[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, November 4, 1998]
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View
presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors
for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for
John Carpenter has wanted to
make a western for years. Now he’s finally made it—as a vampire film. It’s not
simply the dusty, dusky southwestern setting or the Ry Cooder twinged country
blues score. Carpenter turns John Steakley’s novel “Vampire$” into a perverse
remake of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo by
way of Sergio Leone, with James Woods as a foul mouthed, hard drinking,
whore-mongering John Wayne leading a wild bunch of vampire hunters. It’s
machismo run amuck and Carpenter loves it.
The Brood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – I’d seen David Cronenberg’s The Brood before watching the terrific new Criterion edition but it never really registered the way it did this time. Perhaps the quality of the presentation (newly remastered from a 2K master supervised by Cronenberg) helped me connect this time—Mark Irwin’s cinematography not only establishes the chilly tenor of the film, it belies the low budget with such strong, controlled images—but I think it’s more a matter of time and appreciation. I love the raw, primal imagery of Cronenberg’s Shivers and Rabid but here that primal body horror erupts from an environment of normalcy (albeit one of social disconnection), a seemingly stable world where the suppressed horrors are no longer held in check.
The beauty and the power of Cronenberg’s body horror—of flesh invaded, transforming, rebelling—has always been how they are completely visceral experiences that grab the viewers on a biological level and evocative metaphors at the same time. In The Brood the metaphor is both on the surface—the emotionally damaged Nola (Samantha Eggar) transforms her most powerful emotional impulses into biological incarnations of her darkest desires—and underneath it. Cronenberg quite famously explained that the film was “my version ofKramer vs. Kramer, only more realistic,” and he had the emotional bruises of a painful divorce of his own to inspire him. But what came home to me on this viewing was not the jealousies and feelings of betrayal behind divorce but the scars of child abuse that take root in the victim. Nola is a survivor of abuse and when she becomes the willing guinea pig in the radical experimental “psychoplasmic therapy” (a term right out of the zeitgeist of sixties and seventies fads) of Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), she quite literally gives birth to those psychic wounds. Her mutant children are rage babies, born of her most intense, unresolved emotional storms, and they enact the vengeance she desires (perhaps without her even knowing or understanding).
Once Upon A Time in America: Extended Director’s Cut (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) is Sergio Leone’s portrait of a 20th century American success story as a gangster epic of greed, loyalty, betrayal, and power, seen through the haze of an opium high. Shuffling back and forth through the century, from New York’s East side in 1923, where scrappy street kids Noodles and Max form a partnership that will blossom into a mob empire, though the glory days of the depression cut short by mob warfare, to 1968, when the graying Noodles (Robert DeNiro) returns from a 35 year exile to the scene of the crime to discover what really happened to his partner and best friend Max (James Woods) all those years ago, this is Leone’s most passionate, elegant, brutal, and elegiac film. William Forsythe and James Hayden complete the gangster quartet, with Joe Pesci and Burt Young as gangster cohorts. Elizabeth McGovern, Treat Williams, Tuesday Weld, Danny Aiello, and young Jennifer Connelly co-star. Ennio Morricone’s score is one of his most haunting and beautiful.
The film was originally released in the US in a butchered version cut by over an hour and torn from its evocative time-shifting structure to a traditional linear narrative. It was restored to its 229-minute European cut decades ago but earlier this year it was expanded with an additional 22 minutes of footage that Leone was forced to cut out before its Cannes premiere in 1984. The added footage was taken from workprint material and, faded and sometimes damaged, stands out against the well-reserved and beautifully-mastered material from the previous cut. Among the restored sequences is a legendary scene with Louise Fletcher as a cemetery director, previously only glimpsed in publicity stills (you can see the clip below). Susan King goes over the history of the cuts and the scope of the restoration in an article for the Los Angeles Times.
It’s available on DVD and Blu-ray along with an excerpt from the documentary Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone and trailers. A deluxe Blu-ray Book edition also features the previous Blu-ray release of the 229-minute European cut, which features commentary by Richard Schickel, and an UltraViolet Digital HD copy of the “Extended Director’s Cut.”
[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
There’s nothing very remarkable in the fact that some habitually pretentious Television Artists—Herbert Brodkin, James Costigan, Anthony Page—have gone and made a bad, turgid, opportunistic, narratively trite and historically slipshod TV-movie about Scott Fitzgerald’s Hollywood experiences. What is rather remarkable is that they made such a stupid movie, and made it at this particular moment in cultural history. The film is couched in the sort of self-congratulatory antagonism toward Hollywood that long ago died of shame (or so I had naïvely assumed) everywhere save the most icebound corners of certain backwoods English departments and the cocktail party circuit where people are still foolish enough to talk to and get quoted by Pauline Kael.
