With Aaron Sorkin running around holding an armful of Emmys and basking in the love of a nationwide TV audience for creating NBC’s “The West Wing,” the idea of releasing a lesser political drama on movie screens right now is risky business. The Contender indeed looks narrow and one-dimensional by comparison to the layered drama and comedy of Sorkin’s show, though this new film by former critic Rod Lurie (Deterrence) does help clarify what it is that Sorkin does so well simply because Lurie isn’t doing it here.
[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]
The Last American Hero is an entertaining genre picture with a serious-sounding title, and so it runs the risk of being underrated in some quarters and overrated in others. Its vision is more casual than the title would imply, yet richer than its unadorned folksiness pretends. First and foremost, it is a highly charged but straightforward story about a young stockcar racer (Jeff Bridges) riding skill, arrogance, and need into the big money. Lamont Johnson and crew prove responsive to both the racing scene and the cars themselves, and give a sense of the action that is close to the excitement but free of adulatory packaging. Although the title suggests the possibility of an exercise in the pre-digested, pre-fab cynicism which seems to be a staple of contemporary American cinema, this action film focuses on its people as much as its action, and a good deal of its power comes from the way its sharply etched characters develop in various convincingly observed milieux. Valerie Perrine as a sort of stockcar groupie overcompensating for a lonely adolescence, Gary Busey as Bridges’s oafish yet alert brother, Art Lund as their wearily rugged-individualist father, and Ed Lauter as a sinuously efficacious racing manager are all major collaborators in enlivening and authenticating a project that might easily have been routine.
[originally published in Film Comment, July-August 1981]
In March of this year, a film named Cutter and Bone opened in New York under the aegis of United Artists. Vincent Canby of The New York Times panned it, business was bad, and UA, still bleeding from its Heaven’s Gate wounds, yanked the film after one week. That was just in time to miss a number of weekly magazine reviews hailing it as perhaps the most exciting American film of the year, and glowing with praise for its director, Ivan Passer, and its stars, Jeff Bridges, John Heard, and Lisa Eichhorn. At that time UA turned Cutter and Bone over to its difficult-films division, United Artists Classics, where a new ad campaign was devised and a new title imposed. As Cutter’s Way, the film has begun a test market engagement in Seattle. You may or may not get to see it. Here’s a report from someone who did.
Richard Bone saw a body being dumped in an alley around midnight. He doesn’t know that yet. Now it’s a couple of hours later and he’s driving home. Not his home, exactly, but where he sleeps. Not quite that, either: where he sleeps until he grows uncomfortable with having been in one place too long—usually around first light; then he gets up and goes down to the marina and finishes sleeping on one of the boats he’s supposed to be hustling to susceptible Santa Barbra wives. But right now he’s driving home, to Alex Cutter’s house, in Alex Cutter’s car, to Alex Cutter’s wife Mo.
From the kitchen come sounds of clunky rummaging in the refrigerator; the light of its bulb is all that shows us Mo, in souvenir Vietnam Oriental jacket, dredging up a fresh bottle. She walks into the living room barefoot and careful, her face set with the concentration needed to keep her head straight on her shoulders. Seeing Bone, she smiles after a fashion. Some of the smile may say Welcome. Some of the smile may say, as she more or less does now, You again! A lot of it is just because that’s what happens to Mo’s face when she’s stoned. You can feel the alcohol and the downers in every delicate, courageous step she takes, sense how the strain of keeping her balance through recent months and years has made her bones frail, understand that the pressure under her skull is like a headachy memory of grace she can’t let go of.
[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.
“Thank you for your childhood,” says the Chief Elder to each graduating 16-year-old. In this society, that’s not as weird as it sounds; all children who reach 16 are given life assignments and launched into adulthood at a public ceremony.
Childhood’s end, indeed. The Giver tells the tale of one such teen, Jonas (played by Brenton Thwaites), chosen for a very special role on assignment day. He will be the new Receiver of Memories, a singular and mysterious job that sets him apart from everybody else in this isolated, placid world.
For reasons we don’t know, this slice of humanity has embraced “sameness” as its motto. The voluntarily tranquilized population is white, polite, and always truthful. If everyone is just the same, with limited emotional range and no ambitions, they will all get along together. That explains why we view this world in black-and-white. Odd thing is, Jonah keeps seeing flashes of color.
There’s something of a shaggy dog story quality to Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), the offbeat road movie / caper film starring Clint Eastwood as Thunderbolt, an ex-thief on the run from his former partners, and Jeff Bridges as a hotshot kid who calls himself Lightfoot and decides to become this flinty veteran’s sidekick. It was the directorial debut of Michael Cimino, who wrote the original screenplay. Eastwood had initially intended to direct it himself but was impressed enough by Cimino’s work co-writing Magnum Force that he gave the young filmmaker a chance to take the helm. Cimino directs the film as a mix of character piece and lighthearted crime story with dark shadows around the edges, taking his time through the twists to hang out with his odd couple heroes.
Cimino introduces the two characters in tandem in the opening scene: Eastwood playing preacher in a rural Midwest church while Bridges (dressed in a pair of black leather pants) smiles his way into the seat of a Trans Am on a used car lot. Before the sermon is over, a gunman (George Kennedy) steps into the church and opens fire on Eastwood’s minister, who takes cover and makes his break with the calm focus of a man who is no stranger to such situations. As he runs from his would-be assassin, Lightfoot revs the engine and then takes off from the lot, leaving the salesman in a cloud of dust and confusion, and he inadvertently ends up playing getaway driver for Thunderbolt. A partnership is born of the chance meeting and Lightfoot clings to his reluctant new friend and mentor as they hit the road.
