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Robert Redford

Review: Jeremiah Johnson

[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]

It is not my wont to criticize a film by comparing it unfavorably with the novel, short story, or play from whence it came. If the source material suffers a directorial sea-change and becomes something rich and different, a viable entity in itself, so much the better. But it is most disheartening to happen upon a novel which fairly begs to be filmed, to wait impatiently for its announced appearance on the screen, and then to be confronted with a film which does irreparable violence to those very qualities, scenes, characters, that made the source ripe for cinematic treatment. Guy Green’s adaptation of John Fowles’s metaphysical mystery The Magus was such a disappointment, and so is Sydney Pollack’s screen version of Vardis Fisher’s Mountain Man (with additional material from two short stories whose titles and authors I lack), Jeremiah Johnson.

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Review: The Sting

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

The Sting‘s credit sequence offers an immediate clue to the directorial tone and aesthetics which slimily pervade the whole film: it consists of vintage pictorials depicting various scenes in the movie; pretty soon these old-time pulp-fiction illustrations begin to include not only characters but also cameras and technicians. The viewer is set up to be grabbed by the artifice, the imitation of a past genre and time, only to be forced to recognize the underpinnings of the illusion, the fact of ultimate fakiness. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not objecting to artifice—it’s what makes all art, and much of life, worth paying attention to. Art is artifice, lying, the highest form of the confidence game. Films are not real; they demand, like novels and poems, one’s suspension of disbelief, a willingness to be taken in, and thus, to be taken out of one’s limited human experience. But there’s a profound difference between the cinematic magician who performs prodigies of illusion for our delight and instruction, or the one who mesmerizes us even as he calls our attention to the ways and means of his prestidigitations (Hitchcock and Truffaut, for instance), and the charming but heartless hack who cons us into a queasy delight with his fabrications, then pricks the bubble, and laughs hugely at our gullibility.

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East Egg, West Egg, Rotten Egg: ‘The Great Gatsby’

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

A film made from a novel sets itself a double task. First, like all movies, it must strive to be good cinema; second, it must try to fulfill the expectations of those who have read the book. When the book is an acknowledged classic, the second becomes more important than the first. It is then incumbent upon the critic to deal fairly with the film on both levels, for many a film has succeeded as cinema despite (or even because of) its failure as an interpretation of literature. The Great Gatsby is, alas, not one of those films.

Not that it is necessarily disappointing or dissatisfying (although what film could be fully satisfying after such a supersaturating promotion campaign?). The way to approach The Great Gatsby is to prepare to be disappointed. If you have no illusion that the film is going to be an effective representation of the novel, then far from being disappointed, you may be pleasantly surprised. But few who love the novel will be capable of such detachment.

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Review: The Great Waldo Pepper

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

I just realized I can’t remember how the line begins, so I’m going to fake it: “Technicians provide realism—artists supply truth.” “Technicians” almost certainly wasn’t the word but the rest is legitimate as a quote. A Hollywood director says it to Waldo Pepper, who was just too late to do his stuff as an ace in the Great War and now has a job, under a phony name, as a stunt flyer for the early talkies. Pepper has just pointed out that the wrong planes are being used by the movie squadron, which happens to be reenacting the legendary air battle he knows by heart and hearkens back to in support of his personal romantic code. George Roy Hill has left himself a lot of loopholes, as usual: The director who delivers the line is, or at least would be in many imaginable circumstances, right to prefer poetic truth to the documentary variety. But he’s wrong within the emotional context of the film, and he’s pompous and defensive to boot. But Waldo’s righteousness is somewhat compromised by our memory that he more or less opened the film by laying down a verbal account of the original battle, fascinating both his immediate, Nebraska farm family audience and its counterpart out there in the darkened theater, winning them and us with a charming blend of self-effacing softspokenness and ingenuous egoism, and shortly thereafter was exposed as a fraud for having cast himself in the story at all. But Hill implicitly tipped us to that particular con by preceding his Technicolor movie proper with monochrome archive stills showing aviation heroes giving up the ghost while stunting for movie cameras; this, plus our association of Robert Redford and Hill with that earlier, supposedly pleasurable screwing-over The Sting—similarly punctuated by (painted) illustrations of a movie crew filming con artists in their maneuvers—surely constituted some kind of fair warning.

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Review: ‘The Three Days of the Condor’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Even the most casual glancer at the credits is going to smirk at the fact that The Three Days of the Condor is taken from a book called The Six Days of the Condor; a certain suspense factor tied up with significantly designated slices of time is distinctly compromised before the action can get underway. That difficulty aside, the movie version is not only twice as fast-paced as the book but also approximately 600% improved. Literarily, James Grady’s novel is sufficient to make Frederick Forsyth look like Graham Greene by comparison, and Sydney Pollack and his screenwriters have wisely compressed the itinerary of Condor—the code name of a CIA-employed reader and analyst of spy, mystery, and adventure novels who goes out to lunch one rainy noon and returns to find his utterly innocuous section totally “damaged” (everybody has been machine-gunned) by, just maybe, another CIA faction. Indeed, Pollack jams the plot past so fast that I wonder whether nonreaders of the book will be able to follow its every turn, especially when (Altmania again) key clues and crucial awakenings on the part of one character or another are often thrown away in a stepped-on line of dialogue or murmured soliloquy.

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Film Review: ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’

Scarlett Johansson

The recent spate of superhero movies all share the same peculiar dynamic. After being dropped from buildings, incinerated, and slammed with high-speed projectiles, their characters invariably end their epic battles with a definitive . . . fistfight. You can’t kill them with incredible punishment, but a bout of pugilism is supposed to settle things. In the end, of course, a black hole or something opens up and withers the villain’s magic skill set. But it says something about these oversized productions that they need to bring everything down to hand-to-hand basics—as though somebody realized how dull a movie can get when the antagonists can’t actually be hurt.

The same outline prevails in the second top-lining film for its old-fashioned superhero. And the first thing to be said about this one is that, unlike 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, which existed purely to set up Marvel’s 2012 ensemble summit meeting The Avengers, Winter Soldier is actually a movie: It has a story, a subtext, and a few fun pulp surprises along the way.

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Review: A Bridge Too Far

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

In the final shot of A Bridge Too Far, a Dutch widow, accompanied by a doctor, her children, and a cart loaded with a few precious possessions, moves slowly across the entire width of the Scope screen, leaving behind her home in Arnhem, ravaged by the worst pocket of the ill-fated Allied sortie into Holland in fall of 1944. One of the woman’s children has fallen behind the group and is playing at soldier, a stick held at shoulder arms. It’s a shot that contrasts sharply with the final shot of Attenborough’s first directorial effort, Oh! What a Lovely War: from a family tending a single grave, the camera cranes back and up, slowly but relentlessly, revealing row upon row upon row of identical white crosses, stretching incredibly away as far as the eye can see. That shot had power without subtlety; the finish of Attenborough’s newest film is subtler but powerless. Both end-shots are representative of the token manner in which Attenborough has come to handle the problem of war.

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Review: The Electric Horseman

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Horse comes over the horizon and slants down into the golden valley, right there I figure Sydney Pollack auteur time, whoa up. I mean, if Sydney Pollack can be an auteur, it isn’t worth being one. But he wants it, oh, he can taste it. He cranes, he tracks, he dissolves. (They shoot auteurs, don’t they?) All right, enough funnin’, let’s fess up and concede that after enough films get made and enough thematic and syntactical evidence piles up, there gets to be somebody there you can recognize, and that’s Sydney Pollack. The guy has a style. Whether that style has much to do with style in the richest, most analytical and mystical senses of the word is another question. But a style he has: slick, thin; getting to be rather touching in its naïve pretentiousness; suited to keeping movies moving, and hence giving his films a leg up when it comes down to the competitive question of which movie should I go to, which film in the local triple or sextuple shopping-mall cinema is likeliest to keep me entertained. Entertained, goddam it, not edified, no matter how much the entertainer may strive to be taken for an edifier as well. The Electric Horseman entertains better than almost anything else that’s twinkled onto the scene this Christmas season. The key factors in this—gorgeous, adorable, intelligent, watchably changeable, iconically constant factors—are a couple of stars who would have been stars even when the Hollywood firmament was filled with them. REDFORD : FONDA : ELECTRIC say the ads. Believe them. And this time believe Sydney Pollack, too.

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Review: Ordinary People

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Robert Redford, who is known to exercise a good deal of personal control over the films in which he is involved, has shown a near-manic fixation in recent years with embracing the sociopolitically correct position. In the excellent All the President’s Men as well as such middling efforts as Three Days of the Condor and The Electric Horseman and a downright cheat like Brubaker, the bad guys are shallow, unfeeling, and simply wrong, while the good guys enjoy at least a modicum of emotional depth and sail through the film on the wings of moral rectitude with rarely a serious contradiction or dilemma to confront. There is nothing wrong with simplistic character delineation in film: primitives like Fuller and Leone thrive on it. But Redford passes his work off as serious social realism and congratulates himself for taking a courageous position, while actually keeping the social activist side of his films thoroughly safe.

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