Posted in: 2000 Eyes, by Kathleen Murphy, Film Reviews

2000 Eyes: O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Dancer in the Dark

[Written for Reel.com]

How strange that two of the movies I’ve liked best and been most surprised by at Cannes 2000 should turn out to be mutant forms of the musical. The Coens’ song-filled O Brother, Where Art Thou? taps into the power of mythic storytelling, the kind of exhilarating power that drives journeys from Homer’s Odyssey to Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels — both sources for O Brother’s down-and-dirty musical drift through an economically depressed America teetering on a future we’ve come, for better and worse, to live in.     

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Film Reviews

‘Contagion’ Doesn’t Want to Reach Out and Touch You

Kathleen Murphy’s review of Contagion was written for Movies/MSN at the time of the film’s original release.

Steven Soderbergh’s super-creepy Contagion does for pandemic what the Oscar-winning director did for drug Traffic back in 2000. Mimicking the insidious spread of coke-related ills, he tracks a lethal little virus—bat-borne, then transmitted to a piglet—as it metastasizes out of a friendly handshake to world-killer. A panic-worthy journey for sure, but no need to buckle up for fast-cutting, tension-building, apocalyptic action­­—or anything else that might significantly raise your blood pressure. Less hysterical than hushed, more numbing than terrifying, Contagion‘s closer to documentary—an imagined record of how global citizenry might realistically react to monumental crisis.

Says Soderbergh: “We were looking for something that was unsettling because of the banality of the transmission. In a weird way, the less you trump it up, the more unsettling it becomes.”

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: The Heartbreak Kid

[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]

It’s possible to see The Heartbreak Kid as a kind of funhouse mirror reflecting the foibles and delusions we all share to some extent. A glance into such a mirror may provoke healthy, rejuvenating laughter or the kind of wearily hip sniggering which passes, in some circles, for wisdom. Elaine May, Neil Simon (screenwriter), and Bruce Jay Friedman (who wrote the original story) have all been guilty in their time of making shallow incisions in the human psyche and calling these forays major surgery. Perhaps this is an occupational hazard for those who work within the purlieus of the sick joke, the genre of black humor, or the kind of New York–spawned drama that is too often slickly, pseudosophisticatedly dependent upon the diminution of human beings to the level of pathetic, momentarily amusing insects. The Heartbreak Kid is frequently pervaded by a certain nastiness, albeit the well-meaning nastiness of a child methodically taking a butterfly apart to see how it works—or a director pushing her characters to such extremes of behavior that they cease essentially to be human and become one-dimensional butts of cruelly extended jokes.

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Film Reviews

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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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Scarecrow

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

Scarecrow, the latest film by Jerry Schatzberg (Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Panic in Needle Park), is a warmly authentic and unselfconscious examination of a highly unlikely friendship between two misfits whose respective stances vis-à-vis life seem, at first glance, totally incompatible. Al Pacino turns in an understated performance, mannered yet unpretentious, as Lion, a diminutive dropout from the school of hard knocks—hard knocks being what you get if you stand still, allow people to get too close, get serious; in short, if you grow up. Instead, Lion chooses to stay on the move: five years at sea to dodge the scary stasis of matrimony and fatherhood, a current trip as a constantly clowning naïf whose jokes block blows and caresses with a desperate lack of discrimination. On his way back to claim his son, Lion picks up a father of sorts, an unpredictable bear of a man named Max (Gene Hackman). Max, unlike the cowardly Lion, gets in the way of hard knocks—as well as less hostile strokes—as often as he can, indeed more often than he should, since he frequently ends up in jail after one of his enthusiastic rough-and-tumbles. He is a man willing to mark and be marked by the men and women whom his life touches in his peregrinations about the country. Though at first Max comes off as much the less “practical” or survival-minded of the two friends, it soon becomes clear that the reverse is true. Lion’s comic camouflage and strategic withdrawals ultimately result in the loss of his son (and by implication his own adulthood) and, ironically, all contact with the world he tried too hard, too successfully, to keep at bay.

