If we can stop talking about Catherine Zeta-Jones for a moment, we might give Michael Douglas his due for Wonder Boys. After enduring a lot of jokes about May-December romances, Douglas comes bouncing back with one of his best performances, the central role in an adaptation of Michael Chabon’s comic novel.
The role is Grady Tripp, novelist and college professor at a university in Pittsburgh. If he is not actually over the hill, it is only because Grady never got to the top in the first place, although his previous novel — seven years old now — received acclaim. Trying to bash out that follow-up book has proved difficult, and Grady’s love life is an even bigger mess: his wife has just left him, and his married mistress (Frances McDormand) is pregnant. Oh, and her husband is the head of the English department at school.
[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
Probably what the people who made Payday had in mind was an exercise in a sort of cinematic new journalism—an objective, but highly commercial, look at life as it is played out on the highways and in the hangouts of the country-western music circuit. Certainly producer Ralph J. Gleason, record company VP and Rolling Stone contributing editor, possesses the sort of credentials which would enable him to authenticate the milieu, as well as accurately assess its box-office potential in the wake of such films as Marjoe, CarryItOn and Don’tLook Back—not to mention the current romantic fervor for country-western singers who have served time, been dopers, picked cotton—in short. Seen hard times. Audiences obviously get a charge out of nosing about the behind-the-scenes lives of big-name entertainers, satisfying their healthy or unhealthy curiosity about the necessarily diminished or tarnished identities of performers once they are no longer magnified by that magic circle of limelight. Then too, lurking in even the most sophisticated minds is the old cliché that these showbiz folks, for all the glory, lead really sad (or better yet, depraved) lives.
[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
Nicolas Roeg’s extraordinary film is, amongst other things, a scathing satire and a science-fiction tragedy. Even the title is multi-layered. The hero is an extraterrestrial visitant who literally falls out of the sky; “falling to earth” implies a painful coming to senses; and “the man who fell” recalls “the Fall of Man,” which the plot allegorically depicts. There is also a lot of literal falling: the hero, his wife and his spacecraft tumble through various areas of space, vast and small; a central character is murdered by defenestration; crucial scenes involve descent by elevator, high-diving into a swimming pool, collapsing onto beds. The hero’s name on Earth is Thomas Jerome Newton—Thomas after the doubter, Jerome after the saint who compared men to insects, and Newton after the scientist who evolved the law of gravity after being conked by a falling apple (a symbolic enough item—the event took place in a garden, too!).
Newton was celebrated in Alexander Pope’s couplet, “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night / Till God said, Let Newton Be, and all was light.” Thomas Jerome Newton seems to hold similar promise, but things don’t work out. Newton emerges from his fall to Earth carrying a British passport—a tall, spare, quiet ascetic, youthful as Dorian Gray and with a similar faintly androgynous handsomeness. He has a gift for making money. This is the purpose of his arrival on Earth, for his own unnamed planet is dying—much as the eco-warriors say ours is—and to save it, Newton has to ferry reserves of energy back to it from Earth. His technological wizardry has done nothing to save this planet, but it causes amazement here on Earth. In no time at all Newton, aided by a New York patents lawyer, has revolutionized every single one of the various communications industries, becoming a billionaire. But the effect is not to make all things light. Newton’s plan to finance a private space program fails and he is stranded on another dying planet, our own, having become one with the Earthlings. By film’s end he has become a human being and, by a terrible irony, he has lost his humanity.
Perception and loss: the twin themes of Nicolas Roeg. The hoodlum Chas in Performancegains understanding and tendresse immediately before being taken off to death. John Baxter in Don’t Look Nowsolves the mystery that has bedeviled him in the instant of his own murder. Both these films are directly recalled in the saga of Thomas Jerome Newton (Newton’s red hair is patently as false as Chas’s in his hideout period; like Baxter, he has brief ESP-style hallucinations), but the end is more like that of Walkabout,whose unnamed heroine, like Newton, does not die, but is crushed into a passive zombie-like state tinged by regret only in moments of furtive memory. Like her, Newton is at his most free and his most naked in the desert: it’s amidst the sands of New Mexico that he confesses the truth about himself to Dr. Nathan Bryce, the inquisitive scientist. Ironically, he has fled his own planet because it is turning into a desert. But it proves less desolate than the neon wasteland of New York, which literally becomes a prison for him. Captured by a mysterious organization—which might be the Mafia, might be the CIA, might be Big Business, what’s the difference?—Newton is endlessly subjected to a sort of benign torture in a succession of rooms arranged like the interlocking pieces of different jigsaw puzzles. Size varies bafflingly, as does style of decoration. In one room, empty save for a Ping-Pong table, nature itself has been subverted, turned into mere decor, the wallpaper being photographs of a California redwood forest. Truth is overwhelmed by lies: Newton’s smiling, patient torturers conduct their enormities behind a mask of kind concern, claiming to be medical men out to help him.
J. Edgar Hoover was as much a publicist as he was a lawman over his career, making himself the face of the FBI as far as the media was concerned. He was credited as consultant on numerous films, TV and radio shows and even comic books, seen in newsreels and portrayed as a figure of paternal authority whenever seen or referred to in classic movies. So it’s kind of surprising that no biopic ever surfaced until after his death. You’d think he would have nurtured quite the big screen hagiography in his lifetime.
