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 29, January-February 1974]
Like Franklin Schaffner’s previous picture Nicholas and Alexandra, Papillon improves markedly in the second half. Not that, in the manner of a true roadshow, Papillon has an intermission (at least not in its present berth at the Coliseum—don’t take bets on the second run). And in some respects that’s what it looked to be, a roadshow: 150-minutes running time, reported $13,000,000 cost, bestseller origin. But the producers’ spectacular ambitions are undercut time and again by two factors: by the fact that the essential dramatic interest inheres in the grotesquely confined agonies of one man and, beyond that, in the unlikely (which is to say, in entertainment terms, likely) friendship and love of two men; and by the very nature of Franklin Schaffner as a director—that he is also one of the producers serves not so much to contradict my idea of Schaffner the director as to index an ambivalence that is the richest source of tension in the movie. Schaffner came from TV, and while he has few of the obnoxious visual affectations of the TV-trained director, he tends to restrict the most significant actions and relationships in his films to spatial arenas that could be served very adequately by the tube rather than the Panavision screen: the real convention hustle in The Best Man takes place in hotel rooms, hallways, and basements; the tensest moments in his strange and (to me) very sympathetic medieval mini-epic The War Lord are confined to a small soundstage clearing or that besieged tower; the battle scenes in Patton are hardly clumsy, but the real show is George C. Scott; and Nicholas and Alexandra comes alive only after the royal family has been penned up under the watchful eyes of Ian Holm and then Alan Webb, far from the splendor of St. Petersburg or the shambles of the Great War.
The Towering Inferno is a good movie about a fire. That is its strength. Its weakness is that, despite a promising array of characters and several passable actors, it is a very bad movie about people. Time was when virtually all disaster movies were essentially character studies, and examined (with varying degrees of success) how extreme circumstances bring out the best and the worst in human beings. The concerns of films as diverse as W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco (1936) and William Wellman’s The High and the Mighty (1954) were essentially the same: how will the characters behave under stress? Will the ordeal change them dramatically, or simply reaffirm already existing strengths and weaknesses? Even the big revival of the disaster epic, George Seaton’s Airport (1970), attempted a modest amount of character study, most notably in its treatment of the Guereros (Van Heflin and Maureen Stapleton). But already types had begun to replace characters.
12 Years a Slave (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD), coming hot off an Oscar win for Best Picture as well as Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o, whose acceptance speech was a work of art) and Best Adapted Screenplay (by John Ridley), timed this release right. Still unavailable on VOD or On Demand, disc is the only way to see this at home.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the Solomon Northup, the free man who was kidnapped in the north and sold into slavery in the south where he survived for 12 years before he was able to return home, with Lupita Nyong’o as the young, abused female slave Patsey and a supporting cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Brad Pitt (who was also a producer).
What most impresses me about the film is the way it shows how slavery distorts humanity on all levels. When human beings are treated as property, it corrupts the owners as it takes away the self-worth of the captives. There is a vast gulf between the “bad master” played by Fassbender and the “good master” played by Cumberbatch, but he is a slave owner nonetheless and never considers another way.
Blu-ray and DVD with two featurettes, “The Team” and “The Score.” The Blu-ray offers an exclusive third featurette, “A Historical Portrait.” You’ll have to wait a couple of weeks for On Demand and VOD, which could spur even more sales for those not willing to wait. Or you could visit your local video store. They could use your business.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD, On Demand on Friday, March 7), the second film in the young adult dystopian series starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katnis Everdeen, a reluctant warrior and symbol of resistance, improves upon the original film in almost every way. Taking the same basic premise—a despotic government that keeps its citizens in poverty and reminds them of its power by drafting the young into a modern gladiatorial ring to kill or be killed on TV—this one digs deeper into the idea of power and control and the way media is used as a tool of oppression.
Director Francis Lawrence understands the novels better than previous director Gary Ross. Katnis’s District 12 doesn’t look like an ennobled patch of poverty in the majesty of the wilderness this time, it’s a rural slum caked in coal dust, and the districts are essentially open slave pens for people who will be worked to death without any hope of escape. The façade of the luxurious capitol is built within a veritable bunker. And Katniss is no selfless heroine, simply a young woman who acts on instinct to protect who she loves rather than simply protect herself.
