Widows probably works best as a three-minute trailer (punchy and funny) or a longform miniseries (deep and complicated). It’s a movie, though, which means we’re stuck with a fitfully engaging, 129-minute feature that only occasionally gets out of gear. The film is actually based on a miniseries, broadcast in England in the 1980s. Adapted here by Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn and director Steve McQueen, Widows tries to be a lot of different things: heist thriller, feminist statement, social-issue diagnosis. That’s a lot to bite off, and 129 minutes isn’t enough time for proper chewing.
[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]
Recently I encountered a phenomenon—I refuse to call it a book—labeled The Only Good Indian and coauthored by Ralph and Natasha Friars. Its specific sins against the English language and any recognizable form of ratiocination are catalogued elsewhere in this issue. I mention this pseudo-scholarly study of the American Indian’s martyrdom by cinematic slings and arrows only because it exemplifies a particularly cavalier attitude towards product and consumer alike, an attitude rampant not only in selfrighteous critical tracts like the Friars’, but also in an increasing number of current films. People like the Friars don’t have to make sense (either stylistically or thematically), don’t have to work at selling their shoddy wares even on the level of persuasive polemic. Why? Because their readers are pre-sold, previously primed to ingest that which already constipates their thinking. Not, admittedly, a new process—this recycling of pap that effects no change, no growth, only a mild to offensive case of intellectual flatulence. Still, recent movies like The Last of Sheila, The Harrad Experiment, and most particularly Badge 373, Harry in Your Pocket, and The Legend of Hell House impel one to speculate about a spiraling trend towards just this sort of bland diet in the cinema.
The Last of Sheila cashes in on the audience’s putative taste for the games (rich) people play, not to mention psychic stripping, a spectacle many in our group-therapy-ridden society have come to relish in and for itself with or without any therapeutic payoff for the individual involved. Broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim—who, with close friend Tony Perkins, wrote Sheila‘s screenplay—is reputedly hooked on the puzzle-game habit himself. Perhaps as a result, the film retains the half-thought-out, initially grabby but ultimately flabby quality of a neat idea cooked up by old buddies with shared interests over late-night scotches.
[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 32, June 1974]
Gene Hackman’s quietly desperate face looms huge in so many frames of Francis Ford Coppola’s most recent film that by the end of the movie we know his features just about as intimately as Harry Caul (played by Hackman) knows the lines of the conversation he has bugged. Both we and he are, in a sense, obsessed: we, the viewers, by Harry’s troubled image on the screen; Harry, by the voices he hears and the implications, slowly realized, of what those voices are saying. This hardly seems a coincidence—Coppola obviously intended it that way. Closeups, especially of Hackman, virtually fill the movie, serving perfectly to visually reinforce the theme of violated privacy with which the story is so much concerned. The correlation between those who bug and those who are bugged (bugger and buggee?) is ultimately turned into a nearly inevitable irony as Harry’s situation is reversed and he becomes the one who is watched and listened to. Indeed, the screenplay as a whole moves just a bit too predictably and ends up being too readily reachable, too readily analyzable, what with its neat ambiguities and psychological uncertainties and sticky relevancies (not to mention some of the painfully pointed dialogue: “You’re not supposed to feel anything about it,” a blond seductress says to Harry just before swiping his tapes of the conversation; “It’s just a job”). But if you’re willing to disregard some of the story’s weaknesses as narrative and actually look at the film more closely, you might find it has some visually interesting ways of “saying” things.
[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1969 movie The Rain People is generally referred to as one of the director’s “personal” films, by which is presumably meant (1) that the story was Coppola’s own and (2) that he didn’t have nearly the bucks which Paramount Pictures supplied for likely moneymaking projects such as The Godfather. In light of this, it is not surprising that The Rain People is a quiet, modestly conceived film revolving around a minimum of characters whose problems are pretty much everybody’s problems. Alienation and lack of communication are key themes, and The Rain People, if less socially relevant than The Conversation, seems to be a psychologically more credible examination of the things that tend to keep people apart.
[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
They were smart to change the title from The Ten–Second Jailbreak. Even though Charles Bronson says he’s going to set his ‘copter down in the prisonyard for only ten seconds, we don’t dwell on that. If there were a title to remind us, though, we might irritably observe that minutes seem to pass by—and it’s not from suspense or Odessa-steps montage while those prison guards stare on with whuddafuck expressions on their mugs, deciding to open fire only after the whirlybird has all but made its belated exit. It must be well known to everyone who passed near a TV set during Breakout‘s opening week of summer business that this nice man who looks just like Robert Duvall has been tossed into a Mexican slammer on a trumped-up charge, and left to rot there by his business enemies, who happen to include Uncle John Huston, confirmed now in the nasty habits he picked up in Chinatown. Faithful wife Jill Ireland (who is also the faithful wife of Charles Bronson, and hence keeps working in her husband’s pictures) hires baling-wire airman Bronson to get him out somehow. Breakout isn’t nearly the offense against decency, not to mention narrative intelligence, that last summer’s saturation-promo action flick was—Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, if you’d forgot, and if you had, excuse me for bringing it up again. But Tom Gries, for whom many of us once had hopes, has unwisely decided to play most of this film as comedy, without knowing how; and if somebody says that that’s all the plot sounds worthy of, I have to point out that comedy doesn’t just happen automatically when melodrama trips over its absurdities—not comedy consistent enough to carry a whole movie. The actors are noticeably stranded by Gries’s decision and only Sheree North comes near wresting an integral characterization out of the mélange.