[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
Bob Rafelson’s two previous films, Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens,were both unequivocally downers as far as the types of characters he chose to depict—uprooted failures, emotionally crippled losers—and their respective destinies on bleak, severely shrunken horizons are concerned. Nicholson’s wasted vitality in Five Easy Pieces and pathological introversions in Marvin Gardens are equally invested with a sense of the respective characters’ inabilities to cope with their problems, as well as suggestive of some unredeemable souring that arrested the maturing processes in their once-promising lives. If I didn’t exactly find anything of value about the characters in those films, I could at least pick up vibrations of a congealing, somehow consistent vision in the rather morbid cynicism that informs, especially, The King of Marvin Gardens, wherein Nicholson plays a withdrawn, late-night radio monologist whose hopelessly illusion-bound perspective gives the film’s spiritual and physical landscapes (the wasteland of Atlantic City in the winter, habitation not of beautiful women in bathing suits but of lowdown gangsters holed up inside ramshackle houses on the outskirts of some caved-in suburban tract) an unsettlingly tentative and dissolute quality.
Hearts of the West will be shown on Turner Classic Movies this coming Friday, Nov. 4, at 9 a.m. West Coast time, 12 noon Eastern. Here’s the program note from the “Marvelous Modern Scripts” screening. —RTJ
There isn’t really a whole lot that needs to be teased out of Hearts of the West. It’s a pleasant film—from its opening 1.33:1 masking of the old monochrome MGM logo, a movie full of affection for the absurdities, inanities, and tacky pleasures of El Cheapo filmmaking and fictionmaking. Its gentle teasing of would-be writers steeped in formulae and short on living experience is readily apparent. Offsetting this is our pleasurable awareness that “The Kid” Lewis Tater writes about and the enthusiastic “kid” that he is probably both reflect aspects of the local kid—Rob Thompson of Bothell—whose first script this was. He took it to Hollywood and a couple of days later he had sold it to producer Tony Bill, who happened to be having an afternoon drink in the same bar where Thompson and a mutual friend were sitting. The rest is history, of a sort: Hearts of the West got made to the satisfaction of those involved, critics and film festival audiences warmed to it, MGM gave it the wrong ad campaign, and mostly people didn’t go to see it. A lost masterpiece it’s not; a nice movie to make the acquaintance of, it remains.
[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]
There are good things and bad things about the new King Kong. One of the good things is that it’s nice to look at. Though the photography and production design are scarcely more interesting than those of the 1933 film, they are on an epic scale, impressive and economic, using widescreen and color to more purpose than merely out-spectacle-ing the original. The designers have retained much of the architecture in the island sequence, especially the bridal altar and the huge gate with phallic bolt, and they were wise to do so. They were equally wise to avoid the dinosaur encounters of the 1933 film, for which Willis O’Brien’s model animation was perfect. In the new version the only attempts at model work come off as distressingly poor: the huge rubber snake against which Kong battles while zoologist Jack Prescott stages his daring, pure Frank Frazetta pulp rescue of a bare-breasted Dwan from the ape’s mountain lair; and its parallel sequence in New York, Kong’s battle with a toy-sized El that, in his hand, visibly does not contain the panic-stricken passengers we see at the windows in the intercut interior shots.
Rolling Stone once called it “the most worshiped comedy of its generation.” I like to think of it the Book of Duderonomy, the lost gospel of the post-modern Testament. Now the beloved Coen Bros. classic of easy living and competitive bowling on the absurdist mean street of Los Angeles arrives on Blu-ray. Presenting The Big Lebowski: Limited Edition (Universal). You’ll like its style, man.
Jeff Bridges is brilliant as the Dude, one of the most strangely centered individuals in the movies. This bowler/stoner/free spirit is mistaken for a millionaire (David Huddleston) by a band of German punk nihilists, and John Goodman is his Vietnam Vet bowling buddy, who sinks him deeper into trouble with one testosterone-and-rig?hteous-indignation-f?ueled scheme after another. Think of it as a slacker “The Big Sleep,” a shaggy dog parody of classic L.A. detective stories where the passive hero is threatened, confronted, assaulted, seduced, drugged and so completely bummed out that he’s forced to solve a mystery so everyone will just leave him alone to enjoy his dope and his Dylan.
The Coens concoct an absurdist Chandler-esque mystery, drop in a couple hilarious dream fantasies (including a bowling dream sequence by way of Busby Berkley, complete with credits), and even bring in a drawling Sam Elliot to narrate this tall tale like a western myth. Julianne Moore co-stars as an avant-garde artist turned Valkyrie fantasy, and Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ben Gazzara co-star.
You can get a brief glimpse of highlights from the evening at Videodrone. The complete cast reunion Q&A — a very groovy event with Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and “music archivist” T-Bone Burnett — can be viewed via Livestream on the movie’s official Facebook page. See Jeff Bridges lead the audience in a chant, hear John Turturro describe his idea for a sequel starring The Jesus (it’s called, of course, “The Second Coming”) and enjoy the group answering questions they can barely hear due to screwy stage acoustics. But you’ll need to hurry — it will only be up for a week.