Imagine an Armageddon where, instead of oil-rigger roughnecks, the fate of the world rests on four geriatric, long since retired Air Force test pilots. That’s the plot in a nutshell: a failing Russian satellite running on an archaic American guidance system must get back to full capacity, and the only man capable of correcting it is flinty former Air Force officer Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood).
[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]
Steelyard Blues has occasioned the most dramatic instance of critical backlash in recent memory. Reviewers of contrary political persuasions (to the extent that political bent can be determined from film reviews) have proved to be up to here with the agitprop antics of Jane Fonda and, perhaps, her FTA compatriot Donald Sutherland. At any rate, Steelyard Blues has been pelted with the sort of abusive notice all those pointyhead libberulls once visited on TheGreen Berets. To one who took a look at the film anyway, the phenomenon is more than a little appalling. For, if SteelyardBlues is indeed, as Molly Haskell observed, so cinematically inept that one feels compelled to pick it up and take care of it, it’s nevertheless a thoroughly likeable, enjoyable, goodnatured event of a highly positive nature.
[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]
Tom Gries has at least one unpretentiously good film to his credit in Will Penny; if reports of Lady Ice‘s production troubles are accurate, then Gries, as the third director assigned the project, cannot be held entirely responsible for the myriad failures of this sloppily assembled pastiche of dubious leftovers from the slushfund of slick caper-cum-competitive-couple movies. Reverse the Dunaway-McQueen roles in the disastrous The Thomas Crown Affair so that Donald Sutherland gets to play insurance investigator to Jennifer O’Neill’s rich (and therefore) risk-hungry diamond thief, throw in an off-the-wall Bullitt-style car chase, and leaven the whole lumpen mess with some pathetically phony allusions to the trials and tribulations of an intelligent, emancipated female surrounded by dopey male chauvinists—and you’ve got the less than appetizing recipe for Lady Ice. Jennifer O’Neill rates only contemptuous yoks as she lays claim to superior feminine sensibilities while coming on like the original tanned plastic Barbie Doll ever ready with vapid visage and mindless giggling. One hopes in vain for Sutherland, who’s turned in some madly fey performances in his time, to contribute some subversively ironic distance from the ongoing embarrassments of Lady Ice, but he manfully pretends to be titillated by O’Neill’s nonexistent challenges and lopes gracelessly through his assigned paces as a Columbo of the insurance circuit.
[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]
The only thing of interest in S*P*Y*S—and it’s of sooooooo little interest—is the mystery of how such sharp guys as Kershner, Gould, and Sutherland ever got mixed up in it; or, beyond that, how, having recognized what a mire they were in (and they must have recognized it, sooner or later), they failed to distribute more clues to their disenchantment as disavowals of any responsibility. Since I’ve tossed more than my share of bouquets toward directors, I’ll continue to play it the auteur way and throw my biggest stink bomb at Irvin Kershner. No semblance of focus or structure is to be detected in the film, and it does seem proper to blame the director for that. Even when a competent, well-intentioned director has his film messed up in production or post-production by the proverbial front office, traces always remain: the occasional sequence left intact, a broken-backed but discernible emotional rhyme scheme in the performances, distinctive niceties in the selection of angles here and there, the way corners of shots get filled up. And I didn’t see nothin’ like that in S*P*Y*S, nowhere, no way.
[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]
Nicolas Roeg’s previous work as a cinematographer may have a good deal to do with the purely visual sensation of watching Don’tLookNow, the third picture he has worked on as director (having co-directed Performance and soloed with Walkabout). One feels the sensitivity of some of Bergman’s recent films on which Sven Nykvist has worked, or of Jan Troell; but Roeg’s sensitivity in this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel is closer to the hypersensitivity of someone (the main character, John Baxter, played by Sutherland) who notices everything and cannot help noticing everything about his environment; someone who is flooded with visual and psychic stimuli which so glut his consciousness that his sense of spatial and temporal orientation begins to wobble. For this, Venice is the perfect setting: a contusion of grotto-like canals, disintegrating stone, and faintly echoed voices—the Venice, in fact, through which Visconti’s Aschenbach stumbled in search of the boy Tadzio.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), the number one box office hit of 2014, follows the lead of the Harry Potter and Twilight series by splitting the final book into two film installments, making this the third of four films. For anyone who has read the books that might seem like quite a stretch, drawing out the first half of an already short novel to feature film length while including enough drama to entice viewers to return for the finale. Maybe my expectations were duly lowered but director Francis Lawrence, who took over the series from filmmaker Gary Ross and raised the bar, and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong turn out a surprisingly engaging film about rebellion, propaganda, media, and the emotional and psychological scars of war, all seen from the point of view of a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who becomes a symbol of resistance simply by surviving with courage, dignity, and compassion.
