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Hal Holbrook

Review: They Only Kill Their Masters

[Originally published in Movietone News 21, February 1973]

Winning, Red Sky at Morning, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Each one more atrocious than the one that went before. Which tends to raise the question: how does James Goldstone, the most conspicuously untalented director of the past ten years, get financed (Ernest Lehman of Portnoy’s Complaint is exempt, being very talented—as a writer)?

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Review: Magnum Force

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

Don Siegel he’s not, but in this sequel to Dirty Harry Ted Post has directed his first middlin’-good feature film. A Gunsmoke–Have Gun, Will Travel regular in the half-hour heyday of those series, Post has done less-than-promising work for the big screen: Hang ‘Em High, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, The Harrad Experiment. Someone—not necessarily Post—has been attentive to those critics of Harry who cried “Fascism!” and has programmatically set out to do a film with Clint Eastwood/Harry Callahan against some avowed fascists—or perhaps we must say superfascists since Harry himself still casually avows “There’s nothing wrong with shooting—just so the right people get shot.” And indeed, Eastwood’s own integrity as an actor and as a mythic figure remains untarnished: Magnum Force is the first non-Leone, non-Siegel, non-Eastwood picture in which he manifests some real style instead of sleepwalking into place to pose for the one-sheets.

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Blu-ray / DVD: ‘The Fog’

The Fog (Shout Factory), John Carpenter’s follow-up to his breakthrough hit Halloween, isn’t among the director’s best films, but it is one of his most gorgeous.

Carpenter and his producer / co-writer Debra Hill wanted to make an old-fashioned ghost story, something spooky and eerie, rather than another slasher movie (not that “Halloween” is just a slasher movie, but that’s how the industry saw the film and the director). So they came up with a story about a hundred-year-old curse involving an island leper colony, a fortune in stolen gold, and an act of genocide covered over in a story that has become legend in this fiction California coastal town. Jamie Lee Curtis plays a hitchhiker who stops over on the 100th anniversary (that’s bad timing), her mother Janet Leigh plays the local civic leader, Tom Atkins is a fisherman who picks up Curtis (in every meaning the term), and Hal Holbrook is a boozy priest who uncovers the curse, but the hero of this one is actually Adrienne Barbeau, a single mom and evening deejay in a lighthouse booth who goes on the air to give fog reports like traffic updates.

You can see Carpenter reaching for a larger canvas, incorporating more characters and storylines, crosscutting and weaving story arcs. And you can see the appeal of an old-fashioned ghost story played without gimmicks, although he ultimately has to compromise his original concept. When he tested the finished film, where the fog itself was the monster and no murders appeared on screen, he found that his campfire tale was more soggy than scary. It simply didn’t work and he didn’t need studio prodding to bring back the cast and toss in ghost pirates and a series of murders. (Carpenter and Hill discuss this in a commentary track they recorded a decade ago, included on this release.) It still isn’t particularly scary or compelling, the performances are variable, and the dialogue seems to mark time between money shots.

Leper pirate ghosts arise!

But it is a beautifully shot film, with the fog coming alive and taking over the frame like a creature in its own right. Carpenter and Dean Cundy were the low-budget masters of composition and lighting of their time and this film is an exemplary case, creating compelling shots even when the drama itself is weak. As in Halloween, Carpenter and Cundy shoot in Panavision and fill the sides and backgrounds with shadows and empty spaces “where evil can inhabit,” as Cundy describes in an accompanying interview. The monsters don’t come from outside of the frame or hide behind objects. They arise from the darkness (or, in this case, the empty white of the fog) itself, materializing as if they have always been there. In its own way, The Fog a quintessential Carpenter horror.

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Review: Midway

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

To make an uninvolving movie out of one of the most decisive battles of the Second World War may seem a dubious challenge, but there’s no denying Universal their full credit in meeting it. Midway has very little to recommend it. Persons who never subjected themselves to Sensurround with Earthquake have their opportunity here (the closest I got was seeing—but scarcely experiencing—the sample sequence run for the benefit of the TV audience at last year’s Oscars, to the exclusion of film clips from the careers of Academy honorees Jean Renoir and Howard Hawks); the opening, tinted monochrome actuality footage of aircraft-carrier takeoffs and a long, riveting approach to a headland is vivid enough in its own right, and the roar and shudder of engines undeniably enhances it. But after that, Sensurround has pretty well shot its wad.

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