moderately successful art? It’s as though the snake of aesthetic value had swallowed its tail and brought polar extremes into a condition of adjacency. The Kit Parker Films catalog carries my appalled reaction to a grade-Z horror property named Scared to Death (Christy Cabanne, 1946, with Bela Lugosi in Natural Color), which includes a discussion of the resemblance between the budgetary-imaginative limitations of this level of cinematic creation and the sorts of narrative shorthand and lacunae-leaping one encounters in avowedly surrealist artworks. If anyone wants to take the discussion further, he might well pick up on Bloodline, a multimillion-dollar dog of summer that outdoes in ineptitude any Z-movie you care to name—that is, in fact, so astoundingly poor that one almost needs a new theory of cinema to cope with it.

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Review: Hardcore

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Paul Schrader’s concept for Hardcore strikes me as a great idea for a movie. But he has overwritten it so shamelessly and directed it so hamhandedly that the result is a shambles. Much of Hardcore is handled so ineptly I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Long before the moment (which should have been a shattering one) when religious conservative businessman Jake VanDorn finally discovers his runaway daughter after a nightmarish search through the underworld of the pornography industry, only to learn that his little girl enjoys the decadent world she’s run away to, we know what’s coming and it arrives with little more than a hohum. After going through what Schrader surely views as a hell—like the hell of New York in Taxi Driver or the hell of guilt and truth in Obsession—the two speak to each other in platitudes, with flabby, cliché explications of character. Schrader’s problems in building to and sustaining a climax are most evident in the one scene that is still a tooth-grinder. But the what-are-we-going-to-see? frisson when the projector starts running for three $100-a-seat customers in a whorehouse back room quickly fades when the viewing of the “snuff” film—a Sadean assertion that pain and death are the ultimate pornography—is a short, fake, flaccid emotional experience, not the searing climax it should have been.

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Review: Firepower

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Having ripped off just about every other kind of commercial movie, Michael Winner has inevitably turned his attention to the Bond-style action thriller. Since the Bond films have been ripping themselves off for the past dozen or so years, the pilferings involved in Firepower don’t seem too outrageous. It’s not a good movie by any stretch of goodwill, but it’s not as unutterably crummy as, say, The Man with the Golden Gun either. At least Winner has some decent leads – not that they have a hell of a lot worth doing. I have been infatuated with Sophia Loren most of my life, and hope  always to be,  so I am pleased to report that, at 45, she still looks fabulous; but cast as a routinely enigmatic widow out to avenge (or is she?) the slaughter of her chemist husband by the world’s richest crook, she has no chance to display any acting ability. James Coburn is cast principally, one supposes, because he was a Bond surrogate in the Flint films; here he’s a sort of bounty hunter with a fondness for flora and fauna (cf. Robert Mitchum in The Yakuza) and, you guessed it, his own peculiar code of honour. The flowers-buff bit is just about the only characterisation the script attempts. There’s a token black buddy (O.J. Simpson), as per Dr. No and Live And Let Die, plus the suave millionaire villain tossing off hopefully aphoristic witticisms (any of the Bonds, although the character is also a Howard Hughes-type recluse, like an heroic character in Diamonds Are Forever). This chap has a sadistic aide – don’t they all? There are gadgets galore, a helicopter explodes in mid-air (v. From Russia with Love), people catch fire and so does the sea at one point (FRWL again). The film also comes equipped with casino and the standard exotic sun-drenched backdrops, in this instance Antigua and Curaçao.

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Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Scribbling a few notes in 1975 after seeing Phil Kaufman’s The White Dawn, I wrote: “Culture conflict is a key element in Kaufman’s work. The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid deals with the incursion of a group of relative primitives into the bustling world of a growing industrial civilization. The tension created between the seemingly incongruous occurrence of a baseball game in a Western and the primitive, disorganized conduct of the game itself echoes the tension of the film as a whole: The organized constructs of society are taking shape, but not yet rigid; the violent, free-for-all way of life of the Wild West is dying, but not easily. The manic fantasy world of the legendary James-Younger gang of outlaws is brought dangerously close to our own world when someone says of the baseball game, ‘It’s the new national pastime,’ and Cole Younger replies, ‘Our only national pastime is shooting—and it always will be.’ Primitive violence and low humor are juxtaposed with the steam engine and bicycle world of pre-contemporary Main Street, U.S.A. The White Dawn, a quieter, more controlled film, deals with the incursion of representatives of ‘civilized society’ into a world of primitives. The remarkable range of responses among the film’s characters reflects something of the depth and complexity of national, cultural, and racial conflicts. Where the outlaws of Northfield staged a raid on a new way of life, whose coming meant their own obsolescence, the three castaways of The White Dawn found themselves confronting a new physical world: out of place rather than out of time. In the debacle that finally befalls them, The White Dawn takes an essentially cynical viewpoint: Against the optimistic observation that most human beings are adaptable, and will in time adjust to cultural differences, opting for compromise or harmonious coexistence, is set the stark portrayal of the strength of the bigoted few who, out of fear or simple stubbornness, will ultimately prevail: people of whatever society are ultimately led by the worst among them.”

