Moonrise Kingdom (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Wes Anderson has made a career exploring the childhood neuroses that keep adult characters in an arrested state of adolescence and stasis. It’s been a lively career with creatively energetic high points like Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums but an approach with diminishing returns. Until Fantastic Mr. Fox, a film that refracted his portraits of dysfunctional families and modern anxieties through a storybook world.
In Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Anderson finally builds a film around the troubled kids themselves. Kara Hayward’s Suzy, a book-loving loner with anger issues, and Jared Gilman’s Sam, an eccentric orphan out of step with his fellow Khaki Scouts, are two misfit adolescents who instantly recognize the other as a kindred soul and run away together into the wilds of a small New England island. Which, admittedly, makes escape a little difficult, what with a small army of Khaki scout trackers and a storm on the way.
It’s funny, it’s playful, it’s full of nostalgic blasts and period trappings, but most of all it is loving: accepting of the headstrong kids determined to find their place in the world, forgiving of the oblivious adults around them, affectionate in its storybook imagery and narrative playfulness.
[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]
The montage with which Sidney Lumet begins Dog Day Afternoon is at pains to get across to us just what things were like in Brooklyn at 2:57 p.m., August 22, 1972, right before a minor bank robbery became a major Event. The montage—shot and assembled as if nothing had changed in film since 1967—emphasizes people, their clothing, their attitudes, their activities on a hot afternoon. But one shot doesn’t quite belong; it draws our eyes away from the peopled street to a theater marquee, held at top-center-screen, announcing A STAR IS BORN. That wasn’t a new movie in town in ’72; and its revival at the time has no bearing on the events of Dog DayAfternoon. Lumet is really interested in the four words on the marquee only because they summarize his attitude toward the subject of his film, a sexually eccentric neurotic who attracted national attention that afternoon when he held up a bank, took hostages, and demanded a jet airliner to fly him out of the country. Never one to trust an audience, Lumet holds the shot about three times as long as necessary for us to get the point. It’s a mistake he has made frequently throughout his career, bloating many otherwise promising films. Hold too many shots too long, even by just a couple seconds, and before you know it your movie’s an hour too long. Like DogDayAfternoon.
[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]
Lipstickis Dino de Laurentiis’ latest lynch-fury kit, designed to soap up the viewer, tease him through the requisite stages of arousal and frustration, and ultimately leave him peacefully drained, with a terrycloth caress of redeeming social import to beguile him out of postcoital triste. I’m by no means persuaded that Dino’s place should be closed down. Death Wish provided a particularly gratifying fantasy experience to coincide with the hoped-for but never-quite-expected ouster of Tricky Dick, and the black viewers who screamed “Kill him!” at the climax of Mandingowere able to pass the popcorn salt to their white neighbors in the lobby without a hint of either Uncle Tom servility or glacial Muslim irony. But the new film is interestingly confused in ways that may compromise the patron’s simple pleasure, and the reason could be that Lamont Johnson is less of an erogenous engineer and more of a director than either Michael Winner or Richard Fleischer, the respective shot-callers of the earlier de Laurentiis productions.
[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
Lamont Johnson’s Lipstickis not as bad as it has been reported to be by many critics and reviewers, nor yet as good as it might have been. The ultimate failure of the film may be attributed to an insurmountable discrepancy of intention among writer, director, and studio. Yet it is precisely that discrepancy that makes Johnson’s directorial personality stand out so starkly in the film, and consequently makes Lipstickone of his most interesting efforts to date.
Lipstickhas been promoted more heavily than any of Johnson’s previous films; and for that reason, as well as the ads’ exploitation of its potentially sensationalistic subject matter, it will probably make more money than any other Johnson film. I’m glad of that, because that kind of success may well give Johnson the reputation and freedom to make more and better movies.
Johnson, in my estimation, has the makings of not only a major American director but also an important auteur. A rough-edged but intensely personal style, a thematic and technical consistency, and recurring concern for certain key issues and situations have manifested themselves in virtually all of his work. A brief summation of some of the more important points about Johnson’s earlier films provides an illuminating basis on which to examine the director’s presence and approach in Lipstick.
Like many contemporary directors, Lamont Johnson has gone neither from television to film nor in the opposite direction, but has applied his talents ably in both media. His earliest work of note is a made-for-TV movie called Deadlock(1969). The film, which mayor may not owe a debt to Haskell Wexler’s MediumCoolof the same year, focuses on a black district attorney in the process of becoming a Negro Politician in an important senatorial race. His image in the election campaign hinges upon his handling of the near-riot tensions in his city’s black district, brought on by overuse of the wrong kind of law enforcement action and underuse of sociopolitical recognition of the minority powers-that-be. In the course of the film, via a number of vignette-like encounters and a climactic barrage of sight-and-sound flashbacks, the D.A. recognizes he shares the guilt for the seething condition of the ghetto with a tough, bigoted police lieutenant whose personality has been too domineering for the D.A. to control.