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: The Hireling

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

The Hireling is, I believe, Alan Bridges’s first film. Aside from rather too frequently belaboring the contrast between indifferent wealth and pathetic poverty in the early part of the film, Bridges manages to pretty much avoid the stylistic excesses to which debuting directors are often prone. However, his muted, somewhat eviscerated approach works both for and against this adaptation of an L.P. Hartley novel (Hartley also wrote The GoBetween which Joseph Losey brilliantly translated to the screen). Bridges’s tone is occasionally just right for this enervated tale about the relationship between a neurasthenic aristocrat (Sarah Miles, whose performance won her a special citation at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) and her stolidly correct hired chauffeur (Robert Shaw), but cumulatively it begins to wear on one’s nerves like a too precisely, albeit tastefully, furnished room. Too much order, too little deviation from a predictable pattern—but admittedly, the style recapitulates the theme. For Leadbetter the chauffeur, with all of his emerging middle-class virtues—manliness, discipline, common sense–hasn’t got a prayer of playing Mellors to Lady Franklin’s Constance Chatterly, or of disturbing in any felt way the insulated world in which his lady lives, if not thrives. Fresh out of a sanitarium, Lady Franklin is still whey-faced and rheumy-eyed with grief over her husband’s untimely demise. What she needs, and what she gets from Leadbetter, whose car and company she hires, is human contact without threat or expectation, the kind of unjudging acceptance that only therapists and servants of a certain era can provide. As she violates class convention after convention in her pursuit of sanity and begins to bloom with renewed health, the disorder of passion enters the doggedly disciplined life of Leadbetter, who turns gradually sick with jealousy and desire. What feels to him like the intimacy of shared experience between man and woman is merely the intimacy one may cultivate with a favored, though ultimately invisible, servant.

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Posted in: Film Reviews, Horror

The Light That Failed: George Romero’s “Dead” Rock On

[Originally published in Queen Anne News, July 5, 2005]15

“Send some flowers to the cemetery,” growls the head honcho of a zombie-killing expedition at the beginning of George Romero’s Land of the Dead.

“Land of the Dead” zombie squad: John Leguizamo, Simon Baker and Robert Joy

Then scarlet fireworks bloom in the sky and every shambling corpse in what used to be a Smalltown, USA—complete with rotting park bandstand and picket fences—turns his/her/its milky eyes upward, mesmerized by … what? Images that trigger a half-remembered Independence Day, when American history and holiday pleasures were surely celebrated in that very park? Or do those bursts of light simply mirror the random, involuntary firing of synapses that so mysteriously reanimate the dead in Romero’s cemetery movies (previously, Night of the Living Dead, 1968; Dawn of the Dead, 1978; Day of the Dead, 1985)?

The zombie-maker’s movies have always operated as a kind of termite art, chewing away at the surface fictions that make it easy for us to coast happily through our July 4th, secure in Fortress America, full of faith in family values and the belief that the disenfranchised can always be “rendered” harmless. Romero flays our pretty pictures to the bone, exposing nasty stuff like racism, class warfare, Darwinian appetite, unbridled materialism. And on the spiritual front, Romero’s erasure of death as an ending or transition undermines the promise of something more than solitary, eternal confinement in flesh, perpetually driven by the need to consume.

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Film Reviews, Westerns

Review: High Plains Drifter

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

As a director, Clint Eastwood cannot be simply written off as mindlessly imitative. He is far too intelligent in his eclectic appreciation of what works in the films of Sergio Leone, Don Siegel, and Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately, Eastwood has not yet subsumed what he has learned from his mentors into a coherent vision of his own. Thus, High Plains Drifter, like Play Misty for Me, occasionally promises more than it cumulatively delivers. Eastwood’s main problem here—both as director and as actor—is that he never quite gets together how he wants to come at a story which must wed a Leone-like revenge motif with a scathingly satirical examination of a town inhabited by rejects from High Noon. Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name carried within his very character implicit hints of more-than-human motivation, so that at times he resembled nothing so much as a warrior Christ. Eastwood clearly had his former role in mind when he made High Plains Drifter, but that doesn’t save him from alternately overemphasizing his demonic hero’s supernatural origins and almost completely losing sight of them as he begins to focus more and more on his blackly humorous exposure of the town of Lago’s communal sins and deceits.

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Film Reviews

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.

***

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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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Film Reviews, Horror

Review: Raw Meat

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

I must confess to being one of those horror film addicts who occasionally even resort to the ozoners in search of the one sleeper that will justify all those wasted hours spent in the scurrilous company of Aztec mummies, moth-eaten werewolves, and green slime. Which is how I came to see Raw Meat—despite its title and the American-International imprimatur. Actually, the presence of Donald Pleasence and Christopher Lee, not to mention obvious parallels—in what little I knew of the plot—to the notorious Night of the Living Dead, did nothing to shore up what little resistance I manage to maintain against a seemingly insatiable appetite for the usually tasteless additions to this genre.

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