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Richard Benjamin

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: Westworld

[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]

Stanley Kubrick has staked out as his special territory the study of the diverse and frequently perverse liaisons between man and machine. In films like Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey Kubrick obsessively examines all the accoutrements of a technological environment in which sophisticated hardware continually threatens to become autonomous, even humanized, while man is recreated in the image not of an anthropomorphic deity but of deus ex machina. Michael Crichton (author of The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man, director of Extreme Closeup) is equally preoccupied with scientific paraphernalia and what it portends for the future of mankind. But whereas Kubrick is an artist who makes the machinery serve the myth, Crichton displays only a facile cleverness, a slick talent for coming up with a grabby idea upon which to hang the full weight of a novel or a film. The best contemporary sci-fi writers have turned true novelists in their concern with characterization and style, as well as the need to present in-depth analyses of the ethical, moral, even metaphysical fallout resulting from current technological advances. Crichton’s work has more in common with the oldfashioned sci-fi adventure/suspense thriller genre. For instance, The Terminal Man begins as potentially “modern” science fiction: a man given to extreme violence during epileptic seizures is “cured” by the implantation of a miniature computer in his brain; this cybernetic therapy is complicated by his increasingly psychotic belief that machines are taking control of humans. But Crichton dodges the rich possibilities of this material and ultimately settles for mere chase melodrama. Still, The Terminal Man is as close as he’s come to real achievement in the genre of serious sci-fi.

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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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