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Review: The China Syndrome

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

The China Syndrome didn’t have to be about nuclear power. A serviceable suspense thriller about a few people’s public responsibility—or lack thereof—could be built on any number of contemporary issues. Nuclear power works so spectacularly well here, however, because of its enormity of risk. Proponents of nuclear power like to dramatize its safety by comparing it with other forms of energy, in which far fewer precautions are taken and to which—so far—more people have succumbed than to nuclear accidents. But that’s like comparing the airplane with the car: everyone knows flying is safer than driving, but if an accident does occur the extent and the likelihood of damage and death are much greater in the air than on the highway. Much of The China Syndrome is built upon the rhetoric of pro-nuclear assertions of safety, which have made the term “safe” so ambiguous as to be meaningless. If an accident actually occurs, it doesn’t matter how great the odds were against it. The film suggests that those oft-repeated declarations of nuclear safety rest not upon the actual fact of safety but upon having said and heard the declarations so many times. Even the plant operators feel safe, and utter the same platitudes as the corporate executives and their public spokesmen, as if saying it often enough makes it so.

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Review: Moonraker

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

The title song to Moonraker, sung by Shirley Bassey, sets the tone for the latest James Bond film: gentle, inoffensive, almost sweet. This is not the audience-affronting, brassy Bassey of Goldfinger or Diamonds Are Forever; and of John Barry’s score, even the recycled, tried-and-true music from previous Bond films fails to please. The brash, insistent guitar of Monty Norman’s original “James Bond Theme” has been traded down for gentle violin pizzicati, the tempo tripping rather than surging, more cute than clout. Like a turtle drawing in its head, the James Bond format has become systematically less and less daring with the passing years. Not only the actors but even their characters seem progressively aware of participating in a routine: Bond (Roger Moore) isn’t surprised when Drax (Michael Lonsdale), with no provocation, immediately sets about trying to kill him; and Drax himself makes no bones about wanting Bond dead. There’s no detective work, no effort to sidetrack or deceive the investigating agent. What immediately gives Drax away—to Bond and us—as the archvillain is his lavish wealth. It’s become an accepted premise of the Bond film that those who have enough money to buy anything they want will inevitably build private fortresses, equip private armies, and spend their lucre on a quest for world domination.

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Review: The Corn is Green

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Emlyn Williams’s play The Corn Is Green is nothing if not aptly titled. Williams has always been a minor writer, and when writing about his homeland, Wales, which is also my homeland, he has been particularly unimpressive. He writes for tourists – coy jokes, local colour, stereotypes, and carefully transposed cliches from melodrama. People outside Wales, knowing little or nothing about the place, are inevitably caught by the curiosity value of it all, not realising that what they are really responding to is the familiarity of all this Celtic strangeness. Williams’s cliches are commonplace ones, it’s just that the setting he finds for them seems strange. Viewing a production of The Corn Is Green, the uninformed will ask, Are the Welsh really like that? Answering yes, they can then add: How quaint! And how frightfully sweet! What the play chiefly offers on top of this topographical spice is a thundering leading role for any actress d’un certain age. Miss Moffat, the schoolmarm who discovers a genius amidst the unlettered and uncouth populace of a mining community, is a lady to outgrabe the meanest mome-roth who ever breathed, and Bette Davis did nobly by her in the 1945 movie. No less of a natural for the role is Katharine Hepburn, and I’ll bet she was the prime mover in getting this present made-for-TV movie version of the old warhorse onto the assembly line. Thank God, they roped in George Cukor to direct her. The whole of the enterprise is in the work of these two: had either failed, then surely the whole would have crumbled.

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