Fifty years ago Shirley MacLaine was doing adorable-pixie roles in movies like Irma La Douce and What a Way to Go! and Christopher Plummer was, well, the Captain in The Sound of Music. Both actors are doing just about the same thing in Elsa & Fred. She’s still an unstoppable force of life, and he’s still moping around the house. MacLaine doesn’t break into a chorus of “My Favorite Things” to shake him out of his doldrums, but she does insist that they re-create the fountain-jumping scene from La Dolce Vita. Which is not a bad way for an old curmudgeon to get his mojo back, it turns out.
[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
MGM whacks some of the most splendid moments out of The Wild Rovers, your lovely first Western ever, then has at The Carey Treatment so badly with the shears that you’d prefer your name weren’t on it; so you find other backers and make one of the best movies of the ’74 season, The Tamarind Seed, and the intelligent audience it deserves won’t go near it because your wife’s the star and her name’s a joke in all the cleverest households. There’s no blaming Blake Edwards for covering his bets by hieing back to proven ground with Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau and The Return of the Pink Panther. Return is a hit commercially and—to the extent that non–Woody Allen and non–Mel Brooks comedies are taken note of—critically, and that must feel good to Edwards. It feels good to me, too, as long as I don’t dwell on the lurking injustice of it all. (It’s hard not to graft an auteurist allegory onto the credit titles, wittily animated by the Richard Williams Studio. The cartoon Pink Panther returns to attend the gala première of the film version of his return, capers about in such serially secure guises as a Mickey Mouseketeer and the Frankenstein Monster, and ends the film by donning director’s garb and turning his crank camera on the audience, winking through a final iris-shot to leave a pink haze of elegantly blown cigarette smoke: an evanescent image appropriate to the assured whimsy both Edwards’s mise-en-scène and—another “return”—Henry Mancini’s Edwards scores effortlessly sustain.)
[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]
Hands-down winner of the Wrongest Possible Project from the Very Beginning Award for 1975 is Conduct Unbecoming, a dreadful adaptation of a perhaps worse play, and a movie so misconceived—by the infallibly inept Michael Anderson—that its very attempts to juice itself with artificial life manage to exacerbate its turgidity. The cast list is imposing but the players, while too professional a lot to come right out and guy the piece, can’t manage to salvage it either. (What the hell, pick up the bucks via a few day contracts and hop a plane to something better: Christopher Plummer’s turn as Kipling in The Man Who Would Be King is discreetly fine enough to erase the memory of half a career’s worth of vainglorious posturing in junk like this.)
[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]
John Huston said recently he has made only three good films in the past decade: Reflections in a Golden Eye, Fat City, and The Man Who Would Be King. Though I’m still holding out—more or less alone, I think—for The Kremlin Letter to be included among his better works and I have serious doubts about Reflections, there is certainly no argument that The Man is one of the director’s finest achievements of any decade. It’s a pretty neat trick to make a film so completely faithful to the spirit of Kipling’s original story while not violating for even a moment the spirit of John Huston as well.
[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]
It’s hard not to think about Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre after seeing The Man Who Would Be King, for reasons that range from their broadest similarities as adventure yarns involving men balancing vision against obsession and finally losing everything in their efforts to get everything, down to minor but perhaps tellingly matched details like the strings of frisky mules who in both cases wind up spilling fortunes of gold back into the wilderness from which they came. To enumerate a few other likenesses: one could easily see the Mexican Shangri-la that Walter Huston falls into in Treasure of the Sierra Madre as something of an incipient Kafiristan (who knows that Huston didn’t have Kafiristan in mind even then, if it is true that he’s had a film version of Kipling’s story forming in his head for some twenty years) and the schism that festers briefly between Peachey Carnehan and Danny Dravot when Danny decides to take a wife and remain a .king in Kafiristan as another version of the paranoia that alienates Fred C. Dobbs from his companions and finally leads to his death—as Danny’s much less self-destructive delusions lead to his. Cutting it a little finer, there is the director’s own little joke in Treasure when Bogart (who, interestingly, was one of the actors—Clark Gable was the other—Huston originally intended to play the roles in his version of Kipling’s story) keeps on badgering John Huston to “stake a fellow American to a meal” (Huston plays a small part as a moneyed American in a Mexican city full of penniless expatriates) until Huston gets pissed off and tells Bogart, “This is the last peso you’ll get from me; from now on, you’ll have to make your way through life without my assistance!” In The Man Who Would Be King Peachey Carnehan swipes a watch from Kipling—if not the auteur, at least the author who set Peachey and Danny out into the world and into Huston’s imagination.
Starcrash (Shout! Factory)
This shamelessly and fabulously derivative Italian space opera is both the most ridiculous and the most irresistible of all the Star Wars knock-offs of the late seventies and eighties. Caroline Munro spends much of the film in a black latex bikini as the great outlaw starship pilot Stella Star, who is arrested by space speed cops, sentenced to life in a slave planet, masterminds an escape and is pardoned by the Emperor (Christopher Plummer) in exchange for traveling to the Haunted Star to find the Phantom Planet of the rebellious Count Zarth Arn (a chubby Joe Spinell). And that’s just the first few minutes.
The introductory shots echo the opening of Star Wars, with the camera caressing cut-rate space ship miniatures against a galactic backdrop lit up like Christmas tree lights. There’s an android sidekick with a Texas accent (not a Black Hole reference—that came out a year later—merely a lucky coincidence), alien civilizations (“Look! Amazons on horseback!”) and barbarian planets, holographic messages, hyperspace travel and a light saber, not to mention stop-motion robot guards animated with more love than talent and a Death Star substitute with five flaps that look like fingers on a steel glove and fold down into a fist to fire. But the set designs, costumes and psychedelic color are right out of sixties Italian genre cinema. Marjoe Gortner is prissy and unnaturally cheerful as her alien navigator, a mix of Luke Skywalker, Obi-wan Kenobi and Mr. Spock, and David Hasselhoff makes his entrance in a gold mask that looks borrowed from Zardoz, but Plummer brings dignity and gravitas to his part (even when booming the line “Imperial Battleship, stop the flow of time!”) and John Barry contributes a romantic-tinged score, less epic and adventurous than the John Williams but quite lovely.
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.”
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.