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Herbert Ross

Five Sleazy Pieces

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Recently I encountered a phenomenon—I refuse to call it a book—labeled The Only Good Indian and coauthored by Ralph and Natasha Friars. Its specific sins against the English language and any recognizable form of ratiocination are catalogued elsewhere in this issue. I mention this pseudo-scholarly study of the American Indian’s martyrdom by cinematic slings and arrows only because it exemplifies a particularly cavalier attitude towards product and consumer alike, an attitude rampant not only in selfrighteous critical tracts like the Friars’, but also in an increasing number of current films. People like the Friars don’t have to make sense (either stylistically or thematically), don’t have to work at selling their shoddy wares even on the level of persuasive polemic. Why? Because their readers are pre-sold, previously primed to ingest that which already constipates their thinking. Not, admittedly, a new process—this recycling of pap that effects no change, no growth, only a mild to offensive case of intellectual flatulence. Still, recent movies like The Last of Sheila, The Harrad Experiment, and most particularly Badge 373, Harry in Your Pocket, and The Legend of Hell House impel one to speculate about a spiraling trend towards just this sort of bland diet in the cinema.

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The Last of Sheila cashes in on the audience’s putative taste for the games (rich) people play, not to mention psychic stripping, a spectacle many in our group-therapy-ridden society have come to relish in and for itself with or without any therapeutic payoff for the individual involved. Broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim—who, with close friend Tony Perkins, wrote Sheila‘s screenplay—is reputedly hooked on the puzzle-game habit himself. Perhaps as a result, the film retains the half-thought-out, initially grabby but ultimately flabby quality of a neat idea cooked up by old buddies with shared interests over late-night scotches.

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Review: The Last of Sheila

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Little can be said of this film’s elusive plot without spoiling the excitement for the viewer. A movie producer invites six friends to spend a week aboard his yacht off the French Riviera, playing a six-day, port-to-port detective game. Each accepts the invitation in hopes of winning some favor from the powerful film magnate. It is a year since his wife Sheila was murdered by a hit-and-run driver; and as the producer’s skillfully devised game begins to reveal hidden secrets about the lives of the players, it becomes evident that one of them is the murderer. Suddenly there is much more at stake than the outcome of a game. Or is there? For as the film twists and turns along increasingly cerebral passageways, each new revelation becomes simply a part of a larger game. Unlike its predecessors in the “game” film genre—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Boys in the Band, SleuthThe Last of Sheila is not based on a stageplay, and its plot never reaches a point at which the game-playing stops, gives way to reality. Quite the contrary, as the film ends the next move is left to the audience, filled with the discomforting sense that everything that happened onscreen was merely part of a still larger mystery game that remains for them to unravel.

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Review: The Sunshine Boys

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

Neil Simon’s way of being funny has an unappealing tinge of urbane and private nastiness to it. It’s not always something you can pin down to the printed script or the types of jokes he puts into his characters’ mouths; rather, it is a quality more subliminally (and subversively) expressed in a cumulative attitude of a writer towards his people and his audience. It is as if Simon wishes to make us feel guilty about laughing at his characters because it is so easy (too easy) to laugh at them: get a guy so enmeshed in an almost cruelly black inability to cope with life (like Charles Grodin in the Simon-scripted The Heartbreak Kid) and “anything he says or does is bound to appear comically inept. Simon, like Wilder, capitalizes on fallibility in a way that seems somehow unhealthy—a kind of self-contained, ruffled-lip statement that misuses comedy as a tool of exclusion. Rather than portraying any kind of strength, he would just as soon evoke cheap sentiment (like expecting us to suddenly straighten up and get serious when Willie Clark, one of the Sunshine Boys, has a near-fatal heart attack) and he is a lot better at making us cringe in embarrassment at tedious predicaments than at allowing us to let loose at a sharp one-liner or a bit of funny business that doesn’t require a five-minute take to brand into our consciousness.

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Review: The Seven Percent Solution

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Sherlock Holmes is an item nowadays. When Billy Wilder’s exquisitely personal The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes opened at Christmastime 1970, he was such a commercial irrelevancy that the cashiers at the now-deceased Blue Mouse, where the picture was showing, were taking calls for Love Story at their sister theater, the Music Box, across the street (I phoned up one evening to ask when “the show” started, and arrived in midfilm—it had never occurred to the harried phone person that somebody wanted to see the show in her theater; I eventually did see it the next evening, with about eight other people in attendance). While the Wilder picture is well on the way to winning its proper place in the annals of cinema, it’s hard not to resent the fickleness of fate and mass audience tastes—or the commercial inevitability of Nicholas Meyer’s trivially amusing bestseller The Seven Percent Solution finding its luxurious way to holiday screens via a property packager like Herbert Ross. The resultant film is enjoyable enough most of the time—handsome in its production values (Ken Adam has already demonstrated his skill at period reconstruction in Barry Lyndon, and Oswald Morris has been one of the best color cameramen in the business since he and John Huston began remixing the Technicolor palette in Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick), blessed with several appealing, if manneristic, performances, and somewhat more adventurous in its narrative idiom(s) than was Meyer’s novel as a work of literature.

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Review: The Turning Point

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

The Turning Point is a gentle, properly humble film whose joys are nearly always thespian rather than cinematic. The oohs and aahs that have marked response to this film in just about every quarter are pitiable, since they only serve to overrate the film and prepare the viewer for disappointment. Audiences may find themselves feeling that they are expected to like it, because it is about serious art, because it is self-consciously ambitious, and not because of its smallness, which to me is the best thing about the film. It is precisely the film’s ability to be about so many things in a small way that makes it attractive. Its meandering plotline and gratuitous “relevance” are the mark of a kitchen-sink approach to psychology and moralism; and the film’s most obnoxious trait is the tendency of its characters toward ponderous self-analysis and constant moral summation, distinctly remote from the province of most people’s daily behavior.

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