How do you tell the story of something as enormous and horrifying as American slavery? In the case of 12 Years a Slave, the subject is played out on human bodies and in objects: a single sheet of precious foolscap writing paper, the juice of berries, a violin. Instead of taking on the history of the “peculiar institution,” the film narrows to a single story and these scattered things.
It is based on a memoir by Solomon Northup, a free man from Saratoga, New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. He is played by English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (Inside Man, Dirty Pretty Things), whose Spencer Tracy–like ability to observe and calmly draw us into an experience is quite powerful here.
On the occasion of its 40th anniversary, Telluride, the venerable film festival tucked away in this remote Colorado mountain village bucked tradition and did the seemingly unthinkable: it expanded. Adding an extra day to its program and a new theater (a 500-seat beauty named in honor of Werner Herzog) to its venues, the festival could be seen as not necessarily outgrowing itself but rather becoming more accommodating. The logic for audiences was that with more time and space to navigate the program (whose slender catalogue fits in a back pocket), the packed houses and epic queues would be diffused to a level more commensurate with a holiday weekend of moviegoing than an arduous pilgrimage to cinephile mecca. Of course there was talk of the festival as having lost some of its rigor on account of breaking one hit too many, and slumming it millionaire style. But leave it to a new film (12 Years a Slave), by the British Steve McQueen—a tale of slavery in the United States with no trace of kitsch, featuring robust performances from actors unfamiliar to the multiplex—to bust all assumptions.
It was Telluride that had not long ago ceremoniously proselytized on behalf of the Turner Prize-winning artist as emerging director, trotting out McQueen for a presentation of the bracing (circa 2008) Hunger, its rawness since mitigated by time and Shame‘s lack of manifest anguish. Were audiences now embracing McQueen at large? Was slavery a subject that American audiences were eager to countenance? “It’s about examining ourselves,” said McQueen at a town symposium with his ensemble cast, “and people may be more ready to examine history.”
[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]
In The Getaway director Sam Peckinpah has crafted one of the tightest, cleanest, most physically compelling films to tweak your fancy in a long while. Harrumph, you say? Go soak your head in Kael, I say. Better yet, truck on out to one of the nabes and see the movie. It continues to rank among the top money-grossers of the year and will undoubtedly crop up here and there for some time to come.
From the opening frames of semi-wild beasties startled into postures of alarm by an unseen presence; from our slowly dawning realization that the animals’ tranquil sanctuary functions as precisely the opposite for other creatures caged within its walls; from the moment when throbbing, insidiously penetrating mill noises supersede the dulling monotony of prison life and inject the as-yet-unidentified situation with a crescendoing tension, The Getaway gathers its energy, begins to move, and lunges headlong away from the stasis of a centerpoint, racing toward some spot on the outer circumference of life. Peckinpah navigates the entire course with a winner’s reckless confidence and consummate control.
Most Peckinpah film buffs have their favorite scenes; my personal list runs to just over four hundred examples. But whenever I try to explain my fascination with his technique, why I find it so refreshing and exhilarating and spellbinding, why it’s so gratifying to see an incisive mind using cinematic conventions with a sense of humor and irony, I always flash on a shot from The Wild Bunch. It’s not an overtly outrageous shot by itself. No spectacular bloodletting. It’s not even particularly noteworthy scenically. It’s the kind of shot I suspect fades from memory about two seconds or less after it’s off the screen. But it strikes me as representative of Peckinpah’s technical virtuosity—a gift pooh-poohed by some insensitive soul in the pages of The Village Voice who derisively categorized Peckinpah as “the most academic manipulator of Russian montage in America since Lewis Milestone.” Lewis Milestone he definitely ain’t.
[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
At a basic level, Peckinpah’s is a cinema of oppositions. When one thinks of Westerns, a genre whose configurations and conventions Peckinpah has done a lot to redefine, one tends to reduce moral tensions to a simple antagonism between forces good and evil—something Peckinpah’s films emphatically don’t do. In Jr. Bonner, the kind of moral tension that operates between Buck Roan (Ben Johnson), a onetime cowboy who has become a notably successful businessman and smalltown icon, and Jr. (Steve McQueen), a middleaged cowboy who is having trouble winning, indexes the complexity of Peckinpah’s ideas about heroism and morality. There is a scene early in the film in which Jr.* goes into a saloon in his hometown of Prescott, Arizona, for a drink, and discovers Buck sitting in a corner booth. Jr. sits down and makes a pitch to Buck to fix things so that he’ll ride the bull Sunshine in the rodeo and hopefully win back some of his flagging self-esteem. (Sunshine is a bad bull who has thrown Jr. before; the cowboy is absolutely not seeking an easy ride.) Buck says, “I ain’t goin’ to make a living off somebody else’s pride,” and in the near-mythic uprightness of those few words lurks an inherent set of values that, on the one hand, stands opposed to the waywardness of Jr.’s pragmatic individualism, but that, on the other hand, suggests the same kind of dauntless adherence to archaic codes that lends the doomed Romanticism of Jr. Bonner an almost celebratory force. Buck and Jr. are two of a kind, cut from the same mythic block, even though they seem to be at odds about the means of maintaining their ways of life.
