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Sam Waterston

Review: Savages

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Savages is consistently appealing, intermittently brilliant, and—in the end—very nearly inconsequential. Though given elaborate and oblique treatment, its basic idea is a simple one: the “savage” mud-people whom we see in mock-silent-movie fashion at the start are more or less interchangeable with the elegant, conspicuously “civilized” moderns who inhabit the huge mansion which is the film’s single most dominating presence. This notion is almost not an idea at all—though not completely irrelevant, even as rhetoric—but fortunately James Ivory and company use it less as the film’s “point” than as its underlying assumption. And in that light, we are given an extended charade which makes playful and amiably inspired use of a filmic idiom that is part Buñuel (esp. The Exterminating Angel), part Resnais (esp. Last Year at Marienbad), part Theatre of the Absurd (in its use of language for disturbing comic effects), part “experimental” film (in its resurrection of some ancient avant-garde devices). The question of influences is important because Savages often leaves the impression of being unique but not very original—just derivative enough for its multitude of small delights to become faintly dubious. It is “surrealistic” but lacks a genuinely surrealist intensity. On the other hand, even though it has a campy-chic Art Deco look to it, Walter Lassally’s color cinematography achieves a nostalgic sensuality which becomes the film’s most compelling emotion (here the spirit of von Sternberg might be invoked, but only on the margins).

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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: Rancho Deluxe

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

I have to be on the side of any film in which Harry Dean Stanton is ordered to “Hoover the Navajos”—i.e., vacuum-clean the Indian rugs. The line could only have been written by Tom McGuane, who’s made a specialty in recent years of writing almost surreally funny sendups of the New West. The rugs belong to Elizabeth Ashley, bored but miraculously goodhumored wife of rancher Clifton James who, fresh out of empires to build, has recently focused his obsessive attention on apprehending a couple of one-steer-at-a-time rustlers. In this effort he is—or is supposed to be—abetted by horsethief–turned–stock detective Slim Pickens, who manifests a disconcerting preference for sitting in front of a TV set in the bunkhouse and ignoring the clues James finds and the theories he cooks up. The hard guys interfering with James’s peace of mind (or providing him with esoteric entertainment—take your pick) are about as dangerous as defanged garter snakes: Jeff Bridges, a poor little rich boy with a spoiled marriage behind him, and Sam Waterston, an Indian whose militancy is of a benignly comic strain and whose blood traces back to Ohio Cornplanters rather than the warriors who once rode the surrounding Big Skyline.

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Videophiled Classic: ‘The Killing Fields’ and two by Godard on Blu-ray

KillingFields The Killing Fields (Warner, Blu-ray), the first major western film to confront the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide, stars survivor Dr. Haing S. Ngor as Cambodian national Dith Pran, translator and journalistic partner of New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) who was left behind when the Americans fled the country and was plunged into the terror of Pol Pot’s oppressive and brutal prison camps.

It’s the first feature directed by Roland Joffe, who came from TV and stage, and he shoots the drama with an unforced realism, lent a terrible grace by the handsome images and smooth, unobtrusive long takes of cinematographer Chris Menges, who keeps the camera panning and tracking the characters through almost every scene. It’s a remarkably effective stylistic choice, keeping the camera centered on Dith and Schanberg and the other journalists (played by John Malkovich and Julian Sands) while embracing the vivid reality of their surroundings, be it the bloody aftermath of a guerilla bombing in a busy city street, the rubble and human suffering in a village destroyed by bombs or the nervous tension and desperation of western journalists holed up in a nearly-gutted, overcrowded embassy as young, undisciplined rebel soldiers surround the gated grounds. Joffe keeps them firmly in the reality of their environments and the long takes makes the terrible consequences feel more immediate, the narrative more out of control. I think it’s still Joffe’s best film.

It earned seven Academy Award nominations and won three, for Ngor’s performance (though he is surely a leading actor in the film, he won in the “Best Supporting Actor” category), Chris Menges’ cinematography and Jim Clark’s film editing.

The Blu-ray debut is presented in a 36-page Blu-ray book with photos and production notes and features commentary by director Roland Joffe carried over from the earlier DVD release.

HailMaryTwo films from the second half of Jean-Luc Godard’s career debut on Blu-ray and new DVD editions. He aroused the ire of people who wouldn’t otherwise even take notice of his films in 1985 with Hail Mary (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), his modern retelling the nativity. Mary (Myriem Roussel) is a basketball-playing student in Switzerland working at her father’s gas station and Joseph (Thierry Rode) a taxi-driver, and they both try to get their heads around the Virgin Mary’s pregnancy. The controversy, accompanied by the spectacle of picketers outside of small theaters screening the film, brought this small, quiet, rather spiritual little picture far more attention than anything Godard had made since Weekend. Juliette Binoche co-stars in a small role. The feature is paired with Anne-Mary Mieville’s delicate short film The Book of Mary, the tender drama of a failing marriage as seen through the eyes of a child which played with Godard’s film on its original theatrical release. French with English subtitles, with commentary by director Hal Hartley and Museum of the Moving Image Chief Curator David Schwartz, Godard’s video notebook, three additional featurettes, and a booklet with essays by critic David Sterritt and Boston University lecturer Charles Warren.

More releases, including For Ever Mozart and new Criterion discs, at Cinephiled

Review: Interiors

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

As if to avoid distracting mumbles of “Oh, guess where he got that!” in the middle of his unashamedly imitative first non-comedy, Woody Allen gets his most Bergmanesque shot out of the way right up front. It’s a soft, dreamy, quiet interior of a woman running her hand inquiringly across a windowpane; and it establishes straightaway the film’s inside/outside polarity, with the woman seemingly trying to comprehend the shell that separates one existence from another. The glass of the window, like the wall of the eye, or the lens of the camera, is the transparent, impenetrable, inexorable demarcation between the in-here and the out-there. Nothing new; but from here Allen goes on to build a distinctly American Bergman film, accessible, even downright obvious in contrast with the Swedish master’s arcane musings.

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