By this time in the saga, Katniss (Lawrence) has been rescued from the Games and the totalitarian “President” Snow (Donald Sutherland) by the rebellion, which is building its forces in underground bunkers beneath District 13, which everyone thought was bombed to cinders decades ago. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), however, did not escape and Snow and his propaganda team is using him in a propaganda campaign designed to attack the image of Katniss as the symbol of resistance. Julianne Moore joins the series as President Alma Coin, leader of the revolution and a savvy military mind who doesn’t quite understand the power of Katniss for the hearts and minds of Panem. She’s committed but also cagey and cold as a commander, wary about her own authority as Katniss becomes the face of the revolution in a series of pointed propaganda pieces that, curiously enough, work due to the earnest, guileless authenticity of Katniss in the face of the Capitol’s cruelty. Philip Seymour Hoffman (who died before production was completed on the film) and Jeffrey Wright provide the brain trust behind Snow’s leadership and their scenes help give the film added gravity.
[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]
Maybe one of the reasons I don’t much care for the John Schlesinger film of Day of the Locust is an attitude towards his characters—Nathanael West’s characters in this case—which he has avoided in other films. In Sunday BloodySunday there was no overt judgment, no condescension towards his people, and in fact the film’s openness was a way of questioning the successfulness and validity of relationships between people whose strengths were admirable and whose weaknesses were sympathetically portrayed. Even in MidnightCowboy there was the redeeming love and friendship between Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo that gave some value to an ugly world. But in Dayofthe Locust Schlesinger handles his characters as though at the end of a long stick, turning irony into a cruel form of entrapment by making them seem so bereft of normally human characteristics that we wonder how they could ever possibly rise above their bathetic gropings and mutual fear and hatred of each other.
[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
Let’s get the suspense out of the way first. I’ve been taken over: I came to the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a purist’s proper disdain for anyone who presumes to redo a classic movie, but as I sat brooding in the darkness, Phil Kaufman’s 1978 version put out its tendrils and pretty soon everything seemed just fine and why should I go around getting upset over little things? Not that the new Invasionis going to displace the old for me. No way. I think the Don Siegel version is the better movieâ€”more seamlessly, “artlessly” accomplished than the present model, and the more inspired work. But after a tacky special-effects opening (where Siegel needed nothing but a subjective descent through roiling clouds), Kaufman’s version persuasively asserts its right to life as an imaginative reflection of our time, just as Siegel’s insidious “sleeper” stands as a quintessential Fifties experience. The makers of the ’56 film were reeling under the twin impacts of Dwight Eisenhower and Joe McCarthy. Their movie played on both the cozy lure of middle-class conformity and the nagging suspicion that that bastard in the next yard or at the next desk or in the next writing cubicle at the studioâ€”indeed, all those bastardsâ€”had in mind to do you dirt in a manner you hadn’t quite figured out yet. Jack Finney’s story about pod-grown organisms usurping the identities of everyone in a small California town and reducing them to all-alike, emotionless neuters yielded a powerful metaphor for a more mundane loss of humanity. Cold War buffs were perfectly free to read in a paranoid allegory of Communist takeover: they were said to be everywhere, and wouldn’t they look like any normal, healthy, right-thinking Amurkan, same as you or me, and I’m not so sure about you…?
[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
Scribbling a few notes in 1975 after seeing Phil Kaufman’s The White Dawn, I wrote: “Culture conflict is a key element in Kaufman’s work. TheGreat Northfield, Minnesota Raiddeals with the incursion of a group of relative primitives into the bustling world of a growing industrial civilization. The tension created between the seemingly incongruous occurrence of a baseball game in a Western and the primitive, disorganized conduct of the game itself echoes the tension of the film as a whole: The organized constructs of society are taking shape, but not yet rigid; the violent, free-for-all way of life of the Wild West is dying, but not easily. The manic fantasy world of the legendary James-Younger gang of outlaws is brought dangerously close to our own world when someone says of the baseball game, ‘It’s the new national pastime,’ and Cole Younger replies, ‘Our only national pastime is shootingâ€”and it always will be.’ Primitive violence and low humor are juxtaposed with the steam engine and bicycle world of pre-contemporary Main Street, U.S.A. The White Dawn, a quieter, more controlled film, deals with the incursion of representatives of ‘civilized society’ into a world of primitives. The remarkable range of responses among the film’s characters reflects something of the depth and complexity of national, cultural, and racial conflicts. Where the outlaws of Northfieldstaged a raid on a new way of life, whose coming meant their own obsolescence, the three castaways of The White Dawnfound themselves confronting a new physical world: out of place rather than out of time. Inthe debacle that finally befalls them, The White Dawntakes an essentially cynical viewpoint: Against the optimistic observation that most human beings are adaptable, and will in time adjust to cultural differences, opting for compromise or harmonious coexistence, is set the stark portrayal of the strength of the bigoted few who, out of fear or simple stubbornness, will ultimately prevail: people of whatever society are ultimately led by the worst among them.”
[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
It’s fairly hard, and also somewhat presumptuous and pointless, to try and get a fix on the directing career of the prolific writer Michael Crichton after only three films. Westworld would seem as different from Coma as Coma is from The Great Train Robbery (called The First Great Train Robbery in Britain, where it was made), which is a jolly period caper romp set in 1855. If all three films can be boiled down to a common core, it’s simply that Crichton believes people are better than machines, and have to be, because if they’re not, then machines are what they will themselves become.