The two-character confrontation and the racial issue recur in the following year’s MySweetCharlie, also a television movie. The film is essentially a somewhat labored sermon on social and racial polarities, embodied in the changing relationship between a bigoted white unwed mother-to-be and an itinerant black civil rights worker who hole up simultaneously in the same abandoned lighthouse. In the film’s climax, the efficacy and integrity of law enforcement—and therefore of the prevailing social order—are effectively discredited, and personal needs and relationships are seen as superseding accepted convention.
In a couple of weeks a new version of Fright Night will be released, with Colin Farrell in the vampire-next-door role and David (Doctor Who) Tennant as the has-been horror movie star reduced to hosting the local spook show. Those are two good reasons to give it a look, yet really, was it necessary to do a remake of the 1985 picture? Not quite a classic, but a film of considerable wit, creepiness, and—yes—charm. Landmark’s Egyptian Theatre (805 E. Pine St.) is slipping in a showing of the original at midnight Friday and Saturday, Aug. 12-13. Here’s a review I wrote in The Weekly back in the day. – RTJ
Told that a man has just moved into the long-vacant house next door, Charley Brewster’s single-parent mom sighs, “With my luck he’ll probably be gay.” The signs are not propitious. Actually there are two men; they call each other Jerry and Billy, wear sweaters a lot, and apparently adore restoring rambling old houses so they’ll have somewhere to display their antiques. But if truth be told, their relationship is a good deal more exotic than that implies, and they are interested in women. Teenage Charley spies quite an attractive one getting undressed in the upstairs window one night—and Jerry leaning over her shoulder with a mouth suddenly sprouting fangs.
Fright Night is a tidy little contemporary variation on the vampire horror movie. It’s somewhat selfconscious about being a variation: The title also applies to the local TV station’s late late show hosted by a washed-up, campy horror star named Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), and the film goes for the comedic jugular quite a bit of the time. But Fright Night is finally, and satisfyingly, closer in spirit to Roman Polanski’s dark-humored Dance of the Vampires (aka The Fearless Vampire Killers) than to a silly sendup like Love at First Bite. It observes the rules of the vampire game, and restores the stinging juice of life to conventions that had been packed away to desiccate in the costume department.
[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
When Hitchcock had to set a spy movie in Switzerland, he decided that the most effective way to exploit the milieu would be to honor an armchair touristâ€™s idea of the place. Hence, he built his plot and key sequences around those geographical and cultural phenomena most readily identifiable as Swiss: mountains, lakes, the manufacture of chocolate, quaint shrines, a demonstration of yodeling. Richard Lester tries to get away with the same approach to Cuba in 1959. Rum, cigars, sugar cane, the Morro, nightclubs, salsa, the U.S. Navy on more or less residential shore leave, a Latin lover and Latin love for sale: if itâ€™s part of the pop iconography, grab it and play it for all its worthâ€”because thereâ€™s not going to be much else to play with. That might do for Switzerland; Batistaâ€™s Cuba on the eve of Castro is quite another matter. One doesnâ€™t have to be rabidly political to want a more substantive index of governmental corruption than a scungy police detective taking bribes from everyone in sight, or a self-promoted general (Martin Balsam) keeping fat on the income from Havanaâ€™s parking meters (said loot stashed in a strongbox chained to his dotty motherâ€™s TV). Likewise, the proverbial fat sweaty American entrepreneur (Jack Weston) swooping down on every target of acquisitional opportunity, and a couple of bland accountants from an unspecified U.S. agency come to balance the books of the Committee for Anti-Communist Activities, are pretty unimaginative representations of the American presence, and deployed just as unimaginatively. Not that the politically correct side comes off much more flatteringly or interestingly: Fidel is (necessarily, I suppose) only a newsreel image on a video monitor, the Fidelistas are low-comedy, if well-meaning, goons beating about the cane fields, and the most dramatically important rebel is a punk (Danny De La Paz) who just wants a hifalutin excuse to shoot somebodyâ€”his sisterâ€™s aristocratic despoiler (Chris Sarandon), a British mercenary come too late to do anyone any good (Sean Connery), or any poor schmuck who gets in the line of fire.
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
Robert Dapes (Sean Connery) is a British mercenary who arrives in Cuba to help train soldiers for Batista’s collapsing regime. When he checks in with the British embassy on his arrival, he is informed by an official (who gingerly supports Batistaâ€”until the prevailing winds blow from another direction) that if he gets into trouble he shouldn’t come to them: “You won’t be welcome, chum.” This is an attitude that the central character of Richard Lester’s Cubaruns into repeatedly: he is welcome almost nowhere. When he happens upon his former love Alexandra (Brooke Adams) playing tennis with her husband Juan (Chris Sarandon), she pretends not to recognize Dapes and tells Juan it was “Nobody.” Later, when she does confront Dapes, she can’t even remember his last name (though her husband remembers his face when introduced: “Juan, this isâ€”” “Nobody?”). After they’ve rekindled the relationship and Dapes assumes she cherishes it as much as he does, Alex insists that it’s nothing and finally kisses him off by capsulizing the former affair: “I regard those as lost years. There was nothingâ€”and I include you, Robertâ€”nothing that made them memorable.” Shades of 10.