[originally published in The Weekly, November 9, 1983]
The Right Stuffis the biggest, brightest, busiest movie of the year, exhilarating in its largeness of spirit, in the sheer physical scope of its achievement, and in the breadth and complexity of its ambitions. It’s also an exasperatingly difficult film to review, for its strengths and weaknesses frequently lie side-by-each, and although the former far outweigh the latter, both must be acknowledged.
Anyone setting out to make a film from Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff faces an awesome challenge: how to take 16 years’ worth of aviation history teeming with event, detail, character, and information, and shape it into a coherent, let alone an engrossing, movie. In this, writer-director Philip Kaufman has stunningly succeeded. Against all odds, unintimidated by the shifting currents of history and changing fashions in American heroism, his Right Stuff rushes along a breathlessly clear narrative line for 3 hours and 13 minutes. It’s a joyride with substance, the sort of experience that leaves even classy kiddie-kar entertainments like Raiders of the Lost Ark and ReturnoftheJedi looking trivial by comparison.
The Visitor (Drafthouse, Blu-ray, DVD), a 1979 Italian giallo-esque supernatural horror with an American cast and a former Fellini assistant taking the directorial reigns with more imagination than storytelling discipline, is not the first Exorcist knock-off to come out of the Italian genre factory. It may, however, be the least coherent. Opening on Franco Nero as a Django Jesus in a heaven with art direction out of Logan’s Run and populated with bald children, it quickly sends John Huston as a paternal emissary (or maybe a particularly grandfatherly God, who knows?) on mission to stop Santeen from taking over Earth through 8-year-old Katy Collins (Paige Conner, more creepy Bad Seed than possessed Linda Blair). There’s also a helping of The Omen, Carrie, The Birds, and the hall of mirrors of The Lady From Shanghai (among many other films), a basketball game with an exploding dunk shot, an abduction out of UFO lore, and Glenn Ford as a police detective who gets his eye pecked out by a falcon.
Giulio Paradisi (directing under the screen name Michael J. Paradise) came up with the story, which recasts the idea of a satanic thriller as a cosmic battle, and apparently keeps rewriting as it goes along. Katy has vaguely telekinetic powers and a strange sense of humor (in a game of tag at an ice rink she tosses a couple of teenage boys out of the rink and through a plate of glass) and somehow the evil corporate cabal’s mission to have Katy’s mommy (Joanne Nail) spawn even more devil children becomes a campaign of torture that lands her in a wheelchair and worse. The cast also drops in Shelley Winters as a cranky housekeeper, Mel Ferrer as the corporate devil, Sam Peckinpah as a doctor (completely dubbed into anonymity), and young Lance Henriksen as the Ted Turner of the Apocalypse. Okay, that’s a stretch, but it does actually take place in Atlanta (though most of it is shot in Rome).
Paradisi may not have a clue about directing actors (Glenn Ford walks through his performance in a daze, though in his defense he probably read the script and ended up more confused than ever) but he has picked up a few tricks from Argento on how to move a camera and from Fulci on how to stage a supernatural freak-out. It’s not particularly gory, mind you, and the cut-rate optical effects of the cosmic finale are so slapdash they become abstract, but that kind of works for this oddball trip.
I confess that this is the first time I’ve tried to review a Blu-ray release via streaming video. It may not have made that much of a difference, for despite the claims of being “restored” the print was filled with minor scuffs, scratches and abrasions and the picture looked a little soft. More likely this is a preservation rather than a restoration, an HD master of a high-quality print.
The press release insists that there are interviews with star Lance Henriksen, screenwriter Lou Comici and cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri, but only Henriksen and Comici were accessible to me. Both artists describe a production where no one had any idea what was going on with the script or the story, including the director, who dismissed all queries when asked to explain. Henriksen is marvelously good-natured about remembering the experience, which he found a delight even though the film is such a mess (his story about getting direction from co-star John Huston is priceless). I did not receive a copy of the booklet that accompanies the disc.
[originally published in Film Comment Volume 31, Number 5, September/October 1995]
Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 genre-juicing vampire film Near Dark opens close up on a leggy mosquito poised to tap into screen-spanning flesh. Apt epigraph for a film about heartland bloodsuckers; but also your ticket into any of the intensely sensual, romantically nihilistic excursion – The Loveless, Blue Steel, Point Break, and now Strange Days – head-tripped by this dark daughter of Hawks and Hitchcock. Bigelow’s movies gauge psyches and society in extremis, running on empty. Her nomadic protagonists, “riders” of one stripe or another, hooked on whatever “zap” best fuels them, cruise the nervous systems of her often hyperreal “outside” – unspooling ribbons of baked macadam, rain- and neon-slicked streets, granite-gray arches of breaking surf, even brightly surging brainwaves – trying to stay ahead of their own shadows.
Latterday kin to Hawks’s daredevil existentialists, Bigelow folk all hanker after heartstopping action and spectacle, the sort of “speed” that punches life up to top gear and outruns terminal ennui. Hanging out on the edge of the world, emotionally and in the flesh, these are orphans to the bone – loners, outlaws, pariahs. Plugged into jerry-rigged “families” for dangerous shelter, their rage and despair often explode into demonic self-projections.