Instead, the first Hoover bio-pic hardly makes him out to be an American hero. And it wasn’t by Clint Eastwood, either. The Private Files Of J. Edgar Hoover (1977) was a labor of love project from exploitation legend Larry Cohen, an independent director (and writer and producer) if there ever was one, and it was the closest that he ever got to an all-star cast.
Oscar winner Broderick Crawford is Hoover, the once-dedicated agent who cleans up the bureau out of moral indignation over abuses and then builds it into his own private duchy of power and control, using information and blackmail to maintain his position and authority through every successive administration. Rip Torn is the young agent who becomes disillusioned by Hoover’s abuses and a guest cast of historical figures is incarnated by a great collection of character actors and class acts: Howard Da Silva as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Michael Parks as Robert Kennedy (who is actually far more convincing than “J. Edgar”‘s Jeffrey Donovan), Raymond St. Jacques as Martin Luther King, Andrew Duggan as Lyndon Johnson, Jack Cassidy as Damon Runyon and Lloyd Gough as Walter Winchell. José Ferrer, Celeste Holm, Ronee Blakley, John Marley, June Havoc, Lloyd Nolan and George Plimpton also costar.
I’m not sure how I manage to keep my simultaneous fascination with /repulsion for Lars von Trier in balance, but it’s back with a vengeance in Antichrist (Criterion), another provocation that is at once beautiful and perverse, personal and cynical, and filled with his sour vision of the emotional small-mindedness (small-heartedness?) of the human animal. This one, a portrait of marriage as a morass of anger, suspicion and power after she (Charlotte Gainsbourg) falls into a pit of suicidal depression and he (Willem Dafoe), a psychiatrist, takes personal charge of her treatment in a rural escape called Eden that von Trier twists into a diseased hell: paradise rotted.
It all turns on the death of their infant child, which crawls through an open window and falls to its death while the parents are occupied in a slow-motion ballet of aggressive, feral sex. Anthony Dod Mantle is back behind the camera delivering Von Trier’s now familiar art-house look of carefully composed and stunningly sculpted establishing shots and framing sequences (like the B&W prelude of sex and death in the whisper of falling snow) while handheld photography takes us through the cover art frame and into their psychodrama.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August, 1978]
I have this fear of doctors. I don’t know whether it comes from a low pain threshold or from years of horror movies. I thought the only genuinely scary scene in The Exorcist was Regan’s spinal tap operation. So Comawas halfway home with me before it ever started: I came ready to be scared to death, knowing that the film’s milieu alone would be enough to do it. Even so, Crichton didn’t really score as many frissons as he might have; and the film ends up a minus rather than a plus, chiefly because of a storyline more devoted to its red herrings than to its corrosive moral implications. The early sequences place us firmly in a world of moral dilemmas, questions that promise some kind of integral relevance to the ordeal we know must come. How far can a woman distance herself from a man in the name of independence before she ceases to be a reasonable, loving human being? How embroiled in hospital administration politics does a young doctor become before he loses sight of the humanism of his calling? What is death? Who should play God? Is abortion for reasons of personal convenience a moral action? … But except for the whodunit’s guilty party’s speech, toward the end, about how “someone has to make these decisions,” the film’s goings-on are never effectively related to the moral questions that abound in its universe.
[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
Alan Alda is an unimpeachably right guy. Heâ€™s attractive, intelligent, multifariously talented, and probably good for the ecology. He is a model of sociopolitical conscientiousness, and a 100-percent masculine romantic icon without a touch of male-chauvinist-piggery. No matter how often or deservedly his talents (acting, writing, directing) are recognized, he manages to maintain a becoming modesty at the same time he displays an unabashed joy in winning (turning a cartwheel on the way to claim his Emmy for a recent M*A*S*H script). Iâ€™ll let go of the other shoe as soon as I insist that I like and admire him, too. And untilThe Seduction of Joe Tynan I tended to assume that it was base envy or some other character flaw of mine that led me to find Alan Alda just a tad smarmy. The physiognomy is part of it, ready to turn rat-faced if the sweetness ever left the smile and the warmth and intelligence deserted the eyes. Itâ€™s in the voice, too, a subterranean whine ever so faintly compromising the moral-ethical rectitude. Whether this hint of imperfection has any deeper locus I shall not speculate here, lest the lynch mobs begin forming in earnest. And look, Iâ€™m talking about just the merest tincture here, the shadow of a shadow.
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
“…[W]e are afflicted with a secret police of a sort which I do not think a democratic republic ought to support. In theory, the FBI is necessary. For the investigation of crime. But in all the years that the FBI has been in existence, the major criminals – the Mafia, the Cosa Nostra – have operated freely and happily … the FBI has not shown much interest in big crime. Its time has been devoted to spying on Americans whose political beliefs did not please the late J. Edgar Hoover, a man who hated Commies, blacks and women in more or less that order.” Thus Gore Vidal (in Matters of Fact and of Fiction);thus, too, Larry Cohen, whose biopic of “America’s top cop” delivers a kick to the bureaucratic teeth with such uninhibited zest that as much exhilaration rubs off on the audience as outraged wrath.