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Beau Bridges

Review: Child’s Play

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Sidney Lumet ventures once more into an ascetic community of men—here a Catholic prep school rather than the African-based British prison camp of The Hill—but this time comes up with only about half a winner. Child’s Play is a spellbinder for approximately that fraction of its duration. The boys are subjecting one another to increasingly gruesome and sometimes blasphemous mutilations while on the faculty level the senior and junior masters seem locked in a contest of wills and styles that, to the senior master at least, amounts to a battle with the very Devil. Each piece of information leaked to us strikes its note of grisly suggestibility. Are the boys possessed? Is the place itself—worthy of condemnation by secular if not clerical authorities, inadequately lighted, with red votive lamps punctuating the darkness with awful chromatic intensity—some kind of vestibule to Hell? Unhappily the whole edifice of satanic innuendo caves in like one of those lesser horror films that is grabby enough as a thriller until we finally meet the rubber monster at close quarters: when the explanation comes, it is tactically incredible, psychologically invalid, and dramatically invalidating (one of the first scenes in the film, for instance, is retroactively revealed as a cheat). The filmmakers scramble to recover their balance and our faith, but they have nothing to fall back on but the sort of ringing last-act declamations that are designed to reassure a Broadway audience that all this titillation has had a very serious point: something about schoolroom fascism, maybe, or the death of God, or like that.

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Review: Swashbuckler

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

In this life sure things are rare, and it were churlish not to pay tribute to one when found. Very well, then: see James Goldstone marked down as the director of a given film and rest assured it will be a shambles. Not that a mindless pirate picture would be the easiest project to bring off in the Seventies with a modicum of style and dash—commodities almost in shorter supply than sure things. But even if a director were capable of steering round the improbabilities in a pirate-meets-girl, pirate-foils-nasty-dictator, pirate-gets-girl-without-losing-a-PG-rating script, he’d still have to do something about making other generic conventions seem effortlessly natural: conveying a sense of fun and exuberance that would make those nonstop guffaws over the joys of fighting, guzzling and wenching seem other than forced, or the absence of any notion of danger—even when the air is full of live steel and cannonaded masonry—seem the only proper response to a world made for devil-may-care adventure. A gregarious raconteur like Raoul Walsh has it in his blood; a Michael Curtiz can cram his frames and send them hurtling after one another with such dizzying stylishness that any feeling of extravagant artifice all but becomes a virtue; even when a stolid craftsman like Henry King is in charge, the solemnity of his responsibility in marshalling a big-budget period picture lends a narrative stability of its own. Goldstone doesn’t come near suggesting any of these guys (although at one point he keeps the duelling Peter Boyle and Robert Shaw out of sight behind a staircase, and if you happen to spot their shadows on the wall amid the clutter of extras, you might feel generous enough to count it as failed-Curtiz) and, worse, has no consistent idea what to do on his own hook.

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Review: The Runner Stumbles

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

Though The Runner Stumbles fails to grasp what it reaches for, it offers some surprisingly telling moments in its humble look at the crisis of faith versus self-interest. The weight of the film is on the shoulders of Dick Van Dyke as a maverick priest exiled to a tiny rural parish, where his intellectual companionship with a young nun sent to teach in the parish school gradually stirs other feelings as well. Van Dyke’s uneven performance, often brilliant, just as often abysmally ragged, creates many of the problems in the film. Father Rivard says several times, for example, that Sister Rita’s presence renewed his faith and enthusiasm; but we never see this. In fact, it seems as if her appearance in Solona—a place where good people keep getting “stuck,” much as in John C. Fogarty’s Lodi—only intensifies his brooding by causing another problem for him to deal with, her sweetness-and-light approach proving insufficient to draw him off the darker side of human experience.

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