Peckinpah’s characters do not readily yield to neat moral dichotomizing. Identity is the main positive force in Peckinpah’s films, but equally crucial is the moral attitude it embodies, or from which it derives. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue, we tend to forget that Hogue’s persevering out in the desert has as much to do with a somewhat nasty urge to avenge his having been cast out as it does with more enduringly admirable qualities like his love for Hildy and his societally utilitarian, and quite affable, capitalistic tendencies. Hogue (Jason Robards) is sustained in equal parts by forces which are destructive as well as those which are constructive, life-giving. Inherent in Peckinpah’s Westerns is the same dissociation of heroism from simplistic moral attitudes which figures as an essential premise in earlier Westerns by directors like Ford, Hawks, Mann, and Fuller. One has only to think of The Searchers, Red River, The Naked Spur, and Run of the Arrow to realize that the informing qualities of the modern Western protagonist include a sense of alienation, crippling flaws, blind spots, and weaknesses proportionate to the potentially tragic stature of the characters.
In Peckinpah’s Westerns from Ride the High Country through Jr. Bonner, identity clings to lives and lifestyles that seem perennially on the road to extinction. But the plight of the Peckinpah “hero,” residing in a world where even the notion of heroism is ambiguous, is more complicated than the simple fact of his propensity to vanish from the historical scene. Peckinpah’s films ultimately seek to reconcile the necessity and the futility of a Romantic worldview, a dialectic which is important in evaluating Peckinpavian morality and, subsequently, in understanding Peckinpah’s characters within that context. The two sides of that dialectic are often manifested in different characters within a given film: Jr. and Buck here, Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Ride the High Country‘s Steve Judd and Gil Westrum. All these pairs in some way suggest unities; they are seen not as separate entities inherently antagonistic, but as outgrowths of the same passing world who have been unnaturally wrenched into positions of fatal contravention.
[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
There are so many bad signs on Tom Horn going in, and so many holes to overleap while watching it, the marvel is that it lingers in the mind as a rather ingratiating picture. Right away one distrusts a movie with a director-for-hire from TV and a superstar for executive producer, especially when that superstar has been having a tetchy time of it, professionally and personally, the last few years. The cowriting credit for Tom McGuane both arouses hopeful interest (funky Montana flavor) and prepares one to expect another exercise in slewfooted, brokenbacked narrative (on the evidence of 92 in the Shade, The Missouri Breaks and – oh, let’s give him the delightful Rancho Deluxe). It is hard to guess which way Tom Horn is going to jump next, and the uncertainty is not attributable to spunky, uncontainable vitality: McQueen & co. just appear to have changed their minds from one act to the next, as to just what sort of movie they wanted Tom Horn to be and, for that matter, what sort of movie- or Western-hero they wanted Tom Horn to be.
[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
Itâ€™s a neat idea for Steve McQueen, who started his career playing a bounty hunter on TV, to confront his own image by playing an aging contemporary bounty hunter in a sort of â€œBullitt Grows Oldâ€ adventure filmâ€”especially when the actor himself is surrounded by rumors that he is dying, rumors which he himself denies, though the denial loses impact coming from a hospital bed. Surrounded by the most depressing aspects of a world he considers a â€œgarbage can,â€ yet reminded at every turn of the impending birth of his first child (reminded especially by the children who, as victims, near-victims, or onlookers, haunt the corners of nearly every episode in the film), the based-on-true-life character of Ralph â€œPapaâ€ Thorson emerges as a likeable and sympathetic figure, never the hardboiled skip-tracer one expects. And though his cynical view of the world is given ample airing, and considerable justification, itâ€™s the joyous view of life that wins the day: tragedy always turns to comedy, disaster is always averted, and the birth of the child freezes for the end title.