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
If I didn’t already know Robert Aldrich was an intelligent filmmaker, I’d have a hard time guessing it from The Choirboys. From the leering flatulation of the opening titles–a stained-glass window announcing “The Choirboys” with a gloved fist smashing through in freeze frame, while a chanting chorus segues into a beer hall song–grossness of comic and satiric idea is the unpromising watchword of his new movie. The title is the chosen name of the scuzziest precinct’s worth of beat cops in class-A filmmaking, who–for the first half-hour or so of the movie, at least–seem content solely to carry on like a bunch of Special Ed. alumni, whether on duty or off. They deliver themselves of an unrelenting stream of bathroom jokes, sadistic intramural pranks, and gratuitous subversions of the department and force in which, theoretically, they serve, taking an occasional after-hours for “choir practice,” which mostly means boozing and brawling in MacArthur Park. Now, I wouldn’t normally take umbrage at any of this, and I was anticipatorily delighted to read, well in advance of the film’s release, that policeman-novelist Joseph Wambaugh was less than enchanted with the changes Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic liberal had made in his boys-in-blue tale; moreover, Aldrich’s crudity has often been inseparable from his vigor, and I’ve rarely minded that. But this movie came on so dumb,and pitched, apparently, at the tastes of the lowest uncommon denominator in the audience. Particularly noxious was an early bit of fag-baiting involving the reddest-necked of the Choirboys (Tim McIntire), handcuffed bareass to a park tree, and the flittiest night-prowler outside Castro Street, complete with pink-dyed poodle on a leash. Even allowing for the director’s disingenuous admission that “Mr. Aldrich, even in a moment of anger, has never been accused of understating anything,” what was this in aid of?
Well, as it turned out in the light of the finished film, it may have been in aid of a good deal. For subsequent sequences at least semi-systematically went on to turn many of the Choirboys’ more ignoble pastimes back upon them, so that, even as Aldrich was celebrating a band of nonconformists shoving it to the system with his customary sardonic amusement, he also seemed to be trying to get at how the desperate coarseness of their reactions against a killing establishment was taking its toll in dehumanization. Although the script leaves much to be desired and the continuity is rather ragged (there is copious evidence of both excessive uninspired improvisation and heavy last-minute cutting), scenes begin to echo one another and suggest a tentative dialectic. Early in the film two of the Choirboys use a friendly hooker to entrap a hard-ass lieutenant who wants to do them dirt; later, a junior member of the team, on loan to the vice squad, must put the hookers on the other end of the entrapment procedure, and ends up looking pretty ridiculous in the process; later still, he and his partner bust yet another working girl, whose specialty is highly paid bondage sessions, and discover that her present client is one of the original jolly pranksters who put the lieutenant on the spot–and his reaction to being caught in harness by his professional soulmates is to blow his brains out. The convolutions and crossreferences really proliferate in the second half of the film, and though the movie remains an irreparable shambles, at least we can discern the complex ironic structure through which Aldrich intended to express his anarchist’s rage.
THE CHOIRBOYS Direction: Robert Aldrich. Screenplay: Joseph Wambaugh (refused credit) and Christopher Knopf, after the novel by Wambaugh. Cinematography: Joseph Biroc. Music: Frank DeVol. The players: Charles Durning, Louis Gossett Jr., Perry King, Clyde Kusatsu, Stephen Macht, Tim McIntire, Randy Quaid, Chuck Sacci, Don Stroud, James Woods, Burt Young, Robert Webber, Vic Tayback, Barbara Rhoades, Michele Carey, David Spielberg.
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
The second of his books that he has personally seen to the screen, Joseph Wambaughâ€™s The Black Marblemight have been a better movie if Wambaugh & co. had not so assiduously aimed for a PG rating, and included more of the novelâ€™s amusing raunch, verbal and sexual. The Wambaugh copâ€™s-instinct for the earthy and profane supplies a good deal of his writingâ€™s sharpness; certainly his sense of characterization is not especially deep, and his inveterate inclination to sermonize about the policemanâ€™s professional and personal lot in society could make for overbearing selfrighteousness without the piss-and-vinegar zest of his copsâ€™ language and behavioral style. Some of this gets into the movie version of The Black Marble(which is faithful to the book in all essentials), but not nearly enough of it; and what there is tends to be robbed of its bracing pungency by Harold Beckerâ€™s direction. Only John Hancock as Clarence, the canny, sardonic black sergeant who really runs the Hollywood burglary division, credibly gets into the mode; the other actors are fairly popeyed with the effort to be street-funny folks.
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it is almost always less interesting. The challenge facing Wambaugh in bringing his novelized â€œtrue storyâ€ to the screen was to preserve the interest and intensity that the actual events held for those who participated in themâ€”to try to make the headline story as immediate for the viewer as for the subject. All of Wambaughâ€™s police bestsellers are based on fact to one extent or another; and the story goes that Wambaugh, fed up with the inadequacy of the film versions of his other books(The New Centurions, The Blue Knight, The Choirboys),decided to appoint his own producer and director, and write his own screenplay the way he wanted it done. Though the cops come off as saintly and the criminal element as irredeemableâ€”unlike the more ambiguous characterization of the earlier Wambaugh-based filmsâ€”The Onion Fieldis a qualified success, and probably actually is the best Wambaugh movie yet.