Read More “Review: ‘Breakout’”
Leave out Robert Downey, Jr., and The Judge looks like a painfully old-fashioned exercise in the Tradition of Quality. Big-city defense attorney Hank Palmer (that’s Downey) comes home to Indiana just in time to see his father (Robert Duvall), a respected judge, arrested for vehicular homicide. Father and son do not care for each other, but the dominoes are poised to let Hank stick around and mount a spirited defense.
In the course of the trial, family dynamics are tested, Hank brushes up against an old girlfriend (Vera Farmiga), and zero coolness points are awarded to anyone involved in the movie. Well, maybe Billy Bob Thornton earns a few as a sleek prosecutor (think George C. Scott in Anatomy of a Murder), but otherwise this is a very square film, suitable for limited Oscar buzz and a safe choice for seeing with your parents.
The Killer Elite / Noon Wine (1966) (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – By even the most generous measure, The Killer Elite (1975) is one of Sam Peckinpah’s weakest film. Which, by Peckinpah standards, is still a cut above a great many films. He manages to get his own sensibility into the tale of black ops mercenaries in a culture of betrayal and retribution, with James Caan as the contract killer who returns from a crippling injury by sheer force of will and the desire for vengeance, and he stage some terrific set pieces to go with Caan’s brutal odyssey. It’s right in tune with the cinema of paranoia and conspiracy that bloomed in the seventies while also jumping on the martial arts craze with Caan taking on ninja warriors as well as his former partner (Robert Duvall). But it’s also a talky script and Peckinpah doesn’t really seem engaged in the stakes or the characters of this story, though Pack fans will appreciate appearances by Bo Hopkins and Gig Young.
What makes this disc essential is its very special supplements: the American home video debut of Peckinpah’s 1966 made-for-television drama Noon Wine, an intimate 52-minute production shot on a combination of film and videotape and broadcast on TV once. Adapted by Peckinpah from the short novel by Katherine Ann Porter, this is an intimate production shot in a stripped down style that puts the focus on character and language. Jason Robards and Olivia de Havilland are the frontier couple who hire a Swedish drifter (Per Oscarsson) as a ranch hand and Theodore Bikel the traveler who tries to poison their minds with stories that the Swede is a dangerous madman. Robards plays one of Peckinpah’s most nuanced characters and de Havilland is a quiet force of moral backbone. Lovely and devastating.
The master 2-inch tape was destroyed by ABC decades ago and until recently the only surviving copies were poor quality B&W kinescope recordings. This edition is mastered from 1-inch videotape copy of the master recording. It shows its age and provenance—lo-fidelity image, electric color, the occasional tape glitch—but looks remarkably good considering.
Both programs feature commentary by film historians and Peckinpah experts Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and Nick Redman, which is very useful for both and frankly a labor of love when it comes to Noon Wine. What a treat. Also includes the featurettes “Passion and Poetry: Sam’s Killer Elite” and “Promoting The Killer Elite” and trailers and TV and radio spots. There may not be much interest for this disc outside of seventies action completists and devoted Peckinpah fans, but it is essential for anyone who loved Peckinpah’s movies. This double-feature shows two sides of Sam at their most extreme.
[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]
Sherlock Holmes is an item nowadays. When Billy Wilder’s exquisitely personal The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes opened at Christmastime 1970, he was such a commercial irrelevancy that the cashiers at the now-deceased Blue Mouse, where the picture was showing, were taking calls for Love Story at their sister theater, the Music Box, across the street (I phoned up one evening to ask when “the show” started, and arrived in midfilm—it had never occurred to the harried phone person that somebody wanted to see the show in her theater; I eventually did see it the next evening, with about eight other people in attendance). While the Wilder picture is well on the way to winning its proper place in the annals of cinema, it’s hard not to resent the fickleness of fate and mass audience tastes—or the commercial inevitability of Nicholas Meyer’s trivially amusing bestseller The Seven Percent Solution finding its luxurious way to holiday screens via a property packager like Herbert Ross. The resultant film is enjoyable enough most of the time—handsome in its production values (Ken Adam has already demonstrated his skill at period reconstruction in Barry Lyndon, and Oswald Morris has been one of the best color cameramen in the business since he and John Huston began remixing the Technicolor palette in Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick), blessed with several appealing, if manneristic, performances, and somewhat more adventurous in its narrative idiom(s) than was Meyer’s novel as a work of literature.
[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, December 22, 2010]
Adaptations are always difficult – for the filmmakers, of course, but also for viewers who know the original and face a challenge in trying to meet the new movie on its own terms. With True Grit, the latest offering from Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, there are not one but two previous versions: Charles Portis’ excellent 1968 novel and the famous 1969 film. I nearly wrote “well-known 1969 film,” but given some of the asinine things written or said about it lately, it’s clear many people do not, in fact, know the film; they just draw on a reservoir of cliché assumptions that pass for received wisdom.
The Coens’ True Grit is an extremely faithful adaptation of Portis’ book but not a remake of the earlier picture. Virtually all the dialogue – glorious, crusty, 19th-century ornate – comes from Portis and can be heard in both movies. Both tell the same story Portis did, with some not-ruinous softening in the 1969 version and none at all in the new one. Certain shot setups in the new picture closely resemble shots Henry Hathaway and his cameraman Lucien Ballard made 41 years ago, but the Coens aren’t imitating or paying homage. It’s simply that there’s only one vantage from which to frame certain moments in the story.