Do we need another documentary on The Beatles? Yes, they are music legends, rock royalty, and a popular culture phenomenon, and they have been duly studied, appreciated, dissected, and celebrated practically from the moment they set foot on American soil. Is there anything left to say?
Ron Howard’s The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years hasn’t much new to add apart from perspective but that makes all the difference. The title is a ungainly but accurate. After sketching in the birth of the band, it follows the familiar career arc from club favorites to pop hitmakers to sophisticated songsmiths pushing the boundaries of our conception of rock and roll in “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which (apart from a fitting coda) is where this study ends. The focus, however, is on their non-stop activity from their first chart success to their last live concert.
Chris Hemsworth’s performance as Thor looks like a triumph of realism next to his turn as a Nantucket whaler in In the Heart of the Sea. I know it must be difficult for an Australian actor to master a New England accent, but Hemsworth sounds like he’s choking on Boston baked beans for the duration of the film.
Of course, who knows what a Nantucket whaler sounded like in 1820? But the accent is the least of Hemsworth’s problems in Heart, an adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction bestseller about an incredible sea disaster.
In 1821, in the South Pacific, the whaleship Essex was rammed and sunk by a huge whale. The surviving sailors endured ghastly hardships in the following weeks, including starvation.
[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
Ever since the Lumière brothers first fascinated audiences with cinematic recreations of trains entering stations, waves breaking on shores, and street traffic in Paris, theories of Realism have been the aesthetic engines of the film medium. A language with an almost mystical capacity to replicate reality, film has for three-quarters of a century created and recreated its own aesthetics and, although the spectrum of approaches to film art is vast and various, nearly all of the critical theories that have been functionally important have been in some intimate way connected to that primal mimetic power of the medium. Even Expressionist theories, for 75 years opposed in dialectical tension to the Realist theories, have substance simply because the language of film is so highly replicative: if film did not have the innate power to capture reality, it certainly would not hold much interest for those whose desire is to distort it. Forty years ago Rudolf Arnheim warned against the rapid technological development of the medium which would of course only increase the power of replication and therefore limit the freedom of the artist to create “art” and relegate the camera “to the position of a mere mechanical recording machine.”
The history of film is marked by Realist mileposts: French poetic realism in the 1930s; Italian neorealism in the late Forties; the British documentary tradition; the Eastern European humanist heritage; and finally the New Wave of the last 15 years, so thoroughly rooted in the thought of André Bazin, whose influence is still central even now almost 20 years after his death. In our own country theories of realism have had a much more muted effect, especially if we judge our own film traditions against those of France or Italy or England. Yet, within its limited context, much of the best of American film shows the force of realism, from King Vidor and Raoul Walsh to John Cassavetes, from Scarface to On theWaterfront, the styles and subjects of Realism have provided American films with vitality and relevance. During the brightest period of American film—the Thirties and Forties—Warner Brothers, the studio most closely associated with the Realist tradition, is now increasingly seen to have been the major force in the studio system. The gritty and direct Warner Brothers style marked a body of films which surpass in many ways the slicker output of MGM and Paramount and give us a much more exciting and intriguing image of that past America. If the witch-hunts and Blacklists of the late Forties and early Fifties purged the studios of much of the talent that had created that emerging realist tradition, nevertheless we still had the films of Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan during the period that followed. The American film tradition, moribund in the Fifties, was near death in the Sixties and the focus of attention turned, even for most American cinephiles, to European cinema.
[Turner Classic Movies will show Cocoon, one of Ron Howard’s pretty-good movies, this coming Sunday, Feb. 10, at 2:45 p.m. Pacific Time. The following review appeared in The Weekly during the film’s 1985 first run. Also on screens then was another sci-fi film in a very different key, Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce. That won’t be on TCM (which is showing Cocoon because of the Oscar it won for Don Ameche), but Lifeforce is available on DVD. However, you really should wait for the Shout! Factory upgrade of it, coming out on Blu-ray and DVD in April. – RTJ]
[originally published in The Weekly, June 26, 1985]
The summer braindeath alert is still in force, but the Cineaste General has just announced two additional safe zones in which the filmgoer can move without undue fear of contamination. Somewhat surprisingly, both abut the science-fiction genre, a plague-ridden territory where video-game special effects and kiddie cant are habitually substituted for intelligently impelled narrative and a provocative point of view. Nevertheless, Cocoon and Lifeforce may both be recommended to discerning viewers, even though they happen to be light years apart in style, tone, content, and likelihood of achieving commercial longevity.
Of the two, the apparent class act is Cocoon. It’s the latest film from actor-turned-terrific-movie-director Ron Howard, whose romantic comedy-fantasy Splash last summer was an entertainment of rare freshness and enchantment. Its packagers are Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, who first enabled Steven Spielberg to set his Jaws for the unwary moviegoer. They’ve supplied Howard with a nifty story idea (by David Saperstein), two-thirds of a good screenplay (Tom Benedek), and a cast unmatched for professionalism and appeal, if not marquee clout: Wilford Brimley, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Don Ameche, Gwen Verdon, Maureen Stapleton, Jack Gilford, Brian Dennehy, and Steve Guttenberg.
Most of the aforenamed play residents of a Florida retirement community called Sunny Shores, where they sit waiting, with varying degrees of contentment and resignation, for the Grim Reaper to pay a house call. Actually Ameche, Brimley, and the terminally ill Cronyn don’t do much sitting. They’ve lately taken to trespassing on the disused palatial estate next door and paddling, like truant sixth-graders, in the indoor pool.
[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]
Don Siegel, a man with an impressive history of making competent, toughminded, fast-moving films, admits that he’s trying to alter his “image” as an action director. In his most recent film, The Shootist, we can feel the tug between action and reflection, violence and elegy, present and past—opposing qualities that find a meeting ground in Siegel’s view of what itself is a contradictory environment of change and anachronism. This is turn-of-the-century Carson City, Nevada, outfitted with harbingers of the future such as trolleys on tracks and horseless carriages, but also retaining iconographic refuges of the Old West like the spacious Metropole Saloon. Scanning the borders of heroism, time, and fate within this world, Siegel’s style ranges from the intimate and discreet to the epic, the legendary and mythic mode of end-of-an-era Westerns—divergent strains of perspective (and TheShootistis very much a movie about various perspectives, mixing the larger context of legend with the intimacy of self-knowledge) that can unexpectedly coalesce within a single shot. Towards the end of the movie, when J.B. Books (John Wayne)—an aging gunman dying of cancer—prepares to go out to the Metropole to meet with three adversaries he’s treating to a showdown, there is something about John Wayne’s gestures and Siegel’s eye-level and respectfully unobtrusive camera that is both epically cumulative and heartwrenchingly personal. Very slowly and selfconsciously, Books places his guns just so in his belt, takes his hat from the peg on the wall and arranges it on his head, and checks his watch so as not to be late to this last appointment. (Books has opted to go down in a blaze of gunfire rather than succumb to the cancer attacking him relentlessly from the rear.) It is a painfully intimate moment, one which we feel almost indiscreet in witnessing. Nothing very important is happening—nothing more important than all the accoutrements of a man’s life getting arranged, put in order for his passing.
Back in 1993, during a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the auteur theory in America, critic-turned-filmmaker Paul Schrader identified a then-current Hollywood trend: “If you learned your craft in episodic television, you learned two things. One: how to take orders and be on time. And two: how to please people. So now who are our ‘auteurs’? Meathead, Laverne and Opie.” Which was to say, Rob Reiner, Penny Marshall and Ron Howard, respective acting alumni of All in the Family, Laverne & Shirley, and The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days.
Laverne and Meathead soon ceased to matter much, but Opie gives no sign of slowing down, and he continues to direct movies as if he were following the season bible for some TV series and determined that every second of airtime keep people pleased. An Opie opus is dependably formulaic on every front and, from shot to shot, cut to cut, numbingly predictable. Yet that’s coherence of a sort, and a way of compensating for the lack of an applause sign to cue the audience.
It’s exasperating that Ron Howard is almost certainly a nice man. Seeing him on TV to promote his latest picture, you realize he’s exactly who Opie Taylor and/or Richie Cunningham would have grown up to be. He’s been married to the same woman forever, he reserves roles in just about every movie for actor dad Rance and actor brother Clint, and he’s even named his kids after the town — and, in one case, a certain country road — where each was conceived. Family values. You can’t knock ’em.
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
I’ve never had the opportunity to see Allan Arkush and Joe Dante’s Hollywood Boulevard;on the other hand, I suspect that I saw a fair portion of it in Roger Corman: Hollywood’s Wild Angel,Christian Blackwood’s genial film dossier on Roger Corman, whose New World Pictures released the movie. From what we see, and from what Arkush and Dante gleefully confess to Blackwood’s camera and microphone, Hollywood Boulevardis an outrageous, pell-mell celebration/put-on of low-budget, high-energy exploitation filmmaking. A couple of wild’n’crazy kids with a movie camera rip off every cinematic opportunity in sight to produce a zany compendium of Z-movie sex’n’violence; the surrounding environment and not a few of its inhabitants get trashed in the process, but no big deal. Arkush and Dante, a pair of sweet-faced loons who would not look out of place at a freshman smoker, did the same thing in a slightly less destructive key—for instance, taking pictures of a few honeys firing submachine guns in Griffith Park, and splicing these in with borrowed Philippine footage of soldiers biting the dust—and then they showed the results to Roger Corman who said, Very funny, here’s the money for the lab costs, I’ll buy it. One always hoped things like that happened in Roger Corman’s neighborhood, and among the many pleasures of Blackwood’s 58-minute documentary is that that hope gets